Chapter Thirty-Nine: In that Single Hour

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When they were all gone, and it was just Neil and Verity alone in the room, she came over newly shy. She walked slowly around the table, Neil watching her every movement from his seat by the fire.

"I'm a little tired," he admitted. "But I think we need this."

"I think we need more than this. And I think we will not get it." She came closer, and examined again the hollows of his cheeks and hoped, without conviction, that he was not dying.

"We will not." He patted the chair in front of him. "Please sit. It cannot be easy for you to stand."

She laughed a little, nervously, and sat down. "I'm pregnant, not crippled. Though I get tired easily too."

That seemed to close the conversation for a few minutes. He plucked at a loose thread in his dressing gown. She fiddled with a scratchy fingernail.

"We have very little time," Neil said abruptly. "Let's not waste it in silence. Miss B- Did I call you Verity?"

"Always." She smiled. "Please, do again."

"Verity." She could see it was foreign to him. "It is a very pretty name."

"Of all the Charitys and Prudences and Patiences in the world, I am very glad my mother prized truth over those virtues."

"And is it true? Are you truthful, or prudent, or patient, or generous?" There was a faint smile on his skull-head face. She wondered if he was attempting to flirt.

"In no amount that makes me worthy of the name of the virtue, I believe."

"You are doing better than me. I don't think I've got any virtue in my bones. I'm honourable, but I'm not virtuous. The virtuous do it because they're good; the honourable do it because others are watching."

"But I know that is lie – you cannot lie to me. I know you too well." She took his hand in her eagerness. "Your greatest virtue is kindness. Even this hour is kindness."

"And selfishness. I wanted it as badly as you... though perhaps for different reasons." He closed his hand over hers. "In all the world, in all of eternity, we have only this little room, and a single hour: to be married: to live and die and love and part in that single hour. And I've nothing to give you in this hour, no life or love. I can only take what you can give me. So you see, I am not being kind. I am being selfish."

"I shall give you all I can." She blinked back the tears that rose to her eyes. "What do you want me to give?"

He held her hand still. His flesh was dry and hot.

"Truth." He smiled. "Memory.

"Which... memories?"

"Tell me how we met. How we fell in love. You must know the past year or more of my life. I – don't. Can you give it back to me?"

She hesitated. "In bits... I can." She did not want to lie, but she knew she could not tell the entire truth either. Richard had told her in the carriage that Neil did not know they had been married and that it had been annulled. Nor did she want to tell him of the horrible night that had resulted in their engagement. "We did not like each other, overly much, when we first met."

"Where?"

"M-my father's house." She flushed. "My father is dead now – but he was an acquaintance, a rather low acquaintance of yours, in the manner of gentlemanly acquaintances."

Neil raised his eyebrows. "Which manner is this, exactly?"

"You may have played cards with him, a little more than was good – for him."

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