Suddenly they were toe to toe, his hand a fist in his brother’s jacket, and Peregrin’s face twisted with fury and disbelief. He still gave like a puppy in his grip.
It halted Sebastian in his tracks like a wall.
God. It shouldn’t even have come this far.
He dropped his hand and stepped back, his pulse thrumming in his neck.
Peregrin sagged into himself.
Well, bloody hell. Sebastian straightened his sleeves. He took another backward step, put more distance between them.
His brother’s cheeks were burning red, but he had pulled himself together, waiting, watching him defiantly and no doubt feeling sorry for himself.
Not that long ago, the boy had barely come up to his elbow, his hair a mop of fluffy blond curls. Not notice his existence? Sebastian shook his head. He would step in the path of a bullet for his brother, as reflexively as he drew breath.
When he spoke next, his voice was implacable. “In February, you will go to Plymouth. And I will forget the things you said today.”
Peregrin’s eyes shuttered. He gave a slow nod. “Yes, sir.” And he kept nodding as he dropped his gaze and stared at his shoes, and Sebastian understood that it was to force back tears.
He turned to look out the window. Against the black of night, he saw only his own distorted reflection.
“I advise you to see it as an opportunity and not as a punishment,” he said. He should probably have said something more, but as usual when tears were involved, no words came to mind. “Sign it. Then you may leave.”
* * *
Somewhere in her diary, his former wife said that he had a lump of ice where others had a heart. He was inclined to agree. He turned cold from the inside out when faced with adversity, a reflex, like another man’s pulse might speed up in the face of danger. If that was being heartless, so be it. It had advantages that a part of his brain kept cool under all circumstances. Except, apparently, when his brother stabbed into his Achilles’ heel with the precision of Paris himself.
You could have sons . . . why don’t you?
The hour was nearing midnight now, the fire crackling low on the grate, but his brother’s voice still echoed through his study, and it had him reaching for his cigarette case.
He leaned back in his chair and exhaled smoke.
Watched through the wafting gray tendrils, Castle Montgomery appeared to come alive on the dark office wall across. It was always misty around the castle. It was a place of shadows and echoes. It had never felt like a home; now it had long become a ball and chain. But duty was duty. One did not lose an ancestral seat in a card game.
Why don’t you?
His brother was an idiot. But he had a point.
He bent and unlocked the bottom drawer of his desk.
There glinted the frilly yellow silk case of the diary. It used to have an ornate little lock that had offered no resistance.
He flipped it open.
The sight of the loops and swirls of girlish penmanship tightened his grip on the book. He had read it only once; still, all the relevant words were etched into his memory. But nearly two years on, they might sound different.
12th January, 1878
M officially proposed today. I knew this day would come, it has long been arranged, but I’m strangely torn. A young lady could hardly aspire to more than becoming a duchess. I do want to be a duchess. Mama and Papa are thrilled, of course. But I can’t deny that my heart aches for T. He’s so distraught, begged me to elope, even, and swears he shall love me forever . . . it’s terribly romantic. If it were not for his title, I certainly should never choose the duke. He isn’t romantic at all. He’s awfully quiet and severe, and I’ve never seen him dance. He’s by far the least charming gentleman of the ton . . .
Sebastian dumped the diary back into the drawer.
No need to live through it again word by word when the ending was engraved on his mind anyway. Not six months later, she had run away with the young man she thought she loved. And he hadn’t seen it coming. Ironic, how he excelled at reading people for his dealings in politics, and hadn’t noticed that his own wife had grown bored and resentful, or both, and wouldn’t hesitate to set fire to a powder keg. In fairness, understanding a well-bred woman required nothing short of mind-reading. They were, after all, trained to please and endure with a smile.
And all his options for a wife were the same—ladies trained to please and endure. He had to marry a diamond of the first water, even more so now than before the divorce if only to silence his detractors. He’d never really know if the future duchess was only barely suffering him . . .
A soft scratching sound had him glancing at the door. “Enter.”
Ramsey moved into the room quietly, a silver tray with a note in hand.
“Your Grace. There was a note for you. I’m afraid the delivery was delayed.”
“Who sends it?”
“Miss Archer, Your Grace.”
He straightened in his chair. “How is she?”
“Still rather weak, I understand, still feverish.”
But able to write, that had to be a good sign. Then again, she had tried to debate politics with him while on the verge of fainting. Stubborn woman.
He opened the envelope. “Has my informant sent anything on her yet?”
“No, Your Grace.”
Stubborn, and mysterious.
Her handwriting was not feminine. It was efficient, the hand of a person who wrote a lot, and fast.
I much appreciate your hospitality and I endeavor to get well as speedily as possible. Thank you for your generous book loan. I am particularly intrigued by the Russian tale on ideological intoxication—a purely incidental choice, I believe?
Stubborn, mysterious, and witty.
He had sent up books because it was a polite thing to do for a bedridden guest. He had sent those particular books because for some reason, he had known they’d make her think, and her thoughts intrigued him. With her expressive eyes, she was not hard to read, and yet he found her rather unpredictable. Well, one thing was certain—this one would take a man to task if he displeased her. God knew he didn’t care for contrariness; his life was presently littered enough with the wreckage of insubordination, but at least she’d make noise before the man in her life crushed her. Did she have a man in her life? She had said she had no one . . .
He realized that he had left his valet hanging, absorbed in his musings about Annabelle Archer.
He tucked her note into his breast pocket. “That will be all, Ramsey.”
The next morning, Sebastian cornered Dr. Bärwald in the hallway outside Miss Archer’s bedchamber. The young physician’s expression was harried. “But, Your Grace, unless you are a next of kin or the husband, I can’t go into detail about her condition.”
“She does not have a husband or any next of kin nearby,” Sebastian said impatiently. “She is presently my responsibility.”
“And with all due respect, Your Grace, she’s my patient.”
“Which can be changed, easily,” Sebastian said, and Bärwald’s eyes widened behind his glasses. Sebastian was not normally in the habit of throwing his weight around; certainly he had never done it to Bärwald.
Several seconds ticked past as they stared at each other.
The doctor looked away first. “Very well,” he said, his German accent thick. “She is already recovering nicely, they are resilient, country women, yes? But between us, the reason the cold could overpower her so utterly is that she suffers from long-term exhaustion. She displays signs of sleep deprivation and malnourishment.”
Sebastian was taken aback. “She does not look it.”
“As I said, she’s resilient,” the doctor said with a shrug, “but for her to truly recover, I recommend she does not travel for another week after her fever has gone.”
“That will not be a problem,” Sebastian said automatically.
“I’m not so sure about that,” Bärwald murmured.
“Because the Fräulein objects to the order, Your Grace.”
Sebastian felt the unfamiliar urge to roll his eyes. “Yes. The Fräulein would do that.”
“Modern women,” Bärwald said, shaking his head. “Give them a grand education, and next, they think they know better than the doctor ordered.”
“Oh, she will follow the orders,” Sebastian said, staring at the door to her chamber. Malnourished?
A sour feeling unfurled in his gut. Not on his watch. Until Christmas, she would eat, and whatever her troubles, they would stay outside the gates of Claremont.
* * *
“A week!” Annabelle’s indignation flared afresh the moment Catriona and Hattie walked into her chamber after their morning ride. “I’ll be here until Christmas.”
Hattie settled at the vanity table, examining the wind burn on her cheeks. “I do like the sound of that,” she said. “Just think! The duke might invite you to the New Year’s party. We could all go to the ball together.”
Annabelle was briefly stunned into silence. As she lay propped up against the pillows in the vast bed, her head aching, an upper-class ball was the very last thing on her mind.