But was wanting to say yes enough? Her grandparents would not be happy if she chose him over Newbury. And he knew that she was extremely concerned about her family‘s lack of money. But surely she would not forsake her own happiness to gain them a few coins. It wasn‘t as if they were teetering on the verge of the poorhouse. They couldn‘t be, not with her brothers still in school. And Sebastian had money. Not as much as Newbury—oh very well, not even close—but he had some. Certainly enough to pay for her brothers‘ education.

Annabel likely did not know that, though. Most of society thought him an entertaining mooch.

Even Harry thought he ate breakfast every day with the Valentines because he couldn‘t afford food of his own.

Sebastian owed his place in society to his good looks and charm. And because there was always the possibility his uncle would die before begetting a new heir. But no one thought Sebastian had any form of income. Certainly no one suspected that he had earned a tidy sum penning gothic novels under a woman‘s name.

Once the carriage escaped the snarled traffic of London, Edward fell right asleep. And stayed that way until they pulled up in front of Stonecross, the large Tudor manor that served as one of the Challis country seats. As Seb alighted, he found himself studying his surroundings with a careful eye.

It almost felt as if he were back in the war, scouting locations, watching the players. That was what he did. He observed. He had never been one of the soldiers at the front. He had never engaged in hand-to-hand combat, never looked the enemy in the eye. He had been removed from the action, always watching, taking his shots from afar.

And he never missed.

He had the two qualities found in all great snipers—excellent aim and endless patience. He took no shot unless it was perfect, and he never lost his head. Even the time Harry had been nearly killed, approached from behind by a French captain, Sebastian had held himself perfectly still.

He‘d watched, and waited, and he did not take the shot until the time was right. Harry had never known how close he had come to death.

Sebastian had vomited in the bushes.

Strange that he should feel so much like a soldier again. Or maybe not so strange. He‘d been at war with his uncle his entire life.

At breakfast that morning, Lady Challis informed Annabel and Louisa that most of the guests, including Lord Newbury, were not due to arrive until late afternoon. She did not mention Sebastian, and Annabel did not ask. Such questions would be immediately reported to her grandmother, and Annabel dearly did not wish to repeat the sort of conversation they‘d had the night before.

It was a lovely summer morning, so Annabel and Louisa decided to walk down to the pond, in no small part because no one else seemed to want to go. When they arrived, Louisa immediately picked up a stone and sent it skipping across the lake.

―How did you do that?" Annabel demanded.

―Skip a stone? Can‘t you?"

―No. My brothers always claimed no girl could."

―And you believed them?"

―Of course not. But I tried for years, and I was never able to prove them wrong." Annabel picked up a stone and tried to skip it. It sank instantly.

Rather like a stone.

Louisa gave her a lofty grin, picked up another stone, and let it fly.

―One…two…three…four…five!" she crowed, counting the skips. ―My record is six."

―Six?" Annabel asked, feeling very outdone. ―Really?"

Louisa shrugged, looking for another stone. ―My father ignores me in Scotland just as much as he does in London. The only difference is that instead of the season to occupy me, I have lakes and stones." She found a nice flat rock and picked it up. ―I‘ve had a great deal of time to practice."

―Show me how you—"

But Louisa had already sent it flying across the water. ―One…two…three…four." She let out an irritated snort. ―I knew that rock was too heavy."

Annabel watched in disbelief as her cousin skipped three more stones across the lake, each of them bouncing five times. ―I do believe I am jealous," she finally announced.

Louisa beamed. ―Of me?"

―You don‘t even look strong enough to lift one of those stones, much less skip it across the lake."

―Now, now, Annabel," Louisa scolded, smiling all the while. ―Let‘s not be mean."

Annabel feigned a scowl.

―I can‘t run fast," Louisa said. ―I‘ve been banned from all archery tournaments out of concern for the safety of the rest of the contestants, and I can‘t play cards worth a damn."


Louisa had cursed. Annabel could not believe she had cursed.

―But I can"—Louisa sent another stone across the pond—―skip stones like a master."

―So you can," Annabel said, duly impressed. ―Will you show me how to do it?"

―No." Louisa gave her an arch look. ―I like having something I‘m so much better at than you."

Annabel stuck out her tongue. ―Yousay you can do six."

―I can," Louisa insisted.

―I haven‘t seen it." Annabel walked over to a large rock and patted the top, making sure it was dry before she sat down. ―I have all morning. And afternoon, too, now that I think on it."

Louisa scowled, then growled, then stomped off to find more stones. She did a five, then a four, then two more fives.

―I‘m waiting!" Annabel called.

―I‘m running out of good stones!"

―A likely excuse." Annabel looked down at her fingernails to see if she‘d got any dirt under them when she‘d picked up her one pathetic stone. When she looked back up, a stone was sailing across the surface. One…two…three…four…five…six!