One Winter’s Night – Adele Clee

Hugo de Wold, Earl of Denham, stared out into the darkness at the thick blanket of snow covering the lawn. White crystal flakes fell in abundance, tapping on the drawing room window like an unexpected visitor eager to gain entrance. During Wollaston Hall’s three-hundred-year history, he doubted anyone had seen such a heavy snowstorm. Roads were impassable. Howling winds pushed thick drifts up past the sills. The biting chill slipped in through every crack and crevice. One only needed to walk a few feet outdoors to find their toes numb and lips blue. Behind him, his houseguests preferred exchanging the latest snippets of gossip to witnessing the power of nature at work. “You’ll not find a bride out there, Hugo.” His mother’s shrill voice disturbed his inner peace. Penelope de Wold had a habit of forcing her opinion whether welcome or not. “I am quite aware of that, Mother.” Hugo cast her a sidelong glance, but the harsh winter weather drew his gaze back to the window. “And I very much doubt I shall find one in here, either.” The physical problems one encountered in such hazardous conditions mirrored his internal struggle.

He felt trapped. Isolated. Hemmed in with no means of escape. The thought of hibernating for months on end had immense appeal. Indeed, he would happily curl up and sleep until the guests departed. “If you would but tear your gaze away from the window for a moment, you might find the people here just as fascinating.” His mother snorted. “Must I remind you of your oath?” Who wanted reminding that his thirtieth birthday loomed like the shadow of death? “By oath, are you referring to the muttered words that left my lips when I agreed to your matchmaking plan?” Contempt infused his tone, and he was glad. She batted his arm. “You know very well what I mean.

You promised me, Hugo. You swore to do your duty. And a de Wold never breaks a promise.” She dabbed the corner of her eye with the lace handkerchief she’d plucked from her sleeve. The matron knew how to turn on the tears if it meant getting her own way. “Lord, I have given you almost thirty years to find a bride of your own choosing.” The lady was prone to exaggeration. He’d hardly been vetting babes from his crib. Marriage was a word foreign to his vocabulary, a word that held a prestigious place in the dictionary of fools. “Can I help it if I have particular tastes and needs?” “Heavens, you make yourself sound like one of those perverted degenerates who scours brothels looking for a girl to whip his bare behind.

” Hugo bit back a chuckle. “I would lower your voice else people might think you have firsthand experience of such a fellow.” “Stop this nonsense.” His mother’s cheeks ballooned. “You had until your thirtieth birthday to find a wife. As you’ve failed in your task, you must choose one of the beauties seated on the sofa. That is what we agreed.” Hugo glanced over his shoulder. All three ladies his mother had invited to the house for the festive season possessed a certain charm. But none of them were tempting enough to make him take the plunge.

Miss Pardue’s golden hair lacked lustre. Miss Mason-Jones had an irritating habit of nodding whenever Hugo spoke. Miss Harper’s voice was an annoying chirp, as painful to the ears as a dawn chorus when one had only just tumbled into bed. In her company, he daren’t pause for breath lest she finish his sentence. “You must give me more time, Mother.” “Time!” The word was a whisper forced through gritted teeth. “Good heavens, Hugo, in two days you’ll be thirty.” Her voice brimmed with desperation. “How much more time do you need?” “I’ll not take a bride unless I am sure we’re a good match.” He would not live like his parents.

What was the point of wedlock when both parties resided in different counties? Was it too much to ask that he might grow to love the lady he married? His mother made an odd puffing sound. “You’re an earl not the son of a farmhand. A good match should be the least of your concerns.” She leaned closer and whispered, “Nothing is more important than money and good breeding. It was instilled into us as children.” “Nothing is more important to you, Mother. I prefer to make my selection based on ridiculous things such as attraction and compatibility. But no doubt you consider that to be de rigueur.” “Don’t be so pompous, Hugo. Choose a girl and be done with it so we can enjoy the weekend without upset.

” Hugo was about to argue when it suddenly occurred to him that there was a flaw in his mother’s plan. He’d promised to pick a bride from those in attendance. His choice was not limited to the ladies enjoying tea on the sofa. “Why not expand my options?” To hide his smile, he stared at the flurry of snow pelting the window, at the thin trees dressed in white winter coats. “Miss Harper’s chaperone is rather fetching.” And much too young for spinsterhood. The momentary silence was almost as deafening as a high-pitched wail. “Miss Venables is a paid companion. Is that to be your revenge? Will you taunt me with the hired help?” Her voice grew progressively louder. “Heavens, why not propose to Crudging? As your butler, there’s not a person more loyal.

” “Crudging lacks the requirements necessary to produce an heir. After all, that is what this debacle is about.” Hugo glanced over his mother’s shoulder and locked eyes with Miss Harper. As a lady known for her brazen approach, she raised a brow and moistened her lips. “People are staring,” he snapped. “Yes, because you’ve had your nose pressed to the windowpane for the last half an hour. Anyone would think you’ve never seen snow.” Hugo swallowed down his annoyance. “Have you not heard? The storm is so severe the guests will have to stay until the roads are clear.” He groaned inwardly at the thought of having to listen to Miss Harper’s shrill complaints for the next week.

“Good. Let us hope you are so thoroughly bored and frustrated that you hurry up and make a match. And the hired help is out of the question.” He had no intention of offering for any of them. But to say so now would only make life impossible these next few days. His mother would ensure he spent more time entertaining the ladies. They would try their best to outdo one another as if he were the only marriageable gentleman in all of England. Hugo glanced back at the breathtaking landscape. Just like the ladies seated in the drawing room, the snow appeared beautiful to the eye. Dazzling.

Majestic. But only a fool would ignore the hidden dangers. One wrong move and he could fall head first into a rocky ravine, and that would be the end of the blissful life he once knew. And so, for the next few days, he was trapped—locked in a nightmare of his own making. He should have been firm. Some men were unsuited to marriage. Else why would he be so particular, so damn fussy? “Come.” His mother tugged his arm. “Let’s see what Miss Harper thinks of the appalling weather. I hear her brother has invested in a new shipping venture that will make him one of the richest men in the country.

” Viscount Northcott was a pretentious prig. His sister, Miss Harper, held the same air of self-importance. Oh, she gave the impression of being polite and amiable. But he refused to marry a woman who deceived others by feigning a kind and generous nature. “Forgive me, but I must speak to Crudging about the placings for dinner.” Hugo hated lying. Thirty minutes of solitude would give him the strength needed to cope with his mother’s attempts at matchmaking. “I shall return momentarily.” Hugo ignored his mother’s scowl and strode out into the hall. He found Crudging checking the lamps on the console tables.

“Any news on the state of the roads?” Hugo knew the answer, but he lived in hope of charging into the drawing room and informing the guests they should leave at once. “Lord Flanders will want to retrieve his carriage at the earliest convenience.” “What with the hard frost last night and the five inches of snow today, I fear the guests will be confined to the house for some time, my lord.” Crudging’s grave expression mirrored Hugo’s sense of utter despair. “Then we must pray for rain, Crudging.” Dance naked around a painted effigy if necessary. “A torrential downpour is exactly what’s needed to—” The sudden thud of the heavy iron door knocker made them both jump. The sound echoed through the grand hall like a death knell. Hugo frowned. “What fool is out walking in this weather?” Crudging walked gracefully towards the door.

“Perhaps someone has brought news of Lord Flanders’ carriage.” Hugo followed the butler. The caller must surely have a tale to tell. One that would prove far more fascinating than the tired conversation in the drawing room. Crudging opened the door, but the wind whipped his face bringing with it a swirling blizzard. “What the devil?” Hugo rushed forward. “Quickly. Come inside.” He waved frantically at the figure hidden amidst the gust of icy dust. “Hurry.

Before we all catch our deaths.” The lady darted past them into the hall, huffing and panting and complaining about the cold. For fear they might never keep the storm out, he helped Crudging slam the door. “Good Lord.” Hugo brushed the white flecks from his coat and ran his hand through his hair. “Forgive my rather abrupt greeting, but it’s far too cold to converse on the doorstep.” “Not at all. I am grateful for an opportunity to warm my hands.” The woman’s seductive voice drifted over him like delicate fingers. She lowered the fur-trimmed hood of her red travelling cloak, exposing the mass of luxurious brown locks trailing down past her shoulders.

“I must apologise for my dishevelled appearance, but I had not planned on leaving my coach.” Hugo sucked in a breath as the muscles in his abdomen clenched. “Pay it no mind.” The lady had no reason to apologise. Indeed, he was rather partial to the ravished-ina-haystack look. Hugo scanned her from head to toe, looking for imperfections, something to remind him he was a man unsuited to romantic entanglements. Permanent ones at any rate. But he could find nothing displeasing about the lady’s countenance. “From the size of the puddle at your feet, you must have walked far.” Other than the narrow lane running past his property, the nearest road was almost a mile away.

“I rode most of the way,” she said, offering an apologetic smile. “But the horse grew tired. The snow is so deep it slipped down the top of my boots.” Hugo’s gaze dropped to her feet. “No doubt your toes are numb.” For some strange reason, his mind conjured an image of him rubbing the life back into the blue digits. “Are you travelling alone?” She nodded. “I hope you don’t mind, but my coachman has taken my horse to your stables. He was in need of a drink and dry hay.” She gave a little chuckle.

“Oh, I speak of my horse, not my coachman.” During the last two hours he’d spent with his prospective brides, none of them had managed to raise a smirk to his lips. And yet he found this lady rather amusing. “Then I pray a groom brushes him down and gives him a nip of brandy.” Hugo inclined his head. “I speak of your coachman, not your horse.” She smiled, and the beauty of it hit him hard in the chest. “With any luck, they will both receive sufficient care and attention. The other horse refused to budge, and so the poor fellow must return to fetch him.” Was the last comment her way of asking for shelter? Perhaps he should make the offer.

In such treacherous conditions, one must be charitable. The lady removed a glove and blew gently on the tips of her fingers. To most people, the innocent action would rouse pity; she must be frozen to her bones. The fact he saw it as a prelude to something far more sinful confirmed he was not ready to wed one of the dull ladies in the drawing room. “Forgive me, I stand here dripping water onto your floor and have not even told you my name.” Her words dragged him from his fanciful musings. “I am Miss Lara Bennett. Granddaughter of Lord Montague Forsyth.” Suspicion flared. How convenient that a lady of aristocratic breeding should arrive at his door on a cold winter’s night.

Was this all part of his mother’s wicked plan? Did she hope to attack from the rear and catch him unawares? “Lord Forsyth permitted you to travel alone?” Mistrust rang in his tone. He caught himself, unsure what shocked him the most. That such a prestigious gentleman had little regard for his granddaughter’s welfare. Or that in asking so abruptly, he sounded like a jealous husband. “My companion took ill in London and was not well enough to make such an arduous journey. I promised my grandfather I would return home to spend Christmas with him.” She sighed deeply. “I should have stayed behind, too, but I refuse to break an oath once it is made.” Guilt pricked Hugo’s chest, stabbed and prodded with its sharp blade. For the last two hours, he’d fought with his conscience, desperate to break the promise he’d made to his mother.

“But tomorrow is Christmas Eve. How far must you travel?” Hugo knew that she had no hope of venturing more than a few hundred yards by carriage. “To Chippenham.” “Chippenham? But that’s twenty miles away.” Miss Bennett shrugged. “A man in Netheravon said we might expect rain.” Only if they sacrificed the firstborn child in every family. “Then I shall pray for a miracle.” “As will I.” A brief silence ensued.

Hugo stared at her. Miss Bennett was of average height, not too short, not too tall. Perfect for him really. In terms of figure, he preferred a lady to have soft curves, not look as though she’d not eaten a meal for a week. Unable to determine what lay beneath her thick cloak, he had faith she was perfect for him in that regard, too. “Welcome to Wollaston Hall, Miss Bennett. I am Hugo de Wold, Earl of Denham.” Hugo bowed. “You are more than welcome to rest here until the snow clears.” In truth, the lady had little choice.

Miss Bennett appeared perturbed. He doubted it had anything to do with his title. As the granddaughter of a peer, she must be comfortable around members of the aristocracy. Even so, she had not been presented at court. He would have remembered her cheerful countenance, and those plump lips made for kissing. “Thank you, my lord,” she began. From the break in her voice, he knew she was about to decline the offer. “That’s most kind, most gracious. But I cannot stay here without a chaperone. My grandfather would call you out when all you have done is extend your hospitality.

I merely ask that you direct me to the nearest village.” Disappointment flared at the prospect of her leaving. How odd. He hardly knew the woman. “Your grandfather would call me out?” he said merely to distract his mind from the thought that Miss Bennett might join the list of eligible ladies eager to be his bride. “Remind me of his age.” “Sixty-four, though is still one of the best shots in all of England. He can hit a target from a hundred yards while wearing a blindfold.” Hugo swallowed deeply. “Then how fortunate my mother is in residence.

Indeed, there are other guests here to celebrate the festive season.” And to watch a selfproclaimed bachelor bow down to his mother’s constant demands. Miss Bennett pursed her lips. “And what if your mother objects to playing chaperone when there are guests in need of her attention?” “It will be no hardship.” Hugo imagined Miss Bennett was a lady brimming with grace and decorum. Perhaps in that regard they were unsuited. Then again, he was like a hawk assessing its prey when it came to looking for a reason not to wed. “The fact my mother is in residence should suffice,” he continued. “You’ve no need to be shackled at the wrists. And I can arrange for a maid to share your bedchamber.

” Good Lord. It sounded as if he were desperate for her company. Next, he’d offer to wrap her in furs from the far reaches of Prussia. To pour her a milk bath infused with cloves and honey. “Even so,” she said with a sigh. “I would rather you spoke to your mother.” As if summoned by thought alone, the Countess of Denham came gliding out into the hall. “There you are, Hugo. I thought I heard voices.” His mother took one look at Miss Bennett’s tousled locks and scowled.

“The servants’ entrance is to the rear, girl.” She pointed to the growing puddle. “And look at the mess you’ve made on the parquet.” “Miss Bennett is not a servant, Mother.”

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