This Duchess of Mine Page 42


“There is nothing that can be done,” Elijah stated. He felt a remote airiness in his head, though it was nothing he hadn’t surmised himself.

Dr. Chalus was sympathetic enough. “I don’t have anything to offer you that isn’t, frankly, a palliative. I am currently having some success by inducing my patients to inhale a vapor infused with fungi, or mushrooms. But as I say, I am trying to find a cure for dropsy, and you show no signs of that.”

“Surely you are not the only physician studying hearts?” Villiers said briskly. “Who are your colleagues? Who else is experimenting with such medicines?”

“Darwin, of course,” Chalus said. “Erasmus Darwin. But frankly, I consider him a fool, and his recent publications have been rather weak. There’s a fellow that we’re considering admitting to the Royal Society. He’s had some luck, I believe…” He went over to his desk and began rummaging about the great sheaves of paper.

Elijah wasn’t even listening. Villiers was right. He had to prepare his estate. He should summon his solicitor tonight.

“How much time do I have?” he asked abruptly.

The doctor paused. “You present an unusual case, Your Grace.”

“Surely you can give me some sort of estimation.”

“You are fainting, you said, for short periods of time. Immediately upon vigorous exercise?”

Elijah shook his head.

“He was in a fistfight at Vauxhall last night and seemed in the pink of health afterwards,” Villiers said. “But I found him unconscious, sitting in a chair one afternoon.”

“I was tired,” Elijah said. “Tired. If I’m very, very tired, and I sit down…”

“You’re rather lucky,” Dr. Chalus said. “Most patients can’t tolerate vigorous exercise and you seem to be the opposite. How often does this occur?”

“I have these episodes perhaps once a week. More so if I am deeply exhausted.”

“I recommend avoiding exhaustion, though I’m sure that has occurred to you as well.”

“And?”

“Perhaps you have a month, perhaps a year. I apologize, Your Grace, but I can no more name the day of your death than I can entice a chicken to sing.”

He went back to scrabbling among his papers. “Ah, here it is. William Withering. He trained in Scotland, though I believe he lives in Birmingham. He published a very interesting study of fungi; the Witheringia solanacea was given his name as a result.”

“And?” Villiers prompted.

“In more recent months he’s had some remarkable results giving a reduction of Digitalis purpurea to heart patients. I have that piece here somewhere. Aha! You may keep that,” he said, handing the papers to Villiers.

“As a member of the Royal Society, I can easily obtain another copy.”

He turned to Elijah, who was putting his coat back on. “I should be very remiss,” Chalus began, and stopped.

Villiers raised his head. Elijah nodded at the doctor and spoke for him. “You wish to tell me that I might not have a month. I might die on your very doorstep.”

“Death is an unwelcome visitor,” the doctor said.

“We might any of us be struck down by a wayward coach in the street outside.”

“True,” Elijah said. “True.” His lips felt numb. It was one thing to know of his father’s fate and to surmise the same of himself. It was another to hear it so bluntly stated.

Villiers was bowing, so Elijah did the same. They walked out onto an ordinary street, in the ordinary sunshine.

“I’ll send a coach to Birmingham,” Villiers announced.

Elijah hesitated, and said nothing. There were some advantages to having known a man since you were both boys. There was no stopping Villiers once he took that tone.

“I have to write Jemma a letter,” Elijah said suddenly.

“I promised that I wouldn’t leave the house without a personal note.” He smiled rather crookedly.

“This qualifies,” Villiers observed.

“I’ll write the letter when I get home and put it in the desk in the library, bottom left drawer, the locked one. Will you give it to her?”

The word sounded as if it came from behind clenched teeth, but: “Yes.”

“I need at least a week,” Elijah said. “God, but we haven’t slept together yet, Leopold. And I want it to be joyful. I couldn’t bear if she was afraid I would topple over, a corpse from the very act.”

“You are far more fit than your father was. He was quite robust, if you remember.”

“Plump,” Elijah corrected.

“I expect that made exercise more of a danger.” Villiers leaned his head back against the velvet seat and closed his eyes.

“You finally look tired,” Elijah observed.

“You could always do as I do,” Villiers said with his coldly amused smile.

“And that is?”

“I see no point in sleeping if my partner is willing and energetic.”

“She must be very energetic,” Elijah said, raising an eyebrow.

“Her name is Marguerite. She is a widow still in the throes of mourning her elderly husband, or so her family thinks. They expect her to pray at his grave at least two hours a day.”

“Goodness.”

“She tells me that the graveside is much more bearable after one of my visits,” Villiers said.

“Be careful. She’ll want to marry you.”

“Nay.”

“They all want you,” Elijah said, amused. “The great Duke of Villiers…one of the richest men in the kingdom, and one of the most successful at evading the parson’s noose. You pose a challenge, Leopold, and that is the most dangerous of all positions to be in.”

Villiers shrugged.

“You don’t mourn your fiancée, do you?” Elijah asked. “The one who ran off with Jemma’s brother?”

“I want what you have.”

There was the stark truth of it, in the open between them. “I know,” Elijah said heavily.

“Not Jemma,” Villiers stated. “But a woman of her intelligence and beauty, who looks at me the way she looks at you. If I had what you have, even for one day, I believe I might die happy.”

“Christ,” Elijah said. “I—”

“Then don’t let your jealousy make you into a fool.” Villiers’s voice grated.

“Christ,” Elijah said again.

They didn’t say anything else until the carriage drew up before Beaumont House. Then Leopold opened his heavy lidded eyes and met Elijah’s. “You asked me once to keep wooing Jemma so that I could be there when you died. I would ask you to release me from that promise. I love her. But not in the way you supposed.”

His words were sure and steady, and fell on Elijah’s soul like a healing balm. “Have you forgiven me, then?”

“For which of your multitudinous sins?” Villiers asked, the sardonic bite back in his voice.

“For stealing your Bess those years ago…for turning my back on you.”

“Oh no,” Villiers said. “I’ll mourn the loss of my barmaid until death.”

Elijah blinked.

“You always were a fool,” Villiers murmured, closing his eyes again.

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