Jerking in surprise, she heard the resultant clatter of silverware. A footman addressed her clumsiness immediately, laying out clean forks and spoons, and bending to retrieve the fallen utensils.
“Wh-what is that?” Lillian asked of no one in particular, unable to tear her gaze from the revolting sight.
“A calf’s head,” one of the ladies replied in a tone laden with condescending amusement, as if this was yet one more example of American backwardness. “A superior English delicacy. Don’t say that you’ve never tried it?”
Struggling to make her face expressionless, Lillian shook her head wordlessly. She flinched as the footman pried open the calf’s smoking jaws and sliced out the tongue.
“Some claim the tongue is the most delicious part,” the lady continued, “while others swear that the brains are by far the most delectable. I will say, however, that without a doubt the eyes are the most exquisite tidbits.”
Lillian’s own eyes closed sickly at this revelation. She felt the rising sting of bile in her throat. She had never been an enthusiast for English cuisine, but as objectionable as she had found some dishes in the past, nothing had ever prepared her for the repulsive sight of the calf’s head. Slitting her eyes open, she glanced around the room. It seemed that everywhere, calves’ heads were being carved, opened and sliced. Brains were spooned out onto plates, throat sweetbreads were cut into thin slices…
She was going to be ill.
Feeling the blood drain from her face, Lillian looked toward the end of the table, where Daisy dubiously watched a few morsels being ceremoniously deposited on her plate. Slowly Lillian raised a corner of her napkin to her mouth. No. She couldn’t let herself be ill. But the rich, oily smell of calf’s head floated all around her, and as she heard the industrious clink of knives and forks being employed, and the appreciative murmuring of the diners, the sickness rose in choking waves. A small plate was settled in front of her, containing a few slices of…something …and a gelatinous eyeball with a conical base rolled lazily toward the rim.
“Sweet Jesus,” Lillian whispered, sweat breaking out on her forehead.
A cool, calm voice seemed to cut through the cloud of nausea. “Miss Bowman…”
Desperately looking in the direction of the voice, she saw Lord Westcliff’s impassive face. “Yes, my lord?” she asked thickly.
He seemed to choose his words with unusual care. “Forgive what may seem a somewhat eccentric request …but it occurs to me that now is the most opportune time to view a rare species of butterfly that abides on the estate. It comes out only at early evening, which is, of course, a departure from the usual pattern. You may recall my having mentioned it during a previous conversation.”
“Butterfly?” Lillian repeated, swallowing repeatedly against a surge of nausea.
“Perhaps you might allow me to show you and your sister to the outdoor conservatory, where new hatchings have recently been sighted. To my regret, it would necessitate that we abstain from this particular remove, but we will return in time for you to enjoy the rest of the supper.”
Several guests paused with their forks in mid-air, their expressions registering astonishment at Westcliff’s peculiar request.
Realizing that he was giving her an excuse to leave the dining hall, with her sister accompanying them for propriety’s sake, Lillian nodded. “Butterflies,” she repeated breathlessly. “Yes, I would love to see them.”
“So would I,” came Daisy’s voice from the other end of the table. She stood with alacrity, obliging all the gentlemen to courteously hoist themselves up from their chairs. “How considerate of you to remember our interest in the native insects of Hampshire, my lord.”
Westcliff came to help Lillian from her chair. “Breathe through your mouth,” he whispered. White-faced and sweating, she obeyed.
All gazes were upon them. “My lord,” one of the gentlemen, Lord Wymark, said, “may I ask which rare species of butterfly you are referring to?”
There was a slight hesitation, and then Westcliff replied with grave deliberation. “The purple-spotted…” He paused before finishing, “…dingy-dipper.”
Wymark frowned. “I fancy myself something of a lepidopterist, my lord. And while I know of the dingy-skipper, which is found only in Northumberland, I have never heard of the dingy-dipper.”
There was a measured pause. “It’s a hybrid,” West-cliff said. “Morpho purpureus practicus. To my knowledge it has been observed only in the environs of Stony Cross.”
“I should like to go have a glance at the colony with you if I may,” Wymark said, setting his napkin on the table in preparation to rise. “The discovery of a new hybrid is always a remarkable—”
“Tomorrow evening,” Westcliff said authoritatively. “The dingy-dippers are sensitive to the presence of humans. I would not wish to endanger such a fragile species. I think it best to visit them in small groups of two or three.”
“Yes, my lord,” Wymark said, obviously disgruntled as he settled back in his chair. “Tomorrow evening, then.”
Gratefully Lillian took Westcliff’s arm, while Daisy took the other, and they left the room with great dignity.
Lillian was nearly overcome by nausea as Westcliff took her to an outdoor conservatory. The sky had turned plum-colored, the gathering darkness relieved only by starlight and the flares of newly lit torches. As the clean, sweet evening air swept over her, she gulped in deep breaths. Westcliff guided her to a cane-backed chair, exhibiting far more compassion than Daisy, who staggered against a column and shook with spasms of laughter.
“Oh…good Lord…” Daisy gasped, blotting tears of hilarity from her eyes, “your face, Lillian…you turned as green as a pea. I thought you were going to cast your crumpets in front of everyone!”
“So did I,” Lillian said, shuddering.
“I take it you’re not fond of calf’s head,” Westcliff murmured, sitting beside her. He extracted a soft white handkerchief from his coat and blotted Lillian’s damp forehead.
“I’m not fond of anything,” Lillian said queasily, “that stares back at me just before I’m supposed to eat it.”
Daisy recovered her breath long enough to say, “Oh, don’t carry on so. It only stared at you for a moment…” She paused and added, “Until its eyeballs were flipped out!” She convulsed with mirth once again.
Lillian glared at her howling sister and closed her eyes weakly. “For God’s sake, do you have to—”
“Breathe through your mouth,” Westcliff reminded her. The handkerchief moved over her face, absorbing the last traces of cold sweat. “Try putting your head down.”
Obediently Lillian dropped her forehead to her knees. She felt his hand close over the chilled nape of her neck, massaging the stiff tendons with exquisite lightness. His fingers were warm and slightly rough-textured, and the gentle kneading was so pleasant that her nausea soon faded. He seemed to know exactly where to touch her, his fingertips discovering the most sensitive places on her neck and shoulders and nudging cleverly into the soreness. Holding still beneath his ministrations, Lillian felt her entire body relaxing, her breathing turning deep and even.
All too soon she felt him easing her back to an upright position, and she had to bite back a protesting moan. To her mortification, she wanted him to continue stroking her. She wanted to sit there all evening with his hand on her neck. And her back. And …other places. Her lashes lifted from her pale cheeks, and she blinked as she saw how close his face was to hers. Strange, how the severe lines of his features became more attractive every time she beheld them. Her fingers itched to skim along the bold edge of his nose, and the contours of his mouth, so stern and yet so soft. And the intriguing shadow of his night beard. All of it combined in a thoroughly masculine appeal. But most appealing of all were his eyes, black velvet warmed by torchlight, framed with straight lashes that cast shadows on the dramatic planes of his cheekbones.
Remembering his creative exposition on the subject of purple-spotted dingy-dippers, Lillian gave a little huff of amusement. She had always considered Westcliff an utterly humorless man…and in that, she had misjudged him. “I thought you never lied,” she said.
His lips twitched. “Given the options of seeing you become ill at the dinner table, or lying to get you out of there quickly, I chose the lesser of two evils. Do you feel better now?”
“Better…yes.” Lillian realized that she was resting in the crook of his arm, her skirts draped partially over one of his thighs. His body was solid and warm, perfectly matched to hers. Glancing downward, she saw that the fabric of his trousers had molded firmly around his muscular thighs. Unladylike curiosity awakened inside her, and she clenched her fingers against the urge to slide her palm over his leg. “The part about the dingy-dipper was clever,” she said, dragging her gaze up to his face. “But inventing a Latin name for it was positively inspired.”
Westcliff grinned. “I always hoped my Latin would be good for something.” Shifting her a little, he reached into the pocket of his waistcoat and glanced at his watch. “We’ll return to the dining hall in approximately a quarter hour. By that time the calves’ heads should be removed.”
Lillian made a face. “I hate English food,” she exclaimed. “All those jellies and blobs, and wiggly puddings, and the game that is aged until by the time it’s served, it is older than I am, and—” She felt a tremor of amusement run through him, and she turned in the half circle of his arm. “What is so amusing?”
“You’re making me afraid to go back to my own dinner table.”
“You should be!” she replied emphatically, and he could no longer restrain a deep laugh.
“Pardon,” came Daisy’s voice from nearby, “but I am going to take this opportunity to make use of the…the…oh, whatever the polite word is for it, I have no idea. I will meet you at the entrance of the dining hall.”
Westcliff withdrew his arm from around Lillian, glancing at Daisy as if he had temporarily forgotten her presence.
“Daisy—” Lillian said uncomfortably, suspecting that her younger sister was inventing an excuse to leave them alone together.
Ignoring her, Daisy departed with an impish grin and a wave, slipping through the French doors.
As Lillian sat with Westcliff in a spill of shifting torchlight, she experienced a pang of nervousness. Although there might have been a dearth of rare hybrid butterflies outside, the ones in her stomach more than made up for it. Westcliff turned to face her more fully, one arm braced along the back of the cane settee.
“I spoke with the countess earlier today,” he said, a smile still lurking at the corners of his lips.
Lillian was slow to respond, trying desperately to push away the image that had suddenly appeared in her mind, of his dark head bending over hers, his tongue penetrating the softness of her mouth…“About what?” she asked dazedly.
Westcliff responded with an eloquently sardonic glance.
“Oh,” she murmured. “You must mean my…my request for her sponsorship…”
“Are we calling it a request?” Westcliff reached out to tuck a strand of loose hair neatly behind her ear. His fingertip brushed the outer edge, following the curve to the soft pad of her earlobe. “As I recollect, it bore a strong resemblance to extortion.” He fingered the delicate lobe, his thumb smoothing over the tingling surface. “You never wear earrings. Why not?”
“I…” Suddenly she wasn’t breathing properly. “My ears are very sensitive,” she managed. “It hurts to clamp them with earbobs…and the thought of piercing them with a needle…” She stopped with a broken inhalation as she felt the tip of his middle finger investigating the shell of her ear, tracing the fragile inner structure. Westcliff let his thumb brush over the taut line of her jaw and the vulnerable softness beneath her chin, until she felt hot color spreading over her cheeks. They were sitting so close…it must be that he could smell her perfume. That was the only explanation for his loverlike touch on her face.
“Your skin is like silk,” he murmured. “What were we talking about?…Oh yes, the countess. I managed to persuade her to sponsor you and your sister for the next season.”
Lillian’s eyes widened in astonishment. “You did? How? Did you have to bully her?”
“Do I strike you as the kind of man who would bully his sixty-year-old mother?”
A low laugh vibrated in his throat. “I have methods other than bullying,” he informed her. “You just haven’t seen them yet.”
There was an implication in his words that she couldn’t quite identify …but it filled her with a tingle of anticipation. “Why did you persuade her to help me?” she asked.
“Because I thought I might enjoy inflicting you on her.”
“Well, if you’re going to make me sound like some sort of plague—”
“And,” Westcliff interrupted, “I felt obligated to make amends after my rough handling of you this morning.”
“It wasn’t all your fault,” she said reluctantly. “I suppose I might have been somewhat provoking.”
“Somewhat,” he agreed dryly, his fingertips sliding behind her ear to the satiny edge of her hairline. “I should warn you that my mother’s consent to the arrangement is not unconditional. If you push her too far, she’ll balk. Therefore, I advise you to try to behave in her presence.”
“Behave how?” Lillian asked, excruciatingly aware of the gentle exploration of his fingertip. If her sister didn’t return soon, she thought dizzily, Westcliff was going to kiss her. And she wanted him to, so badly that her lips had begun to tremble.
He smiled at her question. “Well, whatever else you may do, don’t—” He broke off suddenly, glancing at their surroundings as if he had become aware of some- one’s approach. Lillian could hear nothing except the rustle of the breeze that swept through the trees and scattered a few fallen leaves across the graveled pathways. However, in just a moment a lean, lithe form cut through the mosaic of torchlight and shadow, and the gleam of antiqued-gold hair identified the visitor as Lord St. Vincent. Westcliff withdrew his hand from Lillian immediately. The sensual spell was broken, and she felt the rush of warmth begin to fade.