Released on February 15th was the 3rd book in my Magic & Mayhem Series - A SPIRITED COURTSHIP.
I had a blast writing the story, and full disclosure, it originally appeared in the 3rd installment of the CASTLE KEYVNOR Anthology in Beguiled at the Wedding.
If you haven't had an opportunity to yet read the novella, below is the Prologue and First Chapter.
PROLOGUE May, 1812, London Miss Diana Vail pinched her cheeks to bring more color, smoothed the few wrinkles from her lilac gown and did a turn before the mirror to make certain all was in place before she exited the retiring room. With each step, she became giddier for she was to meet James Bryant, the Earl of Somerton, in the gardens behind the Hearne grand ballroom. “James,” she sighed to herself. She called him James and he called her Diana, though never in front of others, as it simply wasn’t done. Soon, that wouldn’t matter, or at least she hoped, as he’d been courting her nearly all Season. It wasn’t yet an official courtship, but only because her half-brother, Viscount Lynwood, was not in London to grant permission. Regardless, James may not have said the words but after the kisses and caresses they’d shared the night before in Vauxhall, she was confident a betrothal was in her future. To think Diana had dreaded this Season. She was four and twenty, no longer fresh from the schoolroom and feared she might eventually land on the shelf. Instead, she’d met James, he’d courted her, and Diana had fallen in love, ready to secretly meet him. “What do you think Somerton is about?” Diana paused just outside the door leading to the card room. “Since I’ve known him, he’s vowed that ‘if Noah could become a father at the age of five hundred, then I can surely wait to begin producing offspring until age forty’.” The quote was said by several gentlemen, and in unison, as if they knew it by heart. Diana stepped away from the entrance to keep from being seen, taking care that her shadow would not cast across the entrance so as to give her away. However, she remained close enough to hear what was being said. “His mother is pressing him to marry and has been encouraging young women to make his acquaintance since the beginning of the Season,” one gentleman said. “I assume Somerton simply picked Miss Vail to court so that the others, and his mother, would leave him be.” Diana grabbed the wall for support. What they were saying couldn’t possibly be true. “I’d wager that Somerton does not become betrothed until the time he set for himself,” someone else declared. “Does anyone wish to wager against me?” Diana couldn’t make out the mumblings, but it was clear that no one was willing to take the bet. Was it true? Did James have no intention of asking for her hand? Was she simply someone to be used during the Season so he was not bothered by others? “Though I will wager that he’ll bed her mother before the Season is through.” Diana’s mouth popped open. Not that she was shocked by her mother’s reputation. It was well known that she enjoyed her lovers since becoming a widow, and it was quite embarrassing. However, Diana couldn’t imagine that James would be one of those men. He was soon to be seven and twenty and her mother was five and forty, far too old to be taking lovers to her bed, especially ones that were young enough to be her son. “Lady Lynwood does eye Somerton like a cat approaching a bowl of cream.” Heat scorched Diana’s cheeks at their raucous laughter. “I’m afraid the time for that wager has already passed,” someone said. “Just the other day I heard Lady Lynwood telling my mother over tea that Somerton was the best lover she’d ever enjoyed.” This could not be! James had not bedded her mother! He couldn’t have. Darkness began to seep into her vision, but Diana forced it away. “Perhaps Somerton isn’t courting Miss Vail to discourage other misses,” someone offered. “What do you mean?” another asked. “I saw the two exit the dark walk last night. By the loose curls and the smile upon Miss Vail’s face, one must wonder if Somerton wanted to experience a younger version of the mother. And perhaps the daughter is more like the mother than any of us realized.” Mortification settled into Diana’s bones. The kisses and caresses she’d allowed last night came back to her in a flash. She’d allowed liberties that no miss should, but she’d believed his intentions honorable. Further, Diana had thought James was as much in love with her as she was with him, even if he hadn’t spoken the words. “Nothing more will come of their association once the Season comes to an end, as I heard Lady Somerton will never accept Miss Vail as a potential bride for her son, which makes one wonder what Somerton is truly about,” someone else insisted. “Is it to discourage others? Or, to prove to his mother that she doesn’t have control over his life? Or did he wish to learn if Miss Vail was as free with her affections as her mother? Possibly all three?” Others in the room laughed and Diana wanted to die of humiliation. Had he just been toying with her affection? A slow seduction until he finally gained from her what he apparently had gotten from her mother? He had tried last night, but when he attempted to pull at her skirts, she’d stopped him. Diana’s stomach clenched and she put a hand over her mouth for fear that she’d toss up her accounts. Thank Heavens she had learned the truth before it was too late. However, she fully intended to give James…the Earl of Somerton, a seething set down before she removed him from her life.
One Month Later –Castel Keyvnor, Cornwall
“The fairest maiden in all of Cornwall has returned.”
Diana stopped as the image of a knight materialized before her. “Sir Orwen,” she greeted the specter with little patience.
“Not simply Cornwall, but all of England.” Sir Gilbert appeared beside the other knight, bowing deep, flourishing his hat, the red feather brushing the ground.
They were quite a spectacle in their long doublets. Sir Gilbert in blue and Sir Orwen in green, with slashed sleeves to reveal their white shirts beneath. Diana didn’t know if the slits were from battling or if the doublets had been designed in such a manner, but she wasn’t going to ask. Any questions only further encouraged the cavaliers.
“Please, go away.” Diana pivoted on her heel to return home to Hollybrook Park.
“If only that we could,” Sir Orwen assured her.
“To be rid of this place would be quite rewarding,” Sir Gilbert added. “To be free of this land, this castle, of the binds that tether us to Earth, to be free to fly…” One arm rose as his other hand pressed against his breast. His voice rose in a dramatic flair that would have earned him a lead role on any London stage, if he were alive.
“Bugger it,” Sir Orwen growled. “I find your attempt at melodramatic poetry nauseating and I’m certain Miss Vail does as well.”
Sir Gilbert gasped and came forward, placing his cold hands over Diana’s ears. “Such foul language in the presence of fair maiden’s hearing? A shame upon you, Sir Orwen.”
“Stop!” Diana ground out between clenched teeth as she tried to push Sir Gilbert away, though it did little good since her hands went right through his icy image. “I find you both equally annoying and unpleasant.” She stomped away in hopes that they’d disappear.
“But wait,” Sir Orwen called. “You’ve not yet found love, have you?”
She blew out a breath and let her head fall back. “No. I have not.” Though, she thought she had, not that she’d admit such to those two.
Foolish is what she’d been. And it was unlikely she’d ever find love, as she had no intention of returning to London ever again. She couldn’t face such humiliation a second time. It was bad enough that she’d be attending the wedding festivities at Castle Keyvnor during the coming week. She hoped that none of the gentlemen who’d been saying such vile things at the Hearne ball had been invited. Though, in truth, as she did not know who they were, Diana decided to assume they would not be present.
“And as such, we can’t leave you,” Sir Gilbert insisted. “You are our quest. Our duty. We are bound to you.”
He swept another deep bow and Diana rolled her eyes.
“We are pledged to you.”
“We are not pledged.” Sir Orwen slid an irritated glance to Sir Gilbert. “We are cursed, and she is the first hope we’ve had in decades of seeing it undone.”
Cursed indeed! She was the one cursed by their presence. And why couldn’t anyone else see them? Why only her?
The two had first appeared to Diana a sennight before she traveled to London for the Season. She’d hoped they’d be gone once she returned. Instead, they were waiting and appeared before her the day she returned from London, only a few weeks earlier. Since, she’d not been able to set foot on Keyvnor land without them appearing before her.
“There are a number of misses you could bind yourself to. In fact, a wedding is to be held at the castle.” She gestured back toward Castle Keyvnor. “Pick one of the guests to bother. I’m certain you’ll find another fair maiden among them.”
Diana walked around the two medieval knights, knowing that once she crossed the border that separated Keyvnor land from Hollybrook Park, they’d not be able to follow. She’d avoid Keyvnor land completely if she could, but this road was the only one that led from her home to the village of Bocka Morrow. There were paths through the forest, and other means, but regardless of the route, it was impossible to avoid Keyvnor land unless she took a boat. And, if these two persisted in their irritation, Diana might take up sailing into the village just to avoid them.
“But it’s you we must serve,” Sir Orwen insisted. “You are the chosen one.”
“No. I am not.” Diana threw up her hands and walked away, unfortunately walking closer to the castle instead of away. “You simply chose me. Choose someone else.”
“We’ve waited centuries for you. Please do not disappoint us now,” Sir Gilbert begged.
Slowly she turned and tilted her head. “I thought it was decades?” If they were going to convince her that she was their destiny, then they really needed to tell the same story, beginning with how long they’d waited for her—the chosen one.
“Centuries,” Sir Orwen insisted. “I will admit there have been others. The most recent, however, was in 1765 and each time we’ve been given the opportunity, we’ve failed in the quest.”
“However, we shall not fail you, dear maiden.” Once again Sir Gilbert bowed deeply.
“I do not need your assistance. Good day.” With those words she pushed through the two knights, trying not to shiver at the coldness of their beings and marched right over the border and onto land belonging to her brother’s viscountcy—Hollybrook Park.
“Stuff and nonsense,” Diana grumbled as she trudged down the road.
James pulled back on the reins of his steed and stared down the road. His heart hitched at the sight of Miss Diana Vail. He still didn’t know what he’d done to earn Diana’s scorn. It had been unexpected and had cut deep.
One moment he was waiting in the gardens behind the Hearne ballroom, listening to the strains of a waltz as the music drifted through the open windows and anticipating the moment that she would join him. He’d hoped to find a quiet corner where the two of them would not be disturbed. The next moment, she had stormed out of the ballroom, marched directly toward him, demanding to know if he was or was not a rakehell and simply toying with her affection with no intention of marrying. He’d been so shocked that he’d been robbed of words as his mind scrambled to determine why she would even make such an accusation, especially after the hours they’d spent together, and the evening before. His failure to utter even a single word of denial had apparently prompted Diana to raise her arm and slap him soundly across the face. He’d been so stunned he wasn’t certain what to do. She then railed at him before she informed him that she wanted nothing more to do with him. And, in the few days that remained of the Season, she’d not be at home to him, nor had she attended any entertainments.
That was a month ago and James still didn’t know what he’d done to incur her wrath.
“Is that Miss Vail?” Wesley Claxton, the Marquess of Epworth, asked as if he couldn’t believe his eyes.
“It is.” Diana stomped down the road only to stop and turn, her arms flailing, as she appeared to be yelling, then stomped off again.
At least it wasn’t only him that she directed her vexation, though James would love to be closer to see the fire in her emerald eyes.
Diana was the only reason he had decided to attend the wedding of Lady Gwyn Hambly to Lord Locryn Pendarvis. When James had left Keyvnor following last Christmas, he’d vowed never to return. However, knowing Diana lived on a neighboring estate changed everything.
She turned, marched away, only to once again halt and fist her hands on her hips as if she were scolding someone, then shook her head and waved a dismissive hand to what or whoever was behind her and marched off toward Hollybrook Park.
“Is she a bedlamite? She hadn’t shown any signs of such an affliction in London.”
“She isn’t,” James chuckled.
“Perhaps rehearsing for a play or entertainment?” Epworth’s brow lifted in question.
“Not that either,” James replied and turned his horse back toward Castle Keyvnor.
“What we just witnessed is not normal behavior. Miss Vail is clearly not in her right mind.”
“On the contrary, Epworth, I’m quite certain Miss Vail is in possession of all her faculties.” With the exception of when she had called him a reprobate before she had wished the pox on him. That had been uncalled for and she certainly had no cause to do so.
“Did you not witness what I just did? She was arguing with nobody, and quite animated as well.”
James pulled the horse to a stop and looked to Epworth. “Have you not visited Castle Keyvnor before?”
“No. I’ve had no reason.”
“You’ve heard rumors at least, have you not?”
“About ghosts?” Epworth laughed at the absurdity. “You can’t possibly believe such nonsense.”
“I very much believe,” James assured him.
“You’ve encountered one?” Intrigue and distrust laced Epworth’s tone.
“I was one of the few who did not experience an other-worldly encounter during my last visit,” James assured him. “Unless you consider cold drafts that can envelope a body in one moment and be gone in the blink of an eye.”
“That still doesn’t explain what we just witnessed and the strange behavior of Miss Vail.”
“Of course it does.” James set his horse to a trot. “She was being pestered by a ghost.”
At that he let the horse gallop, leaving Epworth behind. It was impossible to convince anyone of the strange happenings at Castle Keyvnor. It needed to be experienced and as Epworth would be staying at the castle for the next sennight, he’d encounter the oddities himself and no longer question Diana’s behavior.
He’d dearly like to know why the ghost was bothering her and why she was so irritated by its presence. Under normal circumstances, he’d ask but James was also quite certain Diana had no intention of ever speaking to him again, though he was still uncertain as to what he’d done wrong. One night, she was melting from his kisses and the next, telling James that she never wished to see him again.
Miss Vail was beautiful, passionate, stubborn and impatient. He desired her like he’d never desired another woman. However, she was also the one threat to the plans he’d made long ago. Thankfully, he had come to his senses before it was too late, though that hadn’t occurred until she’d marched away from him at the Hearne ball.
After arriving at the stables, James dismounted, tossed the reins to one of the lads before he headed into the castle.
“Garrett Hillyard! You will do something about those children of yours. And you will do it today.”
At the sound of his mother’s voice coming from the library, James quickly changed direction and took the stairs to his chamber. His original destination had been the billiards room and a glass of brandy, but so long as his mother remained in the same wing of the castle, he was going to put distance between them. Though he did wonder what mischief his darling nieces had gotten up to this time.
James stepped into his chamber and paused, taking in the room. Yes, this was the one he’d been assigned and where he’d changed his clothing before he went for a ride with Epworth. His toiletries were on the dressing table and that was his trunk beside the armoire. What he didn’t recognize was the beautiful woman lounging upon his bed. She really was lovely with her blonde tresses, only a shade darker than Diana’s golden curls, though her clothing was odd, given she wore a blue gown with gold trim over a deep blue petticoat—a dress worn in a much earlier era. Was there to be a costume party this evening? An odd choice for a wedding party, but this was Cornwall and oddities were normal here most of the time.
The woman watched him with intensity, staring at him, but she wasn’t smiling. Instead, she seemed a bit forlorn.
“I believe you’ve mistaken my room for yours,” James said and opened his chamber door. He did not know her and the last thing he wanted or needed was to be caught in a compromising position with a woman he’d never met. He still had at least twelve years before he ended his bachelor state and wasn’t about to have his plans disrupted by a stranger.
Her blue eyes widened. “You can see me?”
He glanced around, wondering if she spoke to someone else.
She sat forward. “You really see me?”
“Of course,” James answered. “However, this is my chamber. Should I call Mrs. Bray so that she might escort you to yours?”
Instead of embarrassment, the woman smiled brightly as she pulled herself from the bed.
“You really do see me!” she cried, then did a little twirl.
This was very odd, even for Cornwall, and James inched his way back toward the entrance.
“And we’re talking!” She laughed. “You’ve no idea how happy this makes me.”
“I’m glad you are pleased,” James answered slowly. Perhaps this odd woman was the real bedlamite.
“I’ve waited and I’d hoped, even prayed that it would happen. That’s why I’ve gone from chamber to chamber, only those assigned to a bachelor of course, in hopes that I might be noticed.”
She was visiting the chambers of bachelors! Did she wish to be ruined?
“It’s soon to be the anniversary and I’d hoped that this year everything would finally align, freeing me from this place.”
“What anniversary would that be?” James backed toward the corridor. If she were married then at least he wouldn’t be forced to marry her, but an irate husband might take issue with finding his wife in James’ chamber.
“Of my death,” she answered as if her response explained everything.
James could feel his jaw drop as he stared at the woman. She didn’t appear to be a ghost, but whole, though very pale.
“It’s been three hundred years, or it will be with the summer solstice, and I’d begun to give up hope that I’d ever be free of this place after so many failures.”
“You’re a ghost.” Maybe she’d laugh and tell him this was a prank. James hoped that was the case.
“Of course.” She smiled. “And you, dear sir, are going to help me gain my freedom.”
When he’d not encountered any ghosts on his prior visit, James assumed he was immune somehow. Apparently, that was not the case. “How exactly am I going to help free you?”
“By falling in love.”
He gaped at her, then nearly laughed at the ridiculousness of the situation. The last thing he had any intention of doing was falling in love. He absolutely refused to do so until his thirty-ninth birthday.
“I must hasten to make plans and meet the misses so that I can pick the perfect one for you.” Then she was gone, disappearing into thin air and leaving James very much alone.