Read an Excerpt
Once Upon a Christmas Kiss
By Manda Collins
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2014 Manda Collins
All rights reserved.
Christmas had never been one of his favorite holidays, Sir Lucien Blakewell mused as he gazed out the carriage window at the snow-covered poplar trees lining the drive to his cousin Jeremy, Lord Hurst's, country house.
For one thing, it took place during the dreariest month of the year (though he did think January was quite close in the running) and, for another, it always seemed to fall short. When he was a child he'd looked forward to sweets and gifts, but once he'd become an adult there didn't seem to be much about the holidays to recommend them. In town it was just an excuse to overindulge, and in the country — especially in Yorkshire — it was often too dashed cold to leave the house.
Not that he had anything against being indoors. There were any number of indoor activities he enjoyed. It was just that most of them did not involve idle chatter in the drawing room.
Indeed, he'd spent many a happy afternoon ensconced in the music room at his country estate composing short pieces for his own amusement, the only sound his occasional humming or the playing of a few bars over and over until he was quite sure anyone listening would have run mad.
No, he preferred to spend the holidays in his own home, where he could do as he wished without fear of offending his hostess. Where he could wander over to Trevor's house for a game of cards or a bout of fisticuffs or a ride over the estate (weather permitting). It was a pattern he and Trevor, Duke of Ormond, had established long ago, and it seemed they'd go on like that for years to come.
This year, however, was different.
His friend and neighbor, the Duke of Ormond — Lucien's companion for many of his athletic pursuits — had wed recently, and as such had suddenly become unavailable for fencing and boxing and the like. The newlyweds had invited Lucien to partake of the holidays with them and the duke's younger sisters, and the invitation was tempting. But — if he were truly honest with himself — he'd decided to accept Jeremy's invitation only when he learned that a certain lovely governess would be away for the holidays.
He could hardly have predicted it, given how stiff-rumped the woman had seemed when they were first introduced, but over the last few months he and Miss Winifred Nightingale — or Winnie as she had given him leave to call her — had developed a friendship of sorts.
If he'd come to think of her as something more than a friend, well, there was time enough to do something about that. It had been some fifteen years since he'd proposed marriage to a woman. And since, through no fault of his own, the last time had gone so abysmally, he was perfectly content to be sure of things before he embarked upon such a task again.
Besides, she had gone to spend the holidays with her family not long after he sent his acceptance to Jem. But once the holidays were over ...
"We are so pleased that you accepted our invitation, Sir Lucien," Lady Helen said, breaking into his reverie, a pretty smile on her handsome face. "After so many years of having you cry off," she continued, with mock severity, "I was quite shocked when you said you would come this year."
Lucien and Jeremy bore a striking resemblance to one another, both with the dark hair and blue eyes of the Chases, their mothers' family. But, while Jem was short and solidly built, Lucien was tall and rangy, his muscles honed with years of fencing and riding the acres of his estate. Even so, it was apparent to anyone upon first seeing the two together that they were related.
"I daresay he has finally had enough of the bachelor life," Jem said, clapping his cousin on the back jovially. Then in a more serious tone he added, "About time you put all that business in Brighton behind you, old chap."
"My lord," Lady Helen chided her husband, "your cousin will climb back into his carriage and leave, if you do not hold your tongue." To Lucien, taking his hands in hers, she added, "I hope you will forgive him and agree to stay, Sir Lucien, for I promise you that we have a very pleasant holiday planned."
But Lucien was used to Jeremy's plain speaking — it was one of the reasons he'd been so reluctant to come. He was quite able to recall his own past mistakes without being reminded of them by family. That was what his aunts were for, and he saw them only when absolutely necessary.
"Never fear, my lady," he told Helen as he kissed her cheek. "The weather is far too inclement for me to retrace my drive. So it would appear that you are stuck with me for the time being."
"I'd hardly call your company a hardship," Helen said with a laugh. "And you will enjoy yourself, I promise."
"Sorry, old fellow," Jeremy said, cuffing Lucien on the shoulder. "Forgot I'd promised not to bring it up. But I meant what I said about marriage." He grinned. "We've got quite a few lovely ladies in attendance. Quit a few."
Though he knew Jeremy meant well, Lucien wished most heartily that his cousin would leave off thinking about his love life.
Aloud he said, "Thank you both for your hospitality. I'm sure I shall have a delightful time making the acquaintance of these lovely ladies. Though I do wish, Jem, that you would listen more to your lady wife."
Far from being insulted, his cousin laughed as he and Helen led Lucien into the house.
"I've put him in the Blue Room, Jeremy," Helen said before excusing herself to handle some housekeeping matter.
Alone with his cousin, Lucien asked, "How many are you expecting this year? I know you usually like to keep the numbers small for holiday parties." He hoped there were enough other gentlemen in attendance to keep him from the ignominy of being the only bachelor presented to a bevy of single ladies. He was perhaps cynical about these things, but he did know that his wealth, coupled with his baronetcy, would draw the attention of most matchmaking mamas. And he had someone else in mind for the role of wife.
"You know me too well," Jem said with a wry smile. "I've never known why people insist on filling their houses to the rafters at Christmas. Much better to have a small group that can actually talk with one another."
Lucien agreed. Not just about Christmas house parties, but house parties. Making idle chatter was so tiresome, especially with someone you were unlikely to see again from one night to the next.
"We will be a party of fourteen, including Helen and me." As they reached the first landing, Jeremy frowned. "I don't mind telling you, since you know how loathe you've been these last few years to attend, we had to invite both our local schoolmistress and her sister so that the numbers would be even."
Despite himself, Lucien felt a pang of guilt. Had his refusals become so routine that his cousins actually found his acceptance extraordinary? "My apologies, old man," he said with genuine remorse. "If I'd known accepting this year would upset the applecart, I'd not have done it."
"Not at all," Jem said pounding him on the back. "Helen was beside herself with joy when we received your note. I think she had begun to give up on you completely. You know how she loves to have the family together for the holidays. And this year especially."
Noting the cat-that-licked-the-cream expression on his cousin's face, he grinned. "You old devil! Congratulations!"
Jeremy broke into a grin. "Thanks, old fellow. I don't mind telling you that we were beginning to despair of ever having children. So this is a very special Christmas for us, indeed."
By this time they had reached the Blue Room, and once Lucien had congratulated him again, Jeremy took himself off to greet other guests as they arrived.
Lucien had just stepped into the large, well-apportioned room, when he recalled that he had neglected to ask at what hour dinner would be served. He knew country hours meant early, but it could vary from house to house.
He hurried out of the room, hoping to catch Jem before he made it back downstairs, but instead of finding his cousin he almost knocked down a lady who had the misfortune to be walking past at just that moment.
"Oh, I say!" Lucien reached out an instinctive hand to stop the woman from taking a tumble. "I'm terribly sorry."
When he looked down to see her expression, however, speech became impossible.
For a fleeting moment, Lucien wondered if she'd been brought here as some sort of fulfillment of his dearest Christmas wish, but her shock on seeing him soon disabused him of that notion.
"Sir Lucien," Winnie gasped, clearly as surprised to see him as he was to see her. "I did not expect to meet you here."
That made two of them.
Fate, you old bastard, mayhap you've got a romantic streak after all.
Feeling lighter of heart than he had since leaving Yorkshire, Lucien smiled. "Miss Nightingale, what a pleasant surprise."
* * *
"A house party? But I thought we'd be spending the holiday here." Miss Winifred Nightingale knew she sounded like a disappointed child, but she couldn't help it. It had been years since she and her sister Cordelia, a village schoolmistress, had been able to spend a holiday together, and if she were completely honest, she'd been looking forward to a bit of indolence as well.
Christmas at the home of Lord and Lady Hurst would mean mixing with a class of people who would spend the entire holiday looking down their noses at the Nightingale sisters. And it would also mean that Cordelia would try her best to throw Winnie in the path of eligible gentlemen. As the elder sister, Cordelia had always taken her role as protector seriously, which meant attempting to ensure Winnie had some security for the future — no matter how Winnie protested.
Their parents had died when both girls were in their late teens, and with no near relatives to take them in, they had found themselves in need of work. Both were well educated thanks to the diligent efforts of their father, a country vicar whose years at Cambridge had given him a thirst for knowledge and an aptitude for instruction. Thus Cordelia had found a position as schoolmistress in the town of Little Sanditon, while Winnie had been hired as governess to one of the local families.
While Cordelia had maintained her position for nearly five years, the unwanted attention Winnie's looks had garnered her from the men of the households that employed her had forced her to leave three so far. Her last, fortunately, was with the Duke of Ormond, who was not only newly married and thus unlikely to stray, but was also too much of a gentleman to importune a female under his protection. She only wished more gentlemen were so noble.
Even so, when the duke and duchess had informed her that she might visit family for the holidays, she had readily accepted the offer.
"I know, dearest," Cordelia said, fastening the clasp of her bag. "But with the Hursts we'll be able to enjoy ourselves without the bother of doing for ourselves. And I don't know about you, but I would like very much to spend the week in a household with a coal fire in every chamber."
Now that she mentioned it, Winnie realized, it was rather chilly in Cordy's little cottage. And with a pang of remorse, she also realized that she'd come to take the benefits of employment in a ducal household for granted. She was accustomed to meals cooked by a chef and having a library at her disposal; Cordelia was not.
Winnie had even brought several gowns along with her that had been crafted by a French modiste for the Duchess of Ormond, who had kindly given them to the governess when pregnancy had made it impossible for her to wear them any longer. At least, Winnie thought wryly, the Nightingale sisters would have fine feathers for their stay among the peacocks.
"We'll have such fun, Winnie," her sister said, hugging her. "It will be like the old days before Mama and Papa died."
Winnie didn't bother pointing out to her sister than even when their parents had been alive they had never been invited to the sort of house party they were likely to find at the Hursts. And to her own surprise, she found herself growing, if not as enthusiastic as Cordy about the possibilities of the house party, then at least more sanguine.
Once they had arrived, however, she had found all her expectations had proved correct. Though Lord and Lady Hurst had welcomed them with warmth, Cordelia and Winifred were given two small rooms facing the kitchen garden in the East Wing. True, they were actual guest rooms rather than servants' quarters as Winnie had feared, but she knew well enough that the Hursts wouldn't have dreamed of placing any of their other guests in such tiny chambers.
Even so, the rooms were quite prettily furnished, and to her surprise, Lady Hurst had assigned them their own maid — to be shared between them. It was a luxury Winnie had never been afforded before, and which frankly made her nervous. She was well acquainted with the way that servants viewed the people they served, and she suspected that the maid, Mary, found both Winnie and Cordelia pitiable because of their low status and perhaps even resented them for it. Even so, since Cordelia was thrilled by the notion, Winnie did not voice her concerns aloud.
Lady Hurst had told them that they might rest a while before dinner, and Cordelia, having taken one look at the comfortable bed in her own room, was determined to do just that. Winnie, however, was not used to having free time during the day, and closing her chamber door behind her, stepped out into the hallway in search of the library, which Lady Hurst had informed her was in the main wing of the house. She had nearly reached the staircase when a gentleman burst forth from one of the bedchambers along the hall, nearly knocking her down.
"Oh, I say," he gasped, gripping her by the upper arms, which in her surprise made Winnie flinch. "I'm terribly sorry." But almost as soon as he grabbed her, he let go.
She could never say after that just what it was about the man that was familiar to her. It might have been his height, or the way he held himself, or even his clean scent of sandalwood mixed with man, but she knew from the moment he touched her just who he was. "Sir Lucien," she said, her voice sounding breathless to her own ears. "I did not expect to meet you here."
If he was shocked to see her, he did not show it. Instead, he bowed with his customary aplomb until he spoiled the effect by grinning. "Miss Nightingale. What a pleasant surprise."
At his obvious pleasure on seeing her, Winnie felt her heart beat faster. "You are a guest for the holidays, too?" she asked, wondering where the easy familiarity they'd enjoyed in Yorkshire had gone.
"I am, indeed," Sir Lucien said with an easy charm that never failed to make Winnie melt a little. "Lord Hurst is my cousin, and I've been invited to spend Christmas holidays. It is a long-standing invitation, but I've never accepted until this year. How pleased I am that I finally did."
As friend and neighbor to Winnie's employer, Sir Lucien ran tame in the Duke of Ormond's household, and not long after she accepted her position there she realized that it would be impossible for her to avoid the man, even if she wished to. And to her shame, she very quickly realized that she did not wish to. Not only was he handsome, which even Winnie found herself susceptible to upon occasion, he was also witty and charming and kind. Despite her best efforts to keep him at arms' length, the two developed a friendship. And, as her employers did not appear to object, Winnie had allowed it as her one indulgence in an otherwise carefully ordered life.
But a country friendship far from the prying eyes of Sir Lucien's friends and relations was one thing. They might technically be guests under the same roof now, Winnie reflected as she stood before him, but that hardly meant that she'd been elevated to his social equal.
She was, regretfully, about to bid him good day and excuse herself when he tilted his head to the side and snapped his fingers. "Of course! The schoolteacher my cousin told me about is your sister. You've told me about your sister before, but I forgot until this very moment. And you're the governess he spoke of." At her nod, he continued, "I admit that when he first told me, I imagined a pair of dried up old prunes. It's been that long since I thought of you as a governess. And if your sister is anything like you, then she's as far as I'd expect from a schoolteacher as I could imagine."
It might be easy for him to forget about her profession, Winnie reflected wryly, but she was not so lucky — an indication that perhaps she'd better keep to herself for the duration of their stay here, no matter how flattering his compliments might be.
"You said nothing of holiday travels when last we spoke," Lucien went on, blithely unaware of her thoughts. "Not that you are required to inform me of your every plan, of course. If I'd known you were coming this way, though, I might have offered you a seat in my carriage."
Excerpted from Once Upon a Christmas Kiss by Manda Collins. Copyright © 2014 Manda Collins. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.