She tried desperately to focus on his words, but his firm, luscious mouth was so very close. “Y-yes,” she whispered.
He gave her a pained smile. “I thought you’d given up on me. Your broken heart mended so quickly. You moved on to Rotham a month later.” There was no accusation, no censure in his tone, just genuine confusion.
She shrugged and tried to explain that which made no sense to her now. “Then I’m a better actress than I gave myself credit for. I never stopped loving you. And with Rotham, at first I figured, why not? I’d already found my one true love and he wouldn’t have me. Why waste time searching for something I knew I’d never find again? Rotham seemed as nice a fellow as the next. I’d have a chance for the child I’d always wanted, and you would still be in my life, in a fashion. There were worse things I could imagine than that.”
She shook her head slowly. “But I couldn’t go through with it. Right before the fire, I was going to break it off with him. That’s why I harbored so much guilt after the fire. The investigator ruled that the accident was my fault, but also, I was going to tell him we couldn’t marry.” She looked away, embarrassed by the tears glossing her eyes.
“Ah, damn it, Charlotte. I didn’t refuse you because I didn’t love you.” Alistair’s voice was a whisper and she had to strain to hear him. “I refused you because I couldn’t bear the thought of denying you your dreams.” He took a deep breath and let it out in a rush. “I’ve told you, I was married before, almost a decade ago when I lived in France. Annabelle died from a fever in our fourth year of marriage.”
She hadn’t even processed his admission of love when her heart tripped at the pain in his voice. Somehow she knew what was coming, even before he spoke the words.
“What I never told you was that we wanted a family as badly as you do now. For three years before her death, we tried to conceive. I don’t know if she was barren or if I was to blame, but by the time she fell ill, we barely spoke anymore. I was so weighed down by guilt, and she was so bitter and angry. Like a brittle shell of a woman, one blow away from cracking. I couldn’t bear the thought of doing that to you. Of waking up one morning to find you broken that way because of me.”
Charlotte’s eyes burned with unshed tears as she tried to speak through the lump wedged in her throat.
He held up a hand and pressed on. “But when I thought you had been taken from me…that there was a chance that Rotham had hurt you, I nearly lost my mind. It was only the hope that you were alive that kept me from madness. What I know now is that what we have together can overcome anything. If we cannot have children of our own, then London has more than its share of children in need of love. We’ll find them together. I want to be with you for as long as you’ll have me.”
Her blood sang with joy. “I will have you forever, my love. That’s all I would ever want and more.”
He met her gaze with a fierce one of his own. “I still envision a little girl with your smile, and your sharp mind. A boy with your adventurous spirit and your bravery. If it doesn’t happen, so be it, but I want to try.”
His face held a calm resolve and her already full heart felt like a balloon about to burst.
“The trying will be the best part! Yes, yes to all of that.” She bent low and pressed a kiss to his mouth. He strained forward, but she pulled away. “You are going to injure your wrists again. If we want to get out of here, we’ve got to get moving. Trust me when I say this is the last time I shall ever refuse you, my love.”
He sucked in a breath and nodded. “You’re right. Get the copper nitrate and mix the compound.”
Five hours later, she returned to Alistair’s side. She’d done it, with barely a moment to spare. The goggles were complete. “One more kiss. Just in case something goes wrong.” She leaned down and kissed him for all she was worth. As she pulled away, footsteps sounded in the hall.
She stepped back and strode to the closest worktable, scooping up the goggles. There was no time for a test, but any fears she’d had about the upcoming showdown had subsided. Now that she had happiness just an inch from her hand, nothing was going to stop her from grabbing it. Especially not John Rotham. If their plan didn’t work, they’d find another way.
“Ready?” she asked Alistair.
“More than.” He leveled her a lethal smile and the door cracked open.
Rotham strode in, gun first, as usual. His shifty eyes flickered around the room until he spotted them both.
“Well?” he asked, eyeing the purviewers in her hand.
“Excellent! I’ll need to test them, of course.”
“Of course.” She nodded and handed him the goggles. She sucked in a breath as he lifted them to his face then paused.
His icy eyes narrowed and he tipped his head. “Why don’t you try them first, while I watch? Wouldn’t do to flip the lever and have needles shot into my eyes or some such, would it?”
She willed her lips into the shape of a smile and held out a hand. “Certainly not.” She slid the purviewers on and adjusted the lenses before depressing the lever. There was a soft whirring, and suddenly, her perception wavered. She could still see Rotham in the background, but the foreground had become a ghostlike image of the same space, five minutes into the future. Her heart pounded at the image before her eyes but she schooled her features and gave him a wan smile.
“See? No needle shooting.”
Chilly fingers brushed her cheek as he yanked them unceremoniously off her head. “All right then, my turn.”
He kept the gun trained on her as he pressed them to his face, forgoing the leather strap. With a flick of his thumb, he activated them. The whirring began and he murmured his approval. Suddenly, the color drained from his face.
“No!” he cried and wheeled around, letting the goggles crash to the floor. Alistair had slunk up behind him and was almost upon him. Rotham let out a shout as he raised the pistol to shoot. Charlotte kicked the back of his knee with a booted foot and he stumbled. The gun discharged, but the shot went wild. Just as he righted himself, Alistair dropped the stool he’d been holding and let loose a right hook that landed on Rotham’s chin with a resounding crack. The bastard dropped like a stone, out cold. Just the way he saw himself in the purviewers, she thought with perverse satisfaction.
Charlotte bent and pulled the gun from his slack fingers and pointed it at him as Alistair positioned him on his stomach. A manacle still encircled each of Alistair’s wrists but only a bit of corroded chain hung from each, jangling as he moved.
“It was a sound idea. The nitric acid did a magnificent job on those chains,” she observed with satisfaction.
Alistair nodded and pulled the twine from his pocket and made quick work of tying Rotham up before turning to her with a grin. “We did it.”
“I was so afraid the floorboards would creak, or you’d sneeze or something,” she said, a giggle bubbling in her throat. The emotional stew of the past couple of days finally boiled over and she began to laugh hysterically.
Alistair chuckled and pulled her close. “There there now, don’t fall apart now, love. We’ve got a lot of making up to do and I’ll have you in your right mind when we start.”
She choked back another laugh and took a calming breath. “Let’s leave this place, Alistair. We’ll send a runner for the constable and be sure Rotham’s locked away for a very long time.”
She pressed a soft kiss to his jaw and whispered, “And then we skulk around carrying on a torrid affair until we can marry.”
He captured her chin in his hand and met her gaze with shining eyes. “You asked me once, bold as brass. Ever the fool, I turned you down. I shall ask you, now. Charlotte Phillips, love of my life, will you marry me?”
She tucked her head into the curve of his neck. “I will,” she sighed. “I will.”