Read an Excerpt
20 April 1814Bordeaux
The breeze funnelling down the Gironde estuary from the sea was chill, Meg told herself, snuggling her shawl around her shoulders. And it was a long time since she had eaten much and the bag containing her pelisse was somewhere on the battlefield of Toulouse with an abandoned wagon train. That was all these shivers were, not fear.
A group of people were coming along the quayside, making for the Englandbound ship moored further along. She put her shoulders back and her chin up. It was important to look respectable, competent and not at all needy. One of them, surely, would welcome a willing pair of hands to help on the voyage in return for her passage? That did not seem a very certain plan, but it was the only one she had now.
A tall gentleman with a lady on his arm, a valet and maid, a stack of baggagethey most certainly had no need of her. A plainly dressed middleaged man with a valise in one hand, a clerk at his elbow. A businessman, no doubt. Then more luggage. The porters shoved a loaded cart to one side to reveal another passenger and shock had her stepping back in superstitious dread.
Death was stridingno, limpingalong the quayside in the bright spring sunlight. For goodness' sake! Meg took a grip on her nerves. He was a fleshandblood human being, of course he was. Just a man. But very much a man. He seemed to dominate the long quayside until there was nowhere else to look.
Tall and strongly built, clad in the dark green of the Rifle Brigade uniform, he was bareheaded, his sword at his side. His red officer's sash was stained and blackened and, unusually for an officer, a rifle was slung over his shoulder. The right leg of his trousers had been slashed to allow for the bulge of a bandage just above his knee and flapped around the long black boot with each stride.
His hair was crowblack, a stubble beard shadowed his jaw and his dark eyes squinted against the sun beneath heavy brows as he scanned the quay with the intensity of a man expecting enemy sniper fire.
His scrutiny found Meg. She forced herself to look back indifferently, letting her glance slide across him. Her experience had taught her to size men up fast, a habit that was no longer one of life and death and which perhaps she should lose. Not that she had ever had to assess anyone who looked quite this dangerous.
Not only was this dishevelled officer big, dirty and obviously wounded, even cleaned up he would not be a handsome man. His big nose had been broken, his jaw was brutally strong, his expression grim and those dark eyes had a slant to them that was positively devilish under the thick brows. No wonder she had thought of Death when she first saw him.
Then he was past her, a porter following with a trunk and a few battered bags stacked on his barrow. Meg had heard yesterday that now that Napoleon had surrendered they were sending part of the Rifle Brigade straight off to America. But this man was obviously not fit for the rigours of that war; like her, he was heading back home.
To England, she corrected herself. Was that home? It was so long since she had seen it that it felt more alien than Spain. But it was where her sisters were and she had to find them.
More passengers. Forget the grim officer and focus on this group. In front was precisely the sort of person she had been hoping for: a welldressed Spanish or Portuguese lady with threeno, fourchildren and a maid with her arms full of the fifth, a squalling baby. Meg fixed a respectful smile on her lips and stepped forwards to approach the harassed woman.
'Whee!' A small boy rushed past her, following his hoop as it bounced and clattered over the cobbles. How good to see a child happy and safe after so much death and destruction.
'Jose! Mind that ladycome back here!' The woman's voice was shrill with an edge of exhaustion. She would welcome help, surely?
'Signora, excuse me, but may I be of assistance?' Meg asked in Spanish. 'I see you have a number of children and I'
'Jose!' There was a splash. Meg spun round to see no child, only the hoop teetering, then falling to the ground by the edge of the quay.
She picked up her skirts and ran. There might be a boat She looked over the edge at the brown swirling water fifteen feet below her and realised that not only was there no boat, but that the tide was flooding out, the level was falling by the second and there were no steps down. She couldn't swim in this, no one could. A small head bobbed up, then vanished again. She ran along the edge, trying to keep up with the child in the water. Where was everyone? Where was her pitiful French when she needed it to call for help?
Then a dark figure brushed past and launched into a long, flat dive that took him slicing into the river just behind the boy. 'Aidezmoi!' Meg shouted as men began to run to the edge of the quay. 'Une corde! Vite!'
He had him. She was panting with the effort of keeping up, the need to somehow breathe for all three of them. The black head turned as the man struck out for the quay, the child in his grasp. But he was slowing, hardly making any way against the ebbing tide. It was the darkly sinister officer, she realised. With his bandaged leg, the heavy, painful limp, it was a miracle he could swim at all. Ahead she saw an iron ladder disappearing down the stone face of the quay and measured the angles with her eye. Would he make it to there? Could he make it to the edge at all?
The breath rasped raw in his throat; his right leg had gone from burning pain to a leaden numbness that dragged him down. Ross shifted his grip around the child's chest and fought the muddy current, angling towards the sheer cliff of the quayside. Diving in with his boots on didn't help. And only one leg was obeying him anyway.
The boy struggled. 'Keep still,' he snapped in Spanish. He wasn't going to let this brat drown if he could help it. He'd seen too much deathcaused too much death: he couldn't face another. Not another child.
Then the sheer weedslimed granite wall was in front of him without a single handhold up the towering face except perhaps 'Boy!' The child stirred, coughed. 'See that metal ring?' They bumped hard against the stone, the water playing spitefully with them as he tried to keep station under the rusty remains of a mooring ring. It was big, large enough to push the boy's head and shoulders through.
'Si.' The brat had pluck. He was white with terror, clinging with choking force to Ross's neck, but he looked up.
'Let go and reach for it.' He boosted the child up, the force of the lunge pushing him completely under the surface once, twice, and then the weight was gone. He surfaced, spewing water, and saw the boy half through the ring, wriggling into it like a terrified monkey. 'Hold on!' The child managed to nod, his little face screwed up with determination as he clung to the rusty metal.
But something was very wrong. Ross's vision was blurring, his shoulders burned as though his muscles and tendons were on fire and his legs were too heavy to kick.
Hell. So this is it. Thirteen years of being shot at, blown up, frozen, soaked, halfstarved, marched the length and breadth of the Iberian peninsulawe win the war and I die in a muddy French river. Everything was dark now. Ross tried to kick, tried to use his arms, more out of sheer bloodymindedness than any real expectation that he could swim any further. Doesn't matter. Didn't want to go back anyway Duty. I tried.
He hit something with the only part of his body that wasn't numbhis faceput up his hands to fend it off and found himself clutching a horizontal metal bar. Hold on Why? No point
'Hold on!' The words echoed in his head, very close to his ear. In English. A female voice? Impossible which meant he was hallucinating. Not long now. Someone took hold of him, gripped one arm, and the blackness claimed him.
* * *
When was he going to come round? Meg pushed her hair out of her eyes and stood up to pour dirty water into the slop bucket. Her soaked skirt clung unpleasantly to her legs, but that would have to wait. She had just the one other gown left and she was not going to risk ruining that. Time enough to do some washing and make herself respectable when she had dealt with her patient.
She stood back, hands on hips, and studied the man on the bunk with some satisfaction. It had taken four dockhands to get a rope round him and haul him out of the water, not helped by having to do it with Meg bent double, still hanging on to his arm, twined into the rusty ladder as the river surged around her knees. He was big; with him unconscious and soaking wet, it had felt like trying to shift a dead horse. She rubbed her aching shoulders at the memory.
The crew of the Falmouth Rose had not asked who she was when she walked up the gangplank in the wake of the men carrying his body on a hurdle. She was with Major Brandon and that, as she had gambled, was enough to gain admittance to the ship. Fortunately he had his name on his luggage, and she could read uniforms as easily as her prayer book by nowshe had removed enough of them over the past eighteen months.
The men who had lugged him down to the cabin had been obliging enough to strip him for her, otherwise she supposed she would have had to cut his clothing off. It was dripping now, hung on nails that some previous occupant of the cabin had driven into the bulkhead, and he lay with just a sheet covering him from upper thigh to chest.
Meg had washed the scrape on his face where he had hit the ladder. Now she poured fresh water into the basin, opened the sturdy leather bag that sat beside her valise and took out scissors to cut away the sodden bandage on his leg. 'Aah!' The breath hissed between her teeth. This was battlefield surgery, rough and ready, and then he had neglected the wound. The edges of the messy hole in the side of his leg just above the knee were raw and puffy.
Lead had been dug out with more speed than finesse, and not very long ago by the look of it. No doubt he had been wounded at Toulouse. It was hard luck to take a bullet in the leg during the last battle of the war, almost within hours of the news of Napoleon's surrender and abdication.
She would have expected them to amputate the leg that would have been normal practice. One glance at the jaw of the man on the bunk suggested that perhaps he had refused; he looked stubborn enough. He must be either immune to pain or quite extraordinarily bullheaded to be walking with it like this. She suspected the latter. Perhaps the scowl was not natural bad temper but a way of dealing with agony. She could only hope so.
Meg sniffed the wound. It was infected, her sensitive nose told her that, but there was no sickening sweet smell of mortification. 'Which is more than you deserve,' she informed the unresponsive figure. 'It is a good thing you aren't awake because I am going to clean it up now.'
The leather bag with the initials P.F. had all its contents intact still. She supposed it was theft, taking Peter's medical bag, but he was beyond using it now and she had seen no reason to leave it for looters. The surgeon had taught her well in the months she had shared his tent and worked at his side amidst the blood and the pain of the battlefield casualties, but neither of them had been able to do anything about his own sudden fever.
Now she washed her hands and studied the wound in front of her, trying to see it as a problem to be solved, not part of the unconscious man. She sponged and swabbed, then probed, first with her fingertips around the swollen edges and then into the wound with fine forceps, her lips com pressed in concentration.
Eventually she sat back on her heels and flexed her tight shoulders. She had never learned to relax as a good surgeon should, now she would never have to. This was the last wound she would probe, thank God.
There was a satisfaction in viewing Major Brandon's leg, neatly bandaged, and the jagged splinter of metal and several bone chips that lay on a swab. Now it might have some chance of healing, if he would only show some common sense and look after it.
Finally she let herself look at her patient. She had done what she could to clean him as she helped strip away his clothes, detached as a good nurse should be. Now he lay sprawled on his back. His chest and shoulders were tanned and the black hair that made a pelt on his chest and dusted his legs and arms only compounded the impression he gave of darkness. How old was he? It was hard to tellthose strong, harsh features made him look older than he probably was. Thirtytwo?
Meg spread the sheet out to cover him from collarbone to toes now that she had finished working on his leg. It was warm in the cabin, even with the tiny porthole open, and she had to keep the lamps burning to see what she was doing, which added to the heat. He would not need a blanket, not unless he began to run a fever, but the thin sheet did little to conceal what lay beneath it.
Her gaze ran slowly down the long body and she found she was biting her lip. A heat began to build low in her belly and her mouth felt dry. He was a magnificent male creature, despite his harsh, forbidding face. All smooth, defined muscles, sculpted bulk, scarred skin she wanted to taste with her fingertips. Her lips. He was a patient and she should not be looking at him with those thoughts in her mind. Yet he was stirring feelings in her that seemed so much more acute, disturbing, than any she had felt before.
Surely after five years of living with James she had learned that sexual satisfaction for the woman was a fleeting thing at best? She had never wanted to touch him in the way that she wanted to touch this man, a way that had nothing to do with hoping for a comforting cuddle or the protection of a sleeping male body at night.
Meg gave herself a little shake. If he regained consciousness and made any sort of move to touch her in that way, she would probably flee screaming. Her intimate experience of men so far had not included anyone so big, so grimso thoroughly frightening.
It took a while to tidy the cabin, pack the medical bag, dispose of the dirty water and soiled cloths. There would be just room to unroll blankets on the deck to sleep on and she created a tiny private space with a sheet across one corner and more of the convenient nails. She was used to living in tents and in huts; neatness had become second nature, settling in was somehow soothing. Meg paused, put her hands to the small of her back and stretched. What would her sister Bella say if she could see her now? Romantic, dreamy Meg with her sleeves rolled up, sorting out the practicalities of nursing a wounded man at sea.
The big man's breathing seemed to fill the cabin and her consciousness. It was steady and deep despite the amount of water he had thrown up when they had dumped him on the quayside. His lungs would be all right, she felt fairly confident of that. There was no excuse to check his pulse or lay her head on his chest to listen. No excuse to touch him at all.