Lillian’s throat closed hard around a wild laugh. She had never felt this way before, caught in the perilous margin between anger and tears. The anger won out. “Yes,” she said, “something happened. And now he’s using it to force his will on me, whether or not I wish it. To go behind my back and arrange everything with Father…Oh, I won’t stand for this! I can’t!”
Daisy’s eyes turned as round as dinner plates. “Did you ride one of Lord Westcliff’s horses without permission? Is that it?”
“Did I…God, no, if only that were it.” Lillian buried her scarlet face in her hands. “I slept with him.” Her voice filtered through the cold screen of her fingers. “Yesterday, while everyone was gone from the estate.”
A shocked silence greeted the bald confession. “You…but…but I don’t see how you could have…”
“I was drinking brandy in the library,” Lillian said dully. “And he found me. One thing led to another, and then I was in his bedroom.”
Daisy digested the information in wordless astonishment. She tried to speak, then took a sip of Lillian’s discarded tea and cleared her throat. “I suppose when you say you slept with him, it was more than just a nap?”
Lillian shot her a withering glance. “Daisy, don’t be a pea wit.”
“Do you think he’ll do the honorable thing and make an offer for you?”
“Oh yes,” Lillian said bitterly. “He’ll turn ‘the honorable thing’ into a big fat bludgeon and batter me over the head with it until I surrender.”
“Did he say that he loves you?” Daisy dared to ask.
Lillian made a scornful sound. “No, he didn’t utter a single word to that effect.”
A puzzled frown creased her sister’s forehead. “Lillian…is it that you’re afraid he only wants you because of the perfume?”
“No, I…oh God, I didn’t even consider that, I’ve been too scattered…” Groaning, Lillian snatched the nearest pillow and crammed it over her face as if she could smother herself. Which, at the moment, didn’t sound half bad.
Thick as the pillow was, it didn’t completely muffle Daisy’s voice. “Do you want to marry him?”
The question caused a stab of pain in Lillian’s heart. Tossing the pillow aside, she muttered, “Not like this! Not with him making the decision with no regard for my feelings, and claiming that he’s only doing it because I’ve been compromised.”
Daisy considered her words thoughtfully. “I don’t believe Lord Westcliff will characterize it that way,” she said. “He doesn’t seem like the kind of man who would take a girl to bed, or marry her, unless he truly wanted to.”
“One could only wish,” Lillian said grimly, “that it mattered to him what I wanted.” She left the bed and went to the washstand, where her own haggard reflection glowered back at her from the looking glass. Pouring water from the pitcher into the bowl, she splashed her face and scrubbed at her skin with a soft square of toweling. A fine cloud of cinnamon powder wafted into the air as she uncapped the small tin and dipped her toothbrush into it. The crisp bite of cinnamon banished the sour, pasty feeling from her mouth, and she rinsed her mouth vigorously until her teeth were as clean and smooth as glass. “Daisy,” she said, glancing over her shoulder, “would you do something for me?”
“Yes, of course.”
“I don’t want to talk to Mother or Father just now. But I have to know for certain if Westcliff really did offer to marry me. If you could manage to find out—”
“Say no more,” Daisy replied promptly, striding to the door.
By the time Lillian had finished her morning ablutions and had buttoned a white cambric robe over her nightgown, her younger sister had returned. “There was no need to ask,” Daisy reported ruefully. “Father is gone, but Mother is staring into a glass of whiskey and humming wedding music. And she looks positively blissful. I would say beyond a doubt that Lord Westcliff made an offer.”
“The bastard,” Lillian muttered. “How dare he leave me out of everything as if I were incidental to the whole business?” Her eyes narrowed. “I wonder what he’s doing now? Probably ensuring that all the loose ends are tied. Which means that the next person he’ll want to speak to is—” She broke off with an inarticulate sound, while rage pumped through her until it seemed to steam from her pores. Controlling wretch that he was, West-cliff would not leave it to her to end her friendship with Lord St. Vincent. She would not be allowed the dignity of a proper farewell. No, Westcliff would take care of everything himself, while Lillian was left as helpless as a child in the face of his machinations. “If he is doing what I think he is,” she growled, “I will brain him with a fireplace iron!”
“What?” Daisy was obviously bewildered. “What do you think he—no, Lillian, you can’t leave the room in your nightclothes!” She went to the doorway and whispered loudly as her older sister stormed into the hallway. “Lillian! Please come back! Lillian!”
The hem of Lillian’s white gown and robe billowed behind her like the sails of a ship as she stalked through the hallway and descended the great staircase. It was still early enough that most of the guests were abed. Lillian was too incensed to care who saw her. Furiously she charged past a few startled servants. By the time she reached Marcus’s study, she was breathing heavily. The door was closed. Without hesitation she burst through it, sending it crashing into the wall as she crossed the threshold.
Just as she had suspected, Marcus was there with Lord St. Vincent. Both men turned toward the interruption.
Lillian stared into St. Vincent’s impassive face. “How much has he told you?” she demanded without preamble.
Adopting a neutral and pleasant facade, St. Vincent replied softly, “He’s told me enough.”
She switched her gaze to Marcus’s unrepentant countenance, perceiving that he had delivered his information with the lethal efficiency of a battlefield surgeon. Having decided on his course, he was pursuing it aggressively to ensure victory. “You had no right,” she said in seething fury. “I won’t be manipulated, Westcliff!”
Deceptively relaxed, St. Vincent stepped away from the desk and came to her. “I wouldn’t advise wandering about in dishabille, darling,” he murmured. “Here, allow me to offer my—”
However, Marcus had already approached Lillian from behind and had placed his coat around her shoulders, concealing her night garments from the other man’s view. Angrily she tried to knock the coat away. Marcus clamped it firmly on her shoulders and pulled her stiff body back against his. “Don’t make a fool of yourself,” he said close to her ear. She arched furiously away from him.
“Let go! I will have my say with Lord St. Vincent. He and I both deserve that much. And if you try to stop me, I’ll simply do it behind your back.”
Reluctantly Marcus released her and stood aside with his arms folded across his chest. Despite his outward composure, Lillian sensed the presence of some strong emotion inside him, one that he was not entirely successful at controlling. “Then talk,” Marcus said curtly. From the stubborn set of his jaw, it was obvious that he had no intention of allowing them a moment’s privacy.
Lillian reflected that there were few women who would ever be foolhardy enough to think that they could manage this arrogant, bullheaded creature. She feared that she might be one of them. She shot him a narrow-eyed glance. “Do try to keep from interrupting, will you?” she asked smartly, and turned her back to him.
Maintaining a nonchalant facade, St. Vincent half sat on the desk. Lillian frowned pensively, wanting very much to make him understand that she had not intentionally deceived him. “My lord, please forgive me. I didn’t intend—”
“Sweet, there’s no need for an apology.” St. Vincent studied her with a lazy thoroughness that seemed to un-earth her private thoughts. “You did nothing wrong. I know well enough how easy it is to seduce an innocent.” After a skillful pause, he added blandly, “Apparently Westcliff does too.”
“See here—” Marcus began, bristling.
“This is what happens when I try to be a gentleman,” St. Vincent interrupted. He reached out to touch a long lock of Lillian’s hair as it streamed over her shoulder. “Had I resorted to my usual tactics, I’d have seduced you ten times over by now, and you would be mine. But it seems I placed too much confidence in Westcliff’s much-vaunted sense of honor.”
“It was no more his fault than mine,” Lillian said, determined to be honest. She saw from his expression, however, that he did not believe her.
Rather than dispute the point, St. Vincent released the lock of hair and spoke with his head inclined toward hers. “Love, what if I were to tell you that I still want you, regardless of what may have occurred between you and Westcliff?”
She could not hide her astonishment at the question.
Behind her, it seemed that Marcus could hold his silence no longer, his voice crackling with annoyance. “What you desire is irrelevant, St. Vincent. The fact of the matter is that she’s mine now.”
“By virtue of an essentially meaningless act?” St. Vincent countered coolly.
“My lord,” Lillian said to St. Vincent, “it…it was not meaningless to me. And it is possible that there might be consequences. I could not marry one man while carrying another’s child.”
“My love, it is done all the time. I would accept the child as mine.”
“I can’t listen to much more of this,” came Marcus’s warning growl.
Ignoring him, Lillian stared at St. Vincent in open apology. “I couldn’t. I’m sorry. The die has been cast, my lord, and I can do nothing to reverse it. But…” She reached out impulsively and gave him her hand. “But in spite of what has happened, I hope that I will be counted among your friends.”
With a curious smile, St. Vincent gripped her hand warmly before releasing it. “There is only one circumstance in which I can imagine refusing you anything, sweet …and this is not it. Of course I will stand your friend.” Looking over her head, he met Westcliff’s gaze with a dark smile that promised the matter was not yet finished. “I don’t believe that I will stay for the remainder of the house party,” he said blandly. “Though I should not like for my precipitate departure to cause any gossip, I’m not certain that I will adequately be able to conceal my, er…disappointment, and therefore it is probably best that I leave. No doubt we’ll have much to discuss when next we meet.”
Marcus watched with narrowed eyes as the other man departed, closing the door behind him.
In the smoldering silence that followed, Marcus brooded over St. Vincent’s comments. “Only one circumstance in which he would refuse you…what does that mean?”
Lillian rounded on him with a furious scowl. “I don’t know and I don’t care! You have behaved abominably, and St. Vincent is ten times the gentleman you are!”
“You wouldn’t say that if you knew anything about him.”
“I know that he has treated me with respect, whereas you regard me as some kind of pawn to be pushed this way and that—” She thumped both of her fists hard on his chest as he took her in his arms.
“You wouldn’t be happy with him,” Marcus said, disregarding her struggles as easily as if she were a writhing cat he had caught by the scruff of the neck. The coat he had placed around her shoulders fell to the floor.
“What makes you think I would be any better off with you?”
He clamped his hands around her wrists, and twisted her arms behind her back, giving a grunt of surprise as she stomped hard on his instep. “Because you need me,” he said, drawing in his breath as she squirmed against him. “Just as I need you.” He crushed his mouth on hers. “I’ve needed you for years.” Another kiss, this one deep and drugging, his tongue searching her intimately.
She might have continued to grapple with him had he not done something that surprised her. He released her wrists and wrapped his arms around her, holding her close in a warm, tender embrace. Caught off-guard, she went still, her heart thumping madly.
“It wasn’t a meaningless act for me either,” Marcus said, his raspy whisper tickling her ear. “Yesterday I finally realized that all the things I thought were wrong about you were actually the things I enjoyed most. I don’t give a damn what you do, so long as it pleases you. Run barefoot on the front lawn. Eat pudding with your fingers. Tell me to go to hell as often as you like. I want you just as you are. After all, you’re the only woman aside from my sisters who has ever dared to tell me to my face that I’m an arrogant ass. How could I resist you?” His mouth moved to the soft cushion of her cheek. “My dearest Lillian,” he whispered, easing her head back to kiss her eyelids. “If I had the gift of poetry, I would shower you with sonnets. But words have always been difficult for me when my feelings are strongest. And there is one word in particular that I can’t bring myself to say to you…‘goodbye.’ I couldn’t bear the sight of you walking away from me. If you won’t marry me for the sake of your own honor, then do it for the sake of everyone who would have to tolerate me otherwise. Marry me because I need someone who will help me to laugh at myself. Because someone has to teach me how to whistle. Marry me, Lillian…because I have the most irresistible fascination for your ears.”
“My ears?” Bewildered, Lillian felt him duck his head to nip at the pink tip of her earlobe.
“Mmmm. The most perfect ears I’ve ever seen.” As he traced the inner crevice of her ear with his tongue, his hand slid from her waist to her breast, savoring the shape of her figure unregulated by corset stays. She was keenly aware of her own nakedness beneath the gown as he touched her breast, his fingers curving over the soft, small shape until the nipple gathered tightly into his palm. “These too,” he murmured. “Perfect…” Absorbed in caressing her, he unfastened the tiny buttons of her robe.
Lillian felt her pulse begin to thunder, her breath mingling in rapid puffs with his. She remembered the hard planes of his body brushing lightly over hers as they had made love, the consummate fit between them, the sliding flex of muscle and sinew beneath her hands. Her skin tingled with the memory of his touch, and the clever explorations of his mouth and fingers that had reduced her to shivering need. No wonder he was so cool and cerebral during the day—he saved all his sensuality for bedtime.