Simon extended his arm, and Annabelle took it, remembering the countless times in the past that she had spurned his invitations to dance. Reflecting that Simon had finally gotten his way, Annabelle smiled. “Do you always succeed at getting what you want?” she asked.
“Sometimes it takes longer than I would prefer,” he said. As they entered the ballroom, he put his hand on Annabelle’s waist and guided her to the edge of the swirling mass of dancers.
She experienced a pang of giddy nervousness, as if they were about to share something far more significant than a mere dance. “This is my favorite waltz,” she told him, moving into his arms.
“I know. That’s why I requested it.”
“How did you know?” she asked with an incredulous laugh. “I suppose one of the Bowman sisters told you?”
Simon shook his head, while his gloved fingers curved around hers. “On more than one occasion, I saw your face when they played it. You always looked ready to fly out of your chair.”
Annabelle’s lips parted in surprise, and she stared up at him with a wondering gaze. How could he have noticed something so subtle? She had always been so dismissive of him, and yet he had noticed her reaction to a particular piece of music and remembered it. The realization brought the sting of tears to her eyes, and she looked away immediately, fighting to bring the sudden baffling swell of emotion under control.
Simon drew her into the current of waltzing couples, his arms strong, the hand at her back offering firm pressure and guidance. It was so easy to follow him, to let her body relax into the rhythm he established while her skirts swept across the gleaming floor and whipped lightly around his legs. The enchanting melody seemed to penetrate every part of her, dissolving the ache in her throat and filling her with unruly delight.
Simon, for his part, was not above a sense of triumph as he guided Annabelle across the floor. Finally, after two years of pursuit, he was having his long-sought waltz with her. And more satisfying still, Annabelle would still be his after the waltz…he would take her back to the hotel, and undress her, and make love to her until dawn.
Her body was pliant in his arms, her gloved hand light on his shoulder. Few women had ever followed his lead with such fluid ease, as if she knew what direction he would take her in before he even knew it himself. The result was a physical harmony that enabled them to move swiftly across the room like a bird in flight.
Simon had not been surprised by the reactions from his acquaintances upon meeting his new bride—the congratulatory words and subtly covetous gazes, and the sly murmurs of a few men who said they did not envy him the burden of having such a beautiful wife. Lately Annabelle had become even lovelier, if possible, the strain leaving her face after many nights of dreamless slumber. In bed she was affectionate and even frolicsome—the previous night she had climbed over him with the grace of a sportive seal, scattering kisses over his chest and shoulders. He had not expected that of her, having known beautiful women in the past who invariably lay back passively to be worshiped. Instead, Annabelle had teased and caressed him until he’d finally had enough. He had rolled on top of her while she giggled and protested that she wasn’t yet finished with him. “I’ll finish you,” he had growled in mock-threat, and thrust inside her until she was moaning with pleasure.
Simon had no illusions that their relationship would be continually harmonious—they were both too independent and strong by nature to avoid the occasional clashes. Having relinquished her chance to marry a peer, Annabelle had closed the door on the kind of life she had always dreamed of, and instead would have to adjust to a far different existence. With the exception of Westcliff and two or three other wellborn friends, Simon had relatively little interaction with the aristocracy. His world consisted mainly of professional men like him, unrefined and happily driven to the endeavor of making money. This crowd of industrialists could not have been more different than the cultivated class Annabelle had always been familiar with. They talked too loudly, socialized too often and too long, and had no respect for tradition or manners. Simon was not entirely certain how Annabelle would accommodate such people, but she seemed game to try. He understood and appreciated her efforts more than she could have known.
He was well aware that scenes like the one she had endured two evenings ago would have reduced any other sheltered young woman to embarrassed tears, and yet Annabelle had handled it with relative poise. They had attended a soiree given by a wealthy French architect and his wife, a rather chaotic affair with flowing wine and too many guests, resulting in an atmosphere of raucous immoderation. Having left Annabelle at a table of acquaintances for just a few minutes, Simon had returned from a private conversation with the host to discover that his flustered wife had been cornered by two men who were drawing cards to see who would have the privilege of drinking champagne from her shoe.
Although the game was being played in a spirit of fun, it had been clear that the rivals for Annabelle’s favor were deriving a great amount of enjoyment from her discomfort. There was nothing more pleasurable to those of jaded disposition than assaulting someone’s modesty, especially when their victim was an obvious innocent. Although Annabelle had been trying to make light of it, the brazen game had distressed her, and the smile on her face had been entirely false. Standing from her seat, she had cast a quick glance around the room in search of sanctuary.
Maintaining a bland social facade, Simon had reached the table and slid a reassuring hand over Annabelle’s stiff back, his thumb stroking over the ridge at the exposed top of her spine. He had felt her relax slightly, and the hectic color had eased from her face as she looked up at him. “They’re quarreling over who will drink pink champagne from my shoe,” she had told him breathlessly. “I did not suggest it, and I don’t know how—”
“Well, that’s a problem easily solved,” Simon had interrupted matter-of-factly. He had been well aware that a crowd was gathering, eager to see if he would lose his temper over the men’s audacious advances toward his wife. Gently but firmly, he had guided Annabelle back into her chair. “Have a seat, sweetheart.”
“But I don’t want—” she had begun uneasily, and gasped as Simon sank to his haunches before her. Reaching beneath the hem of her skirts, he removed both her beaded satin slippers. “Simon!” Her eyes had been round with astonishment.
Standing, Simon had handed a slipper to each rival with a flourish. “You may have the shoes, gentlemen— just so long as you’re both aware that their contents belong to me.” Picking up his barefoot wife, he had carried her from the room, while the crowd reacted with laughter and applause. On the way out, they had passed the waiter who had been sent to fetch the bottle of champagne. “We’ll take that,” Simon told the dumbfounded waiter, who had handed the heavy chilled bottle to Annabelle.
Simon had carried Annabelle out to the carriage, while she clutched the bottle in one hand and curled her free arm around his neck. “You’re going to cost me a fortune in footwear,” he told her.
Laughter had shimmered in her eyes. “I have some more shoes back at the hotel,” she told him cheerfully. “Are you planning to drink champagne from one of them?”
“No, my love. I’m going to drink it from you.”
She had shot him a startled glance, and as understanding dawned, she had pressed her face against his shoulder, her ear turning crimson.
Recalling the episode, and the pleasurable hours that had followed, Simon looked down at the woman in his arms. The glittering light of eight chandeliers was reflected in her upturned eyes, filling them with tiny sparks that made the blue irises look like a starry summer midnight. She was staring at him with an intensity that she had never shown before, as if she yearned for something she might never have. The look disquieted him, eliciting a powerful need to satisfy her in any way possible. Whatever she might have asked him for in that moment, he would have given without a qualm.
No doubt they presented a hazard to every other couple there, as the room had become dreamily unfocused, and Simon couldn’t bring himself to give a damn about which direction they were going. They danced until people remarked dryly that it was rather gauche for a husband and wife to display such exclusivity at a ball, and that soon after the honeymoon they would tire of each other’s company. Simon only grinned at such comments, and bent to whisper in Annabelle’s ear. “Are you sorry now that you never danced with me?”
“No,” she whispered back. “If I hadn’t been a challenge, you would have lost interest.”
Letting out a low laugh, Simon hooked his arm around her waist and led her to the side of the room. “That would never happen. Everything you do or say interests me.”
“Really,” she said skeptically. “What about Lord Westcliff’s claim that I’m shallow and self-absorbed?”
As she faced him, Simon braced one hand on the wall near her head and leaned over her protectively. His voice was very soft. “He doesn’t know you.”
“And you do?”
“Yes, I know you.” He reached out to finger a tendril of damp hair that clung to her neck. “You guard yourself carefully. You don’t like to depend on anyone. You’re determined and strong-willed, and you’re decided in your opinions. Not to mention stubborn. But never self-absorbed. And anyone with your intelligence could never be called shallow.” He let his finger stray into the wisps of hair behind her ear. A teasing glint entered his eyes as he added, “You’re also delightfully easy to seduce.”
With an outraged laugh, Annabelle lifted a fist as if to pummel him. “Only for you.”
Chuckling, he grasped her fist in his large hand, and kissed the points of her knuckles. “Now that you’re my wife, Westcliff knows better than ever to utter another word of objection to you or the marriage. If he did, I would end the friendship without a second thought.”
“Oh, but I would never want that, I…” She looked at him in sudden bemusement. “You would do that for me?”
Simon traced a vein of golden hair that ran through the honey brown locks. “There is nothing I wouldn’t do for you.” The vow was sincere. Simon was not a man given to half measures. In return for Annabelle’s commitment to him, she would have his unequivocal loyalty and support.
Annabelle was unaccountably quiet for a long time after that, leading Simon to conclude that she was tired. But when they returned to their room at the Coeur de Paris that evening, she gave herself to him with a new fervor, trying to express with her body what she could not say in words.
As he had promised, Simon was a generous husband, paying for a lavish quantity of French-made gowns and accessories that would be sent to London when they were finished. When he took Annabelle to a jeweler’s shop one afternoon and told her to pick out anything she liked, she could only shake her head helplessly at the array of diamonds, sapphires, and emeralds spread on black velvet. After years of wearing paste stones and thrice-turned gowns, the habits of economy were slow to die.
“Is there nothing you like?” Simon prodded, lifting a necklace made of white and yellow diamonds strung together like strands of little flowers. He held it against her bare throat, admiring the glitter of diamonds against her fine skin. “What about this?”
“There are earrings to match, madame,” the jeweler said eagerly, “et aussi a bracelet that would accompany the piece quite well.”
“It’s beautiful,” Annabelle replied. “It’s just that…well, it seems so odd to walk into a shop and buy a necklace as casually as if it were a tin of sweets.”
Slightly perplexed by her diffidence, Simon regarded her intently, while the jeweler tactfully retreated to the back of the shop. Gently Simon laid the necklace back in its bed of velvet and took Annabelle’s hand in his. His thumb caressed the backs of her fingers. “What is it, sweet? There are other jewelers if this one’s wares are not to your taste—”
“Oh, it’s not that! I suppose I’m so accustomed to not buying things, that it’s rather difficult to adjust to the fact that I can now.”
“I have every expectation that you’ll be able to overcome that problem,” Simon replied dryly. “In the meanwhile, I’m tired of seeing you in paste jewels. If you can’t bring yourself to choose something, then allow me.” He proceeded to select two pairs of diamond earrings, the flowered necklace, a bracelet, two long ropes of pearls, and a ring with a five-carat pearshaped diamond. Unnerved by such extravagance, Annabelle had offered a few halfhearted protests, until Simon laughed and told her that the more she objected, the more he was going to buy. She promptly closed her mouth and watched with wide eyes as the jewelry was purchased and placed in a velvet-lined mahogany trunk with a little handle on top. Everything except the ring, which Simon slid onto her finger, ascertained that it was too loose, and gave it back to the jeweler.
“What about my ring?” Annabelle asked, holding the mahogany box with both hands as they left the shop. “Are we just going to leave it there?”
Amused, Simon arched his brow as he glanced down at her. “He’s going to resize the band and send it to the hotel later.”
“But what if it gets lost?”
“What happened to your objections? In the shop, you behaved as if you didn’t even want it.”
“Yes, but now it’s mine,” she said worriedly, causing him to roar with laughter.
To her relief, the ring was safely delivered to the hotel that evening, in a little velvet-lined box. While Simon gave a coin to the man who had brought it, Annabelle hurriedly emerged from her bath, dried herself, and donned a fresh white nightgown. Closing the door, Simon turned to discover that his wife was standing right behind him, her face lit with the anticipation of a child on Christmas morning. He couldn’t help smiling at her expression, seeing that her efforts to be ladylike were fast being demolished in a rush of excitement. The ring glittered and flashed as he took it from the box and reached for Annabelle’s hand. He slid the ring onto her fourth finger, fitting it snugly against the simple gold band he had given her on their wedding day.
Together they admired the sight of the diamond on her hand, until Annabelle threw her arms around him with an exclamation of delight. Before he could respond, she broke away and did a little dance of glee in her bare feet. “It’s so lovely—look how it sparkles! Simon, do go away—I’m well aware of how horridly mercenary I must appear. Never mind, I am mercenary, and you may as well know it. Oh, I do love this ring!”