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What kind of man would not do everything in his power to attend his wife's funeral?
From her place several pews back, Hannah Fletcher stared at the cluster of family members mourning the late Countess of Hawkehurst. It was a pitifully small group led by her ladyship's detested half brother. Not one of them had cared for the countess as much as Hannah, her young son's governess. The man who should have cared most of all was not even there to pay his final respects.
Hannah usually made an effort to think charitably of others, as the scriptures bid, but that was not easy when it came to Gavin Romney, Earl of Hawkehurst. It was one thing to turn the other cheek to someone who had wronged her personally. Hannah had always found it much harder to forgive those who hurt the people she cared about.
Besides, if she let go of her righteous anger toward his lordship, she feared her exhaustion and grief for Lady Hawkehurst would get the better of her and she would disgrace herself with an outburst of weeping. Such a lack of restraint would violate the commandments of the Pendergast School, which had been drummed into Hannah and her friends far more vigorously than the creed of Christian charity.
The Bishop of Kent had come to conduct her ladyship's funeral. Though Hannah followed the funeral service in her prayer book, listening attentively to the readings and making all the proper responses, part of her mind remained preoccupied with the earl's absence.
For the past several weeks, he had been in northern France with the Duke of Wellington's army, preparing to battle Bonaparte's forces once again. At the pleadings of her ladyship, Hannah had written to Lord Hawkehurst begging for his return, but he had failed to heed her urgent summons. Hannah felt certain his timely appearance at his wife's sickbed, and a show of concern for her welfare, might have given her ladyship the will to fight for her life. At the very least, it would have brought comfort to her final hours.
Hannah's hand still ached from where the countess had clung to it, hour after hour, the grip growing gradually feebler. Her ears still rang with the poor lady's repeated pleas for her absent husband and demands to know when he would come.
"Soon, ma'am, soon," Hannah had crooned the comforting lie until she almost believed it. Then she'd made excuses for him. "It is a long way from France with the Channel to cross. And there is a war on, remember?"
Hard as she strove to sound convincing, Hannah could not persuade herself. This was not November or March, after all, when the Channel crossing might be delayed by rough seas. And His Majesty's army had been marshaled on the French borders for weeks now, gathering strength and coordinating with Britain's allies for an attack that would oust Bonaparte from power once and for all.
There had been reports in the newspapers of some noble ladies setting up house in Brussels to be near the action and keep the officers entertained. To Hannah that sounded more like an enormous house party than a war. Surely one man would not be missed, even if he did command a regiment of cavalry. If the earl had begged leave to attend his dying wife, Hannah was certain his superiors would have granted it at once.
But clearly Lord Hawkehurst had made no such request. Bad enough he had ignored her summons to his wife's deathbed. Surely he could have made an effort to attend the funeral and pretend to mourn her passing.
So deeply absorbed was Hannah in her indignant brooding that she scarcely noticed the mournful hush of the congregation fall quieter still, as if everyone present were holding their breath. It was a hesitation in the bishop's eulogy that roused her attention. Only then did she hear the ponderous tread of footsteps making their way up the aisle and see the heads of those around her turn toward the sound.
She followed their gazes just in time to see a man walk past her wearing the scarlet coat of the Royal Dragoons.
His lordship had arrived at last. He might have done better to stay away, Hannah reflected bitterly, than to disrupt his wife's funeral by turning up late and in such a state. As he walked past her aisle seat, she noted with disapproval his disheveled appearance. His coat was dirty, and he stank of horses. Granted, the earl must have traveled in haste, but surely he could have taken the opportunity of the Channel crossing to make himself presentable.
Instead he looked as if he had not bothered to wash, shave or comb his hair in days. Besides the pungent reek of horse, Hannah also detected the sharp odor of spirits. How dare the earl show so little respect for his wife's memory by coming to her funeral in a state of intoxication?
His lordship's labored, unsteady gait further persuaded Hannah that that was precisely what he had done. The harsh lessons of her girlhood and her regard for the late countess were all that prevented her from surging to her feet and denouncing Lord Hawkehurst in front of his family and neighbors.
To the bishop's credit, he did not let the earl's tardy arrival interrupt his fine eulogy. Hannah doubted many of those assembled heeded a word of it as Lord Hawkehurst reached the family pew and his brother-in-law budged over to make room for him. When the earl dropped heavily into the pew, the breathless silence of the congregation shattered into a buzz of muted whispers.
Jane, the head housemaid at Edgecombe, nudged Hannah, but she ignored the sharp dig in her ribs, keeping an indignant glare directed at the back of the earl's head. She only wished he were aware of it. But in his disgraceful state, she doubted he would notice even if she were staring him in the face.
The final prayer was uttered, the final hymn sung and the soul of Clarissa Romney, Countess of Hawkehurst, was committed to the care of her Lord and Savior. Hannah took comfort in knowing her ladyship would find the peace and love in Heaven that had been denied her in this world.
The congregation stood while the family of the deceased made their way back down the aisle led by the earl. He was visibly staggering at this point, Hannah noted with barely suppressed outrage as he lurched toward her.
His dark eyes appeared glazed and absent at first. Then he met her glare, which seemed to penetrate his befuddlement.
He stumbled to a halt in front of her. "I got your message, Miss Fletcher."
Though Hannah could smell the spirits quite distinctly now, they did not seem to be on his breath. How could that be?
"Thank you for sending for me," his lordship continued in a heavy, slurred voice. "I came as soon as I could."
How could he make such a disgraceful spectacle at a ceremony that was meant to be solemn and dignified? The thought of such an insult to her ladyship's memory brought a sting of tears to Hannah's eyes. The rest of the mourners faded from her awareness as she focused with baleful intensity on the dark, rugged man before her. She forgot that he was a powerful peer of the realm and her employer.
"I sent that letter days ago," she replied in a fierce whisper through gritted teeth. "Could you not have shown her ladyship a little more respect in death than in"
Before she could say anything more that she would surely regret, the earl's dark eyes suddenly rolled up and his rangy frame pitched toward her. Fortunately others nearby had the presence of mind to swoop forward and break his lordship's fall. The brunt of his weight still fell on Hannah, who instinctively opened her arms to catch him.
She heard sharp gasps and a louder buzz of whispers as the earl's dead weight pressed down on her, his head resting on her shoulder and his black hair grazing her cheek. Then, as swiftly as he had collapsed, other hands pulled him away from her and lowered him into the aisle.
His late wife's physician rushed forward, tugging loose the earl's neck linen and wrenching open the buttons of his coat. Though many people crowded around, Hannah had a clear view of it all from her place at the end of the pew.
A gasp burst from her lips when she saw that the right side of the earl's shirt was drenched in dark blood.
From nearby she heard someone murmur, "He must have ridden here straight from the battlefield."
Those words smote Hannah's conscience a heavy blow. While she had been entertaining the worst possible thoughts about him, Lord Hawkehurst had been shedding blood for his country traveling all the way from France wounded. Though she still could not excuse the unhappiness he had caused his wife, it seemed that in this instance she had misjudged the man.
As the doctor strove to revive his lordship, Hannah overheard a doleful whisper from one of the other onlookers. "Those poor children. I pray they will not lose both their parents within the fortnight."
The children! Hannah jerked a hand to her lips to stifle a cry. Five-year-old Peter had taken his mother's death very hard. What would become of him if he lost his father so soon after? And the precious newborn twinsshe could not bear to think of them being orphaned before they were a month old. Their mother had entrusted all three children to her care with practically her dying breath. If their father lived, he might respect his late wife's wishes. Otherwise guardians would take charge of the Romney children. Those guardians might have their own ideas about how they ought to be raised and educatedideas that would not include a humble governess making decisions about their upbringing.
For the sake of those dear children and the promise she had made to their dying mother, Hannah knew she must do everything in her power to make certain Lord Hawkehurst survived.
Every time the hooves of his charging horse hit the ground, it jolted Gavin and drove a red-hot poker of pain through his side below his ribs. But he dared not slow his mount's headlong gallop. Indeed, he must urge it to greater speed. A narrow gap in the French lines was closing fast. If he could not squeeze through, that would be the end of him and poor Molesworth.
Gritting his teeth against the stabs of pain, Gavin tightened his knees around his horse's straining barrel. Then he bent low in an effort to secure his wounded comrade, who hung over the beast's withers. Gavin had no idea where he'd found the surge of strength to hoist Molesworth up in front of him. Perhaps it had come from the same source his horse now called on to fuel its final dash.
As it galloped through the gap in the lines, Gavin caught a confused glimpse of scarlet coats. Some of his Royal Dragoons must have braved the murderous French fire to wedge open a route of escape for him.
The fools! A groan of dismay rumbled through Gavin's chest and rose to his parched lips. Somehow it wrenched him away from the battlefield into a place of dark, eerie silence.
"There now." A quiet voice penetrated the stillness to reach him. "Don't fret yourself."
Not fret? How could he? He must find out what had become of Molesworth and the men who had risked their lives to give him a chance. There was someone else, toosomeone who needed him as urgently as his fallen comrades.
"Rest and try to recover your strength." It was a woman's voice. Her words were accompanied by a swipe of something cool across his brow.
His strength? Now that she brought it to his attention, Gavin realized he did feel weak. Though the pain in his side had eased to a dull throb, it cost him enormous effort to move his leaden, aching limbs. But he could not just lie there, wherever there might be.
He had a vital mission to carry out, and there was no time to lose. If only he could remember what he was meant to do and muster the strength to do it.
"You must not give up!" another woman insisted. Her tone was emphatic and determined, in sharp contrast to the other's gentle murmur. "You are a soldier and a very brave one. You must fight now for your life!"
Her peremptory order roused his resentment. He had spent years in His Majesty's service, driving Bonaparte's forces out of Portugal and Spain. He did not need anyone telling him to fight!
That flash of anger roused his consciousness, forcing the darkness to loosen its grip on his mind. He must open his eyes to discover the identity of these women who hovered about, by turns soothing and inflaming him. He had a nagging conviction that he should recognize their voices, but his memory refused to cooperate.
When he struggled to raise his eyelids, he found them every bit as obstinate. His thoughts seemed mired in thick black mud, sucking him into the depths of oblivion, where neither entreaties nor commands could reach him.
For a time he surrendered to it. Part of him felt ashamed for not fighting harder, but another part welcomed the opportunity to forget.
A while laterhe could not tell whether it had been an instant or many long hoursone of the voices again invaded his tranquil darkness and strove to lure him out of it. "You are going to live. You must, for the sake of your children. They need you, and I refuse to let you abandon them."
His children! Gavin could not ignore the challenge and the plea in the woman's words. Was that the mission he'd sensed deep in his bones but could not remember? He must return to his children and protect them.
He wanted to tell the woman he would never think of abandoning his family. But his tongue felt parched and swollen. When he tried to speak, it would not budge. The best he could do, with enormous effort, was turn his head away from the voice in denial of her accusation.
"You can hear me." The other woman spokethe gentle one. She sounded exhausted but encouraged. "I feel certain you can. It was the mention of your children that roused you, wasn't it? You cannot bear for them to be left all alone without a parent's love and protection."
Gavin knew more about parental judgment and censure. He was far from certain he had it in him to be a better kind of father. But what choice did he have?
An arm slipped behind his shoulders, raising his head. The pain in his chest sharpened again, and a wave of dizziness washed over him. Unpleasant as those sensations were, they pushed him closer to full consciousness.
He felt the rim of a cup press against his lips. When a trickle of cool liquid ran into his mouth, he was able to swallow it gratefully.
"I cannot bear that thought either," the voice whispered, from so nearby it seemed almost to come from his own thoughts. "I know how it feels to grow up that way, and I would not wish it on any child, least of all your dear little ones."
The wistful sorrow of her entreaty penetrated deep and sank a hook into Gavin's heart.
"Have a little more water," she urged him. "Then I will give you some broth. You must be starved, and you will need your strength to get well."
Though the darkness tried to tug him back into its peaceful depths, Gavin found he could not give in so easily this time. Something in the voice made him want to keep listening, even when he must exert himself to maintain a glimmer of awareness.
He swallowed several more sips of water, then received the promised broth. He savored the hearty flavor on his tongue, and his empty belly welcomed the warm nourishment. He was completely at the mercy of the woman who tended him.
Never in his life could he recall being so tenderly cared for.