This Duchess of Mine Page 70


“You’re determined, aren’t you?” Elijah asked Jemma.

She looked up at him. “It’s your only chance.”

“What if, in years hence, you come to doubt your actions?”

She was so frustrated that she actually reached out and tried to shake him, except that he was so large as to be unshakable. “We’re both in this marriage, Elijah! You and I are both here. I will be with you. You don’t have to make all the decisions yourself. Please!”

“It seems to me that you are making this decision.”

“Rule number three of marriage,” she said, “is never to allow an ocean to come between us again. Death is a great deal wider than the English Channel, Elijah. I am fighting for that. For that rule.”

His face eased. “I know.”

“You may die tonight,” she continued steadily. “But I will be with you. And if you die, I will live knowing that we tried every single remedy we could to steady your heart and to give you more time on this earth.”

They just held each other until Withering came back in the room. And they left with a scrawled sheet of paper and five small vials containing a boiled solution of Dead Men’s Bells.

Chapter Twenty-nine

Jemma moved through the next hours as if she were in a dream. Fowle had a meal waiting, so they ate. She felt curiously observant. The fish tasted of the sea. There were pickled peaches that tickled her tongue with the memory of summer.

Her lips kept parting, as if she had something to say to Elijah, and then closing again, stiffly, the words unsaid.

At last the meal was finished. She heard Elijah telling Fowle, as if from a long way off, that they would retire early. And then he asked for a bath.

Jemma knew what he was doing. Elijah would not want to put his servants to the work of washing his dead body. He would prepare himself.

She walked upstairs and felt their decision burning fiercely in her heart.

“I believe I should drink half a vial,” Elijah said on entering her chamber following his bath. He was wearing a dressing gown, and had brought a small brandy glass with him.

“Didn’t Withering give his last patient a full vial?” They had read the doctor’s scrawled description in the carriage.

Elijah nodded.

“Then why don’t we start with a quarter vial?” Jemma suggested. “If it has no effect, you could take another quarter.”

“That seems reasonable,” Elijah agreed. He poured a quarter of the vial’s contents into the glass. The concoction looked cloudy, and seemed innocuous. Jemma found herself wishing desperately that there were more ingredients—perhaps a magic feather, or a touch of dew. It seemed preposterous to entrust one’s continued existence to a single flower.

Elijah set the glass carefully on the mantelpiece and then pulled her into his arms. “I am fortunate to have loved you.”

“We are fortunate. I am just so sorry that I—”

His hand gently covered her mouth. “We have already made our apologies for the time we lost.” Then he cupped her face, his strong fingers gentle on her cheeks, and looked into her eyes before bending his head. They spoke to each other in that last kiss. Jemma tried to give him a lifetime’s worth of love and devotion. She felt the same fierce love burning in his tender touch.

Too soon, he pulled back. “You may feel nauseated, but you will not die,” she told him.

“Because you won’t allow it?”

“I am a duchess,” she said, not even smiling.

He kissed her again, fleetingly but so sweetly that her heart would have broken except that it had turned to something strong and like stone. Wordlessly, he emptied the glass.

They sat down together to wait. Jemma kept a hand on his chest. Two or three times she began to hope, and then would feel a double beat or a missed stroke.

“I think I should take another quarter vial,” Elijah said ten minutes later. “Withering’s patient, the one who took a full vial, is described as a plump man. Unless he was very tall, I am quite likely to weigh more than he does.”

“But you are not plump,” Jemma protested.

“Muscle is heavier than fat,” Elijah said. “I’ve observed it among pugilists. A fat man weighs less than a muscular man of the same size.”

He poured another quarter vial into the brandy glass and drank it before she could protest again.

Almost immediately he said, “I am faintly queasy.”

“Nausea is good,” Jemma said quickly. “It shows the medicine is working. Do you see any circles around this candle?” She ran to the mantel and snatched one up.

“Who can tell?” Elijah asked. “A candle has a natural aura.”

“Well, look at my head then,” Jemma said. “No, look at me! Do you see light around my head?”

“Are you trying to find out if you have angelic status?” he inquired, his mouth quirking up in a smile. He squinted at her. “Yes! I see feathery wings as well!”

“How can you make fun at a time like this!”

“If you can’t laugh in the face of death, when can you laugh?” Then he added, casually, “My heart feels quite steady.”

She couldn’t speak, just put her head against the chest that housed that wonderful, regularly beating heart. A second passed, and another, and another. It continued to beat steadily.

“It’s not skipping,” she said, awestruck.

“The foxglove has forced it into a normal rhythm,” he said. “Just like making love to you. Medicine in a bottle instead of a bed.”

Jemma chewed her lip. “How will we know when you should drink more? We forgot to ask.”

He stood up and stretched. “There’s only one way to test it.”

“How?”

He grinned, the wicked lively grin of a man without fear. “I have to exhaust myself. Drive my heartbeat up.”

Jemma backed away, shaking her head. “No, Elijah, I don’t think that—” But he seized her. She managed to say, “Only if you allow me to feel your heart whenever I want.”

“I’m going to tire myself out making love to you. And then I shall drink a glass of cognac and lie flat on the floor.”

“That’s too risky.”

But he had her on the bed, her own great warm beast of a man, pushing her flat, kissing her. “I’m fine. Feel.” And he pressed her hand to his chest.

There, under her hand, was the most wonderful miracle of all: Elijah’s heart was beating strongly, steadily, as if it had never missed a beat in its life, and they hadn’t even begun to make love.

Tears came to her eyes. “Oh, Elijah…”

But the tears couldn’t fall because his hands—his lips—he was everywhere. He had no shame.

At some point in the evening, after the household was in bed, they wandered down to the library. Jemma’s hair was down her back and she was wearing only her nightdress, with a blanket wrapped around her shoulders.

Elijah poured himself a great glass of cognac. And then he poured one for her, since he didn’t feel like drinking alone.

The warmth of the cognac seeped to her toes, but she kept walking around the room, unable to settle down. “We have to send a note to your mother first thing in the morning,” she said, chattering. “And Villiers, of course.”

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