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Authors: Robyn Dehart

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BOOK: A Little Bit Wicked
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Mr. Figg nodded to him as he took his place behind the mahogany desk. “Mr. Kincaid,” he said, then he shook his head. “No, it is Lord Ashford now, is it not?”

So they had heard. “It is, but there is no need for such formality here. I’ve told you for years, Figg, that you may call me Marcus.”

“I prefer formality, my lord, and your title demands it now. So what is it that I can do for you today, Lord Ashford? As you probably remember, Mr. Thomas does not come in until later in the day.” He opened a ledger on the desk. “Would you like me to schedule you an appointment to see him?”

Marcus took a seat near Figg’s desk and looked around. On the remaining walls hung maps of all the places they currently handled tours. Marcus had led all of them save the ones to America.

“I submitted my proposed itinerary for the Around the World tour several months ago. Has Mr. Thomas not made his decision yet?” Marcus still felt certain his plans would be selected. Mr. Thomas had always favored him; he had been a leader in this place.

Mr. Figg smiled. “Mr. Thomas is still considering the plans. When he opened up the opportunity to all of the guides, he was not anticipating receiving plans from so many of you. He received no fewer than eight separate itineraries that he is considering.” Mr. Figg closed the ledger and folded his hands on top of it. “I don’t have to tell you, my lord, how important this tour is to Mr. Thomas. He wants to make certain he makes the best choice. But we certainly know whom he typically favors.”

Marcus smiled.

“Will there be anything else?” Mr. Figg asked.

Marcus came to his feet. “I don’t believe so. Mr. Thomas knows where to find me should he need me. Do tell him I stopped by.”

“Most assuredly, my lord.”

On the ride home Marcus entertained thoughts of how Vivian would fare on one of his tours. He would wager she would find some of the countries vastly interesting. Why he would consider such matters made no sense. He wanted to seduce the woman, not spend an eight-month holiday with her.

He knew that none of the women in his life right now would understand his dedication to his employment. Yes, he did have different responsibilities now, but he would be the one to decide how to manage the two.

Chapter Eight

Two days later she found herself out shopping for new dresses for Clarissa. Lena had gone along with them to begin collecting some dresses that would grow with her increasing waistline. Vivian was still unsure how she’d been convinced to participate in this little outing. Normally, with her clients, she would develop a plan for their particular situation, and then they would carry out said plan. There didn’t involve much more than what was absolutely necessary. But it seemed she was firmly enmeshed with this family, and these two women were becoming close to being considered friends. It simultaneously made her nervous and gave her joy. It had been so very long since she’d had a friend, a true friend. She did not trust people enough.

She stood in the corner of a dressmaker’s shop admiring a bolt of material while Lena chatted happily with the
modiste
. Clarissa was being measured in a dressing room, having already selected a handful of fabrics and dress options. Vivian could probably use a new dress or two, as she did enjoy staying at the height of fashion. It wasn’t so much vanity as that it aided in maintaining her reputation. In London, people wouldn’t trust your advice if they didn’t approve of your wardrobe.

“This is it, Vivian, I have found something for you. This is the perfect color for your complexion. Come and see.” Lena’s cheery face beamed from the other side of the store.

Vivian made her way to where Lena held a bolt of shimmering blue material. “Gracious, Lena, but that is a bright color. Whatever would I do with a dress made in such a fabric?” She had to admit, though, that the material was stunning. It was hard to look away from, and it seemed to beckon her to reach over and run her fingers along the silky length.

“Don’t be silly. Why wouldn’t you have a dress made with this? You would look stunning in it.” She narrowed her eyes. “Why is it that you do not like men?”

Vivian looked up from the azure material. “What does that have to—” She shook her head. “I don’t believe I ever said I did not like men. But all the same, I am well past courting years and I have neither the time nor the patience to sidestep any lonely gentlemen.”

Lena’s brow creased. “That is poppycock! You are most certainly not past courting years. I would wager my purse of coins that you could marry anyone of your choice.”

Vivian gave an unladylike snort. “Even though I know you are wrong, I am not naive enough to take that gamble. I have the sneaking suspicion you win most of your wagers.”

Lena smiled. “You are correct, Vivian. But I do know one gentleman who is rather fond of you.”

“Who?” Her own tone and quickness of response irritated her. Why should it matter? No man would want her if he knew the truth about her past. Men did not want spoiled goods, as it were.

“You cannot tell me you have not noticed. Marcus certainly seems quite taken with you.” She brought her hand to her chest and gave a great dramatic sigh.

Vivian knew she blushed. She looked back down at the fabric in her hand, and allowed it to drop from her grasp. It fell away like blue water running through her fingers. She turned away to another rack of material. He needed to be careful if other people were beginning to notice how he looked at her.

“Marcus feels nothing more than gratitude.” She fingered lavender chintz. “For helping with Clarissa,” she said over her shoulder.

“Honestly, Vivian, I do not take you for a fool.” Lena walked to her. She stood a good head taller than Vivian. “I’ve seen the way he looks at you.” Her brows rose and she gave her a knowing look.

Vivian’s stomach fluttered. She knew precisely what Lena meant. Vivian had seen the look of desire in Marcus’s eyes, but she’d done her best to ignore it. Knowing someone else saw it too… she could not allow herself to entertain such thoughts. She had had her one indiscretion in life, and she could not afford another.

“Lena, he is a man of a certain age and he has been traveling for the better part of the last decade. I suppose he looks at all women to whom he is not related that way.” She waved her hand. “It means nothing.” She held up a chartreuse silk from the rack. “This is a lovely color, Lena. It would go wonderfully with your hair.”

“I’ve seen desire on a man’s face, and that is what I see when Marcus looks at you. But I shall cease pestering you about it.” She picked up the bolt and held it up to her body. “You do have a point about this color. It is wonderful.”

“Whatever it is you see in Marcus will no doubt disappear when he sees all the lovely young women at the balls we’re taking him to.”

“We shall see, I suppose. I am going to buy this material. And I’m going to get that other one for you.”

Vivian frowned. “Which one?”

“The blue.” Lena nodded once in confirmation.

“There is no need to purchase anything for me. I have more than enough money. Besides, I think it is far too bright for me. I tend to favor warmer colors.”

“It will be good for you. You wear too many dark and drab colors. No offense, dear, but you are a lovely woman. You should wear more colors that set off your attributes.” She tugged on the sleeve of Vivian’s dark brown gown for emphasis.

Vivian could never take offense at Lena; she was too genuine and good-hearted. True, she spoke her mind and often said things a person did not want to hear, but Vivian knew she always meant well.

“Even so, you do not need to purchase it. I can very well pay for it myself.”

“I know you can, but I also know you take no payments for—” She lowered her voice. “—the services you provide. You have done wonderful things for my family and I know in the end Clarissa’s reputation will be salvaged.”

She knew arguing with Lena would do no good, so she merely nodded in concession. The fabric was stunning, but she doubted it would do much for her. Vivian knew she was not an unattractive woman, but she was hardly beautiful by today’s standards. And regardless of how everyone lately kept trying to disregard the truth, she knew she was older. She was four and thirty, well past the time women prettied themselves up to garner the attention of a suitor.

It took another twenty minutes to finalize the order for Clarissa’s new dresses. When it was, the three of them they returned to the street, where they stopped at a shop and purchased new ribbons and then a trinket shop where Lena bought a silver rattle for the baby.

“I just cannot wait for this little one to join us,” Lena said as they left the shop.

Vivian didn’t think she and Lena were that different in age, but Lena had been married for years. Evidently, she and Henry had tried a long time for this baby. It was standard for women their age to be married with children. No one ever dared ask Vivian why she was unmarried, but she knew they probably wondered. Aristocrats were a nosy bunch.

Did everyone believe her to be a bitter old spinster pining away for a love lost and a missed chance for children? There had been a time when she’d desired a family of her own, had longed for a husband to love her, and children to raise. Life had had other plans for her. Or in truth, she’d made a horrible mistake, one from which she could never recover. So now she simply did not think about such things.

“Clarissa, have you spoken with Mr. Wilbanks lately?” Vivian asked.

Clarissa smiled broadly. “I have not. He’s out of town, gone to Stratford to purchase some new horses.”

“And you are so certain you will marry him?” Lena asked.

“Oh yes, we are a perfect match,” Clarissa said.

Vivian wanted to scream at the girl, tell her that words meant nothing, that until a man had you in front of a minister, it meant nothing. But she kept her lips tightly shut. While she was finding a bride for Marcus, she should most definitely find someone else for Clarissa before the girl found herself heartbroken and compromised.

They passed through a group of people standing outside a milliner’s shop.

“Vivian March,” a man’s voice said.

The little hairs on her forearms stood on end. Vivian stopped walking and turned around to face the group, searched their faces. She knew that voice.

“Vivian, is everything all right?” Lena asked.

Where was he? She’d know his voice anywhere, but he was nowhere to be seen. Could she have been mistaken?

“Yes. Did you hear someone call my name?” she asked her companions.

Clarissa shook her head. “I was talking about George.”

No, that wasn’t it. She looked at Lena.

“I didn’t hear it either, but I was walking on the other side of Clarissa.” Her features warmed with concern. “Perhaps we should get you home.”

Vivian nodded. “I must be more tired than I thought,” she said with a smile. She took one more look at the people gathered around, but saw no sign of him. No sign of Frederick Noble, but she knew for certain she hadn’t been wrong.

The bastard was back.


Vivian sat on the bench seat at the foot of her bed, fingering the material of the dress that lay across her lap. She took a deep breath and held the material up to the light. It was so brilliant she would no doubt look frightfully pale, if not ill, in it.

If she was right and Frederick was back, she would see him soon at some outing or another. He’d always loved high society—balls and soirees and the theatre. She would see him, and when she did she would have to somehow find a way to speak with him privately. It was in both their interests that their previous affair remain a secret, and she needed a moment to remind him of that. She’d already sent a note to his brother’s townhouse inquiring about Frederick’s return, but had received a polite note saying that as far as the family knew, he remained in France.

A small knock sounded at the door and then it opened to reveal her aunt. “I hope I’m not disturbing you, but I thought you might need some help, especially since it would seem that you sent your lady’s maid scurrying away.” Her head tilted and she frowned. “Why are you not dressed?”

Vivian shook her head and stood. She placed the dress on the bed. “I don’t think I can go through with this. I mean, look at it. Look at me. We simply do not match.”

Rose looked at the dress and then looked around the room, and peeked out into the hall. When she came back in, her eyes narrowed. “What have you done with my niece?”

“Whatever are you talking about?”

“Vivian, you are a bold and confident woman. It is merely a dress. A beautiful dress, but you love fashion. This is simply a brighter color than you would normally wear.”

“Not to mention the cut is far more revealing than I’m accustomed to,” Vivian said with a snort.

“Still. You don’t have nerves such as these.” She sat next to Vivian and put her aging hand on top of Vivian’s. “What is bothering you, my dear?”

She longed to tell her aunt everything, to start with Frederick and end with Marcus’s maddening kisses that made her want things she had no right to want. But she couldn’t tell her any of that. So she laughed. It was intended to sound light and airy, and instead sounded like a strained chuckle. “I’m being a ninny,” she said. “I do not know what is bothering me. You are absolutely right. I do love fashion and this is a beautiful dress. I am confident and I’m going to wear it.” She came to her feet before she lost that feigned confidence. “Will you help me, Aunt Rose?”

Her aunt helped her into the dress. She pulled the sleeves in place and adjusted the bodice and swished her hips to right the skirts. Vivian ran her hand up the back of her dress as far as she could reach. “How many buttons does this thing have?” she asked as she walked to the heavy mirror hanging on the wall.

Rose shook her head. “Too many. I do hope I can do this quickly enough.”

Vivian stood facing the mirror as her aunt fastened each button. The more she clasped, the more the shape of the dress came into focus. The shimmery blue material scooped down in a daring décolletage. The cap sleeves were accented with feathers dyed to match the dress. A darker blue ribbon tied at her waist made her look shapelier than she would have thought. The tunic skirt split in front and was tied up with bows. The underskirt was layered with pleats, each linked with the same blue ribbon. It was unlike any dress she had ever worn, and despite her inclination otherwise, she had to admit that it looked quite magnificent on her.

“Good heavens, it shows a lot of flesh, don’t you think?” She placed her hand on the skin above her breasts. “I believe I might spill out of this.”

Rose laughed. “If I had a figure like yours,
I’d
wear my dresses even lower.” Her eyes widened and she smiled playfully.

Vivian tapped her aunt on the arm. “You are truly awful, Aunt Rose.”

“Age does something to you, dear.” She shook her head wistfully. “I tell you, if I had to do it all over again, I would have lived my life differently.”

“You have regrets?”

Rose chuckled. “More than I’d like to admit.” She winked. “I would have lived my life with more debauchery. Enjoy yourself tonight.” She kissed Vivian on the cheek and then stepped out of the room.

Had her aunt just given her permission to…no, she wouldn’t even think such a thing. She closed her eyes against the reflection in the mirror.

Her maid entered the room cautiously and Vivian found herself at her dressing table. She felt the gentle poke of the hairpins as the maid secured her wild curls away from her face, and then the girl was gone. Vivian would have to make a point of apologizing to her tomorrow.

She opened her eyes. The maid had done a lovely job with her hair. Forget-me-nots decorated the upswept curls, their pretty blue color matching her dress perfectly. Something was missing, though. Vivian opened the lid to her trinket box and found the jewelry she sought—a necklace and earrings with diamonds and sapphires. She put them both in place and knew that despite the way she felt, she was ready.

Aunt Rose was right—she was confident, and she never allowed anyone to make her feel out of place. Tonight was about introducing Marcus to potential brides, but there was absolutely no reason that she couldn’t wear a beautiful dress.

BOOK: A Little Bit Wicked
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