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Just like heaven, p.8
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       Just Like Heaven, p.8

           Julia Quinn
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  To her credit, she did not take offense. “I just need to stay on the path until I get to the small pond. Then it’s up the hill, and I’m almost there.”

  He nodded. “You’ll have to send someone to get me. Not from Bricstan. Send instructions over to Fensmore. To Jimmy.”

  “Jimmy?”

  “My head groom. Just tell him I’m on the Bricstan path, about three miles from home. He’ll know what to do.”

  “You’ll be all right here on your own?”

  “As long as it doesn’t rain,” he quipped. They both looked up. A thick blanket of gray stretched ominously across the sky. “Damn,” he said.

  “I’ll run,” she said.

  “Don’t.” She was liable to step in a real mole hole, and then where would they be? “We don’t need you tripping and falling as well.”

  She turned to leave, then stopped and said, “You’ll send word when you’re safely at home?”

  “Of course.” He couldn’t remember the last time he’d had to send word about his well-being to anyone. There was something rather disconcerting about it. But nice, too.

  He watched her go, listening until the sounds of her footsteps disappeared. How long would it take before help arrived? She needed to get back to Bricstan, which was a bit more than a mile, assuming she did not lose her way. Then she had to write a letter and send someone off to deliver it to Fensmore. Then Jimmy had to saddle two horses and make his way through the woods on a path that was much better suited for walking.

  An hour? No, ninety minutes. Probably longer.

  He slid to the ground so that he could lean against the fallen log. Lord, he was tired. His ankle hurt far too much for him to sleep, but he closed his eyes, anyway.

  That was when he felt the first raindrop.

  Chapter Six

  By the time Honoria reached Bricstan, she was drenched to the bone. The rain had started barely five minutes after she left Marcus at the fallen tree. It had been light at first—just a few fat drops here and there. Enough to annoy, not enough to do damage.

  But as soon as she’d reached the end of the path it had started coming down in a fury. She’d raced across the lawn as quickly as she was able, but it had made no difference. Ten seconds in the downpour and she was soaked through.

  She didn’t even want to think about Marcus, stranded in the woods for at least another hour. She tried to recall the topography where she’d left him. Would the trees shelter him from the rain? It was still spring, and the branches were not yet thick with leaves.

  She first tried to enter Bricstan through a side door, but it was locked and she had to skirt the building to the front. The door opened before she could even knock, and she tumbled in.

  “Honoria!” Sarah exclaimed, rushing forward to steady her. “I was watching for you through the window. Where have you been? I have been frantic. We were just about to send out a party to search for you. You said you were going off to collect flowers, but then you never returned.”

  Honoria tried to interrupt between each of Sarah’s sentences, but she only managed to catch enough of her breath to say, “Stop.” She looked down; pools of water had formed at her feet. One rivulet had broken free of the circle and was slowly rolling toward the wall.

  “We need to dry you off,” Sarah said. She took Honoria’s hands. “You’re freezing.”

  “Sarah, stop.” Honoria pulled Sarah’s hands free and grabbed hold of her cousin’s shoulder. “Please. I need some paper. I must write a letter.”

  Sarah looked at her as if she’d gone mad.

  “Now. I have to—”

  “Lady Honoria!” Mrs. Royle hurried into the hall. “You had us all so worried! Where on earth did you go off to?”

  “I was just looking for flowers,” Honoria lied, “but please, I need to write a letter.”

  Mrs. Royle felt her forehead. “You don’t feel feverish.”

  “She’s shivering,” Sarah said. She looked at Mrs. Royle. “She must have got lost. She’s terrible that way.”

  “Yes, yes,” Honoria said, willing to agree with any insult if it would only mean the end of this conversation. “But please, just listen to me for a moment. I must act quickly. Lord Chatteris is stranded in the woods, and I told him I would—”

  “What?” Mrs. Royle screeched. “What are you talking about?”

  Briefly, Honoria related the story she’d concocted while hurrying home. She’d wandered off from the group and lost her way. Lord Chatteris had been walking in the woods. He had told her that the path went back and forth between the two properties. Then he’d twisted his ankle.

  It was mostly true.

  “We will bring him back here,” Mrs. Royle said. “I will send someone at once.”

  “No,” Honoria said, still a bit out of breath. “He wants to go home. He asked me to send word to the head of his stables. He told me exactly what to say.”

  “No,” Mrs. Royle said firmly. “I think he should come here.”

  “Mrs. Royle, please. Every moment we’re arguing, he is stranded out there in the rain.”

  Mrs. Royle was clearly conflicted, but finally she gave a nod and said, “Follow me.” There was a writing desk in an alcove down the hall. She took out paper, pen, and ink and stepped aside so that Honoria could sit down. But Honoria’s fingers were numb; she could barely grip the pen. And her hair would surely drip all over the paper.

  Sarah stepped forward. “Would you like me to do it for you?”

  Honoria nodded gratefully and told Sarah exactly what to write, all the while trying to ignore Mrs. Royle, who was hovering behind her, interrupting every so often with what she thought were helpful comments.

  Sarah finished the letter, signed Honoria’s name, and then, at Honoria’s nod, handed it to Mrs. Royle.

  “Please send it with your swiftest rider,” Honoria begged.

  Mrs. Royle took it and hurried off. Sarah immediately stood and took her cousin by the hand. “You need to get warm,” she said in a voice that brooked no protest. “You’re coming with me right now. I already told a maid to heat water for a bath.”

  Honoria nodded. She had done what she needed to do. Now she could finally collapse.

  The following morning dawned mockingly clear. Honoria had slept for twelve hours straight, bundled under quilts, with a hot brick at her feet. Sarah had crept into her room at some point to tell her that they’d received word from Fensmore; Marcus had arrived safely at home and was probably in his own bed, with his own hot brick at his feet.

  But as Honoria got dressed, she was still worried. She had been utterly frozen by the time she’d reached Bricstan, and he had been out in the rain for far longer than she had. It had been windy, too; she’d heard the trees rustling and creaking through her window when she’d been taking her bath. Marcus would almost certainly have caught a chill. And what if his ankle was not merely twisted but broken? Would they have sent for a surgeon already to set it? Would they have known to do so?

  And who were “they,” anyway? Marcus had no family that she knew of. Who would care for him if he took ill? Was there anyone at Fensmore besides the servants?

  She was going to have to check on his welfare. She wouldn’t be able to live with herself otherwise.

  Down at breakfast, the other guests were surprised to see her. The gentlemen had all returned to Cambridge, but the young ladies were gathered around the table, eating their coddled eggs and toast.

  “Honoria!” Sarah exclaimed. “What on earth are you doing out of bed?”

  “I’m perfectly well,” Honoria assured her. “I haven’t even a sniffle.”

  “Her fingers were like icicles last night,” Sarah said to Cecily and Iris. “She could not even grip a pen.”

  “It was nothing that a hot bath and a good night’s sleep could not cure,” Honoria said. “But I would like to travel to Fensmore this morning. It was my fault that Lord Chatteris twisted his ankle, and I really do feel I must check on him.”

  “How
was it your fault?” Iris asked.

  Honoria nearly bit her lip. She’d forgotten that that was one of the missing elements of her tale. “It was nothing, really,” she improvised. “I tripped over a tree root and he stepped forward to steady me. He must have stepped in a mole hole.”

  “Oh, I hate moles,” Iris said.

  “I find them rather sweet,” Cecily put in.

  “I must find your mother,” Honoria said. “I need to arrange for a carriage. Or I suppose I could ride over. It’s not raining any longer.”

  “You should eat breakfast first,” Sarah said.

  “She’ll never let you go alone,” Cecily replied. “Fensmore is a bachelor household.”

  “He’s hardly by himself,” Iris said. “He must have loads of servants.”

  “At least a hundred, I should think,” Cecily said. “Have you seen the house? It’s enormous. But that doesn’t signify.” She turned back to Honoria. “He still lives alone. There is no one to act as a proper chaperone.”

  “I’ll take someone with me,” Honoria said impatiently. “I really don’t care. I just want to get going.”

  “Take someone with you where?” Mrs. Royle asked, entering the breakfast room.

  Honoria repeated her request to Mrs. Royle, who immediately agreed. “Absolutely, we must see to the earl’s welfare. It would be positively unchristian of us if we did not.”

  Honoria blinked. She had not expected this to be so easy.

  “I will go with you,” Mrs. Royle said.

  A teacup slammed down against its saucer. When Honoria looked over at the table, Cecily wore a tight smile, but her fingers were practically biting through her teacup.

  “Mother,” Cecily said, “if you go, then I should, too.”

  Mrs. Royle paused to consider this, but before she could reply, Sarah said, “If Cecily goes, I should go, too.”

  “Why?” Cecily asked.

  “I am fairly certain,” Iris said dryly, “that under no circumstances should I go.”

  “I really don’t care who accompanies me,” Honoria said, trying not to sound as snappish as she felt. “I would just like to depart as soon as possible.”

  “Cecily will go with you,” Mrs. Royle announced. “I will stay here with Iris and Sarah.”

  Sarah was visibly put out at this turn of events, but she did not argue. Cecily, on the other hand, jumped to her feet with a wide smile on her face.

  “Cecily, do go upstairs and have Peggy redress your hair,” Mrs. Royle said. “We can’t have—”

  “Please,” Honoria interrupted. “I would really rather leave immediately.”

  Mrs. Royle looked conflicted, but even she could not bring herself to argue that her daughter’s coiffure was more important than the welfare of the Earl of Chatteris. “Very well,” she said briskly. “Off with the two of you, then. But I want to be clear. If he is terribly ill, you must insist upon moving him here to recuperate.”

  Honoria was quite sure that was not going to happen, but she didn’t say anything as she strode toward the front door, Cecily and Mrs. Royle right at her heels.

  “And make sure he knows that we do not plan to return to Cambridge for several weeks,” Mrs. Royle continued.

  “We don’t?” Cecily asked.

  “No, and as you are completely free of obligations, you may go over each day to oversee his care.” Mrs. Royle paused. “Er, if that is what Lord Chatteris wishes.”

  “Of course, Mother,” Cecily said, but she looked embarrassed.

  “And do give him my regards,” Mrs. Royle continued.

  Honoria hurried down the steps to wait for the carriage to be brought around.

  “And tell him that Mr. Royle and I pray for his speedy recovery.”

  “He might not be sick, Mother,” Cecily said.

  Mrs. Royle scowled at her. “But if he is . . .”

  “I shall relate your good wishes,” Cecily finished for her.

  “Here comes the carriage,” Honoria said, nearly desperate to escape.

  “Remember!” Mrs. Royle called out as Honoria and Cecily were helped up by a footman. “If he’s sick, bring him—”

  But they were already rolling away.

  Marcus was still in bed when his butler quietly entered his room and informed him that Lady Honoria Smythe-Smith and Miss Royle had arrived and were waiting in the yellow drawing room.

  “Shall I tell them you are not available to receive guests?” the butler inquired.

  For a moment Marcus was tempted to say yes. He felt awful, and he was sure he looked worse. By the time Jimmy had found him the previous evening, he had been shivering so hard he was amazed he hadn’t knocked out his own teeth. Then when he got home they had to cut the boot from him. Which would have been bad enough—he rather liked those boots—but his valet had been a bit more aggressive than necessary, and Marcus now sported a four-inch gash on his left leg.

  But if their situations had been reversed, he would have insisted upon ascertaining Honoria’s welfare with his own eyes, so it seemed that he would have to allow her to do the same with him. As for the other girl—Miss Royle, he thought the butler had said—he just hoped she was not a female of delicate sensibilities.

  Because the last time he’d looked in the mirror, he could have sworn his skin had been green.

  With help from his valet—both in dressing and making it downstairs to the drawing room—Marcus thought he looked moderately presentable when he greeted the two ladies.

  “Good God, Marcus,” Honoria exclaimed as she came to her feet. “You look like death.”

  Apparently, he was wrong. “Lovely to see you, too, Honoria.” He motioned to a nearby sofa. “Do you mind if I sit?”

  “No, please, go ahead. Your eyes are terribly sunken in.” She grimaced as she watched him attempt to maneuver his way around a table. “Shall I help you?”

  “No, no, I’m quite all right.” He hopped twice to get to the edge of the cushions and then practically fell backward onto the sofa. Dignity, it seemed, had no place in a sickroom.

  “Miss Royle,” he said, giving a nod to the other lady. He’d met her once or twice over the years, he was fairly certain.

  “Lord Chatteris,” she said politely. “My parents send their regards and wish you a speedy recovery.”

  “Thank you,” he said, giving her a weak nod. He felt overpoweringly tired all of a sudden. The trip from his bedroom downstairs must have been more difficult than he’d anticipated. He hadn’t slept well the night before, either. He’d started coughing the moment his head had touched his pillow, and he hadn’t stopped since.

  “Excuse me,” he said to the two ladies as he placed a cushion on the table in front of him, then propped his foot on it. “I’m told I’m meant to elevate it.”

  “Marcus,” Honoria said, immediately dispensing with any pretense of polite conversation, “you should not be out of bed.”

  “It’s where I was,” he said dryly, “until I was informed that I had visitors.”

  This earned him a look of such reproach that it brought to mind Miss Pimm, his nurse from oh-so-many years ago. “You should have told your butler you were not receiving,” she said.

  “Really?” he murmured. “I’m sure you would have accepted that meekly and gone home assured of my welfare.” He looked over at the other lady with an ironic tilt to his head. “What do you think, Miss Royle? Would Lady Honoria have left without comment?”

  “No, my lord,” Miss Royle said, her lips twitching with amusement. “She was most firm in her wish to see you for herself.”

  “Cecily!” Honoria said indignantly. Marcus decided to ignore her.

  “Is that so, Miss Royle?” he said, twisting even more in her direction. “My heart warms at her concern.”

  “Marcus,” Honoria said, “stop this right now.”

  “She is a dogged little thing,” he said.

  “Marcus Holroyd,” Honoria said sternly, “if you do not stop poking fun at me this instant, I sha
ll inform Mrs. Royle that indeed you do wish to be moved to Bricstan for the remainder of your convalescence.”

  Marcus froze, trying not to laugh. He looked at Miss Royle, who was also trying not to laugh. They both lost the battle.

  “Mrs. Royle is most eager to show off her nursing skills,” Honoria added with a devilishly placid smile.

  “You win, Honoria,” Marcus said, sitting back against the sofa cushions. But his laughter gave way to a fit of coughing, and it took him nearly a minute before he felt himself again.

  “How long were you in the rain last night?” Honoria demanded. She rose to her feet and touched his forehead, causing Miss Royle’s eyes to widen at the intimacy.

  “Have I a fever?” he murmured.

  “I don’t think so.” But she was frowning as she spoke. “You might be a little warm. Perhaps I should get you a blanket.”

  Marcus started to tell her that that would not be necessary, but then he realized that a blanket sounded rather nice, actually. And he was strangely grateful that she had suggested it. So he nodded.

  “I’ll get it,” Miss Royle said, hopping to her feet. “I saw a maid in the hall.”

  As she left, Honoria sat back down, looking over at him with concern in her eyes. “I’m so sorry,” she said once they were alone. “I feel terrible about what happened to you.”

  He waved away her apology. “I’ll be fine.”

  “You never told me how long you were out in the rain,” she reminded him.

  “An hour?” he guessed. “Probably two.”

  She let out a miserable sigh. “I’m so sorry.”

  He quirked a small smile. “You said that already.”

  “Well, I am.”

  He tried to smile at her again, because really, it was a ridiculous conversation, but he was overtaken by another fit of coughing.

  She frowned with concern. “Maybe you should come to Bricstan.”

  He couldn’t yet speak, but he speared her with a glare nonetheless.

  “I worry about you here all alone.”

  “Honoria,” he managed, coughing two more times before saying, “you’ll be going back to London soon. Mrs. Royle is the kindest of neighbors, I’m sure, but I would much prefer to recuperate in my own home.”

 
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