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Authors: Robyn Dehart

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BOOK: A Little Bit Wicked
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“It is quite a brilliant solution, my dear,” Marcus said. “But aside from solving their immediate problems, do you suppose they’ll make a good match?”

Surprise lit her features. Her mouth opened and her eyes widened, and then a lovely smile formed as she looked downward. “Thank you. As to them matching, only time will tell, I suppose. But I do know that Elizabeth is the older sister of Lady Richfield. Her name is Miranda and she had a dazzling debut. You know the kind, they launch into society and become, quite simply, the belle of the ball.” Her words took on a wistful quality. “No doubt poor Elizabeth was overshadowed by Miranda’s success. She married Lord Richfield at the end of her first Season. Meanwhile, Elizabeth has been out a while, four or five years now, and well, a girl who has been on the shelf, as it were, for a while is particularly vulnerable to being seduced by a charming man.” Her delicate jaw tightened and she exhaled slowly.

Marcus got the distinct impression she was speaking from experience, not observation. Was that why Vivian was so resistant to his pursuits—because she had been seduced and abandoned?

“Hempshire should be ashamed of himself,” she said.

“Most assuredly.”

“What Elizabeth needs is a kind man who will be gentle with her, someone who might share her interests,” Vivian said.

“And someone who would buy her warm woolen stockings in the winter months,” Marcus said.

She smiled shyly. “Precisely. Now, if I can only manage to convince Michael to marry the girl.”

At Viscount Benbrook’s home, they were met by a harried-looking butler. He showed them into a parlor that had seen better days. The furniture was old and the stuffing lumpy, and the fabrics were worn and faded. But everything was clean. Michael did not keep them waiting long. “Miss March, I was so hoping I would hear back from you regarding my—” He caught sight of Marcus and stopped.

Vivian smiled and took a step toward the viscount. “This is a friend of mine, Michael. He came along with me today. Can we sit and discuss the situation? I believe I may have found you a solution.” She gave a little chuckle and cocked her head. “Albeit a potentially surprising one.”

He nodded enthusiastically and sat on one of the wooden chairs, leaving the softer upholstered furniture for his guests. Vivian relayed the story to him and Michael listened intently.

“So there is still a chance she carries his child. It would be a risk,” she said.

“But she has a fortune?” Michael asked, his voice hopeful. “Enough to save—to reclaim what I lost, and rebuild?” Evidently he was so intent on salvaging his family’s coffers that he was already considering this a viable option.

“A sizeable dowry, and her other sister is already married, so I’m certain we could negotiate a fortune. To be honest, I don’t think it would be difficult asking her father for money. He is rather fond of the girl,” Vivian said.

Michael was quiet for several moments considering the scenario.

“She is comely,” Marcus said. “Pretty in a traditional way, with fair coloring.”

Michael winced. “Am I that transparent?”

“No, it is a question I would have asked. If you’re going to agree to a marriage of convenience, sight unseen, it is a legitimate curiosity,” Marcus said. “No one wants to marry a troll, even a wealthy troll.”

Michael took a measured breath. “Yes,” he said coming to his feet. “This will work nicely. I will marry the girl. Where is she now?”


Vivian sat quietly in the study with her aunt. Aunt Rose sat at her table building her castle of playing cards. Vivian sorted each piece of mail by type even though it was invitation upon invitation. It was always a tedious process, but today it seemed more so. She would have to send regrets for those occurring while she was away in the country. They were leaving for the countryside tomorrow morning.

She had successfully resolved the situation with the Pettyfields, and though the matron of the family had not been happy with Vivian’s solution, Lord Pettyfield had been more than pleased. He and Michael had gone together to secure the special marriage license, and a notice had already been sent to the
Times
. And Elizabeth had finally stopped crying. All in all, it had been a good day—and she’d spent it with Marcus and had enjoyed his company.

It was a marvel, really. Not that she’d enjoyed his company, but that she’d not only allowed him, but asked him to join her. Discretion was extremely important to her, yet she’d allowed him inside two of her families today. It had been a day full of surprises, in more ways than one.

She put aside invitation after invitation to send regrets or acceptance, but at the very bottom of the stack an envelope caught her attention. It was addressed to The Paragon. Vivian felt her blood turn to ice. Something about the print, the penmanship, seemed terribly familiar. She turned the envelope over to find a nondescript green wax seal. With one finger, she popped the seal open.

My dearest Vivian:

As you may have guessed already, I have returned, my dear, and I see all that you have made whilst I was gone. Such a vast empire of admirers you’ve created. Remember, though, that I know the truth about how virtuous you are. The Paragon. I truly laughed when I heard such a thing. Your contacts will serve me nicely. Follow my lead, or the world will know who the real Vivian March is. I’ll tell them all of your previous transgressions.

Yours forever,

Frederick.

A wave of nausea crashed over her and she dropped the note.
Bastard
.

“What’s that, dear?” her aunt asked above her cards.

Vivian had not realized she’d spoken aloud. “Nothing, just thinking about the Duke of Hempshire and his penchant for seducing unsuspecting females.”

“Filthy man,” Rose said.

“Indeed.” But no one, not one man in all of England, was as bad as Frederick Noble. It was not the first time Vivian had been struck by how ironic and irritating his surname was. He was the worst sort of cad.

What the devil did he mean by saying she should follow his lead? Precisely what did he intend to do with her or to her? She had known the day would come when Frederick would return and she’d have to face him. But she’d often thought that perhaps they could be adults about the situation, laugh about their folly in believing they had once been in love. But clearly Frederick bore her ill will, though why was a mystery. He was the one who had used her and crushed her heart.

This was the worst possible scenario—she was bloody well being blackmailed by her former lover.

Chapter Thirteen

Marcus cut a handsome figure leaning against the hearth as Vivian stepped into Dowager Duchess of Pendrake’s parlor. They were to begin dining in another thirty minutes and frankly, she was glad to see he’d decided to participate in at least some of the weekend’s festivities. He had not been so inclined when he’d first found out about the house party. She had conveniently left that she’d called upon the dowager duchess and encouraged her to host said gathering, and suggested to whom she should extend the invitations.

Vivian had narrowed down the suitable list of girls for Marcus to court, though he still showed no interest in any of them. As frustrating as that was, she felt certain that being out of London and all the distractions there would help him focus on the task at hand. He needed a wife. Every man needed a wife.

She had also been pleased by the timing of the party, considering the note she’d received last night. Getting out of London for a few days might provide her some perspective on how to manage Frederick and his blackmail.

She stepped over to greet Marcus. “I am glad you decided to come down for dinner.”

He shrugged and gave her one of his far too attractive smiles. “A man has to eat.” His eyes slid over the length of her, making her wonder what he thought was on his menu for the evening. “You look rather fetching tonight, though I much prefer the cut of that blue dress you wore the other evening.”

“I will not say thank you to that.”

He ignored her comment. “Did you invite him, too?” Marcus nodded toward the far end of the room.

Vivian followed his motion and found Clarissa and Mr. Rodale speaking alone in the corner. It was a well-lit area, perfectly acceptable; however, it did appear they were having a rather secretive and somewhat intense conversation. “I have no notion to what you’re referring.”

Marcus chuckled. “So you do admit to orchestrating this entire affair.”

“I admit no such thing.” She paused for several moments, continuing to watch the other couple. “What do you suppose they are discussing so heatedly?”

“That I do not know.” He took a slow sip of his drink. “You are the one who encouraged their relationship.”

“I did not. I merely wanted to smooth over her situation by reminding people that he was a friend of the family.” She frowned and looked up at Marcus. “Do you trust him?”

Marcus nodded. “I do. He is a good man, though many will never see him as such because of his birth.”

“So you are not concerned for your sister’s virtue?”

“No.” Marcus released a chuckle. “Justin knows if he puts a finger on my sister I’ll kill him. He also knows I would make it hurt.”

She was quiet for a few moments, processing what he’d said. He’d lived an entire life in the wilds of places she’d never dreamed of visiting. He’d probably seen more dangers than everyone in the room combined. Marcus Kincaid could be deadly. She knew he’d killed animals to protect people before, but had he been forced to kill another person? She knew that there had been such situations in those countries where dangerous thieves attacked tourists. Marcus jested with her so often that it was easy to forget the life he’d been living.

Such a man could be a powerful ally. She could ask him for help, tell him all about Frederick and his threats, and allow Marcus to handle the situation. How lovely it would be to have someone make something disappear for her for a change. But there was no guarantee that Marcus would agree to such a thing once he learned the truth of her previous relationship with Frederick. Marcus might be so disgusted to learn that she’d lain with Frederick that he could walk away and have nothing to do with her ever again.

“Besides,” he said, “I don’t believe Clarissa cares for him at all. She still fancies herself in love with that bloke, George Wilbanks.”

“I wouldn’t be so certain of that.”

“Vivian, is something troubling you?” he asked.

She shook herself. It was bothersome, yet somewhat comforting that he could read her in such a way. “No, of course not.”

He eyed her for a moment before nodding. “So why are you not so certain about Clarissa’s feelings for Wilbanks?”

“Because I have told you there are many ways in which a woman can flirt with a man.” She nodded again toward Clarissa and Mr. Rodale.

Marcus was quiet for a moment as if considering her words. “Are you so certain you can tell when a woman wants to be seduced?”

“Women never want to be seduced.” As soon as the words were out of her mouth she knew they were not true. She wished they were. Had wished that for years. But the fact was, were it not Frederick, it would have been some other man. She’d been ripe for the picking and ready, if not eager, for seduction.

She was older and wiser now, but it would seem she still had a weakness for rogues and their wicked ways. As much as she’d like to deny it, she knew she’d like nothing more than for Marcus to leave her no choice, for him to whisk her away in a seduction so thorough, she wouldn’t even realize it was happening until it was too late. But she knew that would never happen. There would never be a scenario in which Marcus would seduce her and she wouldn’t be a completely willing participant. She couldn’t blame him or anyone else for her wanton nature.

“That’s simply not true.”

“I know,” she said, and then walked away.

Marcus had watched Vivian throughout dinner and felt certain that something was amiss. She seemed more contemplative, yet when she spoke to others she overcompensated and was too overtly interested in what they had to say. He didn’t think anyone else noticed, but he knew something troubled her.

When they all retired to the parlor for some entertainment, his sister took her place at the pianoforte and played after much encouragement from the crowd. He’d always known she liked music, but he hadn’t realized that the music he’d been hearing at their London home was Clarissa. All this time he’d wrongly assumed it was his aunt.

Vivian sat quietly in a wingback chair close to a window overlooking the back garden and the forested area that lined the rest of the property. She held her reticule tightly in her lap and worried the purse’s strings.

He moved over to her and stood behind her chair. “What troubles you, love?” he asked quietly.

She sucked in a breath at his question and shook her head.

He leaned closer. “I can tell there is something wrong.”

She pressed one hand to her temple. “Headache.”

He eyed her for a moment and knew that that would be all he would get from her tonight. Were they alone, he might press the issue, but for now he would leave her be.

“She plays wonderfully,” she said of his sister.

“She does.”

“Did you know?” she asked, looking up at him.

He smiled. “I did not.”

“You did not do a very admirable job of flirting with the women at dinner,” she said.

He covered his chuckle with his hand. “I was not aware that flirting was required.”

She frowned, clapped when Clarissa finished that piece, then once again resumed clutching her reticule. Another girl, this one Lady Constance Brindwell, came to the pianoforte and Clarissa stood and walked away. When she began playing it was clear she’d had lessons, as had most of the girls in the room, but her skills were crude at best. Vivian winced when she hit the wrong chord. “How are you supposed to court a lady if you do not flirt with her?”

She had him there. Flirting generally was an accustomed form of allowing another person know you were interested in them, precisely the way he’d been with her from the moment he met her. It was natural with Vivian—he didn’t have to force it or try to think of something clever to say. He was attracted to her so every exchange between them had become the give and take that went on between ladies and men.

“I flirt,” he said.

“When? I haven’t seen it.”

“My dear, you are privy to it in our every encounter. Perhaps I am not as skilled as I once thought.”

She opened her mouth then shut it again. “That is not what I meant, and you know it. You aren’t supposed to be flirting with me. It’s them. It is why we are here, is it not?”

He smiled. “You tell me—you orchestrated this entire affair. I agreed to attend.”

“Must you fight me on everything?” she asked through her teeth. Lady Constance finished her piece and immediately started in on another one. The man sitting in front of them actually groaned.

Marcus looked around the room, at the women sitting there who had presumably been invited simply for him to see if he was interested in marrying one of them. It was a strange way of doing things. Though he wasn’t searching for love, per se, he came from a family of men who had all married for love. So looking at these women felt no different than buying a new horse, and it didn’t sit well with him.

He needed to feel something, needed to be attracted, and interested, and intrigued—all of those things that Vivian brought to the table. Hell, if he had to marry, why shouldn’t he marry her? At least then he’d know he’d be eager to reach his wedding bed.

He should propose to Vivian and be done with this whole matchmaking mess. But he couldn’t very well lean over to her now and whisper it in her ear. She’d likely whack him on the head.

The Dowager Duchess of Pendrake stood and walked to the front, where Lady Constance had been making a mockery of the Mozart. “Thank you dear, that will be all,” she said to Constance, ushering her back to her seat. “Now then.” She clapped her hands once and smiled warmly to all the guests. “I have a very special treat for us all tomorrow. We have been working tirelessly over the last year to restore my late husband’s beloved golf course, and I’m pleased to report that we’ll all be the first to play it.”

Several of the men perked up at the news. One such man cleared his throat, then asked, “Who will get to play first, the gentlemen or the ladies?”

“Oh no, dear, don’t be silly. We shall all play together. ’Tis no different than playing croquet together,” the duchess said. Then the woman stepped over to the door to speak to her butler who’d entered the room. The rest of the guests began milling about.

Vivian leaned a little to Marcus. “That is a perfect opportunity for you to get to know the girls a little better, perhaps find one you prefer.”

“I’ve already found one I prefer,” he said.

Her eyes rounded. “You do? Which one?”

He studied her a moment before answering. She seemed genuinely surprised, but there was something else there, too. Something she hid behind her pleasant smile. If he was lucky, that something was jealousy. “I will let you know in due time.”

Her eyes narrowed a little.

The parlor door opened and a woman came in and moved directly to the dowager duchess. “Very sorry to be so late, cousin,” the woman said. When she turned to face the room, Marcus realized it was Diana Cosgrove. This could turn into a most entertaining weekend.

Vivian looked up and saw the new guest; her jaw tightened. She averted her eyes from the woman and turned again to Marcus. “You will play golf tomorrow?”

“Let’s talk first about Miss Cosgrove,” he said quietly.

“Nothing to say. She is a relation of the duchess. It seems reasonable that she would have been added to the guest list,” Vivian said.

“She makes you uncomfortable.”

She waved her hand. “You said yourself that she does not care for me. Perhaps you don’t mind being near people who dislike you, but I find it unpleasant. That is all.”

But there was more, he could see it in her eyes. Whatever brief interaction they’d had that night at the ball had been more than a hello. If Miss Cosgrove had in any way threatened Vivian, he would see to it the woman never came near her again.

“About the golf, will you play?” she asked.

“Will you?” he asked.

“I don’t believe that golf is my fort
é
,” she said. “I should think sitting along the course and watching would be much more my speed.”

He considered her a moment, then leaned forward. “I shall make you a bargain, Vivian. I will go and play golf with those other women on two conditions.”

“I suspect I’m not going to like this very much.” She closed her eyes a moment. “But what are your terms?”

“You must play, too.” When she opened her mouth to argue, he held up a finger. “It is always nice to learn new things.” He enjoyed tossing her words back at her.

She exhaled slowly. “Very well. And condition number two?”

The dowager duchess went about introducing her cousin, Diana Cosgrove, to the people sitting up front. Marcus took the opportunity to lean close to Vivian’s ear, enough so that his breath would warm her skin. “I want a kiss,” he whispered.

Vivian dropped her reticule off her lap and quickly bent to retrieve it. She gathered it and excused herself from his side. Marcus looked down at the floor and saw a piece of parchment. He picked it up and stuffed it into the pocket of his vest, then made his own excuses and retired to his room.

Once alone he unfolded the parchment and read the letter.

“Son of a bitch!” She was being blackmailed, that was what troubled her. Why had she not sought his assistance in the matter? He would readily come to her assistance and ensure this Frederick returned to whatever hole he’d crawled from. But she hadn’t come to him, so now he had to decide if he should call her on it, ask about this Frederick person, or wait and see if Vivian sought him out for help.


The following morning, an hour after most of the guests had finished breakfast, they were to head to the golf course that the Duke of Pendrake had created in the last years of his life. The man had been an enthusiast about the game and thus had the course made so he could play whenever the mood struck.

Vivian had never had much interest in the sport, but it had been gaining in popularity in the last several years and she knew many women played as well as men. Marcus was right—it never hurt to learn something new. Besides, if she went along with them, she could encourage him to flirt with the girls, assist them in conversation, and perhaps discover common ground.

BOOK: A Little Bit Wicked
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