Barbara Monajem is one of those writers. She tends to handle tight word counts well, and her historical short stories for Harlequin Historical Undone are always interesting, if not always successful, reads for me. Under a Christmas Spell is one of the successful ones and is a nice holiday story that blends light paranormal elements with one of my favorite historical backdrops - the country house party.
Napoleon finally vanquished, Lord Valiant Oakenhurst has come home to England. However, he has one more mission - a rather absurd one in his opinion, but orders are orders. An incubus, Valiant is told to find a way into a house party and awaken the dormant sexual nature of Miss Theodora Southern. Someone higher up the food chain wants the chit to marry and she has some silly notion that she'll only marry "for love." The belief is that once Valiant gets her all hot and bothered that she'll be more, uh....receptive to suitors. Things get complicated though when he see Lucille Beaulieu traveling with Miss Southern.
Lucie and Valiant go way back to the war. She's a succubus and they were both spies. Lucie thwarted a mission for Valiant back then, and while he was none to pleased about it? Yeah, he's still go the hots for her. So why the deuce is Lucie at this silly house party? Turns out she's there on a similar mission as Valiant's, except her target is the host - Lord Westerly. He's a fine, upstanding Lord - someone that needs to get making babies for God and country. Except ever since he's been back from the war? Yeah, Westerly has had no eye for the ladies. The hope is that Lucie's particular brand of seduction will "awaken" his needs and get him on the marriage mart.
The paranormal elements are painted with a light brush, and I liked that both hero and heroine had dubious pasts that have led to their paths crossing more than once. Lucie, in particular, is exceedingly happy that the war is over - having grown tired of the various games. While Valiant may scoff at all things Christmas - the big (and really only) appeal to this mission for her is that she's going to have a nice English country holiday, complete with Yule logs, pudding, and wassailing. However Valiant being on the scene worries her. I mean, what if he's there because he has orders to dispose of her?
I can see some readers getting through this story and wishing there was more. The war years for both hero and heroine are glossed over a bit, and the paranormal world-building cannot really be delved into great detail considering the word count. The way it reads, it sounds like Valiant, and possibly Lucie, are magical beings born from non-magical parents. Lucie is an orphan, Valiant basically disowned by his family. This is all glossed over considerably, but I did enjoy the author's take on the incubus/succubus mythology. For me it's more "fun" here than say, the ol' "they're demons!" take on the idea. Lucie and Valiant are just.....really hot and have that knack for invading dream space. Good looks, charisma, that "it factor" - in this day and age they'd be movie stars.
There's a connected short story in this duet, Under a New Year's Enchantment, coming out in January that will wrap everything up by continuing the story of Miss Southern and Lord Westerly. As it stands, I'm glad readers aren't quite done seeing Lucie and Valiant. They found their happy ending, but they'll be back.
Final Grade = B