Years ago, Dalrymple would have swelled up in indignation at that accusation. It had always been too easy to bait him into displaying his temper. Instead, he bit his lip and looked away, and some small, neglected part of Smite’s sympathies tugged in response. Once, this man had been his friend.
He shoved the thought away.
“Yes,” Dalrymple finally said. “You’re right. You’re completely right. But maybe I want to do better.”
People always claimed to want such things when they faced the harsh light of judgment. With the prospect of punishment looming over their heads, they would promise anything.
Sometimes people changed. Mostly, though, they forgot their fine resolutions within a week. Smite didn’t give Dalrymple that long.
“You’ve always wanted to do better,” Smite said. “I know you too well to believe in it.”
Dalrymple simply looked at him. “You will,” he finally said. “You will.”
“I THINK,” MIRANDA SAID, “I am about to do something foolish this afternoon.”
It was just past noon, and Blasseur’s Trade Goods & More was bustling with customers. Old Blazer was holding court in the front of the shop, entertaining a crowd of people while measuring out fabric. Jeremy, as usual, was ensconced at the table in the back and occupied with the mending. The shop was so crowded they might as well have been alone. Nobody paid them the least attention.
Miranda twirled a bit of ribbon about her finger and let it go, before looking up. “Tell me I mustn’t do it.”
Jeremy sat on a stool, his lips clenched in concentration as he carefully matched two broken ends of lace together. “Don’t do it,” he said absently, reaching for his needle.
“Are you listening? It might prove dangerous. Very dangerous.”
“Mmm.” He started in on careful stitches, lashing the lace together. “Stop being so dramatic and spit out what it is.”
Miranda expelled a breath and looked away.
“Ah.” Jeremy set another precise stitch in the lace, and still didn’t glance at her. “I see. You want to do it. You just came here to get my permission. So what is it?”
“I’m going—” She cut herself off, remembering what the journey was really about. Jeremy was fragile enough on the question of George; she didn’t want to get his hopes up, only to have to dash them. “I’m going somewhere with a man,” she tried instead. “I’m not sure why he asked me. Maybe he was just being nice.” She frowned. Nice didn’t seem to be part of Lord Justice’s vocabulary.
“Maybe he wants to get you alone and have his wicked way with you.” Jeremy raised an eyebrow at her.
Actually, she’d been thinking that maybe he’d arranged to have her come by the Council House and accompany him to the gaol to save him the trouble of marching her there himself. That possibility lent a certain piquancy to the afternoon’s activity.
“Maybe,” Jeremy surmised, his smile stretching to the sly, “you want him to have his wicked way.”
She leaned her head back to contemplate the ceiling. “He’s not very wicked.”
“And you’re still interested?” He pulled back in surprise.
So maybe she did have a preference for wicked men. She tried not to act on it anymore—not if she thought it would endanger her. Lord Justice hardly fit her usual mold. And she was far too canny to be interested in Lord Justice. But even if her mind knew that, it had not quite convinced her body. A little frisson went through her, just thinking of meeting him.
“Is this man you’re meeting affiliated with the Patron?” Jeremy asked calmly.
Miranda choked. “What do you know of the Patron?”
“Shh!” Jeremy cast a baleful glance at her. “You don’t have any idea who’s listening.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” She glanced behind her. “Old Blazer is showing off the tweed. Nobody’s listening to us.”
And indeed, his grandfather had the group quite enraptured. She could only see the back of him, stooped with age, hair a tumbling mass down his shoulders. But his hands gestured wildly, and she could hear the sonorous cadences of his voice.
“Better safe than sorry,” Jeremy whispered. “I dislike the notion of finding out that you’ve had your throat slit, or that you’ve been sent to the gallows. Tell me this has nothing to do with the Patron.”
“The only reason I’m safe on the streets is because of the Patron,” Miranda whispered back.
Jeremy dropped his eyes. “Don’t you believe that. Don’t you ever believe that. George thought he was safe, too.”
Miranda swallowed and looked away. “I’m sure that George is…safe. Somewhere. He’ll be back soon. You know it must be the case.” She set her hand atop his.
Jeremy simply looked at her fingers. “I have no faith in any such thing.” He pulled away from her and picked up his scissors, turning to the next gown in need of mending with a vengeance.
“If it sets your mind at ease, this man has nothing to do with the Patron,” Miranda said. “In fact, he is about as exactly opposite the Patron as you can get. I’m afraid I might make a fool of myself over him. I’m not even sure he would notice if I did.”
“Oh, Miranda!” The voice came from her left. Miranda jumped, and then let out a sigh of relief as Mrs. Blasseur pushed through the curtain at the very back. Jeremy’s mother was carrying a basket filled with laundry; she set it down on the counter with a resounding thump, and paused to catch her breath. Her hair was tied up in a knot, but strands escaped from it and curled about her cheeks.
Once, those cheeks had been pleasantly plump. But recent illness had stripped Mrs. Blasseur of all excess flesh. Her clothing hung loosely on her too-thin frame. She was pale; her skin had a sickly, bluish cast to it. But her eyes were quick, darting about intelligently, and her smile was warm and welcoming.
“What’s this about making a fool of yourself over a man?”
“Um.” Miranda pressed her lips together.
“I do wish you’d choose Jeremy,” Mrs. Blasseur continued brazenly. “He doesn’t talk of any other girls but you.”
The tips of Jeremy’s ears turned bright red. “Mama.”
“No, truly!” Mrs. Blasseur ignored her son. “I want to see him settled before I—before, well. I don’t have time to be polite any longer.”
Jeremy put his head in his hands. It didn’t hide the mortified scarlet of his cheeks.
“I think he’s in love with you,” Mrs. Blasseur continued sincerely. “He’s a good boy. He’d do anything for you.”
Jeremy peered at her through his fingers and grimaced in silent apology. He was most definitely not in love with Miranda; in fact, Jeremy was very much in love with someone else, and he’d thank her not to mention the matter to his mother, of all people.
“Mama,” Jeremy muttered, “I kn
ow you want everything to be settled before…well, soon at any rate. But Miranda has nothing to do with this. I’m not in love with her.”
“Am I meddling too much? I’m meddling too much. But, Jeremy…”
It was impossible to dislike the woman, no matter how interfering she seemed. She’d been afflicted by consumption for over a year. She was so thin now; her breath had grown labored.
A wealthy family might have taken her to the seaside, in hopes that gentler weather would allow her to recuperate. But Mrs. Blasseur stayed in the depths of Bristol, breathing coal-smoke all day. She kept to her daily tasks, doing laundry and tending the shop when she should have been in bed. Only her strength of will kept her going.
By the way she doubled over with the next cough, even her will couldn’t overcome her body.
“I’m not in love with Miranda,” Jeremy repeated. “Besides, she’s going to meet a man just now. I’m happy for her. Really.”
“Oh.” Mrs. Blasseur’s face fell. Then she turned to Miranda and impulsively took her hand. “But you’d give him up, wouldn’t you? Whoever you’re seeing. I’m sorry. I haven’t time to be tactful any longer. You would make a lovely daughter, Miranda.” Mrs. Blasseur sighed. “Wishful thinking, I suppose. I’m that hard up for help with the laundry.”
Miranda couldn’t help but smile. “My thanks, Mrs. Blasseur. But you persist in this notion that I’m a nice girl, and we all know I was raised by actors.”
The older woman pulled a towel from the basket and snapped it straight before folding it. “Well, that hardly signifies,” she said. “You’d fit right in. After all, Jeremy was raised by monkeys.”
“At least I assume that to be the case.” She folded the fabric in her hands, and then reached into the basket once more. “He surely didn’t acquire his manners from me.”
“He’s a nice boy.”
“I suppose.” His mother frowned. “Still, there was that one time, when he got snails and—”
“Mother, please.” Jeremy waved a hand. “I was three.”
“Proper disclosure, dear. I wouldn’t want a daughter-in-law claiming I brought her in under false pretenses. She’d find out the truth soon enough.”