“Now,” Hunt said, ignoring the tumult, “if I may have a look at that remaining handcuff, I may be able to do something about it.”
“You can’t,” Lillian said with weary certainty. “The key is in St. Vincent’s pocket, and I’ve run out of hairpins.”
Sitting beside her, Hunt took her manacled wrist, regarded it thoughtfully, and said with what she thought was rather inappropriate satisfaction, “How fortunate. A pair of Higby-Dumfries number thirty.”
Lillian gave him a sardonic glance. “I take it you are a handcuff enthusiast?”
His lips twitched. “No, but I do have a friend or two in law enforcement. And these were once given as standard issue to the New Police, until a design flaw was discovered. Now one may find a dozen pair of Higby-Dumfries in any London pawnshop.”
“What design flaw?”
For answer, Hunt adjusted the locked cuff on her wrist, with the hinge and lock facing downward. He paused at the sound of more furniture breaking from upstairs, and grinned at Lillian’s gathering scowl. “I’ll go,” he said mildly. “But first…” He withdrew a handkerchief from his pocket with one hand, inserting it between her wrist and the steel cuff as a makeshift inner padding. “There. That may help to cushion the force of the blow.”
“Blow? What blow?”
Lillian squeaked in dismay as she felt him lift her manacled wrist high over the desk and bring it down sharply on the bottom of the hinge. The whack served to jar the lever mechanism inside the lock, and the cuff snapped open as if by magic. Stunned, Lillian regarded Hunt with a half smile as she rubbed her bare wrist. “Thank you. I—”
There was another crashing sound, this time coming from directly overhead, and a chorus of excited bellows from the onlookers caused the walls to tremble. Above it all, the innkeeper could be heard complaining shrilly that his building would soon be reduced to matchsticks.
“Mr. Hunt,” Lillian exclaimed, “I do wish that you would try to be of some use to Lord Westcliff!”
Hunt’s brows lifted into mocking crescents. “You don’t actually fear that St. Vincent is getting the better of him?”
“The question is not whether I have sufficient confidence in Lord Westcliff’s fighting ability,” Lillian replied impatiently. “The fact is, I have too much confidence in it. And I would rather not have to bear witness at a murder trial on top of everything else.”
“You have a point.” Standing, Hunt refolded his handkerchief and placed it in his coat pocket. He headed to the stairs with a short sigh, grumbling, “I’ve spent most of the day trying to stop him from killing people.”
Lillian never fully remembered the rest of that evening, only half conscious as she stood against Marcus. He kept his hard arm locked firmly around her back to support her drooping weight. Although he was disheveled and a bit bruised, Marcus radiated the primal energy of a healthy male who had come fresh from a fight. She gathered that he was making a great many demands, and that everyone seemed eager to please him. It was agreed that they would lodge at The Bull and Mouth for the night, with Hunt departing for Stony Cross Park at first light. In the meanwhile, Hunt went to load St. Vincent, or what was left of him, into his carriage and send him to his London residence. It seemed that St. Vincent would not be prosecuted for his misdeeds, as that would only serve to inflate the episode into a massive scandal.
With all the arrangements made, Marcus carried Lillian to the largest guest room in the building, where a bath and food were sent up as quickly as possible. It was sparely furnished but very clean, with an ample bed covered in pressed linen and soft, faded quilts. An old copperplate slipper tub was set before the hearth and filled by two chambermaids carrying steaming kettles. As Lillian waited for the bathwater to cool sufficiently, Marcus bullied her into eating a bowl of soup, which was quite tolerable, though its ingredients were impossible to identify. “What are those little brown chunks?” Lillian asked suspiciously, opening her mouth reluctantly as he spooned more in.
“It doesn’t matter. Swallow.”
“Is it mutton? Beef? Did it originally have horns? Hooves? Feathers? Scales? I don’t like to eat something when I don’t know what—”
“More,” he said inexorably, pushing the spoon into her mouth again.
“You’re a tyrant.”
“I know. Drink some water.”
Resigning herself to his domineering ways—just for one night—Lillian finished the light meal. The food gave her a new surge of strength, and she felt invigorated as Marcus pulled her into his lap. “Now,” he said, cuddling her against his chest, “tell me what happened, from the beginning.”
Before long Lillian found herself talking animatedly, almost chattering, as she described her encounter with Lady Westcliff at Butterfly Court, and the events that occurred afterward. She must have sounded overwrought, for Marcus occasionally interrupted the stream of rapid words with soothing murmurs, his manner interested and infinitely gentle. His mouth brushed over her hair, his warm breath filtering down to her scalp. Gradually she relaxed against him, her limbs feeling heavy and loose.
“How did you persuade the countess to confess so quickly?” she asked. “I would have thought she would have held out for days. I would have thought she would rather die than admit anything—”
“I’m afraid that was the choice I gave her.”
Her eyes widened. “Oh,” she whispered. “I’m sorry, Marcus. She is your mother, after all—”
“Only in the most technical sense of the word,” he said dryly. “I felt no filial attachment to her before now, but if I had, it would surely have been extinguished after today. She’s done enough harm for one lifetime, I think. We’ll try keeping her in Scotland from now on, or perhaps somewhere abroad.”
“Did the countess tell you what was said between her and me?” Lillian asked tentatively.
Marcus shook his head, his mouth twisting. “She told me that you had decided to elope with St. Vincent.”
“Elope?” Lillian repeated in shock. “As if I deliberately…as if I had chosen him over—” She stopped, aghast, as she imagined how he must have felt. Although she had not shed a single tear during the entire day, the thought that Marcus might have wondered for a split second if yet another woman had left him for St. Vincent…it was too much to bear. She burst into noisy sobs, startling herself as well as Marcus. “You didn’t believe it, did you? My God, please say you didn’t!”
“Of course I didn’t.” He stared at her in astonishment, and hastily reached for a table napkin to wipe at the stream of tears on her face. “No, no, don’t cry—”
“I love you, Marcus.” Taking the napkin from him, Lillian blew her nose noisily and continued to weep as she spoke. “I love you. I don’t mind if I’m the first one to say it, nor even if I’m the only one. I just want you to know how very much—”
“I love you too,” he said huskily. “I love you too. Lillian…Please don’t cry. It’s killing me. Don’t.”
She nodded and blew into the linen folds again, her complexion turning mottled, her eyes swelling, her nose running freely. It appeared, however, that there was something wrong with Marcus’s vision. Grasping her head in his hands, he pressed a hard kiss to her mouth and said hoarsely, “You’re so beautiful.”
The statement, though undoubtedly sincere, caused her to giggle through her last hiccupping sobs. Wrapping his arms around her in an embrace that was just short of crushing, Marcus asked in a muffled voice, “My love, hasn’t anyone ever told you that it’s bad form to laugh at a man when he’s declaring himself?”
She blew her nose with a last inelegant snort. “I’m a hopeless case, I’m afraid. Do you still want to marry me?”
The statement shocked her out of her tears. “What?”
“I don’t want to return with you to Hampshire. I want to take you to Gretna Green. The inn has its own coach service—I’ll hire one in the morning, and we’ll reach Scotland the day after tomorrow.”
“But…but everyone will expect a respectable church wedding…”
“I can’t wait for you. I don’t give a damn about respectability.”
A wobbly grin spread across Lillian’s face as she thought of how many people would be astonished to hear such a statement from him. “It smacks of scandal, you know. The Earl of Westcliff rushing off for an anvil wedding in Gretna Green…”
“Let’s begin with a scandal, then.” He kissed her, and she responded with a low moan, clinging and arching against him, until he pushed his tongue deeper, molding his lips tighter over hers, feasting on the warm, open silkiness of her mouth. Breathing heavily, he dragged his lips to her quivering throat. “Say, ‘Yes, Marcus,’” he prompted.
His eyes were dark and incandescent as he stared at her, and she sensed that there was a multitude of things he wanted to tell her. However, all he said was, “It’s time for your bath.”
She could have done it herself, but Marcus insisted on undressing her, and bathing her as if she were a child. Relaxing in his care, she watched his dark face through the soft veil of mist that rose from the bath. His movements were deliberately slow as he soaped and rinsed her body until she was pink and glowing. Lifting her from the slipper tub, he dried her with a length of toweling. “Raise your arms,” he murmured.
She glanced askance at the worn-looking garment in his hand. “What is that?”
“A nightgown from the innkeeper’s wife,” he replied, pulling it over her head. Lillian pushed her arms through the sleeves and sighed at the scent of clean flannel settling around her. The gown was an indistinguishable color, and it was far too large for her, but she felt comforted by its tworn, soft folds.
Curling up in the bed, Lillian watched as Marcus bathed and dried himself, the muscles in his back rippling, his superbly fit body a pleasure to behold. An irresistible smile curved her lips as she reflected that this extraordinary man belonged to her…and she would never be quite certain how she had won his well-guarded heart. Marcus extinguished the lamp and came to bed, and Lillian cuddled against him eagerly as he slid beneath the covers. His scent rushed over her, fresh, edged with the crispness of soap and the faintest hints of sun and salt. She wanted to drown in the wonderful smell of him, she wanted to kiss and touch every inch of his body. “Make love to me, Marcus,” she whispered.
His shadowy form loomed over her while his hand played in her hair. “My love,” he said, a note of tender amusement in his voice, “since this morning you’ve been threatened, drugged, abducted, handcuffed, and carried halfway across England. Haven’t you had enough for one day?”
She shook her head. “I was a bit tired before, but now I’ve gotten my second wind. I couldn’t possibly sleep.”
For some reason that made him laugh.
His body lifted away from hers. She thought at first that he meant to move to the other side of the bed, but then she felt the hem of her nightgown being raised. Her bare legs tingled as the cool air brushed over her skin. Her breath quickened. The thick cotton was drawn higher, higher, until her br**sts were exposed, the tips hardening. His mouth was soft and hot as it descended to her skin, searching and nuzzling, finding places of unexpected sensation; the ticklish place at the side of her ribs, the velvet undercurve of her breast, the delicate rim of her navel. When Lillian tried to caress him, her hands were gently pushed to her sides, until she understood that he meant her to lie completely still. Her breaths turned even and deep, the muscles in her stomach and legs quivering as pleasure chased like drops of quicksilver over her body.
Marcus nibbled and kissed his way to the secret dampness between her thighs, and her legs spread easily at his touch. She was open and utterly vulnerable, every nerve sizzling with aching excitement. A high, faint sound escaped her throat as he licked into the dark triangle, bolts of delight running through her with each stroke of his tongue along the rosy, slippery-soft skin. His tongue danced and tickled and opened her, and then he settled in for minutes of sweetly rhythmic teasing, until sensation weighted her limbs and her breath came in weak cries. Finally he slipped his fingers deeply inside her, and she groaned, struggling, cl**axing, shuddering as if she might come apart from pleasure.
Dazed, she felt him pull down her nightgown. “Your turn now,” she mumbled, her head settling on his shoulder as he gathered her against him. “You haven’t…”
“Sleep,” he whispered. “I’ll have my turn tomorrow.”
“I’m still not tired,” she insisted.
“Close your eyes,” Marcus said, his hand moving to her bottom in a circling caress. He brushed his mouth over her forehead and her fragile eyelids. “Rest. You’ll need to regain your strength…because once we’re married, I won’t be able to leave you alone. I’ll want to love you every hour, every minute of the day.” He nestled her more closely against him. “There is nothing on earth more beautiful to me than your smile…no sound sweeter than your laughter…no pleasure greater than holding you in my arms. I realized today that I could never live without you, stubborn little hellion that you are. In this life and the next, you’re my only hope of happiness. Tell me, Lillian, dearest love…how can you have reached so far inside my heart?” He paused to kiss her damp silken skin …and smiled as the wisp of a feminine snore broke the peaceful silence.
To the Right Honorable the Countess of Westcliff Marsden Terrace, Upper Brook Street, no.2 London
Dear Lady Westcliff,
It was both an honor and a delight to receive your letter. I beg to offer congratulations at the glad tidings of your recent marriage. Though you have modestly professed that the match with Lord Westcliff is all to your advantage, I must take the liberty of disagreeing. Having had the fortune of making your acquaintance, I can attest that the advantage belongs to the earl in winning the hand of such a charming and accomplished young lady—
“C harming?” Daisy interrupted dryly. “Oh, he knows you so little.”
“And accomplished,” Lillian reminded her in a superior tone, before turning back to the letter from Mr. Nettle. “He goes on to write…‘Perhaps if your younger sister were more like you, she might also find someone to marry.’ “