Excerpt from “The Sweetest Christmas”


Chapter One

To Lady Marjorie Hambly, the idea of marriage was like being poked in the eye with a sharp stick.

Unlike her four sisters, she had no interest in finding a husband. At least, not after the last nightmare of a suitor had ruined her girlish dreams.

Her life had been overrun with decorations, gowns, flowers, and guests arriving for the weddings of her sisters, Tamsyn and Morgan, this Christmas. It should have been terribly exciting-except that she felt rather lonely at the thought of her family dividing up and moving away. Even her younger sisters, Rose and Gwyn, had decided to seek husbands among the guests.

But not Marjorie.

Oh, she knew the sort of noblemen her mother had invited to the wedding. Dukes, earls, barons, and knights-anyone her father deemed appropriate as a guest, and particularly those whom he wanted to match up with his daughters. But Marjorie was determined not to fall into that trap again. She would celebrate at the wedding, dance, and make merry, until every last gentleman was gone. Then, and only then, would she breathe a sigh of relief.

Was it unkind to hope that Rose and Gwyn wouldn’t find a suitor among the guests? They were both so young, and Marjorie didn’t want her life to change, living alone with her parents. More than anything, she needed to find a distraction-something to occupy her time and to divert her attention from the impending weddings. Or worse, the not-so-subtle insinuations from elderly matrons that she was somehow lacking, since her own engagement had ended a month ago.

But she didn’t care. She was well rid of Robert Hanford, Viscount Dewbury, and thankfully, she had made her parents see what a controlling tyrant he was. Lord Dewbury had wanted an obedient dog, not a wife, and she was deeply grateful that his days of ruling her life were over.

“Cousin Marjorie,” came a soft voice from behind her. She turned and saw Ariadne Cushing approaching while her parents gave orders to the servants collecting their trunks and valises. The young woman wore spectacles and her gown and gloves were smudged with ink. Her blond hair was bundled tightly beneath her bonnet, and she gave a tentative smile.

Marjorie smiled and embraced her cousin. “I am glad you could come to Castle Keyvnor for the weddings, Ariadne.”

Her cousin’s expression was hesitant. “I am happy for your sisters, and of course, we look forward to sharing Christmas with you and your family.”

“You don’t…look particularly happy,” Marjorie ventured. “Is something wrong?”

“No.” Then she amended, “Well, yes. Sort of. What I mean is that…I need your help.” She linked her arm in Marjorie’s, and the pair of them walked down the hallway.

She didn’t know her cousin all that well, so it struck her as odd that Ariadne would reach out for assistance. “What do you need?”

Her cousin’s face was bright red, and she admitted, “I need a husband. Before we leave this castle.” Her lips tightened into a line, and she looked all the world as if she wanted to fall through the floor.

A husband is the last thing you need, Marjorie thought to herself, shuddering at the idea. But then, she took a closer look at her cousin’s pained face and wondered if some scandal had befallen her. “Why so soon?”

“Mother has told me that she will choose my husband for me after Christmas,” Ariadne answered. “She says that I haven’t the common sense of a flea and that I should give the matter over into her hands.”

Marjorie wasn’t entirely surprised. Aunt Agnes was quite abrasive in her manners and she had no qualms about stepping on Ariadne’s feelings. But then, she realized that there was an opportunity here. Her mother had invited many eligible bachelors for the sake of her sisters. And if Ariadne wanted one of them, what harm was there? She should put her personal feelings aside, for not every man was like Lord Dewbury.

“So…you want me to introduce you to gentlemen, and you’ll choose one yourself?”

“Exactly,” Ariadne said. Worry creased her forehead again. “But no man would ever talk to me.”
She grimaced and tugged at her gloves. “I know I’m not a beauty. And, well, I’m a bit of a bluestocking. That’s why I need your help.”

Marjorie led her cousin up the stairs toward the room she would share with her sister. “What do you want me to do?”

“I will pick out the gentleman, and I need you to talk to him for me.”

Marjorie had the sudden vision of saying to a stranger, Pardon me, but my cousin would like to marry you. No, that wouldn’t do at all. “Ariadne, you really should speak to him yourself.”

“Oh, I will. Eventually. But I would like you to help me pick a man out, and then I will decide if he’s suitable for me. Someone quiet and not too handsome.”

Her cousin made it sound as if choosing a husband was like buying a new hat. Marjorie paused before Ariadne’s door and said, “Don’t set your sights too low, Cousin. You might find someone wonderful when you least expect it.”

Truthfully, the gentlemen her father had invited were among the most sought-after bachelors of the ton. She couldn’t recall if any of them were homely or dull. At the same time, Marjorie did understand her cousin’s desire to find a man who was not at the center of attention.

She excused herself to let Ariadne get settled in her room and decided to see which gentlemen had arrived for the wedding. It was likely that they would be in the billiards room, and she could examine the choices from the hallway.

It was best to find a man who was meek and manageable, someone who might have trouble finding a bride. It would give Ariadne confidence in speaking with him.

As she walked down the hallway, Marjorie heard the faint sounds of lute music, and the hair stood up on the back of her neck. “Not today,” she muttered. An icy chill gusted over her, and she shivered, hurrying down the stairs. “I don’t believe in ghosts,” she said aloud.

But saying the words didn’t make it true. She knew of at least three ghosts that haunted Castle Keyvnor, but there were likely more. She was well-acquainted with a Tudor ghost named Benedict, as well as the ghost of the late Lady Banfield’s drowned five-year-old son, Paul. And then, there was the pirate ghost, whom they had nicknamed the Man in Black. Marjorie shuddered at the memory. He was the most vicious of all.

If there were ghosts, then they delighted in teasing her. She would walk into a room and suddenly, a frigid blast of air would surround her shoulders. Sometimes, Marjorie heard them singing or talking, which was even worse. She didn’t know if anyone else heard them, but it made her question what was real and what was not.

It was yet another reason she didn’t want her sisters to be married-for then, the ghosts could devote all their attention toward tormenting her.

Marjorie hurried down the stairs, bolting toward the billiards room. The frozen shadows seemed to follow her, and she distinctively heard the sound of mocking laughter behind her. She turned her head and glared at the empty hallway, letting the ghosts know she did not appreciate their tricks.

She slowed her pace when she reached the doorway of the billiards room. She didn’t want any of the men to see her, but she could steal a peek from the entrance.

There was no question of the sort of man she was looking for. Someone not engaged in conversation, possibly lurking in the shadows. Perhaps one who was shy and not very attractive. She pressed her hands to the doorway, peering inside.

Lord Blackwater was playing billiards with Lord Snowingham, better known as Snow. No, neither one would do. They were both rakishly handsome. Four other gentlemen were playing cards at another table, but Marjorie dismissed them all. They were all too wealthy and bold-two traits that often transformed into arrogance.

She overheard Lord Michael Beck thanking Snow and Blackwater for their hospitality and letting him stay in their room. It didn’t surprise her that he’d have to share, since every room in the castle was occupied by wedding guests.

Marjorie continued to inspect the men, and a smile curved over her face as she saw the tall, dark-haired man standing in the corner. He seemed to be watching the others, and there was a quiet sense of solitude surrounding him. If she hadn’t been looking for such a man, she might not have noticed him at all.

Perfect.

At first glance, he did seem rather ordinary. His dark brown hair was neatly groomed, and he wore a black coat, a black waistcoat, and tan breeches. Nothing that would attract any attention whatsoever.

But when his gaze shifted to the doorway, his expression faltered-almost as if he had seen her.
Marjorie didn’t move, for she might have imagined it. Yet, she sensed his stare, and a strange ripple of awareness crossed over her. Would he suit Ariadne at all? She decided to find out who he was, and speak with him at the first opportunity.

The sound of a throat clearing behind her interrupted her musings. Marjorie turned and saw Mrs. Bray, the housekeeper. The older woman’s dark hair was scraped beneath a cap, and her apron stretched across her portly frame.

“Lady Marjorie, your mother would not approve of this,” the housekeeper began.

“Approve of my walking down the hallway?” Marjorie answered breezily. “I hardly think that’s a sin.”

Before the housekeeper could chide her again, she retreated from the entrance to the billiards room, behaving as if she’d done nothing wrong. Which she hadn’t, truly. She lived here, and if she wanted to peruse the billiards room, there was no harm in it.

A sense of satisfaction filled her at the thought of the man in the corner of the room. He might do very well for Ariadne, particularly if he was shy.

She rather hoped he was.

* * *

Sir William Crandall took a slow, steady breath. Though he’d known that Castle Keyvnor would be immensely crowded with arriving wedding guests, he had hoped he could keep a firm command upon his senses. Whenever he was in the midst of a large group, his pulse quickened and his lungs seemed to tighten. It was maddening the way he had no control over the suffocating feelings.

Despite his discomfort among crowds, he’d promised his sister that he would come to the wedding. She had claimed that he needed to escape the oppressive prison of the house. But there was another reason why he had come-to face his past mistakes and move on with his life.

The need to escape and take a breath of fresh air was undeniable, so William made his excuses and walked into the hallway. Earlier, he had noticed a young lady spying at the doorway, and he half-wondered if she was still lingering in the hall. As he passed through the door, he caught the faint scent of lavender.

William walked toward the opposite end of the hall, for beyond the second corridor, he’d spied a door that led outside to the garden. The idea of a peaceful retreat was exactly what he needed now. He wanted to be alone without anyone to bother him.

There was an unusual chill in the air, and he hastened his steps to escape the draft. Just as he was about to round the corner, he heard a strange laugh. It held a wicked tone, as if someone were mocking him.

William continued around the corner but collided into the young woman, who had been walking the opposite way. “I beg your pardon,” he said, feeling foolish that he’d knocked her to the floor. He held out a gloved hand. “I didn’t see you.”

She took his hand and stood, straightening her skirts. A few strawberry blond curls had escaped her updo, and she tucked them back into place. “It’s all right. I had hoped to have a word with you, and I suppose this will do well enough.”

William wasn’t certain what to make of that. Why would she want to speak with him? He had never seen her until today. “I’m sorry, but I don’t think we’ve met before.”

“You are right, of course. But I saw you just a few moments ago, and I think you might be perfect for her.”

Her? William hadn’t the faintest notion what the woman was talking about. But he had a feeling he wouldn’t like what she had to say. “If you’ll excuse me, I meant to go outside to take some air.”

“An excellent idea,” she agreed. “I shall come with you.”

He stared down at her, for he didn’t want company. Then he found an appropriate excuse to dissuade her. “We haven’t a chaperone.” With a nod, he added, “Another time, perhaps.”

She shrugged. “Our conversation won’t be longer than two minutes, I promise you.” Then she took his arm and guided him around the corner. “Now, then, let’s begin with names. I am Lady Marjorie Hambly, and my father is Lord Banfield. My sisters are getting married, and I presume you are one of the wedding guests.”

He nodded again. “I am Sir William Crandall.”

“Sir William,” she said quietly, as if testing out his name. “Yes, I think that will do nicely. It’s a very common name, not bold or demanding at all.”

Against his better judgment, he asked, “Are you criticizing my name?”

“No, not at all. William is a very traditional name, and I do believe it will be perfect.”

For what? His brows furrowed, and he decided that the woman was daft. Right now, he wanted nothing more than to leave in peace. “Good day, Lady Marjorie.” With that, he strode away, toward the doors leading outside.

“No, wait! You can’t leave yet. Not until I’ve told you about the bargain.”

William ignored her and continued walking, though he heard her hurrying after him. He’d had quite enough of this nonsensical conversation. Right now, all he wanted was to sit in peaceful silence, perhaps by a fountain or a tree, with no one around.

But Lady Marjorie flung herself in front of the door. “Two minutes of your time, Sir William. That’s all I need.”

Her face was flushed, and he found himself staring at her mouth. She had intriguing lips, with the lower lip fuller than the top. He hadn’t any notion what it was she wanted, but he guessed he would have no peace and quiet until he let her have her say.

He pulled out his pocket watch, glanced at the time, and then motioned for her to go on. “Only two. You may begin.”

She blinked at that, but then said, “You are unmarried, and I can only guess that you are a very shy gentleman.”

He wasn’t at all shy. He simply didn’t like people. But her assessment was so earnest, he couldn’t help but ask, “Why would you believe I am shy?”

“Well, you must be. You were standing in the corner, speaking with no one, after all.”

“I like corners.” And he liked being alone even more.

“Perhaps. But if you intend to find a wife, it’s not the best place to find one.”

Personally, William thought a darkened corner was an excellent place to get acquainted with a woman. Particularly if they were alone in the shadows, and if her lower lip was slightly larger than the top. He would take command of that mouth, kissing her until she grew breathless.

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