|An Excerpt From|
KISS ME AGAIN
"A wife who adores you, a fine healthy son...it's nearly enough to make a man contemplate marriage himself."
Charlie stopped rocking. "Don't tell me you are?"
"Not at all," Brix assured him. "Edmond got lucky when he found Diana -- or she found him. Not many people are so fortunate. For most of us, marriage will be no more than a duty or a financial arrangement." He shivered with mock horror at the very notion. "I have no desire to tie myself to a woman under such conditions until I'm too old to care about, well..." He gave them a knowing wink. "Much of anything. Then I'll find myself a placid little wife to provide me with an heir."
"We've heard this all before," Drury reminded him. "You bet us you won't marry until you're fifty, remember?"
"I most certainly do," Brix replied, straightening. "I'm glad to hear you do."
"A bet of fifteen hundred pounds does rather stay in one's mind," Buggy observed.
"Especially since I have every intention of winning it," Brix replied. "I have absolutely no desire and no need to tie myself legally to a woman until I have to. I'm going to remain free, and carefree, until I'm at least fifty."
"What about the other part of the bet?" Charlie asked, walking away from the window toward the fireplace where Edmond kept a box of cheroots on the mantel. "You're still adamant you'll never marry Fanny Epping?"
"I can assure you, gentlemen," Brix replied with complete conviction, "that no force on earth will ever compel me to marry my annoying little shadow, despite the oft-stated wishes of my family."
"Come, Brix, tell us how you really feel," Drury said with a hint of a smirk as he reached for the brandy at his elbow.
"I don't understand your abhorrence of her," Buggy said, regarding Brix as studiously as if he were planning to write a treatise on men opposed to marriage with Fanny Epping. "She may not be a beauty, but she's quiet and sweet and --"
"Too quiet, and too sweet," Brix declared, smacking his hands on his knees as he hoisted himself to his feet and headed toward the brandy decanter on the mahogany side table to refill his glass. "Too bland, too boring."
"Unlike those actresses you're always consorting with?" Drury asked, one dark brow slightly raised.
"Exactly!" Brix cried. He went to pour more brandy into his glass, then realized he'd never finished the first. Regardless, he topped it up, then turned toward them, grinning and not the least bit embarrassed. After all, Drury was hardly chaste. Rumor had him in a different woman's bed every week.
"Doesn't it at least flatter you that she's infatuated with you?" Buggy asked. "She is the daughter of a duke."
"Perhaps I might not mind her hounding me if she were a beauty," Brix allowed. "But she's not. You don't know what it's like to have a woman like that following you about, making a nuisance of herself."
"You're right, I don't know," Buggy gravely agreed. "I've never been so lucky."
"Lucky?" Brix scoffed. "Ask Edmond how it feels -- he'll tell you, and he only had to deal with Diana for a few weeks. It's been damned annoying being shadowed by a mousy little creature without an ounce of vitality for the past fourteen years."
"Then perhaps you shouldn't have kissed her," Charlie suggested.
"It was only once, and I was just trying to cheer her up because our brothers had been teasing her again, yet she seems to think one kiss means I belong to her for the rest of our lives," Brix explained, regretting that he'd ever told his friends about that day in his mother's rose garden when he and Fanny were twelve years old.
At least he'd refrained from revealing anything more, such as how he'd felt when Fanny had looked up at him adoringly, her big blue eyes still moist with tears, her lips parted, a little breathless. How he'd immediately acted on the sudden, overwhelming impulse to press his lips to hers.
He pushed that memory away.
"Even though I try to ignore her, she still trails after me at parties and balls and receptions," he went on. "Gad, I can't even avoid her at Medway Manor. Mother invites her every year, so I'm forced to stay in town or go to Bath or Brighton."
"You hate visiting your family in the country anyway," Charlie said, sitting on the wide window sill. "You wouldn't go whether Fanny was there or not."
Brix laughed. "Oh, all right. I don't get along with my family, so I probably wouldn't." He gave them a magnanimous smile. "If you all feel so bad about the wager, I'm willing to end it -- provided you concede defeat and give me my winnings."
"You don't need the money, do you?" Charlie asked warily.
"Not a bit," Brix breezily replied. "I've got a fine income from my investments, and you all know I never gamble more than I can afford to lose. But a win's a win, gentlemen, and I do have my pride."
"I'm not willing to concede defeat," Drury said, twisting his brandy glass in his long, somewhat gnarled fingers that had been broken more than once. "I'm sure you'll succumb to a woman's charms in the next twenty-two years, and attractive or not, I have every hope that Lady Francesca Cecilia Epping will be the one to reel you in. If she does, I'll consider you fortunate. She's a sensible young woman who'll do you a lot of good."
"Oh, yes, that's what we all want in a wife, isn't it -- somebody to do us some good," Brix replied, his tone grave, but with a roguish sparkle in his eyes. "Especially you, Drury. You'd love some chaste, dutiful nun-like woman to constantly point out the error of your ways, I'm sure."
Brix's grin widened when Drury didn't answer. "There's nothing in our wager about a vow of chastity," he said, "so I may very well succumb to a woman's charms, as long as marriage isn't part of the bargain. As for Fanny, here's hoping she'll soon realize how ridiculous she looks and how hopeless her feelings, and leave me alone."
"You could have told me."
Definitely exhibiting signs of vitality, Lady Francesca Cecilia Epping stormed across the crimson-and-blue Aubusson carpet. Her face was flushed, her plain, Nile green silk gown swished about her ankles and the simple crucifix on a thin gold chain around her neck bounced with each furious step.
Brix wanted to both disappear and stare with fascinated horror at the enraged young woman striding toward him, her blue eyes fairly dancing with rage as she came to a halt in front of him, their noses nearly touching.
"You think I'm annoying?" she demanded, her usually soft and dulcet voice stern and low-pitched, as if she were fighting not to shout. "You want me to leave you alone? Why didn't you have the decency to tell me? In private?"
Being caught in a tornado might be as disconcerting as being upbraided by Fanny. But surely a harmless agreement between friends didn't warrant this extreme reaction. "Fanny, you don't under--"
She cut him off. "Instead of doing the honorable thing, the kind thing, the Honorable Brixton Smythe-Medway decides to make a wager, to both enrich and amuse himself at my expense, as if my feelings are nothing but a joke!"
Well aware that his friends were looking on and dismayed by this unexpected turn of events, Brix decided they didn't need an audience. He put his hand on her elbow to steer her out of the room. "We can discuss this --"
She wrenched herself free of his grasp. "You saw fit to make fun of me and my feelings in front of your friends, so we'll discuss this here and now."
Still hoping to placate her, he gave her his very best smile and spread his hands. "It's just a bit of sport between the four of us, Fanny. I never meant to hurt you."
Her expression grew even more murderous. "And that makes it all right? Four men I considered my friends know that the thought of marrying me is absolutely abhorrent to you and I'm not supposed to be hurt and humiliated? I'm supposed to be amused?"
Brix didn't appreciate being chastised, by anybody. And it wasn't as if she were completely innocent of wrongdoing. "You wouldn't have had your feelings hurt if you hadn't been eavesdropping. You know what they say about people who do that. They rarely hear anything good."
"So now it's my fault?" Fanny cried, her hands balling into fists.
For an instant, Brix thought she might actually hit him and he took a step back. "Fanny, you're getting all worked up over nothing," he said, still struggling to maintain some semblance of calm. "It was just a friendly little wager between Buggy, Charlie, Drury and me. Nobody else knows, so there's no need for these theatrics."
"Actually, it isn't just between the four of us anymore," Drury noted, standing by the doric-inspired chimney piece. "Somebody wrote the wagers in the betting book at White's yesterday."
Brix stared at the lawyer with shocked dismay. A lighthearted bet between friends was one thing; a wager that all the ton would hear about was quite another.
Even worse, one of these men, friends he thought he could trust, was responsible for this terrible turn of events. "Which one of you wrote our wagers up in White's?"
Buggy immediately shook his head. "Not I."
"Nor I," Charlie added, obviously taken aback by both what had happened, and the accusation.
"Any number of people could have done it," Drury said with a shrug. "You talked about the wagers that night in our club after Edmond's son was born."
As dismayed as Brix was to hear that his loose tongue was responsible, he was relieved to think that none of his friends had made those wagers public knowledge.
"What does it matter who actually wrote it there, or when people first heard of it?" Fanny demanded. "What's important is that this disgusting wager is now known among the ton."
"Well, it's not as if you've been accused of treason, Fanny," Brix replied, using the same tone as when she'd been upset in the past and come to him for comfort. "If we just keep quiet about it, I'm sure it will all blow over in a few days and be forgotten."
For once, his comforting tone had no effect. "Perhaps there'll be no serious repercussions for you," she charged. "But I'm the unattractive, annoying Fanny Epping who the amusing Smythe-Medway has vowed to never, ever marry. While this may be nothing more to you than a lighthearted anecdote to tell at dinner parties, I've been made to look a complete fool."
She straightened her shoulders and her eyes burned with indignant resolution. "Care to make another wager, Mr. Smythe-Medway? I'm willing to bet that I, ridiculous, annoying Fanny Epping, can break your heart in a year. No, six months." She thrust out her chin. "No, six weeks!"
Brix managed to answer with a calm composure distinctly at odds with his inner state. "Really, Fanny, you astound me. I would think you'd had enough of wagers."
She sniffed derisively as she crossed her arms. "I don't call that a very sporting remark."
"Fanny, don't be silly."
"What's the matter, Mr. Smythe-Medway? Afraid you'll lose?"
"Fanny, Brix, I think you ought to reconsider --" Buggy began, but she interrupted him. "I don't. Well, Mr. Smythe-Medway, do you agree to accept my wager?"
Brix felt his friends' eyes upon him, especially Drury's. He couldn't back down now without it looking as if he'd been intimidated by a slightly hysterical young woman, even if she sounded quite determined. Still, the idea that he could lose such a wager was laughable, so he decided to play along. "Far be it from me to refuse a lady. I accept your wager."
He stuck out his hand, then raised a brow when she stared at it as if it were a poisonous snake. "We ought to shake hands on it."
Fanny's gaze darted to his face. Her lips turned up into a smile, and she got what Brix would have described as a devilish gleam in her eye if it'd been anybody but Fanny.
She grabbed his hand with a remarkably firm grip and tugged him forward. Pulled off-balance, he half stumbled, half fell. She put her arms about him to steady him, or so he thought, until her mouth captured his as if she needed his lips to live. That was shocking enough -- but then she thrust her tongue into his mouth.
Excited and overwhelmed in spite of himself, his embrace tightened around her and he returned her kiss with equal fervor. Holding her lithe, trim body against him, he inhaled the sweet scent of her skin -- roses. She smelled of roses, and she kissed like...the most intoxicatingly passionate woman in England. His blood throbbed with heated urgency, and he hardened, his whole body anxious for closer, more intimate contact.
The memory of that first kiss arose, unbidden. The first time he'd ever kissed a girl. The first time he'd ever felt desire, although he hadn't realized what it was.
The first -- and only time -- he'd been embarrassed by his body's response. Because it was Fanny, his innocent little acolyte.
This passionate woman wasn't his juvenile admirer, the girl with the perpetually worried expression who'd come to him in tears so many times.
Nor was she the gawky adolescent, all eyes and legs and skinny arms, who'd trailed after him at parties like a wraith.
This was a Fanny who stirred his desire as no woman ever had in his life. He'd made love with experienced courtesans who didn't make him weak at the knees. He was certainly weak at the knees now.
Fanny finally broke the kiss. Panting, she stared at him, her lips slightly swollen, her eyes glowing. He'd never have guessed in a hundred years that Fanny could look like this.
Or kiss like that.
"So we have a bet, then, Mr. Smythe-Medway?" she demanded.
Although he was -- for once -- speechless, he managed to recover enough to nod his agreement.
"Good!" She headed for the door, then hesitated on the threshold and looked back over her slender shoulder. "And a good day to you, gentlemen."
She went out, slamming the door so hard, the windows rattled.