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Just like heaven, p.10
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       Just Like Heaven, p.10

           Julia Quinn
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  “Thank you, er . . .” It did feel awkward, not knowing his name.

  “Springpeace, my lady.” He took her hand in both of his and squeezed. His hands were rheumy, and his grip unsteady, but there was an urgency in his grasp. Gratitude, too. He looked up, his dark eyes meeting hers. “May I say, my lady, that I am very glad that you are here.”

  Ten minutes later, Mrs. Wetherby was standing with Honoria outside the door to Marcus’s room. “I don’t know that the earl would like your seeing him in such a state,” the housekeeper said, “but seeing as you’ve come so far to see him . . .”

  “I won’t disturb him,” Honoria assured her. “I just need to see for myself that he is well.”

  Mrs. Wetherby swallowed and gave her a frank look. “He is not well, miss. You should be prepared for that.”

  “I-I didn’t mean ‘well,’ ” Honoria said haltingly. “I meant, oh I don’t know what I meant, just that—”

  The housekeeper laid a gentle hand on her arm. “I understand. He is a bit better than he was yesterday, when I wrote to you.”

  Honoria nodded, but the motion felt tight and awkward. She thought that the housekeeper was telling her that Marcus was not at death’s door, but this did little to reassure her, because it meant that he had been at death’s door. And if that was true, there was no reason to think he would not be there again.

  Mrs. Wetherby put her forefinger to her lips, signaling to Honoria to be quiet as they entered the room. She turned the doorknob slowly, and the door pushed open on soundless hinges.

  “He’s sleeping,” Mrs. Wetherby whispered.

  Honoria nodded and stepped forward, blinking in the dim light. It was very warm inside, and the air was thick and dense. “Isn’t he hot?” she whispered to Mrs. Wetherby. She could barely breathe in the stuffy room, and Marcus appeared to be buried under a mound of blankets and quilts.

  “It is what the doctor said to do,” Mrs. Wetherby replied. “Under no circumstances were we to allow him to become chilled.”

  Honoria tugged at the neck of her day dress, wishing there were some way to loosen the collar. And good heavens, if she was uncomfortable, Marcus must be in agony. She couldn’t imagine it was healthy to be cocooned in such heat.

  But if he was overheated, at least he was sleeping. His breathing sounded normal, or at least what Honoria thought was normal. She had no idea what one might listen for at a sickbed; she supposed anything out of the ordinary. She moved a little closer, bending down. He looked terribly sweaty. She could only see one side of his face, but his skin glistened unnaturally, and the air held the stale scent of human exertion.

  “I really don’t think he should be under so many blankets,” Honoria whispered.

  Mrs. Wetherby gave a helpless little shrug. “The doctor was most explicit.”

  Honoria stepped even closer, until her legs touched the side of his bed. “It doesn’t look comfortable.”

  “I know,” Mrs. Wetherby agreed.

  Honoria reached a tentative hand out to see if she might be able to pull his covers back, even if just for an inch or two. She caught hold of the edge of the topmost quilt, gave the tiniest of tugs, and then—

  “Aaaaaach!”

  Honoria shrieked and jumped back, grabbing onto Mrs. Wetherby’s arm. Marcus had practically thrown himself into a sitting position and was looking wildly around the room.

  And he did not appear to be wearing any clothing. At least not from the waist up, which was what she could see.

  “It’s all right, it’s all right,” she said, but her voice lacked confidence. It didn’t seem all right to her, and she didn’t know how to sound as if she thought otherwise.

  He was breathing hard, and he was terribly agitated, but his eyes did not seem to focus on her. Indeed, she wasn’t sure if he realized she was there. His head snapped back and forth, as if he were looking for something, and then it seemed to speed up into a strange shake. “No,” he said, although not forcefully. He didn’t sound angry, just upset. “No.”

  “He’s not awake,” Mrs. Wetherby said softly.

  Honoria nodded slowly, and the enormity of what she had undertaken finally settled upon her. She didn’t know anything about sickness, and she certainly didn’t know how to care for someone with a fever.

  Was that why she had come? To care for him? She had been so frantic with worry after reading Mrs. Wetherby’s message that all she’d been able to think about was seeing him for herself. She hadn’t thought ahead to anything past that.

  What an idiot she had been. What had she thought she was going to do once she saw him? Turn around and go home?

  She was going to have to care for him. She was here now, and to do anything else would be unthinkable. But the prospect terrified her. What if she did something wrong? What if she made him worse?

  But what else could she do? He needed her. Marcus had no one, and Honoria was startled—and a little bit ashamed—that she had not realized this until now.

  “I’ll sit with him,” she told Mrs. Wetherby.

  “Oh, no, miss, you couldn’t. It wouldn’t be—”

  “Someone should be with him,” Honoria said firmly. “He should not be alone.” She took the housekeeper’s arm and led her to the far side of the room. It was impossible to conduct a conversation so close to Marcus. He had lain back down, but he was tossing and turning with such violence that Honoria flinched every time she looked at him.

  “I will stay,” Mrs. Wetherby said. But she didn’t sound as if she truly wanted to.

  “I suspect you have spent many hours at his side already,” Honoria said. “I will take a turn. You need to rest.”

  Mrs. Wetherby nodded gratefully, and as she reached the door to the corridor, she said, “No one will say anything. About your being in his room. I promise you, not a soul at Fensmore would say a word.”

  Honoria gave her what she hoped was a reassuring smile. “My mother is here. Perhaps not here in the room, but she is here at Fensmore. That ought to be enough to keep the gossip away.”

  With a nod, Mrs. Wetherby slipped out of the room, and Honoria listened to the sound of her footsteps until they retreated into silence.

  “Oh, Marcus,” she said softly, moving slowly back to his side. “What happened to you?” She reached out to touch him, then thought, No, better not. It wouldn’t be proper, and besides, she didn’t want to disturb him any more than she already had.

  He threw an arm out from under the covers, rolling about until he settled into position on his side, his free arm lying atop the quilt. She hadn’t realized he was so muscular. Of course she knew he was strong. It was obvious. He was— She stopped for a moment, thinking. Actually, it wasn’t obvious. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen him lift anything. But he seemed strong. He just had that look about him. Capable. Not all men had it. In fact, most didn’t, at least most of Honoria’s acquaintance.

  Still, she hadn’t realized that the muscles of a man’s arm would be so well defined.

  Interesting.

  She leaned forward a little more, tilting her head to the side, then moving the candle a bit forward. What was that muscle on the shoulder called? His was really quite nice.

  She gasped, horrified by the inappropriate direction of her thoughts, and took a step back. She wasn’t here to ogle the poor man, she was here to take care of him. And furthermore, if she was going to ogle someone, it absolutely shouldn’t be Marcus Holroyd.

  There was a chair just a few feet away, so she took it and pulled it forward, close enough to his bed that she could jump up and be with him in an instant, but not so close that he could strike her in his flailings.

  He looked thinner. She wasn’t sure how she could tell this amidst all the quilts and coverlets, but he had definitely lost weight. His face was gaunt, and even in the dim light of her candle, she could see unfamiliar shadows beneath his eyes.

  She sat very still for several minutes, feeling rather foolish, actually. It seemed as if she shoul
d be doing something. She supposed watching him was something, but it didn’t feel like much, especially since she was trying so hard not to watch certain parts of him. He seemed to have calmed down; every now and then he would shift restlessly beneath his covers, but for the most part, he slept.

  But, Lord, it was hot. Honoria was still in her day dress, a pretty little frock that buttoned up the back. It was one of those ridiculous pieces of feminine attire that she could not possibly get into (or out of) on her own.

  She smiled. Rather like Marcus’s boots. It was nice to know that men could be as impractically devoted to fashion as women.

  Still, the frock was the absolute wrong thing to be wearing in a sickroom. She managed to undo a few of the top buttons, practically gasping for breath when she got them loose.

  “This cannot be healthy,” she said aloud, holding onto her collar with two fingers and moving it back and forth in an attempt to fan her sweaty neck.

  She looked over at Marcus. He did not seem to have been disturbed by her voice.

  She kicked off her shoes, and then, because really, she was already undressed enough to ruin her reputation should anyone come upon her, she reached down and peeled off her stockings.

  “Ew.” She looked down at her legs in dismay. The stockings were almost soaked through.

  With a sigh of resignation she laid them out over the back of a chair, then thought the better of it. Probably best not to have them on such display. So she crumpled them into a ball and shoved them into her shoes. And while she was standing, she grasped her skirt in her hands and swished it back and forth, trying to cool off her legs.

  This was intolerable. She didn’t care what the doctor had said. She could not believe that this was healthy. She walked back over to his bed to peer down at him again, keeping a safe distance in case he lashed out.

  Carefully, gingerly, she reached out a hand. She didn’t touch him, but she came close. The air near his shoulder was at least ten degrees warmer than the rest of the room.

  Allowing for slight exaggeration, which she thought she was entitled to, given her overheated state. But still.

  She looked around the room for something with which she might fan him. Drat, she should have nicked one of her mother’s Chinese silk fans. Mama was always fanning herself these days. She never went anywhere without at least three packed in her trunk. Which was really for the best, since she tended to leave them all over town.

  But there was nothing suitable for fanning, so Honoria leaned over and blew gently at Marcus. He didn’t stir, which she took as a good sign. Emboldened by her success (if indeed that was what it was; she really had no idea) she tried it again, with a little more force. This time he gave a little shiver.

  She frowned, unsure if that was a good thing or not. If he was as sweaty as he looked, she risked overchilling him, which was precisely what the doctor had warned against.

  She sat down again, then stood, then sat, tapping her hand restlessly against her thigh. It got so bad that she had to practically slam her other hand down on top of it, just to keep it still.

  This was ridiculous. She jumped to her feet and walked back over to him. He was moving about again, thrashing under his covers, although not with enough force to actually throw them off.

  She should touch him. She really should. It was the only way to determine just how hot his skin was. What she was going to do with that information she wasn’t sure, but that didn’t matter. If she was his nurse—and it appeared she was—she needed to be more observant about his condition.

  She reached forward and lightly touched her fingers to his shoulder. He didn’t feel quite as warm as she’d expected, but that might have been due to the fact that she, too, was roasting. He was sweaty, though, and this close up she could see that his sheets were soaked.

  Should she try to remove them? He’d still have all the other blankets. She reached out and gave the sheet a tug, holding the top quilt with her other hand to keep it in place. It didn’t work, though; the whole set came sliding toward her, revealing one long, slightly bent leg.

  Honoria’s lips parted. He was rather muscular there, too.

  No, no, no, no, no, no, no. She was not looking at Marcus. She was not. Not at him. Definitely not at him. And furthermore, she had to get a blanket back into place before he rolled over and revealed himself entirely, because she had no idea if he was wearing any undergarments. He had nothing on his arms, and nothing on his legs, so it stood to reason . . .

  She looked down at his midsection. She couldn’t not. He was still covered, of course, but if she accidentally bumped into the bed . . .

  She grabbed a piece of the quilt and shoved, trying to get him covered back up. Someone else was going to have to change his sheets. Good Lord, she was hot. How on earth could it have grown warmer in here? Maybe she could go outside for a moment. Or go open the window a crack and stand near it.

  She fanned the air near her face with her hand. She should sit back down. There was a perfectly good chair, and she could sit there with her hands demurely in her lap until morning. She’d just take one more peek at him, just to be sure he was all right.

  She picked up the candle and held it up over his face.

  His eyes were open.

  She took a careful step back. He’d opened his eyes before. This didn’t mean he was awake.

  “Honoria? What are you doing here?”

  That, however, did.

  Chapter Eight

  Marcus felt like hell.

  No, he felt like he’d been to hell. And come back. And perhaps gone again, just because it hadn’t been hot enough the first time.

  He had no idea how long he’d been sick. A day, maybe? Two? The fever had started . . . Tuesday? Yes, Tuesday, although that didn’t really signify, as he had no idea what day it was now.

  Or night. He thought it might be night. It seemed dark, and—God damn, it was hot. Truly, it was difficult to think of anything other than the overwhelming heat.

  Maybe he’d been to hell and then brought the whole damned place back with him. Or maybe he still was in hell, although if so, the beds were certainly comfortable.

  Which did seem to contradict everything he’d learned in church.

  He yawned, stretching his neck to the left and the right before settling his head back into his pillow. He knew this pillow. It was soft, and goosedown, and just the right thickness. He was in his own bed, in his own bedchamber. And it was definitely night. It was dark. He could tell that even though he couldn’t quite muster the energy to open his eyelids.

  He could hear Mrs. Wetherby shuffling about the room. He supposed she’d been at his bedside throughout his illness. This didn’t surprise him, but still, he was grateful for her care. She had brought him broth when he had first begun to feel sick, and he vaguely recalled her consulting with a doctor. The couple of times he’d broken through his feverish haze, she’d been in the room, watching over him.

  She touched his shoulder, her fingers soft and light. It wasn’t enough to rouse him from his stupor, though. He couldn’t move. He was so tired. He couldn’t remember ever being so tired. His whole body ached, and his leg really hurt. He just wanted to go back to sleep. But it was so hot. Why would anyone keep a room so hot?

  As if eavesdropping on his thoughts, Mrs. Wetherby tugged at his quilt, and Marcus happily rolled to his side, throwing his good leg out from under the covers. Air! Dear God, it felt good. Maybe he could shove off his covers entirely. Would she be completely scandalized if he just lay there almost naked? Probably, but if it was for the sake of medicine . . .

  But then she started shoving the blankets back on top of him, which was almost enough to make him want to cry. Summoning every last reserve of energy, he opened his eyes, and—

  It wasn’t Mrs. Wetherby.

  “Honoria?” he croaked. “What are you doing here?”

  She jumped back about a foot, letting out an odd chirping sound that hurt his ears. He closed his eyes again. He didn’t ha
ve the energy to talk to her, although her presence was quite curious.

  “Marcus?” she said, her voice strangely urgent. “Can you say something? Are you awake?”

  He gave a very small nod.

  “Marcus?” She was closer now, and he could feel her breath on his neck. It was awful. Too hot, and too close.

  “Why are you here?” he asked again, his words slurring on his tongue like hot syrup. “You should be . . .” Where should she be? London, he thought. Wasn’t that right?

  “Oh, thank heavens.” She touched his forehead with her hand. Her skin felt hot, but then again, everything felt hot.

  “Hon— Honor—” He couldn’t quite manage the rest of her name. He tried; he moved his lips, and he took a few more breaths. But it was all too much effort, especially since she wouldn’t seem to answer his question. Why was she here?

  “You’ve been very ill,” she said.

  He nodded. Or he might have done. He thought about nodding, at least.

  “Mrs. Wetherby wrote to me in London.”

  Ah, so that was it. Still, very odd.

  She took his hand in hers, patting it in a nervous, fluttery gesture. “I came up just as soon as I could. My mother is here, as well.”

  Lady Winstead? He tried to smile. He liked Lady Winstead.

  “I think you still have a fever,” Honoria said, sounding unsure of herself. “Your forehead is quite warm. Although I must say, it is bursting hot in this room. I don’t know that I can tell how much of the heat is you, and how much is simply the air.”

  “Please,” he groaned, lurching one arm forward to bat against hers. He opened his eyes, blinking in the dim light. “The window.”

  She shook her head. “I’m sorry. I wish I could. Mrs. Wetherby said the doctor said—”

  “Please.” He was begging—hell, he almost sounded as if he might cry. But he didn’t care. He just wanted her to open the damned window.

  “Marcus, I can’t . . .” But she looked torn.

  “I can’t breathe,” he told her. And honestly, he did not think he was exaggerating.

 
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