Four Years Later
Sophia trusted her husband, she really did, but he was known to leave things to the last minute, which was why she was currently going yew tree hunting in the snow. Fortunately, Richard was not around to see her, or he would most certainly scold her.
Sophia had given birth to their twin babies six weeks ago, and Richard expected her to rest for what seemed like forever, but she was too restive to do so. Their family was coming to stay for Christmas, and Rose had promised to visit as well. That was six adults, and she hadn’t yet counted the children.
“I have three, while Lizzy and Rose have two apiece,” she counted. “I shall need three young maids to help Nanny control the lot, but that might leave me short of hands for other things.”
Sophia couldn’t wait to see her sister again and her new baby. The young woman married a handsome baron several months after Sophia’s wedding, surprising everyone. It seemed Elizabeth’s obsession with Richard had prevented her from seeing Owen, who had admired her from afar. The quiet man had approached Elizabeth while Sophia and Richard had been on honeymoon, and after mere weeks of courtship, he had asked for her hand in marriage.
Rose had married Nicholas after the man declared his love for her in front of many, shocking the ton. Poor Rose had been taken aback as they had not had a formal courtship, but she had taken a leap of faith and agreed to his proposal.
Now, four years later, we all have our happily ever afters with the most wonderful husbands. Who would have thought it?
This was the first Christmas Sophia would host, and she wanted it to be perfect. They had spent one year with her parents, and another with Richard’s family. Last year had been their first Christmas alone, and it had been just wonderful, but Sophia had gotten it into her head that she could host the festivities this year.
“What was I thinking?” she muttered to herself.
She had better find this tree and get home to her babies before Richard arrived back at the manor. He had gone to help one of their tenants with a cattle problem but had promised to return soon. If not for the many yew trees scattered through their woods, Sophia would have never braved the cold to come looking for one. What would she tell Richard once he came home and saw the tree?
“Benjamin!” she called.
The boy appeared from beneath a tree, his cheeks pink with cold. “Yes, my lady?”
Benjamin was one of the many children whose parents worked on the estate. After purchasing the land and manor from an old family friend, Richard had left the hiring of servants to her as they could not take the staff from his parents’ home.
The boy was cheeky, but had quickly become one of her favourites, often following her around the estate as though he were her bodyguard.
“If the Master should ask where our tree comes from, I expect you and everyone else to tell him that you found it in the woods and brought it home. Is that clear?”
“Yes, my lady.” The boy grinned, knowing full well that she was asking him to lie.
“Good. Pass on the message and see that everyone knows the story, or there will be no sweets this year.”
Benjamin’s eyes widened in horror. “No sweets? I’ll tell them, my lady.”
The boy scurried off to the other lads, undoubtedly refurbishing the story with a couple more embellishments. Sophia did not mind as long as her secret was safe.
Should she go with a large tree only or several smaller ones that she could place on tabletops? Not many families in England kept yew trees for Christmas, but Sophia believed it imperative for the festive season. She planned to hang bunches of sweetmeats, almonds, fruits and small wax candles on the bigger tree and arrange everyone’s gifts under it. Sophia already had a big tub in mind for the tree and knew precisely where she planned to put it this year.
After seeing how beautifully the Germans decorated their trees, Sophia had wanted to bring the tradition into her own home. She already had her blue, green, red and white candles ready and had purchased many gifts to place under the tree. Each servant on their estate would get a gift this year, which would be a surprise for them.
Sophia had books, pocket handkerchiefs, workboxes, toys, gloves, pocket watches, brooches, hats, and all manner of articles prettily wrapped and ready for display on Christmas Eve. It was terribly tricky to keep the gifts a secret, but Nanny and Mrs Cowper—her housekeeper—had helped conceal everything.
Her guests were due to arrive in three days, a day before Christmas Eve, and it took much effort not to panic. Everything that could possibly go wrong repeatedly played in Sophia’s mind despite Richard’s assurance that all would go well. The first night would be a more subdued affair as everyone would be tired after travelling such a distance, but the following nights would test her hosting skills.
“Stop thinking about this,” she scolded herself. “You need to find the perfect tree, perhaps ten smaller ones, and get back to the house before Richard realises you have gone.”
The twins were asleep, and Richie would undoubtedly be having his nap now. Nanny was with them, so Sophia wasn’t concerned about their well-being, but it wouldn’t do to be away from them for too long.
Ducking under some hanging branches, Sophia gave a joyful shriek when she spotted a good-looking tree.
“Benjamin! Bring your axe here.”
The boy appeared some moments later with an axe and several other boys around his age. They got to work on the tree and brought it down. Sophia showed them eight little ones as well, having gone against her earlier decision of ten.
“I need to get back to the house,” she told them. “Bring the trees in once you have shaken the snow off.”
The boys promised to do so and got to work putting them on the back of a sledge. Sophia was exhausted by the time she reached the house, choosing to go through the kitchen where it was warmest. Cook likely had some hot chocolate on the stove waiting for her and perhaps a few mince pies to gorge herself on before dinner.
“I smell many spices, Cook,” she said as she entered the kitchen and removed her outer coat. “What delicious treats are you…”
Sophia couldn’t continue. Sitting at the table with a big cup of hot chocolate was her husband. When on earth had he come back?
“Oh, Richard! I didn’t see you there. I was just—”
“Going behind my back to get a tree that I said I would bring home?” he asked, one eyebrow raised.
“What makes you say that?” said Sophia, her voice unnaturally high.
“Because I know my wife. By the way, your right eye is twitching.”
And so it was. Sophia held her eye as she looked around the room. The servants kept their eyes averted, but they seemed amused. Why didn’t anyone warn her that Richard had come home?
“I’ll just be going now,” she said. “The babies might need me.”
“I have just looked in on them, and they are fine.”
“Then I will—”
“Yes, my love?”
“Why not take a cup of hot chocolate and meet me in the drawing-room?” Richard suggested, but it was more of an order.
“Oh, uh…I thought about having it here. It’s so much warmer in the kitchen.”
“The fire is roaring in the drawing-room,” Richard countered. “I had Michael prepare it for us.”
Her husband had thought of everything, which worried her. What was he up to? He hadn’t scolded her yet, and he appeared calmer than he should be. Sophia’s husband was protective over her and was undoubtedly displeased with her actions, but he was hiding it.
Perhaps a kiss will soothe him.
“Very well. I will meet you in the drawing-room.”
Richard nodded, and she waited for him to leave the room before rounding on her servants.
“Why did anyone not come and warn me?” she scolded. “You know I was outside!”
“The Master made us swear not to warn you, my lady,” Cook explained. “He kept us hostage in my very own kitchen. He just walked inside, asked for hot chocolate, and sat down. He seemed to know precisely what was going on.”
Sophia groaned. It was foolish of her to think that she had gotten away with her little plan when Richard had her watched like a hawk. She doubted there was any place she could go where he didn’t have someone watching over her. Did she mention he was overprotective?
“May I have that hot chocolate? Best I go to him now before I annoy him any further.”
Cook poured her a cup and handed it to her. “We’re very sorry, my lady.”
“’Tis not your fault, but mine. I’ll smooth down his ruffled feathers and remind him why he loves me so much.”
Sophia squared her shoulders and followed after her husband. There was no telling what mood he was in.
Upon entry into the room, Sophia immediately noticed the biggest yew tree she had ever seen. It nearly touched the chandelier hanging above and looked fuller than most trees its size.
“You got the tree after all,” she said.
“After Mr Wilson heard about your search for the perfect yew tree, he sent me a short note telling me that he might have what you’re looking for.”
Ah. So he didn’t go to help but to inspect a tree for her. Knowing that made her feel even more guilty.
“Come and sit down, dear. You must be tired after trudging through all that snow. The fire is nice and toasty.”
Sophia didn’t move any closer to her husband. “Just scold me and get it over with,” she told him. “I know that I deserve it.”
“What if I told you that I am not going to scold you but simply wish to hold you?” said Richard.
Sophia narrowed her eyes. She didn’t trust that one bit. “I would say that I do not believe you.”
Sighing, Richard put his cup down and stood up. Sophia wasn’t afraid of her husband, but she hated disappointing him or knowing that he was unhappy with her actions.
I truly hoped that I would be able to hide my secret today, but I was wrong.
Richard removed her cup from her hand and set it aside before taking her in his arms and tilting her chin up.
“I should be mad at you for disobeying me, but today I just want to hold you and cherish the fact that you are in my life.”
It was then that Sophia picked up on the mixture of fear, sadness, and relief in his eyes. What had happened?
“Did something happen while you were with Mr Wilson?” she asked.
Richard nodded. “He spoke about his wife and how much he missed her. She died several years ago, but his heartache never goes away. The old man said he wished he had spent more time loving his wife than arguing or scolding her and would give anything to have her with him again. He told me to never take you for granted.”
“I knew there was a reason why I liked him,” Sophia said with a grin. “Did his sadness upset you?”
“Partially. When I came home and realised you had left the house and gone into the woods, I was livid. I felt that you were putting your life in danger. I was also terrified that something would happen, but then I saw you coming back and recalled everything Mr Wilson had told me.”
“So…does this mean you will not scold me?” she asked hopefully.
Richard chuckled. “For now. I never want to take you for granted, Sophia. These four years have been the best years of my life, and you have given me three beautiful children that I adore. Most importantly, I know that you carry me in your heart when I do not even deserve to hold your shoe. I would rather embrace you and tell you how much I love you than scold you for something that is partially my fault.”
Richard nodded. “Yes. If I had gotten the yew tree earlier, you would have never needed to go out and get one on your own.”
“I had Benjamin and the other boys with me. They did the hard bit of the job while I stood around watching them. They should be bringing in the tree soon, but I no longer know where I’m going to put it.”
“The dining hall would be the perfect place,” Richard suggested. “We’ll probably spend as much time in there as we will in here. Christmas is a time for family and feasting, after all.”
“That is a wonderful idea, my love.” Sophia tilted her head to the side to look at the large tree. “I hope I have enough decorations to cover that tree. I wish to do it justice.”
“Let’s worry about that later,” he said, taking her cup and drawing her to the couch. “For now, let me hold you for a while.”
Sophia smiled, giving him a brief kiss. “I cannot think of anything better.”
And she meant it.
* * *
Several Days Later
It took four carriages to get everyone to church on Christmas morning, but now they were all returning to the house for the Christmas dinner. Sophia sat with her children and Richard in their own carriage, wringing her hands at the thought of what could go wrong. Richard covered them with his own and smiled.
“Why are you still so nervous? Everything has been a great success and will continue to be so.”
Sophia wished she had her husband’s confidence. “I know, but this is such an important day for everyone that I just want it to be perfect.”
Sophia had made last-minute changes and told the servants to set up the Christmas dinner in the drawing-room instead of the dining hall because it seemed more personal that way. No one knew this yet and might criticise her.
Her nerves increased when they arrived home, and everyone commented on how hungry they were.
“Your kitchen has been going throughout the day, Soph,” said Elizabeth. “I already know that we’re going to have a feast, although we should put our little ones to sleep first.”
All the children except Richie were asleep in their arms. The little three-year-old was too excited to sleep just yet.
“Why don’t we all retire to our rooms for a little while to nap or freshen up, and we’ll meet downstairs for the Christmas meal?” the Duchess said.
That was a fantastic idea because it would give Sophia time to ensure that everything was still on track.
“I agree with Mother,” she said. “It has been a long day since waking up early to pass our gifts to each other. We could do with some rest.”
Everyone saw the merit in the Duchess’s suggestion and went off to their respective rooms. The festivities would likely run into the early morning, so a rest now would do perfectly for everyone.
Richard took Richie’s hand and helped him up the stairs. He was also holding a sleeping Melody in his arms while Sophia herself carried Robert. The babies were growing heavier by the day, and soon she would have some difficulty carrying them around.
Nanny appeared out of nowhere and took Robert from her, urging her to get some rest.
“I need to go through the arrangements again, Nanny. I cannot rest.”
The older woman shook her head. “You have hardly had any sleep since our guests arrived. My lord, speak to her.”
“Nanny is right,” Richard agreed. “Just a few minutes sleep will not hurt, my love. I’ll take Melody and Richie to the nursery room and meet you in our room in a moment. Do not even think about sneaking off because I will fetch you and throw you over my shoulder. You forget that you are a new mother.”
Sophia sighed, nodding. “Very well. I’m sure Mrs Cowper has everything under control.”
“Precisely,” said Richard, kissing her brow. “Go and rest.”
Sophia went straight to bed, not bothering to take off her shoes. She truly was tired. Not even her worries for the night ahead could keep her awake as she drifted off to sleep. Her last thought was desperate hope that the venison had not dried out.
* * *
Later that evening, everyone talked over each other as they helped themselves to turkey, venison, and all the vegetables and trimmings that filled the table. Sophia was so relieved that she could fill up her own plate and eat without a tight knot in her belly.
“I told you it would go well,” Richard whispered into her ear.
“I know, but my silly mind would not let me believe it. Everyone seems to be happy and enjoying themselves, don’t they?”
“Why not ask them?”
“Oh, I couldn’t do that,” Sophia protested. “A hostess does not ask for praise.”
“Which I am sure they will soon do. For now, simply eat and be merry.”
It was Christmas, after all, and Sophia had worked hard to bring it all together. She deserved to enjoy it whether or not the others were.
“You have outdone yourself, dear,” her mother complimented. “The house is charming with all the decorations, and I love the idea of having so many trees. I shall use that next year.”
“Oh, yes!” the Duchess agreed. “This is shaping up to be one of my favourite Christmas parties, and I have been to many.”
Sophia beamed, pleased to hear such positive comments. “I am happy to have you all with us this year. It’s our first Christmas party, and Richard and I could not have asked for better company.”
“Hear! Hear!” cried Rose, raising her wine glass. “A toast to a wonderful hostess, daughter, wife, sister, and friend. To Sophia!”
Everyone raised their glasses to her, their faces full of joy. They all called for a speech and were not satisfied until she stood up.
“Well, firstly, thank you all for coming,” Sophia began, fighting her tears. “You do not know how much it means to have my family all under one roof. There is so much love in this room, and I am so blessed to be on the receiving end of it. I also wish to thank my dear husband for being my support, confidant, hero, and a wonderful father to our children. I would not be the woman I am today if not for him.”
Richard gently squeezed her hand, drawing her attention. “My wife is the one who has brought meaning to my life and brought all of us together. No one can compare to her.”
Sophia smiled into her husband’s eyes, overwhelmed with all the love she saw in them.
“To Sophia and Richard!” their family chorused.
Needless to say, it was a perfect Christmas, and everyone remembered it for years to come.