She rescued him from a snowdrift – now he may thaw her heart.
On a Winter’s Eve is part of a heart-warming collection of Regency Christmas novellas – Once Upon a Regency Christmas.
Lady Julia Chalcott had been full of romantic nostalgia when she returned to England from India as a wealthy widow only to find it cold, lonely and full of fortune hunters. Even so it was a mistake to flee with her lovely step-daughter to Norfolk just before Christmas to the house she had never seen. On the way she takes up Captain Giles Markham, stranded on foot in a blizzard – and with him the turkey he has rescued from a snowdrift.
Trapped in a bleak old house by the weather Julia finds Giles is a disturbing man to be snowed-in with. He seems far from well-to-do and she has sworn not to entangle herself with any more men who only want her money, but he is also disturbingly attractive. Julia keeps her secrets – and Giles keeps his – until the betrayal of trust seems to shatter the possibility of love for ever.
But this is Christmas and miracles happen – even for turkeys.
‘My lady?’ The coachman leaned round and down to face her, his face red with cold.
‘How much further?’
‘A mile or so, I reckon. The snow makes it difficult to judge distance at this pace.’
‘We will stop at the next inn. Miss Chalcott is becoming very cold.’
‘There’s nothing ahead of us now but Chalcott Manor, my lady. It’s a dead end.’
‘It most certainly is,’ she sighed as he straightened up onto his seat, then leaned back down before she could raise the glass again.
‘My lady, there’s someone on the road in front of us. A man on foot.’
‘In this weather? We had best take him up.’
The man turned as they approached, seeming larger and more monstrous the closer they got. Squinting against the snow Julia could see that the thick white crust covering head and shoulders added to his bulk, but he was also holding some large black object to his chest.
‘You there!’ Thomas hailed him. ‘Are you in difficulties?’
‘Difficulties? Not at all.’ The response was sarcastic, the voice deep and confident. Julia felt her lips twitch. ‘I am unhorsed and lost and have no feeling in my extremities, but otherwise I am enjoying a country stroll.’
‘My lady bids me say that you had best get into the carriage, sir.’
She opened the door, then gasped as the man turned to face her. ‘What on earth is that?’
‘A turkey, ma’am.’ He hitched his burden up further in his arms and a hideous red and blue head on a wrinkled, naked neck poked out from the front of his greatcoat and produced a raucous gobbling cry.
‘It is alive!’
‘Yes, ma’am. I had noticed. Might I enter? The snow is blowing over your rugs and my boots may freeze to the road if I stand still much longer.’
‘If we wrap it in this, you can lift it in.’ Miri, ever practical, held out a rug.
The man looked up from under his snow-laden hat and his jaw dropped, just a fraction.
Most males were rendered dumb for minutes at a time by their first sight of her step-daughter. It was wearily predictable, but she supposed she could not blame them. ‘Get on with it, please, before we are buried in snow.’
The turkey succumbed to the rug after a few seconds of frantic flapping and gobbling, the man heaved it onto the seat and climbed in, slamming the door behind him.
‘Drive on, Thomas.’ Julia yanked up the glass and flapped the snow off her skirts. ‘There is no village ahead, sir.’
‘I was coming to that conclusion. My horse went lame some way back. There was a byre with a herd of cows and fodder, so I left it there, hid the saddle in the rafters and walked in the hope of better shelter.’
‘There is nothing along this road but my house, Chalcott Manor. You are welcome to shelter there until the weather lifts. I am Lady Julia Chalcott. My step-daughter, Miss Chalcott.’
‘Thank you, Lady Julia. Miss Chalcott.’ He managed to look at Miri without actually panting, which raised him a notch in Julia’s estimation. ‘I am Giles Markham, late captain in the 12th Light Dragoons. Is Lord Chalcott at home? He must be anxious with you travelling in this weather.’
‘Sir Humphrey Chalcott is deceased, Captain Markham.’ She saw the question he was too polite to ask. ‘He was a baronet. I am the daughter of an earl and chose to retain my title.’ It was the only thing she had managed to keep from her early life. ‘Why do you have a live turkey, Captain?’
‘I found it in a snowdrift. It’s a very fine Norfolk Bronze, with a label on its leg reading Bulstrode, Leadenhall Market. I assume it escaped from captivity on top of a stagecoach bound for the City of London. Christmas is, after all, only six days away.’ He took off hat and gloves and pushed his hand through his hair which was brown, straight and in dire need of a crop.
Without his hat he should have looked smaller. He did not. Nor any less male and sure of himself. That would be the army, she supposed. A serving officer was unlikely to be a shrinking violet. Although one of those would certainly take up less room. Her skin felt… strange. Julia wanted to shiver even though, quite suddenly, she was not chilled. Odd. Perhaps she was sickening for a cold which would just about put the crown on this disaster of a journey.
What were we talking about? Oh, yes. ‘And the entire point of turkeys at Christmas, Captain, is to be dead. Dead, plucked and roasted. Not shedding feathers all over the interior of my coach.’