As he reached the top step, Marcus was approached by Daisy Bowman and her friend Evie Jenner, who, as usual, could not quite bring herself to meet his gaze. Making a shallow bow, Marcus smiled at Daisy, for whom he thought he could easily develop a brotherly affection. The slightness of her form and her sweetly exuberant spirit reminded him of Livia in her younger years. At the moment, however, the usual brightness of her expression had been dulled, and her cheeks were bereft of color.
“My lord,” Daisy murmured, “I am relieved that you have returned. There is a…a private matter that is causing us some concern…”
“How may I be of service?” Marcus asked immediately. A light breeze ruffled through his hair as he bent his head over hers.
Daisy hardly seemed to know how to explain. “It’s my sister,” she told him tensely. “She can’t be found anywhere. The last I saw her was about five hours ago. She left on some errand and wouldn’t explain what it was. When she did not return, I took it upon myself to look for her. And the other wallflowers—that is, Evie and Annabelle—they have been searching, too. Lillian is nowhere to be found in the manor, nor in the gardens. I even walked as far as the wishing well, to see if she’d gone there on some whim. It’s not like her to disappear like this. Not without me, at any rate. Perhaps it is too soon to worry, but…” She paused and frowned, as if she were trying to reason herself out of her concern but found herself unable. “Something is very wrong, my lord. I can feel it.”
Marcus kept his face expressionless, though inside he felt a violent stab of worry. His mind busily riffled through the possible explanations for her absence, from the frivolous to the extreme, and yet nothing seemed to make sense. Lillian was not a silly fool who might have wandered away from the house and become lost, nor, despite her love of pranks, would she play this kind of game. Neither did it seem likely that she had gone visiting somewhere, as she knew no one in the village, and she would not have left the estate on her own. Was she injured in some way? Had some illness overtaken her?
His heart thundering anxiously, he kept his voice calm as he glanced from Daisy’s small face to Evie Jenner’s. “Is it possible that she went to the stables and—”
“N-no, my lord,” Evie Jenner said. “I’ve already gone there to ask, and all of the horses are there, and none of the stable hands have s-seen Lillian today.”
Marcus nodded briefly. “I’ll organize a thorough search of the house and grounds,” he said. “She’ll be found within the hour.”
Seeming comforted by his brusque manner, Daisy let out an unsteady sigh. “What can I do?”
“Tell me more about the errand she went on.” Marcus stared intently into her round, gingerbread-colored eyes. “What was your conversation prior to her leaving?”
“One of the housemaids came to deliver a message to her this morning, and—”
“At what time?” Marcus interrupted tersely.
“Approximately eight o’clock.”
“I don’t know, my lord. I could hardly see a thing, as the door was scarcely opened as they spoke. And the maid wore a mobcap, so I can’t even tell you the color of her hair.”
During the conversation, they were joined by Hunt and Annabelle.
“I’ll question the housekeeper and the housemaids,” Hunt said.
“Good.” Filled with an explosive need for action, Marcus muttered, “I’ll start the grounds search.” He would gather a group of servants and a few male guests, including Lillian’s father, to help. Rapidly he calculated the length of time that Lillian had been absent, and the distance she could have traveled on foot across relatively rugged terrain. “We’ll begin with the gardens, and broaden it to a ten-mile radius around the manor.” Catching Hunt’s gaze, he jerked his head toward the doors, and they both made to depart.
“My lord,” came Daisy’s anxious voice, delaying him briefly. “You will find her, won’t you?”
“Yes,” he said without hesitation. “And then I’m going to strangle her.”
That drew a tense smile from Daisy, and she watched him as he strode away.
Marcus’s mood progressed from biting frustration to unendurable worry during the lengthening afternoon. Thomas Bowman, grimly convinced that his daughter was up to some bit of mischief making, joined a party of riders who searched the nearby woodland and surrounding meadows, while another group of volunteers went down the bluff to the river. The bachelors’ house, the gatehouse, the caretaker’s house, the icehouse, the chapel, conservatory, wine cellar, stable and stable yard were all meticulously inspected. It seemed that every inch of Stony Cross Park had been covered, with nothing, not so much as a footprint or discarded glove, to indicate what might have happened to Lillian.
While Marcus rode through the wood and fields until Brutus’s sides were wet and his mouth flecked with foam, Simon Hunt remained inside the manor to methodically question the servants. He was the only man Marcus trusted to perform the task with the same ruthless efficiency that he himself would have used. Marcus, for his part, didn’t want to speak patiently with anyone. He wanted to knock heads together and choke the information he wanted from someone’s helpless throat. Knowing that Lillian was somewhere out there, lost or perhaps hurt, filled him with an unfamiliar emotion, hot as lightning, cold as ice …a feeling he gradually identified as fear. Lillian’s safety was too important to him. He could not tolerate the thought that she was in a situation in which he was unable to help her. Unable, even, to find her.
“Will you order the ponds and lake to be dragged, milord?” asked the head footman, William, after a rapid account of the search so far. Marcus looked at him blankly, while a buzzing in his ears grew sharper, more piercing, and the hammer of his own pulse caused his veins to hurt. “Not yet,” he heard himself say in a surprisingly even voice. “I’m going to my study to confer with Mr. Hunt. You will find me there if anything occurs in the next few minutes.”
Striding to his study, where Hunt had been questioning the servants one at a time, Marcus entered the room without knocking. He saw Hunt seated at the broad mahogany desk, his chair angled to face a housemaid who perched on the other chair. She struggled to her feet at the sight of Marcus, and managed to bob a nervous curtsy. “Sit,” he said tersely, and whether it was his tone, his harsh expression, or merely his presence, she burst into tears. Marcus’s alert gaze shot to Simon Hunt, who was staring at the housemaid with a calm, terrible tenacity.
“My lord,” Hunt said quietly, his gaze unswerving from the maid’s streaming countenance as she wept into her sleeve, “after interviewing this young woman—Gertie— for some minutes, it has become apparent that she may have some useful information to share regarding Miss Bowman’s undisclosed errand this morning, and her subsequent disappearance. However, I believe that a fear of being dismissed may be inducing Gertie to hold her silence. If you, as her employer, might provide some guarantee—”
“You won’t be dismissed,” Marcus said to the maid in a hard voice, “if you tell me your information at this very moment. Otherwise, not only will you find yourself dismissed, I will see to it that you are prosecuted as an accessory to Miss Bowman’s disappearance.”
Gertie stared at him with bulging eyes, her weeping fading rapidly as she answered with a terrified stutter. “M-mi lord…I-I was sent to give Miss Bowman a message this morning, but I weren’t supposed to tell no one…she was to meet in secret, in Butterfly Court…and she said if I was to say a word of it, I would be sacked—”
“Sent by whom?” Marcus demanded, his blood teeming with fury. “To meet with whom? Tell me, damn it!”
“I was sent by the countess,” Gertie whispered, appearing awestruck by whatever it was she saw in his face. “By Lady Westcliff, milord.”
Before the last word had left her lips, Marcus had left the room, charging toward the grand staircase in murderous fury.
“Westcliff!” Simon Hunt bellowed, following him at a dead run. “Westcliff …damn you, wait…”
Marcus only quickened his pace, taking the stairs three at a time. More than anyone on earth, he knew what the countess was capable of …and his soul was smothered in a black cloud of horror at the knowledge that—one way or another—he might already have lost Lillian.
Lillian was aware of being jostled with irritating repetition. Slowly she comprehended that she was being conveyed in a carriage, swaying and jolting over the road at high speed. A terrible smell saturated everything…some kind of potent solvent, like turpentine. Stirring in confusion, she realized that her ear was pressed hard against an unyielding pillow stuffed with some highly condensed substance. She felt so horribly ill, as if she had been poisoned. With each breath she took, her throat burned. Nausea spread through her in repeated waves. She moaned in protest, while her clouded mind worked to disentangle itself from unpleasant dreams.
Cracking her eyes open, she saw something above her…a face that seemed to dart out at her and disappear at random. She tried to ask something, to find out what was happening, but her brain seemed to have been disconnected from the rest of her body, and though she was vaguely aware of speaking, the words that came from her mouth were gibberish.
“Shhh…” A long-fingered hand moved over her head, massaging her scalp and temples. “Rest. You’ll come out of it soon, darling. Just rest, and breathe.”
Confused, Lillian closed her eyes and tried to harness her brain into some fragile imitation of its usual process. After a while, she connected the voice to an image. “Sainvincen…” she mumbled, her tongue not quite moving properly in her mouth.
Her first lurching impulse was one of relief. A friend. Someone who would help her. But the relief turned hollow as her instincts shuffled in restless warning, and she rolled her head on what turned out to be St. Vincent’s thigh. The nauseating smell overwhelmed her…it was in her nose and on her face, the fumes stinging her eyes, and she lifted her fingers to claw at her skin in an instinctive attempt to scratch it off.
St. Vincent caught her wrists, murmuring, “No, no…I’ll help you. Put your hands down, love. There’s a good girl. Drink some of this. Only a sip, or it won’t stay down.” The nozzle of something—a flask, a skin, a bottle, perhaps—pressed against her lips, and cool water trickled into her mouth. She swallowed gratefully, and held still as a damp cloth moved over her cheeks and nose and jaw.
“Poor sweet,” St. Vincent murmured, wiping her throat, then moving to her forehead. “The idiot who brought you to me must have given you twice as much ether as was needed. You should have awakened long before now.”
Ether. The idiot who brought you to me …The first glimmer of understanding came to her, and Lillian stared up at him hazily, perceiving only the lean outlines of his face and the color of his hair, dark gold like the gilding of an antique Slavic icon. “Can’t see…” she whispered.
“That should improve in a few minutes.”
“Ether…” Lillian puzzled over the word, which sounded familiar. She had encountered it before, in some apothecary shop or another. Ether…sweet vitriol…used as an intoxicant, and occasionally as an aid to medical procedures. “Why?” she asked, uncertain if her uncontrollable trembling was the result of ether poisoning, or the realization that she was lying helpless in the arms of an enemy.
Though she still couldn’t clearly see the expression on St. Vincent’s face, she heard the gravely apologetic note in his voice. “I had no choice in the manner of your delivery, darling, or I would have made certain that you had been treated more gently. All I was told was that if I wanted you, I should come to collect you without delay, else you would be disposed of in some other manner. Knowing the countess, I wouldn’t have been surprised if she had elected to drown you like a cat in a sack.”
“Countess,” Lillian repeated faintly, still finding it difficult to maneuver her thick, swollen tongue. Saliva kept flooding her mouth, an aftereffect of the ether. “West-cliff …tell him…” Oh, how she wanted Marcus. She wanted his deep voice and loving hands, and the hard warmth of his body against hers. But Marcus didn’t know where she was, or what had happened to her.
“You’ve met with a change of fate, my pet,” St. Vincent said softly, stroking her hair again. It seemed that he could read her thoughts. “There’s no point in asking for Westcliff …you’re out of his reach now.”
Lillian floundered and strained to sit up, but all she succeeded in was nearly rolling onto the floor of the carriage.
“Easy,” St. Vincent murmured, holding her in place with only the lightest pressure on her shoulders. “You’re not ready to sit on your own yet. No, don’t. You’ll make yourself ill.”
Though she despised herself for it, Lillian couldn’t prevent a whimper of distress as she collapsed back into his lap, her head falling weakly against his thigh. “What are you doing?” she managed to ask, panting for breath and striving to keep down her gorge. “Where are we going?”
“To Gretna Green. We’re going to marry, sweet.”
It was difficult to think past the nausea and the instant panic. “I won’t cooperate,” Lillian finally whispered, swallowing and swallowing.
“I’m afraid you will,” he replied evenly. “I know of several methods to solicit your participation, though I would prefer not to cause you unnecessary pain. And after the ceremony, an expedient consummation will make the union permanent.”
“Westcliff won’t accept it,” she croaked. “No matter what you do. He’ll…he’ll take me away from you.”
St. Vincent’s voice was soft. “He will have no legal right to you by then, sweet. And I’ve known him far longer than you have, which is why I know that he won’t want you after I’ve taken you.”
“Not if it’s rape,” Lillian choked, flinching as she felt the easy slide of his palm over her shoulder. “He wouldn’t blame me.”
“It won’t be rape,” St. Vincent said gently. “If I know one thing, darling, it’s how to…well, I won’t boast. But rather than quibble over technicalities, I can assure you that although Westcliff won’t blame you, neither will he chance the possibility of his wife giving birth to another man’s bastard. Nor would he be able to accept a woman who has been defiled. He will—with reluctance, of course—inform you that it would probably be best for all parties concerned to leave things as they are. And then he’ll go on to marry the proper English girl that he should have chosen in the first place. Whereas you”—his finger traced the curve of her trembling cheek— “will do just fine for me. I daresay your family will reconcile themselves to me fairly soon. They’re the sort to make a virtue of necessity.”