A Halloween Treat for Deb's Debutantes
A Sneak Peek at Nothing But a Rakehell!
“I must thank you for your efforts yesterday,” she said at last. “They made a difference. This is the most normal I’ve ever felt at a gathering outside my own family.”
“I’m happy to have helped. That’s what our pact was for, was it not?”
“I fear I will not be able to return the favor.”
“You are doing so, now,” he protested. “You’ve saved me from another dark and dusty descent into the coal pit. And in any case, just wait. This party has only just begun. The worst could happen at any time.”
“What would be the worst?” she asked, intrigued.
“Gossip? Scandal? Jellies that won’t set up? I can think of several possibilities.”
“None of that would dare occur at one of Hope’s gatherings,” she vowed. They’d reached the water. “I think these two need a bit more cooling down,” she said, reaching down to pat Poppy’s neck.
They headed along the long sweep of the river. “I don’t understand how you prefer London.” She shook her head. “I feel overwhelmed with just a houseful of people—and it’s only been one day.”
“You are not accustomed to it, that is all. It will grow easier.” He lifted a shoulder. “And actually, there is an anonymity to be found in a crowded city. A man can blend in. Here, I walk in the village and everyone knows my name and where I am staying and for how long. In London, I’m just another young buck about Town.”
She snorted. “I doubt you’ve ever been anonymous anywhere, ever, a day in your life.”
“Well . . .” His expression darkened. “At times it is easier than others.” He held silent a moment. “I am fortunate, though. There are times when I need to retreat.” Like now. “Luckily, I have the solace of my friends, then. I can always withdraw to their care, should the need arise.”
“That is fortune, indeed.”
“It truly is. There are very few constants in my life. My friends are the most important.”
“And your boots,” she teased.
She reached to caress Poppy once again. “I think they should be fine, now.” Dismounting, she led her down the short bank and across the pebbled edge to the river, so she could drink. “Do you count any women amongst your group of friends?”
He looked over the chestnut’s back and tilted his head. “Not until now.”
She ducked her head, struck again with conflicting reactions to him. Once Poppy had finished, she led her back up the bank and tethered her at a stand of larch trees. Keswick did the same, then sat on the raised bank.
She didn’t join him. She just walked along the pebbled strip of shore, picking her way carefully, thinking.
“Have I said something wrong?”
She shook her head.
He said nothing else, just leaned back, waiting. She was grateful. It took her several minutes and several passes back and forth to summon the courage to say what she wished.
“I would consider it an honor, to be counted among your friends.” She said it to the waters, rushing by in front of her. “But I’ve been thinking about that kiss.” She looked over her shoulder. “The one we didn’t have.”
It was all he said. She had surprised him.
“It’s just that it occurred to me . . . having refused it . . . that I might have refused my only real chance.”
He frowned. “Only chance? I don’t understand.”
She flushed, annoyed that he was going to make her spell it out. “My only chance at being kissed. Ever. In this lifetime.”
His eyes widened. “Don’t be absurd. We had this conversation, already.”
“It’s not absurd. You say I am considered marriageable, but I don’t have a tremendous dowry like Hope did. Her fortune came from our mother’s sister, who left her a great deal of money and instructions to see to my care. Even she didn’t think I would find a man who would take me.”
“Then she was a fool.” He gave a bitter laugh. “You’ll have plenty of chances to kiss better men than me.”
“Does that mean that you no longer want to kiss me?”
He hesitated and her breath caught.
“It’s not that. It’s just that I think you should consider my opinion further. I have new eyes and an unbiased opinion. Not like the people who see you every day and see what they want or expect.”
“Oh.” Her heart fell. “You don’twant to kiss me.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“Good.” She jumped on his response. “Because you couldn’t have been more wrong about Mr. Lycett. All he was interested in was talking incessantly about himself.”
“If you let him, then he’s probably more interested in you than ever,” he said wryly. “Give him a chance, he’ll work up to kissing you.”
“Well I’ve no wish to wait upon him. If I have one chance at this, I’d prefer to do it with someone I like.”
“And I want someone who will do it properly.”
He opened his mouth to say something, then closed it again.
“I know. I’m acting terribly. Not only showing fast behavior, but it’s also horridly rude to ask, after I refused you.”
“Not going to let that stop you, though, are you?”
“No.” She moved carefully to stand in front of him, just out of reach. “There is one problem.”
“There’s more than one.” He grimaced. “I just don’t think it’s a good idea.”
“It’s a logistical problem,” she charged on. “Or perhaps just a problem specific to me.”
“My lady . . . Glory . . . Whenever, whomever you choose to kiss . . . Your leg is not going to pose a problem.”
“Not my leg. It is another failing of mine, though.”
“You have another?” he gasped in pretend shock.
“Oh, stuff it,” she said with a laugh. And felt somehow more certain, because of it. Who else could make her laugh at herself? Who else sprinkled conversation with wit that reminded her of her first taste of champagne—surprise at the bubbling humor, appreciation of the quality of it—and a longing for more? “The thing is . . . I hate being made to feel . . . inadequate. As if I am somehow less than others.”
“As you should. For you are not.”
“Normally—just like at this house party—all I wish is to be treated like an equal to every other girl. But in this case . . .”
“It’s just that, there are so many women here—in the village, in the neighborhood, staying in the house—a number of them who are all pining for, or imagining, or plotting to convince you to kiss them.”
He blinked. “Are there?”
“Yes. And for the first time, I find I don’t wish to be counted among the crowd.”
“Problem solved. You’ve already said you didn’t want my kiss.”
She merely looked at him.
He sighed, exasperated. “Wait. You are confusing me. You don’t want to be kissed. Then you do want it, because it might not happen again, but you don’t wantto want it?” He dug both hands into the hair at his temples. “I have no idea what I’m to do here.” His hands dropped away suddenly and he gazed at her with suspicion. “Just what is it that you are expecting of me? Are you asking me to kiss you? Or to kiss all the others, leaving you the odd one out?”
“Actually, it occurred to me that if I kept my mouth shut, that last scenario might come about all on its own.” She shook her head. “But I find I don’t like that idea, either.”
Not at all. In fact, she hated it.
“Well then, we are stumped, are we not?”
She hoped that was disappointment in his tone and not relief.
“I think we should just give the idea up.”
“No. I’m not stumped.” She moved closer. “I realized that there is only one solution. I will let them plot and pine and plan and wait for you to get around to kissing them—but in the meanwhile, I’m going to be the girl who kisses you.”