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Two hours later, Philippa had finished her drink and was safely tucked into bed; Simon and Jeremy arrived at the town house within minutes of each other. They conferred briefly in the entrance hall. As Annabelle came downstairs, she paused midflight as she saw Simon enfold her brother in a quick, one-armed hug, and tousle his already disheveled hair. The fatherly gesture seemed to reassure Jeremy immensely, and a weary grin came to his face. Annabelle froze as she watched the two of them.

How surprising that Jeremy had accepted Simon so easily, when Annabelle had expected him to rebel against Simon’s authority. It gave her a strange feeling to witness the bond that had formed instantly between them, especially knowing that Jeremy’s trust was not easily won. She hadn’t thought until now what a relief it must be for her brother to have someone strong to lean on, someone who could provide solutions to problems that he was still too young to handle by himself. The yellow light from the entrance hall lamp slid over the clipped dark layers of Simon’s hair and gleamed over the high planes of his cheekbones as he looked up at her.

Battening a perplexing swell of emotions, Annabelle descended the rest of the way, and asked, “Did you find Hodgeham? And if so—”

“Yes, I found him.” Reaching for the cloak draped over the banister, Simon draped it over her shoulders. “Come, I’ll tell you everything on the way home.”

Annabelle turned toward her brother. “Jeremy, will you be all right if we leave?”

“I have the situation well in hand,” the boy replied with manly confidence.

Simon’s eyes glinted with amusement as he fitted his hand behind Annabelle’s waist. “Let’s go,” he murmured.

Once they were in the carriage, Annabelle pelted Simon with questions until he placed his hand over her mouth. “I’ll tell you if you can bring yourself to be quiet for a minute or two,” he said. She nodded behind his hand, and he grinned, leaning forward to replace his fingers with his mouth. After stealing a quick kiss, he settled back in his seat, his expression turning serious. “I found Hodgeham at his home, being attended by his family physician. And it was a good thing I appeared when I did, as they had already summoned a constable and were waiting for his arrival.”

“How did you convince the servants to let you past the front door?”

“I shoved my way into the house and demanded to be taken to Hodgeham immediately. There was so much confusion that no one dared refuse me. I had a footman show me to the upstairs bedroom, where the doctor was stitching Hodgeham’s wound.” Dark humor infused his expression. “Of course, I could have found the room merely by following the bastard’s screams and howls.”

“Good,” Annabelle said in vehement satisfaction. “Whatever pain Lord Hodgeham is suffering isn’t nearly great enough, in my opinion. What was his condition, and what did he say when you appeared in his room?”

One side of Simon’s mouth curled in disgust. “It was a shoulder wound—a small one, at that. And most of what he said is better left unrepeated. After letting him rant for a few minutes, I told the doctor to wait in the next room while I had a private talk with Hodgeham. I told him that I was quite sorry to learn of his severe digestive upset—a comment that confused him until I explained that it would be in his best interest to describe his malady to friends and family as a stomach ailment rather than a stab wound.”

“And if he didn’t?” Annabelle asked with a faint smile.

“If he didn’t, then I made it clear that I would carve him up like a side of Yorkshire gammon. And if I ever learned of the slightest rumor that would tarnish your mother’s reputation, or that of the family, I would lay the blame at his door, after which there wouldn’t be enough of his remains left for a decent burial. By the time I finished with Hodgeham, he was too terrified to breathe. Believe me, he will never approach your mother again. As for the doctor, I compensated him for his visit and persuaded him to banish the episode from his mind. I would have left then, but I had to wait for the constable.”

“And what did you tell the constable?”

“I told him there had been a mistake, and he wasn’t needed after all. And for his trouble, I told him to go to the Brown Bear tavern after his shift and order as many rounds of ale as he wanted on my credit.”

“Thank God.” Relieved beyond measure, Annabelle snuggled next to him. She sighed against his shoulder. “What about Jeremy? What will we tell him?”

“It isn’t necessary for him to know the truth—it would only hurt and confuse him. As far as I’m concerned, Philippa overreacted to Hodgeham’s advances and forgot herself in the moment.” Simon caressed the edge of her jaw with the tip of his thumb. “I do have a suggestion, to which I would like you to lend some serious thought.”

Wondering if this “suggestion” was going to be a thinly veiled command, Annabelle looked at him suspiciously. “Oh?”

“I think it would be for the best if Philippa put some distance between herself and London—and Hodgeham—until the dust settles.”

“How much distance? And where would she go?”

“She can join my mother and sister on their tour of the Continent. They’re leaving in just a few days—”

“That is the worst idea I’ve ever heard,” Annabelle exclaimed. “I want her to stay right here, where Jeremy and I can look after her. Second, I can guarantee that your mother and sister would be none too pleased—”

“We’ll send Jeremy along. He has enough time before his next school term, and he’ll be an excellent escort for all three of them.”

“Poor Jeremy…” Annabelle tried to envision him escorting the trio of women across Europe. “I wouldn’t wish such a fate on my worst enemy.”

Simon grinned. “He’ll probably learn a great deal about women.”

“And none of it pleasant,” she retorted. “Why do you think it is necessary to whisk my mother away from London? Does Lord Hodgeham still pose some kind of danger?”

“No,” he murmured, gently angling her face upward. “I told you, he’ll never dare to approach Philippa again. However, if it turns out that there is any lingering trouble with Hodgeham, I’d prefer to handle it while she is away. Moreover, Jeremy said that she doesn’t seem quite herself. Understandable, given the circumstances. A few weeks of touring should make her feel better.”

As Annabelle considered the idea, she had to admit that there was some sense in it. It had been a long time since Philippa had gone on any kind of holiday. And if Jeremy went with her, perhaps even the company of the Hunts could be tolerated. As for what Philippa would want…she seemed too numb to make any de cisions. It seemed likely that she would agree to any plans that Annabelle and Jeremy made. “Simon…” she asked slowly, “are you asking for my opinion, or telling me what you’ve already decided?”

Simon’s gaze swept her face in clever assessment. “Which would be more likely to induce you to agree?” He laughed softly as he read the answer in her expression. “Very well…I’m asking.”

Annabelle smiled wryly and snuggled back into the crook of his shoulder. “Then if Jeremy agrees…so will I.”

CHAPTER 25

Annabelle had not asked Simon how Bertha and Meredith Hunt had received the news of their additional traveling companions, and she had certainly not been eager to hear the answer. All that mattered was that Philippa would be far away from London and all reminders of Lord Hodgeham. Annabelle hoped that when her mother returned, she would be refreshed and at ease, and ready to make a new beginning. The trip might even hold some enjoyment for Jeremy, who was looking forward to seeing some of the foreign places he had learned about at school.

With less than a week before their departure, Annabelle threw herself into the project of packing for her mother and brother, trying to anticipate their needs for a six-week journey. Openly amused by the quantity of supplies that Annabelle had purchased for them, Simon remarked that one would think her family was forging through regions of unexplored wilderness rather than lodging in a succession of inns and pensiones.

“Foreign travel can be uncomfortable at times,” Annabelle replied, busily stuffing tins of tea and biscuits into a leather satchel. A stack of boxes and parcels towered beside their bed, where she was sorting various articles into organized piles. Among other things, she had collected compounds from the apothecary shop, a pair of down pillows and extra linens, a box of reading material, and a collection of packaged edibles. Holding up a glass jar of preserves, she examined it critically. “The food is different on the Continent—”

“Yes,” Simon said gravely. “Unlike ours, it’s been known to have flavor.”

“And the climate can be unseasonable.”

“Blue sky and sunshine? Oh, they’ll want to avoid that at all cost.”

She responded to his mockery with an arch glance. “Surely you must have better things to do, other than to watch me open boxes.”

“Not when you’re doing it in the bedroom.”

Straightening, Annabelle folded her arms across her chest and regarded him with flirtatious challenge. “I’m afraid you’ll have to control your baser urges, Mr. Hunt. Perhaps you hadn’t noticed, but the honeymoon has ended.”

“The honeymoon doesn’t end until I say so,” Simon informed her, reaching out to snatch her before she could evade him. He crushed her lips with a dominating kiss and tossed her onto the bed. “Which means there’s no hope for you.”

Giggling, Annabelle flailed in the tangle of her skirts until she found herself pinned on the mattress with his body lying over hers. “I have more packing to do,” she protested, as he settled between her thighs. “Simon—”

“Did I ever happen to mention that I can unfasten buttons with my teeth?”

A breathless laugh escaped her, and she squirmed as his head lowered to the front of her bodice. “That’s not a very practical skill, is it?”

“It’s useful in certain situations. Let me show you…”

Very little packing was done for the rest of the day.

Eventually, however, Annabelle found herself standing at the door of her family’s town house, watching as her mother and brother left in a carriage bound for Dover, where they would meet with the Hunts and cross to Calais.

Simon stood with her, his hand resting comfortingly on her back as the carriage rounded the corner and headed along the main thoroughfare. She waved forlornly after them, wondering how they would manage without her.

Drawing her into the house, Simon closed the door. “This is for the best,” he assured her.

“For them or for us?”

“For all parties concerned.” Smiling slightly, he turned her to face him. “I predict the next few weeks will pass quickly. And in the meantime you’re going to be very busy, Mrs. Hunt. To start with, this morning we’re going to meet with an architect about the house plans, then you’ll have to decide between two lots that our agent has found in Mayfair.”

Annabelle dropped her head on his chest. “Thank God. I’ve begun to despair of ever leaving the Rutledge. Not that I haven’t enjoyed it, mind you, but every woman wants a home of her own, and…” She paused as she felt him playing with her pinned-up hair. “Simon,” she warned, “don’t pull out my pins. It’s too much trouble to put my hair back up, and…” She sighed and frowned at him as she felt her coiffure loosening and heard the plink of crimped wire pins hitting the floor.

“I can’t help it.” His fingers worked greedily in her unraveling braid. “You have such beautiful hair.” He brought a handful of the slippery silk to his face and rubbed his cheek against it. “It’s so soft. And it smells like flowers. How do you make it smell this good?”

“Soap,” Annabelle replied dryly, hiding a smile against his chest. “Bowman’s soap, actually. Daisy gave some to me—their father sends cases from New York.”

“Mmmn. No wonder he’s a millionaire. Every woman should smell like this.” He strained her hair through his fingers and bent to nuzzle her throat. “Where else do you use it?” he whispered.

“I would invite you to find out,” she said, “but we’re going to meet with the architect, remember?”

“He can wait.”

“So can you,” Annabelle said severely, though a laugh was working upward in her throat. “Good Lord, Simon, it’s not as if you’ve been deprived. I’ve expended a great deal of effort to satisfy—”

He fitted his mouth to hers in a kiss so warm and coaxing that every rational thought vanished from her mind. Fisting his large hands in her hair, he urged her back against the wall of the entrance hall and entered her with his tongue, feasting leisurely until Annabelle was light-headed and dizzy, her fingers clutching the fabric of his coat sleeves. Gradually his mouth shifted away from hers, and he bit softly at the delicate silk of her throat. He murmured things that shocked her, expressing himself not in flowery phrases, but with the raw simplicity of a man whose lust for her knew no limits. “I have no self-control where you’re concerned. Every minute that I’m not with you, all I can think about is being inside you. I hate everything that keeps you separate from me.”

He reached behind her to pull hard at the back of her dress, and she gasped as she felt the plackets of buttons give way, bits of carved ivory scattering everywhere. Smothering the sound with his mouth, Simon tugged the dress from her arms and deliberately stepped on the hem of her gown. The much-abused garment ripped and dropped to the floor. He pulled her against his body, grasping her wrist and guiding it to his loins. Annabelle inhaled deeply as her fingers molded over the heavy breadth of his erection, and her eyes half closed. “I want to make you scream and claw and faint in my arms,” he whispered, his masculine bristle scraping against her skin. “I need to touch you everywhere, inside and outside, as far as I can reach—” He broke off and seized her lips with insistent pressure, suddenly reckless in his desire, as if the taste of her was an exotic stimulant that drove him to frenzy. She was vaguely aware of him fumbling in the pocket of his coat, and then something nicking at the knots of her corset…he had cut them with his knife, she realized, feeling the confining stays release their squeezing pressure around her ribs and waist.

Comprehending that she was about to be ravished in the entrance of her family home, Annabelle stumbled back from him, smiling and shivering. Even in his moments of highest arousal, Simon had always seemed to be governing himself, placing careful restraints on his passion. She had never feared that he would be less than gentle with her…until now. He looked almost savage, his face darkened with an unfamiliar flush. Her heart began to beat in painful thumps, and she moistened her dry lips. The nervous flick of her tongue drew his attention sharply, and he stared at her mouth with startling intensity.