He clasped both her hands in his. "Yesterday I said that I had something to say to you, and then a question to ask. Now you know what I was going to tell you. Have you been thinking about your answer to the question?"
"Just what was the question, Jack?" Meg asked.
His brows lifted. "Don't you know?"
"I thought I did, but perhaps I was wrong." The expression in his eyes made Meg feel rather breathless. It was really quite warm now, almost uncomfortably so. "You had better say exactly what you mean."
Jack smiled at her tenderly. "I want to marry you, of course."
"Is it because you want me to protect you from the dowager countess?"
"No." He grinned. "Or at least that's only a small part of the reason. I want to marry you because I love you and will certainly go into a decline if banished from your presence." He lifted her hands and kissed first one, then the other.
Meg's fingers curled around his. "I'm dreadfully managing, you know. I would torment you unmercifully."
He looked hopeful. "Please torment me, Meg. You can't imagine how much I look forward to that."
She could not stop herself from laughing. "Are you never serious, you absurd man?"
"I am when I say that I love you." Suddenly solemn, he met her gaze. "Were you serious last night, Meg?"
She blushed and nodded. "I've never been in love before. This morning I felt like a bit of a fool when I realized that I'd fallen in love with a cuckoo."
Jack laughed and drew, her into his arms so that her head tucked under his chin. Meg relaxed against him, thinking how very large and comfortable he was.
He murmured into her ear, "You still haven't answered my question. Will you marry me?"
"I'll never make a proper countess."
"All it takes to be a proper countess is to marry an earl, and I'll take care of that part of it," he said, laughter in his voice. "With your warmth and wisdom, you'll make a countess such as Hazelwood has never known before."
Weakly she summoned the last argument she could think of. "We've known each other for only three days."
"But I've been looking for you all my life."
Meg caught her breath. It was easy to believe that he was a military hero, for he certainly knew how to destroy one's defenses. "Is it really that simple?"
"It is for me, Meg." He brushed her hair with one large hand. "And if you do love me, it should be simple for you too."
With a slow flowering of joy, Meg's hesitation dissolved. "It really is that simple, isn't it?" she said in a voice full of wonder. "Yes, Jack, I'll marry you."
He gave a whoop of delight and fell back onto the carpet, pulling her with him so that she was sprawled across his chest in a perfect position for serious kissing. For the next several minutes, guests and Christmas were utterly forgotten. Then came the faint squeaking sound of a tiny door opening, followed by a clear, "Cuckoo, cuckoo!"
They stopped kissing and counted. "Nine o'clock," Jack said with satisfaction. "The clock is working just as it ought. Do you think your father would be pleased?"
"Good Lord!" Meg clapped her hand over her mouth. "I had completely forgotten about the deed and Peacock Hill. We must go tell the others. What an unforgettable Christmas this will be!"
Jack stood, then assisted Meg to her feet. "It already is."
As she made a token attempt to restore her appearance to that of a decorous older sister, Meg said mischievously, "I never realized that the cuckoo and his foster family might become attached to each other in spite of their differences. But then, I never met a Christmas cuckoo before."
Laughing, Jack put his arm around his ladylove's shoulders and escorted her to the door of the parlor. But just before leaving the room he gave the cuckoo clock a salute—as a mark of respect between two birds of a feather.
The Christmas Cuckoo Page 7