Vanquishing the Viscount
St George's Day, April, 1821 Old Wessex, England
Her mind buzzing with speculation about the new life she was about to begin, Miss Emma d'Ibert wasn't prepared for the jolt that shook the wagon in which she was traveling. As she struggled to avoid being hurled onto the road, she heard the scream of a horse, followed by an ominous thump.
Heart racing, she steadied herself and peered through the rain to find out why Carrier Marshman had pulled his team to a halt with such violence.
"Sorry, miss," Marshman said. "There was a rider tearing through the crossroads. Don't think he saw us coming and got a bit of a shock."
Evidently. A glossy-coated thoroughbred was bolting off in the direction of Bath — minus its rider.
Horrified, Emma scrambled down, hampered by her sopping skirts. As Marshman jumped to the ground to calm his team, she squelched toward the fallen rider.
The man lay supine, staring up into the leaden sky with a glazed expression, his beautifully cut riding coat spattered with mud and his arms flung out to either side as if welcoming the rain into his embrace. He groaned and tried fruitlessly to rise.
"Oh, sir, are you all right? Let me help you up." She reached for his hand, but the instant their fingers touched, a pulse of awareness shot up her arm, and she pulled away.
Was there a thunderstorm brewing now? Or was that powerful charge something else entirely?
His blue-gray eyes flickered toward her. "I doubt you have the strength, girl."
He'd be surprised. But she detested being called girl and was briefly tempted to leave the fellow lying there and tell Marshman to drive on. She was already late for her arrival at her new home and was bound to get a tongue-lashing from her employer, Mrs. Keane.
That touch had set her nerves on edge. Not on fire. "I'm stronger than I look," she stated briskly, "and I know all about anatomy and medicine — my brother is studying to be a doctor."
The man rolled his eyes. "Heaven protect me from females armed with thirdhand knowledge. I don't need mending — just a hand to get me upright." His accent was crisp, as befitted a member of the Quality, but she didn't think she'd ever seen him before, despite having moved in such circles when she was younger. How far had he galloped, she wondered. It must be a very important errand to make him ride out in such a downpour.
"Mr. Marshman!" she called. "Can you leave your horses now and help the gentleman?"
"I'll just put a chock under the wheel, miss, to stop my cider kegs heading off without me."
Between them, they managed to get the man sitting upright on the grassy verge. Again, an unsettling sensation fizzed through Emma's veins as she touched the stranger, something that filtered even through the leather of his riding gloves.
"Where are you headed, zur?" drawled Marshman in his thick Gloucestershire accent.
She crouched by the horseman's feet and noted a worrying pallor in his square-jawed face. When he frowned and said, "For the moment, my exact destination escapes me," she wasn't at all surprised.
Concussion. He shouldn't be allowed to ride any farther until he'd recovered.
As Marshman waited patiently for an answer, she watched as the gentleman pushed his bedraggled hair out of his eyes, revealing his face properly. He was fine featured, his complexion fresh and pleasing. His square chin was clean- shaven, and his cravat was tied in a knot of such intricacy, her brother George would be green with envy. The bronze buttons on the man's caped coat and his Hessian boots had been polished and buffed to within an inch of their lives. Wherever he was bound today, he clearly meant to look his best.
However, not even the most handsome of men could look good after a tumble in the mud on a sodden spring morning.
No more groans escaped him, so she decided it was safe to examine him gently. She prodded at his chest, but her finger just sank into soft layers of wool.
Bother. "I can't tell if you've any ribs broken under such a thick coat," she told her patient. "We must take it off."
"I'm none too keen, considering the weather, ma'am," he responded.
Awkward creature! "To move about with a fractured bone could turn a hairline crack into a full break," she said decisively. "The coat must go."
"Oh, very well. Do your worst." He stuck his arms behind him while she and Marshman divested him of the coat, heavy with rain.
My, but his chest was broad and his shoulders wide. The man was not only handsome of face, but he had a magnificent figure, as well.
Not that she should notice such things, being a female bound for certain spinsterhood.
She squeezed the cuff of his coat, and water trickled down. Even if he recovered quickly from his fall, he could still catch a chill. Where had he come from, and what merited such haste, in such awful weather?
"You're not planning to rob me, are you?" he asked, narrowing his eyes at her. "Loath as I am to strike anyone, I'm renowned for my right hook."
She knew she hardly looked like a lady, with her skirts caked in mud and her hair lank with water, but the accusation stung. "We're hardly likely to own it if we are," she said stiffly. The temptation to stab at his collarbone and chest rather than probe gently was hard to resist.
As she felt up and down his arms for breaks, she couldn't help but notice how firm his muscles were. Like those of a man who worked with his hands, not a pampered dandy of the aristocracy. What a pleasing packet of contradictions this fellow was!
"This isn't the first time I've fallen off a horse, you know," he said. "I'm certain there has never been such a fuss before."
He should think himself lucky she was even bothering with him. Left to his own devices, Carrier Marshman would probably have captured the man's horse, bundled him back on, and sent him on his way regardless of his physical condition. She bit her lip and continued her examination, refusing to look the man in his blue-gray eyes. She could feel them on her and knew the light in them was not friendly.
"Not at all the done thing, you know, for a young lady to run her hands over a gentleman," the stranger said in her ear.
Her hands halted for the briefest of moments. Good Lord. Had she been enjoying the feel of him too much, and that was why she'd lingered over her examination?
Refusing to blush — or rise to the bait — she said, "Then thank your stars I'm not a lady, but a servant."
This was only partly true. She was a lady, descended from a family with roots reaching back to Domesday. But their estates had never recovered from the failed harvests of 1816, known as the "Year without a Summer." Now, both she and her brother were seeking their fortunes elsewhere, to reduce the expenditure of their elderly parents.
"Fortunes" being a relative concept.
"A servant?" The stranger's eyes mocked her. "What manner of Banbury tale is that?"
"I don't intend to dispute with you, sir," she replied, getting to her feet. "It matters not who, or what, I am. Now that I'm sure there's nothing broken, you may stand up."
The thickset Marshman hoisted the gentleman up with a fist beneath each armpit. It wasn't a glamorous elevation, and true vertical was not achieved — when the man attempted to lift his head, he swayed alarmingly and lurched into Emma.
Marshman bore his weight as they tried to maneuver him upright again. Their patient moaned, raising a hand to his head.
"I think he's concussed," she told Marshman. "We'll have to take him up with us — it's not safe for him to travel alone."
"But he's traveling crosswise to us, Miss d'Ibert."
She winced and placed a finger against her lips. "It's Hibbert now, remember?" She glanced up at the stranger, but he seemed not to have heard.
Her real name had been left behind, at poor, decaying Tresham Hall, her childhood home. She was now just plain Miss Hibbert, governess. If any of her family's creditors were to discover she'd gone into service, they'd immediately suspect the d'Iberts couldn't honor their debts. Then the grasping tradesmen would call in those debts, and the family would be faced with bankruptcy.
They'd also be faced with the prospect of having to sell Tresham Hall.
Which was unthinkable.
"Yes. He's had a blow to his head that's jarred his brain. You can see how dizzy and confused he is."
"He is still here, quite in his right mind, and perfectly able to hear you," the stranger retorted.
Ignoring him, she told Marshman, "We must put him in the cart and take him somewhere he can be looked after."
"There's the Four Swans a mile or so back, Miss d'Ib ... I mean Miss Hibbert."
"That will do splendidly. So sorry to delay you, Mr. Marshman, but I don't think we can leave the fellow to his own devices."
The carrier eyed the sky, then smiled at her. "I don't reckon it's going to get worse anywhen soon," he observed, "so, we'll do as you say. Once we've delivered the afflicted gentleman we can be on the road again, and the going will be much quicker once we reach the turnpike. I can still set you down 'afore noon, and be down to Bath and back again 'afore nightfall. Heave ho, miss!"
After a brief struggle, the puzzled stranger was deposited in the wagon, with his back to the horses and his feet among the cider barrels. But just as Emma was lifting her skirts to clamber up beside him, he struck his forehead with the ball of his hand.
"What an idiot I am! I can't stop here! I've got to get to Ashleaze Court. Not a moment to lose. Now, set me down so I can recover Lawrie."
Assuming Lawrie to be the man's horse, she reassured him that Marshman had gone after the animal, intending to tie it behind the wagon. "We're going to the nearest inn so you can rest up until you're better," she explained.
"I'm not going to some blasted inn! I'm on a mission of the utmost importance, and can brook no delay."
He made as if to leap over the side of the cart, and it was only by dint of throwing her arms around his waist that she was able to stop him. "You mustn't!"
"Let me go, foolish girl. This is most unseemly."
They must, indeed, have made a shocking sight — she with her bonnet askew and her skirts knee-deep in mud, and he, coatless and bare- headed with the rain weaving runnels through his hair and down his cheeks. Anyone seeing her with her arms about him would think they were a pair of quarreling lovers, with him threatening to jilt her, and she begging him to stay.
"You're in no fit state to go anywhere," she said flatly as Marshman lumbered up with the gentleman's mount in tow. "Stop making a scene and sit back down."
"Who are you to tell me what I may or may not do? Do you know who I am? Let go, or you'll live to regret it!"
"Now, then," said Marshman, suddenly appearing right beside them. "Do you see this stick? It be a very sturdy one and could like as not knock you out cold. Shall we try it and see?"
"Who are you, anyway?" Emma asked, curious. Did she have any reason to fear him?
The attractive stranger ceased his struggles and collapsed back onto the bench. He gazed at her for a long moment, his face tense with concentration. Then he let out a sigh, looked at her helplessly, and said, "I've absolutely no idea."CHAPTER 2
Though Emma knew the accident that had befallen the gentleman wasn't her fault, she still felt a stab of fear.
Good lord. He'd lost his memory! Or part of it, anyway. He must have bumped his handsome head much harder on the road's uneven surface than she'd realized. Perhaps there'd been a rock or a cobble sticking out. Should she search through his hair for a wound?
Why was the thought of touching him once more so appealing?
"Damnation!" He broke free of her grip and tried to jump down again, but the carrier stepped in front of him.
"Will you be quiet now, zur?" Marshman suggested, brandishing his stick.
Their unhappy prisoner stilled, cleared his throat, and said, "Would a handful of coin not dissuade you? I have a full purse in my waistcoat."
Emma wondered again why he was so desperate to get on with his journey. Surely, he could wait until he returned to his proper senses? Until he remembered his own name, at least?
Marshman said, "You can keep your money, zur, unless you wish to pay me for your passage back to the Four Swans. I'm an honest fellow, always have been, and I don't take no incentives from no gentry. If Miss Hibbert says you have to go to the Four Swans, then that's where ye shall go."
The man's broad shoulders slumped. "It seems I have no choice but to sit tight for the present," he said, "but if my day's business is ruined because of this, expect retribution."
"Hardly the words of a gentleman," Emma replied, frowning.
"Since you have pointed out — despite several clues to the contrary — that you are not a lady, I shan't apologize."
"I don't know why we're bothering to help you," she said, glaring at him.
"I don't want your help," the stranger replied, capturing her gaze. He refused to look away and raised his elegant eyebrows in challenge.
How rude! She had a sudden image of this grand gentleman soaked in cider as she emptied one of Marshman's barrels over his head, and couldn't help a secret smile. Her antagonist's frown faded, and he gave her a searching look that made her cheeks heat.
Before she could question her reaction, Marshman leaped back into the driver's seat, and the heavily laden cart lurched back to life. As it made an awkward turn to head back the way they'd come, the man's face paled, and she eased her skirts away from him, just in case.
The journey back to the Four Swans was completed in bristling silence. The gentleman's hands clenched every time they rattled over a pothole, but he spoke not a word of complaint.
The rain eased, and a light breeze sprang up. She adjusted her bonnet and tried to brush her skirts down. Whatever would her new employers think of her arriving in such a state?
Maybe it was for the best. She wanted them to think she was from the lower orders of society. Yes, a gentlewoman of some learning. But a descendant of a noble family fallen on hard times? No. It was too humiliating. Besides, she didn't want to give away anything that would harm the standing of her parents. There was still a chance their fortunes might recover ... wasn't there?
More than anything, she wanted to preserve Tresham Hall. She loved its rambling passageways and corridors, the warm red of the brickwork, the overgrown gardens and espaliered fruit trees, and the pervasive scent of wood smoke. She would miss it intensely, desperate for her half-day off to arrive so she could hurry back for a visit. Assuming she could make it there and back in half a day. She'd chosen to accept the post at the Keanes' because they lived far enough away to know nothing of her situation or background. Visiting would be much harder as winter closed in.
If only she had taken during her Season, before the "Year without a Summer" ruined everything! A wealthy husband would have wholly revived the family's fortunes. But she'd been awkward, she'd been shy, and just too well-educated. And there was always some girl prettier, more biddable, more prepared to simper at a gentleman. Whereas she ... Well, she just couldn't stomach the vacuous nonsense that filled most young ladies' heads. Or the gentlemen who fell for such drivel.
She wanted a man with whom she could talk on an equal footing. Someone who'd discuss classical authors with her, and poetry, and the state of the factories. She wanted a man who'd explain more about the war against Napoleon and have ideas on how best to deal with the hardships assailing Britain in its aftermath. Above all, she wanted a man she could respect, and one who could, just by walking into a room, light it up for her like a beacon.
But no gentleman she'd met approved of ladies indulging in meaningful conversation. A lady was meant to be purely decorative.
Unfortunately, in the eyes of the ton she would be anything but that. She was unfashionably tall and had chestnut hair instead of guinea gold curls. Her eyes, in repose, could be described in no more romantic a term than ... brown. Her darling brother, George, had once praised the animation of her face, the dazzling beauty of her smile, and the mischievous light that gave hazel glints to her eyes. She assumed he'd just been teasing.
Then had come that one brief moment of hope. Elias Hartley, Earl of Overcrich, had singled her out for his attention. Elias Hartley, the youngest, most devilishly handsome bachelor of the ton.
The man who had humiliated her, broken her heart, and sworn her off attractive, magnetically appealing dandies forever.