She quirked her lips wryly. Whenever she met her reflection, she saw her eyes. Their green sparkle had been long dulled by an awareness no fresh debutante would possess, an awareness that shielded her far better from scandals than fading looks ever could. Truly, the last thing she wanted was to get into trouble over a man again.
Now,” said Lady Lucie, “for the new members among us, there are three rules for handing a leaflet to a gentleman. One: identify a man of influence. Two: approach him firmly, but with a smile. Three: remember they can sense if you are afraid, but they are usually more afraid of you.”
“Like dogs,” Annabelle muttered.
The lady’s sharp gray gaze shifted to her. “Why, yes.”
Clearly there were good ears on this one, something to keep in mind.
Annabelle clutched the ends of her shawl against her chest in a frozen fist. The rough wool offered little protection from the chilly London fog wafting across Parliament Square, certainly not from the cutting glances of passersby. Parliament was closed for the season, but there were still plenty of gentlemen strolling around Westminster, engineering the laws that governed them all. Her stomach plunged at the thought of approaching any such man. No decent woman would talk to a stranger in the street, certainly not while brandishing pamphlets that boldly declared The Married Women’s Property Act makes a slave of every wife!
There was of course some truth to this headline—thanks to the Property Act, a woman of means lost all her property to her husband on her wedding day . . . Still, given the disapproving glances skewering their little group, she had tried to hold her pamphlets discreetly. Her efforts had been demolished swiftly the moment Lady Lucie, secretary of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage, had opened her mouth for her motivating speech. The lady was a deceptively ethereal-looking creature, dainty like a china doll with perfectly smooth pale blond hair and a delicate heart-shaped face, but her voice blared like a foghorn across the square as she charged her disciples.
How had these ladies been coerced into attendance? They were huddling like sheep in a storm, clearly wishing to be elsewhere, and she’d bet her shawl that none of them were beholden to the purse strings of a stipend committee. The red-haired girl next to her looked unassuming enough with her round brown eyes and her upturned nose, pink from the cold, but thanks to the Oxford grapevine, she knew who the young woman was: Miss Harriet Greenfield, daughter of Britain’s most powerful banking tycoon. The mighty Julien Greenfield probably had no idea that his daughter was working for the cause. Gilbert certainly would have an apoplexy if he learned about any of this.
Miss Greenfield held her leaflets gingerly, as if she half expected them to try and take a bite out of her hand. “Identify, approach, smile,” she murmured. “That’s simple enough.”
Hardly. With their collars flipped high and top hats pulled low, every man hasting past was a fortress.
The girl looked up, and their gazes caught. Best to give a cordial smile and to glance away.
“You are Miss Archer, aren’t you? The student with the stipend?”
Miss Greenfield was peering up at her over her purple fur stole.
Of course. The grapevine in Oxford worked both ways.
“The very same, miss,” she said, and wondered what it would be, pity or derision?
Miss Greenfield’s eyes lit with curiosity instead. “You must be awfully clever to win a stipend.”
“Why, thank you,” Annabelle said slowly. “Awfully overeducated, rather.”
Miss Greenfield giggled, sounding very young. “I’m Harriet Greenfield,” she said, and extended a gloved hand. “Is this your first suffrage meeting?”
Lady Lucie seemed too absorbed by her own ongoing speech about justice and John Stuart Mill to notice them talking.
Still, Annabelle lowered her voice to a whisper. “It is my first meeting, yes.”
“Oh, lovely—mine, too,” Miss Greenfield said. “I so hope that this is going to be a good fit. It’s certainly much harder to find one’s noble cause than one would expect, isn’t it?”
Annabelle frowned. “One’s . . . noble cause?”
“Yes, don’t you think everyone should have a noble cause? I wanted to join the Ladies’ Committee for Prison Reform, but Mama would not let me. So I tried the Royal Horticulture Society, but that was a miss.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“It’s a process.” Miss Greenfield was unperturbed. “I have a feeling that women’s rights are a worthy cause, though I have to say the very idea of walking up to a gentleman and—”
“Is there a problem, Miss Greenfield?”
The voice cracked like a shot, making both of them flinch. Bother. Lady Lucie was glaring at them, one small fist propped on her hip.
Miss Greenfield ducked her head. “N-no.”
“No? I had the impression that you were discussing something.”
Miss Greenfield gave a noncommittal squeak. Lady Lucie was known to take no prisoners. There were rumors that she had single-handedly caused a diplomatic incident involving the Spanish ambassador and a silver fork . . .
“We were just a little worried, given that we are new at this,” Annabelle said, and Lady Lucie’s flinty gaze promptly skewered her. Holy bother. The secretary was not a woman to mask moods with sugary smiles. Where a hundred women clamored to be domestic sun rays, this one was a thunderstorm.
Surprisingly, the lady settled for a brusque nod. “Worry not,” she said. “You may work together.”
Miss Greenfield perked up immediately. Annabelle bared her teeth in a smile. If they lobbied but one man of influence between the two of them, she’d be surprised.
With a confidence she did not feel, she led the girl toward the busy hackney coach stop where the air smelled of horses.
“Identify, approach, smile,” Miss Greenfield hummed. “Do you think this can be done while keeping a low profile, Miss Archer? You see, my father . . . I’m not sure he is aware that working for the cause is such a public affair.”
Annabelle cast a poignant glance around the square. They were in the very heart of London, in the shadow of Big Ben, surrounded by people who probably all had dealings with Miss Greenfield’s father in some shape or form. Keeping a low profile would have entailed staying back in Oxford. It would have been much nicer to stay in Oxford. A gent nearing the hackneys slowed, stared, then gave her a wide berth, his lips twisting as if he had stepped into something unpleasant. Another suffragist nearby did not seem to fare much better—the men brushed her off with sneers and flicks of their gentlemanly hands. Something about these contemptuous hands made a long-suppressed emotion stir in the pit of her stomach, and it burned up her throat like acid. Anger.
“It’s not as though my father is opposed to women’s rights as such—oh,” Miss Greenfield breathed. She had gone still, her attention fixing on something beyond Annabelle’s shoulder.
Near the entrance of Parliament, a group of three men materialized from the mist. They were approaching the hackneys, rapidly and purposeful like a steam train.
Uneasy awareness prickled down her spine.
The man on the left looked like a brute, with his hulking figure straining his fine clothes. The man in the middle was a gentleman, his grim face framed by large sideburns. The third man . . . The third man was what they were looking for: a man of influence. His hat was tilted low, half obscuring his face, and his well-tailored topcoat gave him the straight shoulders of an athlete rather than a genteel slouch. But he moved with that quiet, commanding certainty that said he knew he could own the ground he walked on.
As if he’d sensed her scrutiny, he looked up.
His eyes were striking, icy clear and bright with intelligence, a cool, penetrating intelligence that would cut right to the core of things, to assess, dismiss, eviscerate.
All at once, she was as transparent and fragile as glass.
Her gaze jerked away, her heart racing. She knew his type. She had spent years resenting this kind of man, the kind who had his confidence bred into his bones, who oozed entitlement from the self-assured way he held himself to his perfectly straight aristo nose. He’d make people cower with a well-aimed glare.
It suddenly seemed important not to cower away from this man.
They wanted men of influence to hear them out? Well, she had just completed step one: identify the gentleman.
Two: approach him firmly . . . Her fingers tightened around the leaflets as her feet propelled her forward, right into his path.
His pale eyes narrowed.
A push against her shoulder knocked her sideways. “Make way, madam!”
The brute. She had forgotten he existed; now he sent her stumbling over her own feet, and for a horrible beat the world careened around her.
A firm hand clamped around her upper arm, steadying her.
Her gaze flew up and collided with a cool glare.
Drat. It was the aristocrat himself.
And holy hell, this man went quite beyond what they had set out to catch. There wasn’t an ounce of softness in him, not a trace of a chink in his armor. He was clean shaven, his Nordic-blond hair cropped short at the sides; in fact, everything about him was clean, straight, and efficient: the prominent nose, the slashes of his brows, the firm line of his jaw. He had the polished, impenetrable surface of a glacier.