“It was the Duc de Richelieu,” said Lillian, who had read the same book of philosophy during their schoolroom lessons. “And the accurate quote is, ‘Secrecy is the first essential in affairs of the State.’ “
“He was French, though,” Daisy argued. “I’m sure he meant the heart as well.”
Lillian laughed and glanced at her sister affectionately. “Perhaps he did. But I don’t want to keep secrets from Lord Westcliff.”
“Oh, very well. But heed my words—it wouldn’t be a true love affair if you didn’t have a few little secrets.”
At a suitably late hour, when some of the guests had retired and others were lingering downstairs in the card room and the billiards room, Lillian crept from her chamber with the intention of meeting Marcus. She tiptoed along the hallway, and stopped short as she saw a man standing against a wall at the juncture of two wide corridors. The man stepped forward, and she immediately recognized him as Marcus’s valet.
“Miss,” he said calmly, “milord bid me to show you the way.”
“I know the way. And he knows that I know the way. What the devil are you doing here?”
“Milord did not wish for you to wander through the house unaccompanied.”
“Naturally,” she said. “I could be accosted by someone. Seduced, even.”
Seemingly inured to sarcasm, when it was perfectly obvious that she was not going to the earl’s room for a chaste visit, the valet turned to lead the way.
Fascinated by his reserve, Lillian couldn’t help asking, “So…is it often that you are required to escort unmarried ladies to Lord Westcliff’s private rooms?”
“No, miss,” came his unflappable reply.
“Would you tell me if it were otherwise?”
“No, miss,” he said in exactly the same tone, and she grinned.
“Is the earl a good master?”
“He is an excellent master, miss.”
“I suppose you would say that even if he was an ogre.”
“No, miss. In that case I would merely say that he was an acceptable master. When I say that he is an excellent master, however, I mean precisely that.”
“Hmm.” Lillian was encouraged by the valet’s words. “Does he talk to his servants? Thank them for doing a good job, that sort of thing?”
“No more than is appropriate, miss.”
“Which is to say never?”
“More accurate would be to say not usually, miss.”
Since the valet seemed disinclined to talk after that, Lillian followed him in silence to Marcus’s room. He accompanied her to the threshold, scratched at the door with the tips of his fingers, and waited for a response from within.
“Why do you do that?” Lillian whispered. “That scratching business. Why don’t you knock?”
“The countess prefers a scratch to a knock, as it is more soothing to her nerves.”
“Does the earl prefer you to scratch at his door?”
“I doubt very much he cares one way or the other, miss.”
Lillian frowned thoughtfully. In the past she had heard other servants scratching their employers’ doors, and it had always struck her American ears as being a bit odd…rather like a dog scuffling to be let in from outside.
The door opened, and Lillian felt a rush of pure gladness at the sight of Marcus’s dark face. His expression was impassive, but his eyes were glowing with warmth. “That will be all,” he said to the valet, staring at Lillian’s face as he reached out to draw her past the threshold.
“Yes, milord.” The valet disappeared with tactful speed.
Closing the door, Marcus stared at Lillian, the spark in his eyes burning brighter, a smile now lurking at the corners of his lips. He looked so handsome, with his austere features lit by the mingled glow of the lamp and the hearth, that a sweet shiver went through her. Rather than his usual tied-and-buttoned attire, he had gone without a coat, and his white shirt was open at the throat, revealing a glimpse of smooth brown skin. She had kissed that triangular hollow at the base of it …she had let her tongue play across it…
Ripping her thoughts from the scalding memory, Lillian glanced away from him. Immediately she felt his lean fingers come up to her hot cheek, guiding her face back to his. The tip of his thumb slid over her chin. “I wanted you today,” he said softly.
Her heart escalated into a rapid thump, and the cheek beneath his caressing fingertips tautened with a smile. “You didn’t so much as glance in my direction even once during supper.”
“I was afraid to.”
“Because I knew that if I did, I wouldn’t be able to keep from making you into my next course.”
Lillian’s lashes lowered as she let him ease her closer, his hand sliding over the length of her spine. Her br**sts and waist felt swollen within the insulating grip of her corset, and she suddenly longed to be rid of it. Taking as deep a breath as the stays would allow, she became aware of a sweetly spicy scent in the air.
“What is that?” she murmured, drawing in the fragrance. “Cinnamon and wine…” Turning in the circle of his arms, she looked around the spacious bedroom, past the poster bed to the small table that had been set near the window. There was a covered silver dish on the table, from which a few traces of sweet-scented steam were still visible. Perplexed, she twisted back to look at Marcus.
“Go and find out,” he said.
Curiously Lillian went to investigate. Taking hold of the cover’s handle, which had been wrapped with a linen napkin, she lifted the lid, letting a soft burst of intoxicating fragrance into the air. Momentarily puzzled, Lillian stared at the dish, and then burst out laughing. The white porcelain dish was filled with five perfect pears, all standing on end, their skin gleaming and ruby-red from having been poached in wine. They sat in a pool of clear amber sauce that was redolent of cinnamon and honey.
“Since I couldn’t obtain a pear from a bottle for you,” came Marcus’s voice from behind her, “this was the next best alternative.”
Lillian picked up a spoon and dug into one of the melting-soft pears, lifting it to her lips with relish. The bite of warm, wine-soaked fruit seemed to dissolve in her mouth, the spiced honey sauce causing a tingle in the back of her throat. “Mmmm…” She closed her eyes in ecstasy.
Looking amused, Marcus turned her to face him. His gaze fell to the corner of her lips, where a stray drop of honey sauce glittered. Ducking his head, he kissed and licked away the sticky drop, the caress of his mouth causing a new pleasurable ache deep inside her. “Delicious,” he whispered, his lips settling more firmly, until she felt as if her blood were flowing in streams of white-hot sparks. She dared to share the taste of wine and cinnamon with him, tentatively exploring his mouth with her tongue, and his response was so encouraging that she wrapped her arms around his neck and pressed herself closer. He was delicious, the taste of his mouth clean and sweet, the feel of his lean, solid body immeasurably exciting. Her lungs expanded with shaky-hot breaths, restrained by the clench of her corset stays, and she broke the kiss with a gasp.
“I can’t breathe.”
Wordlessly Marcus turned her around and unfastened the gown. Reaching her corset, he untied the laces and loosened them with a series of expert tugs, until the stays expanded and Lillian gulped in relief. “Why did you lace so tightly?” she heard him ask.
“Because the dress wouldn’t fasten otherwise. And because, according to my mother, Englishmen prefer their women to be narrow-waisted.”
Marcus snorted as he eased her back to face him. “Englishmen prefer women to have larger waists in lieu of fainting from lack of oxygen. We’re rather practical that way.” Noticing that the sleeve of her unfastened gown had slipped over her white shoulder, he lowered his mouth to the smooth curve. The silken brush of his lips against her skin caused her to tremble, and she nestled close to him, while sensations wavered inside her like images in sun-warmed water. Blindly she reached up to his hair, her fingers thrilling at the feel of the coarse silken locks. The rhythm of her heart drove free and hard inside her chest, and she moved restlessly in his arms as he kissed his way up to her throat.
“Lillian.” His voice was husky and rueful. “This is too soon. I promised you…” Pausing, he stole a kiss from the tender hollow beneath her ear. “Promised…” he continued doggedly, “that we would negotiate your terms.”
“Terms?” she asked vaguely, clasping his head in her hands and urging his mouth back to hers.
“Yes, I—” Marcus broke off to kiss her lips, slanting his mouth over hers with twisting pressure. She explored his neck and face, her fingertips passing over the strong lines of his cheekbones and jaw, the taut sinew of his neck. The smell of his skin intoxicated her with every breath. She wanted to press herself against him until there was not an inch of space left between them. Suddenly she could not kiss him hard enough, long enough.
As he felt her escalating wildness, Marcus forcibly eased her back, ignoring her whimper of protest. His own breath knocked sharply in his throat, and it seemed to require great effort to sort through his disordered thoughts. “Little one…” His hands rubbed gentle circles on her back and shoulders to soothe her. “Softly. Softly. You can have everything you want. You don’t have to fight for it.”
Lillian nodded jerkily. She had never been so aware of the difference in their respective experience, realizing that he was able to restrain his intense passion, whereas she was utterly overwhelmed. His mouth touched her burning forehead and followed the wing of her brow. “It’s better for you…for both of us…to make it last longer,” he murmured. “I don’t want to take you in haste.”
She found herself nudging strongly against his face, his hands, like a cat demanding to be stroked.
One of his palms slipped into the open back of her gown, seeking the skin above the edge of her corset, and a sigh escaped him as he felt her downy softness. “Not yet,” he said in a rough whisper, though whether he was talking to himself or to her was unclear. He clasped the vulnerable curve of her neck in one strong hand, and bent to feast on her parted lips, her chin, the front of her throat. “You’re so sweet,” he said raggedly.
She couldn’t help but grin, even in the flush of desire. “Am I?”
Marcus sought her mouth with another hungering kiss. “Very sweet,” he confirmed huskily. “Though if I were a lesser man, you’d have torn my head off by now.”
The words drew a low laugh from her. “Now I understand the attraction between us. We’re a danger to everyone but each other. Like a pair of ill-tempered hedgehogs.” She paused as a thought occurred to her, and she pulled away from him. “Speaking of attraction…” Her legs were a bit unsteady, and she wandered to the ready support of the bed. Standing against one of the heavy carved posts, she murmured, “I have something to confess.”
Marcus followed her, the light limning the sleek, superbly toned lines of his body. The fashionable looseness of his trousers, which lightly followed the shape of his lean form, did little to conceal the powerful muscles beneath. “That doesn’t surprise me.” He rested one hand on the post just above her head, his posture relaxed. “Am I going to like this confession or not?”
“I don’t know.” She reached into the hidden pocket of her gown, concealed in the deep folds of her skirts, and found the vial of perfume. “Here.”
“What is it?” Receiving the vial, Marcus opened it and inhaled the scent. “Perfume,” he said, his gaze questioning as it returned to her face.
“Not just any perfume,” Lillian replied apprehensively. “It’s the reason you were first attracted to me.”
He sniffed it again. “Oh?”
“I purchased it from an old perfumer in London. It’s an aphrodisiac.”
Sudden laughter flickered in his eyes. “Where did you learn that word?”
“From Annabelle. And it’s true,” Lillian told him earnestly, “it really is one. It has a special ingredient that the perfumer told me would attract a suitor.”
“What special ingredient?”
“He wouldn’t tell me what it was. But it worked. Don’t laugh, it did! I noticed its effect on you the day that we played rounders, when you kissed me behind the hedgerow. Don’t you remember?”
Marcus seemed entertained by the notion, but it was clear that he did not believe that he had been seduced by a perfume. He passed it beneath his nose again, and murmured, “I remember having noticed the scent. But I was attracted to you for many other reasons long before that day.”
“Liar,” she accused. “You hated me.”
He shook his head. “I never hated you. I was bothered, plagued, and tormented by you, but that’s not at all the same thing.”
“The perfume works,” she insisted. “Not only did you respond to it, but Annabelle tried it on her husband—and she swears that he kept her up all night as a result.”
“Sweetheart,” Marcus said wryly, “Hunt has behaved like a boar in rut around Annabelle since the first day they met. It’s typical behavior for him, where she is concerned.”
“But it wasn’t typical behavior for you! You had absolutely no interest in me until I wore this scent, and the first time you got a whiff of it—”
“Are you claiming,” he interrupted, his eyes like black velvet, “that I would have a similar reaction to any woman who wears it?”
Lillian opened her mouth to reply, then closed it abruptly as she recalled that he hadn’t displayed any interest when the other wallflowers had tried it. “No,” she admitted. “But it does seem to make quite a bit of difference with me.”
A slow smile curved his lips. “Lillian, I’ve wanted you every moment since I first held you in my arms. And it has nothing to do with your damned perfume. However”—he inhaled the scent one last time before replacing the tiny stopper—“I do know what the secret ingredient is.”
Lillian stared at him with wide eyes. “You do not!”
“I do,” he said smugly.
“What a know-all,” Lillian exclaimed with laughing annoyance. “Perhaps you’re guessing at it, but I assure you that if I can’t figure out what it is, you certainly couldn’t—”
“I know conclusively what it is,” he informed her.