Pausing near the library, Lillian glanced into the large room. For once it was unoccupied. She stepped inside the inviting room, with its two-story ceiling and the shelves lined with more than ten thousand books. The air was filled with the pleasant scents of vellum, parchment, and leather. What little wall space wasn’t occupied with books had been crowded with framed maps and engravings. She decided to find a book for herself, a volume of light verse or some frivolous novel. However, with the acres of leather spines facing her, it was difficult to ascertain precisely where the novels were located.

As she passed before the shelves, Lillian discovered rows of history books, each of them sufficiently weighty to flatten an elephant. Atlases were next, and then a vast array of mathematical texts that would cure the most severe cases of insomnia. Near the end of one wall, a sideboard had been installed in a niche to fit flush with the bookshelves. A large engraved silver tray covered the top of the sideboard, bearing a collection of enticing bottles and decanters. The prettiest bottle, made of glass molded in a pattern of leaves, was half-filled with a colorless liquor. Her attention was caught by the sight of a pear inside the bottle.

Lifting the bottle, Lillian examined it closely and gently swirled the liquid until the pear lifted and turned with the motion. A perfectly preserved golden pear. This must be a variety of eau-de-vie, as the French called it…“water of life,” a colorless brandy distilled from grapes, plums, or elderberries. Pears as well, it seemed.

Lillian was tempted to sample the intriguing beverage, but ladies never drank strong spirits. Especially not alone in the library. If she were caught, it would look very bad indeed. On the other hand…all the gentlemen were at the race meeting, the ladies had gone to the village, and most of the servants had been given the day off.

She glanced at the empty doorway, and then at the tantalizing bottle. A mantel clock ticked urgently in the silence. Suddenly she heard Lord St. Vincent’s voice in her mind…I’m going to ask your father for permission to court you.

“Oh, hell,” she muttered, and bent to rummage through the lower cabinet of the sideboard for a glass.

CHAPTER 17

“My lord.” At the sound of his butler’s voice, Marcus looked up from his desk with a slight frown. He had been working for the past two hours on the amendments to a list of recommendations that would be presented to Parliament later in the year by a committee that he had agreed to serve on. If the recommendations were accepted, it would result in a substantial improvement to the house, street, and land drainage in London and its surrounding districts.

“Yes, Salter,” he said brusquely, resenting the interruption. However, the old family butler knew better than to disturb him at his work unless something was significant enough to warrant it.

“There is a…a situation, my lord, that I felt certain you would wish to be informed of.”

“What kind of situation?”

“It involves one of the guests, my lord.”

“Well?” Marcus demanded, annoyed by the butler’s diffidence. “Who is it? And what is he doing?”

“I am afraid the person is a ‘she,’ my lord. One of the footmen has just informed me that he saw Miss Bowman in the library, and she is…not well.”

Marcus stood so suddenly that his chair nearly toppled over. “Which Miss Bowman?”

“I do not know, my lord.”

“What do you mean, ‘not well’? Is anyone with her?”

“I do not believe so, my lord.”

“Is she hurt? Is she ill?”

Salter gave him a mildly harried stare. “Neither, my lord. Merely …not well.”

Declining to waste time with further questions, Marcus left the room with a low curse, heading to the library with long strides that stopped just short of an outright run. What in God’s name could have happened to Lillian or her sister? He was instantly consumed with worry.

As he hurried through the hallways, a host of irrelevant thoughts flashed through his mind. How cavernous the house seemed when it was devoid of guests, with its miles of flooring and infinite clusters of rooms. A grand, ancient house with the impersonal ambiance of a hotel. A house like this needed the happy shouts of children echoing through the halls, and toys littering the parlor floor, and the squeaky sounds of violin lessons coming from the music room. Marks on the walls, and teatime with sticky jam tarts, and toy hoops being rolled across the back terrace.

Until now Marcus had never considered the idea of marriage as anything other than a necessary duty to continue the Marsden line. But it had occurred to him lately that his future could be very different from his past. It could be a new beginning—a chance to create the kind of family he had never dared to dream of before. It startled him to realize how much he wanted that—and not with just any woman. Not with any woman he had ever met or seen or heard of…except for the one who was the complete opposite of what he should want. He was beginning not to care about that.

His hands gripped into white-knuckled balls, and his pace quickened. It seemed to take forever to reach the library. By the time he crossed the threshold, his heart was driving in sharp blows inside his chest …a rhythm that owed nothing to exertion and everything to panic. What he saw caused him to stop short in the center of the large room.

Lillian stood before a row of books, with a pile of them surrounding her on the floor. She was pulling rare volumes from the shelves one by one, examining each with a puzzled frown and then tossing it heedlessly behind her. She seemed oddly languid, as if she were moving under water. And her hair was slipping from its pins. She didn’t look ill, precisely. In fact, she looked…

Becoming aware of his presence, Lillian glanced over her shoulder with a lopsided smile. “Oh. It’s you,” she said, her voice slurred. Her attention wandered back to the shelves. “I can’t find anything. All these books are so deadly dull…”

Frowning in concern, Marcus approached her while she continued to chatter and sort through the books. “Not this one…nor this one…oh no, no, no, this one’s not even in English…”

Marcus’s panic transformed rapidly into outrage, followed swiftly by amusement. Damnation. If he had required additional proof that Lillian Bowman was utterly wrong for him, this was it. The wife of a Marsden would never sneak into the library and drink until she was, as his mother would phrase it, “a trifle disguised.” Staring into her drowsy dark eyes and flushed face, Marcus amended the phrase. Lillian was not disguised. She was foxed, staggering, tap-hackled, top-heavy, shot-in-the-neck, staggering drunk.

More books sailed through the air, one of them narrowly missing his ear.

“Perhaps I could help,” Marcus suggested pleasantly, stopping beside her. “If you would tell me what you’re looking for.”

“Something romantic. Something with a happy ending. There should always be a happy ending, shouldn’ there?”

Marcus reached out to finger a trailing lock of her hair, his thumb sliding along the glowing satin filaments. He had never thought of himself as a particularly tactile man, but it seemed impossible to keep from touching her when she was near. The pleasure he derived from the simplest contact with her set all his nerves alight. “Not always,” he said in reply to her question.

Lillian let out a bubbling laugh. “How very English of you. How you all love to suffer, with your stiff…stiff…” She peered at the book in her hands, distracted by the gilt on its cover. “…upper lips,” she finished absently.

“We don’t like to suffer.”

“Yes, you do. At the very least, you go out of your way to avoid enjoying something.”

By now Marcus was becoming accustomed to the unique mixture of lust and amusement that she always managed to arouse in him. “There’s nothing wrong with keeping one’s enjoyments private.”

Dropping the book in her hands, Lillian turned to face him. The abruptness of the movement resulted in a sharp wobble, and she swayed back against the shelves even as he moved to steady her with his hands at her waist. Her tip-tilted eyes sparkled like an array of diamonds scattered over brown velvet. “It has nothing to do with privacy,” she informed him. “The truth is that you don’t want to be happy, bec—” She hiccupped gently. “Because it would undermine your dignity. Poor Wes’cliff.” She regarded him compassionately.

At the moment, preserving his dignity was the last thing on Marcus’s mind. He grasped the frame of the bookcase on either side of her, encompassing her in the half circle of his arms. As he caught a whiff of her breath, he shook his head and murmured, “Little one…what have you been drinking?”

“Oh…” She ducked beneath his arm and careened to the sideboard a few feet away. “I’ll show you…wonderful, wonderful stuff…this.” Triumphantly she plucked a nearly empty brandy bottle from the edge of the sideboard and held it by the neck. “Look what someone did…a pear, right inside! Isn’ that clever?” Bringing the bottle close to her face, she squinted at the imprisoned fruit. “It wasn’ very good at first. But it improved after a while. I suppose it’s an ac”—another delicate hiccup— “acquired taste.”

“It appears you’ve succeeded in acquiring it,” Marcus remarked, following her.

“You won’ tell anyone, will you?”

“No,” he promised gravely. “But I’m afraid they’re going to know regardless. Unless we can sober you in the next two or three hours before they return. Lillian, my angel …how much was in the bottle when you started?”

Showing him the bottle, she put her finger a third of the way from the bottom. “It was there when I started. I think. Or maybe there.” She frowned sadly at the bottle. “Now all that’s left is the pear.” She swirled the bottle, making the plump fruit slosh juicily at the bottom. “I want to eat it,” she announced.

“It’s not meant to be eaten. It’s only there to infuse the—Lillian, give the damned thing to me.”

“I am going to eat it.” Lillian tottered drunkenly away from him as she shook the bottle with increasing resolve. “If I can just get it out…”

“You can’t. It’s impossible.”

“Impossible?” she scoffed, lurching to face him. “You have servants who can pull the brains from a calf’s head, but they couldn’ get one little pear out of a bottle? I doubt that. Send for one of your under-butlers—just give a whistle, and—oh, I forgot. You can’t whistle.” She focused on him, her eyes narrowing as she stared at his mouth. “That’s the sillies’ thing I ever heard. Everyone can whistle. I’ll teach you. Right now. Pucker your lips. Like this. Pucker…see?”

Marcus caught her in his arms as she swayed before him. Staring down at her adorably pursed lips, he felt an insistent warmth invading his heart, overflowing and spilling past its fretted barriers. God in heaven, he was tired of fighting his desire for her. It was exhausting to struggle against something so overwhelming. Like trying not to breathe.

Lillian stared at him earnestly, seeming puzzled by his refusal to comply. “No, no, not like that. Like this.” The bottle dropped to the carpet. She reached up to his mouth and tried to shape his lips with her fingers. “Rest your tongue on the edge of your teeth and…it’s all about the tongue, really. If you’re agile with your tongue, you’ll be a very, very good”—she was temporarily interrupted as he covered her mouth with a brief, ravening kiss—“whistler. My lord, I can’t talk when you—” He fitted his mouth to hers again, devouring the sweet brandied taste of her.

She leaned against him helplessly, her fingers sliding into his hair, while her breath struck his cheek in rapid, delicate puffs. A tide of sensual urgency rolled through him as the kiss deepened into full-blown compulsion. The memory of their encounter in the hidden garden had haunted him for days …the delicacy of her skin beneath his hands, her small, exquisite breasts, the enticing strength of her legs. He wanted to feel her wrapped around him, her hands clutching his back, her knees clamped around his hips…the silky-wet caress of her body as he moved inside her.

Pulling her head back, Lillian stared at him with wondering eyes, her lips damp and reddened. Her hands left his hair, her fingertips coming to the hard angles of his cheekbones, delicate strokes of coolness on the blazing heat of his skin. He bent his head, nuzzling his jaw against the pale silk of her palm. “Lillian,” he whispered, “I’ve tried to leave you alone. But I can’t do it anymore. In the past two weeks I’ve had to stop myself a thousand times from coming to you. No matter how often I tell myself that you are the most inappropriate…” Hepaused as she squirmed suddenly, twisting and craning her neck to look down at the floor. “No matter what I—Lillian, are you listening to me? What the devil are you looking for?”

“My pear. I dropped it, and—oh, there it is.” She broke free of him and sank to her hands and knees, reaching beneath a chair. Pulling out the brandy bottle, she sat on the floor and held it in her lap.

“Lillian, forget the damned pear.”

“How did it get in there, d’you think?” She poked her finger experimentally into the neck of the bottle. “I don’ see how something so big could fit into a hole that small.”

Marcus closed his eyes against a surge of aggravated passion, and his voice cracked as he replied. “They…they put it directly on the tree. The bud grows …inside…” He slitted his eyes open and squeezed them shut again as he saw her finger intruding deeper into the bottle. “Grows…” he forced himself to continue, “until the fruit is ripe.”

Lillian seemed rather too impressed by the information. “They do? That is the cleverest, cleverest …a pear in its own little…oh no.”

“What?” Marcus asked through clenched teeth.

“My finger’s stuck.”

Marcus’s eyes flew open. Dumbfounded, he looked down at the sight of Lillian tugging on her imprisoned finger.

“I can’t get it out,” she said.

“Just pull at it.”

“It hurts. It’s throbbing.”

“Pull harder.”

“I can’t! It’s truly stuck. I need something to make it slippery. Do you have some sort of lubricant nearby?”

“No.”

“Not anything?”

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