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Utter ruin provokes soul-searching in even the least reflective of men.
Dante Duclairc was contemplating that unwelcome discovery when he heard the horse outside. He opened the cottage door to find one very annoyed physician standing in the moonlight at the threshold.
Morgan Wheeler peered severely over the top edge of his spectacles. "This had better be very serious, Duclairc. Your brother's land steward pulled me out of bed."
"It is very serious, and I am sorry that your sleep was interrupted."
"No one said you had come down to Laclere Park. Why haven't you called on me?"
"Only the steward knows I am here, so you must swear to keep this visit a secret. I should have sent for a surgeon, but you are the only medical man in the region I could trust to be discreet."
Morgan sighed heavily and stepped into the humble abode. "Why did you send for me?"
"There is a woman upstairs who needs your attention."
Morgan set down his bag and removed his frock coat. "She is alone here?"
"Except for me."
"Why does this woman require me?"
"The lady has been shot."
Morgan had been rolling up a sleeve. He stopped, arm outstretched and fingers engaged. "You have a lady visitor who has been shot?"
"Where was she shot? Excuse me, grazed?"
"In this cottage. Accidentally. We were playing a little game and--"
"I meant, where is the wound?"
"In the rear nether region of her trunk."
"Excuse me? Are you saying that you shot your lover in the buttock?"
"Yes. Come upstairs and--"
"One moment, my good friend. My dull life has feasted off the excitement of yours for years, but this is too much. You have secretly brought a woman, a lady, to a rustic cottage on your brother the viscount's estate, where you engaged in some orgiastic rite that resulted in her being shot in the buttock. Do I have the essential facts correct?"
"Her arm is hurt and she hit her head too."
"Not like you, Duclairc, getting rough like that. You surprise and disappoint me."
"I assure you that this was an accident. A little game gone awry."
"How? What? My imagination fails me. I try to picture it but . . . If I am going to debase myself by doing a surgeon's work, the price of my skill and silence is an explanation."
"As it happens, that is precisely what I can afford. Please come up now. The steward had some laudanum and we dosed her up so she is still out, and it would be best if you did this quickly."
"Details, Duclairc. I shall expect details."
As Dante led Wheeler up the stairs, he considered that details were exactly what his friend would never get. No one would. The woman awaiting Wheeler's attention had come to this cottage through bizarre circumstances. Dante knew in his gut that speaking of them to anyone would only cause him untimely trouble.
What had she been doing out there, dressed like a man and brandishing a pistol, on a night when the countryside was alive with a mob burning farming machines and a posse on the chase? Dante had taken his own gun to the highest hill of Laclere Park, in a nostalgic effort to protect the estate on his last night in England. When he had been surprised by a trespasser he had returned fire, only to discover to his horror that he had not shot a radical but a woman.
As it happened, not just any woman.
Dante paused outside the bedchamber. "If you ever reveal what has occurred here, or that she was with me, she will be ruined."
"Discretion is a physician's second name. I never failed you in the past, did I?"
Wheeler became all business as soon as they passed into the chamber. He walked to the bed, took the patient's pulse, and felt her cheek. Ever so gently, he turned her head toward him.
"Oh, my God."
"Now you know why discretion is essential."
"It is Fleur Monley, Duclairc. Fleur Monley."
"So it is."
Wheeler collected his wits. Shaking his head, he proceeded to examine his patient. "Fleur Monley. Even I, who have seen women of highest repute faint at your smile, am thoroughly impressed. No one ever got Miss Monley to the altar let alone into bed, let alone playing games that get women shot in the buttocks. The closest was when your brother Laclere almost got engaged to her. . . ." The implications of that had Wheeler wide-eyed again. "He will probably kill you if he finds out."
"Another reason for discretion."
"Of course, of course. I promised silence and am bound by it, but it will be hell to honor my word. I will burst." He stripped away the bedclothes to reveal Fleur demurely dressed in one of Dante's nightshirts. "Charming, Duclairc, but why did you bother? She is drugged, I am a physician, and you are her lover."
He had bothered because he could hardly present her in those farm-boy rags, and because it did not seem dignified to leave her naked despite her unconsciousness and the ribald story he was feeding Wheeler. No matter what a man's reasons for stripping off her clothes, even a scoundrel did not leave the Fleur Monleys of the world naked for someone to see.
Morgan touched her bare leg. "She is damp. Did you bathe her?"
"She felt warm, and I thought that I should." It was one more bold-faced lie. Upon removing the rags he had discovered a very dirty body and had washed off the worst of it.
"Of course. Next time, do not give laudanum if the patient has a head wound."
"It wasn't much, and we dosed her some time ago when she began to moan as she came to. I am concerned that it may wear off, so you should get busy."
Morgan was not to be rushed. He touched all around her scalp. "It does not seem too serious. Fell, did she? Went out? She will have a bad lump. She will have to rest quietly for a few days."
"Surely she can be moved."
"Best not. You will have to make some excuse if anyone is expecting her return. She should stay here at least two or three days, in bed. Resting. It will give this arm time to repair too. Bad sprain. I can only guess how that happened. Some exotic position for coitus that country boys like me never get to learn, no doubt. Hindu?"
Wheeler's grin invited explication. Dante ignored him. Fleur Monley was going to create problems. He could not keep her here for several days, because he had no intention of being here himself. In approximately ten hours he planned to meet a fishing boat on the coast that would spirit him over to France.
"Help me to turn her so I can see about this gunshot. Gently now."
Together they turned Fleur on her stomach. Morgan pulled up the nightshirt. Dante turned to leave.
"No you don't. She was only nicked but you were right, it needs to be sewn. Get over here and hold her. The laudanum made her sleep but she is not unconscious. If she wakens while I am at it, I want someone backing me up."
Dante truly did not want to stay. In his thirty-two years he had seen more women nude than he could count. He had long ago learned to release or suppress his sexual reactions at will, much like a canal lock controls water. Still, seeing Fleur like this was making him uncomfortable.
She was injured and needed care and he lied about being lovers only to protect her from the posse out there looking for blood. Having her in this bed, naked from the waist down and her face pressed in his pillow, appeared a desecration of sorts. All the same, he was annoyingly aware that stripping her and washing her and seeing her body had raised the lock's water level more than he would like.
That surprised him, because he had grown fairly jaded about such things. Furthermore, her reputation and condition made sexual reactions either ridiculous or despicable.
Then again, her very presence here indicated that the world may have gotten that business about her unblemished virtue very wrong. The woman Fleur Monley was supposed to be would never run through the countryside in boy's clothes on a night when the radical rabble were out committing crimes.
What the hell had she been doing out there? For that matter, where the hell had she come from? The last he heard, she was visiting France.
He sat beside her on the bed and carefully placed his palms on her back. Behind him Morgan prepared the needle, sloshed something over Fleur's bottom, and went to work.
She gritted her teeth and held in the tears. She wanted to scream. If she did, however, these men would know that she was awake. That would be too humiliating to bear, and possibly very dangerous.
Where was she? The bed seemed clean but she could smell earth and damp and she doubted that she had made it to Laclere Park. That man who shot her must have given her up. She was probably in a farmer's cottage, being tended before they carted her off to gaol.
Better that than Gregory, she supposed. Unless he learned about it and bribed them to get her back. In that case she would be right where she started.
The man holding her had not spoken much. She wished that he faced away. She would not have to swallow the pain so much if he were not looking at her. He was definitely doing that. She could feel his attention on her, despite his brief responses to the other's comments about horses and boxers.
A hand moved from her back to her head. She barely caught the cry of surprise that jumped to her throat. Fingertips gently brushed her hair back from the pillow and lightly stroked her head. She held her breath, cheek crushed against the down, and prayed that he had not seen her jaw clench or heard her shocked intake of breath.
That caressing hand should repel her. It implied dangerous interest and she was horribly defenseless. Instead, she found the light touch comforting and sympathetic and not at all insinuating. Who was this man who bothered to reassure an unconscious woman?
"I don't remember her being so thin," the voice near her rump mused. A painful skewer by the needle accompanied the comment. She tasted blood as she bit down. "I can see her ribs plainly. Normally people gain weight on the Continent, not lose it. I have to say that even so she has a nice, um, how did you so elegantly put it, rear nether region."
He spoke as if he knew her! If so, the night's risks had probably achieved nothing but more danger.
"Just sew," the man beside her muttered. "Aren't leeches supposed to be above noticing such things? Rather like artists?"
"I am a physician, a man of culture and learning, not a leech. If you think artists grow immune either, you are doubly a fool. All the same, I accept your correction. Although, coming from you . . ."
"I do not like my lady friends discussed by other men, that is all."
Her ears were half-smothered in the pillow, but that voice sounded familiar. Why would he be claiming she was his lady friend? A dreadful possibility opened. Could this be the man she had heard speaking with Gregory last night?
"Considering how quickly you tire of your mistresses, I have always thought your reticence in talking about them a little priggish and ungenerous," the physician said. "Although it has never been the ladies who interested me but the strategies for winning and loving them. You could save yourself a lot of curious questions by writing a treatise as I suggested years ago."
"Maybe I will do that. I will have plenty of time in France, and it may pay my keep for a few years."
The rhythm of the needle stopped. "France? My good man, you are not! Has it come to that?"
"Very bad. They are on my trail."
"Surely your brother--"
"I have been to that well far too often, and I will not go again. Once settled in France I will write and explain to him."
"Now I am distraught. You have ruined my humor completely."
"Well, finish up here, come downstairs, and I will tell you all, but it is such an old and tired story that I am sure you have heard it often before."
Efficient hands bound a bandage to her hip. More gentle ones slid the nightshirt down and carefully tucked bedclothes up around her shoulders.
They left. She exhaled the strain of keeping her composure and stillness. Her rump hurt badly now, even worse than when she had first woken in shock to that sewing needle. Still, the pain both existed and didn't, like something floating in part of her mind while the other parts daydreamed and slept. She did not know how long she drifted around the edges of consciousness.
She wondered if only the physician had recognized her or whether the other man had as well. He spoke in the cultured manner that said he moved in the sort of circles where she could have met him at some point over the years.
She clung to the hope that he was not anyone who had anything to do with Gregory, and certainly not the man who had spent last night bargaining for her like she was some four-hoofed animal.
A door below closed on mumbled farewells. Boot steps sounded on the stairs. Someone entered the chamber. She closed her eyes but she felt the warmth of the candle near her face.
"He is gone. Let us see if we can make you more comfortable now, Miss Monley."
She heard his voice plainly this time. Jolting up on her good arm, she twisted in shock.
And looked right into the resplendent brown eyes of the most charming wastrel in England.
The women of English society could bicker and argue with the best of them, but on one point they had always been in total agreement.
Dante Duclairc was a beautiful man.
That was the word they used. Beautiful. His luminous eyes, thick, lustrous brown hair, perfect face, and devilish smile had mesmerized any female he chose to conquer since he turned seventeen. Fleur knew three ladies who had committed adultery only once in their lives. With him.
The years had added some hardness to his countenance, but they had not dulled the heart-skipping effect that his attention provoked.
Even in her, and he wasn't even trying.