An Affair of Honor Excerpt

An Affair of Honor Excerpt

Prologue

London, 1814

Matilda Winslow blew a fallen lock of her hair from her eyes and then crawled under Captain Ford’s bed to retrieve an item that had rattled to the floor while she’d been changing his sheets. She stretched to reach a strap that appeared to be wedged behind the headboard.

When tugging from beneath failed to free it, Matilda scrambled out again, frustrated. The captain was leaving very early the next day, returning to his ship and command, and she needed to finish this job. Mrs. Young insisted the bedding be changed before he returned to the house.

She wasn’t supposed to be in his rooms at this hour. No one was. The captain, when he was ashore, ran his home under a firm set of rules that no one dared cross.

Matilda considered her options. She couldn’t leave it there in case it was important to the captain. The bed was too heavy for her to move on her own, and although she could call for help, she hated to do so. The other servants didn’t like her very much, having decided from the beginning to make fun of her at every turn. Calling out to them was decidedly unappealing, so she had no choice but to climb onto the huge bed, hoping she could reach the mysterious item without having to remake her morning’s work entirely.

It was dark behind the headboard, and she thrust her hand into the narrow space.

She touched cold metal and jerked her hand back in surprise. Matilda peered into the gap and discovered the straps attached to a buckle. Puzzled by their presence, Matilda grabbed the item and tugged it into the light. It was not what she’d expected to find.

It was a horse’s harness, but a very strange design indeed if it was intended for a normal-sized horse. The straps were made of red silk, the buckles bright silver and definitely too delicate for any beast of burden. On further exploration, she retrieved a leather mask, not unlike a satin one she’d seen the captain wear to a masquerade ball recently. It was engraved with swirls and markings to define the eyes and was sized to fit the full way around the head, almost like a cap that laced at the back with more red silk ribbons.

Intrigued, she searched again and brought out a riding crop and cat-o’-nine-tails that appeared new. The latter gave her gooseflesh just to look at it, but the strands were so soft that she wasn’t sure it could be used for punishment of any member of the captain’s crew.

She sat back on her heels, flexing the crop between her hands, puzzled. Why would the captain keep such items hidden behind his bed? Surely they belonged in his dressing room with his clothes, although some of them deserved to be in the stables. She picked up the mask again and studied the item, running her fingertips over the smooth sections where his cheeks would rest. Beautifully made, and the leather was supple as if it was worn often.

Matilda scurried off the bed and moved to the mirror to find out, but when she saw her appearance she nearly died of mortification. Her hair looked dreadful. She appeared a waif who had run backward through a briar patch.

Matilda quickly released her hair from the few pins she owned, smoothed the strands until they were tidy, and swept it up again into a neat and modest arrangement. Feeling better about herself at last, she lifted the captain’s mask into place.

The leather was soft against her skin, and wearing it made it seem as if a stranger was in the room with her. It hid her identity so well she was curious to know more about the purpose. She’d never seen Captain Ford carrying it out the door on his way to a society entertainment. She probably should not pay so much attention to the handsome captain; as a servant, his comings and goings were none of her business. Nevertheless, she had long ago admitted the man was more than a little intriguing. He was quiet, he never yelled, but somehow his brief stays in the town house managed to terrify each and every servant so much that they fell over themselves trying to please him.

He was dangerous in a way Matilda could never quite pin down. He made her wonder if falling into her employer’s arms might not be the scandal her upbringing told her it should be.

Through the eyes of the mask, she saw the door open behind her, and she gasped as she realized her employer had returned.

Matilda dropped the mask from her face and swept it behind her back, hoping to hide what she’d been doing from Captain William Ford.

His dark eyes bored into hers, flickered to the bed where her discoveries were still on display, and then back to her. His brow furrowed, which she’d learned was not a good sign. He was displeased, as he often was around her no matter how hard she tried to be unobtrusive. She couldn’t have picked a worse day to linger in his room.

The click of the door lock was very loud in the room. “Miss Winslow,” he said in his soft way, causing gooseflesh to rise all over her skin.

“Captain.”

He came close. “What are you doing here at this hour?”

Matilda clenched the mask behind her back. “Making the bed,” she explained weakly and then prayed he would not notice she’d failed to straighten the comforter from when she’d been standing on it.

“The bed is made, although somewhat imperfectly.” He stopped a foot from her, and then his attention flickered to the mirror behind her back. His brow rose. “Show me what is behind your back.”

“I. Oh. This mask?” She offered it to him, seeing no point of hiding it any longer. He must have seen she’d been holding his possession through the mirror’s reflection, a major transgression for any servant. She’d been warned before not to touch his personal items. “It fell.”

His expression grew cold. “And the other articles. Did they fall too?”

“No.” She swallowed the lump in her throat when he would not take the mask from her shaking hand. “Only one item truly fell. I still have not retrieved it from behind the headboard. It is out of my reach, only I did not know you stored these other items there and recovered them by mistake. I will put everything back the way I found it, I promise.”

His hot fingers wrapped around her wrist and held her in place. The mask dropped from her hand. “Too late for that.”

His grip tightened, and her heart began to pound. “Captain?”

One brow lifted. “Have I not issued clear instructions that I do not want servants lingering in my bedchamber?”

“Yes, captain.” She shivered, too aware of his proximity and unyielding stance. “But I was ordered to change your sheets today.”

“If that is true, then what were you doing standing before the looking glass?” His gaze narrowed. “Admiring yourself?”

Matilda licked her lips. Oh, she was in so much trouble. Mrs. Young would waste no time in turning her out for displeasing the captain on his last day ashore. She could not afford to lose this position. Surely he had some compassion in him for a woman who’d only stolen a moment to neaten her appearance.

“I wanted to fix my hair,” she admitted, glancing down in shame. “I was given no time to use in the mirrors in the servants’ hall this morning and I had no idea how frightful I looked until now. Mrs. Young believes servants have no business fussing with their appearance. I apologize.”

“You always look beautiful, even when your ebony tresses are half falling down. Especially then.” His lips pursed and he released her. “Turn and look your fill in the mirror.”

Startled by his suggestion, Matilda hesitated to obey. Staring at her reflection wasn’t actually what she’d been doing. Her hair was tidy now and she had just been curious about how she would look in a mask, having never attended a masquerade ball before.

She turned a little as Captain Ford placed a chair some feet before the mirror and sat facing her, hands on his thighs as if he was waiting for her compliance.

Waiting for her performance—as if she were a character in his very own private play.

He scowled. “The mirror, Miss Winslow. Look at yourself in it now.”

To follow his orders meant she would have to stand directly in front of him. What harm could come of that since he insisted it was all right? She took a step, placed herself before the mirror, and stared at her reflection. She had always resented that her skin wasn’t fair. She was too much like her mother in appearance, her father had often claimed with a hint of regret. Her saving grace was her eyes, her prettiest feature by far. She widened her attention to the rest of her appearance. A poor maid wearing a drab brown gown that did not flatter her complexion or figure stared back. She lowered her eyes, properly shamed before the captain. Overall, she was nothing special to look at. “You were making fun of me.”

He frowned. “I’d never do that.”

“Why not? Everyone else does.” She complained and then bit her lip. Her employer wouldn’t want to know about her problems, and especially not on his last day ashore.

“Everyone else is either a fool or jealous, Miss Winslow.” He pulled a face. “You could wear sack cloth and still be the most remarkable and distracting woman in the room.”

His words made her skin heat with a blush, but she smiled too. She liked the idea that he had noticed her, even if he was so far above her. But was unwise to think a captain in his majesties navy could want to pay too much attention to a lowly maid when he was as handsome as William Ford. However, the way he scowled at her sometimes had made her feel so very insignificant. Did he not want to like her? He probably didn’t. “Thank you.”

“Now come here and sit on my knee,” he said quietly.

She spun about. “Why?”

“Your punishment,” he said calmly. “You cannot play with my possessions without consequences.”

She blinked as he reached forward slowly to capture her wrist, his gaze fastened to her face until she blushed.

“I issue orders and expect to be obeyed in all things. Especially in the bedchamber.” His brow rose. “Or do you imagine yourself above my rules? I do not like snoops, Miss Winslow.”

“I’m sorry, Captain.” He tugged, and Matilda stumbled forward. He eased her down on his knees. “It won’t happen again,” she promised as she clutched at his shoulders to steady herself.

Eye to eye, her pulse raced. He was so very handsome and sure of himself. The very thing Matilda never was around him. All of Matilda’s senses seemed ready to fly apart just by being so close to him.

His gaze drifted to her lips. “Don’t be sorry. But accept my punishment now and do as I ask in the future.”

She nodded, breathless at the way he was regarding her mouth. “Yes, Captain.”

His eyes widened and his tongue slipped out to wet his lips. “Yes, to what?”

Matilda wriggled on her scandalous perch; sure he would steal a kiss and more. “They say a maid who is foolish enough to fall into her employers arms, deserves her ruin and the loss of her employment. I do need to be punished.”

“Never consider that I could turn you out for any reason,” he whispered, his breath hot against her throat. “What happens between us is strictly our business and will remain a secret. I will punish you, bring you pleasure, and that will be an end to the matter.”

She squirmed even more as she considered what sort of punishment he might deliver that brought pleasure. She was not afraid of him. At the very least she might be expected to polish his bedchamber from one end to the other as punishment for her misadventure today, at the worst he might kiss her witless. Make love to her. Her sex throbbed with unexpected anticipation. “Very well. Punish me however you like.”

No sooner were the words spoken than he flipped her over so she dangled over his limbs. Matilda gasped in surprise as he held her there by placing one arm over and around her waist firmly.

His other hand connected with her backside the next moment, and she cried out, kicking at the shock of his idea of punishment. She expected ruin, not a spanking. “What are you doing, sir?”

“Captain,” he reminded her. “You agreed to be punished in any way I deemed fit.” He struck again, so hard that her eyes filled with tears and her face grew hot. “I do not want you touching that mask ever again. Never wear it. It is not for the likes of you.”

“I won’t wear it again.”

He held his hand still on her bottom and kneaded her flesh through the gown. “Do you understand that a line was crossed today?”

“I understand,” she whispered. “Captain.”

“You continue to place yourself in my path, so there’s nothing else to be done but continue as we are.”

She frowned and clutched at his leg to steady herself. “I don’t understand.”

“You, and only you, have my permission to linger in my bedchamber for as long as you want. I’ll make the arrangements before I go. You may touch any possession of mine except that mask and do your hair before the mirror. Mrs. Young is an old woman, threatened by your youth and beauty.” His hand smoothed over her bottom, and she held her breath. “Look at yourself in the mirror now, Miss Winslow.”

She turned her head as he pulled her skirts up and exposed the bottom he’d spanked. Matilda’s heart began to hammer. A smile lingered on the captain’s lips as he lightly touched her exposed skin with just the tips of his fingers. As the gentle caress continued, her face grew hotter and hotter.

“Look at me admiring you,” he said as his fingers trailed along her thigh, sliding down over the gaping hole in the stocking tied below her knee. Matilda was transfixed by his gentle touch, by the devilish light in his eyes. He teased his fingers into her best stockings, widening the tear. “You must replace these after I’m gone.”

His hand lifted slowly and he brought it down sharply on bare bottom again and then continued.

Matilda gasped through it all, overcome by sensation, pain, and anticipation for the next strike. She clung to his leg, stunned and fascinated by how his punishment affected her senses. An ache began between her legs, a sensation she’d never experienced before. She was breathless and restless. Captain Ford’s face was a mask of severity now. He did not smile or look at her again. His attention was reserved for her rear and the red flush growing on her skin.

Suddenly he glanced up and met her gaze. His eyes were wild, dark, and focused solely on her. Matilda panted. He gripped her tingling bottom tightly, then turned his hand a fraction and used his fingers to part her thighs. His brow rose. “More?”

She nodded, but was unsure of what he’d do next. As his fingers dipped between, touching a place only Matilda had tentatively explored before in the privacy her narrow cot afforded, she closed her eyes. She was assailed by strange sensations that made her feel warm all over. As his gentle caress grew bolder, she could not help the need to push her body into his touch.

He brushed against her sex while she shuddered and moaned to his bewitching touch. He continued to rub through her damp curls, more insistent with each stroke, and the sensations were so different that she couldn’t account for them. She squirmed a little as an ache began where he played with her; a burning need to widen her legs further so he might press his fingers into her body.

“Look at us,” the captain whispered. “Look at what I’m doing to you. How perfect is the moment just before your surrender?”

Matilda struggled to catch her breath. She did look, focusing on his hand moving between her thighs, on the pink of her bottom beside his pale wrist, on the flush of color on his cheeks. She ached so badly an unladylike moan tumbled from her lips.

“Please,” she begged of him, knowing there must be more to come. She was alive in his embrace in a way she’d never felt before. She could barely hold still.

“Trust me,” he whispered, leaning over her body so he could speak into her ear. “You’re as eager as I am but will learn not to rush such moments. I will make the wait worth your while.”

He teased her again, but so skillfully that Matilda began to shake. She stiffened and cried out as her body convulsed, taken over by sensations beyond her experience.

She hung her head as her senses spun out of control again and again until his touch gentled on her sex.

The captain’s fingers slipped away, and he eventually loosened his tight grip on her waist. He relaxed against the back of the chair and uttered a shockingly masculine groan. “An exquisite end to this affair.” He chuckled softly. “I had hoped you might hold out longer before falling. Next time you will.”

He reached into his coat pocket, and pressed a cold coin into her hand.

She stared at the new-minted sovereign as pleasurable satisfaction gave way to unease over what she’d allowed.

“Oh, God.” She was a fool. Matilda twisted to look at Captain Ford’s smiling face.

Matilda dropped the coin. She flew off his lap, shoving her gown down as she went, and fled the room as fast as she could unlock the door. She did not pause to tug up her mangled stocking; she did not heed his calls to wait. She could not bear to hear him offer more money as if she had expected to be compensated for her favors.

Chapter One

London, 1815

Matilda Winslow came to a screeching halt behind the tottering housekeeper and tried to contain her impatience before she ran the gasping woman down. She shuddered at the wail echoing through Captain William Ford’s cozy London town house.

It was not a pretty sound.

It was a sound no man should make.

“Dear God, have mercy,” Mrs. Young whispered as the sound trailed off. She struggled toward the steep mahogany staircase as if she were walking through knee-high mud. “He lives. He lives.”

But at what price? Matilda shivered and followed with mincing steps, trying to remember that the older woman would not take kindly to a servant brushing past her on the stairs. Mrs. Young had to always be first. Matilda struggled with showing deference to a woman with limited sense, and she had no doubt been both lucky and foolish to still have this employment.

Now that she could clearly hear Captain Ford crying out in pain, she understood she’d hardly any idea of how desperate the situation was when she’d first heard the startling news that he’d been returned to shore and to his London town house. The entire household had been belowstairs and most had erupted into frantic activity to cover up how little they’d been doing in his absence.

Matilda tripped along in a daze, her heart in her throat as the sounds continued to rise and fall unabated. She had hoped to find another position before his return, but without any sort of reference, she’d been unsuccessful. She cringed as Captain Ford cried out again. He uttered agonized, incomprehensible gabble that, in her three-year acquaintance with her employer, she would never have suspected he’d be capable of making.

The housekeeper turned to her, her cheeks an unhealthy shade of gray. “We will need to be strong. Go on without me, do what is needed.”

She stared at the woman, struck by the notion she had not heard correctly. “Me?”

“Yes, you. It is time you earned your wages for a change,” the woman hissed.

That was not fair. Matilda worked harder than any of the other maids. All they did was flirt with the footmen and lift their skirts for anyone who had enough coin.

Mrs. Young caught the banister, her fingers white on the rail, and swayed into it for support instead of moving upward. The usually self-sufficient old woman could barely stand. Matilda didn’t want her to fall on the stairs for the fuss she would make later on so she caught the eye of the nearest footman. “Assist Mrs. Young upstairs at once.”

She skirted the protesting housekeeper, and although she would most likely be reprimanded later, Matilda hiked up her skirts and ran up the entire flight of steps toward Captain Ford’s bedchamber and that horrible noise.

She sped along the halls and paused outside his dressing room, risking a peek first before entering. The Roberts brothers, twin footmen who should have returned downstairs to their posts by now, lingered at the bedchamber doorway, maids Jenny and Jane stood nearby, whispering to each other as was their habit. One had tears in her eyes, but most probably they were tears meant for themselves. With Captain Ford returned, their easy employment would certainly end.

Matilda shooed them away. “Back to your duties before Mrs. Young sees you.”

She ignored their protests and pushed her way between the towering footmen. The captain’s valet, Dawson, had returned with his master, and at the sound of her voice, he turned toward her. A sensible man she knew fairly well, Gregory Dawson had dark circles under his eyes, and his expression was bleak.

His appearance was unkempt too, his jaw covered with several days of stubble, his usually impeccable clothes wrinkled and stained in some places with what appeared to be dried blood. He looked about ready to fall down from exhaustion. She grasped his forearm, offering compassion and her strength. He was particularly attached to his employer for some reason, even going so far as to follow him to sea by his own choice.

“Miss Winslow,” he whispered with relief at seeing her.

“Mr. Dawson.” She shivered as another moan filled her ears. “What has happened?”

The man paled further. “He’s dying.”

Matilda swallowed hard at the idea of a world without Captain Ford and then noticed strangers in his room. “Who is in there?”

“Mr. Simmons and Mr. Fellows, physicians both. They came with us direct from the docks.” Dawson shuddered as Captain Ford moaned brokenly again. “They don’t mince words.”

Dawson shifted to lean against the wall, revealing the whole of the room to Matilda.

She shuddered at the sight of four men holding William Ford down. “Why was he not taken to the Naval Hospital for treatment?”

“He’s not expected to live very long,” Dawson whispered. “The hospital was said to be overflowing, so I brought him home to die because I knew he’d prefer to be here where it is quiet.”

Tears filled her eyes, but she dashed them away. She had wished injury on William Ford many times over the past year for his treatment of her, but this was beyond anything she’d ever imagined he’d deserve.

She bit her lip, unable to comprehend that nothing could be done to save the captain. “Surgeons perform miracles every day. My late father treated many men and never gave up until the last moment of a patient’s life. He saved many when I had felt their recovery hopeless. Has word been sent to the duke, to any of the captain’s family?”

“Yes, Lieutenant Ford made landfall ahead of us and went ahead with the message.”

“Good. Mrs. Young should be on her way up.” As an afterthought, she added, “Make sure she has a chair as soon as possible. Keep an eye on her in case she faints.”

“How like you to care about everyone.” He smiled tightly and then scraped his fingers through his hair. It didn’t help him look more composed. “It is good to see you again, despite the circumstances.”

“It’s good to have you home.” She touched his arm again. “Get some rest, and I will see what I can do to help.”

Matilda entered the room and at once was assaulted with the odor of turpentine. The unpleasant scent brought reminders of all the times some poor broken soul had been carried into her father’s simple home to be mended over their kitchen table. She breathed through her mouth until her nausea passed, and tried to recall what her father might have done in a similar situation.

“Hold him still,” Mr. Simmons barked out while the captain twisted and moaned brokenly beneath clutching hands.

The captain should be calmer.

She eased closer, assessing the men in the room and the mood. Every face was grim. No one would meet her gaze. “What are you doing to him?”

The doctor grimaced as he peeled back a blood-soaked scrap of linen from the captain’s head. “What must be done.”

The captain bucked again, and the men struggled to keep him on the bed.

“Well, don’t stand about gawking, girl.”

Girl! She’d argue that description, but she was the only maid in the household with experience that might lend assistance to the physicians. “My father was a surgeon. I helped him save lives. What can I do?”

The physician assessed her with a scathing flicker of interest and then scoffed. “You either help hold him down or wait out there with everyone else.”

He didn’t believe she could help. How typical that men of science refused to believe a prettier face than theirs might have skills to offer too. She wasn’t surprised by his skepticism, merely annoyed.

Matilda moved toward the bed. She had experience with the treatment of minor wounds, though she had rarely been called upon to use her knowledge since coming to work for Captain Ford. The housekeeper did not like any reminder that she possessed more of an education than the old goat did herself and always consulted with an apothecary.

The captain’s arms and legs were already pinned; another fellow held his head still but his body writhed between all of them. She could barely make out his face beyond his uncovered eyes. His lashes were dark and appeared moist. The rest of his head had been swathed in linen some time ago judging by the grubby state of it.

Matilda leaned across the bed and pressed her hands down on the captain’s heaving chest.

Simmons glanced her way. “There’s not enough room for everyone to stand. Get on the bed beside him.”

Although surprised by the request, Matilda carefully climbed up. She knelt beside William Ford, and the odor of him—sweat, turpentine and other strong scents—almost made her gag. She pushed on his ribs firmly and breathed shallowly. “Like this?”

He chose that moment to buck, and Matilda was almost tossed off entirely.

“You’ll need to apply more weight, Miss Winslow,” Dawson suggested as he drew close. “Let me do it.”

Matilda shook her head as she took in Dawson’s sagging shoulders. He stared at his employer with tears in his eyes. “You’re already exhausted, Dawson. Go and sit down before you fall down.”

“You don’t have to do this,” Dawson said. “Not after…”

She stared at the valet in horror. How could he know her shame at the captain’s hands?

Matilda turned away from Dawson quickly. She had hoped no one had known she’d been caught red-handed and punished for her curiosity. It was her own fault. When Captain Ford had closed the door behind him, effectively trapping her in his room, she had known he’d ruin her. She’d given him permission to do whatever he liked. She had enjoyed it too until he’d handed her a coin for services rendered as if she was a prostitute.

“I’ll be fine,” she whispered and concentrated on the patient rather than the man and how low he’d made her feel since that day.

Although entirely improper, sitting on the captain to hold him down might be her only option what with the way he was thrashing about. She was light and didn’t want to be thrown off and hurt in the process of helping. Matilda carefully lifted her skirts and straddled William Ford, settling him between her thighs and pinning his sides with her knees. Thank heavens she’d taken to wearing drawers or she might truly be thought a wicked woman. A hot blush filled her cheeks as the doctors stared at her improper position. The surprise in their eyes caused Matilda to make sure the drawers covering her legs were hidden from view too. She carefully settled all her weight on the patient’s belly and then pressed her hands to his upper chest.

“What are you doing, girl?” Mrs. Young gasped, having finally arrived. “Have you no shame?”

“She is doing what only she could,” Dawson insisted.

The next time Captain Ford moved after the doctor’s treatment, he did not move very much at all. “I think this has helped,” she whispered.

“Agreed.” Dawson turned away, dragging Mrs. Young toward a comfortable chair near an open window, then stood back to observe. Mrs. Young began to pray loudly.

As Matilda sat on Captain Ford’s chest, she became aware that his breathing was strained and sounded very wet. He gurgled.

The bandages around his mouth were stained pale red and damp, as if they’d been constantly soaked. Her eyes widened with understanding. “Quickly, lift him up.”

“What?”

“He cannot breathe.” She pushed away the men holding Captain Ford’s arms to no effect. “He must be allowed to sit up.”

The doctors stared at the captain and then each other. “We can’t see the wound if he is upright.”

“For goodness’ sake, let go of his arms and lift up the whole headboard then. He’s been trying to get up, and you won’t let him. His mouth is full of liquid. He’s drowning in it.”

“Do it,” Dawson ordered as the men holding Captain Ford hesitated to follow her instructions.

As soon as he was released, Captain Ford struggled upright, latching on to Matilda even as he cried out in pain. He clung to her tightly, gasping and sputtering around his moans.

Matilda cradled his well-padded head to her shoulder as the men quickly moved to the headboard, planted their feet, and raised them both up at an angle. Matilda eased the captain back against his pillows as soon as she could and immediately noticed his bandages had bloomed reddish brown around his mouth.

“Good God,” Fellows murmured and then turned aside to gag into a handkerchief.

Matilda controlled her revulsion at the sight and concentrated on helping the captain breathe easier. “Get those bandages away from his face now. Cut them off if necessary. Bring fresh linen and warm water to clean him with.”

It shocked her that these medical men were so slow to act. Had they no idea how to treat the captain properly?

“You’ll need to bring in bricks from the yard,” Dawson advised the idle footmen who’d reappeared at the door at the commotion. “Bring a dozen or so to support the weight.”

The doctor leaned over the captain holding a pair of scissors and carefully cut through the remaining layers of bandages, freeing a corner of his mouth and nose. Captain Ford drew in a huge breath and closed his eyes as the doctor recommenced peeling the bandages away from the wound one layer at a time.

The bed rocked a little when the bricks were brought in and set in place. The fellows who had been holding the bed up flexed their shoulders but did not move to hold the captain down again. They stepped back and then silently filed out of the room.

The captain caught her eye and stared at her. He was breathing easier, and he did not fight his treatment anymore.

“You’ll be all right now,” she whispered.

His left hand slipped over hers, and his fingers tightened around her wrist in viselike grip. The captain’s eyes darted left and right, examining those around him. When he did it again before meeting her gaze, she understood.

“Your family are all in the country.” She swallowed the hard lump in her throat. He hated strangers in his home, but she could imagine he’d want those he loved at his bedside at a time like this. “I’m sure they will be here soon.”

She shifted a little as her knees cramped.

When Mr. Simmons removed the final strip of bandage covering the wound, the captain spluttered out a garbled curse. He squeezed her thigh painfully and then fainted dead away.

Matilda stared at the angry wound that stretched over what had once been the captain’s perfect left cheek. “Oh, no.”

He had once been very handsome, and her eyes stung at the horror she faced now.

The injury gaped, a jagged and deep cut.

Mr. Fellows rushed outside. The sound of his retching in the hall soon followed.

Mr. Simmons turned his face away for a long moment. “It’s a miracle he’s survived this long. We’ll make him comfortable, but we must prepare for the worst.”

“No!” The defeat in the surgeon’s tone angered Matilda on the captain’s behalf. “If William Ford has lived this long, he undoubtedly intends to recover. Fords never quit nor do they ever give up, sir. It isn’t in his nature nor should it be in yours. Fix him.”

Matilda looked to Dawson for support, expecting the valet to agree with her and remind the doctor of whom he was dealing with. Captain Ford was the most stubborn, taciturn man she had ever met. He would fight for life surely.

Dawson met her gaze sadly though. He bowed his head and covered his eyes as if overset by a grief he wanted no one to see.

“No,” she whispered in shock. She turned on Simmons, who as the elder surgeon should be the most skilled and the one to convince. “He can survive this if you’re the surgeon I think you are. You know what needs to be done to aid his recovery.”

The housekeeper gained her feet and approached the bed. Matilda flinched as the older woman placed a hand to her shoulder. “This may be more than he can bear. We must pray together.”

“He wants to live,” Matilda insisted before grabbing a wad of fresh clothes with which to catch the ooze from his mouth and dabbed at his unmarked cheek. “He will.”

Mr. Simmons sighed. “To have any chance, the wound will need to be cleaned and stitched again. It will be painful for him. He is already weak. He may not survive the attempt, and there is no guarantee it will heal properly. He may be horribly disfigured.”

“Better disfigured than dead.” The room fell deathly silent at her remark. There likely hadn’t been an ugly Ford in history, and if the captain survived to see that day come, he might not thank her but he would have his life to live.

She’d been around those next to die thanks to her father’s profession, and she couldn’t imagine Captain Ford succumbing. He might be in pain, but he was too lucid to have given up yet. His recovery truly only depended on whether Mr. Simmons was as clever as he was purported to be.

“Come away, Miss Winslow,” Mr. Dawson murmured. “I can’t let you watch him suffer under the butcher’s hand.”

“No, I will stay right where I am.” The captain stirred beneath her, and she rose up on her knees until her face hovered over his. “You will get better.”

He tried to speak, but no words came out that made any sense.

Matilda smiled tightly and then leaned toward his ear. “If you die, your sisters will look through your things, touch your precious belongings. Do you want them to know what you really keep in this room?”

Matilda knew too well what he hid from everyone. The mask and other things had disappeared, she suspected to a locked chest kept beneath this very bed. He had a darkness and a taste for inflicting pain on women despite his seemingly proper appearance.

She peeked at his face as she drew back. His eyes had widened a little, and then they darkened to a dense black. She shook her head as her body tightened in response to his obvious irritation. What the captain wanted to do with her would be her ruin if she gave in to her feelings again.

“Of course you will recover.” She studied him as coldly as she could. “Besides, you don’t really want a mere servant to have the last word do you?”

He changed the grip he had on her hand. He made a sound of protest and squeezed.

“Shh, you must remain calm and allow Mr. Simmons to do his work.” She loosened his grip; the right hand that had spanked her until she’d cried had a deep cut down his thumb and would need salve applied to it and new bandaging. She would attend to that herself. Later. The most pressing concern was his face.

She set his palm over her knee and pressed down carefully so she didn’t cause further injury. “I won’t leave your side no matter what the doctor does to you.”

His eyes closed, his fingers flexed on her knee.

“I think he’s ready. Fetch the laudanum and a narrow spoon. I recall seeing one for infants in the nursery cupboard.”

The captain’s fingertips dug painfully into her knee.

She glanced down at him, startled by his response. “I am not suggesting you are a babe in arms. The smaller spoon will make it easier for you to take the medication.”

His stare promised retribution and equal humiliation if word of him eating from an infant’s spoon spread beyond this room. That was exactly what she’d hoped for. He still had fire in him if he could be so easily offended, and that fire would help him fight for life.

“Hold that anger close to your heart and let it lend you strength for what is to come, Billy Boy.”

He stared at her, breath churning as tension between them grew.

She smiled with satisfaction that her jibe, use of his childhood nickname, got under his skin. “This will hurt.”

His fingers squeezed her knee painfully again.

“Be still now. You’ll need your strength for what is to come.”

Mrs. Young sobbed. “This is madness. We’ll be blamed if he dies.”

Matilda spared her a fleeting glance. “Better to do something than nothing at all. Do it. Do it quickly and all at once,” she urged, resettling herself over the captain’s body. It was a strange perch, but at least from here she could observe Mr. Simmons at work and distract the patient while he endured the pain.

Mr. Fellows returned and carefully spooned laudanum into the side of Captain Ford’s mouth. It was a higher dose than she’d expected him to be given, and she prayed the man knew what he was about. The doctors turned away to discuss the procedure in private.

Matilda watched Captain Ford sink slowly under the influence and breathed a sigh of relief when he struggled to keep his eyes open and the pressure of his gripping fingers softened and slipped away. “He’s almost out,” she called to them.

She moved to brush a lock of hair back from the captain’s brow and then snatched her hand back. He deserved her compassion but wanted none of her affection. If he had, he’d never have tried to pay for her favors.

She settled her hands on his chest and felt the strong beat of his heart. He would live. Later she would decide if she could remain in his employ now that he’d returned to shore. It was almost certain that his recovery would take many months.

While he convalesced she would have time to think of what to do while she awaited her beau’s return.

Chapter Two

About three months later

The dream always started the same way. Fabric rustled and William Ford became aware of Matilda Winslow creeping into his room through a connecting door. Candlelight played over her features and prim nightgown, and he was spellbound in a way he had no right to be.

When the woman set her candle aside and climbed onto his bed to reach him where he lay in the center, he remained still lest he shatter the illusion that such moments could last.

Tonight he was properly awake and aware he was not dreaming this visitation. Matilda Winslow, a provocative maid in his employ, was in his bedchamber and crawling close. He had no idea when the woman’s nightly visits had begun, but they couldn’t continue without consequences for her.

He had been convalescing for several long months, and tonight was the first time he truly cared what had happened to him or around him.

He’d almost died, many times in fact.

He could still feel the slice of the blade through his cheek; he could still remember parts of battle and the harrowing journey to make landfall in England. He dreamed of that often. Vivid recollections that soaked his skin in sweat. The surgery performed on his face in this very bed he’d prefer to forget except for one small detail.

He’d rarely been alone since he’d returned to this house.

He’d had Matilda Winslow to watch over him every day and night it seemed.

An unbearable torture for him.

Matilda inched toward him, always so gentle in her movements to avoid jostling him and causing further pain. She had taken on her duties as nurse to an invalid with complete dedication. He sometimes forgot they were virtually strangers. She was a maid. A young woman in his employ. A pretty maid whose frequent touches caused his palms to itch.

Her fingers ghosted over his brow, no doubt checking him for fever as she so often did, and then she peeked at his face.

Her eyes widened. “I didn’t mean to wake you, Captain.”

Matilda had spent every night since the surgery at his side or leaning over his bed, tending to him as if he were her only concern. He’d grown used to her being around, but it had to stop. Especially now he was feeling more himself. This one last night was all he could permit himself of her gentle company.

He licked his lips as the scent of her body curled around them, waking him to the fact that he was only human and weak. If she remained close, he’d become aroused, and that wasn’t something she wanted from him.

He eased a little to the side, turning his hips so the bedding did not lay too tightly over his growing arousal. “You didn’t,” he whispered. His voice was rusty from disuse, and he felt that he slurred thanks to the hideous scar dissecting his cheek. “I was not sleeping.”

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Copyright (c) 2017 Heather Boyd