A love that is too perfect....
An illusion that hides a deadly truth....
Will her magic be enough to fight the evil that lurks in the dark?
"Enchantment and romance abound in Schwab's captivating tale of a spell gone wrong, a love potion gone right, deceit, revenge, black magic and redemption."
Kathe Robin, RT Book Reviews
After a magical mishap that has turned her uncle's house blue, Miss Amelia Bourne is stripped of her powers and sent to London in order to be introduced into polite society--and to find a suitable husband. Handsome, rakish Sebastian "Fox" Stapleton seems to be all that and more. He is her true love. Isn't he?
At Rawdon Park, the country estate of the Stapletons, Amy begins to wonder. Several inexplicable events suggest that one sip of bitter punch has changed her life forever--that her love for Fox is nothing but an illusion. They were pawns in some mysterious game, and black magic has followed them out of Town. Without her powers, will she be strong enough to battle those dark forces and win? And will she be able to claim her heart's true desire?
(originally published in 2008)
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By Sandra Schwab
Copyright © 2008 Sandra Schwab
All right reserved.
London, autumn 1820
"I am"-Andrew Fermont flopped down on an armchair in the smoking room, closed his eyes, and heaved a blissful sigh-"in love."
Cyril Jerningham, Lord Stafford, exchanged a glance with Sebastian "Fox" Stapleton and rolled his eyes. "You don't say?" He blew a puff of smoke into Drew's face. "So, do enlighten us: Who is this week's lucky lady?"
Unperturbed, Drew waved the smoke away and gave another, even more blissful sigh. "Miss Amelia Bourne," he breathed, in a tone that suggested he had beheld a divine apparition. "I swear, she has captured my heart-no, my very soul-forevermore."
Fox raised his brows. "How ... dramatic."
A loony smile appeared on Drew's face. "She is exquisite." His hands sketched the outline of a female form in the air. "The epitome of beauty."
"Tell us something new." Cy yawned and looked around for a place to leave the remains of his cheroot. "It seems that at least half the male guests at this oh-so-wondrous ball have declared themselves in love with Miss Amelia Bourne."
"Oh no." Dismayed, Drew stared at his friends. "What about Munty? Has he said anything? Is Munty after her, too? Oh dear, oh dear, if Munty's after her, what with him being not just an earl, but also filthy rich ..." He tore at his hair. "What ever shall I do?"
Cy leaned forward to pat his shoulder. "Do not despair, my friend," he said kindly. "By the end of the week you'll have fallen out of love with her anyway. You always fall out of love with them by the end of a week."
"I know." Drew studied the ceiling. "But what is a man to do with so many bewitching young ladies about?"
Fox took a sip of his wine. "And their numbers increase with each year," he added wryly.
"Indeed. Ah well ..." Drew straightened and abandoned his dramatics. "But still, Miss Bourne is exquisite." He reached over and took Fox's glass. "Have you danced with her?" He regarded his friends over the rim of the glass while he took a deep gulp of the wine.
"Pansy-eyed, blond little chit, reaches up to about here?" Cyril indicated a spot in the middle of his chest. "Yes, I have." He shrugged. "A bit disconcerting, if you ask me, such a little bit. Makes you wonder how ..." He frowned. "If ... you know."
Drew grimaced in distaste. "Heavens, Cy, don't be vulgar! At least not while Miss Bourne still holds my heart."
"Soul," Fox corrected. "Give me my wine back."
"Did I say soul?"
"You did." He held out his hand. "My wine."
Drew drank the rest of the wine and handed the glass back. "I guess I must have. How many times did Munty dance with her? Did he say?"
Mournfully, Fox regarded his empty glass. "If you weren't my friend, I'd have to call you out now."
Cyril snorted and answered the question. "Twice."
"Two dances? Goodness!" Drew slumped back in the chair. "I am devastated! I had only one!"
"Serves you right. You drank my wine," Fox muttered darkly.
Drew gave his friend an exasperated look. "Ahh, damn it, Foxy, do stop that annoying whinging and let me suffer in peace, will you?"
Fox looked up. His eyes narrowed. "I am"-he rudely poked his finger into the other's chest-"so going to break your heart, sir."
Drew batted his hand away. "Piffle."
Fox arched his brow. Leaning forward, he let his lips twist into an evil smile. "I am-"
"Going to dance the waltz with your dear Miss Amelia Bourne."
"Indeed!" Grinning, Drew waved the threat aside. "I'm sure you won't. She's a debutante. As fresh as newly fallen snow. No way you'll get her to dance the waltz."
Fox showed him two rows of pearly white teeth. "Oh, I will." He waggled his eyebrows.
Cy clucked his tongue. "Children, children ..."
Leaning his elbow onto the table, Drew put his chin on his hand and smiled. "No. You. Won't."
Fox stretched lazily, like a great cat before it goes on the prowl, and rose from his chair. "Oh yes, I will. And you will be so heartbroken."
Cyril rolled his eyes. "Lawk. Infants!"
Fox shot them a grin before, softly whistling, he strolled toward the ballroom.
"Puh." Clutching her glass of lemonade like a deadly weapon, Amy flopped down on a chair at the edge of the dance floor, where the gossiping matrons and unfortunate wallflowers had gathered.
Being a wallflower sounded awfully good at the moment. She grimaced and wriggled her aching toes. Every blasted man younger than seventy at this blasted ball had wanted to dance with her at least once. They had given her foolish smiles, had talked to her in avuncular tones while leering at her bosom, and-to make matters worse-some of them had actually stepped on her toes. One hundred and eighty pounds of solid male stepping on one's toes while they were sheathed in only the lightest satin slipper could by no means be regarded as amusing.
Amy took a sip of her lemonade and warily eyed the crowd. Egad! She gulped. There he was again! That horrid Lord Munthorpe. Who had talked about nothing but his family's sheep breeding in Scotland. Woolly baasheep. Ack!
Amy looked this way and that, and finally spied a giant potted plant in the corner. Hastily she stood and prepared for a strategic retreat, just when the orchestra struck the first notes of a new dance.
Her shoulders slumped with relief. Thank heavens! Immediately her mood brightened. She had, after all, not yet been given permission to dance the waltz. Even Munthorpe, the dolt, would know that! Smiling, she took another sip of her lemonade and watched how the dancers got in line. Another few beats-Amy's foot tapped the three-four rhythm-and then the couples started: a lovely whirling of colorful dresses around dark male evening clothes.
She leaned her shoulder against the wall.
The waltz certainly made for a beautiful sight.
She looked around. And up.
Mr. Stapleton, the man generally known as Fox, smiled down at her from his lofty height. His blue-gray eyes were crinkled at the corners, and the candlelight created fiery little sparks in his red hair. Well, "Fox" would probably be considered a more flattering name than "Carrot," she supposed. Or "Fish." For he was as cold as a fish, this one.
She gave him a bland smile. "Mr. Stapleton."
He bowed. "Would you do me the honor of another dance, Miss Bourne?" He held out his hand.
She looked first at his hand, then at his face. "This is a waltz."
He arched his carroty brows. "Indeed?"
Mindful that it wouldn't do to decline an invitation to dance, Amy held up her glass. "I still have my lemonade."
His brows shot up even higher. "Have you?" Then he simply took the glass from her hand and put it onto the windowsill. "And now?" he asked politely.
He had, Amy discovered, a sprinkle of freckles on his nose. She clasped her hands behind her back. "Sir-"
His eyes twinkling devilishly, he leaned forward and whispered, "You are not afraid, are you?"
She opened her mouth. "My ..." Amy frowned. How to describe Mrs. Bentham? Not guardian, not chaperone-what then? "I haven't been given permission to-"
"Oh." He sighed. "So you are afraid." He drew back to regard her earnestly and, she thought, somewhat pityingly. "What an utter shame. I would have thought ... I had suspected you-rather falsely, it now seems-in possession of some courage."
Amy narrowed her eyes at him. At her sides, her hands curled into fists. The oaf! He accused her of being a coward? This was surely too much! After an evening spent in the company of abhorrent people, she would not suffer such ludicrous accusations.
Mr. Carrot Stapleton turned as if ready to stride away.
Amy reached out and put her hand on his elbow. "Sir?"
He turned, eyed the hand on his arm-granted, the hand looked rather small there-before he slowly raised his gaze to meet hers. "Yes, Miss Bourne?"
She gave him a sweet smile. She would show him! Lacking in courage? Ha! "I believe this is your dance."
"Is it? Is it indeed?" He put his hand over hers and gently squeezed her fingers. Somehow his thumb came to rest on the small spot of skin above the button of her glove. His blue-gray eyes seemed to burn into hers as he drew a tiny circle with his thumb. A hot tingle shot up her arm. It was an effort to meet his gaze calmly.
"Your dance, Mr. Stapleton. Or do you prefer to just stand around until it is over?"
Abruptly, the gentle pressure on her fingers ceased. "Not at all, Miss Bourne." He winked at her. "After all, I wouldn't want to bore you. Shall we?"
And with that, he drew her onto the dance floor. His expert eye regarded the whirling couples, and when a gap opened, his arm came around her shoulders, his hand clasped hers, and with a quickness that made Amy gasp, they joined the dance.
There was, Amy quickly discovered, a subtle difference between dancing the waltz with one of her lanky cousins and dancing with a nicely built stranger. When she had danced with Coll, for example, she had never noticed how hard the hand was that held hers, or how strong the arm was that curved around her shoulder, or how gracefully his body moved with the music. And she most certainly had never noticed a tiny freckle, like a speck of cinnamon dust, on Coll's earlobe.
Entranced, she stared at that tiny spot of skin, while Mr. Stapleton whirled her around in three-four time.
She saw how the muscles of his neck moved just before she heard his voice above her. "So, do you find the waltz as scandalous as you've suspected?"
She looked up and found his eyes twinkling down at her, which seemed at odds with his coolly polite voice. Oddly, she found his dusting of freckles greatly destroyed his aloof facade. For how could you consider somebody a cold fish when his face was full of endearing little cinnamon spots? Thus, despite herself, her lips curved into a mischievous smile. "I daresay this might not be quite as scandalous as waltzing in a damp shift." His eyes darkened until they were the color of the stormy sea. His arm around her shoulders tightened, and he subtly drew her closer to his body. For a moment he turned her without answering.
"Miss Bourne, I think I owe you an apology," he finally said, very quietly.
"Indeed, Mr. Stapleton?"
"Indeed, Miss Bourne." His hand on her back shifted; instead of just touching her with its side, he now held her with his flat palm, his fingers splayed wide. Her stomach fluttered, and her face felt hot.
He lowered his head toward her. "You are a woman of exceptional courage."
She blinked. A woman of exceptional courage? Her eyes widened and the flutters died. Because of a waltz?
She just about managed to turn her guffaw into a cough. Hastily, she turned her head to the side and, screening the lower part of her face with her free hand, she indulged in a series of little coughs. Finally, her merriment had sufficiently subsided to allow her to murmur a faint, "Pardon me." When she risked a look at Mr. Stapleton, she saw that his eyes had narrowed in suspicion as if he knew she had been covering up a fit of giggles. Oh dear.
"I hope you are not feeling unwell," he asked stiffly.
"Oh no. No," Amy hurried to say. "After all, there is no traipsing around lonely hills after belles dames sans merci to be had in London, is there?"
Yet no spark of humor or even recognition lit his eyes. Instead, the look he threw her now suggested he assumed she had taken complete leave of her senses.
Uh-oh. A cold fish and a dolt!
"You don't like Keats?"
At the sound of the hapless poet's name, a grimace of distaste flickered over Mr. Stapleton's freckled face. Underneath her fingertips she could feel how his muscles stiffened.
"No 'O what can ail thee, wretched wight'?" she prodded.
His lips thinned. "Mr. Keats's poetry is too ... fanciful for my liking."
Heavens! He made it sound as if it were something terribly improper! "Fanciful?" Amy echoed. Quite suddenly she was gripped by the urge to needle him and crack his slick, formal shell. "Ah, so fairy maidens and their dark enchantments are not for you?"
With a snort, he gripped her hand a little tighter and maneuvered them past another dancing couple. "My dear Miss Bourne," Mr. Stapleton said, and managed to sound like a stern tutor lecturing a riotous child. "You ought to know that fairies and magic and other such ludicrous things are nothing but figments of the imagination. The products of some poor fellow's overheated mind. It does not do for the improvement of rational thought to indulge in such flights of fancy."
Amy bit her lip. "Ah," she said. Her stomach muscles quivered with the strain of holding in her laughter.
"Indeed." Again, Mr. Carrothead gave a sage nod. "Such drivel should never be published. For who knows? It might even prove dangerous to the impressionable minds of young ladies!"
Did he really believe in the nonsense he sprouted?
This time, Amy couldn't help herself; she burst out laughing. If only he knew!
Across the ballroom, Miss Isabella Bentham's fan flicked open and fluttered agitatedly, thus screening the lower half of her face. Her eyes cast daggers at the scene enfolding on the dance floor. "The nerve!" Color came and went in her face. Should all her chances be ruined by that stupid chit? Wasn't it enough that all men sighed over Amy like a herd of dimwitted mooncalves? No, now she was even cantering around the room, dancing the waltz of all things! Apparently, the country bumpkin had never heard of modest reserve. Even worse: such behavior could only reflect poorly on Isabella. What ever had her father been thinking to invite that girl into their home? Who cared whether she was the niece of an old friend or not!
Isabella's fan swished shut and she strode across the room to where her mother stood chatting with Lady Westerley. "Mama!" she hissed. "Look at that, over there."
"What ever is the matter with you?" Mrs. Bentham turned-and stared. Her hand flew up to cover the base of her throat. She gasped. But then her face darkened dramatically, seemed to turn inward, shrinking into a mask of anger. "Your father must hear of this!"
In the refreshments room, Mr. Bentham poured himself another glass of punch. "Just another dram to warm these old bones," he murmured. Surreptitiously, he tugged at his cravat. These horrid tight knots!
Muttering, he shook his head and took a sip from his punch, and didn't notice the gentleman stepping up to him.
"Mr. Bentham. Good evening."
Caught by surprise, Bentham choked. Spluttering and coughing, he put his punch glass back on the table. Out of breath and patience, he narrowed his eyes at the stranger, a tall, smiling youth, exquisitely groomed. Why, the polished buttons of his coat shone like small suns. "Do I know you, sir?"
The man's smile deepened as he reached for a cup with slender, long fingers and poured himself a cup of tea. The smoky aroma of bergamot wafted up. A splash of lemon drew pale streaks in the reddish brown liquid. The man meticulously stirred, his small, silver spoon clinking against the china.
Bentham's furry brows met over his eyes in displeasure. He cleared his throat. "Sir?"
Unperturbed, the younger man raised the teacup to his lips.
"We've got a mutual friend," the stranger said.
The young face turned toward him, a hint of cruelty visible in the twist of the lips. "Lady Margaret," he said. He took another sip of tea. Over the rim of his cup the light blue eyes, almost as light as water, remained trained on Bentham.
Bentham felt the blood drain from his face. Sweat beaded on his forehead, and the knot of his cravat seemed even tighter than before. "L-Lady Margaret?" He fumbled for a handkerchief, dabbed at his temple.
"Indeed." A blond eyebrow rose. "The time has come for her to call in a few, shall we say, debts?"
"Debts." Bentham wriggled a finger under the collar of his shirt and tugged.
"I believe she did you some ser vice several years ago. Some financial ser vice."
"Ah ... yes. Yes." With trembling hands Bentham reached for his glass and took a long gulp of punch. "Financial ser vice," he mumbled. "Yes, Lady Margaret did-"
"Well, the time has come for repayment."
Bentham nearly choked again. Panic rose inside him. How-? When-? "I ... there's ..." He swallowed, hard. A wave of nausea rolled through his stomach. It would ruin them. Again. "Now? I mean, I-"
"Still got that little gambling problem?" The hateful blue eyes threw him a knowing look. The stranger's lips twitched, as if he found the whole episode highly amusing. "Never fear, Mr. Bentham. Lady Margaret doesn't expect you to repay in kind."
"Not in ... So I won't have to ...?" Bentham's shoulders sagged with relief. "She doesn't want her money back?"
Excerpted from Bewitched by Sandra Schwab Copyright © 2008 by Sandra Schwab. Excerpted by permission.
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