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Just like heaven, p.11
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       Just Like Heaven, p.11

           Julia Quinn
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  “Oh, all right,” she said, bustling over to the window. “But don’t tell anyone.”

  “Promise,” he mumbled. He couldn’t rouse himself to turn his head to watch, but he could hear her every movement in the thick silence of the night.

  “Mrs. Wetherby was quite firm,” she said, pulling back the curtain. “The room was to remain hot.”

  Marcus grunted and tried to lift a hand in a dismissive wave.

  “I don’t know anything about caring for invalids”—ah, now there was the sound of the window being shoved open—“but I can’t imagine it’s healthy to bake in such heat when one has a fever.”

  Marcus felt the first stirrings of cooler air touch his skin, and he almost cried with happiness.

  “I’ve never had a fever,” Honoria said, coming back to his side. “Or at least not that I can remember. Isn’t that odd?”

  He could hear the smile in her voice. He even knew exactly what sort of smile it was—a little bit sheepish, with just a touch of wonderment. She often smiled like that. And every time, the right side of her mouth tipped ever-so-slightly higher than the left.

  And now he could hear it. It was lovely. And strange. How odd that he knew her so well. He knew her, of course, better than almost anyone. But that wasn’t the same as knowing someone’s smiles.

  Or was it?

  She pulled a chair closer to his bed and sat. “It never even occurred to me until I came here to care for you. That I’d never had a fever, I mean. My mother says they’re dreadful.”

  She came for him? He didn’t know why he found this so remarkable. There was no one else at Fensmore she would have come for, and she was here, in his sickroom, but still, somehow it seemed . . . Well, not odd. Not surprising, either. Just . . .

  Unexpected.

  He tried to nudge his tired mind. Could something be not surprising and unexpected? Because that’s what it was. He would never have expected Honoria to drop everything and come to Fensmore to care for him. And yet now that she was here, it wasn’t surprising at all.

  It felt almost normal.

  “Thank you for opening the window,” he said softly.

  “You’re welcome.” She tried to smile, but she could not hide the worry on her face. “I’m sure it didn’t take much to convince me. I don’t think I’ve ever been so hot in my life.”

  “Nor I,” he tried to joke.

  She smiled then, and it was a real one. “Oh, Marcus,” she said, reaching forward to smooth his hair from his forehead. She shook her head, but she didn’t look as if she knew why she was doing so. Her own hair was falling in her face, poker-straight as always. She blew at it, trying to move it away from her mouth, but it flopped right back down. Finally, she batted it away with her fingers, shoving it behind her ear.

  It fell back onto her face.

  “You look tired,” he said, his voice hoarse.

  “Said the man who cannot keep his eyes open.”

  “Touché,” he said, somehow managing to punctuate the statement with a little flick of his forefinger.

  She was silent for a moment, then gave a little start. “Would you like something to drink?”

  He nodded.

  “I’m so sorry. I should have asked the moment you woke up. You must be terribly thirsty.”

  “Just a bit,” he lied.

  “Mrs. Wetherby left a pitcher of water,” she said, reaching for something on the table behind her. “It’s not cold, but I think it will still be refreshing.”

  He nodded again. Anything short of boiling would be refreshing.

  She held out a glass, then realized that he wasn’t going to be able to use it in his current, supine pose. “Here, let me help you up,” she said, setting the glass back down on the table. She reached around him and, with more determination than strength, helped him into a sitting position. “Here you are,” she said, sounding as efficient as a governess. “Just, ehrm, we should tuck in that blanket, and have some water.”

  He blinked a few times, each motion so slow that he was never quite sure if he’d get his eyes open again. He wasn’t wearing a shirt. Funny how he was only just realizing it. Funnier still that he couldn’t seem to summon any concern for her maidenly sensibilities.

  She might be blushing. He couldn’t tell. It was too dark to see. But it didn’t matter. This was Honoria. She was a good egg. A sensible egg. She wouldn’t be scarred forever by the sight of his chest.

  He took a gulp of water, and then another, barely noticing when some of it dribbled down his chin. Dear Lord, it felt good in his mouth. His tongue had been thick and dry.

  Honoria made a little murmuring sound, then reached forward and wiped the moisture from his skin with her hand. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I don’t have a handkerchief.”

  He nodded slowly, something within him memorizing the way her fingers felt against his cheek. “You were here before,” he said.

  She looked at him in question.

  “You touched me. My shoulder.”

  A faint smile tilted at her lips. “That was only a few minutes ago.”

  “It was?” He thought about that. “Oh.”

  “I’ve been here for several hours,” she said.

  His chin bobbed a fraction of an inch. “Thank you.” Was that his voice? Damn, he sounded weak.

  “I can’t tell you how relieved I am to see you up. I mean, you look terrible, but you look so much better than you did before. You’re speaking. And you’re making sense.” Her hands came up and she clasped them together, the gesture nervous and maybe even a little bit frantic. “Which is more than I can say for myself right now.”

  “Don’t be silly,” he said.

  She shook her head quickly, then looked away. But he saw her wipe a quick hand at her eyes.

  He’d made her cry. He felt his head droop a little to one side. Just the thought of it was exhausting. Heartbreaking. He’d never wanted to make Honoria cry.

  She . . . She shouldn’t be . . . He swallowed. He didn’t want her to cry. He was so tired. He didn’t feel like he knew much, but he knew that.

  “You scared me,” she said. “I’d wager you didn’t think you could do that.” She sounded as if she was trying to joke with him, but he could tell she was faking it. He appreciated the effort, though.

  “Where is Mrs. Wetherby?” he asked.

  “I sent her to bed. She was exhausted.”

  “Good.”

  “She has been caring for you quite diligently.”

  He nodded again, that tiny little motion he hoped she could see. His housekeeper had cared for him the last time he’d had a fever, back when he was eleven. His father had not entered the room once, but Mrs. Wetherby had not left his side. He wanted to tell Honoria about that, or maybe about the time his father had left home before Christmas and she had taken it upon herself to put up so much holly that Fensmore had smelled like a forest for weeks. It had been the best Christmas ever, until the year he’d been invited to spend it with the Smythe-Smiths.

  That had been the best. That would always be the best.

  “Do you want more water?” Honoria asked.

  He did, but he wasn’t sure he had the energy to swallow it properly.

  “I’ll help you,” she said, placing the glass to his lips.

  He took a tiny sip, then let out a tired sigh. “My leg hurts.”

  “It’s probably still sprained,” she said with a nod.

  He yawned. “Feels . . . little fiery. Little poker.”

  Her eyes widened. He couldn’t blame her. He had no idea what he meant either.

  She leaned forward, her brow knit with concern, and she once again touched her hand to his forehead. “You’re starting to feel warm again.”

  He tried to smile. He thought he might have managed it on at least one side of his mouth. “Was I ever not?”

  “No,” she said frankly. “But you feel warmer now.”

  “It comes and goes.”

  “The fever?”

 
; He nodded.

  Her lips tightened, and she looked older than he’d ever seen her before. Not old; she couldn’t possibly look old. But she looked worried. Her hair looked the same, pulled back in her usual loose bun. And she moved the same way, with that bright little gait that was so singularly hers.

  But her eyes were different. Darker, somehow. Pulled into her face with worry. He didn’t like it.

  “May I have some more water?” he asked. He couldn’t remember ever being so thirsty.

  “Of course,” she said quickly, then poured more water from the pitcher to the cup.

  He gulped it down, once again too quickly, but this time he wiped the excess water away with the back of his hand. “It will probably come back,” he warned her.

  “The fever.” This time, when she said it, it wasn’t a question.

  He nodded. “I thought you should know.”

  “I don’t understand,” she said, taking the glass from his trembling hand. “You were perfectly well when I saw you last.”

  He tried to raise a brow. He wasn’t sure if he was successful.

  “Oh, very well,” she amended. “Not perfectly well, but you were clearly mending.”

  “There was that cough,” he reminded her.

  “I know. But I just don’t think . . .” She let out a self-deprecating snort and shook her head. “What am I saying? I don’t know anything about illness. I don’t even know why I thought I might be able to take care of you. I didn’t think, actually.”

  He had no idea what she was talking about, but for some inexplicable reason, it was making him happy.

  She sat in the chair next to him. “I just came. I got the letter from Mrs. Wetherby, and I didn’t even stop to think about the fact that there was nothing I could do to help you. I just came.”

  “You’re helping,” he whispered. And she was.

  He was feeling better already.

  Chapter Nine

  Honoria woke the following morning in pain. Her neck was stiff, her back ached, and her left foot had fallen completely asleep. And she was hot and sweaty, which, in addition to making her uncomfortable, made her feel remarkably unattractive. And possibly fragrant. And by fragrant, she meant—

  Oh, bother, she knew what she meant, and so would anyone else who came within five feet of her.

  She’d closed the window after Marcus had dozed off. It had nearly killed her to do so; it went against all common sense. But she was not confident enough to defy the doctor’s instructions and leave it open.

  She shook out her foot, wincing as tiny needles of pain shot through her. Blast it all, she hated when her foot fell asleep. She reached down to squeeze it, trying to restore her circulation, but this just made her entire lower leg feel as if she’d set it on fire.

  With a yawn and a groan, she pushed herself to her feet, trying to ignore the ominous creaking in her joints. There was a reason human beings didn’t sleep in chairs, she decided. If she was still here the next night, she was taking to the floor.

  Half walking and half hobbling, she made her way over to the window, eager to pull back the curtains and allow at least a little sunshine in. Marcus was sleeping, so she didn’t want to make it too bright, but she was feeling a rather urgent need to see him. The color of his skin, the circles under his eyes. She wasn’t sure what she’d do with this information, but then again, she hadn’t been sure of anything since she’d entered his room the night before.

  And she needed a reason to get out of the bloody chair.

  She pulled back one side of the curtains, blinking in the flood of early morning light. It couldn’t be too much past dawn; the sky was still hung with wisps of pink and peach, and the morning mist was flowing softly across the lawn.

  It looked lovely out there, gentle and fresh, and Honoria cracked the window open again, even pressing her face up to the small opening, just to breathe in the cool moisture.

  But she had a job to do. So she took a step back and turned around, with every intention of laying a gentle hand on Marcus’s forehead to check if his fever had returned. But before she’d taken more than two steps, he rolled over in his sleep and—

  Good God, had his face been so red the night before?

  She hurried to his side, stumbling over her still tingling left foot. He looked awful—red and puffy, and when she touched him his skin was dry and parched.

  And hot. Terrifyingly hot.

  Quickly, Honoria ran to the pitcher of water. She didn’t see any towels or handkerchiefs, so she just dunked her hands in, then laid them on his cheeks, trying to cool him down. But it was clear that this was not going to be a tenable solution, so she dashed over to a set of drawers, yanking them open in turn until she found what she thought were handkerchiefs. It was only when she shook one out to dunk it in the pitcher of water that she realized it was something else altogether.

  Oh, dear Lord. She was about to put his unmentionables on his face.

  She felt her own face go red as she squeezed out the excess water and hurried back to his side. She mumbled an apology—not that he was sensible enough to understand it, or the offense she was about to commit—and pressed the wet linen against his forehead.

  He immediately began to toss and turn, making strange, worrisome sounds—grunts and half-words, sentences with no beginnings or ends. She heard “Stop,” and “No,” but she also thought she might have heard “Facilitate,” “Monkfish,” and “Footbridge.”

  She definitely heard him say, “Daniel.”

  Blinking back tears, she left his side for a moment to bring the pitcher of water closer. He’d knocked the cooling cloth from his face by the time she returned, and when she tried to reapply it, he pushed her away.

  “Marcus,” she said sternly, even though she knew he wouldn’t hear her, “you have to let me help you.”

  But he struggled against her, thrashing this way and that until she was practically sitting on him just to keep him down. “Stop it,” she snapped when he pushed up against her. “You. Will. Not. Win. And by that”—she jammed down hard on one of his shoulders with her forearm—“I mean that if I win, you win.”

  He jerked up suddenly and their heads knocked. Honoria let out a grunt of pain, but she didn’t let go. “Oh, no, you don’t,” she ground out. “And by that I mean”—she put her face close to his—“you will not die.”

  Using all her weight to keep him down, she jabbed one arm out toward the pitcher of water, trying to resoak the linen. “You’re going to hate me tomorrow when you realize what I put on your face,” she told him, slapping it back down on his forehead. She hadn’t meant to be so rough, but he wasn’t really offering her any opportunities for gentle movement.

  “Calm down,” she said slowly, moving the cloth to his neck. “I promise you, if you are calm, you will feel much better.” She dunked the cloth again. “Which really pales in comparison to how much better I will feel.”

  The next time she managed to get the wet cloth on his chest, which she’d long since ceased to notice was bare. But he didn’t seem to like that; he pushed back against her, hard, and she went tumbling off the far side of the bed, landing on the carpet with a jarring thud.

  “Oh, no, you don’t,” she muttered, ready to come back with all she had. But before she could scoot around the bed to the water pitcher, he thrust one leg out from under the covers, catching her in her belly.

  She stumbled, flailing her arms forward in a desperate attempt to catch her balance before she hit the floor again. Without thinking, she grabbed the first object with which her hand connected.

  Marcus screamed.

  Honoria’s heart slammed into triple speed, and she let go of what she now realized was his leg. Without anything to hold her up, she fell back to the floor, landing hard on her right elbow.

  “Owwwww!” she cried, letting out her own shriek of pain as electric spasms shot down to her fingertips. But somehow she pushed herself to her feet, clutching her elbow to her side. The noise Marcus had made . . .
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  It had been inhuman.

  He was still whimpering when she reached the side of the bed, and he was breathing hard, too—the kind of short, shallow breaths people made to ward off pain.

  “What happened?” Honoria whispered. This wasn’t the fever. This was something far more acute.

  His leg. She had grabbed his leg.

  That was when she realized her hand was sticky.

  Still clutching her elbow, she turned her free hand over, twisting until her palm faced up.

  Blood.

  “Oh, my God.”

  With an unsettled feeling in her stomach, she stepped toward him. She didn’t want to startle him; he’d already knocked her down twice. But the blood . . . It wasn’t her blood.

  He’d pulled his leg back under the covers, so she carefully lifted the blanket, pushing it back until his leg was bare to the knee.

  “Oh, my God.”

  A long, angry gash split the side of his calf, oozing blood and something else she didn’t even want to consider. The leg was terribly swollen and discolored, the skin near the wound red and glistening with a horrible sheen. It looked awful, like something rotting, and with horror Honoria wondered if he was rotting.

  She dropped the blanket and lurched back, barely able to keep down the contents of her stomach.

  “Oh, my God,” she said again, unable to say anything else, barely able to think anything else. This had to be the cause of the fever. It had nothing to do with the chill and his cough.

  Her mind spun. He had an infected wound. It must have been when he’d cut off his boot. But he hadn’t said that he’d been cut. Why hadn’t he mentioned that? He should have told someone. He should have told her.

  A light knock sounded at the door, and Mrs. Wetherby poked her head in. “Is everything all right? I heard a tremendous crashing.”

  “No,” Honoria answered, her voice shrill and panicked. She tried to quell the rising terror within her. She needed to be rational. She was no help to anyone like this. “His leg. Did you know about his leg?”

  “What are you talking about?” Mrs. Wetherby asked, coming quickly to her side.

 
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