That intrigued them, she could see. However, Arthur said diffidently, “Miss Bowman, if someone was to see you playing rounders in the stable yard, we’d likely get the blame for it, and then—”
“No, you wouldn’t,” Lillian said. “I promise you, we’ll take full responsibility if anyone catches us. I’ll tell them that we left you no choice.”
Though the group as a whole looked openly skeptical, Lillian and Daisy badgered and pleaded until they were finally allowed into the game. Taking possession of a worn leather-covered ball, Lillian flexed her arms, cracked her knuckles, and assumed a pitcher’s stance as she faced the batter, who stood at the base designated Castle Rock. Shifting her weight to her left foot, she stepped into the throw, launching the ball in a fast, competent pitch. It landed with a stinging smack in the catcher’s hand, while the batter swung and missed completely. A few admiring whistles greeted Lillian’s effort.
“Not a bad arm for a girl!” was Arthur’s comment, causing her to grin. “Now, miss, if you wouldn’t mind, what was that hornet ball you were talking about?”
Catching the ball as it was thrown back to her, Lillian faced the batter again, this time gripping the ball with only her thumb and first two fingers. Drawing back, she raised her arm, then threw the ball with a snap of her wrist, giving it a spin that caused it to veer sharply inward just as it reached Castle Rock. The batter missed again, but even he exclaimed in appreciation for the hornet ball. On the next pitch, he finally connected with the ball, sending it to the west side of the field, where Daisy happily scampered after it. She hurled it to the player at the third sanctuary post, who leaped in the air to snatch it in his fist.
In just a few minutes, the fast-paced enjoyment of the game caused the players to lose all self-consciousness, and their drives and throws and full-bore runs became uninhibited. Laughing and crowing as loudly as the stable boys, Lillian was reminded of the careless freedom of childhood. It was indescribable relief to forget, if only for a little while, the innumerable rules and the stifling propriety that had smothered them ever since they had set foot in England. And it was such a glorious day, the sun bright but so much gentler than it was in New York, and the air soft and fresh as it filled her lungs.
“Your turn at bat, miss,” Arthur said, raising a hand for her to toss the ball to him. “Let’s see if you can hit as well as you throw!”
“She can’t,” Daisy informed him promptly, and Lillian made a hand gesture that caused the boys to roar in scandalized delight.
Unfortunately it was true. For all her accuracy in pitching, Lillian had never mastered the art of batting— a fact that Daisy, who was a superior batter, took great delight in pointing out. Picking up the bat, Lillian gripped the handle like a hammer with her left hand, and left the index finger of her right slightly open. Cocking the bat over her shoulder, she waited for the pitch, timed it with her narrowed gaze, and swung as hard as she was able. To her frustration, the ball spun off the top of the bat and went sailing over the catcher’s head.
Before the boy could go in pursuit of it, the ball was tossed back to the pitcher by some unseen source. Lillian was perplexed as she saw Arthur’s face suddenly blanch to a shade of white that contrasted starkly with the fiery locks of his hair. Wondering what could have put such a look on his face, Lillian turned to glance behind her. The catcher seemed to have stopped breathing as he too beheld the visitor.
For there, leaning casually against the paddock fence, was none other than Marcus, Lord Westcliff.
Cursing silently, Lillian gave Westcliff a sullen stare. He responded with a sardonic lift of one brow. Although he was clad in a tweed riding coat, his shirt was open at the throat, revealing the strong, sun-browned line of his neck. During their previous encounters, West-cliff had always been impeccably dressed and perfectly groomed. At the moment, however, his thick black hair was wind-tousled, and he was rather in need of a shave. Strangely, the sight of him like this sent a pleasant shiver through Lillian’s insides and imparted an unfamiliar weakness to her knees.
Regardless of her dislike, Lillian had to acknowledge that Westcliff was an extremely attractive man. His features were too broad in some places, too sharp in others, but there was a rugged poetry in the structure of his face that made classical handsomeness seem utterly irrelevant. Few men possessed such deeply ingrained virility, a force of character that was too powerful to overlook. He was not only comfortable in his position of authority, he was obviously unable to function in any capacity other than as a leader. As a girl who had always been inclined to throw an egg in the face of authority, Lillian found Westcliff to be an unholy temptation. There had been few moments as satisfying as those when she had managed to annoy him beyond his ability to bear.
Westcliff’s assessing gaze slid from her tumbled hair to the uncorseted lines of her figure, not missing the unbound shapes of her breasts. Wondering if he was going to give her a public dressing-down for daring to play rounders with a group of stable boys, Lillian returned his evaluating gaze with one of her own. She tried to look scornful, but that wasn’t easy when the sight of Westcliff’s lean, athletic body had brought another unnerving quiver to the pit of her stomach. Daisy had been right—it would be difficult, if not impossible, to find a younger man who could rival Westcliff’s virile strength.
Still holding Lillian’s gaze, Westcliff pushed slowly away from the paddock fence and approached.
Tensing, Lillian held her ground. She was tall for a woman, which made them nearly of a height, but West-cliff still had a good three inches on her, and he outweighed her by at least five stone. Her nerves tingled with awareness as she stared into his eyes, which were a shade of brown so intense that they appeared to be black.
His voice was deep, textured like gravel wrapped in velvet. “You should tuck your elbows in.”
Having expected criticism, Lillian was caught off-guard. “What?”
The earl’s thick lashes lowered slightly as he glanced down at the bat that was gripped in her right hand. “Tuck your elbows in. You’ll have more control over the bat if you decrease the arc of the swing.”
Lillian scowled. “Is there any subject that you’re not an expert on?”
A glint of amusement appeared in the earl’s dark eyes. He appeared to consider the question thoughtfully. “I can’t whistle,” he finally said. “And my aim with a trebuchet is poor. Other than that…” The earl lifted his hands in a helpless gesture, as if he was at a loss to come up with another activity at which he was less than proficient.
“What’s a trebuchet?” Lillian asked. “And what do you mean, you can’t whistle? Everyone can whistle.”
Westcliff formed his lips into a perfectly round pucker and let out a soundless puff of air. They were standing so close that Lillian felt the soft touch of his breath against her forehead, stirring a few silken filaments of hair that had adhered to her damp skin. She blinked in surprise, her gaze falling to his mouth, and then to the open neck of his shirt, where his bronzed skin looked smooth and very warm.
“See? …Nothing. I’ve tried for years.”
Bemused, Lillian thought of advising him to blow harder, and to press the tip of his tongue against the bottom row of his teeth…but somehow the thought of uttering a sentence with the word “tongue” in it to Westcliff seemed impossible. Instead she stared at him blankly and jumped a little as he reached out to her shoulders and turned her gently to face Arthur. The boy was standing several yards away with the forgotten rounders ball in his hand, watching the earl with an expression of awe mingled with dread.
Wondering if Westcliff was going to reprimand the boys for allowing her and Daisy to play, Lillian said uneasily, “Arthur and the others—it wasn’t their fault—I made them let us into the game—”
“I don’t doubt it,” the earl said over her shoulder. “You probably gave them no chance to refuse.”
“You’re not going to punish them?”
“For playing rounders on their off-time? Hardly.” Removing his coat, Westcliff tossed it to the ground. He turned to the catcher, who was hovering nearby, and said, “Jim, be a good lad and help field a few balls.”
“Yes, milord!” The boy ran in a flash to the empty space on the west side of the green beyond the sanctuary posts.
“What are you doing?” Lillian asked as Westcliff stood behind her.
“I’m correcting your swing,” came his even reply. “Lift the bat, Miss Bowman.”
She turned to look at him skeptically, and he smiled, his eyes gleaming with challenge.
“This should be interesting,” Lillian muttered. Taking up a batter’s stance, she glanced across the field at Daisy, whose face was flushed and eyes over-bright in the effort to suppress a burst of laughter. “My swing is perfectly fine,” Lillian grumbled, uncomfortably aware of the earl’s body just behind hers. Her eyes widened as she felt his hands slide to her elbows, pushing them into a more compact position. As his husky murmur brushed her ears, her excited nerves seemed to catch fire, and she felt a flush spreading over her face and neck, as well as other body parts that, as far as she knew, there were no names for.
“Spread your feet wider,” Westcliff said, “and distribute your weight evenly. Good. Now bring your hands closer to your body. Since the bat is a few inches too long for you, you’ll have to choke up on it—”
“I like holding it at the base.”
“It’s too long for you,” he insisted, “which is why you pull your swing just before you hit the ball—”
“I like a long bat,” Lillian argued, even as he adjusted her hands on the willow handle. “The longer the better, as a matter of fact.”
A distant snicker from one of the stable boys caught her attention, and she glanced at him suspiciously before turning to face Westcliff. His face was expressionless, but there was a glitter of laughter in his eyes. “Why is that amusing?” she asked.
“I have no idea,” Westcliff said blandly, and turned her toward the pitcher again. “Remember your elbows. Yes. Now, don’t let your wrists roll—keep them straight, and swing in a level motion…no, not like that.” Reaching around her, he stunned her by placing his hands right over hers and guiding her in the slow arc of a swing. His mouth was at her ear. “Can you feel the difference? Tryagain…is that more natural?”
Lillian’s heart had begun a rapid rhythm that sent the blood in a dizzying rush through her veins. She had never felt so awkward, with the solid warmth of the man at her back, his sturdy thighs intruding in the light folds of her walking dress. His broad hands nearly enclosed hers completely, and she felt with surprise that there were calluses on his fingers.
“Once more,” Westcliff coaxed. His hands tightened on hers. As their arms aligned, she felt the steely hardness of his biceps muscles. Suddenly she felt overwhelmed by him, threatened in a way that went far beyond physical influence. The air in her lungs seemed to expand painfully. She let out a swift, shallow breath, and another, and then she was released with disconcerting swiftness.
Stepping back, Westcliff stared at her intently, a frown disturbing the smooth plane of his forehead. It wasn’t easy to distinguish the sable irises from his pupils, but Lillian had the impression that his eyes were dilated as if from the effects of some powerful drug. It seemed that he wanted to ask her something, but instead he gave her a curt nod and motioned for her to resume the batter’s stance. Taking the catcher’s place, he sank to his haunches and gestured to Arthur.
“Throw some easy ones to begin with,” he called, and Arthur nodded, seeming to lose his apprehensiveness.
Arthur wound up and released a relaxed, straight pitch. Squinting in determination, Lilian gripped the bat hard, stepped into the swing, and turned her h*ps to lend more impetus to the motion. To her disgust, she missed the ball completely. Turning around, she gave Westcliff a pointed glance. “Well, your advice certainly helped,” she muttered sarcastically.
“Elbows,” came his succinct reminder, and he tossed the ball to Arthur. “Try again.”
Heaving a sigh, Lillian raised the bat and faced the pitcher once more.
Arthur drew his arm back, and lunged forward as he delivered another fast ball.
Lillian brought the bat around with a grunt of effort, finding an unexpected ease in adjusting the swing to just the right angle, and she received a jolt of visceral delight as she felt the solid connection between the bat and the leather ball. With a loud crack the ball was catapulted high into the air, over Arthur’s head, beyond the reach of those in the back field. Shrieking in triumph, Lillian dropped the bat and ran headlong toward the first sanctuary post, rounding it and heading toward second. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Daisy hurtling across the field to scoop up the ball, and in nearly the same motion, throwing it to the nearest boy. Increasing her pace, her feet flying beneath her skirts, Lillian rounded third, while the ball was tossed to Arthur.
Before her disbelieving eyes, she saw Westcliff standing at the last post, Castle Rock, with his hands held up in readiness to catch the ball. How could he? After showing her how to hit the ball, he was now going to tag her out?
“Get out of my way!” Lillian shouted, running pellmell toward the post, determined to reach it before he caught the ball. “I’m not going to stop!”
“Oh, I’ll stop you,” Westcliff assured her with a grin, standing right in front of the post. He called to the pitcher. “Throw it home, Arthur!”
She would go through him, if necessary. Letting out a warlike cry, Lillian slammed full-length into him, causing him to stagger backward just as his fingers closed over the ball. Though he could have fought for balance, he chose not to, collapsing backward onto the soft earth with Lillian tumbling on top of him, burying him in a heap of skirts and wayward limbs. A cloud of fine beige dust enveloped them upon their descent. Lillian lifted herself on his chest and glared down at him. At first she thought that he had been winded, but it immediately became apparent that he was choking with laughter.
“You cheated!” she accused, which only seemed to make him laugh harder. She struggled for breath, drawing in huge lungfuls of air. “You’re not supposed …to stand in front…of the post …you dirty cheater!”
Gasping and snorting, Westcliff handed her the ball with the ginger reverence of someone yielding a priceless artifact to a museum curator. Lillian took the ball and hurled it aside. “I was not out,” she told him, jabbing her finger into his hard chest for emphasis. It felt as if she were poking a hearthstone. “I was safe, do you…hear me?”