Authors: Tessa Dare
Tags: #Romance, #Historical Romance, #Tessa Dare, #regency romance
“I am not
‘dear Mrs. Yardley’. And how do you know these tracks do
belong to him?”
In a clear expression of annoyance, Brooke held up his hands. “Very well. I give up.”
“I don’t,” she replied, her eyes narrowing. “That is the difference between us.” Lifting her skirts, Portia made a quarter turn and stomped directly off into the woods.
“Just where do you think you’re going?”
“I’m following the tracks, of course. That’s the only way to learn the truth.”
As Portia’s dark cloak disappeared into the trees, Luke started after her. A wave of dread swamped his progress. “Mrs. Yardley, wait,” he called. “It’s unsafe to go walking off the path. At least let me—”
A metallic snap cut him off.
Followed by a piercing scream.
Luke and Brooke charged through the foliage. They found Portia lying sprawled in leaves and moss, her face gone utterly white.
“My . . . ” She gulped for air. “Help me. I don’t know what’s happened to my foot.”
With shaking fingers, she drew her skirts up to the ankles. The steel jaws of a trap held her left boot clenched in their deadly bite.
“Bloody hell.” Brooke sank to his knees at her side. “Don’t worry, Portia. We’ll have it off straightaway.” He reached for the trap.
“Wait,” Luke said. “Don’t—”
Another tortured scream from Portia.
“Touch it,” he finished weakly.
“What’s happened?” Cecily and Denny joined them, linked arm in arm as they pushed through the brush.
“She’s stepped in a trap,” Luke replied, not risking a glance at Cecily’s face. “A small one, fortunately, but it has quite a grip on her foot. We’ll have to pry it off.” He scouted around him for a suitable branch, pausing only long enough to catch Denny’s eye. “Find me two sturdy poles, about six feet in length. I can release her from the trap, but we’ll need a pallet to carry her home.”
Denny nodded, and with a murmured word to Cecily, began searching the environs for saplings.
“It hurts,” Portia moaned. “It hurts so much. I must be dying.”
“Of course you aren’t.” Folding her skirts, Cecily settled at her friend’s side. Luke could feel her blue eyes on him as he selected a thick branch and stripped it of twigs.
Having removed his coat, Brooke folded it and propped it beneath Portia’s head, for a pillow. “You can’t die,” he told her, crouching at her other side. “Who would argue with me then?”
“Anyone with sense,” she said tartly. But when Brooke took her hand, Portia allowed him to keep it. “Don’t you aggravating know-all’s have some sort of debating society?”
“Yes, but none of the members have your amusing imagination. Nor such lovely hair.” He stroked an ebony lock from her pale, sweating brow.
Luke pushed her skirts to the knee and took a firm grip on his branch. “Mrs. Yardley, this is going to hurt.”
Brooke kept stroking her hair, murmuring, “Be brave, darling. Scream all you like. Break every bone in my hand, if you must. I won’t leave your side.”
Cecily moved toward Luke. “How can I help?”
“I can,” she insisted. “Just tell me what to do. Shall I help you pry?”
“No,” he replied tersely. Damn it, he didn’t want to expose Cecily to this, but an extra pair of hands would be useful. “Just . . . hold her. Keep her ankle steady, even if she bucks.”
She nodded. “Portia, I’m going to hold your leg now.” Her delicate fingers closed around her friend’s ankle and calf, in grips so tight her knuckles blanched. “I’m ready.”
He bent his head and threaded the branch between the jaws of the trap. Despite his attempt not to jostle Portia’s leg, he could not help but brush it. Her low moan of pain was met with more murmured assurances from Brooke.
Luke looked to Cecily, anxious to gauge her reaction.
“Go ahead,” she said calmly, still gripping Portia’s leg. “Just do it.”
Luke braced his boot and levered the branch with all his strength. Pain ripped through his forearm, and Portia released a bloodcurdling scream that surely belonged in one of her gothic novels. But Cecily held her friend’s leg stoically, using all her weight to keep it still.
Within a few seconds, Luke had pried the jaws apart. “Now,” he commanded in a grunt, and Cecily understood him. She pulled her friend’s boot up and out of the trap, a half second before the branch splintered and the metal spikes snapped on air.
“We’ll need to assess her wound,” Cecily said, unlacing her friend’s boot while Luke stood panting for breath. She had Portia’s boot and shredded stocking removed within seconds.
Together they knelt over her wounded foot.
“These don’t look deep,” Luke said, observing the two puncture wounds on Portia’s pale foot. “And only a scratch below.”
“Thank heaven for sensible shoes.” Cecily flashed him a little smile.
A sweet pang of affection caught him in the chest. She was handling this so well, soothing everyone—Luke included—with her serene competence and dry humor. Where had she learned how to cope with scenes like this? Certainly not in finishing school.
Desperate to distract himself before he lost sight of any goal but kissing her, Luke returned his gaze to the wound. After studying it a few moments more, he said, “It’ll need to be cleansed thoroughly. But we’d best bind it for now, until we can get her back to the Manor. Cecy, give me your—”
“Stocking?” A wide ribbon of ivory flannel dangled before his eyes.
He looked up, startled. Her expression was all innocence.
“I was going to say handkerchief,” he lied, taking the garment from her. “But this will do.”
As Cecily jammed her bare foot back into her boot, Luke looped the stocking over Portia’s foot and ankle repeatedly, binding her wounds tight.
Denny returned, two serviceable poles in hand. Luke stripped off his own coat and threaded a pole through either sleeve before buttoning it down the middle. He did the same with Brooke’s coat, coming from the poles’ opposite end. The result was a makeshift conveyance that would bear Portia’s weight easily.
Brooke fussed over the wounded lady as they transferred her to the pallet, going so far as to plant a kiss on her brow to praise her bravery.
“What a kiss,” Portia complained. “As if I were a child.”
Brooke cupped her face in his hands and kissed her thoroughly. He released her only when Portia’s faint growl of protest melted to a pleased sigh. “There, was that better?”
“Quite.” Portia’s cheeks pinked.
“All right, then. Now be a good little girl, and lie still.”
She swatted at him feebly as he and Denny lifted the pallet—Brooke carrying the end at Portia’s head, and Denny lifting her feet.
Cecily went to Denny’s side. “I . . . I must rest a moment, but Portia needs a doctor’s attention. Please go ahead with her. Luke will see me home.” She popped up on her tiptoes to reward Denny’s nod of agreement with a light kiss to his cheek.
As if he were a child
, Luke thought pettily.
And then somehow, they were alone.
“Will you walk with me?” she asked, suddenly standing at his elbow.
He silently offered his arm, but she shook her head, reaching for his hand instead.
Fingers laced in that intimate, innocent clasp favored by children and lovers alike, they covered the short distance back to the path.
“Not that way,” she said, when he turned to follow the others. “Let’s continue on to the cottage. We’ve come this far, and I may as well retrieve my stocking. I seem to find myself missing another.”
“As you wish.”
They walked on, their linked hands dangling and swinging between them. And it all felt so easy, so comfortable—as if they were on one of their leisurely strolls that summer four years past.
Of course, they had conversed during those walks. Talked of everything and nothing, in the way courting couples do. When had he lost his ability to make simple conversation? Surely Luke could find it within himself to say
“You are remarkable,” he blurted out, because it was the only thought in his head. “The way you responded to Portia’s injury, without fear or hesitation . . . I didn’t know you had it in you.”
“What, bravery? I didn’t always know I had it in me, either. But I do.” She gave him a pointed look. “I’d imagine we’ve each discovered new sides of ourselves in the past four years.”
All too true. But the discoveries Luke had made, he would never share with her. Shrugging defensively, he deflected her silent question. “You used to bolt at the sight of a spider.”
“Oh, I still hate spiders. But injuries do not frighten me. When a lady spends a year tending invalid soldiers, she sees sights far worse than Portia’s wound.”
Luke stopped in his tracks, pulling her to a halt as well. “You spent a year nursing invalid soldiers?”
She nodded. “At the Royal Hospital in Chelsea.”
“But . . .” He struggled to bend his mind around the idea. “But they don’t allow random gentlewomen to nurse invalid soldiers. Do they?”
“Well . . .” She shrugged and resumed walking. “I never precisely asked permission. You see, over a year ago there was a tragic case. A wounded soldier was found wandering near Ardennes. Evidently he was the sole survivor of his regiment. But he’d sustained a severe blow to the head, and he had no memory of who he was, or his home or family or anything before the battle. The papers printed articles about the ‘Lost Hero of Montmirail’. He was the talk of London, and Portia was desperate to go visit him. She had this vain hope that he might be Yardley—she’d just received notice of his death in France, you see, and wanted to believe there’d been some mistake. And I . . .” Slowing, she looked up at Luke. “I wanted to be sure he wasn’t you.”
A lump formed in his throat.
“But of course he wasn’t you,” she went on, “nor Yardley. While we were waiting to see him, I found myself talking with another man. A naval officer, wounded in a Danish gunboat attack. He called me in from the corridor, then apologized when he saw my face. He’d mistaken me for his sister.”
Cecily sniffed and continued, “Well, I felt terrible for disappointing him, so I stayed with him for an hour or so, just talking. Mostly listening. And then the next day, I came back, and sat with him again. He introduced me to a fellow patient, this one a lieutenant in the cavalry. I don’t recall deciding to make it a habit. Day after day, I just kept returning to the hospital. For the first month or so, I did no more than I had the first day—I would simply sit at a patient’s bedside and listen. Perhaps read aloud, if he liked. But then, sometimes it was impossible not to notice that their wounds needed tending, bandages needed replacing, and so forth. So I did those small things too.”
Luke could only stare at her. Yes, it was true. Cecily
changed. Her youthful sweetness and generosity had not disappeared, but added to them now were a woman’s serenity and confidence. One could see it in the tilt of her chin, the efficient grace of her movements. And the way the light glowed through the curling wisps of hair at her brow . . . She’d always been a pretty girl, but he’d never thought her so beautiful as he did this very moment.
“Remarkable,” he murmured. Clearing his throat, he added, “You didn’t find it tedious, listening to all those ragged soldiers rattle on? It didn’t repulse you, tending the wounds of complete strangers?”
“Not at all,” she answered lightly, squeezing his hand. “I just pretended they were you.”
. She was killing him.
“Well then,” he said in a tone of false nonchalance, “I’m certain every last one of them fell hopelessly in love with you. How many proposals have you rejected in the past four years? A hundred or more, I’m sure.”
Luke slowed as the cottage came into view—a tidy, thatched-roof dwelling hunched between two tall pine trees.
“Twenty-six,” he repeated, coming to a stop.
She turned to him, clutching his hand tight. “Yes. Twenty-six. Not counting the invalid soldiers.” The color of her eyes deepened to an intense cobalt blue. “You cannot know how I have fought for you, Luke. Not in the same way you have suffered, to be sure. But I have waged my own small battles here. I have fought the pressure to marry, fought the envy for my friends who did. I have struggled against my own desire for companionship and affection.” Her voice broke. “I am not a woman formed for solitude.”
“I know it,” he whispered, raising his free hand to her cheek. “I know it. That’s why you need a husband who can—”
“I have fought despair,” she interrupted, “when months,
passed with no word of you.”
Guilt twisted in his gut. “I could not have written. We weren’t engaged.”
“Yes, but you might have written Denny. Or any one of our mutual friends. You might have casually asked for word of me.”
“I didn’t want word of you.”
She recoiled, and he whipped an arm around her waist, pulling her close.
“How can I explain? You know my parents died several years ago. I’ve no siblings, very few relations. And it didn’t take but one dusty skirmish in Portugal for me to realize—if I died on that battlefield, there would be no one to mourn me, but a handful of old school friends.” He touched her cheek. “No one but you. I did think of you. Constantly. I did remember that perfect, sweet kiss when I was bleeding and starving and pissing scared. It was the thought that kept me going: Cecily Hale cares whether I live or die. I couldn’t risk asking word of you, don’t you understand? I didn’t want to know. Surely I’d learn you’d married one of those twenty-six men queuing up for the pleasure of your hand, and I would have nothing left.”
“But I didn’t marry any of them. I waited for you.”
“Then you were a fool.” He gripped her chin. “Because that man you waited for . . . he isn’t coming back. I’ve changed, too much. Some men lose a leg in war; others, a few fingers. I surrendered part of my humanity. Just like the ridiculous werestag you’re out here chasing.”
“I’m out here chasing you, you idiot!” She buffeted his shoulder with her fist. “You’re the one I love.”