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

Page 14

“I know. ” She buried her face in his neck. “I know you’re right, on every score. I only wish…”
“Oh, my love. ” He cinched his arms around her waist. “I wish it too. ”
He held and kissed her just as long as he safely could. And then he held and kissed her for several seconds longer. But he knew it must end.
Even a love this true, this strong had no chance to stave off daybreak.
He pulled away. “You do this for me, Violet. You must go back to Town and go on living your life, and you must do it all without breathing a word of this night. Not to anyone, not even our families. My own father does not know the particulars of my assignment, nor should he. It’s for my safety. Do you understand? Beneath everything, you are my lady. But to the world, you must behave as if this night never occurred. ”
She nodded, biting her lip.
“Promise me,” he said.
“I promise. And you must do the same. ”
“Yes. Or ya. ” He swore. “I’ve spoken a dangerous amount of English tonight. ”
She pulled back and looked at him, her gaze sharpening in the night.
“Violet? What is it?”
She released her grip on his lapel. Before he could spend a split heartbeat to wonder what she was on about, her palm connected with his cheek.
Lord above. She’d struck him. Square across the face, and hard enough to force his head to the right.
“Who are you?” she asked.
When he hesitated, another blow whipped his head left. In his vision, a chorus of dancing snowflakes wished him a very merry Christmas.
He blinked the pain away, whispering, “Corentin Morvan eo ma anv. ” My name is Corentin Morvan.
“Louder. ” Her fist drove into his gut. “Who are you? Where did you come from?”
“Me a zo un tamm peizant. ” He groaned the words. I am a humble farmhand.
“Liar. ” She reached into his breast pocket and withdrew the folding knife. In less than a second, she had the blade snapped open. Its edge gleamed white under the moon.
With one hand, she caught him by the collar. With the other, she held the knife to his throat. Cold steel caught him just below the jaw, threatening the soft, vulnerable place where his pulse raced.
“Who are you?” she demanded. “Tell the truth. ”
The Breton spouted from his lips. Like blood spurting from some vital wound. “My name is Corentin Morvan. I am a humble farmhand. I sleep in the barn loft. I know nothing. By the Virgin and all her saints, I swear this to be true. ”
Pulling at his collar, she lowered the knife to his exposed chest. There, she applied pressure to the blade, scoring his skin. Once, and then again. Two neat, fiery lines of pain etched just beneath his collarbone. His eyes watered as he suppressed the urge to lash out or curse. Wincing, he looked down.
Thin red slashes made the shape of a tiny V.
She’d marked him. The act was shocking. Barbaric. Wildly arousing.
“You are mine. ” She tugged his collar and pulled his face down to hers. “You are mine. Do not forget it. ”
Her lips claimed his. The ferocity and passion in her kiss set his mind spinning. His body responded with raw, visceral need.
The knife slipped from her grip, clattering to the shingle beach. She slid both hands into his hair, gathering fistfuls of his overgrown locks to pull him closer. Hold him tighter. Kiss him harder. Until she possessed him so completely, he forgot his own name.
He only knew he was hers. She’d marked him and claimed him, and he was hers. Flesh and blood, heart and soul.
“Me da gar,” he murmured, clutching her tight. He dropped his head to brand her throat with hot kisses, then nipped at her bottom lip. “Me da gar, me da gar. ”
I love you.
They broke apart just as swiftly as they’d united. Little clouds of breath filled the space between them.
“Go,” she said. “Go now, or I can’t bear it. ”
Nodding, he moved in silence to the boat. As he pushed the small craft into the black water, she readied the signal lamp. When the water was knee deep, he steadied the rowboat and entered it with the assistance of a helpful boulder.
“Once I am clear, you must dash back to Summerfield. Remember, you have no idea what became of me. No notion of my identity or origins. And you will never breathe a word of this, to anyone. All must be as you promised. ”
“It will be as I promised. ” As he gathered the oars, she repeated the instructions. “One long flash for east. Three short flashes mean veer west. ”
He nodded his understanding. He braced his feet on the baseboard and gave a full-strength pull on both oars. The boat skimmed through the water in response, doubling the space between them.
As quiet strokes of the oars carried him away, he gazed at her. His fierce angel, guiding his way through the darkness.
You are my life’s bright star.
No matter what occurred, he would make his way back to her. Always.
“I will return to you,” he vowed, pulling on the oars. “I swear it. And when I come for you, Violet…don’t let me find you hiding in the corner. ”
Chapter Ten
Violet kept all the promises she made to him that night.
All her promises, that was, except one.
As soon as Christian’s rowboat safely cleared the cove, she stashed the lamp behind a boulder and hastened up the beach path. She took the long way around the village, racing the dawn over pastures and fallow fields. With a pang of regret, she dropped her woolen cloak into a stream. She wouldn’t be able to explain it later.
As she neared the back garden of Summerfield, raised voices reached her ears. No doubt they were turning the manor inside-out, searching for her and the mysterious stranger.
How was she going to slip back inside unnoticed? What possible excuse could she invent?
If she’d had days or weeks or even a few hours, she might have been able to formulate a plan. But she didn’t even have seconds. A rear door swung open with a bone-chilling whoosh.
Two militiamen. Any moment, they would see her.
Violet made her body go limp. She dropped flat to the snow-dusted ground.
And there she remained for an agonizingly cold quarter-hour or more, until the men found her. If only she’d collapsed a little closer to the house!
But find her they did. Eventually. She allowed herself to be carried inside. She looked her best friends right in the eye and merrily dished them up falsehoods for breakfast.
She’d been drugged, she told them. Just like Mr. Fosbury. Only she’d managed to stay conscious long enough to follow the stranger outside. She’d tracked him as far as the back garden, and there she’d collapsed.
No, she hadn’t gained any clues to his identity.
No, she had no idea what he might have wanted or where he might have gone.
Yes, it was a remarkable thing that she wasn’t a human icicle, after lying in the frost all those hours. She might have frozen to death. A Christmas miracle, she supposed.
Lord Rycliff was most displeased with Fosbury, and rather harshly berated the tavern-keeper for his lapse in vigilance. Violet felt a slight twinge of guilt on his account.
Still, she did not breathe a word.
The militiamen searched the coastline and countryside, but never found any trace of the mysterious intruder—nothing but a smugglers’ lamp stashed behind a boulder, down in the cove. That seemed an explanation in and of itself. Clearly, the mysterious stranger had been some associate of Bright’s. Or an enemy. Either way, it was a matter for the Excise.
As he was hauled off, Bright did some wild raving about a slatternly girl breaking into his shop. But considering how he’d been discovered—reeking of spirits and tangled in a compromising position with a dress form—most were inclined to believe he’d mistaken Nellie. The poor, stuff
ed dear had been ruined in more ways than one.
The militia handed Bright to the magistrate, Violet went home to London, and that was the end of the excitement.
Violet carried on with her life. On Twelfth Night, they dined with the Pierce family next door. She inquired politely after Christian’s health and listened to the duke describe his youngest son’s adventures in the West Indies. She spent much of February shopping with Christian’s sister for a whole new wardrobe, patiently listening to all her advice on attracting eligible beaux. Just as she’d vowed, Violet never spoke of that night to anyone in her family, or his.
She kept all her promises. Save one.
Try as she might, Violet could not behave as if the night had never occurred. The effects of it shivered through her life in a dozen small, barely perceptible ways.
She spoke her mind a bit more often. Her tastes ran to daring styles and colors when she visited the modiste. She was bolder, more confident.
How could she not be? Others looked at her and saw Miss Violet Winterbottom, late-blooming wallflower. But beneath the disguise, she knew herself to be Lady Christian Pierce, seductress and secret agent.
From the first ball of the Season, her increased confidence drew interested gazes from gentlemen and several complimentary remarks from her mother’s friends. Her mother credited the healthful atmosphere of Spindle Cove, and both Lady Melforth and Mrs. Busk expressed a particular wish to send their own patience-trying daughters on holiday.
Good, Violet thought, smiling to herself. Very good. She didn’t know that the girls would find husbands there, but they just might find themselves.
Before she knew it, it was April. When word reached England of Napoleon’s surrender at Versailles, all London rejoiced. And from that day forward, Violet’s nerves were strung tight as bowstrings. She spent far too much time sitting in the front parlor, gazing out at the square. By night, she watched for any light in his darkened chambers.
At the Beaufetheringstone ball, Violet even found herself scanning the crowd for his dark, wavy hair and roguish smile.
She told herself not to look for him. It might be weeks or even months before he could return, and when he did, he’d turn up at home. But Christian would come for her. Eventually.
“Miss Winterbottom?” Mr. Gerald Jemison stood at her elbow, holding a brimming cup of ratafia in either hand. “Care for refreshment?”
Violet wanted to make some polite, solicitous reply, but she couldn’t.
Because suddenly, he was there.
He was there.
It was as though her heart sensed him, even before she spied him all the way at the other end of the ballroom. Yes, it was he. His hair was still overlong, and that roguish nose of his would never be straight again. But he wore a crisp white cravat, a silk brocade waistcoat, and a black topcoat that clung and gleamed like sealskin. The attire of a duke’s son, not a farmhand. He looked magnificent.
And he was headed straight for her.
It took everything Violet had not to pick up her skirts and race to meet him. But until he told her otherwise, she would continue to play the part he’d assigned her. She must act as if that night never happened.
As though that weren’t her love, her lover, the lord of her heart striding purposely across the waxed parquet.
If she could pretend indifference to this, Violet knew she could feign anything.
“Is that you, Pierce?” Mr. Jemison greeted him, inclining his head in lieu of a bow. “What a surprise. I had no idea you’d returned from the West Indies. ”
“Yes, as of this afternoon. But I’m only in London temporarily. ”
“Temporarily?” Violet’s stomach knotted.
A little smile played about the corners of his lips. “You see, my father wishes me to inspect some land prospects in Guiana. ”
“Guiana. ” Mr. Jemison still balanced two cups of ratafia. “My word. Is that in Africa?”
“South America,” Violet murmured. She stared at the floor, quietly reeling. Christian must have been reassigned. Perhaps not to Guiana, but somewhere else, hopelessly far away.
He’d be leaving her again.