Okay, here it is. On the plus side, the reason it took so long is it’s so tied up with Chapter Nine I had to edit them at the same time, which means I can post Chapter Nine almost immediately. (But not today. It’s still got three or four more drafts to go before I move from vigorously hating it to just a low-level kind of burning hate.)

On the minus side, well… guh. See for yourself.

Oh, but if you’ve been wondering where all this is heading, in Chapter Nine the gloves come off. Of course, this is Chapter Eight. Wow. I am scarily bad at this introduction thing.

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Chapter Eight: Gray Eyes

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Gray eyes. Nothing else mattered. Not the pain. Not the voices. Not the cold or that strange taste. Nothing mattered but gray eyes looking into mine. Gray eyes fading in the dark…

o00o

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Dark. Moving. I was in a carriage and it was moving through the dark. It must be a carriage because it was rocking and it hurt my head. I couldn’t think because of the awful pain in my head. If I got out the rocking would stop. Why didn’t I think of that before? I would just get out…

“John, no. Be still. Don’t try to move.”

That was strange. It sounded like Holmes, but Holmes wasn’t here. He had gone. He had been gone a long time. The roaring water took him. No, there was something wrong about that. Something Francois knew. Francois would know what was happening. Where was he?

“Francois?”

“No, he’s not here. He’s at the hotel. We’ll be there soon. Just lie back.”

That was all right then. I always felt better when I was with Francois. He said things that made sense. He could explain why I kept hearing Holmes’s voice. He could help me make sense of this pain in my head.

“Where– will Francois help?” No answer. I was alone. Head hurt so badly.

“Yes, I’m sure he will. Don’t worry. You’ll see Francois soon.”

There were two people whispering somewhere. One was the voice pretending to be Holmes. It sounded so much like him… I couldn’t think. My head hurt. I had to get out.

“John, please. Lie still. We’re almost there. Just lie still.”

A cool hand on my forehead. That was better. It hurt less now.

“Thank you.”

“I’m sorry, John. I’m so very sorry.”

o00o

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Bright lights. A blur of lights and loud voices that didn’t make sense. I couldn’t concentrate.

“We’re almost there, John. Just a little farther.”

Almost there. At the hotel? Someone had mentioned a hotel and Francois. Someone who sounded like Holmes. It was all so confusing… More voices. All of them excited. All talking and I couldn’t understand. What was wrong with my head? Everything blurred, even the words. No, I knew that voice.

“Francois?”

“I am here, John, and Monsieur Holmes is here, as well. We will talk soon, eh? We have much to talk about, but first you must sleep for a time.”

So it was Holmes’s voice. Francois had found Holmes. No, we had, together.

“We found him?”

“Yes, it is the greatest un-impossibility, is it not? You will rest a bit now, then you will talk with Monsieur Holmes.”

But what if Holmes left again? He might disappear again in the bright blur. I couldn’t bear it if he left again. Francois understood. He understood Holmes better than I. Maybe Francois could make him stay.

“Francois, you’ve got to– please, don’t let him leave…”

“No, my friend, do not worry. You will rest for a time and Monsieur Holmes will be here when you awake.”

“Shh, hush cher, quietly my ange. That’s right. Do not worry so.”

A woman’s voice, so sweet, and now it was cool and dark. It was so much easier to think. But Francois had said it would be all right, so maybe I could sleep for a little while.

“Rest now, cher. Close your eyes. Sleep now my ange.”

Yes, sleep…

o00o

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I could hear Holmes speaking. His voice was muffled as if… yes, he was in the next room and he was not pleased. He was using that tone he sometimes used with Lestrade. Why was Lestrade in Paris? No, not Lestrade. Francois. Francois sounded angry. They were arguing and it was hard to make out… French. They were arguing in French. That was frustrating. I wanted to help, but how could I help if I didn’t understand the words?

Holmes kept forgetting I couldn’t speak French. I’d tried to explain in the garden. We had been in the garden and I was trying to tell him something. No, I didn’t want to tell him something. He’d tried to tell me something. What was it? It seemed very important.

He’d been trying to tell me something and he had his arms around me. No, that couldn’t be right. That wasn’t supposed to happen. But he had, hadn’t he? Yes, I remembered his face, very pale, close to mine. He was sitting on the ground and holding me and saying something… something important, but what? Was it a memory or a dream?

I kept searching, but the pounding in my head swallowed the words. When I saw him again I would ask. I would ask what he’d been trying to tell me. I remembered him talking to me the garden and later in… in the carriage, yes, we’d been in a carriage and the hotel and now Holmes was in the hotel room outside arguing with Francois.

Why were they arguing? There must be a good reason. Something important was happening. Perhaps I could help although my head hurt terribly. Why did my head hurt so?

It didn’t matter. I had to get up. I had to stop lying in the dark because there were things I needed to do. Something to do with… Moran. Moran had been in the garden.

I considered the thought. It wasn’t quite right. Holmes had said Moran was in London. Someone else. A member of Moriarty’s gang had followed me from London. I had led him to Holmes.

A chill ran through me. Was Holmes all right? I had to get up. I had to get up and make sure Holmes was all right. I had to get up now.

I forced my eyes open and found I was floating in a dimly lit room, looking up at a rippling ceiling the color of pale vanilla. Two white florets bobbed in the center like dollops of cream. A moment’s consideration told me I was in a bed, the ceiling couldn’t be rippling and there was only one dollop– floret with a strange, pale nimbus around it.

Concussion? That seemed likely. That’s why my head ached so badly. How did I get a concussion, I wondered. Nothing else seemed to hurt, just my head, but I was ridiculously weak and there was a metallic taste in my mouth. Blood, I thought blearily as I blinked up at the gently wavering ceiling. All that blood and…

“Holmes?” I said. I was surprised to find my voice was a low croak.

There was a rustle of skirts and I felt someone settle on the edge of the bed. A voice at my ear whispered, “Hush, cher, do not get up just yet. Rest just a little more, John, my ange.” A soft hand brushing my forehead and the fragrance of lavender hung in the air.

“Séraphie?” I said thickly.

“Yes, John. I am here. You must not stir just yet,” she soothed.

“Is Holmes all right? He wasn’t hurt?” I was pleased to hear my voice sounded stronger already although my throat was terribly dry.

“Yes, he is fine,” Séraphie said and I heard a smile in her voice. “You rest a little more. I will bring him here for you to see.” The bed shifted.

No, that was wrong, I thought, as anxiety welled up. If Holmes was truly all right I shouldn’t see him yet because there was something I didn’t want to say. I wasn’t sure I could see his face and not give away… cold realization hit, cutting through the fog in my mind.

“No, Séraphie, wait,” I murmured.

“Yes, John?” Her voice came back to the bedside.

“Could I have a glass of water, please?”

“Of course, ange.” There was a rustle of skirts and the ceiling brightened. I heard water running at a little distance.

I shouldn’t see Holmes yet, I knew. Not until my head was fully clear. Not until I could set aside the knowledge that I loved him, still loved him even after all this time, although he’d never loved me.

None of that was important. My feelings weren’t important. I had to forget all that and master my thoughts so I could get up and make myself useful. Surely, I thought, I could still be of use.

My first action should be to sit up. Once I was sitting up, I decided, I could worry about the rest. I ventured a tentative movement of my head and inhaled sharply as pain blazed through my skull and out through my limbs wiping away all thought.

In a moment Séraphie was back at my side. She touched my shoulder lightly as I sank back. “Ah, cher, not yet. Just a little at a time,” she said. “It is so nice to talk with you I would not like it if you went back to sleep so soon. Would you not like me to bring Sherlock and Francois to know you are awake?”

I blinked. The mention of Holmes’s Christian name brought me to full awareness more quickly than a dose of smelling salts might have done. It was so strange to hear it used by anyone but his brother that it was almost physically jarring.

“Um, no,” I said, pleased to hear my voice sounded more distinct. I cleared my throat. “No, Séraphie, just give me a moment, please.”

“All right, cher,” she said. “We will wait a moment.” She brushed my forehead with her fingertips and the pain in my head seemed to lessen fractionally. White lights sparkled at the edges of my vision, but the pale nimbus that surrounded everything was rapidly receding.

I turned my head far enough to see Séraphie sitting by me. She had turned to place the glass of water on a table by the bed. Her golden hair was piled loosely on her head in an elegantly uncomplicated fashion, a stray curl falling along her cheek. When she looked back and found me watching her a smile lit her green eyes.

“Thank you,” I said weakly. “I’m all right.”

“No,” she said, in her low, sweet voice. “I do not think you are all right just yet. But you are doing very well for a man with so many bandages on his poor head.”

I reached up with an unsteady hand and felt the gauze dressing. There seemed to be packing above my right ear.

“Sherlock said you were… graz’d.” She said it slowly as if trying out the strange word on her tongue. Her fingertips brushed the bandages at the side of my head. “Here. He said it was very fortunate it was only a graz’ding shot.” She made a tiny moue. “But your pretty suit is ruined.”

“An air gun,” I said.

“Yes,” Séraphie said and she sounded strangely mournful. “The air gun. That is what Sherlock said when he brought you here. So much violence. It is not very nice.”

I swallowed. “How long ago did I come here?” I feared to hear the answer. I would never forgive myself if were the cause of derailing Holmes’s plans for capturing Moran after so long a chase.

“Not long, cher,” Séraphie answered soothingly. “Just a little time.”

“How long, please, Séraphie?” I asked again. I was not entirely sure what her conception of “a little time” might be.

“Only… Yes, only just a few hours. I remember because the supper had finally arrived after I had requested it many times. I was hungry after so long, as you may understand. And yet Francois did not even have the goodness to send for the champagne. He is a very irritating little man, your Francois. I am sorry, cher, but it is true, you must admit this.”

I feared for a moment I might be slipping back to unconsciousness, so difficult was Séraphie’s train of thought to follow, but I was able to sort out the necessary facts. Only a few hours then. There might still time to capture Moran’s agent.

“And we’re at the Hotel de Gaspard?” I ventured.

“Ah, oui!” Séraphie said delightedly. “You are not so hurt in the head as I might have feared. It is clear you are the strongest of men.”

I wasn’t quite sure how to manage that statement so instead I indicated the bedroom door with a glance of my eyes. From the other room the sounds of animated conversation rose and fell. “It seems as if they’ve been talking like this for some time,” I said. “Can you tell me, what is the disagreement about?”

“Ah,” she said, her petal pink lips curled in a half smile. “It is the oldest of disagreements, is it not? But we will hope it may be settled without the dueling pistols.”

I must have looked confused because her eyebrows arched in question. She leant a little closer and looked into my eyes. “John, you are awake, yes?” she said carefully. “You know over what these two men disagree, of course.”

“I’m afraid not,” I said, beginning to feel a bit lost. It had seemed a simple enough question. “Unless it is about how best to capture the man with the air gun, I don’t…”

Her eyebrows drawing together in a small frown, “You cannot but guess?”

“Séraphie,” I said as patiently as I could manage although the throbbing in my skull was again increasing. “Please. Just tell me. What is the argument about? Is it about a man named Moran?”

She bit her lip in a gesture I might find charming under other circumstances. She appeared to consider for a long moment then gave a sigh and said, “Yes, your friends talk angrily about this Moran and also about the meaning of the air gun. They argue very much about how you came to be hurt by it. They argue about everything but very little do they argue about that which they are angriest. Francois I think would like to argue about this, but your Holmes… Well, it is a matter for them to discuss with you, I think, and I should not say more. You must ask them to explain.” She gave a little smile. “But not together. One at a time I think will be best.”

More certain than ever that my thoughts were still muddled, I couldn’t begin to think to what argument she referred. I might have tried again to get her to explain, but the discussion that had seemed to be at last trailing off reached another brief crescendo.

Séraphie’s eyes narrowed as she cast a sidelong look at the door. “Maybe I will bring one of your friends to see you now, yes?” she said. “It might be best if I do this soon.”

I sighed. If I had to choose between not understanding what this personal matter might be and seeing Holmes again when my faculties were not fully restored, I decided, I could endure a certain amount of curiosity.

“I think I’d prefer to get up if I can,” I said. “I’d like to make myself useful. There’s still a great deal to be done tonight, I imagine.”

Séraphie studied me with a steady gaze. I had never seen her look so serious and it was a revelation to see the intelligence in her eyes. In the next instant she inclined her head and flashed a bright smile.

“D’accord,” she said. “I will assist if this is what you wish.” And with that she slipped from the bed and stood watching me expectantly.

I considered the wisdom of my actions. I was suffering from blood loss, certainly, and almost surely a concussion. Yet I seemed to be cogent, my double vision had resolved itself and apart from weakness and the pounding in my head I could think of no reason not to rise. I could always return to bed if it proved I was more hindrance than help.

That resolved, I decided there here was no point delaying any longer. I took a deep breath, braced my hands against the bedclothes and began to push myself up to a sitting position. As I did so, I realized on a sudden that I was clad only in my trousers.

In my surprise I swiveled my head toward Séraphie too quickly. I gasped as pain arced out from my skull to my fingertips, clenching my stomach with welling nausea. White pinpoints of light danced in front of my eyes.

“I’m sorry,” I said when I could speak. “I didn’t realize– my shirt…”

There was a pause before Séraphie answered. I heard a smile in her voice as she said, “John, my ange, I will tell you truly you are the most lovely of gentlemen.” She leant toward me and whispered, “But I am not so easily embarrassed as that.”

Even as the pain receded from behind my eyes I remembered the phrase “gold courtesan” and I think I must have blushed for she gave a light laugh. “Ah, I see you are all aware again, my gentleman John,” she said. “Bon. We shall try again.”

Her hand slipped under my shoulder and I took another deep breath as she helped me ease up to a sitting position at the edge of the bed. The pain receded more quickly this time and the wave of nausea was more manageable for being expected.

“There,” she said encouragingly. “Your strength is most impressive. Let us now wait just a moment before you stand.”

I took a sip of water when Séraphie offered the glass and I was soon ready to attempt to rise. With Séraphie’s arm for steadying support, I managed to gain my feet. The first wave of vertigo passed and I found I could stand unaided long enough for her to step back and give me an appraising look.

“Merveilleux,” she said thoughtfully, inclining her head to the side. “Très merveilleux.”

Although I was not averse to Séraphie’s praise, in our current situation I hoped she was commenting on my stamina. I cleared my throat and said, “You said my clothes are not in wearable condition?”

“Non,” she said sadly, “It is the great shame but your shirt and coat are all soaked with blood. They are in the cabinet in case you may want them again.” She waved a hand at the corner of the room. “But I would not if I were you. They are very messy. I will find you something else even if it is not so nice as your pretty suit. But first…” She paused as she glanced at my bandages. “We may tidy you just a little to make the best appearance. We do not want to frighten your friends any more than they have been or I will worry we may see still more blood and ruined clothing.” She cast a glance at the door. “Although it is likely this will happen in any case.”

Before I could venture a response she turned on her heel and crossed the huge room to a door I had not seen from my vantage point on the bed. She disappeared inside and an electric lamp flared, spilling blue-white light across the bedroom’s richly patterned rug. I again heard water in a basin and gathered the room was furnished with an en suite bath.

The rather lavish appointments were becoming more evident as I was able to better comprehend my surroundings. The gilt and cream furnishings, to my admittedly inexperienced eye, seemed to be a tribute to the last age of kings. Scrollwork traced the edges of a large mirror adorning the wall above the bed and the cabinet Séraphie had indicated.

There was a wide, bowed window and through the sheer curtaining I could see the sky was full dark. I was thinking of attempting to step toward it to find whether, as Francois had implied, the room might have a view of the Eiffel Tower when Séraphie stepped up behind me and laid her hand lightly on my shoulder.

“If you may, cher,” she said, guiding me with gentle pressure. “Come into the bain- the bath room and we will refresh your appearance as we may.”

Séraphie was of average height for a woman, but she was stronger than I would have anticipated. Though I was some half a head taller she was able to guide me surely toward the bath with light touch on my arm and at my back. My steps were uncertain at first, but I was pleased to find I soon moved more easily.

As we walked, Séraphie kept up a steady stream of conversation. Her light voice was a pleasant distraction from the pain that still throbbed along with my pulse.

“I shall tell you of what I learned when your Sherlock brought you to this hotel. You are progressing very well, cher. Take care here at the edge of the rug. What I hear, although I am yet confined to this room as Francois has forbidden that I should leave it… This imprisonment is growing tiresome as you may well understand. I do not prefer to be locked inside doors all day. I am cross with your Francois but I think maybe you can convince him to let me take the air in the other room for a while, no? Bon. And so, your Sherlock, he tells Francois of how you received your injury and how he called for help. Soon a girl came and he sent her to run to a Doctor as quick as she might. I think that your friend cared for you as best he could while he waited. Sadly, his suit is also ruined. But soon the Doctor came and bandaged your head and they brought you here to the hotel.”

She paused long enough to help me across the threshold of the bath. There was a fragile looking gilt-work stool pulled up to the cabinet-style washbasin. Séraphie selected one from a set of linen cloths stacked at the edge and dipped it into the brimming basin while I eased myself down on the stool.

As she wrung out the cloth she launched back into her story. “Sherlock told Francois that he did not think you would be safe in a hospital away from where they could watch for the man with the air gun. Francois agreed to this, but only with some words that I will not repeat for I think you may blush yet again.”

She touched the warm cloth to my forehead and brushed it across my temple at the edge of the bandage. “This Doctor was not so concerned with making you presentable, I think. This was not so good for the sake of Francois. Ah, but there was the row terrifique when he saw them bring you inside the room. Such words! The Doctor, I think, was afraid. He said he would call a gendarme. Francois said that he is a gendarme and the Doctor left very quickly. Since that time, there has been little but this.” She inclined her head to the door. “Sherlock, I think, was very outraged though it is more difficult to tell in his case. But Francois…” She gave a little shudder.

I closed my eyes as she stroked the cloth across my face and shoulders. I was in danger, I felt of drifting off to sleep again between her sweetly soothing voice and the comforting touch of her hand. The sense of her words seem to filter into my mind from a long way away.

When next she turned back to the basin I roused my concentration so far as to ask, “Did Holmes say whether he saw the man with the air gun?”

I heard her turn back toward me and as she resumed her ministrations she said, “There is one thing that I have some curiosity about. Here we have Francois, Séraphie and dear John…” I felt her lips lightly brush my forehead. I opened my eyes in surprise as she went on. “And Holmes. Why is your friend Holmes? I think it is nicer to say Sherlock. It is a pleasant name anyway.”

I blinked and looked up to meet her curious gaze as she went on, “It seems to me that this is strange in the circumstances.” She gave a little shrug. “But perhaps I do not understand how it is with you. If you prefer not to be so informal in this. I think it is best to be very friendly and then it may not go so hard if an unpleasantness should occur. Perhaps if you also called Francois as Villard? But no. That would not help too much. So it will be your Holmes and your Francois.” Before I could begin to formulate an answer or even unravel the question, she leant back and flashed a bright smile. “Et voila!” She said happily. “You are once again as handsome as can be despite this,” she indicated my bandages, “Not so lovely chapeau. I will find you- Ah! I know. It will be so nice with your pretty blue eyes.”

And with that she whirled and stepped from the room leaving me seated before the mirror. I surveyed my appearance critically. I was, if possible, even more pale than I had been before, but my eyes betrayed no sign of significant head injury. And whatever gruesome sight I had presented when I woke had certainly been cleansed away by Séraphie. What hair was visible under the swaddling bandages that circled my head was reasonably kempt as was my face and mustache. It had taken no little work to achieve the effect I considered as I saw the murky red color of the water in the basin.

Séraphie clucked her tongue as she stepped back into the room. “I am sorry, cher,” she released a lever and the basin began to drain. “I should not have left such an untidiness, but look what I have found.”

She held up a black wool jumper for my inspection. “It is lovely, is it not? It will look most jaunty with your bandages. Now we will be careful as we put it over your poor head.”

Before I could reply she’d turned the jumper in her hands and held it out to me expectantly. “You will begin and I will help,” she said officiously, but belying her words she began to ease the neck over my head without my assistance.

As she worked it down over my shoulders and I found the sleeves she continued what I’d begun to think of as her monologue. It was strangely relaxing, I considered, not to have to take the trouble to respond. I wondered if the ability to keep up a pleasant stream of conversation was a skill cultivated by all courtesans or if it was peculiar to this one.

“This I found,” she was saying, “In the bag of your Holmes.” I might have looked startled at this had my face not been covered by black wool, but Séraphie seemed to anticipate my surprise for she laughed and said, “You must not be too upset with me, dear John. I was bored as may be being trapped in this room for such a long time. Sherlock is a most secret man you will agree and I am too curious. So I took just a peek. There was not much of interest but this was very pretty and a good size. Your friend’s shirts are not quite so big as yours here.” She touched my shoulder as I managed to shrug the jumper down over my chest and pull it down to my waist. “Do you not find it to be so? No? Well, it is no matter. You will see that I am right in this.” She flashed another smile. “I have the good eye as they say.” She gave me another appraising look. “Bon,” she said approvingly. “Très, très bon. Now I will ask this question and you will not think too hard on me again, eh?”

It took me a moment to understand that she was, in fact, waiting for a response. “Um, yes. I mean, no. I’m sure I won’t,” I said. “What is it you wanted to ask?”

“My question is only, would you have your drug now?” she said. “Because I am not so experienced in this but I maybe can give a little help if it is what you wish.”

I gaped at her. “My– ” I hesitated. “Do you mean the Doctor left something for me to take?”

She puffed out a little sigh. “No, cher,” she said patiently. “That is not what I mean as I think you know very well or I will begin to doubt your mind again. I mean that which you carry in your suit as I saw when I put it to the side for you. If you do not wish to have it now I will not insist, but…” She gave a little shrug. “Even though your strength is so great, if you must be determined to be on your feet I think it may be a good idea.”

I sought for an answer and she went on even as she leant forward to straighten the shoulders of the jumper. “You are disappointed with me, I can see,” she said equably. “Still as we are both in this room at the present time and you may need assistance.” She shrugged. “I will help as I can.”

“It’s not mine,” I said, recognizing as the words came that they sounded absurd.

Séraphie stepped back and gave me a little frown. “John,” she said. “We are friends, are we not? I am sad that you would tell me it does not belong to you, but I, too, have my little secrets and I will not think too hard on you.” She gave me a wide, beaming smile that was disconcerting in its suddenness. “We will not talk of it again and I will not worry for you. I am sure your strength will be more than enough. So we shall go and be useful.”

She held out her hand and, as I was unable to find a response that would not sound dissembling, I took it and let her help me to my feet. As she began a new monologue, I vaguely registered she was describing Villard’s state of mind when he’d brought her to this hotel and confined her to the bedroom and explaining that she had only been trying to force the lock of his flat because she’d had nothing to eat for hours and all she could find in his kitchen cupboard was coffee and a tin of olives.

My mind was preoccupied with her assumptions about the black leather syringe case in my jacket pocket. I’d carried it as a reminder of Holmes and as something of a penance, I recognized now, for it somehow represented the guilt and remorse I felt at the pain I had caused in my abandonment of him.

What did it mean, that I had kept it in my pocket so long? Could I keep it even after today? Knowing what I did now?

I had no thought of returning it to him. I would not subvert my feelings for him so far as to seem to condone his habit. It was not my property to keep, yet how long could one carry an item, treating it as a personal talisman, before it became one’s own? Was it now mine, I wondered. Holmes would surely have replaced it if…

He had seen it. He had seen it at the bookshop, I realized with a suddenness that almost made me stagger.

Séraphie must have felt me falter for her hand tightened on my elbow and she paused in her monologue long enough to give me a questioning look. I managed a weak smile and she seemed to take it as encouragement enough for she launched back into her tale as we continued toward the door.

Holmes had seen the case fall from my pocket. Had he recognized it? Of course, he had, he was Sherlock Holmes. What must he think of me except that in addition to the rest of my litany of follies I could add hypocrisy? So my humiliation was complete. With a deep sense of resignation I realized the cold knot settling in the pit of my stomach was one to which I had rapidly become accustomed.

Later, I reminded myself. Later I would indulge the self-pity. It would wait. It would always wait for me in the dark.

Séraphie and I reached the door. On the other side, the argument had once again subsided to a series of chilly-sounding statements. Holmes’s voice had the slow and patient tone he knew so tried Inspector Lestrade’s temper. Villard barked a derisive laugh and Holmes’s murmured response sounded worryingly pleasant.

I took a deep breath and nodded. Séraphie gave me quick smile and squeezed my arm once before releasing it and reaching for the door. She tugged it open and stepped back. I walked through as steadily as I could.

The bright light that filled the sitting room was dazzling. I blinked as my eyes tried to adjust and noticed with a vague sense of unease that it took rather longer than it should have.

The argument cut off instantly as I stepped into the room. When I was able to focus I found both men were standing by a door that I assumed by its location led to the outside passageway.

They watched me silently as I made my way to a divan just outside the bedroom and leaned casually against the back. I hoped that I looked casual and not as though I wished to collapse into it.

I cleared my throat and said pleasantly, “I didn’t mean to interrupt.” I was relieved to find my voice sounded only a little weak. “Please continue. I have no idea what you’re arguing about, but it sounds important.”

Séraphie spoke up from the bedroom doorway. “It is true,” she said helpfully. “He does not. Perhaps you would like me to explain?”

Villard was already moving across the room. He growled something that sounded very uncomplimentary at Séraphie who merely gave a light laugh. He was at my elbow the next instant and lowered me to the seat with gentle pressure. “John,” he said. “Sit down, please, my friend.”

I would hardly have recognized the neatly groomed man I had met in the pension just the morning before. His hair was in disarray and his suit was as rumpled as if he had slept in it. His mustache was still trim, I noticed idly, then realized I must still be slightly dazed.

Villard was muttering under his breath in rapid French. I looked back at Holmes, being careful not to turn my head too quickly.

Despite a surprising pallor and the state of his thick black hair, which was as wild as I had ever seen it, he was, if possible, a more wonderful sight than he had been before. My chest ached at the sight of him.

He was leaning against the door, his arms crossed tightly before him. His face was perfectly expressionless, but his gray eyes studied me with an intensity that was somewhat alarming. He was in his shirtsleeves and with a shock I realized there was a broad stain of blood from his shoulder to his wrist.

My first thought was that he had been wounded, after all. My concern must have showed in my face for when I raised my eyes to ask if he was hurt, he simply pursed his lips and shook his head once. I exhaled in relief.

Villard still had his hand on my shoulder but he had turned to speak to Séraphie in a clipped undertone. Her airy responses apparently did nothing to calm his temper.

To distract myself from the vision of Holmes, I forced my gaze to wander about the room. Like the bedroom, all the furnishings were of gilt and creamy satin. There was another wide, bowed window and this one, too, was covered with a sheer curtain. I would, I decided, have to make a point of admiring the view. I had yet to see the Eiffel Tower and it was reputed to be quite lovely by moonlight.

My gaze strayed to a narrow console table beside the window. On it sat the waxen bust of Holmes that Villard and I had brought from Grenoble. Seeing it now, I could not imagine why I’d thought it resembled the man watching me from the doorway.

I turned to him and said quietly, “You have been in Grenoble, I perceive.”

Our eyes met as a smile quirked the corners of his mouth. It touched his fog gray eyes and in that instant I knew that nothing, nothing that was truly important, had changed.

One day, I was sure, I would learn to live with, maybe even forget from time to time, the sorrow of knowing he had never loved me, would never love me, while I would love him always. For now, all I needed to know was that Holmes had returned.

Beside me Villard had fallen silent. I felt his hand tighten on my shoulder.

“Perhaps,” I said carefully, keeping my eyes fixed on Holmes. “When there’s a lull in the conversation, I could prevail on you both to bring me up to date on the case. I plan to be of use, you see, and I would like to understand a little better what’s expected.”

Holmes and Villard exchanged a look over my head.

Séraphie bent forward to lean around Villard and said in mock whisper, “And also what we discussed about my liberty, cher?”

“And Séraphie would like to come out of the bedroom now,” I added, smiling in spite of myself. “If it’s not too much to ask.”

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-«oOo»-
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~ Coming Soon ~
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Chapter Nine: Black Leather Case
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