Under the Mistletoe – Stefanie Sloane

Lord Lucas Cavanaugh stood on the steps of Cavanaugh House, a letter from his mother in one hand, a lead rope attached to a disgruntled donkey in the other. The beast of burden emitted a plaintive bray, his grizzled gray coat capturing the quickly falling snowflakes in soft, plush hair. Behind Lucas, the walls of his estate soared upward to the expansive roofs. Snow sifted over the sand-colored stone and piled on the window embrasures, drifting in white piles at the corners where weathered towers jutted out from the main building. Before him, the stable hand’s figure grew steadily smaller as he crossed the drive and turned toward the stables, his dark clothing turning white with accumulated snow before he seemed to disappear beneath the winter sky. Lucas sighed, stepped down onto the compact gravel drive, and repeated the man’s explanation out loud. “From Her Grace, my lord.” The donkey brayed a second time; his plaintive call seemed faintly foreboding and was perfectly timed. “Right you are, donkey. Anything to do with my mother is cause for concern.” Lucas squinted as he read the scarlet letters embroidered on the halter’s black leather nose strap. “Reginald? Rather stuffy name for an ass, wouldn’t you agree?” As it seemed unlikely the donkey would reply, Lucas turned to the missive and broke the wax seal, unfolding the creamy foolscap to reveal his mother’s grand, scrawling handwriting. Lucas Nathaniel, Reginald was discovered in the greenhouse, happily nibbling away on Cook’s parsley and chives. Needless to say, Cook was not amused. The donkey must go.

Please return him to Jane at once. And Lucas, might I suggest you take full advantage of this opportunity to tell Jane you love her? As your dear father (God rest his soul) was so fond of saying, “There is no time quite like the present.” Besides, your moping about the castle is casting a rather gloomy pallor upon the holidays, my dear. With the greatest of affection, Mother Lucas hastily refolded the letter and shoved it into his vest pocket. Staring hard at the long leather strap in his hand, he wrestled with the dark, cold regret that had settled in his chest the moment he’d read Jane Merriweather’s name. And with good reason. He’d realized Jane was the love of his life some seven months past, then promptly escaped to the Hebrides, driven by wild panic and irrational fear. Seven months, as it turned out, was not a sufficient number of hours, days, and weeks to recover from such cowardice. Nor, unfortunately, was it enough time to forget a woman. Especially not the woman.

Reginald brayed loudly and tossed his head, the lead bobbing and dancing about in the gathering snow that was swiftly covering the gravel drive beneath a light blanket of white. There were days Lucas regretted telling his brother Matthew, the Duke of Bascomb, the entire painful story. Because Matthew had confided in his wife, Matilda, who’d then felt it necessary to inform the dowager duchess. This was one of those days. Lucas reluctantly recalled last spring. Having just returned from a fishing trip to Scotland, Lucas had no more than settled in to the Bascombs’ London townhome when word of Jane’s broken engagement reached him. They’d spent the following week together, nearly inseparable as Lucas consoled his dear friend with leisurely strolls in Hyde Park, ices at Gunter’s—anything and everything that London could offer to keep her mind from dwelling on Baron McKee’s elopement to Gretna Greene with Lord Smelten’s horse-faced daughter. Their week together had been, in a word, revealing. Lucas could not recall a time when they’d had only each other to focus on, with no clamoring family or well-meaning friends to interfere. Jane’s infectious smile had suddenly sent twists of happiness spiraling in his heart.

Fractured patterns of sunlight capturing the golden hue of her hair forced unexpected sighs from his lips. The quality of her voice as she spoke of life, of their home, of their triumphs and failures, soothed his senses and spoke to his soul. Had Lucas really been so monumentally stupid for all those years? He loved Jane. There was a distinct possibility this had been true for some time. And he’d mucked up perfection in order to satisfy his wanderlust. He’d mentally kicked himself for such foolishness, then gone straightaway to confront Jane, only to find her in the most shocking condition. Jane had been foxed. Thoroughly so. Nothing could’ve surprised Lucas more, until she suddenly professed her love for him and begged him to stay the night. The candlelight had warmed the room with a low glow, the heavy intent in her sapphire blue eyes intoxicating.

She’d fallen asleep against his shoulder before he could answer. He reluctantly released her into her maid’s care, and then proceeded to walk the streets of London until the sun shone over Tower Bridge, acquainting himself with the idea that life, as he knew it, would never be the same again. When he’d returned to Jane’s townhome on the edge of Grosvenor Square, intent on telling her what he should have the night before, she’d gone. A letter explained that, while she was very thankful for his kindness, Jane did not wish to keep Lucas from the undoubtedly thrilling adventures he’d planned for the near future. He was not to follow her. She couldn’t bear the embarrassment of facing him after the unfounded and silly pronouncements she’d made in her “rather unsteady state.” But she would be well, she’d assured him. As she wished him to be. Silly pronouncements? Had he imagined her sincerity? There’d been no way to confirm or dispel the painful notion, other than chasing her down on the road to Gloucestershire, which she’d specifically told him not to do. Lucas was both a coward and a fool for not going after her.

Avoiding Jane for the next two weeks would be impossible. Besides, Lucas didn’t want to. When it came right down to it, he’d missed her terribly these many months. “Did it have to be an ass? They’ve a large stable at Juniper Hall. Surely one of the draft horses could have appeared? Would have made for more of a proud entrance, wouldn’t you agree?” Clearly affronted at Lucas’s insult, Reginald’s ears lay flat against his head and his wiry tail swished back and forth at a menacing pace. * * * “He’s a crafty ass, that Reginald of yours.” Jane Merriweather opened her mouth to argue with Robby Brown’s absurd statement, but found she could not. The dear man, one of only a small handful of servants who remained at Juniper Hall, was right. Jane stamped her feet on the straw-covered ground of Reginald’s cozy stall in an effort to ward off the cold. She and Robby had been in the stables since it was discovered that the donkey had gone missing.

Jane’s feet, toes, hands, and fingers were either numb or chilled to the bone. Her disposition was in a similar state. Returning to Gloucestershire had been a mistake, she reflected with a sigh. Jane hugged her arms about herself and briskly rubbed her hands up and down in an attempt to generate warmth. The worn wool of her father’s greatcoat was rough beneath her fingers, reminding her why she’d done such a monumentally stupid thing as return to Juniper Hall while still unmarried. The painful truth was, she could no longer afford to stay in London and hunt for a rich husband. She eyed the height of the stall door as humiliation left its distinctly brassy taste on her tongue. There really was no point in pretending she’d been doing anything else. Her father’s total lack of financial wisdom was something of an entertainment to the locals and to the ton, known of far and wide. And besides, Jane had never been one for regret.

If there was something she needed to accomplish, she would—and then be done with it. “He couldna’ have jumped over the gate, even if he’d wanted ta,” Robby said as he checked the lock on the stall door for the tenth time. “You do remember the donkey was knee-high to Minstrel, miss?” Minstrel. A shard of sadness knifed through Jane, her heart aching at the swift pain. Big, beautiful, fiery Minstrel, the Thoroughbred her father had promised would save them all. She pushed on the stall door with both hands, shoving as hard as she could. When the heavy gate refused to move, she rested her weight against the rough-hewn wood and looked down the aisle. Only three of the roomy stalls in the big stable were being used. Minstrel had been lost to colic, the rest of the Merriweather horses to debt. Only Reginald and the cart horses, a draft pair named Fancy and Fickle, remained.

Minstrel’s death had made the family’s dire financial situation real to Jane in a way that no other defeat or setback in the preceding years had. She could no longer pine away for her neighbor, Lucas Cavanaugh. She had to crush the silly hope that he would come to his senses, realize she was the perfect bride for him, and offer marriage. Determined to save her family from looming financial disaster, she’d left her home in the rolling Cotswold hills behind, together with any fanciful dreams of her childhood friend, in order to find a husband. A rich husband. In possession of all his teeth, if possible. “Then how, precisely, did he escape?” Jane asked of Robby, continuing to stare down the silent aisle, her thoughts still semi-focused on the past. She’d found the perfect husband, or so she’d naively believed. Baron Angus McKee was titled, relatively good-looking, only five years her senior, and had a full set of teeth. He’d proposed, she’d accepted, and the date had been set.

A tidy transaction if there’d ever been one. “Like I said, miss, old Reg is crafty.” Jane smiled, and before she could reply, the door at the far end of the stables blew open. The wind surged inside, carrying sleet on frosty fingers that tickled Jane’s bare neck and made her shiver. She drew the greatcoat more closely around her and tucked her chin into the shelter of the collar to block the chilled wind. Yes, her Scottish baron had been the answer to her family’s prayers. Until he’d stolen away in the middle of the night for Gretna Green. And not with Jane by his side. No, Lady Honoria Smelten could claim that dubious honor, her formidable fortune proving too tempting for Jane’s Scottish baron. Rather, Lady Honoria’s Scottish baron, she reflected.

The faint but unmistakable clip-clop of hooves interrupted Jane’s painful reminiscing. She went up on tiptoe and strained against the gate to see clearly down the aisle to where a flurry of sleet surrounded an approaching duo. The tall human figure was obviously male but Jane couldn’t make out his identity. The familiar undulating ears and squat build of the four-legged animal beside him, however, could be none other than Reginald. “Eeh-yaww.” The gentle donkey greeted Jane with his customary bray and quickened his pace, his short legs carrying him as fast as they possibly could down the long aisle toward her. “You foolish little beast,” Jane scolded with affection and heartfelt relief, opening the gate and stepping out of the stall. She pushed the gate shut behind her and turned toward the donkey just as the heavy stable doors slammed closed with a loud thud. The noise drew Jane’s attention and she looked up; beyond Reginald, at the far end of the aisle, a man stood with his back to her. He wore a snow-dusted greatcoat that stretched taut over broad shoulders as he latched the doors and secured the building.

Jane froze, shock holding her still, speechless, as she recognized him. Lucas Cavanaugh. Their history had begun with their first spat at the age of four over the superiority of tin soldiers to porcelain dolls, carried forth to their first kiss at age nine, and concluded last spring when she’d attempted to force herself upon him. Despite the cold, perspiration beaded on Jane’s brow and temples. “Why are you here?” she demanded. The words spilled out with no regard for politeness and she winced at how much his presence shook her customary calm. Lucas turned and met her gaze, a dark eyebrow quirking. “And it is lovely to see you as well, Jane.” His deep voice stirred already ruffled nerves and sent a shiver through Jane. “Is that Reginald, then?” Robby put in as he crossed the stall toward her.

“Yes,” Jane answered flatly, wishing she were anywhere but where she was. Robby opened the stall door and stepped out just in time to meet his long-eared friend. “I’d think you’d be a trifle more enthusiastic, miss. Poor Reg here could have frozen to death.” He smiled down at the donkey, affectionately patting him on the shoulder before looking up to catch a glimpse of Lucas, behind Jane. “Beg your pardon, my lord. I didn’t realize you were there,” he said. Jane shifted uncomfortably, barely aware of Robby beside her, all of her attention focused on Lucas. The servant glanced at Jane as he caught Reginald’s halter, her unease becoming his own. “I’ll see to Reg, here,” he offered.

Lucas strode down the aisle toward them. His long, powerful legs, covered in buckskin breeches and tall boots, made quick work of the distance between himself and the trio. Brass buttons gleamed on his dark blue greatcoat, the snowflakes dusting his shoulders already melting to damp spots on the heavy wool. “No need for forgiveness, Robby. Only a fool would be out in this weather—and a donkey, of course.” A half smile curved his lips as he looked at the clearly unrepentant Reginald. Robby nodded and gently rubbed the soft hair between Reginald’s ears. “I’m sorry that Reg here caused you such trouble. I’ll just see to him.…” Jane cringed as Robby trailed off, then ordered herself not to worry.

The man couldn’t possibly know what happened during that last evening she and Lucas had spent together in London, but she felt mortified all the same. She shifted uncomfortably and stamped her feet at the very thought. Both men stared at her with puzzled expressions. “Ugh,” she muttered. It was as if the word was dragged from deep in her throat. “Robby, I will not have your death on my conscience. You must be chilled to the bone. Go on ahead and tell Cook I insisted she produce Father’s best brandy for you—not the inferior Rathbone, you understand.” “I’ve no need for such things, miss—”

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