Day 22 - Story Advent Calendar.


Advent Calendar 22nd December.

A Duke for Christmas 

by Lara Temple.
 Part 1.

The Golden Giant was neither golden nor a giant.

But at least it was warm. 

Marcus took the cracked tankard of ale the publican handed him and wondered what on earth there was in this tiny road side inn to attract so many people, especially on what he'd belatedly remembered was Christmas eve.

He's only stopped because of Brutus. It was one thing for him to almost freeze to death. Quite another for Brutus. After six years of faithful service carrying him across Portugal, Spain and France, suffering thirst, famine and enemy fire, Brutus deserved better than to become a hunk of frozen meat on the side of a country lane. He had been far too confident he would remember the way to Nethercote, and if dark hadn't fallen so early, perhaps he might have. But Even if it was only a few miles away, he didn't want those miles to be his faithful friend's last.

Marcus rubbed his eyes. He had not slept well since he arrived in England from France and hadn't eaten since morning. He meant to stop somewhere on his way to Nethercote, but so long as Brutus kept going, he fell into the old practice of moving when nothing stopped them.

If Brutus hadn’t stumbled on a patch of ice in the dark, nearly sliding into the narrow scar of a ditch, he probably would still be out there, trying to remember which of the hedged lanes was the one to the estate he inherited along with his lamented title.

So instead of the monstrous dining hall at Nethercote, he would eat his supper in the crowded public room along with what looked to be every man, woman, and child in the county. The only place there was any space was an invisible circle around Marcus himself.

He was clearly being given space.

At first he thought it was his scar. It had certainly put off people in London, and at least once with spectacular effect. But as he thawed out of his apathy he noticed quite a few of the people present were even more damaged. This recognition was followed by the realization, both sad and strangely comforting, that he was not the only decommissioned soldier in this tiny inn. Which was peculiar, to say the least.

But even that strange comfort of being tossed back to the peculiar camaraderie of war wasn't enough to combat the smell or the noise. For years he had been surrounded by men in various states of dirt, noise and though not quite inured to a lack of privacy and space, he accepted it as another price of war.

But after seven years in the army he was no longer at war and so he drank the rest of his ale and ate the bread and surprisingly good cheese and tried to gather the strength to go find the palette in a narrow back room which was the only accommodation the inn could offer. He was just rising when a hush fell on the room. For a moment he thought it was some reaction to his movement, perhaps his scar was even more intimidating than he had realized, but then the man seated closest to him patted the table and leaned over, whispering.

'About to start.'

That was it. Something in the quiet certainty of those words made him sit once more.

The hush shifted to a murmur of approval and a squeaking of benches and chairs as bottoms settled more comfortably.

'Good evening, everyone.'

Marcus straightened abruptly at the voice. It wasn't merely that it was female and well-bred. It was older, deeper – definitely deeper – but the last time he had heard it was in an orchard probably not many miles from there and absurdly he remembered it.

The men and women answered almost as a chorus.

'Good Evening, Miss Alton.'

Miss Alton. Genna Alton, younger sister of the woman who had jilted him seven years ago and made a fool of him, but mostly of herself, last week.

He could still hear Charlotte Alton’s voice as she turned and saw him seated on Brutus at the end of Rotten Row in Hyde Park, her beautiful golden curls peeping artfully from the high poke bonnet lined with silk as cornflower blue as her eyes which widened alarmingly as her gaze took in the damaged skin along his cheek and neck. Even in shock she was a picture of soft loveliness, but her voice was high and unnatural as she blurted out that damning sentence
‘Oh no! You used to be so handsome!’

Her expression of horror had been almost, almost comical. Something a poor actress would adopt in a stage farce when confronted by some poorly constructed Gothic spirit. It had marred her own beauty, but less permanently than his scars.

He wondered if she would have found the strength to hide her aversion if she had been better prepared for the state of his face. Probably. His newly earned title and fortune were some incentive to practice. Or perhaps he was being unjust to her.

Even as these thoughts rose up again in his mind like bile, they fell back again because Miss Genna Alton began to speak. It hardly occurred to him to wonder what on earth she was doing in this place, reading a book to this motley crowd, when her voice and the story she began reading pulled him away from that sordid scene in Hyde Park and straight into the story she was reading, robbing him of the power or critical thought.

‘From the cliff the Nile was a great silver snake, shimmering with venom. Scarred crocodiles sunned themselves among the papyrus reeds, their jaws open with delight at the prospect of more fools wishing to reach the temple on the other side.

‘You shall not cross. Not whole, at least.

‘The Sprite took Adam’s hand, her palm a wisp of breath against his hot skin. ‘It must be done, Adam. But I have no power once we touch water. It is that or accept that Japheth has won.’
A rumble of denial and condemnation spread like thunder through the room. The same man who bid Marcus sit tapped his fist several times on the table, muttering under his breath.

‘Never! Never!’

Genna Alton looked up from the book, her grey-blue eyes alight with laughter
‘Do you think Adam will baulk at a few crocodiles?’ she challenged and the rumble became a roar of ‘nay!’s

She had changed so much. The scruffy girl of seventeen was gone and with it the rather serious frown that often marred her pixie-ish face. Charlotte had often called her the family cuckoo because she looked so different from the ethereal Altons – smaller, with brown rather than golden hair, and grey-blue eyes rather than the dazzling crystalline blue of her older sister and brother.

That day in the orchard she had warned him that Charlotte would not marry him on soldier’s pay, not even for the Dukedom he would eventually inherit. And they had argued. As usual. Unlike her lovely older sister, Genna had a gift for rubbing people the wrong way. That summer they had argued so often Mrs Alton had begun concocting all manner of excuses to ensure her daughter disappeared when he came to call.

But though she was as argumentative as Socrates with a thorn in his backside, she had been quite right about her sister. His offer of marriage was accepted with all due flattery, but the excuse of their state of mourning for her father’s death earlier that year coupled with and his departure for the war, eased her way to postpone any official announcement. He was hurt but not surprised when her letters, never very informative, spaced out. He himself was finding corresponding with her slow going. He was surprised and hurt to hear of her very advantageous marriage a year later, though.

He was even more surprised to receive a letter from her a year ago. When he didn’t answer, being too taken up in recovering from the effects of an ambush in the Pyrenees to even manage a polite dismissal, it was followed by more letters.

The crowning glory reached the day after the battle of Toulouse, achieving an impressive feat of postal delivery. It was a tangle of flowery sentences about youthful mistakes, how hard and lonely it had been for her when he left to war, the impact of the loss of her father, and even a hint that Lord Vincent had taken advantage of her youthful credulity. The latter made Marcus raise his brows – he knew poor Robert Talgarth from school and the fellow was far too amiable for the role Charlotte Alton cast him in. The letter had ended with a flattering assertion that her heart had always been his. If he could but return safely to England, perhaps…

She was, in short – widowed, moderately wealthy, and waiting.

And he had been amused, annoyed, a little flattered, and little curious.

His answer had been accordingly – polite and completely non-committal. He had no interest in renewing his acquaintance with Charlotte Alton. But when he returned to London curiosity had won out and he had gone to view the only woman he had been foolish enough to love and who now offered herself so prettily to a man she had not seen in almost seven years.

He hadn’t consciously chosen Hyde Park as the place to renew their acquaintance. Fate had made that choice. He had recognized her immediately, standing in a small group of men and women on the grass several yards from where he was riding with a fellow decommissioned officer along Rotten Row.

She was still strikingly beautiful and he waited a little uneasily for the thudding heartbeat that had accompanied encounters with her near his uncle’s home at Nethercote. They did come but for the absolutely wrong reason. She turned, recognition lighting her eyes but then as her gaze moved over his face the feline contentment vanished and the words burst out of her, high pitched and protesting, like steam escaping a kettle.

‘Oh, no, Marcus! You used to be so handsome!’

He knew the effects of shock and could not really blame her for such childish crudeness. Shock tended to strip people and wrong foot them. But when she turned away, her hand gesturing to him to stand back, as if he was threatening to approach, her second sentence was no longer born of shock but straight from her own selfishness.

‘That is not fair! You should have warned me you were scarred!’

Even with all the bustle of the park the hush around them was audible. Despite everything he felt anger and disappointment – at himself and at her. But also pity – he knew with some guilty satisfaction her precious society would hold her accountable for such revealing cruelty. Other might cringe at the damage to his face, but they were rather more careful about revealing their distaste.

It was as Genna Alton had told him that day in the orchard:
‘Lottie will never love you as much a she adores herself. She won’t trust you unless you idolize her.

 You may be intelligent and handsome but that isn’t enough. You must either showcase her or provide her the means to do so. Deep down she knows you won’t idolize her, and since the current Duke is only forty she cannot count on spending his wealth while she is still young.
One day you will disappoint her and you will be to blame.

How old would Genna Alton she be now? If charlotte was twenty five, Genna would be twenty three. Her sister had changed but Genna looked very different from his memory. She had certainly learned to smile. Her eyes slanted upwards at the corners, two dimples bracketing a surprisingly full mouth. Against all reason he tensed as her gaze moved over her crowd. And stopped. The stormy blue grey became very evident as her eyes widened, her gaze moving over his face. His scar tingled as her eyes slid down the raw slice of the bayonet.

He waited for her to mirror her sister’s response. Her eyes didn’t slink downwards or away as people so often did but compassion was almost worse than disgust. Then she smiled again, a totally different smile.

He leaned back, utterly present. His heart, which had been working away with boring monotony, suddenly set off like a barrel bouncing down a boulder-strewn hill. His hands and feet had been thawing but they suddenly blazed and every hair on his body rose on alert. It was like the call of ‘Voltigeurs!’ while riding through the ravines in the Pyrenees together with the onset of heatstroke and thirst after hours of marching in the Iberian sun.

It lasted no more than the space of a breath and she was looking down at the book, picking up where she stopped. He didn’t listen, didn’t hear a word, just sat in shock as his body slowly unraveled the chaotic tangle it had plunged into. Until all that was left was the insistent throbbing that stretched from his throat to his groin – a column of utterly surprising agony. Not once in all his thirty years had he experienced such a cannonade of lust. He certainly hadn’t expected to feel it for a young woman with only passable looks who knew him for a fool and spent a whole long ago summer picking fights with him.

The groans dragged him back to reality. The shifting and shuffling as people rose. The man next to him leaned in again.

‘She’ll be back on Wednesday if you’re in the area, soldier. But not here. At the House.’

‘The House?’

‘Hope House. That’s why you’re here, aren’t you?’

‘I…no. I am on my way to Nethercote.’

The man sat back.

‘Forgive me, I thought… seeding as you’re a soldier.’

‘I am. But what is Hope House?’

‘House for the likes of us. From the war and down on our luck. If you need a roof over your head for a day or a year, and help finding honest work. Just half a mile away and Miss Alton usually does her readings there but the painters were in the big hall and Mrs Reed, a real dragon, she is, said she won’t have us all brushing against her newly painted walls until they’re good and dry so Miss said we’d take the public room here rather than miss the reading. Every Monday and Wednesday evening.’

He nodded and left, smiling at Genna as she stood by the innkeeper and his wife. Marcus stood, willing her to turn. When she did he waited for her eyes to stray and fall from his scars again but her eyes were on his with the same disconcerting directness he remembered from seven years ago. She crossed the room and stood on the other side of the wooden table.

‘Hello Marcus. What on earth are you doing here?’


Come back tomorrow for the last part of this story and if you were enjoying it, please take a look at the following links and follow Lara Temple. She is an amazing writer! 

Happy Reading!

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