Authors: Cheryl Bolen
Were she a man, George would have struck her. "I've never been more serious in my life, Miss Johnson. With the exception of fortune, Miss Spenser is possessed of everything any man could ever hope to gain in a wife."
Her brows lowered. "How could you settle for . . . that when you were married to such a beautiful woman?"
His anger boiled within him. "I fail to see how Miss Spencer's loveliness could have escaped you." He glanced across the dance floor until he caught sight of Sally's saffron dress as she faced Appleton in the middle of the longway, and George feigned a look of pure adoration. "When her hair is curled as it is tonight, there could not be anyone lovelier than Miss Spenser."
George turned his back to Miss Johnson. A rather direct cut for a rather rude woman.
Though George refused to dance with anyone but Sally that night, he took pleasure in watching her being treated with respect by his friends. Each of the twins dutifully took turns dancing with the future viscountess.
The evening grew tediously long. George did detest these affairs. He would much rather be in the card room. Actually, he looked forward to being safely wed so he could return to his ways of debauchery.
After what seemed an interminable length of time, the activities drew to a close. Instead of departing in Moreland's carriage, George said, "I prefer to walk the short distance back to Blankenship House. I wish to be alone with my betrothed."
At George's announcement, Felicity's eyes flashed with mirth, and a sly smile lifted a corner of Moreland's mouth.
George offered Sally his arm, and they began to stroll along the well-lighted pavement, something he never would have done at night in London. But Bath was a most safe city. A pity it did not compare as favorably to London in other respects. After all this time in Bath, George still was not used to seeing the twisted, misshapen, infirm masses of suffering humanity that found their way to the city, eager to be cured of their afflictions, though seldom satisfied with the results.
"I go to Surrey tomorrow to speak with your brother," he said.
"It's really not necessary. I'm of age."
"I wish to do what's right, Sally, and your brother is the head of your household. Do you think he'll favor my suit?"
She laughed. "Can you doubt it? You're a viscount. What brother—or father—would not be delighted?"
"But my fortune in no way compares to Mr. Higginbottom's."
Sally giggled. "Trust me. You have many more attributes than does Mr. Higginbottom."
"But you said your brother was particularly anxious for you to marry money."
She laughed again. "My brother is a most parsimonious man and has, therefore, done very well for himself—partly by marrying a woman possessed of some property. He doesn't need money. And I don't require money. I believe Edmund wished me to marry Mr. Higginbottom because he thought it would increase his own consequence to say, `my sister, who married into the Higginbottom beer fortune, you know.'"
George could not help but laugh. His Sally was most acute in her perception of human behavior. He had never actually met the pompous Edmund Spenser, but Blanks had, and Blanks mimicked the man's pretentious airs in a most humorous manner. If the man's own sister—who was a most amiable lady—could barely tolerate her brother, the man's behavior must be quite obnoxious.
"Should you wish me to impart any information to your brother or mother?"
She puckered his lips in thought. "Only tell them I'm in favor of the match."
"Should you like me to carry a letter?"
She shook her head. "That won't be necessary. As I told you, I'm rather out of charity with Edmund—and somewhat out of charity with my mother for always siding with her firstborn. I vow, when I have children---" Her lips clamped shut. After taking several strides while contemplating the pavement with great interest, she said, "How silly of me. I shall never have children of my own, though I assure you I shall count yours as my own."
George winced. "Forgive me, Sally. I feel wretched for depriving you of children of your own."
"Don't spare another thought on it. I'm perfectly happy. Besides, I could never love any other children as much as I love Georgette and Sam."
For the second time in the same day, he was indirectly speaking of the most intimate blending known to man, yet it was a blending Miss Spenser would never come to know. He felt guilty for depriving her of it.
And depriving her of so much more.
They covered the next two blocks in silence.
"After I visit your brother I shall obtain the special license, and I plan to visit with my London solicitor to make the marriage settlements. I shan't return until Monday."
"May I see the children while you are gone?"
"Please do." He covered her hand. "My daughter never told me until today that each time she saw a star, she made a wish on it. Do you know what she wished for?"
Sally looked up at him with a puzzled expression on her face. "What?"
"She wished she had you for her mother."
He watched Sally and was utterly touched to see her eyes moisten and a single tear roll down her tawny cheek. He stopped under the street lantern and gazed into her solemn face. He thought she had never been lovelier. He gently brushed the tear away. Then he did a most peculiar thing. He lowered his face to hers and settled his lips on hers.
He would have wagered she had never been kissed before, but in no way did her kiss feel like that of a befuddled first kiss. Her lips were soft and pliant, and she melted into his chest as if she were long familiar with such intimacy.
Good lord! What was he doing? He snapped away from her. "Forgive me," he said in a shaky voice. "I don't know what came over me. The tear . . . it was so pure . . . such a betrayal of affection for those I hold most dear."
She placed a steady hand on each of his shoulders. "As dear as I hold them. The darlings."
He chuckled and set off walking again. He felt deuced awkward over that kissing business. It was best that he not mention it again.
Or repeat it. Ever. After all, Sally wasn't his Diana.
"While I'm in London I should like to get you a wedding present," he said. "Is there something you desire?"
She shook her head. "What I should love above everything is a piece of jewelry that has been passed down for generations of Sedgewicks. Only upon receiving something like that will I ever truly believe I'm to be a member of the family!"
"All the Sedgewick jewels, quite naturally, will come to you, Sally."
She smiled and curled her hand around his arm. "There is something I should like for a wedding present."
His pulse quickened. Surely Sally was not marrying him for his money, not that there was a lot of it. He raised a quizzing brow.
"I should like you to save your money. I don't want you to spend it on me. Nothing would make me happier than to see you once more restore your fortune as you did upon your first marriage. And I know that it was you—and not your wife's wealth—that brought Hornsby back to its glory."
Though he should have been pleased with her praise, he was not. Her words ignited his anger. Did the chit think to order his life just because he was honoring her by marrying her? Did she plan to nag him over every penny he chose to waste? Would she constantly be chastising him?
Dear God, what had he gotten himself into? And it was far too late to back out now.
He spoke coolly to her. "Don't think because you're my wife you will have the right to tell me how I can and cannot spend
"It's not the money I care about, George. It's you."
He shrugged and lifted his defiant face to the dark night skies. "You'll not be changing me, Sally. I am what I am, and you're going to have to settle for it."
"I know what you're capable of being, George. I don't have to like you settling for less."
He removed his hand from hers. "I see that marriage will not rein in your forthrightness. How reassuring that being my wife will not lubricate your abrasiveness."
"At least we both know what we're getting into," she snapped.
Sally lay in her bed a long time that night, her disturbed thoughts preventing sleep. Though her words had made George angry, she did not regret uttering them. Had she to do it over again, she still would not have held her tongue. For she only spoke her heart. George's self-destructive ways
trouble her, and just because George was honoring her with his name did not mean she would ever cower before him.
One of the reasons she was marrying him was hopefully to be in a position of influence over him, to encourage him to mend his destructive ways. Truth would be the foundation of their marriage.
If, indeed, the marriage did occur.
What if George rethought his decision to marry her? What if he decided to risk censure for crying off rather than endure for a lifetime her shrewish ways? She really could not blame him were he to desire to break the brief engagement. Why would any man wish to shackle himself to the likes of her? Not only was she bereft of fortune, but she was also exceedingly plain. She kicked at her coverlet as she lay in the dark.
Straight hair. Straight body. Flat purse. Abrasive tongue. There was absolutely nothing about her to attract a man. Especially a man as handsome and privileged as the Viscount Sedgewick.
He was sure to cry off. As she lay in the darkness of her room, she pictured him at his desk, a candle illuminating the paper upon which he was drafting a letter of retraction to her. And for the second time that night, tears seeped from her moist eyes.
Amid her deepest gloom, hope bubbled within her when she remembered the magical moment when George's eyes wistfully held her and he dipped down to taste her lips. The very memory of it sent her heart racing. For a few seconds she had allowed herself to believe George felt her beautiful. Loved. For a few seconds she had known the bliss she had only dreamed of. Even if she was never kissed again, she would remember that first kiss from the only man she could ever love.
* * *
As Glee's guest, Sally was used to being awakened each morning by Glee's own maid rapping at her door and cheerfully entering the room with a pot of steaming brew and rack of toast.
But this morning it was Glee herself who flew into Sally's room carrying a tray bearing a teapot and two cups. "Did you sleep well, dear sister?"
The thought of being sister to her dearest friend on earth sent a wave of contentment over Sally. Then she remembered that Glee's brother was quite likely regretting his unwise, hasty decision to make her his wife. Sally sat up in bed. "To be truthful, no."
Glee plopped on the bed. "It's no wonder. Yesterday was a most momentous day for you. I'm surprised you slept a single moment."
"There was much to consider. Lord - - -, George's declaration, as you must know, was completely unexpected."
"I'm so glad you did not choose to behave coyly and beg more time to consider it." Glee reached for the teapot and poured out two cups, giving one to Sally.
"Truth be told, I was rather afraid he would retract the offer if I did not pounce upon it." Sally sighed. "I , he's quite liable to cry off today. I fear I was rather brutal in my criticism of him last night as we walked home. He wasn't at all pleased with me when we said good night." Sally's hand flew to her mouth. "Please don't think I criticized your brother for any reason other than my concern for his well-being."
Glee took Sally's hand and squeezed it. "I know how much you care for George's well-being. That's why you're the perfect wife for him. I'm exceedingly delighted my foolish brother has displayed such extraordinary good sense in begging for your hand."
"I'm afraid you're much in the minority," Sally said. "I daresay there was not another present at the Assembly Rooms last night who shared your excitement over the match—except, of course, Felicity. Did you see the outraged Miss Johnson storm for the chambers after confronting George?" While dancing with Mr. Appleton, Sally had kept George within her line of vision. Her heart had beat erratically as she watched the lovely heiress stroll up to George and speak. Then Sally's lips curled into a smile as she took great pleasure in watching George give Miss Johnson the cut direct. Sally had actually giggled when Miss Johnson angrily stomped off.
"I'd be lief to know what my brother told her. I've never seen a woman in such a rage."
"Oh, I have a very good idea the nature of the conversation which occurred between them," Sally said, placing her cup back in the dainty saucer. No doubt, Miss Johnson demanded to know if there was any truth to the disgusting rumor that he had asked the completely unsuitable Miss Spenser to become his wife. Then when George confirmed it, she no doubt heaped a pile of criticism upon me, and George—gentleman that he is—defended me. I can picture him saying something like
Miss Spenser is a most worthy young woman.
Sally and Glee began to giggle.
"Surely it did not escape your attention that Miss Johnson has coveted your brother for many years." Sally felt guilty for not admitting she had been obsessively attracted to George for half her life, too.
Glee giggled again. "I thought I was the only one aware of it."
"And I thought I was the only one!"
"Dear me, the entire town must have observed her pursuing ways." Glee replenished their empty cups.
Sally shrugged. "I'm being very uncharitable toward Miss Johnson."
"Don't fret, pet. She's probably far more uncharitable toward you than ever you could be toward her. In fact, I can just hear her. She's probably saying you'll embarrass my brother in your unstylish clothes."
Sally's brows lowered. "Do you think I'll be an embarrassment to him?"
"You know George doesn't give a fig about fashion! However, as the Viscountess Sedgewick, you
have a certain image to uphold. That's why I've burst in on you this morning. We must go buy you a trousseau today!"
Sally's eyes flashed, and she clutched at her bodice. What if George had already delivered his letter of rejection? "Have you seen or heard from your brother today?"