Beguiled by Her Betrayer(2)

By: Louise Allen

He did not ogle women in their bath like some Peeping Tom, any more than he fed inconvenient baronets to the crocodiles. Quin rose to his feet, surprised at how unstable the shifting sands were. Now was the time to put his plan, such as it was, into effect.

One step down the slope and he knew it was not the surface that was making him so unsteady. Hell, I’m sick, he thought, getting his legs under precarious control as he half-slid, half-ran. He hit the flat ground at the foot with a force that jarred his spine and took six weaving steps towards the woman. She made no move and no sound, simply stood there, her hands arrested on the knot of her sash, staring at him.

Quin halted a yard from her. ‘Bonjour,’ he managed before his knees gave out and the ground came up to meet him. ‘Mada—’

* * *

Cleo regarded the sprawled, bareheaded figure clad in a dusty galabeeyah for a long moment, sighed, then raised her voice. ‘Father!’

‘I am working. Is it time to eat?’

‘No. There is a man here, unconscious.’

‘Leave him.’ Her father sounded irritated at the interruption and not in the slightest bit curious. But then this slumped heap of humanity was a person, not a ruined temple, or an inscription, let alone a fresco, so his lack of interest was only to be expected.

‘He will die and then he will stink,’ Cleo retorted. Only a direct threat to her parent’s comfort and convenience would shift him, she knew that very well.

There was a muttered curse, then her father appeared. He poked the recumbent figure with the toe of his boot. It shifted slightly. ‘Not dead. And not Egyptian. Frenchman, no doubt. Where do you want him?’

‘I do not want him at all, but on the other bed frame in my room, I suppose.’ Cleo pushed aside the hangings and stripped the spare sheets and her few clothes from the bed, leaving only the thin cotton padding over the crossed ropes. By the time she got back her father had the man under the armpits and was dragging him in, still face-down.

An unpleasant possibility struck her. ‘Are there swellings?’

‘What?’ Her father let the limp figure fall back with a thud.

Cleo winced. Now she’d have a bleeding, broken nose to deal with. ‘In his armpits. If he has the plague, there will be swellings.’

‘No. No fever either, he’s as dry as a bone.’ He went back to dragging the man inside. Cleo lifted the long legs when he reached the bed and they hefted the stranger up and on to his back. By some miracle the assertive nose was unbent.

‘Heatstroke, then,’ Cleo diagnosed. There was a dark dried mess on his left sleeve. ‘And a wound.’ Her father was already turning away. ‘I need to get these clothes off him.’

‘You were a married woman, you can manage.’ His voice floated back from behind the hangings. He would be lost in his correspondence again until she pushed food under his nose.

‘I might have been married,’ Cleo muttered, laying the back of her hand on the wide, hot forehead, ‘but I was not married to this one.’ She took off the man’s sandals, the easy part, then rolled and pushed the limp, heavy body and dragged at the cotton robe until it was over his head. The cord keeping up the thin cotton drawers snapped in the process, so she pulled those off too. There was a belt around his waist with a leather bag, heavy with coin. She set it aside, then stood back to survey the extent of the problem.

And it was extensive. Six foot, broad-shouldered, blond and lean with the look of a man who had recently lost whatever slight reserves of fat he might have had, leaving the muscles across his abdomen sculpted as though by the hands of a master carver. And he was very definitely male. The carver might have had the decency to provide a large fig leaf while he was at it...

Widow she might be, but she was certainly not sophisticated enough to gaze unmoved on a naked stranger. Not one who looked like this. Cleo fixed her gaze on his arm where a ragged wound was cut like a groove from shoulder to elbow, gave herself a little shake and concentrated on priorities.

Gunshot, not a blade, she concluded, eyeing the inflamed edges of the red, weeping mess. Removing the outer robe had torn it open, although it had obviously not been healing healthily. The first thing was to get some water into him, then reduce his temperature and then she would see what she could do with his arm. There was no doctor or surgeon with the small detachment of French troops camped on the far side of the next village, so she could expect no help there.

The man sucked greedily at the cup when she lifted his head to drink. The smell of water seemed to revive him a little.

‘Slowly, you cannot have too much at once,’ she began, then recalled that he had spoken in French before he collapsed. ‘Lentement.’

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