“What are rissoles?” Lillian dared to ask.
Daisy answered cautiously, “I think they were the little brown patties with the green sauce on top.”
“I rather liked those,” Lillian mused.
Daisy regarded her with a sly smile. “Do you know what they were made of?”
“No, and I don’t want to!”
The countess ignored the exchange. “All rissoles, patties, and other molded foods must be eaten only with a fork, and never with the aid of a knife.” Pausing, she glanced over the list to find her place. Her birdlike eyes constricted to slits as she read the next item. “And now,” she said, staring meaningfully at Lillian, “as to the subject of calves’ heads…”
Groaning, Lillian covered her eyes with one hand and slid down in her chair.
Those who were accustomed to Lord Westcliff’s usual purposeful stride would have been more than a little surprised to witness his slow meander from the study to the upstairs parlor. A letter was held lightly in his fingers, the contents of which had occupied his mind for the past few minutes. But as significant as the news was, it was not entirely responsible for his pensive mood.
Much as Marcus would have liked to deny it, he was filled with anticipation at the thought of seeing Lillian Bowman…and he was keenly interested in how she was managing his mother. The countess would make mincemeat of any average girl, but he suspected that Lillian would hold her own.
Lillian. Because of her, he was fumbling to retrieve his self-control like a boy scurrying to pick up a box of scattered matchsticks. He had an innate distrust of sentiment, particularly his own, and a profound aversion to anyone or anything that threatened his dignity. The Marsden lineage was famously somber …generations of solemn men occupied with weighty concerns. Marcus’s own father, the old earl, had rarely smiled. When he had, it had usually preceded something very unpleasant. The old earl had dedicated himself to erasing any nuance of frivolity or humor in his only son, and while he hadn’t succeeded completely, he had left a forceful influence. Marcus’s existence was shaped by relentless expectations and duties—and the last thing he needed was distraction. Particularly in the form of a rebellious girl.
Lillian Bowman was not a young woman whom Marcus would ever consider courting. He could not imagine Lillian living happily in the confines of the British aristocracy. Her irreverence and individuality would never allow her to blend smoothly into Marcus’s world. Moreover, it was universally acknowledged that since both of Marcus’s sisters had married Americans, it was imperative that he preserve the family’s distinguished pedigree with an English bride.
Marcus had always known that he would end up married to one of the countless young women who came out each season, all of them so similar that it hardly seemed to matter which one he picked. Any of these shy, refined girls would suit his purposes, and yet he had never quite been able to bring himself to take an interest in them. Whereas Lillian Bowman had obsessed him from the first moment he had seen her. There was no logical reason for it. Lillian was not the most beautiful woman of his acquaintance, nor was she particularly accomplished. She was sharp-tongued and opinionated, and her headstrong nature was far more suitable for a man than a woman.
Marcus knew that he and Lillian were both too strong-willed, their characters designed to clash. The conflict between them at the jumping course was a perfect example of why a union between them was impossible. But that did not change the fact that Marcus wanted Lillian Bowman more than any other woman he had ever known. Her freshness, her unconventionality, called to him even as he struggled against the temptation she offered. He had begun to dream about her at night, of playing and grappling with her, entering her warm, thrashing body until she cried out in pleasure. And there were other dreams, of lying with her in sensual stillness, their flesh joined and throbbing…of swimming in the river with her na*ed body gliding against his, her hair trailing in wet mermaid tendrils over his chest and shoulders. Of taking her in the field as if she were a peasant girl, rolling with her on the sun-warmed grass.
Marcus had never felt the bite of unspent passion as keenly as he did now. There were many women who would be entirely willing to satisfy his needs. All it would take was a few murmurs and a discreet tap on the bedroom door, and he would find himself in a pair of welcoming female arms. But it seemed wrong to use one woman as a substitute for someone that he couldn’t have.
Drawing near the family parlor, Marcus paused beside the half-open door as he heard his mother lecturing the Bowman sisters. Her complaint appeared to hinge upon the sisters’ habit of speaking to the footmen who served them at the dinner table.
“But why shouldn’t I thank someone for doing me a service?” he heard Lillian ask with genuine perplexity. “It’s polite to say thank you, isn’t it?”
“You should no more thank a servant than you would thank a horse for allowing you to ride it, or a table for bearing the dishes you place upon it.”
“Well, we’re not discussing animals or inanimate objects, are we? A footman is a person.”
“No,” the countess said coldly. “A footman is a servant.”
“And a servant is a person,” Lillian said stubbornly.
The elderly woman replied in exasperation. “Whatever your view of a footman is, you must not thank him at dinner. Servants neither expect nor desire such condescension, and if you insist on putting them in the awkward position of having to respond to your remarks, they will think badly of you…as will everyone else. Do not insult me with that vapid stare, Miss Bowman! You come from a family of means—surely you employed servants at your New York residence!”
“Yes,” Lillian acknowledged pertly, “but we talked to ours.”
Marcus fought to suppress a sudden laugh. It had been rare, if ever, that he had heard anyone dare to spar with the countess. Knocking lightly at the door, he entered the room, interrupting a potentially caustic exchange. Lillian twisted in her chair to view him. The flawless ivory of her skin was burnished with pink at the crests of her cheeks. The sophisticated braided coil of her hair, pinned high on her head, should have made her appear older, but instead it seemed to emphasize her youth. Although she was motionless in the chair, an air of electric impatience seemed to surround her. She reminded him of a schoolgirl who was eager to escape her lessons and run outside.
“Good afternoon,” Marcus said politely. “I trust your discussion is going well?”
Lillian gave him a speaking glance.
Sternly fighting a smile, Marcus delivered a formal bow to his mother. “My lady, a letter has arrived from America.”
His mother stared at him alertly, making no response even though she knew that the letter had to be from Aline.
Stubborn bitch, Marcus thought, cold annoyance settling in his chest. The countess would never forgive her older daughter for marrying a man of low descent. Aline’s husband, McKenna, had once been in service, working for the family as a stable boy. While still in his teens, McKenna had gone to America to seek his fortune, and had returned to England as a wealthy industrialist. In the countess’s view, however, McKenna’s success would never atone for his common birth, and therefore she had objected violently to the marriage between McKenna and her daughter. Aline’s obvious happiness meant nothing to the countess, who had developed hypocrisy to an art form. Had Aline simply had an affair with McKenna, the countess would have thought nothing of it. Becoming his wife, however, was an unpardonable offense.
“I thought you would wish to learn its contents at once,” Marcus continued, coming forward to hand the letter to her.
He watched his mother’s face grow taut. Her hands remained motionless in her lap, and her eyes were cold with displeasure. Marcus took a slightly malicious enjoyment in forcing her to confront a fact that she so obviously wished to disregard.
“Why don’t you tell me the news?” she invited in a brittle voice. “It is obvious that you will not leave until you do.”
“Very well.” Marcus slipped the letter back into his pocket. “Congratulations, my lady—you are now a grandmother. Lady Aline has given birth to a healthy boy, named John McKenna the second.” He allowed a fine edge of sarcasm in his tone as he added, “I’m certain you will be relieved to know that she and the baby are doing quite well.”
On the periphery of his vision, Marcus saw the Bowman sisters exchange a puzzled glance, clearly wondering at the cause of the hostility that filled the air.
“How nice that our former stable boy has begotten a namesake from my elder daughter,” the countess remarked acidly. “This will be the first of many brats, I am sure. Regrettably there is still no heir to the earldom…which is your responsibility, I believe. Come to me with news of your impending marriage to a bride of good blood, Westcliff, and I will evince some satisfaction. Until then, I see little reason for congratulations.”
Though he displayed no emotion at his mother’s hard-hearted response to the news of Aline’s child, not to mention her infuriating preoccupation with the begetting of an heir, Marcus was hard-pressed to hold back a savage reply. In the midst of his darkening mood, he became aware of Lillian’s intent gaze.
Lillian stared at him astutely, a peculiar smile touching her lips. Marcus arched one brow and asked sardonically, “Does something amuse you, Miss Bowman?”
“Yes,” she murmured. “I was just thinking that it’s a wonder you haven’t rushed out to marry the first peasant girl you could find.”
“Impertinent twit!” the countess exclaimed.
Marcus grinned at the girl’s insolence, while the tightness in his chest eased. “Do you think I should?” he asked soberly, as if the question was worth considering.
“Oh yes,” Lillian assured him with a mischievous sparkle in her eyes. “The Marsdens could use some new blood. In my opinion, the family is in grave danger of becoming overbred.”
“Overbred?” Marcus repeated, wanting nothing more than to pounce on her and carry her off somewhere. “What has given you that impression, Miss Bowman?”
“Oh, I don’t know…” she said idly. “Perhaps the earth-shattering importance you attach to whether one should use a fork or spoon to eat one’s pudding.”
“Good manners are not the sole province of the aristocracy, Miss Bowman.” Even to himself, Marcus sounded a bit pompous.
“In my opinion, my lord, an excessive preoccupation with manners and rituals is a strong indication that someone has too much time on his hands.”
Marcus smiled at her impertinence. “Subversive, yet sensible,” he mused. “I’m not certain I disagree.”
“Do not encourage her effrontery, Westcliff,” the countess warned.
“Very well—I shall leave you to your Sisyphean task.”
“What does that mean?” he heard Daisy ask.
Lillian replied while her smiling gaze remained locked with Marcus’s. “It seems you avoided one too many Greek mythology lessons, dear. Sisyphus was a soul in Hades who was damned to perform an eternal task…rolling a huge boulder up a hill, only to have it roll down again just before he reached the top.”
“Then if the countess is Sisyphus,” Daisy concluded, “I suppose we’re…”
“The boulder,” Lady Westcliff said succinctly, causing both girls to laugh.
“Do continue with our instruction, my lady,” Lillian said, giving her full attention to the elderly woman as Marcus bowed and left the room. “We’ll try not to flatten you on the way down.”
Lillian was troubled by a feeling of melancholy for the rest of the afternoon. As Daisy had pointed out, being lectured to by the countess was hardly a tonic for the soul, but Lillian’s depression of the spirits seemed to stem from a deeper source than simply having spent too much time in the company of a bilious old woman. It had something to do with what had been said after Lord Westcliff had entered the Marsden parlor with the tidings of his newborn nephew. Westcliff had seemed pleased by the news, and yet not at all surprised by his mother’s bitter reception. The rancorous exchange that had followed had impressed upon Lillian the importance—no, the necessity—that Westcliff marry a “bride of good blood,” as the countess had phrased it.
A bride of good blood…one who knew how to eat a rissole and would never think of thanking the footman who had served it to her. One who would never make the mistake of crossing the room to speak to a gentleman, but stand docilely and wait for him to approach her. Westcliff’s bride would be a dainty English flower, with ash-blond hair and a rosebud mouth, and a serene temperament. Overbred, Lillian thought with a touch of animosity toward the unknown girl. Why should it bother her so that Westcliff was destined to marry a girl who would blend flawlessly into his upper-class existence?
Frowning, she recalled the way the earl had touched her face last evening. A subtle caress, but wholly inappropriate, coming from a man who had absolutely no designs on her. And yet he hadn’t seemed to be able to help himself. It was the effect of the perfume, she thought darkly. She had anticipated such fun in torturing Westcliff with his own unwilling attraction to her. Instead it was rebounding on her in a most unpleasant way. She was the one being tortured. Every time Westcliff glanced at her, touched her, smiled at her, it provoked a feeling that she had never known before. A painful feeling of yearning that made her want impossible things.
Anyone would say that it was a ridiculous pairing, Westcliff and Lillian…especially in light of his responsibility to produce a purebred heir. There were other titled men who could not afford to be as selective as Westcliff, men whose inherited resources had dwindled, and therefore had need of her fortune. With the countess’s sponsorship, Lillian would find some acceptable candidate, marry him, and be done with this eternal process of husband hunting. But—a new thought struck her—the world of the British aristocracy was quite small, and she would almost certainly be confronted with Westcliff and his English bride, again and again…The prospect was more than disconcerting. It was awful.
The yearning sharpened into jealousy. Lillian knew that Westcliff would never truly be happy with the woman he was destined to marry. He would tire of a wife whom he could bully. And a steady diet of tranquillity would bore him abysmally. Westcliff needed someone who would challenge and interest him. Someone who could reach through to the warm, human man who was buried beneath the layers of aristocratic self-possession. Someone who angered him, teased him, and made him laugh.