How the Rogue Stole Christmas
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by Rosemary Stevens
Category: Romance/Historical Fiction
Description: Widowed Lady Margery Fortescue has suffered through several wretched Christmases and intends for this one to be better. Then her cottage roof caves in. Forced to accept a house party invitation, she is mistaken for a maid at an inn on the way--by a decidedly handsome rogue, Lord Reckford. Who proceeds to show up at the holiday gathering, as unrepentant as ever. Regency Romance by Rosemary Stevens; originally published by Fawcett Crest
eBook Publisher: Belgrave House, 1998
eBookwise Release Date: December 2010
9 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [289 KB]
Reading time: 182-255 min.
There was absolutely no set of circumstances that could coax Lady Margery Fortescue into any semblance of what might be called Christmas spirit. However, as winter tightened its icy grip on the small village of Porwood, Margery decided that, come what may, this year she would have a happy Christmas.
Even if it killed her.
"Lady Margery! Come inside for some warm milk before you catch your death. It's nigh on four o'clock, and you've been out all afternoon," Miss Bessamy called from the back door of their tiny snow-covered cottage.
Margery straightened from her task of shoveling a new path to the necessary. Four inches of snow had fallen during the day, adding to the five already blanketing the ground. She forced a smile for her old nurse, now her partner in genteel poverty.
Margery was alone in the world. Her mother had died when Margery was twelve. Her father, the Marquess of Edgecombe, was very high in the instep and had disowned her when she went against his wishes and married Simon Fortescue. After Simon died, Margery had sought out Miss Bessamy, wishing for the comfort and guidance of the woman who had raised her.
Not that finding Miss Bessamy had been easy. Immediately after her marriage, Margery had received one letter from her old nurse, in which that lady had given the impression she had not a care in the world and would soon write Margery with her new direction. She never did.
Believing her father had pensioned off Miss Bessamy, Margery had been outraged when she learned Lord Edgecombe had turned the older woman off without a reference. He blamed Miss Bessamy for not raising his daughter to know better than to marry a gentleman with no title and no prospects other than a vague plan to make a fortune on the Exchange.
A frantic search had led Margery to an embarrassed Miss Bessamy, who was living in a cruel room with little savings to sustain her. Together, the two ladies pooled their meager resources and sensibly decided that two could pinch pennies tighter than one. Margery sold the house in Town that her grandmother had left her, the house where she and Simon had spent the almost twelve months of their marriage.
After paying her husband's debts, Margery had had enough money left to purchase a cottage in the undisturbed rural beauty of Porwood. The cottage contained one large room that served as the kitchen and living area, a small bedroom behind the kitchen for Miss Bessamy, and a loft where Margery slept.
Margery had wished to sell all the pretty gowns Simon had bought for her--on credit--as a wedding present, but here the practical Miss Bessamy had strangely dug in her heels. With careful economizing, Miss Bessamy had said, they would be able to maintain their existence without such a sacrifice... yet.
Pressing a hand into the small of her aching back, Margery asked, "Is there any tea left in the bottom of the canister, Bessie? I confess I would prefer it to milk, and I am tired of weak coffee."
"I'll look, but we may have used the last when that worthless vicar called in November. Can't fathom why you don't care for milk anyway," Miss Bessamy grumbled, pulling her wool shawl closer about her plump figure and turning away from the door. "Warms the body and cures whatever ails you."
Margery could not suppress a grin. Miss Bessamy's idea of "milk" always contained a strong measure of brandy, a commodity Margery had extracted from Simon's well-stocked cellar before she sold the house. To Margery's amusement, Miss Bessamy sprinkled a bit of nutmeg on top of the liquid to account for the brownish color of the concoction.
Pulling her woolen gloves more tightly about her cold-stiffened fingers, Margery reapplied shovel to snow, hoping to finish the chore of clearing the path before the darkening sky lost all of its light.
Which reminded her of the lowering fact that they were almost out of candles as well as tea. Margery sighed and went on with her task.
Eventually she put the shovel away in the garden shed and stomped her feet in an effort to remove the snow clinging to her serviceable half boots. With a sense of satisfaction at the day's work, she walked down the newly cleared path to the back door of the cottage.
She swung open the door and bent to retrieve the holly branches she'd gathered earlier as part of her campaign to give the cottage a Christmas atmosphere. After all, there was nothing like pretty greenery decorating one's home to put one in the spirit of the season, she told herself firmly. And there was no need, isolated as they were in the country, to wait until Christmas Eve to ornament the cottage, as was the usual custom.
Margery's hands connected with the holly, and she jumped back, yelping in pain. Tearing off a worn brown glove, she saw a spot of blood rising from her fingertip. "Oh, drat!" She cleaned her finger with a handkerchief produced from the pocket of her brown cloak, replaced the glove, and irritably scooped up the large pile of Christmas cheer.
She got as far as the doorway before tiny sounds of mad scrambling, coming from inside the holly branches, caused her to utter an involuntary scream and drop the greenery to the cottage floor.
"Bless me!" Chaos reigned as Miss Bessamy turned from where she had been pouring tea into a cup. Seeing a small, prickly hedgehog pop out of the greenery and scamper across the kitchen floor was enough to make her shriek and drop both teapot and cup. The resulting crash had the hedgehog running in circles of mad fright.
"I shall get him, Bessie. Remain where you are!" Margery called out. She dashed to the broom cupboard and grasped the instrument with the longest handle. After a frenzied chase, she managed to sweep the little fellow out the back door, slamming it shut after him with rather more force than could strictly be considered essential.
On her knees a few minutes later, gathering bits of broken china, Margery muttered, "I shall have a happy Christmas. I shall have a happy Christmas." Simply because the last three Christmases had each spelled disaster did not mean she could not have a happy Christmas this year, she told herself.
"Dear child, my nerves are quite overset," Miss Bessamy said as she prepared a jug of her special milk. Adding a plate of apricot tarts to the repast, the older woman sat at the well-scrubbed kitchen table.
Margery put the last of the broken china into the dustbin, swept a wayward lock of silky black hair away from her pale face, and sat opposite her companion.
Resigning herself to the lack of tea, Margery poured a small amount of milk into her mug and reached for a tart. "Let us forget the whole incident. The hedgehog was more frightened than either of us." Margery bit into the thick pastry, relishing its flavor. Miss Bessamy loved to cook, as well as eat, and could manufacture treats out of next to nothing.
Margery noticed her old nurse's hand trembled a bit as she raised the mug of milk to her thin lips. Why, Margery asked herself for the hundredth time, did Papa have to take out his anger at his daughter's mismarriage on Miss Bessamy? The woman had served his family well for nearly twenty years, coming to them when Margery was only a babe. Miss Bessamy was now past her fiftieth birthday and deserved a comfortable life.
Almost as if reading her thoughts, Miss Bessamy turned liquid brown eyes on her former charge. "If only, dear child, you would consider accepting Lady Altham's invitation to spend the Christmas season at Altham House. We could be so very comfortable there for a little while. Only consider the warmth, for fires are sure to be kept burning all the time at such a grand house. And one can imagine the enormous feasts Lady Altham's cook will prepare for her esteemed guests."
Miss Bessamy looked hopefully at Margery and took a large bite of her apricot tart, her jaw moving from side to side as she chewed.
Margery tapped a fingernail on the edge of her mug. "Bessie, we have discussed this and decided not to accept her ladyship's invitation."
Miss Bessamy's placid face registered surprise. She wiped crumbs from her lips and said, "Oh, no, dear. You are mistaken. I thought Lady Altham's invitation most generous and an excellent notion. You were the one who frowned upon it. For what reason, I'm sure I could not say."
A small furrow creased Margery's brow. "I told you, my acquaintance with her ladyship is slight. Since we moved to the village, I have accepted her infrequent invitations to call, though it has cost me dearly each time to rent a pony cart to travel the sixteen miles to Altham House."
"Lady Altham has always been most gracious, has she not?" Miss Bessamy said encouragingly, the large cap she wore over her faded brown hair bobbing with her enthusiasm.
"Yes," Margery allowed. "But Christmas is a time when families and friends gather. Lady Altham's note says she is planning a house party. I would be out of place at such a gathering."
"Stuff," Miss Bessamy proclaimed roundly. "You are the daughter of a marquess, and as such, no door is closed to you. I'm certain Lady Altham is sensitive to your place in Society. And you have all of your pretty gowns. Why, Lady Altham has probably invited several young gentlemen--"
Miss Bessamy broke off hurriedly, perhaps perceiving by the widening of the younger woman's fine gray eyes and the stiffening of her back the error in bringing up the matter of a beau for Margery. "That is to say, I know after Simon's death you could not look at another gentleman, but it has been two years, and you are only two-and-twenty--" Miss Bessamy trailed off miserably.
Margery placed the rest of her apricot tart on the plate uneaten, her appetite gone. Even Miss Bessamy was not privy to the true nature of Margery's marriage to Simon and her lack of interest in ever becoming involved with another gentleman. No, 'twas better to let Bessie think she mourned Simon than for her to know the humiliating truth that Margery could never tempt her own husband into the intimacies of marriage.
"I have sent my refusal to Lady Altham." Seeing Miss Bessamy's look of disappointment, Margery reached out to grasp the older woman's chubby hand. "Bessie, have I not promised that we shall make this Christmas the happiest ever? I shall sell just one of my gowns over in Penshire. That will enable us to fling caution to the winds and buy all the food we want.
"We shall have a wonderful roast beef for Christmas dinner," she continued, "and some oranges and, oh, perhaps we might have our very own wassail bowl. You would enjoy that. We shall have candles and a fresh supply of tea. And just you wait, I shall make the cottage cheerful with the greenery."
"Very well, Margery. I do not mean to seem ungrateful for all the sacrifices you make for me," Miss Bessamy said softly, perhaps attempting the tried-and-true method of guilt to get Margery to change her mind. "I know you will be able to contrive to make the season joyful, despite the shadow of last Christmas."
Margery raised her fingers to her temples and began rubbing them. The memory of her beloved cat, Brandy, so named for the color of his fur, came back to haunt her. After fifteen years of companionship, the poor old dear had passed away quietly while lying in her arms early last Christmas morning.
The recollection of that sad day still had the power to bring tears to Margery's eyes. She unconsciously turned her head toward the small rug in front of the fireplace that Brandy had claimed for his own. The emptiness of the sight never failed to wrench her heart.
Miss Bessamy must have seen the direction of her gaze. "Dear, dear Brandy. I always loved him," she said, raising her mug of milk to her lips and taking a healthy swallow.
Margery rose wearily from the table. "While you prepare dinner, I shall go to my room and select a gown I think would fetch a good price. The red velvet, perhaps, especially at this time of year."
Miss Bessamy watched the young woman's trim figure climb the stairs to the loft that she called her bedchamber and heaved an exasperated sigh. Margery could be stubborn.
She was a dear child, make no mistake, and had suffered the tragedy of marrying the gentleman of her choice one Christmas day, only to lose him less than a week before the following Christmas. Then, of course, Brandy had died on Christmas morning last year.
Oh, the girl put on a brave front about the season, but Miss Bessamy knew better. What her chick needed was to spend the holidays surrounded by other people of her class, especially handsome, wealthy, male members of the aristocracy.
If only Margery could somehow be swayed from the idea of remaining here in their cottage for the holidays.
The next morning dawned with threatening skies. Margery went to the window and gazed outside at the brilliantly white landscape. Snow made the ordinary world seem a fairyland and never failed to appeal to the child in her.
Until she had to shovel the stuff out of her way.
Margery let the chintz curtain fall from her fingers. She dressed quickly, the warmth from the fireplace below not reaching the loft where she slept. After splashing her face with ice-cold water and washing her hands, Margery went downstairs to begin the morning's chores.
Later, fortified by an excellent breakfast of Miss Bessamy's rolls and some chocolate, Margery busied herself with arranging the holly around the fireplace mantel.
"Margery, dear, would you take the gingerbread out of the oven in five minutes? I have laid the washing outside on the bushes in back and want to see if it is dry... or frozen."
Margery chuckled. "I should be able to manage, Bessie, despite my sad lack of skills in the kitchen. How thoughtful of you to make us such a treat. The smell of the spices will add to our holiday spirit."
"I remember how you always enjoyed gingerbread, dear. You would beg Cook for it when you were small." Miss Bessamy bundled herself up to face the elements and trudged out the back door.
Margery recalled the cook at her parents' estate. Over a glass of apple cider and a slice of warm gingerbread, Mrs. Battersea was often willing to listen to a little girl's hopes and dreams, hopes and dreams that were to go so terribly awry.
Margery admired the effects of the greenery over the fireplace. 'Twould do no good, she decided, to dwell on the past. Reaching forward to make some final adjustments, she pricked her finger for what had to be the fourth time that morning. "I shall have a happy Christmas," she said aloud, as if daring the Fates to make it otherwise.
Just then, there was a knock at the front door. Startled, Margery patted her hair and smoothed the skirts of her black wool gown, one of the few mourning dresses she had had made up after Simon's death.
She swung open the door to see one of Lady Altham's footmen, dressed magnificently in her ladyship's gold and green livery.
"Message for Lady Margery. See that your mistress gets it," the footman ordered, mistaking her for a maid.
Margery wasted no time contemplating the servant's rudeness. Instead, she closed the door after the retreating footman and ripped open the missive. Lady Altham begged her to reconsider her refusal to join the Christmas house party. She confessed Lady Margery's calm good sense would be welcome in helping her plan some of the activities and entertainments.
Christmas was three weeks away, but Lady Altham wanted Margery now. The first of her guests would be arriving within the week, and the whole affair was dreadfully disorganized, Lady Altham bemoaned. She would anxiously await Margery's answer.
Margery looked up from the letter and gazed thoughtfully into the fire. She was not at all surprised at Lady Altham's need of a steady hand to help arrange the house party. Her ladyship was a trifle scatterwitted, to put it politely, in Margery's opinion.
Lady Altham, the widow of an earl, was now in late middle age. Despite her age and lineage, Lady Altham's behavior could be judged less than what one might consider perfectly proper.
Margery recalled the widow's hair being a mass of girlish, graying ringlets, and her gowns tended toward the youthful and garish. Each time Margery had called on her, the lady had had a different gentleman "visiting."
Surely, though, there was no real indecency about her. It was not that unusual for a female of a certain age to lament the loss of her youth and to affect the modes and manners of a much younger woman.
Margery bit her bottom lip. Her nagging conscience told her Miss Bessamy would delight in a holiday at Lady Altham's. But how could she, Margery, face the hard-eyed members of the ton who would be there?
Would any of them be aware what a sham her marriage had been? Had there been whispers in Town about how Simon had gone on much in the same way after his marriage as he had before?
Margery shivered inwardly. The ladies would question where she had been hiding herself since his death. They would gossip. And the gentlemen! She wanted nothing to do with any one of them.
The smell of burning gingerbread interrupted these depressing thoughts. With a gasp, Margery darted across the room in a vain attempt to save Miss Bessamy's efforts.
She grasped a cloth to protect her fingers and pulled the blackened cake from the oven. "Tarnation!" Margery exclaimed, irritated with herself beyond reason.
Miss Bessamy came rushing in the back door, pressing a hand against her generous bosom in dismay. "Good heavens!"
Margery jumped at the words and burned the side of her thumb on the hot pan. "Oh, the deuce take Christmas!" she cried, holding her injured hand.
"What did you say, Lady Margery?" Miss Bessamy asked in a stern tone that made Margery feel six years old.
"Oh, Bessie, I am sorry. You see--"
But she got no further. An ominous ripping and cracking sound came from the thatched roof above the loft where Margery slept. The roof gave way with a whoosh, sending masses of snow and debris crashing down into the cottage.
They rushed upstairs, and both ladies stared openmouthed at the disaster. Snow covered Margery's bed and the floor surrounding it.
Well, Margery thought, feeling a bubble of hysteria rising in her chest, her bed always had been cold--even during her marriage.
"Pack your things, Bessie," she said grimly. "We are going to Lady Altham's. Where we shall have a happy Christmas, by God."
Jordan Sutherland, fifth Viscount Reckford, known to his intimates as "Reckless," strolled out of the cold of St. James's Street and into White's Club.
Handing his greatcoat, hat, gloves, and stick to a waiting footman, his lordship moved easily to the table by the bow window where his friends hailed him.
"Town's devilishly thin of company, eh, Reckless? Come join us for a glass. We've thrown down our cards for the night," Lord Powell said. He was a portly earl known for his excellent taste in walking sticks.
Jordan's lips twisted into a half smile as he nodded to the gentlemen seated around the table. "Evening, Powell, Brummell, Alvanley."
A tall, elegant figure with a handsome, hard profile, the viscount no sooner sat down than a servant appeared with a fresh glass and placed it in front of him.
"Evening, Jordan. Beg pardon, Powell," Beau Brummell drawled. "I must take exception to your observation. I am here, and thus Town is still fashionable. After tomorrow Town will be flat, for I am leaving."
Brummell's friend Alvanley, who was to accompany him to Oatlands, the Duchess of York's country estate, chuckled, as did Lord Powell. He turned his attention to the new arrival. "I say, Reckless, are you staying in Town for the holidays?"
Jordan lounged back in his chair. The candlelight caught a flicker of amusement in his blue-black eyes. "I thought I would." He raised his glass to his lips and took a sip of White's best canary.
Brummell might look with disfavor on Jordan's overlong dark hair, which was in opposition to the current mode. But, as the undisputed arbiter of fashion, the Beau could certainly find no fault with the viscount's sleek blue evening coat, crisp white cravat, and pearl-colored breeches.
"What's this?" Lord Powell demanded, leaning forward in his chair. "I thought you'd be on your way out to Lady Altham's Christmas party to, er, pick flowers."
Jordan chuckled softly at this quip. "Ah, you must be referring to Lovely Lily Carruthers. Is she to grace Lady Altham's?"
Alvanley made a moue of distaste. "Lady Altham? That old rip? She was just in Town during autumn ogling anything in breeches."
Lord Powell ignored this and focused his attention on Jordan. "Lily will be there, indeed, yes," the earl replied. "Finally taken her leave of Bath and the Duke of Berham. I hear she wants to spend a few weeks out of his company to consider his offer of a carte blanche. Reckon you might want to strike a bargain with her, Reckless, before she consents to the duke's protection."
Jordan yawned. "I did not accept Lady Altham's kind invitation. Her house is halfway to Yorkshire. Such a distance. Mrs. Carruthers is bound to return to London. No use putting myself out."
"Tread carefully, Reckless. Despite the fact she has little reputation left, Lovely Lily is said to be holding out for a husband," Lord Alvanley warned.
The viscount's brows rose. "But I do not want a wife."
The gentlemen around the table drank a toast to Lovely Lily. To a man, they knew Jordan would be the last gentleman in Society looking for a bride. Not after what happened with his first wife.
The conversation turned to other accommodating women of the ton who were known to be ripe for dalliance, and this topic so interested the gentlemen that it was some time before Lord Powell returned to the subject of Jordan's plans for Christmas.
"I think I might be quite comfortable billeting with Ruby," the viscount told the company with a lazy smile. Ruby was his current mistress and the prettiest of the season's opera dancers. Her blond hair and lips the color of her name had captured his attention; his purse had captured hers. He had her tucked away in a snug house in Bolton Street. "We shall spend our evenings singing Christmas carols."
An appreciative chuckle went around the table at this bouncer.
Brummell's eyes twinkled. "After a time, Ruby's favorite shall undoubtedly be God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman."
Shouts of laughter greeted this witticism.
'"God Rest Ye Merry Rogue,' more like," Lord Powell added, clutching his sides. "By Jupiter, Reckless, next you will tell us you plan to indulge in a game of Hunt the Slipper."
The gentlemen went on much in this vein until at last Brummell and Alvanley got up and took their leave. The club seemed to dim a bit after their departure, and Lord Powell and Jordan sat in companionable silence for some time while the contents of the bottle diminished.
Eventually Lord Powell ventured a cautious statement. "Heard Harry lost a bundle last night at the faro table."
Jordan groaned aloud. "No, Arthur, not again."
Lord Powell nodded. "S'truth. The lad seems hell-bent on relieving himself of his quarter's allowance and more. Know you are friends with Thorpe, his father, and have been keeping an eye on the young cub."
Jordan sat up and ran a lean hand through his dark hair. "Devil take Algernon Yarsmith, Viscount Harringham. Since he came down from Oxford and arrived in Town, I have rescued him from more scrapes than you have had hot dinners, Arthur. What am I to do, play nursemaid to the brat until the holidays are over?"
Lord Powell shook his head mournfully. "That would put a damper on your plans for Ruby. But someone's got to take Harry in hand."
"Thorpe ought to be here, damme, or Harry ought to go home for Christmas. The holidays are for families, after all," Jordan said with a touch of bitterness. His own parents had always been too cold and too wrapped up in their social life to consider their son. Their Christmas house party would not boast any person under the age of sixty.
"Jordan, you know Thorpe won't come to Town without his wife to make life comfortable, and she can't abide Society. Besides which, if you think you can convince that whelp to tear himself away from the gaming tables and the bits of muslin to go home, well then, cast your mind back ten years."
Jordan raised one dark eyebrow and slanted a look at his friend, "Thank you, I would rather not remember anything about that time of my life."
Arthur cleared his throat. "Wasn't meaning Delilah. Before all that."
"Good, for I shall not discuss my dearly departed wife even with you." Jordan drained his glass.
"Mayhaps you should reconsider Lady Altham's invitation. Take Harry with you. He worships you, would go with you in a flash. Lady Altham would relish adding a healthy, easy-on-the-eye cub like Harry to her party."
"Perhaps," Jordan said, unconvinced.
"'Course, you could always write Thorpe and tell him how his son has been cutting a swath through the gaming rooms."
"You know I would not be such a spoilsport," Jordan said, and rose. He drummed the fingers of one hand on the table and looked in the direction of the large fireplace. "You may have the right of it, Arthur. Harry's a good sort, but I need to get him away from the temptations of Town."
Lord Powell stood as well, and the two men strolled toward the door where they paused to retrieve their possessions from a footman. The earl took up a beautifully carved ebony walking stick. "Best get on the road before any more snow falls, Jordan. As you said, Lady Altham's house is a far distance from Town."
Jordan sighed, and then a smile played about his sensuous mouth. "Looks like I shall be in Lovely Lily's company after all."
"Heh, heh, quite right," the earl said, chuckling. "Just remember she's husband hunting before you mistake her bedchamber for yours one cold night. Don't want to end up in leg shackles."
Jordan passed through the door of White's Club and stood on the freezing sidewalk. His face showed signs of weariness.
"Never fear, no lady shall ever have the misfortune of calling me husband again."
Lord Powell briefly clasped his friend's shoulder. "Merry Christmas, Jordan."
Placing his curly-brimmed beaver hat on his head, Jordan turned to walk across the slushy street where his town coach waited. He paused for a moment and glanced back at the earl with a sudden grin. "Some might say I really am a cad, Arthur. But, I promise you, I shall bring the ladies of the house party nothing but tidings of comfort and joy."
Jordan went on his way, while St. James's Street rang with the earl's laughter.