From Ruin to Riches(7)

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                       Chapter Three

 Lord Dereham sat down as she released his arm. His breathless laugh was wicked. ‘I am twenty-seven, Miss Prior.’

 ‘I cannot apologise enough.’ Cheeks burning with mortification, Julia took a hasty step backwards, tripped over the dog and found herself sprawling into the chair opposite his. ‘I am so sorry, I have no idea why I should blurt out such a impertinent question, only—’

 ‘Only you thought I was an old man?’ Lord Dereham did not appear offended. Perhaps in his currently restricted life the sight of a lady—female, she reminded herself—behaving with such appalling gaucheness and lack of elegance was entertainment enough to distract him from her outrageous lack of manners.

 ‘Yes,’ she confessed and found she could not look him in the face. Those eyes. And he might be thin and ill, but he was unmistakably, disturbingly, male for all that. She bent to offer an apologetic caress to the elderly hound who was sitting virtually on her feet, staring at her with a reproachful brown gaze.

 ‘Miss Prior.’ She made herself lift her eyes. ‘You are quite safe with me, you know.’

 Her head agreed with him. Every feminine instinct she possessed, did not. ‘Of course, I realise that. Absolutely,’ Julia said, in haste to reassure herself. Her voice trailed away as she heard her own tactless words and saw his face tighten.

 He had been a handsome man once. He was striking still, but now the skin was stretched over bones that were the only strong thing left to him, except his will-power. And that, she sensed, was prodigious. His hair was dark, dulled with ill health, but not yet touched with grey. He had high cheekbones, a strong jaw, broad forehead. But his eyes were what held her, full of life and passionate, furious anger at the fate that had reduced him to this. Were they brandy-coloured or was it dark amber?

 Julia could feel she was blushing as they narrowed, focused on her face. ‘I mean, I know I am safe because you are a gentleman.’ Safe from another assault, not safe from the long arm of the law. Not safe from the gallows.

 She sat up straight, took a steadying breath and looked fixedly at his left ear. Such a nice, safe part of the male anatomy. ‘You are being remarkably patient with me, my lord. I am not usually so...inept.’

 ‘I imagine you are not usually exhausted, distressed and fearful, nor suffering the emotional effects of betrayal by those who should have protected you, Miss Prior. I hope you will feel a little better when you have had something to eat.’ He reached out a thin white hand and tugged the bell pull. The door opened almost immediately to admit a pair of footmen. Small tables were placed in front of them, laden trays set down, wine was poured, napkins shaken out and draped and then, as rapidly as they had entered, the men left.

 ‘You have a very efficient staff, my lord.’ The aroma of chicken broth curled up to caress her nostrils. Ambrosia. Julia picked up her spoon and made herself sip delicately at it instead of lifting the bowl and draining it as her empty stomach demanded.

 ‘Indeed.’ He had not touched the cutlery in front of him.

 She finished the soup along with the warm buttered roll and the delicate slices of chicken that had been poached in the broth. When she looked at Lord Dereham he had broken his roll and was eating, perhaps a quarter of it, before he pushed the plate away.

 ‘And a very good cook.’

 He answered her concern, not her words. ‘I have no appetite.’

 ‘How long?’ she ventured. ‘How long have you been sick like this?’

 ‘Seven—no, it is eight months now,’ he answered her quite readily, those remarkable amber eyes turned to watch the leaping flames. Perhaps it was a relief to talk to someone who spoke frankly and did not hedge about pretending there was nothing wrong with him. ‘There was a blizzard at night and Bess here was lost in it. One of the young underkeepers thought it was his fault and went out to look for her. By the time we realised he was missing and I found them both we were all three in a pretty poor state.’

 He grimaced, dismissing what she guessed must have been an appalling search. And he had gone out himself, she noted, not left it to his keepers and grooms to risk themselves for a youth and a dog. ‘After four years in the army I thought I was immune to cold and wet, but I came down with what seemed simply pneumonia. I started to cough blood. Then, although the infection seemed to go, I was still exhausted. It became worse. Now I can’t sleep, my strength is failing. I have no appetite, and there are night-fevers. The doctors say it is phthisis and that there is no cure.’

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