Authors: Carola Dunn
Tags: #Regency Romance
“Hester! Hester! Come quick! There’s been a dreadful accident!”
Accustomed to her youngest brother’s wild exaggerations, Miss Godric dusted the flour off her hands on her blue gingham apron in a leisurely way. The small boy burst into the kitchen. His white face and the panic in his voice galvanised her to action.
“It was Skip,” cried Robbie. “He got out somehow and went for Mr. Borden’s terrier just as a curricle came round the corner. The driver was thrown right into the road, and he’s unconscious and there’s blood everywhere. Do you think he’s dead, Hester?”
“Surely not,” soothed his sister in an anxious voice as she hurried after him. “The road is so muddy after all this rain that he must had quite a soft landing. Where are Jamie and Geoff?”
“Jamie went for the doctor already, and Geoff is calming the horses. There wasn’t a groom.”
“Well, at least I have a family with common sense,” declared Hester. Picking up her skirts, she ran down the front steps and out of the white wicket gate into the street. For once she did not stop to admire Geoffrey’s magnificent display of snapdragons, marigolds, cosmos, and delphiniums. The warm summer air was full of the scent of lavender as she knelt in the mud beside the injured stranger.
Geoffrey already had the pair of chestnuts under control, so Hester was able to turn all her attention to the man before her. He was lying quite still, and his left leg was at an odd angle, which convinced her that it was broken. His face was very pale, and there was indeed, as Rob had reported, a good deal of blood liberally splashed on his once-white neckcloth and soaking into the dirt around his head. With tentative fingers, she brushed back his fair hair and found the wound—a long gash that was still bleeding but did not seem very deep. She looked at her muddy petticoat, at her grubby brothers, and with a sigh sent Robbie into the house.
“Find Alice,” she instructed, “and tell her to bring some clean linen to bind this cut. Quickly, Rob; it is still bleeding. Geoff, you had best take the curricle round into the yard and unharness the horses. Then come back; I’ll need your help.”
A few minutes later, her eldest brother appeared from the direction of the town centre, running and panting in a way he would normally have stigmatised as highly undignified.
“Jamie, give me your cravat,” Hester greeted him. “Is Dr. Price coming?”
“Yes,” gasped the youth, wrestling with his neckcloth. “I met him just down the road but going in the other direction. He had to turn the gig, so I came back at once without waiting for him. Is he badly hurt?” He handed his sister the crumpled but clean cloth, and she pressed it firmly to the cut on the stranger’s forehead.
“As far as I can see, he is not likely to die,” reassured Hester. “However, I am sure his leg is broken, and I have no idea what to do about it. I hope Dr. Price will hurry.”
“Here he comes already,” cried Robbie, reappearing in the doorway. “Dr. Price, Dr. Price, can I hold Bo’sun?”
“Indeed to goodness, Mr. Midshipman,” answered the stout, white-haired Welshman with a twinkle in his eye, clambering down from his seat with Jamie’s assistance. He handed over the reins of the placid nag, who was standing stock-still. “Do not let the old rascal stray, my boy.”
‘Aye, aye, sir!” responded Robbie joyfully.
“So! What have we here?” queried Dr. Price in his lilting voice, casting a comprehensive glance over his sprawling patient. “Broken leg; looks nasty. What of his head, Miss Godric?”
Hester gingerly removed the cloth from the wound. It seemed to have stopped bleeding. Breathing heavily, the old physician bent down to have a closer look. “That’ll not make him slip his anchor. Better bind it while I look at that leg.”
“Robbie, where is Alice? Did I not send you for her?”
“Oh, she is having hysterics,” said the boy scornfully. And Susan just started praying, so I told Ivy. She made Susan go with her to get some cloths, so I expect she’ll be out in a minute.”
“As if Ivy did not have enough work!” objected James. “I’ll give Alice a piece of my mind, see if I don’t.”
“Oh, Jamie, it is very trying, but you know your sister’s excessive sensibilities,” calmed Hester. “We have enough trouble here without you picking a quarrel with her. See, here is Susan.”
A girl of about twelve came through the gate, a basket over her arm.
“Here is the linen, Hester,” she announced. “May I help you succour the sick? The Lord says—”
“Bother the Lord,” exclaimed Geoffrey, appearing round the corner of the house. “Don’t be so sanctimonious, you little brat.”
“I shall pray for you, dear brother,” she responded with hauteur. “Hester, may I help?”
“Indeed, dearest, it would be of the greatest assistance if you would go to Alice and try to stop her working herself into a frenzy. Dr. Price, should I not wash his head before I bind it?”
The doctor was now on his knees in the mud, feeling the stranger’s leg.
“Put on a temporary bandach, Miss Hester,” he instructed. “You can chanche it when we have the unfortunate chentleman indoors, look you. James, Cheoffrey, I shall need some wood for splints and some sort of stretcher to carry him.” He paused as a thought struck him. “I suppose you can find a bed for him, can you not? He should not be moved so far as the Bull.”
“Of course we can. He shall have Jamie’s room and Jamie will sleep with Geoff and Robbie. After all, it is in some degree our fault that he is hurt.” Hester explained about the dog fight.
Her brothers returned with armfuls of planks and staves, and a hurdle, which they piled beside the doctor.
“Skipper took off across the fields with Patches as soon as the damage was done,” reported Geoffrey. “He’d dug under the fence again.”
Dr. Price put a makeshift splint on the broken leg, and James and Geoffrey lifted the injured man carefully onto the hurdle. He moaned as the doctor manipulated his leg, but showed no other sign of returning consciousness.
“A mild concussion,” diagnosed the physician. “Let us get him into bed as soon as possible, and I shall set the fracture properly. There is more than one break, Miss Hester. I fear you may have him on your hands for some time.’’
“No matter,” Hester assured him.
Half an hour later, the stranger was tucked up, clean and well bandaged, in Jamie’s bed. A faint colour had returned to his cheeks.
“I expect he will come round soon,” Dr. Price told Hester. “Make him drink this if there is much pain. If he is not conscious in a couple of hours, you may send for me. He must not move. I fear he may find himself with a limp when all’s healed.”
Hester thanked him for his services, and he departed.
After a brief consultation with James, she left him to manage Alice and the children, handed over the dinner preparations to the servant, Ivy, and sat down in the rocking chair by her patient’s bedside. She felt uncharacteristically fatigued. Her day had been busy, but no busier than usual. It must have been the. emotional disturbance, she decided.
The golden light of an August evening came through the open window, with the song of a blackbird. She studied the face on the pillow beside her. A strong face, she thought, even in relaxation. The bandage on his brow gave him a slightly rakish look. He was a big man—tall and broad-shouldered, though slim—and her brothers had had a difficult time carrying him up the narrow staircase. Even unconscious, he seemed to fill the small room, crowded as it was with Jamie’s books and papers.
She wondered who he was. They had found an empty card case in his pocket, and a few sovereigns, but no hint of his identity either there or in the one bag with which he had been travelling. His clothes, now exchanged for a voluminous nightshirt grudgingly given up by Grandpa Stevens, were of excellent quality, and his coat of blue superfine had fit so tightly that it had been a struggle to divest him of it. One of his glossy but mud-spattered boots had had to be cut off the injured leg and was ruined. Hester hoped he would not be too annoyed. Those boots must have cost him a pretty penny.
Her gaze returned to his face. The sun lit up his thick, wavy blond hair. Thinking of her own straight, mousy crop, she sighed. It seemed unfair that a man should have hair like that. It was hard to tell with the bandage in the way, but she rather suspected that the stranger might be excessively good-looking. She would have to keep an eye on the susceptible Alice. Of course, the man might be equally susceptible, and Alice’s beauty had already broken more hearts than one.
Pondering the problems involved in finding a suitable husband for her sister, Hester did not at once notice when the stranger opened his eyes. He contemplated her in silence for a few moments, seeing a young woman in her early twenties with a faraway look in her grey eyes. The evening sun brought out golden highlights in the soft coils of light brown hair that crowned her head and lent dignity to her thin oval face. Who was she? He frowned in puzzlement, and the pain caused by the movement made him groan involuntarily.
The grey eyes met his blue ones, and now they conveyed a smiling mixture of relief, worry, and, he thought, apology.
“You are awake!” she said in a low, gentle voice. “How do you feel?”
“I hardly know,” he replied. “My head hurts a little. Am I dreaming?”
“I fear not, sir. You had an accident and have been unconscious for an hour or more. Unfortunately, your head is the least of our worries. You have broken your leg, and that badly, according to the doctor.”
“The devil!” he exclaimed. “Yes, I feel it now. I remember—I was driving into Henley when the horses took fright at something. A dog fight, was it? And you are . . .?”
“My name is Hester Godric. I’m afraid it was my brothers’ dog that caused the upset. I cannot blame them, for he dug under the fence, but I must offer you the most sincere apologies.”
Seeing the anxiety on her face, he managed a smile.
“Doubtless the dog was at fault. However, my team are over high-strung, and I had been thinking of disposing of them. Were they injured, by the way?”
“I think not. Geoffrey would surely have mentioned it.” She noted his grimace as he tried to shift his position, suppressing a groan. “Are you very uncomfortable, sir? The doctor left a draught lest you should waken in great pain.”
“Truth to tell, my leg begins to feel as if it were on fire, Miss Godric. I shall be glad to try your doctor’s prescription.”
Hester stood up and moved to the desk, where she had left the bottle of medicine and a glass. He saw that she was of medium height, perhaps a little too slender, and that she moved with a quiet grace which made her seem taller. Her dress was a simple round gown of dove grey, elegantly cut but showing signs of wear. Wondering about her condition, he realised he had not yet introduced himself. On a sudden whim, he decided he would not mention his title. It might prove amusing to see how these people, unaware of his identity, would react to him.
“Miss Godric,” he said, as Hester approached the bed carrying a glass with an inch or so of vile-looking green liquid, “I find I have been remiss in not giving you my name. I am David Fairfax.”
She smiled at him in a motherly way.
“Well, Mr. Fairfax, I trust you are not going to make as much fuss over swallowing this potion as my brothers and sisters generally do when I must physic them. Come, let me help you sit up a little.”
With the aid of her surprisingly strong arm, David George Homer Fairfax, Earl of Alton, raised himself to drink his medicine.
“Ugh!” he exclaimed, sinking back on his pillows. “Had you not warned me, I’d have behaved just like your siblings. Have you many?”
“Five,’’ replied Hester. Hoping to distract him from his pain, she elaborated. “There’s Alice; she’s eighteen and quite the most beautiful girl you ever saw. Then Jamie, who is seventeen. He’s very bookish, and we hope he will go up to Oxford next year. This is his room. Geoffrey is fifteen and an excellent gardener. He grows all our vegetables and fruit, which helps a great deal, as you may imagine. Then there’s Susan—only she wishes her name were Theresa. She is just twelve and wants to be a nun at the moment. Last winter she wanted to be an actress, so I am not overly concerned, but she does annoy the others with her sermons. Robbie is my baby. He’s eight and is quite determined to be a sailor. I do not think he will change, as he has been of the same mind since he first went on the river in a rowboat at the age of four.”
“And your parents?” enquired Mr. Fairfax sleepily.
“We have only Grandfather Stevens. He is an old dear, and you are wearing his nightshirt. Now go to sleep. You may ring this bell if you need anything, and I shall come up later to see how you do. Sweet dreams, Mr. Fairfax.”
As the drug he had swallowed took effect, Lord Alton watched her draw the curtains across the window. A last gleam of sun lit her hair like a halo. An angel of mercy, he muttered thickly to himself. Before she reached the door, his heavy eyelids dropped and he slept.