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She fidgeted a little, raising a hand to her neck, toying with a curl in a gesture that held an innocent, maddening allure. “Are you tired, my lord?”

“No.”

Gamely she persisted, though her voice was shadowed with increasing embarrassment. “Do you intend to retire soon?”

He pushed away from the table and approached her. “Do you want me to?”

She lowered her eyes. “I wouldn’t mind if you decided to—”

“Do you want me in bed with you?” He took hold of her, his hands sliding beneath her arms.

Lily felt herself flush. “Yes,” she managed to whisper in the second before his mouth closed over hers. She gasped softly and relaxed against him, linking her arms around his waist. The yielding promise of her body inflamed him; he wanted to hold her close, close, until he crushed her. Instead he carried her upstairs and undressed her carefully, and allowed her to help him with his own clothes. Unfamiliar with a man’s garments, Lily had difficulty in locating the flat, invisible buttons on the inside of his trousers. Gently he showed her how to unfasten them, his breath whisked away as the back of her hand brushed intimately against him.

Pressing her back to the bed, he covered her body with slow, hot kisses, nudging his face against her downy skin, loving the pale softness of her br**sts and waist and stomach. Lily was more abandoned than she had been the other nights they’d been together, her hands wandering over him more freely, her limbs twining around his. Her cool fingers threaded through his hair, toying languidly in the golden locks, stroking his nape.

The lithe, slender body arching beneath him caused a groan to escape his lips. Breathing hard, he sealed his mouth over hers. His hand reached down and cupped over her, trapping her damp heat against his palm, momentarily flattening the soft thatch of curls. Shivering, she parted her knees and pushed upward, craving more of the delicious pressure. His fingers rubbed slowly, and then entered her in a gentle, flexing thrust.

With a helpless moan, Lily hugged herself closer to him, writhing in time to the compelling movement of his fingers. He kissed her neck and shoulders and withdrew his hand, using his palms to push her thighs apart. “Open your eyes,” he whispered fiercely, staring into her face, holding her knees wide. “Look at me.”

Her dark lashes lifted, and she held his intense gaze. Deliberately he pushed forward. Her eyes dilated as she felt the heavy, stimulating force of him within her. Grasping her hips, he wedged himself deeper, moving in an insistent rhythm. Lily stroked the smooth surface of his back, and as her pleasure mounted, her fingers dug into the hard plane of muscle. Her face turned against the shaven scrape of his cheek. She heard him whisper to her then, in broken phrases he couldn’t seem to hold back—how beautiful she was to him, how much he wanted her…that he loved her. Confused, disbelieving, she felt the silken pleasure explode within her, around her, and she was drowning in feelings she could never have found words for. He drew in his breath and held it at the moment of cl**ax, his body taut and shaking against hers.

The most pressing silence she had ever known settled over them. Lily kept her eyes closed, though her mind was spinning with questions. I love you…He couldn’t have really said it, she thought. And if he had, he certainly couldn’t have meant it. Her Aunt Sally had once warned her never to pay heed to the things a man said in passion. At the time, she hadn’t understood the full significance of the advice.

After a minute, she felt Alex move slightly, as if he intended to roll away from her. Pretending to have fallen asleep, she kept her arms locked around his neck, her limbs heavily entangled with his. When he attempted to disengage her, she affected a drowsy murmur and wrapped herself tighter. To her relief, he settled back, his chest rising and falling rapidly beneath her head. She wondered at the reason for his disturbed breathing. He must know what he had said. He must regret it.

But dear Lord…she wanted it to be true.

Alarmed by her own thoughts, she somehow managed to stay relaxed against him. He deserved someone far better than her, someone pure, innocent, untarnished. If he did care for her, it was only because he still didn’t know what she truly was. Once he knew about her bastard child, he would leave her. And if she allowed herself to fall in love with him, her heart would shatter into a thousand jagged pieces.

“You don’t need me to remark on what a hopelessly vulgar mess this is,” Lady Lyon said sternly, regarding the newlywed pair in the manner of a governess having caught her charge kissing in the corner with an ill-bred peasant. An elegant woman with gleaming silver-white hair and direct blue eyes, she possessed a strong, flawless bone structure that had made her a renowned beauty in her youth.

Alex shrugged apologetically. “But Aunt, the truth is—”

“Don’t attempt to tell me the truth, you impetuous boy! I’ve heard the rumors, and that is quite enough.”

“Yes, Aunt,” Alex replied humbly for the tenth time, sliding a sideways glance at his wife. They were in the gold and green parlor of Lord Lyon’s mansion on Brook Street. Lily was huddled in a nearby chair, her gaze fixed on her folded hands. He struggled to suppress a grin, never having seen her look so chastened. He had warned her what to expect. True to his predictions, his elderly aunt had lectured them in her imperious way for at least a quarter-hour.

“Gambling, nudity, promiscuity, and the merciful Lord knows what else,” Lady Lyon continued sharply, “all carried out in the public forum, which places the two of you quite beyond redemption. I hold you just as accountable as your wife, Raiford. Your part in this is no less reprehensible. In fact, it is more so. How dare you wantonly cast aside your sterling reputation and sully the family name in such a manner?” She shook her head and regarded them severely. “The only wise step you have taken is to come to me with this. Although I can’t help but think it is too late to pluck the two of you from the jaws of social ruin. It will be the greatest challenge of my life, gaining you entrée.”

“We have absolute faith in you, Aunt.” Alex said in a penitent murmur. “If anyone can accomplish it, you can.”

“Indeed,” Lady Lyon replied sourly.

Lily raised a hand to her lips, wiping away the twitch of a smile. She relished the picture of her husband being scolded like a troublesome schoolboy. In spite of the old lady’s enthusiastic dressing-down, it was clear she adored Alex.

Lady Lyon regarded her suspiciously. “I fail to understand why my nephew married you,” she announced. “He should have wedded that well-behaved sister of yours, and made you his paramour.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” Lily said, speaking up for the first time. “I was perfectly willing to be his mistress. It would have been a far more sensible arrangement.” Smiling sweetly at Alex, she ignored his sardonic stare. “I believe he compelled me to marry him out of some mistaken idea that it was possible to reform me.” She rolled her eyes dramatically. “Heaven knows where he got that notion.”

Lady Lyon regarded her with new interest. “Hmm. Now I begin to understand the attraction. You’re a spirited chit. And I don’t doubt you’ve a quick wit. But all the same—”

“Thank you,” Lily said demurely, interrupting before another round of scolding began. “Lady Lyon, I appreciate your willingness to exert your influence on our behalf. But gaining us admittance into respectable circles…” She shook her head decisively. “It can’t be done.”

“Indeed,” the elderly woman said frostily. “Then let me inform you, my impertinent miss, that it can and will be done. Provided you manage to keep from making any further scandalous exhibitions of yourself!”

“She won’t,” Alex said hastily. “And neither will I, Aunt.”

“Very well.” Lady Lyon gestured for a housemaid to bring her lap desk. “I shall begin my campaign,” she said, in a tone that must have resembled Wellington’s at Waterloo. “And you, of course, will follow my instructions to the letter.”

Alex strode to his aunt and kissed her wrinkled brow. “I knew I could depend on you.”

“Fustian,” she replied rudely, gesturing for Lily to approach her. “You may kiss me, child.”

Obediently Lily pressed her lips to the old woman’s proffered cheek.

“Now that I’ve had a look at you,” Lady Lyon continued, “I am assured that all of the rumors about you can’t be true. Decadent living always shows in the face, and you look far less degenerate than I expected.” Her blue eyes narrowed. “In the right clothes, I suppose we could pass you off as a woman of reasonably good character.”

Lily gave her a small curtsey. “Thank you,” she said with a meekness that bordered on burlesque.

“We’ll have a problem with the eyes,” Lady Lyon said disapprovingly. “Dark, heathenish, full of mischief. Perhaps you could find some way to restrain the expression in them—”

Alex interrupted with a protest, sliding his arm around Lily’s waist. “No more talk about her eyes, Aunt. They’re her best feature.” He glanced down at his wife caressingly. “I’m rather partial to them.”

Lily’s silent amusement faded as her gaze was imprisoned by his. She felt a peculiar warmth blossom inside of her, making her warm and unsteady, her heart beating swiftly. Suddenly the hard support of his arm seemed to be all that kept her standing. Conscious of the interested regard of Lady Lyon, Lily tried to look away, but she was unable to do anything except wait helplessly for him to release her. Finally he gave her waist a squeeze and let go.

Lady Lyon spoke, her voice less sharp than before. “Leave us alone for a moment, Raiford.”

He frowned. “Aunt, I’m afraid we don’t have time for any more talk.”

“Don’t worry,” Lady Lyon said dryly. “This old dragon will not chew your pretty young bride to bits. I merely want to give her some advice. Come here, child.” She patted the space beside her. Without looking at her husband, Lily seated herself on the sofa.

Giving his aunt a warning glance, Alex left the room.

Lady Lyon seemed to have been amused by her nephew’s glowering frown. “It’s clear he can’t abide any criticism of you,” she remarked with a throaty chuckle.

“Unless it’s given by himself.” Lily was surprised by the way the grande dame’s entire manner had softened.

That caused Lady Lyon to laugh again. “My favorite nephew, you know. The most exemplary man the family has ever produced. Far more praiseworthy than my own charming, spoiled, good-for-nothing son Ross. You’ll never fully appreciate your own good fortune in landing Raiford. How you did is a mystery to me.”

“To me also,” Lily said feelingly.

“No matter. You’ve wrought quite a change in him.” Lady Lyon paused reflectively. “I don’t think I’ve seen him so lighthearted since he was a boy, before his parents passed away.”

Unaccountably pleased, Lily lowered her gaze to hide the effects of the elderly woman’s words. “But surely when he and Caroline Whit-more were affianced—”

“Let me tell you something about that American woman,” the elderly woman interrupted impatiently. “She was a beautiful, carefree creature, prone to romantics and follies. Certainly she would have made Raiford an adequate wife. But Miss Whit-more didn’t understand the depth to him, nor did she care to.” Her blue eyes turned soft and thoughtful, almost sad. “She never would have appreciated the kind of love he is capable of giving. The Raiford men were unique in that regard.” She paused and added, “They allow their women such terrible power over them. Their love tends toward obsession. My brother Charles willed himself to death after his wife passed away. The thought of living without her was intolerable to him. Did you know about that?”

“No, ma’am,” Lily said, startled.

“Raiford is no different. Losing the woman he loves, through death or betrayal, would have the same effect on him.”

Lily’s eyes widened. “Lady Lyon, I think you are exaggerating the case. His feelings for me do not tend to that extreme. That is, he doesn’t—”

“You are not as sharp-witted as I thought, child, if you haven’t realized that he loves you.”

Caught in the grip of dismay and some deeper, perplexing emotion, Lily stared at her in silent astonishment.

“Young people are far more thickheaded now than in my day,” Lady Lyon observed tartly. “Close your mouth, child, you’ll catch flies.”

The acerbic tone in Lady Lyon’s voice reminded Lily of Aunt Sally, although Sally had certainly been far more outlandish than this elegant matron. “Ma’am, you said you have advice for me?”

“Oh, yes.” Lady Lyon pinned Lily in a meaningful stare. “I’ve heard all about you and your wild ways. In truth, you remind me of myself when I was young. I was a comely, high-spirited girl with quite a good figure. Before my marriage I left a string of broken hearts in my wake, long enough to make my mother exceedingly proud. I felt no pressing urge to accept some man as my lord and master. Not when I had all of London at my feet. Flowers, poetry, stolen kisses…” She smiled reminiscently. “It was delightful. Naturally I regarded it as a dreary prospect to sacrifice all of that for the sake of matrimony. But I’ll tell you something I discovered when I married Lord Lyon—the love of a good man is worth a few sacrifices.”

Lily hadn’t talked so frankly with a woman since Sally had died. She dared to unburden herself a little, leaning forward as she spoke earnestly. “Lady Lyon, I had no desire to marry anyone. I’ve been independent for too long. Raiford and I will be at each other’s throats constantly. We’re both too strong-willed. It’s a classic mésalliance.”

Lady Lyon seemed to understand her fear. “Consider this…Raiford wants you enough that he is willing to expose himself to the possible censure and ridicule of his peers. For a man who values his pride so highly, that is a great concession. You could do worse than marry a man willing to make a fool of himself over you.”

Lily frowned in concern. “He won’t be made to appear foolish,” she said emphatically. “I would never do anything to embarrass him.” Just then the recollection of the spectacle in Covent Garden concerning an old circus bear flashed before her, and she colored. She hadn’t waited even one day after their wedding before behaving scandalously. “Damn,” she whispered, before she could catch herself.

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