“Why would you say such a thing?” she choked.
He moved suddenly, circling her like a sinewy predator until he paused right behind her. “Because, my sweet, you do not love him,” he murmured, his cool breath moving the downy hair on her nape. “You don’t love him, and you would have him for the things he can give you, not because you want him.”
She squeezed her eyes shut. “I don’t love you, either.”
“That is a lie,” he breathed. “You should see the look in your eyes after I kiss you.”
“Of course you would think so, but any woman would be dazzled by the attentions of a man of your position. But the truth is, it was always about the suffragist cause. It was why I was at Claremont in the first place . . . we spied on you. Every conversation we had was me trying to gain your support for the cause. We even have a file, a profile sheet about you.”
She was grabbed and turned around.
His expression was icy. “A file?” he demanded. “What are you saying?”
“The truth,” she whispered. “The truth.”
His grip on her shoulders tightened. “You are lying. You forget I held you in my arms just a few nights ago. I know you, and I know you are lying.”
“Do you?” she said tremulously. “You didn’t see the truth about your own wife until she ran off with someone else, and she was in your bed for months.”
Before her eyes, his face turned still like a death mask.
He released her abruptly, as if he had noticed that he was holding a toxic thing.
The faint, contemptuous curl of his lip cut her to the bone.
She watched, frozen and mute, as he turned his back to her and walked out.
The sound of the door falling shut behind him never reached her ears. A strange ringing noise filled her head. She sank onto the edge of the bed.
This was the right thing. She couldn’t breathe, but it was the right thing. At least this tragedy would not make English history. It would be borne in private, and one day die with her.
She didn’t know how much time had passed—a minute? an hour?— when Mrs. Forsyth planted herself before her. The unflappable chaperone was red-faced; she glared down at Annabelle with wrathful eyes. “I said no men,” she spat, “and on the first night, you bring a ruffian into my home.”
“I’m sorry,” Annabelle said tonelessly.
“I’m not a cruel woman,” Mrs. Forsyth said, “so you may stay the night. But tomorrow, I expect you to be gone.”
Annabelle stole out of Mrs. Forsyth’s front door at dawn, her chest heavy with fatigue. The sting of cold morning air was like a reviving slap to her cheeks, but she was still bleary-eyed by the time she reached the arched entrance door of St. John’s lodge.
It had taken a kindly porter with a handcart to get both her trunks from Lady Margaret Hall to Mrs. Forsyth’s house last evening, and perhaps there’d be an equally obliging one in St. John’s to help her move her belongings again. The porters here knew her from her comings and goings for Christopher Jenkins’s tutorials. The question was where to move her trunks. Catriona and her father had an apartment in the college’s residential west wing. A fleeting association with Annabelle’s luggage probably wouldn’t do her friend’s reputation any harm, though what story she’d tell about her eviction, she didn’t know. The mere thought of spinning yet another half-truth made her feel ill.
The porter’s lodge lay abandoned. The quadrangle of the college was preternaturally still, except for a lone student strolling along in the shadows of the arcade opposite.
She hovered on the limestone path. Last night had taken her rudder and her sail, leaving her adrift like flotsam. Turning left to the west wing or back to the lodge was an impossible decision.
The student disappeared through the archway to the next quad. No doubt he was going someplace warm and purposeful.
She turned back to the lodge.
The lights had been lit, and there was movement behind the windows.
She walked back to the door and gave a hesitant knock.
From the corner of her eye, she saw the archway at the end of the limestone path to her right, and she frowned, unable to pinpoint the niggling feeling at the back of her mind.
The door to the lodge creaked open and revealed a stout, white-haired porter. “Good morning, miss,” he said. “How may I help you?”
“Good morning. I’m a student at Lady Margaret Hall and I—”
And then she knew. The student. The student in the arcade. His lanky form. The ambling gait.
All the fine hairs rose on her body.
She turned on her heels.
“Miss?” the porter exclaimed.
She was already walking toward the archway, the hasty fall of her footsteps echoing from the surrounding walls. By the time she reached the archway, she had broken into a run. Panting, she looked left, right—and caught the movement of a door to the west wing falling shut.
The door opened to a narrow, poorly lit corridor, musty with the smell of ancient stone walls.
The young man had turned right and was moving quickly toward the door at the end of the corridor.
He didn’t break his stride; if anything, he walked faster.
She started after him. “Sir, a word.”
His shoulders went rigid.
Bother. What would she say if he was in fact not who she thought he was?
Still, she was surprisingly unprepared when he turned and she was face to face with Peregrin Devereux.
“Oh, goodness,” she exclaimed.
Long, lank hair and a pasty pallor detracted considerably from Peregrin’s charms. He looked like a creature that only came out at night.
She rushed to him. “Are you all right?”
“Why, good morning, Miss Archer,” he said, politely ignoring the hand she had instinctively put on his arm. She snatched it back. “What an unexpected pleasure,” he continued. “What brings you to St. John’s at this ungodly hour?”
He stiffened when the door behind him swung open.
Annabelle glanced around him, and her chest flooded with relief when she saw Catriona standing in the doorway. “Catriona,” she said, “I was just looking for you.”
She made to move toward her friend when she noticed the small basket under her arm.
And her utterly guilty expression.
Catriona gave her a weak smile. “Annabelle. And Lord Devereux. What a surprise.” She sounded guilty, too, and tried hiding her basket, all shifty.
One could almost hear the sound of Peregrin rolling his eyes.
Annabelle stared from one to the other as memories began to strike: Catriona’s blushes whenever Peregrin was near, her effort to go without glasses for the ball at Claremont . . . oh, by the fires of Hades.
Her gaze dropped to the damning basket on Catriona’s hip. “This is food, isn’t it,” she said, “food for Lord Devereux?”
Catriona glanced at Peregrin. Asking for permission, was she?
“Do you know that he has been missing for more than a month?” she demanded. “That Scotland Yard is turning over every stone in England to find him as we speak?”
Peregrin and Catriona gasped in unison.
“So you knew,” Annabelle said, incredulous.
“How do you know?” Peregrin demanded.
She whirled on him. “Does your brother know you are here?”
His brows flew up at the Duke of Montgomery being called “his brother.”
“Well? Does he?”
“With all due respect, I’m not certain why you ask.”
Because he had just been kissing me when he learned that you were gone. Because I held him and could feel his heart crack inside his chest when his own brother had betrayed him. Because whatever hurts him hurts me.
Hypocrite. She had hurt him most of all last night, when she had mercilessly tossed his love, his proposal, and his trust back at him.
She rose to her toes, right into Peregrin’s gaunt, aristocratic face. “How could you?” she said. “He doesn’t know whether you are dead or alive.”
Peregrin’s gaze narrowed slightly. “I apologize, miss,” he said. “Again, I’m not quite certain what for exactly, but it was not my intention to agitate you.”
Oh, his polite restraint could go rot. “I’ll speak frankly, then,” she said. “You disappeared. You ran away instead of following perfectly reasonable orders, and while you hide in some cozy nook and leech off a girl’s goodwill, your brother hardly sleeps because he’s worried sick about you.”
Two hectic flags of color burned on Peregrin’s cheeks; if she were a man, he’d probably deck her. “For some reason, you know a great deal, miss, I grant you that,” he drawled, “but you are wrong about one thing—Montgomery is never, ever worried sick about anything. He has neither the temper nor the heart for it, and should I indeed have elicited emotions of the kind in him, I assure you it has much to do with my position as his heir, and very little to do with myself.”
Annabelle’s hand flew up. She checked it, just in time, but for a blink both she and Peregrin stared at it, suspended in the air, ready to slap a nobleman’s cheek.
As Peregrin’s gaze traveled from her hand to her face, a suspicion passed behind his eyes. “Miss?”