In ONCE UPON A KISS, Justina (Jussy) Penny knows that the last sort of man she would ever fall in love with is anyone remotely like the character of Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice. When Darius Wainwright comes to her village with his arrogant nose in the air and an apparent stick up his posterior, she’s certain he is absolutely the Wrong Man for her.
So when the obnoxiously proud fellow condescends to join her humble family for dinner one evening, she knows just what to do to keep him at arm’s length. Or so she thinks.
1. Wear something… unusual.
“There you are, Jussy,” her father exclaimed and then immediately looked confused. Her mother, who had been in the process of offering a tray with a sherry glass to the rector, was frowning, frozen in place.
The Wainwright person, seated on the couch beside her sister, winced in her direction and kept his lips very tight.
“Good evening, everyone,” she said politely. “Oh, good! Sherry. I’m fair parched.”
As she advanced with arm outstretched, her mother swiftly moved the tray out of her reach and set it on the pianoforte, forgetting the rector, who was left clutching at the air. “What on earth have you got on your head, Justina?” she hissed under her breath.
“Why, they are butterflies, Mama, can’t you see?”
“I can see, young lady, that they are from your father’s collection. What are those wretched insects doing in your hair?”
Justina blinked. “You told me to do something with it.” Then with a wide smile, she moved away from her furious mother. “Mr. Kenton, how lovely it is to have your company this evening.”
The rector stared at the precariously tilting arrangement of curls and colorful dead butterflies careening around her head. “Yes, quite.”
Across the room Wainwright jerked upright, belatedly remembering his manners. “Miss Justina Penny. Good evening.”
“Mr. Wainwright.” She kept her smile pasted to her face and returned her attention to the rector.
2. Be sure to insult the guest’s relatives.
When her father asked what it was he sought among his great-uncle’s things, Darius managed to reply in a voice that was almost calm, “A document of value, Dr. Penny.”
“It’s a map to a buried treasure chest,” the girl across the table exclaimed, eyes shining. “Full of gold doubloons. From old Hawke’s misspent youth as a pirate and a smuggler.”
Short silence followed this, everyone looking expectantly in his direction. She reached for her wine and smiled smugly, leaving him to continue the story and probably expecting him to drop the ball she’d tossed.
“Not pirate gold,” Darius replied. “That would be mundane in comparison to the truth.”
She shrugged, her sparkling gaze turned away from him.
Darius did not care to be dismissed by this girl with an insolent face and dead insects in her hair. “As a matter of fact you were closer to the truth with one of your earlier guesses, Miss Justina.”
Aha. That got her attention!
She set her glass down. “I was?”
“I seek a parcel of letters written to a lady.” He dabbed his lips on a napkin. Still with the weight of every eye upon him, he continued in a low voice.
“Phineas Hawke apparently had a secret love, and he left her a provision in his will.”
“Goodness gracious!” Mrs. Penny almost dropped her spoon in her soup.
“Who was she?” her eldest daughter enquired in similar amazement. “A local lady?”
Darius thought for a moment and then replied, “I know not. Unfortunately, my great-uncle referred to her in his will only by a…pet name he had for her.”
“A pet name? Fancy! And all this time we all thought he was such a miserable old fellow.” Mrs. Penny laid a hand to her cheek. “Oh, I did not mean he was so very bad, Mr. Wainwright.”
“He was a mean old devil,” her youngest daughter exclaimed with great energy. “I will not pretend he was anything else, even if Mr. Wainwright is his great-nephew.”
Darius watched her splashing her spoon around in her soup, but he knew he’d caught her interest when she added, “Well, go on then. Tell us the rest of it. Did he throttle her because she did not return his love? Did he stab her through the heart with a hat pin? Now he means to make amends and absolve himself of the crime by leaving money to her heirs, no doubt.”
He quickly hid the hapless tremors of a smile in his napkin.
“Justina!” her mother protested. “The stories she tells, Mr. Wainwright, would curl your toes. Please forgive my youngest, sir. She is dreadfully outspoken and nothing we can do seems to curb her. I shall never forget the time—”
“Mama, there is no need to talk about me as if I’m not present.” She twitched irritably and a butterfly dropped on the end of a springy curl to hover by her cheek. One more bounce and it would be in her soup.
“Rest assured, Miss Justina,” Darius muttered, “your presence could never go unnoticed.”
3. Let one’s mother lead the conversation.
“Do you know the admiral, Mr. Wainwright?” their mother interrupted. “He is a very fine, very particular gentleman, despite being a naval man. Dr. Penny is often called up to Lark Hollow to tend his health. Admiral Vyne has great respect for my husband’s skill and won’t have any other man of medicine in his house.”
Justina and Catherine exchanged glances, both cringing at their mother’s unsubtle attempts to portray the family as one of consequence in the neighborhood. Any moment now, thought Justina, she will mention her grandmama’s tenuous connection to the Blundesons of Stoke.
“No, I am not acquainted with the admiral,” Wainwright replied as soon as he could get a word in.
Their mother considered alternatives for a moment and Justina cringed in expectation of the worst.
“Pork!” was the word that shot forth. “You must talk to us of pork, Mr. Wainwright.”
There was silence while the gentleman froze with his spoon halfway to his lips.
She turned to Mr. Kenton and explained, “Mr. Wainwright is an expert on the subject.”
“Is that so?” The rector smiled and looked expectantly at Wainwright, whose expression was a priceless combination of horror and confusion.
Justina feared she might explode with laughter and have wine come out of her nose. But fortunately, having paused a sufficient time and found her guest unprepared to discuss pork, Mrs. Penny, who never liked silence at her dinner parties, forged in a new direction.
“Perhaps you know of the Blundesons of Stoke, Mr. Wainwright?”
So there you have it— Miss Justina Penny’s guide to handling the Wrong Man at a dinner party. Although the result might not turn out to be quite what she expected!
What’s the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to you at a dinner party?
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