“Mr. Hunt, you are the most—”
“Yes, I know,” he said with a grin. “You may as well spare yourself the effort of hurling adjectives at me, as I’ve heard them all before.” Lowering himself to the chair, Hunt pressed a chess piece into her palm. The carved onyx was heavy and cool, its slick surface warming slowly to the touch.
“It’s not adjectives that I want to hurl at you,” Annabelle said. “A sharp object or two would suffice.”
A deep laugh stirred in his chest, and his thumb brushed over the backs of her fingers before he withdrew his hand. She felt the rasp of a callus on his thumb, the sensation not unlike the tingling scrape of a cat’s tongue. Bemused by her own response to him, Annabelle looked down at the chess piece in her hand.
“That is the queen—the most powerful piece on the board. She can move in any direction, and go as far as she wishes.”
There was nothing overtly suggestive in his manner of speaking…but when he spoke softly, as he was doing at that moment, there was a husky depth in his voice that made her toes curl inside her slippers.
“More powerful than the king?” she asked.
“Yes. The king can only move one square at a time. But the king is the most important piece.”
“Why is he more important than the queen if he’s not the most powerful?”
“Because once he is captured, the game is over.” Reaching for the piece he had given her, Hunt exchanged it for a pawn. His fingers brushed over hers, lingering in a brief but unmistakable caress. Although Annabelle knew that she should disallow the outrageous familiarity, she found herself watching in a near daze, her knuckles whitening as she held the carved ivory in far too tight a grip. Hunt’s voice was low and velvety as he continued. “This is the pawn, which moves one square at a time. It can’t move backward or sideways, unless it is taking another piece. Most novice players like to move a lot of their pawns in the beginning, to control a larger area on the chessboard. But it’s a better strategy to make good use of your other pieces…”
As Hunt continued to explain each chess piece and its uses, he pressed them into her palm one at a time. Annabelle was mesmerized by the hypnotic brushes of his hands, her senses lilting in anticipation. Her usual defenses seemed to have been pulverized like grain beneath a mill wheel. Something had happened to her, or Hunt, or perhaps to both of them, allowing them to interact with an ease that had not existed before. She did not want to invite him closer…nothing good could possibly come of it…and yet she couldn’t help but enjoy his nearness.
Hunt coaxed her into a game, waiting patiently as she considered each possible move, readily offering advice when she asked for it. His manner was so charming and playfully distracting that she almost didn’t care who won. Almost. When she slid her piece into a position that attacked not one but two of his pieces, Hunt glanced at her with an approving grin. “That’s called a pin-and-fork strategy. As I suspected, you have a natural instinct for chess.”
“Now you have no choice, other than to retreat,” Annabelle said triumphantly.
“Not yet.” He moved another piece in another area on the board, instantly threatening her queen.
Puzzling over the strategy, Annabelle realized that he had just put her in the position of having to retreat.
“That’s not fair,” she protested, and he chuckled.
Lacing her fingers together, Annabelle leaned her chin on her hands and contemplated the board. A full minute passed as she debated various strategies, but nothing seemed appropriate. “I don’t know what to do,” she finally admitted. Raising her eyes to his, she found that he was staring at her in an odd way, his gaze caressing and concerned. It unraveled her, that look, and she swallowed hard against a sensation of thick sweetness, like honey coating her throat.
“I’ve tired you,” Hunt murmured.
“No, I’m fine—”
“We’ll continue the game later. You’ll see your next move more clearly when you’ve rested.”
“I don’t want to stop,” she said, annoyed by his refusal. “Besides, neither of us will remember how the pieces are arranged.”
“I will.” Ignoring her protests, Hunt stood and moved the table aside, out of her reach. “You need a nap. Do you require some help to return upstairs, or—”
“Mr. Hunt, I’m not going back to my room,” she said stubbornly. “I’m sick of it. In fact, I would rather sleep in the hallway than—”
“All right,” Hunt murmured with a smile, resuming his seat. “Calm yourself. Far be it from me to make you do something that you don’t want to do.” He laced his fingers together and leaned back in a deceptively casual pose, his gaze narrowing on her. “Tomorrow the guests will be back at the manor in full force,” he remarked. “I suppose you’ll resume your pursuit of Kendall soon?”
“Probably,” Annabelle admitted, covering her mouth as an insistent yawn stretched her lips.
“You don’t want him,” Hunt said softly.
“Oh, yes I do.” Annabelle paused dreamily, half propping her head on her curled arm. “And…although you have been very kind to me, Mr. Hunt…I’m afraid that I can’t let that change my plans.”
He stared at her in the same relaxed but engrossed way he had regarded the chessboard. “I’m not going to change my plans, either, sweetheart.”
If Annabelle hadn’t been so tired, she would have objected to the endearment. Instead she pondered his words sleepily. His plans…“Which are to try and stop me from catching Lord Kendall,” she said.
“They go somewhat beyond that,” he replied, amusement lurking in one corner of his mouth.
“What do you mean?”
“I’m hardly going to reveal my strategy. Clearly I need every advantage I can get. The next move is yours, Miss Peyton. Just remember that I’ll be watching you.”
Annabelle knew that the warning should have alarmed her. But she was filled with overwhelming weariness, and she closed her eyes for a few seconds. The soothing moisture beneath her lids eased the scratchy feeling that heralded an overpowering need to sleep. She opened her heavy eyes with infinite reluctance, and Hunt’s image blurred before her. It was too bad that they had to be adversaries, she thought wearily. She wasn’t aware that she had spoken the words aloud until he replied in a gentle tone.
“I’ve never been your adversary.”
“Then you’re my friend?” she mumbled skeptically, surrendering to the temptation to close her eyes once more. This time sleep pulled her into its welcoming embrace, so quickly that she barely had time to register the fact that Hunt had pulled the lap blanket up to her shoulders.
“No, sweetheart,” he whispered. “I’m not your friend…”
She napped lightly, awakening long enough to ascertain that she was alone in the private parlor, then dozing off again in the gentle sunshine. As her body relaxed into deeper slumber, she found herself in a brilliantly colored dream, in which all her senses were heightened and her body felt as buoyant as if she was floating in a warm ocean. Slowly the shapes materialized around her…
She wandered through an unfamiliar house, a glittering mansion where daylight streamed through tall windows. The rooms were empty, no guests or servants anywhere in sight. Music from some unseen source filtered through the air, a sad and unearthly melody that infused her with yearning. Walking alone, she found a spacious marble-columned room with no ceiling…it was open to the sky, lightly shaded by drifting cloud fleece overhead. The parquet floor beneath her feet was made of huge white-and-black squares that looked like a chessboard, with life-sized stone statues poised on some of the squares.
Moving among them curiously, Annabelle turned in slow circles to view their gleaming sculpted faces. Wishing for someone to talk to, some warm human hand to cling to, she walked across the giant chessboard, searching blindly through the crowd of immobile figures…until she saw a dark form leaning indolently against a white marble column. Her heart began to hammer, and her steps slowed as she was filled with a rush of excitement that heated her skin and made her pulse beat in urgent rhythm.
It was Simon Hunt, walking toward her with a slight smile on his face. He caught her before she could retreat, and bent to whisper in her ear.
“Will you dance with me now?”
“I can’t,” she said breathlessly, struggling in his tightening embrace.
“Yes, you can,” he urged gently, his mouth hot and tender as it moved across her face. “Put your arms around me…”
As she writhed in his embrace, he laughed softly and kissed her until she was limp and helpless against him. “Queen is now subject to capture,” he murmured, drawing back to stare at her with deviltry in his eyes. “You’re in danger, Annabelle…”
She was suddenly released, and she turned to flee from him, stumbling against the statues in her haste. He followed in slow pursuit, his low laugh echoing in her ears. He stayed close behind her, deliberately prolonging the chase, until she was hot and exhausted and robbed of breath. Capturing her at last, he drew her back against him, and pulled her down to the floor. His dark head blotted out the sky as he covered her with his body, and the music was drowned out by the thunder of her own heartbeat. “Annabelle,” he whispered, “Annabelle…”
She awakened, her eyes widening in her sleep-flushed face as she sensed that someone was with her.
“Annabelle,” she heard again…but it was not the husky, caressing baritone of her dream.
As Annabelle looked up, she saw Lord Hodgeham standing over her. She struggled to a sitting position and inched backward, comprehending that this was not an imaginary figure, but an all-too-real one. Rendered speechless with surprise, she shrank from him as he reached out with a heavy hand and flicked the lace trim at the front of her day gown.
“I heard about your illness,” Hodgeham said, his gaze heavy-lidded as he glanced over her half-reclining form. “How sorry I was to learn that you had suffered such an affliction. But it appears there was no permanent harm done. You seem…” He paused and moistened his plump lips, “…as exquisite as ever…though perhaps a bit pale.”
“How…how did you find me here?” Annabelle asked. “This is the Marsdens’ private parlor. Surely no one gave you leave—”
“I made a servant tell me,” came Hodgeham’s smug reply.
“Get out,” Annabelle snapped. “Or I’ll scream that you’re assaulting me.”
Hodgeham chortled richly. “You can’t afford a scandal, my dear. Your interest in Lord Kendall is obvious to everyone. And we both know that one hint of disgrace attached to your name would completely ruin your chances with him.” He grinned at her silence, revealing a mouthful of crooked yellow teeth. “That’s better. My poor, pretty Annabelle…I know what will restore a blush to those pale cheeks.” Reaching into his coat pocket, he extracted a large gold coin and waved it in front of her tantalizingly. “A token to express my sympathy for your ordeal.”
Annabelle’s breath came in an outraged hiss as Hodgeham leaned very close, the coin clutched between his fat fingers as he attempted to tuck it into the bodice of her dress. She knocked his hand away with a stiff, jerking movement. Although she was still feeble, the gesture was enough to send the coin flying from his hand. It fell to the carpeted floor with a solid thud.
“Leave me alone,” she said fiercely.
“Haughty bitch. You needn’t try to pretend that you’re any better than your mother.”
“You swine—” Cursing her own lack of strength, Annabelle struck out at him feebly as he bent over her, her body racked with chills of horror. “No,” she said through gritted teeth, covering her face with her arms. She resisted fiercely as he grasped her wrists. “No—”
A clatter from the doorway caused Hodgeham to straighten in surprise. Shaking from head to toe, Annabelle looked in the direction of the noise and saw her mother standing there with a lunch tray. Silverware had tumbled from the edge of the tray as Philippa realized what was happening.
Philippa shook her head as if finding it impossible to believe that Hodgeham was there. “You dare to approach my daughter…” she began in a thick voice. Scarlet with rage, she went to settle the tray on a nearby table, then spoke to Hodgeham with quiet wrath. “My daughter is ill, my lord. I will not allow her health to be compromised—you will come with me now, and we will discuss this in some other place.”
“Discussion isn’t what I want,” Hodgeham said.
Annabelle saw a quick succession of emotions cross her mother’s face: disgust, resentment, hatred, fear. And finally…resignation. “Come away from my daughter, then,” she said coldly.
“No,” Annabelle croaked in protest, realizing that Philippa intended to go somewhere alone with him. “Mama, stay with me.”
“Everything will be fine.” Philippa didn’t look at her, but kept her emotionless gaze on Hodgeham’s ruddy countenance. “I’ve brought you a lunch tray, dearest. Try to eat something—”
“No.” Disbelieving, despairing, Annabelle watched her mother calmly precede Hodgeham from the room. “Mama, don’t go with him!” But Philippa left as if she had not heard.
Annabelle was not aware of how many minutes passed as she stared blankly at the empty doorway. There was no thought in her mind of touching the lunch tray. The tang of vegetable broth that flavored the air made her feel nauseous. Bleakly, Annabelle wondered how this hellish affair had ever started, if Hodgeham had forced himself on her mother, or if it had initially been a matter of mutual consent. No matter how it had begun, it had now turned into a travesty. Hodgeham was a monster, and Philippa was trying to pacify him to keep him from ruining them.
Weary and miserable, trying not to think of what might be occurring between her mother and Hodgeham at that very moment, Annabelle levered herself off the settee. She winced at the protesting ache of her muscles. Her head hurt, and she was dizzy, and she wanted to go to her room. Walking like an old woman, she made her way to the bellpull and tugged. After what seemed an interminable length of time, there was still no response. With the guests gone, most the staff had been allowed their day off, and maids were in short supply.
Scrubbing her fingers distractedly through the limp locks of her hair, Annabelle assessed the situation. Although her legs were weak, they felt serviceable. That morning her mother had helped her to walk the length of two hallways from their room to the Marsdens’ upstairs parlor. Now, however, she was fairly certain that she could manage the short journey on her own.
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