As part of the blog tour for Mistletoe, Marriage, and Mayhem, the holiday box set by the Bluestocking Belles, characters from the novellas will be meeting up outside the covers of the book, appearing on Belles’ blogs throughout the month of October.
To see the scene from the opposing point of view, go to Caroline Warfield’s blog.
Comment to win a print copy of The Bluestocking Belles’ Guide to a Good Time (random drawing): After reading this vignette, what do you think would happen if Jeremy and Sylvia inhabited the same book?
Jeremy Smithson, of ‘Tis Her Season, is at loose—if a bit desperate—ends. He has been twice thwarted in his honorable pursuit of a lady. The first incident was an unrequited love match, and does not bear description, but in truth, there had never been a serious chance of the second: marrying his cousin, Charlotte Amberly, to lay hands on the money left to her by her father’s mother. If Jeremy’s father had been serious about that prospect, he should have cultivated Charlotte’s father as an ally years ago, not let Aunt Minerva stir up trouble for the Smithsons with her viscount husband.
Two decades ago, his aunt, the daughter of a new baronet, married far above herself to become Viscountess Effingale; now, the viscountess’ daughter will become a marchioness. Jeremy would give anything for a decent scheme to ensure Charlotte became a baronetess, instead, but as yet, there is as much chance of that as finding money in his pocket the next time he looks.
What he does have is a fresh horse and a stack of IOUs in the name of the dead Duke of Murnane (from Caroline Warfield’s A Dangerous Nativity), who has left a widow, a young son, and—hopefully—enough money to make good his vowels. The man’s solicitor refers Jeremy to an executor and steward at the country estate, which is, as it happens, on the road to a house party where he will find enough games of chance to tide him over until the Little Season. But he has barely the cost of coach fare, much less the more stylish transport required to spend a fortnight with a wealthy baron one knew from White’s. He will make a stop in Wheatton, pay a call at Eversham Hall. If things go in his favor, the executor will open a strongbox, count out five hundred guineas, and Jeremy will be on his way. If worse comes to worst, there are always baubles in houses that size that can be pocketed and sold.
“Your Grace,” Mr. Smithson says, looking over his shoulder to nod his thanks to the butler, who has been more than accommodating, in return for a small consideration. He bows elegantly over the hand of the woman he has come upon, who could only be the widow, in bombazine from head to toe.
“I am all but a broken man, hearing of your recent bereavement, and came with all due haste to pay my respects to you and, of course, Murnane’s heir. The late duke was a fine man who will be missed greatly.”
The duchess blinks rapidly and seems to shudder at the very sight of him, looking around as if expecting a ghost. Her hand scrabbles at her skirt as her eyes roam the room. “I’m sorry. I didn’t catch your name,” she says at last, a quiver in her voice.
“Smithson, Your Grace. Jeremy Smithson. And entirely your servant.”
She seems confused by his presence, but not enough so to question him, nor sound an alarm. She only grimaces in the time-honored style of a political wife. She is well trained. “I am honored, Mr. Smithson.”
Jeremy peers around the room. The appointments are not lavish, nor cheap. He would not even have to sell a few of the widow’s accouterments in this room to clear the debt he was owed. But she was still young, and not unattractive. And biddable, if the duke’s drunken ramblings were to be believed. There might be more opportunity on the table than the price of a silver hairbrush and the ear bobs lying out on the sideboard.
Following the direction of her eye, he spies a bottle on a nearby table. “May I be of service?” He picks up the bottle and brings it to her. “I hope I do not find you ill, Your Grace. Your late husband would think me no kind of gentleman, were I to allow you to languish in misery. Have you had a physician?”
Her shoulders shake at the word, as does her voice. She reminds him of a gin drunk with no money to fill his glass. “Y-yes. He, ah, told me I—” she eyes the bottle longingly. “I suffer a weakness of the nerves, Mr. Smithson. And grief, of course.”
He shakes the bottle minutely.
“Please. My tonic. If you could just put few drops in some lemon water. There—on the table.”
Not much left. He pours a glass of lemon water and adds a few drops of laudanum. “Of course, I shall not keep you from your medicine. Tell me, what is the dosage?” Her eyes are already a bit vacant, and she wants more. Biddable, indeed.
“Thank you, Mr. Smithson. Uh, why did you say you were here again?”
He adds one drop after another to the water, reading the required dosage in her eyes. When her shoulders relax, he hands over the glass with a flourish. “Why, Your Grace, it is as I said. I merely wished to assure myself of your safety and well-being. I would hate to see you fall into trouble… a woman alone.”
He slides into the chair next to hers and picks up the book she had been reading—or more likely, pretending to read, for he would not be convinced her eyes can focus long enough to parse a sentence. He raises an eyebrow at the title, now certain she hadn’t been reading. Murnane wouldn’t have allowed this trash in his house, much less in the hands of his wife, if there were any chance she would comprehend it.
“Do you often read Wollstonecroft, Your Grace?”
“Wollstonecraft?” She struggles to keep her attention on the book in his hand. “I don’t think so. Chadbourn thought that one would amuse me.”
“Chadbourn, Your Grace?”
“My brother. He, he is managing Emery’s estate. He’s only here for a while.”
A brother. Damn.
Jeremy sets the book aside, well out of her reach. “I do hope he is seeing to your amusement, Your Grace. It would not do for you to be crushed under the weight of your grief. While I do understand there must be no hint of impropriety, I will be staying in the village for a time, and would welcome the opportunity to entertain. Perhaps… if it can be managed without fanfare, of course… perhaps we might make a picnic?”
He reaches out and traces the back of her hand with one fingertip. It is a risk, to be sure, but there is every chance she won’t even feel it, and if she does… well… after her marriage to Murnane, the dolt, she might be susceptible to a bit of tenderness. Jeremy can feign tenderness as well as the next man.
The duchess closes her eyes and leans into his touch.
Her eyes flew open. “I don’t like what happens next.”
No, Jeremy wouldn’t have liked bedding Murnane, either, but was starting to see the appeal of the man’s wife. “Next, Your Grace?”
“After, you know. And Emery always did.” Her voice trails off, confused. “Emery gave me my tonic. Chadbourn takes it away. I like to dance when I…”
Jeremy watches her mind meander with increasing delight. She is really not all there. A quick marriage will leave Jeremy in control of everything of the late duke’s that isn’t entailed, and anything in trust for his wife and son. Lock her up in Bedlam for her own good—just look at her—send Murnane’s brat off to Eton for the next ten years, and Jeremy could do whatever he pleased with a duchy.
He leans in closer. “You like to dance, you say?”
Her face turns so quickly, their lips nearly touch. “I love to dance, but Emery won’t let me. I like flowers, too. Do you like flowers?” Her eyes might as well be made of glass, and he would wager all Murnane’s vowels, she has no memory of him walking through the door.
“I love flowers, my sweet. We can pick bouquets on our picnic, and while I know Murnane preferred not to dance, I do not share his distaste. I will partner you in any figure you like.” He leaves the whisper of a kiss behind her ear.
“I do enjoy a picnic,” she murmurs, leaning toward the kiss. “Isn’t it a lovely day?” The dim sitting room, drapes drawn and windows firmly shut, looks nothing like a picnic venue—except perhaps in her drug-addled imagination.
“Glorious,” he croons, letting his breath trail against her lobe and the back of her neck, his eyes following his fingertip, tracing the edge of black lace on her mourning gown from her shoulder to her collarbone. She tries to rise, and he tests his influence and her sobriety, keeping her seated by the lightest touch of his hand.
Jeremy does have a partiality for girls who will fight back—briefly—but there is something intriguing about one who cannot conceive of making an argument. He wonders, idly, what other things Emery might have trained her to do without squabbling. It might be worth keeping her for a while to find out, before handing her over to Bedlam.
Sylvia blinks up at him with a flash of lucidity. “Emery? You’re not Emery. What do you want from me?”
Jeremy slides into a chair right next to her and takes her hand in both of his, stroking her fingers, turning her hand to touch the wrist, massage the palm with his thumb, holding her blank eyes with his sharper, more knowing ones.
“I wish only to assure myself of your happiness, Your Grace. And I am Jeremy. I hope you will call me Jeremy.”
“Jeremy.” She nods. “Do you—I mean, did you know Emery?”
“I know Murnane well enough to concern myself with his widow, my dear. I am heir to a baronetcy; I am not unknown in court circles; and we have… done business in the past, your late husband and I.”
The man died owing Jeremy five hundred guineas the Smithson men had worked hard to steal, but the lady would do, in lieu of payment.
The door is flung wide by a land steward of some sort, judging by his clothes and muddy boots. The man with whom, presumably, Jeremy will have to do business. Perhaps, though, the brother, considering the look of indignation at finding him alone with the duchess. Jeremy inserts himself in front of her, holding an arm out, as though to protect her from the intruder’s wrath.
“Who are you, and what are you doing with my sister?”
Chadbourn, then. Jeremy smoothly steps to one side, not impeding access to the duchess, but distracting the man from questioning her more closely.
“Jeremy Smithson, Sir. I came to settle a bit of business with the late duke, and found Her Grace… well… she seems unwell. I feel quite sure Murnane would be upset to think his wife ill-treated.”
Chadbourn’s eyes narrow, and Jeremy sees the moment he recalls some rumor or innuendo about the Smithsons. The accursed man steps closer to his sister.
“I find myself wholly motivated to ensure her safety and wellbeing,” Jeremy continues, “and if you are her brother, in Murnane’s absence, it beseems you are the man responsible for her condition.”
Chadbourn pushes his body between Jeremy and his prey. Every muscle on alert, he leans toward the intruder. “And you, Sir, have no right whatsoever to intrude on Her Grace’s privacy. I will thank you to leave.”
Straightening his cuffs, Jeremy sniffs, “Perhaps it is not such a bad thing someone has intruded.” He looks over at the duchess’s vacant expression and feigns great sadness, furrowing his brows, pursing his lips, tut-tutting. “She is clearly not adjusting well.”
He turns his shoulder on Chadbourn, takes up her hand and bends over it, kissing the fingertips. “Your Grace, I will remain in the village a few nights more. Should you have need of anything, you must only ask. I place myself entirely at your service.”
Chadbourn glares daggers. “Take your leave, Sir, before I feel obliged to help you do it.”
Jeremy can spend another few days in this country village to suss out what use Chadbourn has for the duchess—if any—and how the man intends to settle the debts of his brother-by-marriage. “My thanks, Your Grace, for your company.”
Meet Sylvia, Her Grace of Murnane, and the Earl of Chadbourn in A Dangerous Nativity, by Caroline Warfield, and Jeremy Smithson in ’Tis Her Season, by Mariana Gabrielle, both available in:
Mistletoe, Marriage, and Mayhem: A Bluestocking Belles Collection
In this collection of novellas, the Bluestocking Belles bring you seven runaway Regency brides resisting and romancing their holiday heroes under the mistletoe. Whether scampering away or dashing toward their destinies, avoiding a rogue or chasing after a scoundrel, these ladies and their gentlemen leave miles of mayhem behind them on the slippery road to a happy-ever-after.
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This blog post co-written by:
Mariana Gabrielle is a pen name for Mari Christie, who is not romantic—at all. Therefore, her starry-eyed alter ego lives vicariously through characters who believe in their own happy-ever-afters. And believe they must, as Mariana loves her heroes and heroines, but truly dotes on her villains, and almost all of her characters’ hearts have been bruised, broken, and scarred long before they reach the pages of her books.
Caroline Warfield grew up in a perapatetic army family and had a varied career (largely centered on libraries and technology) before retiring to the urban wilds of Eastern Pennsylvania. She is ever a traveler and adventurer, enamored of owls, books, history, and beautiful gardens (but not the act of gardening). She is married to a prince among men.
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