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The infamous Duke of Winston's brush with death had been on every tongue in Paris for days, and as Millicent Germain waited to be shown upstairs to his chamber, she half hoped the crumbling building that nearly killed him might have also damaged his privates.
The duke's Parisian salon was empty of people but filled with gilded furniture and nudes, nudes, nudes. Everywhere nudes: statuettes, portraits, vast paintings and plasters on the ceiling. There was nowhere to rest one's eyes.
Winston does like to have his fun, Philomena had laughed, even as she'd waved away Millie's violent objections to the employment Philomena had found for her. Forced her into, rather, but that was neither here nor there now. The employment would be a disasterthere was no doubt about thatbut by the time it was finished, Millie would have what she wanted.
A bawdy statue of frolicking nymphs on a nearby table, and the duke's renowned penchant for debauchery, mocked Philomena's description of him:
Intelligent. About what subjects? Copulation?
Respected. By whom? Libertines?
Wealthy. And therein lay the crux of the matter. His money, in exchange for her medical services during his journey to Greece.
Well, in exchange for Mr. Miles Germain's medical services. She may be desperate, but she wasn't mad. His Grace's household was no place to be perceived as female. Thankfully, her simple features became entirely nondescript against the background of a bagwig and coat.
This wouldn't be the first time she'd passed for a man.
She smoothed her palms across her breeches, anticipating the butler's return at any moment, and glanced up at a pair of entwined lovers on the ceiling. It seemed almost certain she would be required to witness one disgusting exhibition after the next, all the way to Greece.
Beggars can't be choosers. And she was very much a beggar. But in a matter of weeks she would be a stone's throw from Malta and the surgical school that waited there, with enough wages from this employment to begin the life that only days ago she'd believed was lost to her forever.
All she had to do was restore a spoiled, depraved peer of the realm to health. Which would be a simple matter, because he'd probably exaggerated his injuries in the first place.
If he hadn't, she would end up coddling His Grace's ego, even as she attempted to prevent his condition from declining, which she could never accomplish if he was constantly indulging in wild fornication parties, as he was rumored to do
"His Grace will see you now, Mr. Germain," the butler announced from the doorway behind her.
Millie bolted from the chair and turned to face the tall, fair-skinned man who'd introduced himself as Mr. Harris. There was still time to change her mind, flee to Philomena and beg for help finding a different employment.
You don't want a different employment. You want to go to Greece.
"Very good," she said a little hoarsely, and cleared her throat. "Thank you."
She tugged the sleeves of her jacket, glancing down, double-checking that her waistcoat was properly buttoned and her curves were truly concealed. Then she picked up her medical bag and followed the butler out of the salon.
They were halfway up the main staircase, with its elaborate, polished stone balustrade, when a shriek of laughter drifted from somewhere in the recesses of the upper floors.
Mr. Harris didn't seem to notice.
"I understand the stones from the crumbling building facade resulted in numerous injuries to His Grace's person," Millie said to him.
"Indeed," Mr. Harris confirmed. "His Grace was most fortunate not to have received the kind of fatal blow that other poor soul received."
"Yes. Very fortunate." According to the stories, the man walking just behind the duke had been struck directly on the head and died immediately, God rest his soul. "Are you aware of whether any of His Grace's injuries in particular have affected his mode of living?"
There was another shriek, louder now that they'd reached the top of the stairs, followed by an eruption of laughter.
Mr. Harris's pleasant face sank into a frown. "His Grace was abed with fever for three days, Mr. Germain. I can assure you it has affected his mode of living enormously." He lowered his voice and added confidentially, "I only hope you can aid the situation more effectively than the other physician."
She heard the voices nowa growing hubbub of them as Mr. Harris led her down a corridor past carved doors of rich, burnished wood.
From the sound of things, the situation had been aided already.
"This way, please, Mr. Germain." Mr. Harris ushered her through a door and into a room teeming with activityHis Grace's dressing room, apparently, where a pair of lavishly dressed women were peering at their faces in a glass, a trio of sporting men were making a game of tossing coins into a whore's cleavage from half a room away, and a man with a laughing woman pinned beneath him was on the verge of tumbling off a love seat and onto the floor.
Mr. Harris led her through another doorway into the adjoining bedchamber just as a familiar shriek and burst of laughter came from a table by the window, where a man with a buxom brunette on his lap was apparently playing at more than just cards. A chambermaid collected dishes, a maidservant poured tea, another fussed with the fire in the fireplace. A monumental bedstead of intricately carved wood and lush midnight-blue draperies dominated the far wall. A man paced near its foot, holding forth in rapid French, while two elaborately coiffured courtesans chatted nearby on a chaise longue.
Finally, Millie's attention landed on the man who lay sprawled against a mountain of pillows.
"You'd best reform your behavior" he was laughing, calling to one of the courtesans on the chaise longue "or I might decide you need a punishment." His smile was a wicked flash of white teeth in a face that rendered the word handsome entirely inadequateexcept for a nasty scrape down his right cheek and faint smudges beneath his eyes. He wore a banyan in blue patterned silk and a pair of trousers that rode up just enough on his right leg to give her a glimpse of dark hair sprinkling a thick, solid calf.
The courtesan fluttered her fan near the edge of her decolletage and smiled at him, leaning forward so that her breasts practically spilled from their stays. "Viens-toi," she taunted, "si tu peux."
But the duke made no move to get up and carry out his threat.
Mr. Harris guided her forward and stood with her at the bedside. "Mr. Miles Germain, Your Grace."
And now, eyes black as sin flicked over Millie with calm disinterest. "I should have known any medic recommended by Philomena would be of the youthful variety," he drawled, and amusement touched the corners of his mouth. "Tell me, Mr. Germain do you have any medical experience beyond the careful examinations you've doubtless conducted in Lady Pennington's bed?"
A sharp answer leaped to her tongue. He thought she was inexperienced?
"Your Grace." She swallowed back her initial reply and bowed, even though he hadn't bothered with courtesy himself. Her eyes glanced off large hands that had doubtless groped any number of chambermaids and went to his left arm, which lay in a sling. "My condolences for the situation in which you find yourself."
This self-indulgent profligate could question her credentials all he liked, but she was going with him to Greece.
He accepted a glass of somethingcognac, perhapsfrom one of the courtesans and let her fuss with some nonexistent problem with his banyan. "How old are you, Mr. Germain?"
"Three and twenty."
"Three and twenty.'" Amusement deepened in his eyes. "I might rather have suspected three and ten, would you not agree, Deschamps?"
The man who'd been pontificating at the foot of the bed laughed. "Tenez, I fear you offend," he said, gesturing toward her magnanimously.
"Not at all," Millie said evenly. "Perhaps it will comfort you to know that I served four years as a ship's surgeon. I can assure you, I've tended men in far worse condition than yours."
"And do any yet live?"
"All that could be saved, Your Grace." She thought a shadow passed across his eyes, but it was there and gone so quickly she couldn't be sure.
"Hold out your hands," he instructed.
Her hands? She did as he asked, holding them palms down in front of her until he bade her stop with a wave of his hand. "At least you don't shake like the last one. Bloody drunkardI endured twice the pain from all of his bumbling around." He grimaced and put a hand to his shoulder. "Come and see what's wrong with this sling. Damned arm's been aggravating me all day."
She could already see the sling was tied too tightly. She put down her medical bag, and the courtesan returned to the chaise longue to allow Millie room at the side of the bed. Mr. Harris withdrew to an unoccupied space by the wall.
"I understand Your Grace has just recovered from a fever," Millie said as she reached across him. Up close, she could see the thick lashes that framed his dark eyes and the laugh lines that creased their corners as he exchanged a few loaded remarks with the women.
"Give him something to increase his desire," one of them instructed her in French, laughing.
"You could never endure it if he did," the duke shot back, and then, to Millie, "The fever? Three days of utter misery. Yes, that's right."
"And the wounds? How are they progressing?"
"The wounds are on my back, Mr. Germain. I couldn't possibly tell you."
She glanced at him as she loosened the sling. "Did you ask no questions of your physician?" If he was going to act as if she were stupid, she'd be happy to do the same. "He must have given you some report. Is there any sign that pus has developed?"
There was a horrified squeal from the chaise longue.
"Good God, Mr. Germain," the duke said. "That kind of talk will drive away my company."
Which had just become her first order of business. She adjusted the sling, eased his elbow out a smidgen.
"I don't suppose Your Grace has considered that solitude and rest might be enormously beneficial."
He laughed at that. Deep lines cut at the sides of his mouth, and those blackish devil eyes came alive with alarming intelligence.
A sensation whispered through her body: a slight heaviness in her breasts. A faint stirring at the juncture of her thighs.
"Mr. Germain," he said, "if you were in my place, would you be anxious to rid yourself of this particular company?"
She fixed her attention on his arm. After a moment, the unexpected sensation passed. Yes it passed completely.
"Were I in your position," she replied, "my foremost concern would be the fastest possible recovery of my health." Another quick adjustment, but then
She leaned closer, sniffing, and frowned.
"What is it?" he asked.
"Oil of turpentine."
"My physician has been using it on the dressings." Aha, so he had received a report. "Yes, of course, but." Still?
"But what?" he said irritably.
"I shall need to see the state of the wounds, but I rather suspect a different ointment would be more to your advantage at this stage. How does the sling feel?"
He shifted his arm the tiniest fraction, frowning.
Suddenly she was more aware of his arm flexing beneath her fingers than she'd been a moment before, of warm muscle and sinew warming her fingertips through two thin layers of silk and linen. A tiny nerve pulsed way down low in her belly.
"I must warn you," she said in her direst tone, straightening and stepping back from the bed, "that rest is important above all else." She thought of the only medical volume she owned, a surgical treatise that was tucked away in her bag at this very moment, and how accurately its advice matched her own experience.
"Mr. Germain," he said irritably, "I've been abed these four days."
"A proper diet and a healthy air are important, as well, naturally," she went on gravely, still too aware of her own fingertips, "but there should be no excitement of the senses. Nothing to arouse the passions."
A commotion went up from the card table, and one of the women bolted from her chair on a peal of laughter, only to be brought firmly down onto the lap of one of His Grace's friends.
"Perish the thought," the duke said dryly, and reached for his drink.
"I'm quite serious, Your Grace. 'Disturbances of the mind are great enemies to the health of the body,'" she quoted from the book.
"You medical types are all the same, with your morbid admonishments. But you may rest easy, as nothing would disturb me more than to be deprived of entertainment." His lip curled a little, and her eye went straight to it, and now she noticed the shape of his mouth in a way she hadn't before even though there was nothing unique about itnothing at all.
"And you should know that I cannot work with onlookers," she added now, in case he imagined she would conduct an examination of his person with all of these people milling about.
He laughed. "No? I've been known to perform rather well with an onlooker or two." He tossed a wicked grin at the women on the chaise longue, then took another drink.
Millie watched his tongue catch the moisture from his lips as he lowered the glass. Realized she was holding her breath.
His eyes found hers.
She couldn't look away.
"Harris," he drawled, lifting his glass to his lips once more, "show Mr. Germain to his rooms. Find out his fee and pay him a month's wages in advance."