THE MISTLETOE MISTRESS
Part of the ‘Once Upon a Christmas Wedding’ boxed set
A willful widow. A notorious rake. A Christmas wager.
Notorious rake, Michael Drake, the Viscount Blackthorn accepts a Christmas wager to be the first to seduce the next lady to walk under the mistletoe, but the lady turns out to be none other than Holly Jenkins; a woman from his past, whom he has sworn to protect, but whose bold antics drive him to distraction…and temptation. Can he protect her from himself?
Holly is living a lie. Forced to masquerade as a widow to keep herself and her sisters safe, she earns a living helping those being undeservedly blackmailed by using her lock-picking skills to expose the villains behind the schemes. Attending a ball, her clandestine work is interrupted by Lord Blackthorn, a man who is as vexing as he is sinfully handsome. A man who she’s always had feelings for, which she understands are futile. Because everyone knows you can’t give your heart to a rake… or can you?
But Michael has his own secrets, ones serious enough that could threaten any chance they have of a future together. After all, lies and deception. have a dangerous habit of unravelling when one least expects it…
Chapter One Excerpt:
THE MISTLETOE MISTRESS
Bachelors, boredom and whiskey, were never a particularly good combination, and when mixed with a rather dubious wager made by three of London’s most notorious rakes, it was a recipe for disaster in the making.
A fact, Michael Drake, the Viscount Blackthorn, probably should have considered before agreeing to the whole darn thing. Christmas festivities had never been a particularly joyful occasion for him and he’d been especially bored at this ball, so when his two friends, both equally as jaded as Michael himself had suggested the bet he’d agreed.
After all, since returning from the war Michael had held little interest in anything. Perhaps a mistletoe mistress might be just what he needed to rid himself of the listlessness that had plagued him since his return from the Crimea. It might even perhaps stop the nightmares that had been stalking his sleep.
“So, we are in agreement then,” Devlin Markham, the Duke of Huntington stated, his deep voice raised to be heard over the string quartet playing from the ballroom. He straightened from where he’d been leaning over the balustrade gazing at the guests below.
The three of them had sought solace from the dancing and gossiping, preferring to escape to one of the alcoves upstairs to enjoy a nice glass of whiskey devoid of interruption while still being able to see what was going on without having to partake in any of the tedium.
“We shall each ante up one thousand pounds,” Huntington continued. “And whoever is the first to seduce the very next lady to walk under Lady Pembrook’s famed mistletoe, shall be the winner of the wager. Provided of course, the woman is not an innocent.” He handed each of them a sprig of mistletoe he’d recently plucked from the plant decoration itself.
“Goodness no! I have no wish to be forced into marriage,” George Bainbridge, the Marquis of St. Giles, exclaimed, eyeing the mistletoe in distress. “Neither of you think there’s any truth to the legend of Lady Pembrook’s mistletoe, do you?”
A grin split Huntington’s lips, and Michael couldn’t help but smile too as he also took a sprig of the greenery and slipped it in his pocket, completely unconcerned over the legend. It was absolute nonsense to think a plant could determine a man’s matrimonial fate.
Which is what they’d all been discussing and had led to the wager. Michael shook his head, thinking not for the first time he probably should have refused rather than agree to it. None of them had any idea who would be the next lady to walk under the archway, and the idea of seducing even an enticing Madonna—not that he expected such a creature to walk through the arbor—was tiring.
That very thought in itself was enough for Michael to realize how much the war had changed him. Especially how Edward’s death had. He’d lost his best-friend from childhood that day and nothing had been the same since. Especially as it was Michael who had killed him.
A fact he doubted he would ever be able to forget or forgive.
As usual, his stomach twisted into a knot and he had to swallow back the bitterness and simmering regret that still consumed him.
Probably why he’d agreed to the wager. Anything to distract himself from his guilt would be a good thing, particularly as he no longer had the war, or the suicide missions he’d always volunteered for to divert his attention.
Once he would have relished the idea of winning such a wager, yet now he felt seducing a lady was going to be more of a chore than a pleasure. And for some strange reason the mistletoe nestled in his pocket felt decidedly uncomfortable. Not that he in any way believed any of the nonsense about the stuff.
“My friend,” Huntington finally answered St. Giles. “The very idea that Lady Pembrook’s mistletoe holds magical matrimonial powers is ludicrous beyond measure, and is part of the reason we shall all keep a sprig of the stuff in our pockets until this wager has a winner. Then when no marriages are forthcoming, we shall have proved that the tales surrounding the stuff are completely false.”
“Uh huh.” St. Giles did not sound convinced. “Then why worry about the lady being an innocent or not, if you don’t believe the tale? What if it does make one fall in love?” Fear lit up the man’s eyes with the thought.
For years word had spread that Lady Pembrook’s mistletoe held special, almost magical qualities beyond that of normal mistletoe. It was whispered that if a man took a sprig of Lady Pembrook’s mistletoe and kept it in his pocket, that the next unattached lady he kissed would be destined to be the love of his life and they would marry. Utter nonsense in Michael’s book, but apparently it had happened so often that some couples even carried out the ritual on purpose.
What poor, pathetic fools.
“Love is a wasted emotion,” Huntington said, his words completely matter-of-fact. “The two of you know that to be the case. Innocents are the path to matrimony, my friends, which is something I have no intention of partaking in. Ever. Hence why I refuse to have anything to do with virgins. I will not be forced into marriage by anyone.”
Michael couldn’t imagine anyone forcing the Devil Duke to do anything he didn’t want to. The man was formidable in business and with the ladies, and though Michael had a similar reputation, even he drew the line at dallying with innocent virgins. “I couldn’t agree with you more,” he replied. “Besides, women with experience are infinitely more delightful and willing to be adventurous in the bedchamber.” He pushed in closer to the balustrade, as a woman wearing a dark blue gown slowly came into view from the entrance hall, though she was still too far away to see her face.
“It looks like we’re about to see who the lucky lady is,” St. Giles enthused. “As there’s a woman who looks like she’s about to cross under the mistletoe archway. I do hope she’s attractive.”
“All women are attractive, my friend.” Huntington grinned. “You just have to look carefully is all. Particularly under the surface.”
“Debatable,” St. Giles grumbled.
“Well provided she’s not a virgin,” Michael reminded them, “then regardless of what she looks like, or whether she’s married, or a widow, she’ll be acceptable for the wager. Are we agreed?”
The two other men nodded, their bodies braced forward and leaning over the balustrade in an effort to see the woman’s identity.
As she walked further toward the archway Michael allowed his gaze to follow the sapphire colored material of the woman’s gown from her feet up. The dress molded a tiny waist, before gently weaving its way up to cover the creamiest porcelain chest, with just a hint of bosoms showing beneath its satiny exterior. His glance skimmed higher up the woman’s graceful neck, across her determined little chin and pert nose, to eyes framed by the thickest of lashes. Lashes he’d seen before.
A cold sweat broke out on his brow and his heart began to thud as he recognized that it was Miss Holly Jenkins he stared at with unabated lust. Good God, it was Edward’s sister. What the devil was she doing here? And why the hell was the thrum of desire thick in his blood, simply from peering down at her?
His heart dropped as she walked under the mistletoe archway.
But then dread gave way to relief. Innocents were off limits in this stupid bet of theirs. Thank, bloody, goodness.
“She’s an absolute angel,” St. Giles exclaimed, rubbing his hands together. “Even from this distance I don’t think I’ve ever seen such green eyes.” He glanced over at Huntington and Michael. “And that ebony hair of hers, along with her ample bosom that I could bury my head in—simply delicious. I’m going to enjoy beating the two of you in this wager.”
“Damn it! You won’t be beating us at anything. She’s off limits,” Michael growled. “Do you understand me, St. Giles? Off limits.”
“Why?” Huntington’s tone was completely neutral, but Michael didn’t like the look of keen interest in his gaze as the man’s eyes stayed locked on Holly. The Devil Duke hadn’t earned his moniker for being any sort of saint, and most especially not with the ladies.
“Because that is Miss Holly Jenkins,” Michael grated out. “She is unmarried and hence will not play any part in our wager. Are we clear?”
Huntington sighed, devilish anticipation glittering in his dark blue eyes. “My friend, you’ve been away for too long in the Crimea.”
Michael paused, and stared levelly at the man not liking where this was heading. “Explain yourself.”
The duke’s eyes flared in annoyance at the command, but Michael didn’t give a damn. Friend or not, Michael wasn’t going to let him anywhere near Miss Jenkins. And if he had to show Huntington physically that he meant business, then show him physically he would.
“She may have been Miss Jenkins before you left, but she’s now Mrs. Carlton.” Huntington’s eyes narrowed down upon the lady in question, just before she darted off down an adjacent hallway. “She is no virgin and is firmly within the purviews of our wager, my friend.”
“She’s married?” Michael couldn’t comprehend how he wouldn’t have known such a thing. True, he had spent the last two years in the Crimea, but surely he would have known if Miss Holly Jenkins had married. He had after all bestowed on her and her two sisters, extremely generous dowries, subsequent to having promised Edward he’d look after them. But none of the dowries had been touched yet.
“Oh, that’s excellent news! Married women are always so much easier to seduce. They are so bored with their husbands and are begging for some adventure. Makes them supremely easy pickings,” St. Giles enthused, leaning out over the balcony railing as far as he could in an attempt to get another look at her before she completely disappeared from view. “You chaps will have no chance as I daresay she’s bound to be more attracted to my blond good looks and robust charm, rather than the two of you with your dark and broody personas.” He pulled away from the balcony and turned around to smile at them both. “She won’t be able to resist me. That money is as good as mine!”
“Damn it, I said she was off limits!” Michael didn’t know what came over him, but he grabbed St. Giles by the lapels of his jacket and spun him toward the wall, pinning him against it. “Married or not!”
“Well she’s a widow, actually,” Huntington relaxed back against the other wall, merely watching Michael tower over St. Giles his hands still clenched tightly against the man’s jacket.
“Widowed?” Now Michael was getting downright confused.
“Yes,” Huntington confirmed. “Supposedly her husband died only a few months after their wedding and she’s only recently come out of mourning to re-enter society.”
“You seem to know an awful lot about her.” Michael narrowed his eyes toward his friend not liking the look of contemplation in Huntington’s expression.
Huntington shrugged. “I always pay attention. Especially to attractive females. And personally I prefer widows. They’re independent and have no wish to relinquish that freedom to another marriage. Your Mrs. Carlton shall be the perfect mistletoe mistress for our wager.”
“She’s not my anything. And she’s too good and decent for any of us.” Michael emphasized his words by pressing St. Giles more firmly against the wall. And once again he wished he’d never agreed to such a stupid bet in the first place.
“I don’t doubt it,” Huntington agreed. “But she intrigues me, and you said so yourself, widows are acceptable in our wager.”
“Not this one.” Michael didn’t know why he was feeling so enraged with the thought of his friends trying to seduce the woman. Apart from the fact that he’d promised her brother on his deathbed that he would look after her and her two other sisters. And letting two notorious rakes try to seduce her as part of a bet was not looking after her by any measure. It’s why he’d stayed away from her upon his return three months ago. His reputation would only tarnish her own, though he hadn’t known she was a widow, so her reputation wasn’t as much a concern anymore.
“You care for her then?” Huntington’s eyes turned to Michael. There was an intensity in them that Michael didn’t like at all. “Because if you do have feelings for her, then of course St. Giles and I will leave her alone.”
Michael held Huntington’s gaze without blinking. “I do not have feelings for the chit, I’m simply trying to protect her.” He was hoping to convince not only Huntington, but himself too. In truth, he’d always been slightly intrigued and attracted to Holly, despite her often berating him in the past. But of course he’d never acted on such feelings, nor would he ever do so. He had every intention to honor the promise he made to his best-friend on his deathbed. Regardless of the lust he still felt for Holly. And lust he could control.
“She’s a widow my friend. She doesn’t need your protection. Besides, if it’s not one of us to seduce her someone else will.” He flicked a speck of lint from his midnight black tailored jacket. “She’s too attractive to stay unattached for long. Besides, she may be looking for a protector now that she’s out of mourning.”
The very words turned Michael’s thoughts murderous.
“Will you let me go?” St. Giles ground out, pushing against Michael’s fists, but Michael didn’t budge an inch. “And Huntington’s quite correct. The other men of the Ton will be sniffing around her before the night’s over.”
Huntington straightened from where he was lounging against the balustrade. “Are you certain you don’t have any feelings for her then?”
Michael’s fists balled up even tighter against St. Giles’ lapels and he had to make a determined effort to loosen them slightly. Of course, he didn’t have feelings for Holly Jenk—Carlton. Edward’s younger sister had always been extremely bossy, with decided opinions about right and wrong, and she’d very much considered Michael a bad influence over her brother and had always been lambasting them as young men over their escapades. She’d been a bloody pain. An attractive bloody pain, but a pain, nonetheless.
In the end she’d been right though. If it hadn’t been for Michael, Edward would still be alive. “Apart from protectiveness and a wish to keep her safe. No. I don’t have any feelings for the woman.”
Huntington raised his brow in an expression Michael suspected meant he did not believe him. “Then, as she fits the criteria for our wager,” Huntington continued, “she’s fair game. Now why don’t you let poor St. Giles go. You’re crinkling up his lapels terribly, and he’s already at a disadvantage in securing the lovely Mrs. Carlton’s attentions going up against us.”
“Bollocks I am,” St. Giles ground out as Michael released him, before taking a step backward. “And what was all that about?” He demanded to Michael, brushing down the material of his lapels, a decided expression of annoyance on his normally affable visage. “What’s gotten into you?”
Michael drew in a rather long breath. “Damn it. I’m sorry St. Giles.” And he was. Though he had no qualms about engaging in a physical confrontation, St. Giles was as close to a friend as he had, and he didn’t normally get physical with friends. Not that he really had any friends apart from these two. “I don’t know what came over me.”
“A woman is what came over you.” Huntington laughed. “But thankfully you don’t have feelings for her, isn’t that so? Otherwise, goodness knows how else you would have reacted. ‘Tis lucky for St. Giles and I, that you don’t care for her, isn’t it?”
There was a definite note of sarcasm in Huntington’s voice, but Michael chose to ignore it. “Perhaps we should simply choose another lady for the wager? Then there would be no issue.”
“There’s no issue now,” Huntington was quick to point out. “You said it yourself, you don’t have feelings for her. Besides, Mrs. Carlton is ravishing. I find my interest stirred.”
“And mine,” St. Giles seconded. “In fact, I can’t think of a more delightful quarry than the stunning Mrs. Carlton. It will be a pleasure to try to get her in my bed.”
“You won’t be bedding her,” Michael growled, as he took a step toward St. Giles who was only an inch shorter than Michael’s own six-foot-two frame.
St. Giles squared his chest in response, his green eyes staring accusingly at Michael’s blue ones. “What has gotten into you! You’ve never had such issues before regarding our wagers and the women involved. Yet now you’re getting physical with me over a woman you supposedly don’t even care about.”
“Would the two of you both relax.” Huntington stepped between the two men, pushing them both apart. “She’s a widow and can make her own choices.” He was pointedly looking at Michael. “If you don’t want either of us to bed her, Michael, then you be the one to win the wager.”
“Damn it then I will!” The words rushed out of Michael’s mouth before he could think better of them.
“Good,” Huntington said. “May the best man win.” And with a curt nod, he turned on his heel and retreated down the back stairs to brave the throng below.
St. Giles simply stared at Michael for a moment, before shaking his head and following the duke.
Michael exhaled harshly as his friends left, before turning back to the balcony and casting his eyes down across the guests. Bloody hell. What had he just agreed to? He wasn’t going to sleep with Edward’s sister, even if she was a widow and made every cell of his body scream to possess her. She was from a good family and he would make damn sure those two libertines didn’t get so much as even a sniff of her. Which meant he would have to stick closely to her.
He would protect her from them, and even from himself, if he had to.
Now all he had to do was find her, before those two idiot friends of his. He’d seen her hurry down the hall toward Lord Pembrook’s study. Which in itself did beg the question of not only what Holly was doing attending the rather notorious ball in the first place, but what was she doing heading off down a corridor, away from the festivities?