Her breath hitched as he began to kiss the wing of her collarbone. “What would you call it when you carry on as if you always know best, and anyone who disagrees with you is an idiot?”

“Most of the time, the people who disagree with me do happen to be idiots. I can’t help that.”

A breathless laugh escaped her, and she let her head rest back on his arm as his mouth traveled to the side of her neck. “When shall we negotiate?” she asked, surprised by the throatiness of her own voice.

“Tonight. You’ll come to my room.”

She gave him a skeptical glance. “This wouldn’t be a ruse to lure me into a situation in which you would take unscrupulous advantage of me?”

Drawing back to look at her, Marcus answered gravely. “Of course not. I intend to have a meaningful discussion that will put to rest any doubts you may have about marrying me.”

“Oh.”

“And then I’m going to take unscrupulous advantage of you.”

Lillian’s smile was compressed between their lips as he kissed her. She realized that it was the first time she had ever heard Marcus make a rakish remark. He was usually too straitlaced to exhibit the kind of irreverence that came so naturally to her. Perhaps this was a small sign of her influence on him.

“But for now…” Marcus said, “I have a logistical problem to solve.”

“What problem?” she asked, shifting a little as she became aware of the aroused tension of his body beneath her.

He smoothed the pad of his thumb over her lips, lightly massaging, shaping her mouth. As if he couldn’t help himself, he stole one last kiss. The deep, yearning strokes of his mouth caused her lips to tingle, sensation spilling and sliding all through her, and she was left breathless and weak in his arms. “The problem is how to take you back upstairs,” Marcus whispered, “before anyone else sees you in your nightgown.”

CHAPTER 20

It was unclear whether Daisy had been the one to “spill the beans,” as they said in New York, or whether the news had come from Annabelle, who had perhaps been informed by her husband of the scene in the study. All Lillian could be certain of, as she joined the other wallflowers for a mid-morning nuncheon in the breakfast room, was that they knew. She could see it in their faces—in Evie’s abashed smile, and Daisy’s conspiratorial air, and Annabelle’s studied casualness. Lillian blushed and avoided their collective gaze as she sat at the table. She had always maintained a cynical facade, using it as a defense against embarrassment, fear, loneliness…but at the moment she felt unusually vulnerable.

Annabelle was the first to break the silence. “What a dull morning it’s been so far.” She lifted her hand to her mouth with a gracefully manufactured yawn. “I do hope someone can manage to enliven the conversation. Any gossip to share, by chance?” Her teasing gaze arrowed to Lillian’s discomfited expression. A footman approached to fill Lillian’s teacup, and Annabelle waited until he had left the table before continuing. “You’ve made rather a late appearance this morning, dear. Didn’t you sleep well?”

Lillian slitted her eyes as she stared at her gleefully mocking friend, while she heard Evie choke on a mouthful of tea. “As a matter of fact, no.”

Annabelle grinned, looking entirely too cheerful. “Why don’t you tell us your news, Lillian, and then I’ll share mine? Though I doubt that mine will be half as interesting.”

“You seem to know everything already,” Lillian muttered, trying to drown her embarrassment with a large draft of tea. Succeeding only in burning her tongue, she set her cup down and forced herself to meet Annabelle’s gaze, which had softened in amused sympathy.

“Are you all right, dear?” Annabelle asked gently.

“I don’t know,” Lillian admitted. “I don’t feel at all like myself. I’m excited and glad, but also somewhat…”

“Afraid?” Annabelle murmured.

The Lillian of a month ago would have died by slow torture rather than admit to one moment of fear…but she found herself nodding. “I don’t like being vulnerable to a man who is not generally known for his sensitivity or soft heartedness. It’s fairly obvious that we’re not well-suited in temperament.”

“But you are attracted to him physically?” Annabelle asked.

“Unfortunately, yes.”

“Why is that a misfortune?”

“Because it would be so much easier to marry a man with whom one shared a detached friendship, rather than…than…”

All three young women leaned toward her intently. “R-rather than what?” Evie asked, wide-eyed.

“Rather than flaming, clawing, lurid, positively indecent passion.”

“Oh my,” Evie said faintly, drawing back in her chair, while Annabelle grinned and Daisy stared at her with enraptured curiosity.

“This from a man whose kisses were ‘merely tolerable’?” Annabelle asked.

A grin tugged at Lillian’s lips as she looked down into the steaming depths of her tea. “Who would have guessed that such a starched and buttoned-up sort could be so different in the bedroom?”

“With you, I imagine he can’t help himself,” Annabelle remarked.

Lillian looked up from her cup. “Why do you say that?” she asked warily, fearing for a moment that Annabelle was making a reference to the effects of her perfume.

“The moment you enter the room, the earl becomes far more animated. It is obvious that he is fascinated by you. One can hardly have a conversation with him, as he is constantly straining to hear what you are saying, and watching your every movement.”

“Does he?” Pleased by the information, Lillian strove to appear nonchalant. “Why have you never mentioned it before?”

“I didn’t want to meddle, since there seemed a possibility that you preferred Lord St. Vincent’s attentions.”

Lillian winced and leaned her forehead on her hand. She told them about the mortifying scene between herself and Marcus and St. Vincent that morning, while they reacted with sympathy and shared discomfort.

“The only thing that prevents a feeling of compassion for Lord St. Vincent,” Annabelle said, “is the certain knowledge that he has broken many hearts and caused many tears in the past—and therefore it is only just that he should know how it feels to be rejected.”

“Nevertheless, I feel as if I misled him,” Lillian said guiltily. “And he was so nice about it. Not one word of reproach. I couldn’t help but like him for it.”

“Be c-careful,” Evie suggested softly. “From what we’ve heard of Lord St. Vincent, it doesn’t seem in character that he should concede so easily. If he approaches you again, promise that you will not agree to go somewhere alone with him.”

Lillian stared at her concerned friend with a smile. “Evie, you sound positively cynical. Very well, I promise. But there is no need to worry. I don’t believe that Lord St. Vincent is foolish enough to make an enemy of someone as powerful as the earl.” Desiring a change of subject, she turned her attention to Annabelle. “Now that I’ve shared my news, it’s time for yours. What is it?”

With her eyes dancing, and the sunlight moving over her light satiny hair, Annabelle looked all of twelve years old. Her gaze darted to the side to confirm that they were not being overheard. “I’m almost positive that I’m expecting,” she whispered. “I’ve had signs recently…queasiness and sleepiness …and this is the second month that I seem to have missed my courses.”

They all gasped with delight, and Daisy surreptitiously reached across the table to squeeze Annabelle’s hand. “Dear, that is the most wonderful news! Does Mr. Hunt know?”

Annabelle’s smile turned rueful. “Not yet. I want to be absolutely certain when I tell him. And I want to keep it from him as long as possible.”

“Why?” Lillian asked.

“Because as soon as he knows, he will be so overprotective that I won’t be allowed to go anywhere on my own.”

Knowing what they did of Simon Hunt and his passionate absorption with all things Annabelle, the wall-flowers silently agreed. Once Hunt learned of the coming baby, he would hover over his pregnant wife like a hawk.

“What a triumph,” Daisy exclaimed, keeping her voice low. “A wallflower last year, a mother this year. Everything is turning out beautifully for you, dear.”

“And Lillian is next,” Annabelle added with a smile.

Lillian’s raw nerves stung with a mixture of pleasure and alarm at the words.

“What is it?” Daisy murmured to her sotto voce, while the other two conversed excitedly about the coming baby. “You look worried. Having doubts? …I suppose that is only natural.”

“If I marry him, we’re guaranteed to fight like cats and dogs,” Lillian said tensely.

Daisy smiled at her. “Is it possible that you are dwelling too much on your differences? I have a suspicion that you and the earl may be more alike than you know.”

“In what ways could we possibly be alike?”

“Just consider it,” her younger sister advised with a grin. “I’m sure you’ll come up with something.”

Having summoned both his mother and sister to the Marsden parlor, Marcus stood before them with his hands clasped behind his back. He found himself in the unfamiliar position of trusting his own heart, rather than following the dictates of reason. That wasn’t at all like a Marsden. The family was renowned for its long line of coldly practical antecedents, with the exception of Aline and Livia. Marcus, for his part, had followed the typical Marsden pattern …until Lillian Bowman had entered his life with all the subtlety of a hurricane.

Now the commitment he was making to a headstrong young woman was bringing Marcus a sense of peace he had never known before. An amused grimace tugged at the small muscles of his face as he wondered how to tell the countess that she would finally have a daughter-in-law—who happened to be the last girl she would ever have selected for the position.

Livia sat in a nearby chair while the countess, as always, occupied the settee. Marcus could not help but be struck by the difference in their gazes, his sister’s warm and expectant, his mother’s flat and wary.

“Now that you have roused me from my midday rest,” the countess said tartly, “I beg you speak your piece, my lord. What news have you to deliver? What matter is so imperative that I must be summoned at so inconvenient an hour? Some inconsequential missive about that ill-begotten brat of your sister’s, I suppose. Well, out with it!”

Marcus’s jaw hardened. All inclinations to break the news in a gentle fashion had vanished at the uncharitable reference to his nephew. Suddenly he took great satisfaction in the prospect of informing his mother that every single one of her grandchildren, including the future heir to the title, would be half American.

“I’m sure you will be pleased to learn that I have heeded your advice and finally chosen a bride,” he said smoothly. “Although I have not yet made a formal proposal to her, I have good reason to believe that she will accept when I do.”

The countess blinked in surprise, her composure faltering.

Livia stared at him with a wondering smile. There was a sudden wicked enjoyment in her eyes that inclined Marcus to think she had guessed at the identity of the unnamed bride. “How lovely,” she said. “Have you finally found someone who will tolerate you, Marcus?”

He grinned back at her. “It would seem so. Though I suspect it would behoove me to hasten the wedding plans before she comes to her senses and flees.”

“Nonsense,” the countess said sharply. “No woman would flee from the prospect of marrying the Earl of Westcliff. You possess the most ancient title in England. On the day you marry, you will bestow on your wife more peerage dignities than any uncrowned head on the face of the earth. Now, tell me whom you have decided on.”

“Miss Lillian Bowman.”

The countess made a disgusted sound. “Enough of this witless humor, Westcliff. Tell me the girl’s name.”

Livia fairly wriggled with delight. Beaming at Marcus, she leaned closer to her mother and said in a loud stage whisper, “I think he’s serious, Mother. It really is Miss Bowman.”

“It cannot be!” The countess looked aghast. One could practically see the capillaries bursting in her cheeks. “I demand that you renounce this piece of insanity, Westcliff, and come to your senses. I will not have that atrocious creature as my daughter-in-law!”

“But you will,” Marcus said inexorably.

“You could have your pick of any girl here or on the continent…girls of acceptable lineage and bearing…”

“Miss Bowman is the one I want.”

“She could never fit into the mold of a Marsden wife.”

“Then the mold will have to be broken.”

The countess laughed harshly, the sound so ugly that Livia clenched the arms of her chair to keep from clapping her hands over her ears. “What madness has possessed you? That Bowman girl is a mongrel! How can you think of burdening your children with a mother who will undermine our traditions, scorn our customs, and make a mockery of basic good manners? How could such a wife serve you? Good God, Westcliff!” Pausing, the enraged woman labored to catch her breath. Glancing from Marcus to Livia, she exploded, “What is the source of this family’s infernal obsession with Americans?”

“What an interesting question, Mother,” Livia said drolly. “For some reason none of your offspring can stand the thought of marrying one of their own kind. Why do you suppose that is, Marcus?”

“I suspect the answer would not be flattering to any of us,” came his sardonic reply.

“You have a responsibility to marry a girl of good blood,” the countess cried, her face twisting. “The only reasons for your existence are to further the family lineage and preserve the title and its resources for your heirs. And you have failed miserably so far.”

“Failed?” Livia interrupted, her eyes flashing. “Marcus has quadrupled the family fortune since Father died, not to mention improving the lives of every servant and tenant on this estate. He has sponsored humanitarian bills in Parliament and created employment for more than a hundred men at the locomotive works, and moreover he has been the kindest brother one could ever—”

“Livia,” Marcus murmured, “there is no need to defend me.”

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