Today on First Kiss Friday I’d like to welcome Bluestocking Belle Susana Ellis and her characters from Valuing Vanessa which is one of the novellas in the Belles’ holiday collection, Holly and Hopeful Hearts.
It was a warm evening for September, but the breeze was refreshing, and soon Vanessa was feeling more herself. Rows and rows of Chinese lanterns were strung around the terrace and the garden area, not only illuminating the Herringtons’ fine plants and statuary, but also deterring the sort of dalliance that dark corners seemed to invite.
“Tell me about your wife,” she invited. A risky move, perhaps, since he’d seemed reluctant to speak of her that night at Vauxhall, but if she and George were indeed headed for matrimony, she needed to know about his first marriage.
They stood arm-in-arm at the balustrade, admiring the lush beauty of the garden against the dark backdrop of the night sky. She felt his body tense at the question, and briefly wondered if she had gone too far. “You needn’t speak of her, if you would rather not.”
“No, no, it’s been two years now, and I suppose I should be able to speak about it by now.”
And so he told her the story of his youthful marriage, how it had begun with such promise, and then, over time, began to fade when his wife’s longings to live like the aristocrat she was caused a rift between them.
“Genny had great hopes of someday regaining the title and estates that were lost in the revolution, but each year that the war went on without resolution, her bitterness grew, until it began to spread to my daughter. It was no use reasoning with Genny or her mother, the displaced countess.” His voice cracked. “There was nothing I could do to make her happy, not even when there was more money to spend, for gowns, for redecorating, and such. It didn’t help that her younger sister wed the brother of a duke and socialized in the highest circles.”
“Ah, Lord Nicholas. He lost his wife in the same accident, did he not?”
“He did, yes. He and Juliette were a true love match. Juliette never showed any signs of discontent with her situation, but then, she married into a ducal family—Lord Nicholas is still the presumed heir, as his brother has only daughters—and being the younger sister, she couldn’t aspire to the hereditary title, even if it still existed.”
Vanessa squeezed his hand, wishing she knew how to help him. As an unmarried woman, she was hardly qualified to give marital advice. But she was old enough to have learned that marriages begun happily could still go wrong, particularly when one or both parties were very young.
“Marriage is always a risk,” she began, “for the woman, since she gives herself to her husband and loses the limited rights she had as an independent woman. And ‘till death do us part’ can be a disaster if the parties grow and change and find they no longer care for one another.” She cleared her throat. “I confess I had doubts when my sister wished to wed at barely seventeen. But she was adamant, and I have come to believe that Reese sincerely loves Genie and their son and would never choose to destroy that.”
“Seventeen,” George murmured. “Only two years older than Louise.” Then he turned to Vanessa. “Have you never wished to marry, Miss Sedgely? I have no wish to be impertinent, but I have found myself wondering if you have forsworn the institution for yourself, or whether it is a matter of not finding the right gentleman. Because I cannot believe that a lovely, intelligent young lady as yourself should be lacking suitors.”
Vanessa grinned. “Why Mr. Durand, you will have me blushing,” she teased. “No, in all seriousness, I have not had a serious suitor since I was eighteen—that was six years ago, mind you—and my esteemed fiancé deserted me to flee to Gretna Green with a milkmaid.”
Mr. Durand’s eyes looked to pop out of their sockets. “No, really? A milkmaid?”
“I’m told she was rather pretty.”
“I suppose you were heartbroken. What a ramshackle fellow he must have been!”
Vanessa shrugged. “Humiliated, more like. It was an arranged marriage, you see. My parents—my mother really—have always wished to work their way into the lower aristocracy, and he was a baron. And at the time, I would have done anything to win their approval.” She sighed deeply. “I had a brother a year younger than I who died of a fever when he was two. I had it as well, but survived. I’ve always felt my parents blamed me for that. When Eugenia came along, it was as though I didn’t exist.”
She put her hands on his upper arms and smiled up at him. “But that is all water under the bridge. Eugenia is a lovely person and I love her dearly. My mother—well, she is who she is. While I have learned to deal with her, I should not be at all reluctant to marry some kind and trustworthy gentleman and manage my own household. And I shouldn’t be at all put off if he were to have a daughter of his own.”
For a moment George looked dazed, and then his eyes filled with tenderness and he bent down to take her chin in his hand and touch her lips with his. Vanessa hooked her arms around his neck in attempt to get closer. His lips were firm and persistent, and she trembled with a desire she had never felt before. His hands slid to her waist, and he pulled her closer to him, so that she could feel the strength of his hard body. Vanessa lost all rational thought, her only desire being to never have to let go of this dear man ever again.
It was Mrs. Sedgely and she was enraged.
“Mrs. Sedgely—” George began.
“You!” she cried. “Do not even speak to me—I am so angry I shan’t be able to contain myself.”
Cotter, Vanessa’s abigail, ventured forward hesitantly. “Mr. Durand, sir. There is a message for you. The Herringtons’ servants have been searching for you for quite some time. I believe it is urgent.”
George’s hand flew to his chest. “Louise! It must be Louise!” He looked at Vanessa apologetically. “I beg your pardon, my dear. I must leave you now, but I will call on you tomorrow if I can.”
He bowed his head to both ladies and rushed through the door.
Vanessa’s eyes followed him, feeling disoriented. “Louise! What can have happened to her?”
Her mother’s lips formed into a fine line. “Do not be a fool! You have much more to worry about than a silly chit. Do you not realize that your scandalous rendezvous with that-that scoundrel was witnessed by at least half of the guests in the ballroom?” She pointed to the pair of double doors that had been propped open for the purpose of drawing air into the ballroom. “You have made our family the laughingstock of the ton!”
Vanessa looked through the open doors at the throng of disapproving faces staring at her.
ABOUT HOLLY AND HOPEFUL HEARTS
When the Duchess of Haverford sends out invitations to a Yuletide house party and a New Year’s Eve ball at her country estate, Hollystone Hall, those who respond know that Her Grace intends to raise money for her favorite cause and promote whatever marriages she can. Eight assorted heroes and heroines set out with their pocketbooks firmly clutched and hearts in protective custody. Or are they?
A Suitable Husband, by Jude Knight
As the Duchess of Haverford’s companion, Cedrica Grenford is not treated as a poor relation and is encouraged to mingle with Her Grace’s guests. Surely she can find a suitable husband amongst the gentlemen gathered for the duchess’s house party. Above stairs or possibly below.
Valuing Vanessa, by Susana Ellis
Facing a dim future as a spinster under her mother’s thumb, Vanessa Sedgely makes a practical decision to attach an amiable gentleman who will not try to rule her life.
A Kiss for Charity, by Sherry Ewing
Young widow Grace, Lady de Courtenay, has no idea how a close encounter with a rake at a masquerade ball would make her yearn for love again. Can she learn to forgive Lord Nicholas Lacey and set aside their differences to let love into her heart?
Artemis, by Jessica Cale
Actress Charlotte Halfpenny is in trouble. Pregnant, abandoned by her lover, and out of a job, Charlotte faces eviction two weeks before Christmas. When the reclusive Earl of Somerton makes her an outrageous offer, she has no choice but to accept. Could he be the man of her dreams, or is the nightmare just beginning?
The Bluestocking and the Barbarian, by Jude Knight
James must marry to please his grandfather, the duke, and to win social acceptance for himself and his father’s other foreign-born children. But only Lady Sophia Belvoir makes his heart sing, and to win her he must invite himself to spend Christmas at the home of his father’s greatest enemy.
Christmas Kisses, by Nicole Zoltack
Louisa Wycliff, Dowager Countess of Exeter wants only for her darling daughter, Anna, to find a man she can love and marry. Appallingly, Anna has her sights on a scoundrel of a duke who chases after every skirt he sees. Anna truly thinks the dashing duke cares for her, but her mother has her doubts.
An Open Heart, by Caroline Warfield
Esther Baumann longs for a loving husband who will help her create a home where they will teach their children to value the traditions of their people, but she wants a man who is also open to new ideas and happy to make friends outside their narrow circle. Is it so unreasonable to ask for toe curling passion as well?
Dashing Through the Snow, by Amy Rose Bennett
Headstrong bluestocking, Miss Kate Woodville, never thought her Christmas would be spent racing across England with a viscount hell-bent on vengeance. She certainly never expected to find love…
About Susana Ellis
Susana has always had stories in her head waiting to come out, especially when she learned to read and her imagination began to soar. A former teacher, Susana lives in Toledo, Ohio in the summer and Florida in the winter. She is a member of the Central Florida Romance Writers and the Beau Monde chapters of RWA and Maumee Valley Romance Inc.