I’m excited to bring you an advanced excerpt from Christina McKnight’s upcoming release A Kiss at Christmastide. I cannot wait to get my hands on this story, and to celebrate I’m giving away 2 e-copies of the book (Will be gifted on release day, September 27th 2016). Now excuse me while I fan girl…
A Kiss at Christmastide
Lady Pippa Godfrey has suffered the most ruinous London Season. She escapes to her Somerset estate for a quiet Christmastide holiday with her family, away from society’s prying eyes. But before her parents can join her, a storm crashes down on Somerset to destroy any hope of Pippa’s white Christmas dream. The roads have flooded and travel is impossible, leaving her stranded and alone. But a muddied, angry and devilishly handsome lord appears at her door demanding shelter.
Lucas Hartfeld, the Earl of Maddox, has been summoned by his parents, the Marquis and Marchioness of Bowmont, to attend a holiday party in the wilds of the country, far from his London townhouse. He suspects they command his attendance for far different reasons than a simple country party. When a storm strands his carriage, he’s forced to seek shelter at the only home for miles around, a local manor called Helton House.
When Lady Pippa is reluctant to admit him, he does what he’s been raised to do—demand she provide him and his servants with shelter until the storm passes. But the beautiful woman draws his interest far more than he’s willing to admit. Can Lucas find a way out of the predicament his parents are planning?
As Lady Pippa scrutinizes another arrogant, demanding lord, she is bombarded with memories of betrayals in her past. Can she forget those difficult life lessons to claim a Christmastide kiss from a perfect stranger?
Lady Pippa stared into the open flames from the hearth—where a constant drizzle snaked down the chimney flue to pool behind the roaring fire—as the storm continued to rage outside. Her day…and night…had consisted of watching the ponding water sizzle and dissipate as it approached the hot flames consuming the large logs and reading yet another book on Christmastide lore. It had been her greatest tradition each year after arriving at her family’s country manor, Helton House—hours turning into days, as she re-read all her favorite holiday books.
The many hours were only interrupted by a footman entering to place another log on the fire. But it had been many hours since she’d bid the servant to retire for the evening.
This night, Pippa had found it difficult—nearly impossible actually—to concentrate on anything with the storm roaring outside. Especially since she knew she was essentially alone in the large house with all the servants having gone home before the storm and the few that were in residence were safely abed. Where Pippa should be herself. She pulled the blanket tighter around her legs as a draft moved through the room and chilled her exposed ankles. Glancing behind her, she expected to see Briars, her family butler, in the doorway, but the door was securely closed and the aging servant was long asleep for the night.
A sharp light lit the room through the windows, the draperies still pinned back from the daylight hours. An onslaught of heavy rain pelted the thin windowpanes. Pippa regretted her request that the windows stay uncovered in case she spotted lights moving through the dark storm, signaling her parents’ arrival.
But her hope of seeing anything through the angry storm declined as the torrential downpour continued hour after hour, making the local roads impassable by carriage. She only wished the Duke and Duchess of Midcrest were wise enough to seek refuge from the drenching rains, lightning, and lashing wind on their way home from Bath.
Setting her book aside, Pippa removed her blanket and stood. Her toes touched the frigid floor as she moved quickly across the room to pull the drapes closed—locking out the sight of the lightning. With any luck, it would diminish the sound of the howling winds outside.
She paused before the window, pulling the material back one last time, and stared out to the countryside surrounding her home. Though it was too dark to see anything, she’d spent the last eighteen years memorizing the landscape around Helton House—the rolling hills, the wooded area to the left of her property which everyone took as the border between her family and that of the Duke of Sheridan, Lady Natalie’s father. In recent months, the trees had made a barrier that Pippa hadn’t dare cross.
Their property even boasted a small pond that froze over during the colder months.
Unfortunately, this Yuletide celebration would not find her home surrounded in snow-covered hills or frost-kissed trees—or a pond frozen enough to walk upon. At this point, they’d be blessed to have dry, unmolded grain and hay to feed their livestock come spring. Pippa could only imagine the coming weeks of repairs the village would need due to leaking roofs and flooded dwellings.
Pippa sighed at the sight outside her home—that in no way resembled any Christmastide in the past. At this rate, she’d be lucky if her home didn’t float away on a river created by the rain that had assaulted the area for almost a full day now—the temperature staying far above that of freezing.
Nothing about this year would be like the ones before, though the lousy weather was not fully to blame. Pippa had sensed things were not as they should be from the moment she received word the Sheridans were hosting yet another three-day celebration to honor Natalie. This time, it was rumored that they’d announce her betrothal—to the son of a marquis, no less.
She should be happy for her dear friend—or, at least the girl she’d grown up with and thought of as a sister before Natalie had changed into a woman whom Pippa did not recognize. Her feelings toward the girl were petty, though grounded in truth. But wishing ill will on another was something Pippa found extreme discontent in.
With a huff, Pippa pulled the drapes shut, blocking out the rain and wind for good.
“I refuse to feel sorry for myself,” she muttered, not for the first time since receiving the invitation to join Lady Natalie’s holiday house party.
It was actually a blessing her parents’ carriage had been held up by the storm. They would likely insist they travel the short mile to Lady Natalie’s home to join in the revelry—to confirm that no animosity remained between the neighboring dukedoms.
No matter how much bitterness Pippa had locked within. Lady Natalie was to wed and Pippa was alone—cast from society after the embarrassment of her first Season.
Even with all this, her mother strictly believed that one could not find happiness and fulfillment in life if one cast negative thoughts and tidings toward another. A new reason to be thankful they were not here to witness her sulking about as if her prized gloves were missing or stained.
Picking up her book, Pippa fell back into the fluffy armchair she favored so. She tucked her feet under herself and returned her blanket to ward off the growing cold in the room as the fire’s intensity decreased. From her father’s private study down the hall, eleven gongs could be heard, signaling the lateness of the night. For London, most would only be starting their evening by enjoying a meal with friends and acquaintances. But while in the country, Pippa delighted in being abed at sundown and rising when the sun made its next appearance on the horizon.
Early morning walks around the estate—from the house, out around the pond, and back through the stables to check on the animals. She’d never thought she’d miss the freedom of her morning strolls after her introduction to society, but walking—other than in one of the many crowded parks in London proper—was frowned upon, especially without a proper chaperone. One could not think or ponder anything while being following by a maid.
The current storm had robbed Pippa of her morning out. As the day passed, she felt similar to the canaries women kept, a caged animal longing to escape and roam.
Again, the storm was not fully to blame for her sense of overwhelming confinement.
It went far deeper than being trapped within her home during a nasty tempest.
The windowpane rattled as particularly heavy rain assaulted it once more followed by a thunderous racket. Lightning flared even through the drawn drapes. A door slamming somewhere deep within her home had her jumping with nervousness. The storm’s intensity was only increasing as the night grew later.
She took a deep, calming breath before opening her book once more. Pippa started where she’d left off when she’d been distracted by the rain traveling into the chimney.
Had that been five minutes ago or five hours? Pippa had lost track of so many things as of late.
Nothing contributed to her Christmastide cheer more than holiday tales of merriment—and she desperately hoped to repair her sullen mood. While in London, Pippa had discovered a small bookseller off Bond Street that was hidden from view down a narrow alley. Her mother had been more than agreeable to allow Pippa time to scour the shop while the duchess was fitted for new gowns. During one of her many visits, she found a thick tome full of ancient fables surrounding the winter months—not only tales from various Christian beliefs, but also pagan traditions and even a few stories full of scary hand drawn images of ghosts and ghouls. Pippa had quickly flipped past those stories when she’d sat down to read shortly after her noonday meal, for they would only frighten her more with the storm raging so close.
Pippa was determined to banish her dour mood before her parents arrived—she may be a bit downcast, but she’d never allow that to ruin her mother’s beloved holiday.
Turning the page, Pippa read the bolded script at the top of the page denoting the beginning of a new story, The Kissing Bough. Below the words was a crude, black and white drawing of a mistletoe branch with holly berries hanging. Her family property was rife with the vegetation and she’d had several groomsmen collect large boughs for her just the previous day in preparation of decorating the house when her mother arrived home.
Scanning the page, several words and phrases stood out—hanging bough, wed before the next Christmastide, do not deny a kiss.
Pippa was vaguely familiar with the story; if one kisses below a Christmastide bough then they shall surely be wed within a year. However, if one denies an offered kiss then they shall not have any hope of a betrothal until after the following New Year.
Obviously, Lady Natalie had done her part to help the lore along…while Pippa had buckled under the pressures of society and cut her first Season short in favor of an extended stay at her childhood home. If only Pippa would have read this book the previous year, maybe she could have secured a kiss before now—as the only men in residence at Helton House were her butler, several footmen, and the stable hands.
She pondered the notion of journeying to Lady Natalie’s holiday party, hoping to land upon an eligible man worthy of her first kiss. But she pushed the thought aside when a loud bark of thunder ripped through the room.
The downpour was only swelling, along with the wind. The roads were flooded and impassable, even on horseback. And the hour was late.
Pippa was stuck.
At any other time, she would have been at peace with her fate, but not tonight. If an opening in the storm presented itself, she’d likely take the opportunity to flee—to London…possibly even Lady Natalie’s celebration. Anywhere other than being here alone.
She should retire to her chambers, get some much needed rest, and awake in a far more agreeable mood. Most things appeared brighter by morning light, or so her mother told her.
Shaking her head, Pippa cast a sidelong glance at the covered window before setting her book aside. Staying awake would not make the night pass any quicker or the storm dissipate any sooner. She needed a good night’s rest if her mother was to arrive on the morn, for holiday preparations would swiftly follow.
Another loud clap of thunder shook the room—but it did not cease as the others had, continuing steadily.
Surely the gates of hell were opening and releasing the ghouls and ghosts from their fiery pits. Pippa shouldn’t have opened the book of legends. She regretted the brief moment she’d spied the hand drawn illustrations of creatures not of this realm.
It was then that a voice yelled above the storm, reaching her in the library.
It was not thunder at all, but someone pounding upon her door.
She jumped to her feet and rushed toward the foyer to allow them entrance, grabbing her book and tucking it under her arm. Her parents, as radical as they were, must have thrown caution to the wind and traveled through the storm to see her. They were foolish and their risk great, however, Pippa was overjoyed they’d arrived.
Many things pushed to the forefront as she ran to open the door. She needed to call Cook to prepare them a meal, their bed should be prepared for them with hot coals to warm their linens, and the stable master need be awoken to tend to their horses.
Pippa was glad for the distraction from her previous melancholy mood.
Turning the lock, Pippa threw the door wide, a smile lighting her face for the first time that day—only to be faced with a stranger. On her doorstep was a man completely unknown to her, his hair matted and his clothing drenched and sticking to his thin frame.
“Is your master home?” he asked, removing his saturated hat from his balding head.
“I am Lady Pippa.” She stared at the man intensely, waiting for him to state his business on Midcrest land and be gone.
“My lady,” the man started over with his greeting, bowing. “I am repentant to awaken you, but my lord seeks shelter and we have not passed an inn for many hours. The storm made it impossible for our carriage to pass on the main road.”
Pippa remained silent as the man spoke, his body shuddering with cold as his saturated livery garb clung to him. She clutched the door with one hand to avoid it opening further in invitation, while her other arm pushed solidly against her side, keeping her book from falling to the floor.
“I fear our carriage is knee deep in mud with the storm continuing to increase and it has thrown a spoke.” He looked at her expectantly, as if offering shelter was the only option for her. “My lord, the Earl of Maddox, requests refuge for the night, if you will be so kind as to accept him.”
“I…well…” Pippa’s manners abandoned her at the same time she realized she was alone on the first floor of the house. “There is an inn only—”
A great wind hit Pippa, forcing her back—the door ripped from her hand. It slammed against the wall behind it. The sound echoed through the empty house as it collided with the tall walls of the foyer and rattled the chandelier as her loose tresses blocked her view. A moment of sheer panic seized her when her sight was taken from her.
Pippa pushed her hair away to continue with instructing the servant to the nearest inn. “Your lord will be far more comfortable…”
The wind whipped the last of her hair from her face to reveal not the servant from before, but a tall, very tall, broad-shouldered, very broad-shouldered, man—that was all Pippa saw of him as her glance locked on his chest. He was drenched, with his shirt plastered to his enormous width. It hadn’t been the wind that had knocked the door from her hands and allowed the storm access to her home, but the man before her.
And he was fuming mad—his nostrils flared as water dripped from his hair and he stared at her pointedly—not bothering to mask his aggressive stance.
“Were you truly going to turn away a man in need of shelter?” his voice boomed.
Pippa gasped, taking yet another step back. She glanced quickly over her shoulder, hoping the noise had awoken one of her servants, abed on the third floor of the house. But none came running to aid her.
“I knew I was venturing to the depths of hell when I agreed to come all this way from London, but are manners not taught in the wilds of Somerset?” The man ran his hands down the front of his shirt, pushing the water from his body to pool on the floor beneath him. “My servants will need space in your stables. I thank you for…” he eyed her up and down before continuing. “…your hospitality, my lady.”
He bowed before Pippa with his last words and his breath caressed her body, making her acutely aware of two things; he smelled heavily of spirits and she was attired in a sheer nightshift that did not leave much to the imagination.