Kessen bit her lip as she waited at the top of the stairs and heard the announcement of her name. Prayers were sent up in rapid succession as she focused on putting one foot in front of the other and not falling, or worse, bringing down her old grandmother with her.
Once she descended the marble staircase she looked up. Hundreds of people were gaping at her. It was as if while saying her name, the announcer had also pointed out she was, in fact, from America and was here to wage war against Britain. It was at that point Kessen was tempted to walk up to every Brit in the room and mumble, “God save the queen,” just so she could gain a little bit of respect.
Instead they eyed her suspiciously. “I have no knives! No nuclear weapons!” she wanted to say, but she didn’t. Rather, she smiled and was led to the first of the many groups of people her grandmother wanted to introduce her to.
Two hours into the ball, Kessen was feeling overwhelmed and fatigued. What she needed was coffee, but she didn’t want to embarrass her grandmother by actually saying it out loud. She would most likely be kicked from the highest social circles in disgrace, because of her ungrateful and stupid granddaughter who chose coffee over tea when she needed a caffeine rush.
She took a moment to figure out her options. Both refreshment tables were scattered with boring people she had already met, and the only way to her grandmother was through a young gentleman who had asked how much it cost to spend a night with her. No, thank you.
Then she saw it—a way out. A door was hidden in the far corner, and it led outside. Maybe if she just got a little fresh air she would feel better. Kessen darted to the door once the coast was clear and slipped outside, looking behind her to make sure nobody was following.
“Hmmmffff,” something masculine in front of her said. It was large and muscular and…
She closed her eyes praying to disappear.
“You know, you’ve actually done that to me twice now.”
“Ran into you?” she asked.
Christian laughed. “No. Closed your eyes in hopes of disappearing. It doesn’t work that way, America.”
She mouthed his words in a whiny voice and went to overlook the balcony. “I didn’t mean to run into you. I’m just tired, and there’s no coffee. And even if I wanted it, it would most likely cause great scandal. I love my grandmother and don’t want her getting kicked out of her bridge groups if people judge her based on my decisions, and—”
Christian had his hand to her mouth. ”My word, America, do you ever cease talking?”
She shook her head no, and then felt a little ashamed when her eyes welled up with tears. The familiar knot in her throat built up. Seeing her grandmother made her all the more sad about her mom, then the stress of the night and knowing that she had a tendency to cry when she was tired made her feel like she was riding an emotional rollercoaster.
Something in Christian’s eyes changed. The blue icy tones turned almost sincere and warm as he smiled and removed his glove. He was absolutely the most handsome man Kessen had ever seen. Had he just been touching her mouth? Had she just been blabbing about her grandmother getting kicked out of bridge?
She started to back away from him in sheer horror of her behavior when he tugged her arm and said, “Follow me.”
Now, in her books she had read this was a big no-no, but honestly, that was during Regency times. There was no possible way they held people to the same standards nowadays. Surely people who snuck away together without chaperones weren’t forced to marry. But just in case, she kept a few feet away from him as he led her to the back of the house.
He let himself inside and opened the servant’s door to another, larger room. It was the kitchen. Kessen fought to keep the welling tears from streaming down her face.
“What you need,” he said, searching cupboards, “is sugar and caffeine. Aha!”
Kessen peeked around the cupboard to see what he was holding.
It was sugary nutty spread sent from the gods.
Pure joy radiated from her face as she grabbed the tiny jar from him. “Is it wrong that I kind of want to cry right now?” she asked.
He laughed. “Tears of joy?”
She chuckled, taking the spoon from him.
They both dipped spoons in the jar and ate at least half of the remnants before they caught bustling around the front entrance. They ducked quickly behind the counter and heard servants mumbling to themselves.
“I don’t know what the big deal is. So what? She’s American. She’s probably some spoiled rich heiress who thinks she can do whatever she likes, because her father is a Newberry. It doesn’t mean I have to like her, or that I have to enjoy serving her.”
The other servant laughed. “And did you see what she was wearing? We aren’t running a brothel here.”
The chatter ceased as they left the kitchen.
Kessen suddenly felt sick. Christian’s face darkened. “That was rude of them. Don’t listen to anything they say. They’re servants. It isn’t their place to say anything of that manner. They were completely out of line.”
She shrugged. “It’s fine. Really. I mean, I can’t control how other people view me, but I can control how I respond to them, right?” She smiled weakly and got up from the floor.
“Wait,” he snapped at her. She jerked her head up to meet his gaze. “Pardon me for saying this, but your ball hasn’t exactly been the great success it deserves to be.”
Where was mean Christian? She liked mean Christian better, the one who hated her. This one was unpredictable and undeniably attractive.
“Follow me,” he barked, dragging her through the main door.
“Um, Christian? I don’t think … um—”
“Stop talking,” he insisted, pulling her through crowds of now gawking people. “We are going to dance.”
With that, he grabbed her hand and led her across the floor. Kessen was curious as to why every single person in the room seemed to have their mouths open, but chalked it up to the harlot-style dress she was wearing. Hopefully the tape was still secure; otherwise, they were going to get a show.
Christian’s gaze smoldered, making her shift uncomfortably in place. If looks could kill, those maids would be dead. His body seemed to be radiating heat in all directions. It was like a magnet; her own body heat responded wildly to his. It felt like torture to keep her hands from running through his hair, down his back—anywhere, just to touch him.
What was she thinking? This was the same man who dropped her off three days ago and insulted her and called her stupid.
Then he smiled.
His teeth were straight and real, and it was maddening.
The dance ended, yet he didn’t let go. Instead, he tucked her arm into his own and led her off the floor to where her grandmother proudly stood.
Kessen was about to introduce Christian when her grandmother interrupted her.
“Oh, my love! I knew you would keep your promise!”
Kessen looked from Christian to her grandmother blankly. “Promise?” she asked.
Her grandmother was beaming. “To dance with the future duke, of course!” she exclaimed, looking towards Christian with marriage-filled eyes.
Kessen whispered to her grandma. “Was your punch spiked, Grandmother?”
“Oh, posh!” Her grandma swatted at her. “So sorry, my lord. Her American humor is sometimes odd.”
Kessen felt her face redden as she looked up at Christian with a tense smile. “My lord?” she asked, her voice slightly wavering.
“At your service.” He bowed over her hand and kissed it. Kessen did not miss the amusement on his face as he released her fingers.
“I, uh…” She couldn’t find words; they seemed somehow locked in her fuzzy brain. “I thought you worked for Newberry and Co.”
It was hands-down the best night of Christian’s life, and the look on Kessen’s face was the highlight. She had no idea, but of course she didn’t. He hadn’t told her his las
He hadn’t meant to do it this way; in all actuality, he had it planned out a lot better. His original idea was to torture her with his presence until she slapped him in front of the most powerful people he knew. But after the comments heard in the kitchen and the look of bravery on Kessen’s face, he realized he couldn’t go through with it.
Instead, he decided to save the day, and was enjoying that decision immensely.
“He does work for Newberry and Co., dear,” her grandmother answered emphatically. “Christian Vandenbrook has been an asset to your father’s operations here in London.”
Kessen’s grandmother winked in his direction. It took all the strength he could muster to keep himself from laughing.
Kessen’s face had paled again. She actually looked quite ill. “Vandenbrook,” she repeated softly. For some reason, her lips saying his last name gave him an odd twinge of pleasure. He liked it.
“Vandenbrook?” she said, a little higher pitched this time.
“Time to go!” he announced, grabbing her hand for another dance.
“Wha—?” Kessen’s vocabulary was slowly deteriorating.
“America, I had no idea you could be so eloquent. Tell me, is it my title, my fortune, my good looks, or my ability to save you from this disastrous event which is the reason for your inability to speak?”
She didn’t answer. She glared. He loved it. She continued to glare throughout the entire dance. He would die a happy man, if a girl would treat him like he was the scum of the earth. How he tired of women who were constantly trying to impress him.
Kessen Newberry didn’t care about him. In fact, she probably despised him, which ironically put him in an even more cheerful mood—which he didn’t think possible.
Looking into her eyes meant he might actually start to like her, so he attempted to grin at those staring at him from around the room. “Kessen, you should stop glaring at me. People will think we hate each other.”
“They’ll be correct,” she seethed, though her expression was flawlessly beautiful and lit up in quite an enchanting forced smile.
“Was that so difficult?” he murmured against her ear, sending irritating shivers down his own spine.
She let out a fake laugh. “You have no idea how much I loathe you.”
“The line between love and hate is very thin, America.”
She clenched his hand tightly. “I want to cause you bodily harm.”
He grunted. “Spoken like a true American woman. Tell me, do you ever stop thinking and analyzing and talking long enough to just be?”
“Just be. I don’t know—exactly what you were created for, to just enjoy the moment.”
She sighed. “If you want me to tell you I enjoy dancing with you, you can just say so.”
“No, sweetheart, I don’t think I need you to tell me anything. Your body says it all.” He felt his smile deepen as the crimson crept all the way down her neck.
Her arm pulled possessively around his neck as she leaned in and whispered, “I despise you.”
“Like I said before, hate and love are divided by a very fine line.” He leaned in close enough to kiss her, then panicked when he realized that was exactly what he wanted to do. Her mouth was enough to distract anyone with two eyes. It was held in a tight little pout, which just begged to be opened.
He shook the thoughts from his head and abruptly turned away. Thoughts like that had no place in his mind right now. He needed to be concentrating on work, his impending marriage, anything rather than the beautiful creature dancing with him. She would be nothing but trouble anyway. Newberrys were notorious for their opinionated family members, and from meeting her, he could tell she was already forming many opinions of her own about him and the rest of London.
And who hates London, of all places? Of course, he hadn’t actually helped the situation much, since he verbally ostracized her for ordering coffee instead of tea, but he couldn’t help himself. She was so cocky and ignorant.
He twirled her around once more and kissed her hand. “Until we meet again, America,” he said while bowing deeply in front of her.
Kessen’s chest was rising and falling as if she had just run a marathon. He knew she wasn’t out of shape. One could tell she worked out on a daily basis with the way her dress was hugging her. No, she was furious—at him. If he didn’t fix this, she was going to make a fool of herself in front of everyone, and her grandmother would suffer the consequences.
He suppressed a smirk before grabbing her hand and tucking it again into his own. “How about another walk?”
“I’d rather not.”
“I’m not giving you a choice.”
“There’s a shock,” she grumbled, yet followed him outside to the gardens again.
“Not that I’m one for scolding,” he volunteered. “I feel the need to remind you that you have a reputation to uphold as a Newberry. Your grandmother is exceedingly proud of you, though I can’t see the many reasons why. You should try to conceal your emotions better. You Americans have always struggled with wearing your hearts on your sleeves.”
She rolled her eyes. “Funny. According to you, I don’t have a heart.” Her head tilted to the side, adding to the sarcasm, but also making her neck look like the most graceful thing Christian had seen in years. Her skin was just the right amount of tan against the moon. He found himself holding his hand back so he wouldn’t reach out to touch her skin.
He turned around again and swallowed, regaining his lost composure. “My opinion doesn’t matter.”
“Finally something we agree on,” she interjected.
And then he touched her.
He shouldn’t have; he knew it was a bad idea, but he had forgotten his place, and she had stepped directly in front of him. Did she think he was made of steel? He was a red-blooded male after all, and what normal man wouldn’t take this opportunity?
He was touching her. Why was he touching her? Worse, why did she like it? His hands no longer had gloves on them as they reached around her neck and stilled. It was as if he were trying to see how big her neck was, which was not romantic at all, except for the fact his eyes were dark as the night sky when he looked into hers. The heat from his hands sent waves of pleasure all the way down to her toes.
She inwardly cursed, for her mind and body had betrayed her. She tried to pull away, but found her legs wouldn’t respond to the message her brain was relaying to them. Instead, she waited for him to say something, but he seemed frozen in place, as if their very touch froze a moment in time for only the two of them to enjoy.
She jumped when she heard a rustling in the bushes. A small white bunny hopped a few feet away, breaking the spell and making her realize how stupid she had been. Hook, line, and sinker, she fell for his trick. His touch nearly undid her. Her head whipped back to his, and before she had time to think about it, her hand met his cheek with passionate intensity.
“What’s wrong with you? You can’t just go about trying to seduce people in gardens! It’s not—done,” she stammered.
He opened his mouth to respond, but she interrupted again.
“And don’t think just because you have this silly little archaic title I would even consider looking twice at you. I don’t care who you are or what you do. I will not be manipulated or taken advantage of. I’m smart!” She continued rambling, only this time she was pacing in front of him. “And I know you think I’m just some stupid American, but I graduated from Harvard and Yale. And yes, okay, so maybe I read romance novels, but I also read the Wall Street Journal. I was voted most likely to succeed, and at the age of twenty, I had already made enough investments on my own to retire, for crying out loud!” Her fists were clenched so tightly she could feel the blood draining from them.
And kiss him back she did. Her hands went possessively through his chestnut hair. She tugged at the little strands and felt his kiss deepen as she did so. Gasps for air were heard from both, but neither of them stopped the scandalous embrace. What was more surprising was she was enjoying this kiss more than any kiss before. Apparently, it was the one thing British men were good at.
His tongue tasted her lips then dipped inside her mouth, teasing every sense she possessed. Her body was on fire. Whatever he had awakened in her—it felt good. It wasn’t until moments later they finally broke apart, and it wasn’t because either of them wanted to stop.
No. It was because someone had cleared a throat.
Kessen was too mortified to even look. Christian, however, looked beyond pleased with himself, making her want to slap the smug grin directly off of him. He turned to face the person standing at the door and paled immediately.
Kessen’s curiosity got the best of her, and she slowly moved her head to where Christian was looking. It appeared the night could in fact get worse, when she realized her own grandmother was standing at the door with an older gentleman at her side.
“Love,” she said evenly, “I would like you to meet the current Duke of Albany, William Vandenbrook.”
Christian cursed under his breath then disclosed, “My father.”
“Swell,” she croaked.
Now if her life were a book, which it obviously was not, this would be the point in the book where the grandmother would be outraged and tell both guilty parties it was time for them to get married. News would spread throughout the ton until everyone knew their shame, and she would become the future Duchess of Albany, all the while falling in love with her betrothed and thanking her lucky stars for making her follow him out into the garden.