1637 No Peace Beyond The Line – Snippet 41
“Seems to me we are here to spy on matters that are manifestly none of our business. And how is it that Sophie’s understanding of personal matters might be lacking? She is a widow, she knows –“
“Her marriage was arranged for her. Just as Poppa had planned for you and me, until we were saved by the changes wrought by the up-timers. Now be silent or begone!”
“This is wrong,” Leonora grumbled. But she craned her neck to get a better look through the crack of the door.
* * *
The knock at the infirmary’s front entrance was so gentle that they barely heard it. The door itself was not in their line of sight, but the soft-voiced greetings confirmed that the newly arrived patient was just who they expected: Hugh O’Donnell.
Anne Cathrine listened as pleasantries transitioned into medical practicalities. He explained how he no longer felt any pain in it, and attributed that to both her skill and her solicitude. Anne Cathrine smiled: good!
Sophie breezed past that compliment — and opportunity to shift the conversation to a more personal level — by pointing out that it was difficult to know when a healing process could be considered complete, and commenced to bombard the earl with a battery of inquiries: did the amputation site, or remaining digit, ever feel hot? Did it ever feel numb? Did it ever swell? Did it ever, and did it ever, and did it ever? Anne Cathrine hung her head: bad, very bad. A string of questions that had all the veiled romantic potential of a bouquet of rotting parsnips.
Hugh answered patiently, a bemused smile growing on his face as Sophie’s barrage continued. His eyes rested upon her more and more; hers were upon him less and less. Unless you counted the mauled finger: her gaze was fixed upon it. More out of desperation than clinical focus, Anne Cathrine suspected.
When Sophie finally ran out of queries, Hugh smiled broadly and declared himself the most fortunate of all patients. So fortunate, that he was half-glad to have been wounded in the first place.
Sophie was baffled. “I do not understand, Lord O’Donnell.”
He shrugged. “Well, if I hadn’t been wounded, then I might never have met you.”
The unthinkable happened: Sophie blushed. “Nonsense. A soldier should never wish for a wound, even in jest! And certainly not one that costs him a part of his body!”
Hugh tilted his head, and his smile grew very wide and so, became very bright. “Well, now, that’s a question of exchange, isn’t it?”
Sophie’s color returned to normal as she frowned, asked, “A question of exchange, Lord O’Donnell? I do not understand; what is this question and what exchange?”
His eyes became a little less jovial, a little more serious. “It is a question of whether losing half a finger is a fair price for meeting you.” He paused, waited until he had her eyes on his. “I’m thinking it to be a most excellent bargain, Lady Rantzau.”
Anne Cathrine felt like she might jump out of her skin for want of rushing in and shaking even minimal instincts for courtship into Sophie. Even Leonora murmured wordless approval of Hugh’s soulful wooing. They leaned forward, straining at the aperture between the door and the jamb, listening for Sophie’s crucial response —
“As I said at the outset, Lord O’Donnell: purest nonsense.” But as unpromising as the words were, her tone was playful. And the smile that followed them was wide and radiant. “Now let us see how it is healing.”
“Truly,” Hugh protested, “it is quite healed already.”
“I will be the judge of that,” Sophie countered as her smile changed.
Anne blinked: was that how Sophie looked when she was being…being…coy? Was “coy” even possible for Sophie the Norn, who reminded the sisters of those spirit-women of Nordic legend, those pronouncers and makers of Fate?
Sophie rose and gestured to the bench that also served as the infirmary’s couch for examinations. “Kindly be at your ease on this chair, with this hassock beneath your feet. Good. Are you comfortable? Now, just relax.”
Sophie undertook the unwrapping of the finger with deliberate — almost languorous? — care. By the time the savaged digit was revealed, the procedure had begun to border on the sensuous. She looked, saw him watching her. She returned the stare, smiled slowly. “I work best when I am not under observation, Lord O’Donnell.”
He smiled, nodded, closed his eyes.
Sophie made a genuinely thorough and attentive inspection of the still-discolored lower half of his small finger, the top half of which had been shredded by the fragments of a French grenade during his relief of Oranjestad. The remains had been promptly amputated, but Brandão had recommended against searing it, for fear of locking infection in, and his skills had been desperately required by others with far more grievous injuries. In consequence, the tip of what remained was uneven and still somewhat raw.
“I do not like the look of that,” she pronounced. “Sepsis could still occur. I have half a mind to forbid further travel until that danger is clearly past.”
Hugh smiled. “Lady Rantzau, my finger is as fit for duty as the rest of me. It was untroubled by my travels, whether at sea or in pestiferous jungles.”
Her eyelids flew wide open. “Unacceptable! I will not hear of –!”
He reached a hand toward her, not touching, but imploring. Gently. With a gesture that hinted at a caress. “I am perfectly fine, now,” Hugh reiterated. “I would not lie to you. Lies, even those little ones we tell to calm the concern of those who we hold in high regard, become barriers. And I would not have any barriers between us.”
She rose very quickly. “I am glad you believe yourself to be well, but as I already told you, I will be the judge of that, Lord O’Donnell!” Anne Cathrine smiled. Sophie was marvelous when she drew herself to her full height and became lofty and almost imperious. Anne was almost a little jealous of her.
O’Donnell was shaking his head. “I’m never one to contradict a lady, and certainly not one so skilled and determined as yourself. Besides, it’s exhausting.”
“Well, that stands to reason, doesn’t it? Here I stand — well, recline — not only laboring to change your mind, but to remember your name.”
Now Sophie was confused. “You have difficulties remembering my name?”
“Well, it’s more a matter of remembering to call you Lady Rantzau, because in my mind, you’re Lady Sophie. For which I apologize: I’ve a most unruly and unreliable mind when it comes to remaining formal with those who’ve become special to me. But so long as you address me as Lord O’Donnell I’m fated to address you as Lady Rantzau. Whereas it would far less exhausting to simply call you Lady Sophie.” He paused, once again made sure she was looking directly at him. “I would so much rather call you that.”
Sophie didn’t respond immediately. She had rapidly transitioned from looking quite composed and happy to appearing confused, and not exactly sure why she was. Anne Cathrine wanted to shout out what she might do next, to keep this ridiculous charade of a medical examination moving in the right direction.
But Sophie found her own answer. “Well,” she said with purposefully overplayed seriousness, “in the interest of making your final recovery less taxing, I do suppose that a more relaxed environment would be congenial to that purpose. So let us dispense with titles altogether. If that would suit you…Hugh?”
He smiled. “It would suit me very well, Sophie.” He said her name as if he were about to sing it.
“Well, then, I . . . I will get the linens for one last dressing. To cover it while the scar-tissue becomes stronger. I shall return momentarily.” She went to the supply room.
He smiled as he watched her go, kept watching the door as if some faint hint of her image might have been imparted to it.
Anne Cathrine wanted to stamp her feet in wild happiness, relief, and a bit of exultation. The only man she had ever seen more smitten than Hugh O’Donnell was her own darling Eddie.
Leonora, however, was looking up at her, frowning. “Yet another dressing?” she complained, forgetting to whisper. “That is totally unnecessary. His finger is perfectly fine. I can see it from here. Her so- called precautions are actually quite baffling and obtuse.”
Anne Catharine patted her hand. “As are you, sometimes, dear Leonora. As are you. Now be quiet! You were entirely too loud. So let us leave before we are detected.” As she said it she stole one more glance through the crack of the door.
Hugh O’Donnell was looking straight at her. He couldn’t actually see her, she told herself, but, well, he was certainly staring at the door. And yes, he was focused on the crevice between it and the doorjamb. He turned away, chuckled noiselessly, and put his hands behind his head and laid back.
Anne Cathrine grabbed Leonora’s arm and they left the infirmary as quickly as stealth would allow.