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WICKED BECOMES YOU
by Meredith Duran

Genre: Historical Romance

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“Gwen.” The proximity of Alex’s voice made her startle; Gwen looked up and found him crouched before her. “Don’t look so glum,” he said evenly. “You’ve had a bad run of it. But it’s no fault of yours.” He paused. “Well, you could work on your taste in men, of course. But apart from that—bad luck.”

A violent wave of embarrassment swept through her. She must be worse off than she’d thought if Alex was being solicitous.

She averted her face, for tears suddenly pricked her eyes. She simply could not do this again. One was meant to learn from one’s history, no? And fate seemed determined to show her the futility of the course she’d set. She wanted a family? Nobody stuck. Not her parents, not her brother, not two fiancés. Forcing herself through another attempt would be … grotesque!

I will not do it, then.

The thought acted like a tonic. It felt like revelation. A profound calm settled over her. She straightened in her seat. She had no need to marry! Other women could not fund an independent living, but she had oodles of money. Indeed, what couldn’t she do?

“Fine,” Alex said curtly. “I’ll take an active hand in it. Find you a match. Will that cheer you up? We’ll have it done by autumn.”

What?

Oh, no.

She shot to her feet. “Goodness, Alex, that is…very kind of you, to be sure, and I’m certain my brother would have appreciated it, but—and while I do thank you on his behalf—no! Please don’t. That is—I discharge you of that promise you made! You’ll note he did not ask you to see me married, only to see me comfortably settled. And I am comfortable. I assure you. That tapestry on the wall is Boucher! And this carpet is an Aubusson. So you see, I’m very comfortable. You’ve done quite enough!”

“Good God.” He stared at her, evidently appalled. “This carpet is not an Aubusson.”

“What?” She looked down with a frown. “No, I’m quite certain of that. I had it last year from the Crombley auction. Only look how threadbare it is!”

“What a terrible businessman you’d make.” He sounded sympathetic now. “Someone’s taken a pumice stone to the nap, darling.”

She waved this off. “No matter. I can buy another. The point is—”

“That I’ve done almost nothing,” he said patiently. “Won’t be difficult to make amends. I’ll draw up a list. We’ll make it an economical process. You can give me a general idea, if you like: hair color, eye color—”

“I’ve decided not to marry.”

On a deep breath, she waited for his reaction.

He merely lifted a brow.

More firmly, she restated it: “I’m not going to marry. I’ve decided it. I’m going to do—more interesting things.”

“God knows there are several,” he said easily. “Such as?”

“Gardening,” she said.

He sighed. “Oh, Gwen.” Like a master despairing of his pupil.

“What? What’s so wrong with that? I’ve always wished to study botany. I’ll travel to collect strange plants, just as Linnaeus did—to the Hanging Gardens! To all manner of foreign places, as you do!”

“As I do?” He laughed. “You do realize there are no couturiers in most of the ports I visit? And flowers are not always pretty. Some of them try to eat you.”

“I don’t even favor flowers. I don’t have an interest in little box gardens, Alex; I am thinking of landscapes. I have a talent for designing them, I think. At Heaton Dale…”

Here she trailed off, for he was looking at her with an expression of mild, tolerant incredulity.

“Well,” she said. “The point is, I’m done with the conventional routine.”

His head tilted just a fraction. “So. No need to make that list, then.”

“Exactly right,” she said encouragingly. “You may keep doing absolutely”—she flapped her hand—“nothing. It quite suits you! In regard to me, that is. Of course you do a great deal, generally speaking.”

“I see,” he murmured. “Well, that’s a relief. I must say, I wasn’t relishing playing the matchmaker.” After a brief pause, he added, “The day has been inordinately taxing, so I suppose I should leave you to rest. Let’s revisit this conversation another time, shall we?”

Her stomach sank. She’d been feeling encouraged, but this last remark did not bode well at all. “No,” she said. “I told you to keep doing what you always do! And may I remind you, only once in a year do you make plans to converse with me. Otherwise, we meet only by accident, generally at the holidays, and we exchange nothing so substantial as might be counted conversation!”

His answering smile was benign. Not a trace of mockery! “True enough, Gwen. I will bid you good afternoon, now.” And then—horror of horrors—he bowed to her.

Dear God! There: she had taken the Lord’s name in vain, and the occasion well deserved it. Alex was playing the gentleman.

He did not believe her in the least. He still planned to make that list.

It could not stand.

As he turned for the door, she said sharply, “Alex, I mean it. I am not joking.”

He glanced back as he laid his hand to the door latch. “Splendid, Gwen. Be as wild as you like. God knows I’m no advocate for the straight and narrow. For now, though…do go rest.”

It was the smile with which he concluded these remarks that punctured her patience. That smile did not sit naturally on his lips. It was conciliating. Coddling.

He did not believe a word of what she was saying.

She took a deep breath. Well, she knew a quick way to prove her intentions. Suffragettes and actresses had tested the method. He was going to mock her, no doubt, but at least he would have to take her seriously afterward. “Wait,” she said as he pulled open the door.

He sighed and turned back. “For God’s sake. What?”

She could do this. Why not? “You promised to do me a favor, earlier.”

Closing the door again, he put his hands into his pockets and waited, although the impatient tap of his boot suggested he would not give her long. “Fire away.”

She was tall for a woman, but as she eyed his mouth, it seemed unwise to leave things to chance. “Perhaps you should sit, first.”

He lifted his eyes to the ceiling, then moved to the nearest chair. Taking a seat, he said somberly, “I am braced.”

She ignored the sarcasm, nodded once, lifted her skirts, and marched toward him.

His brows lifted a fraction.

She smiled.

At two paces’ distance, he tilted his head.

“Stay still,” she warned.

When her skirts hit his knee, his eyes narrowed and he looked as though he would speak. She planted her hands on his upper arms and pressed her mouth to his.

Well. He was made of lean muscle, all right; beneath her hands, his biceps contracted into stone. His lips were warm and motionless. He smelled of soap, very clean, barely a trace of sweat. He’d recently taken a bath, she supposed. Or: he’d recently lowered this long body of his into a bathtub, completely naked.

The thought did something awful and lovely to the pit of her stomach. Her hands slid of their own accord up to his shoulders, and she pressed her mouth harder to his.

Very softly, his breath hot on her mouth, he spoke. “Gwen. You’re hysterical.”

Her cheeks burning, she pulled back. He sat perfectly still, his blue eyes locked onto hers, his expression impenetrable. What thick, dark eyelashes he had. She wanted to touch them, out of gratitude or wonder: for some reason, he was not laughing at her.

“No,” she said, and cleared her throat. “As I told you, I am done with convention. Also, I am pursuing a question in the scientific fashion. For some time now, I’ve wondered. I can’t believe every man kisses like a terrier.”

His nostrils flared. “A terrier.”

“Yes,” she said. “So much…slobber.”

A muscle ticked in his jaw. “And?”

She stepped back. “Well, you didn’t slobber. In no way was it canine.”

He came suddenly to his feet, forcing her to look up at him. “Not canine,” he repeated grimly. “Gwen. You need to rest now.”

No wonder he hadn’t laughed. He really thought her in the grip of some madness! “I feel quite alert. Besides, actions speak louder than words, so please consider my kiss to be proof—”

He made a queer noise, something between a scoff and a grunt. “That was hardly a kiss.”

“—proof that I’m quite done with behaving myself.” And done with male judgment, too!

The whole smug species could toss themselves out a window. “So please don’t waste your time on that silly list, for I won’t marry even if you put a gun to my head—a policy that I think you, of all people, should understand.” Her sore vanity compelled her to add, “And if that wasn’t a proper kiss, it’s not my fault, is it? One would think a man of your reputation might know it requires a bit of effort on your part!”

His lips parted. Finally, for the first time in the ignoble history of their acquaintance, she’d surprised him! Or were his feelings hurt?  

What an odd and fascinating idea. It made her feel generous. “Don’t worry about it,” she added. “I’m sure you can do much better than that. Even without proper notice, you rank on par with Lord Trent.”

She turned away, but his strong grip on her elbow pulled her back. “I beg your pardon?”

Why—now his vanity was pricked! The laugh that escaped her was born of sheer astonishment. Alex Ramsey, the jaded sophisticate—how easy he was to rile in this matter! “I said you rank on par with Trent. And I’m sure—” His thumb stroked down her forearm, and her voice faltered. Had that been deliberate? “I’m sure other men will rank below you, too, if it makes you feel any better.”

“Oh, much better,” he said sarcastically, and tugged her toward him. His free hand cupped and lifted her chin, and he laid his lips against hers.