Christmas By Candlelight
Lost And Found
A snowstorm strands two travelers at a remote inn. Even though they clash at their first encounter, carriage trouble forces them to join forces in order to make it to London by Christmas. Neither Nicholas nor Anna is happy about the arrangement, but as the journey takes an unexpected turn, they soon discover they have more in common than they think . . .
The sound was deceptively mild, a soft flutter, something akin to the beating of a moth’s wings against the glass windowpanes. Nicholas pulled back the drapery only to find the view was of naught but vague shapes obscured by swirling snow. A gust of wind rattled the door.
“It looks to be getting worse,” said Nicholas.
Anna yawned and stretched her legs. “I wonder how much farther we have to go. It feels as if we have been travelling for hours.”
“I fear the miles have not rolled by as quickly as the minutes. If we—”
A cracking lurch cut off his words and sent Nicholas skidding across the smooth leather. As the sound of splintering wood exploded in his ears, the coach rocked back, flinging him up into the air where he hovered for an instant before landing in Anna’s lap.
“Hell’s Bells!” His curse echoed the cacophony of confusion outside. As he struggled to untangle his limbs from the twist of blankets and clothing, the wind whipped pellets of ice against the windows and the horses set up another chorus of frightened whinnies. From his box, the coachman cried for help.
To her credit, Anna did not panic. She wriggled out from under him and set to freeing his boot from her knotted skirts.
Brave girl, he noted, though aloud he snapped only a brusque “Stay here” as he dove for the door and wrenched it open. Fighting his way through the driving snow, Nicholas caught the driver as he fell from his icy perch.
“T-T-Tree fell across the way.” Blue with cold, the man’s lips were having difficulty forming distinct words. “M-Managed to steer the team clear b-but I fear the w-wheel. . .”
Nicholas saw that the wheel was trapped by the broken branches of a large spruce. He took hold of one of the shattered stumps, but abandoned the effort after several heaves proved there was no way he was going to dislodge it on his own.
“If we back the coach up,” he yelled above the howl of the storm, “I think we can manage to pull the wreckage free.”
“Aye, sir.” The coachman made a game try at returning to his seat, but his awkward fumblings quickly made it clear that his wrist had been injured in the accident.
“I had better take charge,” said Nicolas. “It will take two good hands to control the team.”
The man winced. “Aye, but it will also take at least that to clear the branches.”
Nicholas took a moment to assess the options—which, he decided, were extremely limited. “We will have to make a try at it. There is no other choice—”
“Actually there is, sir.” Anna materialized out of the wind-whipped flakes, a muffler wound up to the tip of her nose, its ends tied over her hat to snug it in place. “Let me handle the ribbons, while you help John.”
“Too dangerous,” he replied gruffly. “Go back inside.”
“Balvan! I have a great deal of experience in driving a coach in these conditions.”
“Did you just call me a horse’s arse in Russian?” he demanded, stifling the urge to laugh.
“Yes—but if you wish to ring another peal over my head for hoydenish behavior, I suggest you do it later,” shot back Anna.
“She is a dab hand on the box, sir,” volunteered the coachman. “I can attest to her skill.”
As a frigid gust nearly swept him off his feet, Nicholas gave a grim nod. “Very well. We won’t stand on ceremony.” After directing the two others to take up their places, he maneuvered the skittish animals into position to straighten the coach. “Ready?”
Anna tightened her grip on the reins.
After a few slippery moments, the horses responded to the tugs and shouts, their hooves digging into the fast-drifting snow. The coach inched back, slowly but surely, until they were able to extricate the trapped wheel. Though several spokes were cracked and the rim bent, it looked as if it would hold up for a few more miles.
The same could not be said for the coachman, who was trying to mask his pain with a thin smile. Ignoring the man’s weak attempt at argument, Nicholas bundled him inside the coach and tipped a flask of brandy to his iced lips. It was a moment or two before he realized he had left Anna to fend for herself.
“May the devil’s arse be buried in ice,” he swore, reaching for the door latch.
It snapped open with no help from him.
“Ha—Hell just might freeze over in this weather.” Anna sounded almost cheerful as she scrambled in and slapped the snow from her mittens. “I trust you have saved a sip for me.”
Thick flakes clung to her fur hat and ice rimmed her dark lashes, giving her the look of a storm-tossed ermine. A very adorable storm-tossed ermine. And a very brave one. Of all the young ladies he knew, Nicholas couldn’t think of a one who wouldn’t have swooned in fright by now. While Lady Anna seemed about to succumb to. . .
It was a sweetly musical sound that seemed to lighten the confined space with a note of sunshine. Nicholas found himself smiling in spite of the circumstances.
“Well done,” he murmured, passing over the brandy. “I would never have imagined a highborn lady could take hold of adversity like that.”
“And I would never have imagined a proper gentleman could carry his own weight,” she retorted, but with a twinkle in her eye. “And if you are about to remark that a highborn lady ought not imbibe in anything stronger than ratafia punch, you may bite your tongue.”
“If I could, I would be offering you champagne,” he murmured. Strangely enough, he found he was developing a taste for her effervescent spirit, however unconventional. In comparison, every other young lady he knew suddenly seemed flat.
Anna took a tiny taste of the brandy, then handed it back. “Actually, I would prefer vodka,” she murmured.
“I shall ring for one of the footmen and ask him to fetch a bottle. Along with a crystal bowl full of caviar.”
Another laugh. He was sorry to hear it die away more quickly than the first one.
Her expression turned serious as she rooted around in one of the storage compartments and drew out a length of linen. “Let me have your hand, John. That wrist needs to be bandaged.”
“But milady, you ought not have to tend to me—”
“Don’t be foolish.” She already had hold of his sleeve and was folding back the cuff. “This should help stave off any further swelling.” Her gaze angled up, looking for Nicholas’s eyes. “However, you won’t be in any condition to drive.”
“As to that,” he replied. “I will take his place on the box.”
“And I will spell you,” she added firmly.
Before he could argue, the coachman voiced his own reservation. “Sir, with the wheel as weak as it is, it might not be wise to risk pushing on. The snow and ice has become awfully treacherous on this narrow road. Another accident might turn out to be far more serious than the one we just escaped.”
Nicholas frowned. “What are you suggesting?”
“That I go ahead on foot and fetch help. We have traveled some distance, and by the innkeeper’s direction, the next village cannot be far off.”
“Out of the question,” exclaimed Anna. “I’ll not have you run such a risk.”
“The storm is letting up,” replied the coachman, pointing out a sliver of blue in the slate gray clouds. “And there is nothing wrong with my legs, milady. The way is clear enough that I am in no danger of getting lost. I should be back in a short while with a safer vehicle. If I am not, then his lordship can attempt the drive.”
“He has a point,” mused Nicholas. A more prolonged look out the window showed that the snow had stopped and the dark clouds appeared to be blowing off to the east. “All things considered, the plan is a prudent one.”
“There must be another way,” she protested.
“If you have a better proposal, I am willing to hear it.”
Her lips parted, but remained frozen in silence.
Nicholas began assembling some essentials for the coachman to take with him. “Lady Anna, like it or not, we must be. . .”
“Practical.” Her sigh blunted the edge of irony.
“Sometimes, discretion is the better part of valor,” he murmured, adding a pair of extra mittens from his valise and the muffler from his neck to the packet of food in the other man’s hand. “Your courage and concern are commendable, but pushing onward might only end up being far more dangerous for all concerned.”
She signaled her surrender with a small nod.
“That goes for you, too,” he was forced to add as the coachman tried to refuse the food and clothing. “Now be off with you. Stick to the road, and if you encounter any difficulty, do not hesitate to turn back.”
After looping the length of merino wool up over his ears, the man snapped off a brisk salute and slipped out into the cold.
“Do you always remain so calm and unrattled in the face of an emergency?” asked Anna as the door fell shut.
“Being a stick in the mud has its advantages—it takes a great deal to make me budge.”
She colored. “Oh, dear! Must you remind me of all the regrettable things I have uttered over the course of this day?”
To keep such a becoming shade of pink upon her cheeks, he would consider repeating their conversations word for word. In Latin and Greek, if need be.
“You no doubt look on me as a hopeless hoyden,” she said softly. “Now that I have shown my true colors.”
“I do not see you in quite so harsh a light, Lady Anna.”
She shied back from the window as the sun scudded out from behind the clouds. In a moment it was gone again, dimming the uncertainty in her eyes.
What inner turmoil drove her to seek refuge in shadow? Nicholas had an inkling he knew its cause, which seemed confirmed by her troubled reply.
“Then you are the rare exception. Most gentlemen expect a lady to resemble bleached muslin—soft, pliable, and leached of all texture and hue.” Abruptly changing position, she leaned back to face the panes of glass and cupped her chin in her hand. “I have always loved winter, and the way the world appears after a snowfall. The pristine white blanket is so pure, so perfect. It covers a multitude of flaws, hides the imperfections, softens the jagged edges. . . .”
Her voice trailed off as she stared at the pale trees. “Everything looks so hopeful and full of promise, as if life itself were a blank canvas, on which one could start afresh.”
“And then it melts away,” mused Nicholas.
“Yes, I know.” Her voice was sad, subdued. “It’s only an illusion.”
He thought for a long moment. “In many ways, what you are speaking about is really the true spirit of Christmas. It seems to me that it is a time to remind ourselves that there is always hope, always a chance for the rebirth of light and laughter, no matter that the days are at their darkest.”
“Why, Lord Killingworth,” she whispered after a moment. “You are a very wise man.”
He smiled. “Sorry, I have no frankincense, gold or myrrh to offer you, just a piece of rather moldy cheddar.” From within another square of oilskin he produced half a loaf of dark bread. Cutting off a slice, he topped it off with a crumble of the cheese and presented it to her with a flourish. “Along with a crust of stale rye.”
Her mouth quivered, then slowly curled up at the corners. “I think it quite the most lovely Christmas gift I have received since. . . since I was a child.”
Nicholas was too well attuned to the nuances of language to miss her last minute change of words. A shapely figure was not the only thing hidden beneath the fur-trimmed coat. Secrets. She had secrets too personal, too painful to share.
Ah, but didn’t everyone? he thought, uncomfortably aware of his own inner conflicts, and how carefully he tried to keep them under wraps.
Lud, what a pair they made—two prickly strangers, forced to travel by the call of duty, and suddenly thrown together by chance. Her problems were not really any of his concern, and yet he felt an inexplicable bond had formed between them . . .