Praying that the intruder was as blind in the dark as she was, she slid slowly across the bed, hoping he would not hear her movement. He was approaching on the right, so she moved left, carefully swinging her legs over the side and—

She screamed. But she didn‘t. There was a hand over her mouth, and an arm around her neck and any sound she might have made was lost in a terrified choking sob.

―If you know what‘s good for you, you‘ll be quiet."

Annabel‘s eyes flew open with terror. It was the Earl of Newbury. She knew his voice, and even his smell, that awful sweaty odor, flavored with brandy and fish.

―If you scream," he said, sounding almost amused, ―someone will come running in. Your grandmother, perhaps, or your cousin. Isn‘t one of them right in the next room?"

Annabel nodded, the motion bringing her chin up and down over his beefy forearm. He was wearing a shirt, but still, he felt sticky. And she felt sick.

―Imagine that," he said with a malicious chuckle. ―In comes the respectable and pure Lady Louisa. She would scream, too. A man between a woman‘s legs…Surely she‘d be shocked."

Annabel said nothing. She couldn‘t have, anyway, with his hand over her mouth.

―Then the whole house would come running. What a scandal that would be. You‘d be ruined.

Your little idiot of a fiancé wouldn‘t have you, then, now, would he?"

That wasn‘t true. Sebastian would not abandon her. Annabel knew that he would not.

―You‘d be a fallen woman," Newbury went on, clearly relishing his tale. He slid his arm down just far enough to palm her breast and squeeze. ―Of course, you‘ve always looked the part."

Annabel let out a little moan of distress.

―You like that, do you?" he chuckled, squeezing harder.

―No," she tried to say, but his hand blocked her.

―Some would say you‘d have to marry me," Newbury continued, idly patting her breast, ―but I wonder, would anyone think I had to marry you ? I could just say you weren‘t a virgin, that you‘d been playing uncle and nephew against each other. What a crafty woman you must be."

Unable to take it anymore, Annabel jerked her head to one side, then the next, trying to dislodge his hand. Finally, with a little laugh, he lifted it away. ―Remember," he said, bringing his flabby lips close to her ear, ―don‘t make too much noise."

―You know it isn‘t true," Annabel whispered roughly.

―Which bit? About your virginity? Are you saying you‘re not a virgin?" He whipped the covers away and flipped her onto her back, straddling her roughly. Each of his hands landed hard against her shoulders, pinning her down. ―My, my, that changes everything."

―No," she cried softly. ―About my playing—" Oh, what was the use? There could be no reasoning with him. He was out for revenge. On her, on Sebastian, probably on the whole world.

He‘d been made a fool of that night, in front of more than a score of his peers.

He was not the sort of man who could brush that off.

―You‘re a foolish, foolish girl," he said, shaking his head. ―You could have been a countess.

What were you thinking?"

Annabel held still, conserving her energy. She couldn‘t possibly break free while he had his full weight on her. She needed to wait until he moved, until she could catch him off balance. Even then, she would need all of her strength.

―I was so sure I‘d found just the right woman."

Annabel stared at him in disbelief. He sounded almost regretful.

―All I wanted was an heir. Just one measly little son so that that moronic nephew of mine does not inherit."

She wanted to protest, to tell him all the ways she thought Sebastian was utterly brilliant. He had an amazing imagination, and he was marvelously clever in conversation. No one could outwit him. No one. And he was funny. Dear heavens, he could make her laugh like no one in the world.

He was perceptive, too. And observant. He saw everything, noticed everyone. He understood people, not just their hopes and dreams, but how they hoped and dreamed.

If that wasn‘t brilliance, she didn‘t know what was.

―Why do you hate him so much?" she whispered.

―Because he‘s an ass," Lord Newbury said dismissively.

That‘s not an answer, Annabel wanted to say.

―It doesn‘t matter, anyway," he continued. ―He flatters himself if he thinks I sought a wife just to thwart his ambitions. Is it so wrong for a man to want his title and home to go to his own son?"

―No," Annabel said softly. Because maybe if she acted like his friend, he wouldn‘t hurt her. And because it wasn‘t so wrong to want what he wanted. The wrongness came in the way he went about it. ―How did he die?"

Lord Newbury went still.

―Your son," she clarified.

―A fever," he said curtly. ―He cut his leg."

Annabel nodded. She‘d known several people who had got fevers the same way. A deep cut always provoked vigilance. Did it fester? Turn red? Hot? A wound that did not heal properly usually led to a fever, and a fever led all too often to death. Annabel had often wondered why some wounds healed neatly and quick, and others did not. There seemed no rhyme or reason to it, just an unfair, capricious hand of fate.

―I‘m sorry," she said.

For a moment she thought he believed her. His hands, hard and firm at her shoulders, slackened ever so slightly. And his eyes—it might have been a trick of the dim light, but she thought they might have softened. But then he snorted and said, ―No you‘re not."

The irony was, she was, or at least she had been. She‘d had some sympathy for him, but that was banished when his hands moved to her throat.