No man in his right mind would want to get married, but every duke, earl, and viscount knows that a fellow must do his duty in the end. So four of London's most desirable gentlemen make a wager—the prize going to the one who remains unwed the longest.
Gideon Pearsall, Viscount Warton, thinks he has a fair shot at winning. After all, he's managed to enjoy the favors of many a lady while resisting the parson's noose. Even when he's stopped dead in his tracks by the most scandalous woman in all of London—Judith, Lady Chester—he vows to have her bedded but never wedded.
Beautiful, and more than a little bit naughty, Judith has always kept herself within the bounds of respectability, even while playing by her own rules. And the experience has taught her to avoid marriage. She has no desire to resist Warton's hot kisses, and his tempting touch is impossible to ignore.
But soon both Judith and Gideon can't help but wonder . . . is it possible to be a little bit wicked and still follow your heart?
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A Little Bit Wicked
By Victoria Alexander
AvonCopyright © 2006 Victoria Alexander
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIt was far and away the perfect opportunity, and only a fool would let it slip away. Gideon Pearsall, Viscount Warton, was no fool.
He suspected no one else in the overcrowded parlor at Lady Dinsmore's monthly evening of Musical and Literary Entertainments had noted the lovely Lady Chester discreetly leave the room. But then he doubted anyone else had been watching the charming widow with as close an eye as he had. No, all eyes were on the hostess's insipid nephew, who even now, with a spritz or two of something into his mouth and numerous clearings of his throat, prepared to regale the gathering with his poetry of youthful passion and dubious quality. Gideon was confident therefore that no one would notice as well when he followed Lady Chester's example. He sent a quick nod of thanks heavenward that he had had the foresight to plan his own escape and had positioned himself in the back of the room.
He slipped out a side door and glanced down the corridor to catch a flash of blue silk skirt as the lady turned the corner. Access to Lady Dinsmore's terrace lay in that direction, as he, and anyone else who had ever attempted to flee their hostess's endless and not especially talented relations' attempts at music or literature or whatever, well knew. Perhaps Lady Chester was in need of a breath of fresh air; it was extraordinarily stuffy in the parlor. It was possible as well that she could be meeting someone.Lady Dinsmore's terrace was as well known as a trysting spot as it was as a refuge. Still, Gideon doubted it. Widows were not as encumbered by the strictures placed on society as never-married women; therefore Lady Chester had no particular need of secrecy. Beyond that, given everything he had heard about her, he suspected the lady rather liked being the center of gossip. And gossip, usually remarkably accurate, indicated the lady was not currently involved with anyone. Excellent. He grinned to himself. He too could use a bit of fresh air.
Gideon had known Lady Chester for years, although he did not, in truth, know her at all. She was a passing acquaintance, someone to nod a greeting to on the street or exchange idle pleasantries with at a social gathering, nothing more than that. It was not until the Twelfth Night Ball she had hosted more than a month ago that what should have been little more than a few casual words between the two of them had without warning been fraught with something more significant and completely indefinable. It struck him with a force akin to a lightning bolt, an abrupt awareness of sorts, perhaps of a kindred spirit or the possibility of adventure or a heretofore unsuspected and unimagined attraction. One of his friends had said at the time that there was something in the air that night. Something of a magical nature. It was nonsense, of course. Still, the moment had dwelled in the back of Gideon's mind, lingered just beneath the surface of his well-ordered life. Under other circumstances, he would not have hesitated to call on the widow. But there had been something in that moment that had urged caution as well. That too was extremely odd. Gideon was nothing if not cautious, yet he'd never before experienced a sense of caution in connection with a woman, even when he should have. It was damn near irresistible.
He pushed open the glass door to the terrace, and his breath hitched at the cold of the February night. Still, it scarcely mattered at the moment. The night was unusually clear given the season, and Lady Chester's figure was silhouetted against the star-laden sky. She stood a scant dozen feet or so away, gazing into the night. He started toward her, then paused, for the first time in years not entirely certain of himself.
"Did you find it as stifling as I did or do you simply dislike poorly written poetry as much as I do?" Lady Chester said without turning around, a definite note of amusement in her voice.
"Both I should think." Gideon chuckled. "But is it wise to comment on either the atmosphere or the entertainment without first looking to see who has joined you? For all you know I could be Lady Dinsmore come to herd you back into the fold."
She laughed, a lovely rich sound as clear as the night itself. "I knew precisely who had joined me, my lord."
"Did you?" He stepped toward her, the beat of his heart quickening with his step. "How?"
"Anyone who stations himself near the most discreet exit instead of sitting by the side of his aunt, who has probably insisted on his accompaniment to begin with, is obviously waiting to escape at the first opportunity. Beyond that-she turned toward him-you have been watching me all evening."
"Indeed you have."
"And you were aware of my perusal?"
"Very much so."
"Because you were watching me as well?"
"Absolutely." She laughed. "But I think I was much more subtle."
"You did not notice me watching you whereas I-
He laughed. "Your point is well taken."
She studied him for a moment, the features of her face faintly illuminated by the light from the door and windows behind him. "Why have you not called on me?"
His grin widened. "Did you expect me to do so?"
"Alas, I found I did not have the courage." He adopted a mournful air. "I am not nearly as daring as I appear."
"I doubt that. Am I so intimidating then?"
"Yes." The word was out of his mouth before he knew it. He shook his head. "Intimidating is not the right word."
She tilted her head and gazed up at him. "What is the right word?"
"Intriguing. Enticing. Fascinating. Terrifying." He paused. "Mysterious."
"Mysterious?" She laughed. "I shall let terrifying pass for the moment, but do tell me why I am mysterious. It seems to me my life is very much an open book that no one has hesitated to read. I daresay, everyone knows virtually everything about me."
"Perhaps not everything but nearly so. I do have some secrets; every woman should, you know. Come now, my lord, I have been discreet in the decade of my widowhood but I have not spent those years-she searched for the right word-alone, as it were."
"I am aware of that," he said simply. He was indeed aware that Lady Chester's life since the death of her husband had not been lived in a despondent state of celibacy. One of his oldest friends had had a liaison with her several years ago and, to his credit or hers, even now considered her a friend.
"I would wager so is everyone else in London. As I said, my life is a well-read book." She spread her hands wide before her. "Why then would you call me mysterious?"
"Perhaps because I have never met a woman I would call terrifying before either."
His words hung in the air between them, abruptly fraught with far more significance than he had intended. As well as entirely too much honesty.
She drew a deep breath. "May I confess something to you?"
"Is it something I wish to hear?" He stepped toward her. "Or will it put me firmly in my place? Send me packing to nurse the remains of my shattered heart?" He forced a light note to his voice.
Excerpted from A Little Bit Wicked by Victoria Alexander Copyright © 2006 by Victoria Alexander. Excerpted by permission.
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