Monday, March 22, 2021

First kisses are dangerous! A nibble of my newest Cherry!

LORD STANTON'S SHOCKING SEASIDE HONEYMOON

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Excerpt, Copyright 2021, Cerise DeLand. All rights reserved. 


SETTING: March 28, 1815

Townhouse of Russell Downey, the sixth earl of Stanton, the night before his wedding to Miss Josephine Meadows, the daughter of his associate, a merchant with whom he often deals to buy supplies for Wellington’s Army on the Continent.


Stanton took her hand. “Come. I’ve something to show you.” 

Josephine could have sworn his bright blue eyes danced, declaring enticing things.

Up the grand main staircase he led her to the second floor, down the long hall, to stand before a set of double doors.

He opened both wide. “Your suite. Or rather, soon to be.”

She gazed upon a sitting room, big as her bedroom in St. James’s Square. And nearly empty.

“Furnishings are spare. The two Hepplewhite chairs you may change, of course. The floor needs rugs. Come in here.” He led her into the chamber with a door ajar to a smaller room, most likely her boudoir. Here before her stood only a gigantic clothes press and smaller French lingerie chest. But there was no bed.

She swung, her mouth open to ask why not.

“I ordered my housekeeper and butler to prepare a list of items the room needed for you. They did, but I must say I failed to choose anything.”

“You’re busy,” she said in quick excuse for him.

“That’s not it at all.”

“No?” Dare she hope he intended to take her to his bed? Tomorrow night? And all the nights thereafter?

He threw out his arms in frustration. “I did not know what to get for you. What you’d like.”

I’d like to sleep with you.

“I want you to have everything you desire.”

The lump in her throat grew large.

“I want you to choose. You have excellent taste.”

“Do I?” she asked, wistful, charmed and so unaware he had ever noticed any details about her person.

That gave him pause. “I know you do. From the green gowns you favor that turn your eyes to emerald and the pinks that accentuate the blush in your cheeks. You are quite stunning.”

No one had ever called her stunning. “Thank you.”

He looked at a loss, this man who had commanded hundreds, fought his opponents to the death and who now ran the logistics of supplies that would either make or break the Duke of Wellington’s forces against the little Frenchman who would not stay in exile.

She got her wits about her. “I didn’t expect you to go to such expense for me.”

“Money has no place in marriage. Not in anyone’s. Not in ours.”

“I agree. And for this, I am delighted to do it.” She smiled and spun, arms out, in full circle to welcome the joys of her marriage. Then she went with her impulse and took two steps toward him, and on her tip-toes, reached up to kiss his lips. Briefly. Too briefly.

He clutched her upper arms and as she stepped away, cleared his throat. “I want you to be comfortable. And happy, Josephine.”

“As I will work to make you happy, Stanton.”

“You’ll make me delirious if you use my given name.”

She tipped her head to and fro. “I must practice.”

“Say it now, then.”

“Russell.”

He cocked his right brow. “Russ.”

She let her eyes dance. “Russ.”

“I want this for you, my dear. A completely new start. I owe it to you and to myself. Changing whatever relics of the past that now do not apply to our future.”

“I wish to be your loving helpmate.” 

Once more, he reached out to her and this time, stroked the backs of his fingers down her cheek. “As I will be yours. I am determined to be a good and willing partner, Josephine. Tomorrow I repeat words made by man, meant for God and others. To many who say them, hear them, they are useless. A sign, merely, of lawful commingling. A seal of financial union. I swear to you my words bear none of that. None.”

“Nor will mine.” Ever since I first set eyes on you, I have wanted you for my own. Sans title, money, land. 

His sky blue eyes grew stormy with new happiness and old pain. “Hear me, Josephine. Please, as this revelation is new for me. But I will tell you. I do not wish to belabor you with old sorrows but I will have you know this about me. This, which few have ever learned from my lips.” He seized a breath. “My first marriage was no union of like minds or pleasures.”

He had never spoken of his first wife to her and she doubted to her father, either. While the gossip about the late Countess of Stanton was sparse, the lack of information irritated Josephine especially now that she had accepted his proposal of marriage. A woman who valued an abundance of facts in her work, she knew the past would be vital to understand…and just as vital to avoid duplicating. 

He stared at her. “I married my first wife out of duty. Friendship among our families and land that marched beside each other’s led to an expectation that she and I marry to seal the union of affections. From childhood, I never questioned it. Neither did Henrietta.”

Torment sluiced over his brows and he dropped her hands as if they burned him. Josephine swayed toward him, the magnet of his touch, the hurt of his rejection had always drawn her toward him no matter where he strode.

He took up a stance near the mantel, an Adam’s creation of stark white. His severe black dinner attire created a pillar of harsh contrast to the alabaster. His hand to his lips, the swipe of his fingers across his mouth gave her notice that he meant to continue in this dark vein of remembrance. 

“Growing up together we thought we knew each other. Certainly we valued the same things, didn’t we? The same friends. The Berber horses our fathers raised. The hunt. Poetry.” His pause sent a chill up her back and the hair on her arms lifted. “She wanted to marry young and quickly. Her father had died and her older brother had married. She wished to set up her own house. I agreed to that, to everything. I was free. A carefree lad. Randy, actually. And I had the money. Why should I not marry and indulge us both, eh?

“But I did not see that my agreements were one-sided. I wanted the city. She wanted the country. I wanted the work of Parliament and my friends who worked at Whitehall. She wanted the solitude of her dogs and her roses. When I heard the call of the cavalry and the need to defend my country, she did not approve of my decision to join the Hussars. She demanded I return home and give her babies, days of idling in gardens and reading and pulling deadheads from rosebuds.”

He ran a hand through his hair. The thick mass rumpled wildly around his aquiline features. “She ordered me not to join, not to leave her alone in the country. I refused. For the next few months, she ran hither and yon about the country. Without word of her whereabouts, she kept me guessing. She also kept the ton in ripe gossip. She led me a merry chase. When I learned finally that she had returned home to the Hall, I went there and confronted her. She was wild. She bargained with me. She’d stay in one place if I quit the service and came home to her. She required a constant attendance I could not give her. When I refused, she turned…ugly and took an andiron to me. I bear the scar.”

Josephine’s mouth fell open. She’d never asked how he’d acquired it, assuming it was a battle scar. Oh, my dear.” 

He swung toward her, the horrified look upon his face warning her off. “I left her that night and never returned. I went off to Portugal and Spain, and learned first-hand the delicate art of supplying thousands of men and animals on the march in a foreign land. A year later while I was there, she died of catarrh. I had her buried in her family’s crypt. Six years ago, when I returned home to England, I had the Hall in Bury St. Edmonds stripped of all she’d put into it. Since then, I’ve had a few essential rooms redecorated. That house, too, awaits your kind touch.”

He’d told her last week that he’d written to tell staff there that they would arrive at a future date for a wedding holiday and that she would attend to the renovations.

He threw her a wan smile. “When I married her, I was twenty years old. She was eighteen. I thought I knew her. She said we were…cut from the same cloth. Ah, but what does one know at eighteen?”

I knew I loved you. That first afternoon, when my father brought me into his offices and introduced his friend, the dashing creature who ensured soldiers had uniforms to clothe them, blankets to warm them, beef to sustain them, shot and rifles and cannon and boots.

“I am sixteen years older now, Josephine, and I do hope much wiser. I see in you, my dear, much that resembles my own temperament. You love people and your work, your father and young brother. You see joy in living and cultivate it. I want to make a good husband to you, Josephine, and I promise to give you the best of me.”

No declaration of love, but she would take it. “Thank you, Russ. I do not marry you lightly. I’ve had suitors.”

His face broke into a rueful smile. “I know you have. Many, I would say.”

She took his good humor and wished to build on it. “I refused them all.”

“Good prospects they were, my darling.”

At his use of that endearment, she noted progress in his regard of her. “You knew, did you?”

He grinned. “Your father and I are very good friends.”

She flowed nearer to him, her hands flat to the silk of his waistcoat. “I was never attracted to any of them.”

“I often wondered why. They were young. James Caffrey of Hammond Lane was only twenty-five when he asked for your hand three years ago. And what’s-his-name English? Thomas English is rich as Midas. Clothier to His Majesty’s Army makes him a good catch.”

She toyed with a button on his waistcoat. “Youth and money have their charms but I was not enchanted.”

“Your father was astonished you refused.”

Years ago, he was. Not lately. “Many times, he asked me why. I’m shocked he told you about their proposals.”

Russ reached for her, his large sure hands cupping her cheeks. “Your papa sprinkled details like lures to a treasure. In truth, I heard more from my friends, tidbits of gossip that you would not have any of them. And I rejoiced.”

Her heart pounded with his admission. “I wish I’d known.”

“Do you?” He hooted, hugged her close and kissed her forehead. “Minx! With every man you refused, I could not keep up with the parade.”

“Surely, sir, you can count to five.” 

He guffawed. “Your father counted eight.”

“That many? How complimentary!” She wrapped her arms around his waist and drew back to admire the man who would be hers at last. Here in this noble, honorable, hard-working creature was all she had ever desired of love. “I wanted only you.”

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