“I have no wish to bother you,” Amanda said, making sure to look at Mrs. Marshall directly and at her secretary not at all. “I’ll be out of your hair in a twinkling.”
“But you’re never a bother to us.” Those words, said in so sweet a tone, did not come from Mrs. Marshall. Amanda turned—mostly reluctantly—to take in her secretary.
If Mrs. Jane Marshall was a flamingo, her social secretary, Miss Genevieve Johnson, was a perfect little turtledove. Or—to use another, not quite inappropriate example—she was like a china doll. She was perfectly proportioned. Her skin was a flawless porcelain, her eyes brilliantly blue. If there were any justice in the world, she would be stupid or unfriendly. But she wasn’t; she had always been perfectly kind to Amanda, and her intelligence was obvious to anyone who listened to her for any length of time.
She was exactly the sort of woman whom Amanda would have stood in awe of, when she’d had her Season nearly a decade past—the sort of brilliant, shining social diamond that Amanda would have watched breathlessly from afar.
In those ten years, Amanda had figured out exactly why she’d watched women like her with such avid intent. But understanding why Miss Johnson made her uneasy made her feel more in doubt, rather than less.
When uncertain about a conversation, ask a question requiring a long answer. That was what her grandmother would say.
Amanda struggled to think of something appropriate. “So… How much do you two still have to do for your spring benefit? The last Free told me, you were up to your ears.”
Miss Johnson’s perfectly shaped eyebrows rose. Not so high as to be rude; it seemed an involuntary response on her part, and Amanda realized she had misstepped somehow.
“We only have to send the thank-yous for attendance,” Mrs. Marshall said. “But there was a great deal that had to be done.”
Oh, God. It had already happened. Amanda felt herself blush fiercely. Of course it had. Miss Johnson would never have made so horrible a blunder. If Miss Johnson was a china doll, Amanda felt like the proverbial bull entering the shop where she was kept. She was outsized and clumsy, capable of smashing everything around her with one misplaced flick of her ungainly tail. She felt both awkward and stupid.
“But tell us why you’re in town,” Miss Johnson said. “Are you visiting your sisters?”
“My sisters don’t see me.” Her response was too curt, too bitter.
Miss Johnson drew back, and Amanda could practically hear china plates crashing around her, breaking to smithereens.
“I’m here to talk to Rickard about his suffrage bill,” she continued. “He’s been circulating it, trying to get anyone else to sign on.”
“And how is he doing?’
About as badly as Amanda was managing now. “The radicals hate it,” she said. “It limits voting to a small minority of married women. Everyone else hates it because, well…” Amanda shrugged once again. “It’s a terrible bill. But it’s a bill at least.”
“I’ll have to ask Oliver what he thinks of it,” Mrs. Marshall said. Oliver was her husband and Free’s half-brother. He was a Member of Parliament—and through a set of circumstances that Amanda had found it polite not to understand, also the half-brother of a duke. He was usually conversant in these affairs.
“Oh, he’s opposed, I’m sure,” Amanda said. “He’s part of the set that says the next suffrage bill must be the universal one. It’s the most dreadful mess.”
“Why is that?” Miss Johnson asked.
Amanda recognized this tactic from her youth. She was being drawn out—by an expert no less. She flushed.
“Well. There’s an argument about who ought to be allowed to vote. All women? Just women who own property? Or maybe only married women. Of course, almost every group favors a bill that allows only their ilk to vote. They all promise they’ll circle back eventually and include the rest—but there’s very little trust that those representations are true.” She considered that. “The mistrust is not unwarranted, given, um, the things that some have said.” No need to go into those. In the beginning, Amanda herself had been one of those women who shied away from universal suffrage. Women, yes, but poor women?
It had taken some interesting conversations with Alice Halifax before Amanda had come around, and she was still embarrassed with herself for her earlier stance.
“Universal suffrage,” she continued, “is a harder task to achieve, but if we’d insisted on it back in 1832…”
She trailed off, realizing that she was the only one talking. Once again, she felt herself flush. When she was seventeen, she’d thought that she could leave the drawing rooms she inhabited. She’d imagined learning more, becoming a larger person. She hadn’t understood that the process of leaving meant that she would never fit in her old life again.
She understood the rules just well enough to remember them a minute too late.
“But,” she said, feeling her cheeks heat, “we needn’t talk politics.” God. It was the most dreadful of drawing-room missteps. How gauche of her. She was so used to being able to say anything that she’d forgotten how to hold her tongue.
She made a great show of checking the clock on the wall. “Dear me. I must be off, or I’ll be late for my appointment with Rickard.” It was in two hours, but no point in mentioning that. She could look over her notes again.
“But we like hearing you talk of politics,” Miss Johnson said gently. “Haven’t you a few more moments?”
Too bad that Amanda knew that tactic, too. You were always supposed to set the other person at ease, no matter how badly she was doing. That left you free to gossip about her in good conscience afterward.
Amanda frowned repressively. “I’m afraid I don’t.”
She’d accepted reality for what it was years ago. She’d no interest in being a proper lady. She was a bull; her place was in a field, flicking flies off with her tail, or—if need be—charging her enemies with horns lowered.
But Miss Johnson sighed almost regretfully. “Do come back,” she said, a pattern card of politeness.
That’s all it was: politeness. If Amanda had been an artist, she’d have painted a swirl of butterflies around Miss Johnson, dancing gently around her. But she wasn’t, and instead, every one of those butterflies seemed to be lodged in her stomach, fluttering in protest.