Friday, May 18, 2018

His Christmas Match (A Gentleman’s Guide to Once Upon a Time #4) (A Gentleman's Guide to Once Upon a Time)



Berkshire, England, November, 1814

Rosalind Valentine jerked her head up at the slam of the door. Goodness, who would do such a thing? From her place on the floor at the far side of the room, she glanced over to her employer, Lady Sandlin, who frowned and shifted toward the entrance. Heavy, booted feet pounded toward their sitting room, and Lady Sandlin stood. Rosalind returned her attention to her two charges; the soon-to-be four-year-old twins were completely undisturbed by the unusual interruption. 
Where were the servants, and why hadn’t they announced the new arrival? Had the intruder barged into the manor without knocking and waiting for the door to be answered?
“Phoebe, where are you?”
Rosalind sucked in a breath. That wasn’t Lord Sandlin’s voice. What gentleman would dare storm into the Sandlin household in such a manner yelling for Lady Sandlin by her given name? Rosalind placed a doll in Heather’s arms and a soldier into Campbell’s pudgy hand and prepared to sweep the children up and out of the room if necessary. Whoever was stomping toward this room was angry by his tone, and it was her duty to protect her charges.
“I’m in here, Noah,” Lady Sandlin called, and Rosalind’s heart ceased for a moment before it began pounding anew. Noah? As in Marques Felding? Lady Sandlin’s older brother? Rosalind hadn’t seen him in since last Christmas when he attended services with his family at her uncle’s church.
Rosalind looked for a way to escape the room to shield her presence from him, but Lord Felding charged into the room thrusting a piece of parchment out in front of him. “What exactly is the meaning of this?” he demanded. 
He was still the most handsome gentleman Rosalind had ever encountered. His sandy blonde hair was windblown, probably because he had ridden over instead of taking a carriage such a distance, and his light brown eyes were darker than normal. Was it from anger? Odd, she had never known him to show anything but kindness and often, when with her brothers, laughter. In those situations, his eyes were always a rich brown and warmed her to her toes. Not that he ever noticed her. She had dreamt about him for years. He was the one who played center role in her pretend world of what if I was a lady? It was silly of course because she wasn’t a lady and had no hopes, or any real desire, to become one. Though, if Lord Felding were to happen to take notice of her, Rosalind would not mind in the least.
Lady Sandlin smiled innocently. “I assumed it was self-explanatory. What do you not understand?”
“Why you cannot attend the house party and hunt that Lord and Lady Meadows are hosting.”
Phoebe stood back and held out her arms. “Is my reason more clear now?”
Felding’s eyes grew round and his jaw dropped. He looked his sister over from head to toe. “Are you having twins again?”
Lady Sandlin laughed and braced a hand on the arm of the chair before slowly lowering herself into the seat. “I don’t believe so.” She glanced down at her protruding belly. “Though, one does have to wonder. The babe isn’t to arrive until sometime in February.”
Rosalind should leave the room so the brother and sister could visit in private, but she didn’t want to draw attention to herself. The only way out was through the door Lord Felding just entered. So far, Lord Felding hadn’t even looked in her direction, and as much as she may wish he would notice her, in truth, she did not. It was easier to pretend that he might one day look upon her with more interest than that of the sister of a friend than to face him and receive only a nod in greeting.
“Who is going to keep an eye on Penelope if you are not there?”
Penelope was their younger, second sister and only twenty. She was closer to Rosalind’s younger sisters than to her, though as children, they often played together.
“Is that what this is about?” Lady Sandlin scoffed. “Penny has had two full Seasons without incident. She no longer needs someone watching over her like a mother hen.”
Felding crossed his arms over his chest and tilted his head. “She certainly showed more sense than you.”
Lady Sandlin straightened. “I wasn’t as bad as you imply.” A small smile formed on her lips. “Besides, if I had been less impetuous, I might not be married to Taylor now.”
Felding snorted and Rosalind bit her lip to keep from laughing. She had heard a number of rumors of how Lady Sandlin conducted herself during her one and only Season and a few more stories the lady herself had repeated. With distance, they were rather entertaining. At the time, Lady Sandlin could have been ruined beyond repair on more than one occasion.
“Normally, it wouldn’t matter. I would easily be able to keep track of Penelope, but this house party is different.”
“Oh?” Lady Sandlin asked with a raised eyebrow. 
Rosalind tilted her head to study him hoping Lord Felding would explain his comment.
“A lady will be present that I may be interested in courting.”
A knife through her heart would have been less painful, and Rosalind quickly looked away and tried to busy herself with the twins. She should have left the moment he entered; then her world wouldn’t be tumbling down like the stack of blocks Heather just knocked over. The twins laughed, and Rosalind forced a smile. She was a nursemaid to four-year-old twins. It was her lot in life, and she was happy for it. Had Vicar Grant and his wife not taken her and her siblings in her life would not be nearly this pleasant, and she should not wish for things that were above her reach.
Besides, it wasn’t her actual world that crashed . . . just the one she liked to escape to.
“Who has finally caught your attention?” The excitement in Lady Sandlin’s tone drew Rosalind’s attention. Just last week, when Lady Sandlin’s three sisters visited, they had sat in this very room ruminating about the fact that their older brother had not yet taken a bride when most of his friends were already married, and he was two and thirty.
“Lady Jillian Simpson.”
“The Duke of Eldridge’s daughter?”
Did she hear disappointment in Lady Sandlin’s tone? 
“Yes,” Felding confirmed.
Lady Sandlin settled further back in her chair and rested her hands on her protruding belly.  “I am sure your presence will discourage any unwanted attention, and Penelope isn’t the type to run off.”  Lady Sandlin insisted. “And it is the Meadows household, and I am confident they have not invited anyone with whom you would object to.”
Felding stared at his sister as if dumbfounded. “Have you forgotten that it was at a Meadows house party that nearly saw you ruined.”
Lady Sandlin simply shrugged and grinned.
Felding shook his head and turned away to pace. “I don’t want the distraction,” he argued. “I suggested she remain home, but Penny refused.”
“Of course she did!”
“So what am I to do?” He pushed his fingers through his hair and paced at the end of the room. “I must have someone who can watch over Penny and not be distracted.”
Lady Sandlin lifted and eyebrow in humor. “A companion? We no longer have a governess at our disposal.”
He stopped and stared at her with hope in his eyes. “Do you think we might hire one?”
“For a simple house party?” Lady Sandlin laughed. 
“Then what do you suppose I do?”
“Nothing. It is a simple house party. Penelope will have a grand time, and you will be able to court Lady Jillian.”
“It is not that simple,” Lord Felding ground out and began pacing anew. “I will not be able to give attention to the matter as I wish if I have to worry about what Penny is up to, or who may wish to pursue her.”
Lady Phoebe leaned forward with interest. Her eyes narrowed and she tilted her head. “Why the sudden hurry to court Lady Jillian?” Lady Sandlin asked with curiosity? “Are you in love with her?”
Felding shook his head but said nothing.
“If not love, then why the rush, unless you hope to make a Christmas Match?” Lady Sandlin chuckled and relaxed back in her seat. “I had no idea you were so romantic.”
“I would like the matter for my future settled,” Felding grumbled. “The quicker that is done the better, and I don’t want to endure another Season without a betrothal or marriage.”
“You sound like a miss facing her third Season with no prospect of a husband in sight.” Lady Sandlin laughed.
“Are you going to help me or not?” Lord Felding demanded.
Rosalind bit her bottom lip to keep from laughing. The two of them reminded Rosalind much of her and brothers on the rare occasions they were together. She missed the teasing and bickering siblings shared.
“I still don’t think it is necessary that you have someone attend Penelope,” Lady Sandlin insisted.
Lord Felding turned and stared at his sister. “House parties can be very dangerous, as you well know.”
Rosalind looked away again, heat infused her cheeks. Nobody needed to tell her how dangerous they were. It was the reason she was no longer with her last employer. A simple mistake, gossip, and innuendo had ruined her. Thankfully, Lady Sandlin didn’t put stock in what she heard, and believed Rosalind’s version of the events involving her and Mr. David Thorn. Shortly after the incident, Lady Sandlin offered her a position within this household despite the rumors.
“If it is that important to you,” Lady Sandlin began, “why don’t you ask Rosalind to watch over Penelope? I can assure you that Penny would prefer Rosalind over an old, strict matron you are likely to employ.”
Rosalind’s head jerked up. Surely, Lady Sandlin did not mean her. There must be another Rosalind she didn’t know about.
“Rosalind Valentine?” Lord Felding asked. 
At least he thought of her first when the name was mentioned which warmed her heart. Though, she could very well be the only Rosalind of his acquaintance.
“Yes,” Lady Sandlin brightened.
Lord Felding pushed his fingers through his hair and blew out a breath. Perhaps she should make her presence known before he said something she did not want to hear.
“She would be perfect,” he said a moment later nodding his head and settled on the seat beside his sister. “She knows very well the dangers a house party can offer.”
Inwardly, Rosalind cringed. Surely, Lord Felding didn’t believe those horrible rumors; the very ones that saw to her ruination so that she could never show her face in society again. Not that she had been part of society only a governess in a lord’s household. Not only was her reputation ruined because of that one night, but all employment possibilities as well. Thank goodness Lady Sandlin believed her.
“The rumors are not true,” Lady Sandlin said.
Lord Felding’s head jerked up. “Of course not.” He seemed almost offended that Lady Sandlin might think he actually believed the gossip.
Rosalind blew out a sigh of relief. She would hate for him to think she had succumbed to a rake’s seduction.
“Thorn was bloody drunk but not so drunk he didn’t remember the night. He tried his best to deflate the gossip but it did no good.”
A small smile pulled at Rosalind’s lips. Thorn had told the truth over and over but those at the party were more interested in potential scandal than the truth.
“I’ll call on Valentine House when I return home. I assume Rosalind has returned to live with Vicar Grant and his wife.”
“She is right there, Noah.” Lady Sandlin gestured in Rosalind’s direction. 
Rosalind’s face flooded with heat when Lord Felding came to his feet. Clearly, he had not noticed she was in the room. Drat, she should have somehow alerted him to her presence before now. What would he think of her sitting quietly as they discussed Lady Penelope and Rosalind’s debacle of last spring before the Season had even begun?
She slid the toys from her lap and came to her feet and offered a quick curtsey. “Good afternoon, Lord Felding.”
Why was Miss Rosalind Valentine sitting on the floor in the back of the room playing with the twins?
Noah hadn’t seen Miss Valentine since last winter during Christmas Eve services to be exact. Even then, he only glimpsed her in the front pews with the rest of her family. They hadn’t spoken. A few days later he learned from her older brother that she had left for Cheshire to be a governess to the daughters of Lord and Lady Filpott. 
Thank goodness he had not said anything else about what happened to her last spring. Not that he ever believed she would allow Thorn to seduce her or that she had set about to trap Thorn into marriage as Thorn’s aunt, Lady Filpott, had insisted. If Noah had been at that house party, he would have seen to it that all rumor, gossip, and innuendo were stifled. 
“Miss Valentine, I did not realize you were visiting Phoebe.”
The blush on her rounded cheeks grew darker. “I am not visiting, Lord Sandlin. I am the nursery maid.”
So his sister had given her a position when nobody else in society would dare. Good for Phoebe.
“I apologize. I hadn’t realized you were in the room, or I would have greeted you.” He barely noticed the young maid, head bent down and sitting with the children when he entered. He was too angry at Phoebe’s letter to let the presence of a servant bother him, and then he completely forgot anyone else was in the room.
“I should have announced my presence, but I did not wish to interrupt.”
“I’ve known you since you were a child,” Noah reminded her though she was far different than the skinny, red-haired girl that had once teased her brothers. “You have no reason to stand on ceremony especially in my sister’s home.”
Before him stood a remarkable young woman. Her once red hair was closer to a warm auburn. Why hadn’t he ever noticed her eyes were a deep blue? Miss Valentine was a beautiful young woman. She should not be hidden away in the country as a nursemaid. If he remembered correctly, she would be five and twenty now. Why hadn’t she married?
He already knew the answer and didn’t really need to ask. Those in Valentine House had secrets. Some he had been speculated on, and the Valentine brothers had let slip on occasion.  Because of those very secrets, he doubted any of the sisters would ever marry or allow themselves to be in a position to marry. 
Phoebe cleared her throat, bringing Noah out of his thoughts. Goodness, he was staring at Miss Valentine and not saying a word. When had he become so rude and inconsiderate? Miss Valentine’s complexion took on a deeper hue of pink. He should not have embarrassed her, but he certainly couldn’t voice his thoughts.
“Would you act as Penelope’s companion at the house party being hosted by Lord and Lady Meadows?”
Miss Valentine worried her bottom lip and blinked at him. “I should remain with my charges.” She gestured to the children still playing quietly on the floor beside her feet.
Lady Sandlin shifted in her seat. “The children will get by without you for the week or two,” she insisted. “This will give you the opportunity to see to a young woman and not need to wipe a nose every few moments.” Lady Sandlin grinned. “I assure you, Penelope can attend her own nose if necessary.”
A small smile graced Miss Valentine’s full lips. “It is kind of you to think of me, but my duty is to you.”
“And I am insisting you attend my sister.” Lady Sandlin pushed herself up off of the settee.  “If I know my brother, he will not give Penny a moment’s peace and be with her constantly.” She came forward and grasped Rosalind’s hands. “I am sure she would be grateful for your presence.”
Though Noah didn’t appreciate how Phoebe viewed him, he didn’t argue. He needed Miss Valentine to chaperone Penelope so he was free to purse Lady Jillian.
“I don’t have the proper wardrobe, and I am not sure exactly what a companion does,” Miss Valentine said to both Noah and Phoebe.
“I am sure your clothing is perfectly acceptable,” Noah insisted. His friends weren’t such high sticklers that they would deny her entrance because Miss Valentine wasn’t in the height of fashion. Besides, this was to be a casual house party with much of the time spent hunting.
Sadness clouded Miss Valentine’s eyes. “What would others think if I was chaperoning a young woman?” 
She didn’t have to add after what occurred last spring, but Noah assumed that was what she was thinking. “There will be a different set of guests than those you encountered earlier in the year,” he assured. “Besides, if anyone were to say anything to you, I would make my displeasure known.”
“It is not your place to defend me, Lord Felding, but I thank you just the same.”
He smiled gently down at her. Miss Rosalind Valentine was always a sweet, good-natured girl with a bit of mischief. “As I said earlier, I’ve known you since you and your siblings came to live at Valentine House. I do feel it is my duty to defend you if one of your brothers isn’t present.” He glanced over at Phoebe who was smiling sadly at Miss Valentine before he looked back at the young woman. “And, I can assure you that your brothers would do the same for my sisters if it was necessary.”
A memory tickled in his brain of seeing the guest list and Noah brightened. “As a matter of fact, I believe two of your brothers are invited guests.”
Miss Valentine blinked in surprise. Perhaps this would convince her to attend as Penelope’s chaperone. She could even be considered a guest as long as she knew her first duty was to see to Penelope though he didn’t suspect Miss Valentine ever shirked a duty in her life. 
“Demetrius and Benedick are both invited,” he added.
Her brow furrowed. “Will they be attending?”
Noah rubbed his chin trying to recall if Meadows had received a response from the brothers.  “Demetrius will certainly be there. I am not sure of Benedick.”
She bit her lip again and looked over at Phoebe. Was Miss Valentine finally considering the possibility? This would be a perfect opportunity for her. She would be able to visit with those who were friends with her brothers, make new acquaintances, and hopefully put the rumors of the past to rest. Noah also knew that she would remain by Penelope’s side during their entire visit freeing him to pursue Lady Jillian. “Please?” he asked.
Her shoulders lifted and dropped with a sigh. “If Lady Sandlin believes I should . . .”
A smile burst on Phoebe’s lips. “Of course I think you should. You will have a wonderful time.”
Miss Valentine tilted her head and narrowed her eyes. “I will be attending Miss Penelope not attending a party,” she reminded them.
“And my brother will make his Christmas match,” Lady Sandlin teased Felding with a laugh.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Her Muse, His Grace (Muses #4)

Fresh from the Caribbean, Mark Easton, the new Duke of Roxburg, returns to London to secure a bride. It’s expected of his new station, after all. Unfortunately, he knows just what will meet him once his presence in Town is known. Sycophantic and cloying debutantes at every turn and matchmaking mamas behind every potted palm. If only there was a way to know the true nature of each girl beforehand. Then brilliance strikes! Masquerading as a lowly dancing master before the season begins should give him a very clear picture of London’s eligible ladies.

Bianca Valentine has never been under the illusion that any decent man would look past her family’s secrets. So a life of independence is her best shot for a happy future. If she can provide for herself, she won’t have to be a burden on her aunt and uncle any longer. After an advertisement for an accompanist at a dancing school catches her eye, Bianca finds herself enjoying more freedom than she’s known, but it’s the new dancing master that takes her breath away and inspires the most beautiful music she’s ever written.

Her music first enchanted him, but her smile and kindness captured his heart. A masquerading duke and an accompanist is scandalous enough, but will Bianca’s secrets be too much to overcome? 

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Her Muse, His Grace
Copyright © 2016 Jane Charles

London - March, 1816
“Bloody hell!” Mark Easton, the Duke of Roxburg, tossed the gossip rag onto the table and lifted his tankard of ale. The Season hadn’t even begun and there was already speculation as to whether he would return and do his duty and marry.
He pulled his greatcoat tight and wondered if he would ever get warm again. The damp air of London shot through him, right to his bones and he’d give anything to be back in Barbados, on his sugar plantation or walking the beaches. Not only was it warmer in the Caribbean, but the sun shined most of the time too.
And, it didn’t stink.
“I’m ready to board the next ship headed back to the Caribbean.” Lord Samuel Storm rubbed his hands together. “I don’t think I’ll be warm until I get there.”
A barmaid placed two more tankards in front of them, bending low enough for them to see down her bodice. As tempting as it would be to find warmth between her thighs, Mark didn’t have the luxury at the moment.
“Why the bloody hell did we come back here?” he asked Samuel after the barmaid left them be. The two had been living peacefully in Barbados until recently. Both managing their separate sugar plantations and enjoying the freedom of being wealthy bachelors on an island filled with beautiful women. Both had left accommodating mistresses behind, breaking from them as they weren’t sure when they’d return, but not before a proper send off and expensive baubles to remember them by.
“We are here because you have a duty and didn’t want to face it alone,” Samuel ground out. “Though, why you needed me is the question. Thorn is here and if anyone can navigate society and remain free, it’s him.”
“We heard Thorn married, remember?”
Samuel frowned. “Won’t believe it until I hear it from the gentleman directly.”
“Yet, you believe your brother, Benjamin married.”
Samuel frowned. “From what I understand, he didn’t have much choice. Not with our Great Uncle insisting on seeing as many of his grandchildren and great nieces and nephews leg-shackled before he kicks up his toes.” He took a deep drink of ale.
Mark grinned. “Does this mean you will not be calling on His Grace, the Duke of Danby?”
Sam shot him a look that would kill a lesser man.
As neither one of them wanted anyone to know they’d returned to London, they’d taken rooms above this tavern. Nobody would ever dream that the new Duke of Roxburg or Lord Samuel Storm, the brother to Marquess of Kenley, were living along the waterfront, which suited their purposes perfectly.
But, Mark couldn’t remain in hiding forever. He needed to put his plan into place. One that would keep him from being hounded by matchmaking mamas and debutantes alike.
“Maybe I’ll take the pretty one back up to my room.” Sam nodded to the dark haired barmaid. “Send for me when Thorn arrives.”
 “I’ll not be able to pull you from bed if you do.”
“If he doesn’t show shortly, I’m going to find a way to keep warm,” Samuel warned. “And those generous hips are sure to heat everything.”
Mark ignored Sam. As much as he’d like the pleasure of tossing up the skirts of an eager woman, he had more pressing matters to consider. He hadn’t been in London for five years, but he assumed nothing had changed. What he needed was a wife before the Season ever started, or at least, an idea of who he wanted to marry, so he wouldn’t have to waste endless evenings at functions being fawned over.
He hated all the bowing, scraping and flattery all because he was titled. As if he deserved it when he hadn’t done anything spectacular except just being born to the right parents.
The door of the tavern opened and Mark looked up. Finally!
David Thorn stepped inside and glanced around, then smiled when he spotted Mark and Samuel at their corner table.
Thorn took a seat, leaned back and grinned at him. The barmaid appeared almost instantly, her bodice barely containing her assets, which she practically shoved in Thorn’s face.
“Bring a pitcher and another mug, would you, dear?” Thorn smiled up at the young woman.
She fluttered her eyelashes and gave him a wink before sauntering off to do his bidding.
Some things never changed no matter how long Mark had been gone. Women were still drawn to Thorn like a moth to a flame.
“Where’s Chetwey and Delaney?” Mark asked.
“Still rusticating with their wives. They’ll be along eventually, I’m sure. Chetwey’s little witch is not too keen on being absent during the spring plantings for a second year in a row.”
The barmaid returned, leaning over Thorn, her breasts practically pressed against his face  as she placed the pitcher and mug on the table.
Thorn turned his head and muttered a thank you. Disappointed in not getting a reaction, or an offer, the woman slouched away.
“What do these people have against bathing?” He poured the dark ale into his mug and sat back.
“So, it is true,” Sam laughed. “You married. The David Thorn I know would never turn his face away from such a bountiful display.”
“Happily leg-shackled, I assure you.” He grinned.
Mark could only stare at Thorn. “Did you just call Chetwey’s wife a witch?” Did the gentleman know Thorn thought this? He couldn’t imagine Thorn surviving such a comment, not that Mark knew the woman, but one did not call his friend’s wife a witch, not if one wished to keep the friendship.
Thorn blinked up at him and alarm flashed in his eyes before he laughed. “I mean it with utmost respect and affection. Brighid is a healer of sorts, concocting all kinds of medicines from her herbs and plants.” He grinned. “It’s quite endearing, by the way.”
“Does Chetwey still have spells from the malaria? I brought cinchona bark since I doubt it is easy to come by in these parts.”
“He has, and Brighid has been able to help him through. I’m sure she’ll appreciate having the bark.” He took a drink of his ale. “Right now Chetwey is cozy at his estate with his wife and Delaney’s at his with Laura, though I hope they can bring themselves to London.” He frowned, “Anna would appreciate having their wives about this Season as she’s never participated in one herself.” Then he shrugged and took another drink. “Though, I suspect her cousins will be here as well.”
Mark didn’t really care if Thorn’s wife was comfortable or not. He had more pressing matters.
“Anna was living with her uncle and two cousins when I met her. The oldest cousin, Lila Southward, married Lord Quentin Post. The younger, Matilda, married Sidney Garrick”
“Bloody hell,” Samuel exclaimed. “First Delany, Chetwey, Bradenham and Wolverly were caught in the parson’s trap. Now You, Post and Garrick have as well!” He took a deep drink. “It’s not safe in this country.”
Thorn only laughed. “It’s well worth being caught, if it’s by the right woman.” He took a drink and leaned back in the wooden chair. “When did you get in? I’ve been watching the house to see if you’d show.”
“You and all of London,” Mark grumbled.
Thorn laughed and poured ale into the mug.
“They are going to hound me, aren’t they?” Mark asked.
“Think rather highly of yourself, do you?”
Mark glared at him. “Not me! The bloody title. That, and I won’t be thirty until this summer, have all my teeth, not suffering from gout, and am bloody rich. Just a couple of those is enough to draw the attention. The combination is lethal to any bachelor.”
“Well, there isn’t much you can do. I suggest you enjoy it.” Thorn grinned and raised his mug in a toast.
“Yes, there is,” Mark answered, much more serious than Thorn was finding the situation. “I intend to find my wife before the Season begins.”
Thorn arched an eyebrow in humor. “Exactly how are you going to accomplish that?”
Mark tossed the newssheet on the table. “What do you know of the Mirabelle School of Dance?”
Bianca Valentine stared out the window of the carriage as it entered London. She hadn’t been here since she was a child. Not that she remembered living in Seven Dials, which was far different than the Mayfair home her brother-in-law owned. She’d only been about two when Vicar Grant saved her and her nine siblings from a life of poverty, thievery, work houses and quite possibly prostitution, once she was older. She shivered, just thinking how different, and horrible, her life could have turned out if not for him. She may call him uncle, but in her heart, Uncle Osborn was her father, and Aunt Mary, was her mother. Bianca had no memories of the woman who actually gave birth to her, even though that woman raised her the first two years of her life. Or, at least she was alive the first two years, but Bianca suspected it was Demetrius and Benedick, her oldest brothers, who really took care of her.
She rarely saw her brothers after they went off to school and then settled into their professions in London, but now that she would be living in London for the Season, she might be able to visit with them more often. Something she was very much looking forward to.
But first, she needed to find a position. Her sister, Rosalind, Lady Felding, insisted on Bianca and their two sisters, Isabella and Perdita, coming to London for the Season. All three had agreed, but none of them intended on being involved in Society. They simply did not belong, even if their sister was a marchioness.
While she’d enjoyed the kindness of her sister, the real reason Bianca was in London was to find work. At five and twenty, she could not continue to live off the charity of Uncle Osborn and Aunt Mary. They were getting on in years and it was time she supported herself. Bianca hated the idea of being a burden any more than she already had been. They’d already given her so much. Much more than she could ever possibly repay. Nor did she wish to become a burden to her older brothers once her aunt and uncle passed. As a female, she had but two options available to keep that from happening: Marry or work, and since she could never consider marriage, it was time to find a position.  
Lord Felding might have been able to overlook her family’s background when he married Rosalind, but most gentlemen would not feel the same. Not that Bianca would ever dream of setting her sights on a lord. But even a respectable man of trade would have misgivings about marrying the bastard of a whore.
“You are just going to love it here,” Rosalind said from beside her. “I thought I’d hate it when Noah insisted I attend the Season after we married, but that wasn’t the case.”
Felding could probably put Rosalind in a tent in the middle of the desert and call it home and her sister would be quite happy. All she really required was to be with her husband. Bianca wasn’t so hopeful that she’d love London as much as her sister. But, as long as she found a position, it really didn’t matter where she lived.
“I can’t wait to introduce you to some of my friends.”
Bianca, Isabella and Perdita stiffened and looked over at their sister. Surely she wasn’t expecting her to go about with the ladies her sister now called friends. Did she forget who they were? Where they’d come from?
“We’ve decided to host a ball at the beginning of the Season and we must get you properly outfitted.”
Bianca glanced at Felding, her brother-in-law. He just shook his head and smiled before glancing back out the window.
“I don’t think it’s right or proper that I attend functions.” Bianca refocused on her sister. “Isabella and I are to keep you company while Felding attends Parliament, or whatever else he does, while Perdita watches over Henry.” Henry was a year old, but Rosalind couldn’t bring herself to leave her son in the country. Bianca also didn’t dare tell her sister the real reason for coming to London. Well, at least not until she had found employment.
“Of course you will.” Rosalind smiled. 
“It’s not right that we go into society, you know that as well as we do,” Isabella argued.
Rosalind arched an eyebrow. “Then I should not be there either.”
“That’s different. You’re married to Felding now,” Perdita reminded her. “It gives you respectability. We cannot claim the same.”
Rosalind turned and grabbed Bianca’s hand. “You mustn’t think that.” Then glanced at her other two sisters. “None of you. You’ll meet all manner of gentlemen in London. You might very well fall in love.”
She couldn’t believe what her sister was saying. If they were to have had the same conversation a few years ago, they would have agreed to remain spinsters and not dream of love or marriage. It was why Rosalind became a nursery maid in the first place, and ended up taking care of Felding’s sister’s children. Rosalind had changed so much since marrying Felding. But, just because Rosalind found a lord to love her, despite the circumstances of her birth, did not mean the same would happen for Bianca or their sisters. “If any man wished to marry me, he’d need to know the truth of my birth first. That should send him running so I don’t wish to put myself in a position to be humiliated.”
“A man of character would not care,” Felding nearly growled.
Did he believe she just insulted him? That was not the case. “Few gentlemen are of your character, Lord Felding, so I will not hold out hope that I might meet one of them.”
The carriage rolled to a stop and Bianca looked out the window, and up at the four story townhouse. Her home for the next four months.
After being escorted into the house, Rosalind led Bianca and her sisters into the parlor to take tea while they waited for their belongings to be brought in and unpacked. It was odd having servants do so much for her and Bianca wasn’t sure if it was something she could become accustomed to. At home, each of the children did their part at the vicarage: preparing meals, tending the garden, cleaning the house, doing the laundry and anything that was required. The only staff employed was a housekeeper who also cooked for them. The task was too large for one woman and the girls learned at an early age how to prepare meals for the family. If she were at home, she would probably be helping prepare luncheon right now. Instead, she was taking tea with her sisters while a servant unpacked their trunks.
“The first thing we must do is visit a modiste.”
“It is lovely how your husband likes to keep you in fine dresses.” Perdita smiled. “I can’t wait to see how you look when turned out for a ball.”
None of them had beautiful gowns growing up, nor did they need them. Bianca had always been happy with her serviceable wardrobe and one nice Sunday dress.
“It’s for you too,” Rosalind insisted.
“We don’t have the funds,” Isabella reminded her.
“That is not a concern,” she dismissed her sister’s comment away with a wave of her hand. “Felding has offered and I’m not about to turn him down. Penelope and Patience shall be arriving in a few days and we shall all go shopping together.” Penelope and Patience were two of Felding’s younger sisters. Neither had married much to his irritation.
“What did I offer?” Felding asked as he came through the door, carrying newssheets.
“To help outfit Bianca, Isabella and Perdita for the Season.”
Felding smiled and nodded. “I’m happy to do so.” He took a seat beside his wife while she poured him a cup of tea.
“It is not necessary, Felding,” Bianca insisted. She already owed her aunt and uncle so much. She did not wish to owe her brother-in-law as well. Besides, it was a waste when she had no intention of wearing the fine dresses.
“My wife would like the three of you to participate in the Season. It would make her happy.” He turned and smiled lovingly at Rosalind. “And, as her happiness is my only concern, you shall be dressed for all imaginable occasions.”
Since Bianca couldn’t argue with Felding under his own roof, she fully intended to argue with her sister later. If that didn’t work, she’d simply refuse to be fitted. That should put a halt to all of Rosalind’s plans.
“Is there anything interesting in the newssheets?” Rosalind asked.
“I haven’t begun to read them yet.” He took the top newssheet and put the rest on the table. “Enjoy, ladies, I’m sure there is something about fashion, or perhaps gossip, that you will find of interest.”
None of them had ever enjoyed gossip. She and her sisters were of the opinion that if they didn’t gossip about others, hopefully others would not gossip about them. Heaven knew they had enough secrets that they didn’t want discovered. Even if they were lying about who their actual parents were, at least the four oldest, Demetrius, Benedick, Orland and Mercutio, had comfort in the knowledge that Mother had been married to their father. It was after he was killed that their mother had to find another means to support her young family and gained five illegitimate children in the process. It didn’t matter that they only shared a mother because Bianca loved each of her siblings equally and with all of her heart.
“Well, that’s interesting?” Felding said before taking a sip of his tea.
“What?” Rosalind asked her husband with interest.
“A school chum, who I haven’t seen in years, has inherited.” Felding paused and looked up. “I had forgotten that his uncle died last summer and his cousin a few months ago. Mark wasn’t ever to have gained the title.”
“I thought it was the women who were interested in the gossip?” Rosalind teased.
Felding lowered the newssheet just enough to see his eyes, which he narrowed on his wife.
“Which title would that be?” Rosalind asked.
“The Duke of Roxburg.”
Bianca choked on her tea. Felding had a friend that was a duke and just called him by his first name. Her brother-in-law had loftier connections than she ever imagined. And, all the more reason she must find a position. Felding certainly would never consider introducing her to a duke, would he? That would be beyond the pale.
Instead of saying anything, however, Bianca picked up one of the newssheets. She skipped over fashion and other titillating tales and went right to the advertisements. She was beginning to become discouraged until she read the last newssheet and her heart began to pound when she found a position that was perfect for her.

Her Muse, Her David (Muses #3)

When Mr. David Thorn returns to Marisdùn Castle for another haunted Samhain masquerade, he hopes to encounter the elusive artist who sketched him the year before disappearing into the night. But finding her might be difficult, especially if she’s one of the many ghosts who haunt the castle and its grounds.

Miss Anna Southward would give anything leave her uncle and the sleepy village of Ravenglass behind her to travel the continent as she had as a child. Stuck near the seaside in Cumberland, she dreams of the day she can return to Florence to once again gaze upon the statue of David, and she dreams about a certain gentleman she encountered at the previous year’s masquerade. When the gentleman in question stumbles upon her, Anna is certain her luck is about to change.

But when a powerful entity is accidentally released inside the castle walls, all bets are off and Anna fears not only for herself, but for the handsome gentleman she sketched a year ago.

*This story originally appeared in the One More Haunted Evening anthology. The single contains scenes previously omitted from the anthology.*

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October 1816 ~ Torrington Abbey, Cumberland

“Who is she?” David Thorn demanded of Brighid, wife of his good friend Blake Chetwey. It’s the same question he’d asked the few times he’d seen her in the past year, never getting a satisfied answer.
Instead of going straight to Marisdùn Castle, where David planned on staying for the next sennight to attend the Samhain masquerade, he’d ridden to Torrington Abbey. Though he did wish to visit his good friend, David was more interested in interrogating Brighid. It was all he could do to get through the pleasantries and sip tea before he asked her the question that’d been plaguing him.
The witch merely blinked up at him. “Whom?”
“You know bloody well,” Thorn growled.
“You are speaking to my wife,” Chetwey warned. “She’s of a delicate condition and a lady.”
Brighid smiled and patted her large belly. He shouldn’t even be seeing her in this condition, but he was the one who’d come into her home. He remembered learning that she was expecting, but hadn’t really thought beyond the news and wishing his friend congratulations. Now that he’d seen her, heavy with child, David realized that it had been months since he’d first been told and he hadn’t seen Brighid since the end of the Season. She looked as if she could deliver any moment or possibly should have by now. Not that he had any experience being around ladies in an interesting condition since they were always hidden from society as if it was something to be ashamed of.
He probably should also think twice before angering this powerful witch, too. Especially right now.
To think he didn’t believe in spirits, witches and thought it all nonsense until a year ago. But, after watching her banish an evil spirit, working tirelessly to find a way to bring Callie Bradenham back from the other side, there was no doubt in David’s mind that there was a good deal of magic in this world and things beyond his comprehension.
Chetwey was one lucky bastard and this wasn’t the first time David wished he was in his Chetwey’s shoes. Not married to Brighid, of course. That would never work, but to have a wife who looked at him the way Brighid looked at Chetwey. A woman he could love the way Blake did her. A wife, growing large with his child.
Not that he would ever, in a million years, admit those thoughts to anyone. It wouldn’t be pleasant becoming the brunt of jokes from his friends. Even worse, for the ladies in Society to get wind of his thoughts. They’d never give him a moment’s rest. Reforming the rake and all that nonsense. Besides, if ladies were wise, they wouldn’t want their husbands to be completely reformed, especially in the privacy of a bedchamber.
Just the thought of ladies and their mamas hounding him through London sent shivers down his spine. It was scarier than returning to Marisdùn Castle with its variety of ghosts.
“I just don’t see why she can’t tell me who the Italian artist is. I know Brighid knows.”
“I don’t know any Italians,” Brighid answered innocently.
Perhaps the sketching fairy only spoke with an Italian accent to hide her identity. It was a masquerade after all. “I am sure you know a few artists.” David glared at her.
She smiled sweetly at him. “Maybe.”
“Do you know who sketched my portrait at the Samhain party?”
Brighid simply shrugged.
It’s the same response he’d gotten before.  “Why won’t you tell me?” David raked his fingers through his hair and practically jumped to his feet before he started pacing. Irritating and frustrating witch!
“If she wished for you to know who she is, I assumed she would have remained.”
“Ah ha!” He wheeled around and wagged a finger at her. “So, you do know. It’s taken me nearly a year, but finally we are getting somewhere.”
“I find it hard to believe you’ve been yearning for the artist all this time.” Chetwey chuckled from his seat beside his wife.
“I’m sure it’s only because she got away. Our dear Mr. Thorn is not used to such a predicament,” Brighid teased.
The same thoughts had crossed his own mind. Was it simply because the masked artist disappeared before he could get to know her better? Her voice had entranced him, and not just the Italian accent, which may or may not have been real, but that smile. Full, red lips, and the only part of her face he could see. Her laugh was soft and gentle, with a rich tone that went straight to his nether regions. When she approached him, sketch book in hand, and asked him to sit, Thorn automatically complied without thought. All she had to do was touch his arm with her delicate hand and he followed her without question.
That was so out of character for him. The purpose of the party, originally anyway, was to find ladies without drawers and have a decadent good time. Of course, he did wonder if she was wearing any drawers and how they might better come to know one another while she sketched him, but he hadn’t even attempted to kiss her or discourage her from drawing his features. It was a party, the ale was flowing, and people were dancing while he sat for a bloody portrait.
Had she bewitched him somehow? Was it the magic of that special night?
That had to be it because he could think of no other reason he acted so out of character.
He’d barely met the golden haired fairy who wore a blasted half-mask that revealed only her full, ruby lips.  Even though nearly a year passed, he still could not put the artist from his mind, and she had ruined his pursuit of every other female since. It was her fault he was having such uncharacteristic thoughts like marriage and babies and such.
Maybe she was a ghost.
David wasn’t sure if that possibility was helpful. If she was of another world, any future was certainly impossible. Well, until he died too, but he wasn’t so foolish as to take such a drastic action just to be with her. He’d just need to find a substitute among the living and make the best of it.
Bloody hell! All these aberrant thoughts over a woman he’d spent only a few hours with were driving him mad. What the blazes was wrong with him? “Maybe she’s a witch too.” That would certainly explain everything.
 “I can assure you she is not.” Brighid grinned at him. “And, maybe she’ll be at the masquerade this year.”
“I’d prefer to meet her before so I’m not chasing after an otherworldly woman like Quent.”
“Other-worldly?” Chetwey asked.
“Braden’s convinced the woman he kissed was a ghost.”
“It is possible,” Brighid suggested before lifting her cup of tea.
Thorn refused to believe the woman he sat for was a spirit. By the time Quentin Post had kissed his angel, he had been into his cups. Thorn had been sober. Another oddity of that night.
Blake set his glass aside and smiled sympathetically at his friend. “Why don’t we play a game of billiards? It’ll take your mind off of your mysterious lady.”
Like trouncing Chetwey would make him forget about the woman who had been haunting his dreams for a year. “Might as well since your wife isn’t going to be of any help.”
“If she wanted to be found, she would have stayed around,” Brighid called after them as they sauntered from the room.
David ignored her and followed Chetwey down the hall into a dark paneled room, a billiards table set up in the center, and leather chairs set up around the perimeter. This was a gentleman’s room and the witch probably never came in here. Not that she could even play billiards right now. Not with the way she’d increased. But she sure was beautiful.
“Do you know that Garrick actually had the audacity to suggest I’m losing my touch?”
Chetwey choked back laughter. “I’m sure that isn’t it. Maybe your heart isn’t in the chase any longer.”
David took a pool cue from the rack on the wall. “It hasn’t been for a very long time, my friend.”
David straightened, his eyes bored into Chetwey’s. “If you tell a single soul, I’ll deny it with every breath.” Taking the cue, he lined up the end with the ball. “I do have a reputation to protect.”

* * *

Anna Southward hurried as quickly as she could to Torrington Abbey after retrieving the plants, seeds and roots Brighid requested from the herbarium in Marisdùn Castle and the garden just outside of it. To think Lord Quentin Post had returned along with his three sisters, and that Bradenham and Callie would really arrive tomorrow. Finally, there would be excitement in this sleepy village.
Not that she saw the Post family, but she overheard the kitchen staff talking about their arrival as she gathered the herbs. Hardly anything of interest ever happened in Ravenglass and she feared she’d grow mad with boredom before she ever grew old. Thank goodness fascinating gentlemen inherited the castle. At least they’d arrive on occasion to make things a bit more exciting.
Her closest friend was sitting on the settee, drinking tea, and thankfully her husband wasn’t around. Anna liked Chetwey well enough, but he’d been hovering a bit too much lately. The closer Brighid’s time came, the nearer he stuck by Brighid’s side. It was sweet, really, but babies made an appearance every day. Her condition wasn’t at all unusual for a married lady of her age. Besides, Brighid was a healer and a witch. If anyone could make sure everything worked out as it should, it was her.
“Would you like some tea?”
“Yes, please.” Anna plopped down in the chair across from her friend. “They’ve arrived.”
“The owners of Marisdùn.” She could barely keep the grin off of her face. “They are going to have another masquerade, aren’t they?” Ever since Brighid said it was a distinct possibility, Anna had been on edge with anticipation. This year, she was going, and she was staying late, and nobody was going to stop her. Not even her unreasonable and unpleasant Uncle Walter.
“Will all of them be there?” Anna asked as she poured herself a cup of tea, instead of waiting for Brighid to awkwardly lean forward and try and pour it for her.
“All of whom?”
“The unmarried gentlemen,” Anna hissed. “You know exactly who I mean.”
“Mr. Garrick, Mr. Thorn and Lord Quentin?”
“Yes! Those three.” Three of the six friends who arrived last year had married girls from the district and had probably settled into a boring existence with their wives. Three bachelors remained, which gave Anna hope that the masquerade would be even more rousing than last year, since they didn’t have to worry about an evil spirit and bringing Callie back from the other side this time.
Then she stilled. Just because they hadn’t been married last year did not mean they weren’t this year. Brighid would have mentioned if one of them being wed, wouldn’t she have?
Brighid chuckled and leaned back against her seat. “Are you hoping one of them will take you away, like Bradenham rescued Callie from this place?”
Brighid was about the only person content to live here. Of course, she also went to London this past year, twice, and enjoyed the Season. It was a lot more excitement than Anna had seen since she’d come to live with her uncle and cousins after her parents died six years ago.
“I don’t dare hope to have such luck, but I can’t wait to sketch one of them again.”
The corner of Brighid’s mouth turned up. “The same one, or do you wish to sketch a different gentleman of my husband’s acquaintance? Or does it even matter?”
She could feel her cheeks warming. “The same one.” He was so handsome, with chiseled cheekbones, a strong jaw, an aquiline nose, the way his thick, dark hair fell across his forehead, and those intense brown eyes. The sketches she had of him, safely hidden away of course, did not begin to do justice to his handsome features. She didn’t dare show them to anyone, and she’d kept them safely hidden away with the exception of one, which was always with her.
“One is in line to be an earl, did you know?”
Why did Brighid have to go and ruin her dream? Not that she actually thought the handsome gentleman would fall in love with her and take her away from this place to sail around the world, but she did like to dream. An earl didn’t just up and travel. They had duties to attend to. Or, at least that’s what she’d been told. “I’m not looking to marry him. I just want to sketch him again.” It was a partial truth. And she’d been kicking herself for nearly a year for running away when he went to retrieve punch. She might not have left the masquerade at all if Lila hadn’t reminded her of the time, so they could be back before the vicar ever learned they’d snuck out in the first place.
Such an unpleasant man, her uncle. So unlike her loving and gregarious father. How were the two even brothers? Her father, and mother, had a sense of adventure, wanting to explore and discover new things. Whereas her uncle was firmly settled in the scriptures and how one should live their life, and was perfectly content to never leave Ravenglass. Not that she had anything against the scriptures, and even when her parents were alive they went to church wherever they happened to be. But her uncle just didn’t understand there was a whole world out there she had yet to see. Or that Florence continued to call to her.
Oh, to be there again and cast her eyes on Michelangelo’s David.
With a sigh, she put the thought from her mind. She’d probably never see it again, or ever have a chance to sculpt her own David. Instead, she should focus on the small boons her uncle granted her, instead of hoping for what might never be. “Uncle has finally agreed to let me visit the coast to sketch and paint tomorrow.”
Brighid brightened. “That would be wonderful. I know how you chafe at being ordered to remain close to the vicarage.”
It was rare that Anna was granted enough time to be away so that she could sneak through the woods to see Brighid. Usually her uncle only allowed her so much time to go off with her sketchbook before she was to return to her duties within the house, or prayer, or reading her Bible.
“Where is Chetwey this afternoon?” she asked as she began to sketch the pictures from the books so she’d know what to look for.
“He’s playing billiards with a friend.”
“Oh?” Anna’s heartbeat increased. Could one of the other bachelors already have arrived? Were all three here already and what chance did she have of encountering them? Drat, she knew the names, but didn’t know which one of the gentlemen she had sketched, David Thorn or Sidney Garrick.
“David Thorn. One of the three bachelors you wish to sketch.”
Anna glanced up to meet her friend’s eyes. “Is he the one?”
“How would I know? You’ve never shown me your sketches.”
Anna studied her friend. There was mischief in her silver eyes. Brighid knew something she was not saying. Just as she was about to ask for this David Thorn’s description and take the year old sketch from her satchel, the clock in the hallway chimed, making Anna jump. “Goodness, it’s late.”
“Would you like to take the carriage?” Brighid asked, growing alarmed. They both knew she wasn’t supposed to be here.
“No, I should make it in time, if I hurry. I can’t afford to miss dinner and make my uncle unhappy or he might cancel my outing tomorrow.”
Brighid pulled herself from the settee. “When do you think you’ll be there? At the coast.”
“As early as possible. I hope to catch the sunrise on the water.”
“Well, enjoy your day.”
Anna barely said goodbye before she was running down the lane and onto the path through the woods. She couldn’t be late. Worse, her uncle could not know with whom she’d been visiting. She’d been told time and time again to stay away from the healer and Brighid was unnatural and a bad influence, but Anna continued to ignore him. Brighid was her dearest friend – she understood her when a lot of people didn’t. Maybe because they were both a bit odd. 
Sprinting the last bit of the way, she made it to the house and slipped in the back door just as Lila was putting the last plate on the table. Thank goodness she made it in time.
Her cousins, Lila and Tilly, both relaxed, as if they were afraid she wouldn’t make it back in time either. After getting her breathing under control, she let her satchel slip silently to the floor and joined her cousins at the table, just as Uncle Walter came into the dining room.
He looked sterner tonight than normal, which did not bode well. With concentrated effort, Anna did her best not to draw attention to herself, speak out of turn, or say anything at all. She could not risk upsetting her uncle or he’d take away her outing.
What were the chances that David Thorn was the man in her sketches? To think, she might be drawn to a gentleman named David. Until now, there’d only been one David she admired, but he was a statue, glorious in detail.
Even if his name was David, that wouldn’t mean he’d remember her. What if he didn’t want to sit for her again?
Blast! She hadn’t considered that possibility. All she could think about was seeing him again and capturing his likeness once more. And, maybe this time, dancing too.
Tomorrow, or the day after, she was going to show Brighid her sketches so her friend could give her a name to go with the features. Dare she hope his name was David?
Then again, maybe she didn’t want him to have a name, just like she wished she didn’t know one of them might be an earl one day. Perhaps it’d be easier for him to simply be the handsome gentleman she looked at each night before falling asleep, and the first face she saw in the morning, even though it was a only a sketch.
Besides, a future earl would never have an interest in her.
With an inward sigh, she pushed the food around on her plate so her uncle thought she was eating when in truth, her appetite had disappeared.
She’d just need to make the best of this year’s masquerade, so she’d have memories to get her through her boring existence in this backwater town.
“We might visit the Roman ruins tomorrow,” Lila announced, drawing Anna from her thoughts. “Lord Quentin Post has arrived with his sisters.”
“That should be nice,” Anna answered absently, wishing she could visit the ruins as well, but the ones in Rome. And then she could travel up to Florence and gaze at Michelangelo’s David once again. Her hands practically itched to sculpt something similar, to feel the clay move through her fingers. That David was made of marble, which she could never carve. But clay was easy enough to manage and she had a good deal of it stored, just waiting to have something created from it. Unfortunately, she lacked an appropriate model.