Mr. Kringle is going to grow fat now that you girls have moved here.” Lady Winifred Tannenbaum shot Lady Eve Bailey a grin and a wink as they walked across the Town Square in the charming little village of Maybridge Falls. “Not to mention your dear old aunt, what with your apple pies and Noelle’s ginger crisps.” “The baker keeps giving Holly shortbread cookies too.” “Yes, but for such a petite little thing, she manages to take care of those.” Eve merely shook her head. “It’s because Cook is an abomination in the kitchen. If it wasn’t for the baked goods, we’d starve half the time.” This was not an exaggeration. In the week since their father had sent them to live with their aunt, they hadn’t had a single good meal. Eve held up the aromatic dish and inhaled the warmth of cinnamon and apples. She’d risen before the sun to bake and had only removed it from the oven half an hour before. “Do you think it’s a fair trade? The pie for a roast? Mr. Kringle is far too generous.
” “He gets his due,” Aunt Winifred answered mysteriously as the two of them plodded the short distance from her aunt’s rambling old mansion across the village commons to the elderly gentleman’s nearby home. “That storm was a doozy last night. But look at all these footprints out here. Did you come out earlier?” Eve glanced backward and sure enough, two sets of footprints led from the middle of the square straight up to Aunt Winifred’s front door. “Perhaps it was Mr. Clark.” Eve frowned. When she’d come downstairs early, she hadn’t seen the butler. In fact, the house had been unusually silent. “I’m sure you’re quite right.
Oh, look at that gentleman coming out of the inn. He’s a fine one to look at.” Aunt Winifred lifted her arm and waved. “Yoo-hoo! Can we help you find where you’re going, young man?” She nudged Eve in the side with her elbow. “You mustn’t allow such an opportunity to pass. It’s not often that a quality gentleman turns up in Maybridge Falls. He must be stranded here from the storm.” Eve glanced up and then quickly back down at the pie she was carrying. If it was up to her, she’d keep right on walking. She had about as much interest in a ‘quality’ gentleman as she did in catching the pox.
“Oh, he’s coming. Stand up straight, Eve. I do wish you’d worn something prettier.” Eve nearly laughed out loud at that. Beneath her wool evergreen cape, she wore the same dress she’d donned to work in the kitchen. Since she and her two sisters had arrived to stay with their aunt, they’d yet to have met a single person under the age of sixty. “And yet, you’re still pretty as a picture. Just like your mother was at your age. I was always jealous that she was so nice and tall and slim.” Eve blinked away the familiar stinging at the back of her eyes.
Last Christmas, rather than celebrate the holiday, she and her sisters had been reeling from their mother’s death. They might as well have lost their father. He’d taken to drinking the day of her funeral and hadn’t been the same since. It had almost been a relief when he’d sent them away last week. Although everything here was unfamiliar, she wasn’t met with haunting memories everywhere she turned. “It’s a shame your Season in London was cut short by her illness.” Aunt Winifred’s words were not meant to be unkind, but she might as well have put a knife through Eve’s heart. Eve had thought she’d found her true love that spring, but it had only been an illusion. “It was more important to bring Mother home. The air in London would have made it worse.
” The memory of their mother after they’d returned was now a bittersweet one. Gradually, before their eyes, her mother’s life had dimmed, faded, and then been extinguished forever. Eve’s aunt frowned and nodded but then quickly straightened. Summoning a wide smile, Aunt Winifred waved again, her eyes pinned on the person approaching from somewhere behind. “My good sir, welcome to Maybridge Falls!” Heavy crunching footsteps sounded behind Eve but she kept her gaze focused on the pie, her thoughts lost in the past. They so often were these days. “Good morning, Madam!” A tingling shot up Eve’s spine. “My companions and I blew in with the blizzard last night. Such a lovely village you have. I’m certain there is nowhere better to be stranded.
” “Oh, to be certain it is. Nasty storm, though, you’re lucky you found us.” Her aunt’s eyes gleamed in such a way that Eve could only surmise that the gentleman was slightly more than tolerable to look at. “I don’t wish to be a bother, but you haven’t seen another gentleman wandering about, have you? I have lost one of my companions. About so high, black hair and blue eyes. Not nearly as good looking as myself, but a few questionable ladies consider him handsome.” That laugh! Eve knew that laugh all too well. Her fingers went numb and cold shot through her entire body. And not from the snow. “A second one of you, eh?” Aunt Winifred’s voice rose higher as excitement punctuated her words.
“We shall most definitely keep our eyes open. Have you checked the bakery? Many of our visitors are lured in there.” “There are three of us, actually,” he responded amicably. “Marquess of Merriweather, at your service.” As the air swoosh out of her lungs, Eve slowly turned around. “I am Lady Winifred Tannenbaum, and this is my niece, Lady Eve Bailey, eldest daughter of the Earl of Everly.” Eve met his gaze just in time to catch a flicker of shock. His face went pale, and his mouth hung open for a split second before he recovered and managed a pleasant smile. Nicholas Bartholomew Ebenezer St. Hope, the Marquess of Merriweather, was nothing if not charming.
Narrowing his eyes, he bowed in her direction. “Charmed, my ladies.” The tingle in her spine was now a bolt of awareness. The cold light in his eyes and the thin press of his lips clearly showed his anger. At least to someone like herself who knew him well. But it left her wondering how he thought he had any right to be angry. “I’m sure,” she murmured, her teeth clenched. Because Eve was not about to be fooled by this mockery of a marquess again. No matter how delightfully handsome he appeared, or the fact that his blue-gray eyes were almost the exact shade as the sea before a storm. She definitely wouldn’t give in to the urge to reach out and brush the wayward lock of golden-brown hair away from his jaw.
She was smarter than that. Furthermore, it wasn’t fair that he looked perfectly comfortable wearing his greatcoat and top hat when she was dusted with flour and hadn’t taken the time to make anything of her hair. None of that mattered. He used his looks to make helpless girls fall in love with him, he used them to cause naïve young ladies to… She pinched her lips together and lifted her chin. Not this time. She was older and wiser now. She’d never fall for such a man again. THE LAST TİME Nick had seen Lady Eve Bailey, she’d been dressed in a mint-colored, highwaisted gown adorned with an evergreen ribbon that cinched around her ribcage just below her breasts. Indeed, the silk of the ribbon had teased him as he’d edged his hand upward. Nick pictured her perfectly in his mind.
Her hair had been swept into an elaborate configuration of curls and braids and those forest-green eyes of hers had shined up at him innocently. If his memory served correctly, and unfortunately, he knew that it did, a short string of pearls had encircled her lovely neck. The pearls had been smooth and cold against his lips. Despite taking extreme measures to evict her from his mind, the godforsaken memory persisted to haunt him. He blinked and swallowed hard. What he’d encountered today was a bloody ghost, placed in his path to taunt him for having had the temerity to think himself in love. Nearly two years had passed—nineteen months. He’d been a bloody fool. He was older and wiser now, a man of the world. Unfortunately, however, unless he was hallucinating from the absinthe he’d consumed the night before, she was a real live person.
He blinked hard but her image only became clearer—definitely a flesh and blood woman. Standing before him after all this time in a woolen coat and muddied boots was the woman he’d once thought to marry. A few strands of her auburn hair had escaped her chignon and peeked out from beneath her hood, framing her delicate face. He couldn’t help but notice that her face was thinner now, her eyes darker. Her lovely complexion was paler than it had been before, almost translucent near her eyes, but for a hint of rose on her cheeks and at the tip of her nose. Flesh and blood woman, indeed, and even more beautiful now. How was that even possible? “Were you heading to London for the holidays, My Lord?” the older woman asked impertinently. He’d been inclined to ignore her greeting initially—his head throbbed painfully, and his mouth felt rather as though it was filled with cotton—but he’d thought she might have seen Dash. They’d damn near drank themselves into oblivion last night. But he wasn’t the sort to be rude.
One tended to catch far more flies with honey than vinegar, after all. He jerked his eyes away from Eve to answer her. “North.” And then, unable to stop himself, his gaze returned to Eve again. She was not as unaffected as she’d have him believe. Her cheeks turned even pinker as his gaze assessed her, and he couldn’t help but grin. “What?” Her scowl deepened. His eyes dropped to her chest. “Your pie.” “Pardon me?” “You’re ruining your pie.
” He couldn’t keep the laughter from his voice. She’d clutched the damn thing to her chest, like a book, and thick golden liquid was oozing down her cloak. It served her right and yet he had to clench his fists at his side to keep from helping her. Her expression changed from one of disdain to horror as she tilted the dish to its proper position and leaned forward in a futile effort to save her cloak. “Good gravy!” The words escaped on a gasp. The aroma of freshly baked cinnamon and apples mingled with the smoke hovering in the air. “Eve! What on earth is the matter with you?” Her aunt, Lady Tannenbaum, hastily wiped at Eve’s coat, spreading the delicious-looking goo into even more of a mess. “You’ve ruined your beautiful pie!” Eve closed her eyes even as her mouth tightened into a thin line, but he knew that she would be counting to ten. She’d told him it was what she did whenever her younger sisters exasperated her. “I’m afraid it’s my fault.
” Nick rubbed the back of his neck and stepped away from them. He could hardly fathom that this was even happening. How was it possible that he’d been away from England for eighteen months and the first time he ventured out of London he’d run into her? And where the hell was Dash? As though sensing his desire to flee, she glanced up at him while her aunt continued to wipe at the pie filling. She pursed her lips and nodded, as though she was reading his mind and knew he was preparing to bolt. He exhaled an ironic chuckle. She had been the one to betray him. She was the one who left him. “We mustn’t keep you from locating your friend, Lord Merriweather.” Her voice dripped with sarcasm, causing her aunt to momentarily look up with a scowl. “We’ll be certain to send word if we come across him,” Lady Tannenbaum added in a much friendlier tone.
But he couldn’t seem to look away from Eve. In that moment, her eyes reminded him of a forest after the rain, so lush and deep the green might fill a man’s soul. “My thanks, My Lady.” Nick forced himself to look anywhere but at her. Lady Tannenbaum had risen by now, her handkerchief and gloves covered with the sweet concoction. “Perhaps Eve will bake more pies this morning and bring one over for you to share with your friends. Or did I see a second one cooling on the table? Never let it be said that the good people of Maybridge Falls aren’t hospitable. Besides, food prepared at an inn is never as good as something cooked with love.” Eve made a small strangled sound at the same time Nick took another step back. “That shouldn’t be necessary.
The sun will melt the snow by then and we’ll be on the road without further delay.” But almost as though he’d doomed himself to the mercies of this cursed village, the sun chose that moment to disappear and large flakes of snow danced lazily on their way down from the clouds hovering above. As if to mock him, they danced faster and faster, falling from the sky. Lady Tannenbaum laughed. “I don’t think you’re going anywhere today, My Lord.” She turned to her niece. “Run home and fetch the other pie. This kind gentleman and his traveling companions mustn’t go hungry. Meanwhile, I’ll collect our roast from Mr. Kringle.
Good day, My Lord!” The elderly but spry lady pivoted with surprising grace and resumed walking in the direction she and Eve had originally been heading. “Eve.” Her name escaped Nick’s lips unchecked. “I—” He what, exactly? But then Eve turned and strode away from him even more quickly than her aunt had. “Good day, Lord Merriweather.” Her voice cut through the falling snow as she disappeared. It was a good thing, too. He tilted his head back and stared up at the sky, heedless of the frosty crystals landing on his face. The possibility of coming across her again had crossed his mind—in London perhaps. Many years in the future.
But why now and why here? Perhaps he would seek her out before they left, make amends and provide closure for both of them. The last night he’d seen her had been a Tuesday. When no one had been watching, he’d slipped her out of the ballroom so that the two of them could walk in the garden, arm in arm. In the privacy of the gazebo, passion had nearly run its course. He’d stopped, of course, and he’d draped his jacket around her shoulders. Two days later, when he’d shown up at Lord Bailey’s home in Mayfair intending to speak with her father, she was gone. The entire family had departed at the height of the Season. It had been quite, quite obvious to him that she’d changed her mind. He pushed the memory away and gazed around the village square once more. Where the hell was Dash?