Her absence at Stony Cross Park would have been noticed many hours ago. They would be searching for her…wasting time, worrying…and all the while, the countess would be waiting in silent complacency, satisfied in the knowledge that she had handily dispatched of at least one troublesome American. What was Marcus thinking at this moment? What was he—no, she couldn’t allow herself to dwell on the thought, for it had caused her eyes to sting, and she would not let herself cry. St. Vincent would not have the satisfaction of seeing any evidence of weakness.
Twisting her hands in the cuffs, Lillian tried to figure out what kind of locking mechanism fastened them, but in her current position, it was useless. Relaxing back against the seat, she glared at the door until it opened once more.
St. Vincent climbed back into the carriage and signaled the driver. The vehicle jolted slightly as it was drawn to the yard behind the coaching inn. “In a moment I will take you upstairs to a room where you can see to your private needs. Regrettably we haven’t time for a meal, but I can promise you a decent breakfast on the morrow.”
When the carriage stopped once more, St. Vincent grasped her waist and pulled her toward him, his blue eyes glittering appreciatively at the glimpse of her br**sts through the thin chemise, while the front of her dress gaped open. Covering her with his coat to conceal the sight of the handcuffs and gag, he slung her over his shoulder. “Don’t even think of struggling or kicking,” she heard him say, the sound of his voice muffled by the layer of broadcloth. “Or I may decide to delay our journey while I demonstrate precisely what my paramours find so delightful about handcuffs.”
Held in check by the credible threat of rape, Lillian held still as he carried her outside the carriage, crossing through the back courtyard of the inn to an outside staircase. Someone he passed must have asked a question about the prone woman slung over St. Vincent’s shoulder, for he said with a rueful laugh, “My light-o’-love is a bit tap-hackled, I’m afraid. A weakness for gin. Turns her nose up at good French brandy and goes for blue ruin, the little pea wit.” The comments elicited a hearty masculine guffaw, and Lillian simmered in mounting fury. She counted the number of steps St. Vincent ascended…twenty-eight, with one landing between the flights. They were on the upper level of the building, with one door that led to a row of rooms inside. Nearly smothering beneath the coat, Lillian tried to guess how many doors they might have passed as St. Vincent proceeded along the hallway. They entered a room, and St. Vincent closed the door with his foot.
Carrying Lillian to the bed, he carefully unloaded her, removed the coat, and pushed back the wild locks of hair that had fallen over her flushed face.
“I want to make certain they’re hitching up a decent team,” St. Vincent murmured, his eyes as brilliantly faceted as gemstones, and just as cold. “I’ll return soon.”
Lillian wondered if he ever felt a genuine emotion about anyone or anything, or if he simply moved through life like an actor on a stage, manufacturing whatever expressions served his purposes. Something in her searching gaze caused his slight smile to fade, and his manner turned businesslike as he withdrew something from the inside of his coat. A key, she saw, with a sting of sudden excitement in her chest. Pushing her to her side, St. Vincent unlocked the handcuffs. She could not prevent a sigh of relief as her arms were freed. Her emancipation was short-lived, however. Gripping her wrists, he controlled her arms with maddening ease, lifting them to the iron rods of the bed’s headboard to refasten them. Although Lillian tried to make the task as difficult as possible for him, she had not yet regained her strength.
Stretched before him on the bed, with her arms over her head, Lillian watched him warily, her mouth working beneath the gag. St. Vincent raked her prone body with an insolent glance, making it clear to both of them that she was completely at his mercy. Please, God, don’t let him…Lillian thought. She did not look away from him, nor did she shrink, sensing somehow that part of what had kept her safe from him so far was her lack of visible fear. A painful knot gathered in her throat as St. Vincent lifted a practiced hand to the exposed skin of her upper chest, and stroked the edge of her chemise. “Would that we had time to play,” he said lightly. Watching her face, he slid his fingers to the curve of her breast and fondled until he felt the nipple harden at his touch. Shamed and enraged, Lillian breathed rapidly through her nostrils.
Slowly St. Vincent removed his hand and stood back from the bed. “Soon,” he murmured, though it was unclear whether he meant his return from the inn’s stable yard or his intention to sleep with her.
Lillian closed her eyes and listened to the sound of his footsteps across the floor. The door opened and closed, followed by the click of the lock being turned from outside. Shifting on the mattress, Lillian craned her neck to squint at the handcuffs that secured her to the bed. They were made of steel, welded with a chain in the middle, and engraved with the words Higby-Dumfries #30, Warranted Wrought/British Made. Each cuff was fastened with a hinge and separate lock, affixed to the chain with tangs that had been bent through the locking bolt ends and welded to the bodies of the cuffs.
Squirming higher on the bed, Lillian managed to grasp one of the pins that had remained in her tumbled coiffure, and pulled it from her hair. She straightened the pin, curved one end of it with a twist of her fingers, and inserted it into the lock, prying for a tiny lever inside. The end of the hairpin kept slipping off the lever, which turned out to be quite difficult to trick. Swearing as the hairpin bent from the pressure, Lillian extracted it, straightened it, and tried once more, while steadily exerting pressure with the back of one wrist against the inner rim of the cuff. All at once she heard a sharp click, and the cuff fell open.
She sprang from the bed as if it were on fire, and scrambled for the door with the handcuffs dangling from one wrist. Ripping off the gag and spitting the sodden wad of cloth from her mouth, she tossed the articles aside and set to work on the door. With the aid of another hairpin, she picked the lock with practiced skill. “Thank God,” she whispered as the door opened. Hearing voices and sounds from the tavern below, she calculated that her chances of finding a sympathetic stranger to help her were far better inside the inn, rather than in the stable yard where footmen and drivers milled. A quick glimpse of the hallway to ascertain that no one was coming, and then she darted over the threshold.
Conscious of her disheveled gown and open bodice, Lillian yanked the edges of her gown together as she hurried to the building’s interior staircase. Her heart hammered painfully, and her head filled with noise. She was suffused with a mad desperation that made her feel capable of anything. It seemed that her body obeyed some force outside her own will, causing her feet to fly along the stairs with reckless momentum.
Reaching the bottom, Lillian rushed into the main room of the inn. People halted in mid-conversation, turning toward her with mildly startled expressions. Spying a large desk and a grouping of chairs in one corner, with four or five well-dressed gentlemen standing in a half circle nearby, Lillian approached them hurriedly. “I need to speak to the innkeeper,” she said without preamble. “Or a manager. Anyone who can help me. I need—”
She broke off abruptly as she heard her name being called, and glanced over her shoulder, fearing that St. Vincent had discovered her escape. Her entire body stiffened in battle readiness. But there was no sign of St. Vincent, no betraying gleam of golden-amber hair.
She heard the voice again, a deep sound that penetrated to her soul. “Lillian.”
Her legs quivered beneath her as she saw a lean, dark-haired man coming from the front entryway. It can’t be, she thought, blinking hard to clear her vision, which must surely have been playing tricks on her. She stumbled a little as she turned to face him. “Westcliff,” she whispered, and took a few hesitant steps forward.
The rest of the room seemed to vanish. Marcus’s face was pale beneath its tan, and he stared at her with searing intensity, as if he feared she might disappear. His stride quickened, and as he reached her, she was seized and caught in a biting grip. He wrapped his arms around her, pulling her hard against him. “My God,” he muttered, and buried his face in her hair.
“You came,” Lillian gasped, trembling all over. “You found me.” She couldn’t conceive how it was possible. He smelled of horses and sweat, and his clothes were chilled from the outside air. Feeling her shiver, Marcus drew her tightly inside his coat, murmuring endearments against her hair.
“Marcus,” Lillian said thickly. “Have I gone mad? Oh, please be real. Please don’t go away—”
“I’m here.” His voice was low and shaken. “I’m here, and I’m not going anywhere.” He drew back slightly, his midnight gaze scouring her from head to toe, his hands searching urgently over her body. “My love, my own…have you been hurt?” As his fingers slid along her arm, he encountered the locked manacle. Lifting her wrist, he stared at the handcuffs blankly. He inhaled sharply, and his body began to shake with primitive fury. “Goddamn it, I’ll send him to hell—”
“I’m fine,” Lillian said hastily. “I haven’t been hurt.”
Bringing her hand to his mouth, Marcus kissed it roughly, and kept her fingers against his cheek while his breath struck her wrist in swift repetitions. “Lillian, did he…”
Reading the question in his haunted gaze, the words he couldn’t yet bring himself to voice, Lillian whispered scratchily, “No, nothing happened. There wasn’t time.”
“I’m still going to kill him.” There was a deadly note in his voice that made the back of her neck crawl. Seeing the open bodice of her gown, Marcus released her long enough to pull off his coat and place it over her shoulders. He suddenly went still. “That smell…what is it?”
Realizing that her skin and clothes still retained the noxious scent, Lillian hesitated before replying. “Ether,” she finally said, trying to form her trembling lips into a reassuring smile as she saw his eyes dilate into pools of black. “It wasn’t bad, actually. I’ve slept through most of the day. Other than a touch of queasiness, I’m—”
An animal growl came from his throat, and he pulled her against him once more. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Lillian, my sweet love…you’re safe now. I’ll never let anything happen to you again. I swear it on my life. You’re safe.” He took her head in his hands, and his mouth slid over hers in a kiss that was brief, soft, and yet so shockingly intense that she swayed dizzily. Closing her eyes, she let herself rest against him, still fearing that none of this was real, that she would awaken to find herself with St. Vincent once more. Marcus whispered comforting words against her parted lips and cheeks, and held her with a grip that seemed gentle but could not have been broken by the combined efforts of ten men. Glancing out from the secure depths of his embrace, she saw the tall form of Simon Hunt approaching.
“Mr. Hunt,” she said in surprise, while Marcus’s lips drifted over her temple.
Hunt slid a concerned glance over her. “Are you all right, Miss Bowman?”
She had to twist a little to avoid Marcus’s exploring mouth as she replied breathlessly. “Oh yes. Yes. As you can see, I am unharmed.”
“That is a great relief,” Hunt returned with a smile. “Your family and friends have all been quite distraught over your absence.”
“The countess—” Lillian began, and stopped short, wondering how to explain the magnitude of the betrayal to Marcus. However, as she looked into his eyes, she saw the infinite concern in their gleaming sable depths, and she wondered how she could ever have thought him unfeeling.
“I know what happened,” Marcus said softly, smoothing the wild mane of her hair. “You won’t ever have to see her again. She’ll be gone for good by the time we return to Stony Cross Park.”
Even with the questions and worries that flooded her, Lillian was overcome with sudden exhaustion. The waking nightmare had come to a precipitate end, and it seemed that for now there was nothing more she could do. She waited docilely, her cheek resting against the steady support of Marcus’s shoulder, only half hearing the conversation that ensued.
“…have to find St. Vincent…” Marcus was saying.
“No,” Simon Hunt said emphatically, “I’ll find St. Vincent. You take care of Miss Bowman.”
“We need privacy.”
“I believe there is a small room nearby—more of a vestibule, actually…”
But Hunt’s voice trailed away, and Lillian became aware of a new, ferocious tension in Marcus’s body. With a lethal shift of his muscles, he turned to glance in the direction of the staircase.
St. Vincent was descending, having entered the rented room from the other side of the inn and found it empty. Stopping midway down the stairs, St. Vincent took in the curious tableau before him …the clusters of bewildered onlookers, the affronted innkeeper …and the Earl of Westcliff, who stared at him with avid bloodlust.
The entire inn fell silent during that chilling moment, so that Westcliff’s quiet snarl was clearly audible. “By God, I’m going to butcher you.”
Dazedly Lillian murmured, “Marcus, wait—”
She was shoved unceremoniously at Simon Hunt, who caught her reflexively as Marcus ran full-bore toward the stairs. Instead of skirting around the banister, Marcus vaulted the railings and landed on the steps like a cat. There was a blur of movement as St. Vincent attempted a strategic retreat, but Marcus flung himself upward, catching his legs and dragging him down. They grappled, cursed, and exchanged punishing blows, until St. Vincent aimed a kick at Marcus’s head. Rolling to avoid the blow of his heavy boot, Marcus was forced to release him temporarily. The viscount lurched up the stairs, and Marcus sprang after him. Soon they were both out of sight. A crowd of enthusiastic men followed, shouting advice, exchanging odds, and exclaiming in excitement over the spectacle of a pair of noblemen fighting like spurred roosters.
White-faced, Lillian glanced at Simon Hunt, who wore a faint smile. “Aren’t you going to help him?” she demanded.
“Oh no. Westcliff would never forgive me for interrupting. It’s his first tavern brawl.” Hunt’s gaze flickered over Lillian in friendly assessment. She swayed a little, and he placed a large hand on the center of her back and guided her to the nearby grouping of chairs. A cacophony of noise drifted from upstairs. There were heavy thudding sounds that caused the entire building to shake, followed by the noises of furniture breaking and glass shattering.