“No,” he murmured. “Don’t pull away. Open for me. Open…” His mouth was on hers again, coaxing and firm. Gradually understanding what he wanted of her, she let her tongue touch his. She felt the strength of his response, the urgency that flooded him, but he remained gentle as he explored her with drifting kisses. With her hands free, she could not stop herself from touching him, one hand flattening against the conditioned muscles of his back, the other rising to the column of his neck. His sun-darkened skin was smooth and hot, like freshly pressed satin. She investigated the forceful pulse in the hollow at the base of his throat, then let her fingers wander to the dark fleece that filled the open neck of his shirt.

Westcliff brought his warm hands up to her face, cupping her cheeks as he concentrated on her mouth, possessing her with hungry, soul-stealing kisses until she was too weak to stand. As her knees buckled, she felt his arms go around her again. He cradled her weak body, easing her to the thick carpet of grass underfoot. Lying halfway across her, his leg anchored in the heap of her skirts, he wedged a solid arm beneath her neck. His mouth sought hers, and this time she did not shy away from his restless searching, but opened to him fully. The world beyond the hidden garden vanished from her awareness. There was only this place, this patch of Eden, sunny and quiet and blazing with unearthly color. The mixed scents of lavender and warm male skin were all around her…too delicious…too compelling…Languidly she twined her arms around his neck, her hands sliding into the thick locks of his hair.

She felt a series of deft tugs at the front of her gown, and she lay passively beneath the clever workings of his hands, her body aching for his touch. Levering himself above her, he unhooked her corset and released her from the prison of laces and stays. She couldn’t breathe deeply enough, or fast enough, her lungs striving to appease a desperate need for more oxygen. Caught in a tangle of confining clothes, she writhed to be free of them, and he held her down with a quiet murmur as he spread the edges of her corset wider and tugged at the delicate ribbon tie of her chemise.

The pale curves of her br**sts were bared to the sun and the open air, and to the sloe-eyed gaze of the man who held her. He stared at the shallow rise of her chest, the pink buds of her nipples, and said her name softly as his head lowered. His mouth moved lightly against her skin, coasting up the taut hill of one breast and opening over the delicate tip. A sound of fearful pleasure was torn from her throat as she lay beneath him. The tip of his tongue circled the edge of her nipple, provoking it into unbearable sensitivity. Her hands gripped the impossibly hard muscles of his upper arms, her fingertips digging into the bulge of his biceps. Passion smoldered and flamed in ever-higher drafts, until she gasped and tried to twist away from him.

She breathed in quivering sobs as he kissed her mouth again. Her body, filled with unfamiliar pulses and rhythms, no longer seemed her own. “Westcliff…” Her mouth wandered unsteadily over the masculine scrape of his cheek, the edge of his jaw, and back to the softness of his lips. When the kiss ended, she turned her face to the side and gasped, “What do you want?”

“Don’t ask that.” His lips moved to her ear, and his tongue stroked into the tiny hollow behind the fragile lobe. “The answer…” Hearing the way her breath hastened, he lingered at her ear, tracing the fine edge with his tongue, nibbling at the folds within. “The answer is dangerous,” he finally managed to say.

Wrapping her arms around his neck, she brought his mouth back to hers in a fiery open kiss that seemed to unravel his self-control.

“Lillian,” he said unsteadily, “tell me not to touch you. Tell me it’s enough now. Tell me—”

She kissed him again, greedily absorbing the heat and flavor of his mouth. A new urgency ignited between them, and his kisses became harder, more aggressive, until a surge of agonized need made her limbs heavy and weak. She felt her skirts being eased upward, the heat of sunlight penetrating the thin linen of her knickers. The careful weight of his hand descended to her knee, his palm covering the rounded joint. After a moment his hand slid upward. He gave her no opportunity to object, his mouth occupying hers with restless kisses, while his fingers skimmed the sleek line of her leg.

She jerked a little as he reached the swollen, tender flesh between her thighs, tracing the shape of her through the gauzy linen. A flush suffused her limbs and chest and face, and her heels dug into the lawn as she arched helplessly against his hand. He stroked her soothingly over the veil of linen. The thought of how those strong, slightly roughened fingers might feel against her skin caused her to moan with need. After what seemed an eternity of torment, he let his fingers enter the lace-edged slit of her undergarment. An agitated gasp escaped her as she felt herself being stroked and parted, his long fingers gliding through the silky dark curls. He fondled her with delicate idleness, as if he were playing with the petals of a half-open rose. One tantalizing fingertip brushed over the little peak that kindled with excitement, and all rational thought dissolved. He found the subtle spot where all her pleasure centered, and stroked her rhythmically, circling delicately, making her writhe in gathering desperation.

She wanted him, regardless of the consequences. She wanted his possession, and even the pain that would come with it. But with brutal suddenness, the weight of his body was lifted from hers, and Lillian was left tumbled and disoriented in the patch of velvety lawn. “My lord?” she asked breathlessly, managing to heave herself to a sitting position, with her clothes in wanton disarray.

He was sitting nearby, his arms braced on his bent knees. With something close to despair, she saw that he was once again in control of himself, whereas she was still trembling from head to toe.

His voice was cool and steady. “You’ve proved my point, Lillian. If a man you don’t even like can bring you to this state, then how much easier would it be for St. Vincent?”

She started as if he had slapped her, and her eyes widened.

The transition from warm desire to a feeling of utter foolishness was not a pleasant one.

The devastating intimacy between them had been nothing but a lesson to demonstrate her inexperience. He had used it as an opportunity to put her in her place. Apparently she wasn’t good enough to wed or to bed. Lillian wanted to die. Humiliated, she scrambled upward, clutching at her unfastened garments, and shot him a glare of hatred. “That remains to be seen,” she choked out. “I’ll just have to compare the two of you. And then if you ask nicely, perhaps I’ll tell you if he—”

Westcliff pounced on her with startling swiftness, shoving her back to the lawn and bracketing her tossing head between his muscular forearms. “Stay away from him,” he snapped. “He can’t have you.”

“Why not?” she demanded, struggling as he settled more heavily between her flailing legs. “Am I not good enough for him either? Inferior breed that I am—”

“You’re too good for him. And he would be the first to admit it.”

“I like him all the better for not suiting your high standards!”

“Lillian—hold still, damn it—Lillian, look at me!” Westcliff waited until she had stilled beneath him. “I don’t want to see you hurt.”

“Has it ever occurred to you, you arrogant idiot, that the person most likely to hurt me might be you?”

Now it was his turn to recoil as if struck. He stared at her blankly, though she could practically hear the whirring of his agile brain as he sorted through the potential implications of her rash statement.

“Get off me,” Lillian said sullenly.

He moved upward, straddling her slender hips, his fingers grasping the inner edges of her corset. “Let me fasten you. You can’t run back to the manor half dressed.”

“By all means,” she replied with helpless scorn, “let’s observe the proprieties.” Closing her eyes, she felt him tugging her clothes into place, tying her chemise and re-hooking her corset efficiently.

When he finally released her, she sprang from the ground like a startled doe and rushed to the entrance of the hidden garden. To her eternal humiliation, she couldn’t find the door, which was concealed by the lavish spills of ivy coming over the wall. Blindly she thrust her hands into the trailing greenery, breaking two nails as she scrabbled for the doorjamb.

Coming up behind her, Westcliff settled his hands at her waist, easily dodging her attempts to throw him off. He pulled her h*ps back firmly against his and spoke against her ear. “Are you angry because I started making love to you, or because I didn’t finish?”

Lillian licked her dry lips. “I’m angry, you bloody big hypocrite, because you can’t make up your mind about what to do with me.” She punctuated the comment with the hard jab of one elbow back against his ribs.

The sharp blow seemed to have no effect on him. With a mocking show of courtesy, he released her and reached for the concealed door handle, allowing her to escape the hidden garden.

CHAPTER 15

After Lillian fled the butterfly garden, Marcus struggled to cool his passions. He had nearly lost all control with Lillian, had almost taken her on the ground like a mindless brute. Only some infinitesimal gleam of awareness, weak as a candle flame in a storm, had kept him from ravishing her. An innocent girl, the daughter of one of his guests …Good Lord, he had gone mad.

Wandering slowly through the garden, Marcus tried to analyze a situation that he would never have expected to find himself in. To think that a few months ago he had mocked Simon Hunt for his excessive passion for Annabelle Peyton. He had not understood the power of obsession, had never felt its ferocious pull until now. He could not seem to reason himself out of it. It seemed that his will had been divorced from his intellect.

Marcus could not recognize himself in his reactions to Lillian. No one had ever made him feel this aware, this alive, as if her very presence heightened all his senses. She fascinated him. She made him laugh. She aroused him unbearably. If only he could lie with her and find relief from this endless craving. And yet the rational part of his brain pointed out that his mother’s assessment of the Bowman girls was on the mark. “Perhaps we can achieve a bit of superficial polish,” the countess had said, “but my influence will certainly be no more than skin-deep. Neither of those girls is tractable enough to change in any significant way. The elder Miss Bowman, in particular. One could no more make a lady of her than one could change fool’s-gold into the real substance. She is determined not to change.”

Oddly, that was part of why Marcus was so drawn to Lillian. Her raw vitality, her uncompromising individuality, affected him like a wintry blast of air inside a stuffy house. However, it was dishonest of him, not to mention unfair, to continue his attentions to Lillian when it was obvious that nothing could come of them. No matter how difficult it was, he would have to leave her alone, as she had just asked.

The decision should have afforded him a certain measure of peace, but it didn’t.

Brooding, he left the garden and went to the manor, noting against his will that the exquisite scenery around him seemed a bit muted, grayer, as if he viewed it through a dirty window. Inside, the atmosphere of the sprawling house seemed stale and dark. He felt as if he would never take real pleasure in anything again. Damning himself for the maudlin thoughts, Marcus headed to his private study, even though he was in dire need of a change of clothes. He strode through the open doorway and saw Simon Hunt seated at the desk, poring over a sheaf of legal documents.

Looking up, Hunt smiled and began to rise from the chair.

“No,” Marcus said abruptly, with a staying motion of his hands. “I merely wanted a glance at the morning’s deliveries.”

“You look to be in foul humor,” Hunt commented, settling back. “If it’s about the foundry contracts, I’ve just written to our solicitor—”

“It’s not that.” Picking up a letter, Marcus broke the seal and glowered at it, perceiving that it was an invitation of some sort.

Hunt watched him speculatively. After a moment, he asked, “Have you reached a sticking point in your dialogue with Thomas Bowman?”

Marcus shook his head. “He seems receptive to the proposal I put forth about the enfranchisement of his company. I don’t foresee any problems in securing an agreement.”

“Then has it something to do with Miss Bowman?”

“Why do you ask?” Marcus countered warily.

Hunt responded with a sardonic look, as if the answer was too obvious to be voiced.

Slowly Marcus lowered himself to the chair on the other side of the desk. Hunt waited patiently, his undemanding silence encouraging Marcus to confide his thoughts. Although Hunt had always been a reliable sounding board on business and social matters, Marcus had never brought himself to discuss personal issues with him. Everyone else’s issues, yes. His own, no.

“It’s not logical for me to want her,” he said at last, focusing his gaze on one of the stained-glass windows nearby. “It has all the makings of a farce. One can scarcely conceive of a more ill-suited pair.”

“Ah. And as you’ve said previously, ‘Marriage is too important an issue to be decided by mercurial emotions.’”

Marcus glanced at him with a scowl. “Have I ever mentioned how much I dislike your tendency to throw my own words back in my face?”

Hunt laughed. “Why? Because you don’t want to take your own advice? I am compelled to point out, Westcliff, that had I heeded your counsel about marrying Annabelle, it would have been the greatest mistake of my life.”

“At the time she was not a sensible choice,” Marcus muttered. “It was only later that she proved herself to be worthy of you.”

“But now you will admit that I made the right decision.”

“Yes,” Marcus replied impatiently. “One fails to see, however, how that applies to my situation.”

“I was leading to the point that perhaps your instincts should play a part in the decision of whom to marry.”

Marcus was genuinely offended by the suggestion. He stared at Simon Hunt as if he had gone mad. “Good God, man, what is the purpose of the intellect if not to deliver us from the folly of acting on instinct?”

“You rely on instinct all the time,” Hunt chided.

“Not when it comes to decisions that have lifelong consequences. And in spite of my attraction to Miss Bowman, the differences between us would eventually result in misery for us both.”

“I understand the differences between you,” Hunt said quietly. As their gazes met, something in his eyes reminded Marcus that Hunt was a butcher’s son who had climbed out of the middle class and made a fortune from nothing. “Believe me, I understand the challenges that Miss Bowman would face in such a position. But what if she is willing to accept them? What if she is willing to change herself sufficiently?”

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