Lucie emerged from behind the desk with her papers. “Drastic circumstances demand drastic measures,” she said as she handed out sheets, “so I propose we meet MPs in their offices from now on, and we will find out everything about them beforehand: their likes, their dislikes, and most importantly, their weaknesses. Then we tailor our approach to each man. He thinks he’s an expert on justice? Use Plato to argue with him. He thinks his children will suffer should his wife get the vote? Tell him how independent women make better mothers. In short, ladies—know thy enemy.”
Annabelle nodded. Strategic and manipulative—that usually worked.
The sheet Lucie had handed her was divided neatly into sections: general characteristics . . . voting record . . . notable scandals . . . botheration. This information was hardly common knowledge in her circles. She’d have to scour scandal sheets and public records—but when? Doing her coursework and tutoring pupils to pay Gilbert already pushed her working hours well into the night.
The door to the antechamber creaked, and Hattie crept into the room. She met Lucie’s evil eye with an apologetic little smile and settled next to Annabelle in a cloud of expensive perfume.
“Good morning, Catriona, Annabelle,” she chirped. “I’m late. What did I miss?”
Annabelle handed her a sheet. “We are going to spy on men of influence.”
“How exciting. Oh, these would make a fabulous handbook on eligible bachelors!”
A snarl sounded from Lucie’s direction. “Eligible bachelors? Have you paid any attention during our meetings?”
Hattie gave a startled huff.
“No man is eligible as long as you become his property the moment you marry him,” Lucie said darkly.
“It’s true, though, that the marriage-minded mamas will have a lot of this information,” Lady Mabel dared to argue from the couch across.
“You may go about it by all means possible,” Lucie allowed. “Just not marriage.”
“And what makes you think the MPs will receive us?” Catriona asked.
“There’s an election in March. Politicians like to look accessible in the months leading up to election day.” Lucie turned to Annabelle, her elfin face expectant. “What do you think of this approach?”
“The idea is excellent,” Annabelle said truthfully.
Lucie gave a satisfied little smile. “You inspired me. Seeing you walk up to Montgomery as if he were a mere mortal made me step back and look at our routine with a fresh eye.”
“Finding information on Montgomery will be difficult,” Hattie said. “He may be divorced, and we all know he wants his ancient castle back. But there’s nothing ever written about him in the gossip sheets, and I read them all.”
Lucie wrinkled her nose. “Because he’s a favorite of the queen, so the press doesn’t dare touch him. No, we need drastic measures where Montgomery is concerned. Catriona, do you not tutor his brother? Lord Devereux?”
Catriona shook her head. “It was last term, in hieroglyphics.”
“Excellent,” Lucie said. “Find an excuse for your paths to cross and then you inveigle yourself . . .”
Catriona recoiled. “Me? Oh no.”
Lucie’s eyes narrowed. “Why ever not? You are already acquainted.”
“I taught him hieroglyphs,” Catriona mumbled, “that’s quite different from . . .”
“. . . inveigling,” Hattie supplied.
Catriona made to disappear into her plaid.
“Never mind,” Lucie said brusquely. “Annabelle will do it.”
Annabelle looked up, astonished and a little alarmed. “Me?”
“If you please.”
“I’m afraid I cannot think of any reason to introduce myself to his lordship.”
Lucie began to look strained. “You do not need a reason. You are the most beautiful of all of us. Try looking terribly impressed by whatever he says and a young man is liable to tell you all his secrets before he knows it.”
“I’m not—” Annabelle began, when Hattie cut her off with a cheerful wave.
“But you are,” the girl chirped, “very beautiful, such a lovely profile. I have been thinking how I’d love for you to sit for my Helen of Troy. Would you?”
Annabelle blinked. “I beg your pardon?”
Hattie wiggled her fingers at her. “I study fine arts. I paint. Thank goodness for gloves, I have the most pitiful hands in England.”
No, that would be my hands, Annabelle thought. The calluses would not go away in a lifetime. “I’m honored,” she said, “but I couldn’t possibly fit in a sitting for a painting.”
“It’s due next term,” Hattie said, her round eyes growing pleading.
Lucie cleared her throat. “Peregrin Devereux,” she said. “Find a way to get to him.”
The girls exchanged uncertain glances.
“If we want something from Lord Devereux, we need to offer him something in return,” Annabelle said, starting with the obvious.
“We could pay him,” Hattie suggested after a moment.
Annabelle shook her head. “He will hardly want for money.”
“Young men always want for money,” Hattie said, “but you are right, it may not be enough for him to tattle on his brother.”
“Perhaps we have to find a way to get closer to Montgomery himself.”
Hattie frowned. “But how? He’s entirely unsociable.”
A brooding silence fell.
“I think there is something that Lord Devereux might want,” Catriona said quietly.
Hattie leaned in. “You do?”
Catriona studied her hands. “His drinking society wants the key to the wine cellar of St. John’s.”
Hattie gasped. “Of course he would want that.”
Excitement sizzled up Annabelle’s nape. Oxford’s drinking societies were outrageously competitive, to a point that it had reached even the delicate ears of the female students. They said it was worth more than a first-class degree, and was as coveted as winning a tournament against Cambridge, leading the table of drunken debaucheries. Odd priorities, rich people had.
“But how do we get our hands on the key?” she asked.
Catriona looked up. “My father has it.”
Indeed. As a don at St. John’s, Professor Campbell would have all sorts of keys. Annabelle felt a rare grin coming on. Hattie looked like a cat about to raid the canary cage.
“Oh dear,” Catriona said. “We better make this worth it.”
* * *
The sun had set by the time Annabelle climbed the creaking stairs to her room in Lady Margaret Hall. There were only eight other students in her class, one of whom, namely Hattie, resided in the Randolph, so they were all easily accommodated in a modest brick house at the outskirts of town. Nothing at all like the Randolph. Still, a warm emotion filled her to the brim as she stood in the doorway to her chamber. The low light of the gas lamp cast everything in a golden glow, the narrow bed on the left, the wardrobe on the right, and, straight ahead, the rickety desk before the window. Her desk. Where she could sink into the myths of Greek antiquity and solve Latin puzzles. Her bed. Where she could sleep alone, without being kicked by a sleepy child’s foot or having the blanket stolen by one of Gilbert’s girls. All it took was a note on the outside of the door saying she was engaged, and the world remained outside and left her undisturbed.
She hugged her arms around herself tightly. What a gift this was, a room of her own.
She’d make the very best of it; she’d be the most diligent, appreciative student she could be.
But first . . . she groaned. First she had to help a group of suffragists infiltrate the home of the most powerful duke in England.
Sebastian skewered Peregrin with a stare over the top of the letter that had accompanied his unexpected arrival at Claremont.
“You are failing your classes.”
“You have not paid this term’s tuition fee.”
Peregrin raked a nervous hand through his hair, leaving it hopelessly disheveled.
“I have not.”
So his attempt to train a feckless brother in financial responsibility by handing him his own account had failed.
“And this morning, Weatherly climbed up a freshly gilded rain pipe at St. John’s because you were chasing him with a sword?”
“It was a foil,” Peregrin muttered, “and Weatherly deserved it.”
Sebastian lowered the letter onto his desk, which was already covered in neat stacks of paperwork, all of them both urgent and important. He had not time for this. Peregrin was not stupid, and he was not a young boy; there was therefore no reason for him to act like a stupid young boy, but for a year now he had been acting exactly like that, creating problems that should by any logic not even exist.
“Were you drunk?”
Peregrin shifted in his chair. “No. A Scotch, perhaps two.”
If he admitted to two, one could safely double that. Drinking before noon. Well, they did say that blood will out.
“I’m disappointed.” He sounded cold to his own ears.
A flush spread over Peregrin’s nose and cheekbones, making him look oddly boyish. But at nearly nineteen, he was a man. Sebastian had taken over a dukedom at that age. Then again, he probably had never been as young as Peregrin.