She stopped as she heard the chatter of more people coming along the hallway. Exasperated and desperate, she whirled around to find a door that she could slip through, to keep from being seen alone with Hunt. Catching her in one arm, Hunt hauled her inside the closest room and shut the door smartly.

Registering the shape of the piano and the clutter of music stands, Annabelle jerked away from Hunt. He reached out to steady a flimsy music stand that had nearly been overturned by the brush of her skirts. “If you can stand to be Hodgeham’s mistress,” Hunt muttered, following as she retreated farther into the music room, “God knows you can stand to be mine. You could say that you’re not attracted to me, but we both know that you’d be lying. Tell me your price, Annabelle. Any sum you’d care to name. Do you want a house of your own? A yacht? Done. Let’s get this over with—I’ve had enough of waiting for you.”

“How romantic,” Annabelle said with an unsteady laugh. “My God. Your proposition is somewhat lacking in subtlety, Mr. Hunt. And you’re wrong in your assumption that my only option is to be someone’s mistress. I can get Lord Kendall to marry me.”

His eyes were as dark as volcanic glass. “Marriage to him would turn into a living hell for you. He’ll never love you. He’ll never even know you.”

“I don’t want love,” she said, stricken by his words. “I just want—” She paused as a sudden pain centered in her chest, in a ball of unendurable coldness. Staring up into his unreadable face she tried again. “I just want—”

There was a sound at the door. The knob began to turn. Startled, Annabelle realized that someone was about to enter the room—and then all hope of marrying Kendall would vanish like so much dust in the wind. Reacting instinctively, she seized Hunt’s arm and dragged him with her toward an alcove by the window, framed by paneled curtains that had been hung on a brass rod. The only thing in the alcove was a window seat upholstered in velvet, with a few books stacked carelessly on one side. Jerking the curtain shut, Annabelle flung herself on Hunt and clapped her hand over his mouth, just as someone…or sever also me ones…entered the music room. She could hear the muffled sounds of masculine voices, and some banging and clanking that perplexed her until she heard the plucking of out-of-tune violin strings. Oh, God. The musicians had come there to tune their instruments before the ball began. In all likelihood she was just about to be compromised in front of an entire orchestra.

There was just enough light spilling over the top of the curtain to cast a faint glow over their features— enough for Annabelle to see the evil smile that had suddenly appeared in Simon Hunt’s eyes. One word or sound from him in these incriminating circumstances, and she was done for. Her hand pressed harder over his mouth, her eyes only inches from his as she pinned him with a gaze that threatened murder.

The musicians’ voices mingled with the sound of instruments being tuned, drawn-out notes being held until they joined in harmony, dissonance being disciplined into order. Wondering if they would be caught, Annabelle stared blindly at the curtains, willing them to remain closed. She felt the touch of Hunt’s breath against the edge of her hand and realized that his jaw had gone taut. Glancing at him, she saw that the malicious amusement had vanished from his gaze, replaced by a look that was far more alarming. She froze, her heart beginning to hammer so heavily that it hurt, and she stared at him with widening eyes as his free hand lifted slowly. Her fingers were still clamped over his mouth…he began to pryat them delicately, one by one, starting with the smallest, while his breath fanned in quickening surges against the side of her hand. Her head moved in a stiff little shake, and she strained away from him, even as his arm tightened around her waist. She was utterly trapped…helpless to prevent Simon Hunt from doing whatever he wanted.

The last finger was pulled away, and Hunt pushed her hand down and gripped the back of her neck. Her fingers fluttered against his sleeves, her upper body arching slightly as his grasp on her nape tightened. He was not hurting her, but he had made it impossible for her to move or struggle. As his head lowered, her lips parted with a silent gasp, and her mind went dark.

His mouth was on hers, gentle but sure as he coaxed a response from her. She was filled with instant fever, burning everywhere, helpless against the onslaught of a desire like nothing she had ever known before. The memory of their one kiss was nothing compared to this…perhaps because he was no longer a stranger to her. She wanted him with a desperation that frightened her. The pressure of his lips floated lightly over hers, straying briefly to her chin, her cheek, leaving trails of soft fire wherever they ventured, before he returned to her mouth with more explicit pressure. She felt the tip of his tongue against hers, the silken touch so unexpected that she would have recoiled had he not been holding her so tightly.

The elegant cacophany of the musicians jangled in her ears, reminding her of the imminent possibility of discovery. She forced herself to relax against Hunt, her body shaking. For the next few minutes, she would let him do anything to her, anything, just so long as he didn’t betray their presence. Hunt tasted her again, searching with subtle strokes of his tongue. She was shocked by the intimate exploration, and even more by the unspeakable sensations that shot through the vulnerable places of her body. Delicious weakness overtook her, and she wobbled in his hold, her hands groping for his neck, his hair, the locks thick and silky against her fingers. The tentative inquiry of her hands caused him to draw an out-of-rhythm breath, as if her touch had affected him intensely. He slid one hand up to the side of her face, cradling her cheek as he pulled back just enough to nibble and tease, catching gently at her upper lip, then the lower one, lavishing her with feathery brushes of warmth. Compulsively, she exerted shaky pressure behind his neck, urging him back down to her, and when his mouth took hers in another penetrating kiss, she nearly moaned aloud. Before the sound could escape her dilated throat, she tore her mouth away and buried her face against his shoulder.

She felt the quick rise and fall of his deep-vaulted chest, and the hot rush of his breath against her hair. Grasping the mass of pinned-up curls at the back of her head, he pulled her head back to expose her throat. The burning path of his lips began at the tiny hollow just beneath her right ear, awakening exquisitely sensitive nerves as he traced the line of a delicate vein with his tongue. His fingers slid over the top of her shoulder, his thumb finding the wing of her collarbone, his open hand exploring the fragile architecture of her body. Nuzzling the side of her throat, he found a place that made her shiver, and he lingered there until she felt another moan threatening to break from her kiss-dampened lips.

Pushing at him frantically, she managed to divert him for all of three seconds, after which he sought her mouth with another hungering kiss. His palm brushed over the silk that covered her breast, once, twice, thrice. With each slow pass, the heat of his skin sank through the veil of fabric. As her nipple tingled and budded, he stroked it tenderly with the backs of his fingers until it tightened even more. The increasing pressure of his kiss forced her head back in a position of surrender, opening her to the lazy caress of his tongue, the artful investigation of his hands. This wasn’t supposed to happen, her nerves shattering with pleasure, her body consumed with sensual heat.

He made her forget everything in those silent, febrile moments—she lost awareness of time, of where they were, and even who she was. All she knew was that she needed him closer, deeper, tighter…his skin, his hard flesh, his mouth wandering in heated trails over her body. She gripped at his shirt until it loosened from his trousers, clutching handfuls of the starched white linen in desperate need of the warm skin beneath. He seemed to understand that she had no experience at controlling this level of desire—his kisses became soothing, his hands beginning to move over her back in calming strokes. However, the more he tried to ease her craving, the worse it became, her mouth moving frantically beneath his, her body twisting in an anxious rhythm.

He finally resorted to taking his mouth away and holding her in a crushing embrace, his lips buried against the flushed curve of her neck and shoulder. Annabelle was absurdly grateful for the brutality of his grip, his arms forming heavy bands of muscle that helped to contain her violent trembling. They stood like that for what seemed an eternity, until Annabelle became hazily aware that the room was silent. Sometime during the past few minutes, the musicians had finished their preparations and left. Lifting his head, Hunt slowly reached for the edge of a curtain panel and moved it an inch to the side. Seeing that the music room was empty once more, he returned his attention to Annabelle, using the tip of his thumb to brush back a lock of glinting hair that had fallen over her ear.

“They’re gone,” came his rasping whisper.

Too stunned to think coherently, Annabelle looked at him without speaking. His fingertips traced the hot surface of her cheek, the swollen cushion of her lips. With something like despair, she felt the skyrocketing response of her unappeased body, the renewed vigor of her pulse, the wash of pleasure that slipped over her skin. That was the time to pull away from him, or her disappearance would soon be remarked on. To her shame, she remained still, her body hungrily absorbing sensations as Hunt continued to caress her. His hand moved to the back of her gown, and she felt the deft workings of his fingers, even as he bent and kissed her mouth again. This time she could no longer hold back the sounds; the small sobs that broke from her throat, the whimper of relief as the tight bodice of her gown was loosened. The cut of the neckline had made it impossible for her to wear a corset with cups— instead she had worn an under-the-bust style that had left her br**sts unconfined beneath her chemise.

Continuing to kiss her, Hunt drew her down with him to the upholstered window seat. He cradled her in his lap, his fingers smoothing the sagging bodice downward, and he made a sound of pleasure against her mouth as he discovered the fullness of her breasts. Suddenly frightened by the realization of what she was allowing, Annabelle pushed weakly at his wrist. He lifted her body higher and pressed his mouth to the center of her chest, where her heart thumped in a hard, regular rhythm. His supportive arms maintained the arch of her back as his lips slid downward to investigate the plump rise of her breast. At the touch of his passion-heated breath on her nipple, she stopped straining and went still, her hand balling into fists against his shoulders. He took her into his mouth, his tongue brushing gently until the peak was wet and tender-hard, and her veins were filled with simmering honey. He whispered reassurances as his hand smoothed over her breast, his thumb rubbing the glaze of moisture into her glowing skin. Murmuring incoherently, she circled her arms around his taut neck, and gasped as his mouth closed over her other nipple and tugged gently.

A new urgency crept through her, something that drew shuddering moans from her chest, and made her body tighten rhythmically in his lap. Hunt was tormented by the same compelling need—she could feel the violence of his heartbeat and the strain of his lungs as they labored with each breath. But he seemed far more able to bridle his passion than she, the movements of his hands and mouth remaining careful and controlled. She thrashed in the densely layered silk of her gown, her fingers clawing at the sleeves of his coat and waistcoat—too many clothes, everywhere, and she was going mad with the need to feel his skin on hers.

“Easy, sweetheart,” he whispered against her cheek. “Relax. No, lie still in my arms…” But she couldn’t make her body obey, couldn’t seem to stop the writhing of her h*ps and the shivering pleas that came from her kiss-bruised mouth.

Hunt continued to murmur softly as he held her, brushing his lips over her face, his fingers massaging the delicate hollows where her pulse beat frantically. She felt him adjusting her clothes, gently lifting her as if she were a doll, fastening the back of her gown. At one point he even gave a soft, shaky laugh, as if bemused by his own actions. Later, she would come to reflect that he had seemed just as dazed as she was; but right then, in the flush of frustrated longing, she could not unravel her tangled thoughts. As the desire ebbed from her body, it left behind a sickening residue of shame.

Struggling from his lap, Annabelle faced away from him, her legs quivering. She could summon only two words to break the heavy silence. Without looking at him, she said hoarsely, “Never again.” Pushing through the paneled curtains, she left the room as quickly as she was able and bolted down the hallway.

CHAPTER 17

After Annabelle had fled the music room, Simon had remained there for at least a half hour, fighting to settle his roaring passion, letting the fire in his blood cool. He straightened his clothes and raked a hand through his hair, moodily contemplating his next move. “Annabelle,” he muttered, more troubled and confused than he had ever been in his life. The fact that he had been brought to this state by a woman was infuriating. He, who was known as a crafty and disciplined negotiator, had made the clumsiest possible offer for her, and he had been roundly rejected. Deservedly so. He should never have tried to force her to name a price before she had even admitted that she wanted him. But the suspicion that she might be sleeping with Hodgeham…Hodgeham, of all men, had nearly driven Simon mad with jealousy, and all his usual skills had deserted him.

Remembering how it had felt to kiss her, to finally caress the warm, supple silk of her skin, Simon felt passion threatening to boil up inside him once again. With all his experience, he had thought he was familiar with every physical sensation imaginable. But he had just forcibly been made aware that sleeping with Annabelle would be a different matter altogether. The experience would involve his emotions as well as his body…emotions so alarming that he could not yet bring himself to examine them.

The attraction between them had become dangerous—no less so for him than it was for her. And it was clear that Simon needed to gain some perspective on the situation. At the moment, however, he wasn’t thinking too well.

Leaving the music room with a muttered curse, he straightened the knot of his black silk necktie. Tension strung through his limbs, shortening his usual long stride and making him feel predatory and volatile as he walked toward the ballroom. The prospect of another social evening was nearly maddening. His tolerance for extended parties had never been high—he was not a man who enjoyed hours of indolent chatter and idle amusements. He would have been long gone, had it not been for Annabelle’s presence at Stony Cross.

Brooding, he went into the ballroom and glanced speculatively over the crowd. He immediately caught sight of Annabelle, occupying a chair in the corner with Lord Kendall at her side. Kendall was openly infatuated with her, his enraptured gaze making no secret of his interest. Annabelle looked subdued and flushed, seeming to have trouble meeting Kendall’s admiring gaze. She spoke very little and sat with her hands tightly knotted in her lap. Simon’s eyes narrowed as he watched her. Ironically, now when Annabelle was feeling diminished and uncertain, Kendall’s attraction to her had finally taken root. It would be a nasty surprise for Kendall later, if Annabelle did get him on the string, to find out that his wife was not the timid ingenue that she seemed. She was a woman of spirit and passion, a decidedly ambitious creature who needed a partner of equal strength. Kendall would never be able to manage her. He was too much of a gentleman for Annabelle—too mild and moderate, and too intelligent in the wrong ways. Annabelle would never respect him, nor would she take any pleasure in his virtues. She would come to despise him for the very things she should have admired…and Kendall would shrink from the qualities in Annabelle that Simon would have relished.

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