So maybe there was someone around.
“Come on up.” Smite’s throat seemed sore. He had been shouting, then.
The bed swayed as Ghost jumped on it. His fur was still slightly damp; Smite had washed him on his return home last night. He gathered the animal to him.
Long, soft fur met his fingers. He breathed in and willed his heart to slow. He commanded the nauseating cramp in his stomach to relax. After a few minutes, his body obeyed.
Just the usual evening specter, then, although the heat of the water was an interesting twist. There had been no smell. There were never smells in his dreams.
When he was younger, his dreams had been a cause for consternation. He’d tried everything to rid himself of them. Hot milk. Exercise. Women. Laudanum.
Some afflictions, he’d concluded, weren’t worth fighting. Not at that cost. He’d accepted the nightmares as a fact of his existence, no more debilitating than, say, a scar that restricted movement. Scars were manly. He’d won this one fair and square.
Of course, as afflictions went, this one was rather more like the gout than a scar. Made worse by alcohol; brought on by rain. No point in deluding himself.
He smiled into Ghost’s fur and felt the tension slowly ease from him.
He’d long since stopped seeing the nightmares as a cause for complaint. They were more like a call to arms. They were a reminder of what had transpired. Of what it meant for him to do his job, to listen carefully to those who came before him. Of what might happen if he turned a blind eye.
When he woke on odd nights, he lulled himself back to sleep by reciting names as another man might count sheep. Mrs. Wexforth. Jack Bloomsmith. Davy Duglett. On down a parade of people he had seen during his days as magistrate. Ghost leaned against him as their faces danced through his memory.
His brother had obtained Ghost from a shepherd back in Shepton Mallet. Ghost had been the progeny of one of the most renowned sheepdogs in all of Somerset and some unknown stray. When they’d tested his instinct for herding as a small puppy, the little dog had shown an unsavory interest in the sheep’s leavings and no interest at all in the sheep. And so he’d been passed on to Smite—a tiny bundle of gray-and-white fur. Eight weeks old, and already marked a failure.
In tonight’s darkness, Ghost leaned against him.
He came to the end of his list.
When they needed someone, I was there. I listened. I acted. What happened to me won’t happen to them. Not while I can prevent it.
Then there was Miss Darling.
God, what a conundrum she posed. Any pretense of impartiality had vanished when he’d seen her with Robbie. The boy reminded him all too much of what it had been like, taking charge of Mark, when they’d roamed Bristol’s streets. He wasn’t exactly thinking of her with the requisite disinterest. He knew all too well what it was like to be saddled with a charge, with no way to make good.
And as for Miss Darling herself… Smite had long ago resigned himself to the fact that he felt more alone around others than he did by himself. Any woman with a hint of education could never comprehend what Smite had been through; anyone who could fathom his childhood could never understand what he’d made of himself. It didn’t matter how he yearned for companionship; there was none to be had. He’d resigned himself to short, lonely encounters.
But Miss Darling… damn. Apparently all it took was a combined knowledge of Sophocles and the streets. He was susceptible to her. If he wasn’t careful, he might end up nursing a full-blown interest. Not a good idea. He had too much else to do.
In the dark of night, it was impossible to shove aside his memory of the canny flash of her smile, the turn of her profile. In some faraway world, their journey tomorrow might end, improbably, in some secluded park instead of at the gaol. She might call him Turner instead of Lord Justice. She might open up when he touched her…
Foolish fantasies, those. His cock didn’t think so; it had grown hard and erect in anticipation. He gave it a thump in protest and leaned back against the pillow. Beside him, Ghost curled up. The animal let out a doggy sigh.
“Well,” he said to Ghost. He could imagine the animal’s ears flicking back toward him in the darkness, turning ever so slightly to catch his words. “I suppose we’ll have to find something else for you to do tomorrow. I have a woman to see.”
He wished he didn’t sound so eager.
A SHADOW FELL ACROSS Smite’s desk.
He was scheduled to meet Miss Darling in a few hours, and so he had rather more work than usual to cram into his foreshortened working hours. The shadow was an annoyance. He moved the report he was reading over a few inches to fall into the sunlight.
The shadow moved. Smite looked up, and his annoyance froze into something harder.
“Look,” Richard Dalrymple said. “I know this is a bit much to ask. But do you suppose we can start over?”
“Start what over?” The lack of sleep during the previous evening made him feel as if a gritty veil had been cast over his eyes. It left him rather more cross than usual.
“Um.” Dalrymple shifted uncomfortably. “Everything?” The man was dressed perfectly, his trousers creased with edges so sharp that they could have cut someone. He’d tied his cravat in some complicated knot. He could strangle on his neckcloth, for all Smite cared. Still, he hunched uneasily, not meeting Smite’s eyes. “Everything since that first year and a half at Eton,” he added.
“You want me to simply discard the last nineteen and a half years.”
Dalrymple hunched further. “Yes,” he said. “That would be lovely.”
“And just be friends again, as if nothing had transpired.”
Smite opened a drawer in his desk and slid his papers inside. “Have you any notion—” But that question answered itself as easily. “No. You haven’t an inkling. One doesn’t simply pick up a friendship again after all that you’ve done.”
Dalrymple licked his lips uneasily. “I can understand that. But in the name of what we once had, and what we have now, could you not at least listen to me? For God’s sake, the last time we were both at Parford Manor, it was a disaster. For the sake of our families, this can’t continue.”
“What am I supposed to say? ‘Let’s shake hands, old chap, and let bygones be bygones’?”
Dalrymple’s shoulders sagged ever so slightly. “I’m relieved to hear you agree. Can we?”
Smite snorted, wishing he could stuff Dalrymple in the drawer alongside his papers. If only he could put him off, to be examined at some other time. Instead, he pushed the drawer closed. “I didn’t agree. And there’s a problem with what you propose. I can’t forget.”
“What does an apology mean?” Smite pushed back his chair and stood. “I look at you and I remember the day you told the headmaster at Eton that I’d cheated on my examination.”
A wince in response. “I’m sorry.”
“You had my quarters searched when we were at Oxford, claiming that I had stolen from you. Am I supposed to forget that, too?”
Dalrymple shut his eyes. “I know. I’m sorry.”
“And then there was that rumor you started a handful of years ago.”
Dalrymple bit his lip.
“Ah.” Smite set his hands on the desk, leaning forward. “Even you can’t forget that one.”
“I am,” Dalrymple said, “most especially sorry for that. More than you can realize. But…”
“Here it comes. You haven’t forgotten any of this at all.” Smite leaned back against the wall. “Go on, Dalrymple. Tell me how you justified your lies.”
The other man shook his head.
Smite smiled grimly. “Then let me advocate on your behalf. You had to do all those things—accuse me of cheating, lying, stealing, and buggery—because you feared that I would tell your secrets. You thought I would tell the world that you were a bastard. You feared that I would tell everyone that you—”
ed forward, hands outstretched.
Smite snorted. “Ah, yes. It was that last one, wasn’t it? You thought I would tell the truth, and so you spread lies about me to discredit my character. Before I’d even done anything wrong.”
“Turner,” Dalrymple said. There was a pleading note in his voice.
Smite ignored it. “There’s a difference between the two of us. I promised you I wouldn’t tell. And unlike you, I remember my promises. So, no, Dalrymple. I don’t think I’m about to forget the last couple of decades. I’m not so foolish as to turn my back on you once more.”
Dalrymple’s features were frozen. He stared ahead, his arms straightening into ramrods at his side.
“God,” he said. “That’s it, then. No mercy. No forgiveness. There’s nothing I can do to make matters right between us.”
Smite shook his head.
“Not even…” He blinked, licked his lips. “Not even for our family? For Margaret and Ash?”
“I care for Margaret,” Smite said carefully. “I don’t want her unhappy. But given what I know of you, it seems unlikely that you’ll bring her happiness. All you have ever done, so far as Margaret is concerned, is put yourself first.”