But Smite suffered from no illusions about himself. It was best that she avoid them, too.
He chose his next words carefully. “I suspect he thinks that the cure for all my troubles is the love of a good woman.”
She speared a piece of turnip, none too gently.
Smite continued. “He thinks that I need only meet The One, and all my little foibles will be cast aside, healed by the magic of her pearly white hands.”
“I don’t believe in magic,” Miranda said. But her gaze cut away from his.
For all the faults of her upbringing, she’d grown up around love. She’d spoken of a sunny, effervescent companionability that he could never give her.
He couldn’t bring himself to smile. “As you may recall, I’m already married to Lady Justice. There’s little room in my life for anything else.”
Her lips pressed whitely together. But she lifted her gaze to his and gave him a nod of understanding. “So I’m just your bit o’ muslin on the side.”
“Yes.” And she was: a departure from duty, a holiday from his responsibilities. He was cheating on sobriety with her. The thought should have filled him with horror.
One month of companionship. One month of warmth. One month of her smiles. A one-month vacation from the coldness of his solitary existence. That was all he could let her be to him. Any longer than that, and he’d never give her up.
“Well, then,” she said, extending her hand. Her smile was brilliant and harshly beautiful. “I’d best make use of you while I still can.”
THE NEXT DAY, SMITE did, in fact, send a gift.
It wasn’t emeralds. It wasn’t pearls. It wasn’t any sort of jewelry—just a few sheets of paper, folded, and his note scrawled across the bottom: I’m sorry.
After what that report indicated, sending jewelry would be a travesty.
When he entered her home a few hours after he’d sent that message, he didn’t know what to expect. But what he heard surprised him: voices drifted from the parlor in the back. Their murmur made a gentle, reverent noise. He walked back and peered into the room.
Miranda sat on the sofa next to another man. The fellow was handsome and young—close in age to Miranda, Smite would have guessed, although he looked youthful to Smite’s eye. Miranda was holding his hands.
If Smite had happened on her cuddling with another man on any other day, he might have reacted differently. But then, he knew what he’d sent her about George Patten, and it didn’t take much to tell that Miranda wasn’t flirting with another man. She was in need of comfort.
Nothing wrong with that. Still, his hand formed an involuntary fist at his side.
“I can’t believe it,” the man was saying. “I just can’t believe it. I can’t bring myself to believe that this is true.”
“Oh, Jeremy.” She rubbed his arm. “I know it’s hard to comprehend.”
“Impossible.” The other man—Jeremy—pulled his hands from hers and shook them out. “It’s impossible to comprehend, not hard. George is out there somewhere. And maybe we don’t know where he is, but I refuse to believe that he could have died in so senseless a fashion.” His gaze was trained inward; his eyes rested on some far-off point. “Miranda,” he said slowly, “am I a terrible person if I refuse to honor my mother’s dying wishes?”
Miranda did not seem to think this last question a complete non sequitur. “What, because you’re thinking of George instead of contemplating marriage?”
The other man folded his arms about himself. “What she wants me to do is utterly foreign to my character.” And then his voice did crack. “Oh, George. What am I going to do? It’s my fault. I did this to him.”
“It’s nobody’s fault. You can’t blame yourself. It could have happened to anyone.” She leaned toward him.
Jeremy made a rude noise. “The man who claimed to know what transpired said that George took a knife to the gut the night before his release. But no body was ever found, and the murder was not reported in any of the official proceedings.” Jeremy shook his head. “If you think that could happen to anyone, you are sorely mistaken.”
Smite had harbored similar doubts about the matter.
But Miranda reached out. “A fight in gaol. A gaoler who didn’t want to admit he’d been remiss in his duties, and so hid the matter. George was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Jeremy shook his head, and Miranda didn’t say anything in response. Instead, she looked up—and as she did so, she caught sight of Smite, standing in the doorway of the room. She didn’t startle. She didn’t let go of her friend.
Smite knew damned well that nothing untoward was happening.
He was an ass. Not because he believed she had been unfaithful; there was no hint of lust in their embrace. Besides, Miranda had been anything but casual about their lovemaking. No; he was jealous for the most petty of reasons. He envied their rapport, their intimacy. He wanted her to turn to him for support, not this other fellow.
He was being fist-clenchingly irrational.
“Jeremy,” Miranda said slowly. “I ought to introduce you to someone.”
Jeremy looked up. He took in Smite, and his eyes widened.
Beside him, Miranda was still speaking. “Jeremy Blasseur, this is Smite Turner. Turner, this is Jeremy—he’s one of my best friends.”
“Lord Justice,” Jeremy said dazedly, scrambling to his feet. “You’re Lord Justice. Miranda, you little devil, you never told me the man in question was Lord Justice.”
A small smile curled the corner of her lip. “Yes. I rather wanted to see your response the first time you met him.”
She’d wanted to introduce him to her friends?
“This was not the sort of person I expected you to—” Jeremy stopped abruptly.
“Do you know something about Mr. Patten’s death?” Smite heard himself ask. “Something not in those papers?”
Jeremy took a long moment to shake his head—perhaps too long a moment. One couldn’t enlarge on the length of a second, Smite told himself. And if this Jeremy didn’t seem overly upset, grief took different people in different ways. Jeremy didn’t hold Smite’s gaze. He looked at the floor instead. “I just heard this story half an hour ago,” he mumbled. “How would I know anything about it?”
“If you think of anything that might assist the authorities in finding out who killed him—any enemies he might have, any rumors that come to your ears—justice might be served.”
Mr. Blasseur shook his head. “No,” he said in subdued tones. “I don’t believe there can be justice. Not for this.”
AFTER JEREMY LEFT, MIRANDA wasn’t sure what to say. Turner hadn’t pushed Jeremy out or made him feel unwelcome. Nonetheless, he stood now and looked out the window of her parlor. She stayed seated on the sofa, watching him.
He turned his head slightly. “I suppose you’d prefer to be alo
Miranda shook her head. She almost never preferred to be alone.
He didn’t move toward her. “Do you…you don’t want to talk, do you?” He made no effort to hide the unsubtle horror in his voice.
Miranda shook her head once more. Her grief was rolled up inside her—more for Jeremy than herself. It was Jeremy, after all, who grieved most for George. It was Jeremy who hadn’t yet comprehended that one of his best friends was gone forever. Miranda had known George only through his friendship with Jeremy.
Still, young people weren’t supposed to die.
“Smite,” she asked softly, “do you have any idea what to say to me in a situation like this?”
“Of course I do,” he retorted. “I have plenty of ideas.” He met her gaze ruefully. “Of course, they’re all wrong, and so I’m totally at sea.”
She patted the cushion next to her. He crossed the room and lowered himself down. And then, because he didn’t seem inclined to do it himself, she picked up his hand and slid it around her shoulders. His muscles stiffened for a moment, but she leaned her head against his chest and he relaxed. His other hand came up to stroke her shoulder in a light caress, and Miranda shut her eyes and melted into him.
“I feel cold,” she said.
It wasn’t a cold that could be driven away by fire. The only warmth she found was in the butterfly-light touch of his fingers. He seemed hesitant to hold her, as if afraid she might break. But when she leaned into him, he grew bolder. Tiny caresses gave way to broad strokes of his hand, covering her arm from shoulder to elbow. After long minutes of that, she looked up at him.
He was watching her intently. She gave him a tentative smile, but he didn’t return it. Instead, he shifted. His breath touched her cheek. His hands continued to stroke her arms, and Miranda let herself fall back onto the cushions of the sofa. When he paused, she pulled him atop her. He levered himself over her gingerly, his weight neither heavy nor stifling, but comforting. The warmth of his breath touched her cheek.