Unmasked at Midnight
Unmasked at Midnight 1

Unmasked at Midnight

Chronicles of the Westbrook Brides, Book 8

A former naval officer turned bookstore owner’s dream of tranquility is upended by a lively reverend’s daughter with a secret life as a romance author…

Darius Westbrook’s life takes a long-awaited turn when he exchanges his naval uniform for the keys to a quaint bookstore. The whirlwind entrance of Araminta Weldon, the reverend’s vivacious daughter, disrupts his dreams of tranquil life surrounded by books. Their first meeting, a collision rather than a greeting, sparks an immediate, if unconventional, camaraderie. Despite his determination to focus solely on his business, Darius finds himself enchanted by Araminta’s zeal for life and her unexpected proposal to incorporate a lending library within his bookstore.

Araminta Weldon, known in the village for her kindness and undying commitment to her family, harbors a secret that keeps her nights aglow with passion—she’s a successful romance author. Her life, a juggling act of caring for her sisters and assisting her father, takes a thrilling turn when she, quite literally, inadvertently crashes into Darius Westbrook. As Araminta spends more time setting up the library in the bookstore, her admiration for the charming and devilishly handsome bookstore owner grows. Yet, her heart aches, for she believes her love is unrequited, especially as she witnesses Darius’s attention directed toward another.

The bookstore’s grand opening looms, promising to be an event that could change their lives forever. Araminta faces a daunting decision: reveal her secret identity as an author or stay hidden behind the veil of obscurity. As for Darius, he must choose between following his carefully laid plans or surrendering to unexpected love. Will their story culminate in a happy ending, or will their differences and fears keep them apart?

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See What Readers Are Saying

★★★★★ “A charming romance with a couple in love with each other but both have their insecurities. I loved their journey to a HEA”  ~ Janet

★★★★★ “An array of stolen moments that thrum with chemistry, intimate banter, instantaneous attraction and building admiration that blooms between kindred spirits, Owen and Althelia, and sparkles with an empathetic connection that so effortlessly had me captured in the moment of their budding romance.” ~ Sandra

★★★★★ “The banter between the two is great and Owen’s gentleness with the horses and puppies is moving. I am looking forward to more stories with the Westbrook family.” ~ Terrie

★★★★★ ”As always Collette Cameron’s novel is warmhearted and a delight.” ~ Margaret Watkins

★★★★★ “Charming and heartfelt story. Intriguing couple to follow while capturing romance along with cute puppies.” ~ Cherie S

★★★★★ “I did not want to stop reading this sweet story. Such an instant connection between Althelia and Owen.” ~ Christine Woinich

★★★★★ “This was a wonderful, sweet story about Owen and Althelia who unexpectedly find love. The characters both coming from different backgrounds were well written providing in depth back stories to understand what each wanted out of life.” ~ Donna Nalbandian Woerner Homschek

★★★★★ “This was a lovely, love at first sight romance that comfortably fits into the Westbrook series and quietly glows with an endearing sweetness.” ~ Sandra

★★★★★ “This is a story that really keeps you reading till the end, a real page turner and leaves you craving for more.” ~ Rose

★★★★★ “This was a cute, entertaining story…” ~ MT


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~ Excerpt ~


Hefferwickshire House
Latham Ducy country estate
19 December 1826 – late afternoon

Why did I let Leonidas Westbrook talk me into this ludicrous farce?

Taking in the ostentatious manor—every window glowing with a warm welcome—and the immaculate grounds dusted with snowfall as if God Himself thought the tableau needed a sprinkling of festivity, Owen Lockington swore inwardly.

I’ve lost my everlasting bloody mind.

Slinging a battered satchel over his shoulder before dragging an equally dilapidated leather valise from the hackneyed coach’s interior, he caught sight of his humble, less-than-fashionable attire and his scuffed boots, badly in need of a good polish.

I’m as out of place as feather dusters at a duel.

A crooked, self-deprecating grin skewed his mouth upward on one side as he gave a contemptuous shake of his head.

Nothing new there.

How long had it been since he felt he belonged anywhere?

Since his mother had been alive.

Dour, pensive, and resembling his mother’s large, rough Gaelic tribal ancestors, Owen had never fit in. It was a wonder, in truth, that he and Leonidas had become such good friends at university. A friendship that had prevailed for over a decade now, though they seldom saw each other.

When they did, however, they resumed their acquaintance as if no time had passed.

A good-sized male Dalmatian pranced over to inspect the new arrival. After thoroughly sniffing Owen’s feet and calves, the chap lifted his head for a pet.

“I’ve passed muster, have I?” Owen scratched behind the dog’s solid black ears.

The dog thumped his thick tail thrice before trotting off, sniffing several bushes, and marking his territory along the way.

Unease scraping sharp talons the length of his spine, Owen once more skimmed his gaze over the stately mansion, smoke winding lazily skyward from multiple chimneys. Yet rather than turn around on his next breath, leap into the cold, smelly conveyance, and order the burly driver to make haste back to the village as common sense admonished, Owen sprinted up the steps.

At least this year, he wouldn’t spend Christmas with only a bottle of brandy and a book for company, as he’d done for nearly a decade.

Leonidas had assured Owen that his parents, the Duke and Duchess of Latham, would welcome a guest for the holiday. Wholly out of character, Owen had accepted the invitation from his only close friend after running into him in London.

He already regretted his impulsive decision, but there was dashed little he could do now. Unless he stole a horse from the stables or walked, his chance for escape rumbled down the gravel drive, leaving dual ribbons in the glistening snow.

Filling his lungs with crisp winter air, he braced his shoulders.

A week at Hefferwickshire House was survivable, even for a social outcast such as himself.

He’d trimmed his hair this morning, and the unfashionable, unruly sable locks only brushed his collar now. He’d even deemed to shave his beard, lest the servants think him a vagabond and direct him to the back of the house for a crust of bread.

Sighing, Owen rapped upon the entrance with his forefinger’s knuckle and veered a glance heavenward. The gray, lackluster sky and dusky horizon portending nightfall and, perchance, more snow matched his sour mood.

The door flew open. As if Leonidas had peered out a window awaiting Owen’s arrival, his oldest friend stood there grinning like a baboon.

“Lockington! You actually came.” He pumped Owen’s hand. “I’m delighted! Flabbergasted but sincerely delighted.”

“Do you generally answer the door, Westbrook?” Owen asked drolly, stepping inside. The splendor slapped him in the face like a frigid arctic wind.

Hefferwickshire’s exterior merely hinted at the interior’s opulence.

Seasonal greenery with gold and scarlet ribbons adorned the elegant entry, filling the air with a pleasant pine aroma. A stunning Spode porcelain urn overflowing with cedar, holly, and fir stood majestically atop a marble-topped rosewood half table. Kissing boughs, heavy with white mistletoe berries, hung suspended from doorways by silver and gold ribbons, awaiting stolen kisses.

His heels echoed hollowly on the black and white Italian marble as he ventured forward a few more steps, unable to keep from craning his neck and gawking like a child at a circus.

Unlike many aristocrats, Leonidas wasn’t a pretentious prick and had never hinted at his family’s wealth. The manor fairly oozed grandeur and opulence, but his friend stood there, looking for all the world like an ordinary chap happy to see his long-time friend.

Yes, indeed. I’m as out of my element as an engorged tick on King George IV’s broad arse.

“Simms, our butler, is dealing with a situation in the kitchen. A kerfuffle regarding too much sampling of brandied fruit and tipsy maids. I believe there might’ve been tossing of said fruit involved.” Still smiling as if Leonidas had triumphed in a coup d’état, he shook his dark head. “I admit, I had doubts, and I swear a couple of minutes ago, you contemplated diving back in that miserable excuse of a coach.”

Leonidas jutted his chin toward the rickety equipage trundling down the drive before turning and disappearing onto the main track.

So, he had been watching Owen.

“I did, in truth.” A raspy chuckle escaped Owen. “But then I remembered you mentioned your cook made exceptional cinnamon buns, gingerbread men, Christmas pudding, and sugared almonds.” He patted his flat stomach with his free hand. “I do like my sweets.”

“Aye, I recall that about you, yet you never appear to gain weight. Must be your gargantuan size.” Leonidas stepped farther into the grand entry. He gave a mischievous wink. “I’d say the brandied fruit ought to be quite the thing too.”

“Don’t believe I’ve ever had the pleasure.” Owen shifted his bags.

“Come in and meet the family,” Leonidas urged. “You’re just in time for afternoon tea, and Mrs. Tastespotting, our cook, made several special holiday biscuits and tarts. This time of year, there are always extra treats to sample.”

Mama only ever made shortbread during the holidays—a tribute to her Scot’s ancestry and a testimony to Beauford’s parsimony. Though the earl paid their basic expenses, he hadn’t been generous with his purse. They’d managed by skimping and economizing, habits that Owen had carried into adulthood and still served him well.

Speaking over his shoulder, Leonidas shut the door with a firm snick. “We don’t eat supper until eight o’clock, which isn’t typical country hours, so tea is generally quite substantial. I’m sure you’re famished after the journey.”

As Owen ate when he felt hungry and had never adhered to specific hours for mealtimes, he lifted a shoulder. Regardless, his stomach did gnaw rather persistently at his backbone at the moment. A sensation he’d grown accustomed to since hunger was a regular bedfellow.

Efficient, polite footmen in crisp crimson and gold livery took his two shoddy bags, treating the baggage with the reverence and consideration worthy of His Majesty’s luggage.

“Perhaps I ought to tidy up a jot first.” Owen hadn’t a doubt the servants’ crisp livery was far costlier than his rumpled suit. However, the clothing the servants presently toted upstairs was only slightly better than the travel suit he wore.

He’d never cared about current fashion, fancy waistcoats, expensive fabric, and assuredly didn’t give two farthings whether he tied his cravat in a waterfall or a ballroom knot.

“Nonsense. No need to change.” Leonidas shook his dark head again, still wearing that infuriatingly pleased-with-himself smile. “We don’t stand on formality around here, and you are expressly forbidden to address me or my brothers as my lord.” He gave an exaggerated shudder. “Besides, Grandmama doesn’t like her tea to grow cold.”

Affection and a trace of awe leached into Leonidas’s voice when he mentioned his grandmother.

Owen never knew his grandmothers.

Rubbing his nose, Leonidas chuckled. “She’s quite an eccentric old bird. I probably ought to have warned you. I beg you, don’t be surprised at anything she might say or ask. She’s quite beyond the pale and enjoys shocking people.”

“Your parents are a duke and duchess.” Owen quirked a sardonic eyebrow and clasped his hands behind his back. A practice he’d developed in order to do something with his oversized hands. “I find it hard to fathom that they don’t strictly abide by all decorum. You are positive they won’t take exception to me addressing you with such familiarity?”

“Not at all, and I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised, my friend.” Leonidas slapped Owen’s shoulder. “My parents are genuinely warm people. You’ve nothing to fear or be ashamed of. No need to worry about their approval and all that trite rot that the ponces in London are so fond of.”

Leonidas knew Owen’s scandalous origins, that he was the by-blow of a governess and an earl.

Though, to the Earl of Beauford’s credit, he’d done the honorable thing and acknowledged his bastard son by paying for Owen’s upbringing and education. No more than he ought to have done after seducing an innocent girl and then dismissing her when her condition became known to the countess, who had only ever managed to produce three daughters.

How that circumstance had aggravated the old codger.

Beauford finally had his son, but Owen would never—could never—be his heir.

“I have the one thing Beauford covets above all else.” Mouth bent into a poignant smile, Mama would hug Owen before ruffling his thick, unruly hair. “You, my precious boy.” She’d kissed his cheek, the essence of lavender wafting from her pale skin. “And I love you above all else.”

Nevertheless, the shame of her circumstances and the ostracism by her family had shattered her spirit, and she’d died just after his seventeenth birthday, leaving him alone in the world where bastards were as numerous as rats and mice and treated with the same abhorrence as the detested vermin.

Owen had rebuffed Beauford’s overtures to visit and become acquainted with the man. He hadn’t shed a tear when the old sod died four years ago, ironically or perhaps aptly, on Owen’s fourth and twentieth birthday.

The inheritance he’d bequeathed Owen still sat in a bank account in London, untouched. Owen didn’t even know how much the seducer of innocents had left him. He didn’t give a blacksmith’s damn how much it was.

He didn’t want his sire’s money.

Although if he didn’t find the investors he sought to restart the coal mine in Workington that Owen had unexpectedly inherited from his maternal grandfather, then necessity might force him to accept the bequeathment.

Bitterness burned the back of his throat.

That thought, a very real possibility, galled him to his marrow.

He must find another way.

In truth, because of how the Lockingtons had treated Mama, he initially hadn’t wanted his grandfather’s mine either. He supposed that made him the worst sort of hypocrite, accepting one inheritance while shunning the other.

“Leonidas? Grandmama sent me to fetch you. She vows her tea grows cold but won’t take a sip until you return.” A pretty girl strode into the foyer, her auburn hair streaked with fire and sunshine tied back with a pink ribbon across her crown. She wore a shirt a shade darker than her hair ribbon, and trousers covered her impossibly long legs tucked into men’s boots.

If his life had depended on it, Owen couldn’t have torn his attention away from the arresting vixen.

She slid to a stop, her blue, blue eyes round as dinnerplates and her full berry-red mouth parting.

“Lord have mercy and blow me over with a feather. You are quite the biggest man I have ever laid eyes upon.”

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