“Ramsey,” he said. The valet had begun dusting off his already pristine dinner jacket sleeve.
“If you were to walk in on me in my study, and you saw me standing amid great chaos, and a pair of legs sticking out from under my desk, what would you do?”
Ramsey went still. Carefully raised his eyes to ascertain his mood, though he’d know by now that he wouldn’t see anything Sebastian didn’t choose to show. “Why, Your Grace,” he then said, “I would fetch a broom.”
Indeed he would.
“That will be all, Ramsey.”
He had to lead his guests into the dining room and spend the next three hours not strangling his brother.
* * *
Peregrin approached the seat next to him much as a well-bred man would approach a whipping post: collected, pale, and rather stiff in the legs. His normally wayward hair was meticulously slicked and parted. But he was evading Sebastian’s eyes like a coward. God grant him strength—if he were to fall off his horse tomorrow, eight hundred years of Montgomery history would pass into this boy’s hands. Castle Montgomery would move out of his family’s reach forever. Not strangling Peregrin would take some effort.
Scraping and shuffling ensued as people were being seated; further down the table there was a subdued commotion as Lord Hampshire and Lord Palmer batted their eyes at the men to their left, and James Tomlinson pretended to fan himself. They sat in the seat where a lady would have sat, had someone with half a brain organized the house party. As it was, the elderly aunt of Julien Greenfield and three bluestockings were scattered among thirteen young men. Sebastian wouldn’t even try to begin understanding such a thing.
“How refreshing, to have so many young people at one table,” Greenfield’s aunt said loudly from his right.
“Isn’t it just,” he replied smoothly.
Peregrin seemed deeply fascinated by his empty plate.
Footmen lined up and lifted silver domes off the first dish, revealing choice pieces of pheasant in a blood-red sauce.
Cutlery clinked; wineglasses reflected the candlelight.
Peregrin still hadn’t mustered the courage to look at him. Sebastian glared at his brother’s profile, his anger on the tipping point to wrath.
Ever so slowly, Peregrin raised his gaze to him.
A shudder ran through the young man when their gazes locked.
Sebastian gave him a thin smile. “How is the pheasant?”
Peregrin’s eyes widened. “It’s excellent, thank you.” He poked his fork at his food. “I, ah, trust your journey was uneventful, sir?”
“It was,” Sebastian said, taking a sip from his water. “It was upon my arrival that things became interesting.”
Peregrin swallowed audibly.
The guests had fallen into animated conversation. He could pick out the calm hum of Miss Archer’s alto voice from the other end of the table, followed by the too-loud laughter of the eager young men around her. He nearly scoffed. Whatever it was that would truly keep a woman like Miss Archer entertained, none of those boys could provide it.
“I will go to London tomorrow,” he said to Peregrin, “and when I’m back on Monday, I shall expect you in my study at six o’clock.”
He hadn’t thought it possible, but his brother’s face turned even whiter.
And just to see what would happen, he picked up his knife and skewered the slab of meat on his plate.
Peregrin’s fork clattered onto the table.
Sixteen heads swiveled toward them, as if a shot had been fired.
Annabelle woke from a soft clanking noise she couldn’t place. She was of a mind to ignore it, for the pillow beneath her cheek was incredibly, alluringly soft, a cloud in her arms.
And . . . unfamiliar.
And it was past six o’clock; she felt it in her bones.
She had overslept.
She lurched into a sitting position, and a squeak sounded somewhere in the shadows.
The shapes of the room came into focus: opulent bedposts, high windows, the faint glint of a chandelier . . . she was in the Duke of Montgomery’s house, and there was a maid by the fireplace with a poker.
She sagged back into the pillows. There was no fire she needed to tend, no cousin or half a dozen children waiting for their breakfast . . .
She ran a hand over her face. Her forehead was damp. “What time is it?”
“About six thirty, miss,” the maid said. “Would you like me to send for some tea?”
How tempting, to have tea in bed. Despite the extra half hour of sleep, her body felt oddly sluggish. But she still had a translation to do before the activities of the day began. She forced a leg out of bed. Her foot was heavy as if filled with lead.
“Will there be any breakfast at the table at this time?” she asked.
The maid’s eyes widened when she seemed to piece together her intentions. She had probably never seen a houseguest rise before dawn. Noblemen didn’t rise until noon; Annabelle had that on good account.
* * *
The footman marched ahead into the breakfast room, then halted abruptly to click his heels together. “Your Grace, Miss Archer,” he announced.
She nearly froze in midstride.
Indeed. There was already someone at the foot of the table. He was concealed by a wide-open newspaper, but there was no mistaking the master of the house.
Naturally, she had to be the guest of the one nobleman in England who didn’t rise at noon.
Montgomery’s eyes met hers over the rim of the paper, startlingly alert despite the hour, and their impact caused a swift, warm bloom of awareness in her belly. She tightly clasped her hands in front of her.
One of Montgomery’s straight brows flicked up. “Miss Archer. Is anything amiss?”
He unsettled her.
His damned intelligent eyes and effortless self-assurance impressed upon her, and now her body wasn’t able to shake the feel of him. It remembered the strength of his arm around her, the feel of his hard chest against her back, the cool touch of his lips against her ear . . . his scent, so subtle and yet compelling, had clung to her until she had soaked in the bath last night. Her body knew things about him now and was intrigued when it shouldn’t be. She did not even like the man.
“I was told I may have breakfast here, Your Grace.”
“You may,” he said, and she had the impression that he was making a number of quick decisions as he spoke. He put the paper down and gestured to a footman to begin preparing the place to his left.
Her stomach dropped. That was not where she should sit. But he was already folding up the newspaper as if the matter were very much settled.
It was a long walk past empty chairs and yards of table to reach her assigned seat.
Montgomery was watching her with his neutral aristo expression. A diamond pin glinted equally impenetrable against the smooth black silk of his cravat.
“I trust it was not something in your room that had you rising this early?” he asked.
“The room is excellent, Your Grace. I simply don’t find that it’s that early in the day.”
That seemed to spark some interest in his eyes. “Indeed, it isn’t.”
Unlike her, he probably hadn’t had to be trained to rise before dawn. He probably enjoyed such a thing.
The footman who had moved her chair leaned over her shoulder. “Would you like tea or coffee, miss?”
“Tea, please,” she said, mindful not to thank him, because one did not say thank you to staff in such a house. He proceeded to ask whether she wanted him to put a plate together for her, and because it would have been awkward to get up again right after sitting down, she said yes. In truth, she wasn’t hungry. The maid must have laced in her stomach more tightly than she was accustomed.
Montgomery seemed to have long finished eating. Next to his stack of newspapers was an empty cup. Just why had he ordered her to sit next to him? He had been immersed in his read. But she knew now that he was a dutiful man. Being polite was probably as much a duty to him as riding out into the cold to save a willful houseguest from herself. She would have to make a note on his profile sheet, very polite. As long as he didn’t mistake one for a social climbing tart, of course.
“You are one of Lady Tedbury’s activists,” he said.
Well. Does not mince words.
“Yes, Your Grace.”
She could sense interest in him, genuine interest.
Beads of sweat gathered on her back.
She had the ear of their enemy, and she was not in shape. Calm. Stay calm.
“I’m a woman,” she said. “It is only natural for me to believe in women’s rights.”
Montgomery gave a surprisingly Gallic, one-shouldered shrug. “Plenty of women don’t believe in this kind of women’s rights,” he said, “and whether the 1870 Property Act is amended or not will not make a difference for you personally.”
There it was again, the arrogance. Of course he guessed she didn’t have any property to lose to a husband, and thus no voting rights to forfeit. His arrogance was most annoying when it was right on the truth.
She licked her dry lips. “I also believe in Aristotelian ethics,” she said, “and Aristotle says that there is greater value in striving for the common good than the individual good.”
“But women didn’t have the vote in the Greek democracies,” he said, a ghost of a smile hovering over his mouth. One could almost think he was enjoying this.