He remained that way for several moments, struggling to master his breathing. Each time he gulped for air, the ropes took a sharper bite of his flesh.
He was aware of conversation on the other side of the room. They were debating what to do with him.
Eventually, his angel returned.
“They’d like to beat you,” she said in French, dropping into a chair some few feet distant. “But I’ve convinced them to let me try conversation first. ”
He stared at her, carefully keeping his expression blank. Revealing no hint of comprehension.
“It’s safe,” she continued, anticipating his concerns. “It’s safe to speak this way. You can trust me. I won’t tell a soul. My Breton is poor, but my French is quite good. ”
Her French was impeccable. He could have closed his eyes and imagined her to be a native speaker. But damned if he’d close his eyes when she was so near. At last, he could openly gaze upon every feature of her sweet, lovely face. Whimsical rose-petal lips and china-blue eyes, balanced by a sensible nose and intelligent brow.
She slid a glance toward their guards. “They won’t understand us,” she said. “They don’t have any French. ”
Still he hesitated. Perhaps the guards didn’t speak French, but they might recognize the language when they heard it spoken. And if they knew he spoke French, they would inform Rycliff. He would be subjected to interrogation. He did not fear interrogation itself, but he could not afford further delays.
She met his gaze. “I know you can understand me. I see it in your eyes. I would like to understand you too. ”
God. She spoke to the fondest wish of his heart.
“Et bien,” he said softly. “We will understand each other. ”
She pulled her chair a bit closer, partially blocking the militiamen’s view of their conversation. Nevertheless, the guards remained too near. He would need to play this carefully. So long as they were being watched, he couldn’t say anything—in any language—that might be overheard, remembered and deciphered later.
She asked in French, “Why don’t you tell me who you really are?”
“My name is Corentin Morvan,” he answered. “I am a humble Breton farmhand. ”
One eyebrow arched. She didn’t believe him.
“How did you come here?” she asked.
“I walked across the fields. ”
“From the cove?”
“And how did you come to be in the cove?”
“By way of a boat. ”
Her breath released in a little sigh of frustration. “You are teasing me. ”
“I can’t help it. It is a great pleasure to tease a pretty girl. ”
A blush warmed her cheeks. The sudden desire to touch her was nigh on unbearable. It made his skin tight and his fingers restless. He chafed against his bindings.
Her voice became stern. “If you don’t answer me honestly, I’ll alert Lord Rycliff to the fact that you speak French. Then he could pummel the answers from you. ”
He shook his head. “No amount of pummeling could accomplish that. But for another sip of that wine and your slightest touch, mon ange? I fear I would betray my own mother. ”
She offered him the cup of wine, raising it to his lips. He curled his neck to drink from it, holding her gaze as he sipped.
As she lowered the cup, the smallest trickle of wine escaped. She reached out instinctively, dabbing the errant droplet with her thumb. Her touch grazed the corner of his mouth.
A cascade of pure bliss shimmered through him. Like stars swirling in the black of night. Windmilling through the dark places of his body, his heart, his soul.
“You are too kind, mademoiselle. ” He tilted his head and regarded her from a new angle. “It is ‘mademoiselle’? Not ‘madame’. ”
Her lips quirked. “I am not married, if that’s what you’re asking. ”
Again, she shook her head.
“So you are particular. ”
“I am not particular, I am almost a…” She paused. “I don’t know the word in French. I am unmarried because no one has asked. ”
“No one has asked?” He made a noise in his throat. “Englishmen are fools. ”
“And Breton farmhands,” she said, “are apparently shameless flirts. Don’t think I don’t realize what you’re doing. You’re hoping to distract me, change the subject. ”
“Not at all. Your marital status is a subject I greatly wish to discuss. ”
She sighed. “Be serious, I beg you. You must tell me the truth. Can’t you see? Lord Rycliff will send for the magistrate in the morning. ”
“Magistrates do not frighten me. ”
“I am frightened for you. ”
He looked into her blue eyes, and he could see it was true. She cared. Perhaps she cared no more for him than she would any other lost, benighted soul. But right now, it didn’t matter. She cared, and he felt it to his bones.
“Why did you come to Spindle Cove tonight?” she asked.
“I…” He cleared his throat. “I had an appointment. ”
“An appointment? With whom?”
He swept her with a warm, caressing gaze. “With an angel, apparently. ”
She clucked her tongue. “More teasing. ”
“No teasing. I am here for you. ”
“If that’s not teasing, it’s a flat-out lie. ”
He inched the chair forward, desperate to close the distance between them. He spoke to her quietly, honestly. From the depths of his cold, longsuffering heart.
“I’m here for you, mon ange. Violet. I would cross a world for you. ”
Violet went perfectly still.
When she could manage it, she whispered four words. In English. “You know my name. ”
His expression betrayed no understanding. He sat back in his chair and blinked.
She tried again. “You know me. ”
In her lap, Violet’s hands balled into fists. She didn’t understand. If he knew her and needed her help, why didn’t he just say so? But if he were truly a stranger, how had he learned her name?
Across the room, Mr. Fosbury looked up. “Any progress, Miss Winterbottom?”
Well. There was one question answered. Hadn’t her friends been calling her by name all evening? Beginning with Kate and Susanna in the ballroom, and ending with Mr. Fosbury right now. The name Violet Winterbottom was hardly a secret.
Violet rose from her chair. “I’m having difficulty making him out,” she told the tavern-keeper, giving him a self-conscious smile. “Perhaps some tea will help me concentrate. ”
She rose and went to a table where the maids had laid out tea service. As she poured a fragrant, steaming cupful, her mind churned.
It was easy enough to explain how he’d learned her name. But that didn’t explain the intensity in his eyes. It didn’t explain the way he affected her, deep inside.
It didn’t explain the eerily familiar freckle beneath his left ear.
Violet. I would cross a world for you.
The memory sent a frisson chasing over her skin.
It was impossible, unthinkable. But the more she observed and spoke with the man, the more she felt certain he was The Disappointment.
She closed her eyes. Time to stop hiding from that name.
She felt certain he was Christian. There were differences, yes. But the similarities were so numerous, and her reaction to him so strong, she was starting to believe it must be him.
And yet—if he were Christian, what was he doing here, and not in the West Indies? Why would he bother to row into the cove, trudge across fields, and claim to be a Breton farmhand? He could have simply pulled up in the drive, knocked at the door, and said, “I’m Lord Christian Pierce, third son of the Duke of Winford. ” It’s not as though he would have difficulty speak
ing to Violet, if he wished to. And he hadn’t wished to—not in almost a year.
Christian would not have crossed a world for her. He couldn’t even be bothered to cross the square and bid her a proper farewell.
As she stirred sugar into her tea, she stole another look at the dark, intriguing man lashed to a chair. Perhaps even he didn’t know who he was. Perhaps he was stark raving mad, or suffering from amnesia.
She let the spoon fall to the tray, exasperated with her mind’s wild contortions. “Truly, Violet,” she muttered to herself. “Amnesia?”
She returned to her chair, not knowing what to think, nor even what to hope.
“Will you take tea?” she asked in French.
He made a face. “Wine is more to my taste. ”
“Very well. ” She offered the wine to him, holding the cup to his lips. He took a languid draught, staring at her all the while. She watched his bared, unshaven throat working as he swallowed. The view felt sensual and intimate.
When she lowered the wine, his heated gaze roamed her body. “I have come to a realization, mon ange. Englishmen are not merely fools. They are perfect idiots. ”
A blush burned its way up her chest.
“We seem to be at an impasse,” she said. “You refuse to divulge your secrets. So I’ve been thinking…perhaps I should first share mine. ”
His eyebrow arched. “You? Have secrets?”
“Oh yes. ” She looked around them. “This place, Spindle Cove? It’s a holiday locale for young ladies who are ill or awkward. Or unconventional. ”
“And which kind of young lady are you?”
“The fourth kind. Scandalous. ”
She sipped her tea, stalling. After a year of keeping quiet, was she truly going to tell this story, this way? But she could think of no better way to test him.
“A year ago,” she said, “I surrendered my virtue. Easily. To a man who’d made me no promise—not so much as a hint—of marriage. And when he left me, I fled here. Because I feared I might find myself with child, and I didn’t want anyone to know what I’d done. ”
She watched his reaction carefully. But just like with the earlobe pinching, she was unsure what reaction to expect. The set of his jaw conveyed concern. His eyes widened with a hint of surprise.
“You didn’t tell your family?” he asked.
“I never spoke a word of it to anyone. Not until just now. ”
And the secret had never grown any easier to carry. Quite the reverse. Every time she’d felt tempted to share the story with someone, it was as though she’d lacquered it over with a new coat of resin. Adding layer after layer, sometimes daily, until the truth was a hard, heavy lump in her chest.
“Your fears of a child…?”
She shook her head. “Came to nothing. But clearly, I’m not such an angel. ”
“You”—he leaned forward, such as his bindings allowed—”are an angel still. The one who did this to you? He is a devil. ”
“Oh, yes. ” She smiled a little. “The devil next door. I’d known him all my life and adored him quietly for most of it. When we were younger, he teased me mercilessly. Then came several years where he was oblivious to my existence. He always seemed so far beyond my reach. But somehow, we became friends. We ran our dogs in the square nearly every day, and while they ran, we talked. He knew how I loved languages, you see. He had a gift for them too. He made a habit of collecting little phrases and testing me with them. ‘Good day’ in Latvian or ‘thank you’ in Javanese. ”
I have a new one for you, Violet. So obscure. You’ll never guess this one.
And yet, she always did. Sometimes it took her several days of scouring her library, but she always found the translation.
Her companion snorted. “This? This was enough to make you love him?”
“I thought we’d discovered a common thread. ” She shrugged. “Well, and I can’t claim it to be solely intellectual admiration. He was exceedingly handsome. ”