Lieutenant Pemberton's Proposal
I originally wrote this story as part of a blog event called Historical Christmas Eve. When I received my assigned theme of "Crashing a Ball on Christmas Eve", my first thought was, "Great. What am I going to write about? Neither one of my science-savvy heroines would be caught dead near a ballroom." Okay, Liliana (my lady chemist from Sweet Enemy) did crash a house party once, but only to solve the mystery of her father's murder.
As I was considering how I might force one of them to crash a ball, the image of a soldier coming home for Christmas kept stealing into my thoughts instead. The idea didn't spring from nowhere. You see, I'd just finished the third book in the series, Sweet Madness. In it, my heroine dabbles in psychology, and her passion is treating soldiers coming home from the Napoleonic wars who suffer from battle fatigue, so I certainly had soldiers on my mind.
Many of us do, especially at Christmas time, knowing that while we are enjoying special moments and memories with our families, some of our countrymen and women are far from home. So if you or your loved ones are serving, thank you for all that you sacrifice. I pray your families are reunited soon...
Lieutenant Pemberton’s Proposal
By Heather Snow
Birminghamshire, December 24, 1815. Eleven of the clock in the evening...
"I must admit, milord, I thought you'd lost your mind when you said you meant to be in the West Midlands in time for Christmas. I never reckoned we'd make it."
Oliver Pemberton glanced over at his batman, Giles, who was adeptly pinning Oliver’s jacket in an attempt to hide how gaunt he’d become since last time he’d been home. There had been, of course, no time to have new evening clothes made up. They’d arrived at Pemberton Place but a scant hour ago, and they never should have made that.
One corner of Oliver’s mouth kicked up. “Well, as Major Devereaux said time and again, ‘Where there’s a will, there’s a way, lads.’” Called out most usually just before they charged into a skirmish where the odds of survival seemed slim.
Giles grunted and stuck in another pin.
Oliver’s mouth settled into a dogged smile. Those words had become his motto of late. Only sheer force of will and a bit of luck had carried them the more than four hundred miles from the hospital in Brussels—where he’d spent just shy of half a year recuperating—across the channel, then overland to his ancestral home near Birmingham in less than a fortnight.
Determination and good fortune were also how he’d survived his wounds at Waterloo, how he’d beaten the raging fever that had nearly finished what a French lance through his back and chest had started, how he’d learned to walk again once his wounds had healed as much as they were ever going to, and, he prayed, would be how he convinced Miss Julia Harrington to become his wife even though she’d never given him reason to hope.
Giles stood, stepping back to assess his handiwork with a critical eye. “Are you certain you don’t wish to rest up a few days, milord? Have proper fitting clothes made up? Perhaps approach the lady privately?”
Oliver quirked a brow. “Do I look such a fright, old friend?”
Giles snorted, but eyed him with a concerned look. “Of course not. It is just that it has been an exhausting journey, and from what you’ve told me, your neighbor’s annual Christmas Eve ball is always a crush…”
Oliver pressed his lips together hard. What his loyal batman left unsaid was that ever since he’d woken from his fever, body broken and unable to move his legs, loud noise and crowded spaces bothered him terribly. Sent his heart racing and sometimes even threw him into a fit of vertigo that left him shaken and gasping for breath. Some strange after effect of either the years of battle or the horrors of recovery from his injuries, he’d been told. Whatever caused it, it left Oliver feeling less than a man during those moments of unreasonable fear.
Yet he would brave even that to ask for Julia’s hand, even though she certainly deserved better than him. He’d scarcely believed it when he’d learned she was still unattached. He had been certain he’d used up his share of good fortune already— he’d not waste another moment tempting fate.
Besides, Julia’s favorite time of year was Christmas. He was counting on her good cheer, and perhaps a bit of yuletide magic to tip the scales in his favor.
“No, Giles. It must be tonight.”
“Are you hiding?”
Julia started with a gasp at her friend Penelope’s incredulous whisper. She glanced over her shoulder—through large, flat fronds of greenery—to find the blonde girl who’d debuted with her two years ago, staring at her with an expression that was equal parts confusion and amusement.
“I mean, obviously you are. But behind a potted plant, Jules? I thought you more creative than that.”
“It was convenient,” Julia whispered back. “And besides, it’s probably the only spot in this entire blasted ballroom that isn’t under a sprig of mistletoe.” She pursed her lips, glancing around at the festively decorated room. Could her mother have been more obvious? Forget boughs of holly. Instead, the cursed kissing shrub dangled everywhere. It had even been strung together with ribbons and streamed from a small wire circle in the middle of the room to all points north, east, south, and west, spanning the entire space.
“Getting impatient, is she?” Penelope said with a smile that clearly said better you than me.
Julia sighed. “Yes. She can’t understand why I haven’t accepted any of the offers I’ve received already.” And she’d been certain to invite all three of the prospective gentlemen to their annual Christmas Eve ball, of course. Hence the hiding. “Truthfully, Pen, neither can I. Any one of them would make a good match. It’s just that…”
No one had ever made her heart flutter and her breath catch the way Oliver Pemberton had. Always had.
Not that he’d ever paid her any mind. His regular visits to Harrington Hall had been to see her older brother, of course. But over the years, she’d shared many conversations, and even mild flirtations, with her handsome neighbor—at least until Oliver had taken up his commission. Where her brother was now Viscount Lightly, Oliver had been born sixth son of an impoverished, if prolific, marquess and had had to make his own way in the world. And while he’d once been a regular attendee at their annual Christmas Eve ball, it had been more than two years since she’d even seen him.
And yet just the thought of him made her chest tingle with warmth. If Oliver were here, she wouldn’t be dodging clusters of mistletoe as if they were fat pigeons poised to drop an unpleasant Christmas surprise upon the shoulder of her forest green silk.
If Oliver were here…
Julia blinked her eyes. Once. Twice. Then shut them and rubbed at them with the heels of her hands.
“What is it?” Penelope asked, alarm in her voice.
“I thought I saw—” Julia sucked in a breath as her eyes fixed once again on the man who’d just entered the ballroom. “Oliver,” she whispered.
“Oliver?” her friend parroted, but Julia ignored her, pushing past Penelope as if in a daze.
Could it be? Word on injured soldiers from the battlefields had been slow to trickle back to England. Finally, after many inquiries, she’d learned he’d been grievously injured at Waterloo and wouldn’t be able to return to England for months. She’d been worried sick, had even sent him countless letters, but had gotten no response.
The newcomer—arriving unfashionably late for a Christmas Eve ball, given it was nearly no longer Christmas Eve at all at close to midnight—was still several yards off. A sea of people swam between him and her, but Julia’s heart fluttered in her chest as if the organ knew without a doubt that the man it had always pined for was near.
As her feet carried her across the room, her eyes roamed over him. He had the look of Oliver, but he was so very different as well.
His face was more angular than it had once been. He was leaner than he had been two years ago, as well—much leaner—though the change simply made his shoulders appear broader. His brown hair, while it had never been overly long, was now closely shorn. Austere, she’d describe him.
Yet he was still strikingly handsome. Maybe even more handsome than she remembered. Still half a room from him, she noticed people’s delighted smiles of recognition as they greeted him. It was him.
Her fluttering heart now hammered, then stilled completely as his unmistakable gray eyes found hers.
And then, unbelievably, he was pushing through the crowd towards her, just as she was him, his eyes fixed on her with an unerring determination that sent a thrill skittering up her spine. She had to be mistaken…and yet, she knew she was not. His destination was her.
“Julia—” he murmured as he reached her.
“Oliver—” she said, at the exact same, surreal, moment.
Those piercing eyes scanned her face as if comparing her visage to one stored away in his mind. She flushed beneath his intense regard, or perhaps beneath the curious stares of the onlookers around them, but otherwise did not move. She couldn’t.
But then his glance flickered to their audience and he cleared his throat, breaking the spell. “Miss Harrington,” he said in a low voice, bowing his head.
“Lord Oliver,” she returned in a shaky voice, inclining her own.
When he lifted his eyes back to hers, she glimpsed…panic in them? Oliver’s throat worked, as if he were struggling to swallow. “Is there—” he began, his voice tight “—somewhere we might talk?”
Julia’s brow furrowed. “Of course,” she murmured, flashing a social smile to the curious around them even as she led Oliver from the ballroom. She started for an exit to the hallway, but a strange intuition had her turning for the French doors leading out to the terrace instead. She shivered as a frigid blast of cold chilled her face, but when she turned to face Oliver, she knew she’d made the right decision. He was breathing deeply of the night air, the tightness she’d sensed in him easing visibly.
He must have noticed her teeth chattering, as he frowned. “You’re cold. We should return—”
“No!” she blurted, somehow knowing it was the ballroom that bothered him so. “I mean, I prefer it out here.”
He looked dubious, but immediately shed his evening coat and draped it around her shoulders. She was enveloped not only by his warmth, but by the scent of him—spice and sandalwood. She also suddenly felt as filled with nerves as he looked.
“I hope you don’t mind that I crashed your ball,” he said.
“You have a standing invitation,” she murmured, still hardly believing that Oliver was here, standing on her terrace, with her. “But why did you come? I mean how—”
“I have something to ask you.” He straightened his shoulders, looking quite as she expected a military man would—very different from the carefree young man he’d been when last he’d visited Harrington Hall. “But first, I have something to tell you. I love you, Julia.”
She gasped, unable to countenance what her ears insisted she’d heard. Perhaps that panic she thought she’d glimpsed in his eyes had truly been madness. “What?”
“I’m sure you’ve heard that I nearly died on the battlefield,” he said, rather than repeating his declaration. “It was a very near thing.”
She nodded, unable to speak before the emotion burning in his eyes.
“As I lay there, fighting raging around me, my life’s blood spilling hot down my body, I knew I was going to die. I knew it. And do you want to know the one thought I had as I lay there in agony, convinced I was breathing my last?”
Again, she nodded. It seemed all she was capable of.
He reached a hand out, his warm palm caressing her cheek. “I thought if I ever were to have married, it would have been Julia.”
She stopped breathing entirely.
His thumb moved against her skin. “My one regret was never telling you how I felt. For letting my shame at my impoverished circumstances and my friendship with your brother prevent me from pursuing the one woman I wanted for my own. And then I got angry. Angry with myself, angry with fate, and damn it all, I refused to die until I got the chance to make it right.”
“Oliver,” she whispered, overwhelmed by his revelation, but his other hand came up to frame her face, cutting off anything else she might of said.
“You saved me, Julia. My only thought was getting back here to you, a whole man, to ask you to marry me. By Christmas.” He blinked, his eyes gone glassy, as she was certain hers had. “Well, I’m here, just in time, though I’m not a whole man anymore. Something inside of me is broken, but it is not my heart. So I’m asking. Will you—”
“Yes!” she cried, a cloud of white breath puffing from her lips with her exclamation. This must be a dream, she knew. She’d doubtless nodded off behind that potted palm, waiting for her suitors, or her mother—or both—to give up and let her be. Because Oliver couldn’t love her. He’d never given her a hint of it. Of course, neither had she ever let on about her feelings—self-preservation and all that.
And then he was kissing her, and the fire that licked her body told her she was very much awake, and very much alive, and very much in need of something she didn’t quite understand. But Oliver did. The way he stoked that need within her, with caresses and murmured words left no doubt that he knew exactly what it was she craved. And that he intended to give it to her.
As his lips left hers so that they both could breathe, Julia lifted her eyes to the night sky. As her unfocused gaze began to clear, she realized that for once tonight nothing hung above her head. She’d escaped to the one place her mother hadn’t put any mistletoe—and had subsequently been kissed within an inch of her chastity. She couldn’t stop the joyful laughter bubbling up.
“What is it?” Oliver asked, his voice husky against her ear.
“Nothing,” she said. “Just kiss me again. And again. Forever.”
I hope you enjoyed this short story. While Oliver and Julia were written solely for the Historical Christmas Eve event, my third novel, Sweet Madness,does feature another soldier suffering from (among other things) battle fatigue, or what we now know as post-traumatic stress disorder. Its hero, Major Gabriel Devereaux, Marquess of Bromwich, and heroine, Lady Penelope Bridgeman, were mentioned very briefly above.