“What do you suppose I did?” Evan said. “I told them to cut the damned rope.” Nobody even flinched at that blasphemy in this mixed company, so rapt was their attention. “If I could have reached my knife, I would have done it myself. But it was in my boot, and I was at such an awkward angle… Those idiots nearly killed themselves, saving my life.”
Afterward, the three of them had never talked of it. But as soon as he’d been able, he had bought them a drink.
“I suppose there are worse things than owing a favor to a French aristocrat.”
Dutoi had not been an aristocrat. His father had been a bourgeois, a wealthy merchant. Meissner had been a commoner, too—the young nephew of some natural philosopher who lived in the Kingdom of Hanover. But he didn’t see any reason to try to explain that to these people. They wouldn’t understand how much he’d transformed.
“What a peculiarly intimate friendship,” Lady Elaine said. “To know that someone has the power of life and death over you.”
Or maybe…maybe one person would understand. Evan’s throat went dry. Her gray eyes met his, and he felt almost naked before her, as if she could see the extent of his transformation. As if she alone, of all women, had been given the power to comprehend who he had become.
“Outside of marriage,” Evan said, “it is the most intimate relationship a man can have.”
Diana giggled, breaking the mood. “Well,” she whispered, none too softly, “no wonder Lady Elaine shows such curiosity. She’ll not be finding intimacy any other way.”
Lady Elaine closed up, shuttering like a seaside cottage in the face of a storm. All sense of intimacy disappeared, as if she had recalled that he was her enemy.
But I’m not. I’ve changed.
“Diana,” Evan said in warning.
His cousin’s eyes met his in outrage, and a little spark of defiance ignited. She lifted her glass of wine punch to her lips one last time…and then, before Evan could intervene, held it to one side and quite deliberately tipped the contents onto Elaine’s lap.
The liquid spilled over her gown.
“Goodness,” Diana was saying. “How clumsy of me. I must have been quite overset at hearing that story. Westfeld is one of my dearest friends and—oh—” Diana burst into tears. Immediately, the crowd gathered about his cousin, soothing her, telling her to lie back and breathe deeply. Servants rushed to find the sal volatile.
Elaine was shoved unceremoniously out of the way. She stood and took two steps back. The pale blue of her gown was ruined by angry red. One gloved finger touched the stain, and her chin went up.
She was like a queen, Evan thought, utterly elegant even in her distress. She didn’t look at him.
Instead, Lady Elaine found her mother. And while Diana gradually let her false case of the vapors subside, Lady Elaine and her mother slipped out the door.
“There,” Diana was saying through a watery smile, “I believe I’ve got control of my nerves now.”
She caught Evan’s eye, and tried to give him a smile.
He didn’t return the expression.
“Westfeld, we can’t provide the same danger you faced abroad,” she said. “But still—is there not intimacy in fun and laughter?”
There was only one thing to do. Evan crossed to his cousin—once his dearest friend—and took her hand in his. He bowed over her.
For the entire party to hear, he said, “I’ve upset my cousin with my tale. I suppose that is my cue to bid you all a good evening. I’d hate to disturb your fun any longer.”
Diana made him remember who he had been all too clearly. Hurting her would feel like cutting himself. But that was what he needed—to excise that person he had been. Perhaps that was why he leaned in closer and made no effort to moderate his words.
“If you’d been there that day,” he whispered, “I do believe you would have cut the rope.”
It was a cruel thing to say. She flinched, and he dropped her hand.
Still, he left the room without looking back.
“What a shame,” Elaine’s mother said, peering at the marred fabric. “It is such a lovely gown. Do you suppose it will stain?”
The pale blue had been one of Elaine’s favorites—the color of a winter sky. With that delicate lace edging the sleeves, it had made her feel like an icicle—cold and unmelting, no matter how hot the fires of gossip burned.
“A good thing this didn’t happen tomorrow,” her mother was saying. “It would have been so disruptive to my lecture.”
Behind her, Elaine felt her maid, Mary, pause, her hands on the laces of the dress. Mary had heard the whole story. And without Elaine having to say so, Mary had undoubtedly understood what it meant.
“Yes,” Elaine said. She’d meant to speak soothingly, but her bitterness came through anyway. “Because surely your lecture is more important than having a glass of wine punch spilled on your daughter.”
But her mother was as impervious to sarcasm as she was to sly innuendo.
“It is!” she said brightening. “I’m so glad you agree.”
Elaine had been holding all her emotion inside her so long that she was unprepared for the flare of anger that hit her—fierce and hot and unstoppable. “No,” she heard herself shouting. “No, it isn’t.” She whirled and Mary hissed, reaching for the laces that trailed loose behind her. “I have taken their insults and the innuendo and the glasses of wine punch for years. You never take me to task for my failings, but just once I wish you would notice that it hurts.”
Lady Stockhurst stared at her. “Elaine, you’re not getting put out over an accident, are you?”
“An accident?” Elaine turned from her maid once more. “Of course you would think it was an accident. Mama, they hate me. They laugh at you. Nobody likes us. Nobody.”
“But Lady Cosgrove is always so friendly.”
“She takes pride in humiliating you.”
“But how could I be humiliated? My lectures are quite erudite, and—”
“You humiliate me every day.” The words were out of Elaine’s mouth before she had even properly thought them. And there was no taking them back. Her mother turned utterly pale.
But the dam had burst, and there was no stopping the outpouring of anger.
“Do you know what I hate most about the lot of them downstairs?”
A confused shake of the h
ead in response.
Elaine’s eyes stung and her vision blurred. “They make me hate you,” she said. “Sometimes. I hate them for it. I hate them. I hate them. But when they mock you, and you play into their hands so easily…sometimes it makes me hate you, too.”
She couldn’t say any more. She couldn’t let a decade of anger spill out of her lips. But she couldn’t stop herself either. Instead, Elaine turned blindly and flung open the door to the hall, striding furiously away.
She would not break down, she would not break down. But her dress was half undone, and the tears began to track down her face before she’d taken more than half a dozen steps. She stopped at the end of the hall, collapsing against the wall, and took great gulping breaths of air.
She’d held all her furious rage back for so long; why should it be so hard to contain now, merely because she’d realized she would live with it for the rest of her life? What difference would another half-century make?
The squeak of the floor nearby cut her tears off entirely. She looked up…and her heart dropped.
Of course. It wasn’t enough that they douse her in punch. Lady Cosgrove must have sent her cousin up to complete her humiliation.
For there stood Lord Westfeld himself.
The last thing that Evan had expected to see at the end of the hall was Lady Elaine, with her gown falling off her shoulders, revealing the linen of her shift. She sat on the floor, curled almost in a ball, her fists clenched.
She was crying silently, choking back great sobs. Elaine never cried—at least she didn’t do so publicly. It made him feel that he was intruding on a painfully intimate moment, one that revealed more of her than the ivory of her chemise.
She glanced up, saw him—and gasped as if he’d shoved his elbow into her stomach.
But that moment of scalded shock passed. Her eyes narrowed, and she drew herself up in scorching fury.
“Lord Westfeld,” she said, “whatever are you doing here? Why, the evening is quite young.”
She tilted her head toward the stairs. The low rumble of voices rose up even now, faintly mocking to Evan’s ears.