He dragged his thumb over her damp bottom lip. “Do you let him kiss you?”
She pushed his hand away. “Please don’t. Jenkins is an honorable man. He appreciates me for my mind.”
He gave an aggravating laugh. “If you think so. But know that I appreciate you for a lot more than that.”
“Truly?” she snapped. “I didn’t think you appreciated me much at all, given that you thought I’d gladly agree to be your whore.”
He reared back as if she had slapped him. “I did no such thing.”
His eyes had the bewildered look of a man genuinely affronted.
She threw up her hands. “Well, where I come from, that’s what they call a woman who makes free with her body for coin.”
“That is not how it is between us.”
“And pray, what exactly is the difference?”
His face had gone stark white. “You would be with me for me,” he said hoarsely, “not for my money.”
The hint of a plea beneath his imperious voice knocked the belligerence right out of her. For a long moment, they stared at each other, taking stock of the wounds inflicted.
They both had drawn blood.
She slumped back against the door.
“Even if I had no care for my own reputation,” she said, “in the arrangement you propose, any child we had would be a bastard.”
The mention of children seemed to take him by surprise. Of course. They never thought of that as a consequence of their pleasure.
“A ducal bastard leads a better life than the vast majority of the British population,” he said.
“In terms of worldly goods, yes. But one day, they would understand my role. And that they’d always come second to your other children.”
He gritted his teeth. “What do you expect from me, Annabelle? A bloody proposal?”
Marriage. To Sebastian.
The words reverberated through her very essence, raised a chorus of hungry whispers. She silenced them with a tiny shake of her head.
“I’m not expecting anything.”
He began to pace. “I can give you everything, everything except that, and you know it. My name has survived one scandal; it will hardly survive another. It would ruin my brother. It would taint my children. I would lose my allies. My standing, the Montgomery name—what sort of man would I be? I’d be no better than my father, at the mercy of his passions and whims.” He rounded on her, his body vibrating with tension. “Is that what you want? Would you have me change my place in history to prove how much I want you?”
The room seemed to close in on her: walls, ceiling, the floor, contorting.
She closed her eyes, trying to slow the flurry of words in her head. “This madness between us, it must stop,” she managed.
“It’s not madness,” he ground out, “it’s . . .”
His face was grim. She watched him struggle, grasping for the right words. Naming it would make no difference. His name would always be more important to him.
“Whatever it is,” she said, “it will pass, if only you leave me alone.”
The morning of the march on Parliament, Lucie gathered the suffragists at Oxford Station. A cold breeze swept over the platform and shrouded them in the suffocating plumes of black smoke that rose from the waiting train.
“Now, I cannot repeat this often enough,” Lucie said. “Much as it pains me, this must be an utterly peaceful demonstration, so no chanting, no accidental or purposeful obstruction of the entries to Parliament. No petitioning of passersby.”
Annabelle had informed Lucie that Montgomery was aware of their plans. Of course, Lucie had decided to go ahead. She seemed in an excellent mood this morning; the gleam in her gray eyes was positively rapacious. Ideological intoxication. Annabelle gave herself a mental shake. The sooner she stopped seeing and hearing Montgomery everywhere, the better.
“How about the banner?” asked Lady Mabel.
Lucie nodded. “It is being stowed in the luggage coach as we speak.”
“I hope so,” Lady Mabel said. “I’ve spent hours trying to space the letters evenly.”
“Should’ve used some math to do it,” muttered Catriona at Annabelle’s shoulder. Annabelle eyed her with surprise. It was very unlike Catriona to make biting remarks. Perhaps she was nervous, considering what lay ahead. Annabelle certainly missed Hattie’s unwavering cheerfulness, but everyone except Hattie had agreed that it would be best for her to stay in Oxford. No one wanted to bring the wrath of the mighty Julien Greenfield down onto their cause in case something went wrong.
Nothing will go wrong.
The train emitted a deafening whistle.
“Do you all have your sashes?” Lucie said. “I have some spare ones, just in case.” She patted her satchel, which hung heavy on her hip. No one stepped forward. The threat of a public dressing-down by Lady Lucie had seen everyone pack their sashes most diligently.
They split up as Annabelle made her way to third class. Ahead of her, a hooded figure in a voluminous gray cloak was moving slowly, causing a pileup of disgruntled passengers in her wake. At the train doors, the person stopped altogether and seemed to study the coach hesitantly.
Shoving and grumbling ensued.
“Apologies,” came a female voice from the depths of the cloak.
Impossible! With a few determined strides, Annabelle pushed past the woman and peered at her face.
“Hush,” Hattie said, glancing around nervously.
Annabelle pulled her aside. “What on earth are you doing here?”
“I’m going to London.”
Annabelle was aghast. “You can’t.”
“But I’m perfectly camouflaged, see?” She pointed at the woolen monstrosity that shrouded her.
“Camouflaged? Hattie, this cloak went out of fashion about five hundred years ago. You couldn’t look more conspicuous if you tried.”
Mutiny flared in Hattie’s eyes. “I’m going to London.”
“But what if someone recognized you? Your father would be furious; it would get us all into trouble.”
“This is my cause as much as yours. I have been to every meeting, I have done my research. I don’t want to stay behind like a namby-pamby prince while my friends are at the front.”
Goodness. “We all know you want to be there,” Annabelle said. “No one will hold it against you if you stay here.”
Hattie shook her head. “I have already escaped Mr. Graves. I can’t get the man in trouble for nothing.”
“Who is Mr. Graves?”
“My protection officer.”
Annabelle fell silent. She had never noticed a protection officer trailing Hattie.
Her friend gave a cynical little smile. “He is trained to be invisible. Would you feel comfortable walking anywhere with me if a grim man with a pistol were breathing down your neck? Well, I always know he’s there, whether I see him or not.”
Taking Hattie to London was wrong; Annabelle knew it with the finely honed instincts of someone who had long had to watch out for herself.
A whistle rang, and station staff were waving at them, urging them to climb aboard.
“Fine,” she muttered, “just stay close. And don’t turn your back on the men or you’ll get groped or pinched.”
“Groped and pinched?” Hattie looked at her blankly.
Annabelle gave her a speaking glance. “You’re not in first class anymore.”
* * *
The Marquess of Hartford, present owner of Sebastian’s family seat, was a slow man, his pace impeded by his gout, and it lengthened each corridor of Parliament by a mile. They crept toward the chamber in unsociable silence, perfectly acceptable considering that a mutual dislike was the only thing they had in common.
“Gentlemen, you have to see this.” The Earl of Rochester stood at one of the hallway windows, his gaze riveted on something on the streets below.
Sebastian’s pulse sped up. He could guess what had attracted Rochester’s attention. Still, it hadn’t prepared him for the picture of the rapidly gathering crowd on the square below. Streams of women were converging from all directions, their green sashes glinting in the sunlight.
“I say,” Hartford said, “so the rumors were true.” He chuckled. “This should be entertaining.”
“It’s thousands of them,” Rochester said. His profile was rigid with disapproval.
“No matter,” Hartford said, “the police will soon put an end to it.”
“It has to be quashed hard and fast, else we can expect a circus like that every week. They should call in stewards for reinforcing the police.”
Sebastian looked at Rochester sharply. “Stewards are not trained for handling this.”
Hartford ran the tip of his tongue over his bottom lip. “If these women behaved in the first place, they’d have nothing to fear, would they?”
Sebastian gave him a cold stare. “Assembling in a public place is the right of every British citizen.”
“For something like this?” Rochester said. “Only if they have been granted a permit.”
“They have a permit,” Sebastian said.
“That’s impossible.” Hartford sounded annoyed. “On what grounds? Any council would have denied it; they endanger the peace of the public.”