She carefully set her cup on the table between them. “I was not sure you would win the election without . . .” She bit her lip.
She released a sigh. “Without an intervention from the only authority you accept. Before matters with Miss Archer became too public. I confess I never expected the queen to react in such a manner.”
He gritted his teeth so hard, it took a moment before he could speak. “You had no right.”
She folded her hands in her lap, a small, sinewy knot against her blue skirts. “Had word got out that you were jeopardizing your name for a country girl, the opposition would have used it to shoot your credibility to pieces. Had I approached you directly, you would have put me in my place.”
“And so you went behind my back,” he said, and damned if she didn’t display an utter lack of repentance.
“The prison director told his wife,” she said. “Apparently, it doesn’t happen often that a duke walks into his office at night to personally extract prisoners. His wife unfortunately is a gossip, and before I could blink, every lady on the committee knew that you had freed a number of suffragists and a few thieves, and had threatened to personally shut down Millbank, and no matter how much of that is hogwash, these ladies went home to their husbands, and half of those men are not your friends.”
“Do you think I wasn’t aware of that risk?”
“Of course you were,” she cried. “The very fact that you obviously chose to ignore it is what frightened me. Why not call in a favor and send some other peer to do it for you?”
“Ask another man to jeopardize his reputation on my behalf?” He shook his head. “And I always tend to matters personally when they pertain to the people I love.”
Caroline paled. “Love. Montgomery, this isn’t like you.”
“Don’t presume to know me,” he said softly.
“I know enough,” she shot back, the knuckles of her clasped hands bone-white. “I’m keenly aware why you asked me to be your lover. You are reluctant to use courtesans, and your code of honor forbids you to bed your own tenants or staff, or to cuckold men below your station. Likewise, you wouldn’t take up with the wives of fellow dukes. I was tailor-made for your needs: a widow, an equal, and in close proximity. Sometimes I wondered how you would have solved this conundrum if our estates didn’t share a border.”
The slight quiver to her chin was far more revealing than her words.
“Be assured I was fond of you for your own sake,” he said. “Other than that, I fail to see the point in your rant.”
A humorless smile curved her mouth. “The point is that nothing you do is ever impulsive. And from the start, your actions over Miss Archer defied rules and reason, beginning with you galloping around the county with her on your horse. I didn’t believe it until I saw the two of you together. The very way you look at her—”
He cut her off with a dark, dark stare.
She swallowed. “History is riddled with men brought to their knees by a pretty face,” she murmured. “I could not just stand by and watch. I couldn’t.”
“It is remarkable, the things women do to try to save me from myself these days,” he said.
A glance at his pocket watch said the fifteen minutes of a social call were over.
On his way to the door, she called out for him. And for old times’ sake, he turned back.
She stood, perfectly composed again, like a steely reed at the center of the room.
“She is a lovely young woman, Montgomery. Society will bleed her dry by a thousand cuts if you officially make her your mistress. In such matters, the woman always bears the brunt.”
“I’m aware.” He nodded. “Good-bye, Caroline.”
A light rain fell over Parliament Square, redolent of spring, of tender greens and wispy white cherry blossoms. New beginnings, Annabelle thought, whether one was ready for them or not. She handed a suffrage leaflet to an elderly earl striding past. She knew him from sight; he might have sat in front of her in Claremont’s music room a while back. He took her leaflet with a nod, and she moved on to the next man, slowly working her way to the entrance to the House of Lords. Catriona and Lucie were behind her, catching whichever gentleman had slipped her net. Hattie should be waiting for them now in the Ladies’ Gallery, as that was something her father allowed. Luckily, Julien Greenfield had never found out about Hattie having been in the thick of the demonstration a few weeks ago. But the headlines they had made had put the Married Women’s Property Act back onto the agenda of Parliament, though Lucie predicted that the peers would spend hours debating an inane import tariff just to avoid ever discussing women’s rights, mark her words.
The gallery was surprisingly uncomfortable, considering that some of the peers in the chamber below sometimes had their lady wives watching from here. The ceiling was too low, a grille separated them from the men, and the air was stuffy with the smell of rain-damp hair and fabrics.
“Be glad the old chamber burned down,” Lucie murmured when she saw Annabelle tilting her head this way or that to get a clear view through the dizzying pattern of the interstices of the grille. “Women then had to sit in the ventilation shaft to listen in on meetings. I hear it was boiling hot.”
“One could almost suspect they don’t want women to watch them make laws,” Annabelle muttered.
Down in the chamber, the peers began debating the first point on the agenda—a possible half-percent tariff increase on Belgian lace.
The droning speech of one of the lords was disrupted when the door to the chamber creaked open again. Someone was running late.
“His Grace, the Duke of Montgomery,” the usher announced.
Annabelle froze in her chair, shock turning her blood to ice.
Of course he would be here. He’d be the last man in England to shirk his political duties.
She didn’t dare move, as if catching a glimpse of his blond head would turn her to stone.
She felt Hattie’s hand on her arm, the soft pressure helping to quell the chagrin ripping through her.
She had made her choices. Sensible choices.
Perhaps one day, when she was ninety years old, they would feel like good choices.
“My lords,” she heard him say, “I request to bring the Married Women’s Property Act forward on the agenda.”
The sound of his dispassionate voice sent a powerful wave of longing through her. So much so that the meaning of his words didn’t register until Lucie muttered a profanity under her breath.
“Request approved,” said the Speaker.
“My lords,” Sebastian said, “I request permission to speak on the Married Women’s Property Act.”
A bored “Aye” rose from the benches. “Permission granted,” the Speaker said.
Annabelle gripped the edges of her chair. Cold sweat gathered on her forehead. Knowing Sebastian was only a few dozen feet away and feeling all her senses come alive in response was distressing, but witnessing him launch a tirade against women’s rights, in front of her friends no less, would be unbearable. She fumbled for her reticule. She had to leave.
“Gentlemen, many of you will remember the speech John Stuart Mill gave on the floor of the House of Commons fourteen years ago,” Sebastian said, “the speech where he claimed that there remain no legal slaves in Britain, except for the mistress of every house.”
That elicited a few Boos and calls of “Shame!”
A small hand touched her knee as Annabelle made to rise. “Stay,” Lucie murmured. “I have a feeling this could become interesting.”
Interesting? It was nerve-racking, being forced to endure his presence so soon, when her heart throbbed with the phantom pain of a severed limb . . .
“The problem is,” Sebastian went on, “when one compares a married woman’s current legal status and the definition of slavery, it requires a great deal of self-delusion to ignore the similarities between the two.”
The peers made ambivalent noises.
Annabelle sank back into her chair. What was he saying?
“We try to smooth over these technicalities by investing women with other powers, more informal powers,” Sebastian said, “and there is of course the matter of keeping them safe. The world of men is a brutal place. And yet women visit our offices, approach us in the streets, and send us petitions with tens of thousands more signatures every year to ask for more freedom. They feel that their safety comes at the expense of their freedom. And, gentlemen, the trouble with freedom is, it isn’t just an empty phrase that serves well in a speech. The desire to be free is an instinct deeply ingrained in every living thing. Trap any wild animal, and it will bite off its own paw to be free again. Capture a man, and breaking free will become his sole mission. The only way to dissuade a creature from striving for its freedom is to break it.”
“My goodness,” Hattie whispered, her eyes searching Annabelle’s uncertainly. “Is he on our side?”
“It appears so,” Annabelle mumbled. But why? He had made it perfectly clear that it would harm his interests to do so.
Indeed, a stony silence had fallen over the chamber.
“Britain has avoided the revolutions of France and Germany because here in this chamber, we always knew when we were approaching a tipping point, when it was time to make a concession to the people to keep the peace,” Sebastian said. “The suffrage movement is rapidly gathering momentum, and what will we do? Will we strike back harder and harder? I for my part am not prepared to try to break half the population of Britain. I am in fact unprepared to see a single woman harmed because of her desire for some liberty. I therefore propose a bill to amend the Married Women’s Property Act of 1870.”