Her eyes gleamed with some secret mirth. “Without doubt, Your Grace.”
She began meandering along the path looking up and around in wonder, and he followed, strangely mesmerized by the gentle sway of her skirts around her ankles.
“How did you collect all these plants?” she asked.
“The botanist in my employ does. He takes off to a foreign country to acquire them, or he purchases them from other traders here in England.”
She touched her fingertip to the delicate pink petals of an oleander blossom. “What a marvelous profession,” she said, “to travel all the corners of the world to bring back beautiful things.”
The way her face had lit up made it hard to look away from her.
He had no time for indoor walks with her. He presently had a revolt of Tory backbenchers on his hands over his latest campaign proposal and he should be in his study, writing threatening letters. There was no other reason for him to be here than that he wanted to be here, and he didn’t even feel inclined to question why a most unsuitable woman—a commoner, a bluestocking, a suffragist—would give him so much pleasure.
“So, to which corner of the world would you travel, miss?”
Her eyes darted to his face, probing the sincerity of his question.
She did not give lightly of herself.
“I should like to go to Persia,” she finally said.
Most people would have said Paris. Perhaps Rome. “An ambitious destination.”
She shook her head. “I used to dream of owning a Greek galleon. In my mind, I have already sailed the seven seas.”
“A Greek galleon?” But of course, she studied the classics. “Did Odysseus inspire you?”
She looked at him from the corner of her eye. “Possibly.”
“Why Persia?” he asked, intrigued. “Odysseus never left the Mediterranean Sea.”
“Because,” she said slowly, “there are theories about how Persia and Greece have influenced each other, in terms of architecture, government, literature . . . but we have few concrete proofs, and either side denies having been influenced by the other. And now my professor is very focused on this area of research.”
“Would that be Professor Jenkins?”
“Why, yes! Are you familiar with his work?”
“I’ve never met the man, but my secretary reads his proposals,” he said. “I sponsor some of his expeditions. Perhaps you have heard of the Royal Society.”
“But of course. I just wasn’t aware that you were a benefactor.”
“My family was one of the founding members.”
She gave him a thoroughly appreciative look, and he nearly preened. Ridiculous.
“Thanks to you, then, Professor Jenkins will begin a project in the Peloponnese in April,” she said.
“To do what?”
“They have located a battleship on the bottom of Pylos Bay, and will lift parts of it to study them.”
She had become increasingly animated while talking about it, her body vibrating with suppressed passion, and damned if that didn’t affect him, urging his mind down wholly unacademic paths—
“Is he good to you, Jenkins?” he asked, pretending to study one of the thermostats on a tree trunk.
“Oh yes,” she said cheerfully. “He works me hard, but he helped me get my place at Oxford. I’m very grateful to him.”
For some reason, he didn’t like the sound of that overly much. “Helped you how?”
“He was my late father’s correspondent,” she said. “After my father passed, I sorted his correspondence and found a half-written reply to Jenkins. I finished the letter, and well, he wrote back again. For years.”
“And he never expressed reservations about discussing academic matters with a woman?”
He could tell the question annoyed her a little.
“No. My father had taught me well, it turned out. And . . .”
“. . . and?”
“It may not have been clear from my signature, A. Archer, that I was, in fact, a woman.”
Her raised chin was daring him to take umbrage at her little subterfuge.
He very nearly smiled. “When did you tell him the truth?”
“When I knew I needed his help to secure a place at Oxford. He took no offense, none at all. I’m grateful,” she repeated.
She shouldn’t have to be grateful. She had proven herself capable; she should have her chance.
The large terrarium by the wall drew her attention entirely for the next minute.
“What are those?” She pointed a slender finger at a neat row of green pods that clung to a branch behind the glass.
“Chrysalides. Butterfly cocoons.”
She glanced back at him over her shoulder. “You keep butterflies, Your Grace?”
“They were my brother’s idea. After I vetoed his suggestion to introduce a troop of monkeys here.”
She laughed. A small burst of genuine laughter, showing pretty teeth and a flash of pink tongue, and it hit his blood dizzying like a gulp of sugar water. Want. He wanted to frame her laughing face in his hands and kiss it, anywhere, forehead, cheeks, nose. He wanted to feel her against his mouth. The hell . . .
She had already turned back to the display, bending forward.
“I think I see a caterpillar,” she breathed. “How fascinating.”
There was a pale inch of skin exposed between her collar and her nape. A stray curl nestled there, wound tight in the damp air. So tempting, to try and wind this silkiness around his finger . . . to touch the delicate softness of her neck with his lips.
Her shoulders went rigid, as if he had said it all out loud, and he realized he had begun to lean over her, hunting for her scent.
He straightened, head spinning. The heavy air was clearly muddling his brain.
She turned, a wary expression in her eyes. “I didn’t think butterflies thrived in a terrarium.”
“They are released when they are ready.” His voice was hoarse. “You can open the lid”—he demonstrated it—“and anything with wings can leave.”
She didn’t smile.
She wasn’t an innocent, he understood. He saw the same awareness in her eyes now that she doubtlessly saw in his—that they were a man and a woman, alone in a secluded place throbbing with heat, and that some invisible rope kept tugging at him to step into her space, to slide his fingers into her collar and pull her against him. And as he watched her, her mouth softened, softened as if it would welcome . . .
A bird of paradise squawked and flapped and landed on the terrarium with a thunk.
“Ah, Peregrin,” he said, annoyed. “He feeds them. They think you will feed them when you stand here.”
Two hectic red flags were burning on her cheeks, not the kind of blush he liked to inspire in a woman. She stepped sideways, straight out of his reach. He gave the bird an evil stare.
“Your Grace, I had been meaning to discuss my departure with you.”
A bucket of cold water would have had the same effect on his head.
It took him a moment to formulate a response. “I assume you want to ignore the doctor’s orders and leave posthaste.”
“You said there was no one to look after you.”
“I have relations in Kent, and they are expecting me.”
The cousin with the dilapidated house. More sleep deprivation and malnourishment.
“The doctor was clear,” he said. “Seven days. And you are welcome at Claremont.”
Determination flickered in her eyes. “Thank you, Your Grace, but I have matters to attend to.”
“Matters more urgent than your health?”
She looked away. “I’m well now.”
She wasn’t; she was suffering from severe stubbornness.
Sweat slid down his back, because God help him, he stood in a greenhouse in his bloody winter coat.
“You are free to leave anytime,” he said, “but have a care for my conscience, since I will be called upon to abet your demise by supplying a coach.”
That seemed to give her pause.
Ah. So she had a care for others, if not for herself.
“And your friends,” he added. “They were worried about you and it would undo all their good work at your bedside if you relapsed.”
The look in her eyes said she knew exactly what he was doing, that it was working, and that she resented him for it. So be it. If she were his, they wouldn’t even be having this discussion, she’d be upstairs in bed, snug and warm.
“Well,” she said reluctantly, “I suppose it would be more sensible to stay.”
Disconcerting, how much he liked hearing that. “Until Christmas.”
She gave a hesitant nod. “Until Christmas.”
On the way back to the house, she was silent. Her profile was drawn and too pale. The outing had taken its toll on her. What would it take, for her to allow, no, to expect, someone to take care of her? She was twenty-and-five. Too young for the self-possession she displayed. Too old to still be unmarried. But that had to be by choice, unless every man in Kent was deaf and blind. His report said she had disappeared from her father’s home for two years and returned only after her father’s passing. There was hardly ever a good reason for a young woman to leave home for two years. What price have you paid for your independence, Annabelle?