Caroline Linden was born a reader, not a writer. She earned a math degree from Harvard University and wrote computer code before discovering that writing fiction was far more fun. Eleven years, fifteen books, three Red Sox championships, and one dog later, she has never been happier with her decision. Her books have won the NEC-RWA Reader's Choice Beanpot Award, the Daphne du Maurier Award, and RWA's RITA Award.
A Drunken Serenade on Christmas Eve with Caroline Linden
Marianne stopped beside the front door, tugging on her gloves. “Please look out, Farley.”
Her butler paused. “Again, madam?” There was a thread of weary reluctance in his voice.
“Yes,” she replied firmly. Always. Any time there was a chance he would be out there, terrorizing the square with his giant monster of a dog. At her feet, her own dog, sweet little Daisy, sat waiting patiently, her dark eyes trained on the door. Daisy loved walking in the square. Even though it was cold and windy out, even though it was Christmas Eve, Daisy deserved her walk.
Farley opened the door. Daisy leapt to her feet, but stayed where she was at Marianne’s murmured command. Bracing himself against the wind, Farley stepped out, looking to the left. Almost immediately he stepped back across the threshhold. “I see no sign of Major Winston.”
Marianne sighed in relief. “Let’s go, Daisy,” she told her pet. The dog was already wagging her slim tail in anticipation. Marianne pulled up the fur-trimmed hood of her cloak, took firm hold of the lead, and went out into the freezing twilight.
The streets were quiet, as everyone had retreated from the raw weather to the warmth of hearth and home. Ranged around St. James Square, windows glowed with light, and the faint smell of roasting meat perfumed the sharp, cold air. Marianne led Daisy across the street and unlatched the gate enclosing the garden at the heart of the square. Today it was deserted. Marianne leaned down and unfastened the lead from Daisy’s collar, and the puppy bounded away. Marianne smiled; the dog’s delight was infectious. As long as she watched Daisy lope around the square, investigating every dessicated shrub with her slim, elegant nose, she could ignore the fact that her windows were mostly dark.
She had been a widow for two Christmases now.
She wasn’t terribly sorry to be alone this year. Last year William’s death had been too recent for her to want company. This year her sister had invited her to come to Cambridgeshire, but Marianne had demurred. It was a long, trying journey by coach. The roads were awful in winter. She had Daisy for company. Really she would enjoy a peaceful holiday at home.
Provided, of course, that her noxious neighbor Major Winston didn’t ruin it.
Just thinking of him made her frown. He had taken the house two doors down from hers this summer. He was a tall, imposing figure of a man, and Mrs. McAllen, her neighbor on the other side, had told her he was something of a hero. “He captured ever so many Frenchman in the war,” Mrs. McAllen had related in breathless, admiring tones. “They say he made a pretty fortune, too.” When he’d doffed his hat to her in passing one day, Marianne has even thought him rather handsome, with chiseled features and clear blue eyes. For a few days she had been more than a little interested in making his acquaintance.
But then he’d brought his monstrous dog into the square. She didn’t know what sort of dog it was, but he was huge. He was covered in deep brown shaggy fur and looked as powerful as a lion, with a bark that echoed ‘round the square. The major routinely brought this horrid beast with him everywhere. From her drawing room windows Marianne had watched the dog frighten teams of horses, knock over children, and splash wildly in the small fountain at the center of the square. And the major had only laughed. She could still hear his rich, deep laughter as he called the dog out of the fountain.
Worst of all, though, was that the major had allowed his dog to chase Daisy. Farley had taken Daisy out one day while Marianne had callers. A flurry of barking had sent all the ladies running to the window just in time to see the butler rush back across the street, looking quite flustered and dragging poor Daisy almost off her feet. He had burst into the house with an exclamation of ire: “Madam, Major Winston’s dog is a menace!” he’d announced, thrusting the lead back into her hand. “That beast attacked us!”
Marianne’s opinion of Major Winston had fallen precipitously, but she’d tried to be fair. When she encountered him on the street a day later, he strode right up to her. “Is the little greyhound yours?” he asked very directly.
Anticipating an apology, Marianne replied, “She is.”
The man’s expression grew hard. “Your man tried to kick my dog when he was out with her the other day. I won’t abide that.”
Marianne’s mouth dropped open. “Sir—“
“If you don’t wish to be troubled by a dog, don’t keep one,” he added rudely. “They aren’t ornaments.”
“I never said they were!” she protested.
“Then don’t treat them so cavalierly.” He paused then, giving her a swift appraisal while Marianne gaped at him in stunned silence. What nerve, what arrogant presumption. What on earth did one say to that? How dare he! And before she could think of an appropriately scathing retort, he added, in a tone of some bemusement, “You don’t look like a cruel person.”
That ruined what was left of her charity with him. She’d snapped her mouth closed and stalked away, too furious to say another word. From then on she had taken great care not to cross his path, even if it meant delaying her departure or taking a different route away from home. For the last month, she’d hardly left her house without making Farley check first that the major was nowhere to be seen.
Without meaning to, she glanced toward his house as she strolled the gravel path that circled the garden. A few windows were lit, but nothing to indicate a festive gathering. Of course there wouldn’t be, she told herself, huddling into her cloak as the wind picked up. A bachelor would likely be with family, instead of the other way around. She hadn’t seen him for a few days; perhaps he’d left London and would be away for some time. The thought of being able to come and go at will made her shoulders ease. It would quite make up for spending the Christmas season quietly at home alone.
Arthur Winston spent several minutes debating whether or not he could just let Pilot out alone.
Arguing for it was the freezing temperature outside, with a wind that made the windows in the front parlor rattle. Arthur had spent too many nights in miserable army camps to want another minute in the winter chill, even a short walk to the garden across the street. He had a blazing fire in his hearth and a glass of brandy to enjoy, as well as a good book. What’s more, the weather wouldn’t bother Pilot at all. The big dog had been bred by fisherman, and Arthur had seen his breed plunge into icy waters to save those washed overboard. There was little traffic on the streets, for most people were buttoned up at home for Christmas Eve. All in all, it was probably entirely safe to open the door and let the dog out to relieve himself.
Pilot was pacing the front hall, the telling sign that he really needed to go out. Arthur stepped to the window overlooking the square and opened the shutter. If there were no carriages anywhere in sight, he told himself, he’d do it.
No clatter of wheels, not even a passing hackney. He sighed in pleasure, just as his gaze snagged on a lone figure strolling the garden.
He leaned closer to the glass, squinting. It was a woman, in a bright red cloak with her hands in a muff. A bit mad, he thought, reaching for the shutter. But a small pale gray dog dashed through the shrubbery and began leaping around her, and his hand paused. She stopped and bent down to pet the dog, her head tilting to one side. The wind lashed at her cloak, and a long dark curl blew free before she tucked it back into the confines of the hood.
Arthur banged the shutter shut and strode into the hall. “I know, I know,” he told his restless dog as he jammed his arms into his greatcoat. He cursed under his breath as he searched for his gloves, finally locating them beneath his hat. With only one glove on and his hat in hand, he threw open the door, barely feeling the cold as Pilot rushed out only slightly faster than he did.
He meant to apologize, he told himself as he crossed the street. Lady Fitzhugh had moved out of sight by the time he pushed open the gate to the garden. Arthur buttoned his coat, regretting his forgotten scarf as the wind howled, but scanned the garden for his elusive but lovely neighbor. He had a feeling he’d offended her. Well, he knew he had—not intentionally, but her manservant had cursed and kicked at Pilot, then dragged the poor little greyhound away by the neck. Arthur could tell when a man had no feeling for animals, and he’d let his temper get away from him when he confronted the lady about her servant’s treatment of both dogs.
Shoulders hunched, he paced the path. She couldn’t have left the garden; he had a perfect view of the gate opposite her door. After their disastrous conversation, which ended with her gazing at him in shocked affront, he’d learned a little more about her. A widow whose husband had died a year ago. She still lived quietly, not reclusively, but every day she walked her dog, whom she loved dearly. He’d hoped to run into her again, after his temper had cooled and he’d decided she probably had no idea her man was too rough with her pet, but in the month since that unfortunate meeting, he’d only seen her through the window or from afar.
And that, he realized, was not enough. Lady Fitzhugh was very attractive. She was petite but curvy, with a sweetly shaped figure he admired far too much. She had big brown eyes and a lucious pink mouth, which had sparked several indecent ideas in his mind. Not for the first time he wished he’d been born with a more diplomatic temperament. Perhaps if he’d called on her, with some flowers or something, they would be friendly neighbors. Perhaps she would smile when they met, or at least not dodge meeting him. Perhaps—
Pilot gave a playful bark somewhere to his left, just as a woman’s alarmed cry reached his ears. Arthur took off at a run, hoping Pilot hadn’t knocked her over. The dog weighed nearly ten stone but still behaved like a puppy. He sprinted around a pair of plane trees and saw the trouble.
“Pilot!” The dog stopped chasing the little greyhound around Lady Fitzhugh’s skirts, although his tail continued to wag.
She whipped around to glare at him, her cheeks cherry red. “Call him off!” she cried.
Arthur whistled. Pilot gave the smaller dog a last wistful glance, then trotted obediently to his side. “Are you hurt?”
“I—No, I am not hurt!” She was angry, though. “He was frightening Daisy!”
“I apologize. He’s still a young dog and only wants to play. She was never in any danger.”
She gave him a fulminating glance. “Appearances were very much to the contrary!” Without waiting for a reply she bent down, apparently trying to attach a lead to her dog. The greyhound seemed to have recovered from any fright Pilot had put into her. She danced around her mistress’s skirts, peering at him first from one side, then the other. At Arthur’s side, Pilot gave a low whimper of longing.
“Will you take that dog away?” demanded Lady Fitzhugh. She straightened and glared at him in exasperation. Her efforts had loosened more curls, and the wind tossed them around her face.
Arthur blinked out of his daze. She was beautiful—and very annoyed at him. He muttered a command and Pilot reluctantly lay down, though his eyes never left the greyhound. “He’s well trained,” Arthur said.
She sniffed. “Hardly! I see him all the time, romping about the square, chasing children and scaring horses.”
“That’s not true,” he countered. “Pilot never chases children. He might have tumbled one or two to the ground, but only out of an excess of affection. He’s very friendly.”
Lady Fitzhugh merely frowned. Heaven help him, even that expression was appealing; it pushed her mouth into a perfect kiss me pout.
“I’m glad to see you walking Daisy yourself this evening,” he said hastily, trying not to dwell on the fact that the two of them were the only souls in sight, alone in this sheltered corner of the garden. “You shouldn’t send her out with the tall gray-haired fellow.”
Her eyes flashed. “Why not?”
“He doesn’t like dogs.”
“Nonsense,” she declared. “He’s very fond of Daisy.”
Arthur shrugged. “Then he’s not fond of walking her. And I don’t think she enjoys his care much, either.”
She looked astonished, then she turned her back to him and made another effort to grab her dog. The greyhound didn’t want to be caught, though; she leapt away and wagged her tail. Arthur suspected she was taunting Pilot, who still remained in place but with his attention fixed on her.
“If I give my word to call Pilot back at a moment’s notice, will you let them run?” he asked cautiously. “She’s far faster than Pilot, he’ll never catch her if she doesn’t want to be caught.”
Lady Fitzhugh gave him a fulminating look. Daisy was watching Pilot, her sleek head cocked playfully, and Lady Fitzhugh took the opportunity to lunge at her. But, as Arthur had said, the greyhound was fast. She shot away from her mistress’s sudden movement and shot across the frozen grass. Unable to resist any longer, Pilot took off after her with a joyful bark.
And Arthur ran two steps forward to catch Lady Fitzhugh as she staggered and slipped. “Careful,” he murmured against her dark hair. The wind had blown her hood back, and her curls smelled like cinnamon.
“Major!” Pink-cheeked, she struggled against his grip.
“You’re standing on ice,” he said, nodding his head toward the ground. It was true; water from the fountain had blown over the walk and formed a hard slick coating. Her wide dark eyes followed his, and she went still. “Let me just…” God, she felt lovely in his arms. More a man of action than words, he gently lifted her against him and set her feet on the grass. Reluctantly he let her go.
“Thank you.” She backed up a step, looking troubled. “What did you mean earlier? About Daisy not enjoying Farley’s care.”
“Farley is the gray-haired fellow?”
“My butler,” she replied, lifting her chin.
“I saw him yanking her about until I thought her neck would snap. He dragged her around a few bushes and then headed straight back to the house, resisting all her efforts to stop. Dogs are animals and need to be outside. Your butler clearly wanted to be inside.”
“He must have been in a hurry that once,” she said slowly. “He has other duties, after all…”
“I’ve seen him walk her a dozen times and it’s always the same.” Arthur hesitated. He could still feel the shape of her body against his. “Why don’t you walk her yourself?”
For a split second she stared at him with… guilt. “I do,” she murmured, turning away. “And I should take her in now. Daisy!”
“Have you been avoiding the square because of me?” Arthur exclaimed in astonishment, suddenly realizing why he never managed to cross paths with her.
“Of course not. Daisy!” she cried desperately. She picked up her skirts and hurried off. “Daisy!”
Arthur kept stride beside her. “Why?”
“Of course not,” she protested. “But—but if you must know, it’s your dog!” Pilot and Daisy were nowhere in sight. Lady Fitzhugh stopped, her breath curling in plumes around her head. “He frightens everyone, Major.”
On impulse he seized her hand. “I apologize for that. I don’t want you to be frightened of him… or of me.”
Her eyes rounded and her lips parted. Arthur tamped down a renewed surge of appreciation. He tucked her hand around his arm. “Let me show you.” He gave a sharp whistle, and a moment later heard the thud of Pilot’s paws. Flying ahead of him came Daisy, her ears back and her eyes bright. “Daisy isn’t frightened,” Arthur said to the woman beside him. “Nor would Pilot hurt her. He’s more inclined to rescue people—and animals—than hurt them.”
The big dog plowed to a stop before them, sitting at Arthur’s command. But Daisy leapt all about him, nipping at his ears and sprinting away before darting back. Her tail was wagging, and when Pilot rolled onto his back and put up his enormous paws, Daisy sprang right on top of him.
“She’s playing,” said Marianne numbly. She’d never seen her pet so active and obviously happy.
Major Winston nodded. “It’s just as good for dogs as it is for children. She’s an active little creature, I wager.”
“Very.” She couldn’t say more. The dogs were playing—and Daisy looked delighted. In spite of herself a little laugh escaped her.
The major cleared his throat. “Are you still frightened?”
Now she felt like a fool. “No,” she said softly. As if he heard her, Pilot folded his front legs around her little dog and began licking her enthusiastically on the head. And Daisy settled down as if she enjoyed it.
Major Winston shifted his weight. Marianne realized he was blocking the wind. He was a big fellow, and so warm. She had unconsciously moved closer to him as they watched the animals. “I’m unspeakably relieved, Lady Fitzhugh. I never thought that would be the reason you were avoiding me.”
Her face burned. He had noticed. “I don’t know what you mean, sir.”
The major looked abashed. “Er. We’ve been neighbors for several months now but hardly meet. I wondered why.”
And for the first time Marianne became exquisitely aware that they had been standing very each other for some time now, utterly alone except for the two dogs. Up close the major was even handsomer than from a distance, and she was taken off guard by how lovely it felt to have a man’s arm around her, and how masculine a man could smell. She hadn’t realized how his deep voice would spark a faint buzz across her skin that could only be called attraction.
Rattled, she released his arm and stepped away. “Coincidence,” she managed to say. “I should return. Daisy, come.” This time her dog listened, and allowed Marianne to reattach her lead. Feeling in control of herself again, she rose and faced the major. “Good evening, sir.”
His smile was a little crooked. “Happy Christmas, Lady Fitzhugh.”
“Oh—yes, Happy Christmas to you,” she replied, flustered. His house lay directly behind him. The windows were as dark as the windows of her own house. “Are you not visiting family?” she blurted out.
“No,” he said. “They are too far.”
She nodded. “Of course. Mine is as well.”
His hesitated, his dark eyes intent on her, and then seemed to reach a decision. “How unfortunate. ‘Tis a day for family and friends.”
Uncomfortably she nodded. Together they walked across the frozen garden in silence, Pilot trotting behind. Marianne’s thoughts were in torment. Should she invite him to share her Christmas dinner? It did seem very lonely now to spend the whole day alone, and it would serve as apology for avoiding him. Did Farley really drag Daisy by the neck? How could she have missed that? If she had seen him doing it, she would have been just as outraged as the major had been when he spoke sharply to her.
“Well, good night,” he said, snapping her out of her thoughts. They had reached her step.
Marianne blushed. “Good night, sir.” On impulse, she added, “Thank you. I will speak to Farley.”
Major Winston’s mouth curved in a rueful smile. With his hair ruffled by the wind, he looked roguishly attractive. “Walk the dog yourself. Pilot will want to see her again.”
Marianne nodded and went inside. She went into her parlor. Tomorrow she would speak to Farley but tonight she couldn’t stop thinking about Major Winston. He was also alone for Christmas. Her cook had a whole goose to roast for dinner tomorrow. Would it be neighborly? Would it be forward? She ran her hand over the desk near the window, and couldn’t decide.
Arthur paced his parlor, unable to decide. Pilot settled in for a nap near the hearth, looking as contented as a dog could look. And no wonder--he had finally got a chance to romp with the object of his affection, Arthur thought sourly, while his master was still held at arm’s length.
Perhaps that would begin to change now that he’d allayed her fears about the dog. Arthur thought she must have seen Pilot out with the Beech children, when his friend John Beech brought his family to visit. Since John’s eldest boy was prone to trying to ride Pilot like a horse, no wonder the dog had knocked him down. Arthur knew for a certainty the boy wasn’t hurt, and Pilot was never allowed to run wild and knock down other children.
He knew he should sit down in the chair by the fire and return to his book and brandy. But he also knew Lady Fitzhugh was alone, perhaps a little lonely, and he’d always been a man of action. He could still feel her in his arms, when he’d caught her on the ice. He wanted to make her laugh again, and smile, and not at the damned dogs.
On impulse, he snatched up his coat again, this time remembering his scarf. In the army they’d used to sing on Christmas Eve, when there were few other comforts of the season to be had. People had told him he had a good voice. Pilot lifted his head as he opened the parlor door.
“Wish me luck,” he told the dog, and Pilot answered with a firm woof.
He stopped right outside her windows. They glowed with light, and as he watched, the lady herself walked past. Her head was down and she seemed to be deep in thought. Encouraged, elated again by the sight of her, Arthur cleared his throat and began to sing.
Adeste fideles læti triumphantes…
By the end of the first verse, she was standing still in the middle of the room. He could just spy the top of her head, from his position on the pavement.
Deum de Deo, lumen de lumine…
By the end of the second verse, she had take a seat close to the window. Now he could see the lamplight gleaming on her dark curls.
Cantet nunc io, chorus angelorum…
He knew four verses by heart. There were more, but his memory was unreliable. At the end of the next verse, he would have to go home and wait for another opportunity. Lady Fitzhugh still sat by the window, her back to him. Was she pleased? Flattered? Appalled? Cringing at his voice? Contemplating sending her butler out to chase him away?
A faint heart never won a lady, he reminded himself, and plunged into the fourth and final verse.
Ergo qui natus die hodierna.
Jesu, tibi sit gloria, Patris æterni Verbum caro factum.
He had barely finished the final note when her door opened. Lady Fitzhugh herself stood in the rectangle of light, as beautiful as an angel to Arthur’s eyes. He closed his mouth and bowed.
“That was lovely,” she said.
He grinned. “Thank you. We used to sing in camp, during my army years, when there were no friends and family to share the season with.”
“We used to sing at home.” She hesitated. “Would you like to come in and sing some more? I can play the pianoforte.”
And Arthur thought he heard the heavenly chorus for just a moment. “I would be delighted, Lady Fitzhugh.”
Olivia Townsend is in trouble and out of options. Pursued by a desperate man in search of a lost treasure, which she doesn’t have, she’s got only two things in her favor: her late husband’s diary, which she was never meant to see … and the man who was her first-and-only-love. Losing him broke her heart, though she’s been careful to hide it for the last ten years. But when he comes to her aid and vows to stand by her this time, no matter what, she can’t help but hope things will be different this time.James Weston has blamed himself for letting Olivia down when she needed him years ago, and he will not do it again. Fortunately, his unusual life has equipped him well to outsmart the villain chasing Olivia. Unfortunately, being so near her again threatens to expose every secret in his heart…even those that should stay hidden forever.
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