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Authors: BARBARA MONAJEM,

Tags: #ROMANCE - HISTORICAL

UNDER A CHRISTMAS SPELL

BOOK: UNDER A CHRISTMAS SPELL
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English Country Estate, 1815

Dissolute aristocrat Lord Valiant Oakenhurst hides a sexy, supernatural secret—as a powerful incubus, he is able to influence others through erotic dreams. At an exclusive Christmas house party, his latest mission is compromised by the beautiful but deadly succubus Lucille Beaulieu. Though still drawn to his former lover, Val cannot forget her betrayal....

Hoping to atone for her past, Lucie uses her seductive powers to help couples find happiness. But she is distracted from her task by her own delicious dreams of the dark and dangerous Val.

As the riotous festivities begin, their passion is reinvoked, but can a little Christmas magic restore their lost trust?

Under a Christmas Spell

Barbara Monajem

Author’s Note

I’ve wanted to play with the incubus/succubus mythology for a long time. Now that it’s done, though...what if I got it all wrong? Just because I’m not crazy about rigid good/evil dichotomies, it doesn’t mean they don’t exist. So, to any incubi and succubi who happen to read this, my apologies. If you prefer to be evil sex demons, far be it from me to object. (But I still won’t write it that way.)

The office of a warehouse near the Thames
,
London
,
December 1815

“The war is over,” Lord Valiant Oakenhurst said. “I’m not involved in the game anymore.”

“You’re not doing much else,” said the Master of the British Incubi, at ease behind his massive desk. “Unless you’re planning to return to the family fold.”

Valiant gave a tiny internal shudder. Not only did he find the estate of his pompous father, the Marquis of Staves, completely unbearable, but he wasn’t wanted there. Inevitably he caused trouble. Far better to cause it in places where his unusual abilities were appreciated. In some ways, wartime had suited him very well, but now he wanted...

He wasn’t going to get what—or rather, whom—he wanted, and it was irrelevant to this discussion. He glared, wondering why the annoying fellow still wore a mask. Secret identities shouldn’t matter anymore. “You know I can’t return to the bloody fold.”

“Precisely, so you may as well make yourself useful. Sit down, Lord Valiant. Your restlessness irritates me. This won’t take long.”

Valiant shrugged and took the proffered chair.

“We wish you to awaken the sensuality of a Miss Southern, but there cannot be a genuine liaison except in the lady’s imagination,” the master said. “Her virginity must remain intact. In fact, you must not even attempt to kiss her.”

Valiant narrowed his eyes. “Or else what?” He’d had enough of being judged as if he was still the fifteen-year-old who’d been removed from Eton for deflowering a respectable virgin.

The master didn’t answer his question, merely saying mildly, “It’s only for a fortnight. “You will send her erotic dreams and cast admiring, even smouldering glances at her, to get her, er, juices flowing, so to speak.”

Valiant huffed. “For what purpose, if she is to remain a virgin? I don’t relish playing the tease.”

The master gave an amused snort. “You’ve lied, cheated and murdered for your country, and yet you object to a little sensual teasing?”

“The war is over,” Valiant repeated. “I’m tired of playing those games.” He was stuck with his magical abilities—or at least they seemed magical when he tried to explain how they worked. Plenty of men and women were competent seducers, but few could plant images in the sleeping minds of their targets, rendering them helpless with desire. No wonder incubi and succubi had been seen as demons for centuries, but that was unfair. Val had no wish to harm anyone. He’d been forced to use his abilities in unpleasant ways during the war, but in peacetime, he shouldn’t—and wouldn’t.

“War is never truly over,” the master said heavily. “England will always need gifted individuals to protect her.” He straightened and steepled his fingers together. “However, that is neither here nor there. Miss Southern is an intelligent woman of excellent breeding, with a moderate fortune, but she refuses to marry where she does not feel affection. We hope that the awakening of her sensual side will make her more amenable to, er, falling madly in love.”

This made no sense at all, but the master never orchestrated anything without good reason. “Why do you care whether she marries?”

“I don’t, but someone I value does. You’re not the only person with obligations.”

How typical of the master to combine a reminder that one was beholden with a cheap show of sentiment. “How very affecting.” Valiant sneered. “What if the stubborn Miss Southern falls in love with me? You may end up owing your valued someone far more than you do now. I warn you, my obligations don’t extend to marriage.”

“Then you’ll have to tread carefully, won’t you? Although come to think of it, marriage may be just what you need—but not to Miss Southern.” He passed a folded sheet of paper across the desk. “Here are your instructions. You are to attend a Christmas house party where Miss Southern will also be a guest.”

Valiant opened the paper. “At the estate of Viscount Westerly.” He gave another internal shudder. He could well imagine it—idiotic traditions that must be adhered to no matter how antiquated. It would be just like being back in the family fold.

He shook his head. “Lord Westerly detests me. He won’t want me at his party.”

“I trust you’ll find your way around such a trifle as that,” the master said.

The private parlour of an inn on Grub Street
,
London
,
also in December

“My dearest Lucille,” said the Mistress of the British Succubi. “How kind of you to visit me.”


Oui
, I am extremely kind.” Lucille Beaulieu rolled her eyes. “To come here, I had to postpone some very boring plans. Life is moving at the pace of a stubborn donkey. I hope you mean to give me something interesting to do.”

The mistress’s eyes twinkled through the slits of her mask. She was almost pleasant to deal with now that the war was over. The mistress had been extraordinarily kind to her, helping her establish herself in English society, and Lucille made a point of paying her debts.

Except one, which she could never repay. Thoughts of it—fears, as well—still kept her awake at night. She had finally begun to feel safe, but one persistent enemy was all it took.

A maid entered with a tea tray. When the girl had gone, the mistress poured Lucille a dish of steaming hot bohea. “You are to arouse a certain nobleman’s interest in sensuality,” she said.

Lucille made a tiny moue. “I do that merely by being myself.” At twenty-eight years old, she found herself almost yearning for the approach of age and the loss of sensual appeal. Not that she would be entirely useless after that, for she would never lose the seemingly magical ability to send erotic dreams. But such dreams were a gift, bestowing harmless pleasure on the recipient, whilst seduction often led to irreparable harm.

“Yes, my dear, but this man is a difficult case. He is a peer lately returned from the war.”

“A soldier?” Lucille barely managed to keep the dismay from her voice. Soldiers had taken her parents away to prison and the guillotine when she was only four years old. As a rational adult who had spent years in the proximity of armies, she should be accustomed to soldiers, but...no.

“Not any longer, for he has sold out,” the mistress said. “He is thirty-one years old—an appropriate age to marry, but he refuses to do so.”

The tea did not taste quite so delicious anymore. “Surely you don’t expect me to wed him.” Lucille had already been married five times. Some of the marriages had been legal and some not, but all of the husbands had been disposed of—although not by Lucille—when they had ceased to be useful to the powers that be. She hadn’t loved any of them, but nor had she wished them dead.

“No, for we should be obliged to kill him, should we not?” The mistress laughed.

Lucille didn’t. She had joined the British Succubi as an angry young woman. At first she had been quite bloodthirsty, using her skills of seduction to do whatever was needed...but seeing one’s husbands done away with—not to mention many others one encountered during the war—had changed that. She wished there were ways to use her talents to help others rather than to harm them.

The mistress patted Lucille’s hand. “Merely a jest. Those days are past. You are free to marry whomever you choose.”

Since the only man Lucille would consider marrying despised her, this was unlikely.

“Marriage might be just the thing to relieve your boredom, but probably not with Lord Westerly.” The mistress stirred sugar into her tea. “To return to the matter at hand, he is an upright and intelligent man. He was one of Wellington’s aides-de-camp and a brilliant code-breaker, but the unpleasantness of war affected him so badly that he has well nigh become a hermit.”

The unpleasantness had taken its toll on Lucille, too, but in an opposite way—a constant need to be with people, to be up and doing.

“He shows no interest in women. He will not even take a mistress,” her hostess said. “And no, he doesn’t prefer men, nor was he wounded and incapacitated. His is an emotional problem that must be resolved, and you, my dear, can arouse even the most difficult cases. Think of it as a way to use your talents in a peaceful cause.”

It would be a challenge. It might occupy her mind for a while. Maybe it would help her to forget. But she could never be forgiven, and that was what mattered most.

“The peerage is far too full of substandard fools,” the mistress said. “For the future of England, one cannot let even one intelligent nobleman refuse to marry and carry on his lineage.” She passed Lucille a scented envelope. “Here are the particulars. It has come to our attention that Lord Westerly’s aunt is planning a fortnight of Christmas festivities at his Hampshire estate. You will doubtless find a way to attend.”

An English country Christmas! During her childhood, Lucille had spent several years with an English family. Holly and mistletoe, plum pudding and roast goose... She sat back in her chair and sipped her tea. Perhaps some aspects of this mission would be fun.

Hampshire
,
a
few weeks later

Shortly before dusk on the twenty-third of December, Lord Valiant Oakenhurst rode into a copse a short distance from Westerly House. He hadn’t done what he was about to do in ages, and the last time he’d been lucky not to kill himself in the process.

This time he was slightly better prepared. He wouldn’t ruin good clothes in the process, because this was England, not wartime France, so he didn’t need perfect cover. Today he had purposely chosen a threadbare shirt and a too large coat he wouldn’t have given to a groom. He took out two cravats and set them conveniently ready for use.

Then he removed a loaded pistol from his saddlebag, took very,
very
careful aim, and shot himself in the arm.

Hell! It was only a scratch, but it hurt as badly as last time. His horse, formerly a cavalry mount, must have forgotten its training, for it took exception to the sudden noise, snorting and sidling, and almost unseated Valiant against a tree. Cursing, he got it under control, barely preventing the cravats from slipping to the ground. He shed his ruined coat, wound the cloths about his arm and tied them as tight as he could with his free hand and his teeth. He was still bleeding, but it would have to do.

He wheeled his horse and set out for Westerly House.

* * *

As dusk fell, a coach-and-pair carrying Lucille Beaulieu and her new friend, Theodora Southern, turned through the gates of Westerly House and slogged slowly up the drive.

It had been all too easy to arrange. One look at the guest list the mistress had supplied her, and she’d known whom to choose. She and Theodora moved in different circles, but occasionally they had attended the same ball in London. A carriage breakdown before the gates of the vicarage where Theodora lived with her parents and a fault in the axle that would take more than a week to fix—an obvious ploy to anyone in the game—was all it took. The Southerns wouldn’t have dreamed of turning a stranded gentlewoman away, and Theodora was far too polite to admit that she didn’t remember meeting Lucille. She had succumbed readily, allowing acquaintance to become friendship, and had even seemed pleased when Lucille suggested accompanying her to the house party. The ease of it, which would have been a relief during the war, now made Lucille rather sick.

She tried to concentrate on the positive aspects of this journey. Every country house had its traditions. Perhaps the ladies would accompany the gentlemen into a wood to fetch the Yule log. They might assist in delivering gifts of food to the tenants on Lord Westerly’s estate. She longed for the comfort of traditions. Of family life, which she had never truly known. Since the age of four, when the soldiers had taken her parents away forever, she had always been the outsider—fostered by families in France, then Spain, and lastly England, allowed in on sufferance, never truly belonging.

She followed Theodora’s gaze out the carriage window. Westerly House had not yet come into view, but up a small rise stood the tumbledown walls of an abbey.

“Those are the famously romantic ruins?” Lucille asked. So bleak and desolate, resembling her life. She liked Theodora—such a calm, composed woman, sure of her worth but not the least high in the instep, and with a lively sense of humour. So...well-balanced. In other words, what Lucille was not and didn’t know how to be.

Theodora’s pause and her tiny shake of the head showed that her thoughts had been elsewhere. “Yes, aren’t they beautiful? Just like in a Gothic novel.” A tall man came into view, striding up the rise toward the ruins, and she uttered a soft, “Oh.”

Lucille’s heart sank. She’d wondered, judging by tiny nuances in Theodora’s speech, if she had a
tendre
for Lord Westerly. Theodora had told her that she’d decided long ago to marry for love or not at all. Perhaps this was the reason why. “Is that Lord Westerly?” Lucille asked.

“I can’t tell for sure from behind,” Theodora said after another pause. That was almost certainly a lie. “I haven’t seen him for several years. He’s the right height and build, though.”

Evidently he dwelt firmly in Theodora’s memory and heart. She didn’t think Theodora had any hope of marrying Lord Westerly—if he had wanted her, he could have asked her long ago, for they had known one another since childhood—and yet Lucille’s own heart squeezed at the thought of seducing her new friend’s secret love. It was a betrayal, and Lucille wanted no more of those.

She didn’t think this would be a happy Christmas for Theodora. His lordship’s aunt had invited a number of eligible young ladies in the hope that he would take a fancy to one of them, and Theodora’s role was to help out as a sort of secondary hostess.

“He’s a fine figure of a man,” murmured Lucille.

“He was a soldier,” Theodora said. “Maybe that keeps a man in good trim.”

Perhaps I can arouse him without seducing him
, Lucille thought. That would not be so despicable. “Perhaps I shall flirt with him,” she said tentatively. “It will make this aunt of his angry,
non
?”

“You are a strange person, Lucille,” Theodora said frankly, but she was smiling. “First you invite yourself to someone’s party, and then you make plans to annoy them.”

BOOK: UNDER A CHRISTMAS SPELL
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