The Barbary Mark
As a result of her chosen line of work, Nonie was necessarily a light sleeper. Therefore, she opened her eyes in the faint light of dawn, staying very still, but aware that something—some slight movement—had awakened her. After a moment, she hid a smile and marveled that she was so far gone that she already knew his scent. “Tahriz?”
“Yes; I am sorry if I woke you.”
Sleepily, she sat up on the bed and saw that he sat on a stool beside her, watching her in the dim light. The quiet vigil didn’t match with Jamie’s theory that he had deliberately laid her low, but she knew better than to question Jamie’s information.
“Are you still unwell? I have a draught, if it is needed.”
Don’t say anything, she warned her foolish, outspoken self—don’t you dare. “I am much better, now that I’ve slept ʼround the clock.” With a lilt in her voice, she left an opening for him to explain where he’d been in that self-same space of time, but he didn’t take it, instead leaning in to gently place his hand on her forehead, assessing. She examined the face so close to hers, and decided he looked tired. “And how are you?”
“I’ve been worried about you; have you managed to eat anything?”
Don’t let him know you know, she warned herself frantically—if you let him know you know, you may put Jamie and the others in danger; you may jeopardize the assignment that they’ve been preparing for months. Please, please don’t say anything, because you know how foolish you can be—
In a rush, she asked, “Did you give me smallpox, Tahriz?”
For a long moment he stared at her with no expression, and she marveled at how well he could control his reactions—she should watch and learn, because she was just the opposite, as she had ably demonstrated, once again. Slowly, he asked, “You will let me explain?”
“I suppose.” She sighed, surprised that she wasn’t more inclined to stab him through the heart, considering how miserable the fever had been—she was a lost cause, she was. “Although whenever I am with you, I believe all your dubious explanations, and then when you are away, I realize I am a complete nodcock for having done so.”
He took her hands in his, and rubbed his thumbs on their backs. “Have you heard of the work of the English doctor—the work he has done with vaccinations?”
“Perhaps,” she equivocated, having no idea what he was talking about.
“He discovered that if a mild form of the disease is administered, the patient will never contract the more deadly version.”
She thought this over. “You did this so that I would never catch smallpox?”
But her brows drew together in suspicion. “That won’t wash, my friend; if that was your noble intent, why didn’t you just tell me?”
He hesitated, then confessed, “Because it suited my purposes if you were out of the arena for a day or two.”
This made more sense, and had the ring of truth—although everything he said had the ring of truth, come to think of it. “And why is that, my friend?”
He met her eyes with a grave expression. “You said it yourself; we are working at cross purposes.”
So—there it was, out in the open and no refuting it—he was the villain of the piece, and all her wishful thinking would not change that hard, hard fact. If she was going to figure out a way to redeem him, she needed to do a better job than she’d done thus far; he had easily outfoxed her at every turn.
She squeezed the capable hands that held hers, and decided that perhaps it would be best to remind him of what he’d be missing, if he maintained his present course—anything to further the cause. “We’ve a problem, then. While we are deciding what’s to be done, do you suppose you could join me, in here?” Ah—there was an advantage to being so ridiculously outspoken, it was gratifying to see that he could not control the light that came up in his dark eyes.
“Are you well enough?” It was a perfunctory question, as he was already shrugging off his djellaba.
“As long as I don’t have to exert myself overmuch.” She leaned back into the pillows, and caressed his bare chest, as he supported himself with a hand on either side of her, and lowered his head to kiss her. Willingly, she moved her hands to cradle his head, but she kept her kiss relatively chaste—he liked to take things slowly, and in truth, there was something almost unbearably sweet in the way he handled her; as though he could not be gentle enough.
Climbing onto the length of her body, he lowered his head to kiss her throat, and press his face into her neck as his arms came around her, and she could feel his chest expand as he breathed in—apparently he liked the scent of her, too. Oh—this is heaven, she thought, feeling the rhythm of his chest rising and falling, warm against her breast. Despite his double-dealing ways, I have missed him miserably.
He didn’t move for a few moments, and gradually she realized that his breathing had become deeper, and his breath was warm upon her neck—he had fallen asleep.
Carefully, she lay still, and smiled at the canopied ceiling. He was exhausted from whatever skullduggery he had been hatching this past day and she could be patient, certainly. But she shouldn’t get used to this—shouldn’t get used to lying in his arms, and feeling protected and cherished—it would ruin her work ethic. Not to mention he was up to his neck in aiding and abetting Napoleon’s latest attempt at world conquest—there was no mistaking that this constituted a serious hurdle in their relationship.
She shifted to the side ever so slightly—he was heavy—and tried for a moment to seriously consider the eventual outcome of this little interlude. Surely, she could protect him from ruin without jeopardizing the assignment. She knew on a fundamental level that he was not an evil man—she had known quite a few evil men, and flattered herself that she was a good judge of such things. It was the influence of this miserable place—where there was no honor or integrity, just greedy intrigues—that had led him astray; if he had seen the havoc and misery the last war had caused on the Continent, perhaps he wouldn’t be so eager to help Napoleon prepare for the next one.
And then—once she’d weaned him away from all this—perhaps he wouldn’t mind living somewhere else, somewhere easier for her to visit, when she needed to feel the way she felt right now. She turned her head slightly, and felt his hair tickle her face. This is very unlike you, she admitted to herself—Jamie is right; you are cow-eyed, and the mark has been running circles around you. Don’t let him see that you are weaving air-dreams about a mutual future, or he will sink you for certain. She closed her eyes and drifted back to sleep, the heat from his body seeping into her very bones.
She was awakened some time later because his mouth had rather roughly found hers, and he’d apparently decided to make up for lost time by dispensing with all preliminaries, as she gathered her wits and tried to catch up with him.
All too soon, their coupling was over, and he collapsed atop her, both of them panting and damp with perspiration. “Top o’ the mornin’,” she teased, once she’d caught her breath.
He chuckled—she loved it when he chuckled, and she could feel that he was trying to find the words to make an apology. “Don’t you dare,” she warned. “I’m that pleased to imagine I’m an irresistible temptress.”
“You are an irresistible temptress.” He shifted to lay on his back beside her, pulling her head against his shoulder, and sighing with deep contentment.
She lay with him, well-content, and her body still a-tingle. “So; am I to be plied with any other deadly diseases today?”
“Not today.” He dropped a kiss on her forehead.
“Am I to hear where you are from? It seems only fair, after such a mauling.”
The thread of humor remained in his voice, and so she pressed, “Why is it such a mystery?”
He thought about his answer for a moment. “Because you are far too shrewd.”
This was of interest—where he was born shouldn’t make a difference. Even if he were French, she wouldn’t be surprised, and certainly many other nationalities had thrown in with Napoleon—that was the whole problem with the bloody tyrant; he inspired fanatical followers. “Well, then at least tell me that I am shrewder than all your other wives.”
“You are.” He kissed her head again, his hand moving along her arm. “It alarms me.”
Then, because she was never one to let sleeping dogs lie, she ventured, “How attached are you to Saba?”
He clasped her hand in his. “How attached are you to Mr. O’Hay?”
She shook her head slightly in bemusement. “Is there anything you don’t know?”
“I don’t know enough about you,” he answered immediately. “About who you are, and how you came to be who you are.”
“I’m from Ireland, I am.” She made the disclosure with the air of one revealing a deep secret.
She could feel another chuckle in his chest, and turned her head to kiss him on the shoulder, so as to reward this show of humor.
He persisted, “I would like to hear your story—I would like to hear—” he paused. “I would like to hear what happened to you.”
She lifted her head slightly to look at him. “What do you mean? Lots of things have happened to me.”
He met her eyes, the expression in his own tender and a bit grave, as he slowly raked his fingers through the curls on the crown of her head. “I think your—your manner, your lightness—I think it is a shield; that it protects you from feeling deeply about anything.” He repeated, “I would like to know what happened to you.”
She stared at him for a long moment, and then laid her head on his shoulder again, struggling to right herself. “Don’t you dare try to redeem me,” she warned lightly. “Better men have tried.”
“As you wish.” He propped himself up on an elbow and gently cupped her breast with a warm hand. “Would you mind—”
“Not at all,” she assured him, and eagerly lifted her mouth to his.