Saturday Excerpt: It Happened One Christmas by Carla Kelly, Georgie Lee and Ann Lethbridge
Enjoy three heartwarming Regency tales of Christmases gone by with Harlequin Historical’s It Happened One Christmas anthology! Read an excerpt from Carla Kelly’s story “Christmas Eve Proposal” below, and pick up your copy today for other stories by historical romance authors Georgie Lee and Ann Lethbridge.
About It Happened One Christmas:
Christmas gets more interesting when sailing master Ben Muir takes lodgings with Mandy Mathison! Because when her scandalous past is revealed, only he can save her future…
THE VISCOUNT’S CHRISTMAS KISS by Georgie Lee
Lily Rutherford is shocked to learn the man who snubbed her years before will be staying for Christmas. Can she forgive the viscount in time for a stolen kiss under the mistletoe?
WALLFLOWER, WIDOW…WIFE! by Ann Lethbridge
Penniless widow Cassandra Norton faces Christmas on the run with her two stepdaughters, until Adam Royston sweeps her off her feet and into his country estate!
‘Surely you never expected to stay at Walthan Manor. Master Muir?’
What a self-righteous prig Midshipman Tommy Walthan is, Sailing Master Benneit Muir said to himself. He’s a pipsqueak, a lump of lard and an earl’s son. God spare me.
‘Oh? I assumed that since you commissioned me to drill you in navigation methods, that I would be more useful close by.’ That was the right touch. Ben didn’t hold out much hope that any amount of tutoring would improve the wretched youth’s chances of passing his lieutenancy exams next year in 1811, but it was nearly Christmas and the sailing master had no plans.
There wasn’t time to go home to Scotland, or much reason. The girls Ben had yearned for years ago were all married and mothers many times over. His mother was gone, his father too old to travel and his brothers in Canada.
Walthan gave that stupid, octave-defying titter of his that felt like fingernails on slate. It had driven other midshipmen nearly to distraction, Ben knew, but at least it was one of the irritants that spurred others to pass their exams and exit the HMS Albemarle as quickly as possible. Even the captain, an amazingly patient man, had remarked that nothing short of the loss of his ship would ever rid them of Tom Walthan. No other captain wanted him, no matter how well connected his family.
”Stay at Walthan? Lord, no, Master Muir! I can’t imagine what my mama would say, if you stepped from this post-chaise with your duffel. Better find a place in the village, sir.’ The midshipman coughed delicately into his sleeve. ‘You know, amongst people more of your own inclination.’
Ben decided that the village would be far enough away from Walthan’s laugh, but he didn’t intend to sink without a struggle.
‘You’ll shout my room and board?’ Ben gave the midshipman the full force of the gallows glare he usually reserved for the quarterdeck. It wasn’t that he couldn’t afford to pay his own whack, but he was tired of being cooped up in the post-chaise all the way from Plymouth with Tom Walthan, the midshipman from Hades.
‘If I must,’ Walthan said, after a lengthy sigh, that made Ben feel sorry for the lad’s nanny, gone now. He had no doubt that Walthan’s mother had long since given up on him.
‘I fear you must pay,’ Ben said. ‘Do you know of lodgings in Venable?’
‘How would I?’ Walthan waved his hand vaguely at the cliff edges and sea glimpses that formed the Devon coast. ‘Venable has a posting house. Try that.’
Ben gave an inward sigh, nothing nearly as dramatic as Tom Walthan’s massive exhalation of breath, because he was not a show pony. He had hoped to find a quiet place to finally slit the pages on The Science of Nautical Mathematics and settle down to a cosy read. Posting houses were not known as repositories of silence.
‘Besides, I still must explain why I have asked you here to help me study for my exams,’ Walthan said. ‘The last time I wrote Mama, I was pretty sure I would pass.’ Another delicate cough. ‘And so I informed her.’
‘That attempt in Malta?’ Ben asked. He remembered the barge carrying four hopeful midshipmen into the harbour where an examination board of four captains sat. Three had returned excited and making plans, Walthan not among them. The laggard’s disappointment was felt by everyone in the Albemarle‘s wardroom, who wanted him gone.
‘Those were trick questions,’ Walthan said, with all the hurt dignity he could muster.
Ben swallowed his smile. ‘Oh? You don’t see the need of knowing how to plot a course from the Bight of Australia to Batavia?’
‘I, sir, would have a sailing master do that for me,’ Walthan said. ‘You, fr’instance. It’s your job to know the winds and tides, and chart the courses.’
Hmm. Get the idiot out of his lowly place on the Albemarle and he becomes almost rude, Ben thought. ‘And if I dropped dead, where would you be?’ The little nuisance was fun to bait, but the matter was hardly dignified, Ben decided. ‘Enough of this. I will do my best to tutor some mathematics into you. Stop here. I’ll see you tomorrow at four bells in the forenoon watch at Walthan Manor.’ Ben shook his head mentally over the blank look on the midshipman’s face. ‘Ten o’clock, you nincompoop,’ he said as he left the post-chaise and shouldered his duffel.
Now where? Ben stood in front of the public house and mail-coach stop, if the muddy vehicle visible in the ostler’s yard was any proof of that. He peered through the open door to see riders standing shoulder to shoulder, hopeful of something to eat before two blasts on a yard of tin reminded the riders to bolt their food or remain behind. Surely Venable had more to offer.
As he stared north and then south, Ben noticed a small sign in the distance. He walked in that direction until he could make out the words, Mandy’s Rose. Some village artist had drawn a rose in bud. Underneath he read, ‘Tea and good victuals.’
‘Victuals,’ he said out loud. ‘Victuals.’ It was a funny word and he liked the sound of it. He saw the word often enough on bills of lading requiring his signature, as food in kegs was lowered into the hold, another of his duties. Oh, hang it all—he ran the ship. Victuals. On land, the word sounded quaint.
‘Good victuals, it is,’ he said out loud as he got a better grip on his duffel. He tried to walk in a straight line without the hip roll that was part of frigate life. Well balanced aboard ship, he felt an eighteen-year awkwardness on land that never entirely went away, thanks to Napoleon and his dreams of world domination.
A bell tinkled when he opened the door to Mandy’s Rose. He hesitated, ready to rethink the matter. This was a far more genteel crowd than jostled and scowled in the public house. He doubted the ale was any good at Mandy’s Rose, but the fragrance of victuals overcame any shyness he felt, even though well-dressed ladies and gentlemen gazed back at him in surprise. Obviously posting-house habitués rarely came this far.
His embarrassment increased as his duffel seemed to grow from its familiar dimensions into a bag larger than the width of the door. That was nonsense; he had the wherewithal to claim a place at any table in a public domain. He leaned his duffel in the corner, suddenly wishing that the shabby thing would crawl away.
The diners had returned to their meals and there he stood, a goodenough-looking specimen of the male sex, if he could believe soft whisperings from the sloe-eyed, dark-skinned women who hung about exotic wharves. He put his hand on the doorknob, ready to stage a retreat. He would have, if the swinging door to what must be the kitchen hadn’t opened then to disclose a smallish sort of female struggling under a large tray.
He would never have interfered with her duties, except that a cat had followed her from the kitchen and threatened to weave between her feet.
Years of battle at sea had conditioned Ben Muir to react. Without giving the matter a thought, he crossed the room fast and lifted the tray from her just before the cat succeeded in tripping her. Two bowls shivered, but nothing spilled.
‘Gracious me, that was a close call,’ the woman said as she picked up the cat, tucked it under her arm and returned it to the kitchen, while he stood there looking at her, wondering if this was Mandy’s rose.
She was back in a moment, her colour heightened, a shy look on her face as she tried to take the tray from him. He resisted.
‘Nay, lass, it’s too heavy,’ he said, which earned him a smile. Thank the Lord she wasn’t angry at him for disrupting what was obviously a genteel dining room by standing his ground with the tray.
‘I do tend to pile on the food,’ she said. Her accent was the lovely burr of Devon. He could have held the tray for hours, just to listen to her. ‘Stand here, then, sir, and I’ll lighten the load.’
He did as she said, content to watch her move so gracefully from table to table, dispensing what was starting to make his mouth water. A touch of a shoulder here, a little laugh there, and he knew she was well acquainted with the diners she served. Small villages were like that. He remembered his own in Scotland and felt the sudden pang of a man too long away.
And all this because he was holding a tray getting lighter with every stop at another table. In a moment there would be nothing for him to do, but he didn’t want to leave.
‘There now.’ She took the tray from him. ‘Thank you.’
He nodded to her and started for the door. He didn’t belong there.
She never lost her dignity, but she beat him to the door and put her hand in the knob. ‘It’s your turn now, sir. What would you like?’
‘I don’t belong here,’ he whispered.
‘Are you hungry?’
‘Aye. Who wouldn’t be after breathing the fragrance in here?’
‘Then you belong here.’
It was more than the words. Her eyes were so frank and kind. He felt the tension leave his shoulders. The little miss wanted him to sit down in a café that far outranked the usual grub houses and dockside pubs where he could be sure of hot food served quickly and nothing more. Mandy’s Rose was worlds away from his usual haunts, but he had no desire to leave.
She escorted him to a table by the window. The wind was blowing billy-be-damned outside. He thought a window view might be cold, but he could see it was well caulked. No one seemed to have cut a single corner at Mandy’s Rose.
‘Would you like to see the bill of fare?’ she asked.
‘No need. Just bring me whatever you have a lot of,’ he told her.
He blushed like a maiden when she frowned and leaned closer, watching his lips. ‘I’m not certain I understood you, sir,’ she said, equally red-faced.
He repeated himself, irritated that even after years away from old Galloway, his accent could be impenetrable. He gave her a hopeful look, ready to bolt if she still couldn’t understand him. A man had his pride, after all.
‘We have a majestic beef roast and gravy and mounds of dripping pudding, and that’s only the beginning.’
Damn his eyes if he didn’t have to wipe his mouth. Gravy. He thought about asking her to bring a bowlful and a spoon, but refrained.
‘And to drink?’
‘Water and lots of it. We’ve been a long time on blockade.’
She nodded and went to the kitchen, pausing for another shoulder pat and a laugh with a diner. He watched her, captivated, because when she laughed, her eyes shrank into little blue chips. The effect was so cheerful he couldn’t help but smile.
She paused at the door and looked back at him. Her hair was smooth, dark and drawn back in a ribbon, much as his was. He had stood close enough to her to know that she had freckles on her nose. That she had looked back touched him, making him wonder if there was something she saw that she liked. He knew that couldn’t be the case. He was worn out and shabby and ready to leave the blockade behind, if only for a few weeks. The ship would be in dry dock for at least six weeks, but he was the sailing master and every inch of rope, rigging, ballast and cargo was his responsibility.
He had agreed—what was he thinking?—to devote three weeks to cram enough navigational education into Thomas Walthan’s empty head for him to pass his lieutenancy exams. Whether or not he succeeded, Ben had to report to Plymouth’s docks in three weeks, because duty called. He glanced out the window, where sleet scoured the cobblestones now. At least he would go back well fed and with the lingering memory of a kitchen girl who looked back at him. That was about all a man could ask for in perilous times.
‘Auntie, we have the most amazing man seated by the window,’ Mandy said. ‘He’s in a uniform, but I don’t know what kind. He’s not a common seaman. He’s from Scotland. He wants whatever we have the most of and lots of water. And, Auntie, he has the most amazing tattoo on his neck. It looks like little dots.’
‘Mandy’s Rose doesn’t see too many tattoos,’ Aunt Sal said. ‘Earrings?’
Aunt Sal smiled over the gravy she stirred, then set it on a trivet. She turned to carve the beef roast, poising her knife over the roast. ‘Here?’
‘Another inch or two. There. And lots of gravy. You should have seen his eyes follow the gravy I served Vicar Winslow. And your largest dripping pudding. That one. We have some carrots left, don’t we?’
‘Slow down, child!’ Sal admonished as she sliced a generous hunk of beef and slathered gravy on it. She poured more gravy in a small bowl while Mandy selected the biggest dripping pudding and set it on a plate all its own. She slid the bowl on, too, added cutlery and took it into the dining room.
She stopped a moment, just to look at the Navy man. Palm on chin, he was looking out the window at the driving sleet. He had taken off his bicorn hat and his hair was a handsome dark red, further staking his claim as a son of Scotland. He looked capable in every way, but he also looked tired. The blockade must be a terrible place, she thought, as she moved forward.
‘Dripping pudding first and lots of gravy,’ she said to get his attention. ‘I’ll bring some water and then there will be beef roast with carrots. Will that do?’
‘You can’t imagine,’ he said, tucking his napkin into the neck of his uniform.
She set down the plate and smiled as he poured a flood of gravy over the pudding. A cut and a bite was followed by a beatific expression. Nothing made Mandy happier than to see pleasure writ so large on a diner’s face. She wanted to sit down and ask him some questions, but Aunt Sal had raised her better.
Or had she? Before she realised what had happened, she was sitting across from him at the small table. She made to rise, astounded at her brazen impulse, but he waved her back down with his knife and gave her an enquiring look.
‘Where are my manners, you are likely wondering?’ she said.
‘I could see a question in your eyes,’ he said. ‘Ask away, as long as you don’t mind if I keep eating. I’m used to questions at sea.’
He had a lovely accent, Mandy decided, and she could understand him now. How that had happened in ten minutes, she didn’t know. ‘It’s this, sir—I was wondering about your uniform. I know you’re not a common seaman, but I don’t see an overabundance of gold and folde-rol on your blue coat.’ She smiled, which for some reason made him smile. ‘Are you a Quaker officer of some sort and must be plain?’
He set down his knife and fork, threw back his head and laughed. Mandy put her hands to her mouth and laughed along with him, because it was contagious.
‘Oh, my,’ he said finally. ‘I’ll have to share that in the wardroom, miss…miss.’
‘Mandy Mathison,’ she said.
‘You’re Mandy’s Rose?’ he asked, as he returned to the dripping pudding.
‘I am! My name is Amanda, but Aunt Sal has always called me Mandy. She scolded me one day when I was two and pulled up a handful of roses, then cried because of the thorns.’
‘An early lesson, lass, is that roses have thorns.’
‘So true. When she leased this building and started the tea room, she named it for me. But, sir, you haven’t answered my question.’
‘I’m hungry,’ he said and Mandy knew she had overstepped her courtesy. She started to rise again and he waved her down again. ‘I’m senior warrant officer on the Albemarle, a forty-five frigate. Forty-five guns,’ he explained, interpreting her look. ‘It’s only been in the last three years that we masters have had uniforms.’ He held up one arm. ‘This is the 1807 model. I hear the newer ones have a bit of that folderol on the sleeves now.’
‘I shouldn’t have called it that,’ she said. ‘What do you do?’
He chewed and swallowed, looking around. Mandy leaped up and hurried into the kitchen again, returning with the pitcher of water and a glass.
‘I forgot.’ She poured him a drink.
He drank it down without stopping. He held out the glass again and he did the same. He let out a most satisfied sound, somewhere between a sigh and a burp, which made the vicar turn around.
* * *
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