There was a brief, incredulous pause.
“A misunderstanding, obviously,” Montgomery said silkily.
The prison director nodded. “Obviously, Your Grace.”
“Hence, her record should be expunged and the sheriff informed that her case has been dropped.”
Sebastian motioned for Ramsey without taking his eyes off the prison director. “How much is the bail?”
The director looked surprised; he evidently had expected the duke to simply take his prisoner and walk out again. “The bail is at fifty pounds, Your Grace.”
Annabelle bit back a gasp. That was a staggering amount of money. She felt ill as she watched Ramsey pull a checkbook from his inner coat pocket.
Montgomery signed the check on the director’s desk and wordlessly turned to leave.
Ramsey offered her his arm, but her feet were rooted to the spot.
“Miss?” Ramsey coaxed.
Montgomery turned back, his eyes impatient. His expression turned quizzical when she walked over to him and rose to her toes to whisper into his ear. She didn’t want to be this close to him, she probably reeked of prison, but . . . “There’s another suffragist in the cell,” she said softly, “Maggie. She has no one to fetch her, and she’s terrified.”
Montgomery pulled back and gave her a long, unreadable stare.
Then he held a hand out to Ramsey, who promptly pulled out the checkbook again.
It was potently silent in the office when the duke signed a second check for fifty pounds and ordered Maggie’s release come morning.
Annabelle’s cheeks were burning up. She thought of the Cockney woman, and the impulse to help her, too, wrestled with common sense. Montgomery put an end to her quandary by firmly placing her hand on his arm and marching her from the office.
An unmarked carriage was waiting for them at a back entrance in the pouring rain.
Ramsey tossed the drenched driver a coin. “To Thirty-seven Belgrave Square.”
As the carriage swayed through the night, they sat in silence. With the light and shadow of the passing streetlights playing over his face, Montgomery looked alien, like a stranger, and it made her feel lost.
She had just cost him a hundred pounds, and she wasn’t even his mistress. He had searched the prisons of London to find her after she had told him to stay away. And he was a straightlaced man, so it must have gone against his grain to free her by throwing his weight around. Thank you seemed laughably inadequate for what he had just done.
“Where are we going?” she finally asked.
“Apologies,” he said, “I thought you knew. My residence in Belgravia.”
He wasn’t looking at her. Save for searching her face for signs of mistreatment, he had not looked at her much at all tonight. The realization settled like a boulder on her chest.
“Unless you would prefer to stay at Claridge’s,” he said when she didn’t reply.
“The hotel?” Even she had heard of that illustrious place.
He nodded. “You could use my rooms there. Transport to the train station could be arranged easily tomorrow.”
He sounded so polite. Impersonally polite. It wasn’t just because Ramsey was with them. She could sense the distance between them, the weakness of their connection, as if he had neatly clipped the invisible rope that had tugged them toward each other almost from the start. He obviously still felt protective of her, but it was clear he did not want to feel that way. Well. He was only doing what she had asked him to do: staying away from her. It should have made her feel relieved. Instead, the boulder on her chest was slowly crushing her very lungs.
“I’m perfectly fine with Belgrave Square, Your Grace.”
* * *
Montgomery’s white, stucco-fronted town house rose four stories high and overlooked the now-dark park across the street. Four white pillars framed the main entrance. From prison to London’s wealthiest neighborhood in the space of an hour proved a little overwhelming; Annabelle moved up the steps like an old woman on Ramsey’s arm. She vaguely registered a chandelier and a wide oak staircase while footmen took gloves and coats and hats.
Montgomery was speaking to a female servant whose crisp dress and demeanor signaled that she was the housekeeper. Finally, he turned to Annabelle, the aloof expression on his face unchanged.
“Millie will show you to your chamber,” he said, nodding at a young maid hovering by the housekeeper’s side. “Do not hesitate to have a bath, or to order up a tray.”
A bath. Food. Heaven.
She would have traded all of it gladly for an ounce of warmth in his voice.
A hint of golden stubble glinted on his jawline. He must have risen and shaved early, and now it was approaching midnight. He’d had another long day, and it showed in the stubble, and the harshness of the lines around his beautiful mouth. At the end of the day, he was a mortal man.
She tried to breathe through the building pressure in her chest. She had never wanted anything more than to bury her face against his shoulder, because mortal or not, he still looked as though the whole world could lean on him awhile. And he could need some tenderness in return.
Her scrutiny did not escape his notice. A flicker sparked in the depths of his eyes, and his stoic expression cracked. For a moment, it looked as though he was going to touch her, but his right hand just clenched and unclenched by his side.
“Good night, Miss Archer,” he said.
* * *
“Would you like me to draw you a bath, miss, while I prepare the room?” Millie asked.
The room looked perfectly prepared to Annabelle. The cool elegance of ice-blue wood paneling and a high stucco ceiling was tempered by lush dark velvet drapes and the warmth of the roaring fire on the grate.
“A bath would be lovely,” she said. Anything to wash off the degradation of Millbank.
The bathroom was elaborate: white tiles from floor to ceiling, glinting taps, and a large, oval copper tub. Glass jars with cakes of finely milled soap and pink crystal bottles with lavender essence and rose oil lined the shelves.
Millie turned the taps open. Steam rose as hot white jets gushed into the tub. She left when Annabelle undressed, and she bustled back into the room with an armful of crisp white towels, a nightgown, and a white silk robe. She placed the items on a chair by the bath and disappeared in a rustle of starched skirts.
Her entire body sighed when she sank into the hot, lavender-scented water. Her head lolled back against the rim. How lovely to feel weightless for a change. She was almost too entranced to reach for a bar of soap. The lather was silky soft and luxurious like cream. The gentle friction of the sponge over her limbs drew a prickling heat to the surface of her skin. It was the same feverish feeling that had seen her flying through Claremont at midnight, searching for Montgomery as if he were the antidote to some fatal malaise. But back then she had wanted a last kiss, a last good-bye. Now she knew what a ludicrous plan that had been. Every kiss they shared had just whetted her appetite for more of his kisses. Quite possibly, no amount of kisses, no amount of time, would ever be enough before it would feel right to say good-bye to him.
The sponge brushed against her knuckles, still pink and sore from punching a man. She winced. She had come close, so close to losing her future today. Then Montgomery had walked in and freed her as easily as one would open the cage door for a captive bird. And just as any rational man would after setting a wild creature free, he would leave the creature to its own devices.
Whichever route they took, it would end in hurt.
As it was, the thought of never feeling his soft mouth against her own hurt the most.
She carefully set down the sponge on the rim of the bath.
He had given her back her tomorrow.
She could give them tonight.
Steam swirled off her body when she rose from the tub, and she swayed, feeling light-headed. She toweled herself off and massaged some of the rose oil into her still-damp skin; she unpinned her hair and combed her fingers through the wavy strands until they gleamed. She slipped into the white silk robe.
Back in her room, she gave the bell pull a tug.
Her heart was beating a hard, slow rhythm by the time Millie appeared on the doorstep.
“Take me to His Grace, please.”
The maid’s eyes swept furtively over her flimsy attire. “His Grace will be in his private chambers at this time, miss.”
The servants would talk. It mattered not.
She moved toward the door on bare feet. “I know.”
Sebastian was sprawled in his armchair, his hair still curling from his bath, and he was increasingly keen on the idea to go to his club for a round of midnight fencing. The bath had not worked. The book in his hand did not work. Angry, unspent desire was still pulsing through his veins, an aggression without a target. Oh, but he had a target all right. One glance at her, bedraggled and dirty as she was, and he wanted her. Wanted to protect, possess, to be with her. And short of bullying her into it, he could do exactly nothing.
The logs in the fire popped so softly, so domestically, it stoked his resentment.
To think this would become one of his greatest challenges yet: to do nothing.
There was little joy in honor tonight.
A light knock on the door jolted him from his brooding. No one came to his chambers at this time of the night. He made to rise to investigate when the doorknob turned.