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THE SUM OF ALL KISSES
by Julia Quinn

Genre: England, Historical Romance

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She turned swiftly, determined to examine the large gloomy portrait that had been keeping her company. The subject appeared to be an unpleasant gentleman from Flanders, seventeenth century if Sarah’s eye for fashion was correct. How he managed to look so proud in that ridiculous pleated collar, she would never know, but he was staring down his beaky nose in a manner that told her clearly that none of his cousins would dare to call him selfish to his face, and if they did, he would not cry about it.

Sarah curled her lip and glared at him. It was probably a testament to the skill of the artist that he seemed to glare right back at her.

“Has the gentleman done something to offend?”

It was Hugh Prentice. Sarah knew his voice well enough by now. Honoria must have sent him over. She could not imagine why he might seek out her company, otherwise.

They had promised to be civil, not eager.

She turned. He was standing about two feet from her, impeccably dressed for supper. Except for his cane. It was scuffed and scratched, the wood grain dull from overuse. Sarah wasn’t sure why she found this so interesting. Surely Lord Hugh traveled with a valet. His boots had been buffed to a high shine, and his cravat was expertly tied. Why would his cane be denied the same careful treatment?

“Lord Hugh,” she said, relieved that her voice sounded almost normal as she offered a small curtsy.

He didn’t say anything right away. He’d turned back to the portrait, his chin tilted up as his eyes swept over it. Sarah was glad he was not looking at her with such examination; she was not sure she could manage another dissection of her faults so soon after the first.

“That collar looks most uncomfortable,” Lord Hugh said.

“That was my first thought as well,” Sarah replied, before she remembered that she did not like him, and more to the point, he was her burden for the evening.

“I expect we should be glad that we live in modern times.”

She did not respond; it was not the sort of statement that required it. Lord Hugh continued to scrutinize the painting, at one point leaning in, presumably to examine the brushwork. Sarah did not know if he’d realized she needed time to compose herself. She could not imagine that he had; he didn’t seem the type of man to notice such things. Either way, she was grateful. By the time he turned to face her, the choking feeling in her chest had eased, and she was no longer in danger of embarrassing herself in front of several dozen of her cousin’s most important wedding guests.

“The wine is very good tonight, I’m told,” she said. It was an abrupt start to conversation, but it was polite and innocuous, and most importantly, it was the first thing that had popped into her head.

“You’re told?” Lord Hugh echoed.

“I haven’t had any myself,” Sarah explained. An awkward pause, and then: “Actually, no one told me. But Lord Chatteris is renowned for his cellars. I cannot imagine the wine would be anything but good.”

Good heavens, this was a stilted conversation. But no matter; Sarah would soldier on. She would not shirk her duties tonight. If Honoria looked her way; if Iris looked her way—

No one would be able to say that she had not kept her promises.

“I try not to drink in the company of the Smythe-Smiths,” Lord Hugh said, almost off-handedly. “It rarely ends well for me.”

Sarah gasped.

“I jest,” he said.

“Of course,” she replied quickly, mortified to have been revealed as so unsophisticated. She should have got the joke. She would have done, if she weren’t still so upset about Iris.

Dear Lord, she said to herself (and Anyone Else who might be listening), please bring this evening to an end with uncanny speed.

“Isn’t it interesting,” Lord Hugh asked slowly, “all that is wrought by societal convention?”

Sarah turned to him, even though she knew she’d never be able to discern his meaning from his expression. He tilted his head to the side, the movement rearranging the shadows on his impassive face.

He was handsome, Sarah realized in a strange burst of awareness. It wasn’t just the color of his eyes. It was the way he looked at a person, unwavering and sometimes unnerving. It lent him an air of intensity that was difficult to ignore. And his mouth —he rarely smiled, or at least he rarely smiled at her— but there was something rather wry about it. She supposed some people might not find that attractive, but she...

Did.

Dear Lord, she tried again, forget uncanny. Nothing less than the supernatural would be speedy enough.

“Here we are,” he continued, motioning elegantly with his hand to the rest of the guests, “trapped in a room with, oh, how many others would you say?”

She had no idea where he was going with this, but she hazarded a guess. “Forty?”

“Indeed,” he replied, although she could tell by the quick sweep of his eyes across the room that he disagreed with her estimation. “And their collective presence means that you” —he leaned in, just an inch— “whom we have already established finds me loathsome, are being quite polite.”

“I’m not being polite because there are forty other people in the room,” she said, her brows arching. “I’m being polite because my cousin requested it of me.”

The corner of his mouth moved. It might have been amusement. “Did she realize what a challenge this might pose?”

“She did not,” Sarah said tightly. Honoria knew that Sarah did not care for Lord Hugh’s company, but she did not seem to comprehend the extent of her distaste.

“I must commend you, then,” he said with a wry nod, “for keeping your protestations to yourself.”

Something lovely and familiar clicked back into place, and Sarah finally began to feel more like herself. Her chin rose a very proud half of an inch. “I did not.”

To her great surprise, Lord Hugh made a noise that might have been a smothered laugh. “And she saddled you with me, anyway.”

“She worries that you might not feel welcome here at Fensmore,” Sarah said, in just the sort of tone that said this was not a shared concern.

His brows rose and again, he almost smiled. “And she thinks you are the person to welcome me?”

“I never told her of our previous meeting,” Sarah admitted.

“Ah.” He gave a condescending nod. “It all begins to make sense.”

Sarah clenched her teeth in a largely unsuccessful attempt to keep from snorting. How she hated that tone of voice. That oh-I-see-how-your-pretty-little-female-mind-works tone of voice. Hugh Prentice was hardly the only man in England to employ it, but he seemed to have honed the skill to a razor-fine edge. Sarah could not imagine how anyone tolerated his company for more than a few minutes. Yes, he was rather nice to look at, and yes, he was (she was told) exceptionally intelligent, but by God, the man was like fingernails on slate.

She leaned forward. “It is a testament to my love for my cousin that I have not found some way to poison your tooth powder.”

He leaned forward. “The wine might have been an effective substitute,” he said, “were I drinking. That was why you suggested it, was it not?”

She refused to give ground. “You are mad.”

He gave a one-shouldered shrug and backed away as if the charged moment between them had never occurred. “I’m not the one who brought up poison.”

Her mouth fell open. His tone was precisely the one she might use while discussing the weather.

“Angry?” he murmured politely.

Not so much angry as baffled. “You make it very difficult to be nice to you,” she told him.

He blinked. “Was I meant to offer you my tooth powder?”

Good heavens, he was frustrating. And the worst part was, she wasn’t even sure if he was joking now. Nevertheless, she cleared her throat and said, “You were meant to have a normal conversation.”

“I’m not sure the two of us have normal conversations.”

“I can assure you, I do.”

“Not with me.” This time he did smile. She was sure of it.

Sarah straightened her shoulders. Surely the butler must be calling them in to supper soon. Perhaps she ought to start offering her prayers to him, since the other Him didn’t seem to be listening.

“Oh, come now, Lady Sarah,” Lord Hugh said. “You must admit that our first meeting was anything but normal.”

She pressed her lips together. She hated to acknowledge his point —any of his points, really— but he did have one.

“And since then,” he added, “we have met but a handful of times, and always in a most superficial manner.”

“I had not noticed,” she said tightly.

“That it was superficial?”

“That we had met,” she lied.

“Regardless,” he continued, “this is only the second time we have exchanged more than two sentences with each other. The first I believe you instructed me to remove the world of my presence.”

Sarah winced. That had not been her finest moment.

“And then tonight...” His lips moved into a seductive smile. “Well, you did mention poison.”

She leveled a flat stare in his direction. “You should mind your tooth powder.”

He chuckled at that, and a little electric thrill jolted through her veins. She might not have got the best of him, but she had definitely scored an acknowledged point. Truth be told, she was starting to enjoy herself. She still disliked him, only partly on principle, but she had to admit that she was having, perhaps, just the tiniest amount of fun.

He was a worthy adversary.

She hadn’t even realized she wanted a worthy adversary.

Which did not mean—good God, if she was blushing at her own thoughts she was going to hurl herself out the window—that she wanted him. Any worthy adversary would do.

Even one without such nice eyes.

“Is something wrong, Lady Sarah?” Lord Hugh inquired.

“No,” she replied. Too quickly.

“You look agitated.”

“I’m not.”

“Of course,” he murmured.

“I’m—” She cut herself off, then said disgruntledly, “Well, now I am.”

“And here I hadn’t even been trying,” he said.

Sarah had all sorts of retorts to that, but none which would leave him without an obvious parry of his own. Maybe what she really wanted was an only slightly less worthy adversary. Just enough brains to keep it interesting, but not so much that she would not always win.

Hugh Prentice would never be that man.

Thank God.