Page 18

It was dark by the time he reached Grosvenor Square. Alex bounded out of the chaise-and-four almost before the driver had stopped the vehicle. Wearing a grimace, he strode up the steps of No. 38 and hammered on the door with his fist. After a few moments the door was opened by a tall, bearded butler. The man was impressive. Hewore his dignity like an invisible mantle, his expressionless face set with authority. “Good evening, Lord Raiford. Miss Lawson has been expecting you.”

“Where’s my brother?” Without waiting for a reply, Alex pushed his way inside. “Henry!” he bellowed, setting the walls to trembling.

“Lord Raiford,” the butler remarked politely. “If you’ll come this way—”

“What of my brother?” Alex barked. “Where is he?” Not bothering to match the butler’s decorous pace, Alex leapt up the stairs two at a time. “Henry? Henry, I’m going to tear you limb from limb! And as for Miss Lawson…she’d be wise to climb on her broomstick and escape before I reach her!”

Lily’s cool, amused voice drifted to him from the hall branching off the second landing. “Raiford. After being ejected from your home, I suppose you think you have every right to barge into mine!”

Following the voice, Alex flung open the first door he came to. He discovered an empty sitting room. “Where are you?”

Her maddening laughter drifted down the nail. “In my bedroom.”

“Where’s Henry?”

“How should I know? Do stop that atrocious bellowing, Raiford. I doubt a wounded bear could produce more noise.”

Alex charged to the next door. Flinging it open, he stepped into the bedroom. He had a brief impression of gilded beechwood and green silk hangings. Before he could turn his head, he felt a crashing blow to his skull. With a grunt of pain and surprise, he fell to his hands and knees. The scene blurred, and black mist rolled over him. Clutching at his head, he sank into the flooding darkness.

Lily lowered her arm, still holding the bottle. She stood over him, feeling a strange mixture of dismay and triumph. Alex looked like a felled tiger, his golden hair bright against the jewel tones of the carpet. “Burton!” she called. “Come here at once. Burton, help me lift Lord Raiford to the bed.”

The butler came to the door of the bedroom. For a long moment he stood there, his gaze traveling from the cloth-wrapped bottle in Lily’s hand to Alex’s prostrate form. He had witnessed hundreds of Lily’s scrapes and escapades, but this was the first time his composure had ever been visibly rocked. He managed to school his expression into impassiveness. “Yes, miss,” he finally said, and bent to heft Alex’s large body over his shoulder.

“Careful, don’t hurt him,” Lily said anxiously. “I mean…not any more than I already have.”

Panting with the effort, Burton lowered Alex’s slack body to the bed. Then Burton stood and restored his own appearance, straightening his coat, vest, and tie. He finished by smoothing down a tuft of gray hair that was standing up from the side of his head. “Will there be anything else, Miss Lawson?”

“Yes,” she said, going to sit by Alex’s prone form. “Ropes.”

“Ropes,” Burton repeated emotionlessly.

“To tie him up, of course. We can’t have him getting away, can we? Oh, and be quick about it, Burton. He might wake up soon.” She regarded her prisoner thoughtfully. “I suppose we should remove his coat and boots…”

“Miss Lawson?”

“Yes?” She looked up from her contemplation of Alex, her brown eyes fawnlike.

Burton swallowed hard. “May I ask how long the earl will be staying with us?”

“Oh, just for tonight. Have his carriage brought to the back and lodge his driver for the evening.”

“Very good, miss.”

While Burton went in search of the ropes, Lily approached the slumbering giant on her bed. All of a sudden she was rather amazed at what she had done. Alex did not stir. Lying there with his eyes closed, he seemed young and vulnerable. His feathery lashes cast shadows on the highest edge of his cheeks. Without his familiar scowl, he looked so…innocent. “I had to do it,” she said remorsefully. “I had to.” She leaned over him, smoothing his tousled blond hair.

Deciding to make him more comfortable, she untied his black cravat. The silk was still warm from his skin. Contemplating him silently, she unfastened his waistcoat and the top two buttons of his white linen shirt. Her knuckles brushed the taut skin at the base of his throat. An odd, pleasant shiver went through her.

Wonderingly she touched his golden cheek, the stern edge of his jaw, the silky curve of his lower lip. The growth of his night-beard had begun to show, turning his jaw and chin into scratchy velvet against her fingertips. No fallen angel could have possessed a more compelling mixture of darkness and light. She saw the strain on his face, a tenseness that remained even in slumber. Too much drinking, too little sleep. And grief from long ago had cast its indelible shadow on his features.

“We’re alike in some ways, you and I,” she murmured. “Pride, temper, and obstinacy. You’d move a mountain to get what you want…but you, my poor brute, don’t even know where the mountain is.” She grinned as she recalled the way he had tossed her clothes out the bedroom window.

On a sudden impulse, she bent over him, gently pressing her lips to his. His mouth was warm, unresponsive. She thought of the crudely intimate way he had kissed her in the library. Lifting her head, she stared down at him with her nose almost touching his. “Wake up, sleeping prince,” she murmured. “It’s time for you to realize what I’m capable of.”

Alex drifted slowly into wakefulness. Irritably he wondered who was pounding on a drum nearby…thump…thump… reverberating in his skull. He winced and turned his aching head against a cold, soothing pressure nearby. “There,” came a low voice. “There, you’ll be all right.” Alex squinted his eyes open, and saw the outline of a woman’s face above his. He thought he must be having another dream about Lily. Those were her eyes, the spicy color of gingerbread, and her mouth, curved into a disarming smile. He felt her soft fingertips trace over his cheek. “Damn you,” he mumbled, “Will you haunt me forever?”

Her smile deepened. “That’s entirely up to you, my lord. No, don’t move, you’ll dislodge the ice. Your poor head. I tried to hit you as gently as possible. But I had to do it hard enough that a second time wouldn’t be necessary.”

“Wh-what?” he asked groggily.

“I hit you on the head.”

Alex blinked in dawning awareness, beginning to understand it was no dream. He remembered tearing into her house, coming to her room…the blow to his head. He gave a muffled curse. Lily was sitting cross-legged beside him. He was stretched out full length on a bed. For all Lily’s show of calm concern, there was a victorious look about her that caused his nerves to crackle with warning. “Henry—”

“Don’t worry, he’s fine. Absolutely fine.” She smiled reassuringly. “He’s staying the night with a friend of mine.”

“Which friend?” he demanded. “Who?”

Her gaze turned wary. “When I tell you, don’t jump to conclusions. If I had the slightest doubt as to his well-being, I never would have—”

He struggled to sit up. “Tell me who has him!”

“Derek Craven.”

“That underworld swindler who surrounds himself with whores and thieves—”

“Henry’s absolutely safe with Derek, you have my w—”

Lily broke off with a gasp, leaping from the bed as Alex reached for her with a snarl. “You bitch!” He was caught short by ropes that bound his wrists and ankles to the thick bedposts. Sharply his head snapped from right to left. He saw what she had done. Shock froze him from the inside out. Then he roared and began to tug in a storm of fury, causing the massive bed to tremble and creak. He fought the ropes like a wild beast experiencing confinement for the first time. Apprehensively Lily watched him. She relaxed as she saw that the sturdy bed frame would withstand the ferocious punishment. Finally Alex’s struggle subsided. His lean frame was racked with labored gasps. “Why?” he demanded. “Why?”

Lily eased back onto the bed and looked down at him, her smile a fraction less confident than before. In spite of her triumph, she didn’t like the sight of him bound and helpless. It seemed unnatural. And the ropes had already chafed his wrists—she could see the redness his tugging was causing. “I’ve won, my lord,” she said calmly. “You may as well accept it with good grace. I admit my tactics lacked sportsmanship…but all’s fair, as they say.” She rubbed the sore muscles at the back of her neck and yawned. “As we speak, Zachary is at Raiford Park. He’ll spirit Penelope away to Gretna Green tonight, and they’ll be married. I volunteered my services for the task of detaining you. By the time I release you, it will be too late for you to do anything. I couldn’t let you have Penny, not when Zachary loves her so. He’ll make her happy. As for you…your damaged pride will soon recover.” She smiled into his bloodshot eyes. “I told you that you’d never have her. You should have taken my warning seriously.” Her head tilted coquettishly as she waited for his response. Perhaps he would acknowledge it had been a game well-played. “Well?” she prompted, wanting her victory tribute. “I’m interested to hear your opinion of all this.”

It took Alex a long time to reply. When he did, his voice was nothing but a scratching rumble. “My opinion? You should start running. And never stop. And pray to God I never catch you.”

Only Raiford could seem so menacing while tied hand and foot to a large piece of furniture. It was no idle threat. His words were laced with deadly purpose. Lily dismissed it blithely, deciding she could handle whatever trouble he might pose. “I’ve done you a great favor,” she pointed out. “You’re free to find someone else now. Someone far more suited to you than Penny.”

“I wanted your sister.”

“She never would have pleased you. Good God, you don’t really want to marry a girl who would always be frightened of you, do you? If you have an ounce of sense, you’ll choose someone with a little more spirit the next time. But no—you’ll probably propose to another meek, gentle lamb. Bullies are always drawn to that sort.”

Alex was dizzy from the ache in his head and the failed attempt to free himself and despairing, incredulous with rage. Everyone he loved had been taken away from him—his mother, his father, Caroline. He’d let himself believe that he would never lose Penelope—that, at least, it had seemed reasonable to depend on. He thought he would go raving mad if he had to endure any more. His jaw twitched violently.

“Lily,” he said hoarsely. “Untie the ropes.”

“Not to save my life.”

“It’s the only thing that will.”

“You’ll be unleashed in the morning,” she promised. “Then you’ll be free to collect Henry, return home, and plot your revenge. Do your worst. I don’t care, now that Penny is safe from you.”

“You’ll never be safe,” he rasped.

“At the moment I feel quite safe.” She smiled impudently. Then she seemed to recognize the emotions that writhed beneath his fury. The wicked amusement in her eyes dimmed, replaced by something softer. “You shouldn’t worry about Henry,” she said. “He’ll be perfectly fine tonight—Derek’s factotum is making certain he stays out of trouble.” She smiled wryly. “Henry filled my ears with praises of you during the carriage ride to London. A man who wins such devotion from a child can’t be all that terrible.” Watching his face, she put a hand on either side of his lean torso, her slight weight poised over him. “But it isn’t Henry that’s bothering you. What is it?”

Alex closed his eyes, trying to block out the sight of her, the sound of her voice, wishing to God this were a nightmare that would end soon. But she continued to dissect him with her soft words, heedlessly raking over raw wounds.

“No one’s ever forced you to do anything before, have they?” she asked.

He concentrated on his breathing, making it steady. He tried to block out her voice.

“Why so distraught over losing my sister? You can go out and find someone else just like her, if that’s what you really want.” Lily paused and said thoughtfully, “If you’re so intent on having someone who won’t interfere with Caroline’s memory.” She noticed the catch of his breath. “For shame,” she said softly, and shook her head. “Few men would mourn for so long. It reflects either on your capacity for love, or your remarkable stubbornness. Which is it, I wonder?”

Alex’s eyes flew open. With a tingling shock, Lily saw that the depths of gray had changed from ice to smoke. She felt an odd surge of compassion. “You’re not the only one who’s lost someone,” she said quietly. “I have too. I understand all about self-pity. It’s useless, not to mention unbecoming.”

Her condescension drove him wild. “If you think losing that snub-nosed little viscount is comparable to what I went through with Caroline—”

“No, I’m not referring to him.” Lily stared at him in mild surprise, wondering how much he knew about her engagement to Harry Hindon. He must have gotten it out of Zach. “What I felt for Harry was infatuation. The one I loved and lost was someone else entirely. I would have died for…this person. I still would.”

“Who?”

“That’s private.”

Alex lowered his head back to the pillow.

“Perhaps your temper will cool tonight,” Lily remarked, delicately rearranging his collar, as if he were a plaything. She knew her careless manner would incense him further. “When you think about this sensibly, you’ll realize it’s the best for all concerned. Even you.” Noticing his hands straining at the ropes, she touched his taut arm. “Don’t. You’ll only end up with blisters. You may as well relax. Poor Raiford. It must be difficult to accept the fact that you’ve been bested by a woman.” Her dark eyes danced with sympathetic laughter. “For the rest of my life, I’ll treasure this memory. The earl of Raiford completely at my mercy.” She leaned over him, her smiling mouth hovering just above his. “Just what would you do if you could free yourself, my lord?”

P/S: Copyright -->www_Novel12_Com

***