Alec stared down at the Thames far below. The dimples on its smooth surface betrayed the dark turmoil that lay beneath, the hidden strength of its fiendish current. Shards of ice had formed around the stone bulwarks of London Bridge after weeks of frigid temperatures and coal-smoke gloom. The shards almost looked like teeth and the river an open mouth.
It would be a cold death, Alec thought. He regretted that. Would he never have a warm embrace, not even in death? But his despair would not wait for spring. The pain in his heart urged him to do whatever a man might to achieve oblivion now, tonight.
He stood at one of the open gaps on the bridge with the Nonsuch House to his left and a six-story half-timbered edifice to his right. His hands gripped the wooden barrier with its cap of snow that separated pedestrians from the open air. It would be slippery climbing the barrier, but what did he care? Wasn’t falling the point? He straightened his elbows, bringing his feet off the ground, and prepared to swing his leg over.
For you, William, for you. Ever, always, for you.
The voice came from behind him. It was a lady’s voice, soft and sweet around the harsh consonants of his name.
What the devil?
He lowered himself and turned. Behind him stood a lady. She wore a gown that shone gold in the light of the moon with a white velvet cloak over it. The cloak’s high collar framed a face that could steal your breath. She was the most beautiful woman Alec had ever seen. Her hair was loose, like a young girl’s, and fell in a mass of red-gold curls to her waist. Her face was ageless, with a narrow nose and a small but perfectly shaped pink mouth. Her eyes were a luminous brown.
Where on earth had she come from? Perhaps from one of the buildings nearby? But had he heard right? Had she said his Christian name?
“You must not,” she said gravely. “You still have a long and fruitful life ahead of you, Alec Allston.”
“Who are you?” It was a rude question, but he was truly bewildered.
“Who I am is not important. Only I beg you, leave this bridge right now.” Her eyes sparkled with mischief. “The normal way, if you please. On your two feet and remaining dry. Return to your shop and take to your bed. I promise in the morning you will be astonished that you ever contemplated such a rash act and grateful you were prevented from achieving it.”
Alec was certain now that he must be imagining this, for he’d never seen the lady in his life. Yet she knew his name and his intention, addressed him in an intimate fashion, as if they were old friends. He rubbed his eyes and looked around at the snowy scene. But London Bridge looked just as it always did. And it felt real—the wind on his chapped cheeks, the frozen feeling of his fingers where he’d removed the gloves, even the smell of smoke and the slight scent of ale-soaked urine in the air.
“How do you know me, m’lady? Surely I would remember if we’d ever met.”
She tilted her head and regarded him curiously. “Is it so odd that I would know you, one of the most gifted young artists in London Town?”
The words did him more good than her admonishments had done. He felt a rush of pride. “My work. Yes, my work. You’re very kind.”
“I am not kind,” she said with an arched brow. “I am annoyed. How can you contemplate leaving so many exquisite pieces unformed? Do all the wonders of which your heart has dreamed mean so little to you?”
“No,” he whispered. “No, of course they— That is....”
He pictured it now, as if he were standing in his workshop. A fabric-lined box sat on the enormous, scarred worktable. Inside were pages upon pages of sketches and scribbled plans. But the pencil was far swifter than the chisel. There were many visions he’d yet to bring to life. If he died now, they would most likely be tossed in the fire when one of his brothers or sisters arrived from Yorkshire to dispose of his possessions. His siblings were all terribly pragmatic.
He felt an acute pang of loss at that thought. “I cannot leave so much unfinished.”
“I should think not! What an insult it would be to your devoted muse,” the lady gently admonished. “Why, you’ve barely begun your work. You’ve a million dreams yet to dream.”
A rift opened in his chest. He felt the pull of the work, her words making him long for his tools right there and then. And yet—the black, leaden heartache was so very real too.
“It’s only that...” His words dropped off and he looked again at the Thames below—swift and icy, promising oblivion.
“Tell me why you despair,” she said.
He looked at her, unspeaking. Her face was as open as a child’s. But he could not tell his secrets. Not ever. If she was not real, she was from Heaven. And if she were from Heaven, the truth of him would send her on her way soon enough, with waves of disgust.
But was that not what he deserved?
“I loved someone,” he said in a rush. “With every part of my being, every beat of my heart, purely and completely. And now....” He swallowed. “Now he’s gotten engaged.”
Her serene expression did not falter.
He plunged on. “He’s from a very noble family and has tremendous responsibilities. And she is a noblewoman. He does not love her, not as he loves me. Yet he’s far too good to play her false. So he has ended it with me. Forevermore. No more letters or glances or whispered words. I am completely cut adrift. And I... I can’t bear it.”
She gave a tiny sigh, which he barely heard. But it still struck him as slightly put out.
“My dear Alec,” she said in a patient tone. “When you love, you love with your whole being. That is to be admired. And yet you do not see that the point is in the loving, whether or not the object of your desire deserves that love, and whether or not it is returned. Love is a powerful force in the world. It elevates everything around you, just as a candle’s flame illuminates and changes what’s within its circle. The reward is the feeling itself. Do you understand what I’m saying, Alec?”
He thought he did, and his understanding made him sad. “Is that my fate, then? To love others and never be loved? To endure the bittersweet pain of loving in silence... forever?”
It was more statement than question, for this was nothing he hadn’t told himself before. After all, it was as William had said. A man with his predilections could only choose the gutter or the stainless altar, and he’d already committed himself to the latter. Only, what he and William shared had been pure, and guiltless, and restraining themselves had been so bloody hard. And to not even be allowed that much... not even that? It was too cruel.
The lady smiled sadly. “That depends entirely on you, Alec. But listen to this well: nothing was ever made that was intended to go unused. For now, take pleasure in living, in your work, honor your muse, and cherish the great gift you were given. If you can do these things, I promise you, you will find joy by and by, more joy than you can even imagine right now.”
“Yes m’lady,” Alec said without fully absorbing her words.
“Very well. Now it’s December. Go home, Alec. Go back to your shop. And celebrate the season. For that too, is its own reward.”
He looked away across the river. “Very well. I will try. Only it hurts so terribly. Will the heartbreak ever—”
He glanced back to her, but she was gone. Astonished, he looked to the left and right on the bridge. It was late, the midnight hour. A few alehouses remained open, but their guests were indoors. There was no one on the bridge except for a hobbling old man some distance away and a stray dog sniffing at a barrel.
“Dear God,” Alec muttered. “I did. I completely dreamed it.” He pinched his cheek, which was half-numb with cold. It hurt. He stuck his hand on the balustrade, feeling the icy snow. He wasn’t dreaming.
A slow-dawning sense of wonder came over him as the magnitude of the encounter settled upon him. It was as if he were waking from a dream. He took a few steps in either direction, studying the stones beneath his feet. The snow was only a scant dusting here, but he could see his own footprints. No others were visible.
“By George,” he said. “By George!”
He looked down at the river and remembered what he’d been about to do. God’s teeth, he’d been in the act of climbing over the barrier.
“Heaven sent her to me,” he whispered, and he sent up a fervent prayer of thanks.
The heartache was still there, a stone in his chest, but now other feelings warred with it. Surprise. Wonder. A sense of being incredibly blessed. Who was he that he merited a heavenly visitation? And there was a sense of dread and horror when he thought that, at this moment, he could be fighting for breath in the icy river or be slammed against the stone bulwarks under the bridge.
He shuddered. And as the lady had promised, already he could no longer fathom taking such an action. May God be with those unfortunate souls who also found regret but found it too late.
He wrapped his arms around himself and hurried off the bridge, heading west towards St. James and his shop, his thoughts tumbling with new inspiration.