The gleam in his eyes made her reckless. “They forgot to include women’s rights in the common good,” she said. “An easy mistake; it seems to be forgotten frequently.”
He nodded. “But then what do you make of the fact that men without property cannot vote, either?”
He was enjoying this. Like a tomcat enjoyed swatting at a mouse before he ate it.
A mallet had begun pounding her temples, turning her skull into a mass of pulsing ache. But they were alone, and she had his ear. She had to try.
“Perhaps there should be more equality for the men as well, Your Grace.” That had been the wrong thing to say.
He shook his head. “A socialist as well as a feminist,” he said. “Do I need to worry about the corruption of my staff while you are here, Miss Archer? Will I have mutiny on my hands when I return from London tomorrow?”
“I wouldn’t dare,” she murmured. “There’s probably a dungeon under the house.”
He contemplated her with a hawklike gaze. “There is,” he said, and then, “Are you quite well, miss?”
“I’m fine.” Dungeon? There was no denying any longer that she had a wee fever.
The footman reappeared and placed a plate under her nose. Kippers and fried kidneys and a greenish mush. A hot, salty fragrance wafted up, and her stomach roiled.
Montgomery snapped his fingers. “Bring Miss Archer an orange, peeled,” he said to no one in particular.
She stared at his hand, gloveless and now idle again on the table. An elegant hand, with long, elegant fingers. It could have belonged to a man who’d mastered a classical instrument. On its pinky, the dark blue sapphire on the ducal signet ring seemed to swallow the light like a tiny ocean.
She felt his eyes on her, felt him noticing that she was noticing him.
“That’s the Manchester Guardian,” she said quickly, nodding at the paper he had put aside.
Montgomery gave her a wry look. “I take it you took me for a Times reader.”
“The Morning Post, actually.” A paper even more stuffy than the Times. Suffragists read the Guardian.
“Right on all accounts,” he said, and lifted the copy of the Guardian to reveal the Times. Then the Morning Post.
“That’s very thorough, Your Grace.”
“Not really. When you want to understand what is happening in the country at large, you read all sides.”
She remembered that this was the man the queen had put in charge of leading the Tory party to victory. He would want to know all that was happening in the country, the better to steer it.
Ah, she had sensed it already on Parliament Square when they had locked eyes, had sensed it like any creature recognized one of its kind: Montgomery was a clever, clever man. It was as unsettling as the intimate knowledge that his silky waistcoat concealed a well-muscled body.
She reached for the teacup, and the delicate china rattled and tea sloshed over the rim.
“Apologies,” she murmured.
Montgomery’s gaze narrowed at her.
A footman swooped, picked up cup and flooded saucer, and carried it off.
She tried to stretch, to get more air into her lungs. It didn’t help; a boulder seemed to crush her chest.
“I beg your pardon,” she whispered. “I have to excuse myself.”
The duke said something, but she couldn’t quite make sense of it. Her legs were heavy; she all but struggled to her feet. One step, another step, away from the table . . . her vision dimmed.
Oh, lord no.
A chair scraped across the floor, and she fell headlong into a black tunnel.
* * *
She came to flat on her back, her body buzzing as if swarmed by a million bees. She was on a settee, with her feet propped up and the acrid stench of smelling salts in her nose. Faces were hovering above her. Mrs. Beecham the housekeeper, the butler, and Montgomery.
The duke’s expression was grim. “So you were not fine,” he said.
She glowered at him, he who had practically compelled her to become ill with his doom-say prophecy on the fields yesterday.
“I’m fine enough, Your Grace.”
He went down on one knee beside her, his eyes hard. “You would have cracked your head on the floor had I not caught you.”
Damsel on his horse, damsel fainting into his arms. She was gripped by the insane impulse to laugh, and it came out as an awful choking sound. Mrs. Beecham clasped a worried hand over her mouth.
“My physician will be here shortly,” Montgomery said.
A doctor? She made to sit up. “I can’t—”
His hand closed over her shoulder and pushed her back down, gently but firm.
“She might be delirious,” the butler said to Mrs. Beecham, as if she couldn’t hear him.
“You don’t understand,” she said, hating the desperation in her voice. She hadn’t been ill since she had been a girl. She couldn’t be, there was always something that needed doing. Now it was her coursework . . . her pupils . . .
“Whom may I notify?” Montgomery asked.
The words rolled through her head sluggishly. “Professor Jenkins,” she said. “I don’t think I’ll finish the translation on time.”
“Definitely delirious,” Mrs. Beecham said, “the poor thing.”
“I meant a next of kin, miss,” Montgomery said impatiently.
“Oh,” she said. “There’s no one.”
What good would it do to tell Gilbert? She was the one taking care of them; he’d only become flustered. Tears stung hotly in her nose. If she fell behind in her coursework, she’d jeopardize her stipend . . . her future . . . “There’s no one,” she repeated, “so I can’t . . . I can’t be ill.”
There was a pause.
“I see,” Montgomery said. She glanced at him, for his tone had softened suspiciously.
“You will be in good hands here,” he said. She realized his hand was still on her shoulder, its weight anchoring her body, which seemed to have turned to hot steam.
“I cannot afford—” A doctor, she wanted to say, but he shook his head.
“You will be safe here.”
A promise of a tall order. But he sounded so calm, there was no question that what he said would be done. That one could safely let him take over for a while. Apparently, one didn’t have to like a man to trust him.
* * *
Sebastian was pacing in front of Miss Archer’s chamber door, frowning at the pocket watch in his hand. By the looks of it, he’d be well on his way to London before Dr. Bärwald arrived, and he’d have to rely on his butler to give all the proper instructions.
She would have fainted and fallen in midwalk, like timber. And the gleam of panic in her eyes just now . . . He would not feel guilty about this. She was a grown woman in possession of all her senses. It had been entirely her decision to take off in freezing temperatures in a threadbare coat.
He slid the watch back into his pocket and turned to Bonville. “Should her condition worsen while I’m in London, have a telegram sent to the Belgravia residence.”
The butler’s lips pursed in surprise. “Yes, Your Grace.”
The butler stepped closer. “Your Grace?”
“Tell my man to find out about Miss Archer.”
Annabelle jerked awake, heart pounding and gasping for breath. It was the old nightmare, the fall from a great height, and just as her every muscle had braced for impact, her eyes slitted open.
The bright light of a winter morning sliced right into her skull.
“Fiddlesticks.” Her voice emerged as a croak.
“You’re awake.” Hattie bounced out of the armchair by the fireplace; Catriona rose with more decorum. The mattress dipped as they both settled on the edge of the bed, their gazes homing in on her.
Annabelle dragged herself into a sitting position and tucked her disheveled braid back behind her ear. “What time is it?” she whispered.
“Nine o’clock,” Hattie said, handing her a glass of water. “December sixteenth,” she added.
Good gracious. Monday. So she had slept a day and two nights and remembered very little. She took a sip of water.
Hattie made to feel her forehead. “How do you feel?”
Battered. Like a wall had collapsed on her. “A little tired,” she said, “thank you.”
Both her friends had faint purple crescents beneath their eyes. It must have been their soft fingers that she had felt on her face in her fever dreams. They had kept her cool and hydrated.
Her throat squeezed shut. “I never meant to ruin this house party for you.” In fact . . . “Weren’t we meant to leave yesterday?”
“You were in no position to travel, so we sent word and stayed,” Catriona said. “We will stay for a few more days.”
Aghast, she put down the glass. “That’s very kind but hardly necessary.”
Hattie tutted. “We can hardly leave you here all alone; the duke is practically a bachelor.”
Bother, but that was true.
She shifted under the blankets. It was physically uncomfortable, accepting such care lavished upon her person, like wearing an itchy corset. Or perhaps that was the feeling of guilt. She could tell that they were waiting for an explanation for all of this, politely, patiently.