SUFFOLK, SPRING 1816
His ears still ringing from the impact of the fall,
Dominic Fitzallen Ransleigh levered himself to a sitting
position in the muddy Suffolk lane. Air hissed in and
out of his gritted teeth as he waited for the red wave of
pain obscuring his vision to subside. Which it did, just
in time for him to see that black devil, Diablo, trot
around the corner and out of sight.
Headed back to barn, probably, Dom thought. If horses
could laugh, surely the bad-tempered varlet was laughing
It was his own fault, always choosing the most difficult
and high-spirited colts to train as hunters. Horses with
the speed and heart to gallop across country, jumping
with ease any obstacle in their paths, but needing two
strong hands on the reins to control their headstrong,
He looked down at his one remaining hand, still trembling
from the strain of that wild ride. Flexing the wrist, he
judged it sore but not broken. After years of tending
himself from various injuries suffered during his service
with the 16th Dragoons, a gingerly bending of the arm
informed him no bones broken there, either.
His left shoulder still throbbed, but at least he hadn't
fallen on the stump of his right arm. Had he done that,
he'd probably still be unconscious from the agony.
Resigning himself to sit in the mud until his muzzy head
cleared, Dom gazed down the lane after the fleeing horse.
Though the doctors had warned him, heâ€™d resisted
accepting what heâ€™d just proved: he'd not be able to
control Diablo, or any of the other horses in his stable
full of hunters just like the stallion, with a single
Sighing, Dom struggled to his feet. He might as well
face the inevitable. As he'd never be able to ride
Diablo or the others again, there was no sense hanging on
to them. The bitter taste of defeat in his mouth, he
told himself he would look into selling them off at
Tattersall's while the horses were still in prime form
and able to fetch a good price. Sell the four-horse
carriages, too, since with one hand, he couldn't handle
more than a pair.
Thereby severing one more link between the man he'd been
before Waterloo, and now.
Jilting a fiancÃ©, leaving the army, and now this.
Nothing like changing his world completely in the space
of a week.
Could he give it all up? he wondered as he set off down
the lane. Following in his hunting-mad father's
footsteps had been his goal since he'd joined his first
chase, schooling hunters a talent he worked to perfect as
his cousin Max had aspired to a career assisting his
father in Parliament, his cousin Alastair had trained to
run his extensive agricultural holdings. Before the army
and between Oxford terms, he'd spent all his time
studying horses, looking for that perfect combination of
bone, stamina and spirit that made a good hunter. Buying
them, training them, then hunting and steeplechasing with
the like-minded friends who called themselves "Dom's
Stripped of that occupation, the future stretched before
him as a frightening void.
Though heâ€™d never previously had a taste for solitude,
within days of his return, heâ€™d felt compelled to leave
London. The prospect of visiting his clubs, attending a
ball, mixing with the old crowd at Tatt's, inspecting the
horses before a saleâ€”all the activities in which heâ€™d
once delighted---now repelled him. Sending away even his
cousin Will, whoâ€™d rescued him from the battlefield and
tended him for months, heâ€™d retreated to Bildenstoneâ€”the
family estate heâ€™d not seen in years, and hadnâ€™t even
been sure was still habitable.
Heâ€™d sent Elizabeth away, too. A wave of grief and
remorse swept through him as her lovely face surfaced in
his mind. How could he have asked her to wait for him to
recover, when the man he was now no longer fit into the
world of hunts and balls theyâ€™d meant to share?
Ruthlessly he extinguished her image, everything about
her and the hopes they once cherished too painful to
contemplate. Best to concentrate on taking the next
small step down the road ahead, small steps being all he
could manage toward a future cloaked in a shifting mist
Fighting the despair threatening to suck him down, he
reminded himself again why he'd left friends, fiancÃ©, and
all that was be familiar.
To find himself...whatever was left to find.
Wearily he picked up his pace, his rattled brain still
righting itself. He traversed the sharp corner around
which his horse had disappeared to find himself almost
face-to-face with a young woman leading a mare.
They both started, the horsing rearing a little.
"Down, Starfire," a feminine voice commanded. Looking up
at him expectantly, the girl smiled and said, "Sir, will
you give me a hand? I was almost run down by a black
beast of a stallion, which startled my mare. I'm afraid
I wasn't paying enough attention, and lost my seat. I'll
require help to remount."
His mind still befuddled, Dom stared at her. Though tall
enough that he didn't have to look down very far, his
first impression was of a little brown wren--lovely pale
complexion, big brown eyes, hair of indeterminate hue
tucked under a tired-looking bonnet, and a worn brown
habit years out-of-date.
The unknown miss didn't flinch at his eyepatch, he had to
give her that. Nor did her eyes stray to the pinned-up
sleeve of his missing arm--the sleeve now liberally
spattered with mud and decorated with leaf-bits, as was
the rest of his clothing. Heavens,
he must look like a vagrant who'd slept in the woods. It
was a wonder she didn't run screaming in the opposite
His lips curved into a whimsical smile at the thought as
her pleasant expression faded. "Sir, could you give me a
hand, help me remount?" she all but shouted.
Dom flinched at the loud tones. She must think me simple
as well as disheveled. As his mind finally cleared and
her request registered, his amusement vanished.
The images flashed into his head--all the girls he'd
lifted in a dance, tossed into saddles...carried into
bed. With two strong arms.
Anger coursed through him. "That would be a bit of
problem." He gestured to his empty sleeve. "Afraid I
can't help you. Good-day, Miss."
Her eyes widened as he began to walk past her. "Can't
help me?" she echoed. "Can't--or won't?"
Fury mounting, he wheeled back to face her. "Don't you
see, idiot girl?" he spat out. "I'm...impaired."
'Crippled' would be better description, but he couldn't
get his mouth around the word. He turned to walk away
She hurried forward, the horse trailing on the reins
behind her, and blocked his path. "What I see," she
said, her dark eyes flashing, "is that you have one good
arm, whether or not you choose to use it. Which is more
than many of the soldiers who didn't survive Waterloo,
including my father. He wouldn't have hesitated to give
me a leg up, even with only one hand!"
Before he could respond, she shortened the lead on the
horse's reins and snapped, "Very well. I shall search
for a more obliging log or tree stump. Good day, sir."
Bemused, he watched the sway of her neat little bottom as
she marched angrily away. With well-tended forest on
either side of the lane--deadfall quickly removed to
provide firewood for someone's hearth--he didn't think
she was likely to find what she sought.
Turning back toward Bildenstone, he set off walking,
wondering who the devil she was. Not that, having spent
the last ten years either with the army, at his hunting
box in Leceistershire or in London, he expected to
recognize any of the locals. That girl would have been
only a child the last time he'd been here, seven years
He'd probably just insulted the daughter of some local
worthy--though, given the shabby condition of her riding
habit, not a man of great means. He meant to limit as
much as possible any interaction with his neighbors, but
in the restricted society of the country, he'd likely
encounter her again. Perhaps by then, he'd be able to
tender a sincere apology.
Stomping down the lane without encountering any objects
suitable for use as a mounting block, Theodora Branwell
felt her angry grow. After a fruitless ten-minute
search, she conceded that she might have to walk all the
way back to Thornfield Place before she could find a way
to remount her horse.
Which meant she might as well abandon her purpose and try
Not the least of her ire and frustration she directed at
herself. If she'd not been so lost in rehearsing her
arguments, she would have heard the approaching hoofbeats
and had her mount well in hand before the stallion burst
around the corner and flew past them. After all the
obstacles they'd ridden over in India and on the
Peninsula, how Papa would laugh to know she'd been
unseated by so simple a device!
No sense bemoaning; she might as well accept that her
lapse had ruined the timing for making a call on her
prospective landlord today.
She had Charles to check on, she thought, her heart
warming as she pictured the little boy she'd raised like
a son. Then there were the rest of the children to
settle, especially the two new little ones the Colonel
had just sent her from Brussels. Though the manor's
small nursery and adjoining bedchamber were becoming
rather crowded, making settling the matter of the school
and dormitory ever more urgent, Constancia and Jemmie
would find them places. But she knew the thin boy and
the pale, silent girl would feel better after a few
sweetmeats, a reassuring hug, and a story to make them
How frightening and strange the English countryside must
seem to a child, torn from the familiar if unstable life
of traveling in the van of an army across the dusty
fields and valleys of Portugal and Spain. Especially
after losing one's last parent.
It was a daunting enough prospect for her, and she was an
The extra day would allow her to go over her arguments
one more time. She liked Thornfield Place very much; she
only had to convince Mr. Ransleigh, her mostly absentee
landlord now unaccountably taken up residence, that
turning the neglected outbuilding on his property into a
home and school for soldier's orphans would cause no
problem and was a noble thing to do.
A guilty pang struck her. She'd really been too hard on
the one-armed, one-eyed man in the lane. Though he might
have been injured in an accident, he had the unmistakable
bearing of a soldier. Had he suffered his wounds at
Waterloo? Recovering from such severe losses would be
slow; frustration over his limitations might at times
make him wonder if it would not have been better, had he
never made it off the battlefield.
She knew it was. She'd have given anything, had Papa
been found alive, whatever his condition. Or Marshall,
dead these five years now.
The bitter anguish of her fiancÃ©'s loss scoured her
again. How much different would her life be now, had he
not fallen on that Spanish plain? They'd be long
married, doubtless with children, her love returned and
her place in society secure as his wife.
But it hadnâ€™t been fair to take out her desolation on
that poor soldier. Wholly preoccupied with her own
purpose, she only now recalled how thin his frame was,
how disheveled his rough clothing. When had he last
eaten a good meal? Finding employment must be difficult
for an ex-soldier with only one arm.
He'd not carried a pack, she remembered, so he was must
be a local resident. Country society comprised a small
circle, she'd been told, much like the army. Which meant
she'd probably encounter the man again. If she did, she
would have to apologize. Perhaps in the interim, she
might also think of some job she could hire him to
perform at Thornfield Place.
Satisfied that she'd be able to atone for her rudeness,
she dismissed him from her mind and trudged down the lane
back toward Thornfield.