She nodded and leaned her hip against the table, unable to look at him as she drank her champagne. Thinking of her near blunder into the private scene between the Shaws, she flushed deeply.
“Here now, you’re not embarrassed, are you?” St. Vincent said, his voice gilded with amusement. “A little glimpse of…oh, come, that was nothing.” He had removed his gloves—she felt the tips of his fingers slip beneath her chin, lightly nudging her face upward. “What a blush,” he murmured. “Good Lord, I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be so innocent. I doubt I ever was.”
St. Vincent was mesmerizing in the torchlight. Shadows nestled lovingly beneath the fine planes of his cheekbones. The thick, layered locks of his hair were the bronzed gold of an ancient Byzantine icon. “They are married, after all,” he continued, fitting his hands around her waist and lifting her into a seated position on the table.
“Oh, I …I don’t disapprove,” Lillian managed, draining her champagne. “In fact, I was thinking about how fortunate they are. They seem very happy together. And in light of the countess’s aversion to Americans, I am surprised that Lady Olivia was allowed to marry Mr. Shaw.”
“That was Westcliff’s doing. He was determined not to let his mother’s hypocritical views stand in the way of his sister’s happiness. Considering her own scandalous past, the countess had little right to disapprove of her daughter’s choice of whom to marry.”
“The countess has a scandalous past?”
“Lord, yes. Her outward piety covers a wealth of private dissipation. It’s why she and I get on so well. I’m the kind of man she used to have affairs with, back in her younger years.”
The empty glass nearly dropped from Lillian’s fingers. Setting the fragile vessel aside, she regarded St. Vincent with patent surprise. “She doesn’t seem at all like the kind of woman who would have affairs.”
“Haven’t you ever noticed the lack of family resemblance between Westcliff and Lady Olivia? While the earl and his sister Lady Aline are legitimate issue, it is fairly common knowledge that Lady Olivia is not.”
“But one can hardly blame the countess for infidelity,” St. Vincent continued casually, “when one considers whom she was married to.”
The subject of the old earl was one that interested Lillian keenly. He was a mysterious figure, and not one who anyone seemed particularly willing to discuss. “Lord Westcliff once told me that his father was a brute,” she said, hoping that would induce St. Vincent to reveal more.
“Did he?” St. Vincent’s eyes were bright with interest. “That’s unusual. Westcliff never mentions his father to anyone.”
“Was he? A brute, I mean.”
“No,” St. Vincent said softly. “Calling him a brute would be far too kind, as it implies a certain lack of awareness in one’s own cruelty. The old earl was a devil. I know of only a fraction of his atrocities—and I don’t wish to know any more.” Leaning back on his hands, St. Vincent continued thoughtfully, “I doubt many people would have survived the Marsdens’ style of parenting, which varied from benign neglect to utter fiendishness.” He inclined his head, his features shrouded in shadow. “For most of my life I’ve watched Westcliff struggle not to become what his father wanted him to be. But he carries a burden of heavy expectations …and that guides his personal choices more often than he would wish.”
“Personal choices such as…”
He looked at her directly. “Whom he will marry, for instance.”
Understanding immediately, Lillian considered her reply with great care. “It’s not necessary to warn me about that,” she finally said. “I’m well aware that Lord West-cliff would never give a thought to courting someone like me.”
“Oh, he’s thought about it,” St. Vincent stunned her by saying.
Lillian’s heart stopped. “How do you know that? Has he mentioned something to you?”
“No. But it’s obvious that he wants you. Whenever you’re near, he can’t tear his gaze from you. And when you and I were dancing tonight, he looked as if he wanted to skewer me with the nearest sharp object. However…”
“However…” Lillian prompted.
“When Westcliff finally marries, he will make the conventional choice…a malleable young English bride who will make no demands of him.”
Of course. Lillian had never thought differently. But sometimes the truth was not easy to digest. And, maddeningly, there was nothing she could reasonably mourn over. She had never had anything to lose. Westcliff had never made a single promise, or expressed a single word of affection. A few kisses and a waltz did not even amount to a failed romance.
Why, then, did she feel so miserable?
Studying the minute alterations of her expression, St. Vincent smiled sympathetically. “It will fade, sweet,” he murmured. “It always does.” Leaning down, he brushed his mouth over her hair until his lips reached the frail skin of her temple.
Lillian held still, knowing that if her perfume was going to work its magic on him, it would certainly be now. At this close distance, there was no way he could elude its effects. However, as he drew back, she saw that he was still calm and composed. There was nothing at all in his expression to indicate the near-violent passion that Westcliff had displayed toward her. Bloody hell, she thought with a flash of frustration. What use is a perfume that only attracts the wrong man?
“My lord,” she asked softly, “have you ever wanted someone you couldn’t have?”
“Not yet. But one can always hope.”
She responded with a puzzled smile. “You hope to fall in love someday with someone you can’t have? Why?”
“It would be an interesting experience.”
“So would falling off a cliff,” she said sardonically. “But I think one would rather learn about it from secondhand knowledge.”
Laughing, St. Vincent levered himself off the table and turned to face her. “Perhaps you’re right. We had better return you to the manor, my clever little friend, before your absence becomes too obvious.”
“But…” Lillian realized that the interlude in the garden was apparently going to consist of nothing more than a stroll and a brief conversation. “That’s all?” she blurted out. “You’re not going to…” Her voice trailed into disgruntled silence.
Standing before her, St. Vincent rested his hands on the table, bracing them on either side of her h*ps without touching her. His smile was subtle and warm. “I assume you’re referring to the advance I was supposed to make?” Deliberately he inclined his head until his breath caressed her forehead. “I’ve decided to wait, and let us both wonder a bit longer.”
Crestfallen, Lillian wondered if he found her undesirable. For God’s sake, according to the man’s reputation, he would chase after anything in skirts. Whether she truly wanted him to kiss her or not was irrelevant in light of the larger issue, which was that she was being rejected by yet another man. Two rebuffs in one evening—that was a bit hard on anyone’s vanity.
“But you promised to make me feel better,” she protested, turning red with shame as she heard the supplicating note in her own voice.
St. Vincent laughed quietly. “Well, if you’re going to start complaining…here. Something to think about.”
His face lowered over hers, and his fingertips settled on her jaw, gently adjusting the angle of her head. Lillian’s eyes closed, and she felt the silken pressure of his lips, moving over hers with compelling lightness. His mouth drifted in a slow, restive search, settling more firmly with each pass until her lips had parted for him. She had only begun to absorb the exotic promise of his kiss when it ended with a soft nuzzle of his mouth. Disoriented and breathless, she accepted the support of his hands on her shoulders until she was able to sit without toppling from the table.
Something to think about, indeed.
After helping her to descend to the ground, St. Vincent walked through the garden with her until they had reached the succession of terraces that led to the back balcony. They paused at the hedge. Moonlight limned the edges of his profile in silver as he looked into her upturned face. “Thank you,” he murmured.
Was he thanking her for the kiss? Lillian nodded uncertainly, thinking that perhaps it should have been the other way around. Even though the image of Westcliff still lingered moodily in the back of her mind, she didn’t feel nearly as bleak as she had in the ballroom.
“You won’t forget our carriage drive in the morning?” St. Vincent asked, his fingers sliding up the length of her gloves until he had found the bare parts of her upper arms.
Lillian shook her head.
St. Vincent frowned with mock concern. “Have I robbed you of the power of speech?” he asked, and laughed as she nodded. “Hold still, then, and I’ll give it back to you.” His head lowered swiftly, and he pressed a kiss to her mouth, sending a rush of tingling warmth through her veins. His long fingers cradled her cheeks as he gave her a questioning stare. “Is that better? Let me hear you say something.”
She couldn’t help but smile. “Good night,” she murmured.
“Good night,” he said with a smile full of whimsy, and turned her away from him. “You go in first.”
When Sebastian, Lord St. Vincent exerted himself to be charming, as he did the following morning, Lillian doubted that any man on earth could be more appealing. Insisting that Daisy accompany them too, he met the three Bowman women in the entrance hall with a bouquet of roses for Mercedes. He escorted them outside to a black-lacquered curricle, gave a signal to the driver, and the well-sprung vehicle rolled smoothly along the graveled drive.
St. Vincent occupied the seat beside Lillian and kept all three women engaged with questions about their life in New York. It had been a long time, Lillian realized, since she and Daisy had discussed their birthplace with anyone. Hardly anyone in London society gave a fig about New York, or what was happening there. However, Lord St. Vincent proved to be such a receptive audience that soon story upon story was tumbling out.
Eagerly they told him about the row of stone mansions on Fifth Avenue, and about wintertime in Central Park, when the pond at Fifty-ninth Street had frozen over and weekly ice carnivals were held, and how it sometimes took a half hour to cross Broadway Avenue because of the ceaseless line of omnibuses and hackney coaches. And about the ice cream saloon on Broadway and Franklin, which dared to serve young ladies who were unaccompanied by male escorts.
St. Vincent seemed amused by their descriptions of Manhattanville excesses; the party they had once attended at which the ballroom had been filled with three thousand hothouse orchids, and the mania for diamonds that had begun with the discovery of new mines in South Africa, with the result that now everyone from the elderly to the smallest infants was bedecked in glittering gems. And of course the simple mandate given to every decorator…“More.” More gilded molding, more brica-brac, more paint and decorative fabrics, until every room was filled from floor to ceiling.
At first Lillian felt rather nostalgic as she talked about the gaudy life she had once led. However, as the curricle passed acres of golden fields ready for harvest, and dark forests rustling with wildlife, she was aware of a surprising ambivalence regarding her former home. It had been an empty existence, really, with its endless pursuit of fashion and diversion. And London society seemed little better. She would never have thought that a place like Hampshire would appeal to her, but…one could have a real life here, she thought wistfully. A life she could inhabit fully, rather than always having to wonder about her unknown future.
Unaware that she had lapsed into silence, she stared absently at the passing scenery, recalled by St. Vincent’s soft murmur.
“Lost your power of speech again?”
She looked up into his light, smiling eyes, while Daisy and Mercedes were chatting in the opposite seat, and she nodded.
“I know of an excellent cure,” he told her, and she laughed self-consciously, while color flooded her cheeks.
Relaxed and in good humor after the carriage drive with Lord St. Vincent, Lillian only half heard her mother’s prattling about the eligible viscount as they entered her room. “We’ll have to find out more about him, of course, and I will consult the notes in our peerage report to see if there is something I have forgotten. If memory serves, however, he is in possession of a modest fortune, and his bearing and bloodlines are quite good…”
“I would not become too enthused over the idea of having Lord St. Vincent as a son-in-law,” Lillian told Mercedes. “He trifles with women, Mother. I suspect the idea of marriage holds little appeal for him.”
“So far,” Mercedes countered, a scowl falling over the foxlike contours of her face. “But he will have to marry eventually.”
“Will he?” Lillian asked, unconvinced. “If so, I rather doubt that he would abide by the conventional notions of marriage. Fidelity, to start with.”
Striding to a nearby window, Mercedes stared through the glinting glass panes with a pinched expression. Her delicate, almost skeletal fingers plucked at the heavy silk fringe of the window drapes. “All husbands are unfaithful in one way or another.”
Lillian and Daisy glanced at each other with raised brows.
“Father isn’t,” Lillian replied smartly.
Mercedes responded with a laugh that sounded like crackling leaves being crushed underfoot. “Isn’t he, dear? Perhaps he has stayed true to me physically—one can never be certain about these things. But his work has proved a more jealous and demanding mistress than a flesh-and-blood woman could ever be. All his dreams are invested in that collection of buildings and employees and legalities that absorb him to the exclusion of all else. If my competition had been a mortal woman, I could have borne it easily, knowing that passion fades and beauty lasts but an instant. But his company will never fade or sicken—it will outlast us all. If you have a year of your husband’s interest and affection, it will be more than I have ever had.”
Lillian had always been aware of the state of affairs between her parents—their lack of interest in each other could hardly be more obvious. But this was the first time that Mercedes had ever put it into words, and the brittleness of her tone caused Lillian to wince with pity.
“I’m not going to marry that kind of man,” Lillian said.
“Illusions don’t become a girl of your age. By the time I was twenty-four, I had borne two children. It is time for you to marry. And regardless of who your husband is, or what his reputation, you should not ask him to make promises that he may break.”