New York Times bestselling author Candace Camp weaves a heartwarming tale, first in a thrilling new series, of Christmastime love, discovery, and scandal. . . .
When plain and proper Thea Bainbridge stumbles upon a baby in the manger of her church's nativity, she is understandably shocked. Discovering a brooch bearing the insignia of Gabriel, Lord Morecombe, hidden among the child's clothing, she is certain the dissolute rake is to blame. Incensed, Thea sets out to reproach the arrogant lord--only to find herself utterly swept away.
Gabriel is intrigued by the vivacity in Thea's flashing gray eyes when she accuses him of fathering the orphan, even as he adamantly maintains his innocence. The brooch is one he remembers all too well, however, and Gabriel is determined to find the mother of the missing child. As the mystery around the baby deepens, Gabriel is continually thrown together with Thea--and finds himself growing more entranced every day.
Even with whispers of winter scandal swirling around them, they cannot deny the longing in their hearts. A longing which promises the best gift of all: a shelter from the storm . . . in each other's arms.
T he Squire's house was ablaze with lights in the crisp December evening, and the boughs of evergreen branches festooned across the lintel added to the festive air. A groom hurried forward as the vicar's pony trap pulled to a stop in front of the house, and Daniel handed him the reins before going around to help his sister out of the open-air vehicle. It had been a cold ride over to Cliffe Manor, and despite the lap robe across their legs and the hood Thea had drawn up around her head, she was chilled, her cheeks pink. As soon as Thea stepped into the warm house, of course, her spectacles fogged up, and she had to take them off and wipe them before replacing them on her nose.
"Vicar! And Althea! How delightful to see you," Mrs. Cliffe, the Squire's wife, greeted them effusively, squeezing Thea's hands in both of hers. The Squire's wife, like her husband, was built along generous lines, and her rather square form was encased in a gown of green velvet with a wide, low neckline that revealed an alarming amount of white bosom. A pearl necklace, elbow-length white gloves, and a green turban with a long, curling peacock feather completed her ensemble.
Next to her, the Squire was far more soberly dressed, but his hearty greeting equaled his wife's. He shook Daniel's hand vigorously and bowed to Thea with more enthusiasm than grace. "Well met, Vicar, well met. Miss Bainbridge. It's a pleasure to see you. I am sure your dear sainted father would be proud of you both."
Daniel responded with only a bow, so Thea hurried to add her thanks. "It is kind of you to say so, sir. I know it is very important to my brother to strive for the excellence that our father achieved for St. Margaret's."
What Thea actually knew was that it was a small source of irritation to Daniel to be always compared to their father, Latimer Bainbridge, who was a most learned as well as spiritual man. She and Daniel were aware that Latimer had felt some disappointment that not all his children had measured up to his expectations. Their sister, Veronica, had been exactly as a girl should be, pretty and pleasant in nature, and she had made a good marriage, so Latimer had not been bothered by her lack of interest in intellectual pursuits. But while Daniel and Thea both had a scholarly bent of mind, the truth was that Daniel was more interested in exploring Roman ruins than in examining the human soul, and Thea, unfortunately, was a female. Thea could not follow in their father's footsteps, and while Daniel did take over the living at St. Margaret's, he did not invest the same time and interest in it that Latimer would have liked.
"If I know you, Vicar, you have been hard at work on your Christmas sermon," Mrs. Cliffe offered with a waggish smile. "I do so love to hear your thoughts on the Holy Word."
Thea wondered how the Squire's wife would view her brother's sermons if she knew that they were mostly written by Thea herself. Of course, Thea was not about to tell her that, but she could not think of another comment to make to Mrs. Cliffe, so she merely smiled. She was finding it more difficult to concentrate tonight than usual.
"Here, here, have a cup of Christmas cheer," Mrs. Cliffe went on, guiding Thea over to a narrow table, which held several cups of steaming broth. 'Twill warm you right up."
A footman came up to take Thea's cloak, and she picked up one of the small ceramic cups, gratefully curling her hands around the warm drink. While her hostess continued to chatter, Thea sipped at the spiced soup, to which a generous amount of negus had been added. The mulled Madeira in the negus was potent enough to make Thea's eyes...