By David Canfield
May 01, 2018 at 12:00 PM EDT
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Credit: Berkley, Penguin Random House

The following is an excerpt from The Kennedy Debutante, Kerri Maher’s novel chronicling the exploits of Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy, the forgotten and rebellious daughter of one of America’s greatest political dynasties. The book explores her romance with Billy Hartington, the future Duke of Devonshire, and reveals her close relationship with her brother, John F. Kennedy. Read on below, and pre-order the book ahead of its Oct. 2 release here.

Chapter 2

The roar of jazz and tobacco smoke that hit her when she entered the 400 was so powerful, she nearly fell over in her poufy frock. Seeing the slinky, sparkly gowns of the other women, she wished desperately for a different ensemble, but she supposed that her white dress marked her and her friends as special that night. She would only be a debutante once, and this was a night she intended to remember.

David led them to a table with Andrew Cavendish—lucky for Debo!—Robert Sargent, and three others she’d not yet met. Adele and Charles immediately joined the Duke and Duchess of Kent at another table and blew kisses to Kick and her “young friends,” wishing them a lovely evening and “see you on the dance floor.”

With its shimmering, low light and smooth surfaces, the 400 was the most modern place Kick had been in since leaving New York, and she felt right at home. It reminded her of the clubs Jack and Joe Jr. smuggled her into uptown in New York, where they would dance well into the night to all the latest tunes by Duke Ellington and their other favorite swing bands.

The men all stood up when the ladies approached the table encircled by a creamy leather booth, and introductions were made: Bertrand Lewis, James Harris, and Billy Hartington, Andrew’s older brother who was also the heir of the Duke of Devonshire and one of London’s most eligible bachelors. She’d read in one column that he was on the list of marriage possibilities for the king’s eldest daughter, Elizabeth. Kick had expected him to be more like his brother Andrew, whom she’d met a few times with Debo—outgoing, brash, and entertainingly vulgar at times. But Billy only gave the ladies a half smile as he reclined in the booth.

Though she’d never met most of this group before, everyone already knew who Kick was, and when Bertrand aggressively slurred, “Of course, Kathleen Kennedy! Bringer of biscuits to orphans and American style to stodgy British tea parties,” Andrew clapped him on the back and said to Kick, “Don’t mind him. His uncle ran off with an American heiress and took the family estate, too.”

“It’s all the rage,” Bertrand ranted, “even King Edward was not immune to the charms of your kind.” He puffed on his cigarette and stared Kick down.

She laughed it off. She was no Wallis Simpson, and no spoiled English undergrad was going to ruin her evening. For the first time since arriving in England—since graduating from Sacred Heart, in fact—she felt completely unshackled. Swiping a full flute of champagne off the table, she raised it at Bertrand and said, “You forget I’m a papist, too. And Irish. A triple threat.” Then she took a long and satisfying drink of champagne.

Everyone howled with laughter, even Billy and Bertrand himself. Sissy was so surprised by Kick’s boldness, she covered her mouth and nose to avoid losing her drink in a most unladylike manner.

David stood and held out his hand with an admiring and amused expression. “May I have this first dance, Kick?”

Resting her hand gratefully in his, she said, “Thank heaven there are none of those beastly dance cards here! I hate the falseness of it all.”

They shimmied onto the dance floor to an up-tempo “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen” sung by a sultry blonde with a big voice. To Kick’s delight, the band never let up. “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” “Moonlight Serenade,” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing.” She danced to every song. Unexpectedly, Bertrand was the best dancer of all the men in their party, and he lifted and twisted her almost as well as if he’d taken lessons at the Cotton Club.

The last to ask her was Billy Hartington. Since she hadn’t returned to the table where he’d been sitting for more than an hour, she’d forgotten that he was one of their company altogether. Then suddenly he was there for “Thanks for the Memory,” standing an arm’s width from her and silently offering his upturned hand, with his other arm genteelly behind his back. She hadn’t been able to tell from his posture at the table, but Billy was enormously tall. At least a foot taller than she was, even at a stoop. As soon as he straightened up, she found herself with her face in his chest—and she was wearing her highest-heeled shoes!

It was a slower number, so they moved over the dance floor close together, though Billy kept a firm and respectful three inches between their bodies at all times, which was a good thing because it was already hard enough to crane her neck back in order to look at his face and make small talk. If they’d been any closer, she’d have constantly bumped his chin with the crown of her own head. She laughed to herself—they must look absurd together. A few bars of music floated by before he said in a low voice that was almost a hum, “You’re a wonderful dancer, Kathleen.” He had to drop his head down to say it.

“Kick, please. Call me Kick.”

“Ah yes, your nickname. It suits you. And you certainly gave a firm kick to Bertrand.”

“It doesn’t seem to have done him any harm.”

“To the contrary. I think he needs many firm kicks a day.”

“Are you usually the one to deliver them?”

“I don’t see much of him, really. He’s more Andrew’s friend.”

Recalling what she’d read about Billy, and what Debo had gushed about Andrew’s family, Kick asked, “You’re all at Cambridge together?”

Billy nodded, then said, “We’re both at Trinity, though we generally run in different circles. Andrew is more . . .” She could tell he was searching for a way to phrase something that wouldn’t offend her, so she helped him out.

“He has more friends who need a good kick?”

He laughed. “That’s one way to put it.”

“Why are you out tonight with them, then?”

“Sheer boredom,” he said, though it sounded a little like a joke. She couldn’t quite tell, and that intrigued her. Then he went on, “And my father encouraged me to get out and ‘have a look at the debs, William.’”

Kick laughed at his gruff impersonation of his father, the Duke of Devonshire, whom she happened to know was one of the few important men in London who had not yet invited her father for any social event, as he was infamously anti-Catholic. She took a private pleasure in knowing how such a father might feel if he knew his son was dancing with a Kennedy.

“Well, I hope no one had to suggest you ask me to dance,” said Kick.

“No, no,” he replied. “No one would have to do that.”

At that, he pulled her the tiniest bit closer, so that she might have rested her cheek on the lapel of his black dinner jacket, had she been so inclined. He smelled of cedar and mint, mixed with a faint yeastiness from the champagne. She was starting to like his height; though it made for somewhat awkward dancing, she felt well supported.

When the song ended he released her, and the bandleader said to the crowd, “I think it’s about time for a Big Apple!” There were whoops and crows of appreciation, none louder than Kick’s, for the Big Apple was her favorite dance. With everyone in a circle going round and round and in and out, it was easy and buoyant like ring-around-the-rosy, but with a jive. A childhood favorite made adult but without any of adulthood’s complications.

After that, panting, she needed to rest.

Around four in the morning, the boys ordered eggs and sausages and toast and coffee, and one final bottle of champagne to mix with orange juice, all of which was “to right the wrongs of the last hours,” as Andrew put it. It sounded heavenly to Kick, who’d worked up quite an appetite on the dance floor, but she knew she needed to get home soon. Her mother rarely rose before seven, but Kick didn’t want to risk coming in later than six and jeopardize the possibility of another evening like this. She would give herself twenty more minutes.

Thankfully, the food arrived quickly. Their party set upon it like ravenous animals, even refined Jane, and no one said much of anything until Billy accepted a copy of the Times. Sissy asked for the society pages, then spread them out among the four girls. Kick flushed when she saw how much text was devoted to her—it was one thing to read that sort of thing and make the comparison to what they said about your friends in the privacy of your own home, but quite another to do it with them. She felt flattered but embarrassed, and didn’t know quite what to say.

But Jean, Debo, and Jane had the good grace not to mention how much of the column was devoted to Kick and Rosemary and their mother, the invading Irish American horde, as Kick sometimes liked to think of her little clan. Instead, she and her friends shared the glory, pointing out flattering lines about each of them throughout the pages, laughing, and remembering the day before as if it had happened to them all exactly the same way, down to the details about misfastened trains and pinched toes, generous looks from the queen, and toasts made in their honor.

But of course it hadn’t happened the same for all of them—Rosemary! Kick’s heart froze with fear when she remembered her sister’s stumble. She stopped twittering with her girlfriends long enough to scan everything for mentions of her sister’s blunder. Nothing, she thought, and sighed with enormous relief. It did pay to have a father who was a maestro with the press, and she felt so grateful for him in that moment, not just for protecting their family but also for allowing her to go out that evening. She didn’t want to disappoint him, and she’d already overstayed her planned twenty minutes by another ten.

Standing up, she brushed a few crumbs from her white dress and said, “It’s time I hailed a taxi.”

“Me, too,” said Debo, rising to join Kick.

Jane, Sissy, and Jean also got up, and Jane said, “Let’s make it a fivesome. None of us are far from the others.”

The boys looked up from their sport and political pages, and Bertrand said, “Tallyho, ladies. Congratulations on becoming the latest batch of royal leeches.”

Kick curtsied low. “You are too kind, sir.”

Billy smirked, and their eyes met briefly before she and her girlfriends got their coats and went out into the blinding London dawn.

Reprinted with permission from The Kennedy Debutante by Kerri Maher from Berkley Publishing Group, copyright 2018.