Disclaimer: See first chapter

A/N: So, um, I've gotten (really, really) behind on the whole updating every two weeks thingy. The best laid plans and all that jazz. I give up. The story will be updated when it's updated. I can at least tell you that I do have the rest of the tale roughly outlined, so you needn't fear that I won't finish it. (It just may take forever to do so.)

Theme song for this chapter: In My Veins by Andrew Belle

As always, thank you to Next to Something for beta services!


Chapter Ten
The Absolution of the Young


"Ferris, what have you done with the boy?" Karen asked at dinner a week after their return from the south. "He's positively docile."

"I have no explanation, madam," Ferris answered with a frown. "Perhaps he has finally grown accustomed to his new life."

Sarah cast a surreptitious glance at her brother as shame colored her cheeks. He returned her look with a furtive one of his own, apprehension widening his eyes. The prickly vine of guilt had become Sarah's constant companion since that horrible night.

She had wanted her brother to change for the better, but not through these means.

Karen made a vague noise. "Yes, well, I do hope his spirit is not gone for good." She cut another piece of her ham and just before taking a bite, added, "Little boys are meant to be lively creatures."

Sarah gaped at her stepmother, though she supposed she ought not to have been surprised anymore by Karen's preposterous notions. The woman seemed to believe ferocious children magically turned into angelic youths without any intervention from their mothers. Or their fathers, for that matter. Sarah looked to the man who had raised her—who had disciplined her as a girl and demanded good manners from her. Why had he let Toby run amuck?

But then, Robert had more to answer for than this, hadn't he?

And so did Sarah.

Her stomach churned as she thought of her own culpability with regards to her brother. They had all done the boy an injustice in their own way. She had lost the right to judge her parents the moment she wished Toby to the goblins.

She had yet to confess to her father what she had done and Toby had kept the secret as well. His silence was likely born out of his fear of Jareth's return. Each night, Toby asked her earnestly, "I've been good today, haven't I? He won't come for me again, will he?" And each time, Sarah embraced her brother and assured him that he was quite safe.

Her own safety, however, was another matter entirely.

She had not heard from Lord Jareth—or his siblings—since the incident. Even Edmund hadn't interrupted her daily walks with his playful banter. Though the snubbing was well-earned, Sarah had never felt more alone in her one and twenty years.

This had been what she wanted—to be free of further dealings with the Kingstons and their ilk. How she had romanticized being left to her own devices! Reality turned out to be a rather bitter fruit. And there was nothing to be done for it. At least, other than whatever payment Jareth would require of her. She doubted it would alter his low opinion of her for the better, however.

She despised having such a black mark laid bare before her enemies. Not that Jareth was an enemy, but neither was he her friend. Weeks before she would have called him the ubiquitous thorn in her side. And just before her terrible wish, she might have said he was her protector—in the loosest of terms. And now? Well, she supposed she would know when he finally deigned to collect on her debt.

"What has you looking so morose?" Karen asked, startling Sarah from her melancholy thoughts.

"I… I am merely tired," she answered. "I think I shall retire for the evening. Will you excuse me?"

"A girl her age shouldn't look so worn, Robert," Karen said as Sarah rose from her seat. "People will believe we're not taking proper care of our daughter. Perhaps we ought to have Roger send for the doctor."

Sarah pressed her hand to her forehead. Our daughter? The woman had no claim on her! "I am well, truly. I only need rest." And a respite from your incessant nattering, she wanted to add but wisely did not say. In this, she envied the Fae, Jareth in particular—this freedom to speak one's mind and care not a whit for the consequences of doing so.

Once inside her rooms, she leaned against the door. She was tired. Made threadbare from the unbearable tangle of secrets. She realized in this moment, however, that she was even more tired of lamenting her less than desirable circumstances. What was the point of bemoaning the unwanted alterations to her life other than to drive her further into misery?

Life was never fair and never would be. Wouldn't it be a far nobler endeavor to chase the sunshine to be had rather than weep over immutable clouds?

There was a soft knock at the door, and Sarah sighed before pulling it open. Toby stood at the threshold, kicking at the floor. "May I stay with you tonight?" he asked.

"Of course," she said, stepping aside to allow him entry.

Since the incident, it had been his habit to spend the evening in her company. She was uncertain whether this was the beginnings of a true sibling bond, or if he was fearful that Jareth would steal him away should he not make an adequate effort at being well-behaved. On her part, was it only guilt which drove her to accept his pleasanter attentions? Did it matter, if in the end, they got on far better than they ever had before?

"Will you tell me a story?" Toby asked as he flounced on her bed.

"Certainly." She sat on the edge of the mattress with a smile. "Which tale shall I tell you?"

He screwed up his youthful face in serious thought. The expression was rather endearing. "Tell me the one about the dashing prince who fights goblins to save the princess!" He slashed his arm about as though cutting down his foes with a rapier.

"I don't believe I know this story," she said, frowning. "Will you tell it to me instead?"

He flopped on his back. "I can't remember all of it. There was a goblin king and he stole a princess and he locked her away in his castle. And then a prince heard of it and swore to rescue her."

Apparently inspired by his recounting of the tale, Toby leapt off the bed and pretended to do battle. "The prince had to fight an entire goblin army, but he dispatched the wretched creatures with ease!" He brandished an invisible sword and darted about the room, fighting imaginary goblins.

Energy spent, he returned to Sarah. "There's kissing after that." He scrunched his nose. "I don't like that part."

Sarah laughed. "It is rather vile, isn't it?"

Toby giggled behind his hand, and for the first time since their initial meeting, Sarah felt the embers of sisterly affection come alive. He wasn't quite so devilish as she had once believed him to be. Her father had been right in the end, and she was ashamed she had been too mired in her own woes to see it. Her brother's life had been as upended as hers, and being only a young boy, he lacked the ability to convey his displeasure but through tantrums and mischief.

He climbed back onto the bed and laid his head against her shoulder. "Do you think he done it?"

"Who, Toby? Done what?" she asked, perplexed by his sudden soberness.

"You know," he whispered, glancing about the room as if they might be overheard, "the goblin king. Did he really steal a princess and lock her away?"

Sarah thought of Jareth—the newly coronated king of the goblins. The idea of him taking captive some young woman seemed laughable, regardless of lore. If there was any truth to the tale, Jareth would not have been the dastardly king in question. And it was likely the prince had wished the princess away in the first place.

"I haven't," another voice answered before she could form a reply.

Toby sucked in a breath and hid behind Sarah as Jareth stepped out of the shadows. The contrast of his pale coloring with his inky attire made him appear like an ethereal angel, a mixture of darkness and light. His pleasant demeanor did little to quell her thrumming heart, however. The time had come to pay the piper, it seemed.

"At least, not yet," he continued, giving Sarah a wink as though they shared in some secret jest. Eyes leaving hers, he tilted his head and addressed her brother, "Hello, Tobias."

Toby ducked lower behind Sarah, gripping the back of her gown.

"Oh, you needn't fear me," Jareth said in placating tones. "You've been quite well-behaved since my last visit, my young friend."

Peeking over Sarah's shoulder, Toby asked, "You've not come to take me away?"

"Not at all. Although…" Jareth tapped a finger against his chin. "Is it not your bedtime? Hm?"

"Nearly so," Toby answered quietly. He still gripped Sarah's dress, though not as tightly as before.

"Well, then perhaps you had better get to it." Jareth took a step back, still wearing a kindly smile, as if to prove that he was no longer playing the role of the villainous goblin king.

After a moment's hesitation, Toby climbed down off the bed and made for the door, though he paused just before opening it. He cast a worried glance at Sarah.

"Your newfound loyalty to your sister is admirable," Jareth said. "I give you my word that she, too, is perfectly safe from the king of the goblins. Will that satisfy you?"

Toby nodded, though he only exited when Sarah rose to meet him. "It's all right, Toby," she murmured. "You can go now."

She wished there was another to give her such comfort as she closed the door. All manner of visions of what Jareth might require of her sparked in her unchecked imagination—each more horrible than the last.

"Does my father know you've come?" she asked in a quiet voice, unable to face her arbiter just yet.

"Does he know of what transpired between you and your brother?" Jareth returned, his voice entirely too near.

Sarah closed her eyes and shook her head.

"No," she whispered.

"I thought not." His fingers grasped her elbow, spinning her to face him. He looked her over in protracted silence and she thought she might collapse beneath the unbearable tension. Oh, if he would but declare her miserable fate already and be done with it!

"This will do," he murmured. Before she could inquire after his meaning, he clasped her arm and without warning, whisked them away in a dizzying swirl of color.

They arrived in a large chamber—in the Kingston castle, Sarah presumed from the familiar stonework. The room was furnished with a canopied bed, a cradle, and a rocker near an oversized hearth. A chest lay open in the center, full of dolls and wooden toys.

"What is this place?" she asked, unable guess what lay in store for her.

Jareth smirked as he leaned against the bedpost. "Why, I've stolen away with the princess to my castle." He gestured to indicate the chamber. "Your tower, madam. Though, I am disappointed that the story fails to expound upon my motivations for such a devious act. And who is this prince, I wonder, that will decimate my goblin armies in your name?"

An appropriate response failed her. Surely he did not intend to keep her locked away as payment for her wish. As much as she wanted to believe him incapable of such malice, she could not quell the tremors of disquiet in her chest.

The door to the chamber opened and a middle-aged servant stepped inside, carrying a babe in her arms.

"Ah!" Jareth clapped his hands. "Here is your new charge, Miss Williams. At least for the next thirteen hours." He directed the servant to pass the little one over to Sarah and then dismissed her.

The child—a girl from her dingy gown—stared at Sarah with wide, fearful eyes. Her rosebud mouth quivered as though she wanted to cry out but was too frightened to do so. Sarah's heart clenched as she thought of her young brother who had narrowly missed being thrown in with strangers in a strange castle as he awaited his fate. Her ever-present guilt bore over her like a tumultuous sea.

"Is she—?" She was unable to finish the question as she brought her gaze to meet Jareth's.

"One of the innocents cast to the goblins? Yes." He drew close to her, his expression softening as he looked down at the bundle in her arms. "You are safe now, little Mary. Miss Williams will tend you well."

The sincerity in his tone made Sarah's breath catch. While he had been kindly with Toby just moments ago, there had still been in an edge of danger about him—as though Jareth had not wanted her brother to forget who he was. Now, however, there was naught but genuine tenderness written in his features. He shared a glance with Sarah and she realized she had never known him at all. More than ever, she desperately wanted to understand this inscrutable man. As he held her gaze, she sensed that, if she but asked, he might allow her access to those facets of his character kept locked away from the world.

Mary began to wail and the moment was lost. Jareth retreated, donning once more the mask of a smirking Fae lord. "You've your work cut out for you, it seems," he said. "Best of luck, Miss Williams." He vanished without any fanfare.

Recalling her newfound determination not to dwell on setbacks, Sarah allowed herself only a flicker of disappointment, though it was a challenge.

"You're safe, little Mary," she repeated Jareth's words in a soothing murmur as she gently rocked the young girl. "I hope."

Mary's cry only grew louder, her tiny features turning a brilliant shade of red. Sarah felt acutely helpless. She hadn't the first idea of how to properly tend a little one. Out of desperation, she opened the door and called for help. Jareth could not have left her, someone so inexperienced with children, without any aid at all!

But it seemed he had, as her pleas were met with only the echoes of her own voice and Mary's squalling.

Sarah closed the door after discarding the brief notion of going in search of a servant. She likely would become lost in the foreign halls of Kingston castle long before she ever found another soul—particularly if Jareth had forbidden others to come to her assistance.

With a sigh, she sat in the rocker. "I'm afraid you only have me," she told the girl in her arms who cried on. "'Tis greivous news for the both of us, but there is nothing for it."

Of course, her words did little to allay Mary's distress. Oh, how did one calm a weeping babe?

She thought of the old lullaby her nursemaid used to sing to her as a young girl. Sarah had only a passing gift for music—having never been intensely keen to acquire those skills—but there certainly could be no harm in an attempt.

She began in a soft, tentative voice, but as the song went on, as Mary quieted, Sarah sang with more confidence.

Night falls, my sweet babe, over hillock and dale.
The moon rises now, my babe, bright and pale.
Close your eyes, my love, never shall you fear,
For you are not alone, angels are near.

Sleep, my babe, sleep.
Dream, my love, dream.
On the morrow we shall be
Together, you and me.
Forever, you and me.

Stars shine, my sweet babe, over forest and hill.
The world slumbers, my babe, silent and still.
Close your eyes, my love, never shall you fear,
For you are not alone, angels are near.

Sleep, my babe, sleep.
Dream, my love, dream.
On the morrow we shall be
Together, you and me.
Forever, you and me.

As the last note languished in the silent room, Sarah looked down at her little charge nuzzled against her breast. Mary lay in repose, the peace on her tiny features only marred by an occasional stuttering breath—the last vestiges from her earlier wailing.

She really was a beautiful child, underneath the grime streaked on her cheeks. What could have possibly inspired someone to wish this perfect creature away to the goblins?

Would another have comforted Toby in this room and wondered the same of his wisher?

With this last unpleasant reflection, Sarah joined Mary in slumber.

~o0O0o~

Hours later, Sarah woke to the dusky glow of early morning light, momentarily disoriented in the unfamiliar chamber. A bundle squirmed in her arms, and she recalled the previous night's events. Mary stared up at her with large eyes, though she seemed less fearful than before. Sarah smiled and was elated when the girl gave her a small toothless grin in return.

This shared moment was interrupted when a servant entered the room. Without a word, she took the child, and Sarah worried the entire affair might have already come to its conclusion. It hardly seemed long enough.

As the woman left with Mary, two more servants stepped inside. One carried a covered tray and the other a pitcher and basin. They performed their tasks in silence. The servant with the tray laid out a spread of cheese and berries and a loaf of bread before pouring a cup of tea. The other filled the basin with steaming water and laid a folded cloth over the rim. Both would have exited without a word if Sarah hadn't stopped them.

"Please," she said, rising from her chair. "What have you done with the child?"

"She has only gone with the wet nurse, Miss Williams," answered the one who appeared to be the more senior of the pair. "She will be returned after you have breakfasted and freshened up."

"Thank you," Sarah replied, giving the servants their leave.

Mary's fate had not yet been decided, then. Sarah was uncertain which outcome she should hope for, but she was relieved all the same. The situation was impossible, wasn't it? The girl was not well cared for at home, if her dirty, tattered state was of any indication—but if she was lost, would her future be even worse?

These grim thoughts chased away whatever appetite Sarah had, and so her food remained untouched. Instead, she turned her attention to the mirror over the washbasin and let out a bitter laugh. She was pale, green eyes darkened by a fitful night's rest, and her hair had begun to fall out of the meticulous bun which Lucy had done up for her the day before. It was hardly the vision of a lively young woman, and she thought it apropos. Oh, how far the lofty have fallen indeed.

She washed her face and then pulled the pins from her hair, glad of the brush she found on the table. With her dark locks hanging past her shoulders, she looked more child than woman. In many ways, she supposed she was. Young. Naïve. It seemed silly now how worldly she had once believed herself to be by virtue of her upbringing in Laborintus and her limited exposure to the Fae.

Mary had not returned by the time Sarah finished refreshing herself. Anxiety churned her insides, but she refused to let it overtake her. Someone would have told her had Mary gone home—or otherwise. As a distraction, she rifled through the toys in the chest, retrieving those which seemed appropriate for the little girl. A silver rattle with tiny bells. A rag doll. Another doll made of ivory. She found other novelties Toby would have loved and imagined him here, playing with the wooden soldiers or amusing himself with the cup and ball as he waited for her to win him back.

"Miss?"

The wet nurse stood in the doorway, Mary at her hip. Clutching the rattle and dolls to her bosom, Sarah rose to greet the woman. She was pleased to see that someone had scrubbed the dusting of muck from the girl's face and given her a laundered gown.

"Hello, Mary," she said to the babe and was rewarded once more with a grin—just a hint. "Shall we play together?"

She collected the little girl in her arms and thanked the nurse. Mary seemed terribly fascinated with the trinkets Sarah had for her. She grasped the silver rattle with her diminutive hand and promptly put it to her mouth.

"Finding it tasty, little one?" Sarah laughed as she settled on the floor. Mary gurgled happily in reply.

Oh, yes. The child was most definitely undeserving of her current circumstance. As Toby would have been. This had to have been a lesson Jareth wanted engraved in her memory—though, if he had known the weight of her guilt before, he might not have deemed it necessary.

Sarah had no idea how long they sat on the floor, playing with the toys. She sang the few songs she remembered from her own childhood, recited a nursery rhyme or two. Mary's favorite game seemed to be when Sarah would hide one of the dolls behind her back and then make it appear again with a cry of surprise. Sarah found the little girl's peals of laughter to be terribly infectious.

When Mary lapsed into wide yawns, having finally grown weary of her play, Sarah retired with her to the rocker once more. The child required very little encouragement to nap. Again, Sarah felt a pang for the inequity forced upon this blameless little one. It tangled with the ever present, ever growing guilt she bore over nearly cursing her brother in the same manner.

With a heavy sigh, she glanced about the room and was startled to find Jareth leaning against the door frame, arms folded. How long had he been watching? He looked down at her with the same softness in his visage as he bore the night before for little Mary, and her heart fluttered in response.

"Is it over?" she asked in a near whisper.

"It is." Jareth's gaze dropped to the floor, and Sarah knew the child had not been won back.

As if answering a silent summons, a servant swept into the room and retrieved the babe. With an ache in her chest, Sarah watched the woman exit as quietly as she had entered.

"What's to become of her?" She turned back to Jareth.

He straightened, holding a hand toward her. "Come with me, Miss Williams."

She hesitated only a breath before rising from the chair and joining him. As her fingers met his, the room changed from a nursery to a study. Old leather-bound tomes lined the walls on shelves that spanned from floor to ceiling. In the center of the room was a great desk of the same organic design as the rest of the furniture in the castle.

"You may pose your questions now," Jareth said, releasing her hand. He crossed the room to the throne-like chair on the far side of the desk, his exhaustion apparent by the way he draped himself over it.

Sarah took a tentative step forward, uncertain if she was meant to take one of the two seats on the opposite side. "Will I be able to return home?"

He huffed a dry laugh. "Of course. Once your curiosity is satisfied."

She quietly chastised herself for entertaining even the slightest worry that he truly had intended to keep her captive. "Have I fulfilled my obligation, then?" She could not have possibly repaid her debt; one night spent tending a babe seemed a pittance compared to the terrible fate from which Jareth had rescued her and her brother.

Jareth stroked his finger across his lips as he regarded her thoughtfully. "Do you still wish to know what is to become of the girl?"

His simple, quiet question pierced her. What a selfish child she must be to have already grown more concerned for her own future than the little girl who was in her care but moments ago! Oh, Sarah, will you never learn?

Deservedly reproached, she gave Jareth a nod as she sat in one of the chairs. Trepidation pooled in her stomach as she waited for him to answer. She'd heard many whispered rumors over the years about what befell the ones lost to the goblins, and she feared having any one of them confirmed.

"It will be better for her than for her young mother who made the wish," he said. "Mary will be cared for—fed, given a roof to live under, and clothes to wear—by some Fae family who will graciously take her as their charge. And in return, she will live out her life in service to them." He leaned forward, resting his forearms on the desk. "It is all she can ever be."

Sarah frowned at the severity in his tone, not comprehending the apparent weight behind his statement. "But I am all I can ever be, as you are—as anyone is. A servant can no more become a king than a Fae can become human."

Jareth shook his head. "On the contrary, Miss Williams, both you and I can fall from grace. And while I may have reached the pinnacle of my place in society, you have yet to reach yours. But more, even those in the slums can rise above the muck of their birth with a little ingenuity and persistence—though it would be inordinately difficult." He blew out a deep sigh. "Mary will be locked into servitude to that Fae family for all of her days. She will not have the option to choose a different master, or to explore apprenticeships. She is forever beholden to those who took her in."

"But you speak of slavery!" Sarah exclaimed, utterly aghast. "Are we nothing more than livestock to the Fae?"

He gave her a sardonic grin. "Miss Williams, one day it will finally occur to you that you are, in fact, one of us." She began to issue a cutting retort, but he spoke over her. "No, we do not view humans as livestock, as you so crassly put it. I talk not of slavery but of life-long protection. No matter how we might pacify the goblins with the fatted calf or wild boar, those who are not won back are irrevocably tied to the beasts."

He leaned back in his chair, pressing his fingers into a steeple beneath his chin. "If my rule over this kingdom—or the rule of any of my successors—ever failed, the goblins would seek that which belonged to them. The families charged with the care of these discarded mortals are their last hope of safety." He pinned her with a steely gaze. "Whatever tales you have heard of the goblins, the truth is far worse."

Revulsion tied a queasy knot in Sarah's middle. "And Mary's mother? What is her fate?"

Jareth raised a brow. "Mary will pass out of mortal knowledge as though she had never existed in the first place—even the girl, herself, will have no memories of her former life. Her mother, however, will remember." His voice was quiet, louring. "And she will recall every moment of Mary's short life with brutal clarity—so that she can never deny the child she bore, no matter how she might like to pretend otherwise. It will eat at her, ravage her dreams, infiltrate her waking moments until she goes mad from the relentless haunting."

What would that be like for Sarah? To have known of her brother, to remember every hair on his head, while even his own mother lived on as though she had never carried a child in her womb nor held him in her arms? For all of Karen's careless parenting, Sarah did not doubt that she loved her son. In a moment of conceit, Sarah had very nearly poached that affection, that history from her stepmother. Eternally.

Such knowledge would have driven Sarah to the brink.

"Is possible for anyone to win back those they have cast away," she asked as remorse pricked farther into her heart, "or is the labyrinth an insurmountable challenge?"

He looked out of the window toward the infinite maze. "The test has never been the labyrinth itself, but the heart of the one who runs it."

Cold understanding stole the air from the room. "Is this why you didn't take Toby? Because you believed I hadn't the heart to win him back? You're wrong, you know. I'd have given my life for him."

"I know you would have," Jareth said, turning back to her. "But you foolishly offered yourself in his stead. Can you say, with all that guilt you stoically bear, that you would have had the heart to win yourself back?"

"Yes." She wanted to believe that she would have valued her freedom enough to fight for it.

He studied her with a penetrating gaze, as if he knew of the doubt that cankered her resolve. "It was a gamble I was unwilling to make."

"At what cost?" She left unasked why he had not taken her. He had made it clear that the deed was far from altruistic; he was duty bound to look after her—a promise made from the Kingstons to her grandfather.

Jareth stood and crossed the room to the window. "You needn't concern yourself with such things." His voice was hollow, weary, and it unsettled her.

She couldn't let the matter rest, though. "With what price was I liberated? I'm owed this much." She regretted the assertion as soon as it left her tongue, but it was too late to recant.

"I owe you nothing, Miss Williams." He spun about, fixing her with an angry glare. "Will you never be anything more than a spoiled child?"

His question struck at the heart of her own recent discoveries about her character and her throat tightened. She ought to have cowed beneath his honest assessment of her conduct, duly censured, but the kindling of her temper had been set alight and the flame would not be smothered.

"Am I solely to blame for my manner?" she demanded as she rose from her chair in heated indignation, ignoring the tears stinging her eyes. "I have been lied to for all of my existence, sheltered from some terrible truth about myself that no one will deign to tell me. There are secrets at every turn which I am forbidden to be privy to. So you will forgive me for wanting to know just how deeply I am indebted to you!" She inhaled in a shuddering breath in a futile effort to rein in her temper.

"You cannot hope to repay this debt!" he returned in kind as he stalked toward her. "I nearly lost my hold on this kingdom—a hold that has been passed down for generations. A hold which has ever been tenuous at best! And I nearly undid all of it by refusing the goblins their due. It will take me centuries to rebuild the fear and respect which keep the goblins under our rule!"

She couldn't breathe under the weight of his revelation. He was all that kept the goblins from roaming the countryside, looking for new prey—and seeking those still tethered to their kingdom. Jareth alone stood between the world and the stuff of nightmares. Jareth, who in the light of morning appeared more a man bowed by a heavy yoke than the imposing figure of a powerful Fae lord. And she was part of the burden he carried.

"You should have let me run the labyrinth like the others." The words tasted like ash as she spoke them.

Resignation made his face grow slack. "I couldn't." He brushed his thumb across her cheek, capturing the tear which had fallen there. Anticipation charged the air between them like an impending storm as he held her gaze, and Sarah both feared and hoped for what might come next.

Jareth retreated from her with a frustrated growl, hands clenched at his side. "I don't want this. I never wanted any of this!"

She took an unconscious step backward, as though his visceral discontent were a living thing, ready to lash out at her. How dearly he must despise his obligation to her, to protect this silly mortal from even herself! She could not fault him for his resentment, but oh, how it stung to be faced with this biting truth! The ache of it inspired a fresh wave of tears.

Jareth glanced at her with a pained expression, as if in the throes of a great internal battle. "May he forgive me this one indiscretion," he muttered, closing his eyes.

Sarah frowned. His words made little sense to her, but she dared not ask for a clarification. He looked on her once more, the line of his mouth set with an unsettling determination as he closed the short distance between them. The battle had apparently been decided, and she held her breath, awaiting the outcome with trepidation.

"May you forgive me," he said in reverent tones before lifting her chin with long fingers. Her heart thrummed like a wild hummingbird as he bowed his head and spoke her name in a desultory whisper:

"Sarah."

She closed her eyes at the gentle brush of his lips against hers. His kiss was feather light. Once. Twice. An entreaty with the provision that she could reject this inappropriate intimacy. When she tilted her head up to meet him, he wrapped his arm about her waist and pulled her against him, taking her mouth possessively with his. Every sinew in her body quivered as if imbued with a powerful, unfamiliar magic.

She had never experienced anything so frightening, so exquisite.

He pulled away from her abruptly, giving her an anguished look before raising his gaze over her head.

"Good morning, Robert."


A/N: YES, I AM CRUEL. YES, I AM SORRY FOR YOUR CRIES OF LAMENTATION. And yes, I'm writing away at the next chapter already. No, there will not be 8 months before the next update. (I'm rather excited about the next chapter because I feel like the story is going to start ripping along finally!)

Thank you for reading. As always, reviews are incredibly welcome. Thank you so much for your patience with this story!