For Aidan Dougal, intimacy is impossible and marriage out of the question. Even asking for help is beyond him...until a wily enemy forces him to accept assistance from a gentle young woman whose delicate beauty and strange enchantments turn his cool composure into red-hot passion.
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With five million books in print and New York Times and USA Today bestseller lists under her belt, Patricia Rice's emotionally charged contemporary and historical romances have won RT Book Reviews Reviewers' Choice and Career Achievement Awards. A former CPA, Patricia is a native of Kentucky and New York, and currently resides in St. Louis, MO.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Somerset, Valentine's Day, 1757
Mora Abbott shoved a lock of crinkly auburn hair beneath the plain rim of her cap and fought off tears by defiantly opening her beloved book, looking for guidance. The page fell open on A Spelle for Trubble. She already had plenty of trouble. Why would she need more?
She longed for just a whiff of the vicar's pipe smoke or the scent of cinnamon drifting in from her foster mother's apple tart. She'd often internally rebelled against their narrow strictures, but they'd offered her a home when she'd had none, and over the years, they'd made a family together. And now she was without either again.
Both her adopted parents had died in the ague epidemic last month.
Orphaned twice and still unmarried at nearly thirty, she was free to do anything she liked now. Instead of letting the freedom intimidate her, she ought to find some positive use for it.
Why not start by trying the spells she'd been forbidden to use? For Valentine's Day, she could hunt recipes for love potions. She could think of no better way of deciding what to do next, although a spell for trouble appealed more than one for love.
Reading the receipt her hand had fallen on, she learned it was to be used to call for help in times of trouble. She didn't know what constituted trouble, but homelessness ought to count. She couldn't keep living in the village's only vicarage.
Perusing the page of required ingredients, she realized she had goose fat left from Christmas, and salt and thyme, and no one to object should she accidentally burn the pot. Spirits were a trifle difficult to obtain, since the vicar hadn't approved of alcohol. Perhaps the fermented cider from last fall.
It seemed exceedingly odd to have no one to question her actions, but she supposed she would eventually adapt to living alone.
Puttering around the kitchen kept her from having to think too much about her lack of family. The duke who owned the vicarage was a kind man and would never throw her out, but she couldn't deny the village a new vicar by usurping the only house available for his use. She simply needed to find a new place to live. Somehow. Without family who must take her in, she didn't precisely fit in easily elsewhere.
She smoothed the page of recipes and mixed the fat and other ingredients in a pot over the fire, flinging salt on the flames as instructed. She couldn't imagine that such humble ingredients could produce anything except the smelly smoke that was traveling up the chimney now. Very possibly her mother had burned up in a fire caused by such foolishness. Mora had spent twenty years harboring an insane hope that the haunting voice in her head meant her mother was still alive and would one day come for her. But she knew it was past time to let go of that false belief.
Still, she murmured the incantation with a whisper of prayer. She knew she didn't belong in Sommersville. No matter how hard she'd tried to blend in, she'd never been as honest and good as her adopted parents, or as humble and accepting as the villagers. Always there was a little voice in the back of her head urging her to do things differently than she'd been told, telling her there was more to the world than her limited view suggested. If only the spell could tell her where she belonged.
In her youth, she had thought being good would make her loved, but no matter how hard she tried, even her adopted parents had come to accept that she would never be the proper little princess they wanted. That failure had hurt most of all.
At nearly thirty, Mora had to accept that she was cold and unlovable. Most days, it didn't bother her greatly. Practically speaking, though, the loss of her only family meant she had no one who wanted her.
The grease in the pot popped and bubbled, then caught fire. Feeling foolish at the dreadful stench from the burning grease smoking up the kitchen, Mora doused the fire with flour and opened the window to dump the pot's contents on the garden. So much for witchery. The least the stink could have done was arouse her mother's voice to scold her for playing with fire. But Mora had ignored the voice for so long that it had taken to hiding.
A brightly garbed, slender woman stepped briskly through the fog outside the window, and Mora hastily attempted to blow the lingering smell away with a towel.
Since the first time they'd met, Mora had felt a connection with the wealthy young woman who had married the duke. She supposed it was because the duchess had book learning to match Mora's, even if Christina tended to be more athletic than intellectual. Mora counted Christina Malcolm Winchester, Duchess of Sommersville, as her only friend. An eccentric one, perhaps, but one who did not question Mora's unmarried status or odd notions as every other person in the village was inclined to do.
Mora opened the door to the damp spring air before Christina had time to knock. "You really must learn to use the front door or scandalize Mrs. Flanagan with your lack of ceremony," Mora warned her.
Christina breezed in, unfastening her rich cloak with a dramatic sweep that scattered droplets in her wake. "I have already scandalized her. I do not know how you hold your tongue so politely in her presence. It is more than I can do."
Taking the duchess's cloak, Mora ignored the old complaint. As the daughter of the vicar, Mora had never had any choice except to be polite. Holding her tongue so often had fed her hidden mutinous nature-not to mention raising calluses on her tongue.
"The grocer just brought me a tin of his new tea shipment." Hanging up the cloak, Mora took the faded teapot down from its shelf. "Let's celebrate Valentine's Day by having some before you tell me who needs aid now."
"Tea would be lovely. Douglas refused to eat his porridge this morning, and it is now decorating the nursery ceiling. I could not abide his nanny's scolding any longer." Christina roamed the kitchen rather than settle in a chair.
"Are the maids blaming ghosts or Dougie's unnatural abilities today?" Mora asked in amusement. A one-year-old who flung porridge onto a twenty-foot high ceiling made for much speculation.
"Both. You do not want to hear what admirable diaper habits he's developed." Christina came to an abrupt halt.
Her unusual stillness alerted Mora. Cursing herself for not hiding her mother's peculiar book, Mora set down the tea tin, but it was too late. Christina had already opened the cover. "Let me put that old thing away." Feeling oddly protective of the ancient tome, Mora reached to take it from the counter.
Christina caught her hand. "No, wait. This is fascinating. My family keeps journals just like this one." She flipped the old vellum to the title page. "A Journal of Lessons, by Morwenna Gabriel. Wherever did you find this?"
Mora attempted to wrestle the tome from the duchess's grasp, but Christina pressed her hand against Mora's, preventing her from closing the book. "It belonged to my mother," Mora admitted reluctantly. "Her name was Brighid Morgan, so I do not know who owned it originally. I had hoped Morwenna might be a distant relative." As a child, she had dreamed of having a real family, and Morwenna Gabriel had often played the role of fairy godmother in her imagination. But she wasn't a child any longer. "It's mostly foolishness, but there are some excellent recipes-"
"But wait! There is something appearing beneath our hands. Lift your thumb. Look."
Mora removed her palm from the page. In the weak light from the window, she could see nothing unusual. "It's stained, that's all. It's a very old book."
Christina lifted the page closer to the window. "No, there-it's writing, just where our hands met. I'm sure of it."
Mora strained to see. She wasn't short, but Christina was taller than most women, and Mora had to stand on her toes to come closer to a page she had seen a thousand times over the years. "It's impossible."
"Heat," Christina replied abruptly, bringing the book back to the sink. "The heat from our hands brought out the letters. Hold the teakettle behind the page."
"That will ruin it!" But Christina was a duchess, and years of serving the church and her adopted family had taught the efficacy of obedience. Mora brought the steaming kettle to the sink.
"Gently, now. I'll hold the page; you hold the spout behind it." Christina lifted the book.
Trying not to harm the brittle pages, Mora swung the steam back and forth. At Christina's cry of triumph, Mora set the kettle down and peered over Christina's shoulder.
An aging, brownish yellow script appeared right beneath the author's name.
"It's an old trick," Christina explained. "My sisters and I learned it from one of our mother's books when we were little. You write with lemon juice and it is impossible to read. Add heat, and the writing appears."
It hadn't appeared in all the years that Mora had perused the book, but she refrained from saying that aloud, or from mentioning that Mora's mother had been too poor to buy lemons. The duchess talked with ghosts. Perhaps she could read ghost writing as well.
Years of upbringing in the Church of England had failed to dispel Mora's fascination with supernatural subjects. Her mother's voice had faded over time, perhaps because Mora had been forced so often to deny its existence. Her adopted parents had disapproved of the spell book, but they had not objected to her experimenting with the book's herbal recipes. By selling possets and potions, Mora had helped keep the table full in times of scarcity. Making scented lotions wasn't the same as performing magic, her foster parents had reasoned.
Hoping the faded words would provide the answer to her prayers, and afraid that they wouldn't, Mora left the book in Christina's hands. "What does it say?"
"It's an inscription. ‘To Brighid Gabriel upon the birth of our daughter, Morwenna, named after our common ancestor. With love and adoration, your husband, Gilbert.' Is Gabriel your real name? If so, your father may have given this to your mother as a christening present."
Struck dumb by the suggestion, Mora stumbled to a kitchen chair and sat down with a thump. The chair skidded. "My mother's name was Brighid Morgan, not Gabriel."
She had never known the name of her father, had never been certain that her mother was married.
If this inscription was meant for her mother, she'd been named after a common ancestor. She might have a family. The world as she knew it had just turned upside down. She was so shaken that she didn't think she could stand again.
Mighty heavens, was this the answer to the spell she'd conjured? Had she performed magic and found a solution to her problem?
Christina laid the book in front of her. The magical writing was still there. Her name might be Gabriel instead of Morgan. Perhaps she was making too much of the first name. Other Brighids existed.
"Gilbert Gabriel, isn't that the name of the viscount who lives in the north?" Christina asked.
"I don't know," Mora whispered, staring at the yellowed ink. "We seldom had newssheets." She caressed the page her real father may have held. "I had no idea-"
"You said Brighid was your mother's name, didn't you?" Christina asked blithely, settling on a chair with her tea as if prepared for a cozy gossip.
"But she was Brighid Morgan, or so I thought."
Mora had used Abbott, the surname of her adopted parents, all these years, but she'd always thought her real name was Morgan, a common name in Wales. She'd thought her given name had come from the author of the book. Her mother was eccentric enough to name a child after an author she admired. But to change her last name from Gabriel to Morgan? Why? None of the possible reasons were good ones, and Mora shivered even while staring at the writing with rapt interest.
She was aware her past was mysterious, that her foster parents often whispered about her origins when she was particularly defiant in those early years. But she remembered her real mother as having loving arms and laughing eyes and a carefree acceptance of her childish foibles. That was the last time she'd felt truly loved for who she was and why she so desperately wanted to find her family now. The book had to be an answer to her prayers. Or to her spell.
"Brighid and Morwenna are unusual names. Surely it refers to my mother and me," she murmured.
Christina raised her golden-brown eyebrows. "I've always thought of Gabriel as a Scots name. I thought the vicar adopted you in Wales."
"He did," Mora murmured, still dizzy with new knowledge. "I'm Welsh. Morwenna is Welsh, isn't it?"
"Not necessarily. Morgan is certainly Welsh. Gabriel is biblical, so it could be also." She frowned at the inscription. "Didn't you say the book was saved from a fire? I wonder why the writing did not appear then."
"The book was kept in an iron box in the vegetable cellar," Mora said, her mind racing. "The heat never reached it." Perhaps if it had, her life might have turned out differently. Instead of being the adopted daughter of a village vicar and his wife, trying desperately to fit her wayward nature into their unassuming lives, she might have lived with her real family-if they could be located.
Christina looked at her with curiosity. "Mora? What is wrong? Your aura is quivering."
That bit of nonsense brought a smile to Mora's lips. "I never thought I had a legal father. How would I find out if this Gilbert Gabriel is still alive?" She didn't dare express all her hopes aloud.
But the duchess understood. Her eyes widened. "If your father is still alive, you may have family!" Her expression changed to one of dismay. "Surely you would not desert Sommersville? How would we get along without you?"
This was the only home Mora had really known. She had spent a lifetime watching the children of the village grow up, marry, and have children of their own. She had nursed the elderly and babies alike, laughed with their joy, and wept with their sadness.
Yet she had never, ever been one of them.
Such aching longing ballooned inside her that it was all Mora could do to hold back tears. "A real family might accept me as I am, wouldn't they?"
Christina chuckled. "Families don't necessarily accept one's faults, but I cannot imagine any family not welcoming a calm, prudent, orderly woman of rare practicality such as yourself."
In her heart of hearts, Mora knew that wasn't who she really was. That was who the Abbotts had wanted her to be, and she had tried very hard not to disappoint them. In the eyes of the world, she was a staid old maid. In her heart, she was a terrible, wicked person who wanted to fling off her cap and dance beneath the stars with her hair blowing unbound. To sing with joy without people staring. To practice magic, experiment with herbs, think odd thoughts. In her very deepest, darkest soul, she longed to live.
Fingering the starched linen covering the tight plaits that held her unruly hair, Mora dared open her mind to the immensity of the world beyond the village.
"The village," she said, abruptly brought back to earth. "There is ...
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