“Someone like me,” Lillian whispered miserably.
A formal dress ball was held in the evening. It was a fine night, dry and cool, with the rows of tall windows opened to admit the outside air. The chandeliers scattered light over the intricately parqueted floor like glittering raindrops. Orchestra music filled the air in buoyant drifts, providing a perfect framework for the gossip and laughter of the guests.
Lillian did not dare accept a cup of punch, fearing that it would drip on her cream satin ball gown. The unadorned skirts fell in gleaming folds to the floor, while the narrow waist was cinched with a stiffened band of matching satin. The only ornamentation on the gown was an artful sprinkling of beads on the edge of her scoop-necked bodice. As she tugged a finger of her white glove more firmly over her little fingertip, she caught a glimpse of Lord Westcliff from across the room. He was dark and striking in his evening clothes, his white cravat pressed to the sharpness of a knife blade.
As usual, a group of men and women had gathered around him. One of the women, a beautiful blond with a voluptuous figure, leaned closer to him, murmuring something that brought a faint smile to his lips. He coolly observed the scene, appraising the gently milling assembly …until he saw Lillian. His gaze flicked over her in swift assessment. Lillian felt his presence so palpably that the fifteen yards or so between them might not have existed. Troubled by her own gauzy sensual awareness of the man standing across the room, she gave him a brief nod and turned away.
“What is it?” Daisy murmured, coming up beside her. “You look rather distracted.”
Lillian responded with a wry smile. “I’m trying to remember everything the countess told us,” she lied, “and keep it all straight in my head. Especially the bowing rules. If someone bows to me, I’m going to shriek and run in the opposite direction.”
“I’m terrified of making a mistake,” Daisy confided. “It was so much easier before I realized how many things I have been doing wrong. I’ll be quite happy to be a wall-flower and sit safely at the side of the room this evening.” Together they glanced at the row of semicircular niches running along one wall, each sided by slender pilasters and fitted with tiny velvet-covered benches. Evie sat alone in the farthest niche in the corner. Her pink dress clashed with her red hair, and she kept her head down as she sipped furtively from a cup of punch, every line of her posture proclaiming a disinclination to talk with anyone. “Oh, that won’t do,” Daisy said. “Come, let’s pry the poor girl out of that niche and make her stroll with us.”
Lillian smiled in agreement and made to accompany her sister. However, she froze with a sudden breath as she heard a deep voice near her ear. “Good evening, Miss Bowman.”
Blinking with astonishment, she turned to face Lord Westcliff, who had crossed the room to her with surprising speed. “My lord.”
Westcliff bowed over Lillian’s hand and then greeted Daisy. His gaze returned to Lillian’s. As he spoke, the light from the chandeliers played over the rich dark layers of his hair and the bold angles of his features. “You survived the encounter with my mother, I see.”
Lillian smiled. “A better way to put it, my lord, is that she survived the encounter with us.”
“It was obvious that the countess was enjoying herself immensely. She seldom encounters young women who don’t wither in her presence.”
“If I haven’t withered in your presence, my lord, then I’m hardly going to wither in hers.”
Westcliff grinned at that and then looked away from her, a pair of small creases appearing between his brows, as if he was contemplating some weighty matter. After a pause that seemed interminably long, his attention returned to Lillian. “Miss Bowman…”
“Will you do me the honor of dancing with me?”
Lillian stopped breathing, moving, and thinking. Westcliff had never asked her to dance before, despite the multitude of occasions on which he should have asked out of gentlemanly politeness. It had been one of the many reasons that she had hated him, knowing that he considered himself far too superior, and her attractions too insignificant, for it to be worth the bother. And in her more spiteful fantasies, she had imagined a moment like this when he would have asked for a dance, and she would respond with a crushing refusal. Instead, she was astonished and tongue-tied.
“Do excuse me,” she heard Daisy say brightly, “I must go to Evie…” And she sped away with all possible haste.
Lillian drew in an unsteady breath. “Is this a test that the countess has devised?” she asked. “To see if I remember my lessons?”
Westcliff chuckled. Gathering her wits, Lillian couldn’t help but notice that people were staring at them, obviously wondering what she had said to amuse him. “No,” he murmured, “I believe it’s a self-imposed test to see if I…” He seemed to forget what he was saying as he stared into her eyes. “One waltz,” he said gently.
Distrusting her own response to him, the magnitude of her desire to step into his arms, Lillian shook her head. “I think …I think that would be a mistake. Thank you, but—”
Lillian remembered the moment she had leveled the same charge at him…and she was no more able to resist the challenge than he. “I can’t see why you should want to dance with me now, when you never have before.”
The statement was more revealing than she had intended it to be. She cursed her own wayward tongue, while his speculative gaze wandered over her face.
“I wanted to,” he surprised her by murmuring. “However, there always seemed to be good reasons not to.”
“Besides,” Westcliff interrupted, reaching out to take her gloved hand, “there was hardly a point in asking when your refusal was a foregone conclusion.” Deftly he pressed her hand to his arm and led her toward the mass of couples in the center of the room.
“It was not a foregone conclusion.”
Westcliff glanced at her skeptically. “You’re saying that you would have accepted me?”
“I might have.”
“I doubt it.”
“I did just now, didn’t I?”
“You had to. It was a debt of honor.”
She couldn’t help but laugh. “For what, my lord?”
“The calf’s head,” he reminded her succinctly.
“Well, if you hadn’t served such a nasty object in the first place, I wouldn’t have needed to be rescued!”
“You wouldn’t have needed to be rescued if you didn’t have such a weak stomach.”
“You’re not supposed to mention body parts in front of a lady,” she said virtuously. “Your mother said so.”
Westcliff grinned. “I stand corrected.”
Enjoying their bickering, Lillian grinned back at him. Her smile died, however, as a slow waltz began and Westcliff turned her to face him. Her heart began to thump with unrestrained force. As she looked down at the gloved hand that he extended to her, she could not make herself take it. She could not let him hold her in public…she was afraid of what her face might reveal.
After a moment she heard his low voice. “Take my hand.”
Dazed, she found herself obeying, her trembling fingers reaching for his.
Another silence passed, and then, softly, “Put your other one on my shoulder.”
She watched her white glove settle slowly on his shoulder, the surface hard and solid beneath her palm.
“Now look at me,” he whispered.
Her lashes lifted. Her heart gave a jolt as she stared into his coffee-colored eyes, which were filled with dark warmth. Holding her gaze, Westcliff drew her into the waltz, using the momentum of the first turn to bring her closer to him. Soon they were lost in the midst of the dancers, circling with the lazy grace of a swallow’s flight. As Lillian might have expected, Westcliff established a strong lead, allowing no chance of a misstep. His hand was firm at the small of her back, the other providing explicit guidance.
It was all too easy. It was perfect as nothing else in her life had ever been, their bodies moving in harmony as if they had waltzed together a thousand times before. Good Lord, he could dance. He led her into steps that she had never tried, reverse turns and cross steps, and it was all so natural and effortless that she gave a breathless laugh at the completion of a turn. She felt weightless in his arms, gliding smoothly within the parameters of his taut and graceful movements. Her skirts brushed his legs, wrapping and falling away in rhythmic repetition.
The crowded ballroom seemed to disappear, and she felt as if they were dancing alone, far away in some private place. Intensely aware of his body, the occasional touch of his warm breath on her cheek, Lillian drifted into a curious waking dream …a fantasy in which Marcus, Lord Westcliff, would take her upstairs after the waltz, and undress her, and lay her gently across his bed. He would kiss her everywhere, as he had once whispered…he would make love to her, and hold her while she slept. She had never wanted that kind of intimacy with a man before.
“Marcus…” she said absently, testing his name on her tongue. He glanced at her alertly. The use of someone’s first name was profoundly personal, far too intimate unless they were married or closely related. Smiling mischievously, Lillian turned the conversation into a more appropriate channel. “I like that name. It’s not common nowadays. Were you named after your father?”
“No, after an uncle. The only one on my mother’s side.”
“Were you pleased to be his namesake?”
“Any name would have been acceptable, so long as it wasn’t my father’s.”
“Did you hate him?”
Westcliff shook his head. “Something worse than that.”
“What could be worse than hatred?”
She stared at him with open curiosity. “And the countess?” she dared to ask. “Are you also indifferent to her?”
One corner of his mouth curled upward in a half smile. “I regard my mother as an aging tigress—one whose teeth and claws are blunted, but who is still capable of inflicting harm. Therefore I try to conduct all interactions with her at a safe distance.”
Lillian gave him a mock-indignant scowl. “And yet you tossed me right into the cage with her this morning!”
“I knew you had your own set of teeth and claws.” Westcliff grinned at her expression. “That was a compliment.”
“I’m glad you told me so,” she said dryly. “Otherwise I might not have known.”
To Lillian’s dismay, the waltz ended with one last sweet drawn-out note of a single violin. Amid the ensuing currents of dancers moving off the main floor, with others coming to replace them, Westcliff stopped abruptly. He was still holding her, she realized with a touch of confusion, and she took a hesitant step backward. Reflexively his arm hardened around her waist, and his fingers tightened in an instinctive attempt to keep her with him. Astonished by the action, and what it betrayed, Lillian felt her breath stop.
Checking his impulsiveness, Westcliff forced himself to release her. Still, she felt the force of desire radiating from him, as penetrating as the heat drafts of an entire forest on fire. And it was a mortifying thought that whereas her feelings for him were genuine, his might very well be the whimsical result of a perfume’s aroma. She would have given anything not to be so attracted to him, when disappointment or even heartbreak was a foregone conclusion.
“I was right, wasn’t I?” she asked huskily, unable to look at him. “It was a mistake for us to dance.”
Westcliff waited so long to reply that she thought he might not. “Yes,” he finally said, the single syllable roughened with some unidentifiable emotion.
Because he could not afford to want her. Because he knew as well as she that a pairing between them would be a disaster.
Suddenly it hurt to be near him. “Then I suppose this waltz will be our first and our last,” she said lightly. “Good evening, my lord, and thank you for—”
“Lillian,” she heard him whisper.
Turning from him, she walked away with a brittle smile, while goose bumps rose on the exposed skin of her neck and back.
The rest of the night would have been a misery for Lillian, had it not been for a timely rescue in the form of Sebastian, Lord St. Vincent. He appeared beside her before she could join Evie and Daisy, who were sitting together on a velvet bench.
“What a graceful dancer you are, Miss Bowman.”
After being with Westcliff, it seemed awkward to look up into the face of a man who was so much taller than she. St.Vincent stared at her with a promise of wicked enjoyment that she found difficult to resist. His enigmatic smile could have been offered to a friend or an enemy with equal ease. Lillian let her gaze slip downward to the slightly off-center knot of his cravat. There was a hint of disarray in his clothing, as if he had dressed with a bit too much haste after leaving a lover’s bed—and meant to return there soon.
In answer to his easy compliment, Lillian smiled and shrugged a bit awkwardly, remembering too late the countess’s admonition that ladies never shrugged. “If I appeared graceful, my lord, it was because of the earl’s skill, not mine.”
“You’re too modest, sweet. I’ve seen Westcliff dance with other women, and the effect wasn’t nearly the same. You seem to have patched up your differences with him quite nicely. Are you friends now?”
It was a harmless question, but Lillian sensed that his meaning was multilayered. She replied cautiously, while she noticed that Lord Westcliff was escorting an auburn-haired woman to the refreshment table. The woman was glowing with obvious pleasure at the earl’s interest. A needle of jealousy stabbed through Lillian’s heart. “I don’t know, my lord,” she said. “It’s possible that your definition of friendship does not match mine.”
“Clever girl.” St. Vincent’s eyes were like blue diamonds, pale and infinitely faceted. “Come, let me escort you to the refreshment table, and we’ll compare our definitions.”
“No, thank you,” Lillian said reluctantly, even though she was parched with thirst. For her own peace of mind, she had to avoid Westcliff’s proximity.
Following her gaze, St. Vincent saw the earl in the company of the auburn-haired woman. “Perhaps we’d better not,” he agreed in a relaxed tone. “It would undoubtedly displease Westcliff to see you in my company. After all, he did warn me to stay away from you.”