"Oh! This was a warm, uplifting, romantic, and wonderful read. The writing is excellent, the story is well-told, and the characters are warm and loving. I absolutely adored the four children in the tale, and I think you will as well." - Barbara, Goodreads
Two years ago, Lady Clara Marshall led a fairytale life. She was the toast of the ton, beloved sister to an earl, leading charity patroness, and deeply in love. A bright future lay in her grasp, until a tragic phaeton accident ripped it all away. Now, she’s lost the use of her right leg and never ventures from home. She’s lost all happiness and the love of her life. When she’s forced to travel north for the holidays, a fierce snowstorm, a damaged bridge, and her meddling brother all conspire against her to bring her under the same roof with the one man she never wanted to see again.
Michael Stanton, Duke of Wakefield, cannot believe his eyes when he sees Clara being carried into his country house to seek shelter from the storm. Two years ago, his heart nearly stopped when he watched the wreck, only for it to shatter completely when she broke off with him without explanation. Certain she blames him for her leg, he’s resigned to having lost her, until her brother asks for his help in showing her how to live again.
But the last thing Clara wants is to be trapped with Michael and all the ghosts of Christmases past. Will the duke be able to save not just Christmas, but also her life?
The sweet scent of cut pine swirled around them as they glided down the lane toward the edge of the woods and the fields beyond. The silence of the snow-filled woods around them was broken only by the muted clomp of hooves and the soft growl of compacting snow beneath the sled’s wide runners.
Having Clara next to him felt like old times. Over the years, the two of them had spent hours driving through the park in London and across the countryside. They’d chatted, discussed, argued—mostly, they’d just sat quietly, happy to let the comfortable silence stretch between them. Like this.
She’d let down her guard during the past few days and had started to emerge from the isolation she’d cast herself into since the accident. True, he’d forced her into it by having Mrs. Hansen and Eads distract Mrs. Bailey so that Clara would have to be more independent, and he’d ceaselessly encouraged the children to include her with everything they did, short of asking her help with their math work. He felt a pang of guilt at the deception. But he would do anything for her. For God’s sake, he’d nearly clicked up his heels when she’d gone into the library to select a book for herself.
A book! He’d felt less victorious when he’d been graduated from Oxford.
He could have cheered that he’d managed to convince her to come into the woods with him. No, not with him, he realized ruefully. With the children. But he’d gladly take his victories wherever he could find them.
“Do you remember the last time we gathered greenery together?” he asked in an attempt to make casual conversation.
She brushed back her fur-edged hood with her kid glove to look at him. “We did?”
“It was that holiday I spent with your family at Raleigh Hall when Anthony and I were still at Eton.” He slanted her a sideways glance. “Don’t you remember? You must have been about Margaret’s age. My parents and brother were in Ireland and couldn’t return until well after the new year, so Anthony insisted I spend the term holiday at Raleigh rather than stay on at Eton or be alone at Northbourne.”
Her expression softened at the memory, and he couldn’t mistake the happy glow in her eyes as she slid her hands into her fur muff and settled back on the wooden bench seat. “I remember that you spent the entire holiday pulling at my braids, hiding my dolls, and showing off by doing all kinds of tricks with horses and weapons. You even stole my Christmas pudding.”
He quirked a half grin. “Perhaps I was attempting to win your affection.”
“Or perhaps you were just being a fifteen year-old boy on leave from school for the holidays.”
Duly chastised, he muttered with feigned chagrin, “Well, when you put it like that…”
She laughed, and the soft sound drifted through the still woods around them like music.
“Did you enjoy yourself this afternoon?” he asked as casually as possible, yet he knew there would be a world of meaning in her answer.
“I did.” She grudgingly admitted, “It was nice to be out in the fresh air, in the woods and fields. I thought…”
When her voice trailed off, he prompted gently, “You thought what?”
With a self-deprecating smile, she shook her head. “It doesn’t matter if I enjoyed myself. The children had a grand time. That’s what matters.”
“They certainly did.” Not wanting to push her too much about being out of her room, he warned instead, “They’ll hold you to your promise, you know.”
“Hot chocolate and gingerbread in the conservatory this evening.”
Her bright smile sparked a warmth deep inside his gut before she turned back to look over the heads of the ponies, who flicked their ears back and forth in an attempt to eavesdrop as they plodded out of the woods. “Chocolate and sweets… That’s the kind of promise I always like to keep.”
Unable to stop himself, he reached over slowly and took her hand. She stiffened with surprise when he lifted her hand to his mouth and placed a kiss to her knuckles. But she didn’t pull away, and emboldened, he gently took the fingertips of her glove between his teeth and slipped it off her hand. He let the cream-colored glove fall away onto his lap.
This time when he kissed her bare palm, a shiver raced through her that had nothing to do with the cold winter.
“Michael,” she whispered, so softly that his name was nearly lost beneath the muted sound of the sled runners beneath them.
He dared to take another kiss and let his lips linger against her warm, soft skin. He nearly groaned at the sweetness of her, of her familiar taste and scent that still haunted his dreams and even now made him ache with desire.
When her fingers curled slightly beneath the feel of his lips, he placed tender kisses to her fingertips. “There are other promises worth keeping, too.”
He closed his mouth around her finger, and she gasped. The sound pulsed through him and tightened his gut. So did the quickening of her breath when he lightly sucked.
They’d once done far more together than this, when she’d lain so scandalously with him on a picnic blanket that last summer when they were still together. With her legs bare beneath the skirt gathered at her thighs and her untamed hair lying around her shoulders, she’d been the most delicious temptation he’d ever experienced in his life. He’d summoned all his restraint not to take her innocence right there amid the wildflowers, instead finding his pleasure in bringing her to hers in all kinds of wanton ways. Yet now he trembled from these chaste kisses to her hand as much as he had that day from his kisses to her bare breasts and the quivering flesh between her thighs.
“What promises…would those be?” Her voice emerged as hoarse sighs between light pants.
He twirled his tongue seductively around her finger, then moved on to do the same to the next. One by one, slowly and decadently… “You promised you’d let me kiss you and touch you for the rest of our lives.” He drew a faint whimper from her lips when he licked at the sensitive flesh between her fingers. “You promised to marry me.”
She stilled. Confusion darkened her face, but so did the desire his lips and mouth were flaming inside her. “Some promises,” she murmured sadly, “shouldn’t be kept.”
About the author:
Anna fell in love with historical romances—and all those dashing Regency heroes—while living in London, where she studied literature and theatre. She loves to travel, fly airplanes, and hike, and when she isn’t busy writing her next novel, she can usually be found in her garden, fussing over her roses. She loves to hear from her readers and can be reached at:
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