With a flat voice, he asked for her name and place of residence, and told her to turn in her reticule.
Then he moved the ledger toward her.
Next to her name, it said Obstruction and assault on a public servant.
Annabelle scrawled a shaky signature. “Sir. What is going to happen now?”
The man didn’t even look up, only reached for the bell on his desk.
“Sir,” she said pleadingly. He glanced at her then, and then he squinted, as if he had unexpectedly looked into bright light. His hand lowered back onto the desk.
“Well, miss,” he said, “you’ll know more tomorrow.”
Panic rose like bile in her throat. “I’m to stay here overnight?”
“A normal procedure, miss. Unless someone fetches you beforehand and posts bail.”
“Bail,” she whispered. She had no money to post bail. No one even knew where she was.
The clerk picked up the bell.
She leaned toward him imploringly. “Sir, could you have a message sent for me?”
He hesitated, then shook his head regretfully. “I’m afraid not today, miss.”
“Please, one message. To Lady Catriona Campbell.”
“A lady?” The sympathy faded from his eyes and was replaced with suspicion.
Of course. She didn’t look as though ladies would keep her company. She had lost her hat; the buttons of her coat had been torn off; her bodice, too, was missing buttons; and God knew what her hair looked like. If she bandied the name of the Earl of Wester Ross himself around, they might send her straight to Bedlam.
She sank back into the chair. “Never mind.”
* * *
She was reunited with the women from the cart in a cell. There was a single window high in the wall, a wooden stool, and a narrow cot on the left. The fetid stench of filth and desperation welled from the cracks in the old floorboards.
The woman with the northern accent who had offered her a seat in the cart flung herself onto the dirty cot. The blond girl timidly sat down beside her and clutched her arms around her slim frame. “Why are we here?” she whimpered.
“Me?” The northerner stretched her legs. “Obstructing an officer in his attempt to pinch me breasts.”
The girl still standing next to Annabelle cackled. “Yous are riskin’ Millbank o’er a li’l slap an’ tickle?” she said. The heavy Cockney made Annabelle look at her properly for the first time.
Hard eyes glared back at her from a hard face.
“What are ye looking at,” the girl snarled.
“You’re not a suffragist,” Annabelle said.
The girl’s expression turned derisive. “Nah. Me, I was picking pockets there, they say.” She sniggered. “Had nuthin’ on me, thank the Lord, or else—” She drew a finger across her scrawny neck.
Annabelle sagged against the wall and slowly slid to the floor.
She was in prison. Sharing a cell with real criminals.
But she had made a police officer bleed, so that probably made her a criminal, too.
The room began to spin.
She’d be prosecuted. She’d be imprisoned. She’d lose her place at Oxford . . . her life had just been blown off a cliff, and her stomach lurched as if she were falling.
She pressed her forehead against her knees. Cold seeped into her back from the naked stone wall. There were other aches: in her breasts, her wrists, her scalp, her knees, everywhere she had been grabbed or pulled.
The man’s leering grin flashed before her eyes, and a shiver of disgust racked her. He had looked so pleased, knowing that he could hurt and humiliate Hattie, and that there was nothing they could do.
She flexed her sore fingers. She had done something. Even Aunt May wouldn’t have gone so far as to say her impulsiveness would land her in prison one day.
Time crept, thickening the shadows in the cell into murky darkness. Every quarter of an hour, the chime of Big Ben came through the windowpane.
Sometime after seven, the cell door swung back and a prison guard appeared.
The northern suffragist girl rose from the cot. “Sir?”
“Your brother is here.”
“About time,” muttered Anne Hartly. “Good luck,” she said over her shoulder, all but stumbling over the hem of her narrow skirts as she hurried out the door.
The pickpocket hadn’t even raised her head. The blond suffragist was staring at the door, her eyes shining in the dark. “I got no one,” she said. “I got no one to come for me anytime soon.” There was a tinny note of hysterics in her voice. “I got no one,” she repeated, and began rocking back and forth and the cot began to creak.
“Oi. Shut it,” the Cockney girl said.
The girl whimpered, but the creaking continued.
Annabelle dragged herself to her feet. She settled in the vacated spot next to the rocking girl and wordlessly put her arm around her shoulders. The lass slumped against her and cried like a child.
It was approaching ten o’clock when the heavy footfall of a guard approached again.
“Miss Annabelle Archer. Please follow me.”
Her knees cracked when she stood. The girl, Maggie, reached for her hand and gave it a feeble squeeze. Resignation had set in a while ago.
She followed the guard on stiff legs, squinting into the bright light of the corridor.
It had to be Professor Campbell, Earl of Wester Ross. Or it was an interrogation.
Please let it be the earl.
They scaled a long flight of stairs that had her knees aching by the time they reached the top.
The guard halted in front of a solid black door. The director’s office, said the brass sign below the window in the door. A man was inside, standing with his back turned.
As if through fog, she saw the glint of white-blond hair.
The prison director’s office was an oppressive room, with a low ceiling, dark wall panels, and the dusty smell of old carpets thickening the air.
And Montgomery was here.
Her whole body had turned weak as water. She wanted to fall into his arms, close her eyes, and let him carry her away. Anywhere.
Belatedly, she remembered to curtsy. “Your Grace.”
His expression was strangely blank. His pale eyes traveled over her muddied skirts, the missing buttons . . . She felt herself flush. Self-consciously, she smoothed a hand over her hair.
He reached her with two long strides, bringing with him the smell of rain and damp wool. His gaze searched her face methodically. “Are you hurt?”
The quiet question did what prison had not managed—tears began burning in her nose. She blinked them back rapidly. “I’m fine.”
Montgomery’s attention shifted to the guard behind her, his eyes growing cold like a frozen sea.
“Show me where she was kept.”
A confounded silence filled the office.
“Of course, Your Grace,” the guard stammered. “Follow me, please, Your Grace.”
She stared after Montgomery’s retreating back, willing herself to remain calm, calm . . . She startled when someone touched her elbow.
The valet was looking down at her with warm brown eyes. “Miss Archer. It is a pleasure to see you again.” He cast a disapproving glance around. “Albeit under rather unorthodox circumstances.” He guided her to a chair by the wall. “Allow me.”
She sank onto the hardwood seat. Beneath her skirts, her knees were shaking.
“How did he know I was here?” she asked.
Ramsey nodded. “First, let me apologize for the delay. The meeting in Westminster went into overtime, naturally. When His Grace made to leave, three young ladies were lying in wait for him and informed him that you had been apprehended by the London Metropolitan Police. It then took a while to locate the correct, erm, facility.”
Her mind was whirling. Ramsey’s answer raised more questions than it resolved. Why had her friends gone to Montgomery of all people? And, more significantly, why had he come?
Ramsey obviously misinterpreted her troubled silence. “It is all over now, miss,” he soothed. “The director of this . . . place . . . should be here any minute and then we can draw a line under all this unpleasantness.”
Indeed, the prison director arrived before Montgomery returned, looking like a man who had hastily dragged his clothes back on when he had already been settled comfortably by the hearth. He was accompanied by the clerk who had made her sign the ledger, who, judging by his rain-soaked hat, had been sent out to fetch him.
When Montgomery strode back into the office a few minutes later, his eyes were unnaturally bright, and a muscle was ticking faintly in his left cheek.
The prison director quickly moved behind his vast desk.
“The cells here fall short of any standards set by the Home Office,” Montgomery said without preamble. “Too filthy, too cold, and unacceptably overcrowded.”
The director tugged at his cravat. “Regrettably, there has been a shortage of—”
“And on what grounds was she being held?” Montgomery demanded. “Their demonstration had been granted a permit.”
The prison director leafed jerkily through the ledger. “Indeed, they had a permit,” he said. “It seems the offenders, I mean, ladies, were held for obstruction and assault.” He looked up uncertainly. “Miss Archer here, ah, bloodied a police officer’s nose.”