* * *
She was swaying on her feet with fatigue when she reached her room at Claremont. It took a moment to register the large rectangular parcel on the end of her bed.
She drew closer.
It was wrapped in green paper, tied with a red satin bow. She couldn’t remember the last time she had been given a present, but that was her name on the tag affixed to the ribbon.
She untied the bow with clumsy fingers.
The smell of new wool rose from the box when she lifted the lid.
It was a coat. Hunter green, with generous fur trimmings on cuffs and collar.
She looked at it stupidly for a moment. Then she reached for the little note.
Dear Miss Archer,
Claremont servant staff wishes you a merry Christmas and a prosperous New Year.
She slid her arms into the coat, and it enveloped her like a downy blanket. She turned back and forth in front of the vanity table mirror. Perfection. A classic, timeless cut rather than the current fashion. Rabbit fur, not mink, but excellently made, promising to keep her warm, quite possibly, forever.
Someone had really thought this through.
She sank onto the bed.
The staff had been unwaveringly polite to her, but why would they make such a gesture?
It was Montgomery who scowled every time he saw her coat. But he would have violated all the rules of propriety by giving her such a gift directly, making it impossible for her to accept.
She ran her fingers over one soft fur cuff.
This went beyond politeness. Which raised the question: what did Montgomery want?
A few days earlier, after the greenhouse, it had seemed perfectly reasonable to order her a coat—hers was useless, and he was in a position to fix that, so he had. He quickened his pace, his boot heels pounding the stable’s flagstone floor. He had been deluding himself; he’d known it the moment he had wanted to take Marsden outside last night. The truth was, he wanted Annabelle Archer, commoner, bluestocking, and suffragist, in his bed, under him, with a carnal urgency he hadn’t felt since . . . he couldn’t remember.
He rounded the corner to the horse stall and stopped dead, for there she stood as if he had conjured her up. The morning light from the window behind her cast a fiery halo around her hair, and she looked tall and radiant in a hunter-green coat.
A tide of primal satisfaction filled his chest. He liked seeing her wear something he had picked, and he hadn’t been sure she would. Sure enough, she was observing him warily.
Apollo whinnied, shrill and unabashed in a bid for his attention.
“Shh.” He placed a hand on the horse’s nose without taking his eyes off her.
Only when her expression turned bemused did he realize he had not yet said a word.
“Good morning, miss.”
She curtsied. “Merry Christmas, Your Grace.”
“Ah. Yes.” Very eloquent, that. He cleared his throat. “What brings you to the stable this early?”
Somehow, they had drifted closer together, and he could smell her now, her warm floral essence that edged out dust and leather and horse. His blood began to buzz like last night in the carriage, when her sleepy smile had gone straight to his cock . . . when he had nearly made a grab for her like a Neanderthal.
She took a small step back. “I received a Christmas gift from the staff.” She gestured over the coat.
“I see,” he said. “It suits you.”
She clasped her hands before her primly, but there was a heat in the depths of her eyes that warmed him all over.
“Would you please thank them on my behalf,” she said. “It’s too generous. It’s exactly what I need.”
He could give her so much more.
Except, he couldn’t.
It went against the very nature of his being to not go after what he wanted, but this was different. She was vastly below his station, and a guest under his roof. Manners, if not honor, demanded that he not bother her with his attentions, for how could she possibly refuse him if she wished?
A good thing their time alone together was at an end. He had filled the next two days with appointments in the city to avoid the last-minute madness leading up to the house party, which had been a reasonable plan before she had walked into his life.
“I’m going to London today,” he said, and she blinked at the sudden coolness of his voice. “And I had a missive from Lady Lingham. She suggests you take Mr. Peter Humphrys as your escort for the ball.”
The warmth he had been basking in faded from her eyes. “That’s very considerate of her ladyship, Your Grace,” she said. “I’m indeed in need of an escort.”
He stared after her as she left, unable to shake the impression that he had offended her in some way.
* * *
“You said emerald green.” Annabelle’s gaze flashed between Hattie and the open dress box on her bed.
“I know,” Hattie said, “but isn’t this much more exciting?”
“It’s . . .” She didn’t even know what this color was. Garish pink did not quite describe it.
“It’s magenta,” Hattie supplied. “It’s very modern.”
She breathed slowly through her nose. She’d stand out like a peacock tonight; there was no chance in Hades that she’d find another dress on time. House party guests had begun arriving shortly after breakfast; there was an endless stream of carriages pulling up below her windows. She could either wear magenta or not go to the ball at all.
“You dislike it.” Hattie sounded small.
“I’m sure you meant well.”
“Oh. Oh, no. You really are cross.” Hattie’s face flamed hot red like a torch. “I didn’t mean—it’s just that everyone with green eyes will wear emerald tonight, when magenta is the perfect foil for your coloring, a complementary color contrast if you will. And you always wear such dreary things . . . Oh dear, that came out wrong. I just . . . I couldn’t help it. I heard myself say, ‘I’ll take the magenta.’”
Annabelle lifted the dress. A gauzy petticoat appeared beneath, then a pair of white midlength gloves. Two smaller boxes still sat unopened on the counterpane. The first contained an exquisitely embroidered velvet choker, the second a set of earrings, large pearl drops affixed to square, rose-colored stones.
“Those will be on loan,” Hattie said quickly, “for I know you wouldn’t accept those, right?”
“Right,” Annabelle said, exasperation grappling with a strange tightness in her chest. Hattie had put a lot of thought into this ensemble. How could she explain that this would make her look like an impostor? Like a vicar’s daughter playing lady for a night?
She considered the dress. It seemed less bright now, but it looked awfully narrow, a princess sheath cut she’d only ever seen in magazine clippings in the college’s common room.
“This requires a . . . a corset that goes down to midthigh, doesn’t it?”
Hattie’s eyes widened at the mentioning of unmentionables. “It does. Why?”
Annabelle looked at her with comical despair. “Mine finishes at the waist.” The type that had gone out of fashion years ago and posed no problem with her dated dresses.
Hattie wrung her hands. “Borrow one of mine?”
“But you are much shorter than I.”
“And if we asked—”
“I can hardly ask random ladies to borrow their . . . undergarments,” Annabelle hissed. They were both red in the face now.
“Blast.” Hattie slumped onto the bed. “I’ve really made a mess of it, haven’t I? And here I thought at least one of us would look stunning tonight.”
Annabelle sat down next to her. “Whatever do you mean?”
Her friend smoothed a hand over the magenta silk. “I’m going to look hideous. Mama picks my dresses, and she is clueless. I’ll be wearing pastel, with not a hint of cleavage in sight.”
A reluctant grin tugged at the corner of Annabelle’s mouth. “And so you planned to dress vicariously through me.”
Hattie gave a sulky shrug.
Annabelle took her hand and gave it a squeeze. “You put a very . . . complete outfit together for me, and I thank you for that, truly.”
Hattie hesitantly squeezed back. “But what about the, eh, underclothes?” she whispered.
She’d do what she usually did. “I will have to be practical about it.”
That meant hoping her natural shape would fill the dress, and, Lord help her, possibly not wearing any drawers in case they would bunch and show through the clinging fabric . . .
Catriona burst through the doors, looking around wildly. “Have you seen my glasses?”
“Catriona,” Hattie exclaimed, “you look different.”
Catriona turned her head in her direction and blinked. Her face looked startlingly bare and unlike the Catriona they knew. Pretty, though. The spectacles had hidden large Celtic blue eyes fringed with long, black lashes.
“I don’t understand,” Catriona said. “I’m awfully scatterbrained today.”
She swept out of the room again.
Hattie shot Annabelle a meaningful glance. “I think she’s nursing a tendre for Peregrin Devereux,” she murmured. “I think she took the glasses off to practice looking good at the ball tonight.”