Chapter 29

Time went by unnoticed as Nellie sat on her bed, the wet washcloth that she had dropped in her lap accidentally soaking her clothes, just like the damp blankets did, but she was hardly aware of it. She was lost in the surreal moment that had ended only minutes ago.

She knew that she had gone too far and that it was all her fault that Mr. Todd had abandoned her once more and probably would refuse to even look at her for a very long time, if not for the rest of his life. But still, she couldn't blame herself. If she would have the chance to redo what had happened, she wouldn't take it. The barber probably hadn't been aware of it at all, but the way he had been lying on her bed, accepting her help without complaining, had been impossible for her to ignore.

He had been so close to her and for the first time since he had come back to London, she could tell that he was really at ease and completely relaxed. She had actually been washing him at first, but he hadn't objected when her movements had become slower and more tender, thus implicitly encouraging her to do things that she shouldn't. But he hadn't even stopped her when she had removed the washcloth from her hand, when she had wanted to feel nothing between his and her skin. She still couldn't really believe that she had been caressing his wet and slippery skin with her bare hand, which had made her shiver even though his body was unexpectedly warm.

For years, she could only dream of something like that, and now that it had happened after all, it seemed as if it was nothing more than that – a dream – as if it truly was too good to be true. That this was, for once, nothing but reality only became fully clear to her when he had left her abruptly. His body had felt so warm just before he had almost ran away from her – he had probably been burning with anger. She really wasn't disappointed with him, just like she didn't blame herself. She had experienced a heavenly moment and even though he wouldn't have provided it in the first place if he had known what she would do when she had completed cleaning his back, she had seen and felt more of him than she ever had and ever would.

Before he had made his way out of her bedroom as quickly as he could, he had accepted her, only a few contented sighs – one of the most beautiful sounds she had ever heard – had confirmed the fact that he hadn't simply fallen asleep and there was nothing that could take that memory away from her.

It had been so perfect, but of course, it hadn't been enough for her. Only a few weeks ago, she would've been happy for a long time if only she could see a glimpse of the skin that was usually covered by thick layers of fabric. But even when she had just been able to see his entire back, had had the opportunity to wash it - as if just seeing him wasn't overwhelming enough yet – she had wanted more.

To her surprise, he had allowed her to roll him on his back, and she could get to know another part of his frame quite well. But still, seeing and even touching his chest with her hand wasn't enough to keep her as calm as she should be around Mr. Todd, especially in such a situation. His skin had looked so appealing in the dim light, the scars on his body only proving how strong and determined he was. The clenching muscles of his lower torso had almost begged her to touch them, especially when she had noticed that the fabric of his trousers had been damp with the water she had been using to wash him, the black material clinging to his lower body in a sinfully delicious way. It was no surprise, really, that he had done what he had done, and deep inside, she was relieved that he had forced her to stop at last. Even she didn't know what she would've done if he hadn't yanked her hand away – would she have actually unbuttoned his trousers like her unreliable hand had planned to do at that very moment?

But it didn't matter; it hadn't happened and it never would. She only hoped that this wouldn't destroy their fragile friendship and that it wouldn't make the chance that he would be willing to watch over her at night only smaller.

But strangely, in spite of what just had happened and how he had left her, she was somehow sure that this was the right moment to ask him to stay with her at night in the future, only to keep an eye on her just in case she would go into labor at night.

In spite of the way he had reacted to her, she sensed that if he wouldn't agree with it now, he never would. She hadn't seen the barber this calm since he had returned to London; even in the old days she couldn't remember him being as much at ease as he just had been.

She could only wish that she was the reason that he was relaxing now at last, but she knew better than that. It probably was the warmth of the water, or perhaps the comfort of the bed. It had doubtlessly nothing to do with her, but one could always hope.

However, even though she knew this was probably the best moment to ask, she didn't know how to, especially not after what just had happened. Never before she had seen him relax like he had just done and she was very sure that this had improved his usual sour mood and thus the chance that he would accept her request.

Sighing, she threw the washcloth back in the bucket of water, not caring when the reddish contents of it splashed on the floor. She moved over to a part of the bed where the blankets weren't wet yet, which wasn't a very easy thing to do since her child was in the way.

Patting her belly absentmindedly, her other hand moving over the floor to check if that part of her bedroom had become part of the growing pool as well without having to turn around and look. Her fingers felt nothing wet, but did found something else that wasn't supposed to be there. Frowning, she picked up the strange object, lifting it in front of her eyes.

To her surprise, it was one of her favorite dresses that she was holding – only, it was covered in blood and it was cut to pieces. Although he had never said so, she knew that Sweeney had done this. She had no idea why he had thought that it was necessary to destroy the dress the way he had, but it was quite a thing that he had bothered to do so in the first place.

She scrutinized the material, imaging how the barber had used his most beloved possession to cut the fabric. Almost immediately, images of how it had happened sprang to her mind. Even though she had been asleep or even unconscious at that time, the vision was so vivid that she could almost remember how he had leaned over her, his hands brushing against her skin while he made sure not to hurt her with the sharp metal of the razor. In spite of herself, she couldn't suppress a shudder of delight that accompanied the knowledge that Mr. Todd had done something like that to help her.

The dress was, she thought, her life with Mr. Todd in a nutshell. He did things with her that she had no control over, he made one big mess of things and then left as if nothing had happened. And yet, she couldn't help but love him – she never could.

Realizing that it wouldn't be easier by simply lingering in her bedroom and postponing the confrontation by doing so, she stood up and made her way to Mr. Todd's tonsorial parlor, picking up a towel and the shirt that he failed to take with him earlier in his rush to get away from her. He really was impossible, hurrying back to his room in this cold weather without wearing anything but his trousers. She hoped that no one had seen him; even though they were supposed to be married now – or rather, because of this - his behavior was rather suspicious.

Feeling how cold it was she took a spare blanket with her. Just because he wouldn't use it, didn't mean that she couldn't bring it. Shivering with cold herself as she went upstairs to his room, she forced herself to walk slowly and carefully, remembering herself not to do anything that might harm the child.

A windy and rainy moment later she found herself right before the door to the barber's room, but what was awaiting her inside was probably much more unpleasant than what she had to endure outside.

Mustering her courage, she knocked on the wooden door, not expecting any reaction. Thus it was a surprise when she heard Sweeney's voice a moment later, giving her permission to come in. She didn't know whether he did so because he actually wanted to see her or because he felt that she wouldn't leave anyway before she had spoken to him. The former seemed more likely, unfortunately.

"I... I have to ask you something," she said as she stepped into his room, trying her luck before he would do something that would make her lose her courage. It was not that she had much left of it anyway; not now that she was standing in front of him at last, trying not to stare at his partly uncovered form as the too few ideas that she had come up with to ask him melted away beneath his dark gaze. This was going to be even harder than she had feared when Mrs. Lucas had mentioned it for the first time.