Mr. Jonathan MacLean could have spent the two-hour journey from Eyemouth, Scotland to Cressmouth, England tucked safely into the relative warmth of the hackney coach he’d hired, but where was the pleasure in that?
Perched out here with his driver, Mr. Beattie, no foggy window pane stood between Jonathan and the rolling vista. All around them, snow-covered hills topped a sea of frost-speckled evergreens. He was en route to adventure—once again!—and he didn’t want to miss a single moment of it.
After two hours together, the hackney driver had warmed to his unconventional client.
“Well…” Beattie squinted into the wind. “I wouldn’t gad about crying, ‘A pox on raisins!’ but there’s a limit to how many a man ought to find in his biscuit, isn’t there?”
“Pah!” Jonathan said. “I like biscuits with raisins, biscuits without raisins, bread with raisins, bread without raisins, cakes with raisins, cakes without raisins, a bowl full of nothing but raisins…”
The list of things Jonathan liked was infinite. The right attitude limited opportunities for disappointment. It was difficult for things not to go one’s way, when one was determined to like all the ways.
Beattie was the best driver a traveler could hope to be paired with. He hadn’t objected in the least when Jonathan promised to triple his earnings if he shared his rickety, wind-whipped perch with a stranger.
To fill the dead air, they’d shared their life stories—Jonathan’s began when he was sixteen, no sense dredging up memories from his childhood—and were now on to arbitrary preferences, which was exactly the sort of easy, superficial, boundless topic he liked best.
“Towns,” said Beattie with a sly look in his eye. “As a traveling peddler who’s been to every corner of Britain, there must be some place you refuse to return to.”
Jonathan wasn’t precisely a peddler, but he was unquestionably a traveler, and it was this topic he’d expected to be peppered with questions about upon declaring himself an open book and taking the controversial stance of not disliking anything. That they’d covered raisins and ragwort and kite-flying on windy days spoke highly of Beattie’s creativity. Too many people only concentrated on the obvious.
“I refuse to return to all places,” Jonathan replied cheerfully. “Not because I’ve disliked them, but because there are so many more I haven’t seen. One week, that’s my rule. Less, if I can help it. Then it’s on to the next town, and the next adventure. I’m the luckiest man alive!”
Beattie stared at him, aghast. “You haven’t a home?”
Jonathan ignored the familiar ache he kept buried deep inside. He’d had a home once. A mother who rarely spoke to him. A father who never came round. Four walls that provided no comfort at all. Yuletides spent staring out of the window, dreaming of a place where he would be wanted.
But dreams were for children.
Life had taught Jonathan it was safer never to get attached in the first place.
“How can I pick a place to stay still,” he pointed out reasonably, “until I’ve experienced everything, to know for certain which I’ll like best?”
Beattie’s wind-chapped lips gaped.
“You should try it,” Jonathan suggested. “You said you’d never been out of Scotland, and now here you are, on holiday in England!”
Beattie gazed doubtfully at the endless drifts of snow encroaching on the winding road.
“I’m not on holiday,” he reminded Jonathan. “You paid me handsomely to make this journey.”
“Was it not enough?” Jonathan pulled several more freezing guineas from his coin purse and dropped them into Beattie’s gaping pocket, heavy from all the other coins Jonathan had foisted upon him. “There, now you can be on holiday, as well. Although I should confess that I am always on holiday and not on holiday at the same time.”
Beattie’s frost-tipped lashes blinked. “Your confessions always leave me more confused than when I started.”
Jonathan beamed at him. “Part of the fun, isn’t it? A body might think—”
But the words froze in his throat like so many icicles. A festive crimson sign rose like a beacon just ahead:
Welcome to Christmas!
“Cressmouth,” Jonathan muttered. “The village is called Cressmouth.”
“Aye, well,” said Beattie. “It might be named Cressmouth, but even I know it’s called ‘Christmas’ by everyone between Shetland and Cornwall. Isn’t that why you’re here? Everyone adores Christmas!”
Jonathan would rather no Christmas at all.
“What’s that?” he said, pointing a leather-clad finger at a telltale waft of smoke rising from a gray blur of a brick house in the middle of a large field.
Between the falling snow and the corkscrew path up the evergreen-furred mountain, the village had been completely hidden from view until, suddenly, it wasn’t.
This was interesting, indeed! H-A-R-P was just visible on a thick wooden sign blanketed in snow. A stud farm, by the looks of it. One of the most famous in England, to be specific. Everyone had heard of the Harpers.
One of their horses was of royal caliber, according to the broadsheets, and was the most in-demand of all the fine blood horses in Britain. No lesser personage than the Prince Regent had attempted to purchase it, but he hadn’t been able to, which only made the horse quintuple in value and the Harpers all the more infamous.
“Look!” A horse and rider cut across the Harpers’ snow-covered fields.
“I can’t look,” Beattie grumbled. “I can’t even see the road with you leaning past me like an overeager puppy. If you were inside the carriage, you could look out of the window and—”
“Nothing interesting happens whilst cloistered somewhere,” Jonathan scolded him.
He twisted backward onto the perch, his frozen knees balancing on the tattered squab, just in time for the rider to come within shouting distance.
“Ho, there!” he called out. “Lovely horse you’ve got! I’ll buy it from you!”
“What would you do with a horse,” Beattie asked, “when you haven’t even got a house?”
“Give it to you,” Jonathan replied sensibly. “What a wonderful story it will make! ‘How did you enjoy your time in Cressmouth?’ they’ll ask—”
“Christmas,” Beattie corrected. “It’s called Christmas.”
Jonathan wanted to like everything. He tried to like everything. But some things…
He continued on, ignoring Beattie’s interruption. “‘Och, you know, boring old seasonal nonsense,’ most people would reply. ‘Bought a watercolor of a pine tree, in case I forget what one looks like when I’ve gone back home.’ But not me, Beattie, and not you! ‘Bought a horse,’ I’ll say, ‘from the famous Harper stud farm. Gave it to my hack driver. Hope he likes it better than raisins.’ And you’ll say—”
“I won’t say a blessed thing,” Beattie said, “because that gentleman didn’t even look up when you called, so I daresay you won’t be buying any horses.”
“Perhaps not today,” Jonathan allowed, “but anything could happen tomorrow. The best adventures are unpredictable.”
“I predict I won’t be here to find out,” Beattie said. “Once you alight at your cottage, I shall turn around and go home. You might not believe in permanence, but I’ve got a wife who’ll be keeping supper warm for me. Something to consider.”
“Pah,” said Jonathan. “If I can’t decide on a home until I’ve seen them all, how am I supposed to take a wife? Do you know how many more women there are than cities and hamlets? Even if I limited myself to conversing five minutes with each one, I’d never meet them all in a hundred years.”
“You don’t have to meet them all,” Beattie said in exasperation. “Find a good one and keep her.”
“I don’t want a good lass,” Jonathan explained. “I want a splendid lass. I want the best lass. Nothing else will do.”
“And ‘nothing’ is what you’ll end up with,” Beattie predicted. “I hope you like suppers alone.”
“Be alone?” Jonathan clutched his chest. “I’ve taken every meal with a different person for as long as I can remember.”
Well, for as long as he’d been on the road—which was the only bit he chose to remember.
Not that Beattie was listening. He stared openmouthed at the majestic castle soaring up into the sky at the top of the mountain. It looked like something out of a fairy book. Or it would, if it weren’t surrounded by a living black moat of holiday-makers in smart carriages, and swarming pedestrians in bright-colored woolen caps.
“Turn here,” Jonathan commanded, shaking out the small hand-drawn map that had come with his invitation. “To the right, past the pond, curve about until… here!”
One might not think a village of a thousand souls would require much in the way of maps, but the Duke of Nottingvale was nothing if not thorough. It was a quality Jonathan very much admired, and it boded splendidly for their upcoming business partnership—if the presentation went as planned.
He leapt to the ground the moment Beattie halted the hack, and had to grab the edge of the footrest to keep his feet from flying out in front of him when his boots skated weightlessly across a hidden patch of ice.
Two matched footmen burst from the cottage with twin expressions of horror, but they were far too well-mannered to scold their guest for leaping down from a carriage like—what had Beattie said?—aye, like an overeager puppy.
Jonathan liked puppies. Everyone liked puppies. There were far worse things one could be compared to.
As the footmen carried Jonathan’s trunks into the cottage—and really, only a duke could refer to this sprawling detached brick country home as a cottage—he turned back to Beattie to make his goodbye.
“Safe travels back to your wife.” He tossed an extra sovereign up toward the perch. “I’ve left a small coin purse in the carriage for you to do with what you will. If it were me, I’d purchase a horse on my way out of town.”
Beattie nearly missed catching the sovereign. “How much coin is in the back of my carriage?”
Jonathan waved a hand. “I didn’t say you could purchase ‘the’ horse. Perhaps I want the famous one for myself. I know nothing about horseflesh, but the best studhorse in England can’t be a poor investment, can it?”
Beattie stared at him. “If they wouldn’t sell it to Prinny—”
“Then he didn’t offer the right price. I agree, I agree. You’re a crafty one.” Jonathan slapped the side of the carriage. “Go on now, before you beggar me dry.”
As the wheels crunched over the snow, it almost sounded like Beattie muttered, “No one will believe this story.”
Jonathan grinned to himself. All good stories were slightly unbelievable, and the best stories were the least believable of the lot. It was his sworn mission to live the unlikeliest tale he could devise.
“Mr. MacLean,” said the duke’s butler. “Allow me to take your hat and your coat. I’m afraid His Grace isn’t expected until the day after tomorrow.”
The duke’s butler did not add, “Because you’ve arrived two days early.”
Partly because a duke’s butler was far too refined to make such a pointed observation, and partly because someone as well-prepared as Nottingvale would keep his cottage ready for guests at all moments, despite only hosting once per year during his annual Yuletide party.
“No, thank you,” Jonathan said politely, keeping his hat and coat. But he tipped the butler twice as much as the footmen all the same. “I’ve only just got here. I want to explore a bit before I settle in.”
He would spend more than enough time in the duke’s house once the others arrived. His partner, first. Jonathan had arranged the meeting, and Calvin was bringing all the illustrations and samples necessary for convincing the duke to invest in their sartorial venture. Jonathan had agreed to meet Calvin a day early to practice their proposal. Which meant, from tomorrow on, Jonathan would be stuck inside. This afternoon was his opportunity to explore the outside.
For such a small village to feel like an adventure, the key was to walk everywhere. It would take longer and he would notice more. Jonathan loved noticing things. He had learned to draw in order to remember all the things he noticed. He usually ended up giving those drawings away, aye, but that was because a vagabond explorer must travel light.
All Jonathan kept were memories.
He made exaggeratedly careful steps in the packed snow along the edge of the road. Sliding down a hill could be great fun when done on purpose, but twisting an ankle was no start for an adventure.
Also, he was wearing the smart traveling attire that Calvin had designed, with extra coat pockets and a cashmere-lined waistcoat. An impeccable carriage outfit, one which Jonathan could foresee being worn on countless future exciting journeys, so long as he didn’t rip a hole in the knee flailing about on tricky hidden patches of ice between here and the castle.
Not that he was going straight to the castle. That was what ordinary people did when they visited Cressmouth on an ordinary holiday. The castle employed most of the town and housed most of its visitors. There could not be a more boring place to start.
Jonathan wanted to know who these people were that did not live or work in the castle. They couldn’t all be dukes, and dukes’ servants. Some must be ordinary villagers, that couldn’t be helped, but the same logic indicated some villagers must be extraordinary, and those were the people Jonathan wanted to meet.
Cottage, cottage, cottage… He was friendly, aye, any gentleman ought to be, but not so pushy as to knock on the doors of complete strangers in the hopes of becoming momentary friends. The trick was to run across them casually, whilst they were walking down the street or riding an overpriced studhorse about their farm. Cottage, cottage…
He jerked stock still, a posture that could have been mistaken for military precision were it not for the extremely flattering, extremely comfortable, only slightly wrinkled carriage outfit he wore as his uniform.
This was a shop of some kind, with the living quarters upstairs, and a charming stone chimney with a faint plume of smoke.
From this angle, Jonathan couldn’t make out the wooden sign swinging from squeaking hinges beside the door, but enough candles were lit inside to give the impression sunlight flowed out, rather than in through the many windows.
Open for business, then, and a perfect place to find something extraordinary.
Everything anyone could ever want was in the castle, Jonathan had been told. The rooms to let were a little dear, but the entertainment was free—musicians, dancing—as was the bountiful food. Three hot meals served daily in the grand dining chamber to anyone who wandered in, as well as refreshments just inside the castle doors for passers-by to enjoy. Mulled wine, hot chocolate, biscuits with and without raisins, no doubt. A lake, a hill, walking tours, an open-air market in the back garden, weather permitting. The list of delights went on and on.
But the castle couldn’t have everything, no matter what they claimed. It wasn’t a smithy, for one, nor was it a stud farm. Whatever this unassuming little shop contained, it was already better than the castle, because it had something the castle didn’t.
Something Jonathan was about to discover.
He inched closer, careful not to slip on the ice and slide through the open door in an ungainly yet fashionable heap.
He almost fell anyway.
The shop contained the most stunning woman Jonathan had beheld in his life. Who cared what she was selling? He would be content to gaze upon her bonny face until the sun set and the candles sputtered out.
He could only see her from the elbows up due to some ill-thought-out wooden counter standing vexingly in the way, but her round, delicate shoulders were outshone only by the gentle brown curve of her neck, the stubborn angle of her chin, the lush softness of her lips—at least, Jonathan imagined them to be soft, but in this weather he would not hold a wee bit of chapped roughness against anyone. In any case, her nose was as lovely as her mouth. A little wide and a little snub; the perfect amount of roundness.
From this distance it was impossible to tell whether her eyes were the same dark brown as her skin or as black as the high chignon pinned so efficiently that not a single hair escaped. Could that be true? Or was he too far away to see past her perfection? He liked ruthless efficiency; it was a very fine quality, one he did not share at all. He also liked wild bits that escaped and did incorrigible things.
He supposed this meant that no matter how perfect or imperfect this woman was, she was destined to please him either way. Really, what sort of fool would pass up this opportunity to introduce himself? Jonathan was only here for a few days. Once Calvin arrived on the morrow, his time would be spoken for. If there was any hope of making this woman’s acquaintance, the time was now. His blood raced enthusiastically at the prospect, filling his veins with energy and causing a delightful little flutter in his stomach.
Jonathan was on the cusp of another adventure. He could feel it.