Thursday, September 29, 2011
Derrington cleared his throat softly.
“Why, Mrs. Marlow.” Lady Mitford’s hand fluttered to her chest. “What an interesting way to talk about a flower.”
“Science isn’t delicate in its description, Lady Mitford. I’m only telling the truth.” This didn’t have anything to do with science, but why quibble? “A desirable orchid blossom should be turgid enough to stand erect and proud, fully exposed to the view of its admirer.”
Lord Blandings snapped to attention from whatever self-induced trance he’d been since they arrived. “I say. Isn’t science grand?”
Derrington picked the orchid up by its pot and put it into her hand with more force than necessary. “I’ll buy it for you.”
“But, my lord.” She put her other hand over her breast. “It’s a very expensive plant.”
“I insist you take it,” he said. It might have been a gesture of courtesy, but it came through more like a threat.
She calmly lifted his hand and returned the orchid to it. “I couldn’t accept such an expensive present. It wouldn’t be decent.”
“Do tell us more about orchids, Mrs. Marlow,” Blandings piped in from the rear.
“I’d be happy to.”
Derrington glowered at her, and she smiled back at him. “You see, orchids like this one grow on trees. People think they’re parasites, but they actually only use the branches for support.”
Derrington relaxed a bit, his shoulders lowering slowly to their normal position.
“Instead of fibrous roots, like most plants have, orchids have thick, fleshy ones,” she went on. “With tips that extend past their absorbent coating.”
Millie pried her way through the group until she’d reached Juliet’s side. “I don’t think our hosts really want a lecture in botany.”
“I do,” Blandings said.
This time, Derrington glared at him.
“What?” Blandings sputtered. “What did I say?”
She pointed toward the beginning of a root appearing from the base of the plant in Derrington’s hand. “This little protuberance, for example.”
Anger flashed in Derrington’s eyes as he dared her with his expression to continue. Fine. She liked dares.
“It’s small now,” she said. “But soon, it’ll elongate and thicken.”
Lady Mitford laughed in earnest this time. Lord Mitford covered his mouth and coughed, but he couldn’t cover his mirth completely.
Juliet glanced toward the bench. “Oh, look. This plant’s root has grown so far it’s plunged deep into its neighbor’s pot.”
Millie stood close enough to touch her without the others seeing, and she reached out and pinched Juliet in the ribs. Hard. Juliet smiled back at her for a moment and then turned to Derrington. She took the plant from his hand and held it up nearly under his nose.
“But, the most remarkable thing about this flower is this structure.” She trailed a fingertip along the blossom’s column in a slow caress. “It holds the reproductive organs, both male and female.”
For just a moment, she could have sworn she could hear Derrington’s teeth grinding.
“And behind this cap on the head. Ah, yes, here.” She ran her fingernail along the underside of the column up to the anther cap. When she removed it, the pollinia came away stuck to her skin. “See, two little nubbins of pollen.”
Derrington’s face turned three shades of red, but he kept his features even. He took the plant back and held it out toward Lady Mitford. “Would you hold this, please?”
She took it from him. “Certainly.”
He grasped Juliet’s elbow, using as much or more force as he had the night of the ball. “Excuse us for a moment.”
Without waiting for a reply, he turned and pulled her toward the back of the glasshouse. Despite her long stride, she had to struggle to keep up with him as he guided her toward the back door.
“When will you stop dragging me around?” she whispered.
“When you learn how to behave yourself,” he whispered back.
They reached the rear exit, and he opened the door and nearly shoved her over the threshold into a dirty alley behind the glasshouse. He let the door close loudly behind him as he released her arm and turned on her. “What in hell did you think you were doing in there?”
“Explaining orchid anatomy.”
“Sexual anatomy,” he said.
“Orchids have to reproduce somehow,” she said. “Everything I said was true and accurate. Ask your nurseryman.”
“Where did you learn all that rot?” He was almost shouting now.
“Not the botany. Where did you learn such graphic sexual innuendo?”
“Books.” She crossed her arms over her chest. “It’s not as if you’re giving me any real lessons.”
“Oh, I’ll school you.” You couldn’t call the statement a growl, although it did come out rather snarly. It definitely sounded like a threat.
“I’ll put you over my knee and paddle your lovely arse until it’s a bright pink,” he said.
She gaped at him in astonishment. “That sounds interesting. Do people really do that?”
He made an odd sound. Strangled and loud at the same time. “I swear, you’ll drive me mad.”
“If you keep making noises like that, it won’t take much.”
At that, he raised his hands in a gesture of pure frustration. This time, he did growl. Not unlike the sort of passion she’d expected from a Roman warrior, not a British lord. Good Lord, did Derrington have that much hot-bloodedness in him? She’d chosen him because she’d thought an Englishman wouldn’t present any kind of challenge. She might need to reconsider that.
Despite her considerable height, he pulled himself up so tall he blotted out the light. She couldn’t help but cower beneath his fury.
“From now on, you will behave like a lady,” he said.
Her breath caught in her throat, but she lifted her chin to stare him down. “I don’t have to do what you tell me.”
“I’m a free woman.”
“With a respectable family back in New York,” he said. “What would they do if I cabled them and told them where you were and what you were doing?"
The blasted man would think of that. Even her accountant friend couldn’t save her if he contacted the siblings. Not only would they discover she was in England making a spectacle of herself and showing off her breasts, but they’d find out she’d assumed another identity. They’d locate a pleasant asylum upstate and a judge who’d been a friend of her father’s to send her there for her own good. Whether she wanted to go or not.
“Maybe I did overplay my part a bit,” she said.
“Turgid flesh, wide open flowers, nubbins of pollen,” he said. “I’d say so.”
“I’ll be a bit more discreet.”
He leaned toward her, until his nose almost touched hers. He might have meant the gesture to intimidate her, but it brought his lips close to hers, too. She planned to kiss him again, but not in a dingy alley where someone might come by.
She put her hand on his chest and pushed him away. “Lord and Lady Mitford expect me to entertain them, but I suppose I can make the entertainment less outrageous.”
“Do it,” he said. “Or the cable goes to New York.”