A dark pit seemed to open beneath Kit's feet. Her pulse hammered in her chest. The clammy sheen of perspiration dewed her upper lip. "W-what?"
"You must come at once," wheezed the footman.
"Has Wexcombe sent for a physician?" the marquess asked.
"Yes, my lord," the servant gasped. "But she's in a bad way."
Lord Bainbridge muttered an oath beneath his breath, then turned to Kit. "We must get back to the house-"
Kit did not wait for him to finish; she gathered up her skirts and dashed from the folly. Behind her, she heard the marquess bellow to the footman to return his horse to the stables, followed by the sound of his booted strides behind her. Together they raced up the hill and through the French doors at the back of the house.
Kit hurried toward the broad expanse of the marble staircase and started up the stairs two at a time. A small object on the landing drew her attention. She bent down to retrieve it, her hands shaking. The dowager's lace cap. With a cry, she launched herself up the stairs.
In the hall outside the dowager's bedchamber, chaos reigned. The duchess directed an army of servants, their faces creased with worry and anxiety, in and out of the room, carrying pillows, blankets, and trays laden with cloths and basins of water. Lady Elizabeth sat crumpled in a chair in the hallway, weeping, while the duke stood over her with his fists planted on his hips, his face contorted in a snarl.
"I didn't mean to do it!" wailed Lady Elizabeth. Hysteria tinged her voice. "It was an accident, I swear!"
"An accident?" the duke roared. "You have a screaming match with my grandmother, then she just happens to fall down the stairs? Do you take me for a fool, Elizabeth?"
Kit stood in the middle of the hall, paralyzed by what she had just heard. She clasped the dowager's cap to her breast.
Lord Bainbridge pulled up by her side. "What the devil is going on here?"
Lady Elizabeth looked up at him with reddened eyes; tears streamed in long trails down her pallid cheeks. She vaulted from the chair and flung herself against him, clutching at his lapels.
"You must believe me, my lord!" she begged. "It was all an accident!"
The marquess disengaged the young woman's hands from his jacket. His dark eyes narrowed, and something in his expression-something intent and utterly ruthless-made Kit shiver.
"I think you had best tell me what happened," he snapped.
Lady Elizabeth turned pleading eyes to him. "After… after we spoke this morning, she accosted me and began to upbraid me in the most appalling manner. She would not stop, my lord, despite all my protests. She even followed me up the stairs, calling me the most vicious names imaginable-"
"I find that rather difficult to believe," Bainbridge interjected, the hint of a growl rumbling through his words. "What did she really say to you? The truth, Elizabeth. Now."
Lady Elizabeth paled. "She demanded that I stop throwing myself at you, and then… then she called me a brazen hussy who was no better than she should be!"
The marquess did not so much as blink. "And then what did you do?"
"When I reached the top of the stairs, I turned and screamed at her to leave me alone, but she was right behind me, and I think… I think I must have startled her, for she stumbled backward. You must believe me-I didn't mean for her to fall!"
"Good God… what have you done?" Kit whispered, horrified.
Lady Elizabeth shot a fulminating glare in Kit's direction, then turned in desperation back to the marquess. "I have not done anything. It was an accident. You do believe me, don't you?"
Bainbridge's mouth hardened. "Did anyone else see it happen?"
"Then I have only your word on the matter."
"But, Nicholas, you must believe me. You love me-"
A muscle twitched at the corner of the marquess's jaw. "I thought you had more sense than that, madam. I see now that I was mistaken."
The woman paled even further.
The cold, sick feeling in the pit of Kit's stomach expanded upward until it seemed to penetrate her very heart. Nicholas and Lady Elizabeth? She shuddered, then shoved the thought from her mind. "I must see Her Grace; I cannot wait any longer."
Turning her back on the others in the hall, she rushed into the elderly woman's bedchamber. What she saw stopped her dead in the middle of the room. Tears pricked her eyes; a lump welled up in her throat. Lord, the dowager looked so still and ashen in that great bed. Her eyes were closed, her breathing shallow. Kit clapped a hand over her mouth to muffle her gasp of horror.
By the dowager's bedside, the duchess turned, recognized her, and was instantly wary.
"Let me sit with her a while," Kit begged.
"I think it best that she be with family," the duchess replied, her mouth set in prim lines.
"Please, Your Grace-just until the physician arrives."
Angry words resounded from the corridor, punctuated by Lady Elizabeth's sobs.
The duchess glanced toward the doorway and hesitated.
"Please," Kit repeated. "She is dearer to me than anyone else in the world."
The duchess hesitated. Another burst of hysterical sobbing from the hallway made her cringe. "Oh… very well. I must see to my sister." She departed in a swish of taffeta and closed the door behind her. Instantly, the voices in the hall dwindled to muted murmurs.
Kit drew a chair to the dowager's bedside and took the lady's hand in hers. Oh, God-her skin felt cool and clammy, and how starkly her veins stood out beneath her wrinkled skin. Ugly bruises marred her jaw and temple. She looked so very frail lying there, dwarfed by the mountain of pillows on which she rested. Tears began to overflow Kit's lashes; she wiped them away with impatient fingers. She must be strong, for the dowager's sake.
Her lower lip trembled. "Please wake up, Your Grace," she murmured. The elderly woman did not move. Another tear slipped down Kit's cheek. "I could not bear it if… Oh, God… Please do not leave me."
The noises from the hallway ceased, though Kit barely noticed. Her anxious, watery gaze remained focused on the dowager duchess, on the slight rise and fall of the lady's chest, and on her colorless, wizened visage.
She did not know how long she had been sitting there when the door opened again. She heard the shuffle of footsteps across the Aubusson carpet; then a strong pair of hands gently grasped her shoulders.
"Kit, the physician is here," Bainbridge murmured in her ear. "Let him see to Aunt Josephine. Come away."
She shook her head. "No. I want to stay with her."
"Just for a while, Kit. I promise. Come away with me."
The marquess pulled her up from her chair; her limbs felt as weak and wobbly as a foal's. With a last glance over her shoulder at the dowager, Kit allowed him to lead her from the room. Behind them, a middle-aged, portly man, his wig and spectacles askew, scurried into the room, the duke following in his wake.
Bainbridge put a supporting arm around Kit's waist and led her downstairs to the drawing room; she did not protest when he settled her on the camel-back sofa by the hearth, or when he pressed a glass into her hand. She stared numbly down at the amber liquid in the cut-crystal tumbler, then took a sip. Cognac seared a fiery trail down her throat. She coughed, spluttered, then finally swallowed. She made a face.
The marquess took the glass from her and set it aside, then sat down next to her on the sofa. "Better now?"
"Good. Because I need to explain something to you."
"About Lady Elizabeth?" She kept her dull gaze focused on the floor.
He rubbed the back of his neck. "Well… yes."
"Then you need explain nothing, my lord," she replied wearily. "You are a rake. Women fall prey to your charms at the drop of a hat. I suppose I should learn to expect things like this."
"No. What happened between Lady Elizabeth and me is not what you think."
"It does not matter."
"It does," he snapped, then sat back and took a deep breath. He shoved a hand through his hair. "Please let me explain."
She gave a listless shrug. "As you wish. I do not have the energy to stop you."
"All right, then." He shifted on the sofa and turned to face her. "When Lady Elizabeth made her debut, Wexcombe asked me to dance with her; he is my cousin, and I never thought to refuse."
"You flirted with her," Kit said flatly.
The marquess spread his hands. "She was a young girl just out of the schoolroom, full of nervous jitters. I tried to put her more at ease. But I never thought about the potential consequences until today. Lady Elizabeth took those attentions seriously. She has had four Seasons, and turned down quite a number of offers. I now know the reason: she fancies herself in love with me."
Kit's heart knifed sideways in her chest. "I see."
"No, you do not. Just because she imagines herself in love with me does not mean I return her feelings."
"Of course," Kit replied with a humorless smile. "Love is an unnecessary complication, is it not?"
Swift relief crossed his face. "Exactly. I am glad that you understand."
"I do not understand everything, my lord," she countered. "Such as what prompted the dowager to confront Lady Elizabeth in the first place."
Bainbridge's gaze slid to the fireplace. His mouth tensed. "This morning, after I spoke with the duke, Lady Elizabeth accosted me in the hallway. She threw her arms around me and said she had waited in silence long enough, that she loved me and wanted to be my wife."
"Foolish girl," Kit murmured. His explanation had done little to assuage the strange, hollow ache beneath her breastbone. In fact, the more he told her, the more the pain increased.
"I told her that was impossible, of course, but she refused to listen. Burst into tears and had a grand fit of hysterics. I fear that Her Grace must have witnessed the debacle and followed Elizabeth when she fled."
"The dowager duchess can be a trifle overbearing at times, but why would she have taken such offense over what should have been a private matter between you and Lady Elizabeth?"
"I do not know," Bainbridge confessed. "Ordinarily she does not take it upon herself to chase overly forward females away from me. Whatever her reason, we shall not learn the truth of it until she awakens."
"If she awakens," Kit murmured. Her thoughts returned to the frail figure in the bed upstairs. "How could Lady Elizabeth have done such a thing?"
"I do not know. The girl can be vicious when provoked, but this…" Bainbridge shook his head. "Wexcombe sent her back to her parents in disgrace. She will never again be welcome in his home."
"At the moment, my lord, that is little cause for sympathy," Kit said between clenched teeth. "She goes home to her parents, while the duchess might not recover…" She bit her lip, fighting against the fresh battery of tears that began to spill over her lashes.
Bainbridge reached into his jacket and handed her his kerchief. "Here-dry your eyes. The dowager will be all right."
"How can you be so certain?"
"Dr. Knowles is the duke's own physician; I've never known a better or more competent man. Take heart, dearest Kit. Aunt Josephine has a very hard head."
Kit took the handkerchief and pressed it to her eyes. "You do not understand. She looks so pale and still. Just like my mother, right before she… she…" A soft sob erupted from deep within her.
"Shhh. It will be all right, Kitten," Bainbridge murmured, and pulled her against him. "Aunt Josephine will recover. She will be right as rain in a few days."
Kit curled against the warm, muscled strength of his chest. "I pray you are right. I could not bear to lose her."
"You will not. None of us will."
His arms tightened around her, enfolded her. She pressed her face into his cravat, inhaled deeply of his masculine scent. The steady beat of his heart resonated beneath her ear. She felt safe. Secure.
She squeezed her eyes shut against another round of tears. He did not love her; he had all but declared himself unwilling, or even incapable, of loving a woman. This feeling might be only an illusion, but there was no harm in enjoying it while it lasted, was there?
Bainbridge gazed down at the golden head nestled on his chest, felt Kit's slender shoulders shake as he held her. There was nothing lustful or even passionate about this embrace, and yet he found it oddly appealing. Women's tears had never affected him; then again, he had most often been treated to the crocodile variety. Angelique in particular had tried to use this method on numerous occasions, and it had only served to cause him great irritation. But Kit… Her grief was genuine, and it moved him as nothing else had.
The marquess brushed his lips over her thick, disarrayed golden curls. Why could he not remember the last time he had comforted a woman like this? Held her, stroked her hair, allowed her to wilt his cravat with a flood of tears? A smile tugged at one corner of his mouth, then faded as quickly as it had come.
He couldn't remember the last time, because he had never done it before. In fact, he could recall several instances when he'd dismissed a woman's anguish out of hand… including that of his own mother. She had pleaded with him to accompany her, and all he'd done was stand there like a statue, numb with anger and disbelief, indifferent to her tears. She had been distraught about leaving, truly distraught, and he had turned his back on her. The thought appalled him.
Bainbridge gave himself a mental shake. He'd done more introspection in the past week than he had in the past thirty years, all due to the woman he now held in his arms. She needed him, and he rather liked being needed. Lucifer's beard. Was she a witch? Had she cast some sort of spell on him? That must be the case, for these tender feelings unnerved him more than he wanted to admit.
The mantel clock ticked away the minutes, and the afternoon sun slanted ever lower in the sky, but Kit showed no sign of wanting to move. Her sobs had dwindled, and now she lay curled against his chest, one hand still grasping the handkerchief he had given her, her breathing rough and uneven. Finally, she looked up at him, her eyes red from weeping.
"Thank you," she whispered.
Bainbridge flashed his best cocksure grin. "My dear madam, 'twould have been ungallant of me to turn away a lady in distress. The rather sad state of my cravat will bring the wrath of my valet down upon my head, but I'd say it was well worth the risk."
She attempted a smile as she plucked at the now-limp folds of his neckcloth. "You are quite the gentleman when you want to be, Nicholas."
The way she said his name made his heart constrict with longing. He brushed a stray lock of tawny hair from her cheek. "Kit, I…"
Heavy footsteps rang out from the vestibule. Movement caught Bainbridge's attention, and he turned his head as the duke marched into the room. His arms went slack; Kit pushed herself upright, her face suffused with a familiar rosy glow.
The duke stared at them for a moment, his eyes like chips of ice. "She's awake," he said flatly. "Awake, and asking for you, Mrs. Mallory."
Kit spared Bainbridge an apologetic glance. "I must go to her."
"Go, then," he advised gently. "And keep the handkerchief, just in case you have further need of it."
The cambric square clutched in one hand, Kit bobbed a shallow curtsy to the duke, then dashed from the room. Bainbridge watched her depart, then with a sigh slumped against the padded back of the sofa.
"Quite a cozy picture," sneered the duke. "I would never have thought it of you."
"She was overwrought, Wexcombe," Bainbridge replied, a thread of irritation running through his voice. "What else was I supposed to do?"
"Are you mad?" his cousin hissed at him. "This chit has you all but wrapped around her little finger."
"I fail to see why that has you so concerned."
"Concerned? You are supposed to get her away from my grandmother, not get tangled up with her in the process."
"I know what I'm doing," the marquess shot back.
"Do you? Another moment and you would have played right into her hands."
Bainbridge scowled. "Don't be absurd."
"No? Do you actually believe that a widow of five-and-twenty is that sheltered and innocent? That desperate for solace? Bah. You may be fooled by those immense green eyes of hers, but I know what she's about."
"And what would that be?"
The duke snorted. "Surely you have dealt with enough devious women to recognize her type. Why should she settle for the dowager's money when she can snare herself a handsome fortune and an even handsomer title to go along with it?"
"How do you think she will do that?" scoffed the marquess. "I am an unrepentant rake, remember? Wild horses could not drag me to the altar."
"It's obvious, you dolt. She's making you fall in love with her."
Bainbridge stared at his cousin as though the man had grown three heads.
He blinked. Ridiculous.
But how else would he explain it? He pinched the bridge of his nose.
Affection, or at least a moderate amount of fondness-yes.
Lust-yes. Oh, most definitely yes.
He sat back and waggled a finger at his cousin. "You forget, Wexcombe. I refuse to fall in love, so if that is her goal, then her plan will fall sadly flat. I prefer a much more cold-blooded approach to matrimony: find myself a chit of excellent breeding, make sure she suffers from no romantic delusions of any sort, then wed her, bed her, and get her with an heir as quickly as possible. Rather like you did, old fellow."
The duke ignored the barb. "You're getting defensive, Bainbridge, which means you know deep down that I am right."
"I do not wish to discuss it. Besides, you have no reason to worry, Cousin." Bainbridge levered himself to his feet. "She is not the schemer you think she is, nor are my actions guided solely by, shall we say, my 'baser instincts.' Now, if you will excuse me, I would like to go upstairs and check on my great-aunt."
The duke shrugged. "As you will. But never say I did not warn you."
Bainbridge strode from the room, his jaw clenched, his annoyance tempered by nagging suspicion. Had this lovely widow outmaneuvered him? His first response was an unequivocal no, but his cousin's words taunted him. He climbed the marble stairs slowly, as if his boots weighed as heavily upon him as his thoughts. Had Kit deliberately positioned herself as an antidote to his jaded tastes? Her modesty, her intelligence, her refreshing candor, her sheltered innocence-all of it combined into a strikingly attractive package, something he had never encountered before. Had she used his fascination to entrap him?
Perhaps. But if this was a trap, why did he not feel a greater urge to escape?
Kit rapped anxiously on the dowager's door and was ushered into the darkened bedchamber by the lady's equally anxious maid. The heavy velvet curtains remained drawn over every window, and the only light shone from a low fire on the hearth and a branch of candles by the dowager's bedside.
Dr. Knowles, who had just finished packing up his black leather bag, nodded to her as she approached.
"How is she?" Kit asked in an anxious whisper.
The portly man adjusted the wire-rimmed spectacles on his nose. "Her Grace was most fortunate. She suffered a concussive blow to the head, and her bumps and bruises are only minor. No bones were broken."
Kit exhaled slowly. Her shoulders slumped. "Thank God."
"But as I told the duke, head injuries of this nature can be tricky," he continued.
Her head snapped up. "What do you mean?"
"She may be up and about tomorrow, or it might take much longer. These things cannot be rushed. But I have every hope that, given time, Her Grace will make a full recovery. I have given her some laudanum for her pain and to help her sleep. Rest will help her heal more quickly."
"Kit?" came the dowager's querulous voice.
"Thank you, Dr. Knowles," Kit murmured.
"Of course. I shall return to look in on her tomorrow." The physician nodded to her, then took his leave.
"Kit?" called the dowager, more loudly.
She hurried to the elderly woman's bedside. "I am here, Your Grace."
A wan smile lifted the lady's lips. "Where… have… you been, child?"
Kit took the dowager's hand. "I have not been far, I assure you. How do you feel?"
"Like… I've… been sat upon… by… an elephant," the lady replied with a wheezing laugh.
An answering smile tugged at Kit's mouth. "Only an elephant? I am relieved to hear it, ma'am. We feared the worst."
"Bah." The elderly woman lifted her hand, then let it drop. " 'Twill take… more… than a tumble… to bring… me low."
"Please try to rest, Your Grace," Kit advised. "Do not overexert yourself."
The dowager frowned; her sunken eyes began to dull. "Feel… strange. Laudanum?" she croaked.
"Yes, the physician gave you some for the pain."
The lady blinked. "Must… tell… you," she mumbled.
Kit gave her hand a reassuring squeeze. "It's all right, Your Grace. We know what happened."
"No." The dowager struggled to raise her head, but failed. "Must…"
Kit restrained her. "The duke sent Lady Elizabeth away, made it clear that she is no longer welcome. She can do you no further harm."
The dowager's eyelids fluttered. "… would not… have… made… him… happy."
Kit leaned forward, straining to catch the whispered words. "Your Grace?"
"Had… everything… planned…"
Plan? What was this about? Kit shook her head; clearly, laudanum had fogged the elderly woman's wits. "Please, you must rest," she insisted.
"Dear… child…" The dowager's head lolled to one side.
As she tucked the comforter more securely around the dowager, Kit's brow puckered in a frown. What had Her Grace been so insistent about? She rubbed her temples. It didn't matter now; the dowager could tell everyone when next she awoke.
Several light taps on the chamber door distracted her. Motioning the maid to stay with the dowager duchess, Kit rose and answered the summons. Lord Bainbridge's drawn face greeted her when she opened the door.
"How is she?" he inquired in low tones.
Kit opened the door a little wider. "Dr. Knowles said she suffered a concussive injury to the head, but he believes she should recover well, given time."
"Thank God. May I see her?"
She glanced back toward the bed. "Yes, but she's sleeping. Laudanum."
"Did she say anything about what happened?"
"No," she replied, then bit her lip to prevent herself from mentioning the dowager's strange request.
The duke came up to join them, his eyes still glinting with the same cold, hard light Kit had noticed earlier. "Mrs. Mallory."
She curtsied. "Your Grace. I fear your grandmother is indisposed; Dr. Knowles administered laudanum."
His arctic gaze flicked over her shoulder to the darkened bedchamber beyond, then back to her. "That is just as well, for it is you with whom I wish to speak, Mrs. Mallory."
Kit exchanged a cautious glance with Lord Bainbridge. "I, Your Grace?"
"Wexcombe, this is really not-" the marquess began, his face taut.
The duke cut him off. "Cousin, will you be so kind as to look after my grandmother in our absence?"
Bainbridge stiffened. The two men stared at each other for a moment.
The duke cocked an eyebrow. "Surely you will not disoblige this rather modest request."
Bainbridge relented with a curt nod. A tic began in his temple. "I will stay, if you wish."
"I do." The duke motioned to Kit. "This way, Mrs. Mallory."
As Kit moved past him, the marquess seized her elbow.
"Be careful," he whispered in her ear.
Kit nodded. "I will."
"Coming, Mrs. Mallory?" inquired the duke, in a tone that brooked no opposition.
"Yes, Your Grace," she replied.
As she began to follow the duke down the hall, she shot another glance over her shoulder at Lord Bainbridge, who stared after her, a strange expression on his face. Anxiety added another loop to the knot in Kit's stomach. The tension between the two men had been all but palpable. What was going on? And after having ignored her for all this time, why did the duke suddenly wish to speak with her in private? If he was going to attempt to buy her off again, he would find her as resolute as when he made his first insulting offer.
She squared her shoulders. Whatever it was, it certainly could not be any worse than what she had already faced this week.