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His ears still ringing from the impact of the fall, Dominic Fitzallen Ransleigh levered himself to a sitting position in the muddy Suffolk lane. Air hissed in and out of his gritted teeth as he waited for the red wave of pain obscuring his vision to subside. Which it did, just in time for him to see that black devil, Diablo, trot around the corner and out of sight.
Headed back to the barn, probably, Dom thought. If horses could laugh, surely the bad-tempered varlet was laughing at him.
It was his own fault, always choosing the most difficult and high-spirited colts to train as hunters. Horses with the speed and heart to gallop across country, jumping with ease any obstacle in their paths, but needing two strong hands on the reins to control their headstrong, temperamental natures.
He looked down at his one remaining hand, still trembling from the strain of that wild ride. Flexing the wrist, he judged it sore but not broken. After years of tending himself from various injuries suffered during his service with the Sixteenth Dragoons, a gingerly bending of the arm informed him no bones were broken there, either.
His left shoulder still throbbed, but at least he hadn't fallen on the stump of his right arm. Had he done that, he'd probably still be unconscious from the agony.
Resigning himself to sit in the mud until his muzzy head cleared, Dom gazed down the lane after the fleeing horse. Though the doctors had warned him, he'd resisted accepting what he'd just proved: he'd not be able to control Diablo, or any of the other horses in his stable full of hunters, with a single good hand.
Sighing, Dom struggled to his feet. He might as well face the inevitable. As he'd never be able to ride Diablo or the others again, there was no sense hanging on to them. The bitter taste of defeat in his mouth, he told himself he would look into selling them off at Tattersall's while the horses were still in prime form and able to fetch a good price. Sell the four-horse carriages, too, since with one hand, he couldn't handle more than a pair.
Thereby severing one more link between the man he'd been before Waterloo, and now.
Jilting a fiancée, leaving the army, and now this. Nothing like changing his world completely in the space of a week.
Could he give it all up? he wondered as he set off down the lane. Following in his hunting-mad father's footsteps had been his goal since he'd joined his first chase, schooling hunters a talent he worked to perfect. Before the army and between Oxford terms, he'd spent all his time studying horses, looking for that perfect combination of bone, stamina and spirit that made a good hunter. Buying them, training them, then hunting and steeplechasing with the like-minded friends who called themselves 'Dom's Daredevils'.
Stripped of that occupation, the future stretched before him as a frightening void.
Though he'd never previously had a taste for solitude, within days of his return, he'd felt compelled to leave London. The prospect of visiting his clubs, attending a ball, mixing with the old crowd at Tatt's, inspecting the horses before a saleall the activities in which he'd once delightednow repelled him. Sending away even his cousin Will, who'd rescued him from the battlefield and tended him for months, he'd retreated to Bildenstonethe family estate he'd not seen in years, and hadn't even been sure was still habitable.
He'd sent Elizabeth away, too. A wave of grief and remorse swept through him as her lovely face surfaced in his mind. How could he have asked her to wait for him to recover, when the man he was now no longer fit into the world of hunts and balls they'd meant to share?
Ruthlessly he extinguished her image, everything about her and the hopes they once cherished too painful to contemplate. Best to concentrate on taking the next small step down the road ahead, small steps being all he could manage towards a future cloaked in a shifting mist of uncertainty.
Fighting the despair threatening to suck him down, he reminded himself again why he'd left friends, fiancée, and all that was familiar.
To find himself
whatever was left to find.
Wearily he picked up his pace, his rattled brain still righting itself. He traversed the sharp corner around which his horse had disappeared to find himself almost face to face with a young woman leading a mare.
They both started, the horsing rearing a little.
'Down, Starfire,' a feminine voice commanded. Looking up at him expectantly, the girl smiled and said, 'Sir, will you give me a hand? I was almost run down by a black beast of a stallion, which startled my mare. I'm afraid I wasn't paying enough attention, and lost my seat. I'll require help to remount.'
His mind still befuddled, Dom stared at her. Though tall enough that he didn't have to look down very far, his first impression was of a little brown wrenlovely pale complexion, big brown eyes, hair of indeterminate hue tucked under a tired-looking bonnet, and a worn brown habit years out of date.
The unknown miss didn't flinch at his eye patch, he had to give her that. Nor did her eyes stray to the pinned-up sleeve of his missing armthe sleeve now liberally spattered with mud and decorated with leaf-bits, as was the rest of his clothing. Heavens, he must look like a vagrant who'd slept in the woods. It was a wonder she didn't run screaming in the opposite direction.
His lips curved into a whimsical smile at the thought as her pleasant expression faded. 'Sir, could you give me a hand, help me remount?' she all but shouted.
Dom flinched at the loud tones. She must think me simple as well as dishevelled. As his mind finally cleared and her request registered, his amusement vanished.
The images flashed into his headall the girls he'd lifted in a dance, tossed into saddles
carried into bed. With two strong arms.
Anger coursed through him. 'That would be a bit of problem.' He gestured to his empty sleeve. 'Afraid I can't help you. Good day, miss.'
Her eyes widened as he began to walk past her. 'Can't help me?' she echoed. 'Can'tor won't?'
Fury mounting, he wheeled back to face her. 'Don't you see, idiot girl?' he spat out. 'I'm
Crippled would be a better description, but he couldn't get his mouth around the word. He turned to walk away again.
She hurried forward, the horse trailing on the reins behind her, and blocked his path. 'What I see,' she said, her dark eyes flashing, 'is that you have one good arm, whether or not you choose to use it. Which is more than many of the soldiers who didn't survive Waterloo, including my father. He wouldn't have hesitated to give me a leg up, even with only one hand!'
Before he could respond, she shortened the lead on the horse's reins and snapped, 'Very well. I shall search for a more obliging log or tree stump. Good day, sir.'
Bemused, he watched the sway of her neat little bottom as she marched angrily away. With well-tended forest on either side of the lanedeadfall quickly removed to provide firewood for someone's hearthhe didn't think she was likely to find what she sought.
Turning back towards Bildenstone, he set off walking, wondering who the devil she was. Not that, having spent the last ten years either with the army, at his hunting box in Leicestershire or in London, he expected to recognise any of the locals. That girl would have been only a child the last time he'd been here, seven years ago.
He'd probably just insulted the daughter of some local worthythough, given the shabby condition of her riding habit, not a man of great means. He meant to limit as much as possible any interaction with his neighbours, but in the restricted society of the country, he'd likely encounter her again. Perhaps by then, he'd be able to tender a sincere apology.
Stomping down the lane without encountering any objects suitable for use as a mounting block, Theodora Branwell felt her anger grow. After a fruitless ten-minute search, she conceded that she might have to walk all the way back to Thornfield Place before she could find a way to remount her horse.
Which meant she might as well abandon her purpose and try again tomorrow.
Not the least of her ire and frustration she directed at herself. If she'd not been so lost in rehearsing her arguments, she would have heard the approaching hoofbeats and had her mount well in hand before the stallion burst around the corner and flew past them. After all the obstacles they'd ridden over in India and on the Peninsula, how Papa would laugh to know she'd been unseated by so simple a device!
No sense bemoaning; she might as well accept that her lapse had ruined the timing for making a call on her prospective landlord today.
She had Charles to check on, she thought, her heart warming as she pictured the little boy she'd brought up. Then there were the rest of the children to settle, especially the two new little ones the Colonel had just sent her from Brussels. Though the manor's small nursery and adjoining bedchamber were becoming rather crowded, making settling the matter of the school and dormitory ever more urgent, Constancia and Jemmie would find them places. But she knew the thin boy and the pale, silent girl would feel better after a few sweetmeats, a reassuring hug, and a story to make them welcome.
How frightening and strange the English countryside must seem to a child, torn from the familiar if unstable life of travelling with an army across the dusty fields and valleys of Portugal and Spain. Especially after losing one's last parent.
It was a daunting enough prospect for her, and she was an adult.
The extra day would allow her to go over her arguments one more time. She liked Thornfield Place very much; she only had to convince Mr Ransleigh, her mostly absentee landlord who had now unaccountably taken up residence, that turning the neglected outbuilding on his property into a home and school for soldiers' orphans would cause no problem and was a noble thing to do.
A guilty pang struck her. She'd really been too hard on the one-armed, one-eyed man in the lane. Though he might have been injured in an accident, he had the unmistakable bearing of a soldier. Had he suffered his wounds at Waterloo? Recovering from such severe losses would be slow; frustration over his limitations might at times make him wonder if it would not have been better, had he never made it off the battlefield.
She knew it was. She'd have given anything, had Papa been found alive, whatever his condition. Or Marshall, dead these five years now.
The bitter anguish of her fiance's loss scoured her again. How much different would her life be now, had he not fallen on that Spanish plain? They'd be long married, doubtless with children, her love returned and her place in society secure as his wife.
But it hadn't been fair to take out her desolation on that poor soldier. Wholly preoccupied with her own purpose, she only now recalled how thin his frame was, how dishevelled his rough clothing. When had he last eaten a good meal? Finding employment must be difficult for an ex-soldier with only one arm.
He'd not carried a pack, she remembered, so he must be a local resident. Country society comprised a small circle, she'd been told, much like the army. Which meant she'd probably encounter the man again. If she did, she would have to apologise. Perhaps in the interim, she might also think of some job she could hire him to perform at Thorn-field Place.
Satisfied that she'd be able to atone for her rudeness, she dismissed him from her mind and trudged down the lane back towards Thornfield.
* * *
Nearly an hour later, Theo finally reached the stables and turned over her well-walked horse. Dismissing her irritation over an afternoon wasted, she entered through a back door, to have Franklin, her newly hired butler, inform her that a visitor awaited her.
Since she had no acquaintance in the county beyond the village solicitor she'd written to help her find staff, she couldn't imagine who might be calling. Curiosity speeding her step, she'd reached the parlour threshold before it struck her that, according to the dimly remembered rules of proper behaviour her long-dead mama had tried to instil in her, she ought to have gone upstairs to change into a presentable gown before receiving visitors.
But the identity of the lady awaiting her drove all such thoughts from her head. 'Aunt Amelia!' she cried in surprise and delight.
'My darling Theo! I'm so glad to have you home at last!' the lady declared, encircling her in a pair of plump, scented arms.
Theo's throat tightened as she returned the hug of her last remaining close relation. 'I'm so glad, too, Aunt Amelia. But what are you doing here? And how did you know I was at Thornfield Place?'
'I'd hoped you'd come to see me in London after you left Brussels. When you wrote you'd already consulted Richard's lawyer, found a suitable country manor, and wished to get settled there before you visited, I just couldn't wait.'
'I'm so glad you've come, although I fear you'll not find the establishment nearly up to your standards. I'm still hiring staff, and everything is at sixes and sevens.'
Pushing away, she surveyed the lady she'd not seen in over five years. 'How handsome you look in that cherry gown! In the first crack of fashion, I'd wagernot that I would know.'
'You're looking very well, too, my dearthough I can't in good conscience return the compliment about the habit.' After a grimace at the offending garment, she continued. 'Now that you're finally back in England, we must attend to that! One can understand the unfashionable dress, living in all the God-forsaken places my brother dragged you, but how have you managed to keep your complexion so fresh? I thought to find you thin and brown as a nut.'
'I've always been disgusting healthy, or so the English memsahibs used to tell Papa.'
'Unlike your poor mama, God rest her soul.' Sadness flitting across her face, she said, 'I still can't believe we've lost Richard, too.'
Steeling herself against the ever-present ache of loss, Theo said, 'I'm glad you've given up your blacks; the colour doesn't suit you.'
'You don't think it too soon? It's only nine months since.' Her voice trailed off.
'Since Papa fell at Waterloo,' Theo replied, making herself say the words matter of factly.
'It just doesn't seem fair,' Lady Amelia said, frowning. 'My brother surviving all those horrid battles, first in India, then on the Peninsula, only to be killed in the very last action of the war! But enough of that,' she said after a glance at Theowho perhaps wasn't concealing her distress as well as she thought. 'Shall we have tea?'
'Of course. I'm devilish thirsty myself,' she said drily. 'I'll ring for Franklin.'
After instructing the butler to bring tea and refreshments, Theo joined her aunt on the sofa.
'How long can you stay? I'll have Reeves prepare you a room. It's a bit hectic with the children not settled yet, but I think we can make you comfortable.'
'Children?' her aunt repeated. 'So you still have them Jemmie, the boy your father took in when his sergeant father died? And the little girl you wrote me about. Besides Charles, of course. How is the poor little orphan?'
'Doing well,' Theo said, her heart warming as she thought of him. 'A sturdy four-year-old now.'
'Goodness, that old already! His father's family never
'No. Lord Everly's commander, Colonel Vaughn, wrote to his father again when I returned with Charles after the birth, to inform him of the poor mother's death in childbed, but the marquess did not deign to reply.' She neglected mentioning how she'd rejoiced at learning she'd be able to keep the child. 'So, he's still with me. Indeed, I can't imagine being parted from him.'
'You're quite young enough to marry and have sons who truly are your own,' her aunt replied tartly. 'I suppose you had to do your Christian duty and accompany that unfortunate girl, enceinte and grieving, back to England after Everly was killed. I do wish you'd made it to London for the birth, though. How unfortunate to have his mama fall ill, stranding you at some isolated convent in the wilds of Portugal! Naturally, after her death, you felt obliged to take charge of the infant until he could be returned to his family. But with that family unwilling to accept the boy and Richard goneare you sure you should continue caring for him? As for the others, would it not be better to put them into the custody of the parish? Under a colonel's guardianship, such an odd household might have been tolerated in the army overseas, but even with your papa present, such a ménage here in England would be considered very strange.' She sighed. 'You were ever wont to pick up the stray and injured, even as a child.'
'I'm sure you would have done the same, had you been there to see them, poor little creatures left on their own to beg or starve.'
'None the less, without Richard
It's just not fitting for a gently reared girl to have charge of
children like that.'
Theo laughed. 'After growing up in India and all those years following the drum, I don't believe I qualify as "gently reared".'
Her aunt gave her a fulminating look. 'You're still gently born, regardless of the unconventionality of your upbringing, and are as well, I understand, a considerable heiress. Despite your
unusual circumstances, I wouldn't despair of having you make a good match. Won't you come to me in London for the Season, let me find you a good man to take your father's place in your life?'