Excerpt: To Beguile A Beast

Excerpt: To Beguile A Beast

Book 3: Legend of the Four Soldiers


July 1765

It was as the carriage bumped around a bend and the decrepit castle loomed into view in the dusk that Helen Fitzwilliam finally–and rather belatedly–realized that the whole trip may’ve been a horrible mistake.

“Is that it?” Jamie, her five-year-old son, was kneeling on the musty carriage seat cushions and peering out the window. “I thought it was ‘sposed to be a castle.”

“‘Tis a castle, silly,” his nine-year-old sister, Abigail, replied. “Can’t you see the tower?”

“Just ’cause it has a tower don’t mean it’s a castle,” Jamie objected, frowning at the suspect castle. “There’s no moat. If it is a castle, it’s not a proper one.”

“Children,” Helen said rather too sharply, but then they had been in one cramped carriage after another for the better part of a fortnight. “Please don’t bicker.”

Naturally, her offspring feigned deafness.

“It’s pink.” Jamie had pressed his nose to the small window, clouding the glass with his breath. He turned and scowled at his sister. “D’you think a proper castle ought to be pink?”

Helen stifled a sigh and massaged her right temple. She’d felt a headache lurking there for the last several miles, and she knew it was about to pounce just as she needed all her wits about her. She hadn’t really thought this scheme through. But, then, she never did think things through as she ought to, did she? Impulsiveness–hastily acted on and more leisurely regretted–was the hallmark of her life. It was why, at the age of one and thirty, she found herself traveling through a foreign land about to throw herself and her children on the mercy of a stranger.

What a fool she was!

A fool who had better get her story straight, for the carriage was already stopping before the imposing wood doors.

“Children!” she hissed.

Both little faces snapped around at her tone. Jamie’s brown eyes were wide while Abigail’s expression was pinched and fearful. Her daughter noticed far too much for a little girl, was too sensitive to the atmosphere adults created.

Helen took a breath and made herself smile. “This will be an adventure, my darlings, but you must remember what I’ve told you.” She looked at Jamie. “What are we to be called?”

“Halifax,” Jamie replied promptly. “But I’m still Jamie and Abigail’s still Abigail.”

“Yes, darling.” 

That had been decided on the trip north from London when it became painfully obvious that Jamie would have difficulties not calling his sister by her real name. Helen sighed. She’d just have to hope that the children’s Christian names were ordinary enough not to give them away.

“We’ve lived in London,” Abigail said, looking intent. 

“That’ll be easy to remember,” Jamie muttered, “because we have.

Abigail shot a quelling glance at her brother and continued. “Mama’s been in the dowager Viscountess Vale’s household.”

“And our father’s dead and he isn’t–” Jamie’s eyes widened, stricken.

“I don’t know why we need to say he’s dead,” Abigail muttered into the silence.

“Because he mustn’t trace us, dear.” Helen swallowed and leaned forward to pat her daughter’s knee. “It’s all right. If we can–“

The carriage door was wrenched open, and the coachman’s scowling face peered in. “Are ye getting out or not? It looks like rain, an’ I want to be back in th’ inn safe and warm when it comes, don’t I?”

“Of course.” Helen nodded regally at the coachman–by far the surliest driver they’d had on this wretched journey. “Please fetch our bags down for us.”

The man snorted. “Already done, innit?”

“Come, children.” She hoped she wasn’t blushing in front of the awful man. The truth was that they had only two soft bags–one for herself and one for the children. The coachman probably thought them desolate. And in a way, he was right, wasn’t he?

She pushed the lowering thought away. Now was not the time to have discouraging thoughts. She must be at her most alert and her most persuasive to pull this off.

She stepped from the rented carriage and looked around. The ancient castle loomed before them, solid and silent. The main building was a squat rectangle, built of weathered soft rose stone. High on the corners, circular towers projected from the walls. Before the castle was a sort of drive, once neatly graveled but now uneven with weeds and mud. A few trees clustered about the drive struggled to make a barricade against the rising wind. Beyond, black hills rolled gently to the darkening horizon.

“All right, then?” The coachman was swinging up to his box, not even looking at them. “I’ll be off.”

“At least leave a lantern!” Helen shouted, but the noise of the carriage rumbling away drowned out her voice. She stared, appalled, after the coach.

“It’s dark,” Jamie observed, looking at the castle.

“Mama, there aren’t any lights,” Abigail said. 

She sounded frightened, and Helen felt a surge of trepidation as well. She hadn’t noticed the lack of lights until now. What if no one was at home? What would they do then?

I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it. She was the adult here. A mother should make her children feel safe.

Helen tilted her chin and smiled for Abigail. “Perhaps they’re lit in the back where we can’t see them.”

Abigail didn’t look particularly convinced by this theory, but she dutifully nodded her head. 

Helen took the bags and marched up the wide shallow stone steps to the huge wooden doors. They were within a Gothic arch, almost black with age, and the hinges and bolts were iron–quite medieval. She raised the iron ring and knocked hard.

The sound echoed despairingly within.

Helen stood facing the door, refusing to believe that no one would come. The wind blew her skirts into a swirl. Jamie scuffed his boots against the stone step and Abigail sighed almost silently.

Helen wet her lips. “Perhaps they can’t hear because they’re in the tower.”

She knocked again.

It was dark now, the sun completely gone and with it the warmth of day. It was the middle of summer and quite hot in London, but she’d found on her journey north that the nights in Scotland could become very cool, even in summer. Lightning flashed low on the horizon. What a desolate place this was! Why anyone would willingly choose to live here was beyond her understanding.

“They’re not coming,” Abigail said as thunder rumbled in the distance. “No one’s home, I think.”

Helen swallowed as fat raindrops pattered against her face. The last village they’d passed was ten miles away. She had to find shelter for her children. Abigail was right. No one was home. She’d led them on a wild goose chase.

She’d failed them once again.

Helen’s lips trembled at the thought. Mustn’t break down in front of the children.

“Perhaps there’s a barn or other outbuilding in–” she began when one of the great wood doors was thrown open, startling her.

She stepped back, nearly falling down the steps. At first the opening seemed eerily black, as if a ghostly hand had opened the door. But then something moved, and she discerned a shape within. A man stood there, tall, lean, and very, very intimidating. He held a single candle, its light entirely inadequate. By his side was a great four-legged beast, far too tall to be any sort of dog that she knew of.

“What do you want?” he rasped, his voice low and husky as if from disuse or strain. His accent was cultured, but the tone was far from welcoming.

Helen opened her mouth, scrambling for words. He was not at all what she’d expected. Dear God, what was that thing by his side?

At that moment, lightning forked across the sky, close and amazingly bright. It lit the man and his familiar as if he was on a stage. The beast was tall and gray and lean with gleaming black eyes. The man was even worse. Black, lank hair fell tangling to his shoulders. He wore old breeches, gaiters, and a rough coat better suited for the rubbish heap. One side of his stubbled face was twisted with red angry scars. A single light brown eye reflected the lightning at them diabolically. 

Most horrible of all, there was only a sunken pit where his left eye should have been.

Abigail screamed.

They always screamed. 

Sir Alistair Munroe scowled at the woman and children on his step. Behind them the rain suddenly let down in a wall of water, making the children crowd against their mother’s skirts. Children, particularly small ones, nearly always screamed and ran away from him. Sometimes even grown women did. Just last year a rather melodramatic young lady on High Street in Edinburgh had fainted at the sight of him.

Alistair had wanted to slap the silly chit.

Instead, he’d scurried away like a diseased rat, hiding the maimed side of his face as best he could in his lowered tricorne and pulled up cloak. He expected the reaction in cities and towns. It was the reason he didn’t like to frequent areas where people congregated. What he didn’t expect was a female child screaming on his very doorstep.

“Stop that,” he growled at her, and the lass snapped her mouth shut.

There were two children, a male and a female. The lad was a brown birdlike thing that could’ve been anywhere from three to eight. Alistair had no basis to judge since he avoided children when he could. The female was the elder. She was pale and blond, and staring up at him with blue eyes that looked much too large for her thin face. Perhaps it was a fault of her bloodline–such abnormalities often denoted mental deficiency. 

Her mother had eyes the same color, he saw as he finally, reluctantly, looked at her. She was beautiful. Of course. It would be a blazing beauty who appeared upon his doorstep in a thunderstorm. She had eyes the exact color of newly opened harebells, shining gold hair, and a magnificent bosom that any man, even a scarred, misanthropic recluse such as himself, would find arousing. It was, after all, the natural reaction of a human male to a human female of obvious reproductive capability, however much he resented it.

“What do you want?” he repeated to the woman.

Perhaps the entire family was mentally deficient, because they simply stared at him, mute. The woman’s stare was fixated on his eye socket. Naturally. He’d left off his patch again–the damned thing was a nuisance–and his face was no doubt going to inspire nightmares in her sleep tonight. 

He sighed. He’d been about to sit down to a dinner of porridge and boiled sausages when he’d heard the knocking. Wretched as his meal was, it would be even less appetizing cold.

“Carlyle Manor is a good two miles thataway.” Alistair tilted his head in a westerly direction. No doubt they were guests of his neighbors gone astray. He shut the door.

Or rather, he tried to shut the door. 

The woman inserted her foot in the crack, preventing him. For a moment, he actually considered shutting her foot in the door, but a remnant of civility asserted itself and he stopped. He looked at the woman, his eye narrowed, and waited for an explanation.

The woman’s chin tilted. “I’m your housekeeper.”

Definitely a case of mental deficiency. Probably the result of aristocrats over-breeding, for despite her lack of mental prowess, she and the children were richly dressed. 

Which only made her statement even more absurd.

He sighed. “I don’t have a housekeeper. Really, ma’am, Carlyle Manor is just over the hill–“

She actually had the temerity to interrupt him. “No, you misunderstand. I’m your new housekeeper.”

“I repeat. I. Don’t. Have. A housekeeper.” He spoke slowly so perhaps her confused brain could understand the words. “Nor do I wish for a housekeeper. I–“

“This is Castle Greaves?”


“And you are Sir Alistair Munroe?”

He scowled. “Aye, but–“

She wasn’t even looking at him. Instead, she had stooped to rummage in one of the bags at her feet. He stared at her, irritated and perplexed and vaguely aroused because her position gave him a spectacular view down the bodice of her gown. If he was a religious man, he might think this a vision.

She made a satisfied sound and straightened again, smiling quite gloriously. “Here. It’s a letter from the Viscountess Vale. She’s sent me here to be your housekeeper.”

She was proffering a rather crumpled piece of paper. 

He stared at the paper a moment before snatching it from her hand. He raised the candle to provide some light to read the scrawling missive. Beside him, Lady Grey, his deerhound, evidently decided that she wasn’t getting sausages for dinner any time soon. She sighed gustily and lay down on the hall flagstones.

Alistair finished reading the missive to the sound of the rain pounding steadily on his drive. Then he looked up. He’d met Lady Vale only once. She and her husband, Jasper Renshaw, Viscount Vale, had visited his home uninvited a little over a month ago. She hadn’t struck him at the time as an interfering female, but the letter did indeed inform him that he had a new housekeeper. Madness. What had Vale’s wife been thinking? But then it was near impossible to fathom the workings of the female mind. He’d have to send the too-beautiful, too-richly dressed housekeeper and her offspring away in the morning. Unfortunately, if nothing else, they were protégées of Lady Vale and he couldn’t very well send them off into the dark of night.

Alistair met the woman’s blue eyes. “What did you say your name was?”

She blushed as prettily as the sun rising in spring on the heath. “I didn’t. My name is Helen Halifax. Mrs. Halifax. We are becoming quite wet out here, you realize.”

A corner of his mouth kicked up at the starch in her tone. Not a mental deficient after all. “Well, then, you and your children had better come in, Mrs. Halifax.” 

The tiny smile curving one side of Sir Alistair’s lips startled Helen. It drew attention to a mouth both wide and firm, supple and masculine. The smile revealed him as human. Not the gargoyle she’d been thinking him, but a man.

It was gone at once, of course, as soon as he caught her looking at him. In an instant his expression turned stony and faintly cynical. “You’ll continue to get wet until you come in, madam.”

“Thank you.” She swallowed and stepped into the dim hall. “You’re most kind, I’m sure, Sir Alistair.”

He shrugged and turned away. “If you say so.”

Beastly man! He hadn’t even offered to carry their bags. Of course, most gentlemen didn’t carry the belongings of their housekeepers. Even so, it would’ve been nice to at least offer. 

Helen grasped a bag in each hand. “Come, children.”

They had to walk quickly, almost jogging, to keep up with Sir Alistair and what appeared to be the only light in the castle–his candle. The gigantic dog loped at his side, lean, dark, and tall. In fact she was very like her master. They passed out of a great hall into a dim passage. The candlelight bobbed ahead, casting weird shadows on grimy walls and high, cobwebbed ceilings. Jamie and Abigail trailed on either side of her. Jamie was so tired that he merely trudged along, but Abigail was looking curiously from side to side as she hurried.

“It’s terribly dirty, isn’t it?” Abigail whispered.

Sir Alistair turned as she spoke, and at first Helen thought he’d heard. “Have you eaten?”

Helen nearly trod on his toes, he’d halted so suddenly. As it was, she ended up standing much too close to him. She had to crane her neck to look him in the eye, and he held the candle near his chest, casting the light diabolically over his face.

“We had tea at the inn, but–” she began breathlessly.

“Good,” he said, and turned away. He called back over his shoulder as he disappeared around a corner, “You can stay the night in one of the guest rooms. I’ll hire a carriage to send you back to London in the morning.”

Helen gripped the bags higher and hurried to catch up. “But, I really don’t–“

He’d already started up a narrow stone stair. “You needn’t worry about the expense.”

For a second, Helen paused at the bottom of the stair, glaring at the firm backside steadily receding. Unfortunately, the light was receding as well.

“Hurry, Mama,” Abigail urged her. She’d taken her brother’s hand like a good older sister and had already mounted the steps with Jamie.

The horrid man turned at a landing up the stairs. “Coming, Mrs. Halifax?”

“Yes, Sir Alistair,” Helen said through gritted teeth. “I just think that if you’ll only try Lady Vale’s idea of having a–“

“I don’t want a housekeeper,” he rasped, and resumed climbing the stairs.

“I find that hard to believe,” Helen panted behind him, “considering the state of the castle I’ve seen so far.”

“And yet, I enjoy my home the way it is.”

Helen narrowed her eyes. She refused to believe anyone, even this beast of a man, actually enjoyed dirt. “Lady Vale specifically instructed me–“

“Lady Vale is mistaken in her belief that I desire a housekeeper.”

They’d reached the top of the stairs–finally!–and he paused to open a narrow door. He entered the room and lit a candle.

Helen stopped and watched him from the hall. When he came back out, she met his gaze determinedly. “You may not want a housekeeper, but it is patently obvious that you need a housekeeper.”

The corner of his mouth quirked again. “You may argue all you want, madam, but the fact remains that I neither need you nor wish to have you here.”

He gestured to the room with one hand. The children ran in ahead. He hadn’t bothered moving from the doorway, so Helen was forced to sidle in sideways, her bosom nearly brushing his chest.

She looked up at him as she passed. “I warn you, I shall make it my purpose to change your mind, Sir Alistair.”

He inclined his head, his one good eye glittering in the light of the candle. “Good night, Mrs. Halifax.”

He shut the door gently behind him.

Helen stared at the closed door a moment then glanced about her. The room Sir Alistair had led them to was large and cluttered. Hideous long drapes covered one wall, and a huge bed with thick carved posts dominated the room. A single, small fireplace sat in a corner. Shadows masked the other end of the room, but the outlines of furniture crowded together made her suspicious that it was being used as storage space. Abigail and Jamie had collapsed on the huge bed. Two weeks ago, Helen wouldn’t have let them even touch something that dusty.

But then two weeks ago she’d still been the Duke of Lister’s mistress.