“Hang it,” Henry mumbled. “I thought it might get better here…or that I could take care of it myself…”
“By setting off explosives?”
The boy was silent. Alex sighed grimly. “Henry, I don’t want you to ‘take care of things’ yourself. You haven’t come of age yet and you’re my responsibility.”
“I know that,” Henry said in an offended tone. “But I knew you were occupied with other things, like the wedding—”
“Damn the wedding! Don’t use it as an excuse.”
“What do you want from me?” the boy asked hotly.
Gritting his teeth, Alex forced himself to stay calm. “I want you to understand that you’re to come to me when you’re having trouble. Any kind of trouble. I’m never too busy to help you.”
Henry nodded shortly. “What are we going to do now?”
“We’re going home to Raiford Park.”
“Really?” The thought nearly brought a smile to the boy’s face. “My things are still at the boarding house—”
“Good. We’re leaving everything here.”
“Will I have to come back?” Henry asked with dread.
“No,” Alex said emphatically. “I’ll employ a tutor. You can study with the local boys.”
Giving a whoop of joy, Henry tossed his school cap in the air. It fell on the floor behind them and lay there unretrieved as they walked out of the school together.
“Shhh. I think he’s coming.” Having observed Raiford’s carriage moving up the drive, Lily had yanked Zachary away from the music room. He, Totty, and Penelope had been happily involved in singing hymns and playing the piano.
“Lily, tell me what you are planning.”
“My guess is that Raiford will come to the library for a drink after traveling all day. And I want him to see us together.” Energetically Lily pulled Zachary to a heavy leather chair. She threw herself into his lap and clapped her hand over his mouth as he protested. “Quiet, Zach—I can’t hear a thing.” Tilting her head, Lily listened intently to the sound of approaching footsteps. A heavy, measured tread…it had to be Raiford. She took her hand from Zachary’s mouth and wound her arms around his neck. “Kiss me. And make it look convincing.”
“But Lily, must we do this? My feelings for Penny—”
“It doesn’t mean a thing,” she said impatiently.
“But is it necess—”
“Do it, dammit!”
Meekly Zachary complied.
The kiss was like any other Lily had ever experienced, which was to say unremarkable. Heaven knew why the poets conspired to describe something vaguely distasteful as such a rapturous experience. She tended to agree with the writer Swift, who had wondered “what fool it was that first invented kissing.” But couples in love seemed fond of the custom, and Raiford must be made to think she and Zachary were enamored of each other.
The library door opened. There was a scorching silence. Lily touched Zachary’s fine brown hair, trying to look involved in the passionate kiss. Then she raised her head slowly, as if becoming aware of the interruption. Raiford was there, looking rumpled and dusty from his travels. A scowl was gathering on his bronzed face. Lily grinned impudently. “If is isn’t Lord Raiford, with his usual cheerful countenance. As you can see, my lord, you’ve intruded on a private moment between—” Abruptly she stopped as she noticed the boy standing next to Raiford. A short, blond boy with inquiring blue eyes and the beginnings of a smile. Well. She hadn’t counted on anyone besides Raiford witnessing her embrace with Zachary. Lily felt herself blush.
“Miss Lawson,” Alex said, his expression thunderous, “this is my younger brother Henry.”
“Hello,” Lily managed to say.
Meeting her wan smile with an interested gaze, the boy wasted no time with small talk. “Why were you kissing Viscount Stamford if you’re going to marry Alex?”
“Oh, I’m not that Miss Lawson,” Lily replied hastily. “You’re referring to my poor…that is, to my younger sister.” Realizing she was still on Zachary’s lap, she leapt away and nearly fell on the floor. “Penny and Mother are in the music room,” she said to Alex. “Singing hymns.”
Alex gave a curt nod. “Come, Henry,” he said flatly. “I’ll introduce you to Penelope.”
Appearing not to hear him, Henry wandered over to Lily, who was straightening her gown. “Why is your hair chopped like that?” he asked.
Lily laughed at the description of her fashionable style. “It got in the way, hanging in my eyes when I went hunting and shooting.”
“Do you hunt?” Henry stared at her in fascination. “It’s dangerous for women, you know.”
Lily glanced at Raiford and found he was staring at her. She couldn’t prevent a teasing grin. “Why Henry, your brother said the same thing to me when we first met.” Their gazes held. Suddenly there was a betraying tug at the corner of Alex’s mouth, as if he were holding back a wry smile. “My lord,” Lily said impishly, “don’t worry that I’ll be a bad influence on Henry. I’m much more of a danger to older men than to younger ones.”
Alex rolled his eyes. “I believe you, Miss Lawson.” Ushering Henry from the room, he left without a backward glance.
Lily did not move. She was flooded with confusion, her heart thumping irregularly. The look of him all tired and disheveled, the protective hand he had placed on his small brother’s shoulder…all of it had made her feel strange. She was not the kind of woman who would fuss over a man, and yet she had a sudden wish that someone would smooth his hair, order a light supper for him, and make him confess what had put the troubled look in his eyes.
“Lily,” Zachary questioned, “do you think he believed our kiss was genuine?”
“I’m certain he did,” she replied automatically. “Why wouldn’t he?”
“He’s a very perceptive man.”
“I’m getting bloody tired of the way everyone overestimates him,” Lily said. Immediately she was sorry for sounding so sharp. It was just that she was astonished by the image that had come to mind. Her wilful imagination had conjured a picture of herself embracing Raiford, feeling his hard mouth against hers, his blond hair underneath her hands. The idea made her stomach tighten. Unconsciously she raised a hand to soothe the prickling on the back of her neck. She had been held by him only once, when she had fallen during the Middleton hunt and Raiford had picked her up and nearly strangled her. The power in his hands and the violence in his face had frightened her.
She doubted he had ever shown that side of himself to Caroline Whit-more.
Lily was immensely curious about the mysterious Caroline. Had she loved Raiford, or had she agreed to marry him because of his inordinate wealth? Or perhaps his aristocratic lineage…Lily had heard that Americans were quite impressed with titles and blue blood.
And what had Raiford been like around Caroline? Was it possible he had been warm and smiling? Had Caroline made him happy?
The unanswered questions annoyed Lily. She rebuked herself silently. It didn’t matter what Raiford’s lost love had been like. All that was important was that she rescue Penelope from him.
Alex bid the tutor good-bye and sighed as the man left. The man, a Mr. Hotchkins, was the fourth he had interviewed for the position of Henry’s tutor. So far none of them had been satisfactory. He guessed that it would take some time before he found a tutor with the right balance of discipline and understanding to suit Henry’s needs. Between that and the meetings he had held for the last few days with irate tenants, Alex had been busy. The tenants were angry because of the damage done to their crops by an abundance of marauding hares and rabbits. At the same time, his gamekeeper had informed him with some distress that the amount of poaching had increased considerably. “ ’Tisn’t bad that they poach t’ rabbits, sir,” the gamekeeper said. “But they’s trappin’ an’ poachin’ at night, an’ they’s interferin’ with the pheasants breed’n. There willnae be pheasant to shoot this year!”
Alex resolved the problem by offering to compensate the tenants for their damaged crops if they would restrict their illegal poaching—which they refused to admit doing in the first place. In the meanwhile, he’d had meetings with some of the district agents for his Buckinghamshire property, discussing their rent collecting and other aspects of estate management.
“You should appoint a full-time steward,” Lily had remarked to him after eavesdropping on some of the discussions. “Other men of your position do.”
“I know how to manage my own affairs,” Alex said brusquely.
“Of course.” Lily had given him a flippant smile. “You prefer to do everything yourself. You’d probably like to go and personally collect rent from each of your tenants, if you could but find the time. I’m rather amazed you don’t sweep and polish the floors in the mansion and knead the bread dough in the kitchen—why appoint a servant to do it, when you’re perfectly able?”
Alex had snapped at her to mind her own business, and she had called him a medieval tyrant.
Privately, he had considered her point. Much of the work he did could be handled just as well by subordinates. But what if he did manage to make more time for himself; what would he do? Spend it with Penelope? Although they were perfectly civil to each other, he and Penelope found no great enjoyment in each other’s company.
There were the options of gaming, hunting, parties, and politics in London. It all seemed a great bore. Alex supposed he could renew some old friendships. In the past two years he had avoided the company of his closest acquaintances, especially those who had known Caroline and expressed sympathy over her death. Alex hadn’t been able to stand the pity in their eyes.
Frustrated, moody, Alex went to visit Penelope, who clung to her mother like a shadow. He tried to converse with them, drinking a cup of the tepid tea they offered. Shyly Penelope glanced at him while she did embroidery-work on a tambour frame, drawing colored silk through fabric using a delicate hook. She looked maidenly and refined as her soft hands moved deftly over the white muslin. After a few minutes in the cloying atmosphere, he escaped with a mutter about needing to do more work.
The sound of laughter and shuffling cards echoed from the long gallery. Curiously he went to investigate. Alex’s first thought was that Henry had a friend visiting. Two small figures were sitting cross-legged on the polished floor, playing cards. One of them was clearly Henry’s square-shouldered form. But the other…the other…Alex scowled as he recognized her. Not only was Lily dressed in her raspberry breeches, she had borrowed one of Henry’s shirts and vests. Purposefully Alex strode to the gallery, intending to upbraid her for the wildly inappropriate attire. As he reached them, his eyes flickered over Lily, and he swallowed hard. The way she was sitting, the breeches were stretched tautly over her thighs and knees, showing the slim shape of her legs.
God help him, she was the most distracting woman he had ever met. In his time he had known many seductive females, had seen them dressed and undressed, in sumptuous evening gowns and in gauzy wisps of nothing, na*ed in the bath, in French silk undergarments tied with narrow ribbons. But nothing had ever tantalized like the sight of Lily Lawson in breeches.
Alex felt his color deepening, his body tightening, filling with arousal. Desperately he struggled to bring an image of Penelope to mind. When that failed, he searched deeper for a memory of Caroline. But he couldn’t see Caroline’s face…hell, he could barely remember it…there were only the points of Lily’s knees, the top of her curly dark head, the nimble movements of her fingers as she fanned a deck of cards. It was a battle to keep his breathing regular. For the first time he couldn’t recall the exact sound of Caroline’s voice or the shape of her face…it was all drowned in a soft haze. His traitorous senses were drawn to Lily, whose vibrant beauty was the focus of all the light in the gallery.
Lily acknowledged Alex with a brief glance. Her shoulders tensed as she waited for some negative remark. When none was forthcoming, she continued her demonstration. Expertly she cut and riffled the cards. “Now look, Henry,” she said. “Just push this group of cards straight through the other group…and they come out the same as before…and you see? The ace is still on the bottom.”
Henry laughed and took the deck to practice the maneuver.
Alex watched the boy finger the cards. “Do you know what they do to card cheats?” he asked.
“Only to bad ones,” Lily replied, before the boy could reply. “Good ones are never caught.” She indicated a space on the floor next to them, as graciously as a lady offering a chair in an elegant parlor. “Care to join us, my lord? I’ll have you know I’m breaking one of my strictest rules by teaching your brother my best tricks.”
Alex lowered himself to the floor beside her. “Should I be grateful?” he asked dryly. “Turning my brother into a cheat…”
Lily grinned at him. “Certainly not. I merely want this poor lad to be aware of the ways in which other people could take advantage of him.”
Henry exclaimed in self-disgust as his fingers slipped and the cards scattered over the floor.
“That’s all right,” Lily said, leaning over to scoop up the cards. “Practice, Henry. You’ll have it in no time.”
Alex couldn’t stop himself from staring at Lily’s neatly rounded bottom as she industriously collected the scattered deck. A new flood of response went through him, turning the surface of his skin hot. He pulled the edges of his coat together over his lap. He should get to his feet and walk away this very instant. But instead he stayed in the sunlit gallery, sitting on the floor near the most maddening woman he had ever known.
Henry shuffled the cards together. “What about my tutor, Alex?”
Alex dragged his attention from Lily. “I haven’t found anyone suitable yet.”
“Good,” the boy said emphatically. “The last one looked like a frig-pig.”
Alex frowned. “A what?”
Lily leaned toward Henry conspiratorially. “Henry, don’t use the new words Auntie Lily taught you until Alex is gone.”
Without thinking, Alex caught hold of Lily’s slim upper arm. “Miss Lawson, you’re aptly demonstrating all the reasons I didn’t want you near him.” Startled by his touch, Lily glanced at him quickly, expecting a cold frown. Instead she saw a rueful, boyish smile that caused her heart to give an extra little thump. How odd, that making him smile would give her such a sense of accomplishment. Her brown eyes laughed into his, and she directed another comment to Henry.
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