Honesty compels me to confess I hesitated a little before I dismounted.
I was not like the few of my female acquaintances – that is to say – the ones who grew up in a normal household and were brought into Society without so much as a close look upon a man. I was not afraid of men for I had not been formally presented to any. I was not afraid of men, period. Of course, I knew they were not all of them as gentle as my two brothers-in-law, Colonel Christopher Brandon and Edward Ferrars. They were the rare treasures among their kind. I was aware that there were also dangerous specimens roaming society for innocent, gullible damsels.
This man was unknown to me so I attentively studied him before I dared come closer.
He was lying on his stomach, his face covered by strands of long dark hair, black as a raven’s wing.
A puddle of blood formed under his body and I was concerned. He seemed to be seriously injured, his face very pale.
I knelt beside him and, reaching with a trembling hand to one of his wrists, I was relieved to feel a strong pulse. That gave me the courage to try turning him onto his back, not an easy task because he was a tall, muscular fellow. He did not regain consciousness when I involuntarily caught him on the left shoulder, as I turned him. He was bleeding rather copiously from what appeared to be a bullet wound in that shoulder. The fine fabric of his dark green riding coat was stained with blood which was spreading to his white linen shirt and staining his waistcoat of moss green silk.
The sight of the blood prompted me into action.
I searched my bag for something that could serve to stop the bleeding wound but found nothing. To my relief, the man’s coat pockets produced a large white cotton handkerchief which I crumpled into a ball. Pressing it to the small hole, I began untying the man’s cravat of buff coloured silk, to allow him easier breathing.
He stirred and gave a weak, throaty moan.
I felt a surge of relief from this sign of life. I secured the handkerchief wrapping the man’s chest with the cravat. Not an easy task as I was forced to pass my hands over his body several times. I became aware of his warm hard strength and it allowed me to examine him more closely for other injuries. There were none I could find except for a shallow gash on his brow which had already stopped bleeding. I carefully cleaned it with a tip of the cravat.
I drew a deep breath and leaned back, satisfied with the efforts I had done so far. For the first time in several minutes, I could again take stock of the situation. Here I was, alone on the moors, with an unconscious, injured man, and I was somewhat at a loss to what I was to do next.
Should I go for help? Where to? Barton Cottage was out of the question; my mother would have a fit of the vapours if I arrived there in the company of an unknown gentleman without a chaperon, an injured one at that!
My patient was indeed a gentleman, judging by the quality and fabric of his dress and the exquisite cream-coloured buckskins, which hovered above the finely crafted, black leather Hessian boots. His hands, long fingered and strong, bore no calluses and his nails, though not manicured, were nevertheless cut and clean. He sported no jewels, not even a signet ring, which was rather unusual for a gentleman of means.
My gaze wandered to his sun-tanned face and I lingered there, revelling in its attractiveness. His face was not really beautiful since it was too strong-featured. He had a broad brow bearing a few shallow lines. A long, thin nose set above a pair of wide sensual lips rounded out his features. The firm, well-defined jaw, covered with the shadow of beard as if he had shaved in a state of hurry, was very becoming and I found myself touching that jaw just to know the feeling of it. It was rough yet at the same time, soft and warm. My hand quivered with an unknown tingle; I hastily withdrew it. I touched his thick black hair as I did so. So thick, and so silky soft … and a trifle too long for propriety’s sake.
This was a man born into Society, but not a willing member of it? He clearly lacked the touch of finesse acquired for Society gatherings as if he was somehow reluctant to participate with people in them. His appearance was appropriate, but nothing more. However, compared to my sisters’ husbands, the handsome Edward and the manly Brandon, this man definitively was even more attractive – in a slightly dangerous way.
Who was he? I was fairly certain I had never seen him around here, nor had he appeared at the small country gentry gatherings in this part of Devonshire, so I reckoned he must be staying with relatives or friends who lived in the vicinity somewhere. But where? To my knowledge no one had a guest staying with them at the moment.
He must have spent a considerable amount of time abroad, I mused. His skin bore the golden tan of someone who lived a long time in a climate with much more sun than was found in England. I sighed. So many questions were spinning in my head!
The stranger suddenly let out a low, deep grunt, then opened his eyes – bright blue eyes.
“What the devil … hell and damnation!” he exclaimed in a forceful voice, eyes darting side to side.
The blasphemy came when he tried to sit up and his shoulder wound must have caused him considerable pain, hence the expletives. I put a constricting hand upon his chest and raised my voice in a forceful manner.
“Do stay where you are, sir, or you will only injure yourself even more!”
His fierce blue eyes bore into mine but with a scowl that could have scared the Devil himself.
“Who are you? What have you done to me?” he growled.
The voice was a deep baritone and the tone, though refined enough, was a clipped one. It was enough to render me speechless with indignation.
“Well?” the stranger barked. “Are you going to sit there like a stone statue? Help me up, you silly wench, or I will give you a taste of my riding crop!”
I was beginning to enjoy the situation so I smiled sweetly.
“I am sorry to say so, sir, but you seem to have lost your crop when you tumbled from your horse. I also want to point out that I am no mere ‘wench’ but a respectable woman. I must insist you treat me with the respect I am due.”
With as much dignity as I could muster, I rose to my feet, placed my hands on my hips and looked down at him.
“My name,” I said, “is Margaret Dashwood of Barton Cottage and my mother is a relative of Sir John Middleton of Barton Hall. Kindly tell me your name, sir, or I will leave you to your fate this instant.”
“Upon my word! A ‘respectable lady’ disguised as a peasant girl. Please forgive my mistake, my dainty damsel, but you must admit that it was only natural, given the dishevelled nature of your appearance.”
That statement was accompanied by an impertinent stare that raked my body, head to toe. All of a sudden, I became very uncomfortably aware of how I must appear to him in my old muslin dress and scuffed walking boots, my hair escaping its confinement and my face flushed with anger. I could not bear this embarrassment for more than a second so I grabbed my bag, turned on my heels and stalked away as dignified as I could.
“Wait … Miss Dashwood, please? I would be very grateful if you would consent in assisting me.”
He had spoken in a gruff tone yet he had not managed to conceal the pleading in his voice. Immediately I grew concerned again and scolded myself inwardly for my selfishness. After all, this man was injured and had lost quite a lot of blood.
“Put your right arm around my shoulders, sir,” I said and, kneeling once again beside him and sliding my arm around his waist. After a few failed attempts, we finally succeeded in getting him to his feet.
He towered over me and seemed to be too weak in the knees to stay upright; I had to tighten my grip just to keep him upright.
“Careful, sir!” I panicked a trifle when his head fell onto my shoulder and the warmth of his breath caressed the skin of my neck. I felt the hardness of his muscles under my hand, and the assault of his heady but not unpleasant scent was enough to rattle my usually calm composure. All of a sudden there seemed to be not enough air to breathe …
Finally the stranger stirred and lifted his head, his back muscles tightening under my touch.
“Good Lord, but this has affected me in a rather serious manner! Do forgive me, Miss Dashwood. I seem to have outdone myself more than usually in my rude behaviour.”
He took a step away from me and gave me a little bow. “Douglas Alexander Spencer of Watcombe Manor, at your service, Ma’am!”
He had overrated his abilities and I grabbed his arm when I saw the dark, nasty shade of grey that suffused his countenance.
“Sir, we must seek help. You are too weak to …”
At that moment the black stallion came trotting towards us, whinnying softly, which made Mr Spencer stare at me with disbelief.
“Dragon? He galloped away from me after I fell. How come he is here now?”
“I found him in the ring of standing stones and it was he who led me here, sir. Once I got into the saddle, he knew exactly where to go.”
“He … he allowed you to mount him? Impossible! Dragon does not accept orders from anyone but me. Even I sometimes get bitten when he is in a foul mood. Come here, boy.”
Dragon snorted and nudged Spencer’s outstretched hand, who then stroked the soft silken nose with tenderness.
“So you have deserted me for this pretty little chit, have you not? You devil! I should whip you, but I cannot blame you. She is very pretty, indeed.” The stranger then looked at me and I blushed.
The horse tossed its head upward and whinnied.
“Mr Spencer, I must insist on two things: first, I will bring you to Barton Cottage where I can summon a physician. Secondly, I must demand respect from you. I do not wish to be called ‘a chit’ which I find a most offensive word for a woman.”
Spencer’s blue-eyed gaze raked over me once more and his mouth widened into a sardonic grin.
“Oh, but you are indeed a woman, my dainty damsel, no doubt about that!”
His hand reached out to tidy a lock of my hair behind my ear and I had to suppress a sudden shudder.
“I have known many fair-haired, blue-eyed dolls, my dainty one, but none like you. You are not afraid of me and you have not recoiled in horror upon hearing my name. Why is that?”
“I have never heard of you, sir, so why should I be afraid? What have you done besides indulging in the usual eccentricities gentlemen of your type permit themselves?”