A silky masculine voice interrupted their silent, lethal communion, slicing skillfully through the tension. “Westcliff …you didn’t tell me that you would be providing entertainment, or I would have come out here earlier.”
“Don’t interfere, St. Vincent,” Westcliff snapped.
“Oh, I wouldn’t dream of it. I merely wanted to compliment you on the way you’re handling the situation. Very diplomatic. Suave, even.”
The gentle sarcasm caused the earl to release Lillian roughly. She staggered back a step, and was immediately caught at the waist by a pair of deft hands. Bemused, she looked up into the remarkable face of Sebastian, Lord St. Vincent, the infamous rake and seducer.
The intensifying sunlight burned off the mist and laced St. Vincent’s dark gold hair with streaks of glittering pale amber. Lillian had seen him from a distance on many occasions, but they had never been introduced, and St. Vincent had always avoided the line of wallflowers at any ball he happened to be attending. At a distance, he was a striking figure. At close range, the exotic beauty of his features was nearly immobilizing. St. Vincent had the most extraordinary eyes she had ever seen, light blue and catlike, shaded with dark lashes and surmounted by tawny brows. His features were strong but refined, his skin gleaming like bronze that had been patiently polished for hours. Contrary to Lillian’s expectations, St. Vincent looked wicked but not at all dissipated, his smile skillfully reaching through her anger and enjoining a tentative response. Such a plenitude of charm should have been illegal.
Switching his gaze to Westcliff’s set face, St. Vincent arched one brow and asked lightly, “Shall I escort the culprit back to the manor, my lord?”
The earl nodded. “Get her out of my sight,” he muttered, “before I’m moved to say something I’ll regret.”
“Go ahead and say it,” Lillian snapped.
Westcliff took a step toward her, his expression thunderous.
Hastily St. Vincent tucked Lillian behind him. “West-cliff, your guests are waiting. And although I’m certain they’re enjoying this fascinating drama, the horses are getting restless.”
The earl seemed to undergo a brief but savage battle with his self-discipline before he managed to school his features into impassivity. He jerked his head in the direction of the manor in a silent command for St. Vincent to remove Lillian from the scene.
“May I take her back on my horse?” St. Vincent inquired politely.
“No,” came Westcliff’s stony reply. “She can damned well walk to the house.”
St. Vincent motioned at once for a groom to take charge of the two abandoned horses. Giving his arm to a fuming Lillian, he gazed down at her with a twinkle in his pale eyes. “It’s the dungeons for you,” he informed her. “And I intend to personally apply the thumbscrews.”
“I would prefer torture to his company any day,” Lillian said, gathering up the long side of her skirt and buttoning it to walking length.
As they walked away, Lillian’s back stiffened at the sound of Westcliff’s voice. “You might stop by the icehouse on the way back. She needs cooling.”
Fighting to marshal his emotions into some semblance of order, Marcus stared after Lillian Bowman with a gaze that should have singed the back of her riding jacket. He usually found it easy to step back from any situation and assess it objectively. In the past few minutes, however, every vestige of self-control had exploded.
As Lillian had ridden defiantly toward the jump, Marcus had seen her momentary loss of alignment, potentially fatal on a sidesaddle, and the instant expectation that she would fall had sent him reeling. At that speed, her spine or her neck could have snapped. And he had been powerless to do anything but watch. He had been abruptly cold with dread, nauseated from it, and when the little idiot had managed to land safely, the full sum of his fear had been transformed into blazing white fury. He had made no conscious decision to approach her, but suddenly they were both on the ground, and her narrow shoulders were in his hands, and all he wanted to do was crush her in his arms in a paroxysm of relief, and kiss her, and then dismember her with his bare hands.
The fact that her safety meant so much to him was…not something that he wanted to think about.
Scowling, Marcus went to the groom who held Brutus’s reins, and took them from him. Lost in brooding contemplation, he was only dimly aware that Simon Hunt had quietly advised the guests to proceed with the jumping course without waiting for the earl to lead them.
Simon Hunt approached him on horseback, his face expressionless. “Are you going to ride?” he asked calmly.
For answer, Marcus swung up into the saddle, clicking softly as Brutus shifted beneath him. “That woman is intolerable,” he grumbled, his gaze daring Hunt to offer an opinion to the contrary.
“Did you mean to goad her into taking the jump?” Hunt asked.
“I commanded her to do the exact opposite. You must have heard me.”
“Yes, I and everyone else heard you,” Hunt said dryly. “My question pertains to your tactics, Westcliff. It’s obvious that a woman like Miss Bowman requires a softer approach than outright command. Moreover, I’ve seen you at the negotiating table, and your powers of persuasion are unmatched by anyone except perhaps Shaw. Had you chosen, you could have coaxed and flattered her to do your bidding in less than a minute. Instead you used all the subtlety of a bludgeon in the attempt to prove yourself her master.”
“I’ve never noticed your gift for hyperbole before,” Marcus muttered.
“And now,” Hunt continued evenly, “you’ve thrown her over to St. Vincent’s sympathetic care. God knows he’ll probably rob her of her virtue before they even reach the manor.”
Marcus glanced at him sharply, his smoldering ire undercut by sudden worry. “He wouldn’t.”
“She’s not his preferred style.”
Hunt laughed gently. “Does St. Vincent have a preferred style? I’ve never noticed any similarities between the objects of his pursuit, other than the fact that they are all women. Dark, fair, plump, slender …he’s remarkably unprejudiced in his affairs.”
“Damn it all to hell,” Marcus said beneath his breath, experiencing, for the first time in his life, the gnawing sting of jealousy.
Lillian concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other, when all she wanted was to head back to Westcliff and fling herself upon him in a mindless attack. “That arrogant, pompous clodpole—”
“Easy,” she heard St. Vincent murmur. “Westcliff is in a thorough temper—and I wouldn’t care to engage him in your defense. I can best him any day with a sword, but not with fists.”
“Why not?” Lillian muttered. “You’ve got a longer reach than Westcliff.”
“He’s got the most vicious right hook I’ve ever encountered. And I have an unfortunate habit of trying to shield my face—which frequently leaves me open for gut punches.”
The unashamed conceit behind the statement drew a reluctant laugh from Lillian. As the heat of anger faded, she reflected that with a face like his, one could hardly blame him for desiring to protect it. “Have you fought with the earl often?” she asked.
“Not since we were boys at school. Westcliff did everything a bit too perfectly—I had to challenge him now and then just to make certain that his vanity didn’t become overinflated. Here …shall we take a more scenic route through the garden?”
Lillian hesitated, recalling the numerous stories that she had heard about him. “I’m not certain that would be wise.”
St. Vincent smiled. “What if I promise on my honor not to make any advances to you?”
Considering that, Lillian nodded. “In that case, all right.”
St. Vincent guided her through a small leafy grove, and onto a graveled path shaded by a row of ancient yews. “I should probably tell you,” he remarked casually, “that since my sense of honor is completely deteriorated, any promise I make is worthless.”
“Then I should tell you that my right hook is likely ten times more vicious than Westcliff’s.”
St. Vincent grinned. “Tell me, darling, what happened to cause bad blood between you and the earl?”
Startled by the casual endearment, Lillian thought of reprimanding him, then decided to let it pass. After all, it had been very nice of him to give up his morning ride to escort her back to the manor. “I’m afraid it was a case of hatred at first sight,” she replied. “I think Westcliff is a judgmental boor, and he considers me an ill-natured brat.” She shrugged. “Perhaps we’re both right.”
“I think neither of you is right,” St. Vincent murmured.
“Well, actually …I am something of a brat,” Lillian admitted.
His lips twitched with barely suppressed humor. “Are you?”
She nodded. “I like to have my way, and I’m very cross when I don’t get it. In fact, I’ve often been told that my temperament is quite similar to that of my grandmother, who was a dockside washwoman.”
St. Vincent seemed entertained by the notion of being related to a washwoman. “Were you close to your grandmother?”
“Oh, she was a ripping old dear. Foul-mouthed and high-spirited, and she often said things that would make you laugh until your stomach hurt. Oh …pardon…I don’t think I’m supposed to say the word ‘stomach’ in front of a gentleman.”
“I’m shocked,” St. Vincent said gravely, “but I’ll recover.” Looking around them as if to ascertain that he wouldn’t be overheard, he whispered conspiratorially, “I’m not really a gentleman, you know.”
“You’re a viscount, aren’t you?”
“That hardly goes hand-in-hand with being a gentleman. You don’t know much about the peerage, do you?”
“I believe I already know more than I want to.”
St. Vincent gave her a curious smile. “And here I thought you were intent upon marrying one of us. Am I mistaken, or aren’t you and your younger sister a pair of dollar princesses brought over from the colonies to land titled husbands?”
“The colonies?” Lillian repeated with a chiding grin. “In case you hadn’t heard, my lord, we won the Revolution.”
“Ah. I must have forgotten to read the paper that day. But in answer to my question …?”
“Yes,” Lillian said, flushing a little. “Our parents brought us here to find husbands. They want to infuse the family line with blue blood.”
“Is that what you want?”
“Today my sole desire is to draw some blue blood,” she muttered, thinking of Westcliff.
“What a ferocious creature you are,” St. Vincent said, laughing. “I pity Westcliff if he crosses you again. In fact, I think I should warn him…” His voice died away as he saw the sudden pain on her face, and heard the sharp intake of her breath.
A tearing agony went through Lillian’s right thigh, and she would have stumbled to the ground had it not been for the support of his arm around her back. “Oh, damn it,” she said shakily, clutching at her thigh. A twisting spasm in her thigh muscle caused her to groan through her clenched teeth. “Damn, damn—”
“What is it?” St. Vincent asked, swiftly lowering her to the path. “A leg cramp?”
“Yes…” Pale and shaking, Lillian caught at her leg, while her face contorted with agony. “Oh God, it hurts!”
He bent over her, frowning with concern. His quiet voice was threaded with urgency. “Miss Bowman…would it be possible for you to temporarily ignore everything you’ve heard about my reputation? Just long enough for me to help you?”
Squinting at his face, Lillian saw nothing but an honest desire to relieve her pain, and she nodded.
“Good girl,” he murmured, and gathered her writhing body into a half-sitting position. He talked swiftly to distract her, while his hand slipped beneath her skirts with gentle expertise. “It will take just a moment. I hope to God that no one happens along to see this—it looks more than a bit incriminating. And it’s doubtful that they would accept the traditional but somewhat overused leg-cramp excuse—”
“I don’t care,” she gasped. “Just make it go away.”
She felt St. Vincent’s hand slide lightly up her leg, the warmth of his skin sinking through the thin fabric of her knickers as he searched for the knotting, twitching muscle. “Here we are. Hold your breath, darling.” Obeying, Lillian felt him roll his palm strongly over the muscle. She nearly yelped at the burst of searing fire in her leg, and then suddenly it eased, leaving her weak with relief.
Relaxing back against his arm, Lillian let out a long breath. “Thank you. That’s much better.”
A faint smile crossed his lips as he deftly tugged her skirts back over her legs. “My pleasure.”
“That never happened to me before,” she murmured, flexing her leg cautiously.
“No doubt it was a repercussion from your exploit in the sidesaddle. You must have strained a muscle.”
“Yes, I did.” Color burnished her cheeks as she forced herself to admit, “I’m not used to jumping on sidesaddle— I’ve only done it astride.”
His smile widened slowly. “How interesting,” he murmured. “Clearly my experiences with American girls have been entirely too limited. I didn’t realize you were so delightfully colorful.”
“I’m more colorful than most,” she told him sheepishly, and he grinned.
“Much as I would love to sit here chatting with you, sweet, I had better return you to the house, if you’re able to stand now. It will do you no good to spend too much time alone with me.” He stood in an easy movement and reached down for her.
“It seems to have done me quite a bit of good,” Lillian replied, allowing him to pull her up.
St. Vincent offered her his arm, and watched as she tested her leg. “Is it all right?”
“Yes, thank you,” Lillian replied, taking hold of his arm. “You’ve been very kind, my lord.”
He stared at her with an odd flicker in his pale blue eyes. “I’m not kind, darling. I’m only nice to people when I’m planning to take advantage of them.”
Lillian responded with a carefree grin, daring to ask, “Am I in danger from you, my lord?”
Though his expression remained relaxed with good humor, his eyes were disturbingly intent. “I’m afraid so.”