excerpt

Mischief and Mistletoe

Weathering the Storm
(written under my pen name Cara Elliott)

 

Christmastime in England—a time for passionate secrets, delicious whispers and wicked-sweet gifts by the fire. From a spirited lady who sets out to save her rakish best friend from an unsuitable engagement to a bold spy who gets the unexpected chance to win the woman he’s always loved, to a feisty young hellion and starchy diplomat who must join forces in order to make it to London by Christmas Eve, these holiday tales will make you curl up in front of the fire for a memorable season of mischief and mistletoe
 

EXCERPT

A flurry of activity soon had the temporary prison looking almost inviting. A small planked table and two chairs had been carried in by two of their captors, and the aroma of hot food perfumed the musty air . . .

Bentley bit back a tiny groan. A plume of fragrant steam was rising up from a pewter platter of fresh baked Cornish pasties—a local specialty filled with beef and diced potatoes.

“Make yerself comfortable.” Hawthorne, fitted oversized key into the heavy lock. “I can’t say fer sure how long it will take to find Captain Farraday and his ship, so ye two may be in here fer a while.”

“Ha.” Sophie smiled as the door fell shut. “I highly doubt it.”

Bentley cocked an ear and listened to a rapidfire series of metallic clicks. “That,” he said, “appears to be a rather formidable lock. I think Mr. Hawthorne is right—we aren’t going anywhere.”

“No,” agreed Sophie. “Not until we fill our breadboxes.” She reached for one of the pasties and took a bite. “A sigh slipped from her lips as she savored the rich taste of meat and spices. “Oh, this is delicious. Really, sir, you should try one.”

Bentley already had his teeth sunk into a mound of the flaky crust. “Elishsus,” he repeated around a mouthful of dough. A swallow. “Absolutely delicious.” He washed down the other half with a swig of brandy.

“Thank you for saving my Bible. Again.” she said. “That was very clever talking on your part.”

“Not clever enough.” He made a face and reached for another pastie. “I was hoping that our place of confinement would offer a chance of escape. But at least we may save precious time by being mere steps from our boat when we are released, instead of locked up in some distant inland gaol.”

“You—” she began, only to cut off with a stifled giggle. “You have a dribble of juice on your chin, Lord Leete.”

“Do I?” He stuck out his tongue and with an exaggerated slurping sound licked it up. “It’s so good, it would be a pity to waste even a drop.”

Sophie laughed, feeling the spontaneous sound add an oddly pleasant tickle of heat to the warmth of the food inside her. Strange how the dangers and discomforts of the voyage hadn’t made the viscount snarly or sullen. On the contrary—he appeared to be enjoying himself.

“I confess, I am a little surprised that this adventure hasn’t put your aristocratic nose out of joint,” she murmured.

“Nearly every other body part is bruised and battered, but my nose seems quite undamaged,” he quipped. “I’m sorry that it seems to offend you. This is the second time you have made a rather caustic comment about it.”

“I . . .” Sophie looked away in embarrassment. “I have sometimes thought that you were looking down said appendage with disapproval.”

“I don’t disapprove of you, Miss Thirkell,” he said quietly.

“But you always seem to stare at me with such a peculiar expression,” blurted out Sophie. “And until now, you always act so . . . lordly.”

“It’s hard to act lordly when you are wet as a drowned rat,” he replied. “Having cannonballs whizzing overhead and a hostile magistrate threatening arrest also tends to knock one down a peg or two.”

“I’m sorry my plan subjected you to such abuse.”

“Oh, Good heavens, don’t be!” exclaimed Bentley. “Without your intrepid skills, I wouldn’t have a prayer of reaching London in time for the meeting.”

He thinks me intrepid? Sophie had been sure he considered her the most horrible hoyden in all of Christendom.

“Besides,” he went on. “I haven’t had so much fun since the time at Eton when my friend and I nearly blew up one of the building trying to make stinkbombs.”

“You have an awfully odd idea of fun, Lord Leete,”

“As do you, Miss Thirkell.”

A sigh slipped free. “True. I have very odd notions about a lot of things. Indeed, it often feels like I am a square peg trying to fit in a round hole.”

“Then perhaps you simply need to carve out your niche.”

“I . . .” Unsure of herself, Sophie found her voice trailing off.

“It isn’t easy, I know,” he continued. “We all doubt ourselves at times.”

“Surely not you,” she replied.

“Of course me.” Bentley smiled. “I’ve been quaking like jellied aspic on the inside more times than I care to count. But I have found that if you believe in yourself and your goals, then you can accomplish whatever you set your heart on.” A pause. “So don’t be nervous about the upcoming meeting with your relatives. Anyone who can outwit a French privateer and sail through dangerous shoals in a raging storm shouldn’t be intimidated by anything.

To cover her confusion, Sophie carefully cut two wedges from the apple tart on the table. “T-this looks delicious as well. Are you still hungry?” she asked, offering him a piece.

“Good Lord, yes.” He forked up a bite and took another swallow of brandy. “Talking works up quite an appetite—and thirst.”

“You have a very devious tongue,” observed Sophie, grateful for the change of subject. “I hadn’t realized that diplomats could lie through their teeth.”

“I did not lie,” he replied with a grin. “I merely embellished the truth.”

She arched a skeptical brow.

“Miss Thirkell, in the course of sailing, you employ whatever tactics it takes to keep your vessel safe, don’t you?” he went on. “I simply use mental maneuvers to do the same thing.”

“In other words,” she mused, “you are saying that we are more alike than might appear at first blush.”

“Well, er, yes.” Was it merely a quick of candlelight that had his eyes aglow with fire? “In a manner of speaking.”

Sophie decided it must be the brandy talking. There was an odd little note in his voice. A rumble, redolent of smoke and salt . . . and sinful urges.

A tingling sensation danced down her spine. She quickly took it off, and cleared her throat. Concentrate! She gave herself a mental scold. Think of the Bible and your duty, not Lord Leete’s beautiful blue eyes and sensuous smile.

“If you have finished with your meal, let us get to work,” she muttered.

Bentley popped the last morsel of tart into his mouth and dusted his hands. “Doing what?” he asked.

“Getting out of here.”

“Miss Thirkell, unless you have a barrel of gunpowder hidden in your seaboots, I am afraid you might console yourself to the fact that we are stuck here for the night.”

“No gunpowder,” she replied. “Just a knife.” Light winked off the thin-bladed length of steel. “Which is all we need to be on our way.”

“But that lock—”

“Oh, piff—my father had a number of similar models in his Boston warehouses, until I showed him how easy they were to pick. They may look intimidating . . .” The knifepoint jiggled into the iron keyhole. “ . . . but there are very few levers inside, and those are simple to manipulate.”

Click, click, click.

“Bring along the brandy and the bag of apples,” said Sophie as she eased the door open. “We may need to avoid putting into port for the next little while.”

“In that case, I had better take the cheese and bread too,” said Bentley. “A pity the barmaid didn’t bring more pasties. Perhaps we can check the larder as we leave.”

“Let’s think of our feet—and how fast we cam move them—rather than our stomachs, shall we?” she advised, turning to take up the naval lantern Hawthorne had left behind. Metal scraped against metal as she adjusted to the shutters to allow only a pinpoint beam of light

The viscount chuckled, as he buttoned up his worn wool coat. “You have already run me ragged—ha, hah, ha.”

Slanting a stern look his way, Sophie shushed him to silence. But in truth, his sense of humor was beginning to grow on her. That he could be both serious and silly was intriguing. What other hidden facets . . .

Sophie realized that she was staring and quickly looked away. Seeing no sign of life in the passageway, she signaled for him to follow . . .

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