From Ruin to Riches(4)


 Something was wrong. He could feel the tension and the exhaustion coming off her in waves. If he was not careful, she would bolt. Or perhaps not, she seemed determined to look after him. As if he was dealing with a wounded animal he made himself relax and follow her lead. ‘That is why I come down here when the moon is full,’ he confessed. ‘And Midsummer’s Eve adds a certain enchantment. You could believe almost anything in the moonlight.’ Believe that I am whole again... ‘I thought you a ghost at first sight.’

 ‘Oh, no,’ she repeated, this time with a faint edge of genuine amusement that appeared to surprise her. ‘I am far too solid for a ghost.’

 Every fibre in his body, a body that he believed had given up its interest in the opposite sex long months ago, stirred in protest. She felt wonderful: soft and curved and yet firm where she still held him cradled against her shoulder. He managed not to grumble in protest as she released him and got to her feet.

 ‘What am I thinking about, lingering here talking of ghosts and nightingales? I must get help for you. Which direction would be quickest?’

 ‘No need. House is just—’ His breath gave out and Will waved a hand in the general direction. ‘If you can help me up.’ It was humiliating to have to ask, but he had learned to hide the damage to his pride after long months discovering the hard way that fighting got him nowhere. She needed help, but he couldn’t give it to her sprawled here.

 ‘Stay there, then. I will go and get help.’

 ‘No.’ He could still command when he had to: she turned back to him with obvious reluctance, but she turned. Will held up his right hand. ‘If you will just steady me.’

 She wanted to argue, he could sense it, but she closed her lips tight—he fantasised that they were lush, framing a wide, generous mouth, although he could not be certain in that light—and took his hand in a capable grip.

 ‘I suppose,’ she said, as he got to his feet, ‘that you would say you are old enough to know what is good for you, but I have to tell you plainly, sir, that wandering about in the moonlight when you have a fever is the height of foolishness. You will catch your death.’

 ‘Do not concern yourself.’ Will got a grip on the stone ledge and made himself stand steady and straight. She was tall, his ghost-lady, she only had to tilt her head back a little to look him in the face. Now he could see the frown on a countenance that the moonlight had bleached into ivory and shadow. He could not judge her age or see detail but, yes, her mouth was generous and curved, although just now it was pursed with disapproval. It seemed she liked being argued with as little as he did. ‘I have caught my death already.’

 He saw her take his meaning immediately and waited for the protests and the embarrassment that people invariably displayed when he told them the truth. But she simply said, ‘I am so very sorry.’ Of course, she would be able to see in the moonlight just what a wreck he was, so perhaps it was no surprise to her. It was a miracle that the appearance of a walking skeleton had not frightened her into the lake. ‘I am trespassing on your land, I assume. I am sorry for that also.’

 ‘You are welcome. Welcome to King’s Acre. Will you accompany me back to the house and take some refreshment? Then I will have my coachman drive you onwards to wherever you are staying.’ She bit her lip and her gaze slid away from his. It seemed he was not as harmless in her eyes as he felt. ‘There will be whatever chaperonage you might require, I assure you. I have a most respectable housekeeper.’

 His reassurances provoked a smile, as well they might, he supposed. He was deluding himself if he thought she had taken him for his regiment’s most dangerous ladies’ man, as his reputation had once been. Even the most nervous damsel would need only one glance to realise that the possibility of him ravishing them was slight.

 ‘Sir, the question of chaperonage is the least of my concerns at the moment.’ There was a bitter undertone to her voice that made no sense. ‘But I cannot trouble you and your household at this time of night.’

 His breathing had steadied and with it, Will realised, his wits. Respectable young ladies—and his companion was certainly a lady, if not a very young one—did not materialise in the moonlight sans baggage or escort without good reason.

 ‘The hour is of no consequence—my staff are used to my penchant for late nights. But your luggage, ma’am? And your maid? I shall have someone fetch them to you.’

 ‘I have neither, sir.’ She turned her head away and the effort to steady her voice was palpable. ‘I am...somewhat adrift.’

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