It Happened One Autumn
New York Times Bestseller
It Happened One Autumn is the story of Lillian Bowman, a bold and headstrong American heiress, and Marcus, Lord Westcliff, the most eligible peer in England. But even though Lillian is hunting for a husband, Marcus is the last man she would ever consider marrying.
In this scene from “It Happened One Autumn”, Marcus, Lord Westcliff, finds the impetuous American heiress Lillian Bowman in the library. Although he has so far resisted the temptations of a woman who is entirely unsuitable for him, he is no longer able to control his desire for her . . .
Lillian stood before a row of books with a pile of them surrounding her on the floor. She pulled rare volumes from the shelves one by one, examining each with a puzzled frown and then tossing it heedlessly behind her. She seemed oddly languid, as if she were moving under water. And her hair was slipping from its pins. She didn’t look ill, precisely. In fact, she looked . . .
Becoming aware of his presence, Lillian glanced over her shoulder with a lopsided smile. “Oh. It’s you,” she said, her voice slurred. Her attention wandered back to the shelves. “I can’t find anything. All these books are so deadly dull . . .”
Frowning in concern, Marcus approached her while she continued to chatter and sort through the books. “Not this one . . . nor this one . . . oh no, no, no, this one’s not even in English . . .”
Marcus’s panic transformed swiftly into outrage, followed by amusement. Damnation. If he had required additional proof that Lillian Bowman was utterly wrong for him, this was it. The wife of a Marsden would never sneak into the library and drink until she was, as his mother would phrase it, “a trifle disguised.” Staring into her drowsy dark eyes and flushed face, Marcus amended the phrase. Lillian was not disguised. She was foxed, staggering, tap-hackled, top-heavy, shot-in-the-neck drunk. More books sailed through the air, one of them narrowly missing his ear.
“Perhaps I could help,” Marcus suggested pleasantly, stopping beside her. “If you would tell me what you are looking for.”
“Something romantic. Something with a happy ending. There should always be a happy ending, shouldn’ there?”
Marcus reached out to finger a trailing lock of her hair, his thumb sliding along the glowing satin filaments. He had never thought of himself as a particularly tactile man, but it seemed impossible to keep from touching her when she was near. “Not always,” he said in reply.
Lillian let out a bubbling laugh. “How very English of you. How you all love to suffer with your stiff . . . stiff . . . “ She peered at the book in her hands, distracted by the gilt on its cover. “. . . upper lips,” she finished absently.
“We don’t like to suffer.”
“Yes, you do. At the very least, you go out of your way to avoid enjoying something.”
By now Marcus was becoming accustomed to the unique mixture of lust and amusement she always managed to arouse in him. “There’s nothing wrong with keeping one’s enjoyments private.”
Dropping the books, Lillian turned to face him. The abruptness of the movement resulted in a sharp wobble, and she swayed back against the shelves as he moved to steady her. Her tip-tilted eyes sparkled like an array of diamonds scattered over brown velvet. “It has nothing to do with privacy,” she informed him. “The truth is that you don’t want to be happy, bec--” She hiccuped gently. “Because it would undermine your dignity. Poor Wes’cliff.” She regarded him compassionately.
At the moment, preserving his dignity was the last thing on Marcus’s mind. He grasped the frame of the bookcase on either side of her, encompassing her in the half-circle of his arms. “Lillian . . . what have you been drinking?”
“Oh . . .” She ducked beneath his arm and careened to the sideboard a few feet away. “I’ll show you . . .wonderful, wonderful stuff . . . this.” Triumphantly she plucked a nearly empty brandy bottle from the edge of the sideboard and held it by the neck. “Look what someone did . . . a pear, right inside! Isn’ that clever?” Bringing the bottle close to her face, she squinted at the imprisoned fruit. “It wasn’ very good at first. But it improved after a while. I suppose it’s an ac”--another delicate hiccup-- “acquired taste.”
“It appears you’ve succeeded in acquiring it,” Marcus remarked, following her. “Lillian, my angel . . . how much was in the bottle when you started?”
Showing him the bottle, she put her finger a third of the way from the bottom. “It was there when I started. Or maybe there.” She frowned. “Now all that’s left is the pear.” She swirled the bottle, making the plump fruit slosh juicily. “I want to eat it,” she announced.
“It’s not meant to be eaten. It’s only there to infuse the--Lillian, give the damned thing to me.”
“I am going to eat it.” She shook the bottle with increasing resolve. “If I can just get it out . . .”
“You can’t. It’s impossible.”
“Impossible?” she scoffed, lurching to face him. “You have servants who can pull the brains from a baked calf’s head, but they couldn’ get one little pear out of a bottle? I doubt that. Send for one of your under-butlers--just give a whistle and--oh, I forgot. You can’t whistle.” She focused on him, her eyes narrowing as she stared at his mouth. “That’s the sillies’ thing I ever heard. Everyone can whistle. I’ll teach you. Right now. Pucker your lips. Like this. Pucker . . . see?”
Marcus caught her in his arms as she swayed before him.
Lillian stared at him earnestly, seeming puzzled by his refusal to comply. “No, no, not like that. Like this.” The bottle fell to the carpet. She reached up to shape his lips with her fingers. “Rest your tongue on the edge of your teeth and . . . it’s all about the tongue, really. If you’re agile with your tongue, you’ll be a very, very good”--she was temporarily interrupted as he covered her mouth with a brief, ravening kiss-- “whistler. My lord, I can’t talk when you--” He fitted his mouth to hers again, devouring the sweet brandied taste of her.
She leaned against him helplessly, her fingers sliding into his hair, while her breath struck his cheek in rapid, delicate puffs. A tide of sensual urgency rolled through him as the kiss deepened into full-blown compulsion.
Pulling her head back, Lillian stared at him with wondering eyes, her lips damp and reddened. Her hands left his hair, her fingertips coming to the hard angles of his cheekbones, soft strokes of coolness on the blazing heat of his skin.
“Lillian,” he whispered, “I’ve tried to leave you alone. But I can’t do it anymore. In the past two weeks I’ve had to stop myself a thousand times from coming to you. No matter how often I tell myself that you are the most inappropriate . . .” He paused as she squirmed suddenly, twisting and craning her neck to look at the floor. “No matter what I--Lillian, are you listening to me? What the devil are you looking for?”
“My pear. I dropped it, and--oh, there it is.” She broke free of him and sank to her hands and knees, reaching beneath a chair. Pulling out the brandy bottle, she sat on the floor and held it in her lap.
“Lillian, forget the damned pear.”
“How did it get in there, d’you think?” she poked her finger experimentally into the neck of the bottle. “I don’ see how something so big could fit into a hole that small.”
Marcus closed his eyes against a surge of aggravated passion, and his voice cracked as he replied. “They . . . they put it directly on the tree. The bud grows . . . inside . . .” He slitted his eyes open and squeezed them shut again as he saw her finger intruding deeper into the bottle. “Grows . . .” he forced himself to continue, “until the fruit is ripe.”
Lillian seemed rather too impressed by the information. “They do? That is the cleverest, cleverest . . .a pear in its own little . . . oh no.”
“What?” Marcus asked through clenched teeth.
“My finger’s stuck.”
Marcus’s eyes flew open. Dumbfounded, he looked down at the sight of Lillian tugging on her imprisoned finger.
“I can’t get it out,” she said.
“Just pull at it.”
“It hurts. It’s throbbing.”
“I can’t! It’s truly stuck. I need something to make it slippery. Do you have some sort of lubricant nearby?”
“Much as it may surprise you, we’ve never needed lubricant in the library before now.”
Lillian frowned up at him. “Before you start to criticize, Wes’cliff, I should like to point out that I am not the first person ever to get her finger stuck in a bottle. It happens to people all the time.”
“Does it? You must be referring to Americans. Because I’ve never seen an Englishman with a bottle stuck on his finger. Even a foxed one.
Avon (October 1, 2005)
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