At last they reached the edge of the mattress. She managed to turn them so that when she removed her support, he sat down on the edge of the bed. Without much urging from her, he reclined onto his back.
There. That took care of head, shoulders, and torso. Now, to get his legs on the mattress, too.
“I feel strange,” he said dreamily. “Heavy.”
“You are heavy,” she muttered, straining to lift one of his massive boots from the floor and heave his leg onto the bed. Goodness, lifting him felt like lifting a statue carved of granite. Once she had the first leg in place, the second came easier. Badger leapt onto the bed and curled between his boots.
She leaned over him to place the pillow under his head.
“I can see down your bodice,” he remarked.
A thrill shot down her spine, leaving her body through the soles of her feet.
Really, Kate. This isn’t the time.
She laid the back of her hand to his forehead. Hot to the touch.
“You’re feverish. I need to strip the rest of your shirt, to cool your body and ease your breathing.”
She reached for the knife, wiped it clean of blood, and used it to make a notch in the neckline of his shirt. Then she grabbed both sides and ripped it straight down the front, pushing the halves to either side and working the remaining sleeve down his good arm.
When she’d bared his chest, she startled. He didn’t seem to notice her shock, and she wasn’t sure whether his insensibility was a fortunate thing or a very bad sign.
But since he didn’t notice . . . she openly stared. His chest was hard, sculpted muscle covered with tanned skin. She saw a liberal sprinkling of dark hair, a few healed scars . . .
And tattoos. Several tattoos.
Kate had heard of such things. She knew many sailors had patterns or pictures inked into their skin, but she’d never seen an example in person, to her recollection. Definitely not this close.
Not all of Thorne’s tattoos were patterns or pictures. There was an abstract design of some kind on his upper right chest, encircled by a medallion just smaller than her palm. On his shoulder was a tiny, crudely drawn flower—rather like a Tudor rose. A row of numbers marched up the underside of his left arm. And on the side of his rib cage, she found a pair of letters: B and C.
So primitive. So fascinating. She couldn’t help but lay her fingers to those letters and wonder what they meant. The initials of some former sweetheart, perhaps? She knew he’d had lovers, but the notion of Thorne with a sweetheart seemed absurd. Almost as absurd as the spike of jealousy twisting in her chest.
But when she touched his skin, the scalding heat reminded her of the larger task at hand. Keeping this immense, stubborn, tattooed man alive.
She tried to rise from the bed, but his good arm shot out to catch her. He still had some strength in him, apparently, and he used it to pull her close.
“What is it?” she asked.
“You smell so good.” His eyes were closed, and his voice was a low, rummy drawl. “Like clover.”
She swallowed. “I don’t even know what clover smells like.”
“Then you need a good roll in it.”
She laughed a little. If he was making jokes, he couldn’t be beyond hope.
Then his muscles seized and his eyes rolled back as he thrashed on the mattress. She put her hands to his chest and leaned all her weight on them, holding him to the bed.
He fell limp, panting. His hand found and tangled in her loosened hair. “Katie. I’m dying.”
“You’re not dying. Adder bites are rarely fatal. That’s what the book said. But I need to make you some salve, and a tea.”
He held her fast, forbidding her to move. “I’m dying. Stay with me.”
Desperation pressed on her, but Kate forcibly held it at bay. She reminded herself of what Susanna had once told her—big, strong men always made the worst, most infantile patients when forced to a sickbed. If they took sick with a cold, they moaned and complained as though they were at death’s door. Thorne was simply overreacting. She hoped.
She stroked a touch over his perspiring brow. “You’ll be fine. I’ll just go make you some—”
“You don’t know me.”
“I do. I know you far better than you give me credit for. I know you’re brave and good and—”
“No, you don’t know. You don’t recall me. But it’s best. When I first arrived, I worried. Feared you might place me. At times, I almost hoped you would. But it’s . . .” He drew a raspy breath. “It’s best this way.”
“What do you mean?” Kate’s every nerve jumped to attention. “It’s best what way?”
“You’ve done so well for yourself, Katie. If she could see you, she’d be . . . so proud . . .” His voice trailed off and he closed his eyes.
What did he just say?
She shook his arm. “Who? Who’d be proud?”
“Sing for me,” he whispered. “Your sweet voice will be the last thing I hear. I’ll carry a little echo of heaven with me, even when they drag me down to hell.”
She didn’t know what to make of any of his rambling. Perhaps he was simply delirious. That had to be the explanation.
“I have to pound the herbs,” she choked out. “There’s a salve you need, and then some tea.”
“Sing.” His grip on her hair went slack, and he pulled his fingers through her loosened curls. “Only not . . . not the garden. Not the blossoms so fair. Don’t sing that verse for me.”
She froze, stunned. “How do you know that song? When did you hear me sing it?”
“Always hated . . . hearing it from your lips.”
She searched her memory, trying to recall if she’d ever sung that verse in his presence. She didn’t think so. Even if she had, why would he hate it? “Have you been following me? Spying on me?”
He made no answer.
Well, Kate needed answers, and she was going to have them. She extricated herself from his grasp. “Lie still in that bed and let me make you some salve. We will talk about all this when you’ve recovered.”
“Katie, just sing to me. I’m dy—”
She grabbed him by the jaw and gave his head a brisk shake, forcing him to open his eyes. His pupils were so wide, there was almost no blue in them.
“You are not dying,” she told him. “Do you hear me, Thorne?”
“Aye.” His eyes slowly focused on her face. “But just in case . . .”
He pulled her mouth down to his, catching her in a kiss.
A wild, feverish, dangling-on-the-brink-of-death kiss.
He’d caught her unawares, lips parted. The result was a passionate, open-mouthed tangle of tongues and teeth. There was nothing tender in this kiss, nor even seductive. It was hot, possessive, fierce, and it held nothing back for tomorrow. As his tongue swept deep into her mouth, again and again, she could taste his hunger and desperation. His need resonated as a deep ache in her bones.
And she found herself answering. Out of pure instinct, she was kissing him back. Letting her tongue rub against his. With each slide of that sweet friction, desire spiraled through her. He moaned against her mouth and gripped her so tightly it hurt.
When the kiss broke apart, Kate was left reeling.
Which put her better off than Thorne, who slumped back onto the bed, unconscious.
Frantic, she put a hand to his throat and felt for his pulse. It was there. Steady, if rather fast.
She had to act quickly. She rose from the bedside. From the table, she gathered up the vial of calamint.
Salve first. Tea, second. Prayers, third.
Extensive questioning later on.
As she took the tinderbox to the hearth, she spoke to him. “You are not going to die, do you understand me? I will not allow it. I am going to save your life if I have to barter with the devil for it.”
Whatever information Thorne was hiding, she’d be damned if she let him take it to his grave. She needed answers.
And she needed him.
He dreamt of a giant serpent. A thick rope of ominous power, sliding down the narrow alleys of London. Twining through gardens and thickets in Kent. Last, snaking over the low, rolling hills of Sussex . . . tracing the scent of salt all the way to the ocean. It had followed him here, to this ancient castle, where it slithered in through the turret’s smoke vent and dropped to the bed. It wound its length again and again about his arm.
Devil take me.
The pressure was so intense, Thorne sensed his very bones pulverizing. Then, as if inflicting that flesh-grinding pain wasn’t enough, the dream snake settled on his chest. Each breath felt like a struggle to lift a hundredweight with his ribs.
Thorne wrestled the scaly beast for untold hours, thrashing and grappling with the pain. Finally, mercifully, it faded into blackness.
Sometime later he woke with a start.
All was dark, save for firelight. He couldn’t move. Repeated efforts to draw up his legs or rise to a sitting position came to naught. His limbs wouldn’t obey his commands.
He stared up at the ceiling, panting for breath. A bead of sweat trickled from his brow to his ear. The room was thick with the scents of herbs and tallow.
How much time had passed? Hours? Days?
He heard someone rustling over by the hearth.
“Katie?” he croaked.
She didn’t hear him. As she went about stirring the fire, she hummed a little tune.
He closed his eyes and went back to that very first day. He’d entered the Bull and Blossom and there she’d been. Singing.
He hadn’t recognized her, not at first. How could he? She was a woman now, near twenty years older than when he’d seen her last. And her profile was to him—the unmarked side. To his battle-weary eyes, she was just a fresh-faced girl in white.
To his ears, she was some sort of angel.
She hit this note—a soft, plaintive trill—and that was it. He was done for.
That note found the vulnerable slot between his plates of armor, wriggled in deep and sank in teeth. Her voice was the sweetest venom. It was in his blood, his heart, pumping all through his body before he could muster any defense. All sorts of impulses swelled in response: affinity, desire, protectiveness. An intense, sudden hunger for her approval.
Naturally, a well-bred lady of accomplishment would not look at a man like him. Nor should she. He’d formed no plans or expectations. But simply to know he could feel such things was a source of true wonder. He’d been numb for so long.
She’d struck the last chord, and the music eased into a full, vibrating silence. He would not have noticed a powder blast in the lane.
Then she’d risen from the pianoforte to take her seat. He saw the mark at her temple, and the truth detonated.
Good Lord. It was her. Katie.
Waifish, sweet-faced Katie, all grown up. Now it all made sense. There was a reason he felt a strong sense of recognition—because he did know her. He felt protective toward her because she’d once been in his keeping. And that hunger for her approval . . . it too had its roots in a time long past, when she’d looked up to him with something akin to worship in her eyes.
All these impulses inside him . . . they were echoes of something he’d lost long ago. Some memory of the humanity that had long since been beaten, starved, and flogged out of him.
She didn’t know him, of course. She couldn’t have remembered—she’d been too young, and now they were too different. They’d started in the same low trough of their youth but climbed opposites sides of the valley. Now there was a chasm between them, and even if she shaded her brow and peered hard, she’d probably never recognize him across it. But what mattered was that she had survived. She’d forged a new life well apart from that squalid misery they once shared. And he’d vowed to himself then and there—no matter how alluring he found her, he would never do anything to jeopardize her happiness.