Authors: May McGoldrick
Copyright © 2011 by Nikoo K. and James A.
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McGoldrick Books, PO Box 665, Watertown, CT 06795.
First Published by NAL, an imprint of Dutton
a division of Penguin Books, USA, Inc.
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For Carol Palermo
Friend, Motivator, Scheduler, and
The snow lay like blue icing over the
stately plane trees and the walkways of Berkeley Square. Dinner
guests, bundled in fine woolen cloaks and mantles of fur, scarcely
spared the picturesque scene a look, though, as they hurried from
the warmth of Lord and Lady Stanmore’s doorway to their waiting
carriages. Across the square, a wind swept up from the river,
raising crystalline wisps from the barren tree branches, and flakes
of snow curled and glistened in the light that poured from the
windows of the magnificent town house. Soon, all but one of the
carriages had rolled away into the darkness of the city, the sounds
of horses and drivers and wheels on paving stones muffled by the
Inside the brightly lit foyer of the house,
Sir Nicholas Spencer accepted his gloves and overcoat from a
doorman and turned to bid a final farewell to his host and
chided gently. “Please, Nicholas, you
come with us to
Solgrave for the holiday.”
“And intrude on your first Christmas
together?” Nicholas shook his head with a smile. “This first
holiday is for you—for your family. I wouldn’t impose on that for
Rebecca left her husband’s side and reached
for Nicholas’s hand. “You are not intruding. My heavens, that’s
what friends are for. When I think of all the years that James and
I were alone in Philadelphia! If it weren’t for the hospitality of
our friends—especially at the holidays—how lonely we would have
Nicholas brought the young woman’s hand to
his lips. “Your kindness is touching, Rebecca, and you know how
hopeless I am about denying you anything. But I’ve spent more than
my fair share of holidays with that beast you call your husband.
Besides, I understand you have some rather joyous news that you’ll
be wanting to share with young James…”
The prettiest of blushes colored Lady
Stanmore’s cheeks, and she glanced back at her husband.
“I am slightly better at keeping state
secrets, my love.” Stanmore reached out and took her tightly into
Nicholas stood and watched as his friends
slipped into a world that included only the two of them. The bond
that linked their hearts and their souls was so pronounced, so
obvious…and Nicholas frowned at the unwanted ambivalence pulling at
his own heart. As happy as he was for them, he could feel something
else squirming about inside of him.
He looked away, forcing the frown from his
face. Only a fool, he told himself, would be envious of a life that
he has been avoiding like the plague.
He already had his overcoat on and was
pulling on his gloves when the two became aware of him again.
Nicholas couldn’t help but notice the protective touch of
Stanmore’s hand on Rebecca’s waist, the intimate entwining of her
fingers with his.
“Come anyway.” Stanmore spoke this time.
“Come after the Christmas, if you must wait. You know my family
likes to have you with us…though God only knows why. Seriously,
though, I know James will be anxious to tell you about his term at
Eton, and Mrs. Trent will love to fuss over you.”
Nicholas nodded. “I’ll do that. That is, if
my mother and sister don’t go through with their threat of coming
across from Brussels for a visit. From the tone of my mother’s most
recent letter, the brat Frances has become too much for her to
handle alone. The latest threat is to leave her in England so that
she can finish her schooling here.”
“Well, that is very exciting news,” Rebecca
“Not for me.” Nicholas shook his head and
took his wide brimmed hat of soft felt from the doorman. “I know
nothing about how to deal with sixteen-year-old children who talk
incessantly, without the least semblance of reason…and still think
themselves mature beyond measure.”
“There is a season for everything,” Stanmore
countered as he and his wife followed Nicholas toward the door. “It
is all part of the great scheme of life. Marriage. Children. Moving
the focus of our attention from ourselves to those we love. As
Garrick said so eloquently at Drury Lane the other night, ‘Now is
the winter of our discontent made glorious summer.”
Any other time and Nicholas might have made
some lighthearted retort about hump-backed, wife-murdering kings;
but as he looked at Rebecca and Stanmore, the words knotted in his
throat. Somehow, even the words ‘happy and carefree bachelor’
seemed difficult to conjure at the moment.
Nicholas leaned down and placed a kiss on
Rebecca’s cheek. “Merry Christmas.”
Outside, the snow was coming down harder,
the wind picking up in earnest. Nicholas pressed his hat onto his
head and gave a final wave to his friends from the street. As the
door closed against the weather, though, he found himself still
standing and staring—considering for a moment the events that had
brought such happiness to that house. He finally roused himself and
turned to his groom.
“Go on home, Jack, and get warm. I believe
I’ll walk from here.”
A gust of wind whipped at the capes of
Nicholas’s overcoat, and the groom moved on as he was ordered.
The baronet turned up the collar of his
overcoat and walked past the fashionable houses lining the square.
The handsome windows were still lit in many, in spite of the
lateness of the evening. It was the season for entertaining. A
solitary leaf danced along the snow-covered street, pressed forward
by a gust before being caught in a carriage track. The chill wind
burned the skin of his exposed face, reminding him of the warm fire
in the Stanmore’s library. The image of his friends in the foyer
kept pressing into Nicholas’s thoughts.
The improvement in Stanmore was so marked.
For all the years since his first wife had left him without a
word—taking James with her and disappearing—he had been a tormented
man. And now, since he’d found the lad and had married Rebecca,
Stanmore was so obviously happy. ‘Fulfilled’ was perhaps the best
word. The change was stunning…miraculous, perhaps.
It was not long before Nicholas’s house on
Leicester Square came into view, but he was far too restless to
settle in for the night. The snow was beginning to let up, so he
turned his steps toward St. James’s Park.
Since coming back from the colonies over ten
years ago, Nicholas Spencer had worked diligently to keep his life
as uncomplicated as possible. He had wanted no ties. He had
endeavored to inflict no pain. During his years as a soldier, he’d
seen enough suffering in those wounded and killed, and enough
anguish in those families that were left to endure the loss, to
cure him of ever desiring any kind of attachment. Life was too
fleeting, too fragile.
Somewhere over the years, he’d also found
that women were more than willing to put themselves in his path for
their mutual amusement and enjoyment. Live while we can.
No harm in it for anyone.
Wealth only meant having enough for good
clothes, good horses, a little meaningless gambling, and a bit of
concealed philanthropy. It mattered little to him that the most
polite reaches of society scoffed at his roguish lifestyle. He knew
that they perceived him as a gambler and a womanizer, as a
sportsman who had chosen to shrug off the responsibilities of his
position in society.
And Nicholas Spencer did not dispute this
reputation. He was proud of it. He’d earned it. He’d worked hard to
establish it. He had never wanted to be answerable to anyone.
So when, he thought, had he become so
He strolled through an open gate onto the
tree-lined walks of St. James Park. The usual prostitutes and
gallants who frequented the park—even this late—appeared to have
searched out warmer haunts, out of the wind and the weather. He
left the paved walk of the mall, moving out into the open field,
his boots crunching on the dry snow.
Indeed, he was as independent as an eagle,
but something unexplainable was happening to him. Why, for example,
had he felt driven to spend so much time over the past six months
with Rebecca and Stanmore? Of course he cared for them deeply, but
spending time in their company often did nothing to lift his
spirits. On the contrary, it only served to point up how empty and
insignificant his own life was, in comparison with theirs.
Fight it as he may, it seemed a desire for
belonging, for permanency, had been edging into Nicholas’s heart.
It was an odd sensation, new to him, though he knew it was a
condition as old as time. Nonetheless, he didn’t want to believe
it. He was happy with who he was.
Or so he thought…
“Spare a ha’penny, sir? Jist a ha’penny fer
my sister an’ me?”
Out the dark shadows of a grove of trees, he
saw the boy’s scrawny bare arms extended in his direction. Nicholas
paused to look at him.
“A ha’penny, sir?” Walking on feet wrapped
in dirty rags, the waifish figure came cautiously nearer. The top
of his head barely reached Nicholas’s waist. Even in the darkness,
the boy was pale as death, and the baronet could hear his teeth
chattering from the cold.
Nicholas glanced past the thin shoulders of
the child toward the bundle of bare legs and arms curled into a
ball and lying motionless beneath the tree. Hanks of long dark hair
covered the other one’s face.
“Is that your sister?”
The boy tugged at Nicholas’s sleeve. “A
He teetered slightly, and the baronet put
out a hand to him. As Nicholas took hold of the boy’s arm to
support him, he was immediately dismayed by the thin ragged shirt
that covered the bony frame. He took his gloves and his hat off and
handed them to him.
“A ha’penny, sir?”
It wasn’t until Nicholas had taken off his
overcoat and was draping it around the boy that he smelt the
spirits emanating from the child.
“If you and your sister follow me to a safe
house I know, I’ll see to it that there is hot food and warm
clothes…and half a
in it for you.”
Dwarfed by the size of the clothes, the boy
stared at him blankly and said nothing.
“No harm will come to you or your sister,
lad. You have my word on it.”
Nicholas turned his attention to the girl on
the ground. She was much smaller than the boy and, as he pushed
back the dark mangle of hair, the baronet was stunned by the
angelic look of innocence in the sleeping face. Like the brother,
she was dressed in nothing more than thin rags that barely covered
her. He touched her face. It was deathly cold.
Nicholas immediately gathered the child in
his arms, stood up, and turned to the brother. The boy was
The frail bundle of bones and skin in his
arm concerned him more, however, so he started across the park in
the direction of the house on Angel Court, off King Street. There,
he knew, a couple of good souls would look after this child while
he searched out the brother.
The loss of his coat and hat was not what
concerned him. The boy was welcome to them. What bothered Nicholas
was the money he would be finding in the pockets. There was enough
there to keep a man drunk for a fortnight. For a child who would
use it for pouring spirits and beer down his throat, there was
enough money there to kill him.