Here’s an excerpt from my novella, A Winter’s Knight, one of six novellas in the anthology, A Timeless Romance Anthology. By the way, the inspiration for the hero of this book was the actor Richard Armitage, shown to the left. He totally made me swoon in North & South, and again as the deliciously conflicted Sir Guy in the TV series Robin Hood.
But I digress.
Standing in the middle of the great hall, Clarissa admired the splendid room with its arched ceiling. Several doors led off to the sides, with no clues as to what might be found beyond. Only one way to find out. She chose a door and moved to it.
With her heart pounding in excitement, she pushed open the door. The hinges creaked ominously. A cavernous room enshrouded in darkness met her eyes. Only gray light filtering through the windows provided any illumination. She stepped inside and paused until her eyes adjusted to the gloom. As her vision sharpened, she caught her breath. She stood in a grand ballroom, more glorious than any she’d ever seen during her four seasons in London. Crystal sconces graced the walls, and enormous chandeliers hung from the ceiling which might have been painted by the great Michelangelo.
Caught up in the beauty of the room, she imagined herself dressed in a glorious ivory ball gown, greeting a foreign prince. She sank into a deep curtsy and let her imagination take flight. “Why yes, Your Highness, I’d be delighted.”
Humming a waltz, she put her hands into waltz position and gave herself over to the rise and fall of the rhythm. Across marble tiles she danced, humming and spinning, imagining other dancers around her, their voices and laughter mingling with the musicians. When her tune came to an end, she sank into another curtsy toward her imaginary prince.
“It was my pleasure, Your Highness.”
“Pardon me for asking, but do you have permission to waltz?” a male voice echoed through the room.
Startled, Clarissa whirled around and stumbled backward. A dark figure blocked the doorway. Her heart thudded in her ears, and heat crawled up her neck to her face. Who had caught her in such a childish display?
Inwardly laughing at her own silliness, she fought off her embarrassment, and faced the consequence of her lapse.
The figure strode toward her in the long, confident strides of a man of authority. This was no servant.
She held her breath, peering at him. Was this the mysterious earl? She offered a sunny smile. “I didn’t mean to intrude, but your ballroom is exquisite. I just couldn’t resist.”
The man gestured toward a space in front of her where her imaginary partner had stood. “I don’t think His Highness minded.”
Surprised at the humor he’d just displayed—or was he mocking her?— she let out a strained laugh. “Er, no, perhaps not.”
The stranger stopped his approach within arm’s length. Her head barely reached the bottom of his chin, and the breadth of his shoulders surpassed those of other men of her acquaintance. In the dim light, she couldn’t see his face clearly and got only an impression of strong features framed by dark hair. But his clothing was of the finest cut and fabric. No doubt she stood in the presence of the terrifying Earl of Wyckburg. Although at the moment, he didn’t seem terrifying. Surely a murderer wouldn’t tease her about dancing.
He gazed at her with curious intensity. “You didn’t answer my question.”
She blinked. “Question?”
“Do you have permission to waltz?”
“Oh.” She laughed nervously again. “Yes, actually I do. The patronesses were kind enough to give me permission to waltz during my first Season in London a few years ago.”
He continued to look her over carefully. She wanted to retreat inside her cloak. Instead she smiled up at him, despite his lengthy scrutiny, and wished she could see him better.
She cleared her throat. “We haven’t been properly introduced.”
“No.” He said nothing more.
“I’m Clarissa Fairchild.” She sank into a proper curtsy.
“Yes, I thought so. Your father is Sir Richard Fairchild, is he not?”
“Yes.” Smiling, she waited.
He continued his grave appraisal. Something in his face bespoke abiding sadness.
“I presume you are the Earl of Wyckburg?” she prompted gently.
He drew in a breath. “Yes, of course, where are my manners?” He bowed. “Christopher de Champs, Thirteenth Earl of Wyckburg, at your service. This room is freezing. Do come into my study where I have a fire. I’m sure you’ll be more comfortable there—if you can bear to leave the prince, that is.” One corner of his mouth lifted so slightly she might have imagined it.
He offered her an arm, and she took it, still smiling up at him. He didn’t seem terrible at all, just sad. Perhaps he was lonely. Could everyone have been wrong about him? About his family? It was too early to tell, of course, but nothing about the castle or the earl had been what she’d expected. And he smelled wonderful! Mulled wine and bay rum mingled in a heady blend. She drew in a deep breath and resisted the urge to lean closer.
His gaze slid her way. “I trust you’ve been made comfortable, Miss Fairchild?”
“Indeed I have. The room and meal were both lovely. I went in search of a library, but found your ballroom instead. I hope you don’t mind.”
He paused. “Not at all. I’m gratified to see you’ve not suffered any ill effects from yesterday. You were barely conscious when we brought you here.”
She nodded. “It was terribly cold, but as you can see, I’m unharmed.”
“And your companion?”
“Only minor injuries.”
They crossed the main hall to a cozy study. A fire roared in the hearth, and lamplight illuminated the room. She looked up at the mysterious Lord Wyckburg—handsome in an austere sort of way, with sharp, stern features. His face was decidedly patrician, and his hair pure black. He was younger than she expected, probably not yet thirty. He looked down at her, and she blinked at the startling pale blue of his eyes. Strange, but she’d expected them to be as dark as night. Those light blue eyes should have been as clear as a brook, but harbored such brooding sorrow that she caught her breath.
He stared at her as if he hadn’t anything else to do. Then, visibly swallowing, he stepped back, severing all contact.
“Do try my selection of books here in my study before you brave the frigid air of the library.” He paused. “I seldom have guests, so I don’t heat rooms I don’t frequently use.”
“Of course.” She moved to one of the bookshelves on either side of the hearth and pretended to peruse the titles, but all her attention remained fixed on the man in the room. As he started to leave, she called out, “Do you have any recommendations?”
He paused, eyeing the door as if he’d hoped to escape through it. He turned to her, tension rolling off him. “That depends on what you enjoy. This section is mostly poetry, this is philosophy—”
“Are those your favorite things to read?”
Again he paused, as if taken aback by her question. “I suppose, on occasion. I read the newspaper the most.”
“You may think me terrible, but I love novels.” She smiled.
“No, not terrible.” He paused, looking her over in that careful assessing way. “Is your red hair a family trait?”
She stiffened. Whatever charm she’d thought she saw in him evaporated in the face of his condescending question. “My hair is not red anymore, it’s auburn.”
His lips twitched upward. “Sensitive about it, are you?”
Folding her arms, she eyed him coolly. “You would be too, if you were subjected to the names I’ve endured.”
“I suppose your father’s a redhead too?”
His insistence on calling her a redhead made her grind her teeth. But as she relied upon both his hospitality and his mercy, she felt obligated to reply. “No. It appears to be a feminine characteristic in our family, but it frequently skips generations.”
She gasped at the slight. Her mother had assured her that her once-red hair had deepened to an envious shade of auburn, but apparently, men still thought it a flaw. At least, this man did. Reminding herself that she’d received numerous offers of marriage, she squared her shoulders and told herself she didn’t care one whit for his opinion. Despite how lovely he smelled. Or how beautiful his eyes were. And how, the rare times he almost smiled, his face softened and became quite handsome. She shook herself. She meant to discover his secrets, not rhapsodize on his looks.
He rested an arm on the mantle, his curiously light blue eyes focused directly on her. “You are a direct descendant of Sir Reginald Fairchild and Aislynn McGregor?”
Her mouth dropped open. How did he know? “They are my grandparents five generations ago. How do you know so much about my ancestors?”
Grimly, he said, “I ought to, considering how much our family histories are intertwined.”
“What do you mean?”
He frowned. “Surely you know about the curse?”
Fascinated to meet someone superstitious, she leaned in. “Curse?” Was he he was making fun of her? She let out her breath in annoyance “No, please, do not tell me my hair color is a curse.”
He blinked, then slowly, a smile curved his mouth, transforming his stern face into an extraordinarily handsome one. A dimple appeared on his left cheek, giving him boyish charm. “No, not your hair. It really isn’t that bad.”
He chuckled softly, but the sound seemed to come from the surface, as if he never felt enough joy to truly laugh. “No, Miss Fairchild, the curse I refer to is the one your grandmother Aislynn placed upon my third great-grandfather William.”
She stared in horror. “Sir, that is a terrible thing to say.”
“It was a terrible thing to do. She cursed him and all future earls and countesses of Wyckburg.” No trace of humor touched his face. He fully believed his words.
Clearly, she stood in the presence of a madman. How delicious!