She tried to pull away, but his grip tightened. Gradually his gaze softened, he began to breathe again and the grip relaxed. A sense of recognition, as though she had known him once, long ago, held her captive; but the relaxation of his fingers, sliding over the back of her hand to her fingertips, broke the spell. On a sharply indrawn breath she looked away, conscious of warmth in her face and an almost panic-stricken sense of impropriety. Hastily, withdrawing from his grasp, she moved across the room towards the fire, tending it to cover her embarrassment.
As she knelt before the hearth, he murmured apologies and the explanation of a nightmare. His voice still held the huskiness of sleep, but despite those educated vowels, she recognized the lilting cadences of his native land.
Emily was right, she thought; he is Irish. And with that style of moustache, he may well be a soldier. Determined to find out more about him, she turned and stood up, suddenly appalled by the sight of his naked chest and shoulders. She dropped her gaze, reached for his night-shirt, and handed it to him with averted eyes. As he took it from her, Louisa noticed for the first time the bandage which extended from above his wrist to the knuckles of his right hand.
‘You must have found it difficult to dress yourself,’ she observed, guiding his injured arm into the narrow sleeve.
‘A valet would have made things easier,’ he admitted dryly, ‘although I’ve had little need for clothes these past few days.’
He glanced up, seeing the brown pintucked fullness of her bosom as she bent over him, starched white collar and gold brooch; smooth cheeks, and a generous mouth trying hard to be prim. A sudden surge of desire caught him by surprise; closing his eyes momentarily, he savoured the tingling sensation where her fingers touched his skin, and the clean scent of her, tinged with lavender. He wondered who she was. Not a servant, surely, with that intricate gold brooch at her throat; and why did her face seem so familiar?
‘Thank you,’ he said simply, leaning back against freshly smoothed pillows; but the flash of panic in her eyes as he again caught hold of her hand made him release her immediately. ‘Forgive me, I’m like the drowning man — longing to embrace his rescuer.’
Colour leapt to her cheeks, and he thought how lovely she looked, so young and fresh and alive, her eyes so bright in the lamplight; even her confusion delighted him.
‘I shouldn’t be here,’ she said at last. ‘My mother is ill. I’m supposed to be with her.’
‘Your mother?’ he asked. ‘Do you mean Mrs Elliott?’ Suddenly guilt-stricken, he asked how she was. ‘I feel responsible… ’
‘It can’t be helped – it seems everyone’s going down with the ‘flu. Now,’ she added briskly, ‘would you like me to leave the lamp like this, turned down, or do you want to read?’
‘You could turn it up a little – I doubt I shall sleep for a while. But before you go,’ he added as she turned away, ‘would you do something for me? Over there, on the mantelpiece, I think I left my cigar case and matches. Would you pass them to me?’
‘I really don’t think you should smoke in bed,’ she commented with disapproval. ‘And if you’ve been as ill as everyone seems to think, I’m sure it can’t be good for you.’
Chastened, he assured her he was much recovered. ‘If you stayed a while,’ he went on, ‘you could ensure my safety, and that of the entire house.’
Louisa shook her head.’ You might be feeling better, Mr Devereux, but my mother is ill. I must see to her. Now, if you’ll excuse me —’
‘Of course…’ At the door he called her back. ‘Miss Elliott?’
‘Yes?’ Sighing, she turned to face him.
For a moment he hesitated. ‘There’s something I feel I should say. My name’s Duncannon, not Devereux.’
Louisa’s left eyebrow arched quizzically; a sudden, dimpling smile appeared and was as quickly suppressed. ‘I see,’ she said crisply, as though he had explained everything; and with that, she closed the door.
Easing himself out of bed, Captain Robert Devereux Duncannon, of the 1st Royal Dragoons, stationed at the Cavalry Barracks, east of the city, reached for his heavy robe. There was a jug of lemonade on the table beside the bed; pouring himself a glass, he drank deeply. He would have preferred a good, stiff brandy.
With a sigh he found his morocco slippers and padded across to the fire, determined to have that cigar, no matter what the disapproving Miss Elliott had to say. Gingerly, he paced back and forth, trying to force some strength into limbs which seemed incredibly weak after a mere four days in bed, inwardly cursing the illness which had laid him low for so long. No matter, he would have to report for duty in the morning; no one knew where he was, and it simply would not do to be reported absent without leave.
So much, he thought, for the idea of a quiet few days in which to gather his thoughts and lick his wounds in private. The illness had put paid to that. For a moment, wondering what had possessed him to give his mother’s family name instead of his own, Robert Duncannon shook his head. It was, he supposed, part of the morbid mood he had returned with; an irrational fear of meeting up with anyone he knew, of acquaintances hearing he was back in York, hazarding guesses as to the reason why.
That overwhelming need for anonymity now seemed foolish and pointless, like the impulse which had made him reveal the truth just now. What must she be thinking? What had he said while delirious? How much did they know? The gruff little doctor had tried to question him earlier when he came to bandage his wounds, and Robert knew his answers were too vague to be believed. He would have to think of a more convincing tale for the regimental surgeon.
For the first time since Christmas Day, he was suddenly able to view the events leading to his injury with some kind of clarity. Of course it had been his own fault, as brother William had so brutally pointed out; and Anne, his brother’s wife, had seemed to take delight in it even while she berated him. ‘You were warned,’ she said. ‘But as usual, Robert, you refused to listen. And now Christmas is ruined completely!’ Finding a certain bitter humour in that, he smiled. But the memory of his three-year-old daughter, hysterical and refusing to be comforted, was far from amusing.
Lost in unhappy contemplation, he barely heard the light tap at his door; its opening, a few seconds later, startled him.
They were both surprised; he by her sudden reappearance, she by the fact that he was simply standing there. And by his height. Even across the room, she could see that their mysterious guest was several inches taller than herself, and she was by no means a small woman.
Somewhat disconcerted, she apologized for disturbing him. ‘I wondered whether I could get you something? A hot drink, perhaps?’
‘No, please don’t trouble… the lemonade will do.’
‘Well, then…’ She turned, her hand on the door.
He relaxed suddenly, a warm smile dispelling the rather forbidding look she had faced on entering the room. ‘Please don’t go. I — I’d appreciate some company.’ Running fingers through his hair, he added wryly: ‘Bad dreams – they tend to linger.’
Touched by that appeal, Louisa felt her earlier resolve begin to weaken; sensing it, he pressed home his advantage.
‘You shouldn’t I know. It’s most improper at this hour, and of course, there’s your mother to care for.’ Again that smile. ‘Why not leave the door open? Then you may keep an eye on two invalids at once.’ Marking her continued hesitation, he added: ‘I know I was raving for a while, but I assure you, I’m normally quite sane. And one loud scream would bring the entire household running, would it not?’
Unfolding a blanket which lay across the arm of a fireside chair, he wrapped it round his legs and sat down with a gratified sigh. ‘Oh, that’s good. Forgive my poor manners, Miss Elliott, but these weakened limbs wouldn’t hold me another minute. Come, do sit down where I can see you. And rest assured, had I a mind to chase you round the bedroom, I swear I’d make no more than a couple of yards!’
Hearing her anxieties so accurately expressed, Louisa felt a little foolish.
‘Very well,’ she agreed, seating herself with grave dignity in the chair which faced his. ‘But I warn you, sir, having committed one impropriety, I intend to commit more with some very direct questions. In return for my company, you must tell me exactly who you are, and what brings you to this small establishment. We know its excellence, and so do our regular visitors, but I rather think you must be used to – shall we say something grander? Like Harker’s, or the Royal Station Hotel?’
Her frankness amused him. He chuckled quietly, introducing himself with correct if overdone formality, even to the extent of a mocking little bow from his chair. He talked about his regiment, the Royals, giving some impressions of the city gleaned during a stay of almost six months. He went on to describe a day in the summer, riding out towards Strensall, when he had chanced to pass the house.
In the heat and dust, he said, Gillygate had looked wilted and drab; but, with fresh green paint, a man had been putting finishing touches to the sign which hung between the first-and second-floor windows. Recalling it well, Louisa smiled; she told him she had been at home that week of the house-painting, suffering from the smell of it.
Robert laughed at that; but with unashamed sentiment said: ‘There were flowers at the windows, and fresh white curtains. It looked clean and bright and very welcoming. I remember wondering who lived here.’
‘But you could have stayed in town,’ she insisted.
‘That’s true. But in the centre of town,’ he pointed out, ‘I might have chanced across any number of acquaintances. I didn’t want that. I wanted — oh, I don’t know – time to myself. Time to think, to make some sense of things.’ For a moment, seeing the concern in her eyes, Robert was sorely tempted to tell her everything. The low ebb of the night, the fall of coals in the grate, the intimacy of the bedroom, all conspired to bring the words to his tongue; but with a sad smile, he shook his head.
Looking into the fire’s glowing heart, he said heavily: ‘I was feeling ill, but it was such a bad crossing from Kingstown, I thought it merely the after-effects. Had I known what it was, believe me, I’d not have come here. I’d probably have gone straight back to Fulford.’ After a moment’s pause, he added quietly: ‘And there, I imagine I would have died.’
‘Oh, surely not — you have doctors —’
He shrugged. ‘Yes, if one had been called in time. What saved me, Miss Elliott, was not the little man who came to tend this – this wound of mine. He didn’t save my life. Your mother did, with her excellent nursing.’ He could have said more, but refrained. Why burden her, he thought, with his disturbed state of mind? She would not understand. Besides, with the sudden lifting of that morbid mood, he could barely understand himself.
It was enough, now, to be alive; to be in the company of a young and very lovely woman, and to feel the blood coursing through his veins in response to her.
With a smile, he said: ‘I have a lot to thank your mother for. It’s a debt I doubt I’ll ever be able to repay.’
‘When I saw her this evening, you were the first person she asked about. I’m sure the only debt you owe her is to get well.’
‘You know,’ he smiled, ‘you’re very like her.’
‘Indeed I’m not,’ Louisa protested with a little laugh. ‘We’re very unlike, as a matter of fact. If you knew us better…’
‘Oh, but you are,’ he insisted, charmed by the transformation of her smile and wondering if she laughed a lot. He could not remember Charlotte ever laughing like that; her amusement had been a rare thing, always with the hard edge of hysteria or cruelty. In the brightness of the fire’s flame, this girl’s eyes sparkled as she glanced at him; and the stray hairs of her close-cut curls were turned to gold, like an aureole. He had always loved the luxuriant length of women’s hair, but on Louisa Elliott the short, pert style seemed right and oddly attractive. It was fashionable amongst young and independent women, but it seemed to accentuate her individuality. There was something fresh and challenging about her, which intrigued him; but there was warmth and wholesomeness too, which appealed in a far more basic way.
Disconcerted by that lingering appraisal, and overly aware of the charm which had held her for longer than was either necessary or proper, for a moment Louisa compressed her lips and looked away. ‘It’s very late,’ she said, rising to her feet, ‘and I must leave you to get some rest.’
He rose and thanked her for her kindness. ‘It was selfish of me to want to detain you. But thank you for staying, for giving me your company. I feel so much better for it.’
‘Not at all,’ she murmured politely, while her heart beat hard and warmth burned in her cheeks. Beneath straight black brows, his eyes regarded her steadily.
‘I have to report to the Barracks tomorrow,’ he said at last, ‘so I shall be leaving quite early. Will I see you before I go?’
‘In the morning?’ Louisa asked, hardly crediting his words. ‘You’re thinking of leaving?’
‘I have to — no choice, I’m afraid.’
‘But surely —’ she began, shaking her head in frustration. ‘You can’t just walk out in the morning. It’s snowing – bitterly cold — you’ll catch pneumonia.’
He shrugged. ‘So, I’ll get a cab, and recover in the army’s time. But as soon as I’m able,’ he promised, ‘I’ll call to see your mother. I want to thank her for dragging me back from the brink. Will you pass the message on for me?’
‘Of course.’ Conscious that he had taken her hand in his, Louisa was astonished when he raised her fingers to his lips. Light though it was, she felt the quick thrill of that kiss run through her like a shock.
Breathlessly, she bade him goodnight. At the door, however, she paused, looking back. ‘Please be careful – don’t let my mother’s excellent nursing be for nothing.’
‘Yes, indeed,’ he murmured, feeling the sting of her reproof. ‘I shall take care, I promise.’
He sat staring into the fire for some time; and when he did return to his bed, Robert Duncannon slept fitfully and later than he intended.