“Christ!” he gasped, coughing as he waved away a cloud of her wig powder.
“Thank ye—thank ye—!” The woman kissed whatever patch of skin she could find, moving to block his path up the stairs, even as he tried to gently push her away.
“Move, wench!” Sophia stood at the bottom of the stairs, pistol aimed at the doxy’s face. “He doesn’t have two coins to rub together, let alone any to waste on you!”
At that the girl ceased her assault, turned in a huff, and marched down the stairs to join the fray.
“Did she kiss you senseless?” Sophia snarled. “Go! He’s getting away!”
Nicholas took the steps two at a time. He burst onto the second floor, his chest burning as he drew each heavy, uneven breath. Down the hall, at the very end of a length of worn rug, a bedroom door had been thrown wide open, and Nicholas strode toward it. Just inside, a dark-haired girl, wrapped in a knit blanket, leaned onto the shoulder of another girl who patted her back now and then as she spoke in rapid, almost nonsensical English.
“On me—the door—a mite—funny little man—waving his knife—out the window—”
“A funny little man?” Nicholas asked, just as Sophia repeated, “Out the window?”
The girl blinked at their sudden appearance. “Why—short, yes, very small, almost like a child. And he’s one of them—he’s, how do you say—”
“From the Far East? Chinese?” the other offered. The first nodded, then turned to him, clearly thinking she should be rewarded. But Sophia was right—he didn’t have two coins in his pocket. After their drinks and supper, he no longer had even one.
Sophia pushed past him into the room, Nicholas following at her heel. The room was choked with the scents of smoke from the blown-out candles and perfume reeking of flowers. Rain had blown in from the open window and soaked the carpet in dark splotches.
Sophia retrieved a torn piece of fabric stuck to the frame, and inspected it as Nicholas stuck his head out, searching the flooded streets for any sign of movement. He swung a leg over the window frame and climbed out through it, jumping from the ledge to the porch’s roof and, finally, dropping to the ground. A heavy thud and curse followed as Sophia landed behind him.
Nicholas ran forward, shielding his eyes against the tropical torrent. Water rushed along the dirt and cobblestone paths, carrying away, just for the night, the grime and filth of the island.
But the thief was gone, and Rose’s letter along with him.
“Carter!” Sophia stood a short distance away, at the edge of the tavern, rooted in place. A large dark lump leaning against the brightly painted wall suddenly took the shape of a man.
“What’s the…” The words shriveled in Nicholas’s throat as he took a step back.
The Linden man sat slumped, his eyes open and unseeing. His skin had taken on a white, waxy quality, as if the blood had been drained from it. Between the rain and the near complete dark, Nicholas could see no obvious mortal wound—no gunshot, cuts, marks of strangulation.
“What happened?” he asked Sophia as she knelt beside the body. She turned the dead man’s head to the side, where a rivulet of blood was working its way down from his ear and along his jawline.
“There they are!”
Nicholas looked up to where one of the doxies was leaning out of the window, pointing directly at them. Several men at her shoulder turned to run back down the stairs, through the tavern, at the sight of them.
“We need to run,” he told Sophia.
“No argument from me,” she said, and sprang forward, leading them deeper into the night’s storm.
ETTA FELT HER WAY ALONG the edge of her dreams, carried by the soft rocking of memory.
The waves thrashing beneath her suddenly steadied to a gentle pulse that mimicked her own. Faces ringed around her in the dim candlelight, whispering, their rough hands tugging at her bruised skin. She pulled back to the cool silk and shadows of her mind, searching for that bit of light she’d seen: the moon on water stained with midnight.
He found her first, as he always did, from across the length of a ship. The parts of her that had dimmed with loss flared again, flooding the aches and fears until nothing but the sight of him remained. The tide kept the same pace, dipping, rising, with each step they took toward one another.
Then, suddenly, he was there, she was in the circle of his arms, and her face was pressed to the folds of his rough linen shirt. She breathed in his sea scent, her hands sliding along the strong planes of his back, seeking the familiar warmth of his skin. Here, here, here—not without, not anymore. The simplicity of it took root in her chest, blossomed into all of the possibilities she had dreamt about. A rough cheek brushed her smooth one and his lips moved against her ear, but Etta couldn’t hear a word, no matter how hard she gripped him, drawing him closer.
The world beneath her eyelids shifted again; the shadows pulled back, just enough to see the others around her, the curve of the Underground tunnel. A violin’s notes slanted against the air, and she realized they were swaying to its sound, moving in a slow, endless circle of two. She thought of the way she had taken his arm, stroked the strong veins and ligaments, created a masterpiece of his pulse and muscles and bones. The walls shook and banged and roared, and Etta thought as she looked up, as she tried to see his face, Let them roar; let it all fall apart.
He ducked his head down and drifted back, receding. She tried to catch him, his sleeve, his fingers, but he disappeared like a warm breeze, and left her overturned and alone.
Don’t leave me, she thought, as the heaviness in her body subsided and she resurfaced in her skin, flushed with panic, not now, not now—
Nicholas called back, laughing, And now, good-morrow to our waking souls….
Etta opened her eyes.
The fire that had singed her veins in the desert was gone, at least. But she felt as insubstantial as the specks of dust dancing around the flickering lamp on the nearby bedside table. She stayed still, keeping her breathing even, and surveyed the room beneath her lashes.
And there, right at the foot of the bed, slumped in a high-backed chair, was a man.
Etta caught her gasp and swallowed it back. All she could see from the bed was the crown of his head, his thick, dark hair. Candlelight caught the few silver strands mixed into it. He wore a simple shirt and dark slacks, both crumpled from the position he had slept in. One hand rested on the open book in his lap, a loose bow tie woven between his fingers; the other arm had fallen over the side of the chair. His chest rose and fell slowly with each deep, sleep-drugged breath.