A Musketeer's Heart - Chapter Twenty-Six

She leaned her head against his shoulder and closed her eyes. She was exhausted. Who wouldn’t be? The past few hours had been more than draining. She’d escaped from captivity only to be almost raped and killed by the side of the road. And then she’d spent the night in the saddle, determined to reach Paris as soon as possible. The men had obliged her by not stopping anywhere, not even for her to wash off, but she knew they’d ridden much slower than they could have. She couldn’t berate them, they’d been looking out for her, trying to make her as comfortable as it was possible sharing the saddle with someone. She sighed. Aramis hadn’t let go of her, keeping her warmly swaddled in his cloak, his arm around her waist providing added heat, keeping her safely nestled in his lap, her back leaned back against his chest. He’d saved her, had kept her safe and warm during their journey. And after, when they’d arrived at the audience the only thing that prevented her from falling on her face had been his arm. Holding her, steadying her, giving her strength. Then he’d picked her up, in front of everybody, unheeding of any shocked gasps, cradled her in his arms, and carried her away.

She sighed again and opened her eyes. They were moving along the corridors of the palace toward her brother’s suite. The hallways appeared empty, not a person was in sight, no one to gasp, no one to send judgemental glares their way. Even their three-person escort, Athos, Porthos, and d’Artagnan that had followed them from the audience chamber, had obviously retreated. They were alone.

She looked up at his profile drinking him in from his wavy hair, down his forehead, over his eyebrow perfectly arched over warm brown eyes, the straight nose, and lips half hidden by his beard. He was beautiful. Inside and out. He was strong and powerful, protective, proud and honourable. And he loved her. She felt her lips tremble at the thought. He loved her. This wonderful, amazing man loved her. She had no reason to doubt him, there had been truth in his eyes when he’d told her. Truth, mixed with fear for her safety, with fear of losing her. He loved her...

He turned his head, their eyes met, held. She felt a corner of her mouth curve up in a sombre smile as her heart beat sluggishly in her chest.

“You’re saying goodbye,” she whispered.

He looked away without a word, never breaking his stride.

With a dejected little nod, she leaned her head once more against his shoulder and closed her eyes. She was so tired. Tired of pleading, of arguing, of reasoning. She couldn’t anymore. It was futile. Just like loving him was futile. It didn’t change anything, it just hurt. She didn’t want to hurt anymore. She just wanted to go home and forget. Continue with her life as it had been before Robert was abducted, before she’d ventured into France on a seemingly impossible rescue mission. Before she’d fallen in love with the wrong man.

He didn’t stop when they reached her chamber, but shouldered the door open, and carried her inside where Meg dropped her mending with a shriek. He deposited her gently into a plush chair, sending Meg scuttling out of the room for water with a soft command.

“I’m sorry,” he murmured, looking down at her awkwardly, his hands clasped behind his back.

“Don’t be,” she replied, smiling slightly, proud of herself when her lips didn’t wobble, her voice didn’t crack.

“Richelieu doesn’t forget,” he went on. “If you stay, you’ll always be in danger.”

Yet another excuse. She nodded. “Don’t worry, I understand completely.” She hated having to look so far up, so she slowly stood, locking her knees when they threatened to crumple. “You were right, there’s nothing here for me, so I will leave with my brother. I’m sure he wants to depart as soon as possible.”

He nodded stiffly, his swallow audible.

She offered him her hand. “Thank you for everything, Aramis.”

He was looking at her hand as if it was a strange object he’d never seen before. Then he looked at her, his eyes troubled, his forehead creased as if he was trying to read her mind and failing. “It’s for the best.”

“I know.” She cleared her throat. “Look, it’s not a trick, I’m not being difficult. I’m just thanking you for what you’ve done for me. For my brother. We’ll be forever in your debt. Yours and Athos’, Porthos’ and d’Artagnan’s. You saved our lives. Thank you.”

He finally took her hand, his fingers enveloping hers. She shivered at the contact. She couldn’t falter. He didn’t want her. He might love her, but he didn’t want her enough to ask her to stay. She had to be strong now, she couldn’t let him show how much it hurt, how much he hurt her. She’d made the decision to go with her brother without a protest, and by God, she’d stick to it. No matter how good his fingers felt clasped around hers, how she longed to feel his arms around her, no matter how good his warm breath felt on her skin as he lowered his head over her hand. She steeled herself, biting back a sigh as he kissed her hand.

He lifted his head, still holding her hand. His throat worked, the crease between his brows deep. He looked away, his jaw tight, then met her eyes again. “I love you.” His voice shook slightly.

She pulled her hand out of his grasp. “I know.” She wouldn’t say it back. She couldn’t. “You better go.”

He looked as if she’d stabbed him and she had to clasp her hands behind her back to prevent herself from reaching for him. Then he bowed, murmured a goodbye, and walked to the door. She watched him, not daring to breathe, as he paused. Ran his fingers impatiently through his hair, spat a curse. He turned to look at her, and her heart lodged in her throat. He wouldn’t. He couldn’t. She couldn’t bare it.

Don’t do it! Please, don’t. Please, just go. Leave me alone! Leave me be! Don’t...Please.

The beseeches were all in her head, she didn’t speak, she couldn’t. So he didn’t hear her. And he didn’t heed her.

“Damn it,” he hissed and shook his head. “Damn you.”

He was in front of her in two strides, and then his arms were around her, his lips on hers. His grip was bruising, almost punishing as he pulled her close, pinning her to his chest. She could feel his heart beating as fast, as erratically as hers. She heard his harsh breathing, hers...Then he thrust his tongue into her mouth, and her entire being narrowed into a single pinpoint. Him. His strong arm around her waist, his palm in the middle of her back, his callused fingers cupping her cheek, grasping her chin as he angled her head just so. His chest so broad, so hard against hers, his scent, his breath mixing with hers. The dance and tangle of his tongue against hers as he nudged her feet apart, stepped between them, craned her head back, and ravished her mouth.

She was trembling with the effort it took to keep her arms at her sides when all she wanted to do was throw them around him and hold on for dear life. She was trembling with need under his assault on her senses. And she trembled with anger and pain. She wanted to push him away, and she wanted to pull him closer. She wanted to scream at him to let her go, beg him to hold her forever. She wanted—

It ended as abruptly as it had begun. With an agonized groan, he tore his mouth from hers and strode away, slamming the door shut behind him as he walked out of her life.

She stood there, her fingernails biting into her palms, trembling, as she stared at the closed door. At the intricate pattern in the wood, until it started to blur. She blinked, but her vision didn’t clear. She blinked again. And again. And again, feeling something trickle down her cheeks. Slowly she lifted her hand to her face, feeling the moisture on her fingertips. She took her hand away as she tasted salt on her lips. A shudder wracked her body as a sob escaped. Her knees gave in and she dropped onto the carpet. One arm around her waist to still the shudders, and the other hand over her mouth to muffle the sobs, for the first time in more than twenty years Alexandra Hamilton-Burke let herself cry as sorrow and heartache took over.

Late next morning, as thick fog still shrouded the Paris streets, creating a perfect camouflage for a man not wanting to be seen, Aramis watched as she emerged from the palace. Head held high, with no apparent sign of the last two strenuous days, she headed toward the waiting carriage where Athos, Porthos and d’Artagnan stood to bid her farewell. They hadn’t bothered with inviting him to accompany them, they knew he couldn’t face her. And so here he stood, in the shadows of the park, hidden by the fog, watching her from afar. As if knowing he was there, she looked in his direction and he had to resist the urge to step back, deeper into the fog. She couldn’t see him, she couldn’t know he was there. And she gave no indication to the contrary, but turned back to his three friends, curtsied slightly, and took her brother’s offered hand to help her get into the carriage.

He kept standing there in the fog long after the carriage had rolled away.

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