Alec Landry, the Earl of Torrington, had planned on spending Christmas Eve sipping brandy in front of a crackling Yule log.
Instead, he was trudging through half a foot of snow in the wooded area of his country estate, freezing his ass off, and looking for a flea-ridden cat.
A white cat. In the snow.
“Willoughby!” he called.
“He’ll never show himself if you shout like that.” Charlotte Winter shot him a quintessential governess look that was only somewhat compromised by her rosy cheeks and full lips. “He needs to feel safe.”
“I’d like to be able to feel my toes. ”Alec scanned the frosted landscape and the heavy grey clouds in the darkening sky and sobered. “If we don’t find him soon, we’ll have to return to the house.”
Charlotte’s brow knitted and her emerald eyes flashed. “We must find him. Abigail will be crushed if we don’t.”
“Damn.” Alec hated the thought of disappointing either his golden-haired daughter or her beguiling governess. He even felt a little sorry for old Willoughby, who’d gone on a walk with Charlotte and Abigail earlier, gotten spooked by a fox, and run up a tree. They’d tried to coax him down, but Willoughby was too petrified to budge. Charlotte had wisely returned home with Abigail and unwisely promised that she’d go back for Willoughby. Though adamant she could manage the rescue mission on her own, Alec had insisted on accompanying her.
Even if there hadn’t been a godforsaken snowstorm raging outside, he’d have leapt at the chance to spend an hour or two in her company.
“I think this is the spot, but the trees look different covered in snow.” Charlotte gazed at the branches above, exposing the graceful column of her neck.
For a moment, Alec let himself imagine pressing his lips to the smooth skin there. He fought the temptation to slide his hands beneath her fur lined cloak and run them over the tantalizing curves of her body.
Apparently unaware of his wicked thoughts, she sang out, “Here, Willoughby. Here, kitty.”
They both tilted back their heads, looking into the lattice of boughs above them, but saw no movement. No sign of a crotchety cat.
“You should call out for him—nicely,” she added quickly. “He’s always been drawn to you.”
Alec snorted. “He’s always been drawn to my desk.” One would think a cat could find a more comfortable perch than a stack of papers. His favorite pastime? Nudging Alec’s ink pot toward the edge of his mahogany desk.
“Willoughby!” he barked.
“Softer,” Charlotte urged. She stood so close that he could feel warmth radiating from her, could smell the citrusy scent of her hair. A few dark tendrils had escaped the confines of her hat and flurries clung to them, giving her the look of a snow fairy. Sweet Jesus.
“Here, Willoughby, old boy,” he said—feeling like quite the idiot.
“Better,” she whispered, her voice as seductive as a caress. “Wait. I think I see him!”
Alec looked up, and a large chunk of ice smacked him in the face. Damn Willoughby and his twitchy tail. Still, the sight of the cat, nestled in the crook of the trunk and a branch like some fat snowbird, filled him with relief. Now to get him down. Alec kicked at the snow around the base of the trunk, picked up a long stick, and raised it in the air.
Charlotte gasped. “What are you doing?”
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