“You didn’t answer my question,” he said softly.
I rolled away, blinking up at the diamond dust sky. After all we had been through he deserved my trust. And the truth; at least most of it. I would not tell him about Callow. There were too many questions I couldn’t answer.
“I knew I was no longer safe there,” I said finally. I told him of my dinner with Andrews, careful to omit how Callow actually died and the finer points of Andrews touching me because I did not want to relive those moments.
It hardly mattered. Lieutenant Stanton said not a word but I heard his anger rise. A sharp snap rang out as I explained Andrews’s proposition. It might have been a log from the fire settling but the sound came from the lieutenant’s direction.
“I kept him at bay as long as I could, but he sent me a note yesterday stating that we would...ah, meet on Monday.” Even now my stomach clenched in revulsion.
I waited for him to respond. I could feel the energy in him humming like that of a steam engine. I feared he would soon blow. But he spoke with equanimity.
“You should have told me.”
“To what end, Lieutenant?”
“To his, of course.” The resolution in his voice was so complete, without a hint of possible failure that I had to smile.
“Dueling is illegal, as you well know.”
He snorted mildly. “It would not be a duel.”
“That only makes it worse. I said before, I would not see your life ruined.”
“You worry too much about my welfare, Molly.”
It was my turn to snort. “That is only because you worry too little about it.”
He barked with laughter. “Fair enough.”
He was silent and then I heard him take an unsteady breath, which he blew out slowly as though calming himself. “It’s been a long time since anyone worried over me,” he said softly. “I had almost forgotten how it felt.”
My cheeks burned and I knew his likely did as well. We had a habit of saying too much to each other. Lying together in the dark only made us freer. It was a wonder to me that I felt such comfort in his presence but I needed to quell my impetuous tongue or he’d soon know the whole of me.
“What was the other reason?” His question broke through our strained silence.
“Oh...ah, I have something Blume and Andrews want.”
“And that differs how exactly…”
“Really, Lieutenant; where your mind is.” I laughed before becoming serious again. “I have my mother’s jewels. There are quiet a few rings, a pearl necklace, a couple of bracelets and a rather large ruby pendant, to be exact.”
He cursed softly under his breath.
“On the night of the fire, I decided to keep them from Mr. Callow. I didn’t want to see that man even touch them, and by rights they are mine. So I hid the jewels in my dress with the idea that the state would let me keep my clothes. It was only by providence or dumb luck that I happened to have the dress on when the house burned down around me.” I sighed in the darkness. “All I have left to keep me from being a poor relation is sewn into my skirt.”
“Have Blume and Andrews seen you with them?”
“No. But they keep asking questions regarding them. Andrews made several round about inquires regarding the jewelry during our supper. But I don’t think they are in cooperation with each other.” I spoke as the thought came to me. “They are at cross purposes somehow.”
I shook my head. “It doesn’t matter. They both knew I was lying, and both were determined to find them. Later, after that incident with Morris…” I knew without having to look that
Lieutenant Stanton had stiffened. “Someone searched my room.”
He made a strangled noise deep within his throat and I smiled. “I'm not sure if it was Morris, it could have been any of them. At any rate, my stay at Fort Blair had to come to an end.”
“It was me.”
The abrupt confession rang out into the night and something within me jerked.
“What!” I was up on my knees in one motion.
He was just as fast, and before me in an instant. “I had to!”
I should have jumped up and run but my legs wouldn’t work, the desperation in his voice held me still.
“Because I could no longer keep you safe!”
He sat back on his heals. The dark reduced his features into triangles of blue and black.
“Andrews was circling you like a hungry dog, and I now know why! Blume was growing impatient with my reticence, and Morris was riffling through your room –as you well know.”
“And you thought you’d take a look as well! Finding my jewels will help keep me safe?”
“No,” he shot back. “I didn’t even know about them –though it explains a lot. And I didn’t search your room. I merely made it look like someone had.”
“Oh that makes sense!” I snapped “Thank you, Lieutenant for saving me –”
“If you would shut up and let me finish–”
“You know what Blume is capable of, don’t you.” It was not a question.
Nonplused, I shut my mouth.
Sensing this, his voice grew soft. “I saw it in your face on the day you left his office.”
I nodded feeling ridiculously close to sobbing.
His shadowy form leaned a bit closer, though he still had the forethought not to touch me. “I can only hope you never learned the extent of his perversion.”
A strangled noise broke past my lips and he cursed.
“I…I saw him with Elise.”
He sat back, tilting his head to the sky. “His ‘little acts of kindness’ are well known by the men,” he said thinly. His shadow moved again and I realized he rubbed his hand over his face. “I feel like the lowest of cowards for not finding a way to put a stop to it.”
“You’re not a coward.”
He would never be that. But my protest did little to persuade him, for he merely snorted in wry disagreement. And I thought John Stanton would likely take the weight of the world upon his shoulders, given half the chance.
“I knew you understood the danger you were in, Molly, but you didn’t act. I expected you to put up more of a fight. I expected you to hound Blume until he was forced to let you leave,” he said tiredly. “Write letters to your Aunt, make the kind of ruckus you did in Blume’s office. I even goaded you. But you simply stayed put. ”
He sighed like one who’d failed but only realized how much in hindsight. “It was only a matter of time before Blume sent me off on some fool’s errand. And you would be alone with them. I figured finding your rooms upended would be the last straw. Only I expected that you’d come to me for help.” He shook his head and snorted again. “You didn’t behave as expected.”
I shifted onto my heels, taking my weight more comfortably. It did nothing to alleviate the knot that twisted in my belly. He was right. And right to anticipate that sort of reaction from me.
“You sound like my mother,” I muttered. “She always said that to me.”
“Ah well, the fault is mine. I should have simply come to you and offered passage to Chicago, except I expected you to be stubborn about that too.” The smile in his voice drifted through the darkness.
“Perhaps,” I said stiffly.
“My hands were tied.” He faced me in the darkness. “Blume knew it, I knew it, even Morris knew it. Perhaps it was the wrong thing to do, but I’m here now, Molly. And I’ll see you safe to Chicago. I am no longer bound by their rules. I won’t let anyone come near you. On that you have my word.”
I eased back into my bed and rolled onto my stomach, bunching the blanket around me. Seeing the fight had gone out of me, Stanton did much the same, giving me a gruffly offered “good night,” as he did.
My eyes felt heavy, the day’s ride was catching up with me but I could not sleep just yet.
“John,” I said on the edge of sleep. The use of his given name felt almost too intimate, delicious even; I could say his name forever and never grow tired of it. And I could no longer think of him as anything else, nor did I want to.
“Thank you,” I whispered, hoping the darkness hid my emotions. “For tearing apart my room. And for coming after me.”
John stirred slightly. “You’re welcome, Molly.” It was a husky whisper in the darkness, soothing me in to a comforted sleep.