An Affair of Honor (Rebel Hearts series #2)
An Affair of Honor (Rebel Hearts series #2)
Seeking escape from a marriage minded miss, Captain William Ford makes a desperate bargain with the maid who helped save his life. He’ll give her riches in return for acting the part of his lover—only to end up finding a woman who enjoys all the wickedness he craves.
- Disfigured Hero
- Maid attraction
- Secret Obsession
Unneeded for command of a ship after surviving serious injury, disciplinarian Captain William Ford was ready to face society until he’s cornered by a marriage minded miss. He makes a desperate bargain with the maid who saved his life—act the part of a besotted lover in return for financial gain to drive the woman away—only to end up in a very real marriage of convenience with the maid to avoid the scandal of his own making.
When Matilda’s plans to marry another end abruptly, she reluctantly agrees to Captain Ford’s marriage proposal to protect his sister’s marriage prospects with his assurance of an eventual annulment and independence. She soon discovers her husband’s desire to guide her with a firm hand stirs a shocking passion in her. Does she dare gift William with her secrets and heart…or admit that his desires match her own when they never intended forever?
Intro to Chapter One
Intro to Chapter One
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.”
“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.
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