An Unexpected Guest on Christmas Eve - Gina Conkle
Gina Conkle Gina loves history, books and romance…the perfect recipe for historical romance writer. Her passion for castles and old places (the older and moldier the better!) means interesting family vacations. Good thing her husband and two sons share similar passions, except for romance…that’s where she gets the eye roll. When not visiting fascinating places she can be found delving into the latest adventures in cooking, gardening, and chauffeuring her sons.
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Can a man out run his past?
Stalwart Jonas Bacon will venture to the colonies again. The former man of business (in Meet the Earl at Midnight) must resolve one problem before he severs ties with England forever. His past is behind him…until he tangles with an unexpected Christmas Eve guest who could be the key to his future.
(an upcoming novella in the Midnight Meetings series)
To Steal a Kiss at Midnight
Show me a man caught with his smalls down and I’ll show you a fool.
Jonas stood bare arse naked before a crackling fire, his mouth quirking at the salty wisdom. Water dripped down his skin, but there was no time for a proper dry off from his bath. The room’s curtains stirred though the window was closed.
He slipped on ruby red breeches--- minus his smalls. All his clothes sat in a battered sea chest next to a pair of boots peeking out beneath the curtains.
Boots that weren’t his.
Alertness skimmed his neck. With a casual hand, he reached for his pistol’s familiar walnut grip. Under his lashes he studied the boots, boots on the small side. A lad?
Who would want to ambush him here?
His coming home to Plumtree should be of no consequence…not after ten years gone.
The village and his grandfather’s stone house hadn’t changed much. Humble, quaint, and small. Too small. The cramped walls of his bed chamber loomed, the wooden panels confining him. He didn’t belong here. Not anymore. The sooner he took care of matters with his grandfather, the Captain, the sooner he’d be on his way.
The first order of business was dispatching his unskilled housebreaker.
“I know you’re hiding behind the curtains.” He padded bare foot across the plank floor, air nipping his damp chest. “Show yourself.”
The boots didn’t move. Roars of revelry drifted up from downstairs. Christmas Eve celebrations must be going well. The house burst with fresh pine boughs and spiked cider, the green and spicy scents floating everywhere. This was not a night for ill will.
Frowning, he aimed the business end of his pistol at the curtain. “I’ll count to three.”
The black boots stayed put. He wouldn’t shoot the boy…maybe scare some sense into him. Housebreaking was a serious crime with grisly consequences.
Laughter exploded through the floorboards. Mr. Goodspeak, fine soul that he was, brayed the loudest. Fiddle music played a Yuletide carol in double time, accompanied by stomping and clapping. The Captain must’ve shared his best whiskey, the kind that warmed a man nearly as good as a woman.
He could use a dram right about now.
“One…” His voice boomed.
The curtain bulged, pointing back at him. His shoulders tensed. The lad had a pistol?
Yards of navy wool billowed. Jonas rammed his late night visitor against the wall.
Umph. The lad grunted and something shiny clattered on the floor. A blunderbuss. Jonas kicked the weapon backward and it slammed into his tub. The split second move cost him. White hot pain slammed his toes. He looked down. One of those boots was on top of his foot.
“Enough,” he growled, wrestling the housebreaker.
Cloth ripped overhead. The curtain plunged, covering the fractious lad. Whoops and hollers sang through the house. The Captain and his cronies had to be deep in their cups not to hear this scuffle.
His foot throbbing, Jonas hefted the miscreant in both arms and hop stepped away from the window, the youth kicking and squealing.
He squinted at the cloth-covered face. A gaping mouth pressed the dark wool like a caught fish. The slippery lad seized the moment and fought hard for release. Jonas felt his pistol slip from his hand, and fine Madrid steel hammered his already aching toes.
He stumbled onto the bed, air hissing through clenched teeth. This is what happens to the unready man: his bed shook from the wrong kind of tumble.
“Stop!” he bellowed and planted his frame atop the wriggling body.
Uhhh. Air whooshed from behind the curtain.
Jonas clamped the lad’s arms down, his vision snaring on two mounds shoved into his face. The corner of his mouth twitched as facts registered: he was nose to chest with breasts…a fine pair as breasts go swathed in curtains.
“Please.” A woman’s voice wheezed above his head. “Get off me.”
Between his bulk squishing her and the tangled shroud, she couldn’t be breathing right. He rolled off, keeping his leg on her thighs.
“Ohhh, thank you,” she gasped, clawing the fabric.
“Let me uncover you.”
“So you can shoot me?”
“No.” He grabbed her frantic hands. “So you can breathe easy.”
Downstairs land-locked sailors howled a ditty unfit for tender ears. In his modest room, Jonas sensed the tides change. Waves of firelight danced orange and gold across tangled white bed sheets. The bed stopped creaking. Her body rested against his, warm and quiet. The termagant’s huffs slowed.
“I’m at your mercy.”
His grin came as much from her brave show of trust as the off-key chorus in the drawing room.
“Stay calm,” he murmured and caught a whiff of vinegar.
There was no time to puzzle over the tangy smell. The mystery of an unexpected woman in his room needed answering first. He sought a small hole near her head and yanked hard. Threads snapped, rending the curtain in two. A pretty mouth sucked fresh air and exhaled a blissful sigh.
She smiled at him, a dimple showing itself on the left side of her mouth. “That was awful. Thank you for freeing me.”
The comely, brown-eyed housebreaker lay flat on her back, dressed as a lad in homespun breeches and black hip boots. The green coat she wore flopped open. Her messy spill of long red hair and exquisite breasts ruined the boyish disguise.
Something about her struck a chord, but his gaze snagged on two sweet circles pressing her linen shirt. She wore no corset, no chemise. He’d traveled many places, seen his share of breasts, but never had he been lulled by them. The nymph’s chest rose and fell with the cadence of her breath, the sight striking him speechless.
She snapped her coat shut. “Jonas Bacon Braithwaite,” she said, smirking on the middle moniker. “Welcome home.”
Sin black hair with angelic blue eyes shouldn’t be an earthly possibility. Yet, Jonas wore the combination as though his looks didn’t matter. Plumtree’s rebel son was never quick to charm the ladies; his brother Jacob owned that skill.
But his small gold earring made Olivia bolt upright.
“What’s this?” She tapped the hoop hanging from his ear. “Were you a pirate?”
His head jerked back from the touch, his brows slamming in a terse line. The way Jonas examined her spoke volumes. Of course, she was a girlish fourteen when he last saw her, and he the near full grown man of twenty.
She laughed and braced a hand on his bed. “You don’t remember me.”
The notion pricked her pride. Her chin tipped higher and she smiled, waiting. Jonas searched her face and form, a warm tingle following his blue-eyed study.
“Livy? Livy Halsey?”
“In the flesh.” She eyed his thick chest where black curls sprung. “And you might want to cover some of yours.”
He crossed arms knotted with ample muscles earned by years of hardship in far flung places if the tales she’d heard were true.
“Not yet. Explain yourself. What are you doing in my room at near midnight?” He glanced at the mullioned window. “And how’d you get in here?”
Embers sparked inside her, tickling her skin. Her body wanted to stay put, but her brain cried for distance. Strong and quiet, Jonas was always the calm in any storm, even when he stirred up trouble.
“I came to get something.”
She slid off the mattress, her bottom brushing his bed sheets. The intimate sound teased her. Her hands gripped the ends of her coat, needing something to hold. Their tussle had warmed her to the core…so did the view of him bathing earlier.
He scowled at her. “Don’t play coy. Last I saw you your braids were flying as you galloped away.”
“And last I saw you your lips were stuck to my sister.”
He chuckled and leaned against the bed post. “How is Elspeth?”
Her fingernails dug into her coat. “She’s well. Married and widowed two years ago. She’s here for Twelfth Night festivities.”
His face softened. “Sorry to hear about her loss, but you need to explain yourself.”
Her lips clamped in a firm line. Barks of laughter rang through the house from below stairs. The song was done and so was she. Her feet shifted ready to take her home. She looked to the blunderbuss, firelight gleaming off the brass muzzle. Jonas must’ve read her intent. He was off the bed nimble as a cat.
“Don’t be stubborn, Liv. What about your mother and father? They must be worried.”
“They’re safely abed,” she assured, and tipped her head at the window. “That’s how I got in. I climbed the tree and that’s how I’ll leave.”
“A grown woman climbing trees.”
“Yes,” she said, looking him square in the face. “And I still swim the River Wye.”
Jonas meant to chide her, but his soothing voice made her want to stay. She yearned to curl up in front of the fire and listen to him spin tales of his travels. Being with Jonas had been the best and easiest part of growing up. But, her reckless days with the Braithwaite brothers were a thing of the past.
She had her work and her family’s circumstances to consider. Her course was set. Dallying with a raven-haired adventurer-cum-colonial wasn’t her path. She took quick steps across the room before the night turned into a worse disaster. The blunderbuss would have to be rescued later.
A brawny arm blocked the window.
“I can’t let you do that. You should leave by the front door. It’s safer.”
“I can’t go out the front door,” she cried.
“What? You’re worried about what’s proper?” he asked, flipping open his sea chest. “And you haven’t told me why you’re here. Settling some score with the Captain?”
She held her breath when he searched the chest, but his hurried hands grabbed clothes and shut the lid. This wasn’t about the Captain. This was about him. The stolen piece was tucked safely in the back waistband of her breeches. The truth of what she’d done left unwelcome thickness in her throat. She had to look away.
“I’ll…I’ll tell you before Twelfth Night ends. I promise.” Her voice was strained. “Let me leave quietly. Consider it a favor to an old friend.”
When she faced him again, his deep blue stare fixed on her, penetrating as a vivid summer sky. Oh, he saw right through her and knew she spoke a falsehood. Even if he didn’t know exactly what she’d done, he was going to let her get away with it.
Jonas nodded slowly, his mouth turning in a half-smile. “It’ll cost you.”
“You can count on me to pay my debts.”
She swallowed the lump in her throat. The surprise was how much she still cared for him, the unexplainable depth beyond friendship and girlish infatuation; their lives entwined from years of scrapes and merriment. Time hadn’t diminished that bond.
Jonas pulled a snowy cambric shirt over his head seemingly oblivious to the storm he caused in her. She stood, mesmerized by the oddity of watching him dress. Catching him at his bath was strange enough. An awful twinge sunk in her stomach: perhaps he’s grown comfortable dressing in the company of a woman.
“You’ll want to take that home.” Jonas tipped his head at the blunderbuss, his fingers flying over a row of pearled buttons on his black silk waistcoat.
She retrieved the weapon and held it up by the barrel. “I brought it in case I ran into one of the Captain’s friends…a woman’s precaution if you will.” Her voice quieted. “I’m sorry I pointed it at you and for stomping your foot. That was an accident.”
He slipped on a well-traveled boot and graced her with a beautiful smile. “You’re forgiven.”
Between his smile and the dimly lit room, her legs refused to move; someone could’ve tied them together.
“My friendship is true as it ever was, Livy. If you need something…”
His words trailed off, hanging between them as good as a sailor’s life-line. She could grab his offer and tell him everything. For what purpose? Plumtree gossip claimed he’d be gone when Twelfth Night ended. His unpacked sea chest confirmed the news.
She willed herself to his window and unlatched the narrow panel. Christmas Eve bathed her face with cold air.
“Thank you for that and for understanding about this.” She waggled her fingers at the ancient oak tree.
“We’ve shared worse scrapes. Why not share one more?” He put on a red velvet coat, watching her with pensive eyes.
His finery looked new and out of place, but his steadfast character was unchanged. She was certain he extended another invitation to spill her troubles. A man chasing down his next adventure couldn’t help her; she needed someone to stay.
Her leg hooked over the window ledge, and she deflected him with a quip. “Dashing attire for a pirate.”
“Wait,” he said, heading for the door. “Let me get outside first. I’ll to see you safely off.”
He disappeared from the room. Male voices overlapped with hoots of laughter through the open door. She tucked the blunderbuss into the front of her breeches and swung her other leg out the window. The climb down the tree was easy from the second story window.
Her feet touched the ground not far from the drawing room’s back window where light glowed on the snow. Fiddle music played as Jonas jogged around the corner of the house. His breath puffed tiny clouds in the night air. He made an imposing silhouette, his frock coat covering colossal shoulders.
“You were supposed to wait.”
“Why?” She shook out her cloak that she’d left on a shrub.
“So I could catch you if you fell,” he drawled. His voice caressed each word, half amused and a touch sensual.
Her hands stilled. Eyes the shade of lazurite glinted with messages she shouldn’t be receiving.
“I’d better leave.” She whipped on her cloak and spun around to her horse tethered by the tree.
Behind her, boots crunched snow and pebbles. A light snow had fallen on Plumtree, sprinkling the world clean and white. She reached for the stirrup when a firm hand touched her shoulder. Jonas made a daunting wall behind her, his body heat welcome but dangerous.
“Won’t you let me help you?” He murmured into her ear.
Her nerves roused hot and ready, sending waves of gooseflesh across her back and bottom. The sensation swept over private places between her legs.
She shut her eyes a split-second, willing composure. “You offer more than helping me mount my horse.”
Jonas turned her around, his large hands grasping her shoulders. Moonlight limned ink black hair not long enough to be tied in a queue. He had to have shaved his head earlier this year and was growing his hair again.
The gold earring twinkled. Yes, they both had their secrets.
He pulled her closer, his frock coat brushing the front of her. “Tonight I saw the same look in your eyes after you nearly drowned.”
“When you saved me,” she whispered.
Inside the house, the fiddle’s high-pitched notes thinned. Taut silence curled around them, peaceful and dear. The Captain and his friends rumbled a new song without the fiddle, their deep voices blending for the first time.
“God rest ye merry gentlemen, let nothing you dismay…”
Jonas cracked a smile. “At least they don’t sound like dying cats.”
Their bodies shook with gentle laughter. She inched closer to him or he inched closer to her. She couldn’t be sure. When she looked into his eyes, Jonas took her breath away.
Infinite stillness lit the depths, an unexpected surprise in a man of adventure.
Her lips parted intent on saying she needed to leave. But, she didn’t move. Jonas slipped his hands into her unbound hair. Her breath hitched, pleasure sprinkling her nape; she wanted him…his touch, his friendship and closeness, whatever he could give.
Dark lashes drooped over Jonas’s glorious blue eyes. His carnal lips rubbed hers, softly coaxing her mouth. Gentle heat melted her, sending confounding messages to her limbs. She needed to leave but wanted to stay.
Jonas tasted of sharp cider and something else she couldn’t name. He teased her, his tongue skimming her lower lip before slipping into her mouth. She gripped his coat. Her body swayed into him. Her mouth opened to him, her tongue touching him back. Little tremors shook her from head to foot.
Yearning deepened with the long kiss. Wet heat shot anew between her legs, but the strongest ache wasn’t there. It banged inside her heart.
Kissing Jonas, she tasted life as it was meant to be. Vibrant and complete. His mouth on hers was an invitation.
And she was ready to say yes.
Finding her is only half the battle…
Cyrus Ryland didn’t become England’s wealthiest bachelor by playing it safe, but the tart-tongued beauty he discovers at his masked ball enflames his curiosity. When the clock chimes midnight, and she’s nowhere to be found, Cyrus vows to scour all of London to find her. Little does he know not only does Claire Mayhew not want to be found, but she wants nothing to do with him at all.
What's a man to do if Cinderella doesn't want her shoe back?
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