“Wench in Wonderland” by Patricia Rice
She couldn’t quite tilt her head to sip. The strong hand returned to ease her a little higher, and she drank greedily. Once the cup was empty, she fell back against satiny soft sheets scented with lavender. She couldn’t remember ever sleeping in such luxury. There must be a very large gap in her memory.
“Do you think Mack forgot we invited her?” a woman whispered.
“More likely, he got her with child and is fleeing responsibility,” a man retorted. “Otherwise, she wouldn’t be traveling without a chaperon. I’d thought it odd that an earl would accept a reprobate like Mack. This could all be a hoax. I’ll send Fred to look for the rascal once the snow clears. I’ll have him dragged home to do the proper thing.”
“Oh dear, really Trev, another child in the Hall. I don’t believe I can bear it.”
Slipping into sleep, she tried to picture a Mack but couldn’t. The sensation of strong hands holding her had replaced all fears with comforting dreams of a security she had never known.
* * *
“The Mistletoe Bride” by Anne Gracie
HighTowers House, Scotland, 1814
“What you need is a dying woman.”
Ronan McAllister stopped in mid-pace and swung around. “What?”
Adams, his lawyer, shrugged. “If you don’t want to stay married, it’s your best option.”
“It’s a bit . . . cold-blooded, don’t you think? To marry a dying woman for the sake of an inheritance.”
The lawyer spread his hands in a philosophical gesture. “You said you didn’t want to get married again.”
“I don’t. Still…” Ronan shook his head. “To be taking advantage of someone’s tragedy…”
“Not necessarily. It might make things easier for her.”
Ronan frowned. “How so?”
“Dying women often fret about the people they leave behind; how they will live, the costs of the funeral and such things.” Adams adjusted his pince nez. “A payment in exchange for marriage could ease the way for such a woman to die in peace.”
Ronan resumed his pacing. He didn’t like it. It went against the grain to use someone’s death for his own gain. But … there was sense in what Adams had said.
He didn’t want to marry again, didn’t want to be saddled with a wife. He’d done that. The most miserable five years of his life.
A fee could ease the way for a dying woman.
* * *
“Miss Brockhurst’s Christmas Campaign” by Jo Beverley
(Penelope Brockhurst has arrived to spend Christmas with the Skerries family, in hope of capturing Ross Skerries now she´s belatedly come to realize he is the love of her life.)
When Lady Skerries took her mother off to speak with an old friend Pen realized she’d been allocated to the young hopefuls. Where else did a twenty-three-year-old spinster fit, but Julia Skerries, only just seventeen, was staring at her as if she were a pagan.
“That’s a wonderful gown, Miss Brockhurst.”
“Thank you. Yours is very pretty.”
“But very conventional.”
Pen smiled. “Time to be unconventional when you’re older.”
“Oh, I hope to be married well before then,” Julia said, innocent of any intent to wound.
Pen had very carefully not searched the room, but now, as Julia chattered nervously about the Christmas festivities, and mistletoe, and the mummers who would come up from the village the next day, she allowed herself to look.
Almost she didn’t see him, for he was sitting down — beside a blond young lady in sprigged white. On the other side of the virtuous maiden sat a proud, beaming mama.
There might as well be a label over them.
Couple engaged to wed.
Bile rose in Pen’s throat and she quickly looked away before she disgraced herself. But by Hades — she was stuck here for twelve days in the torture of the damned.
* * *
“Weathering the Storm” by Cara Elliott
“Well?” asked Bentley, breaking the stiff silence. “What is it that you propose?”
“You have the boat, and I have the skills to sail it,” replied Sophie. She might be outspoken and independent to a fault, but no one had ever criticized her nautical expertise. “So, seeing as we both wish to reach London by Christmas, I am suggesting that we pool our resources, as it were.”
A low hiss of air leaked from his lips. “Impossible! What you suggest is highly irregular—not to speak of highly improper. We can’t travel together unchaperoned. Why, your reputation would be ruined. And so,” he added grimly, “would mine.”
“You can either stick to your rigid English rules and remain marooned here in . . . in . . .”
“Penpillickentish Bay,” piped up the fisherman.
“Or you can throw caution to the wind,” challenged Sophie. “Which is your only prayer of dropping anchor in the River Thames by December 25th.”
Ebb and flow. The sound of the waves slapping against the stone jetty drifted in through the slatted shutters. The wind howled, its keening note thrumming with the echo of his earlier words.
Trouble, trouble, trouble.
“So, what’s it going to be, Lord Leete?”
* * *
“She Stoops to Wenchdom” by Mary Jo Putney
Lucy drew a ragged breath. “Gregory didn’t want to talk to me. Or touch me. When changing partners brought us together in a dance, he looked like he wanted to run away rather than take my hand for a few moments. He did run away after the dance. Paid his respects to the Randalls and left immediately after. I…I knew his feelings were unengaged, but it hurts that he hates me.”
“How very odd,” Chloe said thoughtfully. “If he’d half forgotten you, his most likely reaction would be indifference, but his behavior was not indifferent. He has no reason to hate you. No one hates you. You are the rarest of creatures, a beautiful girl who is universally liked. Perhaps he likes you too much?”
Lucy swallowed a hiccup. “That makes no sense whatsoever.”
“No? The man has spent years at war, doing dark and dreadful deeds that we can only imagine. He comes home and sees a girl he’s always liked all grown up into a woman, but she looks so innocent and refined that he feels wholly unworthy. Afraid of his own passions, he flees for the sake of honor!”
“That is ridiculous!” Lucy exclaimed.
“Is it?” Chloe retorted. “He might not want to touch you, but I hear he doesn’t mind touching the barmaids at the Willing Wench.” Then she clapped her hand over her mouth, her eyes rounding.
“I beg your pardon?” Lucy stared at her friend. “Gregory is doing what?”
Chloe sighed. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to tell you. I must still be suffering from the champagne. In the retiring room I chatted with Helen Merchant. She’s Gregory’s cousin, you know. She said the whole family is worried about him. Since coming back from Spain, he hardly talks to anyone. Polite, but he just slides away. Rides or walks all day, and spends his evenings at the Willing Wench. He can apparently relax with the barmaids, if nowhere else.”
“Drinking and risking the pox?” Lucy said icily. “He won’t even touch my gloved hand, but he’ll have a jolly time with a tavern wench?”
Her tone was so alarming that Chloe said soothingly, “It’s just how men are, Lucy. You’re a lady. You belong on a pedestal. With you, he’d have to be a gentleman, and he’s just not ready for that.”
“That is insulting to both ladies and wenches!” Lucy exclaimed. “Barmaids from the Willing Wench have called on my father for help or spiritual guidance. They are women just like we are. Some are mothers trying to raise their babes. Others need to work if they’re to eat. They deserve to be treated with respect.” Her head swung around to Chloe, her eyes glittering. “And I deserve to be treated like a woman, not a lady!”
* * *
“Intrigue and Mistletoe” by Joanna Bourne
She drew back. “How did you find me?”
“I asked the maidservant an innocent question about who was sleeping where tonight. You’ll be pleased to know she said you were a respectable lady and I’d best not trifle with you. I didn’t say I knew—”
She closed her fist and punched, hard. It was pure, uncalculated impulse.
And still, she wasn’t fast enough. Her fist slapped into the palm of his hand, not his belly. He caught the blow before it landed. His hand closed around her fist and held her.
“That’s new. There was a time you wouldn’t have hit a man. You’ve changed.” He sounded calm about it. Thoughtful.
“I’m not trusting and naive anymore. You made me very, very wise.”
* * *
“On A Wicked Winter’s Night” by Nicola Cornick
“What are you doing here?” She knew she sounded abrupt.
“I might ask you the same question.” Johnny had started to unfasten his soaking jacket. Lydia, who had seen him wearing considerably fewer clothes than this over the years, nevertheless felt her throat dry to sand.
“I am the landlady of the Silent Wench,” she said. Her voice sounded odd, squeaky and husky at the same time. She cleared her throat. “This is my inn.”
She saw Johnny’s hands check on the buttons. “How enterprising you are.” He looked up. “Did you choose the name? And the sign board?”
Laughter crept into his eyes. “Your sense of humour. I like it.” The smile fled. “We all wondered where you had gone after Eliza was born.” He straightened, his hands falling to his sides. “I suppose you told Laura and Dexter and the others where you were?”
“I . . . Yes.” Lydia could feel what was coming. She could feel his hurt.
“But not me.” His voice was carefully devoid of expression. “I thought that we were friends.”
“We were!” Lydia stopped. They had been friends, but that had changed when Johnny had offered to marry her. His offer, her refusal, had changed everything.
* * *
“A Wilder Wench” by Susan King
Edward kicked the door open and strode across the room. She was a featherweight, this troublemaking girl. He would find out what she had been about tonight—but his thoughts were distracted with the horses waiting to be stabled, the wicked weather, the blasted pie sliding down over his brow, the fact that the vicar’s niece was a bandit.
He set her down and stood back as the dogs bumped against his legs—the terrier and deerhound had followed him. The girl sat straighter, set a hand to her head; her hair fell in a golden tousle smeared with apple custard. She brushed absently at it.
“There’s crust over your ear,” he said.
She reached up as the piece dropped to the floor and was snatched by the terrier. Then Christina Heron-Shaw looked up. “I am sorry about the pies—that they fell. I’ll make more.”
He huffed. “There’s no kitchen in the tolbooth, and that’s where you’ll be.”
She blinked, eyes wide and blue. “You’ve custard on your nose.”
“Miss Heron-Shaw,” he said, rubbing his face, “What the devil were you doing out there, holding up a coach?”
“I was not—I cannot tell you, exactly.” She rubbed her brow and picked another desserty bit from her hair. The dogs eagerly waited, watched.
“Talk. And remember that I am the sheriff here.”
“If I tell you, it could go badly for others.”
“Worse than for you?” He hooked his foot around a chair, drew it close and sat, then extracted a gooey bit of pie from his hair and brushed at his coat sleeve.
“I was taking some pie to Mrs. MacDonell.”
“Dressed like a brigand?”
“It is cold outside.”
“I see. So tying a scarf about your face gave you an irresistible urge to waylay a gig? You robbed a courier. I saw you at it, there in the road.” And had chased her a good way before she, and the stack of pies, had tumbled off her horse and into his arms.
“I am not a thief! I only meant to—help someone.”
“By taking my papers?” he asked abruptly.
“Your papers?” She ran her fingers through her tangled hair.
Impatiently Edward plucked a bit of pie from her hair. His fingers smoothed over curls so fine and soft that his heart bounded. “You took a valuable parcel that belongs to me,” he said low, “and I want it returned. Now.”