Mrs. Beecham shook her head. “The doctor is still with him. I will inform you as soon as there is any news. In the meantime, the maid will accompany you to the receiving rooms downstairs.”
Madeline prepared herself for an argument. “I would rather—”
She was interrupted by the click of the doorknob as the valet opened it from within. Falling silent, she waited as the doctor emerged.
Dr. Brooke was a man in his thirties, with a receding hairline and a pair of round spectacles that gave him an owlish look. He had a kind face and dark, solemn eyes. His gaze fell on Mrs. Beecham, then Madeline.
“I am Miss Ridley,” Madeline said, coming forward. “I came to ask about Mr. Scott's welfare. I am his…companion.”
The doctor took her hand and bowed politely.
“How is he?” the housekeeper asked.
Dr. Brooke's gaze encompassed them both. “Recently I've seen many cases like this. I'm sorry to say that this appears to be one of the worst. Rather surprising for a man of Mr. Scott's usual health…but he does nothing in moderation, does he?”
“I'm afraid not,” the housekeeper replied ruefully.
“I'll visit again tomorrow, to see how the fever progresses,” the doctor continued. “Unfortunately he hasn't yet come into the worst of it. Cool him with frequent applications of water and ice. I suggest feeding him jellies, broth, perhaps a spoonful of milk punch now and then.”
“I have an old family recipe that calls for steeping eucalyptus leaves in brandy,” Mrs. Beecham commented. “Might I give him a dose in the evenings?”
“I don't see why not.” The doctor paused, his gaze lingering on Madeline. “Miss Ridley, may I ask if you intend to help care for Mr. Scott?”
“Yes,” Madeline said firmly.
“Then I suggest that you limit your association with people outside the household. The fever is highly contagious. I wouldn't rule out the possibility that you may yet succumb to it.”
Mrs. Beecham regarded Madeline with a perplexed expression. “I suppose we'll have to ready a room for you.”
Madeline understood the woman's reluctance. None of Scott's staff had had any knowledge of her existence before now. They obviously cared for their master and were wary of allowing someone to intrude on his privacy when he was helpless to prevent it. “Thank you, Mrs. Beecham,” she said quietly. “I assure you, my only intention is to help Mr. Scott…Logan…in every way I can.”
The housekeeper nodded, still looking troubled, and gave instructions to the maid. In the meanwhile, Dr. Brooke bid them farewell and departed in the company of the footman. Taking the initiative, Madeline slipped through the half-open doorway into the bedroom.
It was simply furnished and decorated, with no artwork except a view of clouds and sky painted on the ceiling. The room contained a very large bed with a plum silk counterpane and feather pillows piled three deep at the headboard. Scott lay covered with a sheet and light blanket, the counterpane folded back to his feet. He had been dressed in a suit of flannels, the top half unbuttoned halfway down his chest. He slept as if he had been drugged, the side of his flushed face buried in a pillow.
As Madeline entered, the valet placed a jug of water and a pile of folded linens on the bedside table. A small armchair had been positioned nearby, but Madeline chose to sit on the edge of the mattress. The slight shift of her weight caused Logan to turn toward her with an incoherent mutter, his eyes still closed. His breath scraped in his throat.
“It's all right,” Madeline said softly, soaking a linen cloth in the water, wringing it out and laying it on his hot forehead. The coolness seemed to soothe him, and he relaxed deeper into the pillow. She reached out and dared to stroke his beautiful hair, as she had so often longed to do. It was soft and thick beneath her fingers, like dark silk burnished with mahogany.
She studied his face, the pallor of his skin emphasizing the stark beauty of his bone structure. His lashes lay in feathery crescents on his cheeks, the eyelids trembling slightly as he drifted through fever-induced dreams. Such a proud, solitary man, rendered helpless in sleep, his lips parted like those of a child. If she were in love with him, it would devastate her to see him this way.
Madeline sat without moving, trying to understand the dull pain that had settled in her chest. If she were in love with him, the ache would never leave. The memories of him would haunt her every day for the rest of her life…because there would never be another man like him.
Briefly she thought of her own dilemma. There was so little time for her. Perhaps it was already too late, and her parents had discovered that she had left school. If they had, they would be frantic with worry. They would look for her—and once they found her, they would browbeat and threaten her until she crumpled under the pressure. She would end up as Lord Clifton's bride in spite of her best efforts to resist. Unless she were damaged goods.
She should leave here at once and find someone to have an affair with. No doubt there were far more willing targets than Logan Scott. She had never imagined it would have been so difficult to seduce him, not a man with his reputation. But she hadn't bargained on his complexity or his unexpected scruples. He had refused to dishonor her, and she wouldn't fool herself into thinking she could change his decision.
She wasn't needed here. Scott had servants to care for him, the services of an excellent doctor, more friends and acquaintances than he could count. He would recover without her help. Frowning, Madeline watched him sleep for a long time. She sat by the bed, changing the cloth on his forehead or spooning a few drops of tonic between his lips when the cough became troublesome.
Every now and then a servant came to ask if Madeline required anything, but she refused. Except for those brief intrusions, it seemed that there was no world outside the bedroom. Minutes stretched into hours, until the afternoon sky began to fade and evening shadows approached.
Just as Madeline considered sending for some beef tea, Scott began to waken. He stirred and blinked, his eyes fever-bright. Gently Madeline removed the damp cloth from his head and resumed her seat on the edge of the bed. “Mr. Scott,” she said, smiling at him.
He stared at her as if she were a figure in a dream, his expression curious and slightly detached, and then an answering smile hovered on his lips. He spoke in a rusty voice punctuated with harsh coughs. “It seems…I'll never get rid of you.”
Madeline poured a glass of water and helped him to drink, keeping her hand on the glass and sliding her arm behind his head. Unsteadily he leaned back against her supporting arm as he took a few listless swallows. He was very heavy, and the muscles in her arm began to strain from holding him. When he had had enough, he turned his face away, and she eased him back to the pillow.
“Would you like me to leave?” she asked softly.
He closed his eyes, taking so long to answer that she thought he might have fallen asleep once more.
“Stay,” he finally said.
“Is there someone I should send for to take care of you? A friend or relative—”
“No. I want you.” He closed his eyes, the conversation finished. His fingers curled in a fold of her gown.
Despite her worry, Madeline wanted to smile. Even in his sickbed, he was as commanding as ever. For some reason, he wanted her to remain. He trusted her. She had no more thought of leaving. “Logan,” she murmured, testing his name on her lips.
Somehow, after her ambitious scheme had failed, she found herself standing watch in a sickroom. Nothing had gone according to plan. Strangest of all, she didn't even care about her own problems. All she wanted was to see Logan well again.
She went to the writing table positioned beneath one of the windows, and wrote a note to Mrs. Florence, explaining the situation. Folding it neatly, she sealed the letter with a stick of brown wax, then rang for a maid and gave her the letter to be delivered to Mrs. Florence's residence on Somerset Street. “Please send a footman to collect my belongings,” she added, and the housemaid bobbed in a curtsy before departing.
Madeline returned to her bedside vigil. It seemed that Logan's condition deteriorated by the hour, the fever strengthening its hold and advancing stealthily. He was too groggy to argue as she fed him sips of beef tea. After Madeline's persistent efforts, he had managed to eat perhaps half a cup of the nourishing broth; then he fell asleep once more.
Somewhere in the house a large clock chimed twelve times, its tone deep and sonorous. Despite herself Madeline grew weary, her head bobbing as a wave of sleepiness nearly overcame her. She stood and stretched in an effort to waken herself, turning with a start as she heard someone enter the room.
Mrs. Beecham and the valet approached the bed. “How is he?” the housekeeper asked in a friendlier manner than she had used before. It seemed that she had adjusted to the idea of Madeline's presence and had decided to set aside her suspicions.
“The fever is worse.”
“That is what Dr. Brooke said to expect,” Mrs. Beecham replied in a matter-of-fact tone. “Mr. Scott's valet, Denis, is going to assist me in sponging him with cold water. Perhaps that will help to bring the fever down. You may wish to rest for a few hours. I thought you would like to occupy the small bedroom in Mr. Scott's private suite.”
“That is very kind of you,” Madeline replied. “But I want to be here if Mr. Scott needs me—”
“I'll watch over him until you return,” the housekeeper assured her. “You'll need a few hours of sleep. Miss Ridley, in order to be fresh for tomorrow.”
The point was well taken. Madeline was exhausted, and there were many long hours, even days, ahead before the fever would run its course. “Thank you,” she said, and the housekeeper showed her to a guest room only a few doors away.
Her gowns and other garments had been put away in a mahogany armoire. The bed was covered by a blue silk canopy that matched the embroidered counterpane. Madeline declined the offer of a maid to help her change, preferring to undress herself.
Donning a prim white nightgown with rows of pleats at the neck, Madeline climbed into bed. It seemed that she had never been so tired. Sleep claimed her immediately, the welcome darkness filling her mind.
At the first ray of morning light, Madeline snapped awake, feeling somewhat refreshed. Eagerly she reached for the robe that matched her nightgown and hurried to Logan's room, her bare feet quickly chilled in the cold morning air. A maid was lighting a fire in the grate while Mrs. Beecham collected a pile of damp linens that had been used to cool Logan during the night.
There were smudges beneath the housekeeper's eyes, and her forehead was tracked with lines that had not been there the previous day.
“There is no change,” she said in answer to Madeline's unspoken question.
Madeline went to the bed and stared down at Logan. His skin was dry and burning, his lips slightly chapped. The suit of flannels had been removed, and a single sheet rode low on his waist, exposing the muscled lines of his torso, the dark patches of hair beneath his arms, the hollow of his navel. She had never seen a na*ed man before. Her gaze strayed to the area of his body covered by the sheet, the endless length of his legs, the intimate shape of his loins draped with thin white linen. Her cheeks prickled with a modest blush, and she turned to find Mrs. Beecham's gaze on her.
“You're not his ‘companion,’ as you claimed,” the housekeeper said with quiet conviction. “Whatever you are to him…you're not his mistress.”
Caught off-guard, Madeline couldn't reply at first. Her heart changed its rhythm, and she tried to think above its rapid thundering. “How can you be certain?”
Mrs. Beecham smiled. “Everything about you proclaims it. Your nightgown, for one thing…a garment intended only for sleeping. Your manner, the way you look at him…it's clear that you haven't been intimate with him. You're a well-bred girl, barely out of the schoolroom. There is a particular kind of woman that suits Mr. Scott's taste…the kind that wears silk peignoirs and sleeps until two o'clock in the afternoon and would never lower herself to the drudgery of nursing a sick man. You are not his mistress.”
“I work at the Capital,” Madeline admitted. “Not as an actress…I'm only an assistant. But I am Mr. Scott's friend. At least, I hope he considers me as such.”
“And you're in love with him,” Mrs. Beecham remarked.
“Oh, no,” Madeline said, feeling the blood leave her face. “As I said, my feeling toward him is friendship…and admiration, of course—”
“You've gone to a great deal of trouble, and placed your own health at risk, only for the sake of friendship?”
Stricken, Madeline stared at her. Her throat felt tight, and the dull ache of the night before had worked its way back into her chest.
“Well, there's no need to discuss it,” Mrs. Beecham said, seeming touched by whatever she saw in Madeline's face. “Your reasons for being here are none of my concern. You may stay as long as you wish…until Mr. Scott says otherwise.”
Madeline nodded and sat down, feeling for the edges of the chair before lowering herself into it.
“He hasn't eaten for a while,” she heard the housekeeper remark. “I'll send up some milk toast. Perhaps you can coax him to take some.”
Madeline was only half aware of the woman's departure. She stared at the sleeping man's profile. This morning there was a shadow of bristle on his face, imparting the swarthiness of a sea captain or highwayman.
Taking his large hand between hers, she stroked the smooth back until she reached his hair-dusted wrist. His hand was strong and well-tended, the nails short and buffed to velvety smoothness. There were no rings on his fingers, only the white marks of a few nicks and scars. She remembered the touch of his hand on her face, her breast…the gentle brush of his fingertips.
Madeline wanted him to caress her again. She wanted things from him that she could never have. She wasn't aware that she had lowered her head to his hand until she felt his skin against her lips. Turning his palm up, she pressed her mouth to the creased hollow and tasted the salt of her own tears.
Logan would never want her…he had made that clear enough. And she had made any sort of trust between them impossible by approaching him with lies and an assumed name, and making him the object of a sordid plan. How could a man with his pride forgive her for such behavior? He couldn't.
She had never felt this kind of pain—persistent, heavy, crushing out every fragile flicker of happiness inside her. How ironic that she had pursued her goal with such cool determination, and ended up with her heart broken. She had always understood the social and even physical risks she was taking, but never the emotional ones. She hadn't planned on falling in love with Logan.