Snowstorms & Sleigh Bells by Kelley Armstrong

1

August and I are spending the holidays at Thorne Manor. Or that was the plan. It still is . . . our hosts simply do not realize it yet.

The original proposal had been for us to arrive the week before Christmas. August’s older brother, Everett—Earl of Tynesford—insisted on holding his annual holiday ball at Courtenay Hall. Which is his right, the hall being his country manor, yet Courtenay Hall is now ours . . . or it will be once this blasted ball is over. That had been the condition, with Everett complaining that he couldn’t possibly relocate his Christmas ball with a mere two months’ notice. We granted him that, but we were not staying in residence, where he could bully August and ogle me and tell our five-year-old son that he needs to spend more time at sport, learn to hunt, toughen up, be a man.

When Everett and his entourage descended, we’d head north to Thorne Manor, where we’d spend the holidays with our dearest friends. We would help care for little Amelia and take over holiday preparations so Bronwyn—a mere month from giving birth—could get some much-needed rest while her husband waited on her hand and foot.

Those were our plans. The baby had other ideas and decided to give her parents an early Christmas gift. That would have been lovely if she hadn’t also almost given them heart failure. Bronwyn is forty, and they’ve been extremely careful with her pregnancy. With this unexpected complication, William had rushed her off to twenty-first-century York. Three days ago, he’d returned home long enough to pop back to our world and send a message to Courtenay Hall, assuring us that mother and daughter were fine and the family would be home Christmas Day, if we still wished to come.

Of course we still wished to come. Also, we still wished to vacate Courtenay Hall before Everett arrived. So we hit upon a scheme whereby we’d sneak up to Thorne Manor early and surprise our friends by preparing the house for their return. Knowing how much Bronwyn loves the holidays—and how incredibly busy they’ll both be—we will fashion them a proper Christmas at Thorne Manor.

It’s December twenty-third. Everett was due to arrive after breakfast, and so by dawn, we were in the coach heading for Thorne Manor. We may also have accidentally granted holiday leave to all staff who requested it. An administrative oversight, which we rectified by hiring temporary staff to cover Everett’s stay . . . and making sure none of them were women under the age of forty.

We arrived at Thorne Manor this morning. The housekeeper—Mrs. Shaw—had the home heated and lit, with a cold lunch waiting. We’d had to forewarn her that we’d be staying there, of course, and while we’d insisted she not make any special arrangements for our arrival, we knew she would, and we’d brought a particularly nice holiday gift to thank her for it.

We arrived in a coach overflowing with Christmas goods—everything, including food and gifts and decorations. If those decorations came from Courtenay Hall, and Everett explodes seeing the empty storage room, well, that’s another of those administrative oversights. It’s a good thing he can wash his hands of the hall after this week. His youngest brother simply cannot be relied upon to properly prepare for his visits.

It’s now four in the afternoon. The sun is dropping, and we’re bustling about like elves. Edmund has taken a box of decorations upstairs to prepare the nursery for the baby and Amelia. He’s been up there a very long time, and I shudder to think how many decorations he has used.

“What’s that? Your fourth biscuit?” I ask as August ties yet another mistletoe ball in yet another doorway.

He turns and says, “Biscuit?” though it comes out like “is-kit” as he’s saying it with the biscuit in question between his teeth.

I stride over. “At this rate, there shall be none left for the Thornes.”

I snap the gingerbread out of his mouth.

“Well, then, you shall need to make more,” he says. “Fortunately, Bronwyn stocked up for just such an emergency. Have you seen the kitchen? It looks as if someone was preparing for the arrival of a master baker. Perhaps the illustrious Rosalind Courtenay.”

I nibble the half-eaten biscuit and pull a face. “You may eat all of these. I have used too much candied ginger.”

“It seems perfect to me. However, if you are not entirely satisfied, I believe Bronwyn snuck in a crate of twenty-first-century ingredients for you.”

He laughs as I sprint for the kitchen, my skirts nearly sending me toppling to the floor.

My time in the twenty-first century was one of the most difficult in my life, rivaled only by the period after my parents’ sudden deaths. Yet even amidst the horror of being trapped two centuries away from my husband and son, I found moments of absolute wonder and delight. The two things I miss most are women’s clothing and baking supplies. I’ve been attempting to incorporate more freeing attire into my wardrobe, and Bronwyn sneaks me baking goods. The only thing I’m truly missing are the kitchen appliances, which won’t do me any good here until someone invents electricity. I’ve told August he needs to get working on that. Instead, he has thrown himself into trying to rig up some form of automatic stand mixer for me. I am truly the luckiest of women.

I find the crate of baking supplies hidden under a horse blanket, which Mrs. Shaw would know better than to touch, though I’m sure she grumbles at having one—even a clean one—in her kitchen.

I reach inside and pull out pouches, the supplies removed from their modern packaging in case the housekeeper accidentally removes that blanket.

“Chocolate morsels,” I whisper. “Vanilla extract. Peanut butter!”

August puts his arms around my back. “Have I mentioned how much I love it when you squeal over baking ingredients?”

I twist in his arms and hold up the jar. “I am going to bake you peanut-butter cookies with chocolate chips.”

“Mmm, make that little noise again. The sigh when you first opened that box.”

I do, and he presses against me.

“Edmund seems very preoccupied upstairs,” August says. “And I believe, in our rush to vacate the estate, we missed our morning attempt to provide him with a younger sibling.”

“We have fallen off the schedule. Completely unacceptable.”

“I thought so.”

August nuzzles my neck, and he’s just begun working his way down my throat when a cat meows, loudly, in the doorway. We glance over to see two young cats watching us.

“Truly?” August says, “Both of you?”

Both are calicos. Sisters. Edmund brought Surrey with us, and Enigma is Bronwyn’s cat. Their mother, Pandora, seems to be in hiding.

“They must be hungry,” I say as I back out of August’s embrace. “In the commotion of arriving, I didn’t set out a bowl for Surrey, and it’s her dinner hour.” I kiss his cheek. “Can I get a rain check?”

“Someday, you need to tell me what that actually means.”

“It’s so much more fun watching you try to figure it out. We will definitely get back on schedule tonight, which means you’ll need a hearty dinner to build up energy.”

“Oh, I do not need energy. I plan to just lie there.”

“I don’t believe I could get you to ‘just lie there’ without ropes, August.” I tilt my head. “Although, that does sound intriguing . . .”

He grins. “Very intriguing.”

“We must feed the cats and then round up our son to go tree-cutting before it’s too dark. If you decide to check the barn later, for soft ropes, I will not argue.”

After we fill the cat bowls, I lead August toward the stairs. “Edmund did only take one box of decorations, yes?”

“He took one box from me.” August pauses. “Dare I guess he also took one from you?”

I sigh. “I do not even want to know what the nursery looks like. We may need to undo some of it. I mentioned that he ought not to use any small baubles that Amelia might put into her mouth, and he informed me she is nearly two and no longer a baby . . . and the baby will be too little to grab anything that isn’t handed to her.”

“Our son is far too clever.”

“I reminded him that Amelia, being not yet two, might helpfully hand her baby sister a bauble.”

“Our son’s mother is even more clever.”

I shake my head as I ascend the stairs. “Not clever enough to stop him from absconding with two full boxes of decorations.”

I reach the top, turn into the hall and freeze. The door into the stitch is open. Wide open.