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'Nicky, Nicky! wait for meoh!'
Zelah gave a little cry of frustration as her skirts caught on the thorny branches of an encroaching bush. She was obliged to give up her pursuit of her little nephew while she disentangled herself. How she wished now that she had put on her old dimity robe, but she had been expecting to amuse Nicky in the garden, not to be chasing him through the woods; only Nurse had come out to tell them that they must not make too much noise since the mistress was trying to get some sleep before Baby woke again and demanded to be fed.
As she carefully eased the primrose muslin off the ensnaring thorns, Zelah pondered on her sister's determination to feed the new baby herself. She could quite understand it, of course: Reginald's first wife had died in childbirth and a number of wet nurses had been employed for Nicky, but each one had proved more unreliable than the last so it was a wonder that the little boy had survived at all. The thought of her sister's stepson made Zelah smile. He had not only survived, but grown into a very lively eight-year-old, who was even now leading her in a merry dance.
She had allowed him to take her 'exploring' in the wildly neglected woodland on the northern boundary of West Barton and now realised her mistake. Not only was Nicky familiar with the overgrown tracks that led through the woods, he was unhampered by skirts. Free at last, she pulled the folds of muslin close as she set off in search of her nephew. She had only gone a few steps when she heard him cry out, such distress and alarm in his voice that she set off at a run in the direction of his call, all concerns for snagging her gown forgotten.
The light through the trees indicated that there was a clearing ahead. She pushed her way through the remaining low tree branches and found herself standing on the lip of a steep slope. The land dropped away to form a natural bowl and the ground between the trees was dotted with early spring flowers, but it was not the beauty of the scene that made Zelah catch her breath, it was the sight of Nicky's lifeless body stretched out at the very bottom of the dell, a red stain spreading over one leg of his nankeen pantaloons and a menacing figure bending over him.
Her first, wild thought was that it was some kind of animal attacking Nicky, but as her vision cleared she realised it was a man. A thick black beard covered his face and his shaggy hair reached to the shoulders of his dark coat. A long-handled axe lay on the ground beside him, its blade glinting wickedly in the spring sunlight.
Zelah did not hesitate. She scrambled down the bank.
'Leave him alone!' The man straightened. As he turned towards her she saw that beneath the shaggy mane of hair surrounding his face he had an ugly scar cutting through his left eyebrow and cheek. She picked up a stick. 'Get away from him, you beast!'
'Beast, is it?' he growled. 'Zelah'
'Don't worry, Nicky, he won't hurt you again.' She kept her gaze fixed on the menacing figure. 'How dare you attack an innocent boy, you monster!'
'Beast, monster' His teeth flashed white through the beard as he stepped over the boy and came towards her, his halting, ungainly stride adding to the menace.
Zelah raised the stick. With a savage laugh he reached out and twisted the bough effortlessly out of her grasp, then caught her wrists as she launched herself at him. She struggled against his iron grip and her assailant hissed as she kicked his shin. 'For heaven's sake, I am not your villain. The boy tripped and fell.' With a muttered oath he forced her hands down and behind her, so that she found herself pressed against his hard body. The rough wool of his jacket rubbed her cheek and her senses reeled as she breathed in the smell of him. It was not the sour odour of sweat and dirt she was expecting, but a mixture of wool and sandalwood and lemony spices combined with the earthy, masculine scent of the man himself. It was intoxicating.
He spoke again, his voice a deep rumble on her skin, for he was still holding her tight against his broad chest. 'He tripped and fell. Do you understand me?'
He is speaking as if to an imbecile! was Zelah's first thought, then the meaning of his words registered in her brain and she raised her head to meet his fierce eyes. She stopped struggling.
'That's better.' He released his iron grip but kept his hard eyes fixed upon her. 'Now, shall we take a look at the boy?'
Zelah stepped away, not sure if she trusted the man enough to turn her back on him, but a groan from Nicky decided it. Everything else was forgotten as she fell to her knees beside him.
'Oh, love, what have you done?'
She put her hand on his forehead, avoiding the angry red mark on his temple. His skin was very hot and his eyes had a glazed, wild look in them.
The man dropped down beside her.
'We've been clearing the land, so there are several ragged tree stumps. He must have caught his leg on one when he tumbled down the bank. It's a nasty cut, but I don't think the bone is broken.'
'How would you know?' demanded Zelah, carefully lifting away the torn material and gazing in horror at the bloody mess beneath.
'My time in the army has given me considerable experience of injuries.' He untied his neckcloth. 'I have sent my keeper to fetch help. I'll bind up his leg, then we will carry him back to the house on a hurdle.'
'Whose house?' she asked suspiciously. 'He should be taken to West Barton.'
'Pray allow me to know what is best to be done!'
'Please do not talk to me as if I were a child,' she retorted. 'I am quite capable of making a decision.'
He frowned, making the scar on his forehead even more ragged. He looked positively ferocious, but she refused to be intimidated and met his gaze squarely. He seemed to be struggling to contain his anger and after a moment he raised his hand to point towards a narrow path leading away through the trees. He said curtly, 'Rooks Tower is half a mile in that direction; West Barton is at least five miles by carriage, maybe two if you go back on the footpath, the way you came.'
Zelah bit her lip. It would be impossible to carry Nicky through the dense undergrowth of the forest without causing him a great deal of pain. The boy stirred and she took his hand.
'I d-don't like it, it hurts!'
The plaintive cry tore at her heart.
'Then it must be Rooks Tower,' she said. 'Let us hope your people get here soon.'
'They will be here as soon as they can.' He pulled the muslin cravat from his neck. 'In the meantime I must stop the bleeding.' His hard eyes flickered over her. 'It will mean moving his leg.'
She nodded and squeezed Nicky's hand.
'You must be very brave, love, while we bind you up. Can you do that?'
'I'll try, Aunty.'
'Your aunt, Nicky? She's more of an Amazon, I think!'
'Well, she is not really my aunt, sir,' explained Nicky gravely. 'She is my stepmama's sister.'
Zelah stared, momentarily diverted.
'You know each other?'
The man flicked a sardonic look towards her.
'Of course, do you think I allow strange brats to run wild in my woods? Introduce us, Nicky.'
'This is Major Coale.' The boy's voice wavered a little and his lip trembled as the major deftly wrapped the neckcloth around his leg. 'And this, sir, is my aunt, Zelah.'
'Zee-lah,' she corrected him haughtily. 'Miss Pentewan to you.'
'Dear me, Nicholas, you should have warned me that your aunt is a veritable dragon.'
The scar cutting through his eyebrow gave him a permanent frown, but she heard the amusement in his voice. Nicky, clinging to Zelah's hand and trying hard not to cry, managed a little chuckle.
'There, all done.' The major sat back, putting his hand on Nicky's shoulder. 'You were very brave, my boy.'
'As brave as a soldier, sir?'
'Braver. I've known men go to pieces over the veriest scratch.'
Zelah stared at the untidy, shaggy-haired figure in front of her. His tone was that of a man used to command, but beneath that faded jacket and all that hair, could he really be a soldier? She realised he was watching her and quickly returned her attention to her nephew.
'What happened, love? How did you fall?'
'I t-tripped at the top of the bank. There's a lot of loose branches lying around.'
'Aye. I've left them. Firewood for the villagers,' explained the major. 'We have been clearing the undergrowth.'
'And about time too,' she responded. 'These woods have been seriously neglected.'
'My apologies, madam, if they are not to your liking.'
Was he laughing at her? His facethe little she could see that was not covered by hairwas impassive.
'My criticism is not aimed at you, Major. I believe Rooks Tower was only sold last winter.'
'Yes, and I have not had time yet to make all the improvements I would wish.'
'You are the owner?'
Zelah could not keep the astonishment out of her voice. Surely this ragged individual could not be rich enough to buy such a property?
'I am. Appearances can be deceptive, Miss Pentewan.'
She flushed, knowing she deserved the coldness of his response.
'I beg your pardon, that is, II am sure there is a vast amount to be done.'
'There is, and one of my first tasks is to improve the road to the house and make it suitable for carriages again. I have men working on it now, but until that is done everything has to come in and out by packhorse.'
'Major Coale's books had to be brought here by pack-pony,' put in Nicky. 'Dozens of boxes of them. She likes books,' he explained to the major, whose right eyebrow had risen in enquiry.
'We have an extensive library at home,' added Zelah.
'And where is that?'
'I guessed that much from your name. Where in Cornwall?'
A smile tugged at her mouth, but she responded seriously.
'My father is rector at Cardinham, near Bodmin.'
Zelah looked up as a number of men arrived carrying a willow hurdle.
She scrambled to her feet and stepped back. The major handed his axe to one of the men before directing the delicate operation of lifting Nicky on to the hurdle. When they were ready to move off she fell into step beside the major, aware of his ungainly, limping stride as they followed the hurdle and its precious burden through the woods.
'I can see you have some experience of command, Major.'
'I was several years in the army.'
Zelah glanced at him. He had been careful to keep to the left of the path so only the right side of his face was visible to her. Whether he was protecting her sensibilities or his own she did not know.
'And now you plan to settle at Rooks Tower?'
'It is a little isolated,' she remarked. 'Even more so than West Barton.'
'That is why I bought it. I have no wish for company.'
Zelah lapsed into silence. His curt tone made the meaning of his words quite clear. He might as well have said I have no wish for conversation. Very well, she had no desire to intrude upon his privacy. She would not speak again unless it was absolutely necessary.
Finally they emerged from the trees and Zelah had her first glimpse of Rooks Tower. There was a great sweep of lawn at the front of the house, enclosed by a weed-strewn drive. At the far side of the lawn stood a small orangery, but years of neglect had dulled the white lime-wash and many of its windows were broken. Zelah turned away from this forlorn object to study the main house. At its centre was an ancient stone building with an imposing arched entrance, but it had obviously been extended over the centuries and two brick-and-stone wings had been added. Everything was arranged over two floors save for a square stone tower on the south-eastern corner that soared above the main buildings.
'Monstrosity, isn't it?' drawled the major. 'The house was remodelled in Tudor times, when the owner added the tower that gives the house its name, so that his guests could watch the hunt. It has a viewing platform on the roof, but we never use it now.'
She looked again at the house. There had been many alterations over the years, but it retained its leaded lights and stone mullions. Rooks Tower fell short of the current fashion for order and symmetry, but its very awkwardness held a certain charm.
'The views from the tower must be magnificent.' She cast an anxious look at him. 'You will not change it?'
He gave a savage laugh.
'Of course not. It is as deformed as I!'
She heard the bitterness in his tone, but could not think of a suitable response. The path had widened and she moved forwards to walk beside Nicky, reaching out to take his hand. It was hot and clammy. Zelah hid her dismay beneath a reassuring smile.
'Nearly there, love. We shall soon make you more comfortable.'
The major strode on ahead, his lameness barely noticeable as he led the way into the great hall where an iron-haired woman in a black-stuff gown was waiting for them. She bobbed a curtsy.
'I have prepared the yellow room for the young master, sir, and popped a warm brick between the sheets.'
'Thank you, Mrs Graddon.' He did not break his stride as he answered her, crossing the hall and taking the stairs two at a time, only pausing to turn on the half-landing. 'This way, but be careful not to tilt the litter!'
Dominic waited only to see the boy laid on the bed that had been prepared for him before striding off to his own apartments to change out of his working clothes. It was a damnable nuisance, having strangers in the house, but the boy was hurt, what else could he do? He did not object to having Nicky in the house. He was fond of the boy and would do all he could to help him, but it would mean having doctors and servants running to and fro. He could leave everything to Graddon and his wife, of course, and the aunt would look after the boy until Buckland could send someone.
The thought of Miss Zelah Pentewan made him pause. A reluctant smile touched his lips and dragged at the scarred tissue of his cheek. She was not conventionally pretty, too small and thin, with mousy brown hair and brown eyes. She reminded him of a sparrow, nothing like the voluptuous beauties he had known. When he thought of her standing up to him, prepared to fight him to protect her nephew by God she had spirit, for she barely came up to his shoulder!
He washed and dried his face, his fingers aware of the rough, pitted skin on his left cheek through the soft linen cloth. He remembered how she had glared at him, neither flinching nor averting her eyes once she had seen his scarred face. He gave her credit for that, but he would not subject her to the gruesome sight again. There was plenty for him to do that would keep him well away from the house for a few days.