The collective gasp in the Ladies’ Gallery was drowned out by the shouting on the floor below. Annabelle didn’t remember rising, but she stood, her fingers curling over the grille brass work like claws.
Sebastian stood at the opposite end of the chamber, and even from here she could see his contemptuous frown as he surveyed the tumultuous scene before him.
“To any suffragists in the Ladies’ Gallery,” he said, his voice rising over the noise, “I say—brace yourselves. For many people, your demands amount to a declaration of war on the master of every household. It is a war you will not win in the foreseeable future. But today, you gain another ally for your cause. I hereby resign from my role as election campaign advisor.”
“No!” Her outcry echoed through the chamber.
Sebastian’s head jerked toward her.
He couldn’t possibly see her here, behind the grate, dozens of yards away, and yet he caught her eye.
The world seemed to slow on its axis as their gazes locked.
“No,” she whispered.
Sebastian folded up his paper, never taking his eyes off her. “And, gentlemen,” he said, “I am leaving the Tory party.”
Annabelle turned on her heels.
“Annabelle, wait,” Hattie called out, but she was already squeezing through rows of stunned spectators to the exit. She hasted blindly along the corridor, her blood pumping in her ears. What had he done? His life’s mission depended on him winning the election.
She skipped down a flight of stairs. A startled footman swung back the heavy entrance door for her, and she bolted into the open. Wet droplets hit her face. The light rain had morphed into a roaring downpour; the skies had turned the color of iron.
She heard him clearly over the rain.
How had he caught up so quickly?
Because he is always one step ahead.
And her body was driven to flee, its animal instincts shrieking that he was out to catch her again.
She would not escape him today.
When his hand wrapped around her arm from behind, she whirled. “How could you?” she cried. “How could you do this?”
He was grasping for her flailing hands. “Do what?” he said. “Do what?”
“You quit your party, and your role as advisor?”
“Yes,” he said, and made to pull her close, and she twisted out of his hold like an angry cat.
“You have just caused a tremendous scandal for yourself!”
“I have, yes.”
He was already drenched, his hair plastered to his brow, the icy blond darkened to silver. Rivulets of water were streaming down his face and dripping into his starched collar. He hadn’t even put on his topcoat before coming after her.
“How could you,” she said, her voice breaking.
Sebastian’s eyes softened. “A very clever woman once told me to think about on which side of history I want to be,” he said. “I made my choice today.”
“Oh, don’t,” she said. “I have no part in making you commit this . . . self-sabotage.”
He shook his head. “No one can make me do anything. I decide who or what masters me.”
“Then why? Why did you decide to ruin yourself?”
Buffeted by the elements, pitching her voice against the roar of rain, she felt like the trapped wild creatures he had mentioned earlier. She noticed her hands were gripping the lapels of his coat.
“I’m not ruined,” he said, “but what I have done for far too long is make decisions that satisfied my duty, but not my personal integrity. The two are not always the same, I found.”
She should step back. She should let go.
He raised a hand to cover hers, and his energy surged through her like an electric current, and her heart thumped its first beat in a week. She might as well try to let go of a lifeline.
“The queen will be furious,” she managed.
He nodded. “She is. I was at the palace before coming here.”
“But what about Montgomery Castle?”
His face shuttered. “It’s lost,” he said softly. Lost. She sensed a sadness, resolve, but no regrets.
Had he known she’d be in the gallery today?
Through a veil of rain, she saw a small crowd gathering at a safe distance away. They were causing a scene, standing so close, the duke sopping wet, and she realized she was not wearing her coat, either. Water ran down her back like a river.
“I’m going to France for a while,” Sebastian said conversationally.
“Yes. Brittany. I remember it is nice in spring.”
So he would be a country, not a county away. Her foolish heart twisted with anguish.
“How about you?” he asked. His hand had wandered up along her arm and slipped around her back. Not much was missing for an embrace. “Have you accepted your professor’s proposal?”
“No,” she said dully.
His hand urged her a little closer into the shelter of his body. “Why not?” he murmured.
The rain had made his dark lashes spiky. How she wished she could be immune to his unlikely charms.
“Lucie made me an offer,” she said, “to help her with a new women’s journal.”
“And that is why you didn’t accept Jenkins?”
“He is a good man. He might not think he needs it, but he should be with a woman who truly loves him.”
A faint smile tilted Sebastian’s lips. “And you don’t truly love him?”
His other hand slid around her waist, and she stood in the circle of his arms, quivering like a doe ready to bolt. Too late.
“No,” she whispered. “I don’t love him.”
His mouth, smiling and damp from the rain, held her transfixed, and remembering how it felt, both firm and soft, made her want to feel him against her lips. It mattered not that half of Westminster was watching now. Nothing mattered but feeling him again, absorbing the tender gleam in his eyes as he looked down at her. God help them, the pull of attraction between them had not eased, and probably never would, and the restlessness never ceased until they were close. Two halves of a soul, reunited, knowing they would be parted again in minutes.
She raised her grave eyes to his.
“I’m in love with you,” she said. “I love you so much that I’d rather be on my own than with another.”
He gently brushed a sodden curl back behind her ear.
“Come to France with me,” he said.
“Please. I don’t have the strength today to resist you.”
“Then don’t,” he said. “I understand my eligibility is much diminished. My ancestral seat is lost, I’m persona non grata at court, and there are going to be very unflattering cartoons about me in the press for the next year or so. Also, as a divorcé, I cannot marry you in a church. But all I have left would be yours, Annabelle, if you will have me like this.”
Tears filled her eyes. “I’d have you with nothing but the clothes on your back.”
He held himself very still. “Is that a yes?”
The sensation of balancing on the edge of an abyss gripped her, and for a moment she couldn’t breathe. One word, and she’d take a mighty plunge. She had thought it took all her courage to build a life of her own, and now, swaying on the precipice, she understood she had to be even braver to give herself, heart and soul, into the hands of another and build a life with him.
Sebastian’s arms tightened around her ever so slightly, and she gave a strangled laugh. Come what may, this man seemed ready to catch her.
“I don’t know how to run a palace,” she sniffled.
His hold on her trembled. “You study at the best university in the world,” he murmured. “Something tells me you will be a quick study.”
“Yes,” she whispered.
He swallowed hard. “Yes?”
She framed his face in her hands. “Yes,” she said, “my answer is yes. Truth be told, I was close to crawling back to you to be your mistress, because even that began to look better than a life without you.”
He pulled her against him and his chest shuddered as he exhaled a long-held breath. “The only mistress you will be is the mistress of our home.”
She turned her face into his wet shirt, adding her tears to the rain. He was going to catch the cough because he had run after her without his topcoat. She swore there and then that he would never have to run or ride after her ever again.
“How can you still love me,” she said, her voice muffled by his chest, “after all the cruel things I said to you?”
She felt him smile into her hair. “Darling,” he said, “I have only just begun to love you.”
Beneath the white blaze of the Mediterranean sun, a yacht was rocking gently on the Aegean sea.
Lounging in a nest of silken pillows in the shade of a canopy, her unbound hair playing in the warm breeze, Annabelle found that her eyes were falling shut instead of staying focused on the letter on her knees. After finishing her second term at Oxford, helping Lucie with her acquisition of a new women’s journal, getting married, and becoming a scandalous duchess in the space of two months, her body was finally demanding its due. Besides, the new bride of an amorous man was not afforded much sleep after sunset, so Sebastian frequently found her napping on the deck of the Asteria during the day ever since they had set sail from Saint-Malo two weeks ago.