Tis the Season for Lady Sarah – Maggie Dallen, Katherine Ann Madison

THE HOUSE WAS DEATHLY quiet as Sarah tiptoed down the hallway. Or, it would have been silent if her own heart were not thudding so loudly the sound of it filled her ears. It was a wonder the entire household wasn’t alerted by the clamor of it. But when she paused at the bottom of the stairway, there were no doors creaking. No footsteps overhead. Her mother and all the guests were asleep. And no wonder, after the soiree her parents had thrown the night before. Her mother had always enjoyed entertaining, but ever since her brother, Max, had left home for the military, she’d thrown herself into hostessing with a zeal that was unparalleled. Sarah peered into the dark hallway leading to the gardens and tugged the housecoat that covered her night rail tighter around herself as a nervous chill ran through her. Was she really doing this? Her pounding heart answered, yes. Dizzy with excitement, she crept forward. He would be here, her Mr. Stallworth. He would be waiting for her, just as he’d said he would be. Her heart pounded again.

He had to come to say farewell. She bit her lip to stifle a sob. The thought of it was too unbearable. For the first time in her life, she’d discovered love and romance, and her breathtaking romance would end before it even had a chance to begin. Was there ever anything more heartbreaking than star-crossed lovers? But she would wait for him like he’d asked. That was what she’d come to tell Mr. Stallworth. Before he left for this next trip to the Orient, she needed him to know that she would wait. And when he returned, wealthier and more powerful than ever, surely then he would be in a position to ask for her hand. She clasped a hand to her heart as if that could quell the pounding.

Her breathing sounded too loud in this otherwise silent hallway, as excitement and anticipation made her tremble. Would he kiss her? Would he ask her for her hand tonight? Or perhaps he would— “Having trouble sleeping, Lady Sarah?” The low voice coming from the shadows behind her made her heart stop and her gasp sounded like a rifle report in the silence. She froze in a crouch, terror pouring through her veins like ice water as she recognized the voice. Lord Everly. She shut her eyes for a moment as her heart raced ahead without her, but not in anticipation…in fear. Turning slowly, she heard his footsteps before she saw him, her brother’s closest friend and her worst nightmare. When he did come into view, the sight did little to assuage her fears. Tall and broad, he was a looming spectre in the darkness. Everly might have been some girls’ idea of a romantic dream. Dark haired and handsome as sin, he had all the appearances of a storybook hero.

Except for the frown, he always wore in her company. That had crushed any fantasy she might have harbored for the man. And then, of course, she’d met her one true love, Mr. Stallworth. She bit her lip to hold back a cry of despair. She’d been so close. Mr. Stallworth was likely there now, waiting for her, and instead she was here…with him. The overbearing and tediously perfect Earl of Everly. The words slipped out before she could stop them.

“What are you doing down here? Why are you awake?” He moved closer and his features became visible in the moonlight coming in from a window down the hall. “I was just about to ask you the same.” He was smirking at her, the condescending, no-good rake. Her hands fisted at her sides, her mind starting to function again as the rush of terror passed. She wasn’t afraid of this man, even if everyone else cowered at his feet. Lord Everly might have power, but he was not a villain—just the only thing standing between her and her love. “It’s late, Sarah,” he said, his voice a low murmur. “You ought to head back to your room. If anyone else were to catch you skulking about like this, they might get the wrong idea.” She frowned.

“I was not skulking. I was merely…” His brows hitched up, and she could have sworn she saw mocking amusement in those dark eyes as he waited for her to continue. Maddening brute. Of course it had to be him who’d found her. During this entire house party he’d been watching after her as though she were a child. Haven’t you had enough champagne, Sarah? It’s past your bedtime, Sarah. He might have been her older brother’s best friend, but that did not mean he could treat her like a little sister. “This is my home,” she reminded him pertly. “One cannot be skulking about in one’s own home.” “Then what were you doing, tiptoeing so stealthily in your own home?” He glanced toward the darkened hallway behind her.

“Do tell, Sarah. I’d love to hear.” The condescension in his tone had her shoulders straightening, her chin tilting up. “If you must know, I couldn’t sleep. I was on my way to fetch a book from the library.” His eyes lit with laughter, clear as day even in this dark. “Indeed?” He glanced toward the library, which was in the opposite direction from where she had been heading. He proffered an arm. “I could do with some poetry myself tonight. It would be my pleasure to escort you.

” She glared up at him. That wasn’t a mere smirk. It was the smug smile of a predator toying with its prey. “No. Thank you.” The “thank you” came out through gritted teeth and she could have sworn she saw him stifle a laugh at her expense. She glanced behind her. “With all the activity this evening, I failed to eat enough.” She forced an innocent smile. “I should like to fix myself some food before I head back to my room.

” “The servants will be rising within the hour,” he said. “If you wait a little while longer I’m certain they would be happy to help.” She opened her mouth to protest but he continued before she was able, his voice harder than before. “At least, that was what I told Mr. Stallworth when I found him sneaking about the garden a moment ago.” She froze with her lips still parted, her eyes wide in shock and horror and… No. No, no, no. Her insides lurched as tears sprang to her eyes. Everly hadn’t. He wouldn’t have.

One glance at the now-grim expression on the earl’s face said to her that yes—he would He had. She tried to swallow. She tried to breathe, but—it was over. Her one chance to see Mr. Stallworth again before he left on his journey. Her last opportunity for a farewell. All the promises she’d planned to make, the vows she’d planned to exchange. Everly had ruined it all. “Go to bed, Sarah.” Everly’s voice was surprisingly gentle but she still tensed at the fatherly tone.

His lips hitched up in a small smile that lacked the mockery she’d come to expect from him. “A young girl such as yourself needs her sleep if you are to take part in all those festivities your mother has planned for the morning.” Her brows drew down as anger battled with pain. Her heart was breaking and he wished to distract her with talk of festivities? Her love was leaving and he thought to dismiss her like this was some joke? “I am not a child—” “Then stop acting like one.” That gentleness was gone in a flash and his eyes hard as flint. She jerked back at his harsh tone. “Go to bed, Sarah.” Her lower lip quivered but she would never give him the satisfaction of seeing her tears. “You are in no position to order me about,” she said. “This is my home and—” “And your father would be most interested to hear about your nocturnal activities, I am certain,” he said.

She narrowed her eyes. “You wouldn’t.” He arched a brow. “You think not?” He crossed his arms and moved closer until she felt as though she were shrinking before him. “I promised Max I would look after you, Sarah—” “Well, consider yourself relieved of that duty,” she snapped. “Max is my brother and even he would not treat me like this.” “Like a silly fool,” he said, mockery once more lacing his tone and making her blood boil in her veins. “Child?” she snapped. “Silly fool? I am a grown lady—” “Then I suggest you behave as such.” He sighed, seemingly bored by this interaction, as though ruining a girl’s dreams was a regular activity for him.

As though smashing a lady’s heart was a tedious activity. Perhaps it was. Judging by the rumors about his romantic dalliances, she suspected breaking hearts was just another trivial pastime for him, like riding or playing cards. Those girls were the fools. Not her. “I will say this once more, Sarah.” He leaned down slightly and his height and breadth were nothing compared to the intimidating glare he fixed on her. “Go. To. Bed.

” His gaze raked over her as he straightened again. “Perhaps you’ll come to your senses in the morning.” She gave a haughty sniff, but she did as he’d commanded. Not because he’d told her to, or even because she feared that he would see through his threat and tell her father about her failed rendezvous. No, she would head to her rooms because one moment more and she might lose this fragile control on her emotions and begin to weep. Crying in front of this man was the only thing that could make this night worse. “Good girl,” he murmured behind as she headed toward the stairs. She sneered at the darkness ahead of her. Good girl, she mimicked in her head. Patronizing beast.

But as she climbed the steps to her bedroom, sadness began to replace her anger and exhaustion left her weak and weary. All she could do now was weep for the lost chance at a farewell. And after that, there was nothing else to do but wait. E 1 ighteen months later, Christmastide… SARAH WAS UTTERLY unprepared to have her world turned upside down. It seemed like a day just like any other, albeit perhaps slightly more harried than usual as her mother prepared for her brother’s nuptials—the wedding of the century. At least, that was what Sarah’s mother expected Max’s wedding to be. He and his bride, Marigold, had other ideas. Sarah stood with both of them at the top of the stairs, watching the goings on below with more than a little amusement. She felt for her brother who was trying his best to keep Mother happy while ensuring that his fiancée was not overwhelmed. Sarah glanced over at Marigold as she too watched the chaos below.

Poor Marigold! Her soon-to-be sister-in-law hated being the center of attention, which was precisely why she and Max were whispering even now about how they might have a small intimate ceremony before their mother’s fete. “Sarah, dear,” her mother called out from the foyer below. “Did you see what I managed to obtain?” Her mother stood in the midst of a bustle of activity as she shepherded in servants hauling crates and trunks filled with who knew what, all in the name of preparation for the highly anticipated wedding. She eyed the mountains of crates below. “No, Mother. I missed it in all the freight.” Marigold choked on a laugh beside her. She was about to burst out laughing as well at the insanity of it all when her mother continued. ““Do you remember that champagne you loved so dearly that we could only get from Mr. Stallworth?” Sarah’s stomach dropped to her feet at the mention of the name.

“Mr. Stallworth?” “Yes,” her mother continued, seemingly unaware that her daughter was drowning in emotion. “He’s finally back from his trip to Asia…” Her mother kept talking but the words seemed to echo around her as blood rushed from her head making her dizzy. “Isn’t that wonderful news?” her mother finished. “He’s here?” Sarah managed. Her heart was pounding furiously as her mind rushed to keep up. Mr. Stallworth. Her Mr. Stallworth.

He was back? “What’s that, dear?” Her mother didn’t look up, too busy inspecting boxes. Sarah’s voice shook. “Mr. Stallworth is here? Now?” Marigold leaned in toward her. “Are you all right?” Was she all right? No. Yes! This was…this was the moment she had been hoping for. This was it. Her time had finally come. After eighteen months of waiting, one might have assumed Sarah’s hopes had withered or her affections had waned. One would have been wrong.

In fact, in her daydreams, she’d told Everly how wrong he’d been over and over again. Unfortunately, she’d yet to have that opportunity for that conversation in real life. But she would. Someday. Sarah was no less in love with Mr. Stallworth today then she had been so many months ago when she hadn’t been able to say farewell. Which was why, when her mother mentioned his name so carelessly, so casually… “He’s down in the kitchen settling the account now,” her mother was saying. Sarah nearly tripped over her own feet, brushing off Marigold and Max’s questions. “I’ll explain later,” she said, already dashing down the stairs. He was here! At last! Dodging servants and merchants delivering goods, she finally reached the kitchen and paused just long enough to take a deep, steadying breath.

Her hand to her belly, she braced herself for the joy of seeing the man she loved. The joy she’d no doubt see in his eyes when he realized she’d waited. For him. And now they could finally be together. With one more deep breath, she pushed open the door to the kitchens and was met with a world of frenzy even more chaotic than what was currently taking place in the main hall. Servants were everywhere, everyone seemed to be moving quickly, commands were being shouted. Through it all, she stood still and quiet, her gaze darting to and fro to find him. He must have been looking for her, too. He wouldn’t leave without seeing her. There! Her gaze caught sight of his back just as he reached the door leading to out back in the direction of the stables.

“Wait!” He did not hear her as she cut through the crowded kitchen, ignoring the questioning looks. It wasn’t as though she were a stranger to the kitchen, but it was hardly common for the sister to the marquess to run recklessly through the house, nor had she ever been known to chase down a merchant. She temporarily forgot that she was supposed to be a proper young lady with decent manners. She forgot about decorum completely when she reached the door he’d gone through and stumbled through it herself, climbing awkwardly over the stacked crates waiting to be brought inside as her skirts caught on the edges, her feet slipping in the melting snow. “Where is he?” she asked no one in particular. But then she caught sight of him, heading toward the carriage house where his ride no doubt waited. “Mr. Stallworth!” she shouted, heedless to the attention she was drawing as she chased after him. “Mr. Stallworth!” He stopped and turned, and…there.

There it was. The handsome face, the kind blue eyes. He had not changed a bit. His hair was still light blond and adorably rumpled, his lips full and smiling. His skin was slightly darker than it had been, but other than that, he might as well have walked straight out of her daydreams. “Lady Sarah.” His voice was filled with warmth, and it was all the encouragement she needed. Racing toward him she did not stop until she was close enough to touch him. She caught herself just in time before she could reach for him, contenting herself with gazing at his handsome features, taking in every last detail of her beloved’s demeanor. “How wonderful to see you again, Lady Sarah,” he said as he cleared his throat.

Was he overwhelmed with emotion too? She blinked up at him, her smile so broad it hurt her cheeks, but words… She had no words. Where to begin? She’d missed him so. She’d thought of him constantly. And yet, in all that time she’d never given any thought of what her first words would be when she finally saw him. She saw the error of that lack of foresight now as she gaped wordlessly. His gaze raked over her, taking in her green morning gown, the dark locks that were piled high atop her head. “My, you have grown into quite the beauty.” His eyes were filled with such warmth she thought she might weep. She didn’t. She thought about it, but she held in the emotion.

“Mr. Stallworth, you’re back.” She could have bit her tongue for her idiocy. All these months and her first words were to state the obvious. “Indeed.” He beamed at her as though her words hadn’t been tragically prosaic. “I have so many tales to tell you about my journey. Stories you wouldn’t believe.” Laughter bubbled up inside of her. “Yes, I should like that very much,” she said.

“Your mother was kind enough to invite me to attend the festivities surrounding your brother’s wedding,” he said. Her heart soared. “Wonderful. That is…wonderful.”

.

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