(1st of Pennington Series) Impetuous Annabelle Pennington finds herself stranded in St. Augustine, alone, with no money, not even a change of clothing. Never having been separated from the protection of her family, she doesn’t know where to turn for help. As it turns out, help finds her. Two strangers come to her rescue. One, a well-dressed gentlemen who possesses all the social graces befitting a man of breeding. The other, a wealthy rogue with a handsome face and a no-nonsense demeanor. Each claiming that the other is a man to be wary of, a dangerous sort that a young woman should avoid. Annabelle is too naive to know which man to trust. She longs to trust the wealthy rogue, Marston J. Ashford. Perhaps because she is falling in love with him? She becomes trapped in a scheme of thievery and cunning, the pawn of a jewel thief, and victim of her own heart.
Annabelle Pennington hurried across the rotunda of the famous Ponce DeLeon Hotel and up the short flight of marble stairs that opened onto the hallway leading to the dining room. She was behind schedule, as usual. Her cousin, Caroline, had expected her in the dining hall several minutes ago and was probably impatient by now. For Annabelle tardiness was nothing new. Still, if she hadn’t spent so much time talking to the maid, she wouldn’t be late now. But the conversation had been too stimulating to resist.
Annabelle paid little heed to the variegated mosaic tile at her feet, the pattern designed by Henry Flagler himself. She didn’t pay any attention to the statues flanking the pillars around the rotunda, each one a different likeness of Flagler’s daughter. She passed through the beautiful French Renaissance hotel too quickly to admire any of the amazing architecture that had been put into it, the red Verona marble, the elegance, the opulence. There was no need of taking notice. After two weeks at the hotel, she had become very familiar with the romantic designs.
She sighed. The time had gone by too quickly. It was their last day in St. Augustine, and she was loath to let go of what had been their first taste of freedom. Still, the adventure had been fun while it lasted.
Convincing her father to allow her and Caroline to stay in St. Augustine unchaperoned had been no easy feat. Though a pushover when it came to his only daughter, he was protective as an old lion, and he capitulated only with great reluctance.
The entire family had spent the vast majority of the season in Ormond Beach, one of the new playgrounds for the wealthy. According to her father, it was the less licentious place to vacation, more suited to families with young girls. Much less game than the newly sanctioned Palm Beach, where Flagler had only just recently introduced gambling to the rich and pampered. It was at the end of this vacation that Annabelle had gotten the idea to stay on in Florida. St. Augustine had once been the hit of every season, but Palm Beach had rapidly taken over, leaving the old fort city to the elderly. It was a fact Annabelle had used for leverage, and it had worked.
“I’ll only allow this stay because St. Augustine is more sedate,” her father assured her.
“It’s full of old people,” she’d later grumbled to Caroline. “But it’s enough. We’ll be alone, and that’s all that matters.”
At the train station, Annabelle had barely been able to contain herself during the worried farewell from her mother and father, her fourteen-year-old brother rather indifferently hanging back. She hadn’t even bothered to give him a kiss. He was in such a strange mood these days. “The pain of adolescence,” her aunt had whispered.
With no more thought for her family, Annabelle had stepped off the platform, eager to embrace the famous city she’d heard so much about.
Even now, when the adventure was almost at an end, it still seemed like a dream come true. She could hardly believe she’d had the good fortune of experiencing it. The very idea of being alone, miles away from New York, an entire city at her feet, was just too...well...dreamy.
St. Augustine had seemed all their own for two nearly perfect weeks. Indeed, after the idle pleasantries at Ormond Beach, it turned out to be an absolutely fascinating city, with an entire world of exciting history to it. Stories of Spaniards and Indians abounded, and all the fascinating discoveries made up for the rather tired guest list at the hotel.
Annabelle had made certain they were never bored. She’d insisted on dragging Caroline to everything there was to be seen. Anastasia Island, golf at the fort, tennis matches behind the Ponce. They’d even gone swimming in the pool at the Alcazar. Caroline had balked at the unseemly notion, but Annabelle’s persuasive tactics had finally nudged her into the daring game.
Every day in St. Augustine had been a virtual flurry of activity. She only wished it could have lasted longer. But they were expected back in New York, and that’s precisely where they would be in just thirty-eight hours, transported there by Henry Flagler’s beautiful Pullman cars on his very own railroad.
Annabelle paused at the top of the steps to shift her hat to her free hand, and then continued down the hall. She was the height of fashion in her favorite day dress, a magnificent creation of the finest silk, with pin-tucked sleeves, swirling train, and matching hat.
As she hurried along, she became so absorbed in trying to pin her watch to her dress that she didn’t see the man coming out of the adjoining hall, didn’t even know anyone else was there until she bumped into him. Her hat had been dangling precariously from one hand as she struggled with the watch, but she dropped it the second she collided with the stranger.
“Oh!” Her cheeks burning with embarrassment, she backed away in shock. His body was so hard that running into him had been something akin to slamming into one of the pillars in the rotunda. And, goodness, he was tall. He must have been six feet two inches in his bare feet.
“Pardon me, miss. I didn’t see you there,” he apologized, removing his hat in deference to a lady.
Such an amazing voice. Deep and smooth and rich, like a fine brandy. Lord, what a specimen! He was so handsome it nearly robbed her of breath. He had the most incredible eyes, glittering chips of obsidian in a perfect face that was crowned by thick waves of jet-black hair.
He was a formidable man, with his arrogant stare, and he had a gaze so piercing she found it difficult to look at him. She felt awkward and rather plain in his presence. He was larger than life, the sort of man who would instantly be noticed in any crowd. Broad in the shoulders, narrow in the hips, he wore his dark suit with a sort of haughty pride to his carriage. She’d never seen a jaw so strong, a nose so straight, cheekbones so high, eyes so unbelievably sharp. And lips.... She peered up at him through her lashes. Lord, his lips. They were almost cruelly masculine. What would they feel like against her bare hand, against her own soft mouth.
She flushed hot. She shouldn’t entertain such ideas about a complete stranger, especially one so possessing of rugged appeal. Indeed, if he hadn’t been wearing an expensive, finely tailored suit, she could have easily imagined him to be a man given to dangerous liaisons, perhaps even espionage.
Oh, bother! She was letting her imagination get away with her. Although, he certainly fit the part. All dark looks and hard muscle. Such mystery.
There was a gleam in his eyes that bordered on an angry glitter, though she couldn’t for the life of her imagine what he had to be angry about. Surely not this little accidental bump.
She realized she’d been staring and dropped her gaze to the floor, only to see then that she’d left her hat lying at their feet. When he noticed her embarrassed glance, he bent to retrieve it for her. She tried not to notice the way his trousers stretched over the muscles of his thighs as he knelt down, tried not to notice the strong look to his hands, the grace of his movements. But it was impossible not to see and be stirred by these things.
He straightened again and silently held the hat out for her to take. Annabelle hesitated to do so. Despite her usual bravado in the face of new challenges, she had to admit she was a little afraid of the strong emotion this chance encounter had caused. He was perhaps the most interesting man she’d ever seen. She wondered that she had to run across him on this particular day of all days when she was preparing to leave St. Augustine to return to her family in New York. Why couldn’t it have been last week, or even last evening? Why the last day, of all days?
She snapped to attention and glanced up at the stranger in confusion. She’d been so intent on her own thoughts that she’d almost forgotten why she was there.
“Your hat,” he said simply, thrusting it closer.
Still a little afraid of brushing his hand, she quickly took it from him. He smiled, and her heart accelerated. She expected him to introduce himself, or strike up a conversation, but, much to her disappointment, he didn’t. He merely gave her a polite nod, then turned on his heel and walked off. Annabelle was left frozen beneath the marble arches, one hand at her throat as she stared after him. She’d never in all her life had the pleasure of encountering a man quite so captivating, quite so...virile. Her father spent a good deal of his time protecting her from men like this, men who had the strange power to take her breath away.
She silently reprimanded herself for being so ridiculous. She was behaving like a half-witted, moon-eyed girl in awe of this man’s very maleness. My goodness, she was a woman already. Nineteen-years-old. She should be more confident, in control, not a bumbling little fool. He was only a man, for heaven’s sake.
And that hat thing. He must have thought she’d dropped it at his feet on purpose, just so she could catch his eye. As if she couldn’t do so without resorting to tricks. After all, she was certainly beautiful enough. Petite, with red hair that reached her waist when it wasn’t rolled into a knot on top of her head. Wide amber eyes that should have looked innocent but were somehow too full of mischief to quite pull it off. Skin pale and smooth, except for a smattering of freckles across her nose. A tiny waist that was envied by all her friends, made to appear even tinier by the ample swell of breasts above it. She could turn any man’s head.
She had to wonder now. He hadn’t seemed nearly as affected by her beauty as she’d been by his tall good looks. How disappointing.
She frowned. She shouldn’t give him another thought. After all, to do so would only prove her to be something less than the worldly woman she’d like to consider herself. With great poise, she made a fuss of dusting her hat, although it hadn’t gotten a single speck of dirt on it, and then proceeded down the corridor to the dining hall where her cousin waited.
In the arched doorway, she paused to glance around. The Ponce DeLeon was an amazing hotel, immaculately kept, and the dining hall was no exception. All dark carved wood and pale, painted murals on the arched ceiling, a room that could seat eight hundred guests if need be. Yet, it wasn’t even half filled this afternoon. The few guests that were scattered around seemed swallowed in the enormous space.
She recognized an elderly couple who sat just inside the door, and waved to them. Since her arrival with Caroline, the couple had managed to keep a kindly eye on them. They were nice people really, but Annabelle hadn’t been able to resist giving them the slip now and then just so she and Caroline could have a few adventures away from their watchful eyes.
“Good morning, Mrs. Edwards. Mr. Edwards.”
“Good morning, Miss Annabelle,” Mr. Edwards answered.
Mrs. Edwards looked delighted to see her, and she immediately launched into conversation. “Annabelle, you and your cousin must have lunch with us this afternoon. We’re returning to Anastasia Island with a picnic. It will be such fun.”
“Oh, I am sorry, Mrs. Edwards, but Caroline and I are leaving for New York this afternoon.”
The woman’s face fell. “Oh, it will be such a shame to see you go.”
“Yes, I quite agree. Forgive me if I don’t linger, but my cousin is waiting for me.”
“Perhaps we’ll see you again sometime,” she chimed hopefully.
“Perhaps,” Annabelle agreed. But she seriously doubted it. If her father had his way, she’d be married by mid-summer, and then all her adventures would be brought to a rather hasty and disappointing end.
She murmured a polite goodbye and took her leave. She’d already spied her cousin conspicuously seated in a corner, and by the look of disapproval on her face, she was fit to be tied. Dear Caroline, tucked away from the crowd. Annabelle would have preferred a table right in the middle of the room, where she could see and be seen. But Caroline seemed to want to shrink into the walls wherever she was, so shy despite her beauty.
Caroline was the taller of the two, though only by a few inches. Where most of the Penningtons had red hair, Caroline was blonde with beautiful green eyes, and hadn’t the first freckle, a blessing Annabelle had always envied. She often wondered how her dear cousin had managed to escape the Pennington family trademark.
Still, they all possessed the Pennington spirit. She was so often told that she was too much like her father—the mister, as her mother liked to call him—high-spirited, determined. “Stubborn,” her Uncle James always told her, even though he himself suffered the same malady.
“Annabelle, what am I going to do with you? I swear you’re getting worse. You’re nearly twenty minutes late,” Caroline complained, frowning even more when she saw the tilt of mischief to her cousin’s mouth. “Seriously, Annabelle, this must stop. You’re just too careless for your own good. Not everyone will wait for you, you know. I dare say Eric won’t.”
Annabelle frowned. “I don’t care if Eric waits for me. I’m not sure I want to marry him, anyway. Besides, it isn’t as if we’ve announced our betrothal!”
“Well, you’ve certainly kept me waiting one too many times. I—”
“Oh, but just wait until you hear what I’ve learned,” she interrupted, perching her hat on the edge of the table as she sat down. “Then you’ll think the wait was worth it.”
Caroline opened her mouth to retort, but then closed it again. And there was a spark of interest in her eyes as she gazed back at Annabelle. Feeling smug about having captured her cousin’s attention, Annabelle eased back in her seat with a self-satisfied smile. She couldn’t help but prolong the moment a bit. It was just too delicious to pass up, this opportunity to make her cousin squirm with curiosity. Caroline was more the daredevil than she cared to admit, and it was obvious Annabelle had her hooked now.
“Annabelle Pennington, if you don’t tell me this instant, I’ll pinch you.”
Annabelle giggled and leaned forward again, eager to disclose the latest tidbit of gossip she’d managed to finagle from the maid.
“Do you know that married men who bring their wives to St. Augustine to stay at the Ponce DeLeon keep their mistresses across the street at the Alcazar.”
Caroline’s eyes went round with shock, and one slender hand automatically found its way to the heavily frilled bodice of her dress. “It can’t be true.”
“But it is,” Annabelle literally squealed, her entire body animated with excitement. “Isn’t it just the most unbearably intriguing thing you’ve ever heard?”
“It’s the most awful thing I’ve ever heard!” Caroline cried, looking thoroughly appalled. “Where did you hear such a lie?”
Annabelle frowned in the face of her cousin’s skepticism. “It’s not a lie.”
Caroline looked crestfallen.
“Oh, Caroline! Don’t be such a prude. You know married men have mistresses. It happens all the time.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of. I just don’t want my future husband, whoever that may be, to have a....” She didn’t seem able to say the word.
Annabelle’s delight waned in the face of her cousin’s distress. She hadn’t meant to upset her, only to shock those delicate sensibilities she so stubbornly clung to.
“Oh! Now I wish I’d never told you. The fun is all spoiled, and I didn’t even get to finish.”
Caroline stopped twisting her ruche in her fingers and gazed at her from across the table. “Well, by all means, finish.”
Annabelle smiled. Her story was obviously too interesting to keep her cousin upset for long. “Apparently there is an underground tunnel that connects the two hotels. The men simply tell their wives they’re going to the bar, and then they take the tunnel to the Alcazar for a rendezvous with their mistress. Isn’t that just too wicked?”
“Why, it’s downright tragic, I tell you. It pains me to even think it. You ought to be ashamed of yourself, Annabelle, spreading such terrible stories.”
“But it’s true, and I can prove it. I’ll find the tunnel.”
“Don’t be silly. There’s no time. Our train is leaving in just a few hours.”
“We’ll make the time. I tell you, Caroline, a woman has to be smart these days, calculating. We have to stay one step ahead of these men, to keep them honest. I swear no husband of mine will have a mistress. I’d stab him clean through to his black heart if....”
She trailed off when she realized her cousin wasn’t paying her the slightest bit of attention. Instead, Caroline was gazing intently past her shoulder at something on the other side of the room.
“Caroline? What is it?”
“That man over there is watching you. Do you know him?”
Annabelle started to turn around.
“Don’t look!” Caroline hissed. “That would be too obvious.”
Annabelle ignored her and looked, anyway. Her cheeks went warm when she realized it was the man she’d bumped into in the hall. He was looking directly at her. For one heart-stopping moment their gazes locked, and even from the distance between them his eyes glittered with mystery and intrigue. Everything else in the room dimmed and faded away until there was only him in the very center of her vision, and she felt rather than heard the catch in her throat as she drew in a sharp breath. She couldn’t seem to make herself look away. It was as if he had mesmerized her somehow. But then, thankfully, she managed to tear her gaze from his before she literally swooned from the impact of his stare.
Still, it seemed strangely warm all of a sudden, and she had to resist the urge to fan herself as she turned to meet Caroline’s curious stare. She hoped she looked more composed than she felt. She didn’t want her cousin to see what a profound affect the man had on her. But she was not so indifferent on the inside. The handsome stranger had an odd way of making her heart beat a little too fast.
“I bumped into him in the hall,” she managed. It was a lame explanation, not nearly enough to accurately describe an experience that had left her breathless with an emotion she’d never felt before. Not even when Eric had pressed that first kiss to her mouth. In fact, there didn’t seem to be anything on all of God’s earth that could compare to that one moment when her body had accidentally brushed against the hard chest of this total stranger.