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Authors: With Eyes of Love

Corey McFadden (25 page)

BOOK: Corey McFadden
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He glanced around the room again. He dismissed the draperies out of hand. He would not stand hiding behind dusty, fusty curtains for who knew how many hours, like a cat watching a mouse. The ornate privacy screen, then. He eyed it. Yes, it was large enough to hide him comfortably. He might even find a footstool to place behind it and sit on while he waited. He moved, still softly, toward the screen, aware that his heavier tread might be noted if anyone were in the room below, the library, he thought. He stepped behind the screen and froze.

There was a large hipbath, full of water and soap bubbles. The water still steamed slightly, although it was obviously no longer piping hot. And in the tub, lying back, freshly washed hair falling back onto a towel behind her head, lay his love, eyes closed, fast asleep.

* * * *

There was a part of her, distant and annoying, that told Elspeth she was only dreaming. She ignored it. The part of her that was content and comfortable knew very well that waking up had nothing to recommend it. In the dream, she was home with her brother and sisters and everyone loved her and no one sneered at her and she was warm and cozy and....

It was no use. With a shiver she realized that she was not home, not loved and definitely not warm. In a bath, she was, and the water was cooling rapidly. Now where exactly was she? Oh, yes, at Aunt Bettina’s in cursed, awful Bath. A bath in Bath. Well, nothing for it but to get out and dry off. She opened her eyes....

She gave a start, splashing water out of the tub. Heaven only knew her vision was limited without her glasses, but even through the blur she could see there was someone standing there. The figure appeared in silhouette, the window behind. Elspeth had never been one to castigate servants, but, really, sneaking up on a lady naked and sleeping in her bath was enough to frighten the wits out of anyone.

“Bessie, you gave me quite a start,” she said. “Can you hand me my dressing gown? I’m ready to get out.”

There was a pause. And then a voice spoke.

“Elspeth, please forgive me. Please don’t scream. I had to see you. Actually, I’m not seeing you at this moment. I’m not looking.” He spoke rapidly, obviously noting that she had nearly jumped out of her skin at the sound of his voice.

It was he. Proving once and for all that he was not just a mere rake, but a Peeping Tom and possibly a despoiler, to boot.

Ruined. Utterly and completely lost. She might as well parade naked through the Assembly Rooms this evening soliciting a lover. She opened her mouth to speak and nothing came out—not a syllable. For the life of her she could not recall what a lady’s proper response should be under these circumstances. Let’s see—having a bath in the presence of a toff betrothed to one’s cousin…no...no...nothing came to mind. Well, there it was—she was bereft of words for the occasion, a shocking
faux pas
in itself, no doubt. On the other hand, she was noticing that what she could see through her normally blurry vision had suddenly gone into black and white, colors oddly reversed from what they normally were, and things seemed so very quiet and faraway...and.…

* * * *

Oh, please God, don’t
faint!
Julian thought as Elspeth’s eyes closed and she began slipping ever so slowly sideways into the water. He floundered forward, knocking into the bath and slopping water onto the floor. Plunging his hands into the tepid water, he grabbed her slippery shoulders and pulled her up. She was light, but the angle was merciless. His booted foot slipped in the sudsy water on the floor and he pitched forward, landing with a splash, shoulder and chest submerged. How could this get any worse? He held a very naked, limp Elspeth up by the shoulders with one hand, and with the other pushed himself up from the bottom of the tub. His body caught on the edge and made it tip dangerously, so he pushed against it with his feet, scrambling for purchase. At last he steadied the tub, took a deep breath, and for one brief moment seemed to have everything under control. Such as it was, of course.

Inches from his own eyes, Elspeth’s beautiful eyes opened slowly. He watched as comprehension dawned in their swimming emerald depths. Confusion changed to horror and she opened her mouth. The scream that began as a squeak ended abruptly as he closed his hand over her mouth. Soft wonderful lips that he had longed for days to taste again.

“Elspeth, please, I beg of you! Don’t scream.
I mean you no harm.”

She bit him. Hard. Gritting his teeth against the pain, he heaved himself away, kneeling against the tub, careful to keep his hand over her mouth so that she wouldn’t carry through on her obvious intention to scream. “Elspeth, I’m not trying to hurt you. You fainted and I had to pull you up or you’d drown.” She released his hand but glared her fury at him. This was not going well.

“I’m leaving, I swear it, but please don’t scream when I move my hand,” he said, low in her ear. “It will cause more harm than good. You know that.” She smelled of fresh-washed wet hair, light and lilac. He was aware of the softness of her beneath his hands. He waited. At last she nodded, slowly, but the rage in her eyes had not diminished a whit. He moved his hand away from her mouth, slowly, ready to clamp down again if necessary. It was unforgivable, and he knew it, but he also knew he was right to keep her from screaming. He could leave the same way he’d come, with no one the wiser and, but for the fact that Elspeth would never speak to him again and he’d probably be married to Caroline for all his days, everything would be fine.

She stayed silent, still staring mutinously into his face. Oh, God, how he wanted to lean forward and kiss her! He turned his head away. No good could come of that line of thinking.

“I…I did not know you were in the bath, Elspeth. I only wanted to talk to you,” he began. It was lame, and he knew it. He could not, for the life of him, remember what it was he had planned to say to her. In the original scheme, he had come upon her sweetly sewing some bit of lacy stuff in a nice wing chair by a small fire. She had listened, raptly, avidly, to his eloquent explanation, and fallen, weeping tears of joy, into his waiting arms. So far, nothing had gone according to plan.

I have…I have seen nothing improper, Elspeth, I promise you. The water kept you covered completely. I’ll leave immediately, and no one will ever know...” he faltered. The ice in her eyes was not melting a bit. “I came to tell you,” he made himself go on, “that I did not lay an improper hand on Caroline, that it’s you I love...” he trailed off. It was hopeless. Here he was, draped and dripping over a naked lady he’d accosted in her bath, trying to explain the unexplainable. Her look of furious incredulity told him to stop.

He
stood, slowly, and stared down at the face of his ladylove. She was ice. She was fire. She was not, and now never would be, his.

He looked up at the window. It was closed, but it should open. With more luck than he deserved, he could scale down the wall the way he had come up. He stepped toward the window, then froze. Behind him he heard, unmistakably, the sound of the door to Elspeth’s bedroom opening, then shutting softly. No doubt Bessie had come to check on whether it was time to remove the bath. Their eyes met. He had thought Elspeth’s rage unbearable, but her horror was so much worse. So far, he was hidden behind the screen, but as soon as the maid stepped around it....

“Elspeth, are you here? Bessie said you were having your bath,” came Harry’s loud and sibilant whisper. Children, Julian thought, could make more noise with a whisper than most adults could with a shout.

“I…I’m still in the tub, Harry,” said Elspeth, haltingly. “Why don’t you come back in a…a half an hour?” She looked desperate.

“Can’t. I’m punished for thrashing that pig Roderick. I had to sneak out of the scullery as it is. I need to talk to you now!”

“Well,” she began, then looked shrewdly at Julian. “As long as you’re here, why don’t you hand me my dressing gown? It’s hanging on the fire screen. Just close your eyes and hand it in behind the screen.”

Julian held his breath while he heard fumbling from the other side of the screen. Then a small hand appeared, holding her white lawn dressing gown. Not taking her glare off of Julian, Elspeth reached up and seized the robe.

“Thank you, dear. I’ll be out in a minute,” she said, far more lightly than her look. She held up her other hand and gestured imperiously for Julian to turn around. He did so, as quietly as he could. Behind him, he heard splashing and rustling, a towel being rubbed over soft, beautiful skin. It was hard keeping his mind off of what was going on back there. Paintings by the very sensual Botticelli came to mind....

He felt a light tap on his shoulder, and he turned around, half expecting a hard slap across the face. She stood before him, robed from neck to toe, a large fluffy towel wrapped around her hair, and a more beautiful, desirable sight he had never seen. The light from the window fell on her face. If only that were love instead of blazing fury he saw in her green eyes. She placed her finger over her lips in an exaggerated gesture for silence, a deadly warning in her gaze. He nodded his understanding. Throwing him a look of pure venom, she stepped from behind the screen and out of his sight. He could feel his shoulders sag, and he let out his breath.

* * * *

“Owl Eyes! You won’t believe what I just found out!” came the expostulation from Harry, who stood looking his usual disreputable self in the center of the room.

“Hush, dear, not too loudly,” Elspeth answered quickly. It was bad enough that the cad had seen her in the bath, and was still hiding behind the screen, holding her reputation in the palm of his perfidious hand. He need not hear any of her private business, even if it were prattle from a nine-year-old boy.

“Oh, you’ll want everyone to hear this, Owl Eyes,” boasted the boy, not lowering his voice a bit. “Servants and all!”

“Let me be the judge of that, please, Harry,” she said, trying to sound stern and cool. Her heart pounded furiously in her chest as she made her way over to one of the two small chairs placed near the fireplace. “Come and tell me, dear,” she said, seating herself and gesturing him over. It occurred to her that she could ask Harry to tell Bessie to leave her be for a time—to leave the bathwater for later—that she had the headache and was lying down. She was desperate to buy time until she could solve this monumental problem. Absently, she removed the towel from around her head and began to squeeze the water from her long tresses.

“Well, I was just in the drawing room, you see...” Harry began. Children had little enough ability to modulate their piercing tones, but Elspeth put her finger to her lips quickly nevertheless. “And, well, you see, I had to hide, because I was...well, I was running from Bessie because I, well, I sort of hit Roderick and he fussed the place down, and these people came in, and you’ll never guess what I heard...” he had lowered his voice to something that passed for a whisper.

“Harry, you know I cannot be a party to your eavesdropping,” Elspeth interrupted, almost by rote. It was so hard, being surrogate mother to this wonderful, maddening boy. And it was, if she were blunt with herself, impossible to care a whit for these banal social niceties, such as a distaste for eavesdropping, particularly if one were undressed and had a man hidden in one’s boudoir.

“Oh, bother that, Elspeth! Just listen! There was a man there and Caroline, and they had a fight about her marrying Mr. Thorpe. Then Caroline left and I tried to sneak out, but then a lady came, and I had to hide again, really fast…a real lady she was, Viscountess Something-or-Other, I forget—and the man said, well, he said Julian did not com...compromise Caroline. Caroline made it look that way, and they tricked Mr. Thorpe into coming into the maze, and this Mr. Randall was a part of it, and he brought you into the maze on purpose to see it! And he said Mr. Thorpe loves you, not Caroline!” He broke off his nonstop recital suddenly. “What does ‘compromise’ mean, anyway, Owl Eyes?” he asked, as if realizing that he had no idea what he was talking about.

Harry held his silence expectantly, obviously proudly waiting for her to hug him and tell him what a wonderful boy he was, “What’s the matter, Owl Eyes?” he finally asked, sounding less certain of himself. “Does compromise mean something awful? I thought you’d be happy about what I told you.”

Elspeth only heard him from a distance. It seemed impossible for her to open her mouth and speak. She was aware that the child stood looking at her, concerned now, and confused.

“Elspeth, are you all right?” he said in a very small, frightened voice.

“Yes. Yes, darling, I’m just fine,” she made herself say. Her head was buzzing and she felt as though she really might faint, twice in a quarter of an hour at that. As dreadful as this situation was, if she could just go away knowing that Julian had loved her after all—well, she could live with that secret joy for the rest of her lonely life. She took Harry’s hand gently. “I just need a little time to myself now.” She couldn’t help glancing at the screen, then looked hurriedly back at Harry’s anxious little face. “Darling, thank you for telling me this. It makes me feel much better, it really does. But I want you to go and tell Bessie that I’m lying down now with the headache and don’t wish to be disturbed about the bath just yet....”

Too late.

A light rap on the door and then the sound of the handle turning froze Elspeth’s heart. “Miss Elspeth?” said Bessie, stepping through the door with a bob. “Is Master ’Arry in ’ere?”

Elspeth, still holding Harry’s hands, gave them a squeeze. She smiled at him. “Go with Bessie, just for now, Harry. I’ll come and rescue you shortly, I promise.” She turned to Bessie. “Here he is, but don’t be too hard on him, Bessie. I suspect strongly that there are two sides to the story.”

“Oh, indeed, miss,” said Bessie, holding out her hand to the reluctant Harry. “Now, we’ll see to removing your bath, miss.”

“Oh, no, not yet!” Elspeth said hurriedly, standing. “I have the headache...I want to lie down.”

“We’ll just be a moment, Miss Elspeth,” said Bessie, who turned and gestured to someone outside the bedroom door. “Miss Caroline is back from shopping with her mother and she wants her bath now.”

BOOK: Corey McFadden
4.32Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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