Alex cursed and rubbed his shaven chin roughly. With Caroline his desire had been mingled with tenderness and love. But this kind of wanting had nothing to do with love. He felt as if the surge of arousal had been a betrayal of his feelings for Caroline. Lily was more dangerous than he had suspected. He managed to stay in control of himself and everything around him, except when she was near. But he wouldn’t yield to the temptation she presented…he wouldn’t, by God, even if the effort killed him.
“Zachary! Dear, dear, Zachary, how nice of you to call!” Lily strode forward and clasped his hands, welcoming him into the mansion as if she were the lady of the manor. Standing on her toes, she lifted her face, and he kissed her cheek dutifully. In his black silk cravat and elegant riding clothes, Zachary was every bit the handsome country gentleman. Discreetly the butler took Zachary’s coat, gloves, and hat, and withdrew. Pulling Zach to a corner of the entrance hall, Lily whispered in his ear. “They’re all taking tea in the parlor—Mother, Penny, and Raiford. Remember to act as if you’re in love with me—and if you make eyes at my sister, I’ll pinch you! Now come—”
“Wait,” Zachary whispered anxiously, tightening his hold on her. “How is Penelope?”
Lily smiled. “Don’t look so worried. There’s still a chance for you, old fellow.”
“Does she still love me? Has she said so?”
“No, she won’t admit it,” Lily said reluctantly. “But she certainly doesn’t love Raiford.”
“Lily, I’m dying of love for her. Our plan must work.”
“It will,” she said with determination, slipping her hand into the crook of his arm. “Now…off to battle!”
Together they strolled out of the entrance hall. “Have I called at too late an hour?” Zachary inquired, loudly enough that the occupants of the parlor could hear.
Lily winked at him. “Not at all, dearest. Just in time for tea.” With a broad smile, she pulled him into the parlor, a beautiful and airy room with pale yellow silk walls, carved mahogany furniture, and large windows. “Here we are,” she said lightly, “all familiar with each other. No need for introductions—how convenient!” Fondly she squeezed Zachary’s arm. “I must tell you, Zach, that the tea at Raiford Park is excellent. Almost as good as the blend I serve in London.”
Zachary smiled as he regarded the room in general. “Lily does serve the best tea I’ve ever tasted—she orders a secret blend that no one else can quite reproduce.”
“I encountered it during my travels,” Lily replied, seating herself in a delicate claw-foot chair. She sneaked a glance at her sister, and was delighted to witness a brief but intense glance between Penny and Zachary. For just a moment, Penny’s gaze was filled with sadness and hopeless longing. Poor Penny, Lily thought. I’ll make everything right for you. And then perhaps you and Zach can prove to me that true love does exist.
In a courtly manner, Zachary went to the settee, where Penelope and Totty were situated. Sensitive to Penelope’s deep blush, he did not speak directly to her, but addressed her mother. “Mrs. Lawson, it is a pleasure to see you and your lovely daughter. I trust all is well with you?”
“Quite well,” Totty replied in mild discomfort. In spite of her objections to Zachary’s courtship of her daughter, she had rather liked him. And she had been aware, as everyone else had, that Zachary’s love for Penelope had been sincere and honorable. But a family of limited financial means had to be practical. Lord Raiford was by far a more advantageous match for their daughter.
Alex stood by the marble mantel of the fireplace and lit a cigar as he surveyed the proceedings. Lily glared at him. How impossibly rude he was. Gentlemen usually reserved their smoking for when they congregated to discuss masculine subjects of interest. Unless he were an irascible elderly gentleman puffing on a dignified pipe, Raiford should have smoked in private, not in the presence of ladies.
Warily Zachary nodded to Alex. “Good afternoon, Raiford.”
Alex nodded and brought the cigar to his lips. As he exhaled a stream of smoke, his eyes narrowed into gleaming slits of silver.
Surly beast, Lily thought darkly. He must feel threatened by the presence of a man so different from himself, a charming, gentlemanly fellow whom everyone liked. Raiford couldn’t make himself likeable even if he tried for a hundred years. She scowled at him and then directed a smile to Zachary. “Come sit down, Zach, and tell us the latest happenings in London.”
“Unbearably dull without you, as always,” Zachary replied, taking the chair next to hers. “But I did attend a large dinner party recently, and observed that Annabelle is looking quite splendid since her marriage to Lord Deerhurst.”
“Glad to hear it,” Lily rejoined. “She deserves to be happy after enduring ten years of marriage to Sir Charles, the randy old goat.”
“Wilhemina!” Totty gasped in dismay. “How could you call Sir Charles, may he rest in peace, such a dreadful name—”
“How could I not? Annabelle was only fifteen when she was compelled to marry him, and he was old enough to be her grandfather! And everyone knows that Sir Charles wasn’t kind to her. Personally, I’m gratified that he passed on in time for Annabelle to find a husband of more suitable age.”
Totty gave her a disapproving frown. “Wilhemina, you sound quite heartless.”
Zachary reached over to pat Lily’s hand as he came to her defense. “You are rather forthright, my dear, but anyone who is acquainted with you knows that you have the most compassionate of hearts.”
Lily beamed at him. Out of the corner of her eye she saw that her sister looked dumbstruck. Penelope could scarcely conceive that the man she loved was calling Lily “my dear.” Sympathy and amusement battled within Lily’s chest. She wished she could tell Penelope that this was all a sham. “I shall try to curb my tongue,” Lily promised with a laugh, “if only for this afternoon. Do go on with your news, Zach, and I’ll refrain from spouting my shocking opinions. Let me pour your tea. Milk, no sugar, correct?”
While Zachary entertained them with his tales of London. Alex drew on his cigar and watched Lily. He was forced to concede there was a possibility the two were contemplating marriage. There was an easy familiarity between them that bespoke a long friendship. It was clear that they liked each other and were comfortable together.
The advantages such a marriage would present were obvious. Zachary would certainly be appreciative of Lily’s fortune, more sizeable than what he would stand to inherit. And Lily was an attractive woman. In the sea green gown she was wearing today, her skin took on a faint rosy glow, and her dark hair and eyes were strikingly exotic. No man would find it a chore to bed her. Furthermore, in the view of society Lily would be fortunate to land a man of such good family and character. Especially after she had strayed along the edge of the demimonde for so long.
Alex frowned at the thought of the two of them together. It was all wrong. For all his thirty years, Zachary was still a guileless boy. He would never be the man in his own home, not with a wife as headstrong as Lily. Zachary would always find it easier to obey her wishes rather than argue with her. As the years passed by, Lily would come to feel contempt for her callow husband. This marriage was misery in the making.
“My lord?” Lily and the others were looking at him expectantly. Alex realized that his thoughts had wandered, and he had lost track of the conversation. “My lord,” Lily said, “I just asked you if the hole has been dug in the garden yet.”
Alex wondered if he had heard her correctly. “Hole?” he repeated.
Lily looked extremely pleased with herself. “Yes, for the new pond.”
Alex regarded her in dumbfounded silence. Somehow he regained his voice. “What in hell are you talking about?”
Everyone seemed startled by his profanity except for Lily. Her smile remained unaltered. “I had a lovely conversation with your gardener Mr. Chumley yesterday afternoon. I gave him several ideas to improve the garden.”
Alex stubbed out his cigar and threw the butt into the fireplace. “My garden doesn’t need improvement,” he snarled. “It’s been the same way for twenty years!”
She nodded cheerfully. “Precisely my point. I told him that the style of your landscape is sadly outmoded. All the really fashionable gardens have several ponds all around them. I showed Mr. Chumley exactly where a new one must be dug.”
A flush of scarlet crept up from Alex’s collar to his temples. He wanted to strangle her. “Chumley wouldn’t overturn a spoonful of dirt without asking my permission.”
Lily shrugged innocently. “He seemed enthusiastic about the notion. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s already begun digging. Really, I think you’ll adore the changes.” She gave him a fond, sisterly smile. “And whenever you walk by that dear little pond, perhaps you’ll always think of me.”
Raiford’s features contorted. He made a sound that resembled a roar as he stormed out of the parlor.
Totty, Penelope, and Zachary all stared at Lily.
“I don’t think he appreciated my idea,” she remarked, looking disappointed.
“Wilhemina,” Totty said faintly, “I know your efforts were well intentioned. However, I do not think you should attempt to make any more improvements about Lord Raiford’s estate.”
Suddenly one of the cook-maids, clad in a white apron and ruffled cap, appeared at the door of the parlor. “Ma’am, Cook wants to speak wi’ ye about the weddin’ feast, as soon as yer lady-ship ’as the time. She don’t know what to make o’ what, from the soup to the trifle.”
“But why?” Totty asked, perplexed. “She and I already agreed on those preparations, down to the last detail. There’s no reason for confusion.”
Lily cleared her throat delicately. “Mother, it’s possible that Cook wants to discuss the changes I suggested to the wedding menu.”
“Oh, dear. Wilhemina, what have you done?” Totty stood up and rushed from the room, her curls bouncing agitatedly.
Lily smiled at Zachary and Penelope. “Well, why don’t the two of you pass the time together while I try to undo some of the havoc I’ve caused?” Ignoring Penelope’s weak protests, she slipped out of the parlor and closed the door. She rubbed her hands together and grinned. “Well done,” she said to herself, restraining the urge to whistle as she strode through the back gallery. Opening the French doors, she went out to the garden.
Wandering around hedges and well-tended trees, Lily enjoyed the clear day and the feel of the breeze in her curls. She took care to keep out of sight, especially when she heard the sound of voices. The ominous rumble of Raiford’s tone resembled thunder. She had to hear what was going on. It was too great a temptation to resist. Lily sneaked closer, drawing behind a concealing yew hedge.
“…but my lord,” Chumley was protesting. Lily could picture his round face turning pink around his whiskers, the sunlight shining off his balding forehead. “My lord, she did make the suggestion, but I would never undertake such a significant project without consulting you.”
“I don’t care what she suggests, significant or trivial, don’t do it,” Raiford commanded. “Don’t so much as clip a twig or pull a weed at her request! Don’t move a pebble!”
“Yes, my lord, I certainly agree.”
“We don’t need any more damned ponds in this garden!”
“No, my lord, we do not.”
“Inform me if she tries to instruct you in your duties again, Chumley. And notify the rest of the staff that they’re not to make any changes in their usual activities. I’m afraid of setting foot off my own estate—next she’ll have the entire mansion painted pink and purple.”
“Yes, my lord.”
It seemed that Raiford’s ranting had come to an end, the conversation concluded. Hearing the sound of footsteps, Lily shrank further into the protection of the yew. It would not do to be discovered. Unfortunately, a sixth sense must have alerted Raiford to her presence. Lily made no movement or sound, but still he looked around the hedge and found her. One moment she was smiling and silently congratulating herself, and the next she was staring into his scowling face.
“Miss Lawson!” he snapped.
Lily used her hand to shade her eyes. “Yes, my lord?”
“Did you overhear enough, or should I repeat myself?”
“Everyone within a mile could not help overhearing you. And if it reassures you, I would never dream of painting the mansion purple. Although—”
“What are you doing out here?” he interrupted.
Lily thought rapidly. “Well, Zachary and I had a…a slight altercation. I came out here to take the air, and let my temper cool, and then—”
“Is your mother with Stamford and Penelope?”
“Well, I suppose she must be,” she replied innocently.
Raiford stared into Lily’s eyes as if he could see past her carefully blank expression and read every thought. “What are you up to?” he asked in a murderous tone. Abruptly he turned and walked away from her, following the path to the house.
Oh, no. Lily went cold, thinking that he might possibly catch Zachary and Penelope in some compromising situation. Everything would be ruined. She had to find some way to stop him. “Wait,” she cried, hurrying after him. “Wait! W—”
All at once her foot was caught in something, and she went flying to the ground with a shriek. With an oath, she twisted to see what had stopped her. A twisted tree root, arcing out of the ground. She tried to get to her feet, but a stab of pain went through her ankle, and she collapsed to the grass. “Oh, bloody hell—”
Raiford’s voice cut through her extravagant cursing. “What is it?” he demanded, having come back a few steps along the path.
“I turned my ankle!” she said in furious surprise.
Alex gave her a speaking glance and turned away.
“Damn you, I did!” she shouted. “Come and help me up. Surely even you must be enough of a gentleman to do that—surely you have the teaspoonful of breeding required for that.”
Alex approached her, making no effort to reach down for her. “Which leg is it?”
“Is it necessary for you to know?”
Sinking to his haunches, Alex flipped the hem of her skirts up to her stockinged ankles. “Which one? This?”
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