"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 leveled 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 month, 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 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 callused 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-and-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 callused 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."