Kiss Me, Annabel Page 1

Author: Eloisa James

Series: Essex Sisters #0

Genres: Romance , Historical

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One


London


April, 1817


The day the Scotsman came to Lady Feddrington’s ball, Annabel’s sister decided to give him her virtue, and Annabel decided not to give him her hand in marriage.


In neither case had the Scotsman indicated a particular interest in undertaking such intimate activities with an Essex sister, but his participation was taken for granted. And, naturally, both of these decisions took place in the ladies’ retiring room, which is where everything of importance takes place at a ball.It was in those middle hours, when the initial excitement has worn away and women have an uneasy feeling that their noses are shiny and their lips pale. Annabel peeked into the retiring room and found it empty. So she sat down before the large mirrored dressing table, and started trying to pin her unruly curls so they would stay above her shoulders for the rest of the evening. Her sister Imogen, Lady Maitland, plumped down beside her.


“This ball is nothing more than a breeding ground for parasites,” Imogen said, scowling at her reflection. “Lord Beekman has twice asked me to dance with him. As if I would even contemplate dancing with that plump toadlet. He should look lower…perhaps in the scullery.”


She looked magnificent, a few gleaming black curls falling to her shoulders, and the rest piled high on her head. Her eyes sparkled with the displeasure of receiving too much attention. In all, she had the magnificent rage of a young Helen of Troy, stolen by the Greeks and taken from her homeland.


It must be rather annoying, Annabel thought, to have nowhere to direct all that emotion except toward unwary gentlemen who do nothing more despicable than ask for a dance. “There is always the chance that no one has told the poor toadlet that Lady Maitland is such a very grand person.” She said it lightly, since mourning had turned Imogen into a person whom none of them knew very well.


Imogen flashed her an impatient look, twitching one of her curls over her shoulder so that it nestled seductively on her bosom. “Don’t be a widgeon, Annabel. Beekman is interested in my fortune and nothing more.”


Annabel raised an eyebrow in the direction of Imogen’s virtually nonexistent bodice. “Nothing more?”


A sketch of a smile touched Imogen’s lips, one of the few Annabel had seen in recent months. Imogen had lost her husband the previous fall, and after her first six months of mourning she had joined Annabel in London for the season. Currently she was amusing herself by shocking respectable matrons of the ton by flaunting a wardrobe full of mourning clothing cut in daring styles that left little of her figure to the imagination.


“You have to expect attention,” Annabel pointed out. “After all, you dressed for it.” She let a little sarcasm creep into her tone.


“Do you think that I should buy another of these gowns?” Imogen asked, staring into the mirror. She gave a seductive roll of her shoulders and the bodice settled even lower on her chest. She was dressed in black faille, a perfectly respectable fabric for a widow. But the modiste had saved on fabric, for the bodice was nothing more than a few scraps of cloth, falling to a narrow silhouette that clung to every curve. The pièce de résistance was a trim of tiny white feathers around the bodice. The feathers nestled against Imogen’s breasts and made every man who glimpsed them throw caution to the wind.


“No one has a need for more than one dress of that pattern,” Annabel pointed out.


“Madame Badeau has threatened to make another. She complains that she must sell two in order to justify her design. And I should not like to see another woman in this particular gown.”


“That’s absurd,” Annabel said. “Many women have gowns of the same design. No one will notice.”


“Everyone notices what I wear,” Imogen said, and one had to admit it was a perfect truth.


“ ’Tis an indulgence to order another gown merely to allow it to languish in your wardrobe.”


Imogen shrugged. Her husband had died relatively penniless, but then his mother had fallen into a decline and died within a month of her son. Lady Clarice had left her private estate to her daughter-in-law, making Imogen one of the wealthiest widows in all England. “I’ll have the gown made up for you, then. You must promise to wear it only in the country, where no one of importance can see you.”


“That gown will fall to my navel if I bend over, which hardly suits a debutante.”


“You’re no ordinary debutante,” Imogen jibed. “You’re older than me, and all of twenty-two, if you remember.”


Annabel counted to ten. Imogen was grieving. One simply had to wish that grieving didn’t make her so—so bloody-minded. “Shall we return to Lady Griselda?” she said, rising and looking one last time at the glass.


Suddenly Imogen was at her shoulder, smiling penitently. “I’m sorry to be so tiresome. You’re the most beautiful woman at the ball, Annabel. Look at the two of us together! You’re glowing and I look like an old crow.”


Annabel grinned at that. “A crow you’re not.” There was a similarity to their features: they both had slanting eyes and high cheekbones. But where Imogen’s hair was raven black, Annabel’s was the color of honey. And where Imogen’s eyes flashed, Annabel knew quite well that her greatest strength was a melting invitation that men seemed unable to resist.


Imogen pulled another curl onto the curve of her breast. It looked rather odd, but Imogen’s temper was not something to risk lightly, and so Annabel held her tongue.


“I’ve made up my mind to take a cicisbeo,” Imogen said suddenly. “To hold off Beekman, if nothing else.”


“What?” Annabel said. “A what?”


“A gallant,” Imogen said impatiently. “A man to take me about.”


“You’re thinking about marrying again?” Annabel was truly surprised. To the best of her knowledge, Imogen was still dissolving into tears every night over her husband’s death.


“Never,” Imogen said. “You know that. But I don’t intend to let fools like Beekman spoil my enjoyment either.” Their eyes met in the mirror. “I’m going to take Mayne. And I’m not talking about marriage.”


“Mayne!” Annabel gasped. “You can’t!”


“Of course I can,” Imogen said, looking amused. “There’s nothing to stop me from doing anything I wish. And I believe that I would like the Earl of Mayne.”


“How can you even consider such an idea? He jilted our own sister, practically at the altar!”


“Are you implying that Tess would be better off with Mayne than with Felton? She adores her husband,” Imogen pointed out.


“Of course not. But that doesn’t change the fact that Mayne deserted her!”


“I have not forgotten that point.”


“But for goodness’ sakes, why?”


Imogen cast her a scornful glance. “You have to ask?”


“Punishment,” Annabel guessed. “Don’t do it, Imogen.”


“Why not?” Imogen turned to the side and regarded her figure. It was exquisite in every curve. And every curve was visible. “I’m bored.”


Annabel saw a glint of cruelty in her sister’s eyes and caught her arm. “Don’t do it. I’ve no doubt you can make Mayne fall in love with you.”

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