Then he picked her up by the waist, sweeping her off her feet and lifting her onto solid ground.
Alex was dizzied, in many, many ways.
“Now,” he said, turning away from the river. “Where is it?”
“The observatory, of course.”
Oh. Oh, yes. That was the reason they’d come, wasn’t it?
“Up,” she replied. “It’s up.”
“When you said ‘up,’” Chase said between panting breaths, “you truly meant up.”
Good God. From the riverbank, there were stairs leading up to a green. The green became a gentle, grassy slope. Which turned into a miserably steep grassy slope. And then there were yet more stairs.
“It’s an astronomical observatory.” She held her skirts gathered as she trudged uphill, to avoid tripping on the hem. “Naturally it’s on the highest ground.”
When at last they reached the observatory doors, however, Alexandra hesitated.
“What is it?” he asked.
“I’m afraid to knock. What if they’re sleeping?”
“I should think an astronomical observatory is one place where you can arrive at midnight and not be concerned about waking the occupants.”
“Then what if they’re busy?”
Chase could have reached out and knocked on the door himself, but he held off. “You belong here, Alex. Discoveries like yours are precisely why a Royal Observatory exists, and a passion for those discoveries is why the royal astronomer does his work.” He swept a lock of hair behind her ear. “There is no place you belong more than right here, right now.”
She nodded, then knocked at the door.
Chase didn’t understand much of what passed between Alexandra and the astronomer’s assistant. But that didn’t matter. What captivated him was the excitement on her face and the passion in her voice as she spoke with someone who fully understood her discovery. He felt a bit jealous that he couldn’t be, would never be that person—but then, he’d helped her make it here tonight, and that was important, too.
Though he was dying of curiosity, he tried not to interrupt with questions. Only as they walked away a few hours later did he finally break down. “So . . . ? What’s happened?”
“He’s almost certain it’s a comet.”
“And it’s not one he’d personally observed before.”
“That’s even better.”
“But it will take time to see if anyone else has observed and named it already. Corresponding with other observatories, scanning for notices in the journals.”
“How long will that take?”
“Weeks, at least. Perhaps months.”
“Months?” He grimaced.
“It’s a good thing,” she said. “It gives me time. Will you help me find a patron who’ll pay to name it?”
He pulled to a halt. “Hell, no.”
“Chase, I don’t have your connections. If I’m going to find a buyer for it, I need help.”
“You shouldn’t sell it.”
“Fine. Then I’m going to buy it and give it straight back to you.”
She turned to him. “I never wanted that. I don’t need it.”
“Well, I need you to have it. Because you found it. Because your name should be on it. Because it’s damned tiresome being the one person alive who understands how truly remarkable you are.” He cupped her face in his hands, and not tenderly. “I won’t help you hide that from yourself, or from the world. Not anymore.”
Alex could not believe what she was hearing.
“You,” she said, falling back from his touch, “are the most shameless hypocrite. You would accuse me of hiding from myself? I’d thank you to go make that speech into a mirror, Chase Reynaud, because you’ve been hiding so long you’ve forgotten how it feels to breathe fresh air. You deserve things, too. Things like closeness and family and the forgiveness you’ve foolishly denied yourself, and it’s downright exasperating to be the only one who understands it. Plus, I’ve been doing it far longer.”
“You have not,” he said. “I understood you first.”
“Oh, no.” She shook her head. “I knew your true nature the first time I held your hand and watched you eulogize a consumptive doll. That’s ten whole weeks.”
“Ten weeks is nothing. It’s been ten months for me.”
Alex was stunned. “What?”
“We collided in Hatchard’s bookshop in November of last year,” he said. “But perhaps you don’t recall.”
“Of course I recall.” Not only did Alex recall, but she’d thought about it every day since. “You’re the one who’d forgotten it.”
He shook his head. “The memory’s clear as day.”
“Then why did you pretend you didn’t know me?”
He shrugged. “You made an utter cake of yourself when it happened. It didn’t seem kind to bring it up.”
“But I recalled our meeting,” he went on. “How could I forget? It’s not every day a man collides with a woman who prefers sky smudges to fairy stories.” Smiling a bit, he caught a stray wisp of her hair and wound it about his finger. “Miss Alexandra Mountbatten, with midnight-black hair and a fetching figure, and who responded to flirtation with an immensely gratifying blush.”