Snowy Night with a Stranger
Short Fiction Inspired by the Characters from
The School for Heiresses Series
Snowy Night with a Stranger
In Sabrina Jeffries’ novella, “When Sparks Fly,” a carriage mishap on the way home to Sheffield for the holidays leaves Ellie Bancroft, the wealthiest heiress in North England, and her party stranded at the remote manor of the notorious Black Baron. Weary of being courted for her fortune, Ellie doesn’t know what to make of her grumpy host. As for Martin Thorncliff, he is none too happy about playing host to four children and two women at his least favorite time of the year.
What both Ellie and Martin fail to take into account, however, are the sparks that fly whenever they are together. Neither Ellie nor Martin may have seen romance in their future, but they soon realize the New Year takes on a whole new glow when you share it with one you love.
Martin Thorncliff grumbled to himself as he hunched his shoulders against the snow. Leaving Bancroft’s coachman to keep up as best as the man could, Martin let his horse pick its own way to Thorncliff Hall. He was already having a bad day. The new fuses he’d invented had burned too quickly when he’d tested them at the coal mine. Then on his way home the sleet had begun. Now this.
December was difficult enough for him without intruders fetching up near his land. Rich intruders. With children singing Christmas carols, of all the infernal things. God help him.
What had Joseph Bancroft been thinking, to let his family travel so scantily protected? The man owned Yorkshire Silver, the largest silver mining company in England. He ought to have more sense than to rely on an aging coachman and some useless post-boy. If those women and children had belonged to Martin, he would have protected them better.
A snort escaped him. Right. The way he’d protected Rupert. After what had happened to his older brother, no female with sense would put herself permanently under the protection of the dangerous “Black Baron.”
The nasty nickname society had for him made him wince. He didn’t need a wife anyway, mucking with his experiments and giving him one more person’s safety to worry about. Though occasionally, he did wish …
Ridiculous. His life was as good as he deserved. It was his brother who’d been the jovial lord of the manor, who’d conversed equally well with tenant or duke, who’d run the estate with efficiency while attracting every pretty girl this side of London.
Martin could only blow things up.
And now he had guests, God help him. Thorncliff Hall was no place for a wounded woman and her caroling litter of cubs. Terror seized him at the thought of those boys exploring the old stone barn in back where he did his experiments.
At least he wouldn’t have to worry about their cousin doing so. It wasn’t the sort of place to entice a fashionably dressed heiress. Everything about her screamed “spoilt rich lass,” from her expensive kid boots and matching gloves to the way she looked right through him. Then there was her impractical gown, though it did display her lush figure better than a wool cloak would have done. Probably why she wore it—young ladies like that craved attention. They were raised to enjoy it from early on.
She wouldn’t get it from him, no matter how pleasing her curves and sparkling green eyes. He’d met plenty of her sort while Rupert was alive and still forcing him to go into society. He’d even fancied a few … but once Rupert had died and the rumors had begun, they’d turned on him. He didn’t fit their notions of what a gentleman should be. Miss Bancroft was sure to be the same.
Worse yet, she lacked sense. Fetch a few items from their trunks indeed—was the lass daft? Had she no idea how treacherous that ice could be? She was probably worried some miscreant would come along and steal her jewels and furs. As if any would venture out in this weather. He scowled. Her jewels could wait—he still had things to do at the manor before the snow got too thick.
Once he reached the drive, he was able to ride ahead. His butler, Mr. Huggett, was already spreading gravel on the icy walk that bisected the low stone wall surrounding the manor. Hell and blazes, Martin hadn’t even considered how this situation might tax his small staff.
He’d closed up half the rooms after Rupert’s death, and these days he spent every waking hour in the barn. That’s why he’d pensioned off only the most essential servants. Fortunately, Huggett excelled at making do. He’d know how to handle this disaster.
“I’ve brought some people home with me,” Martin said as he dismounted.
“Guests?” Sheer joy transformed Huggett’s face. “We’re having guests?”
“More like unwanted visitors,” Martin growled. “Their other vehicle had an accident, and I had no choice but to invite them to stay.”
Huggett clapped his hands. “Excellent! Just in time for the holiday, too!”
“Huggett—” he began in a warning tone.
“I know how you feel about Christmas, sir, but it’s been three years already, and now that we have visitors, we really must obtain some greenery and perhaps a Yule candle or two, not to mention preparing a goose and plum pudding—”
“Huggett!” When he had the butler’s full attention, he added, “This is no time for festivities. One of them is wounded.”
“Oh, dear,” Huggett murmured, instantly contrite.
“I’ll need you to send for Dr. Pritchard. And make sure that whoever you send fits the horseshoes with frost nails—there’s ice beneath that snow.” He glanced to where the coach trundled up the drive. “I suppose we’ll need more provisions, although no goose and plum pudding, for God’s sake. Just make sure we’ve got sufficient food for the children.”
“Children!” Huggett exclaimed, brightening again. “How many?”
“I’m not sure. Seemed like a lot. And there’s a young woman, too, their cousin.” As a knowing smile lit Huggett’s face, Martin scowled, “Don’t get any ideas. She’s not my sort. Besides, she took an instant dislike to me.”
“I can’t imagine why,” Huggett said dryly. “You always smile so prettily for the ladies.”
Martin glared at him.
“Though, really, sir,” Huggett said with a sniff, “you have to expect the fairer sex to recoil from you when you look like you’ve rolled through the coals.”
“Rolled through—” Martin looked down to find himself covered in soot. He’d been rushing to leave the mine and so hadn’t washed up. “Hell and blazes.”
“You may wish to curb your colorful language around the children,” his butler chided as the costly traveling coach approached.
Martin was on the verge of curbing his butler with a kick to the rump when the coach pulled up in front, the door opened, and children erupted everywhere.
This time he counted them—three whelps who chattered like magpies and a tiny cherub with a halo of golden ringlets. He only hoped there were no squalling babes hiding under the coach cushions.
Miss Bancroft leaped out next, wearing a pair of spectacles too severe for her soft features. Since she hadn’t worn them before, he figured they were an affectation, one of those whims that sometimes possessed society ladies.
She paused near him long enough to say, “My aunt has roused, but someone will have to carry her inside, so if you’d be so kind—”
“Certainly. This is my butler, Mr. Huggett. He’s sending for the doctor.” On cue, Huggett hurried to a waiting groom to give the instruction, but as Martin headed for the coach, he heard Miss Bancroft exclaim, “This is where you live?”
The incredulity in her voice rubbed him raw. All right, so Thorncliff Hall, with its blackened gritstone and mullion windows, wasn’t the Greek-Palladian-something-or-other villa that high society deemed fashionable these days, but he was proud enough of it. It might need a bit of work, but it had been in the family for over two-hundred years. That ought to count for something.
Not that this lot would appreciate it. That was gratitude for you. “Aye,” he shot back, “this is my home. And judging from the weather, it may be yours for the next few days, so you’d best reconcile yourself to doing without your London luxuries for the nonce.”
“I didn’t mean— Oh, dear, Meg, don’t you dare eat that dirty snow! Excuse me, sir, I must see to the children.”
As she ran off, he stared after her in surprise. She was corralling her cousins? It didn’t seem like something a spoilt heiress would do. Then again, women like her enjoyed ordering people about. God help any man who married her—he might get a fortune, but he’d have a slew of petulant demands to satisfy in the bargain.
Martin found the aunt reclining on the seat inside the coach with her arm draped over her face. “Madam?” he queried.
“Where are we?” she asked in a disembodied voice much like the one his mother had used before her death.
It alarmed him, though at least she was conscious. “At Thorncliff Hall. You’ll be fine now.” Leaning in to scoop her up, he carried her toward the house.
The children swarmed around them, tendering questions. Just what he didn’t need. “Miss Bancroft, keep those brats—”
“Don’t call them brats, sir,” she shot back. “They’re perfectly well-behaved children who’ve just seen their mother injured. Have some sympathy, if you please.”
The admonishment took him aback. Most women quaked in their boots around him. Why didn’t she?
Ignoring Huggett’s strangled laugh, Martin tramped into the house with the aunt. As Huggett and a footman kept pace with him, he issued orders, heedless of the heiress and cubs who trailed behind. “We’ll put Mrs. Metcalf in my bedchamber, and the rest of them in—”
“You can’t do that!” Miss Bancroft broke in as he trod through the great hall and up the stairs. “She’s a young widow, and you’re unmarried!”
Oh, for the love of God— “I didn’t mean I’d sleep in there with her, you fool.” He shifted her aunt’s weight in his arms.
“That’s not the point,” she said, exasperation in her voice. “It’s improper for her to sleep in an unmarried man’s bedchamber, whether you’re in it or not.”
“She’s right, my lord,” Huggett said. “If word got round …”
“Word is not getting ‘round’ anywhere—I’ll make sure of that.” He halted in the hall that connected the bedchambers. “I have to put her somewhere. And it’s the most comfortable room, not to mention the only one ready for guests.”
“It’s fine,” said a thready voice. He looked down to find Mrs. Metcalf staring weakly up at him. “Really, sir, it’s most … kind of you.”
“You see?” he told Huggett and Miss Bancroft. “Here’s a lady with sense.”
As he stalked into his bedchamber, he heard one of the lads whine, “Ellie, I need a privy!” The others began to clamor for the privy, too.
“I must see to your mother first,” she began, “so if you’ll just wait—”
“It’s all right, miss,” said the footman. “I’ll take the wee ones to the privy.”
“Thank you.” She hurried into the room as Martin settled her aunt on the bed.
At once Miss Bancroft began to fuss over the woman, plumping up her pillow, pouring her water from a pitcher, making quite the show of playing the caring nurse. How long could she keep that up? Her sort got bored quickly.
“Which rooms shall I prepare for the young lady and the children?” Huggett asked him.
“I’m staying right here with my aunt,” Miss Bancroft said firmly, punctuating the comment with a veiled look in his direction.
And suddenly he understood. “That’s why you’re being so missish about the sleeping arrangements.” Though he generally ignored such reactions, today it tightened a cold knot in the pit of his belly. “You’ve figured out who I am.”
“Who … who is he?” queried Mrs. Metcalf softly from the bed.
“Lord Thorncliff, that’s all,” Miss Bancroft said. “Mr. Huggett, would you please make sure my aunt drinks some water while I speak to his lordship in the hall?”
Without waiting for her, Martin strode out, then whirled on her as she joined him and closed the door. “That’s it, isn’t it?” he growled. “You’ve heard about the ‘Black Baron,’ so you’re afraid to leave her alone in my house.”
“I’m afraid to leave her alone because she’s ill,” she said, a look of bewilderment on her face. “I only want to be there if she needs something.”
He ignored her reasonable explanation, annoyed that she hadn’t denied knowing what people called him. “Look here, Miss Bancroft, I’m not going to tiptoe around my own house just because you skittish society ladies have heard absurd stories about the dreadful Black Baron. I won’t have my staff running after your little br- … cousins while you’re quaking in your aunt’s room, so you’ll stay with the children wherever I have Huggett put you, blast it!”
Her eyes narrowed. “You think so, do you?”
That frosty tone should have given him warning, along with her lack of quaking, but he’d put up with enough today, and he wasn’t about to quit while he had a full head of steam. “I know your sort is used to being fawned over and coddled and fed all manner of delicacies—”
“My sort?” she interrupted, her eyes turning a stormy, crystalline green.
“—but this is a crisis, and we’ll have to make do with what we have, so I’ll expect you to keep your petty complaints to yourself and not be taxing my staff with unnecessary requests. Otherwise, whatever nonsense you’ve heard about my being the Black Baron will be nothing to what you see of my true temper!”
“I shudder to think what that might be like,” she murmured under her breath.
“What?” he growled, not sure he’d heard her right.
“Nothing. Are you quite done, sir?” Though her chin trembled, she didn’t look terribly cowed, and that gave him pause.
“Er … well … yes.”
“Fine. I shall do my best to fulfill your requirements.” Her voice dripped sweetness, though he swore he heard sarcasm beneath the sugar. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I must see to my aunt while I’m still allowed to stay with her.”
Throwing her head back, she flounced back to the room. That’s when it dawned on him that he’d perhaps been a bit too forceful in his statements. In the heat of his temper, he sometimes said things he regretted later.
But before he could soften his words, she swung open the door and paused dramatically in the doorway. “If you don’t want people calling you ‘The Black Baron’ and spreading rumors about you, sir, you might consider washing your face once in a while. I’m sure it would improve your reputation immeasurably.”
He gaped at her as she swept into the room like some Egyptian queen. Washing his face? What the devil? A glance at the hall mirror reminded him of his sooty state. But surely she didn’t think that was why they called him the Black—
Hell and blazes. She didn’t know. Apparently, she hadn’t heard the vile rumors dogging him since Rupert’s death. She thought he’d got his nickname because of the soot. That’s why she hadn’t quaked in her boots like other ladies.
He started for the room to explain himself, then halted as the footmen returned with the children. When they rushed past him with the wary expressions their cousin ought to have worn, it occurred to him that he didn’t have to tell Miss Bancroft how he got his nickname.
Why should he? She would look at him differently, or worse yet, tell her aunt. Then he’d have two hysterical females on his hands, trying to escape his house for fear of their lives or their virtue at the hands of a man like him.
As he stood there mulling the idea of not having to be the dreaded Black Baron for once, he overheard Huggett say, “You don’t really have to stay in here with your aunt, miss. There’s an adjoining chamber that belonged to his lordship’s mother. Surely you and the little girl will be more comfortable there, and you can always come in to check on Mrs. Metcalf whenever you please without disturbing anyone. The lads can sleep in the green room. It’s got a truckle bed.”
“His lordship seems to think I must accompany the children everywhere,” she said stiffly.
“It’s all right—we can handle a few lads underfoot, and besides, the green room is right across the hall, and I daresay you’d hear them if they came out.”
“Thank you, Mr. Huggett. That sounds like the perfect arrangement.”
Her warm tone rubbed him raw, since she hadn’t yet used it with him. And he was the one who’d rescued them in the first place.
“Now I suggest we get these children out of their wet things,” Huggett said.
“I’m afraid that’s impossible,” she retorted. “Their fresh clothes are in our trunks, and his lordship didn’t see fit to have those brought from the other carriage.” She spoke with a trace of resentment that tested his temper anew.
He strode to the open door. The children flanked her like an army, and the little girl grabbed her hand as soon as he appeared in the doorway.
He ignored the children to focus on Miss High-and-Mighty Heiress. “Surely you packed separate bags for inns and such—” he began.
“Just the trunks.” She faced him, her smile chilly. “If you’ll recall, I did tell you there were things we needed in them.”
Thinking back to their short encounter, he grimaced. She had told him, but he’d been concentrating on getting her away from the blasted ice. And he’d assumed that the trunks were extra luggage. Why, he wasn’t sure. Probably for the same reason he’d assumed that she knew of his reputation.
He began to wonder, however, if he’d assumed too much.
When they all looked at him expectantly, even Huggett, he had to stifle an oath. “I’ll send the footmen back for your trunks,” he bit out. Then he modulated his tone. “Is there anything else you require?”
The cordial question seemed to catch her by surprise. Then a sudden soft smile touched her lips. “Not at the moment, no. But thank you for asking, sir.”
That smile thoroughly undid him. Three years had passed since the last time a young woman had smiled at him. It made him warm. Too warm. It made him notice her silky black hair and pleasing figure and the lilt to her words that reminded him of her clear, high voice singing carols in the woods—
Hell and blazes. He couldn’t be thinking like this about some heiress who didn’t know who he was. Besides, there was more to a woman than a pleasing appearance, and he’d be surprised if anything lay in that head but the usual silliness and fascination with fashion. He didn’t want a wife. He didn’t need a wife.
“I’ll go see about the trunks,” he muttered.
Then he fled.
The idea to put Charles Dickens in the story came to me while I was already in the second or third chapter of writing it. The hero had issues with Christmas, which of course made me think of Scrooge. And when I caught him saying something like “It’s all a humbug,” I thought, “Watch it there, that’s awfully close to Dickens.” That’s when it dawned on me–wasn’t Dickens pretty young at this time? I went to the timeline of his life and realized that the dates for my tale fit perfectly in the small window of time that his family was in London, but before his father went to debtor’s prison and Dickens had to work in the blacking factory. I took that to be a good omen, and voila–Dickens was a character in my story!
Snapdragon is a crazy holiday game they used to play in the Regency, where partygoers fished raisins out of a bowl of burning brandy. Yep, you heard me right. Brandy that is set afire. You put your fingers into the flames to snatch raisins. Don’t ask me why our ancestors found that entertaining, but apparently they enjoyed it so much that they even had a song to go with it. Of course, reading about the game wasn’t enough for me, so my husband and a friend and I experimented. Or rather, they watched while I experimented. They were oddly reluctant to thrust their hands into blue flames—I can’t imagine why! But it turned out that our ancestors weren’t so crazy after all. They used shallow bowls to make it easy to snatch the raisins and although the low blue flame seemed to put off lots of heat, the fire wasn’t deep and the brandy wasn’t that hot. My fingers got a bit sore, but that was all. I could honestly see how people might find it amusing to fight for the raisins. I even discovered that some people still play it!
The real inventor of the fuse was a guy named William Bickford. But hey, I don’t think he’d mind my using him as inspiration for my romantic hero, do you?
Christmas in Yorkshire is very interesting. Unfortunately, I couldn’t use most of the information I found, but I did use an online source to determine what carols might have been sung then.
Thanks to you wonderful readers, the book hit the following bestseller lists:
- 4 weeks on the USA Today bestseller list
- ##23 on the New York Times Extended
Nominated for a 2009 National Readers’ Choice Award for Best Historical Novella for “When Sparks Fly”
“Three bestselling Regency romance authors dish up a holiday feast of jewel-tone ball gowns and smoldering glances… In the best of the three, ‘When Sparks Fly,’ Jeffries (Let Sleeping Rogues Lie) strands holiday traveler Elinor Bancroft with her aunt and cousins at the home of the despicable Black Baron, Martin Thorncliff. While the endings are no surprise, there’s plenty of romance and charm to enjoy along the way.” —Publishers Weekly
Snowy Night with a Stranger now available in several countries across the globe.