He hesitated and then ventured, "Has yet another suitor disappointed you, then?" In the five years since her debut she'd had scores of admirers and nearly as many proposals—none of which had been to her satisfaction.
"Yet another?" she repeated, her voice rising with each syllable. She whirled to face him. Her cheeks were pale, her eyes large. He knew they appeared hazel in the sunlight, striated with green and blue; now, they were dark with fury. "I detect disapproval, Anthony—"
He shook his head. "No, I only meant—"
"And who do you think you are to disapprove of me?" She threw her hands up, and he instinctively drew back from the swipe of the blade. It hadn't come near him, but he kept a cautious eye on it as she continued her tirade, hacking the air to punctuate each question. "Do you think my dreams of love are not worth pursuing? Do you think them so worthless, so impossible? Is it so ridiculous to believe that love can be all-consuming and true, and to wait for that before pledging myself for eternity to a man who can't be what I want him to be? Am I a fool to think I can have that? Are my expectations too great, my requirements too exacting?"
Her voice broke on the last, and for just a moment, she seemed to withdraw into herself before gathering and refocusing her anger. Her wild jabs at the air ceased, and she pointed the tip of the sword at Anthony with cold deliberation.
"And what of your dreams, Anthony?"
He looked away from the blade, startled by the sudden change in her demeanor. Where she had been heat and fury, now she was ice and mockery. "What of them?" he said carefully, hoping she would not mention his youthful infatuation.
He'd never thought to see one of her smiles contain the cruelty of the one that now curved her lips. "Come now, Anthony—don't tell me you wanted to be a doctor. It was the most painless way for you to get a title other than 'Mister. My father's suggestion, and you went along with it, allowed him to pay for your education, because you thought he'd make you his personal physician, and you and Colin could carry on as you always have, here in London."
A hot, dull flash crawled up Anthony's cheeks. He hadn't realized she knew the particulars of his debt to her father. And he couldn't refute her other charges—he hadn't been hungry for a title, but he had wanted to advance his position in society so he wouldn't be bound by circumstances of his birth.
His gaze dropped to the scar on his palm, a lingering reminder of the blood-brother pact he and Colin had performed years before. They had used the earl's sword—the one Emily now wielded so casually—and, afterward, his hand had become swollen and he feverish. His mother had said the infection was to remind him of his place, to remind him of his duty to help raise the family from their straightened circumstances.
Anthony had never asked if the earl had found similar meaning in Colin's sickness.
"And you'd never have to return to the family that rejected you for lowering yourself. The family that would rather have you remain a starving, indebted gentleman than work in a profession, even as their house falls into disrepair around them." She paused for a breath. "But perhaps your jaunt on the Peninsula will make you a hero, and you will restore the family name and fortune."
He'd thought Emily couldn't hurt him, but she didn't need the sword to do that. He regarded her silently, pain and resentment thrumming under his skin. Everything about her declared her station in life: the pale peach walking dress skimming over her curves was of the finest cut and cloth; the way she held herself erect, the sweep of her neck, the high planes of her cheeks, the softness of her hands all confirmed the ease and luxury that permeated her existence. She would never understand his dismay at her father's suggestion that he join Cole in Spain. She could never conceive of the shame that came from being reminded of his place by the very man who had offered him hope of something better.
He didn't know what had come over her to speak to him as she had, but if he stayed in this room much longer, he was going to say something he would regret. With stiff lips, he said, "My lady, I must beg leave—"
But her thoughts must have also strayed to her father, for her gaze turned inward and she continued as if he hadn't spoken, "What you have failed to learn is that we—Colin, you, and I—are nothing to my father. Only Henry and my nephew matter to him, because Henry is the heir, and Robert is Henry's heir. My father is on his way to Derbyshire now, to fawn over the boy as his twelfth birthday approaches. He expected me to join them in their adoration—but children cannot interest me." Her mouth trembled and she looked away from Anthony, and her tone softened. "But I can hardly fault you for your stupidity; I myself have only just realized this today."
Compassion warred with his embarrassment and anger. The Countess of Norbridge had died in childbed after delivering Emily and Colin; the earl, deeply in love with his wife and stricken with grief, barely acknowledged their existence for the first years of their life, and only took a passing interest in them as they aged. He saved his attentions for Henry, who was ten years older. Emily had never seemed to mind her father's indifference—but perhaps that had not been the case, and she had suffered from it.
But his own wounds were too fresh to completely forgive her for exposing them, and his tone mocking as he replied, "And what other astounding revelations have you had today?"
Emily slanted him a cynical glance, hefting the sword. "That he cares more for this than he does for us." He followed her gaze as she examined the length of it, turning the short bronze blade from side to side. "It's been in my family for so long, the story of its origin can barely be credited: my ancestor, a knight, finding it during the Crusades and bringing it back from the Holy Lands. It never needs to be sharpened; it's never corrupted by age. I suspect my father cleans it at night, to keep its legend alive for my family. He usually keeps it in Derbyshire—except he's been spending so much time in London, he brought it to have it near him here." She tilted her head, her eyes glinting with dark curiosity. The hard edge to her voice returned. "I wonder what will happen if I smash it against stone a few more times?"
Anthony frowned and forgot about his intention to leave. "You won't be able to reverse the damage you do to it, Emily. Are you certain your anger—whatever the cause—is worth this?"
"Oh, yes," she breathed, and in a smooth, quick movement, she whipped around and slammed the tip of the sword straight into the marble. He shook his head in exasperation.
Then her cry of surprise sent him surging to his feet, crossing the short distance to her side. Astonishment furrowed his brow.
She'd embedded the sword halfway into the stone.
Her hands fell away from the hilt, and she covered her mouth with shaking fingers. Her eyes were wide, and her voice trembled with light, genuine laughter—familiar laughter. "He apparently sharpened it very well."
This was the Emily he knew. Anthony grinned. "Apparently."
She continued to stare at the sword. "Have you ever seen anything like this? It is extraordinary, don't you agree?" She lowered her hands from her face, and Anthony saw the bright streak of crimson on her cheek.
He caught her wrist; turning it, he saw the thin line of blood welling from a shallow slice in her thumb.
"Oh!" Emily stared at the cut. "I didn't even feel it. When the sword stopped moving, it jarred my hand over the hilt, but I didn't realize I'd touched the blade."
"I have this," Anthony said, digging a clean handkerchief from his pocket.
Her fingers were long and delicate; the scent of lavender rose from her hair. The warmth of her skin against his seemed to gather and spiral directly to his loins. He ignored the sensation and forced another grin. "Aren't you fortunate I'm a physician? You could have bled to death from such a wound." His jest sounded strained to his own ears, and he hoped she wouldn't notice.