Loving the Marquess(2)

By: Suzanna Medeiros

She was spiraling downward, drowning in twin pools of darkness. The heat in the room seemed to increase as a flush spread through her body. The seconds ticked by, seeming to stretch into minutes.

Without another sound, the stranger’s eyes closed again. She dragged in a shaky breath and shook off the paralysis that had stolen over her. She could not, however, shake off her sense of unease.

Her hands were still shaking when she dropped the damp cloth into the basin. Pushing aside her trepidation, she moved to the bottom of the bed to remove his boots. She hesitated only a moment before placing one hand on the heel of the black leather molded to his right leg and the other on his knee. A jolt of awareness surged through her at the contact and she jerked back. Her gaze flew to the stranger’s face, and she breathed a sigh of relief when she saw he was still asleep. She would have died of mortification if he’d seen her foolish reaction to touching him.

She tugged off his boots before turning her attention to removing his coat, but she knew her bravery did not extend that far. Her bedcovers were already turned down and it took only a couple of tugs to free them completely from under his legs. Concentrating on the blankets and not on his form, she covered him before exhaling the breath she’d been holding. Most of him was now hidden from sight, but she found it impossible to ignore the keen sense of awareness brought on by the knowledge that a very attractive man now slept in her bed.

Trying to ignore the less than chaste thoughts that rose, unbidden, to her mind, Louisa retrieved a blanket for herself from the trunk at the foot of her bed and settled into a chair to wait. When John returned from seeing to their unexpected guest’s horse, he tried to insist on taking her place, but if the stranger’s condition took a turn for the worse, John wouldn’t know what to do. He helped her to remove the man’s coat and loosen his cravat before returning to his own room, but only after extracting her promise to fetch him when the man woke.

It was a long night. The stranger’s slumber was restless—interrupted, at first, by frequent bouts of thrashing and murmured words that were indecipherable. Eventually, he settled into a deep sleep and she was able to close her eyes and get some rest. She had just drifted off when a low moan woke her. She struggled up from her cramped position in the armchair by the bedside, and her blanket slid to the floor.

“Papa? Do you need anything?” she asked, disoriented after being pulled from the middle of a strange dream.

But the man lying in the bed, her bed, wasn’t her father. She was confused for a moment and then the memories rushed back. After a year of failing health, her father had finally succumbed to death six months before. She leaned back in the chair and examined the stranger more closely in the faint morning light. She hadn’t dreamt him after all.

The fire had long since gone out and she shivered in the cool morning air. She picked up the blanket from where it had fallen, wrapped it around her shoulders, and took the few steps to the bed. Leaning forward, she laid a hand on the man’s forehead and breathed a sigh of relief when she found his temperature was normal.

She looked over at the window where the first rays of morning light were already creeping over the horizon and sighed softly. So much for a good night’s rest, she thought as she began to work the kinks from her knotted muscles.

* * * * *

Nicholas Manning’s head was killing him, but he was used to that. He raised a hand to rub at his temples, hoping to massage away the pain. Unable to stop himself, his thoughts went back to that time a few years ago, before his parents’ deaths. They’d been content, their love still evident even after more than thirty years of marriage. But then his father started complaining of headaches and his health began to deteriorate rapidly. Nicholas had spent most of his time in London, away from Overlea Manor, but he’d witnessed his father’s strange moods and increasing surliness on several occasions. Had witnessed how his father had pushed away all who’d loved him before the accident that had taken both of his parents’ lives.

He remembered, too, how his older brother had developed the same mysterious ailment last year. An ailment that had led to his death.

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