“How have you been?” His eyes dark as chocolate, he watched her with the same careful scrutiny he’d given to his magic lantern slides as he packed them away.
She pulled another pin free, then another, feeling more bare with each one. “I’m fine too.” Pulling free her blossom-trimmed hat, she jabbed the hatpins through the plaited-straw brim.
She was fine—or as fine as she’d been for years and years of her marriage. Years of financial strain and dawning awareness of her husband’s infidelity. But over those same years, she had become skilled at appearing fine. And for Con, by God, there was nothing more important than making a good appearance.
“Your words aren’t rationed, you know.” Evan relaxed against the squabs of rust-colored velvet, sliding one boot forward. “You can use more than three when you reply to me. More than four, even, if you have something of particular significance to say.”
The familiarity of his banter made her chest tighten. She swallowed, hard, before replying crisply, “You are fortunate that I was judicious with my words rather than being perfectly frank with you.”
“I’m going to regret asking this, but I will all the same. What did you want to say, Madam Frank?”
She lifted her chin. “That you behaved like an utter ass.”
Though she had spoken the words lightly, they took on great weight in the close confines of the carriage. “I will grant that I deserve that.”
“At the very least. Two years of silence. Evan. Didn’t our friendship mean anything to you?”
He held out his wrists. “Slap the manacles on me. Whatever punishment you care to inflict, I will accept it.”
“I could poke you with a hatpin.”
He made a gesture that was not precisely polite. It had the effect of drawing a smile from her before she added, “It’s a fair question, Evan. And I’m sly enough to notice that you didn’t answer it. You could have come back any time after you chose to leave. After you and Con argued on the day he died.”
He snapped upright, drawing his feet in close beneath his seat. Withdrawing into a shell, it seemed. “I couldn’t come back after that.”
“And why not? Not only could you have, you should have. What was I to think when you left Ireland without a word of farewell?”
“What indeed? What did you think?”
“I didn’t know. I still don’t.”
The two chestnuts, Jerome and Hattie, pulled the carriage along with smooth strides. For the distance of one...two...a half dozen of their long steps...Kate was silent. Then she added, “Con wouldn’t tell me what had passed between you, only that you’d argued. He was upset. Terribly upset. So shaken that he should never have ridden out. And—”
“My God.” Evan rubbed a hand over his jaw, the chiseled line of his mouth. “You think it’s my fault that he died.”
Her head snapped back. “Not your fault. It was no one’s fault. His fall in the steeplechase was an accident. Everyone said so, from housemaid to magistrate. The cinch on his saddle split, and...and he fell. Badly.”
“Maybe fault is not the right word. What of blame? Do you blame me?” His dark eyes were steady and fathomless.
She held his gaze. “No. I don’t blame you for that. If I fault you for anything, it is that you called me friend, then and now, but you never showed it when that friendship was tested.”
He made a dry sound, like a laugh gone cold. “You cannot know how I was tested.”
“I cannot, because you never told me. Not a single word. All I know is that you and Con argued, and you left, and that was that. You threw our whole family away like rubbish.”
“There is no such thing as rubbish,” he said quietly. “Only pieces that antiquarians will one day discover and come to understand.”
God. He was so...so Evan. “That,” she replied, “is not adequate. I need more from my life than the hope that someone will try to piece it together hundreds of years from now.”
Through the carriage roof, Kate could hear the occasional cluck or halloo of the coachman. Sir William’s traveling carriage was built on spacious lines, like Chandler Hall and his stables. Every surface was brushed clean and gleaming.
The conveyances in the carriage room of Whelan House’s stables were neat but patched, oiled but aged. A few years ago, there had been many more. A few years ago, everything had been different.
Was it wrong that, despite her crushing debt, she was happier as a widow than as a wife?
Was it wrong that she didn’t mind if it was?
“What has it been like for you?” Evan’s question seamlessly followed the ones she posed herself. “These past two years?”
“Like running down a hill, hoping I can reach safety before a rolling boulder crushes me.”
“That is an alarming analogy.”
“I thought you’d like it,” she said. “Because of the stone. Pretend it’s an ancient rolling boulder.”
He shook his head. “Still alarming, though now the alarm bears historical significance. What has got you running, Kate?”