“Of course we are,” Daisy replied. “What a relief it will be for us to have something to do, rather than sit against the wall like idiots! Lillian and I have been driven to near madness by the boredom of the season.”

“S-So have I,” Evie added.

“Well…” Annabelle looked from one expectant face to another, unable to keep from grinning. “If the three of you are willing, then so am I. But if we’re to make a pact, shouldn’t we sign it in blood or something?”

“Heavens, no,” Lillian said. “I should think we can all agree to something without having to open a vein over it.” She gestured with her dance card. “Now, I suppose we should make a list of the most promising candidates left after the past season. And a sadly picked-over lot they are by now. Shall we list them in order of rank? Starting with dukes?”

Annabelle shook her head. “We may as well not bother with dukes, as I’m not aware of any eligible ones who are under seventy years old and have any teeth remaining.”

“So intelligence and charm are negotiable, but not teeth?” Lillian said slyly, making Annabelle laugh.

“Teeth are negotiable,” Annabelle replied, “but highly preferred.”

“All right, then,” Lillian said. “Passing over the category of gummy old dukes, let’s progress to earls. I know of Lord Westcliff, for one—”

“No, not Westcliff.” Annabelle winced as she added, “He’s a cold fish—and he has no interest in me. I practically threw myself at him when I came out four years ago, and he looked at me as if I were something that had stuck on his shoe.”

“Forget Westcliff, then.” Lillian raised her brows questioningly. “What about Lord St. Vincent? Young, eligible, handsome as sin—”

“It wouldn’t work,” Annabelle said. “No matter how compromising the situation, St. Vincent would never propose. He has compromised, seduced, and utterly ruined at least a dozen women—honor means nothing to him.”

“There’s the earl of Eglinton,” Evie suggested hesitantly. “But he is quite p-p-portly, and at least fifty years old—”

“Put him on the list,” Annabelle insisted. “I can’t afford to be particular.”

“There’s Viscount Rosebury,” Lillian remarked with a little frown. “Although he’s rather an odd sort, and so…well, droopy.”

“As long as he’s firm in the pocketbook, he can be droopy everywhere else,” Annabelle said, causing the other girls to snicker. “Write him down, too.”

Ignoring the music and the couples that swirled in front of them, the four of them worked diligently on the list, occasionally making each other laugh so hard that they drew curious glances from passersby.

“Quiet,” Annabelle said, making an effort to sound stern. “We don’t want anyone to suspect what we’re planning…and wallflowers aren’t supposed to be laughing.”

They all attempted to assume grave expressions, which set off fresh spasms of giggles. “Oh, look,” Lillian gasped, regarding their ever-growing list of matrimonial prospects. “For once our dance cards are full.” Considering the roster of bachelors, she pursed her lips thoughtfully. “It occurs to me that some of these gentlemen will probably be attending Westcliff’s end of-season party in Hampshire. Daisy and I have already been invited. What about you, Annabelle?”

“I’m acquainted with one of his sisters,” Annabelle said. “I think I can get her to invite me. I’ll beg, if necessary.”

“I’ll put in a word for you as well,” Lillian said confidently. She smiled at Evie. “And I’ll have her extend an invitation to you, too.”

“How fun this will be!” Daisy exclaimed. “The plan is set, then. In a fortnight we’ll invade Hampshire and find a husband for Annabelle.” They all reached out and clasped hands, feeling silly and giddy and more than a little encouraged. Perhaps my luck is about to change, Annabelle thought, and closed her eyes with a brief prayer of hope.

CHAPTER 2

Simon Hunt had learned at an early age that since fate had not blessed him with noble blood, wealth, or unusual gifts, he would have to wrest his fortune from an often uncharitable world. He was ten times more aggressive and ambitious than the average man. People usually found it far easier to let him have his way rather than stand against him. Although Simon was domineering, perhaps even ruthless, his sleep at night was never troubled by pangs of conscience. It was a law of nature that only the strongest survived, and the weakest had better get the hell out of the way.

His father had been a butcher, providing comfortably for a family of six and enlisting Simon as his assistant when he was old enough to wield the heavy chopping blade. Years of working in his father’s shop had given Simon the massive arms and brawny shoulders of a butcher. It had always been expected that he would eventually manage the family business, but at the age of twenty-one, Simon had disappointed his father by leaving the shop in search of a different livelihood. Upon investing his small accumulation of savings, Simon had quickly discovered his true talent in life—making money.

Simon loved the language of economics, the elements of risk, the interplay of trade and industry and politics…and he had realized immediately that before long the growing British railway network would be the primary means for banks to conduct their business efficiently. The remittance of cash and securities, the creation of fast-developing investment opportunities, would depend heavily on the service of the railroad. Following his instincts, Simon invested every cent he had in railroad speculation, and was rewarded with an explosion of profits that he immediately parlayed into a diverse range of interests. Now, at thirty-three, he owned controlling portions of three manufacturing companies, a nine-acre foundry, and a shipyard. He was a guest—albeit an undesired one— in aristocratic ballrooms, and he sat shoulder to shoulder with peers on the boards of six companies.

After years of relentless work, he had gotten almost everything he had ever wanted. However, if someone had asked whether he was a happy man, Simon would have snorted at the question. Happiness, that elusive result of success, was a sure sign of complacency. By his very nature, Simon would never be complacent, or satisfied; nor did he want to be.

All the same…in the deepest, most private corner of his neglected heart, there was one wish that Simon could not seem to extinguish.

He shot a covert glance across the ballroom, experiencing as always the peculiar sharp pang that the sight of Annabelle Peyton produced. With all the women that were available to him—and there were more than a few—no one had ever seized his attention with such all-encompassing thoroughness. Annabelle’s appeal went beyond mere physical beauty, though God knew she’d been blessed with an inequitable surplus. Were there an ounce of poetry in Simon’s soul, he might have thought of dozens of rapturous phrases to describe her charms. But he was plebeian to the core, and he could not find words accurately to describe his attraction. All he knew was that sight of Annabelle in the glittering light of the chandeliers was very nearly knee-weakening.

Simon had never forgotten the first moment that he had seen her standing outside the panorama, digging through her purse with a little pucker on her forehead. The sun had picked out streaks of gold and champagne in her light brown hair and made her skin glow. There had been some thing so delicious…so touchable…about her, the velvety skin and shining blue eyes, and the slight frown that he had longed to soothe away.

He had been altogether certain that Annabelle would have been married by now. The evidence that the Peytons had fallen on hard times had not signified to Simon, who had assumed that any peer with his brains intact would see her worth and claim her at once. But as two years had passed, and Annabelle had remained unwed, a fragile tendril of hope had awakened inside Simon. He saw a touching valiance in her determined search for a husband, the self-possession with which she wore her increasingly threadbare gowns…the clear value that she placed on herself, despite her lack of a dowry. The artful way she approached the process of husband-hunting brought to mind nothing so much as a seasoned gambler playing his last few cards in a losing game. Annabelle was smart, careful, uncompromising, and still beautiful, although lately the threat of poverty had lent a certain hardness to her eyes and mouth. Selfishly, Simon was not sorry for her financial hardship—it created an opportunity that he never would have had otherwise.

The problem was that Simon had not yet figured out how to make Annabelle want him, when she was so obviously repulsed by everything he was. Simon was well aware that there were few graces to his character. Moreover, he had no ambition to become a gentleman any more than a tiger aspired to become a house cat. He was merely a man with a great deal of money and all the accompanying frustration of realizing that it could not buy the thing he most wanted.

So far, Simon’s strategy had been to wait patiently, knowing that desperation would eventually drive Annabelle to do things that she had never considered doing before. Privation had a way of presenting a situation in a whole new light. Soon Annabelle’s game would end. She would be faced with the choice of marrying a poor man or becoming the mistress of a wealthy one. And in the latter case, his bed would be the one she ended up in.

“A tasty little tart, isn’t she?” came a comment from nearby, and Simon turned toward Henry Burdick, whose father, a viscount, was reputedly on his deathbed. Caught in the interminable wait before his father kicked off and finally yielded the title and family fortune, Burdick spent the majority of his time gambling and skirt-chasing. He followed Simon’s gaze to Annabelle, who was engaged in a lively conversation with the wallflowers around her.

“I wouldn’t know,” Simon returned, feeling a jolt of antipathy for Burdick and all his ilk, who’d been given all manner of privileges on a silver platter since the day they were born. And usually did nothing to justify fate’s imprudent generosity.

Burdick smiled, his face florid from too much drink and rich food. “I intend to find out soon,” he commented.

Burdick was hardly in the minority. No small number of men had set their sights on Annabelle, with the anticipation of a wolf pack trailing after a wounded prey. At the moment that she was at her weakest, and would offer the least resistance, one of them would move in for the kill. However, as in nature, the dominant male would always win out.

The shadow of a smile settled on Simon’s hard mouth. “You surprise me,” he murmured. “I would have assumed that a lady’s predicament would inspire gallantry from gentlemen of your sort—and instead I find you entertaining the ill-bred notions that one would expect from my sort.”

Burdick emitted a low laugh, missing the feral gleam in Simon’s black eyes. “Lady or no, she’ll have to choose one of us when her resources finally give out.”

“Will none of you offer her marriage?” Simon asked idly.

“Good God, why?” Burdick licked his lips as anticipatory thoughts crossed his mind. “No need to marry the chit when she’ll soon be available for the right price.”

“Perhaps she has too much honor for that.”

“Doubt it,” the young aristocrat returned cheerfully. “Women that beautiful, and poor, can’t afford honor. Besides, there is a rumor that she’s already been giving over the goods to Lord Hodgeham.”

“Hodgeham?” Inwardly startled, Simon kept his face expressionless. “What started that rumor?”

“Oh, Hodgeham’s carriage has been seen at the mews behind the Peyton at odd hours of the night…and according to some of their creditors, he takes care of their bills now and then.” Burdick paused and chortled. “A night between those pretty thighs is worth paying the grocer’s account, wouldn’t you say?”

Simon’s instantaneous response was a murderous impulse to separate Burdick’s head from the rest of his body. He wasn’t certain how much of the cold, splintering rage was fueled by the image of Annabelle Peyton in bed with the porcine Lord Hodgeham, and how much was elicited by Burdick’s snide enjoyment of gossip that was very likely untrue.

“I would say that if you’re going to slander a lady’s reputation,” Simon said in a dangerously pleasant tone, “you had better have some hard proof of what you’re saying.”

“Egads, gossip doesn’t require proof,” the young man replied with a wink. “And time will soon reveal the lady’s true character. Hodgeham doesn’t have the means to keep a prime beauty like that—before long she’ll want more than he can deliver. I predict that at the season’s end, she’ll sail off to the fellow with the deepest pockets.”

“Which would be mine,” Simon said softly.

Burdick blinked in surprise, his smile fading as he wondered if he had heard correctly. “Wha—”

“I’ve watched as you and the pack of idiots you run with have sniffed at her heels for two years,” Simon said, his eyes narrowing. “Now you’ve lost your chance at her.”

“Lost my…what do you mean by that?” Burdick asked indignantly.

“I mean that I will afflict the most acute kind of pain, mental, physical, and financial, on the first man who dares to trespass on my territory. And the next person who repeats any unsubstantiated rumors about Miss Peyton in my hearing will find it shoved right back in his throat—along with my fist.” Simon’s smile contained a tigerish menace as he beheld Burdick’s stunned face. “Tell that to anyone who may find it of interest,” he advised, and strode away from the pompous, gape-jawed little runt.

CHAPTER 3

Having been returned to her town house by the elderly cousin who sometimes acted as her chaperone, Annabelle strode into the empty, flagstoned entrance hall. She stopped short at the sight of the hat that had been placed on the scallop-edged demilune table against the wall. It was a high-crowned gentleman’s hat, gray banded with dark burgundy satin. A distinctive hat, compared to the simple black ones that most gentlemen wore. Annabelle had seen it on far too many occasions, perched on this very table like a coiled snake.

A stylish cane with a diamond-tipped handle leaned against the table. Annabelle entertained a lively desire to use the cane to bash in the crown of the hat— preferably while the owner was wearing it. Instead, she walked up the stairs with a leaden heart while a frown pinched her forehead.

As she neared the second floor where the family rooms were located, a heavyset man came to the top landing. He viewed her with an intolerable smirk, his complexion pink and moist from recent exertion, while a lopsided lock of his combed-over hair dangled like a rooster’s crest.

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