Authors: Diana Killian
“The Romantics are my period. Wordsworth, Coleridge … so naturally I wanted to visit the Lake District.” Actually it was Byron, Shelley, and Keats who fascinated Grace, but it sounded too unintellectual to confess a secret passion for the bad boys of poetry.
“Ah.” Peter smiled enigmatically and quoted, “That blended holiness of earth and sky.”
As Peters’ rather husky voice unself-consciously quoted Wordsworth, a strange emotion fluttered through Grace. If he had quoted Shelley or Keats she probably would have fallen in love on the spot.
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Outside in the hall, the servants were weeping. The man in the bed did not hear them. Sleep had turned to coma, easing the lines of pain and exhaustion on the chiseled face.
It was still a beautiful face, a famous face, though a long way from home and those who knew him best. His chestnut curls were damp. Sweat beaded his cold, pale face. The feverish murmurs had stopped now. The sensitive sardonic mouth was silent. The brilliant, expressive eyes had closed for the last time.
In the streets below, the dogs began to howl.
But though the tall copper beeches cast long, sinister shadows, turning grass and water black, this was no illusion of the lingering English twilight. Nor was this a figment of her own active imagination. There really was a body lying in Grace Hollister’s path.
As the realization slowly sank in, it seemed to Grace that all the world hushed and paused, waiting, waiting … Only the burble of the stream and Grace’s own harsh breathing met her ears, and unexpectedly a feeling of light-headedness crept over her.
Impatiently she blinked back the weakness, forcing herself to focus on impersonal details. The body was male; a tall, graceful body ungracefully sprawled in the rocks and mud. It—he—wore Levis and a white shirt. His thick pale hair ruffled in the breeze revealing a sickening dark patch on the back of his skull.
Grace’s stomach rose in protest. She recognized him; it was Mr. Fox, a fellow guest at the inn where Grace was staying. Only that evening Grace had observed him in the dining room—or rather, observed the two young waitresses observing him. Mr. Fox with his copy of
and his odd, not quite handsome face.
The lax, long-fingered hands moved delicately, feeling nothing as the stream rippled through them. Beneath the water Grace could see the second hand of his watch still methodically ticking away.
Only seconds had passed since Grace came upon the scene in the woods; it took far longer to describe than live those unreal, intense moments before she stumbled forward, clutching at the inert, sodden mass, dragging the body back out of the water and stones and mud.
Though he was a tall man and a dead weight, and Grace was only a medium-sized woman in average shape, adrenaline gave her extra strength. She hauled with all her might; the body of Mr. Fox slithered forward, the stream releasing him with a squelch.
Grace rocked back on her haunches, landing in the mud. Panting, sweating, she crawled over to the drowned man, rolling him onto his back. His head lolled, face white and wet in the gloom.
He looked dead, no doubt about it. He wasn’t breathing, and there was no telling how long he had been underwater. Grace hadn’t spotted Mr. Fox during her twilight ramble through the woods; he could have been soaking there since dinner.
So much for my nice, restful vacation in jolly old England, Grace thought, ripping open the dripping shirt and pressing her ear to a broad and clammy chest. Sparse golden hair tickled her cheek. There was no sound beneath her ear. At least nothing Grace could hear over her own thundering pulse. She stared and stared but could detect no rise and fall of his chest.
Pushing away the thought that it was already too late, Grace tipped back Mr. Fox’s heavy head. Face close to his, she listened intently.
Not a flicker.
Feeling the wet silk of his hair beneath her fingers, Grace stared down at the death mask of a face wiped clean of all intelligence, all emotion, all life. It was a strange face: high-boned and clever, a reckless slash of black brows, a wide, mocking mouth. It was a strange moment; Grace knew she would never forget it. Never forget Mr. Fox.
Accepting this, accepting that it was too late, still Grace went through the motions, pinching shut the man’s nostrils, taking a deep breath and covering his slack mouth with her own.
As Grace exhaled strongly she felt a faint resistance. This was so different from practice with dummies in a noisy gymnasium.
Between snatches of air, Grace breathed forcefully into Mr. Fox’s unresponsive lungs four times. Then she paused, feeling for the pulse in his throat with uncertain fingers.
It had grown too dark to see; dusk’s slow retreat falling back beneath the night which swallowed the green woods and fells, the mountains and dales of the Lake District. Feverishly Grace labored under the black tracery of leaves blotting out the first faint stars.
Still nothing? Not even a twitch?
Grace shifted around on her knees. Mr. Fox was all long, strong bone and muscle, no excess flesh as she felt cautiously over his rib cage, brushing over a hard, flat abdomen, finding the place where ribs met breastbone.
To pick the wrong place meant risking injury to the ribs and chest wall.
Like it matters at this point,
a pessimistic little voice whispered in Grace’s ear. She shrugged off the voice of doom. Surely a strong man like Mr. Fox wouldn’t give up his life so easily.
She placed the heel of one hand on Mr. Fox’s chest, the other hand on top. Locking elbows, Grace began compressing, at first tentatively, then more strongly. She counted, her voice sounding loud and fierce in the darkness.
“One and two and three and four and five.”
How many minutes did it take before the effects of drowning were irreversible? She couldn’t remember. It didn’t matter. She had no idea how long Mr. Fox had been in the water.
Down and up, down and up. Finding her rhythm Grace leaned into Mr. Fox’s body and relaxed. It was like squeezing a giant, sodden sponge. Grace worked over the body till her arms began to ache.
And then, just as she was giving up hope, Grace was startled to hear a great rattling cough. The corpse became a man again, suddenly giving up the stream water he had swallowed.
Grace had never heard a more beautiful sound.
Mr. Fox’s chest heaved beneath her palms, and she heard him gulp in huge lungfuls of the night air. Amazed at herself, at what she had just accomplished, Grace rested on her heels, her teeth chattering with reaction while Mr. Fox coughed and spluttered and continued to catch at gusts of air like a landed fish.
It was like a miracle. Heck, it
a miracle. One minute he had been a drowned thing. Dead. Ended. Finished. And the next, he was alive. Grace hugged herself against the cold, offering a silent prayer of thanks to the distant stars above.
“What … happened …?” Mr. Fox’s rusty voice trailed uncertainly. He made an effort to push himself up.
Grace bent over him reassuringly. “It’s all right. You’re going to be fine. Just rest here. I’m going for help.” She patted the long fingers that clutched weakly at her wrist.
“Wait—” Mr. Fox broke off to shiver convulsively.
Shock and the damp could undo all that she had fought for. Gently Grace freed herself, rising from her cramped position. “I’ll be right back,” she promised. “Just take it easy.”
Picking her way blindly over the roots and grass, Grace at last found the path and started back to the inn. She walked as quickly as she dared over the uncertain terrain, back toward warmth and light and people.
But a few yards down the trail a feeling of alarm swept over Grace. It wasn’t logical, it wasn’t even something she could explain, but she plunged back the way she had come, feet pounding the dirt, dropping to her knees once more beside Mr. Fox.
Tentatively she touched him. He was still breathing; she wasn’t sure if he was conscious or not. Grace chewed her lip, trying to decide what to do. Intently she listened. Nightfall pressed in on them from all sides.
It was too silent. There was the sound of the stream chuckling away, the sound of their own soft breathing, but nothing else. Not a cricket. Not a bird. Not a leaf stirring. To Grace’s overwrought nerves it seemed like the night was listening.
It was silly. She tried to shake off her unease, but at a tiny crackling sound she felt the small hairs on the back of her neck rise. Something was out there. Something stood in the trees beyond her range of vision, something that watched and waited.
Waited for what?
For Grace to leave.
But that was nonsense! While she sat here imagining things, Mr. Fox was probably catching pneumonia. She needed to go. Now.
Still, she waited.
So intensely did Grace listen to the sounds of the night that she nearly jumped out of her skin when Mr. Fox spoke.
“What is it?” he mumbled.
“Nothing. I …”
Mr. Fox’s hand went to the back of his bloody head. “What happened?” he questioned again, more forcefully.
“You fell in the stream.”
“Fell in the …” His voice dwindled away. “Like hell,” he said suddenly.
In the gloom Grace could just make out his eyes blinking up at her. Irrelevantly she wondered what color they were.
Watching Mr. Fox slowly assessing the damage to himself, Grace wondered how a man who fell face-down in a stream managed to hit himself on the
of his head?
As this sinister discrepancy trickled through her brain Grace heard the hoot of an owl some distance away. Abruptly the night seemed alive with sound: crickets, frogs, rustlings in the undergrowth. She knew with certainty that whoever had watched and waited was now gone.
Probably a tramp, she told herself.
Mr. Fox made an effort to rise. He sank back. Grace slid a sturdy arm behind his shoulders. He leaned heavily into her and swore.
Her arms full of damp, long-limbed man, Grace experienced a confused rush of sensations. The body pressing into hers was all hard angles. He smelled of water and earth and something uniquely, cleanly male. His breath filtered through the loose cotton of her sweater, warming her skin. It was … sort of intimate in a weird way.
Mr. Fox reached behind, once more checking the back of his skull. He brought his hand away and stared at his blood-smeared fingers. Grace craned her neck trying to see. She knew head injuries bled a lot. The fact that he was alive and conscious had to be a plus.
“It probably looks worse than it is,” she offered by way of comfort.
Mr. Fox muttered something unintelligible and likely unprintable, and peered into Grace’s face, trying to focus.
“Do I know you?” Though gravelly, his voice was stronger. Grace thought that they should probably stop clinging to each other, but didn’t like to withdraw support first.
“I’m staying at the Tinker’s Dam, too.”
“Are you?” He sounded vague, searching his memory. “The American girl with the hair?”
“Well,” Grace admitted, “I’m American and I have hair.”
At the moment Mr. Fox had his face pressed into her neck and the aforementioned hair. He was a heavy weight in Grace’s arms and on her breasts as he continued to rest against her, apparently at ease. His complete lack of self-consciousness confirmed Grace’s initial impression, which had been formed in the inn’s dining room while observing the waitresses engaged in a Laurel and Hardy routine of sideswipes, narrow misses and dropped plates whilst trying to catch Mr. Fox’s preoccupied gaze.
“That’s an intriguing fragrance you’re wearing,” he mumbled after another spell.
“Eau de stream water.”
Mr. Fox snorted, a sound that Grace recognized for a laugh. She felt his muscles bunch as he gathered himself to rise. Standing with him she watched suspiciously as he wavered and then steadied himself.
It seemed that he was going to walk away from what should have been his death scene. The man had incredible luck—stamina—or both.
On his feet and feeling in control of the situation once more, Mr. Fox offered Grace his hand.
“Miss—or is it Mrs.?”
Grace shook hands firmly. “Ms. Hollister. And I already know that you are Mr. Fox.”
“Peter, please,” Mr. Fox corrected. “I can hardly stand on ceremony with the lady who fished me out of the stream. My thanks, Miss Hollister.”
Why the pointed “Miss,” she wondered? What was he, some kind of throwback? And then, to Grace’s amusement—and confirming her suspicions—he raised her hand and kissed it.
It was so smoothly done, so clearly practiced, that it should have been corny. Instead, the sensation of Peter’s warm lips against her skin sent a frisson down Grace’s spine.
She said feebly, “You’re welcome, Peter.”
He patted down his Levis, checking his wallet. “Nothing seems to be missing,” he murmured, thumbing through the bills. “I don’t suppose you saw who coshed me?”
At Grace’s silence he glanced up attentively. “Did you see something?”
“N-no, not exactly.” Grace was nonplussed at the way Peter instantly assumed he had been attacked. Was that the normal conclusion to draw? Apparently Peter could put two and two together faster than most.
He turned and started down the path. Grace followed. Their feet sounded dully on the hard-packed earth. After a moment Grace sucked in a deep breath and said, “There is something. Whoever hit you put your head under the water deliberately.”
If she had expected protest, or even a reaction, Grace didn’t get it. There was simply an unusually long pause before Mr. Fox said calmly, “Why should you say that?”
“If you had slipped—”
“I never slipped,” he interrupted flatly.
That Grace could believe. Even now he moved with cat-footed confidence, although Grace suspected it took all his energy and concentration to do so.
“If you had slipped,” Grace continued, “you would have put your hands out to catch yourself, but your arms were at your sides as though someone had dragged you over and left you there. Besides, if you had fallen forward you wouldn’t have cut the
of your head.”