Stranded in a Carriage on Christmas Eve - Elizabeth Essex
When not rereading Jane Austen, mucking about in her garden and simply messing about with boats, award-winning author Elizabeth Essex can be always be found with her laptop, making up stories about heroes and heroines who live far more exciting lives than she. It wasn’t always so. Long before she ever set pen to paper, Elizabeth graduated from Hollins College with a BA in Classics, and then earned her MA in Nautical Archaeology from Texas A&M University. While she loved the life of an underwater archaeologist, she has found her true calling writing lush, lyrical historical romance full of passion, daring and adventure.
Elizabeth lives in Texas with her husband, the indispensable Mr. Essex, and her active and exuberant family in an old house filled to the brim with books.
Places to find Elizabeth:
Cliff House, Falmouth, England
December 24, 1805
Dominic Kent was done for. Sixteen years in His Majesty’s service, dodging romantic entanglements as skillfully as he had dodged cannonballs, and all for naught. Miss Georgina Howe had smiled at him. And he was done for.
One stunningly simple smile. Even he was shocked at how ridiculously easily he succumbed. All Georgiana Howe—a proper pale English rose who looked as if she might blow over in a stiff gale—had had to do was stand in the drawing room of his father’s house and appeal to him with a smile of such warm, hopeful trust that he was ready to abandon everything—his comfort, his family, his career—in order to make her his.
Which was completely out of character. He was, if not exactly a cad, then something close—a man too devoted to his career in His Majesty’s Royal Navy to ever think of devoting himself to the lesser vessel of a single woman.
And yet he was. Miss Howe made him feel different. She was different. Different from all the others. And absolutely necessary. In the space of less than a minute she had become more necessary than air.
He was a man changed.
It all began innocently enough at their Yule Ball—the first ever given at Cliff House within Dominic’s memory. His sister Sally had introduced him to her friend Miss Howe, Falmouth’s own version of a diamond of the first water. And he had to have her.
But he could not. The moment the musicians had scratched up their bows, the unwanted interference of the local matrons had seen the wondrous girl whisked away from him to dance upon the arms of their better-heeled, better-behaved sons. Dom lost her before he had barely begun.
But he liked nothing better than a bit of a skirmish, and nothing got up his blood like having to hold his guns and take the first hit unanswered. He was a seasoned campaigner who knew exactly how to spread his canvas to bring his guns to bear on such green boys and their busy, maneuvering mamas. He’d bring his prize back within his sights. Devil take him if he wouldn’t.
And Miss Howe was a prize—a rare pearl cast before Falmouth’s swine. She was easily one of the most beautiful woman he had ever seen—fine-boned and porcelain skinned, with soft, fine hair the color of summer wheat. An English rose without thorns. But she had something more than mere beauty. She radiated a kind sweetness, a lovely serenity that drew him for reasons he could not fully understand.
Or didn’t want to.
The pure fact of the matter was that he liked to win. Everything that he was—a successful rising naval officer—came down to this single characteristic. He could no more stop himself from vying for supremacy than he could stop breathing. So he didn’t even try.
He retreated to the snug comfort of his father’s book room with a glass of good brandy to make his careful, careless plan, and to keep watch through the open doorway, though the enforced passivity had him growling like a dog in the manger whenever one of the swinish youths danced her by.
And his moment finally arrived—the moment when all the other guests had already departed, and she stood in all her perfection, alone at the foot of the stair, waiting for him.
To be fair, the fair-haired young lady wasn’t waiting for Dominic himself, but for anyone who might assist her. She didn’t need to know that Dom had all but engineered just such a chance, seeing to it by hook and by crook that she was last at the door.
“Miss Howe?” Dominic went to her directly. Or as directly as his legs, which were not at all used to flat floorboards and rugs that stayed perfectly still and tripped him up—unlike the moving deck of his ship—could carry him. “How may I assist you?”
Two spots of pink blossomed on Georgiana Howe’s pale but perfect cheeks. “I am so very sorry to disturb you, Lieutenant Kent.” She twisted her immaculate kidskin gloves around her white fingers. “But the carriage, it seems, is gone. Quite gone. I can’t imagine how they left without me.”
Dom could imagine. Because he had seen to the business himself. He had cleverly arranged for Georgiana to be occupied with his sister when Georgiana’s mother, Mrs. Howe, and her sister Mrs. Parish, had been ready to depart. He had seen the older ladies snugly ensconced in their ancient landau with glib assurances that Miss Georgiana would be safely delivered home, and hustled them off, before they could question him further.
All to the purpose of allowing him a little time alone with Miss Georgiana, free from the dampening presence of his better-heeled country rivals and their managing mamas.
“Not at all, Miss Howe. More than happy to be of help.” He gave her what his vast experience with women told him was his most charming smile—all easy assurance. “You are quite welcome to say here at Cliff House. I’m sure the Rose bedchamber can be readied for you.” He looked confidently to the family man-of-all-work, Jenkins—the Kents weren’t rich enough, or grand enough, and frankly weren’t home often enough, to employ more than one manservant and a housekeeper. Mrs. & Mrs. Jenkins ably saw to all the family’s needs, and would now help him see to Miss Howe’s. Which would give him the opportunity he had been waiting for. “In the meantime, may I offer you a glass of sherry, before you are shown up?” Dominic barely kept himself from rubbing his hands with glee—it was all going quite smoothly to plan.
But Georgiana Howe was of another mind than to fall so easily in with his charming scheme. She looked back at the front door, as if she still might walk out it. “But it is Christmas. My mother will be expecting me.”
And Jenkins, damn his ornery old hide, had an objection as well. “Beggin’ yer pardon, sir. But with all the family home at ta once, and Captain Owen bringin' his new lady wife, and her lady maid, there’s na room to spare.”
This Dom had not anticipated. “The devil you say. Not one?”
“Not one, sir.”
“The devil.” But Dom was nothing if not resourceful, and very used to exerting himself to get what he wanted. “Then you must take my room, Miss Howe. I am quite happy to vacate it for you, and shift my dunnage elsewhere.”
But instead of being pleased with this show of gentlemanly generosity, poor Miss Howe looked positively horrified at the prospect—her blue eyes went wide and her tiny little rosebud of a mouth dropped open to form her protest. “I— I couldn’t possibly sleep…” She swallowed the rest of that thought, and shook her head, the flush in her cheeks positively crimson with some private embarrassment. “I think I had much better go home, if you don’t mind. If I could just trouble you for a mount, lieutenant, I will make my way—“
“No.” The denial came out sharp and flat. Too sharp—even Dom could hear his own high-handedness. But he was not yet ready to concede defeat by letting Miss Howe ride off alone into the night. To do so would be ungentlemanly, not to mention dangerous—even if she lived close by, it was four bloody o’clock in the morning. And since Dom was a sailor and not a countryman, and therefore could not ride off with her, that meant only one thing. “Forgive me, Miss Howe, but it is far too late. You must allow me the honor of seeing you home.” He flashed her a smile to ameliorate his tone. “Jenkins? If you would rig up the carriage?”
Jenkins tugged at his forelock in obedience, but looked none too pleased about the prospect of hitching up the Kent’s own ancient coach, let alone driving it across town in the wee small hours of the night. “I’ll warn you, young sir, it looks fair to storm. Can smell in on the wind off the uplands.”
Dom hid his annoyance at such landsman’s palaver. The bloody land smelled all the same to him—like static, unchanging land. “If we have no rooms as you say, Jenkins, then we must conduct Miss Howe home for Christmas, storm or no storm. See to a carriage, if you please.”
Dom’s offficer-of-the-deck tone was enough to make the man do as he was bid. “Right away, young sir. And I’ll wake Mrs. Jenkins to accompany young lady then, shall I?”
Jenkins’ suggestion was undoubtedly proper, but would scupper Dom’s evolving plans.
Yet he was spared the necessity of a caddishly manipulative response by the lovely Miss Howe’s natural reticence. “Please, Lieutenant.” Miss Howe was all polite, pink-cheeked distress. “I shouldn’t want to put anyone out. I’m sure I’ll be quite fine if I might have a mount. I know my way quite well.”
“Not at all, Miss Howe. I think it no trouble to see you safely home. I should deem it an honor.” And an opportunity. And since it would take old Jenkins some time to haul out and hitch a pair to the Kent’s seldom-used carriage—they were seafarers not townsmen—Dom had what he had originally wanted, a comfortable half hour within which to charm Miss Howe into…being charmed, he supposed. He didn’t want to think any farther than that. He was enjoying the thrill of the chase too much to spoil it with overthinking. “Won’t you join me in my father’s book room for a restorative sherry before we depart?”
She accepted with quiet graciousness. “I suppose a sherry would not go amiss.” And then Miss Georgiana Howe gifted him with that smile—the smile so shy, so tentative and trusting and lovely, it lit a bonfire of hope in his chest.
His head was full of her nearness—her heat and warm scent. Gardenias. A winter garden.
Devil help him, but she enthralled him.
But he needed to act the gentleman, and conduct her down the cold corridor to the book room, where he had kept the fire glowing cheerfully in the hearth.
“Oh,” she stopped momentarily on the threshold. “Cigars.”
Dom waved ineffectively at the air, and cursed himself for an ass. This was new to him, and harder than he thought, this trying to please a civilized, sheltered young lady. “I do beg your pardon. Perhaps you might prefer the garden room. But I’m afraid it’s very cold this time of night—”
“Oh, no.” Miss Howe waved away the suggestion with her handful of twisted gloves. “You mistake me. I don’t find the odor alarming at all.” Her shy, tentative smile spread from her rose pink lips outward to soften the corners of her blue eyes. “It reminds me of my late father.”
Late? Dom felt even more the unthinking ass. “Forgive me, Miss Howe. My condolences. I did not know.” He had not heard. And he had not thought of why Mrs. Howe and her daughters might have come to the ball alone. He had thought only of himself and his plans for sweet smiles and soft, promising eyes.
The young lady accepted his clumsy apology with graceful kindness. “Thank you. You are very kind. It was early last winter, over a year ago now. You were away. At sea.”
“Yes.” He’d been away for a good many years now—gone off to sea as an eager lad of eleven. But to him, he hadn’t been ‘away’—he was at home on the sea.
“It’s been sixteen years.” She looked up at him through her lashes, not flirtatiously, but carefully, as if she might be assessing him for some mark of the passing of time.
“Has it?” He hadn’t kept track of the years, only of the promotions from lowly midshipman to third lieutenant, from third to second, and second to first. He had come home ostensibly to celebrate his brother’s marriage, but also to consult with his father—one of the most successful frigate captains in the fleet—and plan his own ascent to a captaincy.
“Yes. It’s been a very long time,” she said on a quiet sigh. “How I’ve often…thought of you, out there in the world on your dangerous adventures.”
“Have you?” Dominic could not but be flattered—he could feel his chest expand against the confines of his well-polished dress uniform. “I daresay there was an adventure or two, but naval life is mostly tedious hard work inter-spliced with only occasional danger.”
“Yes, that is what your sister Sally used to say. But I daresay the dangers all seem worth it to her now.”
“Now that she has her man?” His sister’s sudden engagement had been the talk of the ball.
“Yes. No. Not entirely.” Miss Howe’s cheeks remained pinked, but her pale, pristine forehead pleated up in a thoughtful frown. “I should say now that she has achieved her heart’s desire—and that was going away on her own adventure, no matter the cost.”
The fine hair on his arms and at the back of Dominic’s neck lifted, as if he were about to sail into an electric storm. “Never say you’d like to go on such an adventure, Miss Howe?” His sister Sally’s ‘adventure’—dressing up as a boy, and taking their younger brother Richard’s place aboard H.M.S. Audacious—had ended with her being scarred for life. Not that her newly betrothed, David Colyear, seemed to mind—she had, after all, taken the saber cut to her face while saving Col’s life.
“Oh, I don’t know.” Miss Howe seemed to be smiling at the possibilities. “Nothing so bold as Sally. Though I do really admire her. I always have, ever since we were friends at school together.”
“School?” Here was another thing he had not known—that Sally, his tall, ungainly younger sister, had once been sent off to school with this charming, delicate creature. He could not imagine how they had got to be friends.
“Miss Northcote’s Academy in Exeter. But she— School did not suit Sally, I suppose.”
“No, I don’t imagine it did.” He couldn’t see Sal even fitting her long tall form behind a desk. But Dom didn’t want to talk about Sally. “But you got on there?” Georgiana Howe seemed the sort of earnest girl who would do well, and make friends wherever she went. She seemed to have the sort of innate, sweet kindness that would recommend her to all her acquaintance. It was no wonder Falmouth’s matron’s prized her so highly.
She made a self-deprecating little shrug, and her sweet smile dimmed. “I suppose. Enough to speak French and Italian and play a sonata all the way through. Though what use any of that is in Falmouth, I’ve yet to see.”
Dom could not for the life of him tell if her tone held a tinge of frustration or ambition. “So it’s London you’ve set your sights upon?”
She gave another delicate shrug, and made little shake of her head. “I wouldn’t say that.”
But Dom was kept from discovering just what she would say by the jangle of harness signaling the carriage’s arrival at the front door. Jenkins being punctual, damn his eyes. Still there was a private carriage ride to look forward to. “Shall we go then, Miss Howe?”
He led the way back to the front corridor, and took a moment to fetch up his old sea cloak, which proved a very good thing. Jenkins had unfortunately been right—the night had turned bitterly cold, with a sharp wind pushing off the land and out to sea. He put a hand to steady Miss Howe—she looked the sort of tiny boned thing that might to blow away in a gale.
And yet there she was, turning her delicate oval face into the wet winter wind as if it called to her. “I love the smell of the wind before the snow. It’s…promising.”
The hairs on his arm stood up again in warning. But against what? This sweet little thing? The chilling cold? No. He’d been colder a hundred times before.
Dom shook off the strange feeling, and shook his way into his cloak. He also took note that despite her rather adventurous words, Miss Howe was clutching the thin folds of her silk velvet evening cape tight. Perfect. She was going to get cold. And might need warming.
But the man up on the box was paying more attention to her words than her actions. “That’s right, miss. Snow.” This last Jenkins lobbed at Dom like a ball of icy slush.
Which Dom lobbed right back, ignoring the ominous look Jenkins gave him from under the brim of his battered tricorn hat. “If there is to be snow, I’m sure it’s going to be light.” He gave Miss Howe a reassuring smile that had never failed to soothe a lady before. “I’ve developed a fairly well-practiced weather eye.” Then he offered Miss Howe his arm to hand her into the waiting carriage, if only for the pleasure of taking her delicate hand in his, and letting her lean on his superior strength.
Yet her grip was surprisingly strong for someone so delicately made, tensile and direct in a way he had not anticipated. So surprising, it sent a thrill of something wayward and decidedly ungentlemanly tightening the muscles of his forearm.
He handed her in as the first icy drops of rain began to patter against the roof of the carriage. “Make way as handsomely as you can, Jenkins,” he shouted into the bite of the wind to the man hunched over the box. “And we’ll get out of this as soon as may be.” And then he had another thought. “You do know where you’re going, don’t you?” He hadn’t the faintest idea where Miss Howe lived—somewhere within the town of Falmouth, he supposed.
Jenkins gave him a sour look. “Oh, aye, I knows. All the way ‘cross the Carrick Roads, past ta wood and’ up ta hill over Flushing. A fair far way.”
Dom automatically craned his head in that direction, clear across the bay from where his father’s home stood on Pendennis Neck. But he could see nothing past the yard in the chilling dark. Just as well. “Nothing else to be done for it, Jenkins. Crack on.”
Inside the carriage, Miss Howe had been listening. “I’m afraid I importune you a great deal more than you thought. It is a fearful long way.”
Dom knew how to play the gallant. “Which is exactly why I could not in any conscience let you go alone on a mount. And I would not rest if I did not see you home.”
“You are very kind not to tax me with my own foolishness. I was having too pleasant a time to want to leave so early. We haven’t been out much since my father died.” She settled into a corner of the forward-facing seat, even as Dom slid onto the bench seat opposite. “I hope my mother will have gone to bed. I should hate to think of her waiting up for me.”
He would hate to think of it, too. It would scupper the most inventive of his plans. He had only a carriage ride to win her away from Falmouth’s gentry, and make her fall in love with him enough so he might steal a kiss—it was still little enough time that he needed every last minute possible in the slightly musty old carriage with no hot bricks or thick woven blankets for comfort. It was an austere way of making love, but he’d manage.
“I’m glad you stayed,” Dom assured her. And he was. And he was even glad of the chilly ride to see her home. It wasn’t dancing, but it was something more promising. More private. “And I’m glad you enjoyed yourself. Your dances seemed to be quite full.”
“Yes.” Enough light came through the carriage’s window for him to see her cheeks pink. With embarrassment or pleasure, he could not tell. “I was very fortunate this evening. There were so many gentlemen in attendance. It’s unusual, as most of them would rather be engaged at shooting parties rather than a ball at this time of year.”
“Would they?” Then they were fools. He had never been one for hunting. Shooting could never be a sport for a man who killed other human beings for a living. “Idiots, the lot of them.”
But he was alone with a pretty girl—a very pretty girl with guinea bright hair and shining blue eyes—and he wasn’t about to waste his time thinking of killing. He’d rather think of Miss Howe instead. In the flickering light from the carriage lanterns, the perfect luminous oval of her face peeped out at him from beneath the hood of her dark velvet cloak like a beacon. She really was the most astonishing delicate beauty, with lips that curved like the ribbons of a bow.
“You are very kind.”
He wasn’t kind. He was a cad with design upon her. But he also wasn’t right about the weather—it turned progressively filthier. The fine misting of rain chilled into sheets of nasty sleet that pelted the roof and coated the windows with runny bits of ice by the time they had made their way through the cobbled streets of the town.
Outside on the box, Jenkins was sure to be cursing him under his breath. Or even over his breath, if Dom knew old Jenkins.
Inside on the forward bench, Miss Howe tugged the folds of her cloak more tightly around hunched shoulders.
“Are you cold?” he asked, but didn’t wait for the answer before he had unclasped his thick wool sea cloak, and was already whirling it across her lap. “I insist.”
She gathered the heavy mantle to her gratefully. “Thank you.” She gave him that quick little smile that warmed the corners of her eyes. “I let myself dress for the occasion instead of the weather. Foolish, I’m sure.”
His practical mind agreed—it was foolish to wear rustling silk in December instead of something heavier, but the less practical part of his brain had been all appreciation of the figure Georgiana Howe had presented in her glistening warm pink silk with the ruby red velvet sash. She had looked like a present just waiting to be unwrapped.
And there went his mind entirely.
Miss Howe misinterpreted the signs of his discomfort. “Are you sure you’re not getting cold yourself?”
Dom had to clear his throat before he could speak. “I shan’t freeze, Miss Howe, I promise you. I am quite used to the cold. It’ll take a stiffer gale than this to see me in.”
He was rewarded for that little piece of conceit by the flash of that quick, sweet little smile. “Yes, I imagine it would.” She ran her hand tentatively across the thick wool. “If you’re sure?”
“Thank you.” She snuggled herself into the great fold of wool, and Dominic was instantly in and agony of blissful anticipation. The sight and thought of her wrapping herself so intimately in a garment still warm from the lingering heat of his body sent a jolt of pure protective possessiveness quickening his blood.
She was still all grateful concern. “But you must promise to tell me if you begin to get cold.”
“Of course.” He would do no such thing. He could think of far better ways to get himself warm, and all of them included a closer proximity to Miss Georgiana Howe.
“I take it you have seen much fiercer weather in your time at sea?”
“Yes.” Dominic was glad of the chance to polish his own brass. “Endured a biblical hurricane directly after the battle—Trafalgar, I mean. Seven days and nights with the wind and waves coming over the deadlights. There were an unfortunate lot of ships that survived the battle, only to go down in that howling gale.”
Miss Howe was gratifyingly impressed. “How terrifying.”
“I suppose it might be.” He gave her what he hoped was an easy, confident smile, meant to banish her fears. “Only if you don’t know what you’re doing.”
Her smile deepened, and a pair of deliciously tempting dimples appeared at the corner of her mouth. “And I imagine you do know what you’re doing. All you Kents seem to have the knack for that—knowing what to do.”
It was a gift. A gift he meant to make the most of. But timing was everything, and the weather was not cooperating—a sudden gust of rain pummeled the roof of the carriage and rattled the windows. And then in the next moment the rain turned into snow, chittering with nasty delight against the window pane.
Fortunately the young lady was not made alarmed by the worsening weather. Instead of looking out the window, she was intent upon him. She looked up at him through those sweet, sooty lashes before she remarked with studied nonchalance, “But I did notice you choose not to dance.”
So she had noticed. Dominic’s expanding chest threatened his buttons.
“Too many gentlemen on the guest list,” he lied with a laugh. “My new sister-in-law, Grace, is of the opinion that balls are for the benefit of ladies and not gentlemen, so she charged me to be a wallflower for the evening, and be glad of it. But you never lacked for a partner.”
His answer seemed not to give her any satisfaction—in an instant her expression changed from shy curiosity to resignation. “No, I suppose I didn’t.” She heaved what could only be called a heavy sigh. “Though much good it will do me.”
Dom was momentarily taken aback by the quiet vehemence in her tone. And he was disappointed—he had thought better of her than this show of vanity, or pique. And he had also thought her well above fishing for compliments. “I beg your pardon. I don’t take your meaning.”
She took another deep breath, and then, as if she had come to some great decision, she lifted her chin, and looked directly at him. “Then you don’t know? I’m surprised no member of local society had a quiet word in your ear. Isn’t that what they usually do to warm young men away from importuning women? Not that I particularly want to tell you myself, but the bald truth, lieutenant, is that I am now twenty years old, and unmarried.” She paused after this uncomfortable truth, and then went on in a rush, as if she wanted to get it over with. “And as I now have neither a father, nor a fortune, I am quite likely to remain so. Gentlemen may dance with me—they like to be seen with me as I am generally accounted to be pretty. And their mothers like it as well, for it somehow raises their sons’ stock to be seen with a pretty girl. But I assure you, with no fortune, not one of them has ever, or will ever make me an offer.” She turned away to gaze unseeing out the dark window. “Not that I would accept any of them anyway.”
That last was the salvaging of her pride, but Dom could barely contain his secret delight. He had thought her well beyond his grasp. The fact that she had no fortune was no obstacle to him—he had earned, and God willing would continue to earn, his own respectable fortune in the manner of all the Kent men. And now that Napoleon’s navy was routed from the sea, his prospects for long-term health and survival were better than ever. “My dear Miss Howe let me assure you—“
Dominic was kept from making his confession, as at that moment the carriage suddenly chose to slither sideways across the road.
Georgiana gasped, and clutched the hanging strap.
“Steady on there,” he called through the trap door in the roof, while Georgiana tried to unobtrusively brace herself against the seat.
“Do you think your man Jenkins is all right in this weather?”
“He’s tough old bird,” Dom assured her, though he was none too sure himself. “He’s quite used to being out in all weathers. And now that we’re off the cobbles—”
“Ooh!” Whatever else she was about to say was cut off as Georgiana was flung into his lap by the violent rocking of the carriage as it skidded across the slick frozen mud on another sheet of ice.
“I do beg your pardon.” Miss Howe scrambled off of his chest, but was thrown back against him—or he was thrown against her—as the carriage slewed hard the other way, swerving like the tail end of a fish, back and forth, slipping and sliding down a hill, until the slide gathered speed, tipping them sideways, and hurling them off the road.
Dominic wrapped one arm hard about Miss Howe’s waist, meaning to take full advantage of the handful of woman in his arms, but he was forced to brace the other arm against the roof, and his feet against the opposite seat, however little good it did. Because the carriage continued to slew about like a drunken sailor. His only reward was that Miss Howe clutched him back most obligingly.
But then again, she had to, as in another moment all hell broke loose.
There was a frightened scream from the horses as they were dragged in their traces, and the body of the carriage listed hard to larboard. And then, with a sickening crack of over-stressed wood, the whiffletree snapped, and they were rolling arse over topmast into a ditch.
The glass in the carriage window shattered upon impact with the icy ground, and Dom flung his arm around Miss Howe’s head and cradled her face tight against his chest to protect her from the razor-sharp shards of flying glass.
But his own head was not so protected, and crashed hard against what was left of the carriage frame.
Pain burst through his head. And everything went black.
Someone was pawing at his face. Must be the wardroom’s bloody steward waking him in the middle of the night with another job left undone on a ship full of men who might have been picked instead of him. Devil take him.
But the wardroom’s steward never smelled like gardenia.
“Dominic, while it really is quite lovely to be held in your arms, you really do need to wake up. I don’t know if I can keep up a one-sided conversation all the night through.”
It wasn’t the steward, but a soft female voice.
“Perhaps if I pinched you? Or slapped you?”
It was no surprise that he might have done something to a female to warrant getting slapped, so Dominic tried to muster the requisite savor faire to take the hit like a gentleman.
Yet the blow never fell. Instead the sweet voice came back.
“But the problem is you’re really much too un-slappable. You’re far too handsome. You’ve always been so very, very devastatingly handsome. Too handsome for me.”
She was pressing little kisses along the edge of his jaw. In another moment she could reach…
Lips, warm and tender and tentative, whispered against his, and sent sweet fire coursing through his head and into his body. He had but to open his mouth to her, and kiss her back. Encourage her shy exploration with gentle sighs. Discover the utter softness of her lips. The sweet revelation of her mouth.
She tasted of sherry and chocolate, and barely repressed sin.
The thought shocked him so deeply he nearly pulled away to try and look at her. To see if she had changed. To see if she looked like sin instead of salvation.
But he wasn’t that stupid. Some portion of his damaged brain could still think enough to tell him to keep his lips pressed firmly to hers, to kiss—ever so gently—her back. To angle his aching head slightly to the left so he might capture her mouth more fully. To coax her to open to him and share her sweet warmth.
And then her hands were sliding along the line of his jaw, holding him still for her pleasure as she pressed her warm, lithe, young body all along the length of his. He needed to find his arms and wrap them around her and hold her close so she couldn’t pull away—
She did anyway. “Oh, my.” She breathed out the exclamation with a lovely sort of wonder. “You’re awake. I’m so glad. You can let me go now.”
At her words, Dom realized he did, in fact, already have his arms wrapped around her. But he did not let go. He tightened his grip. “I’m not so addled as to do that. I’d much rather kiss you again.”
So he did. He held her so close he could feel her pulse leaping under the surface of her skin, and breathe in the warm spice of her gardenia scent. And taste the beguiling essence of sin on her plush lips.
He was falling into her, even if she lay on top go him. She was everywhere around him, soft and supple, heady and heart-warming and heavenly.
Filling his head with nothing but the taste and scent and feel of her.
In another long moment, he had her gasping for air. “Are you not going to let me go?”
No.” This he was sure of. She felt right in his arms. She fit beside him in a way he had not imagined. “I don’t think I shall.”
The word set alarm bells clanging in his brain.
He forced his eyes open to find the carriage plunged in utter darkness—the crash either smashed the lanterns or snuffed them out. Which was actually something to be thankful for—God only knew what would have become of them if the lantern had burned on and caught the bloody carriage on fire.
Devil take him, he needed to think. “Where are we? What about Jenkins? Is he hurt? And the animals?”
“Shh. Shh.” She breathed the soft solace against his forehead. “Lie still. No.” She pressed a surprisingly firm hand against his chest. “Don’t try to sit up. You’ll only bang your head against the edge of the seat. It’s right above your head. And there is glass everywhere.”
It didn’t feel like glass. If felt as if his head were cushioned by a— “Carriage rug?”
“Oh. Yes. The rugs spilled out from under the seat when we went over. But they are good thick wool, so I managed to get one under your head, and the other over…well, us. Even when you were unconscious, you wouldn’t let me go.”
That’s because he was a sensible man, even when he was insensate. Good to know his instincts were so sound.
The pain in his head ebbed enough for him to take stock—he was pinned in a carriage with a lovely girl draped across his chest. Nice work, even if he hadn’t done it himself.
“Jenkins?” he asked again.
“Went on with the horses to try and find shelter and help to come back. The carriage seems to have tipped itself into a frozen ditch, and struck a tree, which has now fallen on top, barring our way out. So we are trapped. Which seems to be just my kind of luck.”
In fact, it was just his kind of luck—to get himself wrecked in a country lane with the most beautiful, most compelling young woman he might ever want to be wrecked with. “How long have we been here?”
“I don’t have a watch, but it has seemed like an awfully long time. Hours.”
He captured the cold fingers that had been running back and forth up his chest taking inventory of him, and arousing him to a near painful state of physical awareness. “And you’re cold.”
“No. Really I’m much warmer now. I mean, after we…”
Her quiet admission dwindled away into the darkness, and not for the first time, Dom wished he could see her face. But no matter—he could feel the warmth of her breath fanning across his skin, mere inches from his own. “Georgiana,” was all he said, but he let go of her hand and found the back of back of her skull to cradle and draw her near. “Then by all means, let us do it again.”
Just the frisson of her lips moving against his was bliss. She was bliss. She tasted dark and delicious and enticing, and when she angled her head and kissed him back, he fell into the deep pillowed sweetness of her mouth. Into the plush generosity of her soul.
Devil take his soul if he could have more of hers. More of her generosity. More of her essence. More of the bittersweet taste of sin that hovered at the dark edge of her kiss. He would fall all the way through her if he could. He would slide his hands down her sleek sides and gather the silken folds of her skirts and expose the petal soft skin—
“My God.” He was gasping for air—they both were. He was gasping with lust. And something more.
It was impossible to think. “I dare not let this go on. Georgiana—”
“No.” Georgiana was in the midst of her own passion—a passion that had her gripping the lapels of his uniform coat as if she could shake her will into him. “I will dare. And who will make a fuss? In another few minutes you’ll be strong enough to get us out, and you can wait for Jenkins, while I will slink quietly home. No one will ever know. Except me. And if this is all I’m to have to see me through the next sixteen years, I will take my fill and be glad of it.”
She pierced his self-restraint with the sherry-laced probe of her tongue, with the soft firmness of her lips, and the delicate sharp edge of her teeth as she took his lower lip between her own and worried at it. He was aroused by the fast rasp of her nails against the edge of his smooth-shaved jaw, and by the tug of her curious, clever fingers through his hair. He was done in by the pillowed press of her breasts against his chest.
Devil take them both, because this was surely some version of hell. His body was on fire for her—his skin was bloody well singed with the lust boiling through him.
He kissed his way along her fine-boned jaw, and down the sweet slide of her neck. He dipped his tongue into the heady hollow at the of her throat and felt her pulse leap in time with his. His hands moved up to cradle her head, to turn her face so her could trace a molten path back up to the soft spot behind her ear.
“Dominic. Dominic.” She said his name like a prayer, and incantation that rose in frosted curls above them, like warming flames from a fire. “Dominic.”
“Georgiana.” Even her name tasted sweet upon his lips. “I—”
In the distance came the tramp of feet against the snow—the sound of men and horses approaching apace. While they kissed dawn had begun to lighten the sky, and the first faint rays of the sun off the snow pried its way through the splintered frame of the carriage, illuminating their confines. And then, somewhere in the distance, a church bell began to ring out Matins. It was day. Christmas Day.
Georgiana spoke before he could. “Happy Christmas, Dominic.”
“Happy Christmas, Georgiana.” He gifted her with the only thing he had to hand, a kiss.
No. A kiss was not all he had to offer her.
And he had to offer it now. “Georgiana, I need to tell you now, before there are other people—fathers or mothers or brothers telling us what is necessary after a night spent together in a carriage. Or worse, rumors and gossip trying to force us into what should be a pleasure and not a necessity. Before. So you know.”
She pushed away slowly, wary of the sudden seriousness of his tone. “Know what?”
“That I would be honored if you would make me the happiest of men. Marry me, Georgiana Howe. Make an honest man out of me. Be my wife.”
There is was done and over far more easily that he had thought it would be. And instead of dreadful, as he had always assumed he would be in such circumstance, he felt rather elated by the idea.
And clearly, so did she. Her smile was like the dawn, warming and pink with delight. “Oh, Dominic.” She pressed a teary, trembling kiss to his lips. “I thought you’d never ask.”
Just like that. Done in. In the sweetest way possible.
Relax on a silent night and dive into Christmas Brides, a lush historical holiday anthology featuring a brand-new story from USA Today bestselling author Alexandra Hawkins. And back by popular demand from last Christmas, previously published One Hot Scot, The Scandal Before Christmas, and It Happened Under the Mistletoe are back to deck the halls in this sensual Christmas collection.
One Hot Scot by Suzanne Enoch
Duncan Lenox lives surrounded by enemies, a MacLawry in a land of Campbells. But when an English beauty has nowhere else to turn, he feels obligated to help. Now that they must spend a night together in an abandoned cottage while a storm rages on, will their mutual passion save—or doom—them both?
Once Upon a Christmas Scandal by Alexandra Hawkins
Lady Ellen is outraged when she learns her dowry’s been increased by her dad, eager to draw every bachelor in England to her front door. So when Lord Swainsbury comes knocking, Ellen assumes he’s another dreadful fortune hunter. Little does she know that Swainsbury has completely fallen for her—body, heart, and soul…
The Scandal Before Christmas by Elizabeth Essex
Lieutenant Ian Worth needs a wife by Christmas. He has to find her, woo her, and wed her before he goes back to sea. Anne Lesley is a shy spinster with no prospects, so she accepts Ian’s hasty offer only for the security it will bring. But when a midwinter storm rolls in, things start to heat up between them…and they might just find true, honest-to-goodness love…
It Happened Under the Mistletoe by Valerie Bowman
Oliver Townsende intends to avoid the hordes of marriage-minded misses at a friend’s holiday party. When he meets Miss Cerian Blake, who’s dodging her own unwanted set of admirers, the two decide to join forces and fake an infatuation to keep their suitors at bay. But when mistletoe becomes involved, will their Christmastime prank turn into a love to last all seasons?
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