“Any wife would be, if her husband came home in this condition!”
Simon slid his hand behind her neck and squeezed lightly. “You’re reacting a bit strongly to a bruise and a slight burn, aren’t you?”
Annabelle scowled. “First tell me what happened, then I’ll decide how to react.”
“Four men were trying to pull a metal plate out of a furnace with long-handled pincers. They had to carry it to a frame where it could be rolled and pressed. The metal plate turned out to be a bit heavier than they expected, and when it became clear that they were about to drop the damned thing, I picked up another pair of pincers and went to help.”
“Why couldn’t one of the other foundrymen do it?”
“I happened to be standing closest to the furnace.” Simon shrugged in an effort to make light of the episode. “I got the bruise when I knocked my knee against the frame before we managed to lower the plate—and the burn happened when someone else’s pincers brushed against my arm. But no harm done. I heal quickly.”
“Oh, that was all?” she asked. “You were only lifting hundreds of pounds of red-hot iron in your shirt-sleeves?—how silly of me to be concerned.”
Simon lowered his head until his lips brushed her cheek. “You don’t have to worry about me.”
“Someone needs to.” Annabelle was keenly aware of the strength and solidity of his body, standing so close to hers. His big-boned frame was formed with power and masculine grace. But Simon wasn’t invulnerable, or indestructible. He was only human, and the dawning realization of how important his safety had become to her was nothing short of alarming. Twisting away from him, Annabelle went to check the accumulating bath-water, saying over her shoulder, “You smell like a train.”
“With an extended smokestack,” he rejoined, following at her heels.
Annabelle snorted derisively. “If you’re trying to be amusing, don’t bother. I’m furious with you.”
“Why?” Simon murmured, catching her from behind. “Because I got hurt? Trust me, all your favorite parts are still working.” He kissed the side of her neck.
Annabelle stiffened her spine, resisting the embrace. “I couldn’t care less if you jumped headfirst into a vat of melted iron, if you’re so silly as to go into the foundry with no protective clothing and—”
“Hell-broth.” Simon nuzzled into the delicate wisps of her hairline, while one hand coasted upward to find her breast.
“What?” Annabelle asked, wondering if he had just spouted some new profanity.
“Hell-broth…that’s what they call the melted iron.” His fingers circled the reinforced shape of her breast, molded artificially high and stiff within the frame of her corset. “Good God, what do you have on under this dress?”
“My new steam-molded corset.” The fashionable garment, imported from New York, had been heavily starched and pressed onto a metal form, giving it more stiffness and structure than the conventionally designed corset.
“I don’t like it. I can’t feel your breasts.”
“You’re not supposed to,” Annabelle said with exaggerated patience, rolling her eyes as he brought his hands up to her chest and squeezed experimentally. “Simon…your bath…”
“What idiot invented corsets in the first place?” he asked grumpily, letting go of her.
“An Englishman, of course.”
“It would be.” He followed her as she went to shut the valves in the bathing room.
“My dressmaker told me that corsets used to be kirtles, which were worn as a mark of servitude.”
“Why are you so willing to wear a mark of servitude?”
“Because everyone else does, and if I didn’t, my waist would look as big as a cow’s by comparison.”
“Vanity, thy name is woman,” he quoted, dropping his linens to pad across the tiled floor.
“And I suppose men wear neckties because they are so excessively comfortable?” Annabelle asked sweetly, watching her husband step into the tub.
“I wear neckties because if I didn’t, people would think I was even more uncivilized than they already do.” Lowering himself with care, for the tub had not been designed for a man of his proportions, Simon let out a hiss of comfort as the hot water lapped around his middle.
Coming to stand beside him, Annabelle ran her fingers over his thick hair, and murmured, “They don’t know the half of it. Here—don’t lower your arm into the water. I’ll help you to wash.”
As she lathered him, Annabelle took a pleasurable inventory of her husband’s long, well-exercised body. Slowly her hands coasted over hard planes of muscle, some places ropy and delineated, others smooth and solid. Sensual creature that he was, Simon made no effort to conceal his pleasure, watching her lazily through half-closed eyes. His breath quickened, though it was still measured, and his muscles turned iron-hard at the stroke of her fingertips.
The silence in the tiled room was broken only by the sluice of water and the sounds of their breathing. Dreamily, Annabelle tunneled her fingers through the soapy mat of hair on his chest, recalling the feel of it on her br**sts as his body moved over hers. “Simon,” she whispered.
His lashes lifted, and his dark eyes stared into hers. One large hand slid over hers, pressing it to the taut contours of his chest. “Yes?”
“If anything ever happened to you, I…” She paused as she heard the sound of vigorous knocking at the door of the suite. Her reverie was broken by the intrusive sound. “Hmm…who could that be?”
The interruption caused annoyance to cross Simon’s features. “Did you send for something?”
Shaking her head, Annabelle rose to her feet and reached for a length of toweling to dry her hands.
Annabelle smiled wryly as the rapping became more insistent. “I don’t think our visitor will give up that easily. I suppose I’ll have to go see who it is.” She left the bathing room and closed the door gently, allowing Simon to finish his bath in privacy.
Striding to the entrance of the suite, Annabelle opened the door. “Jeremy!” Her pleasure at her brother’s unexpected visit vanished quickly as she saw his expression. His young face was pale and set, and his mouth was clamped in a grim line. He was hatless and coatless, and his hair was in wild disarray. “Jeremy, is something wrong?” she asked, welcoming him into the suite.
“You could say that.”
Reading the barely suppressed panic in his gaze, she stared at him with increasing concern. “Tell me what’s happened.”
Jeremy raked a hand through his hair, causing the thick golden brown strands to stand on end. “The fact is—” He paused with a dumbfounded expression, as if he couldn’t believe what he was about to say.
“The fact is what?” Annabelle demanded.
“The fact is…our mother just stabbed someone.”
Annabelle regarded her brother with blank-faced confusion. Gradually a scowl spread across her features. “Jeremy,” she said sternly, “this is the most distasteful prank you’ve ever—”
“It’s not a prank! I wish to hell it was.”
Annabelle made no effort to hide her skepticism. “Whom is she supposed to have stabbed?”
“Lord Hodgeham. One of Papa’s old friends—do you remember him?”
Suddenly, the color drained from Annabelle’s face, and a shock of horror went through her. “Yes,” she heard herself whisper. “I remember him.”
“Apparently he came to the house this evening while I was out with friends—I returned home early— and when I crossed the threshold, I saw blood on the entrance floor.”
Annabelle shook her head slightly, trying to take in the words.
“I followed the trail into the parlor,” Jeremy continued, “where the cook-maid was in hysterics, and the footman was trying to clean a puddle of blood from the carpet, while Mama stood there like a statue, not saying a word. There was a pair of bloody scissors on the table—the ones she uses for needlework. From what I could get out of the servants, Hodgeham went into the parlor with Mama, there were sounds of an argument, then Hodgeham came staggering out with his hands clasping his chest.”
Annabelle’s mind began to work at twice its usual speed, her thoughts racing madly. She and Philippa had always hidden the truth from Jeremy, who had been away at school whenever Hodgeham had called. As far as Annabelle knew, Jeremy had never been aware that Hodgeham had visited the house. He would be devastated if he realized that some of the money that had paid his school bills had been given in exchange for…no, he must not find out. She would have to make up some explanation. Later. The most important thing for now was to protect Philippa.
“Where is Hodgeham now?” Annabelle asked. “How severely was he injured?”
“I have no idea. It seems that he went to the back entrance where his carriage was waiting, and his own footman and driver carried him away.” Jeremy shook his head wildly. “I don’t know where Mama stabbed him, or how many times, or even why. She won’t say— just looks at me as if she can’t remember her own name.”
“Where is she now? Don’t say you just left her at home by herself?”
“I told the footman to watch her every minute, and not to let her—” Jeremy broke off and directed a wary glance to a point beyond Annabelle’s shoulder. “Hello, Mr. Hunt. I’m sorry to interrupt your evening, but I’ve come because—”
“Yes, I heard. Your voice carried to the next room.” Simon stood there calmly tucking the tail of a fresh shirt into his trousers, his gaze alert as he stared at Jeremy.
Turning, Annabelle went cold at the sight of her husband. There were times when she forgot how intimidating Simon could be, but at the moment, with his pitiless eyes and complete lack of expression, he looked as ruthless as a killer-for-hire.
“Why did Hodgeham come to the house at such an hour?” Jeremy wondered aloud, his young face fraught with worry. “And why the hell did Mama receive him? And what would have provoked her like that? He must have tricked her somehow. He must have said something about Papa…or maybe even made an advance to her, the filthy bastard.”
In the tension-riddled silence that followed Jeremy’s innocent speculations, Annabelle opened her mouth to say something, and Simon shook his head slightly, silencing her. He turned his attention fully to Jeremy, his voice cool and quiet. “Jeremy, run to the stables at the back of the hotel and have my carriage hitched to a team. And tell them to saddle my horse. After that, go home to collect the carpet and bloodstained clothes and take them to the locomotive works—the first building on the lot. Mention my name, and the manager won’t ask questions. There is a furnace—”
“Yes,” Jeremy said, understanding immediately. “I’ll burn everything.”
Simon gave him a short nod, and the boy strode to the door without another word.
As Jeremy left the hotel suite, Annabelle turned toward her husband. “Simon, I…I want to go to my mother—”
“You can go with Jeremy.”
“I don’t know what’s to bed one about Lord Hodgeham…”
“I’ll find him,” Simon said grimly. “Just pray that his wound is superficial. If he dies, it will be a hell of a lot more difficult to cover up this mess.”
Annabelle nodded, biting her lip before she said, “I thought we were finally rid of Hodgeham. I never dreamed that he would dare bother my mother again, after I married you. It seems that nothing will stop him.”
He took her shoulders in his hands, and said, with almost frightening softness, “I’ll stop him. You can rest assured about that.”
She regarded him with a worried frown. “What are you planning to—”
“We’ll talk later. Right now, go fetch your cloak.”
“Yes, Simon,” she whispered, and sped to her armoire.
When Annabelle and Jeremy arrived at their mother’s house, they found Philippa sitting on the stairs, a glass of spirits clutched in her hands. She looked small and almost childlike, and Annabelle’s heart twisted in her chest as she stared at her mother’s downbent head. “Mama,” she murmured, sitting on the step beside her. She laid an arm over her mother’s rounded back. Meanwhile, Jeremy assumed a businesslike manner as he enjoined the footman to help him roll up the parlor carpet and convey it to the carriage outside. In the midst of her worry, Annabelle could not help reflecting that he was handling the situation extraordinarily well for a boy of fourteen.
Philippa’s head lifted, and she regarded Annabelle with a haunted gaze. “I’m so sorry,”
“No, don’t be—”
“Just when I thought everything was finally all right, Hodgeham came here…he said that he wanted to continue visiting me, and if I didn’t agree, he would tell everyone about the arrangement we’d had. He said he would ruin all of us and make me a figure of public scorn. I cried and pleaded, and he laughed…then, when he put his hands on me, I felt something give way inside. I saw the scissors nearby, and I couldn’t keep from picking them up, and…I tried to kill him. I hope I did. I don’t care what happens to me now—”
“Hush, Mama,” Annabelle murmured, putting an arm around her shoulders. “No one could blame you for your actions—Lord Hodgeham was a monster, and—”
“Was?” Philippa asked numbly. “Does that mean he’s dead?”
“I don’t know. But everything will be fine regardless—Jeremy and I are here, and Mr. Hunt will not let anything happen to you.”
“Mama,” Jeremy called, hefting one end of the rolled-up carpet as he and the footman carried it toward the back entrance of the house, “do you know where the scissors are?” The question was asked in such a casual manner that one might have thought he needed them to cut a package string.
“The cook-maid has them, I think,” Philippa replied. “She’s trying to clean them.”
“All right, I’ll get them from her.” As they progressed down the hall, Jeremy called over his shoulder, “Have a glance over your clothes, will you? Anything with a speck of blood on it has to go.”
Listening to the pair of them, Annabelle couldn’t help wondering how it was that she and her family were having a casual Thursday night conversation about disposing of murder evidence. And to think that she had felt the slightest bit of superiority over Simon’s family…she cringed at the thought.
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