BENEDICK KIMBRELL ATTEMPTED to steal his first kiss from Miss Catherine Parker in the perfectly imperfect spring of 1808. But his hopes, then and since, were larger than fact.
At thirteen, he’d been instantly smitten with the demure lass who arrived with her botanist father to pass the spring amongst Cornwall’s abundant flora. She was quite unlike any other female of his acquaintance. Calm and poised. And clean. While many of the young misses of Newford—his own cousins included—sported mud-stained frocks and dew-dampened hems, Kate Parker somehow remained above it all. She, quite simply, defied the dirt.
He’d almost convinced himself she must have been an angel or sea siren, or perhaps, more practically, a princess from some distant kingdom. Indeed, no one in Newford had been surprised to learn she was great-granddaughter to a marquess on her mother’s side, though she displayed not a bit of excess pride for it.
All of this was to say Miss Kate Parker settled charmingly atop a creamy marble pedestal in Ben’s mind. It had been no small thing when his brother Alfie and cousin Gavin dared him to steal a kiss from the incomer lass during one of their grandfather’s Sunday picnics.
While his relations amused themselves with lawn games, Ben walked with Kate on the nearby cliff path that edged the sea. As she admired the wildflowers, Ben collected his courage, rolling his shoulders as he might have done before hefting one of the timbers in his uncle’s building firm. But then, as he leaned toward the lass, she knelt to inspect a stem of bluebells, and Ben was left kissing the air. For bluebells!
Kate stood and he quickly straightened, adopting a serious expression as she waxed on about the flowers. Bluebells, it seemed, were her especial favorites. “My father says the bluebells have returned for centuries to the old wood near our home. Did you know their sap was once used to bind books?”
He’d not known such an intriguing fact, and he contented himself with hearing her tales of the flowers they passed.
That spring, Kate became fast friends with his cousin Bronwyn, one of Newford’s dew-dampened lasses, and the pair grew as inseparable as the tide and sea. It followed that Ben spent more time in Kate’s company as a result of the acquaintance but, contrary to what one might assume, more opportunities for a kiss did not, in fact, assure success.
His second attempt along the stone quay of Newford’s small harbor was interrupted when a gull flying overhead dropped a mussel shell between them. Kate jumped back with a soft giggle, and though he counted himself fortunate to hear the sound, his kiss had once again failed the mark.
His third and fourth attempts met with similar success, which was to say none, and by the fifth, he resolved to see the thing done. Spring was yielding to summer, and a noisy crowd—Ben’s brothers and cousins included—toted logs and kindling onto Copper Cove for one of Newford’s great bonfires. There was a pleasant nip to the evening, and the air round the fire had been filled with mischief and merriment, as it usually was. He’d walked with Kate on the sands, sharing an amusing tale of his younger siblings’ latest antics. With a houseful of brothers, he was never without an amusing tale or two.
Kate, who’d never seen the sea before arriving in Newford, loved to watch the waves roll ashore. So, he showed her how, if one’s timing were just right, one might walk above the surf by navigating the flat boulders that dotted the beach. The trick was in reading the rhythm of the sea and knowing which boulders would next receive a washing.
“How fortunate you’ve been,” she said as she skipped to the next rock, “to have lived by the sea all these years. Having heard it now, I can’t imagine never knowing its sound.”
And Ben, who’d never given the matter much thought, decided Miss Catherine Parker must be the most profound young lady of his acquaintance.
As they walked, the noise of the crowd faded behind them. Soon, he imagined they were alone, with naught but the never-ending shush of the waves and the milky light of the moon to guide their path across the stones. Their steps brought them closer and closer still until they stopped to gaze together over the endless black sea. He leaned toward Kate and—
Bronwyn’s shout caused them both to start. And as he’d been standing on a sea-slicked boulder at the time—one of the very boulders on which he’d just tutored Kate—he slipped to land, soaked and sputtering, amongst the waves.
Kate knelt with gratifying haste to see that he was all right, holding her skirts free of the splashing foam. On seeing he suffered no more than a great thumping to his pride, her smile broke free. There was charm and a soft kindness in her gaze, and his answering grin came easily, despite his dripping hair.
Bronwyn had reached them by then. She stood clear of the lapping waves, hands on her hips and eyeing his soaked attire. “Never say you were trying to steal a kiss,” she said.
Her voice carried on the night air, and heat rushed up to warm Ben’s neck. He stared at his cousin, willing her to the darkest depths of the sea. Then, to Ben’s surprise, Kate came to his defense. “Don’t be silly,” she said. “My grandmother says only common rogues resort to kiss stealing.”
Bronwyn snorted. “Aye, ’tis a sure enough fact. Come, my mother has packed some cakes.”
His cousin strode away, arms swinging. Kate hesitated, looking from Ben to Bronwyn and back again, her lower lip tucked behind her teeth. When he thought she would leave him as well, she leaned close. Twin spots of color stained her cheeks as she whispered, “Were you? That is…”
Heat climbed his neck again. He searched his mind for something charming to say. Witty, even, though he would have settled for mildly intelligent. But he only handed her words back to her. “Don’t be silly.”
Her lips formed a small O—of relief? Disappointment?—before she hurried to catch Bronwyn.
Despite his mortification, Ben had been an ambitious lad, with hopes that outpaced his reach. He might have recovered. He might have found his courage to attempt a sixth kiss, and a seventh, had fate not stepped in to change his course.
That had been the summer his mother died, and then his uncle. The two of them gone within a fortnight, and a bit of Ben’s courage along with them. He didn’t see Kate again that year. By the time the funerals were over, she was gone. Returned to her home in Melton Mowbray.
As the months passed, he packed his grief away along with his black armband. In time, he turned his efforts to other young ladies. Kate’s family returned the next year, and the year after when her father moved them to Cornwall for good. And though Ben had enjoyed many kisses in the time since, none had ever seemed as sweet as the one he’d never shared with Kate.
A BASKET OF flowers bumped Ben’s leg as his footsteps crunched the shelled garden path. He shifted the handle to his other hand and hoped none of his brothers caught him in such compromising circumstances, else he’d never hear an end to their rudeness. Kate smiled as she set another perfectly formed rose atop her already prodigious pile, and his concerns faded.
“I shall never be half as accomplished at gardening as you, Kate.” This was from Bronwyn, who walked with them, along with Kate’s young sister Alys.
“What nonsense,” Kate said, laughing. “We live in Cornwall, where flowers sprout from rocks. Anyone can grow them.”
“Wildflowers, yes, but I doubt anyone has your talent for roses.”
“Pish,” Kate said with a wave of one gloved hand. She’d understated her talents again, as she often did.
They walked among the gardens of the Parker home, where elegant roses with their warm fragrance stood in silent disapproval of their poor relations—the wildflowers—growing with abandon beyond the wall. A glasshouse stood some distance from the main house, where Kate’s father tended his specimens, but the roses, Ben knew, were all Kate’s doing.
Alys turned to him and begged, “Tell us again of London.” Kate’s sister was not one given to restraint. Her eyes sparkled as she idly smoothed her fingers along the satin hair ribbons he’d brought from his travels.
“Ben has already obliged you twice,” Kate said, though not unkindly.
“But I’d like to hear his stories again. There’s nothing so grand in Newford as a London ball. I should like to have all the delicious details.”
“I suspect my cousin has kept some of the delicious details to himself,” Bronwyn muttered.
“Oh!” Alys said as she came to a full stop. “Do you have stories that are inappropriate for delicate ears?”
“Alys!” Kate said as Ben chuckled. It hadn’t escaped him that his friends and family—all of Newford, in fact—assumed his visits to London were spent in idle, debauched amusement.
“If I had such stories, Mouse, d’you think I’d share them with you?”
“Well, you should,” she argued as she kicked at a stone in the path. “How else am I to prepare for the rakes and rogues and scoundrels?”
“What d’you know of such things?” Ben asked with a frown.
“Precisely nothing, and that’s the point. Papa has promised I’m to have a season, but I can’t go to London in ignorance.”
Ben adopted a serious tone. “But you can’t be more than twelve. To be sure, a season must be ages away yet.”
Predictably, Alys gasped at this affront to her dignity. “I’m nearly fifteen and will have my season in two years. Surely Kate will be married by then.”
Ben slid a glance toward Kate in time to see the merest blush appear on her cheeks. Clearing his throat, he said with a smile, “Then I will leave it to your Papa to educate you on the perils of London.”
“Oh, very well. But you didn’t used to be such a stuffed shirt.”
Bronwyn laughed. “Nicely said,” she murmured as she looped an arm through Alys’s. The pair walked ahead, and Ben heard her add, “I think it must be the first complaint of that sort my cousin has ever had.”
Their voices and steps faded as they moved down the shell path, and a warm breeze brought salt from the sea to mingle with the intoxicating fragrance of Kate’s blooms.
“Thank you again for the gloves,” she said as she explored the soft kid leather. “They’re lovely.”
He’d thought of Kate and her roses as soon as he’d seen the garden gloves in a shop window on Oxford Street. He only wished he hadn’t found her in the roses today, already gloved, so he might see them on her. She replaced the lid on the box and settled it in the basket.
“I made a guess at the size,” he said. “I hope they’re a good fit.”
“Oh, they’re perfect. I’m certain of it.”
Ben waited with the basket as she leaned forward to snip another stem, turning his attention to the valley that rolled and stretched below. It was crossed with low, bramble-covered hedges that formed a poorly stitched quilt thrown across the green landscape. And standing sentry above the whole, not far from where they stood, was a small stone structure.
He released a silent sigh for the aptly named Kimbrell’s Folly. The miniature castle, complete with crenelated battlements and a crumbling tower, held fast to the hillside. It was too much to expect the thing would have tumbled to the sea by now, or that the trees would have grown to hide his foolishness, but at least the ivy and wild roses had begun their assault. Perhaps in another decade or three, all of Newford would forget its existence.
“Your father has promised Alys a season?” he asked. It was as much an effort to gauge Kate’s thoughts as to distract his own.
She nodded, though she didn’t look up from her task. “In London, no less,” she said.
“D’you think he’ll remember when the time comes?”
“No.” A sigh accompanied this. “But as Alys says, perhaps I’ll be married by then, and I can give her a season.”
Ben smiled, but it felt tilty, as if his lips wouldn’t quite curve up on both sides.
Kate placed another stem atop his basket, a pale pink bud still damp with the morning’s dew. “There,” she said. “These ought to brighten Mr. Simmons’ table.” She turned to face him more fully, and he saw a black-speckled ladybird had landed at the top of her sleeve.
“Hold a moment,” he said as he shifted the basket to his other hand. She stilled and waited as he lifted a finger to the soft muslin of her gown. Ben realized then how close they stood. Inappropriately close.
Close enough that he could see himself reflected in her dark eyes. The air between them shifted and warmed, and birds stilled in the trees. He wondered if Kate felt it too.
He thought of the bonfire they’d enjoyed so many springs before. Of his failed kiss and Kate’s unfinished question. She’d been unable to voice the words, and he still didn’t know if she’d been relieved or disappointed at his answer. Since then, he’d devised a few—or rather, an entire deck’s worth—of witty responses he might have offered instead. Anything would have been better than what he’d given her.
He might have surprised her with a confession: Common rogue? I’m as common as they come. D’you think I’ll scruple over a bit of thievery?
Or he could have confounded her with a heartfelt plea: Save me from the gallows, Kate, for a kiss freely given can’t be stolen. He nearly snorted aloud at that one, but Kate was not a lady to be trifled with. She was his friend and, if not a princess in fact, then near enough to one. A kiss between them would change everything.
Always, he wondered what her reply might have been if he’d simply offered her the truth that first spring. But that had been his perfectly imperfect spring, when so many things were right and so many were wrong. And whenever he thought on what he’d hoped to gain back then, he recalled all he’d lost instead.
Kate watched him, bemused, so he turned his hand for her to see the tiny beetle he’d collected from her sleeve.
“A ladybird!” she said as they watched it fly away. “Oh, you’re in for a spell of good fortune.”
“’Twas you she settled upon. I believe the fortune to be had is yours.”
“Perhaps we’ll both experience a happy change in our fates.”
“How very un-Christian of you,” he said with a smile, “to believe in equal happiness for all.”
“How very Byron of you,” she retorted, “to speak with such irony.”
“Would that be… ‘Byrony’? Kate, I believe you’ve coined a new word. We should alert someone.”
Eyeing him sideways, she said, “You are ridiculous, you know.”
Free hand to his chest, he assured her, “’Tis a cross, but someone must bear’t.”
She shook her head and continued along the path, but she was smiling. He followed. Then, clearing his throat, he motioned to the basket to say, “Why d’you bother with flowers for old Mr. Simmons? To be sure, he’ll not appreciate them as he ought.”
“With his sons gone and now that his wife has passed, his home seems… I don’t know. Tired, perhaps. Although, I suppose that’s a silly thing to say—a home isn’t like a person, to appear tired and weary.”
Ben considered her words for the length of three paces. “I disagree,” he said. “Buildings take on the souls of their inhabitants, so ’tis a perfectly reasonable observation.”
Kate considered this rare bit of seriousness falling from his lips. “Do you know,” she said. “I think you’re right. Ridiculous or not, you’ve always had a keen intuition.” His neck warmed beneath her regard until she angled her head at him in amusement.
“What?” he whispered. “D’you also wonder if I’ve returned with tales inappropriate for delicate ears?”
She laughed. “I’ve no need to speculate on that point, as I’m certain you must have. No, I was simply struck by the image you make, standing there with my basket of flowers. I can only imagine what your brothers would say.”
“’Tis probably best if we don’t tell them.”
“Your secret is safe with me,” she assured him. Then, indicating Bronwyn some paces ahead, she added, “I can’t offer any promises, though, regarding your cousin’s discretion.”
He dipped his head in rueful acknowledgement, but the truth of it was, an hour strolling amongst the flowers with Kate was worth any rudeness he might suffer later.