As she went out into the hall, she heard the subtle rumble of the guests who were enjoying the supper buffet in the drawing room. Music overlaid the blend of conversation and laughter—a string quartet with an accompanying piano. Pausing to listen, Annabelle was astonished to realize that it was the same sad, beautiful melody that she had heard in her dream. She closed her eyes and listened intently, while her throat tightened with a wistful ache. The music filled her with the kind of longing that she should not have allowed herself to feel. Good God, she thought, I’m becoming maudlin in my illness—I have to get some control over myself. Opening her eyes, she started to walk again, only to narrowly miss plowing into someone who had approached from the opposite direction.
Her heart seemed to expand painfully as she looked up at Simon Hunt, who was dressed in a formal scheme of black and white, a lazy smile curving his wide mouth. His deep voice sent a shiver down her spine. “Where do you think you’re going?”
So he had come for her, in spite of the elegant crowd that he should have been mingling with downstairs. Aware that the sudden weakness in her knees had nothing to do with her illness, Annabelle toyed nervously with the end of her braid. “To have a supper tray in the parlor.”
Taking her elbow, Hunt turned and guided her along the hallway, keeping his steps slow to accommodate hers. “You don’t want a supper tray in the parlor,” he informed her.
He shook his head. “I have a surprise for you. Come, it’s not far.” As she went with him willingly, Hunt slid an assessing gaze over her. “Your balance has improved since this afternoon. How are you feeling?”
“Much better,” Annabelle replied, and flushed as her stomach growled audibly. “A bit hungry, actually.”
Hunt grinned and brought her to a partially opened door. Leading her over the threshold, he brought her into a small, lovely room with rosewood-paneled walls hung with tapestries, and furniture upholstered in amber velvet. The room’s most distinctive feature, however, was the window on the inside wall, which opened out onto the drawing room two stories below. This place was perfectly concealed from the view of the guests below, while music floated clearly through the wide opening. Annabelle’s round-eyed gaze moved to a small table that was covered with silver-domed plates.
“I had the devil of a time trying to decide what would tempt your appetite,” Hunt said. “So I told the kitchen staff to include some of everything.”
Overwhelmed, and unable to think of a time that any man had gone to such lengths for her enjoyment, Annabelle suddenly found it difficult to speak. She swallowed hard and looked everywhere but at his face. “This is lovely. I…I didn’t know this room was here.”
“Few people do. The countess sometimes sits here when she is too infirm to go downstairs.” Hunt moved closer to her and slid his long fingers beneath her chin, coaxing her to meet his gaze. “Will you have dinner with me?”
Annabelle’s pulse throbbed so rapidly that she was certain he could feel it against his fingers. “I have no chaperone,” she half whispered.
Hunt smiled at that, his hand dropping from her chin. “You couldn’t be safer. I’m hardly going to seduce you while you’re obviously too weak to defend yourself.”
“That’s very gentlemanly of you.”
“I’ll seduce you when you’re feeling better.”
Biting back a smile, Annabelle raised a fine brow, and said, “You’re very sure of yourself. Should you have said you’re going to try to seduce me?”
” ‘Never anticipate failure’—that’s what my father always tells me.” Sliding a strong arm around her back, Hunt guided her to one of the chairs. “Will you have some wine?”
“I shouldn’t,” Annabelle said wistfully, sinking into the deeply upholstered chair. “It would probably go straight to my head.”
Hunt poured a glass and gave it to her, smiling with a wicked charm that Lucifer himself would have tried to emulate. “Go on,” he murmured. “I’ll take care of you if you get a bit tipsy.”
Sipping the smooth, soft vintage, Annabelle sent him a wry glance. “I wonder how often a lady’s downfall began with that exact promise from you…”
“I have yet to cause a lady’s downfall,” Hunt said, lifting the covers from the dishes and setting them aside. “I usually pursue them after they’ve already fallen.”
“Have there been many fallen ladies in your past?” Annabelle couldn’t keep from asking.
“I’ve had my fair share,” Hunt replied, looking neither apologetic nor boastful as he met her gaze directly. “Though lately my energies have been absorbed by a different pastime.”
“I’m overseeing the development of a locomotive works that Westcliff and I have invested in.”
“Really?” Annabelle stared at him with kindling interest. “I’ve never been on a train before. What is it like?”
Hunt grinned, suddenly looking boyish in his barely suppressed enthusiasm. “Fast. Exciting. The average speed of a passenger locomotive is about fifty miles an hour, but Consolidated is building a six-coupled express engine design that should go up to seventy.”
“Seventy miles an hour?” Annabelle repeated, unable to imagine hurtling forward at such speed. “Wouldn’t that be uncomfortable for the passengers?”
The question made him smile. “Once the train reaches its traveling speed, you don’t feel the momentum.”
“What are the passenger cars like on the inside?”
“Not especially luxurious,” Hunt admitted, pouring more wine into his own glass. “I wouldn’t recommend traveling in anything other than a private car—especially for someone like you.”
“Someone like me?” Annabelle gave him a chiding smile. “If you’re implying that I’m spoiled, I assure you that I am not.”
“You should be.” His warm gaze slid over her pink-tinted face and slender upper body, then sought hers again. There was a note in his voice that gently robbed her of breath. “You could do with a bit of spoiling.”
Annabelle inhaled deeply, trying to restore the natural rhythm of her lungs. Desperately, she hoped that he wouldn’t touch her, that he would keep his promise not to seduce her. Because if he did…God help her…she wasn’t certain that she would be able to resist him.
“Consolidated is the name of your company?” she asked shakily, trying to retrieve the thread of conversation.
Hunt nodded. “It’s the British partner of Shaw Foundries.”
“Which belongs to Lady Olivia’s fiance, Mr. Shaw?”
“Exactly. Shaw is helping us to adapt to the American system of engine building, which is far more efficient and productive than the British method.”
“I’ve always heard that British-made machinery is the best in the world,” Annabelle commented.
“Arguable. But even so, it’s seldom standardized. No two locomotives built in Britain are exactly alike, which slows production considerably and makes repairs difficult. However, if we could follow the American example and produce uniform cast-molded parts, using standard gauges and templates, we can build an engine in a matter of weeks rather than months, and perform repairs with lightning speed.”
As they conversed, Annabelle watched Hunt with fascination, having never seen a man talk this way about his profession. In her experience, work was not something that men usually liked to discuss, as the very concept of laboring for one’s living was a distinct hallmark of the lower classes. If an upper-class gentleman was obliged to have a profession, he tried to be very discreet about it and pretend that most of his time was spent in leisure activities. But Simon Hunt made no effort to conceal his enjoyment of his work—and for some reason Annabelle found that strangely attractive.
At her urging, Hunt described the business further, telling her all about his negotiations for the purchase of a railway-owned foundry, which was being converted to the new American-inspired system. Two of the nine buildings on the five-acre site had already been transformed into a foundry that produced standardized bolts, pistons, rods, and valves. These, along with some parts that had been imported from Shaw Foundries in New York, were being assembled into a series of four-coupled and six-coupled engines that would be sold throughout Europe.
“How often do you visit the site?” Annabelle asked, taking a bite of pheasant cutlet dressed with a creamy watercress sauce.
“Daily, when I’m in town.” Hunt contemplated the contents of his wineglass with a slight frown. “I’ve stayed away for too long, actually—I’ll have to go to London soon, to check on progress.”
The idea that he would soon leave Hampshire should have made Annabelle glad. Simon Hunt was a distraction that she could ill afford, and it would be far easier to focus her attentions on Lord Kendall when Hunt had quit the estate altogether. However, she felt strangely hollow, realizing how much she enjoyed his company and how lifeless Stony Cross Park would seem once he had gone.
“Will you come back before the party ends?” she asked, devoting great concentration to mincing a morsel of pheasant with her knife.
His voice was very soft. “On whether I have sufficient reason to return.”
Annabelle did not look at him. Rather, she lapsed into a restless silence and turned her unseeing gaze to the window aperture, through which the luxuriant melody of Schubert’s Rosamunde poured.
Eventually there came a discreet rap at the door, and a footman came in to remove the plates. Keeping her face averted, Annabelle wondered if the news that she had dined in private with Simon Hunt would soon be spread through the servants’ hall. However, after the footman left, Hunt spoke reassuringly, seeming to have read her thoughts. “He won’t say a word to anyone. Westcliff recommended him for his ability to keep his mouth shut about confidential matters.”
Annabelle gave him a worried glance. “Then…the earl knows that you and I are…but I am certain that he must not approve!”
“I’ve done many things Westcliff doesn’t approve of,” Simon returned evenly. “And I don’t always approve of his decisions. However, in the interest of maintaining a profitable friendship, we don’t generally cross each other.” Standing, he rested his palms on the table and leaned forward, his shadow covering her. “What about a game of chess? I had a board brought up…just in case.”
Annabelle nodded. As she stared into his warm black eyes, she reflected that this was perhaps the first evening of her adult life in which she was wholly happy to be exactly where she was. With this man. She felt the most intense curiosity about him, a real need to discover the thoughts and feelings buried beneath his exterior.
“Where did you learn to play chess?” she asked, watching the movements of his hands as he set the pieces in their previous formations.
“From my father.”
One corner of his mouth lifted in mocking half smile. “Can’t a butcher play chess?”
“Of course, I…” Annabelle felt a hot blush sweep over her face. She was mortified by her tactlessness. “I’m sorry.”
Hunt’s slight smile lingered as he studied her. “You seem to have a mistaken impression of my family. The Hunts are solidly middle-class. My brothers and sisters and I all attended school. Now my father employs my brothers, who also live over the shop. And in the evenings they often play chess.”
Relaxing at the absence of censure in his voice, Annabelle picked up a pawn and rolled it between her fingers. “Why didn’t you choose to work for your father, as your brothers did?”
“I was a stubborn hellion in my youth,” Hunt admitted with a grin. “Whenever my father told me to do something, I always tried to prove him wrong.”
“And what was his response?” Annabelle asked, her eyes twinkling.
“At first he tried to be patient with me. When that didn’t work, he took the opposite tack.” Hunt winced in reminiscence, smiling ruefully. “Trust me, you never want to be thrashed by a butcher—their arms are like tree trunks.”
“I can imagine,” Annabelle murmured, stealing a circumspect glance at the wide expanse of his shoulders and remembering the brawny hardness of his muscles. “Your family must be very proud of your success.”
“Perhaps.” Hunt gave a noncommittal shrug. “Unfortunately, it seems that my ambition has served to distance us. My parents won’t allow me to buy them a house in the West End; nor do they understand why I should choose to live there. Nor does my investing strike them as a suitable profession. They would be happier if I turned to something more…tangible.”
Annabelle regarded him intently, understanding what had remained unspoken in the spare explanation. She had always known that Simon Hunt didn’t belong in the upper-class circles in which he often moved. However, until this moment it had not occurred to her that he was similarly out of place in the world that he had left behind. She wondered if he was occasionally lonely, or if he kept himself far too busy to acknowledge it. “I can think of few things more tangible than a five-ton locomotive engine,” she remarked, in response to his last comment.
He laughed, and reached for the pawn in her hand. But somehow Annabelle couldn’t seem to let go of the ivory piece, and their fingers tangled and held, while their gazes locked intimately. She was shocked by the radiant warmth that flooded from her hand to her shoulder, then diffused through her entire body. It was like being drunk on sunlight, heat spilling in streams of sensation, and along with the pleasure came the sudden, alarming pressure behind her eyes that heralded tears.
Bewildered, Annabelle jerked her hand back from his, the pawn clattering to the floor. “I’m sorry,” she said with an unsteady laugh, suddenly afraid of what might happen if she stayed alone with him any longer. She stood clumsily and moved away from the table. “I-I’ve just realized that I’m very tired…the wine seems to have affected me after all. I should go back to my room. I think there is still ample time for you to socialize with everyone downstairs, so your evening hasn’t been entirely wasted. Thank you for the dinner, and the music, and—”
“Annabelle.” Hunt moved with swift grace, coming to stand before her with his hands at her waist. He looked down at her, an inquiring frown tugging at his dark brows. “You’re not afraid of me, are you?” he murmured.