Lillian did not happen to agree with his analysis, at least where Marcus was concerned. She had a good deal more faith in his loyalty than that. However, it wasn’t a theory that she cared to test—especially the unwilling consummation part. She lay still for a long minute, discovering to her relief that her vision was clearing, and her nausea had eased slightly, though the pools of bitter saliva kept collecting in her mouth. Now that her initial confusion and the first flush of panic were over, she was able to harness her sluggish mind sufficiently to think. Though part of her longed to explode with rage, she couldn’t see much benefit for herself in that. Much better to recover her wits, and try to think rationally.

“I want to sit up,” she said flatly.

St. Vincent seemed admiring and surprised by her calmness. “Slowly, then, and allow me to support you until you get your bearings.”

Showers of white and blue sparks veiled Lillian’s vision as she felt him maneuver her until she was braced in the corner of the carriage. More saliva, a surge of weakness, and then she managed to collect herself. Her dress was unfastened, she saw, with the front gaping open to the waist to reveal the crumpled chemise underneath. Her heart kicked anxiously at the discovery, and she tried unsuccessfully to tug the edges of the gown together. Her accusing gaze lifted to St. Vincent’s face. His expression was grave, but his eyes were light and smiling. “No, I haven’t ravished you,” he murmured. “Yet. I prefer my victims to be conscious. However, your breathing was weak, and I feared the mixture of an ether overdose and a very tight corset might be the finish of you. I removed the corset, but I couldn’t quite fasten your gown.”

“More water,” Lillian said raspily, and took a cautious sip from the leather skin that he handed to her. She stared at St. Vincent stonily, searching for any vestige of the charming companion she had known at Stony Cross Park. All she could see were the dispassionate eyes of a man who would hesitate at nothing to get what he wanted. He possessed no principles, no sense of honor, no human weakness. She could cry, scream, beg, and none of it would move him. He would stop at nothing, even rape, to achieve his ends.

“Why me?” she asked in a monotone. “Why not make off with some other unwilling girl who has some money?”

“Because you were the most convenient option. And financially speaking, you’re by far the most well endowed.”

“And you want to strike at Westcliff,” she said. “Because you’re jealous of him.”

“Darling, that’s going a bit too far. I wouldn’t trade places with Westcliff and his infernal load of obligations for all the world. I merely want to improve my own circumstances.”

“And therefore you are willing to take a wife who will hate you?” Lillian asked, rubbing her eyes, which felt filmy and sticky. “If you think I would ever forgive you, you’re a vain, self-centered idiot. I’ll do everything in my power to make you miserable. Is that what you want?”

“At the moment, pet, all I want is your money. Later we’ll discover ways in which I might be able to soften your feelings toward me. Failing that, I can always deposit you in some remote country estate where the only entertainment is watching the cows and sheep through the window.”

Lillian’s head pounded and throbbed. She moved her fingers to her temples and pressed them firmly in an effort to ease the ache. “Don’t underestimate me,” she said with her eyes closed, while her heart felt like a cold, hard stone in her chest. “I will make your life hell. I may even murder you.”

A gentle, mirthless laugh greeted her statement. “No doubt someone will, someday. It may as well be my own wife.”

Lillian fell silent, squeezing her eyes tighter over a threatening prickle of useless tears. She would not cry, however. She would wait for an opportune moment…and if murder was what was required for her to escape him, she would happily oblige.

By the time Marcus had reached the countess’s private suite of rooms, with Simon Hunt in close pursuit, the commotion had attracted the attention of half the household. Intent on reaching the malicious bitch who was his mother, Marcus was only vaguely aware of the stunned faces of the servants he passed. He ignored Simon Hunt’s exhortations to calm himself, to keep from tearing off in a fury, to behave rationally. Never in his life had Marcus been so far beyond the reach of sanity.

Reaching the door of his mother’s apartments, Marcus found it locked. He rattled the handle violently. “Open it,” he bellowed. “Open it now!”

Silence, and then a maid’s frightened reply from within. “Milord…the countess bade me to tell you that she is resting.”

“I’ll send her to her eternal fu**ing rest,” Marcus roared, “if this door isn’t opened now.”

“Milord, please—”

He drew back three or four paces and hurled himself against the door, which shook on its hinges and partially gave with a splintering sound. There were fearful cries in the hallway from a pair of female guests who happened to witness the astonishing display of raging frenzy. “Dear God,” one exclaimed to the other, “he’s gone berserk!”

Marcus drew back again and lunged at the door, this time sending chunks of paneling flying. He felt Simon Hunt’s hands grasp him from behind, and he whirled with his fist drawn back, ready to launch an attack on all fronts.

“Jesus,” Hunt muttered, retreating a step or two with his hands raised in a defensive gesture. His face was taut and his eyes were wide, and he stared at Marcus as if he were a stranger. “Westcliff—”

“Stay the hell out of my way!”

“Gladly. But let me point out that if our positions were reversed, you would be the first to tell me to keep a cool—”

Ignoring him, Marcus swerved back to the door and targeted the disjointed lock with a powerful, accurately aimed blow of his boot heel. The housemaid’s scream shot through the doorway as the ruined portal swung open. Bursting into the receiving room, Marcus charged toward the bedchamber, where the countess sat in a chair by a small hearth fire. Fully dressed and swathed in ropes of pearls, she stared at him with amused disdain.

Breathing heavily, Marcus advanced on her with bloodlust racing through his veins. It was certain that the countess had no idea that she was in mortal danger, or she would not have received him so calmly.

“Full of animal spirits today, are we?” she asked. “Your descent from gentleman to savage brute has been accomplished so very quickly. I must offer Miss Bowman my compliments on her efficacy.”

“What have you done with her?”

“Done with her?” Her expression taunted him with its innocent perplexity. “What the devil do you mean, Westcliff?”

“You met with her at Butterfly Court this morning.”

“I never walk that far from the manor,” the countess said haughtily. “What a ridiculous asser—” She let out a strident cry as Marcus seized her, his fingers wrapping around the pearl ropes and tightening them around her throat.

“Tell me where she is, or I’ll snap your neck like a wishbone!”

Simon Hunt seized him from behind once more, determined to prevent a murder from occurring. “Westcliff!”

Marcus closed his hand in a harder grip around the pearls. He glared without blinking into his mother’s face, not missing the flicker of vindictive triumph that lurked in her eyes. He did not take his gaze from hers even as he heard his sister Livia’s voice.

“Marcus,” she said urgently. “Marcus, listen to me! You have my permission to throttle her later. I’ll even help. But at least wait until we’ve found out what she’s done.”

Marcus tightened the tension of the pearls until the elderly woman’s eyes seemed to protrude from their shallow sockets. “Your only value to me,” he said in a low tone, “is your knowledge of Lillian Bowman’s whereabouts. If I can’t obtain that from you, I’ll send you to the devil. Tell me, or I’ll choke it from you. And believe that I have enough of my father in me to do it without a second thought.”

“Oh yes, you have him in you,” the countess said raspily. As his hold on her necklace loosened marginally, she smiled with malevolent enjoyment. “I see that all pretenses of being nobler, better, wiser than your father have finally vanished. That Bowman creature has poisoned you without your even being—”

“Now!” he roared.

For the first time, she began to look uneasy, though no less self-righteous. “I will admit, I met with Miss Bowman this morning at Butterfly Court—where she told me of her intentions to run away with Lord St. Vincent. She has decided to elope with him.”

“That’s a lie!” came Livia’s outraged cry, while a burst of agitated female voices came from the direction of the doorway…the wallflowers, who seemed to be vigorously denying the statement.

Marcus released the countess as if he had been burned. His first reaction was a piercing relief that Lillian was still alive. However, the relief was followed immediately by the awareness that she was far from safe. In light of St. Vincent’s need of a fortune, it made perfect sense for him to abduct Lillian. Marcus turned from his mother, never wanting to look at her again, unable to bring himself to speak to her. His gaze locked with Simon Hunt’s. Predictably, Hunt was already making rapid calculations. “He’ll take her to Gretna Green, of course,” Hunt murmured, “and they’ll have to travel east to the main road in Hertfordshire. He won’t risk traveling the back ways and getting mired in mud, or having the wheels damaged from broken road. From Hertfordshire it will be approximately forty-five hours to Scotland…and at a speed of ten miles per hour, with occasional stops for fresh relay horses…”

“You’ll never overtake them,” the countess cried with a cackling laugh. “I told you I would have my way, Westcliff!”

“Oh, shut up, you evil hag!” cried Daisy Bowman impatiently from the doorway, her eyes huge in her pale face. “Lord Westcliff, shall I run to the stables and tell them to saddle a horse?”

“Two horses,” Simon Hunt said resolutely. “I’m going with him.”

“Which ones—”

“Ebony and Yasmin,” Marcus replied. They were his best Arabians, bred for speed over long distance. They were not as lightning-fast as thoroughbreds, but they would endure a punishing pace for hours, traveling at least three times as fast as St. Vincent’s coach.

Daisy disappeared in a flash, and Marcus turned to his sister. “See that the countess is gone by the time I return,” he said curtly. “Pack whatever she needs, and get her off the estate.”

“Where do you wish me to send her?” Livia asked, pale but composed.

“I don’t give a damn, so long as she knows not to return.”

Realizing that she was being banished, and most likely exiled, the countess rose from her chair. “I will not be disposed of in this manner! I won’t have it, my lord!”

“And tell the countess,” Marcus said to Livia, “that if the slightest harm comes to Miss Bowman, she had better pray that I never find her.”

Marcus strode from the room, shoving through a small crowd that had gathered in the hallway. Simon Hunt followed, pausing only to murmur briefly to Annabelle and press a kiss to her forehead. She stared after him with an anxious frown, biting her lip to keep from calling after him.

After a lengthy pause, the countess was heard to mutter, “It matters not what becomes of me. I am content in the knowledge that I have prevented him from befouling the family lineage.”

Livia turned to give her mother a half-pitying, half-contemptuous glance. “Marcus never fails,” she said softly. “Most of his childhood was spent learning to overcome impossible odds. And now that Marcus has finally found someone worth fighting for …do you really think he would let anything stop him?”

CHAPTER 25

Despite her fear and worry, the residual effects of the ether caused Lillian to sleep as she sat with her head resting against the side of the velvet-upholstered wall of the carriage. The eventual cessation of movement caused her to awaken. Her back hurt, and her feet were cold and numb. Rubbing her sore eyes, she wondered if she had been dreaming. She willed herself to awaken in the quiet little bedroom at Stony Cross Park…or better yet, the spacious bed she had shared with Marcus. Opening her eyes, she saw the interior of St. Vincent’s carriage, and her heart plummeted.

Her fingers shook as she reached out to lift the window curtain with a clumsy motion. It was early evening, the dying sun casting a last harsh glitter through a scant grove of oak trees. The carriage had stopped in front of a coaching inn, with a sign, the bull and mouth, hanging beside the front entrance. It was a large inn capable of stabling perhaps a hundred horses, with three conjoined buildings to house the many travelers who made use of the main turnpike road.

Aware of a movement on the seat beside her, Lillian began to turn, and stiffened as she felt both her wrists being caught neatly behind her back. “What—” she asked, at the same time that cold metal rings were snapped smoothly around her wrists. She tugged at her arms, but they were fastened securely. Handcuffs, she realized. “You bastard,” she said, her voice trembling with fury. “You coward. You bloody—” Her voice was muffled as a wad of fabric was shoved into her mouth, and a gag was gently cinched over it.

“Sorry,” St. Vincent murmured in her ear, not sounding at all penitent. “You shouldn’t tug at your wrists, pet. You’ll bruise them needlessly.” His warm fingers closed over her icy fists. “An interesting toy, this,” he murmured, a fingertip slipping beneath the metal cuff to stroke her wrist. “Some women of my acquaintance have a great fondness for it.” Turning her rigid body in his arms, he smiled as he saw the angry bewilderment in her expression. “My innocent…it will be a great pleasure to tutor you.”

Pushing at the gag with her dry tongue, Lillian could not help reflecting on how beautiful and treacherous a creature he was. A villain should be black-haired and wart-covered and as monstrous on the outside as he was on the inside. It was vastly unjust that a soulless beast like St. Vincent should be graced with such handsomeness. “I’ll return momentarily,” he told her. “Be still— and try not to cause trouble.”

The smug ass, Lilian thought bitterly, while the rising pressure of panic caused her throat to tighten. She watched without blinking as St. Vincent opened the door and swung down from the carriage. A gathering semidarkness enclosed her as evening fell. Forcing herself to breathe regularly, Lillian tried to think above her fear. Surely there would come a moment, an opening, when she would have a chance to escape. All she had to do was wait.


Tags: Lisa Kleypas Wallflowers Romance
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