As Lilly stewed, she felt her sister’s small hand slip into hers. “It means nothing,” Daisy whispered. “Just say it quickly and be done with—”
“Silence!” their father barked, and their hands fell apart.
Glumly preoccupied with her thoughts, Lillian took little notice of her surroundings as she accompanied her family to the library. The door had been left ajar, and her father gave the portal a single decisive rap before shepherding his wife and daughters into the room. It was a handsome library with a twenty-foot-high ceiling, movable staircases, and upper and lower galleries that contained acres of books. The scents of leather, vellum, and freshly waxed wood made the air richly pungent.
Lord Westcliff, who had been leaning over his desk with his hands braced on the age-worn surface, looked up from a sheaf of paperwork. He straightened, his black eyes narrowing as he saw Lillian. Dark, austere, and impeccably dressed, he was the perfect picture of an English aristocrat, with a perfectly knotted cravat and thick hair that had been ruthlessly brushed back from his forehead. It was suddenly impossible to reconcile the man who stood before her with the playful, unshaven brute who had let her knock him over on the rounders diamond behind the stable yard.
Ushering his wife and daughters into the room, Thomas Bowman spoke brusquely. “Thank you for agreeing to meet me here, my lord. I promise this won’t take long.”
“Mr. Bowman,” Westcliff acknowledged in a low voice. “I did not anticipate the privilege of meeting with your family as well.”
“I am afraid that the word ‘privilege’ is overstating the case,” Thomas said sourly. “It seems that one of my daughters has behaved badly in your presence. She wishes to express her regret.” He pushed his knuckles into the center of Lillian’s back, prodding her toward the earl. “Go on.”
A frown furrowed Westcliff’s brow. “Mr. Bowman, it is not necessary—”
“You will allow my daughter to speak her piece,” Thomas said, jabbing Lillian forward.
The atmosphere in the library was silent but volatile as Lillian lifted her gaze to Westcliff’s. His frown had deepened, and with a spark of insight she understood that he did not want an apology from her. Not this way, with her father forcing her to do it in such a humiliating manner. Somehow that made it easier for her to apologize.
Swallowing hard, she stared directly into his fathomless dark eyes, the light picking out filaments of intense sable in the irises. “I am sorry about what happened, my lord. You have been a generous host, and you deserve far more respect than I showed you this morning. I should not have challenged your decision at the jumping course, nor should I have spoken to you as I did. I hope that you will accept my regrets, and know that they are sincere.”
“No,” he said softly.
Lillian blinked in confusion, thinking at first that he had rejected her apology.
“It is for me to apologize, Miss Bowman, not you,” Westcliff continued. “Your spirited actions were provoked by a moment of high-handedness on my part. I cannot blame you for responding in such a way to my arrogance.”
Lillian struggled to hide her astonishment, but it wasn’t easy when Westcliff had just done the exact opposite of what she had expected. He had been given the perfect opportunity to quash her pride—and he had chosen not to. She could not understand it. What kind of game was he playing?
His gaze moved gently over her bewildered features. “Though I expressed it badly this morning,” he murmured, “my concern for your safety was genuine. Hence the reason for my anger.”
Staring at him, Lillian felt the ball of resentment that had lodged in her chest begin to dissolve. How nice he was being! And it didn’t seem as if he was playing a part, either. He seemed genuinely kind and sympathetic. A sense of relief stole over her, and she was able to take a deep breath for the first time all day. “That wasn’t the only reason for your anger,” she said. “You also don’t like to be disobeyed.”
Westcliff laughed huskily. “No,” he admitted with a slow smile, “I don’t.” The smile transformed the stern contours of his face, banishing his natural reserve and imparting an appeal that was a thousand times more potent than mere handsomeness. Lillian felt an odd, pleasant little chill chase over her skin.
“Now will I be allowed to ride your horses again?” she dared to ask.
“Lillian!” she heard her mother scold.
Westcliff’s eyes glittered with amusement, as if he relished her audacity. “I wouldn’t go that far.”
Caught in the velvet snare of his gaze, Lillian became aware that their perpetual discord had changed into a kind of friendly challenge…tempered with something that felt almost …erotic. Good God. A few amiable words from Westcliff, and she was close to making a fool of herself.
Seeing that they had made peace, Mercedes bubbled over with enthusiasm. “Oh, dear Lord Westcliff, what a magnanimous gentleman you are! And you were not high-handed in the least—you were clearly moved by concern for my willful little angel, which is yet more proof of your infinite benevolence.”
The earl’s smile became sardonic as he slid a speculative gaze over Lillian, as if considering whether the phrase “willful little angel” was an apt description. Offering Mercedes his arm, he asked blandly, “May I escort you to the dining hall, Mrs. Bowman?”
Euphoric at the idea that everyone would see her being accompanied by Lord Westcliff himself, Mercedes accepted with a sigh of pleasure. As they undertook the journey from the study to the parlor where the dinner procession would be arranged, Mercedes launched into an excruciatingly prolonged discourse about her impressions of Hampshire, throwing in several little criticisms that were meant to be witty, but caused Lillian and Daisy to glance at each other in mute despair. Lord Westcliff received Mercedes’s crass observations with careful politeness, the polish of his manners making hers appear even worse by contrast. And for the first time in Lillian’s life, it occurred to her that perhaps her deliberate flouting of etiquette was not quite as clever as she had previously thought. Certainly she had no wish to become stuffy and reserved …but at the same time, it might not be such a bad thing to conduct herself with a bit more dignity.
No doubt Lord Westcliff was infinitely relieved to part company with the Bowmans when they arrived at the parlor, but he did not reveal it by word or gesture. Impassively wishing them a pleasant evening, he took his leave with a slight bow and made to join a group that included his sister Lady Olivia and her husband, Mr. Shaw.
Turning to Lillian, Daisy regarded her with wide eyes. “Why was Lord Westcliff so nice to you?” she whispered. “And why on earth did he offer Mother his arm, and escort us all the way here, and listen to her endless babbling?”
“I haven’t the faintest idea,” Lillian whispered back. “But clearly he has a high tolerance for pain.”
Simon Hunt and Annabelle joined the group on the other side of the room. Absently smoothing the waist of her silvery-blue gown, Annabelle glanced over the crowd, caught Lillian’s gaze, and made a distressed face. Obviously she had heard about the confrontation at the jumping course. I’m sorry, Annabelle mouthed. She seemed relieved as Lillian nodded in reassurance and sent her the silent message, It’s all right.
Eventually they all proceeded into the dining hall, the Bowmans and the Hunts being among the last in line, as they were of very low rank. “Money always brings up the rear,” Lillian heard her father say cryptically, and she guessed that he had little patience for the rules of precedence that were always so clearly defined on these occasions. It struck Lillian that on the occasions when the countess was absent, Lord Westcliff and his sister Lady Olivia tended to arrange things far less formally, encouraging the guests to enter the dining hall naturally instead of in a procession. With the countess attending, however, it appeared there would be strict adherence to tradition.
It seemed there were nearly as many footmen as there were guests, all of them clad in full dress livery of black plush breeches, a mustard-colored waistcoat, and a blue pigeon-tailed coat. They seated the guests deftly and poured wine and water without spilling a drop.
To Lillian’s surprise, she had been seated near the head of Lord Westcliff’s table, only three places away from his right hand. Occupying a place so close to the host was a mark of high favor, very seldom given to an unmarried girl with no rank. Wondering if the footman had make a mistake in seating her there, she glanced cautiously at the faces of those guests nearest her, and saw that they too were puzzled by her presence. Even the countess, who was being seated at the very end of the table, stared at her with a frown.
Lillian gave Lord Westcliff a questioning glance as he took his place at the head of the table.
One of his dark brows arched. “Is something amiss? You seem a bit perturbed, Miss Bowman.”
The correct response would probably have been to blush and thank him for the unexpected honor. But as Lillian stared at his face, which was softened by the influence of candleglow, she found herself answering with brazen frankness. “I am wondering why I am sitting near the head of the table. In light of what happened this morning, I assumed you would have me seated all the way out on the back terrace.”
There was a moment of utter silence as the guests around them registered shock that Lillian would so openly refer to the conflict between them. However, Westcliff astonished them all by laughing quietly, his gaze locked with hers. After a moment, the others joined in with forced chuckles.
“Knowing of your penchant for trouble, Miss Bowman, I have concluded that it is safer to keep you in my sight, and within arm’s reach if possible.”
His statement was delivered with matter-of-fact lightness. One would have to search very hard to find any innuendo in his tone. And yet Lillian felt a strange liquid ripple inside, sensation passing from one nerve to another like a flow of warm honey.
Lifting a glass of iced champagne to her lips, Lillian glanced around the dining hall. Daisy had been seated near the end of the table, talking animatedly and nearly knocking over a wine goblet as she gestured to emphasize her words. Annabelle was at the next table, seeming oblivious to the multitude of admiring masculine stares fastened on her. The men on either side of her were positively beaming at their good fortune at being seated next to such a ravishing companion, while Simon Hunt, located a few places away, regarded them with the baleful gaze of a very territorial male.
Evie, her aunt Florence, and Lillian’s parents were included with the guests at the farthest table. As usual, Evie was saying very little to the men beside her, tongue-tied and nervous as she stared down at her plate. Poor Evie, Lillian thought sympathetically. We’ll have to do something about your blasted shyness.
Reflecting on the subject of her unmarried brothers, Lillian wondered if there was any possibility of matching one of them with Evie. Perhaps she could find a way to induce one of them to come to England for a visit. God knew that any of them would be a better husband for Evie than her cousin Eustace. There was her oldest brother, Raphael, and the twins, Ransom and Rhys. A more robust group of young males could not be found. On the other hand, it seemed likely that any of the Bowman brothers would terrify Evie. They were good-natured men, but not what anyone would call refined. Or even civilized.
Her attention was diverted by the long line of footmen bringing in the first course; a parade of tureens filled with turtle soup, and silver platters bearing turbot dressed in lobster sauce, crawfish pudding, and herbed trout with stewed lettuce. It was the first of at least eight courses, which would be followed by several removes of dessert. Facing the prospect of yet another lengthy dinner, Lillian repressed a sigh and looked up to find West-cliff’s subtly searching gaze on her. He said nothing, however, and Lillian found herself breaking the silence.
“Your hunter Brutus seems a very fine horse, my lord. I noticed that you used no whip or spurs with him.”
The conversation around them faded, and Lillian wondered if she had made yet another faux pas. Perhaps an unmarried girl wasn’t supposed to speak until someone addressed her directly. However, Westcliff answered readily. “I rarely use a whip or spurs with any of my stock, Miss Bowman. Usually I am able to obtain the results I want without them.”
Lillian thought wryly that like everyone and everything else on the estate, the bay probably hadn’t a thought of disobeying his master. “He seems to have a steadier temperament than the usual thoroughbred,” she said.
Westcliff leaned back in his chair as a footman served a portion of trout onto his plate. The flickering light played over the close-trimmed layers of his black hair…Lillian couldn’t help but remember the feel of the heavy locks beneath her fingers.
“Brutus is a crossbred, actually. A mixture of thoroughbred and Irish draft.”
“Really?” Lillian made no effort to conceal her surprise. “I would have thought you would ride only horses with pure pedigrees.”
“Many prefer purebreds,” the earl admitted. “But a hunter needs strong jumping ability, and the power to change direction easily. A crossbred like Brutus has all the speed and style of a thoroughbred, combined with the athletic prowess of an Irish draft.”
The others at the table listened attentively. As Westcliff finished, a gentleman added jovially, “Superb animal, Brutus. Descendant of Eclipse, isn’t he? One can always see the influence of the Darley Arabian…”
“It’s very open-minded of you to ride a crossbred,” Lillian murmured.
Westcliff smiled slightly. “I can be open-minded, on occasion.”
“So I’ve heard…but I’ve never seen evidence of it until now.”
Again, conversation stopped as the guests heard Lillian’s provoking comments. Instead of becoming annoyed, Westcliff stared at her with unconcealed interest. Whether the interest was that of a man who found her attractive, or one who merely considered her an oddity of nature was difficult to determine. But it was interest.
“I’ve always tried to approach things in a logical manner,” he said. “Which leads to the occasional break with tradition.”
Lillian gave him a mocking grin. “You don’t always find traditional ideas to be logical?”
Westcliff shook his head slightly, the gleam in his eyes growing brighter as he drank from a wineglass and watched her over the light-tricked crystal rim.
Another gentleman made some joking remark about curing Westcliff of his liberal views while the next course was brought out. The succession of curious bulky objects on silver platters was greeted with much fanfare and pleasure. There were four of them per table, twelve in all, set at measured intervals on small folding side tables, where under-butlers and head footmen proceeded to carve the offerings. The scent of spiced beef filled the air, while guests viewed the contents of the platters with murmurs of anticipation. Twisting a little in her seat, Lillian glanced at the platter nearest her, which was poised on a side table. She nearly recoiled in horror as she found herself looking into the charred features of an unrecognizable beast, with steam rising from its freshly baked skull.