She smiled and nuzzled into his shoulder, rubbing her lips against the sleek male skin. “I’m cold,” she whispered. “Lie with me under the covers.”
Marcus groaned at the temptation she offered, and forced himself to leave the bed. Lillian immediately tunneled beneath the covers, clutching the soft folds of Marcus’s shirt more tightly around herself. However, he returned soon, fully dressed, and he dug her out of the bedclothes. “There’s no use complaining,” he said, wrapping her in one of his robes. “You’re going back to your room. You can’t be seen with me at this hour.”
“Are you afraid of scandal?” Lillian asked.
“No. However, it is in my nature to behave with discretion whenever possible.”
“Such a gentleman,” she mocked, holding her arms up as he tied the belt of the robe. “You should marry a girl of equal discretion.”
“Ah, but they’re not half so entertaining as the wicked ones.”
“Is that what I am?” she asked, draping her arms around his shoulders. “A wicked girl?”
“Oh yes,” Marcus said softly, and covered her mouth with his.
Daisy awakened to a scratching sound at the door. Squinting her eyes open, she saw by the color of the light that it was still early morning, and that her sister was busy at the dressing table, brushing snarls from her hair. Sitting up and pushing her own hair from her eyes, she asked, “Who could that be?”
“I’ll see.” Already dressed in a dark red corded-silk day gown, Lillian went to the door and opened it a few inches. From what Daisy could see, a housemaid had come to deliver a message. A murmured conversation ensued, and though Daisy could not quite hear their words, she heard the mild surprise in her sister’s voice, followed by an edge of annoyance. “Very well,” Lillian said crisply. “Tell her I will. Though I hardly see the need for all this skulking about.”
The housemaid disappeared, and Lillian closed the door, frowning.
“What?” Daisy asked. “What did she tell you? Who sent her?”
“It was nothing,” Lillian replied, and added with heavy irony, “I’m not supposed to say.”
“I overheard something about skulking.”
“Oh, it’s just a bothersome piece of business that I have to take care of. I’ll explain it later this afternoon— no doubt I’ll have some highly entertaining and colorful story to tell.”
“Does it involve Lord Westcliff?”
“Indirectly.” Lillian’s frown cleared, and suddenly she looked radiantly happy. Perhaps more so than Daisy had ever seen her. “Oh, Daisy, it’s revolting, the way I want to fawn all over him. I’m afraid that I’m going to do something dreadfully silly today. Burst into song or something. For God’s sake, don’t let me.”
“I won’t,” Daisy promised, smiling back at her. “Are you in love, then?”
“That word is not to be mentioned,” Lillian said swiftly. “Even if I were—and I am not admitting anything—I would never be the first to say it. It’s a matter of pride. And there’s every chance that he won’t say it back, but just respond with a polite ‘thank you,’ in which case I would have to murder him. Or myself.”
“I hope the earl is not equally as stubborn as you,” Daisy commented.
“He isn’t,” Lillian assured her. “Although he thinks he is.” Some private memory caused her to chortle, clasping a hand to her forehead. “Oh, Daisy,” she said with devilish glee, “I’m going to be such an abominable countess.”
“Let’s not put it that way,” Daisy said diplomatically. “Rather, we’ll say ‘unconventional countess.’ “
“I can be any kind of countess I want,” Lillian said, half in delight, half in wonder. “Westcliff said so. And what’s more…I actually think he means it.”
After a light breakfast of tea and toast, Lillian went out to the back terrace of the manor. Resting her elbows on the balcony, she stared at their extensive gardens with their carefully edged paths, and broad margins of low box hedges lavished with roses, and ancient manicured yews that provided so many delightful hidden places to explore. Her smile faded as she reflected that at this moment, the countess was waiting for her at Butterfly Court, after having sent one of the housemaids to deliver her summons.
The countess desired a private talk with Lillian…and it was not a good sign that she wished to meet at such a distance from the manor. Since the countess often had difficulty walking, and either used a cane or chose on occasion to be pushed about in a wheeled chair, going to the hidden garden was an arduous undertaking. It would have been far simpler and more sensible if she had wanted to meet in the upstairs Marsden parlor. But perhaps what the countess wished to say was so private—or so loud—that she did not want to risk the possibility of being overheard. Lillian knew exactly why the countess had requested that she tell no one about their meeting. If Marcus found out, he would insist on delving thoroughly into the matter afterward—something that neither woman wanted. Besides, Lillian had no intention of hiding behind Marcus. She could face the countess on her own.
She fully expected a tirade, of course. Her acquaintance with the woman had taught her that the countess had a sharp tongue and did not seem to set any limit as to how wounding her words might be. But that didn’t matter. Every syllable the countess uttered would roll off Lillian like raindrops down a window, because she was secure in the knowledge that nothing could stop her marriage to Marcus. And the countess would have to realize that it was in her own best interest to have a cordial relationship with her daughter-in-law. Otherwise, they were capable of making life equally unpleasant for each other.
Lillian smiled grimly as she descended the long flight of steps that led to the gardens, and walked out into the cool morning air. “I’m coming, you old witch,” she muttered. “Do your worst.”
The door to Butterfly Court was ajar when she reached it. Squaring her shoulders, Lillian composed her features into cool unconcern, and strode inside. The countess was alone in the hidden garden, with no servant nearby to attend her. She sat on the circular garden bench as if it were a throne, her jeweled walking stick resting beside her. As expected, her expression was stony, and for a brief moment Lillian was almost tempted to laugh at the reflection that the woman resembled a tiny warrior, prepared to accept nothing less than uncontested victory.
“Good morning,” Lillian said pleasantly, approaching her. “What a lovely place you’ve chosen for us to meet, my lady. I do hope the walk from the house was not too strenuous for you.”
“That is my own concern,” the countess replied, “and none of yours.”
Although there was no discernible expression in her fish-flat black eyes, Lillian was aware of a sudden slithery chill. It wasn’t quite fear, but an instinctive trepidation that she had never felt in their previous encounters. “I was merely expressing an interest in your comfort,” Lillian said, holding up her hands in a mocking gesture of self-defense. “I won’t provoke you with any further attempts at friendliness, my lady. Go right ahead and speak your piece. I am here to listen.”
“For your own sake, and for my son’s, I hope that you do.” An icy brittleness layered the countess’s words, and yet at the same time she sounded vaguely perplexed, as if disbelieving that there was a necessity of saying these things at all. No doubt of all the controversies she had experienced in her lifetime, this was one she had never expected. “Had I imagined that a girl of your commonness would be capable of attracting the earl, I would have put a stop to this far earlier. The earl is not in full possession of his faculties, or it would never have come to this madness.”
As the silver-haired woman paused to draw breath, Lillian heard herself asking quietly, “Why do you call it madness? A few weeks ago you allowed that I might be able to catch a British peer. Why not the earl himself? Are you objecting mostly because of your personal dislike, or—”
“Stupid girl!” the countess exclaimed. “My objections stem from the fact that no one in the past fifteen generations of Marsden heirs has married outside the aristocracy. And my son will not be the first earl to do so! You understand nothing about the importance of blood—you, who come from a country that has no traditions, no culture, and no vestige of nobility. If the earl marries you, it will be not only his failure, but mine, and the downfall of every man and woman related to the Marsden escutcheon.”
The pomposity of the statement nearly drew a jeering laugh from Lillian…except that she began to understand, for the first time, that Lady Westcliff’s belief in the inviolability of the Marsdens’ noble lineage was nearly religious in its fervor. As the countess worked to restore her tattered composure, Lillian wondered how, if at all, she might bring the issue down to a personal level, and appeal to the countess’s deeply buried feelings for her son.
Emotional candor was seldom easy for Lillian. She preferred to make clever comments, or cynical ones, as it had always seemed far too risky to speak from the heart. This was important, however. And perhaps she owed an attempt at sincerity to the woman whose son she would soon wed.
Lillian spoke with awkward slowness. “My lady, I know that deep down you must desire your son’s happiness. I wish you could understand how much I want the same thing for him. It is true that I am not noble, nor am I accomplished in the ways that you would prefer…” She paused with a self-derisive smile as she added, “Nor am I precisely certain of what an escutcheon is. But I think …I think I could make Westcliff happy. At least I could ease his cares a little…and I will not be a complete madcap, I swear it. If you believe nothing else, please know that I would never want to embarrass him, or to offend you—”
“I will listen to no more of this puling rubbish!” the countess exploded. “Everything about you offends me. I would not have you as a servant on my estate, much less the mistress of it! My son cares nothing for you. You are merely a symptom of his past grievances against his father. You are a rebellion, a useless retaliation against a ghost. And when the novelty of his vulgar bride wears thin, the earl will come to despise you as I do. But by then it will be too late. The lineage will be ruined.”
Lillian remained expressionless, though she felt the color drain from her face. No one, she realized, had ever looked at her with real hatred until now. It was clear that the countess wished every ill upon her short of death—perhaps not even barring that. Rather than shrink, cry, or protest, however, Lillian found herself launching a counterattack. “Maybe he wants to marry me as a retaliation against you, my lady. In which case I am delighted to serve as the means of reprisal.”
The countess’s eyes bulged. “You dare!” she croaked.
Although Lillian was tempted to say more, she half feared it would send the countess into apoplexy. And, she thought wryly, killing a man’s mother was not a good way to begin a marriage. Biting back more barbed words, she gave the countess a slitted glance. “We’ve made our positions clear, I suppose. Though I had hoped for a different outcome to our conversation, I will allow that the news is still something of a shock. Perhaps in time we shall come to some kind of understanding.”
“Yes…we will.” There was a soft hiss in the woman’s voice, and Lillian had to resist an instinctive urge to step back as she saw the malevolence in her gaze. Suddenly feeling chilled and befouled by the ugliness of their exchange, Lillian wanted nothing more than to be as far away from her as possible. But the countess could do nothing to her, she reminded herself, as long as Marcus wanted her.
“I will marry him,” she insisted calmly, feeling the need to make that point clear.
“Not as long as I am living,” the countess whispered. Levering herself upward, she grasped her cane and used it to steady her balance. Mindful of the woman’s physical frailty, Lillian nearly went to help her. However, the woman gave her such a venomous glare that Lillian held back, half suspecting the countess might lash out with the cane.
The gentle morning sun broke through the delicate veil of mist that hung over the butterfly garden, and a few painted ladies unfolded their wings to flutter over the half-open flower cups. It was such a beautiful garden, and such an incongruous setting for the poisonous words that had been exchanged. Lillian followed the older woman’s tedious progress out of Butterfly Court.
“Let me open the door for you,” Lillian offered. The countess waited regally, then crossed the threshold of Butterfly Court. “We might have met at a more convenient place,” Lillian couldn’t resist commenting. “After all, we can fight just as easily inside the manor, where you wouldn’t have to walk nearly so far.”
Ignoring her, Lady Westcliff continued to walk away. And then she said something curious, not bothering to direct the comment over her shoulder, but to the side, as if she were speaking to someone else. “You may proceed.”
“My lady?” Lillian questioned, puzzled, and she made to follow her outside the hidden garden.
With brutal quickness, she was smothered in a blur of movement, seized from behind in a crushing grip. Before she could move or speak, something was clamped over her mouth and nose. Her eyes flew wide in bewildered fear, and she tried to flail, and her lungs moved in a painful attempt to draw in air. The thing over her face, clenched tightly by a large hand, was saturated with a sickly-sweet fluid, its fumes shooting into her nostrils, her throat, chest, head…a swift, noxious billow that caused her to collapse piece by piece, like a tower of painted wooden blocks. Losing control of her arms and legs, she sank into a fathomless darkness, her eyes closing as the sun turned black.
Returning from a late breakfast that had been held at the lakeside pavilion after the morning’s shooting, Marcus paused at the nadir of the great staircase at the back of the manor. One of the shooting party, an elderly man who had been a friend of the family for the past twenty-five years, had sought his attention, wishing to complain about another of the guests. “He shot out of turn,” the old man said heatedly, “not once, not twice, but thrice. And to make matters worse, he claimed to have downed one of the birds that I shot. Never in all my years of hunting at Stony Cross Park have I encountered such unspeakable boorishness—”
Marcus interrupted with grave politeness, promising that not only would he speak to the offensive guest, but that the elderly man would certainly be invited to return next week to hunt or shoot at his leisure. Somewhat mollified, the affronted old man left Marcus with a few last grumbles about ill-behaved guests with no conception of gentlemanly manners in the field. Smiling ruefully, Marcus ascended the steps to the back terrace. He saw Hunt, who had also just returned, standing with his head bent toward his wife. Annabelle looked distinctly worried about something, whispering to Hunt and curling her fingers into the sleeve of his coat.