Peter struck a lucifer and touched it to the end of his cheroot. The tip flared in the dim-lit room. “You ran,” he said quietly.
Danton tossed his cards on the green baize table.
Peter pushed his chair back, his cherubic face fair cover for the hardened killer he was inside. Blond hair bleached white by the merciless Spanish sun hung to his shoulders. Too long for the current style.
“You’d rather I killed your brother?” Danton asked.
Smoke curled from between Peter’s lips. He gave Danton a slow smile. “It would solve a lot of problems.”
Danton pulled his greatcoat up over his shoulders. “You’ve been on the Peninsula too long.” He tossed a handful of coins on the table and stood.
The gaming hell promised more problems than it solved, but it kept visitors away. Danton crossed to the long leather curtain at the back of the room and started up the narrow stairs to the floor above. Rhythmic creaking banged against the anonymous doors.
He could afford better, but since returning from Badajoz it didn’t matter. His poor quarters suited him, desperately uncomfortable. Until Bella’s reappearance, his every day had been a waking nightmare, his sleep foul beyond measure.
Peter threw a long glance down the hall behind them and pulled the cheroot from his mouth. “Stop torturing yourself and take the chit. M’brother won’t stop you, the betrothal was arranged a year ago and he’s living off expectations.” Peter looked back over his shoulder, eyes sharp. “Unless you want to cuckold him.”
Danton went still. “Take it back, damn you.”
“She’d be used goods, but turn her up sweet and she’d make a fine mistress.”
Fury blasted through Danton, breaking the last of his self-imposed walls. He twisted both hands in Peter’s loosely tied neckcloth and slammed him back against the nearest door. The light jumped and screams of protest came from the unseen occupants, but Danton was past caring. His emotions woke with a vengeance, and for a second something cold and satisfied flickered in Peter’s winter-pale eyes.
Danton whispered, “Bastard.”
Peter pried Danton’s hands off and dropped to his feet. “I only wish." A crooked smile came and went. "Now that you're back, tell me your plans."
Bella glanced up at her aunt. Lady Bethany reluctantly laid a tightly sealed missive on the table, her gaze lingering on the heavy cream paper.
Bella sucked in a sharp breath. The letter drew her eyes, her name written in an angular hand. “He’s here,” she whispered. The blood drained from her face and returned in a furious rush.
She lifted the paper to her lips. It smelled like him, all warm and masculine.
Lady Bethany frowned. “Open it.”
Bella quickly fumbled the letter out of sight. “La, Aunt, How could you possibly be interested in an old friend?”
“You sniffed that letter, Bella. How very ill-bred.”
Bella wedged the letter under her thigh and reached for her cup. The thin porcelain shook in her grip and congealed chocolate spilled out over her fingers. She put it down quickly. “We’re old friends.”
Lady Bethany harrumphed, patting at Bella awkwardly. “Privacy then, in this one instance. Don’t try my patience, love.”
Bella waited until her aunt left before she wiped her hands and retrieved the letter. It was sadly crumpled. She wasn’t fooling anyone with her blasé air. All London knew of Bella’s unhealthy passion for a man who regarded her so little he’d not bothered to inform her that he’d arrived back in England.
She picked at the thick wax seal. Quickly then, before she lost her nerve.
She opened the folded missive. “A meeting?” she whispered. “He would meet with me?”
In the garden at midnight. How very odd.
How deliciously romantic.
Bella shivered and ran the letter over her cheek to her lips, tears standing in her eyes.
Danton unlatched the service gate at the back of the garden. The moonlit landscape was familiar, but he’d been gone a long time and time changed the purest memories to dross. He trusted Peter to watch his back, but the tall yew hedges bordering the alley behind Liancourt House loomed high enough to conceal a man and Peter’s brother wasn’t beyond hired bullies.
Danton wanted this done. His plan to leave for the country was too pressing to put off. He’d test Bella, and she find out what she really wanted.
Danton prayed it was him.
From where he stood he could watch her drift down the flagged walk, her delicate satin slippers passing over the clumps of carefully tended fairy thyme.
She looked like Mab herself, all in gray silk, her cropped hair caught up in a gray velvet ribband. She had the most beautiful hair, sleek and black. The extreme style only emphasized the delicate curve of her cheek and the lushness of her mouth.
She stopped at the entrance to the Folly, and touched the Grecian column with one long finger, her face pale and resolute.
Was he so repugnant to her?
She swallowed, set her lips, and passed out of sight into the shadows of the ruined temple. Peter was half-right. Bella was desperately unhappy, and he’d been gone for much too long.
He followed the scent of moonflowers to where she perched uncertainly on a stone bench, her dark beauty a vibrant counterpoint to the cold white stone. “Bella.”
“You sound so stern, Danton. Surely you must be proud.”
“Proud?” he questioned, moving in closer.
Her eyes widened, staring up at him. “I thought we were friends, but you have succeeded in shutting me out, after all these years.”
The doctors said after being knocked in the head and captured, it’d been his memories trying to find a way in, but at the time Danton thought he’d been going mad. Voices chased him, flashes of feeling and emotion. One voice in particular, over and over, reading.
At first it’d been news, snippets of novels, then poems and jokes to make him laugh. And finally, The Letters. He capitalized them in his mind.
Once, after a particularly bad beating, the voice had stayed with him all night. And he’d begun to see her, sitting on his pallet in dungeons beneath Badajoz as cannon roared outside the fortress walls or sauntering at his side, as pale and beautiful as a star, with eyes the color of moon-washed jade and hair like the night sky.
My darling idiot, when I think of how much time you have in which to write me, and don’t—-
Hers had been the first memories to return. Hullo, Bella, just a note. I’m busy and—the first to be suppressed. He’d burned the letters Peter had saved for him, including the ones that had arrived while he was in prison, and kept himself from her, but she was here now, and she was real.
His booted footsteps echoed on the lichened marble. “Do you love me, Bella?”
She put her hand out and he grabbed it, pulling her off the bench into his arms. She was smaller than he remembered, more fragile, but the arms that slipped around him to knot at his back were strong and desperate.
“What kind of question is that to ask of me?” she muttered into his cravat.
“You’re engaged to be wed,” Danton breathed, eyes narrowed in a rush of pain so intense her face got lost in the blurry darkness that came and went behind his eyes.
Bella threw her head back and sucked in a sharp gasp. Moonlight glittered on her tears. She lifted up on her toes, hands slipping over his shoulders to tangle in the hair at his nape. “Nothing mattered without you. I love you, Danton."
He was kissing her, Danton’s mouth on hers, wet and open. And hungry--oh God, for her. Sarah clung to him and returned his kisses. He was finally back.
A letter fell from his fist and dropped to the flagstones. My dearest Bella, forgive me for not writing.
I love you.
For more great reads, follow the Summer Reading Trail
YA - Kendal Ashby - Melody's Song--First Chapter
Jeannie Lin -Butterfly Swords--first duel
...and in case you're interested? A continuation of Kill Velocity, although with a warning. Violence and language