The Duchess and the Dragon (25 page)

BOOK: The Duchess and the Dragon
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His gaze shifted to Christopher atop a big black horse and his smile faded. Christopher was pointing into the distance and telling them where he would place his mill. When he looked at Serena, his eyes were nothing short of adoring. Though he remained ever polite and respectful to both of them, Drake knew Christopher would like nothing better than to be rid of him and claim Drake’s bride for his own. The desire to get her safely away from the blond man hummed through Drake’s veins, making him churlish and impatient. He had never felt such possessiveness before. The strength of it surprised him, along with the power of this jealousy that rode his heels, lacing his every nod and attempt at conversation.
“We will stake the claim tomorrow,” he interrupted. It wasn’t a question; he just wanted to make sure Christopher knew his intentions.
The blond man nodded, a knowing look in his light-blue eyes. “Lord Fairfax owns the land. ’Tis only a matter of filing and paying, and that can be done in Frederick Town. But not everyone bothers. Most of the people who come for land carve their initials in the trees and stake their claim that way.” Christopher smiled. “Much like an animal that sprays the perimeter of his territory. I fear it is somewhat primitive out here.” The pride in his voice belied the words.
Drake knew the name for such people: squatters. He had dealt with such on his own estates and was appalled to think of himself among their number. “I prefer to pay for a deed.”
Serena spoke up. “But we can stay with thee while our cabin is being finished, can we not? I do dread the thought of sleeping in the open.”
Another stab at Drake’s inability to take care of her. Even if she didn’t mean it to be so, it made him grit his teeth.
Christopher smiled. “Of course. I want to show thee so much. I am working on a mill and hope to become the area’s means of grinding wheat and corn grown here in the valley.” His clear eyes settled on Drake. “After I help with your cabin, perhaps thou could help with the mill.”
Drake knew of no way to discourage such neighborly thinking and so only nodded once.
They turned their horses toward the house just as the
sun was fading behind the western mountain range. Serena abandoned herself to joyous laughter as they galloped through the valley.
She looked from Drake to Christopher. “It has been so long since I have ridden. Shall we race home?”
Christopher seemed hesitant, but Drake’s eyes caught and held hers in quiet challenge. “After you, madam.”
THAT WAS ALL the encouragement Serena needed.
With a dig of her heels she and gray were off. Serena leaned in low, her face pressed close to the horse’s powerful neck. “Come on, girl! Let us show them what we can do.”
It was as close to flying as Serena knew she would ever come. The earth was soft from recent rains, and she could feel the clods being kicked up behind them as they sailed toward the barn. Down shallow hollows and then back up over tiny inclines they raced on, the horse’s breathing in tandem to the drumming of her heart. Less than a half-mile away she could just make out the hazy outlines of one of Christopher’s outbuildings on the horizon. Giving in to temptation, Serena turned her head to assess her position.
Drake was to her right and directly behind her, laboring to prod his packhorse into a steady run, looking disgusted with the beast. And Christopher . . . Serena faced front for a moment and then twisted to see over her other shoulder. Catching sight of him some distance back, she watched in dawning horror as Christopher’s horse went down into a dip in the ground. He cried out and then Serena saw him fly from the horse’s back. Turning back around, she hauled on the reins. The mare blew great puffs of air with the effort to stop. Drake raced by, a look of confusion on his face.
“Christopher’s fallen!” she shouted to his back, hoping he could hear her.
Turning, she drove her heels into the gray’s sides and galloped to where Christopher lay. All she could see was the shining of his blond hair in the grass. As she approached, her stomach turned. His leg lay in an odd position and he wasn’t moving. Reining in, she slid from the horse’s back and ran to him.
She couldn’t let herself look at the leg; it made her sick and fearful. Instead, she knelt by his head and stroked back his hair. “Christopher, canst thou hear me?”
He moaned, turning his face toward her.
“Thank God.” She lifted his head into her lap and looked up, searching the landscape for Drake. He was almost upon them.
The pounding of hooves stopped and Drake rushed over. “Is he hurt badly?” The question was cut off abruptly as Drake saw Christopher’s position.
Serena concentrated on keeping Christopher lucid. “Art thou in pain?” She cupped his face between her hands, and when he opened his eyes, Serena could see nothing
pain in them.
“We need a splint,” she said to Drake. “If thou canst straighten the leg, I can bind it.” Looking back at Christopher she kept her tone calm and firm. “Christopher, thou must stay awake and help us. Does anything other than thy leg hurt?”
He moaned. “Knocked the breath from me, but no. I think it is just my leg.”
Serena slid his head back on the warm grass and ran her hands along his neck and arms, feeling for broken bones. She gently traced each rib, prodding him. All the while, Drake was scouting for something to brace the leg with.
When he came back she looked up in relief to see him clutching a stout branch stripped of leaves.
“We’ll need some rope, or something to tie down the leg.” Drake’s grim expression told Serena how worried he was.
Her nursing experience flooded back and brought a kind of calm to the situation. Standing, she lifted the hem of her skirt and then grasped hold of her shift. The homespun ripped easily as she tore the bottom off and then, with the help of her teeth, tore the piece into strips.
Going around to Christopher’s head she helped him sit halfway up and then sat behind him, allowing him to lean back against her chest. Wrapping her arms tightly around his upper torso, she held on tight and directed, “I will steady him. Thou wilt have to straighten the leg.”
When Drake hesitated, Serena encouraged him. “I haven’t the strength to do it. Just straighten it out in front of him—carefully, but as quickly as thou canst.”
They all took a simultaneous breath, and then Drake pulled the leg straight. Christopher let out a shattering yell. Panting, he pressed into her, and Serena stroked his upper arms. “There now, the worst is over.”
She looked to Drake. “Canst thou feel where the break occurred?” There was worry in his eyes, and Serena could only silently agree. If they didn’t set the leg properly, it wouldn’t heal right. That would cause a lifelong limp or, worse, a crippled leg. Drake felt along the lower portion of Christopher’s leg. When Drake’s fingers pressed just above the knee, Christopher nearly came off the ground.
“Here. I can feel it.”
Serena edged out from under Christopher, lowering him back to the ground, and knelt down beside Drake. He put her hands on the spot. As gently as she could, Serena felt for the break. Sure enough, one part of the bone was sticking out enough that she could feel the edges of it through his skin. Serena bit her bottom lip.
“Christopher, is there a doctor to be had? I can set it, if I must, but if there is a doctor . . . ” She trailed off hopefully.
Christopher’s eyes were still tightly clenched. He opened them and looked at Serena. It took effort for him to talk, but he managed, “Back in Frederick Town. Eight hours on a fast . . . well-rested horse.”
None of the three horses were particularly well-rested after being out all day, and night was fast approaching. They sat in thoughtful silence. Finally, Drake spoke.
“I will take the mare. She’s the heartiest of the three. I’ll have the doctor here by morning.” His lips firmed and the concentration line in the middle of his eyebrows deepened. “We must get you home to bed though.”
They spent the next hour splinting the leg and creating a makeshift cot from tree limbs and the remainder of Serena’s shift. It worked rather well, and they were able to drag Christopher across the thick grass as though on a summer sled.
The half-mile to the house was a slow and painful ride for Christopher, filled with bumps and turns that were impossible to soften. Drake pulled the cot-sled while Serena led the horses. It was dusk when they reached the front door, the sun sinking fast over the crest of the mountains. Christopher’s face was pale in the fading light, a sheen of sweat making it glisten. Drake carried him to the bed, Christopher trying not to cry out, then helped Serena make him comfortable. It didn’t take long for Christopher to fall into an exhausted sleep.
Serena followed Drake out into the kitchen, filled a canteen with fresh water, and wrapped some cornbread and cold venison in a cloth, tying it into a neat bundle. He hadn’t eaten since noon, none of them had, and he would need strength for the long night ahead.
Drake checked the musket, loading it with powder and ramming it down, and then filled his pouch with more musket balls, wanting to be prepared for anything.
He reached for the dinner pail. “If all goes well, I should be back by mid-morning.” He pulled Serena into his arms and kissed her, both of them hanging onto the contact for a few stolen seconds. Drake picked up his musket and canteen of water and was gone.
“Be careful,” Serena whispered after him, her heartbeat still loud in her ears.
Chapter Seventeen
The house was quiet, the wind gently fanning her cheeks through the open door. When Drake was out of sight, she turned with a sigh, her hand clutching her skirt, and went back to the bedroom to check on Christopher. She sank down on the edge of the bed beside him, searching his face for signs of fever or delirium. Her hand went to Christopher’s tanned forehead and she brushed back the silky white-blond hair.
She felt horrible—guilty—her stomach in knots. Her foolishness had brought them to this. He hadn’t wanted to race, didn’t have the thirst for adventure that both she and Drake shared. She should have known better. In a place like this, where the line between life and death was as fragile as spun glass, where such isolation from any source of help could mean starvation, pain, long hours of suffering alone without anyone to hear or know cries for help and death even. It was a land where one had only one’s self to depend upon; she should have known better.
Christopher stirred. He turned his cheek into her hand and his voice rasped out. “Do not look so grim, Serena. This was not thy fault.”
He had read her mind. It wasn’t the first time. His uncanny ability to read her had shown itself often during their long friendship. But this time, enveloped in the dark aloneness, still wrapped in the emotions of near tragedy, the connection from it electrified the air around them. Shaking her head, she gripped his hand. “It
my fault . . . my foolishness . . . this is not a place for girlish whims; it is a place for survival and I have hindered thine.”
Christopher shook his head on the pillow. “No.” And then with more emphasis, “No.” He squeezed her hand. “What better place for dreams? Serena, listen to me. Of course there are risks here, but so there are in Philadelphia . . . or London even. Thou couldst be run down by a carriage on the busy streets.” He smiled. “Thou canst live in the fear that something bad will happen. Nothing good will ever come without risk. Thou knowest I speak the truth . . . thou married Drake.”
His words hung in the air—thick and alive with meaning.
“That did not seem like such a risk.”
“Did it not?” His eyes searched hers.
With gentle pressure he pulled her closer until she could see the moonlight reflected in his eyes—the clear, focused eyes of a man who knew himself and what he wanted. She would find no demons here.
“Thou gavest up everything to be with him.”
He forced her to see the truth—
truth. Pulling her closer, his eyes blazed with his need of her. The realization that he still loved her was a stunning shock. Was it true?
Standing, her breath ragged, she rushed from the room out into the yard. She ran to the nearest tree, leaned against it, sliding down until she could feel the hard ground beneath her, feeling the rough solidness of bark against her back. Eyes clenched shut, she let the night breeze cool her hot face.
BOOK: The Duchess and the Dragon
7.52Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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