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Authors: Samantha Holt

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“Good... evening...my lord.”

His brow furrowed. Though her hair was elegantly
coiled into some hairstyle that seemed to defy gravity and a touch of rouge
enhanced her cheeks, her skin appeared sallow. The tremor in her voice and the
slight shake of her body made his scowl deepen.

“Is all well?” He held out an arm, half-fearing
she would collapse. Was she wearing her corset too tight? His second wife had
been a delicate sort and prone to swooning after being bound in too much
whalebone.

She nodded and took his proffered arm. If it
hadn’t been for his concern, he might have appreciated—or more likely been
annoyed at—the way his skin pricked as her delicate arm curled around his. As
it was, he felt the slight weight of her lean into him and it convinced him all
was not well at all.

“Miss Thompson? Viola?”

She turned to glance up at him and the pull on
his arm increased. It happened too quickly for him to react properly. In a
crumple of silk and petticoats, she collapsed. He managed to prevent her from
hurting herself with his hold on her arm, but he hadn’t been fully prepared for
the dead weight she would become, and she ended up slumped against the marbled
floor. Half-dragged down by her hold on him, Julian came fully to his knees and
turned her over.

“Miss Thompson?”

Her eyes were open but glassy. When he put a
hand to her forehead, he found her skin to be clammy. Her eyes fluttered closed
and she gave a sigh. The woman was unwell, and he had no idea how sick she
might be. Had she contracted some awful disease on the journey here?

Julian pressed an arm underneath her head and
legs and lifted her into his arms. Now he was ready for it, she seemed to weigh
almost nothing. Viola remained awake but docile, as though something was
addling her mind. She burrowed against his chest, resting just above his heart.
That very same organ pulsed in response—a deep, sharp spasm that said he
enjoyed having a woman in his arms, trusting him.

He took the stairs two at a time and strode
through the central part of the house to the west wing. There he installed her
in the Sunflower room—so called because of its position over the garden and the
sunflowers that grew under the window. Just as he was laying her down on the
bed, Jenny scurried in.

She paused at the sight of her master leaning
over Viola. “James said something about Miss Thompson swooning, my lord.” She
glanced at the bed. “Oh dear.”

The footman was almost right. “Not a swoon as
such, but she has collapsed. She is ill.” He eased to standing and eyed her.
She gave a slight moan and rolled onto her side. He skimmed his gaze over her
body. It was no good, the dress would have to go. Whatever was afflicting her
made her breaths harsh and raspy and no corset or tight gown would help that.

Tentatively, he reached out and touched the
bodice of her gown.

“Oh no, my lord. You must leave that to me.”

Julian snapped his hand away. Had he really just
been scolded by his servant? He glanced at the young girl and saw nothing but
concern there. He narrowed his gaze at her and spotted a tiny patch of red on
each of her cheeks. He had. And she was right of course.

Fighting down the idiotic disappointment, he
swivelled on his heel and went to the door. “I shall send for the doctor.”

“James has gone for him already, I believe, my
lord,” Jenny replied patiently, hands clasped in front of her in a demure pose.

He could tell when he wasn’t needed. “Very well.
Do all you can.”

The maid nodded and he stole one last glance at
the fitful woman. A deep, churning sickness ate into his gut. He couldn’t be
responsible for another woman’s death.
Please God, don’t let her die.

***

Something
warm and fuzzy tickled her face. Viola tried to push it away but it persisted
on tickling her. She dragged open her eyes and was immediately seized by a
sneeze. She rubbed the end of her nose and pushed at the fuzzy thing once more.
It shifted a little, allowing her to move her head from side to side.

“You must be Patches,” she murmured to the cat,
immediately regretting it when her throat felt as though someone had pushed
rose thorns down it.

The tabby ignored her and did a quick rotation
before settling back on her pillow. She peered around and noted she was back in
the Sunflower room. Faint streams of light shimmered in underneath the
curtains. It was daytime then. How long had she slept? And when had she gone to
bed? Viola scowled. She certainly didn’t remember undressing and climbing onto
the soft, worn mattress. Though her aching body very much appreciated the
comfort of the bed at present.

A cold. What wonderful timing. At least her
brothers weren’t here, teasing her for being a weakling. Her head swirled when
she tried to sit and make out the time on the mantel clock. A fire burned in
the hearth, releasing fingers of lovely warmth in her direction but a deep
chill sat inside her. She sneezed again and fumbled for a handkerchief that she
spotted on the table next to the bed.

She swiped her nose with the cotton and noted
the embroidery. J.A.R. What did the A stand for? Augustus perhaps? Alexander?
How strange that she didn’t know that about the man who could soon be her
husband. Viola sighed. She hoped he hadn’t been put off by how unsightly she
must be with a runny nose and likely pasty skin.

The door opened sharply, making her jolt.
Patches took offence at her sudden movement and darted off the bed to scurry
past the intruder. Julian stepped aside and shook his head. “Some doctor you
are,” he said to the tabby.

His gaze landed on her and a half-smile
stretched his lips. “You’re awake.”

“Yes.” She winced at how awful her voice
sounded. “How long have I been asleep?”

“It is early afternoon now. You slept away the
entire night and morning. You must have needed it.”

“I must have done. Forgive me.”

He shook his head and approached slowly as
though moving toward a horse that might startle at any moment. “Nought to
forgive. You are ill.”

“If you send Jenny to me, I am sure I can dress
and join you downstairs.” She pushed herself farther up the bed.

A hand came to her shoulder and she stilled. She
stared at the hand and it withdrew abruptly. From the look on his face, it
seemed he couldn’t quite believe he’d touched her. A slight warm sensation ate
through the chill in her body where he had rested his hand all too briefly.

“Rest.”

She tried to struggle up again but a sneeze had
her fumbling for the handkerchief again. Julian thrust it out for her and she
blew her nose, giving him an apologetic look. “I don’t know what happened.”

“The rain most likely.”

“I was so fatigued after the train journey. When
did I come to bed?”

“Shortly before dinner. You collapsed, Viola.”

Viola. Her name on his lips, so etched with
concern had her heart thumping like gunshots in her chest. He was still Julian
to her but should she be bold enough to say it aloud? The fog in her head
prevented her from making serious decisions, like how soon after meeting was it
acceptable to address a lord by his given name and how did you appear refined
and ready to be a marchioness when your nose was running and your voice sounded
like gravel?

“I’ve never done that before. I fell asleep
shortly before dinner but I don’t remember that at all.”

“You had a long day,” he said simply. Julian
leaned in to peer at her and a crease of concern sat between his brows. “You
feel better though?”

“Yes, though my throat and head are sore.”

She supposed that wasn’t all that better really,
but she didn’t feel on the verge of collapse anymore. The sleepless nights of
travelling and the long boat journey here must have taken their toll. Add to
that being soaked to the skin and bathing in that awful tin tub and she
supposed she could almost be forgiven for swooning.

“Excellent.” He stepped back and his body seemed
to shake loose. “I’ll request that the doctor visit as soon as possible. He
came last night but you were very unresponsive.”

“I am sorry.”

He shook his head. “Don’t be foolish. What have
you to be sorry for?”

Viola thought back to her father’s annoyance when
she was sick as a child or how her brothers would tease her that she was making
it up so she could stay in bed and avoid working on the farm. But Julian didn’t
seem at all annoyed with her, in spite of her missing dinner and being quite
the inconvenience. His mood had certainly improved since the previous day.
Perhaps this was the Julian to whom she’d been writing and he had simply needed
time to emerge.

“I hope I’m not an imposition.”

A moment passed before he shook his head again
and a sinking feeling wiped away the slight warmth that had filled her chest at
the idea of seeing the true Julian. She was an imposition. He just didn’t want
to say as much.

“Once you are better, we’ll discuss your stay in
Warwickshire.”

Her stay in Warwickshire. Not in his house. Did
he still want her out of Lockwood Manor? Was it really so shameful to have her
here? Unfortunately even reading Debrett’s over and over and picking up books
on etiquette couldn’t erase the farm girl or the American in her. She simply
didn’t understand the rules and regulations of English society well enough.

A tiny throb in her chest made her long for the
more relaxed rules of the families she knew in New York. Not that there wasn’t
snobbery. Being new money didn’t ingratiate them to many people but New York
society were steadily having to accept that there were men out there making
their own way in the world and working hard for their money. These men were
leaving their mark and it was either accept them or fall behind.

He rocked back on his heels, looking as though
he couldn’t decide whether to stay or leave her be. “You must be hungry.”

She considered her stomach. “Yes, ravenous
actually.”

His eyes widened a little. If she thought hard,
she recalled one of the books stating ladies did not speak of their bodily
needs. But how did you ever get fed if you didn’t declare your hunger? She
might waste away for the sake of etiquette. Oh, would she ever learn to fit in
with English society?

“I’ll have Mrs Whittleworth arrange for
something to be sent up as soon as possible.”

“Thank you.”

The air grew thick and cloying as silence
lengthened the minutes. The tick of the mantel clock emphasised the
awkwardness. How she wished for the easy tone they had in their letters.

Lord Lockwood cleared his throat. “Well, I am
glad to see you are well. I shall just...” He gave a jerky bow, righted himself
and retreated.

Leaving Viola staring at the door and pondering
him. He really was quite different to how she’d imagined him. Admittedly, her
dreams had been a little foolish, but his letters had been so beautiful and
heartfelt.

A tickle in her nose prevented her from thinking
any further on Lord Lockwood and his puzzling behaviour. A rash of sneezes
seized her, continuing so that when Jenny entered the room, she looked a little
taken aback.

“Oh my, you really do have quite the cold,
miss.”

Viola nodded and blew her nose on the hanky
before one last sneeze attacked her. She sank back against the pillows and
winced as her head pounded in response to the outburst.

“I brought you up some soup.” Jenny placed the
tray down on the table and helped Viola to sit up before laying the tray across
her lap.

The scent of chicken and herbs managed to work
through her stuffy nose and she sighed. “It smells wonderful.”

“Miss B works wonders in the kitchen.” She
waited for Viola to take a sip and nodded approvingly. “I’m glad to see some
colour in your cheeks. Lord Lockwood was terribly worried for you. Thought he
was going to have to bury another woman, I reckon. Though I told him it seemed
to be just a cold.”

“Oh, yes. Did his wife die of illness? I am
sorry I put him through so much worry.” She supposed that might explain a lot
of his rigid attitude. He might have even been reliving his wife’s death. How
awful.

“Well, the first one did. The other two—”

“There were three?” She paused with the spoon
partway to her mouth.

“Oh, yes, I thought you knew what with always
writing to him. All three went to their graves, I’m sorry to say.”

Viola lowered her spoon and sank back against
the pillow a little. “Goodness.”

Jenny strode over the fire and stoked it with
the poker before laying out a blanket at the end of the bed. “Just in case you
need it,” she said. “And do ring the bell if you need anything else.”

She didn’t resume eating until the maid had
left. The temptation to ask her more about Julian’s wives niggled at her but
surely if Julian wanted her to know all the details, he would have told her.
Perhaps the incidents were too painful for him to speak of. She took a sip and
lowered the spoon to stare at the portrait of one of his ancient ancestors that
dominated the opposite wall.

BOOK: Rogues and Ripped Bodices
13.67Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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