Christina Paul 

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1

 

Christian Bradford sat alone at a corner table of the Lambeth pub, absentmindedly toying with the pint in front of him. His brooding grey eyes ever watchful as he scanned the room, ears strained to filter out the individual conversations taking place around him. One particular group has been his focus for the past several nights, but the more he listened, the more he concluded the information his Uncle Aaron received from an informant, was completely off the mark. His uncle was one of the top brass for an elite covert agency, answering directly to the Crown. He had received information that a group of men had been overheard discussing the abduction of the Archbishop of Canterbury, so he sent Christian to investigate. The group in question was now plotting the abduction of the American president Thomas Jefferson, and the night before the Pasha of Tripoli had been in their sites. Christian concluded the group harmless, slightly addled, but harmless nonetheless. He would have to pay the informant a visit in the morning to reemphasize that if he wanted to continue receiving compensation for his information, he had better be more discriminating.

 

Deciding he had had enough of the rat hole, Christian pushed his watered-down ale aside, settled his tab and left the pub. Despite the unseasonably cold weather they had been having, the stench from the burn was particularly pungent this night, adding to his already surly mood. His face itched from over a week’s worth of beard growth, his clothes were grimy, and he was in desperate need of a bath. Normally the measures he took to blend into the surroundings would not annoy him so, but the last two times he was on assignment his efforts turned out to be all for naught. It had been several months since he had done anything exciting and he was itching for an adventure.

 

The last adventure had been in the early spring, and although that one hit entirely too close to home, it was better than what he was doing now, which was nothing. A crazed man, who blamed Christian’s uncle for his son Jacob’s death, had kidnapped Christian’s cousin, Anna. Christian’s father, Graydon, had been shot and nearly killed during the initial pursuit of the kidnappers, but he had been found and nursed back to health by a lovely widow, Kathryn, who turned out to be the mother of two of the operatives with whom Christian worked. The intertwining was enough to make one’s head spin, but in the end, Anna was saved, his father and Kathryn fell in love and were married, and all was right with the world, well, Christian’s world at least. His contentment did not last long, for as usual, wanderlust was edging in, and he had no desire to curtail it.

 

He was walking to where he had tethered his horse. He could not very well bring the animal right to the pub, for the station of the person he was trying to portray surely would not own such a fine beast, so he warily left the animal in the care of a street urchin a few blocks away. He gave the boy a few coins to care for the horse and promised him several more if, when he returned, no harm had come to his prized possession. As he rounded the corner, a woman’s cry caused him to pause. He turned to see three figures in the shadows on the far side of the street nearest the river. Christian strained his eyes against the darkness as he watched the reluctant female ineffectively fight against her two attackers. She let out a scream as one of the men threw her to the ground.

 

At first he thought it was a prostitute being handled roughly by her clients and was about to turn away, but when she landed on the ground, the street lamp illuminated just enough of her attire for Christian to realize she was no prostitute. He muttered an oath as he advanced on the trio. What in the name of all that is holy is a lady doing in this part of town? Silently he came upon the men, they were unaware of his presence until he spoke. In a menacing baritone he growled, “It would appear the lady is not interested in what you are offering.”

 

The two brutes turned their attention toward him, the first saying, “I wonna be concernin’ yeself with our business if you know what’s good for ye.” Christian just glowered at the men, fortified his stance, and braced for the inevitable attack. “Looks like this one’s be needin’ a bit more convincin’,” the second one sneered as he advanced. Deftly Christian dodged the man’s swing and countered with his own, landing the jab into the man’s throat causing him to crumple to the ground immediately, gasping for air. Without missing a beat, he spun around and with a high kick of his boot, he caught the other man in the jaw, sending him tumbling backwards into the river. Christian straightened, surveyed the area for any other would-be attackers. He looked at the man at his feet and determined he was making far too much noise, so he hoisted him up by his collar and the seat of his britches and sent him to meet his friend. Satisfied with his effective trash disposal technique, he brushed off his hands and turned toward the woman. She was curled up on the ground, beneath the streetlamp, in the fetal position.

 

Samantha watched in awe and horror as a giant of a man made quick work of the two slightly smaller brutes who had attacked her and killed her father. Now he was coming toward her and her only thought before total blackness overtook her was she had fallen out of the pot and into the fire.

 

Christian knelt by the unconscious woman, she had been roughed up a bit, her lip was bleeding, there was a bruise forming on her brow, and the wrist she landed on when she was thrown was swelling, but he doubted any other serious damage had been done. Knowing very well he could not just leave her lying on the street, he lifted her into his arms and carried her to his horse.

 

He was relieved to find the horse where he had left him, “You did good lad.” Shifting the woman’s slight weight, Christian reached into his pocket, pulled out a few more coins and tossed them to the boy. “Now, if you would be so kind as to hold the reins while I mount, it would be very much appreciated. This horse does not much like having two riders, so hold tight.” The child, now in possession of more money than he had ever had in his life, was more than happy to do the gentleman’s bidding.

 

The horse staggered at the uneven mounting, then snorted and shook his head as he righted himself. Christian settled the woman in his lap then took the reins from the boy, gave him a smile and a little salute, and was off at a breakneck…walk. He did not want to take a chance in jostling her too much, the swelling in her wrist was getting worse and he now feared it might be broken.

 

It took most of an hour for Christian to reach his townhouse. He maneuvered his horse under the open window of his butler’s room and let out a low whistle, then a second louder one. A bleary-eyed older man appeared in the opening grumbling, “I left the bloody door open for you, or are you too sauced to open the damn thing yourself?”

 

“Hugh you are a fright when your beauty sleep has been interrupted. Actually, I am in need of assistance. This young lady somehow managed to wander into a most unsavory part of town and was attacked. I worry that her wrist may be broken, so I do not want to hoist her over my shoulder in order to dismount. If you would be so kind…”

 

Hugh blinked twice to remove the sleep from his eyes so he could adequately take in the sight before him. When it registered in his sleep-fogged head that Christian did have an obviously unconscious woman in his arms, he sobered instantly and said in a rush, “Of course, just let me don some more appropriate clothing and I shall meet you out front.” When Hugh disappeared from view, Christian nudged his mount to the front of the house.

 

Hugh was on the stoop within a few minutes. Christian told him, “You should not have any problem with her, I swear she is all gown and petticoats, there is nothing to her. Do watch that left arm of hers,” he added as the older man reached up to take the girl.

 

“I will bring her into the house so you can put that beast away. Conrad should be in the stable to take him from you.” Christian was right, Hugh thought, the girl was as light as a feather, he had no trouble bringing her into the house and setting her down on the settee. “Not too shabby for an old man, I am not even winded,” he praised himself aloud as he went to start a fire in the hearth. When the task was done, he lit some lamps so he could see the extent of their new charge’s injuries. For the most part, she only had scrapes and bruises, but her wrist was very swollen and discolored. He rose just as Christian entered the room, “I am going to get some water and bandages. I will also see what I can find to wrap her wrist so it does not move.”

 

“Was I right? Is it broken?”

 

“Looks to be, let us just hope it sets properly. I should hate to cause the poor child any undue pain.”

 

When Hugh left, Christian knelt by the woman, she looked so tiny and helpless. The pale complexion made her bloodied fat lip and bruised brow stand out, her blonde hair was dirty and tangled and her clothes would need some serious mending. He stole a glance at her left hand, the fingers were nearly twice the size they should have been and she had a lump the size of an egg on the pinky side of her hand just above where he assumed her wrist started. The swelling went half way up her forearm, he cringed.

 

Hugh returned with some warm water and cloths, “Why not try and clean her up a bit, I just thought of something we could use to brace that arm. I will be back,” and he whirled out of the room again in a flurry.

 

Christian scowled at the man’s retreating back. With a sigh, he dipped a cloth in the water and wrung it out. Gingerly he dabbed at the dirt and dried blood near her mouth until it was removed, then he cleaned around the scratch by her eyebrow. When the two moderately injured areas were finished, he washed the remaining dirt from her face. Hugh had not returned. Methodically he rinsed out the cloth. Still no Hugh. With a heavy sigh of resignation, Christian started to bathe the only dirty area left, her hand. It took him three attempts before cloth actually touched skin. Sweat had formed on his brow and a knot in his stomach. Why could not this be some big burly gent? Why did it have to be a woman? The one thing Christian could not stomach was an injured woman, he was so large and she was so small, he was terrified he would do her more harm than good. He knew his phobia was irrational and illogical, he had no problems when his cousin Anna got into a scrape when they were kids. Hell, half the time he had caused most of her injuries, letting her climb the trees with him and his friends or any of the number of things that brought them both home bruised and bloodied.

 

Get over it you coward, he castigated himself. He took a deep cleansing breath, gritted his teeth and set to his task. Gingerly he wiped the dirt from her hand and arm, taking great care not to move it any more than absolutely necessary. The girl whimpered when he swept the cloth over her palm, but thankfully, she did not wake. Where the hell was Hugh?

 

On cue with Christian’s mental summons Hugh reentered the parlor, “Sorry I took so long, I needed to go to the wood pile behind the stables.” When given a perplexed look, he elaborated, “Do you remember that old tree that fell during the storm a few weeks ago?” Christian grunted not looking any more enlightened then he was a moment before. “The tree had thick bark that came off in sheets. I cut two pieces. If we pad her wrist, then place one piece on the top and one on the bottom, then wrap the whole thing, her arm should be sufficiently braced.”

 

“Brilliant my good man, brilliant. You may have missed your calling.”

 

“Hardly, I have had entirely too much practice with Anna, your father, and you. The last thing I would ever want is to be doing this sort of thing on a regular basis.” Shooing the younger man out of the way, he crouched next to the patient. Her clean hand had him raise an eyebrow at Christian, “You bathed her?” Christian gave the butler a pained look and the man chuckled, “Well, thank you, but I will take it from here. Now, go upstairs and get cleaned up. If this child should wake and get a good look at you, she is liable to swoon all over again. You look positively dastardly.”

 

Quite happy to be given a reprieve, Christian left Hugh to his task, which he set about completing immediately. He tore strips of soft fabric and loosely wrapped her wrist with them. Keeping the bark in place while he attempted to secure it proved to be a challenge, but he finally managed. A second set of hands would have made the chore a heck of a lot easier, but truth be told, he was amazed Christian did as much as he had. Christian’s squeamishness was so out of character with the rest of his persona, and his embarrassment at the flaw was quite comical. Hugh chuckled to himself while he cleaned up the mess they had made. He had just finished when the girl started to stir.

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