Authors: Jennifer Blake
She was so very tired, and the stupid tears were wetting her nightgown. Or not her nightgown. Whose? And who had put it on her?
She dared not think. The best way to prevent that was, of course, the laudanum he held in his hand. Did he know that?
With lowered lashes and high color, she took the glass and put it to her lips, held her breath, swallowed. The water he immediately pressed upon her was welcome. The effort to keep the bitter draught down was so severe that she shuddered and lowered herself carefully to her pillow with closed eyes.
“I take it my shirt is safe,” he said after a long, considering moment.
“I’ll send Estelle back to you.”
She made no answer. A short time later, she heard his footsteps retreating. Or so she thought. She might have imagined it or heard something else entirely. She was certain, however, that the lamp beside the bed was extinguished in silence and with dispatch.
The darkness of the room expanded, the pain receded. The night lengthened. She drifted, half woke herself with a stifled sob, and discovered she was crying in her sleep. She turned her face into the pillow, trying to control the difficult, acid anguish of loss and grief.
After a time, the mattress on which she lay sagged to accept a heavier weight. Words flavored with deep maledictions wafted above her head. Firm hands touched her and she was drawn, carefully, against a warm, hard form.
Sighing, Angelica eased closer, felt herself enclosed in a strong clasp. There was comfort in it and a measure of peace. It seemed, almost, that she had found both there before. The tears ceased.
She slept. Or perhaps she only moved deeper into her drug-induced dream.
~ ~ ~
It was a Sunday. Angelica knew that because of the bells that clanged, now silver-toned and mellow, now discordant, over the city. The sound floated through the two sets of French doors standing open on either side of her bed, one to the balcony above the street and the other to the gallery overlooking the sun-drenched courtyard. From the kitchen area below came the morning smells of baking bread and coffee, and also browning onions for a dish meant as the noon meal.
Renold lounged in a chair drawn up near the balcony doors for the light while he perused a newssheet with the swift thoroughness that was his habit. With a dressing gown thrown loosely around him, one foot propped on a stool and a cup of coffee waiting beside his chair, it appeared he was placed for some time.
Angelica had found him there when she woke. She thought he had spent the night on the cot at the foot of her bed. It had been used, for she could just see the crumpled sheets from where she lay. The narrow cot was actually an accouchement bed used for childbirth, a grim reminder of the consequences of marriage. If Renold had passed the night there, however, it was the first time in two nights, since the evening he had told her about her father and Laurence.
He had been in and out during the daytime, giving orders for her welfare, demanding that she rest, eat, take her medicine, cajoling her into it when commands failed. He was also out of the house for long periods, especially during the evening hours. She had heard him return the night before and thought he had slept in a bedchamber connected to her own by a dressing room.
The housekeeper, Estelle, had attended to Angelica’s needs in Renold’s absence. The woman had been friendly, talking easily about the household, which included Renold’s manservant and majordomo, Tit Jean, plus two maids, the cook and her three helpers, a coachman, and a pair of stablemen who also ran errands. Regardless, she had little to say about the maître, as she called Renold, and it was difficult to say whether it was discretion or fear that held her silent.
“Where the maître goes and the things he does are for him to know,” she said in answer to Angelica’s questions. “Or you can speak to him of it yourself. It could be he will tell you, depending.”
“Depending on what?” Angelica asked with what she hoped was no more than normal curiosity.
“His mood,” the woman said with a tart smile, “and, also, it may be, on why he thinks you want to know. A great one for thinking, is the maître, though le bon Dieu knows it makes him peevish.”
Renold did not seem peevish this morning. Rather, he looked as content and indolent, confident and darkly handsome as a swamp panther reclining in the sun. The very sight of him made Angelica want to throw something.
She was sitting propped against pillows while she drank her cafe au lait. On a tray nearby was an empty plate that had held the flaky pastries filled with chocolate cream that were Estelle’s idea for putting flesh back on Angelica’s bones now that her appetite had returned. Angelica reached to put her cup on the tray and to use a lace-edged napkin. Settling back again, she folded her hands and said, “I don’t understand you.”
“Quarrelsome before breakfast,” Renold answered without looking up. “I might have known.”
He put his newssheet aside. “Oh, have you? Then tell me what it is about me that offends you now?”
She suspected that he knew the precise moment she had swallowed the last crumb. His close attention was uncomfortable, but might also be of aid in putting across a point. Pursing her lips judiciously, she said, “Now, as to that . . . “
His lips twisted with wry appreciation. “What? Too comprehensive a list of offenses? Tell me, instead, what it is you don’t understand.”
The success of her ploy was gratifying, but there was no time to savor it. She said, “Well, in your kind explanations the other day, you told me you married me because you had compromised me—”
“Acquit me, please, I said no such thing,” he returned in instant repugnance. “I only explained why I assumed the role of your husband. My reasons for taking you to wife with all due pledge and ceremony are something else again.”
“I beg your pardon,” she said with a great show of politeness. “Perhaps you will explain the difference?”
He lifted a brow. “It’s a question of will. Mine, in this case. I did not wed you because of the picayune suspicions of a pack of backwoods provincials. It was done to gain the right to order the treatment for you I felt necessary — and because I formed an irresistible impulse to see you in dishabille sitting in the middle of my bed.”
She stared at him while color burned across her cheekbones and she conquered the impulse to cover her shoulders exposed by her nightgown. Not that she believed a word of what he said. She had learned enough of him to be wary of taking anything he might say at face value.
“You wanted me,” she said finally.
“Something I’ve made amply plain, or so I thought.” His gaze upon her did not waver.
She swallowed and gave her hands her studious attention.
There was a wedding ring in the French style on her finger, a wide band centered by a sapphire surrounded by diamonds. She had discovered it there when she awoke from her laudanum-induced sleep the day before yesterday. She turned it for the seconds it took to recover her composure.
“Yes, all right,” she said finally. “But I must suppose that I spoke my vows along with you before the priest, or at least signified my acceptance of the match. What do you think kept me from shouting a refusal at the top of my lungs?”
“Gratitude,” he suggested, his green eyes turning carefully opaque. “Or at least acceptance of the inevitable.”
“Because I recognized the compromising situation, whether you admit to it or not? But I had a fiancé, or I must have thought so at the time.”
“He wasn’t there. I was. And just how well did you know this man you were to marry? Were you anxious to be his wife?”
“That isn’t the point.”
“Isn’t it? Marriages are arranged every day between strangers. This union between us, as awkward as it may be, has been faced by countless men and women. Somehow they overcome it and make a life together.”
“Do they?” she said, and looked away toward where the sunlight slanted across the floor.
“It helps, of course, if both have the same expectations.”
“I don’t remember a discussion of our future life — among other things.”
He leaned his head against the back of his chair. “Would it matter if you did? Or is it just more satisfying to cling to pique and revenge?”
“Revenge?” The word had a peculiar ring.
“For things better left undone. By me. For things left unsaid, certainly.”
The gaze she raised to meet his was unwavering. “You think I’m annoyed now because you didn’t say you hold me in affection. Believe me, I was never so optimistic. Or easily taken in.”
His face went blank before he shook his head. “You hardly know me, had no reason to care — it never occurred to me you might expect it. No. I referred to an apology, properly groveling, of course, for the mistake in understanding aboard the
. You might have had it, except I had already repented and received due punishment. If you ever realized that, however, it seems one more thing you have forgotten.”
His voice stopped. Gathering himself with athletic ease, he rose from the chair. He started toward her, stripping open his dressing gown as he came.
She had been trying to catch up with his thought processes. They were wiped abruptly from her mind. Pushing herself higher on her pillows, she said, “What are you doing?”
“Don’t be alarmed,” he said as he put his foot on the bed steps and mounted to the mattress. Settling near her knees, he dropped his dressing gown, exposing his broad shoulders and chest to her startled gaze. “I am not bent on coercion this time,” he went on, “only a demonstration. It isn’t my place to pronounce the penalty for my own misdeeds, but look first, then tell me if you require more atonement. Or should I allow you to add to the scars?”
He twisted at the waist to present his back to her, then braced as if expecting the lash of a whip. Angelica almost strangled on her indrawn breath as her gaze swept across the wide span of his shoulders and down his spine to his taut waist. The livid traces of barely healed burns slashed across the ridged muscles. Deep in places, shallow in others, they were covered over with newly grown flesh that had the shining smoothness of red-shaded bronze silk.
“The steam,” she whispered.
Without conscious thought, she reached out to soothe the scar tissue. Under her fingertips, his skin was firm, smooth, heated.
Angelica felt an odd, wondering regret as she realized that he had shielded her from the worst of the explosion, taking the brunt of it with his back as he jumped with her into the river. The pain must have been agonizing, both then and for some time afterward.
A shudder, not quite suppressed, twitched over Renold. Under her hand, the prickling of gooseflesh roughened his skin, spreading, running along the tops of his shoulders. Air rasped in his lungs as he inhaled with unexpected force. He turned his head to stare at her.
Her gaze flickered up to his, was caught and held. A suspended darkness came into his face. It was as if he waited, yielding, for what she would do next.
She lowered her lashes. It was then she saw one more scar. No more than a fine red line at his throat, it angled from the turn of his neck across his collarbone. It had the look of a slice made by someone careless with a small, sharp knife.
Or perhaps a penknife.
She snatched her hand away. How could she have forgotten, even for an instant? She had made that scar, that evening in the stateroom.
Her voice unaccountably thick, she said, “There was never any question of caring.”
“Which is, I think, though it’s by no means certain, precisely what I was trying to show you.” With a swift flexing of long muscles, he removed himself from the bed, turning from her as he pulled his dressing gown back into place and fastened it
After a moment, she said, “Am I now supposed to feel guilty, or merely reassured? You are still a stranger, a man who took me away with him as he might a kitten saved from drowning.”
“Getting clawed for his pains?”
“That’s always a risk, isn’t it when the cat isn’t sure whether it’s being rescued or pushed under, taken as a pet or shut up in a prison?” She stopped, putting a hand to her face, rubbing her forehead where her headache had returned. “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to sound ungrateful. I can see that you’re trying to make amends for what happened on the steamboat.”
“Can you?” His laugh was short.
She barely heard, went on quickly. “I am grateful for your quick action in saving me, and I appreciate the care you have given me and the diplomacy you’ve shown. But the fact is that I have a home. There is an aunt in Natchez who should be contacted and told that I survived. I don’t like to think how she must feel, believing my father and I, and even Laurence, were lost.”
“I will be happy to send word if you will give me her direction,” he said over his shoulder, “but are you certain she will want to house you now?”
“You mean now my father is — gone?”
“I mean,” he said deliberately as he turned and rested a hand on the bedpost, “now that you’ve spent so much time under the roof of a man who is not a blood relative.” He paused, went on. “Or, if your aunt hears of the marriage, won’t she think it strange that you would seek shelter with her?”