This short story features all-new characters–the Winter family–and, of course, a bit of Christmas cheer. I wrote it for a Christmas blog series after being given the writing prompt “A Wardrobe Malfunction on Christmas Eve,” and my pun generator kicked on at once. During the Regency, a wardrobe was both a large piece of furniture in which clothes were stored, as well as the clothes themselves. And malfunction? Yep, that word was in use at the time. Isn’t language fun?
OF MALFUNCTIONS AND MULLED WINE
No member of Lord Winter’s family was excused from playing Sardines on Christmas Eve.
Not the baron’s infant granddaughter, who hid amidst blankets in her mother’s arms. Not his lordship’s elderly mother, the dowager baroness, whose arthritis led her to seek hiding places that could accommodate a wheeled chair. And certainly not Tobias Winter, the baron’s second son and the only one of the seven Winter siblings as yet unmarried.
Not that Tobias expected to be excused. At the age of thirty-two, he’d had decades to soak up his family’s Christmas traditions, which ranged from the usual—plum pudding and roast goose on the glorious day—to the eccentric. Such as the Christmas Eve game of Sardines, that energetic variation of hide-and-seek in which everyone who found the first hider crammed into his hiding place.
Every Christmas, Tobias dutifully visited the parental estate, bearing gifts along with patience. He knew he would be lectured on his sadly persistent bachelorhood, though he regarded such lectures as he did the inevitable game of Sardines: something to be got through to please his parents, then forgotten as soon as Christmas was over and he could return to his stables in Kent. As a youth, he’d been delighted when he finally developed enough shoulder muscle to keep a fractious colt in line, and the training of horses had occupied him ever since.
Though that shoulder muscle wasn’t doing him any favors now, as he shifted inside the narrow confines of a mahogany wardrobe. Tinned like a sardine, he was. In a hurry to avoid his shrieking pursuers, he had darted into the nearest unused spare room and stuffed himself into the only bit of furniture large enough to hold a grown man. At first it had seemed quite a good hiding place, empty of linens and lacking the sharp smell of camphor. Though how anyone was to squeeze in here with him—
“Aha.” The wardrobe door had been wrenched open; rosy sunset-light revealed a slender brunette.
Who promptly clambered into the wardrobe with Tobias and yanked the door shut upon them. “Budge over, please.”
Under other circumstances, it would have been most improper for her to be pressed so tightly against his chest. As it was, though—
“I can’t. Sorry; wish I could give you a bit more room.” That second part was a lie, for this young woman smelled delicious, of cinnamon or some other Christmassy scent. Whoever she might be, it was no hardship to have her pressed against him.
“Mr. Winter.” The woman’s voice sounded amused. “How is anyone else to fit in here with us?”
“I did wonder the same, Miss—”
“St. John. Helen St. John.” She gave a soft laugh. “We were introduced last night. I’m your sister Clara’s friend, come to visit for the holiday.”
“I—are you certain we met?”
“Quite certain. You were introduced to me with a wink and a nudge as the only unmarried Winter sibling.”
“That sounds about right,” Tobias muttered. “Miss St. John, I apologize for not recalling. I can’t think where my attention was.”
“I can. It was in Kent. You were talking about your horses with your father, so it really wasn’t a good time for our introduction. I’m not at all offended that you don’t remember me.” She shifted against Tobias’s chest. “Tight quarters; I beg your pardon.”
“Oh, I’m not offended either.” Decidedly not. Definitely not. “It’s only a game. Sardines, I mean. You must make yourself comfortable.”
“Hmm.” With a rustle of fabric, she managed to put a bit more space between them. “So. You are a horse-trainer?”
“Ever since I finished my schooling. I’ve a gentleman’s education, but I’m happiest when I spend my days outdoors. Preparing horses for their own employment, whether turf or traces or saddle.”
Though he couldn’t see her face, her voice was all feigned surprise. “You mean you’re not usually to be found shut up in a wardrobe?”
“Difficult though it may be to believe, no. I play Sardines to please my relatives—of which, as you have probably realized, there seem to be an infinite number.”
“Ah, the number seems just right to me. I’m the only one left in my family. It’s nice to have a bit of ruckus around one at Christmas.”
“You shall have that aplenty.” He swayed closer again, breathing in that seductive-sweet scent of festive spices.
Fortunately, he came to his senses before he tried to nibble her up. “Ah—it’s getting rather close in here, isn’t it?” Tugging at his cravat, he banged his elbow against the wardrobe door. Then it brushed a soft curve that might have been Miss St. John’s breast. “Do forgive me.”
“All part of the game.” She echoed his earlier words, sounding amused. “Though I’m surprised no one else has found us yet. I thought a few of your sisters were right behind me.”
“Now that you mention it, I haven’t heard any sounds of pursuit for a few minutes.”
“Is your family given to pranks?”
“You are wondering if they’ve left us here to fossilize while they drink mulled wine and giggle at the fireside?”
He thought about this. “It’s entirely possible.”
“I wouldn’t say no to some mulled wine myself.” Another tantalizing rustle of fabric as Miss St. John—Helen—shifted. There was something about being shut up in a wardrobe with a woman that made a fellow think of her in a familiar way.
“You shall have it, then,” Tobias said. “There’s no sense in waiting longer, since the game’s likely ended.” He pressed at the wardrobe door.
Nothing. He pressed harder. Gave it a shove with his shoulder.
Helen cleared her throat. “Are we stuck?”
“The door seems”—Tobias gritted his teeth and shoved again with his shoulder—“to be malfunctioning. I suppose there is no latch on the inside.”
“Oh, dear.” Helen laughed. “How did we get ourselves into this mess? Well, I’ve a pin that might help.”
Tobias assumed she meant a hairpin; but no, another rustle of fabric, and a pile of skirts found their way against him.
“Sorry about that,” Helen said. “It’s a pin from my mother; I keep it in my garter. I probably shouldn’t have said that, but this could be a matter of life and death. And more significantly, mulled wine.”
“Indeed.” Tobias plucked at his cravat, unwinding the starched cloth. “I have a cravat-pin; maybe if we set the pins together in the latch, it can be forced open.”
“Since the alternative is no mulled wine, we must try it.” In the darkness, Helen found his fingers and pressed a brooch into them. It was warm; warm from resting against her thigh.
Tobias’s mouth went dry.
“Wish me luck,” he muttered, fumbling for the latch, hands full of bulky pins. Somehow, he got their barbs into the stubborn block of the latch. “Ready?”
“Quite ready.” Helen turned, facing him chest to chest.
“Let us shove it together. On the count of three?”
“All right. One. Two. Thr—”
He couldn’t help himself: he dropped a kiss on her lips, stopping her speech. Such soft lips, wicked and sweet under his. Being trapped with her inside furniture was the luckiest accident ever to befall him.
“Mmm.” Her hands rose to twine in his hair; the kiss deepened.
Until: Thud. “Ouch!” She had hit her elbow on the door; he had smacked his head against the top of the wardrobe. The blow jostled sense into him.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “Well—no, I’m not. But I probably ought to be.”
Before he could answer that tantalizing question, the wardrobe door rattled and popped open.
Blinking against the red glow of sunset, Tobias turned to see who had freed them.
There stood Lord Winter. Lady Winter. And Tobias’s sister Clara. All with smug smiles on their faces.
“A bit of a wardrobe issue?” Lord Winter’s voice was all mild curiosity.
Tobias looked at Helen. Seeing her for the first time, she was—well, lovely. Dark hair, impish brows, and a beautiful full mouth, the lips slightly parted from kisses or surprise.
She also had her skirts up around her thighs. And his cravat was undone.
Their eyes met. “It’s not what you think,” they both said at once.
And then laughed, because of course that wasn’t true. His hair had to be rumpled from her touch, and if his mouth looked anything like hers, it was quite clear that their wardrobe issue hadn’t confined itself to the furniture.
“What do you suppose I think?” asked Lord Winter.
“I know what I think,” said Clara. “I think we should have shut Tobias into the wardrobe long ago. He and Helen will surely have to be married now.”
“Nothing of the sort,” said Lady Winter. “This is a private party; who is to know? They surely cannot be blamed if they get stuck inside the furniture.”
“Not for that,” said Tobias. “No, do not blame us for that.” He caught Helen’s eye again and grinned. “But for something else? Maybe.”
She turned a lovely shade of pink and shook out her skirts. “Mr. Winter, it was a pleasure being caught in the wardrobe with you.”
He handed her the brooch that had been in her garter; seed pearls set in the shape of a flower. “Miss St. John, I hope this game of Sardines was only the beginning.”
“I think,” she said, “that it was.”
Lord Winter cleared his throat loudly. “Well. Very nice. Shall we join the others now? They’re having mulled wine. Delicious.”
And off he went, wife in tow, Clara—protesting—dragged along. Tobias shot one fond backward glance at the wardrobe, now open and empty. Then he took Helen’s hand in his, and they followed his family to the Christmas Eve celebration. Together.