The creative force behind the ton’s most dazzling events, the three sisters of Elegant Occasions know plenty about fashion, food, and the perfect setting—but there is always more to learn about love . . .
As a viscount’s heir, Rafe Wolfford is obligated to take a wife someday. But she must be the right sort of wife—not too independent, and not inclined to delve into his escapades as a spy. The forthright, perceptive Lady Verity is altogether the wrong choice. But Rafe’s courtship is merely a ruse to discover whether Verity or anyone else associated with Elegant Occasions is leaking crucial information to the French. That mission is all that matters—until fate, and desire, intervene.
After enduring one disastrous engagement, Verity won’t easily open her heart again, preferring to devote herself to Elegant Occasions. Rafe is charming, handsome, and kisses like the very devil, but she knows he’s harboring secrets. Still, when her ex-fiancé tries to ruin her reputation, Rafe offers his hand. For the sake of her family and business, Verity has little choice but to accept. Yet turning this arrangement into a true marriage will require daring and trust—which neither will embrace easily, making surrender all the sweeter . . .
“Thank you for your bids,” Verity told Mr. Wolfford as they left her nosy family behind. “I know that the Foundling Hospital can well use the funds.”
“I’m glad to hear it. Before I came to this affair, I looked into what they do and how. They seem a very noble cause.”
An uncomfortable silence fell over them. Feeling his intent gaze on her, she took a deep breath. “And thank you for bidding so high in particular on my dinner.”
“I told you, I’m curious to see how you manage it.”
“Two hundred pounds worth of curious?” she asked skeptically.
She looked up at him to find him staring ahead now. “I could not allow that . . . blackguard Minton to gain such close access to you. He’s proven himself untrustworthy.”
He sounded sincere. It rather surprised her.
“Yes, he has.” She halted outside the door to the drawing room. And now you get to prove yourself trustworthy, at least in this. “Here we are.”
They walked inside, and she noticed he made no attempt to close the door. That was a good sign. But neither did he take a seat or even lead her to one. Instead, he went to stand staring at her in the mirror. How very odd.
Suddenly, he turned to fix her with an assessing look. “There is one other thing I am even more curious about than whether you can succeed at creating a meal of ambrosia for me.”
“Oh?” she said, truly perplexed.
He came closer. “I wish to know what it would be like to kiss you.”
Normally, that would send all her protective instincts on high alert. But he said the words so emotionlessly, as if he were bent on attempting an experiment, that she had to tamp down an urge to laugh.
Then the finances of the situation struck home, and a chill came over her. Oh, why must he be like every other man in her world?
She forced lightness into her voice. “I see you expect a great deal for your high bid, sir: a lavish meal and a kiss. Or did you assume more—that your bid earned you the right to do as you please with me? Because I assure you, my favors are not for sale, so if—”
“No!” he cut in, looking genuinely chagrined by how she’d taken his words. “No. Forgive me, that’s not what I meant at all. Obviously, I’m not explaining this very well.”
“Clearly.” She crossed her arms over her chest. “So, what did you mean?”
He steadied his shoulders. “Look here. I don’t really care about the meal. God knows, I’m not known for my refined palate. Indeed, I would gladly give the same monies to the Foundling Hospital for no other reason than that it’s a good cause, and tell you to keep whatever funds you need to create the dinner. No offense.”
“A-All right.” This had to be the oddest conversation she’d ever had with a man.
A muscle worked in his jaw. “But you are the first woman I’ve met in Society whom I find interesting.” He edged nearer. “The first I have ever considered kissing. Most are predictably snobbish, and I’m . . . well . . .”
When he trailed off, she understood. “An orphan at heart,” she said softly.
His gaze shot to her and he stiffened. “I was going to say, ‘a former soldier,’ but I suppose ‘an orphan’ will do.”
He looked uncomfortable and proud all at the same time. It was rather endearing. If she could trust it. “I see.”
Now he looked agitated. “Forget I said anything. I’ll pay the money for the dinner to the Foundling Hospital, and to make up for insulting you, I’ll not expect you to create it. Because I really didn’t mean to imply—”
“Here’s the thing.” She searched his face, but it was clear he had ventured into an area he wasn’t sure of, and wished to retreat. Which entirely changed how she felt about his request. “You want a kiss, and I want not to be treated like a . . . lady of the evening, giving out my favors for money. So, how about this?”
She ventured closer. “I will still give you what you paid for—the meal—since it is, after all, what you bid on, and I have just enough pride in what I do to want to prove my abilities to you. But since I, too, am a bit curious about how you kiss, we will both kiss as something utterly unrelated to your bid. Will that suit?”
“Any arrangement that ends with us kissing is amenable to me.” When she started to bristle, he said hastily, “I don’t mean ‘arrangement.’ Damn, what a poor choice of words. Great, now I have cursed before a lady.” He groaned. “I am very bad at this, aren’t I?”
She raised an eyebrow. “At what?”
“Flirtation. Courtship.” He waved his hand into the air between them. “Whatever this is. Sir Lucius warned me that I was, and I scoffed at him.”
He’d talked with Sir Lucius about courting her? How very intriguing.
“But apparently, he was right,” Rafe said testily, “and I am a dunderheaded fool.”
“You are, indeed.” Trying not to laugh, she walked up to kiss him lightly on the lips. “But that needn’t keep us from kissing,” she said with a smile. “Now it’s done, and neither of us need be curious about it.”
“Done?” he said, a sudden glint in his eyes. “Hardly.”
Before she could even think, he settled his hands on her waist, pulled her close, and pressed his mouth to hers again. Her heart flipped over. This was a better kiss than her own and masterfully done. He toyed with her lips, his breath mingling with hers, warm and fragrant with the smell of cloves.
“You taste good,” he murmured against her mouth, and as if to emphasize that, he tugged lightly on her lower lip with his teeth.
“You smell good,” she whispered before he covered her lips with his again, more forcefully this time.
He smelled heavenly, to be honest, his scent some heady, masculine mix of bay rum and cinnamon that made her light-headed. Or perhaps that was the kiss, now fierce and tender by turns. Never had anyone given her such a kiss.
Basking in the pleasure of it, she slid her arms about his waist, her eyes sliding closed all by themselves. He ran the tip of his tongue over the seam of her lips and coaxed them apart, then plunged his tongue inside her mouth.
Oh, help. That was very wicked. Lovely. Different. Intoxicating. Her cheeks were aflame, and her blood was, too. Especially once he began to slide his tongue in and out, as if to possess her. She wasn’t used to that sort of . . . bold behavior. It made her want to be bold, too, to slide her fingers through his silken, wavy hair and feel his hands on her in unacceptable places . . .
The sound of talking in the hall made her pull away from him, a bit regretfully. It was Diana and Geoffrey, conversing more loudly than normal and not so subtly warning them to behave.
He didn’t alter his stance an inch, though his hands did fall to his sides. But his eyes—those glorious silvery eyes—bore into her and then fixed on her mouth, which still tingled from their kisses.
She shook off her reaction. Realizing that her sister and brother-in-law would think it odd if Mr. Wolfford and she remained quiet, Verity said in a carrying voice, “So, you see, sir, even if you don’t prefer sweets, we find that a little sugar works well in the sauce.”
He looked at her, uncomprehending, and she poked him.
Then it apparently sank in. The beginnings of a smile on his lips, he drawled, “I find that a little sugar works well in just about anything.” He had the audacity to reach out and trace her lips with his finger.
Naughty man. Removing his hand from her mouth, she flashed him a chastening look. “Anyway, I have a list of questions you can answer, as I mentioned before. If you’ll give me your direction, I’ll send them to you, and you can write out your answers at your leisure.”
“Of course. At present, I’m at the Albany.”
That caught her off guard. Only the best of Society’s bachelors had taken rooms at the Albany since it had opened nearly ten years ago. Poets, politicians, and playwrights had all graced its halls, and so had a duke’s son or two. She could hardly imagine the Phantom—if that’s who he was—there.
Unless he was staying in someone else’s rooms as a guest, which was certainly possible.
She listened a moment, but it sounded as if Diana and Geoffrey had moved on. “They’ll be back soon,” she said in a low voice. “So, why don’t we decide when the meal should take place, and I can return to my family before you’re . . . we’re tempted to do any more . . . er . . . experiments in flirtation.”
“I like the experiments.”
“So do I,” she conceded, “unwise though they may be.”
“They didn’t feel unwise.” His eyes gleamed at her. “Surely, one more won’t hurt.”
Her heart began to pound so loudly in her chest that she feared he might hear it. Not once in their courtship had Lord Minton ever made her want like this.
All the more reason she should refuse. Which was why she groaned when she heard herself say, “Very well. One short one.”
Without even answering, he stepped forward and took her in his arms. And just before his mouth came down hard on hers, she saw the hunger in his expression, felt that same hunger course through her own body, and knew at once she was in trouble.
Because gluttony was a sin, and she was about to sin most grievously.