Melisande shook her head, half determined, half terrified.
“Then ladies, we need to make her irresistible,” Emma announced. “Hetty, where are your emeralds?”
Emma sat alone in the library after Melisande and the strongly disapproving but very proper Miss Mackenzie had left. There’d been no talking Melisande out of her sudden decision, and in truth Emma hadn’t been that surprised. She’d seen the signs for days. She knew when the heat rose in the blood; she’d seen it often enough. It should have been no surprise that even Melisande would succumb when faced with the delectable temptation that was Rohan. Even she had been tempted, for the first time in her life, just a few short months ago.
Her work at the hospital, her effort at penitence, had been grueling, not for the faint of heart. She held the patients’ hands when they died, but she seldom looked into their faces. Until that night.
The boy—for he looked like a boy, his hair tumbled over his pale, sweating face—he should never have been there in the hospital. People of his class were taken care of at home, the doctors being summoned, the care provided by upper-class maids and butlers. But when Lord Brandon Rohan arrived back on the ship he’d been delirious with fever and somehow his papers had gotten lost. No one knew who he was, or even that he was an officer. He’d been shunted off like so many of the wounded men, to the stink of a hospital, there to live or die as may be.
He still had all his limbs, though one leg was cruelly wounded, and he would never walk without a limp. That was, assuming he even lived long enough to go home. The scars that covered so much of what must have once been a strong young body bore testament to the horror he had been through, and his pretty face was a travesty. He had been brought in at the end of a long day, and Emma had taken one look at him and known he would die. Not from any mortal wound—each of his terrible injuries had been tended to, and given a strong constitution he would normally recover. But he had opened his bright, fever-glazed eyes, and she’d known he’d given up.
It was a Catholic hospital, run by stern nuns, and Emma had chosen it, knowing the very thought would have offended her antipapist family, had they known. Mother Mary Clement had assigned her the young man, and Emma had known better than to protest. She pulled the curtains around his little cubicle and prepared to make him comfortable enough to die in peace.
She had changed his dressings, not flinching from the mangled flesh. There was no smell of putrefaction, and whatever fever he had contracted hadn’t come from any of his wounds, which were all a healthy pink. He lay perfectly still on the bed as she bathed him in cool water, trying to bring his fever down, knowing it was a wasted effort.
She talked to him as she worked, her low voice keeping up a steady stream of inconsequential pleasantries. The dying often retreated so far that they never heard a human voice or felt the touch of their caretakers, but on rare occasions that voice or touch could call someone back. She covered him again, then sat back in the spindly chair beside his bed, rubbing the small of her back absently. “Are you going to die, young man?” she said softly, thinking that he was older than she was, feeling like his grandmother. “There’s no need. You can fight this—you’re young and strong. You’re far better off than half the men in this hospital—you have all your limbs, and even if half of your pretty face is ruined you still have the other half to charm the girls with. If you can cultivate the right brooding, Gothic air, the young women will find you vastly heroic and romantic, and you’ll have to beat them off with a stick.”
He didn’t move, and she could almost feel the life force draining from his body. “You don’t have to die,” she said again with some asperity. “But if you’re determined to then I’m damned if I’ll waste my time with you when there are other men who are fighting to stay alive.”
Not even a twitch suggested there was anyone left inside the spare frame of the young soldier, and she decided to try one last time. “Have you got a sweet-heart, perhaps a wife somewhere? A mother who’s worried about you? You can’t just give up, child. Fight, damn you!”
Nothing. She rose slowly, her shoulders bowed in weariness and defeat, and she was turning to go when a small movement caught her attention. She turned back to see that his eyes were open, bright blue staring up at her. “Is that supposed to convince me to live?” he asked, his voice a weak croak. “Aren’t you supposed to hold my hand?”
“I already tried that,” she said matter-of-factly, hiding her burgeoning hope. “It didn’t seem to work.”
He might almost have smiled. It was difficult to tell with the scarring, but suddenly she released her pent-up breath. It was as if there’d been a third entity in the cubicle with them. Death had been there, waiting.
And now it was gone.
She sat back down, taking his thin, clawlike hand in hers. “What is your name? You were brought in without papers, and if you’d been selfish enough to die we would have had to bury you in an unmarked grave.”
He looked at her steadily. “I don’t remember,” he said finally, and she knew it for a lie. Even with the weak, thready quality of his voice she could tell he was a far cry for an ordinary soldier.
“You’re being difficult,” she said lightly. “But I’ll have the truth from you sooner or later. Mother Mary Clement gives me the difficult cases. Of which you are one. But at least you’ve decided to live.”
“Why do you say that?” he whispered, looking at her.
She smiled, squeezing his thin hand lightly. “I just know.” She rose, releasing him. “I’ll be back tomorrow. Don’t give the night sister too hard a time, all right? And don’t die while I’m gone—I’ll be very cross with you.”
It was definitely a smile. “I’ll endeavor not to. What’s your name?”
She shook her head. “I’ll tell you when you’re ready to give me a present of yours. At least tell me your rank, so I can address you as lieutenant or something.”
“Call me Janus,” he said.
She didn’t miss the allusion; Janus was the god of two faces in Roman mythology. “Don’t be tiresome, child,” she said in her best governess-y tones. “You’re way too pretty as it is—too much loveliness for one face. You needed to do something to tone down that handsome profile.”
He laughed then, a choking sound that nevertheless made her feel warm inside. “And I think I’ll call you Harpy, if we’re going with classical allusions. I’ll endeavor to survive until tomorrow, if only to spite you.”
“Do that,” she said, pushing the curtain aside and preparing to depart.
“Oh, and Miss Harpy,” he called after her.
She glanced back, eyebrows raised in question.
“I’m most definitely not a child.”
He hadn’t told her his name. In the week he stayed at the hospital under Mother Mary Clement’s watchful eye he stubbornly insisted his memory was gone, even as his body grew stronger. When she came in she would go straight to him, to reassure herself that he was getting better, and then she would do her rounds, leaving him for last. He was her reward for the onerous work she did. He looked at her as if she were a mixture of the Madonna and the harpy he’d likened her to, and she chivvied him like he was her younger brother. No, that wasn’t true, because she’d been uncomfortably aware of the niggling pinch of longing he brought out in her.
All would have been well if he hadn’t developed another fever, this one stronger and more virulent than the first. She’d seen it happen in other patients, seemingly strong and recovering. The hospital was a dangerous place, full of illness and disease, and the patients were already in a weakened condition from whatever had brought them there in the first place. It came over him swiftly, and by nightfall, when she was scheduled to leave, he was delirious.
Mother Mary Clement had looked in, clucking beneath her breath. “It’s a sad case, Emma,” the old woman said. “I had hoped he would make it.”
Emma hadn’t looked away from him. “I’ll stay here for a bit if you don’t mind,” she said in a quiet voice. “Do what I can for him.”
“Wake him up if possible. I assign the dying to you, simply so they can see what’s worth living for. Remind him of why he wants to be alive.”
She did look up at her then. The nun knew everything she needed to know about Emma’s history, and she didn’t judge her. Mother Mary Clement nodded briskly. “I’ll leave him to you. Call me if you need anything. Otherwise there’s naught we can do. Either he’ll make it through or he won’t.”
And she’d left them there, together in the gathering darkness, the moans of the sick and dying around them, her young soldier still and silent in his narrow bed.
It was around midnight when she crawled onto the cot with him. He’d begun to shiver, and she put her arms around him, cradling him against her breast like the baby she knew she would never have. He clung to her like a drowning man, and she closed her eyes and slept, knowing that when she awoke he’d be dead, but that at least he would die in her arms, loved, when she never thought she would love any man.
And indeed he was gone the next morning. But not to his heavenly reward, Mother Mary Clement informed her. His family had been putting out inquiries, and they’d finally managed to track him down. They’d only just removed him to his family home while she’d slept on, blissfully unaware. She’d been so exhausted she hadn’t even felt him being taken from her arms, and Mother Mary Clement had let her sleep on.
There was always the chance that he was the scion of an industrialist, or perhaps a highborn bastard. Someone not completely beyond her touch, who looked at her and understood what she had been and hadn’t cared.
But no, life couldn’t be that generous. He was Captain Brandon Rohan. Lord Brandon Rohan, no less, brother to a viscount, son to a marquess. Someone so far out of reach that it would have been better for her if he’d died that night. Then, at least, he would have stayed hers.
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