“I see,” she said mildly.
“I won’t pretend I’ve never done anything disreputable or had a dishonorable thought,” he said quietly. “It simply wasn’t a question for me. He would have brought you to another room, and I wouldn’t leave you alone in a strange place, where anyone could come in and harm you with me none the wiser. But…if anyone were to find out I’m staying here, rather than in a separate room, your reputation would be irrevocably damaged.”
“I don’t care about being judged by another century’s standards,” said Etta. “Especially one that I’ll probably never see again.”
“I know,” he said, tearing a clean sheet into a bandage to wrap her leg. “But it matters to me. Had I known the idea would be so unappealing, I never would have suggested it.”
Was that…hurt she detected?
“It’s not that. I just hate that it’s even necessary, you know?” she said. “That a woman doesn’t exist as a whole person. I was surprised when you said it. I thought you were joking, but only because I was thinking like a person from my time. Seventeen is a little young to be married.”
Nicholas pulled back, that guarded look of assessment sliding back into place.
“Most people don’t start considering marriage until they’re in their mid-twenties,” she continued. “There’s years of school, and most people want to find jobs and be somewhat settled first.”
“I see,” he said, in the same tone she’d used.
“But it’s not young for you?” Etta asked, sensing he was beginning to drift away again. “Really?”
“I’m nearly twenty,” he told her. “Of course it isn’t. But it’s not a thought I’ll entertain.”
Etta could see by the shadow that passed over his eyes that he’d said more than he wanted to. When he released her and stood, she felt the absence of him like the burn of empty lungs. His words had been lanced through with a trembling undercurrent, and she should have known better than to keep pushing him to understand why. She should have.
He turned, a flicker of anger moving through his features. “Must I really answer that? Would you have me catalog all my faults? All the reasons I’m unsuitable—” Nicholas caught himself, pressing the heel of his hand to his forehead, squeezing his eyes shut for a brief moment. “Go to sleep, Etta. Rest. We’ve much to do tomorrow.”
There was this dream she used to have, when she was younger and her stage fright was at its crippling worst. The most terrifying thing was how real it felt; each night, she felt the warmth of the stage lights on her skin as she stepped out and let herself be blinded by them. It never mattered what song the orchestra started to play—it was never the one she knew, never the one she had mastered—and she could never seem to improvise, but only choke on her own frustration at her inability to play the right thing on demand.
It was that same desperate feeling that propelled her forward now. She reached for the right words, but came up with nothing but air. She might have understood who he was as a person, but she hadn’t experienced the life that had made him that way.
There was something about this that he wasn’t telling her. Whatever his secret was, it was like a chasm between them, preventing her from reaching him. Anything she tried—her words, her glances, her touch—spilled into it before it could even get close to his heart.
He had worked his breath into short, hard measures when she threaded her arms beneath his, wrapping them around his center. For the length of a heartbeat, he let her. And in the next, he was pushing her away.
“Don’t”—he swallowed roughly—“do not act as though this is more than it is—”
Etta reached for him and pulled him down to her level. He struggled for the excuse he needed to do it again, even as his hands tightened around her shoulders and held her in place. When she kissed him, there was nothing gentle about it. No hesitation. Nicholas stood rigidly, his body hard against hers.
But just when she was sure she had badly fumbled this, he moved with a harsh sound, his hands going first to her loose hair, then to the small bow holding the neck of her blouse together. He swallowed her gasp, lips wild and hungry as they moved from the corner of her mouth to her jaw, her throat. Blood beat against her skin, relentless, and she was being walked backward before she realized it. Etta was dizzy with the feel of him under her hands, grateful she could lean against something just as her legs went soft.
She couldn’t hear what he was whispering into her skin, and she wondered if he felt as drunk as she did, sinking too fast to reach for the life preserver.
Etta shifted, angling toward the bed itself; she might as well have been drawing him into a lit fireplace. He pulled back so suddenly, she fell back onto the stuffed mattress. Nicholas spun on his heel, keeping his back to her as he strode to the other side of the room, rubbing his face, his hair, trying to catch his own breath.
“Don’t pretend like it isn’t real!” she managed to get out. “Don’t you dare be a coward about this!”
“Coward!” Nicholas barely managed to keep from howling as he crossed back toward her on unsteady legs. “Coward? You play at things you don’t understand—”
“I would understand,” she said, “if you’d trust me enough to explain them to me. I want to be with you—it’s as simple as that. And I think you want to be with me too, but there’s something you’re not telling me. It makes me feel foolish every time. Just tell me—if I have it all wrong, then tell me now.”