Bringing Down the Duke

Page 48

I am going to be expelled.

The study began to spin before her eyes. She could only nod.

Miss Wordsworth’s clear gaze assessed her with a measure of concern. “Were you treated well?”

“Well enough, miss.”

“I’m relieved to hear it,” Miss Wordsworth said. “Nevertheless, the matter is highly unfortunate. As you are aware, women in higher education already encounter opposition at every turn. Your comportment always reflects on women in higher education and our institution as a whole.”

“Yes, miss.”

“Scandal is ammunition for the opposition,” Miss Wordsworth continued, “which is why I had explicitly advised you to honor the trust we put in you despite your political stipend.”

Annabelle heard the warden as if from a distance. “I’m going to be expelled,” she said.

Miss Wordsworth’s face softened for a moment. “No. But you are rusticated with immediate effect.”

Annabelle gave a choked little laugh. Rusticated. Literally, it meant to go and reside in the country. Such a quaint term to describe the end of her dreams. Even if this was but a temporary expulsion, she had no country manor to which she could retreat.

As of now, she had nothing.

She kept her back ramrod straight. As if that could keep everything else from imploding in on itself. “Is it possible to say when I could be reinstated?”

Miss Wordsworth shook her head. “We will initiate an investigation. It normally concludes in favor of the student around the time the rumor has been forgotten.”

Annabelle knew enough about rumors to know that this would not be forgotten for years. She had been arrested and imprisoned, with no name to shield her.

She didn’t know how she made her way back to her room, made it up the narrow, creaking steps.

For a long minute, she stood in the door and looked at the tiny chamber. The narrow bed, the narrow desk, the small wardrobe that was just big enough to hold her few clothes. For four months, she’d had a room of her own. It was unfathomable that it should come to an end.

* * *

Through the bars of rain streaking across the window of his landau, Sebastian could make out the gray shape of Buckingham Palace and found the sight tired him profoundly. When this election was over and he had recovered his brother, he would go on a holiday. Somewhere solitary and warm. Greece. Hell no. Not Greece.

He could tell that the queen was not amused the moment he set foot in her apartment. Her compact form looked tense like a trap ready to spring; she was, in fact, brimming with an antagonism that was a little puzzling in its severity.

“First the farmers and the corn laws,” she said, casting his latest paper a withering glance, “and again you insist that Beaconsfield speak more in public—in town halls! Why, you will be wanting to give workingmen the vote next.”

“You will find no such proposition in my concept, ma’am.”

“Not in those words, no,” she said acerbically, “but close enough. Town halls! Besides, Beaconsfield’s constitution will not allow for the fiendish schedule you suggest.”

“Then I labored under the misapprehension,” Sebastian said, “that since he is running for the position of prime minister, he would be able to engage with his constituents.”

He knew the moment the words had left his mouth that they had been decidedly too sarcastic in tone. He was taken aback. His control had slipped, in a strategy meeting with the queen no less. She seemed equally surprised. Her eyes had widened; now they had narrowed to cool slits.

“Given what is at stake, for the country and for yourself, I would have thought you had an interest in winning this election,” she said.

He exhaled slowly. “I do. This is the best strategy for winning it.”

“It might well win the election,” she conceded, “but it is not how the party must win.”

“Ma’am, I don’t follow.”

“Well, there is little use in a victory for the Tory party, is there, if de facto, they are not the Tory party anymore.”

He would never understand it, the desire to turn a straight path to victory into a serpentine one.

The queen rose, and so he rose also, and she began to pace with angry, jerky little steps.

“I thought of you as highly principled,” she said, “and now I find you are putting outcome above principles. Oh, we cannot abide an opportunist.”

Sebastian’s fist clenched behind his back. “And yet none of my suggestions run counter to my principles.”

She stopped dead. She rotated toward him slowly, the effect of which would have terrified a lesser man. “Then it is worse than we thought,” she said coldly. “You, Montgomery, are a liberal.”

She might as well have called him a traitor. They regarded each other across the room, warily taking measure of each other as new cards were being dealt.

When the queen spoke again, her tone was flat. “The day you had your first audience with me, a duke at nineteen and with the eyes of a man much older, I saw something in you. In truth, you reminded me of Albert. He was quiet, too. He had an unshakable moral code, and he preferred deeds over words, qualities that are very rare in a man these days, and which I favor greatly. Say, have you never wondered why you experienced so little inconvenience after your divorce?”

Sebastian bent his head. “I always knew that you helped shield my reputation, for which I’m ever grateful.”

She scoffed. “We couldn’t tolerate the ruination of an exceptional man by a wicked, foolish girl. And yet we hear you lent support to suffragists last week. Wicked, foolish creatures. And all of them bolstering Gladstone.”

Ah well. Well well well. That explained Her Majesty’s chagrin, but who, he wondered, who could have pushed the matter all the way to Buckingham Palace, and so quickly? He realized then that the small pause had told the queen all she needed to know. Her face was pinched and furious. He really was slipping.

“My involvement was private, not a political matter,” he said.

She gave him an icy glare. “And far be it from us to concern ourselves with our subjects’ private matters. We do not, especially not when they are a personal disappointment to us.”

She reached for her bell.

“Ma’am, these women were treated like criminals and kept in conditions entirely unsuited for females.”

She looked at him as though she did not know him at all. “Do you propose we encourage their agenda? You of all people should know what happens when you let a woman run loose—she knows no moderation. The female heart is a violent creature. We advise you to think wisely from now on where your loyalties lie, Montgomery, what kind of world it is you want. If the esteem of your queen is no motivation for you, at least have a care for your ancestral seat.”

The cold tinny sound of the bell rung out. He was dismissed. He had been warned off, and insulted.

What troubled him most was that he didn’t truly seem to care.

* * *

“Rusticated?” Hattie sounded thunderstruck.

Lucie and Catriona seemed lost for words entirely. The tiny sandwiches on the tiered platters before them were forgotten, as was the bottle of champagne Hattie had ordered to her apartment to celebrate the completion of Helen of Troy last night.

“Yes,” Annabelle said, “but they’ll reinstate me soon.”

She had moved out of Lady Margaret Hall this morning, and her trunks had already been deposited in a tiny lodger’s room in Mrs. Forsyth’s two-down, one-up in Jericho.

“This is ridiculous,” Hattie stormed, “and it’s all my fault. Stay with me here; Aunty will be happy to have you around.”

“We have a guest room,” Catriona said. “Father probably won’t even notice your presence.”

“I have a cot we could put into my sitting room,” Lucie offered.

“Please,” Annabelle said, “that’s very generous of you, but don’t you see? If I am sent down because I’m a blight on the college, I can hardly be seen associating with any of you.”

“That’s true,” Lucie said crisply, “which is why you should stay with me. I have no reputation to lose.”

Catriona and Hattie had fallen quiet.

The lavish room felt stuffy and constricting.

She came to her feet. “Lucie, I know you think you’re a black sheep, but do you really want to attract such negative publicity for your cause?”

Lucie’s delicate face set in determined lines. “You can hardly expect me to just turn my back on you. You wouldn’t have been imprisoned if it weren’t for the cause, which I obliged you to support, so I’m responsible for this. Stay on in Oxford. Stay with me. We will weather this together.”

These crumbs of hope were almost worse than a clean slate of desolation.

“Lucie, the Oxford suffragists are all ladies of quality. If word about me gets out to their fathers, you will have a problem.”

An angry furrow formed between Lucie’s brows. “Leaving a comrade behind would be terrible for troop morale. This could have happened to anyone.”

No. No lady of quality would have thrown a punch.

“We aren’t soldiers,” Annabelle said. “We don’t take arrows for our comrades. We are women, and they measure us by the pristine condition of our dresses and reputation, not our bravery. Trust me, upholding troop morale will be easier for you when I’m gone.”

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