Duke's Obsession - 3
This book is dedicated to younger brothers, and specifically to my brother Joe, who has the ability to make hard things look easy and even fun—things like raising kids, Montana winters, and being a younger brother to six obstreperous siblings. Joer, we are in awe of you.
“My best advice is to give up playing the piano.”
Lord Valentine Windham neither moved nor changed his expression when he heard his friend—a skilled and experienced physician—pronounce sentence. Being the youngest of five boys and named Valentine—for God’s sake—had given him fast reflexes, abundant muscle, and an enviable poker face. Being called the baby boy any time he’d shown the least tender sentiment had fired his will to the strength of iron and given him the ability to withstand almost any blow without flinching.
But this… This was diabolical, this demand David made of him. To give up the one mistress Val loved, the one place he was happy and competent. To give up the home he’d forged for his soul despite his ducal father’s ridicule, his mother’s anxiety, and his siblings’ inability to understand what music had become to him.
He closed his eyes and drew breath into his lungs by act of will. “For how long am I to give up my music?”
Silence, until Val opened his eyes and glanced down at where his left hand, aching and swollen, lay uselessly on his thigh.
David sat beside him, making a polite pretense of surveying the surrounding paddocks and fields. “You are possibly done with music for the rest of your life, my friend. The hand might heal but only if you rest it until you’re ready to scream with frustration. Not just days, not just weeks, and by then you will have lost some of the dexterity you hone so keenly now. If you try too hard or too soon to regain it, you’ll make the hand worse than ever.”
“Months?” One month was forever when a man wanted only to do the single thing denied him.
“At least. And as long as I’m cheering you up, you need to watch for the condition to arise in the other hand. If you catch it early, it might need less extensive treatment.”
“Both hands?” Val closed his eyes again and hunched in on himself, though the urge to kick the stone wall where they sat—hard, repeatedly, like a man beset with murderous frustration—was nigh overwhelming.
“It’s possible both hands will be affected,” David went on. “Your left hand is more likely in worse condition because of the untreated fracture you suffered as a small boy. You’re right-handed, so it’s also possible the right hand is stronger out of habit.”
Val roused himself to gather as many facts from David as he could. “Is the left weak, then?”
“Not weak, so much.” David, Viscount Fairly, pursed his lips. “It seems to me you have something like gout or rheumatism in your hand. It’s inflamed, swollen, and painful without apparent cause. The test will be if you rest it and see improvement. That is not the signal to resume spending all hours on the piano bench, Valentine.”
“It’s the signal to what? All I do is spend hours on the piano bench and occasionally escort my sisters about Town.”
“It’s the signal you’re dealing with a simple inflammation from overuse, old son.” David slid a hand to Val’s nape and shook him gently. “Many people lead happy, productive lives without gluing their arses to the piano bench for twenty hours a day. Kiss some pretty girls; sniff a few roses; go see the Lakes.”
Val shoved off the wall, using only his right hand for balance. “I know you mean well, but I don’t want to do anything but play the piano.”
“And I know what you want.” David hopped down to fall in step beside Val. “What you want has gotten you a hand that can’t hold a teacup, and while that’s not fair and it’s not right, it’s also not yet permanent.”
“I’m whining.” Val stopped and gazed toward the manor house where David’s viscountess was no doubt tucking in their infant daughter for the evening. “I should be thanking you for bothering with me.”
“I am flattered to be of service. And you are not to let some idiot surgeon talk you into bleeding it.”
“I am absolutely sure of that. No bleeding, no blisters, no surgery, and no peculiar nostrums. You tend it as you would any other inflammation.”
“Which would mean?” Val forced himself to ask. But what would it matter, really? He might get the use of his hand back in a year, but how much conditioning and skill would he have lost by then? He loved his mistress—his muse—but she was jealous and unforgiving as hell.
“Rest,” David said sternly as they approached the house. “Cold soaks, willow bark tea by the bucket, and at all costs, avoid the laudanum. If you can find a position where the hand is comfortable, you might consider sleeping with it splinted like that. Massage, if you can stand it.”
“As if I had some tired old man’s ailment. You’re sure about the laudanum? It’s the only thing that lets me keep playing.”
“Laudanum lets you continue to aggravate it,” David shot back. “It masks the pain, it cures nothing, and it can become addictive.”
A beat of silence went by. Val nodded once, as much of an admission as he would make.
“Christ.” David stopped in his tracks. “How long have you been using it?”
“Off and on for months. Not regularly. What it gives in ability to keep playing, it takes away in ability to focus on what I’m creating. The pain goes away, but so does both manual and mental dexterity. And I can still see my hand is swollen and the wrong color.”
“Get rid of the poppy. It has a place, but I don’t recommend it for you.”
“You think your heart’s breaking,” David said, “but you still have that hand, Valentine, and you can do many, many things with it. If you treat it right now, someday you might be able to make music with it again.”
“Is there anything you’re not telling me?” Val asked, his tone flat.
“Well, yes,” David replied as they gained the back terraces of the manor house. “There’s another possibility regarding the onset of the symptoms.”
“More good news?”
“Perhaps.” David met his gaze steadily, which was slightly disconcerting. In addition to height and blond good looks, David Worthington, Viscount Fairly, had one blue eye and one green eye. “With a situation like this, where there is no immediate trauma, no exposure to disease, no clear cause for the symptoms, it can be beneficial to look at other aspects of well-being.”
“In the King’s English, David, please.” Much more of David’s learned medical prosing on, and Val was going to break a laudanum bottle over his friend’s head.
“Sickness can originate in the emotions,” David said quietly. “The term ‘broken heart’ can be literal, and you did say the sensations began just after you buried your brother Victor.”
“As we were burying Victor,” Val corrected him, not wanting to think of the pain he’d felt as he scooped up a symbolic fistful of cold earth to toss on Victor’s coffin. “What in the hell does that have to do with whether I can ever again thunder away at Herr Beethoven’s latest sonata?”
“That is for you to puzzle out, as you’ll have ample time to ponder on it, won’t you?”
“Suppose I will at that.”
Val felt David’s arm land across his shoulders and made no move to shrug it off, though the last thing he wanted was pity. The numbness in his hand was apparently spreading to the rest of him—just not quickly enough.
“You seem to be thriving here, Cousin.”
“I am quite comfortable.” Ellen FitzEngle smiled at Frederick Markham, Baron Roxbury, with determined pleasantness. The last thing she needed was to admit vulnerability to him or to let him see he had any impact on her existence at all. She smoothed her hair back with a steady hand and leveled a guileless gaze at her guest, enemy, and de facto landlord.
“Hmm.” Frederick glanced around the tidy little cottage, a condescending smile implying enormous satisfaction at Ellen’s comedown in the world. “Not quite like Roxbury House, is it? Nor in a league with Roxbury Hall.”
“But manageable for a widow of limited means. Would you like more tea?”
“’Fraid I can’t stay.” Frederick rose, his body at twenty-two still giving the impression of not having grown into his arms and legs, despite expensive clothing and fashionable dark curls. She knew he fancied himself something of a Corinthian, paid punctilious attention to his attire, boxed at Gentlemen Jackson’s, fenced at Alberto’s, and accepted any bet involving his racing curricle.
And still, to Ellen, he would always be the gangly, awkward adolescent whose malice she had sorely underestimated. Only five years difference separated their ages, but she felt decades his senior in sorrow and regret.
“I did want to let you know, though”—Frederick paused with his hand on the door latch—“I’ll likely be selling the place. A fellow has expenses, and the solicitors are deuced tightfisted with the Roxbury funds.”
“My thanks for the warning.” Ellen nodded, refusing to show any other reaction. Selling meant she could be homeless, of course, for she occupied a tenant cottage on the Markham estate. The new owner might allow her to stay on. Her property was profitable, but she didn’t have a signed lease—she’d not put it past Freddy to tamper with the deed—and so the new owner might also toss her out on her backside.
“Thought it only sporting to let you know.” Frederick opened the door and swung his gaze out to his waiting vehicle. A tiger held the reins of the restive bays, and Ellen had to wonder how such spirited horses navigated the little track leading to her door. “Oh, and I almost forgot.” Freddy’s smile turned positively gleeful. “I brought you a little something from the Hall.”
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