The Christmas of a Countess
With The Year of No Summer about to come to a close, Milton Grandby decides it's time he introduce his bride to his earldom's ancestral hunting lodge in Northumberland. He needs an heir and figures time away from London's distractions can only help. Besides, with all the snow, they can go on sleigh rides!
Despite the cold, Adele agrees, figuring warm fires and a cozy library might be the perfect setting for her first Christmas as a countess. But what happens when the coach carrying their servants doesn't make it to Torrington Park? The earl is more than happy to act as a lady's maid for Adele.
Meanwhile, the lady's maid may just find her chilly disposition thawing when she's forced to spend a few nights in the company of a rather warm valet at a coaching inn. Is he only out for a quick tumble? Or is there more to his sudden interest?
Release date: October 24, 2017
Publisher: Twisted Teacup Publishing
Print pages: 360
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The Christmas of a Countess
Linda Rae Sande
An Earl Proposes a Trip
Late November, 1816, Worthington House in London
At precisely seven-fifty-seven in the evening, Milton Grandby, Earl of Torrington, entered the vestibule in Worthington House. A swirl of white followed him in, the large snowflakes quickly turning into tiny puddles on the marble floor. Those were joined by larger drips from the rivulets of melting snow that fell from his greatcoat.
The trip from White’s in the town coach had taken longer than usual. Although he could have blamed it on heavier-than-normal traffic—shoppers clogged the streets in Jermyn Street and St. James Street—it was probably the cold, wet weather that had him returning from his men’s club a few minutes later than usual. Dinner was served at eight o’clock, and he had no intention of being late for it.
He nodded to the Worthington House butler as Bernard gave him a bow. “I don’t believe I’ve ever seen it snow so much in London,” Milton remarked as he allowed the other man to take his greatcoat and umbrella.
“I do believe her ladyship said the very same thing last December, milord,” Bernard commented, his brow arched in a manner suggesting he was in possession of information counter to the earl’s claims. “When there was snow coupled with lightning,” he added as a way to remind his fairly new master that he probably hadn’t even been in the capital the December prior. Or in February, when a storm had delivered over a foot of snow to the city.
Milton blinked, wondering if the butler was teasing him. But he soon realized the rather dour servant was merely reminding him he wasn’t usually in London during the month around Christmastide. He was usually at Torrington Park, his earldom’s seat and old hunting lodge in Northumberland.
The reminder had him frowning.
He hadn’t yet made plans to travel there for this year’s Christmas, his first as a married man. The thought might have had other long-time bachelors wincing at the prospect of spending several weeks in the company of their wives—without the opportunity to escape to their favorite club—but Milton found he was looking forward to the holiday. Christmastide in Torrington Park was sometimes lonely, especially if other members of the Grandby family didn’t accept his invitation to spend their holiday in Northumberland.
He hadn’t issued any invitations this year. What with his recent wedding and days spent in Parliament, he simply hadn’t given a thought to Christmas.
Now that he considered the possibility of spending the holiday with only his countess, doing what they had been doing last night just before he fell into a deep and rather satisfying sleep, he decided he wouldn’t be issuing any invitations.
Except to his wife.
The thought had every one of his nerve endings firing in a thousand different directions. His manhood, suddenly reminded of the night before, followed suit as it attempted to escape the placket of his breeches.
Of all the places to experience an erection, the vestibule of Worthington House was probably one of the most inconvenient. He regarded the butler with a frown. “So glad I was in Kent at the time,” he remarked in response to the butler’s comment about the snow. “Huntington’s house party,” Milton added as he removed his top hat.
The fête in February had been the Duke of Huntington’s gift, a bachelor party of sorts for an earl who had waited until well past the usual age of marriage to finally find and take a wife. Milton had thought to do the same for the widower when Huntington finally remarried, but the duke had quietly married an earl’s daughter—one nearly half his age—the year before. Huntington didn’t join the others who celebrated Milton’s upcoming nuptials by taking advantage of the courtesans who joined the house party on the last night. Not even tempted by the painted ladies—he had already spent several months squiring his future wife to all the Society entertainments—Milton had instead challenged the duke to a game of billiards and managed to leave Huntinghurst with over a thousand pounds in his pockets.
Part of the winnings paid for a wedding ring as well as a necklace, matching earbobs, and a horse—all gifts for his bride.
“Dinner will be served shortly, milord,” Bernard remarked as he took the earl’s top hat.
“I was afraid I’d be late,” Milton murmured as he hurried out of the vestibule and into the great hall, his attention immediately captured by the regal woman who was descending the stairs from the first floor. Dressed in a deep red silk gown and wearing a necklace made of tiny rubies, her blonde hair swept into a smooth chignon outlined by spiral tendrils, his countess held herself as if to the manor born.
Which she was. Her father had been the Marquess of Devonville, a title now held by her brother, William Slater.
“You look like a goddess,” Milton said in awe as he gave a deep bow. “May I be your slave for the evening?”
Adele Slater Worthington Torrington angled her head as she resisted the urge to roll her eyes. She couldn’t help but grin at her husband’s antics. “And you look as if you might have had more than your usual brandy this evening,” she countered with an arched brow. She leaned her head in the other direction so that he could buss her on the cheek, and when she was sure no one paid witness to his greeting, she allowed him a kiss on the lips.
Milton offered his arm as she took the last step down to the tiled marble floor. “Nonsense. I’m merely a victim of this awful weather.” He gave a shudder to emphasize how chilled he had been on the way back from his club.
Pausing in mid-step, Adele glanced back toward the vestibule, realizing Bernard was still fussing with the earl’s greatcoat. “I shouldn’t think a few sprinkles would have you looking quite so... disheveled.”
“Sprinkles?” he repeated, his eyes rounding. “It’s been snowing since I left for the club.” As for the comment about looking disheveled, he wondered what might be amiss. He wore his graying hair short to make it easier to don a periwig at Parliament, so he rather doubted any of it was out of place. Despite his boots having suffered a dusting of the white stuff, now melted into tiny droplets, they still displayed a bit of a shine. But a quick look in a hall mirror had him realizing his white cravat was crushed. He used a couple of fingers to lift it back into place, the motion causing the folds of fabric to reveal a sapphire-tipped cravat pin. Turning so Adele could reevaluate his appearance, he grinned when she said, “Much better.”
Milton led his wife into the dining room and to her seat at the end of the mahogany table. The gong hadn’t yet sounded, but given how close it must be to eight o’clock, he decided they could continue their conversation there just as easily as in the library where they usually met before dinner. “It was still snowing when I returned home,” he said, realizing she probably hadn’t noticed the snow given how dark it was beyond the window in her bedchamber.
Adele took the proffered chair, just then realizing she hadn’t taken a look out her window whilst her maid had helped her dress for dinner. “I hadn’t realized,” she replied. “But given how awful the weather has been this fall, I suppose I am not surprised.” With the incessant rains during July and colder than normal temperatures nearly every day since, London and most of England was suffering one of the worst years ever. Prices had risen several times as the effects of the weather took their toll. Some households were already rationing food, since the crop losses had been drastic. Others had let go of some household staff, unable to feed all their servants.
“I was hoping we had seen the last of the white stuff,” Adele murmured in dismay. “I hear such awful news during tea. Except for Gisborn, it seems not a single farmer had a successful crop this year, and everyone is suffering as a result.” The comment about the Earl of Gisborn was made with a hint of pride, for her niece, Hannah Slater, had married the farmer and inventor last spring and was now his countess. Henry Foster had built greenhouses and an irrigation system to irrigate as well as drain excess water from his farmlands in Oxfordshire. As a result, he had harvested a modest crop of wheat and beans and an impressive amount of hot house vegetables.
Rather surprised to hear that crops had been a topic of discussion during afternoon tea with her friends, Milton raised a brow. “I wasn’t aware the ladies of the ton concerned themselves with such serious issues,” he remarked as he took a seat in the carver at the other end of the table.
Adele’s eyes widened. “But we must! Being the mistress of a household requires we do so.” She paused a moment, suddenly uncomfortable with the topic of discussion. “Which reminds me that I must ask a rather delicate question of you.”
Milton blinked. Given they had been married less than a year, they were still considered newlyweds, but he rather hoped Adele felt comfortable enough with him to put voice to her concerns without seeking permission to do so. “What is it, my sweeting?”
Adele blinked, her face pinking up as a footman entered from the butler’s pantry at the exact moment her husband spoke the endearment. She waited until after the footman had filled their wine glasses and disappeared before asking, “Do you need to have Bernard let go of any of our servants?”
About to take a drink from his wine glass, Milton frowned. “No. Why ever do you ask?” He had a sudden thought that perhaps she suspected one of the servants of pilfering the silver. Or perhaps the randy footman assigned to the ground floor had finally tumbled the second floor maid and been caught in the act on the first floor.
Sighing, Adele leaned forward and said in a hoarse whisper, “Lady Pettigrew has had to let go of two of her footmen. She admitted there isn’t enough food in the cellars to feed everyone who lives under Pettigrew’s roof for the rest of the winter, and apparently Pettigrew is loath to spend a fortune on food and coal to heat their house.”
Although he knew he should feel a bit alarmed at hearing her words, Milton Torrington could not, for he had heard similar comments from others whilst at White’s. Murmurs in the Chamber of Lords merely reinforced the fact that England had suffered one of its worst years for agriculture, as had most of Europe. Famine plagued Ireland, and it would not be long before smaller villages throughout England suffered the same fate. As a result, food prices had soared. Only those with a good deal of money—and greenhouses—would survive the winter unscathed.
“Worthington House shall be keeping all of its staff,” he announced just as the footman returned with the soup course. “And should you discover Worthington House is in need of any additional maids or footmen, please let me know, and I shall instruct the butler to see to their hire. I have it on good authority there are several qualified people available for hire.” He had half a mind to have the head groom hire another stable boy, but given how much the man disliked children, he thought better of it.
Adele’s eyes widened, and she was quite sure those of the footman did as well. “Truly?” She couldn’t help but notice the sudden spring in the step of the servant as he returned to the butler’s pantry, no doubt to spread the word to the rest of the household staff that they wouldn’t be suffering the same fate as so many servants in other houses in London.
“Truly.” When Milton realized his wife didn’t really believe him, he added, “Despite this past year’s unfortunate weather, I am still rather rich, Adele. A result of careful investments made by my cousin, Gregory, on behalf of the earldom, and because the Torrington earldom does rather well, despite where it’s located.” Northumberland might seem a desolate wasteland by those who didn’t know better, but the Torrington earldom was quite rich from its coal. He paused a moment. “And even if I wasn’t rich, your inheritance would allow us a more than adequate living.”
Reminded of her late husband’s fortune—Samuel Worthington’s involvement with the early steam ships had paid off handsomely—Adele finally relaxed a bit. Although the assets could have been claimed by Milton upon their marriage, he had instead insisted the money remain in her name. You may keep it or spend it or divest it as you see fit, he had told her on their wedding day. I did not marry you for your fortune.
Despite his words, she was quite sure he was glad when she didn’t give it all to her favorite charity.
“I am relieved to hear it,” Adele murmured, turning her attention to her soup.
Milton merely nodded, rather glad to assuage her concerns so easily. After swallowing a spoonful of soup, he decided to mention his plans for Christmastide. “I was thinking we could go to Torrington Park for the holiday. Just the two of us.”
Adele’s soup spoon clattered a bit before landing on the table, and the countess lifted her head to regard him warily. “Northumberland?” she repeated in alarm. “Without benefit of servants?”
Her husband blinked, and he blinked again before giving his head a shake. “Oh, there will be servants. We will take my valet and your lady’s maid, of course. Torrington Park always has a small household staff. And a butler,” he explained, the last said as if there weren’t usually any butlers in Northumberland. “I was just thinking I wouldn’t invite anyone else to join us. So that we might... ” He paused, realizing he was about to admit he wanted her all to himself for two or three weeks.
Wanted her undivided attention.
Most of all, he wanted her in his bed every night.
Truth be told, he wanted her in his bed all day as well.
Why the hell am I so randy these days?
“So that we might...?” Adele prompted, a shiver of excitement racing down her spine. Memories of what he had done to her the night before had her breasts swelling.
Milton allowed a shrug. “Spend more time in each other’s company, I suppose,” he said sheepishly.
Given his sudden temerity, Adele narrowed her eyes, intending to tease him. “Are you suggesting you wish to spend more time...?” She clamped her lips shut when the footman reappeared with the first meat course. The sudden silence between them had her giving her husband a beseeching look.
With the servant’s attention on dishing up a serving on each of their plates, Milton took the opportunity to pantomime kissing, but he was forced to change what he was doing with his lips when the footman glanced up and asked if he wished to have more on his plate.
Stifling the urge to giggle, Adele simply waved a hand to indicate the amount on her plate was adequate when the footman looked her way. When he set down the plates and finally left the dining room, she allowed a smile of embarrassment. “Milton!” she admonished him. “You’ll scandalize the servants.”
Her husband wasn’t about to inform her they were well past being scandalized.
“I cannot help myself,” Milton replied, stabbing his fork into his beef with a bit more force than was necessary. “There are times I want you so badly, I cannot think straight.”
Adele’s eyes widened, his words giving her a thrill she had never experienced with her first husband, and certainly not with the man’s brother.
Whatever had she done to have Milton Torrington lusting for her so?
They were married. Had been for nearly seven months. She had feared that by now, his supposed thirst for her would have been slaked, his attention captured by some other woman.
Instead, he seemed more beholden to her than ever before.
He hadn’t been this way with her at the beginning of their relationship. His initial overtures had been tentative, made during a rare event at Lord Huntington’s townhouse. Adele knew of Milton’s reputation, of course. He was famous for choosing a different widow every Season and squiring her about to the various entertainments the ton had to offer. If there wasn’t a ball or a soirée, there was the theatre and musicales.
Then, at the end of the Season, when most aristocrats left the city to return to their homes in the country, he would bestow his latest paramour with a bauble from Stedman and Vardon, wish her well, and go about his life until the following Season when he would do it all over again with a different widow.
He never felt enough affection for any of the widows to propose marriage—that is, until he had spent just a month in Adele’s company—before last year’s spring events had even started, in fact. Indeed, the manner in which he had approached her after Lord Huntington’s dinner party had her thinking he was merely being polite. A bit of small talk, a question as to how she was faring after the death of her husband, and the mention of her broken engagement with Weston seemed to have set the stage for him to make his move.
Except he didn’t.
He did ask if he might pay a call on her the following day. Join me for luncheon, she had suggested, sure her sudden blush was apparent to the earl.
I thought you would never ask, he responded before lifting her hand to his lips to kiss the back of it. He didn’t stop there, though. He also kissed her on the corner of her mouth, as if he was completely oblivious to the others who milled about in the vestibule until Huntington’s footmen had their coats and mantles draped over their shoulders. Then he escorted her to her town coach, helped her inside, and followed her in.
Although she had half a mind to put voice to a protest, Adele knew it would come off as false. She wanted the earl’s company as much as he seemed to want hers.
Once at Worthington House, she noted how he ignored the disapproving frown Bernard bestowed on him as he assisted her with her mantle. Then, when it appeared as if he would be taking his leave of the house—as if he had only ridden with her in the coach to ensure she arrived safely at Worthington House—she placed a staying hand on his arm and invited him to stay for a drink. I have a bottle of my younger brother’s very best scotch, she said with an elegantly arched brow.
Of course Milton would be familiar with Donald Slater’s scotch. The Devonville marquessate benefitted from the sales of the golden fluid, her older brother, William, having funded the enterprise back when he first inherited. Before that, their father hadn’t considered the distillery a means to earn an income.
I would be honored, Milton had replied, placing a hand over hers and leading her to the library. How he had known where to go, she had no idea. As far as she knew, the earl had never been in Worthington House.
Once inside the library, he had shut the door, saw to it she was settled on the small divan near the fireplace, made his way to the silver salver on which stood a bottle and several crystal tumblers, and poured them both a finger’s worth.
Although she rarely drank the Devonville scotch, Adele did on this occasion. There was something about the earl that had her feeling nervous and excited and ever so vulnerable just then. Despite knowing him nearly her entire life, she had never known him like this. Never thought she might be the focus of his attentions.
The focus of his intentions.
Emboldened by the fiery liquid, she leaned against the back of the divan and watched him drain his scotch in a single gulp.
I’ve a proposition for you, he had said then, setting his tumbler on a library shelf before joining her on the divan, one of his thighs suddenly pressed against hers.
Oh? she had replied, amazed at the thrill that shot through her body just then.
Do an old man a favor by allowing me to escort you to this Season’s events.
Do an old widow a favor and help me host my musicale, she countered, rather shocked at how bold she sounded with her rejoinder. But it would be the true test of how serious his intentions might be, Adele figured.
I would be honored.
Adele had blinked. Her surprise at hearing his response must have showed, for Milton gave a slight shrug before kissing her on the cheek. When she turned her head toward him, he kissed her on the lips. The slow, sweet kiss had her lifting a hand to his head so that she might spear her fingers through his graying hair. The move, interpreted as an invitation to continue, had him pulling her body atop his lap, one hand slipping beneath her skirts to push them up along her stockinged calves, along her bare thighs—
“I do hope whatever you’re imagining includes me,” Milton commented from the other end of the table, his wine glass held aloft as he gazed at his wife. “You look as if you’re in ecstasy.”
Adele gave her head a quick shake, as if to clear it of the memory of the first time Milton had ever made love to her. “I almost was,” she murmured, managing to keep a mewl of disappointment from sounding. “Forgive me. I was... remembering the night you put voice to your proposition.”
Intrigued, the earl set down his wine glass and regarded his wife. “Fondly, it would seem,” he ventured.
“Indeed.” She allowed a teasing grin and may have colored up a bit at having been discovered reminiscing.
Milton suddenly rose from his chair, toppling it in his haste to get to her end of the table. He jerked her chair from beneath the table and scooped her up from the seat.
Momentarily stunned—she actually felt a bit of fear as his arms lifted her bottom onto the table—Adele couldn’t help the rush of excitement that passed through her body as one of his hands pushed her gown up one leg, couldn’t help but assist by gripping the other side of the red silk to pull it up her other leg. When the fabric was nearly to her hips, Milton was suddenly between her knees, the placket of his breeches already unbuttoned. She couldn’t help the thrill she experienced at hearing his growl of satisfaction as he impaled her. Or the secret delight she experienced when she heard his sigh of contentment as his face pressed onto the mounds of her breasts above the edge of her bodice. And, finally, she couldn’t help her own cry of pleasure as one of his thumbs pressed at exactly the right place to set off the orgasm she had almost imagined in her memory of their first night together. His own release followed, leaving him nearly unable to remain upright.
“I probably should apologize,” he started to say as he finally lifted his head from her breast.
“Oh, don’t you dare,” Adele countered just before kissing his forehead. “But if you must, you may do so when we share a bed this evening.”
He allowed a murmur of agreement. “Given how cold it is every night, I should think we shall be sharing a bed for the remainder of winter,” he murmured. “And at Torrington Park?” he added, his voice tinged with hope.
Adele gave a nod. “And at Torrington Park,” she finally agreed.
It seemed a trip was in her future.
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