“You do her an injustice by assuming that she could not adapt. Shouldn’t she be allowed the chance to try?”
“Blast it, Hunt, I have no need of a devil’s advocate.”
“You were hoping for blind agreement?” Hunt asked mockingly. “Perhaps you should have sought someone of your own class for counsel.”
“This has nothing to do with class,” Marcus snapped, resenting the implication that his objections to Lillian stemmed from simple snobbery.
“No,” Hunt agreed calmly, standing from the desk. “It’s an empty argument. I think there is another reason you’ve decided not to pursue her. Something you won’t admit to me, or possibly even to yourself.” He went to the doorway and paused to give Marcus an astute glance. “As you contemplate the matter, however, you should be made aware that St. Vincent’s interest in her is more than a passing fancy.”
Marcus’s attention was instantly captured by the statement. “Nonsense. St. Vincent has never had an interest in a woman beyond the limits of a bedroom.”
“Be that as it may, I was recently informed by a reliable source that his father is selling off everything that isn’t entailed. Years of indiscriminate spending and foolish investments have drained the family coffers—and St. Vincent will soon be deprived of his yearly allotment. He needs money. And the Bowmans’ obvious desire for a titled son-in-law has hardly escaped him.” Hunt allowed a skillfully timed pause before adding, “Whether or not Miss Bowman is suited to be the wife of a peer, she may very well marry St. Vincent. And if so, then he’ll eventually come into his title and she will become a duchess. Fortunately for her, St. Vincent seems to have no qualms about her suitability for the position.”
Marcus stared at him with furious astonishment. “I’ll speak to Bowman,” he growled. “Once I make him aware of St. Vincent’s past, he’ll put a stop to the courtship.”
“By all means…if you think he’ll listen. My guess is that he won’t. A duke for a son-in-law, even a penniless one, is not a bad catch for a soap manufacturer from New York.”
To anyone who cared to notice, it was obvious during the last two weeks of the house party at Stony Cross Park that Lord Westcliff and Miss Lillian Bowman made a mutual effort to avoid each other’s company as much as possible. It was equally obvious that Lord St. Vincent was partnering her with increasing frequency at the dances, picnics, and water parties that enlivened the pleasant autumn days in Hampshire.
Lillian and Daisy spent several mornings in the company of the Countess of Westcliff, who lectured, instructed, and tried in vain to instill them with an aristocratic perspective. Aristocrats never displayed enthusiasm, but rather detached interest. Aristocrats relied on subtle inflections of the voice to convey meaning. Aristocrats would say “relation” or “kinsman,” rather than “relative.” And they used the phrase “do be good enough” rather than ask “would you.” Furthermore, it was mandatory that an aristocratic lady should never express herself directly, but instead hint gracefully at her meaning.
If the countess preferred one sister over the other, it was certainly Daisy, who proved far more receptive to the archaic code of aristocratic behavior. Lillian, on the other hand, made little effort to hide her scorn at social rules that were, in her opinion, completely pointless. Why did it matter if one slid the bottle of port across the table or simply handed it over, as long as the port reached its destination? Why were so many subjects forbidden to discuss, whereas others that held no interest for her must be visited in tedious repetition? Why was it better to walk slowly than at a brisk pace, and why must a lady try to echo a gentleman’s opinions rather than offer her own?
She found a measure of relief in the company of Lord St. Vincent, who seemed not to give a damn about her mannerisms or what words she used. He was entertained by her frankness, and he was decidedly irreverent. Even his own father, the Duke of Kingston, was not exempt from St. Vincent’s derision. The duke, it seemed, had no idea how to apply tooth powder to his toothbrush, or put on his stocking garters, as such tasks had always been done for him by his valet. Lillian could not help but laugh at the idea of such a pampered existence, leading St. Vincent to speculate in mock horror at the primitive life she must have led in America, having to live in a mansion that was identified with a dreaded number over the door, or having to comb one’s own hair or tie one’s own shoes.
St. Vincent was the most engaging man that Lillian had ever met. Beneath the layers of silken gentility, however, there was a hardness, an impenetrability, that could only have belonged to a very cold man. Or perhaps an extremely guarded one. Either way, Lillian knew intuitively that whatever kind of soul lurked inside this elegant creature, she would never find out. He was as beautiful and inscrutable as a sphinx.
“St. Vincent needs to marry into a fortune,” Annabelle reported one afternoon, as the wallflowers sat beneath a tree, sketching and watercoloring. “According to Mr. Hunt, Lord St. Vincent’s father, the duke, is soon to cut off his annual portion, as there is hardly any money left. There will be little for St. Vincent to inherit, I’m afraid.”
“What happens when the money is gone?” Daisy asked, her pencil moving deftly across the paper as she sketched a view of the landscape. “Will St. Vincent sell some of his estates and properties when he becomes a duke?”
“That depends,” Annabelle replied, picking up a leaf and inspecting the delicate vein pattern of its amber skin. “If most of the property he inherits is entailed, then no. But have no fear that he’ll become a pauper—there are many families who will compensate him handsomely if he agrees to marry one of them.”
“Mine, for example,” Lillian said sardonically.
Annabelle watched her closely as she murmured, “Dear…has Lord St. Vincent mentioned anything to you about intentions?”
“Not a word.”
“Has he ever tried to—”
“He intends to marry you, then,” Annabelle said with unnerving certainty. “If he were merely trifling, he would have tried to compromise you by now.”
The silence that followed was gently fractured by the dry swish of the overhead leaves, and the scratch of Daisy’s busy pencil.
“Wh-what will you do if Lord St. Vincent proposes?” Evie asked, peeking at Lillian over the edge of her wooden watercolor case, the top half of which served as an easel as she balanced it on her lap.
Unthinkingly Lillian plucked at the grass beneath her, breaking the fragile blades with her fingers. Suddenly realizing that the activity was reminiscent of Mercedes, who had a nervous habit of pulling and tearing things, she stopped and tossed the bits of grass aside. “I’ll accept him, of course,” she said. The other three girls looked at her with mild surprise. “Why wouldn’t I?” she continued defensively. “Do you realize how few dukes there are to be found? According to Mother’s peerage report, there are only twenty-nine in all of Great Britain.”
“But Lord St. Vincent is a shameless skirt chaser,” Annabelle said. “I can’t envision that as his wife, you would tolerate such behavior.”
“All husbands are unfaithful in one way or another.” Lillian tried to sound matter-of-fact, but somehow her tone came out defiant and surly.
Annabelle’s blue eyes were soft with compassion. “I don’t believe that.”
“The next season hasn’t even started,” Daisy pointed out, “and now with the countess as our sponsor, we’ll have much better luck this year than last. There’s no need to marry Lord St. Vincent if you don’t wish it—no matter what Mother says.”
“I want to marry him.” Lillian felt her mouth tighten into a stubborn line. “In fact, I will live for the moment when St. Vincent and I will attend a dinner as the Duke and Duchess of Kingston …a dinner that Westcliff will also be attending, and I will be escorted into the dining hall before him, as my husband’s title will take precedence over his. I’ll make Westcliff sorry. I’ll make him wish—” She broke off abruptly, realizing that her tone was far too sharp, betraying far too much. Stiffening her spine, she glared at some distant point on the landscape, and flinched as she felt Daisy’s small hand settle between her shoulders.
“Perhaps by then you won’t care anymore,” Daisy murmured.
“Perhaps,” Lillian agreed dully.
The next afternoon saw the estate mostly vacant of guests, as the majority of the gentlemen went to a local race meeting, to wager, drink, and smoke to their hearts’ content. The ladies were conveyed in a succession of carriages to the village, where a traditional feast day would be attended by a touring company of London performers. Eager for the diversion of some light comedies and music, the female guests left the estate en masse. Although Annabelle, Evie, and Daisy all implored Lillian to come with them, she refused. The antics of a few traveling players held no appeal for her. She did not want to force herself to smile and laugh. She only wanted to walk alone outside…to walk for miles, until she was too weary to think about anything.
She went alone into the back garden, following the path that led to the mermaid fountain, which was set like a jewel in the middle of the paved clearing. A nearby hedge was covered with wisteria, appearing as if someone had draped a succession of pink tea cozies across the top of it. Sitting on the edge of the fountain, Lillian stared into the foamy water. She was not aware of anyone approaching until she heard a quiet voice from the path.
“What luck to find you in the first place I looked.”
Glancing up with a smile, she beheld Lord St. Vincent. His golden-amber hair seemed to absorb the sunlight. His coloring was unquestionably Anglo-Saxon, but the dramatic lines of his cheekbones, angled at a rather tigerish slant, and the sensuous fullness of his wide mouth gave him a singularly exotic appeal.
“Aren’t you leaving for the race meeting?” Lillian asked.
“In a moment. I wanted to speak to you first.” St. Vincent glanced at the space beside her. “May I?”
“But we’re alone,” she said. “And you always insist on a chaperone.”
“Today I’ve changed my mind.”
“Oh.” Her smile held a slightly tremulous curve. “In that case, do have a seat.” She colored as it occurred to her that this was the exact spot where she had seen Lady Olivia and Mr. Shaw embracing so passionately. From the glint in St. Vincent’s eyes, it was apparent that he remembered too.
“Come the weekend,” he said, “the house party will be over…and then it’s back to London.”
“You must be eager to return to the amusements of town life,” Lillian remarked. “For a rake, your behavior has been surprisingly tame.”
“Even we dissipated rakes need an occasional holiday. A constant diet of depravity would become boring.”
Lillian smiled. “Rake or no, I have enjoyed your friendship these past days, my lord.” As the words left her lips, she was surprised to realize that they were true.
“Then you think of me as a friend,” he said softly. “That’s good.”
“Because I would like to continue seeing you.”
Her heart quickened its pace. Although the remark was not unexpected, she was caught off-guard nonetheless. “In London?” she asked inanely.
“Wherever you happen to be. Is that agreeable to you?”
“Well, of course, it …I…yes.”
As he stared at her with those fallen-angel eyes and smiled, Lillian was forced to agree with Daisy’s assessment of St. Vincent’s animal magnetism. He looked like a man who was born to sin…a man who could make sinning so enjoyable that one hardly minded paying the price afterward.
St. Vincent reached for her slowly, his fingers sliding from her shoulders to the sides of her throat. “Lillian, my love. I’m going to ask your father for permission to court you.”
She breathed unsteadily against the caressing framework of his hands. “I am not the only available heiress you could pursue.”
His thumbs smoothed the gentle hollows of her cheeks, and his dark brown lashes half lowered. “No,” he answered frankly. “But you’re by far the most interesting. Most women aren’t, you know. At least not out of bed.” He leaned closer, until the heated touch of his whisper warmed her lips. “I daresay you’ll be interesting in bed as well.”
Well, here it was, Lillian thought dazedly—the long-awaited advance—and then her thoughts were muddled as his mouth moved over hers in a light caress. He kissed as if he were the first man who had ever discovered it, with a lazy expertise that seduced her by slow degrees. Even with her limited experience, she perceived that the kiss was wrought more of technique than emotion, but her stunned senses didn’t seem to care as he drew a helpless response from her with every tender shift of his mouth. He built her pleasure at an unhurried pace, until she gasped against his lips and turned her head weakly away.
His fingers slid over the hot surface of her cheek, and he gently pressed her head to his shoulder. “I’ve never courted anyone before,” he murmured, his lips playing near her ear. “Not for honorable purposes, at any rate.”
“You’re doing quite well for a beginner,” she said against his coat.
Laughing, he eased away from her, and his warm gaze coasted over her flushed face. “You’re lovely,” he said softly. “And fascinating.”
And wealthy, she added silently. But he was doing a very good job of convincing her that he desired her for more than financial reasons. She appreciated that. Forcing a smile to her lips, she stared at the enigmatic but charming man who might very well become her husband. Your Grace, she thought. That was what Westcliff would have to call her, once St. Vincent came into his title. First she would be Lady St. Vincent, and then the Duchess of Kingston. She would be above Westcliff socially, and she would never let him forget it. Your Grace, she repeated, comforting herself with the syllables. Your Grace…
After St. Vincent left her to go to the race meeting, Lillian wandered back to the manor. The fact that her future was finally taking shape should have relieved her, but instead she was filled with grim resolve. She entered the house, which was serene and silent. After the past weeks of seeing the place filled with people, it was strange to walk through the empty entrance hall. The hallways were quiet, with only the occasional passing of a lone servant to interrupt the stillness.