“My lord,” she whispered, “have you gone mad?”
“Yes. Yes.” A velvety drag of his lips back to her mouth…another deeply marauding kiss. “Give me your mouth…your tongue…yes. Yes. So sweet…sweet…” His lips were hot and restless, shifting over hers in sensuous coercion, while his breath rushed against her cheek. Her lips and chin tingled from the scratchy bristle of his unshaven skin.
“My lord,” she whispered again, jerking her mouth from his. “For God’s sake—let go of me!”
“Yes…I’m sorry…just one more…” He sought her lips again, and she shoved at him as hard as she could. His chest was as hard as granite.
“Let go, you oaf!” Twisting wildly, Lillian managed to pry herself free of him. Her entire body tingled from the exquisite friction with his, even after they were separated.
As they stared at each other, she saw the haze of lust begin to dissipate from his expression, and his dark eyes widened with the dawning realization of what had just happened. “Holy hell,” he whispered.
Lillian did not appreciate the way he stared at her, like a man beholding the fatal head of Medusa. She scowled at him. “I can find my own way to my room,” she said curtly. “And don’t try to follow me—I’ve had quite enough help from you today.” Turning, she sped across the walkway, while he stared after with his jaw sagging.
By some miracle of God, Lillian managed to reach her room before her mother appeared to wake her daughters from their nap. Slipping through the partially open door, she closed it and hurriedly unfastened the front buttons of her gown. Daisy, who had already stripped down to her undergarments, went to the door and inserted a crimped pin beneath the knob to trick the lever and relock it.
“What took you so long?” Daisy asked, intent on her task. “I hope you’re not angry that I didn’t wait for you—I thought I should get back here and freshen up as quickly as possible.”
“No,” Lillian said distractedly, stepping out of her filthy gown. She deposited it at the bottom of the armoire and closed it out of sight. A sharp click signaled Daisy’s success in relocking the door. Rapidly Lillian strode to the washstand, emptied the dirty water into the slop jar below, and poured fresh water into the bowl. Washing her face and arms hastily, she blotted her skin with a length of clean toweling.
Suddenly a key turned in the lock, and both girls glanced at each other in alarm. They headed for their separate beds with running leaps, landing on the mattresses just as their mother entered the room. Fortunately the curtains were closed, making the light too ineffectual for Mercedes to detect any evidence of their activities. “Girls?” she asked suspiciously. “It is time for you to awaken now.”
Daisy stretched and yawned loudly. “Mmmm…we’ve had a lovely nap. I feel so refreshed.”
“As do I,” Lillian said thickly, her head buried in her pillow, her heart pounding hard against the mattress.
“Now you must bathe and change into your evening gowns. I’ll ring for the maids to draw a bath. Daisy, you will wear your yellow silk. Lillian, you must wear the green with the gold clips at the shoulders.”
“Yes, Mother,” they both said.
As Mercedes went back to the room next door, Daisy sat upright and stared at Lillian curiously. “Why were you so long in returning?”
Lillian rolled over and looked up at the ceiling, considering what had happened in the garden. She couldn’t quite believe that Westcliff, who had always exhibited such disapproval of her, would have behaved in such a way. It made no sense. The earl had never displayed any hint of attraction to her before. In fact, this afternoon was the first occasion when they had actually managed to be civil to each other. “Westcliff and I were obliged to keep out of sight for a few minutes,” Lillian heard herself say, while thoughts continued to click through her mind. “Father was among the group that came along the walkway.”
“Oh Lord!” Daisy swung her legs over the side of her bed and stared at Lillian with an aghast grimace. “But Father didn’t see you?”
“Well, that’s a relief.” Daisy frowned slightly, seeming to sense that there was a great deal being left unsaid. “It was quite sporting of Lord Westcliff not to give us away, wasn’t it?”
A sudden smile curved Daisy’s lips. “I think it was the funniest thing I’ve ever seen when he showed you how to swing the bat—I was certain that you were going to bash him with it!”
“I was tempted,” Lillian replied darkly, standing from her own bed and going to pull the curtains open. As she jerked the heavy folds of lined damask to the side, a burst of afternoon sunlight invaded the room, causing tiny floating dust motes to sparkle in the air. “Westcliff looks for any excuse to demonstrate his superiority, doesn’t he?”
“Was that what he was doing? It looked rather like he was trying to find an excuse to put his arms around you.”
Startled by the comment, Lillian looked at her with narrowed eyes. “Why would you say a thing like that?”
Daisy shrugged. “There was something in the way he looked at you…”
“What way?” Lillian demanded, while panic began to flutter through her body like a thousand tiny wings.
“Just a sort of, well…interested way.”
Lillian covered her turmoil with a scowl. “The earl and I despise each other,” she said tersely. “The only thing he is interested in is a potential business arrangement with Father.” She paused and approached the vanity table, where her vial of perfume glittered in the ample fall of sunlight. Closing her fingers around the pear-shaped crystal vessel, she picked it up and rubbed her thumb across the stopper repeatedly. “However,” she said hesitantly, “there is something I must tell you, Daisy. Something happened while Westcliff and I waited behind the hedgerow…”
“Yes?” Daisy’s expression was alive with curiosity.
Unfortunately their mother chose that moment to sweep back into the room, followed by a pair of maids who laboriously dragged a folding slipper tub into the room in preparation for the bath. With their mother hovering over them, there was no opportunity for Lillian to speak to Daisy privately. And that was likely a good thing, as it allowed Lillian more time to ponder the situation. Slipping the vial of perfume into the reticule that she intended to carry that evening, she wondered if West-cliff had really been affected by her perfume. Something had happened to make him behave so strangely. And judging from the expression on his face when he realized what he had done, Westcliff had been shocked by his own behavior.
The logical thing to do was test this perfume. Put it through its paces, so to speak. A wry grin worked its way up to her mouth as she thought of her friends, who would probably be quite willing to help her conduct an experiment or two.
The wallflowers had been acquainted for approximately a year, always sitting against the wall during the dances. In retrospect, Lillian couldn’t decide why it had taken so long for them to strike up a friendship. Perhaps one reason was that Annabelle was so beautiful, with hair the color of dark honey, and brilliant blue eyes, and a voluptuous, neatly turned figure. One couldn’t imagine that such a goddesslike creature would ever condescend to be friends with mere mortals. Evangeline Jenner, on the other hand, was appallingly shy and possessed a stutter that made conversation incredibly difficult.
However, when it had finally become obvious that none of them would ever transcend their wallflower status by themselves, they had banded together to help one another find husbands, starting with Annabelle. Their combined efforts had succeeded in winning a husband for Annabelle, even though Simon Hunt wasn’t the peer that she had originally set out to catch. Lillian had to admit that despite her initial misgivings over the match, Annabelle had made the right choice in marrying Hunt. Now, as the next oldest unmarried wallflower, it was Lillian’s turn.
The sisters bathed and washed their hair, and then occupied separate corners of the room as the pair of maids helped them to dress. Following her mother’s instructions, Lillian donned a gown of pale sea-green silk, with short, full sleeves and a bodice that was held together at the shoulders with gold clips. A detested corset had reduced her waist by two inches, while a bit of padding at the top enhanced her br**sts until they formed a shallow cleavage. She was guided to the vanity table, where she sat wincing and flinching, her scalp smarting as a maid brushed the snarls from her hair and pinned it into an elaborate coiffure. Daisy, meanwhile, was subjected to similar torture as she was laced and padded and but-toned into a butter-colored gown with ruffles at the bodice.
Their mother hovered over them, anxiously muttering a stream of instructions about proper behavior. “…remember, English gentlemen do not like to hear a girl talk excessively, and they have no interest in your opinions. Therefore, I want the both of you to be as docile and quiet as possible. And do not mention any kind of sport! A gentleman may appear to find it amusing to hear you go on about rounders or lawn games, but inwardly they disdain a girl who discusses masculine subjects. And if a gentleman asks a question of you, find a way to turn it back to him, so that he will have the opportunity to tell you about his own experiences…”
“Another thrilling evening at Stony Cross Manor,” Lillian muttered. Daisy must have heard her, for a muffled snort of amusement came from the other side of the room.
“What was that noise?” Mercedes asked crisply. “Are you paying attention to my advice, Daisy?”
“Yes, Mother. I couldn’t breathe properly for a moment. I think my corset is too tight.”
“Then don’t breathe so deeply.”
“Can’t we loosen my stays?”
“No. British gentlemen prefer girls with very narrow waists. Now, where was I—oh yes, during dinner, if there is a lull in the conversation…”
Grimly enduring the lecture, which would undoubtedly be repeated in various forms during their stay at Westcliff’s estate, Lillian stared into the looking glass. She felt agitated at the thought of facing Westcliff this evening. An image flashed through her mind, of his dark face lowering over hers, and she closed her eyes.
“Sorry, miss,” the maid murmured, assuming that she had pinned a lock of hair too tightly.
“It’s all right,” Lillian replied with a rueful smile. “Tug away—I’ve got a hard head.”
“That is a monumental understatement,” came Daisy’s rejoinder from the other side of the room.
As the maid continued to twist and pin her hair, Lillian’s thoughts returned to Westcliff. Would he try to pretend that the kiss behind the hedgerow had never occurred? Or would he decide to discuss it with her? Mortified at the prospect, she realized that she needed to talk to Annabelle, who had come to know a great deal more about Westcliff since her marriage to his best friend, Simon Hunt.
Just as the last pin was being prodded into her coiffure, there came a tap on the door. Daisy, who was tugging on her elbow-length white gloves, hurried to answer it, ignoring Mercedes’s protest that one of the maids should see to the door. Flinging it open, Daisy let out a happy exclamation at the sight of Annabelle Hunt. Lillian stood from her seat at the vanity and rushed over to her, and the three of them embraced. It had been a few days since they had seen each other at the Rutledge, the London hotel where both families resided. Soon the Hunts would move into a new house that was being built in Mayfair, but in the meanwhile the girls visited each other’s suites at every opportunity. Mercedes objected occasionally, airing concerns about Annabelle’s bad influence on her daughters—an amusing assertion, as it was clearly the other way around.
As usual Annabelle looked ravishing, in a pale blue satin gown that was tightly fitted to her shapely figure, with matching silk cord that laced up the front. The color of the gown deepened the rich blue of her eyes and flattered her peaches-and-cream complexion.
Annabelle drew back to look at both of them with glowing eyes. “How was your journey from London? Have you had any adventures yet? No, you couldn’t possibly, you’ve been here less than a day—”
“We may have,” Lillian murmured cautiously, mindful of her mother’s keen ears. “I have to talk to you about something—”
“Daughters!” Mercedes interrupted, her tone strident with disapproval. “You haven’t yet finished preparing for the soiree.”
“I’m ready, Mother!” Daisy said quickly. “Look—all finished. I even have my gloves on.”
“All I need is my reticule,” Lillian added, darting to the vanity and snatching up the little cream-colored bag. “There—I’m ready too.”
Well aware of Mercedes’s dislike of her, Annabelle smiled pleasantly. “Good evening, Mrs. Bowman. I was hoping that Lillian and Daisy would be allowed to come downstairs with me.”
“I’m afraid they will have to wait until I am ready,” Mercedes replied in a frosty tone. “My two innocent girls require the supervision of a proper chaperone.”
“Annabelle will be our chaperone,” Lillian said brightly. “She’s a respectable married matron now, remember?”
“I said a proper chaperone—” their mother argued, but her protests were abruptly cut off as the sisters left the room and closed the door.
“Dear me,” Annabelle said, laughing helplessly, “that’s the first time I’ve ever been called a ‘respectable married matron’—it makes me sound rather dull, doesn’t it?”
“If you were dull,” Lillian replied, locking arms with her as they strode along the hallway, “then Mother would approve of you—”
“—and we would want nothing to do with you,” Daisy added.
Annabelle smiled. “Still, if I’m to be the official chaperone of the wallflowers, I should set out some principal rules of conduct. First, if any handsome young gentleman suggests that you sneak out to the garden with him alone…”
“We should refuse?” Daisy asked.
“No, just make certain to tell me so that I can cover for you. And if you happen to overhear some scandalous piece of gossip that is not appropriate for your innocent ears…”
“We should ignore it?”
“No, you should listen to every word, and then come repeat it to me at once.”
Lillian grinned and paused at the intersection between two hallways. “Shall we try to find Evie? It won’t be an official wallflower meeting unless she’s with us.”