“…the box contains twelve blades attached to a spring-driven rotary. One push of the triggering mechanism, and the blades inflict a series of shallow cuts that induce the blood to flow.”
She glanced at Sebastian. Whatever she saw in his face caused her to walk around the bed to him. “Yes,” she said with a concerned frown. “Dearest, this is going to help you—”
“No.” It would kill him. It was difficult enough already to fight the fever and the pain. If he was further weakened by a long bloodletting he wouldn’t be able to hold on any longer. Frantically Sebastian tugged at his tautly stretched arm, but the binding held fast and the chair didn’t even wobble. Bloody hell. He stared up at his wife wretchedly, battling a wave of light-headedness. “No,” he rasped. “Don’t…let him…”
“Darling,” Evie whispered, bending over to kiss his shaking mouth. Her eyes were suddenly shiny with unshed tears. “This may be your best chance—your only chance—”
“I’ll die. Evie…” Rising fear caused blackness to streak across his vision, but he forced his eyes to stay open. Her face became a blur. “I’ll die,” he whispered again.
“Lady St. Vincent,” came Dr. Hammond’s steady, kind voice, “your husband’s anxiety is quite understandable. However, his judgment is impaired by illness. At this time, you are the one who is best able to make decisions for his benefit. I would not recommend this procedure if I did not believe in its efficacy. You must allow me to proceed. I doubt Lord St. Vincent will even remember this conversation.”
Sebastian closed his eyes and let out a groan of despair. If only Hammond were some obvious lunatic with a maniacal laugh…someone Evie would instinctively mistrust. But Hammond was a respectable man, with all the conviction of someone who believed he was doing the right thing. The executioner, it seemed, could come in many guises.
Evie was his only hope, his only champion. Sebastian would never have believed it would come to this…his life depending on the decision of an unworldly young woman who would probably allow herself to be persuaded by the Hammond’s authority. There was no one else for Sebastian to appeal to.
He felt her gentle fingers at the side of his fevered face, and he stared up at her pleadingly, unable to form a word. Oh God, Evie, don’t let him—
“All right,” Evie said softly, staring at him. Sebastian’s heart stopped as he thought she was speaking to the doctor…giving permission to bleed him. But she moved to the chair and deftly untied Sebastian’s wrist, and began to massage the reddened skin with her fingertips.
She stammered a little as she spoke. “Dr. H-Hammond…Lord St. Vincent does not w-want the procedure. I must defer to his wishes.”
To Sebastian’s eternal humiliation, his breath caught in a shallow sob of relief.
“My lady,” Hammond countered with grave anxiety, “I beg you to reconsider. Your deference to the wishes of a man who is out of his head with fever may prove to be the death of him. Let me help him. You must trust my judgment, as I have infinitely more experience in such matters.”
Evie sat carefully on the side of the bed and rested Sebastian’s hand in her lap. “I do respect your j-j—” She stopped and shook her head impatiently at the sound of her own stammer. “My husband has the right to make the decision for himself.”
Sebastian curled his fingers into the folds of her skirts. The stammer was a clear sign of her inner anxiety, but she would not yield. She would stand by him. He sighed unsteadily and relaxed, feeling as if his tarnished soul had been delivered into her keeping.
Hammond shook his head and began collecting his implements. “If you will not allow me to use my skills,” he said with quiet dignity, “and you refuse to heed my professional opinion, I’m afraid I cannot do either of you any good. I can predict nothing but an unfortunate outcome for this situation, if proper treatment is not rendered. May God help you both.”
The doctor left the room, an air of heavy disapproval lingering in his wake.
Relieved beyond measure, Sebastian spread his long fingers over the shape of Evie’s thigh. “Riddance,” he managed to mutter, as the door closed behind Hammond.
Evie was obviously torn between laughter and tears as she looked down at him. “You stubborn ass,” she said, her eyes wet. “We’ve just managed to drive off one of the most renowned doctors in London. Anyone else we find is going to want to bleed you as well. Who should I send for now? A white witch? A shaman? A Covent Garden fortune-teller?”
Using the last of his strength, Sebastian managed to drag her hand up to his mouth. “You,” he whispered, holding her fingers to his lips. “Just you.”
Evie experienced a multitude of doubts about her decision not to let Dr. Hammond care for Sebastian. After the doctor’s departure, Sebastian’s condition worsened steadily, his wound became more swollen and angry by the hour, and his fever kept climbing. By midnight, he was no longer lucid. His eyes were demon-bright in his flushed face, and he stared at Evie without recognition as he rambled incoherently in words she could not always understand, with dark revelations that wrenched her with pity.
“Hush,” Evie whispered at times, “Hush. Sebastian, you’re not…” But he persisted with terrible desperation, his tormented mind dredging up more, and more, until she finally stopped trying to quiet him, and she gripped his clenching hands in hers as she listened patiently to the bitter litany. Never in his conscious moments would he have permitted anyone a glimpse of his unprotected inner self. But Evie knew perhaps better than anyone what it was like to live in desperate solitude…yearning for connection, for completeness. And she understood, too, the depths that his loneliness had driven him to.
After a while, when his hoarse voice had faded to broken whispers, Evie gently changed the cold cloth on his forehead and smoothed salve on his cracked lips. She kept her hand at the side of his face, the golden bristle scratching her fingers. In his delirium, Sebastian turned his cheek into the softness of her palm with a wordless murmur. Beautiful, sinful, tormented creature. Some would argue that it was wrong to care for such a man. But as Evie stared at his helpless form, she knew that no man would ever mean to her what he had…because in spite of everything, he had been willing to give his life for hers.
Climbing onto the bed beside him, Evie found the chain amid the soft curling hair on his chest, and she covered the wedding ring with her palm, and let herself sleep beside him for a few hours.
When daylight came, she found him utterly still, lost in a stupor. “Sebastian?” She felt his face and neck. The fever was blazing. It seemed impossible that human skin could burn so hot. Flinging herself out of bed, she stumbled to the bellpull and tugged it violently.
With the help of Cam and the housemaids, Evie covered the bed with a waterproof cloth and packed muslin bags filled with ice around his body. Sebastian remained motionless and silent through it all. Evie’s hopes were briefly raised when the fever seemed to abate, but it soon resumed its relentless climb.
Cam, who had assumed Sebastian’s duties at the club as well as his own, looked nearly as exhausted as Evie. Still dressed in his evening clothes, a gray necktie hanging loose on either side of his throat, he wandered to the bedside where Evie sat.
She had never felt real despair until now. Even during the worst of times with the Maybricks, she had always had hope. But if Sebastian did not live, she felt that she would never take pleasure in anything again.
Sebastian had been the first man to reach through her prison of shyness. And from the very beginning, he had taken care of her as no one ever had. Thinking of the first hot brick he had tucked against her feet during the hellish carriage ride to Scotland, she smiled bleakly. She spoke to Cam with her gaze fastened on her husband’s waxen face. “I don’t know what to do for him,” she whispered. “Any doctor I send for will want to bleed him, and I promised him that I wouldn’t allow it.”
Reaching out a lean hand, Cam smoothed back the wild locks of Evie’s unwashed hair. “My grandmother was a healer,” he said thoughtfully. “I remember that she used to flood wounds with salt water, and pack them with dried bog moss. And when I had a fever, she would make me chew the tubers of the four o’clock plant.”
“Four o’clock plant,” Evie repeated blankly. “I’ve never heard of that.”
He tucked a straggle of her hair behind her ear. “It grows on the moors.”
Evie moved her head away from his hand, embarrassed by her unwashed state, especially knowing the great importance Gypsies placed on personal cleanliness. Contrary to popular belief, there were any number of Romany rituals connected to washing and cleansing. “Do you think you could find some?”
“Four o’clock plant?”
“And the moss.”
“I suppose I could, given enough time.”
“I don’t think he has much time left,” Evie said, and her voice broke. Terrified that she might lose control of her emotions, she straightened in the chair, and shrugged away Cam’s consoling touch. “No…I’m all right. Just…find whatever you think will help.”
“I will return soon,” she heard him say softly, and in an instant, he was gone.
Evie continued to sit by the bedside in a state of exhausted indecision, aware that she should probably make some concession to the needs of her own body for sleep, for food, for some marginal care…but she was afraid to leave Sebastian even for a few minutes. She didn’t want to come back and find that he had slipped away while she was not there.
She tried to clear away the fog of weariness long enough to make a decision, but the mechanics of her brain seemed to have been disabled. Hunched in the chair, she stared at her dying husband. Her spirit and body had become so weighted that no action or thought was possible. She was not aware of anyone entering the room, or of any movement other than the minimal, nearly undetectable rise and fall of Sebastian’s chest. But gradually she became aware of a man standing beside her chair, his presence emanating a vitality and contained force that was startling in the somnolent atmosphere of the sickroom. Blearily she looked up into the concerned face of Lord Westcliff.
Without a word Westcliff reached down and pulled her to her feet, steadying her as she wobbled. “I’ve brought someone for you,” he said quietly. Evie’s gaze careened across the room until she managed to focus on the other visitor.
It was Lillian Bowman—now Lady Westcliff—dashing and radiant in a wine-red gown. Her fair complexion was lightly glazed with color from the southern Italian sun, and her black hair was caught fashionably at the nape of her neck with a beaded silk-cord net. Lillian was tall and slender, the kind of raffish girl one could envision as captaining her own pirate ship…a girl clearly made for dangerous and unconventional pursuits. Though not as romantically beautiful as Annabelle Hunt, Lillian possessed a striking, clean-featured appeal that proclaimed her Americanness even before one heard her distinctly NewYork accent.
Of their circle of friends, Lillian was the one that Evie felt the least close to. Lillian did not possess Annabelle’s maternal softness, or Daisy’s sparkling optimism…she had always intimidated Evie with her sharp tongue and prickly impatience. However, Lillian could always be counted on in times of trouble. And after one glance at Evie’s haggard countenance, Lillian came to her without hesitation, and wrapped her long arms around her.
“Evie,” she murmured fondly, “what have you gotten yourself into?”
The surprise and relief of being held so securely by a friend she had not expected to see overwhelmed Evie completely. She felt the pain in her eyes and throat sharpen, until she could no longer hold back her sobs. Lillian tightened her embrace. “You should have seen my reaction when Annabelle and Daisy told me what you had done,” she said, patting Evie’s back firmly. “I nearly dropped to the floor, and then I called down all sorts of curses on St. Vincent’s head for taking advantage of you. I was tempted to come here and shoot him myself. But it appears that someone else spared me the trouble.”
“I love him,” Evie whispered between sobs.
“You can’t,” Lillian said flatly.
“Yes, I love him, and I’m going to lose him just as I did my father. I can’t bear it…I’ll go mad.”
Lillian sighed and muttered, “Only you could love such a vile, selfish peacock, Evie. Oh, I’ll admit, he has his attractions…but you would do better to fix your affections on someone who could actually love you back.”
“Lillian,” came Evie’s watery protest.
“Oh, all right, I suppose it’s not sporting to disparage a man when he’s bedridden. I’ll hold my tongue for the time being.” She drew back and looked into Evie’s splotched face. “The others wanted to come, of course. But Daisy is unmarried and therefore can’t even sneeze without a chaperone, and Annabelle tires easily because of her condition. Westcliff and I are here, however, and we’re going to make everything all right.”
“You can’t,” Evie sniffled. “His wound…he’s soill…he’s fallen into a c-coma, I think…”
Keeping her arm around Evie, Lillian turned to the earl and asked in a strong voice that was entirely inappropriate for a sickroom, “Is he in a coma, Westcliff?”
The earl, who was bending over Sebastian’s prone form, threw her a wry glance. “I doubt anyone could be, with the noise the pair of you are making. No, if it were a coma, he couldn’t be roused. And he definitely stirred just now when you shouted.”
“I didn’t shout, I called out,” Lillian corrected. “There is a difference.”
“Is there?” Westcliff asked mildly, pulling the covers down to Sebastian’s hips. “You raise your voice so often, I can’t tell.”
A laugh rustled in Lillian’s throat, and she released Evie. “Being married to you, my lord, any woman would…Good God, that’s horrid.” This last exclamation had come as Westcliff peeled back the wound dressing.
“Yes,” the earl said grimly, staring at the draining, festering flesh, with its rays of red creeping outward.
Instantly Evie went to the bedside, wiping her wet cheeks. Westcliff, capable as always, extracted a clean handkerchief from his coat and gave it to her. She blotted her eyes and blew her nose as she looked down at her husband. “He’s been insensible since yesterday afternoon,” she told Westcliff unsteadily. “I wouldn’t let Dr. Hammond bleed him…Sebastian didn’t want it. But now I wish I had. It might have made him better. It’s just…I couldn’t let anything be done to him against his will. The way he looked at me—”