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Wicked in His Arms
Author: Stacy Reid

Chapter One


APRIL 1818

HERTFORDSHIRE, ENGLAND

RIVERHILL MANOR

The worst had passed.

A wracking cough jerked Viscount Bathhurst’s frame from the bed, and Lady Olivia Henrietta Sherwood—Livvie to her friends and family—reached for a washcloth and dabbed the spittle from the corner of his lips. It brought tears to her eyes to see her stepfather like this, when up until only a few months ago, he had been hale and hearty. A fall from his horse, then an attack of the heart, had rendered him thin and frail.

Livvie had worked diligently to hide her terror when she thought he’d been dying. She’d already lost one father, and she had yet to recover from the devastation. Everyone, including the servants, had anticipated the passing of the viscount with grim visages. However, he had rallied and now seemed to be on the mend.

He struggled to sit, a grimace settling on his weary but handsome face. “My dear Livvie,” he said, “we must discuss your future.”

“Please, Father, conserve your strength. I am certain now is not the time for such conversations.”

He smiled. “Nonsense, the doctors have given me a good report. I shall be well, my dear, very well indeed.”

Renewed hope blasted through her heart at his wonderful optimism. “I prayed and lit a candle for you every night for the last few weeks.”

His face softened with tenderness. “I daresay God heard your prayers, Livvie, for I can assure you my mending started several weeks ago. What shall I do without you?”

Oh no. She knew where he was going with this…

After successfully settling against the mound of pillows, he reached for her hand and clasped it gently in his. “I have written to ask my cousin, the Countess of Blade, to sponsor you into society,” he said, diving straight to the heart of her fear.

“Father, you are mending. Surely there is no haste?” She had hoped there would be no more talk of her facing the cruelty of London’s society again. After her dismal and harsh reception three years ago, she had made a vow to be true to her own heart, and she would follow it. And her heart was not intent on wading through the fierce and delicate waters of high society to find a husband, at least not until she had her own money. She would not be persuaded to select a gentleman simply because he had over ten thousand a year.

“You are twenty-two, my dear, and close to becoming on the shelf.”

“Twenty-two isn’t decrepit,” she said softly.

He shook his head, sympathy lighting his eyes. “Because of your ghastly experience of losing your papa and then facing the vileness of society’s expectations, your mother and I have been too indulgent. We understood your aversion to another Season and the possibility of facing rumors about your father’s…unfortunate demise again. But you must learn to move past it, Livvie.”

Unfortunate demise. Such an understatement of the heartbreak she and her mother had been made to suffer. Familiar grief twisted through her.

“And I thank you for sparing me such pain, but I am not hiding from the ton, I am living a life I am truly happy with.”

His fingers stroked over her knuckles in a soothing caress, but his lips remained firm. “Though we had the best intentions, we did you a disservice having you here at Riverhills running wild, fishing, swimming in the lake at all odd hours, selling your paintings when you should have been in Town, attaining enough social polish to land yourself a well-heeled gentleman.”

A well-heeled gentleman? “Father—”

“Come, Livvie, surely you expect to be married someday?” He said it gently, but there was steel underlying his tone.

“Eventually…if I develop an attachment to someone.”

“Many people have formed comfortable and lasting attachments without the finer sentiments guiding them. I wish I could grant you your desire to remain unmarried. I dearly wish I could leave more for my daughters if I should perish.” His eyes darkened. “I wish for many things, my dear.”

She knew for what he wished. That the law made it fit for him to leave more than five hundred pounds per year to his wife, Lady Helena, and one hundred pounds to Livvie and her younger sister, Ophelia. They were not to benefit from or partake in any of the houses and monies the viscount owned, for everything was entailed and belonged to William—her stepfather’s son and heir.

There was a modest cottage in Derbyshire, which was not entailed, and she, her mother, and her sister were to move there when Father died. With the income they had, and if they practiced economy, her family should have a comfortable life, though not a wealthy one. “Father, please, I do not need a husband. I—”

He patted her hand. “Hush, now. Do not let this old man worry about you, Livvie. You’ve been independent for far too long and it’s time for you to have another Season to secure a husband.”

Her stomach knotted. The idea of wading through the painful gossips again was unbearable. Worse, there was a dreadful scandal in her past. The stain of her real father, Lord Harcourt, killing himself was never to be overcome, even if years had passed since the tragedy.

Her papa’s cowardly actions had sullied Livvie’s character, as surely as if she had been the one with the gambling debts and a mistress he had found impossible to live without. It indicated a weakness of character that she might pass on to her sons.

“Once a woman marries, she is at the mercy of her husband. She has no rights of her own. I…I…will have no rights. Everything I love to do will be curtailed. I would very much appreciate a gentleman who would let me be, but I do not think there is such a man.”

Her father grimaced. “I never thought you a romantic, my dear.”

“I simply do not want to make myself dependent on a man unless I would derive some benefit.”

Her mother had faced the mountain of debts her first husband had incurred. The creditors had taken everything that was not entailed or entrusted, and almost all the fixtures and fittings in their home had been sold to pay bills. If not for the benevolence of the viscount, Livvie was unsure how her mother would have fared.

The hardships and endurances of those months after Papa’s death had been unpleasant. After being turned out of their home within weeks, as Papa’s heir claimed his inheritance, they had lived in a small well-kept house at the generosity of Cousin Iphigenia. And while they had been able to retain a cook and a housekeeper, they had to make do with no other servants. There had been days when food had been hard to procure, and even their housekeeper had eventually departed because Mother had been unable to pay her wages. That winter had been the coldest Livvie had ever experienced, and she had learned then to hate weeping…for it was all her mother had done for months.

A few weeks ago, Livvie had been appalled to see her mother planning for the viscount’s death by simply trying to prepare her to find a husband. It infuriated Livvie that her mother had never considered they could manage themselves.

“Livvie, are houses, carriages, servants, and money not beneficial comforts?” her stepfather demanded, pulling her from the dark memories.

“Those are the things I can buy with my own money, which I am determined to earn. I have sold seven paintings, and I have put aside a tidy sum. The only things I want from a husband are the things I cannot get with money—acceptance and love,” she said frankly. She accepted that might never happen because of her supposedly wild, independent ways, including the stain of a weak nature. She would not pine away hoping for some gentleman to find her virtuous and honorable when there was nothing wrong with her.

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