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Nicholas made a sour face and she let out a light laugh. “Hasan has been standing guard. He barely let me in to see you before now. I had to sneak in under the cover of darkness last night.”

“Alone?” He gave her a disapproving look that she ignored.

“I got caught, and he dragged me off back to the house. You’ve been sleeping for most of the past two days.”

Two days. Holy God. Only three days, then, to meet the old man’s deadline? His heart stirred with fear—for her, the woman responsible for this mad chase.

“The men, were they caught?”

Her hands stilled, and he leaned into her touch greedily to keep her from pulling back. “No. I’m sorry. Do you think they were guardians?”

They must have been, if they had been tailing Rose and realized they’d stumbled onto an equally great bounty with Etta. Bloody hell, they hadn’t even managed to go a full day without being caught. What a worthless protector he’d proven himself to be.

“You’re sorry I was hurt, not that you ran after her,” Nicholas said pointedly, grateful for the steadiness of his voice. “Was it really Rose?”

“Yes—my own mother threw a knife at me.” Etta shook her head. “I can’t wait to tell her.”

“Did she say anything to you?” he asked.

“Just that she’d never let Cyrus or someone named Henry have the astrolabe,” Etta said. “I didn’t even have time to explain that we weren’t giving it to either of them.”


He knew it was time. He knew that, aside from simply wanting to see her, he had brought her here to finally speak the truth. But now that Etta was with him, with her lovely face and bright heart, he found himself stalling.

There is no way around, he thought. Only through.

She’d pulled back his blanket enough for him to finally free his arms; he used his newfound mobility to reach up and take her hands, press them against his chest. Nicholas knew that she could feel his heart galloping.

Her brows drew together sharply. She looked so tired to him, and he had little doubt as to who was the cause. “What’s wrong?”

“I’ve something to tell you,” he began. “You must let me speak the whole of it. It’s imperative, you know.”

“Can it wait until morning?” she asked. “You need your rest.…”

It was just like her to see evidence that his light was fading, and deny it to the last. “I have not been honest with you. It cannot wait.”

Etta leaned back, but he held her hands to him, anchoring her.

“I didn’t simply come after you through the passage.…I was worried that, yes, you do seem to invite a considerable amount of danger into your life, but…after you went out that first night, went to sleep, Ironwood negotiated new terms with me.” His throat ached so badly, and he lost his train of thought momentarily to the searing pain in his side. “That I would go with you, attend to this matter, and ensure you did not try to make off with the astrolabe or cross him. It was my intention to bring the astrolabe to him, Etta, whether you agreed or not. In exchange, he would surrender his holdings in the West Indies to me, a vast fortune. Now I know the vast fortune will no longer exist once he changes the past and creates a new future.”

Etta shook her head, her fingers loosening around his. For several moments, he was sure she was about to speak, but it could have been a trick of the candlelight.

“Say something,” he whispered. “Please…say you despise me for withholding the truth, that you’ll never forgive me…say anything, just don’t hide your thoughts from me.”

“I will,” she said evenly, eyeing him past a loose strand of hair that had fallen across her face. “Once I figure out the best way to cut out your heart and eat it.”

The laugh that burst from his chest was little more than a weak chuckle. “I wish you would. At least then you might see the whole of the sorry thing, the absolute mastery you have held over it from the moment I saw you.”

Etta’s eyes slid closed and she turned, trying to hide her expression—as if she could hide from him, after all this time. “I don’t want you to…to say something like that because you feel bad about keeping that secret. Do I wish you had told me from the beginning? Yes. But I kept the truth about not giving the astrolabe back to Ironwood from you for a long time. And it’s not like you’ve already given Ironwood the astrolabe.”

“I lied to you.…” He couldn’t make sense of this reaction; he’d steeled himself for the inevitability of her rejection, her hatred, once she knew what he’d been planning. Nicholas could scarcely bring himself to breathe, lest he shatter the unreal quality of the moment.

“But I know why you did. I know that much money would allow you to buy your ship, a whole new life. That’s what I want for you…to have the things you deserve. I want you to have that, and not feel guilty about how you got it. You told me the truth. You don’t have to give me poetry to ease the blow.”

“I wasn’t motivated to take the deal solely for the reward,” he said. “You must know this. I thought I owed it to Julian to finish what we’d begun, and…I wanted to…I wanted to be near you. Protect you.”


The truth, stripped bare to its bones, was that if he had cared for her any less, he would have walked away. Not even the full weight of Ironwood’s fortune would have been enough to tempt him alone.