They walked along in silence for a minute, and then Daisy paused to pluck some violets that were growing in thick clusters on the side of the path. “Have you ever considered trying to be nice to Lord Westcliff?” she murmured. Reaching up to tuck the violets into the pinned-up garlands of her hair, she added, “He might surprise you by responding in kind.”

Lillian shook her head grimly. “No, he would probably say something cutting, and then look very smug and pleased with himself.”

“I think you’re being too…” Daisy began, and then paused with an absorbed expression. “I hear a sloshing sound. The wishing well must be near!”

“Oh, glory,” Lillian said, smiling reluctantly as she followed her younger sister, who was scampering along a sunken lane that was sided by a wet meadow. The swampy meadow was thick with blue and purple asters, and sedge with its bottlebrush flowers, and rustling spikes of goldenrod. Close to the road, there was a heavy thicket of St. John’s wort, with clusters of yellow blossoms that looked like drops of sunlight. Luxuriating in the balmy atmosphere, Lillian slowed her pace and breathed deeply. As she approached the churning wishing well, which was a spring-fed hole in the ground, the air became soft and humid.

At the beginning of summer, when the wallflowers had visited the wishing well, they had each thrown a pin into its frothing depths, in keeping with local tradition. And Daisy had made some mysterious wish for Annabelle that had later come true.

“Here it is,” Daisy said, producing a needle-thin metallic shard from her pocket. It was the metal filing that Annabelle had pulled from Westcliff’s shoulder when exploding debris had sent bits of iron flying through the air like grapeshot. Even Lillian, who was hardly disposed to have any sympathy for Westcliff, winced at the sight of the wicked-looking shard. “Annabelle told me to throw this into the well and make the same wish for Lord West-cliff that I did for her.”

“What was the wish?” Lillian demanded. “You never told me.”

Daisy regarded her with a quizzical smile. “Isn’t it obvious, dear? I wished that Annabelle would marry someone who truly loved her.”

“Oh.” Contemplating what she knew of Annabelle’s marriage, and the obvious devotion between the pair, Lillian supposed the wish must have worked. Giving Daisy a fondly exasperated glance, she stood back to watch the proceedings.

“Lillian,” her sister protested, “you must stand here with me. The well spirit will be far more likely to grant the wish if we’re both concentrating on it.”

A low laugh escaped Lillian’s throat. “You don’t really believe there’s a well spirit, do you? Good God, how did you ever become so superstitious?”

“Coming from one who recently purchased a bottle of magic perfume—”

“I never thought it was magic. I only liked the smell!”

“Lillian,” Daisy chided playfully, “what’s the harm in allowing for the possibility? I refuse to believe that we’re going to go through life without something magical happening. Now, come make a wish for Lord Westcliff. It’s the least we can do, after he saved dear Annabelle from the fire.”

“Oh, all right. I’ll stand next to you—but only to keep you from falling in.” Coming even with her sister, Lillian hooked an arm around her sister’s slim shoulders and stared into the muddy, rustling water.

Daisy closed her eyes tightly and wrapped her fingers around the metal shard. “I’m wishing very hard,” she whispered. “Are you, Lillian?”

“Yes,” Lillian murmured, though she wasn’t precisely hoping for Lord Westcliff to find true love. Her wish was more along the lines of, I hope that Lord Westcliff will meet a woman who will bring him to his knees. The thought caused a satisfied smile to curve her lips, and she continued to smile as Daisy tossed the sharp bit of metal into the well, where it sank into the endless depths below.

Dusting her hands together, Daisy turned away from the well with satisfaction. “There, all done,” she said, beaming. “I can hardly wait to see whom Westcliff ends up with.”

“I pity the poor girl,” Lillian replied, “whoever she is.”

Daisy tilted her head back in the direction of the manor. “Back to the house?”

The conversation quickly turned into a strategy-planning session, as they discussed an idea that Annabelle had mentioned the last time they had talked. The Bowmans desperately needed a social sponsor to introduce them into the higher tiers of British society …and not just any sponsor. It had to be someone who was powerful and influential, and widely renowned. Someone whose endorsement would have to be accepted by the rest of the peerage. According to Annabelle, there was no one who fit the bill more than the Countess of Westcliff, the earl’s mother.

The countess, who seemed fond of traveling the continent, was rarely seen. Even when in residence at Stony Cross Manor, she chose to mix very little with the guests, decrying her son’s habit of befriending professional men and other nonaristocrats. Neither of the Bowman sisters had ever actually met the countess, but they had heard plenty. If the rumors were to be believed, the countess was a crusty old dragon who despised foreigners. Especially American foreigners.

“Why Annabelle thinks there is any chance of getting the countess to be our sponsor is beyond my comprehension,” Daisy said, kicking a small rock repeatedly before them as they walked along the path. “She’ll never do so willingly, that’s for certain.”

“She will if Westcliff tells her to,” Lillian replied. Picking up a large stick, she swung it absently. “Apparently the countess can be made to do something if West-cliff demands it. Annabelle told me that the countess didn’t approve of Lady Olivia marrying Mr. Shaw, and she had no intention of attending the wedding. But Westcliff knew that it would hurt his sister’s feelings terribly, and so he forced his mother to stay, and furthermore, he made her put on a civil face about it.”

“Really?” Daisy glanced at her with a curious half smile. “I wonder how he did that?”

“By being the master of the house. Back in America the woman is the ruler of the home, but in England everything revolves around the man.”

“Hmm. I don’t like that much.”

“Yes, I know.” Lillian paused before adding darkly, “According to Annabelle, the English husband has to give his approval of the menus, the furniture arrangement, the color of the window hangings…everything.”

Daisy looked surprised and appalled. “Does Mr. Hunt bother with such things?”

“Well, no—he’s not a peer. He’s a professional man. And men of business don’t usually have time for such trivialities. But your average peer has much time in which to examine every little thing that goes on in the house.”

Leaving off her rock kicking, Daisy regarded Lillian with a frown. “I’ve been wondering…why are we so determined to marry into the peerage, and live in a huge crumbly old house and eat slimy English food, and try to give instructions to a bunch of servants who have absolutely no respect for us?”

“Because it’s what Mother wants,” Lillian replied dryly. “And because no one in New York will have either of us.” It was an unfortunate fact that in the highly striated New York society, men with newly earned fortunes found it quite easy to marry well. But heiresses with common bloodlines were desired neither by the established blue bloods nor by the nouveau riche men who wanted to better themselves socially. Therefore, husband hunting in Europe, where upper-class men needed rich wives, was the only solution.

Daisy’s frown twisted into an ironic grin. “What if no one will have us here either?”

“Then we’ll become a pair of wicked old spinsters, romping back and forth across Europe.”

Daisy laughed at the notion and flipped a long braid over her back. It was improper for young women of their age to walk about hatless, much less with their hair hanging down. However, both of the Bowman sisters had such a wealth of heavy dark locks that it was an ordeal to pin it all up in the intricate coiffures that were so fashionable. It required at least three racks of pins for each of them, and Lillian’s sensitive scalp literally ached after all the tugging and twisting required to make her hair presentable for a formal evening. More than once she had envied Annabelle Hunt, who had light, silky locks that always seemed to behave exactly as she wished them to. At the moment Lillian had tied her hair at the nape of the neck and allowed it to fall down her back in a style that never would have been allowed in company.

“How are we going to persuade Westcliff to make his mother act as our sponsor?” Daisy asked. “It seems very unlikely that he would ever agree to do such a thing.”

Drawing back her arm, Lillian flung the stick far into the woods, and brushed the flecks of bark from her palms. “I have no idea,” she admitted. “Annabelle has tried to get Mr. Hunt to ask him on our behalf, but he refuses on the grounds that it would be an abuse of their friendship.”

“If only we could compel Westcliff in some way,” Daisy mused. “Trick him, or blackmail him, somehow.”

“You can only blackmail a man if he’s done something shameful that he wants to hide. And I doubt that stodgy, boring old Westcliff has ever done anything that’s worthy of blackmail.”

Daisy chuckled at the description. “He’s not stodgy, boring, or even that old!”

“Mother says he’s at least thirty-five. I’d say that is fairly old, wouldn’t you?”

“I’ll wager that most men in their twenties aren’t nearly as fit as Westcliff.”

As always, when a conversation turned to the subject of Westcliff, Lillian felt thoroughly provoked, not unlike the way she had felt in childhood when her brothers had tossed her favorite doll over her head, back and forth between them, while she cried for them to give it back to her. Why any mention of the earl should affect her this way was a question for which there was no answer. She dismissed Daisy’s remark with an irritable shrug of her shoulders.

As they drew closer to the house, they heard a few happy yelps in the distance, followed by some youthful cheers that sounded like those of children playing. “What is that?” Lillian asked, glancing in the direction of the stables.

“I don’t know, but it sounds as if someone is having an awfully good time. Let’s go see.”

“We don’t have long,” Lillian warned. “If Mother discovers that we’re gone—”

“We’ll hurry. Oh, please, Lillian!”

As they hesitated, a few more hoots and shouts of laughter floated from the direction of the stable yard, offering such a contrast to the peaceful scenery around them that Lillian’s curiosity got the better of her. She grinned recklessly at Daisy. “I’ll race you there,” she said, and took off at a dead run.

Daisy hiked up her skirts and tore after her. Although Daisy’s legs were far shorter than Lillian’s, she was as light and agile as an elf, and she had nearly come even with Lillian by the time they had reached the stable yard. Puffing lightly from the effort of running up a long incline, Lillian rounded the outside of a neatly fenced paddock, and saw a group of five boys, varying in ages between twelve and sixteen, playing in the small field just beyond. Their attire identified them as stable boys. Their boots had been discarded beside the paddock, and they were running barefoot.

“Do you see?” Daisy asked eagerly.

Glancing over the group, Lillian saw one of them brandishing a long willow bat in the air, and she laughed in delight. “They’re playing rounders!”

Although the game, consisting of a bat, a ball, and four sanctuary bases arranged in a diamond pattern, was popular in both America and England, it had reached a level of obsessive interest in New York. Boys and girls of all classes played the game, and Lillian longingly remembered many a picnic followed by an afternoon of rounders. Warm nostalgia filled her as she watched a stable boy round the bases. It was clear that the field was often used for this purpose, as the sancutary posts had been hammered deeply into the ground, and the areas between them had been trampled to form grass-free lanes of dirt. Lillian recognized one of the players as the lad who had loaned her the rounders bat for the wall-flowers’ ill-fated game two months earlier.

“Do you think they would let us play?” Daisy asked hopefully. “Just for a few minutes?”

“I don’t see why not. That red-haired boy—he was the one who let us borrow the bat before. I think his name is Arthur…”

At that moment a low, fast pitch streaked toward the batter, who swung in a short, expert arc. The flat side of the bat connected solidly with the leather ball, and it came hurtling toward them in a bouncing drive that was referred to as a “hopper” back in New York. Running forward, Lillian scooped up the ball in her bare hands and fielded it expertly, throwing it to the boy who stood at the first sanctuary post. He caught it reflexively, staring at her with surprise. As the other boys noticed the pair of young women who stood beside the paddock, they all paused uncertainly.

Lillian strode forward, her gaze finding the red-haired boy. “Arthur? Do you remember me? I was here in June—you loaned us the bat.”

The boy’s puzzled expression cleared. “Oh yes, Miss…Miss…”

“Bowman.” Lillian gestured casually to Daisy. “And this is my sister. We were just wondering …would you let us play? Just for a little while?”

A dumbfounded silence ensued. Lillian gathered that while it had been acceptable to loan her the bat, allowing her into a game with the other stable boys was another thing entirely. “We’re not all that bad, actually,” she said. “We both used to play quite a lot in New York. If you’re worried that we would slow your game—”

“Oh, it’s not that, Miss Bowman,” Arthur protested, his face turning as red as his hair. He glanced at his companions uncertainly before returning his attention to her. “It’s just that …ladies of your sort …you can’t…we’re in service, miss.”

“It’s your off-time, isn’t it?” Lillian countered.

The boy nodded cautiously.

“Well, it’s our off-time too,” Lillian said. “And it’s only a little game of rounders. Oh, do let us play—we’ll never tell!”

“Offer to show him your spitter,” Daisy said out of the corner of her mouth. “Or the hornet.”

Staring at the boys’ unresponsive faces, Lillian complied. “I can pitch,” she said, raising her brows significantly. “Fast balls, spit balls, hornet balls …don’t you want to see how Americans throw?”

Tags: Lisa Kleypas Wallflowers Romance