He kept watching her in silence, melancholy spread across his features. She frowned.

"What?" she said. "You think I'm naïve to think we'll get rid of Finley? Is that why you're looking at me like you're thinking about my funeral?"

"I think there's a chance for us to stop Finley," Holden replied. "It's the idea of leaving you that unnerves me."

Vita raised an eyebrow, unsure about his meaning. But his gaze wandered away, to the boats on the river and the people lining the banks. The competing rowers were nearing the finish line and the crowd was loud again. Vita glanced back at Izzy, Archie and Mr. Lang near the trees. They were talking with their attention to the race, their minds far away from her, as if in a different world.

"I'll be fine, I promise," she repeated.

Her voice was gentle and reassuring this time. Maybe he really did feel responsible for her. She just needed to show him there was no need.

On the river, the race was very close, with the rowers battling each other at a furious pace. The cheers of the crowd were becoming deafening, with people standing up and craning their necks to get a better view of the finish line.

Vita was pushed along the riverbank, but she kept her attention focused on Holden, who moved to remain at her side. For a brief moment they found themselves surrounded on all sides by excited onlookers, but she didn't want to leave their conversation unfinished.

"Don't you trust me?" She asked. "I mean, you've taught me the basics about how to handle myself now. I'm sure I can figure out the rest."

The hint of an unhappy smile creased the skin around his eyes. He looked back at her with a soft, caring gaze that made her blush.

"What?" she said.

"I can't leave you because I love you, Vita," Holden replied.

She blinked. The crowd around them was so loud she wasn't sure she could believe her ears.

"What?! No, you don't. Why would you?"

She'd never been the one boys were after. Because of her mother's blood in her veins, because of her lost fortune, because of Archie. There had always been a good reason for the boys she met to prefer Izzy, the English rose with the rich family and the beautiful smile. Izzy was the one who received declarations of love, not Vita.

"Why wouldn't I?" Holden replied.

He waited for her reply, genuinely puzzled. She gaped, for once at a loss for words.

"Why did you think I saved your life, if not out of love?" Holden asked.

Vita had trouble thinking. Why did they have to have this conversation in the middle of a noisy crowd?

"Because I tried to help you escape," she managed to say at last. "You said so yourself."

"Exactly," Holden said, suddenly more passionate. "You tried to help me. All the other girls, they wept and screamed and begged and died. But you didn't. You were generous and brave, and brash and strong."

They were standing so close to each other, he could have touched her if he wanted. Vita stared at him, mesmerised.

"You didn't question why I was in a cage," he went on. "You didn't pause to consider whether I might be the monster, or if I might be dangerous. You saw a man in a cage, and you decided to free him. It was more than anyone had done for me in years. How could I not love you for it?"

The boat race had ended, and people rushed to the finish line to greet the winners. They pushed by Vita and Holden, who stood unmoving amidst the crowd.

Vita pressed her lips together. She wasn't flattered by his words, as she thought she'd be. Something nagged at her, a half-formed question that prevented her heart from going aflutter. The memory of Holden's defeated gaze in the warehouse came back to her.

"Why..." she said. "Why do you speak like you deserved to be in that cage?"

Her breathing accelerated and she took a small step back from him. She didn't really want to hear his answer, but she had to know.

He hesitated, and her heart sank.

Then a loud shot echoed above their heads, startling her. Someone screamed.

Archie roared in the distance. "Vita!"

For a split second, she thought it was the signal of another race starting. But the sun was declining in the sky and it was late afternoon. The last race had just finished.

Another shot resonated, sending grass flying next to her feet. She jumped, and Holden grabbed her arm to yank her back. People began to disperse as more shots were fired. Panicked cries rippled through the crowd, along men's shouts and children's sobs. No one seemed to know where to turn to safety, knocking over chairs and running erratically. Policemen in uniform spread out, shouting indistinct orders to each other.

Vita scanned the riverbanks for a sign of the shooters, but found herself pushed backwards by Holden, who forced her into Archie's arms.

"Is that Finley?" Archie said, louder than the crowd's frightened noise. "Why is he shooting at us?"

"He wants to scare us into revealing our true form," Holden replied.

"You mean your wings?" Izzy asked, her voice high-pitched with fear.

She clung to Mr. Lang's jacket as if it were a lifeline, her face pale and her eyes wide. A bullet hit the tree trunk behind them, and they all gave a start.

"We need to get out of here," Mr. Lang said.

"No!" Vita replied.

They were too close to give up now. Finley was here. They needed to stop him today.

"Vita, be reasonable!" Archie said, pulling her by her hand as Mr. Lang and Izzy led the way, running on the towpath.

"But he's here!" she said, turning around to try and spot Finley in the chaos. "We have to stop him!"

Holden was hot on her heels. She met his gaze, pleading silently with him. He shook his head.

"Not now."

To her increasing frustration, they kept rushing towards the upstream part of the river, navigating around fallen stools and abandoned hampers. Behind them the riverbanks were now deserted, with constables disappearing in the trees.

Only one silhouette stood out in the lowering sun.


Thanks for reading! If you've enjoyed this chapter, please feel free to vote and comment.

And let me know what you think of Holden's declaration :)

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