He sat on the squabs opposite her and folded his arms. “What in blazes do you think you’re doing?” he demanded the instant they were off.
“Isn’t that what a mistress does?” she shot back. “She holds salons. She entertains a man and his friends.”
“You’re too intelligent to imagine that Dalrymple is a friend of mine. It was perfectly clear that I had no desire for his company.”
“True. But I desired it, and you said I wasn’t to think of what you wanted. That I should act upon my preferences.”
His eyes blazed at that. “You prefer to infuriate me?”
“One day,” she snapped, “that is going to be me—the person who so offends you that you won’t even look in my direction. I know who I am, and what I am. Sneaking into empty boxes is the least of my sins. I hope to God that when I beg you to listen, as that man did just now, you’ll do so.”
He raised his eyes to hers. “Unlikely,” he said, and cut his gaze away.
That stung so hard it stole her breath.
He looked up at her gasp and frowned. “Unlikely, I mean, that you will offend me as Dalrymple has. Or that I would fail to hear you out. When have I ever done such a thing to you?”
“To me? Never. Yet.” She set her hand against her face, pressing her eyelids. “But… I tell myself that you are a good man. A kind man. Mostly, I have been proven right. But sometimes, there is a coldness in you. It scares me.” She pressed harder. “What do you think I did in the slums to survive as I did? I didn’t manage to keep my virginity intact because angels intervened at every turn.”
She was falling in love with a man, and she wasn’t certain who he was. He surely didn’t know her—not her history, nor the full truth of what she’d done in Temple Parish.
“It’s not coldness,” he said quietly. “It’s decisiveness. When I make up my mind, I don’t look to change it. It would be cruel to allow someone to believe otherwise.”
“But why don’t you consider changing your mind? You’re not one of those crabbed, angry fellows who abhors all alteration.”
“Because no good can come of it.” He looked away. “I deal in irrevocabilities, Miranda. If I issue a warrant for a man’s arrest, he may be swinging on the end of a noose two weeks later. If I fail to do it, he may murder a good man. If a baker makes an error, his bread fails to rise. If I do, men die.” He spread his hands. “Often there is no right answer. The law demands that a man must be sentenced to transportation—there is no room for mercy, no space for adjustment. And yet, if I act as the law demands, his children will be thrown on the parish, and into the workhouse.”
She leaned across the carriage to set her hand atop his. He turned his hand up and clasped her fingers. His grip was cold in hers.
“It is a responsibility that every magistrate shares. So far as I can tell, there are only three ways to shoulder that burden. My way is this: even though I may be in error, I never allow myself to doubt what I have done. That way lies endless recrimination.”
“What are the other two ways?”
“Pretend the people before you aren’t human,” he responded smoothly. “Then it doesn’t matter if you make a muck of things.”
“Or you can go stark raving mad. Neither of those last two options appeals to me.”
She drew breath. “But this is not part of your responsibility as magistrate, Turner. This is life, not duty.”
A longer pause, and the carriage came to a halt. “I see very little difference,” he finally said into the quiet. “My life is duty. Essentially.”
Miranda wasn’t certain if she hurt more for him or for herself. “What part of your duty am I?”
He squeezed her hand. “You’re the ray of sun at the center of the storm.”
It choked her up, that image. A shaft of sunlight would be welcome, true, but the storm would pass on. His life was duty; and he had as good as said she was no part of his life. She focused on the squabs in front of her and let out a long, slow breath, hoping the tightness in her chest would ease. It didn’t.
Instead, the hired cab drew to a halt outside her home. He jumped down, paid the driver, and helped her out. The night air was cold against her skin.
“Come,” he told her. “I’ve forgiven you for drawing Dalrymple in already. You could hardly do much worse.”
She drew a shaky breath. She’d done worse. The door opened; her home awaited, warm and inviting. She could put her past behind her.
Maybe Temple Parish was nothing but a memory to be left behind. What had happened there…it was a belated shiver running up her spine. She could pack those memories away and never speak of them again. She’d escaped it all.
She pulled her cloak around her and followed him to her door. On the threshold, she stopped, her gaze caught. There, next to the door, sat a small, smooth rock. She bent and picked it up. It was dark—almost black—and the underside was dribbled with red wax.
The Patron’s sigil. He wanted a meeting with her. She almost dropped it.
“What is that?” Smite asked.
No. There were some things he didn’t need to know about her past. Her hand clenched around the rock and she slipped it into her pocket.
“Nothing,” she said. And then, because that seemed too suspicious, she added, “Just a rock.”
He was too distracted to think more of it. Instead, he stepped inside. “Come. Let’s ready ourselves for your guest.”
MIRANDA WAS CHANGING TOO much about Smite’s life.
It wasn’t just the sweet cakes and brandy that she’d called for when they arrived at her home. It wasn’t simply the comforting smell of wax and lemon and polish that pervaded the atmosphere, or the soft cushions of the sofa where he sat. It wasn’t even the luxury of physical intimacy.
No. It was Richard Dalrymple leaning back against his chair, stiff and uncertain. It was Miranda’s smile as she settled on the cushion near Smite. She drew him in, reminding him of a time when he and Dalrymple had been friends. A time when he’d been lulled into complacency.
Miranda took up her own glass of brandy and took a sip.
“Do you enjoy the theater?” she asked. Her gestures were delicate, even if the spirits she imbibed were not.
Smite knew he was being rude, retreating from the conversation as he was. But he had little truck with easy conversation. Nothing about him was easy; why should he pretend otherwise?
Dalrymple waved his hand back and forth. “I take some pleasure in it.” He shrugged. “But I like boxing equally well. Fencing. Opera. My tastes are…”
“Unformed,” Smite supplied.
Miranda cast him a pointed, sidewise glance. “Broad,” she said instead. “What sort of opera do you like?”
Smite had lost the habit of conversing over polite nothings. Or maybe he’d neglected to learn it in the first place. Instead, he stared at the coals in the grate. The conversation flowed around him like the tide—always moving, never going anywhere.
“So what was it like being raised by actors?” Dalrymple was asking.
Smite looked up from the coals to see Miranda watching him. She’d spoken so freely with Dalrymple. They were on the verge of friendship, and once again, Smite felt that touch of uneasy jealousy. Miranda could make even Smite feel welcome; naturally, a charming fellow like Dalrymple would win her over.
He’d set the term of their liaison at one month. The time was supposed to be sufficiently short that she’d not grow disappointed with him.
Apparently, he’d misjudged. He could almost feel her approval of him fading. It made him feel utterly savage inside. Smite stood and walked away from their charming conversation. He turned to the fire, the better to stab it with a poker.
Miranda didn’t even track him with her gaze. Instead, she was still conversing with Richard.
“Nobody ever believes me,” she was saying, “but I had the most marvelous childhood. Jonas and Jasper took over the primary responsibility of looking after me.” She was lo
oking off into the fire as she spoke, a soft smile on her face. “Jasper was sporting-mad. He took me to every prizefight, every horse race that occurred within any county where we traveled. He’d put me on his shoulders and explain how to place a bet. Jonas would come along and shake his head in horror. I always supposed that’s what fathers did.”
Dalrymple shook his head. “Not mine. Mine took me to a brothel when I was thirteen.” A grimace. “That did not go so well.”
As a stratagem to involve Smite in the conversation, it was too obvious to work. Smite didn’t care about Dalrymple’s revelations. He didn’t want to think about any of it.
“But then,” Dalrymple was saying, “they weren’t your parents. They were just employees.”
“Not just!” Miranda protested. “And besides, my parents weren’t neglectful. They were just busy. I had supper with them every evening, and Mama always tucked me into bed. It was Mama who insisted that Papa find a patron when I was ten. She said we’d been bouncing about long enough. And so we moved to London.”
“Did you enjoy settling down?” Dalrymple asked.
“No.” Miranda scowled. “Jonas and Jasper left. Permanence wasn’t to their taste. I wept for days.”
Smite had never noticed it before, but there was something about the rhythm of that pairing. Jonas and Jasper. As if she’d often said those names coupled together in that particular singsong rhythm. Dalrymple’s hand clenched at his side. He looked up, his gaze sharp, as if he’d heard it too. Like that, the conversation lost its easy feel. Somehow, they’d drifted far out to sea.
“Tell me,” Dalrymple whispered, his voice suddenly hoarse. “This Jonas. This Jasper. They were…”
“They were good people,” Miranda said sharply. “Very good. They practically raised me.”