“How little you know him,” she said softly. “Poor Montgomery, to never be seen for what he is by the very people he loves. He does have a heart, you see, a restrained, honorable heart, but it bruises just like yours and mine, and I wager it is a hundred times more steadfast. He is a rare man, not because he is wealthy, or powerful, but because he says what he means and does what he says. He could be a self-indulgent tyrant, and yet he chooses to work hard to keep everyone’s lives running smoothly, thinking of everything so others don’t have to. And if you, my lord, had but one honorable bone in your body you would help him carry his infernal load of responsibilities instead of acting like a spoiled brat.”
She all but spat the word brat.
Peregrin had gone pale beneath his pallor.
“Annabelle.” Catriona had wedged herself between them, her upturned face a blur.
“He does have a heart,” Annabelle said, “and I love him.”
“Annabelle,” Catriona said, “you mustn’t—”
“I love him, but I lied to him, and now he will forever think badly of me.” There was a break in her voice.
Catriona curled a hand around her shoulder, her large blue eyes soft with compassion. The glimpse of kindness proved too much. For the first time since that fateful summer years ago, Annabelle burst into tears.
* * *
“I love him!”
“She’s been like this for the past half hour,” Hattie told Lucie in a low voice.
The suffragist leader stood in the door to the Campbells’ small sitting room, still in her coat and scarf, tendrils of her pale blond hair slipping from her hastily pinned updo.
Annabelle was curled up in the armchair, her body racked from the force of the sobs wrenching from her throat, as if a lifetime of misery were pouring out of her. Catriona was perched on the chair’s armrest, awkwardly patting Annabelle’s back.
“Well, hell’s bells,” said Lucie.
She strode to the cabinet on the wall opposite, her intuition rewarded by the sight of a row of glinting bottles when she opened the doors. She uncorked a brandy bottle and poured two fingers into a small tumbler.
“Drink this,” she ordered, thrusting the glass at Annabelle.
Annabelle glanced up at her with red-rimmed eyes. Her fine nose glowed an unbecoming pink.
“Is this liquor?” she sniffled.
“Try it,” Lucie said darkly. “I promise it is not half as bad as keeping secrets from your friends and cavorting with the enemy. Montgomery, Annabelle? Of all the men in the kingdom!”
Annabelle stared into the tumbler. “He’s not the enemy,” she said dully. “He was the one who got the permit for the demonstration. He did us a favor. And I—”
“Love him, yes. So you said.” Lucie reached back and dragged a chair closer. “And he got us the permit, you say? Why don’t you start at the beginning?”
Annabelle nipped on the brandy and made a face when the liquid numbed her lips. “It hardly matters now, does it?”
“Then why are you carrying on as though the world has ended?” Lucie asked, unwinding her long scarf.
Because it has.
Her heart shriveled and died every time she recalled the look on his face when Sebastian had walked out. As if she were his personal Delilah, his Salome, every treacherous female known to man.
She took a gulp of the brandy. “He must despise me,” she croaked.
Lucie’s silvery eyes were shooting sparks. “That cad,” she growled. “I can’t believe he seduced you, and under the protection of his own roof, I presume.”
“He didn’t seduce me,” Annabelle protested. “Well, perhaps a little.” She had been quite seduced the moment he’d stood before her, hat in hand, uttering a rare apology on a hill in Wiltshire. “It wasn’t his fault.”
“Goodness,” Lucie said, “of course it is. Remember you are a suffragist; we don’t believe the tale of the evil temptress and the hapless man. He knew exactly what he was doing.”
Annabelle bristled. “What if I told you that I was quite willing?”
Lucie rolled her eyes. “Annabelle, he may look like a cold fish, but he is ten years older than you. He’s a calculating strategist, and gained the queen’s favor by making grown men do what he wants them to do. You didn’t stand a chance, and he knew it. Be honest—did he say all the right things? Did he make you feel as though you had known each other for years, understood each other without words?”
Oh, had he ever done that. “Yes,” she whispered.
Hattie made a soft sound of dismay.
Lucie gave a grave nod. “That’s how they do it,” she said. “I’m so sorry I sent you to lobby the bastard.”
“He proposed to me last night,” Annabelle said.
A collective gasp rose around her. It was almost funny, the three identical expressions of openmouthed shock.
“Proposed . . . marriage?” Hattie squeaked. Her eyes were perfectly round.
Annabelle nodded. “He appeared in Mrs. Forsyth’s house last night to do it. I . . . I refused. It caused a scene, so Mrs. Forsyth asked me to leave.”
Silence. A heavy, roiling silence of disbelief.
“Hell’s bells,” Lucie muttered, and she rose and walked to the liquor cabinet to pour herself a brandy.
“And you refused?” Hattie asked breathlessly.
Annabelle swallowed. “Yes. I could hardly accept him, could I?”
Three vigorously shaking heads were the swift, unanimous answer.
“I mean, you could,” Hattie said, “but it would be the scandal of the decade. No, the century. It would, in fact, become a legend—”
“I know,” Annabelle said, interrupting her, “I know. It’s why I refused him. Oh.” She furiously dabbed her sodden handkerchief at her eyes as tears welled afresh.
“I can’t believe he proposed,” Hattie said, shaking her head. “Not that you aren’t worth proposing to,” she added hastily, “but it seems such a mad, wild thing to do for such a cold . . . I mean, clever man.”
Annabelle gave her a tired smile. “He quite sensibly asked me to be his mistress first.”
Lucie’s eyes narrowed dangerously. “On the same night?”
“No,” Annabelle said, “at Claremont.”
“I’m glad you refused that offer,” Catriona said. “We could be friends with a scandalous duchess, but hardly with a duke’s mistress.”
Annabelle placed the empty tumbler on the small side table.
“And now,” she asked quietly, “will you be friends with me now?”
Hattie frowned. “Why wouldn’t we?”
“Because I punched a man,” Annabelle said, “because I was arrested, I’ve been rusticated, I’ve been propositioned by a duke, and I’ve been thrown out of the house by my own chaperone.”
Lucie’s lips quirked behind her brandy glass. “It sounds to me as though you could use a friend or three right now.”
“I’m a walking scandal,” Annabelle snapped.
Catriona slipped her arm from Annabelle’s shoulders and folded her hands in her lap.
“I saw him kissing you at the ball at Claremont,” she said, “and I’ve been your friend since, have I not?”
Annabelle gaped at her. Well, yes. Catriona had been in the hallway when she had left the alcove. She had pointed out her messy hair . . .
“You kissed? At the ball?” Hattie shrieked.
And it seemed Catriona hadn’t even spread the gossip.
“Why are you so kind?” Annabelle demanded. “Why aren’t you judging me, or exchanging meaningful glances, or trying to wash your hands of me?”
As every single one of the village girls she had once considered her friends had done after the whispers had started about her and William? As her own father had done?
Lucie sighed. “For being so clever, you aren’t very bright sometimes,” she said. “Look at us. None of us are how we should be.” She pointed at Catriona. “Too clever. They use her papers to go treasure hunting, blissfully unaware that a woman has written their handbooks, and I believe at one point you wore trousers and crawled through some caves in Egypt, didn’t you?” Catriona nodded, embarrassed heat climbing up her neck. “Then there’s me,” Lucie continued. “My family disowned me long before the little incident with the Spanish ambassador and the silver fork. If my aunt hadn’t left me a small trust, which she only did to spite my father, I’d be either destitute or a raving madwoman confined to my bedroom, for I can’t be what they want me to be. I’m not passive, I can’t be quiet, I haven’t ever envisioned myself surrounded by a large brood of children and serving my lord husband and master. And Hattie . . .” She frowned. “I don’t actually know what your oddity is.”
Hattie crossed her arms. “Why would I have to be odd at all?”
Lucie gave her a poignant look. “Why else would a daughter of Julien Greenfield be stuck elbow-deep in paint under a slave driver like Professor Ruskin every week?”
Hattie’s ever-smiling mouth flattened into a sullen line.
“Fine,” she finally said. “I can’t write properly. Nor can I do numbers.” She arched a brow at Lucie. “You think you are a black sheep? Even my sisters know how to make profitable investments. I cannot copy a row of figures in the correct order, and if I didn’t have the red Greenfield hair, my parents would think I was a changeling. I suspect they think it anyway. I think they’d prefer it, less of an embarrassment, I suppose.”