“You seem more starchy today.”
“This is the way I always am. Would you like me to continue reading, Your Grace?”
“Don’t Your Grace me, if you please.”
“And the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit,” she said, starting to read again. “He was filled with wisdom: and the grace of God was upon him.”
But she didn’t think about the words she was reading; she thought about the way Villiers’s skin was drawn so tightly over his cheekbones. He was dying. She knew it in the pit of her stomach. So why was she being so prudish with him, when she could tell that it made him miserable?
She put the book down again. After a bit he opened his eyes—he really did have the longest eyelashes—and said, “Well, do keep going.”
“I thought you’d heard enough.”
“I want to know how the story ends.” And then he started laughing at the expression on her face.
“You ought to drink the rest of your water.”
He picked up the glass and she cudgeled her brains for something to say that would make the spark come back into his eyes. “Why did you want to fly?” she asked.
“Who wouldn’t? To have wings at your back, and the sky at your mercy…to drift on the belly of the wind the way hawks do, and perch on a tree to chatter to friends. I am persuaded that conversations that take place on the branches of a tree are far more interesting than those that take place in London town houses.”
“You must have wished for something,” he said. “There’s not a true Englishman in the world who hasn’t wished that he won the bean in his slice of cake and became King of the Bean, or wished that his horrid little sister would lose at snapdragon, and perhaps even singe a finger on a burning raisin.”
Charlotte thought of meaningless answers and then said the truth. “I never wished for much until I turned sixteen.”
He raised his heavy eyes. “You fell in love?”
“No. I just wanted a man to fall in love with me. I was sure I could adapt my emotions to whomever presented himself.”
“Poor Charlotte,” he said, and his voice sounded less bored. She was right; he needed to think of someone other than himself. “Did no man ever fall in love with you?”
“I thought one did, once. Lord Barnabe Reeve.”
“Reeve was the Barnabe who brought you to my side? I never knew his first name.”
“We danced all night long once,” she said. “I thought…but he left London within days and went mad, or so they say.”
“I hate to dispel your sweet memories of first love, but in my view it’s better to have no spouse than one who’s cracked. And I know many who would agree with me.”
His hands lay on the counterpane, looking strangely still. The sight of them made her hurry into speech. “Doubtless, you’re right. After a while I stopped wishing for someone to fall in love with me and just wished for someone blind enough to mistake me for someone he might fall in love with.”
He smiled faintly. “You’re not an antidote. Particularly when you flare up and snap at me. I imagine that’s what Elijah sees in you.”
“Duke of Beaumont. I suppose I could marry you.”
She looked at him with some horror. “You—” She stopped. He was dying, but how to say so?
“Dying, dying, dying, how it gets in the way of my social life,” he said lightly. “To be but half-dead is as bad as being half-witted, like Reeve. Neither makes a man fit company for his betters nor a good consort for a woman.”
“You don’t want to marry me,” Charlotte said, recovering herself. “Besides, you’re far too high in the instep and grand for me to marry. I wouldn’t have dared wish for you.”
“I thought women liked to marry their betters. It does such nice things for one’s offspring.”
“As you pointed out, I have no offspring,” Charlotte pointed out. “Why should I worry about their future titles under those circumstances?”
“I suppose this will shock you, but I was thinking last night that I should have bothered to create a few children, and then I remembered that I had already.”
“Illegitimate ones,” he said. “As sometimes happens.”
“Not to me,” she said tartly.
“Women on the whole are better at keeping track of their children.”
He looked rather feverish again, so she said, “I think I’d better go back to the Bible, though it’s likely too late for your soul.”
“Do you think I might redeem my soul if I found a husband for you?”
“You would do better to see to the welfare of your poor children,” she said. And then, hearing the fascinated horror in her own voice: “How many are there?”
“Not as many as would fill a choir,” he said, “nor yet as few as to sing a solo. Can you sing, by the way?”
“I know a very nice lad in need of a wife but he loves song.”
“I’m not very good at things of that nature,” Charlotte said.
“What about horses?”
“Not an enthusiast. But you like to talk. We know that. And you have good ideas for Beaumont’s speech…what about a promising young politician? Plenty of those about.”
“They want someone with a large dowry,” she said dispassionately.
“You could have that.”
“As it happens, I don’t.”
“I could give it to you.” He opened his eyes very wide and looked at her. They were a deep black.
“Why would you do that?”
“I like you. And dying men have their foibles, their foolishnesses…”
“I thank you for it.” But she added, a little sadly: “It would be distasteful, don’t you think, to buy a husband, even with a duke’s largesse?”
“Oh, he wouldn’t know that. A better dress and you must put a bit of color on your cheeks now and then. And your hair!” He peered at her. “Worse than I remembered.”
She didn’t tell him that she had dressed her own hair with trembling fingers that morning, afraid he was dead, or nearly so, and then rushed out of the house with May calling behind her. “I will still be just me.”
“Not once I’ve transformed you. But I don’t think that a politician would be right. Too hard, too grasping. You’re correct: there’s a chance the man would marry you thinking of money and political influence. They all have those distasteful propensities. I think you need an intellectual.”
“A philosopher. Reeve was a thinker. I remember him madly talking about this and that. He was never boring.”
“No,” Charlotte agreed.
“Is it almost Christmas?”
“Tomorrow is St. Nicholas’s day.”
“God.” He whispered it. “It seems like yesterday that I fought that duel and it’s—it can’t have been months.”
“It has been.”
“I really won’t survive then, will I?”