Yuletide treasure, p.1
Yuletide Treasure, p.1Part #1.50 of Thornton series by Andrea Kane
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About Andrea Kane
To my own greatest treasure: my family—who, every day and in more ways than I can count, teach me what love is all about.
SHE WAS BACK.
The thunderous knocking at the front door, followed by the flurry of departing footsteps, could mean nothing else.
With a violent curse, Eric Bromleigh, the seventh Earl of Farrington, shot to his feet, exiting the sitting room and taking the hall in long, angry strides.
He didn’t need to guess the identity of his arrival. He hadn’t a doubt who it was. A visitor was out of the question. No one dared visit Farrington Manor—not since he’d closed it off to the world five years ago.
Except those who came to deliver a universally unwanted package.
Eric kicked a chair from his path, oblivious to the splintering of the lattice-backed Sheraton as it smashed against the wall. Fire raged in his eyes as he bore down on the entranceway door—a menacing warrior set to confront an unshakable foe.
Flinging the door wide, he waved away the cloud of dust kicked up by a rapidly retreating carriage—the second carriage this month and the twenty-second in four years.
The dust settled, and automatically Eric lowered his blazing stare to meet that of the three-and-a-half foot hellion standing on the doorstep, who returned his stare through brazen sapphire eyes that held not the slightest hint of contrition or shame.
“Hello, Uncle. Fuzzy and I”—she gripped a somewhat tattered stuffed cat—“are back. Mrs. Lawley said to tell you I’m beyond … beyond”—she wrinkled her nose—“redamn-sin.”
With that, she shoved her traveling bag aside, shrugged out of her bonnet and coat, and cast them to the floor. An instant later she fired past Eric like a bullet.
“Redemption,” Eric ground out, gazing bitterly at the discarded garments. “Beyond redemption. Dammit.” On the heels of his oath, a crash reverberated through the house.
Eric whipped about and stalked after the sound, confronting it in the green salon, where his niece stood beside the unlit fireplace, a shattered antique vase at her feet.
“Fuzzy wanted to sit atop that side table.” She indicated the now-vacant surface. “Your vase was there. So I moved it. Fuzzy hates to share.”
“Noelle.” Eric’s fists clenched at his sides. “What did you do to the Lawleys? Why did they bring you back?”
An indifferent shrug. “Their dog tried to bite Fuzzy. So I bit him.”
“You bit their …”
“It was only his tail. Besides, he’s fat and ugly. So is his tail.”
“The Lawleys were the last decent family left in the parish,” Eric roared, ignoring the wrenching pain in his gut spawned by Noelle’s uptilted face—an exact replica of her mother’s. “What the hell do I do with you now?”
“Don’t say hell or else you’ll end up there.”
A vein throbbed in Eric’s temple.
“Unless you came from hell to begin with, like Mrs. Lawley says. She calls you the Devil himself. Are you?”
Something inside Eric snapped. Abruptly, he reversed the vow he’d made the day he’d imprisoned himself inside Farrington, never to emerge.
“Come here, Noelle,” he ordered.
“Why?” The keen gaze held no fear, only curiosity.
“Because I command you to. Fetch your coat.”
Clearly intrigued, she arched her brows. “We can’t be going anywhere. You never leave Farrington.”
“I do today. With you. We’re going into the village. It’s time to resolve your living arrangements once and for all. Follow me.” He strode to the door, pausing when he reached its threshold. “I suggest you obey. If I’m forced to repeat myself, I won’t be nearly as pleasant as I’m being now.”
Noelle folded her arms across her chest. “Even if you thrash me, I’m not going anywhere without Fuzzy.”
“Fine,” Eric thundered. “Collect your scraggly plaything. I’m bringing around my phaeton.”
For an instant, Noelle’s chin jutted up, and Eric thought she meant to defy him. Then, shutters descended over her eyes, and she shrugged, picked up her stuffed cat, and trailed silently past Eric into the hall.
He fought the rage that surged inside him like a dark, suffocating wave.
The torment had to end. And, even if making this trip meant rekindling the very fires of hell, he’d ensure that end it did.
“DO YOU REALIZE WHAT YOU’RE ASKING OF ME?”
Rupert Curran gripped the side of the wooden pew on which he sat, raising his eyes to the church ceiling— whether to beseech God or warn him, Eric wasn’t sure.
“I believe I made myself quite clear, Vicar,” Eric responded. “You needn’t quake nor beg for mercy from some alleged Higher Being. I haven’t come to slay you or your parishioners. As I explained, I’ve come to seek a suitable governess for my niece—a service for which the right candidate will be handsomely compensated. Further, to show my gratitude, I shall donate the sum of five thousand pounds to your church, which”—Eric cast a quick glance about the deteriorating sanctuary walls—“is obviously needed.”
“Perhaps some people can be bought, my lord.” Curran came to his feet, indignation etched in his every aged feature. “I cannot. Material gain means nothing if the price is sacrificing a young woman’s life.”
One dark brow rose. “Sacrificing her life? And who is it you fear will destroy her, Noelle or me?”
“Such a question deserves no answer.”
“Nevertheless, I’d like one. Having severed all ties with the rest of the world, I’m curious as to whose reputation is blacker, mine or my niece’s?”
“Your niece is a child, my lord,” the vicar responded distastefully. “I’m convinced that, had she been offered four years of proper love and guidance, she’d be a happy, well-adjusted little girl and this entire conversation would be unnecessary.”
“Really? Then tell me this, Vicar: If Noelle requires no more than proper guidance in order to thrive, why has every virtuous family in your parish returned her within a period of … let’s see—” Eric tapped his fingertips together thoughtfully. “The longest duration was just shy of six months. That was with the Willetts. I’m sure, if there truly is a heaven, those gentle souls have ensured themselves a shining place within its gates. On the other hand, there were the Fields, who endured Noelle for a mere day and a half, until she set fire to the kitchen—and the cook. Overall, I’d estimate my niece’s average stay at one residence to be three months.”
“There are reasons for a child to behave as Noelle does,” Curran said quietly. “But a man like you would have no knowledge of those reasons, nor understand their cause. Therefore, I shan’t attempt to explain.”
“Fine. Then, if it isn’t Noelle’s reputation that strikes terror in the hearts of your parishioners and prevents you from fulfilling my request, I assume it is mine
For a moment, the vicar stared silently at the altar. Then, he replied, “You haven’t emerged from your estate in five years, Lord Farrington. And before that—well, I needn’t tell you how shocked the parishioners were at Liza’s death, nor how horrified they were by the part you played in driving her toward her untimely end. Most of your former servants still pale when they speak of those final weeks. It was a heinous tragedy, unparalleled in our small, quiet parish. To be blunt, the entire village is terrified of you. No one, regardless of how poverty-stricken they might be, would agree to relinquish their daughter into your hands.”
Eric’s features had hardened to stone at the mention of his sister’s name. “I disagree, Vicar. For the right sum, people will do anything. Even negotiate with the Devil himself.”
Curran shook his head. “You’re wrong, my lord. Nevertheless, there’s another, equally daunting, obstacle we have yet to discuss. Farrington is deserted, save, of course, you—and now Noelle. You dismissed your servants directly after Liza’s death and have never replaced them, I presume?”
“Correct. And I have no intention of altering that arrangement.”
“That decision is yours to make. However, I assume you expect Noelle’s governess to reside at Farrington?”
“Governesses customarily reside at the home of their charges.”
“Indeed they do. But this is not a customary situation. You are an unmarried man suggesting that a respectable woman share your home, unchaperoned and unaccompanied by anyone save a four-year-old child. Even if your past were untainted and your reputation flawless, no proper young woman would accept such unorthodox living arrangements.”
A black scowl. “I hadn’t considered that. I suppose I should have.” Swiftly, Eric reassessed his options. “Fine. I shall amend my offer.” Determination glittered in his eyes, laced his tone. “I’ll double my donation to the church from five thousand pounds to ten, and, rather than a governess, consider my offer to be for a wife.”
“A wife?” Curran’s head shot up, and he raked both hands through his silver hair. “Just like that?”
“Just like that.” Eric rose. “I’m sure you know that I’m an exceedingly wealthy man. My circumstances have more than reversed themselves over the past five years. I’ve not only recouped my fortune, I’ve doubled it. As my wife, the woman in question will have access to all my funds. She needn’t limit her spending, nor answer to me on her purchases, since I myself have no use for extravagances. She can send for whatever she wants: jewelry, clothing—a whole bloody wardrobe if she chooses—and whatever other insipid vanities women require. I don’t give a damn what she buys—nor what she does, for that matter. So long as she does it within the bounds of my estate and solely during those scant hours when Noelle sleeps. It goes without saying that her conduct must be above reproach, given that she will be Noelle’s only role model—and her only contact. The right candidate must understand that Noelle will be exclusively hers. Not only to oversee, but—to be blunt—to keep as far away from me as possible. And one thing more. Make certain the young lady you select is not the restless type. There will be no excursions to London, no balls or soirees, no outings in the country. In short, I remain at Farrington, and as my wife, so will she.”
“To translate, she’ll be your prisoner.”
Eric’s eyes flashed. “No, Vicar, she will not be my prisoner. She’ll be Noelle’s guardian. Which, whether you believe it or not, is a full-time job.”
“What about the young lady’s family ties?”
“They’ll have to be severed. No one is permitted to visit Farrington.”
“Why can’t she visit them? With Noelle, of course. Certainly, you agree it would be good for the child to have a change of scene now and again.”
“No!” Eric’s fist slammed against the pew, the wood vibrating from the intensity of his blow. “I want no link with the world, no matter how indirect. Farrington—and all its occupants—remain where they are. As for diversion, Noelle will have hundreds of acres to destroy. That should be enough, even for her.”
Dragging his hand through his hair, Eric brought himself under control. “Now, given those unnegotiable terms, who would you recommend I interview?”
Curran blinked in astonishment. “I cannot provide you with a candidate instantly—if ever. You’ll have to give me some time.”
“And during that time, do you trust a blackhearted sinner like me alone with Noelle?” Eric asked in an icy, mocking tone. “Because, quite frankly, I don’t.”
The vicar had just opened his mouth to reply when an unladylike shout permeated the church.
“Damn her.” Eric’s head snapped around.
“Lord Farrington,” the vicar denounced with righteous indignation. “Need I remind you that you’re in a house of God?”
“With a demon outside, threatening to break down its hallowed walls.” Eric was already heading for the door. “I instructed the little hoyden to remain on the lawn and amuse herself during my meeting. By now, she’s doubtless annihilated your gardens and every living creature within it.”
“She’s scarcely four years old.” Curran urged his aged body into motion, walking stiffly in Eric’s wake. “She shouldn’t be left unattended.”
“Fulfill my request and she won’t be.”
He was reaching for the door when a terrified shriek rang out, followed by shouts of “Whoa!” and the sound of scrambling hooves.
Eric exploded from the church in time to see Noelle crouched in the road, paralyzed with terror as an oncoming carriage swerved from side to side, its driver trying desperately to avoid running her down.
“Christ.” Eric took the church steps in two long strides, knowing even as he did that he could never reach her in time.
Out of nowhere, a flash of color darted from the opposite side of the road, snatching Noelle and rolling away as the horses reared—once, twice—tossing their heads in protest.
The carriage stopped.
Silence ensued, broken only by the disoriented snorts of the horses and Eric’s harsh, uneven breaths as he battled a wild, immobilizing surge of emotion.
From somewhere behind, he vaguely heard the vicar approach, heard his murmured, “Thank God.”
Oblivious to their presence, Noelle lifted her head and stared, white-faced, at the young woman in whose arms she was now clasped—a woman who had just saved her life.
With a howl of outrage, she began to struggle and beat at her rescuer’s shoulders. “Let go of me! Fuzzy is under there. I’ve got to find him.”
Unflinching, the young woman warded off the blows. “Stop it,” she commanded quietly, catching Noelle’s small, trembling fists. “You can’t rescue—Fuzzy, did you say?—if you’re flattened beneath a carriage wheel.” She squeezed Noelle’s hands—a tender gesture that belied the severity of her tone—then raised her head and calmly regarded the sweating carriage driver, who looked as if he’d seen a ghost. “It’s all right,” she soothed him. “The child is unharmed. But I’d appreciate your keeping the carriage stationary a moment longer. Would that be possible?”
Mutely, he nodded.
“Thank you.” The woman stood, still clutching Noelle as she brushed the road dust off her simple, mauve-colored frock. “Now,” she addressed the child, “suppose you tell me what kind of animal Fuzzy is. Then we shall find him.”
“He’s a cat.” A mutinous spark ignited in Noelle’s eyes, and her chin jutted out belligerently as she clarified her statement. “A stuffed cat.”
“Excellent. Now I know what I’m searching for.” Disregarding Noelle’s stunned expression, the woman nodded matter-of-factly. Then, shifting Noelle’s weight onto one arm, she marched closer to the carriage, squatting to peer beneath. “Is Fuzzy fawn-colored?”
“Yes.” Noelle strained to see. “Have you spotted him? Is he there?”
“Indeed he is. There and intact. A most fortunate cat.” Noelle’s rescuer turned to face her wriggling bundle. “I’ll offer you
Noelle stared at her as if she’d lost her mind. “Did you hear what I said? Fuzzy’s not a real cat.”
“I heard you. I repeat, do we have a deal?”
A slow, astonished nod. “Yes.”
“Good.” The young woman set Noelle on the ground and gave her a gentle push. “Go ahead.”
Noelle sprinted to the grass.
Her rescuer smiled her approval. Then, shoving unruly chestnut curls behind her ears, she dropped unceremoniously to her knees. With calculated caution, she crawled alongside the carriage, keeping a healthy distance from the wheels, lest the horses bolt. At last, she stopped and groped beneath the vehicle.
Scant seconds later, Fuzzy emerged, gripped tightly in her hand. “Success,” she called out, grinning. Her grin faded as Noelle lunged forward. “Stop.” One palm rose to ward off Noelle’s advance. “Our deal was for you to remain on the grass. One more step and Fuzzy will resume his precarious position beneath the carriage.”
Noelle halted in her tracks.
The dazzling smile returned. “Wonderful. I appreciate a person who keeps her word.” She glanced back at the driver. “Thank you, sir. You can be on your way.”
The befuddled man was wiping his brow with a dirty handkerchief. “Thank you,” he croaked.
“Thank you, sir.” She waved, then headed toward Noelle.
The clattering of the departing carriage shattered Eric’s paralyzed state.
Rage, vast as a storm-tossed wave, erupted inside him. He charged toward the roadside, where, at that moment, Noelle’s rescuer was placing Fuzzy in the child’s arms.
“Here you are,” she said brightly. “Fuzzy survived his adventure and is none the worse for it.”
Noelle snatched her beloved toy, her eyes still wide with disbelief.
Yuletide Treasure by Andrea Kane / Romance & Love have rating 3.6 out of 5 / Based on25 votes