Ten Kisses to Scandal – Vivienne Lorret

Today was the day. Briar Bourne knew it the instant her feet slipped into the cool confines of her lucky ivory slippers and a zing of breathless exhilaration scurried through her. In a matter of an hour, she would have single-handedly launched the family business into greatness. The ton would soon be buzzing with excitement, beating a parasol-armed path to the doors of the Bourne Matrimonial Agency. And all because Briar was about to secure the most elusive bachelor in London as their premier client. But first, she needed to look like a capable and confident woman of the world, and not a debutante sneaking out of her family’s rented townhouse. One could never underestimate the power of the proper attire. The right garments could alter the course of one’s life, turn a beggar into a shop clerk, a servant into the lady of the house, or—in Briar’s case—an underestimated youngest sister into a genuine matchmaker. Since the agency opened two weeks ago, Uncle Ernest, Ainsley, and Jacinda were the only ones with the important occupations. They interviewed the applicants, discovered their interests and beliefs, their hopes and dreams of happily-ever-after. Briar’s tasks, on the other hand, were essentially useless. She served tea and filed papers like any trained monkey. She didn’t even have her own office. At least, not yet. That was the reason for her predawn errand.

She was determined to prove that she could sling Cupid’s arrow as well as anyone else. Perhaps even better. After all, Uncle Ernest spent his time wooing nearly every woman he interviewed. Because of him, they had to establish a rule at the agency—never fall in love with the client. As for Ainsley, she was far too pragmatic. All of her facts about the clients were on paper, comparing one list to another. She was blind to the soulful yearning in the eyes of the few people who’d dared to cross their threshold. And Jacinda was far too skeptical. She investigated every client to ensure they were telling the truth, and not hiding dark secrets that could potentially destroy a marriage and family. But not everyone was like their father.

The problem with her family was that they were so caught up in their own agendas they didn’t realize that a vital component was missing from the agency—excitement. Wasn’t falling in love supposed to be the most thrilling of all experiences in one’s life? It should be celebrated with wine, showered with rose petals, and glorified with cascades on harp strings. Briar flung herself back onto the bed with a sigh, arms wide, imagining it. She would be the best matchmaker in all of London—no, all of England. Perhaps even the world! “They simply cannot understand how difficult it is to have such a wild, romantic heart beneath my breast without any opportunity to unleash it,” Briar said to the book propped up on the pillow beside her. The red leather tome of Emma—the second volume of three—had been a gift from Mother before her untimely death ten years ago. Mother had adored the story of Miss Emma Woodhouse and her matchmaking endeavors, often wishing that she’d had someone so clever to look out for her. Instead, she’d suffered years of betrayal. In the end, the heartbreak and agony had been too much to bear. And because of that, the Bourne family set out to make the right sort of matches for people based on love, trust, and respect, and to keep others from suffering her fate.

“I am determined to do my part as well,” Briar said, pressing a kiss to the cover before she stood and fastened a fawn cloak over her shoulders. At the door, she looked back once more and grinned. “Wish me luck.” In the ashen light of early morning, she quietly wended down the marble stairs, the soles of her slippers issuing the softest of whispers. Then, crossing the foyer, she stole outside into the thick autumn air, careful to leave the door on the latch. By the time she rushed down the whitewashed steps and onto the pavement, she was vibrating with excitement. She’d swallowed ten thousand stars, whole, and they were shimmering inside her. Never mind the frothy layer of fog hovering inches above their street in St. James’s. She was a light.

A force. Nothing could stop her. The disembodied clip clop of horse hooves and the telltale crunch of stone beneath iron wheels told her that there were, indeed, a few carriages about at this early hour. She only hoped one of them was a hackney cab. Though, in truth, she’d never hailed one before. They’d arrived in London only a few weeks ago, and before that she’d spent her life in a small Hampshire village. She was twenty years old but had yet to experience much of life’s delights. Mostly because her sisters were under the delusion that they had to protect her from the rest of the world. They claimed she was too romantic, too purehearted—as if those were inferior characteristics. Briar scoffed.

She would show them. And honestly, how difficult could it be to hire a cab? In the next few moments, however, she realized it wasn’t as simple as she’d thought. With the fog as thick as cotton batting, she was more likely to hail a foul-smelling, offal-brimmed scavenger cart by mistake. Of the two carriages that had passed by, neither had been for hire, but were owned by those who preferred to keep the shades drawn. Briar had overheard whispers about those kinds of people, the ones intent on gambling and carousing until dawn. She wasn’t entirely certain what manner of activity was involved in carousing but, since the word was always spoken in low behind-the-fan susurrations, she was sure it was decidedly scandalous. The very thought caused a frisson of wanton fascination to skitter through her. Whatever it was, she wanted to experience it at least once in her life. After all, in order to become a successful matchmaker, she needed a full understanding of . well, everything.

Hearing the deafening jangle of rigging and a shouted gee—o echo off the surrounding stone façades, Briar knew this was her chance. And suddenly, a pair of grizzled horses broke through the fog, their heads bent low as they hurried around the corner. Lifting her arm in a quick gesture, she hailed the blue-coated hackney driver. This was happening just as she had planned! Soon, she thought with a grin, she would be the one the ton hired to help the Fates along. Yet, as she waited, she watched in puzzlement as the driver came to an abrupt halt across the street in front of Sterling’s, an elite gaming hell. She lowered her arm. Strange, but she’d watched others make the same gesture and it usually brought the driver directly to them. Hmm . she wondered if there was a trick to it. A flick of the wrist.

A waggle of fingers, perhaps. Whatever it was, she was determined to learn it. Once this morning’s venture was successful, surely she would need to perform many errands for the agency. Briar Bourne—matchmaker of the ton’s elite. With very little traffic to impede her progress, and not a single other hackney cab in sight, she lifted her skirts to rush across the cobblestones. Yet, spying the rank foulness in the gutter, she realized that her lucky slippers weren’t designed for haste. And since the last thing she would ever do was meet a future client in soiled attire, she slowed her progress. “My good sir,” she called out, but the jarvey did not answer. His head was turned in the opposite direction, his attention caught by something toward the pavement on the other side. Repeating herself, she added a forceful push of authority to her usual breathy voice.

“Aw shove of , why don’t—” He stopped the instant he saw her, jaw slackening. Quickly doffing his weathered hat, he pressed it against the center of his chest and blinked. Brows arching high, a slow smile revealed a few stained, narrow teeth between the gaps. “Beg pardon, miss, sometimes I think without speakin’.” Briar believed he meant to say it the other way around. But by the age of sixteen she’d learned that drawing attention to such a slip tended to tongue-tie a man even more, so she did not mention it. Though, realizing that her hood had dipped to her shoulders, she lifted it over her pale blond hair as she continued. It would do her no favors for someone to see her without a chaperone. “I should like to hire your cab, if you please.” “Blast me, but the gent already tossed up his coin,” he said with obvious regret and a jerk of his head to the other side of the carriage.

Oh. Apparently, one had to be quick with the coin to hail a hackney. She would remember that for the future. As for now, however, she fully intended to see if the “gent” might be willing to relinquish his claim over this one. Wasn’t that precisely what a resolute matchmaker would do in this situation? Offering a nod to the driver, she walked around the carriage toward the footpath, minding the hazards of horse dung. The copious quantity was likely due to the near constant flow of eventide traffic that stopped in front of the gaming hell. Even now at this early hour, another carriage—a fine, glossy black with gilded coronets on the corners and wheels trimmed in red—lined up behind this one. A wealthy patron, to be sure. If only the Bourne Matrimonial Agency had such problems. Soon, she thought.

Stepping onto the pavement, she was ready to address the gent. But Briar stumbled to a halt instead. Now, she understood why the hackney driver was stalled in this spot. His fare was otherwise engaged. Or more to the point, he was in the throes of . of kissing. At least, she presumed it was kissing. Though, to her, it appeared as if the raven-haired man was slowly devouring the plump brunette in his arms with open-mouthed bites of her lips, feeding on the sounds of her moans. His hands—and rather large, ungloved hands, at that—molded over the woman’s curves as if he were mapping every inch of her terrain. But a cartographer, he was not.

Since they were in front of the gaming hell—where Briar had overheard mention of private rooms for their clientele—she believed he was another type of man altogether. A rake. Cheeks scorching, she turned away, her breath coming up short. She closed her eyes to . to what? To allow the couple privacy? To pretend she hadn’t seen their passionate interlude? She wasn’t sure. The truth was, she could still see those hands in her mind, long-fingered and dusted with dark hair near the wrists, and she couldn’t help but wonder what they were doing now. All she had to do was look, of course. It wasn’t as if her sisters were there to clap a hand over her eyes as they had done countless times before. But wait . By turning away, Briar had just done the same dratted thing to herself! Irritated by her own unconscious act, she faced the pair of lovers again.

But that was a mistake. Her presence had not gone unnoticed. The man was now watching Briar, and while he was still feasting on the woman. Briar should look away this time, surely. Shouldn’t she? It was rude to stare, after all. It should not matter that his eyes were captivatingly dark, his irises the color of polished ebony wood, rich, exotic, and filled with a lifetime of experiences she could not even fathom. Still, she should definitely look away. And she would, most assuredly. As soon as he stopped looking at her. The fringe of his black lashes lowered as his gaze roamed the length of her, following the parted fabric of her cloak to the azure blue sash tied beneath her breasts and down the pleats of creamcolored muslin.

A rush of heat traveled through her, taking the same path with the flickering burn of a candleflame. Once he reached the tips of her slippers peeking out from beneath her ruffled hem, she expelled a tight breath, feeling as though she’d endured a trial by fire. But he wasn’t finished. His gaze reversed direction. Unhurried and thorough, he gave a sense that he could see through her skirts well enough to trace the scalloped pattern embroidered along her stockings. Her pulse followed, leaping in staggered places like fireflies winking in the night. And when his gaze locked on hers, something heavy and taut shifted in the pit of her stomach, tilting. She pressed a hand over her midriff, and warmth simmered in his erudite expression as if he knew precisely what was happening beneath her skin. Better than she knew herself. His lean, angular cheek lifted enough to reveal a fissure, bracketing one side of his mouth.

Indeed, that smirk said. I could teach you all sorts of things—wondrously wicked things. She wanted to be appalled by him. Outraged. Yet, she was trapped between mortification and being wholly mystified. After all, she’d never had a front row seat to debauchery before. It was quite fascinating. Oh and scandalous, of course. “Oy, see here!” the driver called down. “This ain’t no private, at-your-leisure coach, sir.

I’ve got another fare waitin’ if you ain’t leavin’.” Briar startled, a fresh wave of embarrassment flooding her cheeks. Thankfully, her hood concealed her rapt countenance from the driver of the hackney, leaving the rakish man watching her as the only witness to her inexcusable ogling. “Yes, as . as a m-matter of fact,” she stammered, her tongue oddly thick, “I require the use of this carriage. Clearly, you are not in need of it. Quite yet.” The man arched a brow, the crease beside his mouth deepening as he broke the kiss, but not before settling a crimson hood over his companion’s head, securing her anonymity. In turn, the woman fell silent, averting her face toward the waiting carriage. Reaching into his pocket, he then passed a handkerchief over his damp, arrogantly cocked lips before he gave it to the woman.

Straightening, he was much taller than Briar first imagined, his lean frame outlined seamlessly in the fit of his clothes—a black evening coat with brushed lapels, a gray silk waistcoat, and snowwhite cravat with a smear of scarlet lip rouge near the angled ridge of his jaw. He was older, too, her senior by at least ten or twelve years. The sharp precision of his features and the emphatic wealth of his aquiline nose kept him from being handsome, at least by any classical standards. And yet, he was arresting and fascinating in a way she didn’t comprehend. But she wished she did. Such an understanding, she was sure, would only aid her in her ultimate plan. It could be argued that one could not make matches for perfect strangers when one possessed only a rudimentary knowledge of her own nature. “From my perspective,” he said to Briar, “you did not seem in a great frenzy to depart.” The sonorous timbre of his voice tunneled through her in a series of low vibrations, one after the other. Against her midriff, her hand curled over the muslin.

Yet she wasn’t certain if she meant to quell this foreign sensation or to savor it. “Well, I was,” she said crisply, not appreciating the intimation that she’d enjoyed watching his amorous exploits. When those ebony eyes glinted with amused disbelief, she realized that she’d spoken in the past tense and quickly amended with, “I am still.” She even went so far as to take a step toward the door. But he did the same, a challenge in the arch of a single brow. Unfortunately, he was on the correct side, and his companion stood in Briar’s path. “That may be true. However, I’m afraid she requires this particular carriage and cannot share it. She is, without question, in a rush.” “No more than I—” Before Briar could finish, he opened the door and guided the woman up the folding step and into the dark interior with such efficient expertise it might have been his occupation.

Or perhaps, he was so accustomed to sending women away at dawn that the gesture came to him by rote. Ignoring Briar’s outraged gasp, he closed the door succinctly. Then, stepping around her, he tossed another coin up to the jarvey. “The lady will give you directions.” Without argument, hesitation, or even a by-your-leave to Briar, the driver snapped the reins and set off. “I saw him first.” The inane, immature statement tumbled forth before Briar could take hold of her annoyance. Drat! She hated being treated like a child and yet here she was sounding like one. But she despised unfairness in any guise and being the victim of it tended to bring out her less-than-favorable characteristics. The rogue’s unrepentant gaze raked down the length of her once more, making her conscious of the fact that she’d set her hands on her hips, her cloak parting like a display curtain in a shop window.

Instantly, she huffed and lowered her arms, letting him know that she was not offering up her wares. No, indeed! “Yes. But I paid him first, love. Besides, I do not imagine you would have any difficulty procuring another hack. No doubt you are quite accustomed to obtaining whatever you wish by way of your feminine wiles.” “My . my wiles? How dare you, sir! I practice no such arts. When I procure another cab, it will be from pure determination and nothing else.” He clucked his tongue in an outrageously familiar manner while his hand absently brushed leftover flecks of pearlescent powder from his lapel. “We are strangers and as such, there is no cause to deceive the other.

You’ve clearly adorned your entire person in artifices that would gain admiration. After all, you could have worn a black cloak that would have made you less conspicuous on these streets. Yet you chose one that would highlight the golden color of your tresses, and the peaches and cream of your cheeks.” “You know nothing of the sort,” she snapped, seething. The fact that the thought had crossed her mind—though briefly—was completely irrelevant. Besides, black made her look far too pale. She simply had not wanted to meet a potential new client while resembling an ashen-faced ghoul. “Even your sash is the same cornflower blue as your eyes. And the rouge on your lips is designed to capture a man’s undivided attention.” Rouge! She’d been accused of being many things—naive, dramatic, and overly romantic, just to name a few—but never in need of enhancement.

Affronted, she lifted her hand, swiped her kid glove across her mouth, then thrust out her arm showing her unblemished fingers. “Sir, you have insulted my honor.” He dared to look surprised with a quick lift of his dark brows, his eyes narrowing in scrutiny as he stroked a hand over the shadow of stubble along the razor edge of his jaw. Then, apparently finding the entire episode amusing, his lips quirked. “Shall it be pistols or swords at dawn, love? I imagine you’re a fair shot with a pistol. Why, I can see murder in those fetching eyes right now.” “Make light if you wish, but this is not the moment to underestimate me. Had I such a weapon, you would be clutching your heart this instant and dropping to your knees. Fortunately for you, I do not have time for murder this morning.” She pivoted on her heel and faced the street, hoping another hackney would emerge through the veil.

“Do you always take offense when a man pays you a compliment?” “From a man such as you, it was most unwelcome.” Behind her, he answered in a low, husky laugh that tunneled through her in a decadent rush of warm tingles, effectively proving her a liar. She’d never encountered anyone like him, so bold and flirtatious, inciting her blushes as well as her ire as no true gentleman would have done. Her family had always endeavored to keep her in the company of those who understood the rules of propriety and lived by them. Yet this man was unfettered by such restraints. And the strangest part of it all was her own reaction to him. She was speaking her mind as she never would have done if he were a gentleman. In polite society, she embodied decorum and affability in every word and gesture. But here, cocooned in fog on the pavement in front of a gaming hell, she was rather shocked by her own impudence. “And what do you know of me?” She answered without hesitation.

“I’ve heard that those with sinful natures prefer the cover of darkness. Frankly, I’m surprised you are about at this time of day. Shouldn’t all rogues and roués be abed by sunrise?” “Only the fortunate ones,” he said in an even lower tone that altered the meaning of her statement, turning it decidedly risqué. “Men such as I, however, never sleep. It’s just a constant parade of sin all day long.” Part of her—and she would reprimand herself for this later—wondered what a parade of sin might look like. With such limited knowledge, her imagination didn’t even know where to begin. The notion was intriguing to say the least. But Briar had no time for murder or for random titillation. A carriage approached and she lifted her arm automatically.

But instead of seeing a cab for hire, a noisy landau lumbered past, shades drawn. Another spear of disappointment pricked her. She needed to hurry or she could miss her opportunity, and all her careful planning would come to naught. Where was a hackney when she needed one? The answer was obvious. Her hackney was a good distance away, and all because this man had appropriated the one that had rightfully been hers. She whirled around to face the culprit. “I shouldn’t be surprised that you never sleep, considering your tawdry public exhibition. It shocked me to the very core of my being.” “It wasn’t shock you were feeling in your”—he leaned in, his voice dropping to a seductive murmur—“core, but something else altogether, love.” His sinful gaze gleamed at her.

This close, his irises were not simply a dark ebony, but woven with slim striations of amber that gave them a lustrous sheen. Being snared by them, her skin grew taut, prickling with gooseflesh down her arms. “You really shouldn’t say such things,” she admonished on a breath, a wayward pulse fluttering at her throat. She felt her nostrils flare as she caught the cloying odor of a woman’s perfume rising from his black wool greatcoat—something dreadful with hyacinth and gardenia. But there was another fragrance, too—something richer, deeper, and entirely masculine. The musky aroma reminded her of leather boots warming by the fire, and of autumn leaves baked in the sunshine. An unexpectedly appealing combination. “Gee—o!” The call broke through the haze surrounding Briar, bringing her focus back to her purpose. Intent on one goal, she whirled around. She didn’t even bother to bid farewell to the stranger.

It wasn’t likely she would ever see him again, regardless. Slipping her fingers into the special pocket of her cloak, Briar grasped a coin. She held it aloft like a trophy as she stepped onto the street . and directly into a pile of horse dung. There was no denying that terrible, warm squish. No! This couldn’t be happening. Not now. And yet, it was. Lifting the hem of her skirt, she saw that her slipper had made a perfect impression in the brown-green muck. An involuntary whimper escaped her but she quickly shook herself free of dread.

There was still hope, after all. If she managed to raise her foot at the correct angle, then she might be able to save her lucky slipper. Distracted by her task, she didn’t realize the yellow carriage bearing down on her had no intention of stopping.

.

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