“Annabelle.” It came out raspy.
Her lips quivered; he could feel the cracks running through her defenses, and still she was holding herself together at the seams with her damned stubbornness. Damn her, damn her will, her pride, her self-possession. Everything that made her his match now turned against him.
“I’m in love with you, Annabelle.” The words tumbled out of his mouth. Not how he would have chosen to say them for the very first time.
She froze. An emotion akin to panic flashed across her face, and her hands twisting the coverlet turned white.
The heavy silence stretched between them until it became answer enough.
Something tore inside his chest, something vital, and briefly, he wondered if a man could die from it. The pain all but took his breath away.
What a way to find out he did have a heart.
He rose from the bed and picked up his robe, still pooled on the floor where he had dropped it last night. He shrugged into the garment and meticulously tied the belt as he kept his back to her.
“Sebastian.” Her voice was hanging by a thread.
Her eyes looked huge in her pale face.
“I have been used and discarded once before,” she said, “and some days . . . some days I still feel utterly disposable. I cannot go through it again.”
His hands clamped around her arms. “But I give you my word. I will give it to you in writing that you will lack for nothing. I will care for you as if you were my wife.”
She gave a small shake. “I believe you. But I’m afraid that it would not feel that way to me.”
It was unfathomable that she wouldn’t have him, that he would not get what he wanted most because of a hurt he had not even caused.
“You must know that you want too much,” he said through his teeth.
Her gaze skittered away. “Yes,” she whispered. “I always did.”
He released her, his hands clenching into fists by his sides.
He could chain her to his bed.
It would not give him what he wanted.
He bent and brushed his lips against her forehead. Her skin was clammy and cold.
“I shall be in my study,” he said, “but anything pertaining to your departure can also be arranged with my housekeeper.”
He walked out without a backward glance.
Your eyes are not quite right today.”
Hattie’s aggrieved voice cut through the haze of her brooding. Her nose filled with the acrid smell of turpentine, and she saw that the shadows across the studio floor had lengthened. They had to be close to the end of their session. Their last session for Helen of Troy.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “What can I do?”
Hattie lowered the paintbrush. She hesitated. “They have no spark,” she finally said.
It wouldn’t take an artist’s eye to know something was wrong. If eyes were the window to the soul, hers would look empty and distracted today, and for many days to come. Days? Try months, perhaps years.
She took a shaky breath. “I’m afraid I don’t know how to change that.”
“No, no.” Hattie put the brush down and wiped her hands on her color-stained apron. “We will finish it tomorrow. We should have canceled the session today; it’s too soon after that awful day.” Her brown eyes filled with sudden tears. “I still cannot believe that you ended up in prison because of me; you were so brave and I can’t say how sorry—”
“Please,” Annabelle said. “I wasn’t brave, I just reacted. It was nothing.”
“Nothing?” Hattie looked comically outraged. “You near felled that horrid man, with a single punch! I should have painted you as Athena, the goddess of war, taking down men with her bare hands.”
Annabelle gave her a tired smile. Athena was also the goddess of wisdom, and she, Annabelle, was far, far, far from wise.
I’m in love with you, Annabelle. His voice had haunted her since the morning she had left London. She had an inkling what it would have cost a man as buttoned-up as Sebastian to lay himself bare, and she had met his intimate revelation with silence. She had been rendered mute, realizing what a colossal mistake she had made to go to his bed. There was no doubt in Sebastian’s mind that he was in love with her. He had proven it, too. He must have obtained a permit for the suffragist demonstration, for none of the secretaries had done it. He had put his reputation on the line to free her from prison, and had expected nothing in return. And now she had hurt him deeply. I didn’t know. How could she have imagined that she held such power over him?
“Now you look positively grim,” Hattie said.
“Because I’m stiff. May I move?”
“Goodness, yes, move,” Hattie said, her hands making a shooing motion. “Would you like to take a look at yourself?”
Annabelle flexed her arms. “Will that not bring me bad luck, to look at it before it’s finished?”
“No,” Hattie said. “Painters say that to keep difficult clients from studying their own portrait every hour. You have been exemplary. Behold thyself.”
Annabelle picked her way around tightly crammed easels and marble busts, careful to not jostle anything with her skirts.
When she joined Hattie in front of the tall canvas, she was dumbstruck. It was like staring into an enchanted mirror—the woman in the painting reflected her physical features with impressive accuracy, but Hattie’s paintbrush had drawn everything to the surface she usually labored to keep hidden.
“That is how you see me?” she asked, aghast.
Hattie untied her apron. “I think it is what you could be,” she said, “if you dared. It’s certainly how I’d want to be.”
“Like . . . this?”
“For once in my life? Yes. Wait until it is finished; I promise it will sparkle.”
“More sparkle?” Annabelle said feebly.
“Oh yes,” Hattie said. “Trust me, it needs sparkle to shine in Julien Greenfield’s sitting room. He’s agreed to have the grand reveal during his investment summit in a few days’ time.”
A shudder ran through Annabelle at the thought of scores of men seeing her like this. It was just as well that she didn’t move in those circles.
Hattie’s studio at the Ruskin School of Drawing was barely a mile from the Randolph Hotel, so they decided to take a little walk. Mrs. Forsyth and Hattie’s protection officer trailed behind as they made their way up High Street. The air was unusually sultry for a winter day, and Oxford’s spires and sandstone turrets stood out against a quietly darkening sky. Gratitude welled in Annabelle’s chest as she drank in the familiar honey-colored college walls and gray lead roofs. She had come so, so close to losing her place here.
“Hattie,” she said, careful to keep her voice low, “whose idea was it exactly, to go to the duke of all people to free me?”
When she had arrived at Oxford yesterday, she had been in a daze, and her friends had talked over each other in their excitement while she had said very little, chiefly to keep the lies regarding her whereabouts to a minimum.
“It was Catriona’s idea,” Hattie said. “Since Professor Campbell was on his way to Cambridge, she suggested we should go to the duke.”
“It’s Catriona,” Hattie said with a shrug. “Her mind works in mysterious ways. She was quite adamant about it, actually, and rightly so. As a gentleman of your acquaintance, he was obliged to come to your aid. I admit I was skeptical at first, but he didn’t hesitate for even a moment.” Her face assumed a gossipy expression. “I heard this morning that he bailed out a dozen more suffragists. Did you know that?”
Something inside Annabelle went cold. “A dozen?” she said. “But that’s nonsense. Who told you that?”
Hattie frowned. “Lady Mabel. I don’t know how she knows; I suppose one of the other women must have said something to someone. A good rumor always finds its way.” Her face turned serious. “Annabelle, I know I said it before, but truly, I would have gone to my father to beg for him to help us, had the Montgomery plan failed.”
“I know, dear,” Annabelle said absently. Talk here in Oxford about Millbank and Sebastian’s involvement in the matter was a rather alarming development.
A mighty rumble rolled across the horizon and reverberated through her bones.
Hattie squeaked. “Quick. It will start pouring in a minute.” She began to hurry ahead, fleeing the first splats of rain like a disgruntled cat.
* * *
It took barely forty-eight hours for the rumor to spawn consequences. Annabelle had a dark sense of foreboding the moment she found the nondescript envelope in her pigeonhole.
Miss Elizabeth Wordsworth, the warden herself, was summoning her to her office.
The note slipped from her nerveless fingers. The last time she had been in the warden’s office, it had been for her personal welcome talk to the college. Her heart had thundered with excitement at the prospect of beginning her new life. Now her pulse was pounding with fear.
“I shall come straight to the point,” Miss Wordsworth said as soon as Annabelle had taken her seat. The warden’s intelligent face wore a grave expression. “I have been informed that a student from Lady Margaret Hall was apprehended by police at a suffrage demonstration on Parliament Square last Friday. Is this true?”