Sebastian knew he was making the man uncomfortable. He wanted to make him uncomfortable. He was spending a hundred pounds a week on this mission, and for all he knew, his brother could be dead. Kidnapped, or stuck in a bog, or clubbed over his blond head and robbed.
He took a deep, deliberate breath to ease the pressure in his chest. “What makes you certain, Bryson?”
“The men stationed in the ports on the south coast report no movement,” Bryson said quickly, “and we have men monitoring all major roads and guest houses to the north—”
Sebastian held up a hand. “I’m aware of that,” he said, “but how can you look me in the eye and tell me that you know with great certainty the whereabouts of a lone man in a country the size of Britain? The possibilities are endless.”
Bryson’s thin face tensed. “With all due respect, Your Grace, even if a young gentleman wears a disguise, he usually still sticks out like a sore thumb because of how he acts and speaks. And runaway noblemen inevitably stay on roads and seek the convenience of guest houses. It simply doesn’t occur to them to venture into the forests, build a shelter with their bare hands, and live off the land.”
Sebastian leaned forward in his chair. “So your investigation is based on the assumption that my brother is a milksop.”
Bryson frowned. “It is based on experience. The possibilities may be endless, but the mind is limited. People hardly ever contemplate options outside of what they know.”
Sebastian sat brooding at his desk long after Edward Bryson had left.
He finally made his way to his dressing room, where Ramsey had prepared his evening clothes.
A lost brother. An unwilling lover. A meddling queen. Any one of the three dilemmas would drive a man to drink. And since he didn’t drink, and since he was in London, he had decided to go out.
An hour later, he strode out the side door where his carriage was waiting to take him to the Royal Concert Hall.
* * *
The concert hall looked exactly as it always had—the stage below to the right of his ducal box, the four chandeliers, the ever-dusty red velvet drapes. And yet it was all completely wrong, because three boxes down toward the stage sat Annabelle.
She had been leaning over the banister, taking in the atrium with serious, wondering eyes. And when her gaze had finally met his, she had gone tense and motionless like a doe in front of his rifle.
He had not given her a nod, for if he had, it would be in the papers the next day.
He was still staring. She was not supposed to be here. The reality of Annabelle in his evening program was as bizarre as seeing two moons in the sky.
Frustration crackled through him. Was this how it was going to be—she would reject him, and he would try to move on, only for her to reappear again and again like some exotic malady?
Caroline, Lady Lingham, placed the tip of her fan onto his forearm.
“How curious,” she said. “I believe that is your charming country girl, there in the box of Wester Ross.”
He’d be damned if he’d take that bait. “How perceptive of you,” he said, “but it is hardly curious. Miss Archer is friends with Wester Ross’s daughter. As you can see they are seated next to each other.”
And he was ridiculously unable to look away from her. She wore a dress he did not recognize, something low-cut that revealed more than a hint of her milky-white cleavage.
He was about to force himself to pay attention to Caroline when a tall, lanky fellow appeared in Wester Ross’s box. He bent over Annabelle with easy familiarity to hand her a glass of wine. And Annabelle smiled up at him as if he had presented her with the Holy Grail.
Sebastian’s body went rigid at the unexpected bite of pain.
His eyes narrowed.
The man wore round glasses and a shoddy tweed coat; clearly he was the cerebral kind. Annabelle’s smile seemed to encourage him to keep hovering over her, no doubt sneaking glances down her bodice, and when he finally sat, the bastard stuck his head close to hers under the pretense of pointing out things around the theater . . .
“Well, well,” Caroline said, her soft voice intrigued. “She may be friends with Lady Catriona, but it seems she’s here as the companion of this fellow from the Royal Society. What’s his name? Jenkins, I believe.”
* * *
Annabelle kept her eyes on the stage, but the music reached her as a meaningless hum. She was more than aware of Montgomery’s eyes burning a hole between her bare shoulder blades.
She should have expected him to be here. Fine. Perhaps a part of her had expected him to be here. A part of her seemed to be waiting for him all the time these days. Perhaps that had been her real reason for spending a night painstakingly altering an old dress into a fashionable one. What she had not expected was that he would attend with the coolly attractive Lady Lingham by his side.
She curled her trembling fingers around the stem of her wineglass.
If we were of equal station, I would have proposed to you. She should treasure the sentiment and gracefully move on from things that could not be changed. Instead, his words haunted and angered her in turn. There had been no need to add tragedy to an already difficult situation.
On the stage below, the duo warbled on and on. Jenkins leaned closer now and again, murmuring something clever about the performance, and she remembered to nod when he did. Until the opening notes of “On Wings of Song” pierced her chest like a barrage of arrows.
She rose, her breathing coming in shallow gasps.
Campbell and Jenkins also came to their feet.
“Are you not well?” Jenkins asked softly as he took in her expression with a frown.
She shook her head. “I shall be back in a few minutes.”
Jenkins placed a protective hand on her elbow. “I will accompany you.”
“No, please,” she whispered. “I shall only be a moment, right outside the box.”
The professor relented. He pulled back the heavy drapes for her, and she hurried through the dark vestibule into the hallway.
She sagged back against the wall, her chest rising and falling hard. Air. She needed fresh air. The hallway came to a dead end to her right, but to her left, it followed the curve of the atrium to the main staircase.
She had not gone far when a man detached from one of the box entries and stepped into her path.
Her heart leapt against her ribs. “Montgomery.”
He had never looked less like a knight in shining armor; his eyes glittered as coldly as the sapphire on his finger.
“Do me the honor,” he said, and then his hand was on her back and she was deftly maneuvered through a door. They were in a dimly lit antechamber, its windows staring into the black of night.
She spun around to face him. “What is the meaning of this?” Her voice emerged low and tense. If they were found here alone together, she’d be ruined.
Montgomery leaned back against the door and surveyed her with hooded eyes. “What is he to you?”
Confusion creased her brow. “Who?”
“Your companion. The professor.”
She gasped. “I don’t believe I owe you an explanation.”
“He touched you,” he said, and he reached for her to idly brush two gloved fingers over her elbow.
The contact rushed over her skin like wildfire, hot and uncontrolled.
She all but jumped back. “You have no claim on me, Your Grace.”
Something savage flickered in his eyes, as if he were of a mind to lay his claim on her right there and then. “But he does?” he demanded instead.
Unbelievable! And then she nearly choked on her tart reply when she deciphered the dark expression on his face.
“My goodness,” she breathed. “You are jealous.”
Montgomery blinked. “It appears that I am, yes,” he said. His mouth twisted with slight disgust.
“But that’s absurd,” she said. “You are here with Lady Lingham.”
His brows lowered. “And that is relevant how?”
“I know you are—I know that she’s your . . . arrangement.”
He pounced, and his hands clamped around her shoulders.
“She’s not my anything,” he snarled, “not since I met you. And you seem to think that this is going according to some plan—it isn’t, none of this.”
He spun her round and she was pinned flush against the door, trapped between oak wood and one incensed aristocrat. Out of the two, the oak would yield more easily.
He thrust his face so close, their noses were an inch from touching. Fire and ice warred in the depths of his eyes.
“Do you think I planned it?” he said through his teeth. “Do you think I planned being mastered by my feelings?”
His fingers closed around her nape and his lips slammed down on hers.
The kiss was rough, but it was frustration, not aggression she sensed in his hands, in the silky push of his tongue, the angry heat of his mouth, and in seconds, she was furious and desperate. Her hands pushed at his chest, futilely, because he was unyielding like a wall and her mouth was hungrily returning his kisses, matching every pull and slide and nip of his lips until a dull ache stirred between her thighs.
She jerked her head back and glared at him. “Am I in danger of being ravished against a door again, Your Grace?”
The primitive emotion burning in his gaze said it was an imminent possibility.