Unraveled (Turner 3) - Page 43

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“You can do that?”

“Of course I can. I’m his younger brother. I can do anything I wish.”

It had never occurred to Miranda that Smite was so well loved. He’d spoken to her of horrors in his past. He’d mentioned his brothers in warm tones once or twice. But she’d never believed that he might have this teasing friendship available to him—and that he might nonetheless turn away from it.

It wasn’t the only thing he rejected. He could obtain a luxuriously furnished house on a few hours’ notice without blinking about the cost, and yet he himself lived in a few austere rooms. He chose not to spend nights with her. She’d been harboring—somewhere deep inside her—the hope that if she offered him the warmth and care that he’d lacked all these years, that he’d decide he couldn’t do without her.

But this destroyed all her illusions. She wasn’t the first person to care for him. She wasn’t special at all. And if he could walk away from the brother who so clearly adored him, whom he had known from infancy, a few weeks with her would prove no impediment at all. Her last, foolish hope crumbled under the crushing weight of reality.

“Come, Miranda,” Smite said, standing. “We’ll need to say our farewell to Robbie and get on the road.”

Sir Mark stepped forward. “It will be dark in a few hours. Won’t you at least—”

“Stay the night?” Smite asked, raising his eyebrow. “Come, Mark. You know there isn’t the least chance of that happening.”

Sir Mark shook his head and shrugged. “Well. I had to offer.”

Chapter Nineteen

THE JOURNEY FROM BRISTOL to Shepton Mallet in a phaeton had taken half the day. On horseback, Smite might have managed the return in one single, tiring afternoon. But they’d gone no more than eight miles down the road before dusk crept up on them.

Had these been ordinary circumstances, he might have pushed through, even with a team of horses. But he was exhausted, having not slept the night before. And Miranda slumped next to him. Her hands were entangled around his arm; her head leaned against his shoulder.

Somehow, he was supposed to give her up.

Ahead, he could see the lights from a posting inn. He sighed and tapped Miranda on the shoulder.

“Mmm?” came her sleepy response.

“We’ll be staying at the inn ahead for the night,” he informed her.

She straightened, rubbing at her eyes. “We?” she repeated? “Staying?”

He took a deep breath. “With you here, I likely won’t strike out in my sleep, as nightmares will be less probable.” There. That sounded plain. Unemotional. “Still, you should consider whether you’ll take the risk and share a bed with me. There is always some danger.” His fingers clenched about the reins as he waited for the questions to come. You still have nightmares? You poor thing. If he’d wanted her pity, he’d have mentioned his dreams earlier.

Instead, Miranda pulled off her gloves and fumbled with the little silk bag she’d brought with her. “There,” she finally said in satisfaction. He had no idea what she’d found; he couldn’t see it.

It was almost worse to have her not comment on what he’d said. But she tied up the strings of her bag, and then slipped her gloves back on. She was close enough, and there was just light enough, that he could see the intense expression in her eyes.

“There is no chance I would forgo the opportunity to share your bed,” she said quietly. “But then, you had already guessed that.”

He gave her one painful nod. One night with her—it could not hurt so much, could it?

“I don’t believe it is your intention to be so secretive,” she continued. “But you are not much in the habit of explaining yourself to others. I had already guessed you were afflicted with nightmares.”

He drew a breath in. “You did?”

“You mentioned them before.”

He rummaged back through their conversations, brought up those words. “In the past tense.”

She shrugged. “You’re not a very good liar.”

“Ah.” He turned the reins over in his hands.

“I had assumed it was simple pride that kept you away for the night. You don’t like being fussed over, and I suppose others might feel pity if you woke in the middle of the night. But I’ve learned better than to do any of that.”

“Indeed,” was his stellar contribution to this conversation, which was not going as he’d envisioned it at all. “You are quite acute.”

“Don’t fob me off with false compliments, Smite. Just now, you implied your nightmares are less likely to happen if I am present. What the devil did you mean by that?”

The air against his face was bitter cold. They had drawn near enough to the inn that he could see white walls rising up, overgrown with some creeping vine. Light seeped from the windows. He could catch the savory smoke from some roasting meat.

“There are some things that help alleviate the nightmares,” he said, as he drew the phaeton to a halt. “Companionship. Comfort. If I lived the life of luxury my eldest brother wished for me, my dreams would probably dwindle to once-a-year occurrences.”

She sat in silence, digesting this, as he tied up the reins. “You want to have nightmares.”

“They serve as a reminder of why I am needed. What will happen to others if I fail. It’s nothing to lose a few moments of sleep on occasion.”

She made no response for a few moments, and rubbed her hands together. “That’s bloody stupid,” she finally offered.

“Why? I do not fear what comes at night. I dread its absence. I fear being caged by luxury. I fear that one day I will no longer understand desperation, and with that, I will slowly stop listening to what others have to say.” He pulled on the reins, bringing the phaeton to a halt just outside the inn. “I don’t regret what circumstances have made of me, inconvenient though they may be. I make a difference.” His breath was growing harsh. “If I made myself like everyone else, I would fail. This way—” He stopped, choking on the words. “If you put it all together, it sounds so awful. The nightmares. Not being able to bear it when someone touches my face. If I tried to be like everyone else, I would be nothing more than a broken failure. This way, it means something.”

“You purposefully push others away so that you’ll have nightmares.”

“I did tell you I was wed to my duties.” He sighed. “Although it is an annoyance when I wake half the inn, shouting.”

“Is that likely tonight?”

“I just came from my mother’s house. It’s a possibility. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have mentioned it.” He shrugged. He didn’t think that show of indifference convinced her.

She pulled her coat more snugly about her. He stepped down from the phaeton; she gave him her hand. His hand clenched around hers through her gloves. But the only comment she made in passing was, “Lady Justice is a lucky woman.”

If there was a hint of bit

terness in her voice, it did not show in her face when they entered the lamp-lit entryway of the inn.

The proprietress had roused herself from the kitchen; she ran her gaze over them with a sharply trained eye. No doubt she was considering the fine cut of Smite’s coat, the smooth wool of Miranda’s traveling habit. The ostler had likely whispered a word about the phaeton—hired from Bristol, but well-made. This, she weighed against the lack of servants traveling with them.

“Welcome,” she said, with a hint of curtsy that suggested she’d totted up the sums and decided the two of them ranked just above poor gentry. “Might I be having your names for the register?”

It was at that moment that Smite realized he’d made a tremendous miscalculation. He’d been so preoccupied with the prospect of going to his mother’s house—and then the necessity of staying in an inn—that he’d simply not considered how they were to present themselves.

He cast Miranda a pained look—one that the sharp-eyed woman detected instantly. One hand shot to her hip and her lips narrowed. But if Miranda noticed this, she paid it no attention. Instead, she gave Smite a brilliant smile—one that seemed to slice deep into his belly. “May I do it, dearest?” she asked.

“Do what?”

“Sign the inn’s register.” Miranda beamed at the innkeeper’s wife.

The woman’s face was still frozen in a mask of suspicion.

But Miranda simply removed her gloves and set them on the counter. “I can’t get enough of it.”

Smite made a gesture, which Miranda seemed to take as permission. She swept forward, took hold of the barrel of the pen, and spoke as she signed. “Mr. and Mrs. Dashwood. I just adore the sound of that. It never grows old.”

Miranda was wearing a ring made of simple gold on her finger. It looked the sort of thing that impoverished gentry might use as a wedding band. She must have slipped it on in the phaeton. Smite shook his head. She’d come prepared to tell a story.

The scowl on the woman’s face began to melt away. “You’re newlyweds, are you?”

Tags: Courtney Milan Turner Romance
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