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A Kiss for Luck: Excerpt

Novella

Ah, peace.

Lord Guy Lovell settled into an armchair in the little jewel box of a room high in Whitwell House and pulled a cheroot from his pocket. Downstairs, the ballroom thronged with guests—eager-eyed debutantes and their ambitious mamas on the prowl for potential husbands, along with wives and widows who sent sidelong glances at Guy, the bachelor second son of a marquess, with a reputation for pleasing his mistresses.

Here, a clock ticked in the silence, the pack of bloodhounds after the beleaguered fox comfortably far away.

Guy set his booted feet on a footstool, the enormous sleeves of his medieval doublet costume billowing over its arms. The gilt clock on the mantelpiece ticked tiny slices of time as Guy lifted a candle to his cheroot to light it. He leaned back, sending a gentle stream of smoke to the ceiling.

Sanctuary.

At the next tick of the clock, the door to the tiny room burst open, and a young woman darted inside in a flurry of gold and silver. She stopped short on the threshold, her deep blue eyes widening as she caught sight of Guy.

“Oh … Thimbles!

Her voice was light, airy, beautiful, elegant, and extremely agitated.

Guy removed the cheroot from his mouth and came to his feet. “I beg your—”

The young woman whirled to flee, halting abruptly when a male voice floated from the direction of the stairs. “Darling? Are you up here? Where are you? Darling?

Dismay crossed the young woman’s face, and she quickly but silently shut the door.

Guy tamped out the cheroot in an exquisite porcelain bowl. “Madam—”

The young woman jerked around. “Shhh!” She jammed a frantic finger to her lips.

She had rich brown hair, locks of which fell to a shimmering silver-and-cream striped gown covered by a thin gold lamé cloak. Guy wasn’t certain what her costume was meant to represent, and then decided the fact was irrelevant. She was graceful and charming, glittering when she moved. Her softly rounded face was flushed, red lips parted. An enchantress come to life.

The voice in the corridor grew more petulant as it neared. “My darling, where have you run to? Such a coquette. You want me to chase you, don’t you, lovely? When I catch you …”

The young woman, who was the furthest thing from a coquette Guy had seen in many a year, looked utterly appalled.

Footsteps approached. Guy gestured abruptly to a black-lacquered screen on the other side of the room and mouthed, “Hide there.”

The young woman dithered only half a second before she sped to the screen and ducked behind it. Guy waited until the pursuer had almost reached the door when he yanked it open and strode into the hall.

“Darling, there you—” The man’s words cut off as he pulled his gaze from the distance and focused it with difficulty on Guy. “Oh. Lovell. That you, old chap?”

“You may call me darling if you wish, Wakefield,” Guy drawled as he closed the door behind him. “Though I wouldn’t suggest it at Brooks’s. Fellows would glance at you askance. Probably at me too.”

Wakefield peered at him with confused dark eyes. “Beg your pardon, my dear fellow. Thought you were someone else.”

“Clearly.” Guy surveyed the narrow hall with its lavish gilded molding and paintings of cavorting goddesses on the ceiling. “Who are you searching for? Who is Darling?”

“Oh. Er.” Wakefield’s face grew an unhealthy red color. “Not important.”

Hector Wakefield was a young dandy who believed he set fashion as a popular man-about-Town. Tonight, he’d eschewed becoming a Shakespearean character in favor of black close-fitting trousers, à la Brummell, topped with a lemon-yellow waistcoat and green cravat. Brummell thought Wakefield an idiot.

Guy leaned one arm on the doorframe, not about to let Wakefield into the room behind him. “Your errand must have been important for you to climb all the way to the top floor. The ball is downstairs.”

Wakefield vacillated and then apparently decided that attack was his best defense. “What are you doing up here, Lovell? Come for a tryst, have you? Are you hiding Mrs. Cooke in there?” His face softened. “Such a beauty, is she not?”

Guy forced a grin. “So that is who you are after. Are you a fool? And no, I am not conducting liaisons with lovely young widows but seeking a bit of solitude. There’s a crush below, if you hadn’t noticed.”

Wakefield regarded Guy in bewilderment augmented by what smelled like a vast amount of port. “Why a fool? Have you seen her? A goddess, is Gemma Cooke. A more delightful morsel I’ve never supped upon.”

Guy barely hid his distaste. “I have seen Mrs. Cooke many times, and yes, she is a beautiful creature.” The impact of the young woman bursting into Guy’s sanctuary had been intoxicating. “She has also buried three husbands in the space of eight years. Are you aiming to be her fourth?”

Wakefield gazed at him in bafflement. “Of course not. I do not wish to marry the gel, only—”

“She’s no courtesan, Wakefield.” Guy’s voice turned hard. Mrs. Cooke had been stalked by gossip, including the speculation that she’d sent her first two husbands to their graves with her ardor. “She is a widow. The same as your poor dear aunty.”

Wakefield snorted. “Nothing like my dear aunty. Positively antediluvian.”

“Your aunty? Or Mrs. Cooke?” Guy enjoyed Wakefield’s puzzlement. “Never mind, my boy. The lady is not upstairs. You must have confused me with the woman of your dreams. Very understandable. I am told I cut quite a dash.”

Wakefield, who aspired to the status of arbiter of taste, stood somewhat in awe of Guy. He ever tried to ingratiate himself with Guy and Guy’s closest friend, the Duke of Ashford, with poor results thus far.

He laughed dutifully at Guy’s joke. “Ah, well. She’s probably in the garden seducing her next victim. How about we descend, Lovell? Find a few toothsome debutantes and be their ruin?”

Guy sent him a severe look. “Your idea of entertainment is deplorable, Wakefield. Leave the poor things alone and take yourself to the Nines. More to your taste, I think.”

Wakefield brightened, but his face fell in the next instant. “Last time I was at the Nines, I lost my little all. My father nearly thrashed me. And me a grown man.”

“Well, toddle off there and win it back.” Guy flicked his fingers in the direction of the staircase.

Wakefield’s optimism returned. “I say, what a frightfully good idea. Come with me?”

“No, no, dear boy. I’m here to enjoy a smoke. In solitude.”

Guy gave Wakefield a pointed look until the man finally understood the hint. “Right. I see. Well … If you happen upon Mrs. Cooke, inform her of what an opportunity she missed.”

With a vacuous grin, Wakefield wobbled around and pattered toward the stairs. The ladies at the Nines, a notorious hell in St. James’s, would know how to handle him. If Wakefield lost at cards or dice again, and his father truly thrashed him this time, Guy would consider this a good night’s work.

He loitered in the hall until Wakefield’s thumping footsteps faded down the stairs into the general noise from the floors below. He remained in place another few moments after that to make certain Wakefield did not return.

Only then did Guy open the door and slip back into the room.

It was empty. The screen in the corner—a black tri-part affair painted with elongated peacocks and bright chrysanthemums—did not move.

“The dreadful foe is gone,” Guy said cheerfully. “The foul man has been banished.” A few heartbeats of silence trickled by. “Mrs. Cooke?”

He noted another door behind the screen and realized that the young woman had likely taken herself through it to safety.

Guy’s heart felt suddenly heavy. Their brief encounter would be just that—brief—Mrs. Cooke flowing into and out of Guy’s life in a matter of moments. He wondered why this idea bothered him so.

Guy headed for the chair and the waiting cheroot. He’d taken two steps before a rustle made him swing back to see Mrs. Cooke peering around the edge of the screen.

She’d left off a mask for this masquerade, probably deciding it wasn’t worth the bother. Guy liked that nothing impeded the view of her beautiful blue eyes. Her lady’s maid or hairdresser had tried to tame her glorious dark hair into a braided coil on the top of her head, but as he’d noted before, escaped curls trickled to her shoulders and fell in wisps about her forehead. Enchanting.

Guy had first been introduced to Gemma Cooke several years ago, when she’d been Mrs. Pitts—her husbands certainly hadn’t been chosen for their elegant surnames. Since then, he’d seen her only from afar as she went through husbands one after the other. Not her fault, poor thing.

“I am grateful, sir.” Her voice was velvet smooth, falling pleasantly on the senses.

“At your service, madam.” Guy executed a bow. A thin stream of smoke seeped from the not-quite-spent cheroot in the bowl, and he tried to nonchalantly tamp it out. It took several tries, the stubborn thing refusing to die.

Gemma’s lips quirked into a smile as she watched his machinations. “I apologize for disturbing you.”

“A most welcome intrusion.” Guy smashed the cheroot one final time. “I find fancy dress balls dreadfully dull, but I promised a friend I’d arrive, and in suitable attire.”

He spread his arms. Red satin showed through the slashes on his medieval doublet’s sleeves, matching the scarlet breeches he’d worn instead of hose—he couldn’t bring himself to bare his legs all the way to his hips. When he’d surveyed himself in the mirror in his dressing room, he’d decided he resembled a walking tomato.

Gemma Cooke’s full smile flashed, one that made Guy almost regret his avowed bachelorhood. Almost.

“And you?” Guy asked. “I have costumed myself as one of those many extra gentlemen one sees wandering about the stage in a Shakespearean play, though one is not certain why they are there. But I do not recognize your character. Not Tatiana? I’ve seen a dozen or so of those downstairs.” Mrs. Cooke’s gown, while sumptuous, was evening finery, not fancy dress.

“Matron Chaperone.” Her smile grew while a fondness entered her eyes. “I am escorting my stepdaughter this evening.”

“And Wakefield chased you away from her?” Guy recalled how Wakefield had suggested ruining debutantes for amusement. He doubted Wakefield would actually attempt such a thing, because the man was a born coward, but if he found a fresh young thing milling about by herself … “You left your charge alone?” he finished with more alarm.

“No, no,” Gemma said quickly. “Her great-aunt is looking after her. She is the true chaperone. I wanted to come, for Sonia’s sake.”

Sonia, if Guy remembered aright, was the daughter of Mrs. Cooke’s second husband. Mrs. Cooke and her stepdaughter were fairly close in years, as the forty-year-old Sir John Broadbent had taken his second wife, Gemma, when Gemma was only twenty summers.

“I do hope young Sonia’s great-aunty is redoubtable,” he remarked.

The smile returned, and Guy wondered if Gemma realized it made her incredibly beautiful.

“Aunt Margot is as redoubtable as they come. No gentleman without her absolute approval will go near Sonia.”

“Well, that is a relief.” Guy imagined a stout matron beating off Wakefield with her cane. A delightful image.

Gemma’s glance at the door told Guy she was ready to depart, the conversation finished. She’d thank him again and return to her stepdaughter, gliding out of Guy’s existence forever. Something burned in his chest.

“Thimbles?” he asked quickly.

Gemma blinked. “Pardon?”

“When you burst in here and saw me, you said: Oh, thimbles. Or perhaps you were lisping and meant cymbals. Either way, a strange thing to say upon spying a chap.”

A flush touched Gemma’s cheeks. “Ladies are forbidden from cursing, are they not?”

Guy had met plenty of women, particularly ones from the era of this redoubtable great-aunt Gemma mentioned, who could curse like sailors when they wished, but true, young ladies of Gemma’s world were discouraged from it.

“They are indeed.” Guy wanted to be agreeable.

“But sometimes, a strong word is needed. I save up ones to use when I am particularly agitated, so I will not be censured. I must be careful of my behavior because Sonia might be harmed by it.”

“I see. And thimbles is what you say when agitated?”

“Sometimes. Or chrysanthemums. Pertinacity. Girandole. That’s a sort of candelabra.

Guy began to grin. “How about futchell?”

Interest flickered on her face. “That does sound like a curse. What does it mean?”

“It’s a piece of a carriage. Makes a socket to hold the pole.” Guy started to hold up his fingers to demonstrate then shrugged. “I’d have to point it out.”

“I shall consider it.” Gemma balled one fist. “Oh, futchells. Yes, I think it will do.”

“Excellent. Shall we think of more?”

Her smile was so natural, unforced. Different from the strained laughter and desperate witticisms Guy was used to from women who wished to seduce him.

“I truly should return to Sonia.” Gemma sounded regretful—at least Guy told himself she did. “Aunt Margot is an excellent guard dog, but Sonia likes me to be near. I thank you for your kind intervention.”

She turned for the door—with reluctance? Or was that Guy’s hopes once again?

“Wait.”

The word burst from him, and Gemma turned back, brows rising.

“I mean, I should go down first,” Guy explained hastily. “Make certain Wakefield is truly gone.”

Gemma’s trepidation returned. “Do you mind terribly? I hate to ask you.”

“Do I mind?” Guy executed a bow. “I am a gallant gentleman from the sixteenth century. I remove my cloak so my lady may walk on it across a muddy street. I travel the world to fetch a stalk of an exotic flower to present it to my one true love. What is walking downstairs to toss aside a fool of a man to clear your path?”

Gemma’s eyes glowed with good humor. “Your lady is lucky indeed.”

“Alas, she is nonexistent. I am a humble bachelor. My friends invite me to their gatherings solely because I can entertain the children.”

“Now, I know that is not true, Lord Guy. I am friends with Helena Ashford.”

“Ah.” Helena, lovely and lively-tongued, was now the Duchess of Ashford, having married Guy’s friend Ash. “My true self is revealed.”

“She says nothing but good about you. But do take care.” Gemma’s mouth quirked. “Helena is an avowed matchmaker.”

“So she is.” Guy thumped his hand to his chest. “Though I had something to do with her marriage to Ash. I will take all credit for it, in any case.”

The smile grew. “She also said you were an incorrigible braggart.”

Guy sighed dramatically. “So I am. Now, dear lady, you wait here while I scout. If I do not return, then all is safe. If I rush back and bid you hide under the nearest table, then it means Wakefield has not made himself scarce.”

Gemma nodded, her eyes like diamonds. “I will wait.”

“Excellent. Five minutes.” Guy pointed to the gold clock, which was still quietly ticking away. Strange, it sounded more lively now. “That is all I should need.”

“Of course.”

There was no reason Guy should remain in this room any longer. He must put his words to action and clear the way as he’d promised.

The fact that he’d much rather stay in the little chamber and converse with Mrs. Cooke for the rest of the night should not matter. She wished to return to her stepdaughter, and Guy would make certain she could.

Then why did his feet drag? Why did he make excuses to himself to turn and make another ridiculous bow?

Before he left the room, Guy let himself absorb the vision of Gemma Cooke once more. Her gold and silver ensemble shimmered in the candlelight, giving her dark hair a rich sheen. Her blue eyes held a depth he wanted to gaze into from much closer than across the room.

Guy had the sudden longing to rush to her, rest his hand on her arm, tilt her chin up, and after studying her face for a time, lean and kiss her …

What the devil was the matter with him? Guy jerked himself from the incline he’d began toward her, his heart thudding unpleasantly. Hiding his unease, he gave her a smart salute and turned to the door.

It was so very hard to open the thing, but he finally made himself do it and step out into the hall. One final glance at Gemma, poised near the screen, red lips parted, almost had him dashing back inside, a fool to the end.

Guy tightened his grip on the handle, nodded to Gemma again, and forced himself to close the door.

He stood outside the room for a long time, his breathing unsteady, before a chiming clock on the landing reminded him of his errand. If Gemma rushed out after her allotted five minutes and found him still there …

She’d crash into him in the fragrant softness of woman, and Guy would be lost.

He dragged in a breath, turned, and marched for the stairs.

Oh, chrysanthemums,” he muttered with feeling.