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Lady Elizabeth Stanton followed Nathaniel O'Connor to Boston to accept his marriage proposal. But it's his older brother Morgan who greets her at the door. Morgan has no choice but to help the penniless lady who's been deceived by his brother. And all it takes to bring these two together... is just one kiss.

 

 

 

Just One Kiss

March 1996 · Avon Books
ISBN 0-380-77549-2

Just One Kiss

I put my characters through their paces in this book, so much so that I remember sitting at the computer, barely able to see through my tears while I wrote the final chapter. But my editor paid me the highest compliment when she called this book "tremendously moving".

I admit to growing very attached to some of my titles. The working title was TOUCH NOT MY HEART, which was actually the working title of my first historical, which ended up being MY CHERISHED ENEMY. Since I had a different editor than I did with MY CHERISHED ENEMY, I tried to see if TOUCH NOT MY HEART would squeak through—but it was shot down again! I then tried SCANDAL'S BRIDE and IMPETUOUS before settling on JUST ONE KISS. I like to have my title somewhere in the book; in fact, I rewrote the epilogue during the revision process for that very reason.

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JUST ONE KISS:

a Waldenbooks bestseller.

 

Just One Kiss

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Just One Kiss

 

Prologue

Boston, 1830

The smell of brine lay heavy In the air, as heavy as her heart. For the time had come when she could deceive herself no more. . .

She was dying.

Within the room were two young boys, the sons she held so near and dear to her heart. A spasm of pain tore through her, yet it was as nothing compared to the ache in her heart. And deep In her chest swirled an agony of dread, for how was she to tell these two sweet lads she would soon be lost to them. . . and they to her, for it mattered little to their father that his sons were dirty of hand and ragged of clothing.

Silently she mourned. Alone, the three of them were, for Patrick O'Connor spared neither a care nor a penny when it came to his family. More often than not, he was in the barroom below, as drunk as his patrons. Loretta's soul cried out at such injustice. What would happen to her sons when she was gone? Their father scarcely acknowledged their existence.

A shudder passed through her body. Lord, but the world was so unfair! She would be robbed of life. . . and her sons of her. As the thought passed through her mind, a cry of both torment and rage welled in her throat.

Yet no more than a wheezing breath escaped. At the sound, small, thin fingers stole into hers. A frail smile crossed lips that were pale as a winter moon;

Loretta O'Connor squeezed as best she could. She held on, for she could not yet bear to leave. . .

Her husband shouldered his way through the door. He came to stand above her, no hint of warmth in his eyes. Instead, he snorted, his lips curled in disgust, then spun away to snatch a shirt from a peg' on the wall. He spared her no further word or glance, nor the boys who lingered near. Always it was so, Loretta thought with heartbreaking candor. Always it would be...

Her heart wept. As her husband left, the sounds of rough male voices and grating laughter filtered up the narrow stairway to the rooms above, but the trio paid no heed.

Loretta's gaze dwelled longingly on her sons, Morgan and Nathaniel. For a heartbeat, the faintest of smiles graced her lips. One would never have known the pair were brothers. Yet brothers, they were . . .

One was fair as a golden field of wheat, the other as dark as the blackest moon. The younger was Nathaniel, born to the world but four years past. At ten, Morgan was the elder. He was somber and thoughtful, ever observant and knowing. She had always marveled that the two were so very different. . .

A stark pain twisted within her. Dear God, she cried out in silent agony, who would guide them when their path should stray? She gave thanks that the babe born between the two brothers had died, for she dreaded what their lives might become when she was gone. Praise the saints above that her Morgan possessed a quick mind and strong constitution! Yet Loretta could not help but fear for Nathaniel; lively and sweet-natured he certainly was, but at times he displayed a reckless, stubborn spirit--his father's, blast the wretch!-that well might land him in trouble throughout the coming years.

There was a faint rustling near the end of the bed. Clutching a handkerchief to her breast, Loretta glimpsed Nathaniel peering across at her, his eyes huge and uncertain. He had grown quietÑah, but it was so very unlike him!-a quiet that seemed to reach into the heavens and beyond. Young as he was, he sensed that all was not well.

She tried to smile, yet she could not.

The end approached.

Loretta's breath grew papery thin. All at once there was so much she longed to say. . . So little time to say it.

Her gaze shifted to Morgan. Were she able, she would have screamed aloud at the pain that wrenched her heart. Above the hollows of his cheeks, Morgan's beautiful gray eyes were damp and red rimmed, yet he did not cry. No, for it had never been his way to cry, no matter how badly he'd been hurt.

Trembling, for the effort nearly sapped the last remaining strength in her body, Loretta squeezed his fingers. Her lips parted. With her eyes she silently beseeched him.

The boy leaned close.

Lovingly her gaze roved over his thin, pale features. "Morgan," she said faintly. "Oh, Morgan, my brave young lad. . . how I will miss you. How I wish I could be with you. How I wish I might stay. . ."

The boy's eyes filled up with tears, yet still he did not cry.

"Morgan, it's up to you now, to watch over your brother. Oh, I know I ask much of you...but I know you can do this--"

Frantically, the boy shook his head. "No, Mother, I-"

"You can," Loretta cried weakly. "You are the elder, Morgan. Nathaniel is so young. He is not so strong or brave as you-"

Again the lad shook his head.

"No, you are! You are and I am so very proud of you!" Seeking to reassure him, Loretta clasped his hand to her breast. "Morgan, please! You must do... what I cannot... what your father will not... Your brother is so young. What if he should become one such as your father? Oh, he will need someone, Morgan, someone like you... Guide him. Protect him." Her breath wheezed in and out of her lungs. Her expression was tormented as she clutched her son's hands. "I beg you, Morgan, please do not fail me! Promise me you will do this or I will never find peace!"

The boy swallowed, seeking to keep the tremor from his voice. "I-I promise. I will do this. For you, Moth-"

Just One Kiss"No, my son. Not for me. For Nathaniel." Her voice grew weaker. "That's a good lad. Oh, Morgan, be brave. Be strong and courageous, for yourself and for Nathaniel. Have faith in yourself, and in God Almighty. And may He bless you, my dearest sons. . ." At this last, all strength was bled from her. Her eyes fluttered closed, even as her grip on the boy's fingers grew slack and limp. Morgan held tight to her hands, as if to hold on forever to the life that had already departed. His throat burned and ached like fire as he fought back tears, even as anger welled and threatened to explode within the hollow of his chest. He wanted to shout, to scream and vent his fury and grief. . . most of all, his fear. Instead he remained there, his shoulders stiff, his form as rigid as a soldier's.

Nathaniel crept close to his brother. His expression forlorn, he peered at his mother. "Morgan," he whispered in a small voice. "Is Mama asleep?" Morgan did not speak. He could not, for he was hurting as never before... hurting as he somehow knew he would never hurt again.

His mother's voice echoed in his brain. Be brave. Be strong and courageous.

He swallowed. How? he wondered. How?

"No," he answered hoarsely. "She's dead, Nathaniel. Dead." There was a terrible pause. "Like the kittens that Papa drowned."

The younger boy began to weep. "What shall we do?" he whimpered. "Now we have no one to love us. No one to take care of us. Papa-"

Hesitantly-awkwardly-the lad called Morgan patted his brother's shoulder. "Don't worry," he said. "You'll have me, Nat. You'll always have me." So the lad said and so it was.

Months passed. At such a tender age, Nathaniel's grief and his memory of his mother soon faded.

But Morgan didn't forget so easily.

Nor did he forsake his promise.

He'd sworn to their mother on her deathbed that he would protect Nathaniel. . .

And so he did.

Their father remained as before, petty and mean, his moods ever vile, his liking for drink as lusty as ever. By his twelfth year, his father saw to it that Morgan had little time of his own--he spent most of it in the barroom and kitchen. Nathaniel was often left to himself. . . Little wonder that he was a daring little rogue who often strayed into mischief.

Midnight was but a fallen stroke of the hour when Patrick O'Connor burst through the door on this particular night. He staggered across the room like the drunken sot he was, a stubble of candle clutched in one beefy hand. In the lumpy pallets that bumped the far wall, the two young boys stirred, then went utterly still. They both held their breath and their silence, for they knew better than to alert him to their wakened state.

It mattered little. Patrick O'Connor swayed and stepped before the bureau. His bloodshot gaze swept idly across the surface, then narrowed abruptly. A roar of rage ruptured the silence. In but an instant, both his sons had been rudely wrenched from their pallets.

He stalked back to the bureau. "There were six gold coins here this morning. Now there be but five!"

Nathaniel stared at his father with huge blue eyes. His tongue came out to moisten his lips. Timidly he spoke. "Could it have fallen on the floor?"

Patrick O'Connor bent his considerable form low to the ground. His gaze scoured the chipped wood floor. He straightened. "I think not!" he growled.

"Then, Papa, perhaps you are mistaken-"

"I am not!" the man shouted. Rage contorted his features. "This is hardly the first time I've noticed a coin or two missing. But I warn you, lads, I swear it will be the last! So tell me and tell me now! Which of you took it?"

No answer was forthcoming. Morgan did not back down from his father's boiling anger. Instead he tipped his chin and regarded his father with an evenness that far belied his tender years.

"Answer me, brats!" O'Connor's voice vibrated from the very ceiling. "Which of you took my coin?" The floor creaked. Patrick O'Connor took but a single step forward. Sheer temper flamed in his eyes. Next to Morgan, Nathaniel inhaled sharply. A vision flashed through Morgan's mind-Nathaniel's grubby palm closed around a handful of sweets only this afternoon. At the same instant, fear leaped high and bright in Nathaniel's eyes. Cowering, he shrank to his knees.

Just One KissMorgan stepped forward. Bravely he raised his chin, praying his father would not see that his knees were shaking. "I took it, Papa."

"Blast you, boy!" he cursed. "How dare you!"

Morgan's shoulders tightened. "I fetch and toil just as your barmaids do, yet I earn no-"

"I put bread in your belly and clothes on your back, you ungrateful little wretch!" A vile oath scorched the air. "God knows I get little enough in return, and yet you dare to steal from me! Well, no one steals from me, boy... no one! Now, come here!"

But Morgan did not move quickly enough to please his father. A rough hand clamped his narrow shoulder and yanked him forward; his shirt was ripped from his back like the frailest of cloth.

A brutal snarl twisting his lips, O'Connor jerked the tattered remnants around the boy's wrists, binding them behind his back.

Thrust to the floor upon his knees, the boy stiffened at the sound of a cane being snatched from a hook on the wall.

It was a sound he knew well.

The first blow blazed through him like fire up the chimney. The lad called Morgan closed his eyes. He was the elder, he told himself, as his mother once had. He must be strong. He must be brave.

He must protect Nathaniel.

He braced himself for the next blow.

The whistle of the cane tore through the silence again and again, but the boy made not a sound, not a whimper or a cry. He could bear it, for this was for Nat, he reminded himself.

Always for Nat . . .

Chapter 1

Beacon Hill, 1854

It was too late to turn back.

Odd, that the thought should chain itself in her mind now, when she had come so very far. Indeed, across the vastness of an ocean. . . Lady Elizabeth Stanton cast one last, almost pleading glance at the carriage from which she'd just alighted. As she watched the vehicle totter around the comer, a flurry of dust and fallen leaves rose in its wake.

Clutching her reticule, grasping her courage, she turned.

In one sweep, her anxious glance took in the sight before her. Elizabeth couldn't help it. There had been such pride in Nathaniel's voice as he'd described his home to her-and no wonder. She caught her breath, for the house that loomed before her was as grand as Nathaniel had promised. Indeed, she marveled, it was surely the height of Victorian grandeur, as stately as an English country mansion, as elegant as the finest London town house.

An ornate iron fence enclosed the whole of the property, yet despite the stark outline of tree branches and frozen lawn, it was not so very forbidding. Elizabeth could well imagine what it would be like with the bloom and brightness of spring upon its face: buds of flowers and trees stretching toward the sky.

The house itself was gabled and huge. She caught a glimpse of wispy white lace framing wide, stained-glass windows and resisted the urge to curl her white-gloved fingers around the iron and stare in sheer delight. She gave a tiny little laugh. Of course, she was being silly. Nathaniel was a highly successful American shipbuilder. Of course, his home would be beautiful.

As she stood there, a sight to brighten the late winter twilight, little did she realize the picture she presented. Her traveling dress was of dark gray silk, a trifle wrinkled perhaps, but the height of London fashion. Yet it was scarcely her clothing that made her stand out like a jewel among coal. . .

No, for her coloring was far too striking. Hair as shiny and brightly gold as a newly minted coin lay coiled beneath her hat. Her eyes were the vivid green of an English meadow in spring. No pale, fragile flower was Elizabeth Stanton. Sweet natured though she was, her carriage was one of pride and hinted at hidden strength. Yet all at once, Elizabeth did indeed feel small and insignificant.. . and very, very lost.

No, she thought again, grasping for the spirit that had sustained her these many weeks. It was too late to turn back. And she had yearned to see Nathaniel for so long now.

Memories sifted into her mind, one by one. So much had happened, she reflected with a faintly wistful sigh. So very much. . .

He'd taken London by storm, this brash young American named Nathaniel O'Connor. Handsome as sin, as charming as the Pied Piper of Hamelin, blond and bold and dashing, he was all the rage in London: No fewer than a score of women proclaimed themselves instantly in love with him. But of all the beauties in London, she was the one he pursued.

The one he'd wanted.

He'd been an outrageous flirt, of course. At first Elizabeth had thought his attention to her a grand joke. She was hardly irresistible and most certainly not the type to swoon over a man! Yet secretly she'd been flattered, for indeed, she considered herself no beauty at all! And so she'd teased him as unmercifully as he'd teased her, certain his interest would surely wane.

But over the next few weeks, his interest did not wane. And though she'd always considered herself possessed of a steady, level head, Nathaniel O'Connor proved a temptation she could not resist.

It made her tingle inside to think of him. She remembered the first time he'd kissed her.

They'd been dancing at Lord Nelson's birthday celebration, a lively, vivacious waltz that left her breathless and laughing. He whisked her out onto the terrace and onto a small stone bench near the garden. Slowly the laughter left his face.

With his fingers he cupped her nape, tilting her face upward. There, with the sweet scent of roses swirling all around, with her heart leaping wildly and her pulse pounding madly in her ears, he'd kissed her-a kiss that was something she'd never expected, yet all she wanted.

It wasn't so very long after. . .

They were sitting in the parlor of her father's London town house. Nathaniel took both her hands in his. "Elizabeth... something's come up, love. I'm afraid I must leave for Boston sooner than I expected." The day had wrought such awful news already-little wonder that Elizabeth gazed at him, stricken. "Oh, Nathaniel, no! When? When must you leave?" "Tomorrow, love. I sail with the morning tide." His hands gripped hers more tightly. "Elizabeth, please. Come away with me... marry me. Be my wife. I'll make you the happiest woman on this earth, if only you'll consent to be my bride."

Even as Elizabeth's heart soared as high as the stars above, it was burdened by a heaviness she could scarcely put aside.

"Nathaniel. Oh, Nathaniel, I want to... you don't know how much! But this day has brought us nothing but heartache! You know that terrible cough that has so troubled Papa these many weeks? Nathaniel, he is gravely ill . . ."

She was caught squarely between heaven and hell. As the only daughter of the Earl of Chester, how could she leave? Never had she seen Papa so sick-so weak! It frightened her. True, he was not alone. He had Clarissa, his wife of the past two years. But she, Elizabeth, was his only child, and she could not desert her father! At such a time, her place was at his side.

"When Papa is well, I will come to you in Boston. I promise, Nathaniel, as soon as I am able."

"I'll be waiting, Elizabeth. That, I promise." When Papa is well. . . Faith, but she had come to regret those words!

For Papa had remained ill for nearly a month. But his health was even more delicate than she had feared.

They'd buried him nearly six weeks ago.

The soft line of Elizabeth's lips tightened. Yet another memory returned unbidden, but this one was like a burr beneath her skin.

Elizabeth's mother had died of a lung infection when Elizabeth was a very young girl. For many years it was just the two of them, Elizabeth and her father. But as she grew to womanhood, she began to understand all of which her father never spoke. His loneliness. His yearning for a woman's companionship. For those reasons, she hadn't been surprised when the earl eventually married Clarissa Kenton, a widowed baroness from the neighboring shire.

Unfortunately, she and Clarissa had never come to be close, though the Earl of Chester was not aware of it. Though it was not in Elizabeth's nature to be mean-spirited, she found the new countess rather dour, ever practical, and occasionally condescending.

And never more so than on the day the earl's will was read.

Elizabeth was still half-numb with grief. Although it had pained her to say farewell to Nathaniel-indeed she had clung to him almost shamelessly-'twas with the certainty that they would soon be united. But she would never again see Papa, feel the comfort of his nearness, the warmth of his voice and laughter. . .'Twas that very thought that refused to be extinguished as she watched his coffin sink beneath the earth.

So it was that her mood was somber and she remained quiet as she and Clarissa sat in Papa's study, listening to the droning voice of Papa's solicitor, James Rowland. Her thoughts were vague and dull.

"Elizabeth!" Clarissa's voice rang out sharply.

"Are you listening? I believe this next pertains to you." Behind his spectacles,

Mr. Rowland glanced between the two women. Had Elizabeth been more herself, she might have caught his unease. "Shall I continue?" he queried.

"Please do," Clarissa snapped.

Just One KissMr. Rowland cleared his throat and began to read. "Some of my most precious memories of my life are of my daughter, Elizabeth, and the time we spent together at Hayden Park, my country estate in Kent. For this reason I wish Hayden Park to pass to Elizabeth on the joyous occasion of her marriage, in the hopes that she and her new husband will continue to keep residence there." Elizabeth was not surprised. She had expected that Papa would leave the bulk of his holdings to Clarissa, and so he had. But Hayden Park had always been special to her. She smiled in wistful remembrance, for she, too, carried many fond memories of happy days there.

Rowland continued. "In these, my last days, I have but one regret-that I will never see Elizabeth wed, for indeed, seeing her wed and provided for are my last remaining concerns. For this reason, I have charged the task of finding a husband for Elizabeth to my dear wife, Clarissa, for I know that she will see my wishes carried out."

Her slender hands folded neatly in her lap, Elizabeth had gone very still. When she spoke, her tone was very quiet. "Please explain, if you will, Mr. Rowland. Precisely what does this mean?"

Rowland's ruddy cheeks grew redder still. "Legally it means that possession of Hayden Park will not pass to you until you marry-"

Elizabeth's voice cut across his. "Does this also mean the choice of husband lies in my stepmother's hands?"

He had no time to answer. "Indeed it does, Elizabeth." Triumph abounded in both Clarissa's tone and her bearing as she turned toward her stepdaughter. She smiled, a smile that sent needles winging down Elizabeth's spine.

"But you need not worry, dear." Clarissa wasted no time in making known her intentions.

"I have taken care of everything. Lord Harry Carlton is quite agreeable to marrying you. Indeed, I daresay he was quite happy when I approached him."

Elizabeth was stunned. At the age of twenty and one, she'd had several offers for her hand. Although Papa had at times been frustrated, he had not pressed the issue.

She knew Lord Harry, of course. He was the youngest son of the Marquis of Salisbury. His weight no doubt exceeded his girth; but it was not his appearance that had always disturbed her. No, the man was a lecher. It was there in every look, in the greedy way he eyed whatever woman might pass his way.

She felt sick-sick at heart. There was an awful tightness in her chest, a fear she could not give voice to, for then it would surely be real.

She prayed unknowingly. Merciful Father, this cannot be. Let it not be true.

The hands that had been folded so primly tightened in her lap. "I would understand you, Clarissa. You would have me marry Lord Harry?"

Just One Kiss"Of course!" Clarissa smiled sublimely, yet her eyes were hard. "'Tis an exceedingly good match, don't you think?"

Elizabeth filled her lungs with air. The fires of anger sizzled in her veins. By God, she'd not give herself over to a stranger-a man she did not love-a man chosen by her stepmother!

But she did not show even a hint of her fury. Instead she chose her words carefully. "You would make me do this, Clarissa? You would have me wed a man I have no desire to wed?"

Clarissa's smile withered. "'Tis long past time you married, Elizabeth. And you'll do no better than Lord Harry." She folded her arms across her ample bosom and glared at her stepdaughter.

It was then Elizabeth saw in her stepmother's eyes the naked truth, the venom she had always sensed. . . the dislike Clarissa no longer masked. Clarissa hated her. Her concern was a travesty. Now that the earl was gone, she wanted nothing more than to be rid of her stepdaughter.

Elizabeth squared her shoulders. She angled her delicate chin high. If that was what Clarissa wanted-to be rid of her-she would most certainly see the deed done.

She allowed a faint smile to grace the fullness of her lips. "You are right, Clarissa," she stated coolly. "I will marry, but it will be to a man of my own choosing -- and it will not be Lord Harry." Clarissa snorted, a disctinctly unladylike sound.

"Who then? If you wait any longer, you may as well resign yourself to spinsterhood!"

"Nathaniel O'Connor asked me to marry him before he left for Boston," Elizabeth stated very quietly, "and I have already accepted."

"Nathaniel O'Connor? That bold, young American who lacked all semblance of grace and manners?"

The elder woman's disdain was more than evident. Though a burning retort simmered on her tongue, Elizabeth thought it best kept to herself.

"We disagree as to his character, Clarissa, but yes, he is the one."

"If he intended to marry you, then why did he return to Boston?" Clarissa's tone was one of sheer triumph. "And why did your father and I not hear of this?"

"Nathaniel has a business to which he must attend." Elizabeth faltered slightly, praying her stepmother wouldn't notice and wishing Nathaniel had given her a more detailed explanation. "I did not go with him because Papa was sick. And I didn't tell him for the very same reason."

"Ha! It was because you knew he would disapprove!"

Elizabeth battled an inkling of guilt. Somehow she managed to continue to hold her stepmother's accusing gaze. So what if Clarissa was right?

She'd not let the old witch know it, not now, not ever!

"Papa was ill," she repeated. "I merely wanted him to concentrate on getting well that he might see my wedding to Nathaniel."

"Your father would never have permitted you to marry a-a Yankee nobody-and one of Irish descent yet! Such a marriage is hardly suitable!"

Elizabeth shook her head. A suitable marraige. She cared little about that. But she was well aware that Clarissa didn't understand the fires of youth, the fires that burned in her breast whenever she was with Nathaniel.

No, she thought. No. She would not marry Lord Harry-not to please Clarissa, nor to please anyone. For if she did, she would lead a stifling existence, a life she could not bear.

Nor did she delude herself. If she remained, Clarissa would do all she could to force her to her will. Indeed, she sensed in Clarissa an unyielding purpose that was almost frightening.

Slowly she rose to her feet. "I regret that it must be like this," she said calmly. "But I think you will agree that perhaps it is best I leave for Boston-and Nathaniel-as soon as possible."

Clarissa leaped to her feet as well. Her cheeks turned a mottled shade of red. "By God, girl, you always were a willful, spoiled child, but your father would never believe me! I told him you'd lost your senses to this Yankee! I told him you needed a strong hand to guide you, but he would not concede until he lay dying. And now I thank God that he is dead, for he would be scandalized by your behavior!"

Elizabeth ignored her, extending a hand toward James Rowland. "~ you for your help, Mr. Rowland. I trust you'll understand if I remain no longer. I've passage to book, you see."

Rowland was on his feet as well. "Lady Elizabeth," he pleaded. "Lady Elizabeth, please! I beg you to reconsider. Surely the two of you can work something out. Indeed, you stand to gain much. Your father made provisions for an extremely generous allowance-"

"An allowance to be determined by me, Mr.

Rowland. And by God, she'll get not a farthing. Not a farthing, do you hear?" Clarissa's voice vibrated with her fury. "Without me, you are as poor as a church mouse!"

Rowland fell silent. Elizabeth knew then it was true. Papa, she thought sadly. Oh, Papa, why did you do this? He had taught her to think for herself. She needed no one to guide her, to control her, as Clarissa seemed determined to do.

After a moment, she tipped her head, the merest wisp of a smile on her lips as she spoke softly. "You don't understand, do you, Clarissa? Papa's money does not matter to me. True, I love Hayden Park, but my life is my own-and means far more to me. And I would rather be poor than wed to a man I do not love."

That was the last she'd seen of Clarissa.

And so she had said farewell to her father, farewell to England... to her life as she had known it.

For a time there was no help for it-she'd been secretly crushed. She couldn't help but feel that by placing her future in Clarissa's hands, Papa had betrayed her. But during the long voyage I across the sea, she'd come to realize Papa's only I fault was in trusting so easily; trusting Clarissa to look out for his daughter's best interests.

Yes, she thought once more. Yes. She'd made the right choice. The only choice.

For to marry as Clarissa commanded would have been unbearable.

Slowly Elizabeth released a long pent-up breath. Her mind returned to the present...

And Nathaniel.

She coughed, aware of an unfamiliar tightness in her breast. Her chest had begun to ache again, as it .had the past few days. She brushed it aside distractedly. It was nothing but the memories, she told herself.

Grasping the strings of her reticule, she glanced once more toward the house. A twinge of uncertainty marred the smoothness of her brow. Nearly three months had passed since she'd last laid eyes on Nathaniel. Would he be pleased to see her?

She gave a little laugh. Of course he would. He loved her. Her fears were silly. Besides, it wasn't him she was afraid of, simply the future. And little wonder, for her life had certainly been unsettled of late.

Still, a nagging thought persisted. Had she been unwise to come here first? The driver had known where the O'Connor residence was located. But she must still find lodgings, and she'd thought it best to seek a recommendation from Nathaniel. Her funds were scarcely limitless. She'd sold off several pieces of jewelry to pay for her passage. But if all went right, she needed only find a room for a week or two at most. It was indeed her most fervent wish to be married as soon as possible-she prayed Nathaniel felt the same!

Her mind thus engaged, Elizabeth patted her bonnet and straightened her spencer. She felt decidedly dusty and disheveled after a month at sea. A half smile curved her lips. Indeed, she felt a bit of a waif as she glanced down at the small portmanteau at her side. She'd left her trunks at the ship's. docks, in the hope that Nathaniel would send someone after them, perhaps tomorrow.

Bolstering her courage, she started down the brick walkway. Her booted heels clicked as she mounted the stairs. There, before two wide double doors, she reached out with one slender, white-gloved hand and curled her fingers around the ornately carved brass knocker. Outwardly calm, inwardly shaking, she tapped smartly upon the paneled wood.

Footsteps immediately echoed from within. The door swept wide. A stoop-shouldered, gray-whiskered man appeared-the butler, from the look of him.

Elizabeth summoned a smile. "Good day," she said pleasantly. "Is this the O'Connor residence?"

Shaggy brows rose. "Indeed it is, madam."

Her smile relaxed. "Good. Then I'd like to see Mr. O'Connor, if he's in, please."

His gaze encompassed the length of her, and apparently found favor. "Who shall I say is calling, madam?"

"Lady Elizabeth Stanton." Her laugh was rather breathless. "Please forgive me for arriving unannounced, but my ship docked only this afternoon, you see." Elizabeth felt compelled to explain. "Circumstances were a bit muddled when I left London. I was in such a frenzy, I'm afraid I had little time to write and inform Mr. O'Connor of my arrival. And.. . oh, perhaps I should have waited, but I'm so very anxious to see him again!"

There was the slightest pause. "Mr. O'Connor has not yet returned from the shipyard, though I expect him within the next quarter hour. Would you care to wait?"

Her anxiety fled. "Oh, yes! Please." The butler stepped back. "Please come in, then."

Elizabeth followed him to the drawing room, just off the massive entrance hall. As she stepped inside, her gaze silently approved the large, comfortably inviting furnishings.

"My name is Simmons, madam. If you'd like, I could bring you some tea." Though his manner was faultlessly polite, and rather formal, his eyes were kind. "Thank you, Simmons," she said with a smile. "I'd like that very much indeed." He gave a slight bow and retreated.

As the door dosed, Elizabeth seated herself on a large, overstuffed wing chair across from the fireplace. A young girl soon returned with a silver tray, introducing herself as Millie. Elizabeth poured herself a cup of tea, thinking it would refresh her, but after several sips she felt as if she were hot as the fire that burned in the hearth.

Just One KissShe rose, restlessly pacing the length of the room and back. Now that the time was nigh upon her, both excitement and fear warred within her breast. She caught sight of herself in a small, rectangular mirror decorated with small rosettes at each comer. Two spots of rose stood out on her cheeks. Her eyes shone brightly, vivid and green. She frowned, thinking they seemed almost overbright. . . Her reflection seemed to waver, then abruptly righted itself. She frowned. In the last hour, her breath had grown rather short, but surely it was just a case of nerves.

The rattle of a carriage sounded just outside.

Elizabeth flew to the window. Through the filmy lace, she glimpsed a tall, spare figure striding up the walkway.

Her heart began to sing. It's him... it's Nathaniel.

Voices echoed in the entrance hall. She linked her gloved fingers together before her to steady her hands. She had to stop herself from whirling around in joyÉ

Footsteps approached. Simmons knocked, then opened the door just a crack. "Madam, the master will be in shortly."

Elizabeth nodded. Her mind sped onward. Would Nathaniel be surprised to see her? No doubt. Would he be pleased? Oh, surely he would! After all, he'd asked her to be his wife!

Bliss descended in full bloom. She sighed, picturing what would happen when Nathaniel strode through the door.

He would gaze at her with that ever-present smile of his, laughter shining in his eyes; her lips curved in sweet remembrance. And then. . . then he would take her in his arms, and kiss her as he once had.

The door opened with a creak. The outline of a man flashed before her eyes-elegantly attired, taller than most, powerfully wide shoulders, incredibly narrow hips... and hair as dark as night.

Poised to fly across the room, Elizabeth halted with a gasp.

Her smile froze. Her heart seemed to stop. Her mind blurred. Suddenly she felt so weak, she could barely stand. She blinked, certain that her eyes had surely deceived her. Surely this could not be. . .

For the man before her was not Nathaniel.

 


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