The Ghosts of Christmas By Gail Z. Martin
I love Christmas stories, and I love ghosts. So of course, when I get the chance to write a romantic Christmas story in an English castle, there have to be restless spirits! Christmas stories, of course, are feel-good fluff (bring on the fluff!). They’re a great way to escape from the early nightfall, holiday stress, end-of-the-year rush. Plus, there are usually scrumptious meals, crazy families, and holiday surprises. Throw in some romance, and they’re the perfect read for a cold winter night. In Crewel Fate, my story in Christmas at Caynham Castle, Teag Logan and Anthony Benton from my Deadly Curiosities series go to England for a vacation over Christmas to celebrate their recent engagement. Teag’s magical abilities pick up traces of a haunting, which leads to uncovering ghosts, secrets, and a long-hidden scandal, as well as a forgotten spirit’s release. Mystery, romance, ghosts, a castle, and sexy times—what’s not to love? Needless to say, I’m a fan of every version of A Christmas Carol, and it’s a favorite I watch every year. I not only love its redemption arc, but for as merry as Christmas is, it also falls at a dark time of year, at the end of the year, when our thoughts stray to things left undone and people who are no longer with us, so there can be shadows amid the glitter. I’ve also got to watch A Charlie Brown Christmas, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and a bunch of other animated or Rankin-Bass holiday specials from my childhood. So crank up the carols, put the favorite holiday movie in the DVD player, turn on the twinkle lights, and get your fa-la-la on with a romance that’s bound to warm your cockles!
Christmas at Caynham Castle
Genre: Christmas Romance
Publisher: Rickety Bookshelf Press
Date of Publication: November 20, 2019
Cover Artist: Lyndsey Lewellen
A seasonal ball, a charming town on the Welsh border, and an ancient castle with adventure, mystery, ghosts and romance in every corner.
Celebrate the Christmas season with seven authors, each telling the story of the holiday at Caynham Castle in her own spectacular style.
The Ghost of Christmas Past
Genre: Paranormal Romantic Suspense
Dr. Denby “Bee” Alden, is a bee expert from Haven Harbor, Massachusetts. She’s at Caynham Castle to research ancient beekeeping techniques…and to escape. The ex-boyfriend who dumped her is getting married and staying for the wedding would be salt in the wound. While at Caynham, she finds an earl, a dastardly thief, and a ghost. Can the castle ghost help Bee and the earl find something to celebrate this holiday season?
Excerpt from The Ghost of Christmas Past:
(This scene takes place after Bee and the Earl, Ward Mortimer, have spent a little time together and been very attracted to one another…)
“Here now, young lady, that’s enough for today,” Mrs. Marshbanks slded. The archivist bustled over. “Ruin your eyes, you will. Not a lamp made that makes up for long winter evenings here in Shropshire. Not to mention all that cramped script. Tomorrow will be soon enough for the next journal.”
Reluctantly, Bee marked her place with the provided ribbon and closed the ancient diary. “It’s so fascinating, Mrs. Marshbanks. On one hand, so much has changed,” she mused, stripping off the cotton gloves she’d used to handle the antique books. “On the other hand, especially when it comes to bees, so little has changed.” Shaking her head, she rose. “Wow. I’m stiff from sitting so long.”
“And no wonder!” The older woman exclaimed. “You’ve been at it all day.”
“I don’t have the luxury of time,” Bee told her. “I’ve only three weeks left.”
“You’re making good use of your time,” the older woman approved. “But you won’t do your work any service if you’re exhausted. Now, I’ll see you here in the morning, bright and early.”
“I should have checked on what time Mr. Mortimer wanted to show me the silver.” She frowned, glanced at her phone. “Should I call him, or just come here first?”
Before Mrs. Marshbanks could comment, Bee’s phone rang.
“Bee Alden,” she answered.
“Dr. Alden, It’s Ward Mortimer. How was your day in the archives?
“Amazing. Mrs. Marshbanks and I were closing up shop.”
There was a surprised pause. “You’ve been at it since I left you this morning?”
Bee nearly rolled her eyes. Did no one realize how challenging it was to get time off? It wasn’t like she got to jaunt off to England on a whim, right?
“Yes, well, as I told Mrs. Marshbanks, I only have a limited time and you’ve been most gracious so I want to utilize every moment.”
“Of course, of course,” he backtracked. “Well since you’re still in the main building, may I buy you dinner? I’d love to show you some of our hospitality.”
A hum of awareness zipped through her. A date. With the earl.
That thought stopped her in her tracks. Her friend Lydia, who ran a popular shop in Haven Harbor, had done a Tarot spread for her before she left. It had indicated she’d meet a powerful man.
She guessed an earl ranked as powerful.
“Sorry, yes. I’d love that. Thanks.”
“Perfect. Shall I meet you in the dining room?”
“Absolutely. When?” She glanced at her watch. It was nearly seven.
Relief coursed through her. She would have time to run up to her room and freshen up a bit.
“Great. See you there.” She turned the phone off and gathered her things and she and Mrs. Marshbanks walked out together.
“I’ll see you in the morning, Mrs. Marshbanks. Thank you again, for today.”
The older woman nodded, smiling. “A pleasure. Truly. Have a good evening.”
Bee hurried across the Great Hall to the solarium side, and down the long, relatively narrow corridor that led to the Lady Alice Neville Tower. She’d already plopped her computer and purse on her bed when she realized how cold the room was.
“Crap, did I turn it to AC or something?” Bee muttered, turning to the thermostat.
That’s when she saw the ghost.
Her distinct outline and her period dress were clear and delineated in every detail. Other than being completely white, Lady Lenore could have been someone doing period reenactment. Then again, she’d brought a winter’s worth of ghostly cold air with her. There was no mistaking it.
“So what are your intentions toward my many-times-great grandnephew, eh?” The ghostly figure demanded with a knowing smile. “Do you wish to court him? Or just bed him?”
Bee shut her gaping mouth with a snap of temper. “None of your business.” She crossed her arms. “Why are you talking to me? Ghosts don’t talk to me, they talk to my cousin, Dan, and even then, only if we’re related.”
“Perhaps we are related, then,” the ghost replied, trailing her translucent fingers over the bedcovers and moving around the room. “Many of the Nevilles, and a goodly number of Mortimers went to America.” The ghost turned, facing her. “You’re not afraid of me.”
“Why would I be?” Bee stated, keeping her voice even, though her knees wanted to knock and her voice wanted to quiver. “You’re long dead, Lady Lenore.”
“I frighten most,” she said, and Bee detected the faintest trace of melancholy in the ghost’s manner, though she smiled. “Most don’t even see me.”
Bee wasn’t sure where this was going. “I see you.”
The ghost cocked her head. “And I see you, Denby Alden.” The ghost sat––hovered––in the chair by the window. “Will you share your body with my grandnephew?”
Blushing, Bee turned to the wardrobe. She needed to get changed so she could meet Ward––the ghosts many-times-great grand-nephew. “Why do you care?”
There was a silvery laugh from the ghost. “I want my line to continue, of course. To have another witch come to the castle, and one who knows the bees, would suit me well. It would suit the bees.”
“It doesn’t work that way these days, Lady Lenore.”
This time the ghost looked amused. “Of course it does. You think you decide your matches and your matings, but mostly, you all still follow the heat between your legs.”
“Lady Lenore!” Bee exclaimed, blushing furiously now. “What a thing to say!”
Now the ghost really cackled. “Is it not true? I saw this morning how he looked at you. There is desire there. You should press your advantage.”
Bee snatched her clothes and stomped to the bathroom. How weird was it that she didn’t want to change in front of a ghost? She moved quickly lest Lady Lenore pop into the bathroom to continue their chat.
“For heavens sake, I barely know him,” she protested, returning to the room. “And even if I do have the hots for him, that doesn’t mean I’m going to act on it––”
The protest fell into the quiet of the empty room. The ghost was gone.
About Jeanne Adams:
Jeanne Adams writes award-winning romantic suspense, paranormals, mysteries, and urban fantasies, as well as space adventures with her pal, Nancy Northcott
Since all Jeanne’s books have blood on the pavement and a high body count, it’s a good thing she knows how to get rid of the evidence. Then again, after spending 13 years in the funeral and cemetery business, she’d better! (She uses that knowledge to teach her highly acclaimed class on Body Disposal for Writers.)
Jeanne lives in DC with her husband, two teenage sons, and three dogs – two Labs and an Irish Water Spaniel. She loves football, baseball, dog shows, Halloween and the weird. Don’t tell, but she’s also prone to adopting more dogs when her husband isn’t looking.
Featured in Cosmopolitan Magazine, and other publications, her books have been consistently hailed as “One of the best Suspense Books of the Year!” by Romantic Times.
A Cross Springs Novella
Genre: contemporary romance
A young woman from Cross Springs, NC, who was orphaned young and has not found a place to call “home” until she lands in Caynham-on-Ledwyche and meets a local man who is reconnecting with his hometown.
Excerpt from Christmas Crossroads:
When Connie Burns talked, everyone in Cross Springs, North Carolina, listened. Especially the employees at her new event-planning company. Most especially those hired away from key competitors, like Chrissie Mayhew.
Chrissie, incredibly grateful to be working for Connie’s new firm, wanted desperately to impress her stylish, slightly intimidating boss. She hated to gape, as she knew she was doing, but she wasn’t at all sure she’d heard Connie right. “Wait, you want me to handle a Christmas wedding alone? As in, by myself?”
“Yes,” Connie said, eyebrows raised in a manner that spoke volumes about how she felt about Chrissie’s question. “I’m sure you’ll give it your very best. It’s the wedding of the daugh-ter of my friend Prudence.”
“Prudence Lytton?” Chrissie asked, hating how her voice rose to a veritable squeak.
“Yes,” Connie said, giving her a look Chrissie could only define as disgusted. “Prudence Lytton. The rich British lady who lives in that Tudor monstrosity in Surrey Hills. And yes, it’s a monstrosity. I know because I sold it to her.”
Connie had been a go-to real estate agent for years before she decided to start an event-planning business. Though Top Tier Events was only two years old, Connie’s business and social connections and impeccable taste had shot it to the apex of everyone’s must-have list.
“So, a Christmas wedding.” Chrissie’s brain raced with ideas. Christmas was her favorite time of year, so she had a million ideas for how to knock this wedding out of the park. “Does the bride have any specific ideas?”
Connie snorted a laugh. “Does she ever. For one thing, she insists on having it in Pru-dence’s home town of Caynham-on-Ledwyche.”
“Caynham-on-Ledwyche? Where is that, like Massachusetts or somewhere?” Chrissie had visited New England once, but that name did not ring a bell.
“It’s in England, Chrissie. Caynham-on-Ledwyche, England. It’s in Shropshire, which is northwest of London, close to the border with Wales. Takes about 2-1/2 hours to get there from the airport.”
Chrissie’s panic, which she’d tried to beat down, rattled its cage and almost broke out. She didn’t even know which airport Connie meant. “I’ve never been to England. I don’t know anything about it, don’t know anyone there, and I have no idea how to even start planning a wedding overseas. Do they even have a venue booked?”
Connie obviously saw the panic writ large on her face. “Don’t worry, Chris. Prudence booked the venue six months ago. It’s this awesome medieval castle, Caynham Castle, and the wedding will be in the chapel. It’s not a church, just a chapel, so they’ve arranged for someone to perform the ceremony who isn’t a pastor, just a layperson or whatever. I have the name for the events coordinator at the Castle, a caterer, a florist, the whole nine yards. All you have to do is contact the bride, get her particulars, then work with the vendors to get things set up. Easy peasy!”
“Connie, I hate to ask, but is this some sort of trial-by-fire thing? A test to see if I break under the pressure or pull off a miracle or something? ‘Cause it kind of feels that way.”
Connie smiled. Not an evil smile, which Chrissie had definitely seen on her, but a genuine smile. “Chris, the reason I hired you away from Events Bar None”—Connie rolled her eyes—“was that you have vision. I know that you’ll represent Top Tier in the manner I expect. This wedding will have grace, panache and a unique, personal touch. A Top Tier touch. A Chrissie Mayhew touch.”
Chrissie tried not to tear up at the compliment, but it was a struggle. Connie Burns be-lieved in her like no one else had since her mom died. It meant everything. “I won’t let you down, Connie. I’ll make sure Prudence and her daughter…”
Of course. “Lucinda. I’ll make sure they are both delighted with all the arrangements. I’ll ensure this wedding enhances our reputation.”
Connie picked up a folder stuffed full of papers and handed it to Chrissie. “I know you will,” she said. “That’s why I assigned you. Now, go make sure your passport is current and start making calls.”
About the Author:
Caren Crane was born and raised in Nashville, Tennessee, the home of country music. She doesn’t love country music, but she does love books. Nashville had plenty of those in the Inglewood branch of the Nashville Public Library. Thanks to the librarians, she discovered classical literature (they approved) and Barbara Cartland (they did not). Thanks to her mother, she discovered Harlequin Romances. When the writing bug bit, she was doing cubicle time in the world of electrical engineering. She greatly prefers writing.
Caren lives in North Carolina with her wonderful husband and a semi-feral rescue cat. She has three intelligent, gorgeous grown children and has neatly side-stepped her mother’s threat that she would have children Just Like Her.
Morgan Lafayette is a Light Witch with a Shadow problem. Injured while trying to rescue a young psychic, Morgan is in a race against time and the blight growing inside her. Her family sends her to Caynham-on-Ledwyche to meet with Meg Davies, a powerful healer. She doesn't expect to meet Meg's son and fellow astral traveler Arthur Davies or have him become her literal knight in shining armor. With the blight growing and threatening her nascent relationship, will Morgan put her trust in Shadowchaser Kira Solomon, knowing the Chaser will literally hold her life in her hands?
Excerpt from Still:
Morgan plastered on a smile as the chime sounded, announcing a customer entering Lafayette’s Teas and Reads. Summoning smiles grew more difficult by the day. Six weeks ago, she didn’t have a problem. Six weeks ago, she didn’t need the tea leaves swirling at the bottom of a cup to give a customer a reading. Six weeks ago, she’d been whole and nightmare-free and not breaking a hematite ring every three days from stress and negativity.
The door chimed again, so she smiled again. That smile froze as her mother, father, and grandmother entered the shop. For them to come to River Street, much less downtown Savannah, meant something was wrong. Given the way they looked at her, that something was definitely her.
A heavy breath slumped her shoulders. She led them to the back office, ignoring her cousin Jackie’s worried expression. Maybe it was guilt. Maybe Morgan was the only one in the Lafayette family who didn’t know a confrontation was coming, given that her extrasense was about as reliable as a broken clock. “This intervention couldn’t wait until I got off work?”
Her grandmother reached out to cup her hand, skin the color of pecan pralines stretched tight over the gnarled bones. She rested her thumb against Morgan’s wildly pounding pulse. “How are you?”
The automatic answer leapt to her tongue, forcing her to press her lips together to hold it back. She wasn’t fine. Lying to her grandmother would be futile—that thumb over her pulse was the best lie detector in Savannah, if not the state. Probably the country.
“I’m managing,” she equivocated.
“Are you?” her mother asked, studying her closely. “It hasn’t been that long since—”
“I know, Mama,” she cut in, not wanting to hear the words. They echoed in her brain anyway. Since that poor girl died.
“I know exactly how long it’s been,” she said. “I’ve had sessions with Bethany and with Dad. I’ve tried meditation and blocking crystals. Healing isn’t happening as swiftly as it should.”
Her father covered her hand with his. “That’s why we think you need to take some time away from Savannah.”
“You want me to miss a Lafayette Christmas?’ she asked, aware of her voice climbing. “Not even the mayor misses a Lafayette Christmas!”
Ma Belle gave her a look, one that had made her sit straight and mind her manners since she was a toddler. “You act as if this is a suggestion.”
“There’s nothing I can say to change your minds?”
“Do you remember what happened to Cousin Lainie?”
Morgan’s hope plummeted along with her stomach. She’d been a preteen, but Cousin Lainie’s descent into Shadow-madness had left an indelible scar on the family. When the family could no longer contain Lainie, Ma Belle had made the decision to contact the Gilead Commission, the governing body for all things Light. Instead of sending agents, a Shadowchaser had arrived in Savannah. The family still didn’t know what happened to Cousin Lainie. “I remember.”
“Gilead knows what happened with you,” her grandmother said. “They’ve been in contact.”
Morgan’s breath caught. It wasn’t a surprise that the Gilead Commission, the governing body for all things Light, knew about her encounter. The fact that they had contacted the Lafayette matriarch didn’t bode well.
“Did they call you to apologize for not sending agents to handle that monster?” she asked, barely keeping her anger in check. “If they’d done their jobs, I wouldn’t have been trapped and nearly killed by that son of a bitch and you wouldn’t be trying to get rid of me like rancid garbage!”
“I’m sorry.” It took effort to spit the words out. “Dealing with the fallout hasn’t been easy for me.”
“We know, sweetheart,” her father said, squeezing her hand. “You need time to heal, which means you need time away from town. Someplace else than can offer you the stillness you need.”
“I suppose y’all have a place in mind?”
Ma Belle reached into her purse, extracted a brochure. “Here.”
A tinge of energy singed Morgan’s fingertips as she accepted the brochure from her grandmother. Elegant script at the top proclaimed: Experience the Magic of Caynham Castle. A grayish-tan stone castle rose against a gray-blue sky, not quite like the grandiose structures of fairytales. No, this one was not for show unless it was a show of strength, hunkering down and weathering anything thrown at it. “You want me to vacation in a castle. In a place called Caynham-on-Led…Ledwyche. I don’t even know how to pronounce that or where it is.”
“It’s in Shropshire, England,” her father helpfully clarified.
“How is being sent away from my business and my family during Christmas supposed to help?” she asked, choked. “You sure you’re not getting rid of me because I’m irreparably broken and susceptible to falling into Shadow?”
“No, baby, no.” Her mother pulled her against her chest. “There’s a Light Witch who lives near the castle. Her name is Margaret Davies. She has an antiques shop there called Curiouser & Curiouser.”
She straightened with a choked snort. “A Light Witch with an Alice in Wonderland fixation.”
“Meg Davies is also a healer,” her grandmother said, frowning at her sarcasm. “She happens to specialize in healing psychic wounds, particularly those caused by Shadow.”
Morgan froze. Something unfurled in her chest, too tiny and frail to be called hope. “Do you really think there’s a chance she can heal me?”
Ma Belle’s expression softened. “We wouldn’t send you there if we didn’t.”
“Okay.” That tiny thing in her chest fluttered again, gaining strength. “Okay. Let’s do this.”
About the Author:
Seressia Glass is an award-winning author of more than 25 works in contemporary, historical, and paranormal romance and urban fantasy. In additional to her writing career, she is an instructional designer for a Fortune 500 company. She lives south of Atlanta with her husband, son, and two attack poodles.
Her Heart in His Pocket
Genre: Historical Romance
A surprise reunion of a pickpocket turned lady’s maid and a mysterious unexpected footman occurs just in time for the Christmas Frost Ball at Caynham Castle. The past of each could jeopardize the future of the other, and the future of Caynham Castle itself.
Excerpt from Her Heart in His Pocket:
The excerpt is in the hero’s point of view. Ben received a mysterious invitation to attend a ball at Caynham Castle, along with a drawing of monstrous figure. While he realized the rumpled invitation was not originally meant for him, he comes to the castle to investigate who sent it and why. Upon arrival, he’s mistaken for a footman named Kitzmiller who was loaned to Caynham Castle, but who apparently did not show up – so Ben rolled with it. He is surprised to discover a childhood friend, Elizabeth, who is also at the castle. Elizabeth is a lady’s maid for a guest and who is hiding her past occupation as an accomplished pickpocket in London. Mr. Hastings is the household butler. Clarice is a household servant that keeps the history of the castle. She spends her days polishing silver in the kitchen.
Bish is another footman.
Elizabeth hadn’t had an easy time of it growing up in the London slums. None of them did. But he admired that she abandoned her pickpocket skills and developed new ones—legal skills, this time. Her grown-up name signaled that she had left her difficult childhood behind. One look at her curves and there would be no mistaking that she was full-grown.
At lunch, however, she looked different. She was nervous, jittery. Had she reconsidered his presence as a threat? He thought he had made it clear that he would guard her secrets.
“Kitzmiller,” Bish called. “Come and sit down here.” He patted the spot of the table next to him. “Entertain us with stories of Elizabeth in her early years.”
He didn’t need to look at Elizabeth’s stricken face. He could feel her panic.
“I think you’d be disappointed and certainly not entertained. I knew Elizabeth’s older brother back then. She was just a young schoolgirl who wasn’t interested in the manly arts of grooming horses and fishing.”
He winked at Elizabeth, then ate his meal, engaging in some of the conversations around the table. Once he’d finished, he turned toward Bish. “Tell me about the things that aren’t repeated to the guests at Caynham Castle. Is this castle haunted? All there ghosties about?” He wiggled his fingers eliciting laughter. “Any romantic stories or spots I should know of?”
“Or avoid,” Hastings added in his solemn commanding voice.
“Yes.” Ben laughed. “Or avoid. I wasn’t sent here to pursue romance.”
“There’s the gargoyle.” Clarice spoke from the far end of the table. The room immediately silenced. Bish had told him that Clarice had been on the service staff for more years than anyone else. She rarely spoke. She certainly looked as old as the ruins outside.
“If you kiss another where the gargoyle can see,” Clarice’s high voice recited in rhythmic rhyme, “Your true love you’ve found and will forever be.”
The room remained silent until Bish asked, “there’s a gargoyle at Caynham? A real gargoyle?”
Instantly questions unleased around the room.
“There are grotesque figures carved over the doors, is that what you mean?”
“I think every castle has gargoyles, but they’re up on the roof and channel the rain.”
“I’ve never heard of such a thing and I’ve been here for five years.”
“Where is this gargoyle?”
“Mr. Hastings, do you know?”
Hastings stood up. “Ladies and gentlemen, I believe this romantically inclined gargoyle lives with the fairies and goblins. It’s just a fanciful tale--”
“Lady Rosalyn believed it,” Clarice interrupted. “It worked for her.”
“A military man took advantage of Lady Rosalyn and left her with child,” Hastings growled. “I cannot sanction that as the true love she sought.” He glared at poor Clarice a moment before dragging his hand over his face. “I believe it’s time to dismiss this gathering. Our guests require our attention.”
Amid the scraping of the chairs, Ben leaned close to Elizabeth.
“Meet me tonight. I’ll be waiting in the chapel.”
About Donna MacMeans:
Award winning author Donna MacMeans writes about the humor in relationships in her seductively witty romance page-turners. Her books have won the Romance Writers of America © Golden Heart, Romantic Times’s Reviewer Choice Award for Historical Love & Laughter, among other rewards. Best known for her historical romances set in the late 1800s, she also writes time-travel and paranormal romance. She has been published in multiple countries around the world.
A licensed CPA, MacMeans never believed she’d be published. Then her first historical went up for auction with three NY firms bidding on it. The dream never stopped. While she maintains a small tax practice in Westerville, Ohio, she still finds time to work with unpublished authors, teach workshops, and help others reach their dream.
You can contact MacMeans through her website at www.DonnaMacMeans.com. While there you can register for her monthly newsletter that includes giveaways and advance announcements of her works.
A Deadly Curiosities Story
Gail Z. Martin
Genre: urban fantasy/MM romance
When Teag Logan and his fiancé Anthony Benton travel to England to celebrate their engagement, Teag’s magic and supernatural experience hone in on restless ghosts, an old scandal and century-old secrets that could turn deadly. Can Teag and Anthony solve the mystery and settle the ghosts before the Ball, or will more people join the ranks of the castle ghosts?
Crewel Fate is part of my Deadly Curiosities urban fantasy series, and falls immediately after the newest novel, Inheritance.
Excerpt from Crewel Fate:
When they finally reached the Great Hall, Teag welcomed the warmth. Everything was done up for Christmas, with evergreen boughs, red ribbons, fairy lights, and gold bells. A huge fir tree nearly reached the ceiling, and Teag could only imagine how much more decorating would happen before the night of the ball.
“It said on the website that the mother of the current Earl took that hand-blown glass tree topper down into the air raid shelters during World War II,” Teag added. “She said she wasn’t going to let the Nazis ruin Christmas!”
“It’s pretty fantastic,” Anthony said, slipping an arm around Teag. “Look at that ceiling!”
Teag craned his neck. “It’s called ‘hammerbeam’ and it’s an English Gothic style of open timber roof truss,” he said. “See the kind of stuff I remember from my classes?”
Hand-cut beams arched downward at intervals, while still others formed arches along the flat of the timber ceiling, embellished at the corners with intricate woodcutting. It reminded Teag of the ceiling of the great hall in the Harry Potter movies.
“I wish they could really make candles float in the air,” Teag said with a sigh. “But I guess twinkle lights are almost as good.” He took in a deep breath. “I love the smell of a real Christmas tree.”
“And the fireplace looks big enough to roast a boar—or maybe an ox,” Anthony said, with a nod toward the huge opening in the stone wall with its carved firebox and ornate mantle. “I could stand up inside and not hit my head. And I bet that if I spread my arms wide, I still wouldn’t touch on either side.”
“Come on,” Teag said. “There’s more to see in the solar and conservatory.” He led Anthony by the hand out of the Great Hall through an archway into two adjoining glass-enclosed rooms. Christmas lights twinkled in the now-dry central fountain and wrapped around the potted shrubs. Poinsettias, icicles, ribbons, and tinsel turned the greenhouse rooms into a wonderland.
Anthony hauled Teag in for a kiss, under a ball of mistletoe tied with a red velvet ribbon. “Turnabout’s fair play,” he said.
“This is so beautiful,” Teag gushed when they headed back through the main hall. “And there are a few of the other rooms open for display if we go this way.” He led them toward Bride’s Tower, where two sitting rooms on the third floor were decorated and furnished as the castle would have looked during the 1920s. From the colors, fabrics, and scale of the furniture, it was clear that one room was meant for women and the other for men.
“So this would have been the way it looked right around World War I,” Anthony mused, reading a sign near the door. “Their Downton Abbey period.”
“I love that show. So elegant. And the old miniseries we watched of Brideshead Revisited? If I could have tailored suits like those, I might not mind giving up my jeans,” Teag gushed.
“Maybe we’ll have to throw a Gatsby party for Halloween next year if the spooks give you the night off,” Anthony teased. “Just thinking of you turned out like that is giving me all kinds of naughty ideas.” He leaned against Teag, brushing his groin against Teag’s leg to let him know exactly what kind of thoughts were going through his mind.
“I like the way you think,” Teag purred.
The more masculine of the two rooms had dark wood wainscoting and upholstery in rich emerald and sapphire hues. Brass fittings and etched glass shades accentuated the wall sconces and table lamps. Leather-bound books filled the shelves, along with display cases of watches, silver cigar boxes, monogrammed flasks, and a taxidermied lion that was likely a trophy from safari in Africa. It was easy to imagine well-off men sitting down with cigars and good Scotch to discuss the news of the day, or play a few hands of cards.
“This is so far beyond ‘man cave’ I’m not sure what to call it,” Anthony remarked. “But I guess it’s not that different from what some of the big plantation houses had. For as nice as this is, I’m glad things have changed. I like our friends, and I’d hate to have to split everyone up instead of being able to all hang out together.”
The ladies’ sitting room had high-backed upholstered couches and wing chairs arranged in conversation groupings, with side tables to hold drinks. The furniture was roped off for display only, and glass covered the bookshelves, protecting both the books and an assortment of family personal items and trinkets from around the world.
Teag felt a pull toward a framed piece of hand-embroidered fabric. It was a sampler, the kind done by young women learning to practice various stitching and designs, common at the time. But as soon as Teag saw it, he felt traces of the maker’s magic, old, faint, and still potent.
“What’s wrong?” Anthony laid a hand on Teag’s shoulder. “You’ve got that look.”
Teag managed a smile. “Nothing bad. It’s just that whoever did that embroidery had my kind of gift. Weaver magic.”
“You can pick up on that, after all these years?” A note next to the frame said that the needlepoint had been done by Lillian Mortimer in 1916.
“Uh-huh,” Teag replied, distracted as he read the rest of the notecard. “So Lillian was one of two daughters to the Mortimer family who lived in the castle around the time of the First World War. She and her older sister, Mabel, would have been in their late teens or early twenties when the war started. It ran longer over here—the war. In the States, we think of it as just 1918, but it started in 1914 in Europe.” He couldn’t help being a history nerd, and thankfully, Anthony shared his interest.
“From what we’ve watched on the History Channel, that war pretty much broke the aristocracy, didn’t it?” Anthony replied. “The death toll was so high—wiped out most of an entire generation of men. I can’t even begin to imagine what it must have been like.”
Teag shivered, although the room was warm. Lillian’s needlework held both power and emotions. Now that Teag’s gift had tuned in, he could sense sadness, grief, loneliness, and anxiety that made his heart pound.
Anthony’s voice brought him out of his thoughts, and Teag stepped back. “I’m okay. I just could pick up some feelings from the magic Lillian used. I don’t think she was very happy.”
“It must have felt like the world had gone mad during the war. I don’t imagine most people were happy,” Anthony replied.
Lillian’s magic had brought Teag’s ability to the forefront, and as he walked around the room with Anthony, he gently probed other objects like a needlepoint pillow and a small tapestry near the fireplace. None of them held any magic of their own.
But when he came to the display case with a gold and pearl hair comb, an ivory fan and a black, enameled cigarette holder, Teag recoiled as he glimpsed a gray, transparent figure near the case.
“More magic?” Anthony asked in a whisper, glancing around to make sure they were alone.
Teag shook his head. “No. There’s a spirit attached to those pieces, I’m sure of it. Maybe not the one they told us about at the tea room, but it’s definitely a ghost. And she’s not friendly.”
About Gail Z Martin:
Gail Z. Martin writes epic fantasy, urban fantasy and steampunk for Solaris Books, Orbit Books, SOL Publishing, Darkwind Press, Worldbuilders Press and Falstaff Books. Recent books include Reckoning, Sellsword’s Oath, Inheritance, CHARON, Wasteland Marshals. As Morgan Brice, she writes urban fantasy MM paranormal romance including the Witchbane, Badlands and Treasure Trail series. Recent books include The Rising, Flame and Ash.
The Last Favor
Grayson (Gray) Kane comes to Caynham Castle to pick up an award for his late father. Dealing with his loss amid the families celebrating the holiday makes him question his solitary life as an covert agent. His partner, Laurel Whitney, joins him to protect Gray from an assassin. As the long-suppressed attraction between them flares anew and a killer closes in, she must decide whether she has the courage to seize what she has always wanted.
Excerpt from The Last Favor:
Nothing could keep this Christmas from being godawful. The only thing to do was push through and get it over with. Grayson Kane grabbed his suitcase from the baggage carousel and headed for the exit. He usually traveled lighter than this, at least where clothes were concerned, but jamming a tux into a carryon bag just led to problems.
He walked through the maze of the Customs exit and finally reached the vast lobby and the meeting area. Now to pick up his rental car so he could head west for the really hard part of this holiday.
Halting, he turned his head toward the sound. A familiar, auburn-haired woman with a deceptively sweet face waved to him.
What was Laurel Whitney doing here? Was a work problem about to interrupt his trip? Little though he looked forward to this, he couldn’t let anything derail it. Not this time.
He walked over to her. “Hey.”
“Hey. The London office sent me. I already picked up your rental and put the equipment they’re providing in the trunk.”
Weaponry, she meant. “I was supposed to meet someone at the rental office for that.”
“Plans changed. I’ll explain in the car.”
She was never particularly talkative, but this terse mode was new. Frowning, he accompanied her out into the biting air. The lowering sky implied snow might be on the way. The wind blew his dark hair onto his forehead, and he pushed it back.
Dodging travelers rushing into the terminal, they hurried through the covered walkway toward the nearby short-stay deck—car park to the British, no matter how many levels it offered. The familiar, annoying awareness that always plagued him around Laurel hummed in his gut. Yeah, she moved with deceptively relaxed grace and had curves in all the right places, but they’d never found any common ground beyond work. Not that they’d ever really looked.
That didn’t matter now, though. What mattered was why she was here. Standing five feet six, with a slim build, she didn’t look like she could put a bruiser on the ground. He’d seen her in action, though. She was serious muscle in sheep’s clothing. He didn’t need that kind of backup for a holiday at a castle hotel. So either Arachnid, the covert, multinational intelligence agency they both worked for, wanted to pull him in for a job or he had a problem.
If she’d picked up the car, someone at the agency had hacked the rental car computer. That didn’t happen without orders from the boss, known as Arachne. What else had they done?
“You didn’t mess with my hotel reservation, did you?”
She grimaced. “Because of the nature of your visit, the bosses decided to consult you first. I’m supposed to talk you into cancelling.”
“Not going to happen.”
“You should hear me out before you decide. We can talk in the car.”
Nothing she said would change his mind. He was on his way to Shropshire to spend Christmas at the Caynham Castle Hotel and pick up an award the hotel’s operating foundation was bestowing on his dad. Pop was supposed to be with him. The Earl of Caynham had personally invited them, and his dad had loved the idea of the two of them having this different, fun father-and-son outing for Christmas. Until cancer intervened. Pop’s last request had been for Gray to take this trip for both of them and pick up the award. Come hell, high water, and anything short of nuclear war, he would do that. No matter how hard he found it.
Laurel guided him to a gray sedan and opened the truck. A large, black suitcase lay inside, along with two familiar, hard-sided gray Arachnid gear bags. He set his checked bag next to the nearer of the two.
“Yours is on the right,” Laurel said. “You have your favorite Sig Sauer P226, a Beretta 9mm, spare mags, two combat knives, a nanofiber undershirt, and some choice electronics. Explosives and grappling gear are in mine.”
“I take it you’re not just along for the ride.” He closed the trunk, checked his movement to the left, and walked up the right side of the car to the driver’s door. “Keys, please.”
She tossed them to him. “If I can’t persuade you to cancel, I’m your date.”
“Why you and not Hayes?” Gray had worked with Laurel, but John Hayes was his regular partner.
“Christmas.” Settling into her seat, she shrugged. “I’m one of the few who’ve worked with you, didn’t have family plans, and was geographically convenient. Not to mention being American.”
Since he was, it made sense that his companion should be. But he’d wanted the extra time before they officially became a team in March, when Hayes retired. Gray needed to find a way to deal with the unacknowledged sparks that flashed every time they paired up. That had happened more often as Hayes reduced his workload and Laurel picked up the slack. Gray had to get it under control. Feeling that way about a partner could influence tactical decisions in a way that got one or both of you killed.
“Where were you that was convenient?”
“Greece. I had a hiking trip planned.”
“Sorry about interrupting.”
“It’s no big. I can go later.”
She’d always struck him as a bit of a loner. A bit…detached. Having no plans she couldn’t change at this most connected of holidays confirmed that.
He drove out of the deck and away from the airport. When they were on the M25 motorway and headed for Shropshire, he said, “Okay, what’s the deal?”
“Do you remember Petar Stankovic?”
“Serbian. Enforcer for the Tirania Cartel.”
“Until you killed him.”
“That was two years ago. What does he have to with my trip?”
“Someone has been hunting for you. Based on chatter the London and Rome offices have picked up, it’s his brother Aleksandr, with revenge on his mind.”
Gray frowned. “Status?”
“No sign of him in the UK so far, but that’s based on passport info. If he traveled under an alias, especially with a good disguise, he could’ve slipped through. Not to mention the thousands of miles of unguarded coastline in these islands.”
“Stankovic had another brother, a wife, and two daughters. I think the older daughter, Teodora, works for Serbian intelligence. We sure it’s Aleksandr?”
“We have nothing implicating any of the others.” Laurel shrugged. “So we’re as sure as we can be at the moment. I have a secure laptop for you with data files on it, and you’ll want to gear up.”
Well, hell. The holiday had already promised to be tough, and now this. “I’ll look for a place to pull off that offers more privacy than the parking deck. Then we’ll stick to the secondary roads.” They should leave the outskirts of London behind soon.
“Works for me.” She punched the in-dash GPS. “We can switch to the A413 just ahead and then follow the A41 most of the rest of the way.”
“Opt for that.” He glanced over at her. “Level with me, Laurel. What are the chances of some civilian at the hotel getting hurt because I’m there?” That was the only thing that could make him miss the awards ceremony. Thanks to the publicity, anyone hunting him could figure out that he’d be there, and that would put crosshairs on the occasion.
“Right now, negligible, but that could change.” She frowned at the road ahead. “Arachne talked to his London counterpart. They want to stash you in a safe house with a protective detail until they locate Stankovic. There’s a nicely isolated cottage ready. We’ll lure him there and nail him. Better to grab him now than to have him come at you when you’re focused on something else.”
That could work, but he’d promised Pop. “If I go to Caynham?”
“A team of four agents will back us up.”
Great. He was ruining multiple people’s Christmases.
As though she knew what he was thinking—he sometimes suspected she did—Laurel added, “Plenty of agents don’t celebrate the holiday, so don’t worry about that. Intel will continue monitoring chatter and travel, and we’ll stay alert while you do this holiday thing.”
“Then that’s what I’m doing. If other people aren’t at risk, I’m not cancelling.”
She frowned. “I thought you would say that, but I had to ask. We could get this over with faster if you blew off the castle.”
“Maybe,” he qualified, his voice dry.
For a moment, she compressed her lips, emphasizing the stubborn angle of her chin. Then she shrugged. “What’s involved in all that Christmas stuff, anyway? The website makes it look like one big party.”
“I think it is. There’s ice skating, various activities Pop signed us up for—I guess you’ll take his slot—and a charity ball where he was to receive his award.”
She narrowed her eyes at him. “It’s that last you’re stuck on, isn’t it? That’s why you won’t cancel.”
He answered her with a curt nod.
“I’ll make the arrangements, then.” After moment, she added, “I’ve gathered you and your father were close. This holiday season must be particularly difficult.”
“I’ve had better. Thanks.” She meant well, but he wasn’t about to discuss the heart-numbing grief of losing Pop with someone he knew mostly as a colleague.
Better to turn his attention to staying alive during these next few days.
About Nancy Northcott:
Nancy Northcott’s childhood ambition was to grow up and become Wonder Woman. Around fourth grade, she realized it was too late to acquire Amazon genes, but she still loved comic books, mysteries, fantasy and romance. A sucker for fast action and wrenching emotion, Nancy combines the action and high stakes she loves in the books she writes.
She is the author of the Boar King’s Honor historical fantasy trilogy and is the co-creator, with Jeanne Adams, of the Outcast Station science fiction mystery series. She also writes the Lethal Webs and Arachnid Files romantic suspense series
A Perfect Grey Christmas
A New Jersey Ice Cats’ Novella
In order to win the ultimate cooking prize and the right to cater the Ice Castle Charity Ball in Caynham Castle, a former hockey player, turned restauranteur, must work with the woman he once loved, but who then left him to marry an English lord.
Excerpt from A Perfect Grey Christmas :
Lydia’s temper sparked. “Stop being a jackass and let me speak.”
“I don’t need your explanation, prettying up how you ‘did me a favour’.”
“Maybe not. You can do me the decency of listening to my answer, instead of making unwarranted accusations and playing the martyr.”
His jaw set, Ryan crossed his arms over his broad chest, which only infuriated her more.
“I worked too damn hard to win this contract to play nepotism games. My business and reputation are on the line. There’s no room for sentimentality. All that matters is that I work with the best.”
He tilted his head in acknowledgement.
“More importantly,” she continued, “as the ball’s co-ordinator, my chosen charity benefits. I will not allow anything to damage the Piers Pedley Foundation or the money it will receive.”
“I get all that. But you did something. I see it in your face. I could always read you.” His tone softened. “Well, most of the time.”
He didn’t need to add that the one time she’d totally surprised him was when she’d left Grey’s to marry Piers. She hadn’t told him the whole story; it wasn’t her story to tell. Too much had been at stake.
“I didn’t select the finalists. I was asked to provide a short-list, from those who entered, of the chefs I believed to be the best of the best. You were one of those.”
His gaze narrowed. “How big a shortlist?”
She shook her head at his wry tone. “Get over yourself. That didn’t guarantee you’d make the final three. You still had to pass muster with the committee. And I had to prove I was not biased because we’d worked together.” She leaned forward. “Think of what I did as securing you a professional try-out. I got you in front of the coaches, but your talents got you the gig.”
The analogy seemed to hit home. His tense body language eased a smidge.
“Oh, and f.y.i. if you don’t deliver the best menu or the best samples, you’re done.” She tapped his folder with her forefinger. “You won’t win just because I’m working with you. I’ll give my best effort to all finalists equally.” She sent his folder back across the desktop. “Now, time is short. If you want my help, shape up. Otherwise, I walk.”
“Yeah, you’re good at that.”
She stiffened. Even though she had that coming, it hurt nonetheless. Struggling to keep her expression impassive, she stood. “Enough. I know we need to talk about what happened, but this isn’t the time or place.”
He sat back in his chair and steepled his fingers. “This is the perfect time and place. Where it all started. And where it all ended. If we’re going to work together, we need to clear the air. I need your assurance that you won’t quit on me.”
“The success of the Ice Castle Charity Ball is as important to me, as it is to you.”
“You said that about launching Grey’s.”
She threw up her hands. “Are you really willing to give up your spot in this contest, because you can’t let go of the past?”
“Time out.” Ryan thrust a hand through his hair and sighed. “You’re right. I’d be crazy to let what happened between us ruin my one, big shot. That was a long time ago and it’s done with. I’m sorry. I guess this whole situation is a little weird.” His lips curved into a self-deprecating half-smile.
That smile had always got to her. She fought the urge to smile in response.
“For both of us,” she allowed.
“Maybe when this is all done, we can have dinner and you can tell me the whole story.”
Once she’d achieved what she’d promised Piers, then she’d be free to share everything with Ryan. He might not forgive her, but at least he’d understand.
“I’d like that.” She let her smile free.
“Deal.” He stuck out his hand.
Relieved the first hurdle had been crossed, she took it.
The warmth of his hand, the familiar calluses, reached deep inside her. The simple touch felt as much like a homecoming as landing in New Jersey.
Her gaze lifted and collided with his. Similar emotions to those tumbling about inside her were visible in his grey eyes. Seemed she could still read him too.
Slowly, Ryan released her hand. She didn’t know how to feel about his reluctance to break contact. Especially since she felt the same.
“Where do we go from here?” he asked.
About Anna Sugden:
Award-winning author, Anna Sugden, enjoys reading novels and watching films with happy endings. She also loves hockey and football, where she prefers a happy ending for her teams. When she’s not researching hockey players -- for her books ;) -- she enjoys craft projects, collecting penguins and great shoes.
A former marketing executive and primary teacher, Anna lives in Cambridge, England, with her husband and two bossy black cats. Learn more about Anna at www.annasugden.com