Stirred by his closeness, she caught at his wrists. There was still much they had to discuss …issues too important for either of them to ignore. “Marcus,” she said breathlessly, “don’t. Not just now. It only muddles things further, and—”
“For me it makes everything clear.”
His hands slid to either side of her face, cradling her cheeks with yearning gentleness. His eyes were so much darker than her own, with only the faintest glimmer of deepest amber to betray that they were not black but brown. “Kiss me,” he whispered, and his mouth found hers, catching at her top lip and then the lower, in nuzzling half-open caresses that sent rich quivers of response all the way down to her toes. The floor seemed to move beneath her feet, and she grasped his shoulders for balance. He covered her mouth more firmly with his, the moist pressure disorienting her with a fresh shock of pleasure.
Continuing to kiss her, he helped her to wrap her arms around his neck, and caressed her shoulders and back, and when it became apparent that her legs were quivering, he eased her to the carpeted floor. His mouth wandered to her breast, catching the tip as he licked at it through the fragile white cambric. Colors dazzled her eyes, deep red and blue and gold, and she realized dazedly that they were lying in a patch of sunlight that had been enriched by the row of rectangular stained-glass windows. It dappled her skin in lavish hues as if she were caught beneath an unraveling rainbow.
Marcus took hold of the front of her nightgown, tugging impatiently at the two sides until buttons popped and went scattering across the carpet. His face looked different to her; softer, younger, his skin tinted with the flush of desire. No one had ever stared at her this way, with a fiery absorption that blocked out every other awareness. Bending over her exposed breast, he licked the pearly-white skin until he found the bud of deep pink, and closed his mouth over it.
Lillian panted and arched, pushing her body upward, straining with the need to enfold him completely. She reached for his head, her fingers slipping into the thick black hair. Understanding the unspoken plea, he nibbled the tip of her breast, using his teeth and tongue with tormenting gentleness. One of his hands rucked up the front of her gown and slid to her stomach, the tip of his ring finger delicately circling her navel. A fever of desire consumed her as she writhed in the pool of colored light-spill from the window. His fingers slid lower, to the verge of tight, silky curls, and she knew that as soon as he touched the little peak half hidden in the folds of her sex, she would reach a summit of blinding pleasure.
All of a sudden, he drew his hand away, and Lillian whimpered in protest. Cursing, Marcus tucked her body beneath his and pulled her face into his shoulder just as the door opened.
In a moment of frozen silence breached only by her ragged breaths, Lillian peered out from the concealing shelter of Marcus’s body. She saw with a start of fright that someone was standing there. It was Simon Hunt. A ledger book and a few folders secured with black ribbon were clasped in his hands. Blank-faced, Hunt lowered his gaze to the couple on the floor. To his credit, he managed to retain his composure, though it must have been difficult. The Earl of Westcliff, known to his acquaintances as an eternal proponent of moderation and self-restraint, was the last man Hunt would have expected to be rolling on the study floor with a woman clad in her nightgown.
“Pardon, my lord,” Hunt said in a carefully controlled voice. “I did not anticipate that you would be…meeting…with someone at this hour.”
Marcus skewered him with a savage stare. “You might try knocking next time.”
“You’re right, of course.” Hunt opened his mouth to add something, appeared to think better of it, and cleared his throat roughly. “I’ll leave you here to finish your, er…conversation.” As he withdrew from the room, however, it seemed that he couldn’t keep from ducking his head back in and asking Marcus cryptically, “Once a week, did you say?”
“Close the door behind you,” Marcus said icily, and Hunt obeyed with a smothered sound that sounded suspiciously like laughter.
Lillian kept her face against Marcus’s shoulder. As mortified as she had been on the day that he had seen her playing rounders in her knickers, this was ten times worse. She would never be able to face Simon Hunt again, she thought, and groaned.
“It’s all right,” Marcus murmured. “He’ll keep his mouth shut.”
“I don’t care whom he tells,” Lillian managed to say. “I’m not going to marry you. Not if you compromised me a hundred times.”
“Lillian,” he said, a sudden tremor of laughter in his voice, “it would be my greatest pleasure to compromise you a hundred times. But first I would like to know what I’ve done this morning that is so unforgivable.”
“To begin with, you talked to my father.”
His brows lifted a fraction of an inch. “That offended you?”
“How could it not? You’ve behaved in the most highhanded manner possible by going behind my back and trying to arrange things with my father, without one word to me—”
“Wait,” Marcus said sardonically, rolling to his side and sitting up in an easy movement. He reached out with a broad hand to pull Lillian up to face him. “I was not being high-handed in meeting with your father. I was adhering to tradition. A prospective bridegroom usually approaches a woman’s father before he makes a formal proposal.” A gently caustic note entered his voice as he added, “Even in America. Unless I’ve been misinformed?”
The clock on the mantel dispensed a slow half-minute before Lillian managed a grudging reply. “Yes, that’s how it’s usually done. But I assumed that you and he had already made a betrothal agreement, regardless of whether or not it was what I wanted—”
“Your assumption was incorrect. We did not discuss any details of a betrothal, nor was anything mentioned about a dowry or a wedding date. All I did was ask your father for permission to court you.”
Lillian stared at him with surprised chagrin, until another question occurred to her. “What about your discussion with Lord St. Vincent just now?”
Now it was Marcus’s turn to look chagrined. “That was high-handed,” he admitted. “I should probably say that I’m sorry for it. However, I’m not. I couldn’t risk the possibility that St. Vincent might convince you to marry him instead of me. So I felt it necessary to warn him away from you.” He paused before continuing, and Lillian noticed an unusual hesitancy in his manner. “A few years ago,” he said, not quite looking at her, “St. Vincent took an interest in a woman with whom I was…involved. I wasn’t in love with her, but in time it was possible that she and I might have—” He stopped and shook his head. “I don’t know what would have come of the relationship. I never had the opportunity to find out. When St. Vincent began to pursue her, she left me for him.” A humorless smile edged his lips. “Predictably, St. Vincent tired of her within a few weeks.”
Lillian stared compassionately at the severe line of his profile. There was no trace of anger or self-pity in the scant recitation, but she sensed that he had been hurt by the experience. For a man who valued loyalty as Marcus did, a friend’s betrayal and a lover’s perfidy must have been hard to bear. “And yet you remained friends with him?” she asked, her voice softening.
He replied in a careful monotone. It was obvious that he found it difficult to speak of personal matters. “Every friendship has its scars. And I believe that if St. Vincent had understood the strength of my feelings for the woman, he would not have pursued her. In this case, however, I could not allow the past to repeat itself. You’re too…important…tome.”
Jealousy had darted through Lillian at the thought of Marcus having feelings for another woman…and then her heart stopped with a jolt as she wondered what level of significance she should place on the word “important.” Marcus had the Englishman’s innate dislike of wearing his emotions on his sleeve. But she realized that he was trying very hard to open his closely guarded heart to her, and that perhaps a little encouragement on her part might yield some surprising results.
“Since St. Vincent obviously has the advantage in looks and charm,” Marcus continued evenly, “I reasoned that I could only weigh the balance with sheer determination. Which is why I met with him this morning to tell him—”
“No, he doesn’t,” Lillian protested, unable to help herself.
Marcus looked at her then, his gaze quizzical. “Pardon?”
“He doesn’t have the advantage over you,” Lillian informed him, her face reddening as she discovered that it was hardly any easier for her to reveal what was in her heart than it was for him. “You are very charming when it suits you. And as for your looks…” Her blush deepened until she felt heat pouring off her. “I find you very attractive,” she blurted out. “I …I always have. I would never have slept with you last night unless I wanted you, no matter how much brandy I had drunk.”
A sudden smile touched his mouth. Reaching out to her gaping bodice, he pulled it together gently, and stroked the backs of his knuckles against the rosy surface of her throat. “Then I may assume that your objections to marrying me are predicated more on the idea of being forced, rather than deriving from any personal prejudice?”
Absorbed in the pleasure of his caress, Lillian gave him a bemused glance. “Hmm?”
A soft laugh escaped him. “What I’m asking is, would you consider becoming my wife if I promised that you wouldn’t be forced into it?”
She nodded cautiously. “I …I might consider it. But if you’re going to behave like some medieval lord and try to browbeat me into doing what you want—”
“No, I won’t try to browbeat you,” Marcus said gravely, though she saw a flicker of amusement in his eyes. “It’s obvious that such tactics wouldn’t work. I’ve met my match, it seems.”
Mollified by the statement, Lillian felt herself relax a little. She didn’t even protest when he reached out to pull her into his lap, her long legs dangling over his. A warm hand slid beneath her gown to her hip in a clasp that was more comforting than sensual, and he stared at her shrewdly. “Marriage is a partnership,” he said. “And since I’ve never entered a business partnership without first negotiating terms, we’ll do the same in this situation. Just you and I, in private. No doubt there will be a few points of contention—but you will find that I am well versed in the art of compromise.”
“My father will insist on having the final say about the dowry.”
“I wasn’t speaking of financial matters. What I want from you is something your father can’t negotiate.”
“You intend for us to discuss things like …our expectations of each other? And where we are to live?”
“And if I said that I did not want to reside in the country…that I prefer London to Hampshire …you would agree to live at Marsden Terrace?”
He regarded her speculatively as he replied. “I would make some concessions to that effect. Though I would have to return here frequently to manage the estate. I gather you’re not fond of Stony Cross Park?”
“Oh no. That is…I like it very much. My question was hypothetical.”
“Even so, you are accustomed to the pleasures of town life.”
“I would want to live here,” Lillian insisted, thinking of the beauty of Hampshire, the rivers and forests, the meadows where she could envision playing with her children. The village with its eccentric characters and shopkeepers, and the local festivals that enlivened the leisurely pace of country life. And the estate manor itself, grand and yet intimate, with all its nooks and corners to nestle in during rainy days …or amorous nights. She couldn’t help blushing as she reflected that the owner of Stony Cross Park was by far its most compelling attraction. Life with this vital man, no matter where they resided, would never be dull.
“Of course,” she continued pointedly, “I would be far more disposed to take up residence in Hampshire were I ever allowed to ride again.”
The statement met with a barely suppressed laugh. “I’ll have a groomsman saddle Starlight for you this very morning.”
“Oh, thank you,” she said sardonically. “Two days before the house party ends, you’re giving me permission to ride. Why now? Because I slept with you last night?”
A lazy grin curved his mouth, and his hand moved stealthily over her hip. “You should have slept with me weeks ago. I would have given you full run of the estate.”
Lillian bit the insides of her cheeks to keep from smiling back at him. “I see. In this marriage I will be obliged to barter my sexual favors whenever I want something from you.”
“Not at all. Although…” A teasing light appeared in his eyes. “Your favors do seem to put me in an agreeable disposition.”
Marcus was flirting with her, relaxed and bantering in a way that she had never seen him before. Lillian would wager that few people would recognize the dignified Earl of Westcliff in the man who was lounging on the carpet with her. And as he shifted her more comfortably in his arms, and drew his hand along her calf, ending with a gentle squeeze of her narrow ankle, Lillian was aware of a delight that went far beyond physical sensation. Her passion for him seemed to dwell within her very bones.
“Would we get on well together, do you think?” she asked dubiously, daring to play with the knot of his necktie, loosening the gray watered-silk fabric with her fingertips. “We’re opposites in nearly every regard.”
Inclining his head, Marcus nuzzled the tender inside of her wrist, his lips brushing the blue-tinted veins that lay like fine lacework beneath the skin. “I am coming to believe that taking a wife who is exactly like myself would be the worst conceivable decision I could make.”
“Perhaps you’re right,” Lillian mused, letting her fingertips curl into the gleaming close-cut hair at the side of his head. “You need a wife who won’t let you have your way all the time. One who…” She paused with a little shiver as his tongue touched a delicate spot near her inner elbow. “Who,” she continued, struggling to gather her thoughts, “would be willing to take you down a notch when you become too pompous…”
“I am never pompous,” Marcus said, drawing the edge of her gown away from the vulnerable curve of her throat.