The story is set in County Durham in 1803. Frances, a rich young widow, is by the river one sunny afternoon when her dog causes a horse to shy and the unknown rider to take a tumble. She must drag him from the river....
Could he be a vagrant, or a highwayman? Disturbed in the act of robbery and escaping as fast as he could? He was certainly a strong horseman and the animal had been expensive. His clothes… She ran her eye over the long length of him, took in the riding breeches and top-boots, both of a quality far beyond the pocket of a mean highwayman. Her mouth twisted. What did she know of highwaymen? His left hand, relaxed and long-fingered against the stony ground, bore a heavy gold ring on the third finger, and as she watched, the sun raised a scarlet gleam from the embedded stone. A wedding ring?
Thoughts tumbled through her mind at amazing speed. She ought to check his head and see if the wound still bled, but to do that she must touch him. Such a small thing; yet she hesitated.
Frances! Touch him, or else call yourself a coward.
Her hand trembled in the air above him and then closed upon itself and retreated, curling into a fist against her throat. Even with him unconscious, she did not like the thought of touching him.
Marriage to Rathmere had left her with a huge dislike of physical contact. But this man, she told herself, looking down at him, offered no threat. He needed her help.
Do it. Do it now.
Taking a deep breath, she reached out before her fears caught up with her and touched his brow. Her fingers sprang back as if she encountered fire. Frances shook her head at her foolishness.
His skin was cold beneath her hesitant fingers, but a pulse beat slowly in his neck. Drat the proprieties. And be damned to her fears. If he died, she would never forgive herself.“Wake up, you silly creature.” Growing bolder, she shook him by the shoulder. “Wake up. Speak to me. Who are you?”
Perplexed, she flopped down on the wet mud beside him. He was far too heavy to lift. She could not drag him up the slope to the meadow, even with Gyp’s assistance.
Hugging herself, rocking back and forth, she dithered. If she knew what to do, she would do it, but she had no idea what would be best.Gyp whined, shuffled closer, stretched out her neck and licked the man’s neck with long, curious strokes.
Stimulation. Frances smiled. Of course.
She gripped the man’s shoulder. He looked uncomfortable, sprawled on his side, one cheek flat against the mud. He proved far heavier than she expected, and as soon as she let go, he flopped back again. Odd sounds and a trickle of water came from his mouth. Encouraged, she tried once more, and failed again.
“Oh for pity’s sake!”Faced with such rude indifference, the last shreds of calm vanished. Frances got to her feet, grasped his wrist, stepped over him, and yanked. She would not give up.
She strained and heaved, and then yelped with satisfaction when he rolled over and settled on his back. Triumphant, she bent over him. He must open his eyes and start living again. He owed her that much, after all her efforts.“Wake up, you horrid man,” she snapped, blinking hard. “I do not know why I bother. Do not lie there like a dead man! Wake up and speak to me.”
He ignored her, so she slapped him.His eyelids fluttered.
Coming in April from MuseItUp Publishing