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Just like heaven, p.13
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       Just Like Heaven, p.13

           Julia Quinn
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  He wasn’t a boy any longer, but Honoria was not surprised that her mother still thought of him as such.

  Lady Winstead returned to her work and said, in a very low voice, “I owe it to Daniel.”

  Honoria went absolutely still. It was the first time she had heard her mother utter his name since he’d left the country in disgrace. “Daniel?” she echoed, her voice even and careful.

  Her mother did not look up. “I’ve lost one son already” was all she said.

  Honoria stared at her mother in shock, then down at Marcus, and then back up. She had not realized her mother had thought of him that way. And she wondered if Marcus knew, because . . .

  She looked down at him again, trying to choke back her tears as quietly as possible. He’d spent his whole life longing for a family. Had he even realized that he’d had one in hers?

  “Do you need to take a break?” her mother asked.

  “No,” Honoria answered, shaking her head even though her mother was not looking at her. “No. I’m quite all right.” She took a moment to compose herself, then bent to whisper in Marcus’s ear. “Did you hear that? Mama is quite determined. So don’t disappoint her.” She stroked his hair, pushing a thick, dark lock off his forehead. “Or me.”

  “Aaaargh!”

  Honoria flinched, thrown back by his cry. Every now and then her mother would do something that hurt him more than usual, and his entire body bucked against the strips of cloth they’d used to tie him down. It was awful to see, and even worse to feel. It was as if his pain shot through her.

  Except it didn’t hurt. It just made her feel sick. Sick to her stomach. Sick with herself. It was her fault he’d stepped in that stupid fake mole hole, her fault that he’d twisted his ankle. It was her fault they’d had to cut off his boot, and her fault he was so sick because of it.

  And if he died, it would be her fault, too.

  She swallowed, trying to quell the choking lump that was forming in her throat, and she leaned a little closer to say, “I’m so sorry. I could never even begin to tell you how sorry I am.”

  Marcus went quite still, and for a breathless moment Honoria thought he had heard her. But then she realized it was only because her mother had paused in her work. It was her mother who had heard her words, not Marcus. But if her mother was curious, she did not pursue it. She did not ask for the meaning of Honoria’s apology, just gave a little nod and went back to work.

  “I am thinking that when you are better you should come to London,” Honoria went on, fixing her voice back into a facsimile of good cheer. “If nothing else, you will need a new pair of boots. Maybe something of a looser fit. It’s not the style, I know, but perhaps you can set a new trend.”

  He flinched.

  “Or we could remain in the country. Skip the season. I know I told you I was desperate to marry this year, but—” She cast a surreptitious glance at her mother, then leaned closer to his ear and whispered, “My mother seems suddenly quite different. I think I can manage another year in her company. And twenty-two is not so very old for marriage.”

  “You’re twenty-one,” her mother said, not looking up.

  Honoria froze. “How much of what I said did you hear?”

  “Just the last bit.”

  Honoria had no idea if her mother was telling the truth. But they seemed to have a tacit agreement not to ask questions, so Honoria decided to respond by saying, “I meant that if I don’t marry until next year, when I am twenty-two, I shall not mind.”

  “It will mean another year with the family quartet,” her mother said with a smile. And not a devious smile. A completely sincere, completely encouraging smile.

  Honoria wondered, not for the first time, if her mother might be just a little bit deaf.

  “I’m sure your cousins will be glad to have you for another year,” Lady Winstead continued. “When you leave, Harriet will have to take your place, and she’s really still a bit young. I don’t think she’s even sixteen yet.”

  “Not until September,” Honoria confirmed. Her cousin Harriet—Sarah’s younger sister—was quite possibly the worst musician in the Smythe-Smith family. And that was really saying quite a lot.

  “I think she might need a little more practice,” Lady Winstead said with a grimace. “Poor girl. She just can’t seem to get the hang of it. It must be difficult for her, with such a musical family.”

  Honoria tried not to gape at her. “Well,” she said, perhaps a little desperately, “she does seem to prefer pantomimes.”

  “It’s hard to believe there is no one to play the violin between you and Harriet,” Lady Winstead remarked. She frowned, squinting down at Marcus’s leg, then set back to work.

  “Just Daisy,” Honoria replied, referring to yet another cousin, this one from a different branch of the family, “but she’s already been drafted into service now that Viola has married.”

  “Drafted?” her mother echoed with a tinkle of laughter. “You make it sound as if it’s a chore.”

  Honoria paused for just a moment, trying not to let her mouth fall open. Or laugh. Or perhaps cry. “Of course not,” she finally managed to say. “I adore the quartets.”

  That much was true. She loved practicing with her cousins, even if she had to stuff her ears with wads of cotton ahead of time. It was just the performances that were awful.

  Or, as Sarah was wont to put it, horrific.

  Ghastly.

  Apocalyptic.

  (Sarah always did have a bit of a tendency toward hyperbole.)

  But for some reason Honoria never did take the embarrassment personally, and she was able to keep a smile on her face the entire time. And when she touched her bow to her instrument, she did so with gusto. Her family was watching, after all, and it meant so much to them.

  “Well, anyway,” she said, trying to bring the conversation back to the previous topic, which was now so “previous” that it took her a moment to remember what it was, “I’m sure I won’t skip the season. I was just talking. Making conversation.” She swallowed. “Babbling, really.”

  “It is better to marry a good man than to rush into a disaster,” her mother said, sounding terribly sage. “Your sisters all found good husbands.”

  Honoria agreed, even if her brothers-in-law were not generally the sort of men to whom she might find herself attracted. But they treated their wives with respect, every last one of them.

  “They did not all marry in their first season, either,” Lady Winstead added, not looking up from her work.

  “True, but I believe they all did by the end of their second.”

  “Is that so?” Her mother looked up and blinked. “I suppose you’re right. Even Henrietta . . . ? Well, yes, I suppose she did, right at the end.” She turned back to her task. “You’ll find someone. I’m not worried.”

  Honoria let out a little snort. “I’m glad you’re not.”

  “I’m not sure what happened last year. I truly thought Travers would propose. Or if not him, then Lord Fotheringham.”

  Honoria shook her head. “I have no idea. I thought they would, too. Lord Bailey in particular seemed quite keen. But then, all of a sudden . . . nothing. It was as if they lost interest overnight.” She shrugged and looked back down at Marcus. “Maybe it’s for the best. What do you think, Marcus? You didn’t much like any of them, I think.” She sighed. “Not that that has anything to do with it, but I suppose I value your opinion.” She let out a tiny snort of laughter. “Can you believe I just said that?”

  He turned his head.

  “Marcus?” Was he awake? She peered down at him more closely, searching his face for some sign of . . . anything.

  “What is it?” her mother asked.

  “I’m not certain. He moved his head. I mean, of course he’s done that before, but this was different.” She squeezed his shoulder, praying that he could feel her through the haze of his fever. “Marcus? Can you hear me?”

  His lips, dry and cracked, moved the tiniest bit. “Hon— Hon


  Oh, thank God.

  “Don’t speak,” she said. “It’s all right.”

  “Hurts,” he gasped. “Like the . . . devil.”

  “I know. I know. I’m so sorry.”

  “Is he conscious?” her mother asked.

  “Barely.” Honoria stretched her arm down along the bed so that she could take Marcus’s hand. She laced her fingers through his and held tight. “You have a terrible cut on your leg. We’re trying to clean it. It’s going to hurt. Rather badly, I’m afraid, but it must be done.”

  He gave a small nod.

  Honoria looked over at Mrs. Wetherby. “Do we have any laudanum? Perhaps we should give him some while he is able to swallow.”

  “I believe so,” the housekeeper said. She had not stopped wringing her hands since she’d come back with the hot water and towels, and she looked relieved to have something to do. “I can go look right now. There is only one place it would be.”

  “Good idea,” Lady Winstead said. Then she stood and moved toward the head of the bed. “Can you hear me, Marcus?”

  His chin moved. Not much, but a bit.

  “You’re very ill,” she said.

  He actually smiled.

  “Yes, yes,” Lady Winstead said, smiling in return, “stating the obvious, I know. But you’re going to be perfectly fine, I assure you. It’s just going to be a little painful at first.”

  “Little?”

  Honoria felt a wobbly smile touch upon her lips. She couldn’t believe that he could joke at such a moment. She was so proud of him. “We’ll get you through this, Marcus,” she said, and then, before she had a clue what she was about, she leaned down and kissed his brow.

  He turned again to face her, his eyes now almost fully open. His breathing was labored, and his skin was still so terribly heated. But when she looked in his eyes, she saw him there, through the fever, under the pain.

  He was still Marcus, and she would not let anything happen to him.

  Thirty minutes later, Marcus’s eyes were closed again, his sleep aided considerably by a dose of laudanum. Honoria had adjusted his position so that she could hold his hand, and she had kept up a steady stream of conversation. It didn’t seem to matter what she said, but she was not the only one who noticed that the sound of her voice soothed him.

  Or at least she hoped it did, because if it didn’t, then she was utterly useless. And that was more than she could bear.

  “I think we’re almost finished,” she told him. She cast a wary glance at her mother, who was still working diligently at his leg. “I think we’d have to be. I can’t imagine what there is left to clean.”

  But her mother let out a frustrated breath and sat back, pausing to wipe her brow.

  “Is there a problem?” Honoria asked.

  Her mother shook her head and resumed her work, but after only a moment she pulled away. “I can’t see.”

  “What? No, that’s impossible.” Honoria took a breath, trying to keep calm. “Just put your head closer.”

  Lady Winstead shook her head. “That’s not the problem. It’s just like when I read. I have to hold the book away from my eyes. I just— I can’t—” She let out a resigned, impatient sigh. “I just can’t see it well enough. Not the small bits.”

  “I’ll do it,” Honoria said, her voice far more certain than the rest of her.

  Her mother looked at her, but not with surprise. “It’s not easy.”

  “I know.”

  “He might scream.”

  “He already has done,” Honoria said. But her throat felt close, and her heart was pounding.

  “It is harder to hear when you are the one with the scissors,” her mother said softly.

  Honoria wanted to say something elegant, something heroic about how much harder it would be if he died and she hadn’t done everything she could to save him. But she didn’t. She couldn’t. She had only so much left within her, and words were no longer the best use of her energy.

  “I can do it,” was all she said.

  She looked at Marcus, still bound tightly to the bed. Sometime in the past hour he’d gone from burning red to deathly pale. Was that a good sign? She’d asked her mother, but she didn’t know, either.

  “I can do it,” Honoria said again, even though her mother had already handed her the scissors. Lady Winstead rose from her chair, and Honoria sat down, taking a deep breath.

  “One step at a time,” she said to herself, looking closely at the wound before proceeding. Her mother had shown her how to identify which tissue needed to be cut away. All she needed to do was look at one piece and trim it. And then when that was done, she’d find another.

  “Cut as close to the healthy tissue as you can,” her mother said.

  Honoria nodded, moving her scissors further up the wound. Gritting her teeth, she cut.

  Marcus let out a moan, but he didn’t wake up.

  “Well done,” Lady Winstead said softly.

  Honoria nodded, blinking back tears. How could such small words make her feel so emotional?

  “There was a bit at the bottom I didn’t get to,” her mother said. “I couldn’t see the edges well enough.”

  “I see it,” Honoria said grimly. She trimmed some of the dead skin, but the area still felt swollen. Taking the tip of the scissors as she’d seen her mother do, she angled them against him and punctured the tissue, allowing the yellow ooze of the infection to escape. Marcus strained against his bonds, and she whispered an apology, but she did not stop. She took a cloth and pressed hard.

  “Water, please.”

  Someone handed her a cup of water, and she poured it on the wound, trying so very hard not to hear Marcus moaning with pain. The water was hot, very hot, but her mother swore that it was what had saved her father all those years ago. The heat drew out the infection.

  Honoria prayed she was right.

  She pressed a cloth against him, soaking up the excess water. Marcus made a strange noise again, although not as wrenching as before. But then he began to shake.

  “Oh, my God,” she yelped, yanking the cloth away. “What did I do to him?”

  Her mother peered down with a puzzled expression. “He almost looks as if he’s laughing.”

  “Can we give him more laudanum?” Mrs. Wetherby asked.

  “I don’t think we should,” Honoria said. “I’ve heard of people not waking up when they’ve been given too much.”

  “I really think he looks as if he’s laughing,” her mother said again.

  “He’s not laughing,” Honoria said flatly. Good heavens, what on earth could he have to laugh about at such a time? She gave her mother a little nudge to back away, and she poured more hot water on Marcus’s leg, working until she was satisfied that she’d cleaned the wound to the best of her ability.

  “I think that’s all of it,” Honoria said, sitting back. She took a deep breath. She felt hopelessly tense, every muscle in her body pulled tight. She set down the scissors and tried to stretch out her hands, but they felt like claws.

  “What if we poured laudanum directly on the wound?” Mrs. Wetherby asked.

  Lady Winstead blinked. “I have no idea.”

  “It couldn’t hurt, could it?” Honoria asked. “It’s not likely to irritate his skin if it’s something that can be swallowed. And if it can do something to dull the pain . . .”

  “I have it right here,” Mrs. Wetherby said, holding up the small brown bottle.

  Honoria took it and pulled out the cork. “Mother?”

  “Just a little,” Lady Winstead replied, not looking at all sure of her decision.

  Honoria splashed a little laudanum on Marcus’s leg, and he instantly howled with pain.

  “Oh, dear,” Mrs. Wetherby moaned. “I’m so sorry. It was my idea.”

  “No, no,” Honoria said. “That’s the sherry. It’s how they make it.” Why she knew this she had no idea, but she was fairly certain that the ominously labeled bottle (it said POISON in much bigger letters
than LAUDANUM) also contained cinnamon and saffron. She dabbed her finger in and took a little taste.

  “Honoria!” her mother exclaimed.

  “Oh, my God, it’s hideous,” Honoria said, rubbing her tongue against the roof of her mouth in a fruitless attempt to rid herself of the taste. “But there is definitely sherry in it.”

  “I can’t believe you took some of that,” Lady Winstead said. “It’s dangerous.”

  “I was just curious. He made such a face when we gave it to him. And it was clearly painful when we poured it on. Besides, it was only a drop.”

  Her mother sighed, looking very much aggrieved. “I wish the doctor would arrive.”

  “It will still be some time,” Mrs. Wetherby said. “At least an hour, I should think. And that is if he is at home to receive the summons. If he’s out . . .” Her words trailed off.

  For several moments no one spoke. The only sound was Marcus’s breathing, strangely shallow and labored. Finally, Honoria was unable to take the silence any longer, and she asked, “What do we do now?” She looked down at Marcus’s leg. It looked raw and open, still bleeding slightly in places. “Should we put a bandage on it?”

  “I don’t think so,” her mother said. “We’ll only have to take it off when the doctor arrives.”

  “Are you hungry?” Mrs. Wetherby asked.

  “No,” Honoria said, except she was. Ravenous. She just didn’t think she could eat.

  “Lady Winstead?” Mrs. Wetherby said quietly.

  “Perhaps something small,” she murmured, not taking her worried eyes off Marcus.

  “A sandwich, perhaps?” Mrs. Wetherby suggested, “or my goodness, breakfast. Neither one of you has had breakfast. I could ask Cook to prepare eggs and bacon.”

  “Whatever is easiest,” Lady Winstead replied. “And please, something for Honoria, too.” She looked at her daughter. “You should try to eat.”

  “I know. I just . . .” She didn’t finish. She was sure her mother knew exactly what she was feeling.

  A hand settled gently on her shoulder. “You should sit, too.”

  Honoria sat.

  And waited.

  It was the hardest thing she’d ever done.

 
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