“Well, of course it is,” he said. “That leaves the matter of compensation—how much do you think your work would cost the faculty?”
Her thoughts fell over each other. Instinct urged her to set the sum low, to make sure that he would hire her. But if she worked for Jenkins, there wouldn’t be time for anything else, and Gilbert would still demand his two pounds in full every month.
“Two pounds a month,” she said.
Jenkins tilted his head. “Reasonable. So that’s settled.”
He wandered back to the desk, pulled open a drawer, and picked something up.
“Excuse me for a couple of minutes,” he said.
He strode toward the door, but in passing he put something in front of her.
An apple. A bit shriveled from hibernating in a dark basement since autumn; still, her mouth began to water, and she could practically taste the tart, crisp flavor.
The thud of the heavy door falling shut sounded behind her. It wasn’t a stretch to assume that Jenkins was giving her some privacy to eat.
“Be careful, gal,” came Mrs. Forsyth’s quiet voice.
Annabelle turned on her chair. “It’s just an apple,” she said.
Caesar was staring at her, too, his stony countenance radiating disapproval.
Her stomach cramped, from an emotion much more powerful than hunger.
To defy, or to cry. She kept her eyes on the emperor as she reached for the apple and sank her teeth into it.
The Scottish chapters have agreed to come down to London for the demonstration.”
Save the sound of rain tapping softly against the windows, a cautious silence greeted Lucie’s announcement. The suffragists had gathered in Hattie’s plush sitting room. The embers were fading on the grate and steam rose from a dozen dainty cups. It wasn’t an atmosphere that lent itself to discussing illicit demonstrations.
“Well, that’s exciting,” Hattie finally said.
Lucie shot her a wry glance.
Catriona took off her glasses. “Do you think it will make a difference, Lucie?”
“With the other chapters we have mobilized, we currently have around fifteen hundred women marching on Westminster during a Tory pre-election meeting,” Lucie said. “So yes, I believe we are going to be in every newspaper of the country.”
“But the northern chapters held such events before,” Catriona said. “It only seems to agitate people.”
Lucie threw up her hands. “Well, sitting prettily certainly doesn’t seem to make a difference at all. If it did, why do we still turn into property the day a man puts his ring on our finger? I say let us try making noise for a change.”
There was a rustle of silk as the ladies shifted in their seats. Making noise sounded ominous when, from the cradle, one had been taught to be quiet.
“Now,” Lucie continued, “on to the next point. I have taken the liberty to set up your schedules for the personal petitioning sessions with our MPs.”
She pulled out a slim file from her ever-present leather satchel and began distributing sheets.
Annabelle’s stomach gave a queasy twist when Lucie halted before her.
“Annabelle. I have reassigned the Duke of Montgomery to you.”
Every hair on Annabelle’s body stood on end. “But you said I was only to research him.”
“Indeed, but that was before he took a shine to you.”
She froze. “Whatever do you mean?”
“I understand he invited you on walks, to a Christmas dinner, and to his house party,” Lucie enumerated on dainty fingers. “You clearly must have had his ear, so you are our best woman for the task.”
Well. There was no arguing with that logic.
Her heart thrummed unsteadily against her ribs. It had been ten days since she left Claremont, and yet the mention of his name still put her on shaky ground.
“If I didn’t manage to convince him then, I won’t convince him now,” she said.
“Did you clearly ask him to please draw up the amendment, and he clearly said no?”
Now would be a good moment to lie. “Our discussions were not that concrete, but I gathered—”
“Then we should try,” Lucie said, and pushed the sheet into her hand. “Nothing wagered, nothing gained. When I set up the appointment with his secretary, I still thought Lady Mabel would go, but I doubt he’ll mind the change of plans.”
The sheet showed an address, and a date—a chamber in the House of Lords, the day after tomorrow.
Something inside Annabelle’s chest did a slow, agonizing somersault. “I can’t.”
Lucie frowned. “Why?”
“I have two essays due.”
Lucie gave her an incredulous look. “We have been working toward this for months. It was your idea to include him, and he is one of the most important figures in our plan. How can essays be an obstacle now?”
A terse silence settled over the room. Hattie looked mildly confused. Catriona studied something on the rug.
Oh, how she wanted to spill the whole tale about Montgomery to her friends right here. Of course, they’d quickly become her former friends if she did that.
“I’ll do it,” she muttered.
Lucie’s frown eased.
“I’ll do it,” she repeated. “It will be fine.”
* * *
On the day of reckoning, the sun had finally conquered the low-hanging clouds that had darkened the sky for the past week. The bright rays were like a warm, reassuring touch on Annabelle’s face as she made her way to the platform. She would handle this encounter. She had perfected feigning indifference over the years; she might, in fact, feel wholly indifferent in truth. She’d be polite, of course; she’d—she bumped into something soft and expensively scented.
“I beg your pardon,” she said reflexively.
A young lady glared back at her. Her mink coat shimmered like an opal in the sun, and the open front revealed a cascade of priceless blond lace.
With an audible huff, the lady turned and gave her the cold shoulder.
Annabelle bit her lip. She wore her old coat and looked every inch the underclass. She would have liked to wear her new coat, but he’d probably see that as an offer. God only knew why she was still holding on to the garment; selling it would make her solvent for two months at least.
The wooden benches in her coach were already crowded, and she had to wiggle her hips into the narrow space between the wall and a sturdy matron who had a large, erratically moving hemp bag on her lap. Her odor crept into Annabelle’s nose: wool grease, smoke, and, more faintly, manure.
She held her breath. It was the smell of life in Chorleywood, and apparently, she was no longer immune to it. Next to her, the hemp bag began to cluck.
I could travel first class. She could have a lace-trimmed dress and a fur coat. She could probably purchase a whole new wardrobe every season with Montgomery’s money, and a few houses, too. She’d never have to worry about being fed and clothed ever again. All she had to do was open her legs for him.
Heat licked through her, flames of anger, shame, desire. Chiefly, desire. Because apparently, her treacherous body didn’t care that she could not like the duke anymore. It wanted what it wanted, and it seemed it wanted her flat on her back with her ankles locked behind Montgomery’s hips as he . . . she nearly gave herself a slap. The woman with the bag gave her a suspicious side-eye.
And still the soft heat lingered in all her private places.
That was why they called it temptation—it never presented itself as something ugly, or tepid, or harmless; no, it came in the guise of glorious feelings and a sense of utter rightness, even when it was wrong. That was why one needed principles. Regrettable, that her grasp on them was so shaky when it counted.
* * *
When she entered his office, Montgomery nearly shot out of his chair. It could have been amusing, but seeing his familiar form was like a physical blow to her chest. Certainly, she felt winded.
“Miss Archer. Do come in.”
His voice washed over her, cool and smooth like spring water.
Her mouth was suddenly parched. “Your Grace. I’m aware you expected Lady Mabel, so I hope you have no objections that I have come in her place.”
“None at all,” he said wryly.
An elderly secretary appeared from nowhere to help her out of her coat.
Despite her sturdy, high-necked dress, she felt exposed. Montgomery was watching her with his hawk eyes, and his gaze darkened as he took in the return of the hollows beneath her cheekbones.
He stepped around the imposing desk. “Leave us, Carson.”
That was her moment to protest, but the secretary bowed and scurried toward the exit rather swiftly.
Then it was just the two of them.
Montgomery strolled closer. He was, as usual, exquisitely dressed, his charcoal-gray suit and waistcoat emphasizing the crisp whiteness of his shirt and his fair hair. No, he hadn’t lost an ounce of his attractiveness.
Her innards twisted into a hot ball of dread.
“Thank you for taking the time to meet with the National Society for Women’s Suffrage, Your Grace,” she said.
He halted, processing all the messages she had just conveyed. Then he gestured at the chair opposite his desk. “It’s my duty to receive petitioners. Please, have a seat.”
She sat and busied herself with taking her pen and her tiny notebook from the reticule in her lap. When she finally looked at him, his eyes were oddly soft.