Warm up on a winter's night with three passionate love stories from three shining New York Times bestselling authors! Jane Feather leads an unwitting Yuletide traveler down a twisting path.... Edward Vasey, Viscount Allenton, is journeying precariously through a snowstorm when his coach is overtaken by high-waymen! Robbed of his money, Ned takes refuge at Selby Hall, where a spirited beauty with a shocking secret may steal something more -- his heart. Sabrina Jeffries unlocks the heart of an embittered lord.... When a coach accident strands heiress Elinor Bancroft at the home of the notorious Black Baron, she discovers the Christmas Day heartache that darkened his soul years ago -- and her generous heart brings a festive air to his home and reawakens his spirit to love. Julia London sends a debutante into the wintry Scottish wilds.... Searching for her rakehell brother, an earl lying low in the wake of a scandalous affair, Fiona Haines is led by a rugged Highlander who obscures his scarred face. As they journey on, Fiona draws closer to her brave, enigmatic protector -- but will fury or passion ignite when he reveals his identity?
Three bestselling Regency romance authors dish up a holiday feast of jewel-tone ball gowns and smoldering glances. Feather (To Wed a Wicked Prince) introduces Lady Georgiana Carey and Ned Vasey, aka Viscount Allenton, in "A Holiday Gamble," where they must circumvent their respective betrothals to consummate their attraction. In "Snowy Night with a Highlander," London (The Book of Scandal) sends a masked stranger to help unescorted heiress Lady Fiona Haines travel a deserted road through Scotland's infamous Highlands. In the best of the three, "When Sparks Fly," Jeffries (Let Sleeping Rogues Lie) strands holiday traveler Elinor Bancroft with her aunt and cousins at the home of the despicable Black Baron, Martin Thorncliff. While the endings are no surprise, there's plenty of romance and charm to enjoy along the way. (Nov.)
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October 27, 2008
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Excerpt from Snowy Night with a Stranger by Jane Feather
It seemed to have been snowing forever, Ned Vasey reflected glumly. His breath in the closed carriage had misted over the glass at the window, and he leaned forward and rubbed at the pane with his gloved hand. It cleared the mist but the outside was thickly coated with snow, offering only an opaque square of whiteness that gave little light and no visibility.
He sat back against the thick leather squabs and sighed. The carriage was in the first style of elegance and comfort, as well sprung as such a vehicle could ever be, but after close to three weeks' traveling, Viscount Allenton found it as comfortable as a donkey cart. The snow had started in earnest as they'd left Newcastle, but now that they were lumbering through the lower reaches of the Cheviot Hills it was a blizzard. The horses were struggling to keep their footing on the sometimes steep road that for long stretches was barely a cart track winding its way through the foothills. God knows what it would be like higher up, Ned thought. The upper passes would certainly be blocked. But fortunately he was heading out of the hills, not into them.
Alnwick, a small, pretty Northumberland town. That was how he remembered it, but the last time he had visited his childhood home had been ten years ago, before he'd been packed off, the family's so-called black sheep, into exile over a scandal that struck him now as utterly stupid. Since then his blood had thinned under the Indian sun, and he couldn't seem to get warm anywhere in this godforsaken frozen north.
And if his brother, Robert, had managed to keep himself alive, Ned would still be warmly content in India's sultry heat. But Rob, as so often in their childhood, had ridden his horse blindly at a hedge during a hunt, and both horse and rider had gone down into the unseen ditch on the other side. The horse had broken both forelegs, and Rob his neck. Which left the previously contented younger son, Edward the black sheep, to inherit the family estates and the title. And the younger son infinitely preferred the life of plain Ned Vasey, Indian nabob, to that of Edward Vasey, Viscount Allenton.
But such is fate, Ned reflected, huddling closer into his greatcoat. Ten years ago the estate had been going to rack and ruin under his father's reckless negligence, and it seemed from the agent's letters that Rob had finished the job. Which left the younger son, who had somehow managed to turn his exile into a very good thing, to pick up the pieces. And a very expensive picking up it was going to be, Ned had no doubt.
The carriage shuddered as the horses stumbled on the deeply rutted and now slippery track. Stopping was not an option. They would all freeze to death, coachman, postillions, horses and all.
The carriage was still moving, but very slowly. Ned opened the door with difficulty against the crust of snow and ice, and stepped out into the blizzard. He struggled toward the coachman and the near-side postillion. "How much farther before we're out of here?" he called up, snow filling his mouth and blocking his nose.
"Hard to say, m'lord," the coachman called down, flicking his whip at the striving horses. "At this speed, it could take an hour to do a mile."
Ned swore into a gust of snow, his words snatched by the wind.
"Best get back in, sir," the coachman shouted down. "Your weight don't make no difference to the 'osses, and ye've no need to freeze yet a while."
Ned nodded and climbed back into the coach, still swearing as he realized he'd allowed himself to get frozen to the bone with no way of warming himself up again in the frigid interior.
If he ever made it to Hartley House, at least he'd find a warm welcome there. And a house bursting with Christmas revelry. Lord Hartley's bluff camaraderie and generous spirit would be a welcome antidote to what was bound to be the dank neglect of his own house. Sarah would make him a good wife....
The coachman's yell broke into Ned's thoughts and he reached for the door handle again as the carriage juddered to a halt. He pushed open the door and jumped down. A torch flickered just ahead on the track showing four figures, barely visible in the swirling snow, milling around an overturned gig. The pony had been released from the traces and stood blowing steam through its nostrils and stamping its hooves.
"Stay with the horses," Ned instructed over his shoulder. He plowed through the snow toward the scene. "What happened here?"
A youth turned from the group. "Pony caught a hoof in a rut, sir," he said in a broad Northumberland accent that Ned hadn't heard in ten years. To his satisfaction, however, he found that he could still understand it without difficulty. For strangers to the county, it might as well have been a foreign tongue.
Ned bent to check the pony's legs, running his hand expertly over the hocks. "I can find no damage," he said, straightening. "Why would you bring a pony out with a gig on a night like this?"
"Why would ye bring them 'osses out in a bleedin' blizzard?" the youth demanded on a clearly combative note.
Despite the snow, there had been no signs of a storm when they'd left that morning, but Ned was not about to bandy words with this insolent young man. He turned away, back to his own conveyance.
The blow to the back of his neck surprised him more than it hurt him. He stumbled to his knees in the snow and something -- no, someone -- jumped lightly onto his back, legs curling around his waist as he knelt. Hands slipped into the deep pockets of his coat, and then fingers slid inside his coat. It was all over in the blink of an eye. The slight weight left his back, and as he struggled to his feet, his assailants and the pony disappeared into the blanket of snow behind him. The gig remained where it was. Presumably it was a permanent fixture, designed to catch any unwary traveler on these seldom-used tracks.
Ned cursed his own stupidity. He knew that the Cheviots were plagued by bands of rapscallions and highwaymen; he simply hadn't expected to fall victim on such a filthy night. He dug into his pockets. He had kept a pouch with five guineas close to hand for easy distribution at roadside inns. It was gone.
"What 'appened there, m'lord? Couldn't see a thing in this." The coachman had climbed down from his box, but neither he nor the postillions had left the horses.
"Nothing much," Ned said, climbing back into the carriage, now as wet as he was cold. "Keep going."
The carriage lurched forward again and he felt inside his coat. His fob watch was gone from his waistcoat pocket. Those light fingers had demonstrated all the sleight of hand of an experienced pickpocket. He hadn't been able to see the features of any of his cloaked and hooded assailants behind the veil of snow, but he was fairly certain he would recognize the feel of those fingers against his heart.
The financial loss was no great matter, but the blow to his pride was another thing altogether. Ten years ago he wouldn't have fallen for such a trick, but his sojourn in India had clearly softened him, he thought disgustedly. He had learned how to make money, a great deal of money, but he'd lost something in the process. Something he had to retrieve if he was to assume the life of a North Country English gentleman once again.
God, he was cold. He could only begin to imagine what those poor buggers outside were feeling.
Something hammered on the roof. The coachman. He struggled with the frozen door again and leaned out. "What is it?" His words disappeared into the snow but the coachman, just visible on the box above him, pointed with his whip. Ned stared into the whiteness, then saw it -- a glimmer of light, flickering like a will-o'-the-wisp in the distance.
"We can't go no farther, m'lord," the coachman bellowed. "The 'osses won't make it, an' me blood's freezin'. Reckon we 'ave to try an' rouse someone."
"Agreed," Ned shouted. "I'll go ahead and see what's there. I can make better time on foot." He jumped down into snow that reached his knees. "Postillions, release the horses from the traces and lead them after me."
The two men dismounted and stumbled through the snow to the horses' heads. Ned plunged forward, still up to his knees, keeping the flickering light in his sights. And after fifteen agonizingly slow minutes the lights grew steady and close. He could hear the wheezing of the postillions behind him and the puffing of the beasts, but salvation lay just ahead.
A long driveway led up to a large stone mansion, lights pouring forth from many windows, piercing the veil of snow. The strains of music could be heard faintly as the travelers approached the flight of steps leading up to double front doors. Ned drew his greatcoat tight and dug his way up the steps to the door. He banged the big brass knocker in the shape of a gryphon's head. And he banged it again, ever conscious of his freezing horses, and the desperation of the coachman and postillions, all standing in the snow at the foot of the steps.
He heard footsteps, the wrenching of bolts, and the door opened slowly. Light and warmth poured forth. A liveried butler stood in the doorway, gazing in something approaching disbelief at this visitor. "Can I help you, sir?"
For a moment Ned was tempted to laugh at the absurdity of the question. But only for a moment. "Yes," he said curtly. "I am Viscount Allenton, on my way to Alnwick. My men and I are benighted in this blizzard, and we need shelter. I'd be grateful if you'd bring me to your master, but first send someone to direct my coachman and postillions to the stables, and then to the kitchen fire." He stepped past the man into the hall as he spoke.
"Yes...yes, of course, my lord." The butler called over his shoulder and a footman appeared. "Ensure Lord Allenton's horses are fed and watered and bedded for the night, and show his servants to the kitchen. They will be glad of supper and ale." He turned back to Ned. "May I take your greatcoat, my lord?"
Ned became aware of the growing puddle at his feet as his coating of snow melted. "Yes, please. I'm sorry to be ruining your floors."
"Think nothing of it, my lord. We are used to this weather in these parts, and our floors are prepared accordingly." The man's smile was soothing as he almost reverently eased the sodden garment from Ned's shoulders and cast it across a bench that seemed designed to receive such offerings.
"If you would care to wait by the fire, my lord, I will inform Lord Selby of your arrival." He urged Ned toward the massive fireplace at the far end of the baronial-style hall, paused for a moment to pour him a glass of sherry from a readily placed decanter, then bowed and departed.
Selby. Ned sipped his sherry. Roger Selby. One of the oldest Northumbrian landowners. A family history of roguery to boot. It was said that they had reivers in their not-too-distant past. Not that that was unusual among the families who ruled these wild borderlands. A couple of hundred years ago, the Allenton family had numbered the border raiders in their own ranks. But they had long since abandoned banditry as a means of attaining wealth. Selby's father, however, had been an acknowledged robber baron who still clung to the old ways as recently as fifty years past, and Ned's own father had always maintained that the present Lord Selby was not above a little cross-border plundering when it suited him.
Ned had met Roger Selby only once, at a horse show in Morpeth. A good fifteen years ago, he calculated as he sipped his sherry, propping one sodden boot on the andirons. Selby was about ten years older than himself, and even then in possession of the barony, his father having disappeared in mysterious circumstances on one of the high passes through the Pennines.
Ned remembered he had been fascinated by the mystery and not a little envious of the older man, who had achieved his independence and freedom from family restraints at such an early age. He spun from the fire at the sound of firm footsteps and a voice he remembered.
"Allenton...we heard a rumor you were returning to us...sorry to hear of your brother's accident." Roger Selby came swiftly across the hall, hand outstretched. "But 'tis an ill wind, eh? Welcome, dear fellow. This is no night for man or beast to be abroad." He enclosed Ned's rather slim hand in a large paw. He was a tall man, whose broad frame was beginning to run to fat in the manner of an erstwhile sportsman turned sedentary. His neck had thickened, and the starched cravat supported several double chins. His complexion was ruddy, his eyes just a trifle bloodshot, but his smile seemed genuine and his handshake was as firm as it was warm.
"Far cry from India," he said with a jovial chuckle. "By God, man, you're half frozen." He clapped Ned's shoulder heartily as he continued to shake his hand.
"I confess I had forgotten the fierceness of these northern winters," Ned said, retrieving his hand. "You must forgive me for descending upon you like this."
"Not at all...not at all. You know how we Northumbrians honor the claims of hospitality in our inhospitable countryside. Indeed, I doubt you'll be leaving us for a week, judging by that blizzard. The road from here to Alnwick will be blocked for several days at least."
Ned nodded. He had expected as much. "There's no way a messenger could get through, either," he said.
Roger Selby shook his head. "Someone expecting you?"
"I'm expected at Hartley House for Christmas," Ned said with a resigned shrug. "I'd hoped to arrive in Alnwick tonight."
"They'll not be expecting you now, man," Selby declared. "One look out of the window is all they'll need for an answer."
"Aye, I'm sure that's so." He turned at the sound of a discreet cough from the shadows of the staircase.
The butler who had let him in stepped forward into the lamplight. "I beg your pardon, Lord Allenton. But your coachman brought in your portmanteau. I've taken the liberty of having it carried to a bedchamber, and a servant is preparing a hot bath for you."
"Good...good, Jacobs. That's the ticket," Selby declared. "You'll be right as a trivet, Allenton, once you're out of those wet clothes. We'll hold dinner for you. Jacobs, tell cook to put dinner back an hour...that be long enough, Allenton?"
"More than long enough," Ned hastened to assure him. "You're too kind, Selby. I don't wish to inconvenience you in any way on Christmas Eve...."
"Nonsense, dear fellow...no inconvenience at all. Not in the least. The more the merrier at this season. Take the sherry with you." He pressed the decanter into his guest's free hand and urged him toward the stairs, where the butler stood waiting to show him up.
Ned thanked his host and went willingly in the butler's wake, with his glass and decanter. Northumbrian hospitality was legendary, and with good reason. No one ever turned away a benighted winter traveler in these hills, but Roger Selby's welcome was more than ordinarily warm, and seemed to transcend mere obligation.
But of course they were neighbors, Ned reflected as he entered a large and well-appointed bedchamber. That would certainly explain the generosity of the welcome.
"This is Davis, Lord Allenton, he will be pleased to act as your valet during your stay," the butler announced, waving a hand in the direction of the manservant who was unpacking Ned's portmanteau. Jacobs bowed and departed.
He must remember to give the coachman some substantial concrete sign of his appreciation for hauling the portmanteau through the blizzard, Ned thought as he examined the contents of his bag. Most men would have abandoned it with the chaise in such circumstances, and he would have been obliged to dine in a borrowed dressing gown.
"Your bath is prepared, sir," the manservant said. "I'll take this blue coat down to the kitchen and get our Sally to press it. Sadly creased it is, an' I daresay ye'll be wanting to wear it at dinner."
"Is there not one a little less creased?" Ned inquired mildly, casting off his damp coat with a sigh of relief. "I'm sure there's no need to put anyone to the trouble of pressing something at such short notice."
"No, m'lord, there's no other less creased, and 'tis no trouble for our Sally," Davis stated a little huffily. "Lord Selby likes things to be right. He's most particular, m' lord."
"Well, I'm sure you know best. I certainly wouldn't wish to insult my host," Ned said cheerfully, unfastening his britches. "I'd be grateful if you could do something about my greatcoat while you're about it. It's sodden, quite possibly beyond repair, but I'll need it again until I can replace it. It's in the hall, I believe."
"Mr. Jacobs has seen to it, sir," Davis said. He began to take shirts and cravats from the portmanteau, smoothing the fine white linen with a reverential hand before laying them carefully in a drawer in the armoire. "Lovely cloth, sir. If I may say so."
"You may. Indian tailors do fine work with the most delicate cotton."
"These coats, sir, were never made in India," Davis exclaimed, lifting a coat of green superfine to the light. "This'll be one of them gentlemen tailors in London, it will."
"True enough." Ned stepped naked to the copper hip bath before the fire. "Schultz or Weston, I favor both." He stepped into the water and slid down with a sigh of pleasure, resting his head against the edge. "Now this was worth waiting for. Pass me my sherry glass, will you?"
Davis brought over the recharged glass. "I'll just take the coat to Sally, sir. Will you be needing me in the next fifteen minutes?"
Ned closed his eyes. "No...no, Davis. Take your time." He lay back in the soothing warmth, feeling the tensions of the day's travel melt from him. He was due to arrive at the Hartleys' in the morning, but they would not wonder why he failed to turn up. The blizzard would be raging from the summit of The Cheviot to Alnwick, swallowing everything in between. They might worry that he hadn't found shelter, but he could do little to alleviate that concern at present. No messenger could get through, as Roger Selby had said. It rather looked as if he would be spending Christmas Day, at least, at Selby Hall.
If truth be told, he was not sorry to postpone his arrival at Hartley House. It seemed such a long time ago that he had proposed to Sarah Hartley. He had been nineteen, Sarah seventeen. And they had known each other from earliest childhood. The border towns and villages of Northumberland provided a rarefied atmosphere, where the local county families, few and far between as they were, were entirely dependent upon each other for a social life. There were no big town centers between Newcastle and Edinburgh. It was wild, rough country that fostered both interdependence among its own and a fierce independence from outsiders.
Sarah had been a sweet young woman. He tried to conjure up her picture behind his closed eyelids. Very fair, periwinkle blue eyes, a little plump, but prettily so. Of course that could have changed as womanhood formed her. She had wept when he'd left, and she'd waited for him, these full ten years. Or so Rob had written in his infrequent letters. Sarah was still a spinster, already on the shelf. Everyone said she was pining for her first love. And when he'd been summoned home, Ned had seen no alternative but to honor his youthful pledge. This Christmas journey to Hartley House was to renew that pledge in person before he faced the unenviable task of putting right the damage that neglect had done to his own family home and estates.
Well, he had money aplenty for such a task, and it would have its satisfactions. He had his own ideas about farming, about horse breeding, about estate management, and the prospect of putting them into practice was undeniably exciting. And he would need a wife at his side, a woman who knew the land, its people and the eccentricities of both as well as he did. Sarah was a competent woman. She would make him a good wife. So why could he not summon up some genuine enthusiasm at the prospect? All he felt at present was a gloomy acceptance of a bounden duty.
The sound of the door opening jerked him back to the cooling bathwater and the unfamiliar bedchamber. "Our Sally's done a fair job on the coat, sir," Davis announced, laying it carefully on the bed. "Mr. Jacobs said as how dinner will be served in half an hour."
"Then I must not keep my host waiting." Ned stood up as he spoke, water sloshing around him. He took the warm towel off the hanger close to the fire and wrapped it around himself as he stepped out. He ran a hand over his chin with a grimace. "Do you think you could shave me?"
"Oh, aye, sir," Davis said, pouring water from the ewer on the washstand into the basin. "I'm a dab hand at it, sir. Used to shave my pa when he had the shakes on him." He took the long, straight-edged razor and stropped it vigorously.
Ned sat down on the stool before the washstand and gave himself into the hands of his borrowed valet. Davis worked quickly and efficiently, and with some pride in his handiwork. "There, sir, how's that. Good and close, I'd say."
"Indeed, Davis." Ned ran his hand over his smooth chin. "Very good. Thank you."
Fifteen minutes later he was ready to join his host. He felt a new man, the miseries of the day a thing of the past. His newly pressed coat fitted perfectly, his linen was as white as the virgin snow beyond his window, his boots had a lovely deep shine to them, and his doeskin pantaloons were as soft as butter. He did not consider himself a vain man, but Viscount Allenton liked to make a good impression, and couldn't help a satisfied nod at his image in the pier glass before he headed for the door.
He could hear the soft notes of a piano and the sound of voices coming from a salon to the right of the hall as he descended the stairs. There seemed like quite a few voices, mostly male, interspersed with an occasional female tone. He had invited himself to quite a house party, it would seem. He crossed the hall to the double doors, where a footman stood waiting to announce him.