Marcus levered himself over her and cradled her in his arms, his mouth warm as he kissed her wet cheeks. Lillian held him tightly, her breath coming hard and fast. It still wasn’t enough. She wanted his body, his soul, inside her own. Reaching down awkwardly, she touched the rigid length of his shaft and guided him to the damp cove between her thighs.
“Lillian…” His eyes were like molten obsidian. “If we do this, you need to understand how it will change things. We’ll have to—”
“Now,” she interrupted huskily. “Come inside me. Now.” She ran exploring fingertips from the root of the shaft to the swollen tip. Nuzzling the strong column of his throat, she bit him lightly. In a sudden blur of movement he pushed her to her back, his body lowering over hers. He pushed her legs wide. She felt a stinging pressure between her thighs, and her muscles tightened against the invasion.
Marcus reached between their bodies and found the peak of her sex, his fingertips kindling new pleasure in her sensitive flesh until she rocked upward in helpless reply. With each welcoming rise of her hips, she felt his insistent hardness pressing deeper, stretching her. And then he moved with an explicit thrust to sink fully inside her. Gasping in pained surprise, she held still, her hands clutching his hard, smooth back. Her flesh throbbed violently around his, a rim of tight-stretched soreness that would not ease despite her willingness to accept him. Murmuring for her to relax, he held still inside her with infinite patience, trying not to hurt her.
As he cuddled and kissed her, Lillian looked up into his tender dark eyes. As their gazes held, she felt her entire body loosening, all resistance draining away. His hand cupped beneath her bottom, lifting her as he began to move in a careful rhythm. “Is this all right?” he whispered.
Moaning, she wrapped her arms around his neck for answer. Her head fell back and she felt him kissing her throat, while her body opened fully to the slippery-hot intrusion. She began to squirm upward into the strokes of pleasure-pain, and it seemed that her movements enhanced his delight. His features went taut with excitement, while his breath scraped in his throat. “Lillian,” he rasped, gripping her bottom more firmly. “My God, I can’t…Lillian…” His eyes closed, and he groaned harshly as he reached his own cl**ax, his sex throbbing palpably inside her.
Afterward he made to withdraw from her, but she clung to him, murmuring, “No. Not yet, please…” He rolled them both to their sides, their bodies still joined. Reluctant to let go of him, she hitched her slender leg high over his hip while his fingertips drifted over her back in exotic patterns. “Marcus,” she whispered. “This is a dream …isn’t it?”
She felt him smile drowsily against her cheek. “Go to sleep,” he said, and kissed her.
When Lillian opened her eyes again, the afternoon light was considerably diminished, and the sky visible through the window was tinted with lavender. Marcus’s lips wandered lightly from her cheek to her jaw, and his arm hooked beneath her shoulders, lifting her to a half-sitting position. Disoriented, she breathed in his familiar scent. Her mouth was parched, and her throat was stinging and dry, and when she tried to speak, her voice came out in a croak. “Thirsty.”
The edge of a crystal glass pressed to her lips, and she drank gratefully. The liquid was cool and flavored with citrus and honey.
As Lillian stared at the man who held her, she saw that he was fully dressed, his hair brushed into order, his complexion fresh from a recent washing. Her tongue felt thick and dry. “I dreamed…oh, I dreamed…”
But it rapidly became clear that it had not been a dream. Although Westcliff was properly clothed, she was na*ed in his bed, covered only by a sheet. “Oh God,” she whispered, amazed and frightened by the realization of what she had done. Her head throbbed painfully. She pressed her aching temples with her fingers.
Turning a tray on the bedside table, Westcliff poured another glass of the refreshing liquid. “Does your head ache?” he asked. “I thought it might. Here.” He gave her a thin paper packet, and she unfolded the end with trembling fingers. Tilting her head back, she poured the bitter contents of the packet to the back of her throat and washed it down with a gulp of the sweet beverage. The sheet slipped down to her waist. Flaming with mortification, she snatched it up with a gasp. Though Westcliff forbore to say anything, she saw from his expression that it was rather too late for modesty. She closed her eyes and moaned.
Taking the glass from her, Westcliff eased her down to the pillow and waited until she could bring herself to look at him once more. Smiling, he stroked her burning cheek with the backs of his knuckles. Wishing that he wouldn’t appear so damned pleased with himself, Lillian scowled. “My lord—”
“Not yet. We’ll talk after I’ve taken care of you.”
She yelped with dismay as he pulled the sheet away from her body, exposing every inch of her skin to his gaze. “Don’t!”
Ignoring her, Westcliff busied himself at the nightstand, pouring steaming water from a small jug into a creamware bowl. He dipped a cloth into the water, wrung it out, and sat beside Lillian. Realizing what he intended, she knocked his hand away reflexively. Pinning her with an ironic glance, he said, “If you’re going to be coy at this point—”
“All right.” Blushing wildly, she lay back and closed her eyes. “Just …get it over with.”
The hot cloth pressed between her thighs, causing her to jerk in response. “Easy,” he murmured, bathing her smarting flesh with tender care. “I’m sorry. I know it hurts. Lie still.”
Lillian put her hand over her eyes, too mortified to watch as he molded another hot compress over the dull ache of her private parts. “Does that help?” she heard him ask. She nodded stiffly, unable to produce a sound. Westcliff spoke again, his voice colored with amusement. “I wouldn’t have expected such modesty from a girl who frolics outdoors in her undergarments. Why are you covering your eyes?”
“Because I can’t look at you while you’re looking at me,” she said plaintively, and he laughed. Removing the compress, he freshened it with a new splash of scalding water.
Lillian peered at him from beneath her fingers as he pressed the soothing hot cloth between her legs once more. “You must have rung for a servant,” she said. “Did he—or she—see anything? Does anyone know that I’m with you?”
“Only my valet. And he knows better than to say a word to anyone about my…”
As he hesitated, obviously searching for the right word, Lillian said tensely, “Exploits?”
“This wasn’t an exploit.”
“A mistake, then.”
“However you define it, the fact is that we must deal with the situation in an appropriate manner.”
That sounded ominous. Removing her hand from her eyes, Lillian saw that when Westcliff withdrew the cloth, it was dotted with blood. Her blood. Her stomach felt hollow, and her heart pounded in an anxious tempo. Any young woman knew that when she slept with a man outside the bonds of wedlock, she was ruined. The word “ruined” had such an intractable feel to it …as if she had been permanently spoiled. Like the banana at the bottom of the fruit bowl.
“All we have to do is keep anyone from finding out,” she said warily. “We’ll pretend it never happened.”
Westcliff drew the sheet up to her shoulders and leaned over her, his hands placed on either side of her shoulders. “Lillian. We’ve slept together. That is not something that can be dismissed.”
She was suffused with sudden panic. “I can dismiss it. And if I can, then you—”
“I took advantage of you,” he said, making the worst attempt she had ever seen at trying to appear remorseful. “My actions were unforgivable. However, the situation being what it is—”
“I forgive you,” Lillian said quickly. “There, it’s settled. Where are my clothes?”
“—the only solution is for us to marry.”
A proposal from the Earl of Westcliff.
Any unmarried woman in England, upon hearing these words from this man, would have wept with gratitude. But it felt all wrong. Westcliff wasn’t proposing because he truly wanted to, or because she was the woman he desired above all others. He was proposing out of obligation.
Lillian eased herself to a sitting position. “My lord,” she asked unevenly, “is there any reason other than the fact that we just slept together that has moved you to propose to me?”
“Obviously you are attractive…intelligent …you will undoubtedly bear healthy children…and there are benefits to an alliance between our families…”
Spying her clothes, which had been neatly draped over a chair by the hearth, Lillian crawled from the bed. “I must get dressed.” She winced as her feet touched the floor.
“I’ll help you,” Westcliff said at once, striding to the chair.
She remained by the bedside, her hair tumbling over her br**sts and down to the small of her back. Carrying the clothes to her and laying them on the bed, Westcliff let his gaze sweep over her. “How lovely you are,” he murmured. He touched her bare shoulders and let his fingers slide down to her elbows. “I’m sorry to have caused you pain,” he said softly. “It won’t be as difficult for you the next time. I don’t want you to fear it …or to fear me. I hope you’ll believe that I—”
“Fear you?” she said without thinking. “Good God, I would never do that.”
Easing her head back, Westcliff looked at her while a slow smile spread across his face. “No, you wouldn’t,” he agreed. “You’d spit in the devil’s eye if it suited you.”
Unable to decide whether the comment was admiring or critical, Lillian shrugged away from him uneasily. She reached for her clothes and fumbled to dress herself. “I don’t want to marry you,” she said. It wasn’t true, of course. But she could not ignore the feeling that it must not happen this way…that she shouldn’t accept a proposal that was so obviously duty-driven.
“You have no choice,” he said from behind her.
“Of course I do. I daresay Lord St. Vincent will accept me in spite of my lack of virginity. And if he doesn’t, my parents are hardly going to toss me out into the streets. I’m sure you will be relieved to know that I release you from all obligation.” Snatching her knickers from the bed, she bent to pull them on.
“Why do you mention St. Vincent?” he asked sharply. “Has he proposed to you?”
“Is that so difficult to believe?” Lillian retorted, tying the tapes of her knickers. She reached for her chemise. “He has asked for permission to approach my father, actually.”
“You can’t marry him.” Westcliff watched with a scowl as her head and arms emerged from the chemise.
“Because you’re mine now.”
She made a scoffing sound, even though she felt her heart give an extra beat at his possessiveness. “The fact that I slept with you does not constitute ownership.”
“You could be breeding,” he pointed out with ruthless satisfaction. “This very moment, my child might be growing in your belly. That constitutes something of a claim, I should think.”
Lillian felt her knees quiver, although her tone matched his for coolness. “We’ll find out eventually. In the meantime, I’m turning down your offer. Except that you haven’t really made an offer, have you?” She shoved her bare foot into one of her stockings. “It was more like a command.”
“Is that what this is about? That I haven’t worded things to your satisfaction?” Westcliff shook his head impatiently. “Very well. Will you marry me?”
His face turned thunderous. “Why not?”
“Because sleeping together isn’t sufficient reason to chain ourselves together for the rest of our lives.”
He arched one brow with impeccable arrogance. “It’s sufficient for me.” Picking up her corset, he handed it to her. “Nothing you say or do will alter my decision. We’re going to marry, and soon.”
“It may be your decision, but it isn’t mine,” Lillian retorted, sucking in her breath as he took hold of the laces and tugged them deftly. “And I would like to hear what the countess will say when she is told that you intend to bring yet one more American into the family!”
“She’ll have an apoplectic fit,” Marcus replied calmly, tying her corset laces. “She’ll go on a screaming tirade, at the end of which she’ll probably faint. And then she’ll go to the continent for six months, and refuse to write to any of us.” Pausing, he added with relish, “How I’m looking forward to it.”
“Lillian. Lillian, dear…you must wake up. Here, I’ve sent for tea.” Daisy stood over her bed, her small hand gently shaking Lillian’s shoulder.
Grumbling and stirring, Lillian squinted up at her sister’s face. “I don’t want to wake up.”
“Well, you must. Things are happening, and I thought you should be prepared.”
“Things? What things?” Lillian lurched upward and put her hand to her aching forehead. One glance at Daisy’s small, concerned face caused her heart to thump unpleasantly.
“Sit back against the pillow,” Daisy replied, “and I’ll give you your tea. There.”
Accepting the cup of steaming liquid, Lillian painstakingly gathered her thoughts, which were as fuzzy and scattered as rolls of carded wool.
She had a vague memory of Marcus secreting her in her room last evening, where a warm bath and a helpful housemaid waited for her. She had bathed and changed into a fresh nightgown, and had popped into bed before her sister had returned from the festivities in the village. After a long, dreamless sleep, she might have convinced herself that the events of the previous night had never happened, if it wasn’t for the lingering soreness between her thighs.
What now? she wondered anxiously. He had said that he intended to marry her. In the light of day, however, he might very well reconsider the offer. And she was not certain whether it was what she wanted. If she had to spend the rest of her life feeling like an unwanted obligation that had been forced upon Marcus…
“What ‘things’ are happening?” she asked.
Daisy sat on the edge of the bed, facing her. She was wearing a blue morning gown, her hair pinned untidily at the nape of her neck. Her concerned gaze fastened on Lillian’s weary features. “About two hours ago, I heard some kind of to-do in Mother and Father’s room. It seems that Lord Westcliff asked Father to meet with him privately—in the Marsden parlor, I believe—and then later Father returned, and I poked my head in to ask what was going on. Father wouldn’t explain, but he seemed quite excited, and Mother was having conniptions about something, laughing and crying, and so Father sent for some spirits to calm her. I don’t know what was said between Lord Westcliff and Father, but I rather hoped that you would—” Daisy broke off as she saw that Lillian’s cup was rattling on the saucer. Hastily she reached over to take the tea from Lillian’s nerveless hands. “Dear, what is it? You look so strange. Did something happen yesterday? Did you do something that Lord Westcliff took exception to?”