For a moment his cousins could do nothing but stare. It was the closest Sebastian had come to raising his voice since…
Since ever. Even Harry, who had known him since childhood, been through school and army with him, had never heard him raise his voice.
―Sebastian," Olivia said gently. She reached across the table to place her hand on his, but he shook her off.
―Is this what you think of me?" he demanded.
―No!" she said, her eyes filling with horror. ―Of course not. But Iknow you. And—Where are you going?"
He‘d already come to his feet and was rapidly making for the door. ―To call upon Miss Winslow," he bit off.
―Well, don‘t go in that mood," she said, hurrying out of her chair.
Sebastian stopped in his tracks and gave her a look.
―I…er…" She looked over at Harry, who had also risen to his feet. He answered her silent question in kind, merely quirking a brow and tilting his head to the door.
―Perhaps I will go with you," Olivia said. She swallowed, then quickly placed her hand on Sebastian‘s arm. ―It will make it seem all the more proper, wouldn‘t you think?"
Sebastian gave her a curt nod, but the truth was, he didn‘t know what to think anymore. Or maybe he just didn‘t care.
Brandy?" Lady Vickers asked, holding forth a glass.
Annabel shook her head. After the second day of receiving morning callers with her grandmother (who could not face any hour before noon without the proper libation) she had learned that it was best to stick to lemonade and tea until after dinner. ―It will give me a stomachache," she said.
―This?" Lady Vickers asked, eyeing the glass curiously. ―How odd. It makes me feel positively serene."
Annabel nodded. There was no other way to respond. She‘d spent more time with her grandmother in the last few days than she had in the entire previous month. When Lady Vickers had told her to take the scandal like a lady, she‘d been referring to herself as well, and apparently that meant sticking to one‘s granddaughter‘s side like glue.
It was, Annabel realized, quite the most tangible show of love her grandmother had ever displayed toward her.
―Well, I will say one thing," Lady Vickers proclaimed, ―for all that it‘s a scandal, I have seen more of my friends than I have in years."
Friends? Annabel smiled weakly.
―I do think perhaps it‘s dying down," Lady Vickers continued. ―There were thirty-three visitors the first day, thirty-nine the second, and only twenty-six yesterday."
Annabel‘s mouth fell open. ―You‘ve been counting?"
―Of course I‘ve been counting. What have you been doing?"
―Ehrm…sitting here and trying to take it like a lady?"
Her grandmother chuckled. ―You probably didn‘t think I could count so high."
Annabel spluttered and stammered and began to regret turning down that brandy.
―Pfft." Lady Vickers dismissed her distress with a sharp wave of her hand. ―I have all sorts of hidden talents."
Annabel nodded, but the truth was, she was not certain she wanted any more of her grandmother‘s talents to rise to the surface. In fact, she was sure of it.
―A lady must have her own private reserve of secrets and strength," her grandmother continued.
―Trust me." She took a sip of her drink, let out a contented exhale, and took another. ―Once you are married you will understand what I mean."
Ninety-eight visitors, Annabel thought, doing the addition in her head. Ninety-eight people had called upon Vickers House, eager to see the latest scandal. Or spread it. Or tell her how much it had spread.
It had been awful.
Ninety-eight people. She slumped.
―Sit up straight!" her grandmother snapped.
Annabel obeyed. Maybe not quite ninety-eight. Several people had come more than once. Lady Twombley had been by every day .
And where had Mr. Grey been in all this? No one seemed to know. He had not been seen since the altercation at his club. Annabel was quite certain this was true, because she had been told this, no fewer than ninety-eight times.
But Annabel supposed she wasn‘t angry at Mr. Grey. None of this was his fault. She should have told him that she was being courted by his uncle. She was the one who could have prevented the scandal. That was the worst of it. She had spent the whole of three days feeling embarrassed and angry and small, and she had no one to blame but herself. If she had told him the truth, if not the moment she‘d learned his name then at least when they‘d met in Hyde Park…
―Visitors, my lady," the butler announced.
―Our first two of the day," Lady Vickers said dryly. Or was it mockingly? ―Who is it, Judkins?"
―Lady Olivia Valentine and Mr. Grey."
―It‘s about damned time," Lady Vickers grunted. And then, when Judkins had shown their guests in, she said it again. ―It‘s about damned time. What has taken you so long?"
Annabel wanted to die of mortification.
―I took ill," Mr. Grey said smoothly, with a wry half smile that pointed up toward his eye.
His eye. It looked awful. Horribly red rimmed, a bit swollen, and with a blue-black bruise that spread from the underneath around to the outer corner. Annabel gasped aloud; she could not help it.
―I am rather frightening to behold," he murmured, taking her hand and leaning down to kiss it.
―Mr. Grey," she said, ―I am terribly sorry about your eye."
He straightened. ―I rather like it myself. It gives me the air of a perpetual wink."
Annabel started to smile, then tried not to. ―A most gruesome wink," she agreed.