Louise Allen

A Mistletoe Masquerade

Dear Reader,

Upstairs and downstairs in the Regency household mirrored each other in numerous ways – although, of the two, downstairs was possibly the more rigid and stratified. And while the domestic staff had to think about their employers and their guests every minute of their working day, the privileged inhabitants of the upstairs world could go about their lives blissfully unconcerned about what the staff thought of them.

Lucas and Rowan think they know what is best for their friends and intend to set their love lives straight by plunging into the looking-glass world below stairs. I hope you enjoy their Christmas masquerade as they battle with the mysteries of the brushing room and the boot cupboard, the etiquette of Pug's Parlour, the formalities of the Servants Ball and the mortifying insight into the servants'-eye view of their masters' lives.

Their love affair seems doomed by circumstance, but this is Christmas after all, and under the mistletoe wishes can come true.



December 12th 1816

'Your stepmother expects you to marry a murderer?' Lady Rowan Chilcourt stared at her white-faced friend. 'I go away for two years and when I come back I find you meekly allowing yourself to be led to the slaughter like some lamb?'

'Slaughter? Oh, do not say such things, Rowan! And how can I prevent it?' Miss Maylin turned even paler, although how that was physically possible it was hard to see. 'We do not know he is a murderer-surely he is not-but the stories are alarming, and Lord Danescroft- Oh, Rowan, if you could only see him for yourself-he is bleak, unsmiling, utterly sinister.'

'You must say no,' Rowan retorted as she paced, the skirts of her Parisian carriage dress swaying. This was so typical of Penny: she was the sweetest, most loyal friend anyone could hope for, but she was painfully shy and utterly incapable of saying boo to a goose, let alone to a formidable creature like Lady Maylin. And what Penny's stepmother lacked in breeding she more than made up for in sheer bullying determination.

'I cannot decline, for he has not yet proposed. I have not even met him-not face to face. I have only seen him from a distance at receptions during the Season. Not that he stayed very long when he did come. And he never talks to people. Or dances,' she added plaintively. 'Or smiles.'

'I read about his wife's death at the time.' Rowan frowned, trying to recall the stories she had perused. Acting as hostess to her father Lord Chilcourt, in the midst of the glamour of the Congress of Vienna, had been an engrossing whirl of activity far removed from the sedate and regulated pleasures a single lady of twenty-four might enjoy in London. The English news had seemed far away and alien.

Even so, Lady Danescroft's death had been a sensational and scandalous mystery, and as well as lingering on the horrid details of how she had been found by the butler at the foot of the servants' stair, with her neck broken, the reports had been full of veiled hints and coded phrases. Lady Danescroft had been 'lively', 'well-known amidst the younger set', and famed for her 'wide circle of friends of both sexes'.

The Earl of Danescroft had apparently shown no emotion at either the inquest or the funeral, had declined to speculate upon why his wife should have been on the servants' stair at all in the middle of the night, and had simply become chillier and more abrupt on the subject as time went on.

'Are they really saying he killed her?' Rowan demanded. 'The papers were full of innuendo, but nothing about an outright accusation, let alone a trial.'

'Not exactly.' Penny frowned. 'They say that it is very strange he does nothing to rebut the rumours. He did not go into mourning for her. And-' she blushed '-they say he dismissed his valet the very next day, and the valet was very good-looking.'

'He did not murder the valet as well, then?' Rowan asked, half joking.

'No! Oh, Rowan, do be serious for a moment.' Penelope dragged a curtain closed to hide the swirling snow outside. 'I am sure-well, almost sure-he is not a murderer. He's an earl, for goodness' sake. But he looks haunted by dark thoughts, seems plunged in gloom, and they say his small daughter is kept locked up all the time. Poor little mite.' She sat down, dragging a shawl around the shoulders of her gown. Rowan noticed it was at least one Season out of fashion, and not the work of a leading modiste, either. 'How could I marry a man like that?'

'He sounds like the villain of a gothic sensation novel. But one has to admit it would be an astonishingly good match,' Rowan pointed out, sitting down in a flurry of fine merino skirts with considerably more grace than her friend. 'You will forgive me being frank, but-'

'I am one of the unimportant Maylins,' Penny interrupted, nodding in agreement. 'I know. We have all sorts of grand distant connections, but we haven't any money-and no pretensions either. At least,' she added scrupulously, 'we had none until Papa married again.'

They were silent for a minute, contemplating the ambitions of the second Lady Maylin. If she had thought that by marrying a second cousin of the Duke of Farthinghoe she would be catapulted into High Society she had soon been comprehensively disillusioned. But that did not stop her from trying.

'So why should the Earl's eye alight upon you?'

'My godmother is the grandmother of Lord Danescroft. Apparently she has persuaded him that he must remarry for the sake of his motherless daughter and to get himself an heir.'

'Yes, but you-'

'I know. I haven't any looks or money, I'm so shy I go scarlet if a man speaks to me, and I have just had a disastrous Season,' Penelope catalogued with ruthless honesty. 'If I looked like you, Rowan-if I had your spirit-I could understand it.'

'They want a doormat because no one else of breeding will have him,' Rowan said grimly. There was no point in trying to persuade Penny that she was a beauty. She was not. She had mouse-brown hair, a figure that at the kindest could be called slight, and was so self-effacing it was a wonder anyone noticed her at all. She was also sweet-tempered, caring, wonderful with children and the most loyal of friends. None of these endearing characteristics was of the slightest value in the Marriage Mart, of course.

'Yes. And because I am such a doormat I know I will say yes if he asks me. No one will support me. Godmama has arranged for me to be invited to the Christmas house party at Tollesbury Court. He will be there, too, and he is going to propose.'

'What if he does not think you will suit?' Rowan asked. 'They might be able to bully you, but surely not him? Earls can do what they like.'

'Godmama says she has already discussed me with him and he says I sound eminently suitable. She says he is tired of all this horrid gossip and wants a sensible young woman who will not treat him to vapours and who will get on with running the house and looking after the child.' Penny sighed. 'It sounds very dreary: I wonder he does not simply hire a superior governess and a housekeeper.'

'Because they won't give him a male heir,' Rowan pointed out with brutal honesty. 'There must be something wrong with him if his wife was driven to taking the valet as a lover. Perhaps he beat her? Perhaps he squandered her marriage portion? Surely your papa would not force you if such things were the case?'

'No, he would not. But he says I am being hysterical about the mysterious death, and I cannot get him to see that I have taken Lord Danescroft in complete abhorrence.'

'Then we must find out something to the Earl's discredit. Then you will have a logical reason that your father

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