Since today is a special day, I thought you might like to read how some of my characters spend Christmas. I’m including a short extract from the second of The Aikenhead Honours Trilogy, the story of Lord Leo Aikenhead and Sophie Pietre, the woman with the most beautiful singing voice in Europe.
In His Reluctant Mistress, Leo and Sophie spend Christmas in a tiny Alpine village where they are snowed in. For fear of spoilers, I shan’t explain how they come to be there, or why, but I hope you will still enjoy the atmosphere. And the hint of mystery, too…
They had left the church behind them. Its bells had welcomed Christmas and fallen silent at last. The villagers had returned to their homes, calling out greetings to each other as they closed their doors against the cold.
Sophie and Leo walked slowly back to the edge of the village and the welcoming warmth of their inn. The only sound now was the scrunch of their boots on the crisp snow. Above them, the sky was huge and cloudless and filled with stars. Behind the village houses, snow-shrouded fir trees stood sentinel, motionless as guardsmen on parade. There was not even a whisper of wind.
Sophie sighed with pleasure. She felt a great sense of peace in this place, isolated from the outside world and from the dangers that threatened there. She found herself wishing that the roads would never re-open. She glanced up at Leo, wondering what thoughts were going through his mind. Did he feel the same?
He flashed a smile at her and tucked her arm more closely into his. He had insisted that she take no risk as they walked, though he must have known perfectly well that the firm fresh snow was not at all slippery.
Sophie had been happy to accept his excuse and his arm, for it was almost the only time they had touched since their arrival in the village. Leo had been scrupulously polite throughout, but Sophie knew that he was deliberately avoiding her whenever he could. He had to join her at mealtimes, of course, for they were supposed to be cousins. But the rest of the time, he was nowhere to be seen. She had no idea what he did all day. She had asked him, once, and received some mumbled excuse about seeing to the horses. Feeble, indeed. The inn had servants to do such menial chores.
Tonight, walking arm in arm, he was more relaxed than he had been since their flight from Italy began. Was it the coming of Christmas? The service had clearly affected him deeply, even though she doubted he had understood a word of it. The tiny village church had been crammed with people, all singing with gusto. Sophie had been asked to sing, too, for the whole village had heard her practising at the inn. She had chosen her favourite German carol, ‘Stille Nacht’, which she had sung very quietly, and unaccompanied. She had put her whole heart into it. It was probably the most moving performance she had ever given, anywhere. And it was for Leo.
‘May I say—’ Leo stopped to clear his throat. ‘May I say, madame, that your singing tonight was utterly perfect? I have never heard anything so beautiful.’
His words set up a glow around Sophie’s heart. She would treasure them, always. ‘Thank you, Lord Leo,’ she replied softly. She wanted to say something more, to build on this unexpected closeness, but it was too late. In ten paces, they would be back inside the inn.
The landlady took Leo’s heavy coat and Sophie’s fur-trimmed pelisse while they both removed the snow from their boots. ‘There is a fine fire in your parlour, signora, if you would please to go up?’ The woman was beaming at her in a peculiar way. What was going on?
Sophie went upstairs to change her boots and her gown. Then, curious, she made her way to the private parlour where Leo was to rejoin her. From the corridor, it looked a little odd, as if it was lit only by the flickering firelight. She stepped into the room. ‘Oh!’ she cried. ‘How wonderful!’ The landlady was standing proudly beside a small Christmas tree covered in tiny white candles. It reminded Sophie of the millions of stars in the midnight sky outside. So very beautiful.
A moment later, she heard Leo’s indrawn breath behind her. Was this tiny wonder new to him? She had been told that English Christmas customs were bizarre and uncouth. She turned, smiling, to explain, but he shook his head at her. Silence. His eyes were wide. She was sure she could see a hundred tiny reflections dancing there.
‘You approve, signora?’ The landlady’s words broke the spell.
Sophie started, then beamed at the woman. ‘Happy Christmas, dear lady.’ She handed over the money she had prepared. ‘And thank you for the tree. It is perfect.’
The landlady risked a quick glance at her palm. Her mouth opened and her eyes widened. It was a hugely generous gift.
But Sophie had not finished. She handed over silver coins for the other servants, too. She said they were simply gifts to celebrate Christmas, and to thank the little inn for the splendid service she and Leo had received. But, in truth, they were thank offerings for the days they had spent together in the peace of this place, and for the days they might still have to come.
The landlady’s thanks were effusive, but eventually she left them alone.
Leo looked about him. He had become a little uncomfortable, Sophie thought, now that he was alone with her. He was trying to find an excuse to leave, but she would not permit that. Not until she had finished what she had set out to do. She crossed to the fireplace and lifted the jug of mulled wine that sat by the hearth. ‘Glühwein, Lord Leo? It is wonderfully warming after a midnight walk through the snow.’ Without waiting for his answer, she poured two glasses and offered one to him.
He looked a little taken aback, but he could not refuse without appearing impolite. In all their time on the road, he had been scrupulously, infuriatingly polite.
Sophie raised her glass in a toast. ‘Happy Christmas, Lord Leo. And may we all reach Vienna well ahead of any pursuers.’ She grinned. ‘Even in your amazingly uncomfortable carriage.’
It was the ice breaker she needed. He laughed, and drank. ‘Excellent. As good as any mulled wine I have ever tasted.’
‘I should imagine so,’ Sophie replied, sipping her own wine and savouring its comforting warmth. ‘It is one of the traditions in these parts, along with the tree.’ She nodded towards the twinkling candles. ‘And there is another tradition here, on Christmas Eve. After church, we exchange—’ She stopped short. That would not do. ‘We give gifts, as you just saw me do to the landlady and her servants.’
‘Charming.’ He downed the last of his Glühwein and crossed to the fire to refill his glass.
Sophie took another tiny sip, set down her glass, and straightened the skirts of her red silk gown. It was her favourite because it became her so well. The fabric shimmered in the firelight, glowing with deeper reds and golds and purples. The tiny gift that had been hidden in her bodice was now held tightly in her fingers. She fixed her gaze on his back, and waited.
He turned, his glass halfway to his mouth. ‘Is something wrong, madame?’
‘No, Lord Leo. Nothing at all. But it is Christmas Eve, and I have a gift for you.’ She opened her clasped hands and showed him what she held.
If you want to know what Sophie’s gift was, I’m afraid you’ll have to read the book! The Aikenhead Honours Trilogy will be published in the USA and Canada in March, April, and May 2009. In the UK, book 1 is already available. Books 2 and 3 will be published in paperback in June and July 2009. Ben’s story, His Silken Seduction, will be published in Harlequin’s Undone! ebook series, in July 2009.
Finally, I’d like to take this opportunity of wishing peace and happiness now and in the New Year to all of you who love historical romance and also to everyone you love.