Lia Kincaid adored Stonefell Hall during the Christmas season, despite the fact that it was the time of year she was most likely to be barred from the place she considered home. As she gazed down at the baronial splendor of the great entrance hall, now festively adorned with swags of evergreens and bay leaves, she couldn’t help glowing with a sense of pride and, yes, ownership.
But Stonefell wasn’t home. Home for her was a short walk down a country lane to Bluebell Cottage. Bluebell was undeniably charming, except when the roof leaked or the chimneys smoked during an east wind. Still, one learned to live with pans strategically scattered around the house to catch drips and windows could be opened if a parlor grew too smoky.
Of course, Lia had no choice but to live with leaks and other little annoyances. Her grandmother would never complain to the cottage’s owner, the Marquess of Lendale, about something as mundane as a leaky roof because his lordship had other things on his mind when calling on Granny. The two of them lived in a romantic bubble when they were together, leaving the boring details to Lia to handle.
And speaking of leaks, her boots were getting as aerated as the cottage roof. Lia wriggled her damp feet to restore some warmth to her toes, but her cramped position behind a wooden screen made it difficult to move. Maintaining her crouch, she inched her way across the long gallery that overlooked the hall. At the opposite end, she was finally able to stand and partly hide herself behind a stone column. It was colder now because she was farther from the roaring blaze of the hall’s stone fireplace, but at least she could hop around and send blood flowing back to her limbs.
Her position offered her an excellent view of Lord John Easton, along with his daughter, Lady Anne, and his wife, Lady John Easton—Elizabeth to her family and close friends.
Neither Lia nor Granny could count Lady John as either family or friend.
The Eastons, who were spending the holiday with the Marquess of Lendale, Lord John’s older brother, were the reason for Lia’s temporary banishment from Stonefell Hall, when she normally had the run of the place. If Lady John caught sight of either Lia or her grandmother, fire and brimstone would rain down from the skies.
Lady John blamed Lia’s grandmother for bringing disgrace to the Lendale good name, and her hatred for the notorious Rebecca Kincaid ran deep. It didn’t matter that the marquess had installed Granny on the estate over ten years ago, or that he continued to openly support both her and Lia with the clear intention of doing so for the rest of his life. In Lady John’s eyes, Granny was the harlot and enchantress who’d caused Lendale to lose both his wits and his sterling reputation.
But it was mostly because of Anne that Lia was ordered to remain hidden. Lady John was adamant that her daughter not be exposed to the moral pollution of any one of the Kincaids.
Lia propped her shoulder against the column and studied the elegant, beautiful girl. Anne was dressed in a white velvet gown trimmed with spangles that made her shimmer like a Christmas bauble under the flickering lights of the massive chandelier hanging over the hall. She was destined for great things on the marriage mart according to the gossip in the kitchens. And she was certainly popular tonight, with a bevy of callow bachelors trailing along in her wake.
Despite her proud demeanor, Anne had a charming smile and a cheerful laugh that made Lia think they could be chums if given half a chance.
But, of course, they never would be. It would be wildly inappropriate for such a fine young lady to suffer the insult of Lia’s presence. After all, not only was she the granddaughter of Lendale’s mistress, she was the daughter of a famous actress and illegitimate to boot. Lia had often wondered what would happen if Lady John discovered she and Anne had accidentally run into each other a few times. Total mayhem would most likely ensue, or at least a great deal of screeching and possibly even a decorous faint.
Nothing good came from the visits of Lord John and his family. Nothing good at all.
With one gloriously earth-shattering exception. Jack Easton, eldest child and only son of Lord John and Lady John, would be visiting, too. That fact made up for all the inconveniences and slights a thousand times over.
Unfortunately, Lia’s chances of spending any significant amount of time with Jack seemed remote; he was staying in Yorkshire for less than a week and his blasted family was doing their best to monopolize his attention. Not that she could blame them; monopolizing his time was precisely what she had been longing for since he’d arrived.
She’d lost sight of Jack about ten minutes earlier because the hall was filled to bursting with the local gentry, all come to partake of the festive hospitality of the Marquess of Lendale. Jack had looked ridiculously handsome and dashing in his new regimentals and, not surprisingly, a horde of county girls had trailed behind him like a gigantic, multihued scarf of fluttering, flirtatious butterflies.
Lia only saw Jack three times a year—at Christmas and two other school holidays, when he came by himself to visit. Because of that, she couldn’t help resenting the fashionable, well-bred girls who could speak to him, flirt with him, and dance with him whenever they pleased. It was a luxury she longed for with all her heart.
You nitwit. As if Jack Easton could ever—would ever—fall in love with you.
How could he? Lia was one of the Notorious Kincaids, though the description was ridiculous when applied to her. Skinny, with freckles, and as flat as a board, she could no more follow in the famous footsteps of her mother and grandmother than conjure a mug of wassail from thin air. Despite her scandalous parentage, Lia was as ordinary a country girl as one could imagine.
Still, being ordinary didn’t make her acceptable, as least not for the likes of Jack Easton, who was destined to be the Marquess of Lendale one day.
“Lurking in the shadows again, are we? I swear you’d make a splendid spy in Wellington’s army.”
As Lia jerked around, her foot caught on the sodden hem of her gown. She squeaked as she fell back against the banister rail, frantically pinwheeling her arms to regain her balance. Jack shot out a hand and snatched her from danger.
“Confound it, Lia,” he gasped. “Be careful.”
After casting a glance into the hall, Jack drew her into the shadows at the back of the gallery.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “That was very silly of me.” Compared to the elegant young ladies he’d been dancing with earlier, she must seem like a foolish bumpkin.
Jack gave her a brief, fierce hug before holding her at arm’s length to inspect her. “Pet, don’t apologize. I’m the one who snuck up and startled you. I’m just thankful I caught you before you toppled over the side.”
“Jack, I’m not that clumsy.”
Laughter crept into his dark gaze. “Of course you aren’t. I don’t know how I could remotely suggest such a thing.”
She sighed. “I suppose because you’ve saved my life any number of times over the years?”
“Well, I have pulled you out of the pond at least twice. And then there was that time you knocked down the wasp’s nest, and the time you almost fell out of the tree, and the time you knocked over that heavy bookshelf in the library—”
“At least two of those incidents were your fault in the first place. But I will concede that you’ve rescued me more than a few times. And you’re an absolute beast to point that out, by the way.”
“I am, aren’t I? But whatever would you do without me around?”
He was joking, of course, but it still made her chest go tight with sorrow. Soon she would have to do without him. Jack was a man now, and a soldier. In just a matter of weeks, he would be embarking on a life of adventure. God only knew when she would see him again.
“I expect I’ll rub along just fine without you,” she said, forcing a light tone. She refused to ruin the few moments they had together with high-flown dramatics. He had to put up with enough of that from his mother.
“It was very nice of you to come up here to see me,” she added.
“I spotted you crouching behind the screen. That red pelisse of yours was a dead giveaway. Not that I hadn’t already guessed you’d be up here.”
Lia’s heart thundered into a gallop. “No one else saw me, did they?”
Lord Lendale would be angry if he knew she was spying on his guests. She wasn’t even supposed to be in the house, much less lurking about the gallery, where she risked discovery.
“No one else saw you,” he said. “Except for Richard. He sees everything.”
She heaved a relieved sigh. “That’s all right, then. He’ll scold me, but he won’t rat on me to his lordship.” Richard was the head footman and one of Lia’s biggest supporters at Stonefell Hall. He’d been only a kitchen boy when she’d arrived all those years ago. They’d all but grown up together.
“Fortunately, I managed to distract Debbins before he got a glimpse of you,” he said.
Unlike most of the servants, who treated her with indulgence, the butler was offended by her very presence. “Thank you for saving me,” she said wryly. “Again.”
Jack frowned. “Debbins doesn’t mistreat you, does he?”
“Of course not. Lord Lendale would never allow that.”
“But he’s not very nice to you, is he?”
She shrugged. “It doesn’t bother me very much.”
His frown deepened to a scowl. “I’ll have a word—”
“No. That won’t help at all.”
“Why are we talking about that old rusty guts anyway? We’ve not had a moment to chat and I expect you have to go back down soon before you’re missed.” She smiled up into his dear, handsome face. “How are you? Are you enjoying your duties in the Horse Guards? I must say you look simply wonderful in your uniform.”
He grinned, his evident pride making him seem boyish again. “It’s even better than I expected. I’ve been assigned to Northumberland’s staff, so I’ll be heading out for the Peninsula within the next few months, I expect.”
The very idea of him anywhere near the war terrified her, but she refused to let him see it. Jack had always longed for a military career, and thanks to his uncle’s willingness to buy him a commission, he’d finally gotten his greatest wish. As a true friend, she must be happy for him.
“That’s splendid,” she said. “I hope you’ll find the chance now and again to write to us here in boring old Yorkshire. It’s beastly quiet, you know. Your letters are always a welcome distraction for me and Granny.”
“I will, whenever I get the chance.”
“You promise you won’t forget?” she asked, unable to help herself.
His dark eyes went soft and warm. “I could never forget you, Lia. You know that.”
She tried to smile. Of course he would forget her. After all, she was simply a girl, not yet even sixteen. There would be no reason for him to retain more than the occasional vaguely affectionate memory of her.
But to Lia, Jack was the entire world.
When the small orchestra launched into a new set of dances, they both glanced toward the party below.
“You’d best go down before you’re missed,” she said softly.
“I’ve a few more minutes and you’ve not yet told me how you are.” His gaze traveled over her form. “The hem of your pelisse is soaked.” He reached out and took her hand. “And your fingers are freezing.”
Though she was indeed freezing, she didn’t care. Not when she could spend time with Jack. “I’m fine.”
“Did you cut through the back garden?”
“It’s the best way to get here without being seen.” It meant she’d had to tramp through a foot of snow before she could sneak into the house through his lordship’s library.
He gave a disapproving shake of his head. “We’ve got to get you warm before you go back or you’ll catch a chill.”
“Really, Jack, it’s—”
He forestalled her objection by practically dragging her over to the staircase at the other end of the gallery.
“What are you doing? Someone will see us,” she hissed.
“Only if you keep making so much noise, you goose.”
Lia huffed a bit, pretending to be offended by his high-handed manner. But, actually, she loved it. She’d follow Jack Easton across the River Styx if he asked her.
They crept down the narrow, winding staircase to the corridor below. It ran from the great hall to the east wing, where the library, the breakfast room, and one of the smaller drawing rooms were located. Because no one would be in those rooms at this time of night, the corridor was deserted. But Richard popped up before them, making Lia gasp.
“Oh, there you are,” Jack said in an easy tone. “Miss Lia rather soaked her pelisse on the way to the house, so I’m taking her to the library to warm up before she returns to the cottage.”
“Very good, sir. I took the liberty of lighting a fire a few minutes ago, so the room should be nice and warm by now.”
Lia wrinkled her nose at the young footman, who carried himself with a dignity beyond his years. “How did you know?”
“Did we not previously agree that Richard always knows?” Jack said. “Now, come along before you catch your death of cold.”
As he hauled her along the corridor, Lia cast a thank-you smile over her shoulder. The footman shook his head with disapproval. Richard was another one who worried about her getting into trouble, although she couldn’t imagine what sort of trouble she was supposed to get into with Jack. In his company, she was always safe.
They slipped into the library, their footfalls muffled by the thick Axminster carpet that insulated them from the chill of the old stone floors. Jack led her to the fireplace and pushed her down onto the thickly padded seat of a club chair. With a sigh of pleasure, she stretched her feet toward the merrily leaping flames, luxuriating in the heat that washed over her.
“Good Lord,” he said, crouching down before her.
“What is it?”
He felt her foot. “Your boots are soaked through.” His hand moved up to her ankle. “And so are your stockings.”
His warm fingers marked her like a brand, even through her thick woolen stockings. Cheeks flaming, Lia jerked away and tucked her feet under herself on the chair. Jack muttered an oath and tugged them back out, propping them against the firedogs.
He inspected her boots with disfavor. “When was the last time you had a new pair?”
Now even more embarrassed, Lia simply shrugged. The boots, hand-me-downs from her grandmother, were perfectly fine for puttering around in dry lanes in mild weather, but the soles had lately sprung a leak. Even lining them with scraps of wool and linen had failed to keep the moisture out.
Jack let out a sigh as he came to his feet, his broad shoulders and long, muscular legs backlit by the fire. She swore he’d grown two inches since she’d last seen him and had certainly filled out very nicely.
“When was the last time you had a new pair of boots?” he insistently repeated.
She waved a vague hand. “Oh, these are just one of my older pairs. I didn’t want to ruin the good ones in the snow.”
His snort indicated how little he believed that Banbury tale, but Lia chose not to argue. Money had been a bit scarcer of late, although she wasn’t sure why. Lord Lendale provided Granny and her with whatever they needed. But he’d recently been forgetful, neglecting details like new boots for her or Granny’s favorite Gunpowder tea, sent special from London.
Far worse, he’d neglected repairs to their increasingly leaky roof, which was certainly not a luxury.
“I’ll speak to my uncle,” Jack said. “He’ll see to it that you get a new pair.”
She shot upright in her seat. “No, please don’t.”
“Don’t be silly, Lia.”
“Jack, I’m serious. Don’t make a fuss.”
“Why ever not? Uncle Arthur would be very unhappy to know you’re going about with wet feet.”
“Because Granny hates fussing at Lord Lendale, that’s why. Or make him feel guilty, which is even worse. He’s been so good to us, and we have absolutely no right to complain.”
Because his back was to the fire, Jack’s face was mostly in shadow. But Lia could see the annoyed set to his shoulders. “Jack, please let it go, for my sake.”
“He should take better care of you,” he replied in a hard voice.
“Lord Lendale takes excellent care of us, I assure you.” She patted the arm of the chair next to her. “Please sit down, at least for a minute. You’re like some giant looming over me. I feel quite intimidated.”
“That’s a laugh,” he said, sitting down. “Listen to me, Lia. I’m taking you into the village before I leave and buying you a new pair of boots.” He cut off her objections with an imperious hand. “Think of it as my Christmas present to you.”
Jack was loyal to a fault, and she knew he worried about her and her grandmother. More than anyone, he understood their precarious position as dependents on Lord Lendale’s support. Lia had formed the impression over the years that Jack didn’t think his uncle had treated Rebecca Kincaid as well as he should. She half-agreed with that opinion, although it seemed utterly disloyal to the man who’d, in many ways, stood in as a father to her.
“Thank you,” she said, giving him a warm smile. “But that would be much too generous.”
“I can’t go waltzing off to the Peninsula knowing you’re freezing your feet off up here in Yorkshire. I’d worry so much about you that I’d likely fall into a horrible decline.”
She laughed. “Now you’re just being silly.”
He turned his head to smile at her. “I am, but you should know that I’d already planned to take you shopping for a present before I left for London.”
She ignored the stab of pain that pierced her whenever she thought of him going so far away. “I’ve got a Christmas present for you, too.”
“Pet, that was sweet of you, but I don’t want you spending money on me.” His deep voice curled around her, bringing warmth and peace.
“Then you’ll be happy to know I didn’t spend a farthing,” she replied with a cheeky grin.
He snorted. “Brat. What did you get me?”
She fished under her pelisse and extracted a square of fabric from the inside pocket of her gown. Carefully, she unfolded it to show him the small object contained within.
“Good Lord,” he breathed as he took it from her. “Where did you find it?”
“At the ruins of the abbey outside Ripon. Your uncle took Granny and me there last August.”
While her grandmother and his lordship had sat on a blanket, talking softly and making sheep’s eyes at each other, Lia had gone off exploring the ruins. It had been the luckiest chance when, climbing over a tumbledown wall, her foot had slipped, sending her down on her bottom into the grass. She hadn’t hurt herself, but she had dislodged some of the crumbling stone. Lying in the dirt beside her had been an old Roman coin.
Lia had known instantly what she would do with her find. Jack had a passion for history and had spent many a holiday rummaging around various ruins. Roman, Saxon, Norman: he loved them all. Granny had even allowed Lia to go with him a few times, once to the very ruins where she’d found the coin.
“That’s where I took you when you were just a little girl,” he said as he held the coin up to the light.
“Not so little,” she protested.
“You were only nine,” he said with a wry smile.
“I suppose you’re right,” she grumbled. He probably still thought of her as a little girl.
“And a rather grubby one, as I recall,” he joked.
“Now you sound like Granny,” she said.
He reached over and tugged one of the curls that hung limply by her cheek. “I’m just teasing. Seriously, Lia, this coin is in excellent condition. Are you sure you want to give it to me?”
“Of course,” she said, stung that he would even consider refusing it. “I told you, it’s your Christmas present.”
As he studied her, she felt strangely awkward, as if he saw something new in her.
“Thank you, sweet girl.” He tucked the coin inside his coat pocket. “I’ll keep it with me always as a good-luck charm.”
“And it will help you to remember me when you’re far away.”
“Goose. As if I could ever forget you.”
If only she could believe he would not. ‘Truly?”
“Of course. You are my dear little friend.”
She swallowed a sigh.
When the mantel clock quietly bonged out the quarter hour, Jack grimaced.
“You have to go,” she said.
“Yes. I’m sorry. Forgive me.”
Lia stood. “Don’t be silly. You’ll get in trouble if you stay away any longer.”
He took her hand and led her to the French doors that opened to the terrace and back garden. From there, she could cut through to the path that led to Bluebell Cottage.
“Go straight home,” he said as he opened the doors. “No hanging about and trying to catch a glimpse of the festivities, understand? You’ll get too cold again.”
“Yes, Jack,” she said dutifully. “You don’t have to worry about me.” She could take care of herself, but his concern warmed her more than any fire could.
“I promise I’ll come down in a day or so to visit you and your grandmother,” he said.
She smiled up at him before slipping through the door. Then she paused for a moment. “They’re singing carols,” she said quietly.
He stepped outside and stood with her on the wide terrace, where the stones had been swept clean of snow. When he put a casual arm around her shoulders and tucked her against his side, Lia’s throat went tight with emotion.
An enthusiastic if slightly off-key rendition of “Joy to the World” drifted out from the great hall. Lia glanced up at the sky, an inky vault with a bright spangle of stars flung across the void. When she gasped, Jack followed her gaze skyward.
He laughed. “Well, look at that.”
It was a shooting star. No, not one, but another and then another, as if fired from the barrel of an enormous gun.
“Quick, Lia. Make a wish,” Jack said.
Two wishes came to her instantly. The first was that whatever travels or dangers he faced, Jack would always come safely home. The second was that someday she would stand again on this terrace with him, but as a grown woman. Then she would finally tell him that she loved him with all her heart.
“Did you make a wish, too?” she whispered.
“Are you going to tell me what it was?”
He pressed a brief kiss to the top of her head before letting go. “No, because if I told you, it wouldn’t come true. Besides, it might annoy you,” he added in a teasing tone.
She poked him in the side. “You are so irritating, Jack Easton.”
He smiled at her, looking impossibly handsome. “I know, but I’ll make it up to you when I next visit.”
“I’ll see you later, then,” she said, starting for the terrace steps.
She looked over her shoulder. “Yes?”
“Merry Christmas, my dearest girl,” he called softly.
Again her throat went so tight she couldn’t force out a single word. So she simply raised a hand before slipping off into the dark winter night.