Kelly Bowen grew up in Canada and earned a master of science degree in veterinary physiology and endocrinology from the University of Manitoba. But it was Kelly's infatuation with history and a weakness for a good love story that led her down the path of historical romance. Kelly currently lives in Winnipeg with her husband and two boys, all of whom are wonderfully patient with the writing process. Except, that is, when they need a goalie for street hockey.
Meeting a Stranger on Christmas Eve with Kelly Bowen
The theme of my story is “Meeting a Stranger on Christmas Eve.” What better way to meet one than to have one crawl through your window (the chimney being too tight, of course) on a frosty Christmas Eve night? And while my stranger never reveals his name, I think readers who are familiar with my Lords of Worth series might just recognize the blond-haired, blue-eyed man who unlocks this woman’s heart just as surely as he unlocks her window…
4:38 am, Christmas, 1818
When Clara swung the poker, she’d been aiming for his head.
But the intruder was faster than seemed humanly possible and ducked, dropping from the sill and rolling across the rug like some summer fair acrobat. Clara lifted the heavy iron and swung again, but the stranger had already gained his feet and dodged just out of her reach. The poker thudded into the rug, narrowly missing his legs. Unfortunately, the impact jarred the iron from her sweaty palms and it clattered away under the bed. She snatched up the next nearest weapon to hand.
“For the love of God, stop,” the man said, sounding a little breathless. “Before someone gets hurt.”
“You should have thought of that before you went creeping into a woman’s bedroom in the dead of night,” Clara snapped. She should have been terrified. In another life, she would have been. But the last few years had taught her to take her fate into her own hands. So now, she buried fear under fury.
“I wasn’t creeping.” The thief, or whatever he was, had sidled around the far side of the bed. “Criminals creep. Things with eight legs creep. Slugs creep. But I do not creep.”
“Anything that comes in through the window and not the door creeps.” Clara advanced further into the room, putting herself squarely between the bedroom door and the intruder. He would have to go through her before he could get to any of her girls. They were hers to protect. And she was prepared to die trying.
There were no gas lights outside the window to illuminate the room so the only light came from the weak moon beams that filtered in and the meager coal fire in the hearth. It was hard to make out any of the man’s features, though she could tell that his hair was some shade of blond. And that he wasn’t very tall. And oddly enough, he didn’t seem threatening. At all.
Yet Clara knew from experience that things were rarely as they seemed.
“The door downstairs was bolted,” the thief said. “I didn’t allow myself the time to deal with a bolted door. I had no other recourse but the window.”
Clara felt her mouth drop open. “When presented with a locked door, some people choose to knock.”
“Yes, well, I’m not some people. And this was supposed to have been done covertly. Without you or any of the girls knowing that I was ever here.” Now the man sounded resigned and a little annoyed. “This isn’t your room. It should have been empty.”
Clara wasn’t sure what part of that disturbing declaration to address first. “How do you know this isn’t my room?”
“I asked Ruth. She told me that all the girls sleep in the big room at the back of the house. You sleep in the corner room at the front of the house. The other corner,” he muttered.
“What?” Apprehension prickled. Ruth was four years old, the youngest of the six orphan girls who lived with her. And the one who had spilt an entire washbasin of soapy water all over Clara’s bed after dinner, forcing Clara to sleep in this room.
And seemingly, the one who hadn’t yet learned that strangers were never to be trusted.
“I’m usually much better at this,” the man muttered. “I don’t remember the last time someone caught me-”
“Thieving?” Clara laughed, though it was without humor. “I hate to disappoint you, but there is nothing in this place to take. Any valuables were sold off long ago to pay for taxes-”
“Taxes and outstanding debts your late husband left you three years ago, I know. I also know the spinning business you’ve set up makes barely enough to feed and clothe the girls you’ve taken in over the years. Believe me, I’m not here to steal from you. I’m not here to hurt you or any of the girls. I want to help.”
Clara blinked. “Help with what?” She recalled his earlier statement. “And what was supposed to have been done covertly?”
“Could you light a candle so I can show you?” the thief-who-might-not-be-a-thief sighed. “And you can put down your hairbrush. I promise not to challenge you to a duel of toiletries.”
Clara glanced down at the sturdy wooden brush she still brandished in her hand, feeling a little foolish. But it was better than nothing. Though the heavy silver one she had sold last year would have been better. It would have had more punch if she had to throw it at him.
The use of her name on his lips jolted her out of her thoughts and sent inexplicable thrills down her spine. “That would be Mrs. Howells, to you,” she made herself say.
The stranger had the gall to chuckle. “Do you not think circumstance takes us beyond such superfluous niceties, Clara?” he asked. “Besides, it’s a rule that once a woman tries to kill a man with a poker, he gets to call that woman whatever he likes. And especially when that woman is as beautiful as her name.”
Clara felt her mouth drop open for the second time in as many minutes. “You can barely see me. I’m standing in the dark,” she sputtered.
“Yesterday in the square you weren’t.”
“You were spying on me?” She should be horrified. Except it had been a very long time since anyone had called her beautiful, and the compliment was obliterating good sense.
“I don’t spy. I…collect information.”
“So you’re a creeping spy.” She tried to regain her wits.
The stranger made a strangled sound. “Can I just have some light so that I can give you what I have and be on my way?”
Clara hesitated. The smart thing to do would be to run. Dash out the door and lock it behind her. Bar herself in with the girls until she could fetch help. But help from whom? And from what? She was standing in the middle of a bedroom, dressed only in her chemise and a thick woolen robe, holding a hairbrush. If the stranger had wanted to overpower her, he would have done so already. Instead he had called her beautiful. And then offered to leave, though not before he gave her something.
Curiosity was getting the better of her. And if doing what he asked meant he left faster, then that would be best, wouldn’t it?
Clara straightened and moved back to her dressing table, putting her hairbrush down and lighting her oil lamp. The room was suddenly flooded with soft light.
She turned back to the stranger. And stared.
He was indeed blond, and not overly tall. But the darkness had concealed the fact that he looked like a golden prince. Or maybe an angel. He possessed chiseled features and intense blue eyes – the sort of face that ancient Greek artists would have scrambled to capture in marble. He was dressed in tight, dark clothing, and there was no mistaking the powerful body contained in his compact frame.
Really, all he was missing was a crown of some sort. Or maybe a pair of wings.
“Thank you,” he said and then he smiled at her.
Clara nearly dropped the lantern under the force of that smile and her insides turned to mush. She wasn’t sure if any man had ever looked at her the way this one was looking at her right now. Like she was the only woman on the face of the earth.
They stared at each other for a long minute, before the wind gusted and rattled the open window and the stranger started.
“I brought this.” He edged out from behind the bed to the window, reaching through the open space and hauling a burlap sack from the slate of the roof into the room. He latched the window closed behind him against the chill.
“You brought that sack over the roof and through the window?” Clara managed to find her voice.
“Well, it certainly wasn’t going to fit down the chimney. And we’ve already discussed the door.”
“What is all that?”
“Gifts?” That made no sense.
“For the girls.”
Clara stared at the beautiful stranger. “I don’t understand.”
“You work yourself to the bone providing for these girls. I know how much you’ve sacrificed to keep this house. And I know that there was not money left over this year for anything as frivolous as Christmastide gifts.”
Clara blinked, feeling a little like she might need to sit down.
The man bent, dug into the sack, and pulled out a prettily painted wooden doll. “This is for Ruth.” He caught Clara’s stare and grinned at her. “I’ve seen how she gazes at the ones in the knack shop windows.”
He bent again, delving back into the bag, pulling out gifts for each of her girls, explaining every one. Clara set the lantern back down on the dressing table, realizing her hands were shaking.
When the stranger was finished he straightened and looked up at her. “What do you think?”
Clara shook her head. “I don’t know what to think.”
“Are the gifts suitable?” A faint shadow of concern touched his face.
“They’re perfect,” she whispered.
“Good. I only had my brothers to help me with the shopping. And when it comes to females that don’t have hooves and four legs, my siblings are next to useless.”
Clara pressed a hand to her mouth, afraid she was going to cry. “I don’t know how to repay you for this-”
“You already have.” The stranger stepped toward her and Clara’s heart stuttered. “You’ve saved the lives of six girls simply because of who you are.”
Clara opened her mouth to protest.
“I know what happens to young girls left on the street with no one who cares. I’ve seen it. And I see what you do to make a difference.”
Clara could only nod.
“I’m sorry if I scared you,” he said, glancing over at the window. “I had planned to leave these in the kitchen for the girls to find in the morning. And I was supposed to do it without anyone ever knowing I was here.”
“Oh.” Clara’s thoughts and wits had scattered, and emotion was threatening to make a fool out of her. When was the last time someone had done something like this for her? Without expecting something in return? “Thank you,” she said, trying to keep her voice steady. “The girls will be so happy. They understand that it’s hard, but sometimes…”
“Sometimes four year-olds don’t understand tax laws.” The stranger took another step closer and Clara forgot to breathe. “There is one more gift,” he said. “For you.”
Clara shook head. “I don’t need anything-”
The stranger put a finger against her lips and Clara shivered. “I know you don’t need anything. But sometimes that’s the best reason to have it.” His hand dropped from her lips. “Close your eyes.”
Clara obeyed, knowing she had completely lost her mind, but she was utterly incapable of refusing.
She felt the man move behind her, his fingers sweeping the heavy mass of her dark hair off her back and over her shoulder. She bit her lip, her legs threatening to give out. There was a tickle at her throat and then she felt the warmth of his hands at the nape of her neck. And then he moved away.
“Open your eyes,” he said quietly.
Clara did as he asked to find him watching her. She felt a familiar weight at the base of her throat even as her hand came up to curl around the edges of the gold pendant shaped like an angel, a diamond nestled at its heart. She didn’t need to look at it to know what it was.
It had been her mother’s, and her mother’s before that, and her dearest possession. And Clara had sold it a week ago to pay off the last of the remaining debts. She had cried despite herself when she had sold it, just like she was crying silently now, tears slipping unchecked down her cheeks.
“How did you know?” she whispered.
“The jeweler you sold it to – my, ah, colleagues and I do quite a bit of business with him.” He smiled gently and reached out to wipe a tear from her cheek. “I thought you should have it back.”
Clara was still clutching the angel, but now she let go, catching the stranger’s hand in her own. “Thank you,” she said, her voice unsteady. “For this. For everything.”
He reached out and pushed a piece of hair away from her face, something in his eyes shifting as they searched hers. “You’re welcome,” he said before he kissed her.
It was a gentle kiss, his lips soft against hers, the warmth of this stranger filling the cold empty place in her heart and her soul. She wanted it to go on forever, wanted to drown in the feelings and the sensations that she had missed for so long. But all too soon, it was over.
“I have to go,” he said, the fall of his bright hair across his forehead shadowing his eyes. “I don’t want to be here when the girls wake up.”
Clara nodded, not trusting herself to speak. Her heart was pounding, her face was flushed, and her lips were tingling. But most of all, a strange, hopeful joy had flooded through her.
The stranger drifted back to the window, his movements fluid and sure. He unlatched the window and glanced down, swinging a leg over the sill. “I hope you know that you’re not alone, Clara. You’re not the only one who cares.”
“Will I see you again?” Clara asked, joining him at the window, not wanting to let go yet.
“I suspect so.” The man’s lips twitched. “I might need to visit the armorer first.”
She found herself smiling with him. “I’m sorry I tried to kill you with a poker.”
“I might suggest you use the door next time,” she said.
“The door,” he mused, with a grin. “I’d like that very much. And who knows?” he said, as he caught her hand and pressed a soft kiss to the backs of her knuckles. “I might even knock.”
“Happy Christmas,” she whispered.
“Happy Christmas, Clara,” her stranger said, before disappearing out into the darkness.
The earl doth protest. . .For businessman Heath Hextall, inheriting an earldom has been a damnable nuisance. The answer: find a well-bred, biddable woman to keep his life in order and observe the required social niceties. But it's always been clear that Lady Josephine Somerhall is not that woman. Once a shy slip of a girl, Joss is now brilliant, beautiful chaos in a ball gown. . .But the lady knows best...In her heart, Joss has always loved Heath, the one person she's always been able to count on. That doesn't mean she wants to marry him though. Without a husband, Joss can do as she pleases - and now, it pleases her to solve the mystery of an encoded file given to Heath by a dying man. It's put Heath in peril once, and Joss won't let that happen again. She'll do what she must to ensure the earl's safety. And to remind him that what she lacks in convention, she makes up for in passion.
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