“Call me Li Min,” she said.
“I’ll call you Jackass if it suits me,” Sophia snapped. “Tell me what the hell you’re doing here before I take this knife and slice you from gullet to gut.”
Nicholas wondered briefly if it was his destiny to be surrounded by women possessing varying degrees of murderous intent.
The girl smiled. “This is no way to speak to one with whom you wish to do business.”
Sophia sucked in a sharp breath, filling the bellows of her chest to explode, but Nicholas was quicker on the draw. “We have no business with you beyond retrieving our letter. I don’t suppose you’ll be so kind as to offer any sort of explanation for why you took it? Who hired you to steal it?”
And why you are here, dangling it in front of us, if someone paid you to take it? Unless, of course, she was angling to dip into two different pots of profit, hoping he and Sophia would bribe her for a look.
“I never said I was hired,” Li Min said. “It is in my interest to know the business of the travelers I come across. Work is hard to find, you see, and occasionally I must look for it, rather than wait for it to come to me. Many Ironwoods have traveled here in recent months. But imagine my surprise to see a Linden guardian scuttling around the beaches like a little crab. And then you appeared to conduct your business….”
Unsure of whether or not he’d live to regret it, Nicholas lowered his pistol and returned it to its place at his side. Feeling steadier, he began to consider their situation in this new light.
“If you stole it to ransom it back to us, then you already know we have nothing with which to pay you,” he said, sweeping his arms out to indicate their sorry state of affairs.
“I wish to know what the letter says,” the girl said. “It is written in a peculiar way. I will give it back to you on two conditions.”
“I’ll take it from your dead body!” Sophia swung an arm out, her fist barreling through the air. Nicholas saw it happening, felt that wrench of dismay, as Sophia misjudged the distance between her and the other girl by nearly a foot. Li Min easily dodged, her face passive, as Sophia lost her balance and slammed into the sand, sending up a spray of it.
Sophia raised a hand to her eye patch, nearly howling in frustration. It wasn’t the first time Nicholas had seen her struggle with her altered vision, and it wasn’t the first time his heart had given an unwelcome, involuntary clench at the sight, either.
Li Min forced her dark gaze up from the girl, back to him. “I will give you this letter, and you will show me how to read it.”
Nicholas shook his head. “Unacceptable.”
If the writing was “peculiar,” he had a feeling it was written in the way Rose had coded the other letters to Etta—a calculated risk on Rose’s part, because what if Etta hadn’t shown Nicholas how to decode them?—and he was loath to reveal that secret to anyone outside the family.
The envelope emerged from inside of Li Min’s shirt, stained brown by the ale, rumpled and worn, but in one piece. That is, until the girl ripped it in half. Nicholas and Sophia both lurched toward her, crying out.
“If I do not read it, you will not read it,” Li Min warned, her voice shifting from its airy tone to flint. And to make her point, she turned the halves to the side and began to rip them into quarters.
Sophia turned to look up at Nicholas. “It’s not worth it. Let her have the damn letter. We already have our plan.”
But it would save us time…tracking Etta would be a simpler thing if we could have the last common year now, without delay, Nicholas thought.
“Don’t do it, Carter,” Sophia warned, voice low.
“I will not show you how to read it—” Nicholas held up his hand, stilling Li Min. “But I will read to you what it says.”
“Unacceptable,” Li Min said, mimicking his tone. “You might deceive me.”
“You accuse me of being dishonorable?” Nicholas said.
“What does an Ironwood know of honor?” Li Min wondered aloud, waving the pieces of the letter at him.
“My name is Nicholas Carter,” he said. “I am an Ironwood by only half my blood, and never in character. If nothing else, I am honor-bound to the Linden family not to show a stranger the sole way they have of communicating with each other without Ironwood being able to discover their secrets. You can understand that, I think, given your line of work.”
“The Linden family is dead,” Li Min said, eyes lighting up with obvious curiosity. “Only a few guardians remain.”
“Their methods work, then,” Nicholas said, “if you have not discovered that some of their travelers are still very much alive.”
Li Min inclined her head toward him, giving him that much, at least. “I will accept this condition, then. But I have one other.”
The girl was smiling again, and within the span of less than an hour, he’d already learned to fear the implications of that expression. His mind began to take tally of what little they had, and he braced himself for the loss of any of it. “Go on, then.”
“As my payment, I would like a kiss,” she said, glancing between the two of them. “A proper one.”
Of all of the things he’d suspected she would ask for—flintlock pistols, shoes, a favor, a signed confirmation of debt—a kiss? He stared at her a good long while, waiting for her to give the true price, but she simply gazed back, her dark eyes unwavering.
Nicholas had kissed a number of women in his twenty years of life; not as many as Chase, but then, even Lothario could not top that tally. He was far—far—from being a saint, but at some point over the past few weeks, his heart had resolved that it only wanted to kiss one girl ever again, and his whole spirit seemed to retreat at the thought of kissing another.
I could kiss her forehead, her cheek, he thought quickly. She hadn’t specified where, or how.
Do it, Carter. He pressed his hands to his thighs, trying to steady the rioting dismay. Get the matter over with, read the letter, and go. That was all that mattered now. He would not think of Etta, the way she’d tasted of rain when she’d kissed him in the jungle. How he could have sworn there were stars in her hair that night in Damascus. The way she made him feel solid, and terribly brave.
Well, his mind was unhelpful.
“All right,” he said, resigned. “Let’s have it, then.”