Authors: Mary Jo Putney
He raised an unsteady hand to it, only to have his wrist gently caught in mid-air. “Better leave the bandage alone,” a husky contralto voice said. “You took quite a knock on the head.”
He glanced to his right, then blinked. Kneeling beside him was Lady Caliban. Or, rather, Mrs. Rosalind Jordan. As she laid his hand down, a stray shaft of sunlight transformed her tawny hair into burnished bronze and gold and amber. All of the colors of autumn, though the unimaginative might call it light brown. Her expression had the humor and intelligence he had seen when she was on stage.
What he had not expected was the profound warmth in her dark brown eyes. He stared into the chocolate depths, mesmerized by the fact that all that kindness and concern were focused on him.
“How are you feeling?” she asked. If her eyes were chocolate, her voice was like the finest brandy, where rich smoothness concealed a powerful punch. And he mustn't forget the cream of her smooth complexion. She reminded him of every delicious thing he'd ever tasted in his life.
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To Pat Rice: friend, ally, co-conspirator
I'd like to give a special acknowledgment to Michael Miller for his wonderful insights about what it's like to look into the abyss and return. And to his wife, Laurie Grant Miller, for the other half of the story.
Silent as a mouse, the child stood in the alley, her gaze riveted on the young couple sauntering down the shabby waterfront street. The two were different from those who lived in the neighborhood, their clothing clean and their voices full of laughter.
And they were eating meat pies. The little girl sniffed the savory scent longingly.
The tall gentleman made a sweeping gesture with one hand, and a sizable chunk of his pie fell to the dirty street. He didn't even notice.
The child waited with the patience bred of fear for the couple to move on a safe distance. But she daren't wait too long because a dog or maybe a rat would get her prize. When she judged it safe, she darted forward to grab the scrap and stuff it into her mouth. It was still warm, the best-tasting food she'd had in forever.
Then the lady glanced back over her shoulder. The child froze, hoping not to be noticed. She'd learned quickly that it was better not to be seen. Bad Boys threw stones, and there had been the Bad Man who'd lured her close with the offer of a sausage, then picked her up and run his hot hands over her. He'd wanted to eat her, she thought, but he let her go quick enough when she bit his tongue.
Then he'd chased her, screaming bad words until she squeezed under a sagging fence and hid in a pile of trash. She'd eaten the sausage there, and ever since she watched out for the Bad Man, and for any other men who might get that queer look in their eyes.
The pretty dark-haired lady raised her brows and said with a smile, “There's a wee scavenger alongside us, Thomas.”
The smile was nice, but even so, the child started to retreat toward the alley.
The lady crouched so that her blue eyes were at the same level as the child's. “No need to run, sweetheart. There's enough to share.” She held out the rest of her meat pie temptingly.
The child hesitated, remembering the Bad Man, who had also lured her with food. But this was a lady, and the pie smelled so
She skipped forward and snatched the morsel from the lady's hand. Then she backed up a few steps and ate, keeping her wary gaze on her benefactors.
“Poor mite,” the man named Thomas said in a deep voice that rolled across the street. “Her parents should be whipped for letting her roam the streets like this.”
A rusty voice spoke from the shadows. “The brat ain't got no parents. She's been livin' alone in the streets hereabouts for a couple of months.”
The child recognized the voice as that of the grizzled old woman who spent every day watching from a shadowed doorway, a clay pipe clamped in her toothless gums. The old woman had once traded some food, and she'd thrown no stones. She was safe.
The pretty lady frowned. “The child has been abandoned?”
“Orphaned, more like,” the old woman said with a shrug. “I hear she came off a ship with some female who up and died in the middle of the quay soon as they landed. A watchman tried to catch the brat so's she could be sent to an orphanage, but she hid. She's been scrounging around here like a seagull ever since.”
The pretty lady looked horrified. “Oh, Thomas, we can't leave her here. She's just a babyâshe can't be much more than three years old.”
“We can't carry her off like a kitten, Maria,” the gentleman said. But his gaze went consideringly to the child's face.
“Why not? No one else seems to want her. The good Lord must have sent us down this street to find her. We haven't had a babe of our own yet, and heaven knows it's not for lack of trying.” The pretty lady looked sad for a moment. Then she turned back to the child and extended her hand slowly. “Come here, sweetheart. We won't hurt you.”
The child hesitated. She had learned the hard way to be wary. But Maria reminded her of a different lady from that other life before hunger and rags and filthy streets. Beforeâ¦beforeâ¦
Her mind veered away, unable to name the unbearable. Instead, she looked at the blue eyes. There was kindness, and something more. A promise?
The child began to inch forward, her gaze flicking back and forth between the lady and the gentleman. If he'd moved, she would've run, because men weren't always safe, but he stayed very still. His eyes were just as blue, and just as kind, as his wife's.
When she came within reach, the lady tenderly stroked her head. “Your hair is blond, isn't it? I didn't realize what was under the dirt. Very nice with those big brown eyes. Would you like a new mama and papa, sweetheart?”
Mama. Papa. Those were words from the distant, golden past. The child weighed the chance of danger against her desperate longing. Suddenly hope overpowered fear. The child ran the last two steps and flung herself into the lady's arms.
Maria swooped her up in a hug. Her arms were warm and soft, like that other lady's in the past. Warm and soft and
“Don't worry, sweetheart,” she crooned. “Thomas and I may not be respectable by some standards, but you'll never lack for food or love.” The child saw with wonder that there were tears in the lady's blue eyes when she glanced at her husband. “Don't look at me like that, you big Irish fraud. Your heart is just as soft as mine.”
“'Tis not our hearts that are soft, but our heads,” Thomas said wryly. “But you're right; we can't leave her here, and the sooner we get her into a soapy tub the better.” He took the child's hand in his great warm grasp. “What's your name, darlin'?”
Embarrassed by his attention, the child buried her face against the lady's neck. She smelled clean and sweet, like flowers after rain.
“I guess we'll have to name her ourselves.” Maria stroked the child's back tenderly. “Pretty as a rose, but so brave. Imagine, surviving on the streets for weeks when she's such a tiny thing.”
“Then let's name her after Rosalind, the most intrepid of heroines,” Thomas suggested. He squeezed the child's hand gently. “This is your lucky day, little rose.”
“No, Thomas.” Maria pressed a warm kiss to the child's temple. “The luck is ours.”
Asburton Abbey, 1818
The physician's words hung in the air, stark and lethal as scorpions. Stephen Edward Kenyon, fifth Duke of Ashburton, seventh Marquess of Benfield, and half a dozen other titles too trivial to mention, went still as he donned his shirt after the medical exam. Mentally he repeated the phrase, as if study would somehow alter its significance.
Mortally ill. He had known that something was wrong, but he had not expectedâ¦this. The doctor must have made a mistake. True, in the last few weeks the pain in Stephen's belly had gone from mild discomfort to attacks of wrenching agony. But surely that meant only an ulcerationâpainful but not life threatening.
Grateful for his skill in controlling his expression, he resumed buttoning his shirt. “That's a surprisingly definite statement for a physician. I thought you and your colleagues preferred to avoid dismal predictions.”
“You have always been known as a man who appreciates honesty, Your Grace.” Dr. George Blackmer concentrated on meticulously replacing equipment in his medical case. “I thought I would do you no favor to conceal the truth. A man in your position needs time toâ¦put his affairs in order.”
Stephen realized, with jarring force, that the physician was quite serious. “Surely that won't be necessary. Apart from occasional stomach pains, I feel fine.”
“I've been concerned about your condition ever since the pains began, but hoped my early suspicions were wrong. However, the truth can no longer be denied.” The physician glanced up, his gray-green eyes troubled. “You are suffering from a tumefaction of the stomach and liverâthe same condition that afflicted your gamekeeper, Mr. Nixon.”
It was another blow. Nixon had deteriorated from a bluff outdoorsman to a pain-wracked wraith in a matter of months. And his death had been a difficult one.
Not ready to face himself in the mirror, Stephen tied his cravat by touch, going numbly through the usual motions. “There is no treatment?”
“I'm afraid not.”
Stephen pulled on his dark blue coat and smoothed the wrinkles from the sleeves. “How precise is your estimate of six months?”
Blackmer hesitated. “It's hard to predict the course of a disease. I would say that you would have no less than three months, but six months would beâ¦optimistic.”
In other words, if the physician's diagnosis was correct, Stephen would be dead by Christmas. Probably well before then.
What if Blackmer was wrong? It was certainly possible, but the man was a respected and conscientious physician. A foundling raised by the parish, he'd been so promising that the old duke, Stephen's father, had sent him to study medicine. In return, Blackmer had provided the Kenyon family with excellent care. It was unlikely he would give the son of his former patron a death sentence unless he was absolutely sure.
Stephen forced his numb mind to consider what other questions to ask. “Should I continue taking the pills you gave me on your last visit, or is there no point?”
“Keep taking them. In fact, I've compounded more.” Blackmer reached into his case and drew out a corked jar. “They're mostly opium to dull the pain, with some herbs to cleanse the blood. Take at least one a day. More if you feel discomfort.”
Like habit, manners were a convenient crutch. As he accepted the jar, Stephen said politely, “Thank you, Dr. Blackmer. I appreciate your honesty.”
“Not all of my colleagues would agree, but I believe that when the end is inevitable, a man should have time to prepare himself.” The doctor closed his case with a snap, then hesitated, his expression deeply troubled. “Do you have any other questions, Your Grace?”
Next to a death sentence, no other question mattered. “No. I bid you good day, Doctor.” Stephen reached for the bell cord.
“I can find my own way.” His gaze intense and unreadable, Blackmer lifted his case and went toward the door. “I shall call again in a fortnight.”
“Why?” Stephen asked, no longer able to keep the edge from his voice. “By your own admission you can do nothing, so I see no reason to suffer more prodding.”
Blackmer's face tightened. “Nonetheless, I shall call. Just continue taking your medicine, and send for me if you feel the need.” Then, shoulders bowed, the tall man left the duke's private sitting room.
Stephen stood quite still in the middle of the floor, trying to absorb the reality of the doctor's words. Death in a matter of months. It seemed impossible. He was only thirty-six, for God's sake. Not young, perhaps, but not old, and in excellent condition. Except for the mild asthma he'd had as a boy, he'd always enjoyed robust good health.
A tendril of anger began to twine through his numbness. He should know perfectly well that age had nothing to do with it. His wife, Louisa, hadn't even been thirty when she had died of a fever. Her death had been a shock, but at least it had been mercifully swift.
His gaze fell on the gilt-framed mirror above the mantel. His reflection looked no different than it had an hour earlier: a tall, lean figure, chestnut hair, the strong-boned Kenyon face that was so well suited to arrogance. But an hour ago he had been a duke in the prime of life, a man who had just put off mourning clothes for his wife and who had begun to think of new beginnings.
Now he was a dead man walking.
Anger flared again, as intense as the time when he was fifteen and his father had announced that a suitable marriage had been arranged. Lady Louisa Hayward was only a child, but pretty and exquisitely mannered. The old duke had said that she would grow up to be a perfect wife and duchess.
Furiously Stephen had protested that a decision so important to his future should not be made without his knowledge. His brief rebellion had quickly withered in the face of his father's anger and scorn. By the time he left the study, he had accepted his duty.
Looking back, he had to give his father credit: the old duke had been half right. Louisa had grown up to be a perfect duchess, if not a perfect wife.
He crossed to the door that connected his rooms with the duchess's suite. He had not set foot there since Louisa's death over a year ago. And not often before, if the truth be told.
The bedroom and dressing room were immaculately clean and empty, with no lingering traces of Louisa except for the samples of her exquisite needlework. Beautifully embroidered pillows, chair seats too pretty to sit on. Whenever he thought of his wife, it was with her head bent over an embroidery frame. She had passed through life lightly, guided by the dictum that a lady's name appeared in the newspapers only three times: on her birth, her marriage, and her death.
Stephen closed the door and turned back to his sitting room. A picture of Louisa hung across from him. It had been painted by Sir Anthony Seaton, the finest portrait artist in England. Seaton had done a good job of capturing Louisa's porcelain beauty, and the hint of sadness behind her enigmatic gaze.
Stephen wondered for the thousandth time if somewhere behind his wife's flawless facade there had been strong emotions. Passion, anger, love, hate-anything. But if deep feelings existed, he had never found them. In all the years of their marriage, they had never exchanged a harsh word. Anger required emotion.
It was true that she had regretted not bearing a child, but her regret had been for what she saw as her failure to do her duty. Unlike Stephen, she had not regretted the lack of children for their own sake. But she had been unflagging in her duty, urging him to visit her bed regularly even though their couplings had been joyless.
Would Louisa be waiting for him when he died? Or was that reserved for people who had loved each other? They had been, at best, friends. At worst, strangers who sometimes shared a bed.
He went to the window and gazed out over the vast, rolling acres of Ashburton Abbey. The small lake shimmered like a silver mirror. He could not remember ever being told that someday the abbey would be his; the knowledge had always been part of him. The greatest satisfactions of his life had come from this land.
If Blackmer was right, soon his younger brother, Michael, would be the master of the estate. Stephen had long accepted that his brother or his brother's son would probably be the next duke, but he had thought that would be years in the future. Decades.
His brother would make a just and capable duke because he also knew his duty. But Michael hated Ashburton Abbey. Always had. Given what he had suffered here as the family scapegoat, Stephen couldn't blame him, but it meant that Michael would surely continue to live at his much loved Welsh estate. The abbey would be silent and empty, waiting for some future generation to take pleasure in the ancient stones, in the magnificent great hall and the peaceful cloister garden.
His anger again erupted into rage. All of his life, Stephen had done his duty, striving to master his responsibilities, to be worthy of his position. He had excelled in both athletics and academics at Harrow and Cambridge. He had consciously tempered the arrogance his father considered suitable to a Kenyon, for his own belief was that a true gentleman had no need of arrogance or boasting. He had treated his wife with consideration and respect, never reproaching her for what she was incapable of giving.
He had always played by the rulesâand for what?
Violently he swept his arm across a graceful side table, sending china ornaments and fresh flowers crashing to the floor. He had lived the life ordained for him, and it had been no life at all. Now that he was finally in a position to reach for a richer existence, his time had run out. It wasn't fair.
It bloody wasn't fair
With the long wars over, he'd been planning to travel, to see Vienna and Florence and Greece. He had wanted to do foolish things for no other reason than because they gave him pleasure. He'd wanted to learn if he was capable of passion, and perhaps take another wife who would be a companion instead of merely a perfect duchess.
He swung about, half suffocated by his anger. Though he had no intention of discussing his condition, such news would not stay secret for long. Soon there would be curiosity in people's eyes as they studied him, wondering how much longer he would last. Worse, there would be pity. His neighbors would whisper when he entered a room. His valet, Hubble, would go around with tears in his eyes, making a bad situation worse.
For the first time in his life, Stephen yearned to escape Ashburton Abbey and everything it represented. He paced across the room. Though he was surrounded by people, there was no one to whom he could unburden his soul. At Ashburton he was “the duke,” always calm and detached. But now he felt a desperate desire to be someplace where he was a stranger while he came to terms with Blackmer's crushing diagnosis. He wanted to be anonymous and
, even if it was only for a few weeks.
Well, why not? He stopped pacing and thought about it. Nothing was stopping him from leaving. He could go anywhere he chose, at any speed he wished. He could stop at village fairs and admire the pretty girls. Stay at inns that his servants would consider beneath their dignity. And August was a lovely time to ride through England.
This might be his last summer.
Gut twisting, he went into his bedroom and jerked open a drawer, yanking out a couple of changes of linen. Since he would go on horseback, he must travel light. How did ordinary people get their laundry done? It would be interesting to find out.
The door opened and his valet entered. “I heard something break, Your Grace.” Hubble halted, his eyes widening at the disarray. “Your Grace?”
Stephen straightened from the pile accumulating on the bed. Since Hubble was here, he might as well be put to work. Stephen could be on his way that much sooner. “I'm going on holiday,” he said with private irony. “Pack my saddlebags.”
Hubble regarded the clothing doubtfully. “Yes, sir. Where are we going?”
are not going anywhere. I am going alone.” Stephen added a well-worn volume of his favorite Shakespeare to the growing pile.
The valet looked baffled. He was a competent and good-natured man, but he'd never understood Stephen's antic streak. “But who will take care of your clothing, sir?”
“I guess I'll have to do it myself.” Stephen unlocked a desk drawer and took out a fistful of money, enough for several weeks. “It will be quite educational.”
Hubble visibly winced at the thought of how badly his master would be turned out. Forestalling the inevitable protest, Stephen said sharply, “No arguments, no comments. Just pack the blasted saddlebags.”
The valet swallowed. “Very good, sir. What sort of clothing will you require?”
Stephen shrugged. “Keep it simple. I don't intend to go to any grand balls.” He lifted his gold card case from his desk drawer, then dropped it in again. Since he wouldn't be traveling as the Duke of Ashburton; there was no need for calling cards.
Then he sat down and wrote brief notes to his secretary and steward, telling them to proceed as usual. He considered writing his brother and sister but decided against it. There would be time enough for that later.
As the duke wrote, Hubble packed the saddlebags. When he finished, he asked in a subdued voice, “Where shall I send urgent messages, Your Grace?”
Stephen scaled the last note. “Nowhere. I don't want to receive any messages.”
“But, sirâ¦” Hubble started to protest, then quieted when his master gave him a gimlet stare. He settled for saying, “How long will you be gone, Your Grace?”
“I have no idea,” Stephen said tersely. “I'll come back when I'm ready, and not a moment before.”
Beginning to look frantic, Hubble said, “Sir, you can't just run off like this!”
“I'm the most noble Duke of Ashburton,” Stephen said, a bitter edge on his voice. “I can do any damned thing I want.” Except live.