He pulled up short, eyeing a row of crockery, and she panicked. If he crashed a fist through that shelf, the noise would be frightful.
“Here. ” She darted out from behind the counter. “Hit this. ”
In the corner of the shop sat a padded dress form, wearing a dotted muslin frock and a wide-brimmed straw bonnet. The Brights used it to display the newest wares.
Violet grabbed the mannequin by the waist and swiveled it on its casters. “Go on,” she said. “Do your worst. ”
For a tense moment, he stared down the dress form. Violet edged to the side, her neck prickling with apprehension. His rage was palpable, even from the other side of the shop.
At last, he raised his fist and made a fierce, lunging attack—
Only to pull up short at the last moment.
And let his fist drop.
“I can’t,” he said, grimacing. “I can’t hit a woman. ”
Violet laughed. “Nellie’s not a real woman. ”
“She has a name?” Turning way from the dress form, he threw up his hands. “That seals it. So much for throwing punches. ”
He braced both fists on the sales counter and bent over them, lowering his brow to the polished wood. A sound of raw anguish wrenched from his chest.
Violet couldn’t stand to watch him suffer this way. Tears welled in her eyes as she approached and laid a hand to his shoulder. “Christian, I’m so sorry. I’m so very, very sorry. I know how much you loved him. ”
“I never told him. ”
She stroked the tense muscles of his neck, ran her fingers through the heavy locks of hair at his nape. “He knew. Of course he knew. ”
“You didn’t know. ” He lifted his head. “I should have told you, Violet. I should have told the both of you, every day. ”
A single tear spilled down her cheek. “I know now. ”
He seized her in his arms. In the faint light, his eyes were wild with emotion. “Do you, truly?”
In answer, she kissed him. Curled both hands around his neck and pulled his head down so she could kiss his jawline, his cheekbone, the razor-thin scar along his throat. She even kissed the rugged slope of his twice-broken nose.
And then his lips found hers. Hot, desperate. His arms lashed around her middle as they kissed, his big hands clutching fistfuls of her gown. Her breasts flattened and ached against his hard chest. She wanted him to hold her like this forever—so tightly, there could be no room for secrets.
His kiss was fierce, intense, imbued with all the passion with which he’d always lived his life. He kissed her as though this were life itself—the only time they might have together. And she kissed him the same way, holding nothing back. There would be no shyness for Violet tonight. She would leave no emotion unexpressed, no desire unfulfilled. She wanted to caress and explore and possess every part of him, body and soul.
A beam of light swept them, originating from outside the shop.
Christian froze. “Who’s there?” he whispered against her lips.
“Dawes and Rufus,” she breathed. “Quickly, hide. ”
She prodded Christian toward the storeroom at the back of the shop. Inside the closet, they waited breathless in the dark. Listening.
Please, Violet prayed. Please, just let them go past.
The front door of the shop creaked open. “Hullo?”
“You wait here,” she whispered sternly to Christian. “I’ll go out. ”
“I’m not letting you go out there alone. ”
“It’s only the two militiamen Lord Rycliff assigned to stand watch in the village. The others couldn’t have found us yet. These men know me. I’ll talk my way out of this, just like I did in the kitchen at Summerfield. ”
“But you were supposed to be at Summerfield. There’s no reason for you to be here. ”
“I’ll invent one. ” She searched her brain for an idea. “I…I’ll tell them I needed female necessities because I’m on my courses. Believe me, that will quash all inquiry. Men never press for details. ”
He clasped her arm. “But Violet—”
“Shh. Not a sound. ” She eased the door open, calling out as she emerged, “Don’t be alarmed, sirs. There’s no intruder. It’s only me. ”
She shut the storeroom door and turned.
“And who the devil are you?” A man raised a lamp, momentarily blinding her.
Even though she could barely make him out, Violet instantly knew two things.
First, this man was neither Aaron Dawes nor Rufus Bright. He was a man she’d never met before, but she knew him well by his reputation. His very bad reputation.
Second, she knew she must keep Christian hidden at all costs. After tonight, she understood why he’d begged for his assignment in Brittany. And she knew it would destroy him, if that mission were compromised.
With trembling fingers, she slid the latch on the storeroom door, barring Christian inside. Using the toe of her slipper, she nudged Nellie the dress form in front of the door to obscure any movement or noise.
And then she turned to face the intruder, Mr. Roland Bright. Sally, Finn, and Rufus’s wayward father. She’d never laid eyes on the man before, but his shock of white-blond hair marked him at once.
“Answer me, girl. ” He waved the lamp in her face. “Who are you? And what do you think you’re doing in my shop?”
Violet swallowed hard. “I’m Miss Violet Winterbottom. And I didn’t mean any harm, sir. I woke in the night with a…” She crossed her arm over her belly. “With a female complaint. I didn’t want to disturb Sally, so I—”
“So you came to steal from me. ”
“Not at all, sir. ” She gulped.
His upper lip curled as he dragged a cold look from her toes to her crown. “You woke in the night wearing a silk gown?”
“I was so tired earlier, I fell asleep without undressing. Silly me. ” Violet edged away from the storeroom, back toward the counter where she’d left the pistol. She didn’t want to have to use the gun, but she was very glad she knew how.
But she had to reach it first.
Just a few steps to the side…
He chuckled, and she caught the odor of rum rolling off his breath. “A female complaint, you say? I’m willing to bet I know it. Your little cunny was complaining it’s hungry for cock. ”
Violet froze. No one had ever spoken to her that way. The crude words had just the effect he likely meant them to have. She felt small and nauseated. “I… I don’t know what you mean. ”
“Of course you do, you ruttish little baggage. ” His boot made a heavy thunk as he stepped toward her. “You think I don’t what kind of soiled doves make their way to this village lately? Sent down here by the high and mighty families that can’t stand to look at their slatternly faces no more. That rooming house…” He turned his head and spat. “Nothin’ but a high-class whorehouse with lacy drapes. ”
“That’s not true. ”
She took another step backward. The counter’s edge bumped her spine.
Violet willed herself not to glance toward the pistol. She needed the advantage of surprise. Instead, she kept her eyes fixed on his ugly, leering face.
“The ladies at the Queen’s Ruby are quite virtuous. ” Mostly.
“Excepting you, it would seem. Off to meet someone tonight, I’d wager. Come to pocket a few French letters from my top shelf first? A bit of vinegar and a sponge, before you go slumming with a farmhand? The high-class miss can’t risk getting a lowborn brat. ” He sneered, revealing a grayed front tooth. “Cunning little whore, aren’t you?”
She clutched the edge of the countertop as his words backed her into a dark, shameful corner. Cunning little whore.
This was why Violet had never confided in anyone about her night with Christian. How could she admit to giving up her virtue so easily? Everyone knew well
-bred young ladies didn’t do such things. She’d feared they’d mark her as loose, wanton. A cunning little whore.
And some part of her had feared they might be right.
But no. It wasn’t right. There’d been nothing salacious or tawdry about what she and Christian had shared. Nothing wrong about what they felt for each other, then or now. He loved her, and she loved him.
She loved him. Always had.
“I’m not a…” She straightened her spine. “I’m not a whore. ”
“Well, then. ” The black pupils of his eyes glittered. With ominous deliberation, he set aside the lamp. “Mayhap I’ll make you one. ”
The brute reached for her.
Violet turned and made a wild grab for the pistol.
Oh, God. It wasn’t there. It wasn’t there.
The latch on the storeroom door began to rattle. Christian was trying to force his way out.
With a grunt, Roland Bright turned toward the noise. A menacing chuckle lifted his chest. “That your sweetheart?”
He released Violet and went to investigate the source of the noise. But not before drawing a knife from his belt.
Oh, Lord. Christian.
Violet hoisted herself onto the countertop and slid across to the business side. She yanked open drawer after drawer.
Shears. There were shears here, for cutting the fabric and ribbons. Somewhere. She would find them, and she would use them. To save Christian, she would stab that disgusting lout in the kidneys and not spare him a moment’s remorse.
She whipped her head up—just in time to watch the room explode. Bits of white flew in every direction.
Nellie the dress form, propelled with bullet force, reeled away from the storeroom and tackled Roland Bright to the ground. Like an outraged, headless woman charging under her own power. Bright’s head made a sharp crack as it connected with the floor.
When the dust—or lint—settled, Violet saw Christian, pistol in hand, kicking his way through the storeroom door’s bullet-shredded latch.
She pressed a hand to her chest, overwhelmed. In firing that shot, he’d risked everything. His life, his mission, his family name. But his only thought was for Violet.
“Did he hurt you?” he asked. “In any way?”
“I’m fine. ”
He stood over Roland Bright and nudged the man’s shoulder with his boot.
“Was he shot?” she asked.
“Don’t think so, unfortunately. He’s just stunned. ”
Christian hauled on the man’s collar and slammed the pistol butt across the back of his head. Then he released his grip on Bright’s shirt, letting his ugly face fall back to the floor with a thunk.
“Well. ” He panted for breath. “I needed that. ”
A nervous giggle bubbled in Violet’s throat as she surveyed the scene. The unconscious Roland Bright sprawled limp, pinned to the floor by a disemboweled dress form wearing dotted muslin. Bits of cotton batting littered the ground like new-fallen snow.
There was no covering up this clamor. Already, Violet heard shouts, footsteps. Forget their lead on Rycliff and the militiamen. The entire village was coming awake. At any moment, they’d be discovered.
She reached for the smuggler’s lantern. Then she locked eyes with Christian, and they came to an immediate, silent agreement.
They dashed out of the shop, hand-in-hand. Violet had meant to lead him round the corner, so they could duck down one of the village’s smaller, darkened streets. But she spied torchlight coming from the lane.
“This way. ” Changing course mid-step, she led him on a mad dash across the lane, onto the village green. They darted from tree to tree. Behind them, curious Spindle Cove denizens shrugged into outerwear and took to the streets. Violet prayed their attention would be drawn to the shop, and not to a pair of shadow-cloaked lovers charging toward St. Ursula’s.