Innocent’s Nine-Month Scandal
BOOK 2 in the Barsi on Fifth Duet
“If you’re pregnant…
…you’ll marry me.”
Control is everything to billionaire Viktor Rohan. Then Rozalia Toth appears on his mansion’s doorstep, looking for a family heirloom, and throws his world into chaos! Her sweetness intrigues him beyond measure…and as their inescapable chemistry explodes, Viktor realizes Rozi’s innocence isn’t an act! But their passion has consequences, and Viktor refuses to let scandal ruin his family again. Their baby will be legitimate! And Rozi? She will be his…
Be sure to check out Book One, A Virgin to Redeem the Billionaire. Gisella tries to buy one of the earrings from Kaine only to learn he has a grudge to settle with her family–and expects her to compensate him.
He thought of artwork that depicted angels of grace and goddesses of fertility, none of which had ever caused such a brilliant thrust of heat to swell in him. Oh, yes, this one was definitely his.
— Viktor, Innocent's Nine-Month Scandal
You may want to read my notes on A Virgin to Redeem the Billionaire for how the idea for this duet came about.
After writing Book One, where Gisella loses one earring to Kaine, I now had to conjure a story for Rozalia, the mousier cousin, who winds up in Hungary, confronting rich, titled, gorgeous Viktor Rohan–who thinks the earrings were stolen, not gifted to her grandmother as Rozalia has always believed.
In some ways, writing the second of a linked book is easier than the first. A lot of the world-building is done. I knew a lot about Rozi’s family and back story. I knew certain things had to happen right away. For example, in Book One, Gisella takes a call from Rozi that is quite dramatic. I don’t want to spoil it, but I knew all the things that had to happen leading up to her making that call, so the first half of the book wrote itself.
Then. It. Stalled.
Fortunately, I was able to lean on my other child, Sam. He happened to call when I was groaning about my story hitting a rough patch. I said, “They’re in a mountain cabin, there’s a village in the distance. I’m not sure if they should go on a date or what. Usually dates are glamorous affairs.”
He said, “What if there’s a wedding or celebration in the village. There are lights in the trees and music playing and they go dancing.”
My hero! I wrote the scene and, sadly, several rewrites later, deleted it, but it got me writing when I was stuck. Rozi soon has more to worry about than whether she’ll take an earring home. She might be carrying the next Rohan heir!
As for who possesses the earrings in the end? I’ll let you read the books to find out.
We happened to be in the car with my daughter and her boyfriend while they were visiting us for Christmas 2017. I said to my daughter, “I need to brainstorm a duet idea. I was thinking of two heroes who are rivals for some reason and I want the heroines to be cousins, but that’s all I have.”
After further discussion, Delainey said, “What comes in twos? How about something with a pair of earrings?”
When it comes to brainstorming, I trust my gut and my gut immediately loved this idea! I knew the heirloom earrings had been separated somehow and the cousins are trying to reunite them. But why? And how did the heroes wind up fighting over them?
I decided fairly quickly that the earrings had belonged to the heroines’ grandmother. She sold one in Hungary to come to America and sold the other when she got to New York, to start her new life. Her granddaughters, Gisella and Rozalia, want to buy them back for her. They’ve been searching for years.
In Book One, Gisella learns the New York earring is going up for auction. She arrives to bid on it only to learn Kaine has bought the entire estate and all its contents in one fell swoop! After all these years, she’s been denied.
So has Viktor, the hero of Book Two. This is how the men become rivals. Kaine isn’t interested in picking a fight with Viktor, but he can’t let go of the earring he now possesses. It’s leverage against Gisella and he has a score to settle with her family.
Does he score with Gisella? I’ll let you read the book and find out.
share this excerpt!
Innocent’s Nine-Month Scandal
“No entry, Miss.”
The middle-aged man in a uniform spoke in heavily accented English. He wore an air of boredom, not even looking at Rozalia Toth as he turned her away from the gate of Kastély Karolyi.
“The best photos are from up the hill.” He pointed.
She couldn’t blame him for thinking she was one more tourist milling on the sidewalk, eager for shots of the gorgeous architecture here in Budapest. On her way to the gate, she had snapped the front of the Rohan family home, thinking to show it to her family when she got back to New York.
It was so beautiful, who could resist? Intricate gray brickwork was covered in centuries of vines and framed by lush old maples and oaks. The scrupulously manicured flowerbeds splashed color around the wide staircase that formed the covered entryway. Tall windows were spaced evenly across both floors with wrought iron balconies jutting out from a few at the top. Adorable round gables and a chimney on top made it storybook perfect.
She would have been charmed even without the familial connection—of which hers was virtually non-existent. Even so, she intended to exploit it.
“I have an appointment with Mara Rohan,” she said in Hungarian.
“Rozalia Toth. She’s expecting my cousin, Gisella Drummond. I’ve come in her place.” She had thought about emailing ahead to warn about the change of plan, but had gambled they would be less likely to turn her away if she was here in person.
She gazed on the house again, listening to the guard radio her name, sorry that Gisella couldn’t be here with her. Through childhood and years of schooling, as they both gained their degrees and apprenticed as goldsmiths, they had longed to see their family’s ‘old country.’
Rozalia, in particular, had always been curious about the family history. But rather than walk the narrowest alleys of Budapest to find the walk-up where their grandmother had been born, or drive into the countryside to locate her own grandfather’s birthplace, she had been drawn here to Kastély Karolyi.
Istvan Karolyi would have been her grandfather if he hadn’t died in the revolution. Instead, he was only Gisella’s grandfather. Their grandmother, Eszti, had been pregnant by him at university. Istvan asked her to marry him, offering a pair of family earrings in lieu of an engagement ring. He then sent her to America ahead of him, to escape the unrest. He died before he could join her and Eszti later married Rozalia’s grandfather, but still held a small torch for her first love.
That sort of titanic romance went straight to Rozalia’s soft heart. She needed to know everything about it.
And, like Gisella, she yearned to get her hands on those earrings. They had searched for years for them, wanting to give them back to their grandmother so she could hold again that token from her first love.
A message came back to the guard that Mara Rohan had left town. The guard asked if someone else would take the meeting.
Rozalia perked up in anticipation that Mara’s son, Viktor, would admit her. He was gorgeous. And a Count, not that Hungary allowed their nobility to use their titles, but it was one more thing that made him ultra intriguing.
From the moment Rozalia had searched his name, she’d been enthralled with the look of him—all dark and brooding with short black hair, a strong brow line and a squared off, clean-shaven jaw. His mouth was the most intriguing. His upper lip was narrow, but formed with two well-defined peaks. The bottom was full and biteable—not that she had ever let herself go enough to nibble on a man’s bottom lip, but he certainly put the idea into her head.
One near-naked shot of him on the beach had jump-started a million fantasies. She was only human, for heaven’s sake. He’d been caught as he emerged with snorkel and fins in his hands, the most impossibly small bathing suit straining to cover his naughty bits. The rest of him was pure muscle, abs flat, dark nipples sharpened by the chill against the swarthy plane of his chest. His expression as he realized he was being photographed was positively filthy, he was so disgusted at whoever had taken the shot.
Why that made her laugh, she didn’t know, but she had been drawn here as much by the opportunity to meet that man as she was by the chance to acquire her grandmother’s earring.
The security guard received a response and shook his head, repeating in English the message she had understood in Hungarian as clearly as he had.
“Your appointment is cancelled.”
So much for showing up in person making it harder to turn her away. Rozalia set her back teeth and found a pleasant smile. “May I reschedule?”
“No.” He didn’t bother checking with the voice on the radio for that one.
“May I leave a note?”
His cheek ticked, but he let her stand there and scribble in her notebook. She said she was sorry to have missed the chance to speak with the family and that she would be in the city for several more days, then added the name of her hotel and her contact details.
She tore out the sheet and handed it to the guard. He would no doubt crumple it, but she thanked him and started back to her hotel.
She waited until she was out of his earshot before releasing her disparaging snort.
She had spent a decade tracking her grandmother’s earrings. She wasn’t about to give up that easily.
Viktor Rohan was mentally sorting a dozen priorities as he left Rika Corp and descended the stairs toward his waiting car.
A young woman, a backpacker, if the map she held was anything to go by, stood chatting up his driver. The spring breeze pressed the fabric of her T-shirt against her modest chest and lifted the waves of her loose, brunette hair away from her creamy complexion. She wore no make-up, but sunshine was all she needed. That buttermilk skin would light up any room—most specifically a darkened bedroom.
Viktor didn’t begrudge his driver a personal life, but for some reason, as his employee leaned in to make a play for this one, Viktor bristled. A compulsive, This one’s for me, resounded in him.
He had grown out of picking up women, especially young, free-spirited ones, back when he’d still been nursing scorn over an adolescent heartbreak. From his mid-twenties on, he’d preferred the convenience of longer-term arrangements with women in his social circle. Now that he was hitting thirty, however, even those comfortable situations came with expectations of a more serious future. His own mother badgered him ceaselessly to marry and produce an heir.
Perhaps his interest in this pretty traveler was reflexive push-back against his mother’s latest efforts because he found himself mentally rearranging his priorities again, now allowing for a shared dinner this evening—with plenty of time allotted for other potential entertainments to develop.
His driver snapped to attention and hurried to open the back door of his town car.
The woman turned to look at him and stilled as though transfixed. A slow smile filled her expression with even more light. He thought of artwork that depicted angels of grace and goddesses of fertility, none of which had ever caused such a brilliant thrust of heat to swell in him.
Oh, yes, this one was definitely his.
“That saves me going inside to ask for you.” She came toward him, hand extended. “I’m pleased to meet you, úr Rohan.”
She spoke in Hungarian without accent, but something told him she was American. He took her hand the way a cat snared a bird that flittered too close, pulling her in, determined she wouldn’t get away.
Then she spoke again, and the hunter inside him went from playful to bloodthirsty, claws extending.
“I’m Rozalia Toth. Do you have time to speak with me?”
Viktor Rohan dropped her hand like she was made of fire. It was a shock when she was still reeling from that initial touch that had set her alight. The spark of generic attraction she’d experienced for an online image flared to sharp fascination as she faced him in person. A compulsion to know everything about this man welled in her.
“No,” he answered with the look she had seen in that beach photograph, like he thought she was something irritating. Abhorrent, even. Definitely far beneath him. “How do you have the nerve to chase me down like this?”
He was so much more dynamic and dangerous in real life. An air of potent virility came off him along with ruthless command of his surroundings. It took everything in her to keep her faculties and respond, “I had an appointment with your mother. She promised to show me an earring that once belonged to your great-grandmother, but cancelled at the last minute.”
“You aren’t the one who made the appointment and I advised her against making it, not when you haven’t even offered an apology.” He turned to step into the space of the open car door.
“You’re right. I’m sorry. I should have been clear that I took Gisella’s place.”
He swiveled a look on her that should have sent her head rolling into the street. “I meant an apology from your grandmother. For stealing our family heirloom.”
“What? Grandmamma didn’t steal those earrings. Why on earth do you think that?”
He narrowed his eyes. “I don’t think it. I know it.” So confident, as if it was a proven fact. He folded himself into the back of his car.
“Wait! That’s wrong.” She pushed herself into the space behind the door, so his driver couldn’t slam it without breaking her shins. She braced a hand on the top of the door as she leaned her head down. “Your great-uncle gave them to her as an engagement present.”
“How is that possible? He was dead before they went missing. Joszef,” he said sharply.
The driver, who’d been doing his best to charm the socks—and everything else—off her a minute ago, set his hand on her arm.
Rozalia had long ago learned how to shake off a grope in the subway and cast a warning look that had any man stepping back in defense of his chestnuts. The driver did exactly that, one hand blocking his fly on reflex.
She also knew better than to get into cars with strangers, but that’s exactly what she did. She pushed into the back seat like she was taking the far chair in a row at the theatre.
It was rude enough, and startled Viktor enough, he grabbed her waist to steady her. His strength was undeniable, but what froze her in place was the impact of his touch. For a moment, they were eye to eye, nose-tip to nose-tip, practically about to kiss.
His eyes were grey as an ashen sky, moody and ominous without any hint of blue. And dear Lord he had an erotic mouth.
Her hand was on the leather seat next to his thigh, but she longed to brace against the well-developed ball of his shoulder. Touch the heat of his neck. He smelled of something woodsy and spicy, fine wool and the barest hint of brandy.
All of that combined with the flash in his stormy gaze to give her the vertigo she experienced looking down from tall buildings. The flip-flop in her stomach warned of a life-threatening fall even though she knew she was perfectly safe.
“Sir?” Joszef said.
With a muscular twist, Viktor dumped Rozalia onto the seat beside him.
“Close the door,” he said.
He settled his arm along the back of the seat so he was angled toward her, silently asking, What now?
Because she was trapped. The luxury sedan had a roomy interior, but it became unbearably small and airless. She felt enclosed with a panther. A hungry one. Her feet were still tangled with his and she carefully withdrew them to her side of the car.
“Are you finished work for the day? Can I buy you a drink?” she asked. Somewhere reputable and crowded, preferably. “I’d like to talk this out. I always understood that Istvan died after he gave Grandmamma the earrings.”
She was using her conciliatory ‘I’ statements deliberately. The family didn’t call her their number one mediator for nothing.
“You’re wrong.” No compromise in his tone. “She came to the house after he was killed, stole my great-grandmother’s earrings, sold one to escape to America and sold the other one when she arrived.”
Now she was growing annoyed.
“My grandmother is a very kind and honest person. She would never steal and certainly wouldn’t lie, especially to family. I don’t know how the story got so twisted. How did you even wind up with one earring? How long have you had it?”
“My grandmother Dorika dealt in art during Soviet times. She came across it and knew how rare and valuable it was, despite it only being one of a pair.”
Rozalia frowned. “Didn’t she recognize it as her mother’s?”
“She was on my father’s side. My mother is the Karolyi descendant. And yes, Dorika knew immediately it was Cili Karolyi’s. Anyone else would have broken the setting to sell the stones, but she tucked it away as a bargaining chip.”
If she wore pearls, Rozi would have clutched them, she was so appalled by the thought of the setting being broken. But, “What kind of ‘bargaining chip?’”
“Enticement when she arranged my parents’ marriage. She knew my mother would want it. Those earrings should have passed down through the women in our family.”
He was trying to make her feel guilty about her grandmother’s supposed theft, but she was caught by the rest of what he’d said.
“She arranged your parents marriage? I didn’t know that was a thing that was done here.” Aside from an Asian friend at school who had complained about her parents’ attempts to fix her up, Rozalia hardly ever heard of people adhering to that old custom.
“This level of success isn’t accidental,” Viktor said dryly, flicking a hand to indicate the car’s leather seats and privacy window, its polished wood-grain trim and the touch screen computer mounted for his convenience. “It comes from generations of strategic alliances. Not from handing off priceless family jewels with a marriage promise to dishonest peasant girls.”
Rozalia let her jaw hang open so he could appreciate the full extent of her affront. “Easy to see why your mother had to be bribed into marrying that sort of charm.”
Dang. She hadn’t meant to reveal the temper that got the better of her sometimes. She looked like a pushover, but she wasn’t.
Nevertheless, the way his cheeks hollowed with thinning patience and his gaze frosted over gave her pause.
“What did you hope to accomplish by coming here, Ms. Toth? You’re wasting my valuable time.”
She scraped together her own patience, trying to salvage this trip. “I want to make you an offer for the earring.”
“No.” Flat and unequivocal.
“At least let me see it!”
“Why not? Even if Grandmamma had stolen it, which she didn’t, what’s the use in punishing me for that?”
“Why do you want to see it?”
“To take photos.” She searched for her most reasonable, professional tone. “I’d like to appraise it properly.”
His brows went up.
“I’m a fully qualified gemologist and goldsmith.” She had apprenticed with her Uncle Ben at Barsi on Fifth, the shop her grandfather had started after arriving in America. “I make custom pieces all the time. I’d like to take the measurements of the stones and grade them, make some sketches. If I can’t purchase the original, I’d like to recreate the earrings for my grandmother. She’s quite elderly.” She also had health problems that had given them all a scare this winter, making it that much more imperative Rozalia succeed in her mission. “If I could give her that much, it would make her very happy.”
“Aside from the fact I have no investment in your grandmother’s happiness, am I to understand you want to make a copy? My mother has considered that several times, but the one-of-a-kind rarity is part of the earrings’ value. She’d rather have the authentic match and own the only pair. I’m in the process of acquiring the other one.”
“Are you?” she asked with enough skepticism to turn his expression even stonier.
“You don’t have the other one,” he said with confidence.
She affected a casual shrug. “Not yet, but my cousin is in San Francisco right now.” Probably getting shot down by a man Gisella considered to be her mortal enemy, but Viktor didn’t know that. Rozalia held Viktor’s gaze while the pressure of his simmering anger nearly compressed her blood to a solid inside her veins.
“I suggest you advise him against getting in my way.” His gaze slid to the fabric bag she had been carting around on her shoulder and held slouched in her lap.
“Her,” Rozalia corrected with a blithe smile, not bothering to dig out her phone. She couldn’t move. He would see she was trembling at the intensity of this confrontation. “The women in our family are very persuasive.”
“We’re also very stubborn.” She showed him the point of her chin. “I could call her, but Gisella is as determined as I am. Probably as determined as you are, seeing as she’s Istvan’s descendant and carries Karolyi blood. I’d say that gives her as much right to the earrings as you have.” She blinked with innocence.
“Is she as foolhardy as you? Throwing herself in the way of a man with my resources?”
Rozalia refused to betray the see-saw of fear and exhilaration sending shivers through her whole body.
“If the earring is your mother’s, she ought to be the one who decides whether to sell it to me. I only came here because she canceled our appointment. Why don’t you call her and reschedule our meeting? Us womenfolk can work it out amongst ourselves.” Yes, she assured him with a smile, she was patronizing him.
“My mother had to run to Visegrád. She won’t be back for a week, at least.”
“To see your Great Aunt Bella? Istvan’s sister?” Rozalia had planned to track down all the family members if she had time, but—
“Do not interfere in my family, Ms. Toth. I will make your life very uncomfortable. In fact—” He pulled out his own phone and tapped to signal voice activation. “Text Kaine Michaels,” he ordered, then dictated, “If you sell that earring to anyone but me, I will become a bigger problem than any you already have.”
He hit the screen and a whoosh sounded.
Rozalia internally winced at the complication she’d just caused her cousin. Sorry, Gizi.
“Look, I didn’t come here for a war.” Time to try placating again. “Is it so unreasonable that I’m curious? Your mother was willing to talk to me. Why won’t you let me buy you a drink and ask a few questions?”
“Because I don’t like liars, Ms. Toth.”
“When have I lied to you? I’m exactly what I appear to be. A long-lost relative—”
“You’re not my relative,” he stated with enough force it pushed her back an inch.
On the surface, it sounded like a rejection. Part of her was even a little stung by his vehemence. He didn’t want to be associated with her, which was very insulting. Her brain was already gathering to make a haughty reply.
But as she met his gaze, a current of electricity crackled between them. His words took on new meaning. Even a necessary truth.
Her grandmother had been pregnant with Istvan Karolyi’s daughter, Gisella’s mother, when she came to American. Rozalia’s mother was the product of Eszti’s marriage to Benedek. All of Rozalia’s fascination with the Karolyi connection was wrapped up in the romance of the story. She didn’t have a drop of blood tie in it.
Which made fantasizing about this man’s bottom lip okay. Or rather, it was still a dumb thing to do, but at least it wasn’t morally wrong.
Staring at it, she found herself longing to soothe the tension from the wide shape of it, lick and discover his taste and textures, feel his mouth cover hers and—
A strange light grew to a hot gleam in his gaze.
She realized she was leaning in.
With a small gasp, she pulled back, but he stayed exactly where he was, moving nothing but his eyes. He took his time sliding his perusal down her clean if wrinkled T-shirt and clean, faded jeans. Her chest grew tight, nipples stinging. Heat burned into her loins. Finally his gaze came back to what had to be a culpable expression on her face.
“Where are you staying?” His tone had gone from sandpaper to whiskey.
She swallowed. Licked her lips, drawing his gaze to her own mouth. Oh, dear.
“Um.” For a second, she honestly couldn’t recall. Then managed to give him the name of her hotel.
He dismissed it with a curl of his lip. “My place then. We’ll have dinner. You can show me exactly how persuasive you claim to be.”
Viktor watched the pert Ms. Toth sit straight, looking wary and disconcerted when a moment ago, she had been looking very…receptive. Her delicate scent had closed around him as they’d sat here, beguiling with its notes of vanilla and fresh air, sunscreen and something sensual and light and a tone he instinctively identified as her.
“You’ll show me the earring?” she asked, eyeing him while showing him her profile.
“I’ll give you an opportunity to tell me why I should.”
A pause, then a small, decisive nod. “Fair enough.”
He knocked on his window and told his driver where they were going. Then he wondered what the hell he was doing. Picking up a student taking a gap year would be bad enough. This woman was dangerous.
Not that she looked it. She projected innocence with her casual clothes and naked face. She chewed the corner of her mouth as though having second thoughts.
The virgin act wasn’t normally his thing, but there was something in the way she nervously licked her lips that made desire dig sharp talons into his vitals. It wasn’t a hunter’s instinct to plunder the helpless. That wasn’t his thing, either. Rather, he sensed she was quietly fighting a betrayal of her attraction toward him—one that exactly matched the sexual heat he was struggling against.
That was compelling.
In those seconds when she had looked at his mouth, silently begging him to ravage hers, he’d nearly given into… Hell, had he ever felt such anticipation for a woman? His emotions had been buried alongside his brother, never to be resurrected. But as the hunger in her gaze had fixated on his lips, he’d felt something other than cynicism and the relentless press of obligation.
He had seen, oddly, an open door to freedom, when every other woman struck him as the bait inside a cage.
This one had to be bait as well. She came from duplicitous stock, he reminded himself, redonning his cloak of skepticism. He didn’t doubt she was the granddaughter of the woman who had stolen his great-grandmother’s earrings, given the way she had misrepresented herself to steal into today’s appointment. This doe-eyed innocence had to be an act to throw him off whatever it was that she really wanted.
It was very likely the way her grandmother had got the better of his great-uncle. Family legend had it that Istvan’s thieving lover had claimed to be carrying a Karolyi bastard to gain entry to the house. The only reason his mother had agreed to meet Gisella was to ensure there wouldn’t be any scandalous—and false—claims against the estate. There was such a thing as DNA testing and his mother had intended to insist on it.
Was that why Rozalia had come instead of the woman who would have had to undergo a blood test? He wondered what she really wanted. It couldn’t be merely a glimpse of an earring. He would spare his mother the work of getting that answer by taking Rozalia Toth to Kastély Karolyi himself.
When they arrived, he had his driver pause to tell the gatekeeper to get rid of the paparazzi at the fence. As they carried on up the drive, beneath the bower of branches, he caught Rozalia sending him a pithy look.
He lifted a brow in query.
“They’re just tourists, aren’t they?” she said. “The house is listed in a guide book as one of the best preserved examples of classic architecture in Eastern Europe. I took a photo myself when I was here earlier today.”
Something in that remark jarred, but he was also reminded of why he was of such interest to long-lens photographers right now. Damn his mother and her matchmaking and rumormongering. In her quest to see the next heir produced, she had singled out the daughter of a family friend—one of many associations cultivated over the last twenty years with the sole purpose that his mother would have the pick of the litter when the time came.
Trudi, an heiress from Austria, was suitably finished at boarding school. She excelled as a socialite, walking the line of interesting without being scandalous. She wrote freelance fashion articles and managed charity events for her father’s auto manufacturing corporation—one that dovetailed nicely with some of Rika’s steel interests. Viktor had had dinner with her twice. Both evenings were pleasantly civil and ended in an underwhelming kiss.
Yet his mother insisted on sowing whispers of a forthcoming announcement, trying to nudge him along. Trudi had signaled her interest by subletting a penthouse here in Budapest while she ‘helped’ her friend curate a fashion line due out this fall. Mostly that involved making appearances in high profile clubs and other trendy nightspots, amplifying her name so as to create the biggest splash in the headlines when the time came to announce their engagement.
Thus, the jackals were closing in, hoping for the scoop of the year. It increased his trapped, prickly mood, feeding his compulsion to break free of expectations.
“Wow!” Rozalia said as they left the car and walked up the steps into the receiving hall. She flashed him an excited grin that invited him to cast off his brooding tension and join her in her enthusiasm. “It’s like walking into a museum.”
He rarely noticed the grandeur, but now took in the inlaid marble floors that were the craftsmanship of a nineteenth century Italian master. Ornate mahogany trim and enormous gold-framed mirrors lined the walls. Chandeliers hung from a ceiling with murals and intricate plaster work.
“Clearly built for impressing visitors,” she murmured, lifting her gaze to the massive staircase. “I can picture all the ball gowns and powdered wigs. My cousin goes to the Met for their big events, but weddings are the only thing I’ve attended that are at all extravagant. Can you imagine what it must have been like?” She laughed at herself. “Maybe you know exactly what it’s like. Do you have many balls?”
They were speaking English and he heard the double-entendre.
“The usual amount,” he replied dryly.
After the briefest confounded pause, she burst out laughing. It was, quite simply, the most beautiful laugh he had ever heard. He couldn’t recall the last time he’d heard anyone laugh in this mausoleum. Not since he was a child. Her laughter echoed to the second floor ceiling, seeming to catch in the chandelier and make it shiver with musical delight.
He was so caught by the sound, by the light and liveliness in her face, he felt his chest tingle with an urge to chuckle—which definitely hadn’t happened since he was a child.
His butler, Endre, arrived to sober them. Endre offered to take the sorry looking bag weighing her shoulder.
“To where?” she asked with a blink of surprise, then decided with a flashing smile, “I’ll keep it.” She set the worse-for-wear eyesore on the sofa as they entered the parlor, making Endre look like a dog whose tail had been stepped on.
They ordered drinks. Rozalia asked for pálinka, the Hungarian fruit brandy.
“When in Rome?” Viktor presumed.
“We drink it at family dinners. I could use the grounding influence right now. I’m having a hard time viewing this as your home. I wish Gisella was here to see it.”
Rozalia was feeling like such a fraud. Like the poor cousin she had always been, standing in glamorous Gisella’s shadow. Of course this was her cousin’s heritage. She loved Gisella to pieces. In some ways Rozalia was closer to her than she was with her actual sister. She and Gizi were the same age and shared the same passion for metallurgy and gemology. Also for the lore of Grandmamma’s earring and the determination to reunite the pieces and gift them to the woman they adored.
But Gisella was a willowy, stunning, spoiled only-child. She wouldn’t goggle in a place like this. She would assume she belonged here—which to some extent she did.
Rozalia, not so much.
She turned from glancing out the windows that faced the front gardens and saw that Viktor was watching her the way a cat watches a mouse when it was too lazy to leap just yet. Biding his time.
She searched for resemblance to her beloved cousin, hoping the familiarity would reassure her, but only found a superficial similarity in coloring and height. He was a lot colder and more imposing than anyone she had ever encountered in her life.
Gisella would know how to handle him, though, no matter the tensile sexuality he wore like armor. Gisella took male admiration for granted and used it.
Rozalia had never presumed men were genuinely attracted to her. Too many had tried to use her as a stepping stone to get to Gisella. It wasn’t Gisella’s fault that she was a beacon and Rozalia a fence post, but being overlooked left a mark, every time.
That’s why she was confused by Viktor’s sudden desire to dine with her. She was quite sure she had been the only one affected in the back of the car earlier, but he’d made this invitation sound vaguely sexual. If he was the least bit interested in her, it was only because she was here. Convenient. He had a reputation as a playboy and she had enough experience with players to recognize them.
What she didn’t have experience with was feeling so drawn in by one.
She moved her gaze to the paintings before she started acting besotted again. She was confronted by a cheeky nude—literally a gathering of young women in a walled garden showing their backsides to the viewer. The rest were serene seascapes, fruit bowls, and peasants haying a field.
“You mentioned your grandmother dealt in art? I don’t recognize these, but they’re obviously masterpieces.”
“My father was her only child. My mother pilfered everything from his family estate and brought it here. Her mother was next in line after Istvan. There was no one else to inherit this house.” He paused, daring her to contest that.
Rozi wasn’t here to make claims for Gisella’s mother, only asked, “Is the furniture reproduction? Or originals?”
“Both. Our most heavily used is reproduction.”
She noted the escritoire that was likely an authentic Louis Quinze. “I’m a nut for tiny drawers and hidden compartments,” she admitted, firmly grasping her hands behind her back as she examined it. “I’m going to let myself believe there’s a key to a secret passage in one of these.”
“We had to lock it. To keep the ghosts from haunting the rest of the house.”
After an exaggerated gasp of delight, she said, “Thank you.”
His mouth twitched, but their drinks arrived before she could coax any more humor out of him than that one dry comment.
As they took their drinks, she made herself meet his gaze, no matter how disturbing, and say, “Egészségére.”
He repeated it and they sipped.
“Is it too bold to ask you to tour me around?” she asked.
“You wish to case the place?”
“No.” Was he serious or joking? So hard to tell. “I’m an artist. I’m interested.”
“That’s a lot of hats. I thought you were a gemologist and a goldsmith.”
“I’m midway through a Masters of Fine Arts in Metalwork and Jewelry Design.” Did she take satisfaction from the slight elevation of surprise in his brows? Heck, yes, she did. “I work fulltime for my uncle, making custom jewelry he sells in the shop my grandfather started. Barsi on Fifth? It’s quite well-known in New York.”
It might not have been featured in the title of a movie, but it held a similar reputation and was frequented by the same upper class clientele.
“I know who your uncle is,” he said blithely.
“Then you know he wouldn’t hire me on nepotism alone. He expects me to constantly fill the well, which is why I’m continuing my education. But all art is inspiration for my own work. I would hate to miss this opportunity to study the masters who came before me, even though their disciplines are different from my own.”
He cocked his head in a small nod, relenting, and waved toward the hall where they had entered. He took her first to a music room where the brass pipes of an organ reached toward the sixteen-foot ceilings. A wall of double-doors opened into the adjacent ballroom, which was straight out of Beauty and the Beast.
“In answer to your earlier question, we host charity events and the odd film crew shooting a period piece.”
“I love those.” She moved into the center of the parquet floor and turned a slow circle, taking in the white walls with gilded trim, blue velvet curtains over the leaded windows and the chandeliers dripping with crystal. “What a dizzying place to live.”
“It’s an expensive obligation. I’d be fine with a modest apartment.”
She bet his definition of ‘modest’ was a lot different from the one she occupied. Even so, this was only one of his many homes. What were the rest like?
“I’m a romantic, I’m afraid,” she confessed as he led her out to a hallway of portraits and vases that were so colorful and ornate they should have been gaudy, but were perfectly tasteful in this surrounding. There was a chill in the air, though, and a faint scent of disuse. “I never want to hear that it’s actually cold as Hades to live here, even in summer. Or that back in the day, they had to use outhouses and drank bad water.”
“Mmm. I don’t know whether you’ll be pleased with this room or not, then.” He took her into an enormous dining room. It was very stately and beautiful, but distinctly chilly and empty. It held only a circular table with eight chairs upon an enormous rug. The windows looked onto the front grounds. “There’s a compartment in the floor where a table for forty is kept. At different times, people have hidden there.”
“Like you? Playing hide and seek when you were young?” She came from a big, lively family, but recalled at the last second that he had lost his only sibling, an older brother, when they’d been young men.
“Or you meant in wartimes?” she hurried to add, trying to smooth over her gaffe.
“Both of those.” His expression remained inscrutable. “And the odd lover.”
“Oh, I do enjoy hearing about skeletons in the family closet,” she said with relish.
“Never found one of those. They always seemed to get out.” He sipped the drink he carried.
She chuckled, more out of relief since his dry sense of humor gave her the impression he was relaxing a fraction. Not that she would call him affable. Not ever and certainly not to his face.
“They must be a consequence of arranged marriages. Lovers, I mean.” She was teasing him a little, but also wondering if he really planned to succumb to such a thing.
“A consequence of being human, I’d say.” He wasn’t standing that close, but she suddenly felt the heat of his body. The lazy half-lidded look he gave her made her pulse thrum in her throat.
Would he resort to that, she wondered? If he succumbed to an arranged marriage?
She pushed the rim of her glass against her unsteady mouth, wondering what he would think if she told him she was a virgin at twenty-four. That she had made a pact at thirteen with her cousin to wait until they found a man they could truly love. It had partly been inspired their grandmother’s great love for Istvan, but for Rozalia, it was more personal. She needed to be sure she gave herself to a man who wasn’t secretly wishing she was Gisella.
“You come from a love match, I presume?” he asked, leading her into a smaller breakfast room that looked onto the back garden. It was still a showpiece, but much warmer and lived-in with fresh flowers and a cut-crystal salt and pepper shaker on the lace tablecloth.
“My parents are deliriously in love,” she said with a grin of affection, moving to the windows that likely caught the morning sun, making for a relaxed start to the day. “But I will concede such a thing to be impractical.” She threw that over her shoulder, then tilted her head to reconsider her words. “Actually, my parents are impractical people, so I don’t know if one correlates to the other.”
“Impractical how?” He came to stand next to her and pointed out the window to the hexagonal windows that formed the roof of a squat, round building. “Like that sort of folly?”
“Why is it a folly? What is it?”
“A conservatory. My mother insists the staff keep it up, even though we can buy orchids for a fraction of the cost of heating that monster.”
“May I see inside it?”
He drew her into a hall where casual jackets hung over a boot bench, then opened the door she suspected was referred to as the service entrance. Faint kitchen noises came from behind a closed door. Looking along as she went down the outside steps, she saw a formal veranda obscured by a privacy hedge.
He was showing her the ‘home’ part of his house, which gave her a sense of privilege and made her warm to him even though he remained very aloof.
Cool evening air surrounded them as they crossed to the door of the conservatory. She hugged her arms across her chest, hiding the way her nipples pushed against the fabric of her T-shirt, glancing nervously to see he’d noticed.
If anything, his attention made her nerve endings tingle all the harder, becoming even more sensitized and receptive. She had never reacted so elementally to any man before in her life. She kept wondering if this was how her grandmother had felt around Istvan—enthralled and ensnared. Helpless to powerful attraction. Desperate, even. Like me, want me. She didn’t want to be that needy, ever, but couldn’t hide from herself that he stoked that compulsion in her.
They entered the conservatory. It was humid as the tropics in here. She inhaled the earthy, dank undertones layered with heady floral aromas and a fragrance of citrus and herbs.
“I love the smell.”
His nostrils twitched and his chest expanded. He grew pensive. “I haven’t been in here for years.”
“I would be in here every day if it was mine.” She looked to the glass ceiling partially obscured by the fat leaves of exotic jungle plants. “This must be amazing in the winter. Oh, butterflies! How magical. You really are the luckiest person to have this.”
“There were birds once. Tomatoes were protected in that section and berries there.” He pointed to some cold frames. “My brother and I got into them. Left the doors open. The birds got into the berries and the cat got after the birds. We were banned after that.”
She smiled, heart squeezed by the memory. It sounded so beautifully human. She wanted to hear more, but his expression stiffened and closed up as though he regretted sharing.
“We grew a garden every summer,” she said. “My mother always put up her own preserves—even though you can buy canned peaches off the shelf for half the price.” She teasingly threw his words back at him.
“She didn’t work?”
“She had four children. It was work, trust me.” She rubbed a sage leaf and dipped her head to draw in the scent. “But being a stay-at-home mother was her dream. She was a daughter of immigrants and grew up in the back of the jewelry shop, mostly raised by her half-sister—Istvan’s daughter, Alisz.”
She copied his beat of silence, offering him a moment to argue that while sending him a look that told him he’d have an argument on his hands if he did.
He only lifted an unimpressed brow, not intimidated in the least.
She licked her lips and continued.
“Mom wanted to give us what she felt she had missed. She even day-cared Gisella. Mom didn’t take any money for it, either. Even though Aunt Alisz would have paid a nanny so she wanted to pay Mom. Even though we could have used the money. That’s what I mean about my parents being impractical. My mom viewed caring for her sister’s child as simply what you do for family. Maybe it was even payback for Alisz watching her when she was little. But Aunt Alisz didn’t have to work. Her ex-husband is quite well off. Aunt Alisz wanted to pursue her academic career, though. My mom supported her aspiration by looking after her daughter.”
The way he looked at her, eyes narrowed as he weighed and measured all her words, made her wonder if she should repeat it in Hungarian.
“What does your father do?” he asked.
“He runs a non-profit office that finds housing for the homeless.”
“It sounds as though you come by your romantic streak honestly.”
“I really do. ‘Pursue your dreams and you’ll never work a day in your life’ is the family motto.”
“Dreams don’t fill stomachs.”
“Tell me about it. But we’re not completely without sense. My older brother is a volcanologist. A wanderer, but gainfully employed at least some of the time. My younger brother swims. He still lives at home, but he’s training for the Olympics. That’s a full-time job in itself. Our baby sister has applied to Julliard for dance and she’s also very talented, so why shouldn’t we encourage her?”
Rozi leaned in to smell a lily. As the heady perfume filled her nostrils, velvet grazed her nose. She jerked back. “I always do that. Do I have pollen on my nose now?”
He brushed his fingertip against the tip of her nose.
Such a jolt of electricity went through her, she drew back sharply, tucking her chin and touching the spot herself to soothe the lingering burn. A myriad of feelings swirled through her. Self-consciousness, sheepish amusement, something uncertain and shy as she reacted to the most innocuous of caresses from him.
Did he think her horribly gauche?
He wasn’t laughing. His shrewd gaze seemed to delve all the way to her soul.
“And you chose to keep a foot on each side, artistry that is also a practical trade.”
A warm glow suffused her at words that weren’t even a compliment, but so few people saw her. She was the forgotten middle child, the one who mediated and pleased and stepped back to let the leaders and the babies have the spotlight.
“My vocation chose me. Partly it was growing up around the family business. My mother used to leave Gizi and me at the shop while she ran her errands. I never wanted to go anywhere else. And my parents always encouraged me to go after my dream. What if they had told me to get a business degree? I’d be miserable.”
“I have a business degree.”
“Do you enjoy what you do?”
“I enjoy my standard of living,” he said dryly. “I don’t need to paint or sculpt to feel fulfilled. It’s enough to watch the stock numbers go up and know that my decisions, and whatever risks I’ve taken lately, have paid off.”
“I’m not much of a risk-taker.”
She really wasn’t, but he had a point. In the back of her head, she could hear her mother freaking out that she was alone with a stranger in a far away city, putting herself in a precarious situation in a stone-walled hothouse where no one would hear her screams.
But the risk Viktor posed had nothing to do with murdering her and hiding her body under the floorboards of his dining room. Her entire body was still tingling from the brush of his fingertip against her nose. He made her think and want and wonder. She wasn’t a covetous person. In her childhood, yes, she had been jealous of Gisella’s electronics and pretty clothes and constant vacations to amusement parks, but she also knew that she was very lucky. Gisella’s parents had divorced. Gisella envied Rozalia’s jumble of family and her affectionate parents and the fact Rozi wasn’t pursued by every man who walked by.
So Rozi wasn’t eyeing up this man’s circumstance beyond admiring the sheer beauty of him and everything around him. She wasn’t drawn to him because he was six-foot-gorgeous. She was feeling, for once, like she was her own person. One who wished this intriguing man might find her halfway as interesting as she found him. She wanted to get to know him.
Which was a huge risk because she knew when she was out of her league and, seriously, she had only read about the sort of homeruns he no doubt cracked out on a nightly basis.
But as he picked a pale pink hibiscus flower and tucked it behind her ear, she knew she was going to take a small risk and see where this would go. It was another opportunity she refused to miss.
Rozalia’s lashes swept down shyly as he settled the flower behind her ear. He took the liberty of smoothing her hair over it, allowing his touch to linger against the fine, soft tails.
He reminded himself that seeming innocents could hide secrets. They could betray. She had already coaxed him into betray himself, mentioning his brother, Kristof, when he had bricked off those painful memories never planning to revisit them. Ever.
This woman was definitely more threatening than she appeared. On the surface she was mousy, but her brown hair had streaks of caramel, her brown eyes glints of bronze and gold. She had an unerring sense of artistry, taking time to study pieces that were not the most eye-catching, but which he knew to be of the most esteemed works they possessed. She was tactile and curious, impulsively touching and smelling, but in a way that savored the experience.
She was fascinating to watch, making the mundane corners of his world new and interesting to him again. It made the idea of kissing her, of seeing how she would take in that experience, a compulsion he couldn’t resist.
He touched her chin, urging her to lift her mouth. The tip of her tongue appeared to wet them. His skin tightened. He lowered his head, not usually one to hesitate, but this was a one-time thing. He would never see her again after tonight. He would never kiss her for the first time ever again. It made him want to play and tease and draw this out.
He grazed his lips against hers until his own burned with anticipation. A small gasp parted her lips and she opened her eyes. Her pupils were massive and the light changed around him, telling him his own were reacting. All of him was expanding in an urge to overwhelm but he only kept that one finger crooked under her chin, wanting the full impact to be this, just this. A kiss.
He settled his mouth more firmly over hers, felt the tremble of her soft, soft lips. The timid response as he took his time rocking to find the perfect fit. She lifted on her toes to increase the pressure and her lips clung to his.
A noise he didn’t consciously make growled in his throat. He moved his hand to the side of her neck so her pulse pounded against the heel of his palm and gave himself more freedom. He explored the silky shape of her lips from the pillowy softness of her bottom lip to the luscious curve of her top lip.
Then he tasted her. Deeply.
And she moaned. Deeply.
He was dimly aware of her hands splaying against his ribs, nails like kitten claws as she searched for balance while rising higher on her toes, wanting more.
Sliding his arm around her slender waist to support her, he pulled her in. Her one arm came up around his neck and the warm swells of her breasts mashed into his chest. She softened in surrender, unleashing the barbarian in him.
He dug his hand into the thick silk of her hair and plundered. Made love to her mouth and filled his hand with the lush cheek of her behind. Pulled her up so she could feel his growing arousal straining against her mound.
She dove her fingers into his hair and encouraged him. Sucked delicately on his tongue while shyly dallying her own across it. It was both carnal and sweet. He forgot everything except that this woman ought to be his. He wanted to take her to the gravel at their feet and make it happen. He also wanted to stand here and savor the most flagrantly passionate kiss he’d ever experienced. The most purely sensual woman he’d ever met.
As he started to guide her leg up to curl her knee at his hip, her other foot turned. She gasped and grasped at him. He had a firm hold on her and it only took a half-step to regain their balance, but it was enough to pull them out of their sexual spiral.
Her expression was stunned. His heart was pounding, his breath uneven.
“That—” She carefully drew back until she stood before him without so much as a loose thread connecting them. Her shaking hand went to her mouth. “That wasn’t what I came here for,” she said in a voice still husky with desire.
The earring, he recalled, and felt his lip curl with bitter knowledge. Because even women who gave up sweet, passionate kisses could have ulterior motives.