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Thundering down the length of track in a deserted Green Park as dawn was breaking filled William Lampard with exhilaration. A stiff breeze was rolling away the early morning mist and the park stretched out in shades of green and brown and grey. Stabs of sunlight between the clouds edged the colours in bright gilding, and birds were waking in the foliage. For those few minutes as he raced along, there was just him and his horseno duties, no expectations, just sheer abandon and forgetfulness of all the obligations that awaited him.
Slowing his horse to a more sedate trot, he left the track and directed it beneath some sheltering trees, thinking how good it felt to be back in London after three years as a soldier fighting the war in Spain. Suddenly, the serenity of the early summer morning was shattered by the explosion of a gunshot. A force hit him in the shoulder and the world hurtled in a slow tumble as he toppled out of the saddle on to the dew-soaked grass, where he sank into a black hole and everything ceased to exist.
Cassandra was travelling to her place of work earlier than usual and taking a short cut through the park when she heard the shot. Seeing a horse and rider leave the shelter of the trees and ride as if the devil himself was after him, she urged Clem to drive the carriage into the trees to investigate. On seeing the wounded man she immediately climbed out, believing he had been shot in a duel, since Green Park was often a venue for those sinister appointments in the dawn mist. Coming to her side, Clem bent and rolled the limp form over, nodding his head in relief as he took in the slow, shallow breathing.
'He isn't dead, thank the Lord.'
When sanity returned to William, somewhat hazily, it was to find a young woman in a dark grey coat kneeling beside him, and a short, stout man holding his frightened horse. There was a dull throbbing in his head, and an ache in his shoulder that pulsed in unison with it.
Cassandra gazed down into two crystal-clear orbs. There was a vibrant life and an intensity in those eyes, dark, brilliant blue, like the sea in a summer storm that no one could deny. 'I'm happy to see you are still with us,' the woman said in a soft, well-bred voice. She held her head gracefully, the brim of her bonnet casting a light shadow over her face. 'You have been shot. Let's hope your wound is not serious.'
William returned her smile with difficulty and tried to allay her fears by pushing himself up against a tree. He winced as painred hot and piercingshot through his shoulder, then closed his eyes and rested his head back. Without more ado the woman briskly unfastened his bloodsoaked jacket, removed his crisp white cravat and opened his shirt, her expression schooled to a nun-like impassivity as she examined his wound. William's gaze flickered to the slender fingers pressing a wad of cloth against the torn flesh to staunch the flow of blood.
'You've done this before, I can see that,' he remarked, his voice deep and strong.
'I have, but usually my patients haven't been shot and they are much smaller than you.'
As she worked, Cassandra noted that the wounded man's clothes were of expensive elegance that could only have come from one of the ton's foremost tailors. Having lost his hat in the fall, his hair, thick and dark brown, fell in disarray about his head, shading his wide brow and brushing his collar. About thirty years of age, his face was handsome, recklessly so, lean and hard. His nose was straight, his jaw uncompromisingly square. He had fine dark brows that curved neatly, and a firm but almost sensuous mouth. Everything about him was elegantly aristocratic, exuding power and a sense of force.
When the wad was secure she rested back on her heels and met his gaze. 'There. I think you'll live. Not much damage donemore to your pride I'd say. When will you gentlemen learn to settle your quarrels in a more civilised manner? Duelling is certainly not the answer.' Without giving William a chance to utter a reply in his defence, she got to her feet. 'Now come along. Try to stand. I think a doctor should take a look at that shoulder.'
'There's no need for that. If you'll get your man to bring my horse, I'll be on my way.'
'The bullet's still in there. It will have to be extracted and the wound dressed properly.' William uttered a protest, but it emerged as little more than a croak and when he tried to move, his limbs would not obey. Cassandra looked at him crossly. 'Please don't argue. You are in no position to object.' She turned to Clem. 'Come and help Mr '
'Captain. I am Captain William Lampard,' he provided with difficulty as a fresh wave of pain swept through him.
William saw an odd, awed expression cross her face as she scrutinised him, and in her eyes a momentary flash of a deeply rooted dislike. 'You've heard of me?'
'Yes, your name is familiar to mealthough you are better known as Lord Lampard, the Earl of Carlow.'
Cassandra had heard all about Captain Lampard. He was an arrogant lord who thought he could do as he pleased with whomever he pleased. For years, gossip had linked him with every beautiful female in London. His scandals were infamous. Whenever he was on respites from his military duties he was the talk of the town, and any sensible young woman mindful of her reputation kept well out of his way. The same could be said of his young cousin, Edward Lampard, who she had already decided possessed the same traitsfor hadn't he tried to compromise her own sister, and the silly girl would have let him if she could have had her way?
'You've recently returned from foreign parts, I believe.' Her expression did not alter, but something in her eyes stirred and hardened and she compressed her lips.
'Yes, well, I'd have thought you would have had enough of fighting in the Peninsula,' she remarked haughtily.
William had to stifle the urge to smile at her tart reprimand. 'I have, more than enough. By your reaction to my identity, I strongly suspect my reputation has gone before me, but let me tell you that it is much a matter of gossip and wishful dreaming.'
'If you say so, Captain Lampard, but it really is none of my business.'
'Would you think it forward of me if I were to ask you your name?'
'Not at all. I am Cassandra Greenwood.'
'Miss Greenwood, I am most pleased to meet you, and I'm thankful you came along when you did.'
Cassandra slowly arched a brow and her smile was bland. 'So you should be. Now come along and I'll get Dr Brookes to take a look at you.'
'He's a doctor at St Bartholomew's Hospital. He comes to help out when I need him at the institute. I'm expecting him first thing, which is why you find me out and about so early.
Don't worry. I have every faith in his ability as a doctor. He'll soon have you fixed up.'
Observing the stubborn thrust of her chin and the glint of determination in her eye, William raised a brow in amusement. 'I see you have no intention of relenting.'
'Quite right, sir. When Dr Brookes has finished with you, Clem will take you home to Grosvenor Square in the carriage.'
William gave her a quizzical look. 'You know where I live?'
'Oh, yes, Captain Lampard, I do know that much about youand some more,' she uttered softly, which brought a puzzled frown to William's brow, 'but we won't go into that just now. It would be inadvisable for you to ride after sustaining a wound that rendered you unconscious. There is every possibility that you would fall off your horse and incur a more severe injury, which would incapacitate you for some time.'
'Perish the thought,' William said wryly.
'Quite,' Cassandra replied. 'After awaiting your return from Spain for so long, no doubt the entire female population in London would go into a decline. Now come along. See if you can stand.' She would have liked nothing more than to help him on to his horse and send him on his way, but that would be a cowardly thing to do simply because he had a poor reputation.
Impressed by her efficiency and naturally authoritative tone, William tried to get up, but fell back as a fresh haziness swept over him.
Without more ado, Clem took the wounded man's arm over his broad shoulders and hoisted him unceremoniously into the carriage. After securing the Captain's horse to the back, he set off towards Soho, where they drew up outside a grim-looking building among streets where poverty and disease ran side by side. A score or more of undernourished children dressed in rags, their legs bowed and eyes enormous in pinched faces, were hanging about. William was helped out of the carriage and Clem again took his arm. With Cassandra leading the way, Clem half-carried the wounded man inside and into a room, where he lowered him on to a narrow bed, obviously not made for a man as tall as the Captain.
Taking deep breaths in an attempt to remain conscious, William was aware of dim forms moving about the room. Turning his head on the pillow, he saw a child lying in the bed next to him. Whimpering in his sleep and no more than seven years old, his stick-thin legs were poking out from beneath a blanket. Both his feet were bandaged. His face was an unhealthy grey, his skin ingrained with dirt, and his knees scraped raw.
Dragging his gaze away from the pitiful sight of the child, he took stock of the room, which looked like a small infirmary. It was quite large with five bunks and sparse, stark furnishings. With small windows and a stone-flagged floor, it was scrubbed clean. There was a stone sink in which a trim, white-aproned young woman was washing utensils and a fire burned in the hearth. The air was tinged with the aroma of food cookingnot unappetisingplain, mutton stew, he guessed. Suddenly a cup was pressed to his lips.
'Drink,' Miss Greenwood commanded.
Doing as he was told, William gulped the water down gratefully, letting his head fall back on the pillow when replete. 'Where in damnation am I?' he breathed, his curiosity aroused.
'Please don't swear,' Cassandra chided, having discarded her outdoor clothes and fastened an apron about her slender waist. 'I'll have no obscene language spoken here. You are not in damnation, but a small infirmary in a house that is a place of refuge for destitute children.'
William's lips twitched with a suppressed smile. 'I stand rebuked. I did not mean to be disrespectful.'
'Yeswell, keep a close rein on your tongue, Captain Lampard, lest the children overhearalthough sadly some of them use a few choice words themselves and might be able to teach even you a thing or two. Ah, here is Dr Brookes.' She stood back to allow a good-looking man in his mid-forties enough room to make his examination.
'Good day, Captain Lampard.' Dr Brookes proceeded brusquely and cheerily as was his custom. 'It's not every day I get a distinguished patient to attendespecially one who's been shot.'
Cassandra brought a tray of salves and implements, placing them on a small table at the side of the bed.
Dr Brookes wrinkled his nose as he glanced at the injury. 'That looks to be a nasty wound. Right, we'd better get to work before you bleed to death. I don't think the shot's too far in so it shouldn't be especially difficult getting it out. There'll be a bit of digging around to do though. Can you stand it?'
'Captain Lampard has recently returned from the war in the Peninsula, Dr Brookes,' Cassandra provided. 'I'm sure he's had to endure worse.'
'Spain, eh?' Dr Brookes remarked, impressed. 'Would have gone myselfhad I been years younger.'
'Miss Greenwood speaks the truth. I have seen and endured many things during the war, but this is the first time I've been shotso get on with it, Dr Brookes.' William looked at the young woman who had taken a stance beside him, a wicked twinkle in his bold, appraising eyes. 'Are you to stay and hold my hand, Miss Greenwood?'
'No,' she replied primly. 'I shall stay to assist Dr Brookes.'
'Pity. Here is my last scrap of dignity. Enjoy it while you can, but I would advise you to step back, Miss Greenwood,' he said, eyeing with trepidation the probe Dr Brookes was holding. 'My temper is about to take a decided turn for the worse.'
Cassandra spoke no word, but stood aside while Dr Brookes began his work.
William gritted his teeth against the white shards of pain that were shooting through his shoulder as Dr Brookes probed the wound. Mercifully, within a matter of minutes the shot was located and removed.
'Thereall done,' Dr Brookes said with a satisfied smile, showing his patient the round ball. 'The wound's clean so it should heal nicelythough you should keep it rested for a time.'
'Thank you for all that you've done. You won't go unrewarded, I shall see to that.'
Dr Brookes nodded, and there was a gleam in his eye when he glanced at Cassandra. 'A small donation to the institute wouldn't go amiss, is that not so, Cassandra? Have your own physician keep an eye on the woundand perhaps take some laudanum if the pain becomes severe. Now excuse me if I leave you in Miss Greenwood's capable hands. I must fly patients to see at the hospital.' Hesitating by the young boy's bed as he began to mumble and mutter, to twist and turn, he placed a hand to the child's forehead. Shaking his head, he turned to go. 'I'll be in tomorrow to take another look the boy.' He paused a moment longer before enquiring haltingly, 'Willyour mother be at the institute?'
Cassandra lowered her head to hide a knowing smile. She had long suspected that it was her mother, as well as his concern for the children, that drew Dr Brookes to the institute. 'Yes, she should bearound midday, I think.'
Looking pleased, Dr Brookes nodded and hurried out.
Cassandra turned back to Captain Lampard to dress his wound, amazed that he had endured the whole procedure without a murmur.
'What happened to the boy?' William asked. 'How did he come to be in that state?'
'That's Archie,' she answered, her expression softening when her gaze rested on the child's face. 'His mother sold him to a sweep for a few shillings, poor mite.'
'How old is he?'