Can the Ladies’ Wagering Whist Society help a gentleman to believe in a Christmas miracle?

The joyful and lovely Rachel Corbyn may be dedicated to helping her father’s parishioners stay healthy and happy but a delicious flirtation with the Duke of Warwick’s handsome secretary last spring awoke a desire she hadn’t even realized was lurking within her. Despite his silence since then, she wonders if she can tease the serious man enough to reignite their friendship if nothing else.

Martin Arbeit had decided long ago to dedicate himself to his employer and his work. The beautiful Miss Corbyn is upsetting all of his plans. She makes him smile and even laugh! She makes him happy—an emotion he’s tried to remove from his life so as to be the best secretary to the duke. But when the ladies of the Wagering Whist Society put thoughts of romance into his head, he finds himself unable to resist the idea—and Miss Corbyn.

A night in a manger, three wise men, and the miracle of birth on Christmas morning turn all the cards in Martin’s favor. How can he possibly resist the most precious gift of all—love?

Chapter One

~December 20, 1806~

 

“Martin, I want you to go to the vicarage and see that everything is set for the wedding,” the eighth Duke of Warwick said, approaching Martin Arbeit’s desk in his little office off the duke’s main study.

Martin had been the duke’s secretary since long before he became the duke. The fact that they’d grown up together Martin did not even consider—although perhaps he did at times behave a touch more familiar than a secretary should.

Martin looked up at his employer, who dressed in his familiar brown—his favorite color. The duke’s fiancée was trying her hardest to get him to wear other colors, complaining that with his brown hair and brown eyes, wearing the same color was just too much. “What? Why?”

Martin had been studiously avoiding the vicarage, the church, and, in fact, the entirety of the local village for fear of running into the vicar’s daughter. He and Rachel Corbyn had a little flirtation the previous Spring, and Martin did not want to risk giving the lovely lady having any hopes it could start up again.

It was true, Martin hadn’t been able to get Miss Corbyn out of his mind for the past nine months, but that only reinforced his decision to avoid her at all costs. That woman did something to him. She made him smile. She made him happy. She made him long for things he had many years decided were not going to be a part of his life.

When Martin had been a young boy growing up at Warwick, his father had been the seventh duke’s secretary. He’d impressed upon young Martin the importance of loyalty. He’d taught Martin that if he studied hard and kept his relationship with his then-playmate, the future duke, on good terms, he would have security for the rest of his life. Martin wanted that then, and he wanted it now. A beautiful, funny, and intelligent woman was not going to destroy what he’d worked for his entire life.

The eighth Duke of Warwick cocked his head as he folded his arms across his broad chest. “What do you mean ‘why’? Because my wedding is in ten days and I want you to ensure that everything is set, that’s why.”

“But Miss Ayres and Lady Margaret are handling all of the wedding arrangements. Truly, it would be incredibly rude of me to go behind the backs of the future duchess and your sister to check up on their work,” Martin said, thinking fast.

“I’m not asking you to check up on their work. I’m asking you to go and confer with the vicar to make sure everything is in readiness. How many times and in how many ways do I need to say this?” The duke was clearly getting perturbed.

“And you don’t feel that would be going—”

“No! I don’t. Now, do it.” The duke turned and walked away leaving Martin no recourse.

Martin, however, simply and deliberately returned to his work, hoping the duke would either forget or not notice that his orders were not being carried out. It was really all Martin could do.

~*~

That afternoon as Martin was returning from partaking of a light luncheon, the duke passed him in the entrance. The gentleman, dressed for riding, was pulling on a pair of gloves.

“You aren’t going out riding in these frigid temperatures?” Martin asked, a little horrified.

“It may be cold, but it’s a good outing for my gentlemen guests. They should be meeting me in the stables any minute now,” the duke said. “And both Flopsy and I need the exercise,”

“Flopsy is going to live up to his name by falling frozen onto the ground,” Martin said with a little laugh.

The duke’s chin rose, and he looked down his most noble nose at his secretary as he said, “Flopsy has never fallen, not since he was a newborn colt.”

“Which, I believe, is why Lady Margaret gave a purebred stallion such a silly name,” Martin commented, not at all cowed by the duke.

The man sighed. “I never should have allowed her to name him, it is true. At least she didn’t call him Buttercup or Daisy.”

“I think she might have been considering Primrose,” Martin said with a little snigger.

His Grace could only sigh and shake his head. “In any case, exercise is needed, no matter how cold it is.”

“And the other gentlemen agreed?”

“They did.” He gave Martin a nod and headed toward the entrance. He stopped, however, with his hand up, stopping the footman from opening the door for him. “By the way, Martin, what did the vicar say when you asked him about the wedding preparations?”

“What? Oh, er, nothing,” Martin hedged.

“Nothing, because you didn’t actually go and see him, isn’t that right?”

“Er, yes, it might be because of that.”

“Why are you so averse to going to see the vicar? You aren’t scared of a man of God, are you?” the duke asked, coming back toward Martin.

“Scared?” Martin laughed. “Vicars do not scare me.”

“Church? Does church scare you, because I certainly don’t recall you ever attending?”

“I am not a religious man, Your Grace,” Martin said.

“Your father’s influence, I suppose, because I don’t believe it is a particularly German trait,” the duke commented.

“No. You are correct in that, Your Grace.” Martin’s father had been lured from his home in Nuremberg to become secretary to the duke, but the man had not left his traditions behind. He’d only spoken to Martin in their native language and, in all ways, behaved as if he were still in his home country. The old duke had found it charming.

“So, then?” The man crossed his arms in that intimidating gesture once again.

“Nothing. I simply have been too busy,” Martin said, knowing that it was a flimsy excuse.

“No, you haven’t. I know precisely how much work you have. And aside from that, when I tell you to do something, I expect you to do it. You have never gone directly against my wishes before—unless there was a very good reason. So, what is it?”

“Nothing! There is no reason at all.” Martin cringed inwardly. He couldn’t… wouldn’t let His Grace know about Miss Corbyn. It would be too embarrassing—and quite ridiculous, honestly. There was nothing to tell him about—never had been, never will be.

“Good. Then I will wait here while you get your coat and driving gloves. We’ll walk out to the stables together. You can take the gig.” The man stood there, his arms still folded across his chest, looking like he was ready to wait.

Martin knew him. He would wait. There was no getting out of this.

With a silent curse, Martin turned on his heel and went up to his room to get his greatcoat and gloves.

The 1806 Season