A squeak from behind made her jump. It wasn’t the door Mitch and Quill were in, it was the one next down. But it was Mitch standing there, fully dressed, looking at her.
Leaping to her feet, desperately happy to see a face she knew, she rushed the few steps to him and asked, “What are you doing in there?”
“Shh-shh,” Mitch held up a hand as if to push her back. He didn’t touch her but she, who did not know much about reading expressions, quit talking immediately.
“You’ll wake up Ma and Pa.”
Ilsa felt the painful truth of that. Wasn’t she out here in the hall because she didn’t want to do that?
“You can’t be out here in the hallway.” Mitch looked left and right with a line of furrows on his forehead.
“Yes, I can.” She spoke the obvious. “Here I stand, in the hallway.
With a tight, hard shake of his head, Mitch said, “I mean it’s not…um…there are rules for the behavior of young ladies. You’re breaking one of them.”
Ilsa had never had many rules in her life. She remembered how Ma Warden didn’t like her ankles showing. Ma’d said that was a rule. Had her ankles been showing while she sat on that step?
“What rule are you talking about?”
Mitch squinted his eyes at her and she thought maybe, in the dim lantern light of the hallway, she saw his cheeks turn a bit pink.
“Th-the rules about, about how a young woman should—should conduct herself in matters of-of propriety.” Brash, fast-talking Mitch seemed barely able to get the words out. And, unless he had a fever—and she really hoped he didn’t because she’d probably catch it—he seemed to be blushing.
And talking in strange, unfamiliar words.
“What does propriety mean?”
Mitch clapped an open hand over his eyes then dragged the hand down, past his nose, his mouth. “It doesn’t surprise me in the least that you don’t know.”
“That’s not really an answer.”
“I-I’ll explain.” Nodding, Mitch seemed to be forcing words from his mouth. “What I mean is a woman should not be alone. It’s not safe. A man could bother you.”
“You’re bothering me quite a bit right now, so that’s the truth. But I see no point in waking up your ma so she can watch you bother me.”
Mitch’s jaw went tight. Ilsa studied it, wondering what in the world the man was thinking.
“I’d like to bother you, Ilsa.”
“That is still not an answer.”
“Oh, it’s an answer all right. But you’re too innocent to realize it.” Mitch paused. Cleared his throat. Cleared it again. “A young woman who is not married, well, the thing is, if someone saw you out here alone, they might—that is, a woman, if a man came upon her alone in the night and then someone else came along and saw the man and woman alone in the night—”
“You mean alone like the two of us are right now.”
Mitch’s throat moved as if he were swallowing something that wasn’t going down easy.
“Yes, exactly like the two of us are right now. If someone found us alone together in the night, well, people might think we were being…doing…that is…” Mitch fell silent as if he just could not put his worries into words.
Ilsa leaned close and whispered, “I thought you were sleeping in the same room with your Pa?”
Mitch shook his head and started talking again, so it was good she changed the subject. “After you and Ma went to bed, I went down and asked if there was another room empty.”
He leaned closer and whispered so quietly she was almost reading words shaped silently by his lips. “Pa snorts like a cave of grizzly bears.”
Ilsa straightened away from Mitch and giggled. She slapped her hand over her mouth but the laughter was there, just muffled. Mitch’s eyes gleamed as if he wanted to laugh himself.
“Ma, too, as I recall,” he said.
Ilsa nodded from behind her hand just as the door next to Mitch, not the one Quill was in, clicked open.
Grabbing her wrist, Mitch yanked her into the room and shut the door swiftly and silently and pressed her back to the door.
Mitch clapped his hand over her mouth this time. Heavy boots walked past Mitch’s door. Mitch looked at the floor, his eyes unfocused. Listening to the man walk by.
Ilsa didn’t know exactly what Mitch was trying to say about it not being right for a man and woman to be alone together in the night. But she was very sure if it was wrong to be alone in the hallway, then it was also wrong to be alone in his room.
In the dark of his room, with those footsteps fading, Mitch said quietly, “I lived a life surrounded by people I couldn’t trust. I realize now many of them just told me whatever they thought I wanted to hear because I paid their salary. And I’ll admit I did tend to fire people who disagreed with me because, of course, I thought I was always right. For years, I’ve heard little but yes, sir, right away sir, whatever you think best, sir.”
“That seems nice.” Ilsa rested one hand on his broad chest and patted him because he seemed unhappy with himself. “I wouldn’t mind if you’d start saying yes more often.”
“Oh, I don’t think that’d be wise at all.”
“Saying yes to me? I am sure I would like it very much.”
“I’d make sure you liked it very much.”
Ilsa wasn’t sure, but the way he said it made her wonder if he was talking about something completely different than she was.
Woman of Sunlight, coming March 2020. Available now for PREORDER
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