Susan Johnson Sylvia Day Noelle Mack Perfect Kisses
SCHOOL FOR SCANDAL by Susan Johnson
London, April 1829
Her pulse racing, Claire Russell pulled the hood of her cloak lower over her forehead, pushed her auburn curls farther out of sight and knocked on the door of the private residence. She dearly hoped the doorman wouldn’t require an invitation since she had none.
She needn’t have worried. After opening the door, the liveried footman merely nodded and bowed her in. Apparently, the guest list for the private masquerade was unrestricted.
Actually, Viscount Ormond was not so democratically disposed. His servants had been instructed to admit pretty ladies regardless of rank, but others were not welcome save if they carried a chit from him.
Claire knew nothing of the viscount’s particular style of hospitality, but had she known, it would have only confirmed her jaundiced opinion of him. James Bell, Viscount Ormond, heir to an earldom that would soon be his if the present earl continued drinking to excess, was an unabashed rake, infamous for his dissipation and amorous pursuits. That he was, unfortunately, also famous for his vast wealth, stunning good looks, and prodigal charm was the reason Claire had come to this den of iniquity.
Her silly younger sister had fallen under the viscount’s spell and foolishly labored under the illusion that his recent flattering attentions were genuine. Harriet viewed the viscount’s gifts and posies, the strolls in the park when they’d chance to meet, and his billets‑doux as a bona fide courtship.
Not that their equally foolish aunt, who served as their guardian, wasn’t all atwitter as well that a peer of Ormond’s rank and fortune was paying court to Harriet. As if a man of Ormond’s dissolute repute was interested in more than an amorous fling with a frivolous young beauty like Harriet with no family of distinction and even less wealth.
Claire’s cautionary warnings, however, had gone unheeded.
Her aunt’s responses always followed a similar vein: “Just because you’re quite on the shelf, my dear,” her aunt would admonish, “is no reason to thwart dear Harriet’s matrimonial prospects. Ormond is vastly enamored of your sister.” Mrs. Bellingham would then smile smugly at Harriet as if giving her blessing to the union.
Harriet’s comments had been less spiteful, but equally dismissive. “Now, Cleery, sorry as I might be that you were jilted by George Porter, you can’t wish for me to suffer the same fate? And when I become viscountess, I shall be able to offer you any number of eligible men as suitors. Just think of it,” Harriet cheerfully asserted, “we shall all live in splendor.”
But illusory matrimonial hopes aside, Harriet’s response to Ormond’s masquerade invitation was the height of folly. Although, Harriet had slipped out tonight, Claire suspected, with their aunt’s approval.
And now she, the only prudent member of their family, had arrived on the scene to save her sister from the viscount’s sordid designs.
The sounds of revelry were readily apparent as Claire moved up the stairs to the reception rooms‑waltz music conducive to intimate contact, boisterous explosions of laughter, the occasional high‑pitched female squeals gave evidence that the festivities were well apace.
As Claire came to rest in the doorway to the ballroom a few moments later, her very worst fears were realized.
The guests in their dominoes and masks were dancing in shockingly friendly embraces. Some couples were walking from the room hand in hand, in search of more privacy she didn’t doubt. A tipsy young woman of the demimonde from her appearance was making a spectacle of herself, twirling wildly so her skirts flared high revealing her shapely legs.
Claire literally gasped as one young buck caressed his dance partner’s breast right before her eyes.
Clutching her cloak tightly, as if it would serve to shield her, she nervously scanned the room, searching for her sister.
Neither she nor Harriet were so fine that either of them possessed a fashionable black domino, so she surveyed the crowd for a glimpse of Harriet’s blue silk cloak. It was sky blue like her sister’s eyes; it should stand out in the throng of black cloaks if she was still here. At the thought, Claire’s heart sank.
What if she were too late?
What if the viscount’s renowned seductive skills were already in play?
Her young sister would be ruined.
Claire stepped into the room, determined to brave the raucous crowd for the sake of Harriet’s future. Threading her way through the throng, she avoided those groups most in their cups, dodged the occasional importuning hand, on two occasions offered such a forbidding look and set‑down to lewd invitations, that the young men jumped back as if burned.
Her piercing gaze, sharp tongue, and air of command had it advantages.
Finally, just as she was about to despair of finding her sister, she saw Harriet and the notorious James Bell near one of the far windows overlooking the street. The viscount was leaning back against the narrow wall of the alcove, floor to ceiling French doors to his right, the ballroom to his left, and Harriet in his arms.
Her face was raised to him as though waiting for his kiss.
Taking his cue, he did exactly that. He kissed her.
For so lengthy an interval that Claire was able to approach them unheeded.
“If you’ll excuse me,” Claire said, keeping her tone severe even as she grappled with the powerful impact of the viscount’s outrageous beauty. “My sister is not allowed at entertainments such as this. Come, Harriet. I’m here to take you home.”
The viscount had looked up lazily when Claire had first spoken, but had neither moved, released Harriet, nor altered his expression. “And you are?” he finally drawled, his heavy‑lidded gaze surveying Claire from head to toe before coming back to rest on her face.
“I am Claire Russell, Harriet’s older sister and I must insist that you release her immediately. It is wholly inappropriate for her to be in attendance here. As you well know, Harriet,” she added, turning to her sister.
“Auntie said I could come,” Harriet mutinously retorted, her pretty mouth pursed in a pout.
“Our aunt was no doubt mistaken about the style of entertainment.” Claire refused to admit that her aunt would stoop so low in order to snare a man like Ormond. Although, from the viscount’s sudden amused expression, she rather thought he already knew.
“Why don’t I have a servant see your sister home,” the viscount graciously offered, pushing away from the wall and easing Harriet back a step. “I’ll take you riding in the park tomorrow, poppet,” he added, smiling to assuage Harriet’s frown. He lifted his hand in a negligent gesture and was immediately acknowledged by a footman, the man seemingly materializing out of thin air. “There, now, my sweet,” the viscount said, brushing Harriet’s cheek with his finger. “Jordan will see you home. And I shall call on you tomorrow at four.”
Harriet glared at her sister. “You are ever so vexing, Cleery. Do go away,” she pettishly said. “I am not a child you can order about!”
Ormond nodded at his footman and a look of understanding passed between them. “Now, now, don’t chide your sister,” the viscount calmly murmured. “She’s merely concerned with the‑ah…environment. And on second thought, I believe she’s right.”
“I appreciate your understanding,” Claire replied, coolly. “Come, Harriet.” Fully expecting to be obeyed, she turned to go.
“If you don’t mind, Miss Russell.” The viscount seized her arm with a quickness that belied his fashionable languor and pulled her back. “Perhaps you might stay a moment. We could discuss the‑er‑situation. Go now, poppet,” he urged since Harriet gave no appearance of obeying her sister. “I’m sure your sister is anxious to ring a peal over my head.” He smiled at Harriet to allay the sudden suspicion in her gaze. “I shall set this all right and tomorrow you and I will ride in Hyde Park. Would that please you?”
“Oh, very well,” Harriet grumbled with the petulance common to women who were widely admired for their beauty. Ormond couldn’t possibly be interested in Claire anyway unless he was a devotee of blue‑stocking women which she very well knew he wasn’t. And riding with him in Hyde Park tomorrow for all the world to see would be ever so delicious. She shot a fretful glance at her sister. “Cleery ruined everything tonight anyway.”
“Indeed,” the viscount said with a faint smile. His lashes lowered almost infinitesimally and taking his cue, Jordan stepped forward to escort Harriet home.
And a moment later, Claire found herself alone with the man reputed to be the most handsome man in England.
Nor could she honestly deny the designation.
In truth‑any woman, not just an innocent like her sister‑would be hard‑pressed to withstand his brute virility. His dark, sensual gaze seemed to offer ravishment and pleasure in equal measure while his muscled form was conspicuous even beneath his fine tailoring and indolent pose.
Quickly taking herself to task, she sternly reminded herself why she had come to this debauch: To save Harriet from disaster. To allow herself to be even fleetingly captivated by a flagrant libertine like Ormond was inexcusable.
Overcompensating perhaps for her injudicious thoughts, she addressed him with rare hauteur. “We really have nothing to discuss, my lord. I certainly have no intention of ringing a peal over your head. I doubt it would do any good. May I only state, firmly and clearly, that I do not wish Harriet to become involved with a man such as yourself.” Her duty done, once again she turned to leave.
And once again he stopped her, clasping her wrist lightly. “And what kind of man might that be?” he asked with a teasing smile.
She shook off his hold. “I need not explain the particulars to you, sir. Your reputation is one of long standing. Surely you know what you are.”
“Would you like tea, Miss Russell?”
She was taken aback, by his invitation and the manner of its delivery. His deep voice was inexpressibly attractive‑amiable and gentle as though she’d not just disparaged him, as though they were friends and social equals. Which they clearly were not. Reminded of the vast disparity in their stations, prompted as well to recall his reputation for charming women, Claire replied, briskly, “No, thank you.”
“Ratafia? Women like it for some reason.” His grin was boyish. “I would dearly like you to stay and speak with me‑about your sister,” he added, as though in afterthought. “You’re not afraid, are you?” he murmured. “I assure you, much as you may dislike me, I do not, I think, have a reputation for violence to women.”
Nor would he have to, Claire decided, succumbing partially to his avowal…and perhaps to his great beauty as well. His black hair was artfully arranged in stylish disarray, his dark, heavy‑lidded eyes were mesmerizing, his stark features were saved from harshness by his provocatively sensual mouth. Nor would he ever be judged effeminate even with his glorious looks, for he was all honed muscle and strength. Even elegant evening rig could not disguise the athletic power beneath the superb tailoring. She looked up to find his amused gaze on her, as though he was familiar with female adulation. “I’m sorry, I really must leave,” she firmly said. Sensible by nature, she knew better than to trust an invitation from a man like Ormond.
“Let me see you home.”
“That won’t be necessary.”
“Do you have a carriage outside?”
“No.” He knew very well they couldn’t afford a carriage.
“Surely I would be remiss if I didn’t offer you safe transit at this time of night. We could find a duenna if you wish. I have a housekeeper somewhere on the premises.”
Would he think her completely ludicrous if she refused such an innocuous offer? Was she indeed foolish to reject a ride home at this time of night? How much did decorum and propriety matter when she was at risk on the streets?
And he had offered a chaperone.
Perhaps his smile or his grand handsomeness‑or perhaps his effortless charm‑weighted her decision. Or maybe it was the simple delight she felt in having a man look at her the way he was…after so long. Whatever the reason she heard herself saying, “Very well. Thank you for the offer. Truth be told, it was a bit frightening making my way here tonight.” Terrifying in fact‑the night streets of London were not for the faint of heart. “I confess I ran most of the way.”
“You didn’t bring a maid or manservant?”
“No.” She hadn’t dared; if anyone else knew of Harriet’s indiscretion it could have meant her ruin.
“Ah,” he said, softly.
“You know very well why.” Suddenly aware of a strange, restive light in his eyes, understanding a chaperone from his household might not be completely trustworthy, she lied without a qualm. “I left a note for my aunt should something untoward befall me.”
“I see. Very prudent, I’m sure. Does that mean I may dispense with rousing my housekeeper from her sleep?” He smiled, his gaze once again benign.
She hesitated, trying to reconcile her lie with his query. “If you give me your word,” she finally said.
“Of course, you have my word. Shall we?” Crooking his elbow, he offered her his arm, fully aware she’d not defined the exactitude of what she meant by his word . Nor had he.