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Just like heaven, p.15
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       Just Like Heaven, p.15

           Julia Quinn
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  “I cannot,” he told her, turning to pack up his bag. “I must see to another patient, but I will be back this evening. I do not think we will need to make any decision before then.”

  “You do not think?” Honoria asked sharply. “Then you are not certain?”

  Dr. Winters sighed, and for the first time since he’d entered the room, he looked tired. “One is never certain in medicine, my lady. I would that were not the case.” He looked over at the window, whose curtains were pulled back to reveal the endless green of Fensmore’s south lawn. “Perhaps someday that will change. But not in our lifetime, I fear. Until then, my job remains as much of an art as a science.”

  It was not what Honoria had wanted to hear, but she recognized it as the truth, and so she gave him a nod, thanking him for his attentions.

  Dr. Winters returned the courtesy with a bow, then gave Honoria and her mother instructions and left, promising that he would return later that night. Lady Winstead escorted him out, leaving Honoria once again alone with Marcus, who lay terrifyingly still on his bed.

  For several minutes, she stood motionless in the center of the room, feeling strangely limp and lost. There really wasn’t anything to do. She had been just as scared that morning, but at least then she had been able to concentrate on treating his leg. Now all she could do was wait, and her mind, denied of a specific task, had nothing but fear to fill it.

  What a choice. His life or his leg. And she might have to be the one to make it.

  She didn’t want the responsibility. Dear God, she didn’t want it.

  “Oh, Marcus,” she sighed, finally walking over to the chair at his bedside. “How did this happen? Why did it happen? It’s not fair.” She sat and leaned down against the mattress, folding her arms and resting her head in the crook of one elbow.

  She would, of course, sacrifice his leg to save his life. That was what Marcus would choose if he were sensible enough to speak for himself. He was a proud man, but not so much so that he would prefer death over handicap. She knew this about him. They had never talked about it, of course—who talked about such things? No one sat at the dining table talking about whether to amputate or die.

  But she knew what he would want. She had known him for fifteen years. She did not need to have asked him the question to know his choice.

  He would be angry, though. Not at her. Not even at the doctor. At life. Maybe at God. But he would persevere. She would make sure of it. She would not leave his side until he . . . Until he . . .

  Oh, dear God. She couldn’t even imagine it.

  She took a breath, trying to steady herself. Part of her wanted to run out of the room and beg Dr. Winters to remove his leg right now. If that was what it would take to guarantee his survival, then she would hold the damn saw. Or at least hand it over to the doctor.

  She couldn’t face the thought of a world without him. Even if he wasn’t in her life, if he stayed here in Cambridgeshire and she went and married someone who lived in Yorkshire or Wales or the Orkney Islands and she never saw him again, she would still know that he was alive and well, riding a horse, or reading a book, or perhaps sitting in a chair by a fire.

  It wasn’t time to make that decision yet, though, no matter how much she hated the uncertainty. She could not be selfish. She needed to keep him whole as long as possible. But what if, in doing so, she waited too long?

  She closed her eyes tight even though her head was buried in her arms. She could feel her tears burning against her eyelids, threatening to burst forth with all the terror and frustration building within her.

  “Please don’t die,” she whispered. She rubbed her face against her forearm, trying to wipe away her tears, then settled back down in the cradle of her arms. Maybe she should be pleading with his leg, not with him. Or maybe with God, or the devil, or Zeus, or Thor. She’d plead with the man who milked the cows if she thought it would make a difference.

  “Marcus,” she said again, because saying his name seemed to bring her solace. “Marcus.”

  “ ’Noria.”

  She froze, then sat up. “Marcus?”

  His eyes did not open, but she could see movement beneath the lids, and his chin bobbed ever so slightly up and down.

  “Oh, Marcus,” she sobbed. The tears poured forth. “Oh, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be crying.” She looked helplessly for a handkerchief and then finally just wiped her eyes on his bedsheet. “I’m just so happy to hear your voice. Even though you don’t sound at all like you.”

  “W-w-wa—”

  “Do you want water?” she asked, jumping on his broken words.

  Again, his chin moved.

  “Here, let me sit you up just a bit. It will make it easier.” She reached under his arms and managed to straighten him a few inches. It wasn’t much, but it was something. A glass of water sat on the bedside table, the spoon still in it from the last time she’d tried to give him a drink. “I’m just going to give you a few drops,” she told him. “Just a little at a time. I’m afraid you’ll choke if I give you too much.”

  He did much better this time, though, and she got the better part of eight spoonfuls into him before he signaled that he’d had enough and slumped back down to horizontal.

  “How do you feel?” she asked, trying to fluff his pillow. “Other than terrible, I mean.”

  He moved his head slightly to the side. It seemed to be a sickly interpretation of a shrug.

  “Of course you’re feeling terrible,” she clarified, “but is there any change? More terrible? Less terrible?”

  He made no response.

  “The same amount of terrible?” She laughed. She actually laughed. Amazing. “I sound ridiculous.”

  He nodded. It was a small movement, but bigger than he’d managed so far.

  “You heard me,” she said, unable to contain the huge, trembling smile on her face. “You mocked me, but you heard me.”

  He nodded again.

  “That’s good. You can feel free. When you’re better, and you will be better, you’re not allowed to do that, and by that I mean mock me, but for now, you may go right ahead. Oh!” She jumped to her feet, suddenly bursting with nervous energy. “I should check your leg. It hasn’t been long since Dr. Winters left, I know, but there’s no point in not looking.”

  It took only two steps and one second to see that his leg was unchanged. The wound was still an angry, glistening red, but it was no longer tinged with that sickly yellow, and more importantly, she saw no red streaks sneaking up the limb.

  “The same,” she told him. “Not that I thought there would be a change, but as I said, there’s no point in not . . . well, you know.” She smiled sheepishly. “I already said it.”

  She held silent for a moment, content just to gaze at him. His eyes were closed, and indeed, he didn’t look any different than he had when Dr. Winters had been examining him, but Honoria had heard his voice, and she’d given him water, and that was enough to bring hope to her heart.

  “Your fever!” she suddenly exclaimed. “I should check that.” She touched his forehead. “You feel the same to me. Which is to say, warmer than you should. But better than you were. You are definitely better than you were.” She paused, wondering if she was speaking into the proverbial mist. “Can you still hear me?”

  He moved his head.

  “Oh, good, because I know I sound foolish, and there is no point sounding foolish for no one.”

  His mouth moved. She thought he might be smiling. Somewhere in his mind, he was smiling.

  “I am happy to be foolish for you,” she announced.

  He nodded.

  She put one hand to her mouth, letting her elbow rest on the opposite arm, which was banded across her waist. “I wish I knew what you were thinking.”

  He gave a tiny shrug.

  “Are you trying to tell me you’re not thinking of much of anything?” She pointed a finger at him. “Because that I will not believe. I know you far too well.” She waited for another response, no ma
tter how small. She didn’t get one, so she kept on talking.

  “You’re probably figuring out how best to maximize your corn harvest for the year,” she said. “Or maybe wondering if your rents are too low.” She thought about that for a moment. “No, you’d be wondering if your rents are too high. I’m quite certain you’re a softhearted landlord. You wouldn’t want anyone to struggle.”

  He shook his head. Just enough so that she could tell what he meant.

  “No, you don’t want anyone to struggle, or no, that’s not what you’re thinking about?”

  “You,” he rasped.

  “You’re thinking about me?” she whispered.

  “Thank you.” His voice was soft, barely even audible, but she heard him. And it took every last ounce of her strength not to cry.

  “I won’t leave you,” she said, taking his hand in hers. “Not until you’re well.”

  “Th-th—”

  “It’s all right,” she told him. “You don’t need to say it again. You didn’t need to say it the first time.”

  But she was glad that he did. And she wasn’t certain which of his statements had touched her more—his two words of thanks, or the first, his simple, solitary “You.”

  He was thinking about her. While he was lying there, possibly near death, even more possibly at the brink of an amputation, he was thinking about her.

  For the first time since she had arrived at Fensmore, she wasn’t terrified.

  Chapter Thirteen

  The next time Marcus woke up, he could tell that something had changed. First of all, his leg hurt like the devil again. But somehow he suspected that wasn’t such a bad thing. Secondly, he was hungry. Famished, in fact, as if he had not eaten in days.

  Which was probably true. He had no idea how much time had passed since he’d fallen ill.

  Lastly, he could open his eyes. That was excellent.

  He wasn’t sure what time it was. It was dark, but it could just as easily have been four in the morning as ten at night. It was bloody disorienting, being sick.

  He swallowed, trying to moisten his throat. Some more water would be nice. He turned his head toward the bedside table. His eyes still had not adjusted to the dark, but he could see that someone had fallen asleep in a chair by his bed. Honoria? Probably. He had a feeling she had not left his room throughout the ordeal.

  He blinked, trying to remember how she had even come to be at Fensmore. Oh, yes, Mrs. Wetherby had written to her. He could not imagine why his housekeeper had thought to do so, but he would be eternally grateful that she had.

  He rather suspected that he would be dead if not for the agony Honoria and her mother had inflicted upon his leg.

  But that wasn’t the whole of it. He knew that he had been in and out of consciousness, and he knew that there would always be huge gaps in his memory of this terrible time. But even so, he had known that Honoria was there, in his room. She had held his hand, and she had talked to him, her soft voice reaching his soul even when he hadn’t been able to make out the words.

  And knowing she was there . . . It had just been easier. He hadn’t been alone. For the first time in his life, he hadn’t been alone.

  He let out a little snort. He was being overly dramatic. It wasn’t as if he walked about with some invisible shield, keeping all other people at bay. He could have had more people in his life. He could have had many more people. He was an earl, for the love of God. He could have snapped his fingers and filled his house.

  But he’d never wanted company for the sake of idle chatter. And for everything in his life that had meant anything, he had been alone.

  It was what he’d wanted.

  It was what he’d thought he wanted.

  He blinked a few more times, and his room began to come into focus. The curtains had not been pulled shut, and the moon shed enough light for him to make out the barest gradations of color. Or maybe it was just that he knew that his walls were burgundy and the giant landscape hanging above the fireplace was mostly green. People saw what they expected to see. It was one of the most basic truisms of life.

  He turned his head again, peering at the person in the chair. It was definitely Honoria, and not just because she was the person he expected to see. Her hair had come partly undone, and it was clearly light brown, not nearly dark enough to be Lady Winstead’s.

  He wondered how long she’d been sitting there. She couldn’t possibly be comfortable.

  But he shouldn’t bother her. She surely needed her sleep.

  He tried to push himself up into a sitting position but found he was too weak to manage more than a few inches. Still, he could see a little better, maybe even reach across Honoria to the glass of water on the table.

  Or maybe not. He lifted his arm about half a foot before it fell back to his side. Damn, he was tired. And thirsty. His mouth felt as if it had been packed in sawdust.

  That glass of water looked like heaven. Heaven, just out of reach.

  Damn it.

  He sighed, then wished he hadn’t, because it made his ribs hurt. His entire body ached. How was it possible that a body could ache absolutely everywhere? Except for his leg, which burned.

  But he thought that maybe he didn’t have a fever any longer. Or at least not much of one. It was hard to tell. He certainly felt more lucid than he had in some time.

  He watched Honoria for a minute or so. She didn’t move at all in her sleep. Her head was cocked to the side at an unnatural angle, and he could only think that she was going to wake up with a terrible crick in her neck.

  Maybe he should wake her up. It would be the kind thing to do.

  “Honoria,” he croaked.

  She didn’t move.

  “Honoria.” He tried to say it louder, but it came out the same—raspy and hoarse, like an insect hurling itself against the window. Not to mention that the effort was exhausting.

  He tried reaching out to her again. His arm felt like a dead weight, but somehow he got it off the bed. He meant to just poke her, but instead his hand landed heavily on her outstretched leg.

  “Aaaaah!” She came awake with a shriek, her head snapping up so fast she hit the back of it on the bedpost. “Ow,” she moaned, bringing her hand up to rub the sore spot.

  “Honoria,” he said again, trying to get her attention.

  She mumbled something and let out a huge yawn as she rubbed her cheek with the heel of her hand. And then: “Marcus?”

  She sounded sleepy. She sounded wonderful.

  “May I have some water, please?” he asked her. Maybe he should have said something more profound; he had, after all, practically come back from the dead. But he was thirsty. Wandering the desert thirsty. And asking for water was about as profound as one got in his condition.

  “Of course.” Her hands fumbled about in the darkness until they landed on the glass. “Oh, blast,” he heard her say. “One moment.”

  He watched as she got to her feet and made her way to another table, where she picked up a pitcher. “There isn’t much left,” she said groggily. “But it should be enough.” She poured some into the glass, then picked up the spoon.

  “I can do it,” he told her.

  She looked at him with surprise. “Really?”

  “Can you help me sit up?”

  She nodded and wrapped her arms around him, almost like an embrace. “Here we are,” she murmured, pulling him up. Her words landed softly in the crook of his neck, almost like a kiss. He sighed and went still, allowing himself a moment to savor the warmth of her breath against his skin.

  “Are you all right?” she asked, pulling back.

  “Yes, yes, of course,” he said, snapping out of his reverie with as much speed as a man in his condition could manage. “Sorry.”

  Together, they got him into a sitting position, and Marcus took the glass and drank without assistance. It was remarkable how much that felt like a tri-umph.

  “You look so much better,” Honoria said, blinking sleep from her eyes. “I— I
” She blinked again, but this time he thought it might be to keep from crying. “It’s so nice to see you again.”

  He nodded and held out the glass. “More, please.”

  “Of course.” She poured another and handed it to him. He drank it greedily, exhaling only when he had finished the whole thing.

  “Thank you,” he said, handing it back.

  She took it, set it down, then set herself back down in the chair. “I was so worried about you,” she said.

  “What happened?” he asked. He remembered some of it—her mother and the scissors, the giant rabbit. And she’d called him her touchstone. He would always remember that.

  “The doctor has been by to see you twice,” she told him. “Dr. Winters. The younger Dr. Winters. His father— Well, I’m not sure what happened to his father, but honestly, I don’t care to know. He never even looked at your leg. He had no idea you’d an infected wound. If he’d seen it before it got so bad, well, I suppose it all may have turned out the same.” Her lips pressed together in frustration. “But maybe not.”

  “What did Dr. Winters say?” Marcus asked, then clarified, “The younger one.”

  She smiled. “He thinks you’re going to keep your leg.”

  “What?” He shook his head, trying to understand.

  “We were afraid we might have to amputate it.”

  “Oh, my God.” He felt himself sinking down into the pillows. “Oh, my God.”

  “It’s probably for the best that you didn’t know it was a possibility,” she said gently.

  “Oh, my God.” He couldn’t imagine life without a leg. He supposed no one could, until they had to.

  She took his hand in hers. “It’s going to be all right.”

  “My leg,” he whispered. He had an irrational urge to sit up and look at it, just to make sure it was still there. He forced himself to lie still; she’d surely think him beyond foolish for wanting to see it for himself. But it hurt. It hurt a lot, and he was grateful for the pain. At least he knew it was still where it was supposed to be.

  Honoria pulled her hand free to stifle an enormous yawn. “Oh, excuse me,” she said when she was done. “I’m afraid I haven’t slept very much.”

 
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