Her thoughts were scattered as the pressure of his hands increased, causing her to shiver and arch.
“Damn it,” Westcliff whispered savagely. Before she quite knew what was happening, he had pushed her up against a nearby wall. His fiercely accusing gaze moved from her dazed eyes to her parted lips, his silent struggle lasting another burning second, until he suddenly gave in with a curse and brought their mouths together with an impatient tug.
His hands adjusted the angle of her head, and he kissed her with gentle bites and nips, as if her mouth were an exotic delicacy to savor. Her knees weakened until she could hardly stand. This was Westcliff, she tried to remind herself …Westcliff, the man she hated …but as he sealed his mouth harder over hers, she couldn’t stop herself from responding. Straining against him, she instinctively rose on her toes until their bodies were perfectly aligned, the aching place between her thighs cradling the rigid bulge behind the buttoned fall of his trousers. Suddenly realizing what she had done, she flushed and tried to pull away, but he wouldn’t let her. His hand clenched firmly over her bottom, holding her there while his mouth devoured hers with smoldering sensuality, licking deeply, exploring the damp silk of her inner cheeks. She couldn’t seem to catch her breath…she gasped as she felt his free hand search the front of her bodice.
“I want to feel you,” Westcliff muttered against her trembling lips, tugging in at the unrelenting obstruction of her padded basque. “I want to kiss you everywhere…”
Her br**sts hurt inside her tightly cinched bodice. She was possessed by the insane urge to tear away the quilted lining of her corset and beg him to soothe her tormented flesh with his mouth and hands. Instead she threaded her fingers through the thick, slightly curling locks of his hair while he kissed her in a fever of rising need, until her thoughts were no longer coherent and she was shivering with desire.
Suddenly the heady stimulation ended, as Westcliff tore his mouth away and thrust her back against a fluted half column. Breathing raggedly, he half turned from her, and stood there with his fists clenched.
After a long time, Lillian collected herself sufficiently to speak. The perfume had worked rather too well. Her voice was thick and scratchy, as if she had just awoken from a long sleep. “Well. I …I suppose that answers my question. Now…as to my request for sponsorship…”
Westcliff did not look at her. “I’ll think about it,” he muttered, and strode from the orangery.
“Annabelle, what happened to you?” Lillian asked the next morning, joining the other wallflowers at the farthest table on the back terrace for breakfast. “You look dreadful. Why aren’t you wearing your riding habit? I thought you were going to try out the jumping course this morning. And why did you disappear so suddenly last night? It’s not like you to simply vanish without saying—”
“I didn’t have a choice in the matter,” Annabelle said testily, folding her fingers around the delicate bowl of a porcelain teacup. Looking pale and exhausted, her blue eyes ringed with dark shadows, she swallowed a mouthful of heavily sweetened tea before continuing. “It was that blasted perfume of yours—as soon as he caught one whiff of it, he went berserk.”
Shocked, Lillian tried to take in the information, her stomach plummeting. “It…it had an effect on West-cliff, then?” she managed to ask.
“Good Lord, not Lord Westcliff.” Annabelle rubbed her weary eyes. “He couldn’t have cared less what I smelled like. It was my husband who went completely mad. After he caught the scent of that stuff, he dragged me up to our room and…well, suffice it to say, Mr. Hunt kept me awake all night. All night,” she repeated in sullen emphasis, and drank deeply of the tea.
“Doing what?” Daisy asked blankly.
Lillian, who was feeling a rush of relief that Lord Westcliff had not been attracted to Annabelle while she was wearing the perfume, gave her younger sister a derisive glance. “What do you think they were doing? Playing a few hands of Find-the-Lady?”
“Oh,” Daisy said as comprehension dawned. She regarded Annabelle with unmaidenly curiosity. “But I was under the impression that you liked doing…that …with Mr. Hunt.”
“Well, yes, of course I do, but…” Annabelle paused and turned red. “That is, when a man is aroused to that extremity—” She stopped as she realized that even Lillian was paying keen interest to her words. Being the only married member of the group, she possessed a knowledge of men and intimate matters that the others were exceedingly curious about. Generally Annabelle was quite forthcoming, but she drew the line at disclosing private details of her relationship with Mr. Hunt. Her voice lowered to a whisper. “Let’s just say that my husband does not need the influence of some potion that increases his physical appetite even more.”
“You’re sure it was the perfume?” Lillian asked. “Perhaps something else set him off—”
“It was the perfume,” Annabelle said unequivocally.
Evie broke in, looking puzzled. “But wh-why didn’t it stir Lord Westcliff when you wore it? Why did it affect only your husband, and n-no one else?”
“And why didn’t anyone take any notice of Evie or me?” Daisy asked, disgruntled.
Annabelle drained her tea, poured some more, and carefully stirred a lump of sugar into her cup. Her heavy-lidded eyes regarded Lillian over the china rim. “What about you, dear? Did anyone take notice of you?”
“Actually…” Lillian studied the contents of her own teacup. “Westcliff did,” she said grimly. “Again. Of all the luck. I’ve found an aphrodisiac that works only on a man whom I despise.”
Annabelle choked on a swallow of tea, while Daisy clapped her hand over her own mouth to stifle a fit of laughter. After Annabelle’s spasms of mingled coughing and giggling had subsided, she regarded Lillian with slightly watery eyes. “I can’t begin to imagine how upset Westcliff must be to find himself so attracted to you when the both of you have always fought so terribly.”
“I told him that if he wanted to make amends for his behavior, he could ask the countess to be our sponsor,” Lillian said.
“Brilliant,” Daisy exclaimed. “Did he agree?”
“He is lending some thought to the matter.
Leaning against the arm of her chair, Annabelle stared thoughtfully into the distant morning mist that en-shrouded the forest. “I don’t understand…Why would the perfume work only on Mr. Hunt and Lord Westcliff? And why would it have no effect on the earl when I wear it, whereas when you do…”
“Maybe the magical part,” Evie speculated, “is that it h-helps it to find your true love.”
“Balderdash,” Lillian remarked, offended by the notion. “Westcliff is not my true love! He’s a pompous, superior ass with whom I’ve never managed to have a civil conversation. And any woman unlucky enough to marry him will end up rotting here in Hampshire, having to account to him for everything she does. No, thank you.”
“Lord Westcliff is hardly some fusty country gentleman,” Annabelle said. “He stays at his house in London quite often, and he’s invited everywhere. As for his superior manner—I suppose I can’t argue with that. Except to say that when one becomes better acquainted with him, and he lets his guard down, he can be very engaging.”
Lillian shook her head, her mouth hardening stubbornly. “If he is the only man this perfume will attract, I’ll stop wearing it.”
“Oh, don’t!” Annabelle’s eyes were suddenly sly and merry. “I should think you’d want to continue torturing him.”
“Yes, wear it,” Daisy urged. “We have no proof that the earl is the only man who will be seduced by your perfume.”
Lillian glanced at Evie, who wore a faint smile. “Shall I?” she asked, and Evie nodded. “Very well,” Lillian said. “If there is any chance of torturing Lord Westcliff, I should hate to miss it.” She pulled the vial from the pocket of her riding skirts. “Does anyone want to try some more?”
Annabelle looked appalled. “No. Keep it far, far away from me.”
The other two had already extended their hands. Lillian grinned and gave it to Daisy, who smoothed a few generous drops onto her wrists and tapped some behind her ears. “There,” Daisy said with satisfaction. “That’s twice as much as I used last night. If my true love is within a mile radius, he’ll come running for me.”
Evie received the bottle and applied some perfume to her throat. “Even if it doesn’t w-work,” she commented, “it’s a very pretty scent.”
Tucking the vial back into her pocket, Lillian stood from the table. She straightened the full chocolate-colored skirts of her riding habit, the longer side of which was caught up with a button to keep the hemline even while walking. On horseback, however, the skirt would be let down to drape attractively over the horse’s side and cover her legs properly. Her hair was caught up in neatly pinned braids at the nape of her neck, with a small feather-trimmed hat perched atop her head. “It’s time for the riders to gather at the stables.” She raised her brows as she asked, “Aren’t any of you going?”
Annabelle gave her a speaking glance. “Not after last evening.”
“I don’t ride well,” Evie said apologetically.
“Neither do Lillian and I,” Daisy said, leveling an admonishing stare at her older sister.
“Yes, I do,” Lillian protested. “You know quite well that I can ride as well as any man!”
“Only when you ride like a man,” Daisy retorted. Seeing Annabelle’s and Evie’s confusion, she explained. “Back in New York, Lillian and I rode astride most of the time. It’s much safer, really, and far more comfortable. Our parents didn’t mind as long as we rode on our own property, and wore strap-ankle breeches beneath our skirts. On the few occasions when we rode in the company of men, we went sidesaddle—but neither of us is very accomplished at it. Lillian is an excellent jumper when she rides astride. To my knowledge, however, she’s never tried a jump on sidesaddle. And the balance is completely different, and the muscles that one uses are not the same, and this jumping course at Stony Cross Park—”
“Hush, Daisy,” Lillian muttered.
“—is going to be very challenging, and I am fairly certain—”
“Shut up,” Lillian said in a fierce undertone.
“—that my sister is going to break her neck,” Daisy finished, returning Lillian’s glare with one of her own.
Annabelle looked troubled by the information. “Lillian, dear—”
“I have to go,” Lillian said curtly. “I don’t want to be late.”
“I know for a fact that Lord Westcliff’s jumping course is not appropriate for a novice.”
“I’m not a novice,” Lillian said through gritted teeth.
“There are some difficult jumps, with stiff bars at the top. Simon—that is, Mr. Hunt—took me through the course not long after it was built, and counseled me on how to approach the various jumps, and even then, it was very difficult. And if your riding position isn’t perfect, you can interfere with the free movement of the horse’s head and neck, and—”
“I’ll be fine,” Lillian interrupted coolly. “Heavens, Annabelle, I never knew you could be such a wet goose.”
Inured by now to the sharpness of Lillian’s tongue, Annabelle studied her defiant face. “Why is it necessary that you endanger yourself?”
“You should know by now that I never back down from a challenge.”
“And that is an admirable quality, dear,” came Annabelle’s smooth reply. “Unless you’re applying it to a pointless exercise.”
It was the closest to an argument that they had ever come. “Look,” Lillian said impatiently, “if I fall, you can give me a complete rake-down, and I’ll listen to every word. But no one is going to stop me from riding today…and therefore the only pointless exercise is for you to wag your jaw about it.”
Turning, she strode away, while she heard Annabelle’s exasperated exclamation behind her, and Daisy’s indistinct but resigned murmur, “…after all, it’s her neck to break…”
After Lillian’s departure, Daisy looked at Annabelle with an apologetic grimace. “I’m sorry. She didn’t mean to sound sharp. You know how she is.”
“There is no need for you to apologize,” Annabelle said wryly. “Lillian is the one who should be sorry…though I suppose I’d have to go hang before she would ever say so.”
Daisy shrugged. “There are times when my sister must suffer the consequences of her own actions. But one of the things I adore about her is that when she’s proven wrong, she will admit it, and even make sport of herself.”
Annabelle did not return the smile. “I adore her also, Daisy. So much that I can’t let her walk blindly into danger—or in this case, ride straight toward it. It is obvious that she doesn’t understand how dangerous that jumping course is. Westcliff is an experienced horseman, and as such, he had the course built to suit his own level of skill. Even my husband, who is a powerful rider, says that it is a challenge. And for Lillian to attempt it when she is not accustomed to jumping sidesaddle—” A frown shuttered her forehead. “The thought of her being hurt or killed in a fall is unbearable.”
Evie spoke softly then. “M-Mr. Hunt is on the terrace. He’s standing by the French doors.”
The three of them glanced toward Annabelle’s large, dark husband, who was dressed in riding clothes. He stood with a group of three men who had approached him as soon as he had set foot on the back terrace. They all chuckled at some quip that Hunt had made—no doubt some off-color remark. Hunt was a man’s man, and therefore well liked by the usual crowd at Stony Cross Park. A sardonic smile curved Hunt’s lips as he glanced over the clusters of guests seated at the outdoor tables, while servants moved among them with platters of food and pitchers of fresh-squeezed juice. His smile changed, however, when he saw Annabelle, the cynicism transforming into a tenderness that made Daisy feel slightly wistful. It seemed as if something passed through the air between the couple, some intangible but intense connection that nothing could sever.
“Do excuse me,” Annabelle murmured, standing. She went to her husband, who took her hand as soon as she reached him, and lifted it to press a kiss into her palm. Staring at her upturned face, he retained possession of her hand, and his head inclined toward hers.
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