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Authors: Barbara Monajem

The Christmas Knot

BOOK: The Christmas Knot
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THE CHRISTMAS KNOT

A Slightly Gothic Regency Mystery Romance Novella

Barbara Monajem

Copyright © 2015 Barbara Monajem

All rights reserved.

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Thank you.

This novella was released initially on January 12, 2015

in a limited edition boxed set of seven Regency romances,

Captivated By His Kiss.

CHAPTER ONE

W
anted: respectable, fearless widow to serve as governess to two children in remote Lancashire location. Spartan conditions, haunted house, fair pay. Inquire at the Duck’s Head, Rawden.

As the stagecoach neared Rawden, Edwina White withdrew the advertisement from the agony column of
The Times
and perused it again. Not that she needed to—she already knew it by heart.

In her mind, she put check marks against the requirements, as she’d done many times before.

Widow—yes.

Fearless—no, not precisely. Desperate was a better word for it, but desperation breeds courage, so…yes.

Respectable—almost. She’d behaved badly once, but that was nearly twelve years ago. Since then, she’d been married and widowed in the most tedious, ordinary fashion, and besides that, no one knew about her one idiotic peccadillo.

Children—of course; she was a governess. Spartan conditions—she’d been brought up in the north, so in a way this was like coming home. As for haunted houses, that was sheer nonsense. Her greatest fear was that the advertisement might be a jest.

Well, if all she encountered at the Duck’s Head was mockery, she could hire herself out to serve ale and tup the customers. Since all she had left in her reticule was a ha’penny, she wouldn’t have much choice.

The coach lumbered into the yard of the Duck’s Head. Her heart beating rather more quickly than she liked, Edwina tried to smooth her wayward hair. At the last stop, she had tied it back as tidily and severely as possible, but already a number of wisps had escaped her bonnet and refused to stay confined. Hopefully, in spite of having gone several days without bathing, she didn’t smell as unpleasant as some of the other passengers.

The guard opened the door and let down the steps, and she eased her way into the chill December wind. Shivering in her pelisse, she took stock of her surroundings while waiting for the guard to unload her valise. Late afternoon sun struggled through gathering clouds to light the village. Apart from the Duck’s Head, nothing but a church and a string of cottages lined the sides of the road. The ancient church was of Saxon vintage, the vicarage behind it little more than a cottage itself. The Duck’s Head was a ramshackle Tudor building with age-blackened beams. All about Edwina rolled wintry-grey fields, but for a hill which loomed to the north. A bleak stone manor house lay tucked against the hill, one wall in ruins, judging by the pile of rubble and the jagged remains of the wall. There was no respectable house in sight of the sort that might need a governess. Her heart sank into her boots.

She dragged it back up, snatched the valise that held her worldly goods, and strode toward the inn door. How mortifying to have not even a penny for the guard! She held her head high and marched into the taproom.

All heads turned: a few tables with men nursing their ale, others playing draughts, and the tapster wiping tankards. The landlord, a tall fellow with a beard and a belly, lounged against the banister of a narrow staircase, chewing a straw.

He spat out the straw and came forward politely enough. “What may I do for you, missy?” As was the usual case with strangers, he took her for much younger than her actual age.

She swallowed hard. “I have come in answer to an advertisement in
The
Times
,” she said. “For a widow to serve as governess.”

The landlord’s eyes widened. He whistled. “You’ve come to work for Sir Richard? You’re a brave woman, to come live in a haunted house.”

Sir Richard.
That sounded somewhat promising. But where in God’s name did he and his family live?

“You don’t look like a widow to me,” the landlord went on. “Much too pretty, if I may say so myself.”

Edwina bit back a sharp retort; she might need this fellow’s help. Besides, although she spoke like a lady, her worn clothes proclaimed her poverty. “Nevertheless, it’s the truth. Married ten years and widowed almost two, and I don’t believe in ghosts.”

Immediately, the landlord turned serious. “You will, ma’am. You will. The Grange is cursed, it is. A lady ghost walks, guarding her treasure.”

“I see,” she said. “Since I’m not interested in treasure but merely a position as governess, I expect I shall do fine. Where, may I ask, is the Grange?”

“That’s it, ma’am.” He angled his chin in the direction of the gloomy-looking ruin. “Aye, that pile of stones. I don’t wonder that your mouth is hanging open.”

She clapped her mouth shut and opened it again. “But—”

The landlord grinned. “The rest of the house hasn’t tumbled down yet, but there’s no saying when it will, doing away with Sir Richard and his poor motherless children, and anyone else foolish enough to stay there. The curse has killed many over the centuries. Not long ago, two poor souls had to be dug out from under the rubble.”

“Good heavens,” she said involuntarily, glancing at the other inhabitants of the taproom. No one contradicted the landlord.

“Take my advice, ma’am,” the landlord said. “Turn around and go back where you came from.”

If only she could. “Thank you, but since I have traveled all the way here, I should like to see for myself before making any such decision.”

The landlord tsked, shook his head, and finally said, “Joseph! Hitch the pony to the trap and be quick about it. Looks like we’re in for more rain.”

Edwina let out a silent sigh of relief. At least she wouldn’t be stranded in this inn. “It’s not far—surely I can walk there,” she protested, as one of the draughts players stood and ambled out the back.

“Sir Richard’s orders, ma’am—all the governesses must be conveyed to the Grange in proper style, as suits a lady.”


All
the governesses?”

“Aye, ma’am, five of them have come and gone in the past few months, since Sir Richard and his children arrived. That’s why he advertised in the London papers this time.” He turned to the tapster. “Ale for the lady!”

Hurriedly, Edwina put up a hand and declined. She was near perishing of thirst, but he would expect payment, which she didn’t have.

“Again, Sir Richard’s orders,” the landlord said. “If any lady had the courage to answer the London advertisement, I was to provide refreshment at his expense.” He chuckled. “You’ll need a little fortification before going to the Grange.”

Edwina controlled her annoyance, wondering once again if she was to find herself the butt of some horrid jest, but if it came with a free drink, she would put up with it. “Some small beer then, if you would be so kind.”

“Not much fortification in that,” the landlord said, but the tapster obliged, and she took a long, blissful swallow.

“Take Freddy here.” The landlord indicated a wiry, ginger-haired man. “Used to tend the gardens, until the ghost stopped him digging.”

Edwina swiveled to eye the gardener. “How could a ghost stop you? I assume you weren’t digging at night.”

Guffaws greeted this remark. Freddy reddened. “Not I, not like some others, but the ghost pays no heed to night or day.”

“Afraid someone will get her treasure, you see,” the landlord said.

Yes, Edwina had gathered that, but it was sheer nonsense, although the poor condition of the house clearly wasn’t.

“Aye, but it’s not right when a man can’t do his proper job—planting new bulbs in broad daylight, I was, when she came out of nowhere, all cold and white and screeching.” Freddy shuddered. “Never ran so fast in my life.”

Two men, who were sitting apart at a table in the corner, chuckled at this, but surprisingly no one else laughed. Edwina drained the cup of small beer just as the pony trap drew up in front of the inn, Joseph slouching at the reins. The landlord carried her valise and helped her into the trap. “Never say Samuel Teas didn’t warn you,” he said, waving as they moved away.

Edwina’s spirits sagged as they drove toward the gloomy manor house. Being destitute was worse than usual at this season. With only a few weeks left before Christmas, how could she help but long for a home filled with holiday cheer? Even if she could afford to return to relatives, she wouldn’t do so. None of them wanted her except an uncle who desired her in an entirely improper way.

She could not afford to succumb to the hopelessness that weighed on her. She pulled herself together and sat up straight. “Do you have a ghost story for me, too?” she asked Joseph, who was young, large, and bashful.

He shook his head but said seriously, “Not I, ma’am, but my brother Jemmy went to the Grange to dig for treasure after old Sir Richard died. Before young Sir Richard came, that was.”

“The Grange was empty for a while, until young Sir Richard came to take over?”

“Aye, six months or more,” Joseph said. “The lady ghost came at Jemmy, a-howling and a-screeching, and he won’t go back for love or money.” He nodded decisively. “You won’t stay long, missus. Nobody does.”

~ * ~

“Papa! Someone’s coming!”

Sir Richard Ballister glanced up from the detailed drawing of the unoccupied wing of Ballister Grange to follow the direction of his daughter Lizzie’s pointing finger. Sure enough, the pony trap approached the overgrown drive. Beside Joseph sat a woman in a drab pelisse and gown and a poke bonnet.

“Do you think it’s a governess, Papa?” Lizzie asked.

“A fearless one?” added her twin brother, John.

“Unlikely as it seems,” Sir Richard said, “I am encouraged to hope it may be. If they didn’t scare her away at the Duck’s Head, she must possess a fair measure of courage.” The last one had ordered Joseph to turn the cart around halfway between the inn and the Grange.

“She won’t stay,” John said glumly. “They never do.”

“I should really prefer it, Papa,” Lizzie said, “if we could
keep
one of our governesses for a while.”

They all did, but until Richard found the blasted treasure and got rid of the ghost, it wasn’t likely.

“I’ve been pondering how to manage it,” John said seriously, scratching his ear as he often did when thinking hard.

Richard’s heart twisted. He wasn’t sure whether he believed in either the ghost or the Ballister Curse, but young John did. The boy’s conviction that his days were numbered showed in his feverish eagerness for study since Richard had inherited the baronetcy. John was a born scholar, but he seemed to have forsaken childhood in favor of cramming all the knowledge he could into his brain before the curse took him.

“I’ll bet a dose of laudanum every night would do the trick,” John said.

Lizzie opened her eyes at her brother. “What an excellent notion! If the ghostly voice doesn’t wake her, she’ll have no reason to be afraid.”

“It doesn’t occur to you that it might be somewhat unethical to drug the poor woman?” Sir Richard said.

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