Read Five Wicked Kisses - A Tasty Regency Tidbit Online
Authors: Anthea Lawson
Tags: #regency romance, #regency short story, #enemies to lovers, #sexy regency
“I left in such haste, I forgot my umbrella,” Juliana said. “I didn’t think coming up the walk would make me so wet.”
As if to punctuate her words, rain spattered heavily against the sidelights on either side of Henrietta’s mahogany front door. It was one of those spring days filled with sudden squalls - one moment the sun peeking cheerfully out from behind silver-limned clouds, the next, dark and ferocious rain pounding the cobblestones.
In the drawing room, Henrietta pulled two chairs up to the hearth and insisted Juliana take the closest one.
“I’ll not have you catching a chill and wasting away like some tragic heroine,” her friend said.
Juliana laced her icy fingers together. Although she was nearly sitting in the coals, little heat penetrated the cold that gripped her.
“I’m afraid I’m headed in that direction in any case,” she said. “The tragic heroine, I mean. I received a letter today from Viscount Wrenforth.”
She swallowed, fear a heavy lump in her chest. But surely Henrietta would know what to do - her friend could always be relied upon for some kind of solution.
“Goodness.” Henrietta’s eyes widened. “Has he heard the gossip, then?”
Juliana shivered. “What gossip? And that reminds me - why didn’t you tell me the
calls me the Ice Maiden?”
“I knew it would only wound you. Besides, there’s no truth to it!”
“Truth has very little bearing on what the scandalmongers say - you know that as well as I.” Juliana frowned at her friend. “Now, what current gossip are you referring to?”
“I’m afraid they’re saying that you are…er,” Henrietta bit her lip, “dallying with the Earl of Eastbrook.”
“Dallying? You mean, that I’m his current mistress?” Juliana dropped her gaze to her hands. “I suppose it would appear to be the case - though I’ve told you Robert holds me in no regard. It is nothing more than a payment of debts owed.”
She knew that was true. Why, then, did her foolish soul try to believe otherwise?
The blood was finally returning to her fingers, making them sting fiercely. Now if only her toes would unthaw. And her heart? She only wished it were frozen as solid as the gossips claimed.
“Tell me.” Henrietta leaned forward. “What did Viscount Wrenforth say in his letter?”
“Oh, Hen.” Juliana blinked back the sharp sting of tears. “He said that I should not misinterpret his attentions, and that while he found me admirable, he would prefer to do so from a greater distance. He wished me well, and farewell - all in four miserly sentences.”
“Blast it.” Henrietta handed over her handkerchief, then pursed her lips in thought. “Viscount Wrenforth is an unfortunate coward. You are better off without him. Truly, it was a narrow escape. Just think of being wedded to that nose for the rest of your life.”
Juliana wiped her eyes. “If only his character were as strong as his nose, he’d be an admirable gentlman. But I’m quite certain he let Robert run him off without a protest.”
“Well then, we will simply have to come up with another plan.”
“I don’t think I can snare a husband, with the gossip circulating that I am Robert’s mistress.” She wadded Henrietta’s kerchief between her hands. “Viscount Wrenforth seems proof enough of that.”
Henrietta gave a short nod. “Then there is only one thing you can do. If Robert Pembroke is going to be so careless with your reputation, you must negotiate new terms.”
It was the last Thursday. The last kiss.
Robert strode into the Tate’s town house, anticipation firing his steps. The culmination of his revenge lay within his grasp. He dismissed the emptiness that echoed just behind the thought. Of course he would be slightly adrift, after striving for so long toward this one goal. But the thrill of victory would carry him through.
He entered the parlor, closing the door firmly behind him. Juliana was waiting for him - but instead of standing warily behind the settee, she was sitting upon it. Her hair was loosely bound up in a style that looked vaguely Grecian, and her gown had been altered to a more flattering cut.
“Robert.” She inclined her head, light sheening over her golden hair.
What had happened to the stiff, unyielding Juliana? Yes, the kiss in the conservatory had been incendiary, but it hadn’t changed anything between them.
Or had it? Did she now fancy herself in love with him? Triumph flashed through him. He had won.
“I…” She wet her lips. “Sit down. Please. We have something to discuss.”
He waited a moment, to show he wasn’t hers to command, then lowered himself to the settee. The length of his thigh pressed against hers, but she did not shift away.
“I don’t intend to waste my time today in talking,” he said.
Her cheeks flushed a delicate pink. “I’m well aware that my debt is not yet paid. But, Lord Eastbrook, I must ask. Is your intent to ruin me completely?”
“Ruin you? No, not at all.”
He wanted Juliana in pain, brought low - but not in a literal sense. Reducing her to poverty or destroying her social standing had never been his aim. He wanted her to suffer exactly as he had. Nothing more, nothing less.
“Are you quite certain?” She let out a dry laugh. “Your association with me is not going unremarked. Perhaps you require more than five kisses, after all.”
“Are you accusing me of breaking my word?” He kept his voice even, though his temper spiked. “I assure you, once I have taken this final kiss, I will be done with you.”
“You may be finished with me, but the
will believe you are just beginning.” She raised her chin and stared him straight in the eye. “You have frightened off the only suitor I had, and no more will be forthcoming.”
“Don’t tell me Viscount Wrenforth was truly essaying for your hand?” The thought made something uncomfortably stir inside him.
“Of course he was!” She narrowed her eyes. “Do you think I’m that unworthy? And now… now my family is ruined. He was my only chance to make a match that could have saved us.”
“You did not. You only kept us from debtor’s prison. All our money is gone, Robert. We have nothing.” She dropped her head, despair clear in the curve of her shoulders.
“What about the estate, the rents?” An odd, hollow feeling beat through him. Had he misjudged so badly?
Juliana’s family had never been tremendously well off, but their property had brought in a tidy annual sum. Not much, compared to what Robert now held as the Earl of Eastbrook, but certainly enough to keep the Tate family in comfort.
“Father mortgaged everything.” Her voice was nearly a whisper. “We have until the end of the month, and then even this townhouse will be gone.”
Damn it. He should have investigated more closely when he’d bought up her father’s debts. His gaze went to her hands, clasped so tightly in her lap that her knuckles were white.
This was not the victory over Juliana he had planned. He was suddenly chilled, unsure of his direction.
“Take me, Robert.” She raised desperate eyes to him. “I’m ruined in the eyes of the
- you heard the gossip at the Caswell’s ball, as well as I. Now that Wrenforth has flown, no one will believe…” She swallowed. “Make me your mistress.”
“No!” The word was out before he could even consider it.
Juliana as his mistress - somehow he could not stomach the notion, despite his carefully planned seduction. He could not use her in such a fashion, no matter what she had done to him. Though he could scarcely admit it, she deserved better than a life forever tainted by scandal.
Her face went pale and he caught the sparkle of tears in her eyes before she turned her head away.
Bloody hell. How had it gone so wrong? He was at an utter loss.
“This was not what I had intended.” He grated the words out. “Consider your debt paid. I will have your father’s notes delivered to you later today.”
He rose, and she looked up sharply, misery still etched on her face.
“You can’t simply leave,” she said.
There was nothing else he
do. Surely some solution would come to him - but not now, while his thoughts were so impossibly tangled with the sight of her.
He could not even bid her farewell. Victory turned to ashes in his mouth as he strode out of the parlor. He collected his hat and gloves from the butler, then stormed out onto the walk.
He was brought up short by the sight of an umbrella pointed directly at his midriff.
“Halt right there, Robert Pembroke,” a shrill voice said.
A young lady dressed in violet stood before him. She looked vaguely familiar… ah yes, the Brightstone girl, Juliana’s bosom friend. Possibly the only person in London who knew of their previous acquaintance.
“Miss Brightstone.” He tipped his hat, then tried to move past.
“You, sir, will remain here until I’ve said my piece.” She brandished her umbrella at him.
Robert took a careful step back. “I pray it’s short - I’m required elsewhere. Miss Tate would doubtless be glad of your company. She’s a bit overset.”
“Whatever you have done to Juliana,” the young lady said, “she is blameless.”
“I think not.” He bit the words out.
“You’re being a complete fool.” She glared at him. “Why would Juliana scheme to break your heart? She was terribly in love with you. I dare say, she still is.”
“Her parting words to me four years ago indicated otherwise.”
“You don’t think her dragon of a mother had anything to do with that?” Miss Brightsone stamped her foot.
“Even if she did, Juliana could have shown some spine! We were planning…” He checked himself. How much did Miss Brightstone know?
“To run away together, yes. And Juliana would have, too, except that her mother caught wind of it. But do you know who bore the brunt?”
Robert shook his head. So far, there was nothing in Miss Brightstone’s tale to make him change his mind about Juliana’s faithlessness.
“Her brother.” The young lady lowered her umbrella. “Her younger brother, who was locked in his wardrobe - his wardrobe! - without any food, until Juliana broke it off with you. Their mother would have starved him for days. The sound of his crying was horrible.” She met his gaze. “Do you really think Juliana should have abandoned her brother in order to run off with you?”
“I… didn’t know. Blast it! She could have told me.”
His memory of the past was suddenly tilted - all the things he had thought true now cast in an odd, sideways light. Had Juliana loved him, after all? Had his revenge been built on a lie? The cold suspicion of it crept through his bones.
“She could not have told you - not and kept her brother safe. You had to believe completely that she was done with you, or her brother would pay the consequences, over and over. Their mother…” Miss Brightsone looked away. “She was not a pleasant woman.”
His heart gave a bitter lurch. “Juliana was quite convincing.”
“She had to be. Oh, try to understand what it was like for her! Her heart broke as much as yours did. Maybe even more.”
Robert shook his head, attempting to settle his thoughts into some semblance of order. Only one thing was clear - he must see Juliana again, immediately. He spun on his heel and headed back toward the front door.
“Wait!” Miss Brightstone cried.
He ignored her, ignored the butler’s startled expression as he strode past, and flung open the parlor door.
Juliana looked up. Her eyes widened - clearly she had been weeping.
“Robert!” She scrambled to her feet, a handkerchief clutched in one hand. “What are you - ”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” He took her by the shoulders and searched her expression. “Juliana - if I had known you still cared for me four years ago, I would have crossed fire to be with you. I would have slain dragons.”
She swallowed. “My mother… was a dragon in truth. But how did you find out?”
“I met Miss Brightstone coming up the walk.” A shiver moved through him. Had the young lady been a minute later, he never would have known the truth. Juliana would be lost to him. Forever, this time. “You should have told me.”
She bit her lip. “Secrecy is… a difficult habit to break. We had to keep silence on so many things, my brother and I. There was nothing you could have done, Robert.”
His heart twisted inside him. They had
suffered, and he had thought to punish her for it? After what she’d had to endure, he felt like a blind fool.
“I should have realized,” he said. “I would have taken you away from there in a heartbeat.”
“And my brother, too? Supported us, hidden us?” She shook her head. “I know you would have tried - but I could not have asked it of you.”
He wanted to argue with her, wanted to unwind the past and make different, better choices - but perhaps she was right. He let out a breath. They had been so young, full of innocence about the world. Faced with such difficulty, he wanted to think they could have triumphed - but he would never know.