No one noticed the man who arrived last.
The host and hostess had long since mingled with their guests. It was almost the supper dance.
The latecomer did not join them. He paused just inside the ballroom, his gaze sweeping the elegant, merry crowd. But after a moment he turned and went up the stairs, away from the ball. Moving quietly and quickly, he turned into the family wing, pausing at each door, every now and then opening one a fraction of an inch before easing it closed and going on.
Finally, almost at the end of the hall, he stopped longest, placing his ear right up next to the door. With a stealthy glance over his shoulder, he opened the door and stepped inside.
Anyone else would probably have backed out at discovering a couple occupied as this one was. Marcus Reece, however, was not embarrassed at all, and instead of backing out of the room, he closed the door behind him.
"There…oh yes…yes…" moaned the woman, rising and falling in sensual abandon, her head thrown back and eyes closed in ecstasy.
"There? Oh no, almost there," panted the man bucking beneath her thighs. His hands were wrapped about her hips, his trousers down around his still-shod feet.
The woman laughed, her breath catching in a gasp. "Almost? Wait for me, love."
"Can't," growled the man, shoving himself up on one elbow and taking her dark pink nipple into his mouth. "Come now."
"Oh… Oh…Oh oh oh!" Her exclamations rose into a shriek as she finally opened her eyes and realized they were not alone. "Oh my God!" She shoved her lover away from her breast and vaulted off his lap, grabbing up her loosened gown in a vain attempt to cover herself. "What are you doing here?"
Marcus regarded her stonily. "Saving your life, most likely."
The man on the chaise had recovered from his shock enough to sit up and turn. "Marcus, old man, how kind of you to join us," he said in a voice sharp with sarcasm. "To what do we owe the displeasure?"
"To Lord Barlow." The woman made a strange gulping sound and turned pale. "He has been drinking a great deal tonight, and it seems he is out of patience with the rumors of his wife's infidelities. Someone has finally broken the news to him that while he sits at his club, Lady Barlow graces other gentlemen with her private attentions. He is on his way here as we speak, to see for himself how true the rumors are."
The woman gasped, and began frantically adjusting her clothing. Marcus ignored her and turned back to his brother. "Barlow means to kill you, David," he said in a low voice. "He heard your name. Get up and get dressed."
"You said he didn't care," David accused the woman, yanking up his trousers. Her arms bent behind her as she tried to fasten her gown, Lady Barlow glared back at him.
"He doesn't care! Only…" She darted a quick glance at Marcus, who had retrieved David's discarded shirt and was turning it right side out. "Only when he drinks," she finished a bit sullenly.
"The man's a bloody sot!" Marcus flung the shirt at his brother, and David jerked it over his head. "You lied to me."
"As if you cared," she flung back.
"Quiet!" Marcus silenced them both. "That no longer matters. David, my carriage will be waiting in the mews. Get out of the house any way you can without being seen, and go directly there. Here." He handed David his waistcoat and jacket.
"Why?" David asked, pulling on the jacket.
Marcus smiled grimly. "Barlow may be close at my heels, and will raise an uproar if he finds you. Or believes he finds you."
"Oh." David stuffed his discarded cravat into a pocket and got to his feet. "Right, then. In the mews?"
Marcus jerked his head in a nod, already turning toward the mirror. The door opened and closed softly as David left, and Lady Barlow said, "Well!" Marcus ran his hands through his hair, ruffling it a bit. "What the devil am I supposed to do?" she exclaimed, when he ignored her. "I don't suppose you've some secret plan to allow me to sneak out."
"You, madam, are coming with me." Jocelyn Barlow pouted and crossed her arms under her bosom.
"I haven't agreed to any of this."
He barely glanced at her. "I don't recall soliciting your agreement, but considering your husband's temper, it would be in your best interest to persuade him you've been with me instead of with my brother."
"I hardly was with your brother," she muttered.
"I don't care whether you found it satisfying or not," he said in a dangerously quiet voice. "I don't care about you."
She snorted, and Marcus faced her. For a moment he was tempted to leave her here like this, still disheveled and unbuttoned. She was an unfaithful wife, apparently an untruthful lover, and Marcus truly didn't care about her.
But if he didn't, she would owe him nothing. Her husband was in a fury, had publicly declared his intentions, and Marcus didn't think she would raise a finger to calm him; she'd likely enjoy the notoriety of being the cause of a duel. Marcus hadn't raced across town and barged in on them just to have Barlow call David out before breakfast tomorrow. "Turn around," he ordered. She opened her mouth, looked at his expression, and turned around without a word.
"We will stroll downstairs and rejoin the guests," he said as he did up her gown properly. Thank God she was one of those daring women who didn't wear a corset. "We have been admiring the artwork in the salon, and David left hours ago. I don't think we need to mention anything that happened in this room." He turned her around and ran a critical eye over her. "Your hair is falling down." She flushed and turned to the mirror to fix it.
Marcus waited at the door, controlling his impatience. They needed to be seen together for a few minutes before Barlow arrived. Lady Barlow finally finished her toilette and took the arm he offered, and they left the room.
"May I ask why you're doing this?"
She was quiet for a moment as they walked down the hall. "Do you know, when you first appeared like that, it was quite startling, but also, I must say, rather exciting to see you standing there, watching me…" She cast him a coy look from under her lashes. Marcus, who was not easily shocked, could hardly believe his ears. He stopped, waiting until she looked at him.
"You are sadly mistaken if you think the sight of you riding my brother like a common strumpet was remotely exciting to me," he said. "I suggest you purge the thought from your head."
She pouted again, and said nothing more as they reached the stairs and went down to the ballroom.
Normally Marcus spoke only to people he knew and respected, but tonight he purposely slowed his gait and rolled his shoulders a little. When someone hailed him, either by his name or by David's, he nodded in greeting. A few people gave him odd looks, but he ignored them. There was only one person he truly needed to confuse, and Barlow had been drinking.
"You, sir!" A stocky gentleman and his companions plowed to a halt behind them. "I demand satisfaction!"
With one last speaking glance at Lady Barlow, Marcus turned. The rest of the room was already facing his accuser, breathless with anticipation. Either rumor moved even faster than Marcus's horses, or the fool had been telling everyone here of his intentions. "Satisfaction, Barlow? For what, may I ask?"
At the sound of his voice, Lord Barlow's eyes widened, and he gulped. "Exeter. Oh. I say. I thought…" He cleared his throat and shot a nervous glance at one of his friends. "Exeter. How do you do, sir?" He gave a wobbly bow.
Marcus looked down on him. "I am well, sir." He waited a heartbeat. "And you?"
Barlow hiccupped at his frosty tone. "Very well, sir." There was a moment of silence. "Jocelyn," muttered Barlow.
"Good evening, husband." She dipped into a slight curtsey, hiding her pallor behind her fan.
Marcus unwound her hand from his elbow. "Now that you have arrived, Barlow, I will return your wife, with my thanks for the pleasure of her company this evening."
"The pleasure of her company," parroted Barlow, taking his wife's hand. He looked completely flummoxed, thrown off his stride. "Yes. Mmph. Yes."
"She was kind enough to show me our hosts' gallery," said Marcus. "Quite illuminating." Lady Barlow was known as a patron of the arts. Marcus suspected she especially patronized handsome young artists, but that was beside the point.
"Quite." Barlow seemed incapable of conversation. He continued to glance between Marcus and his wife as though his didn't comprehend what they were saying. But there was nothing he could say without calling his wife a whore and Marcus a liar, and while he might be drunk enough to do the former, he wasn't about to do the latter. Marcus decided he had done enough.
"Good evening, Barlow. Lady Barlow." He turned and walked away, hearing Lord Barlow's complaint to one of his companions: "Greaves, you're daft! That was Exeter, not his wastrel brother."
To which Greaves whined, "I never could tell them apart!"
Marcus strode from the ballroom, ignoring the furious whispers that sprang up in his wake. With no apparent sign of hurry, he left the house without once looking back. His carriage was waiting at the bottom of the steps, the footman standing at attention next to the door. He pulled it open as Marcus approached, and closed it behind him. Marcus rapped once on the roof, and they were off almost instantaneously.
"I suppose I should thank you," came David's voice from the shadows opposite. "I can't believe she lied to me."
"If you had any sense at all, you would have made certain of matters yourself."
David snorted. "Well, when have I had any sense?"
Marcus didn't disagree. David had no sense, carrying on with the wife of a jealous man and then making light of the affair to his friends. One of those friends had spread the tale, obviously having as little discretion as David did. "I suggest you take a holiday until the scandal dies down."
"Scandal?" David sat up. "How can there be a scandal? He didn't catch us together, or even see us together."
Marcus let out his breath slowly. "Barlow overheard that fool Brixton regaling some friends with the tale. He was too drunk to puzzle out why he saw his wife with me instead of with you, but he'll get there eventually. Enough people will know she was with you earlier."
David sat back with a huff. "Fine."
Marcus felt a moment of relief that David had agreed so easily, and pressed the point. "Tomorrow."
"Come now, that's extreme!" David protested. Marcus said nothing. "Surely that looks like running away," David tried again. Still Marcus said nothing. He didn't give a damn what it looked like. He cared what it would accomplish. Silence filled the carriage until they reached David's town house. The vehicle tipped slightly as the footman stepped down to get the door.
"Fine, then," snapped David. "I'll go. Enjoy the gossip in my stead." He jumped down from the carriage without a word of good-bye, let alone thanks, and stomped up his steps. Marcus leaned back and sighed. David would be gone before Barlow's headache passed tomorrow if Marcus personally had to set him bound and gagged on the public mail coach. Truth be told, Marcus had been looking for a way to get David out of London, and while this was not quite as good as any—how dare David carry on without a thought for his family's reputation, when their sister would be making her debut in less than a year—it would suffice. No doubt David would find something, or someone, just as disreputable in Brighton, but London society would be more engrossed in its own follies. Without a duel, any gossip about Lady Barlow and David would fade.
Suddenly tired, Marcus signaled the coachman to go home. He had no interest in returning to his club. Though it had taken barely an hour, riding to David's rescue had worn him out and utterly ruined the evening. He knew it was too much to expect gratitude, but he did wish David didn't resent him for it. Someday, Marcus thought, he wouldn't do it, and David would discover how cruel his interference had been. But first he must think of Celia and her future. Once his sister was well and safely married, Marcus promised himself, David would be cut loose, free to behave, and suffer, in any way he liked.
But until then, he was David's keeper. Marcus leaned his head back against the cushion and said a quick prayer that David wouldn't get into too much trouble in Brighton.
The hamlet of Middleborough included less than two hundred souls all told, and although it boasted both a tailor and a dressmaker, a bootmaker, and two fine taverns, it could not by any stretch be counted a city. Its chief claim to fame, as well as its main source of revenue, was its location. Twenty-five miles of good road to the north lay London, twenty-five miles to the south lay Brighton, and nearly every traveler between the two cities came through Middleborough.
Thus the residents of Middleborough were accustomed to fine carriages and matched teams bowling through their town. Most stopped at either the White Swan or the King's Arms, but the straight, flat highway inspired more than a few drivers—gentlemen with flashy rigs, mostly—to race each other, at speeds which rendered Middleborough little more than a blur.
It was a fine early spring day when two such carriages appeared on the horizon. Walking along the road, her arms filled with packages, Hannah Preston heaved a sigh. Shifting her armload, she caught hold of her daughter's hand and pulled her to the side. Moments later the carriages thundered past in a blur of glossy horses and brightly painted wheels.
"Fools," muttered Hannah, barely avoiding a muddy puddle. "One of these days, there's going to be a spectacular accident."
Her sister-in-law laughed. "You'll be sure to see it, situated right here at the bend in the road."
"Then it had better happen soon," she said. "The new vicar will be arriving in a month."
"Mama, do you want there to be a crash?" Hannah ignored Sarah's snicker, guiltily, and rushed to answer her daughter.
"No, Molly. Of course not."
"Oh." Molly stared after the departed carriages. "Uncle Jamie bet Uncle Tom a shilling there would be one this week."
Hannah frowned. "Your uncles should know better than to discuss that around you."
"Is wagering a sin, Mama?"
Hannah hesitated. Her late husband would have said yes, but as her own brothers were the guilty parties, she could hardly condemn it. "Now, Molly," said Sarah, "you must know Uncle Jamie and Uncle Tom love to tease. Did they know you were about when they said that?"
Molly pursed her lips and her chin sank almost to her chest. "I listened when they didn't think I was there. Don't be angry, Mama."
"How could I be angry? Is it your fault God gave you such good ears?" A tiny smile crossed Molly's face, and she shook her head. Hannah wrinkled her nose, making a silly face to encourage the smile. "I see our gate. Shall we race?"
As she hoped, Molly took off, squealing with laughter. Hannah hurried a few steps, then had to stop as a stone slipped through the hole in her boot. "Ouch," she said in exasperation.
"Time for new boots?" Sarah asked.
Hannah sighed. "Time for seeking employment, to buy new boots."
Sarah said nothing as they trudged the rest of the way down the lane. Hannah pushed open the gate Molly had left swinging. "You'll always be welcome with us," Sarah said quietly, but Hannah shook her head.
"You've four children of your own, Sarah. And living with Jamie might drive me around the bend." Sarah smiled sheepishly. Hannah forced herself to smile back. Sarah was trying to help. It wasn't her fault she had no room to offer. "It's enough that you helped me carry all this home today," she added.
"I wish things were different, Hannah."
She avoided her sister-in-law's gaze. "I do, too, but they aren't, and it can't be helped." She did wish everything was different. She wished the new vicar wasn't waiting to take possession of the vicarage. She wished she had funds of her own to purchase another cottage. She wished her husband hadn't died and left her alone.
Molly was sitting on the front step, clapping her hands in glee that she had won the race. Hannah wrinkled her nose at her little girl and laughed. Sarah took the packages back to the kitchen, Molly at her heels, while Hannah took her time scraping her boots.
Dark little footprints down the hall indicating that Molly had forgotten to scrape her shoes clean. Hannah heaved a bittersweet sigh. It was too much to expect a four-year-old to remember such rules, she supposed, and as long as it was Hannah's own house footprinted, there was no reason for dismay. In a few weeks, though, that would change. How she would miss this little house.
She sighed again, taking down the rag hanging beside the door and wiping up the footprints. She didn't want to raise her child as a guest in someone else's house anymore than she wanted to live as a guest in someone else's house, even if the someone else were her own father, but there was nothing to be done about it. She had nowhere else to go, and would just have to learn to accept it.
Behind her, the gate squeaked. "I beg your pardon, ma'am," called a slurred voice. "Do you know where I might find a doctor?"
Hannah turned, squinting to see the stranger with the upper-class accent. Tall, well-dressed, and decidedly drunk, she decided as he swatted at a pestering fly. "What's happened?"
"There's been…" He cleared his throat. "A bit of an accident, really."
"What sort of accident, and where?" The doctor lived on the other side of Middleborough, over a mile away. She hoped there weren't serious injuries.
The stranger flapped one arm toward town. "Over there, around the bend. Tremendous crater in the road, did you know? Very lucky to have missed it myself." The momentum of his arm had carried the man off balance, and he lurched into the gatepost.
"What happened?" Hannah asked. The crater had been a rock only a few days ago, when some men from town had dug it out after receiving numerous complaints. They must not have finished filling it in yet.
"Why, he hit it, of course. Flew right out of his rig."
Hannah nodded. She was accustomed to helping others, and although people flung from passing carriages were rather rare, they were still God's creatures, and entitled to Christian charity from the vicar's wife. Vicar's widow, she remembered with a pang. "I'll come see what I can do," she said.
Sarah appeared at the back of the hall, no doubt drawn by the strange voice. "There's been a carriage accident," Hannah called. "I'm going to see if I can help. Could you stay a little longer and give Molly her tea?"
"Of course," said Sarah. Hannah hurried down the path to the gate, where the man was now tilting strongly to one side.
"Is he badly hurt?" she asked, starting off in the direction he had indicated.
"I've no idea," he said, not sounding very concerned. "Should I fetch a doctor?"
"Let's look at him first. I'm Mrs. Preston, the vicar's wife, and have seen all sorts of injuries." She could smell the spirits clinging to him, and suspected his friend would smell the same. In Hannah's experience, drunks seem to lead charmed lives. Hopefully this one would be so lucky.
Although he was several inches taller, Hannah's companion seemed to have trouble keeping up with her. She asked a few more questions, but he could offer nothing of interest except the fact that the carriages had been racing. They rounded the bend in the road, and came upon the scene.
The horses seemed unhurt. They still stood in the traces, quivering but otherwise calm. The carriage, a flashy yellow phaeton, was now a one-wheeled vehicle, the axle resting on the ground. Another carriage was parked nearby, the horses tied to a tree branch. There was no sign of anyone else.
"Where is he?" Her guide blinked owlishly.
"Over here." He led her down a gentle slope, away from the road and toward the field. A pair of legs in blue trousers and tall polished boots protruded from underneath a blueberry bush. "He rolled some way," explained the man.
"What's his name?" she asked, picking her way closer.
"Reece. Right. Lord David Reece." He didn't appear too lordly right now. Hannah went down on her knees next to the man and pushed aside the branches until she could see a dark head.
"Lord David?" she said loudly. "Can you hear me, Lord David?"
"Wake up, Reece," called her companion, kicking one of the prone man's boots. "I've brought someone to help."
"Please don't kick him, sir. His leg could be broken." Hannah turned back to the victim, reaching out to shake his shoulder gently. "Lord David, can you—?" As she touched him, he twitched, then erupted from under the bush with a furious bellow.
"God damn, that hurts! Leave me be!" He swung his arm in a wide arc, knocking Hannah breathless and backward. He howled again. "Bloody Christ! What the hell happened to my arm?"
"Sir!" Hannah scrambled to her knees. "I've come to help."
"You'll go to hell for sure now, Reece," said the first man, laughing. "You're swearing at the vicar's wife."
"My apologies," grumbled the injured man, cradling his arm to his body. "Christ, it hurts!"
Hannah ignored that. "Where are you hurt?"
"My arm," he moaned, hunching over. She put out her hand again, and he flinched. "Don't touch it, I think it's broken. This is all your fault, Percy!"
"Well, I like that!" exclaimed his friend. "You wanted to race. I never made you hit the hole in the ground."
"Sod off," snarled Lord David, turning a bit green.
"Gentlemen!" Hannah glared at both of them. "You may argue later, but for now shall we get out of the road? My cottage is just down the road, so we'll move you there, and I'll send for someone from the village." Lord David nodded weakly, and Hannah hoped he didn't throw up on her. "All right then. Mr. Percy, would you help him up?"
They got the injured man on his feet, only to have him go suddenly white as a sheet and topple back to the ground in a dead faint. Hannah sighed, directing Mr. Percy to lift him again, wedging herself under Lord David's side. His long arm dangled over her shoulder, his head hung forward, and Hannah staggered under his weight. There was no way they could lever him up into the surviving carriage, so they would have to walk. Thankfully Percy was as tall as his friend, and was able to take most of the load, but he was still drunk, and their progress was slow.
Finally they reached the cottage and Hannah kicked open the gate. They maneuvered Lord David's limp body through the garden, and Hannah called out to Sarah as they reached the door.
"In here," she said to Mr. Percy, indicating the parlor. She wasn't at all sure the sofa in there would be up to Lord David's height, but she couldn't go another step. Her shoulder felt like it had been sheared away. With a great thump, they deposited Lord David on the sofa, and Hannah flopped into a chair in relief.
"Goodness." Sarah surveyed the scene from the doorway, hands on her hips.
"Is there any tea left?" Hannah knew just was Sarah was thinking: we got to see the spectacular accident! Sarah had a sharp sense of humor. At Hannah's question, Sarah nodded, her eyes still fastened on the man lying across the sofa. "Will you bring it, please?" asked Hannah with exaggerated politeness. Sarah glanced at her, smirked, and went back to the kitchen.
Hannah turned to her visitor. "Mr. Percy, do sit down. Mrs. Braden, my sister-in-law, will bring some tea. I'll see if I can help Lord David." She got up and pulled the curtains all the way open so she could see better.
The light fell upon a strikingly handsome man. Lord David Reece was tall and well built, that much Hannah already knew, but he was also very attractive. Dark hair, almost black, worn long and tied back from his face with a slender leather thong. Sooty eyelashes, a high brow, sculpted cheekbones, wide, firm lips… Hannah couldn't help being impressed. He was one of the handsomest men she had ever seen, even if he did smell like a distillery.
She turned her attention to his arm. His coat was exquisitely tailored and fit him perfectly, which made removing it while he was unconscious a near impossibility. She settled for feeling his arm through the cloth, and came across the distorted lump of his shoulder. It was probably out of joint, a relatively mild injury, but not one Hannah knew how to fix herself.
She moved down to his leg. Something about the angle of his foot on the ground had made her think it was broken, and the way he fainted the instant any weight was put on it strengthened that suspicion. His boots, like his coat, were a perfect fit, but had to come off. If the leg swelled inside the boot, it would be difficult even to cut the boot off without further injury. She turned to Mr. Percy.
"I suspect his leg is injured, or perhaps his ankle. I think it would be best if we removed his boot."
"What? Oh. Right." Percy rubbed his hands together, going to his friend's feet.
"No!" Hannah protested, realizing what he intended. "His ankle may be broken. We should cut the boot—"
Mr. Percy looked horrified. "I should say not," he said indignantly. "These boots are from Hoby. Reece'd never slice them off. I'll get it off, never fear."
"No, please, Mr. Percy—" Hannah cringed as he seized the boot and yanked.
"Arggggg!" Lord David came awake with a roar. "God damn son of a bitch, Percy! What the bloody hell are you doing?"
"Keeping her from cutting off your boot, Reece." Mr. Percy dropped the boot on the floor, wobbling on his feet again as he staggered to a chair. Gripping his leg, Lord David turned to glare at her.
"Your leg may be broken," Hannah said weakly.
"I should bloody well think so! Jesus holy Christ, that hurt!" Hannah pressed her lips together at his language. "Who are you, anyway?" He scowled at her.
"I am Mrs. Preston. This is my cottage." Hannah looked up to see Sarah watching, a tea tray in her hands, her eyebrows halfway to her hairline. "Thank you, Sarah. Would you like some tea, Lord David?" He grunted and slung his arm over his eyes. Hannah turned to his friend. "Mr. Percy, perhaps you should see to the horses. Mr. MacKenzie at the White Swan or Mr. Edwards at the King's Arms will be able to stable them for you."
Percy jerked to his feet, relief washing over his face. He had been looking at the tea tray with a mixture of repugnance and resignation, and Hannah wondered if he had more liquor in his carriage.
"Right. Many thanks, ma'am. Reece…" He shuffled his feet. "I'll make sure your blacks are settled."
"Get out, Percy," muttered Lord David from under his arm. Hannah went over to Sarah.
"He needs the doctor," she whispered.
Sarah looked past her at the man sprawled on her sofa. "I could go, but will you be all right?"
"Well, I could always kick his broken leg," Hannah replied. "That would probably do him in if he tries to ravish me."
Sarah muffled a snort, reaching for her shawl. "I'll hurry." Hannah rolled her eyes and went back into the parlor.
"Are you really the vicar's wife?" He sounded suspicious. Hannah poured a cup of tea, and carried it to the sofa.
"I was. My husband died six months ago."
He cleared his throat. "Terribly sorry." His eyes flickered toward the tea. "You wouldn't have any brandy to put in that tea, I suppose? For medicinal purposes?"
"Liquor got you into this position, Lord David; it would be very bad of me to offer you more."
"Call me Reece," he said, leaning back and ignoring the tea she set on the table beside him. "What's the village?"
"Middleborough. It's almost half a mile from here."
"Right. The middle borough." He turned pleading eyes on her. "Just a spot of brandy? My arm hurts like a… It's terribly sore."
Hannah hesitated. It would be a while before the doctor arrived. "I have some sherry."
"That's lovely," he said fervently. "Sherry would be capital." Hannah deliberated, but the man was clearly suffering; being drunk was the least of his troubles at the moment. She went to get the sherry.
When she returned, his eyes were closed, and she just set the bottle and glass down beside the tea. There wasn't much she could do for him, and if he could rest until the doctor arrived, so much the better. She went back to the kitchen, where Molly was just finishing her tea.
"Mama, why is that man here?"
Hannah brushed the bread crumbs from the table onto her hand and tossed them out the window. "His carriage was wrecked, and he was hurt. This was the closest house, so we brought him here."
"Will he stay long?"
"I doubt it, dear. Aunt Sarah's gone to fetch Dr. March."
"Oh." Molly was quiet. Hannah washed the cups and put them on the dishboard to dry. "He's drinking Papa's wine."
Hannah's hands froze over the teapot. For a moment she could hear Stephen answering Molly's questions, see him balancing his daughter on his knee, fair heads close together. And now someone else was drinking his sherry. "Yes. The gentleman's leg hurts very much, and the wine makes it feel a little better."
Molly thought about this. "It didn't help Papa."
Hannah's throat tightened and she couldn't reply at first. How to explain to a child that her healthy, sturdy father could catch a cold in the rain and die from it? Molly hadn't talked much about Stephen's death, and once Hannah had explained that her papa had gone to live with the angels in heaven, she had seemed content, her curiosity satisfied. Hannah didn't know whether this reassured her or not.
"Is he going to die, too, Mama?" Hannah shook herself. Molly was only four.
"No, Molly, I doubt he'll die. He's not terribly sick, and we'll take good care of him until he can go home."
"Better care than we took of Papa?" Molly gazed up at her with complete innocence, her arms on the table, her chin on her hands, her small legs kicking. The ache knotted in Hannah's chest again, that she had not been able to take care of her husband. It had been a cold, for mercy's sake…
"Yes, Molly. We'll take the very best care of him, and not let him get sick."
Molly nodded, looking relieved. "May I go plant some flowers? Missy wants to dig." Hannah nodded, and Molly hopped down from her seat and ran into the garden, her rag doll in hand. Hannah put away the plates and wrapped up the last tea cakes.
She went back into the parlor to get the tray. Lord David still had his arm over his face, but the bottle of sherry was empty. Hannah added it to the tray and took everything back to the kitchen. She set the bottle aside and sighed. The last traces of Stephen were vanishing every day. She had given his clothes to the poor, as he had asked her to do, and his books would stay with the house. She had no use for sermons and theological texts. Soon there would be almost nothing left of him and her life with him. She put on another pot of tea, for herself this time.
By the time Molly ran into the house, shouting that Aunt Sarah had come with Dr. March and Uncle Jamie, Hannah felt better. Her moments of helplessness were getting better over time. The most important reminder of Stephen, her daughter, bounded into the kitchen, eyes glowing.
"Uncle Jamie is here! I told him he won his bet with Uncle Tom, and he said I could have the shilling!"
Hannah bent a sour gaze on her elder brother. "That was very noble, Jamie."
He grinned. "Make sure she gets something sweet from Mrs. Kimble in town," he said, winking at his niece. Molly shrieked with glee. Jamie rumpled her curls. "Run into the garden now, child. I need to speak to your mother." Molly darted out the door. "What happened?"
"Where's Dr. March?"
"In the parlor, with Sarah."
Hannah sighed. "A carriage race. One of them hit a hole and was thrown. I think his leg is broken, and his shoulder may be out of joint." A loud howl echoed from the parlor. "His friend came looking for help. They're both deep in their cups." Jamie nodded, and she followed him down the hall to parlor.
Dr. March was bent over the injured man's arm. He looked up at their entrance. "Ah, Mr. Braden, I'll need your help. This arm is out of joint." Hannah hurried to Lord David's side. His eyes were closed, and a thin sheen of sweat covered his brow.
"How are you?" she whispered, feeling for a fever as Jamie took off his coat and Sarah fetched bandages.
"Bloody fine," he said through his teeth, squinting at her with bloodshot eyes. "But I do thank you for the sherry." Hannah smiled, and stepped back so the doctor could reset his shoulder. Lord David's face twitched once, but he didn't make a sound, even when Jamie accidentally bumped his injured leg.
"There you are, sir," said the doctor. "Keep it bandaged and rested for a week, and it will be fine. Now let me see this leg." Hannah sat down beside her patient and took his hand. He looked at her, startled.
"Are you from London, sir?" she asked, trying to distract him from the doctor's probing. He nodded once.
"Leaving it. Family orders."
"Your family lives near, then?" Hannah watched as a frown creased Dr. March's face. Lord David snorted.
"A sister and stepmother. And a brother in London."
"Mmm-hmm," said Hannah absently, trying to see what the doctor was doing. He had straightened Lord David's uninjured leg, and seemed to be measuring the two against each other.
"Is it very bad, do you think?" She tore her eyes away.
"I beg pardon?"
"My leg," he said, his color fading another shade as the doctor tugged on it. Hannah hesitated.
"I'm sure it will be fine. Dr. March is a fine physician."
"Well, sir, you've a seriously broken leg," said the doctor then. "It will take time to heal. You're to put no weight at all on it for four weeks. I'll splint it and bandage it, and nature will do the rest." Lord David nodded, and his hand relaxed in Hannah's. She hadn't even realized his grip had tightened. The doctor gave her a significant look, and when he left, she followed him to the door.
"He shouldn't be moved, Mrs. Preston," said the doctor in a low voice. "Would it be a terrible imposition to leave him here?"
Hannah hesitated. "Of course not."
"See here, Dr. March," exclaimed Jamie, "he can't stay here. She's alone with a child. She can't care for a wounded man."
The doctor sighed. "Well, I suppose I could give him enough laudanum for a trip into town, but there wouldn't be anyone at the inn who could look after him. He won't be able to do anything for some time."
"Jamie," said Hannah, putting one hand on his arm. "I was about to ask if you might persuade Pa to send Willy for a while. He could help Lord David."
"I haven't agreed," said Jamie testily. "I'm not leaving you alone with a strange man, even if Willy's here. He could be anyone! He's hardly given a good account of himself so far—"
"Jamie, he's got a broken leg," interrupted Sarah gently. "And it's Hannah's house." He glowered at his wife.
"I can't throw him out," said Hannah. "He's in enough pain as it is."
"I agree, Mr. Braden," put in the doctor. "It may do the man further harm to move even into town."
Her brother said a few things under his breath about drunken idiots who threw themselves out of carriages, but stopped protesting. The doctor went to splint Lord David's leg, and Hannah and Sarah were left in the hall when Jamie stomped out to tend his horses.
"Well, that's a rare bit of excitement in Middleborough," Sarah observed. "A drunken lord crashing on your doorstep."
Hannah sighed. "I could do without that kind of excitement. A trunk of gold sovereigns crashing on my doorstep would be more helpful." She glanced into the parlor. "But I can manage, so long as Pa lets Willy come."
Sarah pursed her lips. "We'll tell him the gentleman looks rich. That ought to do it."
Hannah choked back a laugh. Her father would agree to just about anything that might benefit him financially, including sending his youngest son to help a stranger. "Thank you."
Sarah grinned as Jamie called to her. "Good luck."
Hannah followed to the door and waved as they drove off. "I could use some luck," she said to herself. Her time was running out. When the new vicar arrived in a month, she would have to move back into her father's house unless she found another way. Into her father's house, with her father, his new wife, and her two younger brothers. A month sounded like a very short time. And now she would be tending an invalid during that month.
With a sigh and a silent prayer for help, Hannah went back into the parlor to help the doctor.