To Wed His Christmas Lady

Book 7 in the >Heart of a Duke Series

She’s longing to be loved: 
Lady Cara Falcot has only served one purpose to her loathsome father—to increase his power through a marriage to the future Duke of Billingsley. As such, she’s built protective walls about her heart, and presents an icy facade to the world around her. Journeying home from her finishing school for the Christmas holidays, Cara’s carriage is stranded during a winter storm. She’s forced to tarry at a ramshackle inn, where she immediately antagonizes another patron—William. 

He’s avoiding his duty in favor of one last adventure: 
William Hargrove, the Marquess of Grafton has wanted only one thing in life—to avoid the future match his parents would have him make to a cold, duke’s daughter. He’s returning home from a blissful eight years of traveling the world to see to his responsibilities. But when a winter storm interrupts his trip and lands him at a falling-down inn, he’s forced to share company with a commanding Lady Cara who initially reminds him exactly of the woman he so desperately wants to avoid. 

A Christmas snowstorm ushers in the spirit of the season: 
At the holiday time, these two people who despise each other due to first perceptions are offered renewed beginnings and fresh starts. As this gruff stranger breaks down the walls she’s built about herself, Cara has to determine whether she can truly open her heart to trusting that any man is capable of good and that she herself is capable of love. And William has to set aside all previous thoughts he’s carried of the polished ladies like Cara, to be the man to show her that love.

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Chapter 1

William James Alexander Winchester Hargrove, I expect you home for the Christmastide Season! Your mother and I (but particularly your mother), have expectations for you.
Post Script
Your mother wanted me to stress that we are expecting you home prior to Christmas.
~Your father

Just outside Farnham, England
December, 1817

William Hargrove, the Marquess of Grafton, should have learned early on to be wary of barters presented by his father, the Duke of Billingsley.

At just six years of age, his father had dangled one of Cook’s Shrewsbury cakes in exchange for William’s beloved toy soldiers. With a boy’s impulsivity, William handed over every last figure from colonel to captain. Only after, when sugar flaked his cheeks and lips and the treat was gone, and his father’s large palm extended out, empty, he’d discovered for the first time—one always came out on the losing end of Father’s deals. William had turned over his toys forever for a bite of cake. It was a permanent loss in exchange for a fleeting pleasure.

That had been the first barter William had made with the clever duke.

The one he’d made as a youth of eighteen had been William’s last. The problem of making a pledge when one was but eighteen years of age was that time seems endless and years were eternal when you’re nothing more than a boy. A black curse ripped from his lips.

But now, he’d run out of time.

With snow falling about him, William leaned against the mighty oak and again skimmed the contents of his father’s missive. The note could not be clearer had the words been written: Your travels are up. It is time to see to your duty. His stomach muscles tightened. For that last deal struck would prove the most final in terms of what he’d sacrificed for eight fleeting years—his freedom.

As boisterous in real life as he was upon the page, the duke fit not at all with rigid Societal expectations of and for a duke. William’s earliest memories of his father included the man’s booming laughter as he’d raced the length of the ballroom with William seated precariously upon his shoulders. Still…for that warmth and affection, his father was a duke in every sense of the word. As such, there was, and always had been, the great expectation that William would do right by the Billingsley line as deemed right by his loving sire.

As a young man of eighteen, in exchange for a pledge to wed the spoiled, cold, and rotten daughter of the Duke of Ravenscourt, his father had granted William eight years of freedom. Freedom to travel. To explore. And to come and go as though the dukedom would not one day pass to him.

Why hadn’t he insisted on more time? His lips twisted with bitterness. Then, a handful more years could never have been enough. Nor did his desires have anything to do with the wanderlust that had filled him in his youth. After years of traveling, the prospect of returning to England and his family was a potent one. Or it should be. Not now. Not when presented with the grim future awaiting him. And where that inevitability was one expected of all noblemen, it was not a matter of giving up his freedom—but rather, whom he’d give his freedom up to. For the woman his parents would bind William to was colder than the snow that even now stung his skin. And while such matches with those frosty, emotionless ladies were commonplace in polite Society, his own parents’ union had stood as testament to the possibility of more—love and warmth and affection.

William clenched his hands reflexively about the page and the vellum crackled noisily in the winter quiet. His mount, Thunder, loosely tied to the opposite tree, picked up his head. The horse flicked his ears and nervously danced about. “Easy,” he soothed, and that seemed to have some kind of calming effect for the black Friesian. Redirecting his attention out once more, William stared into the distant gray-white horizon. He fixed his gaze down the snow-covered, old, Roman road that would inevitably lead him home.

He gritted his teeth, hating his damn foolish younger self who’d sacrificed any hope of a marriage based on anything more than a cold, emotionless, business arrangement between two powerful families.

A gust of wind whipped the steady, winter snow in his eyes and stung his cheeks. Dread pitted his stomach. It was time for him to wed. With a curse that would have burned his mother’s ears, he crumpled the note into a ball, stalked to the edge of the road, and hurled the sheet into the wind.

The growing storm captured that loathsome summons and whipped it up into the air. He stared, numb, as the ivory vellum fell to the earth, and then was carried by the wind, onward—until it disappeared.

If only I could do the same.

But he couldn’t. He’d been wandering for years, away from the world where he would someday ascend to the lofty title of duke. And more, he’d been wandering away from her.

“Lady Clarisse Falcot.” His lip peeled back in a snarl. The ever so proper lady his parents would see him wed. He balled his hands at his sides. His father had, of course, known just what to dangle before his adventure-craving son’s grasp—the ability to travel.

A hungering filled him to turn on his heel, mount Thunder, and ride off in the opposite direction. For the sliver of an instant he allowed himself that possibility, but then thrust it aside. He was a man who, at the very least, honored his word. Where was the comfort in that? William skimmed his gaze over the lightly snow-covered countryside and easily found that loathsome ivory vellum, now a wrinkled ball, tumbling over the white snow. Periodically, the increasing wind carried the page further away. Only, disposing of that missive would not undo the pledge he’d made that would ultimately join him to that miserable brat he’d had the displeasure of knowing as a child.

After effectively burying the thought of her all these years, he let the memories of her slip in. He’d known his mother’s goddaughter, Lady Clarisse Falcot, since she was in the nursery and he’d been a mere boy of ten. He recalled the precise moment he’d known Clarisse was no manner of woman he’d ever wed, despite his father’s clear expectations. On a visit to her family’s properties, he’d stepped into the foyer. She’d been a girl but had the servants lined up. With a frigid tone better reserved for Wellington himself in the heart of battle, she’d ordered them about in search of some bauble or trinket. He’d stood frozen in the entrance of the duke’s country home, alongside his family, and a chill had snaked through him to rival the current storm. This would be the girl my father will someday bind me to?

Their gazes had caught and she’d stared at him through narrowed, angry eyes. And he’d despised her from the start. Cold, icy, and rude to the servants. As a girl of ten, she was the epitome of pompous nobility. His father had ingrained into William early on that a man’s merit came not in his birthright, but in his sense of right and strength of convictions. Yet, still with that, he’d wed William off to that coldhearted, English miss who’d treated servants as though their only purpose was to serve her.

Another gust of wind whipped the steady snow into his face, stinging his cheeks. He strode over to his mount and freed Thunder’s reins from the oak tree. William climbed astride and then nudged his horse forward, onward toward his family’s country seat in Farnham. Through the worsening conditions, he struggled to see into the tempest. He guided his mount onward, along the snow-covered, old, Roman roads, and struggled to see through the curtain of heavy white flakes.

Momentarily blinded, William slowed Thunder to a walk, mindful of the winds gusting small drifts on the rough roads. It was inevitable. Lady Clarisse could not have stayed a girl forever. And by the whispers and gossip he’d heard before he’d begun his journey home from London, she’d grown into a shrewish, foul extension of her younger self and the duke who’d sired her.

He pulled on the reins and stared about at the desolate landscape painted white by nature’s brushstroke. Thunder shifted nervously under him.

Mind in tumult, William looked down the path toward his family’s estate, that family who even now awaited his arrival. Thunder danced beneath him as he contemplated the two paths. One home. The other toward the inn a short distance back that would offer refuge from the storm and a temporary reprieve from his inevitable fate.

William doffed his hat and shook the flakes from the brim. He promptly placed his cap back on and pulled it low to shield his eyes from the snow. Yes, he must return. And yet, his family could not expect him to return in the midst of an increasingly violent storm, even if Christmas was but days away.

He cast a last reluctant look down the road leading to Farnham and his family—and his future—and then, decision made, urged Thunder back toward the Fox and Hare Inn. He shoved aside the needling of guilt. There would be time enough for a reunion after the storm.

A short while later, William dismounted before the modest inn. Wind whipped the large, wood sign back and forth, while the howling wind stretched across the land. He wrapped the horse’s reins around his hand and led him back to the stables. With each step, his boots sank quietly into the thick blanket of snow. He stopped outside the stable and rapped several times.

Silence met his knocking. With a frown, he glanced about and then banged again, this time harder. The door opened and a man nearly one foot smaller than William’s own six-foot four-inch frame looked up at him. The wizened figure squinted through thick lenses. “Do you need something?”

The wind wailed about them. “I am looking for a stable for my horse until the storm lets up.” Or forever, would be preferable if it meant he did not have to return to the responsibilities he’d put off all these years.

The hostler collected the reins and guided his mount into the stables.

“Thank—” The old man slammed the stable door closed in his face. “—you,” he finished wryly, and then ducking his head to shield his face from the specks of icy snow hitting him, he returned down the snowy path to the front of the inn.

Other noblemen might chafe at being treated with such disrespect. William grinned. There was, and always had been, something freeing in traveling about without being hindered by a title or ancestry. To the world at large, he’d been just William.

William reached the old inn he’d passed many times before and shoved the door open. He stepped inside and blinked several times in an attempt to bring the dimly lit space into focus. His boots dripping water on the already stained hardwood floors, William closed the door behind him. The blaring storm warred with the quiet in the empty inn. But for the hiss and crack of the blazing fire, silence raged. He skimmed his gaze about the darkened room.

From the corner of the establishment, a bleating snore rent the stillness of the room. A man sat at the back corner table with his white head buried on his hands.

The quick shuffle of footsteps called his attention to an old woman making her way down the stairs. “There is someone here, Martin,” she shouted.

The white-haired man jerked awake. “What?” He looked frantically about. “Who?”

The old woman stopped at the base of the stairs and eyed William as he shrugged out of his modest cloak. She looked him over. Her gaze lingered on his coarse garments better suited to a man who worked with his hands than an heir to a dukedom and a frown turned her lips. “We have a patron,” she said and then came over to collect his garment.

With a murmur of thanks, he turned it over to her and rolled his shoulders. “I am in need of rooms. Do you have any available?”

The man he took to be her husband snorted. “We have all three rooms available for the Christmastide season.” William could practically see the wheels of the old innkeeper’s mind turning as he calculated the coin to be had with any guest, in light of their previous zero patrons. “Will you be staying the night?”

A noisy wind slammed into the establishment. Ice and snow rattled the ancient windowpanes. “I will be staying until the storm passes.” Though in actuality, when faced with the prospect of returning home, staying forever in the modest, cold, and blessedly empty inn seemed far preferable.

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