But Diana’s voice called to him, dragging him back from the edge of further violence. “Aaron, please. Please, you’re bleeding. Let’s just go.”

Diana knew she’d look back on this half hour and wonder how she’d held herself together. But what mattered now was that she did. Her body and emotions went numb. Some stronger force in her had taken over the moment she’d raised that pistol. All those years of staying calm paid their dividends today. She didn’t fret, didn’t cry. Her breathing never faltered. She simply did what needed to be done.

She drove the horses a few miles down the road, until they reached a safe place to draw the wagon aside. If she waited any longer, they’d lose all daylight.

She helped Aaron out of his coat and ripped his sleeve apart to expose his wound. Unable to see it well, she took water from their drinking supply and washed the blood away.

A narrow, clean cut, some two inches long. Unless it festered, it wasn’t a life-threatening wound—the wool of his coat had served as weak armor—but it was significantly more than a scratch.

“It will need to be stitched,” she said dispassionately.

She washed it again, making sure no fibers from his shirt and coat were caught in the wound. Then she rummaged through the goods they’d purchased at the draper’s until she found a needle and strong thread.

She was halfway through her third stitch when she thought she felt a drop of rain land on her head. Looking up, she realized it wasn’t rain at all but a drop of Aaron’s sweat. The poor man. He was shaking, slick with cold perspiration. And here she hadn’t offered him anything to help with the pain—not even a scrap of leather to bite down on.

“Go on,” he said through gritted teeth. “Finish it.”

After three more stitches, she was able to tie the knot off with her teeth. She wrapped a length of white, gauzy fabric about his arm.

“It’s a fortunate thing we came from the draper’s today and not the millinery,” she said dryly.

He stared down at the makeshift bandage. “I’m sorry. This was meant for your costume.”

“Never mind the silly play. There’s plenty of surplus, anyhow. I’m just glad I chose to buy needle and thread today, too.”

Now that the bandaging was finished, he mopped his face and composed himself. Then asked the question she’d been dreading.

“Why’d you do that? I told you to drive. You were supposed to drive away. Like you promised me.”

“But what?” Oh, he was angry now. His voice shook with emotion, and his hands clenched in iron grips. “You put your life at risk, and Charlotte’s, too.”

“Aaron, I just couldn’t leave you. It was all my fault you stopped to help them. I couldn’t simply drive away.”

“It’s a damned lucky thing you’re such a good shot. That was a risky trick, aiming for that knife. If you’d missed . . .”

“I did miss.” And now the emotion came. Her eyes teared up, and she began to tremble. “I did miss, curse you. My hand was unsteady, and I wasn’t braced for the recoil. I wasn’t aiming for the stupid knife. I was aiming for him.”

She made an impatient swipe at her eyes. “And just think—the other day I was debating whether I could kill an eel to keep you. Tonight, when I saw that man lunge with his knife? There was no hesitation. I would have done anything, Aaron. Anything but leave you there alone.”

He was silent for a moment. Then he seized her by the arms. His grip was tight, and his voice was all rough edges.

“I need to know,” he said. “I need to know, right now, if you’re mine. I’ve been patient for years, and if need be, I can wait years more. I’ll do anything in my power to win you, to keep you. But I need to know, this moment, if you’ll be mine in the end.” His hands moved to bracket her face, uncomfortably tight. His gaze burned into hers. “Tell me.”

With every wild beat, her heart thumped against his pendant.

If she was looking for answers, she didn’t need to search any further than that.

Before she could say it twice, his lips were on hers.

And then his hands were everywhere. He thrust them under her cloak, making contact with her shivering body. He cupped her breasts through her frock, slid his hands downward to explore her hips and thighs. The bold possession of his touch stirred her blood. There was nothing of finesse or seduction in his touch. Only claiming. Raw, primal need.

As he ran his tongue along her neck and caught her earlobe in his teeth, he swept one hand down her leg and tossed up the edge of her skirts.

She was visited again by that dizzy, arousing thought from the time before she knew anything of him. From before any of this was possible.

His wrist is as big as my ankle.

Indeed, his fingers encircled her stockinged ankle easily, and she could visualize the corded tendons of his forearm flexing as he stroked higher, higher. Up to her knee, and higher still.

Between her legs, her pulse beat as a sweet, hollow ache.

“Diana,” he groaned. “I want to be in you. Deep in the heart of you.”

This was madness. It could not happen. Not here, not now. But she wanted it, too, and the all-consuming nature of her desire was a revelation. What a joy to want. To want so fiercely, with all her being, without moderation or reserve.

She was new to this, and the sort of coarse, thrilling words he whispered did not come easily to her lips.

“Yes.” At least she could manage that much. “Yes, yes.”

He slid his hand higher, over her garter and up. His touch was a brand against her bare, shivering thigh.

She clutched his neck, urging him further. “Yes.”

Until Charlotte moaned and stirred in the wagon bed, and they jolted apart.

Her whole body mourned the loss. Her nipples, tight and achy, strained toward him.

“I’d forgotten her.” She clapped a hand to her brow.

Aaron chuckled between ragged breaths. “I can’t believe she slept through everything.”

“She’s always been that way. Slept like a stone, ever since she was a baby. I’ll be hard-pressed to make her believe any of this tomorrow.”

“Then don’t try. I think you’d do better to keep it between us.”

She didn’t want to tell Charlotte about the swindler or the fight, but they wouldn’t be able to hide their relationship much longer.

“Wait until Thursday,” he said. “I want to talk with Lord Payne before we make any plans. I’ve had my differences with the man, and I didn’t care for the way he behaved when he eloped with your sister . . . but I’m determined to do better myself. He’s your brother-in-law and the man of the family. I don’t need his permission, but I want to speak with him about this—about us—and hear what he has to say. All right?”

He pressed his brow to hers and caressed her lips with a tender kiss. “There’s my girl.”

As they kissed, her muzzy thoughts swarmed in two opposite directions, one sublime and one utterly mundane.

The sublime: She was his girl. His girl. His girl.

The mundane: Now she really had to practice that ridiculous play.

“Ursula was simply too missish to live.” The next day, in the parlor of the Queen’s Ruby, Charlotte flipped through the booklet and made a face. “It’s a miracle no one beheaded her earlier.”

“According to the vicar,” Diana replied, “even the Church now believes her story is a myth. But I still think we should show some respect.”

“Show respect for my nerves,” Mama interjected. “Charlotte, pass me the vinaigrette.”

“I can’t, Mama. It’s missing.” Charlotte arched a brow at Diana, then slid a glance toward Miss Bertram. “I told you there’s a pattern,” she whispered.

“Missing? Nonsense. It must be here somewhere.” Mama rose and began to poke about the room.

“The play,” Diana said. “You’re supposed to be helping me learn my lines.”

Now that Aaron would be in attendance, she actually wanted to do well. Of course, Mama had completely misinterpreted her intentions.

“I’m so glad you’re finally making an effort, Diana. Lord Drewe cannot fail to be impressed.”

Diana bit back an objection. These few remaining days before Thursday would be her mother’s final days to believe she had an obedient, well-intentioned daughter with excellent prospects. She wasn’t looking forward to the aftermath, when Mama learned the truth.

Diana opened her booklet to the first page. “Oh, wreck and WOE. My father hath betrothed me to the son of a pagan king. I would sooner DIE than be so defiled.”

Charlotte didn’t read her part. “I’m finding it hard to sympathize with my role as Cordula,” she complained. “If I were friends with this Ursula, I would have shaken some sense into her. I mean, really. So her parents betrothed her to a pagan prince, and she doesn’t want to marry him. But instead of just saying she doesn’t wish to marry him, she asks for a delay and sets sail with eleven thousand of her closest virgin friends, floating about on the ocean for three years.”

Diana shrugged. “It sounds rather like a seafaring version of Spindle Cove. Perhaps they amused themselves with theatricals.”

“They didn’t study celestial navigation, I know that much. Because after three years of drifting, she lands a scant hundred miles away on the shores of France.”

Miss Bertram spoke up. “Mr. Evermoore and I have dreamed of taking the Grand Tour. Now that the war’s over.”

“Oh, of course you have.” Charlotte rolled her eyes.

“Go on with Saint Ursula,” Diana prompted, anxious for Miss Bertram’s feelings.

“This is the best part. Where her army of virgins . . .” Charlotte giggled. “I mean, really. Can you imagine eleven thousand virgins, swarming en masse over the fields of Gaul? They must have been like a plague of locusts, stripping the fields bare and sucking the rivers dry as they went.”

“Right. So the Mythical Virgin Swarm makes it as far as Cologne before running straight into a wall of marauding Huns. Naturally, Ursula refuses to see them as husband material. But does she put up any fight? No. Just . . .”

Charlotte drew her finger across her neck and made a grisly slicing sound. “Too missish to live. If she did truly live at all—which history, the Church, and common sense seem to suggest she didn’t.”

“That doesn’t mean we can’t learn from her,” Diana said.

Exhausted by her fruitless search for the vinaigrette, Mama sank into the nearest chair and snapped open her fan. “You’re right, Diana. The moral of the play is clear. Ursula should have married as her parents wished. I’m sure they had good reasons for choosing Meriadoc. He was a prince, and probably quite wealthy.”

“No, no. ” Charlotte strangled the air in a gesture of frustration. “That’s not the moral at all. What Ursula ought to have done was stand up for herself. If she’d had one good foot-stamping row with her parents and said, ‘I’m not going to marry your filthy heathen prince, so there,’ she would have saved herself—and her eleven thousand friends—a great deal of trouble.”

Diana wasn’t sure what her sister was getting at. But it made her uncomfortable. Had Charlotte somehow guessed at her relationship with Aaron?

“You are right, Miss Charlotte.” Miss Bertram shot to her feet. “I’m going to write to my parents this instant and tell them I cannot be parted from Mr. Evermoore. No matter how they disapprove.”