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Inevitable


The Tales of Chapel Hall, Book One












Debra J. Falasco





Inevitable

All rights reserved.

Copyright © June 2018 by Debra J. Falasco


All rights reserved. This book or parts thereof may not be reproduced in any form, stored in any retrieval system, or transmitted in any form by any means—electronic, mechanical, photocopy, recording, or otherwise—without prior written permission of the author.


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or are used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.


Cover Design – Bookcoverzone, Diren Yardimli, Designer

Editing - Susan Lieber


Acknowledgments - I thank my husband, Bryan Falasco, for his support, patience, and love while I wrote Inevitable. I could not have completed this work without him! Margaret Southworth, Ruth Cody, and Melva Oshier are recognized for the enthusiasm and feedback throughout the creation of this novel. A special thank you to Susan Lieber for her input and editing. This work is the culmination of a lifetime of dreams!



Inevitable

The Tales of Chapel Hall, Book One


Prologue


The cold of the North Tower went unfelt by the two forms standing there, looking out what was an arrow slit in their day, but was now a glass filled window.

John shook his head as he watched the man on the horse ride in the darkness towards Winston Manor. Pulling the form of the woman to his front, facing the window, John wrapped his strong, well-muscled arms around her. She leaned her head against his chest. He bent his head to rest against the top of hers.

“He aches for her still,” she said quietly. All evening, she had sensed the turmoil and confusion in the departing figure. Years had passed, and still, Adrian had not put it behind him, not the way he thought he had. Astrid was anxious for him this night, apprehensive about what would greet the current lord when he arrived at the manor.

Her husband did not seem as worried. “The boy has made his decision. ‘Tis in his heart that it lies. He is just not aware yet.” John stroked the length of her brunette hair.

“I wish I had your confidence, Husband.” Her voice quivered.

“Do you lack faith in the boy, Astrid?” He turned her head to the side to face his and dropped a soft kiss against her mouth.

“Nay,” she denied. “But I fear for him. His soul cries out to me, John. He is lonely. He needs her.” She wrapped her arms around his trim, muscled waist. “I worry that she will reject him.”

“After that stunt he pulled, he would be lucky if she speaks to him. But she will. What he wants from her, his desire for her, is strong. He cannot resist its pull any longer. After all, he went there tonight, didn’t he? He knows what chance he takes in doing that.” He turned his wife of six hundred years to face him and grinned down at her. “He is a Ravenspur. My direct line. We know how to get our women.”

She lightly slapped his chest. “Aye, but you have to go through much pain and stupidity to do it. If you would open up and admit your love up front, ‘twould save you much heartache.”

“Ah, now where is the fun in that?” John teased. He recognized that he had gone through much of what his grandson, of how many generations John had lost count, was experiencing as Adrian would begin to fight for the woman he loved. But John saw the worried look in his wife’s eyes.

“Do not fret, little wife. Adrian is strong, even if lust clouds his mind. He is not used to such emotions, but I believe in the man that he has become. He will win his lady, and all will be well again at Chapel Hall.”

She sighed deeply. “I hope you are right. I cannot bear any more years of watching his pain.”

John kissed her passionately. The passing of centuries had not dimmed his love for her. It touched him that Astrid worried so much over the boy they had been sent to watch over. But that boy was a man now, and both John and Astrid were ready to see him happy and settled.

Adrian had taken years to lovingly restore Chapel Hall to a condition that surpassed any of its former glory. He deserved to be happy, John thought with pride. This man, this current Lord Ravenspur, was more than just a descendant to him. John saw more of himself in Adrian than in any descendants except his sons. Perhaps that was why he felt he understood Adrian so well. Aye, the man would figure it out. John had every faith in him. Adrian’s passion for the woman equaled John’s love for his wife, Astrid. There would be no way the current Lord Ravenspur would walk away from his woman again.


Chapter One


The brooding man sat quietly in front of the fire, nursing a glass of brandy. He snorted. Yes, he was brooding again. Something he hadn’t been in the habit of doing, but as of late, it had become his favorite past time. The gray bloodhound reclining by his side raised his head and nudged the man for a pat. Adrian, Lord Ravenspur, did as he was bid to do.

“That’s a good boy, Goliath,” he said, patting the hound then scratching him behind the ear. Even his favorite dog was a reminder of her. He took a deep breath, another long draw on his brandy and stretched his feet further out towards the fire.

He was having problems keeping his emotions in check tonight, another unusual behavior for him. Most people considered him to be a cold-hearted man. He had proved their assumptions correct on numerous occasions. The fact that some of his emotions were rampantly out of sorts that evening irritated him. Adrian had spent most of his twenty-nine years learning to hide them, and except when he was around one specific individual, he was always able to keep the nagging feelings at bay. He prided himself on being a master of the art, specifically for the last three years.

It was three years ago that he executed the strategy he thought would free him of the worst of those feelings. Three years, three very long years, should have been enough time to eradicate the passions and stirrings that overwhelmed him. Indeed, for the last two years, he thought that those obnoxious sentiments were buried so deep they could no longer exist.

What a fool he was. He graciously agreed to attend a soiree, held in honor of his best friend’s parents, knowing full well who he may encounter at Winston Manor. But he did it anyway. He thought that everything he had buried was so deep would never surface again.

The dam burst the minute he saw her.

It was a relatively small affair held to commemorate the thirtieth wedding anniversary of Lord and Lady Winston. Their eldest son, Adam, was his business partner, university roommate, fellow rebel and conspirator in their younger days, and the closest friend he ever had. Even in their Oxford days, Adam’s family had welcomed Adrian into their fold. He had only a few stray relatives of his own and had little to no contact with them.

At first, he had felt like an outsider when invited to their home. Adrian thought that Adam had issued the invitations out of charity or pity. Soon, he came to realize that the family’s acceptance was genuine. They did like him and did enjoy his company, despite the rumors and innuendos surrounding his life. Adrian never did anything to dispel any of the whispers concerning his past. He always treated the rumors with casual disdain and felt no need to refute or acknowledge their validity. The fact that the Winston family never asked him to answer to any of it was part of the reason Adrian was comfortable around them. They accepted who he was and what he was without explanation.

Adrian went through many phases in his life - some darker than others - but his surrogate family was steadfast and nonjudgmental. At times, he thought they shouldn’t have been as forgiving, but the Winstons were familial and comfortable to be around. With them, Adrian was able to relax and be himself. Although at the time, he wasn’t sure who the hell that was. A twenty-year-old with a chip on his shoulder to be sure.

He smirked at his former self. He was quite arrogant at that time in his life, still was if he thought on it. In the glory days of attending Oxford, he was quiet. He surrounded himself with a few trusted friends. Life was simpler that way. That trait never left him. To move in society in England, one had to have a plethora of acquaintances, but he could count on one hand the men he called friends. He had learned early in life to give his trust carefully and not to expect too much of others.

In the beginning, Adrian had been a reluctant visitor to his friend’s home, but there was something about Winston Manor and the family that lived there that soothed him. What started out as something to do for companionship, something to do during the long school holidays, became a habit within the first two years. It was most convenient that one of his ancestral homes, a molding, ancient castle named Chapel Hall, was located a short gallop to the east of the Winston property.

At that time, the medieval portions of Chapel Hall were on the verge of crumbling, and the new additions were well over a hundred years old. Twenty-five years had elapsed since a Ravenspur had taken up residence in the relic. Adrian intended to change that, but since ninety percent of the castle was uninhabitable, he found himself staying with the Winstons when he could and just visiting the site he had every intention of restoring to its former glory.

Adrian had inherited his title, a decent financial situation, and a few other properties including a home in London, the year he turned seventeen. His father had been the last son in a long, unhappy line of Lord Ravenspurs. His mother had died when he was three years old. He remembered nothing significant about her and would not have even known she existed if it had not been for her portrait on the wall of the gallery in their London house. His father never spoke of her, and from what little bit Adrian had gathered from servant’s gossip and the few relatives he knew, the marriage was not a happy one. Though, he also did not necessarily have any reason to think that it had been an unhappy one.

Adrian had the impression that his parents had an arranged marriage though he never had any confirmation as his father would not speak of such things. His mother had been allotted the finances to live as she was accustomed and in turn, she provided her husband with a male heir. That was all Adrian ever knew. He was never even informed of the cause of her death. Adrian had always intended to ask his father for the truth, but he realized as he matured that holding his emotions under tight rein was something he undoubtedly inherited from his father. They were not close.

His father was not a cruel or hard man, but he took little notice of his son. Adrian’s memories of him during his childhood were few and vague. Erasmus Ravenspur did not have much use for his son until the boy reached adolescence. Then the old lord decided it was time to groom his progeny for his future responsibilities. But even that was not an enticing enough task to get Erasmus to spend any significant time with his only offspring. The burden was handed over to tutors and the old lord’s lawyers and secretaries who were expected to impress upon Adrian the knowledge needed to manage his estates and what remained of the family fortune in the event of his father’s demise.

Adrian was not sure if his father had been aware that his impending death would come so soon or if he had thought he would have a few more decades upon the earth, but early in Adrian’s seventeenth year, his father died after a brief illness. Until the day of his death, Erasmus Ravenspur had never discussed anything more significant with his son than the nature of the weather, new horseflesh for the stables, or the current headlines in the newspaper.

In his musings, Adrian realized it was no wonder that he had no idea what to do with the emotions that soon seemed to control and run his life. It was unfamiliar territory to him, and he was not too arrogant now to admit that he had made a mess of it.

There was much darkness in him - he had always felt it. It called to him and clawed at him relentlessly. In his younger years, he didn’t know how to fight it, so he gave in to its temptations. He knew something was lacking in his world, but he couldn’t identify it. One enticement led to another until he grew bored with them all. After his college years, he turned his back on his vices, at least most of them, and found danger and some satisfaction in channeling his energies in other directions.

The only time he felt any peace was when he was with his surrogate family. Or at Chapel Hall. As his fortunes began to increase, he channeled his efforts into funding the extensive renovations the castle needed. If Winston Manor was his home away from home, Chapel Hall became his sanctuary. He was compelled to care for it. He connected to the rambling ruins more than he connected to anything else in his life. Except to one person. Chapel Hall became the most significant driving force in Adrian’s life. After his strategy to remove passion and other certain temptations from his world, Chapel Hall consumed him.

Goliath nudged him for another scratch. The hound was severely disappointed in the lackluster rubbing he received and removed himself to sit in front of the fire, his chin resting on his forepaws.

Adrian’s thoughts returned to the soiree held that evening. He had intended to send his regrets. He should have done so. He had not prepared himself for the emotional onslaught of seeing her again.

********************

The affair was small. Adrian knew their paths would eventually cross. After all, she was the youngest daughter of the honorees. He had quite real intentions of congratulating Lord and Lady Winston on their anniversary and making a quick departure, but his continued absence from family gatherings the last few years had meant that his appearance that evening had been markedly noted.

Adrian held Roderick and Catherine Winston in very high esteem. A part of him felt guilty at his continued distance from the family, but he thought it was for the best. Though the invitations continued to arrive over the years, he continued to politely send his regrets, noting business reasons, travel obligations, construction at Chapel Hall. His excuses were endless, but his friendship and business relations with Adam continued. His first inclination was to refuse to attend the soiree, then Adam personally confronted him in Adrian’s London library one afternoon and insisted that he make an appearance. The quick getaway was Adam’s idea. As Adrian’s best friend, he understood more than anyone what had transpired in the past. But Adam also knew how genuinely Lord and Lady Winston, particularly his mother, had missed Adrian and that an appearance at their anniversary celebration would mean the world to them.

“In and out,” Adam had said. “No reason to dally. Unless you choose to.”

Adrian met his friend’s cheerful smile with a grimace. “No, there will be no dallying. I will retire that evening to Chapel Hall.”

“Why do that? You said it was still in the process of renovating. You know we have plenty of room for you.”

Adrian shook his head. If Chapel Hall were on fire, he would not have spent the night at Winston Manor. Though some exterior renovations were incomplete, the interior of the castle was now quite livable, updated from the stone floors to the ancient oak beams.

“I’m sure I can find at least one mattress suitable to sleep on,” Adrian drawled sarcastically.

Adam shrugged it off. “Suit yourself, but I am telling you. It would make their evening to have you there. It will be just like old times.”

Old times? That was precisely what Adrian wanted to avoid.


Chapter Two


Adrian found himself back among the fold. He was greeted with genuine warmth - a hearty handshake from Roderick, Lord Winston, and a motherly kiss on the cheek from Roderick’s wife, Catherine. Adam’s brother Patrick and his sister Caprice welcomed him with open arms, though Adrian sensed a little reluctance from Caprice.

She was eight years younger than Adam and pretty enough. Adrian wasn’t sure why Caprice had not yet married though he suspected it had something to do with the family’s claim to fame being that they all married for love. Even within his cynical nature, Adrian could not fault her for that.

Caprice was an anomaly among the Winston children. She did not have the dark hair that was a trademark of the clan. Her hair was a shade of blonde considered unremarkable by the brass of society. But the pale blue eyes that sat below were quite charming, and her smile was lovely when allowed to be seen. Caprice was an enigma to Adrian, a scholarly woman who enjoyed the arts, both classic and modern, and read books on philosophy, transcendentalism, and contemporary social justice. He would not be surprised if she purported the new notions of feminism and expanded roles for women in society.

Adam’s brother, Patrick, welcomed him with his usual exuberance and excessive enthusiasm. Patrick smacked Adrian heartily on the back.

“Here now, chap, thought you were dead! Pierce!” he called to a passing footman. “Get this man some champagne!” Patrick took a glass off the tray and handed it to Adrian.

“Rumors of my death are greatly exaggerated,” Adrian returned, sipping slowly from the glass. Patrick drained his and reached for another from the footman’s tray.

“Yes, yes, and glad to see that. But weren’t you lost in the wilderness in America or some such notion? What the devil were you about out there? Chasing bears or something?”

Adrian smiled. At the age of twenty-four, Patrick seemed to still be in that “heir and the spare” mode. He contributed little to the family except for his sense of humor. He was still trying to make his place in the world. Adrian wished him the best of luck at it. He had always thought Patrick was a good man, just that the younger Winston did not have his brother’s sense of purpose. Patrick seemed lost. His family was determined to let him find his way no matter how many wrong paths he chose to get there.

“Or something,” Adrian replied. He made it a policy never to dispel a rumor. It may be useful one day to have people think he was in the wilderness hunting bears as opposed to what he was actually doing.

“Well, you must stay closer to home now.” Lady Winston took his arm. “Perhaps we will see a little more of you.”

Lady Winston was a charming woman, still beautiful despite marriage and four children. Her black hair had only a hint of gray above the ears, but her blue eyes were always smiling. With one exception, she was quite possibly his favorite person in the whole world. She was the one person whose disappointment in him he could stand the least.

After greeting Lord and Lady Winston, and about ten minutes of idle chat with a few of the neighbors, Adrian decided it was time to leave his post at the front of the room, nearest the exit, and depart Winston Manor. He wasn’t sure how he had avoided it, but Adrian had not seen her yet, and quite frankly, did not want to.

Adrian made eye contact with Adam across the room and raised his champagne glass in a goodbye salute. Adam smiled, shrugged as if to acknowledge the early exit, then raised his glass as well. Adrian left the champagne flute on a tray in the hall and headed to the front door.

The Winston’s butler, Mr. Bixby, was helping Adrian into his coat when their eyes met. Machelle exited the library on the right and looked in his direction just as she backed through the door, closing it. She stopped, green eyes frozen on his.

The impact was immediate. In the three years since their last face to face meeting, Machelle had grown up. Gone was the body of an adolescent young girl. In its place, a woman stood. Her black hair was piled up in curls atop her head, seeming to defy gravity. Several strands were arranged to frame her face delicately. Pearls had been woven through her hair; a matching necklace graced her throat.

Adrian couldn’t keep his eyes from exploring. Her face was regal, her eyes the dark green he remembered. They were eyes a man could drown in, and he wanted to dive in and not resurface. Her lips were full, red and inviting. Beneath her evening gown, he could see that her body delivered on the promises it made in her youth. Her breasts were round and ample, larger than when he had last seen her. Even then, they were more than enough to please any man. Her stomach was flat, her hips a delightful curve leading to long graceful legs, legs that he wanted to feel wrapped around his waist, tightening against his thighs.

The ease with which the old feelings consumed him irritated the life out of him. What the hell was wrong with him? He was no young buck who had never tasted the scent of a woman. But this woman, only this one, made his blood race and his heart pound.

Damn. Nothing had changed. Three years had only intensified Adrian’s hunger for her.

********************

Machelle could only stand and stare. He was here, back at the manor, returned from whatever depths he had sunk to when he left three years ago. While her family had stayed in contact with him, she had done everything she could to avoid him. The man she had once thought was her knight in shining armor, her prince, had turned into a toad right before her eyes.

Fortunately for her, he had eagerly kept his distance as well, kept it so well, that when she made her debut to society in her eighteenth year, she never saw him. Not once did their paths cross. Not at any ball, soiree, theater event, opera or just riding in the park. It had been a relief to her not to deal with him. And yet, she had looked. Somehow, for some reason, no matter where she was, she had looked about the crowd and noted his absence.

At one time, she believed he had cared enough for her that he would have put in an appearance at some point. Even if for just one dance, one tea, one social call. But she was also not surprised. Adrian was not a social person by nature. But there was a time when he would have done it, when he would have attended some of the events, to support her, to be there for her as her brothers were.

She had quite a successful season, recognized among the ton as being an “incomparable.” She laughed at the compliment, embarrassed by it. She knew she was pretty but was nowhere vain enough to consider herself the beauty described in the society papers. Machelle had enough country breeding in her, instilled by her mother, that very quickly the delights of the season wore out their allure and she was glad when it ended. She did not have the same intentions as most young heiresses whose activities were governed by one rule - find a husband. Her parents made a love match in their day (though their children did not know the entire story), and they were quite content to let their children do the same. In fact, they encouraged it.

Machelle was able to relax and enjoy her activities with no pressure or expectations. It would have been perfect. If he had been there, if she had seen him, just once had been able to look into those brown eyes that burned with an intensity she didn’t understand.

What was wrong with her? Was she still holding on to childhood fancies after the vile way he had treated her the last time they were together? She avoided him and anticipated his presence at the same time. When she told him how she felt, confessed that she loved him, he had laughed at her, mistreated her. Her father should have called him out for it, would have if she had told Lord Winston the truth and requested it. Instead, invitation after invitation had been sent, inviting the demon into her home, because she had never revealed the events of that night to her family. She was grateful Adrian never accepted any of the invitations. Until tonight. The spawn of the devil had returned.

Eyes focused on one another, Machelle and Adrian were broken out of their thoughts by Mr. Bixby’s discreet cough. Adrian turned to look at the butler as if just now aware of his presence. The butler handed Adrian his hat and quietly left the entryway.

Adrian was angry. Angry for putting himself in this position. Furious that she could still have this kind of effect on him.

Finally, Machelle spoke. He could not miss the fury in her eyes. “How kind of you to condescend to visit us, Lord Ravenspur.”

He nodded his head towards her. “It was my pleasure to visit your parents on this joyful occasion.” The slight was deliberate, and she knew it. Neither of them moved.

“Don’t let me delay you. If you were leaving, perhaps you should get about it.” She couldn’t have been ruder if she tried. Her mother would be appalled.

Adrian looked pointedly at the library door. “Hiding something, are we?”

She frowned at him but glanced backward following his gaze. What did it matter to him if she sought a moment’s refuge in the library? She had gone to verify that her parent’s anniversary gift was safely hidden but became distracted by her new copy of Oliver Twist.

Adrian persisted. “I didn’t see Foppish Freddie here this evening. Perhaps you have him hidden amongst the bric-a-brac in the library?”

Indignation lit her fuse even more than his mere presence did.

“How dare you?” she exclaimed. “You cannot take yourself off for three years then return here and question my character! Not after...not after…” she stuttered in her fury. Not after what you did to me! She wanted to cry out. I thought I loved you!

“My apologies,” he said mockingly. “I heard rumors of the two of you. Some say the engagement is just a formality.”

“You of all people should have little faith in rumors.”

“I am mistaken, my lady, though I shouldn’t be surprised. I am curious as to why it would take him so long to prove his love to you. But I can’t be surprised at that either. I never thought you were his type.” He left the innuendo hanging.

“Don’t be so base. Although, I should expect as much from you.”

“I aim to please, my dear. So, where is Freddie? Shouldn’t he be hovering about like the pest he is?” Jesus, he was starting to sound jealous even to his own ears.

Her eyes narrowed. What was Adrian’s fascination with Freddie tonight? True, he had never liked her friend, Frederick Bartholomew, Viscount Langley. Freddie was easily swayed by things that Adrian disdained - fashion, gossip, and drama. Even in her mind, Freddie was affected, following whatever the current trends were, first to engage in the latest gossip, styling himself after the most relevant poet, playwright or man of the stage. But Freddie was her friend. He had been a loyal friend to her for years.

At one point, there was speculation regarding a betrothal between them, and Freddie was hopeful for a while. But Machelle had made him see reason and agree that their mutual friendship would not be enough to sustain a marriage. Crushed, Freddie handled her rejection well and admitted the following year that she had been right.

“If you must know, Foppish Freddie…I mean, Frederick.”

Adrian smiled at her slip of the tongue.

“Frederick is in London. He has business there with an uncle of his.”

“Ah, my mistake, again.”

“You do seem to be making rather a lot of them this evening, don’t you?” She rudely pointed out.

“It must be some other paramour you have hidden in the bookshelves.”

She was truly beyond fury at this point. He could see it in her eyes. Mixed with something else. Sorrow, perhaps. Damn him for the cad that he was.

“You’re gone three years, and during the first conversation with me, you sink to insults. Typical.”

It was anything but typical. Adrian had always been so kind to her, almost loving. Until the night she walked, no ran, away from him and didn’t dare look back. Eventually, she had looked back. It seemed Machelle was always looking back to those days.

“Three years is a long time,” he replied quietly.

Machelle raised her chin defiantly. “Perhaps not long enough.”

Inwardly, he cringed. You’re right, little one. Not long enough to get you out of my system.

“Not long enough that you have forgotten me,” he dug deeper.

“Forget? How could I forget? You went out of your way that night to make sure I never forgot.” Unwillingly, years of unshed tears sprang to her eyes.

He had to end this. “I’m flattered you remember so well.” Adrian began adjusting his gloves to give the impression he was ready to leave.

“Don’t be,” she cried vehemently. “I haven’t had one pleasant thought about you since that night.”

He took a few steps towards her. “But you did think about me?” he said silkily.

Machelle backed up. “You are exasperating! Get out of my home. You’re not welcome here.”

He chuckled a laugh he did not feel. “You should ask your parents how they feel about that. But don’t worry, little one. I’m leaving. Have a good night.” Adrian turned towards the door.

“And don’t call me that!” she yelled after him.

With one last cold look over his shoulder, Adrian walked out of Winston Manor.

********************

Adrian was nearly shaking by the time he reached his horse.

“Back to Chapel Hall,” he told Mercury. That was when the night’s brooding started.

The large and rather imposing grandfather clock in the library struck midnight. It had been nearly nine when he left Winston Manor. Three hours. Three hours had been spent in melancholy repose in front of the fire since his return home.

He should have put her out of his mind, but damnation, she had been so exquisitely beautiful, even in her anger. He couldn’t clear her from his thoughts. If Adrian were half the man he thought he was, he would leave again, spend another three years never looking into those beckoning green eyes.

Perhaps it was his unusual overindulgence in liquor, but it occurred to him that if he were half the man he thought he was, he would stop hiding from the feelings that overwhelmed him and do something about them.

His mind started working. He got up to stand in front of the window and looked out into the stillness of the garden. There was still work to do there. Though the interior renovations of Chapel Hall were completed, Adrian still had a few unfinished projects scattered throughout the exterior of the property. Turning, he leaned on the deep sill of the stone window opening and braced himself against it. His mind reasoned it out, telling his heart to stay out of the matter for now.

Machelle wasn’t a child anymore - far from it. He had no reason to feel guilty about the desire he instantly felt tonight. It was one thing to deny those stirrings when she was sixteen, but she was not that young girl anymore. Three years had changed her just as they had changed him. He saw now what the possibilities could be between them. But first, he had to atone for the incident of three years ago and get back into her good graces so he could find out. Find out if what he felt for her was lust…...or something more profound.

********************

From the Juliette balcony on the third floor with the ceiling of the great hall stretched above them; the couple watched Adrian head to his bedchamber on the second. John’s arm was draped confidently over Astrid’s shoulders. He gave her a little squeeze. “Seeing her, it was not easy on him.”

She shook her head. “Nay, it was not. Do you think they quarreled? He does not look happy.”

“He is not happy. But I can sense his resolve. He’s determined to have her. I do not think there is anything that will keep him from her this time.”


Chapter Three


Adrian merely pretended to struggle with carrying the assorted boxes and bags up the stairs. Mr. Bixby reached to take some of them from him.

“Here now, sir,” the butler insisted, “we have someone who can help you with that.”

Adrian made an exaggerated show of how precarious the boxes were stacked. “Not now, Bixby. If anyone were to touch this leaning tower of couture, I’m afraid her ladyship’s intimates would be spread all about the floor.”

Bixby seemed shocked at the comment until he saw the wink in Adrian’s eye. Appropriately taking his cue in good humor, he backed off.

“Very well, sir. I’ll let you continue to escort her ladyship’s couture.” Bixby winked back at Adrian. Machelle didn’t witness the exchange due to the height of the boxes, none of which contained “intimates.” Embarrassed by the implication, in front of Mr. Bixby no less, she huffed at Adrian and scampered past him up the stairs.

The nerve of the man was becoming much too much. And to think, she had spent three years wishing he would make an appearance. Now, if he would just go away!

Still holding the bundle, Adrian located Machelle’s room on the second floor in the family wing. It was where he remembered it to be. She was standing inside, removing her gloves. Since Machelle seemed content to continue to ignore him, he entered without permission and approached the bed. At least, he thought it was the bed. He really couldn’t see very well over the boxes. Unceremoniously, he dropped them all, sending them tumbling about the covers and some onto the floor. Machelle stomped her foot in frustration and began picking up the boxes that had fallen.

Adrian took advantage of that time to peruse her room. Gone were the vestiges of childhood. He had never been in her bedchamber before, but he had viewed it on occasion through the open doorway, more often when she was a younger child than later, but a deep sapphire blue now replaced the shades of pink and white. A large oriental rug in a multitude of colors, all jewel tones, covered the wood floor. Rich sapphire curtains draped the window fronts with lace panels still giving the distinct air of femininity. The bedding was done in the same rich sapphire color, embroidered in twisted flowery vines that echoed the jewel tones in the rug. The room was warm, comfortable and elegant. It suited her.

While she fought with the organization of the boxes, he wandered to the built-in that lined the fireplace. Gently, he touched the spines of a few of the well-worn books housed there. He smiled to himself but managed to sound detached.

“I see you still have a penchant for all things romantic.”

Machelle’s beloved copy of Tristan and Isolde nestled between The Love Poems of Lord Byron and Romeo and Juliet.

She completed her task and turned to him, hands on hips in frustration. “And why shouldn’t I?” Machelle challenged. “I haven’t changed that much.”

He shrugged and turned to face her. “I would have thought you had grown out of such childhood fancies by now.”

“Don’t mock me,” she replied. Adrian met her comment with silence. Would she ever figure this man out?

“What?” she demanded.

Adrian stood still in the center of the room. His eyes turned to her then back to the object that had captured his attention. Her eyes followed his sightline. She took a deep breath, realizing what fascinated him so. It was the only thing in the room, other than her books, which remained of her adolescence. Despite what had happened between them, she had been unable to part with it when she redecorated her room two years ago.

Adrian couldn’t take his eyes off the glass cabinet. She had kept it, despite what he had put her through. And it was here, in a prominent location, well taken care of under glass and key, in her bedroom, next to where she slept each night. He wondered if it meant as much to her now as it had to him when he gave it to her.


Christmas 1836 – Four years prior


Adrian walked into the parlor at Winston Manor. His eyes scanned the room. Freddie and Bess were talking in front of the fire, a charming scene albeit a sad one. Even he knew that Machelle’s friend Bess had a hopeless crush on Foppish Freddie. Everyone knew it except the affected young man himself. He was too busy living his own unrequited love story to notice that he was the object of one. Adrian felt sorry for the girl. Bess was quite pretty and very likable. She would have plenty of gentlemen seeking her out one day if she could get past the in-attentions of her young viscount.

As no one else was in the room, his eyes left it to survey the elegantly decorated main hall. Tapered candles were aglow, set amidst evergreen branches on the tabletops and sideboard. The gilded mirror was trimmed in evergreens as well.

An odd sense of foreboding struck him as his eyes moved down the hallway where Machelle was standing on a small ladder, stretching to reach the end of a bow that had fallen out of place amongst the branches. She was in a lovely plaid black and red gown. He could see the white of her underskirts as she pushed herself up higher on the ladder, leaning over on one foot to reach the bow...

Machelle gasped, nearly a scream but just short of it, as she felt the ladder tip away from her foot. She was pleasantly shocked that she did not crash on the floor with it. Strong male arms grabbed her, and instinctively she clutched the broad chest that was attached to them. Trembling, she looked up into Adrian’s chestnut brown eyes. She grasped him even tighter.

“Easy now,” he said with quiet strength and a slight smile. “I have you.”

He set her down slowly and did not fully release her until her feet were solidly on the floor. As expected, the noise of the clanging ladder got the attention of the other family members and guests. Machelle was straightening her skirts and catching her breath as the cries and shouts of concern made it to her ears. But she was lost in thought about what it had been like to have Adrian’s arms wrapped about her, the warmth of his grasp, the strength of his arms. She dared not look at him now, or she would blush and give away her deepest secret.

“Tis no matter!” she protested. “I merely slipped and tipped over the ladder. Lord Ravenspur was quick enough to break my fall.” She looked at him gratefully, hoping she could keep the love-struck look off her face.

Lord Winston picked up the offending ladder and placed it aside. He threw a scathing look Freddie’s way. “You should not have been on the ladder unattended...if at all. You, sir, l thought, were assisting in this?”

Freddie colored instantly after being taken to task for his negligence. “Sir, I…” he floundered.

Freddie got no further as Bess interrupted, “It was my fault, sir. I was decorating in the parlor and called for Freddie’s assistance. I should have asked someone else.”

Adrian knew this was a lie based on what he had observed when entering the manor. Did Foppish Freddie ever tire of the women in his life coming to his aid at every opportunity? To say that Adrian questioned Freddie’s manhood would be an understatement.

Roderick, Lord Winston, frowned. “Nevertheless –.”

Here Lady Winston interrupted, seeing that her husband was about to lose his patience with their young guests. She put a hand on her husband’s sleeve.

“It appears to have been an accident. These things do happen.” Roderick turned his frown on her, and she gave him a quelling glance.

“I shall be the only one to blame,” Machelle began. Adrian wondered if she, too, was going to stick up for Foppish Freddie. “I was the one who overreached on the wretched ladder.”

Adam sought to lighten the mood. “Well then, no harm was done. Ravenspur was in the right place, at the right time. Our knight has rescued the damsel in distress! Again!” he added after a brief pause.

This time, Machelle couldn’t hide the blush that crept up her face. She stared at the carpet, mesmerized by the pattern before her.

“Let us return to our festivities,” Lady Winston prompted as she ushered Roderick from the room with a stern shake of her head at his scowl.

“Care for some brandy?” Adam asked Adrian as he passed by him to enter the parlor.

“Yes, pour me one. I’ll be right there.”

When the others left, Adrian turned back to Machelle. “You should be more careful, little one.”

Machelle melted at the concern in his voice. That a man such as Adrian Ravenspur would care about what happened to her…….

“I know,” she shrugged. “I get caught up in things and don’t pay attention.”

Adrian grabbed her hand and raised it to his lips. “You must promise me that you will be more careful in the future; however, my lady, I will always come to your aid when needed.”

He added, softly, “You have my word on that.”

Lord Ravenspur let her hand go and walked to take his brandy from Adam. Machelle had no idea at the time how prophetic his words would be or how many times Adrian would live up to them.


********************

This holiday season was the first year Adrian had decided to spend the entire Christmas week with the Winston family. In the past, he had declined anything more intimate than attending Christmas dinner. Now, he was coerced into participating in a multitude of planned activities - shopping trips to the village, ice skating on the pond beyond the garden, snowball fights, and festive feasts. He wasn’t used to it.

The first few days, he was quiet and a little unsure of himself, but he held it all in, as always. No one would see him be nervous over something like a Christmas tree trimming party. The night of his arrival, when he caught Machelle during her catastrophe with the ladder, set the tone for the rest of the week. Everyone, including the staff, treated him like one of the family. Some of his fondest memories came from that week.

On one memorable evening, the Winstons and their guest gathered around the dinner table, fully engaged in the tale of how Lord and Lady Winston first met and subsequently, fell in love.

“Well, shall we just say, it was not love at first sight,” Lady Winston explained. “In the beginning, your father was quite the condescending, insufferable cad I had expected him to be.”

Caprice, the fair-haired eldest daughter, gasped. “No, not father! Mother, you shall completely ruin my image of him.”

Not that that was possible. Roderick Winston doted on his two daughters more so than even the most loving parent, and they saw him as the quintessential knight in shining armor who had fallen in love with the fairest lady in the land.

Lord Winston raised his hands in supplication. “In my defense, I may add, as lovely as your mother was,” he toasted her with a smile, “she was quite headstrong, reckless and more than a little demanding. Despite my attempts to make sure she got everything she desired, it seemed I was always lacking. She demanded more!”

Lady Winston lowered her eyes and smiled.

Picking up on the innuendo, the elder of the Winston children grinned slyly at one another, but Adrian noticed that fifteen-year-old Machelle rested her head on her hand on the table, wide-eyed and enraptured by the tale.

“And yet, you fell madly in love with one another, and well, here we are, your four amazing offspring to show for it!” Patrick shouted in good humor. “Here’s to mother and father and true love!” They all raised their wine glasses.

Adrian noticed the look of warmth that Lord and Lady Winston exchanged as they toasted but one another. He saw something else as well. It was nice to know that the passage of time had not dulled their desire.

It was Machelle’s exclamation that had them all laughing within the next moment, bringing him out of his reverie.

“Oh, how completely tragic,” she sighed.

They all turned to her and laughed good-naturedly at her innocent comment. Machelle was perplexed, and a little hurt, at the humor made at her expense and flushing slightly, she began to eat her dinner more earnestly than she had before.

While the rest continued their tales and laughter, Adrian leaned over her as if in a conspiracy. “Are you alright, little one?”

“I am fine,” she answered, miffed at her family’s response. “But I don’t like it when they laugh at me.”

Her brothers and sisters were a few years older than she, and being the youngest, Machelle was coddled and protected, but her siblings also teased her mercilessly for her exuberant innocence and penchant for all things romantic.

Adrian leaned even closer. “Shall I tell you a secret?” he whispered.

At the very hint of sharing a secret with the notorious Lord Ravenspur, Machelle leaned in as well. “What?” she whispered in awe.

“Don’t tell anyone.” He put his finger to his lips. Adrian looked up and down the table as if to make sure no one was listening. Machelle instantly nodded.

Adrian leaned closer still. “I think it’s completely tragic, too.”

He said the words in such a sincere, thoughtful manner that Machelle fell into a fit of giggles concealed in her napkin. Adrian winked at her, and she thought then and there, that she had fallen in love with him a little.


Chapter Four


Christmas 1836


The next morning was bright and sunny, the ground glistening from the fresh snow that had fallen overnight. Adrian was not overly fond of snow having endured a childhood that did not allow him the luxury of playing in it. But the Winston clan seemed to be made of miniature snowmen. They made angels in it, had snowball fights with it and seemed always to be covered in snow when they were outdoors.

Adrian was not looking forward to today’s holiday festivity and would have preferred their snowball mischief. Gift shopping was not his forte. He had not exchanged gifts with them in the past and had no idea where to begin choosing something for each member of the family.

Of course, Lady Winston had tried to expel the idea from his head. He was under no obligation whatsoever, she assured him, to purchase a gift for anyone, and no one would ask anything about it. In his heart, Adrian wanted to participate in the gift exchange, but he had no notion where to begin. He was sure to get some ideas while they were out.

As was their tendency, the Winston offspring chattered incessantly during the short drive to town. It was a small village, with a tiny population, but there was enough variety of shops to make the expedition a productive one.

“He didn’t! How completely romantic!” Machelle cried after hearing Adam relay the attempts of a certain friend of his to woo a certain lady by climbing her trellis and serenading her while hanging from the balcony.

“Bah,” Patrick derided. “You have a very highly overrated idea of romance.”

Adrian lounged nonchalantly in the corner of the carriage, eyes trained out the window.

“It is romantic. I only hope that I will find a love that great someday,” Machelle sighed wistfully. Adam’s warning stare stopped Patrick’s retort.

“And you will, dear.” Caprice patted Machelle’s hand consolingly. “Men shall throw themselves at your feet. You will have to kick them aside just to walk through a room.”

Machelle giggled.

“Don’t fill her head with that rubbish,” Patrick interjected.

Machelle had had enough comments from that particular brother. “But I shall fall in love someday and marry for love just as Mama and Papa have. He will be dark, and handsome, and he will sweep me off my feet. It will be quite epic!”

“Won’t happen, I tell you,” Patrick grumbled despite the increasing glares from his siblings.

By now, Machelle’s dander was up. She wouldn’t allow her brother’s cynicism to ruin her dreams of love, epic or otherwise. “Why not? I deserve to be loved, don’t I?” she demanded.

Adrian smiled to himself. Of course, you do, little one. He cheered her on, remaining cool and unobtrusive in his corner.

“Because you are too beautiful,” Patrick muttered in response.

“Patrick!” Caprice scolded.

“It’s true,” he insisted. “Beautiful women don’t marry for love. They want bigger, grander things. Beauty overshadows things. Gets in the way.”

Machelle’s anger was up and her sense of dignity, down. She glared intently at her brother.

“Beauty is more than skin deep,” she quoted then added quietly, “and I am not your Miss Claredon. I have a great deal more to offer than just my face.”

Adrian smiled openly at that. Yes, you do, don’t you, little one?

Patrick was embarrassed into silence at the mention of his lost love. Miss Patricia Claredon had taunted, teased and accepted Patrick’s romantic overtures for months. She led him on a merry little chase then cast her heart in favor of money over the man. She broke his heart, and it rankled within him still. The carriage was silent after that.

The afternoon was awkward for Adrian, but soon, he was feeling a little more comfortable with his task. It helped that Machelle had gravitated to his side early on. He was standing in the bookstore, lost amidst an assortment of poetry, not sure which one, if any, would make a suitable gift. Being an avid reader of poetry, Machelle was in the same section. She laughed as Adrian picked up a book, put it back, picked up another, put it back, then picked up the first one again. It wasn’t the action that was the most peculiar, but the oddly pained look on his face as he did it. Adrian scowled at her laughter. Shopping for others was uncomfortable enough as it was. He didn’t need an audience.

“Oh, stop scowling,” she giggled. “Your face will freeze that way as Mother always says.”

“Not in the mood for parental wisdom right now,” he muttered in frustration.

She shook her head, her pretty curls bouncing. “You are making this entirely too difficult. You’re buying gifts, not saving the world.”

“I’d rather be saving the world. Would be a lot easier.”

She looked at him, perplexed. “Why is this so hard for you? Just put yourself in the other’s shoes and think about what they would like.”

That irritated him even more. “Hard to do when you have never received a gift yourself. I don’t know what I would like,” he revealed. Instantly, he regretted it.

The smile left Machelle’s face immediately. Adrian kicked himself for his unintended revelation. He didn’t want consolation or pity. Erasmus Ravenspur was too busy to even talk to his son. He didn’t concern himself with gifts, for any occasion. It was what it was.

Machelle’s compassionate expression irritated Adrian further. “I don’t want your pity, little one.”

The gruffness in his tone bothered her, too. She frowned at him. “It’s not pity.”

He looked at her as if she were delusional.

“It’s not,” she insisted. “It’s empathy. There’s a difference.”

He rolled his eyes. “Regardless…” The conversation was awkward.

Her hand lightly touched his coat sleeve. “I’m sorry,” Machelle said very quietly.

The somber tone of her voice, mixed with the endearing look on her face, helped to calm him. She couldn’t imagine a life where no one, not one person, had ever given you a gift. However, Machelle was intuitive enough to know that a lengthy conversation pointing this out would be more uncomfortable for him than her.

Adrian’s eyes met hers. Taken aback by the startling depth of green that looked back at him, he wished she would go away and complete her shopping. And not look so damn endearing. But that wasn’t to be.

Suddenly, her face brightened. “I have an excellent idea.”

He raised an eyebrow at her.

“I’m done shopping.” So much for hoping she would move on to her own purchases. “Why don’t I come with you to finish yours? I’m sure I can help you make some good choices. After all, I’ve known these people my whole life.”

He couldn’t deny it was a good idea. He could certainly use the help. Without waiting for his response, Machelle took the book of poetry from his hands and shoved it back onto the shelf.

“To start with, no one in the family reads poetry but me, and well, I’m right here, so you’ll have to come up with something else on your own.” He smiled at her laughter. “Come on. There’s a shop across the street that will have items suitable for Mother and Caprice.”

Adrian didn’t object when she grabbed his elbow and led him from the bookstore.

Her assistance made the rest of the experience more bearable, if not enjoyable. At the end of the afternoon, Adrian had made his purchases, except he noted, one for his guide. He was paying for the last of his items when he saw Machelle across the shop waiting for him. She was standing in front of a display of china dolls. One of them seemed to have caught her attention. He walked up behind her and reasoned that it was the dark-haired, medieval princess with a delicate alabaster face, flowing sapphire robes trimmed in gold, and a gossamer veil. Was she too old for dolls? He didn’t know, but this doll was no toy. It was fragile with its clothes finely embroidered, more a work of art than a plaything.

The shopkeeper came up behind them. “Ah,” he sighed, spying another sale. “This doll is a treasure. Any young lady would be happy to add her to their collection. No toy, this one. She is much too fragile for that. She would look lovely in a young lady’s chamber.”

Both Machelle and Adrian found the man’s tone and behavior a little odd as the gangly man reached a bony finger out to stroke the hair of the doll. They smiled at each other.

Adrian took Machelle’s elbow. “Well, I think we’re finished here. Thank you for your assistance.”

They hustled out of the shop, giving into their laughter when they reached the other side of the closed door. Adrian guided her to the carriage waiting on the other side of the street.

“Well, that was strange,” Machelle laughed.

Adrian shook his head. “There are no explanations, little one. It takes all kinds to make the world go around.”

Puzzled, Machelle looked at him. He sounded so serious. She burst into laughter again. The sound was magical. He liked it.

********************

Adrian declined to participate in the skating party planned for the next evening. He would participate in a gift exchange but hurtling across the ice and humiliating himself was not in the cards.

“I have to run over to Chapel Hall today,” he argued against the protests at breakfast. “The great hall is being completed. I have to review the final design.” He didn’t reveal that he had another errand to run as well. He didn’t make a habit of explaining his time.

Lady Winston came to his rescue. “Come, everyone. Adrian has responsibilities to keep. Anyone would think the adults at this table were children when it came to Christmas.” She looked in reproof at her oldest children.

Though the youngest was fifteen, the other three aged from seventeen to twenty-four, and they did act like small children during the holidays.

“Adrian, take care of your business. We’ll see you at dinner this evening.”


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