“Then I take it that he may behave in any way he wishes, and treat me in whatever manner he sees fit, just so long as he is a peer?” Lillian retorted.
“That is correct,” Mercedes said grimly. “After the investment your father has made in this venture …the clothes and the hotel bills, and all our other expenses…you have no choice, either of you, but to land an aristocratic husband. Furthermore, I will not return to New York in defeat and be made a laughingstock because my daughters failed to marry into the nobility.” Jerking away from the window, she left the room, too preoccupied with her own angry thoughts to remember to lock the door, which stopped just short of meeting the doorjamb as it swung closed.
Daisy was the first to speak. “Does that mean that she wants you to marry Lord St. Vincent?” she asked ironically.
Lillian gave a humorless laugh. “She wouldn’t care if I married a drooling, homicidal madman, as long as his bloodlines were noble.”
Sighing, Daisy walked over to her and presented her back. “Help me with my gown and corset, will you?”
“What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to take these blasted things off and read a novel, and then I’m going to take a nap.”
“You want to take a nap?” Lillian asked, having never known her sister to voluntarily rest in the middle of the day.
“Yes. Jolting about in the carriage gave me a headache, and now Mother has finished the job with all her talk of marrying peers.” Daisy’s frail shoulders were rigid in the confines of her walking dress. “You seem rather taken with Lord St. Vincent. What do you truly think of him?”
Lillian carefully pulled the succession of tiny loops from their carved ivory buttons. “He’s amusing,” she said. “And attractive. I would be tempted to dismiss him as a shallow good-for-naught …but every now and then I see signs of something beneath the surface…” She paused, finding it difficult to put her thoughts into words.
“Yes, I know.” Daisy’s voice was muffled as she bent to push down the heaps of delicate printed muslin from her h*ps to the floor. “And I don’t like it, whatever it is.”
“You don’t?” Lillian asked in surprise. “But you were friendly to him this morning.”
“One can’t help but be friendly to him,” Daisy admitted. “He has that quality that the hypnotists talk about. Animal magnetism, they call it. A natural force that draws people to oneself.”
Lillian grinned and shook her head. “You read too many periodicals, dear.”
“Well, Lord St. Vincent, regardless of his magnetism, seems to be the kind who is motivated entirely by self-interest, and therefore I don’t trust him.” Draping her discarded gown over a chair, Daisy tugged in determination at the framework of her corset, and sighed in relief as she pried it from her sylphlike body. If there was ever a girl who did not need a corset, it was Daisy. However, it simply wasn’t proper for a lady to go without one. Eagerly Daisy tossed the corset to the floor, retrieved a book from the bedside table, and climbed onto the mattress. “I have a periodical, if you want to read too.”
“No, thank you. I’m too restless to read, and I certainly couldn’t sleep.” Lillian cast a speculative glance at the partially open door. “I doubt Mother would notice if I slipped off to have a walk in the garden. She’ll be poring over her peerage report for the next two hours.”
There was no reply from Daisy, who had already become involved in the novel. Smiling at her sister’s intent face, Lillian quietly left the room and went to the servants’ entrance down the hall.
Entering the garden, she followed a path she had not taken before, paralleled by what seemed to be miles of immaculately trimmed yew hedge. The manor gardens, with their careful attention to structure and form, must look beautiful in the winter, she thought. After a light snow, the hedgerows and topiaries and statues would appear as if they had been coated in Christmas cake icing, while the limbs of the brown-leaved beeches would carefully hold wedges of ice and snow in their branches. Now, however, the winter seemed ages away from this russety September garden.
She passed a massive hothouse through which one could see trays of salad plants and containers of exotic vegetables. Two men conversed just outside the door, one of them squatting on his haunches before a row of wooden trays filled with drying tuber roots. Lillian recognized one of the men as the elderly master gardener. Progressing along the path beside the hothouse, Lillian couldn’t help but notice that the man on the ground, who was dressed in rough trousers and a simple white shirt with no waistcoat, had an extremely athletic form, his position causing his garments to stretch over his backside in a most diverting way. He had picked up one of the tuber roots and was examining it critically, when he became aware that someone was approaching.
Standing, the man turned to face her. It would be Westcliff, Lillian thought, while her insides tangled in a knot of excitement. He monitored everything on his estate with the same meticulous care. Even a humble tuber root was not going to be allowed to dwell in comfortable mediocrity.
This version of Westcliff was the one she preferred to all others—the seldom seen version in which he was disheveled and relaxed, and mesmerizing in his dark virility. The open neck of his shirt revealed the edge of a fleece of curling hair. His trousers hung slightly loose on his lean waist, held up by a pair of braces that defined the hard line of his shoulders. If Lord St. Vincent possessed animal magnetism, Westcliff was nothing less than a lodestone, exerting such a pull on her senses that she felt her entire body tingle from its force. She wanted to go to him this very second, have him bear her to the ground with rough whole-mouthed kisses and impatient caresses. Instead she dipped her chin in a jerky nod in response to his murmured greeting, and quickened her pace along the path.
To her relief, Westcliff did not attempt to follow her, and her heartbeat soon slowed to its usual pace. Exploring her surroundings, she came to a wall that was nearly concealed by a tall hedge and great falls of ivy. It seemed that this particular section of the garden had been completely enclosed by towering walls. Curiously she walked along the hedge, but she could find no entrance to the private court. “There has to be a door,” she murmured aloud. She stood back and stared at the wall before her, trying to find a break in the ivy. Nothing. Taking another tack, she went to the wall and reached through the spills of ivy, running her hands along the concealed sections of stone wall in search of a door.
There was a chuckle behind her, and she turned quickly at the sound.
It seemed that Westcliff had decided to follow her after all. As a perfunctory concession to propriety he had donned a dark waistcoat, but his shirt was still open at the throat, and his dusty trousers were rather the worse for wear. He came to her with a leisurely stride, a slight smile on his lips. “I should have known you’d try to find a way into the hidden garden.”
Lillian was almost unnaturally aware of the quiet chatter of birds and the soft whisper of the breeze through the ivy. With his gaze holding hers, Westcliff approached …closer, closer, until their bodies were nearly touching. His fragrance drifted to her nostrils, the delicious mingling of sun-heated male skin and the singular dry sweetness that appealed to her so. Slowly he reached one arm around her, and her breath caught in the back of her throat as she shrank into the swishing ivy. She heard the metallic click of a latch.
“A bit more to the left and you would have found it,” he said softly.
Blindly she turned in the half circle of his arm, watching as he pushed the ivy back and sent the door swinging gently inward.
“Go on,” Westcliff urged. There was the slightest pressure of his hand at her waist, and he went with her into the garden.
A wordless exclamation escaped Lillian’s lips as she beheld a square patch of lawn that was surrounded on all sides by a butterfly garden. Every wall was bordered with rich tumbles of color, a profusion of wildflowers that were covered with delicate fluttering wings. The only furnishment in the garden was a circular bench in the center from which every part of the garden could be viewed. The sublime incense of sun-heated flowers floated to her nostrils, intoxicating her with their sweetness.
“It’s called Butterfly Court,” Westcliff said, closing the door. His voice was a stroke of unfinished velvet on her ears. “It’s been planted with the flowers most likely to attract them.”
Lillian smiled dreamily as she watched the tiny, busy forms hovering at the heliotrope and marigold. “What are those called? The orange and black ones.”
Westcliff came to stand beside her. “Painted ladies.”
“How does one refer to a group of butterflies? A swarm?”
“Most commonly. However, I prefer a more recent variation—in some circles it is referred to as a kaleidoscope of butterflies.”
“A kaleidoscope…that’s some kind of optical instrument, isn’t it? I’ve heard of them, but never chanced to see one.”
“I have a kaleidoscope in the library. If you like, I will show it to you later.” Before she could reply, Westcliff pointed toward a huge fall of lavender. “Over there—the white butterfly is a skipper.”
A sudden laugh bubbled in her throat. “A dingy-skipper?”
Answering amusement twinkled in his eyes. “No. Just the regular variety of skipper.”
Sunlight glossed his heavy black hair and imparted a bronze sheen to his skin. Lillian’s gaze fell to the strong line of his throat, and suddenly she was unbearably aware of the coiled force of his body, the contained masculine power that had fascinated her since the first time she had ever seen him. What would it feel like to be wrapped inside that potent strength?
“How lovely the lavender smells,” she remarked, trying to distract her thoughts from their dangerous inclinations. “Someday I want to travel to Provence, to walk one of the lavender roads in summer. They say the stands of flowers are so far-reaching that the fields look like an ocean of blue. Can you imagine how beautiful it must be?”
Westcliff shook his head slightly, staring at her.
She wandered to one of the lavender stalks and touched the tiny violet-blue blossoms, and brought her scented fingertips to her throat. “They extract the essential oil by forcing steam through the plants and drawing off the liquid. It takes something like five hundred pounds of lavender plants to produce just a few precious ounces of oil.”
“You seem quite knowledgeable on the subject.”
Lillian’s lips quirked. “I have a great interest in scents. In fact, I could help my father a great deal with his company, were he to allow it. But I’m a woman, and therefore my only purpose in life is to marry well.” She wandered to the edge of the radiant wildflower bed.
Westcliff followed, coming to stand just behind her. “That puts me in mind of an issue that needs to be discussed.”
“You’ve been keeping company with St. Vincent of late.”
“So I have.”
“He is not a suitable companion for you.”
“He is your friend, is he not?”
“Yes—which is why I know what he is capable of.”
“Are you warning me to stay away from him?”
“As that would obviously be the supreme inducement for you to do otherwise…no. I am merely advising you not to be naive.”
“I can manage St. Vincent.”
“I’m sure you believe so.” A thread of annoying condescension had entered his tone. “However, it is clear that you have neither the experience nor the maturity to defend yourself against his advances.”
“So far you have been the only one I’ve needed to defend myself against,” Lillian retorted, turning to face him. She observed with satisfaction that the shot had hit its mark, causing a faint wash of color to edge his cheeks and the well-defined bridge of his nose.
“If St. Vincent has not yet taken advantage of you,” he replied with dangerous gentleness, “it is only because he is waiting for an opportune moment. And in spite of your inflated opinion of your own abilities—or perhaps because of it—you are an easy mark for seduction.”
“Inflated?” Lillian repeated in outrage. “I’ll have you know that I am far too experienced to be caught unaware by any man, including St. Vincent.” To Lillian’s vexation, Westcliff seemed to recognize the exaggeration for what it was, a smile gleaming in his sable eyes.
“I was mistaken, then. From the way you kiss, I assumed…” He deliberately left the sentence unfinished, laying out bait that she was powerless to resist.
“What do you mean, ‘from the way I kiss’? Are you implying that there is something wrong? Something you don’t like? Something I shouldn’t—”
“No…” His fingertips brushed her mouth, silencing her. “Your kisses were very…” He hesitated as if the right word eluded him, and then his attention seemed to focus on the plush surface of her lips. “Sweet,” he whispered after a long time, his fingers sliding across the underside of her chin. Light as the touch was, he had to feel the exquisite tension of her throat muscles. “But your response was not what I would have expected of an experienced woman.”
His thumb rubbed across her lower lip, teasing it apart from the top one. Lillian felt bemused and combative, like a sleepy kitten who had just been awakened with a tickling feather. She stiffened as she felt him slide a supportive arm behind her back. “What…what more was I supposed to do? What could you have expected that I didn’t—” She stopped with a swift inhalation as his fingers followed the angle of her jaw, cupping the side of her face.
“Shall I show you?”
Reflexively she pushed at his chest in an attempt to loosen his hold. She might as well have tried to move an ironstone wall. “Westcliff—”
“You clearly have need of a qualified tutor.” His warm breath touched her lips as he spoke. “Hold still.”
Realizing that she was being mocked, Lillian pushed much harder, and found her wrists being twisted behind her back with astonishing ease, until the gentle weight of her br**sts was thrust forward against his chest. Sputtering in protest, she felt his mouth cover hers, and she was instantly paralyzed by a flare of sensation that whipped through every muscle in her body until she was drawn up like a child’s wooden puppet with knotted strings.
Folded inside his arms, compressed against the hard surface of his chest, she felt her breathing escalate into deep, uneven surges. Her lashes fell, the sunlight warm against the frail shelter of her lids. There was the slow penetration of his tongue, a melting intimacy that sent a hard shiver through her body. Feeling the movement, he sought to soothe her with long strokes of his palm over her back, even as his mouth played with hers. He searched more intensely, and the thrust of his tongue met with a bashful retreat that drew a low sound of amusement from his chest. Instantly offended, Lillian drew back, and he cupped his hand around the back of her head.