Her chin lifted. She looked over at Clermont’s house as if she could see Hugo inside. As if she were daring him to do worse. She stood all day, her head held high, and if she occasionally rubbed her hips when she thought nobody was looking, or shifted from foot to foot in discomfort, it only served to make Hugo feel worse about what he was doing.
On the second day, she arrived an hour earlier, while the streetlamps were still lit. She strode sedately toward the bench—and stopped abruptly.
Hugo had anticipated her early arrival, of course, and he’d offered the pensioners seven shillings for that extra hour. Once again, she stayed standing on her feet for nine straight hours—disappearing only, he supposed, to use the necessary. Once again, he found himself admiring her obstinacy.
On the third day, it rained. The rain fell in great gusting torrents, and the pensioners couldn’t be had. Still, Hugo managed to round up a few laborers dressed in mackintosh—and scarcely in time. They had just settled in when Miss Barton arrived. She was swathed in a cloak of dark wool, one that covered her gown. He couldn’t see her hair, couldn’t see her hands.
After an hour, her umbrella was so sodden that it no longer repelled water; she abandoned it next to a tree. But she didn’t let the wet stop her. She scarcely looked at the bench. Instead, she stood next to a tree, her lips set in grim determination.
He watched her throughout the morning. Midday, he stopped work for a bowl of soup. She was still there; he ate, standing at the window, watching as she pulled her arms around herself and rubbed briskly, trying to stay warm.
She was going to catch her death. The wind was blowing leaves about; it had to be bitter cold. Noon turned to one o’clock, and then two. She hadn’t left when the clock in the hall chimed three, even though her cloak had turned dark with rain. She huddled in on herself more and more.
Anyone else would have gone home at the first sign of inclement weather. He wasn’t sure if he should applaud her tenacity or rage at how impossible she’d made the situation. Down in the square, she swiped a hand over her face, brushing away rainwater.
This was something that Hugo was going to have to fix, if for no other reason than that he didn’t want her life on his head.
BEFORE SERENA’S CLOAK soaked through, it hadn’t been so bad. She’d been damp and rather cold. But having to stand had been a blessing in disguise; she’d been able to warm herself by walking.
By the time the clock struck three, though, she could scarcely feel her feet. Her hands were frozen inside her gloves.
Go home. It’s only one afternoon.
It wasn’t loud, that impulse. Just insidious. She’d heard it too often. Keep quiet now, and you’ll be taken care of. Don’t scream tonight; it will stop soon enough. But that voice was a lie. Those who did nothing lost. There was nothing so cold as regret.
If she walked away now, Mr. Marshall would know that he could drive her away. It would just spur him on to greater efforts.
And so she chafed her hands together and paced.
Nobody was out unless he had to be. And so that was why, when a figure came around the corner, she turned to look—and then froze. It was Mr. Marshall—the Wolf of Clermont, she reminded herself—looking very grim. He had a bundle under his arm. He walked, head down. When he came abreast of her, he glanced down the street and crossed quickly.
He walked right past her without saying a word, and instead marched up to the men sitting on the bench. She had struggled to see the Wolf of Clermont in him when he’d confessed his identity three days past, but in that instant, she saw it. His ordinariness was an illusion, a cloak of normalcy that he donned for politeness’s sake. Now, he projected a quiet menace—one so palpable that she stepped back, raising her hand to her throat, even though his ire wasn’t directed at her. He fixed the men on the bench with a look.
“Well?” he asked. “Get out of here.”
“But—” said one.
“You heard what I said. It’s over. I have no more need of you. Get out of here.” He gave his head a little jerk.
The men exchanged glances, and then, one by one, they stood and filed out of the square. Serena raised her hands to her lips and blew on them, trying to warm them through her sodden gloves. But Mr. Marshall didn’t look at her. He unfolded his bundle. It was, oddly enough, a load of towels wrapped around an umbrella. He laid the towels out on the bench, drying the seat. Then he popped open the umbrella and motioned her over.
“Sit,” he said. His features were stone.
She was too bedraggled—and too cold—to object to being ordered about. She came over and sat. He hooked the umbrella to the back of the seat, fastening it in place with a bit of rope so that it shielded her half of the bench from rain. Then he unrolled a second towel and took out a metal flask, an irregular package wrapped in wax paper, and, inexplicably, a teacup. He handed her the cup. “Hold this.”
She tried to take it in her hands, but her fingers were too cold to grasp properly and it slipped away.
He caught it midair and glared at her, as if it were her fault her hands could not grip. Without saying a word, he took hold of her wrist and, before she could protest, he had slipped a finger beneath her glove.
She jerked spasmodically away; his grip tightened in reaction. He raised his head, met her eyes, and became very still.
She could count his breaths. She could feel her pulse thrumming in her wrist, encased in his fingers.
Slowly, he let go.
“My apologies,” he said. “I was not thinking. I was going to take off your gloves and rub some sensation into your fingers. Can you do it on your own?”
She fumbled with her own glove, but the material clung to her skin and she could scarcely feel what she was doing.
“Will you let me?” he asked.
Serena met his eyes. He’d dropped his air of menace, and—even knowing full well how wrong the notion was—that same sense returned to her. Safe. Safe. This man is safe.
Nonetheless, Serena held out her hands to him.
He took off one glove and then the other, touching her only long enough to work the fabric down her fingers.
The air was cold against her bare skin, but the sensation lasted only a few seconds. He set her gloves aside, wrapped her hands in a towel and rubbed them vigorously.
The touch should have felt intimate and invasive. His hands engulfed hers. And he’d practically disrobed her—well, maybe disgloved her. But he was so matter-of-fact about it that his touch felt…normal.