She wondered how sympathetic they’d be if they knew the real reason why she had taken off like a rifle shot.
Ladies, seven years ago, I had a lover. No, not the letter-writing type who steals a kiss or two; the type who rucks up your skirts and takes your innocence, and his father berated me just like the duke did, and so I ran.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “As I said in the note—the duke recognized me and it resulted in a misunderstanding. I left too hastily.”
“But you see, that’s the worrying part,” Hattie said. “You are always so thoughtful. We couldn’t see you doing anything hasty—unless . . .”
“Say, was he awfully horrible to you?”
You picked the wrong man . . . your efforts will lead you nowhere . . . She cringed a little just recalling Montgomery’s words.
“He was not his charming self,” she said.
Hattie pursed her lips. “He has a charming self?”
But then she remembered how he had looked with his hat in his hand there on the hill. Sincere. Infinitely more valuable than charming . . .
“His valet delivered this for you,” Catriona said, pointing at the nightstand.
There was a stack of books that hadn’t been there before.
“There’s a note.” Hattie handed her the white envelope. “We have been dying to know what it says.”
The paper of the note was thick and smooth like pressed silk. The ducal monogram was engraved across the top in golden swirls.
Dear Miss Archer,
His Grace the Duke of Montgomery wishes you a speedy recovery. He puts these books at your disposal: some Voltaire, Rousseau, and Locke, as well as some more lighthearted reading. If you have a specific book in mind, please do not hesitate to ask for it. The library is at your disposal.
Annabelle handed the note to her friends. “He wishes me a speedy recovery,” she said, perusing the books. Voltaire, Rousseau, Locke. Notably all of them were philosophers with ideas about democracy. The last book, a hefty tome, she didn’t know.
“Dostoyevsky,” Catriona said, “a Russian novel recently translated to English. I hear it’s all the rage in London.”
Annabelle opened to the first page. “Crime and Punishment. A shocking tale about a student and the perils of ideological intoxication,” she read out. She looked up. “His Grace is sending a message about political activism,” she said sourly.
Or was this his idea of a joke? She knew now that a clever sense of humor lurked beneath the cool façade. If it was a joke, it was a strangely private one.
She sank back into the pillows, already exhausted and unsure whether to smile or to frown. She might not exactly like him. But she very, very much wanted to make sense of him.
* * *
A tentative rap on the door had Sebastian glancing from his desk at the clock. His brother was punctual to the minute. Regrettable, that Peregrin acted in a disciplined manner only when he felt the noose tightening around his neck. That was about to change.
His brother sidled into the room, his expression somber.
“Sit,” Sebastian said.
Peregrin hesitated. “May I offer an apology first?” There were dark smudges under his eyes. He looked as though he hadn’t slept a wink.
Peregrin let out a shuddering breath. “I regret what I have done,” he began. “I just wanted some company before going to Wales. I didn’t do it to provoke you for the sake of it; they were supposed to be gone by the time you returned.”
And he had done well until that last sentence. A faint pulse began beating in Sebastian’s ears. “Surely you must have expected that there would be consequences either way.”
Peregrin swallowed. “The truth is, once I thought better of it, I didn’t think I could rescind the invitations.”
“Sit,” Sebastian repeated, and then he said, “That’s the issue, isn’t it. You get caught in traps of your own making, because you act without considering the consequences.” He braced his arms on the desk. “That’s the behavior of a child, Peregrin. The world of men does not work that way. There is always a price to pay for your actions, and no one is going to pay it for you.”
Peregrin’s gaze skittered away. “I know I’ve earned a punishment for this.”
“I’m not going to punish you.”
Hazel eyes narrowed at him with suspicion.
“Make no mistake,” he said, “you belong in the stocks. But since the corrective effects are obviously lost on you, I don’t see the point.” He picked up the paper he had brought back from London. “I met with Admiral Blyton yesterday.”
Peregrin went still.
Sebastian slid the form across the desk. “Your acceptance letter to the Royal Navy.”
A parade of emotions chased across Peregrin’s face: confusion, disbelief, panic. Panic it was. He made to rise, the blood drained from his face. “No.”
Sebastian leveled a glare at him. “Sit down. And, yes.”
Peregrin gripped the edge of the desk. “I’m not a soldier.”
“Obviously,” Sebastian said. “If you were, you would know a modicum of discipline and I wouldn’t have encountered sixteen uninvited guests in my house.”
Peregrin blinked at him as if he were seeing him for the first time. “You would send me to my death because of a party?”
“Your death?” The pulse began to pound in his ears. “Peregrin, this is training, not combat.”
“But these ships—they are infested with deadly diseases and rotten food and . . . rats!”
“In the navy with the highest hygiene standards in the world? Nonsense.”
“I’d be at sea for weeks, months,” Peregrin yelped.
“That has not yet killed a man, either,” Sebastian said, feeling entirely unmoved. “You will leave for Plymouth in February. Now sign it.”
Peregrin was staring at pen and paper before him as if they were a cup of hemlock.
When he looked up, his lips were trembling. “You . . . you can’t make me.”
That didn’t even merit a response. He could make Peregrin do anything; he could lock him up or toss him out, cut off all his credit, and turn the peers of the realm against him. He could take the last shirt on his back and no one would dare question him about it. Such was the lot of younger sons and brothers.
Sweat gathered on Peregrin’s brow. “I could prove myself,” he croaked. “Have me run one of the northern estates for a year . . .”
“Brother, please.” The words dropped between them helplessly like birds shot down in flight.
The fear in his brother’s voice felt like a punch to the chest.
His own brother was afraid of him, as if he were some crazed tyrant, demanding unreasonable things.
Abruptly, he came to his feet. Wariness flashed across Peregrin’s face, and that only irritated him more. He rounded his desk, only just stopping short of grabbing his brother by the scruff of his neck.
Peregrin scrambled to his feet, and Sebastian gripped his shoulder and spun him toward the wall.
“Look at this,” he said, pointing at the rows of estate paintings. “This is not just about you. We have ten estates in two countries. Our family is one of the oldest in Britain, we are one of the biggest landholders in England, and if I fell off my horse and broke my neck tomorrow, all of this would be in your hands.” He turned his brother to face him. “Unless you are a capable man, our house would bury you like an avalanche, and you won’t be the only one going down. Do you think the lives of thousands of staff and tenants are a game? Christ, getting Castle Montgomery back is a mission in its own right, and not a day goes by when I don’t detest the fact that our family seat is in the hands of another man.”
Peregrin’s eyes flashed with the wild, reckless look of a man cornered. “But that is it,” he said. “I don’t want this.”
“What was that?”
“I can’t, don’t you see?” His voice was rising, actually rising. “I can’t. I can’t be you.”
“Keep your voice down,” Sebastian said, his own voice having dropped dangerously low.
Peregrin began to squirm in his grip. “You don’t care what happens to me; if I weren’t your heir, you wouldn’t even notice my existence, but I can’t be duke.”
The revelations fell like blows. Suddenly pieces shifted into place, and things that had long seemed senseless began making sense. Icy fury rose in his throat. “Is that what this has been about all along? Your absurd behavior? To demonstrate how unfit you are?”
Peregrin’s eyes were glittering hot, his hand clutching at Sebastian’s restraining arm. “It’s not my place to be duke.”
“Hereditary succession says it is, whether you like it or not,” Sebastian said coldly.
“You could have sons,” Peregrin shot back. “Why don’t you? Why do you make me pay for that?”