“This time, you’re not leaving without me. ”
As they raced through the night, headed for the small village of Spindle Cove, Christian worried. He worried that they would soon be missed. He worried that Violet didn’t have her cloak, and those impractical silk slippers couldn’t possibly guard her toes against the hoarfrost coating the ground. He worried that she’d never forgive him, and that he didn’t deserve her forgiveness anyway.
But he didn’t worry about allowing her to lead.
Violet knew exactly where she was taking him. She knew how to avoid barking dogs and ice-crusted puddles as they made their way. She didn’t stumble or cringe or pull up breathless, clutching her side and begging for a rest. She moved swiftly and surely through the night. Relentless.
Somewhere an owl called, “Who?” and Christian echoed the sentiment.
Who? Who was this fearless, pistol-wielding woman, and what had she done with sweet, quiet, next-door Violet?
She’d changed, she said. Of course she had. Hadn’t he been altered in the past year? It had been stupid of him to dream otherwise. He’d stuck a pin in her memory, put it under glass to treasure and admire it, as though she were some desiccated specimen. But Violet was a live creature. Changing, growing, adapting. And beautiful in motion, with that emerald silk flowing in the night.
Christian had to face facts. He didn’t want Violet the same way he once had.
He wanted her more. Much, much more.
When they reached the village, they slowed down. They kept their steps quiet as they moved from shadow to shadow.
“Lord Rycliff sent Rufus and Dawes to guard the rooming house,” she whispered. “We’ll have to watch out for them. ”
She directed him to slink around a corner near the village square, and together they huddled in the doorway of a shop. Brights’ All Things, the lettering on the door read.
Christian hoped the promised “All Things” included small boats.
Violet tried the door latch. Locked, of course. Wordlessly, she pulled a hairpin from her wind-mussed chignon and handed it to him.
He stared at it. “What makes you think I know how to pick locks?” he whispered. “Just because I’m a spy?”
“No. Because you were forever stealing pocket money from your father’s top desk drawer. ”
Bloody hell. She truly had been paying attention.
“I haven’t done that in a decade. ” Nevertheless, he took the hairpin. After a few minutes’ gentle exploration and some overt persuasion, the lock responded. “That’s a good girl,” he murmured, turning the door latch and swinging the door open on its thankfully well-oiled hinges.
They entered the shop. Moonlight washed the room with a milky glow. Peering at the shelves, Christian spied bolts of fabric piled ceiling high. Ink bottles lined neatly as soldiers. Rows up on rows of ribbon spools.
“What is it we’re here to get?”
“A lamp,” she said, setting the pistol aside. “Of sorts. Sally Bright showed it to me one afternoon. Said it once belonged to her ne’er-do-well father. ”
Hiking her skirts to her knees, Violet scrambled up a small ladder and reached for an object on the top shelf.
“Almost have it…” she muttered. Then she announced triumphantly, “There. ”
She climbed down and laid the lamp on the counter between them. Christian recognized it at once. It was a small cylinder fashioned from hammered tin, tightly capped by a pleated metal disc and fitted with a long, tapered spout that stuck straight out. It looked like a rather like the head of a mismatched snowman. Smallish face, round hat, enormous carrot nose.
“A smuggler’s lantern,” he said.
She nodded. “I’m going to use it to guide you out of the cove. We’ll work out a system of signals. Otherwise, you’ll only wreck and founder again. ”
Christian considered. That cove had more boulders than a shark had teeth. He had to acknowledge the cleverness of Violet’s idea, but… “I can’t let you take that risk. If we’re seen from the castle, the men might shoot. ”
“The light won’t be seen from the castle bluffs. That’s the entire point of a smuggler’s lantern. ”
“I know. ” He picked the thing up and turned it round in his hands. The device was designed to throw a narrow, pinpoint beam of light out to sea. A signal someone on a passing ship might view, if he were looking for it—but one that couldn’t be seen by others on the shore. “Still, I don’t like the idea of you—”
“Christian, if I’m helping you escape, I’m going to truly help you. Not just bid you farewell and send you to your watery doom. ”
“Thank you. ” He put his hand over hers. “For not wishing me a watery doom. That alone is more than I deserve. ”
In a brisk motion, she pulled her hand away. “I haven’t made up my mind on the rest of it yet. ”
In the stillness, he gave voice to his worst fears. “You can’t forgive me. You won’t have me. ”
“I didn’t say that. ”
She didn’t refute it, either. She simply went about filling the lantern’s small reservoir with fuel and preparing a wick.
In his chest, desperation tangled with despair.
“Damn it. ” He pushed a hand through his hair. “Why on earth would you have me? Just look at tonight. Once again, you’re risking your health and reputation for me, when I should be the one championing you. Fighting a duel to preserve your honor. Pulling you from a burning house. Rescuing your kitten. Something, anything, to prove myself. Instead, I’ve given you nothing but pain. ”
She paused. “Well. You did save me from a fire once. ”
He frowned. “I did? When was this?”
“I was eight. That would have made you…fourteen? It was an autumn night near All Hallows, and we girls tromped up to the garret with the idea to play fortuneteller. Surely you recall it?”
He did recall it, now that she painted the picture. The game had been the girls’ idea. His sister Annabel had always been close with Poppy Winterbottom, and the two of them let Violet join sometimes. Christian, as always, had been glad for the chance to make mischief. He and Frederick hid in the dormer window, laughing into their sleeves while the girls solemnly lit tapers and invoked the spirits of the beyond.
“I was already terrified just being there,” Violet said. “My nursemaid had told me so many dreadful stories about ghouls and beasties lurking in the attic. To warn me off exploring, I’m sure. And then Frederick, bless him, jumped out from behind that curtain…”
“Yes. I remember. ”
Surprised, little Violet had shrieked and turned—and in so doing, whipped the fringe of her shawl straight through the candle flame. In a matter of moments, the cheap printed fabric had come ablaze. Fortunately, Christian had been in just the right position to yank loose the dormer draperies and smother the flames.
“If not for you, I could have been badly burnt,” she said. “As it was, I lost a good six inches off my braid. The house smelled of burnt hair for days. Oh, my parents were furious. ”
“Your parents were furious?” Christian chuckled, recalling his blistered arse. “I ate all my meals standing for the following week. ”
“I know. ” Her voice turned pensive. “I know. And that’s what I never understood. It wasn’t your fault. You saved me, but you caught all the blame. ”
“I took it readily. ” He shrugged. “It truly was my fault. Everyone knew I was the mischief-maker. Frederick would have never been in that dormer at all, if not for me. And besides, I held up under a thrashing much better than he did. ”
As he spoke of his brother, Christian’s throat swelled uncomfortably. His eyes began to itch. “Not that Frederick was weak, mind you. Not at all. He was brave and decent and…” He pounded the counter with the flat of his fist. “And so dashed good. It wasn’t the thrashing that
hurt him so. He couldn’t abide having Father angry with him. I, on the other hand, was well accustomed to the feeling. ” He gave her an ironic half-smile. “You know me, Violet. I’ve always been The Disappointment. ”
She ceased fiddling with the lamp. “Christian…”
He waved off the pity in her tone. “That’s why I signed on for this, you know. The fieldwork. When we lost him, my parents lost the pride of the family. I’m always just scraping by, and George is… Well, he’s George. He was born fifty-eight years old, I think. But they were so damned proud of Frederick, and I wanted to give them that feeling back. I wanted to be a son they could take pride in. ”
“Oh, Christian. ” She was rounding the counter now. “You always have been. ”
He blew out a breath. “Hardly. Just look at what I did to you. On the eve of my own supposed redemption, I pulled my worst trick yet. If someone had treated my own sister that way… If some other blackguard had touched you, Violet…” He swore, pushing back from the counter. “I’d kill the bastard. ”
He paced away from her. Damn, this was just intolerable. Whatever course he took, he failed someone. If he went home to marry Violet, he’d be abandoning his duty. Drawing dishonor to the very name he hoped she would take as her own. But if he let her go back to London without him, he risked losing her forever—and losing any chance to right his misdeeds.
Add to all this, the knowledge that nothing—nothing he did, on this side of the Channel or the other—would ever balance Frederick’s loss. Not in the smallest portion.
He’d never felt more worthless, or less worthy of her.
“Should we go for the boat?” she asked.
What did it matter? What did any of it matter?
“Damn the boat. ”
Violet cringed, watching him pace the shop from one end to the other, then back. His agitation was plain. She had to calm him somehow, or he’d draw attention to their presence. Aaron Dawes and Rufus Bright were somewhere all too near, keeping watch over the Queen’s Ruby and the rest of the sleeping village.
“I know you’re angry,” she said.
“Damn right, I’m angry. ”
“You’re angry that Frederick was killed. It’s perfectly natural. ”
“It’s perfect bollocks, is what it is. ” He covered the length of the room in three long, tense strides, then turned on his heel. “It should not have been him. It should have been me. ”
“No. Christian, please don’t talk that way. You could not have saved him, and you can’t bring him back. But we will love him, and honor his memory. And miss him. Dearly. ”
He pulled to a halt. “I have missed him. ” His head swiveled abruptly, and his gaze snared hers. “But not as much as I’ve missed you, which makes me feel even worse. ”
As he stared at her, his chest rose and fell. “Every morning, Violet. Every morning, I should have awoken thinking of Frederick. Thanking God for any small part I could play in avenging his death. Instead, every morning I woke wanting you. Wishing I could stroll outside to the square, find you there waiting with the dogs. Looking lovely as the dawn. A little smile on your face, because you’d just untangled a new translation. ” He cleared his throat. “Like this one. Tumi amar jeeboner dhruvotara. ”
She tilted her head, puzzling over the phrase. “That’s not Hindustani. ”
“Bengali. It means ‘You are my life’s bright star’ in Bengali. ” The sweet words were edged with frustration, not tenderness. His knuckles cracked. “Obviously, I was saving that one. For the right morning. ”
A forceful pang in her heart left her breathless.
He loved her. He truly did love her.
Christian cursed and resumed his pacing, hands clenched into fists at his sides. “But now, it will never be the ‘right morning’ for us. So yes, I’m angry. I’m goddamned furious with myself for somehow losing both you and Frederick forever. And I very, very, very much want to hit something. ”