They entered the large circular theater and stepped onto a massive roundabout sided with wrought-iron rails and gates. A meticulously crafted image of an ancient Roman landscape surrounded them, with a twelve-yard gap separating the edge of the roundabout from the painting. The gap was filled with complex machinery that drew excited comments from the crowd. Once the viewers had filled the roundabout, the room darkened dramatically, eliciting gasps of excitement and anticipation. With a soft whir of machinery, and a glow of blue light shining from the back of the canvas, the landscape acquired a dimension and a sense of realism that startled Annabelle. She could almost let herself be deceived into thinking that they were standing in Rome at midday. A few actors clad in togas and sandals appeared, while a narrator began to relate the history of ancient Rome.
The diorama was even more enthralling than Annabelle had hoped it would be. However, she wasn’t able to lose herself in the unfolding spectacle—she was too acutely aware of the man standing beside her. It hardly helped that he occasionally bent down to murmur some inappropriate comment in her ear, mockingly reproving her for displaying such unseemly interest in the sight of gentlemen dressed in pillow-cases. No matter how sternly Annabelle tried to hold back her amusement, a few reluctant giggles escaped, earning disapproving glances from people around them. And then, naturally, Hunt chided her for laughing during such an important lecture, which made her want to giggle all the more. Jeremy seemed too absorbed in the show to notice Hunt’s antics, craning his neck eagerly to discern which pieces of machinery were producing the wondrous effects.
Hunt quieted, however, after an unexpected hitch in the roundabout’s rotation caused the platform to jerk slightly. A few people were thrown off-balance, but were immediately steadied by the people around them. Surprised by the interrupted motion, Annabelle wobbled and found herself swiftly caught in a light, secure hold against Hunt’s chest. He released her the instant she had regained her balance, lowering his head to ask softly if she was all right.
“Oh, yes,” Annabelle said breathlessly. “I beg your pardon. Yes, I’m perfectly…”
She couldn’t seem to finish the sentence, her voice dwindling into bewildered silence as awareness flooded her. Never in her life had she experienced this reaction to a man. Just what this immediate sense of urgency entailed, or how to satisfy it, was far beyond the scope of her limited knowledge. All she knew was that for a moment, she had desperately wanted to continue leaning on him, against a body so spare and firm as to be wholly invulnerable, providing a safe harbor as the floor shifted beneath her feet. The scent of him; clean male skin, polished leather, and the hint of starched linen, aroused all her senses with pleasurable expectation. He was completely unlike the cologned and pomaded aristocrats she had been trying to ensnare during the past two seasons.
Profoundly troubled, Annabelle stared straight ahead at the canvas, neither seeing nor caring about the fluctuations of light and color that conveyed impressions of approaching nightfall…the dusk of the Roman Empire. Hunt seemed similarly indifferent to the show, his head inclined toward hers, his gaze locked on her face. Though his breathing remained soft and disciplined, it seemed to her that its rhythm had changed ever so slightly.
Annabelle moistened her dry lips. “You…you mustn’t stare at me like that.”
Soft as the murmur was, he caught it. “With you here, nothing else is worth looking at.”
She didn’t move or speak, pretending that she hadn’t heard the gentle devil-whisper, while her heart lurched in an unsteady meter, and her toes curled inside her shoes. How could this be happening in a theater full of people, with her brother right by her side? She closed her eyes briefly against a sensation of spinning that had nothing to do with the progress of the roundabout.
“Watch!” Jeremy said, nudging her eagerly. “They’re about to show the volcanoes.”
Suddenly the theater was plunged into utter blinding darkness, while an ominous rumbling rose from beneath the platform. There were several little screams of alarm, a scattering of laughter, and loud gasps of anticipation. Annabelle’s spine went rigid as she felt the brush of a hand on her back. His hand, sliding with slow deliberateness up her spine…his scent, fresh and beguiling in her nostrils…and before she could make a sound, his mouth, possessing hers in a warm, softly ravishing kiss. She was too stunned to move, her hands in the air like butterflies suspended in midflight, her swaying body anchored by his light clasp on her waist, while his other hand cradled the back of her neck.
Annabelle had been kissed before, by brash young men who had stolen a quick embrace during a walk in the garden, or in a corner of the parlor when they would not be observed. But none of those brief, flirtatious encounters had been like this…a kiss so slow and dizzying that it filled her with delirium. Sensations rushed through her, far too strong to manage, and she quivered helplessly in his hold. Compelled by instinct, she lifted blindly into the tenderly restless caress of his lips. The pressure of his lips increased as he demanded more, rewarding her helpless response with a voluptuous exploration that set her senses on fire.
Just as she began to lose all sanity, his mouth released hers with startling suddenness, leaving her dazed. Keeping his supportive hand on the downy-soft nape of her neck, he bent his head until a rueful murmur tickled her ear. “Sorry. I couldn’t resist.” His touch withdrew completely, and when red-filtered light finally invaded the theater, he was gone.
“Will you look at that?” Jeremy enthused, pointing with glee at a simulated volcano in front of them, with brilliant molten rock appearing to course down its sides. “Incredible!” Noticing that Hunt was no longer there, he frowned quizzically. “Where did Mr. Hunt go? I suppose he must have seen his friends.” Shrugging, Jeremy returned to his excited observation of the volcanoes, lending his exclamations to those of the awestruck audience.
Wide-eyed and completely bereft of speech, Annabelle wondered if what she thought had just happened had in fact really happened. Surely she had not been kissed in the middle of a theater by a stranger. And kissed in that way…
Well, that was what came of allowing unknown gentlemen to pay for things—it gave them the license to take advantage of you. But as to her own behavior…Shamed and bewildered, Annabelle struggled to understand why she had allowed Mr. Hunt to kiss her. She should have protested and pushed him away. Instead, she had stood there in a mindless daze while he—oh, the thought made her cringe. It didn’t really matter how or why Simon Hunt had been able to shatter all her well-constructed defenses. The fact was, he had…and, therefore, he was a man to be avoided at all cost.
London, 1843 The end of the season
A marriage-minded girl could overcome practically any obstacle, except the lack of a dowry.
Annabelle swung her foot impatiently beneath the frothy white mass of her skirts while she kept her expression composed. During her past three failed seasons, she had become accustomed to being a wallflower. Accustomed, but not resigned. More than once it had occurred to her that she deserved far better than to sit at the side of the room in a spindly chair. Hoping, hoping, hoping, for an invitation that would never come. And trying to pretend that she didn’t care—that she was perfectly happy to be watching others dancing and being courted.
Letting out a long sigh, Annabelle fiddled with the tiny silver dance card that hung from a ribbon on her wrist. The cover slid open to reveal a book of near-translucent ivory leaves that spread out in a fan. A girl was supposed to pencil the names of her dance partners on those delicate slips of ivory. To Annabelle, the fan of empty cards seemed to resemble a row of teeth, grinning at her mockingly. Snapping the silver case shut, she glanced at the three girls who sat next to her, all endeavoring to look similarly unconcerned with their fates.
She knew exactly why they were there. Miss Evangeline Jenner’s considerable family fortune had been made from gambling, and her origins were common. Moreover, Miss Jenner was painfully shy and possessed a stutter, which made the prospect of conversation a session of torture for both participants.
The other two girls, Miss Lillian Bowman, and her younger sister Daisy, had not yet become acclimated to England—and from the looks of things, it would take them a long time. It was said that the Bowmans’ mother had brought the girls from New York because they hadn’t been able to get any suitable offers there. The soap bubble heiresses, they were mockingly referred to, or occasionally, the dollar princesses. Despite their elegantly angled cheekbones and tip-tilted dark eyes, they would find no better luck here unless they could find an aristocratic sponsor to vouch for them and teach them how to fit in with British society.
It occurred to Annabelle that in the past few months of this miserable season, the four of them—herself, Miss Jenner, and the Bowmans—had often sat together at balls or soirees, always in the corner or against the wall. And yet they had rarely spoken to each other, trapped in the silent tedium of waiting. Her gaze caught that of Lillian Bowman, whose velvety dark eyes contained an unexpected gleam of humor.
“At least they could have made the chairs more comfortable,” Lillian murmured, “when it’s obvious that we’re going to occupy them all evening.”
“We should have our names engraved on them,” Annabelle replied wryly. “After all the time I’ve spent in it, I own this chair.”
A muffled giggle came from Evangeline Jenner, who lifted a gloved finger to push back a vivid red curl that had fallen over her forehead. The smile made her round blue eyes sparkle and her cheeks turn pink beneath a scattering of gold freckles. It seemed that a sudden sense of kinship had temporarily caused her to forget her shyness. “It m-makes no sense that you’re a wallflower,” she told Annabelle. “You’re the most beautiful girl here—men should be f-falling all over themselves to dance with you.”
Annabelle lifted her shoulder in a graceful half shrug. “No one wants to marry a girl without a dowry.” It was only in the fantasy realm of novels that dukes could marry poor girls. In reality, dukes and viscounts and the like were burdened with the massive financial responsibility of maintaining large estates and extended families, and helping the tenantry. A wealthy peer needed to marry into money just as badly as a poor one did.
“No one wants to marry a nouveau-riche American girl, either,” Lillian Bowman confided. “Our only hope of belonging anywhere is to marry a peer with a solid English title.”
“But we have no sponsor,” her younger sister, Daisy, added. She was a petite, rather elfin version of Lillian, with the same fair skin, heavy dark hair, and brown eyes. An impish smile touched her lips. “If you happen to know of some nice duchess who would be willing to take us under her wing, we would be much obliged.”
“I don’t even want to find a husband,” Evangeline Jenner confided. “I’m merely s-s-suffering through the season because there is nothing else for me to do. I’m too old to stay at school any longer, and my father…” She broke off abruptly, and sighed. “Well, I have only one more season to go, then I’ll be twenty-three and a confirmed spinster. How I’m looking f-forward to it!”
“Is twenty-three the measure of spinsterhood these days?” Annabelle asked with half-feigned alarm. She rolled her eyes heavenward. “Good Lord, I had no idea that I was so far past my prime.”
“How old are you?” Lillian Bowman asked curiously.
Annabelle cast a glance to the right and left, to make certain they were not being overheard. “Twenty-five next month.”
The revelation earned three rather pitying glances, and Lillian replied consolingly, “You don’t look a day more than twenty-one.”
Annabelle clutched her fingers around her dance card until it was concealed in her gloved hand. Time was slipping away quickly, she thought. This, her fourth season, was drawing rapidly to a close. And one simply did not embark on a fifth season—it would be ludicrous. She had to catch a husband, and soon. Otherwise, they could no longer afford to keep Jeremy at school…and they would be forced to move from their modest terrace and find a boardinghouse to reside in. And once the downhill slide began, there was no climbing back up.
In the six years since Annabelle’s father had died of a heart ailment, the family’s financial resources had dwindled to nothing. They had tried to camouflage their increasingly desperate straits, pretending they had a half dozen servants instead of one overworked cook-maid and an aging footman…turning their faded gowns so that the underside of the fabric was facing outward…selling the stones in their jewelry and replacing them with paste. Annabelle was heartily tired of their constant efforts to deceive everyone, when it seemed that everyone already knew they were on the brink of disaster. Lately, Annabelle had even begun to receive discreet offers from married men, who told her meaningfully that she had only to ask for their help, and it would be given immediately. There was no need to describe the compensations that such “help” would require. Annabelle was well aware that she had the makings of a first-rate mistress.
“Miss Peyton,” Lillian Bowman asked, “what kind of man would be the ideal husband for you?”
“Oh,” Annabelle said with irreverent lightness, “any peer will do.”
“Any peer?” Lillian asked skeptically. “What about good looks?”
Annabelle shrugged. “Welcome, but not necessary.”
“What about passion?” Daisy inquired.
“Intelligence?” Evangeline suggested.
Annabelle shrugged. “Negotiable.”
“Charm?” Lillian asked.
“You don’t want much,” Lillian remarked dryly. “As for me, I would have to add a few conditions. My peer would have to be dark-haired and handsome, a wonderful dancer…and he would never ask permission before he kissed me.”
“I want to marry a man who has read the entire collected works of Shakespeare,” Daisy said. “Someone quiet and romantic—better yet if he wears spectacles— and he should like poetry and nature, and I shouldn’t like him to be too experienced with women.”
Her older sister lifted her eyes heavenward. “We won’t be competing for the same men, apparently.”
Annabelle looked at Evangeline Jenner. “What kind of husband would suit you, Miss Jenner?”
“Evie,” the girl murmured, her blush deepening until it clashed with her fiery hair. She struggled with her reply, extreme bashfulness warring with a strong instinct for privacy. “I suppose…I would like s-s-someone who was kind and…” Stopping, she shook her head with a self-deprecating smile. “I don’t know. Just someone who would l-love me. Really love me.”