The words touched Annabelle, and filled her with sudden melancholy. Love was a luxury she had never allowed herself to hope for—a distinctly superfluous issue when her very survival was so much in question. However, she reached out and touched the girl’s gloved hand with her own. “I hope you find him,” she said sincerely. “Perhaps you won’t have to wait for long.”
“I want you to find yours first,” Evie said, with a bashful smile. “I wish I could help you somehow.”
“It seems that we all need help, in one form or another,” Lillian commented. Her gaze slid over Annabelle with friendly speculation. “Hmm…I wouldn’t mind making a project of you.”
“What?” Annabelle arched her brows, wondering whether she ought to be amused or offended.
Lillian proceeded to explain. “There are only a few weeks left in the season, and this is your last, I assume. Practically speaking, your aspirations of marrying a man who is your social equal will vanish at the end of June.”
Annabelle nodded warily.
“Then I propose—” Suddenly Lillian fell silent in midsentence.
Following the direction of her gaze, Annabelle saw a dark figure approaching, and she groaned inwardly.
The intruder was Mr. Simon Hunt—a man whom none of them wanted anything to do with—and with good reason.
“Parenthetically,” Annabelle said in a low voice, “my ideal husband would be the exact opposite of Mr. Hunt.”
“What a surprise,” Lillian murmured sardonically, for they all shared the sentiment.
One could forgive a man for being a climber, if he possessed a sufficient quantity of gentlemanly grace. However, Simon Hunt did not. There was no making polite conversation with a man who always said exactly what he thought, no matter how unflattering or objectionable his opinions.
Perhaps one might call Mr. Hunt good-looking. Annabelle supposed that some women might find his robust masculinity appealing—even she had to admit that there was something compelling about the sight of all that bridled power contained in a crisp formal scheme of black-and-white evening clothes. However, Simon Hunt’s arguable attractions were completely overridden by the churlishness of his character. There was no sensitive aspect to his nature, no idealism or appreciation of elegance…he was all pounds and pence, all selfish, grasping calculation. Any other man in his situation would have had the decency to be embarrassed by his own lack of refinement—but Hunt had apparently decided to make a virtue of it. He loved to mock the rituals and graces of aristocratic civility, his cold black eyes glittering with amusement—as if he were laughing at them all.
To Annabelle’s relief, Hunt had never indicated by word or gesture that he remembered that long-ago day at the panorama show when he had stolen a kiss from her in the darkness. As time had passed, she had even half convinced herself that she had imagined the whole thing. In retrospect, it didn’t seem real, especially her own fervid response to an audacious stranger.
No doubt many people shared Annabelle’s dislike of Simon Hunt, but to the dismay of London’s upper tiers, he was there to stay. In the past few years he had become incomparably rich, having acquired majority interests in companies that manufactured agricultural equipment, ships, and locomotive engines. Despite Hunt’s coarseness, he was invited to upper-class parties because he was simply too wealthy to be ignored. Hunt personified the threat that industrial enterprise posed to the British aristocracy’s centuries-old entrenchment in estate farming. Therefore, the peerage regarded him with concealed hostility even as they unwillingly allowed him access to their hallowed social circles. Worse still, Hunt made no pretense at humility, but instead seemed to enjoy forcing his way into places where he wasn’t wanted.
On the few occasions they had met since that day at the panorama, Annabelle had treated Simon Hunt coldly, dismissing any attempts at conversation and refusing his every invitation to dance. He always seemed amused by her disdain and stared at her with a bold appraisal that made the hairs on the back of her neck rise. She hoped that someday he would abandon all interest in her, but for the time being he remained annoyingly persistent.
Annabelle sensed the other wallflowers’ relief as Hunt ignored them and turned his attention exclusively to her. “Miss Peyton,” he said. His obsidian gaze seemed to miss nothing; the carefully mended sleeves of her gown, the fact that she had used a spray of pink rosebuds to conceal the frayed edge of her bodice, the paste pearls dangling from her ears. Annabelle faced him with an expression of cool defiance. The air between them seemed charged with a sense of push-and-pull, of elemental challenge, and Annabelle felt her nerves jangle unpleasantly at his nearness.
“Good evening, Mr. Hunt.”
“Will you favor me with a dance?” he asked without prelude.
“No, thank you.”
“My feet are tired.”
One of his dark brows arched. “From doing what? You’ve been sitting here all evening.”
Annabelle held his gaze without blinking. “I have no obligation to explain myself to you, Mr. Hunt.”
“One waltz shouldn’t be too much for you to manage.”
Despite Annabelle’s efforts to stay calm, she felt a scowl tugging at the little muscles of her face. “Mr. Hunt,” she said tautly, “has no one ever told you that it isn’t polite to try and badger a lady into doing something that she clearly has no desire to do?”
He smiled faintly. “Miss Peyton, if I ever worried about being polite, I’d never get anything I wanted. I merely thought you would enjoy a temporary respite from being a perpetual wallflower. And if this ball follows your usual pattern, my offer to dance is likely the only one you’ll get.”
“Such charm,” Annabelle remarked in a tone of mocking wonder. “Such artful flattery. How could I refuse?”
There was a new alertness in his eyes. “Then you’ll dance with me?”
“No,” she whispered sharply. “Now go away. Please.”
Instead of slinking away in embarrassment at the rebuff, Hunt actually grinned, his teeth flashing white in his tanned face. The smile made him appear piratical. “What is the harm in one dance? I’m a fairly accomplished partner—you may even enjoy it.”
“Mr. Hunt,” she muttered, in rising exasperation, “the notion of being partnered with you in any way, for any purpose whatsoever, makes my blood run cold.”
Leaning closer, Hunt lowered his tone so that no one else could hear. “Very well. But I’ll leave you with something to consider, Miss Peyton. There may come a time when you won’t have the luxury of turning down an honorable offer from someone like me…or even a dishonorable one.”
Annabelle’s eyes widened, and she felt a flush of outrage spread upward from the neckline of her bodice. Really, it was too much—having to sit against the wall all evening, then be subjected to insults from a man she despised. “Mr. Hunt, you sound like the villain in a very bad play.”
That elicited another grin, and he bowed with sardonic politeness before striding away.
Rattled by the encounter, Annabelle stared after him with narrowed eyes.
The other wallflowers breathed a collective sigh of relief at his departure.
Lillian Bowman was the first to speak. “The word ‘no’ doesn’t seem to make much of an impression on him, does it?”
“What was that last thing he said, Annabelle?” Daisy asked curiously. “The thing that made your face turn all red.”
Annabelle stared down at the silver cover of her dance card, rubbing her thumb over a tiny spot of tarnish on the corner. “Mr. Hunt implied that someday my situation might become so desperate that I would consider becoming his mistress.”
If she hadn’t been so worried, Annabelle would have laughed at the identical looks of owlish astonishment on their faces. But instead of exclaiming in virginal outrage, or tactfully letting the matter drop, Lillian asked the one question that Annabelle wouldn’t have expected. “Was he right?”
“He was right about my desperate situation,” Annabelle admitted. “But not about my becoming his—or anyone’s mistress. I would marry a beet farmer before I sank to that.”
Lillian smiled at her, seeming to identify with the note of grim determination in Annabelle’s voice. “I like you,” she announced, and leaned back in her chair, crossing her legs with a negligence that was rather inappropriate for a girl in her first season.
“I like you, too,” Annabelle replied automatically, prompted by good manners to reply in kind—but as the words left her mouth, she was surprised to discover that they were true.
Lillian’s assessing gaze moved over her as she continued. “I should hate to see you end up trudging behind a mule and plow in a beet field—you were meant for better things than that.”
“I agree,” Annabelle said dryly. “What are we to do about it?”
Although the question was intended to be facetious, Lillian seemed to take it seriously. “I was getting to that. Before we were interrupted, I was about to make a proposition: We should make a pact to help each other find husbands. If the right gentlemen won’t pursue us, then we’ll pursue them. The process will be vastly more efficient if we join forces rather than forge ahead individually. We shall start with the eldest—which appears to be you, Annabelle—and work down to the youngest.”
“That hardly works out to my advantage,” Daisy protested.
“It’s only fair,” Lillian informed her. “You’ve got more time than the rest of us.”
“What kind of ‘help’ do you mean?” Annabelle asked.
“Whatever is required.” Lillian began to scribble industriously in her dance card. “We’ll supplement each other’s weaknesses and give advice and assistance when needed.” She glanced up with a cheerful grin. “We’ll be like a Rounders team.”
Annabelle regarded her skeptically. “You’re referring to the game in which gentlemen take turns whacking a leather ball with a flat-sided bat?”
“Not only gentlemen,” Lillian replied. “In New York, ladies may play also, as long as they don’t forget themselves in the excitement.”
Daisy smiled slyly. “Such as the time Lillian became so incensed by a bad call that she pulled a sanctuary post out of the ground.”
“It was already loose,” Lillian protested. “A loose post could have presented a danger to one of the runners.”
“Particularly while you were hurling it at them,” Daisy said, meeting her older sister’s frown with a sweet smirk.
Smothering a laugh, Annabelle glanced from the pair of sisters to Evie’s vaguely perplexed expression. She could easily read Evie’s thoughts—that the American sisters were going to require a lot of training before they would attract the attention of eligible peers. Returning her attention to the Bowman sisters, she couldn’t help smiling at their expectant faces. It was not at all difficult to imagine the pair flailing at balls with sticks and running around the playing field with their skirts hitched up to their knees. She wondered if all American girls possessed such a plenitude of spirit…no doubt the Bowmans would terrify any proper British gentleman who dared to approach them.
“Somehow I’ve never thought of husband-hunting as a team sport,” she said.
“Well, it should be!” Lillian said emphatically. “Think of how much more effective we’ll be. The only potential difficulty is if two of us take an interest in the same man…but that doesn’t seem likely, given our respective tastes.”
“Then we’ll agree never to compete for the same gentleman,” Annabelle said.
“And f-furthermore,” Evie broke in unexpectedly, “we shall do no harm to anyone.”
“Very Hippocratic,” Lillian said approvingly.
“I happen to think she’s right, Lillian,” Daisy protested, misunderstanding. “Don’t browbeat the poor girl, for heaven’s sake.”
Lillian scowled in sudden annoyance. “I said ‘Hippocratic,’ not ‘hypocritical,’ you dunce.”
Annabelle interceded hastily, before the two began to quarrel. “Then we must all agree on the plan of action—it won’t do any good for any of us to be at cross-purposes.”
“And we’ll tell each other everything,” Daisy said with relish.
“Even i-intimate details?” Evie asked timidly.
“Oh, especially those!”
Lillian smiled wryly and slid an appraising glance over Annabelle’s gown. “Your clothes are atrocious,” she said bluntly. “I’m going to give you a few of my gowns. I’ve got trunks full that I’ve never worn, and I’ll never miss them. My mother will never notice.”
Annabelle shook her head immediately, at once grateful for the offer yet mortified by her conspicuous financial straits. “No, no, I couldn’t accept such a gift, although you are very generous—”
“The pale blue one, with the lavender piping,” Lillian murmured to Daisy, “do you remember it?”
“Oh, that would look heavenly on her,” Daisy said enthusiastically. “It will suit her much better than you.”
“Thanks,” Lillian retorted, flashing her a comical glare.
“No, really—” Annabelle protested.
“And that green muslin with the white lace trim down the front,” Lillian continued.
“I can’t take your gowns, Lillian,” Annabelle insisted in a low voice.
The girl looked up from her notes. “Why not?”
“For one thing, I couldn’t afford to repay you. And it won’t be any use. Fine feathers won’t make my lack of a dowry any more appealing.”
“Oh, money,” Lillian said, in the careless manner that could only come from someone who had a great deal of it. “You’re going to repay me by giving me something infinitely more valuable than cash. You’re going to teach Daisy and me how to be…well, more like you. Teach us the right things to say and do—all the unspoken rules that we seem to break every minute of the day. If possible, you might even help to find us a sponsor. And then we’ll be able to walk through all the doors that are currently closed to us. As for your lack of a dowry…you just get the man on the hook. The rest of us will help you reel him in.”
Annabelle stared at her in amazement. “You’re actually serious about this.”
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