This Duchess of Mine Page 56

“I suggest you investigate sending such petty criminals to Australia,” Elijah said. “It’s a large country, and far away.” Cheever-Chittlesford didn’t look convinced, so he added, “In years to come, it may be a thriving colony, capable of being taxed.”

That made Cheever-Chittlesford look even more thoughtful.

Suddenly Elijah wanted nothing more than for these men to be out of the house, with their ability to discuss burning men alive, as if such a thing could ever be a reasonable proposition. As his rage receded, exhaustion followed in its wake.

He bowed. “I’m afraid you must forgive me, gentlemen. I have a previous engagement.”

“Of course,” Cheever-Chittlesford murmured.

Finally, they left the library and were in the entry. Elijah heard Stibblestich’s voice, sharp and scornful. “Of course Bawdy Beaumont has an appointment. I hear he’s caught the whore’s disease. And you know where he caught that. Like father, like son. I always said it.” His voice faded as he and Cheever-Chittlesford walked out the front door.

Elijah didn’t even care.

There was a sound in his head, like that of a stream rushing downhill. He was so tired that his legs felt like bars of lead. He had to go back to bed.

But the distance between himself and the bedchamber upstairs seemed insurmountable.

Jemma could not see him like this. He forced himself to move, feeling his heart thump angrily in response. The only thing his body wanted was to lie down, to slip into the blackness that waited at the edges of his vision.

He walked up the stairs steadily, by an enormous effort of will. At his door, he slipped through and closed it behind him, leaned back, head against the wood. Something was wrong with his vision, though, and the walls seemed to undulate.

The thought crossed his mind that he might not wake up this time. He had felt this terrible only once, after fainting in the House of Lords a year ago. A wash of regret went through his mind, but he pushed himself upright. He had had one wonderful night with Jemma.

He put a foot forward, and then another. It wasn’t so far to the bed. The walls were turning gray and foggy, as if the solid wood were dissolving. He could feel his heart stuttering, dropping a beat, another beat.

He pushed himself forward. If he were going to die now, it would be decently in his bed. He could have been climbing a mountain, given the effort it took him, but he finally was at the side of his bed. He put his hands out and allowed himself to fall forward.

Then he thought about turning over for what seemed like a long time before he managed to do it.

It was only when he was lying there fully clothed, and the familiar darkness was gathering and billowing around him, that Elijah thought of his father. He had spent the greater part of his life hating his father for dying in the manner he did, for living his life in such a wayward fashion. The facts of his father’s death had shaped his life.

Yet if his father had not been immoral in such a flagrant fashion, would he himself have become a person whom statesmen visited for advice when they were considering a leap into cruelty?

He would have been merely another duke, trundling from his country estate to his town house, marrying the woman designated to be his duchess, going from cradle to grave without considering the impact of his own words, of his own life.

With that thought came a feeling of peace. Because his father had died young, Elijah had always felt time at his shoulder. And that drove him to work hard. It allowed him to sometimes intervene before a great injustice was served on the weak and needy.

It even drove him to bring Jemma back from Paris, to give them the indescribable joy they had shared the night before. His father had never found the love that he and Jemma shared.

The late duke had lived in a house full of portraits of beheaded men. Whereas he had lived, if only for a year, in a house graced by Jemma.

He slipped into the darkness, smiling.

Chapter Twenty-two

Elijah was rather surprised to wake up, but not surprised to find Jemma standing at his bedside, her eyes huge in her stricken face.

She said his name on a sob.

“It’s all right,” he said, the words coming with difficulty. “I’m back.”

“I thought the attacks came–I was a fool,” she said, clutching his hand. “I put it out of my mind. Was it because we—”

“No!” he said quickly. “Stibblestich visited this morning.”

She swallowed, and he could see her make a visible effort not to renew her plea that he leave the Parliament. “Give me some time,” he murmured. “I’ll have that potion Vickery doubtless has ready-made, and take a short nap.”

Jemma’s lips were trembling, but she set her mouth and put down his hand. An hour or so later he was up, his headache gone, just the ache of regret in his chest.

He found Jemma in the library, staring at an empty chess board. He didn’t think she was playing a game in her head. He dropped a kiss on her hair. “Would you like to take a walk with me?”

She looked up. Her eyes were glazed with tears. “I’m so sorry,” he said helplessly.

“I’d like a walk, but not here. I don’t want to see Lady Lister next door, or anyone I know.”

“How about the gardens of the Roman bath?” he suggested. “We said we would go back, someday.”

The truth of that stood between them silently. If they didn’t go now, they might never go.

Servants have a way of knowing when it’s the right time to be invisible. Without meeting anyone’s eyes—not Fowle’s, not a footman’s—they were in the carriage. Jemma huddled under his arm like a wounded bird. And then they were at the baths.

It was raining: not hard, just enough to make spring look even greener. Every leaf appeared new, as if its paint was not yet dry, the color still vivid and glossy. Even the light looked green.

The little monk let them in, incurious as ever. He wore his hood over his face so all that could be seen was his nose. The nose nodded when Elijah said they would walk in the gardens, and the man hurried away, disappearing between the broken pillars.

“Who is he?” Elijah asked, breaking the silence. “Do you have any idea why he tends the baths?”

“There are five of them,” Jemma said. Her voice was too controlled. She needed to cry, he guessed. “Caring for the baths is all they do.”

“They certainly don’t bother with the grounds.” The gardens were as dilapidated as the baths themselves. They wandered down a path lined with overgrown shrubs. Flowering vines hung like horse blankets over the low walls, dragging down stones and tumbling them to the pavement.

The tree trunks were shiny black with rain, their leaves reflected in puddles at their feet.

“I believe they spend their time in prayer,” she said, when so much time had passed that he had forgotten the question.

“Prayer to Apollo?”

“The God of Healing.” Her hand curled suddenly around his. “Oh, Elijah, would it be madness to ask them to pray for you?” She started to turn about.

He dropped a kiss on her nose. “Yes, it would. I don’t think people ask Apollo to grant favors. He gave humans the art of medicine, but he didn’t promise to cure Lord Piddleton’s gout.”

“You’re not suffering from a mild case of gout,” she said tensely.

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