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“No,” Annabelle said instantly, and both sisters laughed.

“Yes,” Lillian said gently. “You’ve married into our world, dear, and you don’t belong there any more than we will belong in the peerage, if we ever manage to get titled husbands. The truth is, I couldn’t care less about mingling with the Wymarks or the Gilbreaths, who are all deadly dull and intolerably full of themselves.”

Annabelle regarded her with a thoughtful frown, suddenly seeing her situation from a new vantage point. “I’ve never questioned whether they were dull,” she murmured. “I suppose I’ve always wanted to ascend to the top of the ladder without ever wondering if I would like the view. But now the question is immaterial, of course. And I must find a way to adapt to a different life than the one I thought I wanted.” Resting her elbows on her knees, Annabelle propped her chin on her hands and added ruefully, “I’ll know that I’ve succeeded when it no longer hurts to be snubbed by some whey-faced wife of a viscount.”

Ironically, the Hunts were invited that same week to a ball given by Lord Hardcastle, who was privately indebted to Simon for advising him on how to restructure the family’s dwindling balance of investments and assets. It was a large and well-attended event, and despite Annabelle’s new resolution not to care about going to balls given by the upper class, she couldn’t help but be excited. Dressed in a lemon-ice satin ball gown, her hair dressed in ringlets caught up with yellow silk cording, Annabelle entered the ballroom on Simon’s arm. The ballroom, lined with white marble columns, was bathed in the sparkling glow of eight chandeliers, the air perfumed from the massive arrangements of roses and peonies. Accepting a glass of iced champagne, Annabelle eagerly mixed with friends and acquaintances, and basked in the serene elegance of the affair. These were the people she had always understood and tried to emulate—civilized, beautifully mannered, knowledgeable about music and art and literature. These gentlemen would never dream of discussing politics or business matters in front of a lady, and any of them would have chosen to be shot rather than mention the cost of things or speculate openly about what someone else was worth.

She danced often, with Simon and with other men, laughing and chatting in a relaxed manner and skillfully deflecting the compliments that were showered on her. Midway through the evening, she spied Simon across the room as he stood conversing with friends, and she experienced a sudden urge to go to him. Managing to detach herself from a pair of persistent young men, she skirted the side of the ballroom, where the space behind the columns provided a shadowy corridor. Between the columns, settees and small groupings of chairs provided spaces for guests to relax and talk. She passed behind a group of dowagers…then a group of disconsolate wallflowers, who provoked a sympathetic smile from her. As she crossed in back of a pair of women, however, a few overheard words caused her to pause, while her presence was screened by a heavy cluster of palms.

“…don’t know why they had to be invited tonight,” one of them was saying angrily. Annabelle recognized the voice as one belonging to a former friend, now Lady Wells-Troughton, who had spoken to her only a few minutes earlier with brittle congeniality. “How smug she is, flaunting that vulgar diamond on her finger and that ill-bred husband, with no trace of shame whatsoever!”

“She won’t be smug forever,” came her friend’s reply. “She doesn’t yet seem to have realized that they are invited only to the homes of those who are financially obligated to him. Or those who are friends of Westcliff, of course.”

“Westcliff is a significant ally,” Lady Wells-Troughton admitted. “But his favor can only get them so far. The fact is, they should have the good taste not to push their way into places where they don’t belong. She married a commoner, and therefore she should mix with commoners. Though I suppose she thinks of herself as too good for them…”

Feeling sick and hollow, Annabelle backed away unseen from the pair of chatting women and headed to the corner of the ballroom. I really have to cure this habit of eavesdropping, she thought with ironic humor, remembering the evening she had heard the comments that Bertha Hunt had made about her. I always seem to overhear such unflattering things about myself.

It did not surprise her that there was gossip about her and Simon—what had startled her was the viciousness of the women’s tone. It was difficult to fathom what could cause such antipathy…except, perhaps, envy. Annabelle had acquired a handsome, virile, and wealthy husband, whereas Lady Wells-Troughton had married a peer at least thirty years older than she, who had all the charisma of a potted plant. It followed that Lady Wells-Troughton and her contemporaries would be fiercely determined to protect the one superiority they possessed…their membership in the aristocracy.

Annabelle recalled Philippa’s comment, “A man in trade will never be as influential as a peer…” But it seemed to her that the peerage was afraid of the growing power of industrialists like Simon. Very few of them would be as clever as Lord Westcliff in realizing that they had to do far more than cling to the ancient privileges of land ownership to maintain their power. Stepping through a pair of columns, Annabelle glanced around the room at the aristocratic crowd…so prideful, so embedded in their traditional ways of thinking and behaving…so determined to ignore that the world around them was beginning to change. She still found their company to be infinitely more soothing than the raw, often callow conduct of Simon’s professional friends. However, she no longer regarded them with awe or yearning. In fact—

Her thoughts were interrupted as a gentleman approached her, bearing two glasses of iced champagne. He was balding and portly, the folds of his neck bulging over the edge of his silk necktie. Annabelle groaned inwardly as she recognized him—Lord Wells-Troughton, the husband of the woman who resented her so deeply. From the way his avid gaze dropped to the shape of her br**sts covered by pale satin, it ap peared that he did not share his wife’s wish that Annabelle had abstained from the ball.

Wells-Troughton, whose penchant for extramarital affairs was well-known, had approached Annabelle a year earlier, hinting strongly that he would be willing to help her with her financial difficulties, in exchange for her companionship. The fact that she had turned him away had not seemed to dampen his interest. Neither had the news of her marriage. For aristocrats like Wells-Troughton, marriage was not a detriment to an affair—if anything, it was an encouragement. “Never bed the unwed” was a common sentiment in the peerage…and love affairs were a privilege that was often enjoyed by married lords and ladies. Nothing was so attractive to a peer as another man’s young wife.

“Mrs. Hunt,” Wells-Troughton said jovially, handing her a glass of champagne, which she accepted with a cool smile of thanks. “You are as fair as a summer rose this evening.”

“Thank you, my lord,” Annabelle said demurely.

“To what shall we attribute your obvious glow of contentment, my dear?”

“To my recent marriage, sir.”

Wells-Troughton chuckled. “Ah, I remember well those early days of marriage. Enjoy the pleasure while it lasts, for it is all too fleeting.”

“Perhaps for some. For others it may last a lifetime.”

“My dear, how delightfully naive.” He gave her a knowing smirk, his gaze falling to her br**sts again. “But I will not disabuse you of such romantic notions, as they will fade in due time.”

“I doubt that,” Annabelle said, causing him to chortle.

“Is Hunt proving a satisfactory husband, then?”

“In every regard,” she assured him.

“Come, I shall be your confidant, and we’ll find some favorable corner to talk in. I know of several.”

“No doubt you do,” Annabelle replied lightly, “but I have no need of a confidant, my lord.”

“I insist on stealing you away for just a moment.” Wells-Troughton settled a meaty hand at the small of her back. “You won’t be so silly as to make a fuss, will you?”

Knowing that her only defense was to make light of his persistence, Annabelle smiled and turned away from him, sipping her champagne with studied insouciance. “I don’t dare go anywhere with you, my lord. I’m afraid my husband possesses a rather jealous temperament.”

She jumped a little as she heard Simon’s voice from behind her. “With good reason, it seems.” Although he spoke quietly, there was a biting note in his tone that alarmed Annabelle. She stared at him in silent entreaty, begging him not to make a scene. Lord Wells-Troughton was irritating but harmless, and Simon would make them all into objects of ridicule if he overreacted to the situation.

“Hunt,” the heavyset peer murmured, grinning with an utter lack of shame. “You are a fortunate man to be in possession of such a delectable prize.”

“Yes, I am.” Simon’s gaze was openly murderous. “And if you ever approach her again—”

“Darling,” Annabelle interrupted with a whimsical smile, “I adore your primitive moods. But let’s save this one for after the ball.”

Simon didn’t reply, glaring at Wells-Troughton until his simmering menace attracted the attention of people standing nearby. “Stay the hell away from my wife,” he said softly, causing the other man to blanch.

“Good evening, my lord,” Annabelle said, draining the rest of her glass and giving him a bright, artificial smile. “Thank you for the champagne.”

“A pleasure, Mrs. Hunt,” came Wells-Troughton’s disgruntled reply, and he hastily took his leave.

Pink with embarrassment, Annabelle avoided the curious stares of the other guests as she left the ballroom with Simon at her heels. Finding her way to an outside balcony, she set her glass down, and let a gentle breeze cool her burning cheeks.

“What did he say to you?” Simon demanded roughly, looming over her.

“Nothing of importance.”

“He made an advance to you—anyone could see that.”

“It meant nothing to him, or to anyone else here. That’s how they all are—you know quite well these matters are never taken seriously. To them fidelity is just a…a middle-class prejudice. And if a man approaches another’s wife as Lord Wells-Troughton did, no one attaches any importance to it—”

“I attach importance to it when my wife is the one being approached.”

“For you to react so belligerently will make us both objects of mockery—and besides, it hardly demonstrates any faith in my fidelity.”

“You just said that your kind doesn’t believe in fidelity.”

“They’re not my kind,” Annabelle snapped, losing her temper. “Not since I married you, at any rate! I don’t know where I belong now—not with those people, and not with yours, either.”

His expression did not change, but she sensed that she had hurt him. Instantly contrite, she sighed and rubbed her forehead. “Simon, I did not mean to imply—”

“It’s all right,” he said gruffly. “Let’s go back inside.”

“But I want to explain—”

“You don’t need to explain.”

“Simon…” She winced and closed her mouth as he took her back to the ballroom, wishing with all her heart that she could take back her impulsive words.

CHAPTER 24

As Annabelle had feared, the impetuous accusation she had made at the Hardcastle ball had created a small but undeniable distance between her and her husband. She longed to apologize and explain that she did not blame him for anything. However, her efforts to tell him that she had no regrets about having married him were quietly but firmly rebuffed. Simon, who was always willing to discuss any subject, had drawn the line at this matter. Unwittingly, she had struck at him with the delicate accuracy of a stiletto, and his reaction betrayed a certain guilt at having removed her from the upper-class world that she had once dreamed of occupying.

To Annabelle’s relief, their relationship quickly returned to the way it had been before, their interactions playful, challenging, and even affectionate. Still, she was troubled by the awareness that things were not completely the same. There were moments when Simon was slightly guarded with her, for now they both knew that she had the power to hurt him. It seemed that he would allow her to come only so close, protecting himself by preserving a last crucial distance between them. He would, however, give her unqualified help and support when she needed him…and he proved that on the night that trouble came from an unexpected quarter.

Simon had come home at an unusually late hour, having spent all day at the Consolidated Locomotive works. Strongly scented of coal smoke, oil, and metal after spending a day at the site, he returned to the Rutledge with his clothes decidedly the worse for wear.

“What have you been doing?” Annabelle exclaimed, both amused and alarmed by his appearance.

“Walking through the foundry,” Simon replied, stripping off his waistcoat and shirt as soon as he crossed the threshold of their bedroom.

Annabelle threw him a skeptical glance. “You did more than merely ‘walk.’ What are those stains on your clothes? You look as if you were trying to build the locomotive by yourself.”

“There was a moment when some extra help was required.” An expanse of well-honed muscle was revealed as Simon dropped his shirt to the floor. He seemed to be in an exceptionally good mood. Being a supremely physical man, Simon enjoyed exerting himself, especially when there was some risk involved.

Frowning, Annabelle went to draw a bath for him in the nearby bathing room, and returned to find her husband clad in his linens. There was a fist-sized bruise on his leg, and a red scorch mark on his wrist, causing her to exclaim anxiously, “You’ve been hurt! What happened?”

Simon looked momentarily puzzled by her concern, and by the way she flew to him. “It’s nothing,” he said, reaching out to catch her waist.

Pushing his hands away, Annabelle sank to her knees to inspect the bruise on his leg. “What caused this?” she demanded, skimming the edge of it with her fingertip. “It happened in the foundry, didn’t it? Simon Hunt, I want you to stay away from that place! All those boilers and cranes and vats…the next time you’ll probably be crushed or boiled or punched full of holes—”

“Annabelle…” Simon’s voice was edged with amusement. Bending to grasp her elbows, he pulled her to her feet. “I can’t talk to you when you’re kneeling in front of me like that. Not coherently, at any rate. I can explain exactly what—” He broke off, his dark eyes flickering strangely as he saw her expression. “You’re upset, aren’t you?”