Marquesses at the Masquerade
Part of the Hidden Pleasures series
An unmarried marquess is a sorry creature. Hounded by matchmakers, waltzed off his handsome feet by debutantes, importuned by impoverished relations and impecunious friends… How he wishes he could be somebody else, if only for one night. Grace Burrowes, Susanna Ives, and Emily Greenwood team up to present three novellas, each of which features a marquess who attends a masquerade ball for all the wrong reasons, and finds that true love can see through any disguise.
Enjoy An Excerpt
Chapter One from The Governess and the Norse God by Grace Burrowes
“You’ll make all the other Vikings jealous, Papa, for you look splendidly savage.”
Darien St. Ives, Marquess of Tyne, looked—and felt—a proper fool strutting about the nursery in trews, crossed garters, linen tunic, and fur cape.
“My choices were a highwayman, of which there will be dozens, a Titan, which would necessitate indecent attire, or this.”
“My papa is the best Viking ever,” Sylvie declared with the limitless loyalty of a seven-year-old. “Your long boat would be the longest, and the monasteries you sacked would be reduced to… to… mere reticules.”
It’s not that kind of sacking. Miss Fletcher, the girls’ governess, had instructed Tyne on the inappropriateness of correcting Sylvie’s word choices when the child was trying to be gracious. He knelt and scooped up his daughter, the only plunder worth capturing in the nursery.
“You think I cut a dash?”
Sylvie squeezed him about the neck. “The ladies will swoon at the sight of you. When you brandish your long sword, your enemies will tremble with mortal dread.”
The ladies would swoon with boredom. Tyne’s weapon of choice was a sharpened pencil most days, his shield an abacus. Solitude was his preferred fortress and the mathematical error his sworn foe. For a settled widower, the vast reaches of the marquessate’s estate ledger books were adventure enough.
“Papa, you forgot to shave.”
This worried the girl. She was easily worried, having lost her mother at the age of four and not having found Miss Fletcher until six months ago. The intervening two and a half years had been a succession of failures in the governess department, for which Tyne blamed himself.
As heir to a marquessate, he’d had governors and tutors from the age of three. The lot of them had been priggish, sedentary, and forever spouting rules.
Miss Fletcher was about as sedentary as a lightning bolt, though she spouted rules—at her employer.
You shall tuck Sylvie in on the nights that you are home.
You shall kiss both girls on the forehead before departing on the evenings you go out.
You shall recall their birthdays, and you shall most especially note the anniversary of their mother’s death with a family outing to some location their mother enjoyed.
You shall resume socializing, so your daughters know that life moves on and they need not surrender to grief forever.
You shall bestow on your daughters the occasional bouquet of flowers, for how are the young ladies to know what to expect of a gentleman if their own papa doesn’t comport himself as one?
For a small woman, Miss Fletcher had an endless store of commands and warnings. By the time she’d arrived, Tyne had been grateful for anybody who brought a sense of competence and order to his children’s lives, and her approach had borne fruit.
Sylvie hadn’t had a nightmare for months. Amanda was playing the pianoforte again.
“I did not shave,” Tyne informed his daughter, “because Vikings were a rough lot. I’m trying to be authentic to my role.”
Sylvie’s solemn gaze said she was considering whether this excuse would wash. “You need a name, Papa. Vikings had grand names.”
Oh, right. Sven Forkbeard. Harold Battleax. Ivan Bignose. All quite barbaric. “If I had an eye patch, I could be Tyne One-Eye.”
“Not Tyne,” she said, wiggling out of his grasp. “Then everybody would know who you are.”
Lately, Tyne himself had felt a sense of his identity fading. He was the marquess, of course. He voted his seat in Parliament, he dined at his clubs, he made the occasional speech in the Lords regarding economic matters. At Yuletide, planting, and harvest, he opened the ancestral hall to the neighbors and tenants.
The year was a succession of predictable moves, like an old-fashioned court dance: Holidays in the country, remove to Town. Opening of Parliament, beginning of Lent. Polite invitations during the Season to make up the numbers, waltzes with wallflowers.
A restful lot, the wallflowers. He liked them and envied them their anonymity.
Then came grouse season, which he usually spent at the family seat, pretending to tramp about with a fowling piece on his shoulder, while searching for a place out of the wet to read for a few hours.
Harvest, the opening Hunt Ball. The holidays in the country… All the while, his daughters grew taller and more articulate. His estates prospered, and he… he missed Josephine, though he hadn’t known his marchioness all that well.
“You should be Thor,” Sylvie decided. “You need a hammer.”
“How shall I waltz while carrying a hammer at Lord Boxhaven’s masquerade?”
“You set the hammer down, Papa, just as you’d set down a cup of punch. Or you could hang it from your belt.”
An untoward image came to mind of Thor’s hammer swinging from Tyne’s belt and smacking a dancing partner in an unmentionable location. This was what came of wearing crossed garters and a fur cape.
“To bed with you, darling Sylvie,” he said, picking her up again and carrying her into her bedroom. “Miss Fletcher will not tolerate even a Norse god keeping you up past your bedtime.”
The nursery maid rose from the rocking chair next to the hearth and ducked a curtsey.
“Doesn’t Papa look dashing, Helms?”
“Very dashing, Miss Sylvie.” The woman was likely twice Tyne’s age and silently laughing at him. Perhaps he did need a hammer. “Sweet dreams, Sylvie,” he said, kissing her forehead. “If I see any unicorns, I’ll capture one for you.”
“I want a blue one,” Sylvie said, scooting beneath her covers. “With a sparkling purple horn.”
How could this fanciful child be his offspring? “Blue with a purple horn, of course.”
“Sparkling purple, Papa.”
“Your wish,” he said, making her the sort of court bow that always earned him a smile. “Now say your prayers and go to sleep, or Miss Fletcher will hurl thunderbolts at us.”
He escaped the nursery to the music of Sylvie’s giggles. He had bid good night to Amanda before donning this outlandish costume. She’d grown too big to cuddle or carry about. She was acquiring the knack of a rational argument, which too few people practiced on a marquess.
Soon, she’d put up her hair.
Soon after that, Tyne’s hair would sport some gray at the temples. Life was passing him by, which ought not to be possible when he was wealthy, titled, in great good health, and content in every particular.
Thirty-three was hardly ancient.
Perhaps he’d stop by the livery and find himself a convincingly stout mallet to carry about the ballroom. Anything to put off attending the masquerade for even an additional five minutes.
“He’s gone,” Lady Amanda said, watching the coach pull away from the front drive two stories below.
She was thirteen years old, too young to have her own sitting room, but Lucy Fletcher had found the marquess to be a creature of habit rather than convention. When he gave an order—such as “Move my older daughter into her own bedroom.”—he was in the habit of being obeyed. The largest bedroom on the nursery floor other than Lucy’s had a sitting room; ergo, into that bedroom, Lady Amanda had been moved.
“But where is Papa off to?” Amanda murmured, letting the curtain at the window drop.
Lucy had no idea what events graced Lord Tyne’s social schedule for the evening, but Amanda was at the age where adults fascinated her in a way they didn’t interest younger children. To little Lady Sylvie, the marquess was simply Papa. He had sweets in his pocket or a scold to deliver. His other adult obligations were mysterious, vaguely annoying details to Sylvie.
Amanda, by contrast, was intrigued with her father’s adult responsibilities.
What was a marquess, historically speaking?
What did the House of Lords do all evening that Papa had to be there so late?
Why did that simper-y Mrs. Holymere wiggle her fingers like that at Papa in the park?
Lucy knew exactly why the pretty widow wiggled her fingers—and her hips—at the marquess. He was too good-looking, too titled, too wealthy, and—worst of all—too decent not to gain the notice of some wiggly widow in the very near future.
So Lucy would do for the girls what she could while she was governess here, little though that might be.
“We can hope your father is enjoying a social outing,” Lucy said. For a change. If Lord Tyne were one-tenth as attuned to polite society as he was to the politics of the realm, he’d have four engagements each night.
“How will I be invited to tea dances if Papa has no social connections?” Amanda asked, flouncing onto the sofa. “I won’t have any callers, I won’t be granted vouchers to Almack’s.”
“You’d best prepare yourself for holy orders,” Lucy said. “Start memorizing the New Testament, because you will need the comfort of all four Evangelists in your endless old age.”
Amanda’s chin came up in a gesture reminiscent of her father. “I’ll go to tea dances when I’m fourteen. I’m thirteen now.”
Lucy took the place beside her, because this great eagerness to grow up, to be treated as a young lady, was normal. For a marquess’s daughter to be normal, rather than hopelessly spoiled or regularly hysterical, was rare in Lucy’s experience.
“You are thirteen years and three months,” Lucy said. “Give your Papa some time to find his bearings. He is not a man prone to precipitous action. Your aunts have many connections.”
Amanda made a face, such as Sylvie made when somebody forgot to sprinkle cinnamon and sugar on her porridge.
“The aunties have babies. I’m never having babies. Aunt Eleanor says children ruin a woman’s figure.”
Amanda had only the merest beginnings of a figure, thank heavens. “Your aunt is approaching her fourth confinement. She is entitled to be testy. Will you read tonight?”
“You can’t teach me more card games?”
Of course Amanda would ask that tonight. “I’m fatigued, Amanda. Perhaps another time. If the weather’s fine tomorrow and your lessons go well, we can picnic in the park.”
“With Syl-vie,” Amanda said, martyrdom oozing from all three syllables. “I am the elder by six years, but I never go anywhere without her. I can’t wait to put up my hair.”
“Find a book, write to a cousin, experiment at your vanity with your combs and hair ribbons.” Lucy half-hugged Amanda and rose. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Good night, Miss Fletcher.” Amanda remained on the tufted sofa, a precocious child left all alone for yet another evening.
Lucy knew how that felt. “Would you care to join your father some morning for an early outing in the park?”
Amanda had grown two inches over the winter, which meant she’d become too tall for her pony. His lordship had grumbled when Lucy had pointed out that the hems of Lady Amanda’s habit nearly dragged on the ground, but he’d also come home the next day leading a dainty gray mare named Snowdrop.
“An early outing?” Amanda twiddled the gold tassel of a purple velvet pillow. “How early?”
“Dawn, when the mist is rising from the Serpentine, and the day is full of possibilities. All the fashionable gentlemen and not a few ladies ride at dawn.”
Amanda set aside the pillow and crossed to her vanity. “Sylvie will never get up that early.”
To be included in a family outing, she would. “She’d need a nap if she managed to waken at dawn.”
Amanda pulled the black ribbon from her right braid. “She hates taking naps.”
“While I love a refreshing respite in the middle of the afternoon. Those being in short supply, I’ll bid you good night.”
Before Amanda could ask for help arranging her hair, choosing a book, or deciding on a poem to memorize, Lucy slipped out the door. The hour was early by fashionable standards, but for a governess who had to change into a costume and find her way to a masquerade ball, time was of the essence.
The masquerade was becoming noisy, the inevitable result of polite society donning masks and then partaking of the mayhem passing for mine host’s lemon punch. In the ballroom itself, Boxhaven’s mama and grandmama would prevent outright debauchery, but in the garden shadows and unused parlors, mischief would abound.
Under the minstrels’ gallery, a centurion leered down the bodice of a shepherdess in the manner of centurions from time immemorial. A portly satyr danced by with his arms about Good Queen Bess. The lady’s skirts would likely keep her horned partner from living down to the potential of his costume on the very dance floor.
Tyne silently promised himself escape in fifteen minutes.
“Good evening, sir,” drawled a voice to Tyne’s right. “What a fine figure of a Norseman you make.”
Ye gods. Lady Artemnesia Chalfont was nicknamed Lady Amnesia, so predictable was her habit of leaving a reticule, glove, or fan behind at a social call. She’d retrieve the item at the time of her choosing, and she always selected a moment when the bachelor sons of the household were on hand to play Find the Glove at my lady’s direction.
“My thanks for your compliment,” Tyne said, bowing. “I gather Roman legend inspired your own ensemble.” She was Diana, aptly enough. She’d hunted Tyne for the past two Seasons, though she didn’t appear to recognize him now. “I believe I saw a centurion patrolling beneath the minstrels’ gallery.”
The dance floor was full of the usual assortment of highwaymen, Rob Roys, a Louis Quinze with his Madame de Pompadour, and Greek goddesses. Couldn’t have a masquerade without a few dozen bow-wielding ladies waltzing about in their dressing gowns.
Tyne was the only Thor so far. Thank heavens he’d bothered with a half-mask, or Lady Artemnesia would have started plaguing him the moment he’d arrived.
“Come now,” Lady Artemnesia said, smacking his arm with a closed fan. “Should I trouble myself with a mere centurion when I can instead pass the time with a god?”
The centurion put his hand on the shepherdess’s shoulder, and she sidled out from under his grasp. Because he didn’t remove his paw from her person, the strap of her gown was momentarily pushed off her shoulder and drooped down her arm. She reassembled her bodice, her mouth compressed in a line.
“Perhaps the centurion is free to dance,” Tyne said, holding up the sledgehammer he’d rested headfirst against his boot. “I’m rather encumbered by my accoutrements.”
“What a mighty hammer that is.”
Seven more minutes, and Tyne would have outlasted his personal endurance record at a masquerade.
“Blasted thing is heavy,” he said. “Puts a crimp in even a god’s waltzing.”
What sort of shepherdess carried a spear rather than a crook? And what was that upon her head? The young lady besieged by a Roman army of one had positioned her spear in her right hand, the same side upon which Maximus Gloriosus stood. His hand was back on her shoulder, his thumb brushing over her bare flesh in a most familiar manner.
“You will excuse me,” Tyne said. “I believe I’ve spotted my partner for the next set.”
“But you said you weren’t dancing.”
Tyne bowed and propped his sledgehammer on his shoulder. “I’m not.”
He sauntered along the edge of the ballroom, earning some stares. The sledgehammer was a lovely touch, quite authentic. Perhaps he’d start a fashion for carrying sledgehammers rather than sword-canes on Bond Street.
“Excuse me,” Tyne said, bowing to the spear-wielding shepherdess with the bizarre millinery. “I believe my dance is coming up.”
Gloriosus glowered at him. “The Valkyrie isn’t dancing. She told me so herself. I’m sitting out with her.”
Behind her half-mask, the lady’s blue eyes flashed perdition to presuming soldiers. “I said I was not free to dance with you, sir. I suggest you find somebody who is.”
Gloriosus was the Honorable Captain Dinwiddie Dunstable, an earl’s younger son who had apparently suffered a few blows to the head in the course of his military career. He was as stupid as he was indolent, and he stood much too close to the lady’s spear for his continued good health.
Tyne offered his arm. “Madam Valkyrie.”
She shoved her spear at Gloriosus. “You may have this, to fend off all the women doubtless waiting to importune you for a turn on the dance floor.”
She was a compact little creature, her hair pinned back under some winged copper contraption that might have been concocted of spare kitchenware. Her mask obscured her eyes and half of her nose, and her complexion was English-lady pale.
“We needn’t dance,” Tyne said, leading her in the direction of the gallery. “I’ve grown fond of striding about with a sledgehammer on my shoulder. If I set my hammer aside in this company, somebody’s likely to steal it, and then I’d lose my magical powers.”
“A guest at this gathering would steal a sledgehammer?”
“A guest, a footman, a maid. Some of the extra staff hired for a social gathering can be less than exemplary. It’s a fine tool and the property of a god, after all. No telling what imps or fairies might yearn to wrest it from me.”
She peered up at him, as if visual inspection might reveal how much of the punch Tyne had imbibed. “It’s a hammer, sir. A handle and a weight, for smacking things.”
“Like most well-made tools, this hammer has probably been handed down from father to son to nephew. One replaces the head, the other replaces the handle, and yet, it’s the heirloom hammer, carrying a craftsman’s share of pride from one generation to the next. I call that magic, and I’m a god, so you mustn’t gainsay me. A pouting god is an unpredictable creature.”
He found them a cushioned bench beneath a burned-out sconce. The guests strolling the garden were doubtless enjoying more of nature’s delights than Tyne would consider decent, while the gallery was both quieter and cooler than the ballroom. A fine place to spend the three or four minutes remaining of his penance with…
How embarrassing. He could not place the Valkyrie’s voice, though she sounded familiar. Educated, of course, and not particularly regional.
“We could dance if you insist,” he said. “I’ll secret my hammer behind an arras.”
“Thank you, no. My personal Praetorian Guard might think himself welcome to renew his attentions. Is that all people do at these affairs? Leer and flirt and swill punch?”
“I’m told this is called socializing among the English.”
She stretched her feet out before her. “I’m English, rather than who I appear to be. You must forgive my lack of familiarity with masked balls.”
She wore sturdy half-boots instead of dancing slippers. The Valkyrie were known to be unsentimental ladies, though half-boots were astonishingly practical.
“Isn’t that rather the point of a masquerade?” Tyne asked. “To be somebody else for a short time, to impersonate a more daring, dashing creature than one is in truth?”
“I’m impersonating a friend,” she said. “Somebody I went to school with. She asked me to attend, wearing this costume, so she might for once stay home and rest. I am not deceived, though. She wanted me to have an adventurous evening. I’m ready to fly back to Valhalla, if this is society’s idea of an enjoyable evening.”
The Valkyrie were also honest, apparently.
“I have a suggestion,” Tyne said, rising. “Like the conscientious, plundering Viking that I am, why don’t I make a pass through the buffet? The least you’re owed is some sustenance before you give up on your adventure.”
“I’ll guard your hammer,” she replied. “I love fruit and cheese above all combinations.”
Tyne rested the long handle of his hammer against the side of the bench. Because the sconce was unlit, he couldn’t see his companion in detail, but he could hear that she was smiling.
So was he. “I’m to be on watch for a blue unicorn with a purple sparkly horn. No other breed will do. Guard my hammer well, Madam Valkyrie.”
He strode off, wondering if the single cup of punch he’d sampled had addled his wits. He was about to set a new record for his appearance at one of Boxhaven’s masquerade balls. Sylvie would be proud of him, and Amanda would think him quite silly.
Though, as to that, he hadn’t even confessed to Amanda where he’d be spending his evening. And poor Madam Valkyrie. The notion that anybody could meet with adventure at a venue as tedious as a masquerade ball was absurd. Tyne could locate strawberries, though, and oranges, and stewed apples.
But what on earth could he find to discuss with the lady while they consumed their victuals?
“Fruit and cheese,” Thor said, passing Lucy a plate. “Also some ham, for I imagine all that flying you Valkyries do from battlefield to battlefield is hungry work.”
He settled beside her on the bench, the furniture creaking under his weight. He was blond and Viking-sized, and the cape swirling about his shoulders and hint of golden beard on his cheeks gave him a dashing air.
Lucy took the plate, which was heaped high with food. “I can’t possibly eat all of this.”
“That’s the idea,” he replied, bumping her with his shoulder. “You eat as much as you like, and I’ll deal with the rest. English plates are too small for a man of my northern appetites.”
“Melon,” Lucy said, picking up a silver fork. “I lose my wits in the presence of fresh melon.”
“Your adventurous spirit has been rewarded. What else would make this evening enjoyable?”
“Peace and quiet, though this cheese is scrumptious.” Blue veins, pungent flavor, creamy texture. The perfect complement to the melon.
Thor used his fingers to pop a rolled-up slice of ham into his mouth. “You sound weary, Madam Valkyrie.”
His earlier comment, about flying from battlefield to battlefield, was more apt than he knew. Lucy’s specialty was children who’d lost a parent. Even the aristocracy boasted a sad abundance of the half-orphaned. Wealthy parents might not take much notice of their offspring, but the children noticed when a parent died.
The agencies that placed governesses knew Lucy dealt well with such families, and thus she’d landed in Lord Tyne’s household.
“I don’t typically keep such late hours,” she said, spearing a strawberry. “I’ll pay for this tomorrow.”
“Try sitting in Parliament. Why the wheels of government can only turn after dark has ever confounded me. I’ve a theory that most men have a quiet dread of the ballrooms and dinner parties, and Parliament schedules its debates and committee meetings the better to spare its members the social venues.”
Lord Tyne seemed to thrive on his parliamentary obligations, though he also struck Lucy as a man in want of sleep most of the time.
“What would you rather be doing?” she asked. Perhaps Thor was an MP, though at this gathering, a titled lord was more likely.
He considered another rolled-up slice of ham. “I’m watching for stray unicorns. The work is hardly exciting, but you meet all the best people.”
Was he flirting? “And you get to carry a very fine hammer about all evening.”
“A consummation devoutly to be wished.”
They ate the fruit and cheese—Lucy took a single slice of ham—in companionable quiet. “Take the last strawberry,” and “Should have found you a spoon for the apples,” the extent of the conversation. Marianne wouldn’t understand how this qualified as an adventure for Lucy—sharing a plate with a strange god—but Lucy was enjoying herself, mostly.
“Do you read much Shakespeare?” she asked.
Thor set the empty plate on the floor to the side of the bench. “I’m a literate Englishman, so I’m supposed to say yes. The truth is, I haven’t had time to read for pleasure in years. Now, I’m called upon to read to my children occasionally, and they seem to like that. If I have a choice between brushing up on Romeo and Juliet, or spending an hour in the nursery, I’ve lately chosen the nursery.”
He was married. This revelation should not have disappointed Lucy—she’d be back in her own bed in little more than an hour—but his marital status reminded her that this was a masquerade. He wasn’t Thor, she wasn’t in search of an adventure, or a unicorn.
“Romeo and Juliet isn’t exactly light reading,” Lucy said. “You’re better off enjoying the company of your own children rather than reading about somebody else’s doomed offspring.” She’d never liked the tragedies, particularly tragedies that left the stage littered with dead adolescents. “Your children will thank you one day for reading to them.”
He relaxed back against the wall, stretching long legs before him. “Have you children, that you can offer me such an assurance?”
“I had a papa. He read to us.”
“I’m sorry for your loss.” Those quiet words, spoken not by a bantering deity, but by a very human man who was himself a father, nudged Lucy’s mood in a sad direction.
“Papa was a god,” she said. “Jovial, wise, bigger than life, kinder than kind. He knew what to say, he knew when to say nothing. I miss him.”
Which was why she grasped the world of a grieving child.
“I miss my wife,” Thor said. “Trite words, and we had a trite marriage. We’d known each other since childhood, had always expected to marry one another. We suited wonderfully, and yet, we barely knew each other. There’s nothing trite about grief, particularly when bewilderment and guilt get into the mix.” He laid his hammer across his lap. “My apologies for burdening you with such conversation. Loneliness makes fools of us.”
Why couldn’t Lord Tyne be this insightful? He was a good man, an honorable man, but sometimes, Lucy wanted to shake him. Perhaps his lordship needed some enchanted creature to kiss him, to waken him from his parliamentary bills and estate ledgers.
The wiggly widows would allow Tyne to stay lost in his politics and accounting, and that would not be a happy ending for Lucy’s employer.
“What would help?” Lucy asked. “What would ease your grief and rekindle your joie de vivre?”
He lifted his hammer and considered the battered weight that made it an effective tool. “Joie de vivre is in short supply at Valhalla. As you doubtless know, we go in more for gory sagas, epic wrestling matches, and kidnapping maidens who don’t belong to us.”
He had a very nice smile, though Lucy wished he wasn’t wearing a half-mask. She’d like to see his eyes more clearly. His voice was that of any well-educated Englishman, much like Lord Tyne’s voice, but Thor’s conversation included humor and honest emotion.
“The wrestling matches sound interesting,” Lucy said as a satyr galloped past with a giggling nymph in tow.
The gamboling couple apparently didn’t notice Lucy and Thor sitting in the shadows, for the nymph allowed herself to be caught, then pressed against the wall for a protracted kiss. The sight should have been ridiculous—the satyr’s horns sat askew on his head, the nymph’s golden wig was similarly disarranged—but the sheer glee of the undertaking made Lucy cross.
The nymph wiggled free, gave the satyr a smack on the bum, then darted off down the gallery.
“Ye gods and little fishes,” Thor said, rising and shouldering his hammer. “I do believe it’s time I kidnapped a maiden.”
He took Lucy by the hand and led her off into the shadows.
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End of Excerpt
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April 17, 2018
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