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It was the smell that woke him.
For fully three seconds, Dominic lay quite still in the Lion d'Or's best bed, trying to make sense of the strange messages tumbling into his brain. Dark. Silence. Smoke? Fire!
He flung himself out of bed. Light! He needed light! And where the devil were his breeches?
A terrified neighing ripped through the pre-dawn silence. Then a whoosh, as if a giant were sucking in a monstrous breath. Followed by red, hellish light.
The smoke had turned to flames. The Lion d'Or's stables must be on fire!
Dominic threw wide the half-open window, stuck his head out and yelled at the top of his voice, 'Au feu! Au feu!' It was surely loud enough to wake even drunken grooms.
He dragged on his breeches and crammed his feet into boots. A voice rang out below. At last! Then more voices. A woman's despairing wail. And the ominous crackle of the fire taking hold in dry straw and ancient timbers.
Dominic took the stairs three at a time. In the yard, the silence was turning into utter chaos. Yelling, cursing men milling around in the eerie light. No one fetching water. No one saving the horses.
He grabbed the nearest groom by the shoulder. 'Get to the pump,' he ordered in crisp French. 'Start filling buckets. And you' he seized another by his flapping shirt'rouse all the men from the house. Get them into a line to pass the buckets. You two. Don't stand there gawping. Start getting the horses out.'
In the space of half a minute, Dominic had turned the commotion into the beginnings of order. The terrified horses were being led to safety. Water was being brought. But the flames had a head start. And they were winning.
The front part of the stables andone side of the doorway were ablaze. One panicked horse was refusing to be led through. It was fighting against the halter, rearing, eyes rolling, hooves flailing. With a cry of pain, the groom dropped to the ground. The horse fled back into the stables.
Dominic lunged forward, hefted the unconscious groom over his shoulder and raced across the yard to the inn. By the door, a maidservant stood motionless, wide-eyed with fear. 'You, girl.' He laid the boy ungently at her feet. 'Make yourself useful. Look to his hurts.' He did not wait to see whether she obeyed. He had to help save the horses. Only one other man left to do that. Not enough. Not nearly enough.
The smoke was now so thick that it was difficult to see. And to breathe. Dominic looked around for something to use as a mask over his face. If only he had thrown on a shirt. But he had nothing. He would have to continue as he was. Taking a deep breath of the cooler air in the yard, he plunged into the hell of the burning stables.
Still at least half a dozen terrified horses to save. Possibly more. He could barely make out the back of the stable. It was full of smoke, though not yet ablaze. But he could hear the sounds of hooves thundering against stall boards. At least some of the horses must still be tethered. He raced to the back of the building, keeping as low as he could, to avoid the choking smoke. Let the groom deal with the horses nearer the door.
Like a ghostly apparition, a slim shape in grubby white emerged from the swirling smoke, leading a horse. No more than a boy, from the little Dominic could see, and dressed only in a bedgown and boots. But a boy who knew horses, for he had covered the animal's eyes to quiet it. 'Well done, lad,' Dominic gasped as they passed. No reply. The boy had his mind on his task. Just as Dominic must.
It was taking too many precious minutes to rescue the horses. All the time, the fire was engulfing more of the building. Yet the boy in the bedgown was fearless, always going back into the most dangerous area of the stable. He had a way with the terrified beasts, too. More than once, Dominic fancied he heard the lad's voice, murmuring strong and low, urging the animal towards the flaming doorway. He had even started to cover the horses' nostrils against the acrid smoke. Part of Dominic's brain registered that he would find the lad after this was all over, and reward him for his bravery. He would have been proud to have such a boy in his own service.
Out in the yard again, Dominic caught a dripping cloth tossed to him by one of the inn servants. Gratefully, he covered his head, hoping that the boy had done the same. With this, there ought to be a chance of rescuing the remaining animals. Only a few more to bring out now. He ran back into the thickening smoke.
He found himself struggling with the tether of one of the last horses. The straining beast had pulled it tight in the iron ring. Its thrashing hooves were threatening to crack Dominic's head open. If only he had a knife. Damnation! The rope refused to come free. At this rate, they would both burn!
A strong, lean hand appeared out of the smoke, holding a knife. Bless the boy! A single slash cut the rope. Then the hand disappeared again. No time to say a word of thanks. The horse, suddenly freed, reared up to its full height with a loud and terrified whinny. Dominic ducked under the deadly hooves and grabbed the trailing rope, forcing the animal down. He had to get this horse out. The fire was really taking hold now. Soon the stable roof would be aflame. There would be no more rescues then.
At last, Dominic managed to coax the horse through the stable doorway. Someone had taken an axe to the blazing wood so that the gap was wider and the flames were less fierce. The broken, smouldering timbers lay on the ground. Dominic thrust the rope into a waiting hand and raced back inside, ignoring the prick of sparks on the bare skin of his back and chest. He had tiny burns all over his body now. No doubt he would look as though he had a dose of smallpox when this was over. But he had to be sure that there were no more horses hidden by the smoke.
It seemed the lad in the bedgown had had the same thought. His eerie figure was just visible through the swirling darkness, searching among the stalls. Dominic ran towards the boy. 'Is that all of them?' he yelled, trying to make himself heard above the noise of the fire.
Before the boy could say a word, there was an ominous crack above their heads. Dominic caught a glimpse of a huge, flaming beam dropping towards them. Towards the boy! Dominic bridged the space between them with a single stride, grabbed the boy and thrust him aside. The beam hit the stable floor just inches from where they stood, showering them both with sparks. In seconds, the boy's bedgown had caught alight.
Dominic made to tear it off him.
'Non!' It was a scream of anguish.
The boy must be an idiot. Surely he knew that it was better to be naked than to burn?
'Non!' the boy cried again, ripping the tail of his bedgown out of Dominic's hands.
There was no time to argue. And only one solution. Dominic pushed the boy to the ground and covered him with his own body, rolling them both in the dirt to stop the sparks from taking hold.
And then he understood.
This was no boy. The lithe body straining against his own belonged to a fearless, and extraordinary, girl!
His mind told him it was impossible. But his body knew better. It was threatening to go up in flames to match the blaze around them. Dear God, why this woman? Why now? Had he no self-control at all?
A loud groan brought him back to stark reality. His weight must be crushing her delicate form. And there was no time now to wonder what was happening between them. He had to get her out of this hellhole. The rest of the roof would fall at any second.
He leapt to his feet, dragging the girl up by the arm. 'Venez,' he rasped from his parched throat. He started for the door. But the girl was trying to free herself from his grasp. What on earth was she about? This was no time for modesty. Yet still she fought him.
With a curse of exasperation, he grabbed her slight form around the waist and slung her over his shoulder. Her small fists started to pummel his bare back, but he ignored that. He simply held her even more tightly against his body. No time to try to reassure her. In any case, the scorching smoke was burning his throat so much that he was almost sure he could not speak. He must get her out! Ducking low, he staggered towards the stable door and out into the yard. It was full of smoke still, but no flames. The men seemed to be bringing the fire under control at last.
With a groan of relief, Dominic set the girl on her feet, supporting her shoulders until he was sure she was strong enough to stand. He needed to commend her for her amazing courage. And to apologize for manhandling her. 'Mademoiselle, vous' It was barely a croak, but he was not allowed to finish. Her eyes had widened at his words. It could not be fear, surely? Not with this amazing girl. With a strangled cry, she wrenched herself away from him and fled in the direction of the inn door. He was left with a fleeting image, barely discernable through the hanging smoke, of huge eyes in a pale face, cropped hair, and a wet, filthy bedgown clinging to her slim form.
He started to follow. She must not be allowed to vanish, like a ghost. He must find out who she was. She'Monsieur! Attention!' One of the men grabbed his arm and pointed. With an enormous crash, the roof of the stables collapsed inwards. Sparks were flying everywhere. The fire was out of control again. If the men did not act immediately, the inn itself would catch fire.
Dominic grabbed a bucket and began to douse the inn wall, calling to the other men to help him. Provided they all stayed at their task, the inn should be safe. God willing.
By the time the fire was finally under control, all the men were exhausted. But they were triumphant. The yard was a sea of grinning teeth in blackened faces. Dominic knew he must look just as filthy as the rest of them.
For the first time in what seemed like hours, he relaxed his shoulders. His back was aching. And all those minute burns on his skin were beginning to hurt like hell.
The inn servants were working as an efficient team now. They no longer needed Dominic to direct them. So, with a sigh of relief, he made for the inn door and the staircase to his bedchamber. His room was deserted. His valet, Cooper, must still be down below, helping to fight the remnants of the fire, and unrecognisable under the dirt and sweat. No matter. Dominic had no need of him.
The reflection in the pier glass pulled him up short. It wasn't only his face that was filthy. His whole body was grimed with smoke. He grinned at himself. No wonder the girl had fled from him. He looked like a black demon. Even his own mother would not recognise him like this. He would have to bathe, but that would be impossible until the fire was out and the inn kitchen was working normally once more. Hot water would be the last thing on their minds at present. He would have to wait.
Sighing with exhaustion, Dominic sank on to the bed and pulled off one ruined boot. Even Cooper would be unable to save this pair. He grinned again, imagining the valet's consternation when he saw the state of them, and of his master. With luck, Cooper would have a pot of skin salve somewhere in his baggage. But, for the moment, Dominic did not care. What he wanted was to close his eyes, just for a few minutes.
He dropped the second ruined boot and lay back on the bed, allowing his head to sink into the feather pillows. Bliss. A few moments rest. Only a few.
He was just beginning to drift into sleep when her blurry image came back to him. That girl. What courage she had. Who was she? He must speak to her again and thank her. But only later, once he was clean again, and presentable. And once he was fully in control of his body's responses, too. He needed to show her that he was a gentleman, not a ravening demon. He found he could not quite remember her face, or the colour of her hair. It had all been too indistinct in the smoke. And later her head had been covered by a wet cloth, just as his own had been. But her hair had definitely been cropped, like a boy's. Very strange. Perhaps she had recently recovered from a fever or some such? Yes, that must be it. Still, it should be easy enough to discover her. There would not be many girls with cropped hair at the foremost inn of Boulogne. He would find her, and thank her. He'd give her a purse of guineas, too, if she would take them. She had certainly earned them.
So much courage. He must find her again. He must.
'Hold still, your Grace, if you please.'
Dominic cursed. Cooper was being particularly thorough with his confounded salve.
'Exactly so, your Grace. But if I don't catch all of these burns, they'll turn bad and then where will we be? Begging your Grace's pardon, o' course.' There was nothing in the least subservient about Cooper's tone, in spite of his words. He had been with Dominic for too many years and was particularly officious when he knew he was in the right. As now.
Dominic sighed and held himself still until his man had finished. Cooper eased a fine lawn shirt over Dominic's injured torso. It felt blessedly cool against his tormented skin.
'There. Works wonders, your Grace. You'll soon be right as ninepence. You'll see.'
'No doubt, Cooper,' Dominic croaked. His throat was still raw from the smoke. He reached for the tumbler of water and drained it. For a moment, it helped.
'I'll fetch up some honey in a moment,' Cooper said. He had been out in the yard, helping to pass the water buckets, but he had not inhaled nearly as much smoke as his master. He still sounded more or less normal. 'Once your Grace is fit to meet company again.'