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She had been walking for hours without stopping, but now she was hungry. She was fairly certain that no one had followed her. It must be safe now to stop and eat some of the food she had packed. Placing her larger bundle on the ground, Roxanne spread her shawl on the dry earth and sat down, opening the cloth that carried her bread, cheese and the preserved fruit she had brought with her. Sofia had always kept a jar of dried fruits on her shelf, because she said figs, dates and apricots were good to eat in the winter when they could not pick fruit from the hedgerows.
She missed Sofia so much! Her friend's sad death had left her alone and in fear of the future. She had no one who cared for her and no one to care for. She was not sure which felt the worst, because she had enjoyed caring for her friend in her last months when she became too feeble to care for herself.
Blinking away her tears, Roxanne rose to her feet and gathered her bundles. Sofia had been one of a band of travelling players, almost a mother to her, and she had given Roxanne so much, even her name.
'If anything happens to me you should go to London,' Sofia had told her only a few days before she died. 'You are a fine actress, my love. You could find fame and fortune—and perhaps marry a man of substance and be the lady I believe you truly are.'
Roxanne had begged her not to talk of dying, tears stinging her eyes, but after her death it had become clear that Roxanne could not stay with the band of travelling players with whom she had lived for the past five years. She was in danger and her only choice was to run away before he returned to the camp.
She had made up her mind that she would get to London if she could, though it would mean walking for many days, perhaps weeks. Before she reached the great city, she would need to find work for a few days to earn her food.
Lost in thought, she was startled as she heard a loud cry and then a horse came crashing through the trees towards her. It was saddled, but without a rider, its reins hanging loose, and she realised that someone must have fallen.
Instinctively, she ran in the direction from which the cry had seemed to come. She had gone only a few yards when she saw a man lying on the ground. His eyes were closed and his face looked pale. Her heart caught and for a moment she thought he was dead. Dropping her bundles, she knelt by his side and touched his face. He felt warm and she drew a breath of relief. His fingers were moving and he was still breathing, though seemed unaware of her. He must have been knocked unconscious by the fall from his horse.
She hesitated, then unwound his white stock from his neck; taking out her precious store of water, she poured some of it onto the fine linen and began to bathe his face. His lips moved, a groan issuing from him, then his eyes flickered open and he looked up at her.
'What happened?' he muttered. 'Who are you?'
'My name is Roxanne. I think you fell from your horse. It came rushing at me through the trees and I heard your cry.'
'It was the fox,' he said and pushed up into a sitting position. His dark grey eyes fixed on her face. 'It started up just in front of us. I tried to stop, but I was riding hard and the stupid horse reared up in a fright.'
'The horse was startled. They are nervous creatures, sir. If you were riding too hard, the fault was yours.'
'The devil it was.' His slate-coloured eyes narrowed, became intent and suspicious. 'What is a lady like you doing alone in these woods—dressed like that?'
Roxanne hesitated, for to tell him her true story was too risky. She did not know him and should use caution.
He was undoubtedly a gentleman and Sofia had warned her to be careful of the gentry, for they were not to be trusted.
'I was with a band of travelling players, but I had to leave. I am trying to get to London to find work as an actress.'
'Are you indeed?' His gaze was unsettling. 'I see you have water, Miss Roxanne. Will you give me some?'
'I used some to bathe your face, but you may have a few sips.' Roxanne handed him the stoneware flask and he lifted it to his mouth, drinking deeply. 'Please leave some. I may not find a stream to refill my flask for hours.'
'I passed a stream not far back,' he replied. 'But if you are making for London you are walking in the wrong direction.'
'Oh ' Roxanne frowned as he handed her back the bottle. 'Perhaps you could—' She broke off as he attempted to stand and shouted with pain. He swayed and would have fallen had she not caught hold of his body and supported him. 'Where does it hurt?'
'My right ankle,' he groaned. 'I think it must be broken. If I sit down again, could you take the boot off for me?'
'Do you think that wise, sir? The boot will probably have to be cut off if your ankle is broken—and a doctor should do it. Sofia would have known how to treat you, but I do not have her skills.'
'Who the hell is Sofia? Is she with you?'
'She was my dearest friend and she died recently.'
'Sorry,' he muttered, his face white with pain. 'I have a knife. Cut the damned thing off and bind the ankle with the stock. It will have to do until we can find an inn and a doctor.'
'We—are you expecting me to go with you?'
'How do you imagine I can get anywhere alone? Or were you planning to go on and leave me here?'
'Your temper does not help your cause, sir. If you will sit, I shall attempt to do as you ask—and, no, now you mention it, I was not planning to abandon you.'
His eyes narrowed in annoyance, his mouth set hard. 'You speak in the tones and manner of a lady, yet you say you are an actress. You must be a clever one.'
'Sofia said I could play royalty to the manner born,' Roxanne said, helping him to lower himself to the ground so that she could attend to his ankle. 'She was once a courtesan and had both royal and aristocratic lovers in her youth so I imagine she would know how they behave.'
'She sounds quite a remarkable lady?'
'She was wonderful.' Roxanne hesitated, then ran her hands down the length of the boot. Not yet! She would not tell him too much too soon. 'It is difficult to tell while this is on, but I think you may have a break just above your ankle. It will hurt too much if I try to pull the boot off—have I your permission to cut the leather? I dare say it may have cost a great deal of money.'
'I have other pairs; just do it.' He thrust a hand into his pocket and brought out a silver penknife.
'I think I have something better.' Roxanne opened her large bundle and took out a long thin dagger. 'The blade is very sharp. It will slit the leather easier than your knife.'
'Good grief, what are you carrying a dangerous thing like that for?'
'I am a woman travelling alone. I needed to be sure I could protect myself.'
'Remind me never to try to seduce you when I'm drunk.'
'Are you in the habit of seducing women when drunk?'
Roxanne's eyes held a sparkle of amusement as she glanced at him and then back at the boot. It was long and tight fitting and obviously the best quality. She inserted the knifepoint into the leather and began to slit the length of the boot. Her patient groaned once or twice as she worked, a muffled cry escaping him as she finally drew it from his foot.
'Damn!' he muttered as her fingers began to explore his ankle and the region above. 'It hurts like hell.'
'I think there is a small break just above the ankle,' Roxanne said. 'The flesh is not torn, but there is a bump where there ought to be straight bone—it might have been worse.'
'You cannot feel the pain,' he muttered fiercely.
'I am certain it hurts, but I shall bind it with your stock and use the last of the cold water. That may stop the swelling from becoming too bad, but I am not an expert, sir. If we can make you comfortable enough to ride your horse, it will be much easier for you to continue your journey.'
'Supposing we could find the damned creature.'
'I dare say it will not have gone far. I will look for it after I've bound your ankle.'
'You'll go and leave me here.' He looked angry, as if he believed she would simply walk away.
'I promise I shall not. All I have in the world is in these bundles. If I leave them with you, I must return.' She finished her work and rose to her feet. 'Try to rest until I return with the horse.'
'And if you cannot find it?'
'I shall return and try to help you, though it may be best to fetch help. Wait patiently if you can. I shall not be long.'
'Damn you,' he muttered through clenched teeth. 'You're made of iron. You should have been born a lady, you belong with the starched-petticoat brigade.'
'Sofia always said I was from good family.' Roxanne smiled. 'Lady or not, I shall not desert you, sir.'
She walked back the way she had come. The horse had been in a blind panic, but once it stopped its mad flight it would stand and wait to be reclaimed by its owner. She must just hope that it had not injured itself because she needed it to be strong enough to carry them both and her bundles.
Luke cursed as he reached into his coat pocket and took out his pocket flask, which was still half-filled with brandy. His ankle was hurting like the devil and the girl had been gone too long. If she did not come within a few minutes, he would have to try to find help himself. If he ignored the pain, he might hobble far enough to find a farm or a woodcutter's hut. He was attempting to rise when he heard a rustling sound and, a moment later, the girl appeared through the trees leading his horse.
'I thought you had decided to leave me after all,' he said a trifle sulkily. 'You were gone a long time.'
'Your horse was not sure he wanted to come to a stranger. He was a little shy at first, but we have become friends now.'
She led the horse to Luke. 'I think he will carry us both and my bundles, sir. If not, then I can walk beside you. I do not think you capable of riding hard this time.'
'Impertinent wench.' Luke scowled at her and then laughed. 'You remind me of my Great-Aunt Dorethea when she was young.'
'Indeed? I'm not sure whether I should be flattered or insulted.' Roxanne's brows arched. 'Do you think you can mount if I hold the horse?'
'Flattered. I admired her. Give me your arm, Miss Roxanne. I need you as a crutch.' Holding on to her arm, Luke levered himself on to his left foot. He hobbled towards the horse, then, as she held its head steady, took hold of the saddle and belly-flopped over it, using the strength of his arms and body to pull himself into a sitting position. Beads of sweat had gathered on his brow by this time, but he controlled his desire to yell out with pain. Roxanne had fitted her bundles round the pommel of the saddle; then, with an agility that surprised him, she took his outstretched hand and swung herself up behind him. 'You've done that before?'
'I've been riding horses barebacked since I was thirteen or so. We did an act that involved my having to jump up on to a moving horse.'
'You are full of surprises, Miss Roxanne. I thought you a lady at first, but no lady of my acquaintance could do what you just did.'
'A lady might not have been near when you fell,' she reminded him. 'I may not be a gentlewoman in the sense you mean, sir—but I will thank you to show me the proper respect. I am not a lightskirt and shall not be treated as one.'
Luke glanced over his shoulder. 'How do you imagine I would treat you if you were a whore?'
'I have no idea how a gentleman behaves with a lady of easy virtue, though Sofia told me that gentlemen are invariably the worst. I only know that I did not like the way Black Bob looked at me.'
Luke was intrigued. 'Who is he and how did he look at you?'
'He is the leader of the troupe and looked at me as though he could see through my clothes. He told me that now Sofia was dead, he would claim me as his woman—so I ran away.'
'You have run away from your people?'
'Yes. He had to go somewhere on business and so I took my chance while he was gone.'
A rueful laugh escaped Luke. 'And you ran into me. Well, Miss Roxanne, I must thank my lucky stars that you did. If you help me as far as the next inn, I shall return the favour by hiring a coach to take us both to London.'
Posted January 1, 2012
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