Chapter sixteen

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Clara got to her room, stripped off her disguise and threw it into the fireplace

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Clara got to her room, stripped off her disguise and threw it into the fireplace. Dressed in her chemise, she sat on the rug before the fire, hugging her knees as she watched it burn.

A sudden draft made the flames flicker and a chill run down her spine. The source now stood in the doorway to her balcony. Benjamin closed the door behind him and strode over to her, lifting her up from her spot on the floor. His grip was almost painful but she refused to say a word.

"I didn't ask for this. I made my life so I would never be tempted by such entanglements, but then you had to show up at White's dressed in those ridiculous clothes and change everything."

He let her go and she stood before him still fearful to speak, not wishing to interrupt.

He looked broken and she wished to hold him, to keep him from falling apart.

"You are right. You own me. Heart and soul, they belong to you. Never will they reside with me again. Take care of them, Clara. They are more fragile than they appear, and for as long as my heart beats, I will always love you."

He watched as a tear rolled down her cheek. "No," he said. "Please don't cry. Things happen for a reason. I would not have made you a good husband. I live a very dangerous life. One that is not meant to be shared with anyone. I have nothing to offer you, Clara. None of what you truly want."

She took the few steps that lay between them, closing the distance. She looked up at his face and said plainly, "All I you."

His breath rushed from his lungs at her words. This was like some sort of living death. The pain was worse than any torture he has ever received. "Clara, please... have mercy on me. I beg of you."

She reached out and took his hand in hers and gently brought it to her lips. "I wish nothing more than to make the pain go away. Tell me... tell me how to make it stop and I will do it."

His eyes burned with unshed tears. He felt his lungs fail to take a breath. And then he crushed her to him. He wanted to hold on tight and never...ever let go.

Clara could hear his heart beat, echoing her own in her ears. She felt so safe in his arms. His embrace felt like home. He kissed the top of her head as he held her and she burrowed a little deeper, his arms instinctively tightened around her.

They were on borrowed time, and he wished nothing more than to capture this one moment, to hold it close, to put in his pocket to admire from time to time when he was once again on his own.

It seemed and eternity they just stood there. Her in his embrace, until finally his arms fell to his sides and Clara felt the loss immediately. She wanted to scream. She wanted to curse God and the Heavens above for the injustice of it all.

"I must go."

"No," Clara pleaded. "No, please... you cannot."

"I must."

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