Major Jack Howard, a weary veteran of the Peninsular Wars, has just returned to England and intends to return to an unwelcoming family home for Christmas. But when a pompous secretary gives him too many orders, Jack hops on the next stagecoach leaving London inn, not caring where it’s going. Too much whisky to stave off freezing leaves him sleeping it off in a different inn, and when an attractive young woman asks if he’s Jack Howard he happily goes home with her.
Despite vile weather, Meg Lambert drives to the local inn to collect her brother’s friend Jack Howard, but since she’s never met the man, she doesn’t realize that she’s brought home the wrong Jack Howard. Jack realizes her mistake when he awakes the next morning with an aching head—but he finds a warmth and welcome with Meg and her family that he’s yearned for all his life. He can’t bring himself to admit that he’s a cuckoo in her nest—but what will happen when Meg’s brother and the right Jack Howard turn up for Christmas???
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Tired and splashed with mud, Meg tethered Clover inside the stable of the George. She guessed that the coach from London had already come and gone, and sure enough, inside the inn the landlord and his wife were clearing away plates left by hasty passengers. Meg removed her dripping bonnet and shook out her damp curls. "Good evening, Mr. Bragg."
The landlord glanced up, surprised. "What brings you here on such a nasty night, Miss Lambert?"
"A friend of Jeremy’s was supposed to arrive on the London coach," Seeing only a handful of locals drinking ale by the fire, she asked, "Didn’t any passengers get off here?"
"Well, there’s a gent in the other room," Mr. Bragg said dubiously, "but I doubt he’s the one you’re looking for."
Hoping the landlord was wrong, Meg crossed the main taproom to the smaller chamber beyond. She halted in the doorway, wondering if the room’s sole occupant could possibly be the right man, for her mental image of Jack Howard was quite different. Unconsciously she had assumed that Jeremy’s friend would be in the same mold as her brother: slim and young and elegant.
Instead, the man sprawled along the bench was very large, very shaggy, and not at all elegant. Wisps of steam rose gently from his worn coat, and his hat had fallen to the flagged floor. Jeremy had mentioned that his friend was a bit older, but Meg had assumed Jack Howard would still be somewhere in his mid-twenties. The man in front of her appeared to be at least a decade her brother’s senior.
Systematically Meg compared the stranger against Jeremy’s com¬ments. Tall? Yes, definitely tall. Dark? She studied the long unruly hair. She would have called it brown rather than dark, but certainly it wasn’t fair.
How about handsome? She examined the sleeping face, where several days’ worth of beard darkened the long jaw. Even worn by fatigue it was a pleasant countenance, but "handsome" did seem rather an overstate¬ment. Still, one tended to think one’s friends were attractive, and Jeremy and Jack were very good friends. Meg just hoped that Phoebe wouldn’t be disappointed.
Meg bent over the recumbent form. Then she stopped and wrinkled her nose. The gentleman smelled as if he had been held prisoner in a dis¬tillery. Not the most proper behavior for a man visiting friends, but fortu¬nately Meg was not easily offended. Besides, on a night like this, spirits were a sensible way to counter the cold and damp. "Captain Howard?"
When there was no reply, she tried again, raising her voice. This time his lids fluttered open, revealing intensely blue eyes. Meg caught her breath, understanding why someone would describe this man as hand¬some. However, those gorgeous blue eyes were blank with incomprehen¬sion. "Are you Captain Howard?"
Hearing a military rank penetrated Jack’s whiskey-aided exhaustion as nothing else would have, for a soldier who wanted to die in his bed learned to respond to emergencies no matter what his state. But what kind of emergency had a voice like spring flowers? "Not captain. Major."
The voice said with apparent pleasure, "I didn’t know you had received a promotion. Congratulations, Major." Then, uncertainly, "You are Jack Howard?"
"I was last time I looked, but it’s been rather a long day." Wanting to see the face that went with that delicious voice, Jack concentrated until her features came into focus one by one. A riot of bright brown curls. Thoughtful hazel eyes with green flecks. A scattering of freckles across cheeks rosy with good health.
And an extremely kissable mouth. His gaze fixed on that last feature, he asked hopefully, "Do I know you?"
"I am Miss Lambert," she explained, as if that would instantly clarify his confusion.
Jack frowned, trying to recall the name. "Miss Lambert?"
"Margaret Lambert, Jeremy’s older sister, though if he ever mentioned me, he would have called me Meg. Everyone does."
Margaret. Jeremy. Meg. Who were these people? He would never have forgotten this lady’s face. For that matter, Jack thought as he raised a vague hand to his head, where the devil was he and how had he arrived here?
"Where is Jeremy?" He knew several men by that name. If he recog¬nized Miss Lambert’s Jeremy, this conversation might make more sense.
The mobile face above him showed regret. "Jeremy has been delayed for a few days and won’t be home until after Christmas. He asked me to apologize for his absence."
Jack sighed; no enlightenment there. Doggedly he tried to recall what had happened. Ah, yes, the irritating interview with Mr. Weezle that had driven Jack to board the coach to Bristol. What then? With a faint shud¬der he remembered the friendly farmer with the lethal flask of spirits.
After a brief survey of his surroundings, Jack concluded that he was in a tavern. Either he had liked the place and decided to stay or he had been incapable of further travel. But none of that explained how this appealing lady knew him.
As Jack racked his brain, the lady said helpfully, "Were you expect¬ing to be met by Phoebe? No doubt Jeremy spoke more of her, for she’s the family beauty. I don’t look at all like her or Jeremy, for I’m only a half-sister."
"You look quite whole to me." He surveyed her from muddy toes to curly hair, missing nothing in between. "Women like you are why men fight and die to defend home and hearth."
Miss Lambert blushed prettily. "I can see why Jeremy said you were charming, but don’t waste your flattery on me. Phoebe is a much more suitable object."
Jack started to shake his head, then stopped hastily when the world began spinning. "Not flattery. God’s own truth." Belatedly recognizing his impropriety, he added, "Begging your pardon for the language, Miss Lambert."
"Quite all right. One can’t expect a man who is foxed to have perfect control over his tongue."
"Not foxed." It occurred to Jack that a gentleman did not converse with a lady while lying on his back, so he sat up, exercising great care. "P’haps a trifle well-to-go."
Being upright gave him a better view of the lady, and it was well worth it. She was of medium height and her cloaked figure was agreeably round in all the right places, not like one of those skinny fashionable wenches.
"If you’re feeling more the thing, it is time we set off," Miss Lambert said briskly. "The weather is dreadful and it will be nearly midnight before we get home."
"Home?" Jack asked, startled. Was he dreaming? In normal life, well-bred, wholesome young ladies did not invite strange men home with them. Or perhaps she wasn’t a lady? What a splendid thought.
"Of course." For the first time she showed a hint of impatience. "I certainly don’t want to spend the night here. Can you manage to walk to the stables?"
Foxed he might be, but Jack knew a good offer when he heard one. "Be delighted to go home with you."
He stood, swaying slightly, then pulled his bag out from under the bench. Though she might not be quite a lady, she wasn’t a tavern wench either. Her home would be much better. There was a danger that he would be in no shape to perform when he got there, but he would certainly try. He gave her a sweeping bow. "For the honor of the regiment!"