One Scandalous Kiss
Accidental Heirs, Book 1
When a scheming marquess’s daughter offers her one hundred pounds to publicly kiss a nobleman, a desperate Jessamin Wright agrees. She believes the money will save her failing bookstore and finally free her from her father’s debts. But when Jess bursts into an aristocratic party and shocks the entire ton, she never expects to enjoy the outrageous embrace she shares with a grim viscount.
Lucius Crawford, Viscount Grimsby, has never met, or kissed, anyone like the beautiful suffragette who unsettles him with a single touch. He has always strived for control and avoided passion at all costs. Lucius is determined to protect his title and restore the estate he’s unexpectedly inherited, but Jess’s appearance in his life poses a threat to his plans and his heart. After a country house party brings them together once more, neither can resist temptation, and both find that one scandalous kiss just isn’t enough.
Visit my Pinterest inspiration board for One Scandalous Kiss.
Other Books in the Accidental Heirs series
Read an Excerpt
London, September 1890
She’d never imagined wealth would be so uncomfortable. Nearly every aspect of the Marquess of Clayborne’s Belgrave Square drawing room made Jessamin Wright uneasy. There were no books stacked in piles, no candles whose wax had run down their sides in haphazard sculptures, and not a spot of ash dusting the hearth—nothing inviting about the room at all. How could any lived-in space be so clean? The slippery damask settee felt stiff and unyielding beneath her body. Nothing about it urged you to sit and stop awhile. Even art was lacking from the walls, except for a series of watercolors of what must have been a terribly boring fox hunt. A fire burned low in the grate and offered a bit of warmth against the autumn chill, but the cool beiges and tepid pinks of the wallpaper and furnishings made Jess feel slightly queasy, as if blood had been drained from her body as thoroughly as color had been drawn out of every surface in the room. Even the wood was light-colored or painted white and lacquered to a high sheen. It was all wrong. No room should be so spotless. As she and Alice had yet to meet their host, she began to doubt that anyone lived here at all. Then again, she’d never before set foot inside a fine London town house. Perhaps they were all this stark and unpleasant.
Jess didn’t have to look down to know the room’s pristine neatness contrasted sharply with her scuffed boots, soot-dusted cloak, and unfashionable work clothes. She found it impossible to settle herself in such elegant surroundings. Sitting, then standing, then sitting again, she rearranged her limbs and scratched her neck in a most unladylike manner. Finally finding a spot on the settee that suited her, she stripped off her twice-mended gloves but kept her hands clasped, careful not to touch anything for fear she might leave a mark.
Her cluttered thoughts offered as little comfort as the room. She fretted about leaving the bookshop managed solely by her assistant, Jack. He was a longtime employee and utterly trustworthy, but he’d never been fond of dealing with customers. He simply loved books—acquiring them, reading them, repairing them—and that was something she understood. He hadn’t stayed on after Father’s death for her, but out of loyalty to Lionel Wright. She understood that too. One of Father’s gifts had been the ability to inspire a bone-deep sense of obligation in others. Since Jess had taken on the shop, other employees had been hard to come by—few men wished to take their wages and direction from a woman.
As she slipped Father’s old watch from its place in her skirt pocket, Jess’s mind sifted through what she had yet to accomplish before resting her head for the day. It was a long list and—ah, that too—now included an article she’d almost forgotten to write for the Women’s Union journal.
“I hope Lady Katherine hasn’t forgotten us. To be honest, I won’t be sad to see the last of this room. It’s all rather cold, even with the fire. Makes you afraid to touch anything or even breathe.”
Alice McGregor had an uncanny talent for reading one’s mind and could always be counted on for blunt and insightful commentary. Of all Jessamin’s friends at the Women’s Union, Alice was the most practical and plain-speaking. Delicacy was overrated as far as Alice was concerned. She said what everyone else was thinking but knew it impolite to mention.
“No, it’s not terribly inviting, is it?”
If Jess could decorate such a room, the colors would be bold and full of life. Red would do very nicely. And she’d decorate the walls with art so vivid you’d believe you could smell the pot of basil in a Holman Hunt painting or hear the swish of silk and satin as one of Mr. Tissot’s beauties crossed the room. She closed her eyes and imagined crimson walls covered with art in rich, vibrant colors.
“Miss Wright, have I caught you napping?” Lady Katherine Adderly’s giggle was like the clash of two crystal glasses meeting in a toast. Sharp and clear, it instantly snapped Jessamin out of her fantasies.
As she swept in, a maid followed close on her heels with a tea tray. Lady Katherine smelled of flowers, but far too many, the scent cloying and sickly sweet.
“Forgive me, my lady.” It was easier for Jessamin to apologize for drowsing than acknowledge how she loathed the decor.
Jess and Alice exchanged raised-brow glances as their hostess handed each of them a fine porcelain teacup and began the process of pouring tea and offering them confections from plates laden with biscuits and tiny pastries. It was an elaborate ritual, much more fuss about tea than Jess had ever made in life. But the rich tang of jasmine in the brew was delicious and she was grateful for the distraction of the warm refreshment, even as she sensed the persistent tick of Father’s watch against her skirt pocket. She had to get back to the shop and hoped their meeting with the marquess’s daughter wouldn’t take long.
“I’m pleased to make this donation to the Women’s Union. You know how I enjoy the lively meetings.”
Lady Katherine had attended only three of the group’s weekly meetings over the course of four months, but she’d been eager to make a financial contribution, and Alice, as the union’s treasurer and cofounder, was all too happy to accept. Jess wasn’t certain why Alice had asked her to come along to collect the money, but as editor of the group’s printed journal and author of many of the speeches given at gatherings, she supposed she was a visible member of the organization.
“We are most grateful for the funds, my lady.” As always, Alice spoke with sincerity, gratitude clear in her tone.
“Oh, please call me Kitty.”
Alice took a sip of tea, attempting to hold the cup with all the dignity Kitty seemed to manage effortlessly.
“I understand there’s another worthy cause to which I may also contribute.”
“I’m sure there are many in London,” Jess offered, thinking of a dozen ways she might spend charitable funds, not to mention the money needed to salvage the indebted bookshop her father had left her.
“I was referring to you, Miss Wright.”
Jessamin shot Alice a look, wondering just what her scrupulously honest friend had revealed to Lady Katherine.
“I understand you have a bookshop and lending library here in town.”
“Yes, my lady,” Jess bit off, unable to keep the irritation from her voice. Alice shouldn’t have mentioned her situation to anyone. Kitty might be feeling benevolent, but the amount needed to clear the shop’s debt was more than any wealthy aristocrat’s daughter would wish to spend, no matter how generous she was feeling.
“Would one hundred pounds be useful to you?”
A shiver tickled Jessamin’s spine as she contemplated the amount, a sum she couldn’t earn at the shop in months, perhaps not even in a year. It wasn’t nearly enough to clear the entire debt, but it would bring her payments with the bank current.
Jessamin studied Kitty’s feline smile and tried to unravel the mystery of the young woman’s wish to help her. She knew Kitty was wealthy, the daughter of a marquess, and perhaps a bit bored, but she’d never even conversed with her before today. Kitty was mentioned off and on in the scandal sheets Jess admitted to no one she indulged in reading, but the lady was hardly known as an outstanding philanthropist.
Charity tasted sour, yet how could she refuse the sum?
“Neither a borrower nor a lender be” had been one of Father’s favorite lines from Hamlet. But it was an adage he’d failed to uphold. His gambling had turned him into the worst sort of borrower, taking loans from friends and money from the bookshop he’d worked so hard to build up. For Jess’s part, she’d become a lender soon after her father’s death, finally instituting the lending library she’d been envisioning for years. It seemed neither of them had heeded the Shakespearean admonition at all.
Kitty watched Jess closely and appeared to notice the moment she’d almost made up her mind to accept the money.
“I am so pleased you’ll allow me to help you, Jessamin. And in return, I’m certain you won’t mind assisting me with one tiny request.”
Alice frowned and set her teacup on the table between them, edging forward on the settee as if she meant to get up and leave. “I’m not sure that’s quite right.”
“What is the favor, Lady Katherine? Please, let’s speak plainly with one another.” It didn’t surprise Jess in the least that Kitty expected something in return. No one offered such a sum without expecting something in return.
“Kitty, please. Do call me Kitty. It’s a simple favor, really. As simple as a kiss.”
Jess choked. “Pardon?” she squeaked, when she’d finally managed to swallow her mouthful of tea and could breathe again.
“Just a kiss, Jessamin. Surely you don’t object to kissing.” Kitty’s teasing tone belied the glint of steel in her gaze. “You’re a modern, freethinking woman, after all. You believe in the suffrage and equality for our sex. You should feel quite free to kiss any man you like.”
Kissing men had nothing to do with Jess’s interest in social reform or gaining a voice for women in the political sphere. If Kitty thought it did, she hadn’t been to nearly enough meetings.
“You want me to kiss a man?” Jess spoke the words as if it was an extraordinary feat. And it was. She’d never kissed a man. Not really. A childish, graceless kiss on the cheek from Tom Jenkins when she was twelve years old hardly counted.
“This seems a rather strange favor, Kitty.” Alice’s precise tone cut through the quiet of the room.
Kitty’s tinkling laughter rang out. “Yes, I suppose it does. But it’s merely a harmless bit of revenge.”
“Revenge.” Jess waited. There had to be more.
“Oh, all right. If you must know, the dreadful man snubbed me.” Kitty plumped her bow-shaped mouth in a pout.
Was she the shallowest heiress in Belgravia? The thought that Kitty wished to seek revenge because a man did not prefer her company was ridiculous. Her beauty and wealth could secure her any suitor she set her cap at. In fact, the question of why the man rejected her was as intriguing as her desire for Jess to kiss him.
“Why did he snub you?”
“Why, indeed!” Kitty straightened up in her chair and slid her fingers into honey blond hair, tucking her already neatly pinned coiffure more firmly into place. “Perhaps because he is an odious man. If he wasn’t a viscount, soon to be an earl, and so irredeemably handsome, I wouldn’t have bothered with him. Never mind Papa’s mad notion I marry Lord Grim. Freddie is much more fun, even if he doesn’t have a farthing to his name.” Kitty turned the full force of her bright green gaze on Jess. “You’ll do it then?”
“I’m still not sure I understand.”
Kitty’s tone became pedantic, as if she was speaking to a child who needed to be set aright.
“My dear, it couldn’t be simpler. Viscount Grimsby snubbed me at a soiree last week and I would like your help to put him in his place. He’s a dour man, as cold as marble. Some call him Lord Grim. And so he is. Grim and heartless. He needs a little comeuppance.” As an afterthought, she added, “He’s against the vote for women, of course.”
As if that made the whole ridiculous scheme noble. As if kissing him would change his mind about women’s suffrage.
“And where does kissing come into play?” It all sounded wrong to Jess, like the discordant notes of an untuned piano playing over and over in her mind, but Kitty waved away her concern dismissively.
“It won’t be a real kiss, my dear. Not the kind that matters. Just a kiss that knocks him off his pedestal a bit. It will cause him a trifle of social bother. Stir up some tittle-tattle.”
For a moment Kitty’s expression altered, the corners of her mouth turning down as if she’d fallen into troubled contemplation. Jess wondered if she was already regretting her petty scheme. Then she lifted her head, a satisfied cat-at-the-cream grin lifting her cheeks.
“The next time I see the man at a ball, perhaps he’ll manage a bit of humility. And since no one else will wish to stand up with him, I suspect he’ll be more than happy to dance with me.”
None of Kitty’s words put Jess’s mind at ease. She’d never heard of Lord Grimsby, but from Kitty’s description, kissing the man certainly didn’t sound appealing.
“I happen to know he’ll be at an art gallery in Mayfair this evening.”
“And?” Jess was growing impatient. Who had time for games when she had a business to run?
“There will be a gathering at the gallery. Mrs. Ornish is a great fan of art and has sponsored one of the artists whose works will be featured. I do wonder why he always goes to Mrs. Ornish’s events. Could he have his eye on Meredith, do you think?”
Of course, Jess had no idea who Mrs. Ornish or Meredith was. She might share their love of art, but they were the kind of women with wealth enough to offer an artist patronage. Jess couldn’t even afford to buy a painting. Her walls were decorated with cut-out prints culled from books and newspapers.
“Kitty, please just tell me. What must I do?”
Kitty crooked her mouth alluringly. Jess supposed she used the simpering expression to charm everyone. Everyone except Lord Grimsby, apparently.
“I want you to show up at the gallery event and stride up to Lord Grim. Yes, you’ll just walk up and plant a kiss square on that cruel, unsmiling mouth of his.”
“I really don’t think—”Alice’s voice had taken on the same pitch and volume she used to quiet the women’s group meetings.
Jess knew what she was going to say and cut her off. “Wait. Let me consider a moment.”
Jess closed her eyes and breathed deeply. She had to do it. She needed the one hundred pounds Kitty offered. There was no denying what the woman proposed was scandalous, not to mention farcical and childish. But Jess had no reputation to protect. As Kitty said, she saw herself as a freethinking woman, unhampered by society’s strictures and eager for changing women’s roles. She had no idea how kissing a complete stranger would strike a blow for women’s suffrage, but her desperation for funds made her beholden to Kitty’s whims.
“Come, Jessamin.” Kitty’s singsong voice was cajoling. “I dare you.”
Because Jess’s speeches encouraged action over words, perhaps Kitty saw her as brave and daring. But if she was brave, it was because Father died and took all her options with him. She’d lost everything—her home, a modestly comfortable lifestyle, freedom to study and spend her days more or less as she wished—and put all her energy into maintaining his business, even after discovering the massive debt he’d accumulated. She was beginning to make inroads toward repaying the debt, and Kitty’s funds would be another step toward financial success for Wright and Sons Booksellers.
“Fine. I’ll do it.”
Kitty gasped with delight and clapped her hands together.
Alice shot her a look as if Jess had taken leave of whatever sense she’d been given.
Jess couldn’t match Kitty’s enthusiasm or acknowledge Alice’s concern. She was too busy fighting off the sense of dread that settled in the pit of her stomach at the prospect of what she’d agreed to do.
“Where is this gallery and what time will he be there?”
The room was sweltering. Who knew a gallery event in Mayfair would attract such a crush? Lucius Crawford, Viscount Grimsby, darted his gaze from framed portraits to lush landscape pieces, fully expecting the paint to start melting off the canvases. No one could deny the colors were extraordinary and the compositions pleasing, but couldn’t they have found someone with a better eye to hang the pieces? The arrangement of art was irritatingly haphazard, small and large side by side, some frames just inches apart and others an arm’s length, or two, away from each other. Despite the impulse to find a ladder and impose order on the chaos, Lucius found focusing on the paintings preferable to meeting the eyes of those around him.
Glancing around a crowded room could be dangerous. Too often he’d find himself snared by a questioning look here, a disapproving frown there. They wondered about his father, of course, especially now that he had withdrawn from London society completely.
Lucius was prepared to admit his own lack of aristocratic tendencies—he was far more interested in discussing business than horse racing, technology than teacakes—but none of his faux pas or successes since becoming heir to his father’s earldom eclipsed Maxim’s infamy. The man had been so querulous and apt to initiate feuds with fellow noblemen that they’d dubbed him the Dark Earl of Dunthorpe.
Would the gossips be any kinder if they could see the frail, doddering man Maxim Crawford had become? Lucius doubted they would, and he had no intention of giving anyone the opportunity for either pity or pardon. Sheltering the earl from rumormongers was one of the duties that had fallen to him.
So he would learn to tolerate the speculative gazes and whispers. Eventually. But they still set his nerves on edge and made him wish for the haven of his study back at Hartwell. Never mind what else awaited him at Hartwell. Leaky roofs and crumbling masonry didn’t daunt him. And regardless of the pain he’d experienced within its walls and the resentment that swelled and ebbed between him and his father as regular as the tides, the family estate in Berkshire was home now.
He’d accepted that it was no longer the home of his childhood, that idyllic Hartwell he’d longed for and missed with a searing, stubborn ache all the years he’d been away. The real Hartwell, a pile of wood and stones—some rooms as old as the Dunthorpes’ Tudor ancestors, others as new as those Lucius had refurbished the previous year—was a bit of a mess. A mishmash of architectural styles, just as the estate itself had seen a mix of care and indifference over the years. Father’s neglect had caused the most damage, and neither his ailments nor his obsessive love for Mother excused his poor stewardship. Lucius was determined to do better by the estate than his brother, Julian, or his father ever had.
Turning his head, he snagged the gaze of an elderly matron, her eyes as beady and hungry as those of any crow he’d ever seen. He acknowledged her with a minute nod, and she reared her head a fraction, as if utterly taken aback. And that, exactly that, her reaction and his failure to exude one tenth of the charm required to engage in any sort of social repartee, was why he came into town and mixed in society rarely. Even without an infamous father, he would have found the social rounds daunting.
So let them talk. Let them watch him tug at his neck cloth like a man on the gallows might claw at the noose and straighten and re-straighten his waistcoat, running a finger down the four buttons at the bottom to make sure they formed a perfect line. This visit to London was necessary and would, if his aunt could be believed, allow him to settle his future—to meet Father’s demands that he marry a woman with money and impeccable breeding and ensure the estate’s future with an heir. Stability had always eluded him, and the notion of a settled future seemed as unlikely as a happy one, but if anyone could achieve such a coup, it was Aunt Augusta.
She’d been the one constant in his life, writing and visiting after Father shipped him off to Scotland, guiding him after Julian’s death and the news he’d become heir to Hartwell, and comforting him when his own mother could not. She’d been as much a parent to him as either of his own.
“You look a bit seasick, my boy. But unless someone has failed to inform me, I don’t believe Mayfair has set sail.”
Aunt Augusta tucked herself into the space between him and the scowling crow woman. She lifted a glass and he took the crystal flute with a nod of gratitude.
“How long must we stay?”
“I believe the hostess is going to give a brief speech. It would behoove us to linger until then.”
He sensed her eyes on him, assessing his discomfort, looking out for him as she always had.
“You will be attending many more social events once you marry. Get in as much practice as you can.”
“Didn’t you promise to find a candidate who’d be content to do the social rounds on her own?”
“Independence is one thing. Being forever without one’s husband is another matter entirely.”
Lucius closed his eyes a moment and imagined a life of house parties, elaborate dinners, and sitting room musicales. The prospect made him shudder. He opened his eyes, still avoiding Aunt Augusta’s inspection, and took in the canvas before him—a man on horseback with a verdant English landscape stretched out behind him. It looked a bit like Hartwell’s meadow, and though he’d been away only a week, longing for the place gnawed at him. In this hot, congested space of too many colors and a cacophony of voices, he missed Hartwell’s spacious rooms, familiar scents and textures, and labyrinthine floor plan, so well-known to him he could navigate it blindfolded.
“She certainly enjoys London more than you do.”
She? She was very specific. Far too specific. He’d come to London to discuss the possibility of marriage. No, more than that—the necessity of it. And to seek Augusta’s help in securing the perfect candidate, a woman with an ample dowry to keep Hartwell afloat, enough connections to earn his father’s approval, and such a rabid desire to be a countess that she might not notice how ill-suited he was to be an earl.
The notion that she’d found a match so quickly, and that the young woman might be here among the crush of attendees . . . that he did not expect. And in Lucius’s experience, the unexpected never heralded a pleasant turn of events.
“Does she? I wasn’t aware you’d settled on anyone. Is she here tonight?”
He looked around, scanning one perspiring feminine face after another. None of them stood out. None of them stopped him short and made him wish to continue to look, to learn what lay beyond a flushed cheek or bright, smiling eyes.
“Not tonight, no. She is traveling at the moment.”
That finally earned his attention and he turned to question Augusta further just as an older woman approached and embraced her, gushing about how long it’d been since they’d last seen each other.
As Aunt Augusta allowed herself to be pulled away to join a lively conversation, his sister, Julia, and brother-in-law, Marcus Darnley, approached. Marcus and Lucius exchanged nods. Julia merely sipped at the liquid in her glass as she watched him, much as his aunt had moments before. But Julia’s was a different gaze. Her eyes narrowed, not out of concern, but in judgment.
“Do stop glaring at everyone, Lucius. People will think you as frightful as Papa.”
His sister’s tone held a note of irritation along with the command, and he allowed himself a slight twitch of his mouth that none but those who knew him best would ever mistake for a grin.
“He must continue glaring, love. I believe he enjoys nurturing his grim reputation.” Marcus Darnley leaned in to whisper the words to his wife, though Lucius didn’t care who heard him. His sister’s husband tweaked him as often as she chastised him. And though he would never admit it, he found as much enjoyment in Marcus’s teasing as he did in his sister’s scolding. He and Julia had missed out on years of sibling squabbles as children, and he didn’t mind catching up now.
But Lucius would never apologize for being discerning about how he spent his time and whom he took into his confidence. His reputation as one of society’s most dour bachelors served him well. It kept giggling debutantes, scheming mothers, and nearly everyone else at bay. Marriage was necessary—he accepted it as his chief goal for the year. But not the game, the silly business of inane conversations, coy flirtation, and stolen kisses on balconies. Lucius was quite content to leave such carrying on to rogues like his friend Robert Wellesley and allow Augusta to find him a sensible, practical, and exceedingly wealthy bride.
Time was too precious a commodity to waste on games. Managing Hartwell, a task he loved but had never been groomed for, consumed his days and nights. But Julia played on his sense of obligation and had urged him to help make Delia Ornish’s gallery gathering a success. Mrs. Ornish’s friendship with their late mother had indebted them both to the wealthy social butterfly.
Marcus stood close to Lucius and leaned in to speak confidentially. “There are some lovely young women in attendance tonight. Don’t you agree, Grimsby? Surely one of them must strike your fancy.”
His sister and her husband were unaware of Augusta’s matchmaking efforts.
“Yes and no.” Lucius lifted the flute of champagne to his mouth and sipped.
Marcus quirked a brow at him, begging explanation.
“Yes, there are lovely women in attendance. No, none of them strikes my fancy.”
The women in the crush of attendees were stunning in their finery. Every color and shape one could desire. But none of them stirred him.
Marcus wouldn’t be deterred. “Are you never lonely, old chap?” His brother-in-law turned his eyes to Julia as he spoke.
Lucius caught the look, and an ember of loneliness kindled in his chest. He didn’t desire any of the women before him, yet he did envy the easy companionship that his sister and brother-in-law shared. He could envy it but never imagine it for himself. Even if Aunt Augusta’s scheme was successful, it wouldn’t be a love match. He’d seen the results of what such an attachment had done to his father, a man whose adoration for his wife became a destructive obsession, sparking jealous rages that drove her—and Lucius—from their home.
He wouldn’t lose himself in that kind of passion. Now, with the responsibility of Hartwell laid on his shoulders, he couldn’t spare the time for it. Let his father indulge in maudlin sentimentality; Lucius had an estate to run.
“I haven’t the time for loneliness.” He lied easily and ignored the look Marcus shot him, fearing he’d read pity there.
A fracas near the gallery’s entrance offered a welcome distraction. Turning away from Marcus, Lucius craned his neck to spot the cause of the ruckus. The room was so full of bodies it was difficult to see the front of the building, despite his height. But whatever the commotion, it caused a few shouts mingled with cries of outrage.
Then he saw the trouble. A woman. A bluestocking, more precisely, wearing a prim black skirt and plain white shirtwaist, spectacles perched high on her nose, pushed her way through the throng of ladies in colorful evening gowns and men in black tails. She looked like a magpie wreaking havoc among the canaries, though her hair was as striking a shade as any of the finery around her. The rich auburn hue shone in the gaslight, and though she’d pinned her hair back in a severe style, several rebellious curls had escaped and hung down around her shoulders.
As he watched the woman’s progress, a gentleman grasped her arm roughly, and an uncommon surge of chivalry made Lucius consider interceding. But in the next moment the woman proved she needed no rescuer. Stomping on the man’s foot, she moved easily out of his grasp and continued on her path—a path that led directly to Lucius.
For the hundredth time, Jess called herself a fool for agreeing to Kitty Adderly’s ridiculous plan for revenge against Viscount Grimsby. Kissing a viscount for one hundred pounds sounded questionable at the time Kitty had suggested it. Now Jess thought perhaps the jilted heiress had put something in her tea.
Initially she made her way into the crowded art gallery unnoticed, but then a woman dripping in diamonds and green silk had questioned her. When the lady’s round husband stepped in, it all turned to chaos before she’d even done what she’d come to do. The deed itself shouldn’t take long. A quick peck on the mouth—Kitty had insisted that she kiss the man on the lips—and it would all be over. She’d already handed the money over to Mr. Briggs at the bank. Turning back now simply wasn’t an option.
She recognized Lord Grimsby from the gossip rag Kitty had shown her. The newspaper etching hadn’t done him justice. In it, he’d been portrayed as dark and forbidding, his mouth a sharp slash, his black brows so large they overtook his eyes, and his long Roman nose dominating an altogether unappealing face. But in the flesh every part of his appearance harmonized into a striking whole. He was the sort of man she would have noticed in a crowd, even if she hadn’t been seeking him, intent on causing him scandal and taking unimaginable liberties with his person.
He was there at the end of the gallery, as far from the entrance as he could possibly be. Jess continued through the gamut and a man snatched at her arm. Unthinking, she stepped on his foot, and he spluttered and cursed but released her.
Lord Grimsby saw her now. She noticed his dark head—and far too many others—turned her way. He was tall and broad shouldered, towering over the man and woman beside him. And he did look grim, as cold and disagreeable as Kitty had described.
Jessamin turned her eyes down, avoiding his gaze. Helpfully, the crowd parted before her, as if the respectable ladies and gentleman were unwilling to remain near a woman behaving so unpredictably. Every time she raised her eyes, she glimpsed eyes gone wide, mouths agape, and women furiously fanning themselves.
Just a few more steps and Jess stood before him, only inches between them. She met his gaze and found him glaring down at her with shockingly clear blue eyes. Furrowed lines formed a vee between his brows as he frowned at her like a troublesome insect had just spoiled his meal.
She opened her mouth to speak, but what explanation could she offer?
Every thought scattered as she studied her objective—or more accurately, his lips. They were wide and well-shaped but firmly set. Not as firm as stone, as Kitty claimed, but unyielding. Unwelcoming. Not at all the sort of lips one dreamed of kissing. But Jess had given up on dreams. Her choices now were about money, the funds she needed to keep the bookshop afloat for as long as she could.
Taking a breath and praying for courage, Jess reached up and removed her spectacles, folded them carefully, and hooked them inside the high neckline of her gown.
His eyes followed the movement of her hands, and the lines between his brows deepened.
Behind her, a woman shouted, “How dare you!” A hand grasped her from behind, the force of the tug pulling Jessamin backward, nearly off her feet. Then a deep, angry male voice rang out and stopped all movement.
“Unhand the woman. Now, if you please.” He’d spoken. The stone giant. Lord Grim. He glared past her, over her head. Whoever gripped her arm released their hold. Then Lord Grim’s gaze drilled into hers, his eyes discerning, not cold and lifeless as she’d expected.
For several heartbeats he simply watched her, pinning her with his gaze, studying her. Jess reminded herself to breathe.
“Are we acquainted, madam?”
The rumble of his voice, even amid the din of chatter around them, echoed through her.
She moved closer, and his eyebrows shot up. Oh, she’d crossed the line now. Bursting uninvited into a room filled with the wealthy and titled was one thing. Ignoring a viscount’s question could be forgiven. Pressing one’s bosom into a strange man’s chest was something else entirely.
A surge of surprise and gratitude gripped her when he didn’t move away.
Assessing his height, Jess realized she’d have to lift onto her toes if the kiss was to be accomplished. She took a step toward him, stretched up tall, and swayed unsteadily. He reached an arm out, and she feared he’d push her away. Instead he gripped her arm just above her elbow and held her steady.
A woman said his name, a tone of chastisement lacing the word. “Lucius.”
Then she did it. Placing one hand on his hard chest to balance herself, Jess eased up on the tips of her boots and touched her lips to his.
A shock of sensation snaked through her. Kitty lied. His lips weren’t made of stone. They were warm, smooth flesh. For a moment he didn’t move, merely stood stiffly, his hand still heavy on her arm. Then his breathing hitched and his mouth moved beneath hers as he responded to the kiss. His free hand slid to the small of her back and tightened there, inching her toward him. His palm was warm and firm through the layers of her clothing, and she let him take her weight. He smelled delicious. Like clean, crisp linen and some exotic spice. She tasted liquor on his breath when she felt his tongue slide between her lips, but her sense of intoxication had nothing to do with the brief taste of spirits. He enveloped her now, his mouth moving over hers, his arms and scent surrounding her. For a moment she felt protected. More than that. She felt desired, wanted. For one moment she forgot that she was so terribly alone.
A woman shrieked, the sound high, ear-piercing, and blessedly brief. Just long enough to break the spell and snap Jess back to the moment, the scandalous scene she’d created. She pulled away from Lord Grimsby and he instantly loosened his hold, though he seemed unwilling to release her arm. To steady her or to steady him? His expression remained as humorless as before she’d kissed him. Only his eyes revealed how she’d affected him. A flame there singed her, warming every inch of her body before settling deep in her belly. She wanted to lose herself in that heat, sink into it, let it unfurl her knots of worry and melt away every fear.
His quickened breath gusted against her face and Jess breathed hard too as they stared at each other. Those around them clucked and fussed, but she heard the crowd as if from a distance, her awareness centered on the inscrutable man whose flavor still clung to her lips.
Jess never dreamed a kiss could be so potent, never imagined a man’s gaze could set her on fire. No man had ever looked at her with the blatant yearning she saw in Lord Grimsby’s eyes. Had any glanced at her with an ounce of interest at all? If they had, she’d been too busy running the shop to notice. And she wasn’t prepared for it now. To acknowledge that she felt it too and imagine her eyes reflecting the same need and desire as his—that frightened her most of all.
A blond man at Lord Grimsby’s side whispered to him, placing a hand on his arm as if to lead him away. But the viscount didn’t move, didn’t release her or meet anyone else’s gaze.
When the blond man turned a withering glance her way, Jess knew she had to leave and extract herself from the scene she’d created. Dizzy and a bit off balance, she rallied the strength to break away, to pull her arm from the viscount’s grasp and walk out of the gallery on wobbly legs. The din of the crowd rose as she strode away, and she heard a lady hiss as she passed by.
Turning from the sound, Jess lifted her gaze and glimpsed a familiar face. Golden hair dappled with diamond pins, Kitty Adderly stood amid the crush. She lifted her glass a fraction, simulating a toast, but there was no victory in her gaze. Eyes wide, dainty mouth slack, she looked as shaken by the whole debacle as Jess felt.
Focusing on the front of the hall, Jess pressed on, ignoring the stares, blocking out the voices. When she was finally free of the gallery, a burst of chilly September air enveloped her. Cheeks stinging, eyes watering, she inhaled deep, gulping breaths. Her frantic heartbeat refused to steady, but her breaths came less frequently as they billowed out before her.
Why had she agreed to Kitty’s scheme? There had to be consequences for striding up to a viscount and taking liberties with his mouth in front of everyone. The thought of his mouth and that awkward, wonderful kiss made her breathing hitch again. Shaking the thoughts away, Jess began scanning the street for a hansom cab.
She spotted one, its lantern glimmering in the fog, and stepped across the pavement to hail it. Before she could take two steps, someone approached from behind. Lord Grim. She already knew his scent, the same distinctive spice that still clung to her clothing.
Tensing, cringing inwardly, she waited for harsh words. Of course he’d come out to curse her or demand some explanation for her scandalous behavior. Drawing a deep breath, Jess turned to face the viscount just as a carriage, its black sides so well polished they gleamed even in the fog-shrouded night, drew up near the pavement in front of her.
Jess jumped as his deep voice rattled through her. With a hand at her back, he steered her with gentle insistence toward the carriage. Out of nowhere, a cloaked man appeared, opened the carriage door, pulled down the step, and stood aside.
“I can make my own way home.” The wind whipped around her, stealing her breath as she spoke, but it wasn’t enough to make her forget who she was. Who he was. Through chattering teeth, she added, “Thank you, my lord.”
Either he hadn’t heard her or the man was used to getting his own way. He pressed his hand more firmly against her back and moved toward the carriage, sweeping her along with him.
Jessamin stepped back, turning out of his grip. Snapping her head in his direction, she tried to make out the harsh planes of his face in the shadows and fog. She could only see those light blue eyes, glowing in the muted gaslight.
Long, gloved fingers wrapped around her wrist, not gentle but far from bruising.
“I have questions that require answers.” He tugged at her arm and she stepped toward him. “I prefer to ask them away from prying eyes.” She saw his head jerk back and only then noticed a small crowd gathered in the gallery’s entrance hall. Jessamin could see the group was atwitter with shock and outrage—one man pointed toward Lord Grimsby and another shouted futilely through the woolly fog.
Jess imagined what they were saying, curses and condemnations about her outrageous behavior. Getting into the man’s carriage would only fuel the gossip, of course, but it was preferable to being left to the crowd’s mercy. And Lord Grimsby didn’t seem inclined to allow her out of his sight until she’d offered some explanation.
Wobbling as she took the carriage step, she whispered her address to the silent footman who’d lifted a hand to steady her.
Lord Grim seemed to rise and seat himself across from her in one swift motion.
She hesitated before facing him, chafing her frozen fingers together and pointlessly arranging her skirts. Anything to avoid those eyes that had nearly melted her into a senseless puddle in the gallery. When she could finally look at him, her heart kicked against her ribs. Mercy. He was a handsome man. Kitty hadn’t lied about that. The warm glow of the carriage lanterns revealed all the details of his face. Sharp edges and flat planes, it was as perfectly chiseled as a statue and just as still. She could almost believe he was carved of marble, except for those eyes. They glittered like ice in the golden light. It was daunting to be the object of his scrutiny, particularly as she’d just embarrassed the man in front of everyone he knew.
With the heated spark between them cooled, guilt crowded in to mar all the pleasure of that moment when she’d pressed her mouth to his.
“I’m sorry.” She whispered the words so quietly Jess wasn’t certain if she spoke to herself or to the man seated across from her.
He didn’t respond, just continued to stare at her, and she looked away, nervousness making her pulse race. When she lifted her eyes again, she caught him studying her oft-mended skirt hem, her ink-stained fingers, shamelessly bare of gloves, and then slowly perusing the buttons of her shirtwaist before assessing her face. The intensity of his gaze unnerved her.
Then the marble shifted. Lord Grimsby pursed his lips, grimacing, and she wasn’t certain if he found her distasteful or was considering precisely how to devour her. He spoke low, one syllable slipping from his lips.