She smiled a little. “Far more handsome than you, if that’s what you’re asking. His nose was straight. His jaw was always smoothly shaven. Never a hair out of place. Never a care showing on his brow. ”
“You make him sound like a peacock. ”
“At one time, I suppose he was. But he changed. His brother died in the war, and it affected the whole family. Over just a few months, I watched him go from a carefree young rake, to a man struggling under the burden of great sorrow. ” She fought the temptation to look away. “It hurt me to watch him hurting. ”
“And so this devil took advantage of your kindness. ”
“I…I’m not certain. ”
To this day, Violet remained unsure of his motives that night. Had he set out to seduce her, or had matters simply…progressed?
That night, there’d been a party at his family’s house. Just a small gathering of family and friends—their first foray back into society after months of mourning. Violet had haunted the corner, as always. Watching him surreptitiously, as always.
And then he’d looked up and seen her. Truly seen her. Just as she’d always prayed he would. His brown gaze seemed to explore the depths of her soul, uncovering all her hopes, all her dreams, all her fears and cares and desires…and most of all, her love for him.
At least, she’d wanted to believe he was looking straight into her soul. But in retrospect, perhaps he was just seeing through her, past her. As though she were some sort of gated entrance he must traverse, and the rest of his life lay on the other side.
As he’d crossed the room to her, his demeanor had been so intent.
I have a book for you, Violet. Come, it’s just upstairs.
So she’d followed him. On the way up the stairs, she’d made a little joke about the impropriety. But they were old friends, and no one would suspect more. She knew this house as well as she knew her own, and it seemed almost silly that she’d never been inside his rooms. He didn’t even reside in them anymore. For the past several years, he’d kept a bachelor’s apartment across the square.
He led her into a bedchamber and shut the door. A sudden wash of heat made her brain muddled, swampy.
Where’s the book? she’d asked.
There’s no book, he’d said.
And then he’d taken her in his arms.
That kiss—that first magical press of his lips to hers—how she wished she could go back and relive it. She’d been caught completely unawares, after a solid decade of yearning for just that moment. All those years of wishing and hoping and practicing on her hand…cast out the window, instantly. Because it was happening.
She felt her own life racing ahead of her, leaving her breathless in pursuit. Each step in the sensual progression took her by surprise. His hands on her breasts. Then his mouth on her breasts. The dizzy rush of inversion when he tipped her back onto the bed. His heavy weight, pressing her into the mattress.
Wait, she’d wanted to plead. Give me a moment to catch up.
But she hadn’t said a word. Because she knew him too well. If she’d expressed the slightest uncertainty, he would have ceased his attentions. And that would have been a tragedy.
She’d wanted it too. Each kiss, each caress. She’d wanted all of it.
All of him.
“What do you say?” she asked. “Was it a ruthless seduction or a simple mistake?”
Her companion scowled. And unleashed a robust chain of what sounded like pure Breton blasphemy.
Violet glanced in Finn and Fosbury’s direction, reassuring them with a mild smile.
When she spoke again, she kept her voice hushed and her manner calm. “I wasn’t unwilling, if that’s what you’re thinking. Quite the opposite. ”
“Even so. He was a devil to take advantage. And a fool to ever let you go. ”
“He was a disappointment, I’ll say that much. That’s how I came to call him in my mind, you see. The Disappointment. It pained me too much to think of him by name. ”
“The Disappointment. ” He snorted. “It was that bad?”
Her face flushed. “It wasn’t bad. ”
“Then it wasn’t good. ”
“From what I’ve been led to understand, it was about as pleasant as any girl can expect, her first time. Some parts of it were wonderful. It might have improved on the second go, but—”
But then he’d gone. He’d left England the very next day.
Though almost a year had passed, her viscera helpfully reenacted all the shock and pain of that betrayal. Her stomach clenched, and her heartbeat took on the hollow thump of a kettledrum.
“His father had purchased some land in Antigua, and he went to survey the property. He didn’t even come to tell me himself, just sent a note. I never saw him again. That was the disappointment. ”
“Gutless bastard. ”
“I was cowardly too. ” She studied her tea. “I hadn’t asked him for any promises. I never told him of my feelings. Maybe he didn’t realize I would have liked more. ”
“He knew. He most certainly knew. ” He ducked his chin, seeking her gaze. “Your heart is written on your face, mon ange. That’s what makes your face so beautiful. ”
Her pulse fluttered. What did he mean? What did any of this mean?
She wished she could collect all the warmth and compassion in his eyes and weigh it on some sort of scale. Did it add up to mere polite concern, or to something more? Guilt or apology, maybe. Perhaps even love?
She said, “You are remarkably well-spoken for a humble Breton farmhand. ”
He ignored her baiting remark. “You have been treated poorly and have suffered much. I’m sorry for it. But I am here. ”
“Yes. You are here. But I don’t know that you can be trusted. Until I’m convinced otherwise, I must assume you are an enemy. A threat to my safety and my friends’. ”
“Come. ” He cocked his head, urging her close.
With a cautious glance toward Finn and Fosbury, she leaned forward. Until the heat of his breath could be felt against the exposed, vulnerable curve of her neck. Her heart thundered in her chest.
“If you get us alone,” he whispered, “I will tell you everything. ”
Her pulse thumping, Violet sat back in her chair and regarded the bound man. His eyes glittered with challenge. He asked her to risk her own safety and that of her friends, even though he’d given her no reason to trust him.
Well, then. If she could not trust him, Violet had no choice but to trust herself. She must follow her own instincts.
The decision made, she stood and turned. “Mr. Fosbury? Finn? I’ve made an important discovery. Our man speaks French. Quite well, in fact. ”
She shot a glance at their captive. His eyes didn’t glitter now. Did he feel betrayed, perhaps? Very well. It might do him good to learn that feeling.
“Cor,” Finn made an ungainly slide from the windowsill. “I knew it. Good for you, Miss Winterbottom. ”
“As a matter of fact,” Violet said, “the man has expressed a wish to confess everything. But he’ll only speak directly to the commander. ”
Finn straightened. “We must inform Lord Rycliff straightaway. ”
“We’ll send a pair of footmen to the castle,” Fosbury said.
“Footmen?” Finn echoed. “Bollocks to that. ” Leaning on his crutch, the youth buttoned the front of his coat. “I’m going myself. ”
“Now, Finn,” Violet said in a motherly tone, “I know you’re frustrated with your limitations after your injury, but this isn’t the job for you. You can’t—”
“I can. And I will. If you’ll pardon me, Miss Winterbottom, the only thing frustrating me is the whole village treating me like a child. ” He lifted his crutch and pointed it at Sir Lewis’s ornate clock. “I’ll be back here, Lord Rycliff in tow, in less th
an hour. You mark me. ”
And with a hasty bow, the youth was gone, leaving Violet and Mr. Fosbury to shrug at each other.
“He’ll be fine, Miss Winterbottom,” the tavern-keeper said. “The boy’s got pluck. ”
“Oh, I know he does. ”
She turned to the window, watching Finn’s retreating form and hoping to conceal her satisfaction. That had gone even better than she’d hoped.
One down. One to go.
She had an hour. During that time, she would do her best to contrive a few minutes alone with Christian, or Corentin, or whoever he was. She wanted to hear what he had to say. She needed to learn the truth. But she would not be his fool.
Now, what to do with Fosbury?
She turned to the tavern-keeper. “I don’t know about you, Mr. Fosbury, but I could do with a bit of refreshment. ”
The big man stretched and rubbed his belly. “Now that you mention it, I am rather hungry. ”
“I hate to wake the maids at this hour. Why don’t you fetch us something from the kitchen?”
Fosbury’s hand ceased circling his gut. Violet stood very still and held her breath.
“But what if he”—Fosbury jerked his head at the bound man—”tries something while I’m gone? I’m charged with your protection. ”
“I’m sure I’ll be fine. He’s tied to the chair. ”
He considered, but ultimately shook his head. “No. I can’t leave you alone with him, Miss Winterbottom. ”
“Damn,” Violet muttered.
“Er… Ham. I said ham. You know. I only mean, I keep thinking of all that food that must have been left after the ball, you see. The…”
“Ham,” he finished for her.
“Yes. The ham. ” Lord, she felt inexpressibly stupid. “And the roasted beef. And goose. The glacéed fruits, the freshly baked breads. All those lovely cakes you brought up from the tea shop, all iced and sugared…” She sighed. “What a shame it is, to think of them going to waste. ”
“Well…” Fosbury regarded the bound man hunched in the chair. “I reckon we could take him along. ”
The tavern-keeper unwound the rope lashing their captive to the chair. The man’s hands remained tied tight behind his back.
Fosbury prodded him forward. “Go on, you. ”
Violet lifted a candleholder and guided their way to the Summerfield kitchen. Just as she’d suspected, the center worktable was laden with covered dishes of uneaten food, left over from the interrupted ball.
There were no proper chairs in the kitchen, only three-legged stools. Fosbury shoved the captive onto a stool near one end of the table and lashed his human calves to the stool’s wooden legs. If the man leaned too far to the side, he’d tip and crash to the floor. If he fell forward, he’d drown in the bowl of mulled wine.
Violet said, “Please have a seat, Mr. Fosbury. You’re always serving others at the Bull and Blossom. Tonight, I’ll make you a plate. ”
“That’s very kind of you, Miss Winterbottom. Don’t mind if I do. ” The tavern-keeper plunked down on a stool toward the far end of the table.
Violet found a few plates and moved down the row of saved dishes, heaping the plates with lobster patties, sliced meats, and sugar-dusted cakes. When she’d piled the delicacies high, she laid one plate before Mr. Fosbury. He muttered his thanks, reaching for a roll with one hand and spearing a lobster patty with the other.
She ladled two generous goblets of wine from the bowl and pushed one toward Fosbury. The tavern-keeper took a long draught.
At the opposite end of the table, she set the other plate and goblet before her companion. The mystery. Time to see which of them would unravel first.
Again, she spoke to him in French. “You must be hungry. ”