“Much as it may surprise you, we’ve never needed lubricant in the library before now.”

Lillian frowned up at him. “Before you start to criticize, Wes’cliff, I should like to point out that I am not the first person ever to get her finger stuck in a bottle. It happens to people all the time.”

“Does it? You must be referring to Americans. Because I’ve never seen an Englishman with a bottle stuck on his finger. Even a foxed one.”

“I’m not foxed, I’m only—where are you going?”

“Stay there,” Marcus muttered, striding from the room. As he went out into the hallway, he saw a house-maid approaching with a pail full of rags and cleaning supplies. The dark-haired maid froze as she saw him, intimidated by the sight of his scowling face. He tried to remember her name. “Meggie,” he said curtly. “It is Meggie, isn’t it?”

“Yes, milord,” she said meekly, dropping her gaze.

“Do you have any soap or polish in that pail?”

“Yes, sir,” she replied in confusion. “The housekeeper told me to polish the chairs in the billiards room—”

“What’s it made of?” he interrupted, wondering if it contained any caustic ingredients. Seeing her increasing bewilderment, he clarified, “The polish, Meggie.”

Her eyes turned round at the master’s untoward interest in the mundane substance. “Beeswax,” she said uncertainly. “An’ lemon juice, an’ a drop or two of oil.”

“That’s all?”

“Yes, milord.”

“Good,” he said with a decisive nod. “Let me have it, if I may.”

Agog, the housemaid reached into the pail, pulled out a small pot of the waxy yellow concoction, and extended it to him. “Milord, if you wish for me to polish something—”

“That will be all, Meggie. Thank you.”

She bobbed in a little curtsy, staring after him as if he had taken leave of his senses.

Returning to the library, Marcus saw Lillian lying on her back on the carpeted floor. His first thought was that she must have drifted into oblivion, but as he approached, he saw that she was holding a long wooden cylinder in her free hand, and squinting through one end. “I found it,” she exclaimed in triumph. “The kaleidoscope. It’s verrrry interesting. But not quite what I ‘spected.”

Silently he reached out, plucked the instrument from her hand, and gave her the other end to look through.

Lillian promptly gasped in amazement. “Oh, that’s lovely …How does it work?”

“One end is fitted with strategically placed panels of silvered glass, and then…” His voice faded as she turned the thing toward him.

“My lord,” she pronounced in solemn concern, viewing him through the cylinder, “you have three …hundred…eyes.” She dissolved into a fit of giggles that shook her until she dropped the kaleidoscope.

Sinking to his knees beside her, Marcus said tersely, “Give me your hand. No, not that one. The one with the bottle on it.”

She remained lying on her back as Marcus smeared a gob of the polish onto the exposed part of her finger. He rubbed the stuff into the seam where the bottle was clamped around her skin. Warmed by the heat of his palm, the scented wax released a heady burst of lemon fragrance, and Lillian breathed in the aroma with relish. “Oh, I like that.”

“Can you pull it out now?”

“Not yet.”

Making a sheath of his fingers, he continued to smooth the oily wax over her finger and the shaft of the bottle. Lillian relaxed at the gentle motion, seeming content to lie still and watch him.

He looked down at her, finding it difficult to resist the urge to climb over her prone body and kiss her senseless. “Would you mind telling me why you were drinking pear brandy in the middle of the afternoon?”

“Because I couldn’ open the sherry.”

His lips twitched. “What I meant was, why were you drinking at all?”

“Oh. Well, I was feeling rather …high-strung. And I thought it might help me to relax.”

Marcus rubbed the base of her finger with soft, twisting strokes. “Why were you feeling high-strung?”

Lillian averted her face from him. “I don’t want to talk about that.”

“Hmm.”

She looked back at him, her gaze narrowed. “What did you mean by that?”

“I meant nothing by it.”

“You did. That was no ord’nary ‘hmm.’ It was a disapproving ‘hmm.’ “

“I was merely speculating.”

“Gimme a guess,” she challenged. “Your bes’ guess.”

“I think it has something to do with St. Vincent.” He saw from the shadow that passed over her expression that his guess was on the mark. “Tell me what happened,” he said, watching her closely.

“You know,” she said dreamily, passing over his question, “you’re not nearly as handsome as Lord St. Vincent.”

“There’s a surprise,” he said dryly.

“But for some reason,” she continued, “I never want to kiss him the way I do you.” It was a good thing that she had closed her eyes, for if she had seen his expression, she might not have continued. “There is something about you that makes me feel terribly wicked. You make me want to do shocking things. Maybe it’s because you’re so proper. Your necktie is never crooked, and your shoes are always shiny. And your shirts are so starchy. Sometimes when I look at you, I want to tear off all your buttons. Or set your trousers on fire.” She giggled helplessly. “I’ve so often wondered—are you ticklish, my lord?”

“No,” Marcus rasped, his heart pounding beneath his starched shirt. Acute lust caused his flesh to burgeon heavily, his body eager to plunder the slender female form that was spread before him. His beleaguered sense of honor protested that he was not the kind of man who would take an inebriated woman to bed. She was helpless. She was a virgin. He would never forgive himself if he took advantage of her in this condition—

“It worked!” Lillian held up her hand and waved it victoriously. “My finger’s out.” Her lips curved in a sultry grin. “Why are you frowning?” Heaving herself to a sitting position, she caught at his shoulders for support. “That little crinkle you get between your brows …it makes me want to…” Her voice trailed away as she stared at his forehead.

“What?” Marcus whispered, his self-control nearly annihilated.

Still clinging to the support of his shoulders, Lillian rose to her knees. “To do this.” Her lips pressed between his brows.

Marcus closed his eyes and gave a faint, desperate groan. He wanted her. Not merely to bed her—though at the moment that was certainly his uppermost thought—but in other ways as well. He could no longer deny that for the rest of his life, he would measure every other woman against her, and find them all lacking. Her smile, her sharp tongue, her temper, her infectious laugh, her body and spirit, everything about her struck a pleasurable chord in him. She was independent, willful, stubborn…qualities that most men did not desire in a wife. The fact that he did was as undeniable as it was unexpected.

There were only two ways to manage the situation. He could either continue trying to avoid her, which had been a spectacular failure so far, or he could simply give in. Give in…knowing that she would never be the placid, proper wife he had always envisioned having. In marrying her, he would defy a fate that had been scripted for him before he had even been born.

He would never be entirely certain what to expect from Lillian. She would behave in ways that he would not always understand, and she would bite back like a half-tamed creature whenever he tried to control her. She was a creature possessed of strong emotions and an even stronger will. They would quarrel. She would never allow him to become too comfortable, too settled.

Dear God, was that truly the future he wanted?

Yes. Yes. Yes.

Nuzzling the soft curve of her cheek, Marcus relished the hot surge of her brandy-scented breath on his face. He was going to take her. Firmly he slid both hands around her head, guiding her mouth to his. She made an inarticulate sound and returned the kiss with unmaidenly enthusiasm, so sweet and ardent in her response that he almost smiled. But the smile was lost in the luscious friction of their lips. He loved the way she responded to him, feasting on his mouth with a passion that equaled his own. Lowering her to the floor, he settled her into the crook of his arm and explored her mouth with deep, carnal strokes of his tongue. Her skirts bunched between them, frustrating their mutual attempts to press closer. Writhing like a cat, Lillian fought to push her hands inside his coat. They rolled slowly across the floor, first he on top, then she, neither of them caring as long as their bodies were entwined.

She was slim but strong, her limbs wrapping around him, her hands roaming impatiently over his back. Marcus had never experienced such intense arousal in his life, every cell in his body pervaded with heat. He had to get inside her. He had to feel, kiss, caress, taste every inch of her.

They rolled again, and the feel of a chair leg digging into Marcus’s back temporarily recalled him to sanity. He realized that they were making love in one of the most frequented rooms of the house. This would not do. Swearing, he hauled Lillian up with him, clasping her hard against his body as they stood. Her soft mouth sought his, and he resisted with an unsteady laugh. “Lillian…” His voice was hoarse. “Come with me.”

“Where?” she asked faintly.

“Upstairs.”

He felt from the sudden tension of her spine that she understood what he intended. The brandy had loosened her inhibitions, but it had not robbed her of her wits. Not entirely, at any rate. She brought her light, hot fingers up to his cheek, staring into his eyes with glittering intensity. “To your bed?” she whispered. At his slight nod, she leaned forward and spoke against his mouth. “Oh yes…”

He sought her kiss-swollen lips with his own. She was so delicious, her mouth, her tongue…His breathing turned ragged, and he used the shifting pressure of his hands to mold her body to him. They staggered together until he braced one of his hands on a nearby bookshelf to secure their balance. He couldn’t kiss her deeply enough. He needed more of her. More of her skin, her smell, her frantic pulse under his tongue, her hair wrapped around his fingers. He needed the flex and arch of her na*ed body under his, the scratch of her nails on his back, the shudder of her cl**ax as her inner muscles clenched around him. He wanted to take her fast, slow, rough, easy…in infinite ways, in measureless passion.

Somehow he managed to lift his head long enough to say hoarsely, “Put your arms around my neck.” And as she obeyed, he lifted her high against his chest.

CHAPTER 18

If this was a dream, Lillian thought a few minutes later, it was happening with amazing clarity. A dream, yes …she clung tightly to the notion. One could do anything one wished in a dream. There were no rules, no obligations…only pleasure. Oh, the pleasure …Marcus, undressing her, and himself, until their clothes were mingled in a heap on the floor, and he lifted her to a wide bed with cloud-soft pillows covered in slick white linen. This was definitely a dream, because people only made love in the dark, and afternoon sunlight was flooding the room.

Marcus was beside her, leaning over her, his mouth playing with hers in kisses so lazy and prolonged that she couldn’t tell when one ended and another began. The length of his na*ed form pressed against hers, startling in its power, his flesh like steel beneath her exploring hands. Hard and yet satiny, and fever-hot…his body was a revelation. The springy hair on his chest tickled her bare br**sts as he moved over her. He laid claim to every inch of her in a slow, erotic pilgrimage of kisses and caresses.

It seemed to her that his scent—and her own, for that matter—had altered in the heat of desire, acquiring a salty pungency that suffused every breath with erotic perfume. She buried her face against his throat, inhaling greedily. Marcus …this dream-Marcus was not a self-contained English gentleman, but a tender, audacious stranger who shocked her with the intimacies he demanded. Turning her onto her stomach, he nibbled his way down the length of her spine, his tongue finding places on her back that caused her to twitch in surprised pleasure. The warmth of his hand smoothed over her bottom. As she felt his fingertips probing the secret crevice between her thighs, she made a helpless sound, beginning to push up from the mattress.

Pressing her back down with a low murmur, Marcus separated the springy curls and entered her with one finger, teasing and circling the delicate flesh. She rested one side of her burning face against the snowy bed linens, gasping with pleasure. He purred against the back of her neck and moved to straddle her. The silken weight of his sex brushed against the inside of her leg while his hand played between her thighs, his touch devilishly light and gentle. Toogentle. She wanted more…she wanted anything …everything. Her heart raced, and she clutched handfuls of the linens, knotting them in her damp fists. A peculiar tension coiled within her, making her writhe beneath his powerfully muscled body.

Her breathless cries seemed to please him. He rolled her onto her back, his eyes glittering with dark fire. “Lillian,” he whispered against her trembling mouth, “my angel, my love…does it ache right here?” His finger stroked inside her. “This sweet, empty place …do you want me to fill it?”

“Yes,” she sobbed, wriggling to get closer to him. “Yes…Marcus, yes…”

“Soon.” He dragged his tongue across her taut nipple.

She groaned as his tantalizing touch withdrew. Bewildered and frantic, she felt him slide lower, lower, tasting and nipping at her tense body, until …until…

Her breath caught with astonishment as his hands pushed her thighs wide, and the wet coolness of his tongue invaded the damp thicket of curls. Her h*ps arched high against his mouth. He couldn’t, he couldn’t, she thought dazedly, even as he licked deeper into her mound, the tip of his tongue circling in a sly, flirting torment that made her cry out. He wouldn’t stop. He centered on the tiny peak of her sex, finding a rhythm that sent wildfire through her body, then pausing to probe the intricate folds until she groaned at the sensation of his tongue entering her.

“Marcus,” she heard herself whispering brokenly, again and again, as if his name were an erotic incantation. “Marcus…” Her shaking hands descended to his head as she tried to urge him higher, to push his mouth where she needed it. Had she been able to find the words, she would have begged. Suddenly his mouth slid upward that small but crucial distance, clamping over her with sensuous precision, sucking and tonguing her without mercy. She let out a hoarse cry as a heavy tide of ecstasy swept over her, tumbling and washing her senses.


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