Or was she so desperate for any sign of improvement that she was seeing things that weren’t there?

“Maybe,” she said aloud, “but I will take any sign of hope.” She forced herself to look at his leg more closely. Her stomach roiled dangerously, but she pushed down her distaste. She needed to start cleaning the wound. Heaven only knew how long it would take the doctor to return, and although a compress would be better with hot water, there didn’t seem any good reason not to start with what she had.

Marcus had flung the wet linen she’d been using to cool him across the room, so she went to his bureau and retrieved another pair of his unmentionables, trying not to notice anything about them other than the fact that they were made of reasonably soft linen.

She wound them into a loose cylindrical shape and dunked one end in the water. “I’m so sorry, Marcus,” she whispered, then touched the wet cloth ever-so-gently against the wound.

He didn’t flinch.

She let out the breath she’d been holding and looked at the cloth. It was red in spots from his blood, and yellowish, too, with the infection that was oozing from the wound.

Feeling slightly more confident of her nursing abilities, she adjusted the cloth to a clean area and again pressed it against the wound, applying a tiny bit more pressure than the first time. It didn’t seem to bother him overmuch, so she repeated the procedure, and then again, until there was very little clean cloth remaining.

She glanced worriedly at the door. Where was Mrs. Wetherby? Honoria was making progress, but she was sure she could do a better job with hot water. Still, she wasn’t about to stop, not while Marcus remained relatively calm.

She went to the bureau and got another pair of Marcus’s unmentionables. “I don’t know what you’re going to wear when I’m through with you,” she said to him, hands on hips.

“Back in the water,” she said to herself, dunking the cloth. “And back on you.” She pressed, harder this time. One was supposed to press on cuts and scrapes to stop the bleeding, this much she knew. He wasn’t exactly bleeding now, but surely the pressure couldn’t hurt.

“And by that I mean hurt you in a permanent manner,” she said to Marcus, who remained blessedly unconscious. “I’m quite certain it will hurt you right now.”

She dunked the cloth again, finding a nice clean patch of linen, then she moved to the part of the wound she knew she’d been avoiding. There was a spot near the top that was uglier than the rest – quite a bit more yellow, definitely more swollen.

She dabbed lightly, trying not to hurt him, and then, when he did nothing but mutter in his sleep, pressed a little harder. “One step at a time,” she whispered, forcing herself to take a calming breath. “Just one.”

She could do this. She could help him. No, she could fix him. It was as if everything in her life had led to this moment. “This is why I didn’t get married last year,” she said to him. “I wouldn’t be here to nurse you.” She thought about that for a moment. “Of course, one could make the argument that you wouldn’t be in this situation if not for me. But we’re not going to dwell upon that.”

She kept up her work, carefully cleaning his wound, then paused to stretch her neck from side to side. She looked down at the cloth in her hands. It was still disgusting, but she wasn’t bothered by it any longer.

“There, you see,” she said to him. “It must mean I am getting better at this.”

She thought she was doing better, too. She was trying to be so very matter-of-fact and practical, but then, out of nowhere, right after she so jauntily declared that she was getting better at “this,” a huge choking sound burst from her throat. It was part gasp, part hideous wheeze, and it surprised her completely.

Marcus could die. The reality of this slammed into her with smothering force. He could die, and then she would be truly alone. It wasn’t even as if they’d seen much of each other in recent years, except for the past few weeks, of course.

But she’d always known he was there. The world was simply a better place, knowing that he was in it.

And now he might die. She’d be lost without him. How had she not realized that?


Honoria turned. It was her mother, bursting through the door.

“I came as quickly as I could,” Lady Winstead said, hurrying across the room. Then she saw Marcus’s leg. “Oh, my God.”

Honoria felt another one of those gaspy, wheezing noises blowing up within her. There was something about seeing her mother, about her mother seeing Marcus. It was like the time when she was twelve, and she’d fallen off her horse. She’d thought she was fine; she’d walked all the way home, bruised and achy, her face bleeding where she’d scratched it against a rock.

And then she’d seen her mother, and her mother’s expression, and she’d started to bawl.

It was the same thing. She wanted to bawl. Dear God, all she wanted to do was push back and turn away and cry and cry and cry.

But she couldn’t. Marcus needed her. He needed her to be calm. And capable. “Mrs. Wetherby is getting hot water,” she told her mother. “She should be back soon.”

“Good. We’ll need lots of it. And brandy. And a knife.”

Honoria looked at her mother with surprise. She sounded as if she knew what she was doing. Her mother.

“The doctor is going to want to take off the leg,” Lady Winstead said grimly.

“What?” Honoria hadn’t even considered that.