God help him if Annabelle ever came to realize the power she had over him…a power that posed a perilous threat to pride and self-control. He wanted to possess every part of her body and soul, in every imaginable cast of intimacy. The ever-increasing depth of his passion for her shocked him. And no one of his acquaintance, least of all Westcliff, would understand. Westcliff had always kept his own emotions and desires firmly in check, displaying contempt for those who made fools of themselves for the sake of love.
Not that this was love…Simon was not about to go that far. And yet it was far more than ordinary desire. It required nothing less than outright ownership.
Forcing his features into a blank mask, Simon followed Westcliff into his study.
It was a small, austere room, fitted with gleaming oak paneling and ornamented only by a row of stained-glass windows on one side. With its hard angles and unforgiving furniture, the study was not a comfortable room. However, it was a thoroughly masculine place, where one could smoke, drink, and talk frankly. Lowering himself to one of the hard chairs positioned by the desk, Simon accepted a brandy from Westcliff and downed it without tasting it. He held out the snifter and nodded in wordless thanks as the earl replenished it.
Before Westcliff could launch into an unwanted diatribe regarding Annabelle, Simon sought to distract him. “You don’t seem to rub on well with Miss Bowman,” he remarked.
As a diversionary tactic, the mention of Lillian Bowman was supremely effective. Westcliff responded with a surly grunt. “The ill-mannered brat dared to imply that Miss Peyton’s mishap was my fault,” he said, pouring a brandy for himself.
Simon raised his brows. “How could it be your fault?”
“Miss Bowman seems to think that, as their host, it was my responsibility to ensure that my estate wasn’t ‘overrun with a plague of poisonous vipers,’ as she put it.”
“How did you reply?”
“I pointed out to Miss Bowman that the guests who choose to remain clothed when they venture out of doors don’t usually seem to get bitten by adders.”
Simon couldn’t help grinning at that. “Miss Bowman is merely concerned for her friend.”
Westcliff nodded in grim agreement. “She can’t afford to lose one of them, as she undoubtedly has so few.”
Smiling, Simon stared into the depths of his brandy. “What a difficult evening you’ve had,” he heard Westcliff remark sardonically. “First you were compelled to carry Miss Peyton’s nubile young body all the way to her bedroom…then you had to examine her injured leg. How terribly inconvenient for you.”
Simon’s smile faded. “I didn’t say that I had examined her leg.”
The earl regarded him shrewdly. “You didn’t have to. I know you too well to presume that you would overlook such an opportunity.”
“I’ll admit that I looked at her ankle. And I also cut her corset strings when it became apparent that she couldn’t breathe.” Simon’s gaze dared the earl to object.
“Helpful lad,” Westcliff murmured.
Simon scowled. “Difficult as it may be for you to believe, I receive no lascivious pleasure from the sight of a woman in pain.”
Leaning back in his chair, Westcliff regarded him with a cool speculation that raised Simon’s hackles. “I hope you’re not fool enough to fall in love with such a creature. You know my opinion of Miss Peyton—”
“Yes, you’ve aired it repeatedly.”
“And furthermore,” the earl continued, “I would hate to see one of the few men of good sense I know to turn into one of those prattling fools who run about pollenating the atmosphere with maudlin sentiment—”
“I’m not in love.”
“You’re in something,” Westcliff insisted. “In all the years I’ve known you, I’ve never seen you look so mawkish as you did outside her bedroom door.”
“I was displaying simple compassion for a fellow human being.”
The earl snorted. “Whose drawers you’re itching to get into.”
The blunt accuracy of the observation caused Simon to smile reluctantly. “It was an itch two years ago,” he admitted. “Now it’s a full-scale pandemic.”
Letting out a sighing groan, Westcliff rubbed the narrow bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger. “There is nothing I hate worse than watching a friend charge blindly into disaster. Your weakness, Hunt, is your inability to resist a challenge. Even when the challenge is unworthy of you.”
“I like a challenge.” Simon swirled the brandy in his snifter. “But that has nothing to do with my interest in her.”
“Good God,” the earl muttered, “either drink the brandy or stop playing with it. You’ll bruise the liquor by swishing it around like that.”
Simon sent him a darkly amused glance. “How, exactly, does one ‘bruise’ a glass of brandy? No, don’t tell me—my provincial brain couldn’t begin to grasp the concept.” Obediently, he took a swallow and set the glass aside. “Now, what were we talking about…? Oh yes, my weakness. Before we discuss that any more, I want you to admit that, at one time in your life or another, you’ve given greater shrift to desire than to common sense. Because if you haven’t, there’s no use in talking to you any further about this.”
“Of course I have. Every man over the age of twelve has. But the purpose of the higher intellect is to prevent us from repeatedly making such mistakes—”
“Well, there’s my problem,” Simon said reasonably. “I don’t bother with a higher intellect. I’ve done quite well with just my lower one.”
The earl’s jaw hardened. “There’s a reason that Miss Peyton and her carnivorous friends are all unwed, Hunt. They’re trouble. If the events of today haven’t made that clear, then there’s no hope for you.”
As Simon Hunt had predicted, Annabelle was in considerable discomfort for the next few days. She had become wretchedly familiar with the flavor of clivers tea, which the doctor had prescribed to be taken every four hours for the first day, and every six hours for the next. Although she could tell that the medicine was helping to reduce the symptoms of the adder venom, it set her stomach in constant revolt. She was exhausted, and yet she couldn’t seem to sleep well, and although she longed for something to alleviate her boredom, she couldn’t seem to focus on anything for more than a few minutes at a time.
Her friends did their best to cheer and entertain her, for which Annabelle was acutely grateful. Evie sat at her bedside and read aloud from a lurid novel purloined from the estate library. Daisy and Lillian came to deliver the latest gossip, and made her laugh with their mischievous imitations of various guests. At her insistence, they dutifully reported who seemed to be winning the race for Kendall’s attentions. One in particular, a tall, slender, fair-haired girl named Lady Constance Darrowby, had captured his interest.
“She looks to be a very cold sort, if you ask me,” Daisy said frankly. “She has a mouth that reminds one of a drawstring purse, and a terribly annoying habit of giggling behind her palm, as if it’s unladylike to be caught laughing in public.”
“She must have bad teeth,” Lillian said hopefully.
“I think she’s quite dull,” Daisy continued. “I can’t imagine what she has to say that Kendall would find of such interest.”
“Daisy,” Lillian said, “we’re talking about a man whose idea of high entertainment is to look at plants. His threshold of boredom is obviously limitless.”
“At the picnic after the water party today,” Daisy told Annabelle, “I thought for a supremely satisfying moment that I had caught Lady Constance in a compromising position with one of the guests. She disappeared for a few minutes with a gentleman who was not Lord Kendall.”
“Who was it?” Annabelle asked.
“Mr. Benjamin Muxlow—a local gentleman farmer. You know, the salt-of-the-earth sort who’s got some decent acreage and a handful of servants and is looking for a wife who will bear him eight or nine children and mend his shirt cuffs and make him pig’s-blood-pudding at slaughtertime—”
“Daisy,” Lillian interrupted, noticing that Annabelle had suddenly turned green, “try to be a bit less revolting, will you?” She smiled at Annabelle apologetically. “Sorry, dear. But you must admit that the English are willing to eat things that make Americans flee the table with screams of horror.”
“Anyway,” Daisy continued with exaggerated patience, “Lady Constance vanished after having been seen in the company of Mr. Muxlow, and naturally I went looking for them in the hopes of seeing something that would discredit her, thereby causing Lord Kendall to lose all interest. You can imagine my pleasure at discovering the two of them behind a tree with their heads close together.”
“Were they kissing?” Annabelle asked.
“No, drat it. Muxlow was helping Lady Constance to replace a baby robin that had fallen from its nest.”
“Oh.” Annabelle felt her shoulders slump as she added grumpily, “How sweet of her.” She knew that part of her despondency was caused by the effects of the snake venom, not to mention its unpalatable antidote. However, knowing the cause of her low spirits did nothing to improve them.
Seeing her dejection, Lillian picked up a tarnished silver-backed hairbrush. “Forget about Lady Constance and Lord Kendall for now,” she said. “Let me braid your hair—you’ll feel much better when it’s off your face.”
“Where is my looking glass?” Annabelle asked, moving forward to allow Lillian to sit behind her.
“Can’t find it,” came the girl’s calm reply.
It had not escaped Annabelle’s notice that the looking glass had conveniently disappeared. She knew that her illness had ravaged her looks, leaving her hair dull and her skin drained of its ususal healthy color. In addition, her ever-present nausea had kept her from eating, and her arms looked far too thin as they rested limply on the counterpane.
In the evening, as she lay in her sickbed, the sounds of music and dancing floated through her open bedroom window from the ballroom below. Envisioning Lady Constance waltzing in Lord Kendall’s arms, Annabelle shifted restlessly amid the bedclothes, concluding morosely that her chances of marrying had all but vanished. “I hate adders,” she grumbled, watching her mother straighten the collection of articles on the beside table…medicine-sticky spoons, bottles, handkerchiefs, a hairbrush, and hairpins. “I hate being sick, and I hate walking through the forest, and most of all I hate Rounders-in-knickers!”
“What did you say, dearest?” Philippa asked, pausing in the act of setting a few empty glasses on a tray.
Annabelle shook her head, suddenly overcome with melancholy. “I…oh, nothing, Mama. I’ve been thinking—I want to go back to London in a day or two, when I’m fit to travel. There’s no use in staying here. Lady Constance is as good as Lady Kendall now, and I don’t look or feel well enough to attract anyone else, and besides—”
“I wouldn’t give up all hope just yet,” Philippa said, setting down the tray. She leaned over Annabelle and stroked her brow with a soft, motherly hand. “No betrothal has been announced—and Lord Kendall has been asking after you quite often. And don’t forget that enormous bouquet of bluebells that he brought for you. Picked by his own hands, he told me.”
Wearily Annabelle glanced at the huge arrangement in the corner, its perfume hanging thickly in the air. “Mama, I’ve been meaning to ask…could you get rid of it? It’s lovely, and I did appreciate the gesture…but the smell…”
“Oh, I didn’t think of that,” Philippa said immediately. Hurrying to the corner, she picked up the vase of nodding blue flowers and carried them to the door. “I’ll set them out in the hall, and I’ll ask a housemaid to take them away…” Her voice trailed away as she busied herself for a few moments.
Picking up a stray hairpin, Annabelle toyed with the crimped wire and frowned. Kendall’s bouquet had been one of many, actually. The news of her illness had prompted a great deal of friendly sympathy from the guests at Stony Cross Manor. Even Lord Westcliff had sent up an arrangement of hothouse roses on behalf of himself and the Marsdens. The proliferation of flowers in vases had given the room a funereal appearance. Oddly, there had been nothing from Simon Hunt…not a single note or flower stem. After his solicitous behavior two nights ago, she would have expected something. Some small indication of concern…but the thought occurred to her that perhaps Hunt had decided that she was an absurd and troublesome creature, no longer worthy of his attention. If so, she should be grateful that she would never again be plagued by him.
Instead, Annabelle felt a stinging pressure behind her nose and the threat of unwanted tears in her eyes. She didn’t understand herself. She could not identify the emotion that moved beneath the mass of hopelessness. But she seemed to be filled with a craving for an indescribable something…if only she knew what it was. If only—”
“Well, this is odd.” Philippa sounded thoroughly perplexed as she reentered the room. “I found these just inside the door. Someone has set them there without a note, and no word to anyone. And they’re completely new, by the looks of them. Do you think that they are from one of your friends? It must be. Such an eccentric gift could only have come from the American girls.”
Raising herself up on a pillow, Annabelle found a pair of objects deposited in her lap, and she regarded the offering with blank surprise. It was a pair of ankle boots, tied together with a dapper red bow. The leather was buttery-soft, dyed a fashionable bronze, and polished until it shone like glass. With low stacked-leather heels and tightly stitched soles, the ankle boots were sensible but stylish. They were ornamented with a delicate embroidered design of leaves that extended across the toes. Staring at the boots, Annabelle felt a sudden laugh rise in her throat.
“They must be from the Bowmans,” she said…but she knew better.
The boots were a gift from Simon Hunt, who was fully aware that a gentleman should never give an article of clothing to a lady. She should return them at once, she thought, even as she found herself clutching the boots tightly. Only Simon Hunt could manage to give her something so pragmatic and yet so inappropriately personal.
Smiling, she untied the red bow and held one of the boots up. It was surprisingly light, and she knew at a glance that it would fit her perfectly. But how had Hunt known what size to request, and where had he gotten the boots? Slowly she traced a finger across the tiny, exquisite stitches that joined the sole to the gleaming bronze upper.
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