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She saw the progression of emotions across Hodgeham’s face, initial disbelief followed by anger, and then suspicion. “Who is he?”

“Why should I tell you?” Annabelle asked with a cool smile. “I would much rather let you wonder.”

“You’re lying, you devious bitch!”

“Believe what you like,” she murmured.

Hodgeham’s meaty hands half curled as if he was longing to seize her and shake a confession from her. Instead, he regarded her with a fury-mottled complexion. “I’m not done with you yet,” he muttered, spittle flecking his fleshy lips. “Not by half.” He left her with crude abruptness, too incensed to bother with a show of courtesy.

Annabelle stood without moving. Her fury faded, leaving behind a stinging anxiety that settled in her bones. Had what she told Hodgeham been enough to keep him at bay? No—it was merely a temporary solution. In the coming days he would be watching her closely, scrutinizing every word and action to ascertain whether or not she had been lying about having a protector. And there would be threats, and barbs, designed to shred her nerves. But no matter what, she could not allow him to reveal the arrangement that he had shared with her mother. It would kill Philippa, and certainly it would ruin Annabelle’s chances of marriage.

Her mind swam with feverish thoughts, and she stood motionless and taut-framed, until a quiet voice nearly startled her out of her slippers.

“Interesting. What were you and Lord Hodgeham arguing about?”

Blanching, Annabelle whirled around to behold Simon Hunt, who had approached her with catlike quietness. His shoulders blocked the profusion of glittering light from the drawing room. In his utter self-possession, he seemed infinitely more threatening than Hodgeham.

“What did you hear?” Annabelle blurted out, cursing inwardly as she heard the defensiveness in her own voice.

“Nothing,” he said smoothly. “I merely saw your face as the two of you talked. Obviously, you were upset about something.”

“I was not upset. You misinterpreted my expression, Mr. Hunt.”

He shook his head, and stunned her by reaching out with a single fingertip to touch the upper part of her arm that was not covered by her glove. “You turn splotchy when you’re angry.” Looking down, Annabelle saw a pale pink patch of color, a sign of her skin’s wont to color unevenly during times of distress.

A quiver ran through her at that glancing brush of his fingertip, and she stepped back from him.

“Are you in trouble, Annabelle?” Hunt asked softly.

He had no right to ask something in that gentle, almost concerned manner…as if he was someone she could turn to for help…as if she could ever allow herself to do so.

“You would like that, wouldn’t you?” she retorted. “Any predicament of mine would delight you to no end—then you could step in with an offer of help and take advantage of the situation.”

His eyes were narrow and intent. “What kind of help do you need?”

“Nothing from you,” she assured him curtly. “And don’t use my first name. I’ll thank you to address me properly from now on—or better yet, don’t speak to me at all.” Unable to bear his speculative gaze for another moment, she swept past him. “Now if you’ll excuse me…I must go find my mother.”

Lowering herself to the chair beside the vanity table, Philippa stared at Annabelle with an ashen face. Annabelle had waited until they were safely enclosed in the privacy of their room before she had told Philippa the disastrous news. It seemed to take her mother a full minute to assimilate the information that the man whom she detested and feared most was a guest at Stony Cross Park. Annabelle had half expected her mother to dissolve into tears, but Philippa surprised her by tilting her head to the side and staring into the shadowy corner of the room with an odd, weary smile. It was a smile that Annabelle had never seen on her face before, a whimsical bitterness that indicated there was never any use in trying to improve one’s situation, as fate would invariably have its way.

“Shall we leave Stony Cross Park?” Annabelle murmured. “We can go back to London immediately.”

The question hovered in the air for what seemed to be minutes. When Philippa responded, she sounded dazed and contemplative. “If we did that, there would be no hope at all of your marrying. No…our only choice is to see this through. We are going to walk with Lord Kendall tomorrow morning—I won’t allow Hodgeham to ruin your chances with him.”

“He will be a constant source of trouble,” Annabelle said quietly. “If we don’t go back to town, it will turn into a nightmare here.”

Philippa turned toward her then, still smiling in that discomforting way. “My dear, if you don’t find someone to marry, then when we return to London, the real nightmare will begin.”

CHAPTER 8

Bedeviled by worry, Annabelle slept for a total of two, perhaps three hours. When she awoke in the morning, her eyes were shadowed, and her face was pale and weary. “Hell’s bells,” she muttered, soaking a cloth in cold water and pressing it to her face. “This will not do. I look a hundred years old this morning.”

“What did you say, dear?” came her mother’s sleepy query. Philippa was standing behind her, dressed in a worn robe and threadbare slippers.

“Nothing, Mama. I was talking to myself.” Annabelle scrubbed her face roughly to bring some color to her cheeks. “I didn’t sleep well last night.”

Coming beside Annabelle, Philippa regarded her closely. “You do look a bit tired. I’ll send for some tea.”

“Send for a large pot,” Annabelle said. Peering closely at her red-veined eyes in the looking glass, she added, “Two pots.”

Philippa smiled sympathetically. “What shall we wear for our walk with Lord Kendall?”

Annabelle wrung out the cloth before draping it on the washstand. “Our older gowns, I think, as it may be rather muddy on some of the forest paths. But we can cover them with the new silk shawls from Lillian and Daisy.”

After downing a cup of steaming tea and taking a few hasty bites of cold toast that a maid had brought from downstairs, Annabelle finished dressing. She studied herself critically in the looking glass. The blue silk shawl knotted over her bodice did much to conceal the worn bodice of the biscuit-colored gown beneath. And her new bonnet, also from the Bowmans, was wonderfully flattering, its periwinkle-shaded lining bringing out the blue of her eyes.

Yawning widely, Annabelle went with Philippa to the back terrace of the manor. The hour was early enough that most of the guests at Stony Cross Park were still abed. Only a few gentlemen who were bent on trout fishing had troubled themselves to arise. A small group of men ate breakfast at the outside tables, while servants awaited nearby with rods and creel baskets. The peaceful scene was undercut with an annoying clamor that was most unexpected for this hour.

“Dear heaven,” she heard her mother exclaim. Following her appalled gaze, Annabelle looked toward the other end of the terrace, which had been overrun by a cacophony of frantically chattering, squealing, laughing, aggressively posturing girls. They were surrounding something that remained unseen in the middle of the tightly packed congregation. “What are they all here for?” Philippa asked in bewilderment.

Annabelle sighed and said resignedly, “An early-morning hunt, I suspect.”

Philippa’s jaw sagged as she stared at the clamorous group. “You don’t mean to say…do you think that poor Lord Kendall is caught up in the midst of that?”

Annabelle nodded. “And from the looks of things, there won’t be much left of him when they’re finished.”

“But…but he arranged to go walking with you,” Philippa protested. “Only you, with me as the chaperone.”

As a few of the girls noticed Annabelle standing on the other side of the terrace, they crowded more tightly around their prey, as if to shield him from their view. Annabelle shook her head slightly. Either Kendall had foolishly told someone of their plans, or else the marriage frenzy had reached such a pitch that he could not venture out of his room without attracting a mob of women, no matter what the hour.

“Well, don’t just stand there,” Philippa urged. “Go and join the group, and try to attract his attention.”

Annabelle gave her a doubtful glance. “Some of those girls look feral. I should hate to get bitten.”

Distracted by a muffled laugh from nearby, she turned toward the sound. As she might have expected, Simon Hunt was lounging at the terrace balcony, a china cup nearly engulfed in his broad hand as he leisurely drank coffee. He was dressed in rugged garments similar to those of the other fishermen, made of tweed and rough twill, with a worn linen shirt left open at the throat. The mocking gleam in his eyes made no secret of his interest in the situation.

Without making a conscious decision to do so, Annabelle found herself drifting nearer to him. Coming to stand a few feet away from him, she leaned both her elbows on the balcony, gazing out at the mistshrouded morning. Hunt rested his back against it, facing the manor wall.

Feeling the need to jab at his irritating self-confidence, Annabelle murmured, “Lord Kendall and Lord Westcliff aren’t the only bachelors at Stony Cross, Mr. Hunt. One wonders why you are not pursued to the degree that they are.”

“That’s obvious,” he said pleasantly, lifting the cup to his lips and draining its contents. “I’m not a peer, and I would make a devil of a husband.” He gave her a shrewd sideways glance. “As for you…despite my sympathy for your cause, I wouldn’t advise making a play for Kendall.”

“My cause?” Annabelle repeated, taking immediate offense to the word. “What do you define as my cause, Mr. Hunt?”

“Why, yourself, of course,” he said softly. “You want what is best for Annabelle Peyton. But Kendall doesn’t fall in that category. A match between you and him would be a disaster.”

She turned her head to stare at him with slitted eyes. “Why?”

“Because he’s much too nice for you.” Hunt grinned at her expression. “That wasn’t meant as an insult. I wouldn’t like you half so much if you were a nice woman. All the same, you’re no good for Kendall—nor would he be of much use to you, ultimately. You’d run roughshod over him until his gentlemanly soul was left in a battered pile at your feet.”

Annabelle itched to knock the superior smile from his face—she, who had never before contemplated inflicting physical harm to anyone. Her anger was hardly mitigated by the fact that he was right. She knew quite well that she was far too spirited for a man as docile and civilized as Kendall. But that was none of Simon Hunt’s business…and it wasn’t as if Hunt or any other man was going to offer her a better alternative!

“Mr. Hunt,” she said sweetly, her gaze poisonous, “why don’t you go and—”

“Miss Peyton!” A faint exclamation came from several yards away, and Annabelle saw Lord Kendall’s slight form emerging from the mass of females. He looked disheveled and vaguely harassed as he pushed his way over to her. “Good morning, Miss Peyton.” He paused to straighten the knot of his cravat and adjust his skewed spectacles. “It seems that we were not the only ones who had taken it in our heads to walk this morning.” Giving Annabelle a sheepish glance, he asked, “Shall we make an attempt nonetheless?”

Annabelle hesitated, inwardly groaning. There was little she could accomplish on a walk with Kendall when they would be accompanied by at least two dozen women. One might as well try to have a quiet conversation in the midst of a flock of screaming magpies. On the other hand, she could not very well refuse Kendall’s invitation…even a minor rejection could be off-putting to him, and as a result he might never ask again.

She gave him a bright smile. “I would be delighted, my lord.”

“Excellent. There are some fascinating species of flora and fauna that I would like to show you. Being an amateur horticulturist, I have made a careful study of the vegetation that is native to Hampshire…”

His following words were drowned out as enthusiastic girls surrounded him.

“How I love plants,” one of them gushed. “There isn’t a single plant that I don’t find absolutely charming.”

“And the outdoors would be so unattractive without them,” another girl enthused.

“Oh, Lord Kendall,” yet another beseeched, “you simply must explain what the difference is between a flora and a fauna…”

The crowd of girls carried Kendall away as if he was being swept out to sea by an irresistible current. Philippa went with them gamely, determined to look out for Annabelle’s interests. “My daughter was probably too modest to tell you about her keen affinity for nature…” she was saying to Kendall.

Kendall threw a helpless glance over his shoulder as he was nudged strongly toward the terrace steps. “Miss Peyton?”

“I’m coming,” Annabelle called back, cupping her fingers on either side of her mouth to make herself heard.

His reply, if he made one, was impossible to hear.

Lazily, Simon Hunt set his empty cup on the nearest table, and murmured something to a servant who was holding his fishing gear. The servant nodded and retreated, while Hunt fell into step beside Annabelle. She stiffened as she noticed him walking side by side with her.

“What are you doing?”

Hunt shoved his hands comfortably into the pockets of his tweed fishing coat. “I’m going with you. Whatever happens at the trout stream won’t be half so interesting as watching you compete for Kendall’s attention. Besides, my horticultural knowledge is sadly lacking. I may learn something.”

Suppressing an ill-tempered reply, Annabelle resolutely followed Kendall and his entourage. They all walked down the terrace steps and took a path that led into the forest, where towering beeches and oaks presided over thick quilts of moss, fern, and lichen. At first Annabelle ignored Simon Hunt’s presence beside her, trudging stonily behind Kendall’s admiring throng. Kendall was being put to great exertion, obliged to help one girl after another to step over what seemed to be minor obstacles. A fallen tree, its circumference no bigger than Annabelle’s arm, became such an overwhelming impediment that they all required Kendall’s assistance to step over it. Each girl became progressively more helpless until the poor fellow was practically obliged to carry the last one over the log while she squealed in pretend-dismay and locked her arms around his neck.