Louisa let out a slow sigh and snuggled her back into the large chest behind her, savoring his warmth. Her nose had chilled overnight, contrasting with the rest of her. Although his embrace remained loose, she knew John was awake from the nuzzling of her neck. She angled her head to give him more access.
“Happy Christmas, kitten,” he murmured against her night rail. His hand began to make slow circles over her stomach.
“Mm, happy Christmas. What time is it?”
“I haven’t checked yet, but the sun is up. Recently, I think.”
“We have some time yet, then.” She burrowed in deeper under the covers and his body, dragging the coverlet up over her nose to warm it up. “Has the tweeny not been to light the fire? It is freezing.”
He chuckled. “It is December.” The bed shifted as he moved, throwing the covers off himself and rising before tucking them back around her. “I’ll take care of it.”
Louisa turned her head to indulge in a moment of shameless ogling of her husband’s bottom. She watched appreciatively as his muscles bunched and clenched. Seven years hadn’t lessened his attractiveness to her in the slightest.
The Governess Club School had long since disbanded, it being too difficult for Claire and Sara to manage on their own. Once it had closed its doors, Sara and Nathan had moved to Cloverdale, selling Windent Hall to Bonnie and Stephen, giving them a contingency plan for when Henry Darrow achieved his majority and assumed responsibility for the viscountcy. Ridgestone was now a family estate, housing Claire and Jacob and their three children, Melanie, Rachel and William.
This year they had all agreed to meet at Darrowgate for the holidays, giving Henry a chance to practice playing host. Bonnie of course was acting as hostess while the young man grew accustomed to the role. There had been some endearingly awkward moments when Henry was unsure of what to do or say or how to direct the servants, but they had all been weathered; the boy would have some fun stories to share with his schoolmates when he returned to Eton after the break.
“Good Lord, your hands are freezing,” Louisa protested when John climbed back into bed and wrapped his arms around her.
He kissed her shoulder. “You can warm me up. I have a present for you.” He nudged her bottom with his growing erection.
“A present is supposed to be something special and new,” she retorted. She gasped when his cold hand fondled her breast. She grabbed his hand and pulled it away, tucking it under her side to warm it up. “While that is certainly special, it is hardly new; you’ve been giving me that present time and again.”
John chuckled. “It is an everlasting gift.”
“I’m not sure we have that much time, you big galoot. There will be knocks on our door soon.”
“Hm.” He kissed his way down her arm as he freed his hand and tugged open her nightshirt. His hand disappeared inside and this time her gasp was one of pleasure. “Allow me this prelude. Your real present can be tonight.”
She allowed him to lift her nightshirt off her. “Tonight? What plans do you have for tonight?” She rolled over to face him, her hands running over his shoulders and down his chest to grasp his now full arousal.
“Well, I am going to do a lot of this.” He kissed her deeply, their tongues meeting without hesitation in a kiss bred from familiarity and passion. “A lot of this.” He ran his nose around her nipple before taking it into his mouth. “A lot of this.” He cupped her mound and his fingers delved into her wet heat. “And so much more.”
Louisa gripped his biceps as her climax shuddered through her body. “Johnny,” she sighed. “I do fucking well love you.”
He kissed her chin, her nose, her mouth. “I can tell you are sincere by your crude language.”
She smiled as he rolled on top of her. “Is there any other way to say it? Sheath, Johnny.”
He reached to the nightstand and put one on. With another deep kiss, he slid into her, filling her with ease and love. “What do you think about a daughter?” he asked as he thrust slowly.
“I think they are fine for Claire and Bonnie.” She arched her back, meeting his thrusts.
She clutched his shoulders as her arousal grew again. “Don’t be cruel. Mm, do that again.”
John repeated that thrust several times, making her gasp and wrap her legs around him. “I think we should talk about it.”
“Talk about what?” She was focused on what he was doing to her body.
“You just don’t want to wear a sheath.”
He buried his face in her neck. “Can you blame me?”
“Yes. This conversation is distracting,” she complained. She pulled his head up to kiss him before digging her fingers into his bottom, encouraging his attentions. He picked up his pace and soon they were lying still, their breathing returning to normal, foreheads pressed together.
John gave her a slow, soft kiss as he pulled out of her and removed the sheath. He rolled off the bed and walked to the washstand. Sounds of splashing filled the room as he cleaned himself up. He dried himself and brought the cloth over to the bed. “This will be cold,” he said, pressing it between her legs.
Louisa grimaced but remained still under his ministrations. When he was finished, she sat up and found her nightshirt, slipping it over her head. “Where’s the letter from Matthew?” A package from Victoria had arrived at the Beefy Buzzard before they left for Darrowgate and there was one from Matthew labeled with instructions to not read until Christmas Day.
“In the nightstand,” John answered. He pulled on a pair of trousers. “Can we talk about this?”
She broke the seal and opened the letter, glancing at him. “We made our decision years ago, John. We agreed.”
“We renegotiate our inn contract every year. Why not this?”
“Good Lord!” Her attention was on the letter.
“What is it?” John sat on the bed beside her.
“Matthew. He’s managed to buy Willowcrest from the new Lord Darleigh and he’s gifting it to us.”
“What?” John took the letter from her and scanned it. “Yea gods,” he whispered.
“He—” The sound of quick footsteps outside their room and rapid knocking interrupted her. She squeezed John’s forearm and rose from the bed. “Good timing, Johnny. Here they are.”
The door swung open and Joe and Jack scampered into the room. “Mama! Papa! It’s Christmas!”
Louisa bent down and scooped up three-year-old Jack, who was at her knee with outstretched arms. She kissed his cheek. “Happy Christmas, boys.”
“What did you get us this year?” five-year-old Joe demanded of his father. “I hope it’s a training dummy. That would be brilliant.”
John ruffled his hair. “You shall have to be patient.”
“We all came down from the nursery together,” Joe informed them. “We all thought you were taking too long to come and get us, so we decided to come get you.”
Louisa glanced at their governess, standing at the door. Miss Morris smiled apologetically. “They are very excited today, Mrs. Taylor.”
“With good reason. Let us get dressed and we’ll come down. Miss Morris will take you to the kitchen while you wait for a quick scone before dressing for church.” At their protests, she remained firm, giving them a stern look. “Church before presents and breakfast; you will celebrate the reason for Christmas before getting greedy.” She set Jack down and they went to their governess, joining the other children in the corridor.
Louisa closed the door and John came up behind her, folding his arms around her stomach, and kissed her shoulder. “A daughter would be nice.”
She leaned back into him. “We agreed after Jack. Two children was enough.”
She moved out of his embrace. “We will discuss this later. We must get ready.”
Chaos ensued, gifts abounded. After attending services, Bonnie and Stephen saw to their family, consisting of Henry and Arthur Darrow, Elizabeth, Duncan, Andrew and Charlotte; Claire and Jacob with Melanie, Rachel and William; Louisa and John with Joe and Jack; and Sara and Nathan, the former watching the chaos with naked longing. All the children had grown up as cousins, making it a raucous holiday.
It wasn’t until darkness had fallen and the children had been put to bed that the adults had a chance to sit and talk among themselves. They gathered in the drawing room after dinner for tea and drinks for the men, Henry pouring the drinks.
John handed Louisa a Scotch. “Is it just me or has Christmas gotten more tiring?” she asked the room.
Claire smiled. “It is the children, I am sure. They add energy to any situation.”
Jacob chimed in. “I am convinced they suck it out of their parents and feed off it, like vampires.”
Bonnie sipped her tea. “I am impressed mine waited until after eight to knock on our door this morning. The extra sleep helped during the day.”
Louisa looked at her husband to see him gazing at her with a knowing half smile. He wiggled his eyebrows, reminding her of his impending gift. She smiled back and gave him a discreet salute with her tumbler.
“I, um, we have some news to share,” Sara said, glancing at Nathan, who stood by the fire with John. Stephen and Jacob were sitting in nearby chairs. Nathan smiled encouragingly at her.
Her friends all looked at her, waiting.
“You all know that Nathan and I have not been successful in starting a family.” Her eyes watered and her smile wavered. Louisa reached over and patted her hand. Sara took a deep breath and continued. “Well, we have been in contact with an orphanage in Hampshire and will be visiting there on our way home. We will be adopting a young child.”
Rounds of congratulations filled the room; the men shook Nathan’s hand. “That is a large responsibility,” John said to Nathan.
He didn’t break his gaze from Sara. “It is important to her and I love her enough for it to be important to me. She was feeling the lack more than I and refused to believe I did not think less of her.” He glanced at John before returning his gaze to Sara. “Foolish woman.”
John sipped his brandy, looking at his own wife. “They can be. Yet we love them anyway.”
Sara spoke once the excitement had died down. “That is not all.” Her gaze was locked on her husband. “Just before we left to come here, I was feeling unusual enough for Nathan to send for the doctor. He confirmed that I am with child.” She beamed through her tears. “There will be one more of us shortly after Christmas and another by the summer.”
This time hugs were called for. Bonnie whispered to Henry, who then called loudly for champagne. John clapped Nathan on the back along with the other gentlemen. He grinned at them. “It certainly was an enjoyable process,” he murmured, making them laugh.
“There is no feeling like being a father,” Stephen said.
“I look forward to joining your ranks.”
Jacob elbowed him and leaned in. “Just so you know, it will be the most memorable time of your marriage.” He shook his head ruefully. “Each time Claire was with child—well, there were times I wished she was carrying all the time.” John and Stephen nodded in agreement.
Nathan cast his wife a concerned look. “The doctor said it would be fine, but I have no wish to harm Sara or the babe.”
“Trust me,” Jacob said, clapping him on the back. “We’ve all been there. You won’t be able to keep her off you.” They all chuckled discreetly.
Footmen were handing out the champagne Henry was pouring. Once everyone had a glass, he cleared his throat and his face reddened. “Um, I suppose a toast is called for. So, uh, to Uncle Nathan and Aunt Sara.”
“Stephen?” Bonnie prodded.
“Try this, Henry.” Her husband whispered something in his ward’s ear.
Henry nodded. “Uncle Nathan and Aunt Sara, family is—well, it is—I mean—” His voice cracked.
Claire stood up and interrupted, smiling at him sympathetically. “Family is a precious thing. All these years, you have never been alone, but part of a larger whole, part of our family. Now you have the distinct blessing—and sometimes the curse”—there were chuckles in the room—“of bringing two more into our family. We will welcome both of these children with open arms and celebrate them with you as you have celebrated ours with us. To Sara and Nathan.” She lifted her glass and the others followed suit.
Later, as John escorted Louisa up to their room, she held closely on to his arm, ensuring her breasts brushed against him. “You know, I’ve been thinking.”
“Everything that happened today. If we accept Willowcrest from Matthew, we could sell the inn.”
“Sell the inn,” he said slowly.
“It has become highly profitable and popular. More and more people are leaving the Bath Road to stay with us. It would fetch a very pretty penny and we could send the boys to a good school.”
“We could send them to a good school without selling. Or we could sell Willowcrest. Do you want to live in a place with such a disturbing history for you?”
She was silent for several moments. “With Matthew only having daughters, Joe is still his heir. It would be helpful if he were to attend school with his future peers and not be known as the son of innkeepers. Isn’t it wonderful about Sara and Nathan?”
He accepted the change in subject. “Indeed.”
“I hope she has an uneventful pregnancy. It would destroy her if something were to happen for her to lose the baby.”
“Let’s not wish any misfortune on her.”
“I wasn’t. I am proud of her, however, of opting to visit the orphanage.”
John opened the door to their room and led her in. “I agree. A loving home such as theirs will be better than an orphanage.”
Louisa turned to him, stepping naturally into his embrace. “What if we were to do that?”
“You want a daughter. I don’t want to carry another child. Even if I wanted to, there is no guarantee it would be a girl; you were convinced Jack was one. If we were to visit the orphanage with them, we could find a little girl in need of one of those loving homes you mentioned.”
John looked at her for a long moment. “You know that even with sheaths there is a risk of pregnancy.”
“Yes, but I would prefer if we don’t try. I really don’t want to carry another one, John.” Her eyes begged him to understand. “It was so difficult last time. I can’t—I love our sons and I know I would be able to love another one, should that happen, but I just can’t do it again, not willingly.”
“I know.” He drew her in closer for a hug, pushing away the memory of her near death. “I don’t want to lose you,” he whispered into her hair. They hadn’t told any of their friends what had happened.
“And I have no plans of leaving you. If we go to the orphanage, we both get what we want.”
He rubbed her back before undoing her laces. “You know if there were a way to make love to you without there being any risk, I would take it. Just don’t ever tell me to stop touching you.”
She smiled at him and undid his waistcoat to pull his shirt out of his trousers. “Why would I punish myself like that? I have been looking forward to my promised present all day.”
Her dress slithered to the floor. “I like the idea of the orphanage,” he said. “We should talk to Nathan and Sara first, though. I don’t want to step on their toes.”
“Good idea. Now give me my present, you big galoot.”