The fire had already been banked for the night and the maid had pulled the drapes closed. The old house was drafty and grew terribly cold on winter nights, especially bitter cold ones like tonight. A raw wind had whipped the countryside for days now, but tonight it brought freezing rain as well, needles of ice that tinkled against the window panes and hissed in the fireplace.
The lady of the house surveyed her quiet domain. She had sent the servants, all three of them, to bed early, and her niece had gone upstairs a short while ago, too. There was no point burning through a week’s worth of fuel trying to keep the house warm tonight. She pulled her shawl higher around her shoulders and put out all but a single lamp, then took that one up to light her way to bed. In the doorway she paused, looking back at the small sitting room. It was by far the nicest room in the house now. The windows were secure behind thick drapes, the fresh paint brightened the room considerably, and the floor had been waxed to a shine. Her niece Susan had decorated with sprigs of greenery as well, bringing in the fresh scent of the forest along with a dash of color. It would be a pleasant Christmas, even with the general shabbiness of the house.
She sighed and turned away, bracing herself for the walk upstairs. The maid had prepared her room, but it would still be cold and lonely, and there was nothing anyone could do about that.
As she reached the foot of the stairs, a sound caught her attention. She paused, frowning. It sounded like steps, outside the wide front door, but who could be out on a night like this? No one, of course. It must be the storm.
But the knock that came next, a pair of short muffled thumps, was not the storm. Most likely not, at any rate. Still frowning, she set down the lamp and hurried to the door.
“Who is there?” she called, resting her palms on the scarred wood and listening.
For answer, there was silence. She closed her eyes and rested her forehead against the wood. It was no one, of course. The wind must have blown something against the house.
Three more knocks, solid thumps this time, made the wood beneath her forehead vibrate. A voice called out—or was it the wind?—and she hesitated, then undid the bolt and opened the door a few inches to peer out.
She barely glimpsed a man’s figure before he pushed past her into the hall. His every step squelched loudly, and a steady patter of raindrops fell around him from his soaked greatcoat. Slowly, jerkily, he unwound the long, frost-covered muffler from his neck and dropped it to the floor.
Her mouth fell open as she saw his face. “What are you doing here?”
He grinned. A few days’ growth on his jaw gave him a wild, dangerous look as he tossed aside his hat and shook his head like a dog, water and ice flying from his dark hair. “You don’t sound very pleased to see me.”
She raised her chin. “And why should I be?”
This time he laughed. He peeled off his sodden gloves, one finger at a time, before flicking them aside with the muffler. “What a fine welcome. How can you deny a man the warmth of your hospitality on a night such as this?”
“Any man who ventures out on a night such as this is a fool,” she retorted. “What do you want?”
“Oh, I’m a fool,” he said comfortably. “But where is your comfort and cheer, madam? It is the Christmas season.”
“I expect it’s all gone out the leaking roof and the smoky chimney in the dining room.”
He casted a glance into the sitting room, where the coals still glowed faintly in the grate. “But it was here. I smell evergreen; dare I hope to find a bit of mistletoe as well?”
“You may hope all you like,” she replied, “and much good might it do you.”
“Ah, I see.” He gave her a glance glittering with amusement. “I understand. A leaky roof, a smokey chimney … What sort of man would leave a woman in such a hovel in winter? Your husband ought to be whipped.”
She twisted her lips into a derisive smile. “Perhaps.”
His greatcoat hit the floor with a wet slap, revealing how little it had protected him from the weather. He rolled his shoulders with a grimace, then peeled off his jacket as well, tossing it onto the growing pile of his discarded clothing. His white shirt clung to powerful arms, and her eyes drifted down the broad planes of his chest before she jerked them back to his face—which wore a knowing smirk.
She turned her back on him and started for the stairs, turning her head to speak over her shoulder. “My husband is expected in a week’s time. I’m sure you’ll be welcome then.”
He followed her. “Lucky fellow, to come home to such a beauty.”
She sniffed. “Flattery will not serve you, sir.”
“No?” He laughed softly, prowling ever closer to her. She quickened her step, keeping the distance between them, until he outmaneuvered her and strode around, barring her path to the stairs. “Perhaps your husband isn’t lucky, then. Perhaps he’s a bloody idiot for leaving you here alone in the country.” She just shrugged, and his easy laugh rang out again, more confidently this time as he came toward her. “So, he is an idiot. Well, perhaps I can warm your heart in preparation for his return. It seems the most I can do, since I plan to take full advantage of his hearth and table tonight.”
“My husband—” she said sharply. She had backed into the wall against his approach, and now made to move to the side, around him.
“You husband,” he echoed, placing one hand on the wall where she would have gone, then the other hand on the other side of her to trap her.
“Yes, my husband,” she snapped. “He will not like it that you’re taking advantage of me this way!”
“On the contrary, my dear,” he whispered, lowering his face to hers. “I think he’d approve very much.” And he kissed her.
She tried to turn her face away. She grabbed at his wet shirt and tried to push him away. But slowly, inexorably, he gathered her into his arms, kissing her until her hands clutched instead of shoved, and her arms went around his neck with a soft moan of surrender.
“There,” he said softly, his breath gone as ragged as hers. “I think your husband would expect me to finish that properly. Come upstairs with me.”
She let her head fall back so he could kiss the length of her neck. “You wicked man, to show up like this and expect me to fall into your arms …”
“By God, yes. I’m counting on it,” he murmured, sliding his hand up to cover her breast. “I’ll take you straight to bed and keep you warm all night.”
She shivered, both from the prospect of having him in her bed and from the touch of his hand on her flesh. Even when she wanted to refuse him, he made it impossible. It frightened her sometimes, how potent her desire for him was.
“Say yes, darling.” He kissed her again, deeply. “Take pity on a poor man nearly drowned, half frozen, willing to risk his life for a night in your arms.”
“You know I would say yes,” she breathed as his fingertips teased her breast until she arched her back, pressing into him. “Oh, Stuart, you’ve been away too long …”
“Do you think I don’t know that?” He cupped her cheek and gazed into her dark eyes with rueful blue ones. “Why do you think I rode through the storm tonight?”
“Because you’re mad,” she said with a muted laugh. “It’s positively dreadful out.”
He grinned. “I’m only mad for you, darling.”
“But you’re home early,” Charlotte said. “I didn’t expect you for another week. Did something happen—?”
“No, everything went well.” He’d left five weeks ago to visit his grandfather, Viscount Belmaine, and try to resore some familial connection. Only this summer Stuart had learned that his supposed father was really his uncle, his presumed mother was only his adoptive mother, and that his grandfather had helped conceal the truth for decades. Charlotte had been unsure when he declared he needed to visit Lord Belmaine, but Stuart assured her it would be fine. As his visit had lengthened, Charlotte prayed it was for good reasons and not for bad ones. She herself wouldn’t have forgive such deception so easily. But Belmaine controlled the family fortune, and there was no doubting that Stuart could use some funds.
“Not only did I persuade Grandfather to part with some of his best sheep in the spring, I ordered supplies for the new roof. He’s of a mind to come and see you for himself this spring, you know. The old bounder still likes a pretty woman, and I daresay he’s curious to see who could possibly have won my faithless heart. But we’ll have a good flock come spring, a new roof, and perhaps—just perhaps—the dining room chimney rebuilt. All in all, a trip well worth the inconvenience.” He paused and his gaze heated. “But then I thought of my beautiful wife, all alone in the wilds of Somerset—”
She scoffed. “Susan has been with me,” she said, naming her niece. “I’ve hardly been alone.”
“Alone—desperately lonely— in the wilds of Somerset,” he repeated willfully. “Pining for my presence. No doubt crying herself to sleep every night.” Charlotte laughed. “And it is our first Christmas, and I’ve not given you your gift.”
“I don’t need a gift now that you’re home.” Despite his wet clothing, she rested her cheek against him. “I missed you.”
“And I you.” His fingers brushed her cheek. “Happy Christmas, darling Charlotte.”
“Here?” His wolfish grin flashed at her as she reached for the lamp.
She smiled coyly and backed toward the stairs. “You’re soaking wet. We should get you before a hot fire … or into bed …”
“Lord, yes.” He yanked at his cravat.
Charlotte ignored the pile of wet clothing on the floor; there would be time enough to deal with that tomorrow. He’d been gone over a month, five very long and lonely weeks. Christmas had come a few hours early for her. “I shall do my best to warm you.”
Her husband caught her on the stairs. “You always do, love,” he whispered against her mouth. “And always will.”