Today's Reading

Chapter 1

Kent, August 1879

Absolutely not. What an utterly harebrained idea, Annabelle."

Gilbert's eyes had the rolling look of a hare 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 dignified piece of furniture did nothing for her cousin: age- worn on four carved lion paws, it would have bolstered the authority of any man throning behind it, but Gilbert 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."

"Advantages—"

"I apologize, 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.


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