“In that instance, the Thorns were also responsible for orphaning me,” Julian said. “Three years ago, they used a passage to New York in 1940 to set a fire at the New York World’s Fair, hitting at Grandfather’s business interests in that period. At the same time, I happened to be stupidly falling down a mountainside in Bhutan. Since I was born in 1941, I was kicked through the passages to 1939, which was, at that point—”
“The last common year between the old timeline and the new one,” Etta finished. Between tracking the timeline, the collection of years at the mercy of the travelers’ actions, and each traveler’s personal life that they lived straight through, even when they were jumping between centuries, she thought her brain might explode. “But I was born after 1940, too, and I wasn’t orphaned when that change occurred.”
“Then the change must have been confined to that year, and not rippled past 1941. I’m sure you’ve heard this a thousand times by now, but you know how the timeline is about inconsistency.”
Etta did know. It had self-corrected as if passing over a speed bump, instead of the road completely diverging. Interesting.
“At least that time I got spat out in the Maldives. Made for quite the vacation. But by the time I located the necessary passages and resurfaced, I caught news of my supposed death and decided I might as well make the most of it.”
“And it never occurred to you once—once—over the past few years that you might, you know, tell someone that you were alive?”
Not Nicholas? Not Sophia? Not any other member of his family?
Julian pushed away from the desk. He moved to the bookshelves, dragging his fingers along the beveled spines of the books as he made his way around the room. It was like watching a cat pace in front of a window, restless and watchful.
If she hadn’t heard the words leave Nicholas’s mouth, she would never have believed they were related at all. It went beyond their looks. Where Nicholas moved in assured, long strides, even when he was uncertain of where he was going, Julian had a kind of agitated undercurrent to his movements. He didn’t have Nicholas’s height, either, and his body hadn’t been honed and chafed by the hard work of life on a ship. Julian’s words fell over each other, as if fighting over which got to escape first, while Nicholas took careful measure of each and every word he said, knowing how they might be used against him. Julian seemed to be bursting at his seams, and Nicholas had been so careful, so steady, in holding his feelings in check.
Because he had to.
Because he’d had none of the privileges Julian had, born into a family that never wanted him and a society that scorned and disrespected him.
Anger bloomed, vivid as the crooked portraits on the wall. If this really was Julian Ironwood, then it was the very same person who had taken advantage of Nicholas’s love for him, the one who’d turned around and treated him like little more than a servant, rather than genuinely teach him the ways of travelers.
I’m the fool, Nicholas had told her, because in spite of everything, he was my brother. I never saw him as anything else. And it clearly wasn’t the same for him.
Julian hadn’t even had the common decency to find a way to tell his half brother he was still alive. Instead, he’d let Nicholas drown in his guilt. He had let him spend years questioning his honor and decency. He had let Nicholas take the exile and rage-fueled beating from Ironwood.
All of this time, Nicholas had been suffering—and for what?
“Well, kiddo, to continue this tale, I floated around for a while, living life as one does—without much money to speak of, which got me into more than a few scrapes. It all became rather tedious and boring. Enter: the Thorns. I thought it might be best to sell some knowledge about Grandfather, try to exchange it for steady meals and a safe place to sleep at night.”
He glanced at her, as if expecting Etta to coo with sympathy. She kept her gaze on the unlit brass chandelier overhead, fingers curled so tightly around the lip of the desk that her hands prickled with pain. Don’t do it. He’s not worth it.
“Speaking of,” Julian said, swinging around toward her, “I’d like to get back to you—holy God!”
Etta relished the throbbing pain in her knuckles as her fist made contact with his cheek and he stumbled back over his own feet, landing in an ungraceful heap on his bottom. He stared up at her with huge eyes, one hand still cupping the red mark on his face as she shook out her hand.
“What the bloody hell was that for?” he howled.
“Do you have any idea,” she said, voice rising with each word, “what your ‘death’ did to your brother? Do you have any idea what he went through—what your jackass of a grandfather put him through?”
“Brother?” Julian repeated, rather stupidly. Her instinct to give him another kick, this time beneath the belt, must have registered on her face, because Julian scrambled back on the rug.
Then, to her surprise, he said, “But…how do you know Nick?”
Etta studied him. He looked genuinely shocked, either from her hit, Nicholas’s name, or both. Unsure of how much information to trust him with, she answered, “I traveled with him for a little bit.”
His brow creased. “On behalf of Grandfather?”
She shook her head, but before she could elaborate, a key scraped in the door’s lock. It should have been enough to send Etta diving behind the desk, out of sight. Instead she stood there, towering over Julian, the door letting out a tortured groan as it was thrown open. Two men barreled in with guns in hand, both dressed in trousers and plain white shirts, coming up short at the sight of her. The one out in front, a dark, bushy mustache disguising half of his face, actually took a generous step back, crossing himself.
“Christ,” said the other, glancing at the first. He was somewhat shorter, his pale hair cut close to the scalp and almost gone from balding. “The others were right. It’s the bleeding ghost of Rose Linden.”
The other one merely crossed himself.
“Aren’t you supposed to be protecting me?” Julian complained. “This girl is clearly deranged—”
“Deranged is one word for it,” the dark-haired man said. Now Etta recognized his voice as that of the man who had sparred with Julian over the water. “How in the hell did you get in here, miss?”
“I think the better question is, why did it take you almost a half hour to realize I was gone?” Etta said, reaching back for the water glass she’d left on the desk. Before either man could answer, she slammed it down on the edge of the desk, shattering its top half and leaving a jagged edge on what was left. For one insane instant, Sophia’s lesson on where to cut them, how to slit their throats, floated to the front of her mind.