Christmas Foundling, The

Free Christmas story


Published: 12/2012
Length: FREE Short Story
Word Count: 6037
Genre: Romance
Rating: Sensual
Available formats: : online


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Vita Anne Hoffman


© Copyright by Vita Anne Hoffman, December 2012
© Cover Art by Jenny Dixon, December 2012
ISBN 978-1-60394-
New Concepts Publishing
Lake Park, GA 31636


This is a work of fiction. All characters, events, and places are of the author's imagination and not to be confused with fact. Any resemblance to living persons or events is merely coincidence.


Alexander Trevelyan sat at table, presiding over a lavish dinner party for over twenty guests. His was a casual appreciation of the sumptuous scene, long-stemmed crystal, intricate ivory-inlaid tableware, clusters of gold candelabra. The entire length of the massive table gleamed and sparkled. The meal, happily, was at its fourth course, a delicate pecan-stuffed breast of chicken. Alexander sipped from his crystal goblet and cast a glance down the row of diners. The faces, a mixture of good friends and mere acquaintance, held little interest for him in his unaccountably sour mood.

Something was lacking.

Not even Victoria Hampton, a much sought-after widow with a well-established reputation for being available and discreet, seated midway down the table--and therefore her well-displayed and well-endowed charms visible to him--held any appeal. He had meant to seduce her, as little real effort as that required. However, so far on this tedious evening, the desire for such a dalliance had not overtaken him.

He sighed, returned his attention to the white wine in his goblet, and wished the dull evening at an end. In answer to this silent prayer, Hobbs, the butler, unobtrusively slid into the room. The straight-backed, gruff-faced man glanced from Alexander at the head of the table to the occupant of the chair at the foot of the table, Evangeline Castlewreath, Alexander’s elder sister, who tonight, as on many occasions, acted the role of hostess, while tomorrow she was to join her husband and children at the country estate of her in-laws.

Hobbs, with the stealth of a thirty year veteran, made his way to his lordship, bent near, and covertly delivered an astonishing message.

Alexander Trevelyan masked any trace of being startled, having an ability equal to Hobbs’ of concealing emotions. Instead, as Hobbs leaned onto a level with him, Alexander quietly questioned the butler. Indeed, Alexander repeated the other man’s strange pronouncement, only the tone of his query was much more on the side of sarcastic.

“I have a foundling on my doorstep?”

“Yes, your lordship. That is what I was instructed to tell you.”

Alexander shot a reassuring glance down the table to his sister, and Lady Castlewreath calmly nodded to indicate her understanding that this matter would be easily resolved. She then bent her lovely-coiffed blonde head to the gentleman on her right, continuing their conversation.

Alexander gave Hobbs his orders. “Have the unfortunate child properly cared for. See to it, Hobbs. I have every confidence in your ability to deal with the situation.”

“Very good, m’lord.” Hobbs did not speak his real thoughts aloud, for this situation was highly unusual, but, in accordance with Alexander Trevelyan’s orders, he immediately disappeared from the room.

Alexander, wanting more lively distractions than a mewling brat at his door, put the strange interruption from his thoughts. He let his gaze wander to the voluptuous beauty halfway down the magnificent table, yet she was still not as an agreeable sight as when he had first sought to pursue her. It was a dreary, dull Christmas affair. He began to regret the guest list.

As the dinner progressed, Alexander continued playing with the stem of his goblet, ate but a little, and, when necessary, gave a perfunctory smile or comment to either dinner partner to his left or right. So he spent the fifth and sixth courses of the interminable meal.

Then, once more, Hobbs appeared at his side. Only this time the unflappable butler seemed slightly flustered.

“My Lord Trevelyan, the earlier situation requires your attention.” Hobbs strove to keep his voice low, at the most confidential of levels, and he refused to swipe at the nervous sweat beading his brow.

“Have you turned the child over to someone capable?”

“She has been in the kitchen with cook, er Mrs. Straithorne, for the past hour. And she is very tired of waiting. In her own words, Lord Trevelyan, she does not care to stay in a house so inhospitable to a poor orphan.”

Alexander’s fingers clenched upon the stem of his goblet, but his face remained calm, revealing nothing of his internal mix of irritation, anger, and, oddly enough, concern. “Exactly what is this foundling up to at the moment, Hobbs?”

The butler, still keeping his tone low and discreet, answered. “Miss Sabina now feels she is more appropriately called a runaway. She is preparing to depart.” Hobbs, feeling desperate over Lord Trevelyan’s lack of reaction, almost wanted to wring his hands. However, it would be far too undignified, so he kept a stoic expression upon his face, and awaited the next volley in this war of wills.

“Why didn’t you inform me it was that little scapegrace Sabina Drake?” Not that Alexander hadn’t guessed the truth from the outset. He could barely restrain his aggravation over the fact that she was trying to spoil his dinner party with her antics. She was the most outrageous, troublesome chit he had ever the misfortune to know!

“I beg pardon, Lord Trevelyan, for the deception, but she most forcefully bade me tell you a foundling was at your doorstep. I carried her exact message, as she insisted.”

“I pay your wages, not that little vexing imp.” Alexander kept his tone level, even while he fumed. How did the little hoyden manage to twist everyone around her finger? She was trying to ruin his evening because he had refused to include her. He decided to let the girl’s prank continue to go unanswered. “She has transport home, no doubt. Tomorrow is soon enough to deliver the dressing-down she deserves. Til then, bid her good night for me.”

Against his will, Hobbs’ lips compressed into a small disapproving line. He found himself siding with the cheeky young lady, although he should not. “Your lordship, I fear it is no prank. If you would but come. She arrived bedraggled and afoot. And she means to set off in the same ill-advised manner.”

Alexander smothered a groan. “I must, it would seem, attend the girl.” Arriving at that decision, he rose, towering a good deal over six feet, his formidably muscled figure clad in black. He was extremely handsome, elegant, and, if the casual observer but knew, spoiling for a battle. She would rue her intrusion, he vowed. Disturbing his dinner party! She was going to get the lecture of her life. Addressing the table-at-large, he made his apologies. “Pardon my absence. There is a small matter to which I must attend. Please do continue your meal and enjoy my hospitality.”

Reginald Broughton, a whiskered gentleman who loved riding to hounds, saw the opportunity for a joke. “Know how to remedy such domestic problems, hey, Trevelyan? Take yourself a wife. She can handle such doings.”

“On the contrary. A wife would only compound my domestic ills.” The sound of laughter followed him from the room.

As he departed, Alexander also had the urge to laugh. He wanted to strangle Sabina, yet, at the same time, he was glad that she had come, even under such an outrageous pretext. His was a guilty conscience. She had begged to attend this dinner, given in honor of the Christmas Season, yet he had not invited her so as not to subject her to the likes of Victoria Hampton, the very woman he had been aiming to seduce for the past fortnight. However, without the impish Sabina, the party had been a bore.

His long stride carried him down the carpeted hallways, past room after elegant room, until he reached the kitchen. Without the least warning, he burst through the door, scowling deeply to put a suitable fright into the girl. If she had come here unattended, there would be a price to pay. She could not go haring about London alone! She needed a bit of a scare to teach her a lesson, and he was perfectly willing, nay, he was eager, to give it.

He, however, was the one taken aback. The bright, snug kitchen bustled with maids, footmen, several extra scullery servants, and the cook all preparing to serve the last course of the dinner. But where was Sabina? There were remnants of tea and cake upon the high oak kitchen table. Someone had dined... and then left?

Amidst the chaos, Cook caught sight of him. She immediately fidgeted with her cap then her apron, trying to put herself to rights in the presence of the master.

Alexander, feeling surly, grunted. “Where is she?”

“Gone. Went out-of-doors. Left through the servants entrance. There was no stoppin’ her.”

Alexander shot past the startled servants and out the indicated doorway which let onto a brick alley. Sleet gusted him full in the face. The rain glistened on the walk. He squinted against the wind, then he saw her, a slight hooded figure fighting against the buffeting weather.

He caught up to her in several long strides. She turned at his footfalls. Even within the dark folds of her hood, relief plainly showed on her face.

“Oh, Alexander, it is you!”

“Little fool.” He grabbed her slim shoulders. “What had I, indeed, been someone less desirable to chance upon?”

“Then I should soundly kick him in the---”

“Sabina,” he shook her again for daring such impudence. Indeed, for daring such recklessness!

“---shins,” she finished her thought. “As I shall do to you, Lord Trevelyan, unless you unhand me.”

“I should be the one issuing threats.” He released her, yet did not step back. He meant to intimidate her with his great height and breadth. It was a useless ploy. “What havey-cavey scheme are you up to now?”

“Why…,” wind snatched at her words, the gusts hard enough to nearly blow her into Alexander, “should…I…stand here…giving you explanations for my actions. Especially when you did not see fit to attend me sooner. Let me be on my way. And you can resume you dinner party.”

Alexander unclenched his jaw. “Your addled aunt may allow you to traipse around London unattended but I shall not. Come with me.” He gripped her elbow.

“Do not blame aunt Elspeth!” Sabina dug in her heels.

“She is your guardian, is she not? Who else should I blame.”

“Me, of course.” Sabina’s head bowed, the defeated gesture entirely sincere.

“Of course,” Alexander sarcastically agreed, before, that is, he realized her penitence was genuine. In face of her misery, his temper somewhat abated. “This discussion can be postponed until we return inside.” Even in the near dark he could see her shiver, could see that rain saturated her cloak.

She gave no opposition, and they reentered the kitchen. Before he even shut the door behind them, Alexander began to issue orders. “Find Miss Drake some dry clothing. Have the fire stoked up in my study. And,” he hesitated, “bring her a snifter of mulled-wine.”

Mrs. Straithorne, the cook, curtsied. “Yes, yer lordship.”

Alexander, raking a hand through the disarray of his thick black hair, watched Sabina begin to remove her cloak. She first slipped the damp hood back from her face, fully revealing her pixyish features and her unruly reddish brown hair. Her high cheeks and up-turned nose were reddened with cold. She undid the tie at her throat and swept the damp folds from about her shoulders. As Alexander expected, nearly the length of her simple rose gown was sodden. And she had nothing more than a pair of silk slippers upon her feet!

“You must certainly wish to catch your death of cold.” He furiously bit out the statement, astounded by how upset her disheveled appearance made him.

“No such thing,” Sabina denied, even as she sneezed.

“I shall temporarily leave you in the care of Mrs. Straithorne and the servants. We both need drier clothing,” he spoke in a contained growl. “Then prepare to explain just what kind of game you are at this time.”

“I wish that I had never thought to come here.” Sabina brushed past him with her pert little nose high in the air.

“I have the same wish,” he muttered, not sure of his truthfulness. Then he went to his own rooms to change his coat and fume over young, errant Miss Sabina Drake. Within three quarters of an interminable hour, Hobbs arrived with news of his guest.

“Miss Sabina is safely ensconced in the upstairs study,” the butler offered succinctly.

Alexander nodded. “Then best I should go deal with the wayward child.”

“Sir?” Hobbs cleared his throat, attempting to broach another delicate subject. “About your other guests?”

Alexander had all but forgotten about the damned dinner…and the tentative assignation afterward with Victoria Hampton. He would just have to leave everything to his sister. “Instruct Lady Castlewreath to conclude the dinner with my regrets to all. Say that I am inextricably detained.”

“Very good, milord.” Hobbs would rather eavesdrop on the impending confrontation, for confrontation it would be! Miss Drake always held her own with Alexander Trevelyan, no mean feat that.

Upstairs, Sabina sat in a leather arm chair drawn near the blazing fireplace. She wore a quilted robe overtop of an outsize flannel gown, a warming pan at her feet, and a shawl over her lap. She was comfortable if not stylish. Her hair, free of all pins, combs, or ribbons, tumbled in wild reddish-brown curls about her face and shoulders.

When Alexander entered, she tried not to sniffle. After all, theirs was a short acquaintance, and good manners were of utmost importance, or so maintained her aunt Elspeth.

After pausing on the threshold for no more than a second, wherein Alexander debated, then ignored, the rashness of closeting himself in a room with a young lady without benefit of a chaperone, he purposefully crossed to stand with his back to the fireplace. He knew that he was intimidating, being lit from behind, shadows moving across him as the fire cracked and popped when the wind gusted down the flue.

“Well?” That single stern word was the only prompt, short of a scolding, which he could offer.

“Well….” Sabina’s hands wrapped tighter about her warm drink. This was not going to be an easy interview. Her soft words came out tentatively. “I suppose you deserve an explanation….”

“And that is?” He gave her another opportunity to explain her harebrained behavior, trying to keep them both on the subject at hand. Which, for him, was more and more difficult. What with the soft firelight dancing across her features. She looked less mischievous youth than desirable woman. Hers was a most disconcerting and unlooked for transformation.

“You must be constantly wondering at my antics,” she gave him a lopsided smile, “although we have only recently become acquainted.”

“It seems like ages,” he mumbled, uncharitably.

“It has only been four weeks since we met at Lord Edgerton’s.”

“And what, pray tell, does Lord Edgerton have to do with any of this madcap misadventure?”

“Did you never wonder why we two--myself and aunt Elspeth--came to London so near the yuletide season. Lacking both funds and connections?” Sabina dropped her gaze to the fire.

“I have never given it any consideration. However, if it is relevant, I shall ask you now: why this sudden visit to the metropolis at such an unusual time of year?”

“Because of Abernathy Crisp.” Sabina’s nose wrinkled with distaste.

“Exactly who is Abernathy Crisp? And what does he have to do with anything?”

“Oh, tis all such a muddle,” she replied, keeping the tears of frustration in check as she continued with her answer. “He is a suitor much favored by aunt Elspeth. She thought to bring him to heel by absenting me from the country during the holidays. And it has worked! He has plighted his troth, so to speak. When I learned of his offer, I wanted to flee the country.”

Alexander, astonishing himself, quite empathized with her. She must have felt like a great weight, certainly equaling a ton, lay upon her chest upon hearing something so dreadful. Yet a proposal should not be dreadful, should it?

Sabina gave him another crooked smile. “But I did not run away. Exactly. Aunt Elspeth returned home immediately, but I convinced her that your dear sister had invited me to stay and spend Christmas with her family. I took a hansom cab to Lady Castlewreath’s, only to find it shut up for the holidays. I had no more money and nowhere else to turn.” Her voice dwindled to a heartsick whisper. “So I came to you.”

“You walked from Evangeline’s townhouse to mine? That is at least ten blocks!” Alexander was shocked to think of her out alone on those dangerous blustery streets.

“Yes. And then I arrived to find that you were holding that silly dinner to which I was unwelcome. So on a whim I decided to test your generosity. Hobbs could not even pry you away with word of a deserted foundling upon your doorstep.” She gave him a disapproving scowl, which, on her pretty features, was nothing short of comical.

“Foundling, my eye! I knew it was you all along.”

“And still you did not come. How beastly! I thought we were friends.” Behind the exaggerated outrage, there was real hurt.

“I took your arrival as some childish prank. Believe me, Sabina, had I known of your distress I should have come instantly.” Without conscious thought, he held out a hand to her, like a peace offering. “Say that I am forgiven.”

She pressed his hand with her own. “I am the one who should beg pardon. I did not mean to ruin your dinner party. Truly. The past few days have been so topsy turvy for me that I had no idea that Evangeline was leaving the city, or that this was the night of your special dinner affair. I simply wanted to delay an unwanted engagement with Abernathy Crisp.”

Sabina did not let go of his hand so Alexander gently disengaged himself. Their brief contact had given him a jolt. How could one innocent hand clasp transmit so much excitement? It was best, he chided himself, not to dwell on such ungentlemanly feelings.

“What do you propose we do now, Sabina?”

She shrugged, taking a sip of the mulled wine. “Immediately pack me off to aunt Elspeth in the country. I have been too great a disruption already. It was very wrong of me to try and escape this marriage proposal, if only for a little while.”

Alexander paced away from the fireplace, putting distance between them, obscuring his features--his unsettled expression--in the semi-darkness. “What about this Abernathy Clisp? How long his this fellow dangled after you that such tactics were needed to bring him round?”

“His name is Abernathy Crisp. Our properties adjoin. I have known him forever.”

“But…do you…care…for him? Will he make a proper husband?”

A furrow appeared between Sabina’s brow as she considered the question, then, suddenly, she sighed. “It is far from a terrible match, but I cannot seem to feel much joy. I think he will be good to me…and I shall be comfortable. But…,” she scanned Alexander’s face, shadowed and expressionless, “…I do not love him.” She paused, hoping for a response--or some small declaration--from Alexander Trevelyan, but she received none. She swallowed a painful lump of disappointment. In order to keep that lump from becoming a deluge of tears, she made a request of him. “Please, Alexander, let us speak of it no longer. I know my duty. I will do the best thing and accept this match.”

“All right,” Alexander halted his pacing. “After this distressing evening, you must be ready to retire. I shall send Evangeline to you in a short while. She can help make you comfortable.” He strode quickly from the room. It was troubling to think that by returning her home he would be helping her accept a loveless match.

* * * *

Downstairs, Lady Castlewreath concluded the tedious dinner. She wore a generous smile as she--in her brother’s stead--finally bid the guests farewell. The awkward chore was made more so when she faced the last to depart: Victoria Hampton, Alexander’s latest rouge-painted low-décolletage flirt, who apparently was in no hurry to leave.

“Alexander will no doubt want to say his own goodbyes to me.” Victoria Hampton smirked with smug assurance.

“He would, no doubt, under normal circumstances want to do just that,” Evangeline tried to be polite, to keep the innuendo from her voice, “but not this evening. Some minor emergency has detained him. I am sure you would not wish to be kept waiting for any great length. He is not likely to be free for a good while.”

Hobbs had, in fact, named that minor emergency. Sabina Drake, the little imp, had shown up, alone, on Alexander’s doorstep! Evangeline was aching to go to the girl and ascertain the reason for such shocking behavior. But, first, she had to be rid of this nasty bit of baggage.

“Lady Hampton, I am sure Alexander will offer his heartfelt apologies on the morrow.”

“But I would much rather receive them tonight!” Victoria’s face twisted into an ugly sneer. “You will be sorry if you get in my way.” And, with that, Lady Hampton brushed past Evangeline, aiming for the grand stairway to the upstairs apartments.

“You ill-tempered shrew! I shall have you thrown out!” Evangeline was tempted to pull the woman’s hair.

Lady Hampton barely paused. She hastily climbed the stairs. Alexander Trevelyan was too good a catch to pass up. She went to search him out. Evangeline flew after Victoria. She, in fact, tugged hard on a handful of red hair. Victoria Hampton shrieked like a fishwife. All the commotion did not go unnoticed.

Alexander stepped out onto the landing. To the women standing below him, he appeared an angry god, eyes blazing and lips thinned to a white line.

Evangeline pulled at Victoria’s shoulder. “Lady Hampton was just leaving.”

“I was not!”

Alexander, still scowling, descended: he was unaware that the raised, querulous voices had also drawn Sabina into the hall. She glided forward just enough to view Alexander as he drew abreast of Lady Victoria Hampton. Sabina froze. This painful revelation explained why Alexander had not wanted her at his dinner party. With an exotic paramour such as Lady Hampton, why would he possibly want to be bothered with an unsophisticated barely-from-the-schoolroom chit like Sabina Drake?

Sabina gave a strangled cry. Her hand flew to her mouth too late to stifle the sound which drew all their attention.

Lady Hampton cackled, pointing a long-nailed finger at Sabina. “That is what called you from your guests? She looks but a dirty urchin.”

Sabina turned and fled back to the study.

If Alexander had radiated anger before, it was now pure fury. He had to restrain the urge to strike Lady Hampton.


The chill finality of his words should have hastened her departure, but she had little common sense. “You would choose her over me? That child!”

His jaw was taut, his eyes glittered with anger. “Speak not another word. Simply get out.”

Lady Hampton’s eyes went round as saucers. She sidled down the steps, backwards. However, once she reached the relative safety of the bottom step, she found enough spiteful bravado to throw a last taunt.

“Enjoy despoiling your little waif, Alexander. She is welcome to you. If so tasteless a morsel suits your appetite then you have not the great hunger I had assumed.” She grabbed her wrap from Hobbs, who had been expectantly waiting for her to be thrown out, and she stormed from the place.

“Good riddance,” Evangeline said. “How could you have possibly sought an entanglement with that ill-bred shrew?”

Alexander ran a hand through his hair. “I cannot remember what I ever saw in her.”

“Cannot you, now?” Evangeline’s brow rose thoughtfully. “Because less than three weeks ago you found her utterly alluring. What…or, rather, who…could have changed your mind?” She more than half expected her brother to dismiss such an assertion, for he wasn’t normally a romantic, let alone a gentleman who could be easily besotted. But, surprisingly, he made no denial.

Instead Alexander’s gaze wandered to the head of the stairs. To the spot here Sabina had stood. His feet carried him upward of their own volition.

“She will not want to see you.” Evangeline, acting as the voice of reason, halted him. “I shall go to her. Perhaps I can smooth things over.”

But Lady Castlewreath had no success in even broaching the subject with Sabina. The girl adamantly refused to speak on any subject other than her need to return to her aunt Elspeth. In the end, Alexander Trevelyan’s sister promised that Sabina would be sent home with all dispatch.

* * * *

It was on account of this promise that Alexander sought entrance to Sabina’s room early the next morning, whether strictly appropriate or not. He meant to convince her to stay--with his sister as chaperone, of course. He knocked.

“May I have leave to speak with you, Sabina?”

He had no answer. So, naturally, he lost his temper and barged in uninvited, only to find Sabina buried deep in down pillows and comforter, her face flushed, her nosed reddened, a handkerchief clutched in one small fist.

“My Lord Trevelyan,” she strove for a suitable greeting, cordial without being exceedingly welcoming. After all, he had just burst into her chamber with all loss of propriety. As she continued to pretend his entrance was socially acceptable, she couldn’t disguise the fact that she was extremely hoarse. “Hab you come to discuss arrangements for my departure?”

“Yes, I mean, no…leaving is simply out of the question. You have caught your death of cold.”

“I hab not!” She snuffled into her hanky.

He strode to her bedside. He placed the back of his hand to her forehead. “You have a feverish countenance. And you are very hot to the touch.”

“And you, sir, hab no sense of propriety or respectability. Forcing your way into my bedchamber. Forbidding me to travel home. And I shall go!” Sabina started to rise. He stopped her with a restraining hand on her shoulder.

“There is nothing wrong with my concern for a child in a sickroom. You are temporarily my responsibility. Therefore, I forbid you to tax yourself. You are not to so much as think of getting out of that bed.” There was a dangerous quality to his words, to his expression.

Sabina sensed it was a losing battle, especially when engaged in for nothing other than contrariness. She relaxed back onto her fluffy pillows with a resigned sigh. “I suppose I should stay abed for a day, just out of caution.” She promptly sneezed. “And tomorrow you will lend me a coach? I do not wish to be any more of a nuisance than I already hab.”

“We shall see.” Alexander released his own, quieter, sigh. For the time being, outlandish little Sabina Drake was going to stay put in his capable care.

And for not one, not two, but for three days he enforced a stay of bed rest upon Sabina. Although Evangeline--her plans to join her family now postponed--was ever the girl’s companion, Alexander visited at odd intervals, to make her drink a cup of tea or take a bit of broth. He was much relieved when Sabina grew better. Yet he would not relent and allow her to depart, even though Christmas was but a week away. Once she was gone from his home, she would forever be gone from his life. And he meant to prevent that, if the sassy chit would comply.

Sabina naturally began to chafe under the confinement of her sickroom. The lack of decoration began to fret her which she, of course, voiced to Alexander, complaining about her drab prison. To keep her spirits up and her mind off of leaving, Alexander had masses of pine and holly boughs, red and green streamers, and a pair of wreaths sent to her room.

Sabina set about the task eagerly. She twined, tacked, then draped the streamers across the ceiling, all-the-while Evangeline watched and clucked her tongue reproachfully at such activity. Next Sabina laid out the fragrant green strips of pine upon the dresser and nightstand. Then she preceded to hang the huge wreaths.

“I shall place one over the door and the other over the window.”

Lady Evangeline continued her protests. “You should not overexert yourself. Alexander did not mean for you to hang those streamers. Nor the wreaths!”

“Then he should not have sent them.” Sabina moved a delicate cane-backed chair to the window. She climbed onto it and began to hang the red and green wreath. The chair, to Evangeline’s eyes, seemed to rock unsteadily.

“Come down this instant! Or I shall fetch my brother.”

“But I shall be done in an instant,” Sabina answered, not feeling the chore beyond her in the least.

“You leave me no choice. Alexander will be very displeased.” Evangeline hurried to carry out her threat.

“As if I tremble in fear at the mere mention of Lord Trevelyan,” Sabina muttered under her breath. She clambered down, carried the dainty chair to the doorway, and prepared to hang the second wreath, which proved more difficult than the first. She had to climb down to find something to drive several extra tacks into the hardwood lintel above the doorframe.

Sabina, having just stepped up upon the chair once again, straightened herself upon her perch when a deep booming voice startled her.

“Good heavens, woman! What foolishness are you about!” Alexander shouted. He had not been summoned, therefore forewarned, by his sister. Sabina made a steadying grab for the top of the doorframe, missed, and then rocked so far forward she tried to catch herself on the arched canes of the chair’s back.

Alexander snatched Sabina into his arms. Snarling, he kicked the chair out of his path, carried her into the room, and slammed the door shut behind him, using the heel of his boot. “Put me down, please.” Sabina sounded more meek than she could ever recall.

“Why? You are not heavy in the least.” To demonstrate, he jostled her about like a miller ascertaining the weight of a sack of grain. She was the most delicious, exasperating armful he had ever held!

“Put me down, I said.” The strange gleam in Alexander’s intense gaze made her wary, not to mention the way he so forcefully, so completely took possession of her person. It was as if she belonged to him! Which, as appealing as the thought might be, was utterly ridiculous. He thought her a child. A brat.

“I insist that you set me down.” She squirmed, poking a finger against his brawny chest, suddenly aware of every masculine aspect of Alexander Trevelyan, his gorgeous aristocratic face, large muscular body, and his heat! “Sir, this is most…inappropriate.”

“Extremely so. Incredibly so,” his voice grew husky, his eyes heavy lidded, “and I intend to behave still more inappropriately.”

“Not with me you shant!” And Sabina, frightened by his passion--and by her response--,served him a stinging slap across the jaw.

“So you act like a hoyden only when it suits you, risking your life by running away into a wintry night or by trying to break your neck hanging a wreath.”

Still clutched against him, forced to hear his autocratic, if warranted, chastisements, Sabina readied to slap the brute again, but she didn’t get the chance. Alexander, rather than place her upon her own two feet, tossed her onto the bed. She bounced very high, landing splayed out flat upon her back, her reddish brown hair draped about her in thick disordered waves. She pushed the locks from her face and glared at him.

Alexander merely turned and walked away from her, causing her heart to constrict painfully. Yet, to her dismay, and delight!, he did not leave. Instead he locked the door.

“Is it your intention to utterly and completely compromise me?” She asked calmly, not especially panicked by the idea.

“Did not you, my madcap Sabina, come here to me? One might reasonably imply that I am simply taking advantage of your offer.”

“But no one--practically no one at all--,” she stuttered, thinking about her hasty actions, “knows I came here,” Sabina blurted.

“Unfortunately, Lady Hampton saw you. By now word must be spread all over London. That living harpy would not have the decency to keep silent.”

Sabina closed her eyes. Tears welled up behind her lids. She was ruined! But she tried to put on a brave face. “What care I about London’s gossipmongers. I shall return to the country, return to a quiet village where I am loved and respected.” And, most likely, she realized, considered a pariah.

“You may not care about those ugly rumors, but perhaps I care.” Alexander rounded on her, not liking the utter resignation in her tone. “No one will bandy about your name. Especially not in connection with mine. Once we are married, no one will dare.”

It took a second for Sabina, in her misery, to comprehend his words. “Married?” She blinked open her eyes, astonished. Within a second, she knew she could not accept such a sacrifice from a man she cared for so deeply. “I will not marry you simply to save my reputation. Even I am not so scatterbrained as to ruin both our lives.” She watched his expression so closely that she imagined a wince of pain at her refusal of his offer. But surely she only saw what she wished to see?

Alexander overcame that tiny flinch of pain. He spoke again, hoping to convince her with the truth. “Would you marry me, Sabina, if I said that I loved you? With all my heart? I feel like tinder and you a match. Every little spark between us brings us closer. We will burn together and learn to tame that flame, in time. None other brings such light into my life.”

“I cannot believe it. Much as I want to. I can’t allow you to shackle yourself to me out of duty or guilt.” She hid her face in her hands, tears now flowing freely.

“This might persuade you. I intend to have you, all right, but not in any dishonorable way.” The bed shifted as he joined her. He pulled Sabina close into his arms, raised her face with a finger under her chin, and bestowed her with a light kiss. “And, if you harbor any doubts that I am offering my heart, my soul, my wealth, myself,” he pressed her closer to him, “this should lay them to rest.” There was the crinkle of paper. He handed her a document, fished from the inside pocket of his vest.

Through a blur of tears, Sabina made out the flowing script. “A Special Marriage License! Issued three days ago!”

“Which we shall act upon with all due haste.”

“So close to Christmas, Alexander?”

“What better time? You are a precious gift. And to think, if you hadn’t delivered yourself to me you might have been bound to that odious Abernathy Clisp.”

“Poor Abernathy. He gets no wife, while I get many, many beautiful Christmas anniversaries with my wicked husband, Alexander Trevelyan.”

“Yes, and should you attempt to decorate for those future anniversaries without me,” he glanced meaningfully at the broken chair across the room, “there shall be hell to pay.”

“In future, I promise to make as little mischief by myself as possible.” Sabina’s lopsided grin made his heart jump.

“I quite agree. We shall be too busy making mischief together.” And Alexander, swooping in for much more than a chaste kiss, proceeded to put his words into action.

The End