Becoming aware of her presence in the doorway, the men looked up. Westcliff rose from his half-seated position on the desk. “My lord,” Daisy said, “if I might have a word with you?” Although she spoke calmly, something in her expression must have alerted him. He didn’t waste a second in coming to her. “Yes, Daisy?” “It’s about my sister,” she whispered. “It seems her labor has started.” She had never seen the earl look so utterly taken aback. “It’s too early,” he said. “Apparently the baby doesn’t think so.” “But…this is off-schedule.” The earl seemed genuinely baffled that his child would have failed to consult the calendar before arriving. “Not necessarily,” Daisy replied reasonably. “It’s possible the doctor misjudged the date of the baby’s birth. Ultimately it’s only a matter of guesswork.” Westcliff scowled. “I expected far more accuracy than this! It’s nearly a month before the projected…” A new thought occurred to him, and he turned skull-white. “Is the baby premature?” Although Daisy had entertained a few private concerns about that, she shook her head immediately. “Some women show more than others, some less. And my sister is very slender. I’m sure the baby is fine.” She gave him a reassuring smile. “Lillian has had pains for the past four or five hours, and now they’re coming every ten minutes or so, which Annabelle says—” “She’s been in labor for hours and no one told me?” Westcliff demanded in outrage. “Well, it’s not technically labor unless the intervals between the pains are regular, and she said she didn’t want to bother you until—” Westcliff let out a curse that startled Daisy. He turned to point a commanding but unsteady finger at Simon Hunt. “Doctor,” he barked, and took off at a dead run. Simon Hunt appeared unsurprised by Westcliff’s primitive behavior. “Poor fellow,” he said with a slight smile, reaching over the desk to slide a pen back into its holder.
Daisy has a unique spirit,” Westcliff said. “A warm and romantic nature. If she is forced into a loveless marriage, she will be devastated. She deserves a husband who will cherish her for everything she is, and who will protect her from the harsher realities of the world. A husband who will allow her to dream.” It was surprising to hear such sentiment from Westcliff, who was universally known as a pragmatic and level-headed man. “What is your question, my lord?” Matthew asked. “Will you give me your word that you will not marry my sister-in-law?” Matthew held the earl’s cold black gaze. It would not be wise to cross a man like Westcliff, who was not accustomed to being denied. But Matthew had endured years of Thomas Bowman’s thunder and bluster, standing up to him when other men would flee in fear of his wrath. Although Bowman could be a ruthless, sarcastic bully there was nothing he respected more than a man who was willing to go toe-to-toe with him. And so it had quickly become Matthew’s lot in the company to be the bearer of bad tidings and deliver the hard truths that everyone else was afraid to give him. That had been Matthew’s training, which was why Westcliff’s attempt at domination had no effect on him. “I’m afraid not, my lord,” Matthew said politely. Simon Hunt dropped his cigar. “You won’t give me your word?” Westcliff asked in disbelief. “No.” Matthew bent swiftly to retrieve the fallen cigar and returned it to Hunt, who regarded him with a glint of warning in his eyes as if he were silently trying to prevent him from jumping off a cliff. “Why not?” Westcliff demanded. “Because you don’t want to lose your position with Bowman?” “No, he can’t afford to lose me right now.” Matthew smiled slightly in an attempt to rob the words of arrogance. “I know more about production, administration, and marketing than anyone else at Bowman’s…and I’ve earned the old man’s trust. So I won’t be dismissed even if I refuse to marry his daughter.” “Then it will be quite simple for you to put the entire matter to rest,” the earl said. “I want your word, Swift. Now.” A lesser man would have been intimidated by Westcliff’s authoritative demand. “I might consider it,” Matthew countered coolly, “if you offered the right incentive. For example, if you promise to endorse me as the head of the entire division and guarantee the position for at least, say…three years.” Westcliff gave him an incredulous glance. The tense silence was broken as Simon Hunt roared with laughter. “By God, he has brass ballocks,” he exclaimed. “Mark my words, Westcliff, I’m going to hire him for Consolidated.” “I’m not cheap,” Matthew said, which caused Hunt to laugh so hard that he nearly dropped his cigar again. Even Westcliff smiled, albeit reluctantly. “Damn it,” he muttered. “I’m not going to endorse you so readily—not with so much at stake. Not until I am convinced you’re the right man for the position.” “Then it seems we’re at an impasse.” Matthew made his expression friendly. “For now.
Westcliff turned to the black-haired man beside him. “Hunt, I would like to introduce Matthew Swift—the American I mentioned to you earlier. Swift, this is Mr. Simon Hunt.” They shook hands firmly. Hunt was five to ten years older than Matthew and looked as if he could be mean as hell in a fight. A bold, confident man who reputedly loved to skewer pretensions and upper-class affectations. “I’ve heard of your accomplishments with Consolidated Locomotive Works,” Matthew told Hunt. “There is a great deal of interest in New York regarding your merging of British craftsmanship with American manufacturing methods.” Hunt smiled sardonically. “Much as I would like to take all the credit, modesty compels me to reveal that Westcliff had something to do with it. He and his brother-in-law are my business partners.” “Obviously the combination is highly successful,” Matthew replied. Hunt turned to Westcliff. “He has a talent for flattery,” he remarked. “Can we hire him?” Westcliff’s mouth twitched with amusement. “I’m afraid my father-in-law would object. Mr. Swift’s talents are needed to built a factory and start a company office in Bristol.” Matthew decided to nudge the conversation in a different direction. “I’ve read of the recent movement in Parliament for nationalization of the British railroad industry,” he said to Westcliff. “I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on the matter, my lord.” “Good God, don’t get him started on that,” Hunt said. The subject caused a scowl to appear on Westcliff’s brow. “The last thing the public needs is for government to take control of the industry. God save us from yet more interference from politicians. The government would run the railroads as inefficiently as they do everything else. And the monopoly would stifle the industry’s ability to compete, resulting in higher taxes, not to mention—” “Not to mention,” Hunt interrupted slyly, “the fact that Westcliff and I don’t want the government cutting into our future profits.” Westcliff gave him a stern glance. “I happen to have the public’s best interest in mind.” “How fortunate,” Hunt commented, “that in this case what is best for the public also happens to be best for you.” Matthew bit back a smile. Rolling his eyes, Westcliff told Matthew, “As you can see, Mr. Hunt overlooks no opportunity to mock me.” “I mock everyone,” Hunt said. “You just happen to be the most readily available target.
You and I will converse while Hunt has a cigar,” Westcliff informed him. “Come with us.” The “invitation” didn’t seem to allow the possibility of a refusal, but Matthew tried nonetheless. “Thank you, my lord, but there is a certain matter I wish to discuss with someone, and I—” “That someone would be Mr. Bowman, I expect.” Hell, Matthew thought. He knows. Even if it hadn’t been for those words, he could tell by the way Westcliff was looking at him. Westcliff knew about Bowman’s intention of marrying him off to Daisy…and not surprisingly, Westcliff had an opinion about it. “You will discuss the matter with me first,” the earl continued. Matthew glanced warily at Simon Hunt, who gave him a bland look in return. “I’m certain,” Matthew said, “that Mr. Hunt doesn’t want to be bored by a discussion of someone else’s personal affairs—” “Not at all,” Hunt said cheerfully. “I love hearing about other people’s affairs. Particularly when they’re personal.
Annabelle’s eyes stung as she stared at him, while need and inexhaustible tenderness gathered like an ache in her body. “I realized something,” she said huskily, “when I was standing outside the foundry, watching it burn and knowing you were inside.” She swallowed hard against the thickness in her throat. “I would rather have died in your arms, Simon, than face a lifetime without you. All those endless years… all those winters, summers… a hundred seasons of wanting you and never having you. Growing old, while you stayed eternally young in my memories.” She bit her lip and shook her head, while her eyes flooded. “I was wrong when I told you that I didn’t know where I belonged. I do. With you, Simon. Nothing matters except being with you. You’re stuck with me forever, and I’ll never listen when you tell me to go.” She managed a tremulous smile. “So you may as well stop complaining and resign yourself to it.
"Now, do I dare ask what you guys are doing hiding out up here? Or is it going to make me jealous?" Simon was smiling as he said it, but Derek glanced away with a gruff "Course not.""So you weren't having another adventure?" Simon lowered himself on my other side, so close he brushed against me, hand resting on mine. "It sure looks like a good spot for one. Rooftop hideaway, old widow's walk. That is what that is, huh? A widow's walk?""Yeah. And it's rotting, so stay off it," Derek said. "I did. So, adventure?""A small one," I said. "Oh, man. I always miss them. Okay, break it to me gently."
Tears sprang to my eyes. I blinked them back, grabbed some tissue, and started awkwardly trying to daub leftover dye into my pale eyebrows, praying it would make a difference.Through the mirror, I saw Tori walk in. She stopped. "Oh. My. God." It would have been better if she'd laughed. Her look of horror, then something like sympathy, meant it was as bad as I thought. "I told Derek to let me pick the color," she said. "I told him.""Hey," Simon called in. "Everyone decent?" He pushed open the door, saw me and blinked. "It's Derek's fault," Tori said. "He—""Don't, please," I said. "No more fighting." Simon still shot a glare over his shoulder as Derek pushed open the door. "What?" Derek said. He looked at me. "Huh." Tori hustled me out the door, brushing past the guys with a whispered "jerk" for Derek. "At least now you know never to go dark again," she said as we walked. "A couple years ago, I let a friend dye mine blond. It was almost as bad. My hair felt like straw and..." And so, Tori and I bonded over hair horror stories.
I knew Derek didn't lack empathy—he couldn't forget what he'd done to that kid who attacked Simon. But it was like what he held some weird list of checks and balances, and if you got on the wrong side, like Tori had, he had no problem 'kicking you on the curb,' to face whatever fate waited. "No," I said. "It isn't up for negotiation. She's not coming.""Okay." I stood and brushed off my jeans. "Come on, Tori." When Simon rose, I thought he was going to stop me. Instead, he followed me to the door. Tori caught up, and we made it into the next room before Derek jogged out, catching my arm with a wrench that yanked me off my feet.I winced and peeled off his fingers. "Wrong one." He dropped my arm quickly, realizing he'd grabbed my injured one. A long minute of silence, then, "Fine." He turned to Tori. "Three conditions. One, whatever your problem is with Chloe, get over it. Go after her again, you're gone.""Understood," Tori said. "Two, get over Simon. He's not interested." She flushed and snapped, "I think I've figured that out. And number three?""Get over yourself."
Simon kissed me and I just stood there like someone had cut the cord between my brain and my muscles.Finally, the connection caught and I did kiss him, but awkwardly, some part of me still holding back, my gut twisting, like I was doing something wrong, making a huge mistake, and—Simon stopped. For a moment, he hovered there, face above mine, until I had to look away. "Wrong guy, huh? he said, his voice so soft I barely caught it. "Wh-what?" He eased back, and his eyes went blank, unreadable. "There's someone else," he said. Not a question. A statement. "S-someone...? A boyfriend, you mean? From before? No. Never. I wouldn't—""Go out with me if there was. I know." He took another step back, the heat of his body fading, the chill of night air moving in. "I don't mean a guy from before, Chloe. I mean one from now." I stared at him. Now? Who else...? There was only one other guy—"D-Derek? Y-you think—" I couldn't finish. I wanted to laugh. You think I like Derek? Are you kidding? But the laugh wouldn't come, just this thundering in my ears, breath catching like I'd been smacked in the chest. "Derek and I aren't—""No, not yet. I know.""I—I don't—" Just say it. Please let me say it. "I don't like Derek." But I didn't. Couldn't.
"I'm not going anywhere. I'm joining your little gang of baby heroes on the quest to find Superdad." Simon and Derek exchanged a look. "No," Derek said. "No? Excuse me, it was Rae who betrayed you guys. Not me. I helped Chloe.""And was it Rae who tormented her at Lyle House?""Tormented?" A derisive snort. "I didn't—""You did everything you could to get Chloe kicked out," Simon said. "And when that didn't work, you tried to kill her.""Kill her?" Tori's mouth hardened. "I'm not my mother. Don't you dare accuse—""You lured her into the crawl space," Derek said. "Hit her over the head with a brick, bound and gagged her, and locked her in. Did you even check to make sure she was okay? That you hadn't cracked her skull?" Tori sputtered a protest, but from the horror in her eyes, I knew the possibility hadn't occurred to her. "Derek," I said, "I don't think—""No she didn't think. She could have killed you with the brick, suffocated you with the gag, given you a heart attack from fright, not to mention what would have happened if you hadn't gotten out of your bindings. It only takes a couple of days to die from dehydration.""I would never have left Chloe to die. You can't accuse me of that.""No," Derek said. "Just of wanting hr locked up in a mental hospital. And why? Because you didn't like her. Because she talked to a guy you did like. Maybe you're not your mother, Tori. But what you are..." He fixed her with an icy look. "I don't want around." The expression on her face...I felt for her, whether she'd welcome my sympathy or not. "We don't trust you," Simon said, his tone softer than his brother's. "We can't have someone along that we don't trust.""What if I'm okay with it," I cut in. "If i feel safe with her...""You don't," Derek said. "You won't kick her to the curb, though, because it's not the kind of person you are." He met Tori's gaze. "But it's the kind of person I am. Chloe won't force you to leave because she'd feel horrible if anything happened to you. Me? I don't care. You brought it on yourself."
Derek stopped short. I smacked into his back—not for the first time, since he insisted on walking in front of me. I'd been tripping on his heels and mumbling apologies the whole way. When I'd slow down to let him get farther ahead, he'd snap at me to keep up. "We're almost there," Simon said.He was behind me—sticking to the curbside, walking as close as Derek. While normally I wouldn't complain about Simon being so close, I had the weird sensation of being blocked in.As we started forward again, I tried dropping back with Tori, who lagged behind, but Simon put his finger on my elbow and steered me back into place. "Okay," I said. "Something's up. What's with the walking blockade?""They're protecting you," Tori said. "Shielding you from the big bad world."
"We're your official search party," Tori said. Complete with bloodhound." She waved at Derek, who was brushing off his jeans. "I left a note," I said to Derek. "I told you whee I was going and what was doing.""He got it," Simon said. "Didn't matter." Derek glowered. "You think leaving a note makes it okay to do something—""Don't say stupid," I warned. "Why not? It was stupid." Simon winced and murmured, "Ease off, bro.""That's okay," I said. "I'm used to it." I looked up at Derek. He wavered for a second, then crossed his arms, jaw setting. "It was stupid," he said. Risky and dangerous. Those guys could be out here with guns—"
"It was hot at the restaurant," I said. "So I rolled up my sleeves.""What?" I pushed my left one up, showing four bruises, dark as ink spots. Simon paled. "My aunt wanted to know what happened. When I wouldn't tell her, she tricked me into admitting it was a boy. She met Derek this morning and he was rude, so she decided it had to be him. I never confirmed it. If he's in trouble, it is not my fault. I had every right to tell someone and I didn't.""Okay, okay." He rubbed his mouth, still staring at my arm. "So he grabbed your arm. That's what it looks like. Right? He just grabbed harder than he thought.""He threw me across the room." Simon's eyes widened, then he lowered his lids to hide his surprise. "But he didn't mean to. If you saw how freaked out he was last night, you'd know that.""So that makes it okay? If I lose my temper and smack you, it's all right, because I didn't mean to, didn't plan to.""You don't understand. He just—""She's right." Derek's voice preceded him around the corner.I shrank back. I couldn't help it. As I did, a look passed through Derek's eyes. Remorse? Guilt? He blinked it away.
Backup?" Tori said. "You mean he didn't need that?""Apparently not," I murmured.Simon looked from her to me, confused, then understanding. "You guys thought...""That if you didn't get your medicine in the next twenty-four hours, you'd be dead?" I said. "Not exactly, but close. You know, the old 'upping the ante with a fatal disease that needs medication' twist. Apparently, it still works.""Kind of a letdown, then, huh?""No kidding. Here we were, expecting to find you minutes from death. Look at you, not even gasping.""All right, then. Emergency medical situation, take two."He leaped to his feet, staggered, keeled over, then lifted his head weakly."Chloe? Is that you?" He coughed. "Do you have my insulin?"I placed it in his outstretched hand."You saved my life," he said. "How can I ever repay you?""Undying servitude sounds good. I like my eggs scrambled."He held up a piece of fruit. "Would you settle for a bruised apple?