He stared at the plate, shrugging his shoulders to draw attention to the fact that his hands remained bound behind his back. “Am I to eat like a dog?”
“You know I can’t release you. Much less let you anywhere near a fork and knife. ”
“Then perhaps you’d be so kind as to feed me. ”
The stark look of hunger crossed his face. Hunger for what, she didn’t dare guess.
She folded a thin slice of ham and, holding it by the slightest edge of her fingertips, offered it to him.
“Closer,” he urged.
With a sigh, she obeyed. She stretched her arm just an inch further.
He ducked his head and kissed the underside her wrist. A little spark of heat scalded the delicate flesh, and she pulled back as if burnt.
“Don’t scream,” he murmured quickly. “Don’t cry out. It’s over. It’s done. I just couldn’t resist. I’m fair starving, mon ange. I’ve scarcely tasted food in days. But still I couldn’t resist you, just the once. ” He closed his eyes briefly. “It won’t happen again. ”
She extended her arm, but not quite as far. He didn’t attempt any kissing or mischief this time, but caught the ham in his teeth and devoured it. She offered him a folded slice of beef, then a lobster patty—both disappeared just as quickly. He hadn’t stretched the truth on this account. He was starving—perhaps literally. Her heart twisted with fresh concern.
“Wine?” she asked, reaching for the goblet she’d filled.
He shook his head, swallowing. “Just bread, if you will. ”
As she reached for a roll, she glanced down the table. Fosbury had a fork in one hand, his wine in the other, and his full attention was alternating between the two.
This was her chance.
“This is the closest to privacy I can manage. Rycliff will be returning in less than an hour. I would like to help you. But you must tell me the truth. ”
He flicked a cautious glance toward Fosbury. “My name is Corentin Morvan. I am a humble farmhand. ”
“But…” She couldn’t help it. She whispered, “Aren’t you Christian?”
A look of pure shock overtook his face. He swore. Then he bowed his head and muttered a steady stream of rushed words.
Violet held her breath and listened, frantic to make out his confession…until she recognized his speech. It was the standard grace Catholics recited before every meal.
“Of course I am a Christian. ” With a sheepish smile, he raised his head. “Thank you, mon ange. To forget a blessing at Christmastide?” He clucked his tongue. “What will you think of me?”
“What indeed. ”
Violet thought she would go mad, that’s what. There was no way she could simply blurt out, “Pardon me, but aren’t you Lord Christian Pierce, the man who grew up next door and took my virginity last winter?” Aside from being utterly mortifying, to ask such a question would have been stupid. She could hand him every slice of ham on the table, but she couldn’t feed him any more answers. Then she’d never be sure he was telling the truth.
She broke a small piece off a roll and offered it to him. “Your French is remarkable. You speak it with no trace of a Breton accent. In all my life, I only knew one man with such a gift for accents. ”
No response. No word of confirmation, no knowing look. He just shrugged and chewed.
That was it, then. Violet gave up.
Once again, her trusting nature was making her a fool. Logic would argue that the simplest explanation was usually correct. In this case, the simplest explanation was that she possessed an overactive imagination. And this man was a stranger. Some sort of criminal, hoping to talk his way out of certain imprisonment by playing on a wallflower’s naïve hopes of romance.
Exasperated, she reached for the goblet of wine. If he didn’t want it, she’d drink it herself.
“Attends,” he said sharply. “Don’t. ”
She lowered the goblet. “Why not?”
“It’s Christmas. You should have a toast. ”
With a shrug, she lifted her glass and said wryly, “Joyeux noel. ”
The cup was halfway to her lips when he interrupted yet again.
“God jul. ”
She paused, confused. “That’s…’Merry Christmas’ in Norwegian?”
He nodded. “Kala Christouyenna. ”
Her heart drummed in her chest. “The same, in Greek. ”
“Feliz Natal. ”
“Much too easy. Portuguese. ”
She was smiling now. Foolishly, but she couldn’t help it.
At last, he was admitting the truth of his identity, just as surely as if he’d uttered his name. And now she understood, he’d been telling her so ever since he’d landed at her feet in the ballroom and whispered, “Nedeleg laouen. ”
I have a new one for you, Violet. So obscure. You’ll never guess this one.
“I knew it. ” She hastily set the wine aside. “Oh, I knew it had to be you. ”
Suddenly, he was very close. “Merry Christmas, Violet. ”
He kissed her. Brushed his lips over hers, in a caress every bit as sweet and intoxicating as the first kiss he’d given her, almost a year ago. And just like the first time, she couldn’t muster any will to resist.
“Oy. What’s going on?” Fosbury smacked the table with his drained wine goblet. He pushed back from the table and stood. “Get away from her. ”
“I don’t think so. ” Christian jumped to his feet. He slid one arm about Violet’s waist. With his right hand, he drew a large knife. “Hold right there. ”
Violet gasped and stared at his fingers, curled around the knife’s glittering handle. “B-but you were tied. ”
“I cut myself loose. ”
“Where did you get a knife?”
“This is a kitchen. Knives abound. ” Christian never turned his gaze from Fosbury, just kept waving the knife slowly back and forth. “Don’t worry, I don’t mean any harm. We’re all just going to stand here for another minute or two, whilst your friend becomes very, very sleepy. Won’t be long now. ”
Violet saw what he meant.
As she watched, Fosbury raised his hand. Slowly, drunkenly.
“You. ” He pointed a shaky finger at Christian. “You don’ speak no…English. ” His slurred speech gave “English” an extra syllable and an abundance of shh.
Christian smiled. “I speak it better than you, at the moment. ”
“Yer hand!” Fosbury blurted out. Still standing in the same place, he flailed his arm back and forth. “Off. Hands! Hands off Miss Win…” He lumbered forward, one step. “Miss Winterbrother. ”
Fosbury stopped speaking. He blinked at Violet a few times.
He said, “Miss Window-bother?”
Then he crumpled to the tile floor.
“Oh!” Violet lunged for him.
“He’s well. ” Christian crouched next to her at Fosbury’s side. “He’ll be fine. He’ll wake up in the morning with a bit of a headache but no unpleasant memories. ”
“Have you poisoned him?”
From his pocket, he withdrew an empty brown-glass vial. “Just laudanum. Nicked it from your friend’s kit, thinking it might come in useful. Dumped it in the wine when you weren’t looking. ”
“Good heavens, Christian. ” She looked from the vial to him. “Christian. ”
“Yes, darling. It’s me. ” He touched her cheek. “Didn’t you know me at once?”
“I… I thought I did. But then I wondered. And just when I thought I could be certain, you had me doubting again. You were so insistent about that farmhand nonsense, and it has been almost a year. You’ve changed. ”
And the changes weren’t only physical. The alterations went deeper than a broken nose and a scar beneath his jaw. This new Christian was darker, stronger. Far more dangerous. The man she’d once adored was devilish, yes—but he would never have threat
ened a member of the British militia at knifepoint, much less drugged the man.
She’d never feared the old Christian. But this man had the little hairs on the back of her neck standing tall. Even with his identity confirmed, she still couldn’t fathom how he’d arrived here, much less why.
And she still had no idea whether he deserved her trust.
“You must tell me what’s going on. ”
“I’ll explain soon enough. ” He moved behind Fosbury and lifted him by the arms, dragging his unconscious form. “Help me with this first?”
“I…I don’t think I should. ”
He acted without her assistance, lugging the insensible militiaman to the larder and depositing him behind the carrot and turnip bins.
“Is someone chasing you?” Resigned to it now, she followed and tried to make the sleeping Fosbury comfortable with a flour-sack pillow. “Have you done something you shouldn’t have done? Seen something you shouldn’t have seen? Did a tropical fever addle your brain?”
He tugged her to her feet. “I’ll tell you everything I can, I swear it. But we haven’t much time. I was never supposed to be seen, and now I must disappear entirely. But not before I have my chance at this. ”
He slid his arms around her, drawing her close. As their bodies met, a low moan of pleasure escaped him. He pressed little kisses to her brow, her cheek. “God, it’s so good to hold you. You couldn’t know how often I’ve dreamed of this. Dreamed of you. ”
Violet couldn’t believe it. He’d dreamed of her? And all those same nights she’d lain awake, shedding bitter tears over him. Wondering why he’d left so suddenly and whether she could have made him stay.
He’d dreamed of her, he said. And yet he hadn’t sent word in nearly a year. Instead he showed up drenched and bleeding in the middle of a Christmas ball, muttering in a foreign tongue.
She shook her head. “I don’t understand. ”
He kissed her. So deeply, the spicy taste of the wine quite mulled her wits. And for a moment, it was lovely. His tongue coaxed hers, drawing her into a rhythm. He took; she gave. He taunted; she teased in turn. As if this kiss were the waltz they’d never danced. The courtship they’d never embarked upon. The open discussion they’d never shared.
“Violet. Sweet, lovely Violet. ”
Tangling his grip in the back of her gown, he brought her body flush with his. His solid, muscled thigh pressed between her legs. Her breasts flattened against his chest. The heat of him seared her through the layers of linen and silk.
There he went, racing ahead of her again. And much as her body yearned to follow his lead…
“No, stop. ” Breathless, she worked a hand between them and levered herself away. His heartbeat thundered against her palm. “I can’t let you overwhelm me. I need answers. ”
His breathing was labored. Briefly closing his eyes, he nodded. “I know. You shall have them. ”
Somewhere nearby, a door creaked open. Perhaps in the servants’ corridor.
His head turned toward the noise, and his arm whipped around her middle. In a swift motion, he pulled her to the back of the larder. “Not a move,” he murmured in her ear. “Not a sound. ”
“Rycliff couldn’t have returned. Not yet. It’s likely just one of the serv—”
His hand clapped over her mouth. “Shh. ”
She pulled against his grip and shouted objections into his callused palm…all to not avail. He had her trapped.
From the kitchen, they heard the sounds of someone shuffling about the room, whistling lightly. Crockery clinked against pewter. A cupboard door creaked open, then shut.
All the while, Christian kept her pinned to his body with one arm around her middle and the other hand clamped over her mouth. His heartbeat battered her spine as the dull, commonplace sounds of kitchen activity continued. His grip never eased, but his thumb began to move back and forth, stroking lightly over her rib cage.