“Evie is already downstairs with her aunt Florence,” Annabelle replied.

Both sisters exclaimed eagerly at the news. “How is she? How does she look?”

“Oh, it’s been forever since we’ve seen her!”

“Evie seems quite well,” Annabelle said, sobering, “though she is a bit thinner. And perhaps a little dispirited.”

“Who wouldn’t be,” Lillian said grimly, “after the way she has been treated?”

It had been many weeks since any of them had seen Evie, who was kept in seclusion by her late mother’s family. She was frequently locked away in solitude as punishment for minor transgressions, and let out only under the strict supervision of her aunt. Her friends had speculated that living with such harsh and unloving relatives had contributed no small amount to Evie’s difficult speech. Ironically, of all of the wallflowers, Evie was the one who least deserved such stern regulation. She was timid by nature, and inherently respectful of authority. From what they could gather, Evie’s mother had been the rebel of the family, marrying a man well below her station. After she had died in childbirth, her daughter had been made to pay for her transgressions. And her father, whom Evie seldom had the opportunity to see, was in poor health and probably hadn’t much longer to live.

“Poor Evie,” Lillian continued moodily. “I’m strongly inclined to give her my turn as the next wallflower to marry—she needs the escape far more than I do.”

“Evie’s not ready yet,” Annabelle said with a certainty that betrayed previous thought on the matter. “She’s working on her shyness, but so far she can’t even bring herself to have a conversation with a gentleman. Besides…” Mischief glimmered in her lovely eyes, and she slipped her arm around Lillian’s narrow waist. “You’re too old to put it off any longer, dear.”

Lillian feigned a sour look in response, making her laugh.

“What was it that you wanted to tell me?” Annabelle asked.

Lillian shook her head. “Let’s wait until we join Evie, or I’ll end up having to repeat everything.”

They made their way to the circuit of public rooms downstairs, where guests were milling about in elegant groups. Color was fashionable this year, at least for ladies’ attire, and so the array of rich hues made the gathering appear like a flock of butterflies. The men were dressed in traditional black suits and white shirts, the only variation being the subtle differences in their soberly patterned vests and neckties.

“Where is Mr. Hunt?” Lillian asked Annabelle.

Annabelle smiled faintly at the mention of her husband. “I suspect he’s visiting with the earl and a few of their friends.” Her gaze sharpened as she caught sight of Evie. “There is Evie—and fortunately Aunt Florence doesn’t seem to be hovering over her as usual.”

Waiting alone, her absent gaze fixed on a gold-framed landscape painting, Evie seemed lost in private contemplation. Her shrinking posture was that of an apologetic cipher…it was clear that she did not feel herself to be part of the gathering, nor did she wish to be. Although no one ever seemed to look long enough at Evie to really notice her, she was actually quite beautiful—perhaps even more so than Annabelle—but in a completely unconventional way. She was freckled and red-haired, with large, round blue eyes and a mobile, full-lipped mouth that was utterly out of fashion. Her well-endowed figure was breathtaking, though the excessively modest gowns she was compelled to wear were distinctly unflattering. Moreover, her slump-shouldered posture did little to advertise her attractions.

Stealing forward, Lillian startled Evie by grasping her gloved hand and tugging her away. “Come,” she whispered.

Evie’s eyes lit with gladness at the sight of her. She hesitated and glanced uncertainly at her aunt, who was talking with some dowagers in the corner. Ascertaining that Florence was too absorbed in her conversation to notice, the four girls slipped from the parlor and hurried down the hallway like escaping prisoners. “Where are we going?” Evie whispered.

“The back terrace,” Annabelle replied.

They went to the rear of the house and exited through a row of French doors that opened onto a broad flagstoned terrace. Stretching the entire length of the house, the terrace overlooked the extensive gardens below. It looked like a scene from a painting, with orchards and beautifully kept walks and beds of rare flowers leading to the forest, while the Itchen River flowed below a nearby bluff that was defined by an ironstone wall.

Lillian turned toward Evie and hugged her. “Evie,” she exclaimed, “I’ve missed you so! If you only knew of all the ill-conceived rescue plans we thought of to steal you away from your family. Why won’t they let any of us come to visit you?”

“Th-they despise me,” Evie said in a muffled voice. “I never realized h-how much until recently. It started when I tried to see my father. After they caught me, they locked me in my room for days, with h-hardly any food or water. They said I was ungrateful, and disobedient, and that my bad blood had finally risen to the fore. To them I’m n-nothing but a dreadful mistake that my mother made. Aunt Florence says it is my fault that she’s dead.”

Shocked, Lillian drew back to look at her. “She told you that? In those words?”

Evie nodded.

Without thinking, Lillian let out a few curse words that caused Evie to blanch. One of Lillian’s more questionable accomplishments was the ability to swear as fluently as a sailor, acquired from much time spent with her grandmother, who had worked as a washwoman at the harbor docks.

“I know that it’s not tr-true,” Evie murmured. “I mean, m-my mother did die in labor, but I know that it wasn’t my fault.”

Keeping one arm around Evie’s shoulders, Lillian walked with her to a nearby table on the terrace, while Annabelle and Daisy followed. “Evie, what can be done to get you away from those people?”

The girl shrugged helplessly. “My father is s-so ill. I’ve asked him if I could come to live with him, but he refuses. And he is too weak to keep my mother’s family fr-from coming to take me back with them.”

All four girls were silent for a moment. The unpleasant reality was that even though Evie was of an age to leave her family’s custody voluntarily, an unmarried woman was in a precarious position. Evie would not inherit her fortune until her father’s death, and in the meantime, she had no means to support herself.

“You can come live with me and Mr. Hunt at the Rutledge,” Annabelle said suddenly, her voice filled with quiet determination. “My husband won’t let anyone take you away if you don’t wish it. He’s a powerful man, and—”

“No.” Evie was shaking her head before Annabelle had finished the sentence. “I would n-never do that to you…the imposition would be so…oh, never. And surely you must know how odd it w-would appear…the things that would be said…” She shook her head helplessly. “I’ve been considering something …my aunt Florence had an idea that I sh-should marry her son. Cousin Eustace. He’s not a bad man…and it would allow me to live away from my other relatives…”

Annabelle’s nose wrinkled. “Hmm. I know that’s still done nowadays, first cousins marrying, but it does seem a bit incestuous, doesn’t it? Any blood relation at all just seems so…ugh.”

“Wait a minute,” Daisy said suspiciously, coming to Lillian’s side. “We’ve met Evie’s cousin Eustace before. Lillian, do you remember the ball at Winterbourne House?” Her eyes narrowed accusingly. “He was the one who broke the chair, wasn’t he, Evie?”

Evie confirmed Daisy’s question with an inarticulate murmur.

“Good God!” Lillian exclaimed, “you are not considering marrying him, Evie!”

Annabelle wore a puzzled expression. “How did he break the chair? Does he have a foul temper? Did he throw it?”

“He broke it by sitting on it,” Lillian said with a scowl.

“Cousin Eustace is rather l-large boned,” Evie admitted.

“Cousin Eustace has more chins than I’ve got fingers,” Lillian said impatiently. “And he was so busy filling his face during the ball that he couldn’t be bothered to make conversation.”

“When I went to shake his hand,” Daisy added, “I came away with a half-eaten wing of roast chicken.”

“He forgot that he was holding it,” Evie said apologetically. “He did say he was sorry for ruining your glove, as I recall.”

Daisy frowned. “That didn’t bother me nearly as much as the question of where he was hiding the rest of the chicken.”

Receiving a desperately imploring glance from Evie, Annabelle sought to calm the sisters’ rising ferment. “We don’t have much time,” she counseled. “Let’s discuss cousin Eustace when there is more leisure to do so. Meanwhile, Lillian, dear, wasn’t there something you were going to tell us?”

It was an effective diversionary tactic. Relenting at the sight of Evie’s distressed expression, Lillian temporarily abandoned the subject of Eustace and motioned for all of them to sit at the table. “It began with a visit to a perfume shop in London…” Accompanied by Daisy’s occasional interjections, Lillian described the visit to Mr. Nettle’s perfumery, and the concoction she had purchased, and its purported magical properties.

“Interesting,” Annabelle commented with a skeptical smile. “Are you wearing it now? Let me smell it.”

“In a moment. I haven’t finished the story yet.” Withdrawing the vial of perfume from her reticule, Lillian set it in the center of the table, where it sparkled gently in the diffused torchlight on the terrace. “I have to tell you about what happened today.” She proceeded to relate the story of the impromptu rounders game that had taken place behind the stable yard, and Westcliff’s unexpected appearance. Annabelle and Evie listened incredulously, both of them wide-eyed at the revelation that the earl had actually taken part in the game.

“It’s no surprise that Lord Westcliff likes rounders,” Annabelle commented. “He’s a virtual fiend for outside activities. But the fact that he was willing to play with you…”

Lillian grinned suddenly. “Clearly his dislike was overridden by the overwhelming urge to explain everything that I was doing wrong. He started by telling me how I should correct my swing, and then he…” Her smile faded, and she was uncomfortably aware of a flush that spread rapidly over her skin.

“Then he put his arms around you,” Daisy prompted in the avid silence that had settled over the table.

“He what?” Annabelle asked, her lips parting in amazement.

“Only to show me how to hold the bat properly.” Lillian’s dark brows drew together until they nearly met over the bridge of her nose. “Anyway, what occurred during the game doesn’t matter—it was after the game that the surprise happened. Westcliff was guiding Daisy and me along the shortest route back to the house, but we were separated when Father and some of his friends came down the walkway. So Daisy sneaked on ahead, while the earl and I were obliged to wait behind the hedgerow. And while we were standing there together…”

The other three wallflowers leaned forward, all three gazes fastened on her without blinking.

“What happened?” Annabelle demanded.

Lillian felt the tips of her ears turn red, and it took surprising effort to force the words from her mouth. She stared hard at the little perfume bottle as she murmured, “He kissed me.”

“Good Lord,” Annabelle exclaimed, while Evie stared at her speechlessly.

“I knew it!” Daisy said. “I knew it!”

“How did you know—” Lillian began to argue, but Annabelle interrupted eagerly.

“Once? More than once?”

Thinking of the erotically linked chain of kisses, Lillian blushed even harder. “More than once,” she admitted.

“Wh-what was it like?” Evie asked.

For some reason it hadn’t occurred to Lillian that her friends would want a report on Lord Westcliff’s sexual prowess. Annoyed by the insistent heat that was now making her cheeks and neck and forehead prickle, she cast her mind about for something to pacify them. For a moment the impression of Westcliff came to her with startling vividness …the hardness of his body, his warm, searching mouth…Her insides shifted as if they had been turned into molten metal, and suddenly she could not bring herself to admit the truth.

“Dreadful,” she said, her feet fidgeting beneath the table. “Westcliff is the worst kisser I’ve ever encountered.”

“Ohhh…” Daisy and Evie both breathed in disappointment.

Annabelle, however, gave Lillian a frankly doubtful look. “That’s odd. Because I’ve heard quite a few rumors that Westcliff is very adept at pleasing a woman.”

Lillian responded with a noncommittal grunt.

“In fact,” Annabelle continued, “I attended a card party not a week ago, and one of the women at my table said that Westcliff was so superb in bed that he had ruined her for any other lover.”

“Who said that?” Lillian demanded.

“I can’t tell you,” Annabelle said. “The statement was made in confidence.”

“I don’t believe it,” Lillian replied grumpily. “Even in the circles that you move in, no one would be so brazen as to talk about such things in public.”

“I beg to differ.” Annabelle gave her a vaguely superior glance. “Married women get to hear much better gossip than unwed girls do.”

“Drat,” Daisy said enviously.

The table fell silent once again as Annabelle’s amused gaze locked with Lillian’s glowering one. To Lillian’s chagrin, she was the first to look away. “Out with it,” Annabelle commanded, with the tremor of a sudden laugh in her voice. “Tell the truth—is Westcliff really so terrible at kissing?”

“Oh, I suppose he’s tolerable,” Lillian admitted grudgingly. “But that’s not the point.”

Evie spoke then, her eyes round with curiosity. “What is the p-point?”

“That Westcliff was driven to it—to kiss a girl he detests, namely me—by the smell of that perfume.” Lillian pointed at the tiny glimmering bottle.

The four girls regarded the vial with awe.

“Not really,” Annabelle said disbelievingly.

Tags: Lisa Kleypas Wallflowers Romance
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