“Oh, no,” Miranda said earnestly. “We’re not new at all. It’s been all of…two months, one week, and three days. Isn’t that right, dearest?”
“Mmmm.” It was fascinating to watch her spin the tale. She’d adjusted her accent yet again, adding just a twitch of country. She looked up at him with just the right amount of girlish adoration. As if they were deeply in love and barely beginning to discover one another.
He couldn’t help looking back with the same expression. He wasn’t dissembling.
“Well, go on,” Miranda said. “You are going to tell her, are you not? About the, um, the other thing.”
He had no idea what she might be alluding to. She didn’t expect him to participate in this lie, did she? He raised an eyebrow at her repressively.
“We don’t want a repeat of two nights ago,” she admonished him, and then turned to the woman. “The proprietor of the hotel…well, he broke into our room. At two in the morning, no less.”
“Of all things!” said the woman in front of her. “Why would he do that?”
Miranda flushed a dainty pink. “It’s—it’s a bit delicate, you understand? He heard shouts. He thought I was being hurt. I can understand his concern. It was entirely laudable, but so, so embarrassing.” She made a little motion with her hand, so adorably coy that he almost believed her himself.
“I wasn’t,” she said, looking down. “Hurt, I mean.” She lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “I can’t imagine what the innkeeper was thinking—I wasn’t even the one making noises. It was dreadfully embarrassing.”
“At two in the morning?” the innkeeper’s wife repeated in fainter tones.
Miranda blushed deeper. “I know. What would my mother say? But…he always does make it worth my while. And I never can say no.”
Smite heard himself make a strangled noise in his throat.
The woman gave him a sharper appraising glance. “Doesn’t talk much, does he?”
Miranda leaned in. “Doesn’t need to,” she whispered, just loud enough for Smite to hear.
The innkeeper’s wife smiled at Miranda, coming to some feminine understanding. “You have him wrapped around your little finger, don’t you?”
“She does,” Smite said, finally able to contribute something truthful to the conversation.
The woman met Miranda’s eyes. “We’ll be sure to give you two your privacy, then. There aren’t many guests here tonight, and the upper floor will be all yours. I’ll just send Mary, the maid, to sleep downstairs. She won’t mind.”
“Thank you so much,” Miranda said. And then, as the woman gathered her keys and bustled down the hall, she looked up at Smite and winked.
THEY SETTLED IN A small room upstairs. The wood floors were covered over with plain rag rugs; the walls were recently whitewashed. The room was clean and cozy. A boy brought up their single valise, and departed after Smite threw him a penny.
Smite had not yet been able to meet Miranda’s eyes. He puttered about, washing with cold water from the single metal basin. He focused on the details of the present: unpacking his bag, although there was hardly anything to set in order. Nonetheless, he laid out the sparse collection of soap and shaving materials next to the basin.
He could hardly ignore Miranda when she came to stand beside him. She slid her arms around his waist. He set his hand atop hers, but couldn’t bring himself to push her away.
“I know what you’re thinking,” she said.
Ha. “I’ll wager a shilling you’re wrong.”
“You’re berating yourself because you let that little white lie I told stand. Now you’re wondering if you must go and correct my perfidy, and never mind that it will get us tossed out of the inn.”
He turned to her. “Hardly. I win.”
For so long, his wishes had harmonized. He wanted to introduce a certain amount of discomfort into his life. He wanted to avoid the pity of others. That had all amounted to a simple directive: avoid those who fussed over him—namely, everyone.
But Miranda never fussed. And just now, with a handful of smiles, she’d rearranged his life so that he did not need to be an object of pity. He could imagine the future spread before him. The two of them could live in a proper house with a flock of servants poised to wash Ghost when he nosed about in unsavory messes. They would hold doors and make lemon cakes. His bed would always be turned down. On cold nights, hot bricks would appear. He might live like anyone else—so long as Miranda was there to smooth the way.
She’d told him once about her parents, presenting a facade to the outside world and then laughing together when it succeeded. They’d been liars, yes… but they’d faced everything together.
Without even trying, Miranda had just made him part of a team. He wanted to grab hold of the chance that she offered.
And yet he held back.
The thought that he might one day transform himself into one of the fat, complacent burghers who sat in judgment alongside him was intolerable.
He’d been staring at the hard gray lump of his soap for too long. He set it down and turned to Miranda. “It’s like this,” he heard himself say. “When you leave, I will wish you well. I’ll watch you go, and I won’t make a fuss, because I know what lies ahead of you will be better and more satisfying than anything I can give.”
Her chin rose. “That’s terribly kind of you. Hopefully, I’ll have left you with a penchant for company, and you’ll replace me soon enough.”
He had a penchant for her. “Hardly,” he heard himself say.
“Shall we be clear?” Miranda said.
“By all means.”
“We are not talking about some hypothetical future,” she said. “You are talking about when our month is up.”
He was talking about tomorrow morning.
“I’ll be miserable without you,” she continued. “And don’t pretend you’ll be happy to be rid of me, either. I know you better than that.”
He turned away from her and wandered to the window. “I’m sure you’ll find happiness eventually.”
She followed to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with him. “I notice you make no protestations on your own behalf. I expected you’d at least make some cutting remark in a flat tone of voice. Something like, ‘I suppose I’ll survive.’”
He flipped her to face him, pushed her back against the wall. “Is that what you think? That I shall simply survive?”
She stared at him. And then she slowly rose onto her toes and kissed him.
He should have stepped away. He should have remained still when her lips touched his. But he might never have this chance again. He might never hold her this close, might never sink his hands into her hair.
And so instead he kissed her back out of deep, dark desperation. He worshipped her mouth. And when her hands untucked his shirt, slid up underneath the linen to reveal his bare chest, he didn’t bother to restrain himself. He picked her up and tossed her onto the bed.
The sheets were soft against his touch, but not as soft as her skin. The warmth of her breath as she pulled him down to her only reminded him of the cold future that awaited.
But no matter the desperate urgency he felt rising in him, he took his time to strip her bare: unbuttoning her habit and peeling it away, unlacing her corset, freeing the small, firm mounds of her breasts. He untied her garters and slid her stockings down slim legs. As he removed her petticoats one by one, she undid his cravat, and then removed his waistcoat. She pulled his shirt from his head and undid the buttons of his fall.
She sat up, just long enough for him to pull the chemise from her head, long enough to kick out of his unwanted trousers. Then he pushed her back into the bed. She was wet for him; he slid inside her with one sharp thrust. And this time, he held nothing back. He set his hands on her and took her, claiming every inch of her. Her tight, hot passage clenched around his cock. Her nipples, tipped in coral, offered themselves to his mouth. She dug her nails into his backside.
Dimly, he was aware that the headboard of th
e bed thumped into the wall, that the boards beneath them squeaked in time to his thrusts. He didn’t care; didn’t care about anything but Miranda beneath him, Miranda’s hands on him. For now, for these last few hours, Miranda was still his. She was hot, and a tight, sharp pleasure gathered in his groin. Her breath stuttered against his cheek. She made a strangled sound, and her hips rose to his. He could feel her pulsing about him. Waves of heat surrounded him, and he drove into her hard, until his own desire overtook him.
He came inside her, hard and savage and satisfying.
When they’d both caught their breaths, she met his eyes. She didn’t say anything. She didn’t need to. He could see the satisfied set of her lips.
See? You can’t survive without me.
“You’re perfectly right,” he said, in answer to the sentiment she hadn’t voiced. “There’s no two ways about it. When you leave, it will slay me.”
IN THE END, SMITE slept without dreams, and the remainder of the journey back to Bristol passed unremarkably. They arrived at Miranda’s house shortly before noon. When Smite pulled the team up, he could tell immediately that the instructions he had left behind had been followed. They were met there by a groom and a cart containing three trunks and a bandbox.
Smite jumped down from the phaeton and spoke with the man in a low voice. He almost wished that something had gone awry, anything to turn him away from the awful inevitability of this moment. But the man handed him an envelope and then went to the seat of the cart.
Smite turned to Miranda. She had followed him; her face seemed utterly blank. Perhaps she could sense his unease.