Copyright © 2015 Sierra Simone
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No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews.
This is a work of fiction. References to real people, places, organizations, events, and products are intended to provide a sense of authenticity and are used fictitiously. All characters, incidents, and dialogue are drawn from the author’s imagination and not to be construed as real.
Cover by Date Book Designs 2015
To the women in Sierra Simone Books—
you guys are the only reason I come out of my cave.
Trigger warning: Part of Molly’s story features wrestling with a nonconsensual sexual event in her past. As a survivor of sexual assault myself, I’ve done my best to treat this topic sensitively and with our modern conceptions of consent in mind, but please be advised that some of these sections may be difficult to read.
Not many men sail to France with a black eye. But then again, not many men fight with Molly O’Flaherty and live to tell the tale.
I leaned against the deck, smoking a cigarette and watching the waves roll past the ferry, churning and frothing against the sides. I could go down to the saloon and enjoy a glass of port before we reached our destination, but even though the journey from Dover to Calais was short, I didn’t much fancy the idea of spending it with inebriated strangers gawking at my black eye.
No, better to be alone in the dark, where I could lick my wounds in peace.
The problem was that I knew exactly where things had gone wrong. I knew where I’d crossed the line from occasionally fucking Molly O’Flaherty to falling in love with her. And that line had appeared when I’d found her sobbing in her parlor on Monday morning, tears glinting off her cheeks, her red hair lit like fire by the winter sunlight.
She was so achingly beautiful and so achingly alone, my stubborn Molly. And the moment I thought the word my, as in My Molly, it had hit me with hurricane force.
I loved her.
And in the matter of three short days, I’d managed to fuck it up so irreparably that there was no other choice but for me to leave the country. I would probably never see her again.
And after what I’d done, that was the best thing for her.
I flicked the cigarette into the cold, choppy water and went down to the saloon to get drunk.
Eight Months Later
“Are you really sure you want to go?” my brother Thomas asked.
We were outside the Provençal villa Thomas and his wife Charlotte had rented for the year—a year that was likely to turn into two, given Thomas’s general state of contentment and Charlotte’s swelling belly. They were working on the sixth Cecil-Coke baby, little usurpers I liked to call them. Each one held a spot between me and inheriting Coke Manor, and I reminded them periodically of this—like right now, when I had little Henry pinned to the ground and was tickling his sides mercilessly.
“Yes, I’m sure,” I told Thomas over Henry’s squealing laughter, and then I bent down and pretended to eat his chubby little cheeks. “I won’t stop until you promise I can live with you when I’m old,” I warned my nephew.
“I promise! I promise!” Henry squawked.
And then—ambush. Arms around my neck, arms around my waist. Soon I had four Cecil-Coke tots wrestling me to the ground, and I was subsequently vanquished, my hair pulled and my pockets robbed of the penny sweets I kept there for just such instances of raiding.
“I’m defeated,” I declared, flopping over dramatically onto the dry, sweet-smelling grass. “I’ve been destroyed. By tiny monsters.”
Giggling, the children scampered off. I sat up, smiling, and dusted off my clothes.
Thomas regarded me from his chair, where the fifth Cecil-Coke was snoring soundly against his chest. “Then again, I think I see now why you’re so eager to set off.” His voice was dry, but he was mostly joking—we both knew how much I adored my little usurpers.
“It will be better this way,” I said. “I’ll go and handle the family business in London, so you can stay here in your lavender-scented bower.”
Thomas thought I was leaving to act as his proxy in some legal affairs across the Channel—which technically wasn’t untrue. I was planning on doing those things. But he didn’t know about the letter from Julian Markham in my breast pocket, a letter I’d unfolded and refolded and unfolded again countless times over the past two days.
A letter about Molly.
“I hope I can come back before Charlotte has the child,” I said, standing up. “The tiny, squinty, sleepy part is my favorite.”
The four older children burst out of the back parlor and onto the patio, running past us straight into the gardens, making for the vast lavender fields below. They were jostling, arguing, and laughing, and my chest twisted.
“Actually, I think every part is my favorite,” I said, and my words weren’t joking or light-hearted. They were heavy with longing. I wanted this—this, with the happy screams and the constant noise around the dinner table, and the way Thomas and Charlotte looked at each other like there was no other person they wanted more in the world. The way they gathered together by the fire on chilly nights, the way Thomas and Charlotte always woke up with piles of children in bed, no matter where all the children were put the night before.
I wanted a family. I’d wanted one for some time. And fuck, if that wasn’t unsettling. Because people in my circle didn’t want families. They wanted freedom and money and infinite amounts of leisure time bled free of responsibility. I used to want those things too.
I’d been corrupted. Corrupted so thoroughly that I was in danger of becoming a good person. But I also wasn’t an idiot. I knew I’d never have what Thomas and Charlotte had; there was no way I was capable of that kind of selfless, pure love. I’d proved that to myself—and everybody else—eight months ago.
But maybe, just maybe, fate was giving me a chance at something else.
Thomas was watching me as I thought, his thick eyebrows pulled together. “You know, it’s time you thought about starting a family of your own.”
I gave him a weak smile. “I’ll think about it.”
“I’m serious, Silas. You slept your way through England, and then you slept your way through half the Continent, and now you’ve slept your way through le Midi. And you don’t look any happier for it, at least not since you came here. Surely you can find a nice English girl that will make you content?”
“You know me,” I said, getting ready to leave, “one English girl alone would never keep me satisfied.”