“A penny for your thoughts,” Anisha murmured.
“Oh, nothing worth mentioning.” Lazonby turned a little on the bench, drawing his arm away. “Listen, Nish, I’m glad you brought up Royden Napier. I’ve been meaning to talk to you about him.”
“About Napier?” she said a little too swiftly. “Why?”
Lazonby set his elbows on his knees, his hands loosely clasped, and studied the moss growing round the cracks in Ruthveyn’s flagstone. “Perhaps his going away is for the best,” he said, giving voice to a nagging doubt. “Something about Napier’s offer to let you see the records of my criminal conviction troubles me. And I’m not sure I want you mixed up in this.”
Her finger, light and cool, touched his cheek, turning his her face to hers. “Rance, it’s too late,” she said, her intelligent brown eyes searching his. “I’m already mixed up in it. And Napier owes my brother. You might as well use me for what I’m worth.”
Lazonby really did not like her choice of words—and they struck at the heart of what had begun to trouble him. “No, his going away is for the best,” he said more firmly. “There is no good reason for Napier to help you. He owes Ruthveyn, aye. But he mortally hates me. No, I think the fellow is up to something.”
For a long, expectant moment, he could sense the hesitation in her. She cut her gaze away, and focused it somewhere in the depths of the garden. “Rance, I think Napier has his own reasons for cooperating with me,” she said quietly.
“Aye?” He set his head a little to one side, and studied her. “What?”
“I think he is . . . well, he is just a little intrigued. By me, I mean.”
“Intrigued?” His motions tight and controlled, Lazonby rose from the bench and slowly turned to face her. “What do you mean? In what way?”
“Rance.” Hands folded in her lap, Anisha lifted her inky eyebrows. He set the flat of his hand to the arbor’s post, and waited. “Aye?” he said.
“Will you make me say it, then?” Her cheeks flushed a pretty shade of pink. “I think we both know there is just one way in which a man is intrigued by a woman. Besides, you suggested as much when you persuaded me to go see him.”
“The devil!” he said. “I did no such thing!”
“Yes. You did.” Those hot-chocolate eyes were hardening to a glittery black now—and she was definitely looking at him. “You were talking about Napier’s watching me at my brother’s wedding breakfast.”
“What? Oh, that! I just meant—”
“No, no, I recall what you said,” Anisha cut in. “You said—and I quote—‘The man never took his eyes from you. He fancied you—either that, or he thought you were pinching Ruthveyn’s silver.’”
Lazonby could only stare at her. Had he said it? And when was it his world had turned so upside down?
“So which is it?” Anisha pressed, her voice dangerously soft now. “Was Napier imagining me a thief? Or was he imagining me naked in his bed? You cannot have it both ways—and if you’d believed it was the former, you would never have asked me to Whitehall to begin with.”
He felt his hands ball into tight fists. “Anisha—” But Anisha had begun to tremble a little—and not from nerves.
“Oh, I understand that I am not to some men’s taste!” she said sharply. “That has been made abundantly plain. But does it shock you so deeply that there might be at least one handsome man who wants me?”
“What? No! Good Lord, of course not.” Lazonby looked at her, his stomach almost churning. “And handsome? Napier is—good God, Nish, the man has a nose like a hatchet, and eyes like a pair of kitchen knives.”
“I know,” she said quietly. “He is . . . dashing, I think, in a lethal sort of way.”
“Dashing? Are you mad? Napier isn’t good enough to dust your slippers! He is—he is a policeman, for God’s sake.”
“He certainly is not,” said Anisha tartly. “He is a respectable if middle-class civil servant, not that social status much matters to me. But perhaps I don’t want a husband. Perhaps I am looking for something else.”
For a moment, his breath seized. “Something else—?”
“Not that that’s any of your business,” she went on, speaking over him. “Moreover, Napier is related to Lord Hepplewood. That should be a fine enough connection to suit anyone—again, not that it matters to me.”
“Perhaps, Anisha, you would be so good as to tell me what does matter to you?” Lazonby gritted. “Does it not matter to you that the man has tried to ruin my life?”
“What matters to me is that Napier finds me attractive and interesting,” she replied. “And it was his father who tried to ruin your life. The fact that Royden now holds his father’s old post and defends his father’s reputation does not make malice contagious, or even hereditary.”
“Royden—?” said Lazonby softly. “So you are now calling him Royden?”
She gave a sharp sigh. “Merely to differentiate from Nicholas, his father.”
“I do not believe you.”
“Oh?” Anisha stood, drawing herself up regally, her skirts swishing over the mossy stones. “Very well, then, believe the worst,” she said. “After you stalked out of his office that day, Napier tossed up my petticoats, bent me over his desk, and had a nice, quick pump, right in the middle of Whitehall. And I was so good at it, he swore his undying devotion, and vowed to grant me anything I desired. So I asked to see your files—by which time he’d quite forgotten who you were anyway—and he begged me to call him Royden. So there. Do you like that explanation any better?”
Lazonby felt as if his head might explode. “Damn it, Nish, you are going to force me, aren’t you?” he growled. “You are going to force me to write to your brother. To have him order you to—to show some bloody sense!”
“Oh, order me?” Anisha trilled with laughter. “And just where will you write to him, Rance? The Indian Ocean? And what, pray, will you tell him? That you dragged me down to Scotland Yard, threw me in Napier’s face, and now you wish to drag me out again?”
When she put it that way, it sounded very grim indeed. Frustration fed the jealousy churning in his heart. “Damn it, Anisha!” he gritted, pounding his fist on the arbor’s post so hard the vines above them rattled. “Have you lost your bloody mind?”
“Stop cursing at me,” she retorted. “I am not one of your soldiers!”
“But you are in my charge, by God,” he said, his voice a raw whisper. “And this will not do. I will not have it, do you hear?”
“You will not have it?” She sucked in her breath, tremulous. “You had better come to learn, Rance Welham, that you are not omnipotent! And if I am in your charge, I know nothing of it!”
Jealousy exploded, red-hot and infuriating. He slammed his fist into the post again—full on this time—and felt his knuckle split. A handful of dead leaves came swirling down around them. He scarcely realized she’d seized his wrist. She was shaking, her face oddly stricken.
“Rance, stop,” she said quietly. “Just stop.”
“Anisha, for God’s sake . . .” He closed his eyes, uncertain what he’d meant to say. She forced his hand open—the one that wasn’t already bandaged.
“Rance, we are friends,” she went on. “This cannot go on. It simply can’t. When did we start arguing like fishwives? And saying such vile words to one another?”
He wished he knew the answer to that.
But he did. The truth was, this had been coming on for months now. Ever since she’d stepped off that blasted ship and into his life.
And then Ruthveyn had gone away, and left the fox in charge of the henhouse—knowing damned well he was doing it, too.
Ruthveyn had believed, Lazonby supposed, that a stern lecture about his sister’s virtue would be sufficient. Lazonby had believed it, too. Ruthveyn’s warning, and Anisha’s likely betrothal to his friend Bessett, had been enough to put him off even as it had ratcheted up his frustrations, and deepened that aching sense of loss. Even as it had made him question himself—almost hate himself—for what he’d done with his life.
And now this. Anisha was not going to marry Bessett at all. She was free. Free to have an affaire de coeur. With Royden Napier. And it was none of his damned business—nor was it her brother’s.
“You are right,” he said quietly. “I made your brother a promise I cannot keep when I pledged to keep you from harm. If you wish to engage in folly, clearly I cannot stop you. And I beg your pardon for my language.”
“Rance,” she said softly. “Please just don’t—”
Don’t what? Want her? Fear for her?
He did both, he realized. All the time.
Lazonby drew in a deep, unsteady breath. Anisha had taken a handkerchief from her pocket and was wrapping it round his knuckles. His fist stung—along with his pride and his heart. “Leave it be,” he rasped. “It doesn’t matter.”
She did not look up from the blood she was dabbing away. “Rance,” she said very quietly, “everything matters. All the cosmos—all the love and anger, every star and each blade of grass, all that we are and all that we do—the Vedas teach us that everything is of a piece. Yes, it matters. We matter. But if you wish to have a say in what I do, there is only one way to have it.”
A long, heavy silence passed over them. “Oh, Anisha, I cannot—” He stopped and breathed in again. “Oh, love, you honor me, but you know it won’t do.”
“It might do, if I were really your love,” she said, seemingly intent on her work. “But I am not. I know that.”
“And you do not love me, remember?” he whispered, looking past her and into jungle of green vines beyond. “We just had this discussion.”
He felt her tuck the last corner of the handkerchief in and reluctantly looked down. “There,” she said, lifting her gaze to his. “And yes, Rance, I remember we had a discussion. But you seem to feel . . . I do not know what you feel. Something more than mere responsibility for me. There is too much anger in you for it to be otherwise.”
“Nish.” Lazonby closed his eyes—to pray for strength, he supposed. But against his will, his hands came up to cradle her face, his fingers sliding into the soft, silken hair at her temples. He pulled her hard against him, shielded by nothing more than the veil of greenery. She came against him on a breathless sigh, and something inside him wrenched; his heart, he felt sure. Inch for inch, he pressed himself to her.
Yes. Everything mattered. She mattered.