Max Dayton sank back against the padded seat of the carriage, clinging to the strap as it bounced over another obstacle in the road. Outside, the wind howled, buffeting the carriage to and fro. Not a fit night out for anyone, him included. They were fortunate it wasn't raining, but experience told him rain wasn't far behind.
The coach hit another bump and he gritted his teeth. They would have found a place to stop for the night already if they hadn't crossed paths with a highwayman. The bandit had chosen the wrong coach, and Max was satisfied he'd never accost another coach on the road, but he'd left Max with a souvenir of their meeting.
He shifted on the seat and sucked in a breath as searing pain shot up his leg. Nausea rolled through him and he held his breath while the moment passed. He was certain the bullet had only gone through the fleshy muscle of his upper leg and not hit the bone, but it still hurt like the very devil and he was losing blood.
Lion had warned him that the sky looked as if a storm was blowing in. "The darker the night, the more likely you'll run into a thief or cutthroat. And a stormy night is the perfect setting for such goings on."
Max had listened, but he'd wanted to get going. Patience had never been his strong suit. Armed with the information Lion had provided, he'd wanted to leave immediately.
The coach hit another rut and he sucked air in between his teeth as pain shot up his leg again. If they didn't find somewhere to put up soon, he'd pass out.
The door above his head opened and a gust of cool wind filled the coach.
"There be a place jest up ahead, sir," the coachman said.
"Good," was all Max managed before the small door fell shut with a bang.
A few minutes later, the coach slowed and came to a stop. It seemed like an eternity before the door opened, but it wasn't the coachman who stood there.
"Yer coachman sez yer injured, milord. What can I do to help?"
"I need a room and a doctor," he answered. "The injury is to my leg, so I would appreciate some assistance as well."
"Of course, milord."
An hour later, Max was comfortably settled in a small, but clean room, his leg bandaged and propped up by a couple of pillows.
"You should stay off of that leg for at least a week, maybe more," the doctor told him. "You're fortunate the bullet only went through the soft tissue, but that won't make it any less painful as it heals."
Max had been fed a tasty stew and given a mug of ale. The innkeeper assured him that his coach and coachman were being taken care of and asked if he wanted a message sent anywhere. He'd declined, paid the doctor for his trouble in venturing forth on such a bad night, and was dropping off to sleep when the door opened. Thinking it might be the innkeeper again, he didn't bother to stir.
"I tol' you he wuz sleepin'."
Sarah glanced at the figure in the bed. She couldn't see his face because his leg was propped up and a large, nicely shaped foot obstructed her view.
"It doesn't matter, Mona," she whispered. "Come, let's clean up the dishes and leave him to his rest."
"Ain't you curious?" Mona asked in a low voice. Sarah shook her head, but Mona grinned at her. "Jessie, you jest bein' ornery. I'm gonna take a look."
Sarah watched Mona approach the bed and look down at the sleeping stranger.
"Verra 'andsome," was her verdict.
Sarah gathered the crockery on the tray they'd brought with them, wiping the table when she was done. "Come along, Mona. We need to get these dishes back downstairs." She kept her voice low, not wanting to disturb the stranger.
"Not 'til you come look," was Mona's stubborn reply.
Sarah sighed and put the tray back down. "All right. But then we have to get back downstairs."
Joining Mona beside the stranger's bed, she looked down and froze. It couldn't be! She closed her eyes on the sight then opened them again. Dark brown hair was combed back from a strikingly handsome face. A face she'd last seen in a church in London over two years ago. He was a little thinner, and dark stubble shadowed his jaw, but the man lying in the bed was unmistakably Viscount Royden.
"Wuz I right?"
She must have made some sound for Mona turned to look at her and frowned.
Finding her tongue, she stammered out an affirmative response then turned and fled the room, leaving Mona to bring the tray.
Hurrying down the stairs, she burst into the kitchen, causing Mrs. Merriweather to look up from the pot she was stirring. Seeing Sarah's face, she came toward her.
"Whut's wrong, dearie? You look as if'n you seen a ghostie."
Sarah forced herself to a calm she didn't feel and sat on one of the stools.
"Mona and I went up to clear the dishes from the room with the injured man. I thought he looked familiar. Did Da say what his name was?"
Mrs. Merriweather pursed her lips as she thought. "I don't think so. But if'n you think he looks familiar, you should stay away from his room. Let Mona take care of that next time." Then she turned back to her pot.
Sarah smiled and relaxed, allowing the tension to drain from her body. The Merriweathers had been wonderful to her over the past two and a half years and she'd promised herself that if she was ever in a position to do so, she would see that they were well rewarded for their assistance. Without their help, she had no idea what she would have done.
Mona came into the kitchen carrying the tray she'd left behind.
"Whut's wrong with you, Jessie? You ran outta there like sumthin' was after you."
Sarah couldn't tell Mona that she was in hiding from the man in the bed. Mona wouldn't understand. Thankfully, Mrs. Merriweather came to her rescue.
"No need for you to know, Mona. But from now on you'll be the one takin' trays to that particular room."
Mona scowled, but said nothing.
"Now, both of you need to be headin' fer bed. Go on now, off with you."
Sarah rose and gave the woman a hug. "Thank you, Ma. I'll be down early to help with the baking."
Trudging up the back stairs to her small room, Sarah was not surprised to discover her heart racing. Tonight had been a close call. She knew better than to be seen by the inn's patrons. The inn itself was not on a main road, so only a few coaches stopped there, and the once-a-week mail coach, but there was no telling when someone might come through who would recognize her.
When she first arrived, she wore a dark wig over her pale hair and darkened her eyebrows. Using one of her middle names seemed like a good idea if anyone asked who she was. Dressed in loose-fitting clothing, she was able to help out occasionally in the taproom or serving travelers in one of the two private parlors. After a year, however, she began to let her guard down and stopped disguising herself, except for the loose-fitting clothing.
She sighed as she reached her room. She would have to go back to being in disguise while Royden was here. She was too close to allow him to ruin her plans now.
Two more months. That was all she needed. Two more months and she would be her own person, able to conduct her own affairs and administer her father's estate. And no one--especially Lord Royden--would take it away from her.
Hours later she was startled awake by a loud thump and an even louder curse. Rain pattered against the roof, but the wind seemed to have died down. Listening intently, she thought she heard footsteps in the hall beyond her door. She relaxed and turned over. It was only one of Mona's friends making his way out.
Another crash had her sitting upright in bed. That sound had definitely not come from outside her door. It sounded as if it came from the floor below. Closing her eyes for a moment, she pictured the layout of the inn then groaned as another sound reached her. It was definitely from the room beneath hers, the room Royden was in.
Should she go down? The Merriweathers slept in a room off the kitchen. They'd never hear anything. When she was sleeping and not entertaining, Mona slept like the dead. She also took forever to wake up.
Sliding out of bed with a sigh, she lit a candle, donned her dressing gown and slipped her feet into a pair of slippers. The noises coming from the other room sounded as if someone was in distress. Did Royden's wound pain him, or had he developed a fever? Her dull brown wig sat on the small table in the corner, but she didn't want to bother with it tonight. Instead she picked up a scarf and tied it around her head, hoping it would stay put long enough for her to check on the patient.
The room was still unlocked and she slipped inside, closing the door softly behind her. The scene that met her eyes jolted her into action. Royden lay on the floor, tangled in the bed sheet. The small bedside table had been overturned and the shattered remnants of a mug lay in a pool of water.
Setting her candle down on the table near the door, she hurried to Royden and dropped to her knees beside him. He radiated heat. His cheeks were flushed and the eyes that looked up at her when she touched him were glazed over and unseeing.
Surveying the destruction around her, she debated going to get help, but discarded that notion. Mona would be more hindrance than help and she hated to disturb the Merriweathers. She couldn't move him by herself, but if she could direct him, he might make it back into the bed. Leaving him momentarily, she found a couple more candles and lit them both. Then she picked up the pieces from the mug and righted the small table. Portions of the sheet were wet, but there was nothing she could do about that.
Pulling the sheet from the bed, she began to unwrap him. Gently disentangling his legs, she managed to push and pull enough for him to respond to her urgings and move. It wasn't until he was sitting up on the floor, the sheet still wrapped around his waist, that she realized he was completely naked.
Her mouth went dry. Studying his torso, she knew she was looking at an exceptional specimen. Sleek, tanned skin stretched taut over well defined muscle and sinew. If not for the many small scars and one large one that began beneath his left ear, ran down his chest, ending nearly at his navel, the skin would have been just as smooth as hers.
Helping him back into the bed without losing the sheet turned into a more difficult endeavor than she expected. She was thankful he responded to her pushing and pulling, but nevertheless was breathing heavily by the time he was settled. Now what?
She pushed a lock of hair off her damp forehead and realized she'd lost her scarf. As she looked around for it, he cried out.
"I didn't do it!"
Sarah spun around and looked down at Royden. His eyes were closed now, but he moved restlessly on the bed. The fever. She had to do something about his fever. She hurried over to the washbasin in the corner of the room. Ma would have had her or Mona's head if there hadn't been fresh water and clean cloths left there. She was thankful for Ma's fastidiousness.
The water was cool and he seemed to respond to her touch and the wet cloth. As she worked, she marveled again at the apparent strength of his upper body. Although he'd always seemed soft and a bit lazy to her, she'd never considered him weak. His very size had often intimidated her. It had taken all her willpower to stand up to him and her uncle in the church. If not for the presence of witnesses, she would never have done it. Now, however, he seemed not quite powerless, but certainly not as fearsome as before.
She shook her head as he called out again, this time in desperation for someone named Millie. She didn't want to feel sorry for him. He and her uncle had conspired to ruin her life. He didn't deserve her sympathy. Yet, at this moment, she could only wonder who Millie was and whether he'd loved her and lost her. The small stab of pain in the vicinity of her heart made her wince. She couldn't possibly be jealous.
She continued to bathe his neck, chest and arms with the cool water. Where had all the scars come from? So many. Almost as if he'd been in a battle. The one on his neck and chest particularly fascinated her. It was possible he'd had them all along. He'd been in the army, she recalled. That would explain why they all looked to be well healed. His clothing would have hidden them all except the uppermost part of the slash across his chest. She wasn't certain she would have noticed it before. She'd always been trying to leave his presence whenever her uncle had thrown them together. Especially after she overheard their plan. It didn't matter, though, because he would have made certain she only saw his face. He would have considered the scar a defect and would never have deliberately shown her that side.
As his thrashing lessened, he became quieter. Eventually, she was certain he'd fallen back to sleep and the fever seemed to have gone down.
She dropped the cloth back into the basin and pulled the sheet up. The rhythmic rise and fall of his chest heartened her. She arched her back, stretching cramped and sore muscles.
"You'd better not die after all this," she muttered.
Getting to her feet, she picked up the basin, took it back to the washstand, and hung the cloths over the edge to dry. Moving around the room, she straightened a chair and picked up more broken mug pieces. She found her scarf and tied it around her neck. There was no use putting it back over her hair. He wouldn't see it anyway.
She blew out two of the candles, then going back to the bed she set the third one down on the bedside table and sat beside him, watching him sleep. She didn't understand her sudden interest in the man who had contrived with her uncle to steal her inheritance. In repose, he seemed vulnerable. Human. Even the stubble across his cheeks and chin couldn't disguise the fullness of his lips, or the high, sculpted cheekbones. He was still as handsome as ever, with a face that would make a girl's heart beat faster. Although his lids shielded them from view, she hadn't forgotten the deep gray of his eyes.
A lock of dark hair had fallen over his forehead and she smoothed it back, checking for a return of the fever as she did so. She breathed a sigh of relief that he was still cool.
"I'd better get back to my room," she muttered. "I'm only going to get a few hours of sleep as it is."
She stood and straightened the sheet, tucking it around him.
"There, that should do it."
As she reached to pick up her candle, a hand suddenly shot out and wrapped itself around her wrist.