A Winter Wish

Book 1 in the >The Read Family Saga

Meet the Read family: Three siblings employed by a powerful nobleman will each find love and scandal amongst Polite Society.

Proper, respectable Lucas Holman, Viscount Grimslee, has always done what was expected of him, and that included letting go of the woman he was betrothed to. Now, filled with regrets, Lucas is living quite contentedly and scandalously…for himself. He’s enjoying his new, roguish, carefree existence, until the holidays arrive and he’s summoned home.

Miss Merry Amaryllis Read has finally completed enough training to assume the vaunted role of housekeeper to the Holman family. When her new employer decides to throw an impromptu Yuletide party, Mary is tasked with quickly readying the manor for the grand event.

She doesn’t expect that she’ll also be assigned a partner, the earl’s dissolute, suddenly-scandalous heir, Lord Grimslee. He’s unlike the stuffy gentleman she recalls from her youth, but either way–lordly prig or dissipated rascal–Merry wants nothing to do with Lucas.

Her reservations notwithstanding, she and the viscount forge an unlikely connection. With every moment they spend together, they learn more about each other, and when passion flares, both are helpless to resist its pull. Merry and Lucas know a shared future is impossible, and yet, they can’t stop wishing for more… together.

***This series starter prequel was previously available as part of Yuletide Wishes: A Regency duet.


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Excerpt:

Prologue

Winter 1822

Not much had changed in the Read household.

That was, in the three years Miss Merry Amaryllis Read, daughter of the Earl and Countess of Maldavers’ steward and housekeeper and soon-to-be new housekeeper for Lord and Lady Maldavers, had been sent off to receive proper training for her future role.

At that very moment, Merry’s two younger siblings were seated in the main gathering room of their peak cottage as she prepared her tea, she listened on while they engaged in the activity they were most noted for—one-bettering.

Somewhere around her tenth and eleventh year, she’d grown tired of the boy-girl twins’ bickering. Somewhere around her thirteenth year, Merry had become quite adept at blocking it all out.

“…oh, and of a sudden, you, with every hour of every day spent training to one day be steward, also find yourself in possession of the latest London scandals?” Matilda, her younger sister, challenged.

This time, there was something altogether different about the stories and challenges flying back and forth.

This time involved the unlikeliest of subjects: Lord Lucas Grimslee, the earl’s stuffiest, stodgiest, most-well-behaved son… which, given that all the Holman boys—now men—were notoriously proper, was saying a good deal indeed.

“You think you’re the one in accurate possession of the gentleman’s goings-on?”

“Hardly, I’m just in possession of more information.” Matilda launched into an impressive list of all the ways by which she’d become an aficionado of the subject at hand.

Her twenty-four-year-old sister leaned forward in her carved-walnut armchair and spoke in a loud whisper. “I heard he broke out into song in the middle of a Covent Garden performance he was attending.”

“What?” Merry blurted. Apparently, she had been adept at ignoring their sparring.

Matilda whipped her attention over to Merry. By the pleased little smile that split her face, Merry’s reaction had been reward enough. “Indeed. He was… singing in the middle of the performance.”

“Luke Holman… singing?” She knew it was an echo of what her sister had said, but it was just too far-fetched. The gentleman, who couldn’t manage more than a polite—albeit curt—greeting whenever she was near, had sung aloud… in public?

Matilda nodded. “From what I read, it was quite an exuberant performance, at that.”

“And here I’d believed he’d not even hum a happy tune in the privacy of his own company,” Merry said without malice and earned another round of giggles from her sister.

“It has been wildly shocking. All of it.”

“That was surely the first time in the whole of a lifetime that anyone has ever charged the Holman family with being even remotely out of step,” Merry noted, eyeing the confectionary treats her mother had prepared before plucking another gingerbread.

“Yes, but much has changed since you’ve been gone,” Diccan intoned.

“Everything,” Matilda added with a nod, for good measure.

“First”—Diccan stuck a finger up—“Lord Lathan Holman, a perfectly respectable clerk at the Home Office, was accused of high treason.”

When Merry only took another bite of her treat and didn’t indulge her brother with any questions, Diccan frowned. “Surely, you must wonder what he did.”

After Merry finished chewing and then swallowing her bite, she carefully dabbed at the corners of her mouth with a napkin. “No,” she said simply.

Diccan bristled. “And whyever not?”

“Because it is impossible.” Not many years younger than she, the youngest Holman brother had been bookish, without even a hair out of order in his life. “Not a single Holman would ever do something as shameful as to betray King and Crown.” In an effortful display of nonchalance, Merry rearranged the tray of goodies her mother had set out. “And what of Lord Ewan?” He had been the only Holman child to play with her as though she were equal in birthright.

Her brother eyed her peculiarly. “What of him?”

Snatching up the nearest pastry, she set it on her plate. “Has Lord Ewan become as pompous as the rest?” If he had, it was going to be utter misery serving in that household.

“Hardly.”

She released the breath she’d not realized she was holding.

“Either way, returning to the more interesting Holmans. Mr. Lathan Holman was cleared,” Matilda confirmed. “Though some say strings were pulled and that the Crown will ultimately have their vengeance.” She made a garish slashing motion across her throat and hung her head sideways.

“Matilda,” she chided.

Their brother grunted. “All nobles are invariably cleared of wrongdoing,” he pointed out, not inaccurately. “Even the guilty ones like Mr. Lathan Holman.”

Their mother, the former housekeeper who’d been employed by the Holmans, ducked out from the kitchens. “Hush,” she whispered.

Alas, the former head of the female staff, who’d terrified the maids with her no-nonsense attitude, had never managed that feat with her own children.

Diccan scoffed. “They are hardly going to hear us from our cottage.”

Their cottage,” their mother aptly pointed out. Wiping her hands with the cloth she held, she waved it at her only son. “Furthermore, it doesn’t do to talk unkindly about the one who employs you.” Their mother looked pointedly at Matilda. “And you.” Her gaze landed on Merry, the sole member of the Read family who was not yet employed by the Earl and Countess of Maldavers. “And, well… all of you need to be quiet.”

The trio of Read siblings went silent.

With a satisfied nod, their mother hurried back into the kitchens.

The moment she’d gone, they dissolved into silent laughter. Merry’s form shook with such mirth that she keeled over into her sister’s side. How good this felt. How very wonderful it was simply being home.

“I hear you.” Their mother’s warning came muffled by the kitchen doors.

“Of course she does,” Diccan muttered.

He continued on with his gossip about Lord Luke as though there’d been no interruption. Planting his hands on his legs, he leaned forward. “Now, returning to the Holman scandals.”

Merry’s heart kicked up. Lord Ewan. The one gentleman who’d not yet been spoken of. The kindest, most affable of… well, all the Holmans, really.

“Lord Luke”—she stifled a disappointed sigh as Diccan returned to the heir—“I heard he was seen entering the Duke and Duchess of Bainbridge’s.”

“I’d hardly consider that scandalous,” Matilda shot back.

“I must agree with Mattie,” Merry said to her sister’s older-by-seven-minutes twin. Stirring cream into her teacup, Merry paused to take a sip. “In fact, I’d quite expect that visiting a powerful peer and his wife is precisely the manner of thing Lord Luke would do.” Luke, who she’d once predicted had entered the world somber and composed. Whereas Ewan had played children’s games with Merry, Lord Luke had never joined in. Instead, the bookish Lord Luke had peered down at them with a scowl to match those of his equally stern tutors.

With a triumphant flounce of her blond curls, Matilda stole a biscuit from the tray and held it aloft like a confectionary trophy she’d awarded herself.

“I agree it doesn’t seem outrageous for the gentleman to pay a visit to another lord,” Diccan conceded. He looped his thumbs into the waistband of his trousers. “And it wouldn’t be. That is, if he’d been invited.”

Merry flared her eyes. Surely her brother wasn’t saying…

Matilda scrambled to the edge of her seat. “What did he do?” she demanded, her question conceding defeat to her twin.

With a sly half grin, Diccan added, “Apparently, a very inebriated Lord Luke entered his neighbor’s townhouse.” He continued over his sisters’ matching gasps. “He stumbled into their foyer and relieved himself in a plant stand that he’d mistaken for a chamber pot.”

A laugh exploded from Merry at the sheer outrageousness that image painted, even as it could not be true that Lord Luke would do anything so outrageous. She laughed until tears leaked from her eyes.

“It is true,” Diccan insisted defensively, through his sisters’ noisy amusement.

She laughed all the harder, until her sides ached from the force of her own amusement.

When their laughter had ebbed, Matilda curled onto her side and rested her cheek atop Merry’s lap, as she’d done so many times as a girl.

Merry stroked her sister’s curls.

“I’ve missed this,” Matilda said softly.

“I have, too,” Merry murmured. It had been three years since she’d left, and for all the tears she’d cried continually during her first three months gone, in time, she’d found joy in her studies and work. Only to find now just how very much she’d missed all of these moments.

A firm knock landed on the door, splitting the quiet.

They all three went motionless.

Their mother came flying out of the kitchens, her rounded cheeks pale but for the splotches of red from the heat of the fires she worked over.

“Whoever is that?” Matilda whispered when the echo from the hard rap’s wake had abated.

Frowning, Merry stole a glance at the clock.

Nine o’clock. Early on, she and her siblings had learned that only crises at the main household merited after-hours intrusions.

There came another heavy pounding.

Merry was across the room in several quick strides. She yanked the door open, letting in a blast of cold winter air and one unexpected noblewoman.

Oh, bloody hell.

The countess swept inside and gave a flick of her hand.

An unfamiliar-to-Merry-footman hovering on the stone porch hurriedly drew the door shut.

That click managed to spring the occupants of the cottage into motion. All the Reads scrambled to their feet and proceeded to drop belated curtsies or bows.

Lady Maldavers thumped her cane once. “I’ll not waste time with it,” the countess said in her slightly nasal, perfectly enunciated Queen’s English. “I’m here on a matter of importance.”

Merry and her siblings looked to one another and then their mother. As the former housekeeper rushed forward, her children began to wordlessly back from the room. “Yes, my lady. I’ll fetch my husband immediately.” Given the lady of the household hadn’t ever set foot inside the cottage, and her ladyship, not her husband, was seeing to business, the situation must be dire.

“Not him.” The countess stretched her other arm out and pointed at Merry. “You.”

Or it seemed that that perfectly manicured digit fell in Merry’s direction. Except… that hardly made sense. She was neither employed by the woman, nor, having arrived only that morn, had Merry seen the lady of the household. Even more to point, the countess had never sought Merry out—ever.

A log shifted in the hearth, the snap and hiss of the fire the only sound to meet the countess’ pronouncement.

“Yes, you,” the countess said impatiently. She thumped her cane twice, and Merry’s siblings instantly fell into a neat line and filed into the kitchens. Her mother, ever the consummate housekeeper, was the last to take her leave. She followed after the pair and then closed the door in her wake, leaving Merry and the countess alone.

At one time, Merry had been a girl at sea around her parents’ employer. Regal, austere, unsmiling, they’d been a cold family whom she’d spent far more time pitying than envying. For her time away, however, Merry had left the protected, countrified world of Leeds for the Continent. She’d explored some of the most magnificent artwork and households. She’d moved among the aristocracy. Therefore, she didn’t have quite the same terror she’d once had around the countess.

Folding her hands primly before her, Merry stood in the middle of the room, her back straight. “Should I have refreshments called for, my lady?”

“This isn’t a social call.” The other woman laid her ornate ivory cane against the back of the armchair Merry had previously occupied and tugged off her gloves. “I shall get to it, Miss Read. As we’re both aware, after the holiday season, you’ll be taking on the role of housekeeper in place of your mother.”

“I—”

“However, until then, I’d ask you to help ready the household for our guests.”

Merry started. She’d have wagered—and lost—her family’s cottage in Leeds that the Holman household had already been transformed. “My lady, I’m honored.”

Lady Maldavers waved her hand dismissively. “It’s less a matter of preference and more a matter of necessity. We’ve company scheduled to arrive.”

They always did. Lord and Lady Maldavers were an expert host and hostess, never long without other leading societal guests for company.

Of all the tasks Merry had been charged with—polishing the silver, inventorying the linens—the only one she’d ever truly looked forward to with any real joy was that of preparing for Christmastide. “I can begin immediately,” she promised, thrilling at the prospect of decorating the sprawling manor.

The older woman gathered her cane and gave it another thump. “Is this your conversation or mine to lead, Miss Read?”

“Forgive me.” Born to two servants, Merry had known since birth that servitude was the future that awaited her. Even knowing that as she did, she chafed at that treatment. She wanted more.

“Our company was due to arrive here. However, we’ve decided to move the gathering to London.”

That cut through her musings. “To London?” She’d been summoned back to England not to take on the role of housekeeper at the Mayfair residence, but for the role her mother was soon to retire from.

“It is essential our very important guests see that our affairs in London are as well taken care of as they are in Leeds.”

In other words, the scandal that followed her eldest son merited a display of the Holmans acting in their perfectly proper way.

Lord Luke’s antics also merited her leaving at the heart of the holiday season and saying her goodbyes to family she’d not seen for three years. And yet, neither could she decline, particularly given the countess was in no way presenting it as anything other than the demand it was. Merry compressed her lips and silently cursed Lord Luke for choosing this time of all times to act anything other than a gentleman.

Tucking her cane under her arm, the countess pulled her gloves on. “Given the significance of the role I’ve assigned, in a household that you’ll not otherwise be required to oversee, you’ll be generously compensated. Shall we say two hundred pounds, Miss Read?”

Merry’s lips parted, but she could not get a proper word out. Two hundred pounds? That was an amount that would have taken her father six years in his role as steward to earn.

“His lordship and I are set to depart within the hour. Given your only recent arrival, I’ve ordered your carriage to depart on the morrow afternoon.” With that decree, the countess sailed over to the door.

She tapped the bottom of her cane against the panel that was nicked and marked with initials and images that Merry and her siblings had left over the years.

Merry rushed over to open the door and then sank into a deep curtsy. “My ladyship,” she murmured.

Without so much as a parting greeting, the countess started down the walkway.

The nearly three-quarters-full moon hung like an orb upon the night sky, bathing the snow-covered path in white so bright it was nearly blinding.

The countess paused in the middle of the snow-covered path. A servant rushed forward to meet her, but she waved the strapping footman off. “Lord and Lady St. Albans,” she said as she turned back to face Merry.

Merry brought her eyebrows together. “My lady?”

“Your siblings had the wrong of it. My son did not stumble into the Duke and Duchess of Bainbridge’s, but rather, the Marquess and Marchioness of St. Albans’.”

Oh, bloody hell. Even with the frigid sting of the winter air, Merry felt her entire body go hot. The countess gave her a knowing look.

With that, the regal woman marched off like the queen striding down a red carpet at court. Merry stood there with the door agape, letting all the precious heat slip out, all in the name of deference—until the countess boarded the carriage at the end of the drive. The pink conveyance lurched into motion, and the austere woman was gone.

When Merry closed the door, she turned and found her siblings and mother staring back.

“You’re leaving,” Matilda bemoaned.

“It will only be for a short while,” she promised. “I’ll be home before the holiday festivities even commence.”

Instead of rejoining her earlier pleasures with her siblings, Merry reluctantly quit the main gathering room in exchange for the rooms she’d shared with her sister through the years.

A room she’d spend just one night in before being scuttled off to London to play at the role of decorator for the ungrateful, if generous, Lord and Lady Maldavers.

There was some consolation in knowing that while she worked, she’d be invisible to the lofty Holmans and therefore able to spread holiday cheer throughout their no-doubt cheerless household.

Merry smiled.

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