“Nothing. Absolutely nothing,” Daisy said glumly, wandering from the dining hall with Lillian and Evie. “I was seated between two gentlemen who couldn’t have taken less interest in me. Either the perfume is a sham, or both of them are anosmic.”
Evie gave her a blank look. “I…I’m afraid I’m not f-familiar with that word…”
“You would be if your father owned a soap company,” Lillian said dryly. “It means that one has no sense of smell.”
“Oh. Then my dinner p-partners must also have been anosmic. Because neither of them noticed me either. What about you, Lillian?”
“The same,” Lillian replied, feeling both confounded and frustrated. “I suppose the perfume doesn’t work after all. But I was so certain that it had an effect on Lord Westcliff…”
“Had you ever stood so close to him before?” Daisy asked.
“Of course not!”
“Then my guess is that simple proximity to you made him lose his head.”
“Oh, well, obviously,” Lillian said with self-deprecating sarcasm. “I’m a world-renowned temptress.”
Daisy laughed. “I wouldn’t discount your charms, dear. In my opinion, Lord Westcliff has always—”
But that particular opinion would forever go unheard, for as they reached the entrance hall, the three girls caught sight of Lord Westcliff himself. Leaning one shoulder against a column in a relaxed pose, he cut a commanding figure. Everything about him, from the arrogant tilt of his head to the physical confidence of his posture, bespoke the result of generations of aristocratic breeding. Lillian experienced an overpowering urge to sneak up to him and poke him in some ticklish place. She would have loved to make him roar with annoyance.
His head turned, and his gaze swept the three girls with polite interest before settling on Lillian. Then the look in his eyes became far less polite, and the interest took on a vaguely predatory quality that caused Lillian’s breath to catch. She couldn’t help remembering the feel of the hard-muscled body that was concealed beneath the impeccably tailored black broadcloth suit.
“He’s t-terrifying,” she heard Evie breathe, and Lillian glanced at her with sudden amusement.
“He’s just a man, dear. I’m sure he orders his servants to help him put his trousers on one leg at a time, like everyone else.”
Daisy laughed at her irreverence, while Evie looked scandalized.
To Lillian’s surprise, Westcliff pushed away from the column and approached them. “Good evening, ladies. I hope you enjoyed the supper.”
Tongue-tied, Evie could only nod, while Daisy responded animatedly, “It was splendid, my lord.”
“Good.” Although he spoke to Evie and Daisy, his gaze locked on to Lillian’s face. “Miss Bowman, Miss Jenner…forgive me, but I had hoped to take your companion aside for a word in private. With your permission…”
“By all means,” Daisy replied, giving Lillian a sly smile. “Take her away, my lord. We have no use for her at the moment.”
“Thank you.” Gravely he extended his arm to Lillian. “Miss Bowman, if you would be so kind?”
Lillian took his arm, feeling oddly fragile as he led her across the hall. The silence between them was awkward and question-fraught. Westcliff had always provoked her, but now he seemed to have acquired the knack of making her feel vulnerable—and she didn’t like it at all. Stopping in the lee of a massive column, he turned to face her, and her hand dropped away from his arm.
His mouth and eyes were just two or three inches above her own, their bodies perfectly matched as they stood toe to toe. Her pulse became a soft, rapid tapping inside her veins, and her skin was suddenly covered in heat that presaged a burn, as if she were standing much too close to a fire. Westcliff’s thick lashes lowered slightly over midnight-dark eyes as he noticed her heightened color.
“Miss Bowman,” he murmured, “I assure you that in spite of what happened this afternoon, you have nothing to fear from me. If you have no objection, I would like to discuss it with you in a place where we won’t be disturbed.”
“Certainly,” Lillian said calmly. Meeting him somewhere alone had the uncomfortable overtones of a lovers’ tryst—which this would certainly not be. And yet she couldn’t seem to control the nervous thrills that ran up and down her spine. “Where shall we meet?”
“The morning room opens onto an orangery.”
“Yes, I know where that is.”
“Shall we meet in five minutes?”
“All right.” Lillian gave him a supremely unconcerned smile, as if she were quite accustomed to making clandestine arrangements. “I’ll go first.”
As she took her leave of him, she could feel his gaze on her back, and she knew somehow that he watched her every second until she was out of sight.
As Lillian walked into the orangery, she was suffused in the scent of…oranges. But lemons, bays, and myrtles also cast their fragrance extravagantly through the gently heated air. The tiled floor of the rectangular building was punctuated with iron grillwork vents that allowed the warmth of the stoves on the lower floor to waft evenly inside the room. Starlight shone through the glass ceiling and glittering windows, and illuminated the interior scaffolding that had been loaded with rows of tropical plants.
The orangery was shadowy, with only the flicker of torches outside to relieve the darkness. At the sound of a footstep, Lillian turned quickly to view the intruder. A flash of uneasiness must have revealed itself in her posture, for Westcliff made his voice low and reassuring. “It’s just me. If you would rather meet in another place—”
“No,” Lillian interrupted, mildly amused to hear one of the most powerful men in England refer to himself as “just me.” “I like the orangery. It’s my favorite place in the manor, actually.”
“Mine also,” he said, approaching her slowly. “For many reasons, not the least of which is the privacy it offers.”
“You don’t have much privacy, do you? With all the comings and goings at Stony Cross Park…”
“I manage to carve out sufficient time for solitude.”
“And what do you do, when you’re alone?” The entire situation was beginning to seem rather dreamlike, talking with Westcliff in the orangery, watching the glimmers of stray torchlight score across the harsh but elegant modeling of his face.
“I read,” came his gravelly voice. “I walk. Occasionally I swim in the river.”
She was suddenly grateful for the darkness, as the thought of his unclothed body sliding through the water caused her to flush.
Reading discomfort in her sudden silence, and mistaking the cause, Westcliff spoke gruffly. “Miss Bowman, I must apologize for what happened earlier today. I am at a loss to explain my behavior, other than to state that it was a moment of insanity that will never be repeated.”
Lillian stiffened a little at the word “insanity.” “Fine,” she said. “I accept your apology.”
“You may set your mind at ease with the knowledge that I do not find you desirable in any way whatsoever.”
“I understand. Enough said, my lord.”
“If the two of us were left alone on a deserted island, I would have absolutely no thought of approaching you.”
“I realize that,” she said shortly. “You don’t have to go on and on about it.”
“I just want to make it clear that what I did was a complete aberration. You are not the kind of woman whom I would ever be attracted to.”
“You’ve made yourself quite clear, my lord,” Lillian interrupted with a scowl, thinking that it was undoubtedly the most annoying apology she had ever received. “However…as my father always says, an honest apology comes with a price.”
Westcliff shot her an alert glance. “Price?”
The air between them crackled with challenge. “Yes, my lord. It’s no trouble for you to mouth a few words and then be done with it, is it? But if you were truly sorry for what you did, you would try to make amends.”
“All I did was kiss you,” he protested, as if she were making far too much of the incident.
“Against my will,” Lillian said significantly. She adopted an expression of wounded dignity. “Perhaps there are some women who would welcome your romantic attentions, but I am not one of them. And I am not accustomed to being grabbed and forcefully subjected to kisses that I didn’t ask for—”
“You participated,” Westcliff retorted, wearing a Hades-like grimace.
“I did not!”
“You—” Seeming to realize that it was an unproductive argument, Westcliff broke off and swore.
“But,” Lillian continued sweetly, “I might be willing to forgive and forget. If…” She paused deliberately.
“If?” he asked darkly.
“If you would do one small thing for me.”
“And that would be?”
“Merely to ask your mother to sponsor my sister and me for the coming season.”
His eyes widened in a most unflattering manner, as if the notion was outside the bounds of reason. “No.”
“She might also instruct us on a few points of British etiquette—”
“We need a sponsor,” Lillian persisted. “My sister and I won’t make headway in society without one. The countess is an influential woman, and well-respected, and her endorsement would guarantee our success. I’m certain that you could think of a way to convince her to help me—”
“Miss Bowman,” Westcliff interrupted coldly, “Queen Victoria herself could not drag a pair of savage brats like you along the path of respectability. It’s not possible. And pleasing your father is hardly enough incentive for me to put my mother through such hell as you are capable of creating.”
“I thought you might say that.” Lillian wondered if she dared follow her instincts and undertake a huge risk. Was there any chance that in spite of the wallflowers’ lack of success with their perfume experiment this evening, it was still capable of working some magic on Westcliff? If not, she was about to make a terrible fool of herself. Taking a deep breath, she stepped closer to him. “Very well—you leave me no choice. If you don’t agree to help me, Westcliff, I will tell everyone about what happened this afternoon. I daresay people will find no small amusement in the fact that the self-possessed Lord Westcliff cannot control his desire for a bumptious American girl with atrocious manners. And you won’t be able to deny it—because you never lie.”
Westcliff arched one brow, giving her a look that should have withered her on the spot. “You are overestimating your attractions, Miss Bowman.”
“Am I? Then prove it.”
Surely the feudal lords in Westcliff’s extensive ancestry had worn an expression just like this when they had disciplined rebellious peasants. “How?”
Even in her present spirit of throwing caution to the wind, Lillian had to swallow hard before answering. “I dare you to put your arms around me,” she said, “as you did earlier today. And we’ll see if you have any more luck in controlling yourself this time.”
The scorn in his gaze revealed exactly how pathetic he considered her challenge. “Miss Bowman, as it appears that I must put this plainly …I do not desire you. This afternoon was a mistake. One that will not be made again. Now if you will excuse me, I have guests to—”
Westcliff had begun to turn away, but the word caused him to swivel back to her with sudden incredulous fury. Lillian guessed that it was an accusation that had rarely, if ever, been leveled at him.
“What did you say?”
It required every inch of backbone she possessed to hold his icy gaze. “Clearly you’re afraid to touch me. You’re afraid that you might not be able to control yourself.”
Looking away from her, the earl gave a slight shake of his head, as though suspecting that he must have misunderstood her. When he glanced back, his eyes were filled with active hostility. “Miss Bowman, is it so difficult for you to comprehend that I don’t want to hold you?”
Lillian realized that he would not be making such a fuss if he was completely confident in his own ability to resist her. Encouraged by the thought, she moved nearer to him, not missing the way his entire body seemed to tense. “The issue isn’t whether you want to or not,” she replied. “It’s whether you’ll be able to let go of me once you do.”
“Incredible,” he said beneath his breath, glaring at her with rank antagonism.
Lillian held still, waiting for him to pick up the gaunt-let. As soon as he closed the remaining distance between them, her smile died away and her mouth felt oddly stiff, and her heart thumped hard at the base of her throat. One glance at his purposeful face revealed that he was going to do it. She had left him no choice but to try and prove her wrong. And if he did, she would never be able to look him in the face again. Oh, Mr. Nettle, she thought weakly, your magic perfume had better work.
Moving with infinite reluctance, Westcliff gingerly put his arms around her. The escalation of Lillian’s heartbeat seemed to drive the air from her lungs. One of his broad hands settled between her tense shoulder blades, while the other pressed at the small of her back. He touched her with undue care, as if she were made of some volatile substance. And as he brought her body gently against his, her blood turned to liquid fire. Her hands fluttered in search of a resting place until her palms grazed the back of his coat. Flattening her palms on either side of his spine, she felt the flex of hard muscle even through the layers of silk-lined broadcloth and linen.
“Is this what you were asking for?” he murmured, his low voice at her ear.
Lillian’s toes curled inside her slippers as his hot breath tickled her hairline. She responded with a wordless nod, feeling crestfallen and mortified as she realized that she had lost her gamble. Westcliff was going to show her how easy it was to release her, and then he would forever afterward subject her to ruthless mockery. “You can let me go now,” she whispered, her mouth twisting in self-derision.
But Westcliff didn’t move. His dark head dropped a little lower, and he drew in a breath that wasn’t quite steady. Lillian perceived that he was taking in the scent of her throat …absorbing it with slow but ever-increasing greed, as if he were an addict inhaling lungfuls of narcotic smoke. The perfume, she thought in bemusement. So it hadn’t been her imagination. It was working its magic again. But why did Westcliff seem to be the only man to respond to it? Why—