A Match Made in Mistletoe(5)By: Anna Campbell
Everyone liked Paul. Damn it, Giles liked Paul. When he didn’t want to shoot the lucky sod for crowning a singularly fortunate life with a happy marriage to lovely, ardent Serena Talbot.
The outcome seemed inevitable. Paul and his bride would live a glorious life, and rear a brood of golden-haired children, and enjoy a contented, prosperous, useful future.
Paul was probably suggesting that very future to Serena right now.
Damn. Blast. Hell. Bugger.
Giles sighed and told himself that he’d always known this day would come. She’d never been for him. That had been clear from the first.
When he’d arrived as a grieving, prickly boy, reeling from the loss of his beloved parents, Serena had been wary. As she’d grown up, her patent adoration for Paul meant that in her world, Giles operated as a mere adjunct to his picturesque friend. Nothing much beyond Paul bloody Garside ever registered with her.
Giles’s one consolation had always been that while Paul was undoubtedly fond of Serena, his feelings hadn’t advanced far past that. It wasn’t much of a consolation. Paul had had more than his share of flirtations, but Giles knew that he always meant to please his family and marry the youngest Talbot girl. In recent months, that plan had changed from a duty to a pleasure.
Paul was as susceptible to a pretty face as the next man. This last year, Serena had fulfilled the promise of beauty that Giles had always seen beneath the muddy pinafores and untidy braids.
So this Christmas, the engagement was all set to go forward.
Except something unexpected had happened downstairs when he’d kissed Serena—a treat he always paid for in nights of restless longing.
Call him an optimistic fool, but he’d swear that for one sizzling moment, she’d looked into his eyes and seen him. Seen him as the man he was, not Paul Garside’s shadow.
And he’d wondered. Hell, how he’d wondered.
Then she’d stepped back.
But that fleeting instant gave him hope. At a time when all hope seemed dead.
The quest might be futile. But he very much feared, however everything fell out in the end, that he meant to challenge his charming, eligible, handsome friend for the prize they both wanted.
Although if the best man won, Giles hadn’t a chance in Hades.
* * *
Three days before Christmas, and Serena remained mired in confusion. She should be deliriously happy, and instead, she was more miserable than she’d ever been in her life.
Which made no sense when at last fate granted her dearest wish, Paul Garside courting her. His attentions since his arrival were unfailing, with the emphasis on unfailing.
This afternoon, in a desperate attempt to find a moment’s peace from his constant company, she’d slunk away from the house to seek refuge in the cold and empty village church. When just days ago, the idea that she’d want to do anything but bask in his presence would have seemed preposterous.
But she badly needed time alone to think. To remind herself that all her life she’d wanted Paul to pursue her. She should be ecstatic at his interest.
Instead of scared to death.
When the outside door squeaked behind her, she gave a guilty start. Even if she had nothing to feel guilty about. By heaven, she was turning into a bundle of nerves.
Foreboding in her heart, she glanced back from where she sat in the family pew. Several times Paul had tried to corner her, starting with a chilly stroll in the knot garden the day he arrived. She feared he wanted to get her alone so he could propose. And however unlikely the fact, fear wasn’t too strong a term for her reaction to that prospect. Just now, she was in too much turmoil to make any decision.
Oh, how she wanted to kick herself.
The new arrival wasn’t Paul. But he wasn’t much of an improvement. Instead of a tall, fair-haired man, a taller man with dark, sensual features stood in the arched doorway leading through to the vestibule.
“So this is where you’re skulking,” Giles drawled, sweeping off his hat as he entered the body of the church. He was casually dressed for the country, in a black coat, doeskin breeches and boots. His insolent gait a silent challenge to sanctity, he sauntered up the aisle toward her.
“I’m not skulking,” she snapped. Although to her shame she was. She slumped back into her seat. “Quiet contemplation is appropriate to the season.”