A Dance with the Devil
â€œThey say Castle Keyvnor is haunted.â€
â€œDon’t be silly. There’s no such thing as ghosts.â€ Jane Hawkins considered herself to be a sensible young woman. She didn’t believe in anything of the supernatural variety, and she rather thought the spirits of the dead had better things to do than frighten the living. Her friend, Lady Marjorie, was of another mind and appeared deliciously scared at the idea.
â€œI’ve heard that late at night, sometimes you can hear the ghost of Lady Banfield wailing for her lost son,â€ Marjorie murmured. â€œWhat if we see her in the hallway?â€ She shuddered at the thought. â€œI cannot imagine anything worse.â€
â€œWe’re going to be fine. I imagine people exaggerate the story because it makes it more interesting.â€ Despite her attempt to reassure Marjorie, Jane couldn’t help but admit to herself that the castle was not exactly the sort described in fairy stories-no, this was a castle that would terrify small children. Tall and imposing, formed from dark stone, Castle Keyvnor stood upon the edge of the sea cliff with turrets rising against the shadows. The darkening evening skies added to its somber presence.
â€œAt least you don’t have to live here,â€ Marjorie muttered. â€œI, on the other hand, am doomed. Unless I can find a gentleman to marry who will take me away from this horrible place.â€ She glanced over at her mother and sister, who were sleeping on opposite sides of the coach. â€œWhy did my father have to acquire a castle like this?â€
Lady Marjorie’s father, Allan Hambly, had inherited the earldom of Banfield, which meant he would reside at Castle Keyvnor for some time. Several other families had traveled for the reading of the late Earl of Banfield’s will, and Marjorie had insisted that Jane come with them.
Her stomach twisted in knots at the thought. She didn’t belong here with all the nobility. She was a vicar’s daughter, and though she and Marjorie had been friends since they were young girls, Jane knew her place.
â€œWe’re going to find a husband for you, too,â€ Marjorie insisted. Her friend smiled brightly, but Jane didn’t share her optimism. Yes, a husband would indeed help her circumstances. Her parents were aging, and Jane doubted if there was enough money to support them for very much longer. She had to either marry or find a position as a governess or a companion.
No one wants to marry a vicar’s daughter, she reminded herself. She had no dowry to speak of and no title. Marjorie meant well, but Jane knew the reality of her situation. At best, she might wed a merchant or a soldier. But her chances of marrying well were not good.
â€œI think you have a better chance of finding a husband,â€ she told Marjorie. â€œI’m no one. At least you’re an earl’s daughter.â€
â€œDon’t denigrate yourself,â€ her friend insisted. â€œYou’re quite beautiful. And if there’s a wealthy titled gentleman, I’m certain he’ll be besotted with you.â€
Jane didn’t argue, though she was a realist by nature. There would be no offers from titled lords-not for someone like her. She understood that, even if Marjorie didn’t.
The coach slowed as it traveled down the narrow lane leading toward the coast. A light rain spattered against the window of their coach, and Jane pulled her shawl closer in anticipation of the cold. â€œI’ll be glad to stop traveling,â€ she told her friend. The wheels had jolted them over every rock and rut in the road until it felt as if her teeth were rattling out of her skull.
â€œSo will I. Though I imagine my knees will still be shaking.â€ Marjorie grimaced as she glanced back at her mother and older sister Tamsyn, once again. â€œI don’t know how they’re sleeping through this.â€ Her other three sisters had traveled in a second coach with their father, Lord Hambly. Jane was grateful not to be crammed inside with them, or worse, having to ride with the servants.
A few minutes later, the coach came to a stop, and a footman opened the door to the coach. At that, Lady Banfield awakened, along with Tamsyn.
â€œHeavens, what a terrible journey,â€ Lady Banfield moaned. â€œI will be glad to sleep in a bed of my own this night.â€
â€œSo will I.â€ Tamsyn yawned and stretched. She accepted help from the footman as she disembarked from the coach, followed by her mother and sister. Jane waited to be the last one out of the vehicle, being careful to keep a slight distance from the family.
It was startling to see so many other coaches also arriving at Castle Keyvnor. Jane counted at least four others, and all around her, servants were busy unloading baggage.
â€œYou’d best stay with the family, Miss Hawkins,â€ the footman warned. â€œWith so many people about, it’s safer.â€
She nodded and trailed behind Marjorie and her mother. The afternoon light was waning as evening approached. When Jane took another step closer to them, a violent gust of wind caught at her shawl. She tried to seize the wet wool, but the gust tore it from her fingers and sent it flying toward a group of guests.
â€œOh dear,â€ she murmured, hurrying after it. It was the only shawl she owned, and in cold weather such as this, she could not afford to lose the garment.
To her horror, she saw it tumble upon the ground, the wind tossing it until it came to rest at a gentleman’s feet. He was busy speaking with another man, and Jane didn’t dare approach.
He might move away. If he did, then she could snatch it quickly, and no one need know. But already she could see the Banfield family walking toward the drawbridge over the dry moat. She ought to be with them, but instead, she was chasing after her errant shawl.
The gentleman’s expression transformed a moment, and then he bent down, picking up the sodden, gray wool. â€œWhat have we here?â€
â€œIt looks as if that maid has lost her shawl,â€ the other man teased.
I’m not a maid, she wanted to tell them, but didn’t. She didn’t truly belong here and had only come at Marjorie’s insistence.
But when the first gentleman turned to face her, Jane felt her face grow red. Goodness. This man was surely an angel, fallen from Heaven. Or perhaps a devil. His blond hair was tipped with darker ends, and his green eyes were like Connemara marble. He had a strong jaw that hinted of wickedness, and his mouth was firm and held the hint of a smile. He was exactly the sort of gentleman who might steal a lady into dark corners. And worse, she would enjoy it.
â€œHave you lost something?â€ the man asked, holding out the shawl.
Jane nodded, unable to speak. The English language had fled her mouth, and if she’d tried to speak a single word, surely she would have failed.
After a moment, while the man continued to offer the shawl, she realized that she was supposed to actually reach out and take it. Good Lord, she had clearly lost her brain.
â€œTh-thank you,â€ she stammered as she accepted the shawl. â€œMy lord.â€
With a nod to him, she fled back toward Marjorie and the others, hurrying until she reached the drawbridge. Her cheeks were burning with embarrassment. And yet, she wondered if the man was as attractive as she’d imagined.
She knew she shouldn’t look back, but could not resist the urge. The moment she turned, she saw him staring at her. Not with unkindness or with a harmful intent…but almost as if he found her to be a curiosity. Jane pulled the wet shawl across her shoulders, tightening it as if it were a shield.
And then he smiled at her, tipping his hat.
* * *
â€œShe’s not for you.â€
Devon Lancaster, fourth son of the Viscount Newbury, glanced over at his best friend, Jack Hazelwood, Lord St. Giles. â€œAnd why not? She’s beautiful.â€
The young lady who had lost her shawl had a heart-shaped face, framed by light brown hair and blue eyes the color of cornflowers. She was painfully shy, but Devon found himself intrigued by her.
â€œBecause she’s a servant, that’s why.â€ Jack dismissed her immediately. â€œShe might be fair enough for a tÃªteâ€“Ã â€“tÃªte, but she’s not meant for marriage.â€
â€œWhy would you assume that?â€ He hadn’t seen the young lady carrying any baggage for Lord Banfield or his family. It seemed that she had hurried to catch up to one of the earl’s daughters.
â€œBecause of her clothing. Now if you’re looking for a rich wife, you should look toward Banfield’s daughters or Beck’s relations. Anyone except Lady Cassandra, that is. Otherwise, I’ll gut you.â€ Jack offered a friendly smile, but Devon knew better than to even look toward Lady Cassandra Priske. His best friend had invited himself to Castle Keyvnor for the sole purpose of courting the lady-not because he expected to inherit anything from the late earl. He had arrived the day before, along with their mutual friends, Michael Beck, Teddy Lockwood, and Hal Mort.
As for himself, Devon had come along with his own purpose, which also had nothing to do with the will-reading-he wanted to find a wife. And though he knew what was expected of him-to woo a wealthy, respectable woman-he wouldn’t mind finding someone who captivated him.
â€œI wouldn’t dream of even looking in Lady Cassandra’s direction,â€ Devon said. â€œBut I must admit, finding a wife is a daunting proposition. Marriage is so very…permanent.â€ His own parents had an arranged union that was civil, but neither of them had felt any sort of affection toward one another. If anything, his mother had held a great deal of animosity toward the viscount, due to his numerous affairs.
Devon didn’t want that sort of marriage. Perhaps it was a ridiculous idea, but he preferred to have affection toward his wife. He wanted someone who was a friend as well as the future mother of his children. That, at least, would make the marriage bearable. And if she happened to be beautiful with a passionate nature, he wouldn’t mind that, either.
He joined Jack as they walked back toward the drawbridge. It was early evening, but the sun had not yet descended. â€œHas Lady Cassandra arrived?â€
His friend shrugged. â€œNot yet, that I know of.â€
They crossed over the drawbridge, beneath an ancient iron portcullis. The moment he crossed into the outer bailey, Devon felt as if something icy had brushed his shoulder. He glanced at his friend, who didn’t appear to notice anything. Then, the chilly sensation vanished, leaving him to wonder if he’d imagined it.
Still, he couldn’t help but broach the idea. â€œWhat do you know about Castle Keyvnor?â€ asked. â€œDo you think it’s true that the place has ghosts?â€
â€œI doubt it. But Beck did point out a spot where they apparently beheaded a man.â€ Jack pointed toward a patch of green lawn within the courtyard. â€œThey said he was a traitor to King Henry VIII.â€ His expression darkened. â€œBeck thinks this castle is cursed. I simply think it’s old. Everything creaks when it’s seven hundred years old.â€
Devon hung back a moment, motioning for Jack to do the same. The young woman whose shawl he’d rescued was standing a few paces behind the Earl of Banfield. He studied her more closely and realized that Jack was right. Her clothing was very plain-she wore a dark blue serge gown and the gray shawl he’d rescued earlier, along with a gray bonnet. Her light brown hair was bound up away from her face, and her blue eyes were downcast.
But in spite of her plain attire, he couldn’t quite tear his gaze from her. There was something about her face that drew him in, making him wonder about her secrets.
What would she look like with her hair down around her shoulders, those blue eyes staring back at him with interest? Her body was thin, but there was no denying the curve of her breasts or the gentle sway of her hips.
Devon wanted to know her name-needed to know it. No, she likely wasn’t a candidate for marriage. But there was no harm in getting acquainted with the lady and finding out why she was here.
â€œBeck invited me to play a game of billiards,â€ Jack told him. â€œDo you want to come?â€
Devon shook his head. â€œI’ve another challenge in mind.â€ With a nod toward the young lady, he added, â€œI’ll wish you luck in your game.â€
â€œOne doesn’t need luck when one possesses great skill. You are welcome to join us in a later game, if you enjoy losing.â€
â€œI might,â€ Devon agreed.
Just then, he heard the sound of barking. A small black poodle raced toward the center of the courtyard, snarling at the empty air. The hair on the dog’s spine stood on end, and he growled at the unseen enemy. It was the very spot where Jack claimed the traitor’s beheading had taken place.
â€œAre you certain the dog hasn’t seen a ghost?â€ Devon teased. Though he had never actually witnessed a specter, he hadn’t imagined the icy chill that had passed over him.
â€œI doubt it. But dogs do sense things.â€ At that, the animal lifted his leg and proceeded to relieve himself upon the execution site.
Devon bit back a grin. â€œWell, if there was a ghost there, I imagine he is quite put out.â€
â€œOr marked.â€ Jack shook his head and started toward the castle keep. â€œIn the meantime, I’ll bid you good hunting with your mysterious servant girl.â€
â€œShe’s not a servant. Her speech is too refined for that.â€ Her tone and diction were nothing at all like a servant’s. And yet, he hadn’t missed the way the woman held herself back from Lord Banfield’s family. She appeared too young to be a governess, truthfully.
But he intended to find out exactly who she was.
* * *
Jane had never felt so overwhelmed in all her life. Castle Keyvnor was the largest estate she had ever seen. After enjoying a cup of tea and a light repast, she had walked behind Lord Banfield and his daughters, staring in bewilderment at all the rooms. The stone walls and Gothic architecture reminded her of a medieval castle, especially with the large tapestries upon the walls.
â€œI’ll need a map,â€ she said to Marjorie. â€œI’m going to get lost in this place.â€
â€œSo will I,â€ her friend agreed. â€œBut as long as we get lost with a handsome gentleman to guide us back, it’s all right by me.â€ Marjorie leaned in closer. â€œDid you ever find out the name of the man who gave back your shawl?â€
Jane blinked a moment. â€œI didn’t realize you saw that.â€
â€œI notice everything.â€ Marjorie smiled at her. â€œAnd once I find out who it is, I will ask Father to introduce you.â€
â€œDon’t bother. If he possesses a title, he will have no interest in a vicar’s daughter.â€ She gripped the edges of her gray shawl, well aware of her plain appearance. Every garment she owned was gray, dark blue, or brown, and modest, as befit a clergyman’s daughter.
â€œHe might,â€ her friend offered, though Jane didn’t believe it. All of a sudden, a barking noise caught her attention, and she spied a black poodle racing down the hallway.
â€œOscar! Come back!â€ a young woman called out, hurrying toward the dog. Jane saw the animal bolt around the corner and on impulse, she decided to help.
â€œI’ll be back,â€ she said, as she picked up her skirts and hurried after the dog. She had three dogs of her own at home and had no doubt she could help retrieve the animal.
â€œYou’ll get lost!â€ Marjorie warned.
â€œThen I will ask for directions and find you again.â€ Jane smiled and raced around the corner, just in time to see the poodle change directions again. He skidded to a halt in front of a stone staircase, and she slowed her pace. If she ran toward him, he would consider it a game and scamper away once again. Instead, she took slow footsteps.
â€œYou’re a mischievous fellow,â€ she remarked to the dog. â€œWhy did you run away?â€ The dog wagged its tail at her, and she suspected he was only playing.
â€œDo you need help, my lady?â€ came a male voice from behind her.
Jane turned and saw the very gentleman who had rescued her shawl. Oh dear. Of all the men to find her, why did it have to be the man who tied her tongue into knots?
â€œI-yes, I think so. He got away from one of the ladies, and I thought I would try to retrieve him.â€ She tried to keep her attention squarely upon the poodle, for if she dared to look at the gentleman, she would undoubtedly lose every coherent thought.
â€œThat’s kind of you.â€ He drew closer and added, â€œI suppose I should introduce myself, since there is no one here to do it properly. I am Devon Lancaster.â€
For a second, she’d thought he’d said Devil Lancaster. He did indeed resemble a devilish sort of man, with his dark blond hair and green eyes.
â€œAnd you are Lord of what?â€ she blurted out without thinking. Heavens, what was wrong with her? She wanted to knock her head against the wall. â€œI’m sorry. I meant only that-that is, your title-â€
â€œI don’t have one,â€ he answered cheerfully. â€œI’m the fourth son of the Viscount Newbury. I’m nothing but a mister.â€ He eyed the dog and took another step toward him. â€œAnd you are?â€
â€œJane Hawkins,â€ she answered. â€œAlso Lady of nothing. I’m a friend of Lady Marjorie’s.â€
â€œAny relation to the late earl?â€ he asked.
â€œNone at all.â€ She offered a sheepish smile. â€œI feel like an imposter, just for being here. Marjorie insisted that I come with her family, but I don’t really belong.â€
Mr. Lancaster leaned in and murmured, â€œDon’t tell anyone, but I shouldn’t be here either. I’m friends with Lord St. Giles and Lord Michael Beck, and I joined them at their invitation.â€
â€œThen we’re both imposters.â€ Jane relaxed somewhat, for it did feel that neither one of them ought to be here. And now that she knew he was not a titled lord, she felt less conspicuous.
â€œSo we are.â€ He took another step toward the dog, who was sniffing at the steps and snarling. â€œI’m going to pick him up on the count of three. I think I can come up behind him before he notices. One…â€
â€œI don’t think he’s going to let you do that.â€ Her own dogs would delight in racing away, provoking her to chase after them.
â€œTwo.â€ Mr. Lancaster held up his hand in a pause. â€œThree.â€ He lunged toward the poodle, who shot across the hallway in a full run.
â€œBlast it.â€ He took off after the dog, and Jane joined him in a run, laughing as she did.
â€œI told you he wouldn’t let you seize him.â€ She gripped her skirts while her shawl slipped down her shoulders. â€œDogs love to be chased. Or at least, mine do.â€
â€œWhat do you suggest?â€
They continued running down another narrow hallway until the dog scampered halfway to the end.
â€œWe need to corner him,â€ Jane said, huffing as she kept up with Mr. Lancaster. â€œIf we can trap him inside one of the rooms, that will do. And then we can find his owner.â€
â€œGood idea.â€ He motioned for her to spread out, and they slowed their pace as they reached the end of the hallway.
â€œOscar!â€ The young woman who owned the dog came running toward them, her dark hair falling loose from its chignon.
â€œDon’t worry, we’ll help you catch him,â€ Mr. Lancaster reassured the woman. â€œLet’s try to drive him toward an open room, and we can close the door.â€
â€œHow about the room at the end of that hallway,â€ Jane suggested. â€œYou could run ahead of the dog and cut him off so he can’t go down the other way.â€
â€œAll right. And the two of you try to herd him inside.â€ Mr. Lancaster moved toward the end of the hallway, racing past Oscar to block his path. As he took a step toward the animal, the poodle scampered in the opposite direction-exactly as they’d hoped.
â€œPerfect,â€ Jane said. â€œNow let’s guide him toward the doorway.â€ She joined with the other young woman, and as they moved forward, Jane introduced herself and Mr. Lancaster.
â€œI am Lady Cassandra Priske,â€ the woman answered. â€œThank you so much for helping me catch up to Oscar.â€
â€œYou’re welcome.â€ Jane offered a friendly smile, and when Oscar saw the pair of them approaching, he ran into the room. â€œTrapped,â€ she proclaimed in triumph.
â€œBless you both.â€ Lady Cassandra hurried after him, and Jane blocked the doorway so the poodle could not run away. She thought about joining Lady Cassandra, but stopped herself when she realized there were two gentlemen already inside the billiards room.
â€œI think she has control of her dog once more,â€ Mr. Lancaster said. â€œYou did well, Miss Hawkins.â€
She stepped away from the billiards room, feeling her cheeks warm beneath his praise. â€œSo did you. And now I am hopelessly lost within this castle. I don’t suppose you know the way back to the drawing room?â€
â€œI do indeed. Will you allow me to escort you there?â€ He offered his arm. â€œAnd if we find any escaped animals along the way, I am certain we will manage well enough.â€
His charming smile slipped past her defenses, making her all too aware of his masculinity. She rested her hand upon the crook of his arm, feeling her heartbeat stammer within her chest.
This isn’t real, she reminded herself. He’s only being a gentleman.
And yet, she was entirely too conscious of the way his coat clung to his broad shoulders. His green eyes gleamed with a blend of amusement and a hint of wickedness.
When they reached the drawing room, Jane felt the need to apologize. â€œI am sorry to have disturbed you,â€ she said. â€œI imagine you never intended to spend your evening chasing after a poodle.â€
â€œNo,â€ he agreed. â€œBut were it not for Oscar’s misbehavior, I might not have met you, Miss Hawkins. And it was a pleasure, indeed.â€
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