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Dragging his gaze away from the pair, Simon made his way to the other side of the room, where Westcliff and a few other friends were talking. Turning toward him, the earl murmured, “Enjoying yourself?”

“Not particularly.” Simon shoved his hands into his coat pockets and glanced around the ballroom with simmering impatience. “I’ve stayed long enough in Hampshire—I need to return to London, to see what is happening at the foundry.”

“What of Miss Peyton?” came the soft-voiced question.

Simon considered that for a moment. “I think,” he said slowly, “that I’m going to wait and see what comes of her pursuit of Kendall.” He looked at Westcliff with a questioning arch of his brow.

The earl responded with a brief nod. “When will you depart?”

“Early in the morning.” Simon could not repress a long, taut sigh.

Westcliff smiled wryly. “The situation will untangle itself,” he said in a prosaic manner. “Go to London, and come back when your head is clear.”

Annabelle could not seem to shake the melancholy that clung to her like a mantle of ice. Sleep had been elusive, and she had hardly been able to eat a bite of the sumptuous breakfast that had been served downstairs. Lord Kendall had regarded her wan countenance and her quietness as lingering effects of her recent illness, and he had plied her with sympathy and solace until she had wanted to shove him away in irritation. Her friends, too, were being similarly annoying in their niceness, and for the first time Annabelle took no enjoyment in their cheerful banter. She tried to identify the moment when her spirits had turned so sour, and realized that it had been the moment when she had learned from Lady Olivia that Simon Hunt had left Stony Cross.

“Mr. Hunt has gone to London on business,” Lady Olivia had said lightly. “He never stays long at these parties—the wonder is that he didn’t leave sooner than this. No dust settles on that one, to be certain…”

When someone had questioned why Mr. Hunt’s departure had been so precipitate, Lady Olivia had smiled and shook her head. “Oh, Hunt comes and goes at will, rather like a tomcat. His departures are always abrupt, as he seems to dislike good-byes of any kind.”

Hunt had left without one word to Annabelle, and as a result, she was left feeling abandoned and anxious. Thoughts of the previous night—oh, hideous evening!—kept playing relentlessly in her mind. After the events in the music room, she had been disoriented, so thoroughly occupied with thoughts of Hunt that she couldn’t seem to focus on the here and now. She had kept her gaze down so that she wouldn’t catch an unexpected glimpse of him, and she had prayed silently that he wouldn’t approach her. Mercifully he had kept his distance, while Lord Kendall had planted himself firmly at her side. Kendall had spent the rest of the night talking to her about subjects she didn’t understand and couldn’t have cared less about. She had encouraged him with innocuous murmurs and halfhearted smiles, and had thought dimly that she should be ecstatic about the attention he was paying to her. Instead, she had only wished that he would go away.

Her subdued manner at breakfast seemed to attract Kendall all the more. Assuming that her docile facade was an act, Lillian Bowman had surreptitiously whispered near her ear, “Good job, Annabelle. He’s eating out of your hand.”

Excusing herself from the breakfast table on the pretext of needing to rest, Annabelle wandered alone through the manor, until she reached the blue parlor. The chess table lured her, and she approached it slowly, wondering if a housemaid had finally replaced the pieces in the box, or if someone had interfered with the game. No, it was exactly as she had left it…with one minor change. Simon Hunt had moved a pawn into a defensive position, which allowed her the opportunity either to shore up her own defense, or move aggressively to pursue his queen. It was not a move that she would have expected of him. She would have thought he would attempt something more ambitious. More contentious. Studying the board, she strove to understand his strategy. Had his move been made out of indecision, or carelessness? Or was there some hidden purpose she could not discern?

Annabelle reached for one of her pieces, hesitated, and withdrew her hand. It was just a game, she told herself. She was ascribing far too much importance to every move, as if some momentous prize hung in the balance. Nevertheless, she reconsidered her decision carefully before reaching out once again. She slid her queen forward and captured the pawn, experiencing a thrill of satisfaction as the pieces clicked together, ivory on onyx. Clasping the pawn in her palm, she tested the weight of it before setting it carefully beside the board.

As the week unfolded, it turned out that the one moment at the chessboard had been Annabelle’s solitary flicker of enjoyment. She had never felt this way before…not happy, nor sad, nor even worry-bitten about the future. She was simply numb, her senses and emotions dulled until she began to think she might never care about anything again. The sense of detachment was so thorough that she sometimes had the sense of standing outside herself, watching a mechanical doll move stiffly through each day.

Lord Kendall partnered Annabelle with increasing frequency…they danced together at a ball, sat side by side at a musical evening, and walked through the garden with Philippa meandering at a discreet distance behind them. Kendall was pleasant, respectful, and quietly charming. He was so tolerant, in fact, that Annabelle began to think that when she and the wallflowers sprung their final trap on him, he might not even resent it so terribly, being forced to marry a girl he had inadvertently compromised. He would get used to it eventually, and, being a philosophical man, he would find some way to accept the situation.

As for Hodgeham, it was clear that Philippa was managing to keep him away from Annabelle. Moreover, Philippa had somehow convinced him not to carry out his threat to expose their secret to Lord Kendall, though she would not discuss the details of the conversation. Concerned about the effect that such constant distress must be having on her mother, Annabelle tentatively brought up the possibility of leaving Stony Cross Park. However, Philippa would not hear of it. “I will manage Hodgeham,” she said firmly. “You just continue on with Lord Kendall. It is clear to everyone that Kendall is taken with you.”

If only Annabelle could obliterate the memory of the music room alcove from her mind…she dreamed of it with startling clarity and awoke in stewing torment, with the sheets tangled around her legs and her skin burning fever-hot. She was bedeviled by thoughts of Simon Hunt, the memory of his scent and warmth and his provoking kisses…the hardness of the body beneath the elegant black evening suit.

Despite the wallflowers’ promise to tell each other everything about their romantic adventures, Annabelle could not bring herself to confide in any of them. What had happened with Hunt had been too private and too personal. It was not something to be scrutinized by eager friends who knew no more about men than she did. And had she tried to explain the experience to them, she knew they would not have understood. There were no words to describe such soul-stealing intimacy and the devastating confusion that had followed.

How in God’s name could she feel this way about a man she had always despised? For two years she had dreaded seeing him at social events—she had considered him to be the most unpleasant companion imaginable. And now…and now…

Shoving aside the unwanted thoughts, Annabelle retreated to the Marsden parlor one day, hoping to divert her churning mind with some reading material. Under her arm, she carried a heavy tome inscribed with gilded letters on the front: Royal Horticultural Society—Findings and Conclusions of Reports Submitted by Our Respected Members in the Year 1843. The book was as heavy as an anvil, and Annabelle wondered grimly how anyone could find so much to say about plants. Setting the book on a small table, Annabelle began to lower herself to the settee by the window, when something about the chessboard in the corner caught her attention. Was it her imagination, or…

Eyes narrowing in curiosity, Annabelle strode to the table and stared at the configuration of chessmen, which had remained undisturbed all week long. Yes…something was different. She had used her queen to capture Simon’s pawn. Now her queen had been taken from the board, and set precisely to the side.

He’s come back, she thought with a sudden blaze of feeling that went all through her body. She felt certain that Simon Hunt was the only one who would have touched the chessboard. He was there, at Stony Cross. Her face turned paper white except for the flags of heat that scorched the crests of her cheeks. Realizing that her reaction was all out of proportion, she struggled to calm herself. His return meant nothing—she did not want him, could not have him, and must avoid him at all cost. Closing her eyes, she breathed deeply and concentrated on governing her pulse, willing her rampaging heart to slow its recalcitrant beat.

When she had finally regained herself, she looked down at the chessboard, trying to understand his last move. How had he taken her queen? Rapidly she calculated the previous locations of the pieces. Then she realized…he had lured her forward with the defensive pawn, positioning her perfectly for capture by his rook. And with her queen having been eliminated, her king was threatened and…

He had put her in check.

He had tricked her with that humble pawn, and she was in jeopardy. Letting out an incredulous laugh, Annabelle turned from the chess table and paced around the room. Defense strategies filled her head, and she tried to decide on the one he wouldn’t expect. Obeying her instinct, she turned and headed back to the chessboard, smiling as she wondered what Hunt’s reaction would be, once he discovered her counter-move. As her hand hovered over the board, however, the flood of warm excitement died away completely, and her face turned to stone. What was she doing? Continuing this game, maintaining even this fragile communication with him, was pointless. No…it was dangerous. There was no choice to be made between safety and disaster.

Annabelle’s hand trembled a little as she reached for one chess piece after another, arranging them neatly in the box, methodically packing the game away. “I resign,” she said aloud, her throat painfully tight. “I resign.” She swallowed against the painful lump that the words engendered. She wasn’t fool enough to allow herself to want something…someone…who was so obviously wrong for her. When the chess box was closed, she backed away from the table and stood looking at it for a moment. She felt faded and abruptly weary, but resolute.

Tonight. Her ambiguous courtship with Lord Kendall would have to be resolved this evening. The party was almost over, and now that Simon Hunt had returned, she couldn’t afford to risk having everything ruined by another complication with him. Squaring her shoulder, she went to tell Lillian, and together they would come up with a plan. The evening would end with her betrothal to Lord Kendall.

CHAPTER 18

“The trick is all in the timing,” Lillian said, her brown eyes gleaming with enjoyment. Surely no military officer had ever conducted a campaign with more determination than Lillian Bowman currently displayed. The four wallflowers sat together on the back terrace with glasses of cool, pulpy lemonade, giving every appearance of indolence, while in reality they were carefully plotting the evening to come.

“I’ll suggest a nice before-supper walk through the garden to awaken our appetites,” Lillian said to Annabelle, “and Daisy and Evie will agree, and we’ll bring our mother and Aunt Florence and anyone else we happen to be talking with—and hopefully by the time we reach the clearing on the other side of the pear orchard, you will be seen in flagrante delicto with Lord Kendall.”

“What is flagrante delicto?” Daisy asked. “It sounds illegal.”

“I don’t know, precisely,” Lillian admitted. “I read it in a novel…but I’m sure it’s just the thing to get a girl compromised.”

Annabelle responded with a halfhearted laugh, wishing that she could feel even a modicum of the Bowmans’ enjoyment of the situation. A fortnight ago, she would have been beside herself with glee. But somehow it felt all wrong. There was no pleasurable anticipation in the prospect of finally prying a proposal out of a peer. No sense of excitement or relief, or anything remotely positive. It felt like an unpleasant duty that had to be done. She concealed her apprehensiveness while the Bowman sisters plotted and calculated with the expertise of seasoned conspirators.

However, it seemed that Evie, who was more observant than the rest of them put together, perceived the true emotions behind Annabelle’s facade. “Is this what you w-want, Annabelle?” she asked softly, her blue eyes filled with concern. “You don’t have to do this, you know. We’ll find another suitor for you, if you don’t want Kendall.”

“There’s no time to find another one,” Annabelle whispered back. “No…it must be Kendall, and it has to be tonight, before…”

“Before?” Evie repeated, tilting her head as she regarded Annabelle with soft perplexity. The sun illuminated her scattered freckles, making them glint like gold dust on her velvety skin. “Before what?”

As Annabelle kept silent, Evie lowered her head and drew a fingertip along the edge of her glass, collecting fragments of sweetened pulp that had clung to the rim. The Bowman sisters were talking animatedly, debating the question of whether or not the pear orchard was the best place to waylay Kendall. Just as Annabelle thought that Evie would abandon the side conversation, the girl murmured softly, “Have you heard, Annabelle, that Mr. Hunt returned to Stony Cross late last night?”

“How do you know that?”

“Someone told my aunt.”

Meeting Evie’s perceptive gaze, Annabelle couldn’t help thinking that woe befall anyone who ever made the mistake of underestimating Evangeline Jenner. “No, I hadn’t heard,” she murmured.

Tilting the glass of lemonade slightly, Evie stared into the depths of sugar-clouded liquid. “I wonder that he never took you up on your offer of a kiss,” she said slowly. “After all the interest that he’s sh-shown to you in the past…”

Their gazes met, and Annabelle felt her face redden. Her eyes implored Evie to say no more, and she shook her head quickly.

Understanding passed like a shadow over Evie’s face. “Annabelle,” she said slowly, “would you mind awfully if I didn’t come along with the others to catch you with Lord Kendall tonight? There will be m-more than enough people to witness it. No doubt Lillian will bring an entire crowd of unsuspecting witnesses. I would be s-superfluous.”

“Of course I wouldn’t mind,” Annabelle said, and asked with a sheepish smile, “Ethical reservations, Evie?”