Rubbing his eyes to diminish the burning from staring too long at the fire, John rose to answer the light tapping at his door. It was past late—just gone one—and he’d been sat there, running through all he and Miss Powell knew, a sense of impending failure chilling him, since he’d retired at eight.
Opening the door, John thought briefly he’d rubbed his eyes too hard, and was now conjuring illusions, for there stood Miss Powell, a cup of milk in her hands, all softness and curves in her nightclothes, hair dropping in waves past her shoulders.
Wide-eyed, with the air of someone trying to conceal fear.
‘What happened?’ he growled, ready to tear the Earth to shreds.
No one frightens my Miss Powell.
‘Someone’s tried to kill me,’ she said flatly, holding out the milk.
Growling again, he glanced into the corridor to ensure it was empty, then ushered her inside, taking the milk, sniffing it—acrid, bitter—and sliding it angrily on the mantel. He turned back to her, standing where he’d left her just outside the firelight’s circle, his chest heaving.
Without thinking, he strode over, slid a hand over her shoulders, and led her to the chair he’d vacated. John sat her down, crouching before her, eyes and hands devouring every inch, ensuring she was well, and warming her best he could.
‘I’m fine,’ she smiled weakly, melting into his concern. Which warmed him. ‘I…don’t understand why. You’d think they’d go after you.’ He chuckled, relieved at finding her…whole, even as he wondered the same. ‘I nearly drank it. I was so tired… I prepared it,’ she told him, knowing the importance. Extraordinary. ‘Brought it to my room. Jenny—she has the other bed—was…elsewhere. I realised I’d forgotten to fill the water jug, so I did, then returned, and went to drink the milk, but I smelt it.’
Saying it a thousand times wouldn’t be enough.
I nearly lost her…
‘I couldn’t stay there. I know it’s inappropriate, but…’
‘You did right. Stay here until this villain is caught. I’ll sleep in the chair. I…’ Unable to express his relief, and momentary terror, he paused, suddenly aware of their proximity; the bounds he’d already crossed when she only sought safety. He stopped rubbing her hands, somehow entwined with his, and rose. ‘I’m sorry. I’m glad you’re all right.’
He made to move, but calloused little fingers brushed his.
Heat spearing up his arm, not trusting himself to look back, he paused, his laboured breathing—by something other than fear—echoing in the room.
‘What if I don’t want you to sleep in the chair?’
John’s heart leapt, but he closed his eyes, fighting his urges, and that sultry tone.
‘You’ve been through a shock. I won’t take advantage. You’ll be safe here.’
‘I know. Perhaps I seek comfort, but not merely because of what happened, and because you are here, and kind to me. There’s…something between us, and… We could put the cart before the horses. Consider this…courting.’
Inhaling deeply, John considered her words.
When ready, he turned to her, softer in the fire’s glow; Eve in all her temptation, her eyes full of firm desire. Desire, he wouldn’t refuse either of them.
Nodding, he offered his hand, and she took it, unhesitatingly stepping into him.
‘My name is John,’ he breathed.
John Pierce and Jane Powell, he thought, a wry smile tilting his lips.
Perhaps we are meant to be.
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