Peregrin stiffened. “I won’t be here for the party.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” she said, and she was. He had been kind to her at Claremont, not just perfunctorily polite. Just yesterday he had taken the time to show her the first English edition of The Odyssey in Montgomery’s library, and had been thoroughly amused at her excitement. Now he seemed as downcast as in the carriage earlier.
“I’ve never seen fireworks,” she tried.
His frown deepened. “Never?” As he mulled it over, her bare arms snared his attention. “I’ll have someone fetch your coat,” he said.
“It’s on its way,” came a smooth voice from the dark.
They both started.
How long had Montgomery been standing there in the shadows?
In the flickering light, it was impossible to gauge his mood as he strolled closer.
Was he cross with her because of Lord Marsden?
“Montgomery,” Peregrin said. “I shall leave Miss Archer in your hands, then.” He nodded at Annabelle. “Miss.”
He ambled back into the house, and Montgomery stared after him as if he were of a mind to order him back. Instead, he said: “Are you hiding out here, miss?”
She cringed. “I’d call it a strategic evasion.”
He made a soft noise, a huff, a scoff?
“Thank you,” she began, “thank you for . . .” Protecting me?
Because that was what he had done with his little intervention, from his own peers, no less.
“It’s not worth mentioning,” he said.
“You repeatedly implied that I had a problem with authority,” she said lightly. “I’m beginning to agree with you.”
Montgomery leaned back against the balustrade. “A problem with authority, or with stupidity?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“The argument put forward tonight had a blatant logical flaw. I imagine the temptation to point it out was overwhelming.”
She gave a baffled laugh. “Indeed it was.”
For a moment, they were looking at each other, and his lips were twitching as if trying not to smile. That was when she noticed that she was smiling rather widely at him.
She turned away to the dark gardens below the terrace. “Isn’t the whole point of an authority figure that he can’t be challenged, no matter what?”
“No,” he said, “first, Marsden is not your commander in chief. And second, a leader who doesn’t know what he is doing will eventually face mutiny.”
“Are you making a case for leadership based on merit, Your Grace?” It came out decidedly more sarcastic than she had intended, to him who was placed at the helm of the ship thanks to his birthright alone.
He was quiet for a long moment, and she realized that she was taking something out on him that had nothing to do with him: frustration over Marsden, the Marchioness of Hampshire, and, possibly, his liaison. And he let her, like a big cat would let a kitten claw at it.
“Tell me,” he said, “how frustrating is it to be surrounded by people considered your betters when they don’t hold a candle to your abilities?”
She stared into the dark, briefly lost for words.
How? How did he know these things about her?
And why did him knowing urge her to spill more secrets to him? To tell him that it was like a slow drip of poison, this daily flattering and placating of men for a modicum of autonomy; that she sometimes worried it would one day harden both her heart and her face?
She shook her head. “It is how it is, Your Grace. I have always struggled with just following my betters. I suppose it’s a defect in me.”
“A defect,” he repeated. “You know, the most important lesson I learned during my time at Sandhurst was on leadership. People have many motivations to follow someone, but a soldier will only ever follow a man for two reasons: his competency, and his integrity.”
It was not really a surprise to hear he had been at Sandhurst rather than Oxford or Cambridge—enough aristocratic families sent their sons to the renowned military academy, and truth be told, military suited Montgomery.
“I believe that,” she said, “but I’m not a soldier.”
“Perhaps you are. At heart.”
Now she looked at him. What a whimsical thing to say for a man like him. Her, a soldier. But oh, it resonated, it plucked at something deep inside her chest. It almost hurt. “A soldier must be discerning as his very life depends on his leader’s competency,” she murmured.
He gave a shrug. “As a woman’s life depends on the competency of the men in her life.”
“You will find it can be the other way around,” she said dryly, thinking of Gilbert, unable to make the money last until the end of the month, or her father, forgetting to eat because he was immersed in a book.
“Is that why you have not married? Because the men in Kent are incompetent?”
He tossed it at her casually, as if it weren’t a shocking intrusion on her privacy.
She was too stunned to even attempt a reply.
Twin flames were dancing in his eyes, mirroring the flicker of the torches.
“I have spoken out of turn,” he said when she remained silent.
Astutely observed, Your Grace, you have. Somehow she didn’t think it had been an accident. Very few things he did or said seemed to be accidental.
“I don’t wish to marry,” she said. “My reasons are my own.”
The door behind her creaked, and a footman appeared with her coat.
She huddled into the protective shell, grateful for the interruption because now they were just silent together, her and Montgomery, pretending to study the night sky.
“Why did you put stars on the library ceiling?” she asked.
“The ceiling was my father’s idea,” he said. “He had a liking for that sort of thing.”
She could feel rather than see his wry smile.
“No,” he said, “for costly, whimsical things.”
She might have quite liked the late duke. “Why the winter sky, though?”
Montgomery went quiet, in a way that said she had touched on something intimate.
“Because I was born in winter,” he finally said. “It depicts the sky over Montgomery Castle on the night of my birth.”
Something in his voice forbade a reply. Perhaps he liked it as little as she did, revealing private pieces of himself. And yet, he just had. A piece for a piece. He was a fair man, after all.
“Have you really never seen fireworks?” he asked.
“No. They are rather thin on the ground in the Kentish countryside.”
“Then stay for the house party,” he said, “if you forgive the rather spontaneous nature of the invitation.”
For a second time in the space of a few minutes, he shocked her. Her thoughts swarmed like bees; it was a ludicrous proposition, she should not even consider it. And how would she pay Gilbert if she did not work for yet another week? The dresses, perhaps; she could sell these ill-fitting, good-quality dresses to seamstresses . . .
The door the footman had closed swung open, flooding the terrace with laughter from the sitting room. Lady Lingham’s long shadow fell between them. “There you are,” she said, sounding pleased. “Duke, I must steal Miss Archer away from you. I’m having all the ladies taste the first batch of Lingham sherry.”
* * *
As the carriage jostled back to Claremont, Annabelle’s eyelids were drooping, deliciously heavy from Lingham sherry and too much mint julep. She had to send a note to Hattie tomorrow morning. She needed a dress, because holy Moses, she was going to a ball.
Montgomery’s face was as dark and brooding as on the ride to the manor, or possibly darker. Why had he invited her to the party? Why was his grimness so appealing? Her imagination drifted, pretending that they were alone in the carriage, in a different life, where she could lean across the footwell and kiss his stern mouth, gently, persistently, offering feminine warmth until his lips softened against hers and the tension left his shoulders. It had been a lifetime since she had kissed a man, but she remembered the joys of it so well when she looked at him . . . the slick brush of a tongue, the feel of hard, eager planes of muscle against her palms, her blood turning sweet and heavy like molasses . . .
He turned his head toward her as if she had whispered his name.
She smiled at him drowsily.
His eyes darkened like the skies before a storm. The sudden, heated intensity transfixed her, pulled at her, and she was falling, falling forward into the depths of him as he threw the gates wide open for a beat. She heard a soft gasp and realized it had come from her own lips. There it was, the fire she had sensed behind the ice, smoldering at a thousand degrees hotter than leaping flames. Oh, they had it wrong, the people who called him cool and aloof. He was a man who did not do things by halves, and he knew. So he leashed himself. Untether him, and he would burn as hotly as he was cold, and the dark force of her own passion would crash against his like a wave against a rock rather than pull him under.
He is my match.
The thought hit like a splash of cold water.
It was one thing to dream. But the connection between him and her didn’t feel like a dream anymore. It felt real. And that could not be.
On the bench across, Montgomery had clenched his hands to fists by his sides.