Suddenly the housekeeper appeared, her wrinkled, sun-weathered face covered with tears. She was in disarray, her gray hair escaping from the narrow braid coiled around her head.“Signorina,” she gasped, and began to speak so incoherently that Lily couldn’t understand her.
She put her arm around the elderly woman’s round shoulders and tried to soothe her. “Domina, tell me what’s happened. Is it Nicole? Where is she?”
The housekeeper began to sob. Something had happened, something too dreadful for words. Was her baby ill? Had she been hurt? Terrified, Lily let go of Domina and raced toward the stairs that led to the nursery. “Nicole?” she called. “Nicole, Mama’s here, it’s all—”
“ Signorina, she is gone!”
Lily froze with her foot on the first step, her hand gripping the banister. She looked at Domina, who was trembling visibly. “What do you mean?” she asked hoarsely. “Where is she?”
“It was two men. I could not stop them. I tried, Dio mio…but they took the baby away. She is gone.”
Lily felt as if she were in the middle of a nightmare. Nothing was making sense. “What did they say?” she asked in a queer, thick voice. Domina began to sob, and Lily swore at her, rushing forward. “Damn you, don’t cry, just tell me what they said!”
Domina stepped back, frightened by Lily’s contorted face. “They said nothing.”
“Where did they take her?”
“I do not know.”
“Did they leave a note, a message?”
Lily stared into the elderly woman’s streaming eyes. “Oh, it’s not happening, it’s not…” Frantically she ran to the nursery, stumbling to her knees and bumping her shins, not feeling the pain. The little room looked the same as usual, toys scattered on the floor, a ruffled dress draped over the arm of a rocking chair. The crib was empty. Lily pressed one hand over her stomach and the other up to her mouth. She was too frightened to cry, but she heard her own voice in a wrenching scream. “No! Nicole…Nooo…”
With a start, Lily recalled herself to the present. It had been more than two years since then. Two years. Bleakly she wondered if Nicole still remembered her. If Nicole were even still alive. The thought caused her throat to tighten until she could hardly breathe. Perhaps, she thought miserably, this was to be the punishment for her sins, to have her baby taken from her forever. But the Lord had to be merciful—Nicole was so innocent, so blameless. Lily knew that if it took the rest of her life, she would find her daughter.
Alex had never seen one small woman eat so heartily. Perhaps that was the source of her unflagging energy. With dainty precision, Lily downed a plateful of ham and madeira sauce, several spoonfuls of potatoes and boiled vegetables, pastry, and fresh fruit. She laughed and chattered all the while, the warm light casting a glow over her animated face. Several times Alex was chagrined to find himself staring at her. It bothered him greatly, his fascination with her and the puzzle she presented.
No matter what the subject of conversation, Lily had something to add to it. Her knowledge of hunting, horses, and other masculine subjects gave her a certain rough-and-tumble appeal. But when she exchanged society gossip with Totty, she sounded as sophisticated as any woman in the beau monde could ever hope to be. Most perplexing of all, there were moments—brief, to be sure—when she displayed an artless charm that far eclipsed her younger sister.
“Penny will be the most exquisite bride London has ever seen!” Lily exclaimed, causing her sister to giggle modestly. Then she glanced at Totty wryly. “I’m glad that you’ll finally have the grand wedding you dreamed of giving, Mama. Especially after the years of torment I’ve caused you.”
“You haven’t been completely tormenting, dear. And I still haven’t relinquished my hopes of giving you a wedding someday.”
Lily kept her expression bland, but inwardly she laughed. May the devil take me before I become someone’s wife, she thought grimly. She glanced at Alex, who appeared to be absorbed in the plate of lukewarm food before him. “The kind of man I would consent to marry is difficult to find.”
Penelope regarded her curiously. “What kind is that, Lily?”
“I don’t know if there’s a particular word to describe him,” Lily said thoughtfully.
“Milksop?” Alex suggested.
Lily glared at him. “From what I’ve observed, this business of marriage is far more advantageous for the man. The husband always has the whip hand, legally and financially, whereas the poor wife spends her best years bearing his children and seeing to his welfare, and then discovers herself to be as burnt out as an old candle.”
“Wilhemina, that is not so,” Totty exclaimed. “Every woman requires a man’s protection and guidance.”
“Really,” Alex remarked, his steady gaze pinning her to the chair. Lily writhed in discomfort as she returned his stare. Apparently he had heard about her relationship with Derek Craven. Well, his opinion of her didn’t matter a damned bit. And it was none of his business whether she had an “arrangement” with someone or not!
“Yes, really,” she said coolly. “But were I to marry, my lord, I would only have a man who doesn’t equate strength with brutality. Someone who considers a wife a companion rather than a glorified slave. Someone—”
“Lily, that is enough!” her father said, his face darkening. “Above all I desire peace, and you are creating a disturbance. You will keep your silence now.”
“I’d like her to continue,” Alex said calmly. “Tell us, Miss Lawson, what else do you want in a man?”
Lily felt her cheeks begin to burn. There was a strange sensation in her chest—tautness and warmth and turbulence. “I don’t wish to continue,” she muttered. “I’m sure you all have the general idea.” She put a bite of chicken in her mouth, but the succulent morsel suddenly had the texture of sawdust, and it was difficult to swallow. All seated at the table were silent, while Penelope’s distressed gaze flickered back and forth between her financé and her sister.
“Although,” Lily said after a moment, lifting her gaze to Totty’s pink face, “I’m becoming more settled in my advanced age, Mother. It’s possible that I could find someone willing to make certain allowances for me. Someone tolerant enough to endure my wild ways.” She paused significantly. “In fact, I think I may have found him.”
“What are you talking about, dear?” Totty asked.
“I may be receiving a caller in a day or two. An absolutely delightful young man—and a neighbor of yours, Lord Raiford.”
Totty registered immediate delight. “Are you teasing, Wilhemina? Is it someone I’m familiar with? Why haven’t you mentioned him to us before now?”
“I’m not certain how much there is to tell,” Lily said coyly. “And yes, you are familiar with him. It’s Zachary.”
Her family’s astonishment caused Lily to grin. “None other. As you know, I began a friendship with Zach after Harry and I left off. Through the years we have cherished a certain fondness for each other. We get along famously. Lately I have suspected that the feelings between us may have ripened.” Perfect, she thought with pride. She had delivered the news in just the right tone—casual, pleased, a touch bashful.
It was on the tip of Alex’s tongue to ask what her paramour Derek Craven thought of the situation, but he bit the words back. He considered what kind of pair they would make. Stamford was a harmless pup without much of a spine. Lily would lead the poor fool around by his refined little nose.
Lily smiled at Penelope apologetically. “Of course, dear Penny, we all know that Zach entertained an interest in you for a while. But of late Zach has begun to view me in a light he never has before. I hope you would not be disconcerted by the prospect of a match between us.”
There was a strange expression on Penelope’s face—amazement battling with jealousy. Penny had never looked at her sister in such a way before. She managed to produce a valiant smile. “It would please me if you were to find someone who could give you happiness, Lily.”
“Zach would be quite a good husband for me,” Lily mused. “Although we’d have to work on his marksman-ship. He’s not quite the sportsman I am.”
“Well,” Penelope said with wan enthusiasm. “Viscount Stamford is a gentle and thoughtful man.”
“Yes, he is,” Lily murmured. Penny, bless her, was easy to read. She was in shock at the thought that the man who had courted her so ardently was now considering marriage with her older sister. Everything was going to fall into place nicely. Glowing with satisfaction, Lily looked at Alex. “I trust you have no objections to my receiving visitors, my lord?”
“I wouldn’t dream of interfering with any matrimonial prospect that comes your way, Miss Lawson. Who knows when there might be another?”
“You’re too kind,” she replied sourly, and leaned back as a servant ventured forth to remove her empty plate.
“Miss? Miss, shall I fetch something from the kitchen? P’raps a cup o’ tea?”
There was the sound of curtains being pulled. Lily stirred and groaned, climbing up from the soft depths of sleep. The glare of daylight was in her eyes. As she turned her head, she winced at the ache of sore muscles in her neck. What a wretched sleep she’d had, filled with strange dreams, some of them about Nicole. She’d been chasing after her daughter, trying to reach her, stumbling through endless hallways in unfamiliar places.
The maid continued to pester her with tentative questions. Probably his odious lordship had sent his servants to wake her at some ungodly hour, just for spite. Cursing Raiford silently, Lily rubbed her eyes and struggled to a sitting position. “No, I don’t want any tea,” she muttered. “I just want to stay in bed and—”
Lily broke off with a gasp as she saw her surroundings. Her heart thumped in fright. She was not in bed. She wasn’t even in her room. She was…oh God, she was downstairs in the library, curled uncomfortably in one of the leather armchairs. The maid, a young woman with a wealth of red curls stuffed under a white cap, was standing in front of her, wringing her hands. Lily looked at herself, realizing she was dressed in her thin white nightgown, no robe or slippers. She had gone to sleep last night in the guest room provided for her, and somehow she had ended up here.
The problem was, she had no recollection of getting out of bed or coming down the stairs. She didn’t remember any of it.
It had happened again.
Disoriented, Lily ran her palm over her sweat-beaded forehead. She could understand the situation if she had been drinking. Oh, she’d done quite a few foolish things when she’d “bought the sack,” as Derek called it when she was tipsy. But all she’d had to drink last night was a few sips of liqueur after dinner, and that followed by a cup of strong coffee.
It had happened on two other occasions. Once, when she had gone to sleep in the bedroom of her London terrace and had awakened the next morning to find herself in the kitchen; and the time after that, Burton, the butler, had discovered her asleep in the parlor. Burton had assumed that she had been under the influence of strong drink or some other intoxicant. Lily hadn’t mustered the nerve to tell him she’d been as sober as a judge. Good Lord, she couldn’t let anyone know that she roamed the house in her sleep—that wasn’t the behavior of a sane woman, was it?
The maid was watching her, waiting for an explanation.
“I…I was feeling restless last night and…came here for a drink,” Lily said, twisting the folds of her nightgown in her fists. “H-how silly of me to fall asleep right in this chair.” The girl glanced around the room, obviously wondering about the absence of a glass. Somehow Lily manufactured a light laugh. “I sat here to think about…something…and then I went to sleep before I even got the bloody drink!”
“Yes, miss,” the maid said doubtfully.
Lily ran her fingers through her tousled curls. A headache pounded in her temples and forehead. Even her scalp was sensitive. “I believe I’ll return to my room now. Have some coffee sent up, would you?”
Gathering her nightgown around the front of her body, Lily crawled out of the large chair and left the library, trying not to stagger. She went through the entrance hall. There were clinking sounds of dishes and pots from the kitchen, voices of servants engaged in their early-morning tasks. She had to get to her room before she was seen by anyone else. Clutching the hem of her nightgown in her hands, she flew up the stairs, her feet a pale blur.
Just as Lily neared the top, she saw a dark, imposing figure. Her heart sank. It was Lord Raiford, going for a morning ride. He was dressed in riding clothes and gleaming black boots. Defensively Lily pulled at the front of her gown, trying to conceal herself as much as possible. Raiford’s assessing gaze seemed to shred her thin nightgown and detect every detail of her body underneath.
“What are you doing, traipsing through the house like that?” he asked curtly.
Lily was tongue-tied. On a sudden inspiration, she lifted her nose and stared up at him as haughtily as possible. “Perhaps I was consorting with one of the servants last night. Shouldn’t one expect such behavior from a woman like me?”
There was silence. Lily endured his unfathomable gaze for an eternity, then tried to look away. It was impossible. Suddenly it seemed to her that instead of icy glints, his eyes were filled with sparks of intense heat. Although she stood there motionless, she had the sensation of the world careening around the two of them. She swayed slightly and placed her hand on the banister.
When Raiford spoke, his voice was more gravelly than usual.
“If you’re to stay under my roof, Miss Lawson, there’ll be no displays of your well-used little body, for the benefit of the servants or anyone else. Do you understand?”
His contempt was worse than a slap in the face. Well-used? Lily drew in a quick breath. She couldn’t recall ever hating anyone more in her life. Except, of course, Giuseppe. She wanted to fling a scalding retort at him, but suddenly she was overwhelmed with the urge to flee. “Understood,” she said briskly, and rushed past him.
Alex did not turn to watch her go. He descended the stairs with nearly the same speed as she had gone up them. Instead of walking toward the stables, he strode into the empty library and closed the door with such force that it shook in the doorjamb. He allowed himself several long, searing breaths. From the moment he had seen her in the filmy white gown, he had wanted her. His body was still rigid, trembling with arousal. He’d wanted to take her right then on the steps, bear her down to the carpet and push into her. Her hair, those damnable short curls that enticed his fingers to wind through them…the delicate whiteness of her throat…the small, tempting points of her breasts.
P/S: Copyright -->www_Novel12_Com