"That is salve, " Daniel explained, pushingthrough the servants tokneel beside her."Did she faint? "
"The captain don’t – " An elbow in his side silenced the one-eyed fellow’s scornful comment.
"My niece is not prone to fainting fits, " Meg said quickly, drawing Daniel’sattention from the servant.
"Aye, and notonlythat, she just don’tdo it, " thefellow missing hisnose muttered.
"And she didn’tthis time, unlessshe hit her head on the way down." Henry announced thatashe pulled thehand thathe had cradledher head with away, revealing a stain ofblood.
"Onsomething like this, maybe? " the cook said sarcastically, bending to pick up abloodyrolling pin.
"Seems more likely it would fall on herthan her falling on it, "
One-Eye said grimly, turning to coldlyeye thesuitors. "AndI’m wondering which ofyou helpedit fall."
" ‘Tweren’t none of them, " Henry snapped as Daniel pulled a hankie outto press toValoree’s head. "Couldn’thave been. They were in the dining salon with you, me, and Bull. Petey – you found her, didn’t you? Where were you? "
"Out hagglingwiththefishmonger." He gestured to aspilled basket on the floor by the door. He hadobviously dropped itin hisrush toget tohis mistress’s side;his purchases were spilled out ontothefloor.
Henry nodded, then glanced at Daniel and the women questioningly.
"We were inthe salon.LordandLady Thurborne, her maid, andmyself, " Meg said quietly.
"Yedidn’t hear or see anything? "
"I was the first one out the door, and did not see or hear anything exceptyour cook shouting, andyou men rushing into the kitchen, " Daniel said impatiently, lifting Valoree into his arms. He stood."I am taking her into the salon to be attended to.
I suggest you have theservantssearch the house. It is doubtful you will find anything, but it cannothurt to be sure."
"Aye-aye, " Valoree’suncle agreed, risingas well. "Bull, seethe men into thedining salon, I’llbe along directly.One-Eye, Skully, No-Nose, you start searching the house. Whoever it was is probablylong goneby now, but lookanyway. Petey, cleanthis mess up." Daniel heard the orders being issued as he carried Valoree out of the kitchensandback down thehalltowardthe salon. Meg, his mother, and her maidimmediatelyfollowed.
Valoree murmuredgroggily, wincing as herhead protested her return to consciousness. Blinking her eyes open, she moaned, then quicklypressed themclosed again.
"Ye’dbest call the others."
There was a rustle as someone left her side, then a door opened. A high, piercingwhistlerent theair, and she recognized Skully’s voiceshouting. "Hoy! She’sawake!"
Groaning, Valoreeraisedher hands miserably to press them to either side of her head. Shefelt as though someone were doing a dance on it.If she’d hadthe strength, she wouldhave risenfrom herbed and ripped the man’s tonguefromhis mouth.
"Captain? " One-Eye’s voice sliced through her head, and she let her handsdrop away in despair.
"Aye. I’mawake, " shesaid in disgust, just toshut the two men up. Then, forcing her eyesopen, she straggled to sit upas she saw that she was lying in bed. Reaching out, One-Eye quickly propped pillowsbehind herand grasped her under the arms to assisther in leaningagainst them. Hadshe beenin a better mood, Valoreemighthavethanked him. As it was, she didn’t bother.
Instead, she granted as Henry and Meg rushed into the roomwith the other crewmen at their heels.
"How’re yefeeling? "Henry asked anxiouslyashe reached her bedside.
"Likehell, " Valoree snapped, then scowledaround at thefaces surrounding her. "What happened? "
"Yedon’t remember? "he asked.Valoree sighed.
"Would I askif Idid? The last thing I remember is that Meg wanted togo checkon the tea.I said, nay, I’d doit. I walked into the kitchenand then … what happened? "
"Someoneknockedyou out, " Megsaidquietly.
"Koshed ye over the head with Petey’s rolling pin, " Henry added.
One-Eyeleaned forward. "Didye see anything? "
Valoreefrowned, then shookherhead. "Not much. Iopened the door and had abrief glimpse of the openback door. I thought the room was empty, stepped in, and .. ." She shrugged.
"Open? " Petey scowled. "I closedthe door behind me when I went out to meet the fishmonger at thegate. It was still closed when I cameinto find you on the floor."
Valoree’s eyebrowsrose, thenwrinkled in pain. "Noone passed you at thegate? "The Greekshook hishead."Who was thefirst person through the kitchen door? "
"That’d be me, I think, " One-Eye answered."We were inthe diningsalon, heard Petey’sshout, and came running."
"Didyou see anyone in thehall as you came out of the dining room? " Valoree asked. The man shook his head. Sighing, she peeredaround at the rest of her men and Meg. "Did any of you seeanyonewho didn’t belonginthehouse? "
"Nay, " her aunt murmured."Lord Thurborne, hismother, and her maid were all in the salon with me when we heard the shouting. By thetime we got into the hall, it wascrowdedwith your suitors."
The men nodded in agreement. No one hadseen anything.
"Ihad the men search thehouse afterward, but theydidn’tfind anything."
Valoree nodded at Henry’s announcement. "Is everyone still here? "
"Nay. I finished with scheduling appointments nigh on an hour ago, and Lord and Lady Thurborne left about the same time.
Right afterthefirsttimeyou wokeup."
"The first time? " She peered at them blankly. "I have been awake before? "
"Aye, but you were pretty groggy."
Valoree felt shockedby that news. "So what was decided? "
"Aboutwhat? " Henry askedblankly. Valoreemade a face.
"Unless I missmy guess, Thurbornewouldn’t have left unless he had decided what had happened and ensured to his satisfaction that itwouldn’thappenagain. What did he decided? "
"Oh."Henry shifted. "We all agreed it musthavebeensome petty thief hoping tograb a trinket ortwo, but that you surprised him in the kitchen and got koshed for your trouble."
Valoree accepted that witha grunt.Itmade sense.There was no reason for anyone to be whacking her over the head otherwise. At least, not here. Now, if this were Spain, or maybe evenFrance or Holland, and people knew who she was… Well, that was another story.Buthere in England? She did noteven knowanyone here, otherthan her own men and the few people she had metso far.
"Thurborne suggestedwe postsomeone towatchthe back door as well asthe front for awhile, to keep an eyeout, just to make sure, " One-Eye added. Valoree nodded again. Sensible and cautious. Shefigured he’d think that way.
Groaning, she lay back on the pillows and made a face."Well, you can all stoplooking at me like Iamat death’s door, " shesaid in disgust. "I amfine."
Her menstraightened, muttering an agreement to that, but not lookingas though they really believed it. Valoree blamed it onthe dresses She had been forced to wear. They never would have looked at her likethisafter akoshingbeforethey’d heard she was really a girl.When shewas Captain Valerian, they wouldhave gone about their workand left Henry to tend to her wounds.Now they allthoughther so fragile they had to see forthemselves that she wasall right, and even then they looked reluctant to look away orleave her.Hell, she mightdropdead while theyweren’t looking! "Oh, goon, get out of here, "she saidin a snarl."Myhead is pounding something fierce."
"Aye, come on, let her rest, "Henryordered, straightening and urging the rest of themen awayfromthebed. "She’ll be fine.
She’s suffered worse than this before."
"Go ahead. You too, Meg. I am fine, " Valoreeadded whenthe woman hesitated.
Nodding, theolderladymovedaway, exiting throughthe door Henry heldopen for her.Valoree wasn’t terribly surprised when he then closedthe doorandreturned to her bedside. Beingthe only onewho had knownhertrue sex, he had always beenthe oneto tend her whenshe was ill or injured – and he had also always tended to fuss overher like a mother hen.
"Do yeneed anything? "he asked, settling himself on the edge of the bed.
"Nay. Thanks, "she added a bit gruffly, then waited, knowing him well enough tosuspect he had something to say. She didn’t have long to wait.
"Daniel seems a fine boy, " he murmured, and Valoree glowered at him. Lord Thurborne wasa man, not a boy. Still, Henry calledanyoneunder his own nearly sixty yearsboy or girl.
"Aye, "she agreedatlast.
"Heis smart, strong, and handsome. Virile, too."
"Aye, "Valoree agreed, trying notto smile at thatlast comment.
What would Henry knowaboutthat?
"You noticed, then? "he asked hopefully. Valoree madea face.
"Iwould have had to beblind not tonotice."
Henry nodded sagely. Then heblurted, "I thinkhe’d be willing tomarry – "
Henry blinked at the hard tone of her voice as shecut himoff.
"Why? You likehim, don’t ye? I can tell ye likehim.And – "
"Henry, I need a husband I can control, and Daniel does not strike me as verycontrollable."
Theold man scowled at that reasoning."A wife ain’t supposed tocontrol – "
"A normal wife, mayhap, butI am not a normal woman! There isnothing normal about me, " shesaid.
He hesitated atthat, then peered down athis handas he began plucking atthe linen sheets. "Iknow you haven’t had theusual childhood, girl, but now is your chance for a normal life.
Wouldn’t you liketo set down your burdenand lean on – "
"I leaned on Jeremy once, " she interrupted quietly. "I have learnedmylesson."
"Jeremy didn’tmean to let you down.He didn’t mean todie. He – "
"Jeremy never ever let me down, " she said harshly, then glanced away. After amoment, sheadded, "But when hedied… I waslost.Ifnot for you, Skully, One-Eye, and Petey – Well, who knows whatwould have become of me? The men could have voted in another captainand I could have found myselfsuddenly alone and destitute. I probably would have endedup dead, or a prostitute.Iwill not everbe weak like that again. I want to run my own life. Nosurprises, no – "
"Passion? " Henry suggested sadly. "I understand what ye’re saying, girl. Butdo you? "
She felt surprise at that, then asked warily, "What do you mean? "
"What I hear ye sayingis that ye’re afraid." She started to protest, but he waved her to silence. "Ye’re afraid to be hurt again.To love and lose. Tocare andsuffer. To do those things, ye gotta give up control. I’ve said it before: ye’ve no fear of dying, but ye’re terrifiedto live." Seeing herclosedexpression, he sighed and got tohis feet."Ye must betired. I’llleave ye to rest.
Yer first visit with oneof themsuitors is midmorning tomorrow."
".. .and she had a molecut to look like a carriage and horses thatsheinsistedonwearingrightabove her lip. It was themost disgustingthing, and yet she thought herself soclever for it."
Valoree forced a smileas Lord Gravennertittered at his own ancodote. He was thesecond of her scheduled visits of the day.
Unfortunately, hewas just as boring as LordShether, her first.
Shether had talked of nothing buthimself: how clever he was, how fashionable, how everyone adored him. Gravenner talked about everyone else: how stupid they were, how ugly, how terribly unfashionable anddull.Really!She didn’tknow which was worse. She did know, however, that both men were idiots and off her list of prospective husbands. Lack of personality aside, she didn’t think that either man could be quietlongenough toaccomplish thetask of getting her withchild.If she wereeven capable of allowingthem near her.
Bothmen had decided ona "nice walk in the park"as their courtship activity, and Valoreehad briefly wondered if they were separatedtwins. Still, she’d foundthe proposal finefor thefirst appointment, so she, Shether, Meg, and Henry had set out on a walkwith good cheer. Half anhour intotheirpromenade around the park, they had run intoDaniel, who had "just happened" to be outfor a stroll himself.
Honestly, Valoree had beenrelieved to see the man. By that point, she had too long listened to a nonstop diatribe from Shether about his favorite topic – Shether. At first she had thought that the man was simply trying to let herknow as much about himself as he could to help her make her decision, but by the time they hadrun into Daniel, she had begun tothinkthatthe man was simply a bore. Lord Thurborne’s amused and rather snide littlecomments when he joinedthemhadonly proved her right.
"Shether iswell known as anexperton himself, "had been one of Daniel’s quips. It had madeher eyeswiden, her hand covering her mouth to hold back a laugh, and that laugh had nearly escaped whenShether hadagreed enthusiastically.
"Aye, " he’d said. "He was an expert onhimself. Why he could tellher…" And off he had gone, not even seeming to realize that the commenthadbeen a poke at his egotisticalpersonality. By the time they hadsaid good-byeto Daniel to return to the town house, Valoree’s mouthwas sore from biting itin forbearance, andthemuscles in hercheeks ached from the effortnot tolaugh.
She had instructed Henryto crosstheman off the list themoment he had bidden them adieu and ridden off. Alas, they had entered the town house tofind Gravennerwaiting in the salon, eager to announce that he, too, had decided on a pleasant little walk.
Sighing, Valoree, Meg, and Henry had trotted out again, following the exact samepaththeyhad just trodden, this time running into Daniel right away. Stunned to find them there again, or sohe proclaimed, he had fallen into their groupand murmured, "Lord Gravenner is the one to ask should you wish to know anything at all about the ton. Heis quite in the know.A very sharp fellow."
Valoree had raised an eyebrow at the twinkleinhis eyes as he’d said that, then turnedherattention to Gravenner. He, too, hadagreed with Lord Thurborne’s assessment. "Oh, my, yes. I know everyoneand everything. Forinstance …" Andoffhe had gone, into an attack on seemingly every member of society.