Authors: Erin Knightley
A Sealed with a Kiss Novella
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Copyright © Erin Rieber, 2012
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“Do you know what the worst thing about a wedding is?”
Finn Edgerton looked up from his cards, raising a questioning eyebrow to Richard, Lord Raleigh. Seeing how they were currently celebrating their friend Benedict Hastings’s last night of bachelorhood before the man married Richard’s own sister in the morning, Finn sincerely hoped the question was rhetorical. It was hard to tell, since Richard was on about his fifth snifter of whiskey since the clock struck midnight some two hours earlier.
“The time of day at which they are held?”
Richard was notorious for his aversions to mornings, and at this rate, Finn had a feeling he would feel the same way tomorrow. He had gotten such a late start by the time he finally broke away from his estate, it was nearly ten o’clock when he arrived at Hertford Hall and all but the two men had retired for the night.
Richard snorted, raising his glass in salute. “No, but that is a very close second. Appalling really, that the church should have an issue with afternoon weddings. As far as I’m concerned, all weddings should be held via a special license no earlier than six o’clock in the evening. Much more civilized that way.”
To his right, Hastings chuckled. “You should be thanking me, Richard. If Evie had her way, we’d all be meeting at dawn. I was barely able to talk her into eleven o’clock.”
Richard, half-foxxed and happier for it, smacked Hastings approvingly on his shoulder, nearly knocking the cards from his hands. “A bloody good brother-in-law you’ll make. I’m glad now that I didn’t kill you.”
Finn blinked in surprise, his gaze sliding back and forth between the two friends. The thought of the laid-back Richard ever possessing such an inclination was jarring, to say the least. “It would seem, gentlemen, that there is more to this marriage than meets the eye.”
Hastings merely shrugged. “Just a small misunderstanding, all cleared up now.” He laid his cards facedown on the table and glanced at Richard. “So what then is the worst thing about weddings, if not the uncivilized hours?”
Leaning back in his chair, Richard lifted his cigar and took a long draw before answering. “The women.”
He let the words hang for a moment on a cloud of blue smoke before continuing. “Nothing makes a female more broody than watching one of her fellow females tie the knot. Every time I go to one of these things, I feel like an exhibit at the Tower Menagerie.”
“Perhaps that’s because you
like an exhibit at the Tower Menagerie,” Finn said, earning a laugh from Hastings. Richard just rolled his eyes.
He set down the cigar and sat up straight, schooling his features into a mask of sober indifference—impressive for one so deep in his cups. “Observe, ladies and gentlemen, the unmarried young earl to your left. Exceedingly rare in the wild, such a specimen is prized for its rakish good looks and debonair charms. If one should encounter such a nobleman in person, it is advised that one pounce at the earliest opportunity.” His usual smile broke through and he shook his head. “As that blasted Austen woman wrote, ‘it is a fact universally acknowledged, that a man in possession of his blessed freedom and plenty of blunt must be in want of a wife.’ ”
Finn laughed, abandoning his own hand of cards on the table. “I don’t think that is
how she put it.” He grinned at them through the smoky candlelight, thoroughly enjoying seeing his old friends once more. It had been too long since he had loosened his cravat and had a bit of fun. In fact, it had been so long since Finn had been to visit Hertford Hall, it was hard to believe that he had spent so much time here in his youth.
“Close enough,” Richard said, his eyes dancing with mirth. “And you in particular should pay attention, old man. This will be your first wedding as Viscount Edgerton, and not just Mr. Edgerton. You’ve no idea what you’re in for.”
Damn, the man had a point. Finn had avoided the London scene altogether in the year since his father’s death, focusing solely on trying to dig the estate out from under the piles of debt his father had managed to amass. Still, even with the financial trouble of the estate and his lack of recent social interaction, it seemed every eligible female he encountered fancied herself the future Lady Edgerton. And yes, he did know that a decent dowry could make things a hell of a lot easier on him. The trouble was finding a female who was attached to such a dowry who did not immediately make his teeth hurt. He tossed back the remaining contents of his drink, squeezing his eyes shut as it burned from his throat to his belly.
A wife was the last thing he wanted to be thinking about this week. “Lucky for me,” he said, setting the glass down with a snap, “the glory of an unmarried earl—especially one who also happens to be a future marquis—is infinitely more desirable than a mere viscount.”
The look on Richard’s face was priceless. Finn had him there, and they both knew it. Richard groaned, running both hands through his already unruly blond curls. “Bollocks.”
Damn, it was good to be here. Suddenly feeling in better humor than he had in months, Finn reached for his discarded cards and splayed them out once more. Hastings followed suit, shaking his head at both of them. A dubious end to his bachelorhood, to be sure.
Richard started to reach for his own cards, then paused, snapping his fingers. “Perhaps more desirable to some, but I know of at least one unmarried young lady who will have eyes only for you.” He punctuated the last three words with a swirling index finger that ended with a definitive jab in Finn’s direction.
like the sound of that. He eyed his friend warily, not at all encouraged by the satisfied smile curving the man’s lips. “Oh?”
“Did I mention there is another guest in residence whom you might know? Someone who likes you very well, if memory serves.” Richard sat back, lacing his fingers at the back of his head, having entirely too much fun at Finn’s expense. “I’m sure you’ll remember her quite well, even without the Christmas decorations.”
Dread mixed with the whiskey still burning his gut as memories of the faint strains of Christmas carols, soft lips, and echoing laughter slid through him like mist. He shook his head. That had quite possibly been the most awkward, embarrassing moment of his entire existence. Without conscious thought, his lip lifted in derision. “You don’t mean—”
“Indeed I do. Be prepared to say hello to our own little Miss Mistletoe.”
* * *
“Oh, my goodness, Evie—you look like an angel!”
Cece smiled as she took in her cousin’s incredible gown, its delicate, pale blue embroidery matching Evie’s eyes exactly. It was perfect; everything a lady could want her wedding gown to be. The faintest wisp of envy curled around her heart before Cece resolutely set it away. She knew better than to entertain silly dreams of wedding days. And that aside, she was just so
for her cousin.
Evie smiled, swallowing her up in a quick hug. “Thank you, sweet Cece. I’m so glad you could be here today. If for nothing else, so that I have an ally in the midst of all the mayhem out there. Who would have thought my mother and sisters could be so consumed with a single day?”
“Well, Aunt Vivian did despair of this day ever coming.” Cece winked as she pulled back, taking Evie’s hand in her own. She knew that her cousin had never intended to marry, and was more surprised by the wedding than anyone. “And of course I would come—I wouldn’t miss your wedding for the world.”
“Well, yes, I didn’t think you would. But I know how much your father depends on you. I’m sure he’ll miss you dreadfully while you’re away.”
“Have no fear,” Cece said, squeezing Evie’s fingertips before stepping away. “Mrs. Kelly promised to take very good care of him while I’m away. And of course, Papa sends his warmest wishes for your marriage.”
The obvious went unsaid: Though he wished nothing but the best for Evie, traveling away from his home to attend the blessed event was out of the question. Inside their manor, Papa was confident and assured. It was only when he ventured to the places he hadn’t yet memorized that he felt weak and out of control. It was hard enough for him to allow Cece—who had served as his eyes since darkness began clouding his vision five years ago—to come for the wedding, but he knew how much being here meant to her.
“Oh, and I almost forgot.” Cece held up her hand, offering up a small nosegay of purplish blue flowers for Evie’s inspection. “Papa also sends these.”
Evie clasped her hands together to her chest. “Oh my, they are so lovely!”
, and they symbolize patience, love, and good luck.”
A secretive smile lit her cousin’s face. She accepted the flowers as if they were jewels instead of a simple plant. “How utterly appropriate.” Moving to the mirror, she plucked one of the blooms from the small bouquet and tucked it into her hair. Turning back to Cece, she said, “How does it look?”
“You must give him my most sincere thanks. And now, I suppose we should go down and join the others. It’s almost time.” Evie’s face fairly glowed with joy, and Cece sighed with the romance of it all. It made her happy that true love was out there for some.
Mayhem, as it turned out, was the perfect word to describe the utter chaos that awaited them downstairs. The family, a handful of friends, and several servants filled the entry hall and spilled outside into the courtyard where the carriages were waiting. The noise of conversation echoed off the marble tiles and rose to the vaulted ceilings above. It was impossible not to smile at the commotion; Cece loved every second of it.
With Cece’s five cousins, the Hall had never known the sort of quiet that settled over her own home in Hampshire like a woolen blanket. She hadn’t realized until that moment how much she had missed the buzz of human voices or the liveliness of activity.
The bride was quickly swallowed up by her three sisters and mother as they all exclaimed over her, making her turn this way and that. Cece retreated to the doorway of the drawing room, smiling as she watched the others, soaking in their excitement. With no siblings of her own—Mama had died shortly after she was born, and Papa had never remarried—this was as close as she ever got to a family celebration.
Across the way, her cousin Richard emerged from the library. She smiled and waved, and he winked in acknowledgement before addressing the group. “Now that the bride has arrived, I do believe we have a wedding to get to. Our chariots await.” With a grand, sweeping gesture, he led the way toward the front door, and was followed by the bridegroom, Mr. Hastings, the bridegroom’s brother, and—
Cece’s heart slammed abruptly against her ribs.
Dear Lord, it couldn’t be
! Stifling a gasp, she jumped around the corner into the drawing room. She pressed herself against the wall, keeping out of sight as she tried to breathe past the tightness of her throat.
Her eyes were playing tricks on her, surely. She blinked several times, then rubbed them for good measure. Holding her breath, she leaned cautiously forward until she could just make out the people in the hall. There he was—Finn!
She ducked back out of view, pressing both hands to her face in horror. What was he even doing here? He was good friends with Richard, of course, but had more of a passing acquaintance with Evie. . . . Cece dropped her hands. Of course—he had gone to Eton with Richard. Mr. Hastings was a friend from Eton. She nearly groaned. Yes, wouldn’t it be just her luck that they were all perfectly delightful friends with one another.
was she going to face him?
She closed her eyes against the fresh wave of mortification that washed through her. She didn’t want to think on that night five years ago, didn’t even want to conjure the memories of the scent of cinnamon flavoring the air, the swirling snow outside the windows, the glossy green bough of
hanging above her. . . . It was over, in the past—she had practically been a child, for heaven’s sake!
The sounds of the group began to recede as they made their way outside. She had to get herself together; she couldn’t very well miss the wedding just because the man who represented the single most awful moment of her entire life just happened to be party to the festivities. She was a grown woman. She had matured leaps and bounds since that embarrassing, ill-advised indiscretion five years ago.
Although not so much, apparently, that she could face him. No matter how sternly she told herself to leave her hiding place and make her way to the carriage, she could not seem to separate herself from the wall.
Cece sucked in a startled breath. She’d know that smooth, dark timbre anywhere. It had haunted her dreams for half a decade, after all. Why, oh, why was he the one looking for her? She shook her head. It didn’t matter.
“Miss McCrea?” he said again, much closer this time.
She couldn’t just stand there, cowering in the drawing room like some sort of criminal. She was a proper woman now, and she had to act as one. Straightening her spine, she took two swift breaths, licked her lips, and emerged from her hiding spot.