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Coming October 26, 2022

Classic Romance

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Can the magic of the Christmas season lead to a fairy tale happy ending?

When Cara Roberts’ family plans an extra special Christmas to support her after her broken engagement, she wants nothing to do with the holiday. After learning her brother and his wife can’t use the cottage vacation they purchased, she impulsively escapes to an English cottage in the bucolic village of Bakewell, despite having no idea where Bakewell is.

Lord Alec Sherbourne of Langley Park is no fan of Christmas, but following in his parents’ footsteps, he annually donates his impressive 19th century country home to be decorated and opened on December weekends as a community fundraiser. This year, Christmas is complicated by the arrival of a pretty American woman who booked a cottage on his estate—only the cottage is occupied. Forced to take her under his vast roof, he’s dismayed when a storm and frozen pipes keep her with him longer than he’d anticipated. Even more worrisome, her presence is making it feel like Christmas for the first time in forever.

As these two holiday housemates become friends, is there something more in the Christmas air?

Classic Romance

Coming October 26, 2022

Once Upon A Christmas

read an excerpt →

Can the magic of the Christmas season lead to a fairy tale happy ending?

When Cara Roberts’ family plans an extra special Christmas to support her after her broken engagement, she wants nothing to do with the holiday. After learning her brother and his wife can’t use the cottage vacation they purchased, she impulsively escapes to an English cottage in the bucolic village of Bakewell, despite having no idea where Bakewell is.

Lord Alec Sherbourne of Langley Park is no fan of Christmas, but following in his parents’ footsteps, he annually donates his impressive 19th century country home to be decorated and opened on December weekends as a community fundraiser. This year, Christmas is complicated by the arrival of a pretty American woman who booked a cottage on his estate—only the cottage is occupied. Forced to take her under his vast roof, he’s dismayed when a storm and frozen pipes keep her with him longer than he’d anticipated. Even more worrisome, her presence is making it feel like Christmas for the first time in forever.

As these two holiday housemates become friends, is there something more in the Christmas air?

Once Upon A Christmas

Classic Romance

Themes & Archetypes

Christmas

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Once Upon A Christmas

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This wasn’t supposed to be her English vacation.  Her brother Tom and his wife Kristine had bought the vacation package at their son’s school auction, but then Kristine got pregnant with twins. There was no traveling during the pregnancy or for the year after, and with the trip to England about to expire at the end of December, Tom offered it up to his family. Cara jumped at the opportunity. Go to England?  Stay in a historic cottage?  Enjoy a proper English Christmas?

Avoid her wonderful loving protective family that still fretted about her abruptly broken engagement?

To England she’d go.  Cara tried hard to find a friend who could go with her—it was a roomy three bedroom cottage—but not one could make it work, not at such short notice, never mind over Christmas when most families liked to be together.

Cara’s parents were a bit taken aback that she’d want to miss the family Christmas, but she’d had twenty-five family Christmases in Bellingham, two in Sun Valley with Chet’s family, but never one in England. So to England she went, departing from Seattle yesterday, arriving in London this morning, connecting to a flight to Midlands, and then the train to Bakewell, and now she was here.  Jet-lagged but happy.

She’d be even happier after a shower, some food, and a nap, nothing so long she wouldn’t sleep tonight, but her body ached with fatigue and her eyes felt heavy.  Fortunately, her cab driver was a lovely man, and even though she felt as if the directions to her cottage were lacking, he assured her he knew exactly what to do and where to go.

“You’re staying out at the Park,” he said approvingly, stowing her bags in the car’s boot.  “Just five minutes drive from here.  We’ll be there before you know it.”

Shivering she climbed into the backseat, waiting until he was behind the steering wheel to reply. “I don’t think I’m staying at the park. At least I don’t know anything about a park.  It’s called The Gamekeeper’s Cottage, or Holiday Cottage Two.” She glanced at her printed page of information and then up at the back of his head. “There must be several cottages on the property then.”

He started the car and pulled away from the little train station.  “Not close together, but yes, scattered about. Stanley Park is quite large. It’s a nice estate. One of the biggest in the county, even after large parcels were sold off.  Lord Sherbourne’s father bought several hundred acres back during his lifetime, but the current Sherbourne hasn’t done much with the place.  He isn’t as interested, and doesn’t visit often, although he’s expected to put in an appearance for one of the weekends.”

Cara understood the majority of what he was saying. He did have a rather thick accent but he was cheerful, and friendly, and comfortable with the directions.  “I take it you were raised here?”

“Oh no, I’m from Manchester, but my wife and I had enough of the city. Too expensive. Too much traffic. After the kids were grown, we decided to sell and look for a place for our retirement.  Bakewell is a lovely village. We’re quite happy here.”

“Is my cottage far from the town center?  I was looking at the directions and trying to figure out if it would be a long walk from my rental to the shops.”

“Not too long of a walk. Maybe a couple kilometers each way.”

A couple kilometers?  Cara frowned, translating that into miles.  It wasn’t an impossible walk, but it was further that she liked, especially if she was going for dinner or carrying heavy groceries.  Or if it rained, and she’d been prepared for rain as it had rained the two weeks before.  “But I can call for taxis?” she asked.

“Oh yes. There are a few of us around.  I’ll give you my number. Just give me a ring.  If I’m not available, I’ll send someone to you.  You won’t be stranded.”

“Good. I’ve been reading about Bakewell and the Lakes District.  I’ve learned that Bakewell is quite charming at Christmas with all the decorations.”

He nodded. “It’s a lovely village, quite popular now for holidays, not just during the summer, but for Christmas.  In December the big houses open for visitors.  Your Langley Park is one, Haddon Hall is another, and then of course there’s Chatsworth, the grandest of them all.  But they’re all fine places and you should visit each if you can.  Although, now that I think about it, it’s so close to Christmas it might be hard finding tickets.” He hesitated, glanced up into the rearview mirror, meeting her gaze. “My wife helps out in Langley’s tea room. She looks forward to it all year. I’ll have to ask her about tickets. She might know how to still get one.  Next time you ring me for a ride, I can let you know.”

“That’s very nice of you,” Cara said, “but don’t put yourself out.  I’m just so happy to be here.  It’s my first time to England.”

“Not London for you?”

“I come from a relatively small town—”

“How big?”

“About 90,000,” she answered.

“That’s not a small town.”  He turned off the main road, taking a left on a quiet lane.  “Where is it?  California?”

“No.  Washington state.  Bellingham is above Seattle, near the border of Canada.”

“Oh, I like Canada.  I’ve been to Vancouver.  Went for the Winter Olympics.  Britain never does that well in the winter games, but that year we took the gold medal in the skeleton.  Amy Williams.  It was her first Olympics, too.  Do you remember?”

Cara hesitated.  To be honest, she didn’t even know what event the skeleton was, but she didn’t want to offend her driver.  “She did fantastic,” Cara said, because at least that was true.

“She did,” he agreed.  He pointed to the trees bordering the road.  “That’s all Langley Park,” he said.  “Your cottage is on the other side of those woods.”

She glanced around.  There really wasn’t anything out here.  Open fields.  Clusters of trees.  Some cattle in the distance.  “Where are the other cottages?”

“You’re at the edge of the park.  The others are closer together, several by the big house.  The cottage by the old dairy for example, that’s quite nice. And then there’s the gate house. That’s my favorite. My wife and I stayed there once for a little romantic weekend. She’d been saying I didn’t give her any romance, so I surprised her. Roses, champagne, two nights stay. We had a lovely time. Next time you come, ask for that one.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” she said, smiling.  Her driver was chatty, but she liked it.  He was putting her at ease.   Cara had traveled a fair amount before, but always with a friend.  She wasn’t nervous about being on her own—this was England after all—but Christmas on her own would certainly be a novel experience.  Fortunately, she liked people and enjoyed new experiences.  “What is your name, by the way?”

“Paul.”

“I’m Cara,” she said.

“A pleasure,” he said.  “And there’s your cottage just ahead.”

Cara had seen photos of the two story stone cottage with the slate roof.  The photos she’d seen were from summer with lots of flowers and climbing roses, but the house was bare now, four windows across the front of the downstairs, three on the second floor.  There was a pair of chimneys, one smoking.  A dark gray four door sedan was parked in the driveway which reassured her.  Someone was here to meet her.  Wonderful.  She hadn’t been entirely clear on the check in process, including  how she’d get the keys.

Charles pulled behind the car, lifted out her large suitcase, and Cara paid him, plus a generous tip since he’d been so helpful.  He glanced at the bill and shook his head.  “This is too much,” he said.  “Maybe other drivers wouldn’t tell you, but here you’d only tip maybe ten percent.  Some people just round out to the nearest pound.”

“But I don’t have change yet,” she confessed, “and you’ve been so helpful.  Please keep it, and at least I know now for the future.”

He smiled and reached into his car, drew out a business card.  “Here’s my number.  Call me anytime.  I’ll ask my wife about the tours, too.”

She waved goodbye and lifting her suitcase approached the cottage’s front door.  She looked for a doorbell, but there was just a brass door knocker, so she used that, twice, firmly.

The door opened a minute later.  A man in his mid-thirties dressed in a thick wool cardigan, trousers, and socks stood on the threshold.  “May I help you?” he asked.

She smiled at him.  “I’m Cara Roberts.”

“Yes.”

“I’ve just arrived from Seattle.  Well, north of Seattle, but this is the Gamekeeper’s Cottage, isn’t it?  Holiday Cottage 2?”

“It is.”  He glanced from Cara to her suitcase.  “And it’s let to my family.  We’ve been here almost a week already and have another four days left.”  A little person peeked around the man’s legs, wispy blonde hair, big brown eyes, a smile filled with baby teeth.

Cara’s heart fell but she hid it, smiling instead at the toddler before looking up into the man’s face.  “Maybe I have cottage number wrong.” She pulled out the printed pages from her purse.  “South Woodland Drive.  Gamekeeper’s Cottage, Langley Park.”  She frowned, brows flattening.  “Am I in the wrong place?”

“That is this cottage, but perhaps they assigned you the wrong one.  There is a cottage by the dairy, and another by the gate.  I think one of the barns has also been turned into a holiday cottage.”

A woman appeared at his shoulder.  “The barn reno,” she said, taking the toddler by the shoulder and drawing her back from the door.  “That’s quite a large place.  Four or five bedrooms, I think.”

Cara’s head was spinning.  Their accents were lovely—all that British charm she’d come for—but she was tired and hungry, and cold.  The wind whipped at her coat and stung her ears.  “I’m not sure anymore,” Cara confessed.  “I don’t even know who to call.”

“She should head up to the big house,” the woman said decisively.  “They’ll be able to sort it out.”

“Where is that from here?” Cara asked.

The wife pointed to a road leading the opposite direction from where she’d come.  “There.  It’s a nice walk in summer.”

“But not today, not with a suitcase,” the husband added.

“I’ll ring the staff at the Park,” the woman said, scooping up the toddler, “but do shut the door, darling.  We’re letting all the warm air out.”  A baby cried from inside the cottage and the woman disappeared.

The husband looked at Cara apologetically.  “Would you like to come in?”

She shivered.  “No.  You have babies.  I don’t want to impose.”

“Let me get my keys.  I’ll just run you up myself.  One moment.”

He closed the door but returned quickly, now in shoes and wearing a coat, a cap, and a scarf.  “I’m so sorry to trouble you,” she said as he loaded her suitcase into his trunk.

“Not at all.  My wife has already rung the office at the house and they know you’re coming.  They’ll sort out the accommodations for you.  It’s a good thing the house isn’t open today, otherwise it’d be a different matter.”

It took them a few minutes to reach the ‘house’, an enormous mansion of red bricks, flanked by red brick wings of different heights and styles.  Cara counted at least eight or nine chimneys across the expansive roof.

“Wow,” she said under her breath.  “That’s a house?”

“Impressive, isn’t it?  Wait until you see the inside.  You are doing the tour, aren’t you?”

“I didn’t purchase tickets.”

“That’s a shame.  The oldest part of the manor is Elizabethan, but it’s now hidden by the Georgian façade, 1740’s, I believe.”

Almost three hundred years ago.  The United States was just another British colony then.

He pulled up the gravel driveway to a small brick outbuilding adjacent to a huge white tent.   Parking, they both climbed from the car.  “What is the tent for?” she asked.

“That’s where they serve afternoon tea, after the house tour.”  He removed her suitcase from the trunk, set it on the gravel close to the front door of the small brick building.  “Not sure who is in the office right now, but I’m confident they can steer you in the right direction.  We’ve always dealt with the real estate agents, Harry or Susan, not anyone here at the manor.”

“Thank you for the ride.  I appreciate it.”

He was back in his car, doing a u-turn, heading back the way they’d just come.  She watched him a moment before trying the door of the office.  It opened and a rather serious looking woman appeared from a back room.  “Can I help you?” she said.

“I was booked into Holiday Cottage 2, The Gamekeeper’s Cottage, but when I arrived it was already occupied.  I’m not sure where I’m supposed to be now.  My name is Cara Roberts.  I’m here through December 27th.”

The woman’s expression never changed.  “I’m not involved in any of the cottage bookings.  I’m with the Bakewell Heritage Council.  I oversee the holiday tours at the Park.  We’re closed today, but will open on Thursday.”

“I’m not here for the tours.  I’m supposed to be staying in a cottage, for Christmas.”  Cara’s fatigue was catching up with her.  It had been a planes-trains-automobile day and she was ready for a comfortable place to lie down.  “Is there someone else who could help me?  Someone at the house?”

“It’s a private house.”

“I understand, but they own the cottages, yes?”

“Do you have paperwork?  Booking information?”

Cara pulled out the creased paper from her purse yet again and handed it to the woman who read it slowly, and very thoroughly.  Cara tried not to shift from foot to foot but her legs ached and her head throbbed, and Christmas in Bakewell no longer sounded quite as charming as Christmas with her doting family.

The woman looked at Cara.  “There must be more information.”

“I have details on the package but nothing more on the cottage.”

“What package?”

“The Holiday in the Lakes District auction package.  From my nephew’s school.  The cottage and mileage were donated.  My brother and his wife bought it—” Cara broke off, exhaled, wondering why she was explaining to someone who didn’t care and wouldn’t be able to help her. She held her hand out for her paper.  “Can I speak to someone who manages the rentals?”

“They’re on holiday.”

Cara smiled grimly.  “So am I.”

The woman gave her another long, unhappy look before going to the phone and dialing a number.  “Mrs. Booth, its Miranda Fletcher from the ticket office.  We have a young lady, an American, I believe, who is here in need of assistance.  It seems she was booked into one of the estate cottages but—”  Miss Fletcher broke off, expression clearing.  “Ah, wonderful.  You’re familiar with the situation.  Excellent.  I’ll leave her to you then.”

Miss Fletcher hung up the phone.  “Mrs. Booth is on her way down.  She’ll meet you outside.”

Cara murmured thanks, stepped outside, closing the door carefully behind her, and hoped that Mrs. Booth would have answers.

Mrs. Booth did indeed have answers, and yes, the Gamekeeper’s Cottage had been inadvertently overbooked, while the Gardener’s Cottage stood empty due to some renovations.

Cara’s head was spinning.  She didn’t particularly care which cottage she was given, provided she could go somewhere warm, take a hot bath and never mind food anymore, she’d climb into bed and sleep.  That’s all she wanted now.  To get clean and go to bed.

“Let’s take you to the house while we sort it out,” Mrs. Booth said, reaching for Cara’s suitcase.

Cara seized her own suitcase, not about to have a woman in her sixties—seventies?— lug her heavy case.  “I’ll follow you,” she said brightly.

It would have been a longer walk if they’d gone around to the front door, but instead they crossed the pea gravel drive, approached a side entrance, and Mrs. Booth climbed two steps and then opened the unassuming door, which led into a big room filled with coats and boots.  From somewhere in the house dogs barked.  Two dogs, three dogs.

Cara closed the door behind her and Mrs. Booth moved forward to close another door.  “They’re not loose,” Mrs. Booth said, “but it’ll be quieter without them listening to us.  They know Lord Sherbourne is coming.  They always know when he’s coming so they’re very excitable at the moment.”

“Lord Sherbourne?”

“He’s the owner of Langley Park.”

“He doesn’t live here year round?” Cara said, picturing a man her father’s age with thinning hair and ruddy cheeks and nose.

“He prefers London but it’s tradition to celebrate Christmas here—” she broke off at the sound of a car in the driveway.  Mrs. Booth straightened and adjusted the string of pearls circling her collar.  “I think that’s him now,” she said briskly.  “Come with me.  I’ll find you a place where you can get warm while we figure out where to put you.”

“The Gardener’s Cottage sounds good,” Cara said hopefully, as she followed Mrs. Booth out a third door, down a long stone corridor with two tall windows, and then through another door into what could pass as a sitting room with a huge fireplace, and beyond that was a soaring ceiling with dark beams, plaster walls, tapestries and swords and armor.

Mrs. Booth poked the fire, drew an armchair closed to the fire, and then fluffed a pillow.  “Warm yourself here.  I’ll be back in a jiffy.”

Mrs. Booth disappeared into the great hall and out a front door, the door closing firmly behind her.

Cara stood before the fire, rubbing her hands, but her curiosity got the best of her and she wandered to a window and peeked out.

The man had arrived in a low, sleek car.  She suspected it might be a Jaguar.  When the door on the driver’s side opened, and a tall, broad-shouldered man climbed out.  He was not old, and nothing like a lord, not in his fitted wool trousers and dark turtleneck. He lifted a long coat from the backseat of his car and turned to face the staff that was gathering now on the front steps.

Mrs. Booth seemed to have taken change and was speaking to him.  He nodded, expression hard.  The staff had all gotten busy.  Someone was unloading luggage from his car’s trunk.  Another was taking his coat.  Someone else climbed into the car to park it elsewhere.

Mrs. Booth and the dark-haired man were stepping through the front door, and Cara rushed back to her chair by the fire, not wanting to be caught spying, when she was more curious than ever.

Mrs. Booth’s cheerful voice echoed in the hall.  “Welcome home, sir.  Now it will feel like Christmas.”

“It’s good to see you too, Mrs. Booth. Not sure about the Christmas part,” he answered, his voice deep, his diction incredibly precise.

“Yes, it’s a bit of a trial for you, but you’re doing better with it every year.”

“You have the patience of a saint, Mrs. Booth.  Not sure how you’ve put up with me—” he broke off at the sound of dogs barking.  “They know I’m home.”

“Indeed, sir.  I was just saying to Miss Roberts that they know you’re arriving every time.”

“Miss Roberts?”

“Yes, sir, she’s just arrived.  She’s in the next room.  It seems there’s been a hiccup with her booking—”

“Her booking?”  He sounded increasingly unhappy.

“For the holiday cottages.”

“The cottages shouldn’t be your concern.  That’s for the estate office to handle.”

“But Harry and Susan have gone, sir, and the bookings seemed well in hand so Mr. Trimble and I promised to look after things.  It is their first Christmas together–”

“And how is that my concern?” he interrupted curtly.  “Now where is this Roberts?”

“In here.”  Mrs. Booth appeared around the corner, and she smiled at Cara, as if to encourage her.

Cara rose as Lord Sherbourne entered the sitting room.  But once standing, she wasn’t sure what to do next, or where to look.  “Hello,” she said, just jumping in, because that’s what she did.

He didn’t say anything, not right away.  His gaze swept over her, from the top of her blonde hair caught in a messy ponytail, over her sloppy travel clothes, to her scuffed clogs she loved for their comfort rather than style.

He didn’t exactly sneer, but he didn’t look impressed.

His indifference amused her, making her want to be extra talkative.  It was a fault of hers, her sense of humor, and irreverence.  “And it’s Miss Roberts,” she said, arching a brow, “or Cara, but not just Roberts.  I think that’s a man’s name.”  Then she smiled at him, giving him the full benefit of her mega watt smile, her smile admittedly one of her best features.

He didn’t smile back, but then she hadn’t expected him to.  He wasn’t your average man.  Tall, broad shouldered, darkly handsome…undoubtedly too handsome for his own good.

Lord Sherbourne looked as if he’d stepped off of the cover of a Barbara Cartland romance, one of the books she’d found in her grandmother’s stash of romances. No one in the family had known that Cara had not dropped them off at the local thrift store, but had kept the boxes, particularly all the ones by Barbara Cartland. The Impetuous Duchess.  The Ruthless Rake.  The Something Virgin.  The men on those covers all had dark hair and slashing cheekbones, a face they called sculpted. The men wore crisp white shirts and impeccably tailored black coats, their neck ties ruffled, muscular legs poured into fitted trousers and tall, glossy black boots.

In short, Lord Sherbourne was a Barbara Cartland hero.  Her heroes were neither friendly, nor approachable.  No, they were arrogant.  Aloof.

Sherbourne was just as aloof as a Cartland hero.

Cara was intrigued, but not intimidated.  “Thank you for the lovely welcome,” she said with another easy smile, “but I don’t want to take up any more of your time. Mrs. Booth has been helping me and between us, we will get this handled.”

His eyes narrowed.  “Mrs. Booth has more than enough on her plate.  Could you explain to me the issue?”

Cara didn’t know who did the bookings or who handled the reservations, and the last thing she wanted to do was get any of his staff in trouble, particularly after one of them kindly donated a stay to her nephew’s school auction. “It seems the Gamekeeper’s Cottage was double booked.  My stay had been confirmed almost a month ago, and yet you have a family there now.  They arrived a week ago and have a few more days left.”

He looked even more displeased, if it was possible.  He glanced at Mrs. Booth.  “Have you phoned Harry or Susan?”

“Miss Roberts has only just arrived, and I wasn’t sure we needed to alert them, not if we could handle it ourselves.”  Mrs. Booth gave him a reassuring glance.  “I’ve had a quick conversation with Mr. Trimble and he said the Gardener’s Cottage could be quickly readied for Miss Roberts.  She would be able to move in tomorrow.”

He glanced out the window, and Cara’s gaze followed.  It had begun to rain.  She could hear a pinging on a roof somewhere, or perhaps on one of the many chimneys.

“This has never happened before,” he said grimly, looking back at Cara and then Mrs. Booth.  “At least, not to my recollection.”

“Well, it has,” Mrs. Booth answered, “but the staff was able to handle it without you knowing.  Always better that way.  But you’re here now, and Mr. Trimble and I have a plan, so you go see your dogs, and I’ll have cook prepare something for you, unless you’d rather wait until dinner?”

“Dinner is fine.”  He shot Cara another unhappy look before quitting the room.

In the distance the dogs went crazy, howling with pleasure.  Mrs. Booth turned to Cara.  “See?  Everything will be right as rain.  Don’t you worry.”

“I’m not worried,” she assured Mrs. Booth.  “There are a number of inns and B&Bs in Bakewell.”

“Let me handle this.”

“I don’t think there’s anything to handle,” Cara said, glancing towards the hall where Lord Sherbourne had disappeared.  “He doesn’t like me here.”

“Don’t mind him.  He’s just driven up from London, and the traffic makes it almost unbearable.”

The rain was coming down harder, the drops streaking the thick glass.  She heard a rattle and a bang.

“Just the wind,” Mrs. Booth said.  “It’s an old place.  Something always makes a noise.”  She gave Cara another smile before bustling out.

Cara sank into her chair and slumped against the upholstered back, exhausted.  This was not the arrival she’d expected.  She hadn’t imagined a welcome basket, but a bed and bathroom would be most appreciated.

She didn’t know how long she sat there because she’d closed her eyes for just a moment, and then suddenly there were footsteps and Sherbourne’s autocratic voice ringing out.  “Where did Mrs. Booth go?”

Cara sat up, stretching a little and blinking.  Her head felt thick.  She was still drowsy.  To be honest, she had no idea how long she’d been asleep.  “I don’t know, but I’m sure she’s working on getting me situated.”

“This is not what I expected to find, coming home after so many months away.”

“I hadn’t expected so many….issues…either.  But it probably was just a glitch in the booking system, which is why I got booked into a cottage that already has occupants.  I’m grateful Mrs. Booth has been trying to help sort it out.  She’s a lovely lady.”

“She is.  I’m quite fond of her.”

He didn’t smile as he said it.  In fact, he didn’t smile at all.  Cara wasn’t sure what to make of him.  “How are your dogs?”

He’d glanced away but he focused on her again.  “Did you meet them?”

“No.  Just heard them.  They sounded very happy that you were home.”

“Until recently they lived with me.  I’ve missed them.”

So he wasn’t completely without feelings.  “How many?” she asked.

“Three.”

“Dogs make a house a home,” she said.

His narrowed gaze rested on her face.  “Do you have dogs?”

“My parents do.  I’m not allowed pets in my apartment building, but I don’t live far from my parents so I see Rascal and Frankie if not every day, then several times a week.”

“Rascal and Frankie?  Not very dignified,” he said.

She laughed at his expression.  “They’re not very dignified.  Rascal is a rescue, and he’s exactly what his name says—he’s naughty, but very smart.  Frankie is a weiner dog.  She’s very fat—”

“Frankie is a she?”

“It’s confusing, I know, but my little sister insisted.  Frankie is short for frankfurter.”

He nearly smiled.  Nearly.  “I figured as much.”  He glanced at his watch.  “I’m going to find Mrs. Booth, see what’s taking her so long.”

“I can just go to town,” Cara said, rising.  “I can call for a taxi and go to a hotel—”

“But you’ve paid for a cottage.”

“My brother did, and it was quite a splurge for him, but as you said earlier, this shouldn’t be your headache, or Mrs. Booth’s.  I’d rather go than cause any more trouble.” Cara managed a faint smile. ” I’ll just step out now and wait for Paul—”

“Paul?”

“The lovely taxi driver who brought me here from the train station.  He was very excited that I was staying in one of the holiday cottages.  But he won’t mind getting me.”

He sighed.  “It’s raining. Hard.  And you aren’t dressed for the cold, or the rain.”

“Maybe not, but I’m from north of Seattle. Rain doesn’t bother me. We get a lot of it—”

“Just wait here,” he interrupted.  “Have a seat in the chair by the fire.” He disappeared through the closed door Mrs. Booth had gone through earlier.

Cara listened to the door shut , hoping he wouldn’t be short tempered with Mrs. Booth. She couldn’t get a handle on Lord Sherbourne’s temperament. He was very tall and very elegant, but he didn’t have a lot of warmth. Perhaps that was the English way. She’d heard the English aristocracy were different from other people. She’d also heard from a friend who gone to college in England, that the English people although friendly, might be slow to invite you into their homes. English had more of a reserve than Americans. That didn’t bother her though.  Cara liked people and enjoyed new situations—provided she didn’t have to give a speech or read to a roomful of people.

Needing to stretch her legs, Cara left the sitting room to walk around the great hall, inspecting the suit of armor in a corner, the shields on the wall, the swords and shields on another, the tapestries hanging above. The dark beams and decor was all very medieval and deliciously foreign. This is exactly what she imagined a great English house to look like. Although to be fair, most Barbara Cartland heroes didn’t live in medieval castles, but rather elegant Georgian manors.  She wished she brought a few of her grandmother’s paperbacks along with her.  It would be fun to compare Barbara Cartland’s historical accuracy to the real thing.

Her study of the great hall was interrupted when Lord Sherbourne returned with Mrs. Booth and an older gentleman introduced as Mr. Trimble.

“As you’re aware, the cottage isn’t ready for you,” Lord Sherburne said crisply. But Mr. Trimble has assured me that it will be ready for you tomorrow. There’s no reason they can’t temporarily wrap up the renovation so we can get you installed there.”

“I hate to be a nuisance,” Cara said.  “I really could stay in town.  I noticed a number of charming hotels and inns.”

“There’s no need for that,” Mrs. Booth said firmly.  “We’ve already discussed your situation and we’re going to have you stay here tonight.  The Park has plenty of rooms.”

“I appreciate the offer, but I think we’d all be more comfortable if I stayed in a hotel,” Cara answered.  “Lord Sherbourne has only just returned from London, and I’m sure he’d like his home to himself.”  She flashed him a smile.  “And his dogs.”

 

Until that very moment when this Roberts smiled at him and mentioned his dogs, Alec Shelbourne had not been enthusiastic about having a house guest, not even for a night, but when the American tossed him that smile, a distinctly cheery, mischievous smile, he felt compelled to rise to the challenge.  Because it had been a challenge, that smile, the mention of his dogs.  It was as if she knew him—not well–but enough to be tease him.

He couldn’t remember the last time someone teased him.

It was undoubtedly due to her lack of etiquette, but for once, he didn’t care.  It had been a long, dull drive from the city and he was facing a long, dull holiday in Derbyshire.  “I have twenty some bedrooms here,” he said.  “There are two enormous wings. I guarantee that you will not be in my way.” He glanced at Mrs. Booth. “Which room would you suggest for Roberts—” he broke off, and corrected himself.  “Miss Roberts?”

“Cara, is fine,” Cara said.  “No need to be so formal.”

Alec ignored the suggestion.  “Miss Roberts would probably want one of the warmer rooms, preferably with central heat.”

“But that would put her in your wing.

“Yes,” Mrs. Booth agreed.  “I was thinking the Rose Room?”

“If it’s ready.”  He glanced at Cara. “Have you had lunch or tea?”

The American shook her head. “No. I landed at the Midlands airport a couple hours ago, took a train to Bakewell, a taxi to the cottage…” She smiled. “And then the ride from the cottage here.”

“Sounds exhausting.”

“I’ll sleep well tonight,” she said lightly, apparently untroubled.

Mrs. Booth glanced at him.  “Don’t you worry, I can manage here.  I’ll go get her settled, and then have cook send something up to her for dinner—”

“She can join me.  Less work for cook.”  He focused on Cara.  “You don’t mind dining with the dogs?”

The pretty American woman with her messy ponytail arched an eyebrow, expression amused.  “I thought we already covered this.  Frankie and Rascal?”

“Do they eat in your dining room?”

“Not when we have guests.”

“My dogs will be with us, guests or no.  But they don’t actually sit at the table.  Should you be wondering.”

Her lips curved and her eyes—brown?  Gold?—shimmered with light.  “Do they dress for dinner?”

“No.  But you might want to…change.”

She gave him a rather severe look.  “I’d planned on it.”

“Good.  We’ll eat at seven.  That should give you plenty of time to settle in.”  He nodded his head and walked away.

And as he walked away, he wondered why on earth he’d invited a stranger to stay, never mind share his dinner?  The last time someone had stayed overnight had been Christmas last year, and that had been his assorted relatives who always turned up for their traditional pre-Christmas dinner at the Park.  But a stranger?  No, he couldn’t even remember the last time a stranger had been a guest.

He didn’t know what had prompted him to extend the dinner invitation, either, or discuss his dogs, but he had.  Maybe it was her face, and that wide smile which had almost…almost… made him smile, most unusual for him at this time of year.

Guests from the cottages were never seen at the house, and if a tour had been arranged, it happened when Alec was not home.  The only tours taking place between November and January, were the weekend Christmas tours, a longstanding agreement going back to his grandfather.  Admittedly, his grandfather had only permitted tours on one weekend in December, and then his father expanded it to the three weekends leading up to Christmas, and somehow Alec had been convinced to match Chatsworth ambitious holiday events several years ago and now he didn’t know how to scale back, not wanting to disappoint the local ladies who worked so hard at raising money for their respective charities.  It was all volunteer driven, with all proceeds from the tours and teas generating revenue for Bakewell’s community organizations and non-profits.  Even the decorating was handled by volunteers, although Mrs. Booth, Mr. Dune, and Mr. Trimble oversaw the decorating to make sure everything was done properly, and safely.

All Alec had to do was give a welcome speech before the special evening tour on Thursday, and then return at the end while staff passed around glasses of champagne and he’d raise his glass of bubbly to thank everyone for coming.  The Thursday evening was an exclusive ticketed event that allowed the guests to see more of the house than the day tours, and rub elbows with him, so to speak.  The ticket price reflected the privilege, at one hundred pounds each, and to his amazement it sold out every year within hours.

It was an interesting house, though, full of history and drama.  He much preferred the history before he was born—less uncomfortable by far.

But the Sherbournes had been here for hundreds of years, Langley Park being the principal seat for his family, and now he was the last of the Sherbournes.  There were no brothers or sisters, no second or even third cousins on his father’s side.  If he didn’t have children, that would be the end of his line.  The world didn’t necessarily need another Viscount or Earl.  The title was rather meaningless—at least to Alec—but the land, the estate, that mattered.  Even though Christmas was his least favorite time to be here.

It’s not that he disliked Christmas, either.

He simply disliked Christmas in this house.

But he’d returned, as he did every year, and he’d give the Thursday welcome, and host the dinner for his elderly relatives Friday night, and then there would be the very quiet Christmas Eve and Christmas day, and then it’d be over, for another year.

 

 

 

 

end of excerpt

Once Upon A Christmas is currently available in digital format only:

October 26, 2022

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