A Twist of Fortune

A Twist of Fortune

Book Two in the Hands of Fate Series

Melaina Hartley was happy. As the daughter of a wealthy explorer and spice merchant, she lived a perfect life in the small town of Carth, a town in Pennsylvania owned almost exclusively by Mr. Ashwood of Carth industries.

When Melaina’s father falls on hard times, his partner in business, Mr. Ashwood, offers Melaina a unique proposition— accompany his wayward daughter to London and see her safely married to the Duke of Westmire. Only then will he forgive her father’s debts.

But Blanche Ashwood is more than a handful for poor Melaina. On the eve of her introduction as the Duke of Westmire’s fiance, the spice heiress commits a horribly dishonorable act that could bring scandal down on the Duke’s entire household AND land Melaina’s father in debtor’s prison… unless Melaina takes her place.

With her life spinning out of control, Melaina steps into Blanche’s shoes and is introduced to the London society as the Duke of Westmire’s bride-to-be.

Luca Deval is content with his life in the shadows. He has finally found a place in the Cirque De Straniu, a traveling show made up of a band of miscreants and thieves. He is not about to let some far-fetched scheme drive the Cirque into the ground, or end them all up in prison (again.) The Cirque is his family. He has to keep them safe.

So when the leader of the Cirque announces his plans to kidnap the Heiress of Carth and hold her for ransom, Luca plays his part well. It is only his cool head that keeps the people of the Cirque from landing themselves in a whole lot of trouble…

But the so-called Heiress is nothing like he expected her to be, and before Luca realizes what has happened, the woman has enthralled him. Will he be able to let her go when the time comes? Or will the woman that Luca has kidnapped capture his heart instead?


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Chapter One

A Breath of Scandal

England, 1888

 

Melaina clutched at the pain lacing up her side as she stared wide-eyed through the milling crowd standing in the Duke of Westmire’s foyer. She had to be here somewhere. The air seemed to have grown thin as panic grew to a crescendo inside her chest.

Carefully concealed by a frilly potted plant at the top of the stairs, she gazed down into the thronging mass of gentry below. Her heart was pounding as fast as the hooves of the horse that had carried her here, but Miss Blanche Ashwood was nowhere to be seen.

Melaina dabbed a bead of sweat from her damp forehead. Why, oh, why did Blanche have to choose tonight of all nights?

“Any sign of her?” the voice of her new friend and confidant, Lady Agatha Edgewater, echoed down the hall.

Melaina jumped and held a finger to her lips as Agatha approached. Lady Edgewater was dressed in a lavender gown that swished as she walked, making her blue eyes shine in the dim light. Her friend placed a reassuring hand on her shoulder and gave it a little squeeze. “Blanche will turn up,” she whispered. As she drew nearer, her sparkling eyes scanned the thronging floor below. A widowed woman in her mid-thirties, Agatha was well respected amongst London society. She was a pretty woman, with dark hair and pointed cheekbones. At the moment, her thin lips were pursed.

It seemed all of London had turned up to bear witness to the engagement of the beloved Duke of Westmire to the infamous Miss Ashwood, a spice heiress of extreme wealth and prominence in America. Miss Ashwood had traveled to London at her father’s bidding, set to marry Lord Westmire on the twenty-second of November… and Melaina had been dragged along with her. They were staying at Lady Edgewater’s house in town.

Melaina growled low in her throat. “Miss Ashwood is well-aware of what this night could cost me,” she hissed to Agatha. “She knows what it will cost us both if she doesn’t show. How can she—?” she broke off at the creak of a door behind them, and both women turned to look at the footman that was waving frantically to them from the servants’ stair. “Miss Melaina, come quick. We’ve found her.”

Melaina let out a sigh of relief that did little to calm her stuttering pulse. “Where is she?” she breathed, stalking down the hall and following the footman’s head as it bobbed off down the narrow staircase on her left.

“Down here, Miss. She’s… ah— perhaps it will be best if you see for yourself.”

Melaina’s little finger gave an uncomfortable twitch.

“What has she done this time?” whispered Agatha, tailing along in their wake.

Melaina turned back, already half-way down the first flight of steps. “You don’t have to come down, Miss,” she whispered. “It’s not proper.”

The Lady Edgewater let out a tinkling laugh. “Not proper, my foot!” she exclaimed. “I haven’t had this much fun in years.”

Fun. Melaina shook her head. Fun wasn’t precisely what she would call Miss Blanche Ashwood. No, impulsive, inconsiderate, arrogant perhaps. But fun? Not at all.

Melaina hadn’t understood why Mr. Ashwood had been so determined that Melaina should accompany his daughter on her voyage to London. Nor why he had resulted to threats to ensure that the marriage between Blanche and the Duke of Westmire would indeed be a success.

“Blanche is… headstrong,” he had said.

Melaina recalled the smell of cigar smoke and warm leather wafting towards her as Mr. Ashwood rose and circled around behind her chair. She was perched on the edge of her seat in front of his vast mahogany desk. They were home, in Carth Pennsylvania. The thriving town situated on the edge of Lake Erie from which Mr. Ashwood ran his thriving spice empire. Her father was sitting in the chair beside her, tugging at his collar.

“She needs a firm hand. Someone to keep her on the path that I have marked for her.”

Melaina frowned. Miss Ashwood was at least nineteen years old. Surely, she was more than capable of traveling with a single chaperone to England in the early fall.

“I’m afraid I don’t understand,” she said, looking to her father for clarification.

“Your father is indebted to me,” answered Mr. Ashwood curtly. Melaina glanced over her shoulder to see him fingering the spine of a thick ledger on the side table behind them. “A considerable sum, I’m afraid.”

“What?” gasped Melaina, her eyes widening as she took in her father’s ashen complexion. “Is this true?”

Her father cleared his throat, tugged at his collar once more, and nodded.

“If Blanche marries the Duke of Westmire, I have agreed to forgive his debts,” continued Mr. Ashwood, as though Melaina had not made a sound.

“I’m afraid I still don’t understand.”

Mr. Ashwood circled around his desk to face them once more. “My daughter does not wish to marry the Duke,” he stated plainly, folding his hands behind his back. “But this marriage will open up trade routes along the Eastern coast of England. Trade routes currently in the possession of the Duke of Westmire. If I can gain access to those routes…” Mr. Ashwood smiled for the first time, and then his dark eyes focused on hers. “Ensure that my daughter marries the Duke, Miss Hartley, and I will forgive your father’s debts. Fail to do so, and I will have him imprisoned.”

Melaina turned away from Lady Edgewater, trying to ignore the sick feeling enveloping her gut as they made their way through the dark scullery and stepped into the kitchen, which was ablaze with light. The scene that met them halted Melaina mid-step.

There were four people in the room. One of them, Melaina recognized as the Duke’s butler. He was an imposing figure, tall and broad shouldered, with a cap of thinning black hair on his head. The plump, nervous woman wringing her wrinkled hands beside him was the cook. Melaina had been to speak to the woman personally two days before, regarding Blanche’s ‘special’ diet, the one that meant that she was not permitted to consume any alcoholic beverages during tonight’s gala.

The second woman was, thank the Lord above, Blanche Ashwood, who was sitting at the scrub table, her heart-shaped face glowing like the setting sun.

“Melaina!” she exclaimed, springing to her feet the moment she saw her. “Melaina, my dear! Have you heard the happy, happy news?” Blanche ran forward and wrapped her arms around her, squeezing Melaina so tightly that she nearly forgot what it felt like to breathe.

“What—what do you mean? What is this?”

But Melaina had just caught sight of the fourth figure in the room, who had risen from his seat at the table slowly, his face abashed and the back of his neck red. The butler was glaring at him with his arms crossed.

“I refuse to employ a scoundrel such as yourself, Geoffrey. You’ll turn in your livery and be on your way tomorrow before dawn,” he spat. “You’ve brought an unclarified amount of shame on this household with your actions tonight.”

Melaina looked from the young footman to Blanche’s beaming face and back again, fear burrowing deep into her belly. “Blanche,” she whispered, “What have you done?”

The heiress’s face fell slightly as she took in the terror in Melaina’s expression. “I—I fell in love,” she said. “We’re married now.”

Melaina stared at Blanche’s silvery dress and at her wide blue eyes, uncomprehending. “In love,” she repeated. She took a step back, her gaze blurring slightly, so that all she could see was the firelight dancing off Blanche’s blonde hair.

“Yes,” smiled Blanche, taking hold of her hands, “With Geoffrey.”

Melaina’s fingers were so numb that she couldn’t truly feel Blanche’s hands in her own. “With Geoffrey,” she repeated again. “Geoffrey. This man?” she pointed a trembling finger at the red-faced footman standing a few feet away from them. “The Duke’s footman?”

“He’s also his valet,” said Blanche, still smiling. “Come, come. You must meet him.”

“No.” Melaina stood her ground as Blanche tried to tug her forward. “No, I mustn’t meet him.” Her vision cleared, her eyes narrowing to slits. She jerked her head. “You will get an annulment,” she murmured. “No one need ever know. Close the door,” she snapped at Lady Edgewater.

Agatha jumped at being addressed so sharply, but did as she was told, unable to disguise her excitement. What a scandal! The Duke’s bride to be has married his valet!

Every eye in the room was fixed on Melaina, but she only had eyes for her charge, whose joyful expression was sliding away as though she had been doused with icy water.

“We won’t get an annulment,” she stated. “We’re going to travel to India together.”

“India,” scoffed Melaina, her fury only just contained. “India! If you marry the Duke, he’ll take you to travel the world, you daft wagtail!”

Blanche set her stubborn jaw, just as Melaina had seen her do on countless occasions since she’d been tasked with the woman. “I will not be marrying the Duke,” she hissed. “I’m married to Geoffrey, and there is no undoing it, Melaina. No judge will grant us an annulment. Not now.”

Melaina stared at her. “You didn’t…” she whispered. “Blanche Melody Ashwood. Please tell me you didn’t.”

Blanche lifted her chin, a defiant gleam in her eye. “It’s consummated,” she stated boldly. “There is no undoing it, Melaina. It is done.”

A furious cry tore from Melaina’s chest, tearing at her throat. “Do you realize what you’ve done?!” The anguished sound of her voice made every soul in the room tremble.

“My father’s business will be just fine,” mumbled Blanche, lowering her eyes to her toes for the briefest of moments.

“And what of my father?!” Melaina cried. “I told you, Blanche! I trusted you with the truth! You’ve… you’ve betrayed me!” Her chest was tight, her ribs straining against her stays. “Blanche! How could you?”

All at once, the fight left her, and Melaina slumped forward to sink, shaking, into one of the sturdy kitchen chairs.

“I haven’t betrayed you,” whispered Blanche. “I haven’t.”

Melaina refused to meet the woman’s gaze as Blanche dropped to her knees in front of her, her hands coming down atop Melaina’s own.

She stared down at Blanche’s slender fingers. They were thin and tapered and soft. The woman had never worked for anything a day in her life.

“Listen, Laina, darling. Listen, I have a plan.”

Blanche reached up to brush a strand of reddish hair away from Melaina’s tear-filled eyes as Melaina shook her head.

“My father will go to debtor’s prison,” she whispered through quivering lips.

“No,” said Blanche. “No, he won’t. I won’t be marrying the Duke, but you can marry him in my stead.”

Five whole seconds ticked by on the pendulum clock in the corner of the kitchen. The butler was the first to break the silence. “It’s possible,” he said in his gruff voice. “Very possible.”

Melaina’s head snapped up. “What on Earth do you mean?” she growled. “Of course it isn’t possible. The Duke will never accept me as his bride! He’s counting on Miss Ashwood’s dowry! My penniless family has nothing to offer the Duke of Westmire!”

“But…” said Blanche, her jovial smile returning, “mine does.”

Melaina shook her head, trying to clear it.

Blanche continued. “Think about it! The Duke has never met me before. He has no concept of my appearance. None at all, save a small sketch that my father had commissioned for him last year when they began their negotiations.”

“We look nothing alike!” cried Melaina, eyeing the heiress’s blonde hair.

“We’ll just say that the artist was incapable of capturing your likeness,” said Lady Edgewater unexpectedly.

Melaina turned in her seat to glare at her.

“I haven’t even met with my father’s London solicitor yet,” said Blanche. “The only people that know what I look like are in this very room!”

“It’s true. My servants have been mixing the two of you around from the moment you arrived at my home two months ago,” added Lady Edgewater.

“We’ve been planning this night for nearly half a year,” said Blanche. “The Duke’s aunt wished to put off our official meeting until every arrangement was made.”

“Do you suppose he’s rather unfortunate looking?” giggled Melaina helplessly. “Oh, Blanche, I can’t marry the Duke.”

“You’d be a duchess,” murmured Blanche.

“A duchess under your name!” Melaina stressed. “I’m sorry, but this is completely preposterous.”

“Miss Hartley, if I may speak,” the butler stepped forward. “Geoffrey and Miss Ashwood’s behavior will result in the largest scandal English Society has seen since Prinny himself took up with Mrs. Robinson. If you were to marry the Duke under Miss Ashwood’s name, that could all be avoided.” He looked hopeful at the very thought, his eyes shining. It was clear that this man was very proud of the house he served. “The elopement of a potential Duchess would be a disaster,” he finished. “You could save the Westmire home from certain shame.”

Melaina paused, martialing her thoughts, and somehow, the idea began to make sense. “But what about your father?” she hedged. “You can’t possibly think that he won’t visit. I thought he was planning on attending the wedding?”

Blanche shook her head, wiping at her nose, her expression suddenly wooden. “Father sent a missive last Tuesday. He will be traveling to Mexico City in November. He apologized and sent his regrets.” Her chin quivered.

Despite her fury at the situation into which she had been placed, Melaina couldn’t help the twinge of sympathy she felt for Blanche. What must it be like, to have a father whose main concern was never you?

In their months together, Blanche had told Melaina the stories. Stories of the birthdays he had always missed, the Christmas mornings spent with her governess and the household staff… because her mother was gone, you see, and her father couldn’t be bothered with her.

She reached out and took Blanche’s hand, then looked around at every hopeful, excited face in the kitchen. There would be seven people, including herself, in on the secret.

“If I agree to do this,” Melaina peered carefully into each face, making sure each of them met her gaze. “No one must ever know. You must all give me your word. From this moment on, Melaina Hartley does not exist.”

“Hurry! Hurry!” Melaina gave Blanche a shove on her pert backside as the two of them scampered back up the servants’ staircase, closely followed by Lady Edgewater.

At the top of the stairs, the three women separated. “I’ll go down to soothe feathers,” she said. “You’re nearly two hours late. I’ll tell them our carriage was caught up on the ride over.”

“You best tell them it was overturned,” chuckled Melaina. The thrill of what she was about to do was making her giddy. She took hold of Blanche’s arm and they sped off down the hall, looking for an open doorway.

“Thank heavens we’re nearly the same size,” Blanche whispered as they slid into a guest chamber and closed the door. “You couldn’t very well be introduced as the next Duchess of Westmire in that dowdy old rag, now could you?”

Melaina scowled, but otherwise ignored the slight on her dress. She was, indeed, a full-figured girl, as was Blanche. Her hips had often been referred to as “perfect birthing hips” by her auntie.

As she stripped off her pretty red and floral gown, she glanced down at those hips and thought that someday, she could potentially be giving birth to the Duke of Westmire’s children. Would they be considered illegitimate if the Duke ever discovered that he had been fooled? But why should he?

“Help me with the buttons, will you?” asked Blanche, drawing Melaina back down to Earth. She was hopping on the spot, struggling to undo the line of costly, pearl buttons that ran the length of her silver gown.

“You do realize, that you won’t be able to afford a handmaiden after this, don’t you?” chuckled Melaina, setting to work on the pearls at once.

“I won’t need one,” muttered Blanche, a smile in her voice. “I’ll have a husband for such things.”

Melaina sighed. “I’m so angry with you,” she said, finishing with the buttons and helping to tug the long silver sleeves from her friend’s arms. “But I can’t blame you for not wanting a husband foisted upon you against your will…” she sighed again. “You never even gave the Duke a chance. He could be quite nice, you know.”

Blanche snorted. “He rubs along quite well with my father, what do you think that says about his charming personality?”

Melaina giggled. “It must be non-existent.”

“Exactly. Now step into this at once and turn around, I’ll do you up.”

There was a soft knock on the door. “Who is it?!” they both cried in unison.

“It’s just me, you ninnies, settle down,” Lady Edgewater sidled into the room and closed the door behind her.

“Hurry up, they’re waiting for you, Miss Ashwood,” she beamed at Melaina, who gulped audibly.

Blanche was sliding her hips into Melaina’s red dress and fastening the last of the buttons. “Don’t wait for me,” she said. “Go!”

“Is this goodbye then?” Melaina looked up at Blanche, saddened at the thought that she might never see the rambunctious heiress again.

“Oh…” Blanche paused, glancing up and taking hold of Melaina’s arm. “Perhaps not just yet. Come, sit here.”

She pushed Melaina down onto the stool in front of the room’s vanity table and took up a comb. In a matter of seconds, she had Melaina’s reddish brown curls pooled on top of her head. They dangled there, just above her chocolate eyes, and Melaina exhaled them out of her face. She glanced at herself in the mirror, shocked that she couldn’t see the frantic thrum of her heartbeat as it attempted to pound its way out of her chest.

“I’d pinch your cheeks, but they’re red enough as it is. Do try to calm down, won’t you?”

“Great gingersnaps, Blanche Ashwood, how am I supposed to calm down?” Melaina’s voice was high and squeaky.

“Breathe,” suggested Lady Edgewater. “Now come, let’s be off.”

“One more thing,” sighed Blanche, frowning as she bent her head forward and unclasped her necklace. “I hope you don’t mind,” she said. “I took a few of the pieces from my collection, on the off chance we need to sell them. But the rest of them are yours now.”

“M-mine?” Melaina stuttered as Blanche slid a glorious necklace around her throat. “They’re opals,” she said indicating the gems surrounding a pearl cameo in the center, “and here,” she passed Melaina a set of pearl earbobs. “There, now you’re ready.”

She smiled and kissed Melaina on each cheek. “Best of luck to you.”

“And to you,” Melaina whispered. The women hugged. “Stay out of trouble.”

Blanche winked. “You know I cannot promise anything of the sort.”

Melaina left the room on Lady Edgewater’s arm. “We’ll go down together. There’s a footman waiting to announce you on the landing.”

Indeed, there was. Melaina swallowed. Her throat had gone dry. She tried to clear it, but only succeeded in making another soft squeaking noise, like a mouse being trodden on.

“Here we go!” laughed Lady Edgewater, sounding exhilarated, and she tugged Melaina off down the stairs.

The footman caught sight of them. The staff in his hand lifted and fell three times onto the top-most stair with a mundane finality that echoed throughout the entire room. Every eye in the entire place found Melaina and fixed her where she stood.

“Lady Edgewater of Green Haven, and Miss Ashwood, the Heiress of Carth.”

For a moment, Melaina stood there and trembled, staring around at every upturned face. She experienced a momentary, mad desire to flee back up the stairs, but Lady Edgewater took a firm grip on her arm and whispered: “Smile, my dear. You’re about to become the Duchess of Westmire.”

Melaina straightened her back and felt her face split into a brilliant smile. The moment that her feet touched the bottom step, the room erupted with brief, polite applause and then everyone started talking at once.

“Where is he?” Melaina whispered. “The Duke. Where is he?”

“Calm down,” whispered Agatha out of the corner of her mouth. “He’s here.”

“Looking for me?”

Melaina gave a start at the voice that spoke just over her shoulder and turned around so fast that she cricked her neck.

“May I introduce to you, the Duke of Westmire?” said a stoic, paunchy man to her left.

Melaina’s eyes found the Duke’s, and her face flushed a brilliant shade of scarlet.

He wasn’t a particularly tall man. Standing a few feet apart from one another, she could tell that he was only a few inches taller than she, and there was a certain sweetness to his face that she found comforting. He had an angular jawline that was ringed by short, bristling hairs, and his hazel eyes crinkled in the corners as he smiled at her. He was older than she had thought he would be. She would have guessed him at forty and six or seven, but with an unmistakable air of sureness about himself, as though he knew the world would shift beneath his feet to make way for him.

The Duke stepped nearer to her and bowed low over Melaina’s hand. She was abruptly aware of her dress, and how there was a wrinkle in the silken fabric near her left knee. She also noticed that the eyes of the crowd around her were following her every move.

Forgetting herself, she stared at the Duke as he rose, smiling expectantly. Lady Edgewater gave Melaina a discreet nudge with her elbow and she abruptly dropped into a low curtsy.

“My Lord Westmire,” she murmured to the tiled floor. “It is an honor.”

“The honor is mine, Miss Ashwood.”

Melaina thought that her heart might soon explode from the strain of the evening. She straightened. “I must apologize for my inexcusable lateness, my Lord. We were met with difficulties on our arrival.” It felt good to tell at least some portion of the truth to this man. At least her first words to him wouldn’t be an outright lie.

“You were missed,” he said. “I was… rather eager to meet you. I must say,” he was staring at her with heated intensity, and for a moment, Melaina faltered. He must realize… how could he not? “The image your father sent me does not do you justice.”

The breath that she had not realized she was holding escaped her lips in a sigh of relief. She smiled at him and bobbed another small curtsy. “Thank you, my Lord.”

He nodded his head, holding out his arm to her. “Perhaps, we could speak more privately for a moment?”

Melaina blinked, then cast a side-long look at Agatha, who nodded encouragingly. Melaina forced a smile and, feeling as though she were relinquishing a life-ring amidst a turbulent sea, she transferred herself onto the Duke’s arm.

He led her away from the entrance hall, down a narrow hallway, and drew her into a smaller, but still extravagant sitting room. Melaina felt a twinge of unease as he signaled a footman to close the doors behind them.

“Oughtn’t we to have a chaperone, my Lord?”

“Grunnings will do,” said the Duke with a small smile, indicating the austere painting of an elderly gentleman that hung above the mantelpiece. “I must apologize, but I’ve been waiting months to have a look at my future bride and I’m not at all interested in being eavesdropped upon.”

Melaina chuckled, “I would think being eavesdropped upon would be an occupational hazard of being the Duke of Westmire.”

The Duke frowned, releasing her arm to stride over to the sideboard. “Unfortunately, yes,” he growled. “If every one of my peers doesn’t have his ear pressed against the door at this very moment, then I’m a horse’s prominent backside.”

Melaina giggled.

“Would you like a whiskey?” asked the Duke, pouring himself a generous measure.

She coughed. “A whiskey? I think not.”

The Duke looked up at her in surprise. “I’m sorry, I had heard rumors that you liked to partake, however scandalous that may seem.”

He smiled, and his eyes crinkled pleasantly in the corners again.

At his words, Melaina recalled that she was supposed to be impersonating Blanche Ashwood, an heiress notorious for her scandalous behavior and lack of propriety.

“I—.”

“Oh, go on then,” said the Duke, holding out a glass to her.

She took it and, without giving herself a moment to consider, tipped the entire glass into her mouth. The liquid seared at her throat, making her eyes water. She gulped audibly and made a horrid face.

The Duke chuckled and refilled her glass for her. Melaina gazed doubtfully down into the amber liquid and raised it to her lips once more.

But the Duke placed a palm over the rim. “Perhaps, we should take things slowly,” he said, raising an eyebrow. Melaina nodded, thanking her lucky stars that she wasn’t expected to taste the foul liquid for a second time, and followed him to the settee. The Duke waited politely for her to take a seat and then folded himself into one of the cushioned chairs opposite her with all the dignity that befitted his station. He looked so comfortable in his surroundings, that for a moment, Melaina quite wanted to confess that she had absolutely no idea what she was doing.

She swallowed the urge, and looked expectantly at the Duke, waiting for him to speak.

His glass tapped twice against the arm of his chair.

“Your father has informed me of your… reluctance in this arrangement.”

Melaina opened her mouth, and then closed it again. She sat back against the cushions. “Yes,” she said finally, “I have… expressed that view.”

“Done quite a bit more than expressed it, I think,” he chuckled. “I want you to understand that I intend to make good on my word to your father, but I do not want you to feel as though you are being forced into a situation in which you have no say.” He paused as Melaina’s eyebrows flew up. “A shock?” he queried. “I’m sorry to be so straight-forward,” he shrugged, “I like to be clear in my intentions.” He took a tiny sip of the amber fire in his glass. I did it wrong, thought Melaina, watching him swallow with apparent enjoyment. “I just want to request that you give this arrangement a chance. I was quite looking forward to meeting you tonight. I hope that I am not a disappointment to you.”

“Not at all,” said Melaina hurriedly. “Your frankness is much appreciated.” But the Duke did not appear to be listening.

“You are very beautiful,” he said in a rush, as though he had been determined to get the words out before he lost his nerve.

Melaina blushed at his complement. “Thank you,” she whispered. Her hands were folded around the whiskey in her lap. She could think of nothing else to say.

The Duke shifted in his chair, tugging a small box from his pocket. “That reminds me,” he said. “I have something for you. I’ve had it brought from the vaults.”

Melaina raised her eyes to his as he clicked open the box to reveal a magnificent ring. It glistened with emeralds in the firelight. She caught her breath at the sight of it.

“I know you are accustomed to larger jewels,” he murmured, indicating the necklace of pearls and opals around her neck. “But this one has a certain sentimental value to me. You see, it was my grandmother’s.”

Melaina’s eyes filled suddenly with tears. The Duke either didn’t notice or was tactful enough to ignore them as he withdrew the ring and made to slide it onto Melaina’s finger. “As we’re engaged, it seemed only right that you should have it.”

The ring dropped onto her finger with ease and the Duke frowned. “Hmm, seems a bit loose. Strange. I asked your father for your sizing only last month before I took it to the goldsmith.” He patted her hand and Melaina experienced a strange swooping sensation in her stomach. “No matter, perhaps we’ll take a trip into town together tomorrow and have it re-sized. It shouldn’t take long. We could have a look in the shops if you like.”

Melaina’s smile trembled, but she nodded. “That sounds wonderful.”


A Twist of Fortune

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Noelle

The fifth and final story in the unforgettable Brittler Sisters Series, Noelle is a grand adventure of quirky romance… and baking. 😉

noelle

Noelle

Book Five in The Brittler Sisters Series


 

Noelle Brittler’s task is simple. Marry and marry well.

And yet….

Emboldened by the successful marriages of her four elder sisters, Noelle is determined that she will have nothing but perfection in a suitor. She lives her day-to-day life, planning parties, organizing charity events and taking slow, wistful turns around the garden, burdened with dreams of a future that she feels is slipping away from her.

Kenneth Black is anything but perfect. Destitute from a young age, Kenneth has managed to make a name for himself. His Bakery, La Petite Paradis, is frequented by adverse clientele. He feels that even the wealthiest of lives can be made a little richer with the taste of something sweet.

When Kenneth rescues a young, attractive woman from a terrifying encounter, he never expects to find himself presented with an invitation to one of the most coveted events of the year— a 50th birthday celebration for the girl’s mother, one Samantha Brittler.

The Brittlers are notorious amongst the lower class for their wealth and standing. While Thomas Brittler, the owner of Brittler Steel, is a self-made man, just as Kenneth is, Kenneth is under the impression that he would not be welcomed at this event as himself, the lowly town baker.

Aided by the intoxicating Miss Noelle Brittler, he adopts the character of a well-known architect. Their plan seems to be working well, that is, until certain costly items begin disappearing beneath the noses of the many wealthy guests in attendance. There are cries of theft and everyone is looking for someone to blame…

As tensions rise and passions come to fruition, the pressure is on to find the thief and clear his name. He can’t have Noelle, but he’d sooner be tossed out on his ear than let her think him a thief.


 

Take a sneak peek at Chapter One!!!

Noelle

Chapter One

 

Manhattan, 1888

 

Noelle heaved a sigh as she clambered from the Brittlers’ family carriage and stared down at its rear left wheel, which had sunk to its bearings in thick, dark mud.

The day hadn’t gotten off to a very good start. Firstly, she had been forced to sit through a deadly dull lecture provided at the courtesy of her father’s sister, who was visiting from England.

“Well, dear,” the woman had begun, squinting across the breakfast table to the place where Noelle sat, her fork halfway to her lips. “What are we going to do with you?”

Noelle raised her eyebrows at her aunt. Aunt Meldrid was a straight up-and-down, beanpole sort of woman with an incredibly long nose. Something, Noelle supposed, must come in handy, as she spent so much of her time poking it into other people’s business.

Noelle popped her fork into her mouth and took her time chewing, doing her best to ignore the steady tut-tutting that was issuing from across the table.

“It’s just you now, dear,” said Aunt Meldrid, still tutting and eyeing Noelle in the way one might examine a sprout in the garden tray that was refusing to grow. “Isn’t it about time you settled down? I wish you would let me set something up with Arnold’s great-nephew. He’s close by and,” she added, her bony cheeks pinching together as she grinned, “I’m told he’s quite proficient at the clarinet.”

Noelle had groaned at that point and glanced toward her father, who sat at the head of the table, his great fluffy mustache bristling behind his newspaper as he attempted to contain his amusement.

“Auntie, I hardly think that ‘proficient at the clarinet’ ranks very high on the list of qualities one might desire in a prospective husband.”

“Alright,” said Aunt Meldrid testily, sitting back in her seat and looking quite disappointed. “Why don’t you inform us what sort of qualities do merit recognition on this fabricated list of yours?”

Noelle choked on her eggs.

“Yes,” agreed her father cheerfully, slapping his paper down onto the table and turning toward Noelle with an entirely unhelpful amount of interest. “Do let’s hear what my delightful daughter requires in a suitor.”

Color flooded Noelle’s cheeks and she glared at her father, who still looked as though he were refraining from laughter with immense difficulty. “Is this relevant?” she asked him through gritted teeth.

“Oh, I should think it’s highly relevant,” said Aunt Meldrid. “How else would we ever manage to delve into the depths of your rather opinionated young mind?”

Noelle set down her fork and folded her hands in her lap, praying for patience. “Well,” she said, choosing her next words with care, aware that Aunt Meldrid would be analyzing each of them for a flaw that she could nit-pick to death. “I would say that kindness would have to be at the fore of the list.”

“Is that so?” said Aunt Meldrid critically, as though she didn’t think that kindness would be at all the sort of quality worth mentioning. “Will your future husband use his kindness to provide for you and your future children?”

“Perhaps,” answered Noelle. She was goading her aunt now. She couldn’t resist. The woman was insufferable. “I also believe that determination is a key concern.”

“Well, now, there’s something I can understand,” grumbled her aunt. She reached forward and took a sip of tea from a dainty china cup, her pinky in the air. “A man must be determined to succeed in every endeavor.”

“Including the winning of a woman’s heart,” Noelle added, nodding her head. Her aunt’s brief expression of approval slid into one of complete exasperation. She opened her mouth to contradict her, but Noelle was already talking over her. “I mean,” she said innocently, “take Father for example…” Thomas’s smirk fell away at once and he gave Noelle a warning look. “He positively refused to hear the word no in his pursuit of our Mother. I do believe he followed her round all of London until she agreed to court him.”

Her father’s shoulders rose in an embarrassed shrug, and he suddenly became very interested in adding sugar cubes to his coffee.

“Round all of London?” queried Aunt Meldrid, and her beak-like nose turned to Thomas Brittler, her beady eyes fixing on him with all the sharpness of a hawk spotting a field mouse.

“Yes, well,” Thomas blustered straightening his collar. “As you know, Samantha was involved in a number of charitable events through the season. I simply desired to accompany her.”

“After she had already rejected you? Was she not otherwise engaged with her duties?”

Thomas’s face grew red; he glared pointedly at Noelle, who grinned, fluttering her dark eyelashes. “What was it you said to her on your first meeting, Father? Didn’t you tell her that…”

“That’s quite enough talk on the subject, thank you very much,” muttered Thomas, leaping to his feet. He cleared his throat and pulled his napkin from his shirt-front. “Yes, I’ll see you both later,” he said, his cheeks still red with embarrassment, and he stomped out of the room.

Noelle tittered and continued with her breakfast, unaware that her aunt’s sharp featured face had turned back to examine her critically. “Another piece of toast?” she said, watching Noelle spread marmalade. “Don’t you think you’ve had enough? Your figure certainly doesn’t need any filling out.”

Noelle scowled at her aunt, then she looked her straight in the eyes and took a defiant bite, making sure to crunch it as loudly as she could.

 

She frowned at the memory of these callous comments and smoothed her hand over her flat stomach.  She wasn’t heavy. Alright, she was a bit fuller around the hips and bosom than any of her three sisters, but they’d always screeched of how they envied her. She looked very like her eldest sister, Dianna, who was blonde and willowy with pleasant curves around her hips. Oh, darling Dianna. It felt as though everything had started with her. Noelle sighed again.

Her eldest sister had been gone for nearly two years, and one by one during that time, her other sisters—Sarah-Jane and Charlotte—had gotten married and disappeared. Well, that was what it felt like. They’d abandoned her to live their own lives with their perfect husbands, leaving her completely at the mercy of her mother, Samantha Brittler, and her Aunt Meldrid, who were practically the same person. Noelle loathed her aunt’s visits, which had become more and more frequent after Charlotte’s wedding in the Spring of 1886. Noelle had the impression that her mother had summoned her aunt so that they could work together to marry her off to whichever suitor they deemed most appropriate.

A sick feeling of ill-usage welled up within her and Noelle snorted. Marry her off indeed. None of her sisters had married just because they had been instructed to, and she was quite determined that she wouldn’t be the one to break the chain.

Flummoxed and irritable, she focused her attention on the problem facing her.

“It’s stuck good, Miss,” said the footman, Kincaid, bending low to give the wheel another fruitless tug. “I’ll need a half a dozen men to help me lift it back….”

Thunder rolled over the skies, making the world vibrate with its throaty roar, and Kincaid’s next words were drowned out. Noelle held a hand over her eyes and peered up the dirt track in either direction as soft raindrops began to fall.

“I suppose we should begin the trek,” she said dispiritedly. “Should we head towards home? Or towards the shops? Which do you think might be closest?” Wind whipped her skirts around her ankles as she spoke.

“Unfortunately, I think we’re about half-way in betwixt them both, Miss,” shouted Kincaid. “I don’t like to leave you alone, but I can’t ask you to ride all that way with me in this weather. Why don’t you wait in the carriage? I’ll bring someone back with me.”

Noelle frowned and glanced into the dark interior of the coach. “It’s a bit of a ways,” she said doubtfully.

“I can manage it, Miss,” said Kincaid, waving his arms and shooing her back under cover. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

“But—.”

Kincaid had already slammed the door. Noelle watched him unhitch the horse and tear away into the downpour, her spirits sinking into the dark mud as quickly as the carriage wheels.

The weather showed no signs of easing. Noelle fidgeted in the damp interior of the carriage, leaning this way and that to gaze out of the fogged windows. If anything, the clouds overhead grew darker throughout the afternoon as the rain pounded relentlessly upon the roof. Noelle’s stomach gave a low growl.

An hour later, the storm broke like a fever in the night and the clouds split open. Sunlight glimmered down onto the rain-drenched landscape and Noelle had to shield her eyes from the sudden glare. “Really?” she muttered, staring accusingly up into the restless sky, “make up your mind, won’t you?”

Stiff from her long incarceration, Noelle threw open the door and stepped out into the muddy track. The surrounding landscape looked as though it had been sitting on the bottom of a lake. She glared up the road between the large factory fences on either side, searching in vain for a sign of Kincaid’s approach. Nothing. At this rate, she’d never manage to get to the shops and back before her mother arrived home this evening, not unless she was willing to walk the rest of the way on her own.

This particular stretch of road was not one that was usually favored by Manhattan’s wealthier inhabitants. Bordered by high, intimidating fences, it was well-traveled by the factory and mill workers, some of whom were certainly not the friendliest of sorts. Most of them were male immigrants from Germany or Ireland who had traveled to Manhattan in search of work. They were generally built of rough material, their language guttural and their manners crude. But as it was early on a Wednesday afternoon when Noelle had set out, she had never considered the route they had taken as potentially dangerous. Not until she heard the shrill whistle echoing over the damp air that signaled the start of the workers’ lunch.

On the path ahead of her, gates swung open in the fence line and men dressed in grubby work clothes began pouring into the streets. Most of them, Noelle saw with relief, headed toward the high street, no doubt in search of a quick meal in the marketplace. A handful remained behind, perching themselves on curbs and overturned crates to dig their stained fingers into their lunch sacks with dubious expressions on their faces. A small group of two or three meandered towards the carriage.

“Looks like someone ‘ad themselves a lousy morning,” laughed one of them in a thick accent, pointing at the trapped wheel.

Noelle stepped hastily behind the carriage, hoping they would pass by without noticing her.

“Eh, Jeb, look at the size of those caps,” said another voice. “Selling one of them would pay my rent for three months.”

“Aye,” said the Irishman, and Noelle saw three sets of heavy work boots halt on the other side of the carriage. “Aye, it would mine too. It’d be nice to have a wee bit of help now an’ then wouldn’t it?”

“You two keep a look out,” growled a third voice, and to Noelle’s horror, the third man leant down and began loosening the decorative hub caps on the rear left wheel.

“Excuse me!” she huffed, stomping around the side of the carriage. “I’d thank you not to make off with pieces of my carriage. What claim do you have on my hubcaps?”

The third man stood up so quickly that he rammed his head into the door handle. Rubbing it, he turned a furious glare onto Noelle, who realized her mistake as he straightened. All three of the men were large and brawny, and they leered at her with undisguised interest as she took a hasty step away from them.

“I reckon we have more claim on them caps than you do yerself, little miss,” said the Irishman to the left. “When is the last time a pretty thing like you ever lifted a finger to do somethin’ for herself?”

“You out here all alone, sweetheart?” said the broadest of the three men. He was massive, built like an ox, with bloodshot, baggy eyes, and at the moment, those eyes were wandering over her form with lecherous intent.

“No,” said Noelle, glaring at the three men as they slunk towards her. “My man will be back any moment.”

“Yer man? Surely you don’t refer to yer husband as yer man?” said the second man, and he let out a wheezy chuckle.

“Look at her, Diggy,” said the bear-like individual. “Pretty little thing thinks she owns the world. Any husband of hers would be bought and paid for just as well.”

Noelle shook her head in disgust. “Regardless,” she said, taking a few measured steps around the carriage and away from the mangy group, “as I said. He will be back any moment.” She moved gingerly around the patch of mud that had taken her carriage captive and slid into the tilted seat. “Good day, gentlemen,” she added. She made to tug the carriage door shut, but a large meaty hand had taken hold of the handle on the other side, and its owner was holding it fast. Noelle froze as the hugest of the three men bore down on her, smiling in a self-satisfied way as he watched her struggle to latch the door.

“Now then,” he said evilly, “you wouldn’t be wanting to be depriving us of your delightful company, now, would you?” And suddenly, his hand shot out. He took hold of Noelle’s wrist and shoved her forward with enough force to knock her to the floor.

“Careful, Jeb,” muttered the Irishman. “You don’t know who you might be messing with.”

“Yeah, we best keep moving along,” agreed the other.

“Shut up, both of you,” growled Jeb. “Keep a look out.”

Noelle scrambled away from the bestial man as fast as she could. Reaching the opposite side of the carriage, she fumbled for the handle behind her back, her heart leaping into her throat as Jeb hoisted himself in after her.

He was grinning now, his teeth pulled away from his lips in a malicious snarl. “You’re awful pretty to be left here all on your own,” he murmured, stretching out a hand and grasping Noelle’s upper arm. “What’d you say I keep you company until someone comes to fetch you?”

“Get your hands off me!” The sound was meant to be a shriek, but it came out as a breathless hiss, and it was cut off as Jeb clamped a rough hand down on Noelle’s lips. She bit down. Hard. And tasted blood. Jeb cursed and snapped away his fingers. Noelle filled her lungs and let out a hair-raising shriek.

He was on top of her, his horrible scent filling her nose and then, suddenly, he was gone. Noelle was so startled that she laid still for a full ten seconds, her chest heaving, then she sat up. There was a scuffling sound outside the carriage and Noelle heard an Oof! It sounded as though someone had just punched her attacker in the stomach.

Noelle slid out of the carriage door, her heart still hammering in her chest, and was momentarily confused by the scene before her.

“What’s all this? What’s all this?” said a voice, and the man struggling with Jeb took an abrupt step back. Jeb straightened, looking furious.

“Henry,” he said, turning to face a workman who was clearly a superior of some sort. “I was…” Jeb looked around for his mates, but the two men had already fled. Noelle saw the scruffy pair glance back at Jeb as they turned a corner and vanished down a side street.

There were again three men standing in front of Noelle. One of them, Noelle noticed with a rush of nervous interest, was very handsome. His face was red with exertion, and Noelle blushed as she realized that it must have been he who had pulled Jeb off her. He had to be just over six feet tall. His face was long, and structured as though the Lord had taken it upon himself to paint a perfect jawline. His hair was dark, and, at the moment, his eyes were narrowed in fury. When he glanced in her direction, Noelle felt her breath catch.

“He was attacking her, sir,” said her savior furiously. His dark eyes flashed back onto Jeb. Jeb looked mean. His hair was disheveled, and his face had turned a blotchy purple.

His superior appeared startled. “Is it true?” he asked, turning crinkled eyes onto Noelle. She nodded, tugging at her dress, trying to straighten it. She knew she must look an awful mess. And she noticed, as she lifted a hand to her hair-pins, that her fingers were shaking slightly. She felt numb, and rather cold.

“We’ll see what the constable has to say about this,” said the workman, and he seized Jeb by the collar.

“I ain’t going to the constable, Henry Berkshire, I’ll tell you that,” growled Jeb. He yanked free of his boss’s grip and turned to Noelle. “You ain’t heard the last of me, Miss,” he hissed, and he spat on the ground by her feet.

The man who had saved Noelle moved so swiftly, she nearly missed what happened. One second he was standing three feet away from her, and the next he had wrapped Jeb’s neck around his elbow and pulled him into a headlock.

“I think you owe the young lady an apology,” he said viciously as Jeb struggled.

“Could we have a bit of help over here?!” shouted the workman exasperatedly, waving his hands. Noelle looked around. Their little drama had drawn a small crowd of factory workers down the lane. Two men strode forward and seized Jeb’s arms. He jerked away from them, and lunged at Noelle, who felt her fist fly up as though of its own accord. As her hand made contact with Jeb’s nose, she felt—all at once—a sickening crunch, and a blinding pain in her fingers. Jeb dropped onto his knees, cradling his face in his hands.

“I think you broke it!” he squalled.

“I quite wish I’d done you more harm than that,” Noelle muttered, shaking out her fingers to ease the sharp pain. “Will someone please remove this man from my presence?” She looked up to see every man present giving her a startled look, then, slowly, two men bent down and heaved the hulking Jeb to his feet.

“You ain’t heard the last of me,” he spat again, blood pouring from both of his nostrils.

“Yes,” said Noelle, coolly, “You said that. Unfortunately, I must disagree. Goodbye, Mister Jeb.”

She didn’t pause to watch as Jeb was dragged away from her, still caterwauling to the high heavens.


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Something wicked this way comes….

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It’s finally here!!!

A Brush with Death is up for preorder!!

I know you’ve all waited an entire year for this. I just have to say, thank you so much for your patience and support. It means the world to me!


 

In 1888 London, Isabel Vanderton is facing down the society gossips with defiance and indifference. As the only child of Marcus Vanderton, she is the rightful heir to the Vanderton fortune, and whoever dares to marry her will inherit the lot, winner take all.

As rumors of her ill health circulate, Isabel finds herself encountering suitor after suitor, no doubt hoping to win her hand—and her inheritance—before she passes to an early grave.

An endless wave of greedy suitors is not the only thing Isabel has to contend with. Her legs are failing her, her body is weak, and she is being haunted by a man of such breathtaking beauty that he cannot possibly exist.

But exist he does. Terrified of slipping into madness, Isabel tries to ignore the pull he has over her mind and her body as she suffers through encounter after encounter with a man no one but she can see.

Death is impatient.

Since Isabel’s mother died thirteen years ago, he has watched her. He has haunted her for years, and now he has come to claim what is rightfully his. He will have Isabel at any cost.

Determined, Death sets out on a careful game of seduction that threatens Isabel’s very sanity. She will succumb to him, or she will suffer the consequences.

As Isabel bargains desperately for her soul, Jack the Ripper stalks the London streets, endangering everything and everyone Isabel holds dear.


 

Read the First Chapter here

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Sarah-Jane

Sarah Jane


Sarah-Jane is perfect. She’s petite, and adorable and happy. There’s not a young woman in all of Manhattan that doesn’t envy her. But beneath the easy-going charade she displays, Sarah is desperate. Her life is full of a gentle complacency. She’s entirely dependent on the will and whims of others, and she also has a secret. A desire that takes hold of her when she’s least expecting it. A reckless, misguided need that she can never allow to surface.

When Carson Williamson stumbles across a fiery-tempered woman in the ruins of his great great grandfather’s mansion, he never once suspects that she would be the same well-bred, high-class lady he has arranged to meet the following week. Under the distinct impression that Sarah-Jane is hiding a myriad of insane emotions from her family, he sets about attempting to force her to show her true self to the world, and thereby have her committed.

But Sarah-Jane isn’t about to have that. She’s not insane. And now she has to prove it to Carson before he does something drastic.

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I wanted to offer you all the chance to purchase a signed paperback copy of any of the following titles. I’ve ordered about twenty of each! So this is a limited time offer for the moment.

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Book 1 in The Brittler Sisters Series

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Little Rose

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Charlotte

Book 3 in The Brittler Sisters Series

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Sarah-Jane

Book 4 in The Brittler Sisters Series

Sarah Jane

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Noelle

Book 5 in The Brittler Sisters Series

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A Brush with Death

Book 1 in the Hands of Fate Series

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Miss Hadisham’s Perfect Apple Pie

To CELEBRATE the Release of My Valentine’s Day Novella, Two Hearts One Stone, I thought I’d take a second to bring you right into the story. This way, even if you can’t live it, you can at least taste it. 😉

When I wrote this piece, I pictured something so delectable, it was absolutely impossible for poor Henry to resist. Immediately after finishing the story, I had the strongest apple pie craving I have ever had. I have since been on the hunt for the perfect apple pie recipe. These are my findings, and I thought I would share.

perfect-apple-pie

 

First: You need the perfect crust

To every pound of flour allow the yolk of one egg, the juice of one lemon, half a saltspoonful of salt, cold water, one pound of fresh butter.

Put the flour onto the paste-board; make a hole in the centre, into which put the yolk of the egg, the lemon juice and salt; mix the whole with cold water (this should be iced in summer if convenient) into a soft, flexible paste with the right hand, and handle it as little as possible; then squeeze all the buttermilk from the butter, wring it in a cloth and roll out the paste; place the butter on this and fold the edges of the paste over, so as to hide it; roll it out again to the thickness of a quarter of an inch; fold over one-third, over which again pass the rolling-pin; then fold over the other third, thus forming a square; place it with the ends, top and bottom before you, shaking a little flour both under and over, and repeat the rolls and turns twice again as before. Flour a baking-sheet, put the paste on this and let it remain on ice or in some cool place for half an hour; then roll twice more, turning it as before; place it again upon the ice for a quarter of an hour, give it two more rolls, making seven in all, and it is ready for use when required.

 

Then you need the perfect filling:

3 pounds apples

1 tablespoon fresh-squeezed lemon juice

1/4 teaspoon fresh lemon zest

1/2 cup white sugar

1/4 cup light molasses

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

pinch of salt

1 tablespoon cold unsalted butter (dot filling top)

Directions
  1. Prepare the pastry: Roll the pastry and line a 9-inch pie plate with the bottom crust. Roll out the remaining dough for the top crust. Chill the pastry.
  2. Preheat the oven to 400° F.
  3. Prepare the filling: Pour the fresh-squeezed lemon juice in the bottom of a large bowl. Add your lemon zest to the bowl. Peel, halve and core the apples. Be sure to remove seeds. Slice them evenly and slim into the bowl, coating them with the lemon juice as you go.
  4. In a separate bowl, mix together the sugars, molasses and spices. Add them to the apples just before you want to bake the pie, mix gently. Adjust sugar to taste as needed.
  5. Scrape the filling into the bottom crust, dot with butter and cover it with the second crust. Trim and crimp the crust; chill the pie for about 10 minutes in the refrigerator. Cut vent slits in the top crust. It is your option to sprinkle it with sugar or brush the top with egg wash.
  6. Bake the pie on a baking sheet for 10 minutes at 400° F or until the crust looks dry, blistered, and blonde. Turner the oven down to 375°F, and bake for at least 45 minutes more or until the crust is golden brown, and visible juices are thickened and bubble slowly through the slits in the top crust. Check if the bottom crust has darkened. If not bake a little more and cover the top crust, so it does not burn.
  7. Cool the pie completely before cutting at least a few hours or warm in an hour. Store the pie uncovered in a cool place up to three days.

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Henry Moscow doesn’t believe in love. At least, not anymore. Not in the crude sense of hearts, flowers, ribbons and bows. But in the small town of Churchgrove, love is one of the things they LOVE to celebrate the most.
Caught up amidst the chaos of Churchgrove’s annual Valentine’s Celebration, Henry bids on the company of a woman at the Annual Courtship Auction to save her from embarrassment, and wins.
Now he’s saddled with a boisterous companion that he does not want, Churchgrove’s notorious Miss Hadisham.

Miss Emily Hadisham owns Churchgrove’s only dress shop. She works her fingers to the bone to design beautiful gowns for young women who think, like their parents before them, that she is a witch. Emily makes use of herself in the only way she can and tries to stay out of the public eye. That is, until February the 14th. Sick of her life of utter and complete loneliness, Emily throws caution to the winds and takes a chance to find her happiness.

Henry Moscow isn’t what you would call the ideal partner, but Emily is determined to make him into one, whether he likes it or not.


Two Hearts One Stone

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Read a Sneak Peek of Josephine Blake’s Debut

THIS IS THE ONE

Two Hearts One Stone

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Henry Moscow doesn’t believe in love. At least, not anymore. Not in the crude sense of hearts, flowers, ribbons and bows. But in the small town of Churchgrove, love is one of the things they LOVE to celebrate the most.
Caught up amidst the chaos of Churchgrove’s annual Valentine’s Celebration, Henry bids on the company of a woman at the Annual Courtship Auction to save her from embarrassment, and wins.
Now he’s saddled with a boisterous companion that he does not want, Churchgrove’s notorious Miss Hadisham.

Miss Emily Hadisham owns Churchgrove’s only dress shop. She works her fingers to the bone to design beautiful gowns for young women who think, like their parents before them, that she is a witch. Emily makes use of herself in the only way she can and tries to stay out of the public eye. That is, until February the 14th. Sick of her life of utter and complete loneliness, Emily throws caution to the winds and takes a chance to find her happiness.

Henry Moscow isn’t what you would call the ideal partner, but Emily is determined to make him into one, whether he likes it or not.

 


Two Hearts One Stone

A Valentine’s Day Novella

Now Available!


 

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THIS IS THE ONE

 

Sneak Peek of Charlotte: Book 3 in The Brittler Sisters Series

Dear reader,

Charlotte was a ton of fun to write. A little quirky, a little different, but also managing to hold onto that characteristic Brittler stubbornness that we all know and love. I hope you all enjoy her as much as I did!
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Charlotte Brittler is content. Unlike her elder sister, Dianna, who headed west in search of a life of adventure, Charlotte thrives in the bustling, overcrowded Manhattan streets. If she could only find a husband, her life would be complete.
When the son of a local oil baron captures Charlotte’s hard-won interest, her most basic instincts come into play, and Charlotte is swept away down a path full of secrets and intrigue, in a twisting game that threatens her very heart.

Logan Drexel is the son of a professional con man. Nothing more and nothing less. His father has gambled away his grandfather’s company, wasting any funds they bring in on maintaining an appearance of exuberant wealth to the Manhattan society.
Charlotte Brittler is his only chance.
Logan knows that if he is to recover his dignity—and his family’s good name—he needs money, and a lot of it. So, he promises himself one more con. One last time, he will seek to deceive someone for monetary gain. If he can marry Charlotte, every debt collector can be safely swept under the rug, and he can escape the clutches of a father that has used him time and time again.

But Charlotte is not a prize to be won. She’s a furious, flame-driven storm that will stop at nothing to get what she wants, and Logan quickly realizes that the tables have turned. When he set out to steal Charlotte Brittler’s heart, he never banked on losing his own.


 

 

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Charlotte

Chapter One

She couldn’t breathe. Charlotte held onto the bedpost for dear life as her mother cinched her stays even tighter than she had the day before.

“There,” she said, at last, tying off the ends and stepping back to admire the effect she had created. “You look perfect. Where’s your gown?”

“Mother,” gasped Charlotte, turning on the spot to face the woman with her hand pressed to her ribs. “I’ll be passed out in the middle of the dance floor within the hour. My toes are tingling.”

“Tosh,” said Samantha Brittler. She waved her hand dismissively, and moved to the wardrobe. Charlotte glared at her, already feeling light-headed.

“I’m quite serious, Mother,” grumbled Charlotte as she tottered over to the dressing table and began running her fingers through the rigidly fashionable curls her mother had wound about her head. “I won’t be dancing at all if you insist I go like this.”

Samantha ignored her. She was good at that. “This one will do perfectly,” she said, removing a blue silk gown from the wardrobe and laying it out on the bed. Charlotte sighed.

“Slide that on at once. I’ll send for Penny in a moment to help do up the buttons.”

Charlotte frowned after her mother as she exited the room, then she listened to her enter her sister’s room next door,

Her chest was already heaving as she struggled to take in enough tiny puffs of air to keep her body functioning.

“This is ridiculous,” she muttered to herself, eyeing her reflection. Her waist was pulled in so tightly that she could encircle it with her hands and her elegant fingers would touch on both ends. Her long red hair dangled down her back as she turned in the mirror to gaze at the laces of her stays. Her fingers were white and bloodless. She gasped and began fumbling with the ties behind her back.

She heard the bedroom door open and her hands dropped to her sides as she looked up to see who had entered. Noelle slunk into the room, looking quite as uncomfortable as Charlotte.

“I’ll loosen yours if you loosen mine,” she whispered.

Charlotte smiled in relief and waved her sister over to her, hardly having the breath left to speak.

Noelle let out a tiny gasp as Charlotte worked her fingers expertly over her sister’s laces. They fell loose at once, and Noelle’s face flooded with color.

“She’s been so much worse since Di left,” she said, turning around and nudging Charlotte’s shoulder, still breathing like a wounded horse. Charlotte spun her back to her sister and held her breath so that Noelle would have room to maneuver the strings.

At last, they came free, and she sucked in great lungfuls of air while her head spun dizzily. Charlotte made her way over to the bed and collapsed next to her blue dress. Noelle followed her.

“She’s worried,” said Charlotte, rubbing her temples and gazing at the face of her wardrobe without seeing it. “She thinks if she doesn’t get us married off, we’ll leave her, like Di.”

“Dianna didn’t abandon us,” said Noelle, a dreamy look coming over her face. “She left to find love.” Charlotte snorted and Noelle glared at her. “She did!” she insisted.

“We haven’t heard from her weeks, ‘Elle.”

“She said she would write when she came into town. She said Greyson was very pleasant, but that she wouldn’t be able to write much,” Noelle quoted stubbornly.

“She’s glossing it over. You know as well as I do Dianna was searching for an adventure. She’d be happy with or without this man.”

“They’re going to fall in love,” muttered Noelle. “Just you wait.”

Charlotte rolled her eyes as her sister headed for the door and opened it a crack. She peered out into the hallway beyond and then looked back over her shoulder.

“Mother’s in Sarah’s room.”

“You go in and rescue her once mother sends for Penny.”

Noelle nodded to show she understood and then slithered back through the door, closing it softly behind her.

A few moments later, Charlotte heard a bell ring in the downstairs kitchen. Penny, the housemaid, entered her room.

“She’s got you trussed up like a thanksgiving turkey, she has,” giggled the girl as she deftly tugged Charlotte’s gown onto her shoulders and began buttoning the back of the bodice. “How are your stays?”

“Noelle loosened them a bit,” responded Charlotte with a grimace. Penny nodded and moved out of the room. Charlotte was left alone with nothing to distract her but her very irritable thoughts. She listened to the sounds of her mother readying her sisters for the night’s event and a spark of anger lit in her chest.

It was a few moments before she realized what had infuriated her. Dianna. Stubborn, wonderful Dianna. Her eldest sister. If only she were here, she would be able to calm their mother’s anxieties.

Thomas and Samantha Brittler had four daughters. Four, stubborn, idealistic daughters with enough will to flatten a mountain range. Dianna had been the first, and so, she was also the first to go. She had left them. Quite of her own volition.

Left her mother and father and three sisters behind in Manhattan to travel across the country and marry a man she had never met. Well. Noelle might find that romantic. She, Charlotte, found it tasteless. And though she would rather bite off her tongue than admit it, a small part of her agreed with their mother’s blatant opinion on the matter.

Of course, she knew why Dianna had left them. She knew it as surely as she knew that the sun would come in the morning. Dianna had left, not out of selfishness or spite, but out of need.

Charlotte understood that Dianna had needed something more. She’d never been happy with their way of living. With the day-to-day calls and charity work and sewing. She had wanted to live, and Charlotte couldn’t blame her, but it didn’t stop her being angry with her.

Dianna was the only one of the four girls who could ever manage to curb their mother’s overzealous nature. Samantha Brittler was a former debutant with a taste for the social aspect of Manhattan. She liked to see and be seen, and she did not approve of Dianna’s decision to travel westward, not in the slightest. Dianna had been the only one of the Brittler sisters with enough of Samantha’s own genes to contradict her ridiculousness.

She had been logical, to the point of being irritating, but then there were times when some whim or feeling had taken hold of her and she would throw her logic to the wind. Her personality was a kaleidoscope of contradictions. Next to her eldest sister, Charlotte always felt robustly sane. She knew what she wanted, and she knew how to get it. She did it quietly and without fuss. If Dianna had been logical, but reckless, Charlotte was clever and fierce. She liked that about herself. She liked the ability to see past dreams and frivolities. She did not ache for change. No. If she could only find a husband, she would be content with life in Manhattan. Or in some closely related facsimile.

A husband who would care for her, and most importantly, love her. She’d seen examples of loveless marriages. She’d had friends who had been matched with wealthy men so that their families could profit. They were lonely.

If Charlotte was sure about anything, she was sure about this. She would marry one day, and she would marry for love. She wouldn’t take a chance on a stranger. No. She would love the man she married, and she would be absolutely certain that he loved her in return.

A knock sounded on her bedroom door once more and her mother entered without waiting for a response.

“Are you ready?”

Charlotte stood up. She was within an inch of her mother’s height, but while Samantha was slender, Charlotte’s silhouette was full of curves. She was shapely, with long legs. Her waist dipped in pleasantly, and her long red hair was rich and thick in texture.

She looked very little like the rest of her family. It wasn’t just her brilliantly red hair, it was in her facial structure, and in the way she moved and talked. She was different.

“I just need my necklace,” she said dispassionately. She retrieved it from her vanity and allowed her mother to fasten it about her neck.

“There,” said Samantha, bestowing a rare smile on her. “You look lovely. Let’s be off then.”

Charlotte rode in the carriage next to the window. It was another dreary Manhattan evening. Their weather had been abysmal as of late. Noelle and Sarah chatted amicably, but Charlotte couldn’t even muster the energy to feign interest in their conversation.

“How do you think he’ll do it?” asked Noelle from the other side of the carriage.

“I don’t even know that he will, ‘Elle,” giggled Sarah. She blushed.

“You do too. He’s absolutely smitten with you. He’s bound to ask you to marry him.”

Samantha Brittler cast Sarah-Jane an approving look. Sarah had recently managed to capture the attention of Fredrick Carson Williamson. The son of a wealthy coal merchant from England, whose father their mother had been acquainted with in childhood. Carson had traveled to America on business and now seemed quite taken with Sarah. Their mother could not have been more pleased to make the introduction, or to take the credit for their running courtship.

“He’s wonderful, isn’t he?” sighed Sarah, her breath steaming against the window. Her eyes were wide and dreamy. Charlotte had the impression that Carson Williamson could have been a pauper in the street and Sarah-Jane would have fallen for him in a heartbeat.

“Oh, good. We’re here,” said Thomas Brittler as the carriage drew to a halt in front of a large manor house. The gardens surrounding the vast dwelling were magnificent, even given the season. Neatly manicured hedges, leaves swaying in the cool evening breeze, lined a stone walkway. The house it led to was ablaze with lights, and Charlotte caught the sound of string music echoing out over the lawn. It was a captivating atmosphere, and she followed her sisters from the carriage, thinking that perhaps the party would not be a complete waste of time after all.

The house belonged to a man called Berkley Drexel. A man whom her father heartily disliked. He was an oil baron with, she had come to understand, considerable ingenuity in swindling others out of their money. Charlotte had never met him, of course, but she had listened to her father rage against him at the dinner table enough times to know that, had it not been for her mother’s insistence, they would not be attending this gathering at all.

“Think of the people that will be in attendance,” she had pleaded. “Think how it will look if we do not make an appearance. Everyone shall assume that you do not approve of Mr. Drexel. That you think he is beneath you.”

“They would be right,” Thomas had huffed, his great mustache blowing hither and thither in his agitation. “That man is a thief. His company is built on the backs of his unwilling and unknowing investors. He hasn’t a cent to his own name.”

You would never know it, thought Charlotte as she mounted the front steps of the manor. The foyer was decorated with marble and gilded gold. It was a rather ostentatious display. Her family had wealth, thanks to her father’s sound investments and intelligent business decisions. His steel mills were flourishing, but their home did not display such a dramatic exhibition of their means. She could tell that the Drexel estate was designed to inspire envy in those less fortunate, and the thought made a hard lump rise in her throat. Whoever this Mr. Drexel was, he was bound to be a pretentious snot.

As they entered the lavish ballroom, Charlotte caught sight of a black-jacketed band in the corner. She hummed quietly under her breath along with the familiar notes of the 1812 Overture that emanated from their beautiful instruments. How she loved music.

A few onlookers milled around a crowded dance floor in the center of the room. Ornate gold and crystal chandeliers decorated the ceiling.

“Look,” hissed Sarah in her ear as they made their way around the room, “He’s here.” She was indicating the tall, black-haired gentleman in the corner that was eyeing their party with every appearance of delight on his face.

“You knew he would be,” said Charlotte, a crooked grin sliding over her lips as she took note of the excitement in her sister’s voice. She didn’t think Sarah heard her though as she strode forward to greet her suitor with their father by her side. Thomas Brittler made no secret of his approval for Sarah’s beau. He received Carson enthusiastically, clasping his proffered hand in both of his own.

“Mr. Williamson. A pleasure to see you again.”

Charlotte let her eyes wander over the crowd while they exchanged pleasantries. Her eyes fell on a young man that was sitting apart from the rest against the far wall. His eyes were closed and, for a moment, Charlotte thought he was asleep, but then she realized that he was listening to the music. He was on the shorter side, with a beard to rival her father’s. Charlotte could tell that when he stood, he would only be an inch or two taller than her five feet and six inches. He was olive-skinned and gave an impression of great warmth, but he looked drawn, weary even. His broad, muscled shoulders were slumped. She cocked her head to the side, wondering if someone should attend to him, as he obviously wasn’t well. Then his eyes opened, and they pierced her where she stood. They were the coldest shade of blue she had ever seen, almost colorless. His gaze stole the breath from her lungs, and she felt an eruption of sorts take place in her stomach.

The young man looked away from her to take a sip of his drink and Charlotte could breathe again. Her corset was feeling uncomfortably tight once more. She lifted her fan and spread the lace wide as a dull flush crept into her cheeks. She couldn’t take her eyes from him. Who was he? She’d never seen him before.

Noelle nudged her gently with her elbow. “What are you staring at?” she asked. Her voice was low so as to not draw the attention of the others.

“Nothing,” snapped Charlotte, recovering her senses. She turned her mind back to the conversation taking place before her, but she could feel the man’s presence like a cold breath on the back of her neck.

They moved on after Sarah had promised a dance to Carson and the sisters made their way to a set of vacant seats against the far wall. Charlotte, embarrassed by her reaction to the blue-eyed stranger, did not look around for him again. Although, strangely, she sensed he was trying to catch her eye.

The music drifted over her and the evening made its own slow progress toward the dawn. Two hours later found Charlotte quite at her ease. She was conversing with an old acquaintance about the lessons she had been taking on the pianoforte when a shout of anger drew her attention across the room. She spotted the source of the disturbance at once and recognized the speaker with a jolt.

“I certainly do not take kindly to the idea you are suggesting, sir, and I would thank you to check your facts before leveling such accusatory contention in my family’s direction.” Blue-eyes turned from his adversary in a huff and straightened his waistcoat with a flourish. Then his gaze found Charlotte’s once more. To her absolute shock, he made a beeline straight for her.

Charlotte could do nothing but watch him as he crossed the room to take hold of her gloved fingers and bow over her hand.

“Miss Brittler, might you favor me with this dance?”

After his none-too-quiet disagreement, every eye was upon them. Charlotte looked around for her mother or her father, wondering what on earth she should do. She was not acquainted with this man. They had never been introduced, and yet he spoke to her in the most familiar of tones, as though this dance he was asking for was a long-standing arrangement between the pair of them.

She hesitated for as long as she could whilst saving him from further embarrassment. “Yes, Mister-?” she prompted, rising to her feet as a soft violin began to play just behind her.

“Drexel, Miss. Logan Drexel.”

Charlotte felt her eyes go wide as he led her onto the floor. She swallowed uncomfortably as Logan Drexel’s arm encircled her waist and he pulled her into a flawless waltz. She blinked rapidly as those icy blue eyes found her, suddenly feeling like a mouse caught in the eyes of a snake.

“Have we-?”

“We have not been acquainted, miss. No. But I must admit, you caught my eye the moment you entered my father’s home.”

She felt her face color at his complement and she narrowed her gaze at him. “Is that so?” she asked suspiciously.

“It is,” he said. He lowered his voice conspiratorially so that his warm breath brushed her ear and his lips quirked up delightfully in the corner. “I’ve an eye for beautiful things, you see.”

“And an ear,” said Charlotte. His hand was cold on her back. She could feel his touch through her many layers, and she felt gooseflesh rise up her arms. “I’ve noticed you seem to have a fondness for music.”

He nodded as they spun in time with the fluid pace of the Gran Duo. “As I said,” he responded. “Beautiful things.”

Charlotte: Now Available!

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The Heart of Hope

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The Heart of Hope is a companion short story to Josephine Blake’s debut novel, Dianna. It tells the story of Parker Jameson, a ranch hand with an uncommon devotion to his employer, Greyson Crowley.
Parker is floundering. After a disastrous confrontation with the son of his current employer, he has been ousted out of every position he has applied for. Angry, and more than a little desperate, Parker hastily accepts an offer of work from Phillip Crowley, unaware of the dangers he will be faced with on the Crowley Ranch.
His story unfolds in a heart-wrenching fashion. Friendships blossom and love wanders unexpectedly into Parker’s path.
Love, loss, faith and friendship. The Heart of Hope offers a glimpse into the life of a character whose story wasn’t ready to end.

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Wish Upon a Snowflake

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Clara Cartwright is not beautiful. She is small of stature and childlike in appearance. She is also nearly eighteen years of age, a fact never fails to amaze the ladies of Firbranch, Montana, where she has lived for as long as she can remember.

Tucked in the foothills of hulking Mount Blackmore, Firbranch is home to an assortment of tradesmen and businessmen alike. Many of these men are set on marrying, but Clara is not the ideal candidate for a wife.

Resigned to the fact that her elder sister, Greta, can catch the eye of any man she fancies, while Clara herself is often still mistaken as a schoolgirl, she hides from the people of the town. Rarely venturing out for social functions and finding solace in the pages of her many books—Each beautifully bound edition, a gift from her father.

A tough and intelligent man, Clara’s father, Patrick Cartwright, works as a lapidary, collecting precious gems and selling them to the highest bidder. In Clara’s mind, however, her father is an adventurer.

He excels at his chosen profession, traveling far and wide across the country, but always home for Christmas.

Then comes the telegram. From far across the snow-covered Mount Blackmore, Clara’s father has sent word that the mountain pass has been snowed shut. He’s staying with a friend until the pass clears, but he will miss Christmas.

Heartbroken at the news, Clara resolves to do anything she can to help bring her father back home in time for the Holidays. Even if that means enlisting the help of the deplorable local fur-trapper, Charles Donahue.

Charles isn’t interested in guiding persistent little Clara over Mount Blackmore in the dead of winter, but when the stubborn young woman ventures out on her own, he is forced to follow.

Reckless, irritating, and sarcastic, Charles can understand why Clara Cartwright has not yet found a husband. She has a spark of defiance and stubbornness that most men would find off-putting. Charles, however, sees it as a challenge. An attractive little challenge indeed.

 


Wish Upon a Snowflake

A Christmas Time Novella

Coming to you on Dec. 2nd, 2016

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THIS IS THE ONE