“I shall leave when you leave, it’s simple,” she said.
“No,” came the unison reply.
Annabelle glowered at her friends. “Et tu, Brutus?”
“Surely Dr. Bärwald only has your best interest in mind,” Hattie said gently.
Dr. Bärwald also had no idea about her assignments for Jenkins, her pupils, or that she was expected in Chorleywood. As soon as she could leave the bed, she’d ask Montgomery to get a coach ready for her.
“I’ve asked Aunty to stay here as a chaperone,” Hattie said. “She’s glad to do so.”
Grand. Annabelle stared up at the velvety bed canopy. She couldn’t remember ever having been so dependent on other people’s help, and she resented all of it.
Well, perhaps not all of it.
There were the books.
And the food. The kitchen was sending up almost more than she could eat. The stew yesterday had been flavorful, with big chunks of chicken in the broth and hot rolls as a side. She had eaten all of those. And there was an exotic selection of fresh fruits on her breakfast tray, oranges and grapes and pears, and she had eaten all of those, too, smothered in thick, golden custard.
Catriona pulled a chair closer to the bed. “Do you want me to read some more from Crime and Punishment?”
There was an unwilling sound from the direction of the vanity table. “Can’t we ask for something nicer, like Jane Austen?” Hattie said. “I vow, I shall have to draw up a family tree in order to follow this novel. And why does the same character have to be called three completely different names?”
“I doubt the duke stocks women’s novels, Hattie,” Annabelle said mildly.
“How about Tomlinson’s lovely sonnet, then? Could we hear that again?”
Annabelle eyed the pile of well-wishes on her nightstand. In lieu of flowers, the dozen young gentlemen at Claremont had tried to outdo each other with various attempts at poetry in her honor. Peregrin had also sent up a deck of cards one could apparently play alone. She reached for James Tomlinson’s sonnet. His iambic pentameters were shaky, but Hattie found that made it all the more charming. Tomlinson would be on her list of eligible bachelors, if only he had a title.
Montgomery hadn’t even replied to her thank-you note. Of course, there was no reason for him to reply at all; still, she kept catching herself listening for the footfall of a servant bearing a silver tray. Indeed, she would leave this bed, and Claremont, as soon as her legs could carry her.
* * *
That night, she slept fretfully, afraid of dreaming about tumbling into a black hole. When she woke, the dark had the soundless, heavy quality of the hours past midnight. And someone had been in her room.
Annabelle turned up the lamp next to the bed with sleepy fingers.
There was a new book on her nightstand, and another fancy card lay on top of it.
She opened the envelope in a deliberate, civilized manner.
The handwriting was different, scratched onto the paper with bold precision.
She rushed through the words.
I have been informed that you enjoy Jane Austen’s work—
Her head jerked up. Blast you, Hattie. What would Montgomery think about such an insatiable and random appetite for reading material?
—and we have several of her novels in the library. I—incidentally—selected a copy of Pride and Prejudice. Do not hesitate to send for more.
She gave a bemused laugh. Pride and Prejudice. There was no doubt now that they were playing a game. With book titles.
Her fingertip touched the M., scrawled so confidently in black ink.
He’s very arrogant, and you don’t like his type.
Something to remember as long as she was trapped in this splendid bubble where food came at the ring of a bell and the libraries had starlit skies.
Still, a restlessness that had been roiling inside her all day seemed to dissipate. Her body stretched out long as soon as she had extinguished the lamp, and she plummeted into sleep like a small child.
* * *
Sebastian’s day had been ruthlessly productive since morning. That happened when there were no guests in need of entertaining. He had read the reports on all estates, had decided on a new irrigation method for the northern landholdings, and had finalized the draft for the last leg of the Tory campaign. He would need the queen on his side to push the approach through, because Disraeli would object, but since he had just signed off the bill for the biggest bloody firework show in England, he figured Her Majesty would indulge him.
A scratch at the door, and Ramsey slunk in.
“Your Grace, the organizers for the ball had another suggestion for the décor.”
He shot the valet an incredulous look. “I don’t have time to approve decorative details.”
“Indeed, it is just, with this particular detail—”
“What is it?”
“Yes, Your Grace.” Said with a perfectly straight face.
“In the ballroom?”
“Yes. Apparently, they are highly popular with the guests.”
He rubbed his temples. “Ramsey, did you think I would approve of a herd of ungulate animals on the parquet to please the masses?”
“No, Your Grace.”
“Then feel free to not bother me with it.”
“Yes, Your Grace.”
Sebastian scanned the neat stacks of paper on his desk. “Has there been any correspondence for me?”
“I delivered all to your desk this morning, as usual,” Ramsey replied.
He knew that. There had been a note from Caroline, Lady Lingham, asking him to bring Miss Archer along to her annual Christmas dinner on the twenty-fourth. News of his guest had traveled fast and wide, and naturally, Caroline would take note.
“Are you certain there was nothing else in the meantime?”
Ramsey knew better than to look nonplussed at his master’s insistence that there be mail. “No, but if you have a specific sender in mind I can make inquiries—”
He shook his head. “No. Tell the groom to get my horse ready.”
* * *
Annabelle had had the armchair moved to the window. The sun was dissolving into a pink hue on the horizon but it was still light enough to read a letter from Lucie that had arrived during her afternoon nap.
I am sorry to hear about your illness, unless it was a ploy all along to stay on behind enemy lines, in which case, I salute you for your dedication to our cause.
I have little hope of us converting M.—I recently learned through my more secret sources that the queen promised him his family seat back in case he helps win the election. I think he’ll move heaven and earth to keep Disraeli in power. So we have to move fast on other fronts. I heard the suffragist chapter in Manchester is planning a large demonstration on Parliament Square during the Tories’ pre-election meeting in January. I am presently coordinating with Millicent Fawcett’s chapter in London to join them. I strongly believe we should pull together and mobilize all the scattered suffrage chapters throughout England. Strength is to be had in numbers. It is still a secret, though, so I must ask you to treat this confidentially. As for—
Hoofbeats sounded on the cobblestones below. She lowered the letter into her lap. Gathering up her robe, she leaned forward and peered down into the courtyard. Her heart gave an appalling leap when she saw the white horse prancing past the fountain. Her first instinct was to shrink back, but then again, she couldn’t.
The duke’s head turned toward her window.
Her heart began to beat like a drum.
Montgomery raised his hand and touched the rim of his hat. Slowly and deliberately enough that it could not be mistaken for anything other than an acknowledgment.
She sank back into her chair.
She hadn’t yet thanked him for the latest book. She had begun to give too much thought to the wording, hopelessly gauche. And the deeper truth was, she liked being the one owing the answer. Much more so than waiting for letters from a man who made her heart beat faster.
* * *
The next morning, her fever was gone. Annabelle padded to the windows and pushed the heavy curtains aside. The morning sky was bright blue and spotless as if freshly rinsed. Below in the quad, smatterings of snow sparkled like carelessly scattered diamonds.
Ah, she could almost taste the fresh air.
A quick glance at the mirror said that she looked presentable. Soaking in the tub the night before had washed away much of her exhaustion, and indulging in rolls and custard for three days had restored a long-lost softness to her face. She secured her hair in a simple bun, brushed her teeth, and splashed herself with the rose-scented water from the washbasin. Chemise, corset—loosely laced—Lady Mabel’s gray walking dress, hat. She shrugged into her coat and slipped out the door.
She managed to find her way through the labyrinth of stairs and hallways to the ground floor. There was a vast stone terrace, curving like the prow of a ship, at the back of the house, and one of the glass doors leading outside was already ajar.
She glided into the open, drinking in the clear air as she closed her eyes against the warm glare of the sun. When she opened her eyes, her next breath lodged in her throat.