―Of course you do," Newbury scoffed.

―I don‘t," Sebastian said carelessly. He was beginning to feel more himself. Amazing what a touch of insolence and attitude could do to restore a man. ―I wish you would just hurry up and spawn yourself a new heir. The whole thing is bloody inconvenient."

Newbury‘s face grew even more florid, not that Sebastian would have thought it possible.

―Inconvenient? You dare to call the earldom of Newbury inconvenient?"

Seb started to shrug again, then thought it would be better if he inspected his fingernails. After a moment, he looked back up. ―I do. And you are a nuisance."

It was perhaps a bit over the line. Very well, it was a good mile over the line, and evidently Newbury agreed, because he blustered incoherently, sending spittle and God knows what else through the air, then finally hurled the contents of his glass into Sebastian‘s face. There wasn‘t much in it; presumably it had sloshed half out when he‘d punched Seb earlier. But it was enough to sting a man‘s eyes, and enough to drip from his nose. And as Sebastian stood there, looking like a snot-nosed child in need of a handkerchief, he felt a rage build up inside of him. A rage like nothing he had ever experienced. Even in war, he‘d been denied this bloodlust. He was a sniper, trained to be cool and calm, to pick off the enemy from afar.

He acted, but he didn‘t engage.

His heart pounded in his chest, his blood rushed in his ears, and yet he still heard the collective gasp, still saw the men gathered around, waiting for him to retaliate.

And he did. But not with his fists. That would never do.

―Out of respect for your age and fragility," he said icily, ―I will not strike you." He took a step away and then, quite unable to keep all of his fury in check, he turned back around and added, more in his usual offhanded tone, ―Besides, I know you are desirous of a son. If I knocked you to the floor, and truthfully, we all know that I would…" Sebastian sighed, as if lamenting a sad, sad tale. ―Well, I‘m not sure your virility would survive the blow."

There was a deathly silence, followed by Newbury‘s ramblings and rantings, but Sebastian heard none of it. He simply turned on his heel and left.

It was easier that way.

By the following morning it was all over town. The first of the vultures arrived at Vickers House at the unseemly hour of ten. Annabel was up and about; she frequently was, having found it difficult to shed her country hours. She was so surprised to hear that two countesses were calling for her that she didn‘t even think to suggest to the butler that she might not be receiving.

―Miss Winslow," came the officious voice of Lady Westfield.

Annabel immediately rose and curtsied, then repeated the gesture toward Lady Challis.

―Wherever is your grandmother?" Lady Westfield asked. She strode into the drawing room with singular purpose. Her mouth was flattened into an unpleasant line, and her entire bearing seemed to suggest that she smelled something foul.

―She is still abed," Annabel answered, remembering that the Ladies Westfield and Vickers were good friends. Or perhaps just friends. Or maybe not that, but they spoke frequently.

Which counted for something, Annabel supposed.

―Then one can only imagine she does not know," Lady Challis said.

Annabel turned to Lady Challis, who was a good twenty-five years younger than her companion and yet still managed to boast a pinched and prickly mien.

―Does not know what, my lady?"

―Don‘t play coy, gel."

―I‘m not." Annabel looked from face to sanctimonious face. What were they talking about?

Surely a mere conversation with Mr. Grey did not warrant such censure. And she‘d left during the intermission, just as Louisa had insisted she must.

―You are a bold girl," Lady Challis said, ―playing the uncle off the nephew."

―I–I don‘t know what you mean," Annabel stammered. But of course she did.

―Stop that this instant," Lady Westfield snapped. ―You are a Vickers, despite that awful man your mother married, and you are far too intelligent to get away with such cow-headed playacting."

Annabel swallowed.

―Lord Newbury is furious," Lady Westfield hissed. ―Furious. And I cannot say that I blame him."

―I made him no promises," Annabel said, wishing that her voice sounded a bit more firm. ―And I did not know—"

―Do you have any idea the honor he bestowed upon you, just by offering his regard?"

Annabel felt her mouth open and close. And open and close. She felt like an idiot. A fish-faced, muted mule. If she‘d been at home she‘d have been quick to defend herself, ably summoning retort after retort. But she‘d never faced down two furious countesses at home, staring her down with ice-chip eyes over their hard, elegant noses.

It was enough to make a girl want to sit down, were she permitted to sit down in the company of two standing countesses.

―Naturally," Lady Challis said, ―he took measures to protect his reputation."

―Lord Newbury?" Annabel asked.

―Of course I mean Lord Newbury. The other one hasn‘t a care for his reputation and never has."

But somehow Annabel didn‘t think that was true. Mr. Grey was a known rogue, but there was more to him than that. He had a sense of honor, and she suspected he valued this very highly.

Or maybe she was being fanciful, romanticizing him in her mind. How well did she know him, anyway?

Not at all. Theirs was a two-day acquaintance. Two days! She had to regain hold on her common sense. Now.

―What did Lord Newbury do?" Annabel asked warily.