Authors: Grace Burrowes
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Copyright © 2015 by Grace Burrowes
Cover and internal design © 2015 by Sourcebooks, Inc.
Cover art by Jon Paul
Sourcebooks and the colophon are registered trademarks of Sourcebooks, Inc.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems—except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews—without permission in writing from its publisher, Sourcebooks, Inc.
The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.
Published by Sourcebooks Casablanca, an imprint of Sourcebooks, Inc.
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Also by Grace Burrowes
Lady Sophie’s Christmas Wish
Lady Maggie’s Secret Scandal
Lady Louisa’s Christmas Knight
Lady Eve’s Indiscretion
Lady Jenny’s Christmas Portrait
The Duke and His Duchess / The Courtship
Morgan and Archer
Jonathan and Amy
A Kiss for Luck
A Single Kiss
The First Kiss
Kiss Me Hello
The Bridegroom Wore Plaid
Once Upon a Tartan
The MacGregor’s Lady
What a Lady Needs for Christmas
Mary Fran and Matthew
The Lonely Lords
The Duke’s Disaster
Dedicated to those for whom the
love of animals has become a calling.
“The greatest plague ever to bedevil mortal man, the greatest threat to his peace, the most fiendish source of undeserved humility is
, and spinster sisters are the worst of a bad lot.” In the corridor outside the formal parlor, Nicholas, Earl of Bellefonte, sounded very certain of his point.
“Of course, my lord,” somebody replied softly, “but, my lord—”
“I tell you, Hanford,” the earl went on, “if it wouldn’t imperil certain personal masculine attributes which my countess holds dear, I’d turn Lady Nita right over my—”
lord, you have a visitor
Hanford’s pronouncement came off a little desperately but had the effect of silencing his lordship’s lament. Quiet words were exchanged beyond the door, giving Tremaine St. Michael time to step away from the parlor’s cozy fireplace, where he’d been shamelessly warming a personal attribute of his own formerly frozen to the saddle.
Bellefonte’s greeting as he strode into the parlor a moment later was as enthusiastic as his ranting had been.
“Our very own Mr. St. Michael! You are early. This is not fashionable. In fact, were I not the soul of congeniality, I’d call it unsporting in the extreme.”
“Bellefonte.” Tremaine St. Michael bowed, for Bellefonte was his social superior, also one of few men whose height and brawn exceeded Tremaine’s.
“Don’t suppose you have any sisters?” Bellefonte asked with a rueful smile. “I have four. They’re what my grandmother calls
So lively, Bellefonte had apparently bellowed at one of these sisters for the entire ten minutes Tremaine had been left to admire the spotless Turkey carpets in Belle Maison’s formal parlor. The sister’s responses had been inaudible until an upstairs door had slammed.
“Liveliness is a fine quality in a young lady,” Tremaine said, because he was a guest in this house, and sociability was called for if he was to relieve Bellefonte of substantial assets.
His lordship was welcome to keep all four sisters, thank you very much.
“Fat lot you know,” Bellefonte retorted, taking a position with his back to the fire. “If every man in the House of Lords had rounded up his
sisters and sent them to France, the Corsican would have been on bended knee, seeking asylum of old George in a week flat. How was your journey?”
Bellefonte had the blond hair and blue eyes of many an English aristocrat. The corners of those eyes crinkled agreeably, and he’d followed up Tremaine’s bow with a hearty handshake.
Bellefonte would never be a friend, but he was friendly.
“My journey was uneventful, if cold,” Tremaine said. “I apologize for making good time down from Town.”
“I apologize for complaining. I am blessed in my family, truly, but Lady Nita, my oldest sister, is particularly strong willed.”
Bellefonte’s hearty bonhomie faded to a soft smile as feminine laughter rang out in the corridor.
“You were saying?” Tremaine prompted. When would his lordship offer a guest a damned drink?
“Nothing of any moment, St. Michael. My sister Kirsten and my sister Della have taken note of your arrival. Shall we to the library, where the best libation and coziest hearth await? Beckman gave me to understand you’re not the tea-and-crumpets sort.”
When and why had his lordship’s brother conveyed that sentiment? Another thought intruded on Tremaine’s irritation: Bellefonte knew his womenfolk by their laughter. How odd was that?
“I’m the whiskey sort,” Tremaine said. “Winter ale wouldn’t go amiss either.” Not brandy though. Not if Tremaine could avoid it.
His lordship was too well-bred to raise an eyebrow at tastes refined in drovers’ inns the length of the realm.
“Whiskey, then. Hanford!”
A little old fellow in formal livery stepped into the parlor. “My lord?”
Bellefonte directed the butler to send some decent sandwiches ’round to the library, to fetch the countess to her husband’s side when the fiend in the nursery had turned loose of her, and to inform the housekeeper that Mr. St. Michael was on the premises earlier than planned.
His lordship set a smart pace down carpeted hallways, past bouquets of white hothouse roses and across gleaming parquet floors, to a high-ceilinged, oak-paneled treasury of books. Belle Maison was a well-maintained example of the last century’s enthusiasm for the spacious countryseat, and whoever had designed the house had had an eye for light.
The library was blessed with tall windows at regular intervals, and the red velvet draperies were caught back, despite the cold. Winter sunshine bounced cheerily off mirrors, brass, and silver, and here, too, the hearth was blazing extravagantly.
The entire impression—genial Lord Bellefonte; his dear, plaguey sisters; roaring fires even in empty rooms; the casual wealth lined up on the library’s endless, sunny shelves—left Tremaine feeling out of place.
Tremaine had been in countless aristocratic family seats and more than a few castles and palaces. The out-of-place feeling he experienced at Belle Maison was the fault of the sisters, whom Bellefonte clearly loved and worried over.
Commerce Tremaine comprehended, and even gloried in.
Sisters had no part in commerce, but the lively variety could apparently transform an imposing family seat into a home. Bellefonte’s sisters inspired slammed doors, fraternal grumbling, and even laughter, and in this, Belle Maison was a departure from Tremaine’s usual experience with titled English families.
“I know you only intended to stay for a few days,” Bellefonte said, gesturing to a pair of chairs beneath a tall window, “but my countess declares that will not do. You are to visit for at least two weeks, so the neighbors may come by and inspect you. Don’t worry. I’ll warn you which ones have marriageable daughters—which is most of them—and my brother George will distract the young ladies.”
After the winter journey from Town, the cozy library and plush armchair were exquisitely comfortable. To Tremaine, who had vivid memories of Highland winters, comfortable was never a bad thing.
“A few days might be all the time I can spare, my lord,” Tremaine said, seating himself in cushioned luxury. “The press of business waits for no man, and wasted time is often wasted money.”
“Protest is futile, no matter how sensible your arguments,” Bellefonte countered, folding his length into the second chair. “My countess has spoken, and my sisters will abet her. You are an eligible bachelor and, therefore, a doomed man.”
The earl crossed long legs at the ankle, the picture of a fellow to whom
was a merry concept.
“Her ladyship will ply you with delicacies at every meal,” he went on. “Kirsten will interrogate you about your business ventures, Susannah will discuss that Scottish poet fellow with you, and Della will catch you up on all the Town gossip. George will be glad you’re on hand to distract our sisters. The Haddonfield womenfolk are like faeries. A man falls into their clutches and time ceases to have meaning.”
. Tremaine’s Scottish grandfather had smacked that lesson into his hard little head before Tremaine had been breeched.
“What about your sister Lady Bernita?” Tremaine asked. The sister putting the worry and exasperation in her brother’s eyes, and inspiring the earl to raise his voice.
Tremaine would never approach an objective without reconnoitering first. Knowing who got on with whom often made the difference between closing a deal or watching the profits waltz into some other fellow’s pocket.
“Oh, her.” Bellefonte’s gaze went to the window, which looked out over terraced gardens in all their winter solemnity. Rosebushes were pruned back to knee height so that only canes of thorny bracken remained. The shadows of the hedges harbored dirty snow, and not a single bird enlivened the scene.
A tall, blond woman marched off toward the stables along a walk of crushed white shells. She wore a riding habit of dark blue—no clever hat or pheasant feather cocked over her ear—and her briskly swishing hems were muddy.
Bellefonte’s gaze followed the woman, his expression forlorn. “Lady Nita is very dear to me. She will be the death of us all.”
* * *
The baby was small and vigorously alive, two points in her favor—possibly the only two.
“Your mother is resting,” Nita said to the infant’s oldest sibling, “and this is your new sister. Does she have a name?”
Eleven-year-old Mary took the bundle from Nita’s arms. “Ma said a girl would be Annie Elizabeth. Ma wanted a boy though. Boys can do more work.”
“Boys also eat more, make more noise, and run off to become soldiers or worse,” Nita said. Boys became young wastrels who disported with the local soiled dove, heedless of the innocent life resulting from their pleasures, heedless that the soiled dove was a baronet’s granddaughter and a squire’s daughter. “Have you had anything to eat today, Mary?”
Thin, freckled, and wearing a dress that likely hadn’t been washed in weeks, Mary looked younger than her eleven years—also much, much older.
“Your mother will need more than bread to recover from this birth,” Nita said. “I’ve brought butter, sausage, jam, sugar, boiled eggs, and tea, in the sack on the table.”
Nita would have milk sent over too. She’d been distracted by her altercation with Nicholas, and in her haste to reach Addy Chalmers’s side, she’d neglected the most obvious need.
Mary pressed a kiss to Annie’s brow. “She’s ever so dear.”
Would that the child’s mother viewed the baby similarly. Nita went down to her haunches, the better to impress on young Mary what must be said.
“When Annie fusses, you bring her to your mother to nurse. When Annie’s had her fill, you burp her and take her back to her blankets. She’ll sleep a lot at first, but she needs to sleep where it’s quiet, warm, and safe.” Though the little cottage wouldn’t be warm again until summer.
Mary cradled the newborn closer. “I’ll watch out for her, Lady Nita. Ma won’t have any custom for weeks, and that means no gin. Wee Annie will grow up strong.”
Mary was an astute child, of necessity.
Nita rose, feeling the cold and the lateness of the hour in every joint and muscle.
“I’ll send the vicar’s wife by next week, and she’ll have more food for you and your brothers, and maybe even some coal.” The vicar’s maid of all work would, in any case. “You store the food where nobody can steal it, and here…” Nita withdrew five shillings from a pocket. “Don’t tell anybody you have this. Not your mother, not your brothers, not even wee Annie. This is for bread and butter, not for gin.”
“Thank you, Lady Nita.”
“I’ll come back next week to check on your mother,” Nita said, shrugging into one of George’s cast-off coats. “If she runs a fever or if the baby is doing poorly, come for me or send one of your brothers.”
Mary bobbed an awkward curtsy, the baby in her arms. “Yes, Lady Nita.”
Then Nita had nothing more to do except climb onto Atlas’s broad back and let the horse find his way home through the frigid darkness.
* * *
“They are charming, the lot of them,” Tremaine said. “I’d forgotten what a big, happy family can do to a man’s composure.” Particularly a big, happy, healthy family with Saxon good looks and a thriving appreciation for life’s finer comforts.
“Bellefonte is besotted,” Tremaine went on, scratching William’s hairy withers. “As is his countess.”
“I’m told it works better that way.”
William hadn’t spoken—William was a gelding and the voice was decidedly feminine.
A tall, blond female, rosy cheeked from the cold, led a saddled specimen of plow stock down the barn aisle. The flame of the stable’s single lantern gilded red-and-gold highlights in her hair, and the hem of her dark blue riding habit was damp.
She brought the beast to a halt outside William’s stall. “I don’t recognize you, sir.”
Tremaine recognized her though. The sculpted cheekbones, defined chin, height, and bearing—and the muddy hem—proclaimed the late-night arrival to be Lady Nita Haddonfield, oldest of the late earl’s daughters, and the selfsame woman who’d marched across the barren gardens hours ago.
“Tremaine St. Michael, at your service, my lady. I am visiting your brother to discuss common business interests.”
Something about his recitation bothered her. She was too tired to hide it, or perhaps she didn’t care if she offended him.
“May I take your horse, my lady?” Though why the grooms weren’t thundering down from their quarters above the carriage house, Tremaine could not guess.
“Why would you do that?” she asked, stuffing her gloves into a pocket. She wore a man’s coat, well made but too big, as if sized for one of her brothers. The cuffs had been turned back to accommodate her shorter arms, the collar turned up.
The great beast at her side let out a gusty sigh, as if to say debate and discussion could wait until he’d been unsaddled.
“I’d see to your horse because you are a lady and I am a gentleman,” Tremaine said, which was half-true, “and you should not have to manage your own mount at this late hour.” She should not be
to do a groom’s work at any hour.
Her ladyship patted the horse’s shaggy neck. “Atlas and I have kept much later hours than this. I’ll unsaddle him, but if you’d make sure he has hay and water, I’d appreciate it.”
What manner of lady went about unescorted after dark with what looked like bloodstains on the cuff of her sleeve?
Tremaine made short work of the hay and water, and Lady Nita was equally efficient removing the horse’s saddle and bridle. Atlas ambled into his stall without being haltered or led, and commenced a friendly sniffing through the slats with William.