―What matters," he said quietly, ―is whether they think of anything in addition to that."

―Do you?" she whispered.

He didn‘t answer right away. But then he said, almost as if he were figuring it out for himself, too, ―I think I might."

Her breath caught, and she searched his face, trying to translate his statement into something she might understand. It did not occur to her that perhaps he didn‘t understand, either, that he might be just as mystified as she by this strange pull between them.

Or maybe he meant nothing at all. He was that rare kind of man who knew how to be friends with a woman. Perhaps that was all he meant, that he found her company amusing, that she was good for a laugh and a smile, and maybe even worth getting punched in the face.

Maybe that was all it was.

And then just like that, the dance was over. He was bowing, and she was curtsying, and they were walking back to the edge of the room, toward the lemonade table, for which Annabel was inordinately thankful. She was thirsty, but what she really needed was something in her hands, something to distract her, to keep her from fidgeting. Because her skin still felt hot, and her belly was jumping, and if she didn‘t have something to hold on to, she did not think she would be able to keep herself still.

He handed her a glass, and Annabel had just taken her first grateful sip when she heard someone calling his name. She turned and saw a matron of perhaps forty years moving toward them, waving her hand and trilling, ―Oh, Mr. Grey! Mr. Grey!"

―Mrs. Carruthers," he said, giving her a respectful nod. ―How lovely to see you."

―I just heard the most amazing bit of news," Mrs. Carruthers said.

Annabel braced herself for something dreadful, probably involving her, but Mrs. Carruthers focused all of her breathless attention on Mr. Grey and said, ―Lady Cosgrove tells me you are in possession of autographed books by Mrs. Gorely."

That was all? Annabel was almost disappointed.

―I am," Mr. Grey confirmed.

―You must tell me where you got them. I am a devoted fan, and I could not consider my library complete if I did not have her signature."

―Er, it was in a bookshop in, ah, Oxford, actually, I think."

―Oxford," Mrs. Carruthers said, visibly disappointed.

―I don‘t think it would be worth a trip to look for more," he said. ―There was only the one set of autographed copies, and the bookseller told me that he had never seen others."

Mrs. Carruthers brought the knuckle of her index finger to her mouth, pursing her lips in thought. ―It is so intriguing," she said. ―I wonder if she is from Oxford. Perhaps she is married to a professor."

―Is there a professor there by the name of Gorely?" Annabel asked.

Mrs. Carruthers turned to her and blinked, as if only just then realizing she was there, standing beside Mr. Grey.

―So sorry," he murmured, and made the introductions.

―Is there?" Annabel asked again. ―It would seem to me that that would be the most efficient way of determining if she is a professor‘s wife."

―It is unlikely that Gorely is her real name," Mrs. Carruthers explained officiously. ―I cannot think of a lady who would allow her name to be put on a novel."

―If it‘s not her real name," Annabel wondered, ―does the autograph even have value?"

This was met with silence.

―Furthermore," Annabel continued, ―how do you even know it‘s her signature?I could have signed her name on the title page."

Mrs. Carruthers stared at her. Annabel could not tell if she was aghast at her questions or merely annoyed. After a moment the older woman turned determinedly back to Mr. Grey and said,

―Should you ever come across another autographed set, or even a single book, please purchase it and know that I will reimburse you."

―It would be my pleasure," he murmured.

Mrs. Carruthers nodded and walked away. Annabel watched her depart, then said, ―I don‘t think I endeared myself to her."

―No," he agreed.

―I thought my question about the value of the signature was pertinent," she said with a shrug.

He smiled. ―I am beginning to understand your obsession with people saying what they actually mean."

―It is not an obsession," she protested.

He quirked a brow. The movement was obscured by his eye patch, but that somehow made it all the more provoking.

―It‘s not," Annabel insisted. ―It is common sense. Just think of all the misunderstandings that could be avoided if people merely spoke to one another instead of telling one person who might tell another who might tell another, who might—"

―You are confusing two issues," he cut in. ―One is convoluted prose, the other is merely gossip."

―Both are equally insidious."

He looked down at her with a vaguely condescending air. ―You‘re very hard on your fellow man, Miss Winslow."

She bristled. ―I don‘t think it is too much to ask."

He nodded slowly. ―All the same, I think I might have rather my unclehadn‘t said what he meant Wednesday night."

Annabel swallowed, feeling a bit queasy. And certainly guilty.

―I suppose I appreciate his honesty. On a purely philosophical level, of course." He gave her precisely half a smile. ―Practically speaking, however, I do think I‘m prettier without the eye patch."

―I‘m sorry," she said. It wasn‘t quite the right thing to say, but it was the best she could think of.

And at least it wasn‘t wrong.

He waved off her apology. ―All new experiences are good for the soul. Now I know exactly what it is like to be punched in the face."