Posted in Books, Fairy Tale Romance, Free Reads, historical romance, Medieval Romance, Paranormal romance, Witch Romance

The Viking and the Witch – Chapter 2

viking and the witch serial coverAs promised, the next installment of a good, old-fashioned magical historical romance:

Chapter Two

 

Maeve spent the whole long night conjuring cures for the fallen Viking. She built up the fire then stripped off all his blood-stained and seawater-soaked clothes. She washed him all over, first with clean water from the ocean, then fresh water drawn from the well. As the moon rose, she opened the trap in the roof of the hut so the light shone down on him, then put a milky white crystal in the bottom of a copper bowl. She poured more fresh well water over this, singing a chant to the Lady as she did it. With this she cleaned the deep wound in his back and the bloody gash in the back of his head. She coated the head gash with a paste of healing herbs and clay and stitched the back wound with her last clean length of woolen thread. The Viking cried out fearsome oaths in his own language as she did this, but she sat on him to hold him still, and he was too weak to fight back.

When she was done, he was shivering. She bound his wound and rolled him over on his back then covered him with all her blankets and furs. Then she went outside.

The moon was now a silver crescent among the stars. She lay down on the sandy ground and watched it sail across the sky, first a sickle, then a boat. Perhaps the Lady meant to harvest the soul of this Viking after all. If Maeve should save him, would another be taken in his place? The Lady dealt in balance, her mother always said. If this man was marked for death, only the death of another would save him. That was the old way, the way of her mother, Asha, and her mother’s mother before her—blood for blood. But Maeve believed the world was full of souls, too many for one witch to keep a true accounting of them all. If the Lady chose to spare this man and take another in his place, Maeve could not dispute her. But she couldn’t choose her victim either. She fell asleep gazing up at the moon and thinking these strange thoughts as the Viking groaned and fought for breath inside the hut behind her.

She awoke at dawn to ravens calling overhead. Inside the hut, the Viking was so still and quiet, she thought he must have died. But when she touched him, he was burning hot, not cold. His skin was dry, and his parted lips were cracked.

“Here,” she said, filling a cup with clean water. “You must drink.” She lifted his head and held the cup to his lips, but he was like a statue or a corpse. He didn’t respond even when she poured the water into his open mouth.

She lay him back down and pressed an ear to his chest, listening to his heart, and his flesh was like a sun-baked stone. His heartbeat was steady but slow and weak for an animal his size.

“The fever has taken you, love,” she said, wetting his parched lips. “There’s nothing I can do.” There was a remedy she knew that sometimes worked, a tree bark that could be brewed in a tea and drunk to bring down the fever. But she had none in the hut, and the nearest such tree was miles and miles away, too far to walk in a week, much less the day and night this Viking might have left to live. She soaked a rag in water and bathed his burning brow.

Suddenly his eyes snapped open, so blue they glowed in the dim light of the hut. He grabbed her wrist in a grip of burning iron. “Asynja,” he said, a word she didn’t know. Then, “Help me.”

“I will,” she answered in his own language. “I will try.” Her mother had the fever cure in her stores in the village. Surely she would not deny such magic to her only daughter. “Sleep now.” She wriggled her wrist free from his grip but pressed a light kiss to his forehead then pulled the covers back up to his chin. “I’ll be back soon.”

‡‡‡‡‡‡

Her village was just as she remembered it with neat, thatched cottages and open sheds along a narrow, winding street. Most of the villagers stared at her or looked quickly away as she passed. But many like Luna, the blacksmith’s wife, smiled and waved, and she waved back. Her grandmother’s sister, Vivian, had brought her loom out into the late summer sun and was working a red and black cloth. “Well met, niece,” she called out. “It’s time you came home.”

“Well met, auntie,” Maeve said, kissing her wrinkled cheek. “Where is the queen?”

“Where do you think?” the old woman said, looking up the hill.

“Of course.” Queen Asha had once been in the thick of all work and life in the village, thinking it no shame to milk a goat or bake a loaf or lead a hunting party. But since she had taken the harper, Baird, as her consort, she thought it better to sit idle and let others work for her.

Maeve heard Baird singing as she approached her mother’s house. He had a fine voice and a great talent for the harp, but she took no pleasure in his music. She slipped into the hall that had been her childhood home and found the women Asha now called her ladies gathered there, sewing or spinning as the harper played. Asha was sitting on her high, carved throne doing nothing at all but listen to her lover. She had a doting, stupefied smile on her face that made Maeve want to slap her.

Baird finished his song, and the women all applauded, none more vigorously than the queen. “But look, my goddess,” Baird said, pointing to Maeve. “A little lost sparrow has flown into the house.”

“More like a raven, harper,” Maeve said. “Best beware.” Maeve had been born of the Lady’s rites just like her mother had, and she had shown signs of magic just as strong. By their law, she could challenge Asha for her fine throne, and there were some who whispered that she should. But Maeve had no wish to vanquish her own mother even if she had thought she could. “Mother, I would speak with you alone,” she said. “I need to ask a favor.”

“Address me as your queen. You are not my daughter any more,” Asha said. “Your words must be heard by all. And why should I grant you any favors?”

Maeve swallowed back the angry words that tried to come out of her mouth. “I need a cure for fever, lady queen,” she said. “If you are not my mother, are you still the Lady’s healer?”

“For the village,” Baird said. “Not for you.”

“You dare to speak in my mother’s place?” Maeve said, too furious to hold her tongue.

“Baird, be quiet,” Asha said. “Maeve, are you ill?”

“I need the bark to cure a fever,” Maeve said, telling the careful truth. “Will you deny me?”

“If she has fallen sick, perhaps your Lady means to punish her,” Baird said. He was not of their village or their faith. He had come as a stranger, a traveler; by all rights, he could have been killed on sight or made a sacrifice. But Asha had taken him to bed instead. “Perhaps a fever will soften her heart to her queen and bring her to her senses.”

Maeve expected her mother to rebuke him again for speaking out of turn, but as always, she was disappointed. “Perhaps,” Asha said. “Maeve, are you ready to do as I commanded you? Will you beg Baird’s pardon for the lies you told?”

Maeve fixed the harper with a witch’s stare to chill his blood. “I will not,” she said. “I have told no lies.”

Her mother’s pale face flushed pink. “Then go,” she said. “Leave this village and do not return until you are ready to beg pardon.” Some of the women murmured amongst themselves at this, obviously shocked, and Asha rose to her feet. “Go before I have you killed myself.”

Maeve bent her head, blinking back tears. “Farewell, lady.” Without looking back or making eye contact with any of the others, she turned and left the hall.

Vivian was waiting for her outside. “Where are you going?” she demanded, clumping along with her stick, trying to keep up.

“Back to the beach,” Maeve said, refusing to slow down. “I’m not wanted here.”

“Not true, and you know it,” the old woman said. “Now stop before you kill me.”

Maeve considered just running away. But that seemed cowardly. “I can’t stay here,” she said, stopping. “I’ve been exiled, remember?”

Vivian snorted. “If you meant to give up this easily, why did you come back at all?”

“I needed something my mother has,” Maeve said. Villagers were gathering in clumps up and down the street to stare at her. “I should have known better than to think she’d give it to me.”

“What is it you need?” Vivian said.

“It doesn’t matter.” One group of men was deep in conversation, taking turns looking back at her. “I have to go.”

“None here will do you harm,” Vivian said. “One word from you, and there are many who would see that outsider trussed up and dropped from the cliffs.”

“And what of the queen?” Maeve demanded. “How would we truss up her magic? Would we drop her off the cliffs as well?” The old woman had no answer. “I needed the cure for a fever,” Maeve explained. “Not for myself, for a man I pulled from the sea.”

“A man?” Vivian said, her silver eyebrows shooting up. “Have you taken a consort?”

“I have not,” Maeve said. “I just wanted to save his life if it could be saved, just for mercy.”

“The Lady smiles,” Vivian said.

“Aye, perhaps, but he’s dying,” Maeve said. “I stitched his wounds and stopped the bleeding, but he is burning up.”

“Then ‘tis no great sorrow your mother refused you,” Vivian said. “Tree bark simples have no power over such a fever. Your man is being devoured by a demon from the inside out.”

“I told you, he isn’t my man,” Maeve said.

“And ‘tis pity he is not,” Vivian said. “If he were your man, you could join with him and drive the demon out.”

“What nonsense is this?” Maeve said.

“The oldest magic,” Vivian said. “As old as the Lady herself. Man and woman joined as one to make a single spirit. No fever can stand against that.”

“You speak of lovers’ madness,” Maeve said. “Has our queen not brought us enough of that already?”

“Asha is a fool,” Vivian said. “She lets an unworthy weakling suck away her power like a leech and calls it love. But if a witch can find a true man, a worthy man, he will give as much as he gets. The old magic will bind them forever and make them both strong.”

“The man is dying, Vivian,” Maeve said. “I can’t tell if he’s worthy or not.”

“A gift from the Lady,” Vivian said. “A gift from the sea.”

Maeve had heard Viking raiders called many things but never a gift. “He isn’t conscious,” she said. “He can’t be joined to anyone. His spirit is leaving him.”

“A witch could call it back,” Vivian said. “If she were strong enough.”

So that was what the old crone wanted, a proof of her power she could hold up to the others. “Leave me out of your schemes, old auntie,” Maeve said, kissing her cheek. “I will not make war on my own mother.”

“As you will,” Vivian said, but her eyes looked troubled. “Who is this dying man?” she called as Maeve walked away.

“I told you,” Maeve said. “He is no one.”

End of chapter 2.

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Posted in Books, Free Reads, historical romance, Lucy Blue Short Story, Sherlock Holmes, Short Story

Scandalous Sherlock Holmes

small-butterflyMy baby sister, Alexandra Christian, and I are both big Sherlock Holmes fans in almost every incarnation, and bless our hearts, we do write romance. So last year as a lark we challenged one another to each write a Victorian romance with a hero that was both romantic and a reasonably authentic version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective. My offering was the story excerpted here, The Butterfly. (To read Lexie’s take, check out the excellent novella, Chasing the Dragon.)  Both stories are free to download through Saturday, February 16, 2017:

The glass-domed greenhouse stretched the entire width of the house and extended deeply into the patch of garden behind it. The late Lord Northrup, whose fortune had been greatly enlarged over two decades in India, had kept his own private jungle in the center of London. It was reported to have been his favorite room in the house, and he had died here, sprawled in an embarrassing attitude across a wicker chaise. The butler now led Holmes past the same spot which was now bare of furniture.

Lady Northrup was in a far corner near the glass wall. Her mourning costume had been augmented with a straw sun hat and a pair of gardening gloves. “Good morning, Mr. Holmes,” she said without turning around as she tended some large, rather ferocious-looking plant. “If your intent was to surprise me, you’ve succeeded.”

“No doubt you find it surprising that I would dare show my face here,” Holmes said, feeling uncomfortably like a small boy caught being naughty.

“Not at all.” She turned around with her hands full of colorful flowers. “I imagine you would dare anything.” She handed these to the butler. “Thank you, Mr. Poag.” Giving Holmes one last glare, the butler took his blossoms and left. “But I never dreamed you would come here to apologize.”

“It seemed appropriate.” After their last visit, Watson had declared Lady Northrup to be “quite striking.” Holmes was not the connoisseur of female beauty his friend was, but he couldn’t pretend the woman was unattractive. “Thank you for seeing me.”

“I could hardly resist.” She took off the hat and gloves. “Pray commence, sir.” She was almost smiling. “Apologize.”

“Of course.” He clasped his hands behind his back. “I deeply regret any embarrassment to yourself caused by my investigation of your husband’s death.”

“Embarrassment?” She walked past him, headed toward the rest of the house. “Is that what you’d call it?”

“Perhaps rather more than that.” He followed her. “Though in my defense, I must protest that I never once said you were a can-can dancer.” She led him out of the solarium into a cozy parlor with a grand piano and several overstuffed chairs. In contrast to what he’d seen of the rest of the house, these furnishings looked brand new. “I merely reported that you were a member of the ensemble at an establishment in Paris where the can-can is performed.”

“Was performed, Mr. Holmes.” She took one of the chairs and pointed him to another. “The nightclub has long since closed.” Tea had been laid on the table between them. “And I was not a member of the ensemble.” She poured a cup and smiled. “I was the star.” She held up the cup. “Cream and sugar?”

“Neither, thank you.” He took the tea and sipped, an act of faith, considering he had recently implied she might be a poisoner.

“You’re quite welcome.” She put sugar and cream in her own cup. “And your apology is accepted. I’m sure you only did what you felt was right.”

“I was engaged within the compass of my profession.” He would have turned the case down, but for some reason his brother, Mycroft, had insisted he take it. “And you must allow that the circumstances of your husband’s death bore investigation.”

“A man well past the prime of life in less-than-perfect health with a known fondness for tobacco, alcohol, and other indulgences drops dead with his trousers unbuttoned in the presence of a half-dressed upstairs maid,” she said, stirring her tea. “Yes, Mr. Holmes, very mysterious.”

“A maid who seemed to vanish into thin air immediately after making her report to the police,” Holmes pointed out.

“Indeed,” she said. “Are you certain I didn’t kill her, too?”

“Quite certain,” Holmes said. “I spoke to the young lady four days ago at her mother’s home in Brighton.”

“Oh, you found her.” Her tone and manner were calm, but he saw fury in her eyes. “I wonder that the papers didn’t mention it.”

“The papers weren’t told,” he said. “I saw no need to disrupt the poor creature’s life any further. She’s been through quite an ordeal already.”

“Indeed.” Her teacup rattled on the saucer. “How very chivalrous of you.”

“Lady Northrup, I had no idea your late husband’s nephew would go to the papers with my report.”

“Didn’t you?” she said, setting down her cup. “I thought you were meant to be clever. Having failed to deprive my son of his inheritance by sending me to the gallows, any fool could see his only recourse was to have me publicly declared a slut.”

“Lady Northrup—“

“By the time those papers went to press last night, he had already engaged his lawyers to enter a suit to declare my son, Sebastian illegitimate based on my—how do the documents phrase it?—my well-known history of lewd and immoral behavior.’ And with the help and faith of more fine, intelligent men like yourself, he’ll win his case.”

“Lady Northrup, I assure you—“

“You have made your apology, Mr. Holmes,” she cut him off as she stood up. “Your conscience is clear. And I have taxed my lowborn understanding of good manners to the utmost by not bouncing you out my front door on your arse. So really, we have nothing left to say to one another. I think it must be time for you to go.”

“Peter Northrup is the lowest form of weasel,” Holmes said. “I told him as much to his face the first day he came to see me. I only agreed to take the case to prove how petty and ridiculous it was. If you had shown the slightest genuine regret at the loss of your husband—“

“Dear god, man, why should I regret it?” she demanded. “He made my life a living hell for eleven years and died forcing his attentions on my maid.” She seemed to remember herself and sat back down. “No, Mr. Holmes, I do not grieve for my husband. I grieve for my son who will have no father. But for my husband, no.” She smiled slightly. “But that doesn’t mean I killed him.”

“When you and I first spoke, I knew very little of the circumstances of your husband’s death,” Holmes said.

“Only what Peter had told you.”

“Yes.” He felt a most uncomfortable heat on his face. “I do not like to think his prejudice against you influenced my perceptions.”

“I dare say it was my fault entirely,” she said. “I knew only too well what Peter must have told you. I could have easily played the grieving widow to perfection. I am a very accomplished actress—or at least I used to be.” She picked up her teacup again. “Would you be flattered to hear your reputation frightened me? That I was afraid you would see through my performance?”

“Flattered, yes, perhaps,” he said with a small smile of his own. “But not convinced.”

She laughed, a brief, musical lilt. “I was furious, Mr. Holmes, at my husband’s nephew and at you. How dare you come into my home and accuse me when I had suffered so much?”

Holmes found this much easier to believe. She looked like the sort of woman accustomed to fits of fury far beyond her own self-interest. “Rather a rotten husband, then?” he said, sipping his tea.

“Rather,” she drawled, mocking his diction. “He was a wealthy, titled Englishman. I was an Irish-born actress. Can you not picture our courtship?”

“Dr. Watson said it must have been quite romantic,” Holmes said.

“Dr. Watson was mistaken,” she said. “Bless him.” She set down her teacup and looked away as if she couldn’t decide what she should tell him. “Ours was very much a business arrangement. He gave me security of a kind, a name and a home for as long as I could play the part. It was quite understood that he would divorce me the moment anyone discovered my true identity. But no doubt you know that already.”

“Yes,” he said. “There were papers to that effect in the safe. I considered that your most likely motive for murdering him.”

“As well you might,” she said. “But before you exposed me, I played the role to perfection. Did you find anyone in England besides Richard’s solicitor who knew?”

“No one,” he admitted. “Even the nephew was fooled until the solicitor told him. So what did your husband receive in this contract, if I may ask?”

“You just have asked,” she said, laughing. “Why aren’t I surprised?”

“Your charms would certainly seem to be sufficient compensation for most men,” Holmes said. “But he was, as you say, giving chase to the chambermaids.”

“Perfectly expressed, Mr. Holmes,” she said. “The chase was the attraction for Richard, always. He married me because he couldn’t have me any other way. And in Paris, he had to have me.” He followed her gaze to a colorful painting hanging over the fireplace, a poster in the new French style depicting a woman in a striking black and blue gown. “I was La Papillon,” she said. “The Butterfly. The prize. Every man in Paris wanted to possess me.” She smiled her fragile smile again. “But no doubt you are immune to such attractions.”

“Generally speaking,” he said. “Though in your case, I believe I understand.”

“Why, Mr. Holmes,” she said. “You take my breath away.”

“I said I understand the disease, Lady Northrup,” he said. “I never said I was afflicted.” Watson had often accused him of willful cruelty, but that was almost never true. He rarely meant to wound anyone with his remarks; he simply had no tact. But something about this woman made him want to cut past her arrogant façade and lay her bare.

She obliged his base desire to hurt her by gasping slightly in shock, her eyes widening. Then she smiled. “Indeed,” she said. “So tell me, Mr. Holmes. Why have you decided I didn’t kill my husband after all?”

“Because I can determine no method nor opportunity by which you might have done so,” he said. “Your husband died suddenly while undertaking strenuous physical activity, though not of a nature unusual or outside his accustomed routine.”

“No,” she said. “Richard was always active.”

“The maid who was with him at the time testified that he exhibited only a brief period of distress during which his left arm appeared to stiffen and give him pain and his face first flushed then turned pale. She has not wavered in this account of his passing except to add, after my questioning, certain other details inappropriate for polite conversation that are also consistent with the sudden, violent onset of heart failure or stroke.”

“He lost control of his bowels but maintained an impressive erection,” Lady Northrup said. “You forget, Mr. Holmes, the butler and I were the first assistance the poor girl summoned to the scene.”

“Quite so,” Holmes said. “Marked dilation of the right pupil observed postmortem by Dr. Watson also indicated a strong possibility of stroke.”

“Then why suspect me at all?” she said.

“Mr. Northrup’s certainty of your guilt combined with your own apparent resignation to if not pleasure at your husband’s death made my suspicion inescapable,” he said. “No detective worthy of the name could have failed to investigate.”

“Oh yes, I forgot,” she said. “It was my fault. So what was your theory of the crime? How did you imagine I had done it?”

“As you were not present at the time of death, poison seemed the most likely method,” he said. He rather enjoyed talking it over with her this way; her lack of histrionics in the face of his deductions was far more charming to him than her looks. “Though until I spoke to the maid myself, I couldn’t rule out the possibility that she had lied to the police and was in fact your accomplice.”

“How relieved she must have been to hear you’d changed your mind,” she said, finishing her tea. “So why don’t you still think I poisoned him?”

“I consulted many sources within my own library and at the medical college and corresponded with several experts and determined that there is no poison available in London that could have produced precisely such a death,” he said. “Certain toxins injected directly into the bloodstream via syringe might conceivably produce similar symptoms, but they would have had to have been administered by someone in Lord Northrup’s presence when he was struck. You were upstairs in your dressing room with two other maids and Peter Northrup’s wife. More to the point, no needle marks were found on the body, only bug bites. Your husband’s valet testified that these were received on a hunting expedition the week before.

“Are they so different?” she said. “Bug bites and needle marks?”

“Chalk and cheese, Lady Northrup,” he said. “Or so Dr. Watson assures me.”

“So my husband died of a stroke.”

“Your husband died of a stroke.” Regret was not a luxury he allowed himself often, but sitting across the tea table from her now and remembering the boy he had met in the hall, he could hardly avoid it. “And I have done you harm.”

“I’ve lived through worse,” she said. “Though if you wanted to make amends, there is something you could do for me.”

He instantly regretted his regret. “Indeed?”

“I would very much like to go to the theatre this evening. The new Gilbert and Sullivan is opening at the Savoy, and my late husband and I have a box. Under the circumstances, I can hardly attend on my own.” She paused as if waiting for him to make a helpful suggestion, but he would sooner have taken a bite from his teacup, chewed it up and swallowed it. “As my current situation as a social pariah is at least partially your fault, would you be so kind as to accompany me?”

“Certainly not,” he said. “I do not care for the theatre, particularly the works of Gilbert and Sullivan.”

“My dear Mr. Holmes,” she said, laughing. “What you do or do not care for is entirely beside the point.” Her lovely smile was rather frightening. “I care for the theatre very much. And you owe me.”

He could have brushed off this challenge like a butterfly from his sleeve, but he found he didn’t want to. “So it’s to be torture, then?” he said, returning her smile.

“So it seems.” Her color was high and quite fetching in spite of her mourning gown. “Are you man enough to bear it?”

“We shall see.” He stood up. “Until this evening, Lady Northrup.”

She laughed. “Call for me at seven, Mr. Holmes,” she said. “I refuse to turn up late.”

Posted in Books, Fairy Tale Romance, Free Reads, Paranormal romance

Big Girls Love Fairy Tales, Too

winter-night-cover3Another Little Red Hen excerpt, this one from the contemporary fairy tale novel, The Last Winter Knight, free to download this week only:

The bedroom door opened on a long upstairs gallery that looked down on the entryway she’d seen when he carried her in. All of the gas lamps were lit, giving all the dark woodwork a cozy glow. The smell of something baking was coming from downstairs, and in the distance she was sure she could hear a woman singing. Closing the bedroom door behind her, she padded downstairs, the worn carpet runner soft and warm under her bare feet.

An archway down the hall from the library she had seen before led to a dining room. The windows were shuttered, and none of the lamps were lit. All of the furniture was covered with white dust cloths, even the chandelier over the long dining table and a huge, framed something hanging over the massive fireplace. But the swinging door to the kitchen was propped open, and she could see light beyond it. The singing and the smell were coming from there.

“Hello?” She passed through a narrow butcher’s pantry lined with glass-front cabinets full of china tucked away in quilted bags. “I don’t want to startle anyone.”

The singing stopped. “Not to worry, dear.” A white-haired woman in a black dress and a white apron was working at a long, wooden table in a kitchen straight out of a BBC country house drama. “You didn’t.” She was kneading a lump of pale brown dough. “Good morning.”

“Good morning.” The woman didn’t seem the least bit surprised to see her. “I’m Christabel.”

“Oh yes, dear, I know.” She sliced the dough into two lumps. “Bernard told me last night. I’m so glad to see you up and around.” Her accent was less obviously English than Bernard’s, but she was definitely not local. “I’m the housekeeper. Mrs. Sealy.” She finished shaping the second loaf and dropped it into a pan. “Can I get you some breakfast?”

“I can get it,” Christabel said. “I don’t want to be any trouble.” She was acutely aware of being naked under Bernard’s robe. Did Mrs. Sealy serve a lot of girls breakfast? she wondered.

“Don’t be silly. It’s no trouble.” She wiped her hands on a towel. “I just took a pan of cinnamon rolls out of the oven. Or we have chocolate croissants, if you’d rather.”

“They both smell amazing.”

“Sit yourself down. I’ll get you one of each.” She pulled a china plate down from a cupboard “And a glass of milk?”

“That sounds perfect.” She sat down at the table, the robe closed over her knees. The housekeeper set a plate of pastries in front of her and poured a tall glass of milk from a clay pitcher still beaded with moisture from the icebox. “Bernard is still asleep, I think.”

“I’m not the least bit surprised.” She set down the milk with a smile. “He’s always been a slugabed since he was a boy.” It was obvious from her tone that she was very fond of him. “Eat, dear, eat. You must be starving.”

She picked up the delicate croissant and took a bite. “Oh my god…” She thought she might be about to orgasm again. “That is so good.”

“Oh good,” Mrs. Sealy said, smiling as Christabel ate. “Did they come out all right? I was worried.”

“Trust me.” She took a big gulp of milk. “I don’t think I’ve ever had anything that good.” She was gobbling, she realized; the croissant was almost gone, and she had crumbs all down her front.

“Aren’t you sweet?” the housekeeper said, obviously pleased. “Try the cinnamon rolls. It’s a new recipe, and I’m afraid they won’t be fit to eat.”

Christabel took a bite. “Perfect,” she promised around a mouth full of sticky, spicy bliss. A sense of almost perfect well-being had come over her as she ate. A few moments ago she had felt embarrassed to be dressed in a robe; now she could easily contemplate dropping the robe and devouring the rest of the goodies naked.

“I’m so glad you’re enjoying them,” Mrs. Sealy said, setting the full plate of each within her reach. “You poor dear…Bernard said it was a terrible accident.”

“The car blew up,” Christabel said, still eating. Usually her tolerance for sweets was pretty low, but she could have eaten these all day. “If Bernard hadn’t been there…” She shuddered, remembering the smell of gas and the heat of the flames as he carried her away. And there was something else, something she had forgotten…she had dreamed about it…something horrible.

“Don’t think about it, dear.” The housekeeper was refilling her glass. “He was there. That’s all that matters.”

“Yes.” She took another bite of cinnamon roll, and the weird sense of foreboding faded away.

“What on earth were you doing in these mountains on your own in the middle of a blizzard?”

“I was lost.” She felt as if she could tell this woman anything. “I was supposed to be going to a spa. I had an appointment.”

Suddenly a door slammed open above them, and footsteps came thundering down the stairs. She turned to look just as Bernard came racing in, wearing nothing but a bedsheet.