“Prostitutes,” Lucie said dryly, and Hattie shot her a scandalized look.
“Either way, it’s barely legal,” Catriona said. “Don’t be caught reading one in public.”
“Who’s the editor?” Annabelle asked, beginning to copy the addresses from their members list on the envelopes herself.
“No one knows,” Catriona said. “The copies just show up in letter boxes or public places. If we knew who it was, we could put a stop to it.”
“Why would you want to stop them?”
Catriona swept up the paper clippings and disposed of them in the bin under the desk. “Because they alienate people to the cause.”
“The Woman’s Suffrage Journal is too soft in tone to inspire much change, and The Female Citizen is considered too radical to appeal to the masses,” Lucie said. “I can reveal that I have been working toward launching a new magazine soon that is going to be right between the two.” She looked at Annabelle. “I’ll need assistance, in case you are interested.”
Annabelle lowered her pen. “To help you launch a journal?”
Lucie nodded. “I won’t be able to pay a shilling, certainly not at first, but I could supply free lodgings.” She eyed the cot in the corner by the dead plant. “The lodgings are of course a bit rustic.”
“They are just fine,” Annabelle said quickly. For the time being, the cot was all that stood between her and life at Gilbert’s, a life as a wife, or the great unknown.
Her stomach churned with unease. The day after tomorrow, Christopher Jenkins expected an answer to his proposal. Two days. She could hardly insult him by asking for more time, and the truth was, she didn’t have more time. With her stipend suspended and her pupils lost, her sources of income had dried up, and she couldn’t eat Lucie’s food and sleep in her sitting room forever.
A streak of black fur shot across the floorboards and up the outside of Lucie’s skirt.
“Heavens, Boudicca,” Lucie chided as the cat settled on her shoulder and wound her sleek tail around her mistress’s neck like a small fur stole. “You are awfully agitated lately, aren’t you?”
“Perhaps having a visitor in her sitting room is upsetting to her,” Annabelle murmured.
“Nonsense,” Lucie said, and turned her face into Boudicca’s soft fur. “She knows you are one of us, don’t you, puss-puss.”
A memory flashed, of a beautiful young viscount in a magenta waistcoat. She had never asked Lucie how Lord Ballentine knew she had a cat. And thinking of that waltz inevitably made her think of Sebastian, and how he had walked toward her across the dance floor in a way that said he was out for Ballentine’s blood . . .
“Annabelle, before I forget, there was mail in your pigeonhole,” Hattie said, and opened her reticule. “I took the liberty of picking it up for you.”
The hope that Miss Wordsworth had written to inform her of her reinstatement was quickly dashed. Annabelle frowned at the spidery penmanship. “It’s from my cousin Gilbert.”
Of course. She was late with her payments. Was he sending her reminders already? The temptation to toss the letter into the fire unopened loomed large.
She sliced the envelope open with the scissors.
Yesterday morning, the most disconcerting news reached us about you. A letter from an anonymous well-wisher arrived at the cottage. The paper and envelope were thick and costly, and the handwriting most elegant, but the message was outrageous—I was kindly advised to “save you from yourself,” as they put it, as it seems you have fallen in with the wrong crowd. There is talk about political activism, police involvement, and even prison! Furthermore, the writer is concerned that you are mingling with unmarried gentlemen . . .
“Oh, dear Lord,” Annabelle said, and rose to her feet.
“What is it?” Hattie asked.
“He knows.” How could he possibly know?
. . . If the stationery weren’t so fine, I’d suspect this was an ill-done prank. As things are, I am deeply troubled by these allegations, deeply indeed. I’ve repeatedly warned you about the perils of higher education. Now it seems you have plunged recklessly into your own demise, and we both know this isn’t the first time, is it?
I suspect it’s only a matter of time until your depravity will be known in all of Chorleywood, or worse, by the master of the manor, seeing that it has already reached the ears of respectable bystanders. And this after I fed you, housed you, and entrusted you with the care of my five children!
As an upright family man and a representative of the Church of England, I must lead by example and not associate with the disgraced. Thus, I ask you to not return to Chorleywood in the near future.
With great disappointment,
Her hand holding the letter sank to the table. “Well. It seems I can strike going back to my family off the list.”
She began wandering aimlessly around the room as her friends were crowding around the letter, and their gasps of outrage were scant comfort.
“A letter,” she murmured. “Five years, and he lets me go with a letter.”
“How ghastly,” Hattie said. “Is he always like this?”
“I think you are well rid of this one,” Lucie said, “and certainly you are well rid of Montgomery if that is how he handles a perfectly sensible rejection.”
“Montgomery.” The words lodged in her throat. “You think . . . he wrote to my cousin?”
“Well, who else?”
Not him. Surely not him. “He’d never do anything so petty.”
“Your cousin mentions fine stationery and elegant handwriting,” Lucie pointed out.
“I know, I know. But that could have been anyone. Perhaps one of the suffragists.”
“Now, why would they do that?”
Annabelle pressed her palms to her temples. “I don’t know. How did the whole rumor reach Oxford? Montgomery would hardly incriminate himself, so I believe someone else knows.”
“But who,” Catriona said, “and who would take the trouble to write to your cousin?”
Not Sebastian. Even if she had mortally offended him, and even though it would be easy for him to locate Gilbert’s cottage . . . The air in the sitting room was suddenly thick as soup.
“I’m going for a walk,” she muttered, and made for the door, if only to escape the sound of his name.
* * *
When his carriage pulled up in front of the elegant façade of Lingham House, Sebastian wasn’t surprised that Caroline was not in the entrance hall to greet him. He had formally announced his visit with a calling card, and so she was just as formally waiting in the reception room. Always perfectly on protocol, Caroline. And perhaps she knew that he would eventually put two and two together and figure out who had betrayed his visit at Millbank and who had brought Her Majesty’s indignation down upon him. As if formality would save Caroline from him making his feelings known.
It had taken him a while to identify her, because he had fallen on his head and had lost the woman he loved, but after some discussions with his man, he was certain.
What he did not know was why she had done it.
She observed him over the rim of her teacup from her place on the French settee, her eyes as pleasantly cool and blue as the afternoon sky outside the windows behind her.
He shifted on his chair. Soft ground or not, his legs had only recently endured the crushing weight of a full-grown Andalusian horse.
“I read this morning that Gladstone is advancing in the polls again,” Caroline said. “Will you be able to stop him, you think?”
“I would have been,” he replied, “if the queen had told Disraeli to do as I say. But she’s presently holding a personal grudge against me.”
A tiny frown marred her brow. “How unusual. Her Majesty is nothing if not sensible. Surely she would put a Tory victory above any personal sensitivities?”
He gave a shrug. “It appears that she considers that opportunism.”
A shadow of regret passed over Caroline’s intelligent face.
He’d often thought that he had cause to be grateful to her. After his wife’s betrayal, it would have been easy to become bitter, to see a treacherous, overemotional creature in every female he met. Caroline had been the antidote with her collected, rational ways, showing him that no, they were not all the same. Had his mind closed itself up entirely, he could have never loved Annabelle.
“Say, Caroline,” he said, “are you still the treasurer for the Ladies’ Committee for Prison Reform?”
Her expression remained unchanged. But there was a soft rattle of her teacup against the saucer.
Because she knew that he knew that she was indeed still the treasurer of the committee. And that she had a direct line of communication with Queen Victoria.
There was a resigned look in her eyes when she met his gaze. “I overstepped the mark,” she said.
“There is no question that you did,” he said coolly. “The question is, why. Why, Caroline? I had an election to win. Why not wait before carrying tales to Her Majesty?”