That Annabel had never before shown such ardor for fashion did not seem to concern her. Nor did she notice that for someone who was so obsessed with matching a hue exactly, Annabel did not see the need to actually bring the dress with her to the milliner.
Then again, Lady Vickers was deep into her game of solitaire, and even deeper into her decanter of brandy. Annabel could have likely strapped an Indian headdress to her brow and she‘d not have said a word.
Annabel and her maid, Nettie, had set out for Bond Street, taking the less-traveled roads to their destination. Annabel would have stayed on the less-traveled roads altogether if she could have done. But she couldn‘t very well return without something new that could be put on her head, so she trudged on, hoping the air might help her clear her thoughts.
It didn‘t, of course, and the crowds on Bond Street only made it worse. Everyone seemed to be out that day, and Annabel was bumped and jostled, distracted by the buzz of conversation and the whinnies of horses in the street. It was hot, too, and it felt as if there wasn‘t quite enough air to go around.
She was trapped. Lord Newbury had made it clear the night before that he still planned to marry her. It was only a matter of time before he made his intentions official.
She‘d been so relieved when it seemed that he‘d decided he did not want her. She knew her family needed the money, but if he did not ask for her hand, she would not have to say yes. Or no.
She would not have to commit herself to a man she found repulsive. Or turn him down, and live forever with the guilt of her own selfishness.
To make matters worse, she‘d received a letter that morning from her sister. Mary was the next oldest to Annabel, and they had always been close. In fact, if Mary had not taken ill with a lung ailment that spring, she would have come to London as well. ―Two for the price of one," Lady Vickers had said, when she‘d originally offered to see to the girls‘ debut. ―Everything‘s cheaper that way."
Mary‘s letter had been cheerful and bright, filled with news of their home, and their village, and the local assembly, and the blackbird that had somehow got trapped in the church, flapping about and eventually perching on the vicar‘s head.
It was lovely, and it made Annabel so intensely homesick she could hardly bear it. Except that hadn‘t been all that was in Mary‘s letter. There were little bits about economizing, and the governess their mother had had to let go, and the embarrassing supper two weeks earlier when the local baronet and his wife had dropped by unannounced, and there was only one type of meat on the table.
Money was running out. Mary hadn‘t said it in so many words, but it was right there, clear as day. Annabel let out a deep, sorrowful breath as she thought of her sister. Mary was probably sitting at home, imagining that Annabel was attracting the attention of some dashingly handsome, impossibly wealthy nobleman. She‘d bring him home, glowing with happiness, and he‘d shower everyone with money until their problems were solved.
Instead, Annabel had an extremely wealthy, impossibly dreadful nobleman, and a probably poor, unbelievably handsome rogue. Who made her feel…
No. She couldn‘t think about that. It did not matter what Mr. Grey made her feel, because Mr.
Grey did not plan to offer her marriage, and even if he did, he hardly had the means to help her support her family. Annabel did not ordinarily place stock in that sort of gossip, but at least twelve of the eighteen callers she‘d endured that morning had seen fit to point out that his was a hand-to-mouth existence. Not to mention the scores who had come by after the altercation at White‘s.
Everyone had their own opinion of Mr. Grey, it seemed, but the one thing they all agreed upon was that he was not in possession of great wealth. Or really, any wealth at all.
And anyway, he had not proposed. Nor did he intend to.
With a heavy heart, Annabel turned the corner onto Brook Street, allowing Nettie to chatter on about the extravagantly plumed bonnets they‘d seen in a Bond Street window. She was about six houses away from home when she saw a grand carriage approaching from the other direction.
―Wait," she said, holding her hand out to stop Nettie.
Her maid looked at her in askance, but she stopped. And she quieted.
Annabel watched with dread as Lord Newbury plopped down to the pavement and marched up the steps. There could be no doubt as to why he was there.
Annabel turned to Nettie, realizing that she‘d been gripping the poor girl‘s arm like a vise. ―I‘m sorry," she said in a rush, quickly letting her go, ―but I can‘t go home. Not yet."
―Do you want a different bonnet?" Nettie looked down at the bundle she was carrying. ―There was that one with the grapes, but I think it was too dark."
―No. I just—I just—I can‘t go home. Not yet." Utterly panic-stricken, Annabel grabbed Nettie‘s hand and tugged her back the way they‘d come, not even pausing to breathe until they were out of sight of Vickers House.
―What is it?" Nettie asked, out of breath.
―Please," Annabel pleaded. ―Please, don‘t ask." She looked around. She was on a residential street. She could not remain there all afternoon. ―Ehrm, we‘ll go…" She swallowed. Where could they go? She didn‘t want to go back to Bond Street. She‘d just left, and surely someone who had seen her would still be there to notice her reappearance. ―We‘ll get a sweet!" she said, too loudly. ―That‘s just the thing. Aren‘t you hungry? I‘m famished. Aren‘t you?"
Nettie looked at her as if she‘d gone mad. And maybe she had. Annabel knew what she had to do. She‘d known it for over a week. But she just didn‘t want to do it that afternoon. Was it so much to ask?