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|Publisher:||Lyrical Press, Incorporated|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.58(d)|
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The Memory of Your Kiss
By Wilma Counts
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2015 J. Wilma Counts
All rights reserved.
At eighteen, Miss Sydney Isabella Waverly thought of herself as very practical, firmly planted in the world of reality. When she was much younger—at that age when young girls see in themselves the first inklings of the women they will become—Sydney had determined that she could only ever be considered "plain." Not ugly, mind you, or even homely. Just, well, plain. Her hair was unexceptional: light brown, not honey blond or exotic black or saucy red. Just brown—with blond streaks, for she spent an inordinate amount of time in the sun. Her nose was straight—but then noses generally were, were they not? Her mouth? Unexceptional. Maybe a bit wide, and with one of her front teeth very slightly overlapping another. She considered her eyes to be her best feature, but gray-green eyes with dark lashes and brows were hardly up to the task of making a plain young woman into the heroine of one of the Minerva Press's romantic novels. Anyway, eyes were fine so long as one could see with them. Which she could. Such was the decided opinion of Miss Waverly.
She disdained the romantic nonsense exhibited by young women with whom she had once attended Miss Sebastian's Select School for Young Ladies. Even her name proclaimed her down-to-earth, no-nonsense approach to life: Miss Waverly preferred to be called Sydney once she was all grown up. Her late mother had also been called Sydney and taking her name had helped ease the loss. She persuaded her school friends to adopt that form of address, though her father, her siblings, and neighborhood friends in Devonshire often ignored that preference and still called her Bella, a name that suited her well enough when she had been a mere child not allowed to put her hair up.
As well as being eminently practical, she was something of a bluestocking. She showed a most unladylike interest in politics and the machinations of the Corsican monster then rampaging across Europe. Moreover, she immersed herself in the histories and literature of ancient Greece and Rome rather than the modern novels and romantic poetry that fascinated her former classmates. She recalled with contempt how others had swooned over the star-crossed lovers, Romeo and Juliet. A single glance in a crowded room? Ridiculous!
Then it happened to her.
Well, not exactly a single glance in a crowded room, she assured herself. And lovers was far too strong a word, but something had, indeed, passed between her and Lieutenant Zachary Quintin when her cousin Herbert introduced them at one of the weekly assemblies held for both citizens and visitors in Bath, England's most popular spa.
And, whatever it was, it came at a most inconvenient—not to say impossible—time in her life.CHAPTER 2
Sydney had not wanted to come to Bath, but she had finally acquiesced to her father's urging her to do so. It seemed important to him, and, given the circumstances, who knew how many more opportunities she would have to do something that would truly please her beloved papa?
She had known—months before he told her of the doctor's diagnosis of the wasting disease—that her father was seriously ill. He finally called her into the book-lined study of the vicarage to tell her.
"Oh, Papa. I feared it was something like that." She sat dry-eyed in a leather chair in their favorite room; he occupied a matching chair opposite her. She remembered how the afternoon sun of a fine day in mid-August shone in slanting shafts through the window. The soft leather had felt cool and smooth against the skin of her bare arm as the harsh reality of potential change asserted its power over her life. And not just hers. Also her father's, of course, but her thoughts immediately flew to her younger brother and sister.
"H-how long?" she asked quietly, not allowing the choked-back sob.
"A year. Maybe less. Maybe more. We must try to be positive. So far, I do not feel so very bad. Tired, but not ill. I would not burden you with it now if I could avoid doing so, but God has given me ample time to provide for you and your brother and sister. I am grateful for that at least."
"What's to become of us? Geoffrey? Marybeth? Me? I suppose I could hire out as a governess. But what about Geoff and Marybeth? An eleven-year-old boy and an eight-year-old girl? Would any of the Howard family take them in? Or Aunt Harriet?" She named relatives of her dead mother and her father's sister.
"Agatha Howard might be persuaded—or shamed—into taking them," he answered, "but it would be a miserable life for them. Harriet manages for herself and her two children on her navy widow's pension, but I think it is not easy for her. I have no doubt you could be a governess—quite a good one, in fact—but that is a hard life and not many wives would be willing to hire someone as young and pretty as you. No, my daughter. I have given the matter a great deal of thought, and, if you are amenable, I believe your marriage to the Earl of Paxton would offer the best solution for all three of my children. I would not have you unhappy in marriage, but we've known Paxton for many years. He comes with the usual human complement of faults, I'm sure, but I've never seen anything truly untoward in him."
"What if he does not want such a match? I have not even seen Henry Laughton since he succeeded to the title over a year ago! And—and before that, I saw him only occasionally on school holidays. Not since we were children ... "
Her voice trailed off as she fought a rising sense of panic. Yes, she had always known of the arrangement her father and the previous earl had once concocted to blend their families. The two men had practically lived in each other's pockets most of their lives—from the time two lonely, bookish young school boys had met at Harrow until the earl had died, tragically of the same wasting disease that was stealing her beloved papa from her. This same Earl of Paxton, on succeeding to the earldom some twenty-plus years ago, had forcefully insisted that his friend accept the position of vicar in the village of Windham where the earl's principal holding, Paxton Hall, was located. It was he who had initiated the arranged marriage, going so far as to draw up settlement documents, though neither father had been so arrogant or autocratic as to consider the plan binding on adult children should they object.
Over the years, she and Henry had made a light joke of the plan when they happened to see each other—but that was not often. After all, a seven-year age difference did not allow much common ground between children. As adolescents, they had tacitly agreed to deal with the situation "when the time came." Now the time had come. Right on top of her being shattered by facing full-on the reality of losing her father!
Her father broke into her thoughts. "He wants it."
"Henry wants the marriage."
"How do you know that, Papa?"
"I saw him in London last week."
"London? Last week?" This was all going much too fast. "I thought you went for a bishop's conference."
"I did. And I also saw Henry Laughton, Earl of Paxton, eighth of that line." His light tone was intended, she knew, to put her at ease. "He agreed to marry you if you are amenable to the idea. Didn't seem surprised or reluctant at all." He cleared his throat noisily. "I—uh—did not want to bring it up to you if he were now unwilling."
"You and he agreed? Without consulting me?"
"I am consulting you now, Bella," he said gently.
"Do I have a choice?"
"Yes, of course." But she knew, and she was sure her father knew, that, really, there was no choice. Not for a young woman of her station in this day and age. Governess, paid companion to some rich old widow, a convent, barely tolerated dependent relative—or marriage: Those were the alternatives. In Sydney's case, with Geoffrey and Marybeth to be considered, the first three possibilities were out of the question.
Two weeks later the Earl of Paxton made a hurried trip to his primary holding in Devonshire to propose marriage to the vicar's daughter. She received him in her father's study where she silently subjected him to a rather critical examination. He was taller than she by two or three inches; he had dark brown hair; his features were not exactly handsome, but were certainly easy to look at. Clear blue eyes sparkled with amusement.
"Do I pass inspection?"
She felt herself coloring up and gestured at chairs which they took. "I do apologize, Hen—uh—my lord." In truth, he had been subjecting her to the same degree of scrutiny, though perhaps he had been a bit more subtle about it than she. She gave an embarrassed laugh. "Yes, you do. And do I?"
He nodded. "Oh, yes. I daresay you will be the best looking countess England has seen in many a year."
"I do not need fulsome compliments, my lord," she said quietly.
He raised an eyebrow. "Nor do I hand them out willy-nilly. And Henry will do as nicely now as it did when we were children, Bella."
She was relieved to find the grown-up Henry Laughton as amiable a person as she remembered. He had then gone through the motions of going down on bended knee and mouthing that "happiest of men" nonsense.
"Do get up, Henry. Of course I will marry you. We both know the circumstances, so do let us always be honest with each other."
If he was surprised by this plain speaking, he did not say so. His response was, "I say, I do believe we will rub on well together."
"I hope so," she said.
Then he kissed her. It was a warm, seal-the-bargain sort of kiss. Not having had many kisses with which to compare it, she tried to respond in kind.
They called her father in—he had been hovering in the hall—and told him the "news," then the three of them set a date some weeks hence, for Paxton had engagements he felt obligated to keep in the meantime. They agreed there was no need to announce the forthcoming nuptials; it would be a very small, private affair in October and they would send newspaper notices after the fact—as was the custom for marriages such as theirs. Meanwhile, they would communicate the happy news privately only to such people as might have interest in knowing.
Henry had spent an extra three days at Paxton Hall during which he devoted much time to his prospective bride and took several meals with her and her father. Since his sisters, nine-year-old twins, were also at the Hall, he brought them one afternoon to spend a few hours with Sydney and her own siblings. Sydney and her family had seen the twins at church from time to time, but they were not well acquainted with Lady Amy and Lady Anne. The four children, ranging in age from eight to eleven, seemed somewhat wary of one another. Sydney thought it fortunate that the three girls were very nearly the same age.
That evening—his last in the area until he returned for the wedding—Henry had said of the afternoon visit, "I think that went tolerably well. I do not foresee a family uproar in our future." Her father having discreetly allowed them this time alone together, Henry sat next to her on a couch in the drawing room and patted her hand, then continued to hold it, twining his fingers with hers.
"Nor do I," she agreed, then added, "I am sorry you must leave so soon. I have enjoyed getting acquainted—reacquainted—with you."
"And I, you," he said, slipping his arm around her and drawing her close. He kissed her, his lips moving sensually over hers, eliciting a physical response from her that rather surprised her. When she felt his tongue stroking the seam of her lips, she was startled and pulled back slightly.
He laughed softly and she was embarrassed. "I-I'm sorry," she stammered.
"Don't be." He rose and pulled her close to murmur, "We'll be all right. I promise." He smiled at seeing her blush, then kissed her again and bade her good night.
Somewhat to her surprise, she found she missed him when he did not appear the next day and those following. Two weeks later her father called her into his study. He sat in his usual leather chair and motioned her to the other one. It was evening and light from a gas lamp on a side table near his chair emphasized lines and strain in his face.
"I want you to have a holiday of sorts before you settle into the life of a married lady," he announced abruptly.
"That is truly not necessary, Papa. I am quite happy to spend the next weeks right here preparing for the wedding, though, truth to tell, aside from some packing—my clothes, a few knickknacks and books—there is simply not much to do. I shall wear Mama's wedding gown. There will be only family and a few others to witness the ceremony. Paxton's staff are planning a breakfast celebration for estate people."
"I wish your mama could see you in her gown."
"I do, too."
There was a long pause during which Sydney thought they were both thinking of the woman who last wore that gown, she who lay in the graveyard only a short distance from where her daughter would be married. Her father reached for his handkerchief to clean his glasses. She recognized this as a familiar ritual he used to help him through painful or difficult conversations. Then he sighed and said, "Your mama should be here to tell you those things a woman needs to know before she gets married, but she isn't, so—"
He sighed again.
Sydney laughed. "Never mind, Papa. I know about the birds and the bees. Dorian Dunlop sneaked an anatomy book into our rooms at school. My biggest worry now is what flowers should I carry in my bouquet?"
Her father's sigh this time was one of relief. "Would you rather have had a grander affair, my dear?"
"No. Not at all. I much prefer it this way. I was immensely pleased when Henry wanted to keep everything very simple."
"Still, I regret that we could never afford either the expense—or, now, the time—for you to have a season in London. The great-grandson of a duke—albeit one whose grandfather was born on the wrong side of the blanket—should be able to do better by his daughter."
She jumped up and moved behind his chair to put her arms around him and touch her cheek to his. "Not to worry, Papa. I am very happy to have my life as it is. As for a holiday—I'd much rather spend time with you."
"We shall have plenty of time together. I am not done in yet! As Paxton's wife, you will be only a mile away. We may visit every day. Meanwhile, I should like you to have at least a taste of the life you might have had as a carefree girl." He patted her hands clasped over his chest and reached toward the side table for a letter lying there. "I wrote your aunt Harriet and she replied immediately to invite you to Bath."
Sydney was torn. On the one hand, knowing her father's time was limited, she wanted to spend as much of it as possible with him. On the other hand, a part of her wanted to escape duty and responsibility for a tiny while—to dance at a ball, go driving in the park, shop for a frivolous bonnet—all without a thought of what an uncertain future might bring. And her father seemed to want so much for her to do this ...
So, here she was at Bath, visiting her aunt Harriet.CHAPTER 3
Harriet Carstairs, a navy captain's widow, lived with her daughter and son, Celia and Herbert, in a modest house on Queen Square in Bath, several blocks south of the more exclusive homes found in the Circus and the Royal Crescent. Celia was the same age as Sydney; Herbert, a year younger. The two girls had attended school together. Sydney arrived one afternoon—along with the maid Maisie whom her father had insisted should accompany her—and found herself immediately thrust into what amounted to the social whirl of Bath. Her aunt and cousins were entertaining callers in the drawing room. Later there would be a small gathering at the home of retired Admiral Crowley for cards and charades, and, tomorrow, a ball in the assembly rooms.
It was at the ball that Sydney met Lieutenant Zachary Quintin, who had come to Bath on convalescent leave from the Iberian Peninsula. There, he served with the inimitable Arthur Wellesley, Lord Wellington, whose troops continued to wage a hard struggle against Napoleon's French and Spanish armies. Quintin, leaning on a cane, stood on the sidelines of the ball with two other uniformed soldiers, the three of them watching the dancers and undoubtedly commenting on the young women present.
Excerpted from The Memory of Your Kiss by Wilma Counts. Copyright © 2015 J. Wilma Counts. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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