A Bunch of Mistletoe
Part of the Stars Are Brightly Shining anthology. A Daring Dersinghams story
When Matilda, chaperone and aunt to the most scandalous family in London, takes a tumble from a tree, she’s rescued by the most unlikely saviour.
Toplofty stickler Harold, the Duke of Trensom, is more than annoyed to find Matilda on his property. Worse when he finds himself falling for her.
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Harry Caverton, more properly His Grace the Duke of Trensom and all the other titles that went with it, stepped out of his luxurious carriage into snow nearly a foot deep.
The tops of his boots barely cleared the snow, coming perilously close to spilling over the top. But even wet, cold feet was better than sitting in his carriage listening to the muffled curses of his coachman and the two footmen accompanying him while they crawled along at a snail’s pace.
The snowstorm had hit unexpectedly, following on the one a few days earlier which had prevented him from getting to his house in time.
After a tedious duty visit to relatives, he was keen to reach his home. A heavy snowfall two days ago had kept him immured at an inn, seething with frustration when he could not return in time to greet the guests arriving for his Christmas house party.
As soon as he could, Harry had set out, forcing his coachman to brave the weather, but more snow arrived.
Although snow had fallen for less than an hour, the countryside was left in chaos. Overturned coaches and teams of men trying to pull them clear of the ditches, broken wheels and the rest, left Harry glad they didn’t have far to go. Even then, they’d taken most of the day to travel less than ten miles. Dinnertime was approaching as they reached the gates of Caverton House.
But now the coach was stuck in the snow, unable to go any further.
A man stood behind the gates, scratching his head, his hat in his hand. When Harry appeared, he blinked rapidly, as if not believing what he was seeing. Then he bowed. Harry acknowledged his presence with a nod. “How’s the drive, Bowford?”
His head gardener grunted. “We’ve cleared the area near the house, your grace, but we’ve still to do the rest. It shouldn’t take us more than a couple of hours, but the coach won’t get through it yet.”
“Leave the coach,” Harry told his driver and footmen. “It won’t come to any harm. Just bring the luggage and lead the horses to the stables.”
Harry buttoned his greatcoat up to his chin, crammed his hat down to his eyes, and set off.
The drive was easy to follow at first, but paths led off it and to the side; not that he could see them. If he didn’t know them so well, he’d have lost his way a thousand times.
He stopped at a crest where the drive bent and gazed down at the house in its sheltered hollow. His most favored house had its Jacobean origins fully on display. It hadn’t lost its stone exterior to stucco and had a Palladian front slapped on it. It was honest, as lovely as the day it was made. A central block, a story higher than the wings to either side, towered up, the huge stone-mullioned windows dominating the front. The wings had towers at the end, as high as the central block, with the family crest proudly engraved into the topmost stories. The honey-colored stone would contrast well with the lush park that surrounded it, if it wasn’t covered with a blanket of snow.
Smiling, glad to be home, he carried on down the gentle swoop of the drive.
A few more steps and he was walking by the side of a wood, the trees carefully thinned and pruned. Further on, the trees thickened. Something rustled ahead and a flash of green appeared on one of the branches, then was gone. A ladder was propped up against the trunk and a booted foot reached down, groping for purchase. The ladder teetered, then fell away onto the hard, snow-blanketed earth below.
A feminine shriek bounced off the wood, and the foot was swiftly withdrawn.
Who on earth had come out in this weather? What would bring anyone out here? Perhaps someone was planning something nefarious, or maybe a tryst was in the offing. Whatever it was, Harry wasn’t about to miss it. He strolled over to the great tree.
The woman was sitting in the branches of an oak tree, about ten feet up. Evidently, the tree had been here before the wood was planted, since they were not as gnarled or thick as this one. He lifted his gaze.
She was wearing plain, not to say threadbare, clothes, but respectable. A thick, brown cloak and a plain hat topped it. She was too high up for him to make out much of her face. “Good afternoon, ma’am.” In deference to the weather, he didn’t doff his hat.
“Oh, th-thank God! I thought I’d be here all night! Would you restore the ladder, please, sir?”
“Certainly not. What are you doing up there, ma’am?”
She waved a gloved hand to one side. The gleam of a sharp metal knife in her hand, rather a large one, caught the weak sunlight.
Harry went on alert. That was no penknife. “I believe I shall go to the house and send someone to help you.”
“And leave me here? Have you no heart?”