Read an Excerpt
Just a Kiss
An It's in His Kiss Novella
By Ally Broadfield, Kerri-Leigh Grady, Allison Blisard
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2014 Ally Broadfield
All rights reserved.
Sussex, February 1811
Sebastian Wilkinson, the Earl of Marley, paced the lengthy corridor outside his grandmother's bedchamber while he waited for the doctor to finish his examination. Moments later, the door creaked open and he braced himself to receive the diagnosis.
"She is out of danger," Dr. Young said.
Sebastian relaxed his shoulders, grateful at long last to be able to inhale deeply again.
"However," he continued, "she is still frail and therefore more susceptible to illness. You must take measures to prevent her from becoming ill again." He linked his fingers together and held his hands against his ample stomach. "She should rest frequently, and you must not allow her to become chilled. I recommend she stay inside in front of the fireplace on rainy days. That was a virulent fever and if she has another, she will not survive."
The doctor continued with his instructions, but Sebastian was no longer listening. He was anxious to see Gran. Dr. Young had served as their family physician since before Sebastian was born, and he always gave the same instructions for care. Holding his palm up to stop the doctor's inane chatter, he opened the door to Gran's bedchamber and beckoned to her maid. "Margaret, please come and attend Dr. Young. He will go over the instructions for Lady Marley's continuing care."
"Yes, my lord," Margaret said, slipping past him into the corridor.
Sebastian stole into Gran's chamber and settled into the chair next to her bed.
Her lids fluttered open, and she focused unerringly on him. "It's about time you came to visit me."
He took her warm, dry hand, thankful it was no longer cold and limp. "I took tea with you not two hours ago. Doc didn't mention that your illness left you deranged."
Gran fumbled about on her bedside table.
"May I be of service in —" He yelped when her closed fan connected with the side of his head. Yes, she would definitely recover. Suddenly exhausted after being relieved of the weight of worry, he allowed himself to slump into the chair next to her bed.
Gran pulled herself up against the headboard and squared her shoulders. "Doc has given me permission to travel within a fortnight. We're already at a disadvantage since the season has started without us, but I trust you will apply yourself to finding a suitable bride this year."
He leaned his head against the back of the chair and studied the molding on her ceiling. "What if I don't wish to have a suitable bride?"
"I certainly don't countenance you taking an unsuitable one."
He lifted his head. "Gran, I'm serious."
"So am I." She slapped her palm against the headboard. "It is high time for you to take a wife and produce an heir or two. I want to see you make an advantageous match before I die, and I could go at any moment."
Sebastian rolled his eyes. "You needn't be so melodramatic."
"Apparently, I must. You don't seem to be taking me seriously."
He studied each wrinkle and dark spot on her face. After singlehandedly raising him following the death of his parents, she had earned each of those marks, just as she'd earned the right to see him settled. And she wouldn't truly relax until he married. He owed her that much and more. "All right, Gran. This is the season in which the Earl of Marley will find a wife."
* * *
London, March 1811
Charlotte Lightwood strode through the front door and started up the staircase. Her eldest niece, Amelia, followed on her heels. Charlotte stopped abruptly when her sister-in-law's voice carried up the staircase from the parlor. Amelia crashed into her back and placed a hand on Charlotte's shoulder to steady herself. She turned toward her niece and put a finger to her lips. They simultaneously tilted their heads toward the parlor. The identity of Elizabeth's guest would determine whether Charlotte and Amelia would join them, as would be proper, or scurry up the staircase like mice being chased by a cat.
The rumble of a male voice drifted to them, and the decision was made.
Scurry. Unquestionably scurry. They raced up to the first landing, but they were too slow.
The heels of Elizabeth's half boots tapped against the parquet floor as she exited the parlor and halted at the base of the staircase. "Charlotte, there you are. You must come to the parlor and speak with cousin Horace."
Charlotte froze. She would rather have had her fingers broken one by one than be in the same room with her sister-in-law's cousin, who was most decidedly not related to her.
"You too, Amelia."
Resigned to her fate, Charlotte descended the stairs and gave her cloak to their butler, Adams, who stood by with an appropriately stoic expression but for his mouth, which was pinched in disapproval. Charlotte shuffled along behind Elizabeth, Amelia trailing her closely.
Horace lounged on the settee near the window, tapping his sausage-like fingers against his thigh in impatience. He rose and wiped the perspiration from his upper lip as Charlotte entered the parlor. She curtsied. "Good afternoon, Mr. Janson."
"Charlotte," her sister-in-law chided, "it's not necessary to be so formal with our cousin."
She gritted her teeth. On the contrary, it was very important for her to keep Horace at a distance. He crossed the floor quickly, took her hand, and kissed it. She was thankful she hadn't yet removed her gloves. Even without direct contact, a shiver of revulsion swept through her. His overly watchful gaze and clammy hands always left her feeling unclean.
Charlotte dropped into a small chair and smoothed her skirts, grateful Elizabeth hadn't been able to maneuver quickly enough to force her to sit on the settee with Horace. Amelia took the chair next to her, and Elizabeth fidgeted beside Horace.
Horace settled his bulk back into his seat. "I understand you and Amelia went for a walk in the park."
"Yes. After a day of rain yesterday, the sunlight today was too tempting to ignore." Charlotte fussed with the fringe on the pillow next to her.
"Did you wear a bonnet?" Horace asked. "I wouldn't want you to mar your skin with ugly freckles."
Charlotte drew in a sharp breath. The nerve of the man. As if her appearance was any of his concern.
"How kind of you, Horace," Elizabeth added quickly, glaring at Charlotte.
Charlotte gave Amelia a meaningful stare, willing the girl to say something to focus the attention of her mother and her odious cousin on herself. Amelia gave an almost imperceptible shrug and turned to Horace. "How long will you be in London?"
He swung his reptilian gaze toward Amelia. "That depends on how much time it takes me to conclude my business. For now, I plan on at least a fortnight, but I will stay in town as long as is necessary." He stared at Charlotte, as if in challenge. A prickle of uneasiness swept through her.
Elizabeth stood. "I nearly forgot. Amelia," she said without so much as a glance at her daughter, "I would like your opinion on a new pattern Madame Poirier sent over this afternoon. I must respond today if she is to finish my dress in time for the Chadwick ball."
Horace began to rise, but Elizabeth stopped him. "There's no need to stand on formality among family. Charlotte will entertain you in our absence. We shan't be long."
Charlotte's face filled with heat, and Amelia gave her a confused look.
Elizabeth pushed her daughter into the corridor and pulled the door nearly closed. A mere inch of light struggled to shine through the narrow gap. Charlotte was alone with Horace.
"But, Mama." Amelia's voice carried in from the corridor. "I thought you already had your dress for the ball."
"Be quiet, child." Elizabeth's voice grew fainter as their footsteps retreated down the hall.
Charlotte sat in stunned silence for a moment before her mind began to work again. The remains of tea on the table gave her an idea. She stood and tugged the bell pull. Perhaps she could persuade the maid who brought the tray to stay and serve. At the very least, she would have a reason to widen the gap in the door and make sure it stayed open.
Horace frowned. "I've already had tea."
The man was nothing if not predictable. Apparently, the fact that she had not yet had tea was of no consequence to him.
Mary appeared almost immediately, relieving Charlotte of the necessity to concoct a mundane response to Horace. "Would you like me to bring more tea, ma'am?"
She sighed in relief at the unobstructed view of the corridor. "Yes, please. Do you think you could find some biscuits as well? I worked up quite an appetite during our walk."
"I'll see what I can find." The maid curtsied and left with the old tray, leaving the door wide open. As it should be.
Charlotte sat in her chair and smiled benignly at Horace, feeling no particular need to keep up the pretense of a conversation. Long minutes of blissful silence filled the space between them.
Horace shifted and leaned toward her. "There is something I would like to speak with you about."
Her heart dropped into her stomach. "I can't imagine anything you would need to discuss with me."
His brows dropped. "Don't play coy with me, Charlotte. You're a smart girl. I'm certain you understand my intentions."
Mary strode in with the tea tray, delaying Charlotte's need to respond. She moved the sugar bowl aside to inspect the biscuits, stalling for time, searching for a way to prevent him from continuing his line of conversation. "Would you like another cup?"
"I suppose so," he grumbled.
"Do you care for sugar?" she asked, ignoring his surliness.
"No," he grunted.
She poured and placed the cup in front of him. Her stomach rumbled in appreciation as she perused the biscuits. She placed several on her plate, hoping to avoid conversation by keeping her mouth full.
She took a bite of a tart, yet sweet, lemon biscuit and prayed Elizabeth and Amelia would return soon. This wasn't the first time Elizabeth had attempted to present Horace as a possible match for her, but it was certainly the most blatant. There was no doubt that Elizabeth would use almost any means to get what she wanted, but even she wouldn't stoop low enough to try to compromise Charlotte and force her into a marriage with Horace. Would she?
Horace spoke after Charlotte took a taste of an almond biscuit. "You should consider cutting back on the biscuits if you don't want to have to let out your gowns."
Charlotte sucked in an angry breath and choked, coughing crumbs onto the table in a most unladylike fashion. She would have been mortified if anyone other than Horace had been present. The wretched man. She had never been so insulted in her life.
With a pointed glance at his rather prominent paunch, she stood and walked to the hearth, hoping Horace would allow her a moment to compose herself. She coughed again, attempting to clear her throat.
"Perhaps I was a bit hasty about the biscuits," he said, creeping up behind her. "This is quite a nice view."
What could that mean? Before she had a chance to turn around, he cupped her buttock and pinched. Her heart pounded and heat suffused her face, and before she could consider her actions, she spun and punched him hard in the eye.
"How dare you!" Her voice shook with rage.
"Bloody hell!" He covered his left eye and glared at her. "You struck me! You are not the lady I thought you were."
She gasped. "You ... you touched me! And pinched me!" Her heart thundered at twice its normal speed. Curse her thin gown. Curse its lack of padding. And curse Horace for being so vile. Her knuckle was already swelling where it had connected with his eye socket. She held it out and stared at it idly, as if it belonged to someone else. It didn't hurt, though she suspected it would when the rage subsided.
Of course that was the moment Elizabeth chose to return, peering into the parlor with a comically shocked expression. "What in the world is going on in here?"
Amelia's mouth fell open.
Charlotte dashed from the parlor, too horrified to admit what Horace had done to her.
* * *
Charlotte perched on the edge of her bed, absently watching the passersby on the street two floors below. Tears threatened to fall, but she would not allow it. She had lived with her much-older half brother Richard and his wife Elizabeth for more than ten years, but she'd never been treated as a family member. She barely remembered what it was like to be a part of a loving family.
Amelia and her younger niece and nephews loved her, but Richard was indifferent at best, and Elizabeth had never attempted to hide her dislike of Charlotte. Her sister-in-law resented Charlotte's intrusion on their lives and had once said it was inconsiderate of her parents to have died and burdened Richard — who, after all, was only her half brother — with the task of serving as her guardian. As if her parents had died on purpose just to spite Elizabeth. If Charlotte's father were still alive, Elizabeth would have no title, no house in town, and only a cottage in which to live at Burdett. Even considering the burden Charlotte presented, Elizabeth more than came out ahead.
Her machinations weren't deserving of tears.
A knock sounded at the door, but it burst open before Charlotte could respond. Elizabeth sailed into the chamber and perched on the edge of the only seat, a small, unadorned oak armchair that had once resided in the butler's pantry. "What were you thinking? How dare you treat Horace that way? If this is how you behave toward men who show an interest in you, we'll be saddled with you forever. I insist that you apologize to him at once."
Charlotte crossed her arms. "I will not apologize to him. He pinched me."
"I find that difficult to believe. Horace is a gentleman." Elizabeth crossed her arms and glared at Charlotte.
Charlotte glared back. It was a draw.
"Horace has made an offer for you. Since you haven't received any others, I have accepted on your behalf." She stood.
Charlotte closed her eyes and took a deep breath. "I will not marry him." Though spoken with conviction, her words felt futile in her mouth.
Elizabeth held up her hand. "He will call on you tomorrow afternoon." When she reached the door, she glanced back at Charlotte, her hand on the latch. "You will apologize." The door clicked closed behind her, and a few moments later it opened again.
Amelia strode over and sat next to her on the bed. Following a quick skirmish in the corridor, Jacob, Daniel, and Michael appeared in the threshold.
"Does Mama know you've left the nursery?" Amelia asked her brothers.
"Perhaps," nine-year-old Jacob, their leader, answered.
Charlotte waved them in. "Come here and give me a hug."
They rushed over as one and nearly knocked her flat on the bed in their enthusiasm.
"What's wrong, Aunt Charlotte?" Daniel asked. He had recently turned six and would not let Michael, one year his junior, forget it. Phoebe, the baby of the family, was not old enough to keep up with boys.
"Nothing is wrong with Aunt Charlotte," Amelia answered for her, "but you will be sorry if Nanny Filcher or Mama finds you here."
They shrieked and dashed out into the corridor.
Following in their wake, Amelia closed the door and returned to her place on the bed. She gently pulled out Charlotte's fingers and studied the dark bruise forming on her first knuckle. "It's a good thing you were wearing gloves."
With that, they both burst into laughter, and Charlotte was glad for the momentary release of tension Amelia and her brothers had provided. Amelia held Charlotte's injured hand on her lap and gently massaged her fingers.
"Amelia, what am I to do? I will not marry horrible Horace."
Amelia giggled. "Horrible Horace sounds like some sort of dreadful attraction at the circus."
"Perhaps we could capture him and sell him to the circus." Charlotte pulled at a thread on her coverlet.
"I know Mama is being difficult, but you must endure. Papa promised you a season in London, and he will not renege on his word. You'll soon be attending balls and other social events where you'll have a chance to meet other prospects." Amelia sighed.
"I wish she would have allowed us to come out at the same time. I'll do my best to marry this season so you can make your debut next year." She patted Amelia's knee, grateful for her niece's support. Living in this house would be unbearable without it.
Excerpted from Just a Kiss by Ally Broadfield, Kerri-Leigh Grady, Allison Blisard. Copyright © 2014 Ally Broadfield. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.