Edmund Sherritt, Major Lord Canforth, has devoted eight tumultuous years to fighting Napoleon. Finally Europe is at peace, and he can retire to his estates and the lovely wife he hasn’t seen since their brief, unhappy honeymoon. The innocent girl he loved from the first moment he saw her, but who shied away from him on their wedding night.
The beautiful woman who greets him at Otway Hall on Christmas Eve is no longer the sweet ingénue he remembers. This new and exciting version of his beloved countess is strong, outspoken, and independent, and she’s willing to stand up for what she wants. The question is—does she want the husband who returns to her arms more as a stranger than a spouse?
Now the real battle begins.
Felicity, Lady Canforth, has had eight long years to regret that she sent her husband from a cold marriage bed to face brutal combat, danger and hardship. The only child of elderly parents, Felicity came to marriage innocent and ignorant, and unable to conceal her shock at the sensual power of the earl’s caresses. Before she found the nerve to offer Canforth a more generous welcome, he was called away to war. The Major left behind a countess who was a bride, not a wife; a woman unsure of her husband’s feelings, and too timid to confess how fervently she desires the man she wed.
Fate has granted an older, wiser Felicity a second chance to win her husband’s heart. Now nothing is going to stop her from claiming victory over the famous war hero. This Christmas, she’ll deploy every ounce of courage, purpose and passion to seize the life and love she’s longed for ever since Canforth left to serve his country. Whatever it costs, whatever it takes, she’ll lure the dashing Major back into her bed, where she means to show him he’s the only man she wants as her lover—and her love.
After years of yearning and separation, will a Christmas miracle heal the wounds of the past and offer the earl and his bride a future bright with love?
Previously published in the multi-author anthology Under the Kissing Bough.
An international e-book release ~ 20th September 2017
Otway Hall, Shropshire, Christmas Eve 1815
Felicity, Lady Canforth, emerged from the dark warmth of the stables, blinking against the gray light and carrying an empty bucket she intended to fill at the pump. The promise of snow edged the air. It looked like a cold Christmas ahead.
When the raw-boned bay horse clattered into the stable yard, she didn’t recognize it. Or the man bundled in hat, scarf, and greatcoat in the saddle.
This isolated valley didn’t get many unexpected visitors. And it was odd for someone to come to the stables instead of the front door. She straightened, annoyed at the intrusion, not least because in her brown pinafore, she wasn’t dressed to receive guests. “Can I help you?”
The rider drew to a stop, and she felt him studying her from under the brim of the hat he’d pulled down low over his face. A thick green muffler concealed his features. “I hope so,” he said through the scarf.
“An introduction might be a nice start,” she said pleasantly.
One gloved hand rose to pull away the scarf. “Don’t you remember me, Flick?”
Dear God in heaven. Shock shuddered through her like a blow. Her legs threatened to collapse under her. The bucket crashed to the cobblestones where it rolled disregarded.
“Canforth?” The word emerged as a whisper.
Under her wide-eyed gaze, he unwound the scarf and, with a slowness that struck her as significant, he lifted away his hat. “The same,” he said in a dry tone.
She barely heard through the blood rushing in her ears. Her heart raced like a wild horse as her hungry eyes devoured the man she’d last seen over seven years ago. Powerful joy and equally powerful uncertainty churned in her stomach, turned her knees to jelly.
She drank in every detail of his appearance. Over the years, his image had faded in her mind, despite her best efforts to remember. Thick auburn hair sprang back from his high forehead. The bony nose and jaw were the same. But there were other, obvious changes. Deep lines now ran between nose and mouth. His gray eyes no longer hinted at a continual smile. Most shocking of all was the long, angry scar that extended from temple to jaw.
That must have hurt like the very devil. At the thought of his suffering, she couldn’t control a murmur of distress.
Her involuntary reaction made his lips tighten. He raised one gloved hand toward the saber slash—for surely nothing else could cause such damage—before he sat upright in the saddle and surveyed her down his long nose. “Or perhaps not quite the same, after all.”
The pride was familiar. And the courage. He’d loathe her pity. She forced herself to pretend that she didn’t want to drag him off that big, ill-tempered looking nag, and take him in her arms, and weep all over him like a fountain.
“Why didn’t you tell me you were coming?” Keeping her voice steady required every ounce of willpower.
“I decided I’d beat any letter home.” The deep rumble of his voice was the same, too. She remembered how it had always vibrated pleasantly in her bones. In the cold air, their breath formed clouds in front of their faces when they spoke. “On Wednesday, I got back to London from The Hague and found the orders that released me at last.”
Felicity bent to retrieve the bucket, so that he wouldn’t see the tears rushing to her eyes. She and Canforth had always been friends, but friends who made no undue demands on one another. Definitely not the kind of friends who howled and cheered and created a fuss when the wanderer returned from dangerous foreign exploits. She’d gathered from the first that he shied away from any hint of sentiment.
For a second, she fumbled blindly, until she found the handle. She rose with what she prayed was a fair appearance of composure. “The last letter I had from you was written in Vienna.”
Through all these endless, lonely years, the only real reminder that she was a wife and not a maiden lady had been his letters. Written regularly. Delivered erratically, according to the rigors of war and travel. She’d written to him, too. He read her letters, she knew—he responded to her questions about managing the estate—but she had no idea what, if anything, they’d meant to him. For her, his every word had been air to a woman dying of suffocation. Although true to the unspoken contract between them, in her replies, she’d never ventured beyond news of everyday events.
“Good God, I must have written that two months ago. There’s more to come.”
“I look forward to them,” she said easily, as if those letters hadn’t kept her heart alive since he’d gone away. She set the bucket down near the pump.
“I always looked forward to yours.” It sounded like mere politeness. But then he’d always been polite. Even during their few encounters in the countess’s big oak bed, he’d treated her like a fine lady. Never like a lover.
“Let me hold your horse while you get down,” she said, pushing away that unwelcome recollection. Her husband was home and safe. For now, that was more than enough. Their difficulties could wait. After all, they’d waited nearly eight years already. Another few days wouldn’t make much difference.
“You shouldn’t be performing these menial tasks.” He frowned. “Where in Hades are the grooms I pay a fortune to maintain?”
“I’ve given them a few days off for Christmas.” When she caught the bridle, the horse eyed her balefully. “Most of the staff are on holiday.”
“Do you mean you’re here alone? At Christmas?” The frown intensified. “Why the deuce didn’t you go to your parents? Otway’s a hellish isolated place to spend the festive season. Especially if you’ve been mutton-headed enough to send the servants off.”
“You know, a man who’s been away so long should wait to see the lie of the land before he starts throwing his weight around,” she said coolly.
When she’d married Canforth at eighteen, his slightest displeasure had terrified her. To her surprise, despite her piercing gratitude that he was back, she found it easy to stand up to him now. Seven years running the estate had lent her a measure of confidence sadly lacking in her younger self.
Her defiance elicited a grunt of sardonic laughter. “Perhaps he should. Forgive me. It’s a damned long ride from London. I apologize for being a grumpy bear.”
This willingness to admit he was in the wrong was familiar—and endearing. Her years in charge of Otway had taught her what a rare and precious quality that was in the male animal. Her tone became more conciliatory. “Actually I’m not altogether alone. Biddy’s here. So is Joe.”
“Are they?” Unalloyed pleasure filled his expression. An unalloyed pleasure lacking when he greeted his wife. Ridiculous to be jealous of a couple in their sixties, but she was.
He slung one leg over the saddle and dismounted. To her horror, when he met the ground he staggered and almost lost his balance. The horse snorted and shifted under the clumsy movement.
“Canforth!” she cried, releasing the bridle and rushing forward to slide her shoulder under his arm. “Are you hurt?”
One gloved hand gripped the stirrup as he fought to stay upright. “Hell,” he muttered. “I’m sorry, Flick. All day in the saddle.”
“Can you walk?” she asked, as his weight pressed down on her. She hadn’t been this close to a man since he’d gone away. Yet the scents of healthy male sweat, horses and leather were heady and familiar. And his nearness reminded her how fragile and female she always felt when big, brawny Edmund Sherritt held her close.
“Yes, of course,” he said, already transferring the burden from her.
“You never told me you were wounded.” Although the hiatus in his letters about six months ago should have alerted her. Only the pallor under his tan betrayed what it cost him to stand on his own feet.
“A souvenir of Waterloo. Nothing serious.”
Felicity believed that like she believed in fairies. She slipped her arm around his waist.
“Is the scar on your cheek from Waterloo, too?” She needed all her courage to ask the question. That single betraying gesture when she’d first seen his face told her that he was self-conscious about his changed appearance.
Gently he disengaged himself. “My unearthly luck finally ran out under a French hussar’s saber.”
He’d gone through the entire Peninsular campaign with barely a scratch. Or at least so he’d told her. “After today, I’m not sure I trust you. Did you really escape injury so long?”
Before she could sift that for its full meaning, he took a shuffling step forward and his left leg buckled. Men and their pride! “Don’t be a fool, Canforth. Let me help you.”
The lordly displeasure returned to his manner, but he was sensible enough to accept her assistance, if with reluctance. He even deigned to place an arm around her shoulders, the heavy greatcoat scratchy against her neck. “This isn’t how I wanted to come back to you.”
“You’ve come back. That’s all that matters.” At a crawling pace, they made their way toward the house. “How many days have you been riding?”
“Four. This is the worst my blasted leg has been in months. I managed all that cavorting around the courts of Europe without too much trouble. I hoped my wound was all but healed—I had plans to dance with my pretty wife at the New Year assembly in Shrewsbury.”
“Maybe the one after this.” Braced under his weight, she angled toward the kitchen. He wouldn’t have to deal with many steps, and there was a fire. She suspected the cold weather was responsible for at least some of his pain.
“What about my horse?” he asked, glancing back.
“Is he likely to bolt?”
“Then he can wait until I get his master inside, and I send Joe out to look after him. You need to get inside to warmth and shelter, not go chasing after horses that if they wander, won’t wander far.” She sent him a darkling look, expecting masculine outrage at the way she took charge. “And if you argue with me, I’ll kick you in your sore leg.”
She needed a moment to recognize the bass rumble as laughter. “Well, I’ll be damned. You’ve changed, haven’t you? I left behind a sweet little poppet, and I’ve come home to a managing virago.”
“Get used to it,” she said, even as she hid a wince. While he was away, she’d grown up a lot. She’d had to. But would he like the woman she’d become in his absence?
Now that the immediate shock of his arrival ebbed, she had a chance to regret how untidy she looked. She’d been seeing to the few horses left in the stables, and the navy blue dress under her pinafore was old and crumpled. She’d plaited her thick brown hair this morning, and it hung in a long braid down her back. She felt more like a milkmaid than the lady of the manor.
“Can you manage this step?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said, and with some help from her, he did. Once they entered the short, icy cold passage that led to the kitchens, he drew away and supported himself with his hands on each wall.
Her heart ached to see his struggles, although she gave him his way. Stupid of her to miss him needing her. But he’d never needed her before, and she’d rather liked it.