Once Upon a Winter's Eve (Spindle Cove 1.5)

Page 7

He bent his head, pressing his cheek to her temple. “Sorry,” he said, in a barely audible whisper. Then he kissed her ear.
Oh, don’t. Have mercy.
The slightest brush of his lips against her earlobe, and she felt it everywhere. Her knees went to blancmange. The soles of her feet tingled. Heat arrowed down the center of her corset. And her heart… Her heart threatened to burst from her chest. Her whole body—her entire being—was so acutely aware of his.
No one else could make her feel so exhilarated. No one else could cause her so much pain.
He was her present captor. Her one-time lover. Her future…God-knew-what.
At their feet, Fosbury groaned and shifted in his sleep. His boot knocked against an empty crate. A milk pail fell to the tiled floor with a loud, ringing clatter.
The kitchen went silent.
“Is someone there?” a man asked.
Violet knew that voice. It belonged to Sir Lewis Finch.
Christian kept one hand firmly clamped over her mouth, but his other arm slowly slid free of her waist. He reached for something.
The knife. As he lifted it in the dark, she saw its point gleam sharp and bright.
“Don’t be frightened,” he whispered. “I’d die before I’d see you hurt. ”
Oh, no. No, no, no.
Now her heartbeat raced his, pounding frantically.
Susanna’s father posed no more danger than a cabbage moth. But she couldn’t tell Christian that while he had her muzzled. And she could not allow him to attack or threaten Sir Lewis.
Footsteps were already crossing toward the larder, heading for their hiding place. Violet had to act, soon.
When he’d reached for the knife, he’d left her arms unrestrained. She clasped her hands together and used all her strength to drive one elbow back and up, directly into Christian’s sternum.
“Oof. ” He fell backward with an odd, gasping sound that told her she’d succeeded in knocking the wind from his lungs.
She twisted free of his grip and made a lunge for the larder door.
Bloody hell.
Christian had no choice but to let her go.
Had he said enough to sway her? They’d only had a few minutes alone. Damn it, he should have spent more of those minutes explaining himself and fewer of them kissing her. But he hadn’t been able to help it.
He held his breath, straining to hear. Did she mean to protect or betray him? Truthfully, he would have deserved the latter. He’d betrayed her trust, nearly a year ago.
“Why, Sir Lewis,” he heard her say lightly. “I didn’t expect to see you awake. ”
Sir Lewis?
Sir Lewis. Christian’s pulse tripped as he realized what he’d almost done. Dear, sweet Violet. What did he not owe her? In the moment, his defensive instincts had trumped all sense or reason. Violet had saved him from stabbing Sir Lewis Finch—one of England’s most decorated civilian heroes—with a carving knife.
As he silently set the weapon aside, he listened to Violet and the old man exchange a few words. Evidently, the aging inventor had been unable to sleep. He’d stayed up late working in his laboratory.
“Are you working on a new sort of gun?” Violet asked. Christian recognized this as her mere-polite-interest voice.
“No, no. It’s not the prospect of battle keeping me awake. It’s prospect of a grandchild. ” Papers rustled. “I’ve started making sketches for a cradle. One with a winding mechanism and a crank, you see. So it can be turned just a few times, then rock the babe for hours. ”
“How very ingenious,” Violet replied. “You must be so proud. ”
Christian smiled. He knew Violet referred to grandfatherly pride, but the distracted old man mistook her.
“The mechanics of the idea are sound,” said Sir Lewis. “Let’s hope I can make it work. How is our guest, by the way?”
Silence stretched. Christian’s every muscle drew taut.
“Sleeping soundly,” she finally replied. “I just came for a bit to eat. ”
He exhaled. Thank you, Violet.
The two of them went about fixing plates and chatting. In the larder, Christian leaned his weight against a wooden shelf and set about re-learning how to breathe.
After some time, Sir Lewis took his leave. Christian waited until the old man’s footsteps faded. Then he waited several seconds more.
“He’s gone,” she informed him in a loud whisper.
As Christian emerged from the larder, Violet didn’t turn to him. She kept her head down, carefully staring at her hands where they pressed flat against the tile countertop.
He moved silently to her side. “Thank you. ”
“Don’t thank me. I did that to protect Sir Lewis. ” She lifted her chin and met his gaze. “I haven’t decided yet what to do with you. I’m leaning toward exposing you completely, unless you tell me the whole truth. At once. ”
“I have been truthful. I did not go to the West Indies as everyone believes. For the better part of the last year, I’ve been living as a Breton farmhand named Corentin Morvan. ”
“But why?”
He tilted his head. “You’re an intelligent girl. Surely I needn’t spell it out. ”
“So Lord Rycliff was right. You’re a spy. ”
He nodded.
She whispered, “For England, I hope?”
“Violet. I can’t believe you’d even ask me that. ”
“Well, what am I to think of you? Why are you even here?”
“For you. For you, darling. That much was honest too. ” He cursed under his breath. “I didn’t mean for the evening to go like this. Stupid mistake, wrecking in the cove. And worse, I’ve been seen by too many people tonight. By the time I made it here, I was so cold and in so much pain, I hardly knew what I was doing. My only thought—and for a while there, I suspected it would be my last thought—was for you. ”
He reached for her, but her sharp gaze had him pulling the gesture back. “I came here just to see you. I hoped to find you alone, draw you aside for a few moments’ conversation. Leave you a note, if nothing else. ”
She made an indignant noise. “Another note?”
“A proper letter, more like. ” He pushed his hand through his hair. “Violet, I just need a chance to explain myself. The way I should have done, before I left last year. And then I must be getting back to my ship. Somehow. ” He scratched the back of his neck. “I don’t suppose you know where I could procure some kind of—”
“Wait. Christian, if you are really working in service of the Crown, you needn’t skulk around like this. No one is more loyal to England than Lord Rycliff. Why don’t we go to him together and tell him the truth? He’d be glad to help you. ”
He shook his head. “I can’t risk it. Unless he’s a fool, he’d never believe me on the strength of my word alone. And if I miss the ship…”
“What then? If you miss the ship, what would happen?”
“I’d be disavowed, most certainly. Corentin Morvan would cease to exist. I’m relatively unimportant, so my disappearance would be more of an inconvenience than anything. But all ties would be quietly severed. I’d be forced to go home to London, and my career, such as it is, would be over. ”
“That doesn’t sound like such a tragedy to me. A bit of disgrace would be no more you deserve. ”
“I’m sure you’re right. But a bit of disgrace is the best possible outcome. ”
“And the worst?”
He shrugged and released a long, slow sigh. “Charges of treason?”
“Oh. ” Worry lines creased her fair brow. “We can’t have that. Your family has suffered too much already. ”
Yes, Christian thought. They certainly had suffered. And he adored her for understanding that. For thinking of them.
“I’ll help you,” she said. “I’ll help you for their sake. What is it you need?”
>   He ran his hands from her shoulders to her wrists. God, she was so soft. His voice went husky with emotion. “I need you, Violet. Just a little time with you. I need to hold you in my arms again and kiss you and tell you how remarkably lovely you are in green. I need make you understand why I—”
“No, no, no. ” She closed her eyes, then opened them again. “I don’t mean that. If you’re going to meet up with your ship by morning, what are your immediate material needs?”
“I need a rowboat. My coat and boots. And a gun, if it can be managed. ”
She nodded. “We’ll take the last part first. Follow me. ”
Chapter Five
A gun, if it can be managed.
Christian laughed at his own folly. Of course a gun could be managed. He was in the house of Sir Lewis Finch, England’s most celebrated innovator of firearms. As Violet led him down the corridor, he saw weapons from the man’s famed collection lining every wall. Spears, maces, rockets, swords, daggers…
And guns. Guns by the score.
Violet led him into a narrow, dark room toward the back of the house. The stone floor chilled the soles of his bare feet.
“This is the gun room,” she whispered, handing him the candleholder.
“No doubt. ” From floor to ceiling, racks held a variety of polished muskets, rifles, pistols and more. He reached for a gleaming, double-barreled Finch pistol. “Good Lord. That’s a thing of beauty. ”
“No,” she said sharply. “Don’t touch it. You can’t take just anything. I won’t allow you to steal from Sir Lewis. ”
He looked around them. “I don’t know that he’d notice I’ve stolen one. ”
One of her pale eyebrows rose. “He’d notice. And I’d notice. ” She went to a rack on the far side of the room and removed a small pistol. “I won’t let you steal, but you can have this one. ”
Christian peered at it. It was a single-barreled, rather basic weapon, but it looked to be in excellent working order. “Why that one?”
“Because I’m free to give it. This one’s mine. ”
He laughed, stunned. “Yours?”
“Yes, mine. ” She reached for a powder horn and deftly measured out a charge. “During fair weather seasons, we have a schedule here in Spindle Cove. Mondays, we have country walks. Tuesdays, sea bathing. We spend Wednesdays in the garden. And on Thursdays”—she jammed a lead ball into the barrel—”we shoot. ”
He whistled faintly through his teeth. “I thought Spinster Cove was a place for young ladies to come and…be spinsters. Read books. Do needlework. Wear scratchy stockings and unattractive frocks. ”
“Well, you were wrong about this place. About us. ”
“Evidently. ” He watched her with amazement as she turned the polished, well-oiled weapon over in her delicate hands. “God, Violet. I always knew you were the girl for me. ”
“Please,” she scoffed. “You knew nothing of the sort. ”
“Honestly, I…” At a sudden click, he jumped. “Holy God. ”
She’d cocked the gun and pointed it directly at his heart.
“Don’t try anything. I know how to use this. ”
“I don’t doubt you do. ”
He swallowed hard. Her hands didn’t even tremble.
“The night of your sister’s debut,” she said. “I was just a year out of the schoolroom, but my parents let me attend, so long as I didn’t dance. You were dressed in a dark blue topcoat, buff breeches, and a gold-threaded waistcoat. And your new tasseled Hessians. You were so proud of those. You had a brocade pocket square, but you lost it sometime between the quadrille and midnight supper. Now, what about me?”
“What about you?” he asked. She nudged the gun forward, and he raised his hands. “You want me to remember what you wore?”