December 7, 1804
Covent Garden, London
“Mrs. Fielding, which of these would be better for a putrid stomach?” Piper Scott stood holding up two stoppered glass containers—one containing mint and the other wild marjoram.
Apothecary-surgeon Charlotte Fielding set down her pestle, satisfied the paste she had made of snakeweed root, pellitory of Spain, and burnt alum was of the right consistency. All she needed to do was add a little honey and it would be ready for Mrs. Taylor’s aching tooth.
Transferring her attention to her assistant, Charlotte couldn’t help but wonder—for the hundredth time—how Piper managed to stay so put together all the time. Unlike the dark brown wisps framing Charlotte’s face, not a single strand of her assistant’s obsidian-colored hair ever escaped the neat pile atop her head. And if that weren’t bothersome enough, a long, delicate neck supported the heavy mass and intelligent, emerald green eyes framed by thick, black lashes completed the assemble to perfection.
Instead of jealousy, Charlotte experienced a pang of pride every time she peered at her beautiful, tidy assistant. Because apothecary apprenticeships were normally reserved for men, Charlotte referred to Piper as her assistant rather than her apprentice. Something she’d had to do herself five years ago in order to work with a renowned, open-minded apothecary-surgeon in Scotland. Having completed only two years of her five-year apprenticeship, Piper continued to doubt the soundness of her own knowledge. “Which one would you choose, Piper?”
To help build her assistant’s confidence, Charlotte had begun encouraging her to work through the solution, utilizing her store of information. As an apprentice, Piper still had much to learn, but Charlotte’s new tactic appeared to be meeting with much success.
The smooth plane of her assistant’s nineteen-year-old forehead bunched in concentration as she studied the two bottles. Each carried Charlotte’s distinctive C. B. Fielding - Apothecary label and pictorial of a mortar and pestle, framed by an herb sprig and surgical knife, with the initials CF emblazoned on the side. Adding the small crest to the label had been Piper’s idea, but Charlotte found herself adoring the small symbol—it represented both her independence and her profession. In fact, she was planning to redesign the plain shingle outside her shop to include the crest.
Charlotte considered her assistant. She could almost hear the battle raging in the girl’s brilliant mind, weighing the pros and cons of each treatment. Cross-checking what she’d read in herbal tomes with what Charlotte had taught her. Piper carefully considered every decision when it came to their customers. She wanted to provide the very best care for each one. A quality that would one day make her a successful apothecary.
“Mint can be quite effective with the right dosage, though wild marjoram is known for strengthening the stomach.”
“Who is it for?”
“Did you check his treatment history card for prior adverse reaction to either remedy?”
“Yes, nothing was listed.”
“What does that tell you about either option?”
“Both are good choices. However, marjoram might be the better remedy.”
Charlotte smiled. “Indeed, it is.”
The worry lines disappeared from Piper’s pretty face. “Thank you, Mrs. Fielding.”
“You did all the work, Piper.” Charlotte turned back to her work and added a precise measurement of honey to the paste she was preparing for Mrs. Taylor. “Is Felix still about?”
“He’s across the street at the lending library, attempting to repair Mr. Anderson’s counter,” Piper said. “Do you need him?”
“No, it can wait. I want him to drop off this prescription to Mrs. Taylor before he leaves for the day.”
Not long after Piper’s apprenticeship began, her drunken father had stumbled out of their house and never returned, leaving Piper, Felix, her little sister, and mother to fend for themselves. The wages her mother made as a seamstress were barely enough to keep a roof over the family’s head, let alone feeding growing children. The situation had broken Charlotte’s heart and she had offered Piper’s then-fourteen-year-old brother Felix a job so he could help out with the family’s expenses. Felix ran errands for Charlotte, made minor repairs, unloaded supplies, delivered prescriptions, and kept the shop tidy. The arrangement with the two siblings had proven to be as much a godsend to Charlotte as it was for the Scott family.
During the last six months of her own mother’s life, her father had spent more time caring for his wife than in the apothecary shop filling orders. Neither George Fielding’s apothecary abilities, nor her mother’s midwifery experience could halt the inevitable. To this day, Charlotte couldn’t imagine how her father, with all his apothecary skills, survived the anguish of knowing he could not save his wife from the terrible wasting disease. The two had loved each other fiercely all the way to the end and that provided Charlotte with some comfort.
A wave of guilt settled in the pit of Charlotte’s stomach. Had she known the severity of her mother’s illness, she would have cut short her apprenticeship in Edinburgh. Her father had called in several favors so Charlotte could apprentice with the legendary apothecary-surgeon Angus Buchanan and, according to her father, her mother was determined that her daughter make the most of it.
Her mother had adamantly refused to allow her husband to summon Charlotte home until just a few weeks before she died. Both her parents felt that combining midwifery training under her mother with Buchanan’s apothecary-surgeon apprenticeship would give Charlotte the best chance to support herself if ever she needed it in the future. Who knew the future would come so soon?
If only Charlotte could have had one last day with her parents. Just the three of them chatting about her studies in Scotland and gossiping about the shopkeepers in the Covent Garden neighborhood. No pain, no impending death, no failing business. Only laughter, embellished stories, and maybe several long, hard hugs.
By the time she’d returned home, her mother spent most of her time either sleeping or incoherent with pain. She would never forget the first evening she sat at her bedside. She’d smoothed her hand over her mother’s damp forehead and choked out, “Mama.” Her mother’s eyes had opened and she smiled at the sight of her. She’d whispered Charlotte’s name, a beautiful sound she hadn’t heard in three years. Then pain had spiked through her body, forcing her frail frame into a tight, quivering ball. Charlotte’s heart had bled at the sight of the lone tear that had trailed over the bridge of her nose and soaked into her white linen pillow. She hadn’t heard her mother speak again.
After the funeral, her father had helped her stabilize the business and smoothed the way for her to operate the shop on his behalf before going to live with his brother in the country. At first, Charlotte hadn’t been certain whether his customers would accept her or not. But most knew her, and her story, and liked having an apothecary shop nearby, one that had served the community for nearly three decades. To her surprise, their regulars never blinked an eye at referring to her as “Mrs. Fielding”—her father’s suggestion. Somehow, she thought he had something to do with their acceptance, though George Fielding denied any involvement.
She owed her parents so much for their sacrifices. Rebuilding her father’s business had been the only way she could think of to repay them. Thanks to her own good business sense, and Piper and Felix’s help, the shop was thriving now and Charlotte had begun to anticipate the onset of each new day instead of wondering how she would make a go of it.
“Felix appeared a bit twitchy,” Piper said, grinning. “I wonder why?”
In the last few months, Felix had become fascinated with all things related to the theater. He spent as much time as he could over at the Augusta Theatre. He enjoyed watching the actors rehearse and sneaking into the costume chamber to admire the different outfits. He’d even started collecting playbills of the Augusta Theatre’s many and varied performances.
Every day around four in the afternoon, the almost-seventeen-year-old would start checking the clock on the counter and glance frequently out the window until Charlotte released him from his duties.
“I would much rather he spend his time at the theater than at some of the less savory places boys his age frequent these days.”
“Indeed.” Piper turned back toward the storefront. “Shall I start preparing the orders for tomorrow morning?”
“Yes, please. I’m all finished here. I’ll come and help.” Charlotte gathered her items and followed Piper into the next room. She pulled an overlarge bottle of laudanum from the cupboard beneath the counter.
Piper checked their order list. “Is the laudanum for Mrs. Cates?”
“This one is actually for Mr. Whitley.” She filled a smaller bottle with the reddish-brown bitter liquid. “I suspect he’s in need of a new supply. I’ll fill Mrs. Cates’s order next.”
Two nights ago, she’d been called to the Whitley home to care for a middle-aged gentleman who’d been stabbed in the chest, the cut barely missing vital organs. Under the guidance of Angus Buchanan, Charlotte had treated a number of similar lacerations. However, Whitley’s had been her first solo effort treating a serious gash of this nature, made all the more difficult by his hysterical wife watching.
No amount of persuasion could coax the woman from her husband’s bedchamber. She’d paced the room, mumbling, “How could you, Harold? What will become of us if you die?”
By the time Charlotte had the damage under control, she’d surmised Mr. Whitley had gambled hard that night, won well, and then lost it all to a footpad.
“Would you like Felix to deliver the laudanum to Mr. Whitley after stopping at Mrs. Taylor’s?”
“That won’t be necessary. I’ll check in on Mr. Whitley myself to see how his wound is healing.”
Piper peered outside before turning her attention back to Charlotte. Concern weighed on her beautiful emerald eyes. “Do be careful, Mrs. Fielding. I know you feel safe walking about this area after dark, but this incident with Mr. Whitley makes me wonder how much we really know those around us.”
“No need for you to worry about me. I always keep my head up, my eyes open, and a pouch of pepper in my reticule.” Piper continued to surprise her with the depth of her understanding of the world around her. One day soon, she would be a force to be reckoned with, and a perfect gem for some lucky young man. She smiled and nudged Piper’s shoulder with hers, making the girl chuckle. “How are things progressing with Ian MacGregor?”
Color suffused the girl’s cheeks. “I honestly don’t know. He’s been somewhat distracted of late.”
“Too distracted to call on you?”
“Has he given you a reason?”
“No, not really.”
“But you have a suspicion as to why, don’t you?”
Piper bowed her head; her fingers toyed with the corner of the order list. “I’m probably making too much of it.”
“Or you could be right.”
“Any time I speak of my duties here or recount a funny comment made by one of our customers, he grows quiet and eventually finds an excuse to leave.”
Hearing Piper’s comment, a dark memory forced its way into Charlotte’s mind--suffocating, mind-numbing, heart-wrenching. Before the past could swallow her whole, she clawed her way out and focused on her assistant. Ian MacGregor wasn’t Cameron Adair. She would not let that man’s betrayal influence her counsel to Piper. She couldn’t and she wouldn’t.
But, for the life of her, Charlotte could not divine a reason as to why the polite, yet brash young man would act in such a way. “Piper, I do not consider myself an expert on the male mind. However, I learned a difficult lesson a long time ago.”
The girl’s eyes widened. “Tell me, please.”
“Men are fragile creatures.”
“Do not tease me, Mrs. Fielding.”
“I assure you, I’m not,” Charlotte said, smiling. “When I say fragile, I’m not referring to their physical strength. Lord knows they trump us tenfold in that area. I’m referring to their pride.”
“It’s as fragile as a strand of cotton and as unbending as the finest steel. Pride’s an inherent part of every man, young or old, and it governs their every action and every thought, good or bad. And it’s the one place a woman can do the most destruction. In my experience, men need to be handled with the softest gloves.”
Piper stared at her for the longest time, then her attention wandered around the shop, not alighting on anything, just looking, searching. “You think he’s threatened by my apprenticeship.”
Charlotte’s chest tightened. “I don’t know Ian well enough to answer yes or no.”
“But why? Why can’t he be happy for me?”
Why, indeed? “From the cradle, girls are taught that their role in society is to marry, bear children, and take care of the household. Boys, on the other hand, are taught to protect and provide for the family. It’s a strong man who can break free of centuries-old customs and allow the woman he loves to spread her wings and grasp her dreams.”
“Oh, my,” Piper said. “I never realized courtship could be so complicated.”
Charlotte laughed and wrapped an arm around the girl’s narrow shoulders. “Is there anything in this life that isn’t complicated, my dear?”
“You have a point.” Piper sent her an assessing look. “So, who was the wretch that broke your heart? Do I know him?”
Silver-blue eyes framed by long, sooty eyelashes and deep, rich brown hair appeared in her mind with a sudden clarity that shocked and surprised her. That wretch was someone who was hard to forget. A vise clamped around Charlotte’s throat as she recalled that twice in one day her former beau had surfaced to test the barrier of her resolve to forget him. She wouldn’t fail again.
But before she could wave off Piper’s question with a noncommittal answer, Felix entered, sending the small bell over the door swinging wildly—and saving the day.
“Mr. Anderson’s counter is tip-top again,” Felix said. “But it won’t last. He needs to shift things around a bit, so that he’s not bumping into the corner all the time.” At sixteen, Felix’s blond good looks got him plenty of attention with the local girls. His ready smile and willingness to do just about anything won the hearts of all the shopkeepers on Long Acre.
“Glad to hear it. I’m sure he appreciates your assistance.”
“It’s no bother. Besides, I like hearing Mr. Anderson’s war stories. If he killed all the French he says he killed, France would have to be called something else, because there would be no French people to occupy the land.” He smiled broadly, rattling his coin purse. “It doesn’t hurt that he pays well, too.”
Piper chuckled. “With the way you’re saving your money, you’ll be richest man in Covent Garden by the time you turn one and twenty.”
The smile he sent his sister was broad, toothy, and full of masculine mischief. “You’re just vexed because you didn’t think of it.” He turned a slightly more circumspect look in Charlotte’s direction. “Do you need anything else, Mrs. Fielding?”
“As a matter of fact, I do.” His expression fell. “That is, if you have time to deliver this”—she held out a bundle—“to Mrs. Taylor.”
She saw the moment he realized Taylor’s home was but five minutes from the Augusta Theatre. His disappointment turned into enthusiasm.
With package in hand, he saluted Charlotte and Piper. “See you tomorrow.”
The bell over the door chimed wildly with Felix’s exit. Charlotte shook her head. “If he ever makes it to the stage, he’s going to charm the audience to no end.”
“And he’s well aware of that fact,” Piper said, disgustedly.
They worked in silence for the next half hour, filling orders for early morning clients. Once Piper had labeled the last bottle, Charlotte stored everything in a locked cabinet against the wall.
“Perfect timing,” Charlotte said. “You’ve time to make it home before dark.”
“Are you headed to Mr. Whitley’s?”
Charlotte placed the laudanum and a few other necessities in a black medical bag. “Indeed, I am.”
“Would you like me to join you?”
“Goodness, no. You’ve put in a long day as it is. And I suspect your sister Winnie is dying to show you her latest masterpiece.” Twelve-year-old Winnie Scott’s talent with pencil and paper was amazing. She could bring any object to life with the use of shadows and light. Charlotte’s shop displayed one of her drawings, a beautiful rendering of a mortar and pestle and a jar sporting Charlotte’s new label design.
“Winnie can wait awhile longer.”
“There’s no need for you to accompany me. I promise to walk straight there and straight back. I won’t be gone more than half an hour.”
Nodding, Piper gathered her personal effects from Charlotte’s office and brought out both of their coats, mufflers, and gloves.
“I must say, I already long for spring.” Charlotte slipped on her gloves and lifted her bag off the counter.
“Don’t wish it here just yet, please. I want to enjoy Christmas first. For the first time since my father left us, we’ll actually be able to have a nice dinner and even a gift or two.”
“I hear your mother’s creations are growing more popular?”
“Yes.” Pride filled Piper’s voice. “The shop where she sells her handbags can’t keep them in stock.”
“How wonderful. I’m so happy for your family.” She pulled the door closed behind them and clicked the lock into place. “I’ll see you in the morning, Piper.”
Her assistant hesitated. “Are you sure you don’t want company?”
“Quite sure.” Charlotte waggled her fingers at Piper. “Go home, get some rest. We have a busy day tomorrow.”
# # #
By the time Charlotte made her way back home, night had fallen over the city. Thick cloud cover created an impenetrable blanket over what Charlotte knew to be a near full moon. She resisted the urge to tuck her chin deeper beneath her woolen muffler.
To an extent, Piper had been right—she did feel comfortable enough in this area to walk about alone. However, she didn’t confuse that notion with being safe. Although many knew and respected her in this area of Covent Garden, she was careful not to invite mischief by staying alert and avoiding all appearances of weakness.
In the distance, she spotted the simple, white-lettered sign that marked her destination. Apothecary. The tension she’d been carrying in her shoulders since entering the Whitley residence loosened its biting grip. The strain between husband and wife had not lifted in her two-day absence. If anything, it had grown worse, now that Mr. Whitley felt well enough to defend himself.
Charlotte’s brisk pace slowed. A man was slumped on the pavement between her shop and the boarded-up bakery next door. He sat with one leg stretched out across the walkway, the other bent at an angle. The rim of his hat protected his face from identification. So, too, did the long black woolen coat and matching muffler around his neck.
The tension in Charlotte’s shoulders returned full force. Even though she could not identify him, she knew what he wasn’t—a beggar. Everything about him was too fine for him to be living in the streets. She glanced around, checking the evening shadows as best she could with only lamplight to aid her. Anderson’s lending library, Patterson’s coffee shop, Gertrude’s lace boutique, Tilly’s former bakery—they all stood silent and free of loitering troublemakers and customers. If she cried out for help, would the shopkeepers hear her from their snug, upstairs apartments?
She considered entering through the back of her building, an area normally reserved for deliveries, but she couldn’t bring herself to venture down the dank, narrow alleyway at this time of night. Drawing in a calming breath, she reached into her reticule and pulled out her pouch of pepper. A poor defense, she knew, but she always kept it, thinking it would give her a small chance of escape if thrown in an assailant’s face.
Increasing her pace, she stopped in front of her shop’s weathered door, the color of a cloud-streaked blue sky. The man remained motionless, silent. Eerily so. She experienced a moment of indecision. Should she nudge him? Could he be hurt and in need of assistance? Or should she continue on inside her own shop and mind her own business?
“Hello, Charley.” The voice was unmistakable.
A chill started at the base of her neck and swept through her body. Bone deep and breath stealing. With slow, precise movements, her gaze lowered to the source of the too-familiar voice. A voice that belonged to the only man who had ever called her Charley.
The man’s uplifted face revealed itself. Thick, bold eyebrows stood out on a pale, pain-filled face. A once-beloved face. Cameron Adair. What little air she had left disappeared at the sight of Cam—Cameron. Other than a brief glimpse of him a few months ago, she hadn’t seen him for years. But she would have known him anywhere. The shock of seeing him held her immobile, terrified in a way she hadn’t been since the early days of their falling out.
“Charley, I need your help.”
His words, laced with a strain born of hard-fought control, snapped her out of the past and plunged her back into the present. Cameron Adair was sprawled at her door, hurt, needing her help.
She slid her key into the lock. Metal scratched against metal until she heard a familiar click. Setting her bag inside the door, she returned outside. “Are you able to get to your feet?” She managed to keep her voice calm, unaffected. But inside, a violent tremor began and a maelstrom of questions flooded her mind. Why come to her? Where was he hurt? Why show up on her doorstep after complete and utter silence for five miserable years?
Carefully, she folded her hands at her waist and locked her knees before she could humiliate herself with senseless emotion. She had decided long ago to waste no more of it on Cameron Adair.
Something like disappointment flared in his blue, ice-chipped eyes. “Yes, with assistance.”
“Where are you hurt?”
“Left leg, right shoulder.”
“Let’s get you inside out of the cold, and I’ll hail a hansom cab to take you to Dr. Hollingsworth.”
He shook his head and mumbled, “I’ve been shot. Lost too much blood.”
“Cameron, I can’t—”
“You must,” he interrupted. “I haven’t the strength to go elsewhere.”
She knew what it had cost him to admit to such weakness. And because she knew this about him, an unrivaled fear forced her to his side.
Positioning herself in a crouch, Charlotte took a steadying breath before sliding her arm around his broad back. Blood, sweat, and a masculine scent uniquely Cameron’s filled her nose. She gritted her teeth against an overwhelming desire to inhale deeply.
“Ready?” she asked.
He nodded once, his full lips pressed into a thin, determined line. Bending forward, he wrapped an arm around her shoulder to brace himself. The new position put them face-to-face, breath-to-breath.
Charlotte tightened her hold on his middle and they slowly rose until he stood shakily on his feet. “Prepare yourself for a bit of a walk. The room I use to see patients is in the back of the shop.”
“Lead the way.”
One labored step at a time, Charlotte guided them to a small room she used for customer emergencies and minor injuries, or when she worked late and was too tired to climb the two flights of stairs to her bedchamber. She halted beside the small makeshift bed. Easing her arm from his waist, she paused a moment at his side to ensure he could maintain his balance. Except for the fine sheen of sweat covering his forehead, he appeared in control and unfazed by the short walk.
“Rest a moment. I’ll lock up out front and get a light.” She used the distraction of routine tasks to force her nerves into a manageable jitter. After lighting a candle, she retrieved her medical bag and Mrs. Cates’s laudanum. She carried both into the treatment chamber, then lit the two lamps inside the room.
He shifted on the edge of the high bed and pain streaked across the well-defined planes of his handsome face. Bloody, bruised, and achingly, hauntingly the same, but different somehow. His hair was the same deep rich brown, though he wore it longer now. Long enough for the tips to curl slightly. Long enough to run her fingers through the length.
Gone was the lean young man she’d fallen in love with. Even in his disheveled state, she could see his shoulders were wider, his jaw stronger, his arms and legs thicker. The one thing that hadn’t changed was his eyes. A breathtaking blue flecked with iridescent silver.
“Besides the bruise on your cheekbone, what kind of wound did you sustain to your leg and shoulder?”
“Gunshot to the shoulder. Knife wound to the thigh.”
Despite her best attempt to block all emotion, a twinge of anxiety clenched her heart. “Good God, Cameron, what mess have you involved yourself with?” She shook her head. “Never mind. It’s none of my concern.” She moved his black, wide-brimmed hat to a nearby trunk. “With the extent of your injuries, you should be seeing a surgeon, not an apothecary. If you cannot make it to Dr. Hollingsworth, perhaps he will consent to coming here to tend to your wounds.”
Putting her hands on his bare flesh would be a torture she might not recover from. She was hoping he didn’t recall that part of her apprenticeship dealt specifically with wound care.
“Bollocks,” he said. “You’re more accomplished than any physician or surgeon in London.”
“You should find a better source of information. I assure you I have no such credentials.” She measured several drops of laudanum into a glass and filled it with water. “Drink this.”
He took the glass and drank, but never removed his sharp gaze from hers. “I don’t have a source where you’re concerned.”
An uncomfortable silence fell over the chamber. Charlotte wondered what he meant by his cryptic remark, then scolded herself for caring. She turned away. “Do you understand that in order for me to care for your wounds you’ll need to remove a good portion of your clothing?”
“I assumed as much.” His voice held neither distaste nor longing. It was a simple matter-of-fact statement.
“I’m going to start with your coat and shirt. I cannot guarantee there won’t be pain, even with the laudanum.”
She set to unbuttoning his coat, an action she’d performed countless times before in the course of her duties. On most of those occasions, her patients were unconscious or near enough. Only on a few rare instances had she been forced to unclothe a gentleman while he looked on. As before, she found the situation unnerving, but never more so than tonight. Knowing the gaze that followed her every move belonged to Cameron Adair made her work through the process with lightning speed.
Moving behind him, she kneeled on the bed to grab the collar and lapel on his good side and helped him free his arm. She did the same with his injured arm, taking greater care. After placing the coat on a peg, she untied the simple knot on his cravat.
“You look tired,” he said quietly. “Long day?”
Charlotte considered not answering him. The last thing she wanted to do was become friendly with him. She recalled all too acutely what it had felt like when he had walked away and she was not keen to experience that again. She settled for a simple, “Yes.”
“Another patient tonight?”
She slipped the cravat from around his neck, noting the warm damp patches where it had touched his skin. Wadding the limp material together, she used it to dab the moisture from his brow, cheeks, and neck. “Another stab wound.”
“Seems you’re having an eventful evening, Charley.”
“Don’t call me that.”
“Why not? It’s your name.”
“Not anymore. I’m known as Mrs. Fielding now.”
“Why? You’ve never married.”
“You’re sure of that fact?”
“I did what I needed to do to keep my father’s business.”
“Ah.” He searched her face, then he focused on the wall behind her. “Did your patient survive?”
Lifting her hands to the two small buttons at the neck of his shirt, she said, “Barely. If you bend forward a little, I’ll help you remove your shirt.”
Angling his body toward her, he stretched his arms out as much as his injury would allow. Charlotte gathered the fine linen near his shoulder blades in her hands and began to inch the garment over his head. Golden, smooth skin appeared, tempting her resistance, mocking her control. Muscle rippled beneath his flesh like a thoroughbred in full gallop. Sleek, powerful, beautiful.
Swallowing back the longing that welled deep in her chest, she finished the task. And immediately wished she had lingered longer over his back, for his torso could easily stand beside any Michelangelo marble in the Royal Museum. Except for the bullet hole spoiling the perfection of his right shoulder.
She watched his chest rise, expanding to an impossible degree. His hand lifted and his body tilted, swayed. “Cameron!” She caught him before he careened forward and helped him back upright.
He dropped his head in between his hands.
Grasping a nearby newssheet, she unfolded it and placed it on the bed to protect the linens. “Lie down. You’ve lost a lot of blood.”
“Afraid I’ll pass out from the pain?”
“It would be a blessing for us both.”
With exaggerated slowness he followed her directions, revealing the extent of his weakness. She folded his cravat a few times and pressed it against his shoulder wound.
He sucked in a sharp breath. “Dammit, Charley. A little warning next time.”
She ignored his grousing and kept the pressure steady for a full minute. “Can you take over? I’ll assess the damage to your shoulder once I have the bleeding on your leg under control.”
Nodding, he allowed her to guide his fingers to where they needed to go.
“Firm pressure. As much as you can handle and then some.” She opened a glass-paned cupboard where she kept several linens rolled into neat stacks. Grabbing several, she placed them within easy reach before turning back to him. “This is going to hurt.”
“Thanks for the warning.”
She hovered over him, undecided. Should she remove his trousers, rip the leg to get at the laceration, or cut off the entire left side?
“Is there a problem?” he asked in a husky voice.
“Not at all.” She gently gripped the ragged edges of his damaged trousers, ripping them until the hole was large for her to see the deep, six-inch laceration. Carefully, she shoved a compress against the wound, pressing hard to stop the bleeding. Charlotte’s attention roamed over Cameron’s hard body and she experienced an overwhelming need to run. Everything about him was…too much. Too much masculinity. Too much perfection. Too much heartache.
Once she had the bleeding under control, she scooped up his discarded shirt and flattened the bloody material over the palm of her hand. Although somewhat jagged, all the fibers connected.
“What are you doing?”
“Trying to determine if the bullet took a piece of your shirt with it inside your shoulder.”
“What have you decided?”
“You are saved from being tortured by my tweezers.”
On a sideboard sat a basin, a pitcher full of water, and the stack of linens she had pulled from the cupboard. She filled the basin with water, placed it on a tray along with the rolled linens, and carried the ensemble to the small, rectangular table sitting near the foot of the bed.
“Let’s see how you did.” She waited for him to remove his hand before lifting the bloodstained cravat from his shoulder. “The bleeding has stopped.” Plunging a soft square of material into the water, she wrung it out only enough to keep from making a mess on the floor. “This will be cold.”
“Brilliant.” He transferred his attention to the ceiling.
The moment she placed the wet cloth against his warm flesh, his body went taut. With efficient strokes, she cleaned the area around the bullet hole and carefully inspected the wound. “I need to see if the bullet exited out your back. Can you roll onto your side?”
Rather than answer, he twisted around to face the far wall. Charlotte spotted the dark hole just above his shoulder blade. She closed her eyes as pure relief poured over her.
“Bad news?” he asked when she remained quiet.
“Not at all.” She reached for another clean cloth and dropped it into the basin of water, repeating the same cleansing ritual around the exit wound. “The bullet made a clean escape. Seems fortune favored you in your brush with death.” She lightly tapped his arm. Muscle rippled beneath her touch, leaving a little breathless. “Y-you may turn back over.” From a corner cabinet, she pulled down a bottle, scissors, fresh linens, thread, and an assortment of other instruments she might need. Placing her cache on a tray, she carried everything to his bedside.
He nodded at the bottle of whisky. “Is that for me?”
“Yes, but not in the way you think.”
“You’re not considering pouring whisky over my open wound, are you?”
“As a matter of fact, I am. In the medical world, we use the term aqua vitae.”
“Water of life?” Cameron snorted. “Wrap it in whatever pretty package you like, but you’re not setting fire to my raw flesh.”
She paused. “What would you rather endure? A minute of cleansing, or hours of debilitating pain and bone-rattling fever, all of which will lead to an eventual slow death?”
“Do you use your persuasive voice on all your patients, or is this a special one for me?”
“There’s still time to call for Dr. Hollingsworth.”
His eyes narrowed. “Get on with it, Charley.”
Then she placed a small, thicker cloth directly beneath the hole in his shoulder. Next, she uncorked the bottle and retrieved yet another cloth. Wasting no more time, she poured a steady, thin stream of the strong, pungent alcohol over the wound.
Air sliced between his clenched teeth and his head pressed hard into the pillow.
Charlotte continued to douse the area until she was confident the wound was free of any sort of debris. She set down the bottle and tossed the wet cloths into the basin. Next, she took four of the clean linen squares and placed them over the entry wound. “Hold this in place, please.”
He did as commanded, giving her a free hand to set another pad of linens over the exit hole. Then she wound a large strip of cloth over his shoulder and around his underarm several times before tying it off.
On a nearby chair, Charlotte spotted her mother’s rose and sage throw blanket draped across the back. She retrieved it, experiencing a pang of regret even as she did so. Although not impossible, blood tended to be difficult to remove.
She spread the blanket over his torso and repositioned her wooden stool next to his injured thigh. “How did you receive such an injury?”
A long pause followed. “I deflected my assailant’s intended aim.”
Removing the compress, she noted the laceration sat only a few inches from his groin. Schooling her features, she retrieved a large pair of scissors and grasped the edge of the torn material. “An attempt to remove a gentleman’s manhood is a vicious, and rather personal, attack.”
“Aren’t most attacks personal?”
“Not to this degree. You’re fortunate your assailant missed your femoral artery.”
“How do you know he did?”
“Because you would have bled to death within minutes.”
“I should hope so.” She cut the left side of his trousers back as far as she could, then wiped the area clean before dousing it with whisky, too. Cameron had squeezed his eyes shut during the painful process. She waited for him to open his eyes. When he did, she said, “The wound is deep enough to require stitches.”
“Perhaps twelve or fifteen.”
“I’m going to need some of your aqua vitae.”
She shook her head. “I’ll give you a little more laudanum, if you need it. Mixing the opiate with alcohol is not a good idea.”
“Laudanum it is, then.”
After adding a small amount of the opiate to a glass of water, she helped him into an upright position before handing it to him. The feel of him in her arms again sparked a long-suppressed yearning. She’d loved him beyond imagining once. Had even offered herself to him—before he walked out of her life.
A cloud of anger rolled over her, extinguishing the dangerous longing.
“Thank you,” he said, sounding exhausted.
Charlotte finished treating his injuries in silence. It took seventeen stitches to close the cut on his leg. She probably could have completed the task in fifteen, but one unpleasant image after another had crowded her mind and she’d rather relished taking the two extra stitches.
After clearing away the soiled linens and covering Cameron with another blanket, Charlotte paused awkwardly near the door. “Is there anything else I can do for you?”
He rolled his head to the side to better see her, but said nothing and simply stared at her with his fathomless blue eyes. Eyes that always had the ability to penetrate the deepest secrets of her soul.
Hesitant to leave him alone, she tried a different tactic. “Should I notify anyone of your whereabouts?”
Turning away, he fixed his attention on the ceiling. “Don’t worry, Charley. I’ll be gone by morning.”
“That was not my intent.”
She studied his uncompromising profile and decided to leave the issue alone. “Try to get some sleep. I’ll check on you later.”
Before she could slip away, Cameron called to her. “Charley.”
“Thank you,” he said, with a note of tenderness. “For patching me up.”
She hesitated. “I was sorry to hear about Nick’s death.” All during their childhood, Cameron, Jules Gardner, and Nick Bellwood had terrorized the neighborhood with their antics. Nick had been the wildest of the three and, as a result, Charlotte had spent the least amount of time with him. But that had not stopped the hurt she had experienced upon learning about his tragic drowning a year ago.
Cameron’s jaw clenched and he focused his attention on the ceiling above, saying nothing.
Charlotte pushed back the hurt his reaction caused, and murmured, “I’ll see you in the morning.”
Recalling Cameron had pilfered Mrs. Cates’s laudanum order, Charlotte took a moment to fill another bottle and placed it with the rest of tomorrow morning’s orders. Satisfied, she made the long climb to her apartments upstairs, not once allowing herself to think about the last hour. She simply put one foot in front of the other. Her mind a perfect blank. Safe. The closer she got to her bedchamber, the more leaden her feet became. Once she arrived, she didn’t bother to light a candle. She unerringly strode to the window overlooking her herb garden in the rear of the building.
Sparse moonlight spilled onto the rows of frozen dark-brown plants. Illumination mattered little. She knew every nook and cranny of the garden. The fifteen-by-twenty section of soil was one of the most important aspects of her business. She required a ready supply of medicinal herbs, most of which she ordered from the Chelsea Physic Garden. However, having her own inventory of the most commonly used herbs allowed her a sense of security and independence. Not only was her little garden a source of income, it fed life into her lonely days and troubled thoughts.
Unable to block Cameron from her thoughts any longer, she recalled their brief reunion a few months ago when her friend Sydney Hunt had called her to the Hunt Agency to treat a gunshot wound sustained by a member of her staff. The entire time she’d worked on the gentleman, Cameron had watched her carefully while helping to secure the patient’s flailing limbs.
Never had she been more shocked in her life, walking into the Hunt Agency and finding Cameron there, bloody and unkempt. Handsome as ever, but with a hard edge about his features and tension pulsing off his body in great typhoon waves.
Later, she’d learned Cameron had been with the gentleman when he’d been shot and, at the injured man’s request, he’d managed to haul him all the way to Sydney’s place. Her friend had referred to Cameron as ruthless, insensitive, and the absolute best at finding people who don’t wish to be found. So many contradictions. And Charlotte had no wish to unravel them.
As she had that horrible night at the Hunt Agency, Charlotte would walk away from Cameron without a backward glance once he left her shop in the morning. She would never allow herself to be hurt by him again. Her heart could not bear to break a second time.
Resting her forehead against the cold windowpane, she allowed a single tear to fall. A tear for what could have been and for what would never be. “Cam.”
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