“Smite.” His name crept out. He must have heard her entreaty, but he didn’t flinch. He didn’t even turn around.
“I cannot hear this case,” he repeated. There was no hint of regret in his voice. Just steel.
He walked to the door without a further backward glance. He was simply going to leave her to the mercy of his fellow magistrates—and from what he’d told her, they didn’t have anything like mercy.
She stared after him, too stunned to even make a sound.
He stopped in the doorway. His hand rested on the frame. He turned and finally, finally, he regarded her. She thought that he might apologize then, or at least offer her a smile in comfort—something so that she would know that he still cared. But there was no warmth to his gaze.
“One last thing, gentlemen.” His voice was quiet, but the hearing room was so silent she could almost hear the frightened slam of her own heartbeat.
His gaze locked with hers. “When I said that this lady was known to me, I meant that I esteem her more than anyone else on this earth.”
The bottom dropped out of her stomach. If the room had been silent before, it was death now, everyone straining to hear his words.
“If I can do my duty and walk away from my best beloved,” he said, “you can all do yours and listen to what she has to say.”
The hearing room erupted in babble. But even though shouts and questions emerged, Smite turned and let the door shut behind him.
The other magistrates didn’t listen to her, of course. After that, they were beside themselves with apologies. The mayor seemed to believe she was some sort of a lady. It took scarcely a minute for them to let her loose. All the while, they gawked at her as if she were a rare specimen.
“Didn’t know he had—” she heard one of them muttering.
“Where is she from?” someone else was asking.
She was nearly as confused herself. But they freed her, nonetheless.
He was waiting for her in the anteroom. He stood silently at the far end, his figure stiff and unmoving. He had the most intensely solemn expression on his face. She wasn’t even sure he was breathing, so still did he seem. Somehow, Miranda put one foot in front of the other, willing her legs not to wobble.
She was all too aware of the crowd behind them, gawking eagerly. There would be no privacy here, not for this conversation. She couldn’t throw herself at him. She didn’t even know if that was what she wanted.
“If you’d been Miss Daisy Whitaker,” he said, softly enough that only she could hear, “we’d have met here long before, and I would have walked you back through the market.”
“If I had been Miss Daisy Whitaker, it would have been a damned dull walk.” She took another step forward.
“You’ll note,” he said warily, “that nothing has changed since last we spoke. I’m still not sure—”
She reached out and touched his arm. “Smite, I have spent almost a full day in custody. I have not slept or eaten. I’m sore and scared and the only good thing that has happened to me in the last two days is that you called me your beloved. Don’t you dare take that away.”
His hands slid to her waist and he pulled her close, nestling her against his chest. “I couldn’t take it away even if I wanted to do so. You are my best beloved.”
She felt tears form at the corner of her eyes. Much more, and she might not actually be able to hold her emotions in. “Be careful. Your sentimentality quota…”
“Suspended for the moment, I’m afraid.” He leaned down and touched his forehead to hers. “Beloved,” he whispered. “Miranda, comma.”
She didn’t know how long they stood there, his arms about her, she leaning against him, their breaths trading back and forth. They didn’t kiss. They were in public, after all, and the embrace was scandalous enough. Besides, it seemed vital that he simply hold her.
When the crowd had begun to dissipate, he spoke again. “This is what it means to be my beloved. If it comes down to a question of you or my duty, I must put my duty first. You have no idea. When I saw your name on the list, and surmised what must have happened…” He pulled away from her. “I hadn’t time to do more than fetch an attorney to speak on your behalf. I take it he wasn’t even needed. I can’t even beg your forgiveness for not doing more. That is what it means to be me. My duty must come first.”
It had been distressing. But it had passed. She wouldn’t—couldn’t—ask him to give up his honor to save herself from a few hours of dismay.
“Do you understand?” he was saying. “I had the ability to order you released at any time. Why are you still near me?”
She had always thought that she wanted someone to love her beyond all reason. Someone who would slay a regiment of knights to save her the slightest inconvenience.
She’d been wrong. That sort of fool left nothing but a swath of bloody knights in his wake.
“You will always put your duty first,” she said.
“So long as you put me best, I shall be satisfied.”
“I’m not the easiest man,” he replied warily.
Miranda smothered a smile. “You sound as if you fear this might come as a sad shock to me. And yet, over the course of our acquaintance, I had noticed that. Nonetheless, despite all sense and rational argument, you are my favorite.”
His lip quirked up in a smile. It lasted but briefly, before he was serious once again.
“Miranda, nothing has changed. The reasons I sent you away—”
“But everything has changed,” Miranda whispered. “I know who the Patron is. It’s my friend Jeremy Blasseur’s grandfather. They call him Old Blazer.”
AFTER THEY LEFT THE Council House, Smite didn’t conduct Miranda back to her home. Instead, he led her toward the heart of town, and finally to the Royal Western Hotel. The walk there wasn’t too long, but a sleepless night spent in a cold room without supper or breakfast had robbed Miranda of most of her strength.
The building was a newly constructed spectacle of modern architecture: four stories high, with stone columns dominating the entryway. Inside, the paintings were bright and new; the cushions on the chairs seemed as if they’d never been used. A waft of some delicious, savory scent drifted through the foyer, and her empty stomach growled. But Smite didn’t conduct her into the salon for a meal. Alas. Instead, he motioned a footman over.
Miranda ran her hand along the carved wainscoting while Smite murmured something to the fellow. The man bowed to him, then turned and spoke to another man, who turned and ducked through a door. A few minutes later, the fellow returned, this time followed by a
man in gray-and-maroon livery.
Neither man was carrying a tray of food, which was rather depressing. Both servants bowed to Smite—and flicked glances toward Miranda.
They no doubt took in her wrinkled traveling habit, the frightful disarray of her hair. She had no hat, no gloves, and no cloak. Her mouth felt like cotton. When Smite held out his arm for her, she clung to it. Touching him, even just his elbow, seemed the key to safe passage through these perilous halls.
If she held on too tightly, he made no mention of it. Not as they ascended the wide, polished wood of the stairs. Instead, he set his hand—his gloved hand—over hers. When they reached the next floor, he paused briefly and turned to her. “We must have a few words,” he said, motioning to the servant ahead of them. The man simply nodded, and ducked through a door.
For a moment, they were alone in the hall, with nothing but the shining crystals of the lamps to keep them company.
“Only words? That’s rather stingy of you.”
His lips twitched in a smile. “Granted,” he said smoothly. “This is the safest place I can imagine, without sending you out of town once more.” He cast her another look. “Or trying to, at any rate.”
Her fingers twitched convulsively at that.
But he made no other attempt to soothe her. Since he’d sent her away, she had touched him. Held his hand. Miranda had even embraced him—and in public, no less. He had called her his best beloved.
But he hadn’t tried to kiss her. He’d walked away from her once. He could do it again.
When she shifted close to him now, he stepped away. It was so smoothly done that it might not even have been a rejection.
“I’ve taken you to my brother, the Duke of Parford. He’s staying here.” He paused, looked at Miranda, and added, “Don’t worry. They’re all good sorts.” Without any further explanation, he opened the door the servant had entered earlier.
Here seemed oppressively foreign. The home Smite had obtained for Miranda had been impossibly luxurious; by comparison to this hotel, however, it seemed a hovel. The room before her seemed both palatial and austere at once. The ceilings seemed too high overhead. The floor was marble, and covered with carpets that positively gleamed with wealth. The room was so massive, and the illumination so bright, that for one second, she thought Smite must have opened up a passage to the outdoors.