Shakespeare and the Three Kings
Originally published in the Santa Paws anthology, this Christmas tale of mischievous dogs, good intentions and lost love is back!
After inheriting three unbearable dogs from his great-aunt, Oliver Stanhope was relieved to find she’d made arrangements for a trainer. But when D.K. Lawrence arrives at his door, enormous Great Dane in tow, he finds himself facing the woman who broke his heart. And one way or another, this will be a Christmas no one will ever forget!
Read Chapter One!
October 23, 1893
My Dearest Oliver, If indeed you are reading this it means my idiot doctors were correct and I shall not be here when you return from your travels. They insist I am about to breathe my last breath upon this earth and will not see another Christmas. Pity. I do so love Christmas. Of course, I have no intention of proving them right. Still, it is wise to be prepared.
First, I do not wish you to be unduly upset by my passing. I have lived an excellent life full of all the affection and adventure any woman could ask for in this day and age. If I am to leave this world behind I am eager to get on with it and be reunited with my beloved Charles. It has been nearly twenty-two years since he had the temerity to die without me. I shall have a few firm words for him on that score before we spend eternity together. All in all, I am quite looking forward to it.
In spite of himself, Sir Oliver Thornton Stanhope could not suppress a slight smile. He could well imagine Great Aunt Eleanor berating Uncle Charles for having the audacity to die without her permission. Oliver knew Charles only from the portrait that hung next to Aunt Ellie’s in the front hall of Thornton Manor but he’d always thought there was a twinkle in the old man’s eye. Ridiculous notion, of course.
I have never particularly believed in regrets. Yet I find I do have a few and they concern you, my dear boy.
As you well know, it has always been a source of irritation to me that your parents did not provide the proper affection that was your due as their son. I would not have wished their untimely deaths yet it does seem to me perhaps fate had a hand in it as it brought you into my keeping. If you recall, you were not at all pleasant at age eleven. And since Charles had only recently passed on it was a trying time for us both.
An image of soap shavings tossed discreetly into a kettle of tea and the resulting foamy chaos flashed through his mind. His smile widened to a grin.
How did we manage to muddle through those days? Quite well, I think, in looking back upon it. You have been as a son to me, Oliver. I have loved you without reservation for these long years and, while you have always been reticent to display your emotions, I have no doubt you returned my affection. Still, I fear the legacy of your parents’ lack of regard lingers within you.
His smile faded.
I did so wish before I left this earth to see you with a wife and children of your own. I had hoped you would find the same kind of love Charles and I shared. I am well aware that you sampled it once with disastrous results. Still, life goes on and I did try my best.
A seemingly endless parade of eligible young women marched through his mind. Every time he had visited Aunt Ellie in recent years she’d had a houseguest or a house full of guests—most of them young, charming and eminently suitable to be the wife of Sir Oliver Thornton Stanhope.
It is the greatest failure of my life that I was not able to help you find a lasting love. There is little I can do about it now. However, in addition to the manor and my fortune, which you really do not need—but one can never be too wealthy or too intelligent in this world—I leave in your keeping the last loves of my life.
Oliver glanced over the top of the lilac-scented stationery to meet three pairs of black, beady, unflinching eyes. He grit his teeth and dropped his gaze back to the flowery writing on the page before him.
My little darlings have brought great joy to me. I consider them my children just as I consider you my son.
Oliver rolled his eyes at the ceiling and sighed.
I can see you now in my mind’s eye, gazing heavenward and heaving a great sigh.
She always knew exactly what he was thinking.
Even now, from the grave. I well know your opinion of my three tiny kings yet I also know you will provide them with a good home. It may not be easy. I have spoiled them shamelessly. In order to ease your adjustment to them, and theirs to you, I have procured the services of an American . . .
His eyes narrowed.
. . . a recent acquaintance, who is skilled in the training of dogs. D. K. Lawrence should arrive at the manor by December eighteenth and has agreed to stay for as long as is necessary.
Bloody hell. This was already the seventeenth. There was no time to head the damnable man off. The last thing Oliver wanted was some blasted American dog lover in his home for an undetermined period of time.
I am well aware of your feelings about Americans. Still, it is the season of goodwill toward all and I do expect you to honor that spirit as well as my wishes.
As if she had left him a choice.
If you will permit them, my little ones will provide you with a great deal of affection. It is my hope, if you open your heart to them it will help you learn to open your heart to others. Never forget, my dearest Oliver, how very much I have loved you and how very much I pray you will find love in the future. It is my final Christmas gift to you. The gift of love. The greatest gift of all. Yours
Yours always, Aunt Ellie
An unaccustomed ache stung the back of his throat. Damn, he would miss her. Why had he never told her how much she meant to him? Although, if he had read the tone of her letter correctly, she knew of his feelings. He should have been here with her. If he’d returned but two weeks earlier . . .
Regret surged through him and he shook his head. He couldn’t help that business for the crown had taken him out of England for the last six months. Even though he’d moved to London a decade ago, he did manage to make the three-hour train trip to Thornton an average of every other fortnight and he’d never missed a holiday. Yet at this moment, it did not seem enough for the woman who had taken him in and given him a life and a future.
He dropped the letter on his desk. He’d learned of her death when he returned to England last week and came immediately to Thornton Manor. He’d met with her solicitor and discovered she had arranged all the loose ends of her life in a tidy manner. This letter tied up the rest. Dear Aunt Ellie. His life would not be the same without her.
He raised his gaze and all sentiment vanished in the face of three pairs of intently staring eyes. Yorkshire Terriers. Rats with fur was more like it. They were far too tiny to do much of anything but yap and get underfoot. How could she have done this to him? He detested the minuscule beasts and had a strong suspicion they were not fond of him either. Perhaps this Lawrence person would be willing to take them off his hands.
He glared at the toy-like animals and they glared right back. No, of course he couldn’t get rid of them. It was Aunt Ellie’s last request of him and he could never deny her anything.
“Blast it.” He got to his feet and strode to the door of Aunt Ellie’s library, or rather, his library now, and flung it open. “Miles!”
Aunt Ellie’s butler appeared from nowhere as was his custom.
“Yes, Sir Oliver?”
“It seems we are to have a visitor my aunt invited before her death. Please make the appropriate arrangements.”
Miles didn’t so much as raise a brow. He’d been Aunt Ellie’s family retainer for as long as Oliver could remember and news of an unexpected houseguest, even one invited posthumously, did not daunt him in the least. “As you wish. When will Lady Eleanor’s guest arrive?”
“Tomorrow.” Oliver shook his head. “I am not pleased at all about this, Miles, but it was my aunt’s doing so we shall have to acquiesce to her wishes. Besides, it is too late to head the bloody man off.”
“I shall see to it that suitable accommodations are found.”
“Thank you, Miles.”
The butler nodded and vanished into the shadowy hall. Miles, and most of the other servants at Thornton, were as much a part of his family as Aunt Ellie. In his youth he recalled having long conversations with Miles on the deeply philosophical matters that plague a young man’s mind. As an adult, Miles treated him with the deference his position demanded but Oliver always suspected, or perhaps hoped, should he need to have a discussion of a more personal nature, Miles would serve as his confidant. Not that he needed anyone to talk to. Oliver prided himself on keeping such matters private. He had learned, in an exceedingly painful manner, to keep his thoughts, and more, his emotions, to himself. That may well be the very reason why none of the young women Aunt Ellie had herded in his direction had appealed to him. He had allowed himself to fall under the charms of a woman once. And once was quite enough.
Oliver started toward the stairs. Tiny footsteps sounded behind him. He glanced over his shoulder. The Yorkies lined up at his heels. “Where do you think you’re going?”
They stared as if to say he was their master now and he was stuck with them. They appeared no happier about it than he was.
“What are your names anyway?” Oliver frowned. “Ah yes. How could I have forgotten? Aunt Ellie’s three kings: Melchoir—”
The ears of the middle dog perked upward.
The creature last in line took a step forward.
“—and Gaspar.” The animal closest to him wagged its stubby tail. “Ridiculous names for such tiny beasts.”
They gazed at him with a steady stare. A bit unnerving, that. Why, they seemed quite intelligent. Almost human. Nonsense. They were the living playthings of an elderly woman and nothing more. Still, now they were his.
He heaved a sigh of surrender. “Very well, come along but stay out of my way.”
Oliver headed up the steps, the scrambling of twelve tiny paws on the polished wood of the stairs echoing after him. They were so small, did they need help negotiating the climb? He resisted the urge to turn. No, if indeed they were all to coexist together they’d best learn to be independent. There would be no coddling from him.
Perhaps there was something beneficial to the arrival of the American after all. If nothing else, he could teach the miserable excuses for canines to be dogs and not pampered children.
At least the Yorkies and the American would provide a needed distraction. He’d spent the last twenty-two Christmases in the wonder of the holiday atmosphere his aunt created at the manor—the only place in the world where he knew without question he was welcomed and loved. It was going to be lonely without her. He was used to being alone, of course, but he was also used to Aunt Ellie’s unconditional affection. Christmas was her favorite time of year and this Christmas would be difficult at best.
An impatient yap sounded behind him. Oliver groaned to himself and continued up the steps.
On the other hand, there was something to be said for solitude
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