Miss Lydia Charingford is always cheerful, and never more so than at Christmas time. But no matter how hard she smiles, she can’t forget the youthful mistake that could have ruined her reputation. Even though the worst of her indiscretion was kept secret, one other person knows the truth of those dark days: the sarcastic Doctor Jonas Grantham. She wants nothing to do with him…or the butterflies that take flight in her stomach every time he looks he way.
Jonas Grantham has a secret, too: He’s been in love with Lydia for more than a year. This winter, he’s determined to conquer her dislike and win her for his own. It all starts with a wager and a kiss…
“Courtney Milan…writes with richness of detail and beauty of words that is unsurpassed!”
“Courtney Milan blows me away every time! A KISS FOR MIDWINTER was another great story by one of my favorite historical authors right now.”
“As a love story, A Kiss for Midwinter works beautifully. As historical fiction about the world of Victorian medicine, it is fascinating. And as a book, it's just plain wonderful.”
“A Kiss for Midwinter…contains a very rich, very layered world within it. It is a world that contains big things and small things -- a palpable world with bleakness, harshness but also love and joy.”
“A Kiss for Midwinter…has a flawed but interesting heroine, it has a hero who is scientific, compassionate, and basically amazing, and it takes its characters through a powerful emotional journey with lots of angst but also lots of humor.”
This book had the extremely uninteresting working title of “Olivia’s Book”—something you might find surprising since the heroine is named Lydia. For the first draft of The Duchess War, I called Lydia “Olivia” until I realized that the hero’s brother’s name was Oliver, and an Olivia and an Oliver were probably too much in the same book. That it took me a nearly full draft of the book to figure that out says something about me…
MISS LYDIA CHARINGFORD STOOD UP from her seat in the Nag’s Head Hostelry and began to gather her things.
“Good of you, Miss Charingford,” Corporal Dalling said next to her. “Very good indeed, to take on the role of secretary on such short notice.”
Lydia smiled at him as she put the stopper in her bottle of ink. “I told Minnie I would be happy to take her position on the Workers’ Hygiene Commission,” she said. “And you deserve as much commendation as I do, filling the shoes of those who…are no longer here.”
“Indeed,” Dalling said, with a sober bow. “Indeed we are.”
In the last month, Miss Wilhelmina Pursling—Lydia’s best friend, who she missed dreadfully—had married and gone to London. Shortly thereafter, Captain Stevens—Lydia’s former fiancé, who she missed not in the slightest—had been sentenced to six months of hard labor. Good riddance.
Lydia didn’t want to think of Stevens. Instead, she blew on her notebook one last time, slipped the blotting paper between the pages, and checked the stopper on her ink.
“You’re rather livelier than Miss Pursling,” old Mr. Crawford said from across the way.
“And less practical,” Lydia responded. “Happy Christmas, Mr. Crawford. Is your daughter coming up from Buford?”
Mr. Crawford’s face creased in a smile. “Imagine your remembering a thing like that! Yes, she is coming, and bringing her little ones.”
“How lovely! And why you think I shouldn’t remember, I don’t know. I played with Willa until I was nine. Please say I might stop by and bring a basket for her and the children. You wouldn’t deny me the pleasure.”
As she spoke, Lydia gathered up her things and placed them carefully in her satchel, securing the container of ink in a side pocket so that it wouldn’t be jostled about. She was aware that she was humming as she did so—a rendition of “Good King Wenceslas.”
Christmas was almost on them, and she couldn’t have been happier. The air smelled of cinnamon and ginger. Pine boughs decorated lintels, even here at the Nag’s Head. It was a time for wassail and cheer and—
“Happen we all miss your Miss Pursling—that is, the Duchess of Clermont,” Crawford said softly. “Yes, my Willa would love your company.”
The smile froze on Lydia’s face.
Wassail, cheer, and the slight, selfish emptiness she experienced when she remembered that her best friend was no longer a mere hour’s journey away, but a hundred miles distant.
But she forced her lips into a wider grin. “La, silly,” she said. “I’ll see her again next autumn, just as soon as Parliament lets out. How could I miss her?” If she smiled wide enough, it might fill that space in her heart. She pulled on her gloves. “Happy Christmas.”
The group scattered in a shower of holiday greetings. Lydia waited until they were all gone, waving cheerfully, wishing everyone the best for the holidays.
Almost everyone. Her cheeks ached from smiling, but she would not look to her left. She wouldn’t give him the satisfaction.
“Well,” a dark voice said to her side as the door closed on Mr. Crawford, “you are chock-full of holiday spirit, Miss Charingford.”
Lydia looked pointedly in front of her at the ivy-and-pine centerpiece on the table. “Why, yes,” she said. “I suppose I am. Happy Christmas, Doctor Grantham.”
He didn’t thank her for the sentiment. He surely didn’t return a polite greeting of his own. Instead, Doctor Grantham laughed softly and her spine prickled.
Lydia turned to him. He was tall—so very much taller than her that she had to tilt her neck at an unnatural angle to stare him down. His eyes sparkled with a dark intensity and his mouth curled up at one corner, as if he nursed his own private amusement. He was handsome in a brooding sort of way, with those eyes, that strong, jagged nose. All the other girls giggled when he looked their way. But Grantham made Lydia remember things she didn’t like to think about.
He particularly made her remember them now. He looked at her down his nose and gave her a faint, mocking smile, as if she’d made a terrible error by offering him holiday greetings.
Lydia straightened. “Happy Christmas,” she repeated, her voice tight. “You’re allowed to say it back even if you don’t really wish the other person happy. It’s a polite nothing. I won’t imagine you mean anything by it—just as you know that I don’t truly care whether you’re happy.”
“I didn’t think you were wishing me happy,” Grantham responded. “I thought you were simply describing events as you saw them. Tell me, Miss Charingford, is it really a happy Christmas for you?”
Lydia flushed. Christmas memories were not always fond. In fact, Christmas brought to mind the worst moments in her life. Leaving home with her parents and her best friend six years earlier. A dingy house let in Cornwall, and that awful, awful night when the cramps had come…
“Yes,” she said forcefully. “Yes, it is. Christmas is a time for happiness.”
He laughed again, softly—mockingly, she thought, as if he knew not only the secret that she kept from all of Leicester, but the one she held hidden in her heart. He laughed as if he’d been there on that dreadful night that had seemed the absolute opposite of Christmas—an evening when a girl who was very much not a virgin had miscarried. There’d been blood and tears rather than heavenly choirs.
“You,” he said to her, “you of all people…you should relent from this incessant well-wishing.” He shrugged. “You do know that it doesn’t make any difference, whether you wish me well or I wish you happy.”
Lydia’s eyebrows rose. “Me, of all people?” He’d so closely echoed her thoughts. Sometimes, it seemed as if he knew precisely what she was thinking—and when he spoke, it was designed to make her feel badly. Lydia bared her teeth at him in a smile. “What do you mean by that? Have I less of a right to good cheer than the average person?”
“Less of a right? No. Less of a reason, however…”
“I couldn’t know what you intend by such veiled assertions.”
His eyes met hers, and he raised one sardonic eyebrow. “Then let me unveil them. I am, of course, referring to the man who got you with child while you were one yourself.”
“I am always astonished, Miss Charingford, when you manage to have a happy word for any member of my sex. That you do—and do it often—never ceases to amaze me.”
The room was empty but for them, and he stood two feet from her. He’d spoken quietly, and there wasn’t the least danger of their being overheard. It didn’t matter. Lydia balled her hands into fists. The smile she’d scarcely been able to form moments before was forgotten entirely.
“How dare you!” she hissed. “A gentleman would do his best to forget that he knew such a thing.”
He didn’t seem concerned at all with her accusation. “But you see, Miss Charingford, I must be a doctor before I allow myself to be a gentleman. I do not recall such a thing in order to hold you up for moral condemnation. I state it as a simple medical fact, one that would be relevant to further treatment. Certain female complaints, for instance—”
Lydia bristled. “Put it out of your mind. You will never treat me as a patient. Ever.”
Doctor Grantham did not look put out by this. Instead, he shook his head at her slowly, and gave her a smile that felt…wicked. “Ever?” he asked. “So if you’re trampled by a runaway stallion, you’d expect me to express my wholehearted regrets to your parents. ‘No, no,’ I will say. ‘I couldn’t possibly stop your daughter from bleeding to death on the cobblestones—my professional ethics forbid me to treat anyone who has unequivocally refused me consent.’”
He was laughing at her again. Well, technically, he wasn’t actually laughing. But he was looking at her as if he wanted to, as if he couldn’t wait for her to scramble and reverse her prior edict. Lydia gave him a firm nod instead. “That’s exactly right. I would rather bleed to death than have your hands on me.” She tucked her gloves under her arm and reached for her shawl.
He was still smiling at her. “I’ll pay my respects at your funeral.”
“I don’t want you there. If you dare come, I’ll haunt you in your sleep.”
But that only sparked a wicked gleam in his eye. He took a step closer, forcing her to tilt her head up at an unnatural angle. He leaned over her, bending his neck. And then he whispered.
“Why, Miss Charingford.” That smile of his tilted, stretching. “There’s no need to wait until you’re dead to visit my bed. In fact, I’m available right now, so long as we finish before—”
She didn’t think. She pulled back her arm and slapped him as hard as she could—slapped him so hard that she could feel the blow reverberating all the way back to her shoulder.
He rubbed his cheek and straightened. “I suppose I deserved that,” he said, somewhat ruefully. “Your pardon, Miss Charingford. I was in the wrong. I should never have spoken that way.” He looked down. “In my defense—and I know this is a weak defense—we were talking about death, and that always brings out the worst of my humor. Which, as you have no doubt discovered, is abominable to begin with. I pray that I do not one day watch you bleed to death on the streets.” His voice was solemn, and for once, that twinkle vanished from his eyes. “I hope it is not you. But it will be someone.”
For a moment, she felt a tug of sympathy. To deal with death every day, to have only humor to keep the specter of darkness at arm’s length… But then she remembered everything he had said to her—those pointed reminders that she was a fallen woman. She remembered his all-too-knowing eyes, following her across the room whenever she encountered him. She might have been able to forget her mistake for months on end were it not for him.
She wound her scarf around her neck. “Now you’ve made me regret striking you.”
“Truly?” That eyebrow rose again.
He stood close, so close that when she picked up her coat, he was able to intervene and hold it out for her. Nice of him to act the gentleman now, now when it meant that she sensed the warmth of his hands against hers, his bare fingers brushing her wrist. His touch should have been cold like his depraved, shriveled heart. Instead, a jolt of heat traveled through her.
“Truly.” She set her hat on her head and adjusted the cuffs of her coat to cover her gloves. “You see, I interrupted you before you told me how long you were giving yourself to finish the deed. I’d not have given you above thirty seconds, myself.”
His crack of laughter followed her out the door. She could hear it echoing in her mind—laughter that sounded jolly and fun, without a hint of meanness to it, the kind of laughter she would expect to hear next to the sprightly ring of Christmas bells. It wasn’t fair that Doctor Jonas Grantham of all people could laugh like that. Still, she heard it playing in her mind—saw him, his head thrown back, delighted—until the windswept streets swallowed up the sound of his merriment.