Chapter 23b

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I glanced around, hoping no one would emerge into the quiet corridor. Drawing a breath, I knocked on the door carefully, willing the sound to be small in the silence. 

I shifted on my feet, trying to ease the discomfort of my leg. My still-bare foot was cold against the marble floor. This was madness. I would be in huge trouble if I was caught. 

Or if I wasn’t welcome.

Still no answer. 

Knock again or slip away while I still could?

Before I could decide, I heard the slide of a lock and the turn of a doorknob. Wishing I could vaporize, I slid back, ready to run. What had I been thinking?

The door eased open.

Dietrich stared down at me, a mix of confusion and worry on his face. He wore a dressing gown of indigo embroidered with silver thread. The shirt and trousers beneath appeared to have been hastily donned, and there was no waistcoat or necktie. His hair was damp and messy, and he smelled of sandalwood and vanilla soap. “What happened? Is it Delphine?”

“No. Nothing like that. I just—it was too much. I needed…” I held his gaze through exhausted tears, swaying on my feet. “Please,” I whispered.

His eyes filled with tenderness. He only took a quick glance down the hall before wrapping his arms around me and drawing me inside. The door clicked shut behind us. 

I clung to the thick silk of his dressing gown, my faced pressed against his shoulder. Suddenly, I felt dizzy, disoriented—as if all the horrors of the day swirled around me in a thick sludge. Tremors shook me, even though I wasn’t crying. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be here. But Delphine was raped and the maids threw out all my devices, and—”

My words jolted him. He held me tighter. “Oh god,” he murmured. “Shh. I’m glad you came. It’s all right. It’s going to be fine.” 

“I can’t stop shaking.”

He guided me further into the room, toward a plump, comfortable-looking settee covered in wine and brown striped velveteen and matching pillows. 

I pulled back. “I shouldn’t sit—I’m too dirty. And I smell like blood and alligators and sewer water.”

He brushed back the hair along my temple, his fingers gentle and warm. “Yeah you do.”

“Thanks. You certainly know how to charm a girl.” 

He grinned. “You saved a life and wrestled an alligator. That smell?” He waved a finger at me. “That’s the smell of brass. Fierce, red-hot brass. You should be proud.”

“All right, now I’m charmed.” The tremors still hadn’t stopped.

“And probably exhausted. It’s been a horrible day.”

“I’ve had worse.”

He gave me a sympathetic frown. His expression shifted, and he studied me a moment.

“What?”

“I know something that would help. But—” He looked shy. “—it’s probably inappropriate for me to offer.”

My eyes bugged out wide, and it was as if all my jitters zinged straight into my stomach like an arrow. 

“Good lord—not that inappropriate!” His voice croaked like a third year apprentice’s, and his face reddened. 

I giggled. 

“Just come with me.” Avoiding my eyes, he took my hand and walked me through the parlor to his bedchamber. 

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