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Dorinda and the Doctor
EARLY ON A fine Monday morning, Mrs. Dorinda Nunley let herself in through the side door of Dr. Percy Worth’s abode, which he leased from Dorinda’s distant relation, the Duke of Lyons. Lisette, the duke’s new wife, had sent her over here with the key to set the place to rights while the doctor was out of town, but it still felt oddly intimate to invade his domain.
At least she wasn’t entering the living areas. This part was his office, though apparently he didn’t see patients in it. No need, for they were all members of the ton, not surprising for a physician who was presently the toast of London.
After removing her bonnet, Dorinda set it on a nearby highboy and surveyed the place. Clearly the man spent little time here, or else how could he abide such clutter? There were boxes only half-unpacked from when he’d taken up residence eight months ago after years as a ship’s doctor. A full skeleton lay crumpled upon a chair, and jars and vials were jumbled up on a table, as if he rifled through them whenever he needed something.
Well, when she was done with this place, he would never have to hunt for anything again. She hated to admit it, but she was secretly looking forward to making herself useful to him. Though she disliked doctors as a rule, he’d been nothing but amiable to her, and for that he deserved to have an orderly place of business. Even if it did remind her of a difficult time in her life.
Setting her shoulders, she headed for the table and nearly tripped over a black satchel. She stared at it dumbly. It looked like the one he carried sometimes when he came to see how the duchess was faring in her pregnancy. But why would it be here? He was supposed to be—
Just at that moment the door swung open, and awareness dawned. Before she could so much as squeak a warning, the good doctor entered the room, wearing nothing but a half-open banyan and a pair of drawers.
He stopped short, his dark-brown eyes widening. “Mrs. Nunley?”
Oh dear oh dear oh dear. “Good morning, Dr. Worth,” she said inanely.
Heaven help her, she’d never seen the doctor in dishabille. She’d never even seen him in shirtsleeves. She’d always thought the doctor very attractive with that finely carved jaw and expressive mouth, but she’d never guessed what lay beneath his clothes. Of its own accord, her gaze swept down to take in his chiseled chest and lean stomach and the thin line of hair leading down to—
She jerked her mortified gaze up to meet his astonished one. “What are you doing here?” she blurted out.
Amusement leapt into his face as he discreetly pulled his banyan closed. “I live here. And you?”
This couldn’t be happening! “Her Grace said you were going to the country to attend a countess in her birthing,” she babbled. “You’re not supposed to be here!”
“Which is why you felt free to stop by and look around?” he asked, a smile crooking up one corner of his mouth.
To her horror, her cheeks heated like a foolish schoolgirl’s. “Don’t be absurd.” But she was the absurd one. She should never have come so early. She should have knocked. She shouldn’t have been caught gawking at a half-naked man.
Especially this particular half-naked man. She’d spent too much of her seven-year marriage enduring the arrogant doctors her husband had charged with curing her “barrenness” to find a physician remotely attractive. Yet she did, and had for months now. It was most annoying. And when his gaze lingered on her mouth, making her swallow hard, she wanted to turn tail and run.
Or stand still and let him catch her. She grimaced. What a ridiculous thought! He wasn’t interested in “catching” her. Was he? Then he lifted his gaze from her mouth, and she cursed her dullness. He wanted an explanation, of course.
“The duchess has been so kind to me since Edgar died that I asked if she needed assistance with anything, and she sent me here to help organize your office. She said she offered to do it for you while you were out of town, but now found that she couldn’t manage it.”
Dr. Worth frowned. “That’s odd. I sent Her Grace a note only yesterday that I had to cancel my trip because the countess’s babe had arrived early. The duchess answered, too, inviting me to dine tonight. I wonder why she would—”
When he broke off with a laugh, Dorinda gaped at him.
Eyes gleaming, he crossed his arms over his chest. “It appears that Her Grace is playing matchmaker. She’s grown tired of merely telling me I need a wife and is now trying to arrange one for me.”
“But . . . but . . . I mean, surely she would never—”
“Send you over here at the crack of dawn when she knew I was home?”
“You can’t blame her for the early hour,” she said with a blush. “I thought you were gone and I didn’t know how much time I would need, so I came early.”
“The point is, she deliberately threw us together.” He shoved back a lock of hair that was as coarse and straight and black as her own hair was feathery and curly and blond, then gave her a sweeping, rather heated glance. “For obvious reasons.”
When that sent her pulse into a tumbling roll, she stiffened. “I can’t believe it. Lisette knows I have no intention of marrying again.” Unless it was to a man who wanted no children. Certainly never to an up-and-coming physician probably looking to start a family.
No matter how handsome he might be. Or how much he reminded her that she hadn’t shared a man’s bed in some time. Lord help her.
“Ah,” he said tightly, “but a woman newly in love ignores such statements. The duchess is so happy she can’t imagine anyone else not wanting what she has.”
“It was still very wrong and presumptuous.” She sighed. “I shall just have to be firmer with her. She and the duke have been so kind to me that I wanted to do whatever I could to repay them. But . . . that is . . .”
“Gratitude only extends so far,” he finished for her. His gaze swept her again, with an awareness that made her feel naked. Until it hardened and snapped back to meet hers with a physician’s usual cool arrogance. “And the great-granddaughter of a duke needn’t stoop to marry a younger son of a silk merchant.”
The hint of defensive pride in his voice struck a chord in her. “I’m a destitute widow, sir,” she said quietly. “If anything, I’m too low for a man of your great renown. And I wouldn’t make a good wife for any man, given—”
No, she couldn’t talk about that with him, of all people. “In any case, if I’d had any inkling of what Lisette was really plotting, I would never have gone along with it. Indeed, I didn’t mean to impose upon you even this long. Forgive me, sir.”
She turned for the door, but before she could reach it, he said, “Wait.”
That one word sent a thrill down her spine that she hadn’t felt since the days Edgar had courted her. “Under the circumstances, I should probably go.”
He stepped nearer. “She’ll just try again. The duchess can be stubborn about ‘helping’ her friends. And she has a soft spot for you. I suspect you remind her of her mother, who was equally left in the lurch by a negligent lord.”
Dorinda hadn’t thought of it that way. All she knew was that Lisette had insisted on the duke’s taking her in after hearing of the dire straits in which Edgar had left her. Edgar had married her in a last-ditch effort to keep his property from being entailed away. When she’d repeatedly failed to give him an heir, he’d begun drinking even more heavily than usual, which was how he’d ended up stumbling into the Thames one night and drowning.
She faced the doctor warily. “So how do you propose that I stop her nonsense?”
“Not you. We. It will take both of us to show her why it won’t work.” His crooked grin made her heart turn over in her chest. “You’ll be at dinner at their house tonight, too, won’t you?”
“Yes.” She frowned. “Oh dear, that’s probably why she’s always inviting you to dine. I should have realized what she was up to long before this. I’m so sorry—I’m sure it’s very annoying for you. You probably have a hundred women wanting to meet the doctor who saved the life of the duke’s cousin.”
“Slightly fewer than a hundred,” he said dryly. “Honestly, you mustn’t blame yourself for this. Her Grace can be very sly.” He began to pace. “But we will put her in her place, don’t worry. Tonight we’ll attend, look at each other with adoring eyes, pretend to have fallen in with her plan . . . and then pull the rug out from under her.”
“How on earth can we manage that?”
He eyed her intently. “We’ll get into a row at dinner over whatever couples usually argue over, and I’ll storm out. Or you. Whichever will upset her more. Then she’ll see what her meddling has wrought, and leave us be.”
Dorinda considered that. “I suppose it could work. Lisette is always trying to keep the peace between the members of the Duke’s Men; she wouldn’t like seeing two of her friends quarrel as a result of her machinations.”
“Precisely.” A twinkle appeared in his eye. “It might be fun, actually. As long as we can keep straight faces while we do it.”
His teasing never ceased to take her by surprise. Edgar’s doctors had all been stiff and dour, behaving as if she were some recalcitrant child who needed punishing for not spitting out an heir as she should.
Of course, Dr. Worth would probably be the same if he were treating her. Fortunately, he was not. So perhaps this would be all right. Besides, she had to do something, besides confiding her embarrassing secret, to keep Lisette from pursuing her matchmaking.
“Very well,” she said. “That sounds like an excellent plan. Though we should agree on what to argue over beforehand.”
“We certainly should.” A calculating look crossed his face. “And we can discuss it while you’re organizing my office.”
The swift increase in her pulse alarmed her. “You still want me to?”
“Of course. You’re here. You offered.” He swept his hand about to indicate the mayhem. “As you can see, I need the help.”
“You certainly do,” she said, then winced at her frankness. “I–I mean—”
“Trust me, I know. Why do you think I asked for the duchess’s aid?” His voice softened. “And I’ve noticed how much she relies on you in managing the duke’s household. I doubt she’s ever been taxed with quite that large an endeavor, while you’re obviously well accustomed to taking such matters in hand.”
Gratified by the fact that he’d noticed, she murmured, “Well, Edgar did have a large estate.” A rather tumbledown estate, which his nephew inherited, since she couldn’t give him an heir. “But what will people say if I remain here alone with you?”
“Nothing, I should hope. You’re a widow, not some maiden miss. I doubt anyone even saw you come in, and if they did, the cat’s out of the bag anyway. Might as well make the best of it.”
He flashed her another disarming grin. “Besides, since you’re living at the duke’s right now, Her Grace would surely notice if you return there so quickly. If we are to fool her tonight, she has to believe you spent the day with me.”
“That’s true.” And the idea of spending the day with him sounded perfectly wonderful.
Yet oh so dangerous.
Tamping down the quiver that went through her, she stared pointedly at his chest, where the banyan had fallen open again to reveal a smattering of dark curls. “I’m happy to stay and help, but—”
“Oh! Right.” He pushed back that errant lock of hair again. “None of my informal bachelor attire, eh?” He grinned as he turned for the door. “I’ll just go change into something more suitable. And I’ll put on the kettle.”
She gaped at him. “You know how to make tea?”
He eyed her askance. “I served on a ship for years, remember? If I wanted tea there, I had to make it myself. Would you like some?”
Edgar would have fallen through the floor before he made tea for her. “That would be lovely, Dr. Worth, thank you.”
“Percy,” he said. “If we’re to be convincing tonight, we should use each other’s Christian names.”
“Of course.” When he just continued to stare at her, she murmured, “You should call me Dorinda.”
“Dorinda,” he repeated, with an odd glint in his eye, and a shiver went down her spine.
She’d always hated her name because it was so different, but when he said it, it sounded as shimmering as the poetry from which it was taken.
“I’ll be back shortly, Dorinda,” he said. “Make yourself at home.” Then he disappeared through the door.
For a moment, she could only stare after him. The last thing she needed was to “make herself at home” here. But, as he said, she was here already, so she might as well improve his office situation. And if in the process she got to know the doctor—Percy—a bit better, what could it hurt?
Ignoring all the many, many ways it could hurt, she hurried to the table and set to work.
♦ &9830; ♦
PERCY DRESSED SWIFTLY. He couldn’t believe it—the widow he’d been coveting for months was standing in his office at this very moment.
Thank you, Duchess.
Her Grace was giving him a chance. Granted, it was a small one, only a day to convince Mrs. Nunley—Dorinda—that he and she were well suited, but it was more than he’d had heretofore.
Of course, he had to get past that nonsense of hers about not remarrying. He couldn’t fathom why a woman so pretty and accomplished would take such a notion into her head, but he meant to banish it for good.
Especially now that he knew she might fancy him. All this time he’d thought himself alone in his interest, but her presence here—and their bit of conversation—had led him to reconsider. So did the way she’d stared at his bared chest with decided fascination . . .
His pulse began to pound. Dorinda was not the type of woman who should remain alone the rest of her life. Somehow he must make her see that.
Tying his cravat, he regarded himself critically in the mirror. At least he looked like a gentleman now, and not some ill-bred oaf who wandered about his lodgings half-dressed. Still, he hoped she spoke the truth when she said she didn’t care about the difference in their social standing. Doctors were considered gentlemen, but just barely. Compared to a duke’s great-granddaughter . . .
He set his shoulders. That didn’t matter. As she herself had pointed out, he had risen in consequence of late while she had fallen. That made them equals. And she’d never stood on ceremony with him. Just the fact that she’d come here to help him proved that she wasn’t toplofty.
A glance at the mantel clock told him there were twelve hours until he was expected at the Lyons town house for dinner. Dorinda would need a couple of hours to get back there to dress, so that left him with ten hours total. It wasn’t much to work with, given that they were supposed to have a falling-out at dinner.
He wished he hadn’t proposed that, but he’d been scrambling for a way to keep her here and hadn’t thought it through.
Well, no matter. By dinnertime, he meant to have shown her that she belonged with him. That they would make a good match. That Her Grace had proven wise beyond her years when she’d thrown them together.
The kettle began to boil, and he headed over to make tea in his battered teapot. Since he lacked a tea tray, he set his two cups onto a large medical tome, added the pot, and then shoved the door open with his elbow so he could carry the whole contraption into the office.
Then he froze. The widow stood on a low stool before his cupboard, and the sun coming in through the transom highlighted the golden ringlets fringing her elegant neck.
God, but she was beautiful—an intoxicating handful of a female who never failed to make his heart race and his blood heat. Then she reached up to arrange the books that had previously been stacked haphazardly on the top shelf, and he thought he might lose his mind.
Because not only did the position tighten all the parts of her amber-colored gown about her shapely figure, but with her skirts hiked up, he could see the lower part of her legs perfectly. And what shapely legs they were, too, in their creamy silk stockings. He stood there gaping at them, imagining what it would be like to smooth his hands up those lovely calves, past her knees to—
“You’re back,” she said brightly and hopped down from the stool, forcing him to choke back a regretful groan. “I thought it might be good to start with the top shelves so we could see how much room we have for the other, more useful items on the lower ones. Don’t you think?”
“I wouldn’t know.” He was still trying to banish that lovely image of her atop the stool. “Organization is not my . . . er . . . strong suit. I keep meaning to hire a maid of all work to come in and take care of such matters, but I’ve had no time to interview anyone.”
“You really must take the time,” she chided him. “A doctor with a cluttered office will be eyed askance by any female patient who comes here.”
He smiled. “Female patients don’t come here; I go to them. Besides, you’re not eyeing me askance.”
“I’m not your patient, thank God.”
His smile vanished. “Why ‘thank God’? I’ll have you know that—”
“Forgive me, I didn’t mean it that way. I just . . . have been at the mercy of doctors too many times to wish to be anyone’s patient.”
He was about to ask for an explanation, but she hurried to take the book from him and instantly changed the subject. “Good Lord, have you no tea tray?”
“I’ve had no need of one until now. I live here alone, remember?” Though he hoped to change that state of affairs shortly.
He watched as she set the book on the table and poured the tea. She glanced at him with one pretty eyebrow raised. “No sugar? Or milk?”
“No. Sorry. I drink it without.”
With a roll of her eyes, she sipped some tea, then set down her cup. “We shall definitely have to arrange for you to hire a maid of all work. Or a cook or someone who can keep your pantry stocked.”
“And buy me a tea tray,” he added cheerily, encouraged by her use of the word we.
“Trust me, I’m already making a list of necessary purchases.” Reminded once again of how competent she was in running a household, he watched as she critically surveyed the table’s jumbled contents. “I suggest you organize these by function. We can put the astringents—elixir of vitriol, alum, and Peruvian bark—together, then the purges, then the emollients and so on. Don’t you think?”
Astringents? She knew what those were? “Clearly you really have spent a great deal of time in doctors’ offices. But I thought your husband was in perfect health until he met his untimely death. How do you know the function of what’s in those jars? Were you once sickly? You certainly don’t look it now.”
She paled. “I had a great many ill relations,” she mumbled, then turned deliberately toward the cupboard. “Now, about these shelves . . .”
Percy watched her retreat with a narrowed gaze. How very odd. He could swear that she had no ill relations—the duke’s family was small. So why hide the reason for her medical knowledge? Might that be why she behaved so strangely with him, one moment friendly and open and the next wary and closed?
Well, whatever it was, he meant to get to the bottom of it. Because the first step in gaining her affections was clearly going to be gaining her trust.