Wicked Little Secrets Series – Book III
Take One Marquess. Proper, put-upon, dependable, but concealing a sensitive artist’s soul.
Add One Bohemian lady. Creative, boisterous, unruly, but secretly yearning for a steadfast love, home, and family.
Stir In a sensational serialized story that has society ravenous for each installment.
Combine With ambitious guests at an ill-fated house party hosted by a treacherous dowager possessing a poison tongue.
Shake until a stuffy marquess and rebellious lady make a shocking discovery: the contents of their hearts are just alike.
Take A Sip. You’ll laugh, you’ll swoon, you’ll never want this moving Victorian love story to end.
“Ives’ latest endlessly engaging Victorian-set historical is a droll delight, and the witty banter Ives devises for her heroine and hero perfectly complements the abundance of sexy chemistry this made-for-each-other couple shares.”– Booklist
“This is a jolly good read with plenty of conflict and banter.”– Publishers Weekly
“A charming romance about the ways in which words can divide lovers-and unite them.” — Kirkus
A day without Lilith Dahlgren was a fine day indeed, George, Marquess of Marylewick, mused as he eased back in his brougham seat.
He was finally heading home after surviving another insipid musical evening of delicate young darlings in dainty gowns gently butchering Bach or Mozart. He removed his top hat, tugged his tie loose, and gazed out at the night. Gold halos glowed around the gaslights, turning the London night a silken deep gray. The moody atmosphere reminded him of Joseph Mallord William Turner’s paintings. Turner was a real painter, unlike Lilith’s ramshackle bohemian friends whose art resembled the plum jelly drawings a four- year-old George had created on his nursery walls. These new artists should be punished for their pathetic attempts at art the same way he had been: their hands dipped in iced water and then slapped with a leather strap. Indolent wastrels, all of them.
George released a long stream of tired breath and reviewed his day to make sure he had squeezed every drop of productive juice from it. He had attended the boxing parlor as he did every morning. He had danced about the ring, thinking about the metaphorical punches he needed to deliver in the heated debate of the contentious Stamp Duty Extension Bill. After a brief breakfast with his sister, he had reviewed estate, bank, and stock accounts with his man of business. Then he had legged over to White’s to pass the remainder of the morning making political battle plans with the lord chancellor. Two more hours had been allocated in the afternoon for the business of his numerous wards and dependents, including the sugar-coated orders from his mama as she readied Tyburn Hall for the upcoming house party. Three Maryle relatives had appointments and were each given fifteen minutes. George believed that was sufficient time for them to express the matter at hand without lapsing into tears or drama. He abhorred sentimentality and rapturous overtures of any kind— all the things that characterized Lilith.
After his relatives had left, he had lingered in his study a few minutes longer, in case Lilith graced him with an appearance. Acting as her trustee was a taxing and thankless responsibility. She never bothered with appointments, but breezed in as the mood struck her, staying well beyond her allotted fifteen minutes. She always had a new ploy to wheedle money from her grandfather’s trust to help some degenerate artist pollute society with his rubbish. When George was convinced that she wasn’t calling, he had breathed a sigh of relief, donned his wig, and headed for Parliament with an extra spring in his step.
Now, having survived a grueling session of Parliament and the equally grueling musical party, he could look forward to donning his nightshirt, sliding under crisply ironed sheets, and reading Colette and the Sultan.
The latest chapter in author Ellis Belfort’s serial had been wagging on everyone’s tongues that evening. How would Colette escape her evil pursuer, Sultan Murada? The story had set London society ablaze, but George had been enthralled with Colette from the very first installment. In a sense, he felt her story was his for having discovered it before everyone else.
As his carriage rolled along Piccadilly, George imagined the gentle Colette. He envisioned her possessing ebony locks that flowed over her breasts, almost reaching her waist. The black waves shone like onyx in sunlight. Her enormous eyes were the green of country fields after rain. He chuckled to himself. Colette didn’t exist, yet in his mind she seemed so real. As if she rubbed elbows against him in Trafalgar Square, or had just left the circulating library as he entered. As if she—
“Damnation, Lilith!” he thundered.
Down Half Moon Street, bright light and raucous laughter and music—loud enough to penetrate the inner sanctum of his carriage—blared from the home Lilith shared with her late father’s cousins, Edgar and Frances Dahlgren.
“Hell’s fire!” He should have known he couldn’t have a day free of Lilith.
He had a good mind to ignore her and drive home to his crisp sheets and fictional Colette, but then a horrible image of being summoned to police court for Lilith filled his mind.
He rapped the carriage window with his cane. Without his having to issue a command, the groom, reading his master’s mind, turned the brougham. George prepared for battle, rebuttoning his collar and retying his white tie. The carriage lurched to a stop before a brick townhouse. On the door was a brass plaque that read “Dahlgren Ateliers.” George stabbed the walk with his cane as he stepped unassisted from his carriage. “Around the block,” he ordered his groom.
At the door, George was impeded by two young men reeking of a distillery.
“Art is death, my good fellow,” declared one of the gents. He wore a crumpled coat, a loose scarlet cravat, and a tragic expression on his pallid face. “The loss, the separation, the mystery.”
“Death, death, death,” retorted the other man, shaking his Byronesque locks. “You are obsessed by death. But there is no meaning in death as there is in life. Art is the lost, sensitive soul grappling for meaning amid our meaningless, empty existence.”
“You are meaningless!” cried the scarlet cravat. “I ask this chap here.” He stumbled into George, giving him a shot of his liquored breath. “Is art about death or finding meaning?”
George paused, having never had the absurd question put to him. “It’s something pleasing to look upon while dining or passing time at a tedious musical evening,” he mused. “Anything beyond that is the conjure of selfish, grown boys unwilling to contribute to society except to aggravate it with their indulgent, nansy-pansy rantings. Good evening.” He brushed them off as if they were lint on his immaculate sleeve. He knocked at the door.
Was art about death or finding meaning?
He pondered the question while waiting. When he found himself pondering for more than thirty seconds, he started to knock again but the door swung open. A blond woman in a revealing purple gown peered at him. “Aren’t you handsome?” she purred. She removed his top hat, letting her finger draw a tiny circle on his cheek.
“A Donatello in the flesh. Simply exquisite. Absinthe?” “No, thank you.” George reached for his hat.
She laughed and hid it behind her back. “I meant, do you have any absinthe, my dazzling Donatello?”
“No, ma’am. As a general rule, I do not willingly ingest poison. Please restore my hat.”
“Hmmph.” She tossed his hat against the wall with a flick of her hand and sauntered away, her bustle wagging behind her.
He stepped inside, retrieved his hat, and dusted it off. People crammed the parlor and adjacent back room. They conversed in small circles, drinks dangling from their hands, eyes lit with animation. Their conversations merged to form a loud roar over the music. Their energy soaked into his veins. A thought bubbled up—“Damned sight better than that blasted musical butchery”—before he could pop it. He had to remind himself that these were artists and Lilith’s friends, never a good recommendation. They were probably rapturous over the subtle depth in a certain shade of blue or the hidden symbolism in some obscure poem or other such nonsense.
He edged along the wall. Just find Lilith, he told himself, trying to keep his mind from straying into the guests’ ridiculous conversations. Then he heard a female voice say, “Colette? Why, it’s all about coitus.”
“Coitus. Fornication. All of it,” the woman prattled on, affected cynicism oozing from her words. “See how the author cleverly disguises his meaning: ‘Kiss me, dearest, know the sweet nectar of my lips.’ I daresay the uneducated masses assume he is referring to the lips on her mouth.”
His innocent Colette’s lips. Those lips. How dare someone suggest that of his pure Colette? Had these so-called “artists” no respect for what was decent and honest? No, they were obsessed with carnality and the darker aspects of human desires and viewed all humanity through their warped lens. He was about to say as much when someone shouted in his ear, “Do you like the painting?”
George swiveled and found himself staring at a painting of what appeared to be the blurred image of a woman with flowing hair. Or was that a flowing gown? In any case, something was flowing around her. Blobs of blue and green paint were splattered along her feet and around her head—if that indeed was her head and not another random blob.
“Good heavens, what blind sot vomited that?” George wondered.
The man’s jaw dropped. Tears actually misted his eyes. “I—I did.”
Damn. George should have known as much. “I’m sorry, my good man, I didn’t mean… It’s most colorful,” he grappled. “I admire the subtle depth in the shades of blue and so much symbolism in those…well, whatever those splotches are at the bottom.”
“Water lilies, Lord Marylewick,” a familiar dusky voice said. Behind the man, Lilith materialized in all her brilliance. “It’s A Muse Amongst the Water Lilies,” she stated as if it were readily apparent Dutch realism. Whenever Lilith appeared, George had the sensa- tion of walking from a pitch-black room into the piercing sunshine. He needed time for his eyes to adjust. When they did, he didn’t approve of what he saw. Her lustrous auburn locks, adorned with flowers, were loose and flowing over her azure robe and gauzy shawl. From the way the thin silk of her robe rested on her ripe contours, he could only guess that she wore no semblance of undergarments. That tiny vein running over his temple began to throb, as did another part of his body.
“There, there.” She hugged the distraught artist. “Don’t let the horrid Lord Marylewick distress you. He has the sensibilities of a dishcloth.”
She impaled George with a glare. “You see, Lord Marylewick, it’s about capturing the ethereal and fleeting. Those moments when the beautiful morning light illuminates the garden in all its blues, greens, and golds. It is not a representation of reality, but a sensation captured in time. A sensual impression of a moment. And philosophically, we could argue that all we have are mere impressions of a greater reality.”
George’s mind had left off after the “impression of a moment” part. With Lilith now standing beside the painting, he could see the resemblance in the flowing gown and hair and splotches.
“Lilith!” he barked. “That had better not be your impression in those ethereal blobs.”
By God, she was a grown toddler. He couldn’t turn his back on her for a moment or she would be playing near fire or gleefully shedding her clothes for some filthy-minded artist. He didn’t wait for her answer but seized her wrist and dragged her through the nearest door, which led to a paneled study with a leather sofa stacked with pillows. Cluttering the walls were paintings of pale-skinned, nude ladies gazing off to some sorrowful horizon. Luckily, these paintings appeared to be from King George III’s reign, when Lilith hadn’t been born yet to pose for them.
He shut the door behind them. She sauntered to the mirror and began to curl her locks around her finger and then let them unfurl in spirals about her cheeks. There was a dangerous, ready-for-battle tilt to the edge of her mouth, lifting the little mole above her lip. “Lilith, did you pose for that…that…Tart Amid Blue Pigeon Cack painting? And in a rag even a Covent prostitute would think twice about wearing for fear of attracting the wrong clientele?”
Anger flashed in her eyes for a half second, and then a delicious smile curled her lips. A warm shiver coursed over his skin.
“And what if I did?” Her eyes, the color of coffee, gazed at him from under her thick lashes. He couldn’t deny their sultry allure. “What would you do? Tuck me away to another boarding school? But I’m all grown up.” She shook her head and made a clucking sound. “What to do with a grown woman who dares to have a mind of her own?” She snapped her fingers. “Ah, why not control her by taking away her money?”
With gentlemen and ladies of his set, he might say that he “spoke on the level” or “gave the news straight.” There was nothing straightforward or level about Lilith. She was all curves and turns. Conversing with her was akin to Spanish flamenco dancing with words.
“I never took your money away,” he said, feeling like a weary father cursed with an errant, irresponsible child. “And if I truly controlled you, I would never have consented to your living with your father’s cousins. Your grandfather warned me about the Dahlgrens. Nor would I have consented to use his hard-earned money for this ridiculous party. Or allowed you to pose for illicit impressions of fleeting moments.”
“Good heavens, I never posed for anyone! The painting was in the man’s imagination—that mental faculty you are woefully missing, darling. I merely dressed as the muse in the painting as a lark for the exhibit opening.” She tossed back her wrists. “You know, a muse who inspires artists to great heights of fancy.”
“Lilith, the only people you are inspiring are unsavory men to low depths of debauchery.”
“Unsavory men?” She raised her arms and draped her gauzy shawl across his head and over his eyes. “I didn’t know you found me inspiring, Georgie.” The peaks of her unbound breasts lightly brushed against his chest. Ungentlemanly desire pooled in his sex.
“Lord Marylewick,” he corrected in a choked voice and pulled her garment from his person. “And try to behave with some semblance of propriety.”
“Propriety, propriety, propriety.” She tapped her finger on the side of her mouth, as if she were searching her memory for the meaning. “I remember now. It’s when you address a lady, such as myself, as Miss Dahlgren.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t realize I had addressed you inappropriately. But if one insists on acting like a child… You are, what? Three and twenty, and continuing to romanticize this ramshackle lifestyle that any lady of good sense would—”
“It’s the Lord Marylewick patronizing play!” She clasped her hands. “I adore it! In fact, I know every line. Wait. Wait. No, don’t continue.” She withdrew the cane and hat from his hand, letting her fingers flow over his skin. “Allow me.” She placed the hat over her head, the flowers sticking out around the brim. She scrunched her eyebrows. “It’s high time you grew up, my little lamb, and threw yourself to the wolves of high society.” She croaked like a stodgy man of seventy-five, not George’s thirty-one years.
He regretted coming here. He should have driven home to gentle, fictional Colette. And when they hauled Lilith into police court, he would say to the judge, “You see what I must suffer?”
“You need a husband to temper your reckless ways, young lady,” she continued her performance. “One who meets my approval. Someone like me— controlling, overbearing, starchy, and unbending.” Her old man voice began to fall away as her pitch rose in a crescendo. “A husband who will dress you in lace, place you on a cold marble pedestal, silence your voice, bleed your wild heart dry, and destroy your gentle, yearning soul.” After delivering this melodrama, she pressed the back of her hand to her forehead and fainted onto the sofa.
He crossed his arms and gazed at her supine and curvaceous body. “I don’t recall using the terms ‘destroy your gentle, yearning soul.’ It has always been my objective to ‘shatter’ or ‘squash’ your wayward soul. And I have never fainted in my life.”
She opened one eye and regarded him. “Ah!” She jumped to her feet and pointed at his face. “I saw it. Don’t deny it. Your lip trembled. You wanted to smile.” She clenched her hands into tight balls. “Fight the urge with that iron will of yours. Fight it! First smiling, then a tiny chortle, and then before you know it, full-blown, vulgar, belly-deep laughter! And then where would you be? Almost human.”
He really did have to squelch a smile. “Miss Dahlgren, I am not devoid of proper emotions. But unlike you I temper them with sense, you know, that mental faculty you are woefully missing, darling,” he said, splashing her own words in her face.
“What would I do with something as horrid as sense? I want wild, overpowering feeling, passion, zest. ‘More happy love! more happy, happy love! / For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d, / For ever panting, and for ever young; / All breathing human passion far above…’ That’s Keats, dearest,” she said. “I know you wouldn’t recognize it.”
“But I recognize what you are doing.”
“Oh, but I do many things.” She fluttered her eyelashes, sending a heated tremor through him. “What particular thing is this?”
“Last week, you came to me with a sob tale of not having enough funds to buy clothes or pay the grocer. I advanced you ten pounds. And here you are in indecent rags, pretending to be a ridiculous muse, and throwing a party—”
“Exhibit opening, not a party.”
“Don’t try to distract me from the matter at hand. Ever since you were a child, you have teased and danced around the matter of your atrocious behavior.”
“And you know so much about my childhood from those few days I was allowed to leave school and visit Tyburn at Christmas.” Fire flashed in her eyes, but her voice remained creamy. “Such special times. They were like a beautiful illustration in Town and Country.”
“I would hardly call it that.”
“I would.” She waved her hand as if she could conjure the scene in the air. “The children are gathered around the adorned tree, speculating about the gifts Mama and Papa have given them this year. Maybe it’s a bicycle or that lovely china doll from the shop window. An enormous Yule log roars in the fireplace while the adults, their cheeks and noses reddened from spiced wassail, laugh over old stories of Great-Aunt Millicent and the recalcitrant poodle, Lord Bertie and the silly hat, or such.” Her chuckle, at first light and musical, turned bitter. “Only I wasn’t in that lovely picture like you, the golden boy, and my adored, precious half-siblings. I was ten pages over in the tiny article ‘Ways to Hide the Child Who Doesn’t Fit into Your Shiny New Debrett’s-Worthy Family.’” She spun on her heel, putting her back to him.
She had the smallest toehold on his family, having issued from the unfortunate elopement of his aunt by marriage and her first husband, the roguish John Dahlgren. When Lilith was five, her father had died in a duel after cheating at cards. By then, he had already lost his wife’s substantial dowry on poor business investments. When her mother married George’s uncle, Lilith, the human embodiment of a bad memory, had been sent away and fair-headed, beautiful babies created in her place.
Her shoulders now drooped as she pressed her hand to her mouth. Several beats of silence passed. He had never seen her serious. She was always scheming, teasing, or flying into a rage. He hadn’t witnessed one of her famous tantrums, though, since her youth. The last he could recall was when he was a young man and she was being physically forced by his uncle and his manservant onto the train back to school, after she called her young half-siblings vicious names and marked up her chamber walls with shoe polish. “Too wild to handle,” his uncle would say of his stepdaughter as the men watched the train chug off and her, finally inside, screaming “I hate you” and banging her hands against the train-carriage windows.
After her mother and stepfather had passed away, her grandfather, fearing for the welfare of his estranged and unruly eighteen-year-old granddaughter, set up a trust for her. He named George as the trustee, thereby keeping her under the Maryle mantle.
“What do you want?” he asked quietly. “What will make you happy?”
“What will make me happy?” She turned and gazed at him with large liquid eyes that reflected the hurt in her voice. He had the absurd urge to draw her into his arms.
“A world without war,” she said. “Where every child is tucked into bed with a full tummy and a kiss from his mama and papa, where artists have respect and can earn a living. To visit the moon in a hot air balloon. To time travel and have tea with Leonardo da Vinci and Sappho. To live in the Sistine Chapel. But on a more realistic scale, I’ll just take five hundred pounds of my own money and then you can leave me alone. Forever.” Her lush lips gave a tiny good-bye kiss to the air.
The low lamplight deepened the contours of her high, full cheekbones and the tiny cleft in her chin.
He cleared his tight throat, stepping back. “You would run through the money in a year giving it to this and that poor artist whose parents couldn’t afford to tuck him into a comfortable asylum. Impressions of water lilies, indeed! Your grandfather entrusted me with his monies, earned from decades of brewing.”
She released a put-upon sigh and flicked her eyes toward the heavens. No doubt old-fashioned hard work and responsibility was a bit dull for her taste.
“I will not be accountable for losing it.” He waggled a finger before her nose. “If you want that money, my lady, then follow the terms your grandfather laid out in his trust: find a responsible, well-situated husband of whom I will approve. A man who will not destroy your so-called gentle yearning but temper your wild spirits and provide you a respectable home. At which time I will thankfully leave you alone forever. Until then, you will dance to my tune.”
Anger flashed in those dark eyes. She raised the edge of her mouth, the side adorned with that teasing mole.
“Dance to your tune?” She began to sway her hips and wave her hands like an exotic belly dancer. “Like this?” She lifted the sides of her hair high over her head and then let the glossy curls fall around her breasts. All the while, she kept her head low, watching him from under her lashes. “Is this your tune?”
George swallowed. The courtesans dancing in the gentlemen’s clubs weren’t half so wanton…or entrancing. “Stop that,” he choked.
She only sashayed closer, picking up an orange pillow from the sofa. She held it just below her glittery eyes. She continued to sway in steady rhythm, like a hypnotist’s swinging watch. His tongue moistened as blood pooled in his male apparatus. She let the pillow drop lower, revealing moist, gleaming, open lips. The cushion continued its progress over her creamy throat and then down, down, down to her exquisite, ample, succulent br—“Ouch!” In a quick, unforeseen move, she had whacked his chin with that cursed pillow. “Lilith!”
“I don’t dance to your tune or anyone else’s.” She whapped him again, this time on his chest, displacing the white rose in his lapel.
“You little devil.” He lunged at her.
She shrieked and ran around the sofa, her wild laughter streaming behind her.
He snatched up his own pillow.
“Oh no!” she cried, those eyes now alight with mischief.
“Oh yes!” He smacked her nimbly but gently on the shoulder, giving her a little taste of her own medicine.They commenced a childish swordplay game of lunge and parry with pillows.
Her laughter was infectious. He knew he should stop, but then the white feathers would no longer billow in the air and fall around her lovely face and that weight that had lifted from his chest would settle back to its usual position. And before he could stifle it, a chuckle escaped his mouth.
“I heard that!” she cried and raised her pillow high. “You can’t deny it. It was mirth. You laughed.”
“I deny everything.” In a swift move, he gained the strategic upper hand by knocking the pillow from her grip. Unarmed, she attempted to flee. He leaped over the sofa’s back, halting her retreat.
“Surrender, Lilith. You know you can never defeat me.” He threatened both his cushiony weapons over her.
“Never! I’ll fight you to the death!”
“So be it.” He lunged forward for the deathblow, trapping her in the pillows. She laughed and fell back onto the sofa, almost taking him with her. He balanced his knee on the cushion and studied her. She lay with her dark hair splayed wildly around her head, flower petals and little white feathers trapped in the locks. Her shoulders shook with silent laughter, causing her breasts to jiggle beneath the thin fabric of her costume. She was doing something he had never seen her do before: smile. A true, unguarded, non-manipulative or -malicious, luscious smile. It heightened the color in her cheeks and softened her eyes. They now gazed at him with an expression he wouldn’t have associated with Lilith: tenderness.
It seemed the most natural thing in the world to lean down and kiss her, as if he had done it a hundred times before. Her skin was warm silk and her lips were like tasting honey, leaving him wanting more of their sweetness. The peaks of her full breasts rubbed against his chest as she shifted beneath him when his tongue slipped inside her. She met the pressure of his mouth and released a hum as her fingers tangled in his hair, pulling him even closer. Her scent of citrus and vanilla overpowered his senses and erased any rational thoughts from his mind. His cock hardened, straining against his pantaloons. He hadn’t felt this hunger for a woman in months. All those days of endless parliamentary sessions, lines and lines of estate accounts, and dull musical evenings. He suddenly felt sick of it all. He released her mouth long enough to murmur, “Sweet Lilith.”
“Lord Marylewick!” She shoved him away and bolted to her feet. Her eyes were dilated with horror.
Reality hit like freezing hailstones pelting from the sky.
“I’m sorry!” he gasped. What had he done? Where was his brain? “I’m truly, honestly sorry. Forgive me.” “
Oh God!” She rubbed her lips with the back of her hand. “It was just a game. What have I d—You’re the…” She fled the room.
He raked his fingers through his hair and paced, his heart thundering. He had never lost control like that before. What had come over him?
Black shame wormed in his gut. He hadn’t been a gentleman. In a matter of seconds, he had managed to breach his code of honor, his integrity, all the things around which he ordered his life.
He snatched up his hat and cane, and opened the door. Lilith wasn’t in sight, thank heavens. He couldn’t face her. He needed…he needed air. He couldn’t breathe. He ripped opened his tie and yanked at his collar buttons as he pushed through the raucous crowd. The cool air outside offered no relief. The two gentlemen, Byronesque locks and scarlet cravat, were still engaged in their drunken philosophical debate. “Art is about finding meaning in the gaping chasm of meaninglessness.”
“Death, my friend. It’s all death and dying and—”
“For God’s sake, lads,” George bellowed. “It’s about coitus. Every bit of it. Coitus, copulation, fornication, shagging.” He jogged down to meet his approaching carriage.
“Take me home,” he ordered his groom.