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Authors: Robyn Dehart

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BOOK: A Little Bit Wicked
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What had come over her?
She never imagined such impure thoughts about a gentleman. Once she’d settled herself on being a spinster, she rarely considered men at all. Clearly, Marcus was a constant reminder of her past. Of her poor choices and her weak nature.

“Do you have other family members we can call upon?” Vivian asked.

“Yes, we have cousins,” Clarissa said.

“Cousins?” Marcus asked.

“Lena and her husband, Henry. Certainly you must remember them?” Clarissa asked.

Marcus nodded, but did not respond to his sister’s anger. “Of course.”

“Clarissa, you mustn’t speak to your brother with such anger.” This was the primary problem with most people, Vivian recognized. They simply were too careless with their own emotions. She knew one could control one’s feelings; she’d been doing it for a decade. It had taken considerable practice, but she’d mastered it all the same. “You can certainly feel it, you have every right, but that is a private matter that you and he must deal with here in your home. Out there, in the midst of others in London, it is imperative that everyone believe you are a loving and supportive family.”

Marcus watched Vivian as she instructed his sister. As he surveyed her motions, her voice faded to the background. Her hands moved as she spoke and her facial expressions revealed her concern and her seriousness about the situation. Vivian March was full of heat and intensity. Perhaps to some she might simply appear concerned, but he could see the truth simmering behind her eyes—she was full of passion. And those eyes were now looking directly at him, expectantly.

“Did you hear me, Lord Ashford?” she asked. One delicate eyebrow rose slowly. Seductively, even.

“I’m afraid I did not,” he said. He gave her what he knew to be his most charming smile.

She faltered, though only slightly. “A dinner party, at my home tomorrow. To reintroduce you to society as the new earl. Only a handful of families will be invited. The more exclusive, the better.”

“If you think that will work, we shall be there,” he said.

“What do you mean,
if
I think it will work?” she asked, clearly incensed.

The butler stepped into the room. “Lady Atkins is here for your shopping trip, Lady Clarissa.”

Clarissa shot to her feet. “Yes, I had nearly forgotten that was today. I am to help her select some new dresses.”

Aunt Maureen also stood. “And I am to chaperone.” She eyed Vivian. “If we need to reschedule, though, we can. A situation this delicate is obviously more important than shopping.”

“No,” Vivian said with a nod and a wave of her hand. “It will actually be good for Clarissa to be seen out, doing normal activities. Perhaps you should buy a new dress or two.”

“As many as you need,” Marcus said when he realized Maureen was watching him keenly. Evidently, he wasn’t allowed to handle potential scandals, but he was expected to dole out money when it was needed to purchase new party dresses. Clarissa did her best to keep her gaze off him. He wasn’t certain if she was simply still punishing him for being gone so long or if she genuinely didn’t care what he had to say.

The two other women nodded and left the room, leaving him alone with Vivian March. At least with her he didn’t feel so out of his element, not as he did with the women in his family.

Vivian whipped around to face him. “I do not take kindly to your sarcasm.”

He almost laughed. Perhaps he was not nearly as charming with women as he’d once thought. He leveled his gaze on Vivian. “Sarcasm. To what are you referring?”

“Your cutting remark about my plan. You might not believe I know what I’m doing, but I have been assisting families with these types of situations for many years while you’ve been off traipsing across heaven knows where.”

“Precisely how many families are we talking about? Seems to me that if you are known as the woman to go to whenever there is a scandal, then once you aligned yourself with someone, everyone would know that there was, in fact, a scandal.” He shrugged. “Counterproductive, wouldn’t you agree?”

“No, I would not agree,” she said tartly. “I said I have worked with many families, but not so many that people would take notice. Furthermore, what I do is not commonly known. I take my clients’ lives quite seriously and discretion is of utmost importance to me.”

Her eyes flared with intensity and her cheeks flushed.

Discretion could be a good thing when one was behaving badly.

He couldn’t help wondering, if pushed, how wickedly Miss March could behave.

Chapter Three

Marcus grinned at her. “You are lovely when you get angry, do you know that?”

“Do not change the subject. Why do you think my plan is faulty?” she demanded.

“I don’t think people are foolish enough to ignore her indiscretion simply because I have returned to England.” He shrugged. “That is not interesting news.”

“Oh, but that is where you’re wrong. Your return is most assuredly news.” She smiled, a genuine smile that lit her eyes and exposed large dimples in each cheek. “The travel-weary brother has returned to take the helm of the family. You have a younger sister to marry off, and you have many adventures of which you can speak. You have been to many exotic lands, have you not?”

“I have been to a great many places,” he said with a nod. She took these matters quite seriously and for some odd reason he found that vastly attractive. Of course, he took his family seriously, too. She was right. He was at the helm, as it were, and whether his sister liked it or not, she was his responsibility now. He did need to see her married, and after what she’d said in this very room earlier, she was content to marry a fool who had a gambling problem. She obviously needed assistance selecting a better choice in a husband, and if Vivian March could provide that he would gladly pay her.

“How is it that we pay you for your services?”

She waved a gloved hand. “I am a very wealthy woman, Lord Ashford, and therefore I do not accept monetary payment. The only thing I ask of my families is that they provide me a favor when I call upon them to do so.”

A barter system built on favors. Fascinating. “Precisely how many families here in London owe you favors, Miss March?”

She smiled coyly. “It would be indiscreet of me to answer. Suffice it to say, I am well connected and have a great many people to call upon should I need something.”

“Interesting,” he said. She was becoming more and more fascinating by the moment.

“Consider that we might have use of one such favor for this situation with your sister,” she said.

“I wasn’t arguing. It’s clever, and potentially makes you quite powerful, but then again, you are the Paragon, are you not?”

“The moniker is unnecessary,” she said.

“You do not care for it?”

“It was not a name I came up with, if that’s what you’re asking.” She picked a piece of lint off her skirts, then smoothed a nonexistent wrinkle from them. “Now then, at the dinner party, you must come prepared to discuss your many adventures. It will be all people will want to hear.”

“I doubt people will be that intrigued. I have led tours for members of some of these very families. Certainly, they will have come back with their own tales,” he said.

“You, my lord, have been out of polite society long enough to forget how they are. That is precisely why they will want to hear your version. They’ll want to know all the gossip about the other families.” She came to her feet. “My plan will work. You must trust me.”

He stood too. “I’m not so certain I can do that, Miss March.” He took several steps toward her.

She stood in the middle of the room, hand to throat, staring back at him. Staring precisely at his chest. He crossed his arms over said chest and smiled at her. Her cheekbones raised high, her eyebrows arched gracefully, outlining her warm brown eyes with thick, dark lashes. Her mouth, pink and almost too full, formed a small
O
. A blush tinted her cheeks and the part of her neck still visible around her hand. Lovely brown hair, swept up from her face, revealed a clear view of her milky complexion. Not one blemish marred her skin. Except for the tiny lines curving from her lips and the ones fanning out from her eyes, her skin was as lovely as any woman ten years her junior.

He rather liked the lines; they meant she smiled a lot, but the hint of a line above her brow meant she also frowned. He appreciated both sentiments. Most people only appreciated a pretty smile, just as most of the English enjoyed only sweet foods. But in all his travels, he’d come to appreciate the mixture of different flavors. Sweet blended with fiery spice suited his palate quite nicely.

He took another step toward her, looking straight in her face. “Miss March, you are a most handsome woman. Might I be so bold as to inquire your age?”

Her breath caught audibly. She frowned. “Lord Ashford, that is certainly none of your concern. I must request you refrain from making such remarks to me. I am far too old to play your parlor games.”

“I was playing no game. I meant precisely what I said. I’ll admit it was not very gentlemanly to inquire about your age, but I do believe you were not in your first Season when we met in that garden, were you?” He didn’t wait for her response. “I grant you, I was impossibly rude to inquire, but I am at a loss as to deciphering your precise age.”

She opened her mouth then promptly shut it.

He knew that by London standards he was behaving outrageously, but flirting with Miss Vivian March proved most entertaining. Not to mention a temptation he simply couldn’t resist.

“I prefer women of a certain age,” he said. “I find them refreshingly honest. Intelligent, with minds of their own.” He took another step, closing the distance between them. “And remarkably passionate.” His remark did little more than keep her locked in her current position, though her eyes widened slightly. He slid one finger down her arm. “But with your lovely skin, I would guess you are not a day older than seven and twenty.”

She snorted uncharacteristically. “I am four and thirty.” She raised her eyebrows, then blew out a breath. “You goaded me into admitting that, sir. I will not be so foolish the next time.” She swallowed visibly. “Now, would you be so kind as to tell me why you will be unable to trust me in this endeavor with your sister? If you cannot trust me, my lord, this plan to salvage her reputation will never succeed.”

“Ah, yes, why I don’t trust you. Well, you are still pretending not to remember me, not to know me. But I know you remember.”

She shook her head vehemently.

“Indeed. Well, then allow me to refresh your memory.” With one hand he tilted her chin so he could have perfect access to her mouth. He pressed his mouth to hers.

She gasped, her hands fisted on his chest, but he continued to kiss her. Softer than he remembered, perhaps even fuller, Vivian’s lips were heaven to move across. He slid his tongue over her bottom lip and her body tensed. He moved his tongue into her mouth and began his slow seduction.

Coaxing her with his lips and tongue, he moved across her mouth, urging her to participate.

Her body felt deliciously curvaceous against his. He deepened the kiss, finally earning a response from her. Her arms wrapped around his neck, her fingers spreading into his hair. Her tongue met his, stroke for stroke, and he groaned with his need for her. He could kiss her forever. But that would have to wait for another day.

He ended the kiss, pulling back from her. She stood, clutched in his arms, eyes closed and lips parted, her breath labored. In that moment, he had never seen a more alluring, more seductive woman. He wagered he would regret it later, but he stepped away from her.

“Are you going to tell me you don’t remember me?”

Her eyes shot open.

“I realize it has been a long while and the last time we kissed you were the one to instigate it, but certainly you remember.”

She exhaled slowly, tugged on her jacket, and tilted up her chin. “Lord Ashford, you are a cad.”

“Perhaps.”

“What transpired between us happened very long ago. It is not something I remember with fondness. It was a mistake, as I told you then. Not my worst mistake, but certainly a close second.”

So she had made other mistakes. That was something worth investigating.

“Now then, what will it take to make you forget that little piece of my personal history?” she asked.

He smiled. “Ah, yes, another favor. I believe I shall consider that. I’ll let you know at a later date the price for my silence.”

A tic in her jaw betrayed her frustration, but she nodded all the same. “Very well. At the dinner party, I expect you and your family to be prompt. You all have a good impression to make.”

He bowed slightly. “We shall be at your service.”

“That, I highly doubt. Good day, Lord Ashford.” She turned on her heel and left.

Vivian finally exhaled as the carriage door closed. The rig rolled down the street, leaving the Ashford townhouse to make the short distance to her own. Good heavens. She pulled at the lace edging her bodice. She wanted to turn her mind to something other than that searing kiss, but it consumed her thoughts. And how could it not? It had been delicious. She released a slow breath. There was no other way to consider it. She had thought the kiss they’d shared ten years ago had been potent. Perhaps it had been so long she’d forgotten. She doubted it, though. This one seemed even more passionate, more intense, more intimate. Even now, her skin still tingled. Her fingers went to her mouth.

She shook herself. She was not in the business of receiving kisses, let alone enjoyable ones. He had kissed her only to knock her off kilter, and she recognized that.

Marcus Kincaid was a man who preferred to be in charge and the women in his family had made a mess while he’d been away. Flirting with her gave him the upper hand. It was harmless, she reminded herself. Once Clarissa’s scandal was contained, he would leave Vivian alone.

The carriage arrived at her house and she stepped onto the sidewalk. Across the street, another carriage was parked, one that looked faintly familiar. She eyed the worn crest on the door, but the paint had faded so much that she couldn’t recognize much of it. In the tiny window a curtain pulled back and someone looked out at her. Then the curtain shut and the carriage rolled away.

Someone was watching her.


Clarissa stepped into the study, but left the door ajar. “You wanted to see me?”

“Yes. I received notice from Miss March about the dinner party this evening. She wanted to inform us ahead of time that she had invited Justin Rodale and that he accepted,” Marcus said.

“She what?” Clarissa asked, her arms crossed over her chest. He half expected her to stamp her foot. In that moment he remembered her as she’d been when he’d left ten years before. She’d been but a girl then, pretty, with bouncing curls and always a passel of dolls clutched in her arms. He’d missed her growing up into the woman that stood before him. “Why the devil would she do such a thing?”

It was on his tongue to chide her for cursing, but if he constantly corrected her, she’d never again trust him. It was much like approaching an animal in the wild—you had to be still and calm and then they would eventually get used to your presence. “You said yourself you went to speak to him directly, to appeal to him personally because he and I had once been friends. This is to keep up appearances about that story. Justin and I haven’t seen each other since Cambridge, but we were mates.” In truth, he hadn’t yet decided how he felt about Justin being there. But he honestly wasn’t looking forward to much about tonight, mingling with people he hadn’t seen in years and others that he hadn’t yet met. The only thing he was looking forward to was seeing Miss March again.

Clarissa shook her head. “It still seems completely unnecessary, but I suppose if he’s going to be there, it’s best that she wouldn’t agree to invite George.”

According to Aunt Maureen, Clarissa had set her cap for this Wilbanks fellow, but at this point Marcus was uncertain if it was a good match. The inconsistency in the man’s story and what had happened with Justin made Marcus question whether the man had any interest in marrying his sister in the first place. Yet he seemed to be keeping her around—as an alternate, perhaps. It was enough to make Marcus want to call on the man, but he hadn’t been in town long enough to know the full story. Perhaps Justin could shed some light on the situation tonight if they had a quiet moment to speak.

“We shall make the best of it,” Marcus said.

“I still do not understand why we have to carry on so. Is it truly such an ordeal for me to have had a conversation with a man on the street?” Clarissa asked.

“You know it is.”

“Well, it shouldn’t be. There is nothing at all inappropriate in having a conversation with someone. People shouldn’t be so antiquated.”

“Rather forward thinking of you,” he said. “Still, you had no business being in that part of town.” Marcus softened his tone. “You should have asked for help.”

“From whom?” Clarissa’s eyebrows rose. “
You
weren’t here.”

He opened his mouth to say something, to give her an explanation for his absence, but voices in the corridor saved him before he could.

“Where is that world-traveling cousin of mine?” Marcus heard Lena’s teasing voice in the entryway of the main hall.

“Lena,” Clarissa said softly. She brightened and turned on her heel, leaving the study.

Marcus rounded the door and caught sight of the tall redhead smiling brightly at his sister.

“Clarissa, love, you look so pretty this morning,” Lena said. “And Marcus,” she said as she walked toward him, arms open. “My goodness, it’s been so long and you are a full-grown man.” She held him out so she could see all of him. “And quite a handsome one, too.”

Her husband, Henry Covington, Viscount Glenfield, entered the door wiping raindrops from his coat. “It grows nastier out there every minute. We couldn’t have left at a better time, Lena, dear. Good day to you, Marcus old boy.” Henry’s jovial tone bellowed down the hall.

Marcus embraced Lena and kissed her cheek. “I have been a man for quite a while, Lena, but thank you.”

“I have missed you, cousin,” she said. She held him tightly and he felt the love radiate from her. He swallowed hard. It was more difficult to hold the world at arm’s length being this close to his family. But he’d be a liar if he said he hadn’t missed them, too. All of them. He stepped away from her and reached for Henry’s hand for a few quick shakes. “And you as well, Henry. I hope you’re ready for tonight’s festivities.”

BOOK: A Little Bit Wicked
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