Authors: Emily Dalton
Tags: #Regency, #:Historical Romance
Startled, Lily looked up. Lord Ashton's expression was enigmatic. His golden eyes glowed lustrously in the candlelight from the three-tapered brace on the table next to the bed. The slight slant of his mouth lent him an air of tender amusement.
Lily blushed and answered, "Why, I was speaking of my concern for Peter, of course. I wasn't—"
"You weren't speaking of me, then? I should think you'd be worried about whether or not I'd try to kiss you again," he said wryly. "And I can't say that I blame you. Do you want me to fetch Janet? But she would only go to sleep herself! And Pleshy would keep Peter awake with his sneezing."
Lily dropped her head and mumbled, "I'm sure you would not take advantage of a situation like this. Peter is ill, and—and you're as worried as I am."
Lily heard him sigh. "You're right," he agreed, but there was a definite ring of resignation in his voice that half thrilled, half terrified Lily. "I am not such a scoundrel as to try to kiss you under these circumstances. In fact, Miss Clarke, I promise not to take advantage of any further opportunities which might come my way. I owe you an apology. Will you forgive me for succumbing to that dratted sobriquet I am encumbered with?"
Lily lifted her head. "You mean 'The lion'?"
He smiled. "No, my dear. 'Man of the world, seducer of women.'"
His smile was so engaging, so infectious, and his apology seemed so sincere. Lily could not help herself, her smile dimpled in response. "As you know, my lord, I am generally most forgiving. That is what Papa taught us. It says in the scriptures that one must forgive seventy times seven."
Lord Ashton's eyebrows lifted wickedly. "Ah, then I can misbehave at least four-hundred-and-eighty-nine times more, and still be forgiven?"
Lily laughed, albeit rather nervously. In more than one respect, it was going to be a long night.
ULIAN HAD POSITIONED
a chair for Miss Clarke next to the bed, where she could easily keep watch of Peter. He got another for himself and placed it on the opposite side where he had a good view of Peter and a good view of Miss Clarke, as well—a visual feast of pain and pleasure. It was painful to see Peter suffer, yet it was so gratifying to watch his pretty nurse show by example that her inner compassion was as attractive as her outer appearance.
As Miss Clarke had predicted, Peter slept for about twenty minutes, then awoke very hot and restless. She applied a cool, wet cloth to his forehead and gave him a drink, Julian assisting as before. Then she soothed and reassured him in that melodic voice of hers till Peter once again fell asleep. During these procedures, Sebastian removed himself from trouble's way to the very farthest end of the bed and watched solemnly. As soon as Peter settled down, he returned to his former position against Peter's thigh.
"It seems rather uncanny," opined Julian, when they had both resumed their stations, "but that cat seems to understand what's going on."
"They are perceptive creatures," Miss Clarke commented, tucking back that ever-present strand of loose hair. She smiled, but with an effort. She looked tired and pale. Julian felt a pang of shame, knowing that part of what she'd had to endure that evening had been his fault. He should never have given in to that overwhelming urge to kiss her. And in the end he had the remorse, but no memory of a kiss to make it worthwhile. Pleshy's interruption had taken care of that. Certainly it would be wrong to dally with the virtuous little Clarke, but her response to him when he held her was so... intriguing. But with each consecutive hour he spent in Miss Clarke's company, she became more and more intriguing, and in more and more ways.
"Why do you carry a pistol in your greatcoat pocket, LordAshton?"
Lost in his own tantalizing and speculative thoughts, Julian was surprised by the question. "What makes you think I carry a weapon on my person, Miss Clarke?" he returned, feeling suddenly on the defence. He knew she wouldn't approve.
She shrugged her shoulders. "It was a simple deduction to make. I saw you reach inside your pocket when we stopped to help the Tuppers. You were holding on to something. I did not suppose it was a good-luck charm. Cynics do not believe in such nonsense." She smiled teasingly. Whether she approved of him or not, she did not appear to be of a mind to pass judgement upon him.
He relaxed a little, then tensed again as he considered whether or not to tell her the truth. It would be easy enough to say that he had taken up the habit because of an excess of highwaymen on the roads lately, et cetera. But that was only partially true. He had been carrying the weapon for years, ever since Richard was killed. He observed the patient, yet intensely interested, expression in her brown eyes. Suddenly it seemed completely fitting that she should know the truth, that she had a right, somehow, to expect total honesty from him.
"You do not have to tell me if you'd rather not," she demurred kindly, shifting her eyes away and allowing him the time and privacy he needed to make up his mind. It seemed Miss Clarke's perception rivalled that of the cat's. Somehow she knew that there was a particular reason behind Julian's decision to arm himself.
"Has Peter told you that I'm the youngest of three sons, Miss Clarke?" Julian began abruptly.
She looked up. "Yes. He said your two older brothers had died. That's all."
Julian's lips curled bitterly. "Yes, 'that's all!' Dead and buried and forgotten by most. And so it is in the common way of things. People die and life goes on. But for me it has not been so easy to forget."
"We don't forget them, my lord. But we do have to let them go, in a sense, in order to continue living our own lives," Miss Clarke said earnestly, the sympathy in her voice and expression nearly breaking through the wall of protection he had constructed so long ago.
Julian hardened his heart against her assault. "That is a platitude, Miss Clarke, and one that I've heard a hundred times if I've heard it once."
She flinched, and he was sorry he'd hurt her. "I don't mean to be rude," he said in an altered tone. "But I find the use of hackneyed phrases as a means to reason and explain away grief a sadly useless endeavour."
"That is because the language we use to express our feelings is inadequate, my lord," Miss Clarke persisted. "You must look beyond the platitudes and into the hearts of the people who are trying to help you. It is hard to find an original way to express grief or encouragement. We are simply at a loss for words."
Julian heaved a sigh and shook his head. "Richard was murdered, Miss Clarke," he revealed bluntly, expecting her to look shocked, to murmur something incoherent and to drop the subject altogether. After all, murder was such a distasteful topic, especially to gently reared ladies. But she did not respond in the manner he expected.
"How?" she asked, her sweet face grave and expressing sorrow, but hardly hysterical and certainly not displaying aversion to the subject.
"Now you will understand my lack of sympathy towards the generality of thieves," he prefaced his story, then began, "Richard was, as you would be very pleased to know, a confirmed philanthropist, Miss Clarke. He had the kindest heart in all of London, I'd wager. He was forever helping out the indigent and deprived. He was as sorry as you are for the circumstances beyond their control which he was sure had thrust most criminals into a life of felony."
"You must have loved him very much," she interjected softly.
Julian repressed the surge of pain and snapped, "I loved him, but he was a fool! He was strolling home from a rout one clear spring night. Richard was positively idiotish for the beauties of nature, and half the time had his head in the clouds. This night he was most probably lost in the stars and wasn't paying attention to where he was wandering. He ended up in a quarter rather rougher than he was used to and was approached by a beggar. Mind you, the man didn't demand Richard's blunt or anything of the sort. He merely begged Richard for a small pittance to help buy himself and his family a bit of food."
"And I suppose he gave it to him?" Miss Clarke prompted when Julian paused to compose himself.
"Of course he did!" Julian replied. "Richard was an easy touch to anyone who came in his way. He did not think it right that he should have so much, and many other people so little. He gave the beggar a generous donation, but when the scurvy fellow saw Richard's purse—which Richard, in his naivety, had not even thought to conceal or protect—the man's greed got the better of him. He pulled a knife and stabbed Richard, then ran off with the purse."
She made a little gasping noise. A moment of silence passed, then she asked, "How do you come by this story? Your brother must have remained conscious long enough to tell someone what had happened to him."
"Yes. Richard refused to allow his coach to drive behind him when he strolled, as many people do in the case that they might get tired or meet up with some ruffians. But Richard's coachman thought his master a bit too trusting and he did follow behind, but at such a distance Richard never knew about it. In this situation, his coach and servants came upon him just after the beggar ran off. Richard told them what had happened before he died."
"How very dreadful for you."
"And how very dreadful for Richard's fiancee. He was to be married that spring."
A pall fell over the room, a natural result of such a sad story. Miss Clarke was sincerely sorry—you could see the sympathy plainly writ on her face. But she was not daunted or plunged into despair. His experience with her so far had made him of the opinion that Miss Clarke was not afraid to face things and deal with them straight on. Her next words were in character with this observation.
"You believe your brother's naivety and trustfulness, his compassion towards unfortunate people— whether of a criminal character or not—killed him."
"Yes. And I challenge you to dispute me."
"I can't. You're quite right."
Julian had expected an argument, or at least an attempt to explain away what had happened to Richard without deprecating his brother's philanthropic ways. He could not help but voice his amazement. "I'm surprised you do not try to convince me otherwise!"
"Not even for the sake of encouraging you to be more trustful and compassionate yourself would I take up an argument I cannot support! But you will forgive me, I hope, if I do say
"I thought you must have at least one thing to say," murmured Julian, a tiny smile tugging at the corners of his lips.
"One can be a philanthropist without putting one's self in harm's way, as your brother did. I suspect he was not a very sensible man, and he probably did not keep his wits about him as he ought. I believe in allowing people the benefit of the doubt, but need and want are such strong urges amongst the poor, I don't think I should have tempted the beggar by allowing him to see my purse, nor would I have walked alone in an unsafe quarter. In short, your brother's philanthropic ways definitely contributed to the circumstances of his death, but his carelessness made it all but inevitable. And lastly, I do not know why you base your opinion of people so much on this one incident. Surely the good people you've met must outnumber the bad!"
"Surely the damage bad people do outweigh the benevolence done by good people, no matter how many there may be!" countered Lord Ash ton.
Only if you allow it to be so! Looking back to our initial argument at the vicarage, I believe our principles make all the difference in how we see the world! I, for one, choose to see it as a good place. And when one has that sort of view, and tries to make his own small contribution by doing good, things are certainly more apt to improve than if he sits about bitterly lamenting all the wrongs and injustices. One is so much more stimulating than the other, and so much better a way to live our lives, don't you think?"
Towards the end of Miss Clarke's condensed sermon—for Julian could not perceive it as anything but—she had begun to look a trifle anxious and to speak a little more quickly. No doubt she thought she might have gone too far and had offended him. Julian admitted to himself that had the sermon been delivered by a sanctimonious old rector with a wart on his nose, he'd not have withstood the barely disguised assault on his sybaritic style of life and care-for-nobody ways. But when Miss Clarke spoke, one knew with a certainty that she was completely sincere and well intended, believing with a fervour everything that tumbled out of her pretty, bow-shaped mouth.
Julian was enchanted, but he still did not believe her philosophy could possibly withstand the test of time. She had not lived on this wicked earth for very long.
"I know what you're thinking and I disagree!" Miss Clarke told him. "I don't believe I'll change my views on these matters! But never mind that! I don't wish to argue with you. However, I do wish you will tell me about your other brother. Or would you rather not?"
"Tom was in the army. He died at Oporto, in Portugal, just a few months after Richard was killed. The worst of it was he was not even shot by the enemy, but was erroneously felled by a fellow officer. He was on his way home, but died of an infection to the wound before he reached the coast."