Contemplating the evening ahead of him, and the knowledge that he would have to hobnob with the Bowmans, Marcus felt his unease sharpen into something approaching anxiety. He regretted having invited them. In fact, he would gladly forgo any potential business deal with Thomas Bowman if he could just be rid of them. However, the fact was that they were here, and would stay for well nigh a month, and he might as well make the best of things.

Marcus intended to launch into an active negotiation with Thomas Bowman about expanding his soap company to establish a production division in Liverpool or, perhaps, Bristol. The British soap tax was almost certain to be repealed in the next few years, if Marcus’s liberal allies in Parliament were to be trusted. When that happened, soap would become far more affordable for the common man, which would be good for the public health and, conveniently, also good for Marcus’s bank account, hinging on Bowman’s willingness to take him on as a partner.

However, there was no escaping the fact that a visit from Thomas Bowman meant enduring his daughters’ presence as well. Lillian and Daisy were the embodiment of the objectionable trend of American heiresses coming to England to husband-hunt. The peerage was being set upon by ambitious misses who gushed about themselves in their atrocious accents and constantly angled for publicity in the papers. Graceless, loud, self-important young women who sought to purchase a peer with their parents’ money…and often succeeded.

Marcus had become acquainted with the Bowman sisters on their previous visit to Stony Cross Park, and had found little to recommend either of them. The older one, Lillian, had become a particular focus of his dislike when she and her friends—the wallflowers, they called themselves (as if it were something to be proud of!)—had engineered a scheme to entrap a peer into marriage. Marcus would never forget the moment when the scheme had been exposed. “Good God, is there nothing you won’t stoop to?” Marcus had asked Lillian. And she had replied brazenly, “If there is, I haven’t discovered it yet.”

Her extraordinary insolence made her different from any other woman of Marcus’s acquaintance. That, and the rounders game they had played in their drawers, had convinced him that Lillian Bowman was a hellion. And once he had passed judgment on someone, he rarely changed his opinion.

Frowning, Marcus considered the best way to deal with Lillian. He would be cool and detached, no matter what provocation she offered. No doubt it would infuriate her to see how little she affected him. Picturing her irritation at being ignored, he felt the tightness in his chest ease. Yes…he would do his utmost to avoid her, and when circumstances forced them to occupy the same room, he would treat her with cold politeness. His frown clearing, Marcus guided his horse over a series of easy jumps; a hedge, a fence and a narrow stone wall, rider and animal working together in perfect coordination.

“Now, girls,” Mrs. Mercedes Bowman said, regarding her daughters sternly as she stood in the doorway of their room, “I insist that you nap for at least two hours, so that you will be fresh for this evening. Lord Westcliff’s dinners usually start late, and last till midnight, and I don’t want either of you to yawn at the table.”

“Yes, Mother,” they both said dutifully, regarding her with innocent expressions that did not deceive her in the least.

Mrs. Bowman was a rampantly ambitious woman with an abundance of nervous energy. Her spindle-thin body would have made a whippet look chubby. Her anxious, hard-edged chatter was usually directed toward advancing her main objective in life: to see that both her daughters were brilliantly married. “Under no circumstances are you to leave this room,” she continued sternly. “No sneaking about on Lord Westcliff’s estate, no adventures, scrapes, or happenings of any kind. In fact, I intend to lock the door to ensure that you stay safely in here and rest.”

“Mother,” Lillian protested, “if there is a duller spot in the civilized world than Stony Cross, I’ll eat my shoes. What possible trouble could we get into?”

“You create trouble from thin air,” Mercedes said, her eyes slitted. “Which is why I am going to supervise the pair of you closely. After your behavior on our last visit here, I am amazed that we were invited back.”

“I’m not,” Lillian rejoined dryly. “Everyone knows that we’re here because Westcliff has an eye on Father’s company.”

“Lord Westcliff,” Mercedes corrected with a hiss. “Lillian, you must refer to him with respect! He is the wealthiest peer in England, with a bloodline—”

“—that’s older than the queen’s,” Daisy interrupted in a singsong tone, having heard this speech on a multitude of occasions. “And the oldest earldom in Britain, which makes him—”

“—the most eligible bachelor in Europe,” Lillian finished dryly, raising her brows with mock significance. “Maybe the entire world. Mother, if you’re actually hoping that Westcliff is going to marry either of us, you’re a lunatic.”

“She’s not a lunatic,” Daisy told her sister. “She’s a New Yorker.”

There were an increasing number of the Bowmans’ kind back in New York—upstarts who could not manage to blend with either the conservative Knickerbockers, or the highly fashionable crowd. These parvenu families had garnered massive fortunes from industries such as manufacturing or mining, and yet they could not gain acceptance in the circles that they aspired to so desperately. The loneliness and embarrassment of being so thoroughly rejected by New York society had fueled Mercedes’s ambitions as nothing else could have.

“We’re going to make Lord Westcliff forget all about your atrocious behavior during our last visit,” Mercedes informed them grimly. “You will be modest, quiet, and demure at all times—and there will be no more of this wallflower business. I want you to stay away from that scandalous Annabelle Peyton, and that other one, that—”

“Evie Jenner,” Daisy said. “And it’s Annabelle Hunt now, Mother.”

“Annabelle did marry Westcliff’s best friend,” Lillian pointed out idly. “I should think that would be an excellent reason for us to continue seeing her, Mother.”

“I’ll consider it.” Mercedes regarded them both suspiciously. “In the meantime, I intend for you to take a long, quiet nap. I don’t want to hear a sound from either of you, do you understand?”

“Yes, Mother,” they both chorused.

The door closed, and the outside key turned firmly in the lock.

The sisters regarded each other with a shared grin. “It’s a good thing that she never found out about the rounders game,” Lillian said.

“We would be dead now,” Daisy agreed gravely.

Lillian fished a hairpin from a small enameled box on the vanity table and went to the door. “A pity that she gets so upset about little things, isn’t it?”

“Like the time we sneaked the greased piglet into Mrs. Astor’s parlor.”

Smiling reminiscently, Lillian knelt before the door and worked the pin into the lock. “You know, I’ve always wondered why Mother didn’t appreciate that we did it in her defense. Something had to be done after Mrs. Astor wouldn’t invite Mother to her party.”

“I think Mother’s point was that putting livestock in someone’s house does little to recommend us as future party guests.”

“Well, I didn’t think that was nearly as bad as the time we set off the Roman candle in the store on Fifth Avenue.”

“We were obligated to do that, after that salesman had been so rude.”

Withdrawing the pin, Lillian expertly crimped one end with her fingers and reinserted it. Squinting with effort, she maneuvered the pin until the lock clicked, and then she glanced at Daisy with a triumphant smile. “That was my fastest time yet, I think.”

However, her younger sister did not return the smile. “Lillian…if you do find a husband this year…everything’s going to change. You’ll change. And then there will be no more adventures, or fun, and I’ll be alone.”

“Don’t be silly,” Lillian said with a frown. “I’m not going to change, and you won’t be alone.”

“You’ll have a husband to answer to,” Daisy pointed out. “And he won’t allow you to be involved in any mischief making with me.”

“No, no, no…” Lillian stood and waved a hand in a dismissive gesture. “I’m not going to have that kind of husband. I’m going to marry a man who either won’t notice or won’t care about what I do when I’m away from him. A man like Father.”

“A man like Father doesn’t seem to have made Mother very happy,” Daisy said. “I wonder if they were ever in love?”

Leaning back against the door, Lillian frowned as she contemplated the question. It had never occurred to her before now to wonder if her parents’ marriage had been a love match. Somehow she didn’t think so. They both seemed entirely self-contained. Their partnership was at best a negligible bond. To Lillian’s knowledge, they seldom argued, never embraced, and rarely even spoke. And yet there was no apparent bitterness between them. Rather they were indifferent to each other, with neither evincing any desire or even aptitude for happiness.

“Love is for the novels, dear,” Lillian said, trying her best to sound cynical. Easing the door open, she peeked up and down the hallway, and glanced back at Daisy. “All clear. Shall we slip out the servants’ entrance?”

“Yes, and then let’s go to the west side of the manor, and head into the forest.”

“Why the forest?”

“Do you remember the favor that Annabelle asked of me?”

Lillian stared at her for a moment of incomprehension, and then she rolled her eyes. “Good God, Daisy, can’t you think of something better to do than carry out a ridiculous errand like that?”

Her younger sister gave her an astute glance. “You just don’t want to because it’s for Lord Westcliff’s benefit.”

“It’s not going to benefit anyone,” Lillian replied with exasperation. “It’s a fool’s errand.”

Daisy responded with a resolute stare. “I’m going to find the Stony Cross wishing well,” she said with great dignity, “and do as Annabelle asked of me. You may accompany me if you wish, or you can do something else by yourself. However”—her almond-shaped eyes narrowed threateningly—“after all the time you’ve made me wait while you browse through dusty old perfume shops and apothecaries, I should think that you owe me just a little forbearance—”

“All right,” Lillian grumbled. “I’ll go with you. If I don’t, you’ll never find it, and you’ll end up lost in the forest somewhere.” Looking out into the hallway again, and ascertaining that it was still empty, Lillian led the way toward the servants’ entrance at the end of it. The sisters tiptoed with practiced stealth, their feet noiseless on the thick carpeting underfoot.

Much as Lillian disliked the owner of Stony Cross Park, she had to admit that it was a splendid estate. The house was of European design, a graceful fortress made of honey-colored stone, cornered by four picturesque towers that stretched toward the sky. Set on a bluff overlooking the Itchen River, the manor was surrounded by terraced gardens and orchards that flowed into two hundred acres of parkland and wild forests. Fifteen generations of Westcliff’s family, the Marsdens, had occupied the manor, as any of the servants were quick to point out. And this was hardly the full extent of Lord West-cliff’s wealth. It was said that nearly two hundred thousand acres of England and Scotland were under his direct control, while among his estates were numbered two castles, three halls, a terrace, five houses, and a villa on the Thames. Stony Cross Park, however, was undoubtedly the jewel in the Marsden family crown.

Skirting the side of the manor, the sisters took care to keep close to a long yew hedge that sheltered them from view of the main house. Sunlight glittered through the canopy of interlaced branches overhead as they entered the forest, populated with ancient cedars and oaks.

Exuberantly Daisy threw her arms into the air and exclaimed, “Oh, I adore this place!”

“It’s passable,” Lillian said grudgingly, though she had to admit privately that in this full-flowered early autumn, there could hardly be a more beautiful part of England than this.

Hopping onto a log that had been pushed to the side of the path, Daisy walked carefully along it. “It would almost be worth marrying Lord Westcliff, don’t you think, to be mistress of Stony Cross Park?”

Lillian arched her brows. “And then have to endure all his pompous pronouncements, and be expected to obey his every command?” She pulled a face, wrinkling her nose in distaste.

“Annabelle says that Lord Westcliff is actually much nicer than she originally thought.”

“She would have to say that, after what happened a few weeks ago.”

The sisters fell silent, both reflecting on the dramatic events that had occurred recently. As Annabelle and her husband, Simon Hunt, had been touring the locomotive works that they owned along with Lord Westcliff, a horrific explosion had nearly claimed their lives. Lord West-cliff had dashed into the building on a near-suicidal mission to save them, and had brought them both out alive. Understandably, Annabelle now viewed Westcliff in a heroic light, and had actually said recently that she thought his arrogance was rather endearing. Lillian had replied sourly that Annabelle must still be suffering the aftereffects of smoke inhalation.

“I think we owe Lord Westcliff our gratitude,” Daisy remarked, hopping off the log. “After all, he did save Annabelle’s life, and it’s not as if we have a terribly large array of friends to begin with.”

“Saving Annabelle was incidental,” Lillian said grumpily. “The only reason that Westcliff risked his life was so he wouldn’t lose a profitable business partner.”

“Lillian!” Daisy, who was a few steps ahead, turned to view her with surprise. “It’s not like you to be so un-charitable. For heaven’s sake, the earl went into a burning building to rescue our friend and her husband…what more does the man have to do to impress you?”

“I’m sure Westcliff couldn’t care less about impressing me,” Lillian said. Hearing the sullen note in her own voice, she winced, even as she continued. “The reason I dislike him so, Daisy, is that he so obviously dislikes me. He considers himself to be my superior in every possible way; morally and socially and intellectually…oh, how I long for a way to set him back on his heels!”

Tags: Lisa Kleypas Wallflowers Romance