“Why are you so certain?” Lillian asked wryly.
Daisy gave her an impish smile. “Because we’ve got magic on our side.”
Stony Cross Park, Hampshire
“T he Bowmans have arrived,” Lady Olivia Shaw announced from the doorway of the study, where her older brother sat at his desk amid stacks of account books. The late afternoon sun streamed through the long, rectangular stained-glass windows, which were the only ornamentation in the austere, rosewood-paneled room.
Marcus, Lord Westcliff, glanced up from his work with a scowl that drew his dark brows together over his coffee-black eyes. “Let the mayhem begin,” he muttered.
Livia laughed. “I assume you’re referring to the daughters? They’re not as bad as all that, are they?”
“Worse,” Marcus said succinctly, his scowl deepening as he saw that the temporarily forgotten pen in his fingers had left a large blot of ink on the otherwise immaculate row of figures. “Two more ill-mannered young women I have yet to meet. The older one, particularly.”
“Well, they are Americans,” Livia pointed out. “It’s only fair that one should give them a certain latitude, isn’t it? One can hardly expect them to know every elaborate detail of our endless list of social rules—”
“I can allow them latitude on details,” Marcus interrupted curtly. “As you know, I am not the kind to fault the angle of Miss Bowman’s pinkie finger as she holds her teacup. What I do take exception to are certain behaviors that would be found objectionable in every corner of the civilized world.”
Behaviors? thought Livia. Now, this was getting interesting. Livia advanced farther into the study, a room that she usually disliked, because it reminded her so strongly of their deceased father.
Any recollection of the eighth Earl of Westcliff was not a happy one. Their father had been an unloving and cruel man, who had seemed to suck all the oxygen from the room when he entered it. Everything and everyone in his life had disappointed the earl. Of his three offspring, only Marcus had come close to meeting his exacting standards, for no matter what punishments the earl had meted out, no matter how impossible his requirements or unfair his judgments, Marcus had never complained.
Livia and her sister, Aline, had been in awe of their older brother, whose constant striving for excellence led him to get the highest marks in school, to break all records in his chosen sports, and to judge himself far more harshly than anyone else ever could. Marcus was a man who could break a horse, dance a quadrille, give a lecture on mathematical theory, bandage a wound, and fix a carriage wheel. None of his vast array of accomplishments, however, had ever earned a word of praise from their father.
In retrospect, Livia realized that it must have been the old earl’s intent to drive every lingering touch of softness or compassion out of his only son. And it had seemed for a while that he had succeeded. However, upon the old earl’s death five years ago, Marcus had proved himself to be a very different man from the one he had been reared to be. Livia and Aline had discovered that their older brother was never too busy to listen to them, and that no matter how insignificant their problems seemed, he was always ready to help. He was sympathetic, affectionate, and understanding—miraculous, really, when once realized that for most of his life, none of those qualities had ever been shown to him.
That being said, Marcus was also a bit domineering. Well…very domineering. When it came to those he loved, Marcus showed no compunction about manipulating them into doing what he thought was best. This was not one of his more charming attributes. And if Livia were to dwell on his faults, she would also have to admit that Marcus had an annoying belief in his own infallibility.
Smiling fondly at her charismatic brother, Livia wondered how it was that she could adore him so when he bore the physical stamp of their father so strongly. Marcus had the same harsh-hewn features, broad forehead, and wide, thin-lipped mouth. He had the same thick, raven-black hair; the same bold, broad nose; and the same stubbornly jutting chin. The combination was striking rather than handsome…but it was a face that attracted female gazes easily. Unlike their father’s, Marcus’s alert dark eyes were often filled with glinting laughter, and he possessed a rare smile that flashed startling white in his swarthy face.
Leaning back in his chair at Livia’s approach, Marcus laced his fingers together and rested them on the hard surface of his stomach. In deference to the unseasonable warmth of the early September afternoon, Marcus had removed his coat and rolled up his sleeves, revealing muscular brown forearms lightly dusted with black hair. He was of medium height and extraordinarily fit, with the powerful physique of an avid sportsman.
Eager to hear more about the aforementioned behaviors of the ill-bred Miss Bowman, Livia leaned back against the edge of the desk, facing Marcus. “I wonder what Miss Bowman did to offend you so?” she mused aloud. “Do tell, Marcus. If not, my imagination will surely conjure up something far more scandalous than poor Miss Bowman is capable of.”
“Poor Miss Bowman?” Marcus snorted. “Don’t ask, Livia. I’m not at liberty to discuss it.”
Like most men, Marcus didn’t seem to understand that nothing torched the flames of a woman’s curiosity more violently than a subject that one was not at liberty to discuss. “Out with it, Marcus,” she commanded. “Or I shall make you suffer in unspeakable ways.”
One of his brows lifted in a sardonic arch. “Since the Bowmans have already arrived, that threat is redundant.”
“I’ll make a guess, then. Did you catch Miss Bowman with someone? Was she allowing some gentleman to kiss her…or worse?”
Marcus responded with a derisive half smile. “Hardly. One look at her, and any man in his right mind would run screaming in the opposite direction.”
Beginning to feel that her brother was being rather too harsh on Lillian Bowman, Livia frowned. “She’s a very pretty girl, Marcus.”
“A pretty facade isn’t enough to make up for the flaws in her character.”
Marcus made a faint scoffing sound, as if Miss Bowman’s faults were too obvious to require enumeration. “She’s manipulative.”
“So are you, dear,” Livia murmured.
He ignored that. “She’s domineering.”
“As are you.”
“Also you,” Livia said brightly.
Marcus glowered at her. “I thought we were discussing Miss Bowman’s faults, not mine.”
“But you seem to have so much in common,” Livia protested, rather too innocently. She watched as he set the pen down, aligning it with the other articles on his desk. “Regarding her inappropriate behavior—are you saying that you did not catch her in a compromising situation?”
“No, I didn’t say that. I only said that she wasn’t with a gentleman.”
“Marcus, I don’t have time for this,” Livia said impatiently. “I must go welcome the Bowmans—and so must you—but before we leave this study, I demand that you tell me what scandalous thing she was doing!”
“It’s too ridiculous to say.”
“Was she riding a horse astride? Smoking a cigar? Swimming na*ed in a pond?”
“Not quite.” Moodily Marcus picked up a stereoscope that was poised on the corner of the desk—a birthday gift that had been sent from their sister, Aline, who was now living with her husband in New York. The stereoscope was a brand-new invention, fashioned of maple wood and glass. When a stereo card—a double photograph—was clipped on the extension behind the lens, the picture appeared as a three-dimensional image. The depth and detail of the stereo photographs were startling …the twigs of a tree seemed likely to scratch the viewer’s nose, and a mountain chasm yawned open with such realism that it seemed you might fall to your death at any moment. Lifting the stereoscope to his eyes, Marcus examined the view of the Colosseum in Rome with undue concentration.
Just as Livia was about to explode with impatience, Marcus muttered, “I saw Miss Bowman playing rounders in her undergarments.”
Livia stared at him blankly. “Rounders? Do you mean the game with the leather ball and flat-sided bat?”
Marcus’s mouth twisted impatiently. “It occurred during her last visit here. Miss Bowman and her sister were cavorting with their friends in a meadow on the northwest quadrant of the estate, when Simon Hunt and I happened to be riding by. All four of the girls were in their undergarments—they claimed that it was difficult to play the game in heavy skirts. My guess is that they would have seized on any excuse to run about half naked. The Bowman sisters are hedonists.”
Livia had clapped her hand over her mouth in a not-very-successful effort to stifle a fit of laughter. “I can’t believe you haven’t mentioned it before now!”
“I wish I could forget,” Marcus replied grimly, lowering the stereoscope. “God knows how I’m going to meet Thomas Bowman’s gaze while the memory of his un-clothed daughter is still fresh in my mind.”
Livia’s amusement lingered as she contemplated the bold lines of her brother’s profile. She did not fail to note that Marcus had said “daughter,” not “daughters”— which made it clear that he had barely noticed the younger one. Lillian was the one he had focused on.
Knowing Marcus as she did, Livia would have expected him to be amused by the incident. Although her brother possessed a strong sense of morality, he was the farthest thing from a prig, and he had a keen sense of humor. Although Marcus had never kept a mistress, Livia had heard the rumors about a few discreet affairs—and she had even heard a whisper or two that the outwardly straitlaced earl was decidedly adventurous in the bedroom. But for some reason her brother was disturbed by this red-blooded, audacious American girl with raw manners and new money. Shrewdly Livia wondered if the Marsden family’s attraction to Americans— after all, Aline had married one, and she herself had just wed Gideon Shaw, of the New York Shaws—was holding true for Marcus as well.
“Was she terribly ravishing in her underclothes?” Livia asked craftily.
“Yes,” Marcus said without thinking, and then scowled. “I mean, no. That is, I didn’t look at her long enough to make an assessment of her charms. If she has any.”
Livia bit the inside of her lower lip to keep from laughing. “Come, Marcus …you are a healthy man of thirty-five—and you didn’t take one tiny peep at Miss Bowman standing there in her drawers?”
“I don’t peep, Livia. I either take a good look at something, or I don’t. Peeping is for children or deviants.”
She gave him a deeply pitying glance. “Well, I’m dreadfully sorry that you had to endure such a trying experience. We can only hope that Miss Bowman will stay fully clothed in your presence during this visit, to avoid shocking your refined sensibilities once again.”
Marcus frowned in response to the mockery. “I doubt she will.”
“Do you mean that you doubt she will stay fully clothed, or you doubt she will shock you?”
“Enough, Livia,” he growled, and she giggled.
“Come, we must go and welcome the Bowmans.”
“I don’t have time for that,” Marcus said curtly. “You welcome them, and make some excuse for me.”
Livia stared at him in astonishment. “You’re not going to…oh, but Marcus, you must! I’ve never known you to be rude before.”
“I’ll atone for it later. For God’s sake, they’re going to be here for nearly a month—I’ll have ample opportunity to placate them. But talking about that Bowman girl has put me in a foul mood, and right now the thought of being in the same room with her sets my teeth on edge.”
Shaking her head slightly, Livia regarded him in a speculative way that he did not like. “Hmm. I’ve seen you interact with people that I know you dislike, and you always manage to be civil—especially when you want something from them. But for some reason Miss Bowman provokes you excessively. I have a theory as to why.”
“Oh?” Subtle challenge lit his eyes.
“I am still developing it. I will let you know when I’ve come to a definitive conclusion.”
“God help me. Just go, Livia, and welcome the guests.”
“While you hole up in this study like a fox run to ground?”
Standing, Marcus gestured for her to precede him through the doorway. “I’m leaving through the back of the house, and then I’m going for a long ride.”
“How long will you be away?”
“I’ll be back in time to change for supper.”
Livia heaved an exasperated sigh. Supper this evening would be a heavily attended affair. It was the prelude to the first official day of the house party, which would begin in full force tomorrow. Most of the guests had already arrived, with a few stragglers due to arrive soon. “You had better not be late,” she warned. “When I agreed to act as your hostess, it was not with the understanding that I was going to handle everything by myself.”
“I am never late,” Marcus replied evenly, and strode away with the eagerness of a man who had suddenly been spared from the gallows.
M arcus rode away from the manor, guiding his horse along the well-traveled forest path beyond the gardens. As soon as he crossed a sunken lane and ascended the incline on the other side, he gave the animal its head, until they were thundering across fields of meadowsweet and sun-dried grass. Stony Cross Park possessed the finest acreage in Hampshire, with thick forests, brilliantly flowered wet meadows and bogs, and wide golden fields. Once reserved as hunting grounds for royalty, the estate was now one of the most sought-after places to visit in England.
It suited Marcus’s purposes to have a more or less constant stream of guests at the estate, providing ample company for the hunting and sports that he loved, and also allowing for quite a bit of financial and political maneuvering. All kinds of business were done at these house parties, at which Marcus often persuaded a certain politician or professional man to side with him on important issues.
This party should be no different from any other—but for the past few days, Marcus had been deviled by a growing sense of unease. As a supremely rational man, he did not believe in psychic premonitions, or any of the spiritualist nonsense that was becoming fashionable of late…but it did seem as if something in the atmosphere at Stony Cross Park had changed. The air was charged with expectant tension, like the vibrant calm before a storm. Marcus felt restless and impatient, and no amount of physical exertion seemed to pacify his growing disquiet.