31 March 1805
The icy March wind whipped through Kathryn’s long auburn hair as a shiver ran up her spine. A sense of duty, not love or sorrow brought her again to the plateau this cold gray day. Today would have been the twentieth anniversary of her wedding. Instead of celebrating, she was paying her respects at her husband’s grave. No, she was not in mourning, for thirteen years had passed since John’s death; not that she had ever really mourned his passing at all.
Theirs was a marriage arranged by the King, honoring John’s bravery for saving the King’s youngest son from drowning. All Kathryn’s childhood dreams of marrying for love were shattered the day her father, the Marques of Lyndenwood, received the message that his youngest daughter was to marry John Farrell, the Earl of Wingate. Although their daughter was not quite fifteen years old, Marques and Lady Lyndenwood had no reservations in handing her over to the Earl. John, only eighteen himself, must have been a fine gentleman if the King was honoring him in this fashion.
They met on their wedding day. John was fair of hair and face with a slight build, sparkling blue eyes and a warm smile. Upon seeing him, Kathryn let out a small sigh of relief; he was not a big burley beast who would be mean to her. Bound by duty, the young couple went through the motions of the ceremony without hesitation, and then cordially mingled amongst the few guests in attendance.
After the guests had taken their leave, her mother and sister joined Kathryn in her room to help her pack some essentials. The servants would pack her remaining items and send them by coach in the morning. Kathryn showed no fear until it was time for her to leave her parent’s estate for John’s country home. The look of impending doom in Kathryn’s eyes prompted Lady Abigail to stop packing and comfort her daughter. “You will learn to love him my dear,” she placated, “just as I learned to love your father.” She hugged Kathryn tight to reassure her but then it was time to go.
Kathryn took a deep breath, raised her chin and headed down the stairs with as much dignity as she could muster. She would make the best of the cards that life had dealt her without a complaint or longing for what now could never be.
On the carriage trip to John’s home, she learned that the house had become his upon his parent’s death the year before and his only other living relative was an older married sister who lived in London. Since he was, for the most part, alone in life he had enlisted with the government after he had settled his parent’s affairs. He was at the end of his first assignment when the king’s son Thomas took a blow to the head from a rigging that had come loose, and fell overboard. Without thinking, John dove in after him and pulled him to safety.
“I should have let the pompous blow hard drown, then neither of us would be in this situation.” He muttered while he turned toward her, “Look Kathryn, neither of us wanted this, but what is done is done. We could either make the best of it or we could both be miserable. I vote for the first. I promise I will not make any undue demands, but I also promise that you will always be kept warm and safe. Unfortunately, I will be away from the house more than I will be there because of my work. I would like a son or two, but other than that, you will be left to do as you please, within reason.” To this Kathryn gave a shy smile and a slight nod, and so the grounds of their marriage were laid. No thoughts of love or romance, just quiet comfort.
Their first son Robert was born a year later and their second, William, a year after that. True to his word, John provided for his family although his assignments kept him from home for several months at a time. Then one day a messenger arrived with a letter saying that the ship John was on came under siege and all hands were lost when the ship went down. John was not coming home; Kathryn was left to raise two sons on her own. Fate had yet again laid an obstacle in her path and yet again she faced it with dignity and her chin held high.
Another bone chilling gust of wind brought Kathryn back from her reverie. The boys were grown and gone, living at her townhouse in London; most of the servants who were on staff while John was alive were also gone, so why did she still feel duty bound to keep up the image of grieving widow? Because it was safe, that is why. She did not need to be bothered with the frivolity of the ton. Oh, she still attended the occasional ball, just to keep up appearances. But as a grieving widow, she was not subject to the overtures of every rake, cad and fop in the group. She could act aloof and untouchable without offending anyone. Yes, grieving widow was much safer.
With a sigh, Kathryn smiled at John’s grave and whispered “Good-bye”, turned and headed up the hill back to the house. She had not walked more than a few steps when a noise came from the woods at the edge of the plateau causing her to pause. She squinted her eyes to survey the thick dark trees; then out of the corner of her eye, she noticed a movement and turned toward it. Her heart was beating fast for whatever was making the rustling sound was not small. Should she flee? Finally the creature came close enough to the clearing for Kathryn to realize it was only a horse. A bridled, saddled horse. But where was its rider? Surely the fine gray stallion belonged to someone. She peered into the woods from where the horse had come, but saw nothing.
Slowly she made her way to the frightened animal; speaking softly and cooing with every slow methodical step she took. She got within a few feet of the animal when it backed away several paces. She tried again, but as soon as she got close enough to reach out and touch his velvety nose, he backed away yet again. This dance went on several more times until Kathryn was well into the woods.
With her hands on her hips she looked the horse straight in the eye and said with a chuckle, “If I did not know better, I would think you were purposely leading me on a merry chase.” To that she got a loud snort from the horse in reply. The smile on her lips faded quickly when she realized that was exactly what this creature was doing, for on the ground near his hooves Kathryn could see a pair of riding boots sticking out from under a bush. Letting out a small gasp, she rushed forward completely ignoring the snorting animal. She knelt down next to the man. There was blood oozing from a gash above his left eye and more blood still on his waistcoat and britches. His gray pallor led her to believe the worst. “O dear Lord, do not let him be dead,” she whispered. With shaking hands she reached out to turn him the rest of the way onto his back then jerked her hands back when he let out a low grown. He was still alive; but for how long?
In a flash she was on her feet and running as if the hounds of hell were nipping at her heels. By the time she reached the clearing her heart was slamming into her chest and an awful stitch was piercing her side, but she knew she could not stop. She hiked her gown to her knees and continued up the embankment. As she neared the top of the hill she screamed for James and Matthew, her stable hands. Hearing the distress in their mistress’ voice, they came running. Without taking time to explain, Kathryn turned on her heels and headed back toward the woods calling over her shoulder for her men to follow.
Matthew was the first to reach her. “What is it m’lady?”
“There is a rider in the woods who has taken a spill. He is in sad shape I fear. He is also very large and I knew I could not get him back to the house on my own. Do hurry James,” she cried to the older, rather portly man who was trudging a few yards behind them.
Within moments, all three were at the rider’s side. Gasping for air, James managed to get out “How did you find him way in here miss?”
Kathryn told him the horse brought her. Instantly, four eyes were on her with incredulous looks. “I am not daft so you can get that look off your faces and start worrying about the matter at hand.” It took all her efforts not to stomp her foot when she said it. Duly chastised Matthew and James quickly bent down to pick up the man only to have the horse head-butt James in the back causing him to go sprawling into the brush. A few expletives escaped him before he checked himself and looked sheepishly toward his mistress, but she was too busy trying to calm the unruly beast to pay him any mind.
“Lift him back on his horse.” Kathryn commanded as she held the reins. James and Matthew lifted the man as gently as possible onto the horse’s back and Matthew mounted behind the gentleman to keep him steady. The stallion started to protest but Kathryn’s soothing voice and gentle hand on his snout calmed him. Cautiously she and James led them to the house.
When they reached the house, Kathryn bound up the stairs, threw open the door and made an unladylike bellow “Cook, get me warm water, towels and bandages! Andrews get the first room ready and start a fire! Matthew, James get him upstairs!” Instantly the entire household was a flurry of activity. Kathryn was tight on the heels of her elderly butler as he climbed the stairs to the first bedroom. Together they turned down the bedcovers just as Matthew and James came through the door, followed closely by Cook. “Gently,” she ordered as her men lay the injured man on the bed. As Andrews started the fire, Matthew helped Kathryn remove the man’s riding boots, then his blood stained waistcoat and shirt. Immediately Kathryn soaked a cloth in the basin that Cook placed on the night table and started to wipe away the blood. “We have to see where it is coming from,” she said aloud to no one in particular. Cautiously she cleansed his shoulder until she found the wound. A small gasp escaped her when she realized he had been shot. “Matthew, help me roll him over.”
“Looks like the bullet went clear through m’lady.”
“Yes, thank the Lord for that. Help me get a tight bandage on this; we need to stop the bleeding.”
While Matthew was tying the bandage on the man’s shoulder Kathryn investigated his other injuries. Kathryn made quick work of cleaning the cut above his eye; it was not nearly as bad as it had appeared. She was making her way to his leg injury as Andrews finished making the fire. “Andrews, come here and help me get his britches off.” The entire room abruptly stopped.
“This is highly inappropriate Missy.” Andrews declared with raised eyebrows, “Let Matthew and me tend to him.”
“Damn it, I am not some faint hearted virginal miss who needs to be coddled and I do not have time to worry about appearances. I can take care of him just fine and no one will be any the wiser, that is of course unless one of you plans to post this afternoon’s events in the Dailies!” She glared at the shocked faces around the room, “No, good, now let’s have at it!” She barked.
The men jumped to do her bidding, for they had never seen their lady with such a head of steam, and Cook, all flustered the poor dear, mumbled something about fetching fresh water as she scurried out of the room like a frightened mouse. Matthew finished binding the shoulder wound as Kathryn and Andrews removed the man’s pants. Their patient grimaced in pain as the pants were peeled away from the wound on his leg but he did not awaken. Matthew tossed a sheet over the naked man, but Kathryn was too busy to notice anything except the gaping cut on the gentleman’s thigh. It was hard to tell if he sustained it during the fall from the horse or if he was grazed by another bullet. Either way it was nasty and dirty and needed tending before infection set in. It took nearly an hour to get his leg cleaned and bound, but with that finally done Kathryn let out a little sigh of relief. Blessedly the poor man slept through the entire painful ordeal.
She dismissed her staff saying she would clean him up the rest of the way and stay with him until he wakes. Kathryn dipped a fresh cloth into the basin of warm water and wrung it out. Gingerly she sat on down the edge of the bed and gently started to wipe away the remaining blood and dirt from the man’s face. For the first time, she actually looked at the man. Beneath the cuts and bruises one could tell he was a handsome man, not pretty like the mindless fops of the ton, but handsome in a rugged sort of way. His thick wavy brown hair, with just a sprinkle of silver at the temples, was longer then routinely acceptable by social dictate, making him look a little piratical. His nose was straight except for a slight bump on the bridge and his jaw firm and square. He looked as though he was chiseled from stone, and his ashen pallor emphasized that notion. As she bathed his neck and shoulders she let her gaze wander over his bare chest and arms. Even relaxed she could tell the sheer strength and power this man possessed. His shoulders and chest were broad with well-defined muscles that narrowed down slightly toward his equally well-defined hips and thighs. For as large as this man was, there was not an ounce of fat to be seen. Her eyes were drawn to the jagged scar that stretched from just under his ribs to his hip. Although it was old and faded, it must have been horrible. She could tell this was not the first time he had a brush with death.
He reminded Kathryn of a knight from one of the stories her mother used to read her when she was a child. Color flushed her cheeks when she realized she was letting her imagination distract her and she nearly jumped out of her skin when Andrews entered the room with her dinner.
“You should eat something Missy.” The dour faced old man chided as he lay the tray of food on the table by the fireplace. Andrews was the last of the servants who knew John and when John passed away he took on more of the roll of guardian to Kathryn and the boys, than that of faithful butler. The children adored him and his help was immeasurable when Kathryn had to deal with typical ‘boy’ issues, and boy, did those two ever manage to get into scrapes. In the evening after the children were in bed Andrews would bring tea into the study and he and Kathryn would both sit quietly and read or they would talk for hours. He had even taken the time to teach her the game of chess. Not something Kathryn had any desire to learn, but she knew how much Andrews enjoyed the strategic game, so she learned to please him. The first time she had put him into checkmate she glanced up at him and was startled and warmed by the look of sheer pride in the old man’s eyes.
“Thank you,” she whispered as she finished wringing out the cloth and headed toward the fire. Unceremoniously she plopped herself into one of the wing-backed chairs then raised her hand to the back of her neck to rub away some of the tension. It had been an exhausting couple of hours and her energy was spent. She gave Andrews a grateful smile as he poured her a cup of strong tea. “I would like you to send Matthew and James into town tonight to see if they can find out anything about our mystery guest. They must be discrete for obviously there is someone out there who wishes to do the man harm.”
“Already done Missy; they left a few minutes ago, right after they took care of that hellion he road in on. If I did not know better I would swear that beast was possessed.” Andrews complained shaking his head.
“Not possessed, possessive. You should have seen what the horse did to James when he tried to pick up his master. I am sure he would have bit a big hole in James’ britches if I had not grabbed his reins.” She chuckled, “Looking back, it would have been rather comical if the situation was less grim.”
Kathryn took a long drink from her cup as she watched Andrews take a seat across from her. Glancing back at the sleeping man across the room she asked, “Whom do you suppose he is?”
“Judging from his fine clothing and the pricey monster in the stable, I would venture he is of title and means.” The butler remarked. “Yes, I would say he was rather well-to-do; which also means there is bound to be someone looking for him. A gentleman does not drop out of society unnoticed.” He nodded at the statement to emphasize that anyone would be a fool to think otherwise.
“Yes, I was thinking the same…” her voice trailed off as she stared at the Herculean man in the bed now currently as weak as a kitten.
“Fret not Missy, with your gentle caring, he will be up and about in not time a’tall,” he comforted.
“From your lips to God’s ears Andrews,” she prayed.
Andrews collected their dinner tray and bid his mistress a good night. She made one last check on her patient then settled down in the chair by the fire to read. She would stay in his bedchamber tonight in case he needed her. Kathryn must have dozed off for she was startled awake by a deep male voice. She shook her head to clear the sleep induced fog then raced to the gentleman’s side. Although he was not awake, he was making some indistinguishable mutterings. His head thrashed from side to side and his sweaty brow was scrunched in a deep scowl. Kathryn lay her hand on his cheek and spoke softly trying to calm him from his apparent nightmare. His cheek was burning to the touch; in spite of her best effort fever had set in. She soaked a cloth in water from the basin by the bed and gently patted his perspiration away. She needed to calm him so he would not reopen his wounds. She gently stroked his face, neck and chest with the chilled cloth, silently praying that his body would cool down soon.
His restlessness started to ebb but she continued stroking him with the damp rag speaking quietly the entire time, “You are safe now my knight; no one can harm you here. Conserve your strength to fight this fever for I do not want all my efforts going for naught. I am sure I would not forgive you for dying on me. I just will not stand for it.” The tone of voice Kathryn used was the same she used long ago when she comforted her children if they had been frightened by a storm.
Suddenly his eyes flew open and he let out an anguished cry “NO! Anna!” as he tried to get up.
Kathryn put her hands on his shoulders pressing him back down to the bed. “You must not try to get up sir. You have had an accident, but you will be all right. Lie back now, you are safe. I will take care of you.” She stared into his stormy fever glazed eyes as she spoke, relieved that he did not resist her for if he truly had the strength to get up, there was no way, in God’s green earth, she would be able to stop him. After a tense moment, his body relaxed and his eyes fluttered closed and his ragged breathing became slow and even. Thankfully, he was asleep again.
“Lord, what have you been through?” she whispered. “Who is Anna and what kind of trouble is she in? I do hope Matthew was able to find out something about you or at least what may have happened.” His attempted escape had caused his shoulder to start bleeding again, so Kathryn cleansed the wound and re-bandaged it.