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Miss Jane Lockwood and Miss Agatha Wedmore, Jane's former governess and now companion, were returning in the carriage from a trip to the village. There they had made a day of it, calling upon the vicar and his wife, taking a nuncheon at the Crown Inn, and visiting some of the poorer members of the parish.
As they bowled along, they discussed the latest news and gossip imparted to them by Mrs. Micklethorp, the vicar's wife. Or, rather, Miss Wedmore discussed it. Jane listened with only half an ear while allowing her mind to wander to other things.
After all, very little which was new or of interest ever happened in Dunby or the surrounding neighbourhood. Of course, there was the highwayman who had been victimizing the region for the last fortnight, but as he seemed to operate closer to Leeds than to Dunby, Jane saw no reason for concern. And, naturally, there had been the usual animadversions upon the depraved character of Viscount St. Clair, but those were neither new nor news.
She wished that she were driving the curricle instead of being shut up in the carriage on such a splendid day. Ordinarily she would have been, but that morning before they left, it had looked like rain, and rather than arguing with Agatha, she had agreed to take the enclosed carriage.
She strongly suspected, however, that John Coachman had spent the entire day at the local inn, imbibing far too freely. She wondered briefly whether she should tell him to slow down just a trifle, but then decided against it. Inebriated or not, John knew this road as he knew the back of his hand, and they were not likely to meet any other travelers on it. Besides, she quite enjoyed a little reckless speed; sheliked to think that it was one of her few vices.
"You are not listening to me, Jane," said Agatha in an accusing voice.
With an apologetic smile, Jane said, "Forgive me, Agatha. I'm afraid I was wool-gathering. What were you saying?"
"I was referring to this scheme of yours to take in Alice Brant while her papa goes gallivanting off to parts unknown."
"Come now, Agatha. You are being unfair. The squire is merely going to the Continent for a few weeks, and since he will be accompanied by several of his cronies, you can scarcely blame him for not wishing to be saddled with Alice. Besides, she must be prepared for her come-out next spring."
"Be that as it may, I do not see why he could not have arranged to leave her with a female relative."
Jane's eyes sparkled with amusement. "Well, as to that, I believe the only one with whom he is on speaking terms is Lady Bassett, his elder sister. Unfortunately, Alice does not care for her aunt, and threw such a tantrum at the possibility of being sent to her that poor Sir Alfred was left positively quaking."
"Now that just proves my point," declared Agatha. "There is no handling the girl! You may mark my words when I say that you are making a sad mistake, for I have yet to meet a more hoydenish female than that one."
"Oh, I believe Alice has outgrown the ways of a hoyden, though I will own that she is a trifle wild."
"Humph," Agatha snorted. "She is wild to a fault, you mean. I very much fear that you will live to regret this."
Jane sighed. Actually, she was quite looking forward to having the girl in her household, since she was certain to liven things up a bit. But rather than admit that to Agatha, who had her own notions of how Jane might liven up her life, she said, "Perhaps I shall, but as I have already agreed to take her under my wing and teach her how to go on in Society, I cannot now cry off. Besides, as you know, the squire was one of Papa's few friends, and has always been unfailingly kind to me. I did not feel that I could refuse him."
When Agatha only scowled and shook her head, Jane added, "In any event, with what he is willing to pay me, I shall be able to make some much needed repairs at Meadowbrook. And you must agree," she continued somewhat ruefully, "that I am rather well suited for teaching proper behaviour to the girl."
Agatha sniffed. She could not argue with that. She would wager that there was not a more proper female in all of England than Miss Jane Lockwood. How often she had wished that it were not so, that Jane were not quite such a pattern card of propriety. Things might have turned out so differently if only ... But that was like wishing for the moon.
Well aware of her companion's thoughts, Jane turned her head to glance out the window. They were passing Ethridge Hall and, unconsciously, she leaned forward to get a better view of it. As she did each time she saw it, she wondered why it was that the place fascinated her so, and she felt a surge of sadness that it had been so neglected.
It was built in the Elizabethan style, and its mellow red brick glowed warmly in the afternoon sun. In that light and from this distance, the signs of neglect were not so evident, if one could contrive to ignore the overgrown gardens and parkland surrounding it. And, as always, Jane found herself imagining elegant lords and ladies in old-fashioned dress gliding through the halls and the many rooms of the house. If anyone had ever accused her of having a romantic streak in her nature, she would have denied it vehemently. Yet the thought of all the dramas, loves and intrigues which must have occurred within those walls never failed to stir her.
Ethridge Hall soon passed from sight, however, and Jane sat back, still regretting such waste. The house had sat empty for two years, ever since the death of old Thomas Caldwell, but even before that, the estate had begun to go to ruin. The old man was rumoured to have been as rich as Croesus, but a pinchpenny who had begrudged every farthing he was forced to spend.
Idly, she wondered about Caldwell's heir and why he had never come even to look the place over. Not that she wished for such as he to take up residence there. Viscount St. Clair was said to be the most shocking rake, with a reputation so black that no one would speak of what he had actually done to deserve it. But the least be could have done was sell the estate to someone who would have appreciated it and restored it to its former glory.
A short distance ahead, the rider of a large black stallion spoke rather apologetically to the horse as he brought him to a halt. "I hate to tell you this, Achilles, but I do not recognize this lane at all. In fact, my friend, I fear we are lost."
The sleek animal tossed his head up and down once, as though he were agreeing with his master, then gave a loud blow through his nostrils which sounded very much like a snort of disgust.
The man had been looking speculatively up and down what he could see of the narrow country lane, but at the noise, he turned his attention to the horse with an amused chuckle. "Yes, I know," he said. "Ridiculous, is it not, to be forced to admit to being lost when I have always prided myself on my sense of direction. But there it is." Then he frowned and muttered, "And it is damnably inconvenient, too."
Horse and rider stood just beside the barrier of a low hedge which bordered the lane. To their left was a small stand of trees, and beyond that the dusty lane curved out of sight. As yet, no one was aware of the stranger's presence in this area of Yorkshire, and he would have preferred to keep it that way. But now he urged his mount towards a small opening he had spied in the hedge, saying, "Well, since there is little danger that anyone in this backwater will recognize me, I think there is nothing for it but to find someone who can point us in the right direction." He stopped and listened for a moment, then added, "And I believe we are in luck."
The distinctive sound of a carriage approaching could be heard, and the rider guided Achilles through the hedge and out into the middle of the lane. There he drew his mount to a halt and waited for the vehicle to appear round the bend.
A few moments later, when a team of horses came into view, he stood in the stirrups and raised an arm to hail the approaching carriage.
As they swept around the curve in the lane, Jane broke off her thoughts about Ethridge Hall and grabbed the leather strap in order to keep her balance. It was a good thing she did, for otherwise she would have landed in an undignified heap upon the floor along with Agatha as the carriage was pulled to an abrupt halt. At the same time, she heard John Coachman shout something which sounded very like a warning, and then came the deafening explosion of a gunshot.
Agatha emitted one shrill scream and then began to moan, and Jane took a moment to ascertain that her companion was uninjured. Only when she had satisfied herself on that point did she straighten her bonnet, smooth her gloves, and open the door, preparatory to leaving the carriage. John had not come to help her alight, but she managed to jump to the ground as gracefully as possible. Then she stepped forward to find out what had caused the commotion.
She stopped upon seeing that a man lay motionless in the road. A magnificent black stallion stood beside him, nudging him with its nose.
John Coachman still sat on the box with a smoking pistol in his hand. Upon seeing her, he said, with an odd blend of horror and pride, "'Tis the highwayman, miss. I've kilt him."
"Nonsense!" said Jane, striding towards the unfortunate victim of her inebriated coachman. "Highwaymen do not hold up carriages in broad daylight!"
Climbing down to follow her, John insisted, "But he was standin' there, blockin' the road, miss, on that great black beast, just like they say the highwayman rides."
At that, Jane knew a moment of doubt, but she quickly brushed it aside, saying, "I should think that a highwayman would be wearing a mask and brandishing a pistol. What is more, I doubt that he would be wearing the costume of a gentleman dressed for riding."
In one swift glance, she had taken in the hapless stranger's appearance and more. He wore buff-coloured breeches, polished black riding boots and a claret coat, exquisitely cut and tailored to fit his broad-shouldered form. In addition, she noted that he was still breathing, but he was losing a great deal of blood from a wound rather high up on the inner aspect of his left lower limb. The fact that he was uncommonly handsome was of no importance whatever.
At least that was what she told herself, but in all honesty, she found that she was both attracted and repelled by him. Attracted because he was, without doubt, the best-looking man she had ever seen, and repelled because she could not help but suspect that he actually was the highwayman. Oddly enough, however, the very thing which repelled her also gave her a secret thrill. Or perhaps it wasn't so odd, she thought. Most likely the hint of danger added spice to the situation, which in turn served to make the man more attractive.
She quickly banished these thoughts, and dropped to her knees beside him. She untied and removed his cravat, folded it into a pad, and after the barest of pauses, gingerly placed it over the wound and applied pressure. It was extremely embarrassing, not to mention highly improper, to be touching a man so intimately, but she told herself bracingly that the saving of a life must certainly take precedence over propriety.
Despite that conclusion, she could feel the heat of a blush on her face, and she kept her head lowered as she gave instructions to the coachman. Although she had not needed it today, she always carried her basket of remedies and medical supplies with her on her trips to the village. For years she had been fascinated by the study of herbs and their medicinal uses, and the people of the area depended upon her to treat their illnesses and injuries.
John, much sobered, hurriedly fetched the requested article from the carriage for her.
Selecting a roll of lint from the basket, she secured the folded cravat to the wound, then sat back on her heels to decide what best to do.
Dunby could not boast of having a doctor, the nearest one being in Leeds, but even had there been one in the village, she would not have considered taking the injured man to him. She quite agreed with the Duke of Wellington, who was of the opinion that all doctors were, to a greater or lesser degree, quacks. Besides, the stranger needed immediate attention, and the village was much too far away. He might very well bleed to death before they arrived. Clearly the only thing to be done was to take him home to Meadowbrook.
By this time, Agatha had joined them. Looking up at her and John Coachman, Jane said, "Help me to lift him into the carriage, please. I cannot care for him here. We must get him to Meadowbrook as quickly as possible."
"You do not mean to install him there!" exclaimed Agatha.
"I do," Jane answered. "It is the closest place, and if we do not stop this bleeding soon, he may yet die. Now, will you or will you not help me?"
She was well aware of the impropriety of admitting a strange gentleman into her spinster household, and fully expected further objections from her companion.
Surprisingly, however, Agatha, after staring intently at the stranger for a moment, only said, "I daresay you are right. He does look a trifle pale, does he not?"
The unconscious man also proved to be exceedingly tall and well built. But between the three of them, they managed to carry him to the carriage and place him on one of the seats. Of course he did not fit, so it was necessary to lay him on his side with his knees bent, a position which could not have been good for his wound, but it could not be helped.
The two women settled themselves on the opposite seat while John tethered the black stallion to the back of the carriage. Soon they were on their way once more.
After again staring for a few minutes at the man lying across from them, Agatha said, "I wonder who he can be."
"I haven't the least notion," replied Jane. "He could be a guest at one of the houses in the area, but if that is so, it is odd that Mrs. Micklethorp did not mention it."
"Mmm," murmured Agatha. "There is always the possibility that he is, indeed, the highwayman. They do say that he rides a large black horse, and there is nothing to say that a highwayman may not dress as a gentleman."
That thought did not sit well with Jane, but she only said, "Well, in any event, he can do us no harm in his present condition."
Before they could speculate further, they arrived at Meadowbrook and Jane was concerned with the problem of getting her patient transferred from the carriage to a guest bedchamber. Luckily they now had help in the form of Jackson, the groom, and Melrose, the butler, and so the chore went more easily this time. And while the men carried their burden upstairs, Jane collected her basket of medical supplies and went to gather some other items she thought she might need.
It was not until a few minutes later, when she stood outside the chamber where the stranger was being put to bed, that she experienced her first misgivings. Common sense warred with propriety.
While moving the man from the lane to the carriage earlier, she had ascertained that there was no exit wound on the back of his limb. Therefore, the bullet was still in him and must be removed. Although she had never before been called upon to perform such an operation, she did not doubt for a moment that she was the most qualified person to do it.
Of course, a lady should never enter a gentleman's bedchamber, especially when the gentleman in question is a stranger. And to even consider looking upon his bare limb, let alone touching it, was unthinkable. Still, there was no doubt in Jane's mind as to what she must do.
Just then, Jackson and Melrose came out of the chamber and Melrose said, "We have made the gentleman as comfortable as possible, miss. However, I am afraid the wound has begun bleeding again."
Jackson asked, "Was you wishin' me to ride to Leeds for the doctor, miss?"
"No," said Jane distractedly, "there is not time. The bullet is still in the man's, ah, wound and must be removed without delay. I shall need both of you to help me, of course."
Melrose was seldom thrown off stride, but now a look of shock crossed his face. "Miss Jane," he exclaimed, "you cannot be thinking of doing this yourself!"
"Certainly I am," she replied. "There is no one better suited for it than I."
"Now there you are wrong, miss," he contradicted her with all the assurance of an old family retainer. "It will be much more suitable for Jackson to do the job."
Jackson's eyes fairly started from his head, and he backed up a step as he said, "Oh, no! I couldn't!"
"Do not be such a clodpoll," recommended the butler. "You have treated all manner of ailments in horses. There is no reason why you cannot do this."
Appealing to his mistress, Jackson said, "Beggin' your pardon, miss, but a man ain't no horse. Besides, I ain't never dug no bullet outen a horse, never mind no man."
Melrose opened his mouth to argue further, but an exasperated Jane forestalled him by raising a hand and saying, "Enough! We are wasting time."
"If you continue to argue, the man will most certainly die, from loss of blood if not from infection. Do you wish to have his death on your conscience?"
Both men looked sheepish but offered no further objections, and Jane said, "Very good. Now, Melrose, please find Miss Wedmore and bring her here immediately. Jackson, you come with me. I very much fear that it may take both of you to restrain our guest if he should regain his senses."
With that, she turned and stepped through the doorway, only to stop abruptly just over the threshold.
Nothing in all her eight and twenty years had ever prepared Miss Jane Lockwood for the sight which now met her eyes. On the bed sprawled the stranger, his head and torso elevated on one elbow and turned towards the door. The sheet had slipped down and now covered only the lower portion of his body, with one hairy limb--the wounded one--exposed. She noted that the other hand gripped the appendage just above the wound before her stunned gaze moved upwards past an equally hairy and quite muscular chest to the face.
Despite the shock of finding herself staring at a nearly naked male, it was the face which came close to undoing Jane. She had never seen anything so threatening in her life. His teeth were bared in a ferocious grimace, his brows lowered in a fierce scowl, and glittering black eyes glared at her menacingly.
Jane's first thought, quickly suppressed, was Goodness, what a magnificent-looking specimen! Her second was that she could well believe that this dangerous-looking man might, indeed, be a highwayman. Her third was. Good heavens, how have I, of all people, ever managed to get myself into such an alarming and indecorous situation?
No matter what the man's station in life, however, she felt somewhat responsible for his present condition, since it was her coachman--her inebriated coachman--who had caused it. And even a highwayman did not deserve to be left to the inevitable fate which awaited him if his injury remained untreated. Therefore, gathering her courage and assuming a calmness she did not feel, she forced herself to move toward her patient. A patient who looked to be extremely angry and who, she feared, was in no mood to be cooperative.