by Christy Carlyle
“I haven’t the time for loneliness.” Lucien lied easily, ignoring the look Marcus shot him in that moment. He loathed the pity he would find there.
A fracas near the gallery’s entry hall was a welcome distraction. He craned his neck to spot the cause as shouts mingled with cries of outrage.
A woman. A bluestocking, more like, wearing a prim black skirt, plain white shirtwaist and spectacles perched on her nose, was pushing her way through the crowd of women in evening gowns and men in black tails. She looked like a magpie wreaking havoc amongst the canaries, though her hair was as striking in color as any of the finery around her. A rich shade of chestnut, it was arranged in a severe style atop her head. Mercifully, several rebellious strands had escaped and hung down around her shoulders. Lucien couldn’t help but notice how the strands shone like burnished gold in the gaslight.
As he watched the woman’s progress, a gentleman grabbed at her roughly and an uncommon surge of chivalry made Lucien consider interceding. But in the next moment, the woman proved she needed no rescuer. Stomping on the man’s foot with her booted heel, she moved easily out of his grasp and continued on her path. A path that seemed to lead directly to him.
For the hundredth time within the hour, Jessamine Wright called herself a fool for agreeing to Kitty Adderly’s ridiculous plan for revenge against Viscount Grimsby. It will just cause him a spot of bother, Kitty had promised. A bit of tittle tattle. A minor scandal. According to Kitty, it was a comeuppance the arrogant lord richly deserved. Jessamine could not consider whether it was right or wrong. She simply needed the money Kitty offered.
Initially, she made her way into the gallery without notice, but within moments a lady had questioned her. Then the woman’s fat husband had stepped in and it all turned into a ruckus before she had even done what she’d come to do. The deed itself shouldn’t take long, she thought. A quick peck on the mouth - Kitty had insisted that she kiss the man on the lips - and it would all be over.
He was there at the end of the gallery, as far from the entrance as he could possibly be. Mina 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 was certain of it. His dark head was turned her way. Tall and broad shouldered, he towered over the man and woman beside him. And he did look grim, as cold and uncongenial as Kitty had described.
Jessamine moved quickly through the crowd, eyes down, avoiding his gaze. Then she was before him. Only inches separated them. She met his eyes and found them glaring down at her. Glaring and blue. Shockingly clear blue eyes. His brows formed a vee as he frowned at her as he might a fly that had just spoiled his soup. She opened her mouth to speak, but said nothing. What explanation could she offer?
Her thoughts scattered as she studied her objective. His lips. They were wide, well shaped but firmly set. Not as firm as stone, as Kitty would have her believe, but unyielding. Unwelcoming. She reached up to remove her spectacles and noticed that her hands were shaking. She hooked them inside the high neckline of her shirt. His eyes followed the movement of her hands, the vee burrowing deeper between his brows.
Behind her, a man shouted. “How dare you!” She felt a hand grasp at her elbow. Jessamine was pulled backwards, nearly off her feet. Then a deep, raspy male voice rang out and stopped all movement.
“Unhand the woman. Now.” He had spoken. The stone giant. Lord Grim. He glared past her, over her head. The hand released her and his eyes found hers again. They were discerning eyes, not cold and lifeless as she’d expected.
“Are we acquainted, madam?” The deep timbre of his voice rumbled through her, sending a shiver down her spine.
Jessmine took a deep breath and moved closer. Lord Grimsby’s eyebrows shot up. She had crossed the line now. Bursting uninvited into a room filled with the wealthy and titled was one thing. Pressing one’s bosom into the chest of a man with whom one was not acquainted was something else entirely.
He didn’t move away. She had to lift onto her toes if this kiss was to be accomplished. She took a step toward him, closer, and her body swayed into his. He reached an arm out to steady her.
A woman said his name, her voice laced with chastisement. “Lucien.”
Placing one hand on his chest to balance herself, she stretched up on the tips of her toes and touched her lips to his.
A shock of sensation snaked through her. His lips were not made of stone. They were warm, smooth flesh. His breathing hitched, a small gasp and then his mouth opened, responding to her. His hand slid to the small of her back and tightened there, inching her towards him. The palm of his hand was hot and firm through the layers of of her clothing. She let him take her weight. He smelled delicious. Like fresh air and a subtle, spicy cologne. There was liquor on his breath and she tasted it when she felt his tongue slide between her lips. She felt drunk, but knew the brief taste of spirits wasn’t the cause. His free hand grasped her arm. He enveloped her now, his mouth moving over hers, his arms and scent surrounding her. She felt protected and, for a moment, no longer alone.
Then the spell was broken. A woman shrieked. The sound was high, ear piercing and blessedly brief. Yet it was long enough for Mina to snap back to the moment, the scene she had created. She pulled away from Lord Grimsby and he loosened his hold, though one hand still lay lightly on her arm. To steady her or himself? His eyes looked dazed, though his expression remained as firm and humorless as before she had kissed him. Only his eyes told her how she had affected him. A heat there singed her skin as much as the warmth of his still rapid breath against her face.
She was breathing hard too. They stood staring at each other while those around them clucked and fussed. Mina heard them as if from a distance. She was only aware of the man whose flavor was still on her lips. An arrogant viscount. The man she had just scandalized in public.