“Damn,” Simon muttered a few minutes later, when he was able to catch his breath.

“What?” Annabelle whispered, her head resting heavily against his coat lapel.

“For the rest of my life, the smell of starch is going to make me hard.”

“That’s your problem,” she replied with a languid smile, and inhaled as she felt his body, still joined with hers, nudge upward.

“Yours, too,” he told her, just before his mouth found hers in the darkness.

CHAPTER 23

Soon after Simon and Annabelle’s return to England, they were confronted with the inevitable interaction of two families that could not have been more different. Simon’s mother, Bertha, demanded that they come to dinner so that they all could become better acquainted, as they had not been able to do before the wedding. Although Simon had warned Annabelle what to expect, and she in turn had endeavored to prepare her mother and brother, she suspected that the encounter would produce, at best, mixed results.

Thankfully Jeremy was happily reconciled to the fact that Simon Hunt was now his brother-in-law. Having grown tall and lanky in the past few months, he stood over Annabelle as he embraced her in the parlor of their home. His golden brown hair had lightened considerably from all the time he had spent out of doors, and his blue eyes were bright and smiling in his sun-browned face. “I couldn’t believe my eyes when I read Mama’s letter saying that you were going to marry Simon Hunt,” he told her. “After all the things you’ve said about him during the past two years—”

“Jeremy,” Annabelle scolded. “Don’t you dare repeat any of that!”

Laughing, Jeremy continued to keep an arm around her while he extended his hand to Simon. “Congratulations, sir.” As they shook hands, he continued mischievously, “Actually, I wasn’t a bit surprised. My sister complained about you so often and for so long that I knew she entertained a strong feeling for you.”

Simon’s warm gaze fell on his scowling wife. “I can’t imagine what she found to complain about,” he said blandly.

“I believe she said—” Jeremy began, and gave an exaggerated wince as Annabelle shoved her elbow against his ribs. “All right, I’ll be quiet,” he said, holding up his hands defensively and laughing as he staggered back from her. “I was just having a little polite parlor conversation with my new brother-in-law.”

“‘Polite parlor conversation’ entails talking about the weather, or asking after someone’s health,” Annabelle informed him. “Not revealing potentially embarrassing remarks that one’s sister made in confidence.”

Sliding an arm around Annabelle’s waist, Simon pulled her back against his chest and lowered his head to murmur in her ear, “I have a fair idea of what you said. After all, you were willing enough to tell me face-to-face.”

Hearing the note of amusement in his voice, Annabelle relaxed against him.

Having never seen his sister interact so comfortably with a man, and noticing the changes in her, Jeremy smiled. “I would say that marriage seems to agree with you, Annabelle.”

Just then Philippa entered the room, and she rushed to her daughter with a glad cry. “Darling, I have missed you so!” She embraced her daughter tightly, then turned to Simon with a brilliant smile. “Dear Mr. Hunt, welcome home. Did you enjoy Paris?”

“Beyond telling,” Simon replied pleasantly, bending to kiss her proffered cheek. He did not look at Annabelle as he added, “I especially enjoyed the champagne.”

“Why, of course,” Philippa replied, “I’m certain that anyone who…Annabelle, dear, what are you doing?”

“Just opening the window,” Annabelle said in a strangled voice, her face having turned the color of pickled beets at Simon’s remark, as she remembered the evening when he had put a glass of champagne to especially creative use. “It’s terribly warm in here— why on earth are the windows closed at this time of year?” Keeping her face averted, she struggled with the latch until Jeremy came to help her.

While Simon and Philippa conversed, Jeremy pushed the paned glass open and grinned as Annabelle turned her overheated cheeks toward the cooling breeze. “It must have been quite a honeymoon,” he murmured with a swift grin.

“You’re not supposed to know about such things,” Annabelle whispered.

Jeremy let out an amused snort. “I’m fourteen, Annabelle, not four.” His head leaned closer to hers. “So…why did you marry Mr. Hunt? Mama says it’s because he compromised you, but knowing you, there’s more to the story than that. One thing is certain—you wouldn’t let yourself be compromised unless you wanted to be.” The glint of humor left his eyes, and he asked more soberly, “Was it because of his money? I’ve seen the household accounts—obviously we hadn’t two shillings to rub together.”

“It wasn’t entirely the money.” Annabelle had never been anything but completely frank with her brother, but it was difficult to admit the truth, even to herself. “I fell ill at Stony Cross, and Mr. Hunt was unexpectedly kind to me. And then when I began to soften toward him, I discovered that he and I have a sort of…well, affinity…”

“Intellectual or physical?” Jeremy’s smile returned as he read the answer in her eyes. “Both? That’s good. Tell me, are you in—”

“What are you two whispering about?” Philippa asked with a laugh, gesturing for them to come away from the window.

“I was begging my sister not to browbeat her new husband,” Jeremy replied, and Annabelle rolled her eyes.

“Thank you,” Simon told him gravely. “As you can imagine, it takes a great deal of fortitude to stand up to such a wife, but so far I’ve managed—” He stopped with a grin as he saw Annabelle’s threatening glance. “I can see that your brother and I would do well to share our manly confidences outside, while you tell your mother all about Paris. Jeremy—would you care for a ride in my phaeton?”

Her brother needed no further urging. “Let me find my hat and coat—”

“Don’t bother with a hat,” Simon advised laconically. “You wouldn’t be able to keep it on your head for more than a minute.”

“Mr. Hunt,” Annabelle called after them, “if you maim or kill my brother, you won’t get any supper.”

Simon called out something indistinct over his shoulder, and the pair of them disappeared into the entrance hall.

“Phaetons are too light and swift, and they overturn so easily,” Philippa said with a frown of worry. “I do hope that Mr. Hunt is an accomplished driver.”

“Exceedingly,” Annabelle said with a reassuring smile. “He drove us from the hotel at such a controlled pace that I would have thought we were riding in a heavy old family barouche. I promise you, Jeremy couldn’t be in safer hands.”

For the next hour, the two women sat in the parlor and shared a pot of tea as they discussed everything that had happened during the last fortnight. As Annabelle had expected, Philippa did not ask any questions about the more intimate aspects of the honeymoon, forbearing to intrude on the couple’s privacy. However, she was keenly interested in Annabelle’s account of the many foreigners they had met, and the parties they had attended. The crowd of wealthy industrialists was unfamiliar to Philippa, and she listened intently as Annabelle endeavored to describe them to her.

“One sees more and more of such people coming to England,” Philippa remarked, “to match their wealth with titles.”

“Like the Bowmans,” Annabelle said.

“Yes. It seems that with each season, we are being infiltrated with increasing numbers of Americans—and heaven knows, it’s already hard enough to catch a peer. We certainly don’t need an excess of competition. I will be pleased when all this entrepreneurial fervor has finally settled, and things go back to the way they were.”

Annabelle smiled ruefully as she wondered how to explain to her mother that from all she had seen and heard, the process of industrial expansion was only just beginning…and that things would never go back to the way they were. Annabelle had just begun to gain a small understanding of the transformation that the railroads and propeller-driven ships and mechanized factories would effect in England and the rest of the world. Those were the subjects that Simon and his acquaintances had discussed at dinner instead of upper-class pursuits like hunting and country parties.

“Tell me, are you getting on well with Mr. Hunt?” Philippa asked. “It would certainly seem so.”

“Oh, yes. Though I will say that Mr. Hunt is not like any man that you or I have ever known before. The gentlemen that we’re accustomed to…his mind works differently than theirs. He…he is a progressive…”

“Oh, dear heavens,” Philippa said in vague distaste. “Do you mean politically?”

“No…” Annabelle paused and made a comical face as she reflected that she didn’t even know what party her husband subscribed to. “Actually, having heard some of his views, I wouldn’t doubt that he is a Whig, or even a liberal—”

“Dear me. Perhaps in time you can persuade him to go in the other direction.”

That made Annabelle laugh. “I doubt that. But it doesn’t really matter, because…Mama, I am actually beginning to believe that someday the opinions of these entrepreneurs and mercantilists will carry more weight than those of the peerage. Their financial influence alone—”

“Annabelle,” Philippa interrupted gently, “I think it is a wonderful thing that you wish to be supportive of your husband. But a man in trade will never be as influential as a peer. Not in England, certainly.”

Suddenly their conversation was interrupted by Jeremy’s bursting entrance into the parlor. He looked disheveled and wild-eyed.

“Jeremy?” Annabelle exclaimed in worry, jumping to her feet. “What happened? Where is Mr. Hunt?”

“Walking the horses around the square to cool them.” He shook his head and spoke breathlessly. “The man is a lunatic. We nearly overturned at least three times, we came close to killing a half dozen people, and I was jolted until the entire lower half of my body is black-and-blue. If I’d had the breath to spare, I would have started praying, as we were clearly going to die. Hunt has the meanest horses I’ve ever set eyes on, and he let out curses so foul that just one of them would have gotten me expelled from school for good—”

“Jeremy,” Annabelle began apologetically, aghast that Simon would have treated her brother so terribly. “I’m so—”

“It was without doubt the best afternoon of my entire life!” Jeremy continued jubilantly. “I begged Hunt to take me out again tomorrow, and he said that he would if he had the time—Oh, what a ripper he is, Annabelle! I’m off to get some water—I’ve got a half inch of dust lining my throat.” He rushed off with adolescent glee, while his mother and sister stared after him, openmouthed.

Later that evening Simon took Annabelle, Jeremy, and their mother to the residence over the butcher shop, where his parents still lived. Consisting of three main rooms and a narrow staircase leading to a third-floor loft, the place was small but well-appointed. Even so, Annabelle could read the perplexed disapproval on her mother’s face, for Philippa could not understand why the Hunts did not choose to live in a handsome town house or terrace. The more Annabelle had tried to explain that the Hunts felt no shame about their profession, and had no wish to escape the stigma of belonging to the working class, the more confused Philippa had become. Suspecting with annoyance that her mother was being deliberately obtuse, Annabelle had abandoned all attempts to discuss Simon’s family and had privately enjoined Jeremy to keep Philippa from saying anything disdainful in front of them.

“I’ll try,” Jeremy had said doubtfully. “But you know that Mama has never rubbed on well with people who are different from us.”

Annabelle had sighed in exasperation. “Heaven forbid that we should spend an evening with people who are not exactly the same as ourselves. We might learn something. Or worse, we might even enjoy it…oh, the shame!”

A curious smile touched her brother’s lips. “Don’t be too severe on her, Annabelle. It wasn’t so long ago that you had the same disdain for those on the lower rungs.”

“I did not! I…” Annabelle had paused with a ferocious scowl, then sighed. “You’re right, I did. Though now I can’t see why. There’s no dishonor in work, is there? Certainly it’s more admirable than idleness.”

Jeremy had continued to smile. “You’ve changed,” was his only comment, and Annabelle had replied ruefully.

“Perhaps that’s not a bad thing.”

Now, as they ascended the narrow stairs that led up from the butcher shop to the Hunts’ private rooms, Annabelle was aware of the subtle restraint in Simon’s manner, the only sign of the uncertainty that he must be feeling. No doubt he was concerned about how she and his family would “rub on,” as Jeremy had put it. Determined to make a success of the evening, Annabelle pasted a confident smile on her face, not flinching even as she heard the commotion in the Hunt residence…a cacophony of adult voices, childrens’ squeals, and thumps that sounded like furniture being overturned.

“Dear me,” Philippa exclaimed. “That sounds like…like…”

“A brawl?” Simon supplied helpfully. “It could be. In my family, it’s not always easy to distinguish parlor conversation from a rope-ring exchange.”

As they entered the main room, Annabelle tried to sort through the mass of faces…there was Simon’s older sister, Sally, the married mother of a half dozen children who were currently stampeding like Pamplona bulls through the little circuit of rooms…Sally’s husband and Simon’s parents and three younger brothers, and a younger sister named Meredith, whose dark serenity was oddly jarring in all the tumult. From what Simon had told Annabelle, he had a special fondness for Meredith, who was quite different from her rough-and-tumble siblings, being shy and bookish.

The children crowded around Simon, who displayed a surprising facility with them, tossing them easily into the air and managing to simultaneously inspect a newly lost tooth and apply a handkerchief to a runny nose. The first few minutes of welcome were confusing ones, with rounds of shouted introductions, and children scattering back and forth, and the yowling indignation of a hearthside cat who had just been nipped by an inquisitive puppy. Annabelle had every expectation that things would calm down after that, but in truth, the general upheaval continued all through the evening. She had brief glimpses of her mother’s frozen smile, and Jeremy’s relaxed enjoyment, and Simon’s amused exasperation as his efforts to settle the bedlam met with poor results.

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