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An Excerpt From

HIS FORBIDDEN KISS

(In the dark of the night and on the foggy bank of the river Thames, solicitor Robert Harding comes upon a young woman. Fearing that Vivienne Burroughs is about to take her own life, he comes to her rescue, only to discover that was not Vivienne's intention at all. But Vivienne does have a problem....)



As she entered the tavern, Vivienne's eyes stung from the sudden assault of smoke. She blinked and squinted as she tried to distinguish the shapes barely illuminated by cheap candles. Some were men sitting at tables, hunched over their drinks. Dogs wandered about, sniffing and snuffling along the floor. One or two people moved swiftly, by their curved bodies serving wenches.

"This way," her companion muttered, taking her hand and leading her through the maze of benches, scarred wooden tables and drunken patrons.

She could see better now, yet wished she couldn't at the sight of the filthy, curious or leering faces. They made Sir Philip's lustful looks seem the height of propriety.

Her companion ignored them all as he made his way through this place as if he were the king of it, or as if he were oblivious to anything but the object of his quest, the empty table at the far end of the room.

When they reached it, he gestured for her to sit on the rough wooden bench nearest the wall. "This is as much privacy as a tavern such as this safely affords," he said.

He waited until she had settled herself before sitting opposite her. Although she could see the rest of his face better now, the single candle burning feebly in its holder on the table did not do much to light his dark eyes.

"What is your name?" she asked.

"If I am to give you legal advice though I am not in your pay, I think it would be best if I do so anonymously," he said, sounding very businesslike -- or like an attorney, she supposed. "Nor should you tell me your name, or that of any of the parties involved."

A serving wench appeared at the man's elbow. She ran a curious gaze over Vivienne, then grinned. "Been a long time, my buck."

Vivienne stiffened.

"The courts not keepin' you busy enough?"

She breathed again.

"He's somethin', ain't he?" the woman continued, grinning at Vivienne. "Brains in that handsome head o' his and shoulders on him, eh? Not too many solicitors from this part o' the city, but he done it."

"Polly," the solicitor said evenly, turning to look at her and giving Vivienne a better view of his remarkably fine profile, "this is business. Wine, if you please. Your finest, and not watered down," he added.

"Nothin' but the best for you, o' course!" the wench said. She laughed and displayed black teeth as she winked at the lawyer. "She's a beauty, I must say. And business is it? I'll wager it is! There's a room upstairs for your business, if you like."

Vivienne flushed hotly. "I am not a harlot!"

"No?" the woman replied with a hint of amusement. She addressed the man. "Jack said you give that up, but I didn't believe him. Guess he was right, after all."

"Polly, just fetch the wine," the man replied in a low voice.

"Aye, I will," she replied, still chuckling as she sauntered away, hips swaying.

"She is a friend of yours?" Vivienne inquired coldly, all the heat of shame at being thought a harlot gone as she wondered what kind of man was sitting across from her.

His brows contracted and suddenly he reminded her of a painting of the god Mars she had seen once.

Dread again threaded down her spine and she searched through the smoke for the door. She wished she had not taken him up on his offer, even if he really was an attorney.

She splayed her hands on the table and began to rise. "I think I have made a mistake --"

He covered her right hand with his. "Lawyers are not born lawyers," he said softly, his sincere gaze searching her face. "I know Polly because I grew up not far from here."

"Yet you would have me believe you are a solicitor? How do I know you are not in league with that woman, that this is not some ruse?"

"To what avail?"

"To rob me, or worse. First you gain my confidence, then you bring me to your lair and --"

To her astonishment, he laughed, a low, deep sound that seemed sad, somehow, too. "My lair? I assure you, madam, the only lair I possess are chambers near Chancery Lane." He sobered, and regarded her with more respect than ever Uncle Elias or Sir Philip had. "I see I was quite wrong to think you were foolishly naive."

"I told you, I am not a fool."

"Just desperate."

Vivienne sat down. "Yes."

The serving wench returned with the wine. As she set down two pewter mugs, she gave Vivienne a warm smile. "Whatever you're up to, take care of him, won't you, m'dear? He's a good friend to me and mine. Sees to all the legal troubles for lots of folks'd be taken advantage of otherwise."

Vivienne didn't respond as her companion paid for the wine. "Thank you, Polly."

Mercifully, an impatient customer shouted drunkenly for more ale, causing the woman to hurry away.

"What did she mean?"

"She means, I often give advice. Now, about your problem," he replied, once more the cool, efficient advisor. "When is the wedding to be?"

"The arrangements have not reached that stage yet."

One of his eyebrows rose questioningly.

"But they will," she affirmed. "My suitor," she said, her tone sarcastic in the extreme, "has apparently made his intentions clear."

"Apparently?"

"To my uncle, not to me. Indeed, they both act as if I have nothing to do with the marriage at all, except be there in body."

"Your uncle is your legal guardian?"

She nodded. "My parents died five years ago. I came to live with my uncle then."

"It could be that your uncle and your suitor consider the business side of a marriage not of interest to a young woman."

"It is not the 'business side of a marriage,' as you call it, that I object to." Vivienne leaned forward, more into the light, trying to see him better. To see his eyes. "It's the groom. I don't love him, and he doesn't love me. He doesn't even like me, except that he would like me in his bed."

The very notion of making love with Philip made Vivienne shiver with disgust. She couldn't even imagine kissing him on the lips.

Kissing this man, however...suddenly it was very easy to imagine pressing her lips to his, their breath mingling, his powerful arms tightening about her...

She forced that image out of her mind. "Unfortunately, my uncle sees marriage only as a business proposition. I am the object to be sold, and my suitor has the appropriate payment."

"What is the payment?"

"A title." Vivienne wrapped her hand around the cold pewter mug. "The man my uncle wants me to marry is a nobleman."

The lawyer's eyebrows rose and she could finally see that his eyes were as brown as his hair. "You are not titled?"

"No, I am not," she replied, a little flattered by his surprise. "Nor is my uncle, or any of my family."

"You do not want a titled husband?"

She sighed with exasperation. "If I loved him, a title would be a charming addition. However, I do not love him, so if he were the king himself, I would not want to marry him."

"That is a very unusual attitude."

"Perhaps, but it is mine. My uncle doesn't care at all about my happiness. You see, if we wed, my uncle gets a title in the family and an introduction to the court, which he can use to his advantage in business. He does not think of me at all."

"Is the bridegroom ignorant of your true feelings?"

"Even if he were the greatest fool in England, he could not be. I have given him no encouragement at all. Unfortunately, my uncle is well-to-do, and the groom, for all his breeding, is not overly wealthy. I will be my proposed spouse's way to regain a squandered fortune."

"Did he squander it?"

"No. Not even a title would overcome that deficiency in my uncle's eyes. My suitor plays the much-put-upon heir to perfection."

"Are there other objections?"

She ran her finger around the rough edge of the mug, then raised her eyes to look at her companion. "Need there be more? My parents loved each other and they were very happy. I want to marry for love, too, not gain or social position."

"I gather your uncle does not consider your reason sufficient impediment?"

"No. He will not listen to me at all."

The solicitor leaned back and regarded her thoughtfully. "Then what you need to do is changehis mind about your suitor. Search out those things most likely to upset your uncle, not you. Debts he has kept secret, for example, or liabilities he has not spoken of."

At once Vivienne saw the wisdom of his advice, and realized she had been trying to discourage her uncle in the wrong way.

He was a man of business, and it was business, not emotion that he understood best.

"Or..." the lawyer began. Then he hesitated.

"Or?" she queried, wondering what else he could suggest.

He shifted forward, bringing more of his face into the candlelight.

She had never seen lips like his, full and yet with no hint of softness about them. They were undeniably masculine. Virile. And incredibly alluring, so tempting she could scarcely attend to his next words, which were spoken softly, in a low, confidential whisper. "Has your would-be groom ever behaved improperly toward you?"

"Only by persisting in his suit."

"He has not tried to seduce you?"

If Philip had used that tone of voice, and looked at her with such intense, dark eyes, and possessed such lips, she might have been tempted.

"Forgive the personal nature of my questions, but has he behaved improperly toward you?" her companion repeated.

Vivienne forced herself to concentrate and answer him. "Thankfully, no."

He looked relieved a moment, before his face assumed its usual serious demeanor. "Is there nothing else you can say against him? Does he gamble? Drink to excess? Wench?"

She shook her head. "I have heard nothing of any indulgence in serious vices."

"Then I must say you have very little with which to condemn him as unworthy."

"I will not marry without love," she reiterated.

"And obviously, you are so adamant about this, you will risk your life."

"Yes."

He took a sip of wine, then very slowly and deliberately set down his mug and raised his eyes to regard her steadily. "Then my advice is, go home."

"But --!"

"Allow me to finish," he commanded, and in such a tone, she did. "Return to your home and find ways to delay the proceedings."

"Delay?"

"Yes, and while you do, try to find out all you can about the proposed groom."

"I don't want to know more about him," she murmured, realizing she would much rather know more about the man facing her.

"It is your best chance. Every man has something to hide."

"Even you?" she blurted.

"We are not discussing me."

She flushed hotly. "I'm sorry. How am I to do discover such things?"

He immediately continued as if she had not made her impetuous remark. "There is always gossip," he said, and she thought his jaw clenched a bit. "You must find something to make the groom less appealing to your uncle."

"Yes, I understand."

"If things progress to the point of discussing a marriage settlement, there can be many questions and items to dispute during the negotiation of that legal document that will provide extra time for your investigation, as well."

"I understand," she said, nodding. Then she frowned. "I am ignorant of the law. How would I know what to query?"

"Query everything and anything. Ask all the questions you can possibly think of. If I guess aright, at least a few will give your uncle pause. He may begin to ask other questions, or doubt some of the language of the contract. I assume he will want it all to his advantage, or as much as possible."

"He will." She toyed with her mug. "He may tell me such things are none of my concern."

"He may not if he is pleased by your interest."

"I can try," she conceded.

He looked around the tavern, and Vivienne realized it wasn't as crowded as before. "The hour grows late," he observed. "You must go home, and you must not think of running away again. Although now you think your family is being most unreasonable and even cruel, I'm sure they would be very distressed if anything were to happen to you."

"I am not so certain."

He reached out and cupped her chin in his long, lean fingers. His dark eyes seemed to be full of sorrow, a sadness that made her own heart ache, although she could not say why. "Trust me, they would."

He let go of her, and got to his feet.

This place stank worse than a abattoir, but she didn't want to leave. Not yet.

"Have you ever participated in a marriage where a woman was obviously not willing?" she asked, making no move to go. "Or the groom?"

"No, although I have seen many where affection appeared to play little part in the planning."

"To be in such a marriage must be a miserable existence."

He held out his hand, obviously expecting her to take it, and stand. "They seem able to cope."

"Yes, by taking lovers or gambling or drowning in drink," she said, still delaying. "As I said, I do not wish to live that way. I want to have the kind of marriage my parents had, a marriage based on love."

"They were fortunate."

"And your parents?"

"I never knew them," he said coldly.

He was shutting her out. For whatever reason, he had decided the conversation was concluded.

Reluctantly, she placed her gloved hand in his bare one and rose, noting the stains of ink on his right hand. Could he not even afford a clerk? she wondered as she reluctantly let him lead her from the tavern.

"We are in luck," he observed as a hackney coach lumbered toward them.

She did not think so. She would think herself lucky if they had to walk back to her uncle's house together.

He raised his hand and the hackney rolled to a stop beside them. As it did, he reached into his jacket and pulled out his purse.

"There is no need for you to pay for the coach," she said. "I have money."

"I cannot allow that."

"I thank you for your generosity, sir, but truly, I would be ashamed to be any more indebted to you."

"You owe me nothing."

"I owe you a possible path out of my predicament."

"I will pay for the coach," he said as coldly as if they had not just spoken for all that time in the tavern. As if he had not come to her aid. As if he had not tried to save her life, whether from a watery grave or an abhorrent marriage.

"May I truly not know who has been so kind and generous to me, and given me such sage advice?" she asked softly.

"No."

"There must be a way I can thank you."

"Your words are enough."

"I think not."

"I am glad I could be of service to a woman in distress."

He smiled, and she realized just how handsome he was, as handsome as any man she had ever seen.

And he was certainly kinder than most.

"The coachman is waiting," he whispered.

"Yes," she murmured, her heart thrumming with an emotion she had never felt before.

She didn't move. She wanted to express her gratitude, and mere words seemed pale and insufficient.

With a different sense of desperation, she suddenly pulled him close and kissed him.

Not on the cheeks, as anyone might do in parting, but full on the lips, leaning into him. Passion and desire flared within her at the touch on his lips on hers. The sensation reached into her body and demanded more -- more fervent excitement, more passion, more communion.

She had never kissed before, nor had she ever imagined that the melding of mouth to mouth could be so intoxicating.

His embrace tightened about her and his mouth moved over hers with equal passion. Insistent need exploded within her when his tongue pushed against her lips. She eagerly parted them and let him enter, as willing and full of fire as he.

Sweet heaven, she didn't want to stop kissing him. She only wanted more.

He held her so close, she could hear his heart beating -- or was that her own?

"'Ere, enough o' that. Are you going to get in or not?" the coachman grumbled.

The lawyer abruptly stopped kissing her and stepped back.

She almost moaned with dismay.

"She will tell you where you are to take her," he said.

He sounded so calm, while her heart hammered and her blood throbbed and every sense seemed more alive. Then she saw that his face was flushed.

He pressed his purse into her hand. "That should be enough," he murmured. "Farewell, and Godspeed."

With that, he turned on his heel and disappeared into the fog like some sort of phantom.

She might have doubted he had existed at all, except that she could still feel his hot kiss on her swollen lips.

She had behaved like an utter wanton, kissing him like that. She should be ashamed of herself, and sorry.

But she was not.

She only regretted that she did not know his name or have any idea how she could meet him again.

And she wanted to. She most definitely wanted to.


This is the final book in Margaret's Restoration series.
The other books are A SCOUNDREL'S KISS and A ROGUE'S EMBRACE.
All are available in ebook format.


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2001 by Margaret Wilkins