St. Clair was attempting a confession or a condemnation of himself; Milly wasn’t sure which, but she did know she wanted to take him in her arms when he spoke like this.
“Every time you describe your role, my lord, you paint yourself as more and more of an animal, and less and less a man.” And he let her see more and more of the cost to him for having played that role.
He opened his eyes. “I am an animal, a traitorous animal, but I’d rather be honestly viewed as that than as any woman’s toy, ever.” He touched Milly’s chin, so she had to look him in the eye. “I tortured those officers, Milly. I studied them, toyed with their trust, and determined how best to wrest from them their dignity, their health, their sanity. Among the English I gained the sobriquet, “The Inquisitor,” and I was very, very good at what I did.”
His hand remained under her chin, as if he’d will Milly to repeat his ugly words. His gaze pleaded with her to agree with their import, to accept the truth of his self-characterization.
“And nobody was torturing French officers, were they?” Milly spat. “Englishmen are too noble, too decent, too moral to engage in such activities, even in times of war?” She rose, though she was too short to stand nose to nose with him. “But I forget! Here in England, we torture each other when needs must. I’m told there are all manner of ghoulish devices stored at the Tower for just such purposes. We’ve tortured Catholics and Jews, witches and imbeciles. Of all the Englishmen engaged in tormenting their fellow creatures, I suspect you were among the few whose justification qualified as typical wartime behavior.”
“Milly, please don’t shout.”
Milly. She loved that he called her Milly, and hated the sorrow in his eyes.
Milly Danforth is in some regards my anti-heroine. She wants to be left alone, has no use for men and their bumptious assumptions about how her life ought to go, and doesn’t deceive herself that she’s the stuff of mad passions.
The only example Milly has of how to love somebody comes from her late maiden aunts, and this example serves her well.
We’re told that women pass through three phases, the giddy girl, all innocent and open-hearted; the passionate adult woman, whose loves can be fierce but not always wise; and the crone. The love of an old woman is almost ruthless in its tenacity. While the girl might love with a open heart, the crone loves with open eyes. She accepts human nature, flaws and all, and loves with unflinching loyalty, no matter what.
Think of your favorite grandmother or elderly aunt. Nothing daunted that woman, though she might have been physically frail or have had little means.
And here’s the footnote to mythology that puts Milly at the front of the heroine class: It’s the love of the crone that has the power to transform. A love that holds steady in gale force winds, that sees clearly, that asks nothing for itself, and can deal in truth is the kind of love that wakes us up, infuses us with courage, and inspires us to deal with our dragons.
That’s where Milly starts with Sebastian. She wants truth from him, not a pack of pretty lies. She sets his experiences in a real life context—he’s not the only man ever to interrogate prisoners in time of war—and she gives him good reasons to move on.
When Sebastian accepts the challenges Milly sets for him, she’s free to love him with the passion of a mature woman and the giddy sweetness of a young lady. First, however, Sebastian had to meet her on her own terms, lay his cards before her, and hope that she can reshuffle the deck in his favor.
I hadn’t entirely sorted out why Milly fit so well with Sebastian when I wrote their story, but this—Milly’s very lack of sentiment or self-indulgence—is a big part of why they deserve and find a happily ever after that’s among the best I’ve written.