Friday, December 2, 2016

Merry & Bright for TOYS FOR TOTS

Merry & Bright
for TOYS FOR TOTS

Merry & Bright features eight sweet to hot Contemporary Romances novels
from award-winning and bestselling authors for the benefit of

TOYS FOR TOTS



Title: Merry & Bright
Genre: Contemporary Holiday Romance Charity Anthology
Charity: TOY FOR TOTS – 100% of the proceeds will be donated to TOYS FOR TOTS
Release Date: November 25, 2016
Authors: Tammy Falkner, Sarra Cannon, Marquita Valentine, Sawyer Bennett, Ava Stone, Jane Charles, Zoe Dawson, Regina Cole



Available from 11/25/16 thru 1/1/17 ONLY!


CHRISTMAS WITH THE REEDS by Tammy Falkner

A SEASON FOR HOPE by Sarra Cannon
ALL FOR YOU by Marquita Valentine
IF I RETURN by Sawyer Bennett
STAY WITH ME by Ava Stone

BRAVE by Zoe DAwson
LIGHT UP THE TREE (abridged) by Regina Cole

&

STILL RATTLED by Jane Charles 

 
Only three things matter to Kelsey Fry: an envelope full of memories, a pink box full of hope, and a well-planned future, soon to be realized. Alex Dosek knows that Kelsey needs more than the tattoo he gave her. Who would have thought a house full of boys—Alex and the Baxter boys—would be a refuge for Kelsey?


READ THE FIRST CHAPTER OF
STILL RATTLED BELOW


 Kelsey

Alex “Douche” Dosek isn’t really a douche, or at least not anymore, and I should probably stop thinking about him that way. I get why he resented me. He didn’t have the whole story, and after his mother shit on him the way she did, of course he’d think I was just as heartless because I had abandoned my baby.
But, now he gets it. If he didn’t, Alex wouldn’t have given me the most perfect tattoo.
It’s exactly what I needed, from the little foot that I thought I wanted, to the little handprint over my heart that I hadn’t even considered. The manila envelope still holds those precious items: her birth certificate, sheet music from Brahms’ Lullaby and the pink rattle I snatched from the bassinet. I’ve always had these with me, but now that everything, with the exception of the rattle and the only picture I have of Brandon, is permanently on my midriff, just below my boobs, I’m not as worried about losing the documents. I’ll still keep them close though, in the pink box on the top shelf of my closet with the letters I’ve written to Brandy. But nobody can take the art from my body. Brandy and Brandon will be with me always.
Shit! My eyes are tearing up again and everything in front of me is starting to blur. After sobbing inside of Reed’s, you’d think I’d be done by now.
“Coffee?” Alex pulls his gloves on as he steps outside in to the cold.
“Coffee!” I blink and quickly wipe away a few stray tears. I’m drained and really just want a nap, but it’s kind of nice spending time with someone I don’t have to guard myself around. Not so much protecting my feelings and heart and that type of stuff, but not having to watch what I say, or slip about Baxter, or mention I was once pregnant and lived on the streets. Those things are what people judge you by. Alex already knows the ugly. Far more ugly about my past than anyone else, with the exception of people at Baxter, like Mrs. Robak and a handful of therapists.
“There’s a diner a few blocks down,” he says and we head in that direction, keeping our heads down against the cold November wind. My hands are shoved in my coat pocket because I lost my gloves on campus two days ago. At least I have a warm, though not exactly fashionable, scarf around my neck, and I duck my chin inside.
I can’t believe that Alex did my tattoo. He’s lucky I didn’t walk right out when I found what artist had been assigned to me. Or, that’s what I thought then. I’m the lucky one. I don’t think anyone else could have done what he did. They would have given me the foot I asked for and left it at that.
Alex stops and I look up and into the long windows. I like diners, but they usually aren’t this busy, with people sitting at every table and the counter. How good could their hamburgers, fries and milkshakes be? “They must have good food,” I mumble as we step inside. The heat from the bodies, kitchen and furnace engulfs me. I’ll be sweating in my coat if I don’t get it off me soon.
“How long?” Alex asks.
The waitress in her mid-fifties with mousey brown hair streaked with silver gives him a disbelieving look. “It’s Thanksgiving. I’ve got about fifteen people ahead of you.” Then I notice the sign. Thanksgiving Special. Turkey and the fixings $3.99. I glance around again.  I’d bet what remains of my savings that ninety percent of the people enjoying their meal are homeless or barely have two nickels to rub together. I so don’t want to take a table, or even a seat at the counter from someone who needs a cheap meal far more than me. And, $3.99 is way cheap for a meal in New York. A young couple, who look like they haven’t slept in days are in a back booth with two small children. Worn and dirty backpacks are on the floor beside them.
All of the plates in the diner are filled with turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, stuffing, green beans and a roll. The works. There are also pumpkin pies lined up on the counter, waiting to be served for dessert. My mouth waters. I’ve practically existed on ramen to save money for the tat, make rent and pay for luxuries like internet. I wouldn’t even be paying for that if I didn’t need it for research and emails with professors.
“We see Santa after this?” the little girl asked with excitement. She couldn’t be older than four or five.
The parents share a look and my heart breaks in that instant from the pain in the mother’s eyes. I’ve seen many families like them. They can barely feed their kids, let alone give them a magical Christmas, and every kid deserves a visit from Santa.
No, I don’t have money to spare, but I did save a lot by risking my tattoo on someone auditioning and not insisting on having a Reed do my tat. Pulling my wallet out of my bag I look at the bills, then take a deep breath and take out fifty dollars, leaving me with $200 from what I’d saved up, then I fish out an envelope and shove the money inside.
“You keep envelopes in your bag?” Alex asks.
“I write a lot of letters.” He doesn’t need to know who those letters are written to, or why.
On the inside flap I write “For Santa shopping”.
When the waitress comes by, I ask her to give it to the family in the back booth.
Alex pulls me back outside.
“What’s wrong?”
“I forgot that it’s Thanksgiving.”
Actually, I had to. Today was about my daughter turning six and getting a tattoo. “If you have someplace to be, no big deal. We can catch up later.”
He shoves his hands in his front pockets and blows out a breath. It’s white in the cold air. “What are you doing for dinner?”
I shrug. Maybe I’ll splurge and open a can of tuna.
Turning, I glance back at the window and to the booth where the family is sitting. I want to make sure they get the envelope and that the waitress doesn’t pocket it. It’s not that I don’t trust the waitress specifically. I just don’t trust a lot of people to do the right thing.
The mother is holding it, a hand is over her mouth and then she wipes a tear before giving it to her husband. He opens it and a small smile forms before he covers his wife’s hand with his own.
I did need that money, but they need it a hell of a lot more and for once, I’m glad I acted spontaneously.
“Roommates got stuff planned?”
I blink up at Alex.
“Roommates? Plans?” His blue eyes bore into mine as if saying Earth to Kelsey.
“No, they went home.” Each invited me along but I had the excuse of the job interview tomorrow. They thought it odd that I’d interview on a day when schools are closed, but I explained that Baxter was working with my schedule. Nobody else needs to know that Baxter doesn’t celebrate holidays. Any holiday, and tomorrow is just another Friday for them.
My roommates don’t know about the tat either, and probably never will. They don’t even know all of my past. Just that I’m an orphan and went to an art academy. It’s good enough for them, and thankfully, they don’t pry. Besides, I’d been to their homes and never felt comfortable. Families gathered around the table, being nice to each other because it’s a holiday, trying desperately to make me feel welcome, like one of them. Feigning interest in my school and future plans. It’s like being dropped into a foreign country where you don’t know the language and you’re without a translator. The job interview was my perfect out.
Alex grins and grabs my hand. “Come home with me.”
I pull back. “That’s okay. I’ve got stuff to do.”
“You can’t be alone on Thanksgiving, Kelsey.”
“I don’t exactly want to be with strangers, Alex.”
His grin grows large. “But, they aren’t. Not really.”
I narrow my eyes on him. Was he just trying to get me back to his place? He’s got to know that we may have started repairing a once burned bridge, but I sure as hell am not starting anything or getting involved with anyone at this point in my life.
“Come on.” He pulls me toward the subway. “Great meal, great guys. You won’t be sorry.”
I anchor my feet so he can’t pull me any further. “Alex, we haven’t seen each other in almost five years, and we were never friends.”
His head drops, and he turns around, facing me. “Yeah, I know.”
“Just go on home. I’ll go home, and maybe we’ll get coffee some other time.” I pull on my hand, but he’s not letting go. Normally this would send off alarms in my head and my gut, but it’s not.
His blue eyes study mine. “Come with me Kelsey.”
“Why?” What can this matter to him?
“I fucked up. I should have gotten to know you, and because I was a stupid ass with a chip on my shoulder, I didn’t.”
“It’s no big deal.” Though it was. At least back then, and the reason I hated him. But it’s not so much anymore. Not after today.
“It is to me.” He grabs my other hand so that he’s now holding both, like he doesn’t want me to get away or something. “Come back to my place, enjoy an awesome Thanksgiving meal, and we’ll talk.”
His phone dings and he lets go of one hand to pull it from his jeans pocket. After reading the screen, he grins at me and turns the phone so I can see. “See what awaits.”
There’s a photo of a turkey, or what I think is a turkey, mostly wrapped in foil. Beside it on the counter are bowls and all kinds of pots on the stove in the background. Thirty minutes and counting. Browning, carving then eating, the text read.
Damn. He’s offering turkey and all the fixings. My stomach grumbles. I don’t even have turkey-flavored ramen. Actually, I’m not sure if they even have that flavor, but if they did, I don’t have it. I know exactly what’s in my allotted cupboard back at the apartment. A can of coffee, half a loaf of bread, 3 cans of spaghetti, 2 cans of tuna and two packages of chicken-flavored ramen.
Then again, I did save money by letting Alex do my tat instead of insisting and waiting for one of the Reed Brothers to be available, but that didn’t mean I needed to go out and spend it. Besides, I just handed over fifty to a family in need. “I’ll just go home. Enjoy your meal.”
Alex types something into his phone and then shoves it in his pocket. “Nope. You’re coming with me.” This time he hooks his arm with mine and pulls me to the stairs leading down to the subway.
I try and jerk it away, but he has a tight grip. Not that he’s hurting me or anything. Just being pushy. Or make that pulley since he is practically dragging me along behind him.
“I saw that look in your eye when you saw that turkey. You want it, even if you don’t want to admit it.”
Of course I want it. I’d love to sit down to a real meal for a change, but that doesn’t mean I should. Alex is still practically a stranger. What if he’s all weird and shit like that? He doesn’t strike me as dangerous, though. I’m not getting that vibe that usually warns me when someone’s a creep, but we don’t know each other. Not really.
He stops at the turnstile and gets out his metro card and scans it. “You won’t be sorry.”
I pull my card from my pocket and scan it, before following Alex down another flight of stairs to the platform. “I’m already sorry.”
We get there just as the train pulls in.
“Perfect timing.”
We wait for the passengers to exit before getting on. There are no empty seats, and barely enough room to stand. I didn’t think the subway would be this busy on a holiday. “Where do you live?”
“Brooklyn.” Alex answers as he grabs the pole for balance.
I do the same. I’ve lost my balance before, and the last thing I want to do is end up on some stranger’s lap.
“We’re renting a townhouse.”
“How many live there?”
“Six.” He shrugs and I gape at him. I’ve been in a number of brownstones and townhouses that were once gorgeous but were now broken up into apartments. One on top of the other, similar to the four bedroom I share with my roommates. Some were roomy and some, not so much. But six guys in one apartment? “That has to be crowded as hell.”
He frowns and then his blue eyes lighten just before he laughs. “We don’t rent an apartment, we rent the entire townhouse.”
Holy crap. I didn’t know tattooing paid so well. Those places cost a fortune.
He’s shaking his head. “It’s not what you think. It was a family home but got to be too much for the older couple who owns it. They moved to a smaller apartment. He wanted to cut it up for apartments and even started to in the attic. He planned an apartment for each floor like a lot of owners have done. Make it into an income property.”
I hate how so many early twentieth century buildings are cut up like the one I live in. Such beautiful architecture destroyed for the purpose of making as much money as possible.
“The wife is completely against the idea and wants the place to keep its original charm. The rent was already cheap because of the condition of the place, but we talked the couple down because two of my roommates also work construction. In exchange for cheap rent, we’ve fixed the roof, plumbing and electrical, but there’s still a ton of work to do. We got the important stuff done, the rest is mostly cosmetic.”
Sounds like a great deal. If I knew how to operate a power tool, I’d try to find something like that. But, since I can’t even hammer in a nail, I’m stuck in an expensive shoebox close to campus.
“Each month we give him the receipts and an estimate on what a contractor would have charged, and he adjusts the rent. We don’t know what we are paying from one month to the next, but it’s the best deal in town, and he’s happy to have people living there who aren’t just keeping the place up, but making it better. It’s cheaper for him in the long run to have it done this way instead of hiring a firm to gut the place.”
“So, who do you live with? You said they weren’t strangers, but we don’t exactly have the same circle of friends.”
Alex chuckles and shakes his head. “You’ll see.”

Alex

I didn’t even think when I asked Kelsey back to the house. The guys will be surprised, but I hope they aren’t pissed. Not that they should be. It’s not like I just grabbed a stranger off the street and brought her home to be fed. Not that they should have a problem if I did.
Okay, maybe a total stranger in our home would be a bad idea.
Kelsey narrows her eyes on me. “I don’t like surprises. And I’ve already had enough today.”
The seeing me and almost bolting from Reed’s before getting her tattoo, or the tat that wasn’t just a foot? I’m not sure I want to know. She loved the tat, but she didn’t love seeing me, at least not at first.
“Trust me. It’s a good one. You’ll fit right in.”
Kelsey blows out a sigh. “Listen, I don’t do family meals well. Is somebody’s family going to be there?”
I seal my lips and make a sign like I’m throwing away the key.
“If I’m uncomfortable, I’m leaving, okay. No making me stay.”
Kelsey has her defenses up, like she’s afraid. I get it. I’m not exactly open to strangers either, but she’ll be happy once she sees who’s there. At least, I assume she will be. “Only long enough to fix you a plate so you can take it home.” Maybe she’ll relax knowing she can walk out the door as soon as she walks in, if that is what she wants, though I doubt it will happen that way.
She gave me a small smile. “Is there going to be pie?”
“Chocolate, pumpkin and cherry.”
Her eyes practically rolled back in her head as she groans. “I can’t remember the last time I had pie.”
I’m surprised that particular dessert didn’t bring all kinds of unpleasant memories. She was delivering a piece of pie to Brandon when he was killed.
The smile slips. “I couldn’t eat pie for two years after Brandon died.”
Could she fucking read my mind?
“Then I realized, if I hadn’t been taking him a piece, I wouldn’t have been able to say goodbye and tell him that I loved him. I would have just gone home and waited for him to get off work.” Her dark eyes meet mine. “So, pie is good.”
“And, these will be delicious.”
The train slows and I glance out to see where we are. I haven’t been paying close attention to the stops, but we’re getting close.
Close? Hell, this is my stop. If I hadn’t decided to look this time, we would have gone right past and that would have been a pain in the ass to get off at the next stop, and then go around and grab the train going in the opposite direction.
“Here we are.”
She takes a deep breath and steps out onto the platform. “Are you sure they won’t mind?”
“I promise,” grabbing her hand, I head for the stairs to exit the subway.




Friday, November 25, 2016

Christmas Spirits (Spirited Storms #1) (The Spirited Storms)

Christmas Spirits
(Spirited Storms #1) 
(The Spirited Storms)

(A Novella)

FREE - 11/25/16 - 11/29/16


Mary Soares was supposed to spend Christmas, nice and warm on her family’s estate in Falkirk, Scotland, tending to their whisky business. However, the English have made smuggling almost impossible, and so order after order is waiting at the distillery until it’s safe enough to continue shipments. Most customers understand this. Most customers are reasonable. The Duke of Danby is not most customers. After a number of demands from His Grace, insisting upon his order, Mary decides to deliver the whisky herself.

Benjamin Storm, Earl of Kenley, breathes a sigh of relief when his summons from the Duke of Danby has nothing to do with matrimony or a stack of special licenses. Instead, his uncle just needs Benjamin to travel to Scotland and procure his missing whisky shipment in time for his holiday festivities. The chore sounds easy enough, at least until he encounters a most unusual smuggler on her way to Danby Castle. Benjamin’s life may never be the same.

*This story originally appeared in “The Duke’s Christmas Summons” anthology.



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Benjamin,

I am very much aware that you have been avoiding me since the wedding of Mr. Jonathan Bridges and Miss. Genviève Mirabelle nearly a year and a half ago. Your excuses in the past have been flimsy at best, and I will accept no more. You will attend me in Yorkshire, with your equally absent siblings and remain at the castle through December 26th. If you wish to stay longer, I have no objections. However, you must present yourself to me no later than December 17th. If you fail to do so, the retribution will be harsh and long in duration.

Danby

ONE

Danby Castle, Yorkshire ~ December 17, 1816

Benjamin Storm, Earl of Kenley, eyed his great-uncle, the Duke of Danby, with trepidation. For the past year and a half he’d been able to avoid His Grace, but no longer. The threat in the missive was non-specific, but Benjamin was not about to take any chances. While he wasn’t exactly certain what His Grace could actually do to him, the gentleman was the Duke of Danby and held almost as much power as Prinny or the Prime Minister.
“Where are your siblings?” His Grace demanded. “I was very specific that you bring them with you.”
Benjamin resisted the urge to pull at his cravat and sat straighter in the chair before His Grace’s massive desk. “I have no idea where Nathaniel is, though last I heard, he was in India.” That was months ago. His brother could be anywhere right now and if he ever bothered to write, Ben would know where that was.
His Grace frowned.
“As you are well aware, Abigail gave birth to a son a few weeks ago and cannot travel.”
“Your sister is not my concern,” Danby ground out.
Of course not. Abigail was married and just delivered her fourth child, which only solidified Benjamin’s suspicions of why he’d been ordered to the castle.
“What of Samuel?”
His other wayward brother, and Nate’s twin. “Barbados.”
“Still?” Danby demanded incredulously. “He’s been there five years!”
Benjamin simply stared at his great-uncle and wished to be done with this unnecessary conversation. Danby knew exactly where his brother was. In fact, he likely knew where each of his siblings were at this very moment and what they had for supper a week ago. “Yes. He has.”
“He needs to come home.” His Grace thumped his cane against the floorboards. That’s probably why there was no carpet or rugs in this room. One could not have the desired effect of a thumping cane if it were muffled by tightly woven wool.
“I believe he rather likes it there,” Benjamin answered dryly.
“Bah!” Danby narrowed his eyes on him. “Is he still with that Easton fellow?”
The Duke didn’t like Easton, never had. As younger sons, it had been Easton who decided to travel to Barbados and take over his uncle’s plantation. Samuel thought it a grand idea and went along and soon after purchased his own land. Neither had returned to England and saw no reason to do so. “Yes, he is. Both have been very successful in their endeavors and have become very wealthy gentlemen.” So successful that if the crops didn’t improve next year, Benjamin would be seeking financial assistance from his younger brother to help save the estate. It was far more palatable than marrying a dowry.
“I assume there is an excuse for each of them for not being here?” His Grace grumbled.
“Peter remained home with Mother, as did my younger sisters,” Benjamin answered honestly. “Mother has not been feeling her best and they are concerned, as am I.” He sat forward. “So, if we can bring this interview to an end, I’d like to return home.”
Danby narrowed his eyes. “Your mother is no more ill than I am. She twisted an ankle, which would not prevent her from entering a carriage and traveling.”
“Besides the discomfort, of course,” Benjamin answered wryly.
“She injured it a fortnight ago.” Danby thumped his cane again. “There is no reason she could not travel. If it still pains her, you need a new physician. I’ll send mine if she doesn’t recover before the ball.”
Benjamin didn’t bother to argue. He knew as well as His Grace that his mother had latched onto the excuse so she didn’t have to endure a holiday at Danby Castle. It wasn’t the castle she objected to as much as the current owner. Further, he wouldn’t put it past the woman to have intentionally caused the injury. “Do as you see fit.” He’d let his mother deal with His Grace because Benjamin wasn’t about to become embroiled in the middle of any dispute that may arise.
“Very well then,” Danby announced as he stood. “Let’s discuss the reason why I summoned you.”
Benjamin already had a fairly good idea, but held his tongue. Instead, he watched as his great-uncle strode to the sideboard and poured two glasses of a golden liquid.  Benjamin followed him to the sitting area, hoping he didn’t have to return to his seat before the desk. It was too reminiscent of sitting before the chancellor and waiting to be disciplined. That was many years ago, of course, but that sick feeling he always got in the pit of his stomach returned with a vengeance in these situations. Besides, he was a gentleman of nine and twenty and did not need to be disciplined by his great-uncle like a wayward school boy. They could discuss His Grace’s concerns in the comfort of the chairs or the blue and gold settee arranged before the fireplace. 
Danby turned and handed him a glass before taking a drink of his own and sinking into the well-worn dark leather chair.
Benjamin sipped slowly and let the liquid roll over his tongue to burn a trail down his throat. No hint of poison could be detected. Not that he expected His Grace to try and kill him, but he wouldn’t put it past the old man to somehow put something in his drink that would render Benjamin unconscious only to wake and find himself married to a lady of the duke’s choice.
The whisky was excellent, however. Superb in comparison to the others he’d enjoyed over the years, and he took another sip. If anything, His Grace had excellent taste in whisky.
His great-uncle gestured to the settee and Ben settled into the comfort of the soft cushion.
“Why haven’t you married?”
Benjamin practically choked on the whisky. He knew the question was coming but would have preferred if it hadn’t been asked mid-drink or without a more pleasant lead in to the topic.
“I have not found the right lady.”
“Have you looked?” Danby demanded.
“Diligently!” he defended. “For the past five seasons, if you must know.” Benjamin knew he owed a duty to the title. He was an earl and was expected to produce an heir and a spare before his death. As much as he’d like to think he could rely on at least one of his brothers to fill the role should something happen to him, Benjamin did not have the confidence they would. Nathaniel, the spare, was never in England long enough to even discuss the matter, and half the time, Benjamin had no idea where to even find him. Should something happen, he wouldn’t be surprised if Nate faked his own death to get out of those duties, thus foisting them onto his twin, younger by five minutes, Samuel, who had no intention of ever leaving the Caribbean. Sam wouldn’t go so far as Nate to avoid the responsibility. He’d just ignore it as if it didn’t exist and go about planting sugar as if nothing had changed.
Danby snorted. “You couldn’t find a bride in five years? Where were you looking? The brothels?”
Benjamin looked his great-uncle in the eye and in all seriousness answered, “In truth, I found many candidates that would suit at Madame Delight’s. Unfortunately, society would frown on a soiled dove becoming my countess.”
The corner of Danby’s mouth quirked slightly then he frowned again. Had Benjamin not been watching, he would have missed the reaction completely.
“What’s wrong with the suitable young ladies?”
“That depends on which lady you are inquiring about.” He had met a number of them, and though none would suit, the reasons varied.
Danby pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket and unfolded it.
“Good God, is that list of ladies?”
“You should have anticipated that I’d be prepared.”
Benjamin suffered a sigh and stood. He was not going to be allowed to leave until his great-uncle was satisfied, so he poured more whisky into his glass. If he must endure the interrogation, there was no reason why he could not partake of the excellent whisky in the process.
As His Grace began listing names of the current crop of debutantes and those who had been out for a few years, Benjamin in turn provided one word answers of why he would not consider them, such as: pretentious, unkind, antagonistic, condemnatory, insipid, anxious, conceited, feather-brained, bluestocking and silly.
Danby folded the list and Benjamin hoped this meeting was concluded.
“I noticed you used silly several times.”
“In truth, Your Grace, I do believe those being presented get sillier each and every year.” Ben sat back down, relaxed against the upholstery and crossed his legs, feeling much more at ease. He wasn’t sure if it was because the interrogation was turning into a conversation between gentlemen or the whisky or both, but Ben was glad to no longer be on edge.
“Yes, I can see where you’d believe so.” He stood and refilled his glass. “A few of your relations fall into that category.” He returned to his chair and took a sip. “Three come to mind immediately,” he grumbled.
“Three?” Benjamin was not sure which of his relations Danby referred to. There were so many first, second and third removed…unless he referred to the triplets. One of them had caused quite a scene last season.
“It does not matter,” Danby dismissed. “I’ll deal with them, and their mother.”
By the austerity in His Grace’s eyes, Benjamin was thankful he was not part of that family, whoever they were.
“So, you don’t want a silly chit.” He nodded and took a drink. “What of physical characteristics. Are they not pleasant to look upon either?”
Benjamin chuckled and shook his head. “They are all pretty, some beautiful, but that means little when contemplating a future.”
Danby frowned at him.
Ben blew out a sigh. “Of course I wish for an attractive wife, but beauty often diminishes over time. I’d rather have someone I enjoy spending time with, conversing with, than simply looking at.”
His Grace settled back, studying Ben with shrewd eyes.
“God willing, I’ll be spending many years with my bride and I’d prefer to like her, even love her, as opposed to a beautiful lady with little substance.”
For the longest time His Grace said nothing and Ben’s nerves began to resurface. Not for one moment had he forgotten what Danby had done to his own grandchildren to see them married off, and he wasn’t fooling himself by thinking His Grace didn’t have the same plan for him. All he could do was wait for the pronouncement. An order to go find a bride and be quick about it, ignoring what Ben may wish.
As the silence continued, Ben finished his drink and poured another. He would remain at the castle tonight regardless of how much he wished to be gone, and if Danby was going to issue a dictate that would see his life miserable, he might as well get properly foxed. He stared down into the glass. He was going to be miserable enough on the morrow, perhaps he shouldn’t add a headache and sickness to his misery. Besides, he shouldn’t lose his head now. Not while sitting with Danby. His Grace wouldn’t hesitate to take advantage of the situation and secure an agreement from Benjamin that he would regret for the rest of his life.
“Very well,” His Grace finally said.
“Very well, what?”
“You know what you want. I’m certain you shall find it.”
Ben eyed him suspiciously. That was too easy.
“I can see you’ve given this a good deal of thought and am confident you will make the right choice when the time comes.” He finished his drink, set the glass on the table. “Now that the discussion of your future is concluded, I have a request before you return to your mother.”
Ben set his glass aside, no longer wishing to drink. Apparently His Grace was going to let him plan his own life, much to his relief.
“I’ve been waiting on a delivery and it hasn’t arrived.”
“What type of delivery?” He couldn’t imagine anyone would have the daring not to fulfill a request by the Duke of Danby. Well, unless they were dead.
Danby nodded to the decanter. “The finest whisky ever produced.”
“Whisky? That’s what you’re waiting on?” Yes, it was a fine whisky, but Ben was just as certain bottles could be procured from other sources if necessary.
“Two cases of the spirits. I need it before Christmas.”
“I’m not sure how I can be of assistance.”
“Dear boy, I wish for you to go and retrieve them.”
“Spirits for Christmas?” He couldn’t believe this was what was being asked of him, but it was far preferable to a strange bride.
“Exactly! Christmas Spirits.”

Falkirk, Scotland

“Are ya certain Lachlan is no’ goin’ to return for Christmas?” Mary Soares asked her mother, hoping for a different answer this time.
“Ye ken his wife just had a bairn. They canna travel.”
“I doona know why she couldn’t have had the babe here like the first one,” Mary grumbled. Had her brother and Madeline just come north for the birthing then she would not be in this predicament.
“Yer brother had it difficult enough this summer with all the rain, getting’ stuck on the road, the poor barley crop, and bleak skies. He dinna wish to add to his troubles by takin’ his family away from Grosmont for fear they’d get stuck or encounter ice covered roads.”
“Aye, but the babe was born a month ago. Surely he could come now.”
“And not make it back in time for Christmas?” her mother scolded. “That would be unfair to Maddie and the children.”
Mary blew out a breath. Of course her mother was right, but it didn’t help their circumstances at the moment. With a sigh she settled at the scarred table in her work room. Her brother, Lachlan Grant, Marquess of Brachton, was to have seen to the delivery of the mounting orders for whisky. Her sister’s husband, Magnus, was to have helped, but he’d fallen from a ladder nearly a month ago and still couldn’t stand up straight without severe pain.
“I wish Ian would come home.” Ian was the next oldest, and in charge of the distilling, but he also helped with deliveries on occasion. However, he’d been in Edinburgh for the last fortnight waiting on the ship to take whisky to London. For years Jonathan Bridges had shipped her brother’s whisky to his London warehouse and the ship was to have been here by now, but had been delayed by the weather. At least that was what they all assumed. But, until the ship did dock, Ian had to remain because they trusted nobody else to see to the cargo.
There were several men and lads who helped with the distilling, but never on the deliveries. It was far too dangerous. She’d never forgive herself if they were caught by the excisemen who were currently in the area looking for smugglers. She’d seen the lights when they appeared on the hillside as soon as the sun set yesterday. A warning to all of them not to take the whisky from hiding until the gougers were gone. 
At the moment, Mary had few options available to her. They could pay the taxes, which were so high that it was impossible to make a profit. Wait until the excisemen were gone. Or, risk moving the whisky. If caught, the whisky would be confiscated. Or worse, someone could be killed. It wasn’t unusual, unfortunately, for fighting to break out between the gougers and the smugglers, especially along the border, often ending with someone’s death. Tensions were high as it was. Crops failed this last year because of the unusually cold weather, and food was scarce in many places. Not only did smugglers need to worry about the excisemen, but thieves as well.
In the past, only Lachlan or Magnus drove the wagon to the docks in Edinburgh or over the border into England but as neither of them were available, the task would now fall to her.
She rifled through the orders, setting aside those who would receive a note explaining the delay and held back the most demanding requests. Three letters and all from His Grace, the Duke of Danby.
If she thought him reasonable, she’d write to him as well and explain the current set of circumstances they found themselves in, but nothing about the Duke of Danby struck her as reasonable. Demanding – yes. Reasonable – no.
He’d been to her home twice, when once would have been more than enough, to call on her brother. Why His Grace hadn’t called on Lachlan at his estate in Grosmont was beyond Mary’s comprehension. Grosmont was in Yorkshire, Danby Castle was in Yorkshire, so it stood to reason that estate was much more convenient for His Grace than traveling to Falkirk, Scotland.
He was also their most important customer and one they did not wish anger. Lachlan had reminded her time and time again that whenever His Grace requested a shipment, it was to be sent immediately. Which was all fine and good, until there was no one to make the delivery.
She needed to find a way to get the whisky to Danby Castle and the rest would just have to wait. Except she had no idea how to go about it.
Lifting the lamp from the desk, Mary made her way to the stables. She could use the traveling coach, with the Brachton coat of arms, as her brother often did, with the bottles wrapped in wool and hidden in the seats and floor. But, that would require a driver and a maid to accompany her, thus putting three people at risk if they were caught.
Beside the coach was the wagon Magnus used for deliveries, and above it on wide shelves, the means in which he used to hide the whisky. A smile pulled at her lips. “Of course!” She had driven many wagons in the past and was quite comfortable doing so. Happy with her plan, Mary made her way to the distillery and gave instructions to have the wagon prepared so that she could leave at first light and hope the excisemen were gone. She couldn’t delay longer or His Grace wouldn’t have his whisky in time for Christmas. She wouldn’t be home by Christmas, but at least His Grace would be happy, and that was really all that mattered.




Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Ruined by a Lady (Spirited Storms #3) (The Spirited Storms)

Ruined by a Lady
(Spirited Storms #3)
(The Spirited Storms)

(A Novella)


** Previously published in Evading the Duke ***

There is nothing Samuel Storm wants more than to leave London behind him and return to his plantation in Barbados, until he sees a portrait come to life. At least he’s fairly certain the girl across St. Paul's is the same one depicted in the scandalous painting he owns back in the Caribbean. But how can he be sure? And why would a lady pose for such a painting?

Lady Jillian Simpson has made many mistakes in her life, but the worst was falling for an artist who took advantage of her trust. She is fairly certain her father has found and destroyed all of the paintings, all but one, at least until she encounters the dashing Mr. Storm and learns another exists. But after everything she’s experienced, how can she ever trust him with her secret or her heart?


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Nathaniel,

You and Samuel must return home immediately. The most horrendous circumstance has occurred and I am so beside myself that I do not know what to do. It is far too distressing to even write in a letter. Suffice it to say, nothing this horrific has happened to our family in a very long time, and your presence is needed most urgently.

Mother


CHAPTER 1


April 18, 1817, London

Samuel Storm sucked in a breath the moment those familiar blues eyes met his. It had to be her. But how was it even possible?
He took a step in her direction but Nathaniel, his twin brother, placed a hand on his arm and handed him the missive that had been delivered as soon as they stepped out of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Sam took it without removing his eyes from her. The late afternoon sun shone on her head, making it appear as if her blonde locks were laced with gold, and for a moment she glanced back. Her haunting Caribbean blue eyes met his before she was assisted into a carriage displaying the Duke of Eldridge’s coat of arms. An older man stood waiting. By his regal bearing, no doubt he was Eldridge.
Either the duke’s daughter at one time sat for a rather scandalous portrait, or a woman who looked exactly like her had. That very portrait hung in his home in Barbados, and Sam needed to know if the two were one and the same.
With reluctance, Sam tore his eyes away from the duke’s carriage and glanced at the missive. The one thing that had not changed in the five years he’d been gone was the habit of his mother to succumb to hysterics.
“What could be so blasted important that she thought it appropriate to pull us from a wedding?” Nate demanded.
Sam handed the summons back to his brother who promptly crushed it in his fist.
“At least the footman ignored her dictate and waited until we exited the church or you might have missed the wedding you stood to witness for Roxburg,” Nate grumbled.
Sam and Mark Easton, the Duke of Roxburg, had been friends for a number of years. The last five of which they’d lived in Barbados, each managing their own sugar plantations. Life had been good living on an island of beautiful women when one was wealthy and a bachelor. Roxburg’s sudden change in title was what brought them back to London. Not that Sam needed to return, but Roxburg had wanted the one gentleman he trusted by his side when facing society once again. Not that he needed Sam. In the month that Sam was away visiting his family, Roxburg had met his wife, and the two had married just a short time ago.
“Let’s make it quick,” Sam was resigned to deal with their mother, but waste no more time than necessary on whatever crisis had arisen. He and Nate had planned on going to their club until it was time for the ball. Roxburg managed to obtain a Special License so that he could be married at the earliest time the church was available, which happened to be today at five. He had also decided to forgo the wedding breakfast in lieu of a ball, which he insisted would begin in a few hours and not late in the evening as was tradition.
“If Mother starts going on and on about torn flounces, stained gloves, or spilled tea at the al fresco, I swear I’ll send her right back home and let Ben deal with our sisters.” Benjamin, the Earl of Kenley, their older brother, could see to their three younger sisters attending the Season.
“I’d hate to see her reaction if something actually horrific occurred,” Sam grumbled after he followed his brother into the carriage and relaxed against the squabs. As he glanced out the window, the duke’s carriage passed and his eyes met those all too familiar blue eyes.
Could it really be her?
He’d first spied the painting in a gallery in New Orleans and knew instantly that he must have it. Not so much because of the lush body that lay in repose upon a fainting coach, a long leg extended and uncovered, though white gossamer shielded the rest of her body, or because of the delicious breasts practically spilled from a fitted corset, or the full, red lips beckoning for a kiss. Not only did he want that woman on his own couch, clad similarly, but he wanted to know her too. Those blue eyes conveyed innocence, seduction, spirit, vulnerability, rebellion, and sadness that pulled him in. He longed to ask why sadness lurked in the deep recesses of her blue irises. Why her mouth may tip at the corner when there was no happiness? Why was she haunted?
It was ridiculous, of course. The girl was a model and the artist was simply excellent at his craft. Yet, when Sam spied the lady in St. Paul’s Church, not only did the same emotion lurk in her eyes, but the sadness seemed deeper.
Yes, she smiled, but it was forced. The tension in her jaw betrayed what she was trying not to show.
Did nobody else realize she wasn’t happy?
He needed to know her.
Just because the lady in the painting bore a striking resemblance to Eldridge’s daughter, it was impossible that it was her. A duke’s daughter did not pose for erotic paintings, yet Sam felt the same pull towards Eldridge’s daughter as he had experienced when he first viewed the painting, and he had every intention of gaining an introduction.
The carriage pulled up before their townhouse and the gentlemen jumped out and hurried to the door. Not because Sam believed distressing news awaited them, but because he wanted to be done with whatever had fluffed mother’s feathers this time.
They found their mother, the Dowager Countess of Kenley, in the sitting room with three of their younger sisters. Hannah was pacing as if she were too agitated to sit. Tabitha was stitching, which he learned she often did when there was little else to occupy her time, and Deborah simply sat in a chair by the window, watching the others as if in deep contemplation.
His oldest brother, Benjamin, relaxed with his lovely and enchanting wife, Mary, sipping tea. It certainly didn’t appear as if there was anything urgent that required his or Nate’s attention, which he already suspected would be the case.
“What happened?” Nate demanded, his tone laced with the irritation Sam felt.
“We were at Lady Emma Heathfield’s al fresco when we saw him.”
“Who?” Sam asked. He had not been back in England all that long, but nobody had uttered a word about any gentleman his mother feared.
“I didn’t know what to do, so of course, we left immediately.” His mother waived a handkerchief in front of her face. “Oh, I do hope he didn’t see us. Though it was highly rude to leave so quickly without paying our respects to Lady Heathfield, but it was necessary given the circumstances. I must send her a note of apology right away.”
“Stop!” Nate yelled. “Who did you see that has you so upset?”
Her eyes widened and she looked at them. “His Grace! The Duke of Danby.”
“I don’t understand why this is important.” He was a duke. Wasn’t he required to be here with Parliament in session, and what the blazes did his great-uncle being in London have to do with them? “You do realize I was at the wedding of my closest friend. I stood as a witness.”
His mother’s eyes grew wide. “But, it is the Duke of Danby.”
“I don’t care if it’s the Crown Prince,” Samuel yelled as he turned for the door. Of all the ridiculous nonsense. He needed a drink and only in a place where reasonable gentlemen were allowed.
“But, you don’t understand,” their mother cried.
“What the blazes is there to understand?” Nate demanded.
“He’s going to ruin everything.”
Sam turned just in time to see his mother’s eyes fill with tears.
“He’ll ruin my family.”
Ben stood and assisted Mary to her feet. “My wife and I are going for a drive in the park.”
“But, but, but….” their mother sputtered.
Ben didn’t look back and stopped before his brothers. “As I need to deal with this all of the time because neither one of you can be bothered to remain in England, you now have the pleasure of calming her while I enjoy the afternoon with my wife, which was ruined by her early return.”


“Forget him,” the Duke of Eldridge ordered his daughter.
Lady Jillian Simpson blinked at her father hoping her face conveyed innocence. “Who?”
“That gentleman you kept looking at in the church.” Her father frowned. “He’s beneath you.”
She knew better than to argue or question him further. Father had very specific ideas about who he believed was worthy of her, not that she’d managed to marry any of them. Save one, but as nobody knew of the marriage, they weren’t aware of the annulment either. It’s as if it never happened.
“It’s bad enough that those Valentines are marrying titles while you remain unwed, but I will not tolerate them marrying better than you.”
They’d just left the wedding of the Duke of Roxburg and Miss Bianca Valentine, which meant Jillian had better set her cap on a duke. She no longer gave a wit of what title a gentleman may or may not have, but even her father must realize that finding an eligible duke to marry might be rather difficult. It wasn’t as if they grew on trees, waiting to be picked.
“That man you were watching is Mr. Samuel Storm.” The mister was said with disgust. “His older brother is the Earl of Kenley and there is another brother between Mr. Storm and the title.”
Heaven forbid she marry a mister. Her father would have an apoplexy. As much as the idea of acting in such a rebellious manner would give her great pleasure, Jillian did not have the nerve to face the inevitable consequences and thus accepted her lot in life. As the daughter of a powerful duke, she would marry the highest title she could attain, and settle into her role as lady, wife, and eventual mother. All she could hope for was that she at least liked her husband, instead of any of the lesser emotions like love. Father hadn’t loved her mother, the daughter of an influential marquess, nor did he believe in its existence.
Jillian glanced out the window. Of course she thought she’d been in love once. She’d been a fool. Young and naïve. Never would she love again.
“You know who you are to charm, Jillian. You are two and twenty, and I will see you married to an acceptable title before this Season is done.”
Taking a deep breath, Jillian straightened her shoulders, lifted her chin, shut down all emotions. The cloak of superiority she’d fought in her youth had since become her most comfortable persona and the strongest of armor. As long as she let no one in, she would be safe. And, she must put Mr. Samuel Storm from her mind, if that were possible. There had been something arresting in his clear emerald eyes when they met hers. Almost a recognition, then delight and something else she could not understand. Her breath had caught and her pulse sped. It wasn’t a reaction she was familiar with, and she wished she knew what it meant.