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1 November 1815Ayrshire, Scotland
Awhite froth of waves crashed against the rocks as the solitary figure picked its way along the shore. The morning sky was a cold grey and the fine drizzle of rain had penetrated the woollen cloth of his coat and was beginning to seep through his waistcoat to the cotton of his shirt below. Beneath his boots the sand was firm, each step cutting a clear impression of his progress. A gull cried its presence overhead, and the wind that had howled the whole night through stung a ruddy rawness to his cheeks and swept a ruffle through the darkness of his hair. Guy Tregellas, Viscount Varington, ignored the damp chill of the air and, not for the first time, thought longingly of London: London that had no gales to part a man's coat from his back. No incessant rain. No empty landscape that ran as far as the eye could see, with only the hardiest sheep and cattle for company. Guy suppressed a shudder and continued on, avoiding as best he could the mounds of seaweed and driftwood that the sea had cast upon the sand during the night's storm. The pain in his head was dulling and the nausea in his stomach had almost disappeared; the memory of just how much whisky he had drunk had not. And so he continued, walking off his hangover in this godforsaken place. He crossed the stream that ran down to meet the sea, taking care not to lose his balance on the stepping stones, and followed the curve of the shore round. It was then that he saw the body.
A dark shape amidst the seaweed. At first he thought it was a seal that had been unfortunate enough to suffer the worst of the storm in open water. But as the distance between him and the shapelessened, he knew that what lay washed upon the shore was no seal. The woman was curled on her side, as if in sleep. The dark sodden skirt of her dress was twisted around her body to expose the white of her lower legs. Her feet were bare and the one arm he could see was bloody and bruised beneath the torn sleeve of her dress. Guy rolled her over on to her back and cleared away the long strands of hair plastered across her face. She was not old, in her middle twenties perhaps, and even in her bedraggled state he could see that she was beautiful. He bent closer, touching his fingers to her neck, feeling the faint flutter of her pulse. Guy had seen too many dead bodies in his life. He breathed a sigh of relief that this was not one of them, and as he did so her eyelids flickered open and a pair of smoky green eyes stared up at him.
An angel,' she whispered with something akin to awe. A glorious dark angel come to fetch me.' Her mouth curved to a small peaceful smile before her eyelids closed once more.
'Wait!' Guy gripped at the soft flesh of the woman's upper arms. He shook her, fearing that she was giving up her fight for life. Her body seemed limp and lifeless beneath his hands. He shook her harder, spoke louder, more urgently, all trace of his hangover gone, leaving in its place a twist of dread. 'Come on, damn it! Do not dare die on me, girl.' And then, just when he thought that it was too late, she came to.
She lay still and silent for a few seconds, as if trying to remember where she was, what had happened. And then her eyes focused upon him.
'Agnes.' It was little more than a whisper, slipped from lips that scarcely moved. He could see the anxiety in her gaze.
'Thank God!' Guy sighed his relief before stripping off the coat from his body and draping it over her. 'I need to get you back to Weir's.'
'Agnes?' she said again, this time with a note of despair in her voice. 'My maid with me in the boat and Old Tam.'
He scanned the shoreline, knowing that there was nothing else there save sand and sea and rocks, seaweed and shells and driftwood; no more bodies, definitely no Agnes, and no Tam, old or otherwise.
'They are not here,' he said gently. 'Can you tell me your name?'
'Helena.' The reply was uttered so weakly as to almost be carried off completely by the wind. Nothing else. Just that one name. Her lungs laboured to pull in another breath of air; such a small noise against the howl of the wind and the distant roar of the sea. A few yards away the water rushed in a steady rhythm against the sand.
Guy could see that she was fighting the darkness that threatened to claim her. Her eyelids dipped and her eyeballs rolled up as she fought to remain conscious. Her lips moved again.
He bent his ear to her mouth to catch the faint words.
'Please 'What she would have said he would never know. The woman's eyes fluttered shut, and he sensed that she was slipping away from him.
'Helena.' Guy touched her cheek; the touch became a light slap.
'Helena,' he said more loudly, pressing his fingers to her neck.
There was only the faintest pulse of an ebbing life.
Guy muttered an expletive and in one motion gathered her up against him.
She was heavy with the weight of seawater soaked through her clothing, and cold; colder than any other living person he had felt, almost as cold as a corpse. Her body was limp and fluid, her head lolling against his shoulder. He wasted no more time. With the woman secure in his arms Guy headed back across the expanse of rocks and sand towards Seamill Hall.
Helena opened her eyes and blinked at the sight of what she thought was her own plasterwork ceiling above her. Mercifully she seemed to be alone. No dip in the other side of the mattress; no possessive hands pawing at her; nothing of his male stench. Just the thought of it caused her bile to rise and a shudder to ripple through her. Her fingers scrabbled to find the top of the blanket. And then she noticed that there was something different about the ceiling. She stilled her movement, and became aware that the daylight seemed much brighter than normal. Forcing herself up on to her elbows, she ignored the pounding in her head and stared at the room in which she found herself.
It was a small bedchamber, decorated predominantly in a cosy shade of yellow, shabby but genteel. The bed was smaller than her own and higher, too, with yellow-and-green striped curtains that had been fastened back. A fire roared on the hearth. Everything was clean and homely. Close by the fireplace was a comfortable-looking armchair. A large painting depicting a panoramic view of the Firth of Clyde and its islands was fixed to the wall above the mantelpiece. Near the door was an oak-coloured wardrobe, and over by the window, a matching tallboy set beside a small ornate dressing table in the French style. Next to the bed sat a table with a blue-and-white patterned pitcher and basin and various other small items. Helena recognised none of it.
Where am I? But even as she thought the question, a sinking sensation was dipping in her stomach. The mist began to clear from her mind. Helena swallowed hard. It was coming back to her now. All of it. Agnes had been with her. Old Tam, too, rowing the boat out into the darkness of the night. There had been no wind, no rain, when they had first started out, just a heavy stillness in the air. They would be there before the rain started, or so Old Tam had assured her. It was as if she heard his voice again within the quietness of the room. Didnae be feart, Miss Helena. I'll ha'e the pair o'you across to the mainland afore the rain comes on. But Old Tam had been wrong.
Helena remembered the sudden pelt of heavy raindrops, and the waves that rose higher in response to the strengthening wind. The sea had seemed to boil with fury, leaping and roaring until their small rowing boat had been swamped and the water had claimed the boat's occupants. She had not seen Agnes or Tam through the darkness, but she had heard the maid's screams and the old man's shouts amidst the furore of the storm.
The water had been cold at first, but after a while she had ceased to notice the icy temperature, pitched as she was in her battle to fight the heavy fatigue that coaxed her to close her eyes and yield to the comfort of black nothingness. She supposed that she must have done just that, for she could remember nothing else until she lay senseless and battered upon the shore with the angel staring down at her.
It was impossible, of course; even if angels existed, they did not come to save the likes of her. And yet the angel's face was so clear in her memory that she wondered how she could have imagined him. She struggled to recall what had happened on the beach, her head pounding with the effort. But she could remember nothing save the angel's face: dark sodden hair from which water dripped down on to his cheeks; pale skin and the most piercing eyes that she had ever seenan ice blue filled with strength and concern. With him she had known she would be safe. Aside from that image, there was nothing.
She knew neither this place in which she now lay nor how she had come to be here. Knew only that she must leave before Stephen found her. Run as fast as she could. And keep on running. This was reality and there was no handsome angel to save her here. She had best get on with the task of saving herself. She pushed back the covers, swung her legs over the side of the bed, took a deep breath and, rather unsteadily, got to her feet.
The entirety of her body ached and she felt unreal and dizzy. But Helena moved across the room all the same. Determination and fear spurred her on. She washed in the cold water from the pitcher and hastily dressed herself in her own clothes that had been cleaned, dried and mended and placed within the bedchamber. Unfortunately there was no sign of her shoes and stockings, nor of her hat or travelling bag.
The reflection in the looking-glass upon the dressing table showed a dark bruise on her temple. Her fingers trembled as she touched the tender spot, wondering as to how it had happened, for she had no recollection of having hit her head. Her face was paler than normal and there were shadows of fatigue beneath her eyes. She did not dally for long, but twisted her hair into a rope and tucked the ends back up on themselves, hoping that the make-do style would hold.
Quickly she smoothed the bedcovers over the bed to give some semblance of tidiness. Then she moved to the large wooden box positioned at the bottom of the bed and removed a single neatly folded blanket. Her eyes scanned the room, alighting on the silver brush-and-comb set sitting upon the chest of drawers, knowing they would fetch a good price. But, for all of her desperation, Helena could not do that to whoever in this house had helped her. It was bad enough that she was stealing the blanket. She hurried to the door, then turned and glanced once more around the room. The fire burned within the fireplace. The room was warm and cheery in its yellow hues. For a moment she was almost tempted to stay; almost. But then she turned and, still clutching the blanket to her chest, opened the door to pass silently through.
'It's a fine piece.' Lord Varington admired the rifle before him. 'Well balanced.' He weighed the weapon between his hands, set the butt of the handle against his shoulder and took aim.
John Weir laughed and looked pleased with his friend's admiration. 'It turns hunting into something else altogether. I can hit a rabbit at fifty paces and a grouse when the bird thinks it's got clean away. Thought you might like to try out the Bakers. I've two of them; this one here and the other kept oil-skinned in my boat.' He looked sheepish. 'Seagulls make for good target practice, you see.' Then his enthusiasm returned. 'I can have it fetched for you. We could go up onto the moor. You could give me some pointers on improving my shooting, if you've no objection, that is.' Then, remembering Guy's dislike of the outdoors, Weir added, 'Brown says the weather will clear tomorrow, that it might even be sunny.'
Guy's eyes narrowed in mock suspicion. 'You wouldn't be trying to tempt me, would you? I've been here a week and there's been no sight of the sun. Indeed, if memory serves me correctly, we've not yet had a day without rain.'
'Mark my words, tomorrow will be different.' Weir nodded his head sagely. 'And I wouldn't want to miss a few hours of rifle practice on a glorious sunny day. Besides, the views from the moor are magnificent. If the cloud clears, you'll see all of the surrounding islands.'
'I've not the least interest in "magnificent views", as well you know. But, fill my hip flask with whisky and I'll willingly accept your invitation.'
'Done.' Weir laughed. 'I do have a rather fine Islay malt in the cellar, nice and peaty in flavour. I think you'll like it.'
'I'm sure I will,' said Guy.
'Does it take you back to your years in the Rifles?' Weir jerked his head in the direction of the rifle. 'The Baker, that is.'
Guy ran a finger along the barrel of the rifle. 'Naturally.'
'Do you miss it?'
Guy smiled in a devil-may-care fashion. 'Sometimes, but it's been years and there are ' he threw his friend a raffish look ' other interests that fill my time now, and if I've time to waste, then I'd rather waste it on them. Even if you are a married man, I'm sure you'll remember the fun that's to be had in that.'
'If you say so, Varington.'
Guy smiled a lazy arrogant smile. 'Oh, but I do.'
Weir reached down and lifted the Baker rifle. 'We'd best get back to preparing the guns.'
A comfortable silence ensued while the two men set about their task. Then Weir asked, 'What are we going to do about that woman upstairs? She still shows no sign of wakening, despite Dr Milligan's insistence that there's nothing wrong with her.'
'Save exhaustion and bruising.'
Weir nodded in agreement. 'Even so, it has been three days '
'She'll waken when she's ready.'
'But we don't even know who she is yet.'