“Really,” Lillian insisted.
Daisy and Evie remained raptly silent, looking back and forth between the two of them as if they were viewing a tennis match.
“Lillian, for you, the most practical girl I’ve ever known, to claim that you have a perfume that acts as an aphrodisiac, is the most astonishing—”
“A love potion,” Annabelle said. “Lillian, if Lord Westcliff displayed any interest in you, it was not because of your perfume.”
“What makes you so certain?”
Annabelle’s brows lifted. “Has the perfume produced this effect in any other man of your acquaintance?”
“Not that I’ve noticed,” Lillian admitted reluctantly.
“How long have you worn it?”
“About a week, but I—”
“And the earl is the only man it seems to have worked on?”
“There are other men who will respond to it,” Lillian argued. “They just haven’t had the opportunity to smell it yet.” Seeing her friend’s disbelief, she sighed. “I know how it sounds. I didn’t believe a word that Mr. Nettle said about this perfume, until today. But I promise you, the moment that the earl got a whiff of it…”
Annabelle pinned her with a considering stare, clearly wondering if it could be true.
Evie spoke in the silence. “May I s-see it, Lillian?”
Reaching for the perfume vial as if it were some highly combustible explosive, Evie unstoppered it, brought it to her whimsically freckled nose, and sniffed. “I don’t f-feel anything.”
“I wonder if it works only on men?” Daisy mused aloud.
“What I’m wondering is,” Lillian said slowly, “if any of you wore the perfume, would Westcliff be as attracted to you as he was to me?” She stared directly at Annabelle as she spoke.
Realizing what she was about to propose, Annabelle wore a look of comical dismay. “Oh no,” she said, shaking her head vigorously. “I’m a married woman, Lillian, and very much in love with my husband, and I haven’t the slightest interest in seducing his best friend!”
“You wouldn’t have to seduce him, of course,” Lillian said. “Just try some of the perfume and then go stand next to him, and see if he notices you.”
“I’ll do it,” Daisy said enthusiastically. “In fact, I propose that we all wear the perfume tonight, and investigate whether it makes us more attractive to men.”
Evie chortled at the idea, while Annabelle rolled her eyes. “You can’t be serious.”
Lillian gave her a reckless grin. “There’s no harm in trying it, is there? Consider it a scientific experiment. You’re merely collecting evidence to prove a theory.”
A groan escaped Annabelle’s lips as she watched the two younger girls shake out a few drops of the perfume to adorn themselves with. “This is the silliest thing I’ve ever done,” she commented. “It’s even more absurd than when we played rounders in our drawers.”
“Knickers,” Lillian said promptly, continuing their long-standing debate on the proper name for undergarments.
“Give me that.” With a long-suffering expression, Annabelle held out her hand to receive the vial, and dampened her fingertip with the fragrant elixir.
“Use a little more,” Lillian advised, watching in satisfaction as Annabelle dabbed the perfume behind her ears. “And put some on your neck too.”
“I don’t usually wear perfume,” Annabelle said. “Mr. Hunt likes the smell of clean skin.”
“He may prefer Lady of the Night.”
Annabelle looked appalled. “Is that what this is called?”
“It’s named after a night-blooming orchid,” Lillian explained.
“Oh, good,” Annabelle said sardonically. “I was afraid that it was named after a harlot.”
Ignoring the remark, Lillian took the vial from her. After applying a few drops of the scent to her own throat and wrists, she tucked the vessel back into her reticule and stood from the table. “Now,” she said in satisfaction, glancing at the wallflowers, “let’s go find Westcliff.”
Unaware of the assault that would soon be launched against him, Marcus relaxed in the study with his brother-in-law, Gideon Shaw, and his friends Simon Hunt and Lord St. Vincent. They had gathered in the private room to talk before the formal dinner started. Leaning back in his chair behind the massive mahogany desk, he glanced at his pocket watch. Eight o’clock—time to join the company at large, especially as Marcus was the host. However, he remained still, and frowned at the watch’s implacable face with the grimness of a man who had an unpleasant duty to perform.
He would have to speak to Lillian Bowman. With whom he had behaved like a madman today. Seizing her, kissing her in a berserk eruption of misguided passion …The thought of it made him shift uncomfortably in his chair.
Marcus’s straightforward nature urged him to deal with the situation in a direct manner. There was only one possible solution to this dilemma—he would have to apologize for his behavior, and assure her that it would never happen again. He would be damned if he would spend the next month skulking through his own house in an effort to avoid the woman. Trying to ignore the whole thing was not feasible.
He only wished he knew why it had happened in the first place.
Marcus had been able to think of nothing else since that moment behind the hedgerow—his own astonishing breach of restraint, and even more bewildering, the primal satisfaction of kissing the annoying shrew.
“Pointless,” came St. Vincent’s voice. He was sitting on the corner of his desk, staring through the stereoscope. “Who gives a damn about views of landscapes and monuments?” St. Vincent continued lazily. “You need some stereocards featuring women, Westcliff. Now there’s something worth viewing through this thing.”
“I would think that you see enough of those in three-dimensional form,” Marcus replied dryly. “Aren’t you a bit preoccupied with the subject of female anatomy, St. Vincent?”
“You have your hobbies, I have mine.”
Marcus glanced at his brother-in-law, who was politely expressionless, and Simon Hunt, who seemed amused by the exchange. The men were all remarkably different in character and origin. Their only common denominator was their friendship with Marcus. Gideon Shaw was that most contradictory of terms, an “American aristocrat,” the great-grandson of an ambitious Yankee sea captain. Simon Hunt was an entrepreneur, a former butcher’s son who was shrewd, enterprising, and trustworthy in every regard. Then there was St. Vincent, an unprincipled scoundrel and a prolific lover of women. He was always to be found at some fashionable party or gathering, staying only until the conversation became “tedious,” which was to say that something meaningful or worthwhile was being discussed, and then he would leave in search of new revelry.
Marcus had never encountered a cynicism as deep-seated as St. Vincent’s. The viscount almost never said what he meant, and if he ever felt a moment of compassion for anyone, he concealed it expertly. A lost soul, people sometimes called him, and it did seem likely that St. Vincent was beyond redemption. It was equally likely that Hunt and Shaw would not have tolerated St. Vincent’s company were it not for his friendship with Marcus.
Marcus himself would have had little to do with St. Vincent were it not for his memories of the days when they had attended the same school. Time and again St. Vincent had proved himself to be a supportive friend, doing whatever was necessary to get Marcus out of a scrape, sharing packets of sweets from home with nonchalant benevolence. And he had always been the first by Marcus’s side in a fight.
St. Vincent had understood what it was like to be despised by a parent, as his own father had been no better than Marcus’s. The two boys had commiserated with dark humor, and had done what they could to help each other. In the years since they had left school, St. Vincent’s character seemed to have eroded considerably, but Marcus was not one to forget past debts. Nor was he one to turn his back on a friend.
As St. Vincent lounged in the chair beside Gideon Shaw’s, they presented a striking picture, the two of them fair-haired and abundantly favored by nature, yet so qualitatively different in appearance. Shaw was urbane and handsome, with an irreverent grin that beguiled all who saw it. His features were agreeably weathered with subtle signs that life, despite its bounty of material riches, had not always been easy for him. Whatever difficulties came his way, he handled them with grace and wit.
St. Vincent, by contrast, possessed an exotic male beauty, his eyes pale blue and catlike, his mouth edged with cruelty even when he smiled. He cultivated a manner of perpetual indolence that many London fashionables tried to emulate. Had it flattered him to dress like a dandy, St. Vincent undoubtedly would have. But he knew that ornamentation of any kind only served to distract from the golden splendor of his looks, and so he dressed with strict simplicity, in dark, well-tailored clothes.
With St. Vincent present in the study, the conversation naturally turned to the subject of women. Three days earlier a married lady of good standing in London society had reputedly tried to commit suicide when her affair with St. Vincent had ended. The viscount had found it convenient to escape to Stony Cross Park amid the furor of the scandal. “A ridiculous display of melodrama,” St. Vincent scoffed, using the tips of his long fingers to play with the rim of his brandy snifter. “It’s being said that she slit her wrists, when in reality she scratched them with a hatpin and then began screaming for a maidservant to help her.” He shook his head in disgust. “Idiot. After all the pains we took to keep the affair secret, she does something like this. Now everyone in London knows, including her husband. And what did she hope to gain from it? If she sought to punish me for leaving her, she’s going to suffer a hundred times more. People always blame the woman the most, especially if she’s married.”
“What of her husband’s reaction?” Marcus asked, focusing at once on practical considerations. “Is it likely that he’ll retaliate?”
St. Vincent’s look of disgust deepened. “I doubt it, as he’s twice her age and hasn’t touched his wife in years. He’s not likely to risk challenging me for the sake of her so-called honor. As long as she kept the thing quiet to spare him being labeled as a cuckold, he would have let her do as she pleased. But instead she’s done everything possible to advertise her indiscretion, the little fool.”
Simon Hunt stared at the viscount with calm inquiry. “I find it interesting,” he said softly, “that you refer to the affair as her indiscretion rather than yours.”
“It was,” St. Vincent said emphatically. The lamplight played lovingly over the clever angles of his face. “I was discreet, and she was not.” He shook his head with a world-weary sigh. “I should never have let her seduce me.”
“She seduced you?” Marcus asked skeptically.
“I swear by all I hold sacred…” St. Vincent paused. “Wait. Since nothing is sacred to me, let me rephrase that. You’ll just have to believe me when I say that she was the instigator of the affair. She dropped hints left and right, she began to appear everywhere I went, and she sent messages begging me to visit any time I chose, assuring me that she lived separately from her husband. I didn’t even want her—I knew before I touched her that it was going to be a crashing bore. But it got to the point at which it was bad form to keep refusing her, and so I went to her residence, and she met me na*ed in the entrance hall. What was I supposed to do?”
“Leave?” Gideon Shaw suggested with a slight smile, staring at the viscount as if he were an entertaining occupant of the Royal Menagerie.
“I should have,” came St. Vincent’s glum acknowledgment. “But I’ve never been able to reject a woman who wants a tumble. And it had been a damned long time since I’d bedded anyone, at least a week, and I was—”
“A week is a long time to go without bedding someone?” Marcus interrupted, one brow arching.
“Are you going to claim that it’s not?”
“St. Vincent, if a man has time to bed a woman more than once a week, he clearly doesn’t have enough to do. There are any number of responsibilities that should keep you sufficiently occupied in lieu of…” Marcus paused, considering the exact phrase he wanted. “Sexual congress.” A pronounced silence greeted his words. Glancing at Shaw, Marcus noticed his brother-in-law’s sudden preoccupation with knocking just the right amount of ash from his cigar into a crystal dish, and he frowned. “You’re a busy man, Shaw, with business concerns on two continents. Obviously you agree with my statement.”
Shaw smiled slightly. “My lord, since my ‘sexual congress’ is limited exclusively to my wife, who happens to be your sister, I believe I’ll have the good sense to keep my mouth shut.”
St. Vincent smiled lazily. “It’s a shame for a thing like good sense to get in the way of an interesting conversation.” His gaze switched to Simon Hunt, who wore a slight frown. “Hunt, you may as well render your opinion. How often should a man make love to a woman? Is more than once a week a case for unpardonable gluttony?”
Hunt threw Marcus a vaguely apologetic glance. “Much as I hesitate to agree with St. Vincent…”
Marcus scowled as he insisted, “It is a well-known fact that sexual over-indulgence is bad for the health, just as with excessive eating and drinking—”
“You’ve just described my perfect evening, Westcliff,” St. Vincent murmured with a grin, and returned his attention to Hunt. “How often do you and your wife—”
“The goings-on in my bedroom are not open for discussion,” Hunt said firmly.
“But you lie with her more than once a week?” St. Vincent pressed.
“Hell, yes,” Hunt muttered.
“And well you should, with a woman as beautiful as Mrs. Hunt,” St. Vincent said smoothly, and laughed at the warning glance that Hunt flashed him. “Oh, don’t glower—your wife is the last woman on earth whom I would have any designs on. I have no desire to be pummeled to a fare-thee-well beneath the weight of your ham-sized fists. And happily married women have never held any appeal for me—not when unhappily married ones are so much easier.” He looked back at Marcus. “It seems that you are alone in your opinion, Westcliff. The values of hard work and self-discipline are no match for a warm female body in one’s bed.”