Scandal in Spring Page 68

Lillian’s face was set and her voice was controlled as she said, “There’s no need to look at me as if I were a descending plague of Egypt. I am capable of rational discourse on occasion. May I have a word with you?”

She sat before he could help her with the chair.

Regarding her warily, Matthew reoccupied his own chair and waited for her to speak. Despite the tension-fraught atmosphere, he almost smiled as he reflected he had often seen the same expression on Thomas Bowman’s face. Lillian was bullishly determined to have her way, yet she was mindful of the fact that a shouting match, no matter how satisfying, would accomplish nothing.

“You and I are both aware,” Lillian said with forced composure, “that even though I can’t stop this blighted marriage from happening, I can make the proceedings quite unpleasant for everyone. Especially you.”

“Yes, I’m aware of that.” Matthew’s response was completely free of sarcasm. Whatever else he thought of Lillian, he knew her love for Daisy was unimpeachable.

“Then I want to dispense with the cat-footing,” Lillian said, “and have a man-to-man conversation.”

Matthew sternly bit back a smile. “Good,” he replied in an equally businesslike manner. “So do I.” He thought he could possibly come to like Lillian. If nothing else, one always knew where one stood with her.

“The only reason I’m willing to tolerate the idea of you as a brother-in-law,” Lillian continued, “is because my husband seems to think well of you. And I’m willing to take his opinion into consideration. Although he is not infallible.”

“That may be the first time I’ve heard anyone make such a remark about the earl.”

“Yes, well…” Lillian surprised him with a faint smile. “It’s why Westcliff married me. My willingness to regard him as a mere mortal is something of a relief after all the incessant worship.” Her dark eyes, rounder and less exotic than Daisy’s, met his in a searching gaze. “Westcliff asked me to try and be impartial. That’s not easy when my sister’s future hangs in the balance.”

“My lady,” Matthew said earnestly, “if I can give you any assurance that might set your mind at ease—”

“No. Wait. Let me set out my opinion of you first.”

Matthew remained politely silent.

“You have always embodied the worst of my father,” Lillian said. “The coldness, the ambition, the self-centeredness. Except you’re worse because you’re able to disguise it far more adeptly than he does. You’re what my father would have been if he’d been blessed with good looks and a little sophistication. I think that in winning you Daisy must somehow feel she has finally succeeded with Father.” Her brows came together as she continued. “My sister has always compelled to love unlovable creatures…the strays, the misfits. Once she loves someone, no matter how many times they betray or disappoint her, she will take them back with open arms. But you won’t appreciate that any more than Father does. You’ll take what you want, and give her very little in return. And when you inevitably hurt her, I will be the first in a line of people waiting to slaughter you. By the time I finish with you, there won’t be enough left for the others to pick over.”

“So much for impartiality,” Matthew said. He respected her brutal honesty even though he was smarting from it. “May I respond with the same frankness you’ve just shown me?”

“I hope you will.”

“My lady, you don’t know me well enough to assess how much like your father I may or may not be. It’s no crime to be ambitious, particularly when you’ve started with nothing. And I’m not cold, I’m from Boston. Which means I’m not prone to displaying my emotions for all and sundry to see. As far as being self-centered, you have no way of knowing how much I’ve done, if anything, for other people. But I’ll be damned if I recite a list of my past good deeds in hopes of winning your approval.” He leveled a cool stare at her. “Regardless of your opinions, the marriage is going to happen, because both Daisy and I want it. So I have no reason to lie to you. I could say I don’t give a damn about Daisy, and I would still get what I want. But the fact is, I’m in love with her. I have been for a long time.”

“You’ve been secretly in love with my sister for years?” Lillian asked with blistering skepticism. “How convenient.”

“I didn’t define it as ‘in love.’ All I knew was that I had a persistent, all-consuming…preference for her.”

“Preference?” Lillian looked momentarily outraged, and then she surprised him by laughing. “My God, you really are from Boston.”

“Believe it or not,” Matthew muttered, “I wouldn’t have chosen to feel this way about Daisy. It would have been far more convenient to find someone else. The devil knows I should be given some credit for being willing to take on the Bowmans as in-laws.”

“Touche.” Lillian continued to smile, leaning her chin on her hand as she stared at him. Suddenly her voice contained a delicately inquiring edge that raised the hairs on the back of his neck. “I find it peculiar that a Boston Swift should use the phrase ‘starting with nothing’…Have I been mistaken all these years in believing you came from a well-to-do background?”

Damn it all, she was clever. Realizing he’d made a slip, Matthew replied smoothly. “The main branch of the Swifts is affluent. But I am one of the proverbial poor cousins, which is why I was obliged to take a profession.”

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