She blew a loose strand of hair from her eyes. “It’s locked.”
Nicholas tested it for himself; even with his full weight and strength, the only thing he accomplished was to break off its metal knob.
“Did you think I didn’t know how to work a drawer?” she asked, taking the thing out of his hand with a shake of her head. “Why keep all of this out in the open for anyone to find and question, but lock this one drawer? What’s the point?”
“Because,” came a silky voice from the shadows. “You were not given the key.”
ETTA JUMPED BACK IN ALARM, knocking against the desk in surprise. Instinctively, her hands scrambled for something to protect herself, fingers rummaging in the paper until they brushed up against the letter opener she’d seen only a moment before.
When she looked over at him, Nicholas had gone as rigid as a blade, his expression sharpening with the kind of lethal intent she’d seen only once before—when he’d launched himself at the man who had grabbed her in London. He made his way around the furniture between them.
“Do not move.” The accent was heavy, the words formal and stilted. “I will feel no guilt in killing thieves.”
Nicholas seemed to believe those words, stopping exactly where he was, a few feet behind her.
“Who are you?” Etta asked, brandishing the letter opener in front of her. Whatever good that would do.
“The one who should be asking this question is I,” the man said, stepping out from where he had managed to slip through the doorway unnoticed.
He was hardly a man at all; his deep voice was at odds with a soft, rounded face that seemed to indicate his age was close to their own. His skin was a dusky brown, his eyes dark and severe beneath generous brows. His long, white robe rustled as he took a step toward them, bare feet padding across one of the room’s many patterned rugs. Etta recognized the style of his dress—it was a close, luxurious approximation to what you might see in her time, in the Middle East.
Bare feet. Even with a haze of exhaustion drooping over her, that small fact stuck in the front of her mind, forcing her to think it through. I will feel no guilt in killing thieves.… meaning, this house—or apartment, or whatever it was—belonged to him? Now that he was closer, Etta saw red lines marring his cheeks from pillows or sheets; the glazed look of someone still half-asleep.
But…didn’t this house belong to the Lindens?
Nicholas reached into the interior pocket of his jacket, and the young man raised the wickedly curved blade at his side.
This was about to go exactly one way, and that way involved bloodstains on the beautiful rugs.
“We were told to come here,” Etta said, halting both of their movements. “By Rose Linden.”
The young man exploded with movement, launching himself forward at her.
“Duck!” Nicholas called.
Etta dropped to her knees and Nicholas’s fist sailed over her head. By the time she climbed back onto her feet, the two men had fallen to the floor in a rolling pile of limbs, crashing through chair legs as they tried to batter each other with their fists. The sword was knocked away, spinning toward the door.
“Stop!” Etta cried out. “Stop it!”
It was like breaking up the worst kind of dogfight, when you know the only way to separate the animals is to risk getting bitten yourself. She gripped the back of Nicholas’s jacket with both hands, muscles burning as she hauled him away.
“Nicholas!” she said. “Stop!”
He shuddered, the breath steaming in and out of him as he pressed his bruised, bleeding knuckles against his mouth. When Etta moved toward the other young man, Nicholas jerked forward as if to stop her. She gave a sharp shake of her head. With some reluctance Nicholas backed off, understanding, and instead went to pick up the discarded sword from the floor.
“You know the name Rose Linden, don’t you?” Etta asked.
He shrank back from the hand she’d offered to help him up. Etta sensed she’d committed some kind of offense.
“What about Benjamin Linden?” she asked, wondering if Nicholas had knocked him hard enough to make his ears ring. The pulse of insects outside swamped the room in sound; she wished she had opened just one of the shutters to let the rich floral scent in, to fill the air with something other than fear and sweat.
The young man closed his eyes, dragging in a wheezing breath. When he spoke, Etta had to lean forward to hear him.
“Abbi,” he said. “Father.”
THE YOUNG MAN, HASAN, WOULDN’T ALLOW HER TO HELP HIM clean his face—he wouldn’t even allow her to follow him out to collect clean cloths and water, so a reluctant Nicholas was forced to trail after him to keep an eye on him—but surrendered the sword to Etta as a show of good faith. The few minutes they were gone gave her a chance to consider something that still seemed impossible.
Time was relative and all that, but…how insane, to think that her great-grandfather had a son who was her age. He was technically her mother’s uncle, which made him Etta’s…great-uncle? Or…no, a first cousin twice removed?
“You look like her,” Hasan said as he brought one of the damp cloths to his face. “Sweet Rose.”
“That’s probably because she’s my mother,” Etta said. “You know her?”
He nodded, his eyes flicking over to where Nicholas stood glowering behind her.
“Abbi…he and Rose lived here for a time before he left it to Ummi—my mother—and then myself, when she died.” Hasan shook his head. “You said you were told to come? But…this does not make sense, for Rose has come and she has gone, only days ago.”