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On Christmas Day in 1815, Callie Partridge loses something precious to her family. The fellow who finds it isn't at all her sort of beau. In fact, it's his valet who interests her, but who's ever heard of dancing with a valet at an earl's ball?

Twelve Drummers Drumming

Callie threw her lunge whip to the floor. “When will I learn to think before doing?” Her lament seemed aimed at the sky.

    “Perhaps you needn’t bear all the responsibility for this one.” Tom stared down at an unconscious Rudy.

Callie looked at Cantwell and gasped. “I-is he—”

    “I very much doubt it. Rudy’s far too stubborn for that.” Tom knelt to place two fingers on Cantwell’s neck. His pulse throbbed soundly enough. “He’s all right. Just better behaved than usual.” Rising, he glanced from Rudy to Callie, and back again. “You’ve no idea how many times I’ve wanted to do that since Christmas.” He cleared his throat. “Not that I knocked him out on purpose, of course.”

    “Of course not.” Callie agreed. “You’d be dismissed if that were true.”

    “Yes.” He'd be dismissed anyway. Oddly, this didn’t concern Tom as much as it might have done, had Rudy not attempted to seduce the woman he loved.

    “Are you all right, Callie?”

She nodded, but her widened eyes concerned him and she started to shiver. “I ought not to have come out here,” she said in a low, quiet voice.

    “Why did you?” Tom’s voice was just as low, just as quiet.

    Drumming thunder filled the silence between them, as though the sky held its breath.

    “I’m sorry for it now.” Callie whispered as the sky issued another drum roll. She glanced at Rudy. “Ought we to summon Doctor Swann, or – or somebody?”

    At that moment, Rudy emitted a loud snore and another, ruder noise that startled the horses. Indignant whinnying came from the stalls on either side and Callie’s relief showed in her short, tentative laugh.

    Tom didn’t like her concern for Cantwell. He didn’t like that she hadn’t answered his question either. Perhaps she didn’t know why she’d accompanied Rudy to the stables, and if she didn’t know herself, how could she know if she loved him at all? He counted the seconds until the next roll of thunder before forging on, because he’d not give her up yet.

    “Callie?” He found her hand in the darkness.

    “Yes, Tom?”

“D-do you truly wish to be out here with Cantwell?” He swallowed, curling his free hand into a fist while he waited out the next thunderclap. “Because if you do, then—”

    “Good heavens, no, Tom. Of course not!” She seized his arm with her free hand and tugged at him.

    Tom forced a relieved smile from his lips. “Then why did you?”

    “H-he danced with me, and I drank his cider. I saved you the next dance, then you weren’t to be seen near the carolling and Mr Cantwell was there again asking me to call him Rudy, with his waltzing and his cider. It’s stronger than the one Mama makes at the lodge. I couldn’t think clearly, and—”

    “I thought I knew all Rudy’s tricks.” Tom worked to keep his voice level. Callie sounded frightened enough. “His lordship’ll hear about this,” he vowed, shaking his head. “I’ll inform him myself.” He shifted Rudy’s foot with his own and counted two more rolls of thunder.

    “Please,” Callie begged. “If you inform the earl, all the village will know I came out here with him. Mr Cantwell will say I deserved it after my behaviour this morning. He’s already said I was flirting when I only wanted to see how the birds fared.”

    “Callie, there’s no behaviour you could devise that excuses Cantwell. He’s grown far worse since his brothers returned and the earl must know it.” Tom exhaled loudly as he took her hands in his. “Now that you mention it though, what were you about this morning?”

    “You said I couldn’t teaze a man,” she reminded him, though without asperity.

    “Callie.” Tom clenched his jaw, resisting the urge to swear aloud. “I meant to pay a compliment. I like girls who don’t toy with a man's affections.”

    “Oh.” She seemed momentarily flummoxed. “Well, don’t do it again.”

    “I’ll do as I wish,” he replied with such spirit that Callie stared in surprise. Then she smiled at him. That smile… Tom cleared his throat and straightened his stance. “Starting now.” He dropped down to one knee and took her hands in his, gazing at the only person in the world who mattered this twelfth night. Her eyes grew huge again and Tom could hardly stand it. He struggled to get his words out in the right order.

    “Callie Partridge,” he said solemnly. “I already love you. Will you marry me? I mean, do you think you can love me?” He barely breathed anymore and her lovely face swirled oddly before his gaze. Good lord, was he going to be ill? No, not tonight. He'd not allow it.

    Callie’s eyes were streaming now and Tom rose at once. “Are – are you offended? I never intended—”

    “Shush, you.” Callie sniffed at him, then slid her arms round his middle and squeezed too tightly. “Of course, I love you, Tom Doyle. Of course, I’ll marry you.” She leaned up and kissed him twice. “You’re not to make me cry again.”

    “Noted.” Tom beamed and kissed her back – once, just once, but it was along kiss, a proper kiss. He counted seven peals of thunder and the space in between by the time he drew breath again, and Callie seemed gratifyingly dazed.

    “Tom.” Callie’s ragged breathing wasn’t easy to resist, but she’d accepted him. He wouldn’t disgrace that.

    “There’s no hurry, my love.” he assured her. “I’m not going anywhere without you.” He kissed her longingly once more, marking a place he intended to explore later.

    “Did you see your birds after all?”

    Callie shook her head, her gaze on his mouth.

    “Allow me, then.” He glanced once more at Rudy before taking up the candle holder in one hand, and clasping her hand in his other, walking beside her to the darkest stall at the back.

    They both peered over the half-door to see the four chicks tucked into the nest he’d fashioned from wisps of hay and a little mud. Each tiny creature had its head tucked beneath a wing, issuing occasional feathery cheeps in their sleep.

    “There you are,” Tom said softly. “Rudy, Florrie, William, and Charlie, just as you left them.”

    “Safe, warm, and alive.” Callie beamed at him. “This is too kind of you. Thank you, Tom.”

    “I’ve not managed to find out which birds they are,” he reminded her.

    Callie refused to look at him, studying her birds with a funny grin all over her face. “Are you certain?” She raised her gloves before Tom’s face, as though fanning the air. “Do you see it yet, Tom?”

    He noticed the avian design on her gloves then, and another on her bodice.

    “Your beadwork is better done than your billfold, but – is it the same bird?”

    Callie beamed at him. “It is indeed. Are you still in the dark?”

    Tom pulled her close. “Tell me, or I’ll kiss you senseless.”

    Callie laughed. “Until recently I’d have said I hadn’t any sense to begin with, but some birds are made of sterner stuff.” She laughed, and Tom suddenly understood. He held her hand still and studied her glove to be certain, then glanced at the chicks.

    “They’re partridges, aren’t they?”

    Callie applauded him, her entire posture relaxed. A great deal of tension left her in a heartfelt sigh. Tom had never met anyone who sighed as much as Callie. He found it quite endearing and he wanted her close again. He wanted her completely. He watched Callie’s smile widen, warming her dark eyes.

    “Did you say you'd saved me a dance?”

    “I did.” She turned her face to his and smiled again. “I wished to dance with you for my first Cantwell twelfth night feast.”

    “And I wish to dance with you for every twelfth night feast.” Tom bowed.

    “We’ve no music,” Callie protested, though she curtsied low and took his arm.

    “We’ve drums enough,” Tom replied as the thunder came again. He drew her close, humming a tune in two-three time. Slipping one palm around Callie’s waist, he waltzed her round the tack room, in and out of the bird stall, and near enough to the now-groaning Cantwell. For their second turn about the place, she gazed up at him.

    “I dreamed of you a week ago,” she said. “You sang, in my dream.”

    The sparkle in her eye had him grinning, spinning her faster as he stared right back at Callie and sang.

    “On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, a partridge in a pear tree,” he began, as she joined in, joined him, and soon they were dancing and laughing, and kissing in the stall beside the little birds.        When they finally came up for air, Callie’s cheeks were pinked in a way that had Tom wishing this was their wedding night. His tone turned jesting

    “Do you think you can stop doing that?”

    Callie’s colour deepened. “Doing what?”

    “Blushing so prettily.”

    “No.” She blushed again as his lips covered hers.

    “Then you’ll need to put up with being kissed a lot more,” he replied matter-of-factly. “Is there a lot more?” Her genuine amazement tightened his entire body.

    “Come here and I’ll show you…”

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