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It was the quality of her feelings that shattered him—the pure belief and care that she had for him. He’d underestimated her, and he was more the fool for it, for denying this regard…this love for him. There was no other word to describe it. It truly was the same for her. The thought flooded him, filled his veins with equal parts relief and agony.

He tugged her forward, until her resistance faded and she curled against his side.

“Would poetry convince you of it? And now good-morrow to our waking souls,” he began, reaching into his memory for the rest of the lines. “Which watch not one another out of fear; for love all love of other sights controls, and makes one little room an everywhere.”

“Now I know you really are unwell.…” she began, but he wasn’t finished. He could stave off sleep a little while more, for these last few necessary moments. If his own words failed to convince her, Donne’s would not.

“Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone; let maps to other, worlds on worlds have shown; let us possess one world; each hath one, and is one.”

“Just so you know, I’m expecting another recitation of this when you’re feeling better,” she informed him. The tremor in her voice stole some of its cheekiness. “Can you try for a time you don’t think you’re dying?”

“Listen to me,” he said, hearing the way his words were beginning to slur. The heat she added to his already-burning skin could have set a man on fire. “You’ve already been delayed too long. Ask Hasan to take you to Palmyra in the morning. It’ll be a hard ride, a long one, but I know you can make it. I know you’ll make the right decision about what to do with it. I trust that your heart will know the right way forward.”

“No,” she said. “I won’t go without you—”

“Can you not bend your will to mine, just this once?” he said. “You know what’s at stake now. You must go.”

“You’re my partner,” she said, her voice pitching higher. He tightened his grip around her. She was upset now, but only because she could see the truth of his words, the truth of his fate. “Don’t you dare abandon me now. I won’t go without you. I won’t leave you behind.”

“You cannot go back,” he told her. “You must go forward—always forward now.”

Etta pushed herself up, far enough to look him in the face. The tears collected in her pale lashes, but she did not let them fall. Instead, he saw her determination bloom again, and he understood himself so well then, how she could inspire the two warring parts of himself—the half that wished to be the proper gentleman she deserved, and the rogue that wanted her no matter the cost.

“You are going to be incredibly embarrassed when you survive this, and I come back to make you answer for all of that poetry,” she said. “I swear, you eighteenth-century men are so dramatic.”

“It’s…” he struggled for the word, rasping it out. The pounding in his head had only grown worse as his heart had sped up. He wanted to hold her in silence, know the planes of her soft shape again in these last few hours. “I wish it were as simple as choice.”

Did people not die of fever in her time? Truly?

“You sound like you’ve already half given up,” she said. “You have things to do for yourself! You’re not going to die here—I won’t let you!”

The breath wheezed out of him, into him, but his tongue couldn’t form the words. He was fighting now to stay above the silver, silky call of oblivious sleep. His strength ebbed, pulling him back, past the point of choice. There was no choice. As much as he wished to strike back, to cling to this life until he wore his fingertips down to the bone, he had seen too much death to believe he could escape. Even with trickery and luck, a man only survived so many fevers before one finally claimed him in the end. But surely, if ever there were a reason to try, it would be her.

Exhaustion crept over him, banished only for a moment as she kissed him fiercely.

“I won’t leave you here,” she swore. “Promise me that you’re going to fight.”

“I love you.” For whatever small comfort it was worth, he would have the truth between them now. “Most desperately. Bloody inconvenient, that.”

“Promise.” He felt the first of her tears fall, slide down the length of his cheek. Panic made her tremble, so he drew her close to him again, hoping to steady her. He’d never felt time’s grip so acutely; there was so much he wished to say to her, and his chance was slipping away.

“You will live.…You must live,” he continued. “I think you know…the truth of it is…I wanted to go with you. I wanted to see your home. I wanted to find that place for us, the one you spoke of.…”

“It’s waiting,” Etta told him. “We just have to go.”

She could shatter him with so few words.

“When you play your violin, will you think of me?” he asked softly. “Sometimes…not always, or even often, but perhaps when you hear the sea and you remember…I should like to have heard you…just once.…”

“Nicholas,” she said sharply, holding his face between her hands, drawing him back from that steep, dark edge again, “if you die, I’ll never forgive you. I don’t care if that’s selfish—I don’t. Fight.”

Love was selfish, wasn’t it? It made honest men want things they had no right to. It cocooned one from the rest of the world, erased time itself, knocked away reason. It made you live in defiance of the inevitable. It made you want another’s mind, body; it made you feel as if you deserved to own their heart, and carve out a place in it.