What: A disheveled woman who is nearly trampled by his carriage horses.
When: Late one summer night while the Duke is in pursuit of would-be assassins.
Why: When the mysterious beauty's identity is revealed as Lady Beatrix Stanton, Griffin realizes it's she who holds the key to everything. Bea's memory must be unlocked, but with every second in her presence inflaming Griffin's desire, keeping his mind on the task ahead proves nigh on impossible!
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July 1815, Lancashire, England.
'What the?' Griffin Stone, the tenth Duke of Rotherham, pulled sharply on the reins of his perfectly matched greys as a ghostly white figure ran out of the darkness directly in front of his swiftly travelling phaeton.
Despite his concerted efforts to avoid a collision, the ethereal figure barely missed being stomped on by the high-stepping and deadly hooves, but was not so fortunate when it came to the back offside wheel of the carriage.
Griffin winced as he heard rather than saw that collision, all of his attention centred on bringing the greys to a stop before he was able to jump down from the carriage and run quickly round to the back of the vehicle.
There was only the almost full moon overhead for illumination, but nevertheless Griffin was able to locate where the white figure lay a short distance away.
An unmoving and ghostly shape was lying face down in the dirt.
Two strides of his long legs brought him to the utterly still figure, where he crouched down on his haunches. Griffin could see that the person was female; long dark hair fell across her face and cascaded loosely down the length of her spine, and she was wearing what, to him, looked suspiciously like a voluminous white nightgown, her feet bare.
He glanced about them in confusion; this private way through Shrawley Woods was barely more than a rutted track, and as far as he was aware there were no houses in the immediate vicinity. In fact, Griffin was very aware as the surrounding woods and the land for several miles about them formed part of his principal ducal estate.
It made no sense that this woman was roaming about his woods wearing only her nightgown.
He placed his fingers about her wrist, with the intention of checking for a pulse, only to jerk back as she unexpectedly gave a pained groan the moment his fingers touched her bared flesh. It let him know she was at least still alive, even if the sticky substance he could feel on his fingertips showed she had sustained an injury of some kind.
Griffin took a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped the blood from his hand before reaching out to gently stroke the long dark hair from over her face, revealing it as a deathly pale oval in the moonlight.
'Can you hear me?' His voice was gruff, no doubt from the scare he had received when she'd run out in front of his carriage.
Shrawley Woods was dense, and this rarely used track was barely navigable in full daylight; Griffin had only decided to press on in the darkness towards Stonehurst Park, just a mile away, because he had played in these woods constantly as a child and knew his way blindfolded.
There had been no reason, at eleven o'clock at night, for Griffin to take into account that there would be someone else in these woods. A poacher would certainly have known his way about in a way this barely clothed female obviously did not.
'Can you tell me where you are injured so that I can be sure not to hurt you again?' Griffin prompted, his frown darkening when he received no answer, and was forced to accept that she had once again slipped into unconsciousness.
Griffin made his next decision with the sharp precision for which he had been known in the army. It was late at night, full dark, no one had yet come crashing through the woods in pursuit of this woman, and, whoever she might be, she was obviously in need of urgent medical attention.
Consequently there was only one decision he could make, and that was to place her in the phaeton and continue on with the rest of his journey to Stonehurst Park. Once there they would no longer be in darkness, and he could ascertain her injuries more accurately, after which a doctor could be sent for. Explanations for her state of undress, and her mad flight through the woods, could come later.
Griffin straightened to take off his driving coat and lay it gently across her before scooping her carefully up into his arms.
She weighed no more than a child, her long hair cascading over his arm, her face all pale and dark hollows in the moonlight. He rested her head more comfortably against his shoulder.
She was young and very slender. Too slender. The weight of her long hair seemed almost too much for the slender fragility of her neck to support.
She made no sound as he lifted her up onto the seat of his carriage, nor when he wrapped his coat more securely about her. He took up the reins once again and moved the greys on more slowly than before in an effort not to jolt his injured passenger unnecessarily.
His decision to come to his estate in Lancashire had been forced upon him by circumstances. The open war against Napoleon was now over, thank goodness, but Griffin, and several of his close friends, who also bore the title of Duke and were known collectively as the Dangerous Dukes, all knew, better than most, that there was still a silent, private war to be fought against the defeated emperor and his fanatical followers.
Just a week ago the Dangerous Dukes had helped foil an assassination plot to eliminate their own Prince Regent, along with the other leaders of the alliance. The plan being to ensure Napoleon's victorious return to Paris, while chaos ruled in those other countries.
A Frenchman, André Rousseau, since apprehended and killed by one of the Dangerous Dukes, had previously spent a year in England, secretly persuading men and women who worked in the households of England's politicians and peers to Napoleon's cause. Of which there were many; so many families in England had French relatives.
Many of the perpetrators of that plot had since been either killed or incarcerated, but there remained several who were unaccounted for. It was rumoured that those remaining followed the orders of an as yet unknown leader.
Griffin was on his way to the ducal estates he had not visited for some years, because the Dukes had received word that one of the traitors, Jacob Harker, who might know the identity of this mysterious leader, had been sighted in the vicinity.
It just so happened that three of the Dangerous Dukes had married in recent weeks, and a fourth wed just a week ago, on the very day Griffin had set out for his estate in Lancashire. With all of his friends being so pleasurably occupied, it had been left to him to pursue the rumour of the sighting of Harker.
Running a young woman down in his carriage, in the dark of night, had not been part of Griffin's immediate plans.
Every part of her was in agony and aching as she attempted to move her legs.
A wave of pain that swelled from her toes to the top of her head.
Had she fallen?
Been involved in an accident of some kind?
'Would you care for a drink of water?'
She stilled at the sound of a cultured male voice, hardly daring to breathe as she tried, and failed, to recall if she recognised the owner of it before she attempted to open her eyes.
Panic set in as she realised that he was a stranger to her.
'There is no reason to be alarmed,' Griffin assured her firmly as the young woman in the bed finally opened panicked eyeseyes that he could now see were the dark blue of midnight, and surrounded by thick lashes that were very black against the pallor of a face that appeared far too thinand turned to look at him as he sat beside the bed in a chair that was uncomfortably small for his large frame.
She, in comparison, made barely an outline beneath the covers of the bed in his best guest bedchamber at Stonehurst Park, her abundance of long dark hair appearing even blacker against the white satin-and-lace pillows upon which her head lay, her face so incredibly pale.
'I assure you I do not mean you any harm,' he added firmly. He was well aware of the effect his five inches over six feet in height, and his broad and muscled body, had upon ladies as delicate as this one. 'I am sure you will feel better if you drink a little water.'
Griffin turned to the bedside table and poured some into a glass. He placed a hand gently beneath her nape to ease up her head and held the glass to her lips until she had drunk down several sips, aware as he did that those dark blue eyes remained fixed on his every move.
Tears now filled them as her head dropped back onto the pillows. 'I' She gave a shake of her head, only to wince as even that slight movement obviously caused her pain. She ran her moistened tongue over her lips before speaking again. 'You are very kind.'
Griffin frowned darkly as he turned to place the glass back on the bedside table, hardening his heart against the sight of those tears until he knew more about the circumstances behind this young woman's flight through his woods. His years as an agent for the Crown had left him suspicious of almost everybody.
And women, as he knew only too well, were apt to use tears as their choice of weapon.
'Who are you?'
It was a reasonable question, Griffin supposed, in the circumstances. And yet he could not help but think he should be the one asking that.
When they'd arrived at Stonehurst late last night he had left the care of his carriage and horses to his head groom, before hurriedly taking her into his arms and carrying her up the steps into the house. Once inside he had hurried her up to the bedchambers, much to the open-mouthed surprise of his butler, Pelham.
Rather than send for a doctor straight away Griffin had taken a few moments to assess the condition of the young woman himself. After all, until he knew the reason for her flight through the woods it might be prudent to ask her some questions. Was she in some sort of danger?
Griffin had been grateful for his caution once he had placed his burden carefully down atop the bedcovers and gently folded back the many capes of his topcoat.
As he had thought, the woman was young, possibly eighteen, or at the most twenty, and her heart-shaped face was delicately lovely. She had perfectly arched eyebrows beneath a smooth brow, though the slight hollowness to her cheeks possibly spoke of a deprivation of food. Her nose was small and straight, her mouth a pale pink, the top lip slightly fuller than the bottom, her chin softly curved.
She had been wearing a filthy white cotton nightgown over her slender curves, revealing feet that were both dirty and lacerated beneath its bloodied ankle length. A result, he was sure, that she'd begun her flight shoeless.
There had also already been a sizeable lump and bruising already appearing upon her right temple, no doubt from her collision with his carriage.
But it was her other injuries, injuries that Griffin knew could not possibly have been caused by that collision, which had caused him to draw in a shocked and hissing breath.
The blood he had felt on his fingers earlier came from the raw chafing about both her wrists and ankles. She'd obviously been restrained by tight ropes for some time before her flight through his woods.
There were any number of explanations as to why she'd been restrained, of course, and not all of them were necessarily sinister.
Though he did not favour the practice himself, he was nevertheless aware that some men liked to secure a woman to the bedas some women enjoyed being secured!during love play.
There was also the possibility that this young woman was insane, and had been restrained for her own safety as well as that of others.
The final possibility, and perhaps the most likely, was that she had been restrained against her will.
Until such a time as Griffin established which explanation it was he'd decided that no one in his household, or outside it, was to be allowed to talk to her but himself.
His decision made, Griffin had immediately instructed the hovering Pelham to bring him hot water and towels, and to appropriate a clean nightgown from one of the maids. After all, there had been nothing to stop Griffin making his uninvited guest at least a little more comfortable than she was at present.
Still, he had been deeply shocked, once he had used his knife to cut the dirty and bloodied nightgown away from her body, to discover many bruises, both old and new, concealed beneath.
There had been no visible marks on her face, apart from the bruise on her temple, but there had been multiple purple and black bruises covering her body, with other, older bruises having faded to yellow. The ridge of her spine had shown through distinctly against that bruised skin as evidence that this woman had not only been repeatedly kicked and or beaten, but that she had also been starved, possibly for some days if not weeks, of more than the food and water necessary to keep her alive.
If that was the case, Griffin was determined to know exactly who was responsible for having exerted such cruelty on this fragile and beautiful young woman, and why.
After assuring she was as comfortable as was possible, Griffin had then gone quickly to his own room to bathe the travel dust from his own body, before changing into clean clothes and returning to spend the night in the chair at her bedside. He'd meant to be at her side when she woke. If she woke.
She had given several groans of protest as Griffin had bathed the dirt from her wrists, ankles and feet, before applying a soothing salve and bandages, her feet very dirty and badly cut from running outdoors without shoes, and also in need of the application of the healing salve. Otherwise she had remained wor-ryingly quiet and still for the rest of the night.
Griffin, on the other hand, had had plenty of time in which to consider his own actions.
Obviously he could not have left this young woman in the woods, least of all because he was responsible for having rendered her unconscious in the first place. But the uncertainty of who she was and the reasons for her imprisonment and escape meant the ramifications for keeping her here could be far-reaching.
Not that he gave a damn about that; Griffin answered only to the Crown and to God, and he doubted the former had any interest in her, and for the momentand obviously for some days or weeks pre-viously!the second seemed to have deserted her.
Consequently Griffin now had the responsibility of her until she woke and was able to tell him the circumstances of her injuries.