She took a small step back. “Montgomery, you worry me.”
A stern line appeared between his brows. “Don’t call me that.”
“Very well,” she said, and crossed her arms over her chest. “Sebastian. Surely there would be a more appropriate time—”
“I came to ask you to marry me.”
She looked at him blankly.
“Marry me,” he repeated, taking a step toward her.
She gave an uncertain laugh. “Why would you say such a thing?”
“You laugh,” he growled. He grabbed her hand and pressed it to his greatcoat, over his heart. “Put an end to this misery, Annabelle. Marry me.”
She tugged, and alarm tingled up her spine when he didn’t let go. “What has got into you?”
“I fell off the horse this eve.”
Her free hand flew to her mouth. “No.”
“There was a pheasant,” he said, “a small pheasant, hiding in a furrow. Apollo spooked and slipped. He is fine.”
Her gaze darted over him, searching for signs of injury. “What about yourself?”
There was a pause. “I thought I was going to die,” he said quietly.
The blood drained from her face as an icy hand reached for her heart.
“As you see, it was not yet my time,” he said. “The ground was softened from rain, and my hat took the brunt instead of my head.”
The feeling of terror that had kept her frozen to the spot subsided, and she flung her arms around his neck.
“Hush,” he said as his arms slid around her protectively, “I’m here now.”
She only clutched him harder and tried to burrow into him, wanting to tear the heavy topcoat off him, and all the layers of wool and cotton that kept her from feeling the pulsing warmth and strength of his body.
He pressed his mouth into her hair. “Marry me, Annabelle.”
Her head jerked back. “Please. Please, do not say such a thing.”
He frowned. “Why? You object to being my mistress. Are you saying you don’t want to be my wife, either?”
She tried to push away from him, but he would not let her.
As she stared up into his unnaturally bright eyes, fear gripped her.
“What I want is not the point,” she stammered. “I don’t want to be your mistress, but I certainly can’t be your wife.”
He tilted his head. “And why not?”
“You’ve fallen on your head all right! You know why; it’s impossible.”
“It isn’t, actually. I ask, you say yes. That is all it takes.”
That is all it takes.
She felt oddly light-headed. Her most secret, outlandish dreams were a simple syllable away.
“No,” she managed to say. “No, I would never ask you to ruin your name, your life for me—”
“You wouldn’t ruin my life.”
She strained against him, and his arms tightened around her, just short of crushing her.
“No,” she said, “please, release me.”
He did so with an exasperated huff, and she sprung back as if he were scalding her.
“Hear me out,” he said, his hands clenching by his sides. “For years, I worried I would fall off my horse before I had produced an heir. And now it has happened, and I was sure I was going to break my neck, and on my last breath, did I think of Castle Montgomery, or my title, my father, or my heir?”
Again he reached for her, again she evaded, and his face darkened.
“I thought of you, damn it,” he said. “I saw your face, as clearly as I see it now as you are standing in front of me, and all I felt was the most profound regret that my time with you had been so very short. My unfinished business here is you and I, Annabelle.”
Oh, heaven help her. He was dead serious about this.
Or so he thought.
She forced herself to sound calm. “I am honored,” she said, “of course I am. But surely you must know that right now, you are not yourself, not thinking clearly.”
In truth, his eyes had never looked more lucid.
She began to shiver. His will was so strong, stronger than hers, and he was offering her her heart’s desire. But it would be a disaster.
She turned her back to him, desperate to gather her scattered wits. “What about the scandal it would cause?” she said. “What about your brother? If we married, it would taint him, you said so yourself. Your heirs would be shamed—are these reasons not true anymore?”
“Why don’t you let me take care of these things,” came his bemused voice. “Your part is simply to say yes.”
Say yes. Say yes.
“Tomorrow,” she said hoarsely. “Why don’t we talk about it tomorrow.”
“Turn around and look at me,” he said, “and I shall tell you that tomorrow will not make a difference. Nor will next week.”
She whirled, his stubborn insistence on the impossible enraging her. “You cannot marry the daughter of a vicar. One day you might wake up and look at the shambles of your life, and nothing I am could ever compensate you for it.”
His gaze turned assessing and merciless. “You don’t trust me,” he said flatly. “You don’t trust that I know my own mind.”
“You’ve just looked death in the face. I imagine it skews a man’s perspective.”
His eyes were hard and gray as granite. “Or it finally puts the perspective right. I am not a fickle boy, Annabelle. Don’t punish us both for the boys you have known in the past.”
She flinched as the barb hit its mark, ammunition she herself had handed him in confidence. No, she must not think of their time wrapped in each other’s arms in his bed, cocooned in intimate bliss . . .
Somewhere, Mrs. Forsyth’s dog was barking still, rattled and furious.
She pressed her palms to her pounding temples. “I can’t,” she whispered. “We can’t.”
“Annabelle.” His voice was ragged. “I didn’t know I was looking for you until we met. Had we never crossed paths, I might have lived and died a content and sensible man, but now I know what I can feel, and it cannot be undone, I cannot pretend that what we have is a folly that will fade. I can choose to live with a sense of loss over you until the day I die, or to live with you come what may. These are my choices, a life with you, or an existence without you, and as with all choices, it is a matter of paying a price. I know that what we could have is worth anything.”
Every word hit her heart like a knife, rapid, dull impacts that would soon bloom into a sharp pain and bleed her dry. How calm he sounded in his madness, when her own sanity was crumbling rapidly. She could have lost him forever today. Her every instinct urged her to be in his arms and never let him go again.
She struggled to draw her next breath. “We can’t.”
Her lifeless tone made him pause.
For the first time, she sensed a flicker of uncertainty in him. “You are serious,” he said slowly. “You are rejecting my proposal.”
“Yes,” she said, her throat aching with the effort.
He went stark white. An agonizing feeling came over her, rendering her mute.
Honor would forbid him to break an engagement, even if made under duress. Tomorrow, or next week, he would thank her for not having maneuvered himself into an untenable position, he would.
“You know,” he said, almost conversationally, “I’m beginning to think you would refuse to be with me in any capacity. And I think it has nothing to do with your morals, or my reputation, but with your own cowardice.”
The words stung her from her paralysis like a slap. “Whatever do you mean?”
“You are afraid. Of a man managing you for a change, and I’m not referring to husbandly rule. In fact, I reckon you could exist quite well under draconian rules, because there is a fortress at your very core no one can breach with force. But I have breached it already; you have given yourself to me. Why not let me make an honest woman out of you now?”
Because I love you more than my own happiness.
Renewed determination was etched in every line of his face, and she understood that as long as he thought she loved him, he would not abandon this insane scheme. He’d sacrifice everything. He’d disgrace himself, become an object of ridicule among his peers, in the press. His home, his political standing would be lost, his ancient family line destroyed. He’d ruin his life’s work over a country woman. And inevitably, his infatuation would wane, and he would come to resent her, or worse, himself, for everything he had given up.
She wrapped her arms around her quivering body. “If you must know, I had a much more reasonable offer just this morning.”
Firing a pistol at Sebastian would have had the same effect, a flash of surprise, and he went rigid.
When he finally spoke, she hardly recognized his voice. “The professor.”
She gave a nod.
“Have you accepted him?”
“I have been rusticated,” she said, “and he—”
“Have you accepted him?” he repeated, and the look in his eyes had her touch her throat.
“No,” she said softly. Guiltily.
“But you have considered it. By God, you are considering it.”
“It would be a suitable match—”
His head tipped back on a harsh laugh. “No, madam, no. If you marry him, it will make you more of a whore than you would have ever been as my mistress.”