She sniffed. “Of course you think I’m that foolish. Why wouldn’t you? After all, I am the same girl who followed you up to your bedchamber and surrendered her virtue whilst our parents played cards downstairs—with no offer of marriage on the counterpane, much less declarations of tender love. It shouldn’t be any great trick to seduce me tonight. Is that what you’re thinking?”
He shook his head. “No. No, I—”
“I’m a fool. ” Her voice broke. “Too easily dazzled to resist. Too dimwitted to pause a moment and consider the consequences. Too stupid to know what an orgasm is. ‘Oh, Violet,’” she mimicked. “‘Let me show you how good it can be. ’ Well, allow me to show you something, Christian. ”
She raised the pistol and pressed the barrel to his temple.
He cringed. “Violet, for the love of God. ”
“Remove your hand. Now. ” She relaxed her thigh muscles just enough that he could slide his hand free.
He wisely complied.
“You’re going to listen to me for a minute. ” She drew a deep breath, inching backward on the waxed parquet until a yard or so separated them. With steady hands, she kept the pistol aimed at his chest. “I adored you. All my life, I adored you. I asked nothing of you. No promises, no courtship. I surrendered my virtue. I gave you my trust. And you left me with a note. ”
His mouth twisted in an expression of regret. He pushed a hand through his hair. “I’m so very—”
“Twenty-six words!” she shot back, in the loudest whisper she could manage. “I gave you my virginity, and you left me twenty-six scribbled words. ”
“I thought it would be easier for you that way. So you could hate me and forget. ”
“I did hate you. I hated you for making me feel cheap and foolish. I hated you for making me feel so ashamed, and distanced from my own family. And I hated myself for allowing it all to happen. But forget? How could I ever forget?” She blinked back tears. “You broke my heart into twenty-six pieces that day. But do you know something, Christian? Over the past several months here in Spindle Cove, I’ve stitched those pieces back together. ”
As she spoke the words, Violet realized how true they were. She couldn’t name the day she’d set aside The Disappointment and begun to live again. The healing had been slow, gradual. Sometimes painful. But somehow, while she’d been distracted with sea-bathing and country walks and shooting lessons—and absolutely no embroidery—the impossible had occurred.
Her heart had mended.
“I’m a different girl now,” she told him, sitting tall. “A stronger girl. Blast it, I’m not a girl at all—I’m a woman. ”
His mouth curved in a slight, appreciative smile. “So I can see. ”
“Then you should understand, and believe me when I say this: I won’t let you hurt me again. ”
He stared at her for several moments. When he spoke, he voice was even. “I do understand, and I believe you. I have a great deal I’d like to say to you, but I’d rather not say it at gunpoint. If I give my word I’ll not touch you, will you lower the pistol?”
She shook her head.
“Violet. ” His voice took on a darker edge. “I could disarm you if I chose. But I might injure you in the process, and I’d rather not hurt you again. ”
She exhaled slowly. Then lowered the pistol to her lap. That was as much as she’d give him.
“I’m listening. ”
He inched closer. “The way I treated you was inexcusable. I deserve your scorn. I can see how you’ve changed, and it makes me so proud. You’re braver and stronger and more lovely than ever. I want you to know I’ve changed too, in our time apart. If not for the lovelier. ” Slowly reaching out, he lifted her free hand to his face and traced her fingertip down the rugged slope of his nose. “Feel this?”
“It’s been broken. ”
He nodded. “Twice. Purposely. Part of my training. I had to practice being in pain, you see. So that I would respond only in Breton, never in English. ” He made her hand into a fist and bashed it playfully across his nose. “Corentin Morvan eo ma anv. My name is Corentin Morvan. ” He sliced her finger across the scar on his throat. “Me a zo un tamm peizant. I am a humble farmhand. ” He put her two fingers to his heart like a pistol. “N’ouzon netra. I know nothing. I swear on the Virgin this is the truth. ”
“It sounds like torture. ”
“It was, but it was necessary. For my own safety, and to guard the safety of others. ” He kissed her hand and kept it in both of his. “They thrashed that carefree, callow duke’s son straight out of me and left a lowly farmhand in his place. But they never beat you out of my heart. ” He stared deeply into her eyes. “I love you. ”
Her heart slammed against her ribs.
“I love you, Violet. I loved you then. I love you now. I don’t expect to ever stop. ”
His words overwhelmed her to the point of mute paralysis. Oh, how she wanted to believe him. But it made no rational sense.
Finally, she managed a tiny shake of her head. “It can’t be true. ”
“It’s true. Believe me, love. I’ve shoveled so much actual horseshit in the past year, I’ve lost all patience with the figurative sort. ” He turned her hand palm-up and stared into it, as though he might read his fortune there. His thumb traced a circle in the center of her palm. “I have been humbled, in many ways. I’m but a tiny gear in a vast machine, expendable and unimportant. I’ve learned what it is to labor hard, for long hours, on very little food. ”
She believed this part, without question. The evidence was written all over him. When she’d been pressed against him in the larder, she’d sensed how his body was leaner now, all muscle and sinew. His face was tanned and weathered from regular exposure to the sun. And his hands… She felt the calluses on his thumb as he caressed her palm.
“Most of all,” he said, “I have been humbled by the comprehensive and inescapable quality of my own stupidity. My colossal arrogance. I thought that I could share that night with you and then go on to fulfill my mission, unaffected. I was wrong. So damnably wrong. Violet, I’ve thought of you daily. Dreamt of you nightly. Longed for you in every private moment and scoured my letters from home for any word of your—”
“Your letters from home? But you said your family didn’t know where you were. ”
“They don’t. They write to an address in Antigua, and the letters are diverted. Once every few months or so, I’m given leave to ‘visit my mother,’ which means a trip to our regional base. There, I sit in a small room, read their letters and pen replies. It’s the only chance I have to read or write English. For that matter, it’s the only chance I have to read anything. I haven’t read a book in a year. ”
“Oh. Such deprivation. ” She spoke the words without any hint of irony. For her, going without books would be as great a trial as going without food.
“In one of her letters, my sister mentioned that you’d come to Spinster—” He bit off the derisive moniker and began again. “Spindle Cove. ” He released her hand and reached to stroke her cheek. “I loved thinking that you were just across the Channel. Mostly, I loved knowing you weren’t married to another man. ”
“I’m not married yet, you mean. The family’s lost patience with me now. My mother is adamant that I return to London and find a husband. The family carriage comes for me tomorrow. ”
“I know. ” He drew a raspy breath. “That’s why I was determined to come tonight. I think I would have swum the Channel, if there’d been no other way. ”
“But how on earth did you get here?”
“Last week, I had my regular day for correspondence. And there was this letter from my sister. She said you were coming back to London, and it was meant to be her grand project to marry you off this spring. When I read those words, my heart just sank like a stone. We had a small craft making the crossing to Hastings. I traded every favor I wa
s owed, dropped my father’s name several times. I did everything short of get down on my knees and beg. Finally I was given permission to make the journey, and when we reached spitting distance from Spindle Cove, I took the jollyboat to row in. That part didn’t go as planned. Wrecked the cursed thing on a boulder. Somehow I must find a new boat in time to rendezvous with the departing ship at dawn. But before I go…”
He moved close to where she sat cross-legged on the floor, wrapping his arms and legs around her. “Can I convince you to wait for me? I’m a third son, due to inherit nothing. My material prospects were always modest, and now I’ve ruined my dashing good looks. ”
She started to speak, but he interrupted her with a swift bee-sting of a kiss. It left her stunned, throbbing. Just a little swollen in places.
“I can’t imagine a life without you, Violet. I won’t press you for your hand just yet. But if you could tell me you’ll wait—just wait until this mad war is over—and give me a chance to win you, I should consider it the best Christmas gift I’ve ever received. ”
She stared at him, trying to make him out. He’d spun a pretty tale for her in this ballroom. A tale that made him out to be quite a hero—serving the Crown to avenge his fallen brother, secretly loving her all the while. She wanted to trust him so badly. And it was precisely that desperate wish to believe that made her doubt her own judgment. He’d done this all before—made her feel cherished and adored one night, then left with barely a word the following day. It had taken her almost a year to recover.
Perhaps she wasn’t the real reason he’d come here. Perhaps he was just using her again, feeding her the words she wanted to hear, giving her the sensations she wanted to feel…all so he could get what he wanted and be off. With her own perception so clouded by years of infatuation, how could she be sure?
Above them, the chandelier shivered and swayed.
Christian’s eyes grew wide.
They pushed away from each other in silence. Christian extinguished the candle with his fingertips. The acrid scent of candle smoke filled the air.
The chandelier’s tinkling rattle went quiet as the footsteps paused.
Violet held her breath, uncertain what to do.
She could scream for help. They’d capture Christian, detain him, question him. She would have the truth.
Or she could trust him, against all previous evidence. She could trust him and help him escape.
“Swear,” she whispered. “Swear on Frederick’s name you’re telling the truth. ”
His eyes met hers, as sincere as the Sussex night was dark. “I swear it. I swear it on my brother’s grave. And on the life of our future son. ” When her jaw dropped, he shrugged. “You know we’ll have to name our first boy Frederick. ”
“Don’t complicate matters,” she pleaded. “I can’t think when you speak like that. ”
“Wasn’t that a lovely moment earlier, between Rycliff and his wife? I couldn’t help but wish it was us. ” He touched her arm. “Someday. ”
Her heart blithely skipped about her chest. She put a hand to her breast, trying to calm it.
And then—just when his words had made her forget them—the footsteps resumed. Louder, and in a more deliberate rhythm. Someone was headed for the stairs.
Without discussion and in perfect unison, they shot to their feet.
He beckoned for Violet to pass him the gun. “That’s my signal to leave. ”
“Oh no, you don’t. ”
She tightened her grip on the pistol and grabbed for his wrist with her other hand, tugging him toward the same set of garden doors he’d burst through some hours ago.