His Mistletoe Brideby Vanessa Kelly
Blame It On The Mistletoe. . .
When Major Lucas Stanton inherited his earldom, he never dreamed his property would include the previous earl's granddaughter. Phoebe Linville is a sparkling American beauty, yes, but with a talent for getting into trouble. Witness the compromising position that forced them into wedlock. Whisked away to Mistletoe Manor, his/b>… See more details below
Blame It On The Mistletoe. . .
When Major Lucas Stanton inherited his earldom, he never dreamed his property would include the previous earl's granddaughter. Phoebe Linville is a sparkling American beauty, yes, but with a talent for getting into trouble. Witness the compromising position that forced them into wedlock. Whisked away to Mistletoe Manor, his country estate, it isn't long before she is challenging his rulesand surprising him in and out of bed. . .
Phoebe has no intention of bowing to Lucas's stubbornness even though he offers all that she wants. His kisses and unexpected warmth are enticing, but Phoebe is determined to show the earl of Merritt what real love is all about. And if that takes twelve nights of delicious seduction by a roaring fire, she's more than willing to reveal her gifts very slowly. . .
"The perfect holiday treat!" Kieran Kramer
Praise for Vanessa Kelly and My Favorite Countess
"In her latest sublimely sensual Regency historical, Kelly delivers wit, a tightly knit plot, a refreshingly different hero, and a realistically complicated heroine, who could give Scarlett O'Hara a good run for her money." Booklist (starred review)
Praise for Vanessa Kelly and My Favorite Countess
"In her latest sublimely sensual Regency historical, Kelly delivers wit, a tightly knit plot, a refreshingly different hero, and a realistically complicated heroine, who could give Scarlett O'Hara a good run for her money. (starred review)
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His Mistletoe Bride
By Vanessa Kelly
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2012 Vanessa Kelly
All right reserved.
Chapter OneLondon November 1817
A quiet knock sounded on Phoebe's bedroom door. Straining to open her eyes, she tried to clear the fog of exhaustion and lingering illness from her brain. When the maid entered the room, holding a tea tray in her sturdy hands, Phoebe pulled herself upright and stifled a yawn.
"Good morning, ah ..."
"It's Agatha, miss. Mrs. Poole asks, please, that you step downstairs to the drawing room. She sent me to help you dress."
"What time is it?"
"It's gone on nine o'clock, miss," Agatha said as she deposited the tray on a dressing table.
Phoebe gaped at her, and then her brain lurched into function. She struggled out from under the covers, thumping onto the floor to search for her slippers.
"Why did she not send to wake me earlier? The morning is half over!"
As soon as they arrived in London last night, Phoebe had wanted to dash off a note to her grandfather's town house. But their hostess, Mrs. Poole, had deemed it too late. Almost dead on her feet from the grueling journey up from the coast, Phoebe had capitulated. With the maid's help, she had crawled into the blessedly clean and comfortable bed in the small guest room before falling into a heavy sleep, only awakening just now to Agatha's knock.
Not that she felt much better for her night's rest—not after the nightmare voyage from America. The winds had pushed against them the entire way, lengthening the crossing to almost seven weeks instead of three. Storm after storm pummeled them, and sickness had hit both crew and passengers hard. Phoebe had held out longer than most, but finally succumbed the week before they docked. Even now, her legs still wobbled and her temples throbbed with a headache.
She stumbled to the washbasin and splashed water on her face.
Agatha opened Phoebe's trunk and started sifting through it, her pleasant face registering dismay. "Lord, miss. Who packed your clothes? Everything's a right mess."
Phoebe grimaced. She'd been too ill to properly repack her trunk before leaving the ship. Fortunately, she did have one clean dress for her visit to Grandfather. She had hung it in the wardrobe, the only unpacking she had managed before dropping into bed.
"Take the one from the wardrobe," she said as she stepped behind the screen to pull off her night rail.
A few moments later, Agatha joined her behind the screen, gown in hand. She didn't look any more impressed than she had when she looked through Phoebe's trunk.
"Miss, this dress is clean but it could use a good press. It'll only take me a few minutes, if you don't mind waiting."
"It does not matter. I am sure my grandfather will not care, and I must be on my way as soon as possible."
"I'm afraid not, miss, seeing as one of your relatives is waiting for you downstairs. That's why Mrs. Poole sent me to wake you."
Phoebe gaped at the maid. "My grandfather is here?" She felt breathless, even though her stays were barely laced up. "Mrs. Tanner must have sent a note around."
"It ain't your grandfather, miss, I can tell you that," Agatha said, turning her around to finish lacing the stays. "The man downstairs is no more than forty, and a fine-looking fellow he is, too. And he's dressed like a proper lord."
Phoebe's mind went blank. Her grandfather had never mentioned anyone like that in his letters. "Did he say who he was?"
"I'm sure, but Mrs. Poole didn't tell me. Miss, let me help you with your gown, and then you can have a nice cup of tea while I fix your hair."
Anxiety surged in a hot rush through her veins, making her dizzy. Why had Grandfather not come himself to fetch her? Was he ill?
Taking a deep breath, Phoebe forced her head to clear. "No. I have to see this man right away."
Agatha took her by the arm and steered her to the dressing table. "He'll wait. If you don't have something to drink, you'll keel right over. Now, have your tea while I brush your hair."
A half cup of tea later, Agatha grimaced and finally let Phoebe rise from the dressing table. "You won't be winning any prizes with that hair, miss, but I'll take you down."
The maid led her downstairs and through a simply ornamented entrance hall to the door of the drawing room. "There, miss. They're waiting for you."
Phoebe nodded, suddenly so nervous her knees shook. She silently ordered the starch back into her muscles and opened the door. What she saw brought her up short.
Mrs. Tanner sat in a low chair by the fireplace. A very tall, broad-shouldered man stood opposite her, on the other side of the chimneypiece. He was very handsome—quite the handsomest man Phoebe had ever seen. And when his attention, narrowed and intense, jumped to her, it struck her with an almost physical force.
Alarm skittered along her nerves. Absurdly, she had the impulse to back out of the room as quickly as she could.
Silly. Why be afraid of someone you have never met?
But as they stared at each other, she sensed some ill-defined peril, and she instinctively knew something dreadful was upon her.
Mrs. Tanner rose from her seat, momentarily splintering the tension. "Phoebe, please come in. This is a member of thy grandfather's family, Major Lucas Stanton, come to welcome thee to London."
Phoebe slowly entered the room, trying to shake the notion that she was approaching something awful and irrevocable. The guarded expression on Mrs. Tanner's face did nothing to dispel that impression.
Major Stanton took a step forward, looming—and looming seemed the only correct description—over her. He was broad across the chest and shoulders, and every part of him looked hard and muscular. Phoebe did not make a habit of dissecting the male figure, but he wore a well-tailored, dark coat, pale, skin-tight breeches, and tall leather boots, all of which showed off every line of his impressive physique. Just looking at that brawny, masculine strength made her body hum with tension.
Cheeks flushing, she fixed her gaze on his face. She found it disconcerting, too, since his hard-cut, impassive features served as a stark contrast to eyes the color of a stormy sea. The emotions she thought she perceived in their depths struck her as dangerous as the gales that had bedeviled her trip across the Atlantic.
"Major Stanton," said Mrs. Tanner, "this is Miss Phoebe Linville."
Phoebe stared up at him a moment longer, transfixed by his slashing cheekbones and the granite line of his jaw. All the men she knew were farmers and shopkeepers, simple men who dressed plainly and looked nothing like this man. Next to them, he resembled ... well, she did not know what. But she knew she had never met anyone like him, though they had yet to exchange even a simple greeting.
His gaze, somber and wary, turned to one of puzzlement, jolting her into motion. The poor man must think she was a wordless half-wit.
Though Quakers generally made it a point not to bow or curtsy before those of higher station, she dipped low, ignoring Mrs. Tanner's tsk of disapproval. Why risk offending the first relative coming to greet her? "Major Stanton, thank you for coming to meet me. It was kind of you to do so," she said, offering her hand in greeting.
His big hand closed around hers and he lifted it to his lips, brushing a lingering kiss across her sensitive skin. The breath seized in her throat. Quaker men did not go around kissing hands, much less making a show of it.
Fortunately, he returned her hand, and her lungs recommenced function.
"Phoebe," said Mrs. Tanner, sounding horrified, "please sit."
Her friend nudged her to a sturdy, brown-colored sofa next to the fireplace. With a severe nod, Mrs. Tanner indicated to the major that he should take the seat facing them. He did not bother to repress a low sigh as he carefully settled on a small caned chair that gave an alarming creak in response. The sofa would have been a more appropriate choice for his large frame, but Mrs. Tanner clearly intended to punish him for his forward behavior.
"Major Stanton, how is my grandfather?" Phoebe asked impulsively. "Did he ask you to fetch me?"
The swift glance he exchanged with Mrs. Tanner brought Phoebe's anxiety rushing back. Its choke hold tightened when the older woman reached over and took her hand in a comforting clasp.
"Phoebe, thee must prepare for unfortunate news. But I ask thee to remember that the Father's hand is in all things, and that He will watch over thee always."
Fear swept through her. "What are you talking about?"
When Mrs. Tanner hesitated, Phoebe shook off her restraining hand and jumped up. The major rose immediately.
"Please, sir," she implored. "Take me to my grandfather."
Compassion softened the grim lines of his face. He struck her as a man not much given to that tender emotion, so whatever the cause, it must be dire.
He stepped closer, reaching out to take her hand in a gentle grip. "Miss Linville, you must sit." He had a firm, deep voice that held a compelling note of authority. As it washed over her, she had to resist the impulse to automatically obey. He smiled, as if to soothe her, and one finger stroked lightly over the back of her hand. "I'm certain you should have a cup of tea before we have any further discussion."
Unnerved by his touch, she pulled her hand away. "I do not want a cup of tea. I want you to tell me about my grandfather."
He ran a thoughtful gaze over her face, as if taking her measure. "Very well. Miss Linville, it grieves me to inform you that your grandfather—my great-uncle, Lord Merritt—died from an infection some weeks ago. I didn't write to you, since my letter would not have arrived prior to your departure. I hope you will believe I would have spared you this trip, if it was at all possible."
A strange buzzing noise arose in her ears, then her knees buckled and she sank onto the sofa. Her heart throbbed in her chest, straining against the shock. For a terrible moment, she could not draw a breath.
Mrs. Tanner gasped her name and Major Stanton let out a low curse. Swiftly, he came down on one knee before her and gripped her shoulders, holding her steady. Until he touched her, Phoebe had not realized she needed someone to keep her upright.
"Hold her while I get some water," exclaimed Mrs. Tanner as she rushed from the room.
"Steady on, Miss Linville," Major Stanton murmured in her ear. "Just lean against me."
Coming up onto the sofa, he eased her into his embrace, resting her head against his broad chest. As if controlled by some unseen force, her eyelids fluttered shut as, for the first time in her life, she found herself in the arms of a man other than her brother or father. Her morals registered a faint objection, but her body wanted nothing other than to collapse against that solid wall, her cheek nestling comfortably against the soft wool fabric of his coat. Tumult swirled in her brain, but his gentle embrace staved off the screeching panic that hovered at the edge of thought.
The door opened. Footsteps hurried across the floorboards as Mrs. Tanner rustled up to them with a glass of water in her hand. "Major, thee must allow me to tend to Miss Linville. Please let her sit up."
Phoebe flinched at the note of censure in her friend's voice. Mrs. Tanner had every right to be offended because Phoebe had no business clinging to a man, no matter what the circumstances. But she could not help shrinking farther into his embrace. Her stunned brain had latched on to the idea that as long as she remained in his arms she would be safe, that all the hurtful things in the world could not harm her.
Ridiculous, whispered the voice of reason. She started to pull away, but Major Stanton gently adjusted his hold to keep her close. Phoebe had to bite down on the whimper of relief that almost escaped her lips.
"I assure you, Mrs. Tanner," he said, "I will release my cousin as soon as I know she won't keel over in a dead faint."
Phoebe frowned. She never fainted. And now that her wits were slowly returning, she felt the first flush of humiliation that she had allowed a perfect stranger to hold her so intimately. Pushing herself upright, she began to withdraw from his arms. For a second he resisted, keeping her fast in his embrace. And, for a second, she did not want him to let go.
Finally, he allowed it.
"Thank you, Major," she managed, feeling oddly winded. The strange emotions swirling through her resulted, no doubt, from shock. They could not possibly have anything to do with the man who had captured her in an embrace that somehow felt more like a possession than support.
The major's smoky gaze narrowed with skepticism, likely fostered by the squeaky tremor in her voice, but he moved back to his chair.
Mrs. Tanner took his place and handed her the glass of water. Phoebe gave her a faltering smile, sipping slowly as she tried to bring her rioting emotions under control. She wanted to weep with grief for her grandfather, but she kept her tears in check. When she could be private again, she would give way to the sadness wrenching her heart. But at this moment she needed to understand what would happen next. And however unprepared she was, she had decisions to make, ones that already caused her heart to sink.
She sat up straight, meeting Major Stanton's gaze with as much equanimity as she could muster. His expression revealed nothing other than a calm readiness to respond to whatever he might be called upon to do. Phoebe knew nothing of military men or matters, but she could well believe that this hard-eyed man across from her could handle any situation without turning a hair. Even one as awkward and dreadful as this.
Although he did study her with a caution suggesting he thought she might faint after all.
"I assure you, Major," she said, "I will not faint. I am yet recovering from an illness contracted on shipboard and have not regained my full strength."
"I'm sorry to hear that," he said. "Perhaps you should retire to your room. We could finish this discussion later if you find it too distressing."
Irritation began to edge out her shock. "I would have to be a fool not to be distressed by such news. That does not mean I am incapable of having a rational conversation."
Mrs. Tanner sighed, but the major appeared unoffended by her sharp words. In fact, he seemed to bite back a smile, which Phoebe found more than a little surprising.
"If you are satisfied I will not keel over, perhaps you might tell me what happened to my grandfather," she said in a tight voice.
The glint of humor in his eyes vanished. "Of course. Lord Merritt died nine weeks ago. As I said, I knew a letter would not reach you in time to prevent your sailing. Your grandfather would not have wanted that, in any event."
She bit her lip to hold back a sudden welling of tears. All these weeks had passed and she had assumed her grandfather was alive. All these weeks she had thought of him, imagining what he looked like, what he would say to her when they finally met. She had imagined a future of memories, built on the foundation of their shared loved for Elspeth Linville, her dear mother and Lord Merritt's only daughter. In the worst of the voyage, when she lay ill in her bunk, the image of her grandfather's joy at their reunion had kept her spirits buoyant.
But all that time, her grandfather had been dead. She had been alone for weeks. All hope of home, of family—of her family—had been extinguished forever.
She sat quietly, blinking her eyes and refusing to cry in front of the handsome stranger who had shattered her world.
He and Mrs. Tanner waited patiently until she regained her voice. "I am grieved to be robbed of the chance to have known my grandfather. I wanted to be with him more than all else."
Major Stanton nodded. "He shared that desire. My great-uncle was most concerned for your well-being after his death. The Stantons are your family now, and Lord Merritt's express wish was that you remain here with them. With us," he corrected with a slight frown.
She stared at him, not comprehending. "Are you saying my grandfather wished me to remain in England with strangers who could only be considered distant relations?"
His brows arched with an arrogant tilt. "Your family will not be strangers for long, Miss Linville, and your mother was never considered a distant relation. I am charged by General Stanton, the head of the family, to bring you to him and Lady Stanton as soon as can be arranged. I assure you there is no safer place for you than under his protection."
Excerpted from His Mistletoe Bride by Vanessa Kelly Copyright © 2012 by Vanessa Kelly. Excerpted by permission of ZEBRA BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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