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Even after a heavy dose of morphine, the pain caused Sebastian to arch and twist, his face contorting, while incoherent protests came from low in his throat. Cam helped to pin him down so that even minimal movement wasn’t possible. The real difficulty came, however, when Westcliff began to flush out the wound with salt water. Sebastian cried out harshly, fighting in earnest while the syringe was deployed repeatedly until the saline solution that soaked the towels beneath him ran pink with fresh, clean blood. Westcliff was steady and precise, working with a brisk efficiency that any surgeon would have admired. Somehow Evie managed to conquer her own anguish, pushing it far down beneath layers of numbness as she worked with the same outward detachment that Westcliff and Cam displayed. Methodically she snatched away the filthy towels and tucked new ones against her husband’s side. To her vast relief, Sebastian soon fainted and went slack, now oblivious to the treatment of his injury.

Once the raw flesh was cleaned to Westcliff’s satisfaction, he soaked a swab with the turpentine mixture and saturated the wound thoroughly. Moving aside, he watched intently as Cam wrapped some bog moss in a clean square of muslin, soaked the bundle in honey, and carefully packed the area. “That’s it,” the boy said with satisfaction. He untied the rags that had tethered Sebastian’s hands and foot as he spoke. “The healing will start deep within. We’ll keep packing it for a few days, and then we’ll dispense with the moss and let the skin come together.” It took their combined efforts to wrap a linen bandage completely around Sebastian’s lean waist and to change the damp sheets so that the bed was clean and dry.

When it was over, Evie felt the ruthless self-discipline leave her limbs, and she began to shake from head to toe with strain. She saw with surprise that even Westcliff seemed fatigued, letting out a long sigh as he used a clean rag to blot the abundant sweat on his face. Lillian came to him at once, her arms going around him in a quick hug as she murmured an endearment in his ear.

“We should change the packing and dressing about twice a day, I think,” Cam commented to no one in particular, washing his hands with soap and water. “If the fever doesn’t improve by nightfall, we’ll double the dose of four o’clock plant.” Gesturing for Evie to come to him, he washed her hands and arms as well. “He’ll be all right, sweetheart,” he said. “When the earl was draining the wound it didn’t look as bad as I thought it would.”

Evie shook her head wearily, standing with childlike passivity as he blotted her wet hands. “I can’t let myself hope for anything. I can’t let myself believe…” Her voice trailed off as the floor seemed to tilt beneath her feet, and she jerked clumsily in an attempt to correct her balance. Cam caught her swiftly and scooped her up against his hard young chest. “Bed for you,” he announced, carrying her toward the door.

“Sebastian…” she mumbled.

“We’ll take care of him while you rest.”

She had little choice, as her sleep-deprived body refused to function any longer. Her last memory was of Cam laying her on her own bed, drawing the covers over her and tucking them at her sides as if she were a little girl. As soon as her body heat began to collect beneath the slick, icy-cold sheets, she plummeted into a dreamless slumber.

Evie awoke to the cheerful glow of a tiny flame. A candle sat on the bedside table. Someone was sitting on the edge of the bed…Lillian…looking rumpled and tired, with her hair tied at the nape of her neck.

Slowly Evie sat up, rubbing her eyes. “Is it evening?” she croaked. “I must have slept all afternoon.”

Lillian smiled wryly. “You’ve slept for a day and a half, dear. Westcliff and I have looked after St. Vincent, while Mr. Rohan has been running the club.”

Evie ran her tongue inside her pasty mouth and sat up straighter. Her heart began to thud with dread as she struggled to ask, “Sebastian…is he…”

Lillian took Evie’s chapped hand in hers and asked gently, “Which do you want first—the good news, or the bad news?”

Evie shook her head, unable to speak. She stared at her friend without blinking, her lips trembling.

“The good news,” Lillian said, “is that his fever has broken, and his wound is no longer putrid.” She grinned as she added, “The bad news is that you may have to endure being married to him for the rest of your life.”

Evie burst into tears. She put her free hand over her eyes, while her shoulders shook with sobs. She felt Lillian’s fingers wrap more firmly around hers.

“Yes,” came Lillian’s dry voice, “I’d weep too, if he were my husband—though for entirely different reasons.”

That caused a hiccupping giggle to break through Evie’s muffled sobs, and she shook her head, still covering her streaming eyes. “Is he conscious? Is he speaking?”

“Yes, he has asked for you repeatedly and was quite annoyed when I refused to awaken you before now.”

Lowering her hand, Evie stared at her through a film of moisture. “I’m certain he didn’t mean to sound ungr-grateful,” she said hastily. “After all you’ve done—”

“There’s no need to make excuses for him,” Lillian said sardonically. “I know him fairly well. Which is why I still don’t believe he cares about anyone but himself…and perhaps a little—very little—bit for you. But if he makes you happy, I suppose he shall have to be tolerated.” Her nose wrinkled, and she appeared to hunt for an unappealing scent before detecting it on the sleeves of her gown. “Ugh…it’s a good thing my family owns a soap company. Because I’ll need a hundred bricks of it to remove the smell of that blasted poultice.”

“I will never be able to thank you enough for taking care of him,” Evie said fervently.

Standing from the bed, Lillian stretched and shrugged. “Think nothing of it,” came her cheerful reply. “It was worth it, if only to have St. Vincent in my debt. He’ll never be able to look at me without the humiliating recollection that I’ve seen him na*ed and unconscious in his sickbed.”

“You saw him naked?” Evie asked, feeling her brows rise up to her hairline.

“Oh,” Lillian said airily, going to the door, “I caught a glimpse now and then. It was impossible not to, considering the location of the wound.” Pausing in the doorway, she gave Evie a sly glance. “I must admit, regarding that rumor that one occasionally hears…it doesn’t begin to do him justice.”

“What rumor?” Evie asked blankly, and Lillian left the room with a low laugh.

CHAPTER 20

Before a full week had passed, Sebastian had become the worst patient imaginable. He was healing at a remarkable rate, though not quickly enough for his satisfaction, and he frustrated himself, as well as everyone else, by pushing every conceivable limit. He wanted to wear his regular clothes, to have real food…he insisted on leaving his bed and hobbling around the apartments and the upper gallery, stubbornly ignoring Evie’s exasperated protests. Even knowing that he could not force his strength to return, that it would require time and patience, Sebastian couldn’t help himself.

He had never had to rely on anyone…and now, to owe his life to Westcliff, Lillian, Cam, and most of all, Evie…he was swamped with the unfamiliar feelings of gratitude and shame. He couldn’t look any of them in the eyes, and so his only recourse was to take refuge in surly arrogance.

The worst moments were when he was alone with Evie. Every time she entered the room, he experienced a frightening connection, a surge of unfamiliar emotion, and he fought it until the internal battle left him drained. It would have helped if he could have provoked an argument with her, anything to establish a necessary distance. But that was impossible when she countered his every demand with patience and infinite concern. He couldn’t accuse her of expecting gratitude when she had never once hinted that it was owed. He couldn’t accuse her of hovering over him when she took care of him with gentle efficiency and tactfully left him alone unless he rang for her.

He, who had never feared anything, was terrified of the power she had over him. And he was afraid of his own desire to have her with him every minute of the day, to stare at her, to hear her voice. He craved her touch. His skin seemed to drink in every caress of her fingers, as if the sensation of her could be woven into the human fabric of his body. It was different from mere sexual need…it was some kind of pathetic, full-blown addiction for which there seemed to be no remedy.

Sebastian was further tormented by the knowledge that Joss Bullard had tried to kill Evie, and his reaction came from some primitive place in himself that would not be tamed by reason. He wanted Bullard’s blood. He wanted to tear the bastard to pieces. The fact that he was helpless in his sickbed while Bullard was roaming freely in London was enough to drive him mad. He was not at all pacified by assurances from the police inspector who had been assigned to the case, that everything possible was being done to find Bullard. Therefore, Sebastian had summoned Cam to his room and had directed him to hire more private investigators, including an ex–Bow Street Runner, to conduct an intensive search. In the meanwhile, there was nothing else that Sebastian could do, and he stewed in his enforced inactivity.

Five days after his fever had broken, Evie sent for a slipper tub to be brought to his room. Relishing the opportunity for a tub bath, Sebastian relaxed in the steaming water while Evie shaved him and helped to wash his hair. When he was clean and dry, he returned to his newly made bed and allowed Evie to bandage his wound. The bullet hole was healing so quickly that they had ceased packing it with moss, and now simply covered it with a light layer of linen for the sake of cleanliness. It was still a source of frequent twinges and mild pain, but Sebastian knew that in another day or two, he would be able to resume most of his normal activities. Except for his favorite one, which, by virtue of his infernal bargain with Evie, was still forbidden.

Since the entire front of Evie’s dress had been drenched from the bath, she had gone to change her clothes. Out of sheer perversity, Sebastian rang the silver bell at his bedside approximately two minutes after she had left.

Evie returned quickly to his room in her dressing gown. “What is it?” she asked with obvious worry. “Has something happened?”

“No.”

“Is it your wound? Does it hurt?”

“No.”

Her expression changed, concern replaced by relief. Approaching the bed, she gently took the bell from Sebastian’s hand and replaced it on the night table. “You know,” she said conversationally, “the tang of that bell will be removed unless you learn to use it more judiciously.”

“I rang because I needed you,” Sebastian said testily.

“Yes?” she asked with exquisite patience.

“The curtains. I want them opened wider.”

“You couldn’t have waited for that?”

“It’s too dark in here. I need more light.”

Evie went to the window, tugged the velvet panels far apart, and stood silhouetted in the wash of pale winter sunlight. With her hair loose, the soft red curls hanging nearly to her waist, she looked like a figure in a Titian painting. “Anything else?”

“There’s a speck in my water.”

Padding barefoot to the bed, Evie picked up his half-full drinking glass and viewed it critically. “I don’t see a speck.”

“It’s in there,” Sebastian said grumpily. “Must we debate the matter, or will you fetch some clean water?”

Biting back a reply with remarkable self-control, Evie went to the washstand, emptied the water into the creamware bowl, and poured a fresh glass for him. She brought it back, set it on the table, and looked at him expectantly. “Is that all?”

“No. My bandage is too tight. And the loose end is tucked in at the back. I can’t reach it.”

It seemed that the more demanding he was, the more annoyingly patient Evie became. Bending over him, she murmured for him to turn a little, and he felt her gently loosening the bandage and retucking the ends. The glance of her fingertips on his back, so cool and delicate, caused his pulse to throb sharply. A stray curl slid silkily over his shoulder. Resting on his back once more, Sebastian fought with the desperate joy he felt at her nearness.

He glanced wretchedly up at her face…the beautiful bow-shaped mouth, the cream-satin skin, the irresistible sprinkling of freckles. Her hand settled lightly on his chest, over his thumping heart, and she toyed with the wedding band on the chain.

“Take it off of me,” he muttered. “The damned thing is annoying. It gets in the way.”

“In the way of what?” Evie whispered, staring at his averted profile.

Sebastian could smell her skin, the scent of warm, clean woman, and he shifted on the mattress, his senses sharpening with awareness. “Just take it off and put it on the dresser,” he managed to say after a ragged breath.

Ignoring the command, Evie half sat on the mattress, leaning over him until the ends of her unbound hair feathered over his chest. His body was motionless, but he quaked inwardly as he felt her draw a finger along the edge of his jaw. “I gave you a decent shave,” she observed, sounding pleased with herself. “I may have missed a spot or two, but at least I didn’t cut your face to ribbons. It helped that you were so still.”

“I was too terrified to move,” he replied, and she made a sound of amusement.

Unable to keep his gaze from hers any longer, Sebastian brought himself to look into her smiling eyes…so round, so astonishingly blue.

“Why do you ring that bell so often?” Evie whispered. “Are you lonely? You have only to say so.”

“I’m never lonely.” He said it with cool conviction. To his dismay, she did not draw back, and although her smile turned quizzical, it did not fade.

“Shall I go, then?” she asked gently.

Sebastian felt treacherous heat rising inside him, unfurling, spilling, spreading everywhere. “Yes, go,” he said, closing his eyes, hungrily absorbing the scent and nearness of her.

Evie stayed, however, the silence spinning out until it seemed that the pounding of his heart must be audible. “Do you want to know what I think, Sebastian?” she finally asked.

It took every particle of his will to keep his voice controlled. “Not particularly.”

“I think that if I leave this room, you’re going to ring that bell again. But no matter how many times you ring, or how often I come running, you’ll never bring yourself to tell me what you really want.”

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