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Authors: Robyn Dehart

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BOOK: A Little Bit Wicked
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She met Clarissa, Aunt Maureen, Lena, and Henry outside the Wellbrook house. They entered the ballroom together. Marcus was supposed to meet them here, but so far she had not seen him.

The Wellbrook ball was always one of the best of the year. They hired the most renowned musicians and served the most delectable food and their decorations—well, only the queen herself did better. The room glittered with hundreds of candles. Gold and green brocade decorated the room, hanging from the tall windows and draping gracefully to the floor.

Vivian scanned the room. Relief flooded through her to see that her dress fit smartly with the rest of the evening’s fashion. She felt quite certain that no one would even notice she wore something so different for her.

Lena waved brightly to a couple walking by while Henry nodded and spoke to everyone in their path. Clarissa quickly made her excuses and left them to go find her friends.

“Darling, do you see Marcus anywhere?” Lena asked.

“Do you suppose he’s here this early? I would think the boy would be fashionably late,” Henry said.

Vivian had made up her mind she was not going to be foolish. She had been to hundreds of these events. Her nerves betrayed her. Ordinarily, she was not a believer in imbibing spirits to calm oneself, but perhaps tonight she needed some assistance, if only a small sip of champagne.

“I believe I’m going to find myself a beverage,” she told her companions.

Lena put a hand on her arm to still her movements. “Henry, would you be so kind as to fetch Vivian some champagne?”

“Of course.” He kissed his wife sweetly on the cheek and walked towards the refreshment table, whistling a jolly tune.

“He has such a pleasant manner about him.”

“Always. When we first met,” she said, scrunching up her face, “it made me absolutely insane. I refused to believe anyone could be that genuinely kind. But then I fell in love and now it is as endearing to me as his little bald head.” She laughed. “Is it not amazing how love can make one blind to others’ faults? Sometimes even those very things that irritate you become the little things that you love the most.”

Vivian nodded, although she wasn’t sure if she agreed. She had never truly loved anyone. Not in the manner Lena described. She had once fancied herself in love, but in time she had come to realize it was merely her body’s desires, her own weaknesses.

She wondered what it felt like to sleep beside a man who loved her. Knowing that man’s heart warmed with thoughts of only her. What did it feel like to wake with one man’s name on your lips? Everything she’d experienced with love had been deception, but clearly there were happy unions like Lena’s and Henry’s.

“Well, if it isn’t the two most beautiful women here.”

Marcus’s voice interrupted her thoughts, and her breath caught at the sight of him. Dressed all in black, except for the shock of white of his shirt, he was the embodiment of handsomeness.

He kissed Lena’s cheek. “Good evening, my dear cousin.”

“I daresay you look quite dashing. Wouldn’t you agree, Vivian?” Lena asked.

Vivian met his gaze. His brows rose as if expecting her answer. “Yes, he looks quite handsome. Certainly handsome enough to grab the attention of plenty of available young women.”

Henry appeared with her champagne and a lemonade for Lena. He fussed over his wife, distracting her, which gave Marcus the opportunity to take a step closer to Vivian.

“You,” he said, meeting Vivian’s glance, “look exquisite. That dress…” His eyes fell to her breasts swelling from the top of the bodice. “Perfect.”

Vivian took more than a ladylike sip of her champagne. Her eyes watered as the sparkling liquid slid smoothly down her throat. “I believe your Aunt Maureen is making all the arrangements for the introductions this evening. You should be making the acquaintance of plenty of acceptable young women.”

Marcus watched as Vivian brought the glass back to her lips. She closed her eyes and swallowed a healthy amount. Her eyes opened again and met his. Her small pink tongue darted out and licked at the droplet of liquid remaining on her lips and Marcus nearly groaned. She was beyond tempting tonight. She was a seductress.

Her breasts rose and fell with each breath, her milky skin all but sparkled beneath the shimmering blue fabric. It molded to every curve of her body, confirming everything he’d suspected about Vivian March—she had a body made for sin. It certainly begged the question of whether or not she’d be willing to play the part of hedonist for the evening.

Chapter Nine

“Marcus, old boy, why aren’t you out there putting your name on all those lovely girls’ dance cards?” Henry asked.

He pulled his eyes off Vivian. “I believe I am waiting on instructions.” He nodded slightly to Vivian.

As if on cue, Aunt Maureen stepped up with two women in tow. Judging from their similar features, and taking into account the age difference, he’d guess mother and daughter.

“Marcus, dear, I’d like to introduce you to Lady Brentwood and her daughter, Annie.”

Marcus waited for his aunt to finish extolling his virtues before he nodded to each woman. “Enchanted,” he said. He barely detected the matron Brentwood’s nudge of her daughter’s arm so subtle was the movement.

“My lord,” Annie said abruptly. “Were your travels extensive?”

Yes, this was the part where women were taught to pretend to take interest in the pursuits of the man in question. Marcus smiled. “Mostly I traveled through India and Africa.”

The girl’s eyes lit with interest, interest he doubted she could feign. “India? So you have seen the great cats, the tigers?”

“I have, and they are magnificent creatures, powerful and sleek. I have seen lions and leopards and panthers, as well as the tigers found in India. Hunting them for sport is a waste, if you ask me,” he said knowing it was a very unpopular opinion.

Annie’s hand came to her chest and she smiled broadly. “I am so glad to hear you say so. I believe the very same,” she said emphatically. “My father has a—”

“That’s enough, Annie, we don’t want to take up all of his lordship’s time. My lord,” Lady Brentwood said, nodding to Marcus and then his aunt. “Maureen.” And then she pulled her daughter away.

After the two women had disappeared into the crowd, Maureen turned to him. “Now then, do you see the blonde over in that group?” She nodded across from them. “You see, dear, the one in the lavender gown?”

His aunt was certainly not wasting any time, her enthusiasm indicating she’d been waiting for an opportunity such as this. Marcus followed her gaze and his eyes settled on an attractive young woman engaged in a lively conversation. She was by far the prettiest in the group. Her dress hugged her full breasts and accented her thin waist. He nodded. “She is very pretty.” A fact he’d wager the lady was quite aware of, and one she no doubt used to her advantage as much as possible. He’d never found such women of much interest.

“That is Lady Constance Brindwell. Her father is a marquess. This is her second season, although I just cannot envision why that girl wasn’t snatched up at her come-out during the first dance. Her mother has taken ill so her aunt is acting as her chaperone, a very dear friend of mine,” she whispered behind her fan.

Vivian had been right—women did use their fans to communicate. He looked back at the group of girls and they all had fans. The accessories varied in ornamentation, and some girls held the fans while others simply allowed them to dangle from their wrists.

“She is a most lovely girl,” Maureen said. “I should think you would like her very much. And see the other young lady, the taller one in the light blue dress? Not as comely, but she has the gentlest spirit. Sweet dear, that is Gwyneth Montrose. Her father is a wealthy merchant, highly respected, and hopes to find a kind man in the upper class. Why don’t I introduce you to them?”

It was not a question. Aunt Maureen knew how to put things so they did not sound like a demand. She held out her arm to him and he escorted her to the group of ladies. What did it matter if he met them? This was an exercise in futility. Should he decide he wanted a wife, he would damn well pick her out himself.

“Lady Constance and Miss Montrose, I should like you to meet my nephew. He has been abroad traveling but has returned recently. May I present Marcus Kincaid, Earl of Ashford.”

The pretty Lady Constance curtsied, then gave him a brilliant smile. She held out her hand and he bowed over it, and did the same with Miss Montrose. “A pleasure to meet you both.”

“Indeed,” Lady Constance said. Her tone and eyes bespoke a confidence that innocent girls normally didn’t possess. “My lord, I have already heard so much about you. This ballroom is positively abuzz with talk of you and your adventures.”

That he seriously doubted. More than likely they were all discussing his marital status, his estates, and how much income he maintained.

“Do you travel?” he asked her.

“Of course. My family takes an annual holiday to Brighton, and I have an aunt in Northampton,” Lady Constance said.

He didn’t particularly consider that travel, but he would not bring that to her attention. “That must make your aunt so happy for you to visit her. I know that my lovely aunt here is very proprietary about my time. I promised her a trip to the refreshment table, so if you would excuse us…?”

He bowed slightly, nodded to the other ladies, then turned and escorted his aunt away. He started back in the direction where he had left Vivian and Lena.

“My beloved nephew, if you are to take me to the refreshment table, as promised,” she said, emphasizing the last words, “then I believe we’re going in the wrong direction.”

He smiled sweetly at her. “Of course, we don’t want to forget your lemonade.”

“Now then, I do believe there are a few more girls for you to meet, but after this brief excursion, I should like to sit and rest for a while,” Aunt Maureen said.

He couldn’t help but wonder if Vivian had been watching him meet her bridal candidates. After they retrieved his aunt’s beverage, they turned toward their party, and Marcus got his answer. Not only was Vivian not looking in his direction, she stood entranced in a conversation with another gentleman. An older gentleman, from what Marcus could tell by the gray in the man’s hair.

“Who is that gentleman with our party?” he asked Aunt Maureen.

“Oh, would you look at that—that is the Earl of Banberry.” Maureen clapped her hands. “He’s been a widower for the last ten years. Raised his children alone. I am so pleased to see he has rejoined society. What a charming gentleman, and it does appear he has taken a liking to Miss March.”

Marcus sped up their pace.

“Gracious, Marcus, remember that I am not a young girl.” Although her words were stern, her face glowed with a smile.

“How did you fare with Lady Constance and Gwyneth?” Lena asked when Marcus reached their circle.

“Who?” Marcus asked absently.

Her brow furrowed. “Why, the young ladies you just met.”

“Oh.” Marcus shook his head. “Right. I am bad with names. They were charming.” The truth was, he couldn’t recall anything either of them had said.

“Splendid, well, I don’t believe you’ve met the Earl of Banberry.” Lena pulled at his sleeve to turn him around. “My lord, this is my cousin, Marcus Kincaid, the new Earl of Ashford.”

Marcus plastered on his best smile and shook the man’s hand. “A pleasure to meet you, Lord Banberry.” The old goat was not nearly as old as Marcus had first guessed. More than likely he wasn’t a day over forty, an age perhaps more to Vivian’s liking.

“My very dear friend and neighbor, Lady Worthington, remembered Miss March and was kind enough to introduce me to your party,” Banberry said. “I have been out in the countryside for so long, I scarcely remember anyone. Ah, but I could never forget a gem such as yourself, Mrs. Pringle.” He bent over Maureen’s hand.

Maureen grinned like a schoolgirl, her cheeks stained pink.

“What brings you to the city?” Marcus asked.

“I am ready to marry again,” he said matter-of-factly. “I have raised my children and now have a large home all to myself. In all truthfulness, I get bored and lonely. There are only so many times a man can ride each day. I want companionship.”

“It seems we have similar agendas, Banberry. I too find myself in need of a wife.” Marcus met Vivian’s eyes.

“I certainly wish you the best of luck. I know how difficult it is to find the right woman. I suppose I never thought I would have to do it again.”

As much as Marcus didn’t want to admit it, the earl was polite and sincere. Marcus nodded in what he hoped was a cordial manner, then excused himself.

Marcus stood in the shadows watching the ballroom before him. He’d had enough. After he’d walked away from his family earlier to go in search of something stiffer to drink than champagne, his aunt had found him. She’d introduced him to a handful of additional girls and their eager mothers. It was enough to send any bachelor into hiding. But mostly he hid to watch one particular woman.

Vivian effectively worked her magic with Clarissa’s predicament. She led his sister from one group to the next seamlessly, and all seemed more than welcoming to Clarissa. From his vantage point, though, he could always see someone else watching Vivian. For nearly a quarter of an hour the tall brunette had watched every move Vivian made. The woman wasn’t particularly attractive, though she had a sensuality about her in the way that she scanned the room, the way she moved her body.

He’d inquired subtly about the woman and discovered her name was Diana Cosgrove. She was unmarried and as far as everyone knew, had no male attention of any sort. But she watched Vivian’s every move. Marcus had begun to wonder if the tall woman was attracted to Vivian, but then he’d seen her sneer. A small movement of her lips and a glare of her eyes, but enough hatred to clearly be seen were one watching as he’d been. Diana Cosgrove loathed Vivian March. He couldn’t help but wonder why. Vivian was certainly not the most gregarious woman in the room, but she was always poised and charming.

Vivian excused herself from the group she currently stood with and then walked close enough for him to grab her by the elbow. She had the good sense not to cry out at the abrupt movement and the moment she caught sight of him, she whacked him on the arm.

“Whatever did you do that for? There’s no reason for us to be hiding out in this darkened hallway,” Vivian said.

“I wanted a moment to speak to you.”

“And you cannot do so in the ballroom?”

“No, I wanted to speak in private.”

She rolled her eyes. “Well, I am here now. What is it you wish to discuss with me? Don’t tell me you’ve already disregarded every woman you’ve been introduced to.”

He wouldn’t tell her so, though he certainly had done precisely that for a variety of reasons. One was too tall, another too thin, yet another had an annoying, squeaking voice that grated on his ears, not unlike the mating sounds of flamingos. But he wouldn’t tell her any of that. Not yet, at least. For now he’d allow her to believe she was perfectly capable of finding him a bride, though he had no desire for one. “No, I will not tell you that,” he said. “I wanted to ask you about a different woman.”

Her brows rose and she swallowed visibly. “You have found someone you fancy on your own?”

Was that jealousy in her tone? “No, I am merely curious as to your relationship with Diana Cosgrove.”

“What are you talking about, Marcus? I have no relationship with Diana Cosgrove. I barely know the woman.”.

As if the woman could sense their discussion, she came near to their hiding place, too close for Marcus to feel comfortable. He gripped Vivian tighter and slipped them into a storage pantry behind them. Enough light streamed in from beneath the other door, the one that likely led into the dining room, that he was able to see Vivian.

“What the devil are you doing?” Vivian asked.

“I didn’t want you to be seen in such a compromising position,” he said. “She came very close to us. You could have been seen speaking with me.”

“We weren’t in a compromising situation, we were merely having a conversation in the hall.
Now
we are in a compromising situation.” Her frustration made her breathing labored, and her breasts rising and falling above her neckline nearly drove him mad.

He pulled her tighter. “Indeed we are. Stay close so that we can speak in hushed tones.” He leaned down so that his breath would feather across her ear. “Do you have any idea how delicious you look in this dress? How am I supposed to be interested in other women when you put them all to shame?”

She sucked in her breath and for a moment seemed lost in his eyes. She frowned and again popped him on the arm. “Stop that. You wanted to speak to me, now hurry on with it so I can return to the ball.”

“Tell me what it is that makes Miss Diana Cosgrove glare at you in such a fashion.”

She shivered at his words. “I haven’t the slightest idea. We’ve barely spoken to one another, though we certainly share friends and acquaintances. I didn’t realize she wished me ill.”

Interesting. So Vivian had never noticed. It seemed unlikely tonight was the first night Diana had felt such anger. The animosity she aimed at Vivian was sharp, certainly not a mild annoyance.

“Did you hear her say something?” Vivian asked.

“No, I merely watched her watching you. Unlike the rest of London, whom you’ve effectively enamored, she seems unmoved by your charms.”

“Perhaps she has a sour stomach.” Vivian shrugged. “Honestly, I have no notion why she would dislike me so. I don’t suppose everyone looks at me with such favor.”

“Perhaps.” But he doubted as much. The situation warranted some investigation. He leaned down and kissed Vivian’s cheek lightly. “Why are you so intent on marrying me off when we have only recently been reunited?”

“Reunited? It is not as if you and I were lovers.”

“No, but we could be,” he said, all the while lavishing kisses down her face to her bare collarbone. God, she smelled good, like fresh berries and cream. “Consider it.”

“I will do no such thing. I am not interested in becoming your lover,” she said, though her voice was unconvincing. Her voice had taken on a husky tone filled with desire.

“You can’t say that with certainty.” He met her mouth for a tender but brief kiss, one that would leave her wanting more. “Think about that tonight as you lie in bed. If you took me as your lover, I would kiss you all over. Every last inch of your being, Vivian. I would leave no flesh untouched.”

BOOK: A Little Bit Wicked
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