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Walking far behind, Annabelle refused to take Simon Hunt’s arm when he offered it and stepped over the log by herself. He smiled slightly as he glanced at her set profile. “I would have expected you to have made your way up to the front by now,” he remarked.

She made a scornful sound. “I’m not going to waste my efforts battling with that group of feather-wits. I’ll wait for a more opportune moment to make Kendall notice me.”

“He’s already noticed you. He’d have been blind not to. The question is why you think that you’ll have any luck getting a proposal out of Kendall, when you haven’t managed to bring anyone up to scratch in the two years that I’ve known you.”

“Because I have a plan,” she said crisply.

“Which is?”

She gave him a derisive glance. “As if I would tell you.”

“I hope it’s something conniving and under-handed,” Hunt said gravely. “You don’t seem to have much success with the ladylike approach.”

“Only because I have no dowry,” Annabelle retorted. “If I had money, I’d have been married years ago.”

“I have money,” he said helpfully. “How much do you want?”

Annabelle gave him a sardonic glance. “Having a fair idea of what you’d require in return, Mr. Hunt, I can safely say that I don’t want a shilling from you.”

“It’s nice to hear that you’re so discriminating about the company you keep.” Hunt reached out to hold back a branch for her. “Having heard a rumor to the contrary, I’m glad it’s not true.”

“Rumor?” Annabelle stopped in the middle of the path and whirled to face him. “About me? What could anyone possibly say about me?”

Hunt remained silent, watching her perturbed face as she worked it out for herself.

“Discriminating…” she murmured. “About the company I keep?…Is that supposed to imply that I’ve had some inappropriate…” She stopped abruptly as the nasty, florid image of Hodgeham sprang into her brain. Hunt had to notice the swift departure of color from her cheeks and the tiny indentations that dug between her brows. Giving him a cold glance, Annabelle turned away, her footsteps measured and heavy on the foliage-padded path.

Hunt kept pace with her, while Kendall’s distant voice drifted back to them, lecturing his avid listeners on the plants they passed. Rare orchids…celandines…several varieties of fungi. The speech was punctuated every few seconds with crows of wonder from his enraptured audience. “…these lower plants,” Kendall was saying, having paused briefly to indicate a haze of moss and lichen covering a hapless oak, “are classified as bryophytes, and require wet conditions to thrive. Were they to be deprived of the woodland canopy, they would surely perish out in the open…”

“I’ve done nothing wrong,” Annabelle said shortly, wondering why Hunt’s opinion mattered in the least. Still, it bothered her enough to wonder who had told him the rumor—and specifically, what it had been about. Was it possible that someone had seen Hodgeham visiting her home at night? That was bad. A reputation-destroying piece of gossip like that was impossible to defend oneself against. “And I have no regrets.”

“That’s a pity,” Hunt said easily. “Having regrets is the only sign that you’ve done anything interesting with your life.”

“What are your regrets, then?”

“Oh, I don’t have regrets, either.” A wicked glint appeared in his dark eyes. “Not for the lack of trying, of course. I keep doing unspeakable things in the hopes that I’ll be sorry for them later. But so far…nothing.”

In spite of her inner turmoil, Annabelle couldn’t help chuckling. A long branch intersected the path, and she reached out to push it aside.

“Allow me,” Hunt said, moving to hold it back for her.

“Thank you.” She pushed by him, glancing at Kendall and the others in the distance, and suddenly felt a stinging prickle at the inner side of her foot. “Ouch!” Stopping on the path, she hitched the hem of her skirt up to investigate the source of the discomfort.

“What is it?” Hunt was beside her immediately, one large hand grasping her elbow to secure her balance.

“There is something scratchy in my shoe.”

“Let me help,” he said, sinking to his haunches and taking hold of her ankle. It was the first time a man had ever touched any part of her leg, and Annabelle went scarlet.

“Don’t touch me there,” she protested in a violent whisper, nearly losing her balance as she jerked backward. Hunt didn’t loosen his grip. To keep from toppling over, Annabelle was forced to hold on to his shoulder. “Mr. Hunt—”

“I see the problem,” he murmured. She felt him pluck at the veil of cotton stocking that covered her leg. “You’ve stepped in some prickly fern.” He held something up for her inspection—a sprig of pale, chafflike scales that had worked their way into the cotton weave over her instep.

Flooding with burning color, Annabelle maintained her stabilizing grasp on his shoulder. The surface of his shoulder was astonishingly hard, the plane of bone and resilient muscle unsoftened by any layer of padding in his coat. Her stunned mind was having difficulty accepting the fact that she was standing in the middle of the woods with Simon Hunt’s hand on her ankle.

Seeing her mortification, Hunt grinned suddenly. “There are more bits of chaff in your stocking. Shall I remove them?”

“Be quick about it,” she said in an aggrieved tone, “before Kendall turns around and sees you with your hand up my skirts.”

With a muffled laugh Hunt bent to his task, deftly picking the last of the prickly scales from her stocking. While he worked, Annabelle stared at the place on the back of his neck where the obsidian locks of hair curled slightly against firm, tanned skin.

Reaching for the discarded slipper, Hunt placed it on her foot with a flourish. “My rustic Cinderella,” he said, and rose to his feet. As his gaze passed over the blooming pink surface of her cheeks, friendly mockery flickered in his dark eyes. “Why did you wear such ridiculous shoes for a walk in the woods? I would have thought you’d have the good sense to put on a pair of ankle boots.”

“I don’t have any ankle boots,” Annabelle said, annoyed by the implication that she was some feather-wit who couldn’t select the appropriate footwear for a simple walk. “My old ones fell to pieces, and I couldn’t afford a new pair.”

Surprisingly, Hunt did not take advantage of the opportunity to mock her further. His face became impassive as he studied her for a moment. “Let’s join the others,” he said eventually. “They’ve probably discovered a variety of moss we haven’t yet seen. Or God help us, a mushroom.”

The pinching tightness eased from her chest. “I’m hoping for some lichen, myself.”

That elicited a faint smile, and he reached out to snap off a slender branch that protruded across the pathway. Following gamely, Annabelle picked up her skirts and tried not to think of how nice it would be to be sitting on the manor terrace with a tray of tea and biscuits before her. They reached the summit of a shallow incline and were greeted with a surprising vista of bluebells that blanketed the forest floor. It was like stumbling into a dream, the cerulean haze seeping between the trunks of oak and beech and ash. The smell of bluebells was everywhere, the perfumed air feeling heavy and rich in her lungs.

Pausing by a slender tree trunk, Annabelle curled her arm around it loosely and stared at the stands of bluebells with surprised pleasure. “Lovely,” she murmured, her face gleaming in the shadow cast by the canopy of ancient, interlaced branches.

“Yes.” But Hunt was looking at her, not the blue-bells, and one glance at his expression caused the blood to tingle in her veins. She had seen admiration on men’s faces before, and even something that she had recognized as desire, but never a look that had been this disturbingly intimate…as if he wanted something far more complicated than the mere use of her body.

Uneasy, she pushed away from the tree trunk and made her way to Kendall, who was talking with her mother while the group of girls had scattered to pick wanton armfuls of bluebells. Flower stems were trampled and broken as the feminine marauders gathered up their treasure.

Kendall seemed relieved by Annabelle’s approach, and even more so by the good-natured smile on her face. It seemed that he had expected her to be petulant, as most women would have been when they had been invited on a walk and then been ignored in lieu of more demanding company. His gaze alighted on Simon Hunt’s dark form, and his expression was leavened with a touch of uncertainty. The two men exchanged nods, Hunt looking self-assured, Kendall appearing somewhat wary. “I see that we’ve attracted yet more company,” Kendall murmured.

Annabelle gave Kendall her most dazzling smile. “Of course we have,” she said. “You’re the Pied Piper, my lord. Wherever you go, people follow.”

He blushed, pleased by the bit of nonsense, and murmured, “I hope that you have enjoyed the walk so far, Miss Peyton.”

“Oh, I have,” she assured him. “Although I will admit to having blundered into a patch of prickly fern.”

Philippa gave a soft exclamation of concern. “My goodness…were you injured, dearest?”

“No, no, it was a trifle,” Annabelle said instantly. “Just a little scratch or two. And the fault was entirely mine—I’m afraid I wore the wrong kind of shoes.” She stuck out her foot to show Kendall one of her light slippers, making certain to display a few inches of trim ankle.

Kendall clicked his tongue in dismay. “Miss Peyton, you need something far sturdier than those slippers for a tromp through the forest.”

“You’re right, of course.” Annabelle shrugged, continuing to smile. “It was silly of me not to realize that the terrain would be so rugged. I’ll try to choose my steps more carefully on the way back. But the blue-bells are so heavenly that I think I would wade through a field of prickly fern to reach them.”

Reaching down to a stray cluster of bluebells, Kendall broke off a sprig and tucked it into the ribbon trim of her bonnet. “They’re not half so blue as your eyes,” he said. His gaze dropped to her ankle, which was now covered by the hem of her skirts. “You must take my arm when we walk back, to avoid further mishap.”

“Thank you, my lord.” Annabelle gazed up at him admiringly. “I’m afraid that I missed some of your earlier remarks about ferns, my lord. You had mentioned something about…spleenwort, wasn’t it?…and I was thoroughly fascinated…”

Kendall obligingly proceeded to explain all one would ever want to know about ferns…and later, when Annabelle chanced to glance back in Simon Hunt’s direction, he was gone.

CHAPTER 9

“Are we really going to do this?” Annabelle asked somewhat plaintively, as the wallflowers strode along the forest path with baskets and hampers in hand. “I thought that all our talk of Rounders-inknickers was merely amusing banter.”

“Bowmans never banter about Rounders,” Daisy informed her. “That would be sacrilegious.”

“You like games, Annabelle,” Lillian said cheerfully. “And Rounders is the best game of all.”

“I like the kind that is played at a table,” Annabelle retorted. “With proper clothes on.”

“Clothing is vastly overrated,” came Daisy’s airy reply.

Annabelle was learning that the price of having friends meant that on occasion one was compelled to defer to the group’s wishes even if they went against one’s own inclinations. All the same, this morning Annabelle had privately attempted to sway Evie to her side, unable to fathom that the girl truly intended to strip down to her drawers out in the open. But Evie was rashly determined to fall in with the Bowmans’ plans, seeming to consider it as part of a self-devised program to embolden herself. “I w-want to be more like them,” she had confided to Annabelle. “They’re so free and daring. They fear nothing.”

Staring at the girl’s eager face, Annabelle had given in with a huge sigh. “Oh, all right. As long as no one sees us, I suppose it will be fine. Though I can’t think of any purpose it will serve.”

“Maybe it will be f-fun?” Evie had suggested, and Annabelle had responded with a speaking glance, making her laugh.

The weather, of course, had decided to cooperate fully with the Bowmans’ plans, the sky open and blue, the air stirred by a soft breeze. Laden with baskets, the four girls walked along a sunken road, past wet meadows sprinkled with red sundew blossoms and vivid purple violets.

“Keep your eye out for a wishing well,” Lillian said briskly. “Then we’re supposed to cross the meadow on the other side of the lane and cut through the forest. There’s a dry meadow at the top of the hill. One of the servants told me that no one ever goes there.”

“Naturally it would be uphill,” Annabelle said without rancor. “Lillian, what does the well look like? Is it one of those little whitewashed structures with a pail and a pulley?”

“No, it’s a big muddy hole in the ground.”

“There it is,” Daisy exclaimed, hastening to the sloshing brown hole, which was being replenished from a bank beside it. “Come, all of you, we must each make a wish. I’ve even got pins that we can toss in.”

“How did you know to bring pins?” Lillian asked.

Daisy smiled with bright mischief. “Well, as I sat with Mama and all the dowagers while they were sewing yesterday afternoon, I made our Rounders ball.” She unearthed a leather ball from her basket and held it up proudly. “I sacrificed a new pair of kid gloves to make it—and it was no easy task, I tell you. Anyway, the old ladies were watching me stuff it with wool snippets, and when one of them could bear it no longer, she came out and asked me what in heaven’s name I was making. Of course I couldn’t tell them it was a Rounders ball. I’m sure Mama guessed, but she was too embarrassed to say a word. So I told the dowager that I was making a pincushion.”

All the girls snickered. “She must have thought it was the ugliest pincushion in existence,” Lillian remarked.

“Oh, there’s no doubt of that,” Daisy replied. “I think she felt quite sorry for me. She gave me some pins for it, and said something under her breath about poor bumbling American girls who have no practical skills whatsoever.” Using the edge of her nail, she pried the pins out of the leather ball and gave them over.