Mrs Stapleton speaks her mind and Charlotte gets a new perspective on herself.
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London – 1839
I wriggled through the window, less elegantly than I’d like, and swung my legs into the bedroom. My ribs weren’t fully healed but I wasn’t going to lie around in bed all day waiting for the fellas to grace me with their time and I’d taken as much of Mrs Stapleton’s mollycoddling as I could stand. I wished she’d go back to calling me a slattern rather than bringing me broth. I hated broth; it reminded me of the workhouse, thin soups with lumps of what you’d hope was gristle.
I went to the door, opened it and stuck my head out. The corridor was empty but I could hear the creak of someone lingering on the noisy stair.
‘… A disagreeable patient, sir,’ Mrs Stapleton said in the distance. ‘Never a grateful word. Always fidgeting and going exploring when she should be in bed.’
‘I’ll be sure to point it out,’ Bran replied, and I thought I heard a hint of amusement.
‘Oh no, sir. I don’t want to cause trouble and it’s all you can expect from a girl like that.’
‘A girl like what?’
There was a pause and I tried to imagine Mrs Stapleton hesitating but couldn’t. I was tempted to sneak to the top of the stairs, just to get a glimpse, but there was nowhere to hide. Bran and I broke the cabinet that had been the only cover in the smooth line of shelves.
‘Well, she’d not a good Christian girl, sir. She’s…’
‘She’s what?’ Bran said, quite calmly.
I leaned out a little further as if somehow I might peer around the end of the hallway without moving towards it.
‘She’s unnatural, sir. Dressing like a boy, stealing and none of these books she reads are suitable for young ladies, sir. And going out all hours of the night doing Lord knows what with Lord knows who –‘
‘I don’t want to hear any more,’ Bran said.
‘I know you’re… fond of her, sir, but she’ll use you and when she’s got what she wants she’ll toss you aside. That’s what girls like her do. I can do many things, sir, but I can’t mend broken hearts.’
Bran’s footsteps were already ascending the stairs. I shut the door quietly, pulled off my shirt and trousers, tucked them under the bed then yanked on my nightdress and dived under the covers.
Bran came into the room, unshaven again and his fingers flexing nervously at his sides. ‘Can I get in with you?’
I peeked out from under the covers. ‘As long as you’re gentle on my ribs.’
‘That wasn’t what I meant,’ he said, peeling of his jacket and putting it over the foot of the bed. He sat down on the edge of the bed to take off his boots. ‘Shall I pretend you didn’t climb in through the window and have been listening in?’
‘I suppose.’ I shifted to sit behind him to unfasten his tie from behind and kiss his neck.
His boot hit the floor with a thud but he made no move to take off the other one. ‘Why are you still here?’
I opened his shirt and slid my hand inside. ‘Why shouldn’t I be?’
Bran put his hand over mine, warm through the fabric. ‘You saw me hit a man with a bookcase and behead him with a garrotte.’
‘I know what you are, Bran, you don’t have to hide from me.’ I nuzzled his bristly cheek. ‘I see you.’
He dug his fingers into my hair but stopped just short of touching my lips. ‘Can I kiss you?’
Rather than answer I kissed him. We lay back on the bed, curling around each other, tangling our limbs.
‘Wait, wait,’ I murmured against his lips before dragging myself away to pull off his other bloody boot. ‘That’s better.’ I settled back beside him and stroked his nose with the tip of my finger. ‘Men like Jack don’t stop unless someone stops them.’
He ran his fingers through my hair and kissed me deeply, for him it was as assertive as a general shouting orders.
I broke away and traced his lips with my thumb. ‘There’s this rage inside me, it sits in the shadowy parts waiting to let out and I want to. Sometimes I want to so badly, but if I do I won’t stop.’
Bran caressed my cheek. ‘You’re angry because you care. I can see it in your eyes. You tell people you don’t, even yourself, and you try to pretend that you don’t, but you do.’
I said nothing and tucked my head under his chin. I’d never been much for caring, I’d told Bran I cared because he needed to hear it but…
If I couldn’t care why had I chased down Griffin after he beat Bran? Why did the way Norman Ellington treated his workers make me so angry? Why did the excesses of the rich anger me so?
Was that caring? I didn’t know. Nobody had ever cared for me and I’d never cared for anyone. Caring was a weakness. Caring got you killed.
The idea that Bran saw a nice person in me somewhere. I liked that idea. Maybe… Maybe I cared about that.