“Miss Bowman,” Lady Olivia murmured, “you sound like a woman in love. And I fervently hope that you are. Because it has taken so long for Marcus to find you…and it would break my heart for his sake, if his love went unrequited.”
Lillian flinched at the sudden violent thump of her heart. “He doesn’t love me,” she said unevenly. “At least he hasn’t said anything to that effect.”
“I’m not surprised. My brother tends to express his feelings with actions rather than words. You’ll have to be patient with him.”
“So I’m discovering,” Lillian replied darkly, and the other woman laughed.
“I’ve never known him quite as well as my older sister, Aline, does. They are much closer in age, and she was his main confidante until she left for America with her husband. It was Aline who explained quite a lot to me about Marcus whenever I was ready to murder him.”
Lillian was very still as she listened attentively to the low, sweetly mellow voice. She had not realized until this very moment how much she wanted to understand Marcus. Never before had she comprehended why lovers were preoccupied with collecting keepsakes; letters, locks of hair, a lost glove, a ring. But now she knew how it felt to be obsessed by someone. She was filled with the compulsive desire to know the smallest details about a man who seemed so utterly straightforward and yet was practically unknowable.
Lady Olivia draped an arm across the camelback of the settee, and stared thoughtfully at the plant-laden scaffolding beside them. “There are things that Marcus will never reveal to anyone about his past, as he considers it unmanly to complain, and he would rather die by slow inches than be the object of sympathy. And if he ever finds out that I’ve told you anything, he’ll have my head.”
“I’m good at keeping secrets,” Lillian assured her.
Lady Olivia gave her a quick smile, then studied the tip of her own shoe as it peeped from the ruffled hem of her skirts. “You’ll fit in well with the Marsdens, then. We’re nothing if not a secretive lot. And none of us likes to dwell on the past. Marcus, Aline, and I all suffered in different ways from the actions of my parents, neither of whom, in my opinion, was ever fit to have children. My mother has never been interested in anyone other than herself, or anything beyond what might affect her directly. And my father never gave a damn about either of his daughters.”
“I’m sorry,” Lillian said sincerely.
“No, his indifference was a blessing, and we knew it. It was far worse for Marcus, who was the victim of my father’s insane notions of how to raise the Westcliff heir.” Although Lady Olivia’s voice was quiet and even, Lillian felt a chill run through her, and she rubbed her hands over her sleeves to soothe the prickling flesh of her arms. “My father tolerated nothing less than perfection in his son. He set ridiculously high standards in every aspect of Marcus’s life, and punished him terribly if ever he failed to meet them. Marcus learned to endure a thrashing without shedding a tear or displaying one hint of rebellion, for if he did, the punishment was doubled. And Father was merciless when he discovered any weakness. I once asked Aline why Marcus has never been very fond of dogs…she told me that when he was a child, he was afraid of a pair of wolfhounds that Father kept as pets. The dogs sensed his fear, and hence were aggressive with him, barking and snarling whenever they saw him. When Father discovered how much Marcus feared them, he locked him alone in a room with them, to force him to confront what he was most afraid of. I can’t imagine what it must have been like for a five-year-old boy to be shut away with those beasts for hours.” She smiled bitterly. “Trust my father to give literal meaning to the phrase ‘thrown to the dogs.’ At the moment he should have protected his son, he chose instead to put him through hell.”
Lillian stared at her without blinking. She tried to speak, to ask something, but her throat had become very tight. Marcus was so eternally confident and self-assured that it was impossible to envision him as a frightened child. And yet so much of his reserve must have come from the painful lesson at an early age that there was no one to help him. No one to safeguard him against his fears. Ridiculously, though Marcus was now a full-grown man in his prime, she longed to comfort the little boy he had been.
“My father wished for his heir to be independent and hard-hearted,” Lady Olivia continued, “so that no one could ever take advantage of him. And therefore whenever he saw that Marcus had become fond of someone, a favorite nanny, for example, she was dismissed at once. My brother discovered that to display affection for anyone would result in their being sent away. He became distant with all those whom he loved but did not want to lose, including Aline and myself. From what I understand, things improved for Marcus when he was sent away to school, where his friends became a makeshift family.”
So that was why Marcus had remained a steadfast friend to St. Vincent, Lillian thought. “Did your mother never interfere on her children’s behalf?” she asked.
“No, she was too preoccupied with her own affairs.”
They were both silent for a time. Lady Olivia waited patiently for Lillian to speak, seeming to understand that she was trying to absorb what she had been told. “What a relief it must have been when the old earl passed away,” she murmured.
“Yes. A sad statement of a man’s life, that the world should have been so improved by his absence.”
“He did not succeed in his attempts to make your brother cold and heartless.”
“No, indeed,” Lady Olivia murmured. “I’m glad you can see that, my dear. Marcus has come so far, and yet he is still very much in need of …lightness.”
Rather than ease her curiosity about Marcus, the conversation had only awakened more questions, a deluge of them. However, her acquaintance with Lady Olivia was still too new and untested for her to be certain how far her questions could go before they were gently dismissed. “To your knowledge, my lady,” Lillian finally ventured, “has Lord Westcliff ever seriously considered marrying someone before? I am aware that there once was a woman for whom he had feelings…”
“Oh, that…it was nothing, really. Marcus would have tired of her quickly had Lord St. Vincent not stolen her away. Believe me, had Marcus wished to fight for her, she would have been his for the taking. What he never seemed to understand—what the rest of us saw— was that it was all a ploy on her part to arouse his jealousy, and induce him to marry her. But her plan failed because Marcus wasn’t really interested in her. She was one of a string of women who…well, as you can guess, Marcus has never lacked for female attention. He’s a bit spoiled in that way, having had women practically fall into his arms ever since he came of age.” She threw Lillian a laughing glance. “I’m sure he has found it refreshing to encounter a woman who actually dares to disagree with him.”
“I’m not certain that ‘refreshing’ would be his first choice of words,” Lillian replied wryly. “However, when I don’t like something that he’s done, I do not hesitate to tell him so.”
“Good,” Lady Olivia returned. “That is precisely what my brother needs. There are few women—or men, for that matter—who ever contradict him. He is a strong man who requires an equally strong wife to balance his nature.”
Lillian found herself needlessly smoothing the skirts of her pale green gown as she remarked carefully, “If Lord Westcliff and I did marry …he would face many objections from relatives and friends, wouldn’t he? Especially from the countess.”
“His friends would never dare,” Lady Olivia replied at once. “As for my mother…” She hesitated and then said frankly, “She has already made it clear that she does not approve of you. I doubt she ever will. However, that leaves you in very large company, as she disapproves of nearly everyone. Does it worry you that she opposes the match?”
“It tempts me beyond reason,” Lillian said, causing Lady Olivia to erupt with laughter.
“Oh, I do like you,” she gasped. “You must marry Marcus, as I would love above all else to have you as a sister-in-law.” Sobering, she stared at Lillian with a warm smile. “And I have a selfish reason for hoping that you will accept him. Although Mr. Shaw and I have no immediate plans to move to New York, I know that day will not be long in coming. When that happens, I should be relieved to know that Marcus is married and has someone to care for him, with both his sisters living so far away.” She stood from the bench, straightening her skirts. “The reason I’ve told you all of this is because I wanted you to understand why it is so difficult for Marcus to abandon himself to love. Difficult, but not impossible. My sister and I have finally managed to break free of the past, with the help of our husbands. But Marcus’s chains are the heaviest of all. I know that he is not the easiest man to love. However, if you could bring yourself to meet him halfway …perhaps even a bit more than halfway …I believe you would never have cause to regret it.”
The estate was swarming with industrious servants, who reminded one of bees in a hive as they undertook the complicated chore of packing their masters’ and mistresses’ belongings. The general company would depart the day after tomorrow, though some were already taking their leave. Few were inclined to make an early departure, however, as no one wanted to miss the large farewell ball that would be held on the last evening of the house party.
Lillian was thrown into frequent proximity with her mother, who was supervising (or harassing, as it might more accurately be said) a pair of housemaids in their laborious efforts to fold and pack hundreds of articles into the great leather-bound steamer trunks that had been brought up by the footman. After the stunning turn of events in the past day or two, Lillian fully expected her mother to plot out her every word and gesture in the effort to secure a betrothal with Lord Westcliff. However, Mercedes was surprisingly quiet and indulgent, seeming to choose her words with extreme care whenever she and Lillian spoke. On top of that, she did not mention West-cliff at all.
“What is the matter with her?” Lillian asked Daisy, bewildered by her mother’s docile manner. It was nice not to have to scrap and spar with Mercedes, but at the same time, now was when Lillian would have expected Mercedes to mow her over like a charging horse brigade.
Daisy shrugged and replied puckishly, “One can only assume that since you’ve done the opposite of everything she has advised, and you seem to have brought Lord Westcliff up to scratch, Mother has decided to leave the matter in your hands. I predict that she will turn a deaf ear and a blind eye to anything you do, so long as you manage to keep the earl’s interest.”
“Then…if I steal away to Lord Westcliff’s room later this evening, she won’t object?”
Daisy gave a low laugh. “She would probably help you to sneak up there, if you asked.” She gave Lillian an arch glance. “Just what are you going to do with Lord Westcliff, alone in his room?”
Lillian felt herself flush. “Negotiate.”
“Oh. Is that what you call it?”
Biting back a smile, Lillian narrowed her eyes. “Don’t be saucy, or I won’t tell you the lurid details later.”
“I don’t need to hear them from you,” Daisy said airily. “I’ve been reading the novels that Lady Olivia recommended…and now I daresay I know more than you and Annabelle put together.”
Lillian couldn’t help laughing. “Dear, I’m not certain that those novels are entirely accurate in their depiction of men, or of…of that.”
Daisy frowned. “In what way are they not accurate?”
“Well, there’s not really any sort of …you know, lavender mist and the swooning, and all the flowery speeches.”
Daisy regarded her with sincere disgruntlement. “Not even a little swooning?”
“For heaven’s sake, you wouldn’t want to swoon, or you might miss something.”
“Yes, I would. I should like to be fully conscious for the beginning, and then I should like to swoon through the rest of it.”
Lillian regarded her with startled amusement. “Why?”
“Because it sounds dreadfully uncomfortable. Not to mention revolting.”
“Not what? Uncomfortable, or revolting?”
“Neither,” Lillian said in a matter-of-fact tone, though she was struggling not to laugh. “Truly, Daisy. I would tell you if it were otherwise. It’s lovely. It really is.”
Her younger sister contemplated that, and glanced at her skeptically. “If you say so.”
Smiling to herself, Lillian thought about the evening ahead of her, and felt a thrill of eagerness at the prospect of being alone with Marcus. Her conversation in the orangery with Lady Olivia had given her a greater understanding of how remarkable it was that Marcus had let his guard down with her to the extent that he already had.
Perhaps it wasn’t a certainty that their relationship would be filled with turmoil. It took two to argue, after all. It was possible that she could find ways to decide when something was worth fighting over, or when she should simply dismiss it as unimportant. And Marcus had already shown signs of being willing to accommodate her. There had been that apology in the library, for example, when Marcus could have crushed her pride, and had chosen not to. Those were not the actions of an uncompromising man.
If only she were a bit more artful, like Annabelle, Lillian thought that she might have a better chance at managing Marcus. But she had always been too blunt and straightforward to possess any feminine wiles. Ah, well, she thought wryly, I’ve gotten this far without any wiles…I suppose I’ll do fine if I just blunder on ahead the way I’ve been doing.
Idly sorting through some articles on the dresser in the corner, Lillian set aside the necessities that would have to remain unpacked until their departure the day after next. Her silver-backed brush, a rack of pins, a fresh pair of gloves…she paused as her fingers closed around the vial of perfume that Mr. Nettle had given her. “Oh dear,” she murmured, sitting on the spindly velvet-upholstered chair. She stared at the glittering vial that was cradled in her palm. “Daisy …am I obligated to tell the earl that I used a love potion on him?”
Her younger sister seemed appalled by the very idea. “I should say not. What reason would you have to tell him?”
“Honesty?” Lillian suggested.
“Honesty is overrated. As someone once said, ‘Secrecy is the first essential in affairs of the heart.’ “