She gave him a skeptical look. “You haven’t kept a mistress before?”
“Once. A long time ago.”
Well. He did have his other arrangements, a certain countess for one.
He had stealthily moved in on her. She slipped out of his reach and began to pace on the rug in the center of the room.
“These are the things I do know,” she said. “If I were to accept your offer, I would lose all my friends. No decent woman would be seen with me.” His jaw tensed, and she continued quickly: “Second, I would lose my place at Oxford, and Oxford was my father’s lifelong dream. And third, once you tire of me, with my friends gone, who would keep me company? Other fallen women and the next man with deep pockets?”
His pupils flared. “Other men be damned,” he said, and stepped forward, “and I’m not going to tire of you.”
“How can you say that with certainty? Men often do tire of their companions, and walk away without as much as a backward glance.”
He halted. “Is that what you are afraid of,” he said, “that I will abandon you?”
“I’m not afraid,” she protested. “I’m not afraid. I just stand to lose a lot.”
He didn’t reply. Because he couldn’t deny any of what she had said, and, worse, because he had no solutions to offer. She had expected this, but it was undeniably disappointing.
“And what about the things you would gain,” he said, “all the things I can give you?”
She would have to be a fool to not have considered it. With him in control, survival was certain. The worries that followed her everywhere, unshakable like shadows, the constant scouring for opportunities to keep herself warm and fed and safe—everything that drove her mind in circles at night—Montgomery could take away with the stroke of a pen. And none of that tempted her half as much as the prospect of being with him. Within weeks he had gone from a stranger to someone whose presence she craved; she wanted to fall asleep in his arms with his scent in her nose. She wanted to be the keeper of his worries and joys until his hair had turned white and they were old.
But what he offered was built on sand.
The sin of it all aside, outside the walls of her fancy house she would become invisible. Montgomery would become her world, and he’d own her body and soul. She’d spend her days waiting for him, alone in an empty house, and the gaps between his visits might grow longer, and longer . . .
Unbelievably, her heart still dithered. And so she said something she would have liked to forget completely: “What about your wife?”
His body went rigid. “What about her?”
She had to shove the words out of her mouth. “Everyone expects you to take a new wife within the year.”
His face shuttered. “It would have nothing to do with us.”
“How would it be?” she pressed. “Would you come to me although you have been with your duchess? Go back to her after you have shared my bed?”
“That would be inevitable,” he said, a cruel note entering his voice. Never say he’d try charm and deception to get what he wanted; if only he did, it would be easier to give him up.
“And if your wife objected?”
“She would not, as you well know,” he said.
Yes, she knew. Wives of men like him had to turn a blind eye.
The mere thought of him sharing himself intimately with another woman tore through her gut like a clawed, snarling beast. “What if it caused her great unhappiness?” she whispered.
Montgomery gave a bitter laugh. “Touché, my sweet. I cannot possibly win with that question, as any answer would make me either a liar or a careless bastard of a husband, and I doubt you’d respect either type of man.”
Oh, if only he didn’t know her so well. “This is not a game to be won.”
“Well, it certainly seems like a tremendous defeat to let you go,” he said, his eyes glittering with barely checked frustration.
Don’t let me go.
He would, though, and it felt like a free fall. Grasping blindly, she said: “If I were a highborn lady—”
“But you are not”—he cut her off—“you are not, just as I am not a headmaster or a man of trade.”
And if she needed any proof of that, she’d only have to look out the window, where eight hundred years ago in the abbey, Montgomery’s distant relative William the Conqueror had been crowned king.
The finality of that rose like a wall between them. And she couldn’t bear to look at him a moment longer. She moved to the desk to finally pick up her reticule.
Montgomery helped her into her coat. He politely opened the door and stood aside.
She only had to make it into a hackney, and there she could crumple . . .
She was almost past him when he stayed her with his hand at her elbow.
“I know you are planning a march on Parliament Square.”
Her gaze flew to his face. Perfectly unreadable.
“Will you hinder us?” she asked after a pause.
“No. But others might.”
She nodded. “Thank you.”
His hand dropped from her arm. This was the last time he will ever touch me, she thought.
“If we were of equal station,” he said softly, “I would have proposed to you when we took our walk in the maze.”
The magnitude of this was too enormous to sink in, with her standing on a doorstep, about to walk away. She felt strangely suspended in time, her breathing turned shaky. “I wish you would not have told me this.” Because she could never, ever be anyone other than plain Miss Annabelle Archer, and now she’d forever know how dearly that had cost her.
His eyes had the brittle shine of crystal. “If you were to take only one piece of my advice, call off the march,” he said. “It will only cause you trouble.”
Her smile was steely. “Perhaps this is not a question of staying out of trouble, Your Grace. Perhaps this is about deciding on which side of history you want to be.”
A letter from the Greek excavation team in Messenia had arrived in Jenkins’s office, and from the lengthy, convoluted paragraphs, Annabelle was able to deduce a number of books and tools Jenkins should pack for his excursion. She had spent the past half hour tiptoeing up and down the ladder to locate said books and equipment on the shelves while her mind had ventured a few thousand miles south. Spring came to Greece early. Right now, the skies over the sea would be cloudless, and the air would soon smell of rosemary and thyme.
On wings of song,
My love, I carry you away,
Away to the fields of the Ganges,
Where I know the most beautiful place . . .
“Do you like Mendelssohn, Miss Archer?”
She glanced over her shoulder, one foot on the bottom rung of the ladder. Jenkins was looking at her quizzically from behind his desk, the tip of his pen still on the paper.
“My apologies, Professor. I had not realized I was humming out loud.”
He noticed the growing ink blotch on his article and muttered a profanity under his breath. “Don’t apologize,” he said. “It’s no trouble.”
That niggled. The clicking sound of knitting needles turned him rabid. Surely, humming would trouble him.
“So, do you?” he prompted.
“Yes. I like Mendelssohn.”
He nodded. “Very thorough people, the Germans, very precise. Did you know the same precision that makes a good engineer also makes a good composer?”
“No, but I can imagine.” Though how the sum of precision could generate magic was beyond her.
Jenkins returned his attention to his paper. “Professor Campbell, his daughter, and I are going to a concert in the Royal Albert Hall this Friday,” he said. “A duo will sing a selection of Mendelssohn songs.”
Well, that had her struggle for her next breath. “That sounds lovely.”
“You are friends with Campbell’s daughter, are you not?” Jenkins said as his pen scratched onward.
“I am, sir.”
She soon gave up waiting for any further elaborations. Jenkins tended to sink back into his vast inner world and forget all about her very existence.
* * *
The next morning, a small envelope was waiting for her in her pigeonhole.
Would you do me the honor of accompanying our party to the Divine Duo in the Royal Albert Hall this coming Friday? If it is acceptable, I shall arrange for you to travel to London together with Lady Catriona.
Annabelle pensively ran her thumb over the card. It was neither satin-smooth nor embossed with gilded letters. But she had not spoken to Catriona much ever since their return from Claremont, and it could be interesting to see Christopher Jenkins outside his natural habitat. And, frankly, to put it in Hattie’s words—she deserved some amusement.
* * *
After ten years as the head of Scotland Yard, Sir Edward Bryson had plumbed the bleakest depths of the human soul, and he’d readily describe himself as a hardened man.
The unblinking stare of the Duke of Montgomery still filled him with an urge to writhe and explain himself. “We may not have found him yet, but we have narrowed the area down to middle England with great certainty, Your Grace.”