A Lady’s Code of Misconduct
The first sensation was light. Red, the color of hellfire.
Then . . . weight. Weight compressing and lifting. Squeezing and relaxing.
Breathing. Air. Nose-throat-chest. A body—flesh, his own, his mind anchored within it.
He flexed his fingers.
“Look!” The soft voice startled him. It came from nearby. “Did you see that? His hand . . .”
Girlish voice. Recognition sifted through him, thinning the murk. He felt himself settling more deeply into this body. Pillow cradling his skull. His toes, trapped by smothering weight. Blanket. The air scratched in his nostrils. Smell of . . . soap.
“Open your eyes,” whispered the girl.
His eyes! Yes, he could open them.
The light was scalding. So bright! He could not bear it.
“Go fetch your mother.” A new voice, hoarse, masculine. “Go!”
Hurried footsteps. Floorboards groaning. Slam of a door.
A vise closed on his fingers, crushing them. “Crispin.
Open your eyes. Now.”
He knew this voice. It was the voice of command, of expectations. It was the voice of disappointment, but he had always tried to answer it, to prove himself worthy.
He forced open his eyes, braving the glare.
His father gazed down at him. Face deeply lined. Rheumy eyes, shining strangely.
A tear plummeted, splashing Crispin’s chin.
* * *
Later. Much later. Or only minutes. Surfacing from deep sucking darkness. Exhausted, bone weary, so hot.
The light had gone. Square stamps of darkness filled the windows. A low fire revealed the contours of the room. A man, gray-haired, with pitted cheeks, slept nearby in a settee, his limbs contorted, slumped at an angle that guaranteed a backache tomorrow. The woman beside him, who nestled into his shoulder—her eyes were open, fastened on Crispin’s.
She blinked rapidly, then eased straight. “Can you hear me?”
What an odd question. He cleared his throat. Searched for his voice. “Yes, Mother.”
She reached for her husband’s arm, squeezing silently until he started awake, rubbed his eyes, saw what she had seen.
The wrongness registered on Crispin then. This bedroom—he knew it. It belonged in his parents’ London townhouse. But a Gainsborough now hung in place of the still life. The carpet was the wrong shade. And his parents . . .
They looked shrunken. Hollow-cheeked, aged.
He pushed upright. His head exploded.
Time skipped then. He was flat on his back, gasping. His parents were hovering over him, caught in the middle of an argument.
“—call the doctor back at once,” said his mother. “Let him decide.”
“No. I am going to wake him.”
Crispin took a strained breath. “What happened?” he asked.
Their relief was almost comical—wide-eyed, gaping. But they both fell silent. Some charged look passed between them. His mother laid her hand over his.
“You’ve been ill,” she said.
That much was clear. He tried to remember . . . anything. But recent days felt hazy. The tour through Italy? No, there had been much more after that. Studies with the German tutor? They felt very distant. He was missing something. But he felt sure he should be in Cambridge, cramming for the exam. “Why am I here?”
The question had a peculiar effect. His mother’s grip slipped away. She retreated a pace from the bed. “Oh, Crispin.” Her voice was clogged with tears.
“A fine question,” his father bit out. “Should we pretend to be strangers, then? Your goddamned stubbornness—”
“Stop it,” his mother choked.
Strangers? Crispin’s bafflement redoubled, pulsing in time to the ache in his head. The agony was . . . exquisite.
He felt for the source of it, moving gingerly, groping across his own skull. What on earth? A patch of hair had been denuded. It was growing back short and bristly. The stubble covered a thick gash, as though he’d been
“What happened?” He heard fear in his own voice now, but for God’s sake—“How long have I been here?”
“Five days,” his father said. “But we can see you off by morning if that is your preference.”
“Stop it!” His mother loosed a sob. “I won’t have it—”
The door banged open. In came his sister. God above! She had brought a young woman with her, a stranger—here, to his sickbed!
“Awake again!” With a dazzling smile, Charlotte drew the other girl forward. “I promised you, didn’t I? Look, Jane! I promised you.”
Charlotte was beaming, oblivious to her own lunacy in showing off her invalid brother like an animal at the zoo.
At least the other girl looked properly mortified. She stared at Crispin mutely, her great brown eyes seeming to plead with him, perhaps to save her from his family’s madness.
Crispin cast an amazed glance at his parents, waiting for them to scold Charlotte, to escort this stranger out.
But they said nothing. They looked grim, resigned. Indeed, his father’s expression was all too familiar—the tense, dour face of a man disappointed too often to be surprised by it. “We should give them a moment of privacy,” he muttered to Crispin’s mother, and then pushed and prodded the others toward the door.
Surely they were not serious! “Wait,” he said—but the door closed, leaving him alone with the stranger, who looked as miserable as he felt.
A strange fragment of laughter fell out of him. It made the girl flinch, for which he felt a flicker of regret, but really, what else was there to do but laugh? He had
woken into a nightmare. The room changed, his parents changed. Only the main themes remained constant: their disapproval and disappointment. His inability to please them.
At least his brother hadn’t appeared to condemn him. “Madam,” he began awkwardly, but she interrupted him.
“Listen,” she said. “I know you must be confused. But I promise you, I can explain.”
He stared at her. She spoke as though they knew each other. He had never seen her before in his life. She did not look like the kind of fashionable, flashy beauty that Charlotte usually befriended. Her prettiness was quiet, easily overlooked. Her dark eyes held mossy hints of green and gold. The muted lilac and jet of her walking dress, the modest neckline and minimal trimming, could have passed for half mourning.
Yet she had offered to explain, and he would gladly take that offer. Besides, the resolute set of her square jaw, the levelness of her gaze, and her cool voice seemed . . . steadying. An air of authority surrounded her.
“Go ahead, then,” he said.
“Everyone thought you would die.”
Shock lashed through him. “How charming,” he said—aiming for dryness, failing with a cough.
“Your injuries were grave.” She sounded insistent, as though he had argued with her. “And you were . . . asleep . . . for five days. Nobody could help you. The doctors told your family not to hope.”
Her pause seemed to suggest that he would find this
sufficient. “And? Go on.”
She opened her mouth, then seemed to falter. Her gaze broke from his to wander the room, a certain desperate haste to her survey, as though she were looking for something better to discuss.
But when she met his eyes again, she took a deep breath and said in a resigned tone, “And so I thought it a perfect solution. Besides, the archbishop had heard the rumors—he knew you weren’t expected to live.”
The archbishop? She was babbling. He felt exhausted again and leaned back into the pillows to close his eyes. This is a dream, he told himself. A nightmare, that’s all.
“Mr. Burke.” Her voice came from very close now. It shook. “Please. We can undo it. You mustn’t believe I meant to cross you!”
He opened his eyes and she flinched.
Why, this girl was afraid of him.
He struggled to hide how disturbed he was. He knew his family often believed the worst of him, but until now, he had not imagined the world did so as well. “Who are you?”
“Who am I? I’m . . . Are you joking?”
“My sense of humor is not so poor as that,” he said. “Who are you? How do you know me?”
The color drained from her face. “I . . .” Her lips opened and closed. “I’m Jane,” she said unsteadily. “And you . . .” Her indrawn breath sounded ragged. “You, Crispin, are my husband.”