Joanna Maitland

The Earl’s Mistletoe Bride

Copyright © 2010 by Joanna Maitland

Author’s Note

After ranging widely across Europe with my spying brothers in the Aikenhead Honors trilogy, it was delightful to return to English Regency Society for Jon and Beth’s story. As you will see, it begins with one strange Christmas encounter, and ends with another, bang in the middle of a grand Christmas house party.

In the Regency period, before Queen Victoria and Prince Albert imported the tradition of Christmas trees from Germany, Christmas was symbolized by the burning of the great Yule log and by rooms decorated with holly, ivy and, of course, mistletoe. I confess I couldn’t resist including the old tradition of removing a berry for every kiss. Once all the mistletoe berries were gone, there could be no more kissing, so it paid to be forward enough to grab your girl early. But would the forward man’s advances be welcome to his chosen lady? In at least one case here, they definitely are not.

Mistletoe is important to several of my characters in rather unexpected ways, but you’ll also meet a hidden folly being put to highly unconventional uses, and an extraordinary and scandalous challenge from Beth that Jon, for all his experiences as a battle-hardened soldier, finds very difficult to handle.

I hope you enjoy the twists and turns of my Christmas tale, and also your own Christmas kisses under the mistletoe-if you are lucky enough to have some to hang in your house. Happy reading and happy holidays!

To the Romantic Novelists’ Association in its 50th Anniversary year, with grateful thanks for all the inspiration, support and friendship I have found there


It was cold. So very cold.

Sharp icy fingers were probing into the hidden crevices of her clothing and scratching at every inch of exposed skin. The sleet-laden wind was whipping across her cheeks like scouring sand, rubbing them raw. Every breath was a torment to her aching lungs.

But she had no choice. She must go on. Away from all those pointing fingers. To somewhere safe, somewhere she could breathe again.

She had no idea where she was or where this lonely rutted path might lead. She raised her chin to peer ahead, brushing aside the wet strings of her hair and screwing up her eyes against the sleet in an attempt to see her way. Overhanging trees, mostly naked against the onset of winter; an under-layer of shrubs, some evergreen, but most of them bare and soggy black in the storm; a sodden path strewn with drifts of dead leaves that would soon be swallowed up by the deep, oozing mud. And beyond the trees, the path led into darkness.

She shivered, drew her thin shawl tighter around her shoulders and bent her head against the keening wind. If she stopped now, here, alone, the weather would win their unequal battle. She was not ready to yield. Not yet.

She plodded on, forcing herself to lift her weary feet, one step, then another, trying to ignore the freezing water in her boots and the squelching of the mud as it tried to hold her fast and suck her down. She was so very tired. If only-

For a second, the wind changed and whipped at her skirts from behind. She saw- No, she fancied she saw a simple fence, of posts and rails, of the kind that might border a country road, but it was gone in the blink of an eye. No matter how much she strained, she could not find it again. She had probably seen only what she longed to see: some sign of human habitation, of human warmth, of hope.

There was no hope.

The last light of the short December day was almost gone. Soon she would be alone, in the dark, in this strange wooded place, on a path that led to nowhere. Why on earth had she followed it?

At the time, it had seemed the most sensible course. What else could a woman do, abandoned at a lonely crossroads by the coach driver who had taken her up?

She had travelled many miles with him, naively believing that he was helping her out of the goodness of his heart. In truth, he was merely waiting to bring her to a suitably lonely place, where he could present his ultimatum: her money, or her person. Once he discovered that she had neither money in her pocket nor any willingness to pay him in kind, his bluff good nature had vanished. He had brought her even further from any chance of rescue, and pushed her out on to the deserted road, without even allowing her to take down her battered travelling bag. He would sell the contents, he said, to make up for the fare she owed him. He had whipped up his horses then, disappearing without so much as a glance at the woman he was leaving to the mercy of the storm.

She struggled to put the evil man from her mind. She must find the strength to go on. She must not give in to exhaustion. She must go on.

Beyond a huge oak tree, she found herself in an odd sort of dark clearing. It was edged with dense evergreen shrubs surrounding a broad area of churned mud and tussocks of grass. For a second, the wind dropped. In the sudden lull, she tried to tuck her hair back under her dripping bonnet. But the strings parted under the strain just as the wind returned, howling around her. Her bonnet was torn off and disappeared into the darkness, leaving her unbound hair whipping her face like slapping fingers.

She was too tired to wonder for more than a second why she should be suffering so. She knew only that she needed to find shelter soon, or the storm would surely best her.

There was that plain fence again! Or was it?

She took a few steps away from the path, trying to avoid the mud. The grass felt spongy beneath her feet, and treacherous, as though it might give way at any moment and plunge her down into some sucking void.

But those shrubs over there were thick and still densely green. Beneath them, she thought she could make out a kind of haven where they overhung a patch of more sheltered ground, full of dead leaves blown into heaps. It even looked fairly dry. She could take refuge there, just for a while, until the worst of the storm was over and she had regained a little of her strength.

She moved more quickly now. Being out of the wet was a prize worth the effort. She focused all her remaining strength on gaining it. But, in her haste, she forgot to watch where she was putting her feet. Her ankle turned. The laces of her boot snapped with a loud crack. Before she realised what was happening, the boot was gone, sucked away, and her stockinged foot had taken one more unwary step, sinking deep into the mud.

She cried out in shock and fear. Slimy hands seemed to be trying to drag her down. She tried to tell herself that it was nonsense, wild imaginings, but her senses were bewildered. She could not make them obey her.

She tugged hard, desperate to release her foot, but she did not have the strength. Her flailing arms found one of the branches of the evergreen. Something to give her purchase. She hung on to it with both hands and pulled again. No use. Still she could not-

Suddenly, she was free! She stumbled forward a single step, then pitched head first into the base of the shrub and the pile of leaves. Her head and her right arm crunched against unyielding wood. Her nose and mouth filled with debris and dirt. She tasted decay and mould. She was clawing at her face, desperate to breathe. It took her several moments to regain enough control to force the terrors from her mind. Eventually, she spat out the last of the leaf fragments and forced herself up. Pain lanced through her injured arm. Was it broken? She could not tell.

The wind was howling even louder. The evergreens around the clearing bent before it with an angry but defeated hiss. Yet the branches above her did not swish away. They seemed to bend over her, caressingly, like a

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