1817. The happy chaos of the Yuletide season has descended upon the country estate of Shackleford Park in full force, but lady's maid Kate Darby barely has the time to notice. Between her household duties, caring for her ailing mother, and saving up money to someday own a dress shop, her hands are quite full. Matt Harlow is also rather busy. He's performing double-duty, acting as valet for both of the Steeple brothers, two of the estate's holiday guests.
Falling in love would be a disaster for either of them. But staving off their feelings for each other becomes the least of their problems when a devious counterfeiting scheme reaches the gates of Shackleford Park, and Kate and Matt are unwittingly swept up in the intrigue.
Full of sweetness, charm, and holiday mischief, Carols and Chaosa standalone companion novel to Suitors and Sabotageis perfect for readers who like their historical fiction with a side of romance and danger.
Praise for Carols and Chaos:
"One part intriguing mystery, one part cozy romance. Jane Austen fans will enjoy the propriety and the Regency setting, while that dose of Christmas adds an extra bit of cheer.” Booklist
"A nod and a wink to the works of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. ... This book could serve as a stepping stone to classic read-alikes, such as Pride and Prejudice or Jane Eyre." School Library Journal
|Publisher:||Feiwel & Friends|
|Product dimensions:||5.30(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)|
|Age Range:||13 - 18 Years|
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In which there is a bullish meeting
Friday, December 12, 1817
Miss Kate Darby of Shackleford Park scowled, and yet the recipient of her dark looks was not in the least intimidated. She snorted in vexation — very quietly, of course, just a whisper of warm breath drifted into the afternoon chill. She tried to exude strength, calm, and dominance in this staring contest: to look away would be perceived as weakness ... at her peril.
"Nothing to worry about, my friend," she said, her words barely audible. "I will be out of your way momentarily."
The beneficiary of this bravado was a big fellow with a broad forehead, prominent eyes, and curly black hair. He wore a look of irritation that was growing more passionate with each passing moment. The threat that his mood would escalate into fury, and the dire consequences that would accompany this rage, was all too real.
Standing some twenty feet apart, Kate knew that the distance was too close for comfort — for both of them. The bull could cross that divide very quickly despite his size and weight; there would be no outrunning this huge battering ram. And so she stared, willing the behemoth to stay just where he was, shoulders hunched, pawing the ground.
Slowly, in small moves, Kate inched backward. The gate leading to Wattage Lane was behind her ... somewhere. If only she had been paying better attention.
So intent on correcting a mistake, she had slipped through a narrow opening on the east side of the field, leaving Marie by the road. Distracted by eager anticipation, Kate had not assessed her surroundings properly. There had been no animal in sight when she had glanced around the large enclosure. She had seen, but not signified, the large hoofprints in the hardened mud.
Foolish and foolhardy, she had skipped across the meadow, loudly calling to the cart rolling past the far side of the enclosure. Perhaps if she had moved with deliberation, quietly with stealth, she might have made it across the wide expanse without incident.
It was a moot point.
The rightful occupant of the pasture had heard her halloos and drawn near, likely to investigate first, and then, having found an interloper, to challenge. If Kate did not find her way out of the enclosure fast, she would suffer the consequences of her imprudent distraction.
"This is a rather sticky situation," a familiar deep, melodic voice said softly. It wasn't a whisper, but the statement was spoken in a gentle tone in recognition of her precarious position in the standoff.
Keeping her expression passive, Kate fought the urge to turn. "Ah, Mr. Harlow. You heard me call."
"Indeed, Miss Darby. I believe they heard you all the way back to Tishdale. I'm sure every hen in the neighborhood just stopped laying."
Kate almost laughed — almost. "Please, Mr. Harlow, do not be amusing. It would be to my detriment."
"Oh, I do apologize. The hens are likely fine. You, on the other hand ... well, definitely sticky."
"I've dealt with worse."
"I have three older brothers."
"Yes, indeed. Far more dangerous than a raging bull."
"I've always thought so. This is merely a modest predicament," she said airily, and then swallowed with difficulty when the bull snorted. "How far am I from the gate?" "Not far. Shift a little to your left — yes, exactly. And now, straight back ten
feet or so."
There was a squeal of metal on metal behind her — hinges.
"What are you doing?" Kate asked, though she had a fairly good idea.
"It might be easier to slip out of an open gate than to barrel through."
"I thought so."
"You'll close it after me?"
"Should I? I thought the big fellow might want to gad about ... looking for cows."
"What he might want to do, and what is best for everyone in the area, might not be the same thing. He should probably stay in the field."
"In that case, I will swing the gate closed behind you."
"Excellent. Are you ready? I will count to three — oh. Oh no."
Lowering his head, the bull snorted again. It was the final warning, and Kate knew it. The standoff was over.
Pivoting, Kate ran. She could hear the pounding hooves advancing on her. A scream built in her throat, and she tensed, readying for the blow. Suddenly, a shriek split the air and the pounding halted abruptly.
Surprised, Kate glanced over her shoulder and blindly careened into Matt Harlow. Momentum propelled them awkwardly through the gate, but Matt quickly regained his footing. They stuttered to a stop a few feet from the enclosure, still standing but with Matt's arms wrapped around Kate. Then, seeing the bull turn his head in their direction, Matt leapt forward. He slammed the gate shut, knocking his cap to the ground in the process. Both stared across the field to the figure that was standing on the far wall, shrieking and flapping her burgundy cloak.
Kate giggled, a little longer than warranted. There was a touch of mania to the sound. "That's Mary ... I mean, Marie," she said quietly, looking up at Mr. Harlow. Realizing that he was much too close for propriety, Kate shifted away and turned back to the far side of the field, lifting her arm in a large swooping wave.
"Thank you, Marie! I'm fine now," she shouted. "All is well!"
Seeing her friend jump down from the stone wall, Kate dropped her voice. "Thank you," she said again, directing her comment this time to Mr. Matt Harlow.
"Most welcome," he said with a broad smile. "Wouldn't want to see you laid up this close to Christmas."
"Or laid out."
They stared at each other for some minutes. "That, too," he said quietly, ignoring her teasing tone.
Kate smiled, strangely pleased by his brief frown.
Her memory had not played her wrong, not embellished the appealing aspect that was the Steeple valet. Matt Harlow was indeed the handsome young man with broad shoulders, medium brown hair, and hazel eyes that she remembered. He did dress impeccably and yet have a slightly disheveled look about his hair. More important, his impish yet charming smile had been reaffixed.
While Matt bent to retrieve his cap, Kate set about straightening her cloak as it had twisted to the side. Once completed, she tugged her mittens back into place. Then they turned in unison to greet each other properly — civil expressions on their faces as were dictated for persons of such a short acquaintance.
"Good afternoon, Miss Darby," he said formally, nodding his head in a respectful bow.
"Good afternoon, Mr. Harlow." Kate bobbed a curtsy.
"Fine day for a stroll," he said with a raised brow.
"Indeed. And a drive from the coast. Did you have a pleasant journey?" Kate asked.
"Well, the trip was far less eventful than the last few minutes."
He seemed to wait for Kate to explain ... which she didn't do. It was far more fun keeping him wondering. "Yes, I can imagine that's true."
"Oh, for heaven's sake, Miss Darby. Why were you shouting across the pasture? And why were you giving that poor bull a hard time? Invading his territory and all that. You could have been killed."
"Yes, that was a mistake ... though an honest one. Farmer Gibbs took his animals off the field some weeks ago. He must have thought the day too fine to waste and put them, or at least him, back on."
"Which still doesn't explain why you felt the need to cross the field in the first place. There is a perfectly good road on either side."
Kate laughed. Now they were at the heart of the matter. "Yes, however, the road I was on leads to Shackleford Park. The road you were traveling leads to Wattage."
"I beg your pardon? We were on the wrong road?"
"Yes. I was in Tishdale with Marie." Kate turned, looking over her shoulder to see the top half of Marie Whynaught standing behind the stone wall. The hood of her cloak had fallen back to reveal dark blond curls and a furrowed brow, conflicting with her pert features.
Facing Matt once more, Kate used her chin to point toward the opposite road. "You missed the turn. We were on our way back to Shackleford Park when I saw your cart across the pasture. You would have realized your mistake at Wattage, but it would have taken you three-quarters of an hour out of your way and then again to return. It seemed reasonable to save you from traveling hither and yon on a deplorable road for nothing. Hence the shouting for your attention ... and thereby gaining the bull's interest."
"Thank you for putting your life in danger to save me from an hour and a half of pointless travel."
Kate laughed. "Yes, well, it was quite unintentional — the danger part, not the helping part."
"I should hope so."
"So what's all this, then?" a new voice called from farther down Wattage Lane.
Matt winked at Kate and then turned his head. "You were taking us down the wrong road, Johnny. You've never been good with directions."
"Me? You was the one here in the summer."
Kate shifted so that she might see Johnny — last name unknown. Wearing the green Steeple livery, he was about Matt's age — nineteen or so — tall and lanky, as most footmen tended to be, with a striking countenance if not handsome. His eyes were a trifle too deep-set to complement his thin lips, and yet there was an appealing hint of mischief about him.
"Had you been attending properly, I wouldna made the mistake, now would I?" the footman said. "You were too busy waxing on about the charms of —" "Shall I introduce you?" Matt interrupted with a glare.
Johnny laughed, not in the least slighted. He stepped forward and doffed his hat. "Johnny Grinstead, third footman to the Steeples of Musson House ... for near on three months."
"Kate Darby, lady's maid at Shackleford Park. It's a pleasure."
"Indeed it is, Miss Darby," he said, stepping closer still and dropping his voice to an intimate whisper before reaching out to take her hand. "Lovely country you have here," he crooned.
With a smile, Kate agreed and glanced at Matt to see him shaking his head. She grinned as he shouldered Johnny out of the way, pulling her hand free from the grasp of his companion and tucking it into the crook of his elbow.
"You can show us the way to Shackleford Park," Matt said, leading her down the lane to where the cart waited.
"It is simple enough," she said as she minced through a patch of mud. "Turn around, and take the first left off the main road."
"Simple enough for someone who has lived in this area of Kent all her life, but for us poor coastal souls ... well, we would appreciate your guidance."
Kate didn't argue further. After all, spending a few minutes with Matt Harlow in the intimacy of a pony cart before being inundated with people and duties was a rather pleasant notion.
The pony cart, tied to a gorse bush by the side of the road, was of a good size, though not quite a wagon. Packed to a level above the rails, the cargo was hidden and held in place by canvas tied in the corners. The cloth was heavily soiled, likely in an attempt to demean the contents. The road from the coast was not known for highwaymen, but it would be beetle-headed to take a chance with the precious foodstuffs being sent ahead by the Steeple family.
Glancing up the road, Kate congratulated herself on her quick thinking — willfully ignoring her close encounter with the Gibbses' bull. The road to Wattage was a disaster at the best of times — with the surveyor of that parish paying little heed to its ruts and crumbling bridges — but it was doubly so in the winter.
Yes, there were plenty of reasons for her impulsive sprint across the pasture. It had nothing to do with Kate's enthusiasm to see Matt. They barely knew each other; they had shared a few significant looks in the summer but not much more than that. She was drawn to him as anyone might be. A handsome stranger with an infectious smile was a rare commodity at Shackleford.
Kate jerked out of her reverie. "I beg your pardon?"
"If you could hold Bailey," Matt said, passing her the reins to the pony, who was now unhitched from the bush as well as the cart. Kate nodded, leading the large pony — almost horse-sized — farther down the narrow road out of the way.
Matt and Johnny soon had the cart facing the right direction and Bailey reattached. Kate was handed up to the driver's bench and they were off. Squished between the young men, Kate was acutely aware of Matt's leg pressed against hers — Johnny's was as well, but it wasn't as distracting.
"How was your journey thus far?" Kate asked Johnny.
Johnny proceeded to describe the lengthy, though uneventful, trip in such harrowing terms that he had her smiling all the way back to the main road. He turned left at her direction, and they pulled up along the east side of the Gibbses' pasture, where Marie waited ... looking none too pleased.
"You ought not to have run across the field," Marie said without preamble as they pulled up before her. She had pulled her hood back over her head and was partially hidden in its shadows. Her mittened hands were tucked under her crossed arms. They were held tightly against the front of her burgundy cloak as she leaned against the wall in a half-standing, half-sitting posture.
"I said much the same, miss." Matt nodded as he helped Kate alight. "Though I have it on good authority that we were destined to a miserable hour and a half journey had she not done so."
"Exactly. Hardly worth the eff —"
"Thank you for distracting the bull, Mary —"
"Marie. You keep forgetting; it's Marie now."
"Oh yes ... You are right. I must be more flustered than I realized." Kate lifted her cheeks, hoping to appease her companion, who was a gem at the best of times — and a bitter pill at the worst. "It's only been a few weeks."
"Nearly a month now," Marie huffed.
Similarly to the way Kate had been elevated in the spring, Marie had been raised from her former position as a housemaid to lady's maid; Mrs. Beeswanger's previous maid had left service to be married in November. However, when Mary had stepped across the divide into the domain of the upper servants, she had shaken the detritus of her previous duties behind her, raised her chin in the air, and adopted a French pronunciation to her name. Marie no longer wished to associate with those at the lower table, did not want to laugh and chat as Kate still did.
It was a rather rigid approach to the social hierarchy below stairs that Kate hoped would soften over time. She quickly introduced Marie Whynaught to the travelers.
"Hang on, now," Johnny said, still sitting on the cart's bench. "I thought Darby, here, was the lady's maid."
Kate's smile was genuine this time. "There are ladies aplenty at Shackleford Park," she explained. "Marie's duties are to Mrs. Beeswanger, while I care for Miss Beeswanger and Miss Chively." She caught the shared look between the two young men. Imogene Chively was betrothed to their Ben Steeple of Musson House ... though it was unlikely that Johnny had met Mr. Ben, as the young gentleman had been apprenticing in Canterbury since September. "The two youngest daughters are not yet out."
Johnny looked confused. "Are there no gentlemen?"
"Of course, Mr. Beeswanger ... and Jasper. Though one can hardly call him a gentleman, as he is a dog."
"But an important part of the family," Matt said with a laugh. He offered Marie a hand.
She looked at it as if it were a rotting fish. "Yes?"
"Would you like some assistance, Miss Whynaught? Onto the cart? We are going the same direction. It will give you a nice respite."
"We don't need a nice respite, do we, Kate?"
"Yes, that would be lovely, thank you," Kate said even as Marie bristled. She reached for the parcel sitting at Marie's feet and passed it to Johnny to set under the bench.
"It is to your benefit that Mrs. Beeswanger thought that the girls will need warmer shawls this evening," Marie said as she hiked up her skirts and used the wheel hub as a step. "Otherwise, we would not have been coming back from Tishdale and seen you go past on the wrong road!"
Kate cringed. Marie's tone was decidedly caustic.
"There's no room up here," Marie continued. "There is barely room for two, let alone three. I don't know how you did it, Kate."
"It was a mite tight," Matt said, offering Kate a grin. "Perhaps we will make ourselves comfortable in the back."
Johnny leaned forward so that he might see past Marie. "Not sure you'll fit there, either." He had a mischievous smile.
At the back of the cart, Kate let down the tailboard, eyeing the space speculatively. The box was, indeed, filled to capacity with little room to sit. Only the edge offered any possibility of a perch. To stay aboard, they would have to cling to the sides, leaning into each other. Such a shame!
Matt helped Kate aboard with a flourish more befitting a great lady. She settled her cloak and skirts out of Matt's way and he jumped up, trying not to jostle her. Their feet swung with the cart's motion, and they shared a smile whenever they bumped persons ... which was not a rare occurrence. Kate might have exaggerated the motion a little, but she was fairly certain Matt did as well. Flirting was a most marvelous invention.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Carols and Chaos"
Copyright © 2018 Cynthia Ann Anstey.
Excerpted by permission of Feiwel and Friends.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1. In which there is a bullish meeting,
Chapter 2. In which a porker, an ewer, and a dirt floor suffer the ravages of a helpful neighbor,
Chapter 3. In which there is an embarrassing set-to regarding mistletoe,
Chapter 4. In which cold ears bring out the woodland fairies,
Chapter 5. In which Matt consigns the person responsible for Mr. Ben's packing to the fiery pits of the underworld,
Chapter 6. In which Kate is burdened with being sensible,
Chapter 7. In which mistletoe becomes a euphemism,
Chapter 8. In which a thunderous expression leads to prevarication,
Chapter 9. In which there are accusations of an amorous pique,
Chapter 10. In which Kate is as tense as a twisted corset,
Chapter 11. In which Lord Bobbington pays a call,
Chapter 12. In which Kate is very glad that she disturbed a certain valet,
Chapter 13. In which the day goes from sinking snow to drenching danger,
Chapter 14. In which the true nature of a villainous trio comes to the fore,
Chapter 15. In which Saint George slays a dragon,
Chapter 16. In which Kate tries to listen through good solid oak — to no avail,
Chapter 17. In which there is a conspiracy of tiny troubles,
Chapter 18. In which sacrifices are required,
Chapter 19. In which an earth-shattering truth is realized,
Excerpt: Suitors & Sabotage,
About the Author,