Widow’s Brew Series Book #2

The Merry Viscount

 

 

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The “fallen” ladies of Puddledon Manor’s Benevolent Home are determined to rise above scandal—and forge a sparkling new future operating their own brewery and alehouse . . .

With Christmas around the corner, Miss Caroline Anderson hoped to persuade a London tavern owner to carry the Home’s Widow’s Brew—only to discover the dastard was more interested in her ankles than her ale! To her further annoyance, her stagecoach back to Little Puddledon is waylaid by louts and a snow-covered ditch. Amid a nasty storm, Caro seeks shelter at a nearby estate—only to be greeted by Viscount Oakland, aka Nick, her brother’s childhood friend—and her schoolgirl crush. Now he’s the half-dressed host of what is clearly a holiday bacchanal. Still, his house is irresistibly warm . . .

Ever the free spirit, Nick has invited the wilder gentlemen of the ton, and an assortment of London’s lightskirts, to celebrate Christmas in a more traditional, pagan fashion. So he’s surprised to find Caro at his door. Now, with a blizzard raging, he must take her in—despite his fear she won’t take to his guests, and worse, upend his party. But she may surprise him—and upend his life . . .

"An emotionally satisfying holiday romance full of love and redemption."

~Starred review from Kirkus Reviews


"Emotional circumstances and diverse characters make the second book in the Widow’s Brew series constantly engaging."

~Amelia Richard, AlwaysReviewing.com


"Rescue, redemption and romance. Hurray!"

~Steph, Bookaholics Romance Book Club

CHAPTER ONE

Caroline Anderson gave up her attempt to protect her space and shifted closer to the stagecoach wall, away from the beefy thigh pressing up against her.

The owner of the thigh spread his legs wider.

Blast! She glared at the cloth-covered appendage, her fingers itching to pull her knife out of her cloak pocket and prod the encroaching body part back into its own—

No. There was no point in making things more uncomfortable than they already were. She’d been lucky this coach was wider than normal and could squeeze six people inside, because she certainly didn’t want to spend another night in London. And the man wasn’t dangerous—his wife was seated on his other side, after all. He was just male and oblivious.

She’d be in far worse straits if the weaselly-looking fellow sitting diagonally across from her were in Beefy Thigh’s place. The Weasel had been staring at her as if she were a tasty sweetmeat ever since they’d left London. Fortunately, two other men were wedged onto the bench next to him, preventing him from sliding any closer.

She turned her head to stare glumly out the window.

Oh, hell!

Could things get any worse? The snow, which had been lazily dusting the buildings when they’d left Town, was now falling in thick curtains. It covered the grass and decorated the trees. If it kept up at this rate . . .

No, the road had to remain passable. She needed to get back to the Benevolent Home for the Maintenance and Support of Spinsters, Widows, and Abandoned Women and their Unfortunate Children today. It was almost Christmas Eve.

She let out a long breath, fogging the window. She could do with a little luck, but luck—or at least the good variety—had not been her companion on this journey.

She’d had such high hopes when she’d set off from Little Puddledon yesterday. Mr. Harris, the owner of the Drunken Sheep in Westling, had again increased his order of Widow’s Brew, the ale she produced with her fellow residents of the Home. Even better, he’d told her he’d visited his brother in London and had persuaded him to give their ale a try. She’d been so thrilled, she’d almost hugged the man. Getting Widow’s Brew into the London market had been her dream ever since she’d perfected the recipe. Here, finally, was her chance.

Some chance. She pulled a face at the passing scenery, her stomach knotting in anger and frustration. Oh, what a colossal fool I’ve been.

The pasty-faced man seated directly across from her sneezed, a great, wet eruption—and only then pulled out his handkerchief to give his nose a honking blow.

Splendid. That was all she needed—to come down with a horrible head cold. It would quite put the final flourish on this fruitless jaunt.

She frowned. It wasn’t as if she’d gone running up to London only to fulfill her personal ambition. The Home needed the money. The more ale she sold, the less they had to depend on the whims of their noble patron, the Duke of Grainger.

Well, patrons now. When Pen Barnes, the Home’s former hop grower, had married the Earl of Darrow in August, the earl had promised to lend his support to that of his friend, the duke.

Ha! Caro had learned from sad experience to trust a peer only as far as she could haul a full hogshead of ale—which meant not at all.

Her frown deepened to a scowl. Apparently, she could trust a London tavern keeper even less. The Westling Mr. Harris had very much mistaken the matter. Yes, his London brother had been eager to discuss terms, but the commodity he’d wished to purchase had not been her ale.

Her lips twisted into a humorless smile. She’d made good use of her pocketknife then. The dastard would think twice before putting his hands on the next businesswoman he encountered.

For all the good that does me.

Her shoulders slumped. No, the bounder’s bad behavior wasn’t the real cause of her dismals. The truth of the matter was her spirits were so low because she’d finally realized that her dream of breaking into the London market was pure self-delusion. Pen and Jo—Lady Havenridge, Baron Havenridge’s widow and the founder of the Home—had tried to tell her that, but she’d refused to listen. She’d had to slam her head into the truth before she’d believe it.

She’d last been to London when she was seventeen, thirteen years ago. She’d forgotten how large and busy and overwhelming it was. Even if she could somehow brew ten times—a hundred times—the quantity of ale she did now, her output would be only a tiny drop in the enormous vats of the London breweries. And if she did get any orders, she’d never be able to deliver reliably. Little Puddledon was too far from Town.

Oh, Lord. How I wish

The coach lurched, skidding a foot or two.

“Lawk-a-daisy!” That was Beefy Thigh’s wife. “We’re gonna end in a ditch, Humphrey. See if we don’t.”

Beefy Thigh—or, rather, Humphrey—put his large hand over his wife’s. “Don’t fret, Muriel. The coachman knows what he’s about.”

Caro heard the uncertainty in his voice if Muriel didn’t.

He turned to the somberly garbed man sitting directly across from him. “Ain’t that right, Reverend?”

The clergyman looked up from his book—a Bible—opened his mouth and—

Was interrupted by an expressive snort from Pasty Face, who then had to make quick use of his handkerchief.

“I’m getting off at the Crow,” Pasty Face said. “I don’t want to break me neck.”

Muriel sucked in her breath and then moaned.

The clergyman gave Pasty Face a reproachful look before smiling at Muriel. “Now, now, madam. Remember what the Good Book says.” He patted his Bible. “‘Be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed, for the Lord thy God is with thee whithersoever thou goest.’ Joshua chapter one, verse nine.”

Pasty Face snorted again, this time with handkerchief at the ready. “The Lord can go with me into the Crow.”

The reverend scowled. “Sir, you border on blasphemy.”

Pasty Face shrugged. “As long as I border on a nice, warm fire with a pint in me hand, I’m good.”

Caro’s thoughts veered off on a new path. The Crow wasn’t London, but it was on the main coaching route and closer to Little Puddledon. If she could persuade its tavern keeper to serve Widow’s Brew, word would spread. She might find a larger market that wasn’t too large.

Should I get off and talk to

No. Mr. London Harris’s wandering hands—it was truly shocking how different two brothers could be—and the Weasel’s wandering eyes had reminded her of the dangers a woman traveling alone faced. If she stopped, chances were good she’d be stranded at the Crow for several days. Even if the tavern keeper himself wasn’t a lecher, she was certain to encounter more than one drunken, lascivious lout on the premises. Her poor pocketknife would be worn to a nub.

Not to mention coaching inns were terribly expensive, and she was short of coin. And she was needed back at the Home.

Muriel was still whinging. “Humphrey, maybe we should get off, too.”

“But yer sister is expecting us, dumpling. She’ll worry. Ye know that.”

“Y-yes. But what if we do end in a ditch? What if we freeze to death? What then?”

“Zounds, woman! It’s just a little snow.” The Weasel finally stopped staring at Caro long enough to scowl at Muriel.

Caro looked out the window again to confirm that the “little” snow had now given the stone walls running along the road white caps.

Pasty Face snorted again and dabbed his nose. “Mebbie it’s not much if yer a polar bear. I don’t have a big white fur coat. I’m gettin’ off at the Crow and sittin’ in front of the fire, warmin’ me coattails.”

That did sound appealing.

“What is your opinion, madam?” The clergyman suddenly turned to Caro. “Do you think the weather too, er, uncertain for further travel, especially for delicate females such as yourself and this lady?” He nodded toward Muriel.

Caro blinked at him. Delicate female? She’d wager she could work longer, harder hours than this sermon-writing, Bible-toting parson. And there was nothing uncertain about the weather. But she couldn’t afford—on any level—to take shelter at the inn, and if Muriel and Humphrey got off, the Weasel was certain to move over and sit next to her. Ugh!

“I’m not getting off the coach,” she said as they rattled into the innyard.

“Well, I am,” Pasty Face said. And, true to his word, as soon as the coachman unlatched the door and pulled down the steps, Pasty Face was out and heading toward the Crow’s light and warmth and liquid refreshment.

Caro looked longingly after him, tugging her cloak’s collar closer in a vain attempt to keep out the cold. She’d like to be sitting by the fire—

Remember the lubricious louts.

“If ye need to use the privy, do it straightaway,” the coachman said. “We’re not stopping long. I want to make it to Marbridge afore the weather worsens.”

“Do ye think it’s safe to go on?” Humphrey asked, Muriel gripping his arm and peering anxiously around him.

Caro held her breath.

The coachman nodded. “Aye. The road’s good—straight and flat—and the horses are steady. The snow’s not too bad . . . yet. But the sooner we leave, the better.” He scowled at them. “So be quick about yer business. I won’t wait fer ye if ye dillydally.”

The coachman stepped back, and Humphrey, the clergyman, and the Weasel clambered out, the Weasel managing to “accidently” brush his hand over Caro’s knees as he passed.

“Pardon me,” he said, sending a noxious cloud of stale breath her way.

She forced a smile, fingering the knife in her pocket, and decided she could forego the jakes. Braving the cold and, more to the point, the filth of the public outhouse wasn’t appealing, but she especially didn’t want to risk being caught alone by the Weasel or to open herself to the possibility that he could rearrange the seating while she was gone.

Muriel must have come to the same conclusion, at least about the outhouse.

“So, yer traveling alone, are ye?” she asked after the men left, eyeing Caro with a nervous mixture of curiosity and suspicion.

Mostly suspicion.

Caro was tempted to say, no, she had an imaginary companion by her side, but bit her tongue and forced a smile instead. She was a good saleswoman and selling herself—that is, her skill and dependability as a businesswoman—was often part of convincing skeptical tavern keepers to take a chance on her ale. She’d use those skills now. “Yes. I’m going home for the holidays.”

No need to clarify that home meant the Benevolent Home for the Maintenance and Support of Spinsters, Widows, and Abandoned Women and their Unfortunate Children.

“Did I hear you’re visiting your sister?” She’d also found that throwing the conversational ball back to her inquisitor usually worked very well—as it did this time.

Muriel’s face lit up, and she rattled on about her sisters Mildred, Mirabel, and Miranda, who all lived just outside Marbridge, and how she went back every Christmas to celebrate the holiday with them.

Caro nodded and made encouraging noises to keep the woman talking, counting the seconds until the men returned and they could resume their journey. One of the things she most hated about Christmas was the way people dug up their old, moldering memories and dressed them up with garlands and candles and nostalgia. The past was best left in the past. Fortunately, most of the women at the Home agreed with her.

Humphrey and the Weasel returned then. Humphrey climbed right in, but the Weasel loitered in the cold.

Oh, Lord. He’s going to try to take Pasty Face’s place.

Caro gripped her knife, ready to pull it out the moment any part of the Weasel touched her. If he thought she’d bear his insults politely, he was going to be very painfully surprised.

Humphrey turned into an unwitting ally. “What are ye doing out there, sir?” he said. “Get in afore ye freeze yer arse off.”

The Weasel shrugged—or perhaps shivered. “I’ll g-get in when the reverend comes back. No need to s-sit longer than I have to.”

“But ye’ll catch yer death out there,” Muriel said.

“Naw. I’m used to the c-c-cold.”

That was definitely a shiver. In any event, the coachman appeared just then to put an end to the Weasel’s plot.

“Get in, man.” His voice had an edge to it. “We need to be off at once. The coachy coming from Marbridge said the roads are getting worse.”

“But what about the reverend? He’s not back from the privy.”

The coachman put his hands on his hips. “Are ye wanting to keep him company? Because ye shall if ye don’t get in the coach right now.”

There was a momentary standoff, and then the Weasel grumbled and climbed in. He leered at Caro the moment his rump hit the other bench.

“Why don’t ye join me?” He patted the spot next to him.

“Good idea,” Humphrey said.

“Do move over, dear.” That was Muriel. “We’ll all be more comfortable.”

Ha! Caro would be vastly more uncomfortable—as everyone else would, too, after she stabbed the Weasel in the leg.

She was saved from violence by the clergyman, who came stumbling up at that moment, still buttoning his fly.

“Just in time, Reverend,” the coachman said. “We were going to have to leave ye here.”

“Sorry.” The clergyman hoisted himself in, forcing the Weasel to slide over. “Balky bowels.”

That was more information than Caro wished to have, but she welcomed anything that forced the Weasel away from her.

The coachman started to put up the steps—

“Wait! Oh, please, sir. Wait.”

He stopped and looked—they all looked—toward the inn. A young woman, carrying a small satchel, and a young boy, about six or seven years old, half ran/half slid over the snow-slick cobblestones.

“Sir,” the woman said, her voice tight and breathless, “I’ve a ticket for an inside seat. They said I might have a place here, since the gentleman got off.”

The coachman frowned, hesitating.

“There’s only one seat and two of you,” the clergyman said. “You won’t fit. Go back to the inn.”

Now there was Christian charity.

The coachman scowled. “Now see here, Reverend. This is my coach. I’ll be the one making the decision about who rides and who doesn’t.”

“I’m the one who has to sit next to them.”

The coachman’s scowl deepened. “Unless ye wish to get out and stay at the Crow—or take a seat on the roof.”

“Have her sit on the outside if she needs to travel.”

The Weasel and Humphrey began to grumble as well. The matter was clearly getting out of hand.

Caro spoke up when Muriel didn’t. “A child can’t sit on the roof.”

The man of the cloth—and the balky bowels—shrugged.

The young woman didn’t waste her time with the clergyman. She addressed the coachman again. “Please, sir. We need to get to Marbridge afore Christmas, and yers might be the last coach to get through.”

The coachman looked at her a moment longer and then let out a long breath. “Very well. But the boy will have to sit on yer lap. No crowding the reverend.”

The woman nodded and handed the coachman her satchel as the boy scrambled in. Then she followed awkwardly. Her right arm must be injured. It was hidden under her cloak as if in a sling, a lump that she made no attempt to use.

Caro expected the reverend to inch over toward the Weasel; there wasn’t much room, but the boy was as thin as a reed. Instead, the fellow gave the woman a sidelong glare and opened his Bible, not budging a hair’s breadth.

The atmosphere in the coach dropped to rival the temperature outside—well, that wasn’t so surprising as the coachman was still holding the door open, waiting for things to sort themselves out. But it wasn’t just the frigid air causing the chill. It was also the icy stares Humphrey and the Weasel gave the newcomers. Muriel sniffed and made a show of pulling her skirts back, not that she was close enough to risk being touched by either of them.

Caro looked back at the woman. The other people in the coach weren’t members of the ton—far from it. Their clothing wasn’t any grander, though the woman’s and the boy’s were visibly threadbare. But what emboldened her companions to treat the poor mother with disdain must be the air of defeat and desperation that clung to her.

It was the same air that clung to so many women when they first arrived at the Benevolent Home.

The boy pressed against his mother and, once she’d managed to sit, climbed onto her left leg, careful not to jostle her injured arm. She gave him a small smile that did nothing to dispel the dark shadows under her eyes or the tightness of her expression and hugged him close.

Much to Caro’s surprise, she felt a flood of compassion.

She frowned. Jo was the tenderhearted one, not her. Caro was the Home’s clear-eyed, practical businesswoman. A tender heart could be a liability when striving to make a tidy profit.

The coachman heaved a relieved sigh. “All right, then. We’ll be on our way.” He started to close the door.

“Wait!”

This time it was two loud, boisterous young men, swathed in multi-caped greatcoats, who pounded across the innyard, skidding to a stop just before they knocked the coachman over. One had to use the coach to break his forward progress, setting the vehicle to rocking.

“Are you going to Marbridge?” the one not leaning on the coach asked, his words slurring slightly.

“Aye.” The edge was back in the coachman’s voice.

“Splendid,” the other man said. “That’s where we’re going.” He reached for the door.

Surely the coachman wasn’t going to evict one of them—well, two of them? The mother threw Caro a panicked look. The woman guessed, likely correctly, that she would be the first one thrown out. Caro was afraid she’d be the second.

Just let them try.

Fortunately, Caro didn’t have to defend her seat. The coachman stood his ground—and held onto the door, keeping it from opening any farther.

“As ye can see, I’m full inside. If ye want to leave today, ye’ll have to ride atop.”

The men shrugged.

“All right. We’ve got coats”—the first man lifted a bottle—“and brandy to keep us warm.”

Muriel gasped. “Humphrey, say something,” she hissed as the coachman finally closed the door. “It can’t be safe to have those drunken bucks riding with us.”

“Likely they’re the ones at risk,” the Weasel offered. The coach swayed as the men hauled themselves up to their seats. “Though if they’re drunk enough, they won’t feel it when they fall off and hit the ground.”

Muriel stared at the Weasel, and then elbowed her husband. “Say something,” she hissed again.

It was too late. The coach had lurched into motion.

And the young mother’s cloak started wailing.

The reverend jerked his eyes off his Bible, a mixture of alarm and disbelief in his expression, and scowled down at her. “Good Lord, woman, what have you got there?”

“That’s my sister, Grace,” the boy said, as his mother uncovered a very small, very young infant. “She’s a baby.”

The clergyman snorted all too expressively—he obviously thought “Grace” a vastly inappropriate name—and transferred his scowl to the boy, who bravely raised his chin and held his ground unflinching.

Meanwhile, the mother was trying to soothe the baby in the limited space she had. “Shh.” She jiggled the infant. “Shh.”

“Grace is only four weeks old.” The boy’s young, clear voice dropped each word like a pebble into a still pond, sending ripples of consternation through the coach’s other occupants.

The mother, clearly all too aware of the disapproval building in the confined space, leaned closer to whisper to her son. “Hush, Edward. Don’t bother the people.” Then she shifted her arm with the infant closer to the stagecoach wall, trying to make more room for her son on her lap.

The poor woman. It was bad enough she was traveling in a snowstorm, on the public stagecoach, with a young boy and a baby only a month after giving birth. She didn’t need to feel alone and judged by everyone around her.

“Here, let me hold the baby for you,” Caro said.

The woman hesitated, clearly nervous about entrusting her precious child to a stranger.

“Don’t worry. I’ve lots of experience.”

Caro was the fifth of eleven children and the only daughter. Her poor, beleaguered mother had put her to work tending her siblings as soon as she was old enough to rock a cradle. And then when she was seventeen, she’d gone to London to work as a nursemaid—

No. She shoved those memories back into the box she’d made for them and slammed down the lid.

Baby Grace let out a thin wail, and her mother gave in.

“Thank you,” she said softly. She leaned forward, and Caro scooped the small bundle out of the crook of her arm. “Mind her head.”

Caro nodded, wondering again what would force a new mother out into the snow just before Christmas.

Ah. The moment she felt the baby’s warm weight—the mite couldn’t be even as heavy as a tankard of ale—Caro’s hands remembered how to hold such a young child. She settled the baby against her shoulder, patting her and humming, feeling a surprising calm flow through her as she soothed little Grace back to sleep.

Women needed to band together to support one another. That’s what they did—most of the time—at the Home. Caro looked at Grace’s mother. Did she need the Home’s refuge? Caro could—

No, unfortunately she wouldn’t. Space at the Home was very limited. There wasn’t room for two separate dormitories for boys and girls. Jo had made the decision early on that they couldn’t take in mothers with sons past babyhood.

If there were only Grace, the Home’s doors would be wide open. But there was also Edward.

An uneasy silence had settled over the coach—no one wanted to be trapped in a small space with a howling infant—but once it became clear Grace was going back to sleep, everyone seemed to relax. The clergyman went back to his Bible; the Weasel and Muriel looked out the window on their side of the coach. Humphrey—perhaps afraid he’d jostle the baby awake—slid his bulk away from Caro as best he could. The young mother and her son fell into what must have been an exhausted sleep.

Caro shifted the baby slightly, patting her bottom when she whimpered. The snow was still coming down, but so far, the coach was moving along, thank God. Perhaps she would reach Marbridge in time to catch the one coach that would take her on to Little Puddledon.

And then Grace started making little snuffling, hungry noises.

Oh, blast. How could Grace’s mother nurse a baby in this cramped carriage of disapproving men? But there was no arguing with a hungry infant. Grace was going to start screaming soon unless . . .

Perhaps a trick Caro had learned tending her siblings could buy them some time.

She gave Grace the knuckle of her pinkie to suck on.

Ah. She’d forgotten how surprisingly strong and rhythmic an infant’s sucking was. The sensation made her feel . . . odd. Almost as if she wished she had a baby herself.

Nonsense! What she really wished for was a miracle, that she could keep Grace content until they got to Marb—

“Tallyho!”

The coach suddenly picked up speed amid a storm of shouting and cursing from the roof.

Oh, hell. The drunken bucks must have taken the coachman’s reins.

Caro tightened her hold on the baby.

“Humphrey!” Muriel screamed. “Make them stop.”

“Good God, woman, how am I supposed to do that? I’m stuck in here with you.”

The Weasel was swearing quite creatively, and even the reverend addressed the Lord in less than polite terms as they careened down the road.

“Wh-what’s happening, Mama?”

The young mother hugged her son. “I think the men riding on top have taken over driving the c-coach, Edward.” She tried to speak calmly, but couldn’t quite keep a slight quaver from her voice.

Muriel didn’t even try to mask her alarm. She grabbed her husband’s arm and screeched, “Lord help us, we are going to end in a ditch!”

“H-hold on to me, Edward.” The mother’s eyes, tight with desperation and entreaty, went to Caro.

“I’ve got Grace.” Caro gripped the baby as securely as she could and braced herself against the coach wall. She was not much for praying—she’d found relying on herself rather than a distant and inscrutable Deity usually served her best—but nevertheless she sent a quick, sincere entreaty to the Almighty in case He was listening.

She’d no sooner formed a mental “amen” than the coach started to slide. Everyone except Caro and, blessedly, the baby screamed. Caro was too busy trying to curl her body around Grace’s. If the coach landed on its side, it was going to be very hard to keep the baby safe.

The slide seemed to go on forever, and then finally there was a jolt, a shudder, and the coach stopped, still upright.

And then the floor dropped a foot, eliciting more screams and curses.

“What was that, Humphrey?” Muriel squeaked.

The Weasel answered instead. “Feels like the axel broke. Looks like we ain’t getting to Marbridge today.” He glanced at the clergyman and nodded at his Bible. “But at least we needn’t be afeard since the Lord is traveling with us, eh, Reverend?”

The clergyman scowled. “You are offensive, sirrah!”

“I’m cold and hungry, and now I’m stranded in the snow who knows where.” The Weasel shrugged. “I’ll probably freeze to death, so I suppose I can lodge a complaint with yer God all too soon.”

Muriel shrieked.

“Hold yer tongue,” Humphrey told the Weasel sharply.

Yes, indeed. Didn’t any of these idiots give a thought to the boy? He was looking up at his mother, eyes wide, face pale. “We’ll be all right, won’t we, Mama?”

His mother forced a tense smile and smoothed back his hair. “Aye, Edward. As long as we’re together, we’ll be all r-right.”

That was all very well, but the truth was they had to get out of this cold, particularly poor little Grace. Sitting around moaning and arguing wasn’t going to accomplish that goal. Someone needed to have a word with the coachman.

Obviously, that someone was Caro.

Caro pushed the carriage door open and looked out. The axel had indeed broken; the ground was well within reach. “I’ll be right back,” she told Grace’s mother. “Don’t worry. I’ll keep Grace warm.”

The mother, holding her son tightly and looking wan and defeated, nodded weakly.

Caro climbed out, pulled her cloak snugly around the baby, and approached the coachman, who was trying, along with the two bucks, to unhitch the horses. They were not having a great deal of success.

“Sir, I need a word with you, if you please.”

The coachman glanced at her and then went back to his work. “Get back inside the coach, madam. One of these men”—he glared at the miscreants who had put them in this position—“is going to ride on to the next stop and bring back help as soon as we can get a horse free.”

She eyed the blackguards. At least the accident seemed to have sobered them up. “And how long will that take?”

The coachman scowled at her. “Likely an hour or more.”

She shook her head. “Too long. It’s far too cold for the children to wait here. The baby, especially, needs to get inside by a fire immediately.”

The coachman’s brows shot up. “Baby?! Where the bloody --That is, pardon me language, madam, but . . . a baby?”

“She was under her mother’s cloak when they got on at the Crow. She’s only a few weeks old and needs to be warm by a fire immediately.”

The coachman looked annoyed—and desperate and helpless, too. “How are ye going to manage that, may I ask? These idiots can’t sprout wings and fly, ye know.”

“I know that.” What was she going to do?

She looked around at the snow-covered landscape, the fat flakes falling thickly around her. There was a break in the stone wall nearby and what appeared to be a snow-covered drive leading to a faint glow. . . .

“What’s that light over there?”

The coachman looked in the direction she was pointing. “Oh, Lord Devil must be at home. Ye don’t want to go anywhere near him.”

Lord Devil?

An odd jolt of nervous excitement shot through her, a mix of dread and eagerness akin to what she felt when she was getting ready to meet a tavern keeper for the first time in the hopes of selling him some Widow’s Brew. That must be Nick. . . .

No! What was the matter with her? She’d thought herself cured of any sort of romantic foolishness. She’d not seen Nick—if this was indeed Nick—for . . . She did a rapid calculation.

For seventeen years. She’d been thirteen, a naïve child, the last time he’d come home from school with her brother Henry. Her feelings for Nick then had been puppy love. He’d been the only one of her brothers’ friends who hadn’t ignored or teased her.

That was all this odd feeling was—a faint echo of her old hero worship.

“You mean the new Lord Oakland?”

“Aye.”

She wasn’t afraid of Nick. “Well, if he has a warm fire, I most certainly do wish to go near him. Even a devil wouldn’t turn away a tiny baby.” And certainly not the Nick she’d known.

It’s been seventeen years. People change.

Yes, they did. But Nick couldn’t have changed that much.

“I wouldn’t be so certain,” the coachman said, but she’d already turned away. There was no time to waste.

She stuck her head back into the coach briefly to address Grace’s mother. “There’s a house nearby. I’m taking Grace there and will send back help.”

The woman frowned, but must have concluded that the sooner Grace got inside, the better because she nodded. “All right. Do hurry.”

“And close the blasted door,” the clergyman snapped. “Do you want us all to freeze?”

Muriel moaned, Humphrey glared at her, and even the Weasel’s look was annoyed rather than amorous.

“Right.” Caro pushed the door closed and started through the snow toward the house.

Books in the Widow's Brew Series

What Ales the EarlThe Merry Viscount

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