St. Vincent’s stride was long but relaxed, his hands buried casually in the depths of his coat pockets. He smiled at the sight of the pair on the bench, his gaze lingering on Lillian’s face.
There was no doubt that this remarkably beautiful man, with the face of a fallen angel and eyes the color of heaven at daybreak, had occupied the dreams of many women. And been cursed by many a cuckolded husband.
It seemed an unlikely friendship, Lillian thought, glancing from Westcliff to St. Vincent. The earl, with his straightforward, principled nature, must certainly disapprove of his friend’s wayward inclinations. But as often was the case, this particular friendship might be strengthened by their differences rather than being undermined by them.
Stopping before them, St. Vincent confided, “I would have found you sooner, but I was attacked by a swarm of dingy-dippers.” His voice lowered with conspiratorial furtiveness. “And I don’t wish to alarm either of you, but I had to warn you…they’re planning to serve kidney pudding in the fifth course.”
“I can manage that,” Lillian said ruefully. “It is only animals served in their natural state that I seem to have difficulty with.”
“Of course you do, darling. We’re barbarians, the lot of us, and you were perfectly right to be appalled by the calves’ heads. I don’t like them either. In fact, I rarely consume beef in any form.”
“Are you a vegetarian, then?” Lillian asked, having heard the word frequently of late. Many discussions had centered on the topic of the vegetable system of diet that was being promoted by a hospital society in Ramsgate.
St. Vincent responded with a dazzling smile. “No, sweet, I’m a cannibal.”
“St. Vincent,” Westcliff growled in warning, seeing Lillian’s confusion.
The viscount grinned unrepentantly. “It’s a good thing I happened along, Miss Bowman. You’re not safe alone with Westcliff, you know.”
“I’m not?” Lillian parried, tensing inwardly as she reflected that he never would have made the glib comment had he known of the intimate encounters between her and the earl. She didn’t dare look at Westcliff, but she apprehended the immediate stillness of the masculine form so close to hers.
“No, indeed,” St. Vincent assured her. “It’s the morally upright ones who do the worst things in private. Whereas with an obvious reprobate such as myself, you couldn’t be in safer hands. Here, you had better return to the dining hall under my protection. God knows what sort of lascivious scheme is lurking in the earl’s mind.”
Giggling, Lillian stood from the bench, enjoying the sight of Westcliff being teased. He regarded his friend with a slight scowl as he too rose to his feet.
Taking St. Vincent’s proffered arm, Lillian wondered why he had bothered to come out here. Was it possible that he had some kind of interest in her? Surely not. It was generally known that marriageable girls had never been a part of St. Vincent’s romantic history, and Lillian was obviously not the kind whom he would pursue for an affair. However, it was rather entertaining to find herself alone in the company of two men, one of them the most desirable bed partner in England, and the other the most eligible bachelor. She couldn’t help grinning as she thought of how many girls would commit outright murder to be in her shoes at this very moment.
St. Vincent drew her away with him. “As I recall,” he remarked, “our friend Westcliff forbade you to ride his horses, but he said nothing about a carriage drive. Will you consider accompanying me on a tour through the countryside tomorrow morning?”
As Lillian considered the invitation, she allowed for a brief silence in anticipation that Westcliff might have something to say on the matter. Naturally, he did.
“Miss Bowman will be occupied tomorrow morning.” The earl’s brusque voice came from behind them.
Lillian opened her mouth to deliver a sharp retort, but St. Vincent sent her a sideways glance as he opened the door, conveying a mischievous admonition to let him handle things. “Occupied with what?” he asked.
“She and her sister are meeting with the countess.”
“Ah, what a magnificent old dragon,” St. Vincent mused, drawing Lillian through the doorway. “I’ve always gotten along famously with the countess. Let me offer a bit of advice—she loves to be flattered, though she’ll pretend otherwise. A few words of praise, and you’ll have her eating out of your hand.”
Lillian glanced over her shoulder at Westcliff. “Is that true, my lord?”
“I wouldn’t know, as I’ve never bothered to flatter her.”
“Westcliff considers flattery and charm a waste of time,” St. Vincent told Lillian.
“So I’ve noticed.”
St. Vincent laughed. “I shall propose a carriage drive for the day after tomorrow then. Does that sound agreeable?”
“Yes, thank you.”
“Excellent,” St. Vincent said, adding in an offhand manner, “unless, Westcliff, you have some other claim on Miss Bowman’s schedule?”
“No claim at all,” Westcliff said flatly.
Of course not, Lillian thought with sudden rancor. Obviously Westcliff had no desire for her company, unless it was to spare his guests the sight of watching her cast up her crumpets on the dinner table.
They rejoined Daisy, who raised her brows at the sight of St. Vincent and asked mildly, “Where did you come from?”
“Were my mother alive, you could ask her,” he replied pleasantly. “But I doubt she knew.”
“St. Vincent,” Westcliff snapped for the second time that evening. “These are innocent girls.”
“Are they? How intriguing. Very well, I’ll try for propriety…What subjects may one discuss with innocent girls?”
“Hardly any,” Daisy said glumly, making him laugh.
Before they reentered the dining hall, Lillian paused to ask Westcliff, “At what time shall I visit the countess tomorrow? And where?”
His gaze was opaque and cool. Lillian couldn’t help but notice that his disposition seemed to have soured since the moment St. Vincent had invited her on a carriage drive. But why would that displease him? It would be laughable to assume that he was jealous, since she was the last woman in the world in whom he would entertain a personal interest. The only reasonable conclusion was that he feared that St. Vincent might try to seduce her, and he did not want to deal with the trouble that would ensue.
“Ten o’clock in the Marsden parlor,” he said.
“I’m afraid that I am not familiar with that room—”
“Few people are. It is an upstairs parlor, reserved for the family’s private use.”
“Oh.” She stared into his dark eyes, feeling grateful and confused. He had been kind to her, and yet their relationship could not, by any stretch of the imagination, be considered a friendship. She wished that she could rid herself of her growing curiosity about him. It had been much easier when she had been able to dismiss him as a self-important snob. However, he was far more complex than she had originally thought, revealing dimensions of humor, sensuality, and surprising compassion.
“My lord,” she said, ensnared by his gaze. “I …I suppose I should thank you for—”
“Let’s go in,” he interrupted curtly, seeming eager to be out of her presence. “We’ve tarried long enough.”
“Are you nervous?” Daisy whispered the next morning, as she and Lillian followed their mother to the door of the Marsden parlor. Although Mercedes had not been specifically invited to meet with the countess, she was bound and determined to be included in the visit.
“No,” Lillian replied. “I’m certain we have nothing to fear as long as we keep our mouths shut.”
“I’ve heard that she hates Americans.”
“That’s a pity,” Lillian said dryly, “since both of her daughters married Americans.”
“Quiet, the both of you,” Mercedes whispered. Dressed in a silver-gray gown with a large diamond brooch at the throat, she gathered her hand into a tangle of sharp knuckles and rapped at the door. There was no sound from within. Daisy and Lillian glanced at each other with raised brows, wondering if the countess had decided not to meet with them after all. Frowning, Mercedes knocked at the door with increased force.
This time, a barbed voice penetrated the seams of mahogany paneling. “Stop that infernal hammering and enter!”
Wearing subdued expressions, the Bowmans entered the room. It was a small but lovely parlor, with walls covered in blue flowered paper and a large set of windows that revealed a view of the garden below. The Countess of Westcliff was arranged on a settee beneath the window, her throat swathed in ropes of rare black pearls, her fingers and wrists weighted with jewels. In contrast to the brilliant pale silver of her hair, the lines of her brows were dark and thick, set uncompromisingly low over her eyes. In feature and in form, she was completely bereft of angles; her face round, her figure run to plumpness. Silently Lillian reflected that Lord Westcliff must have inherited his father’s looks, for there was little resemblance between him and his mother.
“I expected only two,” the countess said with a hard look at Mercedes. Her accent was as clean and crisp as white icing on a tea cake. “Why are there three?”
“Your Grace,” Mercedes began with a toadying smile, bobbing in an uncomfortable curtsy. “First let me tell you how deeply Mr. Bowman and I appreciate your condescension to my two angels—”
“Only a duchess may be addressed as ‘Your Grace,’ ” the countess said, the corners of her mouth drawn downward as if by an excessive pull of gravity. “Did you intend that as mockery?”
“Oh no, Your…that is, my lady,” Mercedes said hastily, her face turning skull-white. “It was not mockery. Never that! I only wished to—”
“I will speak alone with your daughters,” the countess said imperiously. “You may return in precisely two hours to collect them.”
“Yes, my lady!” Mercedes fled the room.
Clearing her throat to camouflage a sudden irrepressible laugh, Lillian glanced at Daisy, who was also struggling to contain her amusement at seeing their mother so handily dispatched.
“What an unpleasant noise,” the countess remarked, scowling at Lillian’s throat clearing. “Kindly refrain from producing it again.”
“Yes, my lady,” Lillian said with her best attempt at humility.
“You may approach me,” the countess commanded, looking from one to the other as they obeyed. “I watched you last evening, the both of you, and I witnessed a veritable catalogue of unseemly behavior. I am told that I must act as your sponsor for the season, which confirms my opinion that my son is determined to make my life as difficult as possible. Sponsoring a pair of maladroit American girls! I warn you, if you do not heed every word that I say, I will not rest until each of you is married to some sham continental aristocrat and sent to molder in the most godforsaken corners of Europe.”
Lillian was more than a little impressed. As far as threats went, it was a good one. Stealing a glance at Daisy, she saw that her sister had sobered considerably.
“Sit,” the countess spat.
They complied with all possible speed, occupying the chairs that she indicated with a wave of her glittering hand. Reaching to the small table beside the settee, the countess produced a piece of parchment liberally covered with notes written in cobalt ink. “I have made a list,” she informed them, using one hand to place a tiny pair of pince-nez spectacles on the abbreviated tip of her nose, “of the errors that were made by the two of you last evening. We will address it point by point.”
“How could the list be that long?” Daisy asked in dismay. “The dinner lasted only four hours—how many mistakes could we have possibly made in that length of time?”
Staring at them stonily over the top edge of the parchment, the countess let the list unfold. Accordionlike, it opened…and opened…and opened…until the bottom edge brushed the floor.
“Bloody hell,” Lillian muttered beneath her breath.
Overhearing the curse, the countess frowned until her brows formed an unbroken dark line. “If there were any room left on the parchment,” she informed Lillian, “I would add that bit of vulgarity to it.”
Repressing a long sigh, Lillian settled low in her chair.
“Sit up straight, if you please,” the countess said. “A lady never allows her spine to touch the back of her chair. Now, we will begin with introductions. You have both displayed a lamentable habit of shaking hands. It makes one appear distastefully eager to ingratiate oneself. The accepted rule is not to shake hands but merely to bow when being introduced, unless the introduction is being made between two young ladies. And as we’re on the subject of bowing, you must never bow to a gentleman to whom you have not been introduced, even if he is well-known to you by sight. Nor may you bow to a gentleman who has addressed a few remarks to you at the house of a mutual friend, or any gentleman with whom you have conversed with casually. A short verbal exchange does not constitute an acquaintanceship, and therefore must not be acknowledged with a bow.”
“What if the gentleman has done you some service?” Daisy asked. “Picking up a fallen glove, or something like that.”
“Express your thanks at the time, but do not bow to him in the future, as a true acquaintanceship has not been established.”
“That sounds rather ungrateful,” Daisy commented.
The countess ignored her. “Now, on to dinner. After your first glass of wine, you may not request another. When the host passes the wine decanter to his guests during dinner, it is for the benefit of the gentlemen, not the ladies.” She glowered at Lillian. “Last night I heard you ask for your wineglass to be refilled, Miss Bowman. Very bad form.”
“But Lord Westcliff refilled it without a word,” Lillian protested.
“Only to spare you from drawing yet more undesirable attention to yourself.”
“But why…” Lillian’s voice faded to silence as she saw the countess’s forbidding expression. She realized that if she was going to ask for explanations on every point of etiquette, it would be a long afternoon indeed.
The countess proceeded to explain dinner table conventions, including the proper way to cut an asparagus point, and the way to consume quail and pigeon. “…blancmange and pudding must be eaten with a fork, not a spoon,” she was saying, “and much to my dismay, I observed you both using knives on your rissoles.” She looked at them significantly, as though expecting them to wilt with shame.