Authors: Laurie Alice Eakes
“Ready, madame?” His blue eyes held hers. Against the smoky blue of the sky above him, those eyes looked intense. She’d need the old lapis-based paint to get the color right. “On the count of three?”
She nodded. Even through her boot, her foot felt oddly warm in his hands. It was such an improper thing to do, even though it was how ladies all over the city mounted.
On the count of three, she bounced off her right foot. Simultaneously, de Meuse lifted up, and she pulled with her right hand holding the pommel. With grace and dignity intact, she landed with her seat in the saddle.
And she’d forgotten to hold on to her skirt. The tiresome extra fabric, intended to preserve her modesty, draped too far beneath her, tugging the skirt too far down on her right side, tightening the waistband across her middle, and leaving precious little material for the freedom to securely loop her right knee around the pommel. She gasped. She pulled. Wedged beneath her, the skirt didn’t move. She got her knee up, and the skirt pulled tighter.
She either had to dismount and try again, or suffer.
She chose to suffer. She didn’t want to put her foot into de Meuse’s hands again. She didn’t want the odd yet accepted intimacy of him slipping her left foot into her stirrup. The morning held a chill. Her lower limb should not be warm and tingling through leather boot and silk stocking.
“Is that stirrup a good height?” de Meuse asked. “I can adjust it if it is not.”
She would have endured the wrong height rather than allow him to brush aside the excess fabric of her habit skirt and adjust the straps.
“It’s the right height.” She spoke in a tight voice, not looking down, looking straight ahead where the others were already mounted and milling about the square on their horses to keep them from standing too long. “Do please mount, monsieur. I need to get this poor beast moving.”
“But of course.” He gave her a last look, lingering on her face, before striding to his own horse.
He mounted with the fluid grace of a man who had grown up riding horses and continued the practice regularly. Of course. He was an officer in Napoleon’s Army.
Lydia nudged her gelding in the side and set the gentle mount stepping forward until they drew level with Honore and Frobisher. The couple rode along the square at a leisurely fashion that allowed them to gaze at one another without risking limb or life.
“I’m surprised to see you going so sedately,” Lydia observed.
Honore glanced around. “We’ll get a good gallop in at the park. Well, perhaps not a gallop, but at least a canter.”
“Don’t get too far ahead of me.” Lydia shifted on her saddle, trying to readjust her skirt.
“Are you all right?” Honore whispered loudly enough for everyone to hear in the quiet residential neighborhood.
Lydia frowned at her. “But of course.”
But of course not. Her right knee felt as though the weight of her heavy skirt would drag it off the pommel at any moment, and she could scarcely breathe with the waistband pressed into her middle.
Somehow she must tug some of the fabric out from under her. Now was the best time, before they left the square and headed into traffic, and certainly before they reached the park and everyone chose to ride faster.
As surreptitiously as she could manage, she gripped her reins in her left hand, raised herself a hair off the saddle with her weight on her stirrup foot, and pulled at her skirt with her right hand.
It didn’t budge. Her mount, however, didn’t seem to like the shift of balance and sidled, bumping Lydia into Honore’s mount. The high-strung mare took offense and leaped forward, away from the offensive contact. Honore laughed and called out something that sounded like encouragement. Frobisher shouted back. The two of them disappeared into a parade of carriages, phaetons, and drays.
Lydia lost her balance and began to slide toward the cobblestone street.
“Catch her.” Christien leaped from his mount and charged toward the widow. “Lydia.”
Horses whinnied and stamped. Lydia’s horse reared, hooves rearing at the air. Women shrieked. Men shouted. If Lydia’s foot remained in the stirrup and that horse bolted . . .
Christien lunged forward. A horse bumped his shoulder. He dodged aside and ducked to avoid the flailing hooves of another mount. He could never reach her, could never stop her from landing on the cobblestones, from breaking something—like her neck.
He arched his body forward and caught a flying handful of riding habit. The fabric held. Lydia’s fall continued. Still gripping the habit skirt, Christien twisted. If he could get beneath her, break her fall—
A blow from a flying hoof slammed into his right shoulder. He landed on his back, the wind knocked from his lungs. Lydia sprawled across his chest, the hooves of a dappled gray gelding mere inches from his head.
“I am so sorry, de Meuse.” Barnaby dismounted and squatted beside Christien and Lydia. “My horse was quite out of control there for a moment. Lady Gale, are you all right?”
“Yes.” She pushed herself to a kneeling position beside Christien. “Everything feels intact . . . except my pride.”
Her cheeks blazed nearly as red as her habit. Her hat had fallen away somewhere, and her hair tumbled down around her face in a silky black curtain.
She looked young and beautiful and oh so very kissable.
Christien tried to draw in a breath. Pain seared through his back, and he gasped.
“Monsieur de Meuse.” Lydia laid her hand against his face. “You’re not all right. You broke my fall and now—don’t all you men just stare. Fetch some help. A litter. A physician.”
.” Christien shook his head. “Just winded.” He got his left elbow under him. When he tried to move his right arm, it disobeyed. Pain screamed through his right shoulder, and he flopped back onto the cobbles like a landed trout.
“You’re not all right.” Lydia leaned forward and touched his shoulder. Her glorious hair caressed his face. Her scent filled his nostrils.
“Madame, please do not.” He could hardly speak.
She seemed not to hear his plea for her to move away. Her fingers probed his shoulder. To his shame, a cry escaped his lips.
“Fetch a physician, now,” Lydia commanded. “Mr. Barnaby, Mr. Frobi—where has everyone gone? This man is injured.”
“The grooms have gone for help.” Barnaby pushed back a strand of Lydia’s hair from her face.
If she hadn’t jerked away from the man’s touch, Christien feared he himself would have knocked the interloper onto his posterior.
He chastised himself for the uncharitable thought. The man looked at Lydia with admiration blazing in his gray eyes. It was the same kind of puppy-dog adoration Christien feared he displayed. And Barnaby could be on Christien’s side, a comrade in arms.
Just as long as he stayed out of Lydia’s arms.
Barnaby rested his hand on Lydia’s shoulder. It appeared as though he did no more than steady her or even himself as they crouched beside Christien. The only way to stop that contact, Christien figured, was to make his body obey and get up.
This time he tried to roll onto his left side. The instant his right arm left the pavement, agony rocketed through his body, and he collapsed yet again with an unmanly groan.
“Mr. Barnaby, do see what’s taking so long.” Lydia’s face had turned white. “Something is seriously wrong.”
“Indeed.” Barnaby turned his face so the lady couldn’t see it, but Christien caught the curl of the man’s lip. “I’ve heard the French are weak.”
“When struck from behind,” Christien gasped out, “all men are weak.”
“I don’t like your meaning.” Barnaby shot to his feet. “When you stop malingering to attract the lady—”
“There is only . . . one meaning in . . . truth.” Christien closed his eyes. The pain increased with every word. He clutched at the air with his good hand, his operable hand, seeking something to grasp, to ease the pain turning the world black around the edges.
Long, strong fingers slipped between his. “Hang onto me, monsieur. The grooms are coming with a litter now.”
“Where will they take him?” Barnaby demanded.
“Into our house, of course.” Lydia spoke with calm strength, like her steady hand in Christien’s. “If you would like to assist to make up for your discourtesy of a few moments ago, I doubt monsieur le comte will object.”
He wouldn’t, but only to please her.
“Yes, ma’am, of course it’s the best option.” Barnaby’s booted feet tramped around to Christien’s other side. He flinched as they passed his right ear, and braced for the “accidental” kick against his injured shoulder.
But that was nonsense. Barnaby wouldn’t deliberately injure him. That was a madman’s way. Or the way of a man assaulting an enemy he wanted weakened. Even if Barnaby were on the wrong side of matters, he wouldn’t want Christien so injured he had to remain in the Bainbridge household for any length of time, in Lydia’s company. No, Barnaby would want him well, not out of commission.
But that blow . . .
Christien’s lips hardened. He opened his eyes and found Lydia peering down at him, her face tight with concern.
He managed a stiff-lipped smile. “My apologies for being so clumsy, madame.”
“As though I blame you when it was for my sake.” She dropped her thick, dark lashes over her eyes. “I am not a good horsewoman.”
“We must remedy that,
Feet crunched nearby, and something clunked onto the cobbles beside Christien. Instead of answering him, Lydia began to direct the men to move the litter to his other side.
“And be as gentle as you can. I believe his right shoulder is dislocated.”
,” Christien grumbled.
The hoof that had barely missed his skull, that would have smacked his skull if he hadn’t twisted to break Lydia’s fall with his own body, had been powerful enough to dislocate his shoulder. The good news lay in that, once someone set it back into place, the pain would go away, but he wouldn’t be riding for a while, at least not lifting a lady into her saddle. Dancing would be out of the question, as no lady deserved a one-armed partner. And driving in the park would prove difficult at best. All prospects led to the worst news of all—he wouldn’t make his entrée into Society.
His reentry into Lydia’s home, Bainbridge House, proved more than he could manage. Between the men lifting him onto the litter, carrying him back through the square and up the front steps, and depositing him on a sofa in the parlor, Christien faded in and out of consciousness. The final jolt onto the hard cushions proved more than his shoulder could bear, and the blackness took over until a man with a white mane of hair and a ruddy complexion leaned over him, poking and prodding him into enough pain to awaken him.
“Aye, ’tis the dislocation,” the man said in a thick Scottish burr. “My lady, leave the room. This is no sight for your gentle spirit.”
A snort that didn’t sound in the least ladylike came from Lydia. “I’m a widow, not a green girl, Dr. McPherson. I will stay.”
“Suit yourself. But don’t you be fainting away on me. I have na the time for two patients.” McPherson laid his hands on Christien’s shoulder and elbow as though the physician were the one with the gentle spirit. “This will take but a—”
He twisted up and back in one fluid motion. Torture surely felt better than the sensation that shot through Christien from shoulder to toes. Then the pain ebbed to settle into a deep throbbing.
“That will set things right if you do na move it.” McPherson stepped away from the sofa. “I’ll affix a sling, but this sofa will ne’er do. ’Tis na wide enough.”
“I have rooms on Upper Brook Street,” Christien offered. In comparison to how he’d been feeling before the doctor’s ministrations, Christien now thought perhaps he could rise and perform a credible minuet.
“Nay, too far. The jostling will dislocate it again. My Lady Gale?”
“A room is being prepared at this moment.” The cool response set Christien’s heart racing.
Entrée into Society indeed! If the Bainbridges allowed him to remain in their house even for a day while he convalesced, no one would shun him for fear of offending them.
Unless they put him in the servants’ quarters.
But of course they would not. The lady who would give a near stranger her last possession of value would never treat that man so shabbily, regardless of her suspicions against him.
“You are a true Christian, madame,” Christien murmured.
“More like the good Samaritan,” came the disgruntled tones of Mr. Barnaby. “It isn’t necessary to discommode yourself so, my lady. The house Frobisher and I have leased is only around the corner from the square. We’re happy to take—”
“Mr. Frobisher, Honore,” Lydia cried. “Where are they? It’s been an hour. They should have returned. And Whittaker and Cassandra. Oh my stars, I must go—” She wrenched open the door. “Lemster, send a groom for my horse. He’ll have to accompany me. We must . . .”
“Be a gentleman and offer to fetch the errant couples.” Christien spoke to Barnaby while Lydia continued to issue orders.
“I don’t wish to leave her with you here.” Barnaby, seated in a chair adjacent to the foot of the sofa on which Christien reclined, indeed appeared as though he held no intentions of leaving.
“But she can’t ride out. She’s distraught.”
“Aye,” the doctor agreed, “she’ll be upsetting her nag and I’ll have two patients to attend to. Now gang on with you, man.” McPherson pointed from Barnaby to the door.
Muttering beneath his breath, Barnaby rose as though he were a man twice his age with rheumatic joints, and stalked to the door. He rested his hand on Lydia’s shoulder in that too-familiar fashion that set Christien’s blood boiling, but whatever he said had her nodding her head and rescinding her orders to the butler. Barnaby raised Lydia’s hand to his lips, then disappeared out the front door.
Lydia wiped her hand on her dusty riding skirt, then issued different orders to the butler.
“I was going to be offering you a dose of laudanum,” McPherson murmured, “but I think you’re feeling little of the pain right now.”
“It’s much improved, monsieur.”
“Weel, just the same, I’ll leave a bottle and instructions with the lady. And now I’ll be wrapping that shoulder.”
The doctor closed the parlor door, removed Christien’s coat and shirt with the aid of a sharp knife, and wrapped his shoulder in lengths of white linen intended to keep the joint and arm immobile. As he finished, McPherson poked a bony finger at Christien’s other shoulder. “Have you been engaging in the duello, monsieur?”
“No, never.” Christien tensed, knowing exactly to what the physician referred. “I work for the Home Office.”
“Balderdash.” McPherson rolled his
to draw out the word. “Gentlemen working for the Home Office do na get themselves shot.”
“They do if they’re in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
And if they recruited a man from the War Department.
Christien shrugged one shoulder. “It happens,
McPherson snorted. “Depends on where is the wrong place for a Frenchman. But I’ll be saying naught. If the lady chooses to trust you, ’tis no affair of mine.”
“She doesn’t,” Christien murmured to the physician’s retreating back.
She neither trusted him nor chose to have anything to do with him. She wouldn’t have chosen him to stay in her house. A lady like Lydia Gale, however, would never turn away an injured stranger or enemy.
His heart ached with longing to be other than what he was. Now the truth would serve nothing more than to drive a deeper wedge between them. He felt like a starving man sipping at drops of kindness for his nourishment.
Of course, simply because he resided in her house, her family’s house, until the doctor said he could be moved didn’t mean he would see the lady. She held a number of responsibilities, according to Christien’s source that had instructed him on the family. Miss Cassandra Bainbridge wanted to get married but cared nothing for the preparations, and Miss Honore should be married off as quickly as possible to rein in her high spirits. Lady Bainbridge was a near invalid and scarcely lifted a finger to assist with anything. The brother took his studies at university seriously and was scarcely around, and the father would never do anything to help England other than serve his role in the House of Lords, as he fiercely protected his family from outside influences—or tried to.
Which was one reason why Lydia had been chosen. The family might bear a minor title as far as the rank of titles went, but in an age of said title, it was one of the oldest in the realm. When Lord Bainbridge spoke in Parliament or at a dinner party, others listened. Many disagreed.
Christien needed to know who did what—amongst other duties that should have him dancing attendance on half the hostesses in London. He was, after all, that valued commodity—a single, eligible, and well-off male. Even if his title was French, it was a title.
Though he would have preferred to drop it. It led to suspicions such as those Lydia had expressed. But he’d been told to flaunt it. And who was he, a minor player in the drama that was this lengthy war, to argue with those who presumably knew better? He’d followed orders for ten years.
Those orders never before involved a lady with beautiful dark eyes and a giving heart.
So giving a heart she did not leave him to the care of servants alone. He’d barely been settled into a room by two burly footmen carrying him up two flights of steps when she and another lady, the one who had accompanied Lydia to the prison, entered with trays.
“I’ve brought you refreshment.” Her tone was brisk, her gaze cool. “It’s just toast and chocolate, but if you need laudanum, it won’t make you ill if you eat something.”
“Your kindness exceeds your beauty.” Christien smiled at her from his mound of pillows.
The companion sniffed, her nostril pinched as though he smelled as bad as he had in the prison. “Pretty words will get you nowhere, Mr. Meuse.”