His gaze slid past his brother to the wall. Six estate paintings to the right of the door, the one depicting Montgomery Castle still to the left. Sixteen years ago, he had ordered all paintings to be hung on the left side, the daily reminder of what his father had lost, sold, or ruined during his short reign. Granted, the foundation of the dukedom had been crumbling for decades, and his grandfather had broken most of the entails. But his father had had a choice: to fix the spreading financial rot eating away at their estates, or to surrender. He had chosen to surrender and he had done it like a Montgomery did all things—with brutal effectiveness. The recovery process had been distasteful, an endless procession of arms twisted, of favors asked and granted and traditions flouted. Sebastian almost understood why his mother had moved to France; it was easier to ignore there what he had become—a duke with a merchant’s mind. Anything to get the castle back. It wasn’t even that he felt a great attachment to the place. It was dark and drafty and the plumbing was terrible, and having it back would be another deadweight in his purse. But what was his was his. Duty was duty. Come March, Castle Montgomery would finally be on the right side of the door. Yes, it was a bloody inopportune time for his heir apparent to play the village idiot.
He gave Peregrin a hard look. “You spent the tuition on entertaining friends, I presume.”
“And I . . . I played some cards.”
Sebastian’s jaw tensed. “Any women?”
Peregrin’s flush turned splotchy. “You can hardly expect me to own it,” he stammered.
Privately, Sebastian agreed; the doings of his brother behind closed doors were none of his business. But few things could trip up a wealthy, idiotic young lord more than a cunning social climber.
“You know how it is,” he said. “Unless I know her parents, she is out to fleece you.”
“There’s no one,” Peregrin said, petulant enough to indicate that there was someone.
Sebastian made a mental note to have his man comb through the demimonde and have Madam, whoever she was, informed to take her ambitions elsewhere.
He tapped his finger on the letter. “I will take compensation for the rain pipe out of your allowance.”
“You are not coming to France with me; you will stay here and study.”
A moment’s hesitation, a sullen nod.
“And you will go to Penderyn for the duration of the New Year’s house party.”
Peregrin paled. “But—”
A glance was enough to make his brother choke his protest back down, but the tendons in Peregrin’s neck were straining. Incomprehensibly, Peregrin enjoyed house parties and fireworks; in fact, the more turbulence engulfed him, the more cheerful he seemed to become, and he had been jubilant to hear about the reinstatement of the New Year’s Eve party. Nothing ever happened at the estate in Wales.
“May I take a caning instead, please?” Peregrin asked.
Sebastian frowned. “At your age? No. Besides. You need more time to reflect on your idiocy than a few minutes.”
Peregrin lowered his gaze to the floor.
Still, he had seen it: the flash of emotion in his brother’s eyes. Had he not known better, he would have said it was hatred.
Oddly, it stung.
He leaned back in his chair. Somewhere during the sixteen years he had parented Peregrin, he must have failed him, as he was obviously not growing into the man he was meant to be. Or perhaps . . . Peregrin was growing exactly into what he was. Someone like their father.
Not while I live.
Peregrin still had his head bowed. The tops of his ears looked hot.
“You may leave me now,” Sebastian said. “In fact, I do not want to see you here again until term break.”
* * *
Peregrin Devereux was not what Annabelle had expected. With his twinkling hazel eyes and dirt-blond hair, he looked boyish, approachable . . . even likable. Everything his brother was not.
She, Hattie, and Catriona found him leaning against one of the pillars of St. John’s with a half-smoked cigarette, which he politely extinguished as they approached.
He eyed their little group with faint bemusement. “Ladies, color me an optimist,” he said, “but this key would put us ahead of every drinking society in Oxford, so I shudder to imagine the price. What is it going to be? A golden fleece? A head on a platter? My soul?”
He spoke with the same affected lilt as the young lordlings Annabelle knew from the dinner parties at the manor house back in the day, men who loved the sound of their own banter. It took a good ear to hear the undercurrent of alertness in Lord Devereux’s voice. He was no fool, this one.
She gave him a look she hoped was coy. “Your soul is safe from us, Lord Devereux. All we ask is an invitation to your next house party at Claremont.”
He blinked. “A house party,” he repeated. “Just a regular house party?”
“Yes.” She wondered what the irregular kind would be like.
“Now, why would you choose that, when you could have chosen anything else?” He looked genuinely taken aback.
Luckily, she had come prepared. She gave a wistful sigh. “Look at us.” She gestured down the front of her old coat. “We are bluestockings. We have a reputation of being terribly unfashionable; you, however, lead the most fashionable set in Oxfordshire.”
And wasn’t that the truth. She couldn’t afford fashion; Catriona seemed wholly uninterested; and Hattie, well, she had her very own ideas about la mode. Today, she had added a gargantuan turquoise plume to her hat, and it lifted the small headpiece every time the breeze picked up.
It was this bobbing feather that Lord Devereux’s eyes now fixed upon. “Well,” he said. “I see.” His own attire spoke of money and good taste: a rakishly tilted top hat, a fine gray coat and loosely slung scarf, speckless black oxford shoes, all worn with carefully calculated carelessness to suggest that he paid fashion no mind at all.
He dragged his gaze back to Annabelle. “So you wish to become fashionable by association.”
“Yes, my lord.”
He nodded. “Perfectly sensible.”
Still he hesitated.
She pulled the key from her coat pocket. A heavy, medieval-looking thing, it twirled around her finger once, twice, with great effect. Peregrin Devereux was no longer slouching. He focused on the key like his predatory namesake, the falcon.
“As it is,” he said slowly, “there is indeed a house party planned for the week before Christmas. But it will be a more intimate, informal affair, just about a dozen gentlemen. And the duke will not be in residence.” He gave an apologetic shrug.
A tension she hadn’t known she’d held resolved in her chest. If the duke was not home, it might make this harebrained mission considerably easier on her friends.
“His Grace will be away?” she repeated.
Peregrin was still staring at the key. “He will be visiting Mother in France.”
She turned to Hattie and Catriona, pretending to consider. “What do you think? Would this still count as a house party?”
“I believe so,” Hattie squeaked. Catriona managed a hasty nod.
Heavens, both girls looked flushed and nervous. Hopefully, Lord Devereux would attribute that to the overly excitable nature of wallflowers.
“In that case, we will fulfill our end of the bargain,” she said, presenting the key to the nobleman on her palm. “You have two hours to have it replicated.”
“Wait,” Hattie said, stilling Annabelle’s hand. “Your word as a gentleman,” she demanded from Lord Devereux.
A lopsided grin tilted his lips. He placed his right fist over his heart as he sketched a bow. “On my honor, Miss Greenfield. Claremont Palace awaits you.”
They had barely left the train station in Marlborough when Annabelle admitted defeat—translating Thucydides in a rumbling carriage was impossible. She lowered the book.
“There she is,” Hattie cheered from the bench opposite.
Annabelle grimaced. Her stomach was roiling. Next to her, Catriona calmly kept reading while she was bounced around on her seat, and Hattie’s chaperoning great-aunt seemed equally unaffected, already snoring openmouthed in the corner across.
“You look a touch pale, greenish, even,” Hattie observed with her keen artistic eye. “Are you sure it is wise to read in a moving vehicle?”
“I have an essay due.”
“You are on a break now,” Hattie said gently.
Annabelle gave her a grave stare. “That was hardly my choice.”
She was still struggling with the fact that she was en route to a ducal house party. How naïve of her to believe that securing an invitation for the ladies would suffice. Lucie had been adamant that Annabelle, too, go to the party—three wooden horses behind enemy lines were better than two—and since Lucie held the purse strings, here she was, on her way into the lion’s den. She had tried a number of wholly reasonable excuses, the most reasonable being that she had nothing to wear for the occasion. Her trunk, tightly packed with Lady Mabel’s walking dresses and evening gowns from seasons past, was currently thudding about on the carriage roof. Lucie herself had stayed back—she was a known radical, and the duke didn’t suffer radicalism gladly.