When destitute widow Mary Vale aids an injured man on the road, she is shocked to discover that he is the reclusive Lucas Alastair, Marquis of Rothley! She's intrigued by the dark marquis, but when she offers to nurse him back to health in return for shelter, he proves a difficult patient!
Lucas hides some deep emotion beneath his brusque manner, and a stolen kiss leaves her longing for more . Able to help mend his physical injuries, can Mary heal the wounds of his painful past?
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Mary clutched her cloak tighter around her and shivered as she peered through the gathering gloom. She hoped it wasn't going to rain. She felt a tug on her skirt and looked down.
'Mama.' Pinched features set in a face too pale stared up at her. 'Mama, I'm hungry.'
Mary summoned a reassuring tone. 'Hush, Toby; yes, I know, lovey. We shall have something to eat as soon as we find somewhere to shelter.'
Grimly, she quelled her rising panic and reached for Toby's hand as she hefted two-year-old Emily higher on her right hip, where she had fallen asleep, one grubby hand entangled in Mary's hair. They plodded on, following a muddy track that wound through dense woodland, the treesa mixture of mature specimens and saplingscrowding in on either side, creating a claustrophobic atmosphere that had intensified as the afternoon wore on. No breath of wind stirred the limp foliage, not a bird sang and no woodland creature rustled amongst the undergrowth. The silence was unnerving.
Mary couldn't even be certain they were still heading north. She had become disorientated almost as soon as they had entered the wood. Such had been their weariness that the path, which had appeared to offer a short cut through the wood, had been accepted without thought. Now, however, Mary regretted her impulse. The track had twisted and turned like a serpent, until she no longer knew in which direction they walked.
For the past half-hour she had been on the lookout for something, anythinga woodsman's hut, perhaps, or even a fallen treethat might provide shelter for her and the children, but there had been nothing. The afternoon was dipping inexorably towards evening. She knew she must find shelter for the night soon. Her arm ached with the effort of carrying Emily and Toby was tired and dragging his feet. She could hear his breath hitching and knew he was trying his hardest not to cry. She squeezed his hand and he looked up at her.
'It'll be all right, Toby. I promise.'
Suddenly, a deep, rasping groan sounded from amongst the trees to her right. She whirled to face it, pushing Toby behind her and clutching Emily tight to her chest. She saw nothing. She took an uncertain step towards the trees, peering into the shadows.
'Mama?' Toby's panicky whisper sounded deafening in the eerie silence.
'Hush!' Mary hissed. Her eyes darted around, searching for the source of that groan. Nothing moved. She tightened her grip on Toby's hand. 'Come along, lovey, we must go.' She tugged him behind her as she hurried away, her heart hammering with the compulsion to put as much distance as possible between them and that unnatural sound. They reached the edge of a large clearing. It was lighter here, without the tree canopy, and Mary slowed, breathing a touch easier. As they neared the far edge of the clearing, however, a more familiar sound came to her earsthe jingle of a bit and the soft whicker of a horse.
Spinning round, Mary saw a large pale shape materialise from amongst the trees. The riderless horse walked on to the track, then halted. She looked around. There was nobody to be seen. A horse. Mary glanced down at Toby, read the exhaustion in his stance.
She led her son to a nearby fallen tree, then shook Emily gently.
'Emily sweetheart; wake up, darling, there's a good girl.'
Emily opened her eyes a slit. Her face crumpled and she began to cry.
'I know, I know,' Mary soothed.
She lowered Emily to the ground before untying the knot that held the bundle of their worldly possessions on her back. She put the bundle down, then took her cloak off and lay it on the damp ground by the tree. 'There, sit on my cloak, sweeties. I won't be long.' She drew the cloak around the children for warmth.
The horse had reached the clearing and now cropped steadily at the grass. As Mary approached it, the grey stretched its head towards her, blowing softly through flared nostrils.
Mary slowly reached out to allow the animal to take in her scent. 'Hello, old fellow.' She stroked its nose, then took hold of the bridle. 'What are you doing out here all alone?'
The horsea large, powerful grey geldingrelaxed, seemingly relieved to find some company in the silent woods. Mary examined him as best she could in the dim light. He was saddled and bridled and appeared unscathed, despite the broken and muddied reins trailing on the ground.
Mary gazed around again. There was nothingno-bodyto be seen.
'Is anyone there?' she called tentatively and listened.
Silence. She chewed at her lip, considering.
The horse had somehow appearedat the exact time she needed it. Not that she believed in such things, of course. There was doubtless a perfectly reasonable explanation for the horse to be wandering loose in the woods, but she would be a fool if she did not take advantage of the opportunity he offered. He seemed placid enough and looked sufficiently strong to carry both her and the children. It wasn't as if she was stealing, she assured herself. She would leave him in the first village they came to, for his owner to reclaim.
Her one desire at the moment was to leave this dismal wood behind them and find some shelter for the night. Then they could have something to eat.
The last of the bread she had packed when they had left their home three days before was wrapped in a cloth in her cloak pocket. Her stomach rumbled at the thought of food. It would no doubt be dry and unpalatable, she thought with a grimace, but at least it was sustenance. Hunger had its own way of dealing with pernickety eaters. What they would eat on the morrow, she had no idea. She would face that problem when she must and she thrust the ever-present dread to the back of her mind. There was no sense in meeting trouble halfway. If she must beg for food to feed the children, she would do it. But, first, they must reach habitation and that, to her intense relief, was now possible, with the help of the grey.
'Come on, lad,' she said, urging the horse to follow her.
He dug his hooves in and shook his head with a loud jingle of his bit. Mary tried again, tugging at the rein. He did not move. Mary cursed under her breath. He did not look a flighty sort, but she would not risk her precious children on an animal that could prove dangerous. Decision made, she gathered the reins, hoisted up her skirts and reached for the stirrup, grateful for her misspent childhood riding astride before age and decorum had insisted she use a side-saddle. She had been an accomplished horsewoman once upon a time, although it was several years now since she had ridden.
Once mounted, the grey perked up and moved forward in response to the squeeze of her calves. Mary relaxed. He would be fine.
'Hi! Stop, thief!'
The sudden shout made her jump and the horse shied sideways and lurched into a canter, almost unseating Mary. Heart pounding, both from the shout and from the effort of controlling the horse, Mary pulled up the grey and looked over her shoulder, back across the clearing. Beyond its edge, and barely visible in the gloom, a man staggered from amongst the trees, halting a few paces shy of the track. He grabbed on to a tree, leaning heavily against it.
'Get back here with ' His words slurred and faltered. His head drooped.
Heart in mouth, Mary urged the gelding towards the man. She wondered what he would doif this was his horse, he must be a gentleman and, as Mary well knew, the richer the man the less forgiving he was likely to be towards someone who took what was his, no matter how great their need.
She halted by the man. His head lifted as if with a great effort, his eyes locking with Mary's. Even in the dusky light of late afternoon, she could make out his features, which stood in stark contrast to his ashen skin. His face was all hard planes and angles, with dark, dark eyes under scowling brows and messy, midnight-black hair.
He's very handsome. The thought came unbidden and Mary was shocked she would notice such a thing when she was in such a dire predicament. After all, this man now held the power of life and death in his hands. Were he to choose to turn her over to the authorities, she could be imprisoned, or transported, or evenand she quaked at the thoughthanged as a horse thief. She swallowed hard, controlling her fear. She must be at her most persuasive. She had the children to think of.
He reached out and curled long fingers around the rein.
'What do ?' His voice tailed away.
His fingers slackened on the rein and he slumped heavily to the woodland floor.
Leaning down from the saddle, Mary tried to make out further details. His clothing confirmed him as a gentleman, but it was too murky to see much more.
She could, however, smell the alcohol, even from this distance. Her nose wrinkled as she recalled his slurred words. A gentleman, in his cups. Memories of her father and his abusive ways when under the influence of drink awakened. She must get the children away before the gentleman came round.
There was no point in waiting, she persuaded herself. He could sleep off the effects of the alcohol here in the woods and, when he awoke, the walk back to wherever he had come from would do him good.
'Come on, lad, walk on,' she said to the reluctant gelding, as she reined him away from the slumped figure and urged him on.
When they reached the children, Mary slid from the horse and hoisted Toby up to the saddle. It was a struggle. Toby, at five years old, was a sturdy little chap, but he took a pragmatic approach to life and, instead of making a fuss, he made every effort to help and scrambled on to the saddle. Emily began to wail and Mary hastened to pick her up and lift her in front of Toby. She put her cloak back on, retied her bundle, then positioned the gelding alongside the fallen tree and climbed on to it to help her to mount behind Toby.
She glanced back across the clearing, but could see no sign of the man. He was, presumably, still sleeping off the drink. She manoeuvred the grey on to the track leading from the clearing. No further shout sounded and Mary's tension eased a fraction. When they found a farm, or a village, she would release the horse and walk in with the children. No one would ever know she had 'borrowed' him. Like both her father and also her late husband she had no doubt the 'gentleman' would be unable to remember anything that had transpired that afternoon.
'Try to sit still, Toby,' she cautioned, as he squirmed in front of her, reaching to touch the horse's neck.
'I'm patting the horse to tell him he's being good, Mama.'
'He is, isn't he?'
'Mama? Look.' Toby held up his hand, showing fingers discoloured with a dark stain.
Mary took his hand and put her finger on the stain. It came away wet and sticky. She brought it closer to her eyes, but couldn't make out the colour. However, it smelled and felt suspiciously like.
'Toby! Are you hurt? Are you bleeding? Where did this come from?'
'Not me, silly Mama. The horse, I think he's hurt.' His voice wobbled.
'But he can't be. I would have seen if there was blood on his neck.' A knot of dread formed in her stomach. If it wasn't Toby and it wasn't the horse, then it must be
She reined in. What if he was hurt? Drunk or not, she couldn't leave an injured man lying in the woods all night. Muttering unladylike curses, she turned the grey. Immediately, his ears pricked up and his stride lengthened. To Mary's chagrin, they covered the distance back to the clearing in half the time.
'You old fraud,' she grumbled to the horse as she slid down from the saddle by the same fallen tree.
She tied the horse to a sapling. Injured or not, if the drunkard proved a threat they must be able to get away. Again, she went through the process of untying her bundle and spreading her cloak for the children to sit on. A breeze had sprung up, penetrating her thin woollen dress, and she shivered as she lifted the children down and sat them on the cloak, pulling the edges up around them once again.
'Don't move,' she whispered, 'and stay quiet. It's very important you don't make a sound. Do you understand?'
Both children nodded. Toby wrapped his arms around his little sister, who gazed up at Mary, her eyes huge in her face. Mary closed her eyes as the responsibilities weighing on her threatened to overwhelm her. Her stomach clenched, twisting into sick knots. What would happen to them all? She gritted her teeth and gave herself a mental shake. She forced a smile for the children as she stooped to plant a kiss on each of them.
'I won't be long,' she said.
Cautiously, she approached the track where she had left the man.
'You you came ' The voice rasped out from the shadows.
Mary gasped. The man had roused from his stupor and now sat facing the track, his back propped against a tree. She shot a quick glance over her shoulder to where she had left the children, but theyand the horsewere safely out of sight. Warily, she picked her way towards the man, who watched her from under dark brows, his glittering eyes visible even in the gloom.
'Th thank you. Shot ' His breaths were harsh and laboured.
'Shot? Oh, my goodness!' Mary forgot all caution and hurried to the man's side. 'Then it was your blood. Where are you injured?' She knelt by him.
'Shoulder leg careless.' He shifted and indicated his left shoulder.
'What happened? Who shot you? Was it an accident?' Mary glanced over her shoulder, at the surrounding woods. What if whoever had shot him was still out there?
He shook his head. 'Not here safe here please take horse get help hurry ' Mary pulled his jacket open. 'No! Be careful! Aargh ' His right hand shot out and gripped her wrist with surprising strength, forcing it away from his shoulder. 'Just go get help!' he gritted out.
Mary froze, her thoughts scrambling. The children! She couldn't leave them out here, alone with an injured man. She would have to take them with her, but they would slow her down. How long had he been bleeding?
'How far is it to find help?'
'Rothley two miles maybe more.' He seemed more alert, his breathing a touch easier.
Rothley. She knew the village, although not well. She had known it was on her route. She had her own reasons for avoiding it. 'Two miles? Is there nowhere nearer?'
He snorted. 'This is Northumberland. Sultan knows the way won't take long you can ride?'
'Of course I can.' Mary twisted her wrist, trying to work it free. 'But, first, I must look at your wounds. How long ago did it happen?'
'Not sure lost track but' he squinted up through the branches overhead 'possibly a couple of hours?'
'Are you still bleeding?'
'Never mind that please go.'
Mary eyed him with exasperation. If he was still losing blood, she must try to staunch the flow before leaving him. It would be an hour or more before help arrived. Three hours of blood loss could prove fatal.
'Please,' she said, 'let me see?'