She heard Arthur’s amused voice as he approached them. “Actually, miss—”
“Never argue with a lady, Arthur,” the earl interrupted, having managed to regain his powers of speech, and the boy grinned at him.
“Are there ladies here?” Daisy asked cheerfully, coming from the field. “I don’t see any.”
Still smiling, the earl looked up at Lillian. His hair was mussed, and his teeth were very white in his swarthy, dust-streaked face. With his autocratic facade stripped away, and his eyes sparkling with enjoyment, his grin was so unexpectedly engaging that Lillian experienced a curious melting sensation inside. Hanging over him, she felt her own lips curving in a reluctant smile. A loose lock of her hair dangled free of its tether, sliding silkily over his jaw.
“What’s a trebuchet?” she asked.
“A catapult. I have a friend who has a keen interest in medieval weaponry. He…” Westcliff hesitated, a new tension seeming to spread through his taut body as he lay beneath her. “He recently built a trebuchet using an ancient design…and enlisted me to help fire it…”
Lillian was entertained by the idea that the normally reserved Westcliff was capable of such boyish antics. Realizing that she was straddling him, she colored and began to wriggle off him. “Your aim was off?” she asked, striving to sound casual.
“The owner of the stone wall we demolished seemed to think so.” The earl caught his breath sharply as her body slid away from his, and remained sitting on the ground even after she had gotten to her feet.
Wondering why he was staring at her so oddly, Lillian began to whack her dusty skirts with her hands, but it was impossible. Her clothes were a filthy mess. “Oh God,” she murmured to Daisy, who was also rumpled and dirty, but not nearly to this extent. “How are we going to explain the state of our walking dresses?”
“I’ll ask one of the maids to sneak them down to the laundry before Mother notices. Which reminds me—it’s nearly time for us to awaken from our nap!”
“We’ll have to hurry,” Lillian said, glancing back at Lord Westcliff, who had put his coat back on and was now standing behind her. “My lord, if anyone asks you whether you’ve seen us…you will say that you haven’t?”
“I never lie,” he said, and she made an exasperated sound.
“Could you at least refrain from volunteering any information?” she asked.
“I suppose I could.”
“How helpful you are,” Lillian said in a tone that conveyed the opposite. “Thank you, my lord. And now if you will excuse us, we must run. Literally.”
“Follow me, and I’ll show you a shortcut,” Westcliff offered. “I know a way through the garden and into the servants’ entrance beside the kitchen.”
Glancing at each other, the sisters nodded in unison and hurried after him, waving distracted good-byes to Arthur and his friends.
As Marcus guided the Bowman sisters through the late-summer garden, he was annoyed by the way Lillian kept sidling ahead of him. She seemed physically incapable of following his lead. Marcus glanced at her covertly, taking note of the way her legs moved beneath the light muslin walking dress. Her stride was long and loose-limbed, unlike the practiced feminine sway that most women affected.
Silently Marcus reflected on his inexplicable reaction to her during the rounders game. As he had watched her, the vivid enjoyment in her expression had been completely irresistible. She had a coltish energy and an enthusiasm for physical activity that seemed to rival his own. It was not at all fashionable for young women in her position to exhibit such robust health and spirits. They were supposed to be shy and modest and restrained. But Lillian had been too compelling for him to ignore, and before he had quite known what was happening, he had joined the game.
The sight of her, so flushed and excited, had stirred up a few sensations that he would rather not have felt. She was prettier than he had remembered, and so entertaining in her prickly stubbornness that he had been unable to resist the challenge she presented. And at the moment when he had stood behind her and adjusted her swing, and felt her body press along his front, he had been keenly aware of a primal urge to drag her to some private place, flip up her skirts, and—
Forcing the thoughts away with a quiet sound of discomfort, he watched as Lillian strode ahead of him once more. She was filthy, her hair was tangled …and for some reason he couldn’t stop thinking about what it had felt like to lie on the ground with her straddling him. She had been very light. Despite her height, she was a slender girl without much in the way of womanly curves. Not at all his preferred style. But he had wanted very much to catch her waist in his hands, and grind her h*ps down on his, and—
“This way,” he said gruffly, shouldering past Lillian Bowman and keeping to the hedges and walls that concealed them from view of the house. He led the sisters beside paths lined with blue spires of salvia, ancient walls covered with red roses and brilliant puffs of hydrangea, and massive stone urns bursting with white violas.
“Are you certain that this is a shortcut?” Lillian asked. “I think the other way would have been much faster.”
Unaccustomed to having his decisions questioned, Marcus shot her a cool glance as she came up beside him. “I know the way through my own estate gardens, Miss Bowman.”
“Don’t mind my sister, Lord Westcliff,” Daisy said from behind them. “It’s just that she’s worried about what will happen if we’re caught. We are supposed to be napping, you see. Mother locked us in our room, and then—”
“Daisy,” Lillian interrupted tersely, “the earl doesn’t want to hear about that.”
“On the contrary,” Marcus said, “I find myself quite interested in the question of how you managed to escape. The window?”
“No, I picked the lock,” Lillian replied.
Tucking the information in the back of his mind, Marcus asked mockingly, “Did they teach you how to do that in finishing school?”
“We didn’t attend finishing school,” Lillian said. “I taught myself how to pick locks. I’ve been on the wrong side of many a locked door since early childhood.”
“I suppose you never did anything worth being punished for,” Lillian said.
“As a matter of fact, I was disciplined often. But I was seldom locked away. My father considered it far more expedient—and satisfying—to thrash me for my crimes.”
“He sounds like a brute,” Lillian remarked, and Daisy gasped behind them.
“Lillian, you should never speak ill of the dead. And I doubt the earl likes to hear you call his father names.”
“No, he was a brute,” Marcus said with a bluntness that matched Lillian’s.
They came to an opening in the hedge, where a flagstone walk bordered the side of the manor. Motioning for the girls to be silent, Marcus glanced at the empty walk, eased them out into the partial concealment of a tall, narrow juniper, and gestured to the left side of the walk. “The kitchen entrance is over there,” he murmured. “We’ll go through there and take the staircase on the right to the second floor, and I’ll show you the hallway that leads to your room.”
The girls stared at him with brilliant smiles, both faces so similar and yet so different. Daisy had rounder cheeks, and an old-fashioned china doll prettiness that provided a somewhat incongruous setting for her exotic brown eyes. Lillian’s face was longer and vaguely feline in cast, with tip-tilted eyes and a full, sweetly carnal mouth that made his heart thump an uncomfortable extra beat.
Marcus was still watching her mouth as she spoke. “Thank you, my lord,” she said. “I trust we may depend on your silence about our game?”
Had Marcus been another kind of man, or had he entertained the merest flicker of romantic interest in either of the girls, he might have made use of the situation with some flirtatious little piece of blackmail. Instead he nodded and replied firmly, “You may depend on it.”
Another cautious glance established that the flagstone walkway was still unoccupied, and the three of them walked out from the concealment of the juniper. Unfortunately, when they had reached the midway point between the hedge opening and the kitchen entrance, the sudden sound of voices echoed across the smooth slate-paved walkway and bounced gently off the manor wall. Someone was coming.
Daisy took off like a startled doe, reaching the kitchen entrance in a fraction of a second. Lillian, however, took the opposite tack, launching herself back toward the juniper. With no time to consider his actions, Marcus followed her just as a group of three or four figures appeared at the head of the walkway. Crowding with her in the narrow cavity between the juniper and the hedge, Marcus felt more than a bit ridiculous, hiding from guests on his own estate. However, his own dirty, dust-streaked condition was not something he cared to vaunt in company …and suddenly his thoughts were jumbled as he felt Lillian’s arms clutching around the shoulders of his coat, pulling him deeper into the shadows. Pulling him against her. She was trembling …with fear, he thought at first. Shocked by his own protective reaction, he put his arm around her. But he quickly discovered that she was laughing silently, so inexplicably tickled by the situation that she had to muffle a series of squeaking gasps against his shoulder.
Smiling down at her quizzically, Marcus pushed back a straggle of chocolate-colored hair that had fallen over her right eye. He squinted through a small aperture between the fragrant, thickly needled juniper branches. Recognizing the men, who were slowly making their way along the path as they discussed business matters, Marcus ducked his head to whisper into Lillian’s ear. “Quiet. It’s your father.”
Her eyes widened, her laughter dissolving as she dug her fingers reflexively into his coat. “Oh no. Don’t let him find me! He’ll tell Mother.”
Dipping his chin in a reassuring nod, Marcus kept his arm around her, his mouth and nose near her temple. “They won’t see us. As soon as they pass, I’ll take you across the walkway.”
She stayed very still, staring through the tiny spaces in the juniper leaves, seeming not to realize that she was locked against the Earl of Westcliff’s body in what most people would have described as an embrace. Holding her, breathing against her temple, Marcus became aware of an elusive scent, a faint flowery overture that he had vaguely registered at the rounders field. Hunting for it, he found a stronger concentration of the fragrance on her throat, where it was blood-heated and intoxicating. His mouth watered. Suddenly he wanted to touch his tongue to her tender white skin, wanted to rip her dress down the front and drag his mouth from her throat down to her toes.
His arm tightened around Lillian’s narrow frame, and his free hand compulsively sought her hips, exerting gentle but steady pressure to bring her closer against him. Oh yes. She was the perfect height, so tall that minimal adjustment was needed to match their bodies in just the right way. Agitation filled him, igniting sensual fire in the pulsing pathways of his veins. It would be so easy to take her like this, just pull her dress up and kick her legs apart. He wanted her a thousand ways, over him, under him, any part of him inside any part of her. He could feel the natural shape of her body beneath the thin dress, with no corset to mar the sleek line of her back. She stiffened a little as she felt his mouth touch her throat, and her breath caught in astonishment.
“What…what are you doing?” she whispered.
On the other side of the hedge, the four men paused as they became animated on the subject of stock manipulation, while Marcus’s mind seethed with thoughts of an entirely different kind of manipulation. Dampening his dry lips with his tongue, he drew his head back and saw the confounded expression on Lillian’s face. “I’m sorry,” he breathed, fighting to regain his wits. “It’s that smell…what is it?”
“Smell?” She looked utterly confused. “Do you mean my perfume?”
Marcus was distracted by the sight of her mouth…the plush, silky, rose-tinted lips that seemed to promise unspeakable sweetness. The scent of her invaded his nose repeatedly, in luxurious drifts that roused a fresh wave of fantastically lurid urges within his body. He hardened, his groin heating rapidly, while his heart thumped with unrivaled force. He couldn’t think clearly. The effort to keep from groping her caused his hands to shake. Closing his eyes, he turned his face from hers, only to find himself nuzzling hungrily at her throat. She pushed at him a little, her sharp whisper at his ear. “What is the matter with you?”
Marcus shook his head helplessly. “I’m sorry,” he rasped, even as he knew what he was about to do. “My God. Sorry—” His mouth clamped over hers, and he began to kiss her as if his life depended on it.
It was the first time in Lillian’s life that a man had ever kissed her without asking for permission. She wriggled and strained until Westcliff secured her more firmly against his body. He smelled like dust and horses and sunlight…and there was something else …a sweet, dry essence that reminded her of freshly mown hay. The pressure of his mouth increased, searching ardently until her lips were coaxed apart. She had never imagined kisses like these, deep, tenderly impatient caresses that seemed to sap her of strength until she closed her eyes and leaned into the hard support of his chest. Westcliff took instant advantage of her weakness, molding her against him until not an inch separated them, and her legs were parted by the intrusion of his powerful thigh.
The tip of his tongue played inside her mouth in sweeps of warmth that explored the edges of her teeth and the silken dampness beyond. Shocked by the intimacy, Lillian shrank backward, but he followed her, both his hands sliding up to cradle her head. She didn’t know what to do with her tongue; she drew it back awkwardly as he played with her, harried and goaded and pleasured her until a shaking moan rose in her throat, and she pushed at him frantically.
His mouth broke from hers. Conscious of her father and his companions standing on the other side of the juniper, Lillian struggled to control her breathing, and watched their dark shapes through the heavy screen of verdant needles. The men proceeded along the pathway, oblivious to the embracing couple hidden at the garden entrance. Relieved that they were leaving, Lillian let out a shivering breath. Her heart hammered in her chest as she felt Westcliff’s mouth slide along the fragile arch of her throat, tracing a simmering pathway of nerves. She writhed against him, still helplessly riding his thigh, and a brilliant bloom of heat began inside her.