It Happened Under the Mistletoe
Secret Brides Series, Book 3.5
When Oliver Townsende escapes to his friend’s house for a Christmas party, he intends to avoid the hordes of marriage-minded misses who have been dogging his steps in London ever since he inherited a dukedom. He soon learns a bit of Yuletide peace and quiet is too much to ask for. When he encounters Miss Cerian Blake, who’s dodging her own unwanted set of admirers, the two decide to join forces and fake an infatuation to keep their suitors at bay. But when a bough of mistletoe becomes involved, will their Christmastime prank turn into a love to last all seasons?
Read an Excerpt
Oxfordshire, December 1817
Hunted. That’s what he was. Hunted like a fox. And just like a fox, he’d been forced to . . . run.
Oliver Townsende skidded across the perfectly polished marble floor in the foyer of Lord Medford’s country house. He rounded the imposing column at the edge of the space and took off down the nearest corridor. Behind him, the slapping of slippers against the parquet floor indicated that his flight was not in vain. He was, indeed, still being chased.
He glanced to his right. By Jove, was that a cat hurrying alongside him? He resisted the urge to rub his eyes. He looked again. Yes. There was indeed a furry feline romping to his right. Medford owned a cat? And more importantly, who was the cat hoping to avoid? Surely not the same young lady?
Oliver smiled to himself as he continued his flight. Why exactly had he agreed to attend Medford’s Christmastide house party? Yes, he’d become friendly with Lord Perfect and his wife Kate in the last year since Kate had been acquitted of his cousin’s murder. Oliver had inherited the dukedom, but he knew better than anyone how hunted he was in Society. He was an eligible young duke, for heaven’s sake. Of course Medford’s house party would be filled with young, eligible ladies with their hearts set upon becoming a duchess. Hence, the running.
Oliver and the cat rounded the bend in the hall, the slap of Lady Selina Kinsey’s slippers still echoing somewhere behind them. She was gaining on him. He could hear it in the steady increase of the slaps. If he didn’t know any better, he’d think the earl’s daughter had picked up her skirts to run after him full tilt. This particular young woman had somehow caught him under a bough of mistletoe. She’d not so subtly demanded a kiss just before Oliver had unceremoniously ripped the offending plant from the doorframe upon which it hung. Mumbling something about how he was quite certain Lady Medford had been looking for this particular bough, he’d taken off as quickly as his legs would carry him. Only to realize soon after that Lady Selina was not one to give up easily.
There was nothing left for it. He must find a way to gracefully leave this party. Lady Selina was only one of several young women who refused to take no for an answer. And their mamas? Those formidable matrons were even worse.
Oliver nearly slid past the next corner before he noticed the cat had stopped running and was sitting next to a small door inlaid in the wall, licking its paw as if it hadn’t a care in the world. The glint of a brass door handle caught Oliver’s eye. He examined the door. The silver closet! An excellent place to escape. Lady Selina would never think a duke would hide inside a silver closet. Please don’t let it be locked.
He wrenched open the door with his unoccupied hand. Ah. Unlocked. Such luck. No doubt Medford’s servants were too perfect to even consider stealing from the butler. Oliver skated inside the closet. The cat promptly followed him, twitching its tail proudly. Oliver shut the portal behind him, leaned against the solid wood with his empty palm (the other still clutching the mistletoe bough), and willed his breathing back to rights.
It was dark in the closet and a bit stuffy. It smelled like silver polish and the tang of metal. Not a bit of dust, however. Of course Lord Perfect wouldn’t stand for a dusty silver closet.
“You’d best not meow and give me away, cat,” he warned in a whisper. The cat, wherever he was, remained silent.
Oliver waited, holding his breath. The slap of slippers drew near, paused for a bit in the corridor outside, and then continued their slap-slap-slap, completely passing him by.
He expelled his breath. Excellent. He’d done it. Evaded Lady Selina. For now.
But it was only wise to wait a few more moments. Lady S was not one to be underestimated. She might swing back around and surprise him. No. He’d linger in the silver closet until he was absolutely certain he was entirely out of danger.
A small feminine cough behind him made Oliver’s spine snap to attention. That was no cat. He spun on his heel. Was it possible that Lady Selina had somehow tricked him? Made her way into the silver closet through some other entrance? Or was this another potential future duchess? One who was perhaps a bit more clever than the Kinsey chit.
In the next moment, a candle burst to light not two paces away. It illuminated a lovely female face. Dark hair and bright green eyes that blinked at him. A lady too, from what he could see of her clothing. He hadn’t just stumbled upon the work of a maid assigned to the silver closet. He peered at her, studying her features. No. He hadn’t met this particular young lady since he’d arrived at the party this morning. He was certain of it. He would have remembered her.
But he didn’t have long to contemplate the matter.
“Let me guess,” the beauty said, one dark eyebrow arched in the shadows. “Lady Selina?”
Oliver eyed the unknown woman carefully and then slowly nodded. He wasn’t certain yet if she was friend or foe. For all he knew, this young woman was Lady Selina’s cohort, there to flush him out so Lady S could find her prey once again.
“How did you know?” he asked.
The lovely brunette placed the candle on the sideboard next to her and slid easily off the cabinet upon which she’d been perched. She straightened her light green skirts with both hands and gave him a saucy smile. “I could tell by the whiff of desperation in the air.”
Now that made Oliver laugh. When was the last time that had happened? Especially with a female anywhere near marriageable age. Young, beautiful women never made him laugh. They made him run.
“That pungent was it?” he asked, returning her infectious smile.
“I’m afraid so. I’m quite familiar with it unfortunately.” She had the barest hint of an accent he couldn’t quite place.
Oliver cocked a brow. What did that mean? “Familiar how?” He couldn’t help himself. He had to ask.
She laughed, and the sound ran over his skin like a brisk spring breeze. He felt it in his chest. Oliver shook his head. When had he ever been affected by a lady’s laugh?
“Why do you think I’m hiding in this silver closet?” She winked at him.
He furrowed his brow. First of all, she was adorable when she winked and secondly, now that she mentioned it, it did seem odd, her hiding in the silver closet too. He wasn’t about to be an arrogant boor and accuse her of waiting in here in hopes of running into him eventually. What was this pretty young lady doing in the silver closet?
“Why are you hiding?” he asked, curiosity riding him hard.
“For the same reason you are, I suspect,” she answered, stepping past him to press her ear to the door. Her movement afforded Oliver a whiff of her perfume. Just a hint of the sweet scent of lilacs. Normally, he found women’s perfume cloying, but this teased his senses.
He arched a brow. “You’re hiding from Lady Selina as well?”
She turned back to face him, a smile on her lips. “No, not Lady Selina.”
The cat, who had heretofore remained still, chose that particular moment to leap up to the cabinet and present his overly fluffy tail to Oliver.
“Is this your cat?” the young woman asked, rubbing the cat on its head.
“No. I’m not particularly fond of cats to be honest. I have no idea where this one came from. He must belong to Medford.”
The young lady picked up the cat and examined him. “Er, she must belong to Medford,” she corrected. “And it’s funny. Kate never mentioned a cat to me.”
“This cat and I found ourselves running together and when it came time to hide, I wasn’t about to shut her out.” He grinned at the young lady. “But you never answered my question. Whom were you hiding from?” Perhaps her mother was overly solicitous. God knew most mothers were.
She deposited the cat back upon the cabinet and rubbed its head again. The feline shamelessly purred. “Lord Esterbrooke,” the young lady replied simply, counting off on her fingers. “Lord Dashford. Lord Meriwether. Oh, and Sir Gilliam.”
Oliver blinked. Esterbrooke, Dashford, Meriwether, and Gilliam? All decent blokes, to the one, well, except for Gilliam; he was a bore. But they were all also exceedingly eligible and exceedingly titled. Did this young lady mean to imply that she was being courted by these men and meant to avoid them? Whatever for?
He narrowed his eyes on her. He didn’t recognize her, and he’d been introduced to every single eligible young woman in London. Was it possible this young lady had been hiding in Oxfordshire this entire time? He needed to come out to the country more often.
The beauty sighed and crossed her arms over her chest, offering, “You see, my cousin Lady Medford invited me to this party. She told my mama there would be eligible young men here. And she’s correct. The problem is that I am uninterested in them.”
Well, that was a first. He’d never met a young woman who was uninterested in securing a good match. In fact, he only met young women who were interested in securing a good match. Oliver blinked at her. “You don’t wish to marry, Miss . . .?”
“Blake, Cerian Blake.”
Cerian. What an intriguing name. He’d never heard anything like it.
“Not particularly, Mr. . . .?”
“Townsende, Oliver Townsende.” Oliver couldn’t help himself. He couldn’t bear to introduce himself to this young lady as the Duke of Markingham. She proclaimed to be uninterested in titles but what if she was bluffing? He couldn’t stand to see her eyes light up at the mention of the title. Everyone in town knew he was a newly minted duke and an eligible one to boot. Yes, she might recognize the name but he wasn’t about to piece it together for her.
“What about you, Mr. Townsende?” she asked, the hint of a smile playing around her soft pink lips. “Do you have an objection to all young ladies or is it just Lady Selina you seek to avoid?”
He smiled at that. She was funny, this Miss Blake.
“I’m a bit…popular at the moment,” he allowed. “Sounds as if you are, as well.”
The edge of her mouth quirked up. “If you’re so popular, why are you carrying around your own mistletoe bough? Doesn’t seem prudent for someone who proclaims to want to be left alone.”
Oliver looked at her twice. He nearly opened his mouth to respond when he realized she was teasing him. Good thing, that. He couldn’t very well tell her the tale of how he’d snatched the bough from the ceiling and ran. Too idiotic.
“It’s a long story.” He cleared his throat, suddenly wishing he could use the bough of mistletoe with her.
“The best stories always are,” she said with another beautiful sigh. She scooped up the cat and set her on the floor before pressing an ear against the door again. Oliver had to concentrate on not looking at the lady’s enticing backside poking toward him. He shifted uncomfortably on his feet and glanced away. The cat twined herself around his ankles, purring contentedly. That’s all he needed, this cat to trip him. Leave him in a prone position for Lady Selina to pounce.
“It sounds as though we’re safe,” the lady offered. “I think we may be able to leave now.”
An unexpected surge of disappointment rose in Oliver’s chest. “You think?”
“Yes. Yes, I’m certain of it.”
Oliver rocked back and forth on his heels, rolling the bough of mistletoe between his fingers. What exactly did one say to a gorgeous young woman to whom one had not been formally introduced yet with whom one had spent several minutes conversing while mutually hiding in a silver closet? Good day? Nice to have (sort of) met you? See you next time we’re hiding from people?
Miss Blake didn’t give him long to contemplate the matter. She whisked open the door, blowing out the candle as a result, and stuck her head into the corridor. She looked both ways. “All clear,” she announced before turning back to him momentarily. The cat made its way toward the open door as well.
“Excellent,” he said, not understanding the tug of disappointment in his middle at the prospect of the young lady leaving.
“Let’s agree to pretend we’ve not met before, Mr. Townsende.” She gave him a conspiratorial smile. “And then when Kate introduces us later, we shall play completely ignorant. That way, we won’t have to explain our penchant for milling about in the silver closet.”
Oliver pressed his lips together to keep from laughing. He liked Miss Blake’s style. He liked it a great deal. This young lady was game enough to hide in a closet and flaunt propriety. Quite game, was Miss Cerian Blake. Quite game, indeed.
“Agreed,” he replied with a bow. “In the meantime, I wish you the best of luck avoiding eligible gentlemen.”
“Oh, if only it were that simple.” She gave him one last look over her shoulder. “Kate has already informed me that she intends to introduce me to yet another potential suitor this evening.”
An unexpected bit of envy rankled in Oliver’s middle. “Who’s the unworthy chap?” he asked, wondering just how long the list of Miss Blake’s suitors would be.
She rolled her eyes. “The Duke of Markingham. Can you imagine? A duke? Sounds like a dreadful bore to me.”
And with that, she and the cat were gone.