The Mistletoe Countess First Chapter
November 25, 1913 – Willow, Virginia
Every fairytale needed an appropriate castle.
Gracelynn Ferguson gripped the Model T’s window frame and leaned forward, breath caught in a suppressed gasp. An unexpectedly warm November breeze brushed against her heated cheeks with a cool touch, inciting a thrill of anticipation. As if two black curtains rolled back on a stage, a pair of ornate iron gates stood on either side of the drive welcoming the car forward.
Grace angled further, waiting for the great unveiling and holding her hat in place against the wind.
One turn around a hedgerow of braided vines showcased this hidden gem of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The palace of the Shenandoah.
Framed in by blue-tipped mountains and rolling green hills, the Italian-style mansion stood as an edifice of white marble and colonnades, with two dazzling towers at each corner gleaming in the late morning sunlight. Yes, it was indeed very castle-like and the perfect place for her sister and the Earl of Astley to begin their lifelong romance.
“Good heavens, Grace, sit back before the servants see you hanging your head out the window like a dog.” Lillias’ reprimand sliced into Grace’s whimsical admiration, but Grace shrugged off her sister’s rebuke with a deep breath of…pine.
Ah, country life suited her sensibilities much more than their stuffy Richmond townhouse. And Whitlock? Her favorite place in all the world, with space to explore the labyrinth of familiar passageways or hide from stuff-shirted wedding guests, as the case may be.
“Really, Grace. The wind is loosening your hair from its pins.” Her sister’s voice pinched tight. “I’ll not have my future husband embarrassed at the sight of you showing up in such a state.”
“No one will notice me when you’re near.” Grace pushed her loose strands from her face and twisted her neck to appreciate how Whitlock’s snowy towers contrasted against the azure sky. The towers served as excellent hiding spots too.
“They’ll certainly notice if a ginger-headed wildling enters the house instead of the refined young lady you are supposed to be.” Lillias’ volume hovered on the edge of unladylike. “And Mr. and Mrs. Whitlock were so kind to offer their home for the house party. Would you wish to embarrass them too?”
Grace pulled her head inside so quickly she almost hit her cloche hat on the frame. The last thing she’d ever wish was to bring pain to Whitlock’s magnanimous master and mistress. Though she couldn’t quite understand how her unruly hairstyle would shame the Whitlocks. If anything tempted trouble it was her scandalous coif of red.
“Grace,” her father’s deep voice melted into the conversation, a soft familiar rumble. “It’s a mercy that you’re not the one marrying an English earl, or the poor man would have a job on his hands.”
Her grin perked at her father’s gentle teasing. “Which is why I’m particularly glad my sister bears the burden of marrying for circumstance, so that I can engage myself to some insignificant farmer and live in obscurity with my garden, books, and passel of rambunctious children.”
“Oh, good heavens,” Lillias pressed her fingers into her forehead and shrank back into the black leather seat. “You say the most ridiculous things.”
“Besides, I don’t plan to think of marriage until I’m forced to by circumstances, will, or heart.”
“Our Grace has too many adventures to be had with her Sherlock Holmes, I’d say?”
Grace sighed at her father’s mention of the detective and his thrilling escapades. “Indeed, father dear, I prefer my current, delightful predicament of wholly unattached, except to my fictional heroes, of course. It’s a perfect occupation for watching Lillias’ romantic story unfold without having to delve into it myself.”
“This is a business transaction, Grace. Don’t try to romanticize it.” Her sister groaned. “And please refrain from your book discussions when Lord Astley is present, won’t you? Half of the time I can’t tell which people are real and which are fictional.”
Lillias looked positively exhausted, and with thoughts of her impending marriage being a business transaction, no wonder. Grace marveled at her sister’s ability to keep her emotions so well-controlled—and with training from the hawk-nosed tutor father had hired to “prepare” Lillias for life in the British aristocracy, it made sense—but the past few weeks, her sister’s well-honed control had appeared a bit more frayed than usual. “I’ll only speak of all your many attributes to ensure Lord Astley falls in love with you before the week’s end so this business transaction will prove more about hearts than money and titles.”
“You read too many books, Grace.” Lillias sighed, her pale eyes suddenly older than they ought to be. “Love isn’t necessary. Money is.”
Grace’s entire soul revolted against the idea. “But I’m certain it’s helpful, particularly related to marriage.”
“How little you understand the world.”
“You could seek one and gain both.” Father added, his eyes velvety with memory of their mother—a woman of substantial means in her own right before their father, with his new money, wooed her into matrimony…and then love.
But marrying someone you didn’t find the least bit fascinating? Grace shrugged off the incomprehensible possibility. “Even though you only met Lord Astley’s mother on your last trip to London, doesn’t mean your groom isn’t going to give you his heart as soon as he sees you. Who wouldn’t? He’ll hardly be able to wait a week to make you his bride.”
“Don’t marry me off so quickly, sister-dear.” Lillias’ sharp look stilled Grace’s smile. “Be sure, I intend to make wise use of the full week I still have as Lillias Ferguson and despite his dowager mother’s many accolades of her son and initiation of this entire arrangement, we are still strangers.” She offered a weak laugh, a distraction, if Grace knew her sister at all. “Besides, I wouldn’t wish to leave my family too soon, you understand.”
A twinge of something indefinable pricked Grace’s mind and she gave her sister another lingering stare, studying the shifting of her gaze, the dip in her brow. Grace turned back to the house. If Lillias did express more “high emotions”, as her father called them, who could blame her? Marrying a complete stranger for a title? Any thoughtful woman should flinch at the very idea!
But something else pearled beneath the surface of her sister’s moodiness. Or else, Grace’s imagination took another indulgent turn. Of course, Lillias had always wanted a grand and glorious life, so perhaps it would be worth the cost for her. She’d never been the sort to jettison an audience of admirers. Grace almost cringed. An audience of admirers? How positively dreadful!
“I’m certain you’ll find Lord Astley quite agreeable, Lillias.” Father tapped the cane he held between his knees. “Distinguished man. Most distinguished. A proper gentleman with an excellent understanding of landscapes.”
Grace caught her chuckle in her gloved hand. Landscapes. The very pinnacle of romance. Her smile paused. Romance and marriage proved such daunting prospects in reality, but hidden within the pages of her beloved books, their appeal sparkled with magic and mystery. She sighed up at the familiar mansion, her attention drifting to the floor-to-ceiling windows of the library on the far left of the house.
Books were so much safer.
Their car rolled to a stop in front of a colonnade portico, where a few servants waited to greet them in their usual style. Ivy strung across the front and red bows dotted at perfect intervals to create a lovely contrast against the bleached stone. Christmas at Whitlock! A house built by a besotted husband in honor of his beloved wife. Truly, how could Lillias and Lord Astley not fall in love at such a romantic house during such a romantic time of year?
With the customary welcome and care of Mrs. Evangeline Whitlock herself, Grace and Lillias were shown to their rooms. And as usual, the estate mistress placed Grace in the bedroom closest to the back library stairway—easy access to thousands of books and wonderfully far from the rest of the house. Grace had barely removed her cape before her feet turned in the direction of her heart.
“Don’t even think about it, Grace.” Lillias snatched Grace by the arm. “I saw your face when Mrs. Whitlock mentioned the most recent additions to the library. We meet Lord Astley in less than three hours and I’ll not have you missing it all because of some book.”
But what a book! The Return of Tarzan. Grace’s face warmed to the memory. Tarzan…“If you’d read the book you’d understand.”
Lillias’s eyes wilted closed. “No, I would not, because I recognize books for what they are. Pretty words, paper, and binding.”
Lillias really shouldn’t refer to books in such a dismissive way and Grace would have said so if she’d thought it would have made a difference. Grace tossed a lingering look to the secret stairway and released a sigh. Social engagements interfered with the most delightful bookish discoveries.
“I need you with me.”
The sudden quiver in the timbre of her sister’s voice pulled Grace’s attention away from the coveted library doorway and into her sister’s pale gaze. Something uncommonly vulnerable flashed in those eyes, tugging Grace a step closer. “You don’t have to go through with this, Lillias. Are you so desperate for a title?”
Lillias opened her mouth as if to speak and then snapped her lips closed, her expression stilling to placid. “I’ve become accustomed to a certain lifestyle and expectation. This marriage provides both and will only succeed in bringing our family into the best circles.”
“Can’t you wait? Spend a few more weeks getting to know your future husband?”
“No.” Lillias’ attention shifted away, and she dropped her hold on Grace’s arm. “There’s no need to wait.”
An undercurrent of something uncertain rippled through Grace. She touched Lillias’ cheek until her sister met her gaze. “He will fall in love with you, Lillias. I am sure of it. What man could do less?”
“I’m not concerned about his heart.” Lillias pulled away and walked toward the door, her whisper so soft Grace wasn’t certain she heard clearly. “Not his.”
The rifling of book pages hushed through the silent library pulling Grace from the delights of Jane Eyre. She hadn’t been able to locate The Return of Tarzan, so she’d settled for a beloved favorite, determined to get in a few pages before the social tornado began. Had someone else eluded the cacophony of arriving guests too? Not that there was a scheduled event, yet. Everyone planned to gather for the party and then dinner, but still, the expectation of mingling hovered in the air like Great Aunt Eloise’s potent perfume. Grace shuddered and pulled the book into her chest, peering over the balcony to the library’s lower level in search of another stealthy rebel. Not one burgundy seat stood occupied. A sound creaked from behind her in the direction of the guest bedrooms through the secret stairs.
Grace bit her bottom lip and froze—waiting—until the sound dissipated.
Oh, if Lillias found out she was in the library instead of taking a bath, she’d never hear the end of it. But who wouldn’t delay bubbles for a conversation from the dastardly Mr. Rochester?
With quiet steps, she tucked her book beneath her arm and hurried down the winding staircase toward the secluded window seat of the Mahogany Room, when she ran directly into the chest of someone ascending. A strong someone, whose arms wrapped around her to keep her from tipping over the stair railing in an indecorous heap of blue velvet and Irish lace. The faintest hints of leather and amber teased her senses deeper into the sturdy embrace to ensure proper identification of the aromas. Yes, decidedly amber. She smiled her appreciation. Such a delightful scent.
Grace looked up from her cocooned place within the man’s arms and met a pair of eyes so dark they reminded her of chocolate. The bronze hues of his skin gave off a toffee glow. Oh heavens! A man who reminded her of chocolate covered English toffee. Wouldn’t Lillias adore him! She loved toffee!
He tilted his head, examining her with a most intense stare. “I am.”
“I’m so sorry. Not that you’re English, of course. But that I nearly derailed you off the stairs.” She shifted back a little to get a better look at him. “You see, I was reading up on the balcony and thought I heard someone.” She gestured toward him. “And you must be that someone. How delightful to meet you.”
A quizzical look crossed his features. “And you are?”
“Oh, of course. Introductions.” Grace righted herself—as much as the tiny stairs allowed—and offered her hand. “Miss Ferguson.”
“You’re Miss Ferguson?” His dark brows rose almost to his hairline and Grace realized her mistake with a laugh.
“No, I’m not your Miss Ferguson. I’m her younger sister, Grace.”
His expression softened a little and he backed down the stairs, taking her hand until her feet settled firmly on the floor. “It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Miss Grace Ferguson.”
“And you, Lord Astley.” She curtsied, her mind buzzing with a million questions for this future brother-in-law of hers, but first things first. “How do you like Whitlock’s library?”
His lips made as if to smile but stopped before giving the room a steady look of appreciation. He stood at least four inches taller than Grace, wearing his gray sack coat and matching trousers with a sense of refinement her father failed to accomplish. “It’s an excellent library.”
Grace decided she liked him quite well.
“Almost as large as mine at Havensbrooke.”
“Almost as large?” Her bottom lip came unhinged and every envious bone in her body stiffened.
His attention dropped to the book in her hand, one dark brow darting skyward. “I suppose you are an avid reader?”
“Oh, I devour books.” She tugged the novel against her chest. “It’s a disastrous habit for being productive, I’m afraid.”
Humor lit the darkness of his eyes and made him a little less imposing. “And is that the extent of your vices, Miss Grace?”
“I’m afraid, Lord Astley, my vices are too many to name, only one of which is a proclivity for disappearing from large crowds at the first availability. However, my sister has very few vices and only ones I feel certain you will find endearing.”
“The dutiful, indulgent younger sister, I see.”
He did have fascinating eyes. Dark and alive. Lillias was sure to like them. “Indulgent, yes, but I fail quite miserably at dutiful. You see, if I was truly dutiful, I wouldn’t be hiding in the library.” She lowered her voice to a whisper and gestured toward her book. “Trying to uncover the mystery in Mr. Rochester’s attic.”
His brows rose.
“But instead I’d be upstairs helping my extravagantly beautiful sister prepare to meet you.”
One corner of his lips twitched. “Extravagantly beautiful?”
“Oh yes! We look nothing alike. She has an Athena profile and the most exquisite golden curls.” She sobered, holding his gaze to add solemn reassurance. “Nothing as red and terrifying as mine.”
“Terrifying?” His dark gaze examined her hair with such concentration, her head started to tingle. “Red is unique.”
She twisted a loose lock through her fingers, peering down at it with a sigh of resignation. “Well, unique is a much better word than what some of my governesses called it. The sixth one said I was nothing more than a—”
“Sixth?” The word burst out on something remarkably close to a laugh. “Sixth governess?”
Wasn’t an earl supposed to be aloof and somewhat disgruntled? Perhaps fiction didn’t always get it right. “I’d blame my imagination, but that would imply I don’t take responsibility for my actions. Unfortunately, governesses— or at least the ones I’ve known—are terribly short on imagination and could never understand how I’d find myself inside attic chests or up trees or swimming in the—”
“Gracelynn Amelia Ferguson!” A harsh whisper burst from the corridor through the secret stairway. “If you’re in the library instead of the bath, you’d better have an excellent excuse.”
Grace gasped and met Lord Astley’s wide eyes.
“You told her you were taking a bath?” The brooding earl blinked a few times in quick succession as both sides of his lips tipped in unison. A bit crookedly, but it suited him.
Grace offered a helpless shrug and backed toward the winding staircase, holding up her book as leverage. “I got distracted on the way, you see. Honest mistake.” She made it halfway up the stairs before she turned. “If you enjoy Charles Dickens, Mr. Whitlock has a full collection on that shelf.” She reached the top and grinned back down at him with a shrug.
Grace jumped at the increased edge in her sister’s voice and slipped a few more steps toward the secret corridor. “Oh, and there is a fabulous selection of architectural and landscape books on the other side of the fireplace.”
He stood below her, by the mantle, hands on his hips, everything about him boasting refinement and excellent grooming. His smile was probably devastating. She’d read about a devastating smile once in a three-volume novel and thought it a wonderful description for a roguish sort of man in a smart gray suit with chocolate truffle-tinted eyes.
Oh, wouldn’t he and Lillias make a fabulous couple! Her imagination indulged for a moment as her feet faltered in her retreat.
“Grace Ferguson,” Lord Astley’s deep voice pulled her attention.
She peered over the balcony railing, pushing back a rebel strand of hair. “Yes, my lord.”
“It was a pleasure to meet you.”
“Oh yes, my pleasure as well.” She grinned and started to disappear toward the secret stair, but then turned back to him. “Please don’t tell Lillias I met you first. It’s not every day a woman meets her future husband.”