In this scene, Phoebe Benedict has arrived at Ladywell to look after the ill son of Simon Clare, a wealthy Northumbrian landowner, but things are not as she first thinks.
A soft noise woke Phoebe from where she slumbered on a narrow cot. It took a few moments to work out where she was. She forced her muscles to relax as she realized that it was not Atherstone Court and she would not have to see her sister-in-law today.
She listened again, hoping against hope that Robert was not about to experience another fit. The noise appeared to have stopped. She nodded and forced her breathing to come easy.
She was safe here. No men would come knocking at the door, demanding money for unpaid bills, no step-mother would look at her with injured eyes when she suggested economies. No sister-in-law to roll her eyes when Phoebe suggested starting a dressmaking or millinery shop, rather than sinking slowly into the mire of impoverished gentry.
Here, she was giving James a chance. He had not asked for Father to go walking on the frozen Thames. He had not been the one to refuse to join him on that stroll, preferring to stay at home and trim a bonnet. She knew who bore that guilt. And he had not caused Charles to take the corner too fast and overturn his carriage on his way to mediate a dispute between her and Alice. She trusted that Lord Coltonby would do as he promised. Then there would only be Edmund to worry about. She hoped all of them understood the sacrifices she was making and why. Far too often they seemed to take her feelings for granted. Phoebe pushed away the thought. They were the only family she had and belonging to a family was important. She would keep her mind only on the good things, the way forward.
She'd concentrate on the little boy and his unfeeling parent. Imagine having your only child look after by a creature like that and in such conditions. It was not as if they lacked money. The whole house screamed money, but it lacked love and tenderness. It lacked a heart.
The noise sounded again. It appeared to be half way between a sob and a wail. Phoebe's hear sank. She did not want to think about confronting Mr Clare at this hour and explaining why after all her brave words, she had been unable to cope.
She wondered if Mr Clare had been true to his word. Robert could be alone in there or with someone as unfeeling as that miserable maid. She refused to let that happen.
The boy needed help.
In the moonlight, Phoebe fumbled for her shawl and wrapped it around her body. She lit a candle and held it aloft as she tiptoed over to the door that separated her from Robert. She opened the door slightly but kept to the shadows.
Robert appeared to be asleep but a figure knelt at the side of the bed, head bowed and arms stretched out on the coverlet.
She raised the candle light higher, trying to discern who was there. The too long hair and finely moulded shoulders could only belong to one man. Simon Clare. For confirmation, she spied the cane lying by the side of the bed. She started to tiptoe out when she heard a hoarse whisper.
'Let me take his place. Please...I will do anything. Punish me, not him.'
Phoebe put her hand to her mouth. She had inadvertently intruded on this man's grief. How she could have thought him uncaring? A sudden fear gripped her. 'Is everything all right, Mr Clare? Is Robert...?'
At the sound of her voice, the groans ceased. He lifted his head. His white shirt was open at his throat, revealing his golden skin. In the darkness, his face had become all shadows and planes but she could clearly see how handsome he was. He was no monster but the personification of masculinity.
'Robert is asleep. All is well, Miss Benedict.' His voice held a singular raw note.
'That is good to hear. I...I heard a noise.'
'I regret having disturbed you.'
'You...that is...I am light sleeper. Years of practice with my step-brothers, I am afraid.' She gave small shrug and felt the shawl started to slip off her shoulder. Her hand clutched it tighter about her.
'You looked after them.'
Phoebe wet her lips. 'Someone had to. My step-mother was not precisely maternal and the maids unreliable, even before my father died.'
'How good it is that someone cared.'
He stood up, filled the room. His gaze slowly travelled down her body, then back up to her face. She clung on to the thin shawl, aware suddenly she was dressed only in her nightgown; her hair flowed over her shoulders and her bare toes peeped out. Hurriedly she smoothed her gown, and covered her feet. She wished that she had thought to wear a cap. Her hand shook slightly, causing the wax to drip on her wrist. She stifled a cry.
'You should be more careful, Miss Benedict. Wax burns.'
Copyright 2009 Michelle Styles and Harlequin Enterprises