"Matchmaking is a dangerous business."
"I know that, Livy. But sometimes drastic measures are necessary." Charlotte, Countess of Denbigh, sat crosswise in a wing chair in the drawing room of Somersville Manor, swinging her patent-leather-clad feet back and forth. Although married to an earl for nearly a year, and a venerable eighteen years of age, Charlotte refused to be bound by the traditional way of doing things, even sitting in a chair. Life was so much more interesting, she thought, when things did not turn out as one expected.
Charlotte watched fascinated as her best friend and sister-in-law, Olivia, Duchess of Braddock, held her firstborn son to her breast. William, titled Earl of Comarty at birth, suckled noisily beneath a lace-edged cloth that veiled his gusty enjoyment of breakfast.
"Does it hurt?" Charlotte asked, drawn for a moment from the subject at hand by her curiosity about nursing a child.
"It did a little at first. Not anymore," Olivia said, smiling tenderly at her two-month-old son and brushing aside a lock of his golden hair.
"Have you let Reeve watch?"
"Charlotte," A pink flush began at Olivia's throat and headed for her cheeks. She kept her eyes downcast. "Whether I let my husband watch while I--"
"Have you?" Charlotte insisted, her gaze steady upon her friend, demanding an answer. She had a reason for asking. She might need to make such a decision herself sometime soon.
Olivia nodded, then looked up so Charlotte could see the inner glow of joy that lit her eyes. "Reeve loves to watch. He says...The silly man thinks I'm beautiful," she confessed breathlessly.
"You are," Charlotte said quietly. "Motherhood agrees with you."
Olivia gave her a questioning look. Charlotte ignored Livy's silent request for information, turning her head to stare into a crackling fire that took the edge from an unusually chilly May morning. She was not yet ready to divulge the truth.
In fact, Charlotte was in an "interesting condition," although she had so far kept the joyful secret to herself. The instant her husband discovered she was with child, Lion would insist--all in the name of protecting her and the babe--that they return home to Denbigh Castle from their visit with the Duke and Duchess of Braddock.
Charlotte had something important she wanted to accomplish first.
The house party that would shortly be forming at Somersville Manor in Sussex included a number of eligible bachelors Charlotte had asked Olivia to invite for a particular young lady's perusal. Charlotte greatly feared it was going to be as difficult to direct Miss Elizabeth Sheringham toward one of the many marital prospects available, as it would be to convince the prospects what a precious find Eliza would be.
"You met Eliza during the Christmas holiday," Charlotte said, turning her attention back to matchmaking. "What did you think of her?"
"Miss Sheringham is a lovely girl who--"
"Stubble it," Charlotte interrupted. "I want your honest
Olivia sighed at being put on the spot, but conceded, "She did seem a bit...sharp-tongued."
"The result of an agile wit," Charlotte said.
"I can understand why Miss Sheringham is ready to trade a barb for a jest," Olivia said. "It could not have been easy growing up under such a cloud of scandal. To this day no one knows the real reason why the Earl of Sheringham disinherited Eliza's father, only that it was something so awful the earl refused ever to receive his only son--or his son's wife and daughter--at Ravenwood again. Under the circumstances, it is no wonder the girl has no regard for--"
'The rigid rules of Society?"
"Anyone," Olivia finished. "However, when a person is hounded by gossip, as she must be, one must expect some--"
"Rancor when the tabbies talk," Oliva continued, as though Charlotte had not spoken. "With no one but a blind, elderly aunt to keep her acid tongue in check, Miss Sheringham appears to be headed neck-or-nothing toward social disaster."
"Most likely she is," Charlotte agreed cheerfully. She shook her head in mock woefulness. "Such a pitiful lack of decorum." She grinned and added, "It is what I love most about her."
"Of course," Olivia said, smiling ruefully. "She reminds you of you."
"Exactly," Charlotte said with a laugh. "You must see it will take a very special man to recognize her for the marvelous wife she will make."
Olivia's brow furrowed. "I am afraid the situation is quite hopeless, Charlie. What gentleman would dare entangle himself with such a scandal-in-the-making?"
"Captain Lord Marcus Wharton, the Duke of Blackthorne's younger brother," Charlotte announced.
Olivia jerked in disbelief, but caught herself before the baby lost hold of his source of sustenance. "The Beau?' You must be joking! Captain Wharton is a rakehell and a rogue. A devoted Corinthian. And worst of all, a confirmed bachelor.
What can you be thinking?"
'That he's absolutely perfect for Eliza."
"Miss Sheringham--even with her trenchant tongue--deserves better," Olivia countered.
"Rakes make the best husbands," Charlotte argued, sliding from her chair onto her knees in the thick Aubusson carpet at Olivia's feet. The chore was made easier because she still wore the breeches she had donned to ride that morning. "Look at you and Reeve. You're happy as larks."
"Reeve is...was...My situation is totally different."
"Reeve was ready for a leg-shackle when I met him and had a need to set up his nursery. Captain Wharton is still, shall we say, enjoying life somewhat too heartily," Olivia said.
"He is thirty," Charlotte said. "Lion was a year younger when we married."
"Lion was responsible for a sister and servants and a great deal of property for many years before that. Captain Wharton has no one's interest at heart but his own."
Olivia switched the baby to the opposite breast and carefully rearranged the lace-edged cloth before continuing. "Have you forgotten the Beau is a soldier, Charlie? And that Napoleon has recently escaped from Elba. Captain Wharton might be called back to battle at any time," Olivia said. "Surely you would not wish Miss Sheringham to marry him under such circumstances."
Charlotte paused. This was the argument against Captain Wharton she had found most difficult to overcome in her own mind. Not only was the Beau a soldier, but he was said to be dashingly brave and gallant--well, all right, foolhardy--in the face of danger. The reckless fellow was likely to get himself killed in battle, and Charlotte would be forced to go through this entire process with Eliza all over again.
"Eliza has not even met him yet," Charlotte said, reaching out a forefinger to William and watching as his tiny fingers closed strongly around it. "And here you are finding reasons why he will not make a good husband."
Excerpted from After the Kiss
by Joan Johnston. Copyright © 1997 by Joan Johnston. Excerpted by permission of Dell, a division of the Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpted from After the Kiss by Joan Johnston. Copyright © 1997 by Joan Johnston. Excerpted by permission of Dell, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.