William Felkirk did not bother to open his eyes, but lay still and examined the thought. It was an exaggeration. Everything ached. Only his head truly hurt. A slow, thumping throb came from the back of it, punctuating each new idea.
He swallowed with effort. There was no saliva to soothe the process. How much had he been drinking, to get to this state? He could not seem to remember. The party at Adam’s house, which had been a celebration of his nephew’s christening, was far too sedate for him to have ended like this. But he could not recall having gone anywhere after. And since he was in Wales, where would he have gone?
His eyelids were still too heavy to open, but he did not need vision to find the crystal carafe by the bedside. A drink of water would help. His arm flailed bonelessly, numb fingers unable to close on the glass.
There was a gasp on the other side of the room and the shatter of porcelain as an ornament was dropped and broken. Clumsy maids. The girl had been cleaning around him, as though he was a piece of furniture. Was it really necessary to shout ‘He is waking!’ so that anyone in the hall could hear?
Then there were hurried footsteps to the door and a voice called for someone to get his Grace and her ladyship immediately.
He opened his eyes at last and tried to sit up, but the room was still a blur and his back did not want to support him. He stared at the ceiling and what little he could see of the bedposts. It was still his brother’s house. But Penelope had never been a ladyship, even before marrying Adam. Even now, she laughed about not feeling graceful enough to be her Grace, the Duchess of Bellston. Though she was just out of childbed, she was not so frail as to cede her duties as hostess to another. Who the devil was her ladyship?
He must have misheard. But the rueful shake of his head made the pain worse, as did the thundering of steps on the stairs and in the hall. Could not a man bear the shame of a hangover in privacy? He tried to sit up again, and as he did, he felt an arm at his back and hands lifting him, like a child, to settle him against the pillows.
‘There’s a good fellow.’ Adam was treating him like an invalid. It must be even worse than he thought. ‘A drink of water, perhaps?’ But instead of the cup he expected, there was a damp rag pressed to his lips.
Will spat and turned his head away. ‘…Hell?’ He must be parched for he could not seem to speak properly. But it had been enough to make his displeasure known.
‘You want a glass?’ Adam seemed to find this extraordinary. ‘Where is Justine? Find her, quickly.’
The rim of the cup met his lips. He reached for it, felt his arm flop, then tremble, and then the hand of his older brother was there to steady it so he could drink.
Crystal goblet. Crystal water. Cool and sweet, trickling, then coursing down his throat, which still felt as though it was full of cobwebs. Some of the pounding in his skull subsided. He paused. ‘Better.’ His voice croaked, but it was clearer.
There was another feminine gasp from the doorway.
‘He is waking,’ Adam said, softly, urgently. ‘Come to his side.’
‘I dare not.’ It was a woman’s voice: a melodious alto, with the faintest hint of an accent to it.
‘After so long, you must be the first thing he sees.’ He could feel Adam rise, and, as he watched, another hand came to guide the water glass.
Something smelled wonderful. No. It was someone. Roses, and cinnamon, close at his side. Muslin leaning against his bare arm and warm silky skin touching his shoulder, then smoothing the hair on his brow. His senses were returning to him, in a series of pleasant surprises.
When his vision could focus past the fingers on the cup, he saw a perfect, heart-shaped face, looking worriedly into his. It was the sort of face that made him wish he could paint, or at least draw, so that he might carry a copy of it with him for ever. Her eyes were the strange green gold of coins at the bottom of a fountain and he could not seem to stop staring at them. They were sad eyes and fearful. For a moment, he thought he saw the beginnings of a tear in one. Her pink lips trembled. Her hair was a mix of sunset golds and reds, partially obscured under a plain muslin cap. The curls swayed gently, as though their owner was eased away from him.
‘Do not be afraid,’ he said. Why was she here? And why was she so hesitant? He was not sure of much, least of all who this might be. But he was quite sure he did not want her to be in fear of him. Adam had been right. To wake to this was a gift, especially when one had such a damnable headache.
‘After all that has happened, he is concerned for you?’ Adam gave a short, satisfied laugh. ‘You have not changed at all, then, Will. We had so feared…’ His brother’s voice cracked with emotion.
‘Is it true?’ Adam’s wife, Penny, was here now, somewhere by the door. She was out of breath, as if she had rushed to the room.
Adam hissed at her to be silent.
‘The more, the merrier,’ Will muttered, still without the energy to turn away yet another visitor to his bedside. But when he turned his face to the duchess, something was wrong. Very wrong, in fact. She appeared to be pregnant. That could not be right. Just yesterday, he’d thought her rather thin. He’d enquired after her health and had listened to his brother’s complaints that the recent birth had taken too much from her. Today, she stood in the doorway of his bedroom, plump and healthy.
Will frowned. If it was a joke, it was both elaborate and pointless. The whole family was watching him, as though waiting for something. He had no idea what they expected. His head was swimming again. He went to rub his temple, but it took all his strength to lift his own arm.
The woman at his side grasped the hand and brought it down again, rubbing some feeling back into the fingers, flexing joints and massaging muscles. Then she laid it carefully on the counterpane and brought her own fingers up to stroke his forehead. Damn, but it felt good. If he were not still so tired, he’d have sent the family away, to test the extent of her familiarity with his body. Though she had hesitated at first, she did not seem the least bit shy now.
He relaxed back into the pillows that had been leaned against the headboard and sighed. Then, slowly, carefully, he flexed the fingers of each hand. It was difficult, as was moving his toes. But when next he raised his hand, he was able to gesture for the water without embarrassing himself. His beautiful nurse brought the glass to his lips again.
He licked a drop off his dry lips and swallowed again. ‘Is someone going to explain to me what has happened, or will you leave me to guess? Did I take ill in the night?’
‘Explain?’ Adam, again, speaking for the group. ‘What do you remember of the last months, Will?’
‘The Season, of course,’ he answered, wishing he could give a dismissive wave. ‘That blonde chit you were forcing on me. Why you think you can choose my wife, when I had no say in yours, I have no idea. And coming up to Wales with you for the christening. What did you put in the punch to get me into such a state? Straight gin?’
He meant to joke. But the faces around him were shocked to silence. Adam cleared his throat. ‘The christening was six months ago.’
‘Certainly not.’ He could remember it, as clearly as he could remember anything. It seemed distant, of course. But he had just woken up. When his head cleared…
‘Six months,’ Adam repeated. ‘After the party you left and would not tell us where you were going. You said you would be returning with a surprise.’
‘And what was it?’ Will asked. If he was here now, he must have returned, with a story that would explain his current condition.
‘We heard nothing from you, for months. When Justine brought you home, you were in no state to say anything. There had been an accident. She thought it best that you be with your family, when.’ Adam’s voice broke again and he looked away.
‘Who is this Justine?’ Will said, looking around. But judging by the shocked expression on the face of the woman holding his hand, the question answered itself.
‘You really don’t remember?’ she said. And he did not. Although how he could have forgotten a face or a voice like that, he was not sure.
‘I remember the christening,’ he repeated. ‘But I have no recollection of you at all.’
The gold eyes in front of him were open wide now, incredulous.
Adam cleared his throat again, the little noise he tended to make when he was about to be diplomatic. ‘It seems there is much you have lost and much that must be explained to you. But first and foremost, you must know this. The woman before you now is Lady Felkirk.’ He paused again. ‘William, may I introduce to you your wife, Justine.’
‘I have no wife.’ He’d had more than enough of this foolishness and swung his feet out of the bed to stand and walk away.
Or at least he tried. Instead, he flopped on the mattress like a beached fish, spilling the water and sliding halfway out of bed before his brother could steady him, and muscle him back to the centre.
‘It is all right. As long as you are getting better, it does not matter.’ There was the voice of the ministering angel again, his supposed wife. What had they called her? Justine?
The name, though it was as beautiful as its owner, held no resonance.
Adam leaned over the bed again, smiling, although the grin was somewhat stained. ‘Justine brought you home some two months ago, and you have lain insensible since then. I feared you would never…’ There was another pause, followed by a deep sigh. Perhaps fatherhood had made Adam soft, for Will could not recall ever hearing him sound near to tears. ‘The doctors did not give us much hope. To find you awake and almost yourself again…’
So he’d cracked his skull. He did not remember it, but it certainly explained the throbbing in his head. ‘What happened?’
‘A fall from a horse.’
That seemed possible. He sometimes overreached himself, when in the saddle. But his old friend, Jupiter, was the most steady of beasts, as long as he held the reins. And a wife. He stared pointedly at the woman leaning over him, waiting for her to add some explanation.
‘We were on our honeymoon,’ the woman said, gently, as though trying to prod the memory from him. ‘We met in Bath, at the beginning of summer.’
Still, nothing. What had he been doing in Bath? He abhorred the place, with its foul-tasting water and the meddling mamas of girls who could not make a proper match in London.
‘I am sure marriage must have been in your plans when you left us,’ Penny said, encouraging him. ‘You did promise us a surprise. But really, we had no idea how welcome it would be. When Justine returned with you…’ She gave an emotional pause again, just as his brother had done. ‘She has been so good to you. To all of us, really. She never lost hope.’ Under the guise of wiping her fogged spectacles, Penny withdrew a handkerchief and dabbed at her eyes.
Only the woman, Justine, seemed to take it all calmly, as though a husband returning from death’s door with no memory of her was a thing that happened to everyone. When she spoke, her voice was unbroken and matter-of-fact. ‘You will be all right now. Everything is better than we could have hoped.’
‘As if being concussed and losing half a year of one’s life is a thing to be celebrated.’ He glared at her. Perhaps this lovely stranger had done nothing to deserve his anger. Or perhaps she had got him drunk and knocked him on the head so she could pretend to be his wife.
But that made no sense. He lacked the money and title necessary to be the target of such intriguing. If she meant him ill, why did she bring him home, afterwards? Why bother to nurse him back to health?
The mysterious Justine ignored his dark look and smiled down at him. ‘It is to be celebrated. The physician said you would never wake, yet, you did. Now that you can eat properly, you will grow stronger.’ But did he see a fleeting shadow in her eyes, as though his recovery was something less than a blessing?
Perhaps she was as confused as he, after all. Or perhaps he had hurt her. He had taken the trouble to marry her, only to forget her entirely. Now, he was snapping at her, blaming her for his sore head. Had he treated her thus, before the accident? Perhaps the marriage had been a mistake. If so, he could hardly blame her for a passing desire that his prolonged illness would end with her freedom.
When he looked again, her face was as cloudless as a summer day. The doubt had been an illusion, caused by his own paranoia. When he was stronger and had a chance to question her, things would be clearer. For now, he must rein in his wild thoughts and wait. He shook his head and immediately regretted it, as the pain, which had been ebbing, came rushing back.
She leaned closer, reaching across him for a cool cloth that lay beside the bed, pressing it against his forehead.