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Authors: Candace Camp

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BOOK: Scandalous
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Her father nodded. “Excellent. But surely there's an easier way to get him there. We could move him easily if we just had the right sort of leverage.” He eyed the recumbent man speculatively. “What do you think his weight is?”

His eyes grew distant and unfocused as he began to consider the problem, and Priscilla hastened to intervene. “I don't think you need do any calculations right now, Papa. I'll fetch a blanket, and we can roll him onto it, then pull him in there on the blanket. That would be the easiest thing, don't you think?”

“Of course.” Florian beamed at his daughter. “You are always so practical, my dear. I can't think where you got it.”

“Some distant ancestor, I'm sure,” Priscilla replied, with a twinkle in her eye, and hurried off to pull a blanket out of the cedar chest in the hall.

When she returned, they followed her suggestion, tugging and rolling the man onto the blanket with some effort. After that, it was much easier to move him across the polished wooden floor, though the three of them were panting by the time they had maneuvered him down the hallway and through the kitchen into the tiny bedroom. Priscilla straightened up, putting a hand to her aching back. She looked from the stranger to the cot, then to her father. How could they possibly lift him up onto the cot?

“I think we'll leave him on the floor for now,” Florian said, echoing her own thoughts. “Perhaps he will come to and be able to get there on his own.”

Priscilla nodded, but a worried frown creased her forehead. “Did he seem…rather warm to you?”

“Yes.” Florian frowned, too. “Perhaps he has a fever. He could be ill.”

“Maybe he's been wandering about in a delirium,” Miss Pennybaker put in. “That could even explain why he's, well, in, uh, an unclothed state.”

“I suppose…if he were out of his head with fever,
he might have ripped off his clothes thinking it would make him cooler.”

“A brain fever might make one do anything,” Miss Pennybaker assured her. “He might have left his bed and gone running out into the night, thinking heaven knows what.”

“Well, if that
is
the case, we need to get him a doctor,” Florian said. “Perhaps I should go get Dr. Hightower.”

“No,” Priscilla protested quickly. “If there's someone or something dangerous outside, you don't need to be out there with it.” As her father began to bridle, she quickly amended her first, heartfelt concern, adding, “And Miss Pennybaker and I would be left alone here with no protection. What if someone tries to break in to get this man?”

“Hmm… You are right.”

“Pennybaker and I have taken care of Philip and Gid through countless fevers. I expect we can manage this one, as well. If he gets worse, you can go for the doctor.”

“All right. Perhaps I ought to check the windows…make sure we're locked up good and tight.”

Priscilla nodded absently, already sinking down onto her knees on the floor beside the stranger. She felt his forehead; it was burning-hot. Miss Pennybaker brought in the oil lamp from the kitchen, and in the better light Priscilla could see that the man's face was flushed. He moved restlessly, turning his head to the side, and she saw now that the back of his hair was sticky and clotted with something.

“Blood!” She felt carefully along the back of his skull, finding a knot in the midst of the sticky blood. “I knew it! There's been some sort of foul play here. Someone
hit him on the back of the head—hard. Penny, get me water and a cloth. We need to clean his wounds.”

“Oh, my. Oh, my.” Miss Pennybaker shook her head, sending the myriad of curls fluttering absurdly. “I don't like this at all.”

“Of course not. It is obvious someone has mistreated this man. Why, Pennybaker, look!” Her eyes had fallen on the man's wrists, and she lifted his arm so that her former governess could see it better. “See those red marks around his wrist? His skin has been rubbed raw there. Rope burns, I should think. There's another on the other wrist, in the same place. And look, his ankles, too. He has been tied up.”

Miss Pennybaker stared at her, aghast. “Priscilla! How do you know such things!”

Priscilla grimaced. “That is the way Gid's hands looked that time he was playing pirate and slid down a rope from the roof. Remember?”

“True.” The older woman cast an uncertain look at their uninvited guest. “But being tied up—Priscilla, things like that only happen in books.”

Priscilla shrugged. “Well, they must happen to real people sometimes, don't you think? It certainly seems to have happened to this man.”

“Yes, but I mean—not to the sort of people one
knows.
It makes me nervous. I'm sure he's a ruffian.”

“He is a ruffian who is out cold right now, and running a fever, as well. Surely we can manage to subdue him if he tries to attack us.”

Miss Pennybaker took a look at Priscilla's wide gray eyes, dancing with humor, and sniffed. “All right. Go on. Think I'm an old fuddy-duddy. But mark my words—”

Priscilla chuckled. “Come now, Penny, how many times has the dashing hero been rendered unconscious and his sweetheart has had to nurse him back to health? Where is your romantic spirit?”

“But never in his—his altogether! Heroes are always gentlemen. This one looks much too rough.”

“We shall find out, I suppose, whether he's a villain or a stalwart hero. But whichever he is, I think we need to see what we can do to make him well, don't you? Bring the tincture of echinacea, too, will you?”

Miss Pennybaker agreed, albeit reluctantly, and went into the kitchen, returning a few moments later with a bowl of water and supplies for cleaning a wound. Priscilla dipped a cloth in the water and carefully began to wash the back of the stranger's scalp. The man winced and moaned at her ministrations, but he did not waken. Priscilla dampened a small square of cloth with several drops of the healing tincture, then gently applied it to the wound.

“Goddamn it!” The man's eyes flew open, and his hand wrapped around her wrist like a steel band.

Priscilla froze, staring down into his eyes. They were bright green, the color of new leaves lightened by the sun, clear and penetrating, and it seemed to Priscilla as if they stabbed right through her into her soul. She sat utterly still; once more, he had left her bereft of words.

His eyes narrowed. “Who the devil are you?” he snapped.

“Let go of her!”

Priscilla had forgotten about Miss Pennybaker's presence until she shrieked out these words. Her eyes flew to the woman, who was standing now on the other side
of the man, the bowl of water held threateningly in her hand, her whole body so taut that she was trembling. The multitude of white cotton strips that decorated her head fairly quivered.

The unknown man's gaze went to Miss Pennybaker also, and his mouth dropped open in astonishment as he gazed at the apparition. “Holy hell! I'm in a madhouse!”

His hand dropped from Priscilla's wrist, and he surged to his feet. Miss Pennybaker backed up with a shriek, sloshing water everywhere, and Priscilla jumped up after him, crying, “No!” and reaching out to restrain him.

His face immediately went pale, and he wavered. Then his eyes rolled up in his head, and he crumpled.

This time Priscilla was quicker, and she wrapped her arms around him. He collapsed onto her, and for an instant she was enclosed in his heat and his smell, the hair-roughened skin of his chest pressed against her cheek, his head bending down over her and his arms around her. But she could not hold him up; her knees gave way beneath her, and together they slid to the ground.

“Priscilla! Oh, my love, are you all right?” Miss Pennybaker put aside her weapon and rushed to them.

“Yes.” Priscilla tried to squirm out from beneath his weight. “Help get him off of me.”

He was lying on top of her, pressing her against the floor, but it was less the feeling of the hard stone beneath her than the strange sensation of his body pressing into hers that disturbed her. There was a peculiar tingling all over her, and her loins were suddenly hot and melting. They were sensations she had never experienced before,
and they were unnerving, even though they were at the same time strangely exciting.

Miss Pennybaker grabbed the man's arm and shoulder and tugged, while Priscilla pushed from beneath, and they managed to roll him off her and back onto the blanket. Priscilla sat up for a moment, recapturing her breath and letting the flush in her cheeks subside.

“Are you sure you're all right?” Miss Pennybaker queried anxiously, gripping her gown with nervous fingers.

“Yes. I'm fine.” Priscilla brushed back a strand of hair and picked up the roll of bandages Miss Pennybaker had brought in earlier. “Just hold his head and let me wrap this bandage around it.”

A little tentatively, Miss Pennybaker did as she said, and Priscilla wrapped the narrow strip of cloth around his head a few times and tied it, pleased to see that her hands were steady. She went on to wash his wrists and his ankles, steadfastly ignoring the rest of his naked body, and covered them with tincture-soaked bandages. This time he flinched but did not open his eyes when she laid the potent mixture upon his wounds.

“There, now.” She stood up and shook out her skirts, looking down on her charge. “I've done everything I can think of. He'll need another blanket, of course, to cover him.”

She picked up the bowl of water, now stained pink from his blood, and went into the kitchen, Miss Pennybaker trailing along behind her.

“I think we need to keep watch over him to see how his fever is progressing,” Priscilla told the other woman.

“Yes, and to make sure he doesn't come to and decide
to murder us all in our beds,” Miss Pennybaker added dramatically.

Priscilla smiled. “I think we could lock our doors and prevent that. However, he may need medical care. I think I will sit up with him.”

“Not by yourself!” Miss Pennybaker gasped. “Think of what could happen! What he might do! Remember what he just did.”

“Well, he didn't attack me. In fact, it was we who threatened him, as I remember.”

“He grabbed your arm.”

“I was hurting him. I should think it would be only natural to try to stop the pain. He was not in a clear state of mind.”

“No. You must not. It's too dangerous.” Miss Pennybaker squared her shoulders. “I will stay with you.”

“Don't be silly. I shall keep a weapon handy—a rolling pin, say, so that I can knock him over the head if he comes to and tries to strangle me.”

“Priscilla, this is no time for joking!”

“I'm not. I promise, I will keep a rolling pin at hand. Better, I think, than a knife, because, you know, I have a fairly good swing, but I haven't any experience with stabbing anyone.”

“Priscilla…” Miss Pennybaker wrung her hands, her face twisted with worry. “At least let me stand guard with you.”

“But you can't. You must get some sleep so that you can watch over him during the day tomorrow.”

“Priscilla!” The older woman's hand flew to her throat.

“Don't worry. If he hasn't tried to attack me in the night, I think it unlikely that he would try it in the light
of day. Besides, Mrs. Smithson will be here tomorrow, and Papa will be around, as well.”

“Then your father can stay with him tomorrow, and I will remain with you tonight.”

Priscilla rolled her eyes. “Papa would be useless in a sickroom. Why, within five minutes, he'd be thinking about some experiment or theorem or something, and the poor man could expire without him even noticing.”

Miss Pennybaker, having been acquainted with Florian Hamilton for so many years, was forced to see the wisdom of that argument. Still, she protested futilely for several minutes more before she finally gave in to Priscilla's arguments and left for bed. Priscilla, casting a glance at their patient, who was sound asleep on the floor, walked with Miss Pennybaker upstairs to take two more blankets from the chest in the hall. As she was closing the lid, there was a knock on the front door.

She whirled and hurried down the stairs, but her father got to the front door before her this time. Florian swung the door open, revealing two of the most unsavory-looking characters Priscilla had ever seen. One was tall and angular, with longish, unkempt hair and a sharp-feature face. His eyes were narrow and sly, and they darted around the room, peering unabashedly into the house behind Florian. His companion was short and square. His chest and arms bulged with muscles, and his nose looked as if it had been broken more than once. His face was an oafish blank.

Priscilla hastily dropped the blankets behind the stairs, where they would not be seen, and moved up to stand behind her father. If ever there were people who looked bent on no good, it was these two. Moreover, as she drew close, she realized that one or the other of
them, perhaps both, reeked of alcohol. She sincerely hoped that her vague, pleasant-tempered father did not decide to trust them. It also occurred to her that it would be quite comforting if she had that rolling pin in her hand right now.

“Yes?” Florian asked, his voice icy with hauteur. “My good man, do you realize what time it is? Rather odd to be calling on people at this time of the night, don't you think?”

Priscilla almost sagged with relief. Obviously her father had taken the same immediate dislike to these two men that she had. He was usually quite egalitarian in his dealings with everyone, but he could, if he chose, fall back into the aristocratic tone and stance that generations of breeding had instilled in him.

His words obviously had the desired effect on the men on the porch. The shorter one squirmed and looked aside, and the tall one quickly pulled off his cap, bobbing a sort of bow toward Florian.

“Sorry to disturb you, guv'nor. But it's an emergency, like.”

“You don't say.” Florian's voice dripped with disbelief.

BOOK: Scandalous
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