“Do you think she is telling him about Lillian?” Daisy asked Evie.
“I hope so.”
“Oh, he must handle the matter discreetly,” Daisy said with a groan. “Any hint of confrontation, and Lillian will turn mulish.”
“I imagine that Mr. Hunt will be very circumspect. He’s known as a very effective negotiator in business matters, isn’t he?”
“You’re right,” Daisy replied, feeling marginally better. “And he’s accustomed to dealing with Annabelle, who has a rather fiery temperament herself.” As they conversed, Daisy couldn’t help noticing the odd phenomenon that happened whenever she and Evie were alone…Evie seemed to relax, and her stutter all but vanished.
Evie leaned forward, unselfconsciously graceful as she leaned her chin in the shallow cup of her hand and propped her elbow on the table. “What do you think is going on between them? Lillian and Lord Westcliff, I mean.”
Daisy smiled ruefully, feeling a twinge of concern for her sister. “I think it frightened my sister yesterday to realize that she might find Lord Westcliff attractive. And she doesn’t react well to being frightened—it usually makes her go off full-tilt and do something reckless. Hence her determination to go and kill herself on horseback today.”
“But why would that frighten her?” Puzzlement colored Evie’s expression. “I should think it would please Lillian to attract the notice of someone like the earl.”
“Not when she knows that they would be at constant loggerheads with one another if anything were to come of it. And Lillian has no desire to be crushed by a man as powerful as Westcliff.” Daisy sighed heavily. “I wouldn’t want that for her either.”
Evie nodded in reluctant agreement. “I …I suppose the earl would find it difficult to tolerate Lillian’s colorful nature.”
“Rather,” Daisy said with a droll smile. “Evie, dear…I suppose it’s tasteless of me to draw attention to it, but in the past minute your stammer has disappeared.”
The red-haired girl tucked a shy smile in the concealment of her palm, and glanced at Daisy from beneath a sweep of auburn lashes. “I’m always much better when I’m away from home…away from my family. And it helps if I remember to talk slowly, and think about what I’m going to say. But I’m worse when I’m tired, or when I have to speak to str-strangers. There’s nothing more terrifying to me than going to a ball and facing a room full of people I don’t know.”
“Dear,” Daisy said softly, “the next time you face a room full of strangers…you might tell yourself that some of them are just friends waiting to be found.”
The morning was fresh and misty as riders congregated before the stables. There were approximately fifteen men, and two other women besides Lillian. The men were dressed in dark coats, breeches that ranged from fawn to mustard, and top boots. The women wore habits that were fitted closely to the waist, trimmed with braid, and finished with voluminous asymmetrical skirts that were buttoned on one side. Servants and stable boys moved among the crowd, bringing out horses and helping the riders to mount at one of three mounting blocks. Some guests had elected to bring their own horses, while others made use of the renowned stock of the Marsden stables. Although she had toured the stables on a previous visit, Lillian was struck anew by the beauty of the well-tended thoroughbreds that were led out to the waiting guests.
Lillian stood beside one of the mounting blocks in the company of Mr. Winstanley, an auburn-haired young man with attractive features but a weak chin, and two other gentlemen, Lord Hew and Lord Bazeley, who chatted amiably as they waited for their mounts to be brought around. Having little interest in the conversation, Lillian let her gaze wander idly around the scene until she saw Westcliff’s lean form striding across the stable courtyard. His coat, though neatly tailored, had been abused by many wearings, and the leather of his top boots had been worn into butter-soft leniency.
Unwanted memories jolted her heart into a rapid rhythm. Her ears burned as she suddenly recalled his silky-rough whisper…I want to kiss you everywhere…Aware of uneasy stirrings within herself, she watched Westcliff approach a horse that had already been led out…an animal that Lillian remembered having seen before. The horse, named Brutus, was mentioned in nearly any conversation about equine matters. There was no hunter currently more admired in England than Brutus, a magnificent dark bay with an intelligent, workmanlike disposition. The bay’s girth was deep, and his shoulders were muscular and heavily sloped, allowing him to travel easily over rough terrain and jump with remarkable proficiency. On the ground, Brutus had the discipline of a soldier…in the air, however, he soared as if he had wings.
“They say that with Brutus, Westcliff needs no second horse,” remarked one of the guests.
Lillian, who stood at the mounting block, glanced at the speaker curiously. “What does that mean?”
The auburn-haired man smiled a bit incredulously, as though it were something everyone should know. “On a hunting day,” he explained, “one usually rides his first horse in the morning, and then changes to a fresh replacement horse in the afternoon. But it seems that Brutus has the stamina and endurance of two horses.”
“Like his owner,” one of the others remarked, and they all chuckled.
Glancing around the scene, Lillian saw that Westcliff was involved in a conversation with Simon Hunt, who was quietly relating something that had caused a slight frown to appear on the earl’s face. Standing beside his master, Brutus shifted and nuzzled the earl with rough affection, calming as Westcliff reached out to rub his nose.
Lillian was distracted as a stable boy, one of the ones who had engaged in the rounders game yesterday, brought a sleek gray to the mounting block. The boy winked conspiratorially at Lillian as she ascended to the top step. Winking back, she waited as the stable boy checked the tightness of the girth and the balance strap of the detested sidesaddle. Assessing the horse with an approving gaze, she noted that the gray was compact and refined, with flawless conformation and a look of lively intelligence. He was no more than thirteen hands high…a perfect lady’s horse.
“What is his name?” Lillian asked. At the sound of her voice, one of the horse’s ears pivoted toward her attentively.
“Starlight, miss. You’ll do well with him—he’s the best-mannered horse in the stables, next to Brutus.”
Lillian patted the horse’s silky neck. “You look like a gentleman, Starlight. I wish I could ride you properly instead of bothering with a silly old sidesaddle.”
The gray inclined his head to glance at her with reassuring calmness.
“Milord made a point of telling me that if you were to ride, miss, you should be given Starlight,” the stable boy said, seeming impressed by the fact that Westcliff himself had condescended to choose a mount for her.
“How kind,” Lillian muttered, slipping her foot into the stirrup and hoisting herself lightly onto the three-pommeled saddle. She tried to sit squarely, with most of her weight carried on her right thigh and right seat bone. Her right leg hooked around a pommel with the toe pointing downward, while her left leg hung naturally in the stirrup. It was not uncomfortable at the moment, though Lillian knew that in a while her legs would ache from the unaccustomed position. Still, as she took the reins and leaned over to pat Starlight once more, she felt a thrill of enjoyment. She loved to ride, and this horse was superior to any in her family’s stables.
“Er…miss…” the stable boy said in a low tone, and bashfully indicated her skirts, which were still buttoned. Now that Lillian was mounted, a good portion of her left leg was displayed.
“Thank you,” she said, unfastening the large button at her hip to let the skirts drop over her leg. Satisfied that everything was as it should be, she gently urged the horse away from the mounting block, and Starlight responded immediately, sensitive to the slightest pressure of her boot heel.
Joining a group of riders who were heading toward the forest, Lillian felt a rush of anticipation at the thought of the jumping course. Twelve jumps in all, she had heard, all cleverly arranged on a track that wound through forest and field. It was a challenge that she was certain she could master. Even with the sidesaddle, she had a firm seat, her thigh snug against the curved leaping horn that would assist her balance. And the gray was a marvelously well-trained horse, spirited but obedient as he broke easily from a trot into a smooth gallop.
As Lillian neared the beginning of the course, she saw the first jump, a triangular coop that looked to be about two feet high and six feet across. “That will pose no problem for us, will it, Starlight?” she murmured to the horse. Slowing to a walk, they went toward the group of waiting riders. Before she reached them, however, she became aware of a rider coming up beside her. It was Westcliff, seated on the dark bay, riding with an ease and economy of movement that caused the downy hairs on her arms and the back of her neck to prickle, as it did whenever she saw a feat performed with stunning perfection. She had to admit, the earl cut a dashing figure on a horse.
Unlike the other gentlemen present, Westcliff wore no riding gloves. Remembering the gentle scrape of his callused fingers on her skin, Lillian swallowed hard and avoided the sight of his hands on the reins. One cautious glance at his face revealed that he was definitely displeased about something …the space between his dark brows was notched, and his jaw had hardened into an obdurate line.
Lillian summoned a carefree smile. “Good morning, my lord.”
“Good morning,” came his quiet reply. He seemed to consider his words carefully before he continued. “Are you pleased with your mount?”
“Yes, he is splendid. It seems that I have you to thank for choosing him.”
Westcliff’s mouth twisted slightly, as if the issue was of no consequence. “Miss Bowman…it has come to my attention that you are not experienced at riding sidesaddle.”
Her smile vanished from lips that suddenly felt frozen. Recalling that Simon Hunt had been speaking to West-cliff just a minute earlier, Lillian realized with a stab of annoyance that Annabelle must have set this in motion. Damn her for interfering, she thought, and scowled. “I’ll manage,” she said tersely. “Think nothing of it.”
“I’m afraid that I can’t allow one of my guests to compromise her own safety.”
Lillian watched her own gloved fingers tighten on the reins. “Westcliff, I can ride as well as anyone else here. And regardless of what you may have been told, I am not entirely unfamiliar with a sidesaddle. So if you will just leave me alone—”
“If I had been informed of this earlier, I might have found the time to take you around the course and judge your level of competence. As things stand, however, it’s too late.”
She absorbed his words, the firmness of his tone, the air of authority that rankled deeply. “You’re telling me that I can’t ride today?”
Westcliff held her gaze steadily. “Not on the jumping course. You are welcome to ride anywhere else on the estate. If you wish, I will assess your skills later in the week, and you might have another opportunity. Today, however, I can’t allow it.”
Unaccustomed to anyone telling her what she could and could not do, Lillian bit back a flood of offended accusations. Instead she managed to reply with tightly leashed calmness. “Your regard for my welfare is appreciated, my lord. But I would like to suggest a compromise. Watch me on the first two or three jumps, and if I don’t seem to be managing them well, I’ll abide by your decision.”
“I don’t compromise on issues of safety,” Westcliff said. “You’ll abide by my decision now, Miss Bowman.”
He was being unfair. He was forbidding her to do something merely to display his power over her. Struggling to control her fury, Lillian felt the muscles around her mouth twitching. To her everlasting chagrin, she lost the battle with her temper.
“I can manage the jumps,” she told him grimly. “I’ll prove it to you.”
Before Westcliff could react, Lillian dug her heel into Starlight’s side and leaned over the saddle, her weight shifting to accommodate his sudden leap forward. The horse rallied at once, taking off at a full gallop. Clenching her thighs around the sidesaddle’s pommels, Lillian felt her position weaken, her body pivoting as a result of what she was later to learn had been a “grip seat” that was a bit too tight. Gamely she adjusted the change in her hips’ orientation just as Starlight approached the jump. She felt the rise of his forelegs and the tremendous force of his hindquarters pushing from the ground, giving her the momentary exhilaration of flying over the triangular barrier. As they landed, however, she had to fight for her seat, taking most of the impact on her right thigh and causing an unpleasant stinging pull. Still, she had done it, and very credibly.
Bringing the horse around with a triumphant smile, Lillian was aware of the surprised gazes of the assembled riders, who were no doubt wondering what had prompted the impulsive jump. All of a sudden she was startled by a blur of dark color beside her and a thunder of hooves. Confused, she had no opportunity to protest or defend herself as she was literally snatched from the saddle and thrown across a brutally hard surface. Dangling helplessly across Westcliff’s rock-solid thighs, she was carried several yards away before he stopped the horse, dismounted, and dragged her to the ground with him. Her shoulders were caught in a bruising grip, and Westcliff’s livid face was just inches from her own.
“Did you think to convince me of something with that asinine display?” he growled, giving her a brief shake. “The use of my horses is a privilege that I extend to my guests—a privilege you have just lost. From now on, don’t even think of setting so much as a foot in the stables, or I will personally boot you off the estate.”
White-faced with a rage that matched his, Lillian answered in a low, shaking voice. “Take your hands off me, you son of a bitch.” To her satisfaction, she saw his eyes narrow at the profanity. But his painful grasp did not ease, and his breathing deepened to aggressive surges, as if he longed to do her violence. As her defiant gaze was imprisoned by his, she felt a searing charge of energy pass between them, an undirected physical impulse that made her want to strike him, hurt him, sink to the ground and roll with him in an outright brawl. No man had ever maddened her so. As they stood there glaring at each other, bristling with hostility, the heat between them increased until they were both flushed and quickened. Neither of them was aware of the congregation of dumbfounded onlookers in the near distance— they were too enmeshed in mutual antagonism.