The Countess Who Stole Christmas Preview

A Historical Regency Romance Novel

About the book

How do you tell the man you’ve spent years hating that you are madly in love with him?

Lady Martha and Lord Adam hate each other with a burning passion. Having her childhood tormentor in her own home is certainly not how Lady Martha Galway envisioned Christmas to go. Despite her parents' warning, she's determined to stay as far away from him as possible and not accommodate him at all.

Lord Adam Murray, second son of the Marquess of Dierdam, was never one to follow the rules. Especially when it comes to butting heads with Lady Martha. Forced to celebrate Christmas together, Adam resolves to ignore her as much as possible. That is until he finds himself unable to.

What starts off as a dreaded situation ends up bringing them closer than ever before and awakening feelings they thought impossible. When Martha's father announces that she is to be wed to a man of his choosing before the holidays are over, Adam feels his world crumble. With only a few days left, he must not only find a way to sabotage the courtship but also discover the person who's declared open war on his family with deadly intent.


Chapter One


Wiltshire, England

“Be nice, dear.”

Martha didn’t like the instruction from her mother. She liked even less the idea that she had to be nice to him. The young boy in front of her that was currently trying to steal the paintbrushes that she had laid out so neatly on her table. He was older than her, just by a few years, but that didn’t seem to matter. Their parents were always pushing them together to play, and they were the worst moments of Martha’s days.

She waited until her mother had left the room before she snatched the paintbrushes out of the boy’s hands.

“They’re mine,” Martha said simply, hiding them from his view.

“Can’t you share?” he asked, scoffing at her. As she tried to walk away with them, he walked around her, taking them easily from her hands.

“Adam! Stop, they’re mine.” Yet, he didn’t seem to care. He pulled a face at her and ran around the room, forcing her to chase him and hold them high over her head. “Give them back.”

“Little Martha, can’t you just take them back?” He held them tauntingly over her head as she jumped up and tried to snatch them back.

“I am not little! You are just too tall.”

“Then you’ll have to grow a little more.”

“Adam, give them back!” Every order she uttered went unheeded. This was why she hadn’t wanted to share her paints; it was always the way. Anything she gave to him to share, he took for himself and usually hid it from her.

“You’ll have to catch me first.” He laughed and ran away from her, straight out of the door that led onto the terrace out across the garden. Martha stamped her foot for good measure on the floor before running after him, her smaller legs struggling to keep up with him as he traipsed through the open lawn toward the thicket of trees far ahead. “Little Martha! Can’t you run faster than that?” he called to her tauntingly.

She called out at him in frustration, chasing him all the way through the trees until they reached a stream made out of the smallest of babbling brooks. Martha could only catch up with Adam thanks to the rocky riverbank that halted his progress. When she reached his side, she tried to take the paintbrushes back, but he pushed her away.

“No. Adam, they’re mine. Why do you always have to take what is mine?”

“They’re mine now.”

“Adam!” she practically screeched his name, but it only seemed to make him more determined, running along the riverbank.

When she caught up to him again, Martha made up her mind. Come what may, she was getting those paints back, and Adam would realize that he couldn’t mess with her in such a way again. She elbowed him in the side as she reached him and took hold of the paintbrushes, trying to pry them from his fingers, but he panicked and pushed her backward, so far that she began to slip on the wet riverbank, falling further and further away.

She could see the worst was happening. He had pushed her off him so hard that she tipped backward into the shallows of the river. Her gown was instantly soaked, with water seeping through her boots and stockings, rising up her legs as she landed on her rear.

Martha stood to her feet as quickly as she could, seeing the shocked look on Adam’s face. The water was barely two inches deep, and there was no danger to her, but her dress was ruined, covered in dirt from the riverbank and sodden.

“Look what you’ve done!” she cried, clambering out of the water. He still backed away from her, holding the paints out of reach.

“It was your own fault. You should have looked where you were putting your feet.”

“How could you say that?” She picked up a stick from the floor and managed to prod him in the abdomen. He crumpled at once and dropped the paintbrushes, giving her the time that she needed to snatch them back.

Then she looked down at her dress and seeing how ruined it was, the tears came, streaking her cheeks before she could stop them.

“That hurt,” Adam muttered as he stood straight again, barely noticing her tears.

“I hate you,” she murmured, feeling the truth come forth as she cried. “I always will.”

“What did I do?” he asked, with a mischievous smirk on his face.

“You know very well.” She stomped off back in the direction of the house, sniffing and trying to stop her tears.

“You like me, really,” he said as he ran after her.

“No, I don’t. I hate you now, and I promise to dislike you for the rest of my life!” Martha sprinted away from him, making a vow to herself to keep that promise.

Adam and I will never be friends.


Chapter Two

Twelve Years Later

“What did you say?” Martha asked, looking up from the holly branch pressed between her fingers.

“Do pay attention, Martha.” Her sister giggled with her words. “If I have to repeat everything twice, then we’ll never sort the wedding arrangements in time.”

“Wedding?” Martha asked, adjusting her hold on the holly bush. “Ow!” She looked down as one of the spiky leaves pricked her finger, drawing a little blood.

“You should be wearing your gloves out here; then such a thing wouldn’t happen.”

Martha sighed and looked around herself, scarcely able to believe what she had just heard. With Bernadette, she had come into the garden to begin making the holly boughs and evergreen sprigs they would bring into the house on Christmas Eve. Once prepared, they’d line them up outside of the house. Yet the bitter cold that seemed to pierce through Martha’s fur pelisse was not the only source of bitterness now washing over her.

“Of all people… you are marrying him?” she asked.

“Try not to sound so belittling,” Bernadette said with widened eyes as she passed Martha another sprig of holly.

“I’m sorry, I did not mean to, it is just…” she trailed off as she added the next sprig to the wicker basket within her grasp and followed her sister around the bushes, listening to the way her boots crunched the frost-covered blades of grass beneath her feet. “You are marrying the Marquess of Dierdam’s eldest son? Lord Eldford?”

“Indeed I am.” Bernadette spun round in the garden, brushing the evergreen leaves nearby and knocking flecks of frost to the ground. “Edward has asked me to marry him, and I have said yes.”

“But—”

“I know what you are going to say.”

“How can you know when I haven’t even said it yet?” Martha asked, arching her eyebrows. Bernadette looked back at her with an amused smile playing on her pretty features.

“You and I both know why you would object to the match.”

“I haven’t objected. I just do not think it….”

“What? Convenient to your happiness?”

“I would never say such a selfish thing.”

“I know you wouldn’t, Martha.” Bernadette bestowed a generous smile on her and walked to her side, taking the basket of holly from her hands. “You and I both know why your brow is furrowed so low, though.”

“Is it that low?” Martha asked, hurrying to follow her sister through the garden. “Forgive me. I have been frowning ever since the day Lord Eldford’s younger brother came into our lives.”

“He is not so bad.”

“Not so bad? Pah!” Martha scoffed, shaking her head. “He does not tease you as he teases me.”

“Granted, that I cannot deny.”

“Nor is he so cruel to you.” Martha turned her head away, trying to hide the expression she felt was creeping into her features.

Damn Lord Adam Murray! The thought cut through her before she could stop it.

“Well, from now on, you will have to see Lord Adam much more, so you will simply have to grow accustomed to his presence.”

“Growing accustomed to Lord Adam will be like growing accustomed to living with a permanent wasp stinging your arm every few seconds. In fact, he is just like a wasp,” Martha said, smiling a little at her jest. “Jabbing and stinging every chance he has.”

“Martha, please.” Bernadette abruptly stopped walking and turned to face Martha. “I did not expect anything else from your reaction, in truth, but… can you not find it in you to be a little happy for me?”

Something inside Martha broke. She loved her sister dearly. All her life, she had never had a truer friend. At this moment, she could see Bernadette looking at her with the same cinnamon-colored eyes they shared and her pink lips pressed together.

“Bernadette, I’m sorry.” Martha reached for her sister’s hand, taking it off the basket handle for a minute and entwining the fingers with her own. “If you tell me that you are in love with Lord Edward Eldford and that he loves you too, then I am truly delighted for you both.”

“Thank you, sister,” Bernadette said as her face relaxed into a smile once more. “Then, you will not cause trouble?”

“Me? When do I ever cause trouble?” Martha affected an innocent look and strode ahead.

“Ha! That is like asking whether the stars come out at night. Of course, they do! Just as you are always mischievous.”

“They only come out when it’s not cloudy.” Martha’s words brought a pleasant laugh to her sister.

As they hurried through the garden, past the trees and wilderness of the parkland, they eventually stepped onto the open lawn that looked out over the house. Built in the last century, the wide yellow-stone building stretched far, with great towering windows framed by frosted ivy running up the walls. Along the front, either side of the driveway, there were beds of flowers that bloomed with roses in the summer. Now, these beds were merely frosted, turning the mud a soft, dappled white.

Despite Martha’s determination to be happy for her sister, she felt something about the sight before her was akin to how her heart felt.

It always frosts over when Lord Adam comes near.

“You have stopped smiling again.”

“Have I?” Martha asked, trying to find her smile. She took the basket from her sister, attempting to be helpful.

“You are thinking of him.”

“How can I not?” Martha asked, being serious for a moment as she looped her free arm with her sister’s. “Since the day Lord Adam arrived at our door, he never could stop teasing me.”

“Martha, you were children at the time. I seem to remember the teasing began because you wouldn’t let him play shuttlecock with you.”

“He was playing it all wrong.”

“You are not children anymore.”

“Yet he has still never stopped teasing me.”

“Is there really nothing redeemable about the man?” Bernadette asked, her tone pleading. “Please, think of something you like about him, for me. Make the man bearable! For you must put up with him now that you will soon be family.”

“Family?” Martha repeated, feeling the word echo within her. How could she be family to such a man?

“Exactly. So, tell me, what is there that you find redeemable in his countenance?”

Martha screwed up her nose as she thought hard of the last time that she had seen Lord Adam.

Adam.

He had insisted long ago that she only call him by his Christian name.

We have known each other since we were running around on your lawn playing together. Can you really always address me as Lord Adam? That was what he had said the last time she had seen him, tossing his head back and making the short tendrils of dark red hair that curled around his temple dance with the movement.

“No? Nothing you can think of?”

“He is surprisingly honest, I suppose.” Martha bit her lip, trying desperately to think of something to please her sister. “He is always honest, even when he thinks my paintings are no better than a toddler’s attempt to draw.”

“He said that?”

“He implied it.”

“Ha! Well, Lord Adam can be blunt at times.” Bernadette laughed, shaking her head. “He was probably trying to make you laugh.”

“Laugh? He earned a paintbrush being thrown at his face for that one.”

“How ladylike. Do not tell mother you did that; she will be furious.”

“I am not sure I am her definition of a lady anyway,” Martha sighed as they wandered up the driveway together toward the house. It was a point of contention, one she could tell her mother liked to avoid discussing. Bernadette was the perfect lady, in contrast, always refined and sophisticated, whereas Martha was the free spirit who did not like the boundaries her mother imposed. What resulted was a tension between them.

“What of his looks?” Bernadette asked, shaking Martha out of her thoughts.

“I’m sorry?”

“You cannot deny that Lord Adam has grown handsome these last few years.”

Martha was aware of Bernadette watching her closely, with those cinnamon eyes peering out from a mop of black hair that curled around her cheeks. Martha looked away, reluctant to answer.

“He smiles a lot.”

“Is that a bad thing? You are simply looking for something to criticize of him now.”

“Ha! Was that so easy to spot?” Martha laughed as she shook her head, looking back to her sister. “As you wish, I will acknowledge Lord Adam is a very handsome man indeed. Yet looks do not define a man, Bernadette. What do I care for the handsomeness of a man’s face if his heart lacks any good qualities?”

“Well, find some good qualities in his heart.”

“I will. In time.” Martha squeezed her sister’s arm with warmth, trying to show she had every intention. “For you, I will do anything. I will even make peace with such a man as he.”

“You do not have time.”

“What do you mean? The wedding is not for a month at least, is it?” Martha asked, pulling her sister to a stop.

“True.” Bernadette smiled, clearly trying to draw Martha toward the front door. “Yet we must change out of our things and dress for the evening, for they are all on their way here now.”

“What? All of them?”

“Oh yes. The Marquess of Dierdam, my dear Edward, and, of course, your enemy, Lord Adam Murray.”

***

“Adam, get in the carriage.”

“I’m coming,” Adam called back to his father, making an appearance of checking his cravat and waistcoat in the hallway mirror one last time. The white cravat was already pristine enough, and the waistcoat inlaid with dark midnight blue swirls contrasted his red hair, but that was not really what he was looking at in the mirror. It was his own eyes, seeing that piercing blue color looking back at himself with worry. “I can do this,” he whispered.

“Of course, you can.” His brother walked past, making Adam sigh when he realized he had been overheard. “It is simply a dinner,” Edward said with a chuckle, reaching back to take Adam’s shoulder and steer him out of the door toward the carriage where their father awaited them. “You put one forkful in at a time, just like I taught you.”

“Ha! Your jest has not lightened my mood.” Adam laughed with sarcasm as he followed his brother up into the carriage. “Of all the ladies in all of the county, you have to marry Lady Bernadette Galway.”

“He does.” Their father answered before Edward could. “She is a fine match. In fact, both of the Galway sisters are fine. Are they not, Adam?”

“Do not talk to me on that score if you wish to have a gushing answer in reply, Father, you know that.” Adam smiled, watching as his brother chuckled and his father shook his head in dismay. As the carriage lurched forward, darkness began to descend beyond the windows. Adam turned his attention toward it, seeing how at this time of year the darkness fell so quickly when afternoon was barely spent.

“Adam, I wish to speak to you without jests for a minute.” His father’s somber tone made Adam look away from the darkness, feeling like that sense of night was beginning to swell inside of him.

“Without jests? That is difficult for me. You know that, Father.”

“What did I say?”

“As you wish, I’ll be serious.” Adam held up his hands in surrender, watching as his father’s face stiffened. He slowly leaned forward so that his features were lit by the lantern that swayed to and fro on the side of the carriage.

Adam could see something of himself in his father’s face. He bore the same red hair, but the eyes were dark, and the lines of his face that were once handsome had turned into heavy jowls, thanks to the portliness of his figure.

“Are you not happy for your brother?” the marquess’s words made Adam lose the rigidity from his spine and sit back on the coach bench, turning to look at his brother, who sat at his side. Edward was looking at him expectantly with that smile still playing on his lips.

“Of course, I am happy for you, Edward,” Adam said with feeling, pleased when his brother lifted his hand. The two of them shook, a reserved though true and heartfelt gesture of congratulations. “I wish you all the best in your marriage.”

“Thank you, Adam. That means a lot,” Edward said, nodding his head.

“It is good to see Edward so happy,” the marquess spoke again, earning Adam’s gaze. “We must see you as happy.”

“No, I know what you are going to say before you even—”

“We should arrange for you to be married,” the marquess said, clapping his hands together with delight.

“Ah, you said it.” Adam tipped his head back and looked to the ceiling. “I am not ready to be married, Father.”

“Why ever not? Not this silly business about a grand tour of Europe again?”

“What is so wrong with it?” Adam asked, lowering his gaze to his father to see the older man shaking his head. “Many a man my age goes traveling.”

“Would you not rather be married?” The marquess leaned out of his seat. “Have you considered the idea?”

“No,” Adam said hurriedly.

“What of the other Galway sister?”

“Father, of all the ladies to speak of....” Adam felt any temptation to jest leave him as he pinched the bridge of his nose in frustration. “You know as well as I do that the lady detests me.”

“She makes no secret of it,” Edward said in agreement beside him. “Though I rather think you deservingly earned her censure.”

“I am not so bad.”

“Aren’t you?” Edward asked.

“Enough.” The marquess’s firm words made them both look toward him. “You and Lady Martha are not as young as you once were. Can you deny that she has matured into an elegant lady?”

“Very elegant, without even trying to be, which is rather the admiring factor.” Adam was happy to admit it, though more words started tumbling from his lips. It was as if someone had unbridled his tongue, and it was running away with the words. “She has more spirit than most ladies of the ton, which is what is so refreshing. She also likes to talk of more than just what she will wear to the next assembly. Yes, I admit she has grown into a rather interesting lady.”

“Be careful, Adam. It sounds almost as if you admire her!” Edward said, elbowing him with glee.

“Admiration perhaps.” Adam couldn’t deny it. It was something he had noticed the last year, every time he saw her. Yet that admiration only stretched so far. “Nothing takes away the tension between us, though, and I doubt anything ever could.”

“Not even your brother marrying her sister?” the marquess’s words made a silence fall in the carriage. Adam shifted uncomfortably, aware of the firm stare his father was offering him. “Adam, all I wish is for us to be a happy family. How can that happen if you and Lady Martha are constantly making jibes and comments at each other’s expense?”

“Father, it is not something that is so easy to brush under the carpet.” Adam tried to keep his voice as serious as his father’s, though he was struggling with it. “No matter what happens, it is plain to see that Lady Martha and I will never be the closest of friends.”

“Why on earth not?” the marquess cried.

“Because…” Adam struggled to put it into words, looking out to the darkness through the window before turning back to his father. “The best way I can describe it is with the weather. She and I will look out of a window and see two different things. I could see a sunny day, and she will see hail. If I see a perfect snowstorm, she’ll threaten me with sunshine to melt it all away.” His image brought a laugh from his brother at his side.

“I was wondering how long your serious demeanor would last. As it turns out, not long at all.”

“It is unnatural to be serious all the time.”

“Well, I am being serious now.” The marquess interrupted the two of them. “When we arrive at the duke’s house, Adam, I want you to be kind to Lady Martha. Come what may, she will be part of our family soon. Understood?”

“I will try, Father.” Adam meant the words, but the closer the carriage got to the house, the more difficult it became.

When the carriage pulled up on the driveway and they were escorted into the house by the butler, the whole family was waiting for them. The duke and duchess were lined up first, with Lady Bernadette beside them, holding out her hands to greet Edward. He took her hand and kissed the back in a loving greeting before moving to the side, giving Adam the view that he had been seeking.

Lady Martha was standing off to the side of the hall, fidgeting with her hands and clearly doing her best to avoid Adam’s eyes. She appeared slender in her pale blue dress, the column style flattering her figure, but what drew his attention the most was the chestnut brown hair. It was so dark it was almost black as it curled around her ears, teasing the side of her neck. It framed her bold features in a way that would have tempted many a man to thread their fingers through one of those curls.

What am I doing?

Adam forced himself to walk toward her, telling himself he was going to break the barriers between them for the sake of his brother’s marriage.

“Lady Martha,” he bowed to her as he spoke, waiting to see her startled eyes as she curtsied, clearly amazed he had come to speak to her first. “How are you this evening? I see you are struggling to smile as much as I am with the grave news that has befallen us.” He tried to make the words a jest, yet his tone came out more serious than he had meant it to. It was always the way with speaking to Lady Martha, and things escaped his lips not as he intended them to sound.

She frowned instantly, her dark eyebrows furrowing together.

“I might have known you would be the one to start our argument this evening.” Her words were sharp.

Adam felt the anger knot his stomach together. He already felt like she had won this particular argument. Before Adam could say any more, his father walked forward, addressing the two of them together.

“Do you think you two can desist with your arguing for one night?”

Adam adopted a smile and offered Lady Martha his hand to escort her into the dining room for dinner. He didn’t miss the raising of her eyebrows in skepticism of the gesture.

Does she hate me so much that she will not even take my hand?


Chapter Three


“You have been sat on the far ends of the table all dinner. We even tried to make the two of you avoid conversation, and still, whenever he speaks to you, you cannot find a kind word to say? Have you no propriety?”

Martha hung her head, embarrassed by the censure.

“Mother, it is not what I intended to happen,” she said quickly and quietly. “He brings this manner out in me. When he says such things, I cannot help responding.” Martha had eventually accepted Lord Adam’s hand to escort her into dinner that night, but from thereon, everything had taken a downward turn.

“Then control yourself. Rein in your words as well as you rein in a horse, for goodness’ sake.” Dorothy’s words cut Martha to the bone.

It was another lasting argument they often had. Martha loved to ride her horse, but Dorothy did not think it so appropriate for a lady to ride so long in the day, nor so wildly, as Martha loved to do.

“I am sorry, Mother,” Martha said hurriedly, truly meaning the words. She looked around the room, turning her eyes on where Bernadette was waiting by the fireplace, pouring out the coffee. The three of them had retired to the parlor after dinner had finished, waiting for the men to finish in the dining room before they joined them.

Dorothy sighed overly dramatically and urged Martha to sit beside Bernadette.

“If you will insist on behaving like a child, then we must treat you as one.”

“Mother, please,” Martha didn’t get any further in her pleading.

“The evergreens are looking a little off-kilter. Martha, would you go and straighten them for me?” Dorothy pointed toward the evergreens they had looped across the mantelpiece for the yuletide season. “It is a duty of a lady to know how to arrange such things, after all.”

Martha felt the jibe in the words and exchanged a saddened glance with Bernadette before she stood to her feet again and arranged the evergreens on the mantelpiece delicately, trying her best to improve them.

“Now, when Lord Adam returns, perhaps it is best you do not speak to him at all,” Dorothy said as she helped Bernadette pour the coffee.

“Am I being sentenced to silence like a child?” Martha asked, glancing over her shoulder. “That is rather unfair, especially when I am not wholly to blame.”

“Martha, please.” Dorothy’s words were sharp as she turned a hardened glare on her. “No more. This evening is to be a celebration for your sister.”

Martha felt the guilt swell within her. She stepped away from the mantelpiece and reached for her sister.

“I’m sorry, Bernadette. I hope I did not spoil your evening.”

“You didn’t,” Bernadette said sweetly with a smile, though Martha could see over her sister’s shoulder that Dorothy was waving a hand in her direction. The movement was clear like she was silently saying that Bernadette was just being kind.

“I shall leave you to it. I think that best,” Martha said quietly.

“What do you mean?” Bernadette asked as Martha moved away from her, heading for the door.

“I do not wish to mar the evening more than I already have done. If you would excuse me, I’ll retire to do some painting. I hope you enjoy the rest of your evening.”

“Martha, you do not have to go.” Bernadette was on her feet, but Dorothy was waving her away.

“Let her go, dearest. I think it for the best.”

Martha and Bernadette exchanged a sad smile before Martha left the parlor, hurrying down the candlelit corridor where she found her favorite room in the whole house. The garden room was a little cold at this time of year, leading her to pull on a pelisse she kept on a hook behind the door. Surrounded in tall green plants with a fine view over the garden, Martha sat in the very middle of the room and pulled forward her easel.

In the daytime, she would be able to see to the forest on the far hills and spy the peaks of the tiled roofs in the village nearby, but this deep into the winter night sky, she could see stars instead and the glow of the moon reflecting off the stream.

Hurriedly placing a canvas on her easel, Martha sat down and prepared her paints, finding the one solace she loved to indulge in whenever she saw Lord Adam. It wasn’t long before the scene took shape as she painted the night’s sky, yet there was something missing in the painting. She needed a figure there to observe its beauty.

Without thinking, she began to paint in a figure. He was tall, wearing a dark black suit. With him standing to the side, she painted in a blue fleck for his waistcoat. Lastly came the hair, in a deep dark red, but he was at such a distance that his features did not need to be painted.

“So, this is where you come to hide?”

The lightness that had entered Martha’s heart vanished when she heard the voice. She fumbled, nearly dropping the paintbrush, and stuffed it into a paint pot before she turned around, peering through the tall plants to the intruder.

“Lord Adam?”

“Adam.”

“What?”

“That is my name, isn’t it?” he asked. He turned and nodded his head to the maid who had followed in to chaperone them together. The maid dutifully hurried off to the corner and bent her head, attending to some embroidery in her lap. “This is where you have been hiding?”

“I wasn’t hiding. I was…” Martha trailed off, uncertain how to explain it to Lord Adam of all people. When her eyes settled on the painting, she found the figure and realized exactly what she had done.

I have painted him in my picture!

She jumped to her feet and stood in front of the painting, trying to hide it from view. He clearly saw what she had done, coming to a stop in front of her and lifting one of his eyebrows.

“Am I really so cruel to you that you will not even let me see your painting?”

“You and I both know that is not a question I should answer,” she said, lifting her chin higher as she folded her arms across her body. He laughed, and the sound was warm and deep, startling her to her core. “Why are you always laughing at me?”

“I was laughing with you then, Lady Martha, not at you.” He made an appearance of walking around her. She turned, adjusting her stance to mask the painting, but he dived back the other way.

“Wait, what are you—”

“An interesting painting.”

She growled in frustration that he had outfoxed her. He stood in front of the painting, staring at it in wonder.

“You have improved,” he murmured, tilting his head to the side as he observed it. There was something in those simple words that made her freeze.

“You normally compare my paintings to something a child would do.”

“I did do that once, didn’t I?” he asked, wincing. “In my defense, it was not your best.”

“Earlier today, I described your honesty as one of your best qualities. I am now not so sure I was right on the matter.”

“Ah, you have been talking about me, have you?” he asked, a smile lighting up his features.

“Do not be too flattered.” She found herself smiling, too, though still irked by him. “Your ears would have burned with all the unpleasant things I said.”

“You say them to my face too, so I am not so worried.” He spoke playfully and shrugged, then turned back to the painting.

Her smile vanished as she held herself tightly, fearing what he would see within the canvas. His eyes seemed to alight on the figure as a new kind of smile crept into his features.

“Who is this?” he asked, pointing toward it.

“No one. A figment of my imagination.”

“It looks an awful lot like me.”

“That is simply your vanity.” Her jibe pulled a laugh from him as he tipped his head back. “He is completely different from you.”

“Same hair. Same waistcoat.”

“He is so tiny in the picture that is impossible to tell.”

“I am still convinced of it.”

She tried to take the canvas out of the easel and hide it from his view, but he reached out, placing a hand on the canvas and holding it in place. His fingers brushed hers accidentally, and she snatched her hand away. She had not expected the shock that had passed between them, nor had she expected him to come so close.

“Lady Martha.” His surprisingly calm tone made her jerk her head toward him. “It is a fine painting.”

“Thank you.” She smiled a little, but it did not last long. She stepped away, eager to put distance between them. She was not used to this new manner of his. He would usually be teasing her constantly, never giving her praise. “Why are you here? I hope you did not come to seek me out.”

“Then you must prepare yourself for disappointment, for I did.” He released the canvas and stepped back, still watching the painting. “I have come to apologize.”

“For what?”

“For dinner. For taking every opportunity to rankle you.” He shifted between his feet. “I do not know what it is, but there is something in you that brings out mischief in me.”

“Mischief? Pah!” she scoffed at the idea and sat down in her chair once again, preparing to mix new paint. “Is it mischief? Or is it something less kind?”

“No matter how we wish to differ on describing it, I have still come to apologize. Will you accept my apology?”

She paused from mixing her paints, surprised by the idea. He had not apologized in the past, and this was not the way they did things.

“You do not seem like yourself this evening.” She looked up from her paints, earning his gaze away from the canvas. The mischievous smile left his features, replaced by an expression she could not decipher.

“You know me that well?” he asked.

“I have known you since you were not one and ten, running around this lawn telling me to give you the battledore so you could play shuttlecock. Yes, the many years that we have both passed mean I know you a little. Perhaps better than you think I do.”

“Truly? Then what am I thinking right now?” he asked, folding his arms, challenging her.

She abandoned mixing her paints and put them down, fixing her gaze upon him. There was truly something about him that was different. His usual smiles weren’t always reaching his eyes, and all through dinner, he had kept looking out of the window as if seeking for something.

“I rather think you are wondering why our families must be tied together in this way. For you and I know we’ll have to bear with each other much more now, but… that is not it, is it?” she asked, tilting her head to the side as she watched him. “There is something else that bothers you.”

His body jolted, jerking away from her.

“I should return to the others.”

“Wait, there is, isn’t there?” she asked.

“No—there isn’t, oh…” he broke off as he turned away, walking straight into the easel.

Martha gasped, clutching tighter to the paints she had been preparing as she watched the easel fall to the side, taking the canvas with it—the painting fell flat down on the tiled floor, scattering paint flecks everywhere. Silence followed as they both stared down at the painting. Then ire built within Martha, making her stand to her feet and abandon the paints.

“You did that on purpose.”

***

“I did not,” Adam said quickly. He was still staring down at the canvas in shock. He had been so startled that Lady Martha had read him so well, he had thought of nothing more than escaping the room as quickly as he could. In that distraction, he had not paid attention to where he was putting his feet, let alone if he was running into the easel or not.

“Lord Adam, I know you think it a foolish pastime and that it means nothing to you, but there is no excuse for willfully destroying something that matters to me.”

“I never meant to do it!” Adam’s voice rose, turning back to see that the pain in Lady Martha’s face was vivid. He didn’t know whether it was the sight of that pain making him guilty that made his anger develop or if it was the accusation itself. Either way, his fury grew. Far and wide, that anger began to consume him. “Would you honestly accuse me of such a thing after I was praising it?”

“After all that you have said of my paintings in the past, you think I would believe you have changed your mind on that score?” she asked wildly.

It was quickly growing into a full argument, with Adam shaking his head frantically and Lady Martha stepping toward him, pointing an accusing finger at his breast.

“It may not have been worthy of being placed in Somerset House, and maybe it is not even worthy of your praise—”

“I did praise it!”

“But it mattered to me.” Lady Martha placed a hand to her chest. There was color rising in her cheeks, turning her pale cheeks pink. He longed to see that pain gone and observe the pinkness from laughter rather than pain, but he couldn’t undo what had been done.

“I am not such a monster that I would destroy your work.” He stepped toward the painting, about to pick the canvas up off the floor, when she let out a whimper. He looked up, startled to see she was covering her lips, holding back tears. “Lady Martha, I truly did not mean to do it.”

She said nothing in answer.

“Good lord, must you and I always argue like this?” he asked, delving into his pockets.

“It is what we do.”

When he proffered a handkerchief, she snapped it from him, trying to dry the tears from her eyes.

“Perhaps it’s about time we stopped thinking the worst of each other all the time.”

“You think that possible?” she asked, laughing—though it was without humor, and it died quickly. The sight of those tears broke Adam a little more. He ran his hands through his hair, determined to do something about this mess.

“I am sorry,” he said, aware that the maid nearby had lost interest completely in her embroidery and was watching the two of them with avid attention as if they were a performance on stage. “Lady Martha, please believe me. Maybe I can’t always persuade you not to think the worst of me, but this….” He paused and gestured down at the painting. “It was not my intention.”

She didn’t answer him but continued with the handkerchief, clearly trying to stop her tears.

“When it matters to you this much, why would I harm it?”

She shrugged, clearly not sure of an answer.

“Let us try another tact.” He smiled a little, shifting between his feet as an idea occurred to him. “Why would I destroy a painting that I was in?”

“It was not of you!” she said hurriedly, flinging down the handkerchief another time.

“Hmm, I’m fairly certain it was.”

“Oh, you are the vainest man!”

“That is enough.”

Adam turned, startled to find his father striding into the garden room, followed by the Duke of Altborn. Evidently, their argument had grown so loud at one point that their fathers had heard it from the parlor.

“Father, Lady Martha and I can settle this argument.” Adam reached for the canvas on the floor and picked it up, placing it back on the easel. His stomach knotted at the sight of it. He had completely destroyed the painting, smudging all the flecks together. “It was a misunderstanding.”

“Misunderstanding?” Lady Martha was about to argue again when her father shot her a warning look. He bore the same dark hair she did, and it flicked in her direction. “Father, he….”

“It was an accident, Lady Martha. Truly it was.” Yet Adam could see she did not believe him, and in truth, he didn’t blame her. As children, he could remember more than once stealing her paints and hiding them from her. It had been in his nature to do such a thing then, but not now. Never now.

“Lord Dierdam and I have come to an agreement,” the duke said as he folded his arms, looking between the two of them. “This ends. Now.”

“What does?” Adam asked, confused by the way he was being glared at by both fathers.

“For your siblings’ sake.” The marquess pointed his finger at the two of them. “From this day forward, there will be no more arguing.”

“Forgive me, my Lord,” Lady Martha spoke up, “but it is not so easy to merely stop it.”

“That we can see.” The duke agreed with a nod of his head. “So, we have an idea. We think it best that in order for you to stop arguing, you must know each other better. You are to be family after all, and the more you know one another, perhaps the better you will understand each other’s mind and not be tempted to argue all the time.”

“With that in mind, His Grace has made an invitation.” The marquess gestured to the duke. “Adam, you and your brother are to stay here whilst preparations are made for the wedding.”

“I’m sorry?” Adam stepped forward. “You wish me to stay here? How long?” he asked, looking toward Lady Martha, realizing the implications. He would have to see her every day.

“For a month. So, can you both accomplish that for the sake of your family? Adam, what do you say?”

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Tags

duke, earl, historical romance, lady, manor, mystery, regency romance, revenge, victorian romance

  • This is going to be so much fun to read. These two are made for each other and I can’t wait to see how it all comes about.

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