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Electricity. It had been so long since he’d had the privilege of it, and even when he had, he had never seen the abundance of this era. Julian had been the one to introduce him to it, the one who’d chuckled as Nicholas investigated his first lightbulb. Nicholas had managed to push the memory of his half brother to the very edge of his thoughts for years, where the regret could not infect his hope for the future. But traveling and Julian were inexorably tied together. Julian was the sole reason he’d gone through the passages at all. At first he’d thought that he was there to ensure that Ironwood’s remaining rivals could not touch him—that he was a protector, a role in which he could take immense pride. In actuality, he’d found himself attending to his brother’s clothing, doing the washing and mending as if he were a valet. He saw to Julian’s mercurial needs and managed his wild, swinging moods. Even as a traveler, he had been a servant. A slave to Ironwood’s will.

I don’t need a protector, the girl had said. I need a partner.

The past few hours had proven that she did, in fact, need a protector; but…partner. That was something he had never thought to hope for.

He spent another moment collecting his nerves before looking back down at the girl sleeping beside him. The air in his lungs and nose was tinged with the smell of roses, as though he’d spent hours with his face buried in her mass of unruly blond hair. Before he could think about why it was unwise, ruminate on what a blackguard he was for taking advantage of the girl in the darkness, he reached over and gently brushed that same hair back from her face.

In some ways, each time he looked at her, it was as if he was seeing her for the first time on the deck of the Ardent. The symptoms of this sickness were unmistakable: the sharp dive of his heart as it dropped, recovering a moment too late; the tightness in his chest; the way his fingers seemed to curl instinctively, as if wondering how it would feel to weave them in her hair. He knew lust—he’d been consumed by its burn too many times—but Nicholas knew the ways to appease it, how to avoid the tangle of attachment, to leave content and calm and ready to return to the ship.

As he’d held her last night, he had genuinely believed the result would be the same. Touching her would answer his lingering doubts about whether her skin could possibly be as soft as he imagined. Giving in to the pounding need in his head to comfort her would be acceptable, just this once, when they could not be seen or judged for it.…

Instead, each second he spent breathing her breath, running his hands along her face, fighting the temptation of her lips…it only fed the burn in his chest. He wanted to believe that he had done it because she’d needed comfort, or at least distraction. He wanted to believe it was because being a stranger to this time had left him feeling unsettled. He wanted to believe that their lives could have ended at any moment, and there had been only this one chance left.

But the truth was, Nicholas had held her because he wanted to. He hadn’t thought about her reputation, or what anyone else might have cared to think. He’d taken what he wanted, and to hell with everyone else.

Nicholas felt a rueful smile spread across his face. And a curse be on him for it, because now he knew her. She’d shown him her mind, and she’d opened up her heart, and now he knew the taste of her tears.

And he was wrecked.

He clung to his willpower the way a man clings to battered remains of flotsam; it was hard enough to stay afloat, to remind himself of the important facts that remained, when she was so soft and warm and alive in his hands.

Could he kiss her, knowing that he was on the verge of betraying her and ensuring that the astrolabe got back to Ironwood?

Could he kiss her, knowing that she must return to her time and he must remain in his? The vilification they would face if she were to come with him back to his time, and they were made to deal with the cruel laws of the colonies…

Could he kiss her, knowing she might not burn the same way he did?

From the moment he had been exiled, Nicholas had used the dream of owning a ship as ballast to weather the storm of guilt and anger and devastation. He had learned, again, to swallow the limitations of his era’s society, even if he never fully accepted them. Traveling with her had stirred up thoughts inside of him that he had been so very careful not to touch; it gave him ideas of a dangerous nature. What would life be like, if he did not return to his time? If, rather than return the astrolabe to Ironwood, they spent their lives like pilgrims, moving through lands and centuries until they found one in which they could be safe, one that suited their needs? When two people didn’t belong to the era they were in, did they have to follow anyone’s expectations besides their own?

Except, of course, she’s desperate to save her mother and go home.

And he was as desperate to see his own ambitions through. It was nothing more than a thought that had gone rogue, spiraled out of his control. What Nicholas wanted was his ship—multiple ones at that; to live a life without restraints; and to be rid of his family and their scheming forever.

And surely, Etta would not be safe under any circumstances if he didn’t bring the astrolabe to Ironwood, would she? Not truly. Perhaps one day she might see this, and come to terms with his deception.

It was all too easy to be carried off by wild, baseless theories. The old man merely wanted to expand his flock. Find more servants. And, while their departure through the passage had been sudden and unexpected, he did not doubt that all would be forgiven—so long as he gave Ironwood what he wanted.