Annabelle shrugged. “As they say, Mama…‘if turnips were watches, I’d have one by my side.’ “
Philippa stroked her hair lightly. “Why don’t you rest in our room tonight? I’ll read to you, while you lie with your ankle propped up—”
“Don’t tempt me,” Annabelle said feelingly. “I’d like nothing better—but I can’t afford to stay up here tonight. I can’t miss a single opportunity to make an impression on Lord Kendall.” And negotiate with Simon Hunt, she thought, feeling hollow with apprehension.
After drinking a large mug of willowbark tea, Annabelle was able to make her way downstairs with scarcely a wince, although the swelling of her ankle had refused to abate. She had time for a brief exchange with Lillian before the guests were led to the dining hall. A touch of sun had left Lillian’s cheeks pink and glowing, her brown eyes velvety in the candlelight. “So far, Lord Westcliff has made an obvious effort to ignore the wallflowers,” Lillian said with a grin. “You were right—there’ll be no trouble from that quarter. Our only potential problem is Mr. Hunt.”
“He won’t be a problem,” Annabelle said grimly. “As I promised earlier, I’ll talk to him.”
Lillian responded with a relieved grin. “You’re a peach, Annabelle.”
As they were seated at the supper table, Annabelle was disconcerted to discover that she had been located near Lord Kendall. On any other occasion, it would have been a gratifying boon, but on this particular evening, Annabelle wasn’t feeling her best. She was unequal to the task of making intelligent conversation while her ankle was throbbing and her head was aching. To add to her discomfort, Simon Hunt was seated almost directly opposite her, looking maddeningly self-possessed. And making matters even worse, a sense of queasiness kept her from doing justice to the magnificent repast. Bereft of her usual healthy appetite, she found herself picking listlessly at the contents of her plate. Every time she looked up, she found Hunt’s shrewd gaze on her and braced herself for some subtle taunt. Mercifully, however, the few remarks he made to her were bland and commonplace, and she was able to suffer through the meal without incident.
A tide of music began to surge from the ballroom as the supper concluded, and Annabelle was thankful that the ball would begin soon. For once she would be entirely happy to sit in the line of wallflowers and rest her feet while others danced. She supposed that she had taken too much sun earlier in the day, as she was feeling unpleasantly light-headed and sore. Lillian and Daisy, by contrast, looked as vibrant and healthy as ever. Unfortunately, poor Evie had gotten a scolding from her aunt that had left her sorely chastened. “The sun makes her freckle,” Daisy told Annabelle ruefully. “Aunt Florence told Evie that after our outing she’s become as spotty as a leopard, and she’s to have nothing more to do with us until her complexion returns to normal.”
Annabelle frowned, feeling a wave of sympathy for her friend. “Beastly Aunt Florence,” she muttered. “Obviously her sole purpose in life is to make Evie miserable.”
“And she’s brilliant at it,” Daisy agreed. Suddenly she saw something over Annabelle’s shoulder that made her eyes turn as round as saucers. “Zounds! Mr. Hunt is coming this way. I am perishing of thirst, so I’ll just visit the refreshment table, and leave the two of youto, er…”
“Lillian told you,” Annabelle said grimly.
“Yes, and she and Evie and I are ever so grateful for the sacrifice that you’re going to make on our behalf.”
“Sacrifice,” Annabelle repeated, not liking the sound of the word. “That’s putting it a bit strongly, isn’t it? As Lillian said, ‘one pair of lips is like any other.’ “
“That’s what she told you,” Daisy said impishly. “But she told me and Evie that she would die before she would ever consent to kiss a man like Mr. Hunt.”
“What—” Annabelle began, but Daisy had already scuttled away, chortling.
Beginning to feel like a sacrificial virgin being tossed into the inferno, Annabelle started as she heard Simon Hunt’s deep voice close to her ear. The quiet jeer of his baritone seemed to resonate all the way down her spine. “Good evening, Miss Peyton. I see you’re fully clothed…for a change.”
Gritting her teeth, Annabelle turned to face him. “I must confess, Mr. Hunt, I was amazed by your restraint during dinner. I had expected a rash of insulting comments from you, and yet you managed to behave like a gentleman for a full hour.”
“It was a strain,” he acknowledged gravely. “But I thought that I would leave the shocking behavior to you…” He paused delicately before adding, “…since you seem to be doing so well at it of late.”
“My friends and I did nothing wrong!”
“Did I say that I disapproved of your playing Rounders in the altogether?” he asked innocently. “On the contrary—I endorse it wholeheartedly. In fact, I think you should do it every day.”
“I wasn’t in the ‘altogether,’ ” Annabelle retorted in a sharp whisper. “I was wearing undergarments.”
“Is that what they were?” he asked lazily.
She flushed bright red, mortified that he had noticed how ragged her underclothes were. “Have you told anyone about seeing us in the meadow?” she asked tensely.
Obviously, that was the question that he had been waiting for. A slow smile curved his lips. “Not yet.”
“Are you planning to tell anyone?”
Hunt considered the question with a thoughtful expression that didn’t begin to conceal his enjoyment of the situation. “Not planning to, no…” He shrugged regretfully. “But you know how it is. Sometimes these things have a way of slipping out during a conversation…”
Annabelle narrowed her eyes. “What will it take to keep you quiet?”
Hunt pretended to be shocked by her bluntness. “Miss Peyton, you should learn to handle these matters with a bit more diplomacy, don’t you think? I would have assumed that a lady of your refinement would use some tact and delicacy—”
“I don’t have time for diplomacy,” she interrupted with a scowl. “And it’s obvious that you can’t be depended upon to keep silent unless you’re offered some kind of bribe.”
“The word ‘bribe’ has such negative connotations,” he mused. “I prefer to call it an inducement.”
“Call it what you like,” she said impatiently. “Let’s get on with the negotiations, shall we?”
“All right.” Hunt’s facade was sober, but laughter flickered in the coffee-colored depths of his eyes. “I suppose I could be persuaded to hold my silence about your scandalous cavorting, Miss Peyton. With sufficient inducement.”
Annabelle fell silent, her lashes lowering as she considered what she was about to say. Once the words were out, they couldn’t be taken back. Dear Lord, why had it fallen to her to buy Simon Hunt’s silence regarding a silly Rounders game that she hadn’t even wanted to play in the first place? “If you were a gentleman,” she muttered, “this wouldn’t be necessary.”
A wealth of suppressed laughter made his voice husky and uneven. “No, I’m not a gentleman. But I am compelled to remind you that I was not the one running half-naked through the meadow this afternoon.”
“Will you hush?” she whispered sharply. “Someone will overhear you.”
Hunt watched her with fascination, his eyes dark and heathen. “Make your best offer, Miss Peyton.”
Staring fixedly at a portion of the wall far beyond his shoulder, Annabelle spoke in a suffocated tone, while the rims of her ears turned so hot that her hair was nearly singed. “If you promise to keep quiet about the Rounders game…I’ll let you kiss me.”
The unaccountable silence that followed her statement was excruciating. Forcing her gaze upward, Annabelle saw that she had surprised Hunt. He was staring at her as if she had just spoken in a foreign language, and he was not quite certain of the translation.
“One kiss,” Annabelle said, her nerves shredded from the tension between them. “And don’t assume that because I let you do it once, that I would ever consent to it again.”
Hunt replied in an unusually guarded manner, seeming to choose his words with great care. “I had assumed that you would offer to dance with me. A waltz or a quadrille.”
“I had thought of that,” she said. “But a kiss is more expedient, not to mention much faster than a waltz.”
“Not the way I kiss.”
The soft statement caused her knees to quiver. “Don’t be absurd,” she replied shortly. “An ordinary waltz lasts for at least three minutes. You couldn’t possibly kiss someone for that long.”
Hunt’s voice thickened almost imperceptibly as he replied. “You know best, of course. Very well—I accept your offer. One kiss, in return for keeping your secret. I’ll decide when and where it happens.”
“The ‘when’ and ‘where’ will be determined by mutual agreement,” Annabelle countered. “The whole point of this is to keep my reputation from being compromised—I’m hardly going to let you jeopardize it by choosing some inappropriate time or place.”
Hunt smiled mockingly. “What a negotiator you are, Miss Peyton. God help us all if you have any future ambitions to take part in the business world.”
“No, my sole ambition is to become Lady Kendall,” Annabelle returned with poisonous sweetness. She had the satisfaction of seeing his smile fade.
“That would be a pity,” he said. “For you as well as Kendall.”
“Go to the devil, Mr. Hunt,” she said beneath her breath, and walked away from him, ignoring the violent throb of her sprained ankle.
As she made her way to the back terrace, she became aware that the injury to her ankle had worsened, until shooting pains had traveled up to her knee. “Hell’s bells,” she muttered. In this condition, she was hardly going to make progress with Lord Kendall. It was not easy to be seductive when one was on the verge of shrieking in torment. Suddenly feeling exhausted and defeated, Annabelle decided that she would return to her room. Now that her business with Simon Hunt was finished, the best thing to do would be to rest her ankle and hope it would improve by morning.
With each step she took, the pain intensified until she could feel trickles of cold sweat beneath the rigid stays of her corset. She had never had an injury like this before. Not only did her leg hurt, but her head was suddenly swimming, and she ached everywhere. Abruptly, the contents of her stomach began an alarming roil. She needed air…she had to go outside in the cool dar kness, and sit somewhere until the nausea subsided. The door to the back terrace looked dreadfully far away, and she wondered dazedly how she was going to reach it.
Fortunately, the Bowman sisters had hurried toward her as soon as they saw that her conversation with Simon Hunt had concluded. The expectant smile on Lillian’s face died away as she met Annabelle’s pain-darkened gaze. “You look terrible,” Lillian exclaimed. “My God, what did Mr. Hunt say to you?”
“He agreed to the kiss,” Annabelle replied shortly, continuing to hobble toward the terrace. She could scarcely hear the orchestra music over the ringing in her ears.
“If the prospect of it terrifies you that much—” Lillian began.
“It’s not that,” Annabelle said in pained exasperation. “It’s my ankle. I sprained it earlier in the day, and now I can hardly walk.”
“Why didn’t you mention something earlier?” Lillian demanded in instant concern. Her slender arm was unexpectedly strong as she curved it around Annabelle’s back. “Daisy, go to the nearest door and hold it open while we slip outside.”
The sisters helped her outside, and Annabelle wiped her gloved hand over her sweating forehead. “I think I’m going to be sick,” she moaned, while her mouth watered disagreeably, and stinging gall rose in her throat. Her leg ached as if it had been crushed by a carriage wheel. “Oh, Lord, I can’t. I can’t be sick now.”
“It’s all right,” Lillian said, guiding her inexorably toward a flower bed that lined the side of the terrace steps. “No one can see you, dear. Be as sick as you want. Daisy and I are here to take care of you.”
“That’s right,” Daisy chimed in from behind her. “True friends never mind holding your hair back while you cast up your crumpets.”
Annabelle would have laughed, had she not been overcome with a spasm of mortifying nausea. Fortunately, she had not eaten much during supper, so the process was mercifully quick. Her stomach erupted, and she had no choice but to surrender. Gasping and spitting into the flower bed, she moaned weakly. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, Lillian—”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” came the American girl’s calm reply. “You’d do the same for me, wouldn’t you?”
“‘Course I would…but you would never be so silly…”
“You’re not being silly,” Lillian said gently. “You’re sick. Now take my handkerchief.”
Still leaning over, Annabelle received the lace-trimmed square of linen gratefully, but recoiled at the scent of perfume. “Ugh, I can’t,” she whispered. “The smell. Do you have one that isn’t scented?”
“Drat,” Lillian said apologetically. “Daisy, where is your handkerchief?”
“Forgot it,” came the succinct reply.
“You’ll have to use this one,” Lillian told Annabelle. “It’s all we’ve got.”
A masculine voice entered the conversation. “Take this one.”
Too dizzy to notice what was happening around her, Annabelle received the clean handkerchief that was thrust in her hand. It was mercifully free of any smell except for the crisp hint of starch. After wiping her perspiring face, then her mouth, Annabelle managed to straighten and face the newcomer. Her sore stomach did a slow, agonizing revolution at the sight of Simon Hunt. It seemed that he had followed her out to the terrace just in time to witness her humiliating nausea. She wanted to die. If only she could conveniently expire right then, and forever obliterate the knowledge that Simon Hunt had seen her cast up her crumpets in the flower bed.
Hunt’s face was impassive, save for the frown indentations between his brows. Quickly he reached out to steady her as she swayed before him. “In light of our recent agreement,” he murmured, “this is most unflattering, Miss Peyton.”