Read The Cracksman's Kiss Online

Authors: Killarney Sheffield

The Cracksman's Kiss

 

 

The Cracksman's Kiss

 

 

b
y

 

 

Killarney Sheffield

 

ISBN: 978-1-77145-160-4

 

Published
by:

 

Books We Love Ltd.

Chestermere, Alberta

Canada

 

 

Copyright 2013 by
Killarney Sheffield

 

Cover art by Michelle Lee Copyright 2013

 

All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the publisher of this book.

 

 

Chapter
One

 

 

“Kassie there is no need to look as if this is your last day on earth.”

Kassie bit her lip to smother the overwhelming desire to scream, closing her eyes to avoid her younger sister’s bright smile. This should be the happiest day of her life but she could barely contain her dread.
Why didn’t I run away while I had a chance?
It is too late now and will only bring shame and hardship on my family. Why do I have to be the dutiful daughter? Why do I lack a spine to stand up for what I really want?
She brushed away a golden curl escaping from its artful arrangement a top her head and scowled at the few wisps already framing her pale face. The blue eyes staring back at her were flat and emotionless, while a delicate frown creased her forehead.

Beth clapped her hands. “Come on, smile, you look so pretty!”

Kassie studied her sister in the reflection. Though a mere twelve months separated them Beth’s lighthearted view of life did not match Kassie’s stayed practical outlook. Despite the emotional differences Beth was so similar in looks they were often mistaken for twins
. If only it were the case today, if only Beth was marrying the elderly earl and not me.
She pushed the unrealistic thought from her mind. There was no sense wishing for something which could not be undone.

“I am pea green with envy.” Beth sighed, her gaze taking on a dreamy look. “You will be the center of attention. I wish it was me.”

“That makes two of us, Beth.” Kassie smoothed the shiny blue satin skirt of her wedding dress to still her shaking hands.

The rustle of material announced her mother’s entrance. “Oh, Kassandra, you are lovely. Lord Everton is going to adore you.” Her blue eyes sparkled with unshed tears as she fussed with the tiny buttons on the back of the gown.

Turning from the mirror Kassie allowed herself a roll of her eyes and struggled to keep the bitterness from her voice. “Lord Everton does not seem the type to adore anything, let alone a bride he has only met once.”

Her mother’s stern look quelled her rebellion. “Kassandra, we have been over this, Lord Everton is a better match than we could have ever hoped for. Just think you will be the wife of an earl. You must agree it is better than marrying a commoner. Just think of the lovely things he will give you, not to mention all the servants. You will never want for anything.”

Kassie sighed. “I know. I just wish he was not quite so … old.”

Beth handed her a bright bouquet of fall leaves. “He is not that old.”

“Beth! He is sixty-years-old if he’s a day, and has outlasted three wives.” Exasperation tinged her voice, fueled by her sister’s constant attempts to see the good in everything.

Her mother smiled, placed a matching wreath of leaves on her head and pinned it in place. “So he is experienced.” She blushed and leaned closer. “It is good he is experienced in the marriage bed, he will be gentle and considerate of your innocence.”

“Mamma!” the girls cried in mortified unison.

She gave them a wry smile and shook her head. “Come on, you have kept the earl waiting long enough.”

Kassie took one last look in the mirror. Would she appear the same on the morrow or did getting married change one somehow? She could not see anything changing except her status and home. Loathing filled her at the thought of marrying an older man she knew so little about. Hopefully the earl was a different man than his first impression implied. Mayhap he really was kind, gentle, and romantic. It was possible she misjudged him … resigned to her fate she followed her mother and sister into the corridor.

Her father approached to escort her to the chapel where h
e would officiate the marriage. Kassie returned his smile with a tight one of her own. Morning light accentuated the shine of her father’s bald pate ringed with a wispy fringe of grey hair. His normally merry eyes were barren of emotion. How strange she never noticed how frail he was until today. She would miss helping him with his sermons and book work.

No matter how many times she tried to convince herself she was doing the right thing she could not quiet the little voice in her head screaming for a way out of the predicament. She had no say in the matter. The money the earl promised upon her conception of an heir would help ease her father’s burden. It was a poor parish with many to feed, and their own large family placed a huge strain on him.
It is my duty to help my parents.
Her gaze focused on her elderly husband-to-be waiting at the pulpit. Earl Everton leaned on his cane as if without it he would cease to remain upright. He offered a distorted smile, his lips curling up on one side, but sagging on the other. She suppressed a small shudder. No doubt the stroke the earl suffered the previous year accounted for his strange leer.

She looked down at her feet, the tips of her mother’s marriage slippers poking out from under the hem of her borrowed gown. Gathering her courage, she forced her unwilling feet to bring her to the earl’s side. Her father placed her hand in the earl’s cold, papery grip. Kassie suppressed another shudder and cast a shy glance at her future husband.

The earl ignored her and turned to listen to her father as he blessed their union. Biting her lip Kassie looked away and tried to concentrate on the ceremony rather than his raspy breathing. This was supposed to be a joyous day, yet dread washed over her. What could she possibly have to talk to the earl about? Surely any of her interests would seem silly and childish to him. A sigh slipped from her stiff lips. There was nothing to do, but make the best of the situation. She stared at the floor, afraid to look at her father lest she break down and cry.

Before she knew it the ceremony was over. A footman brought her new pastel blue cloak and assisted her with it. Numb inside and out she descended the steps and allowed him to hand her into the earl’s luxurious carriage. She sent a silent goodbye to her former life before the door slammed shut behind the earl.

When the carriage started forward she turned her attention to the scene outside her window. People were filing from the church and making their way to their own conveyances. A large luncheon at her new home was planned to celebrate their wedding. A small shutter of relief climbed her spine
. At least it will be hours before I must face my first night in a marriage bed.

Resigned to her fate, Kassie took in the scenery, her breath fogging up the glass. A few snowflakes drifted upon the crisp fall breeze, signaling the impending approach of winter’s wiles. Ignoring her dozing husband, she pondered her future as the carriage wound through the streets of London. Small houses gave way to small shops, and then to larger houses. Finally the opulent mansions of the wealthy commanded her attention. One of these great houses was now her home.

The horses pulled up in front of an impressive house, the red brick walls cheery against the grey of the fall day. Great sandstone pillars flanked the steps which led to the massive double doors. With stubborn conviction she squared her shoulders and lifted her chin, refusing to let the size daunt her since everything about the day so far was already bigger than life.

Kassie waited for the footman to come around and set out the foot stool. After he helped her husband alight he held out his hand to her. She smiled her thanks and descended. The young man’s face remained expressionless when he placed her hand on the old man’s arm. Taking a deep breath Kassie accompanied the earl up the stone steps. A butler hurried forward to open the doors and receive their wraps.

A gasp fled her lips unbidden.
My family’s cozy four bedroom cottage could fit inside the foyer of this grand place. This is my home now. Is this a dream? If only it could be…
Their footsteps echoing as they crossed the earth colored tiles snapped her from her wishful thinking. They followed the servant toward a large set of open doors. The earl led Kassie into a cavernous formal dining room containing the longest table she ever saw. She found herself counting the dinner services as they moved to their places at the head of the table.
Forty! Good Lord! Is this what the earl considers an informal dinner party?

Earl Everton cleared his throat. “Ahem.”

Kassie looked up. He favored her with an impatient look and indicated she should sit in the chair a footman held waiting for her. She settled herself and looked down at the lace table cloth. A gold-edged plate, a silver dinner service, a crystal wine glass, and a delicate monogrammed napkin decorated each place setting. Spots swam before her eyes at the sight.
What if I use the wrong fork? What if I knock over one of the delicate wine glasses? Everyone will guess how unused to wealth I am.
She clutched the folds of her gown in her hands, her stomach rebelling with fear.
I will be mortified if I embarrass the earl and my family.

Her husband took his seat at the head of the table as guests began to file into the room and her despair increased. She shot her parents an uneasy look as they took their seats to her right. Once the guests were seated, a servant filled the wine glasses and the meal was served.

Kassie sipped the wine and pushed roast pheasant around her plate with the fork. A million butterflies fluttered within her stomach. She glanced around the room. Many ladies returned her look with curious ones of their own. Heat flooded her cheeks as she recalled her first meeting with the earl two weeks earlier. His cold grey eyes inspected her as if she were a horse he wished to purchase until she feared she would expire from embarrassment. After proclaiming her of sturdy build, most promising for childbearing, he informed her parents he would take her to wife as soon as possible. If she conceived a child within the first year he promised to reward her father’s small country parish with a large monetary donation.
Do the lords and ladies here tonight know of the arrangement? Perhaps not, and they wonder why an earl would marry a commoner like myself.

Her mother cast an annoyed look in her direction and nodded to her plate.

Anger rose unbidden, pricking her already strained nerves. “I am not hungry.”

“You should be honored to be seated at such a laden table. Many in our parish are in desperate need of such fare.”

Kassie bowed her head. “Yes, Mamma.”

She stabbed a piece of pheasant with her fork and lifted the morsel to her mouth. The tender meat, although perfectly cooked and seasoned, did nothing to tempt her absent appetite. She chewed and swallowed out of necessity. When the servant came to clear away her plate a few minutes later she was amazed to see it was half empty, though the dinner sat like a rock in her stomach. The next course was served, and she pushed it away, directing a stubborn look at her mother.

The afternoon dragged on as course after course was served. The quantity of the food alone astounded her. Guilt twisted her stomach into an even greater knot. Her mother was right; the poor of their parish would do anything to eat such fare. To her relief the meal finally ended and everyone retired to the ballroom for the evening entertainments.

 

* * * *

 

Two hours passed as Kassie watched the other couples dancing. She loved to dance but her husband neglected to ask her and seemed unlikely to. Tearing her gaze from the twirling couples she glanced at him. He was talking to a group of men on the other side of the ballroom. She frowned. Except for her, everyone else was mingling and dancing, having a wonderful time.

A maid paused at her chair. “My lady, his lordship asked me to escort you and your mother above stairs.”

Kassie’s stomach heaved and threatened to rid itself of the contents. The dreaded hour was upon her. She stood when her mother took her hand, tugging with gentle persuasion and they followed the servant from the room. Her legs threatened to buckle as they crossed the foyer and climbed the wide carpeted staircase to the second floor. The servant seemed not to notice and ushered them inside a bed chamber.

A large bed dominated the room, twice the size of the one she shared with Beth. It stood, raised on a platform, two feet off the ground. A set of narrow steps allowed the occupant easy access to the thick mattress. The room was decorated in creamy earthen colors similar to the grand foyer. A lively fire crackled in the hearth, adding warmth to the room. The thick oriental carpet muffled her footsteps as Kassie approached the fireplace, slipped between two chairs which flanked it, and held her hands out to the fire. They trembled despite the heat from the flames.
Will my husband come to my bed to consummate our marriage, or will I be expected to go to him?

Her mother led her to a tall ornate dressing screen in the corner. After helping Kassie with the row of tiny pearl buttons on the back of her wedding dress, she coaxed her behind the screen to undress. Kassie slid the cool silky dress down until it fell into a shimmering puddle at her feet, stepped out of the circle of material and carefully laid it over the top of the screen. Her mother handed her a new sheer nightdress which she slipped over her head.

“Come now, child, it is time to brush out your hair.”

Kassie emerged from behind the screen, crossing her arms over the revealing garment as heat flooded her cheeks.

Her mother guided her to the dressing table beside a closed door and motioned for her to sit. “Are you nervous?”

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