“But I couldn’t ask that of you—”
“You didn’t. I offered. Look at me, Lily. I’m a rich old woman who can do as she pleases. I have enough money to suit our needs. We won’t give a fig for the rest of the world and its hypocrisy.”
To Lily’s sorrow, Sally had died soon after the baby was born. Lily had missed her, but she had found solace in her baby daughter. Nicole was the center of her world, filing every day with love and wonder. As long as she had Nicole, everything was all right.
Lily felt tears seep from her eyes, the pillow absorbing the hot moisture. The ache in her head spread to her throat as she began to cry silently. She had never broken down in front of anyone, not even Derek. Something about Derek wouldn’t allow her to be vulnerable. Derek had seen too much suffering in his lifetime. If he once might have been moved to sympathy by a woman’s tears, that ability had left him long ago. Miserably Lily wondered who was with Nicole. And who, if anyone, comforted her when she cried.
Alex stirred and groaned in his sleep, caught in the grip of a tormenting dream. Somehow he knew it wasn’t really happening, but he couldn’t wake up. He sank deeper into a world of mist and shadow and movement. Lily was there. Her mocking laugh echoed all around him. Her gleaming brown eyes stared into his. With a smile of wicked amusement, she held his gaze as she lowered her mouth to his shoulder and lightly bit at his skin. He snarled and tried to push her away, but suddenly her na*ed body was entwined with his. His mind swam with the sensation of her silky limbs sliding over him. “Show me what you want, Alex,” she whispered with a knowing smile.
“Get away from me,” he said hoarsely, but she didn’t listen, only laughed softly, and then he grasped her head in his hands and pushed it down to where he wanted her mouth…there…
Alex awoke with a violent start, breathing in rough, unsteady gasps. He dragged his arm over his forehead. The roots of his hair were damp with sweat. His body was aching with arousal. Swearing in a guttural tone of frustration, he took a pillow, strangled and twisted it and threw it across the room. He wanted a woman. He’d never been so desperate. Trying to ignore his hammering pulse, Alex cast his mind back to when he’d last slept with a woman. Not since before his betrothal to Penelope. He felt he owed her his fidelity. He’d thought a few months of celibacy wouldn’t kill him. Idiot, he told himself savagely. Idiot.
He had to do something. He could go to Penelope’s room right now. She wouldn’t like it. She would protest and cry, but Alex knew he could bend her to his will. He could bully her into allowing him into her bed. After all, they would be married in a matter of weeks.
The idea made sense. At least, it did to a man who was dying of frustration. But the thought of making love to Penelope…
His mind recoiled from the notion.
It would bring him some measure of relief, of course.
No. That wasn’t what he wanted. She wasn’t what he wanted.
What the hell is wrong with you? Alex asked himself savagely, and leapt from his bed. He yanked the window hangings aside to allow the gleam of moonlight in the room. Striding to the washbasin set on a tripod stand, he poured some cool water and splashed it on his face. His thoughts had been muddled for days, ever since he’d met Lily. If only he could ease the fire inside him. If only he could think clearly.
He needed a drink. Cognac. No, some of the good Highland whiskey his father had always stocked, distinctively pale, tasting of smoke and heather. He wanted something that would set his throat on fire, burn out the thoughts that were torturing him. Pulling on a quilted blue robe, Alex strode from the bedroom. He went through the columned hall that connected the east wing to the grand central staircase.
His steps slowed as he heard the betraying creak of one of the steps. He stopped and tilted his head, waiting in the darkness. Creak. There it was again. Someone was descending the stairs. He knew exactly who it was.
A grim smile crossed his face. Now was his opportunity to catch Lily in a clandestine meeting with one of the servants. He would use the excuse to throw her out of the house. With Lily gone, things would return to the way they had been before.
Stealthily Alex made his way to the side of the balustraded corridor. He caught a glimpse of Lily below in the domed central hall. The hem of her thin white nightgown trailed gently behind her as she drifted across the marble floor. She was going to meet a lover. Gracefully she wandered in what seemed to be a mood of dreamy anticipation. Alex was conscious of a bitter sensation seeping through him like poison. He tried to identify the feeling, but its precise nature was obscured in a mixture of anger and confusion. The thought of what Lily was about to do with another man made him want to punish her.
Alex went to the staircase and froze.
What was he doing? The earl of Raiford, renowned for his moderate, sensible ways, sneaking around his own house in the dark. Nearly wild with jealousy—yes, jealousy—over the antics of a little madcap and her midnight trysts.
How Caroline would have laughed.
To hell with Caroline. To hell with everything. He was going to stop Lily. He’d be damned if she was going to have her pleasure tonight. Purposefully he descended the stairs, and fumbled at the small porcelain and wood table in the entrance hall, where a lamp was always kept. Lighting the lamp, he turned it to a soft glow. He ventured in the direction Lily had gone, toward the ground-floor kitchen. As he passed the library, the sound of whispers floated through the door, which had been left ajar. Alex’s brows lowered in fury as he heard Lily murmuring something that sounded like “Nick…Nick…”
Alex flung the library door open wide. “What’s going on?” His gaze swept the room. All he could see was Lily’s small form curled in a chair. She had wrapped her arms around herself. “Miss Lawson?” He walked closer. The lamplight gleamed in Lily’s eyes and cast a golden shimmer on her skin, and revealed the shadows of her body beneath the gown. She was twitching and rocking, her lips forming silent words. There were furrows in her forehead, lines that seemed to have been carved from intense misery.
A sneer pulled at the corner of Alex’s mouth. She must have realized he was following her. “You little fraud,” he muttered. “This playacting is beneath even you.”
She pretended not to hear him. Her eyes were half-closed, as if she were caught in a mysterious trance.
“That’s enough,” Alex said, and set the lamp on a nearby table. With rising annoyance he realized that she intended to ignore him until he left her. “I’ll drag you out of here if necessary, Miss Lawson. Is that what you’re hoping for? A scene?” As she refused to even look at him, his endurance snapped. He seized her narrow shoulders, giving her a hard shake. “I said that’s enough—”
There was an explosion of movement that astonished Alex. Lily gave an animal cry and struck out blindly, springing from the chair. She stumbled back against the table and nearly overturned the lamp. In a quick reflex Alex kept her from falling as he reached out and grabbed her. Even then her panic didn’t cease. Alex jerked his head back to avoid the frantic swipe of fingers curled into claws. Although she was a small woman, her wild struggles were difficult to contain. Somehow he managed to crowd her against him, crushing her flailing arms between them. She flinched and went rigid, breathing in rapid pants. Alex slid his fingers through her thick curls and forced her head against his shoulder. He muttered a string of curses and tried to soothe her. “Christ. Lily, it’s all right. Lily. Relax…relax.”
The heat of his breath sank through her hair to her scalp. He kept his hold on her tight enough that only the slightest movement was possible. She was too disoriented to speak coherently. He tucked her head under his chin and began to rock her gently. “It’s me,” he murmured. “It’s Alex. Everything’s all right. Easy.”
Lily regained herself slowly, as if she were waking from a dream. The first thing she became aware of was being held in an inexorable grip. Her cheek and chin were pressed against the opening of a quilted robe, where the brush of wiry hair tickled her skin. A pleasant, masculine scent stirred her memory. It was Raiford, holding her in his arms. Her breath caught in amazement.
His hand moved in a slow stroke on her back. She wasn’t used to being touched so familiarly, not by anyone. Her first instinct was to wrench away from him. But the circling motion was gentle, softening the brittle tension of her body.
Alex felt the shift of Lily’s weight as she accepted his support. She was light and lithe against him, her small frame trembling with aftershocks. There was a tugging, twisting sensation inside him, alarming in its sweetness. The pronounced silence of the room seemed to enclose them.
“Easy. You’re not steady yet.”
“Wh-what happened?” she croaked.
“I forgot the old maxim,” he said dryly. “Something about waking a sleepwalker.”
So he had found out. Oh God, what would happen now? She must have betrayed her fear, for he began to rub her back again, as if she were an overwrought child. “This is what happened the other nights, isn’t it?” His palm moved down the delicate ridge of her spine. “You should have told me.”
“And give you the idea to put me in some as-asylum?” she replied shakily, making a move to push herself away.
“Be still. You’ve had a shock.”
She had never heard his voice so gentle…it didn’t seem to be his voice at all. Lily blinked in confusion. She had never been held like this before. Giuseppe, with all his impetuous passion, hadn’t even held her this long during their love-making. She felt uneasy, helpless. The situation was beyond her imagination. Lord Raiford, clad in a robe, no starch, buttons, or cravats anywhere in sight. The chest under her head was like the timbered side of a frigate ship, while his muscled legs were impossibly hard against hers. The beat of his heart resonated in her ear. What would it feel like to be so invincible? He must not be afraid of anyone.
“Do you want a drink?” Alex asked quietly. He had to let go of her. Either that or sink to the floor with her. He was hovering on the brink of disaster.
She nodded against his chest. “Brandy.” Somehow she mustered the strength to pull away from him. She lowered herself into a leather armchair, while Alex went to the corner cupboard where the liquor was kept. He poured a small amount of cognac into a glass. In the light of the lamp, his hair shone with the gold luster of a doubloon. As she watched him, Lily bit at her lower lip. So far she had known him as a arrogant, judgmental figure, the last man in the world she would accept help from. But for one astonishing moment she had felt all his strength surround her. She had felt safe and protected.
He was her enemy, she reminded herself silently as he approached. She must remember that, she must remember…
“Here.” Alex pressed the glass into her hands and sat nearby.
Lily sipped at the drink. The brandy had a light taste, unlike the fruitier distillations Derek always stocked. The mellow liquor had a steadying effect on her. Lily drank slowly and glanced at Alex, who hadn’t moved his gaze from her. She couldn’t quite work up the courage to ask if he intended to tell anyone what had happened.
He seemed to read her thoughts. “Does anyone else know?”
“Know about what?” she parried.
His mouth tightened impatiently. “Does it happen often?”
Staring into the brandy glass, she swirled it in feigned absorption.
“You’re going to talk to me, Lily,” he said grimly.
“You may call me Miss Lawson,” she shot back. “And while I’m certain you’re quite curious about my nocturnal habits, it’s none of your concern.”
“Do you understand that you could hurt yourself? Or someone else? Just now you nearly knocked the lamp over and started a fire—”
“That was because you startled me!”
“How long has this been going on?”
Lily rose to her feet and glared at him. “Good night, my lord.”
“Sit down. You’re not leaving until you give me some answers.”
“You may sit here as long as you wish. I’m going upstairs to my room.” She walked toward the door.
Alex reached her instantly, spinning her to face him. “I’m not through with you yet.”
“Take your hands off me!”
“Who’s Nick?” Alex knew he had hit a vulnerable spot when he saw her eyes widen to dark pools of fear. “Nick,” he repeated in a low jeer. “Some man you’re keeping company with? A lover? Does your cher ami Craven know about Nick, or have you—”
With a muffled sound Lily threw the brandy into his face, anything to make him stop, anything to silence the stabbing words. “Don’t say that name again!”
The brandy trickled down Alex’s face in golden rivulets, bright drops sliding down the harsh grooves that were carved from his nose to his mouth. “Not only Craven, but a lover on the side,” he sneered. “I suppose a woman like you would think nothing of crawling from one man’s bed to another’s.”
“How dare you accuse me! At least I confine my infidelities to the living!”
His face went pale while Lily continued recklessly. “You’re planning to marry my sister, even though you’re still in love with Caroline Whit-more. A woman who died years ago! It’s morbid, not to mention unfair to Penelope, and you know it. What kind of husband will you be to my sister, you obstinate brute, when you’ll insist on living in the past for the rest of…”
Lily stopped as she realized she’d gone too far. Alex’s face looked like a death mask. Once she had read a few lines that would have described him perfectly…More fierce and more inexorable far, than empty tigers or the roaring sea… His eyes bored into hers with an intensity that terrified her. He was going to kill her. The brandy glass dropped from her nerveless hand and fell to the thick Savonnerie carpet with a thump. The sound broke Lily’s paralysis. She turned to flee, but it was too late, Alex had caught her. There was nothing she could do but writhe helplessly as he jerked her head back.
“No,” she whimpered, thinking he might break her neck.
Instead his mouth came down hard on hers, his fingers gripping her nape to hold her still. Lily stiffened in surprise and pain. Her lips were ground against her teeth until the taste of blood mingled with brandy. There was no way to break free. She closed her eyes and clenched her teeth.
Suddenly Alex lifted his head with a groan. His gray eyes were hot and radiant, his tanned skin burnished with rising color. One by one his ringers unclenched from her nape. Almost tentatively, he moved his thumb over her bruised lip.
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