A ruthless hand flung back the bed-curtains and its owner looked down in amused distaste at the recumbent figure sprawled on its back with its mouth open, an unlovely sight. He poked it in the ribs.
Lord Denham awoke with a yelp and sat up abruptly, his nightcap awry.
"What the devil?" he roared, his usually placid face wrathful. Then he saw his attacker and subsided. "Damme, Carstairs, what do you mean by waking me in the middle of the night?" He slid down under the covers and winced as Richard Carstairs threw open the draperies at the window, allowing a flood of sunlight to assault his half-closed eyes.
"It's a glorious morning, Tony, and we are going for a ride. We don't often have a day like this in Yorkshire at this season, and I'll not miss it for my slugabed friend!"
"Go without me, Richard, by all means go without me. I shall be perfectly happy to miss it. I came here for a rest, not to be routed out of bed at cockcrow." Tony pulled the quilt close about him.
"You rested in the chaise all day yesterday and the day before," Richard pointed out. "And you can, and do, sleep till all hours in town. Come on, there's a good fellow. I have already sent Willett to wake your man, and ordered the horses saddled. Chocolate in the breakfast room in ten minutes."
"Oh, very well," groaned Lord Denham. "I can see I shall have no peace unless I comply with your outrageous demands. I'll be down in twenty."
Satisfied, Mr. Carstairs left him to the ministrations of his valet, who looked quite as sleepy as his lordship.
"Like master, like man," he commented to his own servant with a grin that lightened his dark, somewhat saturnine face.
"Something of the sort might be considered appropriate, sir," replied Willett primly. He himself had answered his master's bell at dawn, immaculately dressed and without a hair out of place. Richard sometimes wondered if he ever slept.
Returning to his own chamber, he pulled on his glossy riding boots, and Willett helped him into a tight-fitting coat. Tailored by Stultz, it had no need of padded shoulders to set off his tall figure to perfection.
"I shall need a greatcoat, Willett," Richard ordered. "It will be cold in spite of the sun. I expect there is still snow on the moors, though not drifted too deep for riding, I hope."
"There is frost on the lawn this morning, sir, but I believe most of the latest snowfall melted during our absence. A beautiful day for an outing, if I may say so, Mr. Richard."
"Well, I think so. However, his lordship took some persuasion. He's a regular townsman and seems to prefer smoky slush to our fresh moorland air."
"I trust Lord Denham will not be distressed by the chill, sir. There is hot chocolate waiting in the breakfast room."
"So I told him, and I rather think that was the clinching argument. Pierre's chocolate is a rare concoction, and Tony is a rare trencherman." Richard grinned. "Thank you, Willett."
He made his way below stairs. His mother and sister had not yet risen. Maids scurried about laying fires to warm the old stone mansion that had been the home of the Carstairs family for generations. They bobbed curtsies to the master, noting that he was looking cheerful. Though Mr. Richard was a fair and generous employer, he was not noted for lightheartedness. The servants were glad to see his stern face relaxed and set it down to Lord Denham's good-humoured presence.
That gentleman shortly joined his friend in the breakfast room, still grumbling. A few sips of Monsieur Pierre's hot chocolate soon restored his spirits.
"I don't suppose your chef would tell my Alphonse the secret?" he asked wistfully.
"He might, if Alphonse would reciprocate with his wild duck recipe that you guard so jealously."
"Ah, who would come to my shooting parties if they could eat that duck elsewhere?" sighed Lord Denham. "I shall just have to keep visiting you. It is ambrosial, positively ambrosial. Bedford! My compliments to Monsieur Pierre."
"Certainly, my lord," assented the butler.
Tony insisted on a second cup before Richard could drag him out into the crisp morning. At last they were mounted and riding up the lane, a new panorama exposed to their view at every twist and turn.
A light crust of snow sparkled in the sun as the two gentlemen galloped along a moorland ride. They pulled to a walk and the steam of the horses' breath hung in the still, bright air.
"Well, Tony?" drawled Mr. Carstairs, grinning at his friend's scarlet complexion.
"Oh, I'll admit it is a beautiful morning, but damme if my nose is not frost-bitten," complained the fair young man. "You Yorkshiremen are bred hardy. If you want to ride before breakfast tomorrow, zounds! you can go by yourself!"
"Tomorrow it may be raining, or foggy. This is too good to miss. We shall go a little farther; I want to see if there are any sheep on Daws Fell." His tanned face did not appear to have felt the biting frost and his hair, cut short in the fashionable Stanhope crop, had fallen neatly into place, unlike Lord Denham's tousled mop, after their wild ride.
"Dash it, Richard," said Tony in annoyance "do you never look anything but elegant?"
"Not if I can help it," Mr. Carstairs replied firmly. "Come on now. Another ten minutes and we shall turn back."
His chestnut mare and his friend's grey gelding were now picking their way daintily between snow-rimed heather bushes.
"I must have this ride cleared as soon as it thaws," muttered Richard. "I don't come up here very often, and my agent seems to have--What's that?"
Standing in his stirrups, he pointed at a blue-grey heap half hidden by a gorse thicket to one side of the path. Tony peered in that direction but had no answer.
"Here, hold my reins while I investigate." Richard dismounted and strode toward the bundle, which revealed itself as a motionless figure.
"Good Lord, Tony, it's a female! What the devil??"
Lord Denham hastily dismounted and, leading their horses, made his way among the snowy tussocks of grass to where his friend stooped over a huddled form.
"Dead?" he queried succinctly.
"I don't believe so," said Richard Carstairs, as he gently turned her over. "But look, she's been hit on the head."
The brown-stained hood of the girl's blue-grey cloak had fallen back, revealing a deathly pale face with a red crescent on the temple. Her copper-colored hair was matted with blood, and the snow where her head had lain was crimson.
"Horse kicked her," proposed Tony. "The snow is all trampled around. Must have taken fright at something."
"You could be right. It must have been a glancing blow or she'd not be alive now. She has bled a lot though, and we cannot guess how long she has been lying here. Let's get her home quickly."
He mounted and held out his arms to receive the young woman. As Tony laid her in them, she moaned. Her eyes opened and she looked up into Richard's face. Her body tensed, her lips parted and she seemed to want to speak, then she was limp again, eyes closed. If it were not for the slight rise and fall of her breast, he would have thought her dead.
"Do you ride ahead, Tony, and warn my mother. She must send for Dr. Grimsdale and prepare a chamber."
"A guest room?" asked Lord Denham.
"How the devil should I know?" was the impatient reply.
Tony raised his eyebrows, but said no more.
Richard Carstairs, walking the mare so as not to jolt his burden, studied the girl in his arms. A thin face, a little too long for beauty, soft, delicate lips contrasting oddly with a strong chin. Red-gold hair, where it was not sticky brown with blood, pulled back smoothly from a high forehead, but trying to escape at the sides. Her eyes, he thought, grey or green? Odd, I don't remember. About twenty-six or twenty-seven, he decided.
He transferred his gaze to her clothes. The cloak was thick and warm, but old-fashioned and a little shabby. One leather glove, too large, probably a man's. Where had she lost the other? The ungloved hand was square and capable, but with long sensitive fingers. It did not seem to be work roughened. Icy cold. He somehow managed, with his one free hand, to remove his own glove and work her hand into it.
She wore a riding dress and leather boots, again shabby, though they had once been of good quality. Probably a lady, then, unless they were castoffs. Perhaps she was a governess. Guest room or servants' quarters? He'd leave his mother to decide, he thought, impatient now with himself.