Authors: Lorraine Heath
She was tall for a woman. He stood over six feet, and if he tucked her against him while they were standing, he’d have to tilt his chin up to get her as close as possible. Her hair, a burnished copper, more orange than red, was pulled back severely and tucked up neatly beneath her bonnet. She was slender, far too slender for a woman who’d recently given birth. He wondered if she’d had a difficult time of it. Guilt plagued him as he considered the hardships he’d brought upon her. Certainly, they went beyond the shame and mortification of having a child out of wedlock. Why had she not abandoned it somewhere? She could have returned to England with no one the wiser, concerning her indiscretions.
He ignored the chill in the air and the sharp ache in his leg as they trudged through his younger brother’s gardens. They were bleak now. Not a blossom to be seen, the leaves and stems withered. Still, it was only here, in the quiet and solitude, that he could almost pretend that he was once again normal.
He looked up at the gray sky. So much seemed without color of late—except for her hair—that he wondered if his vision had been damaged as well. His family and the physician who’d treated him knew of his mental affliction, but otherwise he’d not spoken of it to anyone. Pride forced him to hold his silence on the matter, and to beg of his family to do the same. He’d never begged in his life, but here he was—a man he barely knew. Somehow, he had changed, but he didn’t know what had transpired to change him.
Sometimes he would have a blink of memory—a bloody arm, an earth-shattering boom, a yell, a scream, the rancid smell of death—but it would flitter away before he could snatch it and hold it close to examine it. Perhaps he was a fool to desperately want to regain such hideous images, but the not knowing, the emptiness of his mind was far worse.
“Are you cold?” he asked, and she staggered to a stop. Obviously, not the first words she’d expected him to utter. Her dark green cloak was thick and heavy. It was probably doing the job it was intended to do; still the damp could eat through to the bones.
“It was much colder in the Crimea,” she said. “Although I’ve heard that England had an exceptionally cold winter at the start of this year. I can’t help but wonder if God wanted people to have a taste of what they’d sent their countrymen into.”
“And their women.”
She averted her eyes and a blush crept into her hollow cheeks as though she were embarrassed by what certainly must have been good works.
He considered for the span of a solitary breath telling her of his affliction, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. He couldn’t add insult to the injuries he’d already inflicted upon her, to admit to not knowing who the devil she was or what place she’d held in his life—other than a possible night’s entertainment. But it was more than a desire not to embarrass her or cause her grief. It was his own pride, his own shame. And his paralyzing fear.
What did it say of a man’s mind when he couldn’t tug at a thread of memory?
Those who’d served under him lauded his heroic efforts. But he couldn’t recall a single action worthy of praise. A month after returning home to recover from his grievous wounds, he had no memory of how he’d acquired a single scar—except for the tiny one on his cheek, just below his eye. Westcliffe had given him that one when he’d split his skin with his fist after dragging Stephen from the bed he’d been sharing with the wife Westcliffe had acquired only hours before. In truth the encounter had been quite innocent, involving nothing more than holding and comforting her, but Stephen had wanted Westcliffe to believe otherwise. He’d paid for it with a sound beating, but it was nothing compared with what he’d suffered lately. Or so other scars seemed to indicate. They alone knew what he’d endured. Pity they didn’t speak.
He resumed walking. It was better to keep moving, although toward what destination he hadn’t a clue.
She hurried to catch up, which wasn’t difficult. He suspected her legs were as long as his, although they were no doubt more shapely and appealing. He tried to remember them wrapped around his waist, and he couldn’t. Had she cried out his name or whispered it? He would have spoken hers numerous times as he murmured sweet words near her ear.
Nothing stirred within him now, nothing at all.
“How old is the babe?” he asked.
He couldn’t recall the child’s name. His mother had mentioned it, but he’d paid little attention, assuming at first that the babe was of no importance.
Again, he’d surprised her. This time it was the deep furrow in her delicate brow that alerted him. Damnation. What exactly had their relationship been? Had they taken quiet moments to converse? Or had they sought to become lost in frenzied lovemaking to escape the horrors that surrounded them?
While he had no memory of what had come before he awoke in that hospital, he’d witnessed enough while recovering there to know that hell had arrived on earth with a mighty vengeance.
“A little over three months,” she finally responded.
He heard the hesitation in her voice, the discomfort over having to reveal what he obviously should have known. Had she told him she was with babe? Or should he have been able to calculate the months since their last tryst? Had he offered to marry her?
It had never been his way to insult or harm women. They had always been his passion, his
. He’d appreciated all they had to offer and had made damn sure they were aware of his admiration for them. He’d never knowingly caused one to regret being with him.
Except possibly for Claire. He’d sought to spare her from his brother, and in so doing, he’d given her years of torment and loneliness, sadness and abject guilt. While he’d gone on to satisfy the ladies of London with his sexual prowess.
But Claire and Westcliffe had reconciled, and Stephen had never known her to be happier. It was a condition he thought the woman walking beside him might never achieve. He could see she was burdened, and he had little doubt that his actions had only added to the weight she carried on her narrow shoulders. Yet he sensed she was made of stern stuff and would not topple. He suspected that more than the shell of her beauty had attracted him, that she was one of those rare creatures who had the ability to appeal to him on a much deeper level. Yet he’d always avoided them, had not wanted to become entangled with a woman from whom he might desire more than physical release. So why had he been unable to resist becoming involved with her?
Surely, if he had told her he loved her, she’d be giddy with delight that he was walking beside her instead of lying beneath six feet of dirt.
“Why did you wait so long to bring him here?” he asked. A safe question because certainly he’d have not known her reasoning.
She seemed to be searching the barren gardens for her answer. He recalled a time when he’d had the ability to charm a lady into revealing
, from her deepest secrets to the dimple just above her rounded bottom. He’d lost more than his memory. He’d lost his wicked ways. He should have had Miss Dawson laughing by now, but he’d forgotten how to laugh as well, couldn’t remember the last time he’d made such a wondrous sound. Had even wanted to.
“I wasn’t . . . I wasn’t quite sure how I was going to handle the matter,” she confessed. “You weren’t aware that . . .” Her voice trailed off, and a blush deepened the ruddiness of her cheeks where the cold had begun to chafe them.
So she hadn’t told him she was with child. Thank God, for that. He’d not abandoned her then, not left her to face it alone. Strange, the comfort he drew from that knowledge. At least the man he’d been in the Crimea had resembled the man he’d been before. While he’d always been cautious, had avoided any by-blows, he’d always wondered how he would respond if faced with the situation. His family had accused him of being a man without character, but he’d hoped it was a façade of his fun-loving youth. Yet he’d never been tested. Until now.
“John was born in Paris,” she continued, her voice growing a bit stronger, as though she now traveled on firmer ground. “I’d considered raising him there, but then—”
John. The boy’s name was John. It was a good, strong name. He wondered why she’d selected it, if it held any significance for her.
She stopped walking, causing him to do the same. His leg welcomed the reprieve. He seldom gave it any, as though he could punish it for its constant ache, for his inability to remember how it had come to be injured.
“I saw your name on a list of casualties.” A mist formed in her eyes, and she blinked them back. He’d meant something to her, something precious. Had she meant anything to him other than a wild romp?
What had he felt for her, damn it! He wanted to know. He wanted to ask her what they had done, where they had gone, how long they had been associated with each other. He wanted to know her secrets, wanted to know if he’d shared his. Had he trusted her? Devil take it! Had he loved her?
“I thought you were dead,” she said hesitantly, as though she feared if she spoke the words with assurance she could cause them to come true.
. A field that he couldn’t envision no matter how diligently he tried.
“My family thought so as well,” he told her. “It was the news that was initially given to them.”
“They must have been devastated.”
He had no words for the agony they must have suffered. During the first week after he returned home, his mother had barely let him out of her sight, as though he were once again a child to be constantly watched, so he didn’t endanger his existence.
“I can sympathize with how they must have felt. I knew I couldn’t keep John to myself then. You must understand. I love him more than my own life, but he is yours and I thought he would bring comfort to your family.”
“And shame to yours.”
“My father doesn’t understand, but then how can he? He’s not been through what we have been.”
As far as his mind was concerned, neither had he.
“Life is so precious, so very precious. I don’t expect you to marry me. I—”
“Why?” he asked, unable to control his curiosity, to prevent the word from being uttered. “Why do you not expect it? I got you with child.”
Her eyes widening, her mouth opening slightly, she turned away. He saw the visible tenseness in her shoulders, the way she clutched her hands, as though she were in need of comfort. Was their relationship such that he would have offered it? Should he fold his hand over her shoulder? Should he squeeze it? Should he take her into his arms? Good God, the awkwardness of the moment was almost beyond bearing. He should tell her.
taring at the withered garden, Mercy prayed she’d turned away quickly enough that he’d not seen the confusion clouding her eyes. This stroll with him was not at all as she’d anticipated. She’d expected accusation, a demand to know the game she played. And yet it seemed he was the one playing games.
The words had been spoken with conviction, as though he believed them. But how could he? She knew that sometimes a battle could rattle a man’s mind, leave him bewildered, befuddled.