Romancing the Emotional Duke – Sally Forbes

Duncan paced distractedly in the hallway outside his wife’s bedchamber. Two hours prior, he had sent for the doctor, who had taken an hour to arrive. He was growing restless, and, more than once, he had to restrain himself from barging into the room. Cynthia had been sick for some time, but, over the last few weeks, she had seemed to show a gradual improvement. Twice, she had even asked Duncan to help her walk into the gardens, and had been able to tolerate a brief picnic with him and the children the previous week. Last evening, however, her fever had risen dramatically, and a terrible rash had begun forming on her skin. Duncan had sat up with her all that night, crying silently as she muttered deliriously in a restless sleep. Duncan had finally sent for the doctor as soon as the sun had risen. Now, exhausted and sick with worry, it was all he could do to resist the urge to rush into his wife’s room, grab the doctor by his coat lapels and demand the man do whatever it took to make his wife well. At last, the physician came out of the room, closing the door gently behind him. Duncan rushed over to him, his face pale and drawn with fear. “Well?” he demanded. “What is happening to my wife?” The doctor shook his head sadly, looking at Duncan with a grim expression. “I am afraid that the progression of typhoid has accelerated,” he said. “She is not responding to the treatments as I had hoped, and I fear that her condition has worsened beyond hope of recovery.

” Duncan stared at the doctor, dumbfounded. He could not allow himself to take in the doctor’s awful words. “But she was getting better,” he said, sounding more like a petulant child than a concerned husband. “Isn’t there still a chance she could continue doing so, even with nights like last night?” The physician gave him a small, sympathetic smile. “These illnesses are tricky,” he said. “And some people have recovered fully from typhoid fever. However, once the delirium sets in and the fever spikes, as your wife’s has, there is nothing more doctors can do.” Duncan shook his head, allowing his anger to overshadow his sadness. “Then refer me to a good surgeon,” he said. “If there is nothing more you can do, perhaps a pair of more skilled hands can help her.

” The doctor put his hand on Duncan’s arm, still wearing his sympathetic expression. “A surgeon is not as highly trained as a physician,” he said. “And the most that one could do might be to soothe the rash presently forming on your wife’s skin. Beyond that, no operation can reverse the effects of typhoid fever.” Duncan’s shoulders sagged. He shook his head, still not wanting to believe there was no hope. “I know this is hard,” the doctor continued. “But all you can do now is concentrate on the time she has left. My advice would be to make this Christmastide as special as you can for her and your family.” Duncan simply nodded, too stunned to speak further.

After a moment, the physician patted his shoulder once more, then showed himself out. Duncan stood, paralyzed, for some time after the doctor departed. He had known that Cynthia’s condition was dire, but had begun believing, after seeing her improve so much so quickly, that there must be a small chance she would survive. With a heavy, broken heart, Duncan entered his dying wife’s room to discuss what the doctor had said about making Christmastide special. He intended giving her everything she had ever wanted for the holiday celebration, especially as it might be the last thing he would ever be able to do for her. That would never come to pass, however. Three days before Christmas Eve, Cynthia fell into another bout of delirium. The rash had begun to fade, giving Duncan a false sense of hope, but her fever rose and could not be brought down by any of the methods the physicians or the house staff tried. After several hours of failed efforts, Cynthia began calling for her husband. Duncan sent everyone else out of the room and took over the task of sitting at his wife’s bedside and dabbing cold water on her burning hot skin.

As he did so, she reached out weakly and put a hand on his knee. “Duncan, darling,” she said, her voice barely a whisper. Duncan gently shushed her, patting her frail hand, his eyes filling with tears at how thin and fragile it felt beneath his touch. “Save your strength, my dear,” Duncan said, struggling to keep his voice strong and steady. “I will sit with you again tonight.” Cynthia shook her head slowly, giving her husband a sad smile. “There will be no need for that, Duncan,” she said, looking at him with an intense expression he dared not question. Nevertheless, he shook his head, trying to pretend he did not understand what his wife was implying. “Just rest for now, Cynthia,” he said. “We can talk more in the morning, when you’re feeling better.

” Cynthia gave Duncan another sad smile. “Please, darling, listen to me,” she said. “I wish to say this now, while … while I have the strength.” Duncan bit his lip, fighting against the tears already filling his eyes. He knew if he didn’t let her speak, she might never get another chance. While he could not let himself believe she was fading so fast, he also knew he would not be able to live with himself if he denied her what could well be her last words. “Of course, my dear,” he said, putting down the damp cloth and taking his wife’s hand in his. “Tell me what is on your mind.” Cynthia was still smiling at him, when suddenly, her eyes lost focus, and she started looking above her, at the canopy hanging over her bed, rather than at her husband. She started murmuring something that Duncan could not make out, and he began asking her to repeat herself, then stopped abruptly, watching with a growing sense of panic as she began reaching out toward the ceiling at something he could not see; he realized she was slipping into another delusion.

His heart began to race, and he started patting her face with the damp cloth once more. She continued that way for several moments, and Duncan felt tears trickle down his cheeks. Gradually, she returned to her senses and turned her gaze upon him, wearing the same weak, sad smile as before, as though nothing had happened. “Darling,” she said again, reaching for him. “I know that I’ve not much longer on this earth.” Duncan squeezed his eyes shut, determined to suppress the emotional tidal wave threatening to swallow him, at least until he was out of her presence. “Try not to think of such things just now, Cynthia, darling,” he said, his voice beginning to break, just as his heart was breaking. “Let us speak of happy things.” His wife nodded, though her smile wilted. “That is precisely what I intended to tell you,” she said.

“I know that all this has been very trying on you, and the time ahead will be difficult for you and the children. All three of you have loved me well, and I shall rest easy. But I fear for your happiness. I fear you will hold onto your grief far too long and fail to make the happy life I would want for you and the children.” Duncan shook his head, unsure of what Cynthia meant. “Are you asking that I not grieve you?” he asked, surprised by his sudden defensive tone. “I love you, Cynthia, and, of course, I would grieve your passing. You cannot ask me not to feel grief at losing you.” His wife shook her head. Her gaze suddenly as intense as it was loving.

“I do not ask you not to grieve,” she said. “Grieving is perfectly acceptable, and it is quite necessary.” She paused, and her eyes started to lose focus again. But just as Duncan thought her about to succumb to the feverish grip of delusion once more, she shook her head, harder than he would have thought possible, given her waning strength. Once more, she looked steadily at him. “But you must promise to do something, at the end of your grieving.” Duncan bit his lip. What was she about to tell him? Whatever it was, it was clearly so important, and she was risking the last of her living strength to say it. However, he did love her, more than anything in the world, and if she made him promise to pluck the moon from the sky, he would spend his entire life trying. “Ask anything of me, my love,” he said, trying to smile at his wife as he rubbed her hand, which felt preternaturally cold.

Cynthia nodded, her smile turning to one of relief. “The twins are so young,” she said, her eyes filling with tears at the thought of her children. “They cannot grow up without a mother figure.” Duncan’s eyes widened in shock. Surely, she was not suggesting what he thought she was? “Darling,” he said. “My mother loves the twins as her own. She will always care for them, as you would, in whatever way they need.” Cynthia’s smile saddened once more, and, again, she shook her head. “Duncan,” she said, her eyes shining with unshed wetness. “Your mother is, indeed, a wonderful woman, and the children could never have a better grandmother.

But they need a mother, too. Just as they need you as their father.” Duncan bit his lip, as much to remain silent and let his wife speak as to suppress the deep feeling of sadness that was slowly consuming him. Rather than answering his wife, he merely nodded, giving her another smile through trembling lips. Taking his silent gesture as her cue, Cynthia continued speaking. “I understand that what I am asking is difficult,” she said, blinking and sending the tears gathered in her eyes, cascading down her pale cheeks. “But it is also important for you, just as much as for the twins.” Duncan nodded, taking a moment to collect himself before speaking. He did not want to hear what his wife was about to say, but he could not bring himself to ignore her words. “Of course, darling,” he said, at last, his voice hoarse and raw.

Cynthia took a deep breath and closed her eyes, as though she, too, was trying to compose herself. Duncan held his breath and waited for what was coming. “You must go forward with your life and ensure the children’s future happiness,” she said. “You must finish your grieving—and remarry.” While Duncan had anticipated her words, they nevertheless sent his mind spinning. He silently prayed his wife would suddenly make a complete recovery, leap from the bed, and embrace him that they could completely forget the things she was saying. He knew, of course, it was a vain prayer, but his desperation ran deep, and he could not fathom a life in which he did what his wife was asking. Nevertheless, he grasped her hand in both of his and kissed it, forcing his lips to stop trembling. No matter how impossible Cynthia’s request seemed, he would never say as much to her. “I promise you, darling,” he said, gazing at his wife lovingly.

“I will ensure the children have everything they need to grow into proper adults.” Cynthia smiled, her urgent expression relaxing at her husband’s comforting words. “I love you, Duncan,” she said. “And I always will.” Duncan reached up and caressed her cheek. It was just as clammy as her hands but it was so hot he thought it might burn his fingers. Despite the shock of the heat, he did not flinch or wince. He smiled through the tears that, until that moment, he had not realized were falling from his eyes. “I love you more, my dearest Cynthia,” he said. Moments later, his wife fell into a deep sleep.

He sat in the chair beside her all through the night, watching her deep breaths, comforted in seeing that she was resting better than she had in weeks. At some point just before dawn, Duncan dozed, falling into restless dreams of a life without his beloved wife. When he awoke, the sun was well above the horizon. He stretched and looked over at Cynthia. She looked so peaceful that he hated to wake her, but he knew that she should try to eat. He reached over and touched her hand. It was stone cold. “Darling?” he said softly, giving her hand a gentle squeeze. When she did not stir, he released her hand and touched her chin. When he found that her face, too, was cold, he froze.

“Cynthia?” he asked, more loudly this time. He studied the peaceful smile on her face and the stillness of her body, and he understood. He buried his face in his hands and began to sob. He did not realize how loud his cries were, or how long they had continued until he felt a gentle hand on his shoulder. He looked up into the face of Cynthia’s lady’s maid, who had tears in her eyes. “Send for the coroner,” he said through his sobs. *** The day after Cynthia was buried, Duncan had the twins and his belongings packed and loaded into a carriage. Her funeral had been a devastating affair, but the days preceding it had been far worse. The twins had toddled around the house looking for their mother, and he had no idea how he could possibly explain what had happened to children so young. His family had offered generous support, but it brought him no solace.

He spent his nights crying himself into a fitful sleep and his days staring out of the window, leaving his children to be tended by his servants. He knew the twins needed him then more than they ever would, but his heart was too shattered … he had not the strength to comfort them. Everywhere he looked, he saw his wife’s belongings, her favorite seats, her beloved trinkets, and memories of her that haunted and plagued him rather than brought comfort. So, he had decided to leave behind his London home and move the children to his country estate. He held no hope of finding peace there, despite the vast beauty of the countryside. But at least there, he could find solace in solitude and, perhaps, stop seeing his wife’s face every time he closed his eyes.

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