It's the first Christmas together for newlyweds Adam and Sarah Milbank. With a busy inn to run, they don't have much time alone with each other, until a Christmas Eve snowstorm gives them a holiday …
Christmas Eve, 1820
Her nose was numb.
Unwilling to open her eyes just yet, Sarah Milbank tilted her chin, thinking to tuck her nose beneath the warm blanket. Unfortunately that only alerted her to the frost on the edge of the blanket. She pried one eye open with a groan.
The old latch on the casement had slipped again, letting the window open. Just a tiny bit, but enough to let a fine silt of icy snow blow through and settle on the bed.
"Adam," she mumbled. "The window's open."
Her husband stirred. "It's not dawn yet."
"But the window is open." She remained where she was, burrowed into the warmth of his side. Adam was a tall, strapping man, and he put off more heat than the kitchen fire.
He rolled over and threw one arm over her. "If I have to get out of bed to fix it, I'll wake up."
"I know." She sighed, trying not to think of starting the day early. "But it's snowing."
His breathing was soft and deep, and for a moment she thought he'd gone back to sleep. She was strongly tempted to do the same. "Do you think it's deep?"
She smiled, rubbing her cheek against the bare skin of his chest, where his nightshirt fell open. Her nose was not cold now. "I'd have to look out the window to guess."
"If I open my eyes and it's dark, we're staying here," he muttered. "Agreed?" His hand stroked down her back, urging her closer against him.
"Agreed." She hooked her knee over his.
There was a moment of silence. Then Adam raised his head. "Sarah, the snow is almost covering the bottom panes."
She groaned again. "Perhaps the wind blew it."
"Then there must be a fair amount of it to blow about." He squeezed her hip before rolling over and sliding out of bed. "Damn, it's cold!"
She huddled under the blankets, but all the heat had gone with him. Reluctantly she opened her eyes, squinting in the dim light of early dawn. Adam walked stiff-legged around the bed, his breath hissing with every step on the frigid floorboards, and slammed the window shut, forcing the broken latch closed. "I've got to fix that," he said, for the twentieth time.
"I know." She took a deep breath and threw back the blankets. "It's freezing!"
Adam was already stepping into his trousers and rolling thick wool socks up his feet. "You can stay abed a while."
"No, I'm awake now." Teeth chattering, she snatched up a shawl and flung it around her shoulders, slipping behind the screen to wash up. There was a crust of ice over the water in the pitcher, and she was shivering by the time she had finished washing. She heard the door open as Adam left, heading out to check the livestock, no doubt. Sarah sighed, casting a bittersweet glance at the bed before rushing to put on her own warm clothes.
When she had straightened the bedroom and swept up the snow that had come through the window, she went downstairs. The Queen's Head was quiet today; no guests had stayed last night, which meant she only had to cook breakfast for herself and Adam. Even Minnie, the girl who helped in the kitchen, had gone home for Christmas. Adam had worried it was softhearted to let the girl leave a day early—what if an influx of travelers appeared unexpectedly?—but Sarah thought she could manage without her, so Minnie went.
And now, as she stirred up the fire in the big kitchen fireplace, she was glad. It had been a long time since she and Adam were alone. The Queen's Head was a small inn, but Adam hoped it would grow. Traveling coaches stopped in four times a day in good weather. They didn't get the mail coaches, which went to the Dog and Thistle a mile up the road, but they ran a cleaner establishment with better cooking, or so Adam boasted. Sarah always blushed when he said that, but she was elated that her husband was proud of her. An innkeeper's wife's cooking could make an inn's reputation.
The kitchen warmed up quickly as she fed the fire. She filled the kettle from the hand pump Adam had installed over the summer—such a convenience, to have the pump inside the kitchen—and ground the coffee beans. Adam would be frozen by the time he returned from the morning chores.
She paused on that thought. It was terribly cold out, but it was also the day before Christmas. They had no guests, and judging from the depth of the unexpected snow outside the kitchen door, they weren't likely to get any. A smile curved her mouth. Yes, she would show Adam how good a cook she was today.
She flew about the kitchen gathering supplies. It was a far richer breakfast than they usually ate, but today felt deserving. She hummed a tune as she cored apples, cut slices off a leg of ham, and diced dried herbs. All was almost ready when Adam tromped through the door, shaking snow from his shoulders and boots. He handed her a basket of fresh eggs from the barn, then paused, raising his head like a hound on the scent.
"Bless my soul," he breathed, his blue eyes brightening. "Do I smell…?"
She nodded, hardly able to contain her delight. "Baked apples." She took the eggs and cracked a few into the bowl she'd prepared. "With omelette and ham."
"Breakfast for a king!" He shrugged out of his coat and hung it up, coming to the table with a look of eager anticipation on his face. "Who's arrived? Do I need to carry up luggage?"
"No." She poured the beaten eggs into the pan, sprinkled the herbs on top, and took the coffee pot off its hook. "This is just for my husband."
"That luckly bloke!" He grinned as he straddled the bench and warmed his hands at the fire. "He'll eat me out of house and home."
She laughed. "It's our first Christmas as man and wife. I wanted it to be special."
His face softened, and he caught her around the waist as she passed with a plate of warmed ham. "I hope it is, Sarah. I know 'tis not easy being an innkeeper's wife. You were a brave soul to accept me. If we can turn a bit of profit this year, I'll hire another girl to help with the cleaning—"
She put her finger on his lips. "I'm not sorry I married you," she said softly. "Now let me serve you a Christmas breakfast befitting the keeper of the finest inn in Yorkshire."
"I intend to enjoy it more than the King himself could."
And he did. They ate ham, salty and juicy with a spoonful of saved gravy. The omelette was tender and fragrant with summer herbs from the walled garden behind the kitchen. But it was the baked apples that made Adam's eyes droop closed in happiness.
"If I hadn't already married you," he said as he polished off the last bite, "I would fall to my knees right now and beg for your hand, after such a feast."
She was ridiculously pleased. Too often they ate separately, Adam in the public room out front, seeing to guests, and she in the kitchen, a few bites at a time between tending a roast or kneading bread or baking a pie.
"The snow is fairly deep. I doubt we'll have any travelers today." He wiped one finger around the edge of his plate and licked it, a blissful expression on his face.
He shook his head. "It's up to my knees and still drifting down. I daresay we'll be quiet for a day or more."
"Oh." She sat for a moment in growing jubilation. A day free! They never had days free—and it was almost Christmas, too.
"I hope it clears soon." Adam went to the window and peered out. "We can't go many days without guests."
Oh yes. That tempered her delight. Adam had inherited The Queen's Head from his uncle, but he'd taken out a mortgage to make repairs and modernizations. They couldn't afford idle days.
Still, if one was forced upon them… She rose from the table. "Let's not worry about it now. I'll tidy the kitchen, you do the main room, and then we'll…" She waved one hand.
"Do what?" he prompted.
Sarah grinned. "Have a spot of fun!"
A slow smile curved his mouth. "You'll have to show me how."
So she did. Sarah rushed through the kitchen chores, then wrapped herself in her winter cloak and mittens. She went out into the kitchen yard, strangely quiet in the drifting snow, devoid of the chickens who usually strutted about. There was no rumble from the road. Everything was blanketed in white, and it seemed she and Adam must be the only people in this corner of the world.
By the time her husband came out, muffled in his own coat and hat, she was ready. As he squinted into the snow, she crouched behind the rail fence and lobbed the first snowball.
It landed on his left shoulder. He let out a startled shout.
She threw another one, trying to stifle her laughter. This one caught him on the crown of his hat as he swung around looking for her.
"An ambush!" He fell to his knees and began packing his own snowball.
"It's not a battle!" she called back, ducking behind the fence again.
"Then stand and face fire!" A snowball burst against the rail in front of her. Blindly Sarah tossed another of her own, gasping with laughter as the cold air stung her cheeks. She hadn't played like this since she was a girl, free of cares about how much beef to buy, whether they could afford a second maid to help clean, if they could make a success of The Queen's Head when it was so close to The Dog and Thistle. Snow showered down on her, and she shrieked as it slid under the collar of her cloak.
"A lady who doesn't guard her flank will be taken prisoner!" Adam leapt over the fence and snatched her into his arms as she shrieked again. "What say you now, madam?"
Sarah put one snowy mitten on his cheek. Adam was a handsome fellow in her eyes, tall and broad-shouldered with fair hair and eyes of summer sky blue. She could hardly believe that he'd married her, even though he'd made no secret of the fact that her cooking skills were part of her charm. An innkeeper needed a wife who could work. She knew he held her in affection, and he treated her well, but in the six months since they'd married, she'd fallen helplessly in love with him.
"I say Happy Christmas, husband," she whispered, and then impulsively she kissed him.
It was far from their first kiss, but it might have been the first one not given in the dark privacy of their marriage bed. Even during the year of his courtship they hadn't been this silly together.
He stared at her a moment, obviously startled. Then his eyes darkened and he kissed her back, neither lightly nor quickly. Slowly her arms went around his neck as she fell into the joy of being held and kissed by the man she loved.
"Sarah," he whispered when he raised his head. "I knew it is a hard life I asked you to take on when you accepted me. But I want you to know… I'm very glad you did. You're the finest wife I could imagine, and I—"
"I love you," she blurted out, then blushed as he jerked in surprise. "I love you, Adam Milbank, and I'm glad to be your wife."
He started to grin, and then he threw back his head and laughed. "Then this is a very happy Christmas, indeed! I'm trying to tell you I love you, too."
She gaped. "You do? Truly?"
He kissed her. "Even more than baked apples."
And then it was Sarah's turn to laugh, even though tears were stinging her eyes and snowflakes were collecting on her nose. "Then it's a good thing there's no one requesting a room today, isn't it?"
He scooped her into his arms. "Indeed it is. We ought to take advantage of it." And he carried her though the snow, into the snug little inn, and closed the door behind them.