Read The Earl’s Mistletoe Bride Online

Authors: Joanna Maitland

Tags: #Romance - Historical, #Romance: Modern, #General, #Romance, #Fiction, #Fiction - Romance, #Historical, #Romance - General

The Earl’s Mistletoe Bride

BOOK: The Earl’s Mistletoe Bride
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“Beth, will you do me the honor of becoming my wife?”

Her mouth fell open, but no words came out. Her head began to spin. Soon she was swaying on her feet.
I am going to faint. But I never faint.

“I have shocked you. It was not my intention.”

After a few moments, she straightened. Her eyes were very wide and very dark in her ashen face. “It is unkind of you to make a May-game of me, sir.” Her voice cracked. She looked away.

“My proposal is utterly sincere. I know it is a rather bloodless union that I am offering you, but there must be honesty between us. I will not attempt to dupe you with false protestations of love. You are sensible and practical. I had hoped that my offer would tempt you—a home of your own where you could be mistress. A proper station in society.”

“There can be no certainty for me, my lord. I am no fit wife for any gentleman. And certainly
not
for the Earl of Portbury. It is wicked to suggest otherwise, but I will forgive your ill-conceived jest. Let us forget the words were ever spoken.”

He scrutinized her features carefully now. She was holding herself together by sheer force of will. She was affronted by his proposal and deeply hurt. In a moment, she would regain enough strength to flee. Unless…

Since she did not believe a word he said, he had best try something other than words.

He kissed her.

 

The Earl’s Mistletoe Bride

Harlequin
®
Historical #1018—November 2010

Author’s Note

After ranging widely across Europe with my spying brothers in the Aikenhead Honors trilogy, it was delightful to return to English Regency Society for Jon and Beth’s story. As you will see, it begins with one strange Christmas encounter, and ends with another, bang in the middle of a grand Christmas house party.

In the Regency period, before Queen Victoria and Prince Albert imported the tradition of Christmas trees from Germany, Christmas was symbolized by the burning of the great Yule log and by rooms decorated with holly, ivy and, of course, mistletoe. I confess I couldn’t resist including the old tradition of removing a berry for every kiss. Once all the mistletoe berries were gone, there could be no more kissing, so it paid to be forward enough to grab your girl early. But would the forward man’s advances be welcome to his chosen lady? In at least one case here, they definitely are not.

Mistletoe is important to several of my characters in rather unexpected ways, but you’ll also meet a hidden folly being put to highly unconventional uses, and an extraordinary and scandalous challenge from Beth that Jon, for all his experiences as a battle-hardened soldier, finds very difficult to handle.

I hope you enjoy the twists and turns of my Christmas tale, and also your own Christmas kisses under the mistletoe—if you are lucky enough to have some to hang in your house. Happy reading and happy holidays!

The Earl's Mistletoe Bride
JOANNA MAITLAND
Available from Harlequin
®
Historical and JOANNA MAITLAND

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“An Uncommon Abigail”

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His Cavalry Lady
#936

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His Reluctant Mistress
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The Earl’s Mistletoe Bride
#1018

And in Harlequin Historical Undone eBooks

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His Silken Seduction

Delight and Desire

To the Romantic Novelists’ Association in its 50th Anniversary year, with grateful thanks for all the inspiration, support and friendship I have found there

Prologue

I
t was cold. So very cold.

Sharp icy fingers were probing into the hidden crevices of her clothing and scratching at every inch of exposed skin. The sleet-laden wind was whipping across her cheeks like scouring sand, rubbing them raw. Every breath was a torment to her aching lungs.

But she had no choice. She must go on. Away from all those pointing fingers. To somewhere safe, somewhere she could breathe again.

She had no idea where she was or where this lonely rutted path might lead. She raised her chin to peer ahead, brushing aside the wet strings of her hair and screwing up her eyes against the sleet in an attempt to see her way. Overhanging trees, mostly naked against the onset of winter; an under-layer of shrubs, some evergreen, but most of them bare and soggy black in the storm; a sodden path strewn with drifts of dead leaves that would
soon be swallowed up by the deep, oozing mud. And beyond the trees, the path led into darkness.

She shivered, drew her thin shawl tighter around her shoulders and bent her head against the keening wind. If she stopped now, here, alone, the weather would win their unequal battle. She was not ready to yield. Not yet.

She plodded on, forcing herself to lift her weary feet, one step, then another, trying to ignore the freezing water in her boots and the squelching of the mud as it tried to hold her fast and suck her down. She was so very tired. If only—

For a second, the wind changed and whipped at her skirts from behind. She saw— No, she fancied she saw a simple fence, of posts and rails, of the kind that might border a country road, but it was gone in the blink of an eye. No matter how much she strained, she could not find it again. She had probably seen only what she longed to see: some sign of human habitation, of human warmth, of hope.

There was no hope.

The last light of the short December day was almost gone. Soon she would be alone, in the dark, in this strange wooded place, on a path that led to nowhere. Why on earth had she followed it?

At the time, it had seemed the most sensible course. What else could a woman do, abandoned at a lonely crossroads by the coach driver who had taken her up?

She had travelled many miles with him, naively believing that he was helping her out of the goodness of his heart. In truth, he was merely waiting to bring her to a suitably lonely place, where he could present his
ultimatum: her money, or her person. Once he discovered that she had neither money in her pocket nor any willingness to pay him in kind, his bluff good nature had vanished. He had brought her even further from any chance of rescue, and pushed her out on to the deserted road, without even allowing her to take down her battered travelling bag. He would sell the contents, he said, to make up for the fare she owed him. He had whipped up his horses then, disappearing without so much as a glance at the woman he was leaving to the mercy of the storm.

She struggled to put the evil man from her mind. She must find the strength to go on. She must not give in to exhaustion. She
must
go on.

Beyond a huge oak tree, she found herself in an odd sort of dark clearing. It was edged with dense evergreen shrubs surrounding a broad area of churned mud and tussocks of grass. For a second, the wind dropped. In the sudden lull, she tried to tuck her hair back under her dripping bonnet. But the strings parted under the strain just as the wind returned, howling around her. Her bonnet was torn off and disappeared into the darkness, leaving her unbound hair whipping her face like slapping fingers.

She was too tired to wonder for more than a second why she should be suffering so. She knew only that she needed to find shelter soon, or the storm would surely best her.

There was that plain fence again! Or was it?

She took a few steps away from the path, trying to avoid the mud. The grass felt spongy beneath her feet,
and treacherous, as though it might give way at any moment and plunge her down into some sucking void.

But those shrubs over there were thick and still densely green. Beneath them, she thought she could make out a kind of haven where they overhung a patch of more sheltered ground, full of dead leaves blown into heaps. It even looked fairly dry. She could take refuge there, just for a while, until the worst of the storm was over and she had regained a little of her strength.

She moved more quickly now. Being out of the wet was a prize worth the effort. She focused all her remaining strength on gaining it. But, in her haste, she forgot to watch where she was putting her feet. Her ankle turned. The laces of her boot snapped with a loud crack. Before she realised what was happening, the boot was gone, sucked away, and her stockinged foot had taken one more unwary step, sinking deep into the mud.

She cried out in shock and fear. Slimy hands seemed to be trying to drag her down. She tried to tell herself that it was nonsense, wild imaginings, but her senses were bewildered. She could not make them obey her.

She tugged hard, desperate to release her foot, but she did not have the strength. Her flailing arms found one of the branches of the evergreen. Something to give her purchase. She hung on to it with both hands and pulled again. No use. Still she could not—

Suddenly, she was free! She stumbled forward a single step, then pitched head first into the base of the shrub and the pile of leaves. Her head and her right arm crunched against unyielding wood. Her nose and mouth filled with debris and dirt. She tasted decay and mould. She was clawing at her face, desperate to breathe. It took
her several moments to regain enough control to force the terrors from her mind. Eventually, she spat out the last of the leaf fragments and forced herself up. Pain lanced through her injured arm. Was it broken? She could not tell.

The wind was howling even louder. The evergreens around the clearing bent before it with an angry but defeated hiss. Yet the branches above her did not swish away. They seemed to bend over her, caressingly, like a loving mother soothing her child to sleep. Soothing, soothing.

She let her body relax again into the leaf litter, pillowing her pounding head on her good arm, resting her cheek against her wet, ungloved palm. It would do no harm to close her eyes, just for a space, just until the storm abated. Then she would go on. She had to go on.

Closing her eyes changed everything. Soon she could no longer feel the pain or the cold seeping into her bones. The storm seemed less hostile. She could barely hear the wind or the beat of the rain on the leaves. Was she floating? She was beginning to feel as if she were weightless, drifting slowly up into the heavens. And the sky around her had turned a bright, fierce blue.

 

Warm fingers touched her clammy cheek, drawing her back to earth, to harsh, forbidding reality. She did not want to return.

The fingers pressed into her flesh, insisting, demanding. She tried to open her eyes in response, but her heavy lids refused to move.

‘Where am I?’ Though the words formed in her
throat, no sound came out. She was so weak. So tired. Sleep. She longed to sleep again. To float away.

‘Wake up, woman! You cannot stay here. Come. Open your eyes.’ A man’s voice. Strong, deep, educated. Forceful. Pulling her back.

Then a hand gripped her shoulder and shook it. Pain seized her, huge waves of pain in her shoulder and in her head. Pain that shattered her floating dream. She screamed.

‘Dear God! You are hurt. Let me help you.’

She opened her eyes at last. Darkness. A single light, from a lamp, low down. She was lying on the ground. Was she badly injured? How had she come here? How had—?

More agony as the man slid his arms under her body and lifted her. She groaned aloud, partly from pain, partly from loss. She did not want to leave her floating refuge.

He laid her on the open ground in the freezing rain. Instantly, the cold was attacking her again, intensifying the pain. He lifted the lamp to her face and stared at her. She lay still, transfixed by his gaze.

The lamp was moved away. ‘Trust me, ma’am. I will see you safe.’ A moment later, he was stripping off his heavy coat and wrapping it round her helpless body. The smell of warm wet wool engulfed her. And the smell of man.

‘Forgive me,’ he said abruptly. ‘I need a free hand for the lamp.’ Without another word, he picked her up and slung her over his shoulder. Pain scythed through her. And then the blessed darkness returned to claim her.

 

She seemed to be dreaming his voice. Words, questions. Sometimes soothing, sometimes sharp. But never strong enough to pull her back from the cocoon of warmth that now surrounded her and held her safe. She felt she was floating away all over again, this time for ever.

And then her cocoon was gone!

She was alone with her suffering. She forced her eyes open. She was propped up in a curricle. By the dim light of its lamps, she saw that the horses were hitched to a fence. Was there a house beyond?

‘You are come back to us, ma’am.’ His tall figure reappeared from the darkness. He had not deserted her. Perhaps she could trust him, after all. ‘Come, let me carry you in.’

This time, he was more mindful of her hurts, lifting her carefully into his arms and cradling her close to his body. She let herself relax into his reassuring strength. The scent of man and horse and leather surrounded her. For a moment, he stood still, gazing down at her with concern in his dark eyes. Then his jaw clenched and he started towards the house.

She saw a winding path through dark, dripping shrubs. Then an open doorway filled with light and warmth and welcome. And a small round man in clerical garb, hovering anxiously.

As her rescuer hurried towards the doorstep, a little old lady in a lace cap appeared from the depths of the hallway, followed by an even smaller maidservant. ‘Why, Master Jonathan! You are welcome, as always. But who is this you have brought us?’

‘Mrs Aubrey! Thank goodness!’ He shouldered his way past the old man and into the hall. ‘I have never seen her before, but I believe she is a lady. I rescued her from the woods by the old oak. She is hurt. And almost frozen to death.’

The old man gasped. ‘Dear God. Poor child. And at Christmas, too.’

His wife stepped forward in order to smooth back the wet hair and peer into the new arrival’s face. ‘What is your name, my dear?’

That came like a blow, worse than all the pain that had gone before. It was a terrible, terrifying realisation. ‘I…I do not know.’

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