Sharpe’s hand was utterly still. He did not know the answer, but he could guess. The word almost stumbled as he spoke it, but he said it aloud. “Mirador?”
She nodded. “El Mirador. The watch-place.” She looked at his face. She could see a pulse throbbing in his cheek beside the sword scar. His eyes were dark. She raised an eyebrow as if in question. “You know, don’t you?”
He hardly dared speak, he hardly dared breathe. He moved his hand, sliding it gently onto her back so that his fingertips touched the skin of her spine. The wind stirred the leaves above them.
She frowned slightly. “Do you know?”
“Yes, I know.”
She closed her eyes, seemed to sigh, and he pulled with his hand and she came, so easily, into his chest. Her hair was below his chin, her face cradled in his rough uniform, and her voice was small and pleading.
“No one must know, Richard, no one. Don’t tell anyone that you know, not even the General! No one must know. Promise me?”
“I promise.” He held her close, the wonder of it in his head.
“Is that why you wanted me here?”
“Yes. But I didn’t know if I could trust you.”
“You can trust me.”
She tipped her head up to his and he could see that her eyes were gleaming. “I’m frightened of him, Richard. He does terrible things to people. I didn’t know! I never knew it would be like this.”
“I know.” He leaned down and her face did not move. He kissed her and suddenly her arms were round him and she clung to him fiercely and kissed him fiercely as if she wanted to suck the strength from him into her own self. Sharpe held her, his arms round the slim body, and he thought of what his enemy would do to this perfect, lovely, golden woman, and he despised himself for distrusting her because he knew, now, that she was braver than he, that she had led her lonely life in the great Palacio, surrounded by enemies, and in danger, always, of a terrible death. El Mirador!
His hand pressed on her back and, through the lace, hanging in fringes, he felt the hooks of her dress, and he slipped his hand between the hooks, felt her skin, and then pressed the bottom hook between finger and thumb, the finger and thumb that were more used to the pressure of flint on mainspring, and the hook slid out of the loop, and he moved his hand up to the second, pressed again, it opened, and she dropped her face onto his chest, still clinging to him. He could not believe this was happening, that he, Richard Sharpe, was on this mirador, this night, with this woman, and he moved his hand to the last hook, pressed it back through the loop and he could feel the metal scraping as it moved, and she seemed to stiffen in his arms. He froze.
She looked up at him and her eyes searched his face as though she needed some reassurance that this man could truly keep her from Leroux’s long Kligenthal. She gave a small smile. “Call me Helena.”
“Helena?” The hook snapped free, he moved his hand, and he sensed the wings of the dress fall away and he put his hand back, stroked, and it was pressed into the rich curve at the small of her back. Her skin was like silk.
Her smile went, all the harshness came back. “Let go of me!” It was snapped like an order, her voice loud. “Let go of me!”
He had been a fool! She had wanted protection, not this, and now he had offended her by imagining what was not to be, and he let go of her, bringing his hand back, and she stepped away from him. Her face changed again. She laughed at him, laughed at his confusion, and she had ordered him away so that she could stand free and let the dress, light as thistledown, rustle to the floor. She was naked beneath the dress and she stepped back to him over its folds. “I’m sorry, Richard.”