Caught with a Rogue on Christmas Eve - Grace Burrowes
Grace Burrowes is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of more than thirty historical romances, and a child welfare attorney practicing in western Maryland. She loves to hear from readers, and can be reached through her website at graceburrowes.com.
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Author’s Note: This entire little tale was a gift to me from a reader, Marlene B. I let the deadline for my submission creep up on me, until I was a in a panic because I HAD NO STORY. In a three line reply to a Facebook post, Marlene sketched the entire plot. Boom. Some people have a gift, other people have a gift and generously share it. Thanks, Marlene!
Caught with a Rogue
“At least you’re to be married at the finest inn in all of Yorkshire,” Marie muttered as the coach jostled and bounced to a halt. “A very grand establishment, indeed.”
To a lady’s maid, The Groom’s Arms would be grand. To Isabella Fontaine, the choice of location was cruel.
“Some of my happiest memories are of this place,” Isabella said as somebody shouted for the porters to unload luggage from the roof and boot. “Perhaps Papa seeks to take even those from me.” More jostling and rocking followed until the coachman apparently recalled that in addition to fine clothing, silver, jewelry, and a trousseau, the coach’s cargo included the bride and her sole servant.
The coach door swung open, and Isabella prepared for disappointment to join the worry roiling in her belly. No inn could be as gracious, clean, welcoming or commodious as her memories of The Groom’s Arms were. As a girl, the coaching horses had seemed huge to her, the next thing to dragons, and the food ambrosial at the end of a long day traveling.
The Groom’s Arms had always smelled good, of lavender sachets above stairs, and good food below. The proprietress had been a widow, Molly Goodmood, and nobody could have been more welcoming. Molly would greet Isabella with a fierce hug and lemon drop, and a toddy for Isabella’s governess.
The day had grown colder as they’d traveled north, and the sky was a quilt of pewter clouds threatening snow.
“Excuse me,” Isabella said to one of the porters. “Does Mistress Goodmood still own this establishment?” Isabella had chosen an older fellow, for a younger man would not have presumed to answer a lady’s question.
“Mistress Goodmood sold the place for a queen’s ransom years ago, ma’am,” the porter said, tugging his forelock. “She’s off to the south, where the winters are kinder to her rheumatism, and the grandchildren easier to spoil.”
A trunk came sailing down from the coach roof to land on the hard ground at the man’s feet. “If you’ll excuse me, ma’am, best you get inside. A toddy or a nip of wassail will be sent up to your room, compliments of the house.”
As if the punctuate that sentiment, an icy snow flake smacked into Isabella’s cheek, followed by another to her brow.
Marie took Isabella by the elbow. “A toddy sounds about like heaven to these olds bones. Come along, and we’ll get you upstairs before your Papa can make a perfectly wretched day worse.”
Papa’s coach had traveled ahead of Isabella’s, but another coach was coming along behind, with Mr. Hough and Mr. Giles up on the box, in case Isabella got what Papa called “wayward notions.” Notions contrary to his scheme to marry her off to old Archibald Burnside.
“Your groom is here,” Marie muttered as she and Isabella climbed the steps to the inn’s main doors. “I recognize that footman.”
“A groom is usually present at a wedding,” Isabella replied. “Mr. Burnside is not a bad man, based on what I recall.”
“If you don’t mind a husband three times your age. He’ll not trouble you for long at least.”
One night could be an eternity with the wrong husband. Rather than share that observation, Isabella paused in the inn’s spacious, low-ceilinged common. The outside of the inn had been swagged in pine, but tradition in the North was never to bring the pine inside prior to Christmas itself. Nonetheless, mistletoe hung from the lintels, and the scent of cinnamon graced the air.
“I used to love this place,” Isabella said softly. “Now I wish I were anywhere but here.”
They were shown to their rooms by a cheerful maid too young to have worked for Mistress Goodmood, but Isabella had questions anyway. Was Mrs. Bonnie still the cook? Did the maids still answer to that nice Mrs. Feller? Was the coaching yard still under the direction of dear old Mr. Woods? Did Mrs. Hiltabidle still like to sit in the ladies’ parlor with Mrs. Gorman and work on their embroidery when the weather was sunny?
No, no, no, and no. The maid had only come to work at the inn in the past year, and none of those names were familiar. Would Madam like a tray?
“Yes, she’d like a tray,” Marie said, holding the door for the maid. “A great big tray with lots of warm bread, good Yorkshire cheese, and a pair of toddies. A bath for my lady thereafter, so we’ll need extra coal as well.”
What Isabella needed was for this entire wedding to be a bad dream. “I could knot the sheets and climb down over the balcony,” she said. “I did that, when I was a girl.”
“You’re not a girl now,” Marie said. “You’re a beauty and an heiress and a bride to be.”
Three curses. Isabella dug a hair brush out of her reticle, for Marie was already busy unpacking Isabella’s bridle trunk.
“I wasn’t a beauty, as a girl. I had awful red hair, I was too tall, and I was so shy I could barely speak to anybody except Papa or my governess.” The height was now fashionable, the red hair had darkened to auburn, and the shyness was mistaken for reserve. People changed over time, but every time Isabella had stayed at this inn, he had been working in the stables, a local boy of uncertain parentage and definite ideas.
“That’s a sad smile,” Marie said, unfolding Isabella’s wedding dress from its tissue. Green velvet in honor of the holidays, with gold trim in honor of Papa’s conceit.
“I was recalling a boy,” Isabelle said, taking a seat on the sofa, and starting on her hairpins. “A naughty, handsome, reckless boy who never got caught and always made me laugh. His name was Christopher Rose and you never met a young fellow with more plans.”
“Boys have plans,” Marie muttered darkly. “Men have worse plans. Your papa is mad to force this match.”
“Papa is not mad,” Isabella said, taking down a thick auburn plait. “He’s stubborn, and determined to see me settled. If I thwart this scheme, he’ll simply wed me to another.”
Marie held up the emerald green slippers Isabella would wear with her wedding dress. “If you had found another man to marry you, then you papa couldn’t go through with this daft match to Burnside.”
“I at least knew Mr. Burnside when I was younger,” Isabella said, undoing her braid. Christopher had once offered to cut her hair, so she could pass for a boy. Isabella had lost her nerve, of course, but she’d allowed him to take one long, shiny lock for his own and given her one of his wheat blond curls in exchange.
Mr. Burnside hadn’t much hair, and the poor man had grown terribly hard of hearing, or so Marie had claimed.
“This time tomorrow, I’ll be married,” Isabella said. Had she any other candidates for her hand, she might have made a dash for the Scottish border, where banns or a special license weren’t necessary. She hadn’t any candidates, having made no male friends during her London seasons, and being unwilling to subject a servant, dancing master, drawing master, or singing master to her father’s wrath.
“He’d need to be a powerful, wealthy man,” Isabella said. “For Papa is wealthy, and supplies wine to half the Lords.”
Marie left off wrestling cloaks, petticoats and dresses. “Are you talking to yourself? And where is that girl with the toddy? I’ve half a mind to fetch her back here.”
“Go to the common and get something to eat,” Isabella said. Marie was no longer young, and she deserved a chance to simply relax. “Find out where Papa has put Mr. Hough and Mr. Giles, and how many of the guests have arrived. I’m not that hungry.”
Isabella was famished and thirsty, also exhausted, but more than food, she needed solitude. Christopher had understood that about her, and of all people, he’d been the only one with whom she could while away an entire day, and have his companionship be a comfort rather than a burden.
“If you’re sure you don’t mind,” Marie said, closing the doors to a tall wardrobe, “I am a bit peckish. I’ll be back with that tray in trice.”
“Don’t rush,” Isabella said. “I doubt Papa would let me get any farther than the stables, and the snow is bound to start in earnest any minute.”
Marie bustled off, leaving Isabella with nothing but distant memories and a meagre fire to warm her heart.
“She may not even remember you,” Billy Woods said, tossing Christopher a gray lambswool scarf. Christian wrapped himself in the scarf, which was plain black, but marvelously soft and warm.
“I don’t expect her to remember me, but I’ve never forgotten her, and I simply want to assure myself she’s happy with her situation. Besides the inn is busy and an extra pair of hands much needed,” Christopher said. “Work never hurt an honest man.”
“You would know.” Billy had known Christopher since Molly Goodmood had brought him home from the poorhouse as boy. Known how hard he’d tried, how often he’d failed, and how stubborn he could be.
“I have many fond memories of my Isabella, Billy,” Christopher said. “Often, when I was too tired to muck another stall, when I was making a fool of myself puzzling out sums much younger boys could do in their heads, I’d think, ‘Isabella said I could do anything I wanted to, that common sense and a hard work could solve most problems.’ She was right. Everybody else told me to keep to my place in the stables.”
Billy passed Christopher his gloves, more plain, serviceable attire. “Being married to that old man will be hard work for her,” Billy said. “She was always such a quiet little thing. Maybe she wants a fellow who’s settled.”
This was not the sort of talk Christopher needed to hear, so he let himself out of Billy’s house and crossed the darkening High Street to The Groom’s Arms. He went around to the back, and was assailed by the scents of baking bread and beef stew when he opened the door off the kitchen.
“Oh, look at himself now,” Annie Eggerton, the cook, called. “The afternoon all but gone, and work to be done, and who decides to show up?”
“You’re always glad to see me,” Christopher said, kissing her rosy cheek even before he’d taken off his cloak, hat or gloves. “But I never find you under the mistletoe. Why is that?”
“Because I’d have to thrash ye, lad,” said Mr. Eggerton, who was sipping a pint over by the sink. “Place has gone daft, nabobs hanging from the rafters, the Quality demanding their toddies and tea trays as if we’ve an army of elves to do their bidding. And all because of a wedding—a perishing wedding!—at The Groom’s Arms on Christmas day.”
“We’re full up thanks to that wedding,” Christopher said. “Full up is good.”
“Good for the owner,” Eggerton muttered. “Be off with you, young sir. Mrs. Nichols will have plenty for you to do.”
When Christopher had hung his cloak in the back hallway and stowed his scarf, gloves and hat, Mrs. Eggerton passed him a warm ginger biscuit.
“Thanks, Annie,” Christopher said. “A footman’s lot is hard, and every sweetness appreciated.”
“Go on with you and your footman’s talk,” Mrs. Eggerton said. “The bride is in room four, and her maid’s in the common chatting up some of the other help when she ought to be fetching milady’s tray.”
Christopher took that tray from the kitchen sideboard and headed for the back steps. Tonight was Christmas Eve, and surely, surely, a former stable boy was entitled to spend a moment with the woman who’d inspired so many of his dreams in the years since he’d cut himself a lock of her hair.
Isabella was nearly asleep when a knock sounded on her parlor door. She found a footman waiting in the corridor, a tall, broad-shouldered fellow holding an enormous tray.
“Please come in,” Isabella said. “That has to be heavy, but it smells good.”
“Mrs. Eggerton runs a first rate kitchen,” the man said, his tone friendly. Isabella had always enjoyed the lack of pretension at The Groom’s Arms, and the fare had been wonderful, too. “She’s sent you up some sandwiches, a few ginger biscuits, a pot of tea, a toddy, and slice of—ma’am?’
“I’d forgotten the ginger biscuits,” Isabella said, around a lump in her throat. “We used to go around to the back door, I and my friend, and the cook always had ginger biscuits for us.”
The footman would think her daft. He was a good looking fellow, as footmen tended to be. Dark blond hair framed handsome features, and the blue, blue eyes of a distant Norse ancestor regarded Isabella kindly.
Christopher’s eyes had been that blue, and that kind.
“Biscuits at the back door are something of a tradition with this inn,” he said. “You’ve stayed here before?”
“Many times,” Isabella replied. “I loved staying here when I was girl. Papa would go off shooting with the local aristocracy. I’d have the day to myself, and I often spent it in the stables.”
Isabella was babbling, but this fellow had such nice eyes, and he reminded her a little of Christopher. Christopher had been skinny though, with nearly white blond hair, and he’d always been in motion. This man had a stillness to him, a measuring, thoughtful quality.
“I loved the stables when I was lad,” he said, removing the covers from the dishes on the tray. “You should eat while the food’s fresh, ma’am. Mrs. Eggerton has no patience with waste.”
“Then tomorrow will give her the vapors for a certainty,” Isabella said, taking a seat at the sofa. The food was spread before her—pale slices of bread with ham and cheddar tucked between them, a half dozen ginger biscuits in a circle on a plate. Good food, just as she’d always had here, and the sight of it made her want to cry.
“Tomorrow’s the wedding,” the footman said. “Doesn’t every woman want to be some wealthy man’s bride?”
To a countryman who’d likely never been farther than the nearest market towns, the question was rhetorical. Isabella’s footman had tossed it over his shoulder while he poked at the fire burning weakly in the grate.
“You are in error,” she said, pouring herself a cup of tea. “Some women might long for a wealthy husband, but not I. I want a man who will love me as I love him, who will treasure my company as I treasure his, who will grow old with me, while our grandchildren and even great-grandchildren fill our last years with love and laughter. Oh, blast it all to perdition.”
The tears came, and in the presence of a hapless servant who’d done nothing to deserve the awkwardness. The footman left off trying to coax heat from a spent fire and took the place beside Isabella on the sofa, patting her back gently.
“Don’t take on so, please, ma’am,” he said, passing Isabella a silk handkerchief with lavender flowers embroidered on the border. “If you don’t want to marry the fellow, you can’t be forced to say the vows. Even a footman understands that much.”
He smelled good, this footman. Like lavender and pine, summer mornings and Yuletide holidays, both. His voice was educated, too, though his vowels and consonants were pure Yorkshire.
“A woman can’t be forced to say her vows, but she can be threatened,” Isabella said. She’d confided in a stranger once before, when she’d been a girl rebelling against her lessons, and Christopher had found her in the stables hiding from her governess. He’d told her lessons were a gift, and not to turn her nose up at them. She’d smacked him, and he’d laughed.
“We can all be threatened,” the footman said, patting Isabella’s hand. “But the Church won’t allow a wedding to be forced. You don’t have to marry this rich fellow.”
The footman was the nicest fellow. Other women might have fretted over his presumption, over allowing him to linger behind a closed door, but this was The Groom’s Arms. Besides, Isabella could dance naked in the High Street and she’d still be expected to marry Burnside in the morning.
“I cannot be overtly forced. You’re correct in theory,” Isabella said, sitting back and folding the handkerchief into fourths. “But Papa has assured me if I cry off, he’ll find a man who can deal with my headstrong ways, as he puts it. Papa is getting older, and he’s old-fashioned. He wants me settled, and that means a husband. If I refuse Mr. Burnside, the next candidate might be younger, meaner, and less tolerant of a reluctant bride.”
The footman rose. “I will never understand the Quality. Why can’t you simply sell a few jewels and buy a cottage in Cornwall?”
“You don’t understand what it is to be a woman in this enlightened age, my friend. I cannot buy property in my own name, cannot sign a lease, cannot hire my own help. You have more freedom as a footman than I do as a lady of quality living in great luxury.”
She’d said the same thing to Christopher one of the last times she’d seen him, and her point had rendered him quiet too. She’d been fourteen, he’d been sixteen, and spending time together had grown difficult. A sad, sad memory, for he’d probably sensed long before Isabella had that their paths could never intertwine in adulthood.
“You need more coal,” the footman said. “Eat up, ma’am, while I get your fires going.”
He left Isabella alone with her tray, but forgot to take his handkerchief with him when he went belowstairs for more coal.
Isabella sat down to eat—he was right, food should not go to waste—but was plagued by an odd question: What sort of footman, regardless of how handsome, kept embroidered silk handkerchiefs in his pockets?
Ah, well. Anybody could enjoy a few luxuries, and the footman had been right: No woman should be made to marry against her will.
“You will come down with a cold, and leave your lady to sleep alone tonight.” Christopher said.
He’d had found the maid nursing a syllabub in a quiet corner of the common, for Mrs. Eggerton had assured the maid that Madam’s tray had already gone up.
“You sir,” the maid said, “are daft if you think I’d leave Miss Fontaine all alone on tonight of all nights.”
Loyalty was good, but then, Isabella was deserving of loyalty. Christopher had had to quit her room simply to unscramble his wits, because Isabella—his Isabella—was all grown up and not at all happy with her father’s plans for her.
“Tomorrow night she’ll sleep beside that old curmudgeon if you can’t leave her some privacy tonight,” Christopher said.
The maid took a considering sip of strong, fragrant drink. “Miss Fontaine likes to be alone. By the end of the day, she’s usually mad for some time to herself, but I don’t know you, and have no reason to trust you.”
Christopher pushed a pouch of coins across the table. “Perhaps these sovereigns will inspire your trust.”
Another sip of syllabub. “Perhaps they’ll give me something to cosh you over the head with, my good fellow. Her ladyship’s virtue will be sold by her father before the parson tomorrow. I’ll not take your money to commit the same crime against her tonight.”
At least Isabella had one ally. Christopher slid onto the bench beside the maid and tucked the coins back into his pocket. “I’m not after her virtue, which she should only bestow on the man of her choosing. I’m after her happiness, which you have been unable to keep safe.”
“Who are you?” the maid asked.
“An old friend of Isabella Fontaine’s,” Christopher said, maybe her oldest friend, for she was certainly his. “She listened to me when I was a foolish boy with nothing but dreams to keep me warm. She encouraged me when others laughed. She greeted me as if I were her prodigal cousin even when we’d seen each other not three weeks past. She put the heart in a boy from the poor house, and I’ll not let another steal her dreams from her.”
The maid set her empty mug on the table. “If you let any harm come to her, I will hunt you down and hurt you where it counts, sir. Isabella is the loveliest, dearest—”
“Sweetest, kindest woman in the realm,” Christopher finished. She was also the most beautiful. The duckling who’d never been anything less than pretty had become beautiful, with quiet depths, silences, and sad green eyes. “She is too sweet and kind, and always has been. She deserves to be sweet and kind and happy.”
Isabella had wanted happiness for a mere stable boy, and Christopher was determined to guarantee the same for her.
“You promise you won’t take advantage of her?” the maid demanded.
“I will take her Scotland if she asks it of me, and I have many friends there who will offer her hospitality for as long as she needs it.” That plan had been sound when Christopher had devised it, but now, he was wondering if even those measures would be enough to keep Isabella safe from her father’s schemes.
“She loves this inn,” the maid said, glancing around at the enormous hearth, low beams, and mullioned windows. “I would hate for her memories of this place to be tainted by a wedding night with a husband who doesn’t love her.”
“My sentiments exactly,” Christopher said. He signaled Mr. Eggerton to bring the maid another syllabub. “Take excellent care of that cold, Miss.”
Christopher was off in search of a bucket of coal when he heard the maid put a question to Mr. Eggerton.
“Where does a mere footman come across a pocket full of gold?”
“The guests are all accounted for and the groom is napping as we speak, Mr. Fontaine.”
Harcourt bowed, as if simply reciting facts bestowed some revered gift. The English did not know how to be servile, but must always be making their contributions conspicuously. Pierre Fontaine missed France with an ache eclipsed only by the throbbing in his hip.
He shifted a quarter turn, so that hip was nearest the fire in the hearth of his private parlor.
“You’ll make sure Burnside is up and about for the service tomorrow?” Pierre asked.
Another bow. Maybe English brains were inferior to the French variety because the English ones were bobbed about so much.
“Of course, sir, and he will look to you, to let him know when to say his parts, if he has any difficulty hearing the priest.”
Burnside had grown deaf as a stump, though nowhere was sound hearing required for a man to become a husband.
“Tell Isabelle’s maid I’ll expect my daughter to join me for supper in thirty minutes. The bride will need a good night’s rest if she’s to look her best tomorrow.”
“Very good sir.”
Good God, watching Harcourt would make a sailor sea sick. “Be off with you, Harcourt.”
He scurried away, well paid to do as he was told. Isabella was always thanking the servants, inquiring about their grannies or their cats. Isabella would soon have a husband to fuss over, though perhaps she did deserve better than a man who’d made his fortune in cheese.
English cheese, a pedestrian strain of the more subtle and varied French delicacies.
Pierre’s man of business paused, hand on the door latch. “Sir?’
“You made inquiries at the stables?” For one stubborn stable boy with airs above his station could ruin the best planned wedding. Years ago, Pierre had ceased patronizing The Groom’s Arms if he traveled with Isabella, though it was convenient for Burnside and his friends to have the wedding here.
“Nobody by the name of Christopher Rose has worked in the stables for years,” Harcourt said. “The grooms were all very certain of that.”
Indecently intense relief washed over Pierre. Isabella had taken a liking to a laughing, impudent rogue of a stable boy, the only mark against another otherwise exemplary hostelry. In the country, people could stay at the same post from toddlerhood to their dotage, and the former owner, some old woman whose name Pierre could not recall, had been prodigiously fond of the boy.
“My daughter is safe from the clutches of any stray rogues, then. Away with you.”
The door closed, and Pierre was alone with his brandy. He preferred the company of obsequious clerks, self-important men of business, his competitors and customers, but a little quiet was tolerable on the eve his daughter’s wedding.
Burnside wouldn’t annoy Isabella for too long, and then she’d be a wealthy young widow. What devoted father wouldn’t want that for his daughter, particularly when her dear papa would be on hand to assume the burden of managing all that wealth for her?
“The last of your coal, ma’am,” the footman said. “Shall I light the fire in the bedroom?”
A maid had come by to collect Isabella’s tray and build up the fire in the parlor, an army of maids had brought the bath water up, and then dinner with Papa had concluded with Marie pleading a sudden head cold which necessitated her sleeping elsewhere. That Isabella’s friendly footman should bring up the last bucket of coal was a precious mercy.
Already Isabella had come to like his voice. Perhaps she’d dream of him. “Yes, please light the fire and the lamps,” she said, “and I didn’t mean to appropriate your handkerchief.”
“Keep it,” he replied. “A bride might need a handkerchief. Borrow it for tomorrow at least.”
Old rhymes exhorted the bride to have something borrowed on her person. If only Isabella could borrow a fast horse. A knock sounded while the footman poured coal onto the bedroom hearth.
“Your abigail asked us to bring you a posset,” the maid said. “Compliments of the house.”
The fragrance of cinnamon and nutmeg wafted from hot milk. A plate of ginger biscuits and a sprig of mistletoe completed a gracious, well intended gesture.
“I’ll never turn down a ginger biscuit from The Groom’s Arms,” Isabella said. “My thanks.” She took the tray, pushed the door closed with her hip, and wondered if divine providence had inflicted that cold on Marie.
“Fire’s nice and cheery,” the footman said, dusting his hands. In the doorway to Isabella’s bedroom, he looked exceedingly handsome. Candlelight turned his hair to strawberry blond, and for an instant, he looked—
“Would you like a biscuit?” Isabella asked. “Surely on Christmas Eve we’re allowed to share some hospitality.”
“You were staring out that window as if you’re hatching plots, ma’am. The snow is six inches deep,” he said. “If you’re thinking to avoid your vows, I cannot encourage a walk across the dales.”
By the lamps in the inn yard, Isabella could see the snow blanketing everything in sparkling white. All was calm, except in Isabella’s heart.
“I had a friend once,” she said, keeping her back to the hapless footman. “He had me promise I’d never allow others to make decisions for me. I meant my promise, and I’ve kept it as best I could.”
Behind Isabella, the footman moved, probably edging toward the door.
“I did not accept the addresses of the lordlings or drunkards Papa pushed at me in London,” she went on more softly. “I did not turn Marie off when she took exception to Mr. Harcourt’s presumptions. I did not pretend to like the dukes or even archdukes Papa said I must flatter and fawn over. I have been true to the only friend I’ve ever called my own. But I am tired, and my friend is nowhere to be found, and maybe if I endure a few years of marriage, I can someday have my life as I wish to have it.”
“Maybe your friend is not so far away,” the footman said, cautiously, for what mere servant wanted to deal with a woman of privilege who railed against her fate?
“He has been gone for years. I have no one to aid me, unless you help me hide,” Isabella said. “Or perhaps you’ll help me run away?”
The chamber was not well lit, so Isabella could not read her unlikely companion’s expression. If he didn’t want to lose his post, he ought to leave the room, and warn Papa that the bride was taking a queer start.
“You would risk the dales rather than speak your vows?” the footman asked. “You’d rely on a man you’ve only met today? A footman of little means who steps and fetches for his living?”
Again, a trick of the flickering firelight put Isabella in mind of Christopher. He’d shown a promise of handsomeness ten years ago, but he hadn’t been this tall, or this well spoken.
“What is your name?” Isabella asked. Christopher had been a poorhouse boy, but he might have relations in the area.
“All footman are called Thomas,” Isabella retorted. “Will you help me or not?”
“The weather is dangerous,” he said, gently. “We could well have another foot of snow by morning, and in this village, there’s nowhere you could hide for long. I’m sorry.”
Until that moment, until that gentle, sincere apology from a stranger, Isabella had harbored the hope that fate would intercede, and her wedding never take place. Bad weather had arrived hours too late, bad health had befallen Isabella’s maid rather than Isabella, and Mr. Burnside hadn’t withdrawn his addresses.
A tear scalded her cheek, though crying solved nothing. Another followed, no matter how sternly Isabella admonished herself to cease these dramatics. She’d already put the lavender scented silk handkerchief in the box that held her mother’s diary, but she really ought to find—
Strong arms came around her, a gentle hand landed in her hair. “Don’t cry, Lizzy mine. It will be all right. I can’t stand it when you cry.”
Dimly at first, then like a rising river, incredulity replaced Isabella’s despair. “Christopher? My Christopher? Is it truly you?”
They’d both grown half a foot, but the fit was still same, and Isabella Fontaine, heiress and beauty, was still very much his Lizzy.
“Christopher Rose,” he said. “Your Christopher, still here at The Groom’s Arms, and still fond of ginger biscuits, and you.”
He’d fallen in love with her when he’d been eleven years old, and Lizzie had still been clutching her doll. She’d thanked him for holding her pony, and pressed a penny into his grubby hand.
“I still have the first penny you gave me,” he said. “Did you keep my straw maiden?” He’d braided one for her from wheat, taking nine tries to get it exactly right.
“Yes, oh, yes, I do,” Isabella said. “And your lock of hair, though your hair is darker now.”
“As is yours.”
She remained in his arms, feeling exactly right, exactly his Lizzie, but even better.
“I have freckles,” she said. “And you are quite tall, Christopher.
They beamed at each other, stupidly, miraculously. He’d thought to stand unobtrusively at the back of the room while she spoke her vows tomorrow, to look on fondly while an old friend went to a new happiness, never bothering her with his presence.
That plan would not serve.
Not at all.
“Christopher, I cannot marry that man tomorrow. I will not. Especially not—not now.”
Before Christopher could ask what had changed, Isabella kissed him.
Her kisses had always intrigued him. For a shy, demure girl, she’d kissed with a bold confidence that put ideas in a boy’s head, and in his breeches. She hadn’t been shy about that either, though Christopher had had enough respect for her, and for the differences in their stations, to keep his clothes on.
“Kiss me back, you wretched boy,” she muttered against his mouth.
Christopher wasn’t a boy, hadn’t been for years. Isabella wasn’t a girl, and the door wasn’t locked.
He kissed her anyway, a joyous reunion of mouths, hearts, memories, and bodies. The kissing went on and on, until Lizzie was panting against his chest, and they’d somehow got sprawled on the parlor sofa before the fire.
“That doesn’t make up for a single instant of missing you,” Isabella said. “But, oh, it is wonderful to see you again, Christopher. Beyond wonderful.”
Isabella’s sentiments knew no restraint, though in her expression of them, she could be quite reserved. He’d loved that about her, loved the passion beneath the primness.
“Wonderful is a start on how it feels to be with you again,” Christopher said. “You really snubbed the lordlings in London?”
“Refused the hand of a duke’s heir,” Isabella said, patting his chest. “I kept thinking, ‘Christopher would not approve of this one. He drinks too much. That one gambles. The viscount has no care for his horses.’ They did not measure up to the standard you set here in the stables of The Groom’s Arms.”
“Lizzy, has it occurred to you that the only way to truly spike your Papa’s cannon is to marry another?”
She tucked herself quietly against him. Her hand resting in a loosely curled fist over his heart. “I have told myself that marriage is a woman’s proper lot in life, and I want children and a home of my own, Christopher. What woman doesn’t? But the only man I could see myself spending years and years with, the only man whose company appeals to me at all, is you.”
Her hand drifted lower. Shy she might be, but Lizzy Fontaine’s curiosity had nearly been the death of Christopher’s self-restraint on more than one occasion. He was not a saint, he’d bedded women.
Never any tall redheads. Never any high born ladies of wealth and position.
“Are you saying you’d marry me?” Christopher asked. “You wouldn’t regret being poor, having only a footman for a husband?”
His question stopped her hand from wandering off with his sanity.
“Are you asking me to marry you?”
“Yes. Isabella Fontaine, will you marry your stable boy, the lad who has adored you since the moment he laid eyes on you, the same man now in footman’s livery, who can promise only to work his hardest every day to see you happy?”
She regarded him narrowly. “A simple ‘Will you marry me?’ would do, Christopher. The answer is yes, of course, I will marry you, but we have a slight problem.”
“A very great problem, if you mean your impending nuptials. We can’t get to Scotland in this weather, I can’t arrange a special license on twelve hours’ notice, and your Papa has plans for you and Burnside in the morning.”
Isabella held s ginger biscuit to Christopher’ s mouth so he could take a bite, then took a nibble herself.
“Papa has plans for old Burnside’s money, I think,” she said. “You are not a comfortable pillow.”
“I know where there are some comfortable pillows,” Christopher replied. He and Isabella were no longer children, and as of one minute ago, they were engaged.
A quiet moment passed, with Isabella a warm, precious weight against his side, the fire roaring softly, and the Yorkshire wind whipping under the eaves outside the window.
“You would not anticipate vows with me tonight, and then leave me to deal with Papa tomorrow,” Isabella said. “I haven’t seen you for years, but it seems like you’ve never left my side, either. Yes, we will investigate these pillows you mention. Bring the biscuits, if you please.”
She rose with all the grace of a princess, and headed for the dim recesses of the bedroom. Christopher snatched up the plate of biscuits and followed. He closed the door to the parlor, and prepared to celebrate the happiest Christmas Eve since Christmas Eve had been invented.
Isabella’s heart was purring. She was cocooned in warmth and the aftermath of connubial bliss, her prospective husband’s arms snug around her.
“Happy Christmas,” Christopher rumbled.
A gray gloom beyond the window confirmed that morning had arrived. “Happy Christmas,” Isabella replied. “Is it that my Christmas token you’re offering me, Mr. Rose?’
“Here’s a Christmas kiss,” he said, levering up to press his lips to Isabella’s bare shoulder. “Are you still willing to marry me?”
He’d asked her three times in the night, and each time, Isabella had said yes all over again. A footman’s lot was hard, he’d said, the winters in Yorkshire were awful, he’d reminded her. Isabella herself might consider working at the inn until the children came along.
“I am thrilled to marry you,” Isabella said. “Do you really think I might have a post here at the inn?”
“The owner is a good sort,” Christopher said, sliding a warm hand over Isabella’s hip. “He likes to employs several members from one family. He’s demanding, but fair, and hard worker himself.”
“I have always loved this place,” Isabella said, snuggling into the lavender scented sheets. “I can work hard, too. Papa did not believe in pampering me. I can do sums, you know, and cook, and weed, and even muck stalls.”
“You cannot explain a rogue in your bed,” Christopher said, giving her shoulder one more kiss, then flipping the covers back. “I’m off to have word with the local parson.”
Such a simple solution. “You’ll tell him I’m unwilling?”
Christopher was utterly unself-conscious about his nudity and the sheer look of him was all the Christmas morning Isabella would ever need. Muscles bunched and flexed as he dropped his shirt over his head and rolled back the cuffs.
“I’ll start with the vicar,” Christopher said. “Though first I’ll have a tray sent up, find your maid, speak to Mr. and Mrs. Eggerton, and get myself home to change my clothes.”
As he rattled off his plans and priorities, he took more of himself form Isabella’s view. Trousers, a waist coat, stockings, boots, jacket. He’d just draped his cravat around his neck and stuffed the last three ginger biscuits into his pocket when the door to the sitting room bounced open to reveal Marie’s startled person.
And Papa, dressed in his finest, behind her.
An odd instant of silence transpired, while Isabella pulled the covers up to her chin, and Christopher shifted to stand between Isabella and her father.
“You!” Papa hissed, storming into the bedroom. “I shower every advantage upon my only child, I spare no expense to see her properly wed, and I catch her with a rogue, an overgrown stable boy whom I was assured was no longer a blight upon this village. Harcourt!”
Harcourt stepped into the parlor, Marie sidled around him, and positioned herself in the doorway between the parlor and the bedroom.
“You will find the magistrate,” Papa said, “and you will put this, this miscreant into his keeping. He has despoiled my daughter, and must be held accountable.”
Marie’s hands went to her hips in a manner that had Harcourt taking a step back.
“Are you daft as well as French?” Christopher retorted. “Isabella has made her choice, and if you expect Isabella to speak vows with Burnside, you don’t know your daughter.”
Giles and Hough bustled into the parlor behind Harcourt, though to their credit, they were looking anywhere but past Marie into the bedroom.
“Burnside will know nothing about this,” Papa spat, “while you will spend the next twenty-four hours locked in the stable. Once Isabella’s vows have been consummated, nothing you claim will make any difference. Isabella, make yourself decent and prepare to become a married woman.”
Papa spared her a contemptuous glance, while Harcourt motioned for Papa’s henchmen to escort Christopher bodily from the room.
“This is not over,” Christopher said, looking directly at Isabella. “Isabella, trust me. I love you, and this is not over.”
A scuffle ensued, with Harcourt, Hough and Giles all failing to entirely subdue Christopher.
“Don’t hurt him,” Isabella said. “Don’t either of you dare to so much—”
Marie slammed the door on the sight of Christopher being wrestled from the parlor.
“He promised me you’d come to no harm,” Marie fumed as the sounds of struggle faded. “That handsome, scheming, lying, rogue of a footman assured me no harm would come to you. He wanted to guard your happiness, he said. I assume you’ve taken to keeping your happiness under the bed, or perhaps under your pillow, or maybe—”
“Enough!” Isabella hadn’t raised her voice, but Marie fell silent, momentarily of course.
“You’ve never scolded me before,” Marie said. “Not once, not even when I’m being far too forward.”
“I must think,” Isabella said, dragging her night robe from the foot of the bed.
“You must marry Mr. Burnside,” Marie fumed. “You’ve been caught with a rogue in your very bedroom, and if word of that gets out, you’re ruined. Your children will be ruined, and your children’s children, and your—what?”
Isabella had found her way to the edge of the bed. She rose and belted her robe snugly.
“Mr. Burnside and I shall have a talk,” she said. “Right now.”
“Not dressed like that you won’t.”
The cold of a Yorkshire winter in the middle of a storm was a writhing, powerful force. The cold after a storm, when the world was blanketed in white, the air still, and the wind a lurking, frigid threat, was even colder.
“Come along peaceable,” one of Fontaine’s minions said. “We don’t want no trouble on Miss Isabelle’s wedding day.”
Today would not be Isabelle Fontaine’s wedding day. Christopher kept that sentiment to himself as he was marched out a side door and across the yard to the inn’s stable. Now, when he’d needed for the pot boy to be loitering on the stairs, every soul on the inn’s staff had been busy preparing for the wedding.
“Your temper will benefit from this fresh air,” the shorter man said. “We’ll bring you a blanket or two, and maybe even some tucker. For now, we have a weddin’ to attend.”
The interior of the stable was significantly warmer, owing the presence of two dozen massive coaching horses. This being Christmas Day, a lone groom was on duty to witness Christopher’s incarceration.
“You just leave him be, lad,” the taller man said to the skinny, pale boy leaning on a muck fork. “He’ll cuss a bit, but he’s made some trouble for a guest. Some time to consider his situation is the kindest thing we can do for him.”
“A bit of holiday charity, so to speak,” the other fellow said. “If he gives you too much trouble, you fetch us at the inn. We’ll be near the punch bowl, won’t we Giles? Toasting the new couple.”
Much hilarity ensued, as Christopher was pitched into a stall beneath the hay mow, the door slammed closed and bolted after him. The stable boy looked on impassively then resumed forking hay into the other stalls.
Giles and his partner went laughing and back-slapping on their way, tossing “Happy Christmas” and “Sing Ye Wassail” over their shoulders.
Still the stable boy simply went about his work.
“You’re new,” Christopher said, dusting straw off his jacket and trousers. “What’s your name?”
“David.” The boy had the look of a miner. Pale from lack of sunlight, paler from lack of good nutrition, but tough as beaten steel.
“Happy Christmas, David,” Christopher said. “You’re from the poor house?”
“Every stable boy who ever worked at The Groom’s Arms has been from the poor house,” David said, “and always will be. The owner agreed to that term when he bought the place. We work hard, and he appreciates that.”
“But you’re the newest, so you have to work Christmas. Some things don’t change.”
The ceiling above Christopher was the solid oak flooring of the mow, the walls were solid oak planking to about chest height and then vertical iron bars spaced a hands width apart. The stalls were built to contain horses ten times Christopher’s size.
David left off pitching hay and leaned on his fork. “How do you know about us poor house boys?’
“Because I was one. Don’t suppose you’re fond of ginger biscuits?”
“I thought you were going to have a talk with Mr. Burnside?” Marie whispered when Papa went off to speak to some Scottish whisky distiller whose name Isabella forgot.
Everybody in the Groom’s main parlor was sending glances Isabella’s way, some pitying, some amused, some merely curious.
“Mr. Burnside refused to see me,” Isabella whispered back. “His valet said it was bad luck for a bride and groom to converse prior to the ceremony, but I think Mr. Burnside simply doesn’t hear well enough to carry on a conversation.”
“So you’ll have a quiet marriage,” Marie said, touching a lock of Isabella’s hair. “Burnside’s a dear old soul, but I’m sorry, Isabella. I don’t know where they put your Christopher. I sent the boot boy out to the stables to look for a missing footman, but he said there weren’t any footmen in the stables.”
“I saw Giles and Hough take Christopher the stable,” Isabella said as burst of laughter echoed across the room. The groom joined the assemblage, resplendent in old-fashioned knee breeches. He was quite stout, his expression genial, but he was engaging no one in conversation.
“Maybe the magistrate has come for your Christopher,” Marie said. “Because that’s the parson following the groom to the punchbowl, and your vows are surely the next thing on the schedule.”
Isabella muttered a vow, not one having to do with honoring or obeying Mr. Burnside.
“Marie, I can’t do this.” Where was Christopher? Was he all right, or was he freezing in some stinking jail? Papa refused to even glance Isabella’s direction, but he greeted Burnside so loudly the entire inn probably heard him.
“If the bride would please come forward?” the minister called. He was a skinny older fellow, exuding forced cheer. Surely, he’d rather be home with his family than presiding over this farce?
“Come, daughter,” Papa crooned. “The sooner the formalities are concluded, the sooner we can be about the wedding breakfast.”
Burnside beamed at Isabella nervously. Papa crossed the room and took Isabella by the arm to tow her to stand before the vicar.
“Nerves, you know,” Papa said, patting Isabella’s hand quite briskly. “Shall we proceed?”
The parson cleared his throat, Mr. Burnside’s smile became desperate, and Papa’s grip on Isabella’s arm painful.
“No,” Isabella said, trying to free herself from her father’s grasp.
“Beg pardon, my dear?” the minister asked.
“Proceed,” Papa said, more loudly. “Isabella has ever been the nervous sort.”
“I said no,” Isabella repeated as the back of the room began to buzz. “I cannot marry this man, I do not wish to marry him. I love another, and will marry nobody but my beloved.”
“Such dramatics,” Papa muttered. “Now you’ve given the gossips their Christmas token, and I’m sure we’re all amused by your little display, but it’s time for the ceremony—”
“Turn loose of my fiancée,” growled a male voice at Isabella’s back. The crowd parted and a tall man strode to the front. He was exquisitely turned out in the height of fashion, from his lacy cravat to his embroidered waist coat to the jacket that gloved broad shoulders.
“Christopher,” Isabella said, shaking free of her father’s hold. “A pleasure to see you.”
And a relief, though this wasn’t any version of Christopher Isabella could have imagined. He was a subdued testament to elegant masculine fashion, his hair neatly trimmed, his cheeks smooth-shaven. The pin nestled in the folds his cravat was gold tipped with emerald, as were his sleeve buttons.
“Apologies for the timing, my dear,” he said, kissing Isabella’s cheek, “but a fellow wants to appear properly turned out before the woman he loves.”
“I want this man arrested,” Papa sputtered, though nobody, not even Giles or Hough at the punch bowl, moved.
“Mr. Fontaine,” the minister said, “perhaps there’s been a misunderstanding.”
“Yes, Papa,” Isabella said, “there’s been a misunderstanding.”
Mr. Burnside was abruptly looking more alert. He offered Isabella a little wave and simply toddled off to the punch bowl without a word. Isabella offered up a wish that he find a bride, for living without much conversation had to be a lonely.
“Burnside,” Papa bellowed, “get back here.”
“Sir, I will ask you to lower your voice in my establishment,” Christopher said.
“Your establishment?” Papa retorted. “Your establishment? You, a stable boy turned footman, telling me, how to comport myself? I’ll have you know, you varlet, you rogue, that among the vineyards of—”
The vicar was shaking his head, and twitching his finger over his nose. “I can’t marry the couple over the bride’s objection, Mr. Fontaine, and Mr. Burnside doesn’t seem inclined to force the issue either.”
Mr. Burnside was leaning close to Giles, who was shouting something about, “Chestnut mare, better beware.”
“All a misunderstanding, then?” the minister said, apparently aiming the question at Christopher.
“Clearly,” he replied. “Miss Fontaine and I will be married as soon as I can obtain a special license.”
“You shall not have my consent,” Papa said, stomping his foot. “You shall not have a penny from me, Isabella. Marry the rogue I caught you with this morning, and you’ll have no dowry, no settlements, nothing.”
Isabella slipped her arm through Christopher’s. “I will have the love of a man who has been a friend to me for most of my life. I will have a husband who isn’t afraid of hard work, who didn’t give up when you tried to interfere. Why would I care that,”—she snapped her fingers under her father’s nose—“for silks or wine when I can have him instead?”
She’d raised her voice. Not very ladylike of her, but Marie began to clap, and soon the entire room was applauding her sentiments, and Christopher was kissing her as if they’d just been married in truth.
“To the buffet,” Christopher said when he’d kissed Isabella witless. “Happy Christmas from The Groom’s Arms, compliments of the house!”
The crowd took itself over to the groaning abundance that would have been Isabella’s wedding breakfast. Somebody began to sing a rousing version of the Hallelujah chorus and Isabella leaned into her fiancé.
“Won’t the inn’s owner be upset with us?” she asked. “That is a fortune in food you’ve just offered to people you don’t even know.”
“They’re our guests, or the Groom’s guests,” Christopher said, sneaking in another kiss. “It’s Christmas and I don’t begrudge anybody a meal on Christmas. Innkeepers are sensitive about Yuletide hospitality.”
“But you’re a footman,” Isabella said, cuddling closer to be heard over the singing. “You can’t afford to feed all these people, much less provide them fine drink.”
“I have been a footman, a stable boy, a porter, a barkeeper, a cook, a pot boy, a boot boy, and every other job short of chambermaid that this establishment requires. I kept every penny I was paid in tips and wages, and invested wisely. Molly let me buy in to The Groom’s Arms, and eventually buy her out.”
“You’re the owner?” Isabella marveled. “You’re the owner of the finest inn in all of Yorkshire, the site of my happiest memories, and my best Christmas ever?”
Christopher leaned close enough to whisper in Isabella’s ear. “I own this establishment and three others, as well as a tidy estate immediately to the south of the village. I’ve worked hard, Isabella, but I’ve also been very lucky. You’re not marrying a mere footman. Do you forgive my dissembling?”
The crowd was becoming louder, so Isabella took her beloved by the hand and drew him from the room. She spotted Marie sitting very close to Mr. Burnside, accepting a sip of punch from his cup and smiling shyly, though no conversation was apparently being attempted.
Happy Christmas, Marie.
“You must believe I didn’t set out to lie to you,” Christopher said when they reached the quiet of the deserted common. The enormous Yule log burned on the andirons, and pine roping festooned the rafters. The greenery lent its fresh scent to the whole room, and Isabella knew she was soon to add many more happy memories from The Groom’s Arms.
“You are a wealthy man,” she said. “You wanted to be sure I still valued my friend, not all the gold he’s acquired. I understand that, Christopher. Shall we sit?”
They sat side by side on a settle near the hearth, the sounds of merriment and feasting drifting out of the main parlor.
“I didn’t want to stand in the way of your happiness,” Christopher said. “When Mr. Egger told me whose wedding was to be held here, I simply wanted to see you again, to assure myself that my dearest Lizzie was well. I glimpsed you several times in London in this or that ballroom, but you were always surrounded by those lordlings you mentioned, and I was simply the stable boy you’d known years ago.”
“A stable boy who cleans up very well,” Isabella said, fluffing his lacy cravat. “And you kiss rather well too.”
“I missed you so, Lizzie. All these years, I’ve hoped you were well, and that you recalled me fondly. I made the arrangements with the staff to resume my role as footman, thinking only to catch a glimpse of you, or stand at the back of the main parlor as you said your vows today. Then you shared with a footman how much your stable boy had meant to you.”
Isabella rested her cheek on Christopher’s shoulder. “My stable boy still means a great deal to me. How soon can we be married, Christopher? I adore my stable boy, but I’d also like to see you as my bridegroom.”
He looped an arm around Isabella’s shoulders. “I can have a special license here by the first of year. Until then, you are welcome to stay In The Groom’s Arms.”
As it turned out, Isabella did bide in the groom’s arms, and remained there for many, many happy years to come. She and Christopher became even more prosperous, but they made it a tradition to spend their every Yuletide at the finest inn in Yorkshire.
Merry Christmas, from Grace Burrowes.
An anthology of Regency novellas by Grace Burrowes, Shana Galen, Carolyn Jewel and Miranda Neville.
The Duke’s Arms is an undistinguished little inn in the tiny village of Hopewell-on-Lyft. But one Christmas season sees both inn and village seething with adventure, intrigue, rabbits, and, above all, love as four couples find Yuletide happiness.
Grace Burrowes - A Knight Before Christmas
With her year of mourning at an end, Penelope Carrington must remarry in haste, or her portion of her late husband's estate won't be enough to dower her younger sisters. Shy, handsome man of business Sir Leviticus Sparrow longs to give Penelope a marriage proposal for Christmas - and his heart - but Sir Levi must first foil the other bachelors scheming to meet Penelope under the mistletoe in his place.
Carolyn Jewel - In The Duke’s Arms
What's a Duke to do when he's made an awful impression on the love of his life?
The Duke of Oxthorpe lost his intensely guarded heart to Miss Edith Clay when Edith’s rich cousin sought to attach the duke’s marital interest. So smitten is Oxthorpe with the former poor relation that he’s gone through intermediaries to sell Edith a property adjoining the ducal seat.
Edith doesn't much care for the haughty duke, but as Christmas approaches, Oxthorpe reveals himself to be reserved rather than arrogant, considerate, and - blame the mistletoe! - an accomplished kisser. Will Edith hold Oxthorpe’s earlier behavior against him, or will she learn that the best holiday gifts can be the most unexpected?
Miranda Neville - Licensed To Wed
If Lord Carbury could learn to take no for an answer, his marriage proposal might earn him a yes!
Wyatt, Viscount Carbury is much too busy to court a bride, but when his childhood neighbor, Robina Weston, is left orphaned and penniless, Wyatt dutifully adds marrying Robina to his list of responsibilities. Wyatt is dismayed to learn that for Robina, poverty and pride are preferable to sharing life with an arrogant, infuriating man who always thinks he knows best.
When Wyatt and Robina must endure Christmas in the country together, antipathy turns to interest, and then to unexpected attraction. Will they fight their feelings, or yield to the surprising gifts the holidays offer?
Shana Galen - The Spy Beneath The Mistletoe
Fledgling spy Pierce Moneypence seeks a highwayman and the key to Eliza's heart...
When weapons designer Eliza Qwillen (Q) and clerk to the mysterious M, Pierce Moneypence, arrive in the English countryside, they're unprepared for the dangers that await. The operatives are intent upon capturing the highwayman styling himself as the New Sheriff of Nottingham. Secret rendezvous, mistaken identities, and cat-and-mouse games challenge these fledgling agents, but rediscovering their passion for each other is the most rewarding mission of all.
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