Happy Continuing Holidays, everyone! I always look forward to the Christmas themed Regency stories that are put out every year, and when I had spare vacation time and could take a week off, I dedicated part of my time off to just curling up with those books and reading them. While this isn’t a Christmas-themed story, it’s still fun and my present to you. This is Part One because it’s too big for one post. Thanks for reading.

The Harp

Maxwell Random, fourth Earl of Bridegrove, looked out the carriage window, smiling. “I missed this, James. We never had fog like this on the Peninsula.”

“Glad of it, too,” exclaimed James Hannifly, his companion

of the evening. “Things were bad enough there, and at Waterloo.”

“I missed everything about London, without knowing I did.” He let the window down and watched the mist swirl inside. “If I had died at Waterloo, I would have come here to haunt these streets.”

James looked embarrassed. “We both came close to sticking our spoons in the wall, old chap. I got off better than you, more’s the pity.”

Max chuckled. “A scar is a small price to pay for my sins. I find it useful to attract the attention of the fairer sex.”

“As if you needed help,” complained Mr. Hannifly. “Your damned god‑like gold hair and blue eyes needed no embellishments.”

“You put me to the blush, old man.” Max studied his shorter, dark‑haired companion closely. “You danced with the youngest Patterson girl twice tonight. Anything I should know about in that quarter?”

James flushed and laughed. “Scoundrel! No, not as yet, but she seems to be a decent sort. Not given to silly chatter, and knows horses. Her father tells me she has hunted since she turned five.”

The carriage turned a corner, and slowed. Max blinked out

the window. “Damn me! The fog disappeared!”

James looked out, and then back the way they came. “Looks

to be just this street that it missed. Deuced odd.”

Max stared at the perfectly visible street. His street. The townhouses loomed in the uncertain light of the new gas lamps, as if hoping the fog would not notice them. Some of the alcoholic fumes evaporated from his brain, lifting like the fog.

“There’s my house, third one down on the right.”

“What, with all the gargoyles on the roof? My dear Max, how

Gothic!”

“Isn’t it? No wonder no one had rented it yet.” Maxwell studied the hulking gray shape disinterestedly. “Do you want to see the inside? It’s equally horrid.”

“Not tonight,” said James with a laugh. “Only wanted to see you safe to your door. You were rather foxed at the club.”

“You have my thanks. I shall not tempt you with ghost tales, even though I know how much you enjoy that sort of thing.” Max sent a sly look toward his friend.

“Aye, old Mr. Nichols can’t be enjoying eternal rest yet, knowing his death has been called a suicide.” James looked back with equal slyness. “Though I doubt you would be troubled by him. He thought of you as a son. He won’t be rattling chains in your bedchamber.”

Max shook his head and said, “I hope to stay in his good graces.” Thoughtful, he gazed once more at the odd house. “I wish I could discover what happened. Seems more than an accident that I landed in his home.”

“You’d like to pay him back for the aid he rendered to us in Belgium, no doubt.” James sighed. “Well, so would I. If you discover anything, and require my assistance, I am willing to help.”

“Good man.” The carriage halted and Maxwell stepped down. He called a last farewell, and the carriage plunged off into the gray mist. Maxwell walked to his doorstep, and paused to consider the entire structure. His imagination boggled, unable to comprehend what Bernard Nichols, a kind old gentleman with excellent taste in wines, had seen in this bizarre, castle‑like design.

The light in the garden caught his eye, and sent a frisson of fear down his spine. He’d told his butler, Campbell, to leave the hall sconces burning; the rest of the house should be dark. Yet glimmering through the side yard hedge came a faint, flickering light. And a sound, something metal on stone. The sound of chains.

A chill spread across Max’s back, until he took himself to task for having a fanciful imagination. “At best it’s Campbell, looking for that old tom cat who yowled under my window last night. At worst, a sneak‑thief. I will handle that situation

myself.”

Not until he’d eased the side gate open and edged down the path did he consider the possibility of more than one sneak‑thief. Or more than two. Just as he contemplated going inside and rousing Campbell, he caught sight of a slender shape climbing the drainpipe. Alone.

Maxwell smiled, and looked his fill. The girl climbing the side of his house had hitched her skirts up, tucking the back hem into a belt of some kind at the front. A lantern dangled from a rope, also tied to her belt. Her shapely legs, a vivid white in the dark, were clearly visible in the light.

Calling out to her would no doubt startle the girl. Maxwell didn’t think he had the clear‑headedness required to catch her if she fell. The only solution seemed to be to follow her upward. Max waited until she had reached the roof, glad for once that the odd house had neither gables nor a pitched roof, but an unusual embattled facade that could be climbed with relative ease. He removed his beaver hat and many‑caped top coat.

As he laid the items on the ground, he noticed the chain and lock that had previously kept the side gate secure. The very key the renting agent claimed had disappeared stuck out of the lock. Max had not trusted the man, and now he wondered if this burglary could be part of a sinister plot.

He started his own ascent, moving much quicker than the girl had been able to do. Half way up, a coil of rope smacked into him, then uncoiled the rest of the way down. Startled, he hugged the pipe and the wall, and looked up. The imp had fastened the rope to the neck of the nearest gargoyle, and thrown it down.

Had she seen him? He could not see her anywhere, and began his climb once more.

The top floor, just below the attic, had a wide ledge outside the windows, still a good ten feet below the roof. Max decided to rest there, and discover where his little visitor had gone. He moved down the row of windows, peering in. “Come out, little lizard. Where have you gone, you miserable sneak‑thief?”

The window closest to the drainpipe opened causing him to spin around. He blessed his luck and the wide ledge that kept him from a nasty fall, and pressed back against the wall. A stick appeared on the sill, holding the window open. Then the old harp that had been part of the house’s furnishings eased part way out the window.

A slender arm reached out, snagged the gargoyle‑suspended rope, and tied it around the top of the large instrument. Then in slow degrees, the harp came out the window.

Maxwell felt his chin drop. All the silver and expensive paintings in there, and the girl wanted the damn harp! He smiled, thinking he would let her have her wish.

The night wind stirred the harp strings, sending a ghostly glissando to his ears. Needed tuning, he thought.

As soon as the harp cleared the window, the girl followed onto the ledge, lamp in hand. She removed the stick, letting the window close without a sound.

“How do you plan to get that thing down?” he demanded, forgetting she knew nothing of his presence.

The girl started, and turned around. Maxwell chilled, seeing her slipper dance on air. She tried to catch her balance, but he knew she hadn’t a chance. He leaped to catch her, pulling her sharply against him. Both her feet flew over the ledge, but he had her secure and safe.

Until her leg tangled in the rope, and the harp swung toward them, smacking the girl in the head. Her eyes rolled back, and she sagged against him, a dead weight.

Max’s impressive collection of swear words, gleaned from several languages, stood him in good stead at that moment. He tried to move out of the path of the harp, as it swung in a second time, but the rope around the girl’s leg pulled it after

them. This time it hit him in the shoulder, causing his arm to go numb.

He held on, held still, and pressed against the wall. “Wake up, child, open your eyes. I need your help to get out of this fix.”

To his relief, she seemed to be coming around, whimpering a little in pain, but taking her own weight on her feet, and out of his arms.

“Steady, my girl. Easy now, unwrap the rope from your ankle. I’ll hold you while you lean over.”

“I‑‑ I can’t. My head is spinning. I’ll fall.”

“Fine. Never mind, then. We’ll just stay like this until my weak leg gives out, and we both plummet to the ground.”

“I expect only you shall plummet, sir. I shall dangle upside down by my ankle.” She seemed to gather her scattered wits, and pushed a bit away from him. Her eyes looked into his for a moment, as if trying to judge him for trustworthiness.

Whatever she saw, she carefully leaned over and released the rope.

The gargoyle, once more bearing the full weight of the harp, groaned ominously. Maxwell eased past his companion, and took the rope. He saw then that the topknot had been tied in such a way to allow the weight of the harp to pull the rope, the speed controlled by the end in Maxwell’s hand. He got the thing moving, and heard a gentle chorus of twangs when the beast rested on the walkway below.

“There, now,” he said, releasing the rope and letting it fall away.

“No! You idiot!” The girl reached for the line, but to no

avail. The rope hissed away into the darkness.

Maxwell frowned. “Hardly an idiot, you know. I got the

harp down safely.”

“Yes, but how will we get down?”

“The same way we got up. Climb the pipe.” He pointed to

indicate the route. And noticed the top bolts had pulled clear

of rotting wood.

“I noticed on my way up that I would need to find another

way down. I thought to use the rope.”

“The gargoyle is about to part company with the roof, also.

Wouldn’t have done us any good.”

She gave him a contemptuous look, but he thought she only

tried to belittle his excellent point. “We have to go up to the

roof, then. There is a door up there that lets in to the attic.”

“And how shall we do that, little monkey? Fly?”

“If I stand on your shoulders, I can reach the top. I will

come down and open a window here to let you in.”

He stared at her. His leg throbbed to distraction, his arm

twinged with returning feeling, and she wanted to stand on his

shoulders? “That won’t work. Can’t we open the window from out

here?”

She made a sound of exasperation and turned to shove at the

window. The pane did not move. “I will only be there for a

moment, I promise you.”

“Damnation!” Maxwell looked into the obstinate face of the

stubborn pixie, and knew they had no other option. “Very well.

But first we should pause a moment and say our prayers.”

“Plenty of time to pray while we fall,” she said, smiling at

him.

“How comforting.” Maxwell held out his hands as if helping

a lady to mount her horse. The monkey‑girl climbed up to his

shoulder before he could caution her to step lightly. She

disappeared over his head in an instant.

“Pass the light up,” she hissed down at him.

Max found the lantern and held it aloft. “Do the

authorities know you have escaped from Astley’s?”

She gave him a cheeky grin as she took the lantern, and then she

and the light were gone.

The ledge offered little in the way of entertainment. Max

could not even pace. He waited for the glow of her light to

appear in one of the windows. Just when he felt sure she had

abandoned him, her voice came from above.

“The door won’t open. You’ll have to come up and try the

latch.”

“How did you get it open before?” He eyed the castle wall

above him, knowing at once he’d never be able to scale it.

“The door just opened. Now it won’t. Come on, one of the

other drain pipes might support you long enough to get up here.”

Maxwell had never liked the word might, and he liked it less

now. But he edged down to the next corner, and examined the

pipe. This one looked worse than the first one. He traversed

the front of his rented home, noticing that the fog had finally

embraced his street. No hope that the watch would see him and

come to rescue them.

The next pipe looked serviceable, though it groaned as he

began to climb. Goaded by the sound, he scrambled over the

facade wall onto the roof.

He felt hands on his arm as the girl tugged him away from

the edge. He knew a moment’s disappointment that she had let

down her skirts. “Thank you, Miss . . . er?”

“Miss Nichols. The door is over here.”

He frowned as he followed her. “Don’t you wish to know who

I am? Why I haven’t turned you in to the watch?”

“You’re the earl, no doubt. I can’t imagine why you haven’t

turned me in, but perhaps you were too foxed to think of it until

now.” She stopped at the half‑size trapdoor, over what would be

the back half of the house. “Go ahead, try it.”

Max obeyed, as if he had been following her orders for a

lifetime. He smarted too much from her comments to do anything

else. The pull handle came off in his hands. The door remained

latched.

“Devil take it!” He threw the offending piece of metal

down, and turned to glare at the girl. “Why are you laughing?”

Miss Nichols turned away, doubtless to gain control of

herself. “You are impossible! Everything had gone so well until

you interfered.”

“I am within my rights to interfere when I see my house

being broken into. What do you want with the damn harp, anyway?”

“I want to earn my keep. I am little suited to working for

anyone, so I thought to give music lessons.” Her sweet face

lost it’s happy glow, becoming shadowed in the lantern light.

“My grandmother taught me to play on that harp. She always said

she would leave it to me.”

“Good God! Are you related to the late Mr. Bernard Nichols?

The former tenant here?”

“He was my grandfather.” Her mouth snapped closed, and

Maxwell wondered what else she wouldn’t say.

“I knew your grandfather in Belgium. He took in myself and

a friend, after we had been wounded.”

Miss Nichols nodded. “He spoke of the braves lads at

Waterloo, and especially of you and Mr. Hannifly. He felt

honored to help you. But I gather you are not full recovered?”

Max preferred not to look weak in front of Miss Nichols,

since she already thought him bacon‑brained. “I’m fine, for the

most part. Now, shall we make ourselves comfortable? How long

until you are missed?”

She accepted a seat on the roof, and shrugged. “Not until

morning, I suppose. But my servants will not know where I am.”

“I won’t be missed until noon, or later,” he said. “We’ll

be frozen and starved by then.”

“Surely not starved,” she said with a chuckle. “Did you not

dine at your club tonight?”

He paused in the act of sitting beside her, and raised an

eyebrow. “You have been watching me!”

“My footman has, yes. How else could I know when the house

would be assailable?”

A nagging puzzle just beyond Max’s consciousness surfaced

with clarity then. “Why did you not take the harp with you when

you left? God knows I don’t want it!”

She turned to stare at him, a hard look not softened by the

lantern’s uncertain glow. “I did not have time to pack. Mr.

Turner threw me out one morning, saying you had come for the

property. He sent my clothing to me, most of it. But I have

none of my treasures.”

“Mr. Turner is the renting agent, how could he rent the

house to me if you were living there?”

“Rent the‑‑ You don’t know?” She shook her head, then

winced and rubbed at her temples. “Lord Bridegrove, my

grandfather left the house to you. Turner is renting your own

house to you.”

Damnation! Max burned with anger and humiliation, but the

girl beside him kept him from showing it. “I’ll take care of

that in the morning. You may also have free run of the house, to

take what is yours.”

“Thank you, my lord.” Another cheeky grin accompanied the

words. “Assuming, of course, that we survive the night up here.”

They sat in silence for awhile, Maxwell fighting a hint of

gloom. He felt the fool, and feared the charming, attractive

lady next to him would never think well of him. The thought

bothered him more than he liked.

“I am sorry about your grandfather’s death,” he said with

caution. “I find it hard to believe someone who loved life as he

did would have committed suicide.”

Miss Nichols lowered her head, and Max cursed himself for a

thoughtless bore. Then she said, softly, “Thank you. So few

people believe there could be questions in his death. Sometimes

I even doubt that there is cause to suspect murder. But I know

for a fact Grandfather would never have ended his own life.”

The wind swelled around them, whistling through the

gargoyle‑shapes and setting the distant harp once more to song.

Max shivered and moved closer to Miss Nichols. He noted that she

shivered even more violently than he did, and stripped off his

coat.

As she put it on, and rolled up the sleeves, he asked, “Tell

me what happened. Did you . . . find him?”

“Yes, I did. I came home from an early ride, and went to

the library to find out what he wanted for breakfast.” A tremor

came and went in her voice, before she continued in a monotone.

“At first I thought he had fallen asleep at his desk. Then I saw

the blood. And the dueling pistol in his hand.”

Maxwell eased his arm around the girl, thinking none of the

battles he had faced had taken as much courage as telling this

tale.

“I sent the footman for the watch, and looked about the

room. The pistol had been placed in his left hand. Grandfather

had suffered a small seizure after he came home from Belgium. He

could hardly use his left hand, there is no possibility that he

fired that pistol.”

“Did none of the servants hear the shot?”

Maggie looked uncomfortable. “Grandfather disliked having a

lot of people about him. We had only a cook, a footman and the

groom. The cook had gone to market, the footman accompanied me,

and the groom kept to his bed with an inflammation of the lungs.”

“Why didn’t the authorities accept that Mr. Nichols could

not have killed himself in that manner?”

“No one wanted to be bothered with a murder when a suicide

would conveniently explain the matter.” Miss Nichols laughed, a

harsh sound in the damp night. “Our neighbor swore not a soul

entered the house while I took my ride. If I had even one strong

suspect, perhaps an investigation would have been started. But I

do not.”

“I take it your own parents are deceased?”

“Yes. My father worked with Grandfather, making trips to

the continent. He had taken Mother with him, to Paris, when the

war broke out.” Miss Nichols took a deep breath. “We never

heard from them again. Grandfather always felt responsible for

their deaths, and kept me with him. My grandmother died a few

years ago of the influenza. I like to think I have been some

comfort to him since then.”

Max studied the grey mist swirling above their heads,

thinking of more questions, deciding which ones mattered enough

to be asked. “Why did Nichols leave the house to me, and not to

you?”

She looked over at him, for the first time that night

appearing uncomfortable. “Grandfather hoped you would . . .

would take care of me. He thought his days grew short, after his

illness. He wanted to assure my safety. He knew your were

orphaned, and that your father had broken the entail and sold all

the estates for taxes.”

Unspoken, he heard the rest of the explanation. Nichols had

expected marriage between them. Had he not spent hours in

Belgium extolling the virtues of his granddaughter, back home in

London? Whatever had he called her? Mary? Mandy? Damn! “What

became of your horse?”

Miss Nichols chuckled. “She’s in your stables, my lord,

along with my former groom. Did you not notice bills for feed,

or his wages?”

“My butler Campbell handles all that. He mentioned nothing

out of the ordinary.” He wondered if a huge conspiracy had been

mounted to keep him in the dark.

A sharp, mournful yowling cracked across their conversation.

Miss Nichols gasped and clutched his arm. “What is that?”

Maxwell pulled her closer, smiling. Now he could play the

protector, and show her his better qualities. “A tomcat, I

believe. Though tonight he seems to have found a companion.”

She listened, attentive for a moment. “They sound like they

are in great pain! Whatever are they doing?”

“Uhm . . . courting.”

“Oh.” Even in the lantern light, Maxwell could make out the

dark blush along her cheeks.

“I am thankful that human beings have refined the process a

little. Less noise, at least.” He waited, until she turned

toward him, her expression asking for more information. “Less

painful, too. For the most part.” He placed his hand under her

chin, and lifted her face. With deliberate slowness, waiting for

her to protest, he leaned forward and kissed her.

He wondered if this would be her first kiss. She tasted of

warm spices and sweet fruits. She sighed against him, her breath

tickling his cheek. When her hand came to caress his stubbled

chin, he deepened the kiss. Her mouth welcomed him, and drove

Maxwell to the brink of hot desire.

“Get on with you, damn it!”

Max pulled away, startled. Then he jumped up and ran to the

edge of the roof. “Campbell! Up here, man! Campbell!”

“My lord?” The butler poked his head out a ground floor

window and looked up at the earl.

“I’m rather stuck on the roof, Campbell. Think you can get

the roof door open?”

“I shall do my best, my lord.”

“Good! Hurry!” Maxwell turned back, and saw Miss Nichols

frozen in place. “Nothing to worry about now. Help is on the

way.”

“Yes. Yes. Good.”

“Yes.” He moved to help her stand, and took the lantern

from her. “You’ll come in for some sherry or some tea. Once

you’re warm, I’ll have the carriage brought round.”

“There’s no need, my lord. I can find my way home.”

“Nonsense. I insist.” He saw that she would have protested

further. “How did you plan to get the blasted harp home, anyway?”

“I thought to carry it to the next street, and hail a

hackney,” she told him. “I forgot just how heavy the harp is.”

The door opened, and Campbell looked up at them.

“Campbell, Miss Nichols is the granddaughter of the former

owner of this house. She is to have free reign to take anything

she wants from the house.”

Campbell’s surprised look disappeared. “Yes, my lord. Good

evening, Miss Nichols.”

“Good evening.” Her regal reply caused the butler to

scramble out of the way. Miss Nichols walked down the stairs

ahead of them, giving Max plenty of time to appreciate her form.

Downstairs, he took her arm and led her to the library.

“Tea and refreshments, Campbell, and the carriage ready in an

hour.”

“Very good, my lord.” Campbell bowed, and disappeared,

dignified in his dressing gown.

Inside the library, Maxwell lit the lamps, and moved to the

fireplace where Miss Nichols stood. He turned her into the

light. “Ah! I’d wondered, and I would have bet your eyes to be

brown. But they are the darkest blue I’ve ever seen.”

She blushed once more, and looked down. He placed his hand

on the short, sprawling curls above her ears. “Russet hair,

copper in the sun, I think.”

“Yes, horribly copper.” Still she didn’t look up.

“No, radiantly copper. You cannot judge.” That brought her

chin up, and sparked another memory. “Maggie!”

Her mouth opened, then she laughed. “Grandfather told you

about me.”

“The old rascal has schemed and planned all along. I can do

little but bow to his whims.”

“Oh, no! Really, my lord, you are no kin to me, and we

would find it very awkward, I think, if you paid my shot.” Maggie Nichols raised her eyes to his again. “If I may have my harp, I can make my own living.”

Not wanting to argue with her, Max let the idea drop in

favor of a question he wanted answered. “Why did your

grandfather go to Belgium in the first place? Especially on the

eve of Waterloo. I am thankful he happened to be there, but I

have wondered why.”

“He went for business. He took many trips to Belgium and

France before the war, and during the brief peace he started to

travel again.” Maggie paced the library, so much more her home

than his. “I never knew what he did, but I believe he had a

fortune put aside.”

“Then where is the money? Shouldn’t it have gone to you?” He followed her to the desk, picturing the white‑bearded Mr.Nichols sitting there. “Tell us what happened,” Max whispered.

“I beg your pardon?”

“Nothing. I, uh, thought the desk might hold the clues we

need.”

“Perhaps. The money, according to the trustee, Mr. Turner,

does not exist. I am destitute, and only allowed to reside here

until the rightful owner claimed the house.” Maggie picked up a

crystal‑handled letter opener from the desk. She seemed to lose

herself in studying it.

“Turner again. He begins to have a decidedly bad smell. No

doubt he is our villain.”

She swung her sharp gaze at him, eyes intent. “There is no

proof. I have looked. But this letter opener lay on the floor

when I found Grandfather. His habits bordered on obsessive,

everything in its place.”

She paused, causing Max to lean forward. “Go on. You have

an idea.”

“Yes. I think Mr. Turner struck Grandfather with the letter

opener, hit him at the temple and killed him. The gunshot

covered up the actual fatal injury.”

“Good girl! That makes sense. Now, what is our motive?”

“I am not sure. For whatever reason, Grandfather made Turner the executor of his will, and now Turner has all the money they earned in business together.”

Max took a deep breath. “Your grandfather did business with

Turner?”

“They were partners, although I begged him to pay the man

off.” Maggie looked down at the letter opener, and set it in its

place near the pens and penknife. “Grandfather insisted he had

his reasons for keeping the partnership going.”

“Blackmail?”

The word hung between them. Max saw Maggie’s lips tremble,

and wanted to kiss her again. He had reached for her, when

Campbell knocked on the door and entered with the tea tray.

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