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She shook her head dumbly.

“Then why the sudden rush to leave?”

There were infinite ways she could have replied, but at the moment she could summon no subtlety, wit, or any manner of verbal agility. She could only answer with the bluntness of a mallet strike. “I…don’t want this.”

“This?”

“I’m not going to become your mistress.” She hesitated, and said in a whisper, “I can do better.”

Hunt considered the bald statement with great care, his steadying hands remaining at her waist. “Do you mean that you can find someone to marry,” he finally asked, “or is it that you intend to become the mistress of an aristocrat?”

“It doesn’t matter, does it?” Annabelle muttered, pushing away from the support of his hands. “Neither scenario involves you.”

Although she refused to look at him, she felt his gaze on her, and she shivered as the glow of warmth faded completely from her body. “I’ll take you back to your room,” Hunt said, without emotion, and he accompanied her to the door.

CHAPTER 16

When Annabelle rejoined the guests the next morning, she was heartened to discover that her encounter with the adder had earned a great deal of sympathy from everyone, including Lord Kendall. Exhibiting a great degree of sensitivity and concern, Kendall sat with Annabelle at a late-morning breakfast held al fresco on the back terrace. He insisted on holding her plate at the buffet table while she selected various morsels, and he made certain that a servant refilled her water glass as soon as it was empty. He also insisted on doing the same for Lady Constance Darrowby, who had joined them at the table.

Recalling the wallflowers’ comments about Lady Constance, Annabelle assessed the competition. Kendall seemed more than a little interested in the girl, who was quiet and serenely aloof. She was also elegantly thin, in the style that had currently become quite fashionable. And Daisy had been right—Lady Constance did indeed have a mouth like a drawstring purse, constantly tightening into little cooing o’swhenever Kendall shared a piece of horticultural information with her.

“How dreadful it must have been,” Lady Constance remarked to Annabelle, upon hearing the story of the adder. “It’s a wonder that you didn’t die.” Despite the angelic cast of her expression, a cool glitter in her pale blue eyes made Annabelle aware that the girl wouldn’t have been all that displeased if she had.

“I’m quite well now,” Annabelle said, turning to smile at Kendall. “And more than ready for another outing in the woods.”

“I shouldn’t exert myself too soon, if I were you, Miss Peyton,” Lady Constance said with delicate concern. “You still don’t seem to have fully recovered. But I am certain that the pastiness of your complexion will probably improve in a few days.”

Annabelle maintained her smile, refusing to show how the comment had rankled…though she was strongly tempted to make an observation about the blemish on Lady Constance’s forehead.

“Do excuse me,” Lady Constance murmured, standing from the table. “I see some fresh strawberries. I shall return momentarily.”

“Take your time,” Annabelle advised sweetly. “We’ll hardly notice your absence.”

Together, Annabelle and Kendall watched Lady Constance glide toward the buffet table, where it so happened that Mr. Benjamin Muxlow was also refilling his plate. Politely, Muxlow stood back from the large bowl of strawberries and held Lady Constance’s plate as she ladled a few choice berries on it. The air between them bespoke nothing more than cordial friend-liness…but Annabelle happened to remember the story that Daisy had told her the day before yesterday.

And then she thought of it—the perfect way to eliminate Lady Constance as a contender. Before she allowed herself to consider the consequences, moral implications, or any other inconvenient notions, she leaned closer to Lord Kendall. “The two of them are quite good at concealing the true state of affairs, aren’t they?” she murmured, casting a sly glance at Lady Constance and Muxlow. “But of course, it would hardly serve either of them if it became generally known…” She paused and looked into Lord Kendall’s puzzled gaze with a trace of pretended discomfort. “Oh, I’m sorry. I assumed that you must have already heard…”

Kendall’s face was suddenly wreathed in a frown. “Heard what?” he asked, giving the pair a wary glance.

“Well, I’m not one to spread gossip…but I was told by a reliable source that on the day of the water party, at the picnic on the riverbank…Miss Hunt and Mr. Muxlow were caught in a terribly compromising situation. The two of them were behind a tree, and…” Annabelle stopped with a carefully manufactured expression of dismay. “I shouldn’t have said anything. And it’s possible that there has been some misunderstanding. One never knows, does one?”

Applying herself to sipping daintily from her teacup, Annabelle shot an assessing glance over the rim. She read Kendall’s emotions easily: He did not want to believe that Lady Constance could have been caught in an indiscretion. The thought of it was enough to appall him. However, being a true gentleman, Kendall would be loath to investigate the situation. He would never dare to ask Lady Constance if she had indeed been compromised by Muxlow. Instead, he would remain silent on the matter, and try to ignore his own suspicions…and the unanswered questions would fester.

“Annabelle, you sh-shouldn’t have,” Evie murmured later that afternoon when Annabelle confessed what she had done. The four friends sat in Evie’s bedroom, where the girl sat with her face covered in a thick application of white cream that was supposed to get rid of freckles. Staring at Annabelle from beneath the heavy layer of bleaching unguent, Evie tried to continue, but it was clear that her powers of speech— which were not all that extensive to begin with—had been obliterated by disapproval.

“It was a brilliant strategy,” Lillian declared, picking up a nail file from the vanity where she sat. Whether she actually approved of Annabelle’s actions was not clear, but it was obvious that she would remain loyal to the end. “Annabelle didn’t actually lie, you see. She merely repeated a rumor that had been told to her, and she made it clear that it was just that—a rumor. What Kendall chooses to make of it is up to him.”

“But Annabelle didn’t tell him that she knows for a fact that the rumor is unf-founded,” Evie argued.

Lillian concentrated on filing her nail to a perfect oval. “Still, she didn’t lie.”

Feeling defensive and guilty, Annabelle looked at Daisy. “Well, what do you think?”

The younger Bowman sister, who had been repeatedly tossing the Rounders ball from one hand to the other, gave Annabelle an astute look as she replied. “I think that sometimes not giving someone all the information is nearly the same as a lie. You’ve started on a slippery path, dear. Beware your next step.”

Lillian scowled in annoyance. “Oh, do stop talking like a sideshow fortune-teller, Daisy. Once Annabelle gets what she wants, it won’t matter how she accomplished it. Results are everything. And Evie—no ethical hairsplitting. You agreed to help us manipulate Lord Kendall into a compromising situation—how is that any worse than Annabelle repeating an unfounded rumor?”

“We all promised not to hurt anyone,” Evie said with great dignity, taking a small towel and wiping thick streaks of cream from her face.

“Lady Constance hasn’t been hurt,” Lillian insisted. “She’s not in love with him. It is quite obvious that she wants Kendall only because he’s an end-of the-season bachelor, and she’s unmarried. Heavens, Evie, you’ve got to harden yourself. Is Lady Constance any worse off than we are? Look at us—four wallflowers who’ve got nothing to show for their efforts so far, except freckles, an adder bite, and the humiliation of having exposed our knickers to Lord Westcliff.”

Annabelle, who had been sitting on the edge of the mattress, let herself fall back to the center of the four-poster bed. She stared at the striped canopy overhead, feeling guilty. Oh, how she wished that she could be more like Lillian, who believed that the end justified the means! She promised herself that she would be strictly honorable in the future.

But…as Lillian had pointed out, Lord Kendall could either believe or disregard the rumor at will. He was a grown man who could make decisions for himself. All Annabelle had done was to sow the seeds—it was Kendall’s choice either to nurture them, or let them lie fallow.

In the evening, Annabelle dressed in an ice pink gown made of countless floating layers of transparent silk gauze. The waist was tightly cinched with a reinforced silk belt adorned with a huge white rose. Her skirts made a soft swishing sound as she walked, and she fluffed out the top layers, feeling like a princess. Too impatient to wait for Philippa, who was taking forever to dress, Annabelle left the room early, in the hopes of seeing her friends. With any luck, she might even encounter Lord Kendall and find some excuse to slip away with him for a few moments.

Favoring her ankle slightly, Annabelle walked along the hallway that led to the grand staircase. On impulse, she stopped at the Marsden private parlor, the door of which had been left ajar, and she entered it cautiously. The parlor was unlit, but surplus light from the hallway was sufficient to illuminate the shadowy outlines of the chess table in the corner. Drawn to the board, she saw with a flicker of pleasure that her game with Simon Hunt had been restored. Why had he taken the time to arrange the pieces as if they were still in play? Did he expect her to make another move?

Don’t touch anything, she told herself…but the temptation was too great to resist. She squinted in concentration, assessing the situation with a fresh eye. Hunt’s knight was in the perfect position to capture her queen, which meant that she would either have to move the piece or defend it. Suddenly she saw best how to protect her threatened queen—she slid a nearby rook forward to capture Hunt’s knight, thereby eliminating it from the board altogether. Smiling in satisfaction, she set the captured piece to the side and left the room.

Descending the grand staircase, she crossed through the entrance hall and walked along another hallway toward a circuit of public rooms. The carpet beneath her feet muffled all sound…but suddenly she sensed that someone was behind her. She felt a frisson of warning across her exposed upper back. Glancing over her shoulder, she saw that Lord Hodgeham was following her, moving with surprising swiftness for such a stocky man. His heavy fingers hooked into the back of her silk belt, forcing her to stop or risk the possibility of having the fragile band snap in two.

It was a sign of how arrogant Hodgeham had become that he would accost her in a place where they could so easily be seen. Gasping in outrage, Annabelle spun to face him. She was confronted by the sight of his portly torso crammed into tight evening clothes, while the oily scent of his cologned hair assaulted her nostrils. “Lovely creature,” Hodgeham muttered, his breath pungent with the scent of brandy. “Recovering nicely, I see. I think perhaps we should resume our conversation of yesterday, before I was so pleasantly diverted by your mother.”

“You revolting—” Annabelle began in fury, but he interrupted the flow of words by clamping his fingers on either side of her jaw and squeezing hard.

“I’ll tell Kendall everything,” he said, his bulbous lips very close to hers. “With sufficient embellishment to ensure that he will look upon you and your family with the purest disgust.” His ponderous body pressed hers against the wall, nearly squeezing the breath from her. “Unless,” he said, his sour respirations striking her face, “you decide to accommodate me in the same manner that your mother has.”

“Then go and tell Kendall,” Annabelle said, her eyes blazing with hatred. “Tell him everything and be done with it. I’d rather starve in the gutter than ‘accommodate’ a repulsive swine like you.”

Hodgeham stared at her in incredulous fury. “You’ll regret it,” he said, flecks of spittle gleaming on his lips.

She smiled with cold contempt. “I don’t think so.”

Before Hodgeham let go of her, Annabelle caught a movement out of the corner of her vision. Turning her head to the side, she saw someone walking toward them—a man who was moving with the stealthy strides of a stalking panther. It must have appeared to him that she and Hodgeham had been caught in an amorous embrace.

“Release me,” she hissed to Hodgeham, and shoved hard at his bulky girth. He stepped back, finally allowing her to take a full breath, and shot her a glance of malevolent promise before walking in the opposite direction of the approaching man.

Rattled, Annabelle stared into the face of Simon Hunt as he took her by the shoulders. He was watching Hodgeham hurry away, with a hard, almost blood-thirsty gaze that made her blood turn cold. Then he looked down at her in a way that caused her breath to catch. Until that moment she had never seen Simon Hunt without his usual nonchalance. No matter how she had insulted or cut or spurned him, he had always reacted with predictable jeering self-assurance. But it seemed that she had finally done something that had provoked genuine fury. He looked ready to strangle her.

“Were you following me?” she asked with forced calmness, wondering how he had managed to appear at that particular moment.

“I saw you walk through the entrance hall,” he said, “and Hodgeham trailing after you. I followed because I wanted to find out what was going on between the two of you.”

Her gaze turned defiant. “And have you found out?”

“I don’t know,” came his dangerously soft reply. “Tell me, Annabelle—when you said that you could do better, was this what you had in mind? Servicing that idiotic lump of lard on the sly, in return for the pitiful recompense he gives you? I wouldn’t have believed you to be that much of a fool.”

“You sodding hypocrite,” Annabelle whispered furiously. “You’re angry with me for being his mistress and not yours—well, you tell me something—why does it matter to whom I sell my body?”

“Because you don’t want him,” Hunt said through his teeth. “And you don’t want Kendall. You want me.”

Annabelle did not understand the seething tangle of emotions inside herself, or why this confrontation had begun to fill her with a strange, terrible exhilaration. She wanted to hit him, throw herself on him, provoke him until the last few fragments of his self-control were smashed to powder. “Let me guess—you’re prepared to offer me a more profitable version of the same arrangement that I supposedly have with Hodgeham?” She laughed scornfully as she saw the answer on his face. “The answer is no. No. So once and for all, leave me alone—”