regina scott

A Light in the Darkness

A Regency Christmas Romance by Regina Scott

This story was originally written for Romance Writers of America's first anthology, Premiere. I hope you enjoy this free story. Merry Christmas, now and always. Regina Scott

Night's Court, England, Christmas Eve, 1814

Major Sir Percival Nightincourt heard his name being called. The word rose to a wail and was accompanied by the pounding of running feet.

"Percy!" His younger sister Amelia hung in the doorway of his study a moment before throwing herself across the Oriental carpet and into his arms. "Oh, Percy, I'm ruined!"

Percy patted her back, resolved to the wilt of his cravat under her tears. "As you are married to a fine Christian gentleman of considerable fortune, I shall assume this has nothing to do with your virtue or finances."

She pulled back to blink her wide blue eyes. "Oh, Percy, of course not." Her pretty face pinched. "But it is absolutely terrible, after all my planning. We are at wrong numbers." She peered up at him as if expecting a scold.

"A terrible sin to be sure," he obliged. "And at Christmas."

"Precisely!" She pressed her fingers into the fabric of his bronze-colored quilted banyan. "You will help me, won't you? I simply cannot settle the matter without you."

Lord Wellington would have been delighted to see Percy hadn't lost the diplomacy that had made him the general's trusted right hand through the last few years of battles on the Peninsula. He did not run his fingers back through his already disheveled brown hair that his sister had brought him yet another problem to be solved, the twentieth in the last fortnight since she and her husband had joined him at their family home in Devonshire. He did not so much as glance at the desk beside him, where a profusion of notes, maps, and correspondence gave evidence that he was hard at work writing a book. He did not remind her that he had already refused to join the small house party she'd planned for Christmas because he was determined to finish a draft by New Year's.

"I'd be delighted to help, Amelia," he said, "only I'm certain I should not usurp your husband's place. Surely James . . ."

She shook her head so hard her dainty blond curls bounced about her face. "No, no, James cannot help me. He'll be partnering Mrs. Grasland, of course, just as I will be partnering Mr. Grasland." She frowned. "Percy, are you attending?"

Most assuredly. He knew her guests were to be a friend she'd met on her debut and the woman's family. As he'd been battling across Spain when his sister had joined Society, he had not met the friend. But he would never forget the name of Grasland.

"Forgive me, Amelia," he said. "My mind wandered for a moment."

Immediately she was all solicitude, touching his hand, lips trembling. "Oh, my poor dear. Is it bad?"

The last thing he needed was her pity for the melancholy that had assailed him since his return. Percy pulled back his hand. "Do not trouble yourself. You were telling me about your guests, the Graslands. Is Mr. Grasland related to Colonel Grasland of the 88th Rifles by any chance?"

She waved a graceful hand. "I have no idea. All I know is that Harriet decided to bring her new companion, a poor relation who had nowhere else to go, and we will be odd numbers at table if you don't come down. I know you're working on your book, but surely you can put it aside for Christmas. It isn't as if the outcome of the war will change."

No, Percy reflected as she scampered toward the door, obviously content that she had convinced him. Wellington had defeated Napoleon and sent him off to Elba; that would not change. But so much about the war had changed Percy that he could not seem to let it go. He'd thought the peace of their family home on a stretch of cliff overlooking the Channel would calm his restless spirit, yet his nights were punctuated by dreams of canon fire and bayonet flash and his days with a dark urgency. He felt as if he might implode if he couldn't do something. Putting his thoughts down on paper had seemed the wisest course.

Yet if Eleanor Grasland truly was waiting downstairs, shouldn't he offer to sit with her? After all, he'd once offered her his heart.


Eleanor Grasland felt as if her past was closing in around her as she followed her cousin and his wife down the wood-paneled stairs for the dining room at Night's Court. She'd hoped to stay upstairs with the children and the nurse, but Harriet had assured her that Percy would not be partaking of any of the festivities. Yet still she felt his presence.

Though their hosts had had the house decorated with evergreen boughs and red velvet ribbon, brighter were the regimental banners hung in the stairwell, proclaiming the units in which his grandfather and father had served. Crossed sabers protected the entry hall. On tables along the silk-lined wall to the dining room, gold plate inscribed by the monarch described heroism on behalf of the nation. Surrounded by such trappings it was small wonder Percy had insisted on purchasing a commission six years ago at her father's urging. Seeing these reminders of war now only emphasized to Ellie why she had refused his suit.

"Sit next to me at the table," Harriet directed her as they approached the dining room door. Their hostess had promised them they needn't stand on ceremony and could enter as they liked. That hadn't stopped Harriet from dressing for the occasion in a gown of white silk embroidered with gold that made Ellie's pale gray lustring look all the more understated.

"That way," her cousin's wife continued as she paused in the doorway, "you can be spared the trouble of conversation and be near should I have need of you."

Ellie nodded. It was all the response Harriet seemed to expect even though her expectations in every other area verged on demanding. The eldest by a number of years in a large family, she had all but raised her siblings and was now mother to three. From the moment Ellie had appealed to her cousin Edmund for help, Harriet had appropriated Ellie as her own lackey, to order from pillar to post as she pleased. It was a dark, narrow existence, but at least Ellie had the food, clothing, and home her tiny inheritance had denied her. She was grateful the Lord had provided for her, for all she sometimes regretted the avenue through which that help had come.

Now she followed Harriet and Edmund into the dining room, a cozy space where candlelight glowed on walls the color of creamy jade and holly clustered around the silver epergne in the center of the long damask-draped table. Ellie found herself seated midway down, with Harriet on her right and Edmund across from her. Her cousin was a quiet man, small, lean; the way his eyes darted about reminded her of a mouse caught in a trap. There was no doubt the cat so pleased with her prey was his heavy-set wife who even now sleeked back her frizzed ginger hair with one plump hand. Ellie wasn't sure how Harriet had managed to become friends with Percy's sister and her husband. Blond and bright, they both beamed at their guests now, their well-tailored clothes and dainty manners exquisite. At least the pairing would make for an interesting evening. Perhaps Harriet would even forget about her for a time and give her a little peace. She lowered her gaze to her lap in preparation for hearing the blessing. Instead, another word split the air.

"Percy!" Amelia proclaimed.

Ellie's head jerked up. There he stood in the doorway, looking much as the memories she still hugged to herself. His dark hair fell carelessly across his brow, his lips curved just the slightest as if he were sharing some secret. The scarlet coat and white breeches of his uniform were even more recognizable. Those gold epaulets at his broad shoulders and braid at the cuffs proclaimed him a major, the silver frogging down the black front a member of the general's staff. He inclined his head to the room in general, then came around to sit next to her as Amelia introduced the other guests.

"And Miss Eleanor Grasland," his sister concluded with a smile to Ellie. Ten years her brother's junior, Amelia had been only fourteen and here in Devonshire when Percy had courted Ellie. She had no way of knowing she'd introduced more than a stranger. Yet Ellie knew. She couldn't seem to find her voice as Percy gazed at her.

She was thankful their host Mr. Endicot said the blessing then, and the footmen began serving. Their hostess had selected a fine roast and all the trimmings for Christmas Eve. Yet Ellie couldn't force a bite past her lips. Beside her, Percy also chose little of the many delicacies to add to his gilt-edged plate. Up close, she could see that his face, once so boyish in its charm, had grown harder, the youth tempered into a man much as her father's weapons master might temper a sword.

As if he caught her staring, his lips curved upward again. "Am I so different, Ellie?"

She dropped her gaze to her cooling dinner. "No more so than anyone who has ventured onto the battlefield, I imagine."

His hand pressed against the tablecloth as if to anchor himself. "Too true, I fear. Yet I admit to surprise to find you here. I'd have thought you married long since."

"Life can prove surprising even for those of us not privileged to serve, Major," she murmured.

"Sir Percival," he said. "I recently resigned my commission."

He no longer followed the drum? Ellie raised a brow. "Now, that is surprising."

"Salts!" Harriet barked.

Ellie knew how to react to the command. She pulled the reticule from the lap of her gown and drew out the little porcelain box with its brass grill. Harriet, she was convinced, had never fainted in her entire life, but something about reducing Ellie to this role pleased her no end. She held the open box under Harriet's long nose, waited for her to sniff and roll back her eyes as if seeking heaven's aid as she usually did.

Instead, her cousin's wife glared at her over the box. "Listen to nothing he says," she hissed. "You know you do not wish to end like your mother."

Ellie's hand started shaking, but she managed to pull back the box and slip it into her reticule as Harriet turned to the others with a smile to assure them it was only the excitement of their excellent company that had made her feel faint.

Of course Ellie didn't wish to end like her mother, scouring the papers for word that her husband had survived this skirmish, that battle; shriveling away like a plant for lack of water. She'd promised herself she would never marry a soldier. Her convictions had made it easy to refuse Percy's suit but altogether too weak to stop her from regretting it later.

But Percy was no longer a soldier. Was it possible they might find a way back to each other now?


Percy had chapters to compose, correspondence to review to dovetail experiences. Surely he had discharged his sacred duty by keeping his sister from being odd numbers at table and could now escape upstairs.

Yet he found himself escorting Ellie to the withdrawing room after dinner, past windows that showed the velvety night pressing in around the court. How could he have stayed away from her? Ellie had always been lovely, from her hair the color of the wheat waving along the cliff to her eyes like the sea at dawn. From the first her whimsical smile, her soft voice, the elegant sweep of her fingers had combined to draw him to her like a candle in the window on Christmas Eve. He was no more immune to her now.

But he did not much like her benefactors.

He could feel Mrs. Grasland's gaze on him as he led Ellie to a brace of satin-striped chairs near the draped window, but he heard Amelia strike up a conversation and the two women were soon giggling like girls over shared memories.

He had shared so much more with Ellie. She'd been the daughter of the famous hero Colonel Horatio Grasland, who had been in England then for a recruiting drive. Grasland was a member of all the best clubs, knew just how to turn a tale to entice his young audience. Percy hadn't been the only one eager for excitement, adventure. But what kept him coming back to the Grasland town house after his first dinner with the colonel was Ellie.

"He's a magician, you know," she'd warned him when he'd told her his intent to purchase a commission in her father's regiment. "He conjures amazing feats, but if you look closely you'll find it nothing but stray bits of wire and wax."

He'd discovered his fair share of conjurers over the years, from Spanish noblemen willing to sell their country to France to French soldiers more interested in plunder than patriotism. Along the way, war had lost its glitter. Yet the desire he'd felt then, to make a difference in the world, had never left him.

Neither, it seemed, had his desire for Ellie.


With Harriet safely caught up in conversation, Ellie could focus on Percy. How easily time slipped backward. From the day they'd met, there was nothing they could not share, except the love for war. They both preferred their books to be rousing romantic adventures, their politics verging toward Whig, and their faith in the Lord to lead them. Now they shared as easily, their lives since they had parted, the activities of old friends, the loss of loved ones, his mother and her father.

Conversing with Percy was unlike talking with anyone else. He gave her his full attention, leaning toward her, smile playing about his lips, gaze intend on hers. He was quick to laugh at her jests, could be counted on to nod approval to her heartfelt choices. He was always ready to ride to the rescue should she need him but equally willing to let her solve the matter to her own satisfaction. Just sitting beside him made breath and thought come easier.

Yet when he shared his stories about life with Wellington, she heard something behind the words, saw it in the shadow that crossed his face. There was tension in him, like a spring never released. She could only wonder at its source.

Somewhere in the world beyond the glow of Percy's smile came the tolling of church bells. Percy rose and drew back the drapes as his sister and the others gathered around. Through the wreath that hung against the glass, starlight brightened the countryside. In the distance, squares of colored light showed where the village church was preparing to celebrate services.

"It's midnight," Amelia said with the delicious shiver of a child anticipating sweets. She stood on tiptoe and pecked her husband on the cheek. "Happy Christmas, my love."

He wrapped an arm about her waist. "Happy Christmas, dear."

Even Harriet and Edmund reached for each other's hand and stood a moment gazing out at the night, where a single star shown brighter than any other.

Warmer was the way Percy gazed at Ellie.


How could he have been so blind? He'd thought his career could sustain him, yet he'd always felt something missing. He'd prayed for guidance many times in the field, but it seemed his answer had been waiting for him in England all along. Still he couldn't assume she still felt for him. He was no longer the man Ellie had admired. For all he longed to take her in his arms, the restlessness inside him murmured caution. How could he ask Ellie to join him on his journey when he wasn't sure where the Lord was leading this time?

Amelia turned from the view to offer them all a smile. "Our mother loved Christmas and insisted on keeping the old traditions. She did not count the time a success unless she was surrounded by family and friends."

James patted her hand. "She would be proud of you, Amelia."

Her smile trembled. "I hope so. I want this, our first Christmas without her, to be perfect."

So that was why she'd been working so hard. "And how could anything my clever sister planned be less than perfect?" Percy teased her.

She blushed, then turned toward the door and clapped her hands. The footmen marched in bearing a bronze basin and various accoutrements.

Ellie clapped her hands as well. "Oh, Snapdragon!" she cried as one of the footmen set the basin on a table in the middle of the room and the other went to the fire for a brand. "Father loved this game."

"So did we," Amelia confided as they all surrounded the vessel. Percy could see the dark dots of the raisins floating in the amber sea of the brandy. "Remember, Percy?"

He smiled as the footman approached with the burning brand. "Of course. You were only six when Mother let you put in your hand. You snatched half a dozen before the rest of us managed one."

Amelia giggled. "But you always won." She glanced around at her guests. "No one could beat Percy for diving through the fire."

The footman evidently took this as his cue, for he touched the brand to the alcohol. Blue flames leaped up, dancing against the metal, and Amelia's guests gave an appreciative gasp.

Percy couldn't gasp. He couldn't breathe. All he could see were the flames. He'd been with Wellington at Burgos Castle, the only time the general had been forced to retreat short of achieving his goal. Muskets flashed long into the night, like blue flames dancing to some macabre tune. So many wounded, more killed, his own attempts at negotiation useless.

"Excuse me," he managed and strode out into the corridor.

But even there the air felt hot, suffocating. He leaned one hand against the silk of the wall and tugged at his stock with the other. Why couldn't he leave be? What more did God expect of him?

"Here." Ellie was beside him, thrusting a little box at his face. The fumes burned his nostrils, made him recoil, and brought reality sweeping back at him. He straightened to stare at her.

"Did you just administer smelling salts?"


Ellie felt her cheeks warm at the incredulous look on his handsome face. Indeed, with Percy towering over her, dressed in his regimental finery, medals decorating his broad chest, her actions seemed ridiculous.

"Habit," she admitted, tucking the box away. "Forgive me. You did seem in distress."

He shook his head. "A momentary lapse, I assure you."

She could well believe that. He seemed to be gathering his dignity around him like a cloak. From inside the room, she heard Mrs. Endicot start the song that accompanied the game. Harriet's voice joined in, surprisingly sweet.

Ellie reached for Percy's hand. "Let it go. Come back with me and play Snapdragon."

His smile was more grimace. "I'm not much in the mood for celebrating."

She could almost feel the darkness gathering around him. She gave his hand a squeeze in encouragement. "It is Christmas, the night our Savior was born. What better reason to celebrate?"

He stared at their joined fingers, and she was suddenly aware of his body next to hers, the quiet of the corridor, the beating of her heart. As if he felt the same, his gaze rose to hers, his brown eyes deep. Slowly, he brought her fingers to his lips. The pressure of his kiss stopped her breath.

"Dear Ellie," he murmured. "Always the optimist. You deserve a happy Christmas. Go, enjoy the game. I am fit company for no one tonight." Before she could question him, he released her and strode away.

"Salts!" The cry pierced the air, and Ellie started. But for once she didn't run to do as she was bid. Forgive me, Lord, for ignoring my duty, but Percy needs me more. She set her reticule on a table by the door so the footmen could find it if the salts were truly needed and hastened after Percy.

The way led up the stairs to the highest part of the old manor. Tucked under the thatched roof lay a long study. In the light from the fire and the single candle on the desk, she could make out books nestled on shelves under the dormer windows. At one end of the room lay a massive stone fireplace, the warmth spreading along the Oriental carpet that ran in a narrow strip of color down the center of the room. At the opposite end she sighted an open doorway and the footboard of a great box bed inside. She certainly wasn't going to follow Percy in there!

"Percy?" she called, but he did not answer.

She wandered to the desk that lay across the back of the room and gazed down at Percy's work. It seemed he was writing a book. The pages lay scattered across the desk, along with maps, diagrams, and sketches. More maps were tacked inside the dormers, pins denoting important spots in France, Spain. She picked up a piece of the parchment.

"I still remember the night we heard the French were advancing," he'd written. "I'd gone with the other officers to the Duchess of Richmond's ball. Surrounded by good Society, it was easy to forget for a time that danger was marching closer, that likely tomorrow we would be bowing before our Maker rather than a pretty dance partner. I saw the courier arrive, felt the word run through those assembled like wildfire. It was time, it was war. And we were all that stood between Brussels and Bonaparte."

Her hand was shaking; she could not continue.


She looked up at Percy in the doorway of his bedchamber. Gone was his military finery, to be replaced by a quilted banyan of a smoky bronze that made him a shadowy figure as he advanced.

She held out the sheet to him. "It seems you still love war, Percy, more than you ever loved me."


He had to make her understand. The book, his life, meant nothing if that was what she thought of him. He moved to her side, took the page from her hand.

"No one sane loves war, Ellie," he said, laying the paper down with the others.

"Yet you cling to it." She waved a hand at the maps along the wall. "You surround yourself with it."

The sigh escaped him despite his best efforts. "The things I've seen stay with me, Ellie. I cannot seem to escape them. I need some way to make them right, yet the war is over, and nothing can be done. You were wise to counsel me against going. Back then, all I saw was the glory."

He felt the shudder run through her. "Father was the same way. He couldn't stay in England when Mother was ill, couldn't remain after she died. There was always one more battle to be won for England, one more tyrant to put down. And then he was killed, and I had no one."

Not even him. "I know that's what you feared, why you refused me. But you deserve better than to be the bearer of smelling salts."

She spread her hands. "I had other offers. I could not think it fair to marry a man simply to improve my circumstances."

"Then you never fell in love." He wasn't sure why that disappointed and encouraged him at the same time.

She glanced up at him. "Only once. With you."

The softness in her gaze pulled him closer. He could not stop himself from taking her in his arms, bending his head to hers. The caress of her lips wiped away the darkness, filled him with hope, with light.

Anything that is lovely, excellent, or worthy of praise, think upon such things.

That's what he'd forgotten, that light dwelt in darkness. This closeness with Ellie was what he had missed, why he'd fought, why he'd come back. He couldn't seem to let her go.

But he knew he had no right to hold her like this. He drew back, feathered his fingers across the satin of her upturned face.

"Oh, Percy," she said, opening her eyes and drawing him into the depths. "I fear I'm the one who was naïve. Reading what you wrote I begin to understand why my father and you had to leave, had to stay away. And I realize why I couldn't go with you. I lack that kind of courage."

"Courage enough," he insisted, unwilling to hear anything bad said of her. "You stayed behind, waited with no way to influence the action except your prayers. But I assure you, they are a more potent weapon than Wellington's best canon."

"They must be," she murmured. "They brought you back to me safe." She pulled away, and Percy felt the chill of the air between them. She stood so still, so alone. He could change that. Indeed, he felt the rightness of it in his soul.

"And if I were to ask you to marry me again," he said, "how would you answer this time?"

Her lips trembled, and Percy waited, feeling as if he faced a firing squad and a promotion board at the same time. He willed her to say yes, to banish the darkness that surrounded him even on Christmas, to let in the light for them both.

But the voice he heard was his sister's. The word rose to a wail and was accompanied by the pounding of running feet.


She burst into the room and passed Ellie as if Ellie were not more than a piece of statuary. Amelia held out a note, blue eyes wide.

"A courier just delivered this. It's from the War Office!"

Ellie stepped back. His sister must have noticed the movement, for Amelia glanced at Ellie with a frown as if wondering how she'd gotten there.

Percy broke the seal and scanned the contents, pulse hammering harder with each word. "It's from Wellington. He's been asked to join the Congress of Vienna, and he's offering me a place at his side."

"Oh, Vienna!" Amelia clasped her hands. "Such a charming place, and you won't have any trouble traveling now that you've put down that horrid Napoleon."

She made it sound as if he were about to take a pleasure trip. He knew the truth of the battle Wellington was about to enter. Yet something inside him quickened at the thought.

Lord, help me! I'm tempted just by the idea! I thought You brought Ellie back to me because You wanted me to have peace.

Percy folded the note and lay it on the desk to be answered in the morning. "I'll decline," he told his sister. "The congress has little chance of success. Our allies and our enemies will be packed together and each determined on the outcome. The negotiations will be challenging to say the least."

"But not impossible," Ellie put in, meeting his gaze, "for a man of your skills."

Percy frowned. Surely she understood the ramifications. Did she want him to leave?

His sister evidently did, for she snapped a nod before turning for the door. "Of course you'll go. I'll have your things packed immediately: winter cloak, galoshes, your best coats." She paused to tap a finger against her chin. "I wonder what's in fashion in Vienna now."

Percy shook his head as she drifted out the door. "And now I'm her project. She doesn't seem to be happy without one."

"And neither are you," Ellie reminded him, returning to his side. "You want to go, Percy. Admit it."

There was danger in admitting it, in hearing the words said aloud. He could very well lose himself in the intricate negotiations. Worse, he would lose Ellie again.

"It matters not," he told her, clasping her hands and cradling them against his chest. "I have more important matters to attend to. I asked your opinion on such a matter, madam. I have not had an answer from you. Eleanor Grasland, will you marry me?"


How was she to answer? He still had the ability to hold her heart in his capable hands, yet those hands were needed hundreds of miles away to settle far larger matters. She'd refused to follow once. Yet in the six years since he'd last asked her, she'd learned something about the world and about herself. Whatever happened, she had Someone who would look out for her. She didn't have to be afraid.

"I will give you an answer, Major," she said, pulling her hands free. She stood at attention the way her father had taught her and held her fingers to her forehead in salute. "I will do my duty and follow my husband to Vienna and anywhere else he might need to go."

Percy stared at her as if he could not believe her. Then he pulled her close and sealed the promise with a kiss that set her to trembling anew.

"You're sure?" he pressed when at last he raised his head. "I don't need to go. I can finish the book, make us a home here at Night's Court."

Ellie shook her head. "You said you wanted a way to make the war right. This is your chance. I cannot ask you to give it up for me. I want you to succeed, for everyone's sake!"

He touched her cheek again, sending a shiver through her. "This will mean big changes, for both of us."

"Changes for the better," she insisted, smiling up at him, more sure than she'd ever been.

"There you are!"

Ellie glanced back to see Harriet standing in the doorway, with Edmund, James, and Amelia just behind her. All of them were staring at her in Percy's arms. The only one who looked dismayed was her cousin's wife.

"Wish us happy," Percy said to them. "Eleanor has agreed to be my wife and join me in Vienna with Wellington."

The men grinned, and Amelia clapped her hands. Harriet clutched her chest.

"Salts!" she cried, wavering on her feet.

Ellie was too busy kissing Percy to respond.

"Don't fret, Harry," she heard Amelia say as if from a great distance. "It's Christmas. We have to expect surprises like this on such a day. Come downstairs with me. I want to put a candle in the window. Mother always said it guided the Christ child to our door."

It had taken more than a candle to guide Percy back to her, but Ellie knew she would never let him go again.

"Happy Christmas," she murmured against his lips.

"With you, Ellie," he answered, "every day is Christmas."


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