“How attractive they are,” Philippa remarked. “Almost too nice for walking through the muddy countryside.”

Annabelle lifted the boot to her nose, inhaling the clean, earthy scent of polished leather. She ran a fingertip around the softly buffed edge of the upper, then held it back to examine it as if it were a priceless sculpture. “I’ve had quite enough of walking through the countryside,” she said with a smile. “These boots will stay on nicely graveled garden paths.”

Regarding her fondly, Philippa reached down to smooth Annabelle’s hair. “I wouldn’t have thought that a new pair of shoes would animate your spirits like this—but I’m awfully glad of it. Shall I send for a tray of soup and toast, dear? You must try to eat something before your next dose of clivers.”

Annabelle made a face. “Yes, I’ll have soup.”

Nodding in satisfaction, Philippa reached for the ankle boots. “I’ll just remove these from your lap and set them in the armoire—”

“Not yet,” Annabelle murmured, clasping one of the boots possessively.

Philippa smiled as she went to ring the servants’ bell.

As Annabelle leaned back and ran her fingertips over the silky leather, she felt a weight from her chest seem to ease. No doubt it was a sign that the venom’s effects were fading…but that didn’t explain why she suddenly felt so relieved and peaceful.

She would have to thank Simon Hunt, of course, and tell him that his gift was unseemly. And if he acknowledged that he had indeed been the one who had bestowed the boots, then Annabelle would have to return them. Something like a book of verse, or a tin of toffee, or a bouquet of flowers would have been far more appropriate. But no gift had ever touched her as this one had.

Annabelle kept the ankle boots with her all evening, despite her mother’s warning that it was bad luck to set footwear on the bed. As she eventually dropped off to sleep, with the orchestra music still washing lightly through the window, she consented to set the boots on the bedside table. When she awoke in the morning, the sight of them made her smile.

CHAPTER 14

On the third morning after the adder bite, Annabelle finally felt well enough to get out of bed. To her relief, the majority of the guests had gone to a party that was being held at a neighboring estate, which left Stony Cross Manor quiet and largely empty. After consulting with the housekeeper, Philippa settled Annabelle in a private upstairs parlor that overlooked the garden. It was a lovely room, with walls that had been covered with flowered blue paper and hung with cheerful portraits of children and animals. According to the housekeeper, the parlor was usually reserved only for the Marsdens’ use, but Lord Westcliff himself had offered the room for Annabelle’s comfort.

After tucking a lap blanket around Annabelle’s knees, Philippa set a cup of clivers tea on a table beside her. “You must drink this,” she said firmly, in response to Annabelle’s grimace. “It’s for your own good.”

“There’s no need for you to stay in the parlor and watch over me, Mama,” Annabelle said. “I will be quite happy to relax here, while you go have a stroll or chat with one of your friends.”

“Are you certain?” Philippa asked.

“Absolutely certain.” Annabelle picked up the clivers tea and took a sip. “I’m drinking my medicine…see? Do go, Mama, and don’t give me another thought.”

“Very well,” Philippa said reluctantly. “Just for a little while. The housekeeper said for you to ring the bell on the table, if you want a servant. And remember to drink every drop of that tea.”

“I will,” Annabelle promised, pasting a wide smile on her face. She retained the smile until Phillippa had left the room. The moment that her mother was out of sight, Annabelle leaned over the back of the settee and carefully poured the contents of the cup out the open window.

Sighing with satisfaction, Annabelle curled into the corner of the settee. Now and then a household noise would interrupt the placid silence: the clatter of a dish, the murmur of the housekeeper’s voice, the sound of a broom being employed to sweep the hallway carpet. Resting her arm on the windowsill, Annabelle leaned forward into a shaft of sunlight, letting the brilliance bathe her face. She closed her eyes and listened to the drone of bees as they moved lazily among the flowering bursts of deep pink hydrangea and delicate tendrils of sweet pea that wound through the basket-bed borders. Although she was still very weak, it was pleasant to sit in warm lethargy, half-drowsing like a cat.

She was slow to respond when she heard a sound from the doorway…a single light rap, as if the visitor was reluctant to disrupt her reverie with a loud knock. Blinking her sun-dazzled eyes, Annabelle remained sitting with her legs tucked beneath her. The mass of light speckles gradually faded from her vision, and she found herself staring at Simon Hunt’s dark, lean form. He had leaned part of his weight on the doorjamb, bracing a shoulder against it in an unself-consciously rakish pose. His head was slightly tilted as he considered her with an unfathomable expression.

Annabelle’s pulse escalated to a mad clatter. As usual, Hunt was dressed impeccably, but the gentlemanly attire did nothing to disguise the virile energy that seemed to emanate from him. She recalled the hardness of his arms and chest as he had carried her, the touch of his hands on her body…oh, she would never be able to look at him again without remembering!

“You look like a butterfly that’s just flown in from the garden,” Hunt said softly.

He must be mocking her, Annabelle thought, perfectly aware of her own sickroom pallor. Self-consciously she raised a hand to her hair, pushing back the untidy locks. “What are you doing here?” she asked. “Shouldn’t you be at the neighbor’s party?”

She had not meant to sound so abrupt and unwelcoming, but her usual facility with words had deserted her. As she stared at him, she couldn’t help thinking of how he had rubbed her chest with his hand. The recollection caused the stinging heat of embarrassment to cover her skin.

Hunt replied in a gently caustic tone. “I have business to conduct with one of my managers, who is due to arrive from London later this morning. Unlike the silk-stockinged gentlemen whose pedigrees you so admire, I have things to consider other than where I should settle my picnic blanket today.” Pushing away from the doorframe, Hunt ventured farther into the room, his gaze frankly assessing. “Still weak? That will improve soon. How is your ankle? Lift your skirts—I think I should take another look.”

Annabelle regarded him with alarm for a fraction of a second, then began to laugh as she saw the glint in his eyes. The audacious remark somehow eased her embarrassment and caused her to relax. “That is very kind,” she said dryly. “But there’s no need. My ankle is much better, thank you.”

Hunt smiled as he approached her. “I’ll have you know that my offer was made in a spirit of purest altruism. I would had taken no illicit pleasure at the sight of your exposed leg. Well, perhaps a small thrill, but I would have concealed it fairly well.” Grasping the back of a side chair with one hand, he moved it easily to the settee and sat close to her. Annabelle was impressed by the way he had lifted the sturdy piece of carved mahogany furniture as if it were feather-light. She threw a quick glance at the empty doorway. As long as the door wasn’t closed, it was acceptable for her to sit in the parlor with Hunt. And her mother would eventually come to look in on her. Before that happened, however, Annabelle decided to bring up the subject of the boots.

“Mr. Hunt,” she said carefully, “there is something I must ask you…”

“Yes?”

His eyes were definitely his most attractive feature, Annabelle thought distractedly. Vibrant and full of life, they made her wonder why people generally preferred blue eyes to dark ones. No shade of blue could ever convey the simmering intelligence that lurked in the depths of Simon Hunt’s sable eyes.

Try as she might, Annabelle could think of no subtle way to ask him. After grappling silently with a variety of phrases, she finally settled for a blunt question. “Were you responsible for the boots?”

His expression gave nothing away. “Boots? I’m afraid I don’t take your meaning, Miss Peyton. Are you speaking in metaphor, or are we talking about actual footwear?”

“Ankle boots,” Annabelle said, staring at him with open suspicion. “A new pair that was left inside the door of my room yesterday.”

“Delighted as I am to discuss any part of your wardrobe, Miss Peyton, I’m afraid I know nothing about a pair of boots. However, I am relieved that you have managed to acquire some. Unless, of course, you wished to continue acting as a strolling buffet to the wildlife of Hampshire.”

Annabelle regarded him for a long moment. Despite his denial, there was something lurking behind his neutral facade…some playful spark in his eyes…“Then you deny having given the boots to me?”

“Most emphatically I deny it.”

“But I wonder…if some one wished to have a pair of boots made up for a lady without her knowledge…how would he be able to learn the precise size of her feet?”

“That would be a relatively simple task…” he mused. “I imagine that some enterprising person would simply ask a housemaid to trace the soles of the lady’s discarded slippers. Then he could take the pattern to the local cobbler. And make it worth the cobbler’s while to delay his other work in favor of crafting the new shoes immediately.”

“That is quite a lot of trouble for someone to go through,” Annabelle murmured.

Hunt’s gaze was lit with sudden mischief. “Rather less trouble than having to haul an injured woman up three flights of stairs every time she goes out walking in her slippers.”

Annabelle realized that he would never admit to giving her the boots—which would allow her to keep them, but would also ensure that she would never be able to thank him. And she knew he had—she could see it in his face.

“Mr. Hunt,” she said earnestly, “I…I wish…” She paused, unable to find words, and stared helplessly at him.

Taking pity on her, Hunt stood and went to the side of the room, picking up a small circular game table. It was only about two feet in diameter, constructed with a clever mechanism to allow a player to flip the top from a chessboard to a draughtsboard. “Do you play?” he asked casually, setting the table in front of her.

“Draughts? Yes, occasionally—”

“No, not draughts. Chess.”

Annabelle shook her head, shrinking back into the corner of the settee. “No, I’ve never played chess. And I don’t wish to sound uncooperative, but…the way I feel at present, I have no desire to try something as difficult as—”

“It’s time for you to learn, then,” Hunt said, heading to a niche of shelves to retrieve a polished burl-wood box. “It’s been said that you can never really know someone until you play chess with him.”

Annabelle watched him cautiously, feeling nervous at the prospect of being alone with him…and yet she was thoroughly beguiled by his deliberate gentleness. It seemed almost as if he were trying to coax her to trust him. There was a softness in his manner that seemed utterly at odds with the cynical rake she had always known him to be.

“Do you believe that?” she asked.

“Of course not.” Hunt brought the box to the table and opened it to reveal a set of onyx and ivory chessmen, carved in scrupulous detail. He slid her a provocative glance. “The truth is, you can never really know a man until you’ve loaned him money. And you can never know a woman until you’ve slept in her bed.”

He said it deliberately, of course, to shock her. And he succeeded, although Annabelle did her best to conceal it. “Mr. Hunt,” she said, frowning into his smiling eyes, “if you continue to make vulgar remarks, I will be forced to ask you to leave the parlor.”

“Forgive me.” His instant contrition didn’t fool her in the least. “It’s just that I can’t resist the opportunity to make you blush. I’ve never known a woman to do it as often as you do.”

The bloom that had begun at her throat flamed up to her hairline. “I never blush. It’s only around you that I—” Breaking off, she stared at him with an indignant frown that made him laugh.

“I’ll behave for now,” he said. “Don’t tell me to leave.”

She stared at him indecisively, passing an unsteady hand over her forehead, and the sign of her physical frailty caused him to speak even more gently. “It’s all right,” he murmured. “Let me stay, Annabelle.”

Blinking, she responded with a wobbly nod and subsided against the cushions of the settee while Hunt set the board methodically. His touch on the pieces was surprisingly light and deft, considering the size of his hands. Potentially ruthless hands, she thought…tanned and masculine, with a light dusting of black hair on the backs.

Half-standing over her as Hunt was, Annabelle became aware of the intriguing scent of him, the whisper of starch and shaving soap overlaying the fragrance of clean male skin…and there was something more elusive…some sweet tang to his breath, as if he had recently eaten pears, or perhaps a slice of pineapple. As she looked up at him, she realized that with very little effort he could have bent down and kissed her. The thought caused her to tremble. She actually wanted to feel his mouth on hers, to inhale the ephemeral touch of sweetness on his breath. She wanted him to hold her again.

The realization caused her eyes to widen. Her sudden stillness communicated swiftly to Hunt. His attention swerved from the chessboard to her upturned face, and whatever he saw in her expression caused his breath to catch. Neither of them moved. Annabelle could only wait in silence, her fingertips curling into the upholstery of the settee as she wondered what he might do next.

Hunt broke the tension with a long breath, and spoke in a softly abraded voice. “No…you’re not well enough yet.”

It was difficult to hear the words above the thunder of her heartbeat. “Wh-what?” she asked faintly.

Seeming unable to help himself, Hunt brushed a little curling wisp of hair back from her temple. The stroking fingertip burned her silken skin, leaving a glow of sensation in its wake. “I know what you’re thinking. And believe me, I’m tempted. But you’re still too weak—and my self-control is in short supply today.”

“If you’re implying that I—”

“I never waste time with implications,” he murmured, resuming his careful placement of the chess pieces. “Obviously, you want me to kiss you. And I’ll be happy to oblige, when the time is right. But not yet.”

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