―I may be fifty-three—"


―—but I‘m still sharp as a tack." Lady Vickers plunked her glass on the table and leaned forward, looking inordinately pleased with herself. ―Newbury‘ll see to it that all four of your brothers have tuition through university, and he‘ll buy a commission for any who wants one. As for your sisters, I could only manage a piddling dowry, but it‘s more than you got." She took a long drink and chuckled. ―And you landed an earl."

It was everything Annabel could have hoped for. All of her brothers and sisters would have security. They would have everything they needed.

―He doesn‘t want a long engagement," Lady Vickers said. ―You know he wants a son, and fast.

Oh, don‘t look at me like that. You knew this was coming."

Annabel shook her head. ―I–I wasn‘t looking at you like anything. I was just—"

―Oh God ," Lady Vickers groaned. ―Do I have to have the talk with you?"

Annabel dearly hoped not.

―Euch. I did it with your mother and your aunt Joan. I‘m going to need a far larger drink if I have to do it with you."

―It‘s all right," Annabel said quickly. ―I don‘t need the talk."

That got her grandmother‘s attention. ―Really?" she asked, suddenly very interested.

―Well, I don‘t need it right now," Annabel hedged. ―Or maybe not…ever. From you," she continued, albeit more quietly.


―I‘m from the country," she said with false brightness. ―Lots of…animals…and…er…"

―Look," Lady Vickers said. ―You may know things about sheep that I‘m sure I don‘t wish to hear about, but I still know a thing or two about marriage to an overweight nobleman."

Annabel sank into a chair. Whatever knowledge her grandmother was about to impart, she wasn‘t sure she could take it standing up.

―It all comes down to one thing," Lady Vickers said, wagging a finger toward her. ―When he‘s done, stick your legs straight up in the air."

The blood drained from Annabel‘s face.

―No, do it," her grandmother insisted. ―Trust me. It‘ll help keep the seed in, and the sooner you start carrying, the sooner you can stop having to sleep with him. That, my dear, is the key to a successful marriage."

Annabel picked up her book and rose to her feet, moving as if in a daze. ―I‘m going to go lie down now."

Lady Vickers smiled. ―Of course, dear. Oh! I almost forgot. We‘re leaving town this evening."

―What? Where?" And how would she let Sebastian know?

―Winifred is hosting an impromptu party in the country," she said, ―and you are going."

―I am?"

―I have to go, too, the bloody, stupid…"

Annabel‘s mouth fell open as she listened to the stream of invective, impressive even for her grandmother.

―I hate the country," Lady Vickers grumbled. ―It‘s a waste of perfectly good air."

―Do we have to go?"

―Of course we have to go, you nitwit. One of us had to take matters in hand."

―What do you mean?" Annabel asked carefully.

―She‘s a conniving little cow, but Winifred owes me a favor," her grandmother said sharply. ―So she‘s made sure that Newbury will be in attendance. I couldn‘t stop her from inviting the other one, too, though."

―Seb—Mr. Grey?" Annabel asked, dropping her book.

―Yes, yes," Lady Vickers said, sounding much aggrieved. She waited for about half a second while Annabel fumbled about, dropping the book once more before finally managing to set it down on a table. ―I suppose I can‘t blame her," she continued. ―It‘ll be the invitation of the season."

―He‘s agreed to attend? Even knowing that his uncle will be there?"

―Who knows? She only sent out the invitations this afternoon." Lady Vickers gave a shrug.

―Heis a handsome one."

―What has that got to do with—" Annabel shut her mouth. She didn‘t want to know the answer.

―We leave in two hours," Lady Vickers said, finishing off her drink.

―Two hours? I can‘t possibly be ready by then."

―Of course you can. The maids have already packed up your things. Winifred doesn‘t live very far out of town, and the sun sets late this time of year. With good horses we can be there just after nightfall. And I‘d much rather go this evening. I detest morning travel."

―You‘ve been very busy," Annabel said.

Lady Vickers straightened her shoulders, looking quite proud of herself. ―I have. You‘d do well to emulate me. We‘ll get you that earl yet."

―But I—" Annabel froze, instantly silenced by the look on her grandmother‘s face.

―Surely," Lady Vickers said, her eyes narrowing to two icy chips, ―you weren‘t about to say that you don‘t want him."

Annabel said nothing. She had never heard her grandmother speak in such a menacing tone.

Slowly, she shook her head.

―Good. Because I know that you would not wish to do anything that might make life more difficult for your brothers and sisters."

Annabel actually took a step back. Could her grandmother be threatening her?

―Oh for God‘s sake," Lady Vickers snapped. ―Don‘t look so petrified. Do you think I‘m going to beat you?"

―No! Just that—"

―You‘ll marry the earl and carry on with the nephew on the side."