“Come along,” Sophia said, after the driver had lifted her down from the carriage.
Etta trailed behind her, trapped between the thorns of anticipation and trepidation; no matter which way her heart swung, she felt stung by the intensity of the feeling. Her own lingering excitement at being brought into the fold of this secret history sickened her, twisting her insides so much more than the dread of what Ironwood really wanted from her.
This is it.
She could go home.
This is it.
Find a way to save Alice.
This is it.
Etta just needed to breathe.
Nicholas stepped up beside her, gazing up at the tavern’s windows. It was dark, but the light from the lanterns reflected warmly against his skin. Etta looked away quickly; she knew he could read her anxious expression as easily as she had read his, and she couldn’t stand the thought of him seeing her weak and out of her depth again.
“The only way out is through,” he said.
Etta nodded, squaring her shoulders.
The noise from the tavern burst out onto the road like a tangled chord as a patron, a soldier who’d only managed to get one arm through his uniform coat, staggered out. He patted at his wig, swinging around unsteadily to stare first at Sophia, then Etta.
“Hullo, girls.…” he began softly.
Etta stepped back, bumping into a solid warmth. Nicholas’s hands closed lightly around her elbows, and she was lifted that last step up past the soldier, to the door.
“Good night, sir,” Nicholas said firmly. When he opened the door, he released the muggy air trapped inside.
“Don’t look at them,” he said. Etta barely heard him over the roar of conversation. It was minutes past midnight, but there were more than enough soldiers and common men circling the tables, hauling themselves up out of their seats to stagger toward the bar. She sucked in a deep breath; the air was flavored with wax from the dripping candles, sour body odor, and the hoppy tinge of ale.
The skirt of her dress caught on something, yanking Etta hard enough to stumble into Nicholas again. She reached down to unhook it, and jumped when her hand brushed warm, damp flesh. Nicholas let out a sharp breath and reached down to push away the meaty hand. The soldier seemed to be sweating out every ounce of alcohol that went into him; his shirt was drenched at the pits and all along his back.
“Keep going,” Nicholas murmured. Etta tried to turn back, to cut the man with a glare, but Nicholas guided her toward the stairs at the back of the room.
“I could have handled that,” Etta muttered.
“I know,” he said, his breath on her skin. “I did him an undeserved favor. But if you demand blood, I’ll give him a scar to remember on my way out.”
The words rocketed through her. Etta turned so quickly on the bottom step, and the bulk of her gown threw her so off-balance, that he had to reach up to steady her. The weight and warmth of his hands bled through the gown, the stays, the shift, but she hardly noticed. They were finally standing eye to eye.
He quirked a brow in response.
“You’re leaving tonight?” Etta asked.
“For Connecticut? No, not until the morning. But I’ll need to find an inn.”
“You can’t stay here?”
His expression softened, and Etta could have sworn, just for an instant, his grip on her tightened. “No, Miss Spencer. I cannot.”
“Come on, Etta,” Sophia called. “He doesn’t like to be kept waiting.”
Etta didn’t budge. Softly, Nicholas asked, “Do you really believe I’d take my leave of you without so much as a good-bye? If nothing else, I gave you my word that I would take you away from here if you were in danger.”
“Promise?” Etta whispered.
The stairs creaked under their combined weight, and were so narrow that Etta was tempted to turn to the side and walk up that way. Nicholas had to bend at the waist to avoid bashing his head against the low-hanging ceiling.
Etta glanced at the second floor as they passed it, trying to spy through the cracks in the doors that had been left partially open. They must have been private rooms—there were fewer men up here, with their uniforms in better shape than the ones she’d seen below.
Based on Sophia’s description, she’d been expecting the walls to be falling down around their ears, the furniture and rugs to be moving around the halls on the backs of a sea of rodents. Instead it seemed tidy, if cramped and a little bleak.
It was even plainer on the third level. There were three doors to choose from. Sophia smoothed her hair, then her dress, and moved to the one on the far left, where a man armed with a rifle was standing guard. Nicholas measured him with a single look.
Before Etta could knock, a ringing voice called, “Enter.”
Etta, Sophia, and Nicholas followed the voice. This room was as bare as the hall, but practically stifling with the heat from the fireplace. With the exception of a four-poster bed with a side table, a trunk, and a porcelain chamber pot, the only other occupant was a wing-backed chair. A man was in it, positioned directly in front of a roaring fire.
He didn’t stand as they came in; merely absorbed each of them with a single look. Etta heard Sophia swallow hard. The old man raised his right hand expectantly, and she practically tripped in her rush to step forward and kiss the gold ring on it.
“Hello, Grandfather. You look well.”
“And you smell like a horse’s arse.”
Etta let out a shocked laugh and his sharp gaze swung toward her, choking the sound off with a single tilt of his head.