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Lady Victoria Fontaine threw back her head and laughed. "Faster, Marley!"
Below her, Viscount Marley tightened his grip around her legs and began spinning around even more recklessly. The other dancers fled to the edges of the ballroom despite the beckoning notes of the quadrille, their glares and envious whispers just a whirling blur. This would be the last time her parents kept her housebound for three days. Teach her restraintha! Chuckling breathlessly, she flung out her arms.
"I'm getting dizzy, Vixen," Marley panted, his words muffled in her gown's rumpled green silk. He hefted her higher in the air.
"Then spin the other way!"
"Vix ... damnation!" Marley lurched sideways, tottered, and dumped them both to the polished ballroom floor.
"Oops!" Vixen laughed again as her herd of admirers swooped forward to assist her to her feet. Poor Marley had to scramble out of the way to avoid being trampled. "Gadzooks, that was fun." She staggered sideways, blinking as the room continued to swirl and dip.
"Whoa, Vixen," Lionel Parrish crooned, catching her up against him. "You nearly showed off your unmentionables to the Duke of Hawling. We can't have you falling again and giving him an apoplexy."
"I feel like a whirligig, Lionel. Please help me to a seat."
With Vixen back on her feet, several of her herd took pity on Marley and pulled him upright, as well. He dropped into the chair beside her as they found seats at one side of the room. "Dash it, Vixen, now you've made me seasick."
"You need a steadier constitution," she said, laughing and out of breath. "Someone fetch me a punch, ifyou please."
Immediately half the herd scattered for the refreshment table, while the other half moved in to take their vacated places. The musicians rallied to begin a country dance. As the ballroom floor refilled, Lucy Havers escaped from her mother's view and hurried over to sit on Victoria's other side.
"My goodness! Are you unhurt?" she exclaimed, grabbing Vixen's hand.
Victoria squeezed her fingers. "Quite. Marley broke my fall."
He sent her a glare. "If you were a large woman, Vix, I'd be dead right now."
"If I'd been a large woman, you wouldn't have lifted me into the air like a victory flag." Grinning, she returned her attention to Lucy. "Is my hair at all salvageable?"
"Mostly. You've lost a comb."
"I have it, Vixen," Lord William Landry announced, holding up the delicate ivory piece. "I'll return it to you ... in exchange for a kiss."
My, that's a surprise. Trying to straighten her midnight ringlets, which did have a definite droop on one side, Victoria favored the Duke of Fenshire's third son with a speculative smile. "Only a kiss? That is my favorite comb, you know."
"Perhaps we might negotiate for more later, but for the moment a kiss will suffice."
"Very well. Lionel, kiss Lord William for me."
"Not for five hundred quid."
Everyone laughed, while inwardly Victoria sighed. The longer she put it off, the more he would gloat about it and insinuate she owed himand dash it all, that was her favorite comb. She stood, straightening her skirt, and stepped up to William Landry. On tiptoes, she brushed her lips against his cheek before he could intercept her for a sounder kiss. He reeked of brandy, but that was no great surprise.
"My comb, please," she said, holding out her hand and unable to keep the smug look off her face. He should have known by now; no one bested the Vixen.
"That hardly counts," William protested, scowling, while the rest of the herd guffawed at him.
"It looked like a kiss to me," Marley said helpfully.
"Hush," Lucy said. "Lady Franton's glaring at us again."
"The old witch," William muttered, and handed over the comb. "If she were any more stiff, she'd be six feet under."
"Perhaps she needs to be spun," Lucy suggested, giggling.
"I could suggest several things she needs," Marley added darkly. 'Though I'd have to be six feet under before I'd give any of it to her."
Lucy turned crimson. Victoria didn't mind frank speech, but neither did she want her few civilized friends driven away. She rapped Marley across the knuckles with her fan. "Stop that."
"Ouch! Defending the downtrodden again, are you?" He rubbed his knuckles. "Lady Franton's more elevated than your usual charity cases."
"You're a bad influence, Marley," she said, beginning to become annoyed. She was used to the flirtations and the insults to her civic-mindedness, but her herd never seemed to come up with anything new to discuss. "I don't think I'm going to speak to you any longer."
"Hm. Bad luck for you, Marley," Lionel Parrish said. "Make way for the next fellow."
Immediately the herd began jostling for position, and Victoria wasn't quite certain whether they were joking or were utterly serious. They expected her to be flattered by the attention, but in truth, it was becoming very, very old. Being behind locked doors at Fontaine House almost seemed attractive in comparison. Almost. "I've decided to make a vow," she stated.
"Not of chastity, I hope," Lord William returned with another guffaw.
Lionel Parrish frowned through the laughter, taking a step closer to Lucy. 'This is hardly the place for that sort of talk."
"Watch your knuckles, William," Marley agreed, removing his own hands from Victoria's reach.
"My vow is just as bad for you, Lord William," Victoria retorted. Thank goodness her parents were in Lord Franton's portrait gallery admiring his new acquisitions. William's was only one of several remarks this evening that would help convince them to send her to a convent. "From now on, I intend to converse only with nice men."
Shocked looks greeted her pronouncement, until Stewart Haddington began laughing. "But who else do you know besides us scoundrels, Vixen?"
"Hmm," she mused, trying to regain her equilibrium and her sense of humor. Perhaps Marley had spun her right out of her usual self. "That is a problem. Marley, you must be acquainted with a few nice gentlemen. You knowthe ones you're always avoiding."
"Certainly I know a moldering corpse or two. But they'd bore you to tears in an instant."