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Authors: Jo Beverley

Dare to Kiss

BOOK: Dare to Kiss
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A new novella by Jo Beverley, New York Times bestselling author, member of the Romance Writers of America Hall of Fame, and winner of five RITA awards.

Romantic Times described her as “
one of the great names of the genre
.”

Booklist declared her work, “
Sublime!”

 

Dare To Kiss

 

Jo Beverley

Copyright 2013 Jo Beverley

 

This e-book contains the novella,
Dare to Kiss,
newly written and published in summer 2013, plus details of Jo Beverley’s other work and an excerpt from her August 2013 novel,
Seduction in Silk.

 

Dare to Kiss
is set in the Georgian Age, when the world could be harsh to those suffering misfortune. A mother fleeing ruin becomes homeless on a cold night and must accept shelter for herself and her children from a worrying stranger.

 

Chapter One,

November, 1765

 

Sir Benjamin Brook steered his curricle down the narrow country road at high speed even though failing light and a hard frost had turned mud into ridges that caught at the wheels. He'd be in Brooks Magna soon, and Brook Hall was only a half mile further. Warmth, food, home.

He steered left to pass a group of walkers ahead, but a child's wailing snagged his attention. This was no weather for a child to be out on the road. He glanced to the side and then slowed and steadied the steaming horses.

Not just one child.

Many.

Ben drew the horses to a halt and looked back. A woman carrying an infant was trailed by four others, all with bundles on their backs. The oldest couldn't be much more than twelve. The littlest, the wailing one, was very young.

The wailing stopped. They all stopped, eying him warily.

But then the woman said, "Walk on, children," and they did, keeping as close to the hedge as they could.

Tinkers? Gypsies?

Her speech had been well-bred, and in any case, even if they were the most wretched vagrants, he couldn't leave children this far from shelter.

Reluctantly, he spoke. "Where are you headed, ma'am?"

The woman stopped, turning an exhausted face to him. The child on her shoulder was limp now. "Brooks Magna, sir. Is it far?"

"A half mile or so." Reluctantly, Ben accepted necessity. "I'll take you there," he said, making sure his muffler was pulled well up. "We can cram in here together for that short a distance."

"God bless you, sir. The little ones have been so good, but it's been a long journey. Michael, climb up and take Anna."

The tallest child obeyed. Once up, he shed his bundle at his feet, sat beside Ben, and took the infant. The woman clambered up next, sat, and pulled up the rest. She took a lad on her lap, and told the two others to squeeze in by her feet. Soon everyone and their bundles were in place, and Ben set his horses into motion again, but slowly. He didn't want anyone tossed out by a sudden jolt. Perhaps the girl squashed against his leg feared the same, for she clung to his boot.

"Where have you come from, ma'am?" he asked.

"Oxford, sir."

"That's fifty or more miles. You surely haven't walked it."

"Oh, no. Three carters carried us most of the way. But the last one dropped us at a place called Waller's Cross."

Two miles away. "You'll be glad to reach Brooks Magna, then. Where is your destination?"

"Croft Cottage. Hen Lane. Do you know it, sir?"

"I know Hen Lane."

The cottages there tithed to the vicarage, so were little business of his, but they were respectable. They were small, but some doubtless contained families as large as this one.

"You can see the edge of the village up ahead," he said. "Not long now."

With the light fading on a short December day, the streets of Brooks Magna were quiet, but what passers-by there were raised their hats or dropped curtsies, and doubtless stared to see the squire with such rag-bag company.

He continued on to the intersection with narrow Hen Lane. He steered carefully into it, peering at the doors. If there were names above them, he couldn't see them in this light.

A lad hurried by, hands tucked into armpits.

"Croft Cottage," Ben said. "Which one?"

The lad pointed. "Three down, sir." He hurried on his way.

Ben went that far and drew up the horses, but stayed in control of them as the woman organized the disembarkation. She turned at last, infant once again on her shoulder. "God bless you, sir. May I know the name of our Good Samaritan?"

"Sir Benjamin Brook, ma'am."

She dipped a curtsy. "Thank you, Sir Benjamin."

He watched as she shepherded her children through the gate and down the short path, wondering exactly what sort of woman she was. Poor, obviously, but she spoke well, had poise, and had not been flustered by his being a sir.

He watched as she knocked on the door, curious about her and her adventure.

The door opened a crack, showing a grudging glimpse of firelight. The owner of the cottage quite reasonably didn't want to let the cold air inside.

As the woman spoke the door stayed mostly shut. He couldn't hear the conversation, but he detected a note of desperation.

The door shut in her face.

She simply stood there for a moment, then slowly turned away. One of the younger ones began to whine, and an older one said, "Mama, we can't stay out in the cold."

She saw he was still there and looked at him. It wasn't quite an appeal for help -- he sensed she had too much pride to beg from a stranger -- but she was at her limit and had no idea what to do next.

Whatever haven she'd expected had failed her, and she'd find little kindness elsewhere. No village welcomed outsiders who sought to live on parish charity. They'd be called vagrants, and indeed, that was what they were.

He called over. "What's the problem, ma'am?"

She came slowly toward him. "My aunt and uncle. They're dead. The people living here now are no relation of ours."

"Who were they?"

"The Giffords."

He searched his memory. "The barber-surgeon, and she was a seamstress. They had no children. She died almost a year ago, and he quite recently."

"I sent a letter. I assumed they'd received it. There was so little time...."

Her teeth chattered. The children were shivering, and it wasn't surprising. He was feeling the razor-edged cold through a heavy greatcoat, thick gloves, and the muffler.

He sought to think of a place for them. He could pay for their keep if he could think of a lodging. The parson would have to be Christian about such a thing, but the vicarage was bursting with children of his own. The inn was no more than a tavern, without rooms for guests. He knew of farmhouses large enough to absorb such a number, but all at some distance.

Anyway, he was cold and hungry and wanted to be home.

"Back in the carriage," he said briskly. "I'm taking you to my home for the night. We can decide what to do tomorrow."

The woman gave no argument. She organized the loading as efficiently as before.

"Not far," he said as he set off again. "At least there'll be warmth, food, and a place to sleep. May I have your name, ma'am?"

She seemed to jerk out of sleep, or deep, dismal thoughts. "Mistress Gifford, sir. I don't expect you to remember the details, but these are my children, Michael, Charlotte, Susan, Thomas, and Anna. Susie, stop whining, dear. We'll be warm soon."

She spoke as if she didn't quite believe it; as if he might evaporate to leave her once more helpless in the dark and cold.

***

His servants were expecting him. They were not expecting a bunch of ragamuffins.

That was too harsh, but it was how Mistress Gifford and her children must appear to them after such a long, hard journey. As Ben stood in his paneled hall facing his two house maids, Leah and Becky, he realized he didn't know what to do with his guests.

He never had guests.

The entrance hall was almost as cold as the outdoors. At least that gave him excuse to keep his muffler around his mouth.

Normally he'd go directly to his warm bedchamber, but there'd be a fire lit in the library, too. As a hint, he heard whining behind the closed library door. He didn't like the thought of intruders there, but he shepherded his unwanted flock toward the door, trying to think where to put them next. Only this room and his bedchamber would be warm.

The kitchen would be, too, of course, but Mistress Gifford and her children couldn't spend the night there.

There were a number of bedchambers.

Fires could be lit.

When had the chimneys last been swept?

As soon as he opened the door, his dogs were on him, arse-wagglingly ecstatic to see him home. Then they saw strangers and went still. Their tails still wagged, but he'd have to describe them as flummoxed.

"Friends, lads," Ben said, which should work.

Perhaps too well, for Rollie and Horrie went to explore the novelty.

The children shrank away.

"Heel!" Ben snapped.

The dogs obeyed, coming quickly to stand on either side of him, but he could see the poor creatures were bewildered. Why had fate put the Giffords in his path?

He directed the family toward the door, gesturing for the maids to come in as well. Sensibly, they shut the door to keep the warmth in, but they stood there looking as confused as the lurchers.

"Mistress Gifford and her family are to spend the night here," he told them. "The lads can sleep in one bedchamber, and Mistress Gifford and her daughters in the other."

Leah and Becky, who were sisters, shared a look. "Sir," Leah said, "those rooms haven't been used in dunamany years."

"Fires can be lit, can't they?"

"Yes, sir, but the beds'll be damp."

Mistress Gifford spoke. "We'll be grateful for them anyway. If it would be possible to have a warming pan or two..."

She spoke to the space between him and the maids.

"Is that possible?" he asked the maids.

Another wondering look between them. Did they think he'd lost his wits?

"I suppose so, sir."

"Then start the fires. After that the warming pans. And perhaps some soup and bread..."

What could his kitchen provide quickly? He was a man of very regular habits.

"Yes, sir."

The maids curtsied and hurried away, doubtless bursting to tell Mistress Kingsley that the master had run mad. Perhaps they'd feel so abused with extra work that they'd give notice. He kept few servants because he had simple needs. Now he was foisting six people on them, five of them children. Children were bothersome, he was sure.

The Gifford family were looking at him in fear and hope, except the littlest, who was asleep on her mother's shoulder.

"Mistress Gifford. Ma'am. If you will remain here whilst preparations are made. I must change...."

With a mere nod he escaped upstairs.

***

Once safely in his bedchamber, he unwound the muffler and snarled at himself in the mirror. It wasn't hard. His lower jaw thrust forward too far and his lower teeth showed. The only way to hide them was to tighten his lips, which meant he scowled like a dyspeptic bulldog.

His footman, who also valeted him, hurried in with steaming washing water. "Welcome home, sir."

"It's good to be here. Bitter weather." Ben surrendered his heavy greatcoat to the man, seeing John's disapproval. "I couldn't leave those people on the road."

"No, sir," John said, but suggesting by his look that a wiser man would have found a way.

"Will they be a great deal of work?"

"Can't help but be, sir. If you'd sit, sir..."

Ben sat so John could pull off his boots. Despite them his feet were chilled. Those children's feet must be like ice, and their mother's, too. There hadn't been any choice. No decent one, anyway. He demanded little of his servants, and he'd just been absent for a week. A bit of extra work now was no cause for complaint.

He stripped down to his shirt and washed, then put on his woolen banjan robe, and his fur-lined slippers. It was how he generally dressed at home on a cold winter evening, but was it appropriate with guests in the house?

Devil take that. Christian duty did not require him to turn his life completely upside down.

All the same, as John carried the washing water away, Ben said, "Tell me when Mistress Gifford and her children have gone to their rooms."

Then he could go down to his library and eat at the small table there, as he always did, a book open on the stand he'd devised for that purpose.

All would be just as it should be.

At last.

***

Lily Gifford allowed the children to sit near the big log fire, but not too near. One benefit of the icy cold was that none of them were muddy. The chair near the fire was covered in leather, which would come to no harm, but the thick carpet on the floor looked to be Persian.

She put sleeping Anna in the chair with Susie beside her and tucked her cloak around them both. She turned to rub her icy hands in the heat, trying to take in their situation and decide what to do.

BOOK: Dare to Kiss
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