Still, as the sooty fog and grime of London faded into the distance behind him like a bad dream, he wondered where the line was between being a servant and a prisoner to a cause.
The train screeched to a halt at the next station.
“Oxford,” a member of staff announced below his coach window. “Ladies and gentlemen, please alight here for Oxford.”
Christ. The urge to scan the platform for the familiar glint of mahogany hair was absurdly overwhelming. He stared straight ahead, making Ramsey squirm in his corner across.
She had been gone for five days. He had caught up with an impressive stack of paperwork since, and he had quickly found several reasons why it was a good thing that Annabelle Archer had walked back out of his life.
It grated, of course, that he was not sure what had caused her to refuse him. He didn’t like unfinished business. And as the days passed, he was thinking of her more, not less. He caught himself looking for her in the stables. Had stared like a fool at the armchair where he had first found her. He woke hard and aching every morning, and couldn’t get relief from his own hand because in the end, he didn’t find release until he made it about her—her soft mouth, her soft moans, the sweet hot welcome of her body . . . hell no, the last thing he needed was to link Annabelle Archer ever more closely to his desires.
A shudder ran through the coach as the train prepared to leave.
A visceral urge to jump into action shot through Sebastian’s limbs.
I could have her.
He could get off the train. He could find her, take her, drag her back to his bedroom, and keep her until she haunted him no longer. His ancestors wouldn’t have hesitated to do exactly that. Even today men like him could get away with unspeakable things . . .
With a huff, the train detached from the platform.
He exhaled a shuddering breath. Cold sweat had broken over his forehead, and for a moment, he sat in awe at his own dark impulses.
There were more civilized options to woo her—writing a letter, calling on her.
He would do nothing.
He had been an inch from taking her against the library door, like a drunk using a wench behind a tavern. He had never treated a woman thus before. But the truth was, a shocking emotion had held him in its clutches that night—to be inside her, or die.
No one should have that much power over him.
He opened his eyes to the empty winter landscape rushing past. The horizon was fading into a sickly yellow hue.
He allowed his mind to return to Oxford one more time, pictured her with her head bent over a book, her hair curling against her soft nape and her clever mind whirring. A bittersweet pull made his chest contract. He supposed that was how it felt to miss someone.
* * *
It was a grave, grave offense to be late for a tutorial. Annabelle’s boot heels were hammering a wild staccato on the flagstone floors of St. John’s, and she all but skittered to a halt in front of Jenkins’s heavy office door, her breath coming in unrefined gulps.
Her life had become all about running from place to place. Between her assignments, the suffragists, tutoring poorly paying pupils, and making true on her promise to pose as Helen of Troy, the calm and poise she had once tried to cultivate lay hopelessly in tatters.
She was still panting when the door swung open and Professor Jenkins’s lanky form towered on the threshold.
Her stomach lurched.
“Miss Archer,” he said mildly, “I thought I had heard someone galloping down the cloisters.”
“Professor, I’m so—”
“These flagstones are uneven. If you tripped and cracked your head, now that would be a real shame.” He stepped aside. “Do come in.” His brows lowered darkly. “Your chaperone is already here.”
Jenkins’s study smelled like old paper and had the hushed feeling of a cathedral. The vaulted ceiling was higher than the room was wide, and dust danced in the shafts of light from the windows. Bookshelves sagged under the weight of leather-bound tomes and curious, random artifacts from the Mediterranean, most of which were cracked or chipped. A desk claimed the center of the room, a wooden bulwark with high piling stacks of papers on the left and a strategically placed bust of Julius Caesar to the right. Strategically placed because the emperor’s sightless marble eyes were leveled squarely at whichever student took his seat opposite Jenkins. And today, blast it, Caesar nearly made her trip over her own feet, because with his sharp nose and imperious frown, he bore an uncanny resemblance to a certain duke.
Annabelle lowered her heavy satchel to the ground next to the chair, trying to breathe quietly.
“Good evening, Mrs. Forsyth.”
The chaperone peered down her nose at her, a remarkable feat considering she was already seated. With much grumbling, Jenkins had squeezed an armchair into the remaining space near the fireplace. A noiseless embroidery frame balanced on her knees.
“You look flushed,” she observed. “It does not become you.”
“The color of her complexion is her prerogative entirely,” Jenkins said as he moved behind his desk. “I am, however, taking issue with the alertness of her brain.”
Annabelle sank into her seat. That sounded ominous.
Jenkins pulled a slim file from one of the paper stacks and slapped it onto the desk, an academic throwing down the gauntlet. “Your essay was a surprise.”
“Oh,” Annabelle said weakly.
“It wasn’t entirely appalling,” Jenkins continued, “but it was notably below your usual standards. Granted, your usual standards are exceptional; in fact, your previous essay was excellent. But I prefer to eradicate the rot before it eats away.”
“Rot,” Annabelle echoed. The man didn’t mince his words with the fair sex. On a better day, she would have appreciated it. But her heart was still thudding in her ears. Beads of sweat trickled between her breasts. Her chemise would turn clammy and itchy before this was over.
“Much as it pains me, rot is an adequate term in this case,” Jenkins said. “Your wording lacks precision in places; I’d go as far as to say it was blurry. Your conclusions? Solid, but not particularly original.”
Mrs. Forsyth had gone notably still in her armchair.
Annabelle breathed deep.
It quelled the wave of nausea rising from her stomach.
Jenkins took off his glasses, unleashing the full force of his disapproving eyes. “I got the impression that your thoughts were slurred. So I must ask—was this just a miss, or do you partake in spirits?”
She took a moment to form a reply. “Are you asking whether I . . . drink?”
“I am,” Jenkins said, his fingers now drumming on the desk. “Morning, or evening?”
She almost laughed. The world expert on the Peloponnesian Wars thought she was writing her papers intoxicated. That was of course a common enough behavior among the male students, but it hardly softened the blow. If she now lost her mental faculties, what did she have left?
“No, sir,” she said, “I do not drink.”
She could tell he was unconvinced.
Briefly, she was tempted to tell him the much more simple truth behind her rotting standards.
She had written the excellent essay in Claremont, where she had evidently soared happily on wings of great delusion. But ever since her return, she had gone tired and hungry. Selling Mabel’s dresses had given her enough coin to pay Gilbert for January, but sitting for Hattie’s portrait meant fewer hours working for money. It meant fewer pennies, and less food.
She could hardly admit any of that to him.
“I will pay close attention to the next piece, Professor.”
As if on cue, her stomach growled loudly. Mortified, she clasped a hand over her belly.
Jenkins frowned. “Did you know the brain requires nourishment? Eating feeds the mind as well as the body.”
“I appreciate the advice, Professor.”
“I myself tend to forget it,” he said, “but you must be disciplined about it.”
She felt the weight of his stare on her midriff and realized that she was still clutching her belly.
And then she noticed a dawning understanding in Jenkins’s eyes.
She bristled. Letting a man know she was in dire straits could only lead to worse situations.
Jenkins pushed away from the desk and wandered toward the nearest bookshelf, his slender fingers skating over leather-bound spines. “You are familiar with the expedition I’m planning to Pylos Bay in April?”
He turned and looked at her poignantly. “I’m in need of an assistant to prepare the excursion.”
There was a disapproving little huff from the direction of Mrs. Forsyth.
“Miss Archer?” He mouthed her name carefully, as if addressing a person hard of hearing. “What say you? Is that a position you would find interesting? It would cover a range of tasks: letter writing, coordinating the logistics—an utter nightmare, I grant you, since Mediterranean people are involved, chaotic lot—but also translations and archive work.”
Her hands curled around the chair’s armrests. She couldn’t imagine a better position if she tried, but why ask her? He must have more qualified candidates to pick from.
“I believe it’s a very interesting position, sir.”