She left her friends in stunned silence and walked right out of the Randolph Hotel into the cold of a drab morning. She pushed on across St. Giles to the arched wing doors of St. John’s, where she had one thing left to do.
* * *
Jenkins was ensconced behind his desk, elbow-deep in a stack of papers. His hair stuck up on the left side of his head, as if he had tried to forcibly tug one of his brilliant thoughts from the depths of his mind. The sight of organized chaos in his study was so heartbreakingly familiar that it took every ounce of her strength to not begin to cry.
“Miss Archer.” Jenkins took off his glasses and blinked. That, too, was a gesture she found saddeningly familiar.
“I did not realize I had called for your assistance today.”
“May I come in, Professor?”
Only when she had taken her seat did he glance back at the now-closed door, frowning. “Where is that noisy chaperone of yours?”
“I’m afraid I have to resign from my assistant position,” she said.
Jenkins’s features sharpened, and she knew he had left Greek antiquity behind and was present. In as few words as possible, she told him about her circumstances, save the part about Sebastian.
“That is a conundrum,” Jenkins said when she had finished. “A foolish circus, but hard to rectify under the circumstances.”
She gave a nod, feeling a last spark of hope extinguish.
Jenkins put his glasses back on and leaned back in his chair. “Well, I can’t let you go. Your work is too good.”
She gave him a watery smile. “Thank you,” she said. “I shall miss my work here very much.”
He was quiet for a moment. “Do you wish to continue working as my assistant?”
“Yes.” She said it without hesitation. Oh, if only there were a way. The mere thought of slinking back to the bleakness of Chorleywood made her want to howl.
“And would you like to stay in Oxford?” Jenkins asked. “It could become quite unpleasant for you for a while.”
“It is my greatest wish to stay,” she said. “I just don’t have an option to do so.”
“You do,” Jenkins said. “You could marry me.”
Marry me. Marry him? Marry Jenkins?
“I seem to have rendered you speechless,” Jenkins remarked. “I suppose the correct way of saying it is ‘Miss Archer, would you honor me with your hand in marriage?’” He tilted his head expectantly.
“This . . . comes as a bit of a surprise,” she said weakly.
“Does it really?” he asked, bemused. “The possibility must have crossed your mind at some point.”
Much as she cared for him, it hadn’t crossed her mind. He was of course a brilliant man, and an eligible bachelor, too, not too old and with nice teeth and a good set of shoulders. But normally, a courting phase preceded a proposal.
Then again, he had taken her to a concert. He bickered at her in old Latin twice a week and he fed her apples. Indeed, his proposal had probably been a perfectly foregone conclusion to any bystander. How had she not expected it?
“I have contemplated proposing to you for a while,” he said. “I want to take you on the excursion to the Peloponnese, and this would be the most expedient way of doing it.”
“Expedient,” she echoed.
He nodded. “Imagine the breach of propriety otherwise. And no chance in Hades would I take your Mrs. Forsyth along.”
“Professor . . .”
“Please,” he interjected, “hear me out. Miss, you are a rare find for a man like me. People are either intellectually capable or agreeable. They are hardly ever both. You are. You are the best assistant I’ve ever had. Furthermore, like myself, you don’t seem keen on children, when most women are. I’m aware my standards are unorthodox, which, I assure you, is the sole reason for my bachelorhood; I am otherwise perfectly capable of providing for a wife. And my name would shield you from this nonsense that is presently making life difficult for you; in fact, you could continue with your work as if nothing had happened.”
He looked at her now with an expression she had never seen on his face before. Hopeful.
She tried to imagine him as her husband, because she liked him and her future was hanging by a thread and both rash decisions and dithering could prove catastrophic at this point.
He was a good man, and he cared about her well-being. His looks, scent, and dress sense were perfectly agreeable, and she expected he had a housekeeper to do the housework, so she would have her head and hands free for assisting him. He was also not an easy man—he was wholly cerebral and irritable, and he’d spend most of his life in his books, but given that she was used to that, she’d deal with it well.
But could she imagine him coming home, and loosening his cravat, and sliding his shirt off his shoulders, and have him cover her with his bare body—
She felt herself flush. “You . . . you mentioned not wanting any children,” she said.
Jenkins sat up straighter, sensing they were moving into a negotiation. “I don’t mind them as a concept. But for us, well, they would be beside the point, would they not?”
“Most people would argue that the point of marriage is children.”
Jenkins made a face. “Most people are bleating fools. My wife would have to understand and assist my work. I am my work. And if you were a man, you’d already be making a name for yourself in our field, given how good you are, but the moment you began to breed, you would become utterly addlebrained, all your razor-sharp thinking blunted by the relentless demands of squalling brats. You would lose a few teeth, too; trust me, I have seen all of it happen to each of my six sisters.”
She should take offense. In the history of marriage proposals, this had to be the most shockingly unromantic one ever uttered. But then, as a near-felon, she was not much of a catch, and it was still more respectable than her other offer, the one for the position as a kept woman.
Her silence seemed to make Jenkins nervous. He fiddled with his pen. “Have I perhaps drawn the wrong conclusion?” he asked. “Since you seemed to be a spinster by choice, I didn’t think a family was your priority.”
She had to force herself to look him in the eye. “I just wondered whether you are proposing a marriage in name only.”
To his credit, he did not reply at once but seemed to weigh the question with the consideration it was due. “Is that what you would prefer?” he finally said. His eyes were unreadable behind his reflecting glasses, but his shoulders appeared tense.
Yes would have been the obvious answer to his question. Then again, on paper, he was more than what she could have ever hoped for: an academic, comfortable, and free to ignore the more petty social mores under the guise of brilliant eccentricity. Most important, she liked him. Liked, not loved. He’d never have the power to crush her heart. But if she refused him the marriage bed, would he respect her decision without growing surly over time?
“I would like some time to consider the proposal,” she heard herself say. “A week. If that is agreeable to you.”
Jenkins nodded after a brief pause. “A week. Perfectly agreeable.”
A week. A week to consider an alternative to going back to Gilbert’s house. To tell him that studying had been too much of a challenge for her female brain after all, and that she’d gladly be an unpaid drudge for the rest of her days, with no certain future. Perhaps it wouldn’t even come to the workhouse. Perhaps she’d end up in Bedlam, muttering to herself that she’d had dukes and Oxford dons vying for her attention in days gone by.
She left the office, thinking she should have just said yes.
* * *
A duke had no business attending an investment summit. Glances followed Sebastian around Greenfield’s town house, and he knew he would have raised less gossip trawling a low-class bordello. But men like Julien Greenfield wouldn’t pass insider information on to Sebastian’s investment manager, nor over a discreet dinner; officially grace my home, and receive first-class intelligence in return, that was the deal. Even business was never to be had without the politics, certainly not without the petty power plays.
Greenfield plucked two brandy tumblers from a tray floating past. “I suggest we proceed to the sitting room; these chaps are really keen to make your personal acquaintance,” he said, handing one glass to Sebastian and wrapping his plump hand around the other.
Sebastian carried his untouched drink down the corridor, listening to Greenfield’s assessment of the diamond mine of which Sebastian planned to become a shareholder. The two South African business partners in Greenfield’s sitting room could potentially add a million pounds to his accounts, depending on how trustworthy he found them.
His first impression was promising: firm handshakes, good eye contact. The younger of the two had started out as a mining engineer, so he knew the business inside out and his description of the current project status matched the information Sebastian’s man had compiled on the duo.
Disaster struck when he caught a familiar figure from the corner of his eye.
The businessman’s speech turned into meaningless noise.
There on an easel, guarded by a footman, was a life-sized, breathtaking, glowing version of Annabelle.