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“How so?”

“He has done everything possible to look after me—all the while proclaiming his indifference.” She stared into her husband’s unconscious face. “He’s not heartless, much as he tries to pretend otherwise.”

“No,” Westcliff agreed. “He’s not heartless—though I had my doubts until this evening.”

CHAPTER 18

Although Cam and Westcliff were as careful as possible, the process of conveying Sebastian upstairs weakened him severely. Evie followed closely behind, filled with agonized concern as she saw the stark paleness of Sebastian’s face. Cam was distraught, though he kept his emotions battened down as he focused on doing what was necessary.

“I don’t know how he got in,” the boy muttered. Evie realized that he was referring to Bullard. “I know all the ways to enter and leave this place. I thought I had taken care of—”

“It’s not your fault, Cam,” Evie interrupted quietly.

“Someone must have let him in, even though I told the employees—”

“It’s not your fault,” she repeated, and the boy fell silent, though it was clear that he did not agree.

Westcliff was quiet save for a few murmured instructions as they turned a corner. He carried Sebastian’s upper half, while Cam held his legs. Although Sebastian was a large man, they were both quite fit, and carried him to the master bedroom without difficulty. The room had just been refurbished, the walls covered with a layer of cream-colored paint. The old bed had been discarded and replaced with a large, handsome one, moved from Sebastian’s town house. Little had anyone thought that this would turn into a sickroom once more, so soon after her father’s death.

At Evie’s direction, a pair of housemaids ran back and forth, fetching towels and water, and tearing linen into wide strips. Sebastian’s limp body was eased onto the bed, and Evie tugged his boots off while Cam and Westcliff worked to remove his bloodstained clothes. By tacit agreement, they left on his white linen drawers for the sake of modesty.

Dipping a clean rag into the warm water, Evie washed the bloodstains from her husband’s body, the smears turning rust-colored where they had dried amid the light golden fleece on his chest. How powerful yet defenseless he appeared, the elegant lines of his body trimmed to a new leanness, his muscles honed by constant physical activity and more than a few recent back-alley skirmishes.

Westcliff picked up a rag and gently blotted the oozing bullet wound to have a better look at it. “From the size of the hole, I would assume that Bullard used a fifty-caliber pistol.”

“I have the gun,” Cam said shortly. “Bullard dropped it on the second-floor gallery after he fired the shot.”

Westcliff’s eyes narrowed in interest. “Let me see it.”

The boy withdrew the pistol from the pocket of his coat and handed to him, butt first. Westcliff assessed it with the expert glance of a seasoned sportsman. “A dueling pistol,” he remarked. “With a nine-inch octagonal, sighted barrel…platinum safety vents, engraved breeches and lockplates…a costly weapon, and part of a matched set. Made by Manton and Son of Dover Street.” He looked more closely at the weapon. “Here’s a silver escutcheon plate…engraved with the owner’s name, I believe. Though it’s too tarnished to make out the letters.” He glanced at Cam and arched one brow as he slipped it into his pocket. “With your permission, I will retain this.”

Seeming to understand that his permission wasn’t really required, Cam replied dryly, “By all means, my lord.”

Further conversation was prevented by the arrival of Dr. Hammond, a kindly man of sterling reputation, who had attended her father in the past. Cam and Westcliff left the room while Hammond examined the patient, cleaned the wound, and covered it with a light dressing. “While no major organs have been damaged,” he told Evie, his bearded face wearing a grave expression, “it is a significant injury. The recovery will depend on the resilience of the individual, the quality of his care…and as always, divine grace. It is almost certain there will be fever, which will have to run its course. Most often in these cases I am compelled to bleed the patient to drain as much of the diseased blood as possible. I will visit daily to determine if or when that will be necessary. Meanwhile, keep him clean and rested, feed him water and beef tea, and administer medicine for his discomfort.”

Evie received a bottle of opiated syrup from him with murmured thanks. After the doctor departed, she covered Sebastian with a quilt, seeing that the effects of shock and blood loss were causing him to shiver uncontrollably.

He opened his eyes and focused on her with difficulty. “If I need divine grace,” he whispered, “I’m in trouble…unless we can find some corrupt angel to bribe.”

A startled laugh escaped her. “Don’t be blasphemous.” She opened the syrup, poured a spoonful, and slipped an arm behind his neck. “Take this.”

He swallowed the medicine, made a face, and cursed.

Keeping her arm behind him, Evie reached for a cup of water with her free hand, and pressed it to his lips, until his teeth chattered at the edge. “Drink,” she murmured.

Sebastian obeyed and settled back against the pillows. “Bullard—”

“Cam couldn’t catch him,” Evie replied, reaching for a tiny pot of salve. She smoothed some on his chapped lips with gentle fingertips. “He and Lord Westcliff are downstairs, talking to the constable who was dispatched to investigate.”

“Was anyone else hurt?” Sebastian asked, trying to sit up. A bolt of pain caused his face to whiten, and he fell back with a gasp.

“Don’t move,” Evie said sharply, “you’ll start bleeding again.” She rested a hand on his chest, and traced the thin, glinting chain that draped across his upper chest, following it to the wedding band. “No one else was hurt,” she said in answer to his question. “And as soon as the club members were informed that the assailant had fled, they all came swarming back in, and appeared quite entertained by the evening’s events.”

The ghost of a smile touched his lips. “Bit more entertainment than…I had planned on providing.”

“Cam says it won’t hurt business in the least.”

“Safety measures,” Sebastian whispered, exhausted by the effort of talking. “Tell Cam—”

“Yes, he’s hiring more men. Don’t think about any of that right now. Your only concern is to get well.”

“Evie…” His shaking hand fumbled for hers, feebly trapping her fingers on his bare chest. Under their joined hands, the wedding band on the chain pressed against his unsteady heartbeat. “Go with Westcliff,” he murmured, his eyes closing. “After.”

After what? Evie stared into his face, his gray complexion, and realized that he was referring to his own death. As she felt his hand slide away from hers, she gripped it firmly. His hand had changed…no longer smooth and manicured, but harder, callused, the nails cut ruthlessly short. “No,” she said with soft intensity, “there will be no ‘after.’ I will stay with you every moment. I will keep you with me. I won’t let you go.” Suddenly her breath was coming hard, and she felt the pressure of panic against the inner wall of her chest. Continuing to lean over him, she turned her hand so that their palms matched, their pulses pressed together…one weak, one strong. “If my love can hold you, I’ll keep you with me.”

Sebastian awakened in a haze of pain, not only in his wound, but in his head and bones and joints. He was dry and burning, as if fire had been trapped beneath his skin, and he twisted in a useless attempt to escape the heat. Suddenly a pair of gentle hands descended on him and a wet cloth passed over his face. A hiss of relief escaped his lips, and he reached out for the source of coolness, seizing, his fingers digging desperately into softness.

“No…Sebastian, no…lie still. Let me help you.” It was Evie’s voice, breaking through the writhing madness. Gasping, he forced himself to release her and fell back against the mattress. The cold cloth moved over him in long strokes, a temporary ease from the torment. Each soothing pass served to calm him until he was able to lie quietly beneath her ministrations. “Evie,” he said hoarsely.

She paused to slip a few shards of crushed ice between his cracked lips. “Yes, darling. I’m here.”

His lashes lifted. Puzzled by the endearment, he watched her as she leaned over him. The ice dissolved quickly against his parched inner cheeks. Before he had to ask her for another, she fed him more. Freshening and wringing out the cloth, she wiped his chest and sides and beneath his arms. The room was darkened except for the daylight that came from a partly shrouded window, and a chilling breeze swept through the half-open casement.

Noticing the direction of his gaze, Evie murmured, “The doctor said I should keep the window closed. But you seem to rest more comfortably when it’s open.”

Sebastian lay steeped in gratitude as Evie continued to bathe him with the cool cloth. Her white dressing gown and fair skin gave her the appearance of some pristine, benevolent spirit, weaving a spell over him in the darkness.

“How long?” he whispered.

“This is the third day. Dearest love, if you can turn a little on your good side…let me tuck a pillow there…yes.” With his back partly exposed, Evie bathed his aching shoulders and down his spine, and he groaned softly. He vaguely recalled the other times she had done this…her light hands…her serene face in the lamplight. Somewhere amid the nightmare of confusion and pain, he had been aware of her tending him, seeing to his needs with astonishing intimacy. When he shook with fever chills, she covered him with blankets and held his shivering body in her arms. She was always there before he even needed to call for her…she comprehended everything as if she could see inside his tangled thoughts. His worst fear had always been to depend on someone this way. And he was growing weaker by the hour, as the wound became more inflamed and the fever raged higher. He sensed death hovering like a impatient specter, ready to claim him when all his defenses were gone. It retreated whenever Evie was with him…still waiting, but far less imminent.

He hadn’t comprehended her strength before now. Even when he had seen the loving care she had given her father, he hadn’t guessed what it would be like to rely on her, to need her. But nothing repelled her, nothing was too much to ask. She was his support, his shield…and at the same time she undermined him with a tender affection that he had begun to crave even as he shrank from it.

Evie’s slender, strong arms braced him as she eased him slowly back to the mattress. “A few sips of water,” she coaxed, supporting his head. Sebastian made a negative sound, for although his mouth was dry and sticky, it seemed that even a drop or two of water caused him nausea. “For me,” she insisted, pressing a cup to his mouth.

Sebastian slitted her a baleful glance and obeyed…and resented it when her praise gave him a ripple of pleasure. “You’re an angel,” she murmured, smiling. “Good, that’s it. Now rest, and I’ll cool you some more.” Sighing, he relaxed while the damp cloth slid lightly over his throat and face.

He sank into a thick, smothering ocean of darkness, into dreams that allowed him no peace. After what could have been minutes, hours, or days, he awoke in wretched pain, fumbling at his side, which burned and ached as if a poisoned spear had been lodged in it.

Evie’s calm voice stilled his frenzy. “Sebastian, please…Lie back. Dr. Hammond is here. Let him examine you.”

Sebastian discovered that he was too weak to move. It felt as if his arms and legs had been tied with lead weights. “Help—” he whispered raspily, unwilling to remain flat on his back. Understanding at once, Evie hastened to lift his head and prop a pillow behind him.

“Good afternoon, my lord,” came a baritone voice. The portly doctor appeared before him, a slight smile splitting his gray-and-silver beard and warming his florid face. “I had hoped for some improvement,” Hammond remarked to Evie. “Has the fever abated?”

She shook her head.

“Any sign of appetite or thirst?”

“He will take a little water at times,” Evie murmured, moving to slip her fingers around Sebastian’s. “But he can’t keep down any broth.”

“I will have a look at the wound.”

Sebastian felt the bedclothes being drawn down to his h*ps and the bandage being peeled away. As he tried to protest the indignity of being exposed so cavalierly, Evie rested her hand on his chest. “It’s all right,” she whispered. “He’s trying to help.”

Too feeble to lift his own head, Sebastian focused on Evie’s face as she and the doctor stared the exposed wound. There was no change in Evie’s expression, but he saw from the quick double blink of her lashes that his condition had not improved.

“As I feared,” Hammond said quietly, “it is festering. You see those red streaks extending toward the heart? I’ll have to remove some of the diseased blood from his body. Hopefully it will reduce some of the inflammation.”

“But he’s already lost so much blood…” Evie said uncertainly.

“I will take no more than four pints,” Hammond replied in a firm but reassuring manner. “It will not harm him, my lady, but rather will help release the constriction of vessels caused by an accumulation of poisons.”

Sebastian had always viewed the process of bloodletting dubiously, but never more so than when it was about to be practiced on him. He felt his pulse escalate to a weak but frantic tapping in his veins, and he tugged at Evie’s hand. “Don’t,” he whispered, his breath coming too quickly. A rush of dizziness overcame him and he fought to see through the showers of sparks that scattered across his vision. He was not aware of fainting, but when he opened his eyes again, he discovered that his left arm had been lightly bound to the back of a chair beside the bed, with a shallow bowl poised on the seat. There was no blood in the bowl—yet—but Hammond was approaching him with a small boxlike device.

“What is that?” came Evie’s voice. Sebastian summoned all his strength to turn his head on the pillow to look at her.

“It’s called a scarificator,” Hammond replied. “It is by far the most efficient method of bloodletting as opposed to an old-fashioned lancet.”

“Evie,” Sebastian whispered. She did not appear to hear him, her wary gaze fastened on the doctor as he continued to explain.

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