―And here I thought it was dashing," he murmured.

―Sit down," Lady Vickers said, pointing at the sofa. Annabel started toward the spot, but her grandmother said, ―No. Him. You over there." Then she marched over to the doorway, called out, ―Judkins, we are home to no one ," and firmly shut the door.

Once Lady Vickers had finished directing everyone into her chosen seats, she wasted no time in starting the conversation. ―What do you plan to do?" she asked, directing her question not to Mr.

Grey but to his cousin, who had heretofore managed to remain silent throughout the exchange.

But Lady Olivia was unruffled. Clearly she also did not judge either of the two principals able to manage their own scandal. ―That‘s why we‘re here," she said efficiently. ―My cousin is aghast at the potential damage to your granddaughter‘s reputation and is most apologetic over any part he may have had in the scandal."

―As he should be," Lady Vickers said tartly.

Annabel stole a glance at Mr. Grey. To her relief, he looked somewhat amused. Maybe even a little bored.

―Of course," Lady Olivia said smoothly, ―his involvement was completely inadvertent. As we all know, Lord Newbury threw the first punch."

―The only punch," Mr. Grey interjected.

―Yes," Lady Vickers said, acknowledging the point with a grand wave of her arm. ―But who could blame him? He would have been overcome with shock. I have known Newbury all of my adult life. He is a man of delicate sensibilities."

Annabel very nearly snorted aloud at that. She looked over at Mr. Grey again, to see if he felt the same. Just as she did so, however, his eyes widened with alarm.

Wait a moment…alarm?

Mr. Grey swallowed uncomfortably.

―Yes," Lady Vickers said with an affected sigh, ―but now the entire match has been put at risk.

We did so want an earl for Annabel."


Annabel and Lady Olivia both looked over at Mr. Grey, who had, if Annabel‘s ears did not deceive, just squeaked. He smiled tightly, looking as ill at ease as she had ever seen him. Not that she‘d seen him terribly much, but he did seem the sort of gentleman who was rarely anything but utterly comfortable in his own skin.

He shifted in his seat.

Annabel looked down.

And saw her grandmother‘s hand on his thigh.

―Tea!" she practically shrieked, jumping to her feet. ―We must have tea. Don‘t you think?"

―Ido ," Mr. Grey said with great feeling, using the opportunity to scoot himself as far away from Lady Vickers as the sofa would allow. It was only a few inches, but still, far enough so that she could not grab him without being ridiculously obvious about it.

―I adore tea," Annabel babbled, moving over to the bellpull to ring for it. ―Don‘t you? My mother always said that nothing could be solved without a pot of tea."

―And does the opposite hold true?" Mr. Grey asked. ―That anything can be solved with it?"

―We shall soon find out, shan‘t we?" Annabel watched with horror as her grandmother edged across the sofa toward him. ―Oh my !" she said, with what was certainly too much emphasis.

―It‘s become stuck. Mr. Grey, would you mind helping me with this?" She held out the bellpull, careful not to tug it into ringing.

He practically leaped to his feet. ―I would be happy to. You know me," he said to the other ladies. ―I live to rescue damsels in distress."

―It‘s why we‘re here," Lady Olivia said smoothly.

―Careful," Annabel said as he took the cord from her hands. ―You don‘t want to pull too hard."

―Of course not," he murmured, then mouthed, Thank you .

They stood there for a moment, and then, confident that her grandmother and Lady Olivia were ensconced in their conversation, Annabel said, ―I‘m sorry about your eye."

―Oh, this," he said, waving it away.

She swallowed. ―I‘m also very sorry I didn‘t say anything. That was not well done of me."

He gave an oddly sharp one-shouldered shrug. ―If I were being courted by my uncle, I‘m not sure I would wish to advertise it, either."

She had a feeling she was supposed to laugh, but all she felt was a terrible desperation. She managed a smile—not a very good one—and said…

Nothing. Apparently the smile was all she could manage.

―Are you going to marry him?" Mr. Grey asked.

She looked down at her feet. ―He has not asked."

―He will."

Annabel tried not to answer. She tried to think of something else to say, anything that would change the subject without being painfully obvious. She shifted her weight, then looked over at the clock, then—

―He wants an heir," Mr. Grey said.

―I know," she said quietly.

―He needs one quickly."

―I know."

―Most young ladies would be flattered by his regard."

She sighed. ―I know." And so she looked up and smiled. It was one of those awkward sorts of smiles that are at least three fourths nervous laughter. ―I am," she said. She swallowed.

―Flattered, that is."

―Of course you are," he murmured.

Annabel stood still, trying not to tap her foot. Another one of those habits her grandmother deplored. But it was so hard to stand still when one wasn‘t feeling quite oneself. ―It‘s a moot point," she said in a rush. ―He has not called. I suspect he has moved on to another prospect."

―For which I hope you are grateful," Mr. Grey said quietly.

She did not reply. She couldn‘t. Because she was grateful. More than that, she was relieved. And she felt so bloody guilty for feeling that way. Marriage to the earl would have saved her entire family. She shouldn‘t feel grateful. She should be prostrate with grief that the match had fallen through.