“May I ask what happened?” Laurel grazed her fingertips against the strap tying the patch to his head.
He grasped her wrist.
She immediately lowered her hands and gazed to her lap, chiding herself inwardly for speaking without thinking.
“Civil War. Bayonet.” His voice was curt.
“I am so sorry.” The flood of sympathy she held when she first saw him came rushing back. She lifted her face.
“I don’t need your pity, Miss Gunn.” He seated himself farther away from her.
“Misses,” she corrected him.
“I beg your pardon?”
At his look of bewilderment, she covered her mouth and bit her lip to keep the laughter from bubbling forth. “I’m a widow. My husband died during the Crimean War. He too was an American, from Boston actually, a doctor, a lovely man.” Laurel knew she was rambling talking faster than her brain formed words. Her sorrow nearly overtook her fine-tuned control. No Tears. Do not cry. Twelve long years had passed, and grief still hung like an anchor around her neck.
“I had no idea.” His hoarse whisper broke her cloud of gloom. “Is his passing and your loss why you do this?”
“The killing of my husband is part of it.” Laurel could not very well tell him within the toils of the Embassy trade, she had found a sense of family. Her mother had died in India and her own father had traded her freedom for land and a title. Her new friends gave her an unexpected strength and power, which helped mask the deep grief of isolation.
Before they reached the parlor, Laurel stopped. Shivers ran along her skin, and the familiar odor of sandalwood filled her nose. Her knees nearly buckled and Omar, seeming to sense her weakness, held her arm beneath her elbow, while resting the other on her back.
“It will be all right, my lady.” His low baritone voice did little to calm her weary composure. What was wrong with her?
She saw Raven at the parlor entrance, apparently pleased, like a cat rewarding her with a mouse. As much as she would like to find Fatima’s killer, the girl’s death wasn’t what unsettled her.
When she rounded the column, she knew why she shook uncontrollably and her heart raced. He stood facing away from her but she’d recognize the stance of her husband anywhere.
“Ben?” She reacted on instinct. Raw need propelled her toward him.
He turned. His face was harsh-looking, like weathered stone left out in the elements, tough yet still handsome. His green eyes seemed to probe her for questions. “Yes?”
Laurel slapped him hard, the crack echoing along the marble tiles.
She shook her stinging hand.
She straightened and anchored her feet.
Her handprint now a pink mark on his cheek held her gaze. She finally found her voice. “You bloody bastard, you’re supposed to be dead!”
“Did you mean what you said about my being your only lover?” Ben asked. He simply had to know. The thought of spending every night with her would be more than pleasurable. She had a way of chasing away his nightmares.
“You think I lie?” Laurel asked.
“No, I simply wonder why me? You could have any man here.” He leaned in and breathed against her ear.
“Don’t you understand, husband?” She pulled back. The hurt was evident in her liquid brown eyes.
“I believe I do, but I want to be clear.” Ben didn’t know why he risked her safety to satisfy his own heart. He seemed helpless around this woman. Ben wanted to believe he wouldn’t hurt her. Those damnable blackouts made him uncertain.
Laurel drew closer to him, her lips were close, brushing his ear as she cooed, “Ben, you must know, I still love you.” Without warning, she kissed him. In front of the table at large and her current lover, she kissed him.
Her kiss was a simple touch of the lips, but to him, the gesture conveyed much more. A pink stain spread over her cheeks. Was she embarrassed or did she feel the same longing in her soul?