Her green eyes stared back at him heavy-lidded with some private triumph. Her shoulders were thrown back, her hair whipping about her like the flame of a torch in a storm. From below the hem of her clinging white gown peeked a familiar pale foot.
A giant fist seemed to squeeze the air from his lungs.
Hell. He was in a peculiar sort of hell, where all paths always circled back to the same thing.
He drew closer to the painting as if in a dream, his gaze riveted on her face.
He had stroked these proud cheekbones; he had kissed the fine nose. He had felt this lush mouth on his cock.
Two men were at her feet, bare-chested and on their knees, one dark, one fair, their heads tilted back to glower at her with a rather too-familiar expression of awe and resentment and longing.
Helen of Troy, not as a prize, but as a vindicated puppet master.
“I see you’re admiring my daughter’s handiwork,” Greenfield remarked.
“Extraordinary, isn’t she?” Greenfield tipped his glass toward Annabelle. “Before my own daughter nagged me into letting her go up to Oxford, I was convinced all bluestockings sported beards and warts. Imagine my surprise when she introduced this young woman to us at your New Year’s Eve ball. I stood happily corrected.”
“I’d stand happily,” the engineer said. “I’d launch a thousand ships for that.”
“I say, she’d launch me,” drawled the older one, and they all sniggered.
“How much,” Sebastian said, his voice edged with such menace that the sniggering stopped abruptly. “How much for this?”
Greenfield’s bushy brows flew up. “Now, I don’t think it is considered for sale—”
“Come now, Greenfield,” Sebastian said, “everything has a price.”
The banker sobered. This language, he understood. “It is certainly negotiable,” he said. “I’m sure Harriet could be moved to part with it for ample compensation.”
“Excellent,” said Sebastian. He knocked back the brandy in one gulp and set his tumbler down hard on a sideboard. “Have it wrapped and sent to my house in Wiltshire. Good afternoon, gentlemen.”
He stalked from the house, leaving a trail of worried and bemused people in his wake who had accidentally been hit by his black stare. A murmur rose: Did you see the aloof Duke of Montgomery storming out of Greenfield’s place, looking dark and mercurial like Vulcan himself?
Meanwhile, the ducal landau was on course to Victoria Station at breakneck speed.
* * *
The back garden of Claremont smelled of mud and dead leaves.
“Your Grace!” Stevens looked pleasantly surprised to see Sebastian striding toward the stables in the fading evening light.
“Prepare my horse,” said Sebastian. “Only him. I’m going alone.”
Stevens’s eyes widened as he registered his employer’s mood, and a short time later, he led a saddled and haltered Apollo from the stable. The stallion released an accusing whinny when it spotted Sebastian, and he absently scrubbed the soft nose that was thrust at his chest.
“He missed his master,” Stevens supplied. “Bit McMahon on the behind the other day.”
Sebastian frowned. “Have you moved him at all?”
“Not too much, no. The weather was naught but rain for the past few days; fields are soft as mush. He might be a wee bit skittish, Your Grace.”
He contained Apollo on the ride down the drive. Tightly coiled tension vibrated in the animal’s muscle and sinew, a spring ready, oh so ready to be launched. One slight tap of his heels, an inch of give in the reins, and they would take off unstoppably like a shot.
He had avoided his country home lately, because everything in Claremont reminded him of her. The harder he tried to keep control, to keep the thoughts and emotions firmly buried, the more anarchical it all became, as if a lifetime of leashed passion had broken free and was coming for him with vengeance, as if he had only been spared the lunacy of love before because he had been destined to be brought down by this particular woman.
In another life, he would have made her his wife. She’d already be his wife.
They emerged from the drive and acres of fields opened to either side of them. The twilight leached the colors from the trees, the soil, the sky. Gray, gray, gray.
Enough, he vowed. Enough of this.
He’d leave London and return to Claremont. He’d return everything to normal; he always did.
He leaned forward in the saddle, and a jolt went through Apollo.
They galloped along the path, then veered off onto the field headlong to the distant forest. The wind bit his face like a blade. Cold tears streaked across his cheeks from the corners of his eyes as speed overran his senses, the rapid thud thud thud, the whistling in his ears, the landscape rushing at him. The mind became a blank; there was only focus, speed, the cold.
Enough, enough, enough.
He ran Apollo harder, faster, until the forest loomed at the edge of the field like a dark mass.
He pulled in the reins.
Something flashed, pale and low on the ground.
Apollo screamed and twisted sideways.
Instinctively, he threw himself forward, but he felt the horse’s rump go down, its hind legs breaking away, a horrible, uncontrolled motion that whipped the powerful body beneath him up, up, and over the tipping point.
They were going to flip.
For a blink, the world froze, clear and sharp like a shard of glass. An expanse of blank sky, a flutter of mane above him.
The horse would crush him.
He yanked his feet from the stirrups but the ground was hurtling toward him at brutal speed. The face he loved most in the world looked back at him before darkness fell like an axe.
* * *
Beneath the small desk, Annabelle’s feet had turned to lumps of ice in the draft. She should go to bed. It was nearing midnight, and the oil lamp was burning low. But she knew she would not sleep. If she only looked at her surroundings, she could have pretended she was still a student with a bright future ahead; the desk, the rickety chair, the narrow cot were much like her room at Lady Margaret Hall. But that was where the similarities ended. There were no books and folders on the desk. Only a sheet of paper with three lonely lines:
Go back to Chorleywood
Become a governess up north
Her present options to keep a roof over her head all while staying on a morally upright path.
Of course, she had come up to Oxford to avoid any such fate: Chorleywood, underpaid and vulnerable, or married to a man she didn’t love.
Two weeks. Mrs. Forsyth had given her two weeks to find a new occupation. I’m a chaperone, she had said pointedly. I’m to keep women from getting into trouble, not associate with troubled women.
The future was a black maw, ready to swallow her whole.
She pressed her palms to her face, trying to shut out the ugly faces of her fears leering back at her. “I’m a soldier at heart,” she whispered. “I can do this . . .”
A sudden commotion in the hallway downstairs had her sit up straight. Agitated voices clashed as Mrs. Forsyth’s Maltese barked hysterically.
Alarmed, she came to her feet. It sounded as though a man was arguing with Mrs. Forsyth.
And then male boots stomped up the stairs, the force of it making the floorboards shiver.
She clutched her nightgown to her chest, reflexively casting her glance around the room for a weapon.
Bam bam bam.
The door shook as it was pounded with a fist.
It did not shock her half as much as the man’s voice.
“Sir!” Mrs. Forsyth objected shrilly.
Sebastian. Sebastian was here.
Bam bam bam.
She moved toward the door on unsteady legs.
“Sir, desist,” Mrs. Forsyth shrieked, and then Sebastian burst into the room, sending the door flying back against the wall with a bang.
Everything stopped: the noise, time, her heart. The vital urgency radiating from his body had blasted the very air from the room. He stared at her wordlessly, and holy hell, he was pale.
With two long strides, he towered over her and pulled her into his arms.
The wintry cold still clung to his clothes; his thick coat was rough against her face.
She stood motionless in his embrace, hardly daring to trust that he was real. She hadn’t expected to see him again, certainly not to ever be in his arms once more.
“My love,” he said, his voice a rumble in his chest beneath her ear.
How cruel. Her fourth option, her most desired option, her everything, was right here, when all she was trying to do was the right thing, which was decidedly not option four.
“Miss Archer, who is this—?” Mrs. Forsyth appeared in the door and gave an outraged squawk when she saw the couple embracing. “I object, I most utterly object to this,” she cried. “No gentlemen are allowed in the house, I laid out that rule very clearly indeed, why, this is not to be borne—”
Sebastian half turned and slammed the door shut in Mrs. Forsyth’s enraged face while keeping one arm tightly around Annabelle.
She disentangled herself from his grip. “What is happening?” she asked, and then, “Oh God, is it your brother? Is he—”
“No,” he said. There was a hard, metallic look in his eyes that made her feel entirely off balance.