Mary Soares was supposed to spend Christmas, nice and warm on her family’s estate in Falkirk, Scotland, tending to their whisky business. However, the English have made smuggling almost impossible, and so order after order is waiting at the distillery until it’s safe enough to continue shipments. Most customers understand this. Most customers are reasonable. The Duke of Danby is not most customers. After a number of demands from His Grace, insisting upon his order, Mary decides to deliver the whisky herself since no one else is available.
Benjamin Storm, Earl of Kenley, breathes a sigh of relief when his summons from the Duke of Danby has nothing to do with matrimony. Instead, his uncle just needs Benjamin to travel to Scotland and procure his missing whisky shipment in time for his holiday festivities. The chore sounds easy enough, at least until he encounters a most unusual smuggler on her way to Danby Castle. Benjamin’s life may never be the same.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
This novella is also currently available in TWELVE CHRISTMAS LORDS - a collection of 12 Christmas Historical Romances
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
I am very much aware that you have been avoiding me since the wedding of Mr. Jonathan Bridges and Miss. Genviève Mirabelle nearly a year and a half ago. Your excuses in the past have been flimsy at best, and I will accept no more. You will attend me in Yorkshire, with your equally absent siblings, and remain at the castle through December 26th. If you wish to stay longer, I have no objections. However, you must present yourself to me no later than December 17th. If you fail to do so, the retribution will be harsh and long in duration.
Danby Castle, Yorkshire ~ December 17, 1816
Benjamin Storm, Earl of Kenley, eyed his great-uncle, the Duke of Danby, with trepidation. For the past year and a half Benjamin been able to avoid His Grace, but no longer. The threat in the missive was non-specific, but he was not about to take any chances. While he wasn’t exactly certain what His Grace could actually do to him, his great-uncle was the Duke of Danby and held almost as much power as Prinny or the Prime Minister.
“Where are your siblings?” His Grace demanded. “I was very specific that you bring them with you.”
Benjamin resisted the urge to pull at his cravat and sat straighter in the chair before His Grace’s massive desk. “I have no idea where Nathaniel is, though last I heard, he was in India.” That was months ago. His brother could be anywhere right now and if he ever bothered to write, Ben would know where that was.
His Grace frowned.
“As you are well aware, Abigail delivered a daughter a few weeks ago and cannot travel.”
“Your sister is not my concern,” Danby ground out.
Of course not. Abigail was married and now the mother of four, , which only solidified Benjamin’s suspicions as to why he’d been ordered to the castle.
“What of Samuel?”
His other wayward brother, and Nate’s twin. “Barbados.”
“Still?” Danby demanded incredulously. “He’s been there five years!”
Benjamin simply stared at his great-uncle and wished to be done with this unnecessary conversation. Danby knew exactly where his brother was. In fact, he likely knew where each of his siblings were at this very moment and what they had for supper a week ago.
“He needs to come home.” His Grace thumped his cane against the floorboards. That’s probably why there was no carpet or rugs in this room. One could not have the desired effect of a thumping cane if it were muffled by tightly woven wool.
“I believe he rather likes it there,” Benjamin answered dryly.
“Bah!” Danby narrowed his eyes on him. “Is he still with that Easton fellow?”
The Duke didn’t like Easton, never had. As younger sons, it had been Easton who decided to travel to Barbados and take over his uncle’s plantation. Samuel thought it a grand idea and went along and soon after purchased his own land. Neither had returned to England and saw no reason to do so. “Yes, he is. Both have been very successful in their endeavors and have become very wealthy gentlemen.” So successful that if the crops didn’t improve next year, Benjamin would be seeking financial assistance from his younger brother to help save the estate. It was far more palatable than marrying a dowry.
“I assume there is an excuse for each of them for not being here?” His Grace grumbled.
“Peter remained home with Mother, as did my younger sisters,” Benjamin answered honestly. “Mother has not been feeling her best and they are concerned, as am I.” He sat forward. “So, if we can bring this interview to an end, I’d like to return home.”
Danby narrowed his eyes. “Your mother is no more ill than I am. She twisted an ankle, which would not prevent her from entering a carriage and traveling.”
“Besides the discomfort, of course,” Benjamin answered wryly.
“She injured it a fortnight ago.” Danby thumped his cane again. “There is no reason she could not travel. If it still pains her, you need a new physician. I’ll send mine if she doesn’t recover before the ball.”
Benjamin didn’t bother to argue. He knew as well as His Grace that his mother had latched onto the excuse so that she didn’t have to endure a holiday at Danby Castle. It wasn’t the castle she objected to as much as the current owner. Further, Benjamin wouldn’t put it past the woman to have intentionally caused the injury. “Do as you see fit.” He’d let his mother deal with His Grace because Benjamin wasn’t about to become embroiled in the middle of any dispute that may arise.
“Very well then,” Danby announced as he stood. “Let’s discuss the reason why I summoned you.”
Benjamin already had a fairly good idea but held his tongue. Instead, he watched as his great-uncle strode to the sideboard and poured two glasses of a golden liquid. Benjamin followed him to the sitting area, hoping he didn’t have to return to his seat before the desk. It was too reminiscent of sitting before the chancellor and waiting to be disciplined. That was many years ago, of course, but that sick feeling he always got in the pit of his stomach returned with a vengeance in these situations. Besides, he was a gentleman of nine and twenty and did not need to be disciplined like a wayward schoolboy by his great-uncle. They could discuss His Grace’s concerns in the comfort of the chairs, or the blue and gold settee arranged before the fireplace.
Danby turned and handed him a glass before taking a drink of his own and sinking into the well-worn dark leather chair.
Benjamin sipped slowly and let the liquid roll over his tongue to burn a trail down his throat. No hint of poison could be detected. Not that he expected His Grace to try and kill him, but Benjamin wouldn’t put it past the old man to somehow render him unconscious only to wake and find himself married to a lady of the duke’s choosing.
The whisky was excellent, however. Superb in comparison to the others he’d enjoyed over the years, and he took another sip. If anything, His Grace had excellent taste in whisky.
His great-uncle gestured to the settee and Benjamin settled into the comfort of the soft cushion.
“Why haven’t you married?”
Benjamin practically choked on the whisky. He knew the question was coming but would have preferred if it hadn’t been asked mid-drink or without a more pleasant lead into the topic.
“I have not found the right lady.”
“Have you looked?” Danby demanded.
“Diligently!” he defended. “For the past five seasons, if you must know.” Benjamin knew he owed a duty to the title. He was an earl and was expected to produce an heir and a spare before his death. As much as he’d like to think he could rely on at least one of his brothers to fill the role should something happen to him, Benjamin did not have the confidence they would. Nathaniel, the spare, was never in England long enough to even discuss the matter, and half the time, Benjamin had no idea where to even find him. Should something happen, Benjamin wouldn’t be surprised if Nate faked his own death to get out of those duties, thus foisting them onto his twin, younger by five minutes, Samuel. Sam also had no intention of ever leaving the Caribbean. He wouldn’t go so far as Nate to avoid the responsibility. He’d just ignore it and go about planting sugar as if nothing had changed.
Danby snorted. “You couldn’t find a bride in five years? Where were you looking? The brothels?”
Benjamin looked his great-uncle in the eye and in all seriousness answered, “In truth, I found many candidates that would suit at Madame Delight’s. Unfortunately, society would frown on a soiled dove becoming my countess.”
The corner of Danby’s mouth quirked slightly then he frowned again. Had Benjamin not been watching, he would have missed the reaction completely.
“What’s wrong with the suitable young ladies?”
“That depends on which lady you are inquiring about.” He had met several, and though none would suit, the reasons varied.
Danby pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket and unfolded it.
“Good God, is that list of ladies?”
“You should have anticipated that I’d be prepared.”
Benjamin suffered a sigh and stood. He was not going to be allowed to leave until his great-uncle was satisfied, so he poured more whisky into his glass. If he must endure the interrogation, there was no reason why he could not partake of the excellent whisky in the process.
As His Grace began listing names of the current crop of debutantes and those who had been out for a few years, Benjamin in turn provided one-word answers of why he would not consider them, such as: pretentious, unkind, antagonistic, condemnatory, insipid, anxious, conceited, feather-brained, bluestocking, and silly.
Danby folded the list and Benjamin hoped this meeting was concluded.
“I noticed you used silly several times.”
“In truth, Your Grace, I do believe those being presented get sillier each and every year.” Ben sat back down, relaxed against the upholstery, and crossed his legs, feeling much more at ease. He wasn’t sure if it was because the interrogation was turning into a conversation between gentlemen or the whisky or both, but Ben was glad to no longer be on edge.
“Yes, I can see where you’d believe so.” Danby stood and refilled his glass. “A few of your relations fall into that category,” he grumbled.
Benjamin was not certain which of his relations Danby referred to. There were so many first, second and third removed, that it could be almost any of his younger relations..
“It does not matter,” Danby dismissed. “I’ll deal with them, and their mother.”
By the austerity in His Grace’s eyes, Benjamin was thankful he was not part of that family, whoever they were.
“So, you don’t want a silly chit.” He nodded and took a drink. “What of physical characteristics. Are they not pleasant to look upon either?”
Benjamin chuckled and shook his head. “They are all pretty, some beautiful, but that means little when contemplating a future.”
Danby frowned at him.
Ben blew out a sigh. “Of course I wish for an attractive wife, but beauty often diminishes over time. I’d rather have someone I enjoy spending time with, conversing with, than simply looking at.”
His Grace settled back, studying Ben with shrewd eyes.
“God willing, I’ll be spending many years with my bride, and I’d prefer to like her, even love her, as opposed to a beautiful lady with little substance.”
For the longest time His Grace said nothing, and Ben’s nerves began to resurface. Not for one moment had he forgotten what Danby had done to his own grandchildren to see them married off, and he wasn’t fooling himself by thinking His Grace didn’t have the same plan for him. All Ben could do was wait for the pronouncement. An order to go find a bride and be quick about it, ignoring what Ben may wish for himself.
As the silence continued, Ben finished his drink and poured another. He would remain at the castle tonight regardless of how much he wished to be gone, and if Danby was going to issue a dictate that would see his life miserable, he might as well get properly foxed. Ben stared down into the glass. He was going to be miserable enough on the morrow, so perhaps he shouldn’t add a headache and sickness to his misery. Besides, he shouldn’t lose his head now. Not while sitting with Danby. His Grace wouldn’t hesitate to take advantage of the situation and secure an agreement from Benjamin that he would regret for the rest of his life.
“Very well,” His Grace finally said.
“Very well, what?”
“You know what you want. I’m certain you shall find it.”
“I can see you’ve given this a good deal of thought and am confident you will make the right choice when the time comes.” He finished his drink, set the glass on the table. “Now that the discussion of your future is concluded, I have a request before you return to your mother.”
Ben set his glass aside, no longer wishing to drink. Apparently, His Grace was going to let him plan his own life, much to his relief. Though, Ben still didn’t trust that his great-uncle might not still attempt to manipulate a marriage in the future, at least he was free of such this Christmas.
“I’ve been waiting on a delivery, and it hasn’t arrived.”
“What type of delivery?” He couldn’t imagine anyone would have the daring not to fulfill a request by the Duke of Danby. Well, unless they were dead.
Danby nodded to the decanter. “The finest whisky ever produced.”
“Whisky? That’s what you’re waiting on?” Yes, it was a fine whisky, but Ben was just as certain bottles could be procured from other sources if necessary.
“Two cases of the spirits. I need it before Christmas.”
“I’m not sure how I can be of assistance.”
“Dear boy, I wish for you to go and retrieve them.”
“Spirits for Christmas?” He couldn’t believe this was what was being asked of him, but it was far preferable to a strange bride.
“Exactly! Christmas Spirits.”
“Are ye certain Lachlan is no’ goin’ to return for Christmas?” Mary Soares asked her mother, hoping for a different answer this time.
“Ye ken his wife recently had a bairn.”
“I doona know why she couldn’t have had the babe here like the first one,” Mary grumbled. Had her brother and Madeline just come north for the birthing then she would not be in this predicament.
“Yer brother had it difficult enough this summer with all the rain, getting’ stuck on the road, the poor barley crop, and bleak skies. He dinna wish to add to his troubles by takin’ his family away from Grosmont for fear they’d get stuck, or encounter ice covered roads.”
“Aye, but the babe was born a month ago. Surely he could come now.”
“And not make it back in time for Christmas?” her mother scolded. “That would be unfair to Maddie and the children.”
Mary blew out a breath. Her mother was right, but it didn’t help their current circumstances at . With a sigh she settled at the scarred table in her work room. Her brother, Lachlan Grant, Marquess of Brachton, was to have seen to the delivery of the mounting orders for whisky. Her sister’s husband, Magnus, was to have helped, but he’d fallen from a ladder nearly a month ago and still couldn’t sit in a wagon for long without severe pain.
“I wish Ian would come home.” Ian was the next oldest, and in charge of the distilling, but he also helped with deliveries on occasion. However, he’d been in Edinburgh for the last fortnight waiting on the ship to take whisky to London. For years Jonathan Bridges had shipped their whisky to his London warehouse and the ship was to have been here by now. Ian had to remain because they trusted nobody else to see to the cargo.
There were several men and lads who helped with the planting, harvesting, and distilling, but never on the deliveries. It was far too dangerous. She’d never forgive herself if they were caught by the excisemen who were currently in the area looking for smugglers. She’d seen the lights when they appeared on the hillside as soon as the sun set yesterday. A warning to all not to take the whisky from hiding until the gougers were gone.
Mary had few options available to her: They could pay the taxes, which were so high that it was impossible to make a profit; wait until the excisemen were gone; or risk moving the whisky. If caught, the whisky would be confiscated. Or worse, someone could be killed. It wasn’t unusual, unfortunately, for fighting to break out between the gougers and the smugglers, especially along the border, often ending with someone’s death. Tensions were high as it was. Crops failed this last year because of the unusually cold weather, and food was scarce in many places. Not only did smugglers need to worry about the excisemen, but thieves as well.
In the past, only Lachlan or Magnus drove over the border into England but as neither of them were available, the task would now fall to her.
Mary sorted through the orders, setting aside those who would receive a note explaining the delay, then held back the most demanding requests. Three letters and all from His Grace, the Duke of Danby.
If she thought him reasonable, she’d write to him as well and explain the set of circumstances they found themselves in, but nothing about the Duke of Danby struck her as reasonable. Demanding – yes. Reasonable – no.
He’d been to her home twice, when once would have been more than enough, to call on her brother. Why His Grace hadn’t called on Lachlan at his estate in Grosmont was beyond Mary’s comprehension. Grosmont was in Yorkshire, Danby Castle was in Yorkshire, so it stood to reason that estate was much more convenient for His Grace than traveling to Falkirk, Scotland.
He was also their most important customer and one they did not wish anger. Lachlan had reminded her time and time again that whenever His Grace requested a shipment, it was to be sent immediately. Which was all fine and good, until there was no one to make the delivery.
She needed to find a way to get the whisky to Danby Castle and the rest would just have to wait. Except she had no idea how to go about it.
Lifting the lamp from the desk, Mary made her way to the stables. She could use the traveling coach, with the Brachton coat of arms, as her brother often did, with the bottles wrapped in wool and hidden in the seats and floor. But that would require a driver and a maid to accompany her, thus putting three people at risk if they were caught.
Beside the coach was the wagon Magnus used for deliveries, and above it on wide shelves, the means in which he hid the whisky. A smile pulled at her lips. “Of course!” She had driven many wagons in the past and was quite comfortable doing so. Happy with her plan, Mary made her way to the distillery and gave instructions to have the wagon prepared so that she could leave at first light and hope the excisemen were gone. She wouldn’t be home by Christmas, but at least His Grace would be happy, and that was really all that mattered.