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The Wicked Lord Montague

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Chapter Three

‘I do believe this particular shade would complement your colouring admirably.’ Mrs Hall laid out a swatch of deep pink material upon the counter top of her establishment, where several other bolts of material already lay discarded after having been rejected by Lily as not quite what she wanted.

In truth, Lily was not absolutely sure what she did want, only that she had decided to purchase some material to make up a new day gown, and Mrs Hall’s establishment in the village was so much more convenient than having to travel all the way to the nearest town of Buxton. Luckily, that lady had several new selections of material in stock, and Lily’s needlework was also excellent due to Mrs Seagrove’s tutelage in earlier years. Besides which, with the celebrations less than two weeks away, Lily was sorely in need of a new gown—

Lily drew her thoughts up sharply as she realised she was not only prevaricating but actually practising a deception upon herself; her reason for deciding she needed a new gown for the day of the well-dressing celebrations could be summed up in just three words—Lord Giles Montague! Which was a ridiculous vanity on Lily’s part, when she had no doubts that the haughty Lord Giles would have taken absolutely no note of the gowns she had been wearing on the two occasions on which they had last met.

‘Or perhaps this one …?’ Mrs Hall held up another swatch, having obviously drawn a wrong conclusion as to the reason for Lily’s present distraction.

‘I think perhaps—Oh, how beautiful!’ Lily gasped in pleasure as she focused her attention on the material which she was sure had to be a match in colour for the green of her eyes.

If styled correctly, it could be prettied up with cream lace at the neck and short sleeves to wear in the evenings. Not that Lily had attended any of the local assemblies since Edward died, but even so …

‘It is perfect,’ she breathed in satisfaction. ‘But no doubt costly?’ she added with a self-conscious grimace; she was, after all, only a vicar’s adopted daughter, and as such it would not do for her to look anything other than what she was, and this material had a richness about it that was unmistakable to the eye.

As she had grown to adulthood Lily had often found herself wondering if, as so many in the village so obviously suspected, she really could be the daughter of one of the dramatically beautiful Romany women who stayed in the grounds of Castonbury Park during the summer months.

Several years ago Lily had even plucked up the courage to question one of them, a Mrs Lovell, the oldest and friendliest of the Romany women. The old lady had seemed taken aback by the question at first, and then she had chuckled as she assured Lily that the tribes took care of their own, and that no true Romany child would ever have been left behind to live with a gorjer. It had been said in such a contemptuous way that Lily had no difficulty discerning that the old lady meant a non-Romany person.

Even so, Lily had still sometimes found herself daydreaming as to how different her life would have been if, despite Mrs Lovell’s denials, her mother really had been one of those lovely Romany women….

No doubt once she was grown she would have worn those same dresses in rich and gaudy colours that she had seen the Romany women wearing, with her long and wildly curling black hair loose about her shoulders as she danced about the campfire in the evenings, enticing and beguiling the swarthy-skinned Gypsy men who watched her with hot and desirous eyes.

Her daydreams had always come to an abrupt and disillusioned end at that point, as Lily acknowledged that might possibly be the exact way in which her mother had conceived the child she had abandoned on the Seagroves’ doorstep twenty years ago!

‘Perhaps it is not quite … suitable.’ She sighed wistfully as she touched the beautiful moss-green material longingly. ‘A serviceable grey would be more practical, do you not think?’ Her liking for the material in front of her was so immediate and so strong, it was impossible to prevent the wistfulness from entering her tone.

The other woman laughed lightly. ‘Like the gown you are wearing today, you mean?’

Lily glanced down at her gown, one of her older ones, chuckling softly as she realised the other woman was quite correct and that the gown was indeed grey, and that it was also eminently serviceable in style. ‘Do forgive me.’ She smiled at the other woman in rueful apology. ‘My head is so filled with arrangements for the well-dressing I did not even take note of which gown I had put on this morning!’

Mrs Hall nodded. ‘I have noticed that everyone in the village is excited at the prospect of the May celebrations returning to Castonbury Park this year.’

Everyone but Lily, it seemed….

How different it would have been if Lord Giles had not currently been in residence at Castonbury Park.

Ridiculous—if Lord Giles Montague was not at home, then Lily very much doubted that the May celebrations would have returned to Castonbury Park at all.

And as Mrs Hall had already stated, news that the garden party was once again to take place at Castonbury Park had quickly spread throughout the village in the two days since Giles Montague had told the vicar of his decision. Not that Mr Seagrove had spread that news himself. No, he would only have needed to mention the arrangements to Mrs Crutchley, the wife of the local butcher, for that to have occurred.

Mrs Crutchley had been in charge of arranging the flowers in the church for the Sunday services since the death of Mrs Seagrove, Lily having been considered by that lady as far too young to take on such an onerous task. As such, Mrs Crutchley also put herself in charge of orchestrating the floral decorations each year for the well-dressing ceremony.

One word from Mr Seagrove to this garrulous lady as to the change of venue to Castonbury Park for the celebrations after the ceremony, and that knowledge had spread quickly throughout the whole village. Indeed, everyone Lily had chanced to speak with in the past two days had talked of nothing else but the prospect of an afternoon and evening enjoying the Duke of Rothermere’s hospitality.

Everyone except Lily, for reasons she had not shared with anyone this past year….

But if she was to be forced to suffer a day in the company of Lord Giles—and it seemed that she was—then she really must have a new gown in which to do it! ‘Yes, I believe I will take this material, after all,’ she announced firmly as she stood up decisively, turning to admire the arrangement of ribbons in the window as Mrs Hall cut the appropriate amount of fabric. ‘I believe I would like this also.’ Lily had plucked a long length of dark green ribbon from the display and now handed it to Mrs Hall to be included in the package, knowing the ribbon would make a fine contrast to the lighter green of the material, as well as giving the gown a festive look for the well-dressing.

‘Is that everything?’ Mrs Hall proceeded to wrap and tie Lily’s purchases in brown paper after her reassuring nod.

‘You will send me the bill, as usual?’ At which time Lily would no doubt learn that there would be none of her allowance left with which to make any other purchases, either this month or the next!

It would be worth going without, if only to show Lord Giles that she could be just as elegantly dressed as any of the fashionable women he might know in London, Lily told herself as she walked briskly back to the vicarage, her parcel clutched tightly to her chest. Giles Montague enjoyed looking down his arrogant nose at her far too much—

‘You are looking mightily pleased with yourself,’ drawled that gentleman’s superior voice. ‘Can it be that you are on your way to an assignation, or have perhaps just left one …?’

Lily was frowning as she turned sharply to face Lord Giles.

‘I am finding your habit of appearing out of nowhere most irritating, my lord!’

He made no reply as he raised dark brows beneath his tall hat, once again the epitome of the fashionable gentleman, the tailored black jacket and plain grey waistcoat he wore today very much in the understated elegance of the most stylish of gentlemen, like the cane he carried of black ebony tipped with silver.

Lily’s chin was high as she met that mocking silver-grey gaze. ‘And in answer to your question, I was neither on my way to an assignation nor leaving one, but merely visiting one of the shops in the village.’

Giles’s expression was deliberately noncommittal as he looked at Lily Seagrove between narrowed lids, noting the flash of temper in those moss-green eyes and the colour in her cheeks as she answered his query. Quite why he felt the need to constantly challenge this particular young woman he had not the slightest idea, but the result, he noted—those flashing green eyes and the flush in her cheeks—was more than pleasing to a gentleman’s eyes.

His mouth thinned with displeasure at the realisation that it was more than pleasing to his own eye! ‘You have completed your purchases, and are now on your way back to the vicarage, perhaps?’

‘I am.’ She tilted her chin, as if daring him to challenge her claim.

Giles nodded tersely.

‘As I am on my way to visit with your father, I shall walk along with you.’

No ‘please’ or ‘may I,’ Lily noted irritably, just that arrogant ‘I shall.’

But it was an arrogance she knew from experience it would do no good to challenge. Just as she knew it would serve no purpose for her to enquire as to the reason he intended visiting with her father; it would certainly be too much to hope that Giles Montague was finding the annual celebrations at Castonbury Park too much of a bother, after all.

‘By all means, my lord.’ Lily nodded graciously before continuing her walk without sparing a second glance to see whether or not Giles Montague fell into step beside her.

Which was not to say she was not completely aware of his tall and dominating presence beside her as he easily matched his much longer strides to her shorter ones. Or the speculation with which several of her neighbours eyed them as they passed, even as they curtseyed or bowed in recognition of the man at her side.

Lily had no doubt those curious eyes continued to watch the two of them as they strolled along the village street towards the vicarage. ‘His Grace is a little better, I trust?’ After several minutes of suffering what she knew would be the avid speculation of her neighbours, Lily felt self-conscious enough to feel forced into making some sort of conversation. She turned to glance up curiously at Giles Montague when he did not immediately reply. A frown had appeared between his eyes, his mouth had become a thinned line and his jaw was tight. All of which Lily found most unreassuring. ‘My lord?’ she prompted uncertainly.

Lily’s long friendship with Edward had resulted in her having spent a considerable amount of time at Castonbury Park itself, and so she had often chanced to meet the Duke of Rothermere whilst in Edward’s company. She had come to know His Grace as a pleasant and charming man, one who was capable of showing a fondness for his children. He had a genuine affection for Lily’s father which had included Mrs Seagrove when she was alive and, as a consequence, Lily too. Certainly there had never been any sign in either His Grace’s speech or demeanour towards her to imply that he considered her as anything less than the true daughter of Mr and Mrs Seagrove.

Unlike the grim-faced gentleman now striding along so confidently beside her!

But that did not infringe upon Lily’s regard for the Duke of Rothermere. The poor man had suffered so these past years, losing first Lord James and then Edward, that it was no wonder he had withdrawn from the world to become but a shell of his former robust and charming self!

‘You are alarming me with your delay in making a reply, my lord,’ she said.

In truth, Giles was not sure what to say in answer to Lily’s query. ‘My father seems much the same in physical health as when I arrived three days ago.’

Which was to say his father was both frail in stature and looking so much older than his sixty-odd years. The duke did have periods when his vagueness of purpose did not seem quite so noticeable, when he appeared to listen attentively as Giles told him of the work he had instructed to be carried out about the estate. But it had quickly become apparent to Giles that it was a feigned interest.

This was worrying enough in itself, but was made all the more so because the legalities of his father’s successor were still in a state of flux. His brother Jamie had been swept away in a Spanish river, and his body never recovered. It was not an unusual occurrence admittedly—so many English soldiers had died during the years of fighting Napoleon, never to be seen or heard of again by their families. But, in the case of the heir to the Duke of Rothermere, the lack of physical evidence had resulted in a delay with regard to the naming of Giles as the duke’s successor.

His father’s strangeness aside, there was something not quite … right about the current state of affairs at Castonbury Park, and now that he was here Giles fully intended, before too much more time had elapsed, to find out exactly what it was.

Perhaps he would know more when he’d had a chance to thoroughly review the estate account books which Everett, the estate manager, was having delivered to him later today.

Lily frowned at Giles’s reply. ‘I believe my own father had hoped that your return might bring about some improvement to His Grace.’

Giles’s mouth twisted humourlessly. ‘No doubt you did not share Mr Seagrove’s optimism?’

‘I, my lord?’ She raised surprised brows. ‘I cannot say that I had given the subject of your return any thought whatsoever.’

Giles found himself chuckling huskily. ‘I am finding your lack of a good opinion of me to be a great leveller, Miss Seagrove!’ he explained as she regarded him questioningly.

Lily, finding herself once again distracted by the difference a smile made to Giles Montague’s countenance, now felt the warmth of colour enter her cheeks at his drawled rebuke. ‘I am sure I meant you no insult, my lord.’

He continued to smile ruefully. ‘Perhaps that is what I find most telling of all!’

Lily gave a pained frown. ‘I merely meant, as your return to Castonbury was in no way assured, that I tried not to—that I did not consider at any length what effect, if any,’ she said, her cheeks now ablaze, ‘it might have upon His Grace’s health or the people here.’ Only, she recalled guiltily, in regard to how selfish it was of her to wish that Giles Montague might never return at all!

This, she now accepted, had been a childish hope on her part; Lord Giles Montague was now, to all intents and purposes, the future Duke of Rothermere, so it was only to be expected that he would come back to Castonbury Park, if only for the purpose of ensuring that his future inheritance continued to flourish.

‘I believe you have instructed a great deal of work to be done about the estate …?’ Indeed, village gossip had been rife with nothing else but the ‘doings of Lord Giles’ these past two days.

He raised dark brows. ‘Work, I might remind you, which you yourself pointed out to me only days ago, was in need of my immediate attention.’

‘I was not criticising, my lord—’

‘No?’ He looked down at her.

‘Certainly not.’ Lily had absolutely no doubt that Giles Montague would make a very capable Duke of Rothermere when that time came, his years as an officer in the army having given him an air of authority totally in keeping with the lofty position.

Yes, the arrogantly disdainful Giles Montague was more than suited to becoming the future Duke of Rothermere. Lily simply could not see herself remaining in Castonbury once that dreadful day came.

Quite where she would go, or what she would do, or how she would explain her departure to Mr Seagrove if he was still with them—and she prayed that he would be—Lily had no idea. She only knew that she would find remaining in Castonbury, under the charitable auspices of the hateful Giles Montague, absolutely intolerable!

‘I am gratified to hear it,’ the infuriating man drawled. He paused beside the gate into the vicarage garden.

Lily frowned her irritation as she was also forced to pause. ‘I do not believe I care to continue this conversation, my lord.’

His mouth quirked with derision. ‘And I do not believe it is really necessary for you to do so, when I already know, after our conversation a year ago, with what horror you must have viewed the thought of my returning for even a short visit.’

‘Then why did you bother to ask?’ Lily eyed him impatiently.

He shrugged those broad shoulders. ‘I thought to amuse myself, perhaps.’

‘Indeed, my lord? And did you not find enough “amusements” in London these past nine months?’

His eyes narrowed. ‘And what would you know of my movements these past months?’

Lily felt the warmth of colour in her cheeks. ‘No matter what you might consider to the contrary, my lord, Castonbury is not completely cut off from civilisation!’ And besides, it was his sister Phaedra who had confided, in a whisper, that her brother was reputed to be enjoying the favours of many beautiful women, as well as frequenting the gambling and drinking dens!

The present Duke of Rothermere was rumoured to have once been a man who enjoyed all of the … amusements London had to offer, as well as some of the more local ones, so perhaps his second son was taking after him in enjoying those often less than respect able pursuits?

He gave an exasperated shake of his head. ‘Unless you have forgotten, I spent my early years growing up here.’

Lily tilted her chin proudly. ‘I have not forgotten anything about you, my lord.’

His mouth thinned. ‘Including, no doubt, my words to you a year ago!’

‘Most especially I will never forget those, my lord,’ she assured him before turning to push open the gate for herself as Giles Montague made no effort to do so.

‘Never is a very long time, Lily.’

‘You—Oh, bother!’ Lily had turned sharply back to face him, catching her parcel on the gatepost as she did so, and succeeding in knocking it from her arms and to the ground. She huffed at her own clumsiness even as she bent down to retrieve the parcel.

Giles, having intended on doing the same, instead found himself wincing as their two heads met painfully together, Lily’s brow coming into sharp contact with the hardness of his chin. Unfortunately it was in the exact same spot as his friend Milburn’s fist had landed six days previously!

‘Oh, my word!’ The dropped parcel forgotten, Lily now raised a gloved hand to her obviously painful brow, those moss-green eyes having filled with tears.

Giles pushed aside his own discomfort to quickly discard his cane and reach out to grasp the tops of her arms as he looked down at her anxiously. ‘Let me see!’ He pushed her hand aside, a frown darkening his own brow as he saw the bump that was already forming under her delicate skin. ‘Do not poke and prod at it!’ he instructed sternly as he clasped her gloved fingers firmly in his own even as they crept to the painful spot.

Giles tensed as he became aware of the warmth of Lily’s fingers through the thin lace of her glove, the rapid rise and fall of her breasts against the bodice of her grey gown, her pulse beating rapidly at the base of her slender neck, and when Giles raised his gaze it was to see Lily catch the full redness of her bottom lip between tiny white teeth.

Because of the painful bump to her forehead? Or something else …?

Green eyes now looked up at him in questioning confusion from between long and silky black lashes. ‘My lord …?’ she breathed huskily.

The very air about them seemed to have stilled, even the birds in the trees seemed to have ceased their singing to look down, watchful, expectant, upon the two people standing in a frozen tableau beneath them.

Giles drew a ragged breath into his starved lungs, aware as he did so of his own rapidly beating heart pounding in his ears. Because he could feel the warmth of Lily’s hand against his own? Look down upon the rapid rise and fall of her creamy breasts above the curved neckline of her gown? Smell the lightness of her floral perfume on her smooth, ivory skin?

Giles’s nostrils flared at this sudden, unwelcome awareness as he released her before stepping back abruptly. ‘We should go in now, your brow will need the application of a cold compress to stop the worst of the swelling,’ he told her grimly.

‘My parcel …!’ She attempted to retrieve it.

‘Hang your parcel—’

Glistening green eyes glared up at Giles as he would have prevented her from reaching for the parcel. ‘It is the material for my new gown, and I do not intend to leave it outside for the birds to peck at or the rain to fall upon—’

‘Oh, very well.’ Giles made no effort to hide his impatience as he bent down to gather up the parcel before handing it to her. ‘Now can we go inside?’ he prompted harshly as he picked up his ebony cane, his expression grim.

Lily had absolutely no idea what had happened, only knowing that something most assuredly had.

Giles Montague had looked at her just now as if seeing her for the first time, his eyes no longer that cold silver-grey but instead burning a deep and unfathomable colour of pewter. They were eyes that had swept across the swell of her breasts, the pale column of her throat, before coming to rest on the fullness of her lips. The intensity of his gaze had caused Lily to catch at her bottom lip with her teeth.

Even more puzzling had been her own response to the intensity of that gaze….

For several moments it had seemed as if they might be the only two people in the world, even breathing had been too much of an effort; the blood in Lily’s veins had seemed to burn, her breasts had felt full and sensitive inside her gown.

She had taken note of every hard plane of his aristocratic face—the intelligent brow, those heated grey eyes, a long slash of a nose between high cheekbones, those firm and sculptured lips slightly parted above the square strength of his jaw. Considering all of these attributes, Lily found herself acknowledging Giles Montague as being a breathtakingly handsome man!

Giles Montague.

The arrogant and disdainful Giles Montague.

The hated and despised Lord Giles Montague.

It was unbelievable, unacceptable, that Lily should have such thoughts about a man who had never made any effort to hide the contempt he felt towards her.

She clutched her parcel tightly to her breasts as she turned and walked the small distance down the pathway before opening the door and entering the vicarage. ‘My father is no doubt in his study writing his sermon for Sunday,’ she dismissed with a complete lack of manners as she stared at the top button of Giles Montague’s waistcoat rather than at the hard planes of his face.

‘You will see to putting a cold compress on your forehead immediately.’ Again there was no question or suggestion from Giles Montague, only that cold inflexibility of will that Lily had come to expect from him.

Her chin rose as she looked up at him. ‘I will decide what I will or will not do, my lord!’

His grey eyes narrowed to silver slits. ‘You already have a bump on your forehead half the size of a hen’s egg. Do not make it any worse out of stubborn defiance of me!’

Lily drew her breath in sharply. ‘You are arrogant, sir, to assume your opinion on anything would ever affect my own behaviour one way or the other!’

‘Arrogant? Possibly,’ Giles acknowledged with a derisive inclination of his head. ‘But, in this particular case, I have no doubt I am necessarily so,’ he added drily, heartily relieved to realise that he and Lily Seagrove had returned to the natural state of affairs between them.

Her cheeks flushed with irritation and her eyes flashed. ‘You—’

‘What on earth is—Oh, Lord Giles?’ Mr Seagrove looked slightly perplexed as he stood in the now-open doorway to the family parlour and recognised the gentleman standing in the darkness of his hallway. ‘And Lily …’ The vicar looked even more puzzled as he saw his daughter standing slightly behind Lord Giles.

‘Lord Montague and I met outside, Father,’ Lily spoke up firmly before ‘Lord Montague’ had any opportunity to say anything that might add to her father’s air of confusion.

Once seated at the kitchen table in order to allow the clucking Mrs Jeffries to apply a cold compress to the bump on her forehead—not because Giles Montague had instructed that she do so but because it was the right and sensible thing to do!—Lily could not help but think again of those few minutes of awareness as she stood outside the vicarage with Giles Montague….

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