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Authors: Robyn Dehart

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“A list?” Maureen asked. “Of what?”

“Potential brides for your nephew, of course,” Vivian said.

“I do not know my brother very well, but I can tell you he will be most reluctant to be married off to some girl,” Clarissa said.

“Be that as it may,” Vivian said, “you must have some friends or acquaintances, Clarissa, who would be a good match for your brother.”

“To be honest, Miss March, I’m not so certain I wish to saddle any of my friends with a man whom I can’t guarantee will be here when she might need him.”

“Clarissa,” Maureen chided. “He’s simply been gone so long.” Maureen opened her mouth as if to say more, but she shook her head.

“You believe your brother will leave again?” Vivian asked.

“Well, I do believe he is still exchanging correspondence with his employer. I don’t believe he’s ended his position with them, and he certainly spends enough time studying all the maps that litter his desk.”

Marcus returning to his post was not something Vivian had considered. Why would she think about that? Surely he hadn’t entertained such thoughts. He was an earl now, he had familial responsibilities he couldn’t walk away from. But regardless of all of that, the man needed a wife. What happened after he married would no longer be her concern.

“All the more reason to distract him with a lovely young woman who will steal his attention.” Anything that would divert his attention enough to keep him from looking at her with those sultry blue eyes, or pulling her against him in another soul-searing kiss. She couldn’t take much more of it. A woman’s restraint could only withstand so much temptation. But she was not the right woman to distract him; she was far too advanced in years. She had to be at least six years older than he.

He needed a wife, and she had no desire to be said wife. Or anyone’s wife, for that matter. She much preferred living life on her own terms.

“What about Gwyneth Montrose?” Maureen said, finally offering up a name. “She’s lovely and seems rather intelligent.”

“True, and we know each other, but we aren’t close enough that I would need to feel guilty should he abandon her once the marriage is done,” Clarissa said thoughtfully.

“Very good,” Vivian said. She wrote down Gwyneth’s name and tried to place the girl. If she wasn’t mistaken, Gwyneth was a relatively tall woman with nondescript brown hair, but kind eyes. She wasn’t overly talkative and seemed to have a pleasant disposition. Perhaps
she
was the right sort of woman for Marcus. But Vivian knew even as she wrote the woman’s name down that Marcus would no more be interested in her than he would be paying court to Her Majesty.

“Very well. Whom else should we consider? We should have a collection of women to introduce him to. Allow him to select one that interests him, “ Vivian said.

“Make him feel as if he’s making the choice,” Rose said.

“Precisely,” Vivian agreed.

“Oh, what about Constance Brindwell?” Clarissa asked. “She’s very pretty. And sophisticated.”

Not to mention a bit of a flirt, if rumors were to be believed, but Vivian kept that notion to herself. She wrote the woman’s name down. They needed good choices for him, someone who would help him lead the Kincaid family, someone to whom Clarissa could look for womanly advice, though clearly she had her aunt for some of that.

“Annie Liddle,” Maureen said. “She’s very quiet, but a pretty little thing.”

She was indeed quite pretty. Perhaps too pretty, but Vivian wrote her name down as well. What did it matter to her if Marcus married himself off to the prettiest woman in all of London? In all of Great Britain, for that matter. She cared not a whit about any of that. She did not want his attention, and this was precisely what needed to happen to prevent him from giving it to her.

Once he had a real marital candidate in his sights he’d forget about Vivian. She was older than he. Gray had already begun to shimmer in her brown hair, and lines had begun to play at the corners of her eyes. Men, especially men like Marcus, did not want women with age showing. They wanted younger, plump, ripe women who were ready to birth children. Vivian was past that part of her life. She was nearing five and thirty, for heaven’s sake.

“Eloise Jennings,” Clarissa said. “We were friends once, but lost touch, and she was always very humorous. Marcus enjoys a good laugh, I do know that about him. I suspect Eloise might amuse him.”

Vivian wrote down the girl’s name. She’d never had any encounters with Eloise, which she supposed was a good thing considering Vivian’s particular skill. The less she knew someone, the more likely it was the person had had no personal scandals.

Marcus did seem to have a rather advanced sense of humor. She certainly didn’t consider humor as one of her virtues. Oh, what did it matter? She nearly smacked her thigh with the small notebook to shock herself out of her wistful thinking. The point was to get good ideas about whom to introduce Marcus to at his first big ball since his return.

A handful of other names were tossed around and Vivian wrote them all down. They discussed the group and made some additional notes. “Clarissa, did you bring the invitations as I asked?”

“I did.” The girl reached into her bag and withdrew a pile of envelopes. “These are for this coming week.”

“Excellent. Now let us make our plan to see which would be most advantageous for Marcus to attend. If he is to meet a lovely lady and begin courting her, we want that to happen as soon as possible. Then you, dear Clarissa, may return to your regular activities.” She paused and pointed her pencil at the girl. “Though I would suggest steering clear of Mr. Rodale’s gambling establishment.”

“I have no desire to see Mr. Rodale again,” Clarissa said firmly.

“You know that’s not really an option right now, my dear. Remember, he is a close family friend. He will in all likelihood be attending some of these functions with you and your brother,” Vivian said. “We must keep up appearances.”

“Indeed,” Clarissa said, then her lips tightened and she said nothing more.

Vivian couldn’t help but wonder precisely what had gone on between Mr. Rodale and Clarissa. After the women had left, she reviewed the list of names scrawled into her notebook. With the plan firmly in hand, she knew the very next step was to give Marcus some practical instructions. He’d been gone from London for too long.

She stood at the window and watched the women be ushered into their waiting carriage. They rolled off and Vivian almost walked away, but a flash of black caught her attention. There, across the street, sat that same rig she’d spotted the other day—same worn-out crest, same face peering out from the widow. Vivian stepped away from her own window, her hands shaking.

Well, this was ridiculous. She marched herself out her front door with every intention of walking over to the carriage and confronting whoever found her so fascinating. But as soon as she reached the sidewalk, the carriage rolled away.

It was alarming, yet rather curious.

Chapter Six

Marcus had been summoned to Vivian’s townhouse shortly after luncheon. He was led to her formal parlor where he found her already seated. The chair she sat upon appeared to be out of place, though, perhaps brought in from another room. Whereas the rest of the furniture looked plush, her wooden straight-backed chair kept her sitting completely upright.

“Vivian,” he said with a nod. “Are you redecorating?”

She gave him a sly smile. “No, I only recently refashioned this room.”

“For a woman so concerned with propriety, you certainly are comfortable meeting with me, an eligible bachelor, alone. Are you not concerned for your virtue?”

“A woman of my advanced years need not concern herself with the worries of a younger woman.”

“Advanced years—honestly, Vivian, you make yourself sound as if you have one foot in the grave. Trust me, your virtue could be in even more danger now,” he said.

She inhaled sharply. “Lord Ashford, let us try and stay on task. This chair is here for a specific reason, but I am thrilled to see that you are so visually observant and noticed it was a new addition to the room. Trust me when I say that it will make this exercise go much more smoothly.”

“Exercise? I am intrigued.” He sat nearest her, on a cream-colored oval-backed chair.

“There is much you need to learn about wooing a lady and winning her hand.”

“Is that what this is going to be about?” He sat back, utterly amused by her. He would say one thing—she never ceased to amaze him with her antics, especially since she was completely sincere. “You intend to teach me how to court a lady?”

“Well, not today—there is much to discuss before we actually get to the courtship,” she said. “Remember, it is always good to learn new things.”

“Consider me a most attentive pupil,” he said.

“Excellent. Let us begin, then. I know that you have been out of the country for much of your formative years. Therefore, I suspect some of the fairer sex’s cues are lost on you.” It was then that he saw the fan hanging from her wrist.

“Cues? Vivian, to what are you referring?”

She withdrew her wrist from the loop of the fan and popped it open on her thigh. “In order to find a bride, you will need to know what subtle messages women are sending you. In the delicate language of the fan, for instance.”

He grinned, unable to help it. “There is a language of the fan? And a covert language, at that.” He released a low whistle. “The queen really ought enlist some women to serve in the espionage department. You lot are a clever bunch.”

“Yes, well, don’t allow our secret to escape. Were it known that we actually could do everything, you men would stop earning your keep. Now then—“ She held the fan up to her face, staring at him over its blade coquettishly. “There is much a woman can say to you with only her fan.” She dropped the fan and waved it quickly in front of her. “See how rapidly I am fanning myself? This means I am engaged. If I slow it down, it means I am already married.”

He leaned back in the chair and watched her. This was going to be a most interesting afternoon. She might not have realized it, but this little exercise was allowing Vivian to flirt with him, and he found that to be most entertaining.

“This,” she said, opening and closing the fan, “means that I find you cruel. But this,” she said, touching the closed fan to her right ear, “means that you have changed.”

“For better or worse?”

“I suppose that depends on the individuals involved.” She continued moving the fan about and it all seemed a ridiculous means of communication to him, but he found her charming.

She was intent on finding him a bride, and he had to wonder what it was about him that ruffled her so. Vivian was no longer a young miss on the marriage mart. She was a woman of means old enough to make decisions of her own. She had no men in her life dictating her every move. Why, then, was she so reluctant to give in to her own desires? He knew she wanted him. Her fan might be saying otherwise—at the moment she was telling him she despised him—but her eyes said something else entirely.

“This means I want to speak to you alone.” She moved the fan so that the handle touched her lips. “And that means I want a kiss.”

“I want a kiss, too,” he said.

“Marcus, be serious, will you?”

“I was being quite serious. I never jest about kissing.”

She shook her head fervently. “It is important to remember that even if a woman makes such a gesture, you mustn’t give in to every girl who makes the request. There are plenty of lightskirts out there doing everything in their power to compromise themselves into a marriage with a titled gentleman.”

“This all seems nothing but nonsense to me.”

“Oh no, women can be quite crafty. Marriage is highly competitive in London. There are only so many handsome men who have other fine attributes such as your title and your wealth. Women will do what they can to make such a match, so as to not be saddled with an older gentleman with soured breath, despite his title and full coffers.”

“That’s not what I meant,” he said. He leaned forward, bracing his elbows on his knees. “It seems foolish that women would have to come up with such a creative way to speak to a man. Would it not be more simple for her say what she wants?”

“Oh, no, that would be unheard of. Improper, really. A woman should never admit to a man that she wishes he would court her or that she wants a kiss. Nor should she tell a man she believes him to be cruel. This is polite society, after all.” She placed the fan on the occasional table next to her.

“We all certainly pretend to be polite quite well. It is so much simpler with animals. Do you know that when a lioness is ready to mate, she simply rolls around on the ground growling, and the male lion comes and mounts her? It’s that simple.”

Vivian’s mouth had fallen open. Her breathing had tightened and her hands clenched the fabric of her skirt. He had obviously scandalized her with his information, but was it possible that he had aroused her as well? The very thought had lust surging through his veins, making his trousers uncomfortable.

Vivian recovered quickly. She frowned. “That is not the type of conversation you should have with any of the girls you will be courting. Highly improper. And Marcus, honestly, we are not wild animals. You cannot compare the two. If women went about rolling on the floor and moaning all the time with men coming along and mounting them, as you so crudely called a ball, Society would be no better than orgies I’ve heard about. We are civilized, educated people. We know better.”

“Yes, we do. Still, it would be a vast improvement if women could speak their desires aloud rather than using some antiquated code.” He had forgotten how different Englishwomen were from women elsewhere. Vivian was very much a proper Englishwoman, so very intelligent, yet she could be somewhat naïve when it came to matters of the flesh.

“Be that as it may, knowing these things will assist you in finding the right girl.”

He knew the futility of arguing with her. Vivian had set her course, though he would not agree to stay on it with her, but there was no point in discussing it. Instead, he had other matters to converse about.

“You are a most fascinating woman, Vivian March.”

Clearly uncomfortable with his straightforward compliment, she merely smiled and patted her hair.

“Join me for dinner tonight at Lena and Henry’s,” he said.

The lines between her brow furrowed. “I cannot.”

“And why is that?”

“I am busy.” She waved her hand in front of her. “I am behind on our books. And I really must go through our mail.”

He eyed the small stack of letters on the writing desk behind her. Crossing his arms over his chest, he raised his eyebrows. “Give me a specific reason and I shall leave you alone.” His words carried an open challenge. “I thought you enjoyed my cousin’s company.”

“Yes, of course, I enjoy your cousin quite a bit.”

“I would hate for her feelings to be wounded if you did not attend.”

Her eyes narrowed. “Did she invite me?”

“Most assuredly she did. She told me quite specifically to not forget to invite you,” he said. It wasn’t true, but had Lena known he was going to see Vivian today, she most certainly would have said those very words.

She was quiet for several moments, then a slow smile spread across her mouth. “I am rather fond of your cousin. I haven’t seen Lena in a while, and I didn’t get to visit with her much the other night. I suppose I could accompany you.”

That was far easier than he had anticipated. Vivian had a plan, ulterior motives, he would wager. He suspected she intended to persuade his cousin to her plan of marrying him off, but he said nothing of the matter. It would be far more entertaining to watch how it played out, see what kinds of schemes she planned.

She came to her feet and moved toward the door, ready to see him out. He followed her over and stood too close to her. Her breath caught at his nearness. He suspected she wondered if he would kiss her again.

“I shall send a carriage for you,” he said.

“Marcus, I’m not so certain it’s a great idea for us to spend time alone with one another.”

He leaned down and pressed a lingering kiss on her cheek. “You have my word that I will not touch you. I shall be a perfect gentleman. Tonight.” He would not make promises for any other evening. He still wanted her. This afternoon had already been an exercise in restraint. Her lessons in flirting had him longing for a time when she would ask him, just once, to kiss her. Even if she did have to do it with a bloody fan.

“Vivian, dear, the carriage is here!” Aunt Rose called.

Vivian rounded the corner of the stairs into the main foyer. She walked directly to her aunt and held her wrist out. “Fasten this, please.” Rose busied herself with the bracelet encircling Vivian’s wrist.

“He said he’d wait outside,” Rose said.

He had promised to be the gentleman, she reminded herself, trying to calm her nerves. She didn’t know if she was more concerned about him kissing her or not kissing her. “He is right on time. I find that somewhat surprising.”

“Because handsome men cannot be prompt?” Aunt Rose looked up from the clasped bracelet.

“I never once said he was handsome.”

“You didn’t have to, dear. By the by, you look very pretty this evening.” Rose smiled. “I’m going to retire early, so do not expect me to still be awake when you return.”

“Aunt Rose, I am going to dinner. I will not be out late.”

“Nonetheless, do not disturb me.” She kissed Vivian’s cheek. “Have a good time, dear.”

Vivian made her way out the front door and couldn’t help but notice as she walked past the mirror in the entryway that the rich indigo did complement her skin tone.

He stood by the street, next to the carriage, the crest of Ashford emblazoned on the side of the rig. His clothes spoke to all the wealth and privilege of his family, yet when he reached out to help her climb into the carriage, she noted he still did not wear gloves.

“I hope you’re hungry,” he said as the doors closed on them. “If memory serves me right, Lena and Henry always have the very best dishes at their house.”

She was hungry, though she hadn’t given much thought to the actual dinner part of the evening. She’d been mostly concerned with being alone with him in here. As the wheels began to rumble down the street, she was quite relieved that Marcus had sat across from her.

They were quiet for several moments before Marcus spoke. “Lions mate on and off for nearly three days solid,” he said.

“I beg your pardon?” she asked.

“You seemed—” He paused as if looking for the right word. “—intrigued when I told you some of the mating rituals of lions. I thought you might be curious to know more. The actual act of coupling doesn’t last very long, so they do it often, not even taking breaks to eat or hunt. They’re quite serious about their mating.”

She hadn’t been so much intrigued as aroused by his earlier description, and he had noticed. Heat settled in her cheeks and she knew she blushed. Thanks goodness the carriage was relatively dark as they rumbled down the street.

“The male lion is quite attentive to his female when she’s ready for breeding. I suspect human males are not too much different. When we see a female we want, we can be pretty attentive. Take myself, for example. My attraction to you has consumed much of my thoughts.”

She sucked in her breath. She should say something, chide him or ask him not to say such things, but she found she had no words.

“Vivian, if you only knew the images my mind has conjured of the two of us. Your response to my kisses is, I know, merely an indication of how passionate you are. I am longing to know how you would respond if I kissed you elsewhere.”

“Where?” she asked, then gasped because she had not intended to say it aloud.

“If I nibbled at that spot beneath your ear where I can see your pulse flicker beneath your skin. Or if I took my sweet time at the inside of your wrist. More than anything, though, right now, I’d like to kneel in front of you and start at your ankles and kiss my way up your legs. I’d first have to peel down those stockings. But then up your legs until I could taste your sweet nectar.”

She swallowed hard and took a shuddering breath. His words conjured those same images in her mind, and heat pooled between her legs. Her nipples had hardened and she was close to asking him to do precisely what he’d described. She’d never heard of such a thing.

“Yes, but this is proper English society, despite whatever carnal rituals the primitive tribes might participate in, genteel people would never do such things” she said, in an attempt to hide how his words had affected her.

“Oh, no, that’s a custom a great many Englishmen enjoy—and Englishwomen as well,” he said.

“I don’t believe that.”

“Answer me this, Vivian—are you more scandalized or intrigued by the notion?”

She didn’t have to answer because the carriage arrived at the Glenfield townhouse and a footman had opened the door as soon as they rolled to a stop. He assisted her out of the carriage, and then Marcus escorted her inside.

“You look beautiful, Vivian,” he whispered against her ear as they entered his cousin’s home.

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