“He did?” Lillian frowned. “Why?”
“He doesn’t want you to be compromised or otherwise harmed by association with me.” The viscount slid her a baiting glance. “My reputation, you understand.”
“Westcliff has no right to make any decisions about whom I associate with,” Lillian muttered, swift anger burning through her. “The top-lofty, superior know-all, I’d like to—” She stopped and fought to marshal her rearing emotions. “I’m thirsty,” she said tersely. “I want to go to the refreshment table. With you.”
“If you insist,” St. Vincent said mildly. “What shall it be? Water? Lemonade? Punch, or—”
“Champagne,” came her grim reply.
“Whatever you desire.” He accompanied her to the long table, which was surrounded by a long line of guests. Lillian had never known a purer sense of satisfaction than the moment Westcliff noticed that she was in St. Vincent’s company. The line of his mouth hardened, and he stared at her with narrowed black eyes. Smiling defiantly, Lillian accepted a glass of iced champagne from St. Vincent and drank it in unladylike gulps.
“Not so fast, sweet,” she heard St. Vincent murmur. “The champagne will go to your head.”
“I want another,” Lillian replied, dragging her attention away from Westcliff and turning toward St. Vincent.
“Yes. In a few minutes. You look a bit flushed. The effect is charming, but I think you’ve had enough for now. Would you like to dance?”
“I would love to.” Giving her empty glass to a nearby footman with a tray, Lillian stared at St. Vincent with a deliberately dazzling smile. “How interesting. After a year of being a perpetual wallflower, I’ve received two invitations to dance in one night. I wonder why?”
“Well…” St. Vincent walked slowly with her to the crowd of dancers. “I’m a wicked man who can, on occasion, be just a bit nice. And I’ve been searching for a nice girl who can, on occasion, be just a bit wicked.”
“And now you’ve found one?” Lillian asked, laughing.
“It would seem so.”
“What were you planning to do, once you found the girl?”
There was an interesting complexity in his eyes. He seemed like a man who was capable of anything …and in her current reckless disposition, that was exactly what she wanted. “I will let you know,” St. Vincent murmured. “Later.”
Dancing with St. Vincent was an entirely different experience from dancing with Westcliff. There was not the sense of exquisite physical harmony, of movement without thought …but St. Vincent was smooth and accomplished, and as they circled the ballroom, he kept throwing out provocative comments that made her laugh. And he held her with assurance, with hands that, despite their respectful clasp, bespoke a wealth of experience with women’s bodies.
“How much of your reputation is deserved?” she dared to ask him.
“Only about half…which makes me utterly reprehensible.”
Lillian stared at him with quizzical amusement. “How could a man like you be friends with Lord Westcliff? You’re so very different.”
“We’ve known each other since the age of eight. And, stubborn soul that he is, Westcliff refuses to accept that I’m a lost cause.”
“Why should you be a lost cause?”
“You don’t want to know the answer to that.” He interrupted the beginnings of her next question by murmuring, “The waltz is ending. And there is a woman near the gilded frieze who is watching us rather closely. Your mother, isn’t she? Let me take you to her.”
Lillian shook her head. “You had better part company with me now. Trust me—you don’t want to meet my mother.”
“Of course I do. If she is anything like you, I will find her captivating.”
“If she is anything like me, I pray you will have the decency to keep your opinion to yourself.”
“Have no fear,” he advised lazily, easing her away from the dancing area. “I’ve never met a woman I didn’t like.”
“This is the last time you will ever make such a statement,” she predicted dourly.
As St. Vincent escorted Lillian toward the group of gossiping women that included her mother, he said, “I’ll invite her to accompany us on the carriage drive tomorrow, as you are in dire need of a chaperone.”
“I don’t have to have one,” Lillian protested. “Men and women may go for an unchaperoned drive as long as it’s not a closed carriage and they’re not gone for longer than—”
“You need a chaperone,” he repeated with a gentle insistence that made her feel suddenly flustered and shy.
Thinking that his gaze couldn’t possibly mean what she thought it meant, she laughed shakily. “Or else…” She tried to think of something daring to say. “Or else you’ll compromise me?”
His smile, like everything else about him, was subtle and unhurried. “Something like that.”
There was an odd but pleasant tickle at the back of her throat, as if she had swallowed a spoonful of treacle. St. Vincent wasn’t behaving at all like the seducers that populated the silver-fork novels Daisy was so fond of. Those villainous characters, with their heavy mustaches and lecherous gazes, were prone to lie about their evil intentions until the revealing moment when they assaulted the virginal heroine and forced themselves upon her. St. Vincent, by contrast, seemed positively determined to warn her away from himself, and she could not quite picture him bestirring himself enough to force a girl to do anything against her will.
When Lillian made the introductions between her mother and St. Vincent, she saw the instant calculation in Mercedes’s eyes. Mercedes viewed all eligible men of the peerage, regardless of age, appearance, or reputation, as potential prey. She would stop at nothing to ensure that each of her daughters married a title, and it mattered little to her if the man behind it was young and handsome, or old and senile. Having commissioned a private report on nearly every peer of note in England, Mercedes had memorized hundreds of pages of financial figures about the British aristocracy. As she stared at the elegant viscount who stood before her, one could almost see her riffle through the wealth of information in her brain.
Remarkably, however, in the course of the next few minutes Mercedes relaxed in St. Vincent’s charming presence. He coaxed her into agreeing to the carriage drive, teased and flattered her, and listened to her opinions with such attentiveness that soon Mercedes began to blush and giggle like a girl in her teens. Lillian had never seen her mother behave that way with any other man. It quickly became obvious that whereas Westcliff made Mercedes nervous, St. Vincent had the opposite effect. He had a unique ability to make a woman—any woman, it seemed—feel attractive. He was far more polished than most American men, yet warmer and more accessible than English men. His allure was so compelling, in fact, that for a while Lillian forgot to glance around the room in search of Westcliff.
Taking Mercedes’s hand in his, St. Vincent bent over her wrist and murmured, “Until tomorrow, then.”
“Until tomorrow,” Mercedes repeated, looking dazzled, and suddenly Lillian had a glimpse of what her mother must have looked like in her youth before disappointment had hardened her. A few women leaned toward Mercedes, and she turned to confer with them.
Bending his dark golden head, St. Vincent murmured close to Lillian’s ear, “Would you care for that second glass of champagne now?”
Lillian nodded slightly, absorbing the pleasant mixture of fragrances that clung to him, the touch of expensive cologne, the hint of shaving soap, and the clean, clovelike essence of his skin.
“Here?” he asked softly. “Or in the garden?”
Realizing that he wanted her to steal away with him for a few minutes, Lillian felt a stirring of caution. Alone with St. Vincent in the garden…no doubt many an unwary girl’s downfall had begun that way. Considering the proposition, she let her gaze wander until she caught sight of Westcliff taking a woman into his arms. Waltzing with her, just as he had with Lillian. The forever unattainable Westcliff, she thought, and anger filled her. She wanted distraction. And comfort. And the large, handsome male in front of her seemed willing to provide it.
“The garden,” she said.
“Meet me in ten minutes, then. There is a mermaid fountain just beyond the—”
“I know where it is.”
“If you can’t manage to slip outside—”
“I will,” she assured him, forcing a smile.
St. Vincent paused to view her with a shrewd but oddly compassionate gaze. “I can make you feel better, sweet,” he whispered.
“Can you?” she asked dully, unwanted emotion staining her cheeks as red as poppies.
A promising glint appeared in his brilliant eyes, and he responded with a slight nod before taking his leave.
Enlisting Daisy and Evie to cover for her, Lillian left the ballroom with them on the pretense of repairing their appearances. According to their swiftly devised plan, the two girls would wait on the back terrace as Lillian met with Lord St. Vincent in the garden. When they all returned to the ballroom, they would assure Mercedes that she had been with them the entire time.
“Are you qu-quite certain that it’s safe for you to meet with Lord St. Vincent alone?” Evie asked as they walked to the entrance hall.
“Safe as houses,” Lillian replied confidently. “Oh, he may try to take a liberty, but that’s rather the point, isn’t it? Besides, I want to see if my perfume works on him.”
“It doesn’t work on anyone,” Daisy said morosely. “At least not when I’m wearing it.”
Lillian glanced at Evie. “What about you, dear? Had any luck?”
Daisy answered for her. “Evie hasn’t allowed anyone to get close enough to find out.”
“Well, I’m going to give St. Vincent the opportunity to take a good long whiff of it. Heaven knows, this perfume should have some effect on a notorious rake.”
“But if someone sees you—”
“No one will see us,” Lillian interrupted with a touch of impatience. “If there is any man in England who is more experienced than Lord St. Vincent at sneaking around for a tryst, I’d like to know who.”
“You had better be careful,” Daisy warned. “Trysts are dangerous things. I’ve read about lots of them, and no good ever seems to come of them.”
“It will be a very short tryst,” Lillian assured her. “A quarter hour at most. What could happen in that amount of time?”
“From what Annabelle s-says,” Evie said darkly, “a lot.”
“Where is Annabelle?” Lillian asked, realizing that she had not seen her so far that evening.
“She wasn’t feeling well earlier, poor thing,” Daisy said. “She seemed a bit green around the gills. I’m afraid something at lunch may not have agreed with her.”
Lillian made a face and shuddered. “No doubt it was something with eels or veal knuckles or chicken feet…”
Daisy grinned at her. “Don’t, you’ll make yourself ill. At any rate, Mr. Hunt is taking care of her.”
They exited the French doors at the back of the entrance hall and walked out onto the empty flagstone terrace. Daisy turned to shake a finger waggishly at Lillian. “If you’re gone for longer than a quarter hour, Evie and I will come looking for you.”
Lillian responded with a low laugh. “I won’t tarry.” She winked and smiled into Evie’s worried face. “I’ll be fine, dear. And just think of all the interesting things I’ll be able to tell you when I return!”
“That’s what I’m afr-fraid of,” Evie replied.
Descending one side of the back staircase, Lillian picked up her skirts and ventured into the terraced gardens, past one of the ancient hedges that formed impenetrable walls around the lower levels. The torchlit garden was redolent with the colors and scents of autumn…gold and copper foliage, thick borders of roses and dahlias, flowering grasses and beds of fresh mulch that made the air pleasantly pungent.
Hearing the friendly splash of the mermaid fountain, Lillian followed a flagstone path to a little paved clearing illuminated by a lone torchlight. There was movement beside the fountain—one person, no, two people, closely entwined as they sat on one of the stone benches that surrounded the fountain. She stifled a gasp of surprise and drew back into the concealment of the hedge. Lord St. Vincent had told her to meet him here …but surely the man on the bench wasn’t he…was it? Bewildered, Lillian crept forward a few inches to peer around the corner of the hedge.
It quickly became apparent that the couple was so involved in their love play that a passing stampede of elephants would have gone unnoticed by either of them. The woman’s light brown hair had fallen loose, the waving locks hanging in the open void at the back of her partially unfastened gown. Her slim, pale arms loosely encircled his shoulders, and she breathed in shivering sighs as he tugged the sleeve of her gown from her shoulder and kissed the white curve. Lifting his head, he stared at her with a drowsy, impassioned gaze before leaning forward to take her mouth with his. Suddenly Lillian recognized the couple…it was Lady Olivia and her husband, Mr. Shaw. Mortified and curious, she drew back behind the hedge just as Mr. Shaw slid his hand into the back of his wife’s gown. It was the most intimate scene that Lillian had ever witnessed.
And the most intimate sounds she had ever heard…soft gasps and love words, and an inexplicable gentle laugh from Mr. Shaw that caused Lillian’s toes to curl. Her face was scorched with embarrassment as she inched quietly away from the clearing. She was not certain where to go or what to do now that the place for her own rendevous was already occupied. It had given her a strange feeling to witness the deeply passionate tenderness that existed between the Shaws. Love within marriage. Lillian had never dared to hope for such a thing for herself.
A large form appeared before her. Approaching slowly, he slid an arm behind her stiff shoulders and pressed a chilled glass of champagne into her fingers. “My lord?” Lillian whispered.
St. Vincent’s soft murmur tickled her ear. “Come with me.”
Willingly she allowed him to guide her along a darker path, which led to another lit clearing set with a ponderous circular stone table. A pear orchard beyond the clearing infused the air with the fragrance of ripening fruit. Keeping his arm around Lillian’s shoulder, St. Vincent brought her forward. “Shall we stop here?” he asked.