It was not the countess’s voice carried along the black currents surrounding Bianca. It was Harry’s voice, soft and urgent and pleading and frightened. How silly! Nothing frightened Harry. He was a devil-may-care rakehell. The very definition of flippant and carefree.
“… Bianca, I am begging… So sorry for all that I've done… ” An even longer pause. “… cannot bear to be without you… ”
Bears! That’s what it was. A mama bear, a papa bear, and a baby bear—no, that wasn’t it; that made no sense at all.Sevenbears, not three. No, it was seven doors. No, sevenapples. But where would the apples have come from? There were no apple trees at the Gladwells’ cottage. Perhaps the sack had been full of pears or plums or gooseberries. Her lips still tasted like…
Tears. Her lips tasted like tears. Damp and salty and warm with a familiar pressure. It was a kiss. She was being kissed! These were Harry’s lips upon hers, firm where she was soft, strong where she was weak, pulling her up out of the water and away from the tide until—
A loud, sucking gasp exploded from Bianca’s throat and her eyes flew open.
Harry’s startled gaze was inches from hers, his eyes at first shocked, then glassy, then smiling in disbelief.
“What… ” she managed, the word barely audible.
“Thank God.” Harry crushed her to his chest, wrapping his strong arms tight around her. “I thought I’d lost you.”
She touched her thumb to her fingertips. The pads of her fingers were sticky. The apple! She’d been eating an apple when… when…
“What happened?” She lifted her head from Harry’s chest to look at him.
His expression darkened. “Lady Quinseley poisoned you.”
Bianca gasped. “Poisoned me!”
“As soon as I can bear to leave your side, my first stop will be to the magistrate.” Harry’s hands gripped her shoulders, his blue gaze intense. “Are you all right?”
Bianca realized she was reclining on his lap in the middle of her bed in the Gladwells’ guest chamber… and that an unknown man was watching them.
She pushed away from Harry and scrambled to her feet.
“That may have looked like a compromising position, but I was just… he was just… ” she stammered..
The man stepped forward. “I’m here to help you, not judge you. I’m Doctor Mayhew. You gave us quite a scare.”
Bianca held still as the doctor pressed the backs of his fingers to her forehead to check for fever, then lifted her wrist to count her pulse.
As soon as Doctor Mayhew pronounced her healthy and took his leave from them, Harry closed the guest chamber door and locked it, then turned to Bianca.
“I wouldn’t care if wehadbeen compromised,” he said fiercely.
“Of course you would,” she chided him. “You—”
“Bianca, nothing in this world matters to me as much as you do. A life without you is a world without sunlight. It cannot be borne.” He grasped her hands. “Marry me.”
“You cannot mean it.”
“Marry me.” He kissed the backs of her fingers, then clasped her hands to his chest. “I implore you.”
“I have no fortune,” she reminded him.
“You aremygood fortune,” he corrected her softly. “My happiest moments have been with you. By your side, I am able to be my true self. Not a title, not a fortune-hunter, but a man desperately, irrevocably, wholeheartedly in love with you.”
Her pulse fluttered. “I would be your ruin.”
“You would be my salvation.”
“We would be shunned by many of your peers. All of the reasons my father did not marry my mother despite his wealth and their love still hold true for you and me. You are an earl, Harry. Heir to a marquessate. I am no one.”
“You are wrong. You are everything.”