Compromising Kessen

  “This!” He pointed to her. “Us! This thing we have; we’re getting married. Forever, Kessen, and I’m not going to lie to you and say it doesn’t terrify me, because it does. But could you at least pretend you’re a little more excited?”

  “I was just showing you how excited I truly am.” Her face seemed to darken with anger.

  “Not that! I know we have that!” He muttered a swear word under his breath and paced in front of her. “We lust after one another like teenagers, but I thought—I don’t know. I thought—”

  He ran a shaky hand through his hair.

  “You thought what?” Her face was unreadable, making it even harder for him to get it out.

  “I thought we had discovered more…”

  “More?” She looked eager. Did she want him to say it? Did he have to be the first one? Was that what this was all about?

  “Ahem.” A throat cleared behind them.

  “Oh, for the love of—Could everyone please stop interrupting us with the throat clearing?” Christian’s voice certainly carried through the entire house.

  Duncan seemed frozen in place. “Your, uh—”

  Christian walked towards him. “Well?”

  “Your parents and Lady Newberry have arrived. They’re in the salon waiting, my lord.” Duncan did a quick bow, irritating Christian even more. What was wrong with him? He never yelled. Within the past two minutes he had successfully yelled at the girl he loved and at his best friend.

  He turned back to Kessen, only to see her making a rapid retreat down the hall.

  “Where are you going?”

  She turned abruptly. “To greet my future in-laws.” He followed close behind, so close he ran into her when she suddenly stopped cold in her tracks.

  “There is,” she answered in a near whisper.

  “There is what?”

  The pause itself nearly killed him.

  “More,” she answered, and then ran down the stairs out of his sight.

  Good Lord, it was going to be a long night.

  As self-fulfilling prophecies go, this one was spot-on.

  The night hadn’t gone well at all.

  In fact, it couldn’t have gotten worse.

  Armageddon was taking place in the Vandenbrook country house, and the first sign was the look on his parents’ faces when he descended the stairs to greet them.

  Apparently, his voice did carry … furthermore, it was possible to hear his voice down in the salon if he was yelling, say … in the upper hallway.

  Cursing became an easy second language in his head the following three hours as he had to listen to his father explain to him why a duke, or any aristocrat, never raised his voice.

  A lecture poor Kessen had to listen to as well.

  When he looked to her for help, she merely smiled, and then told him later her father gave her that same lecture at least five times a year.

  It didn’t make the lecture any easier to endure.

  Christian was contemplating all the ways he could jump out the window without making too much of a mess, when Nick suddenly arrived with refreshments.

  “Could you have gotten here any sooner?” Kessen hissed.

  Just then Duncan appeared. “We waited outside the door for an extra twenty minutes just to see if Christian would try to make a run for it.”

  “Why hello, your grace!” Duncan yelled into the Duchess of Albany’s face. He liked to pretend she was deaf, just to irritate her.

  She was hardly pleased but didn’t have the gumption to say anything; she was a cougar at heart and had always found young Duncan quite delectable, which explained Duncan’s sudden behavior.

  He took her hand and kissed it but not before grimacing at the floor, something only Christian would notice.

  “It’s time!” Lady Newberry said, clapping her hands.

  Christian leaned over to Kessen. “For killing? More torturing? Are they handing out notes with this lecture … oh no, please don’t tell me they’re going to give us the birds and the bees talk.”

  She let out a grunt of laughter and covered her mouth with her hands.

  Nick let out a fake cough to help the situation.

  Always the thoughtful one.

  Kessen kissed her grandmother’s hand. “What are you referring to?”

  Lady Newberry smiled sweetly. “Well, we need to get ready for the ball tonight, my love.” She leaned in even closer to Kessen. “After all, it takes a few hours to get us looking this good, doesn’t it?”

  Christian opened his mouth to say something flattering just as Duncan swooped in and kissed Lady Newberry’s hand. “Why, your ladyship, you don’t look a day over twenty-five!”

  She blushed.

  Christian threw up in his mouth a bit.

  And Kessen rolled her eyes.

  Nick appeared too busy concentrating on the snacks to be offended at Duncan’s outrageousness.

  Lady Newberry popped Nick on the back, causing several finger sandwiches to fall out of his hand. He choked, most likely on a cucumber, then gave her a thumbs-up, clueless as to why he was offering the old broad encouragement for causing physical harm.

  “Let us be off, my dear!” Lady Newberry said, firmly grabbing Kessen’s hand.

  Kessen sent Christian a look begging for him to save her, but before he could grab at her hand and make up some lame excuse about looking at the vegetable garden, Lady Newberry sent him a seething glare, warning him to leave her granddaughter alone, which was probably a response to his earlier ungentlemanlike outburst.

  Fear won out; therefore, Christian gave Kessen a reluctant nod as she was led up the stairs to Lady Newberry’s chamber, where she would most likely be stuck for the remainder of the evening until she was announced at the ball.

  “Apology accepted,” Duncan said, hitting Christian on the back.

  “Huh, what?” His eyes were watching Kessen as she disappeared at the top of the stairs. He wasn't even ashamed that for the most part, he was staring at the lower half of her body.

  “For yelling? At me?” Duncan moved to stand in front of Christian and crossed his arms. “This wouldn't have anything to do with the fact that you're falling in love with her, would it?”

  Christian lost the ability to breathe as Nick and Duncan both brought their attention to his rapidly coloring face.

  “Wh-a-at?” he managed to croak, all the while pulling at his suddenly too tight shirt. How did they know? How could they tell? It wasn't as if he had a sign plastered across his forehead, or did he? Is this how men acted when they were in love? Totally crazy, as if they would snap at any minute? And, goodness, somebody open a window. He made a sudden move to the front door but was stopped by two large bodies with equally large grins.

  “You can run,” Duncan said.

  “But you can't hide,” Nick, mouth still full, finished.

  “I'm not.”

  His denial was followed by Duncan looking heavenward as if a bolt of lightning would drop at any minute.

  Nick, sensing Duncan’s distress, moved quickly away from Christian, just in case a lightning bolt was to drop. But he wasn't lying, not really. He was merely hot, and what was that earlier he was thinking about checking on? Oh yes, the vegetable garden.

  “I need to go … outside.” He swallowed out of habit, even though his mouth had suddenly gone dry as a desert.

  Duncan moved out of the way. “By all means.” He pointed towards the door in amusement.

  Christian, in all his haste and irrational panic, didn’t notice the door was locked until he slammed into it.

  “Son of a—” He let out a yell, immediately followed by Lady Newberry’s warning, “My Lord, please do something about your language. There are ladies present!”

  A door slammed.

  Christian looked guiltily towards Nick and Duncan, but they were pointing at him in order to corroborate his guilt.

  If this was any clue as to how his night would turn out, he needed to seek out something stronger than tea, a
nd fast.

  He pushed past his deceitful friends in search of a drink.

  Chapter Twenty-Six

  Kessen was not doing well.

  The embarrassing altercation with Christian in the hallway had completely unsettled her nerves, not to mention the fact that the entire household, her grandmother included, had heard their little exchange. She had at that point prayed a sinkhole would appear in the middle of the stairway and suck her down with the rest of the household.

  She waited in vain.

  The hours sitting in the large salon slowly ticked by while she stood next to Christian like a statue. Granted, he must have been sweating a lot more than she, considering he was the one with his voice raised. And in all honesty, it wasn’t that he had raised his voice, but that they had come dangerously close to having the talk.

  The conversation every couple has when they become consciously aware they are falling harder and faster than they had originally planned.

  She had never made it past this part of a relationship, and frankly, it terrified her straight out of her wits. Her grandmother continued to pour small glasses of wine for her, concerned she was perhaps nervous about the wedding night.

  Hardly, is what she wanted to say, but then again that wouldn’t be ladylike; if anything the wedding night would ease some of the tension between her and Christian. At least she hoped it would; it would either do that or fan the already out-of-control flame, which continued to light up every time they touched each other.

  Kessen had to sit and watch as her grandmother did her own hair and discussed who would be present at the ball. About two hours into the conversation, Kessen realized she hadn’t been listening at all and had at some point been led to one of the seats next to her grandmother to have her hair arranged.

  A maid came up behind her and laid a black mask with blue feathers across her lap. “What’s this?”

  Her grandmother chuckled as she powdered her nose, “Oh dear, I knew you weren’t listening to a word I was saying. It’s Christian, isn’t it? I knew he would distract you. If I were a little younger, cupcake, I’d probably be just as entranced as you. Your grandfather was quite the looker in his day too. He and I used to—”

  “Grandmother, please spare me the details and explain why I have a mask in my lap.”

  Lady Newberry blew a kiss at her own reflection in the mirror and began fastening her gloves. “Well, cupcake, if you had been listening, you would know. The ball is a masquerade.”

  Kessen fought to hide her excitement. It was like her fairy tale come true. It took everything in her not to squeal with delight and dance around the room with a giant grin on her face.

  But her grandmother was still talking. “And I’m not sure how he did it, but he managed to pull it off so everyone in attendance, even if they didn’t get the message, will receive a mask at the door, so no one will be recognizable. It makes me wonder if he did it for you?”

  “Did what for me? Whom are we talking about?” Kessen’s silly grin was still plastered to her face as she rose from her seat to grab her dress.

  “The future duke, of course,” Lady Newberry scolded. “It was his idea to do a masquerade—something about Vandenbrook tradition before a wedding.” She stretched her arms in a catlike manner and yawned. “I do not presume to know the minds of men. I only nod my head and smile. It’s all they expect a senile woman like myself to do.”

  “Grandmother, you are not senile.”

  Lady Newberry shrugged. “I do sometimes forget myself, but no matter. I have you here now to keep me company.”

  Kessen felt a twinge of guilt shoot through her chest as she realized this was only the second time in her life she had visited her grandmother. It wasn’t that she didn’t love her, but she had been so focused on her own life and getting through college, she hadn’t had time for family, especially family which she assumed sang “God Save the Queen” every five minutes like her father.

  “I’m sorry, Grandmother,” Kessen said quietly.

  Lady Newberry looked up. “For what, my love?”

  “Not visiting. Not being here for you. I don’t know—everything.” Kessen slouched into the chair, feeling like the worst sort of granddaughter.

  “First of all, lovey, sit up. Your American posture is enough to send me into a fit. Secondly, planes travel both ways, wouldn’t you agree? Let’s not waste time worrying about the past.” She kissed her on the cheek. “After all, we do have a lovely future ahead of us, do we not?”

  Kessen grabbed her grandmother’s hands and kissed them. “We do.”

  “Good, now put on your dress and mask. It’s time I present my granddaughter to the ball.”

  Kessen did as she was told.

  Her grandmother led her outside the chamber doors to the top of the stairs. Kessen barely had time to whisper before they were announced, “How will I find him?”

  “Who, dear?”

  “Christian. How do I find him if everyone is in a mask?”

  Lady Newberry gently laid her hand across Kessen’s arm. “Follow your heart, my dear. It won’t lead you astray.”

  “Lady Newberry and Miss Kessen Newberry of Lord Newberry.” The man took their cards and allowed them entry into the room.

  Every eye in the room shifted toward Kessen and her grandmother. It felt good to walk arm-and-arm with her grandmother, knowing that somewhere in the crowd was the man she was to marry, the man who despite all his negative comments about romance novels, put together a perfect recreation of Kessen’s favorite one that night.

  How he knew it was her favorite novel, she would never know. Most likely, Nick spilled the beans about her staying up during finals week in college to finish the book. She nearly failed her business ethics class, but it had been worth it.

  It was her favorite book of the Vandenbrook series. If memory served correctly, the love story started at a masquerade and ended at a masquerade in the Vandenbrook country house—the same country house where the ball was being held.

  She was the star of her own novel and wonder of all wonders, her love interest was a Vandenbrook. The thought made her suddenly nervous. What was she doing? She was marrying her dream and falling in love with him at the same time. What if he didn’t feel as strongly? What if he got bored or worse yet, what if he resented Kessen’s independence?

  Her incessant worrying did nothing for her already churning stomach. She walked toward the refreshment tables in search of a glass of wine, when suddenly she felt an electric pull to turn around.

  “Christian,” she said, without looking.

  A delicious laugh danced around her ears. “How did you know?” he whispered, his breath tickling the curve of her neck.

  “Sixth sense.” Her answer was breathless, without the usual air of confidence.

  “Dance with me.” Christian put his hands on her hips and slowly turned her around to face him. He was wearing a midnight black mask that did wonders for his piercing eyes.

  He looked like the Phantom of the Opera, only darker and more mysterious if it were possible.

  It wasn’t until he led her to the dance floor that she noticed he was also wearing a cape. The man was full of surprises. He pulled her tightly against his body and began a slow waltz. She instinctively leaned in. The desire to smell his skin and touch him all over set her nerves on fire. The hunger to be alone with him nearly undid her on the dance floor.

  Out of options and clueless as to what to do with her hands, she began having trouble breathing. When had his presence ever set her off this much?

  It had to be the wine.

  She had had at least three glasses, but it had been over the course of two hours. Her nerves were absolutely shot. Maybe it was the dancing, or the feeling they weren’t living in 2012 anymore, but during the 1800s and at a masquerade ball. Would this feeling be the same if the century were different?

  Upon looking at Christian’s smile, she highly doubted it. It was odd seeing such perfectly straight white teeth on a British
man. Her dad had once told her the Brits drank so much tea it was a wonder they had teeth at all.

  Christian’s teeth were perfect. As was his body and smile and eyes. Goodness, she needed to find something wrong with him before she went completely mad. Granted, he could be infuriating, and he did need to be brought down a few notches, but who didn’t?

  “Kessen?” Christian whispered into her hair.

  “Yes?” Her breathing stopped altogether.

  “Shall we take a stroll into the garden?”


  “Now,” he whispered into her hair.

  “But…” She looked around to see if anyone was watching them. Of course people were watching them; they were the stars of the show.

  “I don’t care what people think,” he said, reading her thoughts.


  He cupped her face with one of his hands and gently leaned down to brush his lips across hers. “Let’s go.”

  She’d be a fool not to follow. Keeping silent as they walked outside was relatively easy, considering the drug-like effect she experienced the minute he kissed her.

  They walked in silence all the way through the back garden until they came to a small blanket with champagne and bread.

  “Sit,” he ordered softly.

  She obeyed.

  He poured two glasses of champagne, and then reached into the picnic basket. “Close your eyes.”


  “Close them.” His voice was sterner this time.

  She did as she was told and waited, but nothing happened. Then she heard the rustling of pages and Christian clearing his throat.

  “It wasn’t that George was particularly fond of Miranda; he merely had a mild interest in her welfare. At least that’s what he told himself every time he followed her into the garden. And every time he left to go his separate way, he would say it would be the last time.

  “This pattern continued for two years. Each night he would follow her into the garden, and each night he would return alone.

  “Until one cold December evening. The masquerade had just ended, and Miranda was sitting alone on the bench. He knew he shouldn’t. He was needed elsewhere. But he couldn’t pull himself away. Not with Miranda looking so sad and vulnerable. He had to do something, but what?“

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