Mischief and Mistletoeby Jo Beverley, Mary Jo Putney, Patricia Rice, Nicola Cornick
In this sparkling holiday collection, eight acclaimed authors unwrap the most daring of Regency delights. . .
Christmastime in England--a time for passionate secrets, delicious whispers, and wicked-sweet gifts by the fire. From a spirited lady who sets out to save her rakish best friend from an unsuitable engagement, to a bold spy who gets the unexpected chance to… See more details below
In this sparkling holiday collection, eight acclaimed authors unwrap the most daring of Regency delights. . .
Christmastime in England--a time for passionate secrets, delicious whispers, and wicked-sweet gifts by the fire. From a spirited lady who sets out to save her rakish best friend from an unsuitable engagement, to a bold spy who gets the unexpected chance to win the woman he's always loved, to a vicar's daughter who pretends to be a saucy wench, these holiday tales will make you curl up in front of the fire for a memorable season of mischief and mistletoe. . .
"No one writes historical romance better." --Cathy Maxwell on Mary Jo Putney
"Breaks just about every rule in the book and makes us beg for more." --Romantic Times on Jo Beverley
Jo Beverley, Mary Jo Putney, Patricia Rice, Nicola Cornick, Susan Fraser King, Anne Gracie, Joanna Bourne, and Cara Elliott are the ladies otherwise known as the Word Wenches. These eight authors have written a combined 231 novels and 74 novellas. They've won awards such as the RITAS, RT Lifetime Achievement award, RT Living Legend, and RT Reviewers Choice award. Several of them are regulars on the New York Times and USA Today bestseller lists. Learn more at www.wordwenches.com.
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Mischief and Mistletoe
By Mary Jo Putney Jo Beverley
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2012 Kensington Publishing Corp.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAs the carriage rumbled to a stop in front of their destination, Lucinda Richards craned to look out the window at the manor, but her view was blocked by her companions. "Roscombe Manor looks just like it used to!" Lady Bridges said as she peered outside. "I'm so glad that Major Randall and his wife have renewed the custom of a holiday ball. How long has it been, Geoffrey?"
"It must be over twenty-five years since Randall's parents died and he was sent away to his uncle." Sir Geoffrey Bridges smiled at his daughter and Lucy, who were sitting on the back facing seat. "I met your mother at a Roscombe holiday ball, Chloe."
"I shall look about to see if I can do equally well," his daughter assured him.
Lucy said nothing, but she was bubbling with pleasure that her parents had allowed her to attend with her best friend's family. Her father was vicar of St. Michael's, the parish church, and busy with Advent services. But he and her mother hadn't wanted to deprive Lucy of a treat like the Roscombe ball.
A footman opened the door and lowered the steps so the passengers could descend from the Bridges' coach. Lucille was last out, and she caught her breath at the sight of the manor house. Roscombe was the grandest house in the area and she'd seen it from a distance, but never before had she visited. No one had lived in it for years, so it was good for the whole community that the house had come alive again.
Night fell early in December, but the moon was full, casting silvery light over the house and the park. Every window had a welcoming candle burning, and faint music could be heard inside.
As they climbed the steps, Chloe said, "Shall we see if we can both find husbands tonight? The holiday ball worked for my mother!"
Lucy laughed. "I'll settle for an evening of dancing. Finding a husband is too much to expect. But you might find one. You look amazingly pretty in that green gown."
"I do, don't I?" Chloe agreed with a grin. "We should stay side by side since our coloring complements so well."
"Though you're my dearest friend, I'd rather dance with men than you," Lucy said firmly. But it was true that ever since they were in the schoolroom, people had remarked on the charming contrast of Lucy's angelic blond looks and Chloe's glossy dark hair and green eyes.
The personalities were different, too. Lucy was the quiet vicar's daughter, Chloe the vivacious youngest child of a baronet. She'd make a good match when she traveled to London for her Season in the spring. There would be no London Season for Lucy, but that was all right. She had a wonderful family and friends, and she felt quite grand enough in the white gown Chloe had lent her.
They entered Roscombe and were greeted with warmth, light, music, and delicious scents. The tang of winter greens twined with the fragrances of mincemeat pies and spiced cider. The scents of the holidays.
After their cloaks were taken, their party followed the music and laughter. Adjoining rooms had been opened up to create a surprisingly large ballroom that was already well filled. Chandeliers illuminated the beribboned greenery and the colorful gowns of the ladies, while musicians played a country dance that made Lucy's toes tap.
Lucy sighed happily. How could London be any finer than this? And she'd know most of the guests, so this ball would be even better than fashionable London. She hoped the Randalls would have an annual ball like this every year for the rest of her life.
A receiving line led into the ballroom. It was headed by their hosts, Major Alexander and Lady Julia Randall, with others Lucy couldn't see clearly beyond. As Major Randall greeted the Bridges, Chloe whispered, "My mother said some of Lady Julia's family are here for the ball and the holidays. That very handsome young fellow must be her brother, Lord Stoneleigh. Single and heir to a dukedom!"
Lucy laughed. "Then he won't be interested in me, but you might wish to study him at closer range. Who is that beautiful white-haired woman? She looks like royalty."
"Close. She must be Lady Julia's grandmother, the Duchess of Charente. The two of them look very alike, don't they?"
Lucy nodded absent agreement as she glanced along the receiving line. Her gaze stopped at the young man dressed in scarlet regimentals and she gasped, feeling as if she'd been struck a physical blow. A wave of heat swept through her, followed by chill. On the verge of falling, she frantically whispered, "Chloe!"
Her friend took one look and led her out of the throng of guests to a room on the other side of the foyer, which had been turned into a cloakroom. "Are you ill?" Chloe said anxiously. "Shall I tell my mother? Or see if Dr. Jones is here? My mother said he'd be coming."
Lucy sank onto a cloak-draped chair, fighting for composure. "No. I ... I saw him. In the army uniform."
Chloe's brow furrowed. "The one at the end of the line looking uncomfortable? That was Gregory Kenmore, wasn't it? Heavens, I haven't seen him in years! He's a captain, I see. He just sold out of the army, so I suppose he'll be putting away his regimentals soon. A pity. He looks very fine in that uniform." Her voice lowered. "My mother said he's refusing all invitations. I wonder how the Randalls coaxed him out?"
"I wish I'd known he'd be here so I could prepare myself." Lucy bent and hid her face in her hands as she fought for composure.
Chloe knelt beside her, her expression worried. "Did Captain Kenmore behave badly to you before he left for the army? If he's hurt you ..."
"Oh, no, no, not that at all." Lucy straightened up in the chair, telling herself that she was a young lady of twenty-two, not a child. "You'll laugh at me ... but I fell most horribly in love with Gregory when he took lessons from my father at the vicarage."
"That was years ago!" her friend exclaimed. "Calf love."
Lucy's mouth twisted. "That's why I've never spoken of him. No one would take me seriously. But it felt—feels—very real."
Chloe cocked her head to one side. "Is this why you've never paid attention to any of the young men hanging about you? Because you were wearing the willow for Gregory Kenmore?"
Lucy nodded. "Everyone has assumed that I want to remain single and be a support to my parents in their old age, but the real reason is that I can't fall in love with anyone else when Gregory fills my heart."
Chloe looked like she thought Lucy was an idiot, but she was too good a friend to say so. "Captain Kenmore has been in the army for five years or so, hasn't he? Have you seen him in that time?"
Lucy shook her head. "He was home on leave once, but I was staying with my sister when she had her first baby. By the time I came home, he'd returned to Spain." She had wept when she learned that she'd missed him.
"It's common to become infatuated with attractive young men, but you should be over it after five years without seeing him," Chloe observed. "How was he so special?"
"He was ... kind," Lucy replied. "Papa has tutored any number of young men over the years to prepare them for school or university, but none of the others took the time to talk to me. When Gregory recognized how interested I was in learning, he persuaded my father to let me sit in on tutorials. At Christmas, he gave me a book of poetry." It was Lucy's most treasured possession.
"Kindness is always good, but what else?"
"He was intelligent and funny. He made me laugh. He called me the vicar's little angel." She sighed. "I found him madly attractive, while he thought of me as a child, even when I was almost seventeen."
"You were late to blossom," Chloe pointed out. "Though you've made up for it since! He sounds like a lovely fellow, and this is your chance to see if he's still what you want. And if he isn't, there are plenty of other handsome young men here to flirt with."
"I know." Steeling herself, Lucy rose to her feet and smoothed down her skirt. "You're right, there is nothing between us but my case of calf love, which has lasted far too long. It was just such a shock to see him unexpectedly." She tried a smile. "I shall meet him and exchange pleasantries and then dance."
"You won't lack for partners," Chloe predicted. "Come along, now. If my parents ask where we were, I'll say I stepped on your hem and tore the lace and I had to pin it up again."
Lucy raised her chin and donned an expression of cool composure. "Since I'm the one that held us up, I should be the one labeled clumsy."
"But my parents will believe it of me much more quickly!" Chloe pointed out.
Very true. It was always Chloe who got them into trouble and Lucy who got them out. Chuckling, the girls left the cloakroom and joined the receiving line again.
Major Randall was grave and thoughtful and quite shockingly handsome. The Duchess of Charente stood between Major Randall and his wife. The old lady was very grand, but her eyes had a friendly twinkle. Lady Julia, Lucy's hostess, was petite and warm and sounded as if she meant it when she said she was glad that Lucy could come.
Next was Lord Stoneleigh, Lady Julia's brother. Very courteous and handsome, though reserved. A future duke needed reserve to protect himself, Lucy suspected.
Then—Gregory. Heart hammering, she stepped down to him. His face was drawn and his light brown hair a little too long. There was bone-deep fatigue in his gray eyes. He looked as if he wished he was somewhere else—and he was dearer than any other man Lucy had ever seen. She wanted to melt, or run.
Blast it, she was supposed to get over him, not want to kiss him! But a vicar's daughter learned to control her expression, and she managed to say calmly, "Welcome home, Captain Kenmore." She offered her hand.
Ignoring her hand, he just stared, his gaze flat and forbidding.
Her heart sinking, she said, "I'm Reverend Richards's daughter, Lucinda. I often plagued you when you were attending tutorials at the vicarage."
His gaze moved down her, and he gave a stiff little bow. "Miss Richards."
He didn't recognize her. He didn't recognize her! The knowledge was like a dagger in her heart. Yes, she'd been young when he left for the army, but they had talked often. Taken walks, laughed. He'd welcomed her when she'd brought tea and cakes into the study to refresh her father and his student.
She hadn't changed that much. She was taller and had grown a figure, but otherwise she looked much the same. Blond hair, bland face, modest white gown.
But he had changed, and not in a comfortable way. After too long a pause, he said, "I'm glad to see you well, Miss Richards. Are your parents here?"
"No, they were engaged elsewhere, so I came with the Bridges." Remnants of pride forced her to pull herself together. "I'd heard you were avoiding society, Captain. What brings you out tonight?"
"Major Randall was my commanding officer in Spain," Gregory explained. "He ordered me to come. He said people were curious to meet me again, so I could take care of all my social obligations at once."
"Very practical." She inclined her head. "I hope I shall see you at church." She glided away, glad that she hadn't collapsed and howled. It had been foolish of her to think there could be anything between them after all these years.
Yet damnably, she'd felt drawn to him. That spark of connection, of rightness, still burned in her breast.
How long would it take for her to get over him?
Gregory stared after Lucinda Richards, stunned to the marrow. She's always been the sweetest and prettiest of little girls, but even so, he couldn't have predicted that she would grow into such a beauty. The vicar's little angel.
Now she was an angel in truth, all golden and innocent and pure. As he watched her laughing with a friend, he knew that she would haunt his dreams.
But there could be no more than dreams between them. Not when he wasn't fit to touch the hem of her gown.
Chapter TwoThe turning of the doorknob was followed by a hissed, "Lucy, are you awake?"
"Of course." Lucy had expected Chloe would come to her room after the ball. She always did when Lucy spent the night, and tonight there was much to discuss. Listening to Chloe's chatter was better than staring at the ceiling and trying not to cry.
Chloe slipped in, stopped to build up the fire, then slipped under the covers of the bed next to Lucy. As she propped pillows behind her, she said breathlessly, "Lucy, I think it happened! I think I found my future husband tonight!"
Lucy blinked. "I saw that you were having a good time, but a future husband? Who, Lord Stoneleigh? You danced with him twice."
"Not Stoneleigh. He seems a decent fellow, but rather stiff." Chloe positively bounced, making the bed shake. "Jeremy Beckett!"
"You didn't just meet him, though," Lucy pointed out. "You probably met in the nursery. You used to complain how he teased you."
"Yes, but I liked it even then," Chloe said with a chuckle. "I've haven't seen him in a couple of years, but now he's down from Cambridge, and he's changed. Grown. Become quite, quite irresistible."
"He is a fine-looking fellow," Lucy agreed. "And the Beckett estate is a good one. It would be a very suitable match." Thinking of her own situation, she asked, "Did he show evidence of interest?"
"He did indeed! We were flirting madly when I said that I was going to have a London Season to find a husband. He said that in that case, he must come to London in the spring. And then"—her voice dropped—"he drew me under the mistletoe and kissed me. A kiss like I've never known before. It was a ... a lightning strike that shocked us both. Then Jeremy kissed my hand and said he would certainly be calling at my house long before spring!" Chloe sighed rapturously.
No longer able to control herself, Lucy burst into tears.
"What's wrong?" Chloe exclaimed. "I thought you'd be happy for me."
"I am!" Lucy wiped her eyes with the edge of the sheet. "He's lovely and almost good enough for you. I don't want to spoil your happiness. But ..." She drew a ragged breath. "Gregory didn't want to talk to me. Or touch me. When changing partners brought us together in a dance, he looked like he wanted to run away rather than take my hand for a few moments. He did run away after the dance. Paid his respects to the Randalls and left immediately after. I ... I knew his feelings were unengaged, but it hurts that he hates me."
"How very odd," Chloe said thoughtfully. "If he'd half forgotten you, his most likely reaction would be indifference, but his behavior was not indifferent. He has no reason to hate you. No one hates you. You are the rarest of creatures, a beautiful girl who is universally liked. Perhaps he likes you too much?"
Lucy swallowed a hiccup. "That makes no sense whatsoever."
"No? The man has spent years at war, doing dark and dreadful deeds that we can only imagine. He comes home and sees a girl he's always liked all grown up into a woman, but she looks so innocent and refined that he feels wholly unworthy." Chloe paused dramatically. "Afraid of his own passions, he flees for the sake of honor!"
"That is absurd!" Lucy exclaimed.
"Is it?" Chloe retorted. "He might not want to touch you, but I hear he doesn't mind touching the barmaids at the Willing Wench." Then she clapped her hand over her mouth, her eyes rounding.
"I beg your pardon?" Lucy stared at her friend. "Gregory is doing what?"
Chloe sighed. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to tell you. I must still be suffering from the champagne. In the retiring room I chatted with Helen Merchant. She's Gregory's cousin, you know. She said the whole family is worried about him. Since coming back from Spain, he hardly talks to anyone. Polite, but he just slides away. Rides or walks all day, and spends his evenings at the Willing Wench. He can apparently relax with the barmaids, if nowhere else."
"Drinking and risking the pox?" Lucy said icily. "He won't even touch my gloved hand, but he'll have a jolly time with a tavern wench?"
Her tone was so menacing that Chloe said soothingly, "It's just how men are, Lucy. You're a lady. You belong on a pedestal. With you, he'd have to be a gentleman, and he's just not ready for that."
"That is insulting to both ladies and wenches!" Lucy exclaimed. "Barmaids from the Willing Wench have called on my father for help or spiritual guidance. They are women just like we are. Some are mothers trying to raise their babes. Others need to work if they're to eat. They deserve to be treated with respect." Her head swung around to Chloe, her eyes glittering. "And I deserve to be treated like a woman, not a lady!"
Excerpted from Mischief and Mistletoe by Mary Jo Putney Jo Beverley Copyright © 2012 by Kensington Publishing Corp.. 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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