Authors: Jenna Petersen
It wasn’t as if she minded. She didn’t want to play. She could learn much more when observing from outside to see how everyone interacted. So much personality was revealed by chance in a game.
Gabby was excellent, of course. It seemed there was little she could not do, and Lillian couldn’t help but smile at her friend’s enthusiasm and laughter. She was equally pleased to note her friend had caught the gaze of a few gentlemen in attendance.
The others who remained in the game had varying levels of play. She noticed that Lady Philippa, an earl’s daughter, pretended to lose her balance every time she shot because she was standing next to Simon and he would right her when she went off kilter.
The daughter of a marquis, Lady Theresa, was hitting such poor shots that Lillian couldn’t believe they weren’t purposeful. It appeared the foolish chit didn’t wish to outperform Simon or any of the other eligible men; after all she had fared just fine in the first round that had matched her against the other ladies of their party.
Lady Anne, the Duke of Waverly’s fiancée, played just the opposite. She was careful and steady in her play, but each time she hit a perfect shot, Lillian noticed her eyes lit up with pure triumph. She
liked Lady Anne for that.
And then there was Simon. He calculated his every move carefully, never executing a shot with anything less than the perfect pressure or exact placement. He was always in control, always calm.
He moved in to make his next play and leaned over the ball to line up his mallet for the shot. But suddenly his eyes lifted and she found him looking at her. Staring, really, was the word for it. He gave her a half smile and then he cracked the ball.
It spun out of bounds, smashing through low brush until it came to rest out of sight.
“Lost ball,” he called out with feigned exasperation. “By our tournament rules, it appears I am out of the game.”
Lillian’s jaw dropped open in shock, and it seemed she was not alone in her reaction. A few of the young women still playing looked genuinely distressed, the Duke of Waverly hardly acknowledged the statement, and Lady Anne rolled her eyes slightly.
Simon handed off his mallet to another player and began across the lawn toward her with purpose in his expression. Lillian stiffened. Just as had occurred the day before when they entered the picnic together, his obvious attention drew every eye on the lawn toward her. And many of them were not approving.
The blasted man was making her the center of attention and ruining everything!
And yet her heart leapt as he stopped before her with a smile.
“Do you mind if I join you, Miss Mayhew?” he asked, then stepped in beside her without awaiting her answer.
She cocked an eyebrow as she looked him up and down. “If you truly missed your shot by chance, I shall eat my bonnet.”
He barked out surprised laughter, and his strange green eyes twinkled in a way that was quite mesmerizing. Lillian had to force herself to look somewhere else.
“The whole bonnet?” he asked, leaning back as if he was examining the hat perched on her head. “Including the feather?”
the feather,” she retorted with a smile she had not bidden.
She pressed her lips together in frustration the moment she had spoken. It seemed she was too willing to abandon her plans the moment Simon turned his charm her way. Gabby said she had to allow his interest to play out, but that didn’t mean she should
the way he looked at her or smiled at her.
“Well, I would not want to be the cause of your indigestion,” Simon said with a shrug. “Therefore, I concede I missed my final shot on purpose.”
“Whatever for?” Lillian asked. “You were doing quite well.”
“I was more interested in speaking to a young lady who is apparently one of the worst croquet players to ever pick up a mallet.”
He tilted his head, and though his words were teasing there was a heat in his stare that made Lillian’s very blood tingle and all her objections to his attentions fade away. She swallowed hard.
“That would be
, by the way, Miss Mayhew,” he whispered.
“You are very rude. I am certainly not the worst croquet player I know.” She tried to maintain a light tone, but her voice was suddenly husky.
His eyes widened. “You know worse? Good Lord.” His arm came out to fill the space between them and hovered there. “You must tell me more about this crime against sport and nature. Perhaps while we take a turn about the gardens?”
Again, Lillian swallowed. It seemed her body was determined to war with her mind, for she found herself leaning toward Simon, even as her brain screamed at her that he was the son of a man she hated.
But how could she refuse him with everyone watching? And even if they were pretending not to, they were
watching. Resistance could only bring trouble. In truth there was little choice in the matter.
Suppressing a sigh, she slipped her fingers through the crook of his elbow and allowed him to lead her away from the croquet field into the garden, which was edged by a shrubbery that came up to her waist.
“And now I have another confession to make,” Simon said as they walked slowly down the path through beautiful flowers and carefully trimmed bushes.
“And what is that, Your Grace?” she asked, her mouth suddenly dry.
“I do not wish to talk about croquet,” he said with a light laugh. “Unless that is a true passion of yours.”
She stopped in the middle of the pathway and glided her hand away from him. It felt warm as she clutched it to her breast.
“Your Grace, forgive my impertinence, but why in the world do you insist upon pursuing
?” she burst out. Immediately she wished to snatch the words back or recall the moment.
Years of rejection rose to the forefront of her mind. Men who had seemed interested, but ultimately pushed her aside when they uncovered the rumors of her past. Simon had to know about her mother by now. Someone certainly must have
him know if only to discourage him. And yet he continued down this unexpected and unwanted course.
Simon looked at her long and hard before he spoke, but his expression was not one of disappointment or even shock. He seemed to be truly considering her question before he said, “Because, Miss Mayhew, unlike the other women who have gathered here, you interest me. And truth be told, you confuse me. Not many people manage that feat.”
“Confuse you?” Lillian repeated.
He nodded. “One moment you are playful, the next you seem determined to get as far away from me as humanly possible. I saw a love of books reflected in your eyes when you stumbled upon my library, but you pretended disinterest when I asked you about it. I don’t know what to think of you or how to read you and I like that. I
Lillian blinked. His reply was entirely unexpected. She didn’t think any man had ever been so straightforward with her. Most danced around with pretty words and never really gave an answer. But this…
was an answer.
“Not to mention the fact that you are quite beautiful, Miss Mayhew,” he continued, and now he took a small step closer. “Lillian.”
She was suddenly aware of how tall he was. And that he smelled faintly of pine, as if he spent a great deal of time outside in the fresh air. She found herself breathing him in subtly. But then she shook her head and backed away, desperate to break the strange spell he had woven around her with pretty words and heated glances.
“There are at least a dozen beautiful women here, Simon.” She flushed as she realized her slip. It seemed her private use of his given name had instilled bad habits in her. “Your Grace.”
But a light of triumph had already brightened his eyes. Her use of his name was only encouragement to him.
She hastened to add something else, to counteract her inappropriate statement with a fact that would crush his interest.
“Those other women are far more appropriate than I am, as well,” she finally whispered. “If you are on this path to court me, I would bring nothing to you, Your Grace. No money, no alliance with a powerful family, in fact, my connections would bring you down in the estimation of some. I did not come here to pursue that kind of connection to you; I have no illusions that I shall marry, perhaps at all.”
He smiled again, but this time there was a gentleness to it. “All that you say may be true. However, I find that I don’t really care that much. I do find you interesting, Lillian, whether you like it or not, whether you expected it or not. And since I have the power and the access and the time, I intend to pursue my interest.”
Lillian’s lips parted as he moved even closer. She felt his body heat now, suffusing her fine linen gown, warming her beneath in a way that suggested naked skin and writhing bodies. With a start, she turned away, but he caught her wrist and held her steady.
“You are a riddle I intend to solve,” he whispered, his gaze holding hers.
Before she could find her voice to reply, there was the sound of a throat clearing from behind her. Lillian shook off his hand and turned to find the dowager duchess, Lady Billingham, standing with her arms folded, staring at them. Staring at Simon was actually more accurate. She did not spare Lillian so much as a glance.
“You are neglecting your guests, Your Grace,” she said, her tone chilly. “Why don’t you join us?”
Lillian thought she heard just the faintest sigh from Simon before he moved forward. “Yes, Mother.”
As his mother left the garden, Simon turned back to her. “Will you return with us?”
She shook her head. “No. I’d like to remain in the garden for a few moments.”
He smiled. “Good. I hope you shall find something interesting to consider.”
She watched his retreating back for a moment with a silent curse. Because of him, all she would think about for some time was the feel of his fingers around her wrist, of the sound of his words while he stated his intention to pursue her, and of the way he had looked at her with such heat that it had warmed her to her very toes.
All she would think about was him.
Lillian’s lips thinned. She could only hope she would not be so transparent to Simon.
“A fact I despise myself for, I assure you,” she huffed as she examined herself in the mirror.
Although her gown was not as lavish as her friend’s, it was pretty enough. She wouldn’t look like anyone’s poor relation, at least.
Not that it mattered.
wasn’t here for courting.
“He was watching you at supper last night.”
Lillian let her eyes squeeze shut. “At least we have not yet been seated beside each other. I cannot imagine what would happen then. But yes, I noticed he was watching me. And again at breakfast this morning.”
Gabby got up from her seat and smiled. “I don’t know, Lillian. I think it’s rather romantic that he would so honestly declare his interest in you.”
Lillian frowned. “I suppose under normal circumstances I might agree. I have always appreciated straightforward individuals. But these are not normal circumstances and Simon is not a ‘normal’ person. He is the son of a man I hate more than any other. And my father’s dying wish was that our family have vengeance. I have no choice but to continue on that course. I certainly cannot cease simply because I find the man attractive. My mother deserves better. She deserves for the world to know that her attacker was not a good man.”
“Yes,” her friend said softly. “There is that.”
Lillian stiffened as guilt bubbled up to the surface of her consciousness. She pushed it away by adding, “Besides, given his upbringing and his father, I rather doubt that he is being true.”
“What do you mean?” Gabby’s eyebrows knit together.
“His father was able to hide his real nature from the world. How can I take Simon at face value knowing that Roger Crathorne may have taught him some valuable lessons on the manipulation of women?”
“And you think he has been practicing those ‘lessons’ on you since your arrival? That nothing he has demonstrated or expressed has been genuine?”
Certainly the heated expression in Simon’s eyes had seemed sincere and his words appeared earnest, but who knew?
“Perhaps he does
me, maybe because I am so very wrong for him. But does that mean he has any interest in me beyond getting me to his bed?” Lillian shrugged and tried to ignore the warmth that spread through her at the thought. “Well, that is another issue entirely.”
Gabby blushed, and Lillian wished she could take back her blunt words. She sometimes forgot that aside from being younger, her friend was also far more innocent and sheltered.
“None of this really matters,” Lillian said with a sigh. “For I have no interest in the man beyond what I can uncover about his father through him. Whatever the nature of his interest, I do not return it. I cannot even if I wished to. It would be a betrayal of my family.”
Her friend looked at her as if she didn’t quite believe it, but didn’t argue. Instead, she glanced at the clock. “Oh my, it is time to assemble for the ball. Are you ready?”
Lillian took one last glance at herself in the mirror. She was presentable, but not flashy. Perfect to blend in, if Simon would simply allow her to do so.
And yet, as she followed Gabby from the room, she couldn’t help but wish that she possessed a gown as pretty as her friend’s. Something that would make her feel beautiful. Something that would erase, at least for a few hours, her true purpose in being here and allow her to pretend that she was just another girl spinning around the dance floor.
One who had caught the eye of the most eligible man in England, if only for a moment.