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It has long been my dream to study these fascinating creatures in their natural habitat, to watch them as they spin their webs and go about the business of living, myself unnoticed save as another species of fauna inhabiting their world.
from The Spider's Web, by Lord Bromwell
That man does not belong here, Nell Springley thought as she surreptitiously studied the only other occupant in the mail coach headed to Bath. He'd been asleep when she'd boarded in London, and he was still asleep despite the rocking and jostling of the vehicle, his tall beaver hat tipped over his eyes and his arms crossed over his chest. He was clearly well-to-do, for he wore a fine indigo frock coat of excellent wool and buff trousers that hugged his long legs. His blindingly white cravat, tied in an intricate and complicated knot, fairly shouted a valet's skillful expertise. His slender fingers were likewise encased in superbly fitting kid leather gloves and his Hessian boots were so brightly polished, she could see the reflection of her skirts.
Surely a man who could afford such clothes would have his own carriage.
Maybe he was a gamester who had gambled away his fortune. If he was the sort who frequented outdoor boxing matches, that might explain why what little of his jaw and cheeks she could see had been browned by the sun.
Perhaps he'd been in the Navy. She could easily imagine that figure in a uniform, his broad shoulders topped by an officer's braid, shouting commands and looking very dashing on the quarterdeck.
Or he could be a tosspot sleeping off a night of drunken merriment, having spent the rest of his money on wine. If that were so, shehoped he wouldn't wake up until they arrived in Bath. She had no desire to be engaged in conversation with a sot. Or anyone else.
The coach lurched over a particularly bone-jarring bump that rattled the baggage in the boot and made the guard riding outside the coach curse. Nell, meanwhile, grabbed the seat as her poke bonnet slipped over her eyes.
"Bit of a rough spot," a deep, genial male voice noted.
Shoving her bonnet back into place, Nell raised her eyesand found herself staring at the most handsome young man she'd ever seen. Not only was he awake, his hat was now properly situated on his head, revealing amiable blue-gray eyes separated by a narrow nose bordered by angular cheekbones. He was young, and yet there were wrinkles at the corners of his eyes that suggested he'd had vastly more experience of the world than she.
But then, most people had more experience of the world than she.
Nell blushed as if she'd been caught eavesdropping and immediately clasped her hands in her lap and lowered her eyes.
As she did, out of the corner of her eye she spotted something moving on the fawn-colored, double crimson-striped seat beside her.
A spider! A big, horrible brown spiderand it was headed right for her!
Gasping, Nell lunged across the coachand landed on the lap of the young man opposite, knocking his hat from his head.
"Steady!" he warned, his upper-class accent providing more proof he was from a well-to-do household.
Blushing even more, she immediately moved to sit beside him. "II beg your pardon," she stammered, feeling hopelessly foolish, while noting that one stray lock of brown hair had tumbled over his forehead, making him look rather boyish and far less intimidating.
"There's no need to be frightened," her companion said. "It's only a Tegenaria parietina. They're quite harmless, I assure you."
Now completely humiliated by her childish reaction, Nell didn't know what to say. Instead, she smoothed out her skirts and glanced at the seat she had so abruptly vacated.
The spider was gone.
"Where is it?" she cried, gripping the seat and half rising regardless of the swaying motion of the coach. "Where's the spider?"
The young man held up his hat. "In here."
He had it in his hat?
He gave her an apologetic smile. "Spiders are of particular interest to me."
However handsome he was, however gentlemanly, he was definitely eccentric and possibly deranged.
"Please keep it away from me," she said, inching as far away from him and his hat as she could get. "I hate spiders."
The young man heaved a heavy sigh, as if her common aversion was a very serious failing. "That's a pity."
Considering everything she'd done in the past few days, to be condemned for disliking spiders struck Nell as completely ridiculous.
"Most spiders are harmless," the young man continued, peering into his hat as if the spider were a cherished pet. "I'm aware that they aren't as beautiful as some insects can be, like butterflies, but they are as useful in their way as butterflies or bees."
He raised his eyes and smiled, and she was immediately sure he never lacked for partners at a ball. "However you feel about spiders, you must allow me to introduce myself. I'm"
With a loud crack, the coach flew up as if it were alive before coming down with a thunderous thud that sent Nell tumbling from her seat. Her companion reached for her, pulling her against his body, as horses shrieked and the driver shouted and the coach began to tip sideways.
It fell over, landing with another thud, and Nell found herself sprawled on top of the young gentleman and hemmed in by the seats.
He studied her in a way that sent the blood throbbing through her body as even the tipping coach had not. "Are you all right?"
She didn't feel any pain, only an acute awareness of his body beneath her and his protective arms around her. "I think so. And you?"
"I believe I am undamaged. I suspect something went wrong with a wheel or an axle."
"Yes, yes, of course," she murmured. She could feel his chest rising and falling with quick breaths, as rapid and ragged as her heartbeat, even though the immediate danger had passed.
"I should investigate and ascertain what has happened."
"Right away," he added, his gaze locked onto hers and his handsome, sun-browned face so very close.
"At once," she whispered, telling herself to move yet making no effort to do so.
"I may be of assistance."
"Yes, of course."
"I wonder ?"
"If I should attempt an experiment."
"Experiment?" she repeated quizzically, having some difficulty following his line of reasoning and, at that particular moment, not really sure what an experiment was.
With no further warning, without even knowing her name let alone being properly introduced, the young man raised his head.
And kissed her.
The pressure of his lips was as light and beguiling as the brush of a moth's wing, as delicious and welcome as warm bread and hot tea on a cold day, and more arousing than anything she'd ever experiencedcompletely different from that other unexpected kiss only a few short days ago that had ruined her life.
As he was different from the arrogant, domineering Lord Sturmpole.
This was what a kiss should be likewarm, welcome, exciting, delightful as he was.
Until, with a gasp like a drowning man, he broke the kiss and scrambled backward as far as he could go, so that his back was against what had been the floor of the coach.
"Good God, forgive me!" he cried as if utterly horrified. "I can't think what came over me!"
She just as quickly scrambled backward between his legs, until her back was against the coach's roof.
"Nor I," she replied, flushing with embarrassment and shame, for she did know what had come over herthe most inconvenient, ill-timed lust.
This was hardly the way to travel unnoticed and unremarked!
"It must have been the shock of the accident," he offered as he got to his feet, hunching over in the small space and blushing as if sincerely mortified. "If you'll excuse me, I shall inquire as to our circumstances."
He reached for the handle, which was now over his head and without any further ado shoved the door open and hoisted himself up and out as if he were part monkey.
Crouching on the pocket of the door in the side of the coach, Nell straightened her bonnet and took stock of the situation. She was in an overturned coach. She was unhurt. Her clothes were disheveled but not torn or muddy. Her bonnet was mostly unscathed, while the young gentleman's hat had been crushed beneath them, along, no doubt, with the spider inside it.
She had also kissed a handsome stranger who seemed to feel genuine, heartfelt remorse for that action, despite her obviousand incredibly foolishresponse.
She must be jinxed, born under some kind of ill omen. What else could explain the difficulties that had beset her recently? Her employment as companion to Lady Sturm-pole had seemed a stroke of good fortune, then turned into an unmitigated disaster. She had been relieved to catch this coach at the last minute, only to have it overturn. She had been glad she would have to share the journey with only one other traveller, and he was asleepbut look how that had turned out.
As abruptly as he'd departed, the young man's head reappeared in the opening. "It seems the axle has broken. It will have to be fixed before the coach can be righted, so we shall have to find an alternate means of transportation. If you'll raise your hands, I'll pull you out."
She nodded and obeyed. "I'm afraid your hat is ruined and the spider dead."
"Ah," he sighed as he reached down for her. "Poor creature. Perhaps if I had left it alone, it would have survived."
Or perhaps not, she thought as she put her hands in his.
He pulled her up with unexpected ease, proving that he was stronger than he looked. It seemed his apparel, unlike many a fashionable young gentleman's, was not padded to give the appearance of muscles he didn't possess.
Once she was out of the coach, the soft light of the growing dawn illuminated the burly coachman, dressed in the customary coachman's attire of green coat and crimson shawl. He was lying on the verge, a bloody gash in his forehead and his broad-brimmed brown hat a short distance away. His red coat splattered with mud, the guard held the reins of the four nervous horses that had already been unharnessed from the coach. He also held a rather ancient blunderbuss. One of the horses had clearly broken a leg, for its left rear hoof dangled sickeningly. Thankfully, no passengers rode atop the mail coach; if they had been in a crowded stagecoach, people might have been seriously injured or killed.
The young man climbed off the coach painted maroon on the lower half, black above, with a red undercarriage, and the Royal cipher brightly visible on the side, then reached up to help her down.
She had no choice but to put her hands on his shoulders and jump. He placed his hands around her waist to hold her, and again she felt that unaccustomed warmth, that inconvenient lust, invade her body.
He quickly let go of her the moment she was on the ground, suggesting he was no lascivious cad and had been truly distressed by his kiss in the coach.
"Since you're not hurt, I should see to the driver," he said, giving her a short bow that wouldn't have been out of place at Almack's, before going to the driver and kneeling beside him.
After the young gentleman removed his soiled gloves, he brushed back the driver's gray hair and examined the wound in his scalp with a brisk, professional manner.
Perhaps he was a doctor.
"Am I dyin'?" the driver asked anxiously.
"I very much doubt it," the young man replied with calm confidence. "Scalp wounds tend to bleed profusely with very little provocation. Have you any other injuries?"
"Me shoulder. Just about twisted off when I was trying to hold the horses."
The young man nodded, then proceeded to test the area around the coachman's shoulder, making him wince when he pressed one particular spot.
"Ah," the young man sighed, and the driver's eyes opened wide. "What?"
The young man smiled. "Nothing serious, Thompkins. You've strained it and shouldn't drive a team for a while, but I don't believe there's been any lasting damage."
"Thank God," the driver muttered with relief.
Then he frowned, anger replacing anxiety. "There was a damn dog in the road. I should have just run the bloody thing over, but I tried to turn the horses and hit a rock and"
"Thompkins, there is a young lady present, so please refrain from profanity," the doctor gently chided as he got to his feet.
The driver glanced her way. "Sorry for my choice o' words, miss."
"Is there anything I can do to help?" she asked, not the least offended by his words, given the circumstances.
The young man untied his cravat and held it out to her. "You can use this to clean the wound, if you will provided the sight of blood doesn't make you ill?"
"Not at all," she replied, taking the cravat, which smelled of some exotic scent she couldn't name.
"Then I'll see to the horses," the young man said as he absently unbuttoned the collar of his shirt, exposing his neck and some of his chest. Both were as tanned as his face.
Perhaps he was a doctor on a vessel.
The driver started to sit up. "Maybe I'd better"
"No, you should rest," the young man ordered. "Enjoy having such a charming and pretty nurse, Thompkins, and leave the horses to me. Tell her about the time I tried to drive your team and we wound up in the ditch."
The driver grinned, then grimaced. "Aye, my lord."
My lord? A noble physician? That was very interesting except that she should be thinking about how they were going to get to Bath and what she should do when they got there.
"First, I need a few words with your nurse," the nobleman said, taking her arm and drawing her a short distance away.
Concerned the driver was more seriously injured than he had implied, she ignored the impropriety of his action and tried to ignore the sensations it engendered, like little flames licking along her skin.
"Is the driver seriously hurt after all?" she asked anxiously.
"No, I don't believe Thompkins has a serious concussion," he said, to her relief. "However, I'm not a doctor."
"You're not?" she blurted in surprise. His examination had certainly looked like that of a medical man.
He gravely shook his head. "Unfortunately, no. I have a little medical training, so I know enough to be aware that he should be kept conscious, if at all possible, until we can fetch a physician. Can you do that while I see to the injured horse and ride to the next inn on one of the others?"
"Yes, I think I can keep him awake."
The young gentleman's lips flicked up into a pleased smile that again sent that unusual warmth thrumming through her body. As she returned to the driver and tried to soothe her nerves, he started toward the guard holding the horses.
She heard the nobleman ask the guard where the pistols were as she began wiping the blood that had slowed to a trickle.