A Christmas novella in Snowbound Surrender, a trio of stories with Christine Merrill and Laura Martin.
A lady in disgrace, the rake who she blames for it – and snowdrifts that trap them together for a Christmas that promises to be very awkward indeed.
Can a cat with attitude, the arrival of a baby next door and well-meaning, interfering, neighbours turn a disaster into something else entirely?
23rd December 1819. The Chiltern Hills, Hertfordshire
‘Ouch!’ Julia Chancellor sucked her thumb and frowned at the additional bead of red now decorating the holly wreath. ‘That carriage door slamming out there made me jump, Fred. Who could be foolish enough to try driving anywhere in this weather, let alone up here? The Falconer ladies must have a very determined guest and one who has overshot their house, at that.’
Fred, fat, fluffy and ginger, merely glowered from his post on the bottom step of the stairs. He did not approve of snow, even a light dusting, and snow a foot or more deep he considered a personal affront. He thumped down onto the hall floor and stalked off towards the kitchen, tail erect except for a right-angled kink at the end. ‘Mrreow.’
‘It is snowing out at the back as well, you know, you daft cat. Oh, bother this wreath.’ Julia fiddled a length of twine through the back at the cost of two more punctures and held up the result in triumph. ‘There, just this to fix and I’ll make tea. Not that anyone is going to be passing to see it in this weather.’
She reached for the door handle at the same moment as the knocker rattled out a sharp staccato and she juggled the prickly wreath and a pair of scissors as she opened the door, expecting to find a lost and shivering coach driver needing directions.
Standing on the top step was a tall, handsome, dark-haired man. His hat was a thing of beauty, his boots gleamed. In between the two was nothing except naked man. Rather a lot of naked man. He flung his arms wide, presumably just in case she missed any of what was on display. ‘Surprise!’
A gasp filled her lungs with freezing air, her eyes streamed, but not before she dragged her appalled gaze up from muscular, hairy, goose-bumped male skin to the man’s face. ‘You.’
Her straight-armed shove caught him squarely on the chest with the holly wreath and Giles Darrowby, Viscount Missenden, fell backwards into the snow with a yelp of pain.
Julia slammed the door and leaned against it defensively. That man. She had not seen him for almost two years. She had never seen him before without his clothing – Thank heavens – but that was unmistakably the man who had abandoned her in the middle of a scandal that had ruined her, wrecked her come-out and sent her into exile in deepest rural Hertfordshire. That deceptively innocent, charming smile was burned into her memory. Let him try and smile through frostbite.
He was audible through the thickness of a door designed to stand up to the worst the weather could throw at it, although fortunately she could not make out exactly what he was saying.
Surprise? I’ll give him surprise, she thought grimly, her fingers fastening around the key that jutted from the lock. Then the sharp, thin draught through the lock gave her pause. If the Viscount stayed out there he would die, clothes or no clothes, and loathe him as she might, she was not going to have a man’s death on her conscience.
Julia went into the front parlour, pulled the knitted throw from the back of the sofa and opened the front door again. She had not been hallucinating and the small glass of sherry she had sipped while she was stirring cake mixture had not gone to her head. Even in the evening gloom she could see that the considerable length of Viscount Missenden was sprawled in the snow, already receiving a light dusting of flakes that lay decoratively on his hairy chest and muscular thighs and… everywhere.
He had tossed aside the wreath and, when the light from the hall flooded across him, he moved his hat rapidly to groin level.
Somewhat too late, Julia thought grimly. I am never going to get that image out of my mind now.
‘Get out of the snow, put this on and come in before you die in my front garden and ruin the view.’ She turned, adding over her shoulder as she hooked the blanket over the handle, ‘And hang the wreath on the front door as you come, my lord.’