Just One Kiss (Desperate and Daring Book 3)
Just One Kiss (Desperate and Daring Book 3)
After her twin marries and moves away, Lady Hazel Darling is lost and alone, searching for her own path that will lead to passionate love.
Garrett, the Earl of Bainbridge, was orphaned as a boy. His aunt raised him as her own, but duty to her and the legacy that was thrust upon his shoulders has ruled his life.
Upon first meeting sparks fly between Hazel and Garrett. Their instant attraction promises something more that neither want to ignore. But newly wedded bliss quickly vanishes when a series of events sabotage their budding love and dark secrets are revealed.
Can Hazel and Garrett defeat the enemy in their midst or will Hazels dream of her own happily ever after turn into a nightmare?
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Hazel watched Anabelle depart with a measure of sadness. Her twin was gone—not permanently, of course, but they would no longer live together, no longer share a wall or midnight talks when one of them had a nightmare.
Suddenly weepy, Hazel left the drawing room and slipped through the crowd to the stairs so no one would see her so upset. On the first floor, she tucked herself behind a pillar and took a deep breath, pinching her eyelids closed against the pressure of tears.
“Do you wish to be alone?”
Startled, her eyes popped open, and she found a man’s bourbon-colored gaze staring at her from the alcove of a recessed window on the other side of the landing.
“Lord Bainbridge, I did not see you there,” she said, breathless lightness filling her chest the way it always did when she saw him.
He nodded politely, his square jaw ticking as he half-smiled. “That was evident. I should have made my presence known to you. My apologies.”
She tried to sound casual. “No apologies necessary.”
“The view is lovely from here. One can see most of the drive. Your sister and her new husband are departing.”
“I know, I just… I will miss her dearly, and I needed a moment to compose myself.”
“That is understandable. I can see how it must be difficult to lose one’s sibling, even to such a happy occasion as marriage.”
Hazel attempted a smile. “Yes, but I shall prevail. I know I will see her again soon. It’s just strange to be separated, when we’ve never been apart. Change is frightening.”
He waved her over to the window. “Come see her. You’ll regret it if you don’t.”
She crossed the short distance and hesitated. The window recess was small, and she would be standing close to him.
“Come, Lady Hazel. I have only the best intentions.”
The effect of his smile caught her off guard, as did the sheer glory of his hidden dimples. A rash of heat broke out over her skin. Nonetheless, she stepped closer to him and turned to face the window. She could feel his nearness, and with little effort, she realized she could simply lean back against him, if she were so bold.
And she was so very tempted.
Instead, she looked out the window in time to see Draven and Anabelle wave from the window of the carriage as it rolled down the drive.
“Everyone fears change, Lady Hazel, but without it, there would be no butterflies,” he said from behind her.
She stilled, feeling the words as if they had been spoken against her skin. She imagined his lips were only a hand’s breath from her ear. If she hadn’t been moments away from catching fire from the inside out, she’d shiver.
She turned and peeked over her shoulder at him. She didn’t have anything to say—or rather, couldn’t form anything coherent enough worth saying.
He smiled as he stared down at her, but then it faded, his brow dipping into a frown. “Just one kiss,” he said.
Hazel didn’t move as his head slowly lowered, and his lips touched hers in a soft, inquiring kiss. No pressure, no demand. Just a question in the form of a kiss.
He pulled back, and she opened her eyes to find him glancing down at her, his features still serious, yet softened somehow.
“Thank you. I will leave you now.”
Flummoxed, Hazel nodded.
He moved away, as silent as a cat, and disappeared down the stairs.
She licked her lips, and they felt entirely normal—perhaps a bit sweeter, but on the inside, she was entirely different.
* * *
Garrett skirted the lingering crowd of guests to duck into the dining room. He would have liked to avoid the crowds altogether, but he needed to check on his aunt. She worried, she would say, although it was a ridiculous notion. He was a grown man of two and thirty, but he indulged her anyway.
Since he was six years old, she’d been the only family he had left. For as long as he could remember, she’d been a nervous sort, fretting over him the way she would a lost little lamb since the passing of his mother and father—her only brother. Still, she had been by his side from that moment on.
He found her talking with another matron as some guests filtered back into the dining room, and he nodded to each of them.
“Aunt, Lady Westwood.”
“Lord Bainbridge, I can only hope to be attending your wedding in the near future,” Lady Westwood said as she stood and presented her heavily ringed, gloved hand.
Garrett obligingly kissed the perfumed air above one giant ruby. “It would be my greatest honor, if you would have me, Lady Westwood.”
The older woman tittered girlishly. “Don’t tempt me, young rogue. I must depart. It was a pleasure to recant our youth, Mrs. Danford.” Lady Westwood winked at his aunt. “Good day, Lord Bainbridge.”
He bowed low. “Good day, Lady Westwood.” Then he took her empty chair. “How do you fare, Aunt?”
Mrs. Danford shuddered from a chill that didn’t exist. “I’ve had more conversation than a body ought to have in one afternoon. I detest such large gatherings, as you know.”
“I offered to make excuses for you, as you know,” Garrett said, biting back a groan. She always insisted on accompanying him, and then complained after doing so. “Would you like to leave now? I can have the carriage brought around.”
He didn’t want to leave, though. Not yet. Not when he might have another opportunity to see Lady Hazel.
She narrowed her eyes at him and then shook herself gently, like a bird rustling its feathers. “I hate to travel at night. You know this. We will leave at first light, as planned.”
“As you wish.”
He moved to stand and escape her sour mood.
“Where have you been all this time?”
“Being social, as you instructed me to do.”
“I do not care for your tone, Bain.”
The tendons of his jaw tightened. “Bain was my father. I prefer Bainbridge, if you please.”
“I raised you from the time you were a boy. It is my duty to see you rise to the standard your father held. Therefore, I will call you as I please, which also serves your father’s memory.”
Garrett sighed. He didn’t want to have this argument again. “Would you like me to escort you to your room?”
“No, I will speak with Mrs. Baker before she departs. Have you no one to converse with at the moment? I didn’t raise you to be a shy child.”
This time, his jaw locked with a pop. He prayed it wasn’t audible. With effort, he unclenched his teeth. “I—”
He was about to claim he was no longer a child, but that was absurd and—childish. He decided to abandon the conversation altogether. “I will return to my acquaintances and see you at dinner.”
He turned away from her and strode toward the library, which had been transformed into a card room. He just wanted to brood in silence until his temper faded. He shouldn’t even have the ability to be angry. After sharing a secret kiss with Lady Hazel, his boots should have sprouted wings.
Reminiscing about that wondrous occurrence would have to wait, however. For now, he settled his broad shoulders against a bookcase, accepted a tumbler of brandy from a footman, and watched a card game in progress.
The lightness he’d felt after that magnificent kiss had faded, overshadowed by the storm clouds of his aunt’s testy attitude.
Someday, he would make her happy. Perhaps someday soon he would give her a reason to smile, a reason to finally accept his transition from child to man. He owed her that, at least. Then he would thank her for facilitating that change with her loving care.
But first he would need to introduce her to his future wife.
* * *
That night in her room, by the light of a single candle, Hazel sat and began the first of many letters to her sister. She would tell her every burning thought in her head and dissect that kiss, in hopes that Anabelle might be able to distinguish clarity from the chaos that consumed her.
The rest of the day, from the moment Lord Bainbridge had left her stunned near the window, she had bounced between feelings of jubilation and deep, internal contemplation. She found she was either quiet or fighting the urge to smile absurdly at inappropriate times. It was a wonder her mother hadn’t sent her to bed hours ago with a tonic.
She wouldn’t send the letter immediately, but in time, she would seek her sister’s help. It felt good to write her thoughts down and purge them from her overactive mind. She sighed in relief as she sanded the letter and folded it, sealing it with her new stamp, an H inside an ivy leaf.
The next day was spent saying goodbye to their guests. Hazel had risen early, her nerves tingling at the thought of meeting eyes with Lord Bainbridge over the breakfast table. It brought a fever to her cheeks, and before she could even leave her room, she had to press a cool, wet cloth to her face multiple times.
After entering the breakfast parlor and finding an open seat beside her mother, she was dismayed to learn that Bainbridge and his aunt had left at first light.
“Why so dreadfully early?” Lady Sanders asked.
Hazel could have kissed the woman for asking the question that burned inside her.
“It is a full day’s carriage ride to their home, and Mrs. Danford insists on making the journey in daylight,” Hazel’s mother informed the circle of curious matrons sipping tea at their table. “She detests roadside inns.”
“In which county do they reside?” Lady Sanders asked.
“A bit north of us, in Oxfordshire. Bainbridge Hall is the family’s principal seat.”
Lucy and Thea entered the dining room then, and Hazel excused herself to sit with them.
Lucy sighed as she set down a plate filled with eggs and bacon. “Quite the wedding.”
“If that was a small affair, I’d hate to see what a large affair would entail,” Thea said with a grimace.
“We will when Hazel gets married,” Lucy answered with a wicked grin for her friend. “Her mother won’t be denied twice.”
Hazel nearly spit out her tea. “Beg pardon. What about the atrocity your own wedding is destined to be, as the Earl of Heath’s only daughter? Your mother has already begun planning yours.”
Lucy blinked owlishly. “She has?”
“Pink tulle shall rule the day, according to her,” Hazel warned.
Lucy visibly shuddered.
“You are both very lucky,” Thea said with a sigh.
“We are a pair of ungrateful wretches,” Lucy stated.
Hazel felt a measure of shame. Thea’s family was far from able to put on a grand wedding, nor did they think she would make a good match. Blind to her charms and quiet beauty, they were undeserving of her.
“I will be lucky to even receive a proposal, let alone a grand wedding,” Thea said, frowning.
Lucy took her hand. “Nonsense. You will find the perfect man, who will see all the wonderful things about you that I see.”
Hazel nodded in agreement. “We will help each other find the right husbands, or grow old and eccentric together.”
Thea smiled. “That might be fun.”
“Wouldn’t it?” Lucy took a sip of her tea. “Imagine the wild things we could get away with.”
“You’ve had plenty of practice already,” Hazel teased.
Lucy shrugged. “I haven’t even begun.”
Thea and Hazel shared a look of horror.
Lucy snickered. “Don’t pretend you aren’t intrigued, and a tad jealous.”
Thea spread jam on her toast. “I have no aspirations to wildness. All I want is a home and husband of my own.”
“I agree,” Hazel said. “Though a little wildness after marriage would be exciting, particularly with one’s husband.”
“Now that’s the idea.” Lucy gestured excitedly with her teacup. “A husband who enjoys a bit of wildness. That is exactly what I need.”
Hazel laughed, and Thea shook her head in dismay.
“Imagine the fun to be had,” Lucy added with a wicked smile.
Hazel didn’t know what shenanigans Lucy could be imagining, but in her own mind, she pictured a secret kiss by a window.
She glanced down and sipped her tea to hide her warm cheeks behind her teacup. With her own husband, there could be many secret kisses.
In her mind, she even dared to give her future husband a face and a name, which was all too familiar now.
“I’m directing this conversation to something more suitable,” Thea said sternly. “What time will we depart today? Not that my family cares where I am.”
“We will leave at two this afternoon, and be home just before dinner,” Lucy said. “You may as well stay for a few days.”
Thea’s brow furrowed. “Your family must be growing weary of my company.”
“Nonsense,” Lucy said. “You keep me out of trouble, or so my parents think. They love having you, as do I. We’d adopt you if we could.”
Hazel laughed, but when she glanced at Thea, she felt her throat close. She could see tears pool in her friend’s eyes. Hazel felt she should say something, but she didn’t want to embarrass her. Lucy couldn’t see Thea’s tears from across the table as she sampled her eggs cheerily.
After a moment, Thea collected herself and returned to her own breakfast. The troubles she had with her uncaring family broke Hazel’s heart.
“If you grow tired of Lucy,” Hazel said, “I would appreciate your company here, too. It will be lonely without Anabelle.”
“You see?” Lucy said. “If we plan carefully, you won’t ever have to go home.”
Thea laughed softly. “If only that were true.”
“We will find you a husband next,” Lucy said confidently.
The day continued with a relaxed mien, the guests depleting steadily until the sun began to set, and then their home was once again their own. Hazel sighed as she climbed the stairs to dress for dinner—their first of many without Anabelle.
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