To all my readers who met and fell in love with Noelle Bromleigh, “Yuletide Treasure’s” precocious four-year-old with the will of iron and the heart of gold. Thank you for demanding her story, then waiting for her to grow up and tell it to me.
HE SHOULD HAVE ANTICIPATED HER
But he hadn’t.
Maybe that was because of the enormous love that existed within his family. Or maybe his reasons had been more selfish, a fervent wish that the past could remain as it was, dead and gone.
Still, Eric admonished himself, he’d been a damned fool.
After all, this was Noelle. And when, in the dozen years of her young life, had Noelle allowed the slightest detail to escape her? When hadn’t she demanded to know the answer to every tiny, bloody question under the sun?
And this involved far more than a simple question.
This involved her birth, her lineage, the physical roots of her very existence.
Abandoning his thoughts, Eric Bromleigh, the seventh Earl of Farrington, leaned back in his library chair, regarding his elder daughter with a dark scowl. “What, Noelle?”
“I asked you—”
“I heard what you asked me.” He made a steeple with his fingers and rested his chin atop them. “I’m just not sure how to answer you.”
how to answer me? Or you don’t
to answer me?” With her typical candor-bordering-on-audacity, Noelle met her father’s gaze, her sapphire blue eyes astute, assessing.
“I see. So you really don’t know his name.”
“Not his name or anything about him.”
“And you’re not the slightest bit—?”
“No. Not even the slightest bit.”
Noelle sighed, twisting a strand of sable hair about her forefinger—a childlike gesture Eric found greatly comforting, especially in light of the circumstances. Actually, he amended silently to himself, as Noelle grew older he was finding himself more and more grateful for the infrequent reminders she afforded him that she was not really a short, unusually straight-figured woman, but rather a normal, if extremely precocious, twelve-year-old girl.
One whose mind and tongue were quicker than a whip.
Heavyhearted, Eric cleared his throat, seeking his own essential answers. “Why are you asking me this—now, after all these years? Why are you suddenly curious about your real fath—about the man who sired you?”
Something of Eric’s anguish must have conveyed itself to Noelle. Abruptly, her probing look vanished, supplanted by a flash of regret and a wealth of unconditional love. “Oh, Papa …” She jumped to her feet, rushing over to fling her arms about Eric’s neck. “You don’t truly imagine I consider that horrible man—whoever he is—my father, do you? You don’t think my question has anything to do with my feelings for you and Mama?”
“No. But still, I have to wonder. …” Eric broke off, wishing he knew what the hell to say.
“Good. Because you and Mama are my parents. My
parents.” Noelle hugged Eric fiercely. “I love you both so much,” she whispered. “If my interest in knowing who
is hurts either of you, I’ll forget the entire notion.”
Tenderly, Eric stroked Noelle’s hair, reflecting on how very typical this entire display was. Noelle was fervent about everything. Her love. Her curiosity. Her allegiance.
Her hunger for knowledge—knowledge that, in this case, she was more than entitled to be granted.
Yes, she was his daughter, his and Brigitte’s, but it hadn’t been that way from the start. She’d been born his niece, the unwanted illegitimate babe of his sister Liza. Liza and some nameless Italian aristocrat who’d thrown her aside the instant he learned she was with child. Not that Liza had proven to be any more principled than her lover. As always, she’d hastened straight to Eric, seeking him out as her inexhaustible source of love and protection. And, as always, he’d offered her both, convincing himself that she truly repented her reckless behavior, that she was ready to forgo her selfish whims and assume responsibility for the life of her unborn child.
What a fool he’d been. Liza had given birth to Noelle on Christmas Day, then abandoned her at the onset of the new year—forsaking Farrington Manor to sow her wild oats, only to die shortly thereafter, leaving Eric with a bitter heart, a deluge of self-censure, and an untenable dilemma.
God help him for his reaction. He’d been a wounded animal, incapable of feeling or forgiveness—especially when it came to himself. Uncertain of his sanity, unable to endure even the slightest reminder of Liza, Eric had wrested Noelle from his life, determined to live out his days in self-imposed isolation.
It hadn’t happened that way.
And not because of any heroic transformation on his part. No, Eric harbored no illusions on that score. His unexpected awakening, all its ensuing joys—every one of those blessings he owed to one extraordinary, incomparable woman.
As his courageous bride, Brigitte had marched into Farrington Manor just shy of Noelle’s fourth birthday, a wife in name, a governess in fact.
Or so Eric had intended.
Within weeks Brigitte had undone four years of hell, healed all of Eric’s and Noelle’s emotional wounds, and transformed the future from bleak to miraculous.
Thanks to Brigitte, there was joy, there was unity, and there was family—a family that grew to include not only their beloved Noelle but their equally beloved Chloe, who made her appearance the summer before Noelle turned five.
Both girls had flourished—happy, nurtured, secure in the knowledge that they were loved.
Fortunately, Noelle had never had to know the selfish woman who’d given her life.
Or the despicable man who’d aided in the same.
There was no reason for that to change. No reason but one.
Noelle. Noelle and her inexhaustible curiosity.
“Tempest,” Eric murmured, easing Noelle away from him and gripping her small hands in his large ones. “Even if I knew who the scoundrel was who … that is, the scoundrel who was responsible for … for …”
“Impregnating,” Noelle supplied helpfully. “The scoundrel who was responsible for impregnating Liza.” She smiled a bit at the ashen expression on Eric’s face. “I do know how babies are made, Papa.”
“Why did I doubt that?” he muttered, shaking his head. “In any case, even if I knew his identity, I’m not certain I’d share that information with you. What would you do with it? Write him a letter? Ask why he’d chosen to walk away from his unborn child, why he wanted no part of the life he’d created?”
“Of course not.” Noelle gave him a you-can’t-be-serious look. “I know why he wanted no part of my life: he was, or is, an unfeeling coward. It was his loss, Papa, not mine. I have no misgivings or self-doubts on that score, believe me. Still, I am dreadfully curious. I’d like to know what he looks like, thinks like, what traits I might have inherited from him. Surely you can understand that?”
Eric swallowed audibly. “Yes, I can understand that.” A contemplative pause. “Noelle, he lived in Italy. I explained that to you when Brigitte and I told you all we knew of him, all Liza relayed to me after their relationship ended. Assuming he’s still alive, finding him would be like searching for a needle in a haystack.”
Soberly, Noelle nodded. “I realize that. And I’ve given it much thought. We could hire someone—an investigator. Surely he could travel to Italy, find someone who actually saw this man and Liza together. No matter how discreet they were, they were bound to be noticed. Liza was a very beautiful woman.”
And you look just like her,
Eric added silently. “Yes, she was,” he said aloud. For a long moment he studied Noelle’s earnest expression. “This means
much to you?”
“I can’t bear wondering and not having answers. You know how I am, Papa.”
“Yes, I certainly do.” With that, Eric came to a decision. “All right Noelle, I understand your curiosity. And I’m willing to indulge it—in my own way.”
She leaped on his words. “What does that mean?”
“It means I’m proposing a compromise.”
“What kind of compromise?”
“I’ll do as you ask, hire an investigator to see what he can unearth about this blackguard.” Seeing the excited glint in Noelle’s eyes, Eric clarified hastily: “Bear in mind that this procedure could take months, maybe longer—years, if he’s moved from city to city or, worse, from country to country.”
Noelle appeared not the least bit deterred. “And once you’ve uncovered what I want to know—whenever that might be—you’ll share your findings with me?”
“Not immediately,” Eric replied, meeting Noelle’s honesty with his own. “I adore you, Tempest, but you’re as impulsive as that reckless cat of yours. Don’t bother denying it—” He held up his palm to silence her protest. “We both know it to be true. If this scoundrel should turn up in India or Tibet or even Tasmania, you’d be on the first ship traversing the globe. I can’t and won’t take that kind of risk. So I’ll find out what I can,
the stipulation that the information I unearth stays with me.”
Noelle looked crestfallen.
“No, not forever. Only until you’re older—old enough to think not merely with the intelligence of a woman but with the maturity of one. When I can be certain you’ll properly employ whatever details I convey to you. At that point, if you’re still interested in pursuing this matter, I’ll turn all my findings over to you.”
“Older? When is older? When I’m fifteen?”
Eric arched a sardonic brow. “That’s hardly a woman, Noelle. How does twenty-one sound?”
“Ancient. How does sixteen sound?”
“Youthful.” A hint of a smile curved Eric’s lips. No matter how dismal the subject, Noelle had a way of infusing it with filaments of joy—and a healthy dose of debate. “I’ll meet you halfway. Twenty-one is a woman; fifteen is a child. Shall we say eighteen?”
Noelle scrutinized him, her lips twitching slightly. “Is that your final offer?”
“Very well. I accept. Eighteen.” Lightly, she jumped to her feet, her chin set in that all-too-familiar way that made Eric’s gut knot, obliterated whatever hope he’d entertained that time might diffuse his daughter’s determination to locate her sire. Eric knew that particular look, and it meant only one thing: waiting for Noelle to change her mind would be like waiting for the sun to grow cold.
“Thank you, Papa,” she called out, skipping over to the doorway and turning to give him a victorious grin. “I feel ever so much better.”
“I might fail to find him,” Eric warned.
“You might. But you won’t. You’ve never disappointed me yet.” Noelle’s glowing faith was absolute, her enthusiasm irrepressible. “My eighteenth birthday is just five and a half years away. On that Christmas Day, I’ll learn all the missing pieces of my heritage.”
“Then my curiosity will be satisfied, and I can bid the past good-bye.” With a conclusive nod, Noelle dismissed the subject. Blowing Eric a kiss, she gathered up her skirts and scooted out of the library.
Eric gazed solemnly after her, the wisdom of adulthood cautioning him that the situation wouldn’t resolve itself quite that easily.
In fact, he had a sinking feeling that precisely five and a half years from now all hell would break loose.
I MUST HAVE BEEN INSANE
to agree to this.” Eric finished buttoning his shirt, scowling at his own image in the looking glass.
“You didn’t have a choice, darling.” Brigitte lay her brush on the dressing table, her golden brown eyes soft with compassion—and clouded by more than a tinge of worry. “We both knew Noelle would ask, eventually.”
“No, we both didn’t know that.” Eric abandoned his task, running a hand through his hair. He met his wife’s pointed look and nodded resignedly. “Fine, maybe we did. Maybe I just prayed it would go away.”
One slender brow rose. “When have Noelle’s questions ever gone away?”
Eric’s scowl deepened. “She’s still a child, Brigitte. Do you know what she’s doing right this moment; for that matter, what she’s been doing since the first rays of dawn? Precisely what she’s done on this day every year since she turned four: pacing about what used to be my bedchamber and is now our celebration room, waiting to open her birthday gifts before we leave for church.”