GLOUCESTERSHIRE, ENGLAND, 1760
DEBORAH WOKE from a deep sleep to the sounds of a hasty late night arrival in the cobbled courtyard below her bedchamber window. Commands were barked out at drowsy-eyed stable boys and carriage wheels spun and slid to an abrupt halt. At first the girl thought it all part of her dream but the clip clop of horses hooves on uneven stone did not seem possible in the cool of a forest clearing. Otto was making beautiful music with his viola while she swung higher and higher on the rope swing, her silk petticoats billowing out between her long stockinged legs. She was sure if she swung higher her toes would touch the clouds. They both laughed and sang and it was such a lovely sunny day. Then the sun went behind a cloud and Otto disappeared and she fell off the swing at its highest point. Someone was shaking her awake. Fervent whispering opened her eyes and she blinked into the light of one taper held up by her nurse.
Before she had time to fully wake, Nurse pulled back the warm coverlet and threw a dressing gown over Deborah’s thin shoulders. Then with shaking hands the woman pushed a tumbler into her hand and guided the cup to her lips, telling her to drink up. Deb did as she was told. She grimaced. The medicine was the same foul-tasting brew she had been given just before bedtime. It had put her into a deep, deep sleep. So why was she being got out of bed if she was meant to fall asleep again?
Nurse evaded the question. She straightened the girl’s lace edged night cap, brought forward over one shoulder the single long thick plait of dark red hair, needlessly straightening the white bow; all the while muttering for Miss Deb to be a good girl and do as she was told and her prayers would be answered.
Drowsy and barefoot, Deborah was abandoned by her nurse at the door to Sir Gerald’s book room. The passageway was dark and cold and the book room was no better. At the furthest end of this masculine sanctuary blazed a fire in the grate but it did not beckon her with the prospect of warmth and comfort. She went forward when ordered by her brother Sir Gerald, a glance at the two strangers taking refreshment after a hard ride. They had divested themselves of their great coats but the tall gentleman with the white hair and strong aquiline nose still wore his sword, the ornate hilt visible under the skirts of his rich black velvet frock coat with silver lacings.
Deborah could not help staring at this imperious ancient stranger, whose close-shaven cheeks were etched with the lines of time; his hair and eyebrows as white as the soft lace ruffles which fell over his thin white hands. She had never seen an emerald as large as the one in the gold ring he wore on his left hand. She imagined he must be a hundred years old.
When he turned bright dark eyes upon her and beckoned her closer with the crook of one long finger she hesitated, swaying slightly. A sharp word from her brother moved her feet and through a mental fog that threatened to overwhelm her she remembered her manners at last and lowered her gaze to the floor. When she came to stand before this imperious ancient stranger she shivered, not from fear because she did not know what or whom to fear, but from the cold night breeze coming in through the open window. She made a wobbly curtsy and placidly waited to be spoken to first, gaze obediently remaining on the Turkey rug.
The stranger’s voice was surprisingly deep and strong for one so old.
“What is your age, child?”
“I had my twelfth birthday six days ago, sir.”
He frowned and over his shoulder said something in French to the little gray-haired man who stood at his elbow. He was answered in kind and the ancient stranger nodded and addressed Sir Gerald in his own tongue.
“She is far too young.”
“But—your Grace, she is of age!” Sir Gerald assured him with an eager nervous smile. “The bishop raised no objection. Twelve is the age of consent for a female.”
“That is true, Monseigneur,” agreed the little man. “But it is for your Grace to decide… I do not know of an alternative.”
“Surely your Grace has not changed his mind?” whined Sir Gerald. “Bishop Ramsay was not pleased to be summonsed here, your Grace, and if the ceremony is not to go ahead…”
“Your sister is not fifteen as you led me to believe, Cavendish,” enunciated the ancient stranger in an arctic voice.
Sir Gerald gave a snort that ended in a nervous laugh. “Your Grace! Twelve or fifteen: three years hardly matters.”
Deborah glanced up in time to witness the look of disgust that crossed the lined face of the ancient gentleman and she wondered what he found to fault in her. She knew she was only passably pretty. Sir Gerald despaired of her plain, brown looks, but she was not disfigured and her features were unremarkable. She was considered tall for her age but she was not so awkwardly big boned that this stranger had the right to pull a face at her in her own home. And why did her brother wear such a silly smile on his round fleshy face and stare expectantly at the arrogant ancient man as if his whole dependence rested on his will? He was acting as one of his own lackeys did before him. She had never seen her brother bow and scrape to anyone. It was strange indeed.
Deborah felt the black eyes regarding her from under heavy lids and she forced herself to look the ancient gentleman in the face without blinking. But she could not stop herself blushing when his gaze dropped to her bare feet and traveled slowly up the length of her nightgown to the brush tip of her single thick plait of dark red hair which touched her thigh, then on up over the swell of her budding breasts to rest on the lopsided bow tied under her chin that kept her nightcap in place. He then looked into her brown eyes again and she met his gaze openly through eyes that felt filled with oil and thus did not see clearly because the medicine she had drunk was beginning to take effect. A small crooked smile played on the ancient gentleman’s thin lips and Deborah wished she had the courage to tell him his manners were lacking in one so old. His question to her brother bleached her cheeks.
“Has she commenced menstruating?”
Sir Gerald was dumbstruck. “Your—your Grace?”
“You heard the question well enough, Cavendish,” prompted the gray-haired companion of the ancient one.
But even though Sir Gerald’s mouth worked he could not speak.
Deborah, feeling as if her head was full of cotton wool, sluggishly answered for him. “Two—two months ago.”
All three men turned and looked down at her then, as if finally acknowledging her mental as well as physical existence. Sir Gerald frowned but the ancient stranger and his friend smiled, the ancient one politely inclining his white head to her in thanks for her response. He seemed about to address her directly when a commotion in the passageway distracted them all. The gray-haired companion disappeared into the shadows and out of the room. He was gone for several minutes and in the interval no one spoke. Sir Gerald brooded; once or twice looking at his sister with mute disapproval while the ancient stranger calmly waited by the open window and fastidiously took snuff from a gold and enamel snuffbox.
Into the book room came a gentleman dressed in a cleric’s robes, but these were no ordinary robes; they were edged in ermine and were of velvet and gold thread. He carried an ornately decorated Bible and wore a magnificent, old-fashioned, powdered wig with three curls above each fleshy ear. Deborah knew this to be Bishop Ramsay. He had arrived at the house earlier that day and set the servants on their ears with his imperious demands. Nurse said Cook was at her wits’ end. The bishop took one look at Deborah in her nightclothes and put up his bushy brows. He ignored his host in favor of the ancient stranger over whose outstretched hand he bowed deeply. Deborah thought it odd that a bishop should bend to this old gentleman; he must be someone very illustrious indeed. Just then the little gray-haired man came out of the shadows looking worried.
“They’ve dragged him out of the carriage, your Grace,” he announced then hesitated.
“And… Martin?” asked the ancient gentleman with uncanny perceptibility.
“He’s downed another bottle, your Grace,” Martin apologized.
“Then he will endure the ceremony better than the rest of us,” came the flat reply.
“The marriage is to go ahead as planned?” Sir Gerald asked eagerly.
The ancient stranger did not look at him. “I have no choice.”
He said this in such a weary tone that even Deborah, for all her youth and inexperience, heard the deep note of sadness in the mellow voice. She wondered what troubled him. The fact that these men were talking about a marriage ceremony barely registered with her. After all, no one had spoken to her of marriage. And everyone knew that when a girl was of marriageable age she had to leave the schoolroom and be launched in society during the Season and attend plenty of balls and routs and meet many eligible gentlemen, one of whom she would fall in love with and hopefully he would be the one who asked her brother for her hand in the usual manner. Marriages did not happen in the dead of night, between strangers. And they certainly did not happen in nightgowns after taking a measured dose of laudanum. There were formalities and mysterious things called settlements and a proper order to such a momentous step in a girl’s life.
But Deborah was wrong and knew she was terribly wrong when her brother led her to the bishop, who called her a little sparrow of a bride and pinched her chin in a fatherly way, saying what a great honor had been bestowed upon her and her family for she had been chosen to be the wife of the Duke of Roxton’s heir.
Her first thought was that she was asleep. It was the medicine Nurse had woken her to take had changed her beautiful dream with Otto in the forest to this nightmare in which she appeared to be the central character of a Shakespearean tragedy. Perhaps if she tried hard enough to think about waking it would happen and Nurse would be there with a glass of milk and soothing words. She closed her eyes, swaying and dry in the mouth. But she did not wake up from the nightmare. She was so bewildered she could not speak nor could she move. Panic welled up within her. She wished with all her heart that Otto would come home and save her. She wanted to cry. There were hot tears behind her eyelids but for some reason she was incapable of crying. So why was she sobbing? She soon realized it was not her. The quiet sobbing came from the doorway and distracted her enough that she momentarily forgot that she was in a nightmare.
A tall, well-built youth with a mop of tight black curls was being supported at each elbow by two burly servants in livery. He was not so drunk that he could not walk and so he told his captors in a growl of angry words. But the more he struggled to be free of them, kicking out his stockinged legs and balling his fists, the harder the grip on his elbows and he soon gave up the fight and returned to weeping into his velvet frock coat.
An awkward silence followed as the boy was brought to stand beside Deborah. A languid movement of dismissal from the ancient gentleman and the burly servants retreated into the shadows.
Deborah stole a blinking glance at the weeping boy but he had turned away from her to face the ancient gentleman and addressed him in French, his voice breaking into sobs between sentences. He spoke faster than she could ever hope to understand but he used the words mon père: Father, over and over. Deb could not believe that this white haired old man could possibly be this boy’s father. Surely he meant grand-père? And as she continued to stare at father and son, the boy suddenly broke into English. His words were so full of hatred that Deborah’s face was not the only one to brighten with intense embarrassment.
“It’s all your fault! Your fault,” the boy screamed at the ancient gentleman, his fists clenching and unclenching with rage. “Why should I be banished for your sins? Does my presence make you uncomfortable, Monseigneur, now that I know the sordid truth? You can’t bear the truth about yourself, there’s the irony!” he added bitterly. “Poor Maman. To think she’s had to live with your-your disgusting secrets all these years—”
“Alston, that will do,” cut in the gray-haired companion. “You’re drunk. In the morning you will regret—”
The boy tore his tearful gaze from his father to stare at the man at his side. “Regret?Regret knowing the truth about him? Never!” he spat out, lip trembling uncontrollably. “You’ve known all along, haven’t you, Martin? Why didn’t you tell me? I’m his heir. I have a right to know. A-a right.” He began to sob again and dashed a silken sleeve across his wet face. “Mon Dieu, I’m cursed. Cursed.”
“It’s all in your head, my son,” the ancient gentleman said quietly.
This made the youth give a bark of hysterical laughter that broke in the middle. “In my head? Then it’s a lie? A lie that His Grace the most noble Duke of Roxton, my father, has littered the land with ill-gotten bastards—”
The slap across his face knocked the boy off his feet and left the Duke nursing a smarting hand. Deborah watched him turn his back and walk into the shadows while at her feet the boy picked himself up to his silken knees, a hand to his stinging cheek. The gray-haired gentleman known as Martin put an arm about the boy’s shaking shoulders and with a glance at Deborah said in a soothing voice,
“If you ever want to see your mother again, marry this girl. Then you and I can be on our way to France.”
The youth gripped Martin’s arm convulsively, his tear-stained face close to his. “If I do as he wants, may I see Maman before we sail? May I, Martin? Please. I must see her before we go. I must.”
Martin shook his head sadly. “The early birth of your baby brother has left her very weak, my boy. She needs time to recover; the rest is up to God.”
The youth broke into fresh sobs. “He’ll never let me see her again! I know it, Martin.Never.”
Deborah’s brown eyes widened and she held her breath, awaiting the gray-haired gentleman’s response. When he looked over the youth’s bowed head of black curls and smiled at her kindly she felt a great relief. Though why she should feel anything but panic and dread at the prospect that lay before her she could not explain. Perhaps it was because she did not believe any of this was real. It was a laudanum-induced dream and soon she would wake up. If only she could shake her head free of cotton wool.
“After the ceremony, I am taking my godson to France and then on to Rome and Greece,” Martin told her in a confiding tone, adding for good measure, as if living up to the promise in his smile, “We will be away for many years. Do you understand, ma cherie?”
Deborah nodded. There was something oddly reassuring in Martin’s smile, as if he would protect her from this strange sad boy and the consequences of this hasty midnight marriage. France was over the water. And Greece and Rome were so far away that it took months and months of traveling to reach such exotic countries; Otto had told her so. Suddenly she felt safe. Soon she knew she would wake up. All she had to do was lie still and wait for Nurse to wake her with the breakfast tray. This boy was going away for many years. She would never see him again after tonight. The sooner the bishop performed the ceremony the sooner she would wake up and forget this bad dream ever happened.
Martin’s words of reassurance had an effect on the boy too for he pulled out of the man’s embrace and dashed the curls from his eyes. The bishop quickly came to stand before these two children with his bible open and proceedings began in a rush; as if there was no assurance the boy’s capitulation would last long enough for the exchange of vows, or that the girl who swayed on her feet and had a gaze that seemed incapable of blinking would be able to stand upright for very much longer. The bishop’s fears seemed justified when all of a sudden the boy began to chuckle under his breath, disconcerting the bishop enough for him to pause on two occasions, and Deborah to blink uncomprehendingly up at the boy to see what he found so amusing. Finally the boy had to share his amusement with his ancient parent who stood behind him like a sentry made of marble.
“Monseigneur. Is this plain, awkward bird witted creature the best you could find to marry your heir?” he threw over his shoulder in arrogant bitterness. “Surely my lineage begs better?”
“Her pedigree is as good as yours, my son.”
The youth sniggered. “What an illustrious union to be sure! Something of which you all must be very proud. Pshaw,” and snatched up Deborah’s hand when requested by the bishop. Obediently he repeated the words that would make them husband and wife. Deborah too had repeated the words after the bishop but she had said them without comprehending and had no idea what this boy’s Christian names were, despite there being a string of them, because she could not take her eyes off his face. Her nightmare had unexpectedly turned into a wondrous dream. Her youthful husband was the handsomest boy she had ever seen in paints or real life; but it was his eyes that held her mesmerized. They were green, but not just any green, a deep emerald green. The same color as the large square cut emerald on the thin white hand of the ancient stranger Deborah was convinced had to be a hundred years old.
BATH, ENGLAND, 1769
JULIAN HESHAM thought he had died and gone to Heaven. But angels did not punctuate their harp playing with damns and blasts. He supposed the music in Heaven to be a gentle plucking of the strings, the melody more largo than allegro. He was not musically inclined but the cacophony that assaulted his ears was a frenzied piece of playing, irritating to the nerves. If he was to slowly bleed to death, much better to do so in the peace and quiet of a spring morning, with only the attendant sounds of an awakening forest. He wished the musician a hundred miles away. That the fiddler might prove his salvation did not cross his mind. It did not occur to him to call out for help. But for the jarring musical chords of the apostrophizing fiddler he may very well have slipped into an unbroken sleep.
He was slumped under a birch tree. To the casual observer he had the appearance of a gentleman sleeping-off an evening of heavy drinking. Long, muscular legs were sprawled out before him, neckcloth and silk embroidered waistcoat were disorderly, boots muddy, strong, square chin rested on his chest, and a lock of thick black hair, having escaped its ribbon, fell forward into his eyes. His right arm was limp in the leaf litter beside which was his discarded rapier. His left hand he had shoved inside his flowered waistcoat to hold a folded handkerchief to a place just under his ribs where a thrust from his opponent’s foil had entered deep into the muscle.
Suddenly the music stopped. The wood was again at peace. Julian sighed his relief. In the silence there was the unmistakable click of a pistol being cocked, and this brought his chin up. Standing only a few feet away at the edge of the clearing was a youth in a blue velvet riding frock, not holding a pistol but a viola. Julian guessed he was about nine years of age; the same age as his much younger brother.
When the boy-musician jammed the viola under his chin and set bow to strings again, Julian shook his head and brought the recital to a halt before it began. He was not about to be a willing audience to more screeching, however curious to know the musician’s next move.
“I’m certain you’re very good on the night, but couldn’t you rehearse elsewhere?” he asked conversationally. When the boy-musician spun about on a heel, almost dropping his bow, he added, “At your feet.” And smiled weakly when the boy took an involuntary step backward. “Do me the favor of fetching my frock coat. It’s behind you… There’s a flask… In the right hand pocket…”
The boy-musician took the viola away from under his chin. “What do you want with a flask? You look as if you’ve drunk enough.”
“What deplorable manners you have,” Julian complained, adding when the boy-musician continued to hesitate, “I mean you no harm. And even if I was a footpad I’m too knocked about to attempt to do you a mischief.”
This speech was an effort and Julian’s breathing became labored. The boy-musician watched a spasm of pain cross the handsome features and wondered what he should do. The man’s face was too pale, the strong mouth too blue and the breathing now short and quick. It was then that the boy-musician saw the dark spreading stain seeping out from under the soiled waistcoat.
“Good God! He’s injured!” came the cry and in such an altered voice to that of the boy-musician that Julian, through supreme effort of will, looked up. A pair of damp brown eyes regarded him with concern and a cool feminine hand touched his forehead.
Julian grinned and promptly fainted.
“Damned fool!” muttered the young woman, laying aside her pistol and hurriedly unscrewing the lid of a monogrammed silver flask handed to her by the boy-musician. She glanced up at her nephew. “Jack. Take Bannock and fetch Dr. Medlow. Tell him a man’s been injured. Don’t mention it’s a sword wound.”
The boy-musician hesitated. “Will you be all right left alone with him, Aunt Deb?”
She smiled reassuringly. “Yes, I’ll be fine, Jack. I have my pistol, remember?” And watched her nephew scurry off before turning her attention once more to the injured duelist. Gently, she tilted back his head and slowly dribbled the contents of the silver flask between his cold and parched lips. “It won’t be my fault if you die,” she admonished him as one does a naughty child. “But it would serve you to rights for being foolish enough to fight a duel!”
“No. It won’t be your fault,” Julian murmured at last. “Thank you. Another sip, if you please.” He let his head fall back into the circle of her embrace and looked up into a flushed face framed by an overabundance of dark red hair. “Does he always play his fiddle punctuated with oaths? It adds color but it would offend Herr Bach.”
“It’s not a fiddle, it’s a viola. And not Bach but Herr Telemann. And the oaths were mine, not Jack’s. I’m out of practice. He’s not.”
“Mine,” Deb admitted truthfully and promptly changed the subject. “What did you think of the composition we were rehearsing?”
“I didn’t like it at all.”
She laughed good-naturedly, showing lovely pearly-white teeth.
“Perhaps in another setting, after a few more days of practice, and…” Julian paused, distracted by the faint feminine scent at her white throat. “That’s very pleasant,” he announced with surprise. “As a rule females wear far too much scent. Is it lavender or something else? Rosewater, perhaps?”
“You’re a lunatic. How can you talk pleasantries while you’re bleeding all over me?” She gently sat him upright against the tree trunk and brushed down her petticoats as she got to her feet. “Don’t laugh; it will only make your suffering worse. If I don’t do something to staunch the bleeding you’ll die, and I’ve enough to worry me without a corpse adding to my difficulties.”
“My dear girl, don’t put yourself to any trouble. I’m sure I’ll last until the sawbones arrives.”
Deb wasn’t listening. She was thinking. The last thing she wanted was for this gentleman to die on her. Besides, she would be in enough trouble explaining away to her stiff-necked brother what she and Jack were doing in the Avon forest, alone, and with their violas. Sir Gerald loathed their music making nearly as much as he loathed Jack’s very existence. What could she use to make bandages? She groaned. She supposed she’d have to sacrifice her shirt (it was one of Otto’s anyway). To cover her nakedness she’d borrow the gentleman’s frock coat. “I’ll have to use his cravat, too,” she said aloud as she unbuttoned the mannish shirt at her throat and promptly pulled it up over her head. She scooped up the gentleman’s discarded frock coat and disappeared behind a tree.
“H-how old did you say you were?” Julian asked conversationally, an appreciative audience to her undressing and disappointed that he was only permitted a view of her lovely narrow back and straight shoulders in the thin cotton chemise.
“I didn’t. You may detest my viola playing,” she called out, “but I am considered good in a crisis.”
“What are you doing back there? Please don’t go to any trouble…”
“I assure you, I won’t do more than is necessary to keep you alive until Dr. Medlow arrives.”
Deb stepped out from behind the tree, the frock coat hanging loose about her shoulders and arms and buttoned to her chin, the narrow lapels pulled up about her slender throat and tickling her small ears. She knelt beside Julian and went to work ripping up her shirt to make bandages.
“I’m going to have to remove your waistcoat and shirt,” she said, addressing the torn strips of fabric. “I’ll be as gentle as I’m able.”
“I’m sure you shall,” came the murmured reply.
He submitted with good grace to having his silk cravat pulled this way and that; the diamond pin extracted with care and put aside, but it took great presence of mind for him to sit up, straighten his leg and remove the hand that was pressed to the wound. At the latter he fainted with the pain but made a swift recovery, gaze riveted to the girl’s face: On the expressive brown eyes, the straight indifferent nose and the full bottom lip that quivered ever so slightly. Several curls had escaped from their pins and fell across her flushed cheek. Julian could not decide on their color; were they a dark strawberry blonde or were they more an autumnal red? He was certain he had never seen such rich red hair before, or such shine. He would have remembered such a particular color. The question consumed all his thoughts as he was stripped out of a richly embroidered waistcoat to reveal a shirt wet and heavy with his own blood.
Removing the shirt presented a problem for Deb. She knew her patient did not have the strength to raise his arms above his shoulders to slip the shirt over his head, so it would have to be torn from his back. Yet that was no easy thing. The cloth about the wound was wet with blood and had adhered to the slit in the man’s muscular chest like glued paper to a wall. But Deb did not dwell on the pain she was about to inflict. It only had to be endured for the briefest of moments.
Decided, she took hold of the opened shirt front and ripped it left and right off the broad shoulders. It took three tugs to rent the fine fabric; the third tore the cloth from neck to waist, exposing a wide expanse of chest matted with hair the same raven-black color as that which covered the gentleman’s head. For an instant her eyes registered surprise. The silk cravat, the richness of the exquisite fabric of waistcoat and frock coat, the patrician features, all had concealed the measure of the man’s muscle. It gave her hope for a full recovery. Such a well-exercised physique would stand him in good stead; but only if the wound could be staunched, and at once.
Julian suffered these ministrations with great fortitude; surprised the girl possessed such strong constitutional powers. It seemed that the sight of blood did not bother her in the slightest. She merely wrinkled her nose, not in response to any feelings of squeamishness, but in an inquiring, interested sort of way. He was about to make a quip about the dual sensibilities of being female and a musician but the quip died on his pale lips and was replaced with a guttural oath from deep within his throat, for suddenly his whole being convulsed with an unbearable pain.
Deb had carefully peeled away the sodden shirt from the wound, exposing a deep gash under the rib cage in the gentleman’s right side. Examining it, she said in a detached voice,
“I don’t think he meant to kill you, or your opponent has no notion of anatomy. The slice is deep but if he’d wanted to kill you he’d have pinked you on the left…”
Then, without warning, she pressed a wad of folded cloth over the wound, and so firmly that to Julian it was as if her whole fist had been thrust through the slit to mingle with his entrails and meet up with his spine. Disorientated with pain, he fought to remain conscious. His limp hand was placed over the dressing and he was told in a strident voice to keep it there with a firm pressure until the makeshift bandage was securely about his chest to hold the padding in place.
It was no easy task to bind up the wound. Deb managed to slip the bandage once around her patient’s taut stomach, but having achieved this much the gentleman’s eyelids fluttered and he promptly fainted. Quickly, she scrambled up, roughly pulled aside the layers of her petticoats to free her long stockinged legs and straddled the man’s inert thighs in time to catch the full weight of his upper body against her shoulder as he pitched forward. She was almost knocked off her knees but managed to put her shoulder into his upper chest and at such an angle that it permitted her arms to remain free. This enabled her to pass the bandage freely across the width of his wide bare back. She did this several times, each time pulling the binding tighter so that the wound was sealed and the padding secure under the wrappings.
Certain that her shoulder was bruised and her back about to buckle under the man’s weight, she quickly groped about the tangled tree roots for the diamond-headed stickpin she had set aside. With the pin secured through the top layers of her makeshift bandage, she used her remaining strength to set her patient upright and gently leaned him back against the birch tree. But he did not look at all comfortable and so without a thought to modesty she stripped off his frock coat, folded the embroidered silk garment up into a bundle and successfully placed this soft pillow behind his strong neck, thus avoiding his raven head banging back against the tree trunk with a great thud.
Exhausted and feeling the need to catch her breath, Deb just sat there in her thin cotton chemise: straddled atop her patient’s muscular thighs, petticoats bunched up over her knees and exposing her long stockinged legs to the world. She felt bruised, battered and on the verge of tears.
“How dare you do this to me!” she demanded of the unconscious gentleman and picked up the flask, uncertain whether to force the rest of its contents down his throat or dash the liquid in his face. “You’re probably a notorious criminal and well served to be left to bleed to death! My misfortune to stumble across you.” She leaned forward and poured a drop of brandy between the parted lips. “I’m a fool,” she murmured, scanning his angular face. “I don’t think you can be a criminal. Your eyes are too honest… and you are far too swooningly handsome to be—Oh! You ungrateful brute! Unhand me!” she yelped, for Julian had her hard by the wrist and the flask fell into the grass. “That hurts!”
Julian looked into the flushed face close up to his and blinked. “Promise me you won’t run off.”
Deb gave a twisted smile. “Afraid I mean to leave you to the footpads?” she goaded, plying at the strong fingers about her wrist.
“No. I want… I want to talk to you.”
“Save your strength for the physician. Oh, do let me go! You’ll bruise my flesh.”
He released her and she sat up.
“I haven’t the strength to make you stay. But I’m apt to decline into a blue melancholy without you.” He swallowed and closed his eyes and spent a few moments regaining his breath. “That would wound my pride far greater than any wound to my body.”
Deb was suddenly curious. “Who did this to you?”
“Men of little consequence.” He sighed his annoyance. “They weren’t particularly good swordsmen. Uncle Lucian will be disgusted with me.”
“Premier swordsman in France and England in his day. He thinks I lack grace in my movements. He’s right.”
“You should have shot ’em!” Deb said savagely.
Julian smiled. “Uncle Lucian? I know he thinks me a sad trial on my parents and never has a good word to say on my behalf but—”
“Silly! Not Uncle Lucian, the cowardly curs who did this to you. Why didn’t you use pistols? Much quicker result and you need not break a sweat.”
“Precisely. Uncle Lucian deplores the methods of chivalry employed by the modern youth.”
“But you’re not exactly—Sorry!”
“I’m hardly in my dotage, dear girl,” Julian drawled. “And to a man in his sixties, five and twenty is barely of an age to be out of leading strings.”
“Oh! Well, that’s not old at all,” Deb agreed. “Actually, I thought you older—Oh dear! I have the most wretched tongue and am forever saying the first thing that comes to mind.”
“Don’t let it bother you,” he said dryly, gaze flickering across her bare shoulders and slim arms. “I expect you thought me older because I’m graying at the temples?”
Deb met his gaze. “How—how many swordsmen were there?”
“Three? That’s unfair and dishonorable.”
“Yes. Tell me your name.”
“Name?” she repeated with downcast eyes, suddenly feeling self-conscious. “My name is unimportant.”
“I’m sorry you had to ruin your shirt,” he apologized after a short silence. When she looked away, out to the forest, unable to meet the steady gaze of his clear green eyes, he said gently, “Won’t you tell me why you and—Jack? Yes, Jack, are fiddling in the forest at this hour? Wouldn’t the schoolroom be a more appropriate place?”
“My name is Julian,” he continued. “I can’t thank you if I don’t know your name.”
“I told you. It’s not important. I’d have done the same for-for—Oh! Anyone.”
“I see. Is it necessary for you to carry a pistol?”
Deb threw him a sullen look. “You’re very busy.”
“Are you in trouble?”
“That’s none of your concern.”
“If you are, I’d like to offer my assistance.”
“Is that so?” she said with a twisted smile. “When do you think you will be in a position to offer your services? A month; two months from now?”
“I’m not about to beg,” he replied mildly.
“I didn’t mean to sound ungrateful,” she apologized; face a mask of hard indifference. “It’s just that you can’t help. So, please, forget you ever saw us or that I have a pistol. If Gerry ever found out… I’ll go and meet up with Dr. Medlow; show him the way through the forest.”
“Must you carry a pistol?” he persisted in the same gentle tone.
Deb regarded him steadily then made up her mind that there could be little harm in confiding just a little bit about herself, especially to such a willing ear. Besides, it might just take his mind off the pain in his side. “My brother Gerry—Gerald—doesn’t know about the pistol. It belonged to Otto who gave it to me just before he died and said that I must keep it on me always when I am out alone. Otto was my other brother and my best friend and Jack’s father. He was a splendid musician and Jack has his talent. If Jack is to go to Paris to be tutored under Evelyn Ffolkes, then he must practice. But as Gerry has forbidden us to play our violas, Jack and I come out here to be alone, and so the servants won’t report back to him. So you see, that’s why I carry a pistol.”
“Gerry has no ear for music?”
Deb’s brown eyes lit up. “Gerry is tone deaf.”
“Hence he has no appreciation of Jack’s talent.”
Julian’s breathing became labored again and he half-closed his eyes. Deb thought he was about to faint again until he smiled and said in a contrived tone of disinterest, “I dare say Gerry has the same lack of appreciation for beauty. If you were my sister I’d take better care of you. I certainly wouldn’t allow you out of the schoolroom, dressed in a man’s shirt and without a corset.”
“You obviously have no idea what it’s like to be spied upon!” she said indignantly. “I can’t be expected to sneak out of the house with Jack if I must first wake my maid to lace me into a corset. Brigitte would have the whole house up within five minutes of my departure.”
“Well then, that certainly excuses you.”
“And you are a bad judge of age. I will be one and twenty very soon.”
“Accept my apologies. You look much younger. Perhaps because you aren’t wearing your corset…?”
Deb gaped at him. “Because I’m not wearing my corset?” she repeated incredulously. “Your manners are appalling. If you weren’t wounded I’d—I’d—”
“Yes?” he asked expectantly, shoulders shaking with silent laughter. “You would…?”
A crimson flush washed over her breasts and up her throat but Deb bravely looked him in the eyes to tell him what she thought of his insolence when she noticed a spot of fresh blood on the bandage and that he was trembling.
“You’re shivering!” she announced, all embarrassment forgotten.
“Yes. I’m cold and can’t move my legs. No matter, the physician will be here shortly.”
Only then did she realize that as well as being practically naked from the waist up she was still straddled atop the injured duelist’s thighs and had been comfortably seated on his lap for quite some time. Hiding her embarrassment behind anger, she admonished him as she scrambled off his long legs and brushed down the layers of her crushed petticoats.
“You should’ve said something instead of letting me sit there rattling on at you!”
“And cut short our tête-à-tête? Now that would’ve been bad mannered.”
“You must be a lunatic!”
“Yes, I must be,” Julian answered with a private smile and closed his eyes.