excerpt from “Christmas Larks” in the Last Chance Christmas Ball anthology
Christmas 1815. Upstairs and downstairs, Holbourne Hall is abuzz with preparations for a grand ball to celebrate the year’s most festive—and romantic—holiday. For at the top of each guest’s wish list is a last chance to find true love before the New Year…
Lost in the crash of cannon fire in his head and slash of brush across canvas, Ivo ignored the creaks of the house. Black smoke curled across his skies. He darkened the oil on his palette, and nightmare horses reared, breathing fire.
And then the mice returned.
“We gots to hide in the attic,” the bossier one squeaked.
“They got bread,” the naysayer protested stubbornly.
Ivo realized he was starving. Toast and tea would hit the spot.
Reluctantly setting his brush in the turpentine he’d found in the storage cabinet, he abandoned the canvas and limped for the upstairs corridor.
He didn’t understand why his beloved home echoed like one of Europe’s abandoned churches. He’d always preferred this snug house in town belonging to his mother’s family over his father’s enormous, isolated country seat. He needed people around him, not sheep.
He clung to the banister, intent on finding the kitchen, but his aching head and gimpy leg both gave out at the landing. Dizzy, he sat down abruptly and peered into the twilight gloom of the foyer below, hoping for some sign of the missing domestics.
An angel materialized in a spectral light from the foyer windows.
Ivo rubbed his eyes. Angels wore white and had wings. They didn’t wear practical gray pelisses and shabby bonnets. But the morning light illuminated porcelain features bearing the perfect demeanor of a heavenly visitor. Huge blue, dark-lashed eyes and rich rose lips turned upward in a smile of pure bliss as she spun about on the black-and-white tiles, then caressed the frame of one of his old paintings.
He couldn’t help a chortle of delight at this welcoming vision. “Sarah Jane,” he cried. “You make a perfectly dreadful angel.”
The blissful smile shattered, replaced by shock as she swiveled from the painting to the stairs. “I—” she started to say, then stiff disapproval froze her expression. “Lord Harris,” she said formally.
The never-used title jolted unpleasant reminders that made Ivo’s head ache more. He preferred nostalgic recollections of the vicar’s daughter—his childhood nemesis. “With your expressive eyes, you should have been an actress,” he told her, his addled brain not processing his thoughts before they reached his tongue. “It’s been how long? Five years? You’re all grown up.”
“I was seventeen when you left—hardly a babe,” she said in those acerbic tones he remembered with less delight. “What are you doing here? I thought you were a burglar.”
The question baffled him. She was the intruder here. Barging into his home was nosy, even for Sarah. This house had always been his haven from his father’s chronic complaints about his only son’s wasteful pursuits.
Rather than return her question, Ivo remembered his manners and attempted to stand. He saw two of everything, staggered, missed the banister, and sat down again with an embarrassingly abrupt thud.
She uttered a cry of alarm and flew up the stairs. “You’re injured! How did you…?” Apparently thinking better of the question, she called, “Mary, come quickly!”
“Don’t shout so loud,” he grumbled, pride badly mauled. “I got myself here just fine. Nothing a bit of toast and tea won’t cure. Where are Mr. and Mrs. Merry?” He used their childhood name for the servants.
She hesitated, then sat down beside him to examine his bandage. She smelled of apple blossoms, and he wanted to lean over and bury his nose in her hair.
“That’s a dreadful black eye and your nose may be broken.” She touched his aching beak. “We should have a physician look at you.”
He shrugged. “I’ve been worse. The mice said you brought bread. I don’t suppose you could toast some.”
“The mice?” Her brow creased in a frown before she replied in the soothing tones he recalled from long ago, when he’d been abed with some childhood illness. “We can do tea and toast and a bit of Mrs. White’s apple jelly. Let’s get you back upstairs first.”
A sturdy woman in black hurried into the foyer. Not grandmotherly Mrs. Merry, Ivo thought in disappointment.
“Lord Harris has been injured,” his angel told the crow. “We need to return him to bed and call a physician.”
“Toast,” he politely reminded her.
“Tea and toast once you’re settled in,” she agreed.
Why wasn’t she home with her husband? Having Sarah Jane flutter around him as she had done in their youth disturbed him on a painfully personal level.
Ivo steadied himself as he stumbled back up the stairs. His gammy knee still gave out at the most inopportune times, but he could walk.
Apparently, these days Sarah smelled of apples and fresh bread and… a delicate fragrance all her own that stirred base desires. Good to know he wasn’t dead, he decided, reeling toward the safety of his sofa as soon as they reached the next floor.
“You ought to be in bed…” She bit off whatever else she intended to say. She was doing that a lot.
“No blasted linens,” Ivo finished for her. “House all closed up. Should have written, sorry.” He leaned against the sofa back and closed his eyes to stop the spinning.
“There’s still a few bits in the larder,” the crow murmured. “I’ll see what I can find, then fetch Dr. Jones. You should come away now.”
“Don’t be foolish, Mary. I can’t leave him like this. There’s a teapot up here already. We just need to heat some water and find a bit of tea.”
Ivo heard her checking his mysterious china tea set. He’d not packed china in his valise. He might have packed tea. It was the best medicine for homesickness.
“Tea, valise,” he managed, dragging pillows behind his back so he could sit upright. “No water though.”
“There are a few coals for a fire,” his angel said, exploring the room. “Surely there’s still water in the cistern. This is a fresh pot of tea.”
“Mice made it,” Ivo said in satisfaction. “Not me.”
That produced a quiet round of whispering. He was enjoying the unfamiliarity of feminine company. Although Sarah was gratifyingly familiar—in an unaccustomed way. Gads, his brain was muddled.
He must have dozed off for a while. He woke to warm soapy water cleansing his grizzled jaw. The scent of apple blossoms and tea forced his eyes open.
His angel’s worried frown wasn’t blissful, but the sight of a tray laden with tea and toast was the next best thing to Sarah’s angelic presence.
“I think I love you,” he sighed in gratitude.