Nicholas could put such a cool distance between himself and others. She felt him trying to do it now, letting the silence speak for him, keeping his back to her as he shrugged off his filthy shirt and folded it neatly. She was almost too aware of him now. He filled a room just by standing in it.
This was a completely different Nicholas than the one who had literally kissed the breath out of her. She’d felt his heartbeat chasing hers. He had been the warm wave that had carried her away from everything else, and he hadn’t needed to say a single word in order for her to know that he was as desperate for her as she was for him. She wasn’t inexperienced. She knew what that felt like.
Then it’s the same for you?
Nicholas had kept any number of things from her, and he was well within his right to do so. He showed only a fraction of what he felt, even when he was being insulted in the crudest, vilest ways imaginable. But alone with him, she’d felt him let go, and she’d recognized what a rare privilege it was to be able to find him beneath all the stiff layers.
Etta tried to run her hands back through her hair and failed; she turned to look for the old silver brush she’d seen on the desk. Her thoughts were still churning when she sat back down and began to work the brush through the tangled ends of her waves.
Nicholas was back up on his feet, pacing the room, his hands clasped behind his back. Etta could feel the weight of his thoughts take shape between them as he put out a few of the candles at the other end of the room.
She wanted to know what he was thinking, but was afraid to ask, on the off chance that his mood had something to do with how quickly they were approaching the end of this. There wasn’t enough time.
You are leaving, she thought, even as a small, traitorous voice whispered, but not yet.…
“Come here a second,” Etta said softly.
Nicholas stopped, his hands going slack at his side. He didn’t move.
“Please,” she said, kicking her shoes off and standing again. She wove through the discarded rainbow of silk cushions, the carpets soft and plush beneath her feet. She took up the basin of water Hasan had left behind.
Returning to her perch on the bed, Etta dipped the last of the clean cloths into the water and carefully squeezed out the excess. Nicholas hesitated, but moved toward her in the end, approaching like a wary cat.
Before he could protest, Etta took his right hand and held it firmly, picking up the cloth to dab at the broken skin he’d reopened across his knuckles. The cuts were already scabbing over, but she worked as delicately as she could to clean away the blood. His fingers squeezed hers, almost reflexively; his eyes were hooded as he watched her work.
“I wish you had gone a little easier on him,” she said.
“He came in here thrashing a sword around. Was I supposed to stand idly by and do nothing?” he huffed.
“Well, you weren’t supposed to try to rearrange his face with your fist.”
“I wasn’t,” Nicholas protested. “He lunged up into it several times. I was only in the way.”
“You’re ridiculous,” she informed him. “Will you please apologize to him tomorrow?”
“If you wish, but I’m not sure it’s necessary,” he said. “He didn’t respect me until he saw that I was capable of defending you. We’ve made our peace. And if you think I wouldn’t do the same again, let me relieve you of that notion now. If the situation calls for violence, I will use it.”
She didn’t want to pick a fight, and she sensed that he was trying to start one in order to push her away. It was enough for her to understand why he’d done it, even if she felt he’d gone too far.
I need to tell him. He understood the stakes of it all. Nicholas would see that they couldn’t just give the astrolabe back to Ironwood and wash their hands of it.
“I have to tell you something.…”
“Shhhh…” he whispered. “Not yet. Not yet.”
Agitation melted away from him as he exhaled and sat beside her. The stubble along his jaw rasped as he brought his cheek up to rest against her hair.
It’s not over yet.
It doesn’t have to be over.
Come with me.
Etta swallowed, forcing the words back down her throat. She was tired, and she felt her emotions far too close to the surface to be reasonable about this. The truth solidified inside her, a wisp of hope burning, re-forming, becoming as shatterproof as a diamond. The crazy, stupid truth was as irrational as it was selfish, and she knew that—she knew it—but it didn’t seem to matter.
As much as she respected and admired his beautiful, sharp mind, there was such a gentle heart stowed away beneath the stormy colors of his moods, his rougher layers. She didn’t want to leave it behind; she didn’t want to leave any part of him, and pretend like none of this had happened.
Come with me.
She turned, kissing the place on his neck where she could see his pulse fluttering.
Come home with me.
His fingers slid away from hers—to draw her leg across his lap, unwind the dirty bandage, and begin cleaning the wound on her calf.
“Why did you lie to Hasan?” she whispered.
Nicholas knew exactly what she was talking about.
“By his accent and manner of dress, I assumed he is a Mahometan.” At her blank look, he elaborated. “A follower of the prophet Muhammad.”
What she thought of as a Muslim. She nodded.
“I only know a little about their faith—stories, really,” he explained. “But I assume it matches certain tenets of Christianity, a rather important one being, of course, that unwed women are not to be left alone with rogues whom they are neither related to by blood or bound to through marriage.”