Praise for Wicked Little Secrets
“With Wicked Little Secrets’ intriguing plot, quirky characters, witty escapades and heartfelt dialogue, Ives has created a read that’s as thought-provoking as it is romantic. The combination of an art theft, a blackmail scheme, a scintillating naughty diary and plenty of adventure turn the ordinary into innovative entertainment. Keep your eye on Ives. 4 1/2 Stars”– 2013 RT Reviewer’s Choice Best Book Awards – First Historical Romance Nominee!
“Vivienne and Dashiell are joyfully silly, but deft sensuality and love turns the novel, crooning, cross-dressed hero and all, in a love story that is a pleasure to read.” — Eloisa James’ Best of 2013 list in the Barnes and Noble Review – Reading Romance column.
“It has almost everything in one book, romance, lust,and a mystery that keeps you sitting on the end of your seat. I would not pass up this read!” — Fresh Fiction
“Ives delivers a humorous Victorian romance with witty dialogue from unconventional characters.” — Best of 2013 – SOS Aloha Blogspot
“I have to applaud Susanna Ives for her work in Wicked Little Secrets. I have never, ever laughed so hard or swooned so much while reading a historical romance…To be able to meld the vivid characters and complex scheme as this author did earned her a Best Book in my eyes. If you love historical romances, then this book is a must!” — Long and Short Reviews
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No. 15 Wickerly Square, London
Tuesday, March 11, 1845
Vivienne Taylor repressed a mischievous smile as she gazed at the female members of the Wesley Congregation. The way the ladies sat in three neat rows, with their earnest faces poking out from their morning caps, resembled a gardening bed of black and white lacy flowers. They gathered for the weekly Bible lessons held in the parlor of Gertrude Bertis’s home on Wickerly Square.
Aunt Gertrude banged her cane on the floor, signaling the beginning of the lessons and scaring Garth, her pug dog, who had been snoozing at her feet. “Sisters, today we shall have a special reading in celebration.” Her mouth hiked slightly around the edges… the closest she came to smiling. For though she had a plump, flushed face—the kind made for grins and laughter—she kept her mouth and brow in tense, severe lines, making her appear decades older than her forty-one years. She wore her hair in a snug bun, but a few rebellious strands of silver and brown escaped and curled about her face. Her corset was laced tight, constraining her expansive, round form into rigid feminine contours. Yet when she gazed at her niece, a tender glow melted all the hardness in her eyes.
“My little Vivvie is engaged.” Aunt Gertrude reached over and patted the top of Vivienne’s hand. A wave of warmth flowed through Vivienne’s body.
The ladies cooed, “How lovely,” and “Won’t you be a beautiful bride?”—not the sort of disapproving words Vivienne had heard most of her twenty-two years, words such as, “Proper young ladies do not bring up the marriage customs of the ancient Spartans at the dinner parties,” and “Proper young ladies do not ask the circulating library for books by the Marquis de Sade,” and, the one that embarrassed her father the most, “Proper young ladies are not asked to leave Ladies Seminary.”
Vivienne had done something right, even if for the first time in her life, as her sisters Hannah and Fiona had claimed. Just when her family was a few pounds from debtor’s prison, Vivienne managed to catch John Vandergrift, the son of the manager for South Birmingham railroad. With a flourish of his pen, the elder Mr. Vandergrift could fill her father’s machinery factory with orders.
“Vivvie has come up from Birmingham to be near her fiancé,” her aunt continued. “I met him just yesterday, such a fine, considerate young man. I know Mr. Bertis would have approved.” She turned her head and gazed up at the portrait of the honorable Judge Jeremiah Bertis, posed in his court robes and wavy wig. He held his jutting, Romanesque nose high, as his heavy-lidded, dark eyes looked disapprovingly on everything below him.
“Mr. Vandergrift is wonderful, isn’t he?” Vivienne gushed. “I have to continually pinch myself. I can’t believe that he proposed.”
“Well, it’s little wonder,” said Mrs. Lacey in her honey-sweet voice. She resembled an elf with her small stature, frizzy white hair, and bright smile. “You’re ravishing with those green eyes and black curls. And your breasts are so ample. You know how gentlemen just love breasts.”
“Breasts!” Aunt Gertrude cried. “Mrs. Lacey, pray restrain yourself!” She squeezed the bulbous head of her cane as she fumbled about the medicine bottles on the side table, finding a blue square one that Vivienne recognized to be Dr. Philpot’s Wonderful Nerve Tonic for Ailing and Suffering Ladies. Soothing Menses, Hysteria, and Other Female Complaints. She popped the cork, took a discreet swig, and then sniffed, dabbing the edge of her mouth. “A lady’s virtue is far more desirous than her physical beauty. There is many a lady suffering in the flames of hell for her vanity.” She let her words fall as heavily as the sentences her husband handed down to the poor women brought before the London courts. “Now, for your own benefit and Vivienne’s, you shall read from Proverbs, Chapter 31, verses 10–31.”
“I just need to get my spectacles.” Mrs. Lacey reached for her reticule, still smiling despite the warning of her soul’s incineration in hell. She rooted through her personal effects, handing her neighbor various embroidered linens, perfume bottles, and a dried, crumpled flower to hold. “Isn’t that the prettiest little chrysanthemum? I hope that gentleman didn’t mind when I plucked it from his coat. Ah, here are my spectacles. Now, what was I supposed to read?”
“Proverbs, Chapter 31, verse 10. Proverbs is after Psalms.” Vivienne rose, took the lady’s Bible, turned it upright, and flipped to the correct page. “It was written by King Solomon. He was forever writing proverbs and songs, you know. He had over five hundred wives.”
“Good heavens,” Mrs. Lacey exclaimed, taking the Bible. “How many times a day do you think he—”
Aunt Gertrude cleared her throat. “The verse if you will.”
Mrs. Lacey held the Bible to the tip of her nose and squinted behind her spectacles. “‘Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price is far above boobies.’”
“It does not say ‘boobies’!” her aunt barked. “‘Her price is far above rubies.’ Rubies!”
“I just love rubies,” Mrs. Lacey exclaimed. “I am always telling Mr. Lacey that—”
Aunt Gertrude banged her cane. “Please refrain from any personal digression.”
Thirty minutes later, Mrs. Lacey had progressed exactly six verses. Garth, now asleep again, made little snorts at his owner’s feet. Vivienne tried not to fidget. She forced herself to sit up straight even though her back ached from the hard chair. Could the future wife of John Vandergrift excuse herself to the privy and escape? Would that be the action of a Biblically virtuous wife? As Vivienne contemplated the moral dilemma, she noticed, through the window, the wild, untamed gray hair and spry body of her aunt’s neighbor, the Earl of Baswiche. He stood in her aunt’s tiny box garden, wearing only a beige banyan that reached to the calves of his bare legs. His eyes sparkled with a devious light.
“Pardon me,” Vivienne interrupted, “but Lord Baswiche is in the garden.”
“What?” Her aunt whipped her head around to the window.
The earl’s mouth cracked into a wide grin. “Hello, ladies!”
He spread his arms wide and his banyan opened. Between his slightly bowed legs, his male parts dangled like meat strung in a butcher’s window.
Vivienne put her hand to her mouth to hide her giggles.
Mrs. Lacey gasped. “What a big—”
“Get out of my garden, you dirty sinner!” Aunt Gertrude shot up, almost stumbling over Garth, as she yanked the curtains over the window. “Miss Banks!” she shouted for the housekeeper. “Go next door and tell that wicked Lord Dashiell that his grandfather is in my garden again.”
Lord Dashiell was home! Vivienne’s blood surged with excitement.
“My poor nerves.” Her aunt beat her palm against her bosom. “I feel an attack coming on.” She grabbed Dr. Philpot’s and gulped down the contents. “Where is Banks? Banks!” she cried, violently shaking the bottle, trying to get out one last drop.
“She is down in the kitchen getting the cakes ready,” Vivienne said. “I’ll tell Lord Dashiell.” She started for the door.
Aunt Gertrude’s eyes widened. “Don’t you dare go to that house of ill-repute next door—a shameful Babylon. What would your father think of me allowing you to be corrupted? Now let us sit down.” She eased back in her chair, and her nostrils flared with her rapid breath. She gripped her cane, running her fingers up and down the shaft. “Mrs. Lacey, read the next verse,” she said in a controlled calm. “You were saying, ‘She girdeth her loins with strength.’”
“I’ll just tell his butler,” Vivienne assured her. “I won’t be a minute. How could I possibly get corrupted in that short a time?” She scooted off before she could be stopped. She hadn’t seen Lord Dashiell since he left for Rome over a year ago and, who knows, he might be heading to Russia the next day. Typically, he stayed in London long enough to land into a scandal and then he was off again.
Outside, she scanned Wickerly Square, adjusting her eyes to the light. Built a few decades after the Great Fire, the houses were not nearly as fashionable as those in Cavendish and Grosvenor Square to the west. Dull stacks of gray stone with dark windows edged the square—the homes of middling families. Dashiell’s domicile stood at the corner and towered over its neighbors, giving the square a lopsided appearance, as if his were the manor house and all the other homes mere tenant outbuildings. In the center of the square, protected by a block iron fence, was a grass-covered park. In each corner grew spreading oak trees with low branches, perfect for a young girl to climb.
One afternoon, a little over ten years before, she had been daydreaming in the tree growing nearest Lord Dashiell’s home when she first spied on the famed scoundrel. She had been sent outside after inventing a fantastic game she called “Keep out of the Ocean,” which required shoving all the parlor furniture together and pretending it was a cluster of islands in the South Seas. Then she leaped from chair to table to harpsichord without falling into the ocean and being devoured by hungry sharks while singing at the top of her lungs. Her uncle had thundered out of his library, his face creased with rage. “Bad seed!” he boomed. He never called her by her name or my little Vivvie like her aunt, just bad seed. “Why are you intent on destroying my home? Do you know what happens to little girls who don’t respect other people’s property?”
“You put them in the gaol?” she ventured.
“Precisely,” he answered. “And wipe that insolence from your face when you speak to me. Mark my words, you are rotten in the soul and will come to ruin.”
So she had been sent to the square with a copy of Institutes of the Laws on England to learn the legal process by which wicked little girls came to ruin. She had scampered up the tree and set the book on a high branch in hopes a bird might drop on it. There, hidden in the thick foliage, she felt safe. With the exception of Aunt Gertrude, every adult in her life just scolded her. Now that his wife had died, her father was forever losing his patience with Vivienne, who was as excitable as her sisters were calm. Every few months, she drove the poor man to such distractions that he would claim that he couldn’t do anything else with her and would send her to Uncle Jeremiah’s so she could “learn how to behave herself.”
The way she saw the situation, she would just continue to let down her father and uncle, and there was only one sensible solution to the problem: to stow away on a boat to Egypt and raid tombs. She was thinking of the specifics of her plan, which included dressing like a boy, eating hard tack, perhaps even bugs, when she heard a rich, resonant male voice say, “What a fine climbing tree you have.”
She had gazed down through the leaves at Lord Dashiell and gasped. He could have stepped straight out of her imagination, filled as it was with blood-thirsty pirates, fierce Mongols, and courageous Templar knights. He was about twenty-one years old then. His dark hair flowed loose over his collar in disheveled curls, and his bronze skin was so tanned that he could have been Marco Polo himself. With his high cheekbones, strong chin, and blue shadows under his eyes, he appeared quite Gothic, like the heroes in those books her older sister was always reading. Though the ironic twist to his full lips and sparkle in his chocolate-colored eyes belied any dark, stormy thoughts of the Gothic variety.
“I’m Dashiell,” he had said, in a kindly voice meant for children as he pointed to his home. “I just moved there. Our home in Berkeley Square burned down.”
“Oh, I’ve heard of you,” she said. “My uncle told my aunt that you’re a heathen, whoremonger, and adventurer, and that we’re not supposed to talk to you.” But looking at this striking species of heathen, her uncle’s orders flew from her head. “What’s a whoremonger?”
He blinked and his smile tightened from easy to nervous and he started to edge away. “Err, maybe you should ask your uncle.”
“Why do adults always answer my questions by saying I should ask another adult?”
He stopped, tossed his head back, and laughed—a welcoming, musical sound. She turned on the branch until she was hanging by her knees and gazing at him from upside down. “I wish I could be an adventurer. I would go to Egypt.”
“Well, I just got back from Egypt.”
“Really!” She spun down from the tree and landed with a soft thud on her feet. “Did you dig for a Pharaoh’s lost treasure? Have you ever found a mummy?”
He knelt down, putting himself at her level. “I have, but most everything of value had already been stolen. It’s extremely difficult to find a fresh grave.” He dug into his pocket and drew out what looked to be a pale rock. “I did find this in the Valley of the Kings.” He turned the curious rock over. It was sanded flat and carved with tiny pictures.
She squealed. “Is that a real hieroglyph?”
“Made over three thousand years ago. Perhaps during the reign of Ramesses the Great.”
“Do you know what it says?” she asked.
“Two pots and a goat, I think.”
She scrunched her eyebrows. “No, that can’t be right. These things were supposed to be about Pharaohs, Isis, and cobras.”
“I’m sorry if I procure boring relics.” He would have her believe that he was terribly offended, but the quiver on his lips gave him away. “You might as well take it as no one will want dull hieroglyphs.” He took her by the wrist and dropped the stone into her palm. Then he winked.
Her young heart swelled with love. For the first time in her lonely life, she had met a kindred spirit. Except he got to live out all the adventures she could only dream about.
For the next few weeks, she told her uncle that she still wasn’t sure what happened to wayward girls who didn’t mend their wild ways, and that she should continue reading his law book to find out. Then she would secretly wait in the tree in hopes that Dashiell would come out with another ancient treasure or another fabulous tale of his journeys. Only later did she realize that she was getting the child’s versions of these stories—missing all the exotic details that titillated society such as concubines, mysterious lovers, and duels.
A month after she met her hero, she came outside to find his carriage being loaded down with trunks and him dressed in somber gray wool. Traveling clothes.
“Good-bye, my secret little sister,” he told her. “I’m heading to Cypress. I’ve gotten into too much trouble again.”
Tears burst from her eyes. “You can’t leave me.” Her father had written and said she shouldn’t come home for another month. And although she loved her aunt with all her heart, she couldn’t bear any more of Uncle Bertis’s constant scolding and calling her a bad seed.
Dashiell knelt, withdrew a handkerchief from his coat, and wiped her eyes. “Ah, my little Vivienne, don’t cry. All I do is make women cry.”
“Take me with you. I’ll run away. I can help you dig, and we can explore wonderful places together.”
“You know that’s impossible,” he said gently.
“No, it isn’t!” She screamed and stamped her foot.
He sighed and raised her fingers to his lips. For a moment she thought he might kiss them, and she felt a strange, almost scary, quickening of her heart. Instead, he gently nipped at her pinky finger.
“W-what are you doing?”
He flashed a mischievous grin. “Performing the sacred ritual of the cannibalistic Bazulo tribe in Africa.”
She wanted to be angry with him, but giggled in spite of herself. “There is no Bazulo tribe in Africa.”
“Are you quite sure?”
“Well then,” he chuckled. His features grew grave and he placed his hand over his heart. “When you make the sacred Bazulo vow, you swear that you will always keep the other in your heart and be there should that friend ever need you. So even if I am hundreds of miles away, I promise that I shall always come back to my secret little sister.”
Since that time, Dashiell had popped in and out of her life, exciting her imagination and then leaving again. They would never again be as close as they had been that summer. Although her family might attest otherwise, Vivienne had grown up. And Dashiell continued to be, well, Dashiell. The Bazulo vow was forgotten; it was just something silly he made up to comfort a distraught child. She knew she could never run off with him, being a heathen, whoremonger, and adventurer, and perhaps that was why he still filled her imagination like a bad-behaving, handsome Dionysus—an untouchable Greek god. Of course, her aunt never learned about her niece’s secret kinship with the notorious rake, else she might have an apoplexy, and if her father found out, he would truly disown her once and for all.
She knocked on Dashiell’s white front door, quite an unassuming entrance for the so-called Babylon. Rivers, the earl’s reed-thin, graying butler, answered and looked down at her with weary eyes, like an old man who had seen too much. Behind him was a museum of antiquity and curiosities. Japanese warrior masks, Viking helmets, and various armor from around the globe ran up the stairwell. In the hall stood an upright wooden Egyptian coffin painted with an image of the poor bloke once entombed within it.
“You lying, cruel-hearted scoundrel!” a woman screamed out from an opened door on the first-floor balcony. “You can go back to hell and crawl up the Devil’s arse where you belong!”
Vivienne’s veins pulsed with excitement. Oh no, what had Dashiell done now?
The butler didn’t react, his face as blank as ever, as if this were just another ordinary day in the Earl of Baswiche’s household.
“Good morning, Mr. Rivers.” She smiled, pretending not to hear the violent stream of curses ringing out in the high ceiling. “It’s been several months since I’ve last seen you, but I must say, you look to be in good health.”
“Thank you, Miss,” he answered in a deep monotone. “I’m afraid Lord Dashiell is engaged at the moment.”
“Why the hell did I come back for this?” Dashiell muttered between gritted teeth. He had been in England only a few weeks and already he was embroiled in an ugly romantic entanglement—one that might have flustered a more proper gentleman. However, after having survived being kidnapped, ransomed, robbed, drugged, and held at the point of knives, guns, and other weaponry in stinking bum holes around the globe, two cracked women on the verge of killing him or each other was just an annoyance.
“I think we all need to calm down.” He held up the palm of one hand and gripped his falling trousers with the other.
“Mad lady need to calm down,” spat his lovely French ballerina, pointing an ornate medieval executioner’s sword at the other woman’s creamy throat. Her lithe dancer’s body was clad in Dashiell’s coat, which she had snatched off the floor when Mrs. Lily Harmon rushed into his chamber—an angry flurry of gold silk and red hair—and interrupted their lovemaking.
Dashiell wasn’t concerned with Lily’s threatened throat, but the bust of his precious gray-eyed goddess Athena that Lily held over her head. “Lily, take several deep breaths and think about what you are doing. Three thousand years ago, some craftsman put his soul into creating Athena. The soil of Greece has preserved her all this time. Her history is far greater than this tiny misunderstanding.”
“How philosophical of you,” Lily said, a wicked grin spread over her mouth and she dropped Athena, letting the goddess of wisdom shatter on the floor.
Dashiell emitted a gut-wrenching groan akin to the cry of a wounded wolf. “What the hell is wrong with you?”
“Oh, I’ll tell you what is wrong with me!” Lily screamed. “I waited for you all night. And the whole time, you were with… with… that dancing whore!”
“You ugly dog woman!” The ballerina threw the sword. The blade made a limp arc in the air, missing Mrs. Harmon entirely and slamming into the Roman frieze of Minerva that Dashiell had dug up in Bath. Crumbling stone showered the floor.
“Everyone just stop!” Dashiell thundered, holding up his hands, causing his trousers to fall. “Dammit!” He quickly snatched them up again.
“You assured me your husband was in Manchester with his mistress,” he told Mrs. Harmon, fumbling with the buttons on his trousers. “So I showed up at your house last night like you asked. And do you know who greeted me? Your ten-year-old son.”
“No, he wouldn’t.” Fear and uncertainty began to shade Mrs. Harmon’s eyes.
“He thought I was a Sir Harry and then asked if you were going to leave his papa and run away with me.”
And it was at that moment—having to reassure a weeping son that his papa and mama would love him no matter what might happen—that what Lily had promised him would only be a “fun” flirtation turned sour. He had fled her house, running down Drury Lane, feeling as if his skin was on fire. He dove into a theater and disappeared into the crowd on the ground floor. As the ballerinas whirled on the stage in flowing white skirts, he got lost in remembrances of his parent’s famed dalliances, and then his own sordid affairs with women. From there, he continued to emotionally spiral downward which explained the beautiful French ballerina in his bed.
“You’re lying.” Mrs. Harmon shook her head, her curls flapping about her cheeks. “My son knows nothing about you. About anyone.”
“I think you would be shocked to learn what a child knows about his parents’ infidelities.” Dashiell took a deep breath, bracing himself for the impending violence. “You said it would be an uncomplicated affair. No emotions involved. But I think you were wrong, and we shouldn’t continue this… whatever this is.”
She was silent for a beat, the shock setting in. Then hurt and rage contorted her face. “You hateful duddering rake!” She snatched up a vase and scurried out the door.
“Bloody hell!” He chased after her. “That’s a canopic jar with Pharaoh Cheops’s liver in it. I paid twenty camels for that!”
Lily gave a bark of hysterical laughter and tossed the relic over the banister as she rushed down the stairs. Shattering pottery rang in the air.
“Noooo!” screamed a new female voice.
Dear God, not another one! Priesthood in some remote monastery in the Swiss Alps seemed very appealing at the moment. He jolted to a halt on the top stair.
Vivienne Taylor stood by the door, cradling a clay tablet in her arms like a jealous mama. Her shiny black hair had grown longer since last he had seen her and curled in tame spirals by her cheeks. Her high cheekbones were flushed a beautiful pink and her eyes glittered like pale emeralds in firelight. His heart felt like it dove out of his skin. He kept forgetting she wasn’t a roly-poly, mischievous, innocent girl any more, but this ravishing, mischievous, innocent lady.
“Not this one,” Vivienne told Mrs. Harmon, clutching the tablet to her breasts. “It’s Persian and very, very old. Why don’t you throw something else, like that frie—” She stopped mid-word. He saw her eyes light on his naked torso and a dark erotic wave of heat rushed over his skin.
Dammit, she’s your little sister. Get a hold of yourself.
He snatched a black and white spotted Zulu shield from the stairwell and covered himself. “I… I didn’t know you were coming.” He tried to sound casual.
Meanwhile, Lily had seized a porcelain clock from the Chinese writing desk and hurled it at his temple. He raised his shield, and the timepiece bounced off cowhide and smashed on the railing, raining tiny metal parts onto the floor.
“I hope one day someone breaks your heart into as many pieces,” the lady spat.
“No one will be able to break my heart if you kill me first,” he pointed out. “I’m terribly sorry, Miss Taylor, but would you mind returning at another time? I’m being murdered at the present.”
“Let her stay,” he heard his little French dancer say. “Be good lesson for her.” She stood at the top of her balcony, his coat barely covering her female regions.
He peeked at Vivienne. What must she be thinking?
Vivienne’s bright gaze darted from him, to the ballerina, to Lily, and she burst out in laughter.
“Do you find watching someone have their heart broken amusing?” Lily cried, approaching Vivienne with a rather deadly swagger in her hip, ready to unleash her fury.
“Lily, leave her alone,” Dashiell leaped over the stairwell, and his foot landed on a shard of broken glass. “Damnation!” He grabbed his toe and yelped in pain, but no one paid him any attention.
“You are quite an exquisite creature,” Lily purred, running her finger down Vivienne’s cheek. “I wager you think that your beautiful face will hold some sway on this scoundrel. But let me save you some grief, my love. This rogue cares more about that precious Persian clay tablet in your arms than his own mother. Soon he will destroy your heart and bring tears to your pretty little eyes, just as he did all the countless ladies before you.”
Vivienne regarded Lily for a moment. Then she tilted her head and said, “I’m so sorry, but I don’t think Lord Dashiell can break my heart. For I am engaged.”
“Engaged?” Dashiell echoed sharply.
A lovely, joyous smile graced her lips that made her dimples come out of hiding. His heart dropped like a dead bird from a branch.
“Yes,” she gushed.
He had never seen her gush. He didn’t like it. He wanted little Vivienne back—the one who idolized him.
“I know, you feel sorry for the poor gentleman, don’t you?” she said.
“No. It’s just… just…” He swallowed. He always knew he would lose his little sister to another. She deserved to fall in love with someone who would be faithful and bring her a lifetime of happiness. The kind of man Dashiell could never be. But instead of congratulating her, he stood swaying on his bloody feet, clutching his Zulu shield to his heart, bereft, while Lily laughed at him from deep in her throat.
“Best wishes for you and the lucky gentleman,” he finally managed.
“Thank you.” She swept forward and handed him his treasured Persian tablet. “I came to tell you that your grandfather is in my aunt’s garden and insists on disturbing our Bible lessons on being a virtuous wife. Did you know such a wife is expected to rise before dawn, go out to the merchant ships to buy foods from afar, purchase fields, and plant crops? And if that isn’t enough, she must also sew tapestries, spin linen, flax, and wool, and then sell them. I think that is a bit excessive. You would wonder what her virtuous husband is doing, wouldn’t you?”
The room fell silent as the other ladies stared at Vivienne, baffled. But Dashiell, who always found her odd observations endearing, struggled to keep a straight face.
“Anyway, I should go. My Aunt Gertrude thinks I’ll get corrupted here.” Vivienne performed an abrupt bob of a curtsy and turned to leave. At the door jamb, she glanced over her shoulder, a devilish spark rallied in her eyes. “Oh, I should mention that your grandfather has no clothes on.”
“What?” Dashiell yelled. The precious clay tablet slipped from his grasp. He dropped the shield and caught the relic at the same moment the shield slammed his already injured toe. His howling curse was concealed by the raucous laughter ringing through the hall.
The earl sauntered upon the scene, his robe loose, his percy hanging free.
“You should have seen old Trudie.” He cackled. “I thought her eyes were going to pop out of her head. You can tell she ain’t seen a man in a long time.”
Dashiell slicked his hand down his face and wondered if the morning could get any worse.
Vivienne quickly closed the door, but not before hearing another colorful snatch of Dashiell’s profanity. She put her palm over her mouth, trying to stem the flow of laughter that gurgled up. Her nerves still crackled from the sight of Dashiell’s bare chest, stripped all the way down his torso. He put to shame all those illustrations of naked men she had found in the medical journals at the library.
“Miss Taylor! What in God’s name are you doing coming out of Lord Dashiell’s home?”
Vivienne’s laughter disappeared with a gasp. John waited by her aunt’s front step, holding a package that was tied with large looping pink ribbons. Under his neat mustache, his mouth dropped open in shock and his chiseled features pinched in disapproval. In contrast to Dashiell’s tousled appearance—even when completely clothed—John was fastidious in his dress and manner. His sage coat molded to his well-formed shoulders without a single wrinkle. His reddish-blond hair curled neatly below the brim of his high hat. “Come away this instant before anyone sees you!” he hissed.
“Oh God,” Vivienne muttered. She had made another stupid mistake, and after she promised her father she wouldn’t.
Just three weeks before, two men in coats with the seams straining around their bulging muscles had arrived at their door in Birmingham. Their blank reptile eyes had raked over the house and then Vivienne and her sisters, twin smirks cutting the corners of their lips.
“Nice place ’ere, wouldn’t be thinking this bloke don’t have a tanner,” one of them had said and then jerked his head toward Vivienne. “Tell you wat, if he don’t pay, we kin share this pretty ’un. But he can have them ugly girls with ’im in debtor’s prison.”
Papa had no choice but to welcome the filthy scoundrels into his library. Outside the door, Vivienne could hear the crash of chairs being toppled over and ugly threats from the men about how they were going to hurt him. After they left, she found him slumped over his desk, his bruised face buried in his hands.
“When you go to the Vandergrift’s… you remember to give his sons some pretty smiles,” he had said in a weak voice.
Vivienne went to the party. Her lips hurt from smiling for so long, but a week later, a miracle occurred on the magnitude of burning bushes and parting seas. John proposed. That night, her father made her kneel before him. He clutched her hands in his and the perspiration on his red forehead glistened in the lamplight.
“Vivienne, promise me you’ll make him a perfect wife, that you won’t cause any more trouble.”
She kissed his fingers. “I promise, Papa.”
“And for God’s sake, don’t tell him about our financial troubles. Understand? I just need enough work to make a payment. Then we can get on our feet.”
She searched her father’s face, crinkled with lines of worry. “H-have I made you proud, Papa?”
His lips twitched. “Yes,” he conceded for the first time in her life.
Well, he certainly wouldn’t be proud of her at this moment. She rushed down the walk to John. “I can explain. You see, Lord Dashiell’s grandfather was in Aunt Gertrude’s garden. He had no clo—I mean, he was acting most peculiar. I hurried over and spoke to their butler regarding the matter. Lord Dashiell had guests, so I really didn’t converse with him, except to exchange a few words like ‘Hello,’ ‘How are you,’ ‘What a fascinating Mummy tomb.’ The usual things.” She gave a hollow, false laugh, trying to make a joke of the moment.
John didn’t laugh. His eyes were like hot blue flames. “Did he touch you?” He spoke in the same stern tone her father used when he wasn’t pleased with something she had done… which until recently covered all her activities aside from breathing, eating, and sleeping.
“Of course not,” she said feebly, even as she remembered touching Dashiell’s fingers when she gave him back the Persian tablet and how the feel of his skin sent a current of hot electricity through her body.
“Vivienne, you’re going to be the wife of a consequential man. Your behavior reflects on me. You can’t just pop harem-scarem into bachelor’s homes… and certainly not Lord Dashiell’s. What were you thinking?”
She couldn’t say she was dying to see her old friend whom she had been secretly meeting for the last ten years.
“I-I made a mistake,” she said, and latched onto his free arm. “That is all.”
He studied her face. “You are a most beautiful creature. Tell me my father isn’t right, that I haven’t acted rashly by asking for your hand.”
Oh, Lord! If John jilted her, well, she wouldn’t be able to go home. She couldn’t tell her father that she had ruined him. “I said I made a mistake!” she cried. “I-I love you!”
A smile broke across his handsome face. “Say those last words again.”
She let out a long breath. “I love you.”
He peeked at either side of the street, checking to make sure the square was empty, and then brushed her cheek with his lips, a pleasant tickling sensation that caused her to giggle.
“I brought you something, my pet.” He handed her the package.
In their few weeks together, she had learned that he didn’t hesitate to lay down large sums at tailors, carriage makers, or wine merchants. “Only buy the finest,” he had told her with a sparkle in his eyes, as if his words were a compliment to her. Vivienne’s belly squirmed in the knowledge that she had to conceal from him for her family’s sake—she wasn’t the finest; in fact, she was a desperate bargain.
“You are too good to me,” she said. She pulled the pink ribbon loose and the paper unfolded around a beautiful leather volume, The Ethereal Graces of the Delicate Sex: being a handbook on the proper conduct of young ladies upon entering society and consequentially marriage, by Mrs. Beatrice Smith-Figgle.
“Oh no…” she muttered, before she could stop herself.
John’s brows creased.
“I mean, oh yes!” she cried. “Oh yes! What a lovely gift!”
“I thought of you when I saw it.” He took the book from her hands and opened it. There were small pieces of paper with his handwriting in the creases. “I’ve even marked the sections to which you should pay special attention.”
She swallowed the sour taste in her throat. “Thank you. I shall endeavor to memorize every word.” In truth, she already knew it by heart. Her former headmistress had made her stand before the class and recite long passages from the book after she had sewed hieroglyphs into her sampler and turned in her French assignment in the misshapen Greek that she had tried to teach herself.
“Now, let’s go inside. Maybe your aunt will give us a moment alone.”
“I should warn you that Aunt Gertrude is conducting her Bible lesson.” She gave him a gentle nudge in his ribs. “Those ladies are going to fawn all over you.”
A teasing smile played on his lips. “I have no objection to ladies fawning over me.”
She gave a soft laugh as she wrapped a proprietary hand around his elbow and led him to her aunt’s door. In the corner of her eye, she saw the red-headed woman rush out from Dashiell’s house, clutching a yellow and black Greek vase. Blood rushed to her face. She yanked John inside and slammed the door just as the lady threw the ancient vase on the pavement and screamed, “You lying blackguard!”