Nothing is more romantic than being a newlywed during the holidays! And nothing is more festive than making Christmas plans with one’s beloved. But as Lady Ophelia is about to discover, even the best laid plans can go awry. And as she knows very well, when it comes to matters of the heart, that is sometimes the greatest gift of all. True love, after all, can be full of surprises . . .
“Fans of Jo Beverly and Mary Jo Putney as well as all readers who value Regency-set romances that are expertly grounded in the era’s history will be delighted to discover the latest in Miles’ impeccably researched and beautifully crafted Muses’ Salon series!”
“Rachael Miles’ knowledge of the time period she writes about adds a depth of authenticity that enriches every page.”
—Jodi Thomas, New York Times bestselling author
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"Judith proposes that we fill the twelve days of Christmas with a hunt." Ophelia Mason sat in bed, a tray with correspondence on her lap and a heavy knit shawl around her shoulders. "She slipped a card under our door this morning."
Sidney, her husband of only six months, sat on the floor in a state of undress, surrounded by a mess of his own making. In response to a dare from Ophelia's sixteen-year-old brother, Tom, and her cousin Aidan, Sidney was making a kite. Before Ophelia had enticed him to bed the night before, he had already collected long strips of wood from the stable yard and fastened them into four rectangular frames. Now, with the remains of an old silk waistcoat and lengths of hemp twine, he was making the strips into a box. Ophelia watched his easy movements, his natural balance, loving him with every cell in her body. The decision to marry Sidney was perhaps her best, and after being his wife for six months, she had difficulty remembering why she had resisted for so long.
"A hunt?" Sidney balanced two frames between his knees as he reached for wire to tie them together. "In the middle of December? No self-respecting fox will leave his hole."
"Just as no self-respecting MP would let himself be tricked into flying kites in a foot of snow?" Ophelia raised an eyebrow. She loved these moments, when Sidney hadn't yet donned his waistcoat and cravat for a day of business or politics. Though he was always kindness itself, she especially relished the moments when Sidney — her passionate reformer — was hers alone.
"It's not a trick. It's a dare." Sidney emphasized the word. "And no self-respecting MP can allow a dare to go unchallenged, especially when it is disguised as a scientific experiment. At any rate, I've read Benjamin Franklin's observations on electricity very carefully. We will simply replicate his procedures."
"Electricity can blast a hole in a man just as easily as in a tree, as that Swedish fellow Georg Richmann discovered." At the thought of Sidney dead, Ophelia felt her stomach twist. She swallowed, then began again. "As I am too young to be a widow, Mr. Mason, I expect this experiment to end safely."
"Sweet wife, now that I've succeeded in taking you to the altar, I have every intention of living a long life by your side. Besides, we will exercise all caution." He held out a length of silk. "As long as we hold to the silk, not the hemp, we will be safe from the current." Reading the concern on her face, he shifted his tone to teasing. "Besides, as you also investigate the natural sciences, you know the value of blowing things up."
"That's not a fair comparison." Ophelia folded her arms against her chest, hiding her worry under the guise of defiance.
"I have a gardener's shed in pieces and a case of new glass beakers on order for you. I think I might be allowed a bit of silk and a kite on the next rainy night." He raised an eyebrow and wagged his ears. "Mightn't I?"
"I concede." Ophelia held up her hands before grudgingly adding, "But I must be present to observe that all the precautions are observed."
"A fair request." Sidney smiled, and Ophelia felt the warmth of it fill her chest and belly. "Which part of my argument was the most successful? The promotion of scientific experimentation or the reminder of the ruined shed?"
Ophelia tried not to smile in return but felt herself failing. "Neither. It was the supplies you have already bought me so I might blow more things up."
"That's good to know." Sidney stretched, then returned to his task. "I'll keep beakers on order for the rest of our marriage, if it means I win an argument or two."
"How will you win the others?" She teased, watching as he tied one corner together, then the next, with crisp precise motions.
"With kisses, of course." He met her eyes, then winked. "Now tell me about this hunt of Judith's."
"Well, I think it's a hunt." Ophelia grimaced at the card. "She's written the invitation in a sort of rhyming doggerel. But the meter is uneven, and the rhymes are at best approximate. I could perhaps fix it if I replaced the word ..."
"Ophelia, darling, it isn't a puzzle for you to solve. Give me the gist of it." He measured the distance between the top left and the bottom right corners with a piece of twine.
"I'd rather watch you work." Ophelia set the tray aside and pushed the bedcovers back. "What are you doing with the twine?"
"I'm seeing if the rectangle is square. If the distance between both sets of opposite corners is the same, then the rectangle is square." Sidney held out the twine to the second pair of corners. "And ... it is not."
"Have you considered ordering a kite from Mary Pearson's lovely toy shop in Fleet Street? I imagine it will be weeks before we have enough rain and lightning to justify the experiment."
"No, a man must make his own kites or pay the consequences when they don't fly."
Ophelia shifted her legs, uncovered, over the edge of the bed, and Sidney's movements slowed. His eyes traced the line of her body, up from her ankle, to her knee, to the span of her hips, across the swell of her breasts, until his eyes met hers. She felt brazen under the attention of his gaze. She waited for a moment, watching him watching her until the air around them both felt charged with a different sort of electricity. Then, never letting her eyes leave his, she slid down the side of the high bed. The slide of her against the bed frame pulled up her shift, and Sidney watched as the shift rose higher and higher. It revealed only a glimpse of the curve and swell of her buttocks before her feet touched the floor, and the shift fell down, obscuring all.
Ophelia pulled on her dressing gown, then put the knit shawl over it. The fire blazing in the hearth wasn't enough to take the nip of cold out of the bedroom. Even the rug was cold beneath her feet.
Sidney, grumbling to himself, pressed opposite corners to twist the rectangle's frame and measured again. "I only wish I had the proper tools."
"Perhaps we could ask Judith where her carpenter stores his tools. I'm sure I heard hammering last night in the wing across from us."
"Darling, this house hasn't seen a carpenter for years. As far as I can tell, every windowsill on this side of the manor is rotten almost through."
Ophelia walked to the window and pressed her thumb against the sill. The wood buckled beneath her hand. "Oh dear. Well, that clarifies two things."
"What things?" Sidney asked around a piece of twine he held in his teeth.
"The draft in this room that seems to come from everywhere at once and the hunt. Apparently, there's a treasure hidden somewhere in the house, and we're to find it. Whoever does wins their heart's desire."
Sidney finished tying the twine around each corner, pulling it in diagonals across the middle of the large open rectangular box he'd created. "That's quite a promise. But it means I have no need to play Judith's game." Sidney looked up, meeting Ophelia's eyes. "My heart wants nothing more than you."
Ophelia smiled at her husband, still feeling the warmth of his gaze. "And I wish for nothing more than to be with you." The two paused, enjoying the sweetness of the moment until Ophelia, unable to resist, turned the moment silly. "Otherwise, I'd have no one to buy me beakers when I break them."
"That's my Ophelia." Sidney laughed the hearty laugh she loved. "Always balancing sentiment with practicality! And to be practical, I need more silk and some heavy paper to finish this kite." He rose, giving Ophelia a moment to appreciate how well his clothes fit the planes of his chest and stomach.
Many women might not find Sidney handsome, with his uneven features and mop of unruly hair, but Ophelia found him utterly appealing. She watched the graceful economy of his movements as he gathered his makeshift tools and put them with the kite to the side of the wardrobe.
When he returned to the center of the room, she walked into his arms, breathing in the scent of him, so warm, so Sidney. His arms were strong as they wrapped around her. He nuzzled her hair as she rested her forehead against the center of his chest.
"I had a lovely morning," he whispered into her ear.
"I could see that ... all those strips of silk and wood." Ophelia turned her head into his shoulder, resting the side of her head against him.
"I meant before that ... all that silk and skin."
"Oh, that. Yes: a lovely morning. One of the advantages of a house party is no obligations except to dress for meals."
"I'm certain that if we arrived stripped naked, no one would wish for us to come to meals again." He nuzzled her hair. "We could use the uproar as an excuse never to leave our room."
They stood for a moment, enjoying the long embrace.
"I suppose we must go down for breakfast." Ophelia didn't move.
"I suppose so. It is already past ten." Sidney didn't move either.
"Yes. The hall clock chimed some time ago."
"I hate that clock. Paradise will be one long morning wrapped your arms ... and no clock to be heard. But we must be good guests for Judith's first house party."
They stepped out of each other's arms reluctantly.
"I suppose you must tell me about this hunt before we go down."
Ophelia held out the card.
But Sidney shook his head. "No. I must tie my cravat. Read it to me. That way, I can hear this horrible rhyme of yours."
"Not mine. Judith's." Ophelia shook her head. "For all her nose for scents, she's never had an ear for rhythm." Ophelia began to recite the lines, grimacing at the end of each couplet.
"When Catholic Charles lost his head to religion,
His followers fell into a pitiable condition.
A desperate lady, her husband imprisoned,
Determined to keep her lord's riches well hidden.
"See there: the second line doesn't scan properly, and religion and condition barely rhyme."
"It's a game, Ophelia."
"Games have rules, and the most important rule of a rhyming game is that it must ... rhyme."
"We can debate ways to repair the rhyme later. Read me the rest."
"A casket of gems,
A lady's dower,
A treasure holding her heart's desire.
"She's made dower to rhyme with desire!"
"They do contain similar sounds," Sidney averred. "What's the last line of the quatrain?"
"There. Is. No. Last. Line. Quatrains have four lines, not three, except when my cousin writes them." Ophelia rolled her eyes dramatically. "As I said before it is a terrible poem."
"I see what you mean."
A knock at the door ended their discussion. "Come in!" they spoke in almost unison, then laughed.
Esther, Judith's maid-of-all-work, stepped carefully into the room. She coughed slightly before she spoke. "Lady Judith wishes to remind you that her brothers have the appetites of a swarm of locusts emerging from a twenty-year sleep and that they are expected within the hour if the weather holds. She suggests that if you wish to eat breakfast, you would do well to do so before they arrive."
"I like the image of the Somerville brothers as locusts. She should have used it in her poem. I think it would have given a much-needed visceral touch." Sidney grinned.
Esther looked shy. "I offered to write the poem for Lady Judith. My father had a gift for rhyme. But she insisted on writing herself. She's quite proud of it."
"It has no concluding line." Ophelia's voice was stern.
"She thinks that's especially clever." Esther grinned. "'It will lend an air of mystery to the game,' Lady Judith said. She wanted an amusement that could include all of the guests, particularly since so many are still young. Just her younger brothers alone make six boys between eleven and seventeen."
"My brother is sixteen, and my sisters are thirteen and fourteen, so they bring the count to nine."
"Lady Judith is wise to find a way to manage such hardy animal spirits," Sidney said. "Which brothers are arriving this afternoon?"
"Lord Benjamin Somerville and the four youngest — Lords Colin, Seth, Edmund, and Clive — are expected shortly. The duke is expected this evening in time for the Christmas service in the village." Esther's face turned from cheery to grim. "The household assumes that Lady Judith's eldest brother, Sir Aaron, will accompany him."
"I believe my brother, Lord Wilmot, and Lord Aidan Somerville arrived yesterday with my sisters and aunt." Ophelia turned the conversation away from Judith's dissolute elder brother, Aaron. "But who are the other guests? We arrived too late yesterday to meet them."
"Mr. Alderson's partner, Mr. Frederick Simms, came this morning with his wife and their three children, a boy and two girls — oh la! That's eleven in their teens!" A look of consternation passed over Esther's face but was quickly replaced by her normal cheer. "Mr. Alderson's elder son, Nigel, has been abroad, but his boat was expected yesterday at Liverpool, so Mr. Alderson's younger son, Percival, took a carriage to fetch him, but they are not expected until after the Christmas feast."
"Do they count in our tally?"
"Oh, no, both Mr. Percival and Mr. Nigel are young men in their twenties. But I must return to Lady Judith. It's her first Christmas holiday as mistress of a house party, and, even though the guests are mostly family, she wishes for everything to be well managed." Esther pulled the door shut behind her as she left.
As the latch slipped into place, Sidney turned Ophelia back into his arms for a long kiss, and by the time they arrived at breakfast, the locusts had already descended.
In the dining hall, Judith called a footman to bring plates for Ophelia and Sidney. When the two tried to refuse, Judith insisted. "It's the only way if you wish to eat before supper." Judith escorted them to the near end of the long table, Judith taking the head and Ophelia sitting to her right. "Once my brothers arrive, Cook forbids all entrance into her domain. I believe she has even bolted the door to the pantry."
"A wise woman," Sidney said, pulling a chair close to Ophelia's. "Preparing Christmas dinner must be difficult enough without the interruption of perpetually hungry young men."
"Cook and I learned quickly that we never have food left over when my brothers visit en masse." Judith motioned toward the opposite end of the room where her younger brothers were demonstrating handstands, while their cousins applauded. "As we are so many, this room will also serve as our drawing room. I've had more comfortable seating moved near the fireplace on the right. And in the evenings after we dine, all our festivities will be held here. It's the warmest of the rooms, given the fireplaces at either end."
"We are looking forward to this hunt of yours, though it is an interesting choice for the holiday." Sidney leaned back slightly to allow the footman to place his breakfast before him.
"We planned it for the boys. When my grandfather was still duke, the Forster celebrations were known for miles around." Judith folded her hands before her on the table. "The halls would smell crisp and green from the holly and ivy. Mummers would perform their plays on the ducal grounds, and Grandfather would welcome the whole county. Wassailers would sing at the gate, and we would invite them in for punch and cakes, and each one would leave with a gift, even if it were only a tuppence. But when my grandfather and my mother died only months apart, Father stopped celebrating."
Ophelia placed her hand over Judith's comfortingly.
"We thought he would put aside the celebrations for a year or two, but he never began them again. Several months ago, however, the twins admitted that the only Christmases they've known begin with a solemn service in a cold church and end with a cold collocation left for the family."
"Grief evidences itself in unexpected ways," Sidney said gently.
"It wasn't until I married Alderson last year and spent Christmas here with the celebrations in the village, that I remembered all I had enjoyed as a child." Judith turned her hand over and squeezed Ophelia's. "Alderson has volunteered to amuse Father and Simms in his study during the day, so that the boys can yell and run and be generally disreputable until dinner."
"What do you have planned?" Ophelia bit into an apple tart almost as good as those Sidney's cook baked for her at home.
"We are to celebrate in the fashion of the old royalist Cavaliers." Judith leaned forward confidentially. "Last night, before you arrived, we lit the yule log. Tonight, in the early evening, we will attend services in the village. The villagers have a lively celebration with candles and carols. Mummers travel door to door to drive out the evil spirits. Alderson has even hired players to perform one of the old morality plays. After that, we will have the Christmas feast. And Cook has assured me that a feast it will be."
"What would you have us do until services?" Sidney encouraged, finishing his breakfast.
Excerpted from "Enchanting Ophelia"
Copyright © 2017 Rachael Miles.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Even though I really enjoyed Ophelia and Sidney's story, this one didn't really do anything for me...