“You danced?” asked Catriona.
“Lord Ballentine asked me for a waltz.”
Her friend’s brow furrowed. “He’s a rake,” she said. “Did he behave?”
“Like a rake.”
So had she. She had moaned and rubbed herself against Montgomery’s impressive erection, oh God, his erection—
“Will you help me fix my hair?” she asked, suddenly desperate to not go back into the ballroom, to sit on a chair and pretend nothing had happened.
Catriona slid her arm through hers. “Of course. The powder room is this way.”
* * *
Sebastian absently offered matches to the Marquess of Whitmore, who had come to join him on the balcony to discuss the election campaign. He hesitated before putting the matches away. While he craved a cigarette himself, he wanted to savor the taste of Annabelle more.
She was back on the chair by the wall. Her glossy hair was tousled, and her cheeks and throat were flushed pink. She looked like a woman who had been debauched in an alcove, and the fact that other men could see her like this urged him to prowl circles around her like a primitive creature.
She had awakened that creature. It had begun to stir when he had galloped across the fields with her delectable backside bumping against his crotch, and it had finally snapped its leash when she had faced down Marsden with nothing but her rapier-sharp mind. Strange thoughts had begun invading his head, and stranger feelings still were now roiling in his chest. Last year, when the Earl of Bevington had fallen from grace by marrying an opera singer, he had cut all contact with the man. Bevington had to be mad to sacrifice everything that mattered over an unsuitable woman: his standing in society, his political career, the respect of his half-grown children. The man now vegetated in a dump in Verona with the singer wife. And just now, in the alcove, with Annabelle’s soft curves and lips pressing against him, feeling her need . . . for a few mad seconds, he had understood why some men did it, risked everything.
The unlit cigarette between his fingers was trembling slightly.
He had nearly lost control—over a kiss.
Was that how disaster had begun for Bevington?
“Lovely creature.” Whitmore was leaning over the banister. For the past few minutes, the marquess’s lecherous stare had followed Annabelle around like a dog after a juicy bone.
“Good Gad,” Whitmore muttered, “behold those tits.”
The banister near cracked in Sebastian’s grip. He must not hit the man. He was an important political ally. “You are speaking about a lady.”
“Oh, I heard she’s just a country girl,” Whitmore said, oblivious of the imminent danger to his jaw. “Though it is a pity when a prime piece like that happens to be a pleb, is it not? Look at that poise—just think, the same girl would have been a diamond of the first water, had someone slapped a title on her father in time.”
“What a sentimental notion,” Sebastian said. The words emerged cold and flat.
“I’m not complaining,” Whitmore said, his belly quivering with a silent chuckle. “Who is her protector, do you know?”
Everything inside Sebastian went quiet. Like the quiet after a shot had been fired, when the birds had stopped singing and the wind held its breath.
He took the matches from his chest pocket and lit the cigarette.
“You are not going to be her protector, Whitmore.”
The older man gave a little start.
Older, younger, fellow duke or prince. He would have said it to any one of them, Sebastian realized. It was almost as if the words had said themselves.
“I, ah, did not realize that was the way of things,” Whitmore said.
“There is nothing to realize.”
Whitmore held up a pacifying hand. “Of course, of course, and I wouldn’t fancy trespassing on ducal property. That’s not what a clever chap does now, is it.”
He watched the marquess retreat, his muscles still taut with tension. Whitmore wouldn’t be the only man present who was laboring under misapprehensions where Annabelle was concerned. From his vantage point, he could see them circling her, restrained only by a flimsy fence of etiquette. But they would make inquiries. She might have callers all the way to Oxford.
The cigarette snapped between his fingers. Manners and honor be damned. He could not do what Bevington had done, but he could take the next best option.
He gestured for a footman, and one promptly detached from the shadows.
“A pen, and a card,” Sebastian said.
He had the card delivered to her room while she was chatting with Greenfield’s daughter and studiously avoiding his eyes.
Meet me at the entrance of the evergreen maze at 2 pm.
A Mendelssohn matinée the day after a ball,” Julien Greenfield grumbled to his wife. “Only a sadist would devise such a program.”
It was one o’clock and groups of lords and ladies were trailing toward Claremont’s music room, all in various stages of fatigue. The ball had concluded around three in the morning after the consumption of copious amounts of champagne, cognac, and cigars. By the time the last couples had limped off the dance floor, the flower decorations had wilted and conversations had become slurred and inane.
Sebastian moved among his guests like a panther among sheep. He was wired, filled with an impatience he only knew before important negotiations, during that precarious stretch before he was finally in the arena doing battle.
“Montgomery.” Caroline moved away from a trio of ladies and fell into step beside him, and he reflexively offered her his arm.
“My lady. You had a good morning?”
“Quite,” she said, “but I’m of a mind to be cross with you. How do you do it? You are the only one to not look even remotely shattered this morning.”
Because I never sleep much anyway.
He glanced down at her upturned face. As usual, she was immaculately made up, but because he could never overlook a detail even if he tried he did notice the bags beneath her eyes.
He knew that if he were to meet her gaze directly, he’d see the question she’d never ask him: Why did you not come to my room last night?
He stared straight ahead.
God knew he needed a woman; unspent desire was crawling beneath his skin like a swarm of mad ants, and Caroline was everything he had come to appreciate—mature, sophisticated, and not shy to express her likes and dislikes. Dealings with her resulted in mutual satisfaction instead of drama.
He also knew that taking her to bed a hundred times would not make his frustration go away. No, this went deeper than the natural urge for release, and relief was hopelessly pegged to one green-eyed bluestocking.
She had not replied to his message. And he had not seen her at breakfast.
He prowled through the doors of the music room and methodically scanned the rows of plush chairs.
At last he caught the familiar glint of mahogany hair.
His palms turned hot and damp.
His heart began battering against his ribs as if he had run up a few flights of stairs.
He stood, stupefied. How could this happen to him? He was nearly thirty-and-six.
Annabelle looked up from her lap, and her clear green gaze hit him in the chest like a physical object, hurled with force.
He swallowed. Oh, it was most definitely happening to him.
He felt Caroline’s gaze on him, vaguely expectant, and he realized his abrupt stopping had caused a pileup behind him. He smoothly fell into step again and steered toward his chair in the front row near the piano.
Annabelle was seated at the very back, next to a baroness he knew loosely. Neither woman probably spoke a word of German. He should have had a translation of the songs printed for his guests. It suddenly seemed very important that she liked the songs.
Caroline took the seat beside him, wrapping him in her powdery fragrance.
He resisted the urge to turn his head to glance back.
A rare flash of anger crackled through him. He had found half of society’s social conventions and rituals void of reason from the moment he had been old enough to use his own brain. He mastered them, of course, but rarely had he felt these petty constraints chafing as much as he did now, where he could not sit next to the woman he wanted in his own music room. And all around him, people were scraping the chairs and dragging their heels over the polished wooden floor, coughing and wheezing and just plainly incapable of sitting still.
Finally, the pianist and the singers appeared, a soprano and a mezzo-soprano called the Divine Duo.
The noise died down. His irritation remained. The duo, their ridiculous name notwithstanding, was excellent, their voices rising and falling seemingly effortless, carrying the gamut of human emotions from melancholy to joy and back, and yet his mind refused to take flight with the melodies. Instead, he was starkly aware of the clock above the fireplace behind the pianist and of Annabelle some fifteen rows behind him.
He glanced at the clock a total of four times.
At a quarter to two, the last song finished.
At thirteen minutes to, the applause had ceased and everyone was making for the exit.
The progress to the door was slow, encumbered by guests wanting a word, a moment of his time, and the moments added up. Then he was stopped dead by the protruding bosom of the Marchioness of Hampshire. As he dutifully exchanged pleasantries, Annabelle was being herded right past him by the flow of people.