Simon’s father, Thomas, was a huge, imposing man with features that could easily have lent themselves to intimidating austerity. Occasionally his face and eyes were softened with a smile that was not quite as charismatic as Simon’s but possessed its own quiet appeal. Annabelle managed to have a friendly exchange with him as she was seated beside him at dinner. Unfortunately, it appeared that the two mothers were not communicating well. The cause did not seem to be dislike so much as a complete inability to relate to one another. Their lives, the accumulation of experiences that had formed them and shaped their views, could not have been more opposed.

Dinner consisted of thick cuts of well-cooked beefsteak, sided by pudding and the barest spoonful of vegetables. Suppressing a wistful sigh as she thought of the cuisine they had enjoyed in France, Annabelle worked diligently on the heavy slab of beef.

Before long, Meredith engaged her with a friendly comment. “Annabelle, you must tell us more about Paris. My mother and I will soon be touring the Continent for the very first time.”

“How wonderful,” Annabelle exclaimed. “When will you depart?”

“In a week, actually. We’ll be gone for at least a month and a half, starting at Calais and finishing with Rome…”

The conversation about travel continued until the meal was concluded, and a cook-maid came to clear the plates while the family retired to the parlor for tea and sweets. To the children’s delight, Jeremy sat with them on the floor near the hearth, playing jackstraws and helping to restrain the puppy. Annabelle sat nearby, watching their antics while she conversed with Simon’s older sister. She couldn’t help but notice that Simon had disappeared with his mother, whom she guessed had many questions for her oldest son about his precipitate wedding and the state of his marriage.

“Oh, blast,” came Jeremy’s exclamation. “The puppy’s made a puddle on the hearth.”

“Someone please find the maid and tell her,” Sally said, while the children laughed uproariously at the ill-mannered puppy.

Since Annabelle was sitting closest to the door, she jumped up at once. Entering the next room, Annabelle discovered the cook-maid still clearing away the remnants of dinner. After Annabelle informed her of the small mishap, the girl swiftly went to the parlor with a handful of rags. Annabelle would have followed her, but she heard the sounds of conversation coming from the nearby kitchen, and she paused as she heard Bertha’s low, disapproving voice.

“…and does she love you, Simon?”

Annabelle froze where she stood, listening intently to Simon’s reply. “People marry for many reasons other than that.”

“She doesn’t, then,” came Bertha’s flat statement. “I can’t say as I’m surprised. Women like that never—”

“Have a care,” Simon murmured. “You’re speaking of my wife.”

“She makes a pretty ornament for your arm,” Bertha persisted, “when you go among higher-ups. But would she have married you without your money? Would she stay by you in times of trouble or want? If only you had given a second glance to one of the girls I tried to match you with. That Molly Havelock, or Peg Larcher…good, sturdy girls who would be true helpmates…”

Annabelle could bear to hear no more. Controlling her expression, she slipped back into the noise and light of the parlor. Well, that’s what comes of eavesdropping, she told herself ruefully, wondering if Bertha’s opinion of her could sink much lower. The criticism hurt…but Annabelle had to acknowledge that there was no overwhelming reason for Simon’s family, or his mother, to like her. In fact, Annabelle realized that in all her pondering over the benefits of marrying Simon, it had never occurred to her to question what she could give him in return.

Troubled, she wondered if she should say anything to Simon about what she had overheard and immediately decided against it. Broaching the subject would only force him to offer reassurance, or perhaps apologize for his mother, neither of which was necessary. She knew that it would take time for her to prove her worth to Simon, and his family…and perhaps even to herself.

Much later in the evening, when Annabelle and Simon had returned to the Rutledge, Simon took her shoulders in his hands and regarded her with a slight smile. “Thank you,” he said.

“For what?”

“For being so agreeable to my family.” Pulling her forward, he pressed his mouth to the top of her head. “And for choosing to overlook the fact that they’re so different from you.”

Annabelle flushed with pleasure at his praise, suddenly feeling much better. “I enjoyed the evening,” she lied, and Simon grinned.

“You don’t have to go that far.”

“Oh, perhaps there was a moment or two, when your father was discussing animal entrails…or when your sister talked about what the baby did in his bath-water…but on the whole, they were very, very…”

“Noisy?” Simon suggested, his eyes glinting with sudden laughter.

“I was going to say ‘nice.’ “

Simon slid his hands over her back, massaging the tense places beneath her shoulder blades. “You’re taking to this wife-of-a-commoner business fairly well, all things considered.”

“It’s not so bad, really,” Annabelle mused. She ran a light, flirtatious hand along the front of his body, and gave him a teasing glance. “I can overlook quite a lot, in return for this…impressive…well-endowed…”

“Bank account?”

Annabelle smiled and slipped her fingers into the waist of his trousers. “Not the bank account,” she whispered, just before his mouth closed over hers.

The following day, Annabelle was thrilled to be reunited with Lillian and Daisy, whose suite was in the same wing of the Rutledge as her own. Squealing and laughing as they embraced, the three of them made far too much noise, until Mrs. Bowman sent a maid to tell them to be quiet.

“I want to see Evie,” Annabelle complained, locking arms with Daisy as they went to the suite’s receiving room. “How is she faring?”

“She got into dreadful trouble a fortnight ago for trying to see her father,” Daisy replied with a sigh. “His condition has worsened, and he’s bedridden now. But Evie was caught sneaking out of the house, and now she’s being kept in seclusion by Aunt Florence and the rest of the family.”

“For how long?”

“Indefinitely,” came the discouraging reply.

“Oh, those odious people,” Annabelle muttered. “I wish we could go and rescue Evie.”

“Wouldn’t that be fun?” Daisy mused, instantly taken with the idea. “We should kidnap her. We’ll bring a ladder and set it beneath her window, and—”

“Aunt Florence would set the dogs on us,” Lillian said darkly. “They have two huge mastiffs that wander the grounds at night.”

“We’ll toss them some drugged meat,” Daisy countered. “And then while they’re sleeping—”

“Oh, plague take your harebrained plans,” Lillian exclaimed. “I want to hear about Annabelle’s honeymoon.”

Two pair of dark brown eyes regarded Annabelle with unmaidenly interest. “Well?” Lillian asked. “What was it like? Was it as painful as they say?”

“Out with it, Annabelle,” Daisy urged. “Remember, we promised to tell each other everything!”

Annabelle grinned, rather enjoying the position of being knowledgeable about something that was still so much a mystery to them. “Well, at certain moments it was rather uncomfortable,” she admitted. “But Simon was very kind, and…attentive…and although I have no prior experience for comparison, I can’t imagine that any man could be a more wonderful lover.”

“What do you mean?” Lillian asked.

A warm shade of pink stained Annabelle’s cheeks. Hesitating, she searched for the words to explain something that suddenly seemed impossible to describe. One might detail the mechanics of it, but that would hardly convey the tenderness of such a private experience. “The intimacy of it is far beyond what you could ever imagine…at first you want to die of embarrassment, but then there are moments when it feels so wonderful that you forget to be self-conscious, and the only thing that matters is being close to him.”

There was a short silence as the sisters contemplated her words.

“How long does it take?” Daisy ventured.

Annabelle’s blush deepened. “Sometimes only a few minutes…sometimes a few hours.”

“A few hours?” both of them repeated at once, looking amazed.

Lillian wrinkled her nose in distaste. “My God, that sounds horrid.”

Annabelle laughed at her expression. “It’s not at all horrid. It’s lovely, actually.”

Lillian shook her head. “I’m going to figure out a way to make my husband get it over with quickly. There are far better things to do than spend hours in bed doing that.”

Annabelle grinned. “Speaking of the mysterious gentleman who will someday be your husband…we should begin planning the strategy for our next campaign. The season won’t begin until January, which leaves us several months to prepare.”

“Daisy and I need an aristocratic sponsor,” Lillian said with a sigh. “Not to mention some etiquette lessons. And unfortunately, Annabelle, since you’ve married a commoner, you’ve got no real social influence, and we’re no farther along than when we started.” Hastily she added, “No offense meant, dear.”

“None taken,” Annabelle replied mildly. “How-ever, Simon does have some friends in the peerage— Lord Westcliff in particular.”

“Oh, no,” Lillian said firmly. “I want nothing to do with him.”

“Why not?”

Lillian raised her brows as if surprised by the need to explain. “Because he’s the most insufferable man I’ve ever encountered?”

“But Westcliff is very highly placed,” Annabelle wheedled. “And he is Simon’s best friend. I have no great liking for him myself, but he could be a useful ally. They say that Westcliff’s title is the oldest one in England. Blood doesn’t get any bluer than his.”

“And well he knows it,” Lillian said sourly. “Despite all his populist talk, one can see that he’s inwardly thrilled to be a peer with lots of minions he can order about.”

“I wonder why Westcliff hasn’t married yet,” Daisy mused. “Despite his flaws, one has to admit that he is a whale-sized catch.”

“I’ll be thrilled when someone harpoons him,” Lillian muttered, making the other two laugh.

Although London was largely emptied of “good society” during the warmest of the summer months, town life was by no means completely stagnant. Until Parliament adjourned on the twelfth of August, coinciding with the opening of grouse season, the occasional presence of titled gentlemen was still required during afternoon sessions. While the men attended Parliament or went to their clubs, their wives went shopping, paid calls on their friends, and wrote letters. In the evenings, they attended dinners, soirees, and balls that usually lasted until two or three o’clock in the morning. Such was the schedule of an aristocrat, or even those in what were considered aristocratic professions, such as clergymen, naval officers, or physicians.

To Annabelle’s chagrin, it quickly became evident that her husband, despite his wealth and undeniable success, was not in a remotely aristocratic profession. Therefore, they were sometimes excluded from the elegant upper-class events she longed to be part of. Only when a peer was financially obligated to Simon in some way, or if he was a close friend of Lord Westcliff, did he invite the Hunts to his home. Annabelle received very few calls from the young aristocratic matrons who had formerly been her friends, and although she was never turned away when she visited, she was hardly encouraged to return. The boundaries of class and social position were impossible to traverse. Even a viscount’s wife who had become impoverished from her husband’s gambling habits and spendthrift ways, and therefore was living in a shabby home with only two servants to attend her, seemed determined to maintain her superiority over Annabelle. After all, her husband, despite his shortcomings, was a peer, and Simon Hunt was distastefully mercantile.

Fuming over her cool reception from the viscount’s wife, Annabelle went to Lillian and Daisy, to rant about the accumulation of snubs and set-downs she had received. They were both amused and sympathetic as they listened to her passionate complaints. “You should have seen her parlor!” Annabelle said, striding back and forth before the sisters, who were occupying the settee in their receiving room. “Everything was dusty and threadbare, and there were wine stains all over the carpet, and all she could do was look down her nose at me and pity me for having married down. Down, she said, when everyone knows that her husband is a foolish sodden drunkard who throws every last shilling onto the hazard table! He may be a viscount, but he isn’t fit to lick Simon’s boots, and I had the greatest difficulty in refraining from telling her so.”

“Why did you refrain?” Lillian inquired idly. “I would have told her exactly what I thought of her silly snobbery.”

“Because one gains nothing by trying to argue with such people.” Annabelle scowled. “If Simon saved a dozen people from drowning, he would never be regarded with the same admiration as some fat old peer who sat by and watched without lifting a finger to help.”

Daisy raised her brows slightly. “Are you sorry that you didn’t marry a peer?”

“No,” Annabelle said instantly, and ducked her head in sudden shame. “But I suppose…I suppose there are moments that I can’t help wishing that Simon was a peer.”

Lillian regarded her with a touch of concern. “If you could go back and change things, would you choose Lord Kendall over Mr. Hunt?”

“Good Lord, no.” Sighing, Annabelle sank down onto a needlepoint stool, the skirts of her silk dress, green with tiny printed flowers, billowing around her. “I don’t regret my choice. But I do regret not being able to go to the Wymarks’ ball. Or the soiree at Gilbreath House. Or any of the other events that people of good society attend. Instead, Mr. Hunt and I most often go to parties given by a far different crowd.”

“What sort of crowd?” Daisy asked.

As Annabelle hesitated, Lillian answered in a voice laden with wry amusement. “I would guess that Annabelle is referring to the climbers. All the people with new money and lower-class values and vulgar manners. In other words, our sort.”

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