Ezra Haddington, the Duke of Brunswick, tightened the woollen black coat around him as he made his way towards Acton Hall. Snowflakes drifted lazily in the air, settling upon his shoulders. When he breathed, there was fog. The snow crunched beneath his black boots, leaving heavy footmarks within it. It was only the first week of December, and already, this winter was one of the coldest in years.
The butler, Kent, was waiting for him in the foyer, taking his coat. As Ezra brushed the snow from his boots, he turned, staring coldly at the elderly man.
“Have my guests arrived yet?” he barked as irritation snapped at his heels. “I do so hope they are not running late after the heaven and earth I moved to get back here for this meeting.”
“Yes, Your Grace,” replied the man, looking a trifle scared. “They are all assembled in the library, as per your instructions. I have made sure they have refreshment.”
Ezra grimaced. “Good. Tell them I shall be along directly.”
The butler nodded, scurrying off.
Ezra sighed heavily, striding to the parlour. A quick nip of brandy was called for before he faced them. He had been travelling for hours to get here through heavy snow. Once it had got so thick, the carriage had to pull over. He had been away from Acton Hall for well over a month now, dealing with his various subsidiary businesses. And he still had this last meeting to attend before he could take a well-deserved rest.
He gazed about the parlour as he slowly walked around it, sipping the brandy, feeling the liquid slowly thaw him out. It was the same as it ever was. Nothing changed at Acton Hall, his ancestral home, which had been in his family since before Tudor times. Generations of Haddingtons had trod through these rooms and hallways. And now, it was all his. He was the last of the direct line. Acton Hall would go to some distant relative when he was gone. He hardly knew whether to be pleased or sad about that fact; his ambivalence towards this place was so strong it was overpowering.
Sighing, he slammed the empty glass upon the mantelpiece. No rest for the wicked yet, he thought ruefully, as he left the room, heading towards the library. One last meeting before he took a self-imposed rest before the holiday season. Not that he cared one iota about the holidays or Christmastide. If he could have, he would have worked through the whole season, not even pausing on the holy day. But the rest of the world didn’t share his hatred of this time of year, and it was all winding down anyway. Nothing could be achieved.
His face twisted with distaste at the mere thought of it. He was used to being furiously busy, travelling constantly, working himself to the bone. He didn’t like stopping. But then, he remembered that his only friend, Luke Clarke, Viscount Caldwell, was dropping by later with his younger brother Samuel. It would be a mixture of business and pleasure. He had agreed to take Samuel under his wing, mentor him so that the man could take on some business projects of his own. It would give him something to do at least, in the coming weeks, other than sit around this shell of a house, brooding.
He pushed open the door to the library. Five men were sitting around the long table. They all turned and stared at him, their expressions ranging from wariness to downright fear. Ezra knew he had a reputation for being difficult and exacting. And the simple fact was he didn’t even care. Let them fear him. He wasn’t out to make any friends.
“Gentlemen,” he growled, striding forward. “Let us begin.”
Early afternoon, he sat in his study, going over some papers. He was so absorbed that when the knock came on the door, it took him by surprise. It was Luke, of course, and his younger brother. He forced a smile upon his face, lowering the quill. It had been over three months since he had last seen his friend.
“Brunswick,” said Luke, beaming with delight. “It is good to see you, old chap!” He turned to the man standing next to him. “May I introduce my younger brother?”
Ezra stood up, walking to greet them. He put out his hand to the gentleman, assessing him quickly. It was a wonder they hadn’t ever met before, but that was the way of it. Ezra didn’t socialise much at all. He kept himself to himself. It was the way he had always liked it. The only reason he had kept up his friendship with Luke was because the other man made such an effort.
Samuel Clarke was tall and thin, with an angular face and opaque brown eyes. He didn’t look like his brother at all. Luke was of a similar height but had a stockier frame, with broad shoulders. And he had a paler complexion. Samuel Clarke was so swarthy he could almost pass for a gypsy.
“Clarke,” rapped Ezra. “We meet at last. Take a seat.”
The two gentlemen sat down. Ezra poured them all a whisky before sitting opposite.
“You look tired, Brunswick,” said Luke, gazing at him steadily. “Have you been on your usual breakneck pace? Where have you just returned from?”
“Lincolnshire,” said Ezra, rubbing his neck. “Negotiating which of the cotton mills there I should invest in. Several meetings with the mill owners and their managers, looking at profit and loss sheets and taking a looking glass to how well they are doing.”
“You truly have your thumb in just about every pie,” said Luke, smiling wryly. “Cotton mills, coal mines, property … is there anything you will not invest in?”
Ezra snorted. “Probably not. But it keeps me on my toes. A man must be useful, Caldwell. Otherwise, why bother getting up of a morning? I have never been the type to loll around, riding with hounds or attending the season in London. The Devil makes work of idle hands.”
“Your attitude is unusual,” said Luke, his smile widening. “It is not many dukes who dirty their hands with work, especially if they have no need to.” He turned to his brother. “Brunswick has a considerable inheritance, Samuel. He is very comfortable. His late father made sure of that.”
Ezra grimaced. He didn’t like thinking about his late father or the substantial inheritance the last Duke of Brunswick had left him. Nor his late mother. And it was particularly hard at this time of year, being in this house.
“Indeed,” he said in a sour voice. “Shall we get to it?” He turned to Luke’s younger brother. “Tell me why you are here. What do you hope to achieve?”
Samuel Clarke looked a little taken aback at the direct question. Ezra’s eyes narrowed. He didn’t know the gentleman at all, but he looked a type. An indolent, lazy whelp, addicted to pleasure and frivolity, dressed like a dandy. He knew that it was Luke and his father, the Earl of Caldwell, who had arranged this meeting. Apparently, the earl was concerned that his younger son had no purpose other than gambling dens, questionable ladies, and the like.
Ezra knew that the younger sons of high-born gentlemen were often at a loss about what to do with their lives. Some went into law, or the clergy, or the army. It seemed that Samuel Clarke didn’t want to do any of those things. But did he want to do business, either? Would he be wasting his time trying to mentor this gentleman? Did he even want to be here?
“My father thinks I should learn the ropes of how to manage an estate,” said the man slowly. “As a start, he is promising to buy me a country property of my own if I am diligent and show him I can manage it.”
Ezra nodded. It wasn’t quite the eager declaration he had been hoping for. He was right – Samuel Clarke was here only under sufferance. His father had dangled a carrot in front of him, promising him his own estate if he did this. But it was no skin off his nose to mentor the man for a little while. It would give him a project for the holiday season, distract him from the inevitable depression and rage it brought. It might just work for them both.
There was another knock on the door.
“Enter,” barked Ezra. He already knew who it would be, and he wasn’t disappointed.
His head steward, Mr Nicholson, came in. Nicholson had been managing most aspects of the estate for years. He had been in service when his parents had still been alive. A small, balding man, with a mild air, which hid a sharp mind and boundless energy, even if he was probably close to sixty now.
“Nicholson,” said Ezra. “You have met Lord Caldwell before. This is his younger brother, Sir Samuel Clarke. He wishes to learn the management of an estate, and I thought I might bring you in on it. You might want to take him on a tour of the place and explain the fundamentals before we get to the nitty-gritty.”
“Very good, Your Grace,” said the steward.
Within minutes, the steward was off, leading Samuel out of the room for a tour of the estate. Ezra knew that Nicholson would explain the duties of stewardship: managing the tenants, hiring and firing staff, settling tenant disputes, overseeing the harvest and livestock, collecting rents. Nicholson’s duties were far ranging. It wasn’t that Samuel couldn’t hire a steward to do it all for him if he got his estate. It was the point that a canny gentleman should know the intricacies of his estate first, so as to be aware if there were issues or discrepancies, and to make sure that his finger was on the pulse. A man could be swindled by a bad steward, or his estate run into the ground.
Luke turned to him, sipping his whisky. “Thank you for this, Brunswick. It is much appreciated. My father sends his gratitude as well.” He paused. “Samuel has been running a little wild. This could be the making of him, give him purpose.”
Ezra nodded. “It will only work if he dedicates himself.” He paused. “We shall start with the overseeing of the estate, and then I shall lead him into other areas. Investments and so on. But I shall not continue with him unless he shows enthusiasm. You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink, Caldwell.”
Luke grimaced. “I understand. So does my father. Just do your best. That is all we ask.” He sat back, staring at his friend. “How have you been? Now that we are alone. I swear I cannot remember the last time we caught up like this.”
Ezra sighed as he refilled their glasses. “I am the same as always, old chap. Travelling from pillar to post, working constantly.” He paused. “You know the life I lead.”
Luke nodded. “Are you glad to be back at Acton Hall?”
Ezra’s face twisted. “No. I am not. But neither do I want to spend this detestable holiday season as someone’s house guest, playing silly games. At least here I am left in peace.” He shuddered, looking around the room. “It is odious being here, especially at this time of year, but there is no other way for it. Business winds down, and I cannot work.”
Luke gazed at him sympathetically. “A hard time of year for you, indeed. I understand how you feel, my friend. But it shall be over and done with before you know it. Christmastide only comes once a year, after all.”
Ezra shuddered again. He detested this time of year. There would be no decorations or celebrations happening at Acton Hall. There never was – not since his parents had left this earth, at any rate.
A dim memory came to him. Of being a small boy, perhaps eight years old. His mother, smiling, as she watched him open a pile of presents in the parlour. His father then leading him to the window, pointing below. A stablehand standing there, holding the reins of a small, brown pony, with a bright red bow around its neck …
Firmly, he pushed the memory aside. He didn’t want to remember what it had once been like. He didn’t want to remember his happy, carefree childhood, nor any Christmastide celebrations. Those days were long gone. He was alone now. And he always would be.
“You decided not to go abroad this year then?” asked Luke, cutting in on his reverie. “I know you sometimes do that at this time of year.”
Ezra snorted. “I could not stomach the idea. Going from one place to another, travelling aimlessly. There is no joy in it.”
Luke contemplated him. “What about with the company of a fair young lady? You are pushing thirty now, Brunswick. Have you ever thought about marrying and settling down?”
Ezra glowered into his whisky. “I have not. Nor shall I ever.” He looked up suddenly, staring hard at his friend. “The line ends with me, my friend. I shall never take a wife or sire children.”
Luke shook his head in astonishment. “How can you say such a thing? Do you not want to find a measure of happiness and peace? A family of your own?”
“I do not,” he replied quickly, his heart flipping within his chest. “I have never encountered a lady who I wish to spend my life with. And I am nearing thirty now. The chances that I will are remote. And it does not bother me. I do not want children anyway.” He paused. “I think it is apt that the line ends with me. This place shall go to some distant relative when I pass on or else be sold off. The Haddingtons’ reign shall be over. So be it.”
Luke gaped at him, clearly astounded by his obstinacy on the subject. They had never discussed it in much depth before. Luke knew of his reluctance to wed but obviously thought he may have softened his stance upon the subject with time. But time had only solidified it, turning it into stone.
It wasn’t just that he had never met a woman he wished to marry. It was tied to his hatred of this place. If he married and had a family, he would have to spend more time here. Something he didn’t want at all. He would have to become the resident duke, just like his father before him. Something he simply could not do.
His hand tightened on the glass of whisky. The weeks ahead, being resident here, loomed before him, stretching endlessly, each day a trial. But it would be the same wherever he spent Christmastide. That was just the way of it. It might as well be at Acton Hall as anywhere else. He just had to grit his teeth and plough through it.
“Shall we dine here this evening?” asked Luke, staring at him carefully. “Samuel will be returning home, but I can stay on. We have not caught up for so long.”
Ezra grinned. “Why not? It would be a good way to pass the cold, dark evening.”
Luke looked like he was about to say something, then changed his mind. He downed his whisky. “Very good. It is settled. Who knows where the evening may lead?”
Ezra gazed at him curiously. “Whatever do you mean, old chap? Perhaps a game of cards by the fire. What else could happen?”
Luke looked maddeningly smug. “Oh, I do not know. But let us keep an open mind, shall we? I might go and catch up with that brother of mine before he leaves. Press upon him the importance of taking this seriously. I will be back.”
Ezra nodded, gazing at his friend curiously. Luke had something afoot. He could just tell. But what that could be was beyond him. It was just a regular Thursday evening, after all. He hadn’t heard of any soirees or parties in the district that his friend might try to drag him to. A prospect that was anathema to him.
He downed his whisky, before settling back behind his desk. Good old Luke. They had become closer when both had been at Cambridge, although they had known each other since boyhood. And he could honestly say that Luke was his only friend, now. He had slowly stopped socialising years ago, and any other acquaintances had dropped off. Something which didn’t bother him in the slightest. Work was his reason for existing. Work was everything.
Ezra frowned, staring absently out the window. He knew he wasn’t popular. He knew that most people thought him disagreeable, if not an ogre. But he didn’t care about that, either. He had stopped caring what anyone thought about him years ago. It was much better that way.
His frown deepened. The snow was still falling steadily; the days were growing shorter and shorter. The countdown to Christmastide had started already. Passing through villages today on his way here he had seen it. Most village squares were already festooned with decorations. He knew that the grand houses in the district would soon be hosting Christmas balls and parties, serving eggnog, making great sport of kissing under the mistletoe. All the usual festivities of the season.
But he wouldn’t be participating. He never did. How could he, since his only family in this world – the two people who he had loved more than life itself – had both suddenly, tragically left this life, only three days before Christmas Day?
No, this season made him sick to his stomach. But he just had to grit his teeth and endure it. Luke was right. It would pass, just like it always did. God help him.
Abigail Andrews lifted the skirt of her gown as she ran along the lawn towards the house. She didn’t care if her stockinged legs were exposed. There wasn’t anyone out here at the moment, anyway. And lifting her gown meant she could run just that little bit faster.
Panting with exertion, she glanced behind her. Her very best friend in the world and fellow parlour maid, Jane Major, was hot on her heels. Jane’s face was beetroot red. It was amazing that they could even run as fast as they were going through the thick blanket of snow covering the ground.
Suddenly, Abigail’s left foot got stuck in the snow. Wavering precariously, her hands in the air, she abruptly lost her footing, falling onto the ground. But the snow acted like a buffer, preventing her from truly hurting herself.
“Abigail!” cried Jane in horror.
Abigail slowly sat up, brushing the snow off her. Then she couldn’t help it. She burst into peels of hysterical laughter, clutching her sides. Jane simply stared at her, appalled.
“Abigail,” she hissed, her eyes wide with fright. “Get up! We are already late. If Mr Nicholson gets wind of it, we might both be out on our ear before the day is up.”
Abigail put out a hand towards her friend. “Help me, then, Jane. I am stuck.”
Jane sighed, taking her hand, pulling her to her feet. Abigail lurched forward before finding her footing. She glanced up at the high battlements of Acton Hall. She had only been working here for two weeks, and it still took her breath away that she was actually living within this grand house. The grandest house in the whole of Derbyshire, she shouldn’t wonder. She felt like she was in a palace.
“I should not have listened to you,” said Jane breathlessly, frowning. “We should just have eaten our sandwiches in the kitchen like we always do.” She shivered. “It is too cold out here for picnics anyway, Abigail.”
Abigail wrinkled her nose. “Oh, Janey, do not be such a stick in the mud! I haven’t been out of the house in days. We are due our lunch break. Why can’t we come and sit in the gardens? We aren’t hurting anybody.”
Jane pursed her lips. “Because it is too easy to lose track of time. Which is exactly what happened. You distracted me with that story.” She took a deep breath. “And now we are late and shall be told off. If Mrs Knowles doesn’t spot us and do it, then Mr Nicholson surely will. You know he hovers around the house sometimes, trying to catch all the maids and footmen out.”
Abigail sighed heavily. “Jane, it will be alright. I saw Mr Nicholson walking within the grounds earlier today. He is clearly busy and probably won’t be back in the house for some time. He has bigger fish to fry than catching out two parlour maids.”
Jane didn’t look convinced. “Come on,” she urged.
Abigail sighed again but nodded. They did have to get back to work. They had strict instructions to clean the entire parlour from top to bottom this afternoon. That included dusting every object, cleaning the curtains, scrubbing the floor, and taking the rug out to belt. It was a full clean and would take them some time.
“Why has Mrs Knowles asked us to do the full clean so suddenly?” asked Abigail, as they kept walking. “We usually do it on a Monday.”
Jane glanced at her sideways. “The master is coming home, Abigail. His Grace. We always do a full clean of the house before his arrival.” She paused. “Not that he notices, I would wager. He hates Acton Hall, so he does and tries to spend as little time here as possible.”
Abigail gaped at her friend. “The Duke of Brunswick is finally going to be in residence?” Her master, who owned this grand, sprawling estate, was a very elusive man. She hadn’t even met him yet.
Jane nodded. “Yes. It is unusual for him to come here at all, but especially at this time of year.” She paused dramatically. “On account of the tragedy.”
Abigail’s eyebrows rose. “What tragedy?”
But Jane shook her head. “Let’s get into the house and set to work. I will tell you later.”
When they finally got to the parlour, out of breath, the room was empty. Mrs Knowles, the housekeeper, was nowhere in sight. Neither was Mr Nicholson. They picked up their buckets, rags, and brushes and set to work. The coast was clear.
“Good to see you hard at work, girls,” boomed a man’s voice from the doorway. “Especially since you took an extended break at lunch.”
Abigail almost dropped her scrubbing brush. Jane gasped. There he was – Mr Nicholson, the steward, gazing at them sternly. He was a small man, with balding hair, probably in his late fifties. And his eyes were cold as he beheld them.
Abigail stiffened. She was used to people liking her, but Mr Nicholson always seemed to be scowling at her whenever she saw him. Jane insisted it was just his way – he was always wary of new servants, especially ones who were inexperienced, watching them closely, waiting for them to slip up or prove themselves. Well, he was responsible for the hiring and firing of all the staff on the estate. He had to be on the ball.
“Sorry, Mr Nicholson,” said Jane quickly, looking frightened. “We just lost track of time …”
“Which is precisely the reason that you should take your break in the kitchen,” he said, frowning. “One warning, girls. Make sure it does not happen again.” He marched off.
Abigail gripped the scrubbing brush tightly. “He doesn’t like me. At all.”
Jane turned back to the mantelpiece, where she was dusting. “We gave him reason today, Abigail. I know you are new to this kind of work, but we have to be obedient and on time. There are too many people who would be more than glad to take our positions, you know.”
Abigail sighed. She did know that. She knew she was lucky to have secured this position at this grand house, and she took it seriously. It was just that she had never worked as a maid before, and it was all new to her: the rigorous schedule, the backbreaking work, the fact that she had such little time to herself anymore. She only had one day off a week, and it was usually late before she could retire to her small room in the servants’ quarters of a night. Not to mention the very early morning starts.
Abigail sighed again. It had been a baptism by fire. She was more tired than she had ever been in her life. And she was living away from home for the first time in her life, as well. The little cottage in Hillsford, where she had lived all her life, was like a dream, now. As were her parents, who she only managed to see once a week on her day off.
She started scrubbing again, quite furiously, as tears sprang into her eyes. She missed them so much. It had been the three of them forever, a charmed circle, always together. But they were getting older, and their business wasn’t going as well as it once had. It was the only reason she had made the painful decision to leave them, taking this position at Acton Hall, when Jane had told her it was available. It was to help support them, in the only way she knew how.
Desperately, she fought back the tears. It was all so new, this life. And strange. So regimented. Everyone here was wary of her, although she had made friends with old William, the cook, and Mary, the head maid, who acted like a mother hen towards all the younger maids. That was something. And there was Jane, of course. She shouldn’t complain. But sometimes, in moments like these, she felt very lost and alone, indeed.
It took them over two hours before the parlour was done. Abigail straightened, rubbing the small of her back ruefully. It was so sore. She and Jane chatted easily as they packed up the mops, rags, and brushes.
“You are coming to the market this evening, aren’t you?” asked Jane. “Mrs Knowles always lets us go to it if we get all our chores done for the day.”
Abigail smiled. “I am doing more than just going to the market, Jane. I am planning to run the family stall.”
Jane raised her eyebrows. “Are your parents not feeling up to it this evening?”
Abigail shrugged. “It is hard for them, sitting out in the cold. Their rheumatism plays up, and they get so stiff and sore. But this is the last market night before Christmas, and usually business is brisk, so we cannot afford not to do it.” She paused. “I thought I would give them the night off. They can wander the market, catching up with folk, while I do the work.”
Jane smiled. “That is so very sweet of you, Abigail! Especially after the long day’s work here. You will probably be nodding off …”
“I doubt it.” Abigail laughed as they walked slowly out of the parlour. “There is always someone to talk to. And it has been a while since I caught up with the villagers.” Her face dropped. “It is a bit isolated living out here, isn’t it? I don’t see anyone from the village. And I miss Pa and Ma so much.”
Jane rested a hand on her arm. “You get used to it, Abigail. It has been over a year for me now. You will start to feel comfortable at Acton Hall soon. Trust me.” She paused. “And think of the wage. It is a great help to our families.”
Abigail nodded, biting her lip. It was the only reason she was doing this. She hadn’t imagined that she would ever live away from home – except when she married and had a family of her own, of course. But that was so far off as to be ridiculous. She had no suitor, and she was only twenty years old. Much too young to be even thinking of such things.
Abigail liked it that way. She wasn’t interested in any of the village boys. She didn’t know why – they just seemed young and immature, more interested in drinking themselves silly at the local tavern or playing cards into the night. She had been to a few local dances but never met anyone who made her heart race even a little faster.
And her parents needed her. Michael and Naomi Andrews were quite old compared to when the other villagers welcomed their children. Before she arrived, out of the blue, they had thought they were going to remain childless forever. She had been cossetted, treated like gold, like a precious gift. No child could have been more loved. But as she had grown, they had aged. Sometimes she thought they were more like grandparents than parents.
Her father was a skilled woodworker, making children’s toys. Her mother helped him, running the tiny store adjacent to their home. But they were both crippled with arthritis now. Her father could hardly hold the tools for his work, so his output was slower, meaning they had less to sell. In addition to that, her mother’s chest was bad and always plagued her during winter. Often she would be bedridden for days, and the little store closed.
The family had been struggling for over a year by the time Abigail knew she had to do something drastic. When Jane had mentioned this position at Acton Hall, she had been so relieved she could have wept. It wasn’t much, but it would supplement her parents’ income. Most of her wage went to them. She only kept a few shillings for herself – to buy new hair ribbons, or a shawl, or anything that she might suddenly need, which wasn’t much.
Abigail suddenly felt bereft. She missed her parents, her home, and her life in the village so much. To distract herself, she thought of the elusive Duke of Brunswick, who was apparently arriving sometime today or tomorrow.
“Tell me about the duke’s tragedy,” she said as they walked towards the kitchen. “Why doesn’t he like being here at this time of year? Remember, you were going to tell me.”
Jane pulled a face. “Oh, yes. Well, it was simply terrible, according to Mary. She told me the story when I first started here.” She took a deep breath. “Apparently, the duke was only a lad, around eleven years. His parents had been away, leaving him at home with the nanny. It was just before Christmas – he was waiting for them to come home, with all the presents.” Jane paused dramatically.
Abigail gaped at her. “Go on. Don’t leave it there.”
Jane nodded, lowering her voice. “He was waiting for them, so eager, that the nanny let him stay up later than usual,” continued Jane. “He was at the parlour window, gazing out, waiting to hear the rattle of the carriage. But it never came. Instead, the local constabulary knocked on the door, informing the household that the duke and duchess had been involved in a carriage accident. It had gone off a cliff, crashing onto the rocks below. They both perished instantly.”
Abigail clapped a hand over her mouth in horror. “No! That is dreadful! The poor boy!”
Jane nodded. “Yes. He was never the same since, according to Mary, who was working here at the time. He hates being in the house. He always gets funny around this time of year. Usually, he goes abroad to escape the memories.” She paused. “It is also the reason he is so abrupt and changeable and cold. He pushes people away. The only people he is close to are Mary, William, and Mr Nicholson. And that is only because they have worked here forever.”
“He has no friends?” Abigail stared at Jane.
Jane shook her head. “Not really. There are never guests staying here or parties. Mary says the last time there was a ball at Acton Hall was when his parents were alive. The house is like a shell of its former self.” She paused. “He travels a lot, attending to his business interests. When he is in residence, he usually doesn’t stay long. So, now you know the tragedy of the cold duke.”
Abigail’s eyes grew wide. “It will be interesting to meet him …”
Jane looked alarmed. “Dear Lord, Abigail, you should try to avoid him if you can! He is gruff, taciturn, and downright rude. All the servants except Mary, William, and Mr Nicholson fear him. You do not want to draw his attention towards you for any reason.”
Abigail felt a frisson of unease. She had heard rumours about the brooding and mysterious Duke of Brunswick, of course. But she had never realised the tragedy that lay at the centre of his life. But then, she had been a mere girl, living her life in Hillsford. Acton Hall and its inhabitants were very far away from her world.
“What does he do?” she whispered.
Jane glanced up and down the hallway. She lowered her voice again. “He is scathing. He demands things and then is never happy. Sometimes, he throws things around a room in a fit of temper. Other times he broods for hours, locking himself in his study.” She hesitated. “But he never stays for very long, so it is not so bad. It seems to build to a point – a sudden outburst of temper, locking himself away for a day or so – and then he just leaves. So, it is bearable.”
“Dear Lord,” muttered Abigail, her eyes wide. “He sounds like an ogre.”
Jane laughed. “Yes. He has a nickname amongst the servants. We do not say it around Mary, William, or Mr Nicholson, though, who are extremely loyal to him and would tell us off.” She paused, her mouth twitching. “We call him the Demon Duke.”
Abigail suppressed a laugh. It seemed mean, considering the man’s tragic past. But then, she had never met him or dealt with his obvious ill-temper. And sometimes, the only way to deal with an insufferable person was to tease them behind their back. It was the only way powerless people could feel that they were in control.
She felt another stab of unease. She really didn’t want the duke to come home, causing uproar to this dull, sedate house. But it was his home, and it was his right. And he was definitely coming here. He was due at any moment. The household was about to be turned upside down … at least for a short while.
She turned her mind back to tonight’s market. As soon as the evening meal was done, she would head off. She needed to get there early to set up. It was imperative that they get the stall ready before the crowd started to gather. Her parents needed every sale they could get, and she was determined they would walk away with many of them tonight.
She blinked back tears. She wouldn’t be staying at Acton Hall forever. One day she would get back to the village, her home, and her beloved parents. But until that day came, she had to make the best of it, take it on the chin. Even if that meant managing a bad-tempered, gruff master who was about to make all their lives here a misery.
Jane was right. She would just try to avoid him as much as possible, and all would be well. He would be gone soon, and then the calm, sedate routine of this house would return. She could put up with it. Apparently, he never stayed long. By the time Christmas was over, he would be long gone.
“A Duke’s Lustful Christmas” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
Abigail Andrews’ favorite time of the year finds her in a maid’s position. Being more than excited, the dreadful rumors about her strange boss can not ruin her holiday spirit… Or can they? As Abigail has never met the so-called “Demon Duke” of the manor, she could never know that the arrogant man she ran into at the local Christmas market is no one else but him.
If only a season’s miracle could turn this monster into a loving man…
Haunted by his childhood demons, Ezra Haddington, the Duke of Brunswick, is a fearful, prejudiced man who hates Christmas and has sworn himself to never marry. Yet, an encounter with a dashing, spirited woman at the seasonal village market will immediately awaken his well-hidden spark of desire.
How will his cold-hearted Grace tame his burning emotions when he realises that the daring woman of the market is his new parlourmaid?
As Ezra’s and Abigail’s flaming attraction grows, they will soon get tangled in a forbidden game of seduction. Their happiness will not last for long, as a wicked man with an angelic face will lark to steal their happiness away… Can their flaring romance prevail against a painful past and save Christmas, or will their love disappear forever as an ephemeral winter snowflake?
“A Duke’s Lustful Christmas” is a historical romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.