One Night with a Duke (12 Dukes of Christmas #10) - Erica Ridley

Chapter 1

December 1814

Mr. Jonathan MacLean could have spent the two-hour journey from Eyemouth, Scotland to Cressmouth, England tucked safely into the relative warmth of the hackney coach he’d hired, but where was the pleasure in that?

Perched out here with his driver, Mr. Beattie, no foggy window pane stood between Jonathan and the rolling vista. All around them, snow-covered hills topped a sea of frost-speckled evergreens. He was en route to adventure—once again!—and he didn’t want to miss a single moment of it.

After two hours together, the hackney driver had warmed to his unconventional client.

“Well...” Beattie squinted into the wind. “I wouldn’t gad about crying, ‘A pox on raisins!’ but there’s a limit to how many a man ought to find in his biscuit, isn’t there?”

“Pah!” Jonathan said. “I like biscuits with raisins, biscuits without raisins, bread with raisins, bread without raisins, cakes with raisins, cakes without raisins, a bowl full of nothing but raisins...”

The list of things Jonathan liked was infinite. The right attitude limited opportunities for disappointment. It was difficult for things not to go one’s way, when one was determined to like all the ways.

Beattie was the best driver a traveler could hope to be paired with. He hadn’t objected in the least when Jonathan promised to triple his earnings if he shared his rickety, wind-whipped perch with a stranger.

To fill the dead air, they’d shared their life stories—Jonathan’s began when he was sixteen, no sense dredging up memories from his childhood—and were now on to arbitrary preferences, which was exactly the sort of easy, superficial, boundless topic he liked best.

“Towns,” said Beattie with a sly look in his eye. “As a traveling peddler who’s been to every corner of Britain, there must be some place you refuse to return to.”

Jonathan wasn’t precisely a peddler, but he was unquestionably a traveler, and it was this topic he’d expected to be peppered with questions about upon declaring himself an open book and taking the controversial stance of not disliking anything. That they’d covered raisins and ragwort and kite-flying on windy days spoke highly of Beattie’s creativity. Too many people only concentrated on the obvious.

“I refuse to return to all places,” Jonathan replied cheerfully. “Not because I’ve disliked them, but because there are so many more I haven’t seen. One week, that’s my rule. Less, if I can help it. Then it’s on to the next town, and the next adventure. I’m the luckiest man alive!”

Beattie stared at him, aghast. “You haven’t a home?”

Jonathan ignored the familiar ache he kept buried deep inside. He’d had a home once. A mother who rarely spoke to him. A father who never came round. Four walls that provided no comfort at all. Yuletides spent staring out of the window, dreaming of a place where he would be wanted.

But dreams were for children.

Life had taught Jonathan it was safer never to get attached in the first place.

“How can I pick a place to stay still,” he pointed out reasonably, “until I’ve experienced everything, to know for certain which I’ll like best?”

Beattie’s wind-chapped lips gaped.

“You should try it,” Jonathan suggested. “You said you’d never been out of Scotland, and now here you are, on holiday in England!”

Beattie gazed doubtfully at the endless drifts of snow encroaching on the winding road.

“I’m not on holiday,” he reminded Jonathan. “You paid me handsomely to make this journey.”

“Was it not enough?” Jonathan pulled several more freezing guineas from his coin purse and dropped them into Beattie’s gaping pocket, heavy from all the other coins Jonathan had foisted upon him. “There, now you can be on holiday, as well. Although I should confess that I am always on holiday and not on holiday at the same time.”

Beattie’s frost-tipped lashes blinked. “Your confessions always leave me more confused than when I started.”

Jonathan beamed at him. “Part of the fun, isn’t it? A body might think—”

But the words froze in his throat like so many icicles. A festive crimson sign rose like a beacon just ahead:

* * *

Welcome to Christmas!

* * *

“Cressmouth,” Jonathan muttered. “The village is called Cressmouth.”

“Aye, well,” said Beattie. “It might be named Cressmouth, but even I know it’s called ‘Christmas’ by everyone between Shetland and Cornwall. Isn’t that why you’re here? Everyone adores Christmas!”

Jonathan would rather there be no Christmas at all.

“What’s that?” he said, pointing a leather-clad finger at a telltale waft of smoke rising from a gray blur of a brick house in the middle of a large field.

Between the falling snow and the corkscrew path up