Anna’s story is a pale shadow of Adeline’s.

A girl running away from a woman’s life. She leaves behind everything she has ever known, and escapes to the city, disowned, alone, but free.

“Unbelievable,” he says. “You simply left?”

“I had to,” she says, and it is not a lie. “Admit it, you think me mad.”

“Indeed,” says Remy with a playful grin. “The maddest. And the most incredible. What courage!”

“It did not feel like courage,” Addie says, plucking at the rind of bread. “It felt as if I had no choice. As if…” The words lodge in her throat, but she isn’t sure if it’s the curse, or simply the memory. “It felt as if I’d die there.”

Remy nods thoughtfully. “Small places make for small lives. And some people are fine with that. They like knowing where to put their feet. But if you only walk in other people’s steps, you cannot make your own way. You cannot leave a mark.”

Addie’s throat tightens.

“Do you think a life has any value if one doesn’t leave some mark upon the world?”

Remy’s expression sobers, and he must read the sadness in her voice, because he says, “I think there are many ways to matter.” He plucks the book from his pocket. “These are the words of a man—Voltaire. But they are also the hands that set the type. The ink that made it readable, the tree that made the paper. All of them matter, though credit goes only to the name on the cover.”

He has misread her, of course, assumed the question stemmed from a different, more common fear. Still, his words hold weight—though it will be years before Addie discovers just how much.

They fall to silence, then, the quiet weighted with their thoughts. The summer heat has broken, given way to a breezy comfort with the thickest part of night. The hour settles on them like a sheet.

“It is late,” he says. “Let me walk you home.”

She shakes her head. “You do not have to.”

“But I do,” he protests. “You may disguise yourself as a man, but I know the truth, and so honor will not let me leave you. The darkness is no place to be alone.”

He does not know how right he is. Her chest aches at the idea of losing the thread of this night, and the ease beginning to take shape between them, an ease born of hours instead of days or months, but it is something, fragile and lovely.

“Very well,” she says, and his smile, when it answers, is pure joy.

“Lead the way.”

She has nowhere to take him, but she sets off, in the vague direction of a place she stayed several months before. Her chest tightens a little with every step, because every step brings her closer to the end of this, of them. And when they turn onto the street where she has placed her made-up home, and stopped before her imagined door, Remy leans in and kisses her once, on the cheek. Even in the dark she can see him blushing.

“I would see you again,” he says, “in daylight, or in darkness. As a woman, or a man. Please, let me see you again.”

And her heart breaks, because of course, there is no tomorrow, only tonight, and Addie is not ready for the thread to snap, the night to end, and so she answers, “Let me walk you home,” and when he opens his mouth to protest, she presses on, “The darkness is no place to be alone.”

He meets her gaze, and perhaps he knows her meaning, or perhaps he is as loath as she to leave this night behind, because he quickly offers his arm and says, “How chivalrous,” and they set off together again, laughing as they realize they are retracing their steps, returning the way they came. And if the walk to her imagined home was leisurely, the walk to his is urgent, threaded with anticipation.

When they reach his lodging house, they do not pretend to say good-bye. He leads her up the stairs, fingers tangled now, steps tripping and breathless, and when they reach his rented room, they do not linger on the threshold.

There is a faint catch in her chest at the idea of what comes next.

Sex has only ever been a burden, a necessity of circumstance, some required currency, and she has, up until now, been willing to pay the price. Even now, she is prepared for him to push her down, to shove her skirts out of the way. Prepared for the longing to break, forced away by the unsubtle act.

But he doesn’t thrust himself upon her. There is an urgency, yes, but Remy holds it taut as rope between them. He reaches out a single, steady hand, and lifts the hat from her head, sets it gently on the bureau. His fingers slide up the nape of her neck, and through her hair as his mouth finds hers, the kisses shy, and searching.

For the first time, she feels no reluctance, no dread, only a kind of nervous thrill, and the tension in the air is laced with breathless hunger.

Her fingers fumble for the laces of his trousers, but his own hands move slower, undoing the laces of her tunic, sliding the cloth over her head, unwrapping the muslin bound around her breasts.

“So much easier than corsets,” he murmurs, kissing the skin of her collar, and for the first time since those nights in her childhood bed back in Villon, Addie feels the heat rising in her cheeks, across her skin, between her legs.

He guides her back onto the pallet, kisses trailing down her throat, the curve of her breasts, before he frees himself, and climbs onto the bed, and onto her. She parts around him, breath hitching at the first thrust, and Remy pulls back, just enough to catch her eye, to make sure she’s okay, and when she nods, he drops his head to kiss her, and only then does he press on, press in, press deep.

Her back arches as that pressure gives way to pleasure, a deep and rolling heat. Their bodies press and move together, and she wishes she could erase those other men, those other nights, their stale breath and awkward bulk, the dull thrusts that ended in a sudden, abrupt spasm, before they pulled out, pulled away. To them, wet was wet, and warm was warm, and she was nothing but a vessel for their pleasure.

She cannot erase the memory of those other nights—so she decides to become a palimpsest, to let Remy write over the other lines.

This is how it should have been.

The name Remy whispers in her hair is not hers, but it doesn’t matter. In this moment, she can be Anna. She can be anyone.

Remy’s breath quickens as his tempo rises, as he presses deeper, and Addie feels herself quicken, too, her body tightening around him, driven toward the edge by the rocking of his hips and the blond curls tumbling into her face. She coils tighter and tighter, and then she comes undone, and a few moments later, so does he.

Remy collapses down beside her. But he doesn’t roll away. He reaches out, and sweeps a lock of hair from her cheek, and kisses her temple, and laughs, little more than a smile given sound, but it warms her all the way through.

He falls back against the pillow, and sleep comes over them, his leaden in the aftermath of pleasure, and hers light, dozing, but dreamless.

Addie no longer dreams.

She hasn’t, in truth, since that night in the woods. Or if she has, it is the one thing she never remembers. Perhaps there is no space inside her head, full as it is of memories. Perhaps it is yet another facet of her curse, to live only as she does. Or perhaps it is in some strange sense a mercy, for how many would be nightmares.

But she stays, happy and warm beside him, and for a few hours she almost forgets.

Remy has rolled away from her in sleep, exposing the lean breadth of his back, and she rests her hand between his shoulder blades, and feels him breathing, traces her fingers down the slope of his spine, studying his edges the way he’d studied hers in the midst of passion. Her touch is feather-light, but after a moment, he stirs, and shifts, and rolls to face her.