Ending a string of decidedly inventive curses, that question, delivered with enough force to hold back the storm itself, jerked Honoria’s wits into place. She focused on the commanding figure atop the restless stallion, then, with haughty dignity, stepped back, gesturing to the body on the verge. “I came upon him a few minutes ago-he’s been shot, and I can’t stop the bleeding.”
The rider’s eyes came to rest on the still figure. Satisfied, Honoria turned and headed back to the injured man, then realized the rider hadn’t moved. She looked back, and saw the broad chest beneath what she now recognized as a dark hacking jacket expand-and expand-as the rider drew in an impossibly deep breath.
His gaze switched to her. “Press down on that pad-hard.”
Without waiting to see if she obeyed, he swung down from his horse, the movement so eloquent of harnessed power, Honoria felt giddy again. She hurriedly returned to her patient. “That’s precisely what I
The rider, busy tying the stallion’s reins about a tree, glanced her way. “Lean over him-use all your weight.”
Honoria frowned but shuffled closer and did as he said. There was a note in the deep voice that suggested he expected to be obeyed. Given that she was counting on him to help her deal with the wounded man, now, she decided, was not the time to take umbrage. She heard him approach, footsteps firm on the packed earth. Then the footfalls slowed, became hesitant, then stopped altogether. She was about to glance up when he started forward again.
He came to the other side of the wounded man, avoiding the large pool of blood. Hunkering down, he gazed at the youth.
From beneath her lashes, Honoria gazed at him. At closer range, the effect of his face diminished not one whit-if anything, the impact of strong, angular planes, decidedly patrician nose, and lips that were long, thin, and provocatively mobile was even more pronounced. His hair was indeed midnight black, thick and wavy enough to form large locks; his eyes, fixed on their common charge, were hooded. As for the rest of him, Honoria decided it was wiser not to notice-she needed all her wits for helping the wounded man.
“Let me see the wound.”
Was that a quaver she heard running through that dark voice, so deep it half resonated through her? Honoria glanced swiftly at her rescuer. His expression was impassive, showing no hint of any emotion-no, she’d imagined the quaver. She lifted the sodden wad; he bent closer, angling his shoulders to let light reach the wound. He grunted, then nodded, rocking back on his heels as she replaced the pad.
Looking up, Honoria saw him frown. Then his heavy lids lifted and he met her gaze. Again she was struck by his curious eyes, transfixed by their omniscient quality.
Thunder rolled; the echoes were still reverberating when lightning lit up the world.
Honoria flinched, struggling to control her breathing. She refocused on her rescuer; his gaze hadn’t left her. Raindrops pattered on the leaves and spattered the dust of the lane. He looked up. “We’ll have to get him-and ourselves-under cover. The storm’s nearly here.”
He rose, smoothly straightening his long legs. Still kneeling, Honoria was forced to let her eyes travel upward, over top boots and long, powerfully muscled thighs, past lean hips and a narrow waist, all the way over the wide acreage of his chest to find his face. He was tall, large, lean, loose-limbed yet well muscled-a supremely powerful figure.
Finding her mouth suddenly dry, she felt her temper stir. “To where, precisely? We’re miles from anywhere.” Her rescuer looked down, his disturbing gaze fixing on her face. Honoria’s confidence faltered. “Aren’t we?”
He looked into the trees. “There’s a woodsman’s cottage nearby. A track leads off a little way along the lane.”
So he was a local; Honoria was relieved. “How will we move him?”
“I’ll carry him.” He didn’t add the “of course,” but she heard it. Then he grimaced. “But we should pack the wound better before shifting him.”
With that, he shrugged off his jacket, tossed it over a nearby branch, and proceeded to strip off his shirt. Abruptly, Honoria transferred her gaze to the wounded man. Seconds later, a fine linen shirt dangled before her face, suspended from long, tanned fingers.
“Fold the body of the shirt and use the arms to tie it about him.”
Honoria frowned at the shirt. Lifting one hand, she took it, then looked up, directly into his face, studiously ignoring the tanned expanse of his bare chest and the crisply curling black hair that adorned it. “If you can take over here and keep your eyes on the wound, I’ll donate my petticoat. We’ll need more fabric to bind against the hole.”
His black brows flew up, then he nodded and hunkered down, placing long strong fingers on the pad. Honoria withdrew her hand and stood.
Briskly, trying not to think about what she was doing, she crossed to the other side of the lane. Facing the trees, she lifted the front of her skirt and tugged at the drawstring securing her lawn petticoat.
“I don’t suppose you’ve a penchant for underdrawers?”
Stifling a gasp, Honoria glanced over her shoulder, but her devilish rescuer was still facing in the opposite direction. When she didn’t immediately answer, he went on: “It would give us even more bulk.”
Honoria’s petticoat slithered down her bare legs. “Unfortunately not,” she replied repressively. Stepping free, she swiped up her offering and stalked back across the lane.
He shrugged. “Ah, well-I can’t say I’m a fan of them myself.”
The vision his words conjured up was ridiculous. Then Honoria’s wits clicked into place. The look she cast him as she dropped to her knees should have blistered him; it was wasted-his gaze was trained on the wounded man’s face. Inwardly humphing, Honoria ascribed the salacious comment to ingrained habit.
Folding the petticoat, she combined it with the shirt; he removed his hand, and she applied the thick pad over her earlier insignificant one.
“Leave the sleeves hanging. I’ll lift him-then you can reach under and tie them tight.”
Honoria, wondered how even he would cope with the long, heavy weight of their unconscious charge. Amazingly well was the answer; he hefted the body and straightened in one fluid movement. She scrambled to her feet. He held the youth against his chest; with one sleeve in her hand she ducked and felt about for the other. Her searching fingertips brushed warm skin; muscles rippled in response. She pretended not to notice. Locating the wayward sleeve, she pulled it taut, tying the ends in a flat knot.
Her rescuer expelled a long breath through his teeth. For one instant, his strange eyes glittered. “Let’s go. You’ll have to lead Sulieman.” With his head, he indicated the black monster cropping grass beside the lane.
Honoria stared at the stallion. “Sulieman was a treacherous Turk.”
She transferred her gaze back to the man. “You’re serious, aren’t you?”
“We can’t leave him here. If he gets loose, panicked by the storm, he could damage something. Or someone.”
Unconvinced, Honoria retrieved his jacket from the branch. She studied the stallion. “Are you sure he won’t bite?” When no answer came, she turned to stare, open-mouthed, at her rescuer. “You expect me to-?”
“Just take the reins-he’ll behave himself.”
His tone held enough irritated masculine impatience to have her crossing the lane, albeit with no good grace. She glared at the stallion; he stared levelly back. Refusing to be intimidated-by a horse-Honoria crammed the jacket under the saddle, then tugged the reins free. Holding them firmly, she started along the lane. And came to an abrupt halt when the stallion didn’t budge. “Sulieman-walk.”
At the command, the huge horse started forward. Honoria scurried ahead, trying to keep beyond the range of the monster’s teeth. Her rescuer, after one comprehensive glance, turned and strode on.
They were deep within the densest part of the wood, thickly leaved canopies interwoven overhead. As if flexing its muscles, the wind gusted, riffling the leaves and flinging a shower of raindrops upon them.
Honoria watched as her rescuer angled his awkward burden through a tight curve. As he straightened, the muscles in his back shifted, smoothly rippling under taut skin. A single raindrop fell to tremble, glistening, on one tanned shoulder, then slowly slid down his back. Honoria tracked it all the way; when it disappeared beneath his waistband, she swallowed.
Why the sight affected her so, she couldn’t understand-men’s bare torsos, viewed from childhood in the fields and forge, had never before made it difficult to breathe. Then again, she couldn’t recall seeing a chest quite like her rescuer’s before.
He glanced back. “How did you come to be in the lane alone?” He paused, shifted the youth in his arms, then strode on.
“I wasn’t exactly alone,” Honoria explained to his back. “I was returning from the village in the gig. I saw the storm coming and thought to take a shortcut.”
“When I saw the body I went to investigate. At the first thunderclap, the horse bolted.”
Honoria narrowed her eyes. She hadn’t seen him glance heavenward, but she knew he had. “It wasn’t my knot that came undone. The branch I tied the reins to broke.”
He glanced her way; while his face was expressionless, his lips were no longer perfectly straight. “I see.”
The most noncommittal two words she had ever heard. Honoria scowled at his infuriating back, and trudged on in awful silence. Despite his burden, he was forging ahead; in her kid half boots, not designed for rough walking, she slipped and slid trying to keep up. Unfortunately, with the storm building by the second, she couldn’t hold the pace he was setting against him.
The disgruntled thought brought her mentally up short. From the instant of encountering her rescuer, she’d been conscious of irritation, a ruffling of her sensibilities. He’d been abrupt, distinctly arrogant-quite impossible in some ill-defined way. Yet he was doing what needed to be done, quickly and efficiently. She ought to be grateful.
Negotiating a tangle of exposed tree roots, she decided it was his assumption of command that most irked-she had not before met anyone with his degree of authority, as if it was his unquestionable right to lead, to order,
Finding her eyes once more glued to his back, entranced by the fluid flexing of his muscles, Honoria caught herself up. Irritation flared-she clung to its safety. He was impossible-in
He glanced back and caught her black frown before she had a chance to wipe it from her face. His brows quirked; his eyes met hers, then he faced forward. “Nearly there.”
Honoria released the breath that had stuck in her throat. And indulged in a furious scowl. Who the devil
A gentleman certainly-horse, clothes, and manner attested to that. Beyond that, who could tell? She checked her impressions, then checked again, but could find no hint of underlying unease; she was perfectly certain she was safe with this man. Six years as a governess had honed her instincts well-she did not doubt them. Once they gained shelter, introductions would follow. As a well-bred lady, it wasn’t her place to demand his name, it was his duty to make himself known to her. Ahead, the dimness beneath the trees lightened; ten more steps brought them into a large clearing. Directly in front, backing onto the wood, stood a timber cottage, its thatch in good repair. Honoria noted the opening of two bridle paths, one to the right, one to the left. His stride lengthening, her rescuer headed for the cottage door.
“There’s a stable of sorts to the side. Tie Sulieman in there.” He flicked a glance her way. “To something unbreakable.”
The glare she sent him bounced off his broad back. She quickened her pace, egged on by the rising whine of the wind. Leaves whirled like dervishes, clutching at her skirts; the black monster trotted at her heels. The stable was little more than a rude shack, built against the cottage wall.
Honoria scanned the exposed timbers for a hitching post. “I don’t suppose it’s what you’re accustomed to,” she informed her charge, “but you’ll have to make do.” She spied an iron ring bolted to the cottage wall. “Ah-hah!”
Looping the reins through, she hung on the ends to tighten the knot. She grabbed the jacket and was about to turn away when the huge black head swung toward her, one large eye wide, its expression strangely vulnerable. Briskly, she patted the black nose. “Stay calm.”
With that sage advice, she picked up her skirts and fled for the cottage door. The storm chose that precise moment to rend the sky-thunder rolled, lightning crackled, the wind shrieked-so did Honoria.
She flew through the open door, whirled, and slammed it shut, then slumped back against it, eyes closed, hands clutching the soft jacket to her breast. Rain drummed on the roof and pelted the panels at her back. The wind shook the shutters and set the rafters creaking. Honoria’s heart pounded; on the inside of her eyelids she saw the white light she knew brought death.
Catching her breath on a hiccup, she forced her eyes open. And saw her rescuer, the youth in his arms, standing beside a pallet raised on a crude frame. The cottage was dark, lit only by dim remnants of light leaking through the slatted shutters.
“Light the candle, then come and set the covers.”
The simple command prodded Honoria into action. She crossed to the table that dominated the single-roomed abode. A candle stood in a simple candlestick, tinder beside it. Laying the jacket aside, she struck a spark and coaxed the candle into flame. A soft glow spread through the room. Satisfied, she headed for the pallet. An odd assortment of furniture crowded the small cottage-an old wing chair sat beside the stone hearth, a huge carved chair with faded tapestry cushions facing it. Chairs, bed, and table took up much of the available space; a chest and two rough dressers hugged the walls. The bed stood out into the room, its head against one wall; Honoria reached for the neatly folded blankets left on its end. “Who lives here?”
“A woodsman. But it’s August so he’ll be in the woods by Earith. These are his winter quarters.” He leaned forward, lowering his burden, as Honoria flipped the blanket out along the bed.
“Wait! He’ll be more comfortable if we remove his coat.”
Those unearthly eyes held hers, then he looked down at the body in his arms. “See if you can ease the sleeve off.”
She’d been careful not to catch the coat when she’d secured their improvised bandage. Honoria gently tugged; the sleeve shifted inch by inch.
Her rescuer snorted. “Silly clunch probably took an hour to get into it.”
Honoria looked up-this time she was sure. His voice had shaken on the “clunch.” She stared at him, a dreadful premonition seeping through her. “Pull harder-he can’t feel anything at the moment.”
She did; between them, by yanking and tugging, they managed to free one arm. With a sigh of relief, he laid the body down, drawing the coat off as he eased his hands free. They stood and stared at the deathly pale face, framed by the faded blanket.
Lightning cracked; Honoria shifted and glanced at her rescuer. “Shouldn’t we fetch a doctor?”
Thunder rolled, echoing and booming. Her rescuer turned his head; the heavy lids lifted, and his strange eyes met hers. In the clear green-timeless, ageless, filled with desolate bleakness-Honoria read his answer. “He’s not going to recover, is he?”
The compelling gaze left her; his black mane shook in a definite negative.
“Are you sure?” She asked even though she suspected he was right.
His long lips twisted. “Death and I are well acquainted.” The statement hung in the suddenly chill air. Honoria was grateful when he elaborated: “I was at Waterloo. A great victory we were later told. Hell on earth for those who lived through it. In one day I saw more men die than any sane man sees in a lifetime. I’m quite certain-” Thunder crashed, nearly drowning out his words. “He won’t see out the night.”
His words fell into sudden silence. Honoria believed him; the bleakness that hung about him left no room for doubt.
“You saw the wound-how the blood kept pulsing? The ball nicked the heart-either that, or one of the big vessels close by. That’s why we can’t stop the bleeding.” He gestured to where blood was staining the thick pad. “Every time his heart beats, he dies a little more.”
Glancing at the youth’s innocent face, Honoria drew in a slow breath. Then she looked at her rescuer. She wasn’t sure she believed the impassive face he wore. His very stoicism fed her suspicion; compassion stirred.
Then he frowned, black brows slashing down as he held up the youth’s coat. Honoria watched as he examined the button opposite the bloody hole. “What is it?”
“The button deflected the ball. See?” He held the button to the light so she could see the dent in its rim, the scorching beside it. Eyes measuring the coat against the youth, he added: “If it hadn’t been for the button, it would have been a clean shot through the heart.”
Honoria grimaced. “A pity perhaps.” When he glanced her way, green eyes strangely empty, she gestured helplessly. “In the circumstances, I mean-a slow death, rather than a fast one.”
He said nothing but continued to frown at the button. Honoria pressed her lips together, trying to deny the impulse, and failed. “But?”
“But…” He hesitated, then went on: “A clean shot through the heart with a long-barreled pistol-small bore, so it wasn’t a shotgun or even horse pistol-at reasonable range-closer would have left more of a burn-is no mean feat. Pulling off such a shot takes remarkable skill.”
“And remarkable cold-bloodedness, I imagine.”
Rain beat against the walls, the shutters. Honoria straightened. “If you light the fire, I’ll heat some water and wash away the worst of the blood.” The suggestion earned her a surprised look; she met it with implacable calm. “If he has to die, then at least he can die clean.”
For an instant, she thought she’d shocked him-his gaze appeared truly arrested. Then he nodded, his permission so clearly implied she could not doubt that he considered the injured youth in his care.
She headed for the hearth; he followed, soft-footed for such a large man. Pausing before the fire, Honoria glanced over her shoulder-and nearly swallowed her heart when she found him directly beside her.
He was big-bigger than she’d realized. She was often referred to as a “Long Meg”; this man towered over her by a full head, cutting her off from the candlelight, his dramatic face in deep shadow, his black hair a dark corona about his head. He was the Prince of Darkness personified; for the first time in her life, she felt small, fragile, intensely vulnerable. “There’s a pump near the stable.” He reached past her; candlelight glimmered on the curved contours of his arm as he lifted the kettle from its hook. “I’d better check Sulieman, too, but I’ll get the fire going first.”
Honoria quickly shifted to the side. Only when he had crouched before the hearth, laying logs from the woodbox in the grate, did she manage to breathe again. At close range, his voice reverberated through her, a decidedly unnerving sensation.
By the time he had a blaze established, she had her attention firmly fixed on the dressers, discovering clean cloths and a canister of tea. She heard him move past; reaching high, he lifted a bucket from a hook. The latch clicked; Honoria glanced around-he stood in the doorway, bare to the waist, silhouetted by a searing flash of light-an elemental figure in an elemental world. The wind funneled in, then was abruptly cut off; the door shut and he was gone.
She counted seven rolls of thunder before he returned. As the door closed behind him, the tension gripping her eased. Then she noticed he was dripping wet. “Here.” She held out the largest of the cloths she’d found and reached for the kettle. She busied herself by the fire, setting the kettle to boil, quite sure she didn’t need to watch him drying that remarkable chest The kettle hissed; she reached for the bowl she’d set ready.
He was waiting by the bed; she considered ordering him to dry himself by the fire, then decided to save her breath. His gaze was fixed on the youth’s face.
Setting the bowl on the chest by the bed, she squeezed out a cloth, then gently sponged the youth’s face, removing the grit and dust of the lane. Cleanliness emphasized his innocence, and highlighted the obscenity of his death. Pressing her lips together, Honoria bent to her task. Until she came to the badly stained shirt.
She shifted back. Two well-judged rips, and the left side of the shirt was free.
“Give me a cloth.”
She squeezed one out and handed it over. They worked side by side in the flickering light; she was amazed by how gentle such large hands could be, was moved by how reverently one so powerfully alive dealt with the dying.
Then they were done. Settling another blanket over their silent charge, she gathered the soiled cloths and loaded them into the bowl. He proceeded her to the fire; she set the bowl on the table and straightened her back.
The call was so faint she only just heard it. Honoria whirled and flew back to the bed. The youth’s lids fluttered. “Devil. Need… Devil.”
“It’s all right,” she murmured, laying her hand on his brow. “There’s no devil here-we won’t let him get you.”
The youth frowned; he shook his head against her hand. “No! Need to
Hard hands closed about Honoria’s shoulders; she gasped as she was lifted bodily aside. Freed of her touch, the youth opened glazed eyes and struggled to rise.
“Lie back, Tolly. I’m here.”
Honoria stared as her rescuer took her place, pressing the youth back to the bed. His voice, his touch, calmed the dying man-he lay back, visibly relaxing, focusing on the older man’s face. “Good,” he breathed, his voice thin. “Found you.” A weak smile flickered across his pale face. Then he sobered. “Have to tell you-“
His urgent words were cut off by a cough, which turned into a debilitating paroxym. Her rescuer braced the youth between his hands, as if willing strength into the wilting frame. As the coughing subsided, Honoria grabbed up a clean cloth and offered it. Laying the youth down, her rescuer wiped the blood from the boy’s lips. “Tolly?”
No answer came-their charge was unconscious again.
“You’re related.” Honoria made it a statement; the revelation had come the instant the youth opened his eyes. The resemblance lay not only in the wide forehead but in the arch of the brows and the set of the eyes.
“Cousins.” Animation leached from her rescuer’s harsh face. “First cousins. He’s one of the younger crew-barely twenty.”
His tone made Honoria wonder how old
As she watched, he put out one hand and gently brushed back a lock of hair from his cousin’s pallid face.
The low moan of the wind turned into a dirge.