Title: A Highland Hogmanay
Series: Christmas Masquerade, Book Two
Author: Meg Mardell
Release Date: 11/23/2021
Heat Level: 1 – No Sex
Genre: Historical holiday, LGBTQIA+, historical, Victorian England, holiday, Christmas, Scottish Highlands, lesbian, wlw, mistaken identity, humorous, family drama, interracial, intercultural, road trip, age gap
The daughter of an Indian raja and renegade Englishwoman, Sharda Holkar, was gifted with a magnificent dowry but little say in her future. Until now. She must endure one more depressing holiday season with her controlling cousins, then she will be free to begin her emancipated life. But her discovery of a plot to marry her off to the preening son of the house has Sharda wondering if her new start should begin at once. When Sharda meets the intriguing owner of a Highland castle at a Christmas Eve masquerade, she wastes no time in forming a plan—she will escape across the Scottish border!
Finella Forbes cannot imagine why a sophisticated heiress like Sharda would even associate with someone who manages a castle for a living, let alone accompany her all the way back to the Highlands in time for the raucous celebration of Hogmanay. But a wealthy buyer is just what Balintore Castle needs. Fin is determined to prove she is just as good an estate manager as her father, but with the negligent lordly owner refusing to do his duty, she needs help fast. When mistaken assumptions jeopardise their initial attraction, Sharda and Fin will need all the mischief and magic of a Highland holiday to discover the true nature of their feelings.
A Highland Hogmanay
Meg Mardell © 2021
All Rights Reserved
“It’s getting quite sticky in here, isn’t it? Don’t these people perspire a lot in their ridiculous costumes? But the fools will insist upon picking characters that require false beards and headwraps and the lot. What do they expect?”
Mr Edward Pilkington watched the white-masked Pierrots and Pierrettes rotating around the Mayfair ballroom the same way he looked at everything else—right down his upturned nose. Of course, on this occasion, he might just be stopping his own mask from slipping.
“I must say, I consider it in poor taste of Lady Belleville to host such a gaudy entertainment on Christmas Eve. There’s enough blinding décor in every home and shop window without humans dressing like a bunch of tinsel ornaments.”
Sharda thought the display of Venetian masks in gold, silver, and red rather complemented the miles of glittering white ribbon their hostess had threaded around her every enormous window and door. But five days of Edward’s persistent company had taught her to neither agree nor disagree with his frequent judgements as both fanned the flames of his perpetual dissatisfaction.
“Perhaps you now see, Miss Holkar, the wisdom of my selection of attire. A simple mask and fancywork vest, and perhaps a sash, is really all that is required on these occasions.”
“For women as well as men?”
Sharda’s costume took its inspiration from the opulent carnival style of Venetian women from the height of that city’s pomp and power two centuries back. Her square-necked black silk gown cut away to a blaze of scarlet underskirt. Tiny stitched-in crystals covered the tight scarlet front bodice as well as her matching silk hat. Jutting out over one eye, the bold topper terminated in a cascade of black feathers that brushed her black half mask. Edward’s mother, one of Sharda’s inexhaustible supply of second and third cousins, had tried to convince her to wear what that lady was pleased to call her “native finery.” But when Sharda had insisted on purchasing a new costume for the ball, Lavinia Pilkington had graciously conceded that the Venetian style looked well on Sharda, for “many ladies of the Italian peninsula are quite of your complexion, my dear.”
The lady’s son was equally talented at giving compliments.
“A bit of exotic finery is not amiss on a woman. Provided she’s young, of course. There’s nothing more displeasing than an old woman got up like the Queen of Sheba. Now, perhaps I can see if these insolent Turks of footmen have some iced sherbet. You must be awfully hot in all your…” The gentleman gestured to Sharda’s hat. “Er, not that you look to any disadvantage or are…” The gentleman sought in vain for an acceptable substitute for sweating.
Sharda suddenly wished she had selected a full mask to hide her private mirth. She should not find it so amusing when Edward remembered, too late, that he was trying to woo her. Though maybe if she did not find the clumsy courtship so funny, she might cry.
“Or perhaps you would like to take the air in the garden, Miss Holkar? And escape this dreadful crush.”
“They seem to have brought much of the garden in here, Mr Pilkington.”
She gratefully caught the crisp scent of the evergreen branches that wrapped every available railing in Lady Belleville’s house. A delicious freshness that made one forget one was in London.
“Hmm, yes, quite. But then you don’t have the same animal noises outside, of course. It’s much easier to talk.”
She had not noticed the noise of the ballroom impairing his ability to talk in the slightest. But she knew what type of conversation he had in mind. He wasn’t the first young man to try to negotiate her out onto a cool veranda.
“Perhaps I would like an ice, Mr Pilkington. If you would be so kind.”
“Yes, of course… Though it will be a dreadful ordeal making my way over to the refreshment area now… No matter. I will see that you get your ice…my lady.”
Sharda took a few calming inhales of the pine-and-wood-polish scent of the Belleville townhouse. Now she could face Lavinia Pilkington, a spare lady fluffed up with a great deal of feathers, descending upon her beside a very grand person in purple.
“Here she is, Lady Belleville. I thought we should have to send some of your splendid footmen in search.”
“That might have proved difficult. I have my own runaway to locate, Mrs Pilkington. My wretched nephew.”
Lavinia trilled a nervous laugh, unable to tell if this was a joke.
“This is my young friend, Miss Sharda Holkar, who is staying the holidays with us. Sharda, meet Lady Belleville.”
“I do like your hat, Miss Holkar. You need a bit of height for such a topper. I, alas, have always extended out rather than up. I do envy women who can carry off such plumage. You are enjoying the ball?”
“Yes, indeed, ma’am.”
“And you’ve been dancing?”
“Oh dear, I do like young people to dance.”
“Do not worry, your ladyship. I am sure my son Edward will do the honours soon.”
“Excellent. Now, you must excuse me, for I hear my dear husband’s growl even now. I should make at least a half-hearted attempt to save my guests from his best Scrooge impersonation, should I not?”
Sharda and her cousin each dipped a curtsy—Lavinia’s embarrassingly low—to their hostess as she moved back into the crowd like the prow of a ship easily carving a path through lesser crafts. Sharda was left stranded on an island of two.
“I do hope you truly intend to dance as you promised Lady Belleville. And what did you think of her ladyship? Quite a superior person, I think, but Edward says she wears too many jewels for true breeding. I only wish I had such a problem! Whatever is taking Edward so long, do you think?”
Lavinia had a fidgety manner that made it impossible to relax in her company. After nearly a week as her guest, Sharda was almost as high-strung as her hostess. The prospect of enduring even another five minutes with this wearisome woman was unbearable. Especially as her only reward would be to eat a melted ice and then dance in Edward Pilkington’s sticky grip.
“He promised me he would return very soon. Perhaps I might wait for him in the garden, Mrs Pilkington?”
Lavinia’s eyes glittered behind her feathered mask.
“Ah, yes, that would be an excellent idea. It is far too noisy and hot in here.”
“Should you like to come with me, cousin?”
“Oh, no. No, no. I declare I see my dear friend Mrs, er…Bamtree just over there. But you go right ahead, my dear.”
Sharda needed no further encouragement.
Meet the Author
Meg moved from the US to England because she fell in love with the Victorians’ peculiar blend of glamour and grime. After a decade of exploring historical excesses in a prim scholarly fashion, she realized that fiction is the best way to delve into that period’s great female-focused and LGBT+ stories. Weaned on the high-seas romances of the 1990s, Meg’s lost none of her love for cross-dressing cabin boys but any tolerance for boorish heroes. She’s delighted to now have a whole raft of quirky and queer characters to cheer for on their quest for Happily Ever After. She frequently breaks off writing for an Earl Grey tea (milk not lemon). She’s trying to learn Polish and Portuguese at the same time. She plans to escape Brexit Britain.