***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2019 Evie Dunmore
Kent, August 1879
"Absolutely not. What an utterly hare-brained idea, Annabelle."
Gilbert's eyes had the rolling look of a deer that knew the hounds were upon him.
Annabelle lowered her lashes. She knew it would look demure; and demure placated her cousin best when he was all in a fluster. Of all the types of men she had learned to manage, the "ignorant yet self-important" type was not exactly the most challenging. Then again, when her very fate lay in the hands of such a man, it added insult to injury. Gilbert would snatch the chance of a lifetime from her here in his cramped little study and go straight back to admiring his freshly pinned butterflies in the display case on the desk between them.
"What would be next," he said, "joining the circus? Standing for Parliament?"
"I understand that it's unusual," she said, "but—"
"You are not going to Oxford," he bellowed and slapped his hand down on the desk.
Her father's old desk. Left to Gilbert in her father's will rather than to her. The sturdy piece of furniture was patently wasted on Gilbert: age-worn on four carved lion paws, it would have bolstered any man's authority, but her cousin was still fluffed up like a startled chicken. Well. It was understandable that he felt ambushed. She had surprised herself. After five long years as Gilbert's maid for everything, she hadn't expected to feel a yearning urge ever again. She'd kept her head down, her feet on the ground, and had accepted that the parish borders of Chorleywood were the boundaries to her dreams. And then the news that Oxford University had opened a women's college had slammed into her chest with the force of an arrow.
She had wanted to ignore it, but, after barely a week, her self-control, so laboriously acquired, had crumbled.
But surely, this was not just a case of her wanting too much. Who knew for how long Gilbert's ramshackle household would stand between her and destitution? Between her and a position where she was easy prey for a lecherous master? During the day, she went through her routines like an automaton. At night, the awareness crept in that she was forever balancing on the precipice of an abyss and there, at the bottom, lurked old age in the workhouse. In her nightmares, she fell and fell.
Her fingers felt for the slim envelope in her apron pocket. Her Oxford admission letter. A proper education could break her fall.
"This conversation is over," Gilbert said.
Her hands knotted into fists. Calm. Stay calm. "I didn't mean to quarrel with you," she said softly. "I thought you would be delighted." A blatant lie, that.
Gilbert's brow furrowed. "Delighted, me?" His expression slid into something like concern. "Are you quite all right?"
"Given the advantages for your family, I assumed you'd welcome the opportunity."
"I apologise, cousin. I shouldn't have wasted your precious time." She made to rise.
"Now, don't be hasty," Gilbert said, waving his hand. "Sit, sit."
She gazed at him limpidly. "I know that you have great plans for the boys," she said, "and an Oxford-certified governess would help with that."
"Indeed I have plans, sound plans," Gilbert clucked, "but you already know more Greek and Latin than is necessary, certainly more than is appropriate. And 'tis well known that too much education derails the female brain, and where's the advantage for us in that, eh?"
"I could have applied for a position as governess or companion at the manor."
This was her final shot - if mentioning Baron Ashby, lord of the manor up the hill and owner of their parish, did not move Gilbert, nothing would. Gilbert fair worshipped the ground the nobleman walked on.
Indeed, he stilled. She could almost hear his mind beginning to work, churning like the old kitchen grindstone, old because Gilbert never had enough coin to maintain the cottage. A logical consequence when his small salary for ringing the church bells remained the same while his family steadily grew.
"Well," Gilbert said, "that could earn a pretty penny. The master pays well."
"Indeed. But I understand. Even a fortune wouldn't justify impropriety."
"'Tis true, 'tis true, but it wouldn't be exactly improper, would it, given that it would serve a higher purpose."
"Oh," she cried, "I couldn't go, now that you've shown me all the flaws in my plan – what if my brain derailed ..."
"Now, don't exaggerate," Gilbert said, "your head is probably quite inured to books. However, we can't do without your hands for even a week. I'd have to hire help in your stead." He levelled an alarmingly cunning gaze at her. "The budget won't allow for that, as you know."
How unfortunate that he had to discover financial planning now. No doubt he wanted her to compensate any expenses her departure would cause, since she cost him exactly... nothing. Unfortunately, her small scholarship would barely keep her fed and clothed.
She leaned forward in her chair. "How much would you pay a maid, cousin?"
Gilbert's eyes widened with surprise, but he recovered quickly enough.
He crossed his arms. "Two pounds."
She arched a brow. "Two pounds?"
His expression turned mulish. "Yes. Beth is, eh, in a certain way again. I'll hire additional help."
He wouldn't, but she managed to take the bite out of her voice. "Then I shall send you two pounds every month."
Gilbert frowned. "Now, how will you manage that?"
"Quite easily." I have absolutely no idea. "There'll be plenty of pupils in need of tutoring."
He was not convinced, and neither was she, for even the maids at the manor wouldn't earn two pounds a months, and if she scraped together an extra two shillings, it would be a miracle.
She rose and stuck out her hand across the desk. "You have my word."
Gilbert eyed her hand as if it were an alien creature. "Tell me," he then said, "how can I be sure that those Oxford airs and graces won't rub off on you, and that you will come back here in the end?"
Her mind blanked. Odd. The entire purpose of wheedling a permission out of Gilbert had been to keep her place in his household – a woman needed a place, any place. But something bristled inside her at the thought of giving her word on the matter.
"But where else would I go?" she asked.
Gilbert pursed his lips. He absently patted his belly. He took his time before he spoke again. "If you fell behind on your payments," he finally said, "I'd have to ask you to return."
Her mind turned the words over slowly. Calling her back meant he had to let her go first. He was letting her go.
"Understood," she managed.
The press of his soft fingers barely registered against her calloused palm. She steadied herself against the desk, the only solid thing in a suddenly fuzzy room.
"You'll need a chaperone, of course," she heard him say.
She couldn't stifle a laugh, a throaty sound that almost startled her. "But I'm twenty-five years old."
"Hmph," Gilbert said, "I suppose with such an education, you'll make yourself wholly unmarriageable anyway."
"How fortunate then that I have no desire to marry."
"Yes, yes," Gilbert said. She knew he didn't approve of voluntary spinsterhood, 'twas unnatural. But any concerns expressed over her virtue were at best a nod to protocol, and he probably suspected as much. Or, like everyone in Chorleywood, he suspected something.
As if on cue, he scowled. "There is one more thing we have to be clear about, Annabelle, quite clear indeed."
The words were already hovering between them, like buzzards readying to strike.
Have them pick at her; at this point, her sensibilities were as calloused as her hands.
"Oxford, as is well known, is a place of vice," Gilbert began, "a viper pit, full of drunkards and debauchery. Should you become entangled in anything improper, if there's but a shadow of a doubt about your moral conduct, much as it pains me, you will forfeit your place in this house. A man in my position, in service of the Church of England, must stay clear of scandal."
He was, no doubt, referring to the sort of scandal involving a man. He had no reason to worry on that account. There was, however, the matter of her scholarship. Gilbert seemed to assume that it had been granted by the university, but in truth her benefactor was the National Society for Women's Suffrage, which she now had to support in their quest for a woman's right to vote. In her defence, the Society had first come to her attention through a certain Lady Lucie Tedbury and her adverts for women stipends, not because she had an interest in political activism, but it was a safe guess that on the list of moral outrages, votes for women would rank only marginally below scandals of passion in Gilbert's book.
"Fortunately, an old spinster from the country should be quite safe from any scandals," she said brightly, "even at Oxford."
Gilbert's squint returned. She tensed as he perused her. Had she overdone it? She might be past the first blush of youth, and digging up potatoes in wind, sun, and rain had penciled a few delicate lines around her eyes. But the mirror in the morning still showed the face of her early twenties, the same slanted cheekbones, the fine nose, and, a nod to her French ancestry, a mouth that always seemed on the verge of a pout. A mouth that compelled a man to go quite mad for her, or so she had been told.
She quirked her lips wryly. Whenever she met her reflection, she saw her eyes. Their green sparkle had been long dulled by an awareness no fresh debutante would possess, an awareness that shielded her far better from scandals than fading looks ever could. Truly, the last thing she wanted was to get into trouble over a man again.
"Now," said Lady Lucie, "for the new members among us, there are three rules for handing a leaflet to a gentleman. One: identify a man of influence. Two: approach him firmly, but with a smile. Three: remember they can sense if you are afraid, but they are usually more afraid of you."
"Like dogs," Annabelle muttered.
The lady's sharp gray gaze shifted to her. "Why, yes," she said. Clearly there were good ears on this one, something to keep in mind.
Annabelle clutched the ends of her shawl against her chest in a frozen fist. The rough wool offered little protection from the chilly London fog wafting across Parliament Square, certainly not from the cutting glances of passers-by. Parliament was closed for the season, but there were still plenty of gentlemen strolling around Westminster, engineering the laws that governed them all. Her stomach plunged at the though of approaching any such man. No decent woman would talk to a stranger in the street, certainly not while brandishing pamphlets that boldly declared The Married Women's Property Act makes a slave of every wife!
There was of course some truth to this headline - thanks to the Property Act, a woman lost her property to her husband on her wedding day... Still, given the disapproving glances skewering their little group, she had tried to hold her pamphlets discreetly. Her efforts had been demolished swiftly the moment Lady Lucie, secretary of the National Society for Women's Suffrage, had opened her mouth for her motivating speech. The lady was a deceptively ethereal-looking creature, dainty like a china doll with perfectly smooth pale blonde hair and a delicate heart-shaped face, but her voice blared like a foghorn across the square as she charged her disciples.
How had these ladies been coerced into attendance? They were huddling like sheep in a storm, clearly wishing to be elsewhere, and she'd bet her shawl that none of them were beholden to the purse-string of a stipend committee. The red-haired girl next to her looked unassuming enough with her round brown eyes and her upturned nose, pink from the cold, but thanks to the Oxford grapevine, she knew who the young woman was: Miss Harriet Greenfield, daughter of Britain's most powerful banking tycoon. The mighty Julien Greenfield probably had no idea that his daughter was working for the cause. Gilbert certainly would have an apoplexy if he learned about any of this.
Miss Greenfield held her leaflets gingerly, as if she half-expected them to try and take a bite out of her hand. "Identify, approach, smile," she murmured. "That's simple enough."
Hardly. With their collars flipped high and top hats pulled low, every man hasting past was a fortress.
The girl looked up, and their gazes caught. Best to give a cordial smile and to glance away.
"You are Miss Archer, aren't you? The student with the stipend?"
Miss Greenfield was peering up at her over her purple fur stole.
Of course. The grapevine in Oxford worked both ways.
"The very same, miss," she said and wondered what it would be, pity, or derision?
Miss Greenfield's eyes lit with curiosity instead. "You must be awfully clever to win a stipend."
"Why, thank you," Annabelle said slowly. "Awfully overeducated, rather."
Miss Greenfield giggled, sounding very young. "I'm Harriet Greenfield," she said and extended a gloved hand. "Is this your first suffrage meeting?"
Lady Lucie seemed too absorbed by her own ongoing speech about justice and John Stewart Mill to notice them talking.
Still, Annabelle lowered her voice to a whisper. "It is my first meeting, yes."
"Oh, lovely – mine, too," Miss Greenfield said. "I so hope that this is going to be a good fit. It's certainly much harder to find one's noble cause than one would expect, isn't it?"
Annabelle frowned. "One's ... noble cause?"
"Yes, don't you think everyone should have a noble cause? I wanted to join the Ladies' Committee for Prison Reform, but Mama would not let me. So I tried the Royal Horticulture Society, but that was a miss."
"I'm sorry to hear that."
"It's a process." Miss Greenfield was unperturbed. "I have a feeling that women's rights are a worthy cause, though I have to say the very idea of walking up to a gentleman and—"
"Is there a problem, Miss Greenfield?"
The voice cracked like a shot, making both of them flinch. Bother. Lady Lucie was glaring at them, one small fist propped on her hip.
Miss Greenfield ducked her head. "N-no."
"No? I had the impression that you were discussing something."
Miss Greenfield gave a non-committal squeak. Lady Lucie was known to take no prisoners. There were rumours that she had single-handedly caused a diplomatic incident involving the Spanish ambassador and a silver fork ...
"We were just a little worried, given that we are new at this," Annabelle said, and Lady Lucie's flinty gaze promptly skewered her. Holy bother. The secretary was not a woman to mask moods with sugary smiles. Where a hundred women clamoured to be domestic sun rays, this one was a thunderstorm.
Surprisingly, the lady settled for a brusque nod. "Worry not," she said, "You may work together."
Miss Greenfield perked up immediately. Annabelle bared her teeth in a smile. If they lobbied but one man of influence between the two of them, she'd be surprised.
With a confidence she did not feel, she led the girl toward the busy hackney coach stop where the air smelled of horses.
"Identify, approach, smile," Miss Greenfield hummed. "Do you think this can be done while keeping a low profile, Miss Archer? You see, my father ... I'm not sure he is aware that working for the cause is such a public affair."
Annabelle cast a poignant glance around the square. They were in the very heart of London, in the shadow of Big Ben, surrounded by people who probably all had dealings with Miss Greenfield's father in some shape or form. Keeping a low profile would have entailed staying back in Oxford. It would have been much nicer to stay in Oxford. A gent nearing the hackneys slowed, stared, then gave a her a wide berth, his lips twisting as if he had stepped into something unpleasant. Another suffragist nearby did not seem to fare much better - the men brushed her off with sneers and flicks of their gentlemanly hands. Something about these contemptuous hands made a long-suppressed emotion stir in the pit of her stomach, and it burned up her throat like acid. Anger.
"It's not as though my father is opposed to women's rights as such - oh," Miss Greenfield breathed. She had gone still, her attention fixing on something beyond Annabelle's shoulder.
Near the entrance of parliament, a group of three men materialised from the mist. They were approaching the hackneys, rapidly and purposeful like a steam train.
Uneasy awareness prickled down her spine.
The man on the left looked like a brute, with his hulking figure straining his fine clothes. The man in the middle was a gentleman, his grim face framed by large side-burns. The third man ... The third man was what they were looking for: a man of influence. His hat was tilted low, half obscuring his face, and his well-tailored topcoat gave him the straight shoulders of an athlete rather than a genteel slouch. But he moved with that quiet, commanding certainty that said he knew he could own the ground he walked on.
As if he'd sensed her scrutiny, he looked up.
His eyes were striking, icy clear and bright with intelligence, a cool, penetrating intelligence that would cut right to the core of things, to assess, dismiss, eviscerate.
All at once, she was as transparent and fragile as glass.
Her gaze jerked away, her heart racing. She knew his type. She had spent years resenting him, the kind of man who had his self-assurance bred into his bones, who oozed entitlement from the self-assured way he held himself to his perfectly straight aristo nose. He'd send people scurrying with a flick of his fingers.
It suddenly seemed important not to scurry out of this man's way.
They wanted men of influence to hear them out? Well, she had just completed step one: identify the gentleman.
Two: approach him firmly ... her fingers tightened around the leaflets as her feet propelled her forward, right into his path.
His pale eyes narrowed.
A push against her shoulder knocked her sideways. "Make way, madam!"
The brute. She had forgotten he existed; now he sent her stumbling over her own feet, and for a horrible beat the world careened around her.
A firm hand clamped around her upper arm, steadying her.
Her gaze flew up and collided with an icy glare.
Drat. It was the aristocrat himself.
Holy hell. This man went utterly beyond what they had set out to catch. There wasn't an ounce of softness in him, not a trace of a chink in his armour. He was clean shaven, his Nordic-blond hair cropped short at the sides, in fact, everything about him was clean, straight and efficient: the prominent nose, the slashes of his brows, the firm line of his jaw. He had the polished, impenetrable surface of a glacier.
Her stomach gave a sickening lurch.
She was face to face with the rarest of breeds: a perfectly unmanageable man.
She should run.
She couldn't stop staring. These eyes. There was a world of tightly leashed intensity in their depths that held her, pulled her in, until awareness sizzled between them bright and disturbing like an electric current.
The man's lips parted. His gaze dropped to her mouth. A flash of heat brightened his eyes, there and gone like lightning.
Well. No matter their position in the world, they all liked her mouth.
She forced up her hand with the pamphlets and held it right under his arrogant nose. "Amend the Married Women's Property Act, Sir?"
His eyes were, impossibly, colder than before. "You play a risky game, miss."
A voice as cool and commanding as his presence.
It heated rather than calmed her blood.
"With all due respect, the risk of being pushed by a gentleman in bright daylight is usually quite low," she said, "would you release me now, please?"
His gaze snapped to his right hand. Which was still wrapped around her arm.
His face shuttered.
The next moment, she was free.
The bustle and noise of Parliament Square reached her ears again, unnaturally loud.
The press of strong fingers round her arm lingered like the afterglow of a burn.
He was already moving past her, staring ahead, his two companions rushing after him.
She swallowed and found her mouth was dry. Her lips still tingled as if he'd brushed over them with a fingertip.
A small, gloved hand touched her sleeve, and she jumped. Miss Greenfield's brown eyes were wide with concern and... awe. "Miss. Are you alright?"
"Yes." No. Her cheeks were burning as if she had fallen nose first onto the damp cobblestones. She smoothed a trembling hand over her skirts. "Well then," she said with false cheer, "I gather the gentlemen were not interested."
From the corner of her eye, she watched the ice lord and his minions file into a large carriage. Meanwhile, Miss Greenfield was contemplating her with covert wariness, probably trying to determine politely whether she was a little unhinged. She wasn't, but there was no denying that she had acted on impulse. Lord help her. She hadn't been impulsive in so long.
"Do you know who that was?" Miss Greenfield asked.
Annabelle shook her head.
"That," the girl said, "was the Duke of Montgomery."
A duke. Of course the first man she tried to lobby turned out to be a duke, just a fraction short of a prince...
A pair of heels clicked rapidly behind them, Lady Lucie was approaching with the force of a small frigate. "Was that what it looked like?" she demanded, "did you just try to lobby the Duke of Montgomery?"
Annabelle's spine straightened. "I didn't know that he was excluded from our efforts."
"He's not. Just no one has ever tried going near him before." The lady cocked her head and looked Annabelle up and down. "I can't decide whether you are one of the bravest or one of the most foolish women I've recently recruited."
"I didn't know who he was," Annabelle said. "He just looked like a man of influence."
"Well, you had that right," Lady Lucie said, "he is one of the most influential men in the country."
"Wouldn't it be worth a try then, to speak to him?"
"Have you seen him? This is a man who divorced his wife after barely a year, kept her dowry, and made her disappear. We can safely assume that he is a lost battle where women's rights are concerned, and not squander our limited resources on him."
"A divorce?" She might be from a small place like Chorleywood, but even she knew that the aristocracy did not divorce. Still, she could not seem to let it go. "Would the duke's opinion sway other men of influence?"
Lady Lucie gave an unladylike snort. "He could sway the entire upcoming election if he wished."
"But that means that if he's against us, it hardly matters how many of the others we win for the cause, doesn't it?"
"Possibly." A frown creased Lady Lucie's brow. "But it is of no consequence. Our army is not made for attacking such a fortress."
"How about a siege, then," Annabelle said, "or a subterfuge, like a big, wooden horse."
Two pairs of eyes narrowed at her.
Oh, grand, she had thought that out loud. Being pushed by that man must've shaken her more than she'd thought.
"Well, I do like the sound of that," Lady Lucie drawled. "We should put Montgomery onto the agenda for next week's meeting." A smile curved her lips as she stuck out her hand. "Call me Lucie. You too, Miss Greenfield. And do excuse me, I believe that is Lord Chiltern over there."
They watched her plunge into the fog, her red scarf flapping behind her like a pennant. When Miss Greenfield turned back to Annabelle, her expression was serious. "You saved me from Lucie biting my head off in front of everyone earlier. Please call me Hattie."
It felt a little wrong, such familiarity first with a lady, and now an heiress. Annabelle took a deep breath. This was her new life, being a student, petitioning dukes, shaking hands with unfathomably wealthy girls in purple fur stoles. It seemed that the wisest course of action was to pretended that this was all perfectly normal.
"My pleasure," she said. "And apologies for not keeping a low profile earlier."
Hattie's laugh floated merrily across the square, attracting almost as many scandalised glances as their pamphlets.
They failed to enthuse any man of influence that afternoon. In between half-hearted attempts, Annabelle's gaze kept straying back to the direction where the coach with the duke had disappeared.