Gooseflesh spread down his back.
“I’m sorry,” he managed. “I hear such . . . afflictions do pass.”
Montgomery nodded. “Of course they do.”
And then he did something Peregrin had never imagined he’d see his brother do.
He dropped his head and buried his face in his palms.
And stayed that way.
Oh, bloody hell.
“She may have rejected you because of the dukedom, not despite,” Peregrin blurted. There. Let him piece it together himself.
Montgomery lowered his hands. “What do you mean?” There was a quivering spark of hope in his eyes.
Perhaps he wasn’t obsessed. Perhaps . . . it was much worse. Perhaps he was in love.
Christ. If this was what love did to the least sentimental man in Britain, Peregrin wanted none of it.
“It’s just that I spent more than a month in hiding because I did not feel equipped to inherit one of the largest dukedoms in the country,” he said. “I can see why Miss Archer would have reservations about being officially the reason for plunging that dukedom into scandal.”
Montgomery made an impatient sound. “She wouldn’t be responsible.”
“There are people who always feel responsible.” Peregrin shrugged. “They can’t quite help themselves.”
The duke’s expression turned suspicious. “When did you become wise?” he asked. “Where were you hiding? Some cloister Scotland Yard overlooked?”
Peregrin grimaced. “Almost. I was in the wine cellar of St. John’s.”
Montgomery blinked. “You were underground for near six weeks?”
“I’m afraid so.”
Montgomery studied him with an unreadable expression. “Tell me,” he said softly, “am I such a tyrant that hiding in a cellar is preferable to following my orders?”
Peregrin’s eyes widened. “A . . . tyrant? No.”
To his surprise, Montgomery seemed to be waiting. Waiting for more.
Since when was he interested in explanations?
“I want to follow your orders,” he said slowly, “it’s just . . . daunting. When I was a boy, I couldn’t wait to grow up and be like you. And then one day I understood that one does not simply become like you.” It had been a terrible day, he remembered, fraught with existential angst. “I began to understand the magnitude of what you do, and how effortless you make it look. For a while, I thought you were simply better made than most men, but then I understood that you were that and still working morning till night in all these offices. And it felt like someone was choking me, thinking of myself in an office until sunset every day, with thousands of people relying on me . . . I will always come up short as duke, even if I did my best, while you do everything perfectly.”
“Perfectly?” Montgomery echoed. “Ah, Peregrin. The first temptation of its kind, and I fell like a house of cards.” He swayed a little in his chair. “And in case it has escaped your notice, I’m roaringly drunk and I’ve been contemplating various ways to destroy an Oxford University professor.”
“I did that every other day, up at Oxford,” Peregrin murmured.
“I’m aware,” Montgomery said. “I sent you to the Royal Navy for that reason.”
Peregrin froze. Was that where they would begin talking about his fate? If he was lucky, he’d only be escorted all the way to Plymouth and be stuck in the Royal Navy for a few years. If he were to get what he deserved, he’d receive the whipping of a lifetime first, not that his brother had ever had him whipped before, but there was always a first. Almost certainly, he’d have his allowance cut forever, or perhaps Montgomery would disown him and never speak to him again . . .
Montgomery fixed him with a remarkably sober stare over his steepled fingers. “You are wondering what is going to happen to you, aren’t you?”
Peregrin managed to hold his gaze. “I’m p-prepared for the consequences of my actions.”
And then Montgomery said a strange thing: “You know that I care about you, Peregrin, don’t you?”
“Eh. Yes, sir?”
The duke sighed. “I’m not sure you do.” He scrubbed a hand over his tired face. “She was distressed, you say?”
“Miss Archer? Yes, quite.”
“I can see that it may have been a bad proposal,” Montgomery muttered, “and I do think she was lying,” he added cryptically.
“Did she know you had fallen off your horse when you, eh, proposed?” Peregrin asked, because blimey, he was as curious as he was disturbed by the whole development.
“Well, I reckon no lady wants a proposal right after a man has hit his head.”
Montgomery was quiet. “I may have called her a coward, too,” he said.
Peregrin’s jaw dropped. “I’m no expert, but that sounds like a terrible wooing strategy.”
“And I—God.” Montgomery groaned. “I was not quite myself last night. I was . . . too forceful.”
Of course he would have been too forceful, Peregrin thought, because that was exactly how Montgomery was: forceful, intense, and a little frightening. He probably didn’t even intend to be frightening. He probably couldn’t fathom that him always having a plan, and always expecting everyone to function logically, was enough to frighten the average fellow. It wasn’t quite normal, to unwaveringly have the eye on a noble aim and to be able to drop emotions that did not suit. But then, perhaps that was what confinement made of a man—after all, no one had shielded Montgomery from the cage their father’s death had left behind.
A hollow sensation took hold of Peregrin, as though he were about to plunge headfirst into the river Isis off Magdalen Bridge—you never knew what was lurking in the opaque waters. The point was, Montgomery needed a duchess, a durable, intelligent one he could not accidentally steamroll, one who kept him in a good mood and off Peregrin’s back. And while Miss Archer was in many ways not a suitable bride for him, perhaps in the most important ways, she was. She made Montgomery feel. One could even speculate that she would make his brother happy.
Montgomery was probably too drunk to remember much come morning. Hopefully, he would remember what he was going to hear next. He took a deep breath. “I think there is something you should know about Miss Archer.”
Lucie lived on Norham Gardens in a narrow slice of a yellow brick house of which Lady Mabel rented the other half. The arrangement satisfied the expectation that unmarried ladies of still marriageable age must not live alone, and Annabelle woke in her creaky cot in the mornings with a sense of relief—there was no master of the house to answer to, no one who expected things to be done this way or that. Had she so desired, she could have morosely sat in the nook of the bay window until noon every day with the comforting weight of Lucie’s cat in her lap.
Lucie occupied one of the two rooms on the top floor and her housekeeper the other, and she had repurposed the whole ground level for the cause. There was an ancient printing press in the reception room, and in the drawing room the piano had had to make way for a sewing machine and bales of fabric for banners and sashes. A large cherrywood filing cabinet was stocked with stacks of blank paper, old pamphlets, and a copy of every issue of the Women’s Suffrage Journal since 1870. The wall around the fireplace was papered with news clippings, some yellowing, some crisp like the Guardian’s front-page article on their fateful demonstration. Left of the fireplace, a large potted plant had withered and died, the brown leaves looking ready to crumble to dust at a touch.
“This place has much potential,” Hattie said as she waltzed in with Lucie on her heels. “Are you sure you don’t—”
“Yes,” Lucie snipped, “I’m sure. This is a space for serious work; no feminine touch is required.”
Hattie made a pout. “I still don’t understand how pretty curtains would interfere with our work.”
Annabelle’s lips attempted a smile. It was the same debate every time before they settled down to work, and there was something reassuring in these little routines when everything else lay in ruins. All through last week, their quartet had met here in the afternoons and gathered round the oversized desk at the center of the room like surgeons around an operating table. The monthly newsletter needed to be sent out, and Lucie was planning an excursion to the Ladies’ Gallery in the House of Lords in a few days’ time.
“Oho, what have we here,” Hattie exclaimed, and tugged on a magazine that was half hidden under a cluster of empty teacups. “The Female Citizen? How scandalous.”
“What is so scandalous about it?” Annabelle asked without looking up. She was folding the newsletters Catriona had cut to size and sliding them into envelopes. Hattie was supposed to put the address on the envelopes, but she sank into her chair with her nose buried in the magazine. The Female Citizen was printed in bold, scarlet letters across the title page.
“It’s a radical pamphlet,” Catriona supplied. “It writes about unsavory topics.”
“Cases of domestic dispute,” Hattie murmured, absorbed, “and the plight of unfortunate women.”