As far as Ethan Fortescue is concerned, his family’s seat in Cornwall is only a source of torment, one that he’s managed to avoid for two years. Now that he’s the Earl of Devon however, he can close the door on his haunted past by locking up the cursed place for good. But upon arriving at Cleves Court, he is shocked to find the house aglow with Christmas celebrations, filled with music and laughter. And right at the center of the holiday madness is the infuriating—and eternally tempting—Theodosia Sheridan . . .
Thea has always loved the town of Cleves, especially at the holidays. As a girl, she also loved Ethan with all her heart. It’s painful to see how his brother’s tragic death has embittered him. Still, she will do anything to make sure the town thrives—even if it means going to battle with Ethan to save Cleves Court. Now she has only until Twelfth Night to make a Christmas miracle happen—by proving that his childhood home can be a source of love and wonder. But before long, she finds herself wondering if she’s trying to save the house—or its handsome master…
Christmas Eve, 1816, 7:00 p.m.
Somewhere between the Duke’s Head Inn and here, he’d fallen off the edge of England and into the deepest pit of hell.
Hell, or Cornwall. Same bloody thing.
The Duke’s Head.
Ethan snorted. Pity he wasn’t in the mood for a laugh, because that was damn amusing. The Duke’s Head was the only inn in the tiny village of Cleves, and it was the last place a duke would be caught dead, with or without his head.
His horse stumbled as Ethan led him around another of Cornwall’s endless muddy puddles. Christ, it was dark here. He wouldn’t have believed any place in England could be this dark if he hadn’t seen it himself. Or not seen it, as it happened, because it was too bloody dark to see bloody anything. Well, except for his flask. He could see that because he had it clutched in his hand, and a bloody good thing too, because a man doomed to spend Christmas in the wilds of bloody Cornwall bloody well better keep a flask to hand at all times.
He paused to count, the flask hovering in front of his lips.
Six bloodies in less than a minute.
There was a chance—just the merest possibility, of course—he wasn’t overflowing with the joys of the season.
Ah, well. At least he was overflowing with whiskey.
He tipped the silver flask to his lips and took another swallow. What he lacked in Christmas cheer he more than made up for in drink, and it wasn’t as if any of the servants left at Cleves Court were in a position to scold him for his drunkenness. He was the Earl of bloody Devon now, and in the year since he’d become his lordship, he’d discovered earls were permitted to behave rather badly, indeed. Not as badly as marquesses and dukes, but badly enough, and no one seemed to trouble themselves much about it.
Perhaps that’s how his father had become such a wastrel. Too much . . . Earling? Earlishness? Lordshippery? Ethan frowned. It was one of those, but it didn’t matter which. Whatever you called it, it amounted to the same thing—some earl or other had behaved badly, so the new earl was obliged to ride to bloody Cornwall in the cold and dark to clean up the disaster the previous wastrel of an earl had left behind.
That it would be a disaster, Ethan hadn’t the slightest doubt. The last time he’d been to his country seat it was teetering on the edge of disreputable, and that was two years ago. He hadn’t the faintest idea why his father hadn’t shut the cursed place down altogether as he’d promised he would, but whatever whim had moved the old earl was no doubt fleeting, like most of his whims.
God knew once his father abandoned something, he never looked back.
He’d have forgotten all about the place the moment he returned to London, and by now the old pile would be collapsing into rubble. With only a handful of servants left to tend to it, it would be dark and freezing, and likely damp as well, with cobwebs thick enough to smother Ethan in his sleep, and servants who hadn’t the faintest notion how to look after an earl.
What if they led him to some godforsaken room with damp walls, uncarpeted floors and mice-infested sheets? What if they didn’t even have sheets, or proper lamps or candles? Or, dear God, what if he should run out of whiskey while he was trapped in that old tomb, and was forced into tedious sobriety?
Damn it, perhaps he should have dragged Fenton with him to Cornwall, after all. He’d considered it, but Cleves Court was barely civilized. His fussy London valet would be in fits of horror over the savagery of it all, and Ethan didn’t want another useless servant about, wringing his hands and making things difficult. This visit was bound to be unpleasant enough without Fenton’s hysterics to contend with.
No, it was best to keep things simple. Wrestle his way through the wilds of Cornwall to Cleves Court, issue orders for the house to be closed at once, stay long enough to see those orders carried out, then get back to London before his supply of whiskey was depleted.
But he’d have to see to it he had a proper bedchamber. He was an earl, after all, and accustomed to his comforts. He’d need something with sheets and without mice, and he’d prefer better music, as well, instead of that incessant picking on the pianoforte keys, but he supposed it was too much to ask anyone at Cleves Court would know how to play the pianoforte—
Music? What the devil?
Ethan brought his horse to a halt and stared down at the flask in his hand. Good Lord, how much whiskey had he drank? He was so far in his cups he must be hallucinating, because there wasn’t a blessed thing for miles around here aside from Cleves Court, and the music couldn’t be coming from there.
It was damned odd, but it seemed as if someone at Cleves Court was playing the pianoforte. If you could call it playing, that is. Pick, pick, pick. He couldn’t quite decipher the song, but it was something irritatingly festive. Without realizing he did it, he began to hum along under his breath, trying to place it.
Four calling birds, three French hens . . .
Oh, Christ. It was the Twelve bloody Days of bloody Christmas. Christmas music in general was intolerable, but he loathed this song in particular. A man might be partial to milkmaids, and eight of them at once could prove amusing, but what the devil was he to do with French hens and a bloody partridge? They’d only get in the way.
Ah, well. It was nothing more whiskey couldn’t cure.
Ethan drained his flask and urged his horse forward, but once he crested the hill he stopped a second time, his gaze frozen on his ancestral estate nestled at the notch in the hill just below him.
Light spilled from every downstairs window and cast a cheerful glow onto the drive in front of the house, which was crowded with wagons and carriages. Even from this distance he could see people passing to and fro in front of the windows, and hear voices and an occasional shriek of muffled laughter. The delectable scent of sugared apples and roasted meat drifted through the air, and Ethan’s stomach let out an insistent growl.
Laughter, music, and sugared sweets? He might be in his cups, but he wasn’t so foxed he couldn’t see what was right in front of his eyes. Some presumptuous devil was running amok at his estate, without his knowledge or permission.
Ethan tucked his flask into his pocket, kicked his horse into a run, and shot down the hill toward the house. Damnation. He’d only just arrived, and already he was being thrown headlong into sobriety.
A few coachmen were loitering in the drive, but they were distracted by cups of ale, so he dismounted and tied his horse himself, grumbling at the neglect. What bloody good was it being the earl if he didn’t get to shout orders, and then stand back like a proper aristocrat while the servants rushed about in a panic to do his bidding?
He strolled through the front door, squinting at the sudden light. Christ. It appeared they did have candles and lamps at Cleves Court, because the place was brighter than a London ballroom. A dozen or so people hung about, and the entire entryway was smothered in kissing balls and evergreens.
Bloody hell. It looked as if Christmas had gotten foxed, and then cast up its accounts all over Cleves Court.
There was a rather nice-looking Christmas punch on a table at his elbow, so Ethan snatched up the glass. Whiskey was preferable, but he’d drunk it all, so the punch would have to do.
He raised the glass to his lips, took a healthy swallow, spluttered, and then stared down at the glass, aghast. For God’s sake, who made a punch without brandy? It was a disgraceful waste of perfectly good fruit—
“Who d’ye think ye are? That’s my punch ye just drunk.”
Ethan dropped the glass onto the table and turned to find a thin, dark-haired boy at his elbow. “Who the devil are you?”
Instead of disappearing as a figment of one’s imagination should, the boy jabbed his thumb into his chest. “Why, I’m Henry Munro.” He announced this as if everyone in their right mind should know who Henry Munro was. “Who’re you?”
“The Earl of Devon.” Everyone in his right mind should know who that was, but if Ethan expected the boy to blanch with terror to find the master of the house had suddenly appeared in his midst, he was disappointed.
“What, yer a lordship? I’ve not got much use fer lordships, meself.” Henry took in his depleted glass of punch, and gave Ethan a disgusted look. “’Specially those what drink my punch.”
“That’s my punch. Didn’t you hear what I just said? I’m Lord Devon.” Ethan waved a hand around the room. “Lord Devon. This is my house. Every glass of punch in the bloody place belongs to me.”
He sounded like a two-year old whining over a toy, but for God’s sake, who was this demonic imp, and what was he doing here? And didn’t anyone in this house recognize the name Devon?
“Aw right then, guv. No need to take on like that.”
The boy grabbed what was left of his punch and tried to dart away, but Ethan snatched him up by the collar and hauled him back. “Who’s in charge here?”
“I thought ye said this was yer house.”
“It is, but—”
“Ye don’t know who’s in charge of yer own house?” Henry wriggled loose from Ethan’s grip and eyed him, looking less impressed with every passing second.
Damnation. As much as Ethan hated to admit it, the boy had a point. “I’ve been away. Is it Mrs. Hastings still?”
It seemed unlikely Mrs. Hastings—or Mrs. Hastens, he couldn’t quite recall—was the authoress of all this offensive merriment. A vague image of a gray-haired lady with lace collars and dozens of iron keys at her hip rose in Ethan’s mind. She had to be at least sixty years old by now. Perhaps she’d gone senile.
“Mrs. who? Never heard of ’er.”
Ethan’s eyebrows shot up. What, the boy hadn’t even heard of Mrs. Hastings? What had happened to his bloody housekeeper? “Well, who then, Henry? If it’s not Mrs. Hastings, then who’s responsible for this house?”
“Same person what’s always been responsible, guv.”
Ethan tightened his grip on the boy’s collar, ready to shake the answer out of him. “And who would that be?”
Before Henry could reply, a maid appeared and held out a tray to Ethan with a smile. “Punch, sir?”
“No! No bloody punch. I’m Lord Devon, just arrived.”
“Lord Devon? Oh, no. That is . . . oh, dear, the earl himself.” The maid’s face went white and she sank into a hasty curtsey, still clutching the tray. “I, ah—welcome home, your lordship.”
Cleves Court wasn’t his bloody home anymore, and in another few weeks it wouldn’t be anyone else’s either, but the maid would find that out soon enough. “What’s your name?”
“Becky, sir—that is, my lord.”
“Becky, you will tell me at once who’s responsible for this madness.”
Becky shifted from foot to foot, looking uncomfortable. “Um, our housekeeper, your lordship, just as she is every year.”
Ethan gritted his teeth. “Would you be so kind as to tell me where I might find the housekeeper?”
“Let’s see. The last time I saw her she was in the kitchens, but I think she may have gone back to the drawing room. I’d be happy to take you to her, sir—”
But Becky got no further, for at that moment a child darted through the drawing-room door, his head down, and slammed right into the back of her, sending the tray in her hands to the floor with a crash of shattering glass. Becky let out a despairing wail as punch splattered everywhere.
The floor, the walls—Christ, even the kissing balls were dripping with it.
Ethan might have laughed if it hadn’t been for his boots, which were now splattered with sticky punch. He’d managed to make it through every muddy inch of bloody Cornwall with the pristine shine still on his boots, but the second he set foot in this godforsaken house, they were ruined. Damn it, a man’s boots were sacred—
“George Munro! You naughty boy! Look at what you’ve made me do!”
George Munro? Ethan stared at the child who’d come to a screeching halt in the middle of the hallway. He was an exact replica of Henry, who’d taken one look at the mess and doubled over with laughter.
Dear God, there were two of them.
George Munro was no fool. He took one look at the mayhem he’d caused, turned on his heel, and fled. Becky made a grab for him, but the boy, who looked as if he’d perfected his escape technique, leapt nimbly out of her reach.
“Come back here this instant, George!”
George did not come back, and Becky chased after him, leaving Ethan standing in a puddle of brandy-less punch and a pile of broken glasses. Such a scene would have reduced Fenton to tears, but Ethan simply stepped over the mess, made his way toward the drawing room, and found a place at the back of the crowd, near the door.
The housekeeper would have to appear eventually, and when she did she’d find one furious earl in ruined boots waiting for her.
There were a great many servants rushing about—far more than he’d expected to see at Cleves Court—and a great number of guests, as well. A few of them looked vaguely familiar, but damned if he could say what any of their names were. They were all having a grand time of it, and looked quite at home, as if they spent every evening at Cleves Court, drinking his liquor and smashing his crystal to bits.
Not that he gave a damn about the crystal, or anything else in this house. He didn’t intend to take so much as a teaspoon from here back to London with him. Tomorrow he’d order everything packed away forever. They were welcome to smash every glass in the house until then, and the windows too, if they liked.
“Oh, here comes the housekeeper with the bowl of brandy,” a lady next to him whispered to her companion. “It’s so pretty when it’s lit, isn’t it, with the blue flames?”
A flutter of excitement passed over the knot of people gathered in the drawing-room, and a hush fell as the servants lowered the lamps and doused the candles. Every head turned to the door, the faces alight with anticipation. The children were wriggling with excitement, and the adults were nearly as enthusiastic.
Despite himself, Ethan felt a twinge of anticipation. They’d played Snapdragon in this very room when he was a boy. He straightened from his slouch against the wall to get a better look, but the servants had plunged the room into near darkness, and he couldn’t see a bloody thing.
“Over here, ma’am!” George Munro, who’d evidently escaped his pursuer, was hopping up and down and waving his arms in the air. “I’ve been a very good boy!”
Ethan snorted aloud at this blatant falsehood, but the sound was swallowed by another childish voice, this one raised in outrage. “Ye haven’t been a good boy, George. Ye made Becky drop the glasses and they all smashed to bits! Ye’re naughty, and ye don’t deserve any raisins!”
“Quiet, Henry, ye tell-tale!”
A furious shriek followed this insult, and Ethan turned just in time to see Henry leap upon George’s back and the two tumble to the floor in a tangle of limbs. He watched them with a grin, because a brawl was good fun—especially one so indecorous as to happen in the midst of a Christmas Eve party—but this one was even more impressive because the two boys looked so much alike, it was impossible to tell where one ended and the other began.
“Henry, George, you will stop that scuffling at once.”
A tall, slender woman with dark hair passed near Ethan, carrying a large glass bowl in her hands. She was looking down, and he couldn’t see her face, but one thing was certain.
She wasn’t Mrs. Hastings.
His memories of that good lady were indistinct, but he was damn sure her scent hadn’t made his mouth water. This lady smelled of warm, rich brandy, with a faint hint of cinnamon and vanilla, and her voice—low and faintly husky, but utterly feminine—tugged on him, as if a hook had caught at the memories buried deep inside him and was trying to drag them out through his chest.
They two boys climbed off each other, but Henry couldn’t quite hold in his ire. “Aw, but Miss Sheridan, he called me a—”
“At once, Henry, or no raisins for either of you.”
Ethan might have laughed at the chastened expression on the boys’ faces, but he wasn’t looking at them anymore.
He was looking at her.
He went still, his mind reeling with shock. There had only ever been one Miss Sheridan, and there’d never be another—not for Cleves Court, and not for him.
Thea was here.
Theadosia Sheridan, his childhood playmate, then his dearest friend, and then, when he was fourteen, the year Ethan was sent away from Cleves Court for good, his first love.
His only love, though he couldn’t have known it at the time.
He never thought about her—he wouldn’t let himself think of her, because thinking about Thea was like floating to the surface and sucking in great gulps of air when you hadn’t even realized you were underwater. Once you got that air, once it filled your lungs you realized again that you needed it, that you couldn’t live without it . . .
It was so much easier just to drown.
He stiffened as she drew closer, so close he could reach out and catch a handful of her silk skirts in his fist, but he forced his arms to his sides, and she passed by without noticing him.
“Here we are!” She set the large bowl carefully on a wide table that looked as if it had been brought in for that purpose. She touched a cloth to the candle on the table and lit the brandy, then raised her beaming face to the crowd gathered around her. “There are plenty of raisins for everyone this year—too many to count!”
Ethan sucked in a breath as blue flames rose from the bowl shown full on her face, and he could see every graceful line of her features, every curve of her smile . . .
And those eyes.
Wide and green, long-lashed, and still with that touch of cheekiness that drove him mad as a boy, before he was even old enough to understand what it meant to be driven mad by a woman.
Theadosia Sheridan. A termagant, a sharp-tongued hellion, a scapegrace—yes, she was all of those things. Bold and fearless, too, and if her eyes were any indication, she hadn’t changed.
What was she doing here? As far as he knew she’d left Cleves Court two years ago. When had she come back, and why—
Ethan froze as all the pieces snapped into place.
Thea was at the bottom of this madness. This was her fault. The music, the guests, the games, and those two fiendish boys—she was responsible for it all. It made such perfect sense he couldn’t imagine why he hadn’t realized it at once. Who else but Thea would dare to take over his house as if she were mistress of it?
She’d brought Cleves Court back from the dead. Instead of the cold, empty house he’d expected, the old place was warm and alive again.
As long as it was alive, he couldn’t bury it.
He’d come here to shove Cleves Court as deep into the ground as it would go, to cover it with dirt and bury it forever, and his memories right along with it. It should have been a simple enough thing to do, but now . . .
Now she was here, and nothing was simple anymore.
Thea was a complication waiting to happen—chaos in silk skirts, with a tempting smile and devastating green eyes. No sooner would he have everything in its proper place than she’d sweep in like a hurricane and send it all into disarray with a snap of her pretty fingers.
Simple things had a way of becoming complicated around Thea.
An adolescent flirtation, a single kiss . . . they were simple things, and yet somehow, without him knowing when or how it happened, Thea had become the woman against which every other woman was measured.
All at once, Ethan was furious.
He didn’t stop to think. If he had, perhaps he wouldn’t have done it, but he’d drunk an entire flask of whiskey, and his heart was pounding, and the blue flames were dancing in front of his eyes, and damn it, the geese and the French hens made no sense at all, and what was he supposed to do with eight bloody milkmaids?
Before he’d even made up his mind to move, he was standing in the middle of the drawing-room, bellowing and frothing like an inmate at Bedlam. “What the devil do you think you’re doing with my house, Theadosia Sheridan?”
There was a moment of shocked silence, and then everything happened at once.
Henry and George were in the midst of snatching raisins from the bowl and licking their fingers, but the minute Ethan’s voice rang across the drawing-room, they came to a dead stop.
“He cursed!” Henry nudged his brother. “He said a curse, right ’ere in the drawing-room!”
“He did.” George looked as if he couldn’t decide whether to be impressed or offended by such a thing. “And ’e did it loud, too.”
“Look at ’im, George. A right swell, in’t he? He’s a lordship, ye know.”
“Don’t care if ’e’s a swell, or even a lordship. He shouted at Miss Sheridan.” George took a step toward Ethan, his hands balled into fists. “No one’s s’posed to shout at Miss Sheridan.”
“That swell right there did!” Henry pointed at Ethan, appealing to the rest of the party, all of whom were standing around watching the scene unfold, still mute with shock. “That’s not right, it’s not, but then ’e’s a lordship, and in his cups. That’s what lordships do when they’re in their cups.”
Ethan’s ignored them, his gaze never leaving Thea’s face. “I asked you a question, Miss Sheridan, and I’ll have an answer at once.”
“Ethan? My goodness, is that you?” One shaking hand came up to cover her mouth, but when she lowered it again her lips were curved in the same smile that still haunted him, the one that made his heart leap in his chest. The smile that said she couldn’t imagine it being anyone but him, as if he were the only person in the world she wanted to see.
But he didn’t deserve that smile. Not anymore.
“Ethan, what are you doing here? I can’t believe it’s—”
“Not Ethan, Miss Sheridan. I’m Lord Devon now, and I’m here because this is my house. Or perhaps you’ve forgotten that?”
She stared at him in silence for a moment, then, “No. I haven’t forgotten . . . your lordship.” She paused before she added his title— not for long enough to be accused of outright insolence, but just shy of it.
“I’m pleased to hear it. Given you do recall I’m the master of the house, perhaps you’d favor me with an answer to my question. What do you think you’re doing?”
“Having a Christmas Eve party, my lord.” Her voice was calm, but Ethan didn’t miss the flicker of temper in her eyes.
“Did you get my permission to have a party at my house, Miss Sheridan?”
Ethan’s temper rose at this blithe dismissal. She didn’t sound the least bit repentant, damn her. “Well, why not? I believe it’s customary for servants to ask the earl’s permission for such things.”
“My apologies, your lordship. I’ve never done so in my tenure as housekeeper here, but I should have realized this time you meant for me to write to London for permission to have guests at Cleves Court.”
Christ, the sting of that tongue. Only Thea could make an apology sound like an accusation. “You’ve stolen from me, Miss Sheridan. I could bloody well have you taken up by the law if I chose.”
Henry sucked in a gasp. “Oh, ’e did it again, George! He said . . .” he lowered his voice to a whisper. “He said bloody.”
Thea held up a hand to quiet the boys, but her gaze remained fixed on Ethan. “Very well, my lord. I believe our magistrate, Mr. Williamson is in the entryway even now, helping himself to a glass of punch. Becky, if you wouldn’t mind fetching Mr. Williamson? His lordship wishes to have me taken up for theft.”
“Do you suppose I won’t?” Of course he wouldn’t—Thea could march out the front door with every silver teaspoon in the house secreted away in her bodice, and he wouldn’t move a muscle to stop her—but devil take her, her stubbornness could drive a saint to the flask, and he was no bloody saint. “I warn you, Miss Sheridan—”
“No!” A high-pitched wail pierced the room, and a tiny child with wild black curls tossed all the raisins clenched in her chubby fists to the floor, rushed forward, and threw her arms around Thea’s knees. “No! George, that lordship there said ’e’s going to have Miss Sheridan taken up, and then she’ll have to go to jail, and we won’t ever see ’er again!”
“Hush, Martha. I won’t be taken to jail.” Thea gathered the girl into her arms and glared at Ethan over the child’s head. “I’ve done nothing illegal, no matter what that lordship says.”
“Um, Miss Sheridan? There’s a—”
“I hope you aren’t teaching these children stealing isn’t illegal.” Ethan pointed to Henry and George. “Those two in particular need a lesson on proper morals and behavior.”
“Miss Sheridan!” George tugged at the sleeve of her dress. “Martha’s raisins are still—”
She waved him off. “I’m not teaching them anything of the sort. I’m simply telling them I’m not a thief. But thank goodness your lordship is here, because I can’t think of anyone more suited to give a lesson on morality to young boys than a man who wagers on a marchioness’s virtue!”
Ethan crossed his arms over his chest. Well, it seemed rumors of his London exploits had reached Cleves. Not so bloody remote after all, was it?
“Sir? That is . . . lordship?” Henry was starting to look panicked. “Hadn’t we better—”
“As it happens, the gossips had it wrong. That wager didn’t have anything to do with the marchioness’s virtue at all. It was about a West End whorehouse.”
There was a shocked gasp, but Martha’s excited voice drowned it out. “Miss Sheridan, look!” She tugged at Thea’s skirts, her face filled with glee. “The carpet’s on fire!”