“No, the—ow!” Lily yelped in pain. “What are you trying to—ow! That hurts like the devil! Take your blasted hand away, you big, hatchet-faced sadist—”
“Well, it seems you’re not shamming.” Alex seized her elbows, lifting her to her feet.
“Of course I’m not! Why hasn’t that deuced root been cut out of the ground? It’s positively hazardous!”
He responded with a scorching glare. “Are there any other changes to my garden you’d like to suggest?” His tone was humming with suppressed violence.
Prudently Lily shook her head and kept her mouth closed.
“Good,” he muttered, and they started back to the house.
Awkwardly Lily limped along beside him. “Aren’t you going to offer me your arm?”
He shoved his elbow at her. She took his arm, leaning her weight on the solid support. Lily did her best to hamper Raiford as they made their way back through the garden. She wanted Zachary and Penelope to have as much time alone as possible. Discreetly Lily glanced at her companion. Some time after he had left the parlor, Raiford must have raked his hands through his golden hair, for the usually immaculate smoothness was ruffled and disordered. The humid air was making it curl on the back of his neck. A stray lock or two had fallen onto his forehead. Really, he had beautiful hair for a man.
Walking so close to him, Lily became aware of the pleasant scent that clung to him, the mixture of tobacco and crisp starched linen and some appealing, underlying fragrance she couldn’t quite identify. In spite of the throbbing of her ankle, she was almost enjoying her stroll with him. That disturbed her so profoundly that she was compelled to stir up another argument.
“Must you walk so fast?” she demanded. “I feel as if we’re in a frigging footrace. Blast it! If this worsens my injury, Raiford, I’ll hold you accountable.”
Alex scowled but slowed his pace. “You have a foul mouth, Miss Lawson.”
“Men talk the same way. I don’t see why I can’t. Besides, all of my gentlemen friends admire my colorful vocabulary.”
“Including Derek Craven?”
Lily was glad that he was aware of her friendship with Derek. It was good for him to know she had a powerful ally. “Mr. Craven has taught me some of the most useful words I know.”
“I don’t doubt it.”
“Must we plow ahead like this? I am not some obstinate mule to be dragged forth at such a relentless pace. Could we slow to a more reasonable speed? Incidentally, my lord, you reek of cigars.”
“If it offends you, make your own way back.”
They continued to quarrel as they entered the house. Lily made certain that her voice was strong enough to echo through the gallery and the marble hall, alerting Penelope and Zachary to their return. As Raiford opened the parlor door and yanked Lily inside with him, they saw the star-crossed lovers sitting respectably far apart from each other. Lily wondered what had transpired between them during their moment of privacy. Zachary appeared to be in his usually good humor, while Penelope looked pink and flustered.
Alex surveyed the two of them and spoke dryly. “Miss Lawson mentioned something about an argument?”
Having risen to his feet at their entrance, Zachary gave Lily a bewildered glance.
“My quick temper is legendary,” Lily interceded with a laugh. “I just had to dash out and clear my head. Am I forgiven, Zach?”
“There’s nothing to forgive,” Zachary said gallantly, coming over to kiss her hand.
Lily switched her hold on Alex’s arm to Zachary’s. “Zach, I’m afraid you’ll have to help me to a chair. I turned my ankle while I was strolling through the garden.” She waved a hand disdainfully in the direction of Raiford’s immaculately groomed landscape. “A root was protruding from the ground, nearly as thick as a man’s leg!”
“A slight exaggeration,” Alex said sardonically.
“Well, it was quite large, nonetheless.” With Zachary’s help, she limped dramatically to a nearby chair and eased herself into it.
“We’ll have to make a poultice,” Penelope exclaimed. “Poor Lily—don’t move!” She rushed from the room and headed toward the kitchen.
Zachary began to question Lily in concern. “How bad is the injury? Is the pain limited solely to your ankle?”
“I’ll be perfectly fine.” She gave an exaggerated wince. “But perhaps you would return tomorrow, to check on my condition?”
“Every day, until you’re better,” Zachary promised.
Lily smiled over his head at Raiford, wondering if the grating sound she heard was his teeth gnashing together.
By the next day, Lily’s ankle felt almost like new, with only a twinge of discomfort as a reminder of having sprained it. The weather was unusually warm and sunny. In the morning Zachary arrived to take her for a carriage ride, and Lily insisted that Penelope accompany them. Brusquely Alex declined Penelope’s halfhearted invitation to join them, electing to stay behind and attend some business about the estate. Needless to say, Lily, Penelope, and Zachary were all silently relieved at Alex’s refusal. Had he participated in their outing, it would have made things rather tense.
The threesome set off in an open-air carriage. Zachary handled the ribbons expertly, occasionally looking over his shoulder and grinning at the comments made by his two passengers. Lily and Penelope sat together, their smiling faces shaded by straw bonnets. They came to a fork in the road. At Zachary’s suggestion they took the less-traveled avenue, until they reached a particularly beautiful section of country. Zachary pulled the carriage to a stop. They admired the wide green meadow before them, fragrant with violets, clover, and wild geraniums.
“How lovely!” Penelope exclaimed, pushing an errant blonde curl away from her eyes. “Might we go for a walk? I’d love to pick some violets for Mother.”
“Hmm.” Lily shook her head regretfully. “I’m afraid my ankle still pains me a little,” she lied. “I’m not up to tromping through fields today. Perhaps Zachary would volunteer to escort you.”
“Oh, I…” Penelope looked at Zachary’s serious, handsome face and blushed with confusion. “I don’t think that would be proper.”
“Please,” Zachary entreated. “It would be my great pleasure.”
“Come, we all know Zach’s the perfect gentleman,” Lily said. “And I will keep my eyes on the two of you the entire time. I’ll chaperone from a distance. Of course, if you don’t wish to walk, Penny, I would be delighted for you to sit here with me and admire the view from the carriage.”
Faced with the decision to walk unchaperoned through the meadow with the man she loved or sit in the carriage with her sister, Penelope bit her lower lip and frowned. Temptation won out. She gave Zachary a small smile. “Perhaps just a short walk.”
“We’ll return the very moment you desire,” Zachary replied, and leapt eagerly from the carriage.
Lily watched in fond amusement as Zachary helped Penny to the ground and the two began a slow trek across the meadow. The two of them were perfect for each other. Zachary was an honorable young man, strong enough to protect her, yet boyish enough that he would never intimidate her. And Penny was exactly the sweet, innocent sort of girl that he needed.
Putting her slippered feet up on the velvet-upholstered seat, Lily reached for the basket of fruit and biscuits they had brought. She bit into a strawberry and tossed the green stem over the side of the carriage. Untying her bonnet strings, she let the sun shine on her face, and reached for another strawberry.
Once, long ago, she and Giuseppe had partaken of a picnic lunch in Italy, reclining in a meadow very much like this one. It had been in the days just before they had become lovers. At the time Lily had thought herself to be quite sophisticated. It had been only later that she realized how stupidly naive she had been…
“The country air is splendid,” she had declared, leaning her bare elbows on a blanket and biting into a buttery, ripe pear. “Everything tastes better out here!”
“So you tire of the jaded pleasures of the city, amore mio ?” Giuseppe’s beautiful eyes, long-lashed and liquid black, regarded her with sensuous warmth.
“Society is as much a bore here as it is in England,” Lily said reflectively, staring at the hot green grass. “Everyone striving to be witty and sought-after, everyone talking and no one listening…”
“I listen, carissima. I listen to evert’ing you say.”
Lily turned and smiled at him, resting her weight on her elbow. “You do, don’t you? Why is that, Giuseppe?”
“I am in love with you,” he said passionately.
She couldn’t help laughing at him. “You’re in love with every woman.”
“Is that wrong? In England, per’aps. Not in Italy. I have special love to give every woman. Special love for you.” He plucked a succulent grape and held it to her lips, while his eyes bore into hers.
Flattered, feeling her heart beat faster, Lily opened her mouth. She took the grape between her teeth and smiled at him as she chewed. No man had ever pursued her with such ardent gentleness. There were impossible promises in his gaze, promises of tenderness, pleasure, desire; and while her mind refused to believe them, her heart desperately wanted to. She had been lonely for such a long time. And she wanted to know about the mystery that everyone else seemed to take for granted.
“Lily, my beautiful little English girl,” Giuseppe murmured. “I can make you ’appy. So very ’appy, bella.”
“You shouldn’t say that.” She looked away from him, trying to hide her flushed cheeks. “No one can promise such a thing.”
“ Perchè no? Let me try, cara. Beautiful Lily, always with the sad smile, I make it all better.” Slowly he bent to kiss her. The touch of his lips was warm, pleasant. It was in that moment Lily had decided that he would make a woman of her. She would give herself to him. After all, no one would expect or believe that she was a virgin. Her innocence mattered to no one.
Looking back now, Lily had no idea why she had thought of men and love as such an alluring mystery. She had paid for her mistake with Giuseppe a thousand times over, and she would continue to pay the price for her sins. Sighing, she watched her sister walk with Zachary. They were not holding hands, but there was an air of intimacy about them. He’s the kind of man who’ll never betray you, Penny, she thought. And that, believe me, is a rarity.
After Zachary had taken his leave, Penelope was radiant. However, something changed in the hours afterward. During supper the sparkle was gone from her eyes, and she was pale and subdued. Lily wondered at her thoughts and feelings, but they had no opportunity to talk until late evening, when they were preparing for bed.
“Penny,” she said, unhooking the back of her sister’s gown, “what is the matter? You’ve been so quiet all afternoon, and you barely touched your supper.”
Penelope walked to the vanity table and pulled the pins from her hair until a golden cascade fell to her waist. She looked at Lily, her gaze shadowed with misery. “I know what you’re been trying to do. But you must not arrange any further meetings between Zachary and me. It can lead to nothing, and it is wrong!”
“Are you sorry for having been with him this afternoon?” Lily asked contritely. “I placed you in an awkward position, didn’t I? Forgive me—”
“No, it was wonderful,” Penelope exclaimed, and then looked shamefaced. “I shouldn’t have said that. I don’t know what is the matter with me! I’m so confused about everything.”
“It’s because you’ve always obeyed Mother and Father, and done what’s expected of you. Penny, you’ve never done a selfish thing in your life. You’re in love with Zachary, but you’re sacrificing yourself for the sake of duty.”
Penelope sat on the bed and lowered her face. “It doesn’t matter whom I’m in love with.”
“Your happiness is the only thing that matters! Why are you so upset? Has something happened?”
“Lord Raiford took me aside this afternoon,” Penelope said dully. “After we returned from the carriage drive.”
Lily’s gaze sharpened. “What? What did he say?”
“He asked questions…and he implied that Zachary is not really your suitor. That Zachary is behaving dishonorably in trying to court me by pretending an interest in my sister.”
“How dare he say such a thing?” Lily demanded in instant fury.
“It is true,” Penelope said miserably. “You know it is.”
“Of course it is—I’m the one who thought of the plan in the first place!”
“I thought so.”
“But how dare he insult us by making such an accusation!”
“Lord Raiford said that if Zachary had once been intent on marrying a girl like me, he would never want to marry one like you.”
Lily’s frown deepened. “One like me?”
“ ‘Seasoned’ was the word he used,” Penelope said uncomfortably.
“Seasoned?” Lily paced around the room like a tigress. “I suppose he doesn’t think I’m desirable enough to catch a husband,” she fumed. “Well, other men find me quite attractive, men who have more than ice water running through their veins. Oh, he’s a fine one to criticize when he’s got more faults than I have time to list! Well, I’m going to fix everything, and by the time I’m through—”
“Lily, please,” Penelope entreated in a small voice. “All this trouble distresses me terribly. Can’t we let things be?”
“Certainly. After I bring his lordship some much-needed enlightenment!”
“No!” Penelope held a hand to her forehead, as if the situation were too much for her to bear. “You must not make Lord Raiford angry! I would be afraid for all of us!”
“Did he threaten you?” It was fortunate that Penelope could not see Lily’s eyes, for there was a vengeful glow in them that would have frightened her.
“N-not precisely, no. But he is such a powerful man, a-and I don’t think he would tolerate any sort of betrayal…he is not a man to be crossed!”
“Penny, if Zachary asked you to—”
“No,” Penelope said quickly, tears springing to her eyes. “No, we must not discuss this any further! I won’t listen…I can’t!”
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