Excerpt: Once Upon a Christmas Eve

Excerpt: Once Upon a Christmas Eve

Book 10.7: Maiden Lane

CHAPTER ONE

Upper Hornsfield, England
December 1741

Adam Rutledge, Viscount d’Arque loathed Christmas. The banal cheerfulness. The sly demands for charity. The asinine party games.

Oh, and the obligatory journey to the countryside.

The last was the reason he found himself in his present predicament. Late at night. In a snowstorm. In a wrecked carriage. On some godforsaken road. With his grandmother, Victoire Moore, Baroness Whimple.

His grandmother loved Christmas.

And Adam loved his grandmother.

“Hal informs me both the wheel and the axle are broken,” Adam said as he tucked the furs more securely around the delicate skin of Grand-mère’s chin. She’d been trying to hide a cough from him for the last several days. “The heated bricks should keep you warm. I’m taking one of the horses and striking out to seek refuge. I pray for a fat country squire with buxom daughters—or at least good brandy.”

His grandmother snorted. “Attempt not to be so distracted by the buxom daughters that you leave your grandmother to freeze.”

“Never, darling.” He leaned down to kiss her on her creped cheek, glanced at his grandmother’s elderly maid, sleeping beside her, and then turned and swiftly left the carriage.

Outside, the wind drove fine, icy flakes of snow into his face as he trudged to Hal and the two footmen.

Hal, the driver of the wrecked carriage, looked up as he neared. “We’ve got ’er un’itched, m’lord.”

Adam nodded. “Good. You’ve your pistols?”

Richard, the elder of the footmen, nodded. “Yes, m’lord.”

“Stay with my grandmother,” Adam ordered. “I doubt there’ll be any highwaymen out on a night like this, but be ’ware in any case. I’ll return as soon as I can.”

Richard gave him a leg up on the mare, and then Adam was off.

They’d passed the light of a house not that far back—two miles, maybe less, according to Hal—but he was riding into the wind, without a saddle, and could see only a few feet in front of the nag’s nose.

His main concern was making sure he stayed on the road. The land dropped off a bit on the right, and if the horse wandered in the darkness they’d take a tumble that would be rather a bother—especially if he broke his neck.

He bowed his head against the wind and nudged the mare onto the road.

A half hour later Adam had managed to coax the mare into a jolting trot and was just beginning to wonder if his fingers were completely frozen when he caught sight of glowing lights.

Thank God.

He wanted Grand-mère out of that carriage and in front of a roaring fire as soon as possible.

Stone pillars marked a drive, which was a good sign—a country residence of some standing, then. He turned the mare’s head, and they made their way down a winding approach that might’ve been scenic. At the moment he could see naught but the blinding snow and the growing glow of those lights.

The drive ended abruptly before a massive mansion. Lovely. Hopefully he hadn’t seduced the country squire’s wife in London during his rather checkered past—or at least, if he had, he hoped the country squire wasn’t aware of it.

Adam dismounted his gallant steed—with less grace than usual owing to the fact that his feet appeared to have turned to ice—and climbed the front steps. He pounded on the door—and continued pounding until it was opened by a coldly unwelcoming face.

The man, though untitled, was from one of the oldest aristocratic families in Britain. He was tall, wore a gray wig, and regarded Adam over a pair of half-moon spectacles. Many people might think the man standing in the doorway benign and boring on first glance.

Many people would be bloody wrong.

Damn. This was worse than a cuckolded country squire.

“Yes?” said Godric St. John.

Adam affixed a genial smile to his lips, though he wasn’t entirely sure it worked because he couldn’t actually feel his lips. “St. John. How fortuitous. My carriage has wrecked on the road several miles back and I wonder—”

“Has it?” interrupted St. John rudely.

Adam narrowed his eyes, his smile still in place. Or at least he hoped so—frozen lips and all. “Yes, my grand—”

“Who is it, Godric?”

And here came the reason for St. John’s boorishness. Dark-brown curls tumbling down from a haphazardly made coiffure, pink cheeks blossoming sweetly, brown eyes alight with curiosity, one small brat on her hip and—good God—another swelling her belly to alarming proportions, Lady Margaret St. John sailed into the hall behind her husband. Flirt with a man’s wife once—quite innocently!—and he never seemed to forget it.

At least, that is, if the gentleman in question was Godric St. John.

“Oh,” Lady Margaret exclaimed at the sight of him turning to solid ice on her husband’s doorstep. “Lord d’Arque, do come in out of the cold.”

“Thank you, my lady.” He did as he was bid and cast his rictus grin on the mistress of the household. “How enchanting to find you, Lady Margaret, blooming even in the frozen midwinter night like a full-blown rose, sweetly scented, gorgeous to behold, and impossible to ignore.” He took her hand and bent over it, making sure to linger until he heard a faint growl from St. John behind him.

When he rose the child was staring at him, her finger stuck between stickily pursed lips.

He blinked.

Larvae were not his area of expertise.

“Bees.” The new voice was feminine and husky, and held just a hint of scorn.

Adam couldn’t help it. His head jerked up at the sound.

St. John’s half sister stood behind Lady Margaret.

Sarah St. John was blandly blond, of average height and everyday beauty.

The look she was giving him, however, was anything but everyday: it held pure disdain.

“I beg your pardon?” he drawled with exquisite politeness.

“No need to apologize, my lord,” Miss St. John replied. “I believe you were just about to allude to bees and flowers, perhaps with yourself as the bee?”

He winced, inhaling sharply through his teeth. “Dear me, no. Rather banal, don’t you think?”

She smiled sweetly. “Oh, is banality something you worry about, my lord? I hadn’t noticed.”

The little witch.

Adam kept his urbane smile with difficulty, though he had the feeling it might be more a baring of the teeth at the moment.

Sarah St. John should have been utterly forgettable. He’d met the lady only once, and that fleetingly.

Yet he remembered her for two reasons

The first was that Miss St. John had made it plain she hated him on sight—an occurrence unique in Adam’s experience.

The second was that on that occasion he’d found himself immediately and overwhelmingly attracted to Miss St. John.

Or, to put it another way:

He wanted her.

– ### –

Sarah St. John loathed rakes.

The self-satisfied smirks. The sly predatory gazes. Oh, and the constantly witty banter rife with double meaning.

She especially hated that bit.

A lady who was the object of this sort of thing was supposed to bat her eyes and look coyly amused at the rake’s supposed wit—even if it endangered her own dignity.

Viscount d’Arque was the epitome of the breed.

Tall and elegant, even when in a defrosting greatcoat dripping onto Hedge House’s front hall, his high cheekbones reddened from the winter cold, he exuded aplomb and dash. His mobile mouth with its prominent Cupid’s bow quirked in a crooked smile at her, his dark brows arching up over cool gray eyes that sparkled with amusement.

At her expense, no doubt.

Lord d’Arque’s smile didn’t falter at her admittedly nasty jibe, but she watched as his shimmering gray eyes narrowed just a bit.

He said gently, “And you know me so well after one passing meeting, Miss St. John? Perhaps you’ve made an overhasty judgment.”

Beside her, Megs, her best friend and sister-in-law, seemed to choke on nothing at all, while Godric coughed.

Sarah felt her face heat—and knew she was blushing, most probably unattractively.

Damn the man.

She opened her mouth to make a retort, but Megs beat her to it. “Do stop badgering His Lordship, Sarah, and let the man thaw a bit so he can properly defend himself.” Megs turned her wide smile on the viscount. “My lord, would you care for some hot mulled wine in the sitting room? My mother-in-law’s cook is known for her spiced wine and guards her recipe as if it were the crown jewels.”

“Thank you, my lady,” the viscount replied, aiming his overly charming smile at her, “but as I was attempting to tell your husband, I am traveling with my grandmother, who is still in my carriage. I wonder if I might impose upon your goodwill so far as to ask for help in retrieving both her and our servants and inflicting ourselves on your household until the morning?”

Sarah’s mouth snapped shut at that. They were suffering through an unusually cold winter and she didn’t like to think that anyone, let alone an old lady, was caught outside in this weather.

Fortunately, her brother Godric was already motioning for a footman. “Have the carriage readied and brought round.” He turned to Lord d’Arque. “I’ll accompany you to bring back Lady Whimple.”

“Thank you,” the viscount said. “I confess your help is much appreciated.”

“Think nothing of it,” Godric replied. “We have several rooms to spare. I trust you’ll stay as our guests until your carriage is mended and you and your grandmother can travel again.”

“Yes, indeed,” Sarah said more soberly. “I know Mama will want you and your grandmother to stay. We’ll see to readying the rooms while you fetch her.”

Lord d’Arque’s heavy-lidded gray eyes seemed to glint as he bowed toward her. “Your graciousness humbles me, Miss St. John.”

The words were serious enough, but the viscount’s drawl always seemed to hold a mocking undertone, giving Sarah the uneasy feeling he was making fun of her.

Her eyes narrowed, but she refrained from snapping at him. Lady Whimple was the main concern at the moment.

Godric was already donning gloves and a hat as well as a fur-lined cloak. “Let’s fetch your grandmother,” he said to Lord d’Arque, and both gentlemen went back out into the storm.

Sarah eyed the closed door. “Evidently our Christmas party has expanded.”

“It has indeed,” Megs exclaimed, withdrawing an errant lock of her hair from baby Sophie’s mouth.

Sarah nodded, turning to the back of Hedge House—or simply Hedges, as the locals called it. She and Megs had been taking tea when they’d heard the knocking at the door. “We’d best inform Mama and then Mrs. Harris so she can make ready two more bedrooms.”

“Mm,” Megs murmured beside her. “What do you think? Old Dreary and the blue and white that overlooks the back garden?”

Sarah knit her brows. “Old Dreary for Lady Whimple?”

“Oh no,” said Megs, looking a little scandalized. “What if she woke in the night and saw him? It might give her a fatal fright. Old Dreary for Lord d’Arque, I think. He doesn’t seem the sort to turn a hair at anything he might find after midnight.”

“You sound very like the viscount now,” Sarah said with deep disapproval, “dropping double entendres here and there.” She stopped to lift her niece from Megs’s arms before continuing to the buttercup sitting room. “I think he’s a bad influence.”

“You’d say that anyway,” her sister-in-law replied, not unkindly. “We all know your views on rakes.”

“Humph,” said Sarah, and chose to kiss Sophie with a loud smack that made the baby giggle instead of replying.

She knew whatever she said would sound petty and mean.

She was biased. It was a simple fact. She had reason to know that rakish gentlemen caused heartache to ladies and she wouldn’t—couldn’t—simply turn aside from their flirtatious ways with a simper or a mere censorious frown.

“But you must admit he’s very exciting,” Megs mused as they arrived at the door to the sitting room.

“Perhaps,” Sarah said, “but I don’t especially like exciting gentlemen.”

“Don’t you?” Megs asked doubtfully.

“No,” Sarah replied quite firmly and squashed the small rebellious voice inside her head that whispered, Liar.