Having given instructions to a footman, Daisy hastened back to the bedside. Although she raised her slender dark brows at the sight of Hunt leaning over Annabelle, she forbore to comment. Instead, she asked, “Shouldn’t we cut across the puncture wounds to let the poison out?”
Annabelle sent her a warning glance and croaked, “Don’t give him ideas, Daisy!”
Hunt looked up briefly as he replied. “Not for an adder bite.” His eyes narrowed as he returned his attention to Annabelle, noting that her breathing was rapid and shallow. “Is it difficult to breathe?”
Annabelle nodded, struggling to pull air into lungs that seemed to have shrunk to a third of their usual size. It felt as if bands were drawing more tightly around her chest with every breath she took, until her ribs threatened to crack from the pressure.
Hunt touched her face softly, his thumb passing over the dry surface of her lips. “Open your mouth.” Looking beyond her parted lips, he observed, “Your tongue isn’t swelling—you’ll be fine. Your corset has to come off, however. Turn over.”
Before Annabelle could form a reply, Daisy protested indignantly. “I’ll help Annabelle with her corset. Leave the room, please.”
“I’ve seen a woman’s corset before,” he informed her sarcastically.
Daisy rolled her eyes. “Don’t be deliberately obtuse, Mr. Hunt. Obviously you’re not the one I’m worried about. Men don’t remove young ladies’ corsets for any reason, unless the circumstances are life-threatening— which you have just assured us that they are not.”
Hunt regarded her with a long-suffering expression. “Dammit, woman—”
“Swear all you like,” Daisy said implacably. “My older sister could outcurse you ten times over.” She drew herself up to her full height, though at five feet and one debatable inch, the effect was hardly impressive. “Miss Peyton’s corset stays on until you leave the room.”
Hunt glanced down at Annabelle, who suddenly craved air too badly to care who removed her corset, so long as it was done. “For God’s sake,” he said impatiently, and strode to the window, turning his back to them. “I’m not looking. Do it.”
Seeming to realize that it was the only concession he was prepared to make, Daisy obeyed hurriedly. She eased the coat away from Annabelle’s stiff body. “I’ll untie the laces in the back and slip it off beneath your gown,” she murmured to Annabelle. “That way you’ll remain decently covered.”
Annabelle couldn’t summon sufficient breath to tell her that any concerns she might have had about modesty had paled in comparison to the far more immediate problem of not being able to breathe. Wheezing harshly, she turned to her side and felt Daisy’s fingers plucking at the slippery back of her ball gown. Her lungs spasmed in their frustrated attempts to pull in precious air. Letting out an anxious moan, she began to pant desperately.
Daisy let out a few choice curses. “Mr. Hunt, I’m afraid I must borrow your knife—the corset strings are knotted, and I can’t—oof!” The last exclamation came as Hunt strode to the bed, shoved her unceremoniously aside, and set to work on the corset himself. A few judicious applications of his knife, and suddenly the obstinate garment released its punishing clasp around Annabelle’s ribs.
She felt him tug the boned garment away from her body, leaving only the thin veil of her chemise between his gaze and her bare skin. In Annabelle’s current condition, the exposure was of little concern. However, she knew in the back of her mind that she would later die of embarrassment.
Turning Annabelle to her back as easily if she were a rag doll, Hunt bent over her. “Don’t try so hard, sweetheart.” His hand flattened over the upper reach of her chest. Holding her frightened gaze intently, he rubbed in a soothing circle. “Slowly. Just relax.”
Staring into the compelling dark glitter of his eyes, Annabelle tried to obey, but her throat clenched around every wheezing breath. She was going to die of suffocation, right there and then.
He wouldn’t let her look away from him. “You’ll be all right. Let your breath ease in and out. Slowly. That’s it. Yes.” Somehow the gentle weight of his hand on her chest seemed to help her, as if he had the power to will her lungs back to their normal rhythm. “You’re going through the worst of it right now,” he said.
“Oh, lovely,” she tried to say in acerbic response, but the effort made her choke and hiccup.
“Don’t try to talk—just breathe. Another long, slow one…another. Good girl.”
As Annabelle gradually recovered her breath, the panic began to fade. He was right…it was easier if she didn’t struggle. The sound of her fitful gasping was underlaid by the mesmerizing softness of his voice. “That’s right,” he murmured. “That’s the way of it.” His hand continued to move in a slow, easy rotation over her chest. There was nothing sexual in his touch—in fact, she might have been a child he was trying to soothe. Annabelle was amazed. Who would have ever dreamed that Simon Hunt could be so kind?
Filled with equal parts of confusion and gratitude, Annabelle fumbled for the large hand that moved so gently on her chest. She was so feeble that the gesture required all her strength. Assuming that she was trying to push him away, Hunt began to withdraw, but as he felt her fingers curl around two of his, he went very still.
“Thank you,” she whispered.
The touch made Hunt tense visibly, as if the contact had sent a shock through his body. He stared not at her face but at the delicate fingers entwined with his, in the manner of a man who was trying to solve a complex puzzle. Remaining motionless, he prolonged the moment, his lashes lowering to conceal his expression.
Annabelle used her tongue to moisten her dry lips, discovering that she still couldn’t feel them. “My face is numb,” she said scratchily, letting go of his hand.
Hunt looked up with the wry smile of a man who had just discovered something unexpected about himself. “The clivers will help.” He touched the side of her throat, his thumb gliding along the edge of her jaw in a gesture that could only be characterized as a caress. “Which reminds me—” He glanced over his shoulder as if just remembering that Daisy was in the room. “Miss Bowman, has that damned footman brought—”
“It’s here,” the dark-haired girl said, coming from the doorway with a tray that had just been brought up. Apparently they had both been too absorbed in each other to notice the servant’s knock. “The housekeeper sent up the clivers tea, which smells ghastly, and there’s also a little bottle that the footman said was ‘tincture of nettle.’ And it seems the doctor has just arrived and will be coming upstairs any minute—which means that you must leave, Mr. Hunt.”
His jaw hardened. “Not yet.”
“Now,” Daisy said urgently. “At least wait outside the door. For Annabelle’s sake. She’ll be ruined if you’re seen in here.”
Scowling, Hunt looked down at Annabelle. “Do you want me to go?”
She didn’t, actually. In fact, she had an irrational desire to beg him to stay. Oh, what a bewildering turn of events, that she should so desire the company of a man she detested! But the past few minutes had somehow wrought a fragile connection between them, and she found herself in the odd predicament of being unable to say “yes” or “no.” “I’ll keep breathing,” she finally whispered. “You probably should leave.”
Hunt nodded. “I’ll wait in the hallway,” he said gruffly, standing from the bed. Motioning Daisy forward with the tray, he continued to stare at Annabelle. “Drink the clivers, no matter how it tastes. Or I’ll come back in here and pour it down your throat.” Retrieving his coat, he left the room.
Sighing with relief, Daisy set the tray at the bedside table. “Thank God,” she said. “I wasn’t certain how I was going to make him go, if he refused. Here…let me lift you a bit higher, and I’ll push another pillow behind you.” The girl elevated her deftly, demonstrating surprising competence. Taking up a huge earthenware mug filled with steaming contents, Daisy pressed the edge against her lips. “Have some of this, dear.”
Annabelle swallowed the bitter brown liquid and recoiled. “Ugh—”
“More,” Daisy said inexorably, lifting it to her mouth.
Annabelle drank again. Her face was so numb that she wasn’t aware that some of the medicine had drib-bled from her lips until Daisy picked up a napkin from the tray and blotted her chin. Cautiously Annabelle lifted exploratory fingertips to the frozen skin of her face. “Feels so odd,” she said, her voice slurred. “No sensation in my mouth. Daisy…don’t say that I was drooling while Mr. Hunt was here?”
“Of course not,” Daisy said immediately. “I would have done something about it if you had been. A true friend doesn’t let another friend drool when a man is present. Even if it’s a man that one doesn’t wish to attract.”
Relieved, Annabelle applied herself to downing more of the clivers, which tasted rather like burned coffee. Perhaps it was wishful thinking, but she was beginning to feel the tiniest bit better.
“Lillian must have had a devil of a time finding your mother,” Daisy commented. “I can’t imagine what has taken them so long.” She drew back a little to look at Annabelle, her brown eyes sparkling richly. “I’m actually glad, though. If they had come quickly, I would have missed seeing Mr. Hunt’s transformation from a big bad wolf into…well…a somewhat nicer wolf.”
A reluctant laugh gurgled in Annabelle’s throat. “Quite something, isn’t he?”
“Yes, indeed. Arrogant and oh-so-masterful. Like a figure from one of those torrid novels that Mama is forever ripping from my hands. It’s a good thing that I was here, or he probably would have stripped you right down to your unmentionables.” She continued to chatter as she helped Annabelle to drink more of the clivers, and blotted her chin once more. “You know, I never thought I would say this, but Mr. Hunt isn’t quite as terrible as I thought.”
Annabelle twisted her lips experimentally as a modicum of sensation returned, making them prickle. “He has his uses, it seems. But…don’t expect that the transformation is permanent.”
Barely two minutes had passed before Simon saw the group he had earlier predicted, consisting of the doctor, Lord Westcliff, Mrs. Peyton, and Lillian Bowman. Leaning his shoulders back against the wall, Simon gave them a speculative stare. Privately, he was amused by the palpable dislike between Westcliff and Miss Bowman, whose obvious mutual animosity betrayed the fact that words had been exchanged.
The doctor was a venerable old man who had attended Westcliff and his relatives, the Marsdens, for nearly three decades. Glancing at Simon with keen eyes set deeply in an age-furrowed face, he spoke with unflappable calmness. “Mr. Hunt, I am told that you assisted the young lady to her room?”
Simon brusquely described Annabelle’s condition and symptoms to the doctor, choosing to omit that he, and not Daisy, had been the one to discover the puncture marks on Annabelle’s ankle. Mrs. Peyton listened in white-faced distress. Frowning, Lord Westcliff bent to murmur to Mrs. Peyton, who nodded and thanked him distractedly. Simon guessed that Westcliff had promised that the best care possible would be provided until her daughter had recovered fully.
“Of course I won’t be able to confirm Mr. Hunt’s opinion until I examine the young lady,” the doctor remarked. “However, it may be advisable to begin brewing some clivers right away, in the event that the illness was indeed caused by adder bite—”
“She’s already drinking some,” Simon interrupted. “I sent for it about a quarter hour ago.”
The doctor regarded him with the special vexation reserved for those who undertook to make a diagnosis without benefit of a medical degree. “Clivers is a potent drug, Mr. Hunt, and possibly injurious in the event that a patient is not suffering from snake venom. You should have waited for a doctor’s opinion before administering it.”
“The symptoms of adder bite are unmistakable,” Simon replied impatiently, wishing the man would cease tarrying in the hallway and go do his job. “And I wanted to alleviate Miss Peyton’s discomfort as quickly as possible.”
The old man’s wiry gray brows descended low over his eyes. “You’re quite certain of your own judgment,” came the peppery observation.
“Yes,” Simon replied, without blinking.
Suddenly the earl let out a muffled chuckle and settled a hand on the doctor’s shoulder. “I’m afraid that we’ll be forced to stand out here indefinitely, sir, if you attempt to convince my friend that he’s wrong about anything. ‘Opinionated’ is the mildest of adjectives one could apply to Mr. Hunt. I assure you, your energies are far better directed toward caring for Miss Peyton.”
“Perhaps so,” the doctor returned testily. “Although one suspects that my presence is superfluous in light of Mr. Hunt’s expert diagnosis.” With that sarcastic comment, the old man entered the room, followed by Mrs. Peyton and Lillian Bowman.
Left alone in the hallway with Westcliff, Simon rolled his eyes. “Bilious old bastard,” he muttered. “Could you have sent for someone a bit more decrepit, Westcliff? I doubt he can see or hear well enough to make his own damned diagnosis.”
The earl arched one black brow as he regarded Simon with amused condescension. “He’s the best doctor in Hampshire. Come downstairs, Hunt. We’ll have a brandy.”
Simon glanced at the closed door. “Later.”
Westcliff replied in a light, far-too-pleasant tone. “Ah, forgive me. Of course you’ll want to wait by the door like a stray dog hoping for kitchen scraps. I’ll be in my study—do be a good lad and run down to tell me if there’s any news.”
Rankled, Simon flashed him a cold glare and pushed away from the wall. “All right,” he growled, “I’ll come.”
The earl responded with a satisfied nod. “The doctor will deliver a report to me after he’s finished with Miss Peyton.”
As Simon accompanied Westcliff to the great staircase, he reflected moodily on his own behavior of the past few minutes. It was a new experience, being driven by his emotions rather than his intellect, and he didn’t like it. That didn’t seem to matter, however. At the first realization that Annabelle was ill, he had felt his chest turn painfully hollow, as if his heart had been seized for ransom. There had been no question in his mind that he would do whatever was necessary to make her safe and comfortable. And in the moments when Annabelle had struggled to breathe, staring at him with eyes bright with pain and fear, he would have done anything for her. Anything.