Twist legend into truth... Merlin's magic thrives in the Regency.
Katherine Scoville is compromised by -- and must marry -- the Earl of Shelton. Between his stubborn insistence that she tricked him and her naïve belief in happy ever after, the battle lines are set. She wants a conventional union. He desires Katherine as his mistress.
Meanwhile, two magicians secretly wager on the success of the marriage. As Katherine fights for respectability and Shelton campaigns for divorce, magic is wielded to meddle, one magician skewing truth and the other exposing lies.
When the smoke clears from the field, whose magic will prevail? Will Katherine accept Shelton's hand in love-strewn matrimony, or will Shelton offer only his body to his mistress?
An Awe-Struck Release
Ann Tracy Marr gets so wrapped up in the Regency era that she forgets people want to know something about her. She admits to being fiftyish, which puts her firmly on the Dowager’s bench at Almack’s. There is an indulgent husband entailed to her estate and two unmarried daughters old enough to have made their curtseys to the queen but not so aged as to be considered on the shelf. To put syllabub on the table and keep her daughters in the highest kick of fashion, Marr tinkers with the devil’s invention, computers. For non-Regency addicts, in plain English, Marr is married with two daughters on the brink of adulthood. Her day job is computer consulting.
And so it begins...
"I don't believe it," she crowed. "I just don't believe it."
Elvira, Countess of Shelton stared at the framed weaving as she planted her hands on the edge of the table. Slowly her weak knee straightened, the purple damask velvet of her skirt unfolded, and she stood, blue veined hands digging into the small of her back. She had been sitting too long. The older she grew, the more difficult weaving became. Not that she minded, not now. Not with her goal in sight.
She stepped around the table to view the work from another angle. It was still there, adjacent to the miniature of Alexander's first dog and the dented standish. Hero, that was the dog's name. Stupid name for a common mutt. The mangy thing came from the village, couldn't boast a grandsire with breeding, but Alexander tromped the fields day in and out with Hero. That was the summer after he entered Eton. Shelton was livid. He wanted his son under his thumb studying with the bailiff rather than running free across the acres.
She ran a knuckle along the crested standish. Shelton, the intolerant beast, threw it when Alexander was sent down from Oxford for refusing to discuss Plato's 'nonsensical' theory of forms. Her husband had terrible aim. Instead of braining Alexander, ink sprinkled the rug; the linen paneling had to be replaced. He broke her favorite Sevres vase.
Shelton had been almost as stupid as Hero, and that was saying something.
He rode Alexander hard. He wanted his son to be the consummate earl; he wanted Alexander perfect, as he thought himself perfect. The clothhead didn't live long enough to reap what he sowed.
The dog and Plato were seeds in the weaving. There were others; items to represent them were woven into the frame. Together, they pointed to Alexander's unfortunate tendency. Determination. A strong will. Flicking the standish, Elvira snorted. A mealy mouthed term, strong will. Sounded admirable. Truth was, Alexander was the most pig-headed man alive.
If not for his stubbornness, Alex would be a decent son and a good earl. He didn't game his estate to the bone. Gossips didn't cluck over his ladybirds. He did what was right. Alexander was a respectable earl, but...
He did wrong as often as right. She'd had to step in, direct events her own way.
Elvira ran her eyes over the weaving. Her son and his life--his passions, hates, and his confounded perversity--were laid out in the frame for her to manipulate. She had been working on it for a year, uncertain as to its value or ultimate usefulness. It was an experiment that succeeded. Now she knew she was right. Here was proof.
Briggs thought she was addled, but here in the weaving was indisputable proof. A diamond ring was caught in the scarlet ribbons that formed the canvas of the weaving. Nestled between the mongrel and the standish, the marquise diamond was bigger than her thumbnail, flawless blue white. She reached with aristocratic, slightly gnarled fingers and tugged at the ring. Woven in tightly, it refused to come loose.
"It is finally going to happen," Elvira announced to the room at large. Clapping her hands with bourgeoning exhilaration, she stepped to the bell pull. Giving three vigorous tugs, she summoned Briggs, that doubting Thomas.
It took several minutes for him to arrive. She spent the time circling the weaving, inspecting each item. Yes, the spoon angled to the east. It was Alexander's first spoon, the one he used for porridge. He hated porridge, but Nurse, the only person to ever bend him to her will, insisted.
The knock she had been awaiting sounded. "Come in," she said, hiding her excitement behind the studied pose of languid lady. The butler entered, followed by a neat maid carrying a silver tea service. Elvira's toe began to tap.
"Briggs, I did not order tea." With the economy of movement of the superior butler, he swung up the leaf and set the elbow of the gate leg table in front of the fireplace. The maid slid the tray onto the tabletop.
"No, my lady," Briggs intoned, "but your custom is to take a cup at this time. I anticipated your request." With maddening deliberation, he aligned a Windsor chair to the table. Under his exacting eye, the maid pulled out a rag and flicked at any specks of dust that had dared to settle on the seat.
"I don't want tea."
With a snap of his fingers, the butler ignored her petulant comment. The maid knelt and picked invisible lint from the carpet. Elvira's thumb and index finger rubbed together convulsively. Her toe cramped, tapping on the age-faded arabesques of the Persian rug.
He handed the maid a tinderbox; she circled the room, lighting candles. When every taper sparkled flame, the maid looked to him for instruction.
Elvira snapped, "That will be all." The maid curtsied and left, leaving the door open. Briggs began to follow her out.
"Hector Briggs, where do you think you are going?"
He turned and bowed. "The formalities. Of course, we are to observe them. Will that be all, madam?" Dropping the mien of the superior butler, his lip curled with sarcasm.
"For Merlin's sake," Elvira exploded. "No, that will not be all. You know very well I rang for you to view the spell, not bring a tea tray. I have completed it. I did it without your assistance, and I succeeded, without your assistance."
"Take a look." Elvira's finger, sore from pulling ribbons and tired from tapping her thumb with irritation, shook as she pointed at the weaving stretched across the worktable.
Impassive, Briggs folded his arms behind his back and stood at the bottom of the table. His eyes went over every inch of the weaving as if he checked critically for flaws in an underling's work, inspecting and noting every wrinkle, every crimp in the scarlet ribbons. Then he moved to the east, north and west of the table, searching out snags. It took forever; by the time he was back at the south end of the table, Elvira was again tapping toes and fingers.
"So?" she demanded in the tone that wilted debutantes and shriveled chaperones.
"So if you have finished, the maids can lift the rug and beat it. It has been too long since this room was cleaned."
"Briggs." He did not respond and Elvira stalked forward until they were nose to nose. "Say something, you old goat. Well?"
"Well, nothing. Where did you get that?" Briggs pointed to the ring.
"Don't be obtuse. That is the culmination of the spell."
"And you believe it shows that your son will wed?"
"Of course. At long last, despite his obduracy, Alexander will marry. Within the month, if I read the weaving correctly. But it won't last. The irregularities prove it."
Briggs shook his head disparagingly. "I don't agree. He will wed, and it will last."
"Look at the diamond, man. There, look in the center of the stone. It is blood. Not Alex's--his bride's. She can bleed from the heart, for all I care. The omen is she will not last as Alexander's wife and omens do not lie."
"I don't read the weaving the same way. A bit of red buried in the stone means the heart. They will develop a passion to rival that of Guinevere and Lancelot. The marriage will last." He turned from the table with a dismissive nod. "At last you will have an heir to continue the line. That is what you want, after all, Stanton blood flowing in a new generation."
"Not from that girl." Elvira slapped her hand on the table.
"Look at her hair."
"It's dark. So?"
"So I want grandchildren with Alex's hair. It is the distinguishing feature of every Earl of Shelton from the time of Arthur. His father had it. It may have warmed an empty brain in his case, but the hair breeds true, generation after generation. Alex has it along with my intelligence, a fitting memorial to the alliance of Denhardham and Stanton. Glorious, guinea gold hair, not weak flax, not common brown. If he marries her," Elvira's fingernail stabbed a ribbon, "the color may dilute."
"Your son's hair is yellow, not gold."
Elvira drew up, a poker straight aristocrat from the tip of her Brussels' lace day cap to the cramped toes in her too small satin slippers. "You are a daft old man," she said, biting off the words. "His hair is golden. And this marriage will not last."
"You have such faith in your magic." The butler's words complimented, but the tone was caustic.
Elvira seethed. "I wager you won't lay your words on the line."
His eyes narrowed. "A wager?"
"Yes. Your assessment against mine."
"And what shall be the stake?"
"That which you have always wanted." Briggs stilled and Elvira smiled. "Yes, old man. If you win; if Alex marries and remains wed, producing an heir from that dirty haired chit, I will buy that piece of property you want. What is it called?"
"Whole Place," Briggs said hoarsely. He cleared his throat. "And if you win, my lady--if your son manages to shed himself of this brown haired wife, what will you claim?"
"Your seat on the Council."
Briggs studied the conjunction of ribbons holding the standish and spoon in the weaving as if they held the answer to the question of Merlin's existence. "And the terms?"
"No holds barred. We may each influence the situation as we like."
"No holds barred short of physical harm," Briggs warned. "You can't hurt the girl. Gambling with magic is reprehensible enough. If you indirectly--or shall I say inadvertently--create a spell that puts her in danger, I won't have a Council seat for you to win. I'll be stuffed in the crystal cave. If you are lucky, you will also. The least the Council of Mages will do is strip you of your powers and banish you till eternity."
Elvira nodded. If the nod was reluctant and her mind was whirling, looking for loopholes in the promise, she did agree. She would not split a hair on the girl's head.
They bickered, shook hands. The wager was set. Her son, Alexander Stanton, Earl of Shelton, was going to acquire a wife. Once he did, Lady Shelton would do her damnedest to see the marriage ended. The butler, Briggs, would do everything in his power to see the marriage succeed.
She sat to drink stone cold tea and he departed to chivvy the footmen on setting a proper dining table, both knowing that whatever happened, the magic was going to fly.