Amy writes historical romance about dashing, and sometimes dangerous, men who know just how to get what they want and women who at times may be reckless, bold, and unconventional, but who always have the courage to embrace all that life and love have to offer.
Amy grew up in a small dairy town in northern Wisconsin and after earning a Liberal Arts degree from the University of Minnesota - Twin Cities, she eventually made her way back to Wisconsin (though to a slightly larger town) and lives there with her husband, three children and a black lab. She spends her early mornings writing then heads to her "other" job, dreaming of the day she can write full-time. The rest of her time is spent trying to keep up with the kids and squeeze in some stolen moments with her husband.
I would like to start off by saying how excited I am to be a part of this wonderful holiday event. It took a bit of internal debate, but I decided to go ahead with an original story including brand-new, never-before-introduced characters. It was a lot of fun to write, and I hope you all enjoy this little story about expectation, opportunity, and a fateful meeting in a winter garden.
An Unexpected Encounter
December 23, 1821
The Earl of Chalstrom’s Annual Christmas Ball
Attending the ball uninvited had been a terrible idea. Staying long enough to draw a bit of attention had only made it worse.
But Susanna Whitford had been desperate.
What else was she to do when her maid—an industrious gatherer of all sorts of vital information—advised her earlier in the evening that the Scottish earl, Lord Darrow, was to be in attendance?
The only clear option had been to immediately dress in one of her finest gowns before sneaking from her father’s townhouse without a chaperone to attend the ball herself, despite the fact that she wasn’t on the guest list.
It had taken barely twenty minutes for her to realize her error in judgement. It wasn’t so much the curious sideways glances her appearance inspired—she’d gotten rather accustomed to such things—rather, it was the realization that she hadn’t the slightest idea what she’d do once she encountered Lord Darrow. She didn’t even know what he looked like for heaven’s sake, though she couldn’t help herself from scanning amongst the many guests for a spot of plaid. (Not that he would wear a kilt to a London ball, but without even the most basic description of the man, she had nothing else to go on.)
So it was that after making two tense passes through the crowded ballroom, Susanna was a bit relieved to notice the partially open door tucked behind the musicians. Without a second thought, she took to opportunity to slip away.
The room beyond was unlit, but it had a window. A lovely casement window that overlooked the garden behind her host’s mansion. The moon was just bright enough to cast a faint and welcoming glow on the night sky.
Striding swiftly to the window, Susanna released the latch and swung the casement wide. It was quick work for her to ease her hips onto the sill then tuck her legs through the opening until they dangled outside, followed by a short drop to the terrace that extended along the entire length of the house.
The winter night air was just bracing enough to cause an instant chill along her bare arms and shoulders. It was nothing like the winters of her youth in northern New England, but she found the cold quite welcome after the stuffy heat of the ballroom.
Of course, now that she was outside and free from the stares and whispers, fleeing the ball altogether didn’t seem as necessary as it had a moment ago. Still, she crossed the terrace to rest her gloved hands on the cold stone balustrade.
Lord Darrow was still somewhere inside. She had already broken several social rules to be here, she may as well stay until she managed to identify the man. Just a few minutes to bolster her nerves, then she’d return to the ball and resume her search.
“I suppose I should ask if you are in need of assistance, though I am inclined to doubt it since I saw how competently you climbed from that window.”
Susanna started and spun around at the words spoken from almost directly behind her.
A gentleman, tall of form and broad of shoulder, wearing all black in the finest of London fashion, stood with his back against the wall just beside her window with a pipe in hand. While she stared at him in speechless shock, he flared a match and lit the contents of the pipe, puffing until the tobacco glowed bright enough to illuminate his face.
He was handsome. But in a way not many Englishmen were.
His hair was dark and though it was neatly trimmed, it seemed to hold a natural curl that had it falling over his ears and brow in a haphazard way. His features were broad; deep-set eyes, defined cheekbones, a strong nose, and a harsh, masculine jawline.
“What are you doing out here?” she asked far too bluntly once she found her voice again. It was one of her greatest faults, her willingness to say exactly what came to mind.
He lifted his brows at her abrupt query, his eyes settling on her in a casual fashion as he drew on his pipe. Then he tipped his head back against the wall, letting the smoke slide from his lips and up into the night sky.
“I am having a smoke.”
“It is not polite to smoke in the presence of a lady.”
“Yes, but I was here first,” he replied, not at all contrite.
Susanna stiffened. “Well, I am not leaving,” she replied stubbornly, giving him her back again as she turned to face the garden.
He chuckled. Or at least, she thought he did. The sound was low enough, it could have been a clearing of the throat.
She did her best to ignore him, to gather her wits for another foray through the ballroom. Looking out over the wintery garden, she found herself disappointed by the view. It was all brown earth, barren trees, and prickly, leafless bushes, without the benefit of sparkling, white snow to soften the scene.
“It doesn’t seem right that we should be two days from Christmas and there isn’t the slightest bit of snow on the ground.”
“It is expected to rain before the evening is over.”
She hadn’t realized she’d voiced her comment on the weather out loud until he replied. She glanced over her shoulder to see he still stood with his shoulders back against the wall, one ankle crossed over the other.
“Rain is hardly the same as snow,” she pointed out.
He gave a nod but didn’t reply as he drew on his pipe. He seemed to swirl the smoke about in his mouth for a moment before blowing it out again in a long and steady stream.
She looked back to the unenticing garden.
Something about the man that made her wary even as it intrigued her. He spoke with all the diction and deportment of a London gentleman, but there was a nonchalance to his manner that suggested a lack of the innate arrogance she had become so accustomed to in the other English lords she’d met.
“Do you intend to stay out here much longer?” he asked, his voice drifting over her shoulder as he came up beside her at the rail to tap the ash from his pipe over the side.
She eyed him askance. He was as tall as she’d expected. Her head only just topped his shoulder, and she was not a petite woman.
“I expect so,” she answered. “For a little while longer, at least.”
“I was afraid of that.” He began to shrug his coat off his shoulders.
“What are you doing?” she asked, not a little shocked that he would remove his coat in her presence.
“I cannot in good conscience stand out here in a shirt, waistcoat, and coat while you have nothing but those filmy little bits of silk draped over your bare shoulders.”
She held up her hand to stop his unnecessary chivalry. “I assure you, I am fine. I hail from a place with far harsher winters than this.”
“Oh? Where is that?” he asked, shaking out his coat.
“New York, where the snow falls in great white drifts and the air gets frigid with ice.”
He gave her an odd look, seeming to be taken aback by her answer. “You are from New York.”
She nodded. Though her background often elicited a less than positive response from new acquaintances, she was proud of where she was from. “Up until my father inherited a title and properties from a distant cousin. So you see, these mild English winters don’t bother me at all.”
“All the same,” he muttered as he ignored her protests and swept his coat around her shoulders before she could stop him.
“This is highly improper,” she argued even as she lifted her hands to grasp the edges of the coat that smelled faintly of pipe tobacco. Without quite intending to, she sighed as warmth surrounded her. Warmth generated by his body.
An unexpected thrill ran through Susanna at the thought of the shared intimacy. She knew he had given her his coat strictly out of polite consideration, but it touched her all the same.
Falling silent, she stared out into the dreary, gray garden with the stranger now standing at her side, doing the same.
“Since we are both going to remain out here until you decide you are ready to go back inside,” he stated in a low voice, “perhaps you’d like to share the reason for your little escape through the window.”
“I wasn’t invited,” she replied without thinking. Then wanted to kick herself for admitting such a thing to a stranger. It would be within his rights and duty as a gentleman to fetch a footman to have her escorted from the premises.
But he didn’t scoff or sputter with affront. Instead, he turned to face her and asked as bluntly as she had just answered, “Then why are you here?”
Susanna sighed. Why, indeed? Keeping her focus forward, though she could feel the gentleman’s gaze now directed intently upon her profile, she replied, “There is someone I had to see.”
“Oh.” The word carried a wealth of meaning.
She swiftly turned to look at him. He wore a look of faint amusement, with one corner of his mouth tilted upward. That tilt revealed a very pleasantly shaped mouth. Wide and generous, yet with firm, sculpted lips.
She cleared her throat. “You misunderstand.” Oh, what did it matter? She was wrapped in the gentleman’s coat, he may as well know the truth of it. “My father arranged a betrothal to a man I’d never met.”
“A betrothal,” he repeated. She did not think she imagined the stiffness in his voice and it set her on the defensive.
“To a stranger,” she added, feeling the build-up of pressure she’d experienced repeatedly since her father had told her of the sudden match. “I was given no say in the matter at all. I was simply called to my father’s study two days ago and was advised that I would be marrying a man who isn’t even from England—not that that really matters since I am not originally from England either, but it certainly didn’t help the fact that the whole arrangement feels a bit like I am being shipped off.”
His minimal response irritated her. “I don’t expect you to understand. Men so rarely understand anything of real importance.”
“No, I understand. You wanted to catch a glimpse of the man. Introduce yourself as his intended?”
“Yes. No.” she huffed a sigh. “I don’t know. I haven’t figured that out yet. I tend to be a bit impulsive at times.”
He glanced back at the open window, “Yes, I gathered that.” After a moment, he asked, “You oppose the marriage?”
She had been speaking honestly so far, she may as well continue the trend. “Not marriage per se. I do hope for a family someday, a home of my own, a…husband who might appreciate me for who I am.”
His brows lowered as he tipped his head slightly to the side. “You do not often feel appreciated for who you are?”
He would have to pick up on that.
“Considering I went four full seasons without a proposal before my father became embarrassed enough to send me to live in the country for the last three years only to call me back to London with news of an engagement to a Scotsman who was certainly lured by my dowry rather than my sparkling personality, I would say that is a fair statement.”
“A bit,” she admitted. “What sort of man becomes engaged to a woman sight unseen? A desperate man, that’s what. From what I understand, my intended is the chief of a large clan in need of a significant financial boost. I’ll likely be living in a crumbling castle in the middle of nowhere…” she grumbled, but in her next breath, she took it back. “No, that was unkind and unfair. I have no idea what his home is like, and honestly, the idea of a crumbling castle is rather intriguing. In truth, I wouldn’t mind living in northern Scotland. I rather like untamed landscapes.”
“And cold weather,” he offered.
She smiled. “Indeed. It would not be the first marriage made under such circumstances. But you’d think he’d at least want to meet me first.”
Again, with the hm. Tipping her head back, she looked directly into his intent and steady gaze. “You disagree? You think I am overreacting?”
“No. I think your points are valid. I am just considering the issue from the fellow’s point of view.”
“How do you mean?”
“If he has so many responsibilities, as you stated, and he is truly desperate to provide for those who depend on him, perhaps he felt he had no choice but to make such an arrangement. Perhaps he is a wary of you as you are of him. After all, what sort of woman goes four seasons without a proposal then disappears from society for three more?”
“Hm.” It was her turn to make the noncommittal sound, only from her it sounded more like a snort of disgruntlement. He made a point. She wouldn’t go so far as to say it was a good point, but it was something she hadn’t considered.
“So tell me,” he said in a low hush as he leaned toward her, “what exactly is wrong with you?”
She flinched. “Excuse me?” Her gaze swiftly rose to meet his and she realized by the wicked little curve at the corner of his lips that he was teasing her.
Still, the added proximity as he bent toward her, leaving only a few inches between them, caused a sweet little shiver to course down the back of her neck. A shiver that stretched to her fingers and toes as he continued to speak in an intimate tone.
“You are pleasant enough to look at. Obviously intelligent. And then there is the fortune,” he added with another quirk of his mouth. “How did you go so long without an offer?”
She heaved an exasperated sigh. “With my dark hair and a complexion that will never achieve the preferred peaches and cream, I do not inspire odes to feminine beauty. Most would consider pleasant-looking to be rather generous. My bluntness of speech, which you have been forced to endure now for quite a bit longer than any gentleman has managed before, garners quite the opposite of admiration. And then there is my uncouth American background, which can never be overcome despite the mountains of wealth my father inherited.”
For some odd reason, she believed he did. The discrimination she’d faced since her debut, initially due to her inability to conform to the expected picture of English feminine ideals, and later, because of her refusal to do so, had been a singular experience. And one that had proven impossible to explain to her father.
Yet this unnamed gentleman seemed to gather the pertinent elements of her difficulty within a few sentences of conversation.
“I imagine your father has allowed for an out if you and your betrothed does not suit,” he said thoughtfully after a while.
“An out?” she hadn’t thought of that but she rather doubted it. Her father had been too keen on seeing her wed off to let an opportunity like this come along without securing it in definitive terms. “This may sound strange after all I’ve said, but the truth is…” She took a slow breath in, the cold damp air filling her lungs in full before she let it out again. “I don’t necessarily want an out.”
He lifted a brow in surprise.
“As I have already admitted, I want everything marriage would provide. I just wish I had been free to choose my own husband. And that he had chosen me, the actual me, not the me presented on paper in a marriage contract.”
“And you had hoped to catch a glimpse of him tonight to see if he is a man you would like to marry?”
“Then why are you out here?”
She looked up to meet his dark, earnest gaze, and gave a tight little smile. “What if after he meets me, he regrets his decision. What if he doesn’t choose me?”
There was a long silence after that and she almost wished she could take the words back. But she’d learned long ago, through many social gaffs, that such a thing wasn’t possible. She learned to simply commit to whatever direction her wayward tongue led.
There was also the fact that she felt better having finally confessed her true fear. And somehow…saying it to this man, who stood far closer than was proper and looked at her with a calm sort of seriousness mixed with a degree of compassion that did not seem the least bit forced, made her feel safe in having been so honest.
After a moment, he released a heavy breath. The warmth from his body evaporated in a puff of steam in the air. Then he lifted his hand. Susanna held her breath as he brushed back a strand of her hair that had fallen against her temple. The light brush of his gloved fingers sent a warming tingle across her skin.
“Perhaps your betrothed is feeling as pressed as you are,” he suggested gently. “Perhaps he worries that his bride will not find favor in a Scotsman more attuned to his northern country than the forced civilities of London society. Perhaps he is uncertain of the way he’s chosen to safeguard his land and people for future generations.”
“Perhaps,” she breathed, feeling disappointed when he dropped his hand back to his side.
“You may find a kindred spirit in the man you are to marry.”
“I would love to believe that’s possible,” she said, fully earnest, “but I do not expect to be so lucky.”
He intentionally met her gaze as he answered quietly, “Luck or fate, some things happen for a reason.”
“Like our encounter tonight.” She shouldn’t have said it. She knew what the words and her tone might imply.
He smiled and took a step back from her. She resisted his retreat. She wasn’t ready to let him go just yet. “Wait.”
He looked at her in question.
“It does not seem fair that I have given so much of myself in this conversation while you have given me nothing of you.”
“Not true. I have given you understanding, empathy, advice…my coat.”
She smiled. “All things I did not expect to find out here when I slipped through that window, but still not quite an equal trade.”
“What would you have from me then?”
She considered that carefully. She could ask for his name, his history, or his dreams for the future. But she had no right to such things. Not when her own future didn’t even seem to belong to her.
Only this moment was fully hers, if she had the courage to claim it.
“Are you married?”
He coughed, obviously surprised by the question. But he answered all the same. “No, I am not.”
Susanna gathered her resolve. “Then I ask for a kiss.”
“A kiss?” He seemed uncertain that he heard her correctly.
“Is it such a scandalous request?” she asked, knowing full well that it was. “We are perfect strangers and in a few minutes we will part forever. Is it so terrible to wish for one small romantic experience before I tread forth into the rest of my life with a man I’ve never met?” She did not give him a chance to answer that. “As long as you do not spread tales of our encounter, and I have already determined that you are too much of a gentleman for that, I would like a kiss. A trifling gesture, really.”
She thought she saw amusement curving his lips again. “Do you request kisses often, then?”
“No,” she answered honestly. “Never.”
He appeared to be frozen in indecision. His handsome features grew tense, but his dark eyes never left hers.
Susanna held her breath, saying nothing more. Waiting.
When he finally dipped his chin and took a step toward her, a tingling rush swept through her and she knew…this was a moment she would remember for the rest of her life. His hand came up again, this time to cradle the side of her face. She resisted the urge to nuzzle her cheek into the warmth of his palm. Then he took another step forward and brought his other hand around her to gently press against the small of her back.
Her eyes drifted closed as he lowered his head and brushed a soft kiss across her chilled lips.
It was brief, but beautiful. Full of warmth and kindness.
Then he tensed, as though preparing to step back. But he didn’t. Instead, she felt the press of his mouth again. This one a more firm and deliberate meeting of the lips. One that curled her fingers into the material of his coat as she clasped it to her breast. One that made her knees watery and sent her thoughts spinning wildly.
Her only complaint was that it ended too soon.
He stepped back, dragging the coat from around her shoulders as he did so. The winter air rushed over her bared skin and the sudden chill shocked her system as it came so swiftly after the heat his kiss had inspired within her. She opened her eyes and blinked a few times only to see that he was already several steps away, shrugging back into his coat.
He cleared his throat, refusing to meet her gaze as he said gruffly, “You’d best be getting inside, lass, before you catch your death.”
He turned and strode swiftly away, disappearing into the darkness around the corner of the house. It took that long for her thoughts to reorganize enough to acknowledge the slight Scottish burr that had slipped into the cadence of his speech with his parting words.
“Hm,” she hummed thoughtfully as she turned to glance back out over the garden. A smile widened her warmed lips as perfect, crystalline snowflakes began to fall from the night sky, transforming the dreary scene into something lovely indeed.
Lily Chadwick has spent her life playing by society’s rules. But when an unscrupulous moneylender snatches her off the street and puts her up for auction at a pleasure house, she finds herself in the possession of a man who makes her breathless with terror and impossible yearning…Though the reclusive Earl of Harte claimed Lily with the highest bid, he hides a painful secret—one that has kept him from knowing the pleasure of a lover’s touch. Even the barest brush of skin brings him physical pain, and he’s spent his life keeping the world at arms’ length. But there’s something about Lily that maddens him, bewitches him, compels him…and drives him toward the one woman brave and kind enough to seek to heal his troubled heart.
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