Miss Modesty's Mistletoe: Regency Romance, page 1
Miss Modesty’s Mistletoe
Copyright © 2019 by Grace Austen
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Berkshire England, December 1816
“We have been invited to the Duke of Kilmerstan’s Christmas Eve Ball!”
Modesty Gibbs heard the note of delight in her mother’s voice and could not miss the rapturous expression on her face. Clearly, the older woman was much more thrilled by the prospect than she was.
Georgina Gibbs waved the invitation she held in her hand in triumph, her round face flushed, as though her excitement was simply too much for her to contain. “I must inform your father at once.” She rushed out of the front parlor and through the marble foyer toward her husband’s study.
Modesty trailed behind her mother at a slower pace, until she’d reached the foot of the grand staircase, and then she veered off, intending to head up to her bedchamber on the floor above.
As she mounted the first step, she saw her mother fling wide the door to her father’s study without pausing to knock first, leaving the wood panel standing open as she entered the room.
“Oh, dear.” The older woman came to a sudden halt a few feet from the doorway. “I beg your pardon for intruding, Mr. Gibbs. I did not realize that Mr. Banfield had come to call upon you.”
At the older woman’s words, Modesty stopped so abruptly that she almost toppled over and had to grasp onto the newel post to catch her balance.
She felt an instant and strong pull toward the open study door, merely knowing that Felton Banfield was inside. Stepping down from the first stair, she edged closer to her father’s study in order to listen to everything that was said.
“It’s quite all right, Mrs. Gibbs. I have concluded my business with your husband.” Felton’s deep voice sent delicious tingles through Modesty.
Through the open door, she caught a glimpse of him standing in front of the wingback chair that faced her father’s large mahogany desk. Her heart fluttered in response to the sight. Felton was as handsome as any of the titled peers other young girls sighed over, making absolute cakes of themselves to gain a particular gentleman’s attention.
Felton’s red hair was styled in the latest fashion, his light blue eyes standing out in stark contrast to the bright hue of his hair. He was dressed in a sky-blue embroidered waistcoat, with a dark green coat over it, and a snowy white cravat tied in an intricate knot at his neck. Buff-colored breeches clung to his well-formed muscled legs.
Not that a proper young woman was supposed to notice such things, but after nearly two years of living in Paris with her French grandmother, Modesty found the typical English view on accepted behavior to be rather stifling. Never mind that she was three-quarters English herself.
Felton bowed to her mother. “By your leave, Mrs. Gibbs, I’ll see myself out.”
The older woman murmured her assent, and Felton exited the study.
Modesty froze like a hare cornered by a fox.
As Felton caught sight of her lingering in the hall, a slight smile curved the corners of his mouth. “Miss Gibbs, it’s a pleasure to see you, as always, though I did not expect to find you here.” He indicated the spot where she stood.
She blushed at being discovered eavesdropping, but refused to acknowledge her ill-mannered actions. “What brings you to Stonebridge Manor, Mr. Banfield?” she inquired.
His pale blue eyes lit with amusement, but he allowed her to evade the subject and redirect the conversation without issue. “I came to discuss a business matter with your father.”
“Are you undertaking a new venture?”
“Nothing has been decided, thus far.” His strong jaw firmed with resolve.
She sensed he would not be moved to speak of it any further with her now, nor reveal the nature of his proposed dealings with her father. With no small effort, she reined in her curiosity.
Felton looked ready to take his leave of her, but she wished to draw out her time with him for just a little longer.
From inside her father’s study, she could hear her mother relaying the news of their invitation to the Christmas Ball hosted by the Duke of Kilmerstan.
“Will you be attending the Duke’s Ball?” she asked in an attempt to delay his departure.
“I received an invitation, but I shall most likely not be attending.” He fingered the scar on his face that slashed across his cheekbone and upward toward his temple.
Modesty realized her mistake instantly, as all lightness seemed to vanish from Felton’s eyes, leaving them the color of the chill winter sky outside.
She and Felton had been friends once, riding horses across the countryside during school holidays when they had lived on neighboring estates. But she hadn’t seen much of him since her return from Paris following her grandmother’s passing a month ago, and she had found Felton much changed from her fond memories of him.
Though she had forgotten that for a time, when she’d caught sight of his warm smile a few moment ago. How could she have failed to remember the recent rumors she’d heard about Felton’s scandalous actions and wicked reputation?
She didn’t want to believe them. Surely, the kindhearted boy she’d known was still somewhere inside of the hard, cynical man standing before her now.
Felton Banfield watched as Modesty’s inquisitive expression dimmed like a flame of candlelight winking out, with only dark shadows left behind. He felt a large measure of regret for spoiling her bright mood.
Her dark brown eyes clouded with remorse, and she sank small, white teeth into her plump bottom lip, leaving it tinged the color of a ripe berry. “How thoughtless of me to mention it. Please, forgive me.”
“Think nothing of it.” He instinctively knew what she was thinking. He wanted no additional reminders of the dark period in his life, or his less than honorable deeds back then. As such, he didn’t wish to prolong this line of conversation any further.
Modesty seemed to understand his thinking, also, and changed the subject. “Perhaps I will see you at Baron Ockley’s country dance, the week after next.”
He nodded in acknowledgement. “I have promised to escort my mother and younger sister.”
“Oh, how do Mrs. Banfield and Victoria fare? I neglected to ask, and I have not had occasion to visit with them, since they are now living on your new estate. The two hours’ drive fro
“They are well.” Though he couldn’t have said the same one year ago. Their improved situation was a source of great relief for him.
Modesty smiled in response. “Please, give them my best. Victoria just turned sixteen, did she not?”
“Yes, earlier this year. She has not yet made her come out, but mother wants her to have the opportunity to mix with genteel society here in the country before her first season in London next year.”
And if any young buck dared to try and take advantage of Victoria in the way that Felton had behaved toward the Duke of Kilmerstan’s young sister, then Felton would be fighting another duel. And this time he would shoot to kill, instead of firing harmlessly into the air. He had felt he could do nothing less when Kilmerstan had demanded satisfaction for the dishonor done to his sister. But if Felton’s sister was in any way compromised, he wouldn’t merely aim to wound.
He was fortunate that the Duke had chosen to spare him—due to their former friendship. Though their bond had been forever destroyed by Felton’s desperate actions.
Felton had no doubt that the only reason the other man continued to tolerate his presence was due to the fact that Lady Isabelle had married—happily, by all accounts—and now resided in Yorkshire with her Marquis.
Felton wasn’t proud of the choices he’d made upon his return from the Battle of Waterloo. In fact, they had brought him great shame. But he’d seen no other way out, at that moment. No other option to saving his family—at least not then. And by the time he’d been presented with the means necessary to provide for them, he had already committed an act that darkened his soul and blackened his name.
He pushed away those grim thoughts and focused his attention back on Modesty.
A curl of her dark brown hair had come loose at her nape and draped over her shoulder. He longed to reach out and discover if it was as silky as it appeared. Her dress of navy-blue merino wool highlighted her petite but curvy figure, and her pale skin reminded him of freshly fallen snow. Though it he touched her cheek, he knew it would feel warm against his fingers. He curled his hands into fists in a bid to ignore the temptation.
Any association with him beyond his business dealings with her father would only risk sullying Modesty’s own reputation. And he could not allow that. Not only due to his high regard for her, but also because Mr. Gibbs—on the basis of his one-time friendship with Feltons’s father—had played a large role in Felton’s successful endeavors to regain his family’s former fortunes.
It seemed that it was past time to make a hasty retreat, before he did something else unforgivable toward an innocent female. “I must be off.”
Modesty’s mouth turned down at the corners, as though she would be disappointed to see him depart, but she didn’t attempt to convince him to stay. “Of course, Mr. Banfield. I wish you good day.”
He bowed to her in response. After collecting his hat and overcoat from the Gibbs’s butler, he left Stonebridge Manor—and the woman who would always hold a very large piece of his heart.
“We must make preparations for the Duke of Kilmerstan’s Christmas Eve Ball,” Georgina Gibbs announced the next morning as Modesty entered the breakfast room.
Modesty silently scoffed at the way her mother persisted in referring to it as “the Duke of Kilmerstan’s Christmas Eve Ball,” as if anyone would be confused about which ball she was referring to. Doubtless, she wished to ensure that all knew the Gibbs had been judged worthy of an invitation to the social event of the winter season in Upper Nettlefold, despite their lack of title or family connections.
No matter that they were in the privacy of their own home, with no one but servants to hear, the older woman didn’t alter her habits.
Modesty’s mother seemed to feel that she must compensate for the fact that her husband had made his fortune in trade, even though Reginald Gibbs was respected for his business acumen by progressive-thinking men such as His Grace, the Duke. To be fair to her mother, many of the more snobbish members of the ton disdained the Gibbses as poison mushrooms trying to act above themselves.
But in that case, they looked on her mother’s actions as proof that their estimation of the family was correct. Which, in turn, only made Georgina Gibbs try harder to claim a place amongst the highest levels of society where there were those who thought that by excluding others, it increased their own importance.
And so it went, with one action feeding into the other in a seemingly endless circle. But any words of reasoning from Modesty fell on deaf ears, so she had learned to keep her thoughts on that particular subject to herself.
Modesty moved to the sideboard to fill a china plate with a spoonful of eggs and two triangles of toast from the chafing dishes, and then joined her parents at the table.
The older woman speared her with a critical gaze. “We must have a new gown made up for Modesty to wear for the occasion. We haven’t much time. I propose a trip into Upper Nettlefold to the dressmaker’s shop, this very day.”
“A wonderful idea, my dear,” Modesty’s father agreed, as he patted his mouth with a cloth napkin. “I have business in the village, as well. I shall have the carriage brought round, and we will leave directly after breakfast.”
Modesty remained silent, since it seemed that her opinion on the matter was not required, and she knew her mother wouldn’t be swayed from her purpose, in any event. She resigned herself to spending the better part of the day with her mother, looking over drawings of the latest fashions and choosing fabrics, though Modesty’s input regarding the selections would likely be superfluous to her mother’s aims.
Modesty busied herself spreading butter and jam on the triangles of toast, before lifting one to her mouth and taking a bite.
She almost choked on the toast, crumbs scratching on the way down, as she swallowed too quickly at her father’s next words. “By the night of the Duke’s ball, your mother and I expect that you will have accepted a gentleman’s suit.”
“A titled gentleman’s suit,” her mother inserted.
Modesty took a hasty sip of tea to clear the obstruction from her throat. “But that’s less than a month away!” Besides, she had no desire to marry a man who was only interested in her father’s fortune.
The older woman looked to her husband. “Explain it to her, please, Reginald.”
Her father set down his fork and focused his entire attention on Modesty. “I’m sure I don’t need to remind you that you’ll be one-and-twenty in February. Your mother fears that if you end another season without announcing your betrothal, the ton will think you hopelessly on the shelf.”
“But I’ve been in France the past two seasons. Surely—”
Her father held up a hand, cutting off further protests. “The fact remains that if the next season in London does not go favorably, it could very well end all hopes of you making an advantageous match. During your first two seasons a few years ago, before you hurried off to Paris to stay with your grandmother, God rest her soul, no less than five different gentlemen complained that you were too forthright and expressed opinions unbecoming in a proper young woman.”
Merely because she had made it plain she didn’t wish to accept their suits? She did not flatter or simper, acting as many other young girls of her acquaintance. Nor did she offer blind adoration to the opposite gender simply because they had deigned to acknowledge her—though the male members of the ton seemed to expect it as their due.
Still, Modesty had little doubt as to whom her father was referring. How like these men to lay the blame at her door, when every last one of them had been a fortune hunter, drawn by her large dowry rather than any liking or affection for her personally.
When she married, she desired it to be a love match—no matter how uncommon that might be among the members of society.
Yet, her parents seemed set on thwarting her dreams.
“You will do as we request,” her father stated his ed
“Yes, Papa.” But her mind already raced with ways to avoid an unwanted marriage.
Why this sudden rush to find her a husband?
Clearly, her parents feared that her time in France had further encouraged her unseemly outspokenness, and they hoped to have her safely wed before the gentlemen they deemed acceptable decided against courting her. If so, surely it wouldn’t be too terribly difficult to circumvent their aims. Without behaving in such a way as to put her completely beyond the pale, of course. She didn’t want to truly ruin herself so that no man would have her, love match or not.
But how to go about it without her parents realizing what she was planning?
Later that morning, after her father had gone off to attend to some business matters of his own, Modesty spent several hours with her mother at a shop on the main street of Upper Nettlefold, choosing fabrics and trimmings, and then discussing with the seamstress the design to be stitched for Modesty’s new ball gown.
She glanced out the window, in search of a reprieve from the talk of necklines and embellishments, and spotted Felton riding a handsome bay horse past the front of the shop. This only served to remind her of the fact that all this effort was going into a gown he would likely never see her wearing. At the same time, she couldn’t bring herself to care about garnering the admiration of any other gentleman, no matter that her parents were determined that she should snag a titled husband.
Unfortunately, Felton had never seemed inclined to court her and, thus, save her from the parents’ ambitions—much to Modesty’s discontent. He didn’t appear to feel the same draw to her that she felt toward him. At least, he hadn’t ever made the slightest of advances toward her that might indicate otherwise—despite his reputation as a rogue and a scoundrel.