'Twas the Night after Christmas (Hellions of Halstead Hall # by Sabrina Jeffries

Prologue

April 1803

No one had called for him yet.

Eight-year-old Pierce Waverly, heir to the Earl of Devonmont, sat on his bed in the upper hall of the Headmaster’s House at Harrow, where he’d lived for three months with sixty other boys.

Today marked the beginning of his first holiday from Harrow; most of the other boys had already been fetched by their families. His trunk was packed. He was ready.

But what if no one came? Would he have to stay at Harrow, alone in the Headmaster’s House?

Mother and Father would come. Of course they would come. Why wouldn’t they?

Because Father thinks you’re a sickly weakling. That’s why he packed you off to school—to “toughen you up.”

His chin quivered. He couldn’t help that he had asthma. He couldn’t help that he liked it when Mother showed him how to play the pianoforte, which Father called “dandyish.” And if he sometimes hid when Father wanted to take him riding, it was only because Father always berated him for not doing it right. Then Pierce would get so mad that he would say things Father called “insolent.” Or worse, he’d start having trouble breathing and get panicky. Then Mother would have to come and help him catch his breath, and Father hated that.

He scowled. All right, so perhaps Father would leave him to rot at school, but Mother wouldn’t. She missed him—he knew she did, even if she didn’t write very often. And he missed her, too. A lot. She always knew just what to do when the wheezing started. She didn’t think playing music was dandyish, and she said he was clever, not insolent. She made him laugh, even in her infrequent letters. And if she didn’t come for him . . .

Tears welled in his eyes. Casting a furtive glance about him, he brushed them away with his gloved fist.

“What a mollycoddle you are, crying for your parents,” sneered a voice behind him.

Devil take it. It was his sworn enemy, George Manton, heir to the Viscount Rathmoor. Manton was five years older than Pierce. Nearly all the boys were older. And bigger. And stronger.

“I’m not crying,” Pierce said sullenly. “It’s dusty in here, is all.”

Manton snorted. “I suppose you’ll have one of your ‘attacks’ now. Don’t think I’ll fall for that nonsense. If you start wheezing with me, I’ll kick the breath out of you. You’re a poor excuse for a Harrovian.”

At least I can spell the word. You couldn’t spell arse if it were engraved on your forehead.

Pierce knew better than to say that. The last time he’d spoken his mind, Manton had knocked him flat.

“Well?” Manton said. “Have you nothing to say for yourself, you little pisser?”

You’re an overgrown chawbacon who picks on lads half your size because your brain is half size.

Couldn’t say that one, either. “Looks like your servant’s here.” Pierce nodded at the door. “Shouldn’t keep him waiting.”

Manton glanced to where the footman wearing Rathmoor livery stoically pretended not to notice anything. “I’ll keep him waiting as long as I damned well please. I’m the heir—I can do whatever I want.”

“I’m the heir, too, you know.” Pierce thrust out his chest. “And your father is just a viscount; mine’s an earl.”

When Manton narrowed his gaze, Pierce cursed his quick tongue. He knew better than to poke the bear, but Manton made him so angry.

“A fat lot of good that did you,” Manton shot back. “You’re a pitiful excuse for an earl’s son. That’s what comes of mixing foreign stock with good English stock. I daresay your father now wishes he hadn’t been taken in by your mother.”

“He wasn’t!” Pierce cried, jumping to his feet. The glint of satisfaction in Manton’s eyes told Pierce he shouldn’t have reacted. Manton always pounced when he smelled blood. But Pierce didn’t care. “And she’s only half foreign. Grandfather Gilchrist was a peer!”

“A penniless one,” Manton taunted. “I don’t know what your father saw in a poor baron’s daughter, though I guess we both know what she saw in him—all that money and the chance to be a countess. She latched onto that quick enough.”

Pierce shoved him hard. “You shut up about my mother! You don’t know anything! Shut up, shut up, shut—”

Manton boxed Pierce’s ears hard enough to make him shut up. Pierce stood there, stunned, trying to catch his bearings. Before he could launch himself at Manton again, the servant intervened.

“Perhaps we should go, sir,” the footman said nervously. “The headmaster is coming.”

That was apparently enough to give Manton pause. And Pierce, too. He stood there breathing hard, itching to fight, but if he got into trouble with the headmaster, Father would never forgive him.

“Aren’t you lucky?” Manton drawled. “We’ll have to continue this upon our return.”

“I can’t wait!” Pierce spat as the servant ushered Manton from the room.

He would probably regret that after the holiday, but for now he was glad he’d stood up to Manton. How dare the bloody bastard say such nasty things about Mother? They weren’t true! Mother wasn’t like that.

The headmaster appeared in the doorway accompanied by a house servant. “Master Waverly, your cousin is here for you. Come along.”

With no more explanation than that, the headmaster hurried out, leaving the servant to heft Pierce’s trunk and head off.

Pierce followed the servant down the stairs in a daze. Cousin? What cousin? He had cousins, to be sure, but he never saw them.

Father himself had no brothers or sisters; indeed, no parents since Grandmother died. He did have an uncle who was a general in the cavalry, but Great-Uncle Isaac Waverly was still fighting abroad.

Mother’s parents had been dead for a few years, and she had no siblings, either. Pierce had met her second cousin at Grandfather Gilchrist’s funeral, but Father had been so mean to the man one time at Montcliff—the Waverly family estate—that he’d left in a huff. Father didn’t seem to like Mother’s family much. So the cousin who was here probably wasn’t one of Mother’s.

Pierce was still puzzling out who it could be when he caught sight of a man at least as old as Father. Oh. Great-Uncle Isaac’s son. Pierce vaguely remembered having met Mr. Titus Waverly last year at Grandmother’s funeral.

“Where’s Mother?” Pierce demanded. “Where’s Father?”

Mr. Waverly cast him a kind smile. “I’ll explain in the carriage,” he said, then herded Pierce out the door. A servant was already lifting Pierce’s trunk onto the top and lashing it down with rope.

Pierce’s stomach sank. That didn’t sound good. Why would Mother and Father send a relation to pick him up at school? Had something awful happened?

As soon as they were headed off in the carriage, Mr. Waverly said, “Would you like something to eat? Mrs. Waverly sent along a nice damson tart for you.”

Pierce liked damson tarts, but he had to figure out what was going on. “Why did you come to fetch me home? Is something wrong?”

“No, nothing like that.” Mr. Waverly’s smile became forced. “But we’re not going to Montcliff.”

A slow panic built in his chest. “Then where are we going?”

“To Waverly Farm.” He spoke in that determinedly cheery voice adults always used when preparing you for something you wouldn’t like. “You’re to spend your holiday with us. Isn’t that grand? You’ll have a fine time riding our horses, I promise you.”

His panic intensified. “You mean, my whole family is visiting at Waverly Farm, right?”

The sudden softness in his cousin’s eyes felt like pity. “I’m afraid not. Your father . . . thinks it best that you stay with us this holiday. Your mother agrees, as do I.” His gaze chilled. “From what I gather, you’ll have a better time at Waverly Farm than at Montcliff, anyway.”

“Only because Father is a cold and heartless arse,” Pierce mumbled.

Oh, God, he shouldn’t have said that aloud, not to Father’s own cousin.

He braced for a lecture, but Mr. Waverly merely laughed. “Indeed. I’m afraid it often goes along with the title.”

The frank remark drew Pierce’s reluctant admiration. He preferred honesty when he could get it, especially from adults. So he settled back against the seat and took the time to examine the cousin he barely knew.

Titus Waverly looked nothing like Father, who was dark-haired and sharp-featured and aristocratic. Mr. Waverly was blond and round-faced, with a muscular, robust look to him, as if he spent lots of time in the sun. Pierce remembered now that his cousin owned a big stud farm with racing stock.

Most boys would be thrilled to spend their holiday in such a place, but Pierce’s asthma made him less than eager. Or perhaps Manton was right, and he really was a mollycoddle.

“So I’m to stay with you and Mrs. Waverly for the whole holiday?” Pierce asked.

The man nodded. “I have a little boy of my own. Roger is five. You can play together.”

With difficulty, Pierce contained a snort. Five was practically still a baby. “Are Mother and Father not coming to visit at all?” He wanted to be clear on that.

“No, lad. I’m afraid not.”

Pierce swallowed hard. He was trying to be strong, but he hadn’t really expected not to see them. It made no sense. Unless . . . “Is it because of something I did when I was still at home?”

“Certainly not! Your father merely thinks it will be good for you to be at the farm right now.”

That made a horrible sort of sense. “He wants me to be more like the chaps at school,” Pierce said glumly, “good at riding and shooting and things like that.” He slanted an uncertain glance up at his cousin. “Is that what he wants you to do? Toughen me up?”

His cousin blinked, then laughed. “Your mother did say you were forthright.”

Yes, and it had probably gotten him banished from Montcliff. Perhaps it would get him banished from Waverly Farm, too, and then his cousin would have to send him home. “Well, I don’t like horses, and I don’t like little children, and I don’t want to go to Waverly Farm.”

“I see.” Mr. Waverly softened his tone. “I can’t change the arrangement now, so I’m afraid you’ll have to make the best of it. Tell me what you do like. Fishing? Playing cards?”

Pierce crossed his arms over his chest. “I like being at home.”

Settling back against the seat, Mr. Waverly cast him an assessing glance. “I’m sorry, you can’t right now.”

He fought the uncontrollable quiver in his chin. “Because Father hates me.”

“Oh, lad, I’m sure he doesn’t,” his cousin said with that awful look of pity on his face.

“You can tell me the truth. I already know he does.” Tears clogged Pierce’s throat, and he choked them down. “What about Mother? D-Doesn’t she want to see me at all?”

Something like sadness flickered in Mr. Waverly’s eyes before he forced a smile. “I’m sure she does. Very much. But your father can’t spare her right now.”

“He can never spare her.” He stared blindly out the window, then added in a wistful voice, “Sometimes I wish Mother and I could just go live in one of Father’s other houses.” Brightening, he looked back at his cousin. “Perhaps in London! You could ask her—”

“That will never happen, lad, so put that out of your mind.” Mr. Waverly’s tone was quite firm. “Her place is with your father.”

More than with her son?

Manton’s nasty words leached into his thoughts: I guess we both know what she saw in him—all that money and the chance to be a countess. She latched onto that quick enough.

It wasn’t true. Was it?

His cousin would know—he had to know something about Mother and Father, or he wouldn’t have said what he did. And he had a friendly look about him. Like he could be trusted to tell the truth.

“Is . . . that is . . . did Mother marry Father for his money?”

“Who told you that?” his cousin asked sharply.

“A boy at school.” When a sigh escaped Mr. Waverly, Pierce swallowed hard. “It’s true, isn’t it?”

Moving over to sit beside Pierce, Mr. Waverly patted him on the shoulder. “Whether it is or no, it has nothing to do with how your mother feels about you. In fact, she gave me this letter for you.”

As he fished it out of his pocket and handed it over, the tightness in Pierce’s chest eased a little. Eagerly, he broke the seal and opened it to read:

My dearest Pierce,

Your father and I think that staying at Waverly Farm will prove a grand adventure for you, and you do enjoy a grand adventure, don’t you? I miss you, but I’m sure you will learn all sorts of fine things there. Don’t forget to write and tell me what fun you have!

Do be a good boy for your cousins, and keep your chin up. I know you will make us proud.

And always remember, I love you very, very much.

With many kisses,

Mother

Relief surged through him. She did love him! She did!

He read it again, this time paying closer attention, and his heart sank a little. It had the same determined cheer as Mr. Waverly.

And then there was the line: I know you will make us proud.

He sighed. She loved him, but she had still let Father send him away. And why? You will learn all sorts of fine things there. Just like Father, she wanted to see him toughen up.

Tears filled his eyes, but he ruthlessly willed them back. Very well, then. No more crying, and no more behaving like a milksop and a mollycoddle. He had to get big and strong, to learn to ride and fight like the other boys.

Because clearly neither Father nor Mother would let him come home until he did.

1

December 1826

Thirty-one-year-old Pierce Waverly, Earl of Devonmont, sat at the desk in the study of his London town house, going through the mail as he waited for his current mistress to arrive, when one letter came to the top, addressed in a familiar hand. An equally familiar pain squeezed his chest, reminding him of that other letter years ago.

What a naive fool he’d been. Even though he had grown bigger and stronger, even though he’d become the kind of son Father had always claimed to want, he’d never been allowed home again. He’d spent every school holiday—Christmas, Easter, and summer—at Waverly Farm.