School for Scandal by Susan Johnson James Bell, Viscount Ormond, is a shameless rake, infamous for his skills in seduction--and Claire Russell doesn't intend for her sister to become his latest conquest. That is why she's come to the viscount's private masked ball. The flagrant sensuality and unabashed decadence on display there are shocking, but they are nothing compared to the scandalous fire Claire feels when James makes a wholly improper suggestion...improper, indecent, and very, very tempting...
The Ruby Kiss by Noelle Mack Susannah Fowler is in possession of many temptations--an independent nature, a quick wit, and lush curves. She is also in possession of a fortune in stolen jewels hidden within her favorite corset. If rakehell Carlyle Jameson wants it, he will have to remove it himself. From her boudoir...or from her body. One kiss ought to distract her, but one kiss leads to another and another, till there's no turning back...and no desire to try...
“You have no cause to be nervous,” the Countess of Cardington reassured under her breath. “We are among friends.”
Lady Sophie Milton-Riley managed a shaky smile against the lip of her sherry glass. “Nervous, grand-mère? Never.”
She was very nearly terrified, but refused to say so aloud. Her memories of Lord Fontaine were clouded by years and the distorted memories of a child. What she had were mostly impressions, those of a tall youth whom she’d fancied as a golden prince, albeit a rather stern one.
The countess shook her head and shot her “the eye”, the look filled with love that said she did not believe a word she was saying. Sophie leaned over and pressed her lips to a wrinkled cheek. “I intend to enjoy myself. I promise.”
“Good. Oh!” The countess straightened and her voice lowered. “Here he comes.”
Sophie glanced up as the Marquess of Fontaine entered the lower parlor. Her breath caught, and when his gaze sought her out, she reached quickly for the pianoforte behind her for balance.
Dear God, had he always been so handsome?
He smiled, and she set her glass down before she spilled its contents.
How the devil could she have thought he was a prince? Princes were mortal. Fontaine was a golden god, with a body built for carnal sin, wrapped in the chilly infamous English hauteur she had never forgotten. How he used to intimidate her with that steely-eyed stare!
And how very different was her reaction to that same stare now.
Who knew aloofness and aristocratic arrogance could be such a potent lure when mixed with the body and face of Apollo?
There was a very substantial reason why the Marquess of Fontaine was not suitable husband material for her. Sophie was willing, however, to set aside such vital concerns for a moment so that she could admire him properly.
It was one of the few benefits to being a woman with a scandalous reputation. She did not have to lower her eyes and pretend that she wasn’t struck nearly witless by his appeal. She could, instead, openly appreciate the male form approaching her with thoroughly masculine feline grace.
Sophie blew out her breath. Her childhood friend had grown into a man well worthy of the many hours Society dedicated to discussing him. He had always been an avid sportsman and his physique proved that he still was. His dark blue velvet jacket required no padding to enhance his broad shoulders, and his breeches were just tight enough to reveal powerful thighs, muscular calves, and…
Good heavens! She should not be staring there, scandalous past or not.
Jerking her gaze upward, Sophie focused on his lips instead. They were somewhat thin and given his inclination for…imperiousness…she had remembered them being rather stern. But they were nothing of the sort. Instead they were shamelessly sensual, curved in a way that teased a woman to make him smile. Or whisper shocking things.
Sophie’s problem was that she enjoyed shocking things. They were much more fun than nonshocking things, hence the present state of her existence.
The moment he came to a halt before her it became extremely difficult to breathe properly. She bowed her head as she curtsied, hiding her confused frown. After all these years, he still unnerved her.
With a furtive gaze, Sophie watched as the marquess charmed her grand-mère into blushing, then he returned his attention to her. She hoped she managed a semblance of a smile, but with her heart racing, she could not be sure.
“Lady Sophie,” Fontaine murmured, lifting her gloved hand to his lips. “A pleasure to see you again.”
She took note of his voice, which was deeper now and warm, so at odds with his rather formidable, icy exterior. How like him to be so starch-stiff and formal. And how like her to be so irritated by it. His composure had always goaded her to do rash things to break through it, and tonight was no exception. She set her hands on his chest for balance, lifted to her tiptoes, and pressed a quick kiss to his cheek.
“You look well, my lord,” she returned, meeting his shocked gaze directly. Her lips tingled, forcing her to wrinkle her nose. She recalled suffering similar reactions to him when she was younger, which had prompted her to tell him that she was allergic to his arrogance. His reply, if she remembered correctly, had been a snort.
“Shall we?” the dowager marchioness asked, gesturing across the hall to the dining room.
For a moment longer, Fontaine stared at Sophie with a narrowed gaze, then he gave a curt nod and offered his arm to the countess.
The rest of the evening passed in a blur of casual discourse and more serious discussion regarding Lord Hastings and India. The meal was impressive and served over many courses. From the marquess’s jest comparing the meal to the prince regent’s now legendary banquet at the Brighton Pavilion back in January, Sophie collected that his lordship recognized the aim to keep them seated and talking as long as possible. She wondered how he felt about her visit and if he realized, as she did, that that they were being paired. She needed to speak with him privately to know, and also to enlist his help. The dissuading of the countess and dowager was too great a task for one individual.
And so it was that Sophie found herself pacing outside Fontaine’s private rooms after everyone retired. As apprehensive as she was about meeting with him alone, she forged ahead out of necessity. There was no other solution. She required his assistance in extricating them from this shameless matchmaking. They could not marry–a man of the marquess’s station would never accept a woman in her circumstances, regardless of their past friendship–but neither could they simply point that out and be done with the business. The dowager and the countess knew everything, and it apparently had not swayed them. But if Fontaine was willing to work with her to prove her point, they could prevail.
She sighed and came to an abrupt halt before the door.
Fontaine was known for his impeccable deportment and faultless manners. She could not predict how he would respond to the gross deviation of propriety she had committed so many years ago. He had been polite and dryly charming at dinner, but they had witnesses then. Now they would be alone and perhaps his true feelings would be aired. She had suffered and survived malicious gossip and been ostracized. But Justin…
Sophie swallowed hard. Dear God, how would she bear it if he was cruel?
Of course, there was only one way to find out.
Sophie lifted her chin, squared her shoulders, and knocked on the paneled door.
“Mischief and the Marquess” in Perfect Kisses is a finalist for the 2008 Gayle Wilson Award of Excellence contest (novella category), which is judged by avid readers of romance, booksellers, and librarians.