Guinevere and her father stepped nearer the physician who stood at the bedside, holding Reid’s wrist. He lowered the arm to the covers.
‘He has passed from this life.’
‘The accident took him.’ Her father spoke softly.
‘Sadly, no. The apothecary put the wrong powders in the bottle when he sent the pain mixture.’
A stab of regret hit her. She put her closed knuckles over her lips. That moment, she wished she had danced just once with him.
Perhaps, if she’d known this was how she’d see him last, she might have been more forgiving.
‘Has his mother been informed?’ Guinevere’s father asked.
‘I was waiting until you and your wife arrived. Hours ago, I told the servants to expect the demise, and they have been preparing for it.’ The physician spoke to her father. ‘But now that you’re here, Your Grace, I’ll inform the Marchioness.’ He shuffled from the room.
‘The old Marquess was a decent man all his long life. Not…’ Her father nodded towards the bed. ‘Well, can’t speak ill of the dead, no matter how much it’s deserved. His father, my dearest friend, was so disappointed in him.’
Now that she stood so close to Reid, she could study his features, amazed at the strength which appeared in the simple planes and contours of his face.
In the past, she’d only seen him through a haze of dislike, but now she saw the true artistry.
Even in his final sleep, his jawline impressed her. Strong lips perfectly formed. Thick lashes complementing the hearty stubble. She’d never before been aware of so much masculinity in one person.
‘He needs a shave,’ she added, surprised.
'That stubble will get scorched off where he’s going.’
She glanced at her father, the truth of her words taking her by surprise. ‘Then he will likely be the handsomest man there.’
She turned back to Reid, wanting to lock his face in her memory.
Reid appeared so peaceful. Nothing like she would have expected. All his rakishness had faded, replaced with a bittersweet upturn of the lips she hadn’t noticed before.
She’d not known a man could smile in death,but leave it to Reid to do such a thing.
‘Soon after you were born—’ Her father stood at her side. ‘His father, may he rest in peace, thought you might make a bride for his son when the two of you reached an age to wed. But I knew—even then he was growing too strong-willed. Ignoring everyone who tried to correct him. I laughed off the Marquess’s words. It was obvious to me how he’d turn out, and his father was my best friend. I couldn’t be honest.’
Her father bowed his head. ‘The Marquess was such an upstanding man that after his son matured, he never mentioned it again.’
He moved to the drapes and pulled them closed. ‘I suppose this is for the best. Reid was too much like his…grandfather.’ He said the last word as an oath, which surprised her. ‘I didn’t know if your brother’s arm would heal after his tussle with Reid, but it did.’
‘I was happy their friendship ended. Reid was always up to some prank.’
Without realising what she was doing, she reached out to brush her fingers across his jaw, but halted, then rested a hand on his shoulder, giving a squeeze, impressed with the suggestion of strength emanating from the immobile form.
But it no longer mattered.
Even with all his boisterous friends, he was alone now. Grief saddened her. Someone must tell him goodbye. She bent to kiss his cheek.
His lashes fluttered.
She shrieked and was two steps away before she stopped.
‘I must have…—jostled him,’ she whispered, turning to her father.
‘Oh, Guinevere, I shouldn’t have brought you.’ He strode to her. ‘This is too much for your delicate spirit.’
She put her hand up to touch her father’s arm, and collected herself. ‘It’s only the tiredness of travel, and the shadows. And my imagination.’
Her father took her elbow. ‘Well, we’ve done our duty for tonight. Come along—’
‘Wait,’ she said, turning back. ‘It’s— I—’
She stepped over Reid again.
‘He looks so alive, I imagined…’ she whispered, shaking her head. ‘It is so regretful that he…’
‘Come along, Guinevere.’
‘Wait. I know we weren’t friends, but I—’ She struggled for the proper thing to say. ‘I wish we had been. That he would have been someone I might have liked.’
‘He would never be friends with a decent person like you. The heathen isn’t even worth a glance in death. His father was like a brother to me. Your mother and the Marchioness are closer than sisters. But Reid, the only son, was…disreputable. The world is a better place without him.’
‘I know he wasn’t perfect. In fact, I warned my friends from him. But he was a person, deserving of our sympathy.’
‘Sympathy. A person. The cleric is going to have to embellish on those words at the funeral, but likely he’ll ramble on a bit, and I’ll look sad, and his cousin and I can get on about our day. Reid leaves behind exemplary cattle, though.’
Guinevere touched her chin, imagining the potential that had been inside Reid. ‘Please let the cleric know about the horses so he will have something pleasant to say at the service.’
‘That pretty well sums up his life.’
She stared at Reid. ‘When we were children, he did help me across a stream once.’
‘That was gallant of him.’
‘He lifted me, his arm around my waist, and purposefully let my plaits drag the water. When he released me, I told him he would have made an excellent second son.’
‘I’m surprised you said such a thing.’
‘And then I told him I was giving him more praise than due. The third or fourth son would have been more suitable.’
She looked down again, but felt no guilt for the statement she’d made. She’d been irritated and he’d not appeared at all offended. Reid had laughed and said he would remember her words.
She looked at Reid. ‘An appealing form, and exemplary livestock. I suppose that was the total of his years.’
‘Gifts from his father.’ The Duke moved to the door. ‘He accomplished nothing on his own but revelry, and overbearing ways… Material things. Can’t think of anything else.’
Guinevere felt pulled to Reid, hating to leave him for the last time. Hating to see him so alone. ‘Well, I have to say something considerate before I leave. To wish him well.’
‘Have a go at it,’ her father said. ‘Just don’t lie.’
Guinevere brushed a hand across his knuckles. ‘Goodbye, Reid, Marquess of Hartcroft. May you use all the skills you gained in this life to give the devil a difficult time.’
Then his chest heaved in a breath. And a second one.
Her brain tried to catch up to her vision, and her mouth couldn’t remember how to speak.
‘Eh?’ her father said, brows furrowed. ‘What’s wrong, Guinevere?’
‘Alive.’ She pointed at him, fingers shaking. ‘Alive.’
Her father squinted.
She stepped closer, scrutinising Reid. ‘Can you hear me?’ she whispered.
Her father stopped so near, his side brushed hers. He gazed down, shaking his head. ‘Scoundrel to the very end.’ Examining Reid, he grumbled before saying, ‘Just a death twitch. Happens all the time. I’ve seen it before. Just one of the things we don’t understand about the dying.’ He shook his head. ‘This will just be one more story about how he’s a bother even in death. Lucifer is trying to return him.’ He took her shoulders. ‘Come along. We’ll leave the servants to their duties.’
Her voice came out in a whisper. ‘You must believe me.’
‘You’re overwrought. I am sincerely sorry to have allowed you here. I should have left you to give solace to his mother. It was unthinkable to bring you into this room.’
‘He might be alive.’
Her father paused, then peered at the visage again. ‘Guinevere. Look at him. He’s dead. The arrogant Marquess is dead. Long live the new Marquess.’
'If you’re certain.’ She put a hand to her temples. ‘I suppose I need spectacles. And the light is so dim.’
‘It’s for the best that he’s gone and his cousin will inherit the title. Reid was such a disgrace,’ the Duke continued. ‘I know his father would be upset to see this, but he was sad to see his son in life as well. The heir flew into a rage over something as simple as a spilled drink at breakfast.’
Her attention remained locked on the still form. She reached out, touching his cheek. He did feel a bit warm. Perhaps Lucifer was trying to expel him.
Then she called out, ‘Reid. Reid. I spilled your chocolate.’
‘That is not what he drank for breakfast, I assure you,’ her father asserted.
She pulled her hand to her chest, fingers curled. ‘I don’t know what happened to me. You’re right. He has passed on.’
She glanced at his face, peaceful in repose. Her imagination had flourished again.
Perhaps it would make her feel better if he had something sentimental of hers with him in the afterlife.
She clasped the brooch on her dress. The pearl jewellery her mother had given her. The one she’d sworn never to part with. She unpinned it from her garment and gave one lingering glance at it.
Her hand didn’t seem to want to release it. No, she would not part with it.
Then she reached down and jabbed the pin against his shoulder.
His eyes opened, flashing a blue squint at her as he muttered an audible curse.
Her father’s jaw dropped.
Fingers trembling, she tried to affix the pin to her dress, but it wouldn’t attach. She dropped it into the reticule hanging from her wrist. ‘Everyone’s going to be so…’ She looked into the eyes again. ‘Er…happy, to have him with us.’
He groaned, and his eyes closed.
‘Reid,’ she called.
His eyes didn’t open.
She slipped her hand to his jawline, against the stubble, and felt a slight heartbeat. She pressed her lips together, and clasped Reid’s hand. ‘You’re going to be fine.’
His fingers squeezed hers.
He was alive.
She whispered to her father, ‘Perhaps we should summon the staff to postpone the funeral. At least another day.’