A Kiss to Remember, p.1Teresa Medeiros
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A KISS TO REMEMBER
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A KISS TO REMEMBER
New York Toronto London Sydney Auckland
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A KISS TO REMEMBER
A Bantam Book / July 2001
All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2001 by Teresa Medeiros
Book design by Virginia Norey
Published simultaneously in the United States and Canada
PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
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To the memory of my precious Pumpkin—you were my miracle kitty who warmed my lap and my heart for thirteen years. I still leave your blanket out every night just in case you decide to pop in for a visit.
To the good Lord—I came to you every morning with a full heart and empty hands and you sent me away with more blessings than I could carry.
And for my Michael, whose every kiss is one to remember.
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I would like to thank the entire staff of the Bantam Dell Publishing Group, including Anne Bohner, Amy Farley, Theresa Zoro, Betsy Hulsebosch, Susan Corcoran, Barb Burg, Yook Louie, and Irwyn Applebaum. I'd also like to thank Margaret Evans Porter, whose exquisite handouts on Regency courtship and marriage inspired my imagination to new heights. (So if I got anything wrong, don't blame her. Blame me!) I'd like to thank the writing pals who keep me sane—Jean Willett, Elizabeth Bevarly, and Rebecca Hagan Lee. And I'd especially like to thank Wendy McCurdy, Andrea Cirillo, and Nita Taublib. Cinderella only had one fairy godmother while I've been blessed with three.
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A KISS TO REMEMBER
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Sterling Harlow had to draw up an ottoman and stand on tiptoe to peek out the drawing room window. He might have had an easier time of it if a plump yellow cat hadn't been draped bonelessly over his arm. His warm breath fogged a perfect circle on the chill glass. He rubbed it away with his sleeve just in time to see an elegant town coach draw to a halt in the curving drive of the whitewashed manor house. As a bewigged and liveried footman leapt down from the back of the coach and moved to swing the door open, Sterling leaned forward until his nose touched the glass.
"I've never met a real duke before, Nellie," he whispered, giving the long-suffering tabby who was his constant companion an excited squeeze.
Ever since his mama and papa had informed him that his great-uncle would be honoring them with a visit Sterling had spent every waking moment poring over his storybooks, searching for a picture of a duke. He'd finally settled for an image of his uncle as a cross between Odysseus and King Arthur—kind, brave, and noble with a red velvet mantle draped over his broad shoulders and perhaps even a shiny sword dangling from his waist.
Sterling held his breath as the coach door swung open, the sun glinting off the heraldic arms painted on its glossy canvas.
"Sterling!" His mother's voice crackled across his taut nerves, nearly sending him tumbling off the ottoman. Nellie sprang out of his arms, seeking refuge behind the curtains.
"Come down from there this instant! It wouldn't do for your uncle to find you gawking at him like one of the servants."
Deciding it would be ill-advised to remind his mother that they could afford only one servant, Sterling jumped down from the ottoman. "The duke is here, Mama! He's really here! And he's riding in a coach drawn by four white horses just like Zeus or Apollo!"
"Or the devil," she muttered, licking her fingers so she could smooth down the cowlick that always plagued his sunny hair.
As she brushed several cat hairs from his coat and retied his miniature cravat in a knot so tight it felt like it was choking the life from him, Sterling tried not to squirm. He wanted to look his best for the duke. Wanted to make his mama and papa proud. Perhaps if he did, his papa wouldn't spend so many nights in London and his mother wouldn't cry herself to sleep every night. Her muffled sobs had woken him more than once in the past week.
"There, now." She stepped back and tilted her head to study him. "You're quite the handsome little gentleman."
Without warning, her pretty face crumpled. She turned away, pressing a handkerchief to her lips.
Bewildered and alarmed, Sterling took a step toward her. "Mama? Are you crying?"
She waved him away. "Don't be silly. I've something in my eye. A cinder from the kitchen fire, I suppose, or one of Nellie's hairs."
For the first time in his young life, Sterling suspected his mother of lying. Before he could press, the drawing room door swung open.
Sterling turned, his mother forgotten as his heart began to pound in his ears.
Papa stood in the doorway, his blue-veined cheeks as ruddy as his nose. It usually took a winning night at the gaming tables or at least three bottles of port to put that feverish glitter in his eyes.
"Ellie. Sterling. It is my great honor to present my uncle—Granville Harlow, the sixth duke of Devonbrooke."
Impatiently jostling Sterling's father aside, the duke swept into the room, followed by a towering footman. To Sterling's keen disappointment, the duke didn't wear a dashing red mantle, but a severe black frock coat and knee breeches stripped of all ornamentation. His shoulders weren't broad but narrow and hunched, as if in imminent danger of caving in on themselves. A heavy brow shaded his pale eyes and a ragged tonsure of stringy white hair ringed the shiny crown of his head.
Sterling stared as the man's long, pinched nose began to twitch. He exploded in a violent sneeze, making them all flinch.
"There's a cat in here, isn't there?" His narrow gaze raked the drawing room. "Remove it at once. I can't abide the nasty creatures."
"I'm ever so sorry, Your Grace. If I'd have known, I'd have shut her up in the barn with the other animals." Still murmuring clumsy apologies, his mother unlatched the window and dumped Nellie unceremoniously into the garden.
Sterling started to protest, but the duke shifted his icy glower from the cat to him, freezing his tongue to the roof of his mouth.
"How fortunate that you've arrived at teatime, Your Grace." A tremulous smile curved his mother's lips. "I've had my cook prepare an array of refreshments for your—"
"I've no time for pleasantries or dawdling," the duke said sharply, squelching his mother's smile. "I must get back to London as soon as possible. A man of my station has more important business than this to be about, you know."
As the duke advanced on him, Sterling's own nose began to twitch. The old man smelled even more unpleasant than he looked—like some moth-eaten undergarment that had been stored in the attic for centuries.
"Is this the lad?" he barked.
Sterling recoiled as the duke leaned down to peer into his face. The withering curl of his thin upper lip made it clear that he was none too pleased with what he saw. "A bit small for his age, isn't he?"
Papa's laugh was just a degree too hearty. "He's only seven, my lord. And I was something of a late bloomer myself."
The duke gave one of Sterling's ears a tug, making Sterling thankful that he'd remembered to wash behind it. Before he could recover from that indignity, the man's bony fingers dug into his lower lip, stretching it forward so he could examine his teeth.
Sterling jerked away, glaring up at the duke in disbelief. He might have bitten the old man, but he was afraid he would taste even worse than he smelled.
Obeying a pointed nudge from his father, his mother stepped forward. "He's an obedient boy, my lord. And he has such a kind and generous heart. I've always called him my little angel."
The duke's snort warned them that he didn't place much value on those particular virtues.
She wrung her skirt in her hands. "But he's devilishly clever as well. I've never seen a lad so young with such a keen head for letters and sums."
The duke began to circle him, making Sterling feel like a succulent piece of carrion spotted by a hungry vulture. A moment of tense silence passed before the old man finally stopped and rocked back on his heels. "I've wasted enough of my precious time already. He'll have to do."
His mother's hand flew to her mouth. Relief washed over his father's face.
The heat of desperation finally thawed Sterling's tongue. "Do? What will I do? I don't understand. What is he talking about? Papa? Mama?"
Papa beamed at him. "We've a marvelous surprise for you, son. Your uncle Granville has generously agreed to make you his heir. You're going to be his little boy now."
Sterling looked wildly from his father to his mother. "But I don't want to be his little boy. I want to be your little boy."
His uncle's yellow-toothed smile was more full of menace than any glower. "He won't be anybody's little boy for long. I've never believed in coddling a child. I'll make a man of him in no time."
Sterling's father shook his head sadly. "You see, Sterling, Lord Devonbrooke's wife went to heaven."
"To get away from him?" Sterling glared defiantly at his uncle.
His father's eyes narrowed in warning. "She went to heaven because she was ill. Unfortunately, she died before she could give him a son. He wasn't blessed with a little boy of his own as we were."
"The weak-willed ninny left me with a girl," the duke snapped. "A daughter. The chit's of little use to me, but she'll be company for you."
"Did you hear that, Sterling?" Mama clung to his father's hand, her knuckles white. "You're to have a sister. Isn't that wonderful! And you'll live in a grand mansion in London with lots of toys to play with and a pony to ride. You'll have the best education that money can buy and when you're old enough, your uncle will send you on a grand tour of Europe. You'll never again lack for anything." Tears began to spill down her cheeks. "And someday—many, many years from now, of course," she added, shooting the current duke a frightened look, "you'll be the duke of Devonbrooke."
"I don't want to be a duke," Sterling said fiercely as his own shoulders began to shudder. "And I won't be. You can't make me!"
Thinking only of escape, Sterling darted around his uncle and sprinted for the door. But he'd forgotten about the footman. The man swept Sterling up and tucked him beneath his beefy arm as if Sterling weighed no more than a Christmas ham.
Sterling kicked and clawed in blind panic, deaf to everything but his own enraged howls.
Until he heard the clink of coins.
Lapsing into silence, Sterling blinked the tears from his eyes to discover that his father was clutching a fat purse that the duke had just tossed to him.
Malicious triumph glittered in the old man's eyes. "As we agreed, nephew, I've included the deed to Arden Manor. No matter what turn your luck at the tables takes from this day forward, you'll never again have to worry about being turned out in the street by your creditors."
Sterling went utterly still as understanding dawned.
They were selling him. His parents were selling him to this vile old man with his cold eyes and yellow teeth.
"Put me down."
His words echoed through the drawing room, stilling every motion. They were spoken with such authority that not even the hulking footman dared to defy him. Sterling slid stiffly to his feet, his eyes no longer wet, but dry and burning.
Granville Harlow's mouth twitched with reluctant admiration. "I'm not averse to a show of spirit in a lad. If you're all done with your histrionics, you may bid your parents farewell."
His mother and father came forward, as shyly as if they were strangers. His mother knelt by the door, his father's hand on her shoulder, and opened her arms to him.
Sterling knew it would be his last chance to wrap his arms around her waist and bury his face in the softness of her bosom. His last chance to close his eyes and breathe deeply of the orange blossom fragrance that scented the shimmering auburn wings of her hair. Her muffled cry cut him to the marrow, but he walked past her and out the door without a word, his small shoulders set as if he were already the duke of Devonbrooke.
"Someday you'll understand, son," his father called after him. "Someday you'll know that we only did what we thought best for you."
The sound of his mother's broken sobs faded as Sterling settled himself into a corner of the coach. As his uncle climbed in and the vehicle lurched into motion, the last thing he saw was Nellie sitting on the windowsill outside the drawing room, gazing forlornly after him.
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The Devil hath not,
in all his quiver's choice,
An arrow for the heart
like a sweet voice.
—George Noel Gordon, Lord Byron
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My darling son, my hands are
shaking as I pen this letter…
The devil had come to Devonbrooke Hall.
He hadn't come drawn by four white horses or in a blast of brimstone but in the honey gold hair and angelic countenance of Sterling Harlow, the seventh duke of Devonbrooke. He strode through the marble corridors of the palatial mansion he had called home for the past twenty-one years, two brindle mastiffs padding at his heels with a leonine grace that matched his own.
He stayed the dogs with a negligent flick of one hand, then pushed open the study door and leaned against the frame, wondering just how long his cousin would pretend not to notice that he was there.
Her pen continued to scratch its way across the ledger for several minutes until a particularly violent t-crossing left an ugly splotch of ink on the page. Sighing with defeat, she glared at him over the top of her wire-rimmed spectacles. "I can see that Napoleon failed to teach you any manners at all."
"On the contrary," Sterling replied with a lazy smile. "I taught him a thing or two. They're saying that he abdicated after Waterloo just to get away from me."
"Now that you're back in London, I might consider joining him in exile."
As Sterling crossed the room, his cousin held herself as rigid as a dressmaker's dummy. Oddly enough, Diana was probably the only woman in London who did not seem out of place behind the leather-and-mahogany-appointed splendor of the desk. As always, she eschewed the pale pastels and virginal whites favored by the current crop of belles for the stately hues of forest green and wine. Her dark hair was drawn back in a simple chignon that accentuated the elegance of her widow's peak.
"Please don't sulk, cousin, dear," he murmured, leaning down to kiss her cheek. "I can bear the world's censure, but yours cuts me to the heart."
"It might if you had one." She tilted her face to receive his kiss, her stern mouth softening. "I heard y
Ignoring the leather wing chair that sat in front of the desk, Sterling came around and propped one hip on the corner of the desk nearest her. "He's never quite forgiven you for swearing off your engagement, you know. He claims you broke his heart and cast cruel aspersions upon his character."
Although Diana took care to keep her voice carefully neutral, a hint of color rose in her cheeks. "My problem wasn't with your friend's character. It was with his lack of it."
"Yet in all these years, neither one of you has ever married. I've always found that rather… curious."
Diana drew off her spectacles, leveling a frosty gaze at him. "I'd rather live without a man than marry a boy." As if realizing she'd revealed too much, she slipped her spectacles back on and busied herself with wiping the excess ink from the nib of her pen. "I'm certain that even Thane's escapades must pale in comparison to your own. I hear you've been back in London long enough to have fought four duels, added the family fortunes of three unfortunate young bucks to your winnings, and broken an assortment of innocent hearts."
Sterling gave her a reproachful look. "When will you learn not to listen to unkind gossip? I only winged two fellows, won the ancestral home of another, and bruised a single heart, which turned out to be far less innocent than I'd been led to believe."
Diana shook her head. "Any woman foolish enough to trust her heart into your hands gets no more than she deserves."
"You may mock me if you like, but now that the war is over, I've every intention of beginning my search for a bride in earnest."
A Kiss to Remember by Teresa Medeiros / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes