Read His Christmas Pleasure Online

Authors: Cathy Maxwell

His Christmas Pleasure (20 page)

Abby could have confessed that she’d thought he’d been dallying with other women, prettier women who had money … but she realized now how silly she’d been to be jealous. So foolish.

And she couldn’t say anything, because if she did, he’d know how much she cared. How she’d fallen in love.

“Tell me about Stonemoor,” she urged. “Describe it to me again.”

There was a question in his eye. Andres seemed attuned to her every mood.

He’d noticed how she’d stopped laughing, how she’d turned introspective.

She tried to smile.

He smiled back, unconvinced … but then he began telling her about Stonemoor.

His voice walked her through the stables. He described the gardens that every spring were full of irises and roses.

“Why did you plant irises?” she asked.

“Because they are named after the Greek goddess of rainbows,” he said. “And their shape is that of the fleur-de-lis of the king of France. I always fill a garden with hundreds of irises.”

Hundreds of rainbows. Her husband had a poet’s soul. He was a believer.

She hadn’t realized that. Her mother was that way. There had been many times when Abby and her brothers had been thankful that their mother had seen the world differently from their pragmatic father. Her brother Christopher even had the opinion that their father wouldn’t have been as successful as he had been if it hadn’t been for their mother.

Andres described the house again. It was a huge Georgian manor made out of yellow brick. He walked her mind’s eye through every room, every piece of furniture. None of it was elaborate. He made it sound as if it had his Spanish taste, and that was fine with her.

This was going to be their home. She’d became so engrossed in her husband’s talk that she hadn’t even noticed if Deacon Daniel had continued to have digestive trouble or not.

Before she realized the passage of time, the driver was blowing his horn and shouting, “Corbridge.”

She and Andres were both happy to be free of the crowded coach and on firm ground.

Andres took her into the inn that served as the Mail’s way station. He purchased a meat pie and black tea and left her to this repast while he made travel arrangements for them to reach Stonemoor.

Refreshed, she was pleased to see that he’d hired a pony cart for their trip, so it was in good spirits that they set off. Abby even drove a bit—as long as Andres let her have the reins. She discovered her husband was not the easiest passenger. He definitely liked being in charge.

The path to Stonemoor was a wandering one, through several back roads.

They crossed the South Tyne River and came across the Roman ruins known as Hadrian’s Wall. Abby was very impressed … and starting to wonder if Andres knew where he was going.

A few times, they had to turn around and take a different road. She became very confused. Once, as they passed some crofters’ huts, she suggested that they ask directions, but her husband pretended to not hear her. That seemed to be a pattern of his. He just didn’t answer what he chose to ignore. She wondered if it was true of all men or just Spanish ones. Her father and brothers always had plenty to say.

As it was, a weathered sign, shaped like an arrow and nailed to a tree, with the word Stonemoor in faded script, told them which way they should take.

At first, Abby didn’t think the two ruts on the ground were really a road.

She was proven wrong when they followed it down to a rickety bridge over a lazy stream and around a copse of trees. She saw a roof. Andres did, too. The pony cart picked up speed, bouncing along the poorly constructed drive.

They would need to do something about this if they wanted visitors.

They clopped over a small bridge and turned into a smaller path—and there was Stonemoor.

But it wasn’t a glorious Georgian manor or a charming country house.

No—it was a dumpy, gloomy Tudor abode with a mossy roof, broken windows, and a yard full of dry, gray grass and weeds.

Chapter Thirteen

Andres was stunned, especially at his own naivete.

This was not the house he had imagined he owned. He’d pictured it in his dreams and this was not it.

Dobbins had made no promises. Andres had gulled himself. He’d wrapped himself up in his dreams to the point where he’d ignored common sense and reality. This wasn’t the first time it had happened to him. He’d been this way when his father had taken him in and when he’d won the silver mine.

But this was worse because Abby was involved as well. He’d made promises, told stories he’d begun to believe.

He tied off the reins and jumped out of the cart. He had to see all of this for himself, to know how completely he had duped himself. He bypassed the house and went around back, stumbling on stones and broken glass in his rush to see the stables. A low stone wall separated the house’s garden from the pastures beyond. The moors.

A long, low outbuilding was off to his left. It leaned precariously. There were openings like stables … but they couldn’t be stalls….

They were. This row of beaten-down wood with a roof that appeared ready to crash to the ground at any second was the stables. A lean-to against the side was for hay. There were even remnants of old, molding hay in the hayrack.

There was no stable yard where he could proudly show his horses to buyers.

There were only weeds.

Several paddocks had been built, but like so much else at Stonemoor, they were in sad disrepair. Most of the fencing was little more than stone posts, the wood for the railings having been carted away for some other purpose.

“This isn’t what you were expecting,” Abby’s voice said from behind him.

Andres couldn’t speak. He’d been such a bloody fool.

Of course Lord Dobbins wouldn’t have given him a worthwhile property—

why would he have? He’d thought Andres nothing more than his wife’s cicisbeo. A man who lived off women by using his looks.

And here was Abby. He faced her, so shamed by Stonemoor that he couldn’t speak.

Then again, he had been played the fool in his marriage, too. She now became a convenient target. “I married you for your money,” he said, bitterness in his heart and voice. “Do you see why I needed it?”

His words were sharp. He knew that. They could have cut a stone in half.

But then, so could disappointment, and at this moment Andres wasn’t thinking clearly.

All his life he’d trusted that things would be better. He’d been the son who had not been able to save his father from suicide. He’d stolen, begged, gambled, and finally sold himself in marriage, all to chase the dream of restoring his family’s name. He’d wanted to prove to his father’s family that he was one of them.

And he wasn’t.

“Go away, Abby,” he said. “Take the cart. Go back to your father.”

She took a step back in surprise. “I can’t.”

He didn’t want argument. That was another thing she did too much of—she argued. He cut the air with his hand, a sign he wanted her gone. “Go.”

But she didn’t leave. One thing about Abby; she was stubborn. If anyone was going to leave, it would have to be him.

Andres started walking off, stumbling over his feet in his desire to run away.

Lord Dobbins must have had a hearty laugh over his eagerness to take possession of Stonemoor.

In his sour mood, Andres wouldn’t have been surprised if Montross hadn’t wanted to dump his daughter on him as well.

But the truth was, he didn’t deserve her. He didn’t deserve good property either, or a silver mine that actually held silver. He wasn’t a barón. Or a gentleman.

And the taunts he’d heard in school, that he’d heard all his life, echoed in his ears. He was a bastard, his mother nothing more than some senseless, but lovely, woman who had spread her legs for Don Ramigio and other wealthy men.

Walking soon wasn’t enough. Andres started running. He ran from his past.

He ran from his present. And he didn’t care where he went.

He ran until he thought his lungs would explode, and when he stopped, he had to bend over, drawing great gulps of air.

Slowly, the chaos in his mind—the confusion, the anger, the shame—came under control.

He had few options. He could sell the property, but who would want it?

He could walk away now and never return. But then he thought of Holburn, a man Andres had once betrayed and who had forgiven him. A man who’d trusted Andres enough to invest in a horse on his advice. The duke had eight hundred pounds in that mare, and he expected Andres to train her foal.

And then there was Abby, who had bravely tied her life to his. She’d trusted him to be what he’d said he was, and he had lied.

Walking away would be the best thing he could do for her. She needed to think of herself. He was no good … and yet leaving her would ruin her, especially since even now there was the possibility that she could be carrying his child.

He looked in the direction from which he’d come. If he had any honor, he’d tell her the truth so that she’d know she’d made a terrible mistake in marrying him.

The sun was starting to set. A dismal dreariness settled over the late autumn landscape. Wisps of fog rose from the land like ghosts of his past.

And he knew he had to return, because in the end, he had no choice. He had no money and nowhere else to go. As he walked, he decided that he should leave England. He would sell Stonemoor for what he could and use the money to repay Holburn.

He’d also confess the truth about himself to Abby. Then she wouldn’t walk away; she’d run. She’d be glad to be rid of him.

Andres tried not to think of what would happen then. Of how his life would be without her. He was startled to realize how empty the thought made him feel—The cart was gone.

As he’d walked up the hill toward the house, his eye hadn’t taken in the stables or the house’s walls. He’d looked directly at the drive—and the pony cart was gone.

His feet felt rooted to the ground. For a long time, he stared at empty space.

Why should he have been surprised she’d left? He’d told her to do so.

In fact, he was glad she’d left. She was being wise—

The sound of someone sweeping came from inside the house.

Andres walked up to the front door. It was made of solid oak and had held up over the years in spite of rusty hinges. He gave the door a shove. It didn’t budge. He put his shoulder to it. The door opened with a lurch.

He found himself in a narrow front hall. The plaster on the wall to his left had crumbled. Water had come through the roof and down from the floor above.

The good news was that the ground floor was paved with stones that had been set together so well that they were still in place. He followed the sound of the sweeping.

Abby was in a room one would call a main hall. Its window overlooked the stone-walled garden and a small courtyard.

She still wore her bonnet and her gloves. Her embroidered bag was on her arm, and she was sweeping the floor with a broom that appeared to be as ancient as the house, the ends of it worn to a nub. As he watched, she lifted her broom and started swiping at cobwebs, fussing when one seemed to drift in front of her face.

Abby. Wonderful Abby. His palomita.

“Where did you find a broom?” he asked, speaking past a growing tightness in his throat. No one had ever stayed beside him before. Not when his fortune had been bad.

“On the floor amongst some broken furniture.” She didn’t look at him.

“Don’t you do anything I tell you?” he asked.

She turned to him, her broom still poised to attack the dust and gloom.

“Only when you are right.”

Her eyes were red, as if she’d been crying, or the way they’d been with the cats. Perhaps the dust bothered her.

She frowned at him, knew he’d noticed her eyes … and let him know the answer by saying, “I was afraid you weren’t returning.”

Her fear went straight to his heart.

“I put the pony away,” she said, as if determined to fill the silence between them. “The stable is a terrible mess.” She returned to her cleaning, sweeping the floor with new vigor. “I gave him hay, but I don’t know that I did the right thing. I suppose it will be something I’ll have to learn if we are going to build a renowned stables here. And you were wrong about the furniture—”

She stopped her sweeping and looked at him, placing an indignant hand on her hip. “This is definitely not Georgian style.”

Andres’s answer was to cross the room in three long steps, lift her into his arms, and kiss her bloody hard.

Abby hadn’t left him. He wasn’t alone.

But he had to think of her.

Andres broke off the kiss. Her bonnet had fallen back and now hung by the ribbon tied under her chin. Freed, her hair was a glorious mass. “I want you to return to your father,” he said, his earlier anger gone. “You can’t live in this. The house is ready to fall down.”

A frown formed between her eyes. She raised her chin. “I’m not leaving you.”

He hugged her to him, savoring the beauty of those words.

She struggled her way out of his hold. “Stop this. You act as if this is the worst place in the world. Well, you are right. It is … unexpected. But it is also our home. I’m not returning to my parents, Andres. I decided that yesterday morning when I thought I’d made a mistake in my marriage. But you sold your watch for me. For this!”

“It was a waste of a watch,” he told her.

“No, it wasn’t.” Her hand tightened on the broom handle. “You’ve sacrificed everything you have for this dream. In London, when you asked me to marry you and enter this venture with you, I gave my word I’d be here, and so I will. This is where we are supposed to be, Andres. This is where you must build your stables.”

He laughed, the sound cruel. “This is going to fall down around our ears.”

He indicated the building with an angry sweep of his hand.

“Then we shall have to build it up.”

Andres studied his wife. Conviction shone from her eyes. “How can you be so certain?” he asked.

Setting the broom aside, she held out her hand. Curious, Andres placed his hand in hers. She led him to a steep, spiral wooden staircase. Upstairs, she entered the first room on the left. It had a massive arched door, and the good-sized room was paneled.

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