Home > The Duke (Victorian Rebels #4)(13)

The Duke (Victorian Rebels #4)(13)
Author: Kerrigan Byrne

Gwen, a stout, quick-witted Irish girl, instantly caught Imogen, then pushed her back against the wall with one strong arm. The instinct to resist died immediately when Imogen realized that nearly the entire staff of St. Margaret’s was crowded into the hall, and thusly lined against the wall in a parody of regimental posture.

It seemed a miracle to have so many bodies in her ward making hardly a sound, or perhaps the hammer of her heart blocked any noise. She’d caught the suggestion of a voluminous black skirt and a great many black and red coats toward the end of the hall before Gwen had saved her. But Imogen couldn’t make out the goings-on from this distance, and didn’t dare move until her breath returned to normal.

Gwen tilted her dark head toward Imogen, eyes the color of cobalt sparkling with excitement and awe. “’Tis Her Royal Majesty and Mr. Disraeli consulting with Dr. Fowler.” She injected as much marvel into the breathy whisper as was possible.

“What?” Imogen gasped in a breath. The Queen of England and the prime minister? She let her head fall back against the wall. Of all the bloody days for her to be delayed, why not when Queen Victoria and Benjamin Disraeli stood in front of her station?

Bugger. Was she going to get the sack in front of the English monarch and her retinue? Was it too late to throw herself back down the stairs?

“Aye.” Gwen continued, gesturing to the sovereign mostly obscured by a circle of royal yeomen, her personal bodyguards. “She’s here to check in on her distant cousin, or haven’t you heard?”

“Her cousin?” Imogen’s heart split in two with the violence of a hatchet strike. One half relief, the other fear. All her blood seemed to be pooling in her limbs, turning them hot and numb. “You don’t mean—” She couldn’t bring herself to speak his name, even in a whisper, lest she prematurely conjure impending disaster.

Trenwyth was alive. Thank God he was alive.

And if he recognized her, he could ruin everything.

“Aye, Collin Talmage, the Duke of Trenwyth, in this very hospital,” Gwen affirmed.

Imogen’s hand flew to her corset where it seemed to inhibit her lungs from expanding at all.

“We’re not like to be introduced, though.” The girl deflated with a long, breathy sigh.

“Why not?” Imogen asked alertly.

“The duke is a right mess. I didn’t catch all of what the doctor said, but I did hear that he is afflicted with typhus.”

Imogen’s hand moved from her lungs to her heart at the word. “No,” she whispered.

Gwen nodded. “Aye. After all this time. After everything it seems they did to bring him home. They don’t expect him to survive the night.”

Home from where? Hazarding a break in decorum, Imogen craned her neck to glance down the long hall of the South Wing. The royal entourage painted bold, stark renderings against the hallway painted institutional white.

Queen Victoria, a stout, imposing woman bedecked in unfathomable yards of silk, stood like a black pistil within the crimson-clad petals of her vanguard. The register of her voice carried down the hall as she consulted with Dr. Fowler, but the words remained unintelligible. If the queen’s commanding words didn’t reach the landing of the stairs, surely Imogen’s careful whispers wouldn’t disturb Her Majesty.

“Did they mention where he’s been all this time?” she asked Gwen, who’d returned to staring at the monarch with a mixture of awe and ambiguity. As an Irish Catholic, Gwen had likely been born with a distrust of the English crown. “What did you mean when you said ‘after everything they’d done to bring him home’?”

“Don’t you take the paper?” Gwen glanced back impatiently.

“I’m afraid I slept in rather late this morning.” After an extra boisterous night at the Bare Kitten, she’d been dead to the world until Isobel had to wake her, likely saving her job.

“Well.” Gwen adopted a conspiratorial posture. “The official story, according to the London press, is that he’d contracted typhus while exploring the jungles of India…” She trailed off dramatically, and Imogen wanted to shake her and every one of her blarney-speaking relatives for their bardic tendencies. Then she caught herself. Why was she being like this? Voracious, impatient, almost desperate for any information she could glean about a man she barely knew.

A duke who could ruin her. Who—some would argue—already had.

“You have reason not to believe the story?” Imogen prompted, fighting to keep the impatience from elevating the volume of her voice.

“Half the royal army’s in the Indies, aren’t they?” Gwen said pointedly. “Why, then, send the Demon Highlander after Trenwyth?”

“Who knows?” Troubled, Imogen chewed on her lip. “But if—”

“Nurse Pritchard.” Dr. Fowler’s voice carried down the length of the hall as he broke from the queen and searched the hall of anxious faces for her own. “Nurse Pritchard, step forward, please.”

Imogen would have done so the first time he’d uttered her name, if the very marrow hadn’t frozen in her bones.

Gwen, always the helpful friend, gave her an encouraging push—or rather a shove—into Dr. Fowler’s path.

“Ah, Nurse Pritchard, there you are.” Dr. Fowler’s balding pate shone beneath the gaslights, perspiration the only sign of distress in the usually imperturbable man. As if the daunting chief physician at St. Margaret’s weren’t enough to incite a bout of trembling, the queen trailing in his wake threatened Imogen with a bout of the vapors.

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