Read A Bouquet of Thorns Online

Authors: Tania Crosse

Tags: #Romance

A Bouquet of Thorns (8 page)

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She went through the other drawers, scattering their contents uncaringly on the floor and then scooping them up and returning them to some sort of order before replacing them. Charles mustn't realize what she had done. She sat back, drained and defeated, in the chair, desperately eyeing the locked drawer. She had discovered no key elsewhere. Charles doubtless kept it on his person. Damn him! There was a paper knife on the fancy pen and ink set on the top of the desk. Her hand trembled as she picked it up. Could she possibly . . . without scratching . . .

‘Rose, they've just turned in at the gate!' Florrie's anxious whisper came around the door.

Rose's heart tripped over itself. She replaced the knife. Everything looked as it had been. She scuttled out of the study, her mouth slackened in defeat. When would she get another chance?

Five

R
aymond Power blinked his eyes and lifted his head slowly from where he had fallen asleep over the table. He hadn't been home to his own bed for two nights. How could he, when Seth Collingwood was not only in agony from his flogging, but was wheezing and coughing with frightening violence? Had the doctor done the right thing? Only time would tell. His conscience wouldn't allow him to leave the prison infirmary until he knew, and so once again he had stayed at his post all through the night. His neck was stiff from lying in such an awkward position and he wasn't quite as young as he used to be. He stretched, wincing softly, but then was racked with guilt at the low moan that came from the end bed, for surely Collingwood was suffering far worse than he was.

He had kept the poor devil floating on morphine since his punishment, stitching the lacerations to his back with the same delicacy he had once used on a young girl who had cut her cheek badly. Then he had bound the fellow's torso to compress the swelling flesh and also reduce the pain from coughing, changing the bandages each day to help prevent infection. The scars would fade to a reasonable extent as the years passed – if he survived – but he would be marked for life.

Dr Power bent over him, taking his pulse, which was near normal now and, he felt sure, a little stronger. He would normally have someone who had been flogged lying on his front, but Collingwood was in more danger from his lungs and so the physician had him propped up on several soft pillows. His face was like putty, and when his wandering eyes half opened, they stared out blankly from ink-smudged sockets.

‘I didn't hurt her . . . I swear.' The words were barely breathed on a sighing whisper, his pale lips not moving so that the sounds were slurred and almost inaudible. But the agitation was clear in his feeble voice, and he whimpered as he drew in a series of tiny, snatched breaths, every one of which caused him pain. He moaned weakly again and his eyelids drooped closed, but Dr Power knew that there was consciousness behind the deathly mask.

He leaned over so that his mouth was against the convict's ear. The medical assistant was dealing with another felon who had lost some fingers at the quarry, and the doctor didn't want anyone else to hear.

‘I know you didn't, lad,' he whispered back. ‘But you must be careful what you say. We mustn't get Mrs Chadwick into any trouble, now, must we?'

To his amazement, Collingwood's eyes flashed wide open for just a moment with a depth of comprehension that took Dr Power by surprise. There was a strength and intelligence in this fellow that shone through his broken body, and yet again the good physician was inclined to believe that there had indeed been some grave miscarriage of justice here. And Rose Chadwick had obviously spent some time with the fellow, and he was sure she wasn't the type easily to be taken in.

‘You need to start taking in some fluids,' he said, his voice at a normal level now. There was a jug of water and two feeding cups on a crude table between Collingwood's bed and the next, and the doctor filled one of them, holding the spout to his patient's lips. He always had deep misgivings about the water that came from the open leat and was doubtless the cause of the frequent bouts of diarrhoea from which all the prisoners suffered. In the infirmary, he instructed his assistants to boil all drinking water, but even so, he wasn't convinced of its safety.

Collingwood had taken several sips, but the effort appeared to have exhausted him and Dr Power allowed him to sink gingerly back against the pillows. It was too soon for another morphine injection, and he had already been on it for a couple of days. Besides, the drug was loosening his tongue and prison walls had ears. The doctor would allow him to lose himself in his rambling mind while the morphine wore off, and once Collingwood was back to normal, he would have a quiet talk with him before putting him on laudanum instead. Another derivative of the same substance, of course, but a milder, more controllable dose, it should still help suppress his cough as well as ease the pain in his back – and make him more mindful of what he was saying. And then, with inhalations, rest and the superior invalid diet, Dr Power was beginning to have more confidence that with any luck the poor sod would recover – and then be sent back to some gruelling prison work. Because of his escape attempt, he would never again be allowed on a work party outside the prison walls, and he would be extremely unlikely to be put to any of the less demanding tasks. And as for the marks he had already earned towards his ticket of leave, well, he could forget those. He was more likely to have extra years added to his sentence. And all for something he likely hadn't done in the first place.

Poor bastard!

She came to him, emerging through the vaporous shroud, gliding without movement, silent. A vivid, translucent smile lit up her face, making it glow like the sun and dissipating the mist so that she was engulfed in a shaft of golden light. The touch of a breeze kissed her cheek, lifted a tendril of her sable locks across her forehead. She drew it back with a fluid wave of her graceful hand, her eyes full of laughter and compassion, deep pools of love he felt he could happily drown in. His heart overflowed with joy and delight, and he would never want for more. He had found what he had been seeking for so long.

Pain ripped through his back, taking his breath away. Stunning him so that at first he didn't know that the agony was his own. He was almost curious. Was this what it felt like? It wasn't so bad. But by the third stroke, the shock was overpowered by the torture and every fibre of his being was alive to the sensation, tearing, burning up his arms to his fingertips.
Jesus Christ, help me to bear this
. His throat contracted, dry and choking. He heard a cry. Was it his own? He didn't recognize it, his lungs raw and stinging.

He looked up at her, pleading. The smile had slid from her beautiful face. Her brow creased with devotion, horrified, intense, distraught. Her eyes glistened a deep lavender blue. He could see the long, dark lashes as she gazed on him. She opened her slender arms, inviting him into her embrace. He fell forward, clinging to her, his head against her rounded breast, so soft, so comforting. Tears fell from beneath his closed eyelids as he felt her hold him close. Everything would be all right now. She soothed him, calmed and comforted him. The pain was easing now, melting away, and he was drifting on a rocking sea, gentle. At peace. And he was content to sink beneath the lulling waves of oblivion.

Florrie Bennett's shrewd eyes silently observed the young girl as she yet again pushed the food around her plate at dinner that evening. The older woman had been back at Fencott Place for a week, and in all that time she was convinced hardly a morsel had passed Rose's lips. Though the colossal bulge of her stomach appeared to be growing before their very eyes, the rest of her had withered to nothing more than skin-covered bone. And what made Florrie heave with anger was that, at the opposite end of the table, Charles Chadwick hardly seemed to notice as he tucked into his own meal with relish. Not that he was a fat or even well-built man, but he clearly appreciated good food. And he was quite active, walking, when the weather permitted, into Princetown to the telegraph office at least every other day, and quite often taking a ride on Tansy to some of the places Rose had shown him, and once over to Cherrybrook to check on his interests there. He was a busy, efficient businessman. Florrie only wished he were as good a husband instead of treating his wife so cruelly.

‘And what have you two ladies been up to today?' he enquired as he speared his fork into the succulent slice of roast beef, doubtless from one of the many black Scottish cattle reared on the moor. He chewed for just a moment on the tender meat before swallowing it, and then washed it down with a sip of full red wine, his casual attitude demonstrating that he didn't really care as long as he would approve of their activities.

Rose slowly looked up, her sunken eyes enormous in her pale, cadaverous face. During the last few days, it had gradually sunk in that not only had Charles betrayed her over his promises regarding Seth, but that Gospel really was gone for good. She fixed her empty stare on her husband, evidently without the will to utter a word.

‘Making a quilt for the babby's cradle,' Florrie answered for her, though in fact, despite Rose's exquisite skills with a needle, it had been Florrie who had been engaged on the fine embroidery while Rose had sat, gazing blindly out of the window, in the direction of the stable yard where Gospel's loose box now stood empty.

‘Ah, good.' Charles nodded his constrained approbation, and Florrie burned with contempt at his desire to make everything appear normal. ‘I'm glad you're making preparations for the arrival of our son. Patsy has scrubbed out the nursery and the remaining furniture is on order and should be arriving soon. By the way,' he added, ‘I've told Cook to start interviewing for a second housemaid, as I believe the child will create extra work, particularly in the laundry department. And as he was leaving the other day, I instructed Dr Seaton . . .' Charles paused for an instant to clear his throat as the calming efficiency turned to a hint of disdain in his voice. ‘I instructed Dr Seaton to be mindful of engaging a wet nurse.'

‘
What?
'

Florrie almost rejoiced as Rose's eyes glinted with resentment, the first sign of life in them for days. ‘I shall be feeding our child myself! And before you say it, I don't care if 'tis not the done thing in your mind! 'Tis not as if I've any high society engagements to attend, nor should I wish to if I had!'

She stood up so abruptly that her chair rocked on its back legs and, flinging her napkin on the table, Rose shambled out of the room with as much dignity as her swollen abdomen allowed, leaving Charles to stare after her open-mouthed.

Florrie slowly heaved herself to her feet. ‘You'm destroying that girl, you know,' she announced, her chin lifted high. ‘And don't you go telling me 'tis not my place. You lost any respect you deserved when you sold that there horse. She'll never forgive you, and nor will I.'

And casting a withering glance at him, she too walked quietly out of the room.

Charles leant back in his chair, his hands pushing against the edge of the table and his cheeks puffed out like ripe peaches. Women! Would he ever understand them? God damn it, he
loved
his wife. With a passion that went beyond his own reason. He
adored
her spirit, but sometimes it just went a little too far. Helping that escaped convict, well, it just wasn't on, even if he himself had been genuinely moved by the devil's plight. What could he have done, anyway? Even for someone like himself, who had money and certain connections in London, it would be impossible and he certainly didn't have the time, what with his business interests and travelling to and from the capital. If only they lived permanently in his London house, none of this would have happened. But Rose
belonged
on Dartmoor. He understood that and he wouldn't have had it any other way, but sometimes she exasperated him.

That was why he had sold the horse. It was wilder than she was. Without it, she would surely calm down just a little. To perfection. He was tempted even now to try and get the beast back. But he must stand firm. If he gave in, he would lose respect. And he
would
buy her another animal to ride – something fast, for only that would suit her, but something more reliable. And he had to admit that he really would feel more at ease and might be able to allow her a little more of the freedom she craved. Besides which, once their son was born, she might be so devoted to him that riding might become something of the past and she would forget all about the horse that had meant so much to her.

As for Florrie Bennett, well, he was quite astounded at the way the formerly meek woman had become so forthright. With Henry Maddiford's death, and with her own grief now under control, she seemed to have taken upon herself the role of Rose's protector – as if Rose needed protecting from
him
! Personally, he'd have liked to see the woman out on her ear for her insubordination, but Rose clearly loved her, and Charles really couldn't be so cruel as to dismiss her. Florrie Bennett he could put up with – and she would be useful when his son was born. But that wretched nag was an entirely different matter!

She was peering into the sepulchral darkness, her eyes dimmed with terror as she stared into the black mouth of hell. Feeling her way as she edged blindly into the deep pit of the damned. Moans, disembodied voices, wailing. Spectres with faces stretched and distorted. She saw him then, in a ghoulish flash of light, his body stretched out on the torture rack. Heard the whine of the lash as it cracked through the air. The unearthly cry from a voice she recognized, and her heart tore. There was blood. Blood everywhere. Running down a hairy, ebony hide. The great animal reared skywards, front hooves pawing frenziedly at the air, eyes rolling and ears laid back at its rider who thwacked his rump viciously with the riding crop.

Rose blinked her petrified eyes, and was overcome with relief as she realized she was sitting bolt upright in bed looking down on Charles as he lay on his back beside her, breathing heavily in an undisturbed sleep. The raging pulse in Rose's skull began to slow, and she fell back on the pillows, snuggling under the blankets, for the cold sweat that slicked her skin was making her shiver.

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