A few years ago I wrote a very short story as part of a Christmas celebration on a romance website. Today, as it is Christmas Eve, I thought I would post it up here for anyone who would like to read a little romantic novella – with every best wish for the Christmas Season.
Love from Nicola
A number of years ago I wrote a series of books, the Bluestocking Brides, set in Suffolk and featuring the rakish Kestrel brothers. At the end of the series the youngest brother, Lord Stephen Kestrel, was the only one who was unmarried and lots of readers asked me if Stephen would ever have his own story.
My most recent series has been The Scandalous Women of the Ton. In book 4, NOTORIOUS, Miss Francesca Devlin marries the dissolute Marquis of Alton. Later in the series it comes out that she has been widowed and in book 6 she receives a proposal of marriage from Lord Stephen Kestrel.
This is what happened in between…
Francesca Alton wanted an adventure. A big adventure. She wanted smugglers, highwaymen and pirates, action and romance. She felt that she deserved some excitement in her life. Unfortunately all she had instead was a walk of two miles through the snow to the nearest inn. Her boots were already soaking and her feet were frozen. Hunger gnawed at her stomach.
It was typical of the Duke and Duchess to throw her out of the house on Christmas Eve and before dinner. They had only invited her to Midwinter Hall because they thought she might be carrying the heir to the Alton dukedom. It was the sole reason they had continued to acknowledge her after the death of their son Fitz four months earlier.
Chessie was not pregnant but she had had no intention of telling the Duke and Duchess. She knew that once they had no further use for her, she would be thrown out in the street without a penny. The Duke and Duchess had detested her from the start. The feeling was mutual.
Unfortunately her maid was not discreet. And so it was that shortly before dinner on Christmas Eve the Duchess had come to her and told her that she was no longer welcome at Midwinter Hall. She should not trouble to pack a bag because they had paid for everything she possessed and although they would permit her to keep the clothes she stood up in, she could take nothing else.
For the first mile of the walk to the Midwinter Inn Chessie had tried to keep her spirits up by imagining all the adventures she might have. She had heard that the Midwinter villages were the haunt of smugglers and pirates. But as the empty road wound ahead and the snow dripped from the brim of her hat down her neck and the outline of the trees beside the road started to blur into darkness, she could no longer pretend. She had no money and no prospect of any, she would not be able to pay her shot at the inn let alone the cost of the coach to London and there would be no excitement in her life ever again.
The road passed through a thick copse where the trees drew close overhead. The bitter wind whirled the snow in Chessie’s face, blinding her. She shivered deep within her thin cloak. Then she heard the chink of a harness and the muffled clop of hooves in the snow, and a dark figure reared up out of the darkness ahead. In the same moment, someone clapped a gloved hand over her mouth. She could not draw breath to scream. Nor could she struggle because a very strong arm was clamped about her waist and she was dragged under the cover of the trees and held still against a hard masculine body.
“Quiet!” Her captor growled in her ear.
She could feel the rise and fall of his chest against her back. His breath stirred her hair. He smelled of cold air and leather and lemon cologne, and his grip on her was very sure. It was entirely delightful when it should have been frightening. Chessie gave a little wayward shiver of pleasure. The Duchess had always claimed she had no breeding and no decorum, and clearly it was true if she could tremble with enjoyment in a smuggler’s arms.
Yet there was something familiar about this smuggler. She could not see his face nor identify him in any way and yet instinctively she recognised him.
Gradually the clop of the hooves and the jingle of harness died away and her captor’s hand fell from her lips. Chessie drew in a deep breath.
“Lord Stephen!” She said.
He was still holding her with an arm about her waist and now she felt the jolt of surprise go through him. He released her, turning her around to face him. It was very dark under the trees. She could see nothing of him other than as a tall shadow against darker shadows.
“Do I know you, ma’am?” His voice was smooth and deep, with a hint of amusement. Definitely Lord Stephen Kestrel. When they had met three years before she had noticed straight away how mellow his voice was. Some men, she had thought, could seduce with their voice alone and this was one of them. The fact that he was also tall and dark and sinfully good looking was, of course, an added benefit. There had been a time when she had been a little bit in love with Stephen Kestrel. If only he had not been a younger son with his way to make in the world and if only she had not been so foolishly in love with the undeserving Fitz…
She felt a strange pang of loss.
“We met in London a few years ago,” Chessie said. “I don’t suppose you remember. I am Francesca Alton.” She almost offered him her hand, which, she realised, would be a ridiculously formal thing to do in a snowy wood in the middle of nowhere.
“Lady Alton!” Lord Stephen sounded taken aback now. “I do apologise for grabbing you in such an ill-mannered way. I was trying to ensure that Old Jeb did not shoot you. He is as deaf as a post and trigger-happy with that blunderbuss.”
“That’s very thoughtful of you,” Chessie said. “I had no notion I would run into smugglers on Christmas Eve.”
“You did not, ma’am.” Lord Stephen’s voice was dry. “Jeb Hartley is the gamekeeper on my brother’s estate here and he is out tonight to ensure none of the local poachers are looking to supplement their Christmas table with some of our game.”
“Oh, I see.” Chessie could feel herself blushing. Lord Stephen had taken her arm and was leading her back onto the road. Out here in the fading daylight she could see him clearly; the tousled dark hair in which snowflakes were settling, the dark eyes, the chiselled planes of his face, the broad shoulders encased in a many-caped coat of superfine. He looked every inch the younger brother of the Duke of Kestrel whilst she probably looked like something the cat would refuse to drag in.
“All self-respecting smugglers are likely to be tucked up in front of the fire on such an inclement day drinking their contraband brandy,” he said.
“Of course,” Chessie said. “Of course they are.”
So much for her foolish dreams of adventure.
“Not that there are many in these parts any more,” Lord Stephen continued. “Nor highwaymen, nor pirates, should you be wondering.”
“Of course I was not wondering,” Chessie said sharply. “How absurd.”
“The Midwinter villages,” Lord Stephen said, “have something of a reputation for criminality.”
“Quite unwarranted, I am sure,” Chessie said.
“Quite.” His voice changed. His gaze appraised her keenly. There was a slight frown between his dark brows now. “May I escort you back to Midwinter Hall, Lady Alton? It is a bad night to be out.”
“You could,” Chessie said, “but then you would put the Duke and Duchess to the trouble of throwing me out again.”
His frown deepened. “They have cast you out on Christmas Eve?”
“I fear so,” Chessie said. “I am heading for the Midwinter Inn. I need to get a coach back to London.” She shivered as a cascade of snow slid from one of the branches and tumbled down her neck. If she spent much longer standing here she would not be able to feel her feet, they were so cold.
Lord Stephen muttered something uncomplimentary about the Duke and Duchess of Alton. She did not quite catch what it was which was perhaps a good thing. “The inn is only a few hundred yards further,” he said briefly. “I’ll walk with you.”
Chessie felt a little frisson of something that was definitely not cold tickle her spine.
“I would not dream of putting you to the trouble-” She began.
“It is no trouble.”
He offered her his arm and adapted his long stride to suit her shorter one and within five minutes they came round a bend in the road and Chessie saw the lights of the Midwinter Inn gleaming through the dusk.
“Thank goodness,” she said, through chattering teeth. “Any longer and I would have frozen to the spot.”
Lord Stephen hustled her through the doorway and into the warmth. A fire blazed in the hearth. Lanterns cast a warm golden light. The ancient beams glowed with sprigs of red holly berries and rich green boughs. There was the most marvellous smell of roasting meat. Chessie’s stomach gave and enormous rumble.
“A private parlour, please, Hartigan,” Lord Stephen said, as the landlord came hurrying forward to greet them. “And two glasses of mulled wine and some hot food.”
“Oh no,” Chessie said. “Please, I can’t-”
I can’t afford any food.
She bit her lip. She had too much pride to finish the sentence.
“I was only hoping to wait in the warmth until the coach for London arrived,” she said.
“That would be next Wednesday, ma’am,” the landlord said.
That was the moment when Chessie thought that she might just cry but instead she raised her chin and said:
“In that case…” But then she stopped because she did not know what to do in that case.
“In that case,” Lord Stephen said, “we’ll take the private parlour, the mulled wine and the hot food, thank you, Hartigan,” and he guided Chessie into the parlour and helped her out of her soaking wet cloak. As he put back the hood his fingers brushed her cheek and her startled gaze flew to meet his. Their eyes held for a long moment and Chessie felt a flare of heat start at her toes and sweep through her whole body.
Oh dear. She really should learn not to be so susceptible to handsome men. Marriage to Fitz should have taught her to value character over looks. Not that Lord Stephen Kestrel was anything like her late and unlamented husband but she had heard he had been a shocking rake when he was younger and she had always been attracted to men with a dangerous reputation.
To cover her confusion she picked up the glass of mulled wine that the landlord had brought and drank half of it down in one gulp. It was delicious, warm and richly flavoured, tasting of fruit and spices. She finished the glass and accepted another. The food arrived, fragrant beef and potato pie with a crisp pastry crust. Lord Stephen kept up an easy flow of conversation and soon she found that they were chatting away like old friends, discussing her experiences of London and Lord Stephen’s travels on the continent. They laughed a lot and Chessie’s head spun and her elbow slid off the table and she felt drowsy and happy and ever so slightly drunk.
And then Lord Stephen leaned forward and said:
“How did you know that it was me earlier? You could not see me, so how did you know?”
“I recognised you,” Chessie said. “I knew your touch.”
As soon as the words were out she felt embarrassed and pressed her fingers to her lips. “I beg your pardon,” she whispered. “I think I may have had too much mulled wine. I meant that we have danced together several times and I recognised the fit of your body against mine.”
That was even worse. She was ready to sink with humiliation now. But then she looked up into his face and forgot her mortification because there was a flash of something bright and elemental in Lord Stephen’s dark eyes that made her heart race and a curl of heat unfurl deep in the pit of her stomach. His hand covered hers where it rested on the table.
“Why did you marry Alton?” He asked softly. “He was the most frightful cad.”
“I know,” Chessie said. “He was mean and vicious but I didn’t realise until it was too late. I thought I was in love with him. It was a terrible mistake. And now I am completely ruined because I have no money and have been cast out by Fitz’s family there is no coach to take me back to London to my friends, and even if there was I could not afford it, and I cannot pay you for the meal or the wine-” She stopped abruptly as Lord Stephen pulled her to her feet and kissed her. He tasted of wine and spices and the kiss was sweet and tender and made her head spin. It was so delicious, in fact, that she found herself winding her arms about his neck and kissing him with so much fervour that he kissed her again, a great deal less gently this time.
Oh dear. So that was the way it was going to be. He was going to demand payment of another sort. It was explicitly clear in the way he was holding her and his impressive state of arousal. Chessie supposed that if she was going to embark a career as a courtesan, and really what other course was open to her now with no money and no other talents, then it might be rather pleasant to start with Lord Stephen. In fact it would be more than pleasant. She felt a very wicked spark of pleasure flare inside her.
“I would be very happy to be your mistress,” she whispered, playing with the buttons on his jacket because she was too shy to look him in the eye as she made her declaration, “only my brother must never know. He would not approve. Fortunately he lives in Scotland so if we are discreet he need not find out.”
It was a moment later that she realised that the tremor in Lord Stephen’s chest came from the fact that he was laughing at her.
“I’ve heard about your brother,” Lord Stephen said, “and I would not wish to get on the wrong side of him. I am afraid it is out of the question.”
So that was that. She had been mistaken. He did not find her in the least attractive and had no desire to bed her. She would have to find another way to raise funds. Chessie felt quite downcast. She was also starting to realise that she had taken quite a lot of the mulled wine and would probably have a headache and quite a lot of regrets in the morning.
“This is what we are going to do,” Lord Stephen said softly. “Since I cannot invite you to stay with me at Midwinter Manor without ruining your reputation, I am going to pay for you to stay here until the coaches to London resume next week. I will come to see you each day, very formally and very properly. Then when you return to London I will come to call on you, very formally and very properly. And in a little while I will make you a very formal and proper offer of marriage.”
“Oh!” Chessie said. “But-”
“I have been in love with you for years,” Lord Stephen said, and suddenly his arms were about her very tightly. “I left London when you chose Fitz rather than me. I’ve stayed away ever since. I only came to Midwinter for Christmas in the hope of seeing you. I knew it was too soon-”
Chessie pressed her fingers to his lips. “It’s not too soon,” she whispered. “I loved you too but I was foolish; I valued Fitz’s fortune and title too highly and learned too late that other qualities are of far greater worth.” She smiled radiantly. “You rescued me from frozen feet and starvation on Christmas Eve, Stephen. A lady could not ask for more from her hero.”