Authors: K.J. Jackson
He cleared it again
with a little more insistence.
Aggie abruptly swung her
head back, her eyes locking onto Devin’s bare arm. She reached out to softly touch the wound. Much of the blood about the gash was dried, falling from her touch. A good sign. She prodded about the wound, pulling the skin slightly.
h,” she cleared her throat, “it should be fine. The knife did not slice very deep at all. Just have your man wash it thoroughly when you arrive home.” She offered a weak smile, her head still next to his arm, still staring intently at the wound, eyes refusing to veer.
“Are you positive it did no
t go too deep?” Devin shifted his weight to investigate himself, effectively positioning his chest directly in front of Aggie’s face.
He held in a laugh when she froze, hands in mid-air, staring at his naked chest. Her head tilted downward, and
Devin could see she wasn’t closing her eyes against the show in front of her.
Her breathing had all but stopped, and
Devin wasn’t so convinced she truly wanted to avoid becoming a harlot. He shifted in his trousers that were quickly becoming a little tight. He wasn’t going to get to his questions if she kept looking at him like that.
ggie’s head shot straight up, knocking her forehead into Devin’s chin and jamming his teeth together.
your grace.” Her hand reached out to touch the side of his jawbone. “I am so sorry, I…” Her voice trailed off as her gaze fell down to his chest once more.
Aggie jumped again, th
is time to the opposite bench. Her hand went in front of her mouth, clearly mortified at her own gawking. Eyes darting to the side window, she looked like she was either planning on crawling out of it, or hoping another knife would come flying into the coach to put her out of her humiliation.
rubbed his twanging jaw, contemplating her, waiting for her.
She took a deep breath, hand dropping
from her lips.
“Could you please put your shirt back on?” Her voice
turned meek as words tumbled together. “As the wound is not deep, or life-threatening, it is not at all proper for us…for you…to be…well, without enough clothes on, with…ahem, the two of us being here alone…”
saw it took amazing restraint, but Aggie finally made her mouth close.
nodded, very serious. “Yes, Aggie, you are quite right. This is not at all proper.” He put his shirt on, his movements not impeded at all by the small wound.
“Good, I am glad you agree.
” Her agreement didn’t stop her eyes from searching out the last glimpse of his chest disappearing beneath the once crisp shirt. Then her look flew down to her lap. “And I apologize about the wound. It should have been mine.”
“Aggie, look at me.”
Her eyes lifted.
“No, it should
not have been. Not yours.”
Her gaze slipped back down to her hands. “
I am sorry. I honestly regret your injury. That you have been hurt because of me.”
hadn’t given the scratch a second thought, but he could tell Aggie was plagued with guilt over the injury. He couldn’t let an opportunity like that slide away.
“If you truly are apologetic, I think you could prove your regret by calling me
Your grace, that is too intimate.”
“And where your hands just were, was not?”
Eyes to the carriage ceiling, Aggie sighed, buying a moment. “Your name, your grace. If I use it, it makes promises of future encounters. I am hoping we end these very soon.”
m sitting here, wound in my shoulder, bloody because of the situation you put me in, and you are going to deny me simplicity in conversation?”
, your grace. Devin.” She gave a beaten-but-not-out smile, which quickly disappeared with her next words. “But if you are going to use your wound as leverage against me, I would like to remind you that you put yourself in this situation tonight. I did not invite you into this carriage. That was your own doing.”
sighed. “We are back to that then?”
“We are.” Aggie crossed her arms.
They stared at each other for an extended moment, will against will.
“Aggie, whether you will admit it to yourself or not, you need my help. You are fo
olishly putting yourself in harm’s way. It is not necessary. These men can easily and efficiently be disposed of in a more discrete manner.”
He leaned forward, his forearms resting upon his knees as he
pinned Aggie under his best intimidating glare. It buckled the strongest of men, and he didn’t care if it scared her. He needed to inspire the direness of the situation to her.
Aggie, the harm you would do to your family, if you were injured or killed, far outweighs any sense of satisfaction that may be achieved when these men are brought to justice. You need to believe me on that one. You have been reckless in going about this entire mess. And you need to acknowledge the fact that you are no match for ruthless men such as these.”
took a deep breath as her eyes closed and her head shook slowly. He hadn’t scared her in the slightest.
She looked at him, tears f
ighting on the brim of her soot-lined eyes.
“I do no
t think you understand how easy it would be for me to just accept your help, your grace…to pass this responsibility off.” She looked down and began to play with a corner of her overcoat that had landed in her lap. “I dream of being able to do that. I dream of having my simple life in the country back. I am so tired, and I just wish sometimes that someone would come along and tell me everything is going to be alright. That they would take care of me. So I could crawl into bed and pretend none of this ever happened. That I don’t have to worry. That I am safe. That my family is safe. I wish my father were alive. I wish my brother was back. ”
eyes lifted to meet grey ones.
But they are not. Which is exactly why I cannot pass responsibility. Only I can guarantee those things to myself.”
She looked away.
“And if I fail, there is no one to blame but me.” An awkward chuckle left her lips. “I will be dead, but that is a much better fate than having someone else die because of me and my cowardice to my responsibility.”
not a game they play, Aggie. This is your life. You dying is not all right.”
I know you think I am stupid—an idiot for doing all this on my own. That I have no idea what they could really do to me. But I do…” Her voice caught as her eyes closed off a memory.
The corners of her closed eyes
crinkled in pain. “I do know. I know very well.”
Her hand moved off her lap, sl
ipping under the edge of her cloak. Devin saw her fingers slip onto her bare left forearm.
rage rose into his throat.
Her hand gripped tight over the pink line of scar tissue, as her head tilted back to rest on the seat cushion, eyes still not opening. Her voice so soft, Devin had to lean forward to hear her as her words floated to the ceiling.
“I have no
illusions about pain or death, Devin. I know this isn’t a game. I know the raw brutality…what failure feels like. The pain of blood. Of knife in skin.”
’s imagination went wild. And the picture he conjured in his mind of Aggie at the mercy of the cutthroats—it was all he could do to remain in the carriage instead of out on the dark street, tracking down the bastards, and sending them not just to death, but slow, tortured, mangled death.
“It is why I w
ill not be responsible for involving an innocent in what I must do to save my own life. Your injury tonight is just a reminder of that,” Aggie said, her words slow and measured. “I am the only one responsible for me. For my family. Even after last night, you are still an innocent in this. I cannot add more injuries, or heaven forbid, your death, onto my conscience. I am fine. I will be fine. Truly.”
She opened her eyes and looked at him. Pleading through pain.
“Please, Devin. Please just walk away. I am begging you. Please. Walk away.”
Devin moved forward, eyes locked on hers. He slid his hand under her cloak sleeve, gently prying her fingers from the scar and pulling her arm out from the depths of the fabric. The tips of his fingers slid up the scar, then back down. His eyes didn’t lose contact.
I am not going anywhere, Aggie.”
“No.” His fingers slid up her arm again. “This is despicable—unacceptable. Those bastards will not harm you again.”
ilence settled in the coach. Devin stared at Aggie, waiting. She fidgeted, looking everywhere but at him, knowing she had revealed too much, offered up too much vulnerability.
He didn’t let her arm go from his grasp.
After a few minutes, she finally looked directly at him. “What is in this for you? Honesty, please. Why do you want to help me? I thank God for your help last night. It was above the duty of a stranger. But why help me now?”
You intrigue me, Lady Augustine. You drive a hack. Can shoot a man dead with perfect aim. Hours later you create the perfect persona of a young lady of the
. You wear breeches quite well. If there is anyone like you, I have yet to meet her. Although I am already well convinced you are one-of-a-kind. But all of that is minor, next to the fact that this,” he rubbed her arm, producing goose bumps under the pads of his fingertips, “this whole threat upon your life is just plain wrong. What it has forced you to do. It hits at my core. A core I had not even suspected I had.”
She tried to pull her arm from his grasp.
No success. “But what you will want in return…I am afraid I do not think I can give you what you want, Devin. I may be unconventional—”
I am unconventional, but circumstances demand it of me. I am mostly very conventional. Truly. What you want in return for your assistance…”
The earlier blush returned to her face.
“You do not need to fret, Lady Augustine. I demand nothing of you. Nothing except acceptance of my help.” He let the side of his mouth slip up. “Although I do grow weary over bickering about my involvement in your situation. That you could free me of.”
Her mouth opened, and she looked for a moment like she
was going to continue to resist. Her mouth closed, and she looked down at his hand on her arm. “Nothing from me?” Her eyes moved up to his. “Can I believe that?”
“Have I given you any reason not to trust me?
Aside from stalking you and finding a way into the carriage, of course.”
“No. I do
not suppose you have. Fine. I will stop my resistance.”
slid from under his arm and stood to exit the carriage. A step, and she froze, her eyes captured by the knife embedded in the side of the wine-velvet cushion. A shaking gasp invaded her body.
trembling hand, she reached out slowly and touched the previously unnoticed trinket hanging from the knife. Blood splattered and half dug into the cushion, a pretty peach reticule hung from the blade.
“What is that?”
Aggie’s hand jerked away from the knife. Devin had to strain to hear her.
I gave it to him.”
Her hand went back to the reticule.
Tommy…my help, my runner’s apprentice. I gave it to him tonight.” Aggie choked the words out, hand gripping the bloody reticule.
God. Look at this. What would they have done to him? He is so young. Why?” She took a deep breath, controlling the panic. “He has to be all right. He is smart, he will be fine. He has to be.”
onto the bench, eyes closed, voice wispy. “They are too close. They know my horse, my carriage. Your arm. Tommy. This is too much blood.” She opened her eyes and ripped the purse from the knife, gripping it tightly in her hand.
Head hung, Aggie stood and
stepped out of the carriage, not waiting for Devin to reply.
followed her. “Aggie, yes, they know.” He notched his voice into gentle, or at least what he hoped was gentle, as he grabbed her hand to help her up to the driver’s perch.
vaulted up beside her and grabbed the reins, sending her horse forward. “After last night, they know exactly what you have been doing, and who you are pretending to be. You cannot deny it. So this charade is now finished. You will go home, leave these men to me, and cease putting yourself in needless danger night after night.”