The Highlander’s Christmas Countess – Anna Campbell

“Kit! Kit! Let’s do it again!” The imperious voice of five-year-old Miss Andromeda Douglas rose above the laughter and chatter echoing around the snowy glen. “No, Kit! It’s my turn! Come down the hill with me, Kit!” Master William Douglas, a year younger than his sister, demanded. A light laugh and a cheerful voice responded. “He’s right, Miss Andy. It is his turn. Ye can ride down with Uncle Joseph, if you’re in such an all-fired hurry.” “But I want to go with you,” the daughter of the house insisted, scorning the idea of accepting Joseph Laing, the head groom, as a substitute. “In that case, you’ll have to wait.” With a mince pie in his hand and a smile that he hoped hid his raging curiosity, Quentin MacNab turned to his Aunt Emily who stood beside him. “The new stable lad seems to be a favorite with the bairns.” A group consisting of the laird and lady and the senior members of the household gathered on the snowy slopes behind Lyon House. Beside them stretched a trestle table, laden with seasonal treats. The day was fine but bitterly cold. Perfect sledding weather. Quentin had already taken the dizzying ride down the hill several times and had only drawn aside now to join his aunt and uncle in a mug of mulled wine.

The scents of cinnamon and cloves lent a spicy note to the clean Highland air. Emily Douglas smiled back. The Lady of Glen Lyon was a bonny woman, with rich dark brown hair and gray eyes that sparkled with intelligence. Despite being Quentin’s aunt, she was only eight years older than his twenty-four. More friend than aunt. “Yes, he’s proven himself a treasure in this last month. Laing speaks highly of his work and as you can see, the children adore him. We were lucky Laing asked his nephew to come and work for us.” Quentin’s gaze locked on the slim figure settling in behind the rambunctious heir to Glen Lyon. The stable lad seemed to have cut off Andy’s tantrum before it could start, which spoke volumes for his tact and intelligence.

“He’s very well spoken for a stableboy.” Uncle Hamish turned, a slab of fruitcake in his massive hand. “Aye, apparently the lad was a favorite back in his village, too. When Kit wasn’t busy on the family croft, the minister gave him lessons.” Uncle Hamish sounded as English as his wife, the result of a childhood spent in London. He was fair and brawny like a Viking, and while Quentin at six foot one was no midget, his uncle towered over him. Quentin took a mouthful of his wine, appreciating the warmth. “Odd he aims no higher than a place in the stables, then. If he has a good education, he could find a post as a clerk somewhere or a teacher.” Quentin watched as the sled careered down the snowy slope.

William’s shrieks of delight filled the air, and the stableboy’s face was bright with childlike excitement. When Quentin turned back to Hamish and Emily, he caught them sharing a meaningful glance. That was nothing new. Quentin had lived at Glen Lyon for the last six months. He’d become used to silent communication between the laird and his lady. Emily answered. “Kit’s a genius with the horses and seems happiest working outdoors. I believe Laing is hoping that his nephew might take over as head groom after he retires.” “Although that won’t be for years yet,” Hamish added, before he took a bite of his fruit cake. “Hmm.

” Quentin continued to observe the stable lad and the two children, the boy dark and intense and the girl as golden fair as her papa. Speaking of family resemblances, Kit didn’t look much like his uncle Joseph Laing. Quentin’s gaze flickered toward the redheaded giant standing under the trees with the horses and wagons that had transported the sleds and the furniture for this alfresco winter party. Kit and William reached the base of the hill and climbed off the sled. Holding William’s hand, the stable lad started to haul the sled back up the hill. Andy bounced around on top of the slope, urging them to hurry. Andy was a clever, outspoken lassie, very like her father in personality, too. Hamish Douglas, Laird of Glen Lyon, was a famous astronomer. Emily was hardly less distinguished in scientific circles. Quentin had come to Glen Lyon from his father’s estate near Perth to work as his uncle’s assistant.

Hamish’s older sister Prudence had suggested that her son might enjoy some time on the west coast with his uncle and aunt. His mother had been right, as usual. Quentin was enjoying it. He loved Hamish and Emily and the children. He loved the elegant house on the shore of its sheltered sea loch. He loved the challenging work, although he was the first to admit that while he might be clever, he was nowhere near as clever as his brilliant uncle. But as he watched Kit trudge up the hill toward Andy, he had to admit that by far the most interesting thing on the Glen Lyon estate was the laird’s new stableboy. Thick trousers covered long legs – the lad gave the promise of height to come. A bulky, roughly woven coat fell from neck to knee, and a tight knitted bonnet covered his head and ears. In fact, the boy was considerably more bundled up than anyone else out here on this cold day, including the two children.

Quentin set his silver mug on the table. “I might go back to the sledding. If William will accept me in place of Kit, I might even take him with me.” Another of those speaking looks between his aunt and uncle. “Kit has it all in hand,” Hamish said with a hint of disapproval. “No doubt,” Quentin said and strode up the hill to Kit and the two children. “It’s my turn now,” Andy was saying, as dictatorial as any princess. “You have to wait, William.” “Now, Miss Andy, there’s nae need to rub it in,” Kit said, a gurgle of laughter adding a rich edge of warmth to the gentle reprimand. “I’ve got a better idea,” Quentin said, with a shaming hint of breathlessness.

That hill was deuced steep. It was a lot easier coming down it on a sled than climbing it on two legs. “I’ll take William.” “Oh, Cousin Quentin, yes, please, yes, please!” the child shrieked, jumping up and down with excitement. Two large bluebell-colored eyes surrounded by thick black lashes fixed on Quentin with a hint of wariness. The cold weather had put pink in Kit’s cheeks. He was a delicate-looking creature to be working somewhere as rough-and-tumble as the stables. This close, Quentin could see that the body under all that heavy clothing was slight. “Aye, sir.” Kit bowed, before sidling away.

“He’ll love that.” Quentin had already noticed that the lad was painfully shy and inclined to avoid company other than the children. A few times, he’d set out to talk to Kit, only to turn around and find the lad had scarpered out of sight. He waved a hand through the air. “No, stay.” “Aye, sir.” But reluctance weighted the obedience, Quentin could hear. He held that bright blue gaze until the pink in the stable lad’s cheeks turned vivid. The boy’s glance flickered away, and he seemed flustered as he placed Andy on the sled and positioned himself behind the little girl. “Let’s go,” Andy commanded.

“Aye,” Kit said, the husky tone sending a jolt of awareness through Quentin. His hands closed into fists at his sides, and his nostrils flared. He knew now how a hound felt when it scented a fox. William tugged at his sleeve, and he started as if he woke from a dream. “Cousin Quentin, can we go, too?” “Aye.” He looked down at the little boy and smiled. “I’ll just give Kit and Andy a push.” “Nae need, sir,” the stable lad said, then released a surprised “Oh!” as Quentin ignored that and the sled began to slide downward. The sledding went on until the short day drew to a close. As the hours passed, the stableboy’s nervousness faded, Quentin noticed.

But then, after asking Kit to stay, he’d done his best to conceal his avid curiosity. He also noted that as far as possible in the circumstances, which wasn’t very far at all, the lad kept his distance and ducked his head to avoid any searching looks. Eventually William tired, but Andy remained as greedy for thrills as ever. “Just one more time, Kit. Please.” “Kit’s done enough,” Emily said. She’d climbed the hill to gather her offspring and usher them down to the cart for the ride home. “I’m sure I can manage one more, my lady,” the boy said. “She’ll keep you here all night if she can,” Quentin said. “Aye, sir,” the boy said, sticking to the monosyllabic responses he’d supplied most of the afternoon.

“Please, Mamma, just one more,” Andy wheedled. Emily gave a longsuffering sigh. “You’re a little horror, Andromeda Mary Douglas.” “Och, the lassie just has high spirits,” Kit said. “Doesn’t she just?” Emily cast the stableboy a laughing glance. “Are you up for one more go, Kit? You’ve been marvelous with them, but you’ve done more than your share.” “Aye, my lady.” “Goody,” Andy said, plopping herself down on the sled with a smug expression. “I’ll give you a push,” Quentin said, as Kit took a protective position behind the gilt-haired little girl. “Hold on tight, Miss Andy,” Kit said, then couldn’t contain a shriek of excitement as the sled gathered speed down the hill.

The shriek turned into a cry of panic, as the sled hit some invisible barrier and shot up into the air. Its two occupants went flying. Time slowed to a standstill as Quentin watched in horror. Then, with dread cramping his gut, he broke into a run toward Kit and Andy. “Andy!” Emily cried, also scrambling down the hill toward the two bodies sprawled over the snow. Quentin was just ahead of her. He rushed past Andy, who already sat up, to where the lad lay unmoving. Terror tasting rusty on his tongue, he fell to his knees at Kit’s side. Shaking hands helped him to turn over. The knitted hat had come off in the fall, revealing an untidy mop of unevenly cropped black hair.

“Kit! Are you all right? Can you move? Where does it hurt?” Quentin’s hold was gentle, as he cradled Kit against his chest. The boy smelled not unpleasantly of the stables. Horses and fresh sweat and hay, and beneath that an incongruous hint of flowers. Kit looked pale and shocked, and the slender body in his arms was trembling. Those extraordinary eyes turned up to his face then darted away. The force of that charged blue gaze struck Quentin like a blow. His concerned questions jammed in his tightening throat. “Mamma, that was fun,” Andy informed her frantic mother. “Dreadful child,” Emily said, her voice thick with the remnants of fear as she hugged her daughter. “Is she all right?” Hamish asked, rushing up.

“It would take a cannon to put a dent in this one,” Emily said. She turned to where Quentin had dragged Kit out of the snowdrift. “What about Kit?” He cleared his throat and made himself look away from Kit’s face. “I think he’s fine.” “I’m…I’m unharmed, my lady,” Kit said, trying to push away from Quentin, but too shaken after the accident to make much of a job of it. He fumbled after his lost hat. Quentin located the hat and passed it over, noticing how quickly the boy tugged it down around his ears and low to his uncompromising dark eyebrows. “Can you sit up?” “Aye, I’m sure I can,” Kit said in a muffled voice, although he remained still and he kept his head down. “How is Miss Andy?” “Her parents are with her. She seems her usual self, not even frightened.

You’re the one I’m worried about.” “I’ve suffered nae damage, thank ye, sir. I think you should leave me and go and tend to the bairn,” the lad said with an incongruous touch of hauteur. “I’m but a servant, after all.” “We’re all equal in God’s eyes,” Quentin said piously. Kit rewarded him with a flash of annoyance that made him want to smile. It became clear that the lad might be bruised, but otherwise he was in one piece. There was no excuse to keep holding onto Kit. But it was only with the greatest reluctance that he released the stableboy. Quentin’s thoughts were in a tumult.

The moment he’d touched that slim form, he’d confirmed his long-held suspicions. Although now he knew for sure, a thousand questions badgered him. This wasn’t the time to ask them, when Kit had had an accident and even worse, regarded him with crushed bluebell eyes, bright with apprehension. “Can we do it again?” Andy was asking her mother. “That was like flying.” “No, you cannot, you dreadful little miss,” her mother said, laughing. “And don’t you want to know if Kit is all right?” “He’s with Quentin. People are always all right with Quentin,” the child said, with all the certainty of a five-year-old who knew everything there was to know. Quentin arched one brow at the slight, boyish figure gingerly shifting to sit up under his own powers in the snow. He hoped to tease out more of that intriguing impudence.

“High praise indeed.” But the stable lad had repented of his brief insurrection and stared back with a stony expression. “As you say, sir.” Hamish rose from where he kneeled near his daughter and strode toward them. “Come away inside, Kit and Quentin. It’s getting cold and dark. Kit, are you hurt?” “I’m gey sure I’m no’, Douglas,” the lad said in a gruffer voice than Quentin had heard from him all afternoon. And with a stronger Scottish accent. Quentin had already noticed that the Highland burr in the lad’s speech was an unreliable visitor. “Here, let me help you up.

” Quentin noticed Kit’s relieved expression as Hamish heaved him to his feet. They were attracting a crowd. Emily bustled over with Andy in tow, while William and Laing scrambled down the hill toward them. When William stumbled with tiredness as they approached, Laing picked him up and gave him a few encouraging words. “Are ye in one piece, nephew?” Laing asked, once he was within earshot. “Never better, Uncle,” Kit said. “What a bouncer,” Quentin protested. “You must be black and blue after that tumble.” The look that the boy shot him conveyed dislike – before the obedient servant expression descended again. “No real harm was done, sir,” Kit said in a wooden tone.

“Nonetheless, it was a nasty wee spill,” Laing said to his nephew. “Ye can sit up with me when we go back to the house.” “Thank you, Uncle,” Kit said and turned to collect the sled from where it had landed upside down in the snow. Quentin rushed to take it from the stable lad. “Go and sit on the cart. Nobody expects you to help pack up.” He hadn’t missed the way movement had made Kit hide a wince. “I think we should get the doctor in.” Huge eyes fastened on him with horror. “No!” Kit’s hands clenched on the sled.

Just before fighting over the sled turned into a wrestle, the lad surrendered. He dropped his head and mumbled, “Thank ye for your concern, Mr. MacNab. I’m just a wee bit knocked about. My uncle has some liniment that will have me right as rain tomorrow.” “Liniment for horses,” Quentin said, knowing that Kit wished him to Hades for his fussing. Yet again, the lad didn’t meet his eyes. “We are all creatures under God’s eyes, I believe, sir.” As Quentin burst into laughter, Kit turned away and moved with surprising speed toward the cart. *** After supper in the servants’ hall, a meal enlivened by excitement about the looming Christmas celebrations, Kit slipped away from the cozy big house to the scarcely less cozy stables.

At Glen Lyon, the horses lived in luxury. But then the estate was a good example of just how to manage a property. All the crofters’ cottages were in good repair, fencing and equipment were in fine fettle, nobody complained under Hamish and Emily Douglas’s authority. At the last place Kit had been, things hadn’t been nearly so well-run. Aching from the aftereffects of his accident, he climbed the stairs to the room he’d been given near the head groom’s apartment. Because of his privileged position as Laing’s nephew, he didn’t have to share his quarters with anyone else. Kit entered the room and bolted the door behind him. With a weary sigh, he sank against the door. He was sore and bruised, and his adventures with the runaway sled had roused far too much interest at dinner. Not to mention that Quentin MacNab’s kindness after the spill had left him thoroughly unsettled.

Quentin MacNab, handsome as the devil, with his thick, tawny hair and sharp hazel eyes that never missed a trick. Since Hamish’s nephew had evinced an interest in the new stableboy, Kit had done his best to stay out of the way. But today’s exploits had placed him firmly in Mr. MacNab’s sights, plague take it. With another sigh, Kit straightened and stepped into the middle of the floor to undress. First to come off was the thick coat, followed by the woolen jerkin and the linen shirt. Then, very carefully, he unwound the binding that constricted his chest, swearing under his breath as he noted the purple marks blossoming over his white skin. And just like that, Kit Laing became Christabel Urquhart.

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