A Lass for Christmas (Tenacious Trents #4)


Lady Madeline Trent had grand plans for her future until she learned her family’s awful secret. When a fall through an icy lake lands her in the arms of a handsome Scot, her future is more unsure than ever.


Lachlan Grant, the Marquess of Brachton, may hold an English title, but he's a Scot through and through. He's bound and determined to marry a lass just as Scottish as he is, at least until his fate is altered one snowy night.






One

Brachton Manor, December 1813

“Damn and blast.” Lachlan Grant, Marquess Brachton, stared out the window at the quickly falling snow. He would not be able to leave today as planned.

″Perhaps it will let up and we can travel tomorrow.”

Lachlan turned to Dougal Ferguson. They had been friends since childhood and when Lachlan became of age to need a valet, his friend applied for the position. In truth, Dougal was a lousy valet and for the most part, he simply lived where Lachlan did. Not that it bothered Lachlan. It wasn’t as if he needed another man to help him dress, and he was simply glad for the company of a friend who had known him since birth.

It was this damnable weather keeping him here and what had put Lachlan in a foul mood. “It is bad enough havin’ to live in England half the year, but I wanted to be home in Falkirk by Christmas.”

″It could be worse,” his old friend said.

″How could it possibly be worse?” Lachlan turned from the window and stomped toward the sideboard and poured himself a glass of whisky. Few bottles remained and he’d need to replenish his supply once he was able to return to Scotland. At least that was one benefit of being Marquess of Brachton. Nobody searched his carriage when he crossed the border into England.

Whisky had gotten his family through some very dark times, whether it was to be imbibed or smuggled to England, and neither he nor his brothers were eager to bring an end to the secret family business.

″You could be livin’ in that molderin’ manor house with barely a scrap of food on the table.”

Lachlan eyed Dougal over the rim of his glass.

"As the Marquess of Brachton, not only did ye inherit this estate that ye despise, but riches to help yer family.”

Guilt settled in his stomach. He should be more thankful for this good fortune than he was.

″The late Marquess did nothin’ to assist yer family while he was alive and ye’ve made his fortune yers.”

″I never wanted the title,” Lachlan grumbled. Even though he had known since he was ten that it would be his once his uncle, then father, kicked up their toes, he’d never wanted it. To prepare him for the future, Lachlan had been sent to Eton and then to Oxford, to be educated as an English gentleman. His uncle hoped to bury the Scot in him so deep that nothing remained once Lachlan became a man. Little did his uncle know that Lachlan would remain a Scot through and through regardless of title or land. Even though his father had been English, and a gentleman of character, his mother’s family in Falkirk was all the family he needed and that was where his heart lay. Not in Grosmont, England.

″But without it, yer mother and siblings would have nothin’.”

It was the fact that his mother, brothers, and sisters could now live in comfort and without a care in the world that made being an English lord palatable. They were his family. He’d never missed a Christmas with his family, and he wasn’t about to now.

Dougal helped himself to the decanter and poured himself a whisky. “Perhaps the roads will be clear tomorrow and ye can return home.”

″And if not?” Lachlan glanced out the window once again. At the rate the snow was falling they would be buried by the time the sun rose.

″We could leave in five days and still make it home in plenty of time for Christmas.”

“I wanted to leave today,” Lachlan grumbled much like a petulant child while he stared out over the landscape. The space between his manor and the road, where a copse of trees stood, was now covered in white. The partially frozen pond was also covered and if one didn’t know it was there, they’d think there was just a dip in the land. Such weather made for treacherous travel and he could only hope the clouds moved on so that he wasn’t stuck in this house into next year.

″I planned on bein’ in Edinburgh the week before Christmas,” he reminded Dougal. “Then home in Falkirk by Christmas Eve.”

″Aye, for the MacFie’s annual Christmas ball.”

″Among others bein’ held,” Lachlan agreed. “I need to find a wife and that is the best place to look.”

Dougal turned to him.” Ye met several ladies who would do well as your marchioness this past spring during the Season. Ye may have met more had ye bothered to attend any of the balls during the Little Season.

″I willna marry an English woman. My bride will be a Scottish lass and I plan to find her by Christmas. It shouldna take more than a week at the most.” Lachlan tipped back his glass and drained the contents. He did not want to marry a fragile, silly twit of a girl. He wanted a woman. Someone who spoke her mind and didn’t rely on him to tell her how to think or feel. Someone who would match his passion for the marriage bed, not some miss who would be frightened and lay still and do her duty, making the ultimate sacrifice to produce an heir. At least that had been his impression of the batch of debutantes these past Seasons.

″A lass for Christmas? That is what ye’re wantin’?” Dougal chuckled.

″I will find her in Edinburgh,” Lachlan insisted. “I willna return to England without a bride.” Lachlan stomped over to the sideboard and refilled his glass. If he was going to be stuck here tonight, he was going to get good and bloody drunk. He could sleep it off in the carriage tomorrow.

″Piquet or Vingt-et-un?” Dougal asked.

Lachlan eyed his valet. The man could quit his employ and easily earn his riches at the tables of one of the many gaming hells of London if he wished, and Lachlan had no desire to have his pockets emptied by Dougal. “Chess.”

A knowing smile came to Dougal’s face. “I’ll get the board.”

***

Lady Madeline Trent watched the snow pile onto the ground, giddy with anticipation. If it kept snowing heavily, they would be stuck here. She’d be able to enjoy Christmas with her mother, two of her brothers and a new sister-in-law instead of a bunch of strangers. Her eldest brother, Clayton didn’t have to leave Bentley Manor and could stay snuggly at home with this wife, Eleanor, so why shouldn’t she be able to remain here.

The entire family had been invited for the holiday at Danby Castle, where her brother John and his wife would be spending the holiday because she was the granddaughter of the Duke of Danby. It was required that John and Elizabeth be present. Therefore Madeline, her mother and Jordan had set out for the castle to be with them so her mother would not need to spend another Christmas away from John, since she hadn’t spent it with him for the last five years.

The only good thing about this trip was they’d stopped in Grosmont to visit Matthew, though Madeline suspected much of this visit had to do with Mother chastising Matt for marrying too quickly for her to attend the wedding. At least Matt had married a likable girl, Grace. And he had lost much of his stuffiness. Madeline never thought she would see the day but was glad for it. Further, she’d never seen Matt so lighthearted and relaxed, and if Grace were the cause, then Madeline knew she’d like her even more, once she got to know her of course.

Only Madeline and Jordan remained unwed, though she doubted Jordan would ever marry. However, she would find her lord this spring.

Her first Season had been miserable. She tried everything in her power to go unnoticed and spent most of it ill to her stomach, on edge and plagued with constant headaches. Her father was trying to decide on the perfect husband for her and none of them were what she wanted. She lived in fear of the day he would announce her betrothal to some bad-tempered ancient lord and was eternally thankful that none of those who showed interest were good enough for Father. What should have been her second Season was spent in mourning since her father died only a few months before it was set to begin.

This spring would be different. A smile pulled at her lips and she twirled in the center of the room. She was going to dance, laugh, flirt, wear gay dresses, take rides in Hyde Park, and thoroughly enjoy herself in a way she had never been allowed to before. There were several handsome bachelors who had caught her attention that first Season, not that they even knew she existed, but not all of them could have married in the interim, could they? Not that it mattered. If they had, Madeline knew that there would be plenty of bachelors to choose from. Given her family’s lineage and wealth, she could pick almost anyone she wished. She’d just need to convince the one she picked that he wanted her as well.

Oh, she longed to be married, to host balls of her own, and dress in any color that was not a pastel.

A giggle bubbled up inside and she twirled again, enjoying the way her soft green woolen dress flared out at her ankles. She would have a spectacular time this spring and nobody was going to stop her. She was going to fall in love, drink champagne and have a grand wedding at St. Paul’s before the Season was over. Now, if only this snow would bury them, all would be well, and she wouldn’t need to travel to spend Christmas in some dilapidated old castle.

With a sigh, Madeline turned and wandered out of the room. If she recalled correctly, the library was two doors down. A good book, cup of tea and biscuits were the perfect way to spend a snowy evening. Dinner had already been concluded and she looked forward to being curled before the fire in her chamber before it grew dark, just as she’d already informed her family. She’d just forgotten to retrieve a book before she retired.

The door to the library was closed but for a crack and Madeline lifted her hand to knock.

″There is something we must share with you, Rose,” Jordan began.

Madeline leaned closer; her hand still poised but wanting to know what Jordan had to tell her mother.

″But you can never, ever tell Madeline.”

Madeline dropped her hand to her side as she straightened. What couldn’t she know?

She pressed herself against the wall and turned her ear toward the crack so that she didn’t miss a word.

″This is going to be difficult. Are you certain you don’t wish for a brandy or glass of wine?” Matt asked.

″Get on with it, you’re worrying me.”

″It is about father’s second wife, Adele.”

What news could there be about Adele? She died over twenty years ago, when the carriage she and her daughter, Julia, were traveling in went over the side of a bridge. They both drowned and their bodies swept out to sea. Madeline often wondered what it would have been like to have an older sister.

″I think you had better pour me that brandy.”

Madeline’s eyes popped open. Her mother requesting a brandy was completely out of character.

″Do you already know?” Jordan asked slowly.

″That they didn’t die?” her mother returned. “Yes.”

Madeline sank to the bench outside of the door. How was this even possible?

″You married him knowing his former wife still lived?” Matthew demanded in a harsh tone, uncharacteristic for the brother who had once been a vicar..

″Of course not!” her mother snapped.

There was a pause and Madeline imagined her mother sipping brandy, for why else would there be silence. They didn’t know she was listening, did they? Madeline glanced at the floor. Her shadow fell opposite the door, so she hadn’t given herself away.

″I learned when your father started searching for them right before Julia’s eighteenth birthday.”

Madeline couldn’t ever remember her mother sounding this angry or bitter, not even when she was vexed.

″He informed me that he wanted Julia back so that he could match her with Lord Purlingham.”

Madeline’s stomach churned. The viscount was older than her father had been. And even though Madeline knew nothing about Julia, especially since she thought her half-sister had been dead for the past twenty-three years, she couldn’t imagine any young woman of eighteen would wish to marry someone that old.

″They disappeared after that,” Jordan offered.

″Yes,” Mother agreed. “All those years he had been sending funds to France to support the two when all the while letting me and the rest of society believe that he had been widowed a second time and that Julia had died.”

Her mother wasn’t just bitter, she sounded hurt and angry.

″Why didn’t you ever say anything?” Matthew asked.

″What was there to say? All four of you boys loved your stepmother and Julia. I didn’t know if you would seek her out. And I also didn’t want you hurt by her betrayal. She is the one who ran away.” Mother sighed and Madeline leaned closer to the door.

″We already knew she was running away the night she supposedly died,” Matthew offered.

″How?” her mother questioned. “I am certain your father didn’t tell you.”

″Clay saw her leaving and tried to make her stay.”

″Do you know why she left?”

Madeline leaned a little closer. It had to have been something especially important, perhaps even scandalous because ladies did not just up and leave their titled husband, especially with a child in tow.

″Do you?” Jordan countered.

″Your father said she was running off to meet her lover, but I never truly believed that.”

″He started taking the switch to Julia before she was even two.”

Madeline suppressed her own memory of Father swatting her.

″I was afraid it was something like that. I have vague recollections of Adele, before she married your father. Our parents were friends. She would not have stood for her child being struck.”

″You did,” Jordan stated coldly.

It wasn’t Mother’s fault, Madeline wanted to yell, but didn’t dare bring attention to herself.

″Rarely, and the first time he struck Madeline she was seven.”

″How did you avoid it for so long?” Matthew asked.

″I never let Madeline leave the nursery. After I saw how he punished you boys for the mildest infraction, I couldn’t risk him doing that to a much younger child.” She sighed. “I tried to intervene where you boys were concerned, but sometimes I made it worse. I am sorry for that.”

″Yet, you did nothing when you learned the truth about Adele,” Matthew pointed out.

″I didn’t know what to do. And then there was the fear that if anyone learned, I would be ruined, but it wasn’t about me.”

″No. You wanted to protect Madeline,” Jordan confirmed.

″If anyone learns that my marriage wasn’t valid, they’ll paint Madeline a bastard, and society will turn on her. She’s innocent in all this and doesn’t deserve to have doors shut on her.”

Madeline grasped the wall to steady herself as the floor swayed before her. She was a bastard, born on the wrong side of the blanket. That thought hadn’t even entered her mind when she heard Adele was still alive.

″You’re innocent of any wrongdoing as well,” Matthew offered.

″I was until I learned,” Mother sighed. “But I am just as guilty for holding my tongue after he told me the truth.”

″You had to protect your daughter.”

″Which I still intend to do,” she said with vengeance.

″There could be a problem,” Jordan hedged.

″What? Has something happened?” There was a slight hint of panic in her voice.

″Adele and Julia left the Continent some months ago. They were tracked to Scotland, but we no longer know where they are,” Jordan explained.

″We thought you should know so that you can be prepared in the event they show up in London.”

Madeline’s heart stopped. They couldn’t come here.

″Do you think she would?” Mother asked with the same panic Madeline was experiencing.

″We don’t know what they will do, but John has been looking for them.” Matt answered. “She must have learned that father died and there is no longer a reason for her to remain away.”

″We must stop her. She can’t come here. Not until Madeline is married.” Madeline could hear the rustle of her mother’s skirt. The woman was always the calmest person she knew, but Madeline could hear her moving about the room. She stood in the event her mother was about to walk into the hall. She couldn’t be caught. “Please refill my glass, Jordan.”

Madeline brought a hand up to her mouth. Her heart raced and she looked around for an escape. Oh, nothing good came from listening at doors.

″We just need to make certain that woman stays away until Madeline is settled.”




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