"I feel fine," he told her. "Go to bed."
He told the lie easily. He didn't feel at all fine, however. He felt like hell. His insides were on fire. His stomach was reacting as though he'd just swallowed a hot piece of coal. His skin was clammy and hot, and he found himself thanking God he hadn't had much to eat tonight. The mere thought of food made him want to gag.
Colin was certain he would feel better once he had gotten some sleep. At one o'clock in the morning he was wishing he could close his eyes and die.
By three o'clock, he thought he had.
He was burning up with fever, and damn if he hadn't thrown up at least twenty times the paltry little apple he'd eaten before he left for the opera.
His stomach finally accepted the fact that there wasn't anything more to get rid of and settled down into a tight knot. Colin sprawled out on the bed, face down, with his arms spread wide.
Oh, yes, death would have been a treat.
She wouldn't let him die. She wouldn't leave him alone either. The minute she was awakened by the sounds of retching coming from Colin's bedroom, she threw off her covers and got out of bed.
Alesandra didn't care about appearances. It didn't matter to her if going into his bedroom would be looked upon as inappropriate behavior; Colin needed her help, and he was going to get it.
By the time she put on her robe and went next door, Colin was back in his bed. He was sprawled out on his stomach on top of the covers. He was stark naked. She tried not to notice. Colin had opened both windows and the room was now so frigid with cold she could see her breath. The drapes billowed out like inflated balloons from the hard, spitting wind and rain coming through the windows.
"Dear God, are you trying to kill yourself?" she asked.
Colin didn't answer her. She hurried over to shut the windows before turning to the bed. Only one side of Colin's face was visible to her, yet that was quite enough for her to surmise from his tortured expression how miserable he was feeling.
It was a struggle, but she finally was able to tug the covers out from under him and then cover him up and properly tuck him in. He told her to leave him the hell alone. She ignored that order. She put the back of her hand to his forehead, felt the heat there, and immediately went to fetch a cold, wet cloth.
Colin was too weak to fight her. She spent the rest of the night with him, mopping his brow every five minutes or so and holding the chamber pot for him just as often. He wasn't able to throw up anything more, for his stomach was empty now, but he still made the most horrible gagging sounds trying.
He wanted water. She wouldn't let him have any. She tried reasoning with him, but he wasn't in the mood to listen to her. Thankfully he was too exhausted to get the water by himself.
"If you swallow anything, it's going to come right back up. I've had this illness, Colin. I know what I'm talking about. Now close your eyes and try to get some rest. You're going to feel better tomorrow." She wanted to give him a bit of hope, and for that reason she deliberately lied. If Colin followed the same course as everyone else, he was going to be miserable for a good week. Her prediction proved accurate. He wasn't feeling any better the following day, or the day after that. She personally tended to him. She wouldn't let Flannaghan or Valena into the chamber, fearing they would also catch the illness if they got too close to Colin. Flannaghan tried to argue with her. Colin was his responsibility, after all, and he should be the one to tend to him. It was his noble duty, he explained, to put himself at risk.
Alesandra countered with the explanation that she had already suffered with the illness and was therefore the only one suited to see to Colin's needs. It was highly doubtful she would get sick again. Flannaghan, however, would be taking a much greater gamble, and how would they all ever get along if he became too sick to take care of them?
Flannaghan was finally convinced. He was kept busy with the running of the household, and even took on the added duty of answering all of her correspondence. The town house was off-limits to all callers. The physician, Sir Winters, returned to look at Raymond's injury, and while he was there Alesandra consulted him about Colin's illness. The physician didn't go into Colin's bedroom, for he had no wish to contract the illness, but he left a tonic he thought might settle the patient's irritable stomach and suggested sponge baths to cool the fever.
Colin was a difficult patient. Alesandra tried to follow the physician's advice by giving Colin a sponge bath late that night when his temperature increased. She stroked his chest and arms with the cooling cloth first, then turned to his legs. He seemed to be asleep, but when she touched his scarred leg, he almost came off the bed.
"I would like to die in peace, Alesandra. Now get the hell out of here."
His hoarse bellow didn't affect her, for she was still reeling from the sight of his injured leg. The calf was a mass of scar tissue from the back of his knee to the edge of his heel. Alesandra didn't know how he'd come by the injury, but the agony he must have endured tore at her heart.
She thought it a miracle he could walk at all. Colin jerked the covers over his legs and told her again, though in a much more weary tone of voice, to leave his room.
There were tears in her eyes. She thought he might have seen them. She didn't want him to know the brief glimpse at his leg had caused that reaction. Colin was a proud, unbending man. He didn't want her pity, she knew, and he was obviously prickly about the scar.
Alesandra decided to turn his attention. "Your shouts are most upsetting to me, Colin, and if you continue to give me such harsh commands, I'll probably cry like a child. I won't leave, however, no matter how mean hearted you become. Now kindly give me your leg. I'm going to wash it."
"Alesandra, I swear to God, I'm going to toss you out the window if you don't leave me alone."
"Colin, the sponge bath didn't bother you at all last night. Why are you so irritable now? Is the fever higher tonight?"
"You washed my legs last night?"
"I did," she blatantly lied.
"What the hell else did you wash?"
She knew what he was asking. She tried not to blush when she answered him. "Your arms and chest and legs," she told him. "I left the middle alone. Do quit fighting me, sir," she ordered as she snatched his leg from under the cover.
Colin gave up. He muttered something atrocious under his breath and closed his eyes. Alesandra dipped the cloth into the cold water, then gently washed both legs.
Her composure never faltered, and it was only after she'd covered him up again that she realized he'd been watching her.
"Now then," she said with a sigh. "Don't you feel better?"
His glare was his answer. She stood up and turned away from him so he wouldn't see her smile. She put the bowl of water back on the washstand, then carried a goblet only half filled with water back over to her patient.
She handed him the drink, told him she would leave him alone for a little while, and then tried to do just that. He grabbed hold of her hand and held tight.
"Are you sleepy?" he asked her, his voice still gruff with irritation.
"Then stay and talk to me."
He moved his legs out of the way and patted the side of the bed. Alesandra sat down. She folded her hands together in her lap and desperately tried not to stare at his chest.
"Don't you own any nightshirts?" she asked.
"Cover yourself, Colin," she suggested then. She didn't wait for him to do as she ordered, but saw to the duty herself.
He immediately shoved the quilt back. He sat up, propped his back against the headboard, and let out a loud yawn.
"God, I feel like hell."
"Why do you wear your hair so long? It reaches your shoulders now. It looks quite barbaric," she added with a smile so he wouldn't think she was insulting him. "'Tis the truth, it makes you look like a pirate."
He shrugged. "It's a reminder to me," he said.
"A reminder of what?"
She didn't know what he was talking about, but he didn't look inclined to explain further. He turned the topic then by asking her to catch him up on business matters.
"Did Flannaghan remember to send a note to Borders?"
"Do you mean your associate?"
"Borders isn't an associate. He's retired from the shipping business these days, but he helps out when I need him."
"Yes," she answered. "Flannaghan did send a messenger and Mister Borders is taking care of business. Each evening he sends the daily report, and they're all stacked up on your desk for you to look over when you're feeling better. You also received another letter from your partner," she added with a nod. "I didn't realize the two of you had opened a second office across the sea. You'll soon be worldwide, won't you?"
"Perhaps. Now tell me what you've been doing. You haven't gone out, have you?"
She shook her head. "I've been taking care of you. I did write another note to Victoria's brother begging a second audience. Neil responded with a terse note, denying my request. I do wish you hadn't tossed him out."
"I don't want him coming back here, Alesandra."
She let out a sigh. He gave her a good frown. "You're stirring up unnecessary trouble."
"I promised to be discreet. I'm worried about Victoria," she added with a nod.
"No one else is," he countered.
"Yes, I know," she whispered. "Colin, if you were in trouble, I would do whatever it took to help you."
He was pleased with her fervent promise. "You would?"
She nodded. "We are like family now, aren't we? Your father is my guardian, and I try to think of you as a brother…"
"The hell with that."
Her eyes widened. Colin looked furious with her. "You don't want me to think of you as a brother?"
"Damned right I don't."
She looked crushed.
Colin stared at her with an incredulous expression on his face. The fever hadn't diminished his desire for her at all. Hell, he'd have to be dead and buried before he could rid himself of his growing need to touch her.
She didn't have a clue as to her own appeal. She sat so prim and proper next to him, wearing that virginal white gown that wasn't suppose to be the least bit provocative but still damn well was. The dress was buttoned up to her chin. He thought it was extremely sexy. So was her hair. It wasn't bound up behind her head tonight but fell in wild curls around her shoulders. She kept brushing the locks back over her shoulders in a motion he found utterly appealing.
Damned if he would let her think of him as her brother.
"Less than a week ago you were thinking of me as your future husband, remember?"
His unreasonable anger fueled her own. "But you declined, remember that?"
"Don't take that tone of voice with me, Alesandra."
"Don't raise your voice to me, Colin."
He let out a long sigh. They were both exhausted, he told himself, and surely that was the reason their tempers were so fragile tonight.
"You're a princess," he said then. "And I'm…"
She finished his sentence for him. "A dragon."
"Fine," he snapped. "A dragon then. And princesses don't marry dragons."
"Lord, but you're irritable tonight."
"I'm always irritable."
"Then it's a blessing we aren't going to marry each other. You would make me quite miserable."
Colin yawned again. "Probably," he drawled out.
She stood up. "You need to go to sleep now," she announced. She leaned over him and touched his forehead with her hand. "You've still got a fever, though it isn't as high as last night. Colin, do you dislike women who say I told you so?"
She smiled. "Good. I remember telling you your suspicious nature would get you into trouble, and I was right, wasn't I?"
He didn't answer her. She didn't mind. She was too busy gloating. She turned and walked over to the door connecting the bedrooms. She wasn't quite finished goading him, however. "You just had to find out for yourself that Caine was really sick, and now look at you."
She pulled the door wide. "Good night, dragon."
"I was wrong."
"You were?" She was thrilled by his admission and waited to hear the rest of his apology. The man wasn't quite an ogre after all. "And?" she prodded when he didn't go on.
"You're still a brat."
Colin's fever continued to plague him for seven long days and nights. He awakened during the eighth night feeling human again and knew the fever was gone. He was surprised to find Alesandra in his bed. She was fully clothed and slept sitting up with her shoulders propped against the headboard. Her hair hung over her face, and she didn't move at all when he got out of bed. Colin washed, changed into a clean pair of britches, and then went back to the bed. He lifted Alesandra into his arms, and even in his weakened condition, it didn't take any effort at all. She was as light as air to him. He smiled when she snuggled up against his shoulder and let out a feminine little sigh. Colin carried her back to her own room, put her in bed, and covered her with a satin quilt.
He stood there staring down at her for a long while. She never opened her eyes. She was clearly exhausted from lack of sleep. He knew she had stayed by his side throughout most of the god-awful ordeal. Alesandra had taken good care of him, and, Lord, he didn't know how he felt about that.
He accepted that he was in her debt, but, damn it all, his feelings went far beyond gratitude. She was beginning to matter to him. As soon as he acknowledged that truth, he tried to think of a way to soften her impact on him. Now wasn't the time to get involved with any woman. Yes, the timing was all wrong, and he sure as certain wasn't going to push his own goals and dreams aside now for any woman.
Alesandra wasn't just any woman, though, and he knew, if he didn't get away from her soon, it would be too late. Hell, it was complicated. His mind was filled with such conflicting emotions. He didn't want her, he told himself again and again, and yet the thought of anyone else having her made his stomach turn.
He wasn't making any sense. Colin finally forced himself to move away from the side of her bed. He went back through his bedroom and continued on into his study. He had at least a month's work piled up now and it would surely take him that long just to transfer all the numbers into the ledgers. Burying himself in his work was just what he needed to take his mind off Alesandra.