When fallen beauty Daphne, Lady Faville, is carried to safety from a rampaging fire, she's horrified to recognize her rescuer as Hugh Westleigha man with every reason to despise her!
But Hugh has been blinded and Daphne must nurse him back to health. Unable to see, he is driven to distraction by her tantalizing scent and gentle touch.
For the first time, Daphne feels truly desired for herself alone. But when Hugh finally regains his sight, will she find forgiveness in his arms?
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Ramsgate, KentApril 1821
'My lady! My lady! Wake up! Fire!'
Daphne, Lady Faville, jolted awake at her maid's cries. Smoke filled her nostrils and stung her eyes. Shouts and pounding on doors sounded in the hallway of the Ramsgate inn.
'Fire! Get out,' a man's voice boomed. Fire. Her biggest fear.
Daphne leaped out of bed and shoved her feet into slippers. Her maid began gathering their belongings, stuffing them into a portmanteau.
'Leave them, Monette.' Daphne seized her coin purse and threw her cloak around her shoulders. Her heart raced. 'We must go now!'
She reached for the door latch, but her maid pulled her arm away.
'Wait! The hall may be on fire.' The maid pressed her hand against the door. 'It is not hot. It is safe.' She opened the door.
It was not safe.
The hallway was filled with smoke, and tongues of flame licked the walls here and there, as if sneaking up from below. In a moment the wallpaper would curl and burn. The fire would grow. It could engulf them.
Daphne saw a vision of another time, another fire. Her heart pounded. Was she to die in flames after all?
'Keep your skirts away from the fire,' she cried to Monette.
They moved blindly ahead, down the long hallway, through its fiery gauntlet.
'Hurry, Monette.' She took the maid's hand and lamented asking the innkeeper for rooms that were as private as possible.
Their rooms were far from the stairway.
'Someone is in the hallway. At the end,' a man's voice cried.
Through the grey smoke he emerged, an apparition rushing towards them. He grabbed them both and half-carried them through the hallway past other men who were knocking on doors, and other residents emerging in night-clothes.
They reached the stairway and he pushed Monette forwards. The girl ran down the stairs. Daphne shrank back. The flames below were larger, more dangerous.
'I'll get you through.' The man gathered her up in his arms and carried her down the three flights of stairs. She buried her face in his chest, too afraid to see the fire so close.
Suddenly the air cooled and she could breathe again. They were outside. He set her down and her maid ran to her, hugging her in relief. They were alive! Daphne swung back to thank the man who rescued them.
He was already running back into the fire.
Her footman appeared. 'You are safe, m'lady. Come away from the building.'
He brought them to where a group of people in various stages of undress huddled together.
'I must go back to the buckets.' He looked apologetic.
'Yes, Carter. Yes,' Daphne agreed. 'Help all you can.'
He ran to the brigade passing buckets of water to the fire. Other men led horses out of the stables and rolled coaches away from the burning building.
Daphne's eyes riveted on the doorway, willing their rescuer to reappear. Other men carried people out, but she did not see him. She'd not seen his face, but she knew she would recognise him. Tall, dark haired and strong. He wore the dark coat and fawn pantaloons of a gentleman.
Finally he appeared, two children tucked under his arms and a frantic mother following behind.
Daphne took a step forwards, eager to speak to him, to thank him. To her shock, he ran towards the door again. One of the other men seized his arm, apparently trying to stop him, but the man shrugged him off and rushed back inside.
Daphne's hand flew over her mouth. Please, God, let him come out again.
An older gentleman approached her. 'Lady Faville?'
She wanted to watch for her rescuer, not engage in conversation.
'Do you remember me?' he asked.
She presumed he was someone she'd met in London. 'I am sorry. I do not'
He looked disappointed. 'I am Lord Sanvers. We met several times at the Masquerade Club.'
The Masquerade Club?
It was a place she wanted to forget, the London gambling house where players could gamble in masks to protect their identity. It was also the place she almost destroyed.
'It is two years since I attended there,' she answered him. 'There were so many gentlemen I met.'
It was inadequate as an apology. Surely heand everyoneknew that she'd been obsessed by only one man, a man who would never love her. She'd fled to the Continent and eventually to Switzerland and Fahr Abbey. The abbey had become her retreat and her salvation, chosen by whim because its name was similar to her husband's title name and the name of the village where she'd once felt secure. At Fahr Abbey, though, she'd come face-to-face with her failings.
But could she change?
Could she be as selfless as her brave rescuer?
Minutes seemed like hours, but he finally emerged again, leading two more people to safety. The fire intensified, roaring now like a wild beast. Were there more people inside? Would he risk his life again?
He ran back to the fire and was silhouetted inside the doorway when a huge rush of glowing embers fell from the ceiling. The building groaned, as if in the throes of death. Timbers fell from the roof and the man's arms rose in front of his face. Daphne watched in horror as one large flaming timber knocked him to the floor.
'No!' Without thinking, she ran towards him.
Other men reached him first, pulling him by his clothing until he was in the yard. The building collapsed entirely.
Daphne knelt down next to him as they brushed away glowing cinders from his coat and patted out smoking cloth.
'Is he alive?' she cried.
They rolled him on his back, and one man put a finger to the pulse in his neck. 'He's alive for now.' Daphne gasped. 'I know him!'
Though his face was dark with soot and pink with burns, she recognised him. He was Hugh Westleigh, younger brother of the new Earl of Westleigh. He was also the brother of the lady she'd so terribly wronged at the Masquerade Club.
Had he arrived on the packet from Calais, as she had? Or was he bound there? Either way, she suspected he would not have liked seeing her after all the trouble she'd caused.
He was not conscious, and that alarmed her.
'We'd better carry him to the surgeon,' one of the men said.
They lifted him. Daphne followed them.
Her maid and footman caught up to her. Monette's eyes were wide. 'My lady?'
'I know this man,' she explained. 'I must see he receives care. Wait for me here.'
They carried him to what looked like a nearby shop-front. Inside several people sat on benches while one man, the surgeon apparently, bandaged burns.
'We have a bad one here, Mr Trask.'
The surgeon waved a man off the chair where he'd been tending to him and gestured for the men to sit Westleigh in it. He was still limp.
Daphne wrung her hands. 'Will he live?'
'I do not know, ma'am,' the surgeon said.
'He was hit on the head,' she said. 'I saw it.'
The man checked Westleigh's head. 'Appears to be so.'
Westleigh groaned and Daphne released a pent-up breath.
The surgeon lifted his head. 'Wake up, sir.' He turned to Daphne. 'What is his name?'
'Mr Westleigh,' she said. 'He is the younger brother of the Earl of Westleigh.'
'Is he?' One of the men who had carried him in raised his brows. 'Who would have expected it of the Quality? The man has pluck.'
'Westleigh!' The surgeon raised his voice. 'Wake up.'
He groaned again.
'Open your eyes.'
Westleigh tried to comply, straining. He winced and tried to rub his eyes. 'I cannot ' Thank God he could speak.
The surgeon pulled his hands away. 'Do not do that. Let me look.' He examined Westleigh's eyes and turned to Daphne. 'His eyes are cloudy. Damaged from the fire.' He tilted Westleigh's head back and rinsed his eyes with clear water from a nearby pitcher. 'His eyes must stay bandaged for two weeks or he will lose his sight.' He shrugged. 'He may lose his sight no matter what, but sometimes the eyes heal remarkably well. I'm more concerned about his head. He is certainly concussed. He needs to be cared for.'
'In what way?' Daphne asked.
'He needs rest and quiet. No excitement at all. For at least a week.' He looked into Westleigh's mouth and in his nose. 'No bleeding. That is good.'
'Head hurts,' Westleigh mumbled.
The surgeon folded bandages over Westleigh's eyes and wrapped his head to keep them in place. No sooner had he finished than another victim of the fire was brought in, covered with burns. The surgeon's attention immediately went to his new patient. 'I must see this man.' He waved Daphne away. 'Keep his eyes bandaged and keep him quiet. No travelling. He must stay quiet.'
Daphne dropped some coins from her purse on the table. The surgeon deserved payment.
The man who had carried Westleigh to the surgeon got him to his feet. 'Come along, sir.' He turned to Daphne. ' Follow me.'
He must think she was in Westleigh's party.
They walked out of the building into a day just beginning to turn light.
Carter, her footman, ran up to her. 'M'lady, John Coachman found a stable for the horses. He and your maid are waiting with the carriage, which was left near the inn.'
The man assisting Westleigh strained with the effort to keep him upright. 'Give us a hand, would you?' he asked her footman. Carter rushed to help him, but the man handed off his burden entirely. 'I must see to my own family, ma'am.' He pulled on his forelock and hurried away.
'What do I do with him?' Carter shifted to get a better hold on Westleigh.
Daphne's mind was spinning. 'Take him to the carriage, I suppose. We must find someone to care for him.'
Men were still busy at the inn, extinguishing embers, salvaging undamaged items, of which there were very few. Daphne's and her maid's trunks had been with the carriage, so they had lost only what had been in their portmanteaux.
Carter and John Coachman helped Westleigh into the carriage.
'Is he coming with us?' Monette asked.
'Oh, no,' Daphne replied. 'He would detest that. He must have been travelling with someone. We should find out who.' She turned to Carter. 'Can you ask, please? His name is Hugh Westleigh, Lord Westleigh's brother.'
Westleigh stirred and tried to pull at the bandages covering his eyes.
'No, Westleigh!' Daphne climbed inside the carriage and pulled his hands away. 'You must not touch your bandages.' She arranged the pillows and rugs to make him more comfortable.
'Thirsty,' Westleigh mumbled.
How thoughtless of her. He must have a raging thirst after all his exertion.
'Monette, find him some ale and something nourishing.' What ought an injured man eat? She had no idea, but dug into her purse again and handed both her maid and footman some coins. 'Both of you buy something for yourselves to eat and drink and bring something back for John Coachman, as well.'
Monette returned within a quarter-hour with food and drink from a nearby alehouse for Westleigh and the coachman.
'They have a room where we might change clothes,' she told Daphne. 'I paid for it and for a meal, so that we can eat privately.'
It was better than eating in the carriage on the street with the smell of ashes still in the air.
'I'll tend to the gentleman, m'lady,' John Coachman said. 'I must watch the carriage in any event. He'll be comfortable enough inside, with your pillows and all.'
Monette climbed on top of the carriage and retrieved clothing from the trunks, rolling them into a bundle. She led Daphne to the alehouse, about two streets away.
The place was crowded with people in various stages of dress and from various walks of life, who had all apparently escaped the fire. Daphne followed Monette through the throng. The smell of sweat, smoke and ale made Daphne's empty stomach roil.
Surely a lady of her stature should not be required to endure this sort of place.
She placed her hand over her mouth.
The words of the abbess at Fahr came back to her. You must practise compassion for all people, my lady. We are all God's children.
The dear abbess. The nuns at Fahr had told her the abbess was very old, but to Daphne she'd seemed ageless. For some unfathomable reason the abbess had bestowed her love and attention on Daphne.
Her eyes filled with tears. The woman's death had been a terrible blow, worse than her own mother's death, worse than her husband's. She could not bear to stay at Fahr after such a loss.
At least the abbess's words remained with her. Sometimes, when Daphne needed her words, it was almost as if the woman were at her side, whispering in her ear.
Daphne glanced around once more and tried to see the people in the alehouse through the abbess's eyes. Most looked exhausted. Some appeared close to despair. Others wore bandages on their arms or hands.
Daphne ached for them.
More truthfully, a part of her felt sorrow for their suffering; another part was very grateful to have been spared their troubles.
As they reached the door to the private room, a gentleman rose from a booth where he'd sat alone. He was the gentleman who had spoken to her before, who remembered her from the Masquerade Club. What was his name?
'My good lady. There you are. I was concerned about you.' His silver hair was neatly combed and he appeared to have changed into fresh linen. Compared to the others he was pristine.
'I am unharmed, sir.'
He blocked her way. 'May I assist you in any way? I am at your disposal.'
He could take charge of Westleigh! Would that not be a better situation for everyone?
She glanced at the booth Lord Sanvers had all to himself and to the numbers of people who did not even have a chair.
Would he have extended his offer of help if she had not been the beautiful, wealthy widow of a viscount?
She curtsied to him. 'My servants have seen to everything, sir, but I thank you.'
She walked past him and through the open door where Monette waited.
Once inside the room, Daphne collapsed onto a chair in relief.
Why should she have this private room and so many others so much less? Was she just as selfish as Lord San-vers?
She hurriedly changed out of her nightclothes and into the dress Monette had pulled from her trunk. Monette did the same. After quickly eating a breakfast, she handed the innkeeper money and asked him to give the room and some food to those most in need. She and Monette did not stay to see if he honoured her request.
They left the alehouse and returned to the carriage.
Carter waited there with the coachman.
'Did you find Mr Westleigh's travelling companions?' Daphne peeked in the carriage, but saw Westleigh lying against the pillows.
'I found the innkeeper, m'lady,' Carter told her. 'He said that Mr Westleigh travelled alone. Not even with a manservant.'
Who would care for him, then?
'How is he?' she asked her coachman.
'Sleeping,' he answered. 'Talking a bit and restless, but sleeping. He did drink the ale, though.'
Daphne glanced around. 'We must find someone to care for him.'
Carter shook his head. 'I believe that cannot be done. There were many people injured in the fire and many others displaced. It would be difficult to even find him a room. Or rooms for ourselves.'
'We should leave today, then, m'lady,' John Coachman said. 'If we start soon we can find lodgings on the road and still reach Faville the day after tomorrow.'
It would take three days for them to reach her property in Vadley near Basingstoke. Her husband had left her the unentailed country house and estate instead of consigning her to the dower house in Faville. She'd spent very little time in Vadley, though, only a few weeks past her days of mourning. Now she planned to return and live a retired life. Whether by doing so she could atone for her days of vanity and thoughtlessness, she was not certain.
'We cannot take him with us,' she said.
But she could hear the abbess, clucking her tongue. You must find grace to help in time of need.
'The surgeon said he cannot travel,' she protested.
'We don't have a choice, m'lady,' Carter said in a low voice.
'I say we start out and ask at every posting inn until we find someone to care for him,' her coachman added. 'It will be a more practicable task once we are out of Ramsgate.'
'We cannot leave him.' Monette's eyes pleaded.
These servants were prepared to take care of a stranger, but she was merely trying to think of a way to abandon him, just because she knew he would hate being cared for by a lady who'd wronged his sister.
Or was she merely thinking of her own discomfort?
You must find grace to help in time of need.