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Authors: Loretta Chase Catherine Anderson Kathleen E. Woodiwiss

Three Weddings And A Kiss (39 page)

BOOK: Three Weddings And A Kiss
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Gathering some remnant of her scattered poise, Raelynn managed face the other occupants of the room. “I beg your forgiveness for my faintness. ’
Tis been
some time since I last took food.”

Heather was there immediately to give her an affectionate hug. “I’m so happy for you both. I’m sure that if Jeff had searched the wide world over, he could not have made a better choice for a bride. And whether you know it or not, my dear, your husband ranks among the best.”

Reverend Parsons took his leave shortly after bestowing his blessings and good wishes on the couple. Having other visits to make before retiring to home and to bed, he declined their invitation to stay and partake of the wedding supper. Instead, waving farewell, he rode away, leaving the small clan of Birminghams to gather in the main dining room.

The elegant table was long enough to sit twelve or more easily, but no rigid formality was on display tonight. Jeff had long ago pooh-poohed the idea of the master and mistress of the house sitting at opposite ends of a long table unless they were entertaining a large crowd. Tonight the settings were cozily arranged near one end. A place had been provided on Jeff’s right for his young bride and, close on his left, one for Heather, leaving Brandon to take the chair beside his wife.

“All I can say, brother,” Brandon commented with puckish humor as he considered the table setting, “is that you’re true to your mold. You haven’t changed a whit since I first brought Heather home to Harthaven.”

“Nary a mite,” Jeff agreed. “’Tis certain I’m still the friendlier of us two and have no penchant for isolating myself, as you have been known to do.”

Brandon sought to shrug away his brother’s waggish gibe with a chuckle, but for a moment his humor was poorly contrived. Because of his own stubborn arrogance, he had once endured the torturous separation of not only a long, formal table between himself and his young wife but different bedrooms as well. In retrospect, he mentally likened the pain of his lengthy abstinence to that which a roué might have suffered had he been imprisoned in a cell right across from a woman whose beauty and form he could see but not touch. Though Heather had come into his house as his wife and been close under his hand, he had found himself beset in much the same way. Even now, the memory of his own foolishness made Brandon squirm uncomfortably in his chair.

“No one’s infallible where pride is concerned, Jeff,” he replied, having learned that truth the hard way. “In fact, you might be surprised to realize where you are susceptible.”

Laughter twinkled in Jeffs green eyes. “I’ve tried to learn from your example, brother, and refrain from making any rash vows that I’ll later regret.”

Heather sensed Jeff’s pointed glance as the two men made subtle reference to the torment Brandon had suffered while trying to hold her at arm’s length. Reaching out, she squeezed her husband’s hand reassuringly and conveyed her loving devotion with a warm, gentle smile. “We should all be willing to learn from other’s mistakes, Jeff,” she responded gaily, glancing toward her brother-in-law, “but sometimes when we make them ourselves, we’re better able to grasp the full import of the lesson.”

Jeff leaned back in his chair and sipped his wine. He thought of his own recent pledge to wait before claiming his conjugal rights with Raelynn and hoped he could be as strong-willed as his brother had been in controlling his manly desires, yet perhaps not quite as stubborn so that he could quickly discern a warming in his wife. “’Tis strange how similar circumstances seem to follow in a family,” Jeff said. “I may find the pigeons coming home to roost after all.”

Brandon elevated a brow in curious question, then glanced at Raelynn as he began to understand Jeff’s quandary. In view of the fact that they had wed in haste, he could imagine his brother being gallant enough to agree to a gentlemanly wait before reaping the pleasures of a marriage bed.

Raelynn seemed confused by the brothers’ repartee. “Is something amiss?”

Heather dispelled the very idea. “Oh, you needn’t fret that it’s anything serious, Raelynn. The Birmingham men take great pleasure in sharpening their wit on each other’s hide. They’re about as tough-skinned as a pair of ol’ mules, and it’s always a challenge for them to see which one gets the last word in. Still, I’ve never known two who are closer friends.”

It was some time later when Raelynn and Jeff stood on the portico of Oakley and bade farewell to the other couple. The night was still and warm with the faint scent of jasmine in the air. The kind of evening made for
lovers,
Jeff mused as his young wife strolled along the porch and looked out on the moonlit grounds and huge trees that raised their lofty canopied heads into the belly of the starlit sky.

“There were recent times in England when I yearned to look out and see something besides the squalor of London,” Raelynn reminisced in a soft, murmuring tone. “You see, my father, who was once a wealthy
lord,
was falsely accused of treason against the crown. Everything was taken from him except for a wee bit of money he managed to hide for us. Later, he died in prison, though he claimed his innocence with his last breath. When my uncle found my mother a few months ago, he said we could start a new life here in the Carolinas where no one would lay the title of traitor to our name. During the voyage, my mother discovered that my uncle had spent the last of our money. She died during the crossing, and upon landing my uncle set about providing for himself. He brought Gustav Fridrich to look me over, and the man promised him a purse once Cooper Frye delivered me to his house, but on the way I managed to escape.
Now all that seems an eternity ago and a whole continent away.
Little did I dream when I woke this morning that I would be married before the evening was over and living amid such splendor. It seems,
Jeffrey, that
I owe you much more than my life. Indeed, I cannot imagine how I can ever repay you for saving me from a miserable existence and bringing me to this safe, beautiful haven.”

“No payment is required beyond the vows we exchanged, Raelynn.” Jeff’s gaze was nourished by his wife’s fluid grace as she came across the porch toward him. When she stood close, he gazed down into her shadowed face and lifted his lean knuckles to lightly brush a loose tendril from her cheek. “And I am patient.”

Raelynn sighed as her eyes searched his. “Do you mean that?”

“We have certainly done this whole thing wrong-about, Raelynn. We have put the sail abaft the mast or, if you will, the cart before the horse, but I would have you consider this, madam. The most serious vow was given first, and now we must take into account all the rest.” He cupped her chin and stared into her liquid eyes. When he continued, his voice was soft and husky. “It seems I’ve known you for a thousand years and have only awaited your coming, yet with trembling breath I shall tarry even longer ’til you know the full extent of my honor, as well as my failings, and choose to come to me of your own free will.”

“We are
strangers.…
” she whispered breathlessly.

“We are married,” Jeff countered gently. “And you are everything I desire. I knew that the moment I saw you.”

“Please take me in, Jeff,” Raelynn pleaded faintly.

“Your wish is my command, my lady.” He took her arm and gallantly complied, then accompanied her upstairs in silence as she made a slow, measured ascent. Escorting her to the entrance of the bedroom adjoining his, he reached out to push the door open and waited for her to leave him. She did not.

Blushing lightly, Raelynn faced her handsome husband. “Would you think me forward, Jeffrey, if I asked to be kissed?”

He stepped close, and she reached parted lips up toward his in anticipation, eager to receive his gently questing kiss. Her senses quivered crazily as Jeff’s arms tightened about her and pulled her fully against his long frame. His eyes flamed as he searched her face, seeming to stare into her very soul, demanding answers she was too embarrassed to give.

Jeff was rather amazed that she did not pull away, for the sensual pleasure of holding her against him had affected him in ways he was sure his young wife could not ignore. But instead of pulling back, Raelynn yielded completely to him, leaning into him and raising on tiptoe to accommodate his height.

Desiring her more than he had any woman, Jeff was bold enough to forge ahead, though a part of him waited apprehensively for that moment when she might show some
resistance.
Lowering his head, he seized her lips with a greedy fervor that made Raelynn catch her breath in delight, and she clung to him with a fevered passion she had not even known she was capable of.

No denials came, and Jeff bent to sweep Raelynn in his arms. He bore her to the bed, pausing only to thrust the door shut with his heel.

 

BOOK: Three Weddings And A Kiss
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