http://tinyurl.com/h3q4shu for the USA
An entertaining Regency tale with lots of drama!
The River Derwent tumbled golden brown from the heights of Quickcleugh Moss toward the River Tyne. Five miles short of its broad banks, green meadows spattered with daisies and dandelions announced Gybford lands dozing under the afternoon sun.
Frances Bowes, Lady Rathmere, widowed at seventeen and one of the richest young heiresses in England sat with her back to her favourite beech tree and fanned herself with her wide-brimmed straw hat. The foliage gave shade, but the day was exceptionally warm and her cotton petticoats clung to her limbs.
She twitched her skirts aside. Mama would be shocked at such unladylike behaviour, but Mama was tending her beloved roses and would never know. Frances sighed in delight as the fresh air cooled her limbs, leaned back and contemplated the meadow.
It really was time she lived exactly as she pleased. Father’s will had left a third of his funds to his wife, and two thirds plus the estates and mineral rights to his daughter. Mama should have removed to the Dower House, but since they had been widowed within the same year, there had seemed little sense in the two of them rattling around, each in an empty building, when they could console each other by staying together.
After nine years of widowhood Mama still took charge, conveniently forgetting that Gybford Hall belonged to her daughter. Indeed, Frances doubted Mama had ever truly acknowledged the transition. Dropping hints or engendering discussion upon a change of hue in curtains or bedspreads fell on deaf ears. Things went on being done as Mama wished, and the situation had begun to grate on Frances.
Her gaze on leggy buttercups fluttering in the light breeze Frances considered how she might wrest control from her mother without causing a breach between them. Having her rooms made over in a more modern style would be a start. From there, it would be a natural step to rip out the dark half-height wainscoting from the dining room and install one of the new wallpapers imported from China. Pastel curtains would let in so much more light than the heavy old red velvet hung when Mama and Papa first married half a century ago.
Something must also be done to put a stop to the mortifying husband-seeking attempts. Mama refused to accept that Frances was fully determined to remain in control of her property and life by never remarrying.
Frances gazed fondly at the red setter loping across the daisies. “What do you think, Gyp?” The dog dropped a stick into her lap. “If I do not take control from Mama, I shall remain a child all my life.”
Gyp backed away, tongue lolling, waiting for her to throw the stick again.
Frances hurled the stick high in the air. It hit the branches of the beech tree, bounced off, fell to the bank and over the edge into the river. Without hesitation, Gyp followed it.
“Gyp! No! You will be soaked!” Rolling to her knees, Frances stared across the grass. Too late. Gyp’s front paws were already in the water. “Gyp! No!”
The faint sound of hooves distracted her. At the end of the meadow she saw a flicker of white against dark foliage. Her eyes narrowed. No gentleman of her acquaintance would ride without jacket, gloves and hat on Gybford land. Shirt sleeves were for the gypsy or the common field labourer.
Whoever he was, he turned his horse and hurtled across the ford in a shower of spray. Frances sank back on her heels, frowning. Ought she to be wary? Strangers were rare in the district, though vagrants and gypsies occasionally travelled the old route by the river. Frances opened her mouth to call her dog, and realised that would bring Gyp into the path of the horse.
The vibration from the great iron-shod hooves thudded up through the grass into her spine. Really, there was no need for such speed. One would think the snorting grey was in a race. The rider aimed for the gap between the river and the beech tree and gave no sign of having seen her.
Faster than she would have believed possible, the huge grey horse filled her vision.
Forgetting her dignity, Frances scrambled to her feet and lunged for safety behind the beech tree. She caught a glimpse of the wide-eyed rider gaping at her.
Gyp sprang up from the river bank like a red flame in the sunshine and loosed a loud bark beneath the horse’s nose. The horse veered sharply away from both dog and the river.
The rider flew out of the saddle, struck the bank with his shoulder and disappeared over the edge. Water droplets rose in a huge shower, sparkled for an instant and fell back into the stream.
Frances hesitated, one palm clasped to her mouth, suppressing a breathless urge to laugh. It served him right, really; but she ought not to laugh. One should not mock another’s misfortune.
The stallion snorted, wheeled and tore across the field, hooves flinging clods of grass high in its wake. Gyp followed, barking, but returned when Frances called her name. The horse was in no danger and would soon slow and stop of its own accord.
The rider, however, might need careful handling. She’d suffered similar falls as a child when she had not paid attention to her pony, and knew how foolish he would feel, which might mean an outburst of some kind.
Her father had possessed a colourful turn of phrase when faced with disagreeable circumstances and Frances had no wish to be the object of a stranger’s fury. She would wait until he was over the worst of his temper.
Only the chortle of the river running through the valley bottom broke the silence. Even the birds were quiet.
Gyp trotted to the bank, looked down and uttered a short, puzzled bark. Frances stepped forward, craning her neck to see what was going on.
“Oh, good grief!”
The stranger floated face down, drifting with the force of water coming down from the hills.
He must have struck his head on a stone. Frances ran to the crumbling bank, and stumbled on her long skirt. The water looked dark on the far side beneath the trees. Gyp, already up to her chest, forged her way steadily towards the stranger.
Frances slithered down among the sand and stones, barely registered the tearing sound as she trod on the hem of her gown. There was no time to remove her boots. She must get to him before he drowned.
She stepped into the pool and gasped at the bone-aching cold of the water. Stones shifted beneath her feet. The light cotton fabric of her gown dragged away on the current.
Pushed sideways, she fought to steady herself. This man’s life depended on her. To let him drown was unthinkable. His face nudged her thigh and she shuddered at the intimacy of the contact. A splash of red transferred from his scalp to her pale skirts.
Gritting her teeth, swaying like someone who had taken too much brandy, she grasped the stranger by his shirt collar and tugged. She wrenched his head higher. “Wake up, man!”
One of his arms drifted around her thigh. Her mind recoiled at the touch, and the solid weight of the stranger threatened to knock her off her feet.
Steeling herself, she grasped the bunched fabric of his shirt in one hand and a handful of his hair in the other and hauled him towards the bank. His body swung around on the current. If she let go now, he would be carried away from her.
“Gyp! Here, girl!”
The setter, almost out of her depth, lurched to her side. Frances offered the man’s shirt collar. “Pull, Gyp, pull!” The dog’s four feet offered a safer footing than her two and together they dragged the man to the bank, where Gyp let go and shook herself. Frances staggered to a boulder and sat on it. Every muscle jangled as she stared at the man sprawled at her feet.
She must do something. But what? The man let out a sound. Not quite a gasp, nor yet a groan, but somewhere in between. His mouth twitched.
Who was he? He might be the guest of a nearby house, but in such a close-knit community it was strange she had not been made aware of his impending visit.
Could he be a vagrant, or a highwayman? Disturbed in the act of robbery and escaping as fast as he could? He was certainly a strong horseman. The animal was of good blood stock. His clothes…she ran her eye over the long length of him, took in the riding breeches and top-boots, both of a quality far beyond the pocket of a mean highwayman.
Her mouth twisted. What did she know of highwaymen? His left hand, relaxed and long-fingered against the ground, bore a heavy gold ring on the third finger, and as she watched, the sun raised a scarlet gleam from the embedded stone. A wedding ring?
She ought to check the wound, but to do that she must touch him. Such a small thing; yet she hesitated.
Frances! Touch him, or else call yourself a coward.
Her hand trembled in the air above him then closed upon itself and retreated, curling into a fist against her throat. Even with him unconscious, she did not like the thought of touching him.
Marriage to Rathmere had left her with a huge dislike of male physical contact. But this man, she told herself, looking down at him, offered no threat. He needed her help.
Do it. Do it now.
Taking a deep breath, she reached out before her fears caught up with her and touched his brow. Her fingers sprang back as if she encountered fire. Frances shook her head at her foolishness.
His skin was cold beneath her hesitant fingers, but a pulse beat slowly in his neck. Drat the proprieties. And be damned to her fears. If he died she would never forgive herself.
“Wake up, you silly creature.” Growing bolder, she shook him by the shoulder. “Wake up. Speak to me. Who are you?”
Perplexed, she flopped down on the wet mud beside him. He was far too heavy to lift. She could not drag him up the slope to the meadow even with Gyp’s assistance.
Hugging herself, rocking back and forth, she dithered. If she knew what to do, she would do it, but she had no idea what would be best.
Gyp whined, shuffled closer, stretched out her neck and licked the man’s neck with long, curious strokes.
Stimulation. Frances smiled. Of course.
She gripped the man’s shoulder. He looked uncomfortable, sprawled on his side, one cheek flat against the mud. He proved far heavier than she expected, and as soon as she let go, he flopped back again. Odd sounds and a trickle of water came from his mouth. Encouraged, she tried once more, and failed again.
“Oh, for pity’s sake!”
Faced with such rude indifference, the last shreds of calm vanished. Frances got to her feet, grasped his wrist, stepped over him and yanked. She would not give up.
She strained and heaved, then yelped with satisfaction when he rolled over and settled on his back. Triumphant, she bent over him. He must open his eyes and start living again. He owed her that much, after all her efforts.
“Wake up, you horrid man,” she snapped, blinking hard. “Do not lie there like a dead man! Wake up and speak to me.”
He ignored her, so she slapped him.
His eyelids fluttered.
Drawing a determined breath, she steeled herself, leant over and drew back the clinging strands of black hair obscuring his features.
Sunshine speared through the beech leaves and dappled his face. Thick brows straggled towards the bridge of his fine, straight nose. A strong, well-proportioned face, and eyelashes as long as those of any girl of her acquaintance. But his hair! Plastered to his head, she could see it was overlong and shaggy. The darkness of a new sprung beard added to his disreputable air, and there was a thin white scar across his upper lip. She looked into his quiet, unresponsive face. His mouth moved, stretched in a grimace rather than a smile and his eyelids flickered again. She watched him eagerly. Even if he turned out to be the worst sort of disorderly rake, she was pleased he was not dead.
Jack could not breathe. A heavy weight pressed on his chest. A spasm clenched his body. He rolled to his side and vomited water onto the grass. Wheezing, he drew in a painful gulp of air, and got rid of more water. The pressure eased. He sprawled on his back.
“As if I am not wet enough,” a feminine voice remarked. “But I forgive you, for I thought you had left this world for a better place.”
Jack frowned. Dizzy, half conscious, he opened his eyes. A blaze of sunlight made him close them again. Squinting, he made out a kneeling figure with a cloud of honey-coloured curls surrounding a pale face. His frown deepened.
“Who are you?” he croaked. Lord, his throat was sore.
“How do you feel?”
Idiotic question, but he gave it thought. “Cold, bloody cold. My throat hurts. And my head aches. Who are you?”
The breeze struck the wet cloth of his shirt and plastered it against his skin. He shivered and saw his feet were in the river. He drew them back, and found it took far more effort than he expected. No wonder he was cold. His shirt was naught but wet rags, his hair dripped water and he suspected half of the river sloshed around inside his boots. He looked back at the young woman. The sun shone through her hair and gave her a halo of gold. He shivered again.
It was not Eleanor. Could not be Eleanor.
Pain hollowed his body as it always did when memory struck without warning. Struggling to hide his feelings and gain control of his muscles, he turned from the stranger and stared at the sky above the distant tree tops.
This was not London, but Streatham. He had come home in the middle of May, and already a fortnight or more must have gone by. This morning he had set out to ride to Chopwell, and, lost in memories of his wife, had taken a wrong turning. He remembered riding like the devil. Something had unhorsed him.
“Where’s my horse?” He got an elbow beneath him and tried to rise.
Moving had been a mistake. The world whirled around him. When everything steadied, he glared at the dog, red and glossy as a conker, crouched beside him on the opposite side to the young lady. It whined, and inched closer. “That damned dog unseated me.” He blocked its affectionate approach. “Stupid dog.”
“Stay, Gyp.” The dog looked at its mistress as if acknowledging her words, then transferred its attention back to him. “Sir, have a little gratitude.” Her voice had turned frosty. “That noble creature helped save you from drowning.”
Jack glared at the dog. It was wet. Soaked, in fact. “It was your damned dog put me in the water in the first place. It deserves all my displeasure and more. The animal is no more than a bloody nuisance. Get off!” He pushed away the beast’s probing muzzle.
The dog obeyed her with such a reproachful glance Jack might have laughed if he felt less like heaving his guts up again.
“Now, sir, tell me how you do.”
Her air of calm confidence rattled him, but her hazel eyes, pointed chin and the swirling cloud of hair with a long, curling strand hanging by her cheek filled his mind with an image of slow, sinuous coils of honey falling from his breakfast spoon.
He shook his head to clear it.
She put out a swift hand to shield herself from cold water drops.
“Sorry,” he muttered. “God, I am soaked.” He plucked at the sodden tatters of his shirt, and then gave up. It was beyond repair.
The flower perfume, strong enough to survive the overpowering scents of grass, river water and mud, must come from her. He schooled his expression and looked up to meet her searching gaze.
Her fichu was awry and a generous amount of bosom crowded the neckline of her round gown. The kind of dress ladies wore for a day at home when visitors were not expected; plain light cotton with double sleeves and silk ribbons, now wet and bedraggled, dangling from beneath her bosom.
Her voice broke in on his thoughts. “Sir, you must tell me how you feel.”
“As you might expect,” he snapped. “Cold and wet and a blow on the head did not help.”
She sat back on her heels. “There is no cause to be rude.”
“Your wretched dog was the reason for my upset.”
The woman raised one eyebrow. “Perhaps she did surprise your horse by leaping up the bank as she did, but really, sir, part of the blame must lie with you.”
“How the hell do you make that out?”
She smiled sweetly. “Because this is private land and you should not be riding across it.”
He set his jaw and decided to ignore that information. It certainly put him at a disadvantage. “Only an idiot allows a dog to run free. Especially a half-bred creature such as that.”
Both her brows lifted this time and her cool appraisal told him he spoke to a lady rather than a serving maid. “And what do you say to idiots who trespass?”
Rattled, Jack refused to be placed in the wrong. High flown ladies cut no ice with him. “You allow a great brute like that to run free—”
“Of course she may,” the woman interrupted. “She belongs here, a gift to me from an Irish cousin, and, I may add, a breeder of note in Ireland. It is you, sir, who are the stranger and therefore at fault.” Patches of colour gathered in her cheeks and her bosom lifted as she drew in a swift breath.
Jack blundered to his feet, scrambled awkwardly up the bank and onto the level meadow. Swaying, he watched her. The dog bounced up and leapt against him. He thrust the creature aside.
She looked ready to shout at him. His innards, already shaky, flinched and for a moment he thought he would tumble back down to the river.
Perhaps she noticed his unsteadiness, for she withheld whatever she had been about to say. Instead she scrambled to her feet, twitched her wet skirts aside and climbed gracefully to his side. When she stood upright, her nose was level with his chin. A small delicately formed nose with soft pink lips lurking in wait beneath.
He turned aside.
He had come to Streatham because he could not get a moment alone in London. The need for privacy, long denied, had stretched his nerves to breaking point. Instinct told him to let his emotions run free but he was damned if he would do it in public, or with his housekeeper hovering over him. Seeking sanctuary at Streatham had seemed the answer to his problem.
“Where’s Hercule? Where’s my horse?” He turned a half-circle in expectation of seeing his favourite ride grazing nearby, and staggered. Hell’s teeth, she would think him an incapable fool.
“I believe your horse took another direction, sir.” Her voice was cool, but he would swear she laughed at him. “It returned the way it came. A sensible creature, obviously.”
The sarcasm, delivered in such gentle tones, bit all the deeper. He swung around, and staggered. “Which I am not, I presume? You have no idea, have you? You stand there and smile and ask how I am without the slightest notion of the despair in which people may live.”
She stared at him, wide-eyed.
Breathing hard, he stared back. Oh, dear God, what had he said? She would think him some kind of madman.
She inhaled slowly, and lowered her lashes. But she was not beaten. Her lids lifted, and revealed a spark of determination and something close to grim humour. “Everyone has difficulties to overcome. Most of us,” she added with slight emphasis on the first word, “have learned to bear distress with fortitude.”
“I need no lectures on fortitude from you, madam.”
“I am not inclined to offer one to a person who would gain nothing from hearing it.”
“You mock me, madam.” His glance fell on a discarded book and shawl by the tree. “God save me from carping females who have nothing better to do than sit and read all day long.” He frowned. The straw bonnet, with its gaily striped ribbon, looked as if someone’s foot had squashed it. He had not noticed her until she bounded to her feet and leapt to safety behind the tree. How close had he come to riding her down? Good God. Sunk in his own misery, he had almost trampled her to death.
His stomach rolled at the thought.
“What this carping female chooses to do with her own time is no concern of yours, sir.”
Colour had flooded her face while he struggled with his thoughts. Her skirt, sodden and stained from hip to the ground, clung to her limbs. Had she not said something about the dog helping pull him from the river? He ran a palm over his face and wondered if he was going to be sick again. “You should have left me to drown, should not have put yourself at risk.” The words came out more harshly than he intended.
“Obviously a misjudgement on my part.”
“Well, you have my thanks.”
She stood there in her wet gown with disbelief and anger in her eyes and refused to give an inch. Was it his imagination or did he see pity there, too?
“Obviously you have never suffered great loss,” he snapped. Incautious words. He ought to have more control than this, but five months and never an opportunity to lance his grief had worn him to shreds.
“I am a widow, and…but I think you are not well?” She reached out a hand, as if to catch his arm.
The ache in his head expanded, and he swayed like a tree in a gale. He really ought to walk away before he made matters worse.
“I thank you for your assistance, madam.” Praying he would not fall, he offered the briefest of bows then turned and set off towards the ford. He wanted no interference, no intrusions, however well meaning. Thank the Lord the woman had no idea who he was or where he stayed.
Otherwise she would be like all the rest, hovering over him and asking all sorts of damn fool questions.