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Authors: Robyn Dehart

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BOOK: A Little Bit Wicked
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“Welcome, welcome.” Lena entered the hallway, her face beaming from the smile gracing her lips. “I am so pleased you decided to join us.” She embraced Vivian.

“Thank you for inviting me,” Vivian said. She did her best to school her features. Marcus had not only spoken of wicked things on the ride here, he’d made her crave said wicked things. She could still feel desire tingling through her body, clinging to her limbs.

“I must confess that for selfish reasons, I am glad you are here. I do hate it when I am the only woman about.” She squeezed Vivian to her. “This will even things up a bit. Let us head to the dining room—dinner should be ready, and we can’t very well spend the evening in the hall.”

“Cousin, we have only just arrived,” Marcus said.

“Yes, well, we have much to discuss this evening. Come along, then,” Lena said.

They entered the dining room, a modest room equipped with a table tastefully sized to seat no more than six guests. The smells of broiled quail, potatoes, and warm bread engulfed Vivian’s senses.

Marcus guided Vivian to a chair. His hand at the small of her back sent warmth spreading through her, doing nothing to ease her arousal. Good heavens, but she was becoming quite the wanton! It was ridiculous that an innocent touch could affect her so. He pulled out her chair.

She was relieved when Marcus sat across the table from her. She didn’t think she could have lasted an entire dinner sitting right next to him.

“It smells delicious,” Vivian said, trying to turn her thoughts to something else.

“Where is Henry?” Marcus asked.

“In here,” Henry said as he bumped a door open. He walked in, all smiles, carrying a tray of food. “Dinner is served.” He set the large tray in the center of the table and removed the lid. Four plates sat simmering with mounds of food. “Please, have a seat. Let me just remove this,” he said as he untied his apron.

Vivian must have displayed her confusion because Lena raised her eyebrows, then laughed.

“You have discovered our family secret,” she said with feigned concern. “It is true, my husband loves to cook. I simply cannot keep him out of the kitchen,” Lena said with a laugh.

Vivian felt the heat of a blush crawl up her neck. “I do apologize. I didn’t mean to imply—”

“Not at all,” Lena said. “It is a normal reaction. Most gentlemen don’t even know where to find the kitchen, much less how to fix a pot of tea. But I must admit your expression was delightful.” Lena clapped her hands.

Henry served each of them a plate of food, then sat next to Marcus. “Please, eat.” Henry picked up his own fork to encourage everyone else.

The aromas of the foods mingled in a most perfect way, beckoning her to taste each dish. Vivian did not believe she had ever had such a wonderful meal. “Good heavens, Henry, but you are a most gifted cook.”

“Thank you. It’s all in the timing, and I have a penchant for spices.”

Marcus cleared his throat, and set his fork down. “You will all be pleased to know that I met with Mr. Thomas this morning. I handed off my upcoming Egyptian tour to another of the guides.”

Vivian eyed him. Though his tone seemed relatively neutral, there was a look in his eyes that said something else entirely. She was pleased he was taking his new position seriously and that he was considering staying in London to be with Clarissa. Still, she knew that this decision did not make him happy.

“Splendid, old boy,” Henry said. “I’m quite pleased you’ll be staying around.”

“Have you resigned, then? Completely?” Lena asked, her face lit with joy.

Marcus was quiet for a moment, and then he shook his head. “No, I have not resigned. It has not become completely clear to me that that is necessary. I enjoy my post with Thomas Adventure Tours.”

It was the perfect moment to remind him that it didn’t matter if he enjoyed his position. Earls did not have paid jobs. And earls did not abandon their younger sisters before they were at the very least married off to a worthy gentleman. But Vivian said nothing. For one, she sensed he knew that. Secondly, he seemed vulnerable enough at the moment that she wasn’t certain she wanted to get that close to him. She was completely comfortable giving him advice or guidance in selecting a bride, but anything else would be too much.

“Perhaps we can provide you with another incentive for staying close to home,” Lena said. “Henry, may we tell them now?”

“I think now would be a perfect time, darling.” Henry went and stood by his wife.

Lena smiled up at Henry, and then looked back at her cousin. “Marcus, I wanted you to be the first to know that Henry and I are expecting our first child.”

“Lena, that is wonderful.” Marcus came to his feet to embrace his cousin. “I know how long you and Henry have wanted this. I’m so happy for you.”

Henry looked every bit the proud father-to-be standing tall next to his wife’s chair, eyes glowing, and smiling sweetly at her. And Lena, wiping tears from her eyes, looked truly beautiful. Vivian supposed it was true what people said, that a woman’s true beauty shone the brightest when she carried a child.

Vivian rose from her chair and walked to Lena. “How marvelous for both of you. Congratulations.”

Lena hugged Vivian tightly. “Thank you.”

Something about the whole scene made Vivian’s insides knot. She should not be here, to hear such private family news. She had agreed to come tonight in hopes of speaking with Lena about Marcus’s marital situation. She thought that if she could have a word alone with the woman, Lena could be a powerful ally in convincing Marcus that marrying was the right thing to do. Instead, she was caught in the middle of an intimate family dinner.

Marcus had obviously invited her to further his plan of seducing her. He wanted her in his bed, but this—this was a family moment and she wanted nothing more than to disappear.

Marcus came and stood behind her and placed his hand at her waist, a touch so familiar it made her knees weak. It was the touch of a lover, a husband, and she was not Marcus’s lover and certainly not his wife. This was all wrong. She should not have agreed to come here tonight. She was far too close to this situation, and she never allowed herself to do that with her clients. For this very reason.

Chapter Seven

“I beg your pardon, but where is your water closet?”

“Two doors down to the left. Are you all right, Vivian?” Lena asked. “You look a little pale.”

She put her fingers to her temple and gave a weak smile. “I have a bit of a headache and need to splash a little water on my face, that is all. I shall be fine.”

Vivian did her best to walk calmly out of the dining room. She felt anything but calm. Instead, her body hummed with anxiety. She did precisely as she’d told them once she was enclosed in the small room. The basin held clean, cool water and she splashed some onto her warm cheeks. This was ridiculous. She didn’t have moments like this, not anymore. Now she was the woman who drove the conversation, directed the course of action, defined what was acceptable. She was used to being in charge.

Damnation if she hadn’t let her own weakness catch her off guard. Being attracted to Marcus was one thing, but she could not allow him to distract her to such a degree that she forgot whom she’d worked hard to become. She leaned against the closed door. She needed a moment to collect herself. It was apparent that she could not continue to play this charade with Marcus, pretending they could be friends. Men and women could not be friends.

The connection between her and Marcus was too much to deny. No matter how much she tried to ignore it, she knew that Marcus was attracted to her. And she to him. Perhaps he knew the truth about her. Men could probably see right through her, knowing instantly that she was weak and a wanton. Did Marcus know she was not an innocent? Is that why he was so intent on seducing her? Did he know that one touch from him would reduce her to clay in his hands?

She had no legitimate reason for begging off their agreement, save telling him the truth. That could never happen. She could not ignore him, but at least she could prevent herself from being in such intimate positions with him. Not only that, but she could regain control of herself. As traitorous as her body seemed to be, she was master of her own mind, for heaven’s sake.

She would see him only in public, surrounded by as many people as possible. She could point out potential brides. Then it was time to retire from society. Perhaps it was time to disappear and allow people to deal with their own scandals for a change. But without a family of her own, the work she did with the families she helped, the reputation she’d built for herself—it was everything she had in the world.

She wiped her face one more time, and pinched her cheeks to bring back the color. With new determination and a stronger will, she returned to the dining room. Henry and Marcus stood as she entered.

“Are you feeling ill, Vivian?” Marcus moved toward her.

She waved him off. “I feel much better now. As I said, it is a small headache, nothing to worry about. I do apologize for leaving in such a manner,” she said to Lena.

“Oh, don’t be ridiculous. My home is your home.”

“Shall we retire to the drawing room?” Henry asked.

Once settled in the large room, Vivian turned to Lena. There was no reason to abandon her plan for the evening. She’d intended to make Lena an ally and she would do that. Henry and Marcus were currently on the other side of the room having a discussion over a large map. “I’ve decided that the best way to help the family, to take eyes off Clarissa, is to find a bride for Marcus.”

Lena raised her eyebrows. “A bride?”

“He’s agreed to consider potential women,” Vivian said. That wasn’t entirely true, but he hadn’t said no.

Lena absently rubbed her stomach. “I must admit I’m surprised you convinced him so easily.”

“Well, he has only agreed to entertain the idea. I was hoping you might help persuade him to consider the notion of marriage more seriously.”

“A wife would certainly go a long way in keeping him in London, or at the very least England.” Lena smiled. “Do you have some women in mind?”

Vivian rattled off the list of the girls they’d discussed. “What do you think? Do you know any of them?”

“I do and I think it’s a good start.” Lena put her hand on Vivian’s arm. “I’ll consider some other names.”

“What are you two whispering about over there?” Marcus asked from across the room.

“Secrets, dear cousin, delicious secrets,” Lena said.

Marcus raised both eyebrows and Vivian couldn’t help the chuckle that escaped her. Tonight wasn’t a complete loss, after all. She’d still accomplished her goal of talking to Lena, and at the moment Marcus was across the room and not touching her, which was much more conducive to clear thought.

“We were, of course, discussing your future. I know I want to do whatever possible to keep you from leaving us again,” Lena said.

Vivian gave her a concerned look, but Lena merely smiled, as if to say,
Trust me
.

Lena walked to the side table next to the sofa and gathered a handful of envelopes. She gave some to Vivian, and then kept the rest for herself. “We can sort through these invitations to see what possibilities we have.”

Vivian thought to tell her that she’d already selected balls for them to attend, but if she wanted Lena’s assistance, she needed to trust Lena’s intuition.

Lena held up an invitation. “This is that masque at the Rampleys’, the one you wanted to go to, darling.”

“Oh yes. Masques are all the rage,” Henry said. “Surely there will be lovely girls there.”

Vivian’s eyes met Marcus’s. “Perhaps a masque isn’t the way to go to meet someone for the first time.”

“Oh, you’re absolutely right,” Lena said. “What have you found, Vivian?”

She opened the first envelope. “It is the come-out for Melissa Blair.”

“She is a lovely girl,” Lena said, “but her mother is a wretched woman so that will never do. My turn.” She opened a cream-colored envelope. “The annual Sanderson soiree. Always a good time, but very few young people in attendance. Vivian?”

“Another come-out. This one is for Lady Judith Hodges. It says here her father is a duke.”

“A duke without a fortune.” Henry snorted. “I’ll bet every decent family in England received an invitation. No doubt looking for a heavy purse for his daughter. Heavy gambler,” he said behind his hand.

“I’m so glad all of you find this so amusing,” Marcus said. “You discuss my future marriage as though I shall play no part in it.”

He hadn’t said
potential
marriage; he’d said quite flatly his
future
marriage, as if he’d already resigned himself to the idea. Perhaps she was already getting through to him. Vivian knew this entire task of matchmaking would be infinitely easier if she had a willing groom-to-be.

Marcus watched Vivian close her front door. Neither of them had spoken on the way back to her townhouse. During the ride there he’d wanted to scandalize her, but also let her know how serious his intentions were toward her.

He stood on her steps a few moments longer to try to make sense of the direction his life had suddenly taken. It was the same mental dance he’d done since he’d returned to London. He played everything over again in his mind, wondering what would have happened had he not returned at all. Eventually, word of his inheriting the title would have found him if through no other channels than the family solicitor sending notice through Thomas Adventure Tours.

He returned to his carriage. Everyone around him seemed to want him to stay, and he saw the merits. Right now, though, he was only committing to London until he married off his sister to a decent sort, someone other than that fop she seemed to favor. But marriage…he had never been inclined toward the institution. Both his father and brother had married for love, and it had brought them nothing but heartache and pain. Marcus had seen no reason to pursue matrimony, though clearly now the burden of an heir fell to him. For his entire adult life he’d merely wanted to travel, see the world, and when the occasion called for it, to have a willing woman warm his bed.

He only wanted one woman warming his bed at the moment, and she had just left his carriage. Rather quickly. As if she were afraid of what might happen if they were alone together for too long. Perhaps she should be. Despite her desire to marry him off, he still wanted to seduce her. He found her intriguing, which was why he’d made some subtle inquiries into how she spent her time. She was fascinating, with her skill at hiding other people’s scandals, smoothing out the edges of others’ indiscretions. It certainly begged the question of when she’d become so skilled at keeping secrets.

He climbed the stairs to his townhouse and made his way to his study. Perhaps someone had gotten back to him regarding his inquiries about Vivian, or he might have received word from Mr. Thomas. It might behoove him to make a visit to the Thomas Adventure Tours office and see if Mr. Thomas had made a decision about the Around the World tours.

There on a silver platter on the top of his desk sat a sealed envelope addressed only to
Kincaid
.

Marcus opened the seal and read the scrawled note.

Before the sun has fully risen. Hyde Park.

He set down the note and smiled. Money well spent to the fellow he’d ask to look into Vivian’s past times. He would not have taken her for a rider, but he enjoyed the morning air as well. Maybe if she took his pursuit seriously, she’d give up her silly intentions of finding him a wife.

Early the next morning, as was her custom, Vivian dressed in her riding habit and left early for a ride in the park. It was her time, the only time in the day that was solely hers. She arose too early to meet other people on her journey, so she, along with her groom who rode several paces behind her, could travel through Hyde Park without having to completely conform to society’s standards. She rode early so she could ride faster than a lady ought.

It was a lovely morning. The fog had lifted and the sun was beginning to peek gloriously above the trees. Had she been a little earlier she would have had time for a quick canter around, but as it was, she had been a little late this morning and therefore risked encountering other early risers. Usually they were men, quite often, she was certain, coming home from the evening, but she never would have inquired as to such a thing. They would generally nod and tip their hats and off they would go without having to exchange any words.

People knew her, knew that she guarded secrets, though no one ever dared to speak of it. It was far too risky, this card house of secrets she’d built. One family knew that if they spoke ill of her, she could just as easily share their secret with another family and away the cards would fall.

She heard a rider approaching behind her and wondered if it was her groom riding up to give her a message, but thought better of it. He never bothered her on her ride unless she’d asked him to watch the time, which on this morning, she had not. But the hooves beat a rhythm approaching her and she kept to her side of the path, smoothing her mare’s mane to soothe her should she be nervous.

The mystery was soon solved when the rider stopped beside her, slowed his mount, and tipped his hat. “Lovely morning, Miss March,” Marcus said.

She frowned at him. “Oh for heaven’s sake. Whatever are you doing here?”

“Riding. I’ve always had a penchant for early morning riding. Clears the head and readies me for the day.”

Words that she knew she’d spoken before, though to whom she couldn’t recall. He’d known she’d be here, known he could find her on this very path this morning. She wanted to be bothered by the notion of a man following her. Instead, she felt pursued—and as annoying as it was, being pursued felt decidedly delicious. “Have you bribed my servants to give you word of my whereabouts?”

He put a hand to his chest. “Why, Miss March, it wounds me that you would even make such a suggestion. I merely enjoy the park in the morning and I recognized you from behind.” He stopped, eyed her, and then slowly smiled. “I wanted to be polite and say hello.”

“Well, hello.” When he didn’t ride off, she motioned with her hand. “Carry on, then.”

“Are you dismissing me?” he asked, his seductive eyes round with feigned innocence.

She nodded. “I am.”

“Is my company so dreadful?”

This time she detected a note of truth, perhaps hurt, in his otherwise playful tone. She sighed. “No, of course not. I am not accustomed to riding alongside someone in the morning.”

“I shall be quiet. Give you your solitude.”

She nodded and he was true to his word. They rode in silence for several long moments, only the sounds of their mounts’ hooves against the path and the occasional song of a bird filling their silence. If she were honest with herself, she would admit that it was nice. Riding alongside someone, a companion, without having to speak, without the pressure to say the right thing…but that was not what this was. This was more of his illusions. More of his games.

“Marcus, I do not know what game you wish to play with me, but I can assure you that I will not be a worthy opponent for you.”

“I strongly disagree, though I do not believe I am playing a game. Did I not warn you that I was going to pursue you? This is pursuit, my dear lady, not a game. I should think you would recognize the difference.”

She took a deep breath. “You are wasting your time.”

“Yes, so you have warned me. I should like to be the judge of how I use my time, though.”

“Fair enough.”

Marcus turned away from Hyde Park and headed his mount in the direction of Brook Street, where the Thomas Adventure Tours office was located. At this early hour it was unlikely Mr. Thomas himself would be in, but his assistant, Mr. Figg, was there so often, Marcus had wondered if the man lived in the back rooms.

And so it was when Marcus arrived. Mr. Figg was just opening up the front door. The little bell at the top of the door jingled as he closed the door behind him. The small office looked the same as he remembered it and still smelled of lemon oil. The heavy wooden desk in the front was where Mr. Figg sat and greeted people. There were a handful of chairs lining the wall to the right for people to wait, and behind the door on the left was the office where Mr. Thomas sat when he was in.

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