Christmas in the Duke’s Arms
Book in the Holiday Anthology series
These yuletide tales are set in rural Nottinghamshire and feature couples who dream of holidays filled with true love, however unlikely that might be. A highwayman, a cozy country inn, a Christmas assembly and copious bundles of mistletoe contribute to merry, romantic holiday happily ever afters.
Featuring Graces’s novella, “A Knight Before Christmas:”
With her year of mourning at an end, Penelope Carrington must remarry in haste, or her portion of her late husband’s estate won’t be enough to dower her younger sisters. Shy, handsome man of business Sir Leviticus Sparrow longs to give Penelope a marriage proposal for Christmas—and his heart—but Sir Levi must first foil the other bachelors scheming to meet Penelope under the mistletoe in his place.
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Start reading an Scene from A Knight Before Christmas
Penelope Carrington must remarry before Christmas or lose the ability to dower her younger sisters and pay off her father’s debts. She’s turned to Sir Leviticus Sparrow, her late husband’s friend and former solicitor, to aid her in her search for a husband, so to speak…
Sir Leviticus Sparrow’s mind operated at a rate inverse to the speed of his words or his actions. Pen had taken a year to understand this about him. Levi was brilliant, but his brilliance was no more evident on the surface than the teeming life in the sea was apparent from sunlight sparkling on placid waves.
Sixtus had called his man of business Sir Leviathan, saying his solicitor liked to dwell in the depths and had long tentacles of influence. The analogy hadn’t seemed to fit the big, quiet, dark-haired man who’d shown up at Carrington Close once a month with voluminous files and little conversation.
Then Sixtus had fallen ill, and the visits had become more frequent.
“Is there any way to modify the terms of the will?” Penelope asked.
A slight pause—Levi Sparrow was a great one for pausing—and then, “No, my dear, not unless you find a crooked judge or effect a change of law. You have until the twenty-eighth of December to marry, or you will lose all but the jointure and life estate specified in the will. May I ask what has precipitated this change of position?”
So polite, while Penelope wanted to smash her tea cup against the hearthstones. “Must I tell you?”
His glance shifted to the desk, where he doubtless had more interesting business to transact than Penelope’s marital campaign. The elegant manner in which he crossed his legs at the knee suggested he was irritated.
Well, so was she.
“You are under no obligation to tell me anything, madam, though if you are in trouble, if you have gambling debts, or if your grief has led you to intimate indiscretions which some fool thinks to turn to his financial advantage—”
“Indiscretions? You think I’ve been out merry-widowing, with Sixtus not yet gone a year? Dancing on his grave? You too, Levi?”
Levi Sparrow was not precisely her friend, but he’d been Sixtus’s friend, also the solicitor entrusted with Sixtus’s most delicate transactions and negotiations. For Levi to suggest she’d taken lovers during the limited mourning Sixtus had prescribed hurt.
Hurt badly, and did not bode well for her plans.
“My dear lady, calm yourself. I lost my Ann eight years ago.” He took a bite of fruitcake, probably a strategic move to buy time to gather his thoughts. Levi gathered thoughts like old women knitted on familiar needles. Click, click, click, in rapid, sure succession, all of a piece.
“Eight years is a long time.”
He fell silent. Levi liked his silences, just as he took liberties with pauses, and yet, Pen had forgotten this about him: He was a widower. He’d known loss, and maybe that explained why months after the condolence calls had ceased and all but the most determined bachelors had stopped sniffing about her skirts, Levi still came to see her.
He’d advised her against donating all of Sixtus’s clothes to the staff or the poor, suggesting she keep at least a good suit of clothes, a dressing gown, and the old fellow’s favorite riding boots.
She’d cried, clutching those boots. Cried for an old man who hadn’t been able to sit a horse in years.
An astonishing thought intruded on that dolorous memory.
“Levi, are you telling me you took lovers during your mourning?” The question exceeded the bounds of any inquiry she’d made of him in the five years of their acquaintance. “Don’t answer that. I’m left much to my own company, and sometimes I don’t know if I’ve said something aloud, or merely thought it. I’ve doubtless taken my first step down the slippery slope of eccentricity.”
Levi neither made light of her outburst nor ignored it. Instead, he picked up a piece of fruitcakes sporting a thick smear of butter and held it up to her mouth.
“You must eat. Cook takes her company baking seriously, and I offend her at my peril.”
Penelope took a bite, smooth, fresh butter blending with candied fruit and spices. Another extraordinary thought popped into her mind, though this one she kept penned up behind her lips: He was teasing her somehow, perhaps even—dare she hope?—flirting.
In the Duke’s Arms by Carolyn Jewel
Hopewell-on-Lyft, Nottinghamshire, England, 1817
Awareness shivered down Oxthorpe’s spine. He had no notion why but took the reaction as a sign he ought to pay attention. He braced one booted foot on the edge of the plank table and tipped back his chair until it rested on the wall behind him. He was alone at this table by the fire: a place reserved for him alone. A carved swan and griffin adorned the top stretcher of his chair.
No one dared join him, a fact that suited him. He preferred solitude even when in public. Especially in public. He sipped the dark lager the innkeeper brewed in his basement. As good or better than any produced by the larger brewer two towns over. Wattles, the proprietor of the coaching inn, supplied Killhope with a regular measure of this lager.
The front room of The Duke’s Arms was crowded with a mix of locals and travelers. The locals were closing out their day with dinner before heading home, the others awaited their connections to parts north or south. From his seat he could see the inn’s wooden sign with its painted swan and griffin echoing, rather loosely, those carved into his chair.
When he was not looking out the windows, his inelegant position gave him a view of his boot. The left of a decent pair of boots. Suitable for the country. He’d liked them well enough three years ago; the leather was supple even still. But these excellent boots did not have the folded top-cuff of his new boots. Nor did they have a maroon tint to the leather, which he thought would set a fashion—if it was possible for a man like him to set a fashion for anything but striking fear into hearts.
He ought to be wearing his maroon top-boots and was not. Because he could not. The left of his new boots, never worn but for assuring the fit, had gone missing from Killhope. Servants had searched the house and grounds top to bottom and found nothing.
Just as he was about to conclude that nothing untoward was going to happen after all, the front door opened.
Winter air blasted through the front room. Several of the patrons near the door shivered. A woman of about thirty came in. Oxthorpe straightened his chair and set his beer on the table. For the last month, he’d been telling himself he was prepared for this moment. He was not. This was inevitable, that they would eventually be in the same place. His heart banged away at his ribs.
She was dressed against the chill in a black woolen cloak, hood up so that one did not see the color of her hair and little of her face other than that she was pale complected. She was of medium height. Her eyes were brown, not that he could see that from here, but they were.
The maid closed the door behind them and stood to one side, hands clasped and head down. Of this he approved, both that her maid held her employer in the proper respect, and that she’d brought a servant with her.
With one hand, because she held a paper-wrapped parcel in the other, the woman pushed back the hood of her cloak. A spray of tiny blue flowers adorned her brown hair. She had hair combs, too. Ivory, if he was not mistaken. This was an embellishment he had never seen from her in Town. “Good afternoon, Mr. Wattles.”
Miss Edith Clay brightened the room with her presence. Just from walking through the door, she’d made the room a happier place. This was true despite his having spent the last several months assuring himself his recollection of her had to be incorrect.
His recollection was not incorrect. It was appallingly accurate.
Wattles grinned from behind the bar where he stood to pull beer or ale from the tap and tell stories or, often, listen to them. “Delightful to see you, Miss.”
Mrs. Wattles moved toward the door. She wiped her hands on her apron and folded them beneath the fabric. “Always a pleasure to see you here, Miss Clay.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Wattles.” Her smile hollowed out his chest. She’d changed since last he saw her. She was brighter. More vibrant. Happiness suited her. “You are so kind.”
The Wattles’s daughter, Peg, came into the front room from the back carrying an empty tray, heading, he presumed, to the kitchen.
“You’re early to pick up your dinner, Miss,” Mrs. Wattles said.
Peg stopped to curtsey. “Good day, Miss.”
“Peg. I hope you’re well.” She tugged at the wrist of one of her gloves. Blue kid.
Her focus returned to Mrs. Wattles, and while she was so engaged, Oxthorpe took the opportunity to study her and tightly wrap up his response to her. He had a clear view of her from where he sat. To see him, however, she would have to look into the rear of the room and into the shadows, and she had not done so. Why would she? She’d not come to see him. For one thing, his visit this afternoon had not been scheduled.
Waning afternoon light shone through the windows to the courtyard, with its glimpse of the Great Northern Road. A groom hurried toward the stables at the rear, his arms wrapped around his middle. Her maid was not a Hopewell-on-Lyft local. He supposed she must be from London.
“Yes, I am a little. But that’s not why I’ve come. Not the only reason, that is.”
Strange, seeing her without her younger and much prettier cousin. In London last year, and later in Tunbridge Wells, he’d got used to seeing them together. Inseparable those two, even though Miss Clay was the elder by a decade. Two years younger than he. Unlike him, she was cheerful. Always pleasant. So bloody, horribly happy even though she had no particular looks, and at the time he met her, no fortune whatever. She had been, in fact, entirely dependent on her relations.
Mrs. Wattles waved to her daughter. “Tell the kitchen Miss Clay is early to pick up her supper.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Wattles.” She glanced around the room but her gaze slid over him in the shadows of his table. Even in London, always happy. “How is your father, ma’am? Better, I hope.”
Mrs. Wattles’s father was ninety years old and, lately, in failing health. “As well as can be expected, I think. He says thank you for the bread and broth you sent.”
“I shall send more, if it would be welcome.”
“He would enjoy that, Miss.” Mrs Wattles bent a knee. “We’d be grateful if you did.”
She adjusted the parcel in her arms. The light through the windows turned her hair shades of walnut. “I hope you’ll let me know if there is anything else you need.”
“Thank you, Miss.”
By no stretch of imagination was Edith Clay anything but a pleasant-looking woman. Not unattractive. But nothing to make a man’s head turn. She wasn’t young. At twenty-seven, nearly twenty-eight now, thirty was not far off for her. A woman, not a girl. Her cloak separated to reveal a portion of a blue frock. Robin’s Egg blue, and that was unusual, her wearing colors. She never had before.
“I am here on account of a mystery most deep, Mrs. Wattles.”
One of the laborers in the far corner of the main room came forward with a chair. The man set it down near where Miss Clay stood near the bow windows with her parcel in her arms, then backed away. Another of them pushed forward a chair for her maid. Her maid sent a grateful glance in the direction of the men.
“Thank you,” she said. Edith did.
He did not understand this fey power of hers to make people like her. He wondered if she’d walked here. If she had, she’d have a mile and a half through the cold when she left, and uphill, too. There might be snow, this time of year. Quite likely with the way the sky looked.
Edith perched on the edge of her chair, knees pressed together, feet perfectly aligned. Habit. She’d sat just so before, a woman of no importance, whom no one noticed when she was quiet. “I hope you can assist me.”
Mrs. Wattles clasped her hands underneath her apron. “Whatever we can do.”
She settled her parcel on her lap. “Did you know, Mrs. Wattles, that when I moved into Hope Springs, I found a note pinned to the wall in the entryway? Just above a crate. I thought it odd.”
These were now more words than ever he’d heard her say at one time. In London, she had guarded every word against her elder cousin’s disapproval. There were more differences between the woman she’d been then and what she was now. He stared at her, with her blissfully unaware for now. Besides the better quality clothes, her face was more animated and though she was not a beauty like her young cousin, there was something there. She seemed freer now than she had been. Who would not be, who had made a similar escape?
“What did the note say?”
“It was left, I presume, by the previous inhabitant, by way of instruction. It said, ‘For Items Found.’ Is that not peculiar? I thought it peculiar.” She had a good, strong voice. She smiled with her voice, too.
“What did you find?”
“Ah.” She held up her gloved index finger. “I suspected as much. There have been things found at my home before.”
“There might have been.” Mrs. Wattles laughed.
She unwrapped the parcel she held. Several of the laborers and many of the travelers in the front room craned their necks to see. “When I returned from my morning perambulations to the vale and back, I found this in my driveway.” She held up a boot. A gentleman’s gleaming top boot of maroon leather with a folded down cuff. “Is this not most mysterious? I have not been in Hopewell-on-Lyft very long, so perhaps it is common, but it seems uncommon to me.”
True. She’d been here hardly a month, no longer.
“Perhaps one frequently finds a boot in one’s drive.” She was laughing at herself, delighted with the absurdity. So were the others. He, too, was smiling. Even though it was his boot.
Peg had returned from the kitchen, and she eagerly explained. “It’s Mr. Paling’s collie, Miss. From Killhope.” Paling being his groundskeeper. The man had a three-legged collie who followed him everywhere.
Edith tilted her head just so. Wide-eyed innocence played to perfection. “Are you certain? For this seems so very much like a boot, to me. It’s not at all collie-shaped.”
Mrs. Wattles laughed. Edith hadn’t a mean bone in her body. Not one. She meant to amuse, and she did. He was amused, though he did not want to be.
“Mr. Paling’s collie is excitable,” Mr. Wattles said. He’d refilled someone’s beer and now held it in one hand. “When she’s in an excitable state, why she’ll snatch up something near and dash away with it. She leaves it wherever she is when the excitement wears off.”
“When he comes here with the dog, we are careful to put away anything she might carry away in her excitement.” Wattles pushed the beer to the man waiting for it. “You’re not so far from Killhope, Miss. It’s bound to happen.”
“This is the duke’s boot?”
Mrs. Wattles glanced over her shoulder at him. So did her husband. And Peg. And several of the locals. “I can’t say if it is or it isn’t.”
Edith did not notice the stares in his direction because she was examining his boot. “Well. Not a princely boot, then, but a noble one. Yes, I see that now.” With a sigh, she re-wrapped his boot and retied the string. “I do wish I’d guessed that before I walked a mile and a half in the opposite direction.”
Oxthorpe stood. He could do nothing else.
Her hands stilled, and her smile faded away. She stood and dropped into a curtsey. What did one say in such situations, when one knew a lady disapproved? “Miss Clay,” he said.
“Duke.” She’d given the field laborer a happier smile than she gave him. Most everyone else had stopped smiling, too. This was the effect he had on others. He was the Duke of Oxthorpe, and though he did his duty by his title and his estate, he was not beloved. He did not know how to be beloved the way Miss Clay was.
“You have my boot.”
She turned her head very slightly to one side. To avoid meeting his gaze. “Do I? Your Grace.”
“I’ll try it on and let you judge the fit.”
“That will not be necessary.”
“It is when you doubt that it is mine.” He walked to her, and she handed over his boot. He examined it when he’d sat on a chair Wattles brought for him. He would not have gone through with his ridiculous challenge to her except she so clearly thought he would not.
“It isn’t the collie’s fault,” she said.
He drew off his boot with less effort than he expected and put on the other. A perfect fit. “There are tooth marks.” Too late he understood he’d spoken gruffly. Quite possibly, she thought he accused her of damaging his boot.
Her expression smoothed out, and then she did what she would never have done before. She smiled brightly and said, “I assure you, duke, they are not mine.”
This was amusing. He recognized that. Several people guffawed, and he heard others trying not to laugh. Without allowing his annoyance and dismay to show, he changed boots again. “You relieve me, Miss Clay.”
Once again, he had offended her. He should not care. He did not care. Why ought he to care about a woman like her? Except he did. He bowed, jaw clenched against the possibility that he would say more to offend. He strode out of The Duke’s Arms with his bloody damned boot.
Licensed to Wed by Miranda Neville
Robina has been expecting a proposal from Wyatt, Lord Carbury for some months but his courtship has left much to be desired.
Carbury stood in the middle of the room, the very picture of a man approaching the height of his powers. At thirty-three, he had filled out from the reed-like slenderness of his youth. He was broad-chested beneath his perfectly cut dark blue coat and strong without an ounce of excess fat, from his firm chin down to his trim waist and muscular legs in fitted buff pantaloons and Hessian boots. His brown hair was short and neat. Neither fashionable excess in his coiffure nor a hint of bristle on his firm chin and jaw was allowed to mar the regularity of his features. He wasn’t excessively handsome, merely a fine-looking English gentleman with all the arrogance of the breed.
Nothing in his expression spoke of the apprehension that should be felt by a man who had just offered marriage to the lady of his choice. He seemed to feel as much anxiety as he would about eating breakfast. And why not? Obviously, in his mind her acceptance was just as sure as his cook’s preparation of the morning meal. He likely expected her to feel gratitude, and with the sensible side of her brain, she acknowledged the logic of his position. Another part of her head, one linked to her heart and other sentimental organs, protested.
“Was that a proposal of marriage?” she asked.
“You know it was.”
“I thought it was more along the lines of a command.”
“Come, my dear Robina. We have known each other too long, and we are both far too sensible to indulge in romantic postures. I know we shall deal very well together, and I cannot believe you do not think the same.”
“Do you wish to marry me? Why?”
“Of course I do. I wouldn’t have asked if I did not.”
“But why? And don’t mention our fathers, please. Let us stipulate that there is no obligation. I am not your duty.”
“I beg to disagree. I have thought about the subject, and it’s clear to me that the best way to ensure your future is to make you my wife. Only thus can I look after you as my conscience demands.”
“And what if your conscience and my wishes lead us on different paths?”
“I find that hard to believe. I am sorry if you are piqued at my silence in the months you’ve been in London. I am a very busy man. Nevertheless, you deserve an apology for the inadequacies of my courtship. Pray forgive me and trust that I will not be as inattentive a husband.” He didn’t sound even remotely sorry.
When Robina was seven years old, she had escaped her governess and climbed an apple tree. She had amused herself attempting to toss unripe fruit into the gardener’s water trough and made great strides in accuracy when Wyatt strolled through the orchard on his way to a neighborly call on the Westons. Without a by-your-leave, he’d lifted her down from her perfectly secure perch on the widest branch and gravely scolded her, not for wasting fruit, which would have been reasonable, but for endangering herself. He completely ignored her protests that she was an expert tree climber. Wyatt Herbert had been an insufferably interfering fifteen-year-old, and the tendency had only grown as he aged.
She pursed her lips, sealing in words unbecoming of a lady. Carbury seemed to take her silence for encouragement.
“I respect you too much to doubt you see the advantages of my offer. For my part, I know my duty, and I trust I will never shirk it.”
Shirk was an ugly word. “If you think you need it, I give you my permission to shirk your duty to me. I never asked for charity, and that is what your proposal is.” The reins on her temper slipped away. “You, Wyatt, are a pompous ass. It has never been my ambition to share my life and my bed with a man who treats me with such supreme condescension.”
The Spy Beneath the Mistletoe by Shana Galen
Two hours later, the inn was silent as the winter night, and Eliza was warm by the fire in her small room. She hadn’t undressed, but she’d rung for the maid to bring the water for washing so the servants would not be waiting on her. She’d have to find a way to undress herself or sleep in her stays.
She had been sitting and waiting for him too long, that was all. He was on her mind. It wasn’t as though she desired him. Very much.
In truth, she missed him. She missed their discussions of everything from flowers to politics. She missed hearing about all of the clerical sorts of things he’d done each day and telling him about her latest success with a new pistol that looked like a lady’s fan. She missed having him in her life.
And, oh very well, she missed having a man hold her, having him kiss her, feeling the weight of his body beside hers. On top of hers.
Of course, Moneypence chose that moment to tap softly on her door. Pulling it open, she yanked him inside and shut it again.
“Did anyone see you?” she asked.
“No. I was discreet. Are you well? Your face is flushed.”
She touched her cheeks. They were indeed warm, probably because of the direction of her thoughts just a few moments ago. “I’ve been sitting too close to the fire.”
“Am I correct in assuming you wished to speak to me?”
His eyes were dark and his light brown hair flecked with snow. She’d forgotten what it was like to be this close to him. His scent, bergamot mingled with the clean fragrances of hay and fresh snow, made her heart beat a little faster. Her gaze dipped to his lips. Would his mouth be warm or deliciously cool against her hot skin?
He sounded impatient for her to continue and brushed snow off his sleeve to punctuate his annoyance. “About this mission. I’ve changed my mind.”
“You’re going home?” he said with a hopeful tone.
“No.” She flicked a piece of straw from his hair. “We should work together.”
But he didn’t speak.
“I was making a list of our suspects,” she said, “and between the two of us, we would generate such a list more quickly. You spoke to people I did not at dinner.”
“I see. And what if I don’t want your help?”
“You wanted it earlier.”
Slowly, he unwound his scarf from his neck. “You can’t keep changing your mind.”
“I haven’t changed my mind. I have only reconsidered this one point.”
“How do I know you won’t change it again?”
Frustrating man. Why did she feel as though he was speaking about more than this mission? “I won’t, but if you don’t want to work with me—”
She’d waved her arm at him, and he caught her hand in his. His skin was cool, giving her a little shock. “I didn’t say that. I merely wanted to make certain I understood where we stand.”
“We’re colleagues working together on a mission for the Barbican group,” she said. “Nothing more.”
He looked down at her hand.
Heaven help her. She was making little circles with her thumb on his palm.
“I beg your pardon.” She tried to pull her hand away, but he didn’t release her. She didn’t try very hard to free herself either.
“There’s nothing to apologize for. I’ve missed your touch.”