Mary clutched her cloak tighter around her and shivered as she peered through the gathering gloom. She hoped it wasn’t going to rain. She felt a tug on her skirt, and looked down.
‘Mama.’ Pinched features set in a face too pale stared up at her. ‘Mama, I’m hungry.’
Mary summoned a reassuring tone. ‘Hush, Toby; yes I know, lovey. We shall have something to eat as soon as we find somewhere to shelter.’
Grimly, she quelled her rising panic and reached for Toby’s hand as she hefted two-year-old Emily higher on her right hip, where she had fallen asleep, one grubby hand entangled in Mary’s hair. They plodded on, following a muddy track that wound through dense woodland, the trees – a mixture of mature specimens and saplings – crowding in on either side, creating a claustrophobic atmosphere that had intensified as the afternoon wore on. No breath of wind stirred the limp foliage, not a bird sang and no woodland creature rustled amongst the undergrowth. The silence was unnerving.
Mary couldn’t even be certain they were still heading north. She had become disorientated almost as soon as they had entered the wood. Such had been their weariness that the path, which had appeared to offer a short cut through the wood, had been accepted without thought. Now, however, Mary regretted her impulse. The track had twisted and turned like a serpent, until she no longer knew in which direction they walked.
For the past half hour she had been on the lookout for something, anything – a woodsman’s hut, perhaps, or even a fallen tree – that might provide shelter for her and the children, but there had been nothing. The afternoon was dipping inexorably towards evening. She knew she must find shelter for the night soon. Her arm ached with the effort of carrying Emily, and Toby was tired and dragging his feet. She could hear his breath hitching, and knew he was trying his hardest not to cry. She squeezed his hand and he looked up at her.
‘It’ll be all right, Toby. I promise.’
Suddenly, a deep, rasping groan sounded from amongst the trees to her right. She whirled to face it, pushing Toby behind her and clutching Emily tight to her chest. She saw nothing. She took an uncertain step towards the trees, peering into the shadows.
‘Mama?’ Toby’s panicky whisper sounded deafening in the eerie silence.
‘Hush!’ Mary hissed. Her eyes darted around, searching for the source of that groan. Nothing moved. She tightened her grip on Toby’s hand. ‘Come along, lovey, we must go.’ She tugged him behind her as she hurried away, her heart hammering with the compulsion to put as much distance as possible between them and that unnatural sound. They reached the edge of a large clearing. It was lighter here, without the tree canopy, and Mary slowed, breathing a touch easier. As they neared the far edge of the clearing, however, a more familiar sound came to her ears – the jingle of a bit, and the soft whicker of a horse.
Spinning round, Mary saw a large pale shape materialise from amongst the trees. The riderless horse walked onto the track, then halted. She looked around. There was nobody to be seen. A horse. Mary glanced down at Toby, read the exhaustion in his stance.
She led her son to a nearby fallen tree, then shook Emily gently.
‘Emily… sweetheart; wake up, darling, there’s a good girl.’
Emily opened her eyes a slit. Her face crumpled, and she began to cry.
‘I know, I know,’ Mary soothed.
She lowered Emily to the ground before untying the knot that held the bundle of their worldly possessions on her back. She put the bundle down, then took her cloak off and lay it on the damp ground by the tree. ‘There, sit on my cloak, sweeties. I won’t be long.’ She drew the cloak around the children for warmth.
The horse had reached the clearing and now cropped steadily at the grass. As Mary approached it, the grey stretched its head towards her, blowing softly through flared nostrils.
Mary slowly reached out to allow the animal to take in her scent. ‘Hello, old fellow.’ She stroked its nose, then took hold of the bridle. ‘What are you doing out here all alone?’
The horse – a large, powerful grey gelding – relaxed, seemingly relieved to find some company in the silent woods. Mary examined him as best she could in the dim light. He was saddled and bridled and appeared unscathed, despite the broken and muddied reins trailing on the ground.
Mary gazed around again. There was nothing – nobody – to be seen.
‘Is anyone there?’ she called tentatively, and listened.
Silence. She chewed at her lip, considering.
The horse had somehow appeared – at the exact time she needed it. Not that she believed in such things, of course. There was doubtless a perfectly reasonable explanation for the horse to be wandering loose in the woods, but she would be a fool if she did not take advantage of the opportunity he offered. He seemed placid enough and looked sufficiently strong to carry both her and the children. It wasn’t as if she was stealing, she assured herself. She would leave him in the first village they came to, for his owner to reclaim.
Her one desire at the moment was to leave this dismal wood behind them and find some shelter for the night. Then they could have something to eat.
The last of the bread she had packed when they had left their home three days before was wrapped in a cloth in her cloak pocket. Her stomach rumbled at the thought of food. It would no doubt be dry and unpalatable, she thought with a grimace, but at least it was sustenance. Hunger had its own way of dealing with pernickety eaters. What they would eat on the morrow, she had no idea. She would face that problem when she must and she thrust the ever-present dread to the back of her mind. There was no sense in meeting trouble halfway. If she must beg for food to feed the children, she would do it. But, first, they must reach habitation, and that, to her intense relief, was now possible, with the help of the grey.
‘Come on, lad,’ she said, urging the horse to follow her.
He dug his hooves in, and shook his head with a loud jingle of his bit. Mary tried again, tugging at the rein. He did not move. Mary cursed under her breath. He did not look a flighty sort, but she would not risk her precious children on an animal that could prove dangerous. Decision made, she gathered the reins, hoisted up her skirts and reached for the stirrup, grateful for her misspent childhood riding astride before age and decorum had insisted she use a side-saddle. She had been an accomplished horsewoman once upon a time, although it was several years now since she had ridden.
Once mounted, the grey perked up and moved forward in response to the squeeze of her calves. Mary relaxed. He would be fine.
‘Hi! Stop thief!’
The sudden shout made her jump, and the horse shied sideways and lurched into a canter, almost unseating Mary. Heart pounding, both from the shout and from the effort of controlling the horse, Mary pulled up the grey and looked over her shoulder, back across the clearing. Beyond its edge, and barely visible in the gloom, a man staggered from amongst the trees, halting a few paces shy of the track. He grabbed onto a tree, leaning heavily against it.
‘Get back… here with…’ His words slurred and faltered. His head drooped.
Heart in mouth, Mary urged the gelding towards the man. She wondered what he would do – if this was his horse, he must be a gentleman and, as Mary well knew, the richer the man the less forgiving he was likely to be towards someone who took what was his, no matter how great their need.
She halted by the man. His head lifted as if with a great effort, his eyes locking with Mary’s. Even in the dusky light of late afternoon, she could make out his features, which stood in stark contrast to his ashen skin. His face was all hard planes and angles, with dark, dark eyes under scowling brows and messy, midnight black hair.
He’s very handsome. The thought came unbidden, and Mary was shocked she would notice such a thing when she was in such a dire predicament. After all, this man now held the power of life and death in his hands. Were he to choose to turn her over to the authorities, she could be imprisoned, or transported, or even – and she quaked at the thought – hanged, as a horse thief. She swallowed hard, controlling her fear. She must be at her most persuasive. She had the children to think of.
He reached out and curled long fingers around the rein.
‘What… do…?’ His voice tailed away.
His fingers slackened on the rein, and he slumped heavily to the woodland floor.
Leaning down from the saddle, Mary tried to make out further details. His clothing confirmed him as a gentleman but it was too murky to see much more.
She could, however, smell the alcohol, even from this distance. Her nose wrinkled as she recalled his slurred words. A gentleman, in his cups. Memories of her father and his abusive ways when under the influence of drink awakened. She must get the children away before the gentleman came round.
There was no point in waiting, she persuaded herself. He could sleep off the effects of the alcohol here in the woods and, when he awoke, the walk back to wherever he had come from would do him good.
‘Come on, lad, walk on,’ she said to the reluctant gelding, as she reined him away from the slumped figure and urged him on.
When they reached the children, Mary slid from the horse and hoisted Toby up to the saddle. It was a struggle. Toby, at five-years-old, was a sturdy little chap but he took a pragmatic approach to life and, instead of making a fuss, he made every effort to help and scrambled on to the saddle. Emily began to wail, and Mary hastened to pick her up and lift her in front of Toby. She put her cloak back on, retied her bundle, then positioned the gelding alongside the fallen tree and climbed onto it to help her to mount behind Toby.
She glanced back across the clearing, but could see no sign of the man. He was, presumably, still sleeping off the drink. She manoeuvred the grey onto the track leading from the clearing. No further shout sounded, and Mary’s tension eased a fraction. When they found a farm, or a village, she would release the horse, and walk in with the children. No one would ever know she had ‘borrowed’ him. Like both her father and her late husband she had no doubt the ‘gentleman’ would be unable to remember anything that had transpired that afternoon.
‘Try and sit still, Toby,’ she cautioned, as he squirmed in front of her, reaching to touch the horse’s neck.
‘I’m patting the horse to tell him he’s being good, Mama.’
‘He is, isn’t he?’
‘Mama? Look.’ Toby held up his hand, showing fingers discoloured with a dark stain.
Mary took his hand, and put her finger on the stain. It came away wet and sticky. She brought it closer to her eyes, but couldn’t make out the colour. However, it smelled and felt suspiciously like…
‘Toby! Are you hurt? Are you bleeding? Where did this come from?’
‘Not me, silly Mama. The horse, I think he’s hurt.’ His voice wobbled.
‘But… he can’t be. I would have seen if there was blood on his neck.’ A knot of dread formed in her stomach. If it wasn’t Toby, and it wasn’t the horse, then it must be…
She reined in. What if he was hurt? Drunk or not, she couldn’t leave an injured man lying in the woods all night. Muttering unladylike curses, she turned the grey. Immediately, his ears pricked up and his stride lengthened. To Mary’s chagrin, they covered the distance back to the clearing in half the time.
‘You old fraud,’ she grumbled to the horse as she slid down from the saddle by the same fallen tree.
She tied the horse to a sapling. Injured or not, if the drunkard proved a threat they must be able to get away. Again, she went through the process of untying her bundle and spreading her cloak for the children to sit on. A breeze had sprung up, penetrating her thin woollen dress, and she shivered as she lifted the children down and sat them on the cloak, pulling the edges up around them once again.
‘Don’t move,’ she whispered, ‘and stay quiet. It’s very important you don’t make a sound. Do you understand?’
Both children nodded. Toby wrapped his arms around his little sister, who gazed up at Mary, her eyes huge in her face. Mary closed her eyes as the responsibilities weighing on her threatened to overwhelm her. Her stomach clenched, twisting into sick knots. What would happen to them all? She gritted her teeth and gave herself a mental shake. She forced a smile for the children as she stooped to plant a kiss on each of them.
‘I won’t be long,’ she said.
Cautiously, she approached the track where she had left the man.
‘You… you… came…’ The voice rasped out from the shadows.
Mary gasped. The man had roused from his stupor and now sat facing the track, his back propped against a tree. She shot a quick glance over her shoulder to where she had left the children but they – and the horse – were safely out of sight. Warily, she picked her way towards the man, who watched her from under dark brows, his glittering eyes visible even in the gloom.
‘Th… thank you. Shot…’ His breaths were harsh and laboured.
‘Shot? Oh my goodness!’ Mary forgot all caution and hurried to the man’s side. ‘Then it was your blood. Where are you injured?’ She knelt by him.
‘Shoulder… leg… careless…’ He shifted, and indicated his left shoulder.
‘What happened? Who shot you? Was it an accident?’ Mary glanced over her shoulder, at the surrounding woods. What if whoever had shot him was still out there?
He shook his head. ‘Not here… safe here… please… take horse… get help… hurry…’ Mary pulled his jacket open. ‘No! Be careful! Aargh…’ His right hand shot out and gripped her wrist with surprising strength, forcing it away from his shoulder. ‘Just… go… get… help!’ he gritted out.
Mary froze, her thoughts scrambling. The children! She couldn’t leave them out here, alone with an injured man. She would have to take them with her, but they would slow her down. How long had he been bleeding?
‘How far is it to find help?’
‘Rothley… two miles… maybe more.’ He seemed more alert, his breathing a touch easier.
Rothley. She knew the village, although not well. She had known it was on her route. She had her own reasons for avoiding it. ‘Two miles? Is there nowhere nearer?’
He snorted. ‘This is Northumberland. Sultan knows the way… won’t take long… you can ride?’
‘Of course I can.’ Mary twisted her wrist, trying to work it free. ‘But, first, I must look at your wounds. How long ago did it happen?’
‘Not sure… lost track… But –’ he squinted up through the branches overhead, ‘– possibly… a couple of hours?’
‘Are you still bleeding?’
‘Never mind that… please… go…’
Mary eyed him with exasperation. If he was still losing blood she must try to staunch the flow before leaving him. It would be an hour or more before help arrived. Three hours of blood loss could prove fatal.
‘Please,’ she said, ‘let me see?’
He scowled, but he lifted his jacket away from his left shoulder. She leant over him, grasped the lapel and opened it wider, reaching inside and placing her hand on the huge patch of blood that stained the front of his white shirt. It was wet. He hissed with pain.
‘Sorry,’ she said as she lowered his jacket back into place. She had seen enough. He had lost a great deal of blood, and she knew she must bandage the wounds before she left.
‘You’re still bleeding,’ she told him. ‘I shall have to remove your jacket, no matter how much it hurts, I’m afraid.’
‘Any… other time… a pleasure.’ His eyes glinted and a brief smile twisted his lips.
She narrowed her eyes at him, steadfastly ignoring the frisson of pleasure that skittered down her spine at his expression. A typical male, she thought. Not even a serious injury could curb his rakish tendencies.
‘I’ll need to check your back, too,’ she said. ‘If the bullet went straight through, you will need padding there as well. Have you a knife?’
‘A knife? What…? You’re not…?’
‘No.’ Despite the circumstances, she had to laugh. ‘I only want it to cut your coat. I shall make no attempt to remove the bullet, if it is still in there. After all, you almost swooned when I barely touched your shoulder just now.’
His dark brows snapped together. ‘I do not swoon,’ he said. ‘Passed out… pain… hardly the same.’
‘Well, that’s as may be, but removing your jacket will hurt a great deal more, I promise.’
‘Hard woman…’ he grumbled, but fumbled in his pocket and produced a clasp knife, which Mary took and opened, using it to hack at the edge of his jacket.
‘Careful!’ he gasped.
‘The quicker I do this, the better,’ she said as she grasped the cut edges of the cloth and ripped with a quick, steady motion. She repeated her actions with his blood-soaked shirt. ‘Lean forward, if you please.’
He obeyed, and she cut again, then eased the clothes away, exposing his left shoulder. His skin was warm to her touch, warm and smooth. She was close enough to register the male, spicy scent of him, overlaid with the coppery smell of fresh blood. She shook her head. What was wrong with her? Concentrate, Mary, she admonished herself.
‘Good,’ she said calmly, as if her thoughts hadn’t been leading her in an entirely inappropriate direction, ‘it seems as though the bullet went straight through. I’ll…’ she paused, thinking.
She looked at him and frowned. ‘We need bandages.’
‘Can use… shirt.’
‘No, that won’t do. Half of it is already ruined, and you must keep warm.’ There was no help for it, she knew. She must sacrifice her petticoat, although, heaven knew, she had few enough clothes as it was. Still, in an emergency…
‘Stay there a minute,’ she said as she got to her feet.
He looked up at her and his mouth quirked into a smile. His lips, she noticed with a flutter, were firm, shapely and very sensual. ‘Going… nowhere,’ he said. ‘What’s your name?’
‘Mary. Mary Vale.’
She stepped behind the tree, and lifted her skirt. She cut a slit in her cotton petticoat, then ripped a length from around the hem. She then repeated the action twice more, using the knife to cut one strip in half to pad the wound.
‘What… you doing… behind my back… Sensible… Mary?’
Mary’s jaw clenched. Sensible Mary! The exact same phrase her late husband had used, taunting her for her practical outlook on life. Well, she might be practical, but that trait had kept her family together after Michael’s drinking had spiralled out of control. Until he died, that is. Much use was practicality when the rent was due, and you had no way of paying it. At least, no way she was willing to entertain. Resolutely, she forced her thoughts back to the matter in hand. There was much to do and, despite the sting of that name, she was grateful for her streak of common sense. Acting the lady and, yes, swooning would get them nowhere.
She came back around the tree and knelt again by his side. ‘And you are?’ she asked, as she folded one of the strips to form a pad.
He eyed her, then sighed. ‘Lucas Alastair. Rothley.’
She froze. ‘Rothley? When you said Rothley before I assumed you meant the village.’
She knew of the Alastairs of Rothley. Her father and the Marquis of Rothley had once been friends who, in time, had become bitter enemies.
As she urged Rothley to lean forward so she could pad the exit wound, her mind whirled. The old marquis must have died, and this would therefore be his eldest son. There had been two, as she recalled. The tales of their wild behaviour, recounted in whispers, had even penetrated north of the Border, where Mary had spent her childhood. Wild stories, half remembered. She pushed her conjectures to the back of her mind. His past was of no immediate import.
‘We are near to Rothley Hall, then?’
‘Indeed… this… my land…’ he gasped.
Mary studied him with concern. His eyes were screwed shut, his fine lips twisted in a grimace. He might be a wild, hedonistic rake – and drunk, to boot, – but he was injured, and in pain.
‘Do you have a family?’ she asked, in an effort to distract him as she pressed another strip of her folded petticoat against the hole where the bullet had penetrated his shoulder.
‘Yes: a wife? Children?’
Rothley’s response to her idle question was swift, in a tone tinged with abhorrence, stirring Mary’s curiosity. Why so hostile? Mayhap it was as well, she thought, as she continued to dress his wound. Better by far, to her mind, that the rakes of this world remained unwed, and saved some poor woman, and their children, a life of misery.
She banished his attitude to the back of her mind and concentrated on the task in hand, listening with increasing anxiety to his shallow breathing. He groaned as she lifted his arm to pass the bandage beneath, wrapping it around to hold the pads in place.
‘Why… do you… ask?’
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘Why ask… about… family?’
She smiled at his suspicious tone, secure in the knowledge he could not see her expression. Did he imagine she wished to discover if he was wed? Did he fear she might set her cap at him on the strength of his title alone?
‘I wondered if someone might be out searching for you.’
‘Not…’ his voice faded.
Alarmed, fearing he was about to pass out, Mary glanced up at Rothley. His eyes were riveted on her chest. She glanced down and felt a blush rise as she realised how much of her décolletage was revealed to his gaze as she leaned forward to bandage him. He glanced up, and caught her eye.
‘Merely… distracting… myself… S… Sensible Mary.’
Mary felt a tingle deep inside at the heat she glimpsed in those dark eyes. It had been a very long time since a man – rake or not – had viewed her as a woman, and not simply as a burdensome wife.
‘Let me see your leg,’ she said, striving to sound unaffected as she quelled her unwelcome response. Rothley was a rake and a drinker. It was a combination she despised. How could she react to him in such a way? It must be sheer animal attraction; he was, after all, very striking: all brooding, sensual masculinity.
She gently cut the material of his breeches away from the wound, wishing she had some means of cleaning the hole where the bullet had entered the fleshy part of the back of his thigh. There was no exit wound. That was bad. She bit her lip as she bandaged his leg.
Rothley groaned softly, and Mary looked up with concern. His eyes were closed, and harsh lines bracketed his mouth and furrowed his brow.
‘My lord?’ He did not respond. She laid her hand on his forehead. Not too much heat there. Not yet, anyway, she thought grimly, but he needs a doctor. The sooner the better.
‘My lord?’ Mary raised her voice, laying her hand against his cheek. His stubble scratched against her palm. She patted him, gently at first, then firmly.
He groaned again, and opened his eyes. She could see the effort he made to rally, jaw clenched and nostrils flaring as he inhaled several times.
‘Inside… brandy…’ He indicated his jacket.
Mary felt inside what was left of his jacket. The muscles of his chest jerked in reflex as she brushed against them.
‘Haven’t you had enough of this already?’ She retrieved a small flask, recalling the stench of alcohol she had noticed before. No doubt she had already become accustomed to the smell.
He thrust his hand out and, when she handed him the flask, he unscrewed the cap with his teeth and spat it out before taking a long swig. Mary shuddered, the smell again reviving unhappy memories. She forced herself back to the present, to the situation in hand.
‘Which direction is Rothley Hall?’ she asked. ‘How shall I find it?’
‘To right… follow path… turn left on road.’ He paused, tensing, then raised dark eyes, racked with pain, to hers.
‘Big gates… a mile… on right. P… please… Mary, be quick!’
‘Don’t fret, I shall go soon,’ she replied. Taking his hand between hers she squeezed, her heart going out to him. ‘But first, I shall fetch my cloak. It will keep you warm until help arrives.’
Toby and Emily were both awake, and the relief on Toby’s face when he saw Mary wrenched at her heartstrings.
‘Stay quiet, both of you,’ she warned as she raised them to their feet. ‘I shall only be a minute, then we will take the horse. The man you saw before – he is injured. We must fetch help for him.’
‘Are we rescuing him, Mama?’ Toby asked in an interested voice.
‘Yes, Toby, you’ll be a real hero,’ she replied as she pinched his cheek.
She hurried back to Rothley. He was drifting in and out of consciousness, much as Michael had done on that fateful night when he had fallen from his horse in a drunken stupor on his way home. Simon Wendover, his drinking companion, had brought him home, leaving him on the doorstep for her to care for as best she could. Mr Wendover, Simon’s father and Michael’s employer, had sent the doctor the following day to see what could be done, but it was too late. He had died three days later.
Gently, she laid the cloak over Rothley.
‘Angel…’ he murmured, but did not fully rouse.
Mary studied his features. He looked younger in repose, his surprisingly long lashes dark against his pale skin, his lips relaxed and slightly parted. He looked nothing like the wild rake she knew him to be. She laid her hand gently on his forehead. The silky texture of his hair slipped through her fingers as she brushed it from his brow. His eyes flickered at her touch and she snatched her hand away, feeling her colour rise. She leant close, and put her lips to his ear.
‘I’ll be as quick as I can,’ she promised, sending a quick prayer that rescue would arrive in time, before heading back to Sultan and the children.
His angel was gone!
Lucas tried to rise, aching to follow her, to continue to bask in the glow of her comforting presence, but he was dimly aware his body would not obey his will. That he did not, in fact, move. He tried to call to her, but only a low moan sounded to his straining ears. The angel was no more, leaving a gaping void, as cold and as black as the loughs on the nearby hills, filled with pain.
He frowned, his thoughts slippery and evasive. Who is she? The wavering image of her face swam into view, reassuring yet tantalising: clear skin with a smattering of freckles, cornflower-blue eyes and soft lips, all framed by wayward wisps of soft gold, glimpsed as they escaped her bonnet. Why is she here? In the woods? The image of her face sank again, submersed in the inky black depths of his mind.
The name surfaced, conjured up from the past, dragging the old feelings of hurt and rejection with it.
He muttered, uncertain of anything any more but the ever-present pain. Was it Julia? How could it be? The face of an angel. The face that belied a heart as black as coal.
He drifted, his mind a jumble of visions from his past: his father, face contorted with rage, roaring, arm raised; his mother, remonstrating, protecting, taking the blows meant for her sons; the gaming hells, the huge losses, drinking to deaden the blow; the opium dens with wild parties and orgies; friends, coming and going; Julia – her beautiful face, and the sound of her scornful laughter as she rejected him.
My back! It hurts! With great effort, he forced his thoughts into some semblance of lucidity. The bark of the tree he leant against dug into his back. He shifted to ease the pressure, and a white-hot spear of pain penetrated his thigh. As he sank into the void, he fought against it, vaguely aware he must not succumb.
Some time later – an hour, a day, a week? – he roused to the sense of a cool hand on his forehead. Julia. The name gained shape in his mind. He felt his lips move. Did he give voice to the name? He knew not. He tried to prise his eyes open, but the effort was too great. Then he felt hands take hold of him. The pain spiked through every nerve in his body and he sank – gratefully this time – back into oblivion.