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Ariadne Alton, lady’s maid par excellence, is in desperate straits. She has just been sacked by her employer and has nowhere to go—until, that is, she sees a letter requesting a bride for Viscount Holt. Not even a haunted estate or rumors of the viscount’s eccentricities will stop Ariadne from securing her husband even if it means concealing her true identity . . . until she falls in love.
James Knighton, Viscount Holt, has no intention of taking a bride, especially when his mother has seen fit to auction him off like livestock by sending out a proposal letter to a neighboring family. Then he sees Ariadne for the first time and decides marriage could be just what he and his ailing estate need.
Will their new love be strong enough to withstand deception and the estate’s sly ghost?
Page Count: 101
Word Count: 26590
Lord Holt ignored the letter Ariadne held in her outstretched hand. “You realize the estate is haunted.”
“I have heard something to that effect,” Ariadne said cautiously.
“Until the spirit is satisfied that an appropriate union has taken place, some disruption and discomfort may be expected.” He lifted an eyebrow. “It has taken to standing all the furniture upside down each morning.”
“How very droll of it.”
“You will often encounter exceedingly cold drafts in the house.”
“How fortuitous indeed that I packed my pelisse and shawl.” Given the prospect of poverty and starvation that had greeted her yesterday, the Holt ghost seemed quite tame in comparison. “Has the ghost any other accomplishments?”
A small smile tugged at the corner of Holt’s stoic face. “It will sometimes hurl religious objects, such as a Bible, across the room.”
Ariadne shook her head. “Such heathenish goings-on. I would have expected a better caliber of ghost lurking around an illustrious estate such as this.”
Holt threw his head back and laughed. “It spooks the horses on occasion. Even my stallion, a fairly stoic chap, has been known to become skittish for no reason.”
“Many animals are fairly high strung by nature. The ghost may not be able to claim credit for their white-livered behavior.”
Holt was silent for a moment, though a smile lingered around his lips. “Do you know how long it’s been since I’ve laughed like that?” He leaned forward and braced his elbows on his knees. “Why are you here, Miss Alton? You are not unattractive or lacking in intelligence; surely you could find a more propitious suitor.”
Ariadne folded her hands in front of her and directed a prim look his way. “Such flattery, my lord. I am afraid I am becoming quite giddy from your flowery speeches.” She raised an eyebrow and looked down her nose. “I fear I may faint.”
Once again, her tongue was running away from her. She had never had any practice at flirtation; her whole life had been devoted to work. Yet, she thought with some perplexity, he didn’t seem repelled by her lack of finesse; if anything, he looked amused as he gestured for her to sit on a settee then took a seat directly across from her. How very little she knew of what went on between a woman and a man, save what she witnessed as an outsider serving the London elite as they flitted through the halls of the Partington house.
Ariadne wondered what it would be like to be his wife. She knew how to perform all the basic duties of a Society wife, though she sensed fresh challenges would await given the overall rundown nature of the hall. Of the marital bed, though, she had no knowledge. Her eyes drifted down the hard lines of his body. For some reason, her eyes fixated on his hands. A fine coating of dark hair sprinkled the back of his hands. Her cheeks heated as she wondered what it would feel like to have those hands caress her own hands, her face, her arms. She would be his, fully his, if her deception worked.
She realized almost a full minute had passed as her concentration had been swept away by his physical presence. Her cheeks flushed as she allowed her gaze to drift slowly back to his face. She sucked in her breath as she realized he had noticed her rather brazen inspection of his body. She castigated herself; after her experience with Albert, she should know better.
She took a deep breath and decided to take a chance that her somewhat shrewish manner hadn’t entirely ruined her chances. “My mother is still waiting in the carriage. We were unsure of the reception we would receive.” A questioning lilt at the end invited him to respond.
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