Read Letters at Christmas Online

Authors: Amber Lin

Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #General, #Holidays, #Historical, #Historical Romance, #England, #Entangled Scandalous, #brother's best friend, #Regency, #Amber Lin, #Christmas

Letters at Christmas

He wagers everything to win her heart - but she has no intention of letting it go...

England, 1815

Three London Seasons. Three Christmases come and gone. Jilted Sidony Harbeck is done waiting for the inconstant Captain Hale Martin to return. Despite their whispered adolescent promises, he never wrote her a single letter. Now the scoundrel has returned, professing his love and a thoughtless bet to woo her, but she only wants to make him suffer.

After three years at sea, Hale finally has the means to marry his best friend’s sister and the love of his life. But he only has three days to convince her of his devotion because he stupidly proposes a wager—he’ll convince Sidony to marry him by Christmas or he’ll leave her alone forever.

When Hale sets out to seduce her, the stakes are raised by a passion so intense that even Sidony must risk her heart no matter the odds.

Letters at Christmas
was previously published in
A Very Scandalous Holiday Anthology.

Letters at

Christmas

a Men of Fortune novella

Amber Lin

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.

Copyright © 2013 by Amber Shah. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means. For information regarding subsidiary rights, please contact the Publisher.

Entangled Publishing, LLC

2614 South Timberline Road

Suite 109

Fort Collins, CO 80525

Visit our website at
www.entangledpublishing.com
.

Scandalous is an imprint of Entangled Publishing, LLC.

Edited by Nina Bruhns

Cover design by Heidi Stryker

ISBN 978-1-62266-743-7

Manufactured in the United States of America

First Edition October 2013

Table of Contents

For D, with happy Christmas wishes.

Chapter One

Your absence arrives most strongly at night, conjured by dreams and a gentle sway, with only a cold sweat and a canvas blanket for company.

Harbeck Hall, Lancashire, England

1815

The more Miss Sidony Harbeck of Harbeck Hall tried to avoid trouble, the more tightly it always seemed to ensnare her.

Sidony had plenty of time to lament this paradox as she sat stranded in the boughs of a frost-brittle tree. Spindly branches snagged on the thin wool of her dress. Her throat felt raw from shouting against the wind. No one came to her rescue.

The servants would be bustling inside, unaware that she was outside at all. Her brother had gone out hunting last night—the excuse he always gave when he visited his lover, a widow the next estate over. Never mind that he always came back freshly starched without having shot anything. At least Poppet was here for company.

The gray cat mewed plaintively from her lap.

“And whose fault is this?” Sidony muttered. “Really, you just decided to go for a stroll. Twenty feet off the ground.”

The thick, rippled windows had distorted her view of the high road and the long drive leading to the hall. So she’d opened them, and while she’d been sitting on the bench, staring out, Poppet must have slipped past her. She might not have noticed, her attention firmly fixed on the horizon, but he’d started crying at the top of his little lungs.

Disconcerted and distracted, Sidony had reached for him. She’d used a branch for leverage and
snap
—they’d both fallen. Now she was sitting on a sturdier branch, but too far off the ground to jump and too far below the window to climb back inside. It appeared neither she nor Poppet was injured. Her bottom had ached at first, but the cold had quickly numbed her.

Across the sugar-white fields, a smudge of black suddenly appeared. It moved along the familiar road, becoming larger and smudgier.

She scowled in mortification.
No.
He would not find her like this. She wouldn’t let him. With a surge of determination, she clutched Poppet against her side and scooted closer to the tree trunk. She would jump, that was all. If she broke her leg, well, at least she’d be out of the tree.

She whispered a small prayer under her breath. Poppet chose that moment to dig her claws into her breast. She shrieked and lost her balance. The cat fell. Sidony did too. With a desperate lurch, she tumbled sideways and firmly enmeshed the folds of her skirt into the surrounding branches, clinging to the trunk.

Poppet landed on his feet in the snow below her. He paused and licked his foreleg—as if washing off the human scent. Then he walked demurely around the back of the house, where the cook would probably give him a bowl of warm milk.

Sidony really hated cats.

She tried to straighten, but this new position was even more precarious than the last. Burning cold beneath her legs gave the troubling implication that her skirt had ridden up in the back.
Drat it all.
She batted branches away from her hair until the neat upsweep drooped heavily to one side. If given the chance, she desperately promised the fickle gods of Fate, she would go inside and never, ever, think of
him
again.

Really.

Truly.

Except, that would be impossible, as he’d be here any minute.

A rumble from the lane drew her attention. She froze.
Time for a new plan
. She would remain very still until he’d gone inside. He wouldn’t notice her. Eventually, someone else would find her and help her down. Or she would freeze to death. At this point, she wasn’t picky about the outcome, as long as he didn’t see her like this.

She regretted her choice of festive green dress, which rather stood out from the winter-gray tree and grayer brick behind. Green complimented her fair complexion and hazel eyes, but this fact only made her feel worse, as if she’d been trying to impress him. She also regretted her entirely coincidental perch by her bedchamber window, as if she’d been waiting for him. Which she certainly hadn’t been doing. Never, never,
never
again.

Voices murmured from around the house, along with all the stomach-clenching sounds of a carriage stopping and a passenger disembarking. The soft crunch of snow grew louder. She studiously trained her gaze on the white horizon.

“Hello, Sidony.”
Hale
.

She chose not to look down. It seemed safer that way. “Good afternoon.”

A telling pause. “Why are you in a tree?”

“Fresh air is an important component of physical fitness and mental stability.” Or so the ladies’ magazine had reported. “You may go inside now.”

“I would very much like to go inside. It’s been a long journey. And yet, I find myself reluctant to leave you here. In this tree. Can you come down?”

“Of course I can come down. I would have to be very stupid to climb a tree that I couldn’t climb down from.”

“Yes, precisely.” Another pause. “Though it occurs to me that you might not have climbed up. Your window is open.”

“How do you know that’s my window?”

She flushed as her question brought to mind the nights he had been in her room.

“How about this?” he asked reasonably. “In the interest of
my
mental stability, I’ll help you down. Then if you want to climb the tree again, I won’t stop you.”

Fine, she reluctantly conceded. Better than freezing to death.
Marginally
. She held out her hand, wishing she’d thought to wear gloves. He was wearing them, of course, and the leather was cool and soft against her trembling fingers. She’d intended to go slowly and carefully, but as soon as he grasped her hand, he pulled. A slight tearing sound came from her dress, and then she was suspended in his arms, clinging to his neck.

She suddenly had more sympathy for Poppet’s predicament; claws would be useful about now.

“Are you all right?” he asked.

Her dress was ripped. Her hair undone. Her pride beaten and shriveled. “Perfectly well, thank you.”

“Of course you are. Sidony Harbeck always lands on her feet.”

She reminded herself it was a compliment. Hale had always liked cats.

As she looked up at him, the brilliance of his smile stopped her cold. It was a nice, handsome smile, but that wasn’t the danger. Those dimples that she had always thought of as adorable had deepened, and were now tanned…and dashing. Debonair, even. When had
that
happened?

He nestled her comfortably in his arms, with her head tucked beneath his chin, thankfully relieving her of the sight. Instead, she looked at Harbeck Hall, the family estate, through new eyes as they approached. What did Hale think of the new slate turrets? No doubt they looked pedestrian to a man as well travelled. The entire moors must appear plain compared to exotic lagoons or snow-capped mountains.

Price, the butler, met them at the door—far too late to be of use. He appeared flustered, concerned about her dishevelment and position, until Hale quietly and calmly took control of the situation. The servants followed his orders without seeming to recognize him as her brother’s old friend. He carried a natural air of command. She supposed running a ship could give that to a man.

Once he set her down by the fire and the fury of a thousand needles stopped attacking her toes, she was able to get a better look at him. He was the same height, the same width, but the shape of him had changed, nonetheless. A shadowed slant of stubble marked his cheeks instead of the flushed softness she remembered. His hair no longer curled over his ears and collar as she’d once found so endearing. Those startling blue eyes held shadows she’d seen across an ocean expanse, something dangerous lurking just beneath the surface. He was the handsomest man she had ever seen, even more so than the boy she’d known. But he was
not
her Hale. This Hale was a stranger.

With detached curiosity, she watched his tanned fingers prepare her tea. The old Hale never would have done something as domestic. He poured exactly the right amount of cream that she liked, though he scooped too much sugar in the cup. She opened her mouth to mention it—graciously, of course—but he held up a hand to stop her.

“You need something to warm you up. It’s either a heap of sugar or a splash of brandy.”

Sighing, she accepted the tea. “I don’t know why you’re here.” Her voice came out cross, but after all, she was clearly no longer in a tree. Nor was she injured. Or pining.

Definitely not pining.

“I told you I’d come back for you.”

Alarm jolted her. Tea sloshed from her cup. She hadn’t been asking about
that
. Had she…?

“What are you talking about?” she asked innocently.

He took the teacup from her and set it on the table. He placed a knit blanket over her lap and tucked it around her legs. She distracted herself by counting the layers of fabric between his skin and hers—
blanket, skirt, petticoats, stockings
. Not nearly enough.

“A change of clothes would be better, but I want to make sure you’re well before I lose sight of you. I have a sneaking suspicion you plan to avoid me.”

“Of course I plan to avoid you,” she blurted out. Then wanted to slap herself. Really,
must
she give away her strategy to the enemy? Because this not-Hale was most definitely the enemy. Her mental stability fell under severe attack when he was near. For example, when he smoothed the hair from her forehead. Or when he stroked a finger along her wrist.

She jerked back. “Stop that.”

Agreeably, he sat in the armchair beside her. He poured himself a cup of tea, this with a more favorable tea-to-sugar ratio, and stared into the fire. Startled, she realized this was how she remembered him. He looked younger in his old favored chair, one leg slung over the other in a casual slouch.

That
was the old Hale. The one who’d made promises before he left.

The one who’d broken them.

“I’m not going to marry you,” she told not-Hale.

Her declaration didn’t seem to surprise him. “I thought you might be angry.”

“Yes, I am. I mean, no, I’m not. To be angry, I’d have to care. Which I most certainly do not.”

“Please, don’t hold back on account of my feelings,” he said drily.

She huffed a breath, flustered and off-center. “I don’t see how you can come back after three years and expect everything to be the same.”

“You aren’t betrothed to anyone else,” he pointed out.

How do you know that?
she wanted to ask.
And why do you care?
Even though she knew he didn’t care. Even though the truth of that haunted her. She had waited for him, desperate for a letter, or a dashed-off message. She’d turned down suitors, sure he would send notice. Something.
Anything
.

Nothing. Three Christmases had passed without a single letter.

She now knew he’d been promoted to captain. Had he decided a wayward, unruly sister of a squire was no longer good enough for him? Or were her country ways too backward for him? Her looks too unpolished?

Well, whatever the reason, her tears had long since dried up.

“Hale Martin, you are the absolute last man I would ever marry,” she said coolly.

“Want to make it a wager?”

She frowned at the familiar words. They had always made bets with each other, to the chagrin of her brother. How far his cat could jump. How many books she could stack on her head. They were always about the stupidest things they could think of. That was the point.

“You want to wager on who I’ll marry?”

“Me. By Christmas. You’ll agree to marry me before Christmas.”

“In three days,” she said, dazed by his audacity.

How little he must think of her to be swayed so easily. How little he must think of their potential marriage to hinge it on a game. Years’ worth of tinder went up like smoke, charring her from the inside out.
He was making fun of her
.

She wasn’t cold anymore. She was angry.

“Fine,” she said icily. “We will make your wager. Three days. But if I win…you’ll go away and never come back.” She would never see him again. It shouldn’t matter since she hadn’t expected him to return.

He hesitated. He swallowed. For a moment, she thought he would refuse. Desperately, foolishly, she hoped he would.

His eyes hardened. A faint, mocking smile touched his lips. But directed at whom—her…or himself?

Her chest felt uncomfortably tight.

He nodded. “Agreed.”


She wasn’t speaking to him. She wasn’t even
looking
at him. Captain Hale Martin sat through two interminable courses at dinner where he had talked to Geoffrey, and Geoffrey had talked to Sidony. But there, the triangle of conversation broke down. She hadn’t said one word to Hale.

So she was mad at him. Message received. And, he acknowledged with no small amount of self-derision, he deserved it.

What had possessed him to make her a marriage proposal in the form of a wager? With so soon a deadline? The death knell had been the terms. He would have to leave, never see her again. He should never have promised that. He was fairly sure, should it come right down to it, he wouldn’t be able to deliver.

No, he was overthinking this. It
wouldn’t
come to that.

“Tell us about living aboard a ship,” Geoffrey was saying, and God, what could Hale say? Surely, there must be something more appropriate for dinner conversation. Plucking bugs from stale bread and skimming muck from the water barrels was a far cry from the veal consommé in front of him. Wearing clothing so stiff with salt that Lieutenant Ardmore said sandpaper was softer, and he was right. Really, nothing that happened below deck could be repeated in polite company, and most things above deck too. But then, a ship wasn’t polite company. A rueful smile brushed his lips.

“The camaraderie,” he finally said. “The crew is a diverse and lively bunch, and living with them in close quarters reminded me of school.”

“That does sound appealing.” Geoffrey smiled, and for a moment the ever-present cloud in his eyes cleared, acknowledging their old bond. Just as quickly, it was gone, and Hale frowned. Sadness still shrouded his old friend.

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