Christmas Belles

Christmas Belles by Susan Carroll

Book: Christmas Belles by Susan Carroll Read Free Book Online
Authors: Susan Carroll
window. To her dismay, she felt tears filling her eyes, and she swiped
at them in desperation. She hated to cry in front of a stranger, especially one
so coldhearted as the captain. He would be bound to view any display of emotion
with scorn.
    "Miss Chloe," he began sternly as he drew
alongside of her. Yet when he caught sight of her face, he faltered. Chloe
would not have thought it possible, but this man who had surely stood
unflinching before the cannon fire of the entire French navy looked positively
daunted. In a tone almost approaching panic, he said, "Chloe. Here now!
Belay those tears."
    Unfortunately, this gruff command only made matters worse. Her
tears spilled over to trickle down her cheeks.  She mopped at them with
the back of her hands, but to no great effect.
    "I am s-sorry," she stammered. "I don't mean
to be such a fool. It is only talking about the decorations and Papa. Christmas
always meant so much to him." Her throat squeezed so tight, she could
barely speak. "If you c-could just excuse me ..."
    "No, I cannot," Trent said.
    Blindly, she turned to make for the door, but his solid
frame blocked her retreat. He caught her face between his hands, his slightly
calloused thumbs whisking away her tears with great efficiency. His touch was
surprisingly gentle all the same
    "You never gave me the chance to finish what I was
saying before," he said. "I wasn't going to forbid the decorations.
I'll help you hang the blasted things myself, on the mantel, the doors,
wherever you want them. I'll even stick a sprig of holly in my hat, if only you
will stop crying."
    Chloe sniffed, wanting to thrust him away. But she was
overcome by the ludicrous image his words painted, the captain fiercely
sporting holly on the brim of his imposing military cockade. She smiled in
spite of herself.
    "That's better," he said. He stroked his thumbs
across her face again, then cupped her chin and looked into her eyes as though
defying any more tears to run his blockade. "You might have a little more
forbearance for an old tar like me, Miss Chloe. I am not that familiar with
these holiday customs. I have spent every Christmas since I can remember on the
deck of a ship. Most times I forget what day it is unless one of my crew wishes
me a happy Christmas."
    "That is the saddest thing I have ever heard,"
Chloe said, aghast. "How could one ever forget Christmas?"
    "I fear the day's significance is not noted among my
tide tables." Trent smiled, giving her damp cheek one final caress before
allowing his hand to drop to his side.
    "But surely when you were a child, you must have
celebrated," she said. "How old were you when you first put to
sea?"
    "Almost nine."
    "Nine! And your mama and papa let you go?"
    "My mother died when I was born, and my father was a
quiet man who left my upbringing to my grandfather, Admiral Sefton. He obtained
me a commission in the navy as soon as he could. It was a great honor to become
a midshipman that young."
    "Perhaps it was," Chloe said doubtfully. The last
thing she wanted to do was feel sympathy for Captain Trent, especially when the
man seemed so sublimely unaware that anything was missing from his life, a
wealth of Christmastide memories, the warmth of parental affection.
    He appeared discomfited to have revealed this much about
himself. She noticed that he had discarded his uniform. His shirt of thin white
cambric outlined clearly the muscular play of his shoulders, the neck buttons
undone enough to reveal a small vee of bronzed chest. Never had the captain
appeared so vulnerable and at the same time so threateningly masculine.
    Her heart hammered strangely and she would have felt more
comfortable retreating, but the captain showed no sign of letting her go. He regarded
her gravely, his eyes softening to the hue of mist.
    "Miss Chloe, we have had a great deal of
misunderstanding between us. I fear that I can be abrupt at times. If I have
ever hurt your feelings, I assure you it was unintentional. I would like

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