Tempt Her in Autumn
A Haslemere Men Story
It was a perfect autumn day in Surrey.
Ned Martin was riding his favorite mount Claudius to town, savoring the crisp, sparkling air. Although he was on his way to see his sick mother, he wasn’t thinking of her. He was thinking of Miss Annabelle Reed. In fact, he’d been doing little else since last evening’s dinner party. He didn’t feel too guilty about the direction of his thoughts, since he knew his mother only suffered a cold. She would be fine.
He, on the other hand, might not. An odd feeling, one he hadn’t experienced in quite some time, had hold of him. A lightness of spirit. An uplifting of his soul. If Claudius began to prance, he might just do the same. Ned laughed out loud at the ridiculous picture that made.
By God, this was not like him at all.
Ned’s employer and friend, Sir Hugh Grey, had married Eleanor Broxton a few months ago, and all evidence pointed to their being thoroughly besotted with each other. Frequently, Ned caught them stealing a kiss or casually touching. They couldn’t keep their hands off each other, and now that they were wed, they weren’t shy about it. The truth was, Ned was damned envious. It was at their dinner party, which he had attended only because Hugh had threatened to fire him if he did not, that Ned had encountered Annabelle.
The night before
Ned strolled into the drawing room of the Grey’s new house. He’d been working for Sir Hugh for several months and had been present for every stage of the construction, but he wasn’t part of Hugh’s social circle. A fact which he’d tried to explain to his friend. But Hugh was having none of it. Self-consciously, Ned tugged at his cravat, hoping nobody would notice. Damned things always felt like they were choking him. Among the guests, he recognized a few. Hugh’s brother, Adam Grey, the MP for Haslemere, and his wife, Cass. Eleanor’s parents. There were other townspeople present, people he knew only in passing.
Then his gaze landed on a pleasurably familiar face. It belonged to somebody with whom he had more than a passing acquaintance. Annabelle Reed. A year ago, he’d been all but courting her. That had ended abruptly when he’d been swept away by a female tornado. A woman named Elizabeth Cummings, who’d swanned into town and bewitched him for a time. Until she unceremoniously dropped him.
Ned hadn’t seen Annabelle for some time, and given what had happened, or not happened between them, he wouldn’t fault her if she didn’t wish to speak to him. She must have sensed his gaze upon her, because she looked directly at him. And to his surprise, she smiled. Her smile was tentative at first, which made it all the more charming. It peeked out briefly, then disappeared. When he continued to hold her gaze, it finally burst out full bore. Without wasting anymore time, he moved toward her.
“Miss Reed.” She extended her hand, and he grasped it. “I’m so glad to see you again.” He hoped that sounded sincere, because he meant it.
“Good evening, Mr. Martin. How have you been keeping?”
“Well, thank you. May I get you something to drink?” At her nod, he grabbed two glasses of wine from a passing footman’s tray and handed her one.
Rising, Annabelle said, “Have you seen the house?”
Ned wanted to laugh, but merely grinned instead. “Yes, I believe I have.”
“Oh, of course! Sir Hugh said…Then you’ll know of somewhere we can go to escape the crush in here.”
That bode well. Ned winged an arm and smiled. “Come with me.” He steered her toward the back of the house and the doors leading to the conservatory, a recent addition to the original plan of the house. “This should do.”
“It’s lovely,” Annabelle said. “Shall we sit on the bench?” The conservatory, drenched with the last vestiges of the sunset, was warm, the air scented with hints of orange and lemon. Pure white camellias competed for attention with velvety red roses. Ned made sure the doors were open and the bench was in full view of anybody who wandered into the hall.
Annabelle sipped at her wine, raising her eyes to him over the rim of her glass. “I understand you had a hand in the building of this home.”
“You could say that, I suppose.”
She gave him a sidelong glance. “Come, Ned, according to Sir Hugh, you practically built it singlehandedly.”
Then he laughed. “Not at all. The design was his. I only lent a hand when required.”
“Sir Hugh sings your praises most eloquently, you know. He says there is nothing you cannot accomplish when you turn your mind and skill to it. And furthermore, you have an uncanny sense for seeing what needs to be done.”
“Hugh said that?” Ned’s mind was only partly on the conversation. He couldn’t take his eyes off Annabelle, who, in his estimation, had grown more beautiful in the many months since he’d done no more than glimpse her during trips to Haslemere. Tonight, she wore her hair loosely piled on top of her head. But a twisted length of it hung down over one shoulder and did strange things to him. Made him want to lift that bit and kiss the pale, tender skin beneath.
He tore his eyes away before she caught him staring. “Tell me your news, Annabelle. Pardon me. Miss Reed.”
“We’ve known each other since we were both in leading strings. Can we not use our Christian names in private?”
Was that a challenge? He was up to it. “Of course.” Her face, man. Keep your eyes on her face.
“I’ve taken on more responsibility in the shop. I am the bookkeeper now.” This was said with a bit of a defiance, as though she expected him to balk at her having a job. “The truth is, like you, I perform many tasks besides bookkeeping. Whatever is needed, including assisting patrons, ordering new inventory, even cleaning sometimes.” She paused briefly. “Are you appalled?”
“Not in the least. Why would I be?”
“Work is an alien concept to most ladies. I’ve been cut for it, you know. For being employed.”
Now Ned was appalled. “That’s ridiculous. Why, our hostess this evening has her own dressmaking business.”
“Well done, I say! I admire Lady Grey for it. She’s an example to the rest of us.”
Ned chuckled. “Eleanor would be amused if she heard you say that.”
“She had a hard time of it, I believe. With her parents disapproving of her work, I mean.” The diverted gleam had disappeared from Annabelle’s eyes. “My father is quite the opposite. He loves having me nearby and truly appreciates what I do.” She looked away for a moment. “Too much so, possibly.”
“What do you mean?”
She shrugged, and what a sight that was. Her breasts pushed together in a tempting display. And that plait of hair over her shoulder slid down and back up with the seductive movement of her shoulders. “When the time comes for me to leave him, it will be hard. He’s grown so dependent on me.”
What the hell? He needed to know exactly what she meant. “You’re leaving?”
She laughed. “I meant if I marry. When I marry.”
“Have you a candidate in mind?”
She never answered, because the footman announced dinner. Although Ned escorted her to the dining room, they were not seated near each other, and to his dismay, they didn’t have an opportunity to speak again. Annabelle was seated next to Roger Oldham, a widower who, he’d heard, was on the hunt for a new wife. Ned hoped to hell the man didn’t have designs on Annabelle, but for all he knew, Oldham was the person she’d set her sights on marrying. The man was handsome, distinguished, and a large landowner. Perhaps that was the sort she was looking for. He wished she’d answered his question before they were called to dinner.
Ned surreptitiously watched her. As it happened, he’d been seated next to Eleanor Grey. Apparently, he wasn’t hiding the object of his thoughts very well, because she said, “Annabelle is so lovely and accomplished. And I don’t mean with embroidery and water colors, but with real, meaningful work.” She studied him for a moment, and Ned felt himself color. “She would make a fine wife, don’t you agree?”
“I wouldn’t know,” he said.
Ned arrived at his parents’ home and found his mother tucked up in her bed, dozing and snoring softly. When he dragged a chair to her bedside, her eyelids fluttered open and she smiled.
“Hello, Mother. I’m sorry I woke you. Go back to sleep if you’d like.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it. Not with my favorite son visiting.”
Ned lifted a brow. “You say that about all of us.”
Her laugh was hearty, but soon developed into a bout of coughing. “That doesn’t sound good,” Ned said. “Has the physician been?” He snatched a glass of water from the table and helped her take a few sips.
“Ah, that’s better. Aye, he’s been, and it’s as I thought—a cold. I’ll be fine, though I must rest until the cough clears up.”
“I’m aware of how much you hate being idle, Mama, but if you wish to make a full recovery—”
“No call to lecture me, son. Though it goes against my nature to do it, I’ll stay in this bed until I’m well. That’s a promise.”
Surprised, Ned raised a brow. “You will?”
“Oh, don’t look that way. I know I’m getting old, and much as I hate to admit it, I must respect that. But I don’t wish to be treated like an invalid.”
“Nobody thinks of you that way, and you know it.” A change of topic would suit his mother’s mood, so they went on to discuss the tavern as well as the smallholding the family owned just outside of town. When she appeared to be tiring, Ned rose to take his leave. “I’ll be off. I’ve some shopping to do.” He kissed her cheek and made it all the way to the door before she called out.
“Ned. One thing.”
He swiveled to look at her. “What is it, Mama?”
“I…I don’t know if you’ve heard, that Cummings woman is here, in Haslemere.”
He hadn’t heard. A disagreeable pang churned through his gut. “What has that to do with me?”
“Nothing, I hope,” she answered.
He smiled ruefully and opened the door. But his mother wasn’t quite finished. “Son, I’ll speak my piece now, then you’ll not hear from me again on the subject. There’s a hardness about her—a coldness. She took you to a dark place. It was a long time before you were you again. Not until you started working for Sir Hugh.”
Ned sighed. “I’m aware. And I’ve no intention of seeing her.”
He exited before she could say anything else.
Annabelle perched on a stool at the counter of Reed’s Miscellany and Circulating Library, her family’s shop, studying a column of figures. It was Saturday morning, and she’d expected to be busier. In truth, she longed for a few patrons to distract her. Didn’t anybody need tobacco? The latest novel? Some ointment? Because no matter how hard she tried to concentrate, her thoughts strayed to last evening’s dinner party and Ned Martin.
She had never given up on Ned, even after he’d cast her aside for Elizabeth Cummings.
Not so long ago, Annabelle had fallen head-over-ears in love with Ned. He was everything she wanted in a man. They’d been so comfortable in each other’s company, laughing at the same little oddities of life. Together they spent many sun-drenched days exploring the Haslemere countryside.
Annabelle smiled to herself. It hadn’t hurt that he was quite magnificent to look upon, with broad shoulders made strong from hard work, powerful thighs, heavily muscled arms. Ned had kissed her a few times, and she’d wanted more. A great deal more.
When Ned left her for Elizabeth Cummings, she’d been both hurt and shocked by the seeming ease with which it had happened. After the affair ended, Annabelle had hoped Ned would seek her out again. But he did not, and she’d seen little of him since. She thought perhaps he’d given up on women.
And then, there he was last night, looking seductively handsome in his evening clothes. She couldn’t help noticing how snugly his coat clung to his strong chest. Ned had developed more confidence and polish since last year, there was no mistaking that. And he’d come to her directly, as soon as he’d glimpsed her across the crowded room. That had made her glow with happiness, and by the end of the evening, she’d felt something akin to hope.
Annabelle sighed. She’d be a ninny to let herself hope. Yet she couldn’t seem to stop her undisciplined mind from drifting in Ned’s direction. The bell over the door tinkled, and in walked the very man occupying her thoughts. A foolish grin burst out, and her cheeks warmed.
“Miss Reed,” he said, smiling.
For a moment, they said nothing more, but simply gazed at each other, grinning like idiots. Annabelle was the first to recover. “What brings you to town this morning, Ned?”
Should he say what he was thinking? Why not? “I wanted to see you, Annabelle.”
She got to her feet, so that she was looking at him levelly. “Oh?”
Good God, he wanted to lean in and kiss her. But that would never do, not here, when anybody could burst in and catch them. “I didn’t get a chance to ask you last night if you’ll be attending next Saturday’s assembly.”
Her hand brushed at loose tendrils of hair on her neck. “I didn’t know about the assembly.”
“Well, now that you do, will you stand up with me? For two dances?”
She canted her head and gave him an assessing look. A teasing one. “Perhaps.” He raised a brow at her just as the bell above the door rang and three people walked in.
Damnation, couldn’t they have chosen a different time for their errands?
“Pardon me,” Annabelle said, turning to serve the customers.
There was something about Reed’s Ned always found cheering. Annabelle and her father, along with their small staff, looked after it diligently. It was spotless and well organized. Ned turned to examine a display of toys and wondered whether he should buy Hugh and Eleanor’s daughter, Lili, something. They were very fond of one another. She called him “Uncle Ned,” which made him swell with pride every time he heard it. He was inclined to spoil her. Lili had been abducted several months ago, and Ned had helped track her down and bring her home. He’d just lifted a puzzle off the shelf when he heard a voice at his elbow.
He recognized that voice. It wasn’t one he’d thought to hear again. Still clutching the puzzle, he turned. “Mrs. Cummings.” Ned did not have a sense for lady’s apparel, but due to Eleanor’s influence, he recognized fine fashion when he saw it. Elizabeth’s morning gown was a lemony yellow, with intricate plaits running down the front, and she wore a blue spencer over it. Not only did the colors brighten up the shop, they were a perfect match to her fair skin and pale blonde hair. She was a blinding ray of sun.
“I saw you through the window and simply had to come in. How are you?”
Discomfited, he didn’t answer for a moment. Did Elizabeth truly not know she’d nearly destroyed him? Probably not, given the breeziness of her greeting. As though they had mutually agreed to part ways. Their brief affair had meant much more to him than it had to her. He’d been on the verge of proposing, for God’s sake. Ned placed the puzzle back on the shelf before saying, “I’m well. And you?”
“Oh, the same as ever. I’m here for a fortnight visiting my mother and father. If I can bear staying in the country that long.” She laughed, and Ned glimpsed Annabelle’s head suddenly swivel in their direction.
“I’m sure your mother will keep you occupied, and you won’t need to see too much of us country folk.” Oh, hell, he hadn’t meant to sound so resentful. He’d already turned back toward the toys when he felt her hand on his arm.
“Now, don’t be that way Ned. We had fun together, didn’t we?”
He didn’t answer. Instead, his gaze fixed on Annabelle. She was dealing with an argumentative woman who was demanding Annabelle tell her the name of the patron who had a certain library book in her possession.
Elizabeth continued, oblivious to his distraction. “I’m so glad I spotted you in here. I’d been to the tavern, but they didn’t know where you might be. I wanted to invite you to a party I’m hosting on Saturday night.” She cocked her pretty blonde head at him. “Do say you’ll come.” He studied her. She seemed quite genuine now.
Was this merely a friendly gesture on her part, perhaps a way of apologizing? Elizabeth was manipulative, and he did not trust her. “Thank you, but I must decline,” he said. “I’ve plans of my own for the evening.”
She frowned slightly. “I see.” Glancing around with a bored expression, she said, “If you’re done here, would you escort me home, Ned?”
He couldn’t very well refuse. It would seem ill-mannered. “Certainly,” he said, casting a sheepish glance in Annabelle’s direction. She seemed fully engaged in her conversation with the recalcitrant patron as he walked out the door with Elizabeth.
Outside, she took his arm. “I…regret the way we parted, Ned. I’m sorry for it.”
Annabelle couldn’t believe what her eyes were telling her. While she’d been arguing with the redoubtable Mrs. Cobb about a library book, Elizabeth Cummings had spirited Ned away. That…that woman maintained an unbreakable hold over him, even after she’d left him, cast him aside like a trinket she’d grown bored with. And not that long ago.
Glancing outside, she tried to spot them, but they were already out of sight. The day had grown overcast. Annabelle found her cashmere shawl and draped it around her shoulders. Resuming her seat, she studied the columns of numbers in the ledger. A tear dropped onto the page, and she blotted it with a corner of the shawl. It wouldn’t do to smear the ink.
How could she have been such a fool? It was time to put Ned Martin out of her mind for once and for all. What did she want with a man who was so weak, he could not resist the siren call of a woman who had already broken his heart? And how many times would Annabelle let him break hers?
The bell dragged her from her ruminations. She glanced up to see one of the town’s biggest gossips, Maud Hensley, striding toward her. “Good morning, Annabelle. You’ll never guess who I just saw walking down the street together. Ned Martin and Elizabeth Cummings!”
Marshaling a smile, Annabelle said, “They were here earlier.”
“Elizabeth is hosting a soiree on Saturday. I heard it from Marianne Haines—she’s been invited. Do you suppose Elizabeth invited Ned?”
Annabelle’s heart sank. That must have been what they were whispering about. She felt the sting of tears again but blinked them away before Maud could see. “I don’t know. It’s no concern of mine.” Pointedly, she glanced down at her ledger.
Maud took the hint. “I must be on my way, dear. I only wanted to say hello.”
And torment me. “Goodbye, Maud.” Annabelle watched as the other woman exited the shop.
She would not give in to tears and self-pity. Ned had shown every appearance of an attraction to her last night. He must be a callous man if he flirted with her one night and flew back into another woman’s arms the next day. And more fool she, for falling prey to his charms once again.
“I heard what Maud said, Annabelle.” Her father.
“Papa, I didn’t know you were back.” He moved to stand before her, his brow furrowed with worry.
“I don’t want to see you hurt again, my dear. Stay away from him.”
“Don’t worry. I’ve already come to my senses.”
To Ned’s consternation, Elizabeth clung to his arm the entire distance to her parents’ house. Fortunately, it wasn’t a long way. She prattled on about inconsequential things. Gossip, mostly. He was bored with it, bored with her. By the time they reached her front door, Ned wondered how he’d ever become enamored of such a vacuous woman.
“My mother and father are not at home, and it’s the servants’ half-day,” she said, waiting for him to open the door. She let go of his arm and grabbed his hand, leading him inside before he could protest. In retrospect, he supposed he shouldn’t have been surprised when she threw her arms around him and pressed her lips against his.
She tasted the same as he remembered, of mint and sugary tea. Ned was thrust back to those months in which she’d bewitched him and he’d been caught in her spell, powerless to extricate himself. And once again he was succumbing to her wiles. But what harm was there in a few kisses? He’d always been mesmerized by her scent, a mix of rosewater and a trace of her floral soap. Her hands, resting on his chest, now moved impatiently upward until they were buried in his hair. Abruptly, she pulled back and began to unbutton her spencer.
That brought him to his senses. “What are you doing, Elizabeth?”
“Undressing, of course, you silly man. I can see you want this as much as I do.” She cast a glance down to his misbehaving cock, then ran impatient fingers over the bulge. He stepped back.
Damn it, sometimes a man’s parts had a mind of their own.
“Come, let’s go upstairs. I’m not sure when my parents will arrive home.” She’d gotten her spencer off and dropped it to the floor.
“Wait a minute. We haven’t seen each other in months, Elizabeth.”
“Precisely! And I’m ravenous for you, darling. Let’s go, before it’s too late. Please, Ned.” Elizabeth had cultivated an imploring look that managed to convey sensuality and innocence at the same time. Even now, when he should have known better, it set him aflame.
She reached for his hand, and Ned allowed her to pull him forward, his rational self warring with desire.
A week later
Annabelle had worked extra hours at the shop all week to focus her mind on something besides Ned. When she did think of him, it was with anger and disgust, directed not only at him, but at herself too. How could she have been such a fool? He’d trampled on her heart once; why had she been so eager for a second time?
Early in the week, she’d harbored a hope that Ned had simply escorted Elizabeth home out of courtesy. But as the days passed and he did not appear in the shop, she faced the truth. He’d taken up with the wicked widow again. Several people who stopped by for tobacco, toys, or books had reported seeing Ned and Elizabeth together. On a picnic. At a garden party. On the footpath. In terms of making Annabelle heartsick, one of the rumors went well beyond all the others. Maud Hensley and Marianne Haines had waltzed into the shop one day, cornering her before she had a chance to disappear into the back room.
“Have you heard?” Marianne began. “It is all over town.”
Annabelle would not listen. She would cut this off before they could do their worst. “If it is about Ned Martin, I’ve heard quite enough already.” But Marianne continued as if she hadn’t spoken.
“The below-stairs grapevine has it that when Ned walked Elizabeth home last week, they behaved VERY inappropriately in the entryway, before he swept her into his arms and carried her upstairs! They didn’t emerge for HOURS.”
To Annabelle’s great relief, several customers had entered the shop and saved her from having to respond. Ned had not called on her all week, and she began to believe he hadn’t changed. He was not honorable. What man would flirt with her, request that she save dances for him, and then take up with a different woman the very next day?
Determined to ignore thoughts of Ned and get on with her life, Annabelle had chosen to attend tonight’s assembly. It would be an excellent beginning. Her father would escort her. He would be only too happy to make an appearance at the assembly, where there would be every chance of an encounter with his lady friend, Mrs. Bascombe.
That evening, Annabelle propped her elbows on the dressing table and studied herself. She was attractive enough, with thick chestnut locks and deep brown eyes. Blessed with her mother’s lovely skin, her complexion was smooth and unblemished. While she wasn’t a spendthrift, she purchased a few new gowns every season and kept her entire wardrobe in good repair. She had a lady’s maid who helped with all matters relating to her clothing and toilette.
Pushing back from the table, she rose, continuing to reflect. Perhaps Roger Oldham, whom she spoken with at last week’s dinner party, would be there tonight and ask her to dance. He was a well-respected man in the county for his business acumen, and he had no children. Not that Annabelle disliked children, but taking on somebody else’s was a daunting prospect. And there were other bachelors in Haslemere to consider.
Sadly, none of them held the same appeal for Annabelle as Ned. Not one made her want to smooth his hair back from his forehead, trace her hand across his face, or kiss him until he they were both in a frenzied passion…Stop it, Annabelle.
She sighed. Where was her maid? It was time to dress for the ball. Just then, Lottie entered the room with a gown draped over each arm. “Which of these shall it be, miss?” Annabelle shrugged, and Lottie chose. After she’d helped Annabelle dress in the white silk, Lottie pointed to the chair before the vanity. “Let’s arrange your hair.”
Obediently, Annabelle sat. In truth, she was having difficulty working up any enthusiasm for the ball. Once there, she would be fine. While Lottie was using the iron on some curls at her nape, the girl spoke. “I heard what that lady said today, about Mr. Martin and Mrs. Cummings.”
Annabelle swung her head around so fast, Lottie had to jump back to avoid burning her with the hot iron. “I’ve told you not to eavesdrop, Lottie! What were you doing in the shop in the first place?”
“I’m sorry, miss, but the housekeeper sent me with a note for your father. I was looking for him when I heard her. I didn’t mean to listen.”
“Of course not. I apologize.”
“So, I guess you don’t want to know the rest?”
Annabelle sighed. “Go ahead.”
“What that woman said isn’t true. One of the maids at Mrs. Cummings’s house—her parents’ house, that is—is a cousin of William’s, and she told him what really happened.”
Lottie was smitten with William, their footman, and the feeling seemed to be mutual. Even so, Annabelle’s head was spinning by this time, trying to keep all the players straight. “You are saying William learned the truth from a servant at Elizabeth Cummings’s home?”
“Aye. She—Mrs. Cummings—put her hands all over Mr. Martin and practically begged him to, well, you know. And he refused! She said, ‘I’ve been dreaming of this moment ever since I returned!’ He had to pull her hands off his coat. She was all mad by then and said, ‘You were just a lark, and now you’re not even that.”
Annabelle was stunned. Was this the truth? Heart hammering, she asked, “What did Mr. Martin say?”
“I don’t know, exactly, but something like, ‘I don’t care about you anymore, and enjoy your visit to Haslemere.’ And then he took his leave! And Mrs. Cummings has been nasty to the servants all week and hasn’t even left the house.”
Annabelle was so confused, she honestly did not know what to believe. She felt as she had as a child, when she’d first learned math. At some point, everything had come clear, and she could only hope the same would happen again.
If what Lottie reported was true, it would give the lie to all the rumors Annabelle’s so-called friends had made certain to acquaint her with the past week.
Ned made his way into the crowded assembly rooms, hoping to spot Annabelle. He’d claimed two dances with her, but would she honor his request? He had wanted to call on her this week, but had been too busy with tenants, helping with winter preparations. Harvesting the last of the vegetables, mending fences, checking on feed supplies. It was endless. Hugh and Eleanor had been in Town most of the week, which added to his responsibilities at Longmere.
On the good side, the unending labor had given him time to ponder. To consider what he wanted. And he knew he wanted Annabelle. Not in the lust-fueled way he’d fancied Elizabeth, because that was all he’d wanted from her. Not that he didn’t desire Annabelle, because he most definitely did. But he very much enjoyed her company, her steady, intelligent approach to life. Spending time with Hugh and Eleanor had taught him something. A man could have it all. He could love and respect his wife, yet still hunger for her. He needed to find Annabelle, to make things right between them.
Tall enough to see over the heads of most, Ned finally spotted her standing with a clutch of young matrons and a few other unmarried ladies. He recognized most of them and had the feeling she might wish to be extricated. He made his way to her, elbowing people aside when necessary. When he was nearly there, one of the women whispered something to Annabelle, and she looked in his direction. Glowered in his direction might have been a better description. Too late to change his mind now. Ah, well, he supposed he deserved her contempt.
At least the other women had the sense to move aside, leaving her to face him alone. “Annabelle,” he said.
Her face looked as if it might crack into pieces if she attempted a smile. “Mr. Martin.”
He pushed on. “I hope you’ve not changed your mind about standing up with me.” Ned tried to smile, but her expression was so harsh, it died on his lips.
“Yes, I have. Changed my mind, that is. I’m afraid I’m spoken for.” She looked everywhere but at him.
“For every dance?” Ned asked, now growing somewhat irritated.
“Is that so difficult to believe?”
He uttered a harsh laugh. “Of course not.” Glancing around, he said, “Could we talk in private?”
Silence while she thought it over. Good God, would she say no? Not even deign to speak to him? At last she nodded. “All right. There’s a room…” She turned and he followed. They ended up in a passage with several closed doors. Annabelle went directly to the one at the far end. “I’ve been in this room when I helped with various events.”
Ned reached around her and opened the door. Moonlight filtered in through a single casement, and chairs and tables lined the walls. The room appeared to be a storage area for candelabra, sconces, and candles. Before she could protest, Ned grasped her arm and steered her toward the window. When they had sufficient light to see each other, he halted. Annabelle jerked her arm from his grasp.
“What is it, Ned? What do you want?” she said impatiently.
“I’m sorry you’re angry with me.”
“How perceptive of you to notice.”
The moonlight shone on Annabelle, giving her skin a radiant clarity. Her white silk gown only enhanced the effect and made a striking contrast to her dark chestnut curls. “You are beautiful,” he said.
He’d caught her off-guard. For a moment, her eyes softened, and he took full advantage. Lowering his head close enough to feel her sweet breath on his face, he touched his lips to hers. He wanted to draw her into his arms, but he knew she would not allow it. She did allow the kiss, however, and his hands on her shoulders. She even opened her mouth when his lips gently coaxed hers apart. He could kiss her all night. Good God, she smelled luscious. Lemon mixed with her own arousing female scent.
And then her hands were on his chest, pushing him away. “Stop it, Ned.” He stepped back immediately.
“You didn’t answer my question.”
Perhaps honesty was the best approach. “I’m here because I asked you to dance with me. I’ve been longing to hold you and feel your body against mine. I want to talk to you, listen to you, learn everything about you I don’t already know—” He stroked her cheek with one finger.
“I—I heard you spent the week with Elizabeth.”
He was taken aback. “I beg your pardon. Who told you that?”
“Everybody. You were seen by many.”
He cocked his head at her. “I was, was I? And they all beat a path to your door to tell you?”
She looked triumphant. “Well, of course they did.”
“You shouldn’t believe everything you hear, Annabelle. When I saw Elizabeth in your shop, she asked me to escort her home. I did and I left. Nothing happened, and I’ve not seen her since.” Not quite accurate, but true enough. He’d had to refuse Elizabeth’s attempt to seduce him, then deal with her vitriol.
“Who told you, Annabelle? Who said they’d seen Elizabeth and me together?”
“Several people, including Maud and Marianne.”
“Even I know those two are unrepentant gossips. Are you sure you trust them?”
She did not answer immediately, but asked a question of her own. “They told me you seduced Elizabeth in the entryway of her home and then carried her upstairs and weren’t seen again for hours.”
Ned barked a laugh. “And you believed that? It was the other way round, Annabelle. She seduced me—tried to seduce me, and I refused her overtures. Adamantly. The brief amount of time I spent with her convinced me I wanted someone entirely different from her.”
When she still looked doubtful, Ned grasped her hand. “Trust me, Annabelle, not the town gossips. I’ve not seen Elizabeth again. Nor do I wish to.”
Her eyes reflected the moonlight. “They—well, Maud—said you were attending Elizabeth’s soiree tonight.”
“And yet here I am, standing before you.”
Annabelle ducked her head and laughed a little before returning her gaze to him. “When you left with her, I assumed you wished to resume your former…acquaintance. And then, you didn’t call this week at all. What was I to think?”
“That was remiss of me, I admit. I had an exceedingly busy week with tenants. And Hugh and Eleanor are in Town. I did nothing but work, eat, and sleep.” He paused, smiling. “I did dream of you, though.”
“You did not!” Annabelle said, but she was laughing. “You said you wanted someone entirely different from Elizabeth. Do you have anybody particular in mind?” Her eyes glowed, and that gave him courage.
Before she could protest, Ned lifted her atop one of the tables and stepped between her legs. “You, of course. Can you ever forgive me for being such a fool?” Wrapping his arms around her, he held her close, so that the most intimate parts of their bodies were touching. He kissed her, ravishing her mouth, and felt her fingers slide into his hair. God, that felt good. He ran his hands down her back, stopping at her waist, then moved them slowly upward until he was caressing her breasts. She did not stop him.
When Annabelle moaned, Ned drew back. He fought to regain control. He’d be damned if he would make love to Annabelle in this dingy little room. “Annabelle, I want you. So much. But not here. With your approval, I’ll ask your father’s permission to court you.” He bent low to whisper in her ear. “But can we agree to a very brief courtship?”
She said nothing. Had he misjudged her? Gotten it all wrong with his expectation, his hope she still cared for him?
“What if he says no?” she said quietly. It took him a moment to realize she was teasing.
“Minx. Instead of calling the banns, I’ll spirit you away to Gretna Green. Then your father will be sorry he was not present for our wedding.” He kissed her mouth, her cheek, her brow, and felt the loss when she pulled away.
“Are you sure, Ned? I don’t want…that is, I can’t bear—”
“Hush, sweetheart. I love you. It’s simply taken me a fair bit of time to realize it.”
“Oh. You do?”
“More than my life. You haven’t said, Annabelle. Do you love me?”
“Well, Ned Martin, I believe I do.”
And after some time, during which Ned changed his mind at least a dozen times about the wisdom of not having his way with her then and there, they returned to the ball to seek out Annabelle’s father. Ned could wait, although he damned well didn’t want to. His mind jumped to their courtship. Now that he thought about it, he might be able to sneak into Annabelle’s bed chamber one night…