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Widowed Jonathan Pembroke, the esteemed Duke of Devon, has been dodging marital bliss for far too long. At least, according to his mother. It’s time for her son to marry again and settle down, preferably with a woman who can manage his hellion daughters. So the crafty dowager plans a Christmas party, replete with mistletoe, to vet the eligible partis. She enlists her companion—and Jonathan’s childhood friend—to help in this quest. Which is awkward… because down-on-her-luck and decidedly un-duchess-like Meg Chalmers might want to capture the duke under the mistletoe herself.
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And then, as though she’d conjured him with her thoughts, he was there in the doorway.
“Papa!” Lizzie cried. “Come help Meg tuck us in.”
He did. She watched, breathless, as he made his way across the darkened room, as perfect in form as a man could be. She tried to still her thudding heart and reminded herself to breathe. Oh, and force a casual smile.
“I thought you were already tucked in,” he said in a deep raspy voice, lit with humor.
Vicca made a face. “Not by you.”
“It’s better if it’s you and Meg.”
“Miss Ainsley doesn’t do it right.”
“Doesn’t she?” The powerful duke went down on his knees between their beds and kissed them both, one after the other.
“Exactly right,” Vicca said somberly.
“Young girls need to be tucked in properly,” her twin added.
“Good to know. Now, both of you, under the covers. Close your eyes. Time to sleep.”
“We’re too excited to sleep,” Lizzie said.
Vicca nodded. “The party starts tomorrow!”
“That it does. So you both need your sleep. And…” He fixed them both with a dark scowl, which made them giggle. “I expect you both to be on your best behavior. All the mavens of society will be there.”
“I thought Grandmamma was the maven of society.”
Lizzie nodded. “That’s what she told us.”
Jonathan chuckled. “She is. But all her maven friends will be there. And you need to understand that your behavior reflects on the entire Pembroke family. That is a great weight to bear.”
The girls sobered and nodded, apparently listening to their father…for once.
“It’s possible that I might even find you a new mama.”
Oooh. Perhaps he shouldn’t have said that, on account of the fact they were listening and all. They both made faces.
“What if we don’t want a new mama?” Vicca asked.
“Of course you do.”
Lizzie shrugged. “We like Meg. Why don’t you just marry Meg?”
A mortifying silence settled. Meg and Jonathan exchanged chagrined glances. Before Jonathan could answer, Meg forced a laugh. “Nonsense. Your papa needs a young wife.” She ignored his sharp glance. “She has to be able to keep up with you, after all.”
Vicca pursed her lips and then nodded. “You are awfully old,” she told Meg.
It was difficult to hold back a laugh. “Thank you.”
“All right. Enough of this.” Jonathan pulled up their covers and tucked each one in with another kiss. “Go to sleep.”
“Good night, my darlings,” Meg said as she stood to join Jonathan as he walked to the door. She hadn’t intended to, it just worked out that way.
“Wait!” One of the twins cried as they reached the doorway. In tandem, they turned and looked back at the shadowed beds. “Look!” The twins both pointed above their heads, and they, perforce, looked up.
It was mistletoe. Blast the dowager and her insistence that the stuff be scattered everywhere.
“You have to kiss now,” one of the twins said. Meg suspected it was Vicca, the minx.
She and Jonathan shared another chagrined glance. His shoulder lifted. “I suppose she’s right.”
“Of course she’s right,” Meg said, struggling for a matter-of-fact expression, though her heart raced. “It is mistletoe.”
“That it is.”
“Do it!” their audience demanded.
With a sigh that made clear this was an onerous task, Jonathan put his fingers to her cheek and tipped her face to his.
Meg held her breath, which was unwise, because she was already a little giddy due to his closeness, and the dizzying scent of his cologne. She watched, breathless, as his head descended. She saw it then—just before their lips touched—his quirk of a smile. It warmed her heart.
And then everything warmed, because his mouth was on hers, delicious and velvety smooth. It send a shard of hunger and delight through her. It made her want in a way she had never wanted before.
Cold, bitter disappointment scored her as he pulled away, far too soon, but it was only to look into her eyes with an indecipherable expression…before he lowered his head again.
This kiss was deeper. Sweeter. He wrapped his arms around her and pulled her close, against his firm, perfect form as he explored her mouth.
She was barely aware of the cheers from the peanut gallery, her mind was so utterly consumed with the delirious sensations flooding her. Thank God he was holding her, or she might have melted into an ignoble puddle right then and there.
When he lifted his head for the second time, it was to stare at her with a quizzical expression she had no hope of understanding. But when he smiled at her, it was one of his teasing grins. The one a friend would offer in a mutually uncomfortable situation.
And oh, uncomfortable she was.
“Happy Christmas, Meg,” he said as he let her go.
Her soul wailed as she did, but she steadied herself by leaning against the wall, and trying desperately not to look at him like a mooncalf. “H-happy Christmas, Jonathan,” she murmured.
And then, with another “Good night” to the girls, he made his way to his rooms, without so much as a single glance back.
Clearly the kiss hadn’t meant anything to him.
Meg, however, was devastated.