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Friday, February 10, 2012

The Worth of a Kiss

by Christy Carlyle

Jaw clenched, long fingers rapping an insistent rhythm on the polished arm of his aunt’s sitting room chair, Lord Lucien Grimsby struggled to control his emotions. It was an unusual sensation. Normally a master of his feelings, Lucien found that simmering irritation had become his constant companion. His aunt Nora, Dowager Countess of Stamford, seemed oblivious to his distress and blithely carried on praising Miss Wright, the source of all of Lucien’s frustration.  Without even a second thought, Lucien could easily declare Jessamyn Wright to be the most infuriating and outspoken woman – he could hardly call her a lady - of his acquaintance.  

He cut across his aunt’s words, his voice louder than he intended. “Come now, Aunt. She reads to you. It is hardly drudge work. Nor does it require the kind of talents you ascribe to her.”

Lady Nora fussed with an elaborately laced handkerchief and glared at her nephew.  “It’s more difficult than it might seem. I have high standards and she must read it just so.”

Lucien made a most uncharacteristic sound - somewhere between a snort and a chortle.  Aunt Nora’s brows shot up into her increasingly white hairline.  The echo of footsteps drew their attention to the sitting room door.  Without knocking, the source of Lucien’s ire and his aunt’s adoration stepped across the threshold.  

“Ah, Jessamyn. My nephew was just making light of your oratory skills.”  Lady Nora smiled as she said the words and shot Lucien a look of challenge.

“Aunt.”  Lucien’s voice was low as he bit off the word, infusing it with as much menace as he dared to direct at the woman who knew him better than his own mother.  Straightening in his chair, he studied the wallpaper directly above his aunt’s head.  Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed that Miss Wright wore blue, a dark, drab dress that had nothing to do with fashion or feminine curves. Somehow, it suited her and served to highlight her pale complexion and auburn hair. 

She did not acknowledge his presence, but merely glided soundlessly across the room and took a place on the divan nearest his aunt.  She picked up a book as if she meant to ignore them completely, and he thought that she might actually sit silently for once.

Then her rich, warm voice interrupted his musings.  “Perhaps his lordship would like to have a go.”

            “I beg your pardon?”  He arched one dark eyebrow, simmering irritation beginning to boil.

            “You could show me how it should be done.” Her expression was unreadable, her grey eyes clear.

            “I never claimed superiority at reading anything.”  Though he was certain his reading habits were superior to his aunt, who opted for poetry and horridly gothic romance.  “I simply said...” 
            Aunt Nora’s sing song voice lifted with enthusiasm. “Oh, yes, Lucien. Do read for us.”

            He closed his eyes, sensing defeat before he had even begun to fight.  Miss Wright’s lavender scent was tickling nose and his aunt was watching him with the look she used to give him as a boy when he had done something utterly witless.

            He unclenched the fist he did not realize he was making, opened his hand, palm up and held it out to Jessamyn.  “Let’s have it then, Miss Wright.”

            She lifted the slim volume and laid it in his hand.  As their fingers touched, he felt a jolt of heat down his body, though her fingers were cool.  Their eyes met and he saw amusement in her expression.  With a jolt of shock, he realized that he liked seeing that flicker, that ember of joy.  He found that he wanted to stoke it and bring it to life, so that it would light up her eyes and shine onto him too.  

            He opened the book, a volume of poems by Percy Bysshe Shelley. His fingers flipped the pages to Queen Mab, a poem he’d read at university and recalled enjoying. He cleared his throat, took a fortifying breath and began to read.

            Lady Nora's voice stopped him before a single syllable could escape his lips.  “How can you begin reading, Lucien?  I have not even told you which page.”  

            “I had taken the liberty of choosing a poem, Aunt.”

            Lady Nora made a sharp snapping sound with her tongue. “No, I must choose. That is the way of it.”
            He glanced at Jessamyn as if she might come to his aid.  Sitting ramrod straight, perched on the edge of the divan near his aunt, she merely nodded her head.  “It is true. That is the way we do it.”

            He thought of demanding his lordly rights, but demurred.  “What page, dearest aunt?”

            “Page 103, if you please.”  He turned the pages until he was near the end of the volume and landed on page 103.  A single, short poem took up the space of the folio page.  It was titled Love’s Philosophy. Lucien skimmed the words he was about to read and finally felt the strands of the web in which his aunt had ensnared him.  He speared her with an icy gaze above the book’s page and narrowed his eyes at the Cheshire grin that crested her lips.

            “Come, Lucien.  It is fitting for such a day, is it not?”  Lucien’s brow creased in confusion, but before he could ask, his aunt added archly, “St. Valentine’s Day.”

            The poem might as well have been written in a foreign language, so strange was its meaning to a man used to stifling his emotions.  He stammered through the poem’s first stanza, every line causing him to stumble.  Full of sentiment and intimate meaning, the words tripped his normally steady tongue while his mind wandered into places he rarely let it venture.

            Mercifully, his aunt stopped him short.  “Oh, that is not right at all, Lucien. It seems my clever Miss Wright surpasses you in poetry reading after all.  Do go and rescue him, my dear.”

            Miss Wright hesitated before obeying her employer, but then he sensed her moving toward him.  He could not look at Jessamyn as she retrieved the little book from his hands.  He thrust it towards her and sank down into his chair.
            Lucien had always acknowledged the beauty of Jessamyn Wright’s voice.  It was not high pitched and interspersed with giggles, nor too deep and unfeminine.  It was smooth and rich, just the sort of voice to serve a poetry reader well. 

            Miss Wright began to read, “The fountains mingle…”

            Lady Nora stopped her.  “Don’t start again, dear.  Just continue on.”

            Lucien knew what came next and could not resist watching Miss Wright as she read.  He watched her full lips lovingly caress the kind of words that had caused him to stumble.  He watched her neck, the smooth white line of skin that arched up across her cheeks.  As she read, her cheeks gradually flamed into a blush as pink as her mouth. She spoke of kissing, and he was struck with the memory of her lips on his as vividly as if she stood before him, the taste of her fresh again on his tongue. At that moment, he knew the worth of that kiss.  It had changed him, changed everything.

            “What are all these kissings worth if thou kiss not me?” As Jessamyn spoke the last line, her voice wavered and the book started to slip from her hands.  She caught it and looked up at Lucien.  Her eyes glowed in the gaslight and Lucien felt drawn by their light.  He started to stand, but she stopped him.

            “No.  I…” For a moment, she seemed confused, disoriented.  Then she approached Lady Nora and handed her the book of poetry.  “Forgive me, Lady Nora.  I need a breath of air.”

            The dowager countess’ voice was quiet, nearly a whisper.  “Of course, my girl.”
            The silence that descended in Lady Nora’s sitting room was stifling. Lucien tugged ungentlemanly at his neck cloth.  He could not stop his foot from tapping, though the aubusson carpet was so thick, he made no sound.

            “Lucien?”  Lady Nora’s voice had lost its sing song tone. 

            “Yes, Aunt?”  He stopped tapping his foot, but his fingers immediately began to trace the carved pattern in the arm of his chair.

“You are not a fool.”  She said the words firmly, without a sliver of doubt.

“Am I not?”  Lucien did not share his aunt’s faith in her assertion.

            “No.  So you must go after her.”  He lifted his head and met Lady Nora’s eyes.  She looked haughty, ready to command and be obeyed. But a smile softened her lips, and he knew in that moment that she saw through his veneer of cool detachment.  “Only a fool would stay here with me at a moment like this.  Go and get her.”

© Christy Carlyle 2012
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