Snowbound Wedding Wishes: An Earl Beneath the Mistletoe / Twelfth Night Proposal / Christmas at Oakhurst Manor (Harlequin Historical Series #1111)by Louise Allen, Lucy Ashford, Joanna Fulford
Three Regency Christmases to remember
An Earl Beneath the Mistletoe by Louise Allen
Hugo, Earl of Burnham, hates Christmas! Snowbound in widow Emilia Weston's cozy alehouse, with her young twins, he's surrounded by festive preparations. Hugo's cynical heart is in danger of being melted . How much longer can he avoid the/i>/i>… See more details below
Three Regency Christmases to remember
An Earl Beneath the Mistletoe by Louise Allen
Hugo, Earl of Burnham, hates Christmas! Snowbound in widow Emilia Weston's cozy alehouse, with her young twins, he's surrounded by festive preparations. Hugo's cynical heart is in danger of being melted . How much longer can he avoid the mistletoe?
Twelfth Night Proposal by Lucy Ashford
Leaving London to claim his newly inherited estate, Theo Dalbury finds remote Derbyshire as foreign to him as his feelings for country girl Jenna. Christmas evokes painful memories for him, but Jenna is bringing out his festive spirit and will give him a yuletide that he'll never forget!
Christmas at Oakhurst Manor by Joanna Fulford
Vivien Hastings is looking forward to a quiet Christmas at Oakhurst Manor, until she realizes she'll be sharing it with Max Calderwood. It's been years since he broke her heart, but one hot glance from his cool gray eyes shows her that she's just as vulnerable to him as she ever was .
Read an Excerpt
18th December 1814the Chiltern Hills, Hertfordshire
'You have to agree, Ajax, that it would be unpleasantly ironic to survive five years of being shot at, blown up and starved in the Peninsula to die of exposure in some Hertfordshire valley.'
The big grey flicked one ear back and carried on plodding through the driving rain. An intelligent animal, he probably thought it was not so much ironic as foolish.
'Rodgerson's directions were clear enough.' Hugo kept talking as he scanned the sides of the valley for any glimmer of light. He was beginning to shiver and feel sleepy and neither was good, not when he'd been riding since daybreak. He was soaked through to the skin despite the oiled wool cloak that had seen him over the Pyrenees in winter on one occasion. 'That cross-country cut to get us on to the Northampton road without having to go out to Aylesbury would have saved hours.'
But a bridge had been down and then a road flooded and he had turned north in the fading twilight, using his pocket compass and a sodden and tattered route map. They must have gone clear between Berkhamsted and Hemel Hempstead, either of which would have provided a comfortable inn for the night. Instinct told him he was heading north-west now, which should be correct, but it was pitch-dark, his tinderbox was damp and the low cloud obscured the stars. Every yokel for miles around seemed to have vanished into their dwellingswherever those were hidden. He couldn't blame them, he'd settle for a flea-infested hovel himself, if one presented itself.
'First cover, we're taking it.' Ajax did not bother to flick an ear that time. The horse was big and tough, but both of them were out of practice at being quite this cold and wet. 'This will teach me to underestimate the terrain,' Hugo muttered. And it would teach him to be antisocial and avoid invitations as well. He could be putting on a cheerful face in the midst of some jolly family gathering preparing for Christmas, right this minute.
Hunching his shoulders sent a fresh trickle of icy water down his neck from the brim of his hat as he narrowed his eyes against the rain. Hordes of children, irascible great-aunts, flirtatious young ladies, too much rich food, charades possibly dying of exposure was preferable after all.
They were in a shallow valley. To his right was a river and what he assumed were water meadows, now impersonating a lake. To his left rough grazing sloped up into scattered trees and scrub. Someone, surely, must live in this landscape? Would the trees thicken up and offer any more shelter?
There. Ahead and to the left, a flicker of brilliance like a star, only too low and too yellow to be anything but a man-made light. He turned Ajax's head towards it and almost immediately the squelch of hooves into waterlogged earth became the splash and crunch of metal shoes hitting the stones of a rough, potholed track.
As they came closer he could see the shapes of huddled hovels and small cottages higher up the slope. They seemed to be in darkness, but the light shone steadily from an unshuttered window in the slightly bigger building nearest the track, a beacon to guide him in. Against the sky he could just make out the jut of a pole above the door with a battered tangle of twigs thrashing in the wind at the end of it. 'An ale pole, Ajax. There will be something for me to drink, at least.'
The ground came up to meet him with a force that jarred his tired legs as he slid out of the saddle in front of the entrance and he steadied himself with a hand on the pommel while he thudded on the panels with his other fist.
No reply. Damn it, he would break in if he had to and pay for the damage afterwards.
The door swung open spilling light and heat into the rain. Hugo blinked against it, looked down to meet the concerned gaze of the woman holding the door open and said the first thing that came into his head. 'You are as wet as I am.'
Hell, she'll think she's facing a lunatic. But it was true. Wide hazel eyes smiled up at him out of a freckled face that was rosy with damp heat. Brown curls stuck to her forehead and cheeks, her sleeves were rolled up to reveal hands and forearms that dripped water and her wide white apron was soaked and glued to her skirts.
'But not as cold, I will wager,' she said with a laugh in her voice, turning to call over her shoulder, 'Boys! Quickly. Come in,' she added, 'Before you drown. You will not be going any further tonight, that is for certain.'
'My horse, ma'am. Can I get him under cover?' Ajax stuck a wet muzzle forwards as though to emphasise the point as two boys erupted out of the inner doorway.
'Mama?' They skidded to a halt at her side and regarded him with avid curiosity, revealing themselves to be virtually identical twins.
'Nathan, Joseph, where are your manners? Help this gentleman stable his horse and then bring him inside. You will excuse me,' she added with a dazzling smile that made him blink even as it sent a surge of hot blood through his chilled body. 'I am sparging the mash and one just cannot leave it. I will be back presently.'
'Sparging? Of course you are. Yes.' Bemused, Hugo regarded her retreating back. She had delivered that airy speech with the same toneand accentas any lady explaining to a guest why she must leave him for a short while. What sort of ale house was this? Her hair was coming down, but the exposed skin of her nape was white and soft and her hips swayed enticingly as she walked away from him. Soft, warm, delicious.
'Good evening, sir.' He yanked his wandering attention back. 'If you go to that door, we'll bring a lantern the inside way.' The boy with the fewer freckles on his cheeks pointed to a stable door.
Nathan, that one, Hugo thought, recalling the quick glances each had thrown their mother when she had said their names. And Joseph's ears stuck out rather more and his eyes were a darker hazel. Hugo walked into the warmth and smell of stabled beasts and the blissful relief of getting out of the insistent rain.
There was a stall in front of them, empty except for Joseph scattering straw on the stone. Nathan ducked out of the next stall with a stuffed hay net bouncing behind him. 'I've stolen Sorrowful's,' he said, 'but I've left him a pile on the floor. He won't mind.'
'Are you certain?' Hugo looked at the smallest, gloomiest donkey he had ever seen. It gazed mournfully back.
'He always looks like that, sir.' Nathan climbed on a bucket to hook up the net. 'That's a big horse. Are you in the army?'
How old were they? Six, seven? He wasn't used to children younger than the wet-behind-the ears subalterns they'd send him to make his life hell, but these looked as bright as buttons, the pair of them. 'I was. Cavalry. I'm selling out now.'
He heaved off the saddle and the saddle bags and slung them over the stall divider. The boys stared wide-eyed at the big sabre and the holsters. 'And those are not, under any circumstances, to be touched,' he added as he took off the bridle. How do you talk to children this age? He decided the tone he used to the subalterns would have to do.
'No, sir.' They took a step back in unison.
'Are you a general, sir?' the least-freckled one asked.
'Major, Nathan. Can you fill that bucket with water, please?'
The boy's eyes opened in awe at this magic knowledge of his name. 'Yes, Major.' He picked up the bucket and ran, colliding with his brother who staggered up with a bucket full of what looked like lumpy brown-and-white porridge.
'Culm and used mash, Major. That'll perk him up.'
'His name's Ajax. Thank you.' He took the bucket from Joseph and tipped it into the manger. From the smell of it the mixture was something to do with brewing. He just hoped he wouldn't end up with a drunk horse. Ajax put his head in and began munching. On the other side a brown cow stuck her head over the barrier.
'That's Eugenia,' Joseph confided. He copied Hugo, who had twisted a handful of straw tight into a knot and was rubbing the horse down. The lad dived confidently under the stallion's belly and began to scrub at his muddy legs. A couple of hens fluttered up to the manger and began to peck at the feed.
'This is a veritable Noah's Ark. What else have you got in here?'
Nathan clanked back with the water, only a third of which had been spilled. 'Four rabbits, a dozen chickens, Sorrowful and Eugenia. Maud and her litter are in the pigsty. We haven't got a horse. Mama sold Papa's horse, but she had to, to get the animals we needed.' The boy spoke briskly, but his voice was tight.
Ajax's skin felt warm now. He'd do for now if Hugo could find some sort of rug for him. 'Is your father dead?' There was a subdued yes from knee level where both boys were hard at work.
Hugo frowned. Perhaps he shouldn't have put it so bluntly. The realisation that the man of the house wouldn't be arriving at any moment made the whole situation awkward. Normally he would not have thought twice about spending the night under the roof of some lusty country alewife, but that warm, wet, laughing lady was something else altogether. 'Got an old rug for Ajax's back?'
'Sacks,' Nathan offered. 'We've got heaps of them.' He dived into a dusty corner and dragged some out, then both of them regarded the knife Hugo pulled out of his boot with close attention.
'And that is not for touching, either.' Hugo slit a dozen sacks and covered Ajax's back, two deep.
'No, Major,' they chorused, then took the lantern and led the way to an inner door that opened on to the room Hugo had first glimpsed.
He followed with his gear and realised he was in the public taproom of the ale house. Benches and tables lined the walls, barrels rested on stands along the back next to a rack of tankards and there was a fire in a wide hearth. The twins went to throw on more logs and Hugo laid his sabre and the holsters on the high mantelshelf, out of sight from boy-height.
'Is your horse settled, sir?' The alewife came up steps in the corner from what must be the cellar. Her face was dry, her hair twisted up into a white towel which, with the vast, fresh white apron she had put on, and her sleeves rolled down again, gave her a curiously nun-like appearance.
And then she came fully into the room and smiled at him and all thoughts about nuns vanished. As did cold, hunger and the discomfort of wet clothing. 'Excellently, thank you, ma'am.' She was not a beauty, but with her smile the sun came out and a heat, nothing to do with sunlight, flowed through his blood again. 'Your sons have been most helpful.'
'The gentleman's a major, Mama,' Joseph reported.
'Indeed? And does the major have any dry clothing?'
Hugo laid the saddlebags on the table and investigated. 'One slightly damp shirt.' There were clean drawers as well and, wrapped in the shirt, they had stayed dry. 'Dry, er, un-derthings.' Hugo draped his dripping cloak over a couple of chairs where it started to create a small pond on her well-brushed flagged floor. Under it he still wore his uniform, sodden, glued to his body by water.
'Goodness, you are wet.' She appraised him quite openly with as little self-consciousness as she might one of her boys. His body responded predictably. 'And large. None of my late husband's things will do, but luckily Peter Bavin who helps out here leaves a set of clothes in case he gets drenched when we're working. Those will fit, I imagine, if you have no objection to homespun?'
'No, ma'am, thank you.' Anything other than being draped Roman-style in a blanket in her presence would be acceptable. He catalogued brown hair escaping already from the turban, freckles across a slightly tip-tilted nose, a determined little chin and wide hazel eyes that seemed to reflect every thought and emotion. And surely she was too young to be the mother of these boys? What was she? Twenty-five, six?
'There is still hot water in the copper downstairs and a tub, Major. I have put soap and some towels beside it. Supper will be almost ready when you are done. We can make a bed up for you here in front of the fire.'
'I am being an unconscionable trouble to you, ma'am. I can dry off in the stable and eat out there. Spend the night there, too.' The atmosphere of this little family felt so warm and close, so alien to his own experience of home life, that he felt awkwardly like an intruder, which was unsettling. As though his hostess was not unsettling enough.
'Indeed, you could sleep in the stable,' she agreed cheerfully. 'And you will probably catch pneumonia and die on me and that would really be a nuisance.' When he opened his mouth to protest that he had no intention of doing any such thing, she just laughed. 'I am teasing you, Major. We would be glad of your company, would we not, boys?'
Women did not tease Major Hugo Travers, Earl of Burnham. They made eyes at him on a regular basis, and he could deal with that tactfully when he did not want what the fluttering eyelashes and bold suggestions offered. This one had obviously not thought through the implications of his presence and it was his duty to point it out to her. It would be helpful if his thawing, dripping, body was not expressing an interest in making those hazel eyes sparkle even more or wondering what that generous mouth would feel like pressed against his.
'Ma'am, I gather that you are alone here, with the exception of your sons. Under the circumstances ' It was difficult to find the right way to put it with two lads listening to every word.
'Are you afraid that your rest will be disturbed by these two hellions?' The concern in her voice was at odds with the quizzical smile on her lips. She obviously understood exactly what his scruples were about and chose to ignore them. Those candid eyes challenged him to argue. 'I can turn the key in the lock if that will set your mind at rest?'
'Of course, thank you.' He could hardly pursue the subject, not with the boys watching him wide-eyed. 'My name is Hugo Travers. Major.' No need for the title.
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