What a Rogue Desires

Approximately two months after David persuaded Vivian to marry him…

<What a Rogue Desires>Vivian Beecham had never before thought herself a coward, but she was finally ready to admit defeat and name herself a trembling, craven, spineless coward. If it had been possible to effect a full and complete retreat from the coming ordeal, Vivian would have gladly tucked her tail between her legs and done whatever was asked of her to do so.

"Everything will be fine," said her new husband, breaking a silence that had grown longer and longer as the carriage rolled ever closer to his family home.

Vivian said nothing; she was too busy fighting back the taste of bile in her throat, and feared that if she opened her mouth she would cast up her breakfast all over the seat. Or rather, the half cup of tea that had been all she could swallow for breakfast. Even then she had been dreading this day. And really, what could she say in response to David's obvious lie?

"You've nothing to fear from my family," David tried again. His big, strong hand closed around her clenched fist with comforting sureness. She gripped his hand but still said nothing. Easy for him to say she had nothing to fear; he wasn't on his way to meet a duke for the first time ever. Vivian still wasn't sure if she should curtsy or bow or fall prostrate on her face at his feet. And then she would have to face two duchesses, David's sister-in-law and his stepmother, as well as David's younger sister, who was, in David's words, "wildly curious" to meet Vivian. That, Vivian thought darkly, was no doubt a nice way of saying they were utterly horrified at the prospect.

She was quite certain it was no accident none of the Reece family had come to her wedding to David two months past. Their absence hadn't disappointed her in the least—much to the contrary. If they had attended, she surely would have lost her nerve and cried off, no matter what David did to change her mind.

"Vivian, look at me." David's words had firmed almost into command. Resentfully she tore her gaze off the rolling fields and stately oaks outside the window and looked at him. "You have nothing to fear," he repeated more gently. "Do you think I would bring you here if I thought otherwise?"

She stared helplessly at his dear, handsome face for a moment. He met her gaze with calm, certain dark eyes. He knew how anxious she was, and he also knew how unfamiliar that feeling was to her. "Well, it had to happen sooner or later," she muttered. "Since you won't agree to run off to America with me."

He laughed. "I promise my family is less fearsome than any American savage, to say nothing of the voyage there. I much prefer to travel by coach than by ship." He gave her a wink of exaggerated wickedness.

In spite of herself she blushed a little. He had somehow persuaded her to let him make love to her in the carriage yesterday as they traveled. "You're such a rogue," she said.

"That I am," he agreed. "My family is already aware of it. No doubt they're waiting anxiously to see that I haven't done anything exceptionally scandalous to bring ruin on your good name."

The blood drained away from her face again, and Vivian resumed chewing her lip. "I haven't got a good name," she said. "I expect they already know that, too."

"You've got a very good name, Lady David."

Vivian was unconvinced. For two months now she hadn't let herself think much about her name and status or lack thereof. London was quiet this late in the year, and they had hardly encountered much society which might disapprove. That might be because they had hardly left David's town house—or its bedchamber—much since the quick wedding. Once she had said yes to his proposal of marriage, David hadn't wasted any time; two days later a vicar married them by special license in the drawing room, and only her brother Simon, who looked just as bowled over by events as Vivian felt, and one of David's friends had been present. And then… Vivian's head spun thinking of the long, happy days spent in the safe cocoon of David's arms. If she'd tried to dream up a happy life for herself, she couldn't possibly have matched the reality of her new life. And not just hers, but Simon's as well.

But then a week ago David had told her his brother had returned home; they were invited to Ainsley Park, the family estate, and his family wished to meet her. He said it casually, as if it were of no consequence, but that brought Vivian's bright new world crashing to a rude halt. All her reluctance to marry him had returned tenfold; she had been seduced by his assurances and promises and kisses, but Vivian was becoming more and more convinced, deep down, that their marriage would never be acceptable to his family, and that by marrying him she had cost David his best chance of reform and respectability. Who could trust a man who married a thief, after all?

"I wish we hadn't come," she confessed at last, the words bitter on her tongue. She was selfish enough not to want to give up David, not when he owned her, body, heart and soul. She wouldn't undo their marriage even if she could. But she couldn't help wishing, in bleak, selfish moments, that he had been estranged from his family. Then they could have stayed happily in London and not had to do this.

He shifted on the seat beside her. "Darling, I would never have agreed to come if I thought they wouldn't accept you into the family. But I needn't. Hannah will no doubt be on the front steps, straining her eyes to see you and welcome you. Celia may well run down the drive to greet us."

"But—but—a duke!" she whispered in agony.

<What a Rogue Desires>David smiled and cupped her cheek in one hand, drawing her face into his shoulder. "He's just my brother. Come, think of him like Simon. Only older and more imposing."

She closed her eyes and rested against him for a moment, then pushed away to sit up. "And I'm just a bastard pickpocket from the rookeries," she said quietly. "You're a liar if you say there's no difference between your brother and mine."

"Ah." His arm fell away from her shoulders. "I see I shall have to give you your gift early."

Vivian glanced at him suspiciously. What gift? He was just trying to soften her up so she'd go inside and face her demise.

But David looked more somber than that. It took him a moment to extract some folded papers from his coat pocket, and then he held them a moment more. "I hope this pleases you," he said, running his thumb over the paper.

She cleared her throat, feeling awkward as always when David grew serious. "Well, what it is? You've not gone and written me another bawdy poem, have you?"

He lifted one shoulder and a corner of his mouth crooked upward. "I thought you found it amusing…"

Vivian blushed. It had been damned amusing, and very naughty, and more than a little arousing. And she'd read it almost every night since, sometimes aloud to David and sometimes not. "Aye, a bit."

His wicked grin indicated he knew just how well she liked it, but the grin quickly faded. "No, not another poem. Nothing so original." He held out the paper.

Vivian unfolded it and leaned forward, holding it nearer the light from the window. She squinted at the handwriting that crossed the page in cobwebby lines." "What on earth…" she began, until her voice failed as she took in the names on the paper.

"I thought you would like to know," David said as she pressed one hand to her throat. "He didn't desert your family."

<What a Rogue Desires>Vivian's chin wobbled as she re-read the paper. It was a letter of commendation for one William Beecham, sergeant, from a Lord Dudley, commander of the Twenty-Second Infantry. It was dated almost twenty years ago. At the bottom someone had scrawled a curt note that no direction was known, and the letter would be filed.

Underneath that was a certificate stating that Sgt. Beecham had died in fierce fighting near Salamanca. Another page was a copy of marriage lines between Will Beecham of London and Dorothy Smythe of Dorset, wed in London.

"How…" she began, but her voice failed. She raised her eyes and just looked at him in wonder.

"I know you always wondered. It took some time to discover—I only received the final pages the morning we left—but I hope it sets your mind at ease about your family."

Vivian pressed her lips together. She had always wondered. Her mother had never spoken of her father much after he left, and Vivian barely remembered anything about him. When her mother died, leaving her and Simon orphans, more than one person had told her they were bastards, too, and she had no way of disproving it. Until now.

"Thank you," she murmured. "For Simon also."

"Being the daughter of a courageous soldier is nothing to be ashamed of."

Vivian scowled. "I'm not! No, I never was ashamed! But David—it's not the same." And then the dam burst, and her fears poured out in words for the first time. "Even if I'm not a bastard, and even if your family cares for you too much to say anything, I'll always know what everyone else really thinks! How could they not think I'm after you for your money and position? How can they not wonder why you'd throw away your life on a no-account thief who'd be dangling by the neck at this very moment if you hadn't sent a pack of solicitors off to Bow Street? How can they not worry that our children might not inherit my thieving touch and take to the streets and shame them all again? I don't want to be the dark secret in your family, David."

"Then don't be." He seized her around the waist and dragged her into his lap. Vivian made a half-hearted attempt to protest, but he held her securely against him and she succumbed, nestling in his arms with his cheek pressed to her temple. "If anyone is the black mark on the family, it's I. And my family will know all is well, and any fears they might have are utterly unfounded, when they see how happy I am with you." He raised his head and looked down at her. "And, I hope, how happy you are to be married to me. For the sake of our future children, you know."

Vivian nibbled her lip again. The papers he had given her crinkled as she clutched them a little tighter. She thought of what David had done for her: he had persuaded a sheriff to let her out of jail when she'd been arrested as a highwayman; he had somehow convinced Bow Street not to arrest either her or her brother again; and he had forged through what must have been a bureaucratic disaster to find the documents proving that her father and her mother had, once upon a time, been decent, honorable people. "I am happy," she told him in a halting voice. "Very happy." If he could do all that for her, surely she could survive this one fortnight with his family.

"You don't look it," he said with mock sternness. "Perhaps you'd better show me…"

And Vivian giggled in spite of herself as he bent her backwards and began to kiss her throat.

Celia Reece watched her mother pace back and forth in front of the fireplace, her eyes flitting to the clock on the mantel every few turns, and wondered precisely what her mother feared.

"Mama, do sit down," she said at last.

<What a Rogue Desires>Her mother swung around and pressed her fingertips to her temples. "Oh, Celia, I don't know how we shall manage."

"What is there to manage?"

Rosalind pressed her fingers against her skin until her nails turned white. "What on earth was David thinking? How could he do such a thing—to us, and to that poor girl?"

"But he loves her." His letter had certainly indicated so. Marcus had read some of it aloud to them, and Celia had privately thought David's devotion sounded very romantic. She was as pleased as could be—and more than a little entertained—by the thought of her scapegrace brother falling madly in love.

"Celia." Her mother shook her head in despair. "Gentlemen do not always think so clearly about women. Is David truly in love? Or has he been persuaded to believe so by a conniving schemer who saw her great chance in him? Oh, I felt he was ill at heart when he left after Marcus's wedding, but I never dreamed he'd do something like this."

"How could she make him marry her if he didn't want to?"

At last her mother sat down beside her on the sofa, but she ignored Celia's question. "I only hope David does not come to regret this marriage," she said on a sigh. "He was always such a headstrong boy, inclined to act without thinking and only later feeling sorry for his actions."

Privately Celia thought David didn't regret half as much as her mother thought he should. She adored her brother and was usually ready to give him the benefit of the doubt, but she had seen this year how badly hurt other people could be by David's actions. Either David had not learned much from regretting his previous mishaps, or he had never felt much remorse for them in the first place.

But this was different. Whatever questionable decisions David might have made in the past, he had been truly moved by Marcus's wedding; she knew it. He would never be so callous about something like marriage—or at least not his own. Celia was confident David had finally met his match, although in a most unlikely person. Celia had overheard her mother tell Hannah that Vivian had robbed David. She wasn't quite sure she believed that, but David always had had a taste for adventure.

The door opened then and Molly, Hannah's young daughter, bounded into the room, a rag doll hanging from her hand. "Aunt Celia," she squealed, "the carriage is coming! Betty can see it from the nursery window!"

Celia laughed, catching Molly in her arms. "And why was Betty watching?"

"So we might see them arrive!" Molly wiggled free and ran to the parlor window, standing on her tiptoes to look out. "Look!" she cried again. "They are almost here!" And she ran out into the entrance hall. Celia gave her mother a helpless smile, and hurried after Molly, just as eager to see David and meet his new bride.

<What a Rogue Desires>David Reece almost wished he hadn't come. It was a crisp fall day, clear and bright, and the house looked just as David remembered it, a stately façade of limestone that glowed like fresh cream in the afternoon light. The oaks, the vast sweep of lawns, the distant lake—it was all natural and familiar to him.

But not to Vivian. Although he had done his best to distract her, she had gone quiet and pale again, her blue eyes darting back and forth to take in the whole of Ainsley Park. If she clenched her fingers any tighter, she would snap the strings of the reticule. He was quite sure she would have faced a hangman's noose with less anxiety; after all, she nearly had done.

He took a deep breath and pried apart her hands, wrapping his own fingers around hers in unspoken desperation. If it were only Vivian's wishes, David would have called the whole visit off, told the coachman to turn around and take them back to London even though they were already rolling up the long drive toward the house. But it was important. Not only did his family deserve to meet her, she deserved to meet them, and to see they weren't nearly as fearsome as she imagined. And David needed his mother's and sister-in-law's help to make his wife accepted in London. He didn't personally care for the good opinion of the narrow-minded gossips, but he also didn't want to stand trial for attempted murder if some stiff-wigged duchess snubbed Vivian in public.

When the carriage stopped, as he had expected, his family was waiting for them. David waited for the footman to open the door, giving Vivian one last moment, then stepped down, dragging her after him.

Marcus wasted no time stepping forward, as if he knew Vivian dreaded meeting him most of all. "David," he said with a welcoming grin. "Welcome home."

"And to you." He shot his brother a grateful glance and gently urged Vivian forward. "May I present my brother? Marcus, my wife Vivian."

"A very great pleasure to make your acquaintance, my dear." Marcus bowed. "May I offer my belated congratulations on your marriage?" Vivian stared at him, her face stark white, then abruptly sank into a deep curtsy.

"Thank you, sir," she whispered. That broke the spell; Hannah and Celia hurried forward to embrace Vivian, and a chatter of conversation broke out.

"Do you see now that I was right?" David whispered as he offered Vivian his arm to lead her into the house.

The look she gave him was half hopeful, half worried. "There's still time," she muttered.

David laughed softly. "As stubborn as ever." She glared. "I am glad to see it," he said softly. "That's my undaunted darling."

For two days Vivian waited, but nothing changed. David's family remained warm and welcoming, although his step-mother was so regally polite, Vivian was tongue-tied and nervous in her presence. The duke was reserved but kind, but his duchess was so friendly and openhearted, it more than made up for it. David's sister Celia was as exuberant as any young girl, and so clearly pleased to meet Vivian, it was hard not to like her. It was so unlike what she had feared.

"Are you still sorry we came?" David asked her one evening as they dressed for dinner.

Vivian turned in front of the glass, anxiously checking her appearance. The Exeter ladies were always so elegant, she felt her own simplicity and lack of fashion very keenly. "A bit," she murmured. "Is this skirt too narrow? Your sister's gown last night was very full."

"Take it off," he said.

She looked up in alarm. "Why? Is it that bad?"

He gave her a wicked smile. "No, I don't care tuppence for the cut of the skirt, but if you're unhappy with it, by all means take it off."

Vivian glared, then laughed. "Rogue."

He laughed, too. "Always. But if you won't remove the gown, shall we go to dinner?"

<What a Rogue Desires>Celia thought her new sister-in-law a true Original. Vivian had a sly wit and a keen sense of humor, for all that she was clearly nervous to be surrounded by the family. That was likely quite normal, Celia thought, imagining being thrust into a strange new family with only one familiar face. But Vivian had courage, and she adored David; Celia could see that every time Vivian looked at David, and it only made her like Vivian more. She could tell, though, that her mother did not quite share her high opinion.

"Didn't you want David to settle down and marry?" Celia finally asked one night after dinner.

Her mother exhaled through her nose. "I did. Of course I did. I simply wanted him to marry someone acceptable!" The last word was whispered with a great deal of anguish. Celia glanced across the room to where her newest sister-in-law sat by Hannah, with David behind her.

"Vivian hasn't been an embarrassment," Celia said. "I think she's quite lovely."

"She's very sweet," said Rosalind in despair. "That is not the trouble. Celia, her background—her family—David ought never to have met her."

"But he did, and he seems quite happy." David seemed happier than happy. Celia had never known him so good-spirited, which said a lot. She had also never known him so content with his life. Her mother might think Celia was a sheltered, proper, young lady, but her ears functioned perfectly well, and Celia was well aware that her brother had been one of the most disreputable and scandalous people in England.

And now he wasn't. Celia supposed he still had his old deviltry in him, but now it sprang out more in defense of his wife, or to amuse her.

"That must be enough, I suppose." Her mother turned to her with a determined smile and rested her hands on Celia's shoulders. "But you… You, my child, shall make a brilliant marriage. I do so want to see you blissfully settled."

Celia smiled back. She also wanted to be blissfully married. Next spring would be her first Season in London, her presentation at court, her entrance into society. The mere thought of all she would experience filled her with a quiet, bubbling excitement.

"There is only one solution," declared Rosalind, her voice firming. "We must make Vivian the Incomparable of the Season. We must gather her into the bosom of the family and mark her as our own from the very beginning. With Marcus's approval and my support, no one would dare speak ill of her."

"Oh, yes!" said Celia in delight. "We must spoil her roundly, just as we did Hannah."

Rosalind drew herself up as if girding for battle. She raised her chin. "Yes. That is exactly what we shall do. Then there can be no scandal. Yes, that is what we shall do." She squeezed Celia's hand and then hurried from the room, no doubt to start planning.

Celia got up and strolled about the room. Vivian was laughing with Hannah, her face bright with shy delight. Molly played at their feet, chattering to her doll and helping it drink tea from a tiny cup. For years, ever since her father died, life at Ainsley Park had been quiet. Most of the year it had been only Celia and her mother, with occasional visits from her brothers and sometimes their friends. Mama had thrown dinners and parties, and Celia had never felt isolated, but tonight it was different; it was family. She felt a foolish happiness to see the family growing, and to think of how it might grow in years to come with her brothers' children and even, someday, her own.

"So, Celia." David folded his arms and grinned at her as she reached his side. "You're the only one left unmarried now."

She laughed. "Don't say it like that, as if I am an unwanted hat on the shelf! I've not even had my Season yet!"

He pulled a face. "Might as well spare your mother the trouble—you do know how she despises shopping and parties and all that nonsense. Just take Percy and be done with it. He could be had for a pretty smile."

<What a Rogue Desires>Celia's mouth fell open in outraged horror. "Mr. Percy! Never! David, he's such a scoundrel—" He threw back his head and laughed. She smacked his shoulder. "Wretched, wretched man. I shan't give up my Season, certainly not to marry any of your disreputable friends. I intend to follow your good example—for once!—and fall madly, passionately in love. And you know Mama will settle for nothing less than a grand time of it in London, with a ball at Exeter House and every other sort of diversion." She smiled just thinking about it.

"I'm sure you will, Celia," he said. "But sometimes what you most want comes from the least expected person."

"That sounds like a fine tale," she said in delight. "Go on." That was always the way things were with David, unpredictable and unexpected.

"Don't sell poor Percy short," David said with a soft tsk. "If you wish to follow my example, I promise you cannot begin to imagine where your true happiness will lie."

She sniffed. "I am certain Mr. Percy will not be involved."

David laughed again, his eyes turning once more toward his new wife. "Perhaps not, but one never knows. When you're a bit older and wiser, my dear, you'll understand what I mean."