“I’m tired,” she said abruptly. “I think . . . Would you mind if I lie down?”
He stood. “Of course not.”
She looked down, but he caught a glimpse of unbearable sadness on her face as she brushed past him and curled up on the bed, drawing her knees up until she curved away from him like a sickle.
He stared at her shoulders. He didn’t know why, except that they were so obviously tight with sorrow. She wasn’t crying, or at least he didn’t think she was, but her breathing was hitched, as if it took some effort to keep herself under regulation.
He reached out a hand, even though he was too far away to touch her. But he couldn’t stop himself. It was instinct. His heart beat, his lungs drew breath, and if this woman was in pain, he reached out to comfort her.
But he didn’t take the final step. His hand fell back against his side, and he stood like a statue, helpless against his own tumult.
From the moment he saw her, he’d wanted to protect her. Even when he was so weak he could barely walk unassisted, he’d wanted to be her strength. But now, when she finally needed him, he was terrified.
Because if he allowed himself to be strong for her, to shoulder her burden the way he so desperately needed to do, he would lose himself completely. Whatever thread still hung inside him, keeping him from loving her completely, it would snap.
And his heartbreak would be complete.
He whispered her name, softly, almost daring her to hear him.
“I think I should be alone,” she said, never once turning to face him.
“No, you shouldn’t,” he said roughly, and he laid himself down behind her, holding her tight.
Father has been especially irritable lately. But then, so have I. The month of March is always cold and damp, but it’s been worse than usual this year. He takes a nap each afternoon. I think I might do the same.
—from Cecilia Harcourt to her brother Thomas (letter never received)
Two days later, Cecilia bled.
She’d known it was coming. Her courses were always preceded by a day of lethargy, a bit of cramping in her belly, and a feeling like she’d eaten too much salt.
And yet she’d told herself that maybe she was misreading the signs. Maybe she felt tired because she was tired. She wasn’t sleeping well. How was she to rest properly with Edward on the other side of the bed?
As for the cramping, they’d been serving pie all week at the Devil’s Head. They’d told her there were no strawberries in the filling, but could she really trust the sixteen-year-old barmaid who couldn’t keep her eyes off the brightly clad soldiers? There could have been a strawberry in that pie. Even a single seed could explain Cecilia’s discomfort.
And as for the salt, she had no earthly clue. She was near the ocean. Maybe she was breathing the stuff in.
But then she bled. And as she carefully washed out her rags, she tried not to examine the spark of pain in her chest that came with the realization that she was not with child.
She was relieved. Surely she was relieved. A child would have meant that she would have to trap Edward into marriage. And while a very large part of her would always dream of a cottage in Kent with adorable blue-eyed children, she was coming to realize that this dream had even less of a basis in reality than she’d thought.
It was hard to imagine that a fake marriage could have a honeymoon period, but nothing had been the same since they had received word of Thomas’s death. Cecilia was not an idiot; she knew that they were both grieving, but she did not understand how that alone might account for the intractably awkward chasm that had cracked the world beneath them.
The thing about Edward was, it had all seemed so easy. As if she’d been waiting all of her life to understand who she really was, and then, when he opened his eyes—no, it was later, with their first real conversation—she knew. It was bizarre, since her entire time with him had been built upon a lie, but she’d felt more honestly herself in his company than at any other time in her life.
It wasn’t the sort of thing one even realized right away. Maybe not until it was gone.
And it was gone. Even when he’d tried to comfort her after she’d unpacked Thomas’s trunk, something had been off. She had been unable to relax in his arms, probably because she knew that this too was a lie. He’d thought she was upset about her brother, but what had really pierced her heart was the realization that she now had enough money for a ticket on the Rhiannon.
And now that she knew she wasn’t pregnant . . .
She walked over to the window and balanced her hip on the ledge. There was a slight breeze to the air, a blessed addition to the humidity that had settled over the region. She watched the leaves ruffling in the trees. There weren’t many of them; this part of New York was fairly well built up. But she liked the way one side of the leaves was darker than the other, liked watching the colors flip back and forth, dark to light, green to green.
It was Friday. And with the sky a carpet of unending blue, which meant the Rhiannon would be sailing away that evening.
She should be on it.
She had no business remaining in New York. Her brother was dead, buried up in the woods of Westchester. She couldn’t go visit the grave. It was not safe, and anyway, according to Colonel Stubbs there was no proper marker—nothing with Thomas’s name and age, nothing proclaiming him a beloved brother or dutiful son.
She thought back to that awful day when she’d received the letter from General Garth. Which had turned out to be from Colonel Stubbs, actually, but that mattered little. She had just lost her father, and in the moments before she opened the missive, she’d been so terrified. She remembered exactly what she had been thinking—that if Thomas was dead, there would be no one left in the world whom she loved.
Now Thomas was dead. And there was no one else in the world she was allowed to love.
Edward would eventually regain his memory. She was certain of that. Already the bits and pieces were beginning to sift themselves out. And when he did . . .
It was better if she told him the truth before he discovered it himself.
He had a life back in England, one that did not include her. He had a family who adored him and a girl he was supposed to marry. A girl who, like him, was an aristocrat through and through. And when he remembered her—the inimitable Billie Bridgerton—he’d remember why they made such a good match.
Cecilia pushed herself away from the window ledge, grabbing her coin purse before she headed out the door. If she was leaving tonight, she had a great deal to do, and all of it needed to be done before Edward returned from army headquarters.
First and foremost, she needed to purchase her passage. Then she needed to pack, not that that would take very long. And finally, she needed to write Edward a letter.
She needed to let him know that he was free.
She would leave, and he could get on with his life, the one he was meant to lead. The one he wanted to lead. He might not realize this yet, but he would, and she didn’t want to be anywhere near him when that happened. There were only so many ways a heart could break. Seeing his face when he realized he belonged with someone else?
That might do her in entirely.
She checked the pocket watch Edward kept on the table to serve as their clock. She still had time. He’d gone out earlier that morning—a meeting with Colonel Stubbs, he’d said, one that would last all day. But she needed to get moving.
This was good, she told herself as she hurried down the stairs. This was right. She’d found the money, and she wasn’t pregnant. Clearly they weren’t meant to be.
Goal for today: Believe in fate.
But when she reached the front room of the inn, she heard her name, called out in urgent tones.
She turned. Fate, it seemed, looked an awful lot like the innkeeper at the Devil’s Head.
He’d come out from behind his counter and was walking toward her with a strained expression. Behind him was a finely attired woman.
The innkeeper stepped to the side. “This great lady was hoping to see Captain Rokesby.”
Cecilia tilted to the side to better see the woman, who was still somewhat obscured behind the innkeeper’s portly form. “May I help you, ma’am?” she said with a polite curtsy. “I am Captain Rokesby’s wife.”
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