Eight authors collaborating on an anthology is not the simplest of projects, but we Wenches thought it would be fun to work together, and The Last Chance Christmas Ball (now on sale for a mere 99 cents!) was the result. Our Kensington editor, Alicia Condon, suggested we might do something like a holiday ball where our characters can meet and mingle. This sounded like a fine idea, so we agreed. We had no idea how much work it would be to integrate the stories into a larger framework!
Jo Beverley created a wiki for us so we could add information about the characters and setting so instead of constantly asking things like the name of the butler or the village, we could look it up. This was very convenient.
Then the negotiations began! We talked about our requirements. Susan King, for example, specializes in Scotland so we created a setting in Northumberland, which is next door to Scotland in far northeastern England. A certain kind of great house was required. A promising house was found and modified. I casually talked about how we could have a wounded soldier in the tower as an example of what we could do, and then realized I really did want to write a wounded soldier in the tower!
This led to me requesting Christmas 1815, six months after Waterloo, and that worked very well because three anthology heroes fought in that battle. My story is called "In the Bleak Midwinter," as my hero contemplates what he's lost. His Christmas miracle is discovering the joy of what remains…..
Captain the Honorable Kimball Stretton gazed out the window of the stone tower, his heart as gray and cold as the Northumberland hills. He'd grown up here at Holbourne Abbey, and once he'd loved the drama of the changing seasons, from vibrant spring through lush summer, dazzling autumn, the subtle shades and warm fires of winter.
The locals called this remnant of an ancient Norman castle the Lucky Tower, and their vehement protests had prevented one of his ancestors from tearing the structure down when the new house was built. The tower had been repaired so it wasn't a public menace, and now a drafty passage connected it to the back of the new house.
As children, Kim and his brother had loved playing up here. Usually Edward was King Arthur while Kim took the part of Lancelot. After Roxie arrived, they'd tried to persuade her to be their Guinevere, but she'd scornfully refused. She preferred playing Morgan le Fay, who had beauty, power, and danger.
Kim's lips curve involuntarily as he remembered the first time he'd met Roxie. The April day had been clear and sunny, with the cool blue sky of the north country. Kim and Edward had been preparing to ride out into the hills when a small female figure with blazing red hair had appeared.
Their mother had told them of the poor little Hayward girl who had lost her parents in a carriage accident and had come to live with her grandparents on the neighboring estate. Her grandmother was going to bring the girl to Holbourne to visit Caro in the nursery. The new little orphan had nothing to do with the sons of the house.
Then a red-headed sprite with a pale face and dark circles under her eyes had marched into the stable yard. Looking from one boy to the other, she asked, "Can I go riding with you?"
Edward, all of eleven years old, said gravely, "You must be our new neighbor. I'm Edward, Lord Brentford. I'm pleased to meet you."
She bobbed a curtsey. "The pleasure is mutual. I am Miss Roxanne Hayward."
Wanting that intense little-girl gaze on him, Kim said, "I'm Kimball Stretton, but everyone calls me Kim. I'm very sorry about the loss of your parents."
Her lips quivered before she gave a short little nod of acknowledgment, then asked again, "Can I ride with you, please?"
Edward was not immune to the appeal in those great gray eyes, but he shook his head regretfully. "Not without your grandmother's permission. Besides, we don't have a pony your size. You might get hurt. You can play with our sister Caroline."
"She's just a baby." Roxie tilted her chin up, miserable but refusing to ask again. She was so small, so gallant.
Unable to resist her any more than he could resist a forlorn puppy or kitten, Kim said, "You can ride with me." Edward frowned. "You really shouldn't."
"I'll keep her safe." Kim leaned over and extended his hand. "Come on, Red, I'll show you the hills of your new home."
Her small face blazing with delight, Roxie caught his hand and he lifted her up and settled her astride in front of him. Kim suspected that his mother and Roxie's grandmother would not approve, but he was used to disapproval. If he got a scolding, it would still be worth it to see Miss Roxanne Hayward's radiant smile.
He'd been a slave to her smile ever since. But he no longer belonged at Holbourne Abbey.
He was about to turn away from the window when a rider cantered over a hill on the path from Haywick Grange, the horse's hooves kicking up dry particles of snow. Pale winter sunshine touched the rider's hair to dark fire, but her grace and superb riding would have identified her even if Roxie had been wearing a hat as a proper lady should.
Though he knew he should turn away, he couldn't make himself do it. Roxie slowed her mount to a walk as she approached the Holbourne stables, and for long moments she lifted her gaze to the tower, her expression sad. She wouldn't be able to see him in the deeply shadowed window, but she knew he was up here in his lair, like a wounded beast who'd gone to ground.
She'd tried repeatedly to visit him when his batman Welles had first brought Kim's battered and broken body back to Holbourne, but Kim had refused to see her or anyone else. He might not be good for much of anything, but at least he could spare his family and Roxie from further grief.
Roxie turned away from the tower and rode into the stable yard. A groom approached to help, but a moment later, Edward appeared from the direction of the house. He helped Roxie dismount. As she caught up the long skirt of her riding habit, they chatted back and forth. Then his brother slung an affectionate arm around Roxie's shoulders and the two of them headed toward the house.
Kim felt as if a Fren
ch sword was slicing into his gut. They looked so right together. For both their sakes, it was time for him to get out of the way.
Happy holiday reading–