The St Nicholas' Day Wager

Dedication

This has been a particularly tough year for me so I dedicate this book to all the people who have had to take up the slack at work for me, all the people who have supported me through the times I thought I was going mad and all the people who have encouraged me.

Here’s to a slightly easier year next year.

 

 

Chapter One

Fifth of December, 1818 - three minutes to midnight

 

“So, Eastden, how is the old broken heart faring?” Thornwich’s voice rang out through the dining room of White’s Gentlemen’s Club, but no one really noticed. To a gentleman, everyone was as far into his cups as were Nick and his friends – if one could call them friends.

If truth be told, the company in town at this time of year, early December, left a lot to be desired. Every gentleman around this table was as dissolute as he. They were all rakes and libertines, even the married ones. And at this moment in time, they were all utterly foxed.

Nick swirled the brandy in his glass and watched it coat the inside before dribbling back into the pool of dark amber liquid. Then he looked up at the man who had just spoken.

“Broken-hearted, Thornwich? I don’t know what you mean.”

“Lady Angela—Sedgewick’s daughter. You seemed very keen on her during the season and then suddenly she was betrothed to the bastard son of the Duke of Hawkhill.”

“Mm, yes,” mused Nick, trying to sound non-committal. “I am sure she is very happy with Mr Stevenson and he is obscenely rich.”

“I hear she is already increasing, Eastden. It’s not yours, is it?”

Nick tried to focus on his tormenter. What in devil’s name was he doing here with this ass?

“Unlike you, Thornwich, I do not make a habit of ruining young ladies of the
ton.

A murmur moved around the table.

“God’s teeth, Eastden, you’re not suddenly going to become my moral compass. I married the young lady I ruined…well one of them anyway.” He grinned around at his friends, some of whom nodded appreciatively at his joke while others suddenly became consumed with checking the contents of their own glasses.

“No, Thornwich. You have to live with the fact that two young ladies are now spinsters due to your reckless behaviour and the fact you seduced and ruined them, not to mention the servants you have no doubt bedded. I was merely pointing out that I am not like you. And since the only way to save your scrawny little neck was to marry Lady Edna, I would have expected nothing less of you.”

He was not entirely sure where his sudden moral outrage had come from. Thornwich had been his friend when they were boys. They had learned to fish together, they had dragged each other back to their feet after their first tumbles from horses and they had skimmed stones across his father’s lake. Thornwich had never quite matched Nick’s tally of nine skips.

Now Thornwich was an earl, had married Lady Edna Barrow, a pretty enough daughter of a viscount, but he still kept a number of mistresses and preferred to be in London with his rakehell friends than out at Thornwich with his perfectly lovely wife. The man was a fool.

Nick was vaguely aware of the clock chiming midnight in the hallway outside the dining room.

“You are just as dissolute as I am, Eastden,” Thornwich sneered. “The difference is that I am already an earl and that I am already married. You seem capable of attaining neither state of being.”

“I am not sure how you expect me to become an earl short of murdering my own father which is ludicrous, and as for marriage, I could have been married a hundred times over. When I walk into a ballroom, all the mamas with marriageable daughters look at me with expectation.”

“Yet you remain a bachelor with no heir to carry on the earldom should your father outlive you.”

“I choose to remain a bachelor. Devil take it, I could be married by Christmas if I so decided, Thornwich.” It was the brandy talking. Nick knew it. This was his chance to shut his mouth and retreat.

“That sounds dangerously close to a wager, old man.”

“Do not tempt me, Thornwich, for you would lose.”

“Hmm, it is after midnight so it is now St Nicholas’ Day. It would seem we are now in the Christmas season. Ten thousand pounds says you cannot marry my spinster sister before Christmas Day.”

“Your spinster sister? You mean Gabriella?”

“Yes. I mean Gabriella. She is eight and twenty and I would gladly pay someone to take her off my hands. She has had nine seasons and not one proposal of marriage. Besides, since you will no doubt lose, I could use the money.”

Nick looked around the table. All the men were now watching him avidly. It was a stupid bet, but he had been put on the spot. Somehow he knew he was going to regret it in the morning, but one look at Thornwich’s smug expression and something snapped inside him.

He had grown up with Gabby too. Their fathers’ estates neighboured each other and until he had been sent away to school, she, not Thornwich, had been his best friend. He had seen her about town on many occasions since her come out and now he came to think of it, he had no idea why he had never asked her to dance or even approached her to chat. Something niggled at the back of his mind. They had drifted apart of course. It had been bound to happen but something had spoiled their friendship. Perhaps their parents had quarrelled. That was probably it. But why had she never married?

And then he remembered. The large strawberry birthmark across her cheek and nose. How had he managed to forget that? But surely that would not be enough to stop anyone asking for her hand. It was only a birthmark.

Perhaps because he had grown up with her, and she had always just been Gabby he had never really noticed the mark. As for his lack of gentlemanly behaviour, he had no answers. Thornwich’s mouth had turned into a sneer. He was trying to set not just Nick up to fail, but Gabriella too. What a cad.

“I shall accept your wager, Lord Thornwich.” He turned to a footman. “The betting book, please,” he said. He turned back to his adversary. “We leave tomorrow morning for your country estate.”

****

Gabriella looked up from the ledger and rubbed her eyes, looking around her father’s office and judging it dark enough to start lighting candles. It must be nearly four o’clock in the afternoon if it was already getting dark. No matter how she tried to make her sums add up they would not.

At that moment there was a sharp rap at the door and Gabriella bade the housekeeper to enter, along with a footman carrying a tray of sandwiches, cakes and tea.

“I apologise, my lady, but I knew you would forget to ring for tea so I took the liberty of getting cook to prepare a tray for you. I hope you don’t mind.”

The footman placed the tray on the desk, bowed and set about lighting candles all around the room. Gabriella smiled at the older woman who had all but brought Gabriella up. Of course there had been governesses and nannies, but it had always been to Mrs McAllister whom Gabriella would run when she fell and hurt her knee, or when other children would taunt her over her birthmark.

“Please sit and have tea with me, Mrs McAllister.”

“Oh my lady, I’m not sure…”

“I insist,” Gabriella said in a tone that brooked no reply. They played this game every day. The housekeeper knew that Gabriella was lonely and needed someone to talk to, but she would never presume to be invited to sit for tea, despite two cups and saucers being set on the tray.

“As you wish,” replied Mrs McAllister, sitting on the other side of the desk.

“Billy, did the thatcher fix your mother’s roof?” she asked as the footman bowed and prepared to leave.

“Yes, milady. She was very pleased with it. She asked me to thank you but I forgot.” The young man blushed furiously, and Gabriella smiled kindly at him.

“Worry not, Billy, it shall be our secret.”

“Yes, my lady. Thank you, my lady.”

With that, he scurried off into the dark foyer to light some more candles. Gabby sighed. She had managed to pay for just one roof to be fixed. Billy’s mother’s roof had been the worst. But there was no money for the rest.

“Perhaps you should think again about a companion, Lady Gabby,” said the housekeeper as Gabriella poured the tea. The housekeeper was the only person she allowed to call her Gabby, and even then, only when they were in private.

“We have been though this, Peggy. I am fine. I did try to find a companion but none suited. They were all so…”

She waved her hand, trying to think of a polite way to put it. Every woman she had interviewed seemed to be a foretaste of what she was about to become. An unwanted, unloved and bitter spinster. She may be alone but she had her work cut out for her running the estate. Besides, where would the money come from?

Joseph, her brother, was a feckless wastrel with the most unpleasant wife. That said, Gabriella supposed that Edna had reason to be angry at the world. She had married a man who seemed intent on bedding every female in England, save Edna herself—except out of sheer duty. She’d had two miscarriages and was presently increasing again. Gabriella hoped for Edna’s sake that the pregnancy would go well.

Peggy McAllister accepted the cup of tea.

“I know, lovey. I just worry about you is all.”

“I am fine. I just need to convince my brother to release funds so I can make some repairs to the tenants’ cottages and the stables. I shall write to him tonight.”

A noise outside made Gabriella turn towards the window. She recognised the coach pulling up in front of the ancient manor’s front doors. The Thornwich crest was emblazoned on the side, bigger than most crests, making the whole thing look preposterous.

“Looks like you will be able to save your paper, my lady,” said Peggy, standing and smoothing down her apron.

What Gabriella saw next turned her blood cold. Stepping out of her brother’s travelling coach was none other than Viscount Eastden—Nicholas, her childhood friend. She had not spoken to him since that awful day when they were twelve years old and he had taunted her, telling her she was ugly and would end up an old spinster. The sad truth was—he had been correct.

 

Chapter Two

 

Gabriella rose and glanced down at her appearance. Devil take it. Why could her brother not have had the decency to let her know to expect a visitor? At least she would have worn something slightly more appropriate than her faded blue muslin day gown. She patted her blonde hair, wondering how much of the severe knot had come down as she had frustrated herself over the figures in the estate ledger. She had not even put any powder over her birthmark to minimise it. No one in Thornwich Manor cared how ugly she looked.

Well there was no point worrying about it now. She took a deep breath and walked into the foyer just as Joseph, Edna and Lord Eastden marched into the manor. Joseph’s eyes lit on Gabriella and his expression became a sneer, as did Edna’s.

“My darling sister. You remember Lord Eastden of course.” Gabriella curtseyed politely at the man who bowed low and graciously to her. He had already removed his hat. Gabriella’s breath hitched. The man was gorgeous. She had seen him at balls over the years but had never paid too much attention. For all his comment had been a silly, childish remark made in a fit of pique at her not allowing him to play with her new puppy, it still hurt.

“My lady, it is a pleasure. We have waited far too long to become reacquainted with each other.”

“As I recall, my lord, you sent me to the devil at our last meeting and I have not yet reached there. I assumed you would not want to be acquainted with a lady who disobeyed your orders.”

“I did?” Lord Eastden looked genuinely shocked and perplexed. “I do humbly beg your pardon, my lady. I do not recall saying such a thing. I shall not seek to make any excuses, but I do beg your forgiveness for any offence I caused.”

She waved away his apology. It was sixteen years too late in any case. She found it difficult to believe that he could not remember the cruel words or the curl of his lip as he had uttered them.

“If everyone wants to go into the drawing room, I shall arrange for a tea tray while your rooms are being prepared. My lord,” she turned to her brother, “I apologise. Had I known you were coming, I would have had your room and our guest’s room prepared.”

“Now, now, Gabs, don’t be a spoilsport. You know I like to live in the moment.”

“I shall order the tea,” announced Edna. “I am, after all, lady of this house.” Gabriella bit her tongue and nodded graciously at the countess.

“Of course, my lady. I do apologise for presuming.”

“You can join us for tea if you wish, Gabriella, though I am not sure you are exactly dressed for visitors.” Edna’s gaze roved up and down Gabriella’s attire and she could feel heat burn her cheeks.

“Thank you, but I beg you excuse me. I have work to finish.”

“Have you organised dinner?” asked her sister-in-law.

“You have only just arrived. I was not expecting you.”

The countess clicked her fingers at the footman standing to attention at the drawing room door.

“Fetch a tea tray, boy, and tell Mrs McAllister we expect dinner to be served at seven o’clock.”

“Aye, my lady.” Billy bowed and hurried off to do his mistress’s bidding. Gabriella hated the way Edna spoke to the servants. She turned to her brother.

“My lord, if you’ll excuse me?” She curtseyed to her brother and then to their guest and hurried off in the direction of the long sweeping staircase, desperate for the sanctuary of her own suite of rooms.

****

As much as Nick tried to remember whatever it was he had said to Gabby to upset her so, even all these years later, he could not recall it. He lay in the bath in his room, trying to recall anything after her teary farewell the day before he had gone to Eton. He had promised to write and tell her all about school and the other boys and the masters and his lessons. But he never had. He had been caught up in his new life and even his mother had been lucky to get one quickly scrawled missive per term.

But that was not what upset her. He could tell.

“My lord, you shall be late for dinner if you do not hurry.” Carter, his valet, stood beside the tub brandishing a razor.

“Ah yes. I do apologise. I was wool gathering.”

“Very good, sir, but it is nearly half past six.”

“Indeed.” Nick pulled himself to his feet and allowed the man to wrap a linen around him. He would work things out with Gabriella later and perhaps tell her about the wager. It seemed the right thing to do.

****

When he walked into the drawing room half an hour later, clean-shaven, washed and dressed in one of his best dinner coats, his eyes alighted on Gabriella. He had travelled all day with Thornwich and his countess, bitterly regretting his stupid wager of the night before. But the wager was now in White’s betting book and he had plans for the money he had saved from his generous allowance. He did not want to give it up to a wastrel like Thornwich. He had to win and he needed to get Gabriella on his side—either by telling her the truth, a gamble in itself—or by wooing her.

“Joseph, please. Three tenants need completely new roofs and…” But Thornwich held his hand up to his sister as he noticed their visitor had arrived. Gabriella blushed delightfully and turned to look in his direction. Her gaze swept up his length, making Nick’s blood warm.

Or perhaps it was the dark red, high-waisted, low-cut gown that warmed his blood. It was a gown more suited to a young widow than an innocent lady, even one who was eight and twenty. The neckline of her dress had gold braiding, drawing attention to her perfect breasts. A gold chain hung around her slender neck, a large ruby pendant sitting just above the top of her cleavage. Her hairstyle was less severe this evening and curls framed her face, while the rest of her hair was piled high, making her appear slightly taller than she was.

As he worked to tamp down his physical reaction to her, suddenly the idea of marrying her, and more importantly bedding her, did not seem like quite such an onerous task anymore. But how would he go about convincing her to marry him in less than three weeks?

“My lord, would you like a drink?”

But the gong went in the downstairs hall, calling them into dinner. Nick smiled at Gabriella while she frowned at the brandy decanter she had just indicated. The earl and countess moved to precede them downstairs and into the dining room. Nick held out his arm and Gabriella reluctantly placed her gloved hand on his sleeve.

He looked down at her as they walked sedately downstairs but the woman he intended to marry looked straight ahead, her pert little nose in the air. He was on the side of her birthmark and, if he was honest, it was not particularly bad. Yes, it was obvious and it did mar her features somewhat. But it was only skin discolouration. And with her pink lips set in a little pout of disapproval, he had the sudden urge to kiss her.

Unfortunately, the woman’s stiff posture and inability to look him in the eye told him that it would take some effort for him to win this St Nicholas’ Day wager.

 

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