“What’s wrong?” Blade asked.
“Nothing,” Esme replied.
Rip eased back into the shadows of the overhang as silence settled over the yard. After a moment Blade sighed. “Course it ain’t. Don’t think I’m a fool, Esme. Or blind. Any ‘alf-wit could see you’re upset and people is startin’ to ask why.”
The angry swish of her skirts. “What have you told them?”
“Same as you’ve told me. Nothin’.”
More silence. Rip pressed his back into the bricks, straining to watch and hear.
“’ave you told ‘im?” Blade muttered. “Bout ‘ow you bin feelin’? Because I could--”
“Don’t you dare say a word to him,” Esme gasped. “You promised you wouldn’t. Let me deal with this.”
“Runnin’ away ain’t dealin’ with it, Es.”
“I’m not running away.” Esme’s shoulders slumped, a look of pain flickering over her face. “John doesn’t want me.”
Rip froze. Him. They were talking about him.
A slash of light from the kitchen window cut across Blade’s face and his tawny eyebrows arched. “’E don’t want you? ‘E told you that?” Even from this distance the words were incredulous.
“He said he couldn’t… Not with me.” The words were a choked whisper. “The other day I kissed him and he shoved me away as though… as though--” Her face screwed up. “And tonight…He virtually told me I should have married someone else.”
“Aw, ‘ell.” Blade stepped forward and dragged her into his arms as she started crying. “Don’t cry, luv.” He looked up suddenly, light gleaming off his eyes as they cut directly into the shadows where Rip was watching. “Sure there’s got to be a reason for it. Man’d be a fool not to see what’s right beneath ‘is nose.”
Rip’s blood seemed to slow through his veins. The sight of her crying was like a knife to the chest… but he couldn’t have moved toward her if he tried.
Esme wanted him? Not as a friend or a master, but as a lover? The world seemed to skew on its axis, words and conversations between them taking on new meaning. Why the hell hadn’t she told him?
“He doesn’t want my blood,” she sobbed. “He told me he never had any intention of taking me as a thrall.”
“Thought you wanted more’n to be his thrall?” Blade asked.
“I do… I did…” she faltered. “I’m not a young girl anymore, Blade. I’ve buried a husband and forced myself back to my feet after his mother threw me into the streets.” Head lowering, she whispered, “I forgot what it was to hope, to dream. I should have known better. Dreams don’t exist. Not here.”
Blade sighed and kissed her hair with rough affection as she drew her face away from his shoulder and rubbed the wetness from her cheeks. “Don’t lose that, Esme. Of all o’ us, I ought be the one who knows what it’s like to lose ‘ope, but I found it again.” He gave her one last squeeze. “You’ll sort matters with Rip. But you tell ‘im from me that he ought to treat you right. Do the right thing by you.” His voice lowered in warning. “Or else.”
And that was for him.
Esme scraped the last of the tears from her face. “There’s nothing to sort out,” she said sadly. “I can’t do it anymore, Blade. I can’t.” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “There’s no point in dreaming of something I can’t have.”
Blade stilled, staring down at her. “Give it some time, luv. Things might change now ‘e’s got an inklin’ o’ your mind.”
Esme drew back and wiped her eyes, exhaustion bruising her fine features. “I shouldn’t see why. He made his intentions clear.”
“Funny thing… intentions. Maybe ‘e didn’t understand yours?” Blade drew back. “You comin’ inside?”
She shook her head, dark hair gleaming. “Not yet. I don’t want anybody to see I’ve been crying.”
Blade stared at her for a long moment. Finally he nodded. “I’ll see you in the mornin’ then. Just… Don’t ‘ate me, luv.”
“Hate you for what?” Esme frowned.
Blade took several steps back, toward the door. “Interferin’.”
“How did you--” She froze then and Rip knew that she’d realized they weren’t alone. Shoulders stiffening, she turned with a horrified look on her face, eyes darting through the shadows of the yard as she searched for him.
Blade took the chance to disappear into the house. Coward. Rip’s fists flexed as Esme looked for him, the metal one creaking as the joints tightened.
Esme’s head tilted toward him as if she heard it, her breath catching.
“John?” she whispered.
No chance to fade away as he dealt with the sudden confusion that left him almost breathless. Rip stepped out of the shadows, sliding his hands into his pockets. Instantly her eyes lit on him and they stared at each other across the yard, the silence thick and heavy. He couldn’t breathe, all of a sudden. She looked so beautiful, even with the track of tears down her face. And frightened and confused.
He didn’t know what to say.
Esme’s gaze darted toward the door as if in betrayal. Slowly she looked back at him, her shoulders stiffening with hurt pride. “How long have you been standing there?”
“Before you come out,” he replied quietly.
Her chin quivered. “You heard it all?”
“Mercy,” she whispered, taking an unconscious step toward the kitchen.
Rip leaped forward and grabbed her arm. “Don’t,” he said roughly, the pad of his thumb stroking the soft wool of her sleeve. “You and I need to talk.”
Esme’s gaze dropped to his hand but she was too exhausted to fight him. Without looking at him, she nodded. “Where?” A whisper.
Rip looked across the yard at the old stables Blade used as a storehouse. “This way,” he murmured, his hand sliding into hers as he dragged her toward it.
Blade swung through the kitchen door with a platter of mince pies and a fist clenched around the neck of a bottle of blud-wein. He looked entirely too pleased with himself. Honoria took the platter from him and passed it to Lena with a swift instruction to offer them around.
“What are you up to?” she murmured, as her husband rested his hip on the edge of an armchair and tugged the cork free of the thick green glass with a wet plonk.
Blade winked at her, his smile warming her all the way through. She never grew tired of that smile. “Meddlin’,” he said, sliding an arm around her waist and tugging her against his body as he set the wine aside.
Honoria looped her arms around his neck. “Where’s Esme?” She realized who else was notably missing. “And Rip? What have you done? You told her you wouldn’t say anything to him.”
“Didn’t.” Blade’s grin widened further. “That don’t mean I ain’t allowed to let ‘er say as much as she wants when I know ‘e’s listenin’.”
Blade dragged her closer. “Consider it me little present to Esme. She’ll thank me once it’s done.”
“She won’t be thanking you now.”
“True.” Blade grinned and kissed her lips. “Now, why don’t you take me upstairs and give me my present.”
Honoria gave in. The man was a devil and he knew it. “I didn’t buy you a single thing,” she declared.
“That’s all right,” he purred. “We’ll think o’ somethin’.”
Light flickered to life as Rip struck a lucifer and crouched low, sliding the match into the lantern so the wick caught. The shadows lengthened and danced back as he focused with frightful intensity on the flame, the acrid scent of phosphorus in the air.
Esme looked around, shivering a little. It wasn’t as cold in here as outside, but she couldn’t stop the faint tremor down her spine. Dread perhaps. The sooner they spoke of this, the better.
Old furniture was stacked against the walls, a large Turkish rug covering the floor. Blade had little interest in fencing stolen goods but there were always people who needed coin desperately. He often traded coin or protection for the goods they offered. Charity here in the ‘Chapel would have earned him naught more than a sneer.
Esme shivered. Her throat felt thick with unsaid words; I didn’t mean it, I was speaking of being your thrall, I should never have kissed you, friends…just friends. All of it lies, but they were safe lies.
As she went to open her mouth, the thought spurred something hot to life in her chest. She didn’t want to be ‘just friends’ anymore, didn’t want to take everything she’d said back. It was finally out in the air between them and though she was frightened of his lack of a response, a part of her wanted to confront him about it.
“You cold?” he asked quietly. His voice had always been deeper than most men; the kind of voice that sent shivers over her skin. He rarely ever raised it, but sometimes she wished she could sense what he was feeling in it. To yell or rage, just once.
But she knew why he didn’t.
Esme nodded, her gaze settling on his throat and the corded muscle there as he swallowed. She wasn’t quite brave enough to meet his eyes. “A little,” she whispered.
Where was her courage now? Her defiant glee that the words were said? Rip took a step toward her, shrugging out of his leather coat and Esme couldn’t stop herself from taking a step back. His shirt strained over the enormous slabs of muscle that decorated his chest, heavy braces indenting his shoulders. A workman’s shirt; rough, coarse… But she knew the feel of it, the way it would abrade her skin.
As if she’d struck him, he froze.
And Esme realized that he thought she was rejecting him.
Stepping forward, she reached for his coat, twirling into it like a dancer. Rip’s hands settled on her shoulders lightly as he helped her settle it in place, then lingered. With her back to him, Esme’s heart suddenly raced. Slowly he gathered up her hair, hands so gentle she almost ached, and dragged it free of the collar. The ribbon she’d used to tie it back had loosened and Rip tugged it out, fingertips sliding through the silk of her hair.
“John?” she whispered.
“I like that,” he murmured. “I ‘ate it when you call me ‘Rip’. You’re the only one who doesn’t. The only one who sees me as John.” A tentative finger wrapped around one of her black curls, gave a little tug. “You want to punish me? Aye, well you knew ‘ow to do it.”
Esme’s fingers curled in the collar of the coat, holding it in place as she flinched. Suddenly her need to hurt him as he’d hurt her seemed nothing more than cruel. “I’m sorry.”
A rough sigh. “So am I.” Then the sensation of his body shifted behind her, leaving Esme feeling cold.
Rip stepped past, toward the lantern. Sinking down onto the dusty red rug, he tipped his chin at her. “Come. Sit by the light. Talk with me.”
Her feet didn’t want to move. Somehow she forced herself to cross the tense space, manoeuvring between dusty chairs and lamps. Courage, Esme. This wasn’t the first battle she’d ever fought and it wouldn’t be the last. But she felt almost sick to the stomach as she stiffly sank to her knees beside him. Clutching at his coat to hold it in place, her gaze dropped.
Rip shifted, drawing his hand back from his knee into the shadows of his body and she realized it was his mech hand. She’d been staring past it.
Reaching out, Esme caught it, feeling the cold of the metal beneath her palm. “Don’t. You shouldn’t hide it.” The fingers flexed and hers slid between them, feeling the smooth ball-and-socket joins of each knuckle. It was rough work; the hydraulics in his forearm gleamed in the warm candlelight as he shifted, a piston hissing cool air against her skin. He’d never let her touch it before.
“Perhaps we should talk to Blade,” she found herself saying, as though the weight of the silence would bury her. “Surely he can pay for a replacement. I’ve seen some of those new mech enhancements on the men fresh out of the Enclaves.” Men who’d had to pay for their enhancements with years of service in the harsh steam-driven factories that weren’t quite a prison. “They even have synthetic skin these days, though it never looks quite real enough--”
“Esme,” he rumbled gruffly.
He wasn’t here to talk about the hand.