A Match Made in Mistletoe

By: Anna Campbell

Prologue





* * *





Torver House, Dorset, December 1820



Serena Talbot carefully laid her lace handkerchief on the dressing table and pulled back the corners to reveal the fragile green and white sprig sitting in its soft nest. How absurd it was, that her hands were shaking.

When she raised her eyes to the mirror, she read apprehension in the gray depths. “It’s only a silly superstition,” she whispered to the blond girl staring back at her.

The blond girl in the reflection looked ready to run for her life.

Around her, the huge, old house was quiet, as it wouldn’t be quiet tomorrow when the halls echoed with laughter and happy chatter. The guests for the Talbots’ annual Christmas house party arrived in the afternoon.

But tonight held only silence and shadows and flickering candlelight. Caught up in the moment, Serena shivered. She felt like the ghosts of a hundred bygone maidens crowded around her. A hundred maidens who over the centuries had done just what she was about to do.

Had all those other girls felt this same aching longing, this same foreboding that they summoned powers beyond their control?

She straightened and cast the figure in the mirror a derisive glance. “Show some backbone, Serena Frances Talbot.”

With swift purpose, she lifted the mistletoe she’d plucked from the kissing bough in St. Lawrence’s church in the village and slipped it under her pillow. She’d planned this for weeks. Rattle-pated megrims would not stop her from proceeding.

All her life she’d loved Paul Garside, and now she was twenty-one, it was time to do something about it. This Christmas, she’d do everything she could to make sure he proposed and invited her to take up the glorious life she’d always wanted.

Tonight’s ritual placed the seal on her plans. With the mistletoe under her pillow, she’d dream of the man she was to marry. And tomorrow, she’d set out to claim her destiny as Lady Garside.

Once before she’d tried this, when she was eighteen and mad for Paul. The embarrassing truth was she dreamed of him all the time—but that night she hadn’t. And he’d spent all Christmas making sheep’s eyes at Letitia Duggan.

Since then, Serena had recognized that the mistletoe was telling her she wasn’t yet ready. But, oh, how ready she was now, three years later. And Paul gave every indication that he agreed. Whenever they’d met in the last few months, he’d paid her flattering attention.

Smiling at the thought of the handsome baronet she loved, she pulled off her dressing gown and slid into bed. She closed her eyes on a prayer for the mistletoe’s blessing.

* * *



The day was sunny and warm, although in the way of dreams, snow lay thick on the ground. Serena, walking alone along the path to St. Lawrence’s, opened the heavy church door that squeaked in her dreams as it squeaked in life, and stepped into the cool, scented dimness of the vestibule. Before her, a tall man in a hat and formal black coat stood with his back to her. Above him hung the kissing bough, a large ball of mistletoe woven with red and gold ribbon and decorated with apples and green holly.

Music played in the distance. Harps and violins.

Happiness flooded her as she paused in the arched entrance. Glancing down, she saw without surprise that she was dressed for her wedding. When she came in, she hadn’t been carrying anything, but now she clasped a pretty bouquet of white roses.

With a light step, she walked toward the man who was yet to look in her direction. At her approach, those impressive shoulders straightened. A triumphant smile curled her lips. Everything she’d ever wanted was coming true. At last.

She was to become Lady Garside, wife to wonderful Paul.

She extended one hand to touch the man she was about to marry. “Paul?” she murmured, her joy reaching a crescendo along with the music.

Her heart thumped with wild excitement as her bridegroom slowly turned to face her. She raised her eyes to meet a smiling blue gaze.

And everything crashed into disaster.

The man’s eyes were dark brown, almost black. Instead of seeing Paul’s clean-cut features, she stared aghast into a saturnine face with slashing cheekbones and a broken nose. Thick brows added a devilish air. A sensual, cynical mouth twisted in the mocking smile that always made her itch to slap it away.

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