Where Illumination Lies
Tuesday, 28 July – Village of Elstree
Blood spattered and weary to the bone, Miss Hero Jarvis stood at the window of an upper room in the Elstree Inn, staring out over its yard without seeing a thing.
She had killed three men not an hour ago, though she'd already put away her lack of remorse as quite understandable under the circumstances, given that they'd kidnapped her and murdered her maid right before her eyes. Still, the surge of giddy relief she'd felt at seeing Devlin ride up to the kidnapper's cottage was wearing off; she knew she looked a disgraceful mess, knew there were things that needed to be done, authorities to notify, information to gather and disseminate, and yet all she wanted was for these moments of peace to continue.
Not liking to show she'd been startled, Hero turned from the darkened window slowly, to see Devlin standing in the open doorway, towels over his arm and a jug of steaming water in his hand.
“The girl downstairs said you had refused her assistance,” he said, moving forward with an insulting lack of haste, as though he expected her to shy away. “So I've brought these up. I've also hired a coach to return you to London whenever you should feel ready to depart.”
“What of you?” she said, folding her hands together in an effort to hide the trembling she couldn't seem to will away. “I cannot allow you to remain here alone to deal with a mess that was of my own making. And it's possible I might be able to aid our investigation if I should stay.”
At the words our investigation she saw one of his eyebrows raise. Even so, there was little heat in his voice when he said, “How would you accomplish that, by withholding more potentially useful information? No, it's for the best if you return to London at once. I will manage perfectly well without your assistance, I promise.”
A flush crept up the back of her neck; while his tone was mild, the words carried quite enough of a mistrustful sting on their own. His stubborn refusal to let go of her need to keep certain evidence to herself – evidence which she had learned from her father in the strictest confidence – was both grating and a bit hurtful. “Be that as it may, it simply feels wrong to flee the scene like some criminal,” she said, keeping her voice crisp.
“Miss Jarvis, believe me when I say it is difficult to imagine you fleeing from anything; I would imagine it's generally the other way around.” As he poured the water into a basin, she watched him carefully; enough so that she caught the smile pulling at the corner of his mouth. Even if his teasing did rankle a bit, it was worth the return of his good humor.
“I don't believe that's so. After all, I fled from the idea of marriage for a good number of years.”
Devlin merely glanced at her in response, removing his coat and rolling up the sleeves of his shirt. Her eyes following his movements, she noticed his cuffs and shirtfront were stained with rusty smudges, evidence of how he'd held her close while the kidnapper's blood was still wet upon her dress.
Removing herself with some difficulty from a study of the line of his forearms, Hero took a deep breath and said, “If you have something improper in mind, you might at least lock the door,” though the statement came out with rather less asperity than she'd meant it to.
“Nothing more improper than washing the blood from your face, I assure you.”
“Honestly, Devlin, if you think me incapable of cleaning my own face-”
“Sit down.” He was using that tone of voice again, the one that brooked no refusal. It wasn't that it worked on her, Hero thought, sitting in the indicated chair. It was simply that she was too tired to argue, that was all.
She eyed him warily, watching as he dipped his fingers into the steaming water before wetting the cloth, regretting the earlier impulse that had led her to send away the inn's maidservant. Being alone with Devlin, she'd noticed of late, was a recipe for distraction. Being alone with him under heightened circumstances, as she knew quite well, could be a recipe for something else entirely.
“Really, this is-”
“Hush.” He stopped her words quite effectively, holding her gaze with his own as he passed the damp cloth over her face with quick, firm strokes. The unusual amber shade of his eyes was something she'd noted many times before, but the warmth in them was something unexpected.
“Were you truly afraid for me?” she asked, driven by an uncharacteristic impulse to seek out some kind of truth from this enigmatic man who would so shortly be her husband.
For a moment he froze, his hand on her cheek, the heat of his fingers apparent through the cloth, his eyes locked on hers.
Then, before she could make sense of the look she'd seen in them, he turned away, rinsing out the towel and drying his hands. “Yes.”
When he turned back to her once more, his expression was neutral, carefully schooled to be blank and correct. “You might wash your hands as well, they're filthy. A cloak should cover the worst of those stains; I doubt you wish to be handed down into the street with that dress on display.”
“Indeed not,” Hero said, pushing her tangled, loose hair back with her hands, trying to give her overly warm face a moment to cool. “My mother will be in state of collapse as it is.”
Devlin watched her a moment longer, his expression maddeningly inscrutable, before gesturing to her hair. “Have you any of your hairpins left?” he asked. She did; a meager handful only, but she handed them over nonetheless, beyond caring for the moment if she appeared somewhat less than fully capable of managing for herself. “We can at least attempt to make you look respectable.”
“We both know I am anything but, my lord,” she said, shivering slightly as his fingers laced through her hair.
“Ah, but you are always very careful to appear so,” he said, crossing the room to close the window against the cooling night air. “Speaking of which, you might be spared a great deal of harassment and talk if we claim I was the one who killed those men.”
“No,” Hero said, more sharply than she'd intended, as his fingers brushed across the nape of her neck. “It's very noble of you, I'm sure, but I cannot allow that. They are my actions, and I alone will take responsibility for them.”
He hesitated a moment, his hands stilled in her hair. “If you're quite certain-”
“I am,” she said, pleased to hear the firm note return to her voice. His fingers began their movement again, combing and weaving through her hair, the soothing sensation of it combining with the warmth of the room and her own exhaustion to send her into a pleasant state of relaxation, her eyes drifting shut.
“Wherever did a man like you learn to plait hair?” she asked, then sat up with a gasp as his fingers caught in a sudden snarl, pulling sharply.
The answer was obvious, of course – there was only one woman in his life for whom he'd have been likely to perform so intimate a task. Hero regretted the foolishness of having asked the question when the answer was so blatant, opening her mouth to say so.
But she needn't have bothered; Devlin scarcely paused in his task, deftly untangling the knot in her hair, and answered readily enough, the catch in his voice barely perceptible. “An old friend taught me, many years ago.”
Coiling the plait at her neck, he pinned it in place, and Hero noted that his hands did not touch her skin again. She sat quiet and still, oddly reluctant for the moment to end, to return to a reality where she and this man were practically strangers; certainly not people who exchanged emotional confidences and curiously charged looks.
He remained behind her after pushing the final pin into place; remained silent and unmoving so long that her composure began to crack, before she felt the touch of his fingers once more, tracing lightly down the edge of her throat.
“Hero...” he said, his voice so low she could hardly be certain if she'd heard it with her ears or only in her imagination. At the collar of her dress, his fingers stilled, held against the pulse jumping beneath her skin; a drumming sound built and built in Hero's ears, her breathing increasingly rapid.
Then the sound burst into reality, hooves clattering into the yard below, voices calling out.
Devlin moved to the window, his fingers clenched, leaving Hero to sit stiffly, alone.
“Lovejoy has arrived at last,” he said. “We should go down.”
“Of course,” she said. Standing and shaking off her exhaustion and emotion, she closed her mind tight on the past twenty minutes, becoming once more the cold and careful Miss Jarvis, as expected.
Tuesday, 28 July – London, Tower Hill
At the house of his friend Paul Gibson, seated in a leather chair that had seen better days, Sebastian peered into the depths of his glass, trying to recall precisely what number brandy this was.
“So, we've decided. It's three killers then, correct?” Gibson said, pouring himself another glass and looking more than a little contented, slumped in a chair near the fire.
“We've decided nothing,” Sebastian protested, waving his brandy for emphasis, nearly losing half of it to the carpet. “We're back at the bloody beginning, my friend.”
Gibson stared at the now empty bottle beside him. “If I suggested more brandy might help, would you object?”
“My God, yes. That was your suggestion the last time we came to this conclusion, and look where it's gotten us.”
“Comfortably soused,” said Gibson, to all appearances quite happy with that condition. “You have to admit, it's far better to do this in company than alone in some disreputable tavern, as you did over Kat.”
Sebastian glared at him as dangerously as he could manage, given that it was growing hard to properly focus. The effect was wasted in any case; Gibson had closed his eyes and leaned back into his chair, humming to himself. “Let us not speak of her.”
“Shall we discuss Miss Jarvis, then?” Gibson asked, breaking off his song and opening one eye to fix Sebastian with a surprisingly steady stare. “Normally I wouldn't say this, but under the circumstances, I'm feeling it's important that a man tell his friend the truth. And you are a very good friend, so I'll say it. I think Miss Jarvis is good for you.”
Sebastian gave a humorless laugh and tossed back the remains of his drink. “Whatever gave you that highly mistaken impression?”
“You've been yourself again since she came into your life. Interested in something other than the bottom of a glass. Also, she shares your values, and, from the gossip I hear, a good deal of your time in the course of your investigations.”
“Where do you hear gossip? Don't tell me the dead talk back.”
“You'd be surprised at the things Mrs Federico hears,” Gibson said, speaking of his ill-tempered but highly capable housekeeper.
“Kat aided my investigations, and was good for me. And Kat, I loved,” Sebastian said bitterly, getting up and wandering towards the kitchens in search of more brandy, which now sounded like a much better idea.
Gibson's voice trailed after him; perhaps he was drunk enough to have missed Sebastian's absence. “Kat helped you out of love for you. Miss Jarvis seems to have an honest desire to see justice done. It's a match of equals, my friend.”
Sebastian couldn't deny that; Miss Jarvis hadn't become involved in his last three investigations through coincidence, and much though he hated to admit it, she had proven herself useful, even to the point of saving his life on one memorable occasion. He hadn't realized it at the time, but it now struck him that the sick drop he'd felt in his stomach upon hearing the news she'd been kidnapped likely meant Miss Jarvis had, in some capacity, become indispensable to him.
That thought, Sebastian reflected, was definitely caused by an excess of brandy, though it didn't stop him from bringing in a fresh bottle and pouring himself another measure.
As a bit of retribution, he left Gibson to pour his own.
“She does frighten me, you know,” Sebastian said, dropping back into his chair and staring into the flames, referring to a remark Gibson had made earlier, on the theme of Miss Jarvis frightening every other man in existence. “The idea of being married to her terrifies me.”
“I will be generous,” Gibson said, tipping his head back against the upholstery after giving Sebastian a long look, “and attribute that remark to the brandy, and not you.”
“Very kind of you.”
Gibson nodded. “Although I wonder if you've considered exactly why it is she terrifies you?”
“Being Jarvis's daughter isn't reason enough?” Sebastian said. “Besides, you've met her.”
“I have.” Gibson smiled. “I rather like her, even if I wouldn't care to tangle with her in a dark alleyway. Or a well-lit one, for that matter.”
He sipped at his drink, regarding Sebastian over the rim of the glass. “Losing Kat was very hard on you, I know. That kind of vulnerability must be very frightening.”
Sebastian did not meet his friend's eyes, his voice cold and low. “That is enough, Gibson.”
Gibson shrugged and made a show of studying the fire. Tugging his cravat from his throat, Sebastian thought of Kat, and how losing her had nearly killed him; tried not to think about Hero, and how the thought of losing her had caused that rush of sick terror, so terribly familiar; how seeing her alive and whole had caused a rush of a different feeling entirely, one that was equally familiar but no less frightening.
Forgetting that would require another brandy.
Wednesday, 29 July – London, Berkeley Square
When Hero Jarvis returned home late Wednesday afternoon, the butler informed her she had a visitor waiting – Devlin's formidable aunt, the Dowager Duchess of Claiborne.
“Thank you, Grisham,” she said absently, smoothing her skirts and moving serenely across the hall, trying to hasten her steps without appearing to do so.
Good gracious, she would arrive at my door the day before the wedding, she thought, grateful to have spent the better part of the day chasing down criminals and witnessing murder, rather than sitting about the house brooding over the previous day's kidnapping or her imminent change in marital status.
She was aware of being carefully scrutinized as she greeted the Duchess and sent for tea; they had met before on social occasions, the Duchess not being the sort to miss an event if it could be helped, but they were far from well acquainted.
They chatted pleasantly for a few moments, before the Duchess came to the point of her visit.
“Miss Jarvis, you are well known for your stance regarding the married state; even the most awful gossips gave up on you years ago. What I wish to know now,” she said, settling her teacup firmly in its saucer, “is why you have changed your mind.”
Revealing the real reason was, of course, out of the question; Hero sipped at her tea to gain a moment, burning her tongue in the process.
The Duchess waved her hand irritably, apparently not taken in by Hero's sudden thirst. “Oh, I know the reason why Devlin is doing this – I hate to speak ill of the dead, my dear, but your late maid was a most indiscreet creature,” she said blithely, though Hero was quite certain she'd not given anything away by so much as a twitch of her hands. “But you are a clever woman who doesn't mind a bit of talk, you could have gotten around that easily enough. Instead you have chosen to accept my nephew, and I should like to know why.”
Hero set down her teacup with care, choosing not to dwell on the fact that her pregnancy was not as secret as she'd thought, instead focusing on formulating an answer that would give away as little of her own confused motivations as possible. “I haven't changed my mind on the issue of marriage, if that is what you are asking. I still find it a ridiculously confining institution, designed to strip a woman of any and all autonomy and leave her with nothing at all to call her own, not even her name.”
The Duchess started at her for a long moment, Hero doing her utmost to match that piercing gaze. Finally, she smiled. “My dear Miss Jarvis, I quite agree.”
“Indeed?” said Hero, raising her brows. “I have always heard it said that you were a woman of great intelligence.”
In a younger woman, the Duchess's huff of laughter would have been most undignified; in this particular woman, Hero found it rather charming. “I daresay you have heard no such thing, but I have never been one to turn down flattery when offered. However, that only makes my earlier question all the more pressing – if your views on marriage remain the same, why take this chance with Devlin?”
Hero found herself truly taking in the Duchess for the first time, from her shockingly bright pink turban to the kind look in her eyes and the slight smile on her lips, and let out her breath in a heavy sigh. “To be honest, I couldn't quite say,” she admitted, feeling something loosen in her chest, a held-back surge of emotion welling up inside her. “I am terrified of the thought that tomorrow I shall become someone else. I know Devlin won't demand that – he has been very good in the terms of our settlement, and I've no fear he will attempt to curtail my activities. And yet, when I'm with him, I feel somehow different, not quite the person I am accustomed to being. I do firmly believe this is the right course to take, but I fear losing myself.”
The Duchess patted her hand and gave her a look that was far too sympathetic for Hero's taste; perhaps, Hero thought, the past few days' events had had more of a negative effect on her emotions than she had thought, causing her to act like an idiotic girl in front of this woman she barely knew.
With that thought in mind, the Duchess's next words were unexpected. “Well, good heavens, child, I am glad to hear that.”
“Oh, yes. I was married myself for fifty years, you know. If you are not afraid the day before your wedding, something is quite wrong. I nearly fled the house with a footman the morning of my own wedding.” Peering into Hero's face through a quizzing glass, she made a soft sound. “I do think you fear too much, however. Marriage does have some benefits.” Her eyes twinkled as she squeezed Hero's hand, still held in her own. “One doesn't like to think an old lady like me recalls what they are, yet I do. And my nephew is a very handsome and charming man. I suggest you take full advantage of that, at the least.”
A warm flush spread over Hero's face, causing her to fan herself rapidly with her handkerchief. “Goodness, but the air in here has grown rather close.”
The Duchess's laugh was nearly as loud as her turban, and Hero found herself smiling along, her handkerchief falling from her fingers to the floor. “He is indeed," she allowed. "I admit I am not always certain I enjoy his company, but he does provide one with something pleasing to look upon.”
“I think you will do just fine, my dear,” the Duchess managed, through her laughter.
Hero bent to retrieve her fallen handkerchief, the bluestone triskelion pendant she wore slipping out from beneath the high neckline of her dress as she did so.
Catching sight of it, the Duchess's laughter died abruptly, though it seemed to Hero she did her best to hide a stronger reaction.
“Where did you get that necklace? It is a very unusual piece,” she added, likely aware of how sharp her question had been.
Hero touched the pendant, folding it in her hand, feeling its strange heat against her palm before she tucked it back out of sight. “It was a gift, of sorts. From my father.”
“Really? Well, I'm certain it shall bring you many interesting conversations in the future.” Eyebrows raised, the Duchess stood to depart, seemingly finished with her questioning; Hero had the odd sensation that she had passed some sort of test.
“You've nothing more to ask me, then?” she asked, rising to see her guest out.
The Duchess gave her a last, long look, one that seemed both faintly pleased and amused, the business of the necklace apparently forgotten. “My dear Miss Jarvis, I have learned what I came here to find out, and that is enough.”
Watching the Duchess exit her home, Hero reflected that though Devlin and his aunt bore little physical resemblance to one another, they did share a highly irritating habit of leaving one certain that far more had been given away in conversation than was intended.
Thursday, 30 July – London, Brook Street
Lost in the haze of shadows drifting over the ceiling, Sebastian marveled at the soft warmth of the woman lying next to him in the rumpled sheets of his bed. A short time ago, he had been contemplating a lonely married life of celibacy; only the evidence of his senses convinced him this was reality, and not the escape of a dream.
That she had come to him willingly, risking her pride in pursuit of happiness – or at the very least, in pursuit of pleasure – left him amazed, if quite pleasantly so. Looking back on the previous two months, he could recall little indication that she had harbored any desire for him, nor had he given her much reason to think it of him in return.
Tracing an idle pattern over the flesh of her bare arm, he wondered if that had not been something of a mistake.
“How does this work, now?” Hero asked, and Sebastian smiled into the darkness; even satiated with pleasure, his new wife's voice was as sharp and clear as ever. “This business of having separate chambers, I mean. Am I expected to return to my own rooms, or...?”
He yawned and pulled her up against him, pleased at the way her unusual height made their bodies fit together perfectly, his lips level with her forehead. “I think the expected thing is that I should visit you, not the other way around. But I honestly don't give a damn about what's expected, and I doubt you do either.”
She stirred against him, one hand coming to rest tentatively on his chest. “You don't mind sharing your bed? I warn you,” she said, the light note in her voice sounding forced, “I will tolerate no blanket thievery.”
His arms tightened around her. “I want you to stay,” he said, surprised to find that he truly meant it. Coming together to satisfy their mutual physical urges was one thing; becoming entwined in each other's lives and hearts would be something else entirely, something much more dangerous.
Taking a deep breath, Sebastian thought on what Gibson had said the night before; he was already vulnerable to this woman, whether he wanted to be or not. “We don't have to be strangers, you know, Hero. If we desire not to be, that is.”
She was silent for a moment, her slightly rapid breathing the only indication of her thoughts. When she rose up on one elbow to look into his face, her eyes were wide, the dim light from the street barely illuminating her features. “I should think we can be partners, at the least,” she said, and smiled.
Sebastian smiled in return, taking her face between his hands and kissing her, losing himself for a moment in the softness of her mouth against his, in the scent of honeysuckle rising from her hair. Partners was a start, and indeed, a better outcome for a marriage than many couples of their station ever achieved.
She lay back beside him with a contented sigh, tucking her head into the curve of his shoulder. “I'm glad of it. I admit, I did not expect you to be the sort who would be comfortable with a compromise.”
“Really?” he said, amused, shifting so he could see her face. “What sort of person did you take me for?”
“The sort who wants all or nothing,” she said, her face serious, peering up at his. “But I find I've underestimated you many times, and for that I apologize.”
Settling back against the pillows once more, Sebastian tried to feel his way through this conversation, the currents of which ran below their words, dancing just out of reach like the shadows flitting across the room. Her measure of him was not entirely inaccurate; once he decided he wanted something, Sebastian went after it wholeheartedly, rarely stopping to consider the consequences. Still, a question plagued him now. Exactly how much did he want Hero, and how much did she want of him in return?
“Well,” he said, “I hope I shan't give you cause to underestimate me in the future.”
“I believe it,” she said, her voice still serious. She stretched, pressing the length of her body against his, likely completely unaware of the reactions she stirred in him. “By the way,” she said, her usual wry undertone returning, “It was Chernishav who had me kidnapped, wasn't it?”
Sebastian thought for a moment of denying it, or at least denying knowledge of it, but resisted the impulse, knowing how it frustrated her when he withheld information. “How did you know?”
“I worked it out when my father mentioned Chernishav had turned up dead this morning. I can't imagine why I should have put two and two together.” When he remained silent, offering no opinion on her all-too-accurate deduction, she spoke again. “Did my father have him killed, or did you?”
This time, denying the act never crossed his mind; she already knew fully well what he was capable of. “I killed him myself.”
She sighed, a quick, soft sound in the darkness, and surprised him by pressing her lips to his neck. “I'm glad,” she said, her voice muffled against his skin. “Though I would impress upon you that I hope you'll not make it a habit, killing people for my sake.”
Running a finger along the line of her shoulder, he felt her shiver, felt the gooseflesh his fingers raised in their wake, and it came to him with sudden clarity that he wanted Hero enough to kill for her, and that was no small thing.
Her breath caught as he rolled over suddenly, pressing her down into the bed beneath him. Distracting her by dropping a series of kisses along her collarbone and letting his hands explore her body, he teased, “Would you not do the same for me? You are a very fierce lady, Viscountess.”
She stilled beneath him, apparently giving it serious consideration. “You know, I rather believe I would.”
Sebastian laughed. “I can rest assured that you will never bore me, Hero.”
There was a wicked gleam in her eyes as she looked up at him, twining her arms around his neck and pulling him closer. “I should certainly hope not,” she murmured against his mouth, and Sebastian sank into her, feeling, for the first time in months, that he was on solid ground at last.