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Authors: Teresa DesJardien

Tags: #Nov. Rom

The Misfit Marquess

BOOK: The Misfit Marquess
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To: Ann, Paul, Meg,

and Don's memory.

Thanks for the years and tears,

babies and birthdays, and for

sharing this munificent last name of ours!

Author's Note

In Regency England there were four classes of "doctors": the barber, the apothecary, the surgeon, and the physician. Most small towns (such as the fictional one of Severn's Well) did not have a university-trained physician available to them. Either the patient would travel to a larger city, or else make do with home remedies or those acquired from the local barber or apothecary. A village would feel fortunate to have a surgeon living among them and offering his services.

While a physician would make minor physical examinations, his real duties consisted mainly of diagnosing and distributing prescribed medicines. The surgeon, however, was the real workhorse of the vocation, being the one to actually cleanse a wound, saw off a limb, or otherwise physically handle the patient.

Please note that the medical man in this story is a surgeon, and does not bear the title of "Doctor." He is properly referred to as "Mr." Clifton.

Chapter 1

I will not cry," Elizabeth told herself fiercely, her voice echoing back from the night-darkened trees that lined the public lane on which she rode. "Since I chose to play the fool, I cannot cry because I have been treated like one."

The truth of her own statement, however, only caused her to blink all the harder, for there was no denying that the situation in which she found herself was directly her own fault.

Her difficulties were too plentiful to be counted on one hand, but they all added up to one enormous reality: she was alone, friendless, penniless, and without a doubt ruined.

Surely there was an inn somewhere along this dark, deserted road? Her stomach rumbled with hunger. All she wanted at this particular moment was an inn, with a warm fire on the grate and a hot plate of food, no matter the lateness of the hour. Why had she not fully eaten the supper offered her at nightfall, some eight or nine hours ago? It could be hours yet until she had a chance for a meal. What would an innkeeper make of a demand for food, it now being almost dawn? He would find it most peculiar, almost as peculiar as the sight of a lone woman, lacking any baggage, riding an unsaddled horse astride like a man.

That is, if Elizabeth were to discover that the building that just now loomed ahead was the inn she so fervently hoped it was. She had ridden as far as she could tonight; she simply had to eat, to rest, just for a short spell.

But, no, she realized with a sigh, the building was not an inn or a tavern. As the horse plodded forward, Elizabeth saw that the building was surely too large to be a simple country inn. It must be a manor house for some local gentry, or perhaps a

poorhouse with one wing for men and another for women. No welcome there.

However, the place was certainly lit up with a welcoming glow, at least at first glance. A lavish amount of light shone brightly on the oval of grass before the building, especially given the extreme lateness of the hour. Golden light streamed from most of the upstairs windows. In fact, the light was very odd, swaying....

Elizabeth's horse put back its ears and stopped suddenly upon the road. Elizabeth lifted her heels from where they hung inelegantly on either side of the animal and urged her mount forward. The animal whickered and sidled forward, clearly reluctant to continue down the road. Elizabeth might have had more control over the beast had she a saddle, but speed and secrecy had been more important than the proper tack. She had managed to get a bridle on the animal; a saddle had been too much to ask in the still of the night.

Something landed on Elizabeth's nose. From the feathery tickle, the dark color, gray against the predawn sky, from the scent in the breeze that had carried it to her nose, she knew it for what it was: ash.

Comprehension swept through Elizabeth as she realized that the night air was warmer than it ought to be: the house was afire. It was not welcoming lamps that shone from the windows, but darting, devouring flames that filled the sills. She saw that the front door was gone, or standing open, and from the large house's dark mouth billowed a curling, twisting cloud of smoke.

As Elizabeth stared in horror, a woman stumbled out through the doorway, and even from this distance Elizabeth could see where smoke had stained the woman's garments, hands, and face with sooty residue. She heard a horrible screaming sound—but it did not come from the woman, who collapsed mutely just outside the doorway. It came from somewhere inside the building.

Other sounds intruded, horrible sounds: horses' screams; men's shouts; the crash of wooden beams that could no longer bear their load. Most of all, she heard the fire, a terrible whis-pery sound that belied its hungry, destructive thrust.

Her horse danced nervously beneath her, and for a moment she let the animal retreat. This was too much for Elizabeth to bear. Her own difficulties were too awful, life-altering, all-consuming. These people, one of whom she could see fleeing into the night, this was their problem, not hers. She should ride on, should do all that she could to put distance between her and Mr. Radford Barnes, the man she had escaped from this night. She had her own cares, more than one person should have to bear. She should ride on.

She should—but the woman still lay unconscious, too near the fire that burned inside that darkened doorway. It was but another moment's thought before Elizabeth grimly conceded that she would be truly lost, truly ruined, if she turned her back on someone so patently in need of help.

She urged her reluctant horse forward toward the still woman until the beast simply refused to go any nearer. Elizabeth slid from the horse's back in an unrefined dismount and firmly secured the reins to a tree limb that had grown long enough to stretch over a ditch at the side of the road. A glistening in the ditch revealed itself as fire reflecting off of water. It was too little, though, too tiny a stream to make any difference with the fire. Great barrels of water were needed, and buckets, and men; many men to throw bucket-loads of water at the raging fire. Elizabeth patted the horse's neck, as if the action would somehow work to soothe the wild-eyed creature. The gesture certainly did nothing to calm the knocking of her own knees as she turned and ran toward where the woman lay.

It took only moments to run across the road and the oval of grass to the unconscious woman. The acrid taste of smoke filled Elizabeth's nose and mouth. She tried to breathe shallowly. As she dropped to her knees beside the woman, the poor creature remained limp and unmoving, even when Elizabeth rolled her over to press an ear to the woman's chest. She heard nothing, but then again the fire was roaring higher and crueler, a rumble rather than a whisper now.

Sparks rained down of a sudden from on high, and Elizabeth could smell the fabric of her own cloak where the sparks singed it. With a cry, she batted at her own hair, scattering pins, hoping no sparks smoldered there, and knew she must move away

quickly. She took the woman by both arms and dragged her from the doorway, fear lending her the strength to move beyond the hot fingers of heat and flame that radiated from the burning building.

She knelt anew, to listen once more to the woman's lungs. Nothing. Neither did the woman's chest rise and fall. The woman was dressed in naught but a night rail, lacking even shoes or stockings, but still coming through smoke and fire could not fully explain the unkempt nature of her dirty, uncombed hair. Her nostrils were ringed black with soot, and her eyes remained opened and fixed. With a shudder of a sigh, Elizabeth realized the woman, someone obviously arisen from a sickbed or worse, was dead. The woman's last lunge toward escape had been too late to save her.

Elizabeth rose to her feet, gazing about, searching for ... for what? Someone to report this death to? Someone else to help?

A black horse, presumably broken free from its stable, ran by, but aside from that the only moving thing to be seen was the flames. She was alone.

Elizabeth let the tears flow then, but even as they rolled down her face, she rose to her feet. She was too angry to kneel and wallow in grief. She was too furious with fate, ill luck, and random cruelties to sit and mourn. In the space of one day, her life had become harsh and empty.

"No," she vowed aloud, as she strode purposefully back toward her horse, hot tears tracking down her cheeks. "Not empty," she challenged the soot-filled air. Altered, yes. Frozen perhaps, for now. But not empty.

Patience was all it would take for her to start anew—even if "anew" would be unfortunately fettered by the past.

"Endurance," she told herself, knowing a battle cry even as it crossed her lips. "And no men," she added from between gritted teeth—as if the words needed to be said. Men only brought complications. They must not, could not, be a part of her life. Elizabeth had but two goals now: to rebuild a life for herself, and to assure her sister's happiness. Her sister, Lorraine, was why she had eloped with Radford in the first place. Whatever else happened, Lorraine's happiness must be secured. Elizabeth could not, dare not be involved in any further scandals, espe-

daily any that involved a man. She must, in fact, become invisible.

Besides, who would want a woman who had orchestrated her own ruination? Never mind that Radford Barnes had lied to her, had played at love and played Elizabeth for a fool. The bare and awful truth was that Elizabeth had shared a bed with a man not her husband.

No matter that she had believed herself married to Radford. Ruination cared not whom it touched, the blameless being as susceptible as the culpable. There was no compassionate word for "un-virgin"; Elizabeth knew the world would assign her epithets to match those of the villain who had deceived her, no matter her ignorance of her "husband's" true nature.

A fat tear rolled down onto Elizabeth's bodice as she reached to untie her skitterish horse, but she ignored the tear as thoroughly as the world would ignore her protestations of ignorance and deceit. What was done was done, and although her body sought release in tears, weeping could not wash away the stain her reputation now bore. So she cried. She would cry again, she knew, but the tears came from her heart, not her head. Her head had more important worries—such as where her next meal might be coming from.

The horse bucked as Elizabeth worked the knotted leather free, and for a moment she was confused by the animal's increasing excitability, for the fire burned still, but was no more a threat than it had been all along. Then something large loomed next to her, and a sharp, stinging pain presaged a sticky warmth along her jawline.

"Get back!" a man growled near her ear. "I'm taking the horse."

Elizabeth stared up at the face too near her own, belatedly realizing that a man had seized hold of the horse's reins, and that he held the knife that had cut her poised between her face and his own. Its silver length glittered, reflecting the glow of the raging fire behind them. Out of pure instinct she reached up and touched the sting on her jaw, and her hand came away red with blood.

"You cut me," Elizabeth said, hearing the astonishment in her own voice even as a trickle of warm blood formed a single track down her neck.

"Cut!" the man repeated. "Cut, cut cut!" His voice rose with every repetition. "I'll cut you again. Why'd you take my money? I want my money!"

"I do not have your money," Elizabeth said. She stepped back as far as she could, but she did not release the reins despite her fear of the man's looming presence, of the knife gripped tightly in his hand. She saw now that he was strangely dressed in a faded night rail, a pair of boots, and a long frock coat that had seen better days.

The man waved the knife, staring directly into her eyes. "I said you'd perish in flames, Mitch, you son of a whore! Didn't I? And now you will."

"Mitch?" Elizabeth repeated. Whom was he talking to? Who did he think she was? God help her, the man was surely mad.

His eyes narrowed, and he waved the knife again. "Horse!" he shouted.

Despite her fear, Elizabeth hesitated, keeping her grip on the reins. The horse, even though it did not belong to her, was virtually all she had left. Without it, she would be stranded. She could not just give the animal up.

"The horse!" the man screamed, causing both Elizabeth and the horse to start. Belatedly, she released the reins.

"It is yours. Take it," she said, truly alarmed now. She stepped away.

His hand sprang forward, the knife a silver flash in his hand as it came toward her face. Elizabeth cried out, then stepped back and stumbled to her knees, her hands instinctively reaching to catch the man's coat, to break her fall. A sharp pain ran along her forearm, but before she could fully take in that the man had cut her again, a blow to her temple sent her sprawling in the dirt.

She struggled to her elbows and then into a half-sitting position, blinking and shaking her head. Her ears were ringing, and her eyes did not quite want to focus equally.

"You won't lock me in again, I swear by all that's holy!" the man took a step closer to scream at her. Still dazed and a little dizzy, Elizabeth put up her hands in a hopeless gesture meant to shield her from his next attack. But it was a cry of astonished relief she uttered instead, for he turned abruptly away from her.

She tried to rise to her feet, but got no farther than her bruised knees when she saw the man had vaulted onto the horse's bare back. She wished he would just go and leave her in peace to sort through this latest disaster.

He issued the command, "Ha!" to the wild-eyed horse and slapped its withers with the reins. The animal startled forward. In an oddly prolonged moment of comprehension, Elizabeth knew there was no time, no opportunity to avoid being knocked to the ground. The horse whinnied in protest, but no amount of equine grace could avert the sudden collision of woman and beast. All the breath left Elizabeth's body as she was shoved backward, against soil. One shoed hoof made a glancing blow across her brow, and another came down on her foot. She felt something tear and thought it was her slipper, but then the pain hit, and she knew she would see blood and a terrible wound if ever the horse untangled from her and if she were left alive to look. She tried to curl into a ball.

BOOK: The Misfit Marquess
7.58Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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