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Lady Freemantle’s matchmaking is vexing enough to drive a saint mad, and you know I am no saint.
—Miss Lily Loring to Fanny Irwin
“I cannot understand why he flusters me so,” Lilian Loring mumbled unevenly to the gray cat. “No man has ever unsettled me this way.”
A soft purr was the only reply Lily received to her complaint.
“It is not merely because he is handsome, either. I am not ord’narily attracted to handsome noblemen.” If anything she was highly wary of them. “And I care nothing for his rank and consequence.”
Giving a woozy sigh, Lily stretched out in the straw as she stroked the cat’s fur. She was hard-pressed to explain the deplorable effect that Heath Griffin, Marquess of Claybourne, had on her. Particularly since she had just met him for the first time this morning at her sister’s wedding.
“The trouble is, he is too sharm . . . charming.” And virile. And vital. And powerful.
Whatever his attributes, they made her absurdly breathless and agitated.
“Devil take ’im. . . .”
Lily bit her lip and fell silent upon registering how slurred her words sounded. No doubt the result of drinking three full glasses of champagne—which was at least two glasses too many, given how spirits of any kind went directly to her head. But the events of the evening had been dismaying enough to drive her to imbibe.
She wasn’t completely foxed at the moment, yet it had probably been a mistake to attempt climbing up to the stable loft wearing a ball gown—an exquisite confection of pale rose silk—and dancing slippers. Weaving her way up the ladder in such narrow skirts while carrying a napkinful of tidbits had challenged her usual athleticism. But she had wanted to bring supper for Boots before she left the wedding celebrations.
Boots, the Danvers Hall stable cat, had recently given birth to a litter of kittens. Currently the family of felines was contentedly curled up in the box Lily had arranged in the loft to protect the mother cat and her new offspring from the home-farm dogs. Lily had left her lantern hanging on a peg below so as not to frighten the youngsters, and the muted golden glow contributed to the tranquility of the loft, as did the warmth of the night, since it was nearly summer.
The three kittens were little balls of fluff, their eyes barely open, but they were beginning to show their own unique personalities—much like the Loring sisters, Lily thought. The sight of the baby kittens blinking sleepily up at her roused intensely tender feelings in her chest, since she had a soft spot for the helpless and less fortunate.
If she was honest with herself, however, she would admit that she’d sought refuge in the stable loft as much to escape Lord Claybourne as to feed the estate cat and indulge in a bout of self-pity.
While Boots was nibbling delicately on breast of roast pheasant, Lily carefully reached inside the box and picked up one of the adorable kittens.
“Do you re’lize how precious you are?” she murmured, pressing her nose into its soft ebony fur. The black kitten was the rambunctious one, like Lily herself, and it swatted at her nose playfully.
Lily gave a low laugh, which helped staunch the ache in her throat at the poignant memories she was trying to hold at bay.
It had been a lovely wedding this morning in the village church, where her eldest sister Arabella had married Marcus Pierce, the new Earl of Danvers. An enormous wedding breakfast and ball had followed at Danvers Hall, with nearly six hundred guests in attendance. The celebrations had gone splendidly, due in large part to her middle sister Roslyn’s untiring efforts and hostess skills.
The ball would continue for at least another hour or two, until after midnight, but Lily and Roslyn had said farewell to Arabella in private a short while ago, sharing tears of happiness and sadness.
It was extremely hard for Lily to bear, losing Arabella to marriage, but the evening had been made even more difficult by the meddlesome matchmaking efforts of their kindly patron, Winifred, Lady Freemantle. Several years ago, when the Loring sisters had been penniless and in desperate need of earning their own livings, Winifred had supplied the funds to start their Academy for Young Ladies for the daughters of the wealthy merchant class. All during the ball, Winifred had kept pushing Lily in the path of Marcus’s close friend, the Marquess of Claybourne.
Eventually, much to her chagrin and dismay, Winifred cornered her and practically forced his lordship to dance with her.
“You will be delighted to have so desirable a dance partner as Miss Lilian, my lord, no mistake,” the middle-aged matron assured him.
“Delighted and honored,” Claybourne replied, smiling lazily down at Lily.
She felt color heat her cheeks. As her traitorous friend turned away, beaming with sly glee, Lily stared back at Claybourne, vexed and tongue-tied.
The marquess was tall and powerful, with an air of breathtaking virility that commanded attention. His hair was a tawny brown, his eyes a gold-flecked hazel, and he had an utterly masculine face that made countless feminine hearts flutter.
Lily discovered that she was no different. Deplorably aware of her quickening pulse and heightened senses, she stood there feeling awkward and fuming at Winifred’s machinations. It was mortifying, being paraded before the very wealthy, very eligible marquess like a heifer at a fair.
She remained mute as she accepted Lord Claybourne’s hand and let him lead her onto the ballroom floor. And when the orchestra struck up the opening bars of a waltz, she reluctantly moved into his arms. She did not like being so close to him, to his heat and vitality. Nor was she pleased at how conscious she was of his body, of his natural grace, his easy sensuality as he guided her to the lilting rhythm of the music. She had never observed such things about a man before. Normally she only noticed a man’s potential for brutality, the size of his fists—
“Do you dislike dancing in general, Miss Loring?” Claybourne finally asked to break the silence between them. “Or do you object to dancing with me in particular?”
Lily was taken aback by his perceptiveness. “Why would you think I object, my lord?” she hedged.
“Perhaps because of that fearsome scowl you are wearing.”
Feeling a fresh flush tinge her cheeks, she forced a polite smile. “I beg your pardon. Dancing is not my favorite pastime.”
Those jeweled eyes glinted down from beneath heavy brows. “You do it quite well. I confess that surprises me.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Why should it surprise you?”
“Because Marcus claims you are a spitfire and a hoyden. I understand you would rather enjoy a good gallop across a field than be caught dead in a ballroom.”
That honest observation won a reluctant laugh from Lily. “Most decidedly I prefer riding to waltzing, my lord, although ‘spitfire’ is a bit harsh. Marcus thinks I am one because I frequently quarreled with him about Arabella when he was courting her. But I am fairly even-tempered. However, I freely admit to being a hoyden—except when I play teacher at our Academy and must set a good example. Or upon occasions such as this, when I am required to endure the social niceties for my sisters’ sakes. In truth, I find a certain pleasure in defying the dictates of the ton.”
“I can admire a rebel,” he said, his tone edged with amusement. “You are very different from your sisters, are you not?”
His observation earned a sharp look from Lily. She regarded Claybourne suspiciously, unable to tell if he considered the difference favorable or not.
Not that she minded if his judgment of her was unfavorable. Nor did it bother her that she always fell short in comparisons with her sisters. Both Arabella and Roslyn were remarkable beauties with fair hair, creamy complexions, and tall, elegant figures.
Lily couldn’t match their height or aristocratic bearing—in addition to having dark hair and eyes and a rosy coloring that made her seem a changeling in her blond, blue-eyed family. Moreover, her sisters were the epitome of grace and ladylike gentility, while her own high spirits and stubborn aversion to conforming to the absurdly stuffy precepts of the ruling elite regularly led her into trouble.
But Lily had no intention of apologizing to his lordship for her subversive tendencies. Indeed, to her mind, the less conversation she had with him the better.
He, however, did not appear inclined to take her hint and keep silent. “Did you enjoy the wedding ceremony this morning, Miss Loring?”
That topic was an extreme sore point with her also, although she managed to hide her wince. “Arabella made a beautiful bride,” she said carefully.
“But you don’t approve of your sister marrying my friend.”
Lily’s frown returned as she scanned the ballroom for the bridal couple and found Arabella and Marcus laughing together as they waltzed. “I fear she may be making a mistake, wedding so suddenly. They have known each other for barely two months.”