Emily hardened herself against the hopeful note in the housekeeper's voice. "No, thank you, Mrs. Kemble. If Sally has left supper in the larder, Colin and I can make do by ourselves for the remainder of the evening."
The housekeeper nodded stiffly but hesitated before turning.
"Was there anything else, Mrs. Kemble?"
"Well, ma'am, I had intended to visit my daughter in Kent—"
"Oh!" Emily's hand flew to her mouth in dismay. She had forgotten that the housekeeper had requested leave for the birth of her grandchild. The servant must have felt obligated to stay during Colin's sickness; she had been scheduled to leave two days before. "Mrs. Kemble, I am sorry—you must of course depart immediately! Have you received word about the baby?"
The housekeeper shook her head. "I'm afraid it was stillborn, ma'am. I was meaning to let you know that I wouldn't be taking the time away after all, so you could depend on me to remain here while Master Colin is ill."
"Thank you, Mrs. Kemble," Emily said. "But wouldn't you prefer to be with your daughter?"
The housekeeper shrugged. "Babes die, ma'am. And my daughter is a strong lass."
Perhaps it was her own recent loss that made Mrs. Kemble's statement seem so coldhearted, Emily thought minutes later as she slowly climbed the stairs to Colin's room. It was true that childbirth was frequently accompanied by death; one should be prepared for an unhappy outcome.
But Emily hoped that, no matter how much death surrounded her, she would never be as prepared as Mrs. Kemble.
She winced as the key scraped in the bedchamber's lock, but upon opening the door she saw the noise had not disturbed Colin's unnatural sleep. He lay on the bed in his nightgown, his arms still tucked neatly at his sides in the position she had arranged them following the physician's examination. She had pulled layers of blankets over him, but despite his clammy temperature and the chill in the room, he'd kicked them off. His thin ankles and calves stood out in sharp relief against the pillowy mattress, his white skin almost the same color as the sheets.
Aside from her lamp, the soft blaze in the fireplace provided the only light in the room; in the early days of Colin's sickness, when he'd been awake during a portion of the daylight hours, he'd been too sensitive to sunlight to allow it to shine through the windows. Though he was no longer conscious enough to object, Emily continued to draw the drapes every morning. Now, the orange glow of sunset peeked between them, settling in stripes on the rugs.
Cursing herself for allowing it to become so late, Emily ran to the bed, falling to her knees and reaching beneath the bedframe.
Her fingers sought and brushed cold metal, and with a clatter, she dragged out the heavy chains and manacles she'd hidden from the physician and the servants.
She lifted Colin's left arm. It hung cold and limp as she snapped the iron cuff around his wrist and twisted the key. Her heart no longer ached as it had the first few days she had performed this procedure. Initially, it had been at Colin's insistence—after she found him one night eating raw meat in the kitchen, he'd begged her to chain him. She had done it the first time to humor him, and to erase the haunted look from his eyes; now, she did it out of fear and self-preservation.
Her fingers were gentle as she slipped his right wrist into the iron. His bones looked fragile beneath his skin, the ligaments clearly delineated. The frailty was deceptive, she knew—he was preternaturally strong—but she could not bring herself to treat him carelessly, no matter what he'd become.
She wrapped the chains around the bedposts. The metal links jangled rhythmically as she pulled on their length; Colin's arms slid bonelessly toward the headboard. When there was only a little slack in the chain, she wound them around the posts once more and locked them together.
Clutching the key in her hand, she glanced at his face and was relieved to see his eyes still closed. His blond hair, only a few shades darker than hers, curled disheveled over his forehead. Knowing that he'd have hated its disarray, she quickly smoothed it into some semblance of order, watching him carefully for movement.
The illness had not been kind to him—the face Emily had often considered a masculine version of her own had withered and shrunk, erasing his angular beauty. Dark hollows around his eyes and in his sunken cheeks had left him skeletal; she was glad Colin couldn't see himself as he was now. If he'd been aware of the physical decline that accompanied the mental one, he'd have been devastated.
His eyelashes fluttered. Her heart leaping into her throat, Emily yanked her hand away and took three hasty steps back. She watched him in frozen trepidation. He did not move again; after a moment, she pressed her lips together against the absurd urge to laugh, to lose herself in hysteria.
There had been times in the last few weeks when she'd feared madness was not far from her—she'd managed to counter the feeling, doggedly hanging on to normalcy through sheer will.
She turned on her heel, striding determinedly to Colm's writing desk and opening the curtains adjacent to it. The sun had disappeared over the horizon, and the deepening twilight cast the garden below into shadow. She looked out for just a few moments, letting the vastness outside fill her, give her a brief sense of freedom—from the house's locked rooms and her own secrets—before turning and sitting at the desk. Setting down the lamp, she pulled paper and pens from a drawer.
Letters were normal—about normal events, to normal people. Performing such an everyday task would anchor her, remind her of her sanity.
After dashing off a few short letters to personal friends, she faced the daunting task of writing to her nephew, Robert.
How much of the truth should she relate to him? How much should a twelve-year-old boy know? After losing his father, mother, and grandfather in so short of a time, now must he face the prospect of losing his uncle?
Not that Colin had been a significant part of Robert's life before that summer, she thought sadly. Nor had she. She remembered the words she'd once spoken to Anthony Ramsdelclass="underline" Children cannot interest me. She closed her eyes briefly against the pain the memory of that night brought and brushed her forefinger over the thin, raised scar on the fleshy pad of her thumb.
She had been wrong—she could not have known how wrong she had been until she had spent the summer becoming acquainted with her young nephew. And had she known, would she have acted differently that night? Would she have called Anthony unsuitable, used him in her childish scheme for revenge?
For the briefest moment, she allowed herself to recall his offer, to imagine the course her life might have taken if she'd accepted it. If I had not been so focused on my own needs and dreams, would he be alive? Would I be with him now? But a marriage between them could not have prevented the fire, nor could it change what had happened to Colin.
Thinking of Anthony helped remind her that neither life nor death could be taken for granted; determined not to lose another moment caught in bitter reflection, she wrote:
I hope this letter finds you comfortably settled and applying yourself to your studies. As you have recently come into your title, your new friends might give you a nickname; please do not allow them Nobby or Norby. Though it sounds quite stuffy now, insist on Norbndge. You will thank me for it in the future.
Your Uncle Colin's condition is very ill, but do not fret—I am certain he will soon be himself again and his cravat as tightly knotted as ever before. He should be recovered at the end of the half, and we will enjoy the holiday together.