The Art of Sinning
The Art of Sinning
No stranger to scandal, Yvette agrees to be Keane’s subject—in exchange for his help gaining entry to the city’s brothels he knows intimately, so she can track a missing woman and solve a family mystery. But when their practical partnership leads to lessons in the art of sinning, can they find a bold and lasting love?
Thanks to you wonderful readers, the book hit the following bestseller lists:
#14 on Publishers Weekly
#18 on the New York Times
#50 on USA Today
#8 on Bookscan Adult Fiction Overall—Romance
“With every book, Jeffries grows into an even more accomplished writer whose memorable characters and unforgettable stories speak to readers on many levels. There’s pure romance, sexuality, wondrous repartee, a bit of humor and a depth of emotion that gives readers that deep-sigh read they crave and leaves them yearning for more of the Sinful Suitors.”—RT Book Reviews, 4½-star Top Pick
“. . . another elegantly written, deliciously sensual romance that will have fans of Regency historical romances sighing happily with satisfaction.”—John Charles, Booklist starred review
“Jeffries’s talent is clear, and readers will delight in the multidimensional characters, fast-paced plot, and heaps of emotional passion and sensuality.”—Publishers Weekly
Lady Yvette Barlow stood at the edge of the duke’s ballroom watching the dancing with a hollow ache of envy in her stomach. She loved to dance. And the chances of her being asked were slim to none. She towered over half the men in the ballroom. Not to mention that the whole world had recently learned of her youngest brother Samuel’s perfidy. Even her eldest brother Edwin, the Earl of Blakeborough, couldn’t avoid being tarred by that brush.
As if she’d conjured him up, Edwin’s voice sounded behind her. “Yvette, there’s someone I’d like you to meet.”
Good Lord. He’d been trying to cheer her up ever since they’d arrived, and he was very bad at it. Heaven only knew whom he thought might serve the purpose.
Pasting a smile to her lips, she faced him and his companion. Then her heart dropped into her stomach.
Standing beside Edwin was the most attractive man she’d ever seen—a golden-haired Adonis with eyes as deep a blue as the estate’s prize delphiniums. Indeed, she could tell the hue because the man stared at her with an intensity that quite sucked the air from her lungs.
Heavenly day. He was tall, too, and dressed on the daring end of fashionable—in a brown tailcoat, waistcoat of black cut velvet, and Tattersall trousers, topped off with a blood-red pongee cravat. Interesting. And a decided improvement over the gentlemen Edwin usually foisted on her.
“May I introduce my new friend, Mr. Jeremy Keane?” Edwin said.
The man bowed. “I’m delighted to make your acquaintance, Lady Yvette.”
His deep voice resonated through her like a piece of delicious music. Even his accent was compelling. American perhaps? Oh, she did like Americans. They were so refreshingly forthright. And used such fascinating slang, too.
She dipped her head. “The pleasure is mine, Mr. Keane.” But even as she said it, she put together the accent and the name. Oh dear, he had to be that Mr. Keane.
As if to confirm her realization, the man raked her in a blatantly admiring glance. A rogue’s glance.
Not again. Why must she always attract scoundrels? And be attracted to them in turn? Hadn’t she learned her lesson with her former suitor, Lieutenant Ruston?
Apparently not, for already Mr. Keane’s glance was warming her most scandalously. Curse him.
Edwin went on. “Keane is an artist from—”
“I know all about Mr. Keane.” When Edwin scowled, she caught herself. “From the exhibit of his works, of course.”
Mr. Keane’s warm gaze poured over her like honey. “I don’t recall ever seeing you at my exhibit. And trust me, I would have remembered.”
A shiver danced down her spine before she could steel herself against reacting. Very nicely done. She’d have to be on her toes with this one. “We attended it in the morning. I daresay you were still lying foxed in some gaming hell or nunnery.”
“Good God, here we go,” Edwin muttered under his breath, recognizing the vulgar slang for bawdyhouse.
“I am rarely foxed and never in a nunnery,” Mr. Keane retorted, “for fear that it might tempt the ‘nuns’ to bite me.”
“I should love to know what you consider ‘rarely,’” Yvette said. “That you even know that ‘bite’ means ‘cheat’ in street cant shows how you must spend your days.”
“And how you must spend yours,” he said with a gleam in his eye. “After all, you know the terms, too.”
She stifled a laugh. Mustn’t encourage the fellow. Still, she was impressed. Rogues always fancied themselves wits but seldom did she meet one who really was.
“Mr. Keane has kindly agreed to paint your portrait, Yvette,” Edwin cut in. “Assuming that your tart words haven’t changed his mind.”
The scoundrel had the audacity to wink at her. “Actually, I like a little tart with my sweet.”
“More than a little, I would say, having seen your paintings,” she shot back.
Suddenly he was all seriousness. “And what did you think?”
The question caught her off guard. “Are you fishing for compliments, sir?”
“No. Just truthful opinions.”
“That’s what everyone always says, though they never mean it.”
“Are you calling me a liar, Lady Yvette?” he said in that deadly tone men use when their honor is questioned.
“Of course not,” she said hastily. A man’s honor was nothing to be trifled with. “As for your work, I would say that your idea of ‘tart’ borders on the ‘acidic.’”
“It does indeed,” he drawled. “I prefer to call it ‘real life.’”
“Then it’s no surprise you’ve taken up with Edwin. He considers real life to be acidic, too.”
“Oh, no, don’t drag me into this,” Edwin put in.
Mr. Keane’s gaze searched her face. “And you, Lady Yvette? Do you consider real life acidic?”
My, my. Quite the persistent fellow, wasn’t he? “It can be, I suppose. If one wants to dwell on that part. I’d rather dwell on the happier aspects.”
A sudden disappointment swept his handsome features. “So you prefer paintings of bucolic cows in a field.”
“I suppose. Or market scenes. Or children.”
The mention of children sparked something bleak in the depths of his eyes. “Art should challenge the viewers, not soothe them.”
“I’ll try to remember that when confronted at my breakfast table by a picture of vultures devouring a dead deer. That is one of yours, isn’t it?”
Mr. Keane blinked, then burst into laughter. “Blakeborough, you forgot to tell me that your sister is a wit.”
“Trust me,” Edwin said wearily, “if I’d thought it would get you to agree to our transaction sooner, I would have mentioned it.”
“Transaction?” She stared at her brother. “What transaction?”
Edwin turned wary. “I told you. Mr. Keane is going to paint your portrait. I figured that a well-done piece of art showing what a lovely woman you are . . . might . . . well . . .”
“Oh, Lord.” So that was his reasoning. A pox on Edwin. And a pox on Mr. Keane, too, for agreeing to her brother’s idiocy. Clearly, the artist had been coerced. Mr. Keane was well-known for not doing formal portraits. Ever.
She fought to maintain her composure, to act nonchalant, though inside she was bleeding. Did Edwin really think her so unsightly that she needed a famous artist to make her look appealing?
“Forgive my brother, sir,” she told Mr. Keane with a bland smile. “He’s set on gaining me a husband, no matter what the cost. But I’ve read the interview where you said you’d rather cut off your hands than paint another portrait, and I’d hate to be the cause of such a loss to the world.”
Mr. Keane gazed steadily at her. “I sometimes exaggerate when speaking with the press, madam. But this particular portrait is one I am more than willing to execute, I assure you.”
“Eager for the challenge, are you?” Such raw anger boiled up in her that it fairly choked her. “Eager to try your hand at painting me attractive enough to convince some hapless fellow in search of a wife to ignore the evidence of his eyes?”
Belatedly, her brother seemed to realize how she’d taken his words. “Yvette, that’s not what I was saying.”
She ignored him. “Or perhaps it’s the money that entices you. How much did my brother offer in order to gain your compliance in such an onerous task? It must have been a great deal.”
“I didn’t offer him money, Yvette,” Edwin protested. “You misunderstand what I—”
“I want to paint you,” Mr. Keane snapped even as he glared Edwin into silence.
With betrayal stinging her, she gathered the remnants of her dignity about her. “Thank you, but I am not yet so . . . so desperate as to require your services.”
She turned to leave, but Mr. Keane caught her by the arm. When she scowled at him, he released her . . . only to offer her his hand. “May I have this dance, Lady Yvette?”
That took her by surprise. Only then did she notice the strains of a waltz being struck. She had half a mind to stalk off in a huff. But that would be childish.
Besides, other people had begun to notice their exchange, and she could not endure the idea of people gossiping about her making a scene at the wedding breakfast of her friend . . . who happened to have jilted her brother.
“Lady Yvette?” Mr. Keane prompted in a steely voice.
She cast him the coolest smile she could muster. “Yes, of course, Mr. Keane. I would be delighted.”
Then she took his hand and let him sweep her into a waltz.
As soon as they were moving, he said, “You have every right to be angry with your brother.”
“My feelings toward my brother right now are none of your concern.”
“I was telling the truth about wanting to paint you.”
She snorted. “I don’t know how much money Edwin promised—”
“But not for a portrait.” He bent close enough to whisper in her ear, “Though he doesn’t know that.”
That caught her so off guard that when Mr. Keane pulled back to fix her with an serious gaze, she couldn’t at first summon a single answer.
“I see I finally have your attention,” he said.
“Oh, you always had my attention,” she said testily. “Just not the sort of fawning attention you probably prefer.”
A faint smile crossed his lips. “Tell me, Lady Yvette, do you have something against artists in general? Or is it just I who rub you the wrong way?”
“I don’t trust charming rogues, sir. I have encountered enough of your kind in my lifetime to know all your tricks.”
He arched one eyebrow. “I seriously doubt that.”
When he then twirled her in a turn, she realized with a start that they’d been waltzing effortlessly all this time. That almost never happened with her. Few men knew how to deal with an ungainly Amazon like her on the dance floor. But clearly he was one of them.
That softened her toward him a little. A very little. “So what exactly do you want to paint me for, anyway?”
“An entirely different work,” he said. “And agreeing to your brother’s request seemed the only way to get close enough to you so I could arrange that.”
She eyed him skeptically.
“Ask Blakeborough if you don’t believe me. Before I knew who he was, who you were, I wanted you to sit for me. I decided it the moment I saw you enter the room. I asked your brother who you were, he asked why I wanted to know, and I told him.”
His gaze locked with hers, as sincere a one as she’d ever seen. But then, Lieutenant Ruston had seemed sincere at first, too. “Why on earth would you want to paint me?”
“No clue. I never know why particular models intrigue me; just that they do. And I always follow my instincts.”
Yvette blinked. He could have claimed it had something to do with her looks. The fact that he hadn’t lent more credence to his assertion. “That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.” Yet a tiny part of her found it enormously flattering.
“It is ridiculous, isn’t it? But true, I swear.”
“So what exactly are the terms of your ‘transaction’ with my brother?”
He flinched. “Your brother is an ass.”
“Not really. Just rather oblivious to other people’s feelings sometimes.” She cast him a hard stare. “Answer the question.”
With a long-suffering sigh, he tightened his grip on her hand. “I am to paint your portrait. In exchange, he is to drum up some gentlemen who might be interested in courting my sister.”
She gaped at him. “What a pair of nodcocks you are! Has it occurred to either of you that your sisters are perfectly capable of finding husbands on their own if they so choose? That perhaps we— Wait a minute, I thought your sister lived in America.”
“She’s on her way here. She means to drag me home to help her with the family mills.” He cracked a smile. “I mean to fob some other fellow off on her who can go in my stead.”
His look of boyish mischief seduced her. Briefly. Until she put herself in his sister’s shoes. “First you abandon her to go flitting about Europe. And now that she has tired of waiting for your return, you think to get rid of her by marrying her off.” She shook her head. “Your poor sister.”
“Trust me, there is nothing ‘poor’ about my sister. Amanda can take care of herself.” His smile smoldered. “As, it appears, can you. Which is probably what made me want you for my painting in the first place.”
She fought not to be intrigued. “What is this painting about, anyway?”
“It’s allegorical, about the sacrifice of Art to Commerce.”
That took her by surprise. “Something like Delacroix’s paintings?”
“You’re familiar with Delacroix?”
His voice held such astonishment that it scraped her nerves. “I do read books, you know. And attend exhibits and operas with my brother . . . when I can drag him to town.”
“Operas, eh? Better you than me,” he teased. “I can’t imagine anything more tedious than an evening of such screeching.”
“My point is that I’m not some ninnyhammer society chit who only keeps abreast of fashions.”
“I didn’t think you were.” He bent close enough to say in a husky tone, “Unlike your brother, I am fully aware of your attractions.”
The words melted over her skin like butter. And when he then tugged her slightly closer in the turn, she let him.
Not because of his devastating attractiveness, no. Or his deft ability to dance. Or the glint of awareness in his startling blue eyes. None of that had any effect on her. Certainly not.
Fighting to keep her mind off the breathlessness that suddenly assailed her, she said, “So, which character would I play in this allegorical painting of yours?”
One corner of his mouth tipped up. “Does that mean you agree to sit for it?”
“Perhaps. It depends on your answers to certain questions.”
The music was ending. Oh dear, and just when the conversation was getting interesting. Unfortunately, it would be highly improper of him to ask her for another.
But apparently he’d thought of that, for he waltzed her toward a pair of doors that opened to reveal a set of steps descending into the sunlit garden. And almost as soon as the notes died, he offered her his arm.
Cursing the curiosity that prompted her to take it, she let him lead her outside, but she was relieved to see that they weren’t the only people strolling about. At least she needn’t worry about rousing further gossip.
Besides, she was ready to be out of the stuffy ballroom. Here in the brisk autumn air, she could breathe at last.
“Now, then, madam,” he said. “Ask me whatever you wish.”
“Who am I to play in your painting? What am I to wear? Will sitting for your picture ruin me for life? Is that why Edwin would only agree to a respectable portrait?”
“That’s quite a lot of questions,” he said dryly. “Let’s start with the last. Your brother and I didn’t get as far as my describing the concept of my work. The minute I said I wished for you to model for me, he flat out refused to let you be part of any painting that wasn’t dull as dirt, even though I told him you wouldn’t be recognized.”
“Won’t I?” She felt a stab of disappointment at the thought that he didn’t really want to paint her, as she was. And why did she care, anyway? “So I’m to be wearing a mask or a cloak or something?”
“No, indeed. But you will be in a Greek costume quite different from your normal attire. I can even change your hair color if you wish. And you’ll only be in profile, anyway. I doubt anyone will realize it is you.”
She gave a harsh laugh. “Right. Because no one will notice that the woman in your painting happens to have my ungainly proportions.”
“Ungainly!” He shook his head. “More like ‘queenly.’ ‘Majestic,’ even.”
The compliment came so unexpectedly that it startled her. She was used to being teased for her height, not praised. She had to turn her head so he wouldn’t see how very much the words pleased her.
She’d swear that he meant every word. Then again, she’d also believed Lieutenant Ruston’s compliments, though they’d been far less original and far more dubious. At least Mr. Keane wasn’t calling her “a great beauty” and “a delicate flower.” She couldn’t believe she’d fallen for that last one. She’d never been delicate a day in her life.
“But your proportions are unlikely to signify, anyway,” he went on. “You’ll be lying down.”
That arrested her. How had she managed to forget he was a rogue? “Why would I be lying down?”
He gazed at her as if she were witless. “‘Art’ sacrificed to ‘Commerce’? Were you even listening? Damn, woman, I can hardly show a sacrifice without laying you across an altar.”
Stunned by his matter-of-fact tone, as if it were perfectly obvious to anyone with sense, she mumbled, “Oh, right, of course. I don’t know what I was thinking.”
Actually she did know. She thought him quite mad. When he spoke of his art, there was no trace of the rakehell in him. Was it by design? Was he trying to rattle her?
Because he was certainly succeeding.
“Will you do it?” he asked. “Assuming we can manage it?”
“Managing it isn’t a problem,” she said, thinking aloud. “Artists doing portraits generally reside with the family during the process. So if you come to our estate for the portrait, we can arrange some way to meet for the painting you wish to do for yourself.” She slanted a glance at him. “If you’re willing to leave London for a bit, that is.”
“Oh, I don’t know.” He stopped beside a marble fountain to smile teasingly at her. “It would take me away from all those gaming hells and nunneries. However will I survive?”
“I’m sure you can find a sympathetic tavern maid or two in nearby Preston to tide you over,” she said dryly.
“So, no nunneries in your neck of the woods?”
“Trust me, if there had been, my other brother would have uncovered them long ago.”
When he looked at her oddly, a blush rose in her cheeks. She didn’t know why she’d mentioned Samuel’s proclivities. She couldn’t seem to put his request out of her mind.
“I’ll be fine, I promise,” he said silkily. “Though you still haven’t given me your permission to paint you. For either work.”
And suddenly it hit her—the solution to her problem with Samuel. “I haven’t, have I?” She stared him down. “Tell me something, Mr. Keane. Are you as willing to make a bargain with me for your painting as you were to make a bargain with Edwin for my portrait?”
His gaze turned wary. “It depends. What sort of bargain do you mean?”
Avoiding his gaze, she twirled the water in the fountain with one finger. “I will sit for you—clothed, of course. You may draw as many pictures of me as you please.”
“And in exchange?” he prodded.
“You will find some way to get me inside a Covent Garden nunnery.”