Anthony Beck, Viscount Redgrave, has always done what was expected of his title and station. Ever the dutiful son, he abides by his mother’s requests even when they tend to the ridiculous. There is no other reason, after all, that he would visit a gypsy camp to acquire a piece of dead mistletoe that should rejuvenated itself once he is on the path of true love. Luckily at the gypsy camp, he happens upon the one lady he’s always wanted to court. Unfortunately, she’s in love with her guardian…
Miss Holly Prescott is not in love with her guardian. It is her duty, however, to make certain that nefarious young ladies with hopes of becoming his duchess, don’t trap him into a loveless marriage. While attending the Christmas Eve weddings at Castle Keyvnor, Holly learns that the nearby gypsies could be of help in that regard. However, she did not expect to stumble upon the handsome and oh-so-honorable Lord Redgrave in the process.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Blast! The bodice was, well, so uninspiring. No matter how she drew it, scooped or squared, Holly Prescott achieved the exact same result—dull. And the sleeves—redundant. There must be something that she could come up with that was new, inventive and would set society on its ear, but all of her creative talents had abandoned her this day.
Setting her pencils aside, Holly rubbed her cold hands together then blew into the palms to warm them as she glanced out the window and into the gardens below. Alarm rioted through her body. “Oh, this will never do.” A young woman, with whom she was not yet acquainted, was gazing up at Ethan, the Duke of Westbury, as if every word he spoke dripped of gold.
Why were the two even in the gardens? It was December and nothing was in bloom, though Holly had no doubt that in the spring and summer the gardens at Castle Keyvnor were nothing short of glorious and an inspiration to any artist’s eye.
Was the chit actually fluttering her eyelashes at Ethan? Holly stood to get a closer look, and the sketchpad slid from her lap, thudding against the muted blue and cream rug, followed by her pencils that rolled in every direction, but she couldn’t worry about them now. Not when a miss was giggling up at Ethan. Or at least Holly assumed the miss giggled since she delicately covered her mouth with a gloved hand.
Holly adored Ethan, she truly did and would be forever grateful that he’d taken her in six years ago upon the death of her brother, but in short, His Grace was far from humorous. Stodgy, stern, strict, and caring, but not amusing. Further, he was a fool.
Goodness! Was the miss now blushing? It must be the cooler temperatures causing the misses’ cheeks to color because Holly couldn’t imagine Ethan ever saying anything that would cause anyone to blush. In fact, she couldn’t recall ever hearing him curse, let alone say anything inappropriate. Had he not been heir to a dukedom, Ethan would have done quite well as a vicar. Not that he was overly religious, but he shared the same drab temperament as any minister Holly had ever known.
Despite any lack of personality, it wasn’t any wonder so many misses sought Ethan out. He was the Duke of Westbury after all and any single lady whom Ethan had encountered only saw the title, without a care for the man. They were really no different from Ethan’s youngest sister, Lady Ivy, who also sought a duke of her own instead of love.
Foolish! A title was cold comfort if one was not happy in a marriage.
Holly had already lost count of the number of times she’d stepped in and saved Ethan from being trapped since she’d made her coming out three years ago, and if Holly had one goal, it was to see Ethan married well and happy. Just because he was a duke, and must marry and produce an heir and spare, did not mean he shouldn’t find love as well. If anyone deserved happiness, it was Ethan. Certainly, there was a lady who would appreciate him, tedious though he may be, more than they desired the title.
“What will never do?” Oliver Dallimore asked from behind and Holly spun around. Oliver was her dearest friend, as well as Ethan’s cousin.
“And why of all places are you in here? This room is as cold as what I imagine a dip in the Thames would be this time of year.” Then he looked at the large fire in the fireplace and frowned.
Large and bright as it may be, the flames had done little to bring warmth to the room. “This is the quietest public room in the castle and I wished for a place to sketch in peace. My chambers face north and are rather dark without any direct sunlight.” She glanced around and shrugged. “The cold is probably because of the ghosts.” Holly assumed that was the reason for the chill because half a dozen spirits had been gathered when she walked into the parlor, not that she minded of course. It wasn’t as if they were harmful. They’d been somewhat surprised, or at least she assumed that was the expression on their nearly transparent faces when she acknowledged them with a mere nod. But, she couldn’t be bothered with ghosts right now, even if she was intruding on their gathering.
“Not you too?” He rolled his eyes as he picked the sketchbook from the floor. “Just because something probably happened that others cannot explain, a hysteria has developed so that now anyone who steps into this blasted castle is convinced they’ve encountered a being from another realm. It’s nonsense, I assure you.”
Holly glanced at the four she could still see and smirked. The little boy, who probably wasn’t any older than five, ducked his head. Holly didn’t mind seeing ghosts that were older since they’d lived a full life, but her heart ached to see one so young and taken far too soon.
Oliver flipped through her sketches, pausing on occasion to study the drawings. “These are very nice. It is a shame you were the daughter of a baron and are now the ward of a duke, otherwise, you’d do quite well as a modiste.”
“That’s very kind of you.” She took her book from Oliver and stared down at her latest design. These were her future. She might be everything Oliver stated, but her dowry was only five thousand pounds and the small manor on the coast near Tintagel. With so little to offer, Holly did not expect to marry, which was why she’d made a plan for her future. Once she achieved her majority in two years, she would return home and become a dressmaker.
How she missed her home. She’d not been back in nearly two years, though Westbury assured her that the property was well cared for. It was still her home and no matter how long she’d lived with Westbury and his youngest sister, Prescott Place would always be home.
“You never answered me,” Oliver interrupted her thoughts. “What would never do?”
With that, Holly returned her attention to the gardens below. “Another miss has set her sights on Ethan, and I’m certain the cap shall quickly follow.”
“Just because a young lady speaks with Ethan does not mean that she immediately begins planning their wedding,” Oliver argued as he sidled up next to her, rubbing his arms as if to get warm.
Goodness, she could see his breath. No wonder no other guests had ventured inside this sitting room, lovely though it may be. The wool gown she’d chosen for today must be warmer than she realized because other than her fingers being cold, Holly was quite comfortable.
“She is quite lovely,” Oliver murmured.
“I suppose, but she really should have chosen a different color for her pelisse. A redhead should never wear yellow.” Holly nibbled on her fingernail, a horrible habit that she must break, but how could she when her guardian was in danger. “Besides, Ethan doesn’t need lovely. He needs a lady who will care for him more than the title or his wealth.”
“Ethan can take care of himself. Do give the chap some credit.”
“I do, but neither you nor Ethan can possibly understand the female mind and the manipulative thoughts that can take root when a single duke, who is not unpleasant to look upon and young enough to enjoy spending time with--even if he is dull--is present.”
“Yes, by your description, I can’t imagine why ladies don’t flock to Ethan’s side the moment he steps into a room,” Oliver offered sarcastically.
Oh, she wished Oliver would take this seriously, but he simply did not understand. “They do, just not physically. Instead, they quietly scheme on how to get him alone and thus ruin him.”
“Last I heard, it is a lady who is ruined and never a duke.”
“And most ladies would willingly serve themselves up and risk a sterling reputation if it meant they’d become a duchess in the end.”
Oh, something must be done and Holly was just now realizing that it would be harder than ever to protect Ethan at the castle than at a ball or any other entertainment where each location was limited and one could eavesdrop on plans in a retiring room. But how could she protect him here, of all places?
If any of the ladies she’d encountered in these last three years had truly cared for Ethan, then Holly would have stood back and let love take its course. Unfortunately, Ethan, as with most gentlemen, was easily susceptible to flattery, which was why she must continue to protect him as she had since she was eighteen.
“Please inform me when you have vanquished the ruinous lady from Ethan’s side so that I might be available to comfort her.”
Holly slid a look at Oliver and smiled. “Oh, you are a rogue, dear Oliver.”
He smiled unashamedly. “I rather enjoy repairing the hearts of those Ethan dismisses.”
Holly snorted. “Hearts have yet to be involved.”
“True,” he mused. “Still, it is my duty, as his cousin, to soothe any disappointment.”
“Be careful you don’t find yourself trapped either.”
“My dear, does that mean you’d try to protect me as well?” he chuckled.
“You are the last gentleman of my acquaintance who needs any protection. But, just so, you tend to walk a little too close to the line dividing propriety and impropriety, and if you aren’t careful, you will deserve what you get in the end.”
“Ah.” Oliver nodded toward the gardens. “Another heart broken, or disappointment to be soothed. You must excuse me.”
Holly glanced out the window. Ethan tramped back toward the castle, his head down and shoulders raised as if he were cold, while the young miss watched, her features strained in disappointment.
“Be kind, Oliver, but not too kind.”
“A romantic heart,” someone whispered.
Holly whirled to the unfamiliar voice and her heart nearly lodged in her throat. Before her stood a knight of old. Bearded and dressed in chainmail beneath a white tunic that displayed a red cross of the Templars. “Who are you?”
“Sir Gervase.” He bowed deeply as one would expect of a chivalrous knight. “You wish to protect this duke from all women?”
“No. Just scheming ones.” She glanced down at the gardens again. “But I have no idea how I can ensure his happiness.”
“Perhaps a spell of enchantment, or a talisman.”
Was he suggesting…“Magic?”
Only a slight nod was offered.
“Magic can protect him or help him find love?”
“Nothing is impossible in Bocka Morrow,” Sir Gervase assured her. “Might I suggest the Gypsies or the witches? They will provide you with what you seek.”
Holly turned fully toward Sir Gervase with interest. She’d heard there were Gypsies in the area, witches as well, though she wasn’t certain she wished to approach witches. Where ghosts might not frighten her, witches most certainly did.
“Go to Madam Boswell.”
“Who is Madam Boswell?”
“An old Gypsy, wiser than anyone. She will help you.”
Anthony Beck, Viscount Redgrave, dismounted and tossed his reins to a waiting footman as he strode toward the entrance of Hollybrook Park. “My carriage should arrive momentarily.” He’d left it behind as they approached Bocka Morrow, needing to be free of the confines that were about to close in on him. He detested long trips across England and preferred to travel on horse when at all possible, and the journey from London to Bocka Morrow had been nearly intolerable. Once he returned to London, he’d not be traveling any distance for a very long time--years, if he could manage it. Thankfully, any travel required to his ancestral home, Halesworth Hall in Suffolk, was required only on rare occasions, and not nearly as torturous as driving to Cornwall.
He’d only left Bocka Morrow a few months earlier, but had been pulled back to this blasted place. If it weren’t for Christmas, family, and his mother’s insistence, Anthony would not be attending the wedding of the Earl of Banfield’s daughters to some local Cornishman and Lord Blackwater, respectively, at Castle Keynor of all bloody places.
Until a few months ago, it had been years since he’d set foot in Bocka Morrow or Castle Keyvnor, and that was only because his parents deemed it necessary that he attend a blasted will reading. Anthony still didn’t understand why his presence had been needed at all, but he was glad he had been there since his sister, Charlotte, had met and quickly married Adam Vail, who had since become Viscount Lynwood. Had it not been for extenuating circumstances, Anthony would have objected to such a quick marriage. But, as Charlotte’s very life had depended upon her being wedded, and had he not seen a magical emerald glow himself, or witnessed a very real ghost attempt to take Charlotte’s life, Anthony would not have stood for such foolishness as a Gypsy wedding.
Thankfully, that very marriage also allowed Anthony to avoid Castle Keyvnor until it was necessary to attend the Banfield nuptials, as he would be staying at his sister’s home and not the damned haunted castle.
At one time Anthony had assumed the rumors of hauntings at Castle Keyvnor were simply gossip to keep people away, or that perhaps there’d once been a gifted storyteller and others believed his tales to be true. After less than a week at the castle, Anthony had become a firm believer in ghosts and spirits, as well as the power of witches.
Thankfully, Hollybrook Park was blessedly not haunted, nor had there ever been rumors of a haunting. Not even Adam’s grandfather who died three weeks after Charlotte and Adam married in the Gypsy camp. The old viscount had insisted on a second wedding, one in the church, after banns were read, to be certain of the legality. The next day, he suffered an apoplexy and died. Charlotte had written that the servants believed he’d died of fright. Had the deceased viscount been at Castle Keyvnor, Anthony might have readily accepted the possibility, but since he’d been in his own home, Anthony assumed the old man’s heart had finally given out as there was absolutely nothing frightening at Hollybrook Park
“Viscount Redgrave,” the butler greeted him. “I’ll advise Lady Lynwood of your arrival.”
Anthony cooled his heels and waited in the marble foyer, though it felt odd to do so in his sister’s home.
Voices came from the parlor and the sitting room. Male and female. Was Charlotte entertaining? It wasn’t like her to do so, and Lynwood had lived almost as a recluse for over a year prior to meeting Charlotte.
“Anthony, what are you doing here?” Charlotte asked as she came down the corridor. Their mother followed on her heels.
“I’m to attend Banfield’s daughters’ weddings.”
“Yes, of course, I just hadn’t expected you so soon,” his mother answered. “Given it is a wedding, and I know how you detest them, I thought you’d arrive at the last minute, not four days early.”
He did hate weddings, but as there was nothing to keep him in London, he’d come early to spend time with his family, especially his younger brother, William, who was also here on holiday from Eton.
“Well, I am here now.” He turned to Charlotte. “I’m sure you don’t mind putting me up for a few days.”
Charlotte and Mother shared a look before his younger sister glanced back at him. “I have no room available.”
How was that possible? Hollybrook Park wasn’t exactly small.
“You should have let Charlotte know that you intended to stay here,” his mother chastised.
“She’s my sister, so I obviously assumed…”
“Anthony, it is not like you to ever assume anything,” his mother responded with alarm.
“Yes, well…” In that his mother was correct, he never left anything to chance, unlike his younger brother Michael who wagered on nearly everything. “Charlotte is my sister and as it is Christmas and I am to attend the wedding, at your insistence, why would you assume I’d stay at the castle when I could be with family?”
“Oh, I wished I’d known.” Charlotte worried her bottom lip.
Did they truly expect that he’d stay at that blasted, haunted castle over Hollybrook Park?
“Many of the wedding guests asked to stay here as they are too afraid to sleep at the castle,” his sister explained.
Of that, Anthony could not blame them. But, he was her brother so certainly she could find a place for him. “It doesn’t need to be a nice room. Maybe something you wouldn’t wish to give another guest. I really don’t mind.”
“I don’t have anything, Anthony. I’m sorry.”
Bloody hell. He was not going to stay at Banfield’s haunted castle ever again.
This was his mother’s fault. “Why didn’t you make certain Charlotte had a room for me? You were quite clear that you expected my presence so I assumed you would mention my attendance to her.”
“Darling, you are eight-and-twenty, old enough to advise your sister of your plans.”
Damn and blast. “Do you have a spare room in the servant’s quarters? Attic? Nursery? Schoolroom?” Deep panic began to rise at the very idea that he might be forced to seek shelter at Keyvnor. Not that he’d openly admit his fear, of course, no matter how strong his current anxiety at the moment. “It’s not like the nursery or schoolroom is in use at the moment, and truly, I don’t mind.” He’d sleep in the blasted dustbin before sleeping at Castle Keyvnor again.
Charlotte blinked at him. “Those rooms are already overflowing with guests. They too would rather sleep in a schoolroom than the castle and it’s been quite a chore to find beds for everyone. There is simply no place for you.”
He couldn’t believe his own sister was turning him out. There had to be somewhere else he could stay that wasn’t haunted. “The inn,” he said. “I am sure to find a room there.”
“Dear, those rooms were taken days ago. Relatives and guests arrived early just to be assured they’d have a place to stay other than Castle Keyvnor,” his mother explained.
“Then what the blazes am I to do?” Rarely did Anthony shout or lose his temper. Well, except when his brother Michael was around, but never with his mother or sister. However, these were certainly extenuating circumstances.
“Lord Redgrave could have my room.”
He turned to find Miss Miranda Vail standing at the threshold of the front parlor. She was one of Adam’s younger half-sisters.
“That is not necessary, Miranda. It serves my brother right for not planning ahead.” Charlotte smirked, as if she was enjoying the situation.
He’d expect such a response from Michael, but not Charlotte. What had marriage done to her?
“Though I daresay, this is what I’d expect of Michael, but never Anthony.”
“Please refrain from finding any similarities between my younger, wastrel brother and myself,” Anthony ground out.
“You know, Mother, if Anthony is slipping in his usual control, perhaps Michael might be gaining some respectability.”
Charlotte was enjoying his predicament far too much. And to think she used to be his favorite sibling.
Their mother chuckled. “I dare not hope such will come to be.”
“Enough!” Anthony snapped, irritated with both his mother and sister for not caring that he had nowhere to sleep. “Is there any place, that is not Keyvnor, where I might stay?”
“My grandmother might make room for you on the floor of her wagon,” Lynwood, Charlotte’s husband, grinned as he came down the hall.
Just what he needed, another family member finding enjoyment in Anthony’s ill-fortune. Though, the Gypsies, strange lot that they were, were preferable to Keyvnor.
“Truly, I don’t mind giving up my room,” Miss Miranda insisted. “I prefer the upper floor. I spend most of my time there anyway.”
“She’s already been sleeping up there, if you must know,” Miss Diana Vail added as she joined her younger sister.
Anthony had met all of Adam’s half-siblings when they arrived a few days after Charlotte and Lynwood celebrated their Gypsy wedding. In all, Lynwood had four younger half-sisters: Diana, Miranda, Cordelia and Adriana, as well as a younger half-brother, Edward.
“You cannot possibly enjoy being in the attic,” Charlotte insisted. “I’ll not have you give up your room because my brother failed to advise me of his intention to sleep here.”
“It’s where I prefer,” declared Miss Miranda. “It’s not dull or dirty or tiny, like the servant’s rooms, but bright and open with glass doors that open onto a railed platform. The Captain had it built so that he could watch for ships through his telescope.” She grinned as if excited. “It’s much like the one Captain Cook used, though the Captain believes his telescope to be superior.”
“The captain?” Lynwood asked.
Miss Miranda’s eyes grew wide. “At least that was what he wrote in his diaries. Captain Jonathan Vail. He spent much of his time up there when he wasn’t sailing, and he left a treasure trove of books, journals, and the like.”
Miss Diana Vail crossed her arms over her chest and leveled a superior look at her older half-brother “You might as well know, Miranda has already moved all of her belongings to the attic room, and has been sleeping there almost since we arrived.”
“Is that why your grandfather was so upset? He found you up there?” Charlotte questioned.
Miss Miranda’s face grew pale. “No. It was something else.”
Miss Miranda glanced away. “Can’t rightly say.” It was almost like she was hedging about the truth. “He wasn’t angry that I was up there. He just thought it foolishness since I had a perfectly fine chamber in the family wing.”
“A room you are not using,” Anthony reminded them of his immediate concern.
“Exactly, Lord Redgrave.” She brightened. “It’s yours if you’d like.”
He grinned and turned to his younger sister. “I’d like very much.”
“Oh, very well, but only until all the guests have gone,” Charlotte capitulated.
“But we will revisit your preference for the attic, Miranda,” Lynwood insisted. “I don’t like that you are up there by yourself.”
Miss Miranda frowned at her brother, but wisely held her tongue, though Anthony could read the defiance in her grey eyes.
“Well, now that that is settled…” His mother clapped her hands. “Anthony, you can now escort Charlotte and me to the Gypsy camp.”
He’d just arrived. He wanted a brandy and a rest. Not to traipse off to the Gypsy camp. “Can’t this wait? And why do you even need me?” Then he looked at his brother-in-law. It was his family they were off to visit. “Why not have Lynwood take you?”
“I’ve matters to attend to.” With that, he turned and marched back down the corridor in the direction he had come.
His mother sniffed. “A lady should always have an escort.”
When his mother straightened her spine and lifted her chin as she’d just done, Anthony knew that she’d not let him be until he gave in. “Very well, but may I at least freshen up first?”
She smiled serenely. “Why, of course, dear, but don’t be long. Madam Boswell is expecting us.”
HIS MISTLETOE MISS is the 2nd book in the Magic of Mayhem Series