A Notorious Vow (The Four Hundred #3)(3)

By: Joanna Shupe

He hesitated. He rarely used his voice, well aware the sound came across as different. Not at all what he’d sounded like when he was still able to hear. A multitude of shocked expressions and cruel snickers from strangers in his late teens had made that perfectly clear. Instead, he reached into his pocket and withdrew the tiny ledger and pencil he carried. You are safe, he wrote. You fell and hit your head outside in my gardens.

He offered her the paper, but she just blinked and squinted at it. “I apologize but the words are fuzzy. Please, tell me where I am.”

She tried to sit up and he held up his palms, motioning she should stay put. Thankfully, Gill entered at that moment, supplies in hand. Breathing a sigh of relief, Oliver signed to Gill, “You had better answer her questions and reassure her before she gets agitated.”

Gill frowned as he signed, “What have you told her?”

“Nothing,” Oliver signed. “She is your problem. I merely brought her inside.”

The woman shrank further into the sofa and carefully watched the two of them. Her chest rose and fell quickly as if she were truly scared, so Oliver motioned for Gill to get on with it.

As the butler began to address the young woman, Oliver moved to where he could see both their faces, allowing him to read their lips. Gill told her Oliver was deaf and communicated by using his hands. She blinked a few times in response then cast Oliver a curious glance. Surprisingly, her expression held genuine interest, not the mocking derision he expected from the outside world. Well, at least not yet. Give her time. She’s had a nasty bump on the head.

“You mean he cannot hear?”

“No, but he reads lips quite well.”

She gave no outward reaction to that information, instead gazing about the study. “Where am I? How long have I been here?”

“Please, remain calm,” Gill responded. “No one will hurt your ladyship here. And this is the home of Mr. Oliver Hawkes.”

Ladyship? The girl was an aristocrat? Oliver hadn’t expected that. “Ask her where she is staying,” he signed.

Gill relayed the question. Unfortunately the girl stared at her lap while answering, preventing Oliver from reading her answer. He snapped his fingers at Gill. “Tell her to look up when she speaks,” he signed to the butler. “Otherwise I cannot read her lips.”

Her cheeks flushed when Gill translated—was that embarrassment?—and she trained her gaze on Oliver’s forehead. “With my cousins, the Kanes.” She turned back to Gill. “Does he know them?”

Annoyance rippled across Oliver’s skin. He snapped his fingers at Gill once more. “Tell her that he is able to answer for himself seeing as he is not an idiot,” he signed, his hand movements sharp.

“She clearly meant no harm, sir,” Gill signed, but Oliver held up a hand to stop him.

“Just tell her,” he instructed.

Though Gill did not use Oliver’s exact words, he informed her that she could speak directly to Oliver, reminding her he could read her lips.

Her throat worked as she swallowed and her gaze landed on Oliver’s forehead again. “I apologize.”

Why could she not look him in the eye? Was she scared of him? Repulsed? He squared his shoulders and told himself he did not care. She’d soon be gone and he could return to his quiet life of experiments and learning. The people of this city could all go to hell, as far as he was concerned.

“Was it your dog that knocked me down?” she asked.

Apollo had caused this? Guilt swamped Oliver but he squashed it when she continued to avoid his eyes. He quickly signed, “I apologize for your injury, but he does not appreciate trespassers. Nor do I. What were you doing in my gardens?”

Gill flashed Oliver an unhappy look but nonetheless translated. The woman’s bottom lip trembled. “I am sorry. I was not expecting to see a dog and I lost my balance when he approached me.”

“That does not explain—”

A footman strode into the room, a tall black-haired man behind him. Oliver immediately went over to Dr. Henry Jacobs, his hand extended in greeting. The two had known each other nearly two decades, since an illness took Oliver’s hearing at the age of thirteen.

In fact, it had been Henry who taught Oliver to speak using his hands. Most American doctors and schools limited deaf instruction to speaking and reading lips, believing the deaf should assimilate to the hearing world whether they wanted to or not. The French, however, had developed a manual communication system using hands, and a school in Connecticut had adapted the system for American use. Because Henry’s father was deaf, Henry had traveled to Connecticut to learn this signing system. He quickly became renowned in the city for teaching sign language to others, and Oliver’s mother had hired him when the doctors finally gave up on saving Oliver’s hearing.