“Nonsense,” Annabelle murmured, “you are lovely as you are.”
“Aw.” Hattie perked up. “How nice of you.”
“You see, Annabelle,” Lucie said, “I’m not saying you aren’t scandalous, but you are not alone.”
A weak smile curved Annabelle’s lips. “No. It seems as though I’m in good company.”
Her breathing was flowing more easily now, as if the vise clamping her chest had been loosened by a notch or two.
“You need a place to stay,” Lucie said.
“I do,” Annabelle said, balling the handkerchief in her fist.
Lucie looked smug. “You should have just stayed with me when I offered it.”
“I suppose I should have, yes.”
“Let’s get your luggage, then. Unless there are any more secrets you should divulge first.”
“Not on my part,” Annabelle said, “but come to think of it . . .” She turned to Catriona, and her friend ducked her head. “Why and where on earth did you help hide Lord Devereux?”
Peregrin Devereux was a mellow young man with a sunny disposition. It took dramatic events to drive him to dramatic actions. Was there anything more dramatic than seeing a lovely woman like Miss Archer in tears? With the sound of her pitiful sobs in his ears, he made his way from Oxford to Wiltshire without tarrying once.
His bravado withered the moment Claremont loomed into view. It was dead and gone by the time he stood before the dark, heavy door to his brother’s study. Nausea writhed in his stomach. Nothing good had ever happened to him beyond this door.
He closed his eyes and tried to remember all the reasons why he was here. Then he rapped firmly.
No one answered.
Peregrin frowned. Where else would Montgomery possibly be?
He pushed into the room uninvited.
The study was dim. The heavy curtains had been drawn and no lamp, no fire had been lit, and the stale smell of cold tobacco smoke thickened the air.
Montgomery’s eyes gleamed like polished stones in the shadows. He was sprawled in his chair behind the desk, his head lolling back against the leather upholstery.
Peregrin had been unaware his brother even knew how to sprawl. It shocked him almost as much as the empty bottle of Scotch amid the chaos on the desk. And chaos it was. The usually meticulously aligned stacks of papers had toppled; sheets were strewn across the floor as if they had been scattered by a gust of wind.
“Sir . . .”
The duke’s hooded gaze slid over him, and Peregrin’s throat squeezed shut. His brother’s eyes lacked their usual eviscerating edge, but he could still level a calculating enough stare to make a man squirm.
“So you have returned.” Montgomery’s voice sounded rough from disuse. Or from draining a bottle of Scotch? There wasn’t even a glass. Egads! Had he drunk straight from the bottle’s neck?
“You look awful,” Montgomery remarked. “I’d offer you a drink but as you can see, the supply has dried up.” He eyed the empty bottle before him balefully, then prodded it with a fingertip.
Peregrin’s mouth opened and closed without producing a sound, like a puppet that had forgotten the script.
His brother waved at the chair opposite with a dramatic flourish of his hand. “Sit down, halfling.”
Warily, Peregrin sank onto the edge of the seat.
“Well,” Montgomery drawled, “have you perchance lost your speech along with your loyalty?”
“It’s just that I thought you didn’t drink.”
“I don’t,” Montgomery said curtly.
“Of course you don’t,” Peregrin said quickly.
“Precisely,” Montgomery slurred.
Peregrin had hardly seen a man more drunk in his life, and as the head of a drinking society, he’d seen his fair share. The duke was completely pissed, and no doubt held upright only by his inhuman discipline.
He didn’t know what made him say what he said next: “Is it because Father drowned in a puddle when he was in his cups?”
Montgomery’s gaze narrowed. “How did you learn that?”
“The usual way. People whisper. I have ears.”
Montgomery was quiet. His sight adjusted to the low light, Peregrin could see his brother’s face clearly now and found he wasn’t the only one who looked awful. Montgomery’s features were lined and harsh with tension, but most alarming was the grim set of his mouth. It was a fatalistic grimness, not his usual determined one that said he was about to embark on a grand mission. No, this was an altogether different level of grim.
Finally, Montgomery moved. He switched on the desk lamp, then rifled through a few hopelessly disarrayed sheets, unearthed a slim silver case, and took out a cigarette. He fumbled with the matches, squinting with concentration until one finally hissed to life. He exhaled a stream of smoke toward the ceiling before he met Peregrin’s eyes. “Yes,” he said. “I don’t drink because Charles Devereux ended his life drunk and facedown in a puddle.”
A mighty emotion welled in Peregrin’s chest. He had thrown out his question because that was what he did: chancing things, following risky impulses. He hadn’t expected to reel in a flat-out admission from his brother. Almost as though they were talking man to man.
“Why was I told he had a riding accident?” he ventured, pushing his luck.
Montgomery rolled the cigarette between his fingers. “To keep the past from haunting you.”
“I do not need protecting from ugly truths,” Peregrin muttered, trying to not remember Miss Archer’s scathing verdict that he was a spoiled brat.
“It’s not about the truth,” Montgomery said. “The stories we hear about our fathers can become like a cage to the mind, dictating to us the things we fear or think we should do. Or they give us excuses to be weak. When a man with thousands of people depending on him drowns in a puddle because he was too drunk to stand, what does it say about him?”
Peregrin thought about that. “That he was terribly unlucky?” he suggested.
Montgomery glared at him. “Possibly that, too,” he finally allowed. “Why are you here?”
Just like that, the nausea returned. Fear, guilt, and shame congealed in the pit of his stomach.
“I should have never left.”
“Indeed,” Montgomery said, carelessly flicking ash from his cigarette onto the rug.
“And I saw my error a while ago, but then I did not dare to return, and the longer I stayed away the more difficult a return seemed to become.”
“Quite a conundrum.” Montgomery nodded without sympathy.
“But then I came upon Miss Archer today,” Peregrin said, “and she seemed . . . in distress . . . over you.”
Blimey, he could not remember now why it had seemed a good and righteous idea to go there.
Montgomery was oddly frozen in his chair, a disconcerting flicker in his eyes.
“There is just no escaping her, is there,” he muttered, “no having her, no getting away.”
His brother’s metallic glare made Peregrin shrink back.
“Have you come to defend her honor?” Montgomery demanded, “or to ask an explanation from me? Bold of you. Mad, even. But then I know what her green eyes can do to a man, so I’m inclined to let this go.”
“Thank you,” Peregrin stammered. Her green eyes?
Montgomery frowned. “I proposed to her,” he said. “I proposed and she rejected me, so I do not see how she can be the one in distress.”
For a minute, Peregrin was speechless. “You proposed to Miss Archer,” he said faintly.
“Proposed . . . marriage.”
“Are you . . . sure?”
Montgomery’s lips twisted impatiently. “I’m drunk, not demented. I’m certain I uttered the words ‘Marry me,’ and, paraphrasing, she replied, ‘Not a chance in hell.’”
“Good God,” Peregrin said, and a long moment later, “Good God.”
“She wants to marry an Oxford don instead,” Montgomery said grimly.
“You proposed,” Peregrin yelped. “Whatever made you do such a thing?”
“I received a blow to the head when I fell off the horse earlier,” Montgomery replied, “and it made everything perfectly clear.”
Peregrin felt more confused by the moment.
“But I had to propose to the one woman in England who would turn down a dukedom—because she does not love the duke,” Montgomery continued. “But then, she doesn’t love the Oxford don, either.” He stared at Peregrin accusingly. “It makes no sense.”
Peregrin sagged back in his chair.
His brother had it bad. He was head-over-heels obsessed, and he knew what happened when Montgomery became obsessed: he wouldn’t stop until he had whatever he was obsessing about. But a commoner? Impossible! And after what he had witnessed today, Peregrin was cautiously certain that a lack of love hadn’t been behind Miss Archer’s—very sensible—rejection. On the contrary.
It dawned on him that right now, he might be the one person manning the switch on the tracks of the House of Montgomery. One way lay almighty scandal. The other, the continuation of things as they should be.