A Little Bit Wicked
by Robyn DeHart
Marcus Kincaid, Earl of Ashford, has returned to England after a ten-year absence to find his younger sister embroiled in a potential scandal that could ruin her chance at marriage. His aunt has already called in reinforcements—The Paragon.
Vivian March, known simply as The Paragon, moves through every circle within Society, smoothing out scandals and stopping gossip in its tracks. Everyone in London knows that if she aligns herself with you, Society will forgive your sins. What they don’t know is that she uses their secrets to cover her own jaded past.
But with every kiss and every touch that Marcus thrusts upon her, Vivian comes to believe life is infinitely more fun when you can be just a little bit wicked…
Praise for A Little Bit Wicked:
“Robyn DeHart’s vibrant characters sweep the reader into a clever and sensual romp that is NOT to be missed.”
- Julia London, NYT Bestselling Author
© 2012 Robyn DeHart
Vivian March checked again to make certain her mask was secured in place. This was only her second masked ball since she’d come out four years before and she wasn’t used to the tickle of feathers and velvet against her cheeks. Excitement thundered through her body, setting her nerves on edge.
Tonight was the night, and she wanted him to know how very thrilled she was at the prospect, which was why she’d snuck out to the gardens to see him. But she also intended to do something scandalous. It wasn’t proper for a lady to kiss a gentleman, even if they were engaged, but tonight she wanted to be brazen—wicked, even. She smiled in the darkness. It was not as though she hadn’t been truly wicked in his arms already.
Not only had she finally met the man she would marry, but it was a love match. They were the lucky ones. Love matches were rare indeed, but especially for a woman such as herself, at the ripe age of four and twenty. She had had her come-out late, having not been introduced into society until she’d turned twenty. The first three Seasons were spent dancing with plenty of gentlemen, but she realized quickly that men were only interested in her because of her sizeable inheritance.
And then she had met Frederick, her sweet and passionate Frederick. He had changed everything.
She left the noise and lights of the ballroom and made her way out to the terrace that would lead her to the gardens. They were to meet at a quarter of eleven and she still had about five minutes before their secret rendezvous. The pebbles on the path crunched beneath her dancing slippers, but the discomfort only heightened her awareness, reminded her how reckless her behavior was. These slippers were delicate and lovely, but meant for ballroom dancing only, not a rendezvous in the garden. But Vivian ignored all of that because she was made of sturdier stuff.
A few couples walked arm-in-arm past her. They too were out enjoying the bright night with the full moon illuminating the gardens. Vivian kept moving. She forced herself to walk instead of running into the garden, so eager was she. They were to meet by the willow trees near the pond.
As she made her way down the gently sloping hill, she saw the pond up ahead and a gentleman’s tall frame standing near the water’s edge. Even from behind, she could tell he looked positively dashing, dressed all in black. He didn’t see her approach, and she stepped quietly so as not to alert him. She wanted to surprise him. Her heart pounded and happiness threatened to choke her. Oh, how she loved that man! She sent another thank you heavenward for her good fortune. She moved as quickly and as quietly as she could until she’d reached him. Without another thought, she flung herself against him, snaked her arms around his neck, and kissed him with all the passion and love she felt.
Strong, masculine arms came around her and his kiss deepened. The kiss felt different this time, more passionate, more heady, more intense somehow. Desire poured through her, threatening to weaken her knees, so she clung more tightly to him. Perhaps this new awareness stemmed from what had transpired between them since their first kiss. And tonight she would become his in the eyes of London.
He ended the kiss and held her out in front of him. “Brazen and delectable,” he said.
Vivian’s heart fell to her stomach. That was not Frederick’s voice. She reached up and ripped off the man’s domino mask. Definitely not Frederick. Her mouth fell open.
He smiled, a crooked smile that transformed him into a most dashing man. He was young, perhaps only twenty, perhaps younger, but so handsome with that cocky smile and blue eyes that seared her.
She had kissed him. A stranger.
And not merely a simple, sweet kiss, but rather a deep, passionate, open-mouthed kiss. She prayed for a hole to open in the ground and swallow her up, but alas, two breaths later she was still standing there, as was he, still wearing that charming yet annoying grin.
He reached over and removed her mask. “That was quite an introduction. I can assure you, I won’t forget you anytime soon.“ He bowed dramatically. “Marcus Kincaid.”
“Vivian March,” she said out of polite habit, and then realized she probably should have kept that piece of information to herself. “You must understand,” she continued, “that I thought you were someone else. That kiss—” she shook her head. “That was not intended for you. I am most apologetic, not to mention thoroughly embarrassed.”
He shrugged. “Don’t be. It’s the best thing that’s happened to me all evening.” He clicked his tongue. “Pity all that passion was intended for someone else, though.” His eyes traveled the length of her. “He’s a lucky fellow.”
“I do hope you will be kind and keep this—” She searched for the appropriate word. “—misunderstanding to yourself. Forget you ever met me.”
“That would be unlikely. I shall keep your little secret, but I won’t forget you or that kiss.” He turned on his heel. “Good evening, Miss March.”
She watched him walk away, and released a slow breath. Her shoulders slumped. Where was Frederick? Certainly it was past the time of their arranged meeting. Had something happened to him?
Oh no. Had he seen her in the arms of another man and fled? A wave of nausea passed through her. How would she explain, if he’d seen her kissing another man? She waited for several more minutes, pacing at the water’s edge, before finding her way back to the ballroom. The wall clock pronounced it eleven-thirty. Where was he?
Forty minutes later she entered the front door of her townhouse. She found her two aunts sitting in the front parlor playing cards, clearly waiting up for her, as normally they did not stay up this late.
“Did you have a nice time, dear?” Aunt Lillian asked.
“What? Oh yes, it was a lovely time,” Vivian said. She hadn’t told them about her and Frederick’s plans for the evening. She had wanted to surprise them. They’d had such hopes for her when she’d first come out, and then those years had passed without even a hint of a proposal. All three of them had begun to lose hope, though they’d never said as much. Vivian could tell they worried she would end up like them—spinsters, wealthy, and alone.
“You received this note shortly after you left for the ball,” Aunt Rose said. She turned the note over in her hand, and held it out to Vivian. “Looks to be from that painter fellow.”
Vivian’s heart seemed to stop beating and her breathing became shallow. If he’d sent the note right after she’d left for the ball, then perhaps he hadn’t seen her kissing another man. She took the note and cracked the wax seal.
My dearest Vivian,
I know you are probably waiting for me tonight and I hate that I cannot be there with you. Please know that what I am doing, I do for us. I am leaving for Paris to study with the masters so that I can become the very best artist I can be. I know that your fortune is enough for both of us and I have money from my family, but I want to provide for you myself. Make my own fortune. I shall return for you and we can marry then. I love you, my dearest.
The letter fell from her hand. Vivian vaguely heard her aunts talking, but their voices blurred into the distance. The only thought she had before she fell to the floor was that she had trusted him, given him her heart, and her body, and he had left her.
And now she was ruined.
London, ten years later
His brother was dead, and damnation if he hadn’t missed the funeral. And not by a couple of days, but rather several months. Evidently, no one had seen fit to send him notice.
Marcus Kincaid poured himself a third glass of brandy and swore loudly. He glanced around the late earl’s study, noting the meticulous arrangement of furniture—the tidy stack of papers on the desk, the quill in its holder, and the inkwell free from any drips or stains. He doubted anyone had been in here since his brother’s passing. It was as if the entire room had been set up as a shrine.
Marcus slammed his glass onto the desk, sloshing the contents onto an envelope. His brother’s name and address smeared and bubbled until only a black puddle of ink remained.
He took a deep breath and briefly closed his eyes. He stepped away from the desk, making his way to the wingback chair across the room. Halfway there he stopped and looked at the globe. Marcus scoffed, spun the miniature world, and watched it slow to a few restless circles. He plopped his finger onto the ball and stopped it.
Africa. His latest tour had been Africa, where he’d given England’s wealthiest citizens the bloody adventure of their lifetimes. All the while, his own brother had died of something no more exciting than a lung infection. Granted, Charles had been more than fifteen years his senior, still Marcus hadn’t been prepared for his death. The Kincaids had seen more than their fair share of deaths.
He dropped into the chair. He couldn’t help noticing it was more comfortable than any place he’d sat or slept during his entire trek through Africa. The guests traveling with Thomas Adventure Tours slept in lavish tents with plush bedding while the guides were relegated to more inferior quarters. He hadn’t minded much, though. He’d enjoyed his work—lived for it, if he were honest.
He tilted back his head and stared at the ceiling. The ornate wood carving at the top of the chair dug into his scalp. He pushed his head against it, increasing the dull pain.
The death of his older brother, the Earl of Ashford, meant one thing—now he was the bloody earl. Marcus searched his body for feelings of grief, but felt only numbing shock. They’d never had the traditional sibling relationship, he and Charles. The eldest Kincaid son had been raised to be the heir, raised to run the properties, and expected to serve in Parliament. And he’d been nearly sixteen when Marcus had been born. By the time he’d learned to read, Charles had been married.
Upon his return to England, Marcus had come home to Ashford Hall fully expecting to see things much as he’d left them. Instead, he’d found his Aunt Maureen had moved in to be the full-time guardian to his younger sister Clarissa, and the entire house had been shrouded in mourning.
“It’s fortunate that you chose this week to return,” Aunt Maureen said as she floated into the room. She was a formidable woman with a large frame, yet she managed to maneuver herself with surprising grace.
“Yes, fortunate was precisely what I was thinking,” he said, doing nothing to hide the sarcasm in his voice.
“The Season hasn’t even opened yet and technically we have a couple more months of mourning, but your sister has managed to get herself into quite the predicament.” Maureen lowered herself onto the leather sofa adjacent to his chair. She had hinted about something dire she needed to speak with him about when he’d arrived the night before, but she’d allowed him time to rest.
Evidently, his resting time had ended. “Yes, you mentioned something last night.”
“If we don’t take action soon,” she said, “there will be a terrible scandal—one from which she might not ever recover.”
“Certainly it cannot be that bad.” He pinched the bridge of his nose, willing the dull headache away. “It is not as if the girl has gotten herself compromised.”
“Not quite,” Maureen said holding up one finger. “But we were not far from that.”
Marcus swore, then shook his head in lieu of apologizing. “What happened?”
“She was seen speaking to a questionable gentleman.” It was on his tongue to wave her off. That alone was not so scandalous.
“Outside of his gaming hell.”
He swore again. “What the devil was she thinking?”
“She claims to have had business to discuss with him and will say nothing more on the matter.”
“What manner of business could a girl possibly have with a man the likes of him?”
“She is hardly a girl anymore,” Maureen said. “She is three and twenty.”
How was it possible that Clarissa was already a fully grown woman? Of course he’d seen her briefly when he’d arrived the night before, but he hadn’t stopped to think about it. He hadn’t expected a lot upon his return. Primarily, he hadn’t expected his brother would be gone.
Over and over he kept realizing that he was now the earl. He was in charge of this family. Charles had always handled family matters with a deft, but firm, hand. Marcus considered what Charles would have done in this situation. For one thing, he would not allow the girl to remain secretive about her goings-on.
Marcus sat up, bracing his elbows on his knees. “I want her down here now to answer my questions.” He pointed to the carpet for added emphasis. Then he stood. No, Charles would not wait on anyone. “Never mind. I shall go to her and demand answers.”
Marcus ran up the stairs with his aunt trailing somewhere behind. He stormed into his sister’s room. She jumped at the intrusion. Clarissa stood before her writing desk, where she’d been sitting and penning a letter.
“What are you about, barging into my private rooms?” she asked. Her brow knitted in a tense frown.
“I demand to know the truth of what happened at this gaming establishment,” he said. Yes, that is how Charles would have approached this. He would not have asked; he would simply have expected to receive the information.
Her eyes flared and she stepped over to him. “You demand? You have no right to demand!” She settled her hands on her hips. “You haven’t been part of this family since I was thirteen. You might be the earl now, but I have been living on my own, with Aunt Maureen, of course.” She motioned toward their aunt standing behind him. “And without any man to keep me protected. We’ve managed perfectly well on our own.”
“You’re embroiled in a scandal. If ever you needed a man’s protection, it’s now.”
“I don’t want your protection,” she said, crossing her arms over her chest. Her features set, her eyes staring straight at him as if daring him to defy her.
Charles would know precisely what to do in this situation, know how to calm Clarissa and know how to squelch the rumors. Marcus knew precisely where to shoot a lion to stop him cold from attacking an unsuspecting Englishman. He knew how to use a knife to protect a group of travelers from a spitting cobra. He knew how to tie a hundred different knots and build a fire with nothing more than flint and a handful of brush. But he knew virtually nothing about his own sister or how to manage his new familial responsibilities.
He did, however, know when to retreat from a foe he couldn’t possibly battle. Marcus turned and stepped out of Clarissa’s bedchamber. Arguing with her was getting them nowhere. He needed to reassess. Come up with a different plan.
Clarissa slammed the door behind him. Marcus glanced at Maureen.
She gave him a smile. “Pardon me, nephew, for my boldness, but you barely know your sister. You left when she was but a child and you’ve been gone since she was but a child. You cannot simply barge in there and demand answers.” Maureen took a slow breath. “Might I suggest an alternative?”
Marcus eyed her, then nodded slowly.
“I know someone who can help.” Maureen tapped her fingers on the wood paneling that lined the upstairs corridor. “Someone who will be better equipped to persuade Clarissa to talk—someone who might assist in smoothing over the situation. Perhaps even make it disappear altogether.”
“I’m not certain we need to bring anyone else in on this. Our goal is to keep the situation quiet, is it not?”
“I wasn’t actually asking you for permission,” Maureen said. “I have, in fact, already contacted this person.”
“Well, you can contact them again. Tell them we are not in need of their services,” he said. He was not so archaic that he didn’t believe women were allowed their opinions, but he had had enough of the women in his family telling him how things were going to be. He might have been gone for the better part of nine years, but he was still the bloody earl.
“No, I will not do that,” Maureen said. “Marcus, you have only been back in London for two days. We had no notion of when you would return. As Clarissa says, we have been living on our own, and doing quite well, I might add, despite this recent debacle. I already scheduled a meeting with this person because it was up to me to handle matters.” She took a few steps down the corridor, as if that settled everything. “Now then, it would make the situation much better if you would join us in the meeting, but we do not require your permission.”
He eyed his aunt, who had, for all intents and purposes, just laid him out. “Who is this person, the one who can solve this problem?”
“Vivian March. The Paragon.”
The name had sounded vaguely familiar, but Marcus couldn’t place it. Vivian March. Well, she would be here soon enough and he could meet her then. His aunt had assured him that this woman, who was evidently referred to as The Paragon, would be able to divert attention from the scandal, effectively making it disappear, before it did much damage. But in order for that to happen, she would have to agree to align herself with them, which would require a certain amount of decorum from him.
Marcus had never been particularly good at playing society’s games. It was one of the reasons he’d left London to begin with. He much preferred the wilds of Africa and India to the well-polished, pretentious behavior he found here. At least in the wild, animals acted in the interests of survival. People did not adhere to such courtesies.
But he’d agreed, for this evening, to mind his manners, and to meet with this woman to see if she could assist his sister. So it was that he and Clarissa and their Aunt Maureen sat silently waiting for this Paragon to appear. At precisely seven, the butler opened the door and announced her.
“Miss Vivian March.”
The woman entered the room covered in a burgundy velvet cloak. She withdrew the hood and then slid out of the contraption, allowing the butler to remove it. She wasn’t overly tall and had generous curves that filled her pale pink satin ball gown nicely without being too revealing. Chocolate brown curls were expertly piled on her head in an intricate coiffure. Long black satin gloves covered her hands and slid all the way up to just past her elbows. She was the picture of English modesty.
“Thank you so much for coming, Miss March,” Aunt Maureen said, coming forward to greet the woman.
Vivian March tilted her head, and he finally saw her entire face. His gut knotted as a jolt of recognition struck him. Now he knew why her name sounded familiar. He knew her. Or at least, he had known her, had met her. Briefly.
He stepped forward to make his own greeting. Her eyes met his. She didn’t even flinch. In fact, she showed no sign at all that she recognized him. But he knew one thing for certain about Miss Vivian March.
She was no paragon.
“My Lord, it is my understanding you have recently returned from traveling abroad,” she said. Her voice was rich and sultry, full of seductive promise.
“I have. And it would seem my family is in a bit of turmoil. I was told you might be of some assistance.”
She inclined her head, then turned to Maureen before she spoke. “Perhaps we should sit and you can tell me more about the situation.”
“Yes, of course,” Aunt Maureen said. She rang for the tea tray with cakes and they all sat in the parlor. “Please do sit, Miss March, and thank you again for coming on such short notice.”
Miss March sat in a high-backed chair, but if it was possible, sat even straighter than the wood back. Her gloved hands rested on her lap and a pleasant smile played at her lips.
Clarissa had yet to utter a word. Instead, she sat staring at her hands as they knotted the fabric of her skirt. Perhaps she was still angry with him for his behavior earlier today.
Marcus leaned against the mantel and watched the women sugar and stir their tea. How could Miss March not recognize him? He knew for certain it was she, though now ten years older. Womanhood had softened and rounded her figure to a voluptuousness he could scarcely look away from.
After she had taken a sip of her tea, she glanced first at Aunt Maureen, then at Clarissa. “Now, what seems to be the problem?”
“Nothing,” Clarissa said. She set her teacup down and offered a feigned smile. “I had a conversation with a gentleman. That is all that happened. It is unclear to me why this has to be such an ordeal.”
“Yes, well, what actually happens and what might have happened are not always perceived differently,” Miss March said. “So you had a conversation with a gentleman. Is he truly a gentleman, or is that simply his species? Also, was this conversation held in private or in a public location?”
He half expected the woman to draw out a notebook and begin making notes, but she simply waited for Clarissa to answer. When there was a long pause, Miss March spoke again, this time looking directly at him. “Perhaps the young lady would feel more comfortable if she and I spoke alone.”
He had lost count as to how many times he’d been dismissed today by the women in this house. Perhaps he wasn’t as prepared to handle this sort of situation the way Charles would have been, but damnation, he’d only just returned to London. They might not want him to be the head of the family, and they might not believe him to be competent, but he wasn’t going anywhere.
Marcus shoved off the mantel and walked toward Miss March. “This is a family affair. And whether or not the women in my family approve or not, I am part of this family. You were called here to help us. If my sister refuses to cooperate, then I’ll tell you what happened. The chit was seen talking to the owner of a gaming establishment.”
Miss March nodded, and while she looked at him while he spoke, her body was still angled toward where Maureen and Clarissa sat.
He turned to his sister. “Were you sitting in the carriage, or standing on the street?”
“On the street,” she said, her eyes locked on tea tray in front of her.
Miss March patted Clarissa’s knee. She was quiet for a few moments, then took another sip of her tea. “Yes, well, I can see why we have a potential problem. Do you know, perhaps, who saw you? That is, who brought this matter to your attention?” she asked Clarissa.
“Lady Jessup informed me at a card party yesterday,” Aunt Maureen said.
“Well, I can only guess it was her husband who saw you then, Clarissa. Lord Jessup is a horrific gambler and an even worse gossip. Chances are that other people know now. So it would seem that you definitely have a potentially damaging situation on your hands.” She came to her feet.
Aunt Maureen stood as well. “Will you help us?”
“I shall consider it this evening and will be in touch tomorrow morning.” She straightened her gloves and patted her hair.
“Is that all?” Marcus asked, not quite certain what he’d been expecting. But a woman who came, sipped tea, confirmed that yes indeed, they were in trouble, then fled, was not precisely the big solution he’d been waiting for.
“I must consider the situation,” she said.
“I’ll walk you out,” he said.
“That truly won’t be necessary.” Miss March made her way to the door.
Marcus followed her regardless of her dismissive tone. He took her cloak from the butler. “I’m offended that you would pretend not to remember me.” He held the cloak away from her, forcing her to turn and look in his direction.
She looked up at him, her warm brown eyes meeting his gaze. “I beg your pardon?” she said, her voice full of innocence.
So it was a game she intended to play. Well, a game he would give her.
He draped the cloak over her shoulders, then bent to her ear. “Just remember that I know the truth. I know you are not the paragon people believe you to be.” There was a sharp intake of her breath. “Until tomorrow, Miss March.”