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“Oh,” she said. It was not at all difficult to sound breathless. She was nervous, knowing how important it was to make the right impression on him. “I didn’t realize that someone was out here…”

Kendall stood, his spectacles twinkling in the light of the terrace torch. His form was slim to the point of being insubstantial, his coat hanging from his padded shoulders. Despite the fact that he was approximately three inches taller than Annabelle, she would not have been surprised to learn that they were the same weight. His posture was at once diffident and oddly tense, like that of a deer poised for a sudden, bounding retreat. As she stared at him, Annabelle had to admit silently that Kendall was not the kind of man whom she would have had any natural attraction to. On the other hand, she didn’t like pickled herring, either. But if she was starving and someone handed her a jar of pickled herring, she was hardly going to turn her nose up at it.

“Hullo,” Kendall said, his voice cultured and soft, though a bit high-pitched. “There’s no need to be alarmed. Really, I’m harmless.”

“I shall reserve judgment on that,” Annabelle said, smiling, then wincing as if the effort had pained her. “Forgive me for disturbing your privacy, sir. I wanted a breath of fresh air.” She inhaled until her br**sts pressed becomingly at the seams of her bodice. “The atmosphere inside the house was rather oppressive, wasn’t it?”

Kendall approached with his hands half-raised, as if he feared she might collapse to the terrace. “May I fetch you something? A glass of water?”

“No, thank you. A few moments outside will restore me to rights.” Annabelle sank gracefully into the nearest chair. “Although…” She paused and tried to look self-conscious. “It wouldn’t do for us to be seen out here unchaperoned. Especially as we haven’t even been introduced.”

He made a slight bow. “Lord Kendall, at your service.”

“Miss Annabelle Peyton.” She glanced at the empty chair nearby. “Do have a seat, please. I promise, I shall hurry away as soon as my head clears.”

Kendall obeyed cautiously. “No need for that,” he said. “Stay as long as you wish.”

That was encouraging. Mindful of Lillian’s advice, Annabelle pondered her next remark with great care. Since Kendall was being exhaustively pursued by a score of women, she would have to distinguish herself by pretending that she was the only one who was not interested in him. “I can guess why you came out here alone,” she said with a smile. “You must be desperate to avoid being mobbed by eager women.”

Kendall threw her a glance of surprise. “As a matter of fact, yes. I must say, I have never attended a party with such excessively friendly guests.”

“Wait until the end of the month,” she advised. “They’ll be so friendly by then that you’ll need a whip and a chair to hold them off.”

“You seem to be suggesting that I’m some sort of matrimonial target,” he commented dryly, giving voice to the obvious.

“The only way you could be more of a target is if you drew white circles on the back of your coat,” Annabelle said, making him chuckle. “May I ask what your other reasons for escaping to the terrace are, my lord?”

Kendall continued to smile, looking far more comfortable than he had at first. “I’m afraid I can’t hold my liquor. There is only so much port that I am willing to drink for the sake of being social.”

Annabelle had never met a man who was willing to admit such a thing. Most gentlemen equated manliness with the ability to drink a sufficient quantity of liquor to inebriate an elephant. “Does it make you ill, then?” she asked sympathetically.

“Sick as a dog. I’ve been told that tolerance improves with practice—but it seems a rather pointless objective. I can think of better ways to pass the time.”

“Such as…”

Kendall contemplated the question with great care. “A walk through the countryside. A book that improves the mind.” His eyes contained a sudden friendly twinkle. “A conversation with a new friend.”

“I like those things, too.”

“Do you?” Kendall hesitated, while the sounds of the river and the sway of the trees seemed to whisper through the air. “Perhaps you might join me on a walk tomorrow morning. I know of several excellent ones around Stony Cross.”

Annabelle’s sudden eagerness was difficult to contain. “I would enjoy that,” she replied. “But dare I ask—what about your entourage?”

Kendall smiled, revealing a row of small, neat teeth. “I don’t expect that anyone will bother us if we depart early enough.”

“I happen to be an early riser,” she lied. “And I love to walk.”

“Six o’clock, then?”

“Six o’clock,” she repeated, standing from her chair. “I must go back inside—my absence will soon be remarked on. I am feeling much better, however. Thank you for your invitation, my lord.” She allowed herself to send him a little flirting grin. “And for sharing the terrace.”

As she went back inside, she closed her eyes briefly and let out a sigh of relief. It had been a good introduction—and far easier than she had anticipated to attract Kendall’s interest. With a bit of luck—and some help from her friends—she might be able to catch a peer; and then everything would be all right.

CHAPTER 7

When the after-supper visiting was concluded, most of the guests began to retire for the evening. As Annabelle walked through one of the arched entrances of the drawing room, she saw that the other wallflowers were waiting for her. Smiling at their expectant faces, she went with them to a niche where they could exchange a few private words.

“Well?” Lillian demanded.

“Mama and I are going on a walk with Lord Kendall tomorrow morning,” Annabelle said.

“Alone?”

“Alone,” Annabelle confirmed. “In fact, we’re meeting at daybreak, to avoid being accompanied by a herd of husband hunters.”

Were they in a more private setting, they might have all squealed with glee. Instead, they settled for exchanging triumphant grins, while Daisy stamped her feet in an exuberant little victory dance.

“Wh-what is he like?” Evie asked.

“Shy, but pleasant,” Annabelle replied. “And he seems to have a sense of humor, which I hadn’t dared to hope for.”

“All that, and teeth, too,” Lillian exclaimed.

“You were right about him being spooked easily,” Annabelle said. “I am certain that Kendall would not be attracted to a strong-willed woman. He’s cautious and soft-spoken. I’m trying to be demure—although I should probably feel guilty for the deception.”

“All women do that during courtship—and men, too, for that matter,” Lillian said prosaically. “We try to conceal our defects and say the things we think the other one wants to hear. We pretend that we’re always lovely and sweet-tempered and that we don’t mind the other’s nasty little habits. And then after the wedding, we lower the boom.”

“I don’t think that men have to pretend quite as much as women do, however,” Annabelle replied. “If a man is portly, or has brown teeth, or is somewhat dull-witted, he’s still a catch as long as he is a gentleman and has some money. But women are held to far more exacting standards.”

“Which is why we’re all w-wallflowers,” Evie said.

“We won’t be for long,” Annabelle promised with a smile.

Evie’s aunt Florence came from the ballroom, looking witchlike in a black dress that did not flatter her sallow complexion. There was little family resemblance between Evie, with her round face and red hair and freckled complexion, and her ill-tempered aunt, who was a dry little wisp of a woman. “Evangeline,” she said sharply, throwing the group a disapproving glance as she gestured to the girl. “I’ve warned you not to disappear like that—I have searched everywhere for you, for at least ten minutes, and I do not recall that you asked for permission to meet with your friends. And of all the girls for you to associate with…” Chattering angrily, Aunt Florence stalked toward the grand staircase, while Evie sighed and fell into step behind her. As they watched, Evie stuck her hand behind her back and waggled her fingers to wave good-bye.

“Evie says her family is very wealthy,” Daisy remarked. “But she says that they’re all unhappy, every last one of them. I wonder why?”

“Old money,” Lillian said. “Father says there is nothing like a lifetime of affluence to make one aware of what one hasn’t got.” She tucked her arm into Daisy’s. “Come, dear, before Mother realizes that we’ve disappeared.” She glanced at Annabelle with an inquiring smile. “Will you come walk with us, Annabelle?”

“No, thank you. My mother will meet me at the foot of the stairs in just a moment.”

“Good night, then.” Lillian’s dark eyes glowed as she added, “By the time we awaken tomorrow, you’ll have already gone on your walk with Kendall. I’ll expect a full report at breakfast.”

Annabelle saluted her playfully and watched the two of them depart. She meandered slowly to the grand staircase and paused in the shadow at the base of the curving structure. It seemed that Philippa, as usual, was taking an interminable length of time to finish a conversation back in the drawing room. Annabelle didn’t mind waiting, however. Her head was filled with thoughts, including conversational gambits that might amuse Kendall during their walk tomorrow and ideas of how to secure his attention to herself, in spite of the many other girls who would be pursuing him during the next few weeks.

If she was clever enough to make Lord Kendall like her, and if the wallflowers succeeded in their plan of entrapment, what would it be like to be the wife of such a man? She was instinctively certain that she could never fall in love with someone like Kendall— but she vowed that she would do everything possible to be a good wife to him. And surely in time she could come to care for him. Marriage to Kendall could be very pleasant. Life would be comfortable and secure, and she would never again have to worry about whether or not there was enough food for the table. And most importantly, Jeremy’s future would be assured, and her mother would never again have to endure the foul attentions of Lord Hodgeham.

Heavy footsteps approached as someone descended the staircase. Standing at the banister, Annabelle glanced upward with a slight smile, and suddenly she froze. Incredibly, she found herself being confronted by a fleshy face surmounted by a dangling crest of iron gray hair. Hodgeham? But it couldn’t be!

He reached the nadir of the stairs and stood before her with a nominal bow, looking unbearably smug. As Annabelle stared into Hodgeham’s cold blue eyes, the food she had eaten earlier seemed to gather into a spiky ball that rolled around her stomach.

How could he be there? Why had she not seen him earlier in the day? As she thought of her mother, who was soon to meet her at this very spot, fury boiled swiftly. This grossly insolent man, who styled himself their benefactor and subjected her mother to his disgusting attentions in return for his stingy handfuls of coins, had now come to persecute them at the worst possible time. There was no firmer guarantee of torment for Philippa at this party than Hodgeham’s presence. At any moment he might betray his relationship with her—he could ruin them so easily, and they had no means of keeping him silent.

“Why, Miss Peyton,” Hodgeham murmured, his chubby face turning pink with malevolent pleasure. “What a pleasant coincidence that you should be the first guest I encounter at Stony Cross Park.”

Queasy chills coursed over Annabelle as she forced herself to hold his gaze. She tried to banish all emotion from her expression, but Hodgeham smiled nastily, seeming aware of the hostile fear that engulfed her. “After the rigors of the journey from London,” he continued, “I elected to have supper in my room. So sorry to have missed you earlier. However, there will be many opportunities for us to visit in the coming weeks. Your charming mother is here with you, I presume?”

Annabelle would have given anything to be able to answer “no.” Her heart was beating so hard that it seemed to drive the breath from her lungs…she fought to think and speak above the insistent hammering. “Don’t go near her,” she said, amazed that her voice was steady. “Don’t speak to her.”

“Ah, Miss Peyton, you wound me…I, who have been your family’s only friend in those difficult times when others have deserted you.”

She stared at him without blinking, without moving, as if she was face-to-face with a venomous snake that was poised to strike.

“A happy coincidence, is it not, that we find ourselves attending the same party?” Hodgeham asked. He laughed quietly, the movement causing his combed-over hair to slip in an oily banner across his low forehead. He smoothed it back with his plump palm. “Fortune has indeed smiled on me, to provide for such proximity between myself and a woman whom I esteem so highly.”

“There will be no proximity between you and my mother,” Annabelle said, clenching her fist hard to keep from driving it into his gloating face. “I warn you, my lord, if you bother her in any way—”

“Dear girl, did you think that I was referring to Philippa? You are too modest. I meant you, Annabelle. I have long admired you. Yearned, in fact, to demonstrate the nature of my feelings for you. Now it seems that fate has presented us with the perfect opportunity to become more familiar with each other.”

“I would rather sleep in a pit of snakes,” Annabelle replied coldly, but there was a catch in her voice, and he smiled at the sound.

“At first you will protest, of course. Girls of your sort always do. But then you’ll do the sensible thing…the wise thing…and you’ll see the advantages of becoming my friend. I can be a valuable friend, my dear. And if you please me, I will reward you handsomely.”

Annabelle tried desperately to think of a way to destroy any hope he might have of making her his mistress. The fear that he might trespass on another man’s province was likely the only thing that would keep Hodgeham away from her. Annabelle forced her lips into a scornful smile. “Does it appear that I am in need of your so-called friendship?” she asked, fingering the folds of her fine new gown. “You’re mistaken. I already have a protector—a far more generous one than you. So you had better leave me—and my mother— completely alone. Or you will answer to him.”