| The Kissing Game |
By Kasey Michaels
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Allegra Nesbitt, only child of the Earl and Countess of Sunderland, lifted her head and warily sniffed the breeze with her pert nose, rather like a sprig-muslin gowned hound attempting to pick up a scent.
She'd been in the gardens for only a few minutes, but so far nothing seemed wrong here. That was good, for James, the head gardener. The poor man had yet to fully recover from the shock of finding that all his pink roses had, overnight, become yellow roses (three undergardeners had pocketed a half crown apiece for staying up the whole night long transplanting the bushes).
That had been a week ago. Seven full days, an unusually long time between pranks for Oxie Nesbitt. He was due; he was overdue, and the entire household was tiptoeing about on eggshells, waiting. Waiting.
Unless Allegra counted the most ridiculous joke Oxie had ever played, that being the one that supposedly had them all adjourning to London for the Season.
She had to admit, he had been playing out that particular baited line for nearly a month now, and showed no signs of letting it go, finding some other way to amuse himself at her mama's expense.
The pity of it was that Mama believed him, really believed him. As if they'd really travel to London. Ridiculous. What had the Nesbitt family to do with London?
Even more to the point, whatever would London have to do with the Nesbitts?
Allegra walked to one of the side doors leading into the mansion, automatically checking to be sure Oxie hadn't rigged it with a bucket of water that would spill on her as she entered, and stepped inside.
Her parents had been to London, five years ago, when Oxie had first come into the earldom by way of several unexpected deaths and a convoluted chain of inheritance that had left the then dowager countess prostate on her bed for months.
Oxie Nesbitt, Earl of Sunderland? Why not, the dowager had been known to say almost daily until her death two years previously, just stick a jacket and neckcloth on a pet monkey and turn him loose in Society?
Poor woefully unprepared Society.
Allegra, still unable to succeed in her various and at times ingenious attempts to break out of the nursery, had not accompanied her parents to London on that first, fateful trip, but she had heard about it from Aspasia, her mama's maid.
A fiasco, that's what that sojourn had been, from start to finish.
Mama, always a shy and nervous sort, couldn't remember anyone's name, rank, or any of the social graces she'd attempted to learn from books, because she had married a poor man with no expectations, not an earl.
In fact, she'd yet to fully forgive Oxie Nesbitt for accepting his title, probably in part due to the horrors she'd experienced in that single trip to London.
Magdalen Nesbitt had curtsied to the bewigged majordomo of one of her hostesses, and in front of half the ton. Which had been an infinitesimal faux pas, when put up against the fact that she'd also actually asked the Prince Regent (now he, Aspasia told Allegra her mama had said, really looked like a majordomo) if he could kindly point her in the direction of the ladies' retiring room.
Oh, yes. Mama had made quite an impression upon Society. The poor woman still had the occasional nightmare.
But it had taken Oxie himself to bear off the palm. The new earl's frank speech, his boisterous ways, his pranks, had been the talk of London for the ten days it had taken Magdalen to convince him that she was dreadfully ill and a rapid return to Sunderland was the only thing that could possibly save her.
They'd left behind them a rash of silly pranks and some angry peers, along with several hilarious anecdotes about "The Countess of Bumpkin" that would have witnesses to her social blunders dining out on the stories for weeks, and a Grosvenor Square mansion in Holland covers, never to be visited again.
Five years, and the fact that Allegra was now a rapidly aging nineteen, had pushed Magdalen into believing that London had forgotten them, forgiven them, and would welcome her beautiful, eligible daughter with open arms. And, if it hadn't, she'd pretend it had. She would walk over hot coals for her Allyor, even more daring, down Bond Street.
After all, her darling Allegra was the daughter of an earl. There was a truly stunning dowry. Just a quick pop into the metropolis, where her dearest Ally would dazzle all the gentlemen, take her pick of the best of this year's litter of bachelors, and Magdalen could return to the relative obscurity of Sunderland, little worse for wear.
And Oxie had agreed, with a wink to his daughter, who had scolded him for lifting her mama's hopes when everyone knew that they'd never travel to London again. Ever.
Still, he was pushing this prank too far, even for him.
Magdalen had ordered new wardrobes for everyone, had the traveling coach refurbished, even invited Allegra's dreadful cousin Elizabeth to accompany them to the metropolis so that she could shepherd Allegra into society, leaving her mama safely at home, where she couldn't embarrass herself or anyone else.
Disappointing Elizabeth when Papa finally admitted he'd only been funning them would be the single spot of joy Allegra looked forward to, as her cousin was the silliest, most chuckle-headed, condescending
Feminine shrieks cut into Allegra's random thoughts, followed by her mama's hysterically pitched, "Oxie! Help, help! Oh, OX-eee!"
Allegra picked up her skirts and followed the screams to the large saloon, to see both her mama and Cousin Elizabeth standing on couches, looking about as silly as two women could look without outside assistance (though, considering her mama's fervent invocation of Oxie's name, they probably did have outside assistance).
"I thought he was overdue. If there's one thing to be said for Oxie, he never disappoints," Allegra said as she looked around the room. "Well? What did he do?"
Cousin Elizabeth, her face unnaturally pale beneath her neatly coiled black hair, her equally black eyes narrowed to slits, pointed a finger toward one corner of the room. "There. Right there."
Allegra shook her head, looking where Cousin Elizabeth had pointed. "I don'toh, I see now. How cute," she said, smiling. She looked at the gaily papered box on the floor, the one whose lid had somehow been transported a good fifteen feet away from its bottom, and then to the corner again. "You thought it was candy, didn't you, Mama?"
Magdalen appeared to be attempting to climb onto the very back of the couch, then reach for and shimmy up the chandelier, which would be a fruitless exercise, as Magdalen was a smidgeon of a person, petite, blond . . . gullible as ever; Oxie's favorite audience. "Of course I thought it was candy, Ally. OX-eee!"
"Don't waste your breath, Mama," Allegra said, sighing. "You know he's around here somewhere, watching, but that doesn't mean he's going to come out until he believes his small prank has run its course."
"You're all mad, do you know that? Stupid pranks, calling one's own father by his Christian name. Outrageous!" Cousin Elizabeth declared feelingly as she sat herself down on the back of the couch, folded her small hands in her lapas if prepared to serve tea from this novel position.
"Yes," Allegra said, walking toward the corner and bending down, "we're all mad. If I were you, cousin, I'd hie myself straight back home, escape this asylum while you still retain your own priggish wits. Ah, here we go. Hello, mousie," she said, lifting the white mouse by its tail, holding it so that she could watch its small, pinkish nose twitch as it inspected her with anxious-looking black eyes. "Poor little precious. Did those noisy ladies frighten you?"
"Oh, for the love of God, childyou're worried about the mouse? Just get that disgusting thing out of here. Get it out of here now."
"Yes, Mama," Allegra said, gathering up the two pieces of the box and tucking the mouse back in it, wondering silently how neither her mama nor Cousin Elizabeth had failed to notice the neat pattern of air holes her papa had punched into the lid.
Oxie certainly wouldn't have gotten such a sorry attempt past her.
"Cousin Elizabeth? Perhaps you'd like me to put this in your rooms? I believe he'd make a lovely pet for a spinster of two and twenty. Or is that three and twenty?"
"You wouldn'toh! You're as bad as his lordship, Allegra, I vow it. And, for your information, cousin, I am not quite twenty-one, barely eighteen months older than you. But what about his lordship, cousin? What if he attempts anything like this when we're in London? Well, I should just simply perish from the embarrassment."
"You won't have to worry about that, Cousin Elizabeth," Allegra told her, "because we're not going to London. Mama, haven't you figured that out yet? This is just another of Oxie's small jokes. And a not very funny one, at that, considering that we now have Cousin Elizabeth running tame in our house."
She tipped up the lid of the box, peeked inside. "Among other vermin."
Cousin Elizabeth crawled down from her perch, sitting on the proper couch cushion once more, smoothing her muslin skirts as she balefully glared at Allegra.
"Oh, really? I know just what you're doing, Cousin Allegra. Oh, yes, I know. You're only saying that because you don't want me to accompany you to London. It's just as Mama has said, I'll cast you very much in the shade. How you'll hate that, cousin, mean and spiteful creature that you are, as you seem to positively dote on making a cake of yourself whenever possible."
"Yes, that's me, straight down to the ground," Allegra agreed, because what use was there in arguing? "A horribly improper branch on the otherwise prim and proper yet stilldare I say it?prodigiously ramshackle Nesbitt tree. My father's daughter, my mother's child. Oh, and when we get to London, Cousin Elizabethnot that we're really goingI should like it very much if you were to address me as Lady Allegra. I don't wish to depress your pretensions overmuch, but you have been cast to play the role of charitable gesture on Mama's part in this small farce, you know."
Magdalen watched as Elizabeth ran from the room, one hand pressed to her mouth to stifle her sobs.
"That, my girl, was mean," she told her daughter. "Not too many years ago we were cast as the poor relations, remember?"
"I remember a lot of things, Mama," Allegra said, tucking the box under her arm. "One of them is the single house party we, then playing the part of poor relations as you said, attended here at Sunderland. I remember how Cousin Elizabeth pretended to be my friend, then left me all alone in the middle of the yew maze. It took hours for anyone to find me. I was six, I believe, and still afraid of the dark. Foolish girl, she never thought I'd grow up, or that I'd remember. But I do remember."
"That was naughty of her, but she only mimicked the sentiments of her parents. She's a grown woman now, and you should judge her on her own merits." Magdalen sighed, worked her fingers together in her lap. "And remember this as well, we must be even larger than that, Ally. We must also forgive, we must also forget. After all, we are now the Earl of Sunderland."
"No, Oxie is the Earl of Sunderland. That man over there, just coming out from behind the draperies. Hello, Oxie. Enjoy your little joke?"
Oxie Nesbitt hitched up the waist of his breeches, which had begun sagging beneath the considerable weight of his ample belly. He patted at the fluffy white halo of hair that ringed his otherwise bald pate, and sat down beside his wife, lifting her fingers to his lips.
"I hadn't planned on frightening you, pet. Only the gel. But you climbed this couch with the grace of a gazelle, truly you did."
"I should crack your head with the teapot," his wife said, her heart not really in the threat. "But what is this Ally has been talking about, Oxie? Please say our trip to London is not another of your pranks. I've spent hours and hours memorizing the names and titles of all of the Prince Regent's siblings and all of the patronesses at Almack's. Practiced them until my head positively ached. I would just die if we didn't go, truly I would, Oxie."
Allegra put down the box and crossed her arms over her slim waist, stared at her papa. "Tell her," she intoned heavily. "This has gone on long enough. Tell her, Oxie."
His lordship looked at his daughter, looked at his wife, looked at the toes of his boots. "We leave Friday morning at first light," he said, speaking into his faintly soiled cravat.
Then, quickly, he looked up at his daughter. "The trick was on you, Ally, not your mama. I only let you think that so that you wouldn't bolt, run away, before I could get you tied to the seat of the coach."
"Oxie . . . no," Allegra said, shaking her head. "We can't. Don't you remember? Think of who we are. Think of how Mama was so . . . and how you . . . and the coffin you propped against Lady Jersey's door? And . . . and the ground pepper in your snuffbox . . . and the silly map you made up, showing a great Stuart treasure buried under the Prince Regent's own Carleton Housepeople crawling all over his highness's gardens, digging up his posies? And . . . and the"
"Ancient history, my dear," his lordship interrupted as Allegra searched her brain for more stories told to her by a sniffling Aspasia. "And there were those who jolly well enjoyed my little jokes, not that Lady Jersey was overly amused, I'll grant you that one. As for your mama? Elizabeth will be there to guide her this time, as well as the bear-leader we've hired. What is her name, pet?"
"Mrs. Tomlin," Magdalen told him. "Mrs. Lettice Tomlin, and she's a paid companion, Oxie, and is also acting as our housekeeper. She's a widow, I suppose, or perhaps a spinster. She's to be called Mrs. Tomlin, as a courtesy, as all women of any advanced age in this position would be. But there was no mention of a Mr. Tomlin." She frowned. "Oh, never mind, Ally, we'll just figure it all out as we go on. She came highly recommended."
"Highly recommended?" Allegra rolled her eyes in only partially amused disbelief. "By whom? Mama, we don't know anybody. None of us has been anywhere but here for the past five years, and before that we were less than nowhere."
Magdalen began fidgeting with the ribbons on her morning gown. "Don't put such a fine point on everything, Ally. I had your papa place an advertisement in one of the London papers, and Mrs. Tomlin replied with the loveliest letter, and references and everything. Why, she's already in residence in Grosvenor Square, making sure everything is ready for our arrival. Oh, Ally, don't make that face. You know how upset I get when you make that face."
"I don't believe this," Allegra said, shaking her head. "We're really going? To marry me off, correct? You're going to drag me to London to get rid of me. Oxie, this is the nastiest trick you have ever played on me."
Magdalen hopped to her feet, put her arms around her daughter. "Oh, darling, don't, please. This is for your own good, truly it is. You are of an age now, nearly as old as your cousin Elizabeth, in fact, and you've just teased her about how she is all but on the shelf, ready to don her caps and raise cats."
"Mice," Allegra said into her mother's bouncing curls. "I thought she could raise mice." Then she shut her eyes, unable to contemplate the disaster that awaited them all in London. "Oh, it will be terrible. Just terrible."
"It will be wonderful," her mama corrected, giving her a quick squeeze before putting her at arm's length, smiling at her child. "Your papa has friends, friends from his school days, and they'll all be in London. Surely they'll all have sons. We have a beautiful daughter. We'll have Elizabeth to bear you company, Ms. Tomlin to guide us along the straight and narrow, your papa's money to cushion any falls we might have. Papa has convinced me that we'll be just fineand I am willing to put my head in the lion's mouth again for you. Although," she ended a little nervously, "your papa says that won't be necessary."
"Your mama's right, Ally," his lordship added, giving Allegra a bracing, nearly staggering clap on the back. "Only thing you'll find around here is men like me, and I wouldn't wish such a sorry match on my dearest baby, or you on the fellows around here, come to think on it. I've already penned letters to my school chums, telling them of our arrival early next week."
"Names, Oxie. Give me names, or I won't believe you. I may not even believe you then. Give them to me now, without giving you time to make them up."
"Names? I'll give you names. Gideon Pakes, he's the Viscount Eaton, no less, soon to be an earl, when his father gets put to bed with a shovel. Sir Guy Berkert, and the last onewhat's his name? This would be easier, pet, if you would just stop staring at me that way. Oh, yes, I remember now. Jagger. Walter Jagger. Called him Wally until he bloodied m'nose for me. Wally always was a bit of a spoilsport. Roomed with them at school, you know, along with Elizabeth's papa. Fine chaps."
"Ridiculous," Allegra said, pulling a face. "Friends. Fine chaps. So, why haven't I heard about any of them except for Uncle Frederick until today? Why, you couldn't even remember the last one's name at first, could you? And yet you say they're your friends? Nonsense. Cousin Elizabeth's father, Oxie, has never been your friend. Were any of these men your friends? Really?"
"Schoolmates," Oxie corrected. "Long ago and far away."
"Long ago and far away enough that they've forgiven you for tying all their small clothes in knots and hanging them from the lampposts? Long ago and far away enough that they no longer remember the day you put a freshly fed goat in their rooms?"
"It was a family of piglets, and how would you know that, anyway?"
"I know you, Oxie," Allegra said, jamming her hands on her hips. She loved her father, loved the man desperately, but that didn't mean she didn't believe he'd be saferthat the whole world might be saferif she could keep him in leading strings.
"Now tell me, Oxie. I already know that Uncle Frederick can't afford a Season in London, or otherwise Cousin Elizabeth wouldn't be within a dozen miles of this place, so we'll forget him for the moment. Did any of these three old schoolmates of yours return your letters with missives of their own? Offer you invitations? Acknowledge your letters in any way at all?"
Oxie pushed both hands through his fuzz of white hair. "You know the sad condition of the posts, Ally," he said, not quite looking at her. "Now, please, enough. We leave for London in two days. Accept it, pet, because it's true."
Allegra looked at her mother, who was smiling at her weakly, then to her father, who had this gleam in his eye that boded ill for anyone in London who didn't find feathers in their soup or ink in their port amusing occurrences.
She clenched her fists, stuck out her chin. "No. This is going to be an unmitigated disaster. I'm sorry, Mama, but I won't be a part of it."
Oxie took both her hands in his. "Pet, listen to me. I'm the Earl of Sunderland. I have no sons, only you. When I cock up my toes the title goes toMagdalen, darlin', you've been studying up on all of this for a few weeks. Who does it go to?"
"Your cousin Frederick Nesbitt, Oxie. Elizabeth's father."
Allegra took a half step backward, shocked, for she had that particular failing of loving daughters, that of believing her papa would live forever, and had never investigated the succession.
"Elizabeth's father? That can't be right. Do they know? No, they couldn't, because that couldn't be right. If that were right, Elizabeth would have poisoned your porridge the day she arrived."
"It's true, Ally," her mother told her. "When I was trying to commit names and titles to my memory, I stumbled on the family tree. Your papa is the earl now, but Frederick definitely is next in line."
"Oxie, I'd watch my back, if I were you," Allegra said, only partly in jest. Her cousin's family, well born but poor as church mice since Uncle Frederick's gambling soul had rolled them up years ago, was accepted in Societybut an earldom? Oh, my. What Elizabeth wouldn't do to be Lady Elizabeth and live at Sunderland.
"Ally?" her father prompted as Allegra's mind took her down paths littered with Cousin Elizabeth shooting Oxie with his own dueling pistol, Cousin Elizabeth jumping out from behind one of the suits of armor in the long hall and sticking a knife into Oxie's back, Cousin Elizabeth hiring thugs to beat Oxie, drop him into a sack, and toss him off a cliff . . .
"Hmmm?" she said, shaking herself back to the moment, and to her father.
"I was saying, Ally, that when I shuffle off this mortal coil, you and your mama will be left with the dowager house, some few pennies in an allowance, and to the mercies of Frederick NesbittFrederick, his harridan of a wife, and Cousin Elizabeth, all whose meanness you well remember."
"I won't think about that," Allegra said with that same daughterly determination to see the world only as she wanted it, a view that included both her parents forever in that world with her.
"Sometimes, pet, even you have to listen to me. I'm not always such a noodle, you know. You can see, can't you, why I need you married, and married well? You have to be provided for, and through you, my darlin' wife as well. Everything here is entailed, on loan to whatever earl is in residence. It is time, my pet, for us to be practical."
"And it might also be prudent for you to behave with more charity toward your cousin," Magdalen added.
"I'll try," Allegra said on a sigh. "But it won't be easy."
Excerpted from The Kissing Game , by Kasey Michaels . Copyright (c) 2003 by Kasey Michaels . Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.Back to top