Alone with a Rogue on Christmas Eve - Lily Dalton
Lily lives in Texas where she writes looking out over a garden tended by her handsome, big-hearted Tex-Czech husband. She suffers endless (fun and always welcome!) interruptions by her two children. And like many authors, she writes with a cat—or two—wrapped around her legs.
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His Countess Before Christmas
Brought together by tragedy, Christmas Eve magic makes their hearts one...
“Will Lord Creighton be joining us again this year, my dear?” asked the elderly widow, Mrs. Higgins, her eyes bright with interest. She had already removed her cloak and hat, but snowflakes still sparkled in her gray hair, a gift of the December night.
At the mention of the earl, Emily Wilson’s heartbeat jumped, just as it always did when someone mentioned him--but a glance out the window told her she need not fear that his lordship would walk in at any moment and turn her quiet, well-ordered life upside down as he had done for the last three Christmas Eves.
She led Mrs. Higgins into the drawing room, festooned in greenery and warmed by a large fire. A score of guests already gathered there, conversing and drinking punch. “Mother received his reply yesterday indicating that he would indeed be joining us. But just look outside. No doubt the weather will keep him at Astorwick tonight.”
The streets of Rutherfirth were already thickly blanketed, and more snow continued to fall. Emily’s younger brother, Todd, had spent the last hour driving the family carriage to and fro so as to safely convey their more elderly and homebound neighbors to her family’s annual Christmas Eve gathering--a gathering that for the past three years, Lord Creighton had also attended. But again, most certainly the weather would keep him away…
And what a relief that was.
No, she sighed inwardly. What a dreadful disappointment.
But truly, she was relieved. The earl always made her feel so…unsettled and wistful.
It wasn’t his fault though, it was completely hers. She wasn’t a foolish girl. She should never have allowed herself to develop such a deep and heartfelt fascination for a man who only visited once a year--and only out of obligation and kindness at that. A man who, as a son of one of England’s most respected families, would eventually marry far better than a country magistrate’s daughter.
So…yes. It was best that he did not come at all. Best she not see his warm smile, or hear the pleasing timbre of his voice, or imagine that when he looked into her eyes, the moment meant something more.
Mrs. Higgins peered at her over the gold rim of her round spectacles. “Every week when I read the papers from London, I expect to find that he has married at last. When that occurs, I’m certain we truly won’t see him anymore.”
The words felt like a dagger through Emily’s heart, but she had often thought the same thing. In truth, it was why she had stopped reading the social columns altogether.
She put forth the best response she could muster. “A countess would certainly see that he stays at Astorwick to celebrate such special occasions.”
“A countess! Pshaw!” Mrs. Higgins chuckled. “Last month the papers predicted his betrothal to Lady Anne Quentin. Then, a week later they were certain it would be that heiress from Essex. Do you know what I think? I think he is too much a rogue to ever marry. And a handsome rogue at that. Do you think he will ever settle down?”
Lord Creighton, a rogue? She’d heard much the same rumors. But she didn’t want to believe it about him. She supposed that did make her a foolish girl.
Emily cleared her throat, which had grown tight. “I cannot claim to know his lordship’s personal aspirations.”
After all, it wasn’t as if they were friends. Not in the truest sense of the word. Despite his family having an estate outside Rutherfirth, she’d only just met him three years ago--and that introduction had taken place on the darkest day of her life.
It was he who had personally informed the family that her eldest brother William, had died at Waterloo. In the months before his death, William had served as the earl’s aide-de-camp and the two men had become friends. With grief apparent in his own eyes, he had shared the news as gently and eloquently as such news could possibly be shared. He had kindly held her mother as she cried, and had told them stories of William’s bravery that had made them proud.
And then, in true Wilson fashion, her grieving parents had invited the earl to stay for Christmas Eve supper, an invitation he had accepted each year since.
A sudden hush fell over the room.
Mrs. Higgins looked over her shoulder. “Well look. There he is.”
Emily’s pulse tripped, and she turned to see the earl of Creighton kissing her mother’s hand, before straightening to greet her father. How very fine he looked with his dark hair, and youthful Roman features. It was easy to see why all the ladies of the ton would be in such a flutter over him.
And just like that, his head turned, and he looked at her. A warm smile spread across his lips. In that moment, she felt as if everyone else in the room disappeared.
She reminded herself that certainly, he made every woman feel like that.
“Miss Wilson,” he said, walking toward her. “You look lovely tonight, as always. How have you been?” Candlelight reflected off his hair.
“Very well,” she answered, feeling breathless as she always did in his presence. “How good it is to see you.”
She meant the words. Oh, yes. She did.
She couldn’t help it. There was no better feeling than seeing him now. Of standing beside him—and how that frightened her.
So much so that she guided Mrs. Higgins to stand between them. “You remember—”
“Mrs. Higgins,” he answered, looking at the older woman, his eyes warm and friendly. “Of course I do. How could I not, after hearing the story of her dastardly resident rooster last year?” He grinned.
Mrs. Higgins clapped a lace gloved hand over her mouth. “Mr. Rooster! You remember! Oh, yes, my lord. He still guards the garden gate against any and all visitors.”
“What does Mr. Rooster think about all this snow?” he asked.
“The snow does not trouble him one whit!” answered the widow. “He is ever diligent, regardless of the weather as you must be to travel all the way from Astorwick to the village in this weather. Your coachman must have exceptional skills.”
“My coachman? Why no, I came alone, and it was quite a pleasant drive,” he answered, his dark eyes touching on Emily again. “Come, and I’ll show you why.”
He offered them both an elbow, and escorted them to the front of the room.
“Look there,” he said, with a lift of his chin toward the window.
Emily released his arm, and peered outward and Mrs. Higgins did the same.
“A sleigh!” Emily exclaimed. “Why I’ve never actually seen one. Only in paintings.”
“It’s very old,” he said. “I found it packed away in the stables at Astorwick. It hardly ever snows this much, so once it did, I jumped at the chance to use it.”
Mrs. Higgins smiled. “I do believe I recall your grandfather and grandmother coming through the town in it, once, many long years ago.”
“It’s perfect for the season,” Emily said softly.
“I agree.” He considered her from beneath dark eyelashes. “I’d be more than pleased to take you out for a ride.”
Her cheeks flushed at the invitation. Her? Alone with him--her dream that could never come true? No doubt he would be gentlemanly and sweet, out of obligation to her brother’s memory, while she would only fall that much more in love with him. Why torment her heart like that?
The earl looked at her expectantly.
“Oh, Mrs. Higgins,” Emily exclaimed. “Did you hear what the earl has been kind enough to offer? You simply can’t pass up this chance to go for a ride in that beautiful sleigh.”
An hour later, Emily heard the sound of jangling sleigh bells once more and stepped out from the vestibule, bundled in her wool pelisse, scarf and mittens. Snow swirled all around, giving a magical feel to the night. The earl guided the horse as close to the house steps as possible, and her father, the Magistrate Wilson, smiling, rushed down the steps to assist a flush faced and very happy Mrs. Higgins toward the front door.
“Delightful!” the elderly woman exclaimed.
Emily turned toward the house as well, calling to his lordship over her shoulder. “I’ll be back in a moment. I know Mrs. Millsap wanted a ride as well.”
“Ah…Miss Wilson?” he called after her.
She turned. “Yes?”
He stepped down from the sleigh. His cheeks were ruddy, and the wind lifted his scarf from his shoulders. He looked ever so dashing.
He offered a sideways smile. “I’ve already given Mrs. Millsap a ride. Twice, actually.”
Somehow he said this without sounding at all peevish, only good natured as usual.
She nodded, her hand on the balustrade. “I think Todd may have shown an interest. I’ll go and fetch him—”
“Actually,” he said, rather firmly. “I’d like to take you for a ride.”
The bluntness of the words startled her. “Me?”
He stared at her intently. “Yes, you.”
Her heart pounded wildly in her chest. She didn’t want to be alone with him. And yet, there was nothing she wanted more.
Her father said from the door. “Go on, Emily. It’s quite a wonderful experience.”
The Magistrate Wilson knew this because he’d been his lordship’s fourth passenger. Right after her mother. Emily had been very diligent in making sure anyone who wanted a ride in his lordship’s sleigh was not excluded. Anyone to keep her from taking the seat beside him.
She made one last desperate attempt.
“I’m certain his lordship is very tired of giving rides.” She looked at the earl. “Wouldn’t you like to come inside for some hot spiced tea?”
Lord Creighton stepped toward her, extending his gloved hand. “I’m not tired, and no, I don’t wish for tea just yet. I want to give you a Christmas Eve sleigh ride, Miss Wilson.”
Well he’d put her in quite a spot. There was no way to refuse him now without being rude, and there was nothing she despised more than rudeness.
She nodded, and accepted his hand. He guided her up the step into the sleigh, and quickly settled in beside her, tucking several heavy wool blankets around them.
“There, are you comfortable?” he asked smoothly.
“Yes, thank you.”
No, not at all. She looked toward the house and saw her mother and father and Mrs. Higgins watching from the window. She waved, and they all waved back. With a snap of the reins they were off, coursing smoothly over the snow, all through the village, and then into the country. Emily couldn’t deny it—riding in the sleigh was delightful. But riding in the sleigh beside Lord Creighton with snowflakes falling and stars high above, twinkling, was more…
It was magical.
Eventually he pulled the reins, bringing the horses to a stop on a gently sloping hill which to her surprise overlooked Astorwick, whose many windows glowed warmly.
“It’s lovely,” she said. “This has all been very lovely. Thank you for bringing me. For…taking the time.”
“But you’re ready to go back?” he asked in a quiet voice.
She felt so nervous, sitting here with him, sharing a warm blanket in the darkness. Being with him felt so good and natural, and made her so deliriously happy and she would remember the moment always. Which only made her sad because without a doubt the lofty lord beside her only thought of her as his deceased friend William Wilson’s sister, to whom he would always be very kind, but for whom he would never hold any particular attachment—most certainly not a romantic one.
“I wouldn’t want to keep you from the others overly long.”
He exhaled through his nose. “I…must apologize to you then.”
“Apologize? Why?” she replied.
He looked off into the distance, toward Astorwick. “Because I’ve obviously made you uncomfortable by insisting you come for a ride.”
Emily’s throat closed, and her mind scattered. She could think of no appropriate reply.
His strong voice filled the silence. “You’ve avoided me all evening, and I pressed my company on you nonetheless. Is it me you dislike or…is it because of William? Do you think of that terrible day when you see me?”
Emily looked at him in shock. “I don’t dislike you. I just…I just--” Her words trailed away. What did she say without revealing the truth in her heart?
He nodded. “You and I have spent time together, but never alone. At least not for more than a moment or two. I thought it would be...” He cleared his throat. “Nice to talk, without everyone around.”
“It is nice,” she said, with a jerky nod. And it was nice. More than nice.
“William used to read your letters to me. Your stories. Especially the funny parts.”
“He did?” she said. “I didn’t know.”
He chuckled, deep in his throat and nodded. “That’s how I already knew about Mr. Rooster, and how he tore your skirt when you went to pay a call on Miss Higgins, and how you…fell off the dock into the river at Mrs. Hathaway’s summer picnic.” He glanced at her, smiling.
She laughed, embarrassed. “I had no idea. How mortifying.”
“I enjoyed them.” He held the reins loosely in his hands. “Very much so. Indeed, I think that’s when I first fell in love, just a little bit, with William’s charming sister, Miss Emily Wilson.”
“That’s very kind of you to say,” she whispered.
In love with her. They were just words for him. She knew that, and appreciated the thoughtful sentiment.
Yet his expression went serious. “And then…William died, and so many others. Good men, who I respected and called my friends. I returned to England, wondering why I hadn’t as well. And I came here to Rutherfirth and shattered your and your family’s hearts, but I couldn’t simply write a letter, or…allow someone else do it. He had been my friend. My best friend, I think, if I am completely honest.”
“Thank you for saying that,” she said, tears stinging her eyes.
His lips parted. “Afterward, I went back to London, and I tried to go back to the life I had lived before. To take up with the same friends as before. But the war had changed me. I won’t lie…for a time I behaved badly. Recklessly. I think was searching for something. Something I knew I would not find there.” He shifted in his seat, so that he could look more directly at her.
“That’s very understandable,” she answered, wanting to comfort him somehow and hoping her presence somehow did.
He gave a shrug of his shoulder. “As you can imagine, at my age, my parents want me to marry, and to be honest, I want that too. I’m ready. To love someone. To start a family of my own. And I’ve tried to accept my parents’ choices and society’s choices, to make myself care for someone else, but I can’t and I won’t because the truth is--”
He paused, closing his eyes.
“Yes?” she whispered, stunned by the emotion she heard in his voice.
“Because they aren’t her.” Open again, his dark eyes stared into hers. “I’m in love with someone, and I can’t pretend I’m not. Not anymore. She’s someone who isn’t part of that life. Someone who is more genuine and special than all that. Someone who I fully realize may not reciprocate my feelings because as tonight has shown, she will avoid being alone with me at every turn.”
Emily stared at him, her mind refusing to translate his words in any way that made sense.
He gave a rueful laugh. “If you hadn’t realized, Emily, I’m talking about you. I wasn’t just being kind when I said I’d fallen a little bit in love with you through your letters. When I said ‘in love’, I meant in love.” He shook his head, and continued on in a softer voice. “And then when I saw you that day--that worst of days…” He looked up at the sky. “How inappropriate is it that I must confess, I fell completely…wholly…and hopelessly in love with you.”
Snow fell all around them, but she didn’t feel the cold. Only the warmth of his words.
“You…love me?” she whispered.
“Yes,” he answered earnestly. “I know we haven’t spent much time together. And as I said, I understand if you don’t feel the same, if you don’t--”
Emily marveled at him, her eyes wide.
“Tell me what you’re thinking,” he said.
“I do feel the same,” she answered, her heart near bursting from happiness. “I have…from the start.”
He reached for her mittened hands, lifting them against his chest. “You never showed it.”
“I was afraid.”
“Don’t be, ever again.” He leaned closer, his smile consuming his handsome face. “So how do we go about this? I may call on you and court you now?”
She smiled, unable to contain her joy. “Of course—but wait, but your father, the marquess—”
“Took some convincing, but he has given his blessing.”
“And your mother--”
“Cannot wait to meet you.”
“I can’t believe this is happening,” she whispered.
But it is happening,” he said, the corner of his lip turning up.
Touching his fingertips to her cheek, he lowered his head, brushing his lips against hers for an exquisite, extended moment, before moving them more firmly and ardently against hers.
For the first time she inhaled his scent, and found it so pleasing it warmed her to her toes.
He murmured against her lips. “We could skip the courting and simply announce our engagement.”
“Yes.” Her hands moved, curling in the collar of his coat. “Tonight?”
“Tonight.” He laughed, deep in his throat and kissed her again.
She drew back, looking into his eyes. “You know you’ll have to speak to my father first.”
“About that,” he answered, his smile growing broader. “Would you believe that I already have?”
A Reckless Desire . . .
Lady Clarissa Bevington is in trouble. A reckless indiscretion has left her with two choices: ruin her family with the scandal of the Season, or marry Mr. Kincraig, the notorious scoundrel mistaken as her lover. Desperate and disgraced, Clarissa vows to love and cherish a veritable stranger, a man whose eyes smolder with danger-and undeniable desire . . .
An Unexpected Arrangement
As an agent for the Crown, Lord Donovan Blackmer has spent the last two years guarding Clarissa's grandfather from an unknown assassin while disguised as the rakehell Kincraig. His mission may now be over, but his duty has just begun. Salvaging his beautiful, impetuous wife's virtue will cost him his fortune and his position as an officer-but it might save him from the ghosts that haunt his own past. When their marriage "in name only" leads to exquisite seduction, Donovan must risk the only thing he has left to lose . . . his heart.
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