The faint self-consciousness Rowan felt as Aurore inspected his face was, oddly enough, not an unpleasant feeling. In fact, it felt expected, like a moment that had been longing to happen for some time. Indeed, perhaps the reunion had been fated the very moment Rowan had left Aurore’s presence the last time.
One thing that was new was an absent habit in which his hand would come to rest at a very particular place on his lower chest, and it did so as she began to fuss about his hair. Buried under layers of clothing, few could offer the reasoning that there was a dark scar on his skin there, and only the woman before him, most likely, could give testament to the origin of that scar.
Being shot was a strange occurrence. Rowan had shot more than his fair share of men in his lifetime, but he had always imagined that the shot went through a man completely, or at least went in at one trajectory and stayed there. To his own woe had he learned the case to be otherwise. The ball rattled through the body, hitting all manner of vital organs before finally coming to lodge upon any one in particular. The pain was extreme and even with the wound healed the phantom of it still troubled him at times, particularly when he was nervous.
He smiled a bit, although her tone of voice seemed unusual to him. He was not able to place it yet. “Yes. I’m afraid the dye rather weighs the locks down.” Aurore had always appreciated his lively blond curls; and the man himself, Constant Delacroix, had warned him that the indigo would have that effect. But nowadays Rowan thought the black suited him better.
Then, as Aurore whispered to him, he closed his eyes and said nothing. Yes, his departure had been necessary, but… had it been worth the cost, leaving her behind? They had found each other, alive still if not happy, but what if that had not been the case? He nodded faintly; he felt as though he had died and lived again, but it was more because he had suffered numerous personal harms, not because he’d survived being shot.
He wrapped his arms around her and held her close, a comforting hold but not quite a lover’s grip, equally oblivious to their surroundings. “I am real, Aurore. Perhaps more real than I have been in years, now that you are here.”
He let her pull away, but left his hands at her waist, claimed by the same fear that she might somehow vanish.
After a time, he answered her question. “It is as you said—I did what I had to do to survive. But for me, that meant….”
He looked away briefly. “There were troubles that I had to attend to, and they are ended now. But more than that, Aurore….”
He faltered again, dropping his gaze, but swallowed his fears and forced himself to look at her. She deserved that much, and more.
“I couldn’t live in a world where I could not love you openly.”
Just like that, the words were said, presented to her and to the air around them, unwrapped and unwoven from his heart. He stopped long enough to close his eyes again, this time fighting back the tears that threatened to fall. He’d been a coward, but now he was ready to pay for it in any way she deemed fit.
Once he had composed himself, he looked at her again and continued, “I did not leave the island immediately. When I did, I sailed for England. Our ship suffered a fatal explosion in the middle of the ocean.”
This was the first time he was telling the tale, and he chose not to mention that he was the one who had set the ship’s powder room ablaze. He wasn’t ready yet. “Adrijan and Dijana were also onboard, and they rescued me. Then we were fortunate further, as we were fished out of the ocean by a ship passing near us, en route to Europe from America.”
He’d begun speaking quickly, as if to get past the explanation, but took a breath and slowed down. “I returned to England and found nothing left for me. The Board of Admiralty had already declared me dead. My sister had married and left our home, and my brother had inherited everything with my father having fallen ill and confined to bed. He has since passed away.”
He also chose not to mention that he had seen his father a final time, or the terrible fallout that had happened in that visit.
“Then I traveled for a while, wandering about Europe. I had no plans to remain in Venice, but I met a drunk man in a tavern.”
The corners of his mouth ticked upwards as he recalled the odd scene
. “In summary, I’m now the first-born and only son of the British ambassador to Venice. And a teacher, as well.”
He paused, unsure what Aurore would think of the next revelation. “As it happened, one of my students was a little lordling with a fiery temper and eyes like the sea.”
He lowered his hands from her waist to twine his fingers with hers, if she allowed it. “And what of you, Aurore?” he asked quietly. “What has this life offered to you?”