Addison sighed as he read the letter over again, though he had all the important bits memorized. He’d known what the letter would say even before he’d foolishly opened it. Obtain an Earl indeed. He snorted softly, almost amused, except that the tacit ‘or don’t bother coming home’ rather depressed any good humor he had not yet lost.
How, he wondered morosely, did he get himself into these situations?
Even if he pretended for a moment that a lord or even a wealthy merchant or some such would want him, there was no way he could ever dare to seek one out with the hope of a match. It was generous of his uncle to have been willing to pay for him to join them in the city, as a companion to his cousin—but everyone knew that Addison had been granted the honor only because he stood no chance whatsoever of outshining his handsome, outgoing cousin.
What was he to do? If he came all this way and simply went back, nothing gained, his family would be furious—for all the wrong reasons, of course, but furious all the same. They expected him to waltz into the city and make a good match, and bring the new wealth home.
Yet if he dared to do anything but cater to every whim of his cousin, his Uncle would send him home with ears ringing from a sound boxing. There was no possible way his Uncle would tolerate Addison doing better and succeeding where Blaine, despite his many charms, was still failing.
Once he stopped pretending that anyone would want him, the matter went from hopeless to nigh on pathetic.
Really, all he’d wanted was a chance to see the parts of the city that did not include ballrooms and tea parties. Once his uncle was finished with him, Addison would never have another chance; he would be returned home to his life at the post office, and the opportunities to see museums and the parks and the famous historic site would be lost forever.
He kicked idly at the stone path which wended its way through the park. It was nothing but small footpaths here, well away from the main thoroughfare where everyone walked to show off and make fun of those not quite up to par.
Addison was sick of it. Sick of the parties. Sick of watching his cousin charm and cozen every available person in his vicinity. Sick of being the ugly, unfortunate cousin on whom his Uncle had been considerate enough to take pity.
Maybe Blaine would stay sick another couple of days, and Addison would be able to sneak about doing as he pleased. But he suspected he was lucky to have gotten this one day. He still had not decided quite how to spend it, though he would milk every possible second.
Breakfast, definitely. Now that it was growing light out, he could slip off to a coffee shop or something and have breakfast out for once. Then perhaps a bookstore or two, or maybe he’d just go straight on to the museums, the royal library…
The sound of boots scuffing on stone drew his attention, and he looked up just in time to see someone come through the hedges. A lord, by the look of him, but Addison barely had time to look before the man was abruptly sitting next to him.
“I apologize in advance for my forwardness,” the man murmured—and then kissed him.
Addison made a choked, muffled noise, and tried to pull away, but found himself impeded. Long fingers sank into his hair, curling along the back of his head, keeping him perfectly angled as his mouth was thoroughly plundered by a perfect stranger.
“Well, I never!” said a sharp, ringing voice.
Startled, Addison again tried to pull away, but the man kissing him was having none of that.
Not really certain what else to do, Addison went along with it, hoping that if he was agreeable long enough eventually the man would unhand him.
Despite his reluctance in the venture, going along with it was not a terrible ordeal. No one had ever died from being kissed after all, and he could think of any number of worse ways for a stranger to bother him. And it was not a terrible kiss at all, though Addison conceded he had no kisses to which he compare it.
The mouth moving with his was warm and soft, and tasted of cinnamon and coffee, and Addison flushed to realize he was noticing how a man tasted but it was becoming more and more difficult to pull away from the mouth feasting upon his and when precisely had he tangled his fingers in the front of the man’s jacket?
Finally tearing away, the man—Jewell—smiled ever so fleetingly at Addison, then turned toward the woman doing the shrieking. “What, Tina?”
The mysterious Tina, well turned out in a bright red walking dress, matching feathers bobbing from a pert hat, had white-gloved hands planted on her ample hips. Blue eyes were narrowed at Jewell, mouth pinched, cheeks pink with anger. “I cannot believe you.”
“Yes, you have said that several times this morning alone,” Jewell said, sliding the hand in Addison’s hair down his back, to curl lightly around his waist.
Addison wondered if it might not be time to make a discreet departure, but the hand resting lightly on his hip squeezed when he shifted.
“I cannot believe—and in the park! Right where anyone can see! You and this—this—this strumpet!”
Though he preferred not to get himself mired in altercations, Addison was only willing to endure so much. “I beg your pardon, but I am not a strumpet—”
“Shut it,” the woman said curtly. “Anyone who would behave in so crass a manner—”
“You shut it,” Jewell snapped, standing up after another squeeze. “If you want to pick a fight with me and call me names, Tina, you go ahead and do that. Do not, however, speak so rudely to strangers. The only thing that has you angry here is that you are not the one on the bench exchanging kisses with some handsome lord, preferably gullible and malleable, which I am not and that irks you. Go harangue someone else and stop making him think we are both quite mad.
“Too late,” Addison muttered before he caught himself. He flushed, mortified at falling into behaving rudely—and flushed all the darker when Jewell turned and flashed him a quick, bright smile.
Tina said something foul, hands dropping from her hips to ball into little fists. “You! We are to be married—”
“No, we are most certainly not,” Jewell snarled. “I do not give a buggering fuck what your mother and my father are plotting, Tina, I am not marrying you. One of us would murder the other in less than a day just attempting to plan the damned wedding. Go. Away.”
For a moment, Addison really thought Tina was going to launch herself at Jewell and beat him to death with the reticule he only then saw she was clutching in one hand. But then she lobbed a few more choice words, before turning sharply on the heel of her smart white boot, and marched off as crisply as any well-trained soldier.
Jewell let out a long sigh and dropped back down on the bench, raking hands through his mass of tight gold curls. Then he turned to Addison and smiled sheepishly. “I am extremely sorry you were dragged into all that. I did not think she would linger, seeing me kissing you. My apologies also for such forwardness, good sir, and you shall have to let me thank you for being so unbelievably tolerant.” His smiled widened. “Though, I understand if you want nothing more than to part ways and neither to see nor hear me ever again.”
“Um—” Addison tried to figure out what to say, but he was not even certain where to put his thoughts, never mind organize them sufficiently to put thoughts into words. “What’s going on?”
Laughing, Jewell raked a hand through his hair again and said, “An explanation seems more than fair. If you’re willing, how about over breakfast? I know a wonderful coffeehouse not too far from here. It seems the least I can do, and I promise not to take liberties without express permission.” He smiled in sheepish apology. “Desperate times, desperate measures, you know?”
“Um—yes, I suppose?” Addison agreed, though he didn’t know that he’d ever been in a situation so desperate and strange he thought kissing a complete stranger would resolve the matter. And it was stupid and pointless and he should know better, really, but he still wondered wistfully what it might be like to have Jewell kiss him because he wanted to, not because he was desperate.
“Splendid!” Jewell said, and rose, dragging Addison up with him. Only then did Addison realize his agreement sounded like it had gone with the coffee house bit. “Oh! My name is Jewell Kelley. It is an honor to make the acquaintance of a Saint, which you must be, not to have bloodied my nose over my behavior.”
Addison’s mouth twitched, amused despite himself—then he realized Jewell was waiting patiently for his reply. “Oh—uh. My name is Addison Dewhurst. It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance, sir. Uh, my lord?” Of a sudden, he felt as shy and anxious and lost as ever, if not more so. Please, dear gods, please don’t let him have just failed to recognize some Earl or Marquis or Duke, oh that would be his luck.
Jewell laughed. “I think under the circumstances, my dear, you might as well just use my given name. May I call you Addison? There, then, that is my manners for the day, my mother would be so proud.” He laughed again.
His eyes crinkled at the corners, and he had a pretty mouth, and Addison really wished he had not noticed either of those things. Or that Jewell’s eyes were the most beautiful shade of brown, dark gold with lighter shades of honey and a deep, almost red color at the center.
“Now, the coffee house is just this way, and I shall attempt to convince you I am not entirely mad—merely half.”
Too confused and overwhelmed and curious to even think of refusing, Addison went along as Jewell all but dragged him away from the park and down the street.