Excerpt: Gallant Waif
Regency Historical Romance
Jack continued staring sourly out of the window, then leaned forward, intent. The small crumpled figure remained motionless on the hard cold gravel.
What was wrong with the girl? Had she hurt herself? It was damned cold out there. Any more time on the damp ground and she’d take more than just a chill. Swearing, he moved away from the window and limped downstairs. There was no sign of anyone about. He heard the sound of voices upstairs — his grandmother was being tended to by the only available help. Jack strode into the night and bent awkwardly over the small, still figure.
‘Are you alright?’ He laid his hand lightly on the cold cheek. She was unconscious. He had to get her out of the cold. Bending his stiff leg with difficulty, he scooped her against his chest. At least his arms still had their strength.
Good God! The girl weighed less than a bird. He cradled her more gently. Nothing but a bundle of bones!
Jack carried her into the sitting room and laid her carefully on a settee. He lit a brace of candles and held them close to her face. She was pale and apparently lifeless. A faint, elusive fragrance hovered around her, clean and fresh. He laid a finger on her parted lips and waited. A soft flutter of warm breath caused his taut face to relax. His hands hovered over her, hesitating. What the deuce do you do with fainting females? His hands dropped. Ten to one she’ll wake up and find me loosening her stays and set up some demented shrieking!
Jack went to the doorway. ‘Carlos!’ No response. Dammit! He poured brandy into a glass and slipping one arm around the girl, he tipped a generous portion into her mouth. Instantly she came alive in his arms, coughing, hands flailing against him.
‘Gently, gently,’ he said, irritated.
‘What—?’ Kate spluttered as he forced another mouthful of fiery golden liquid into her. She gasped as it burnt its way down her throat and glared indignantly at him.
‘It’s only brandy.’
‘Brandy!’ She fought for breath.
‘You needed something to bring you around.’
‘Bring me around?’ Kate glanced round the strange room. She stared up at the shadowed face of the man who had an arm around her. Her pulse started to race. Blind panic gripped her and she tried to wrench herself away, to hit out against him. She was restrained by strong hands, gentle but implacable.
‘You fainted outside.’ He held her a moment until she calmed slightly, then released her and stood back. ‘Mind you, if I’d known you were such a little wildcat I’d have thought twice about rescuing you from the cold wet driveway and giving you my best brandy.’
Kate stared blankly at him. Fainted? Rescue? Best brandy? She still felt decidedly peculiar. ‘I… I’m sorry… My nerves are a little jumpy these days… and I tend to over—react.’
Especially when I awake to find myself in strange company, not knowing what has come before it. Her head was pounding. Had she fainted for just a few minutes, as he said, or would she find a gap in her memory of days or weeks, as it had once before? Her hand reached to touch the faint ridged scar at the base of her skull, then dropped to her lap. She glanced down and a wave of relief washed over her. She remembered putting on these clothes this morning… Lady Cahill… the long trip in the coach. It was all right. It wasn’t like before…
But who was the man looming over her? She was aware of a black frown, a long, aquiline nose, a strong chin, and blue, blue eyes glinting in the candlelight. She blinked, mesmerised.
He shifted uncomfortably under her gaze and moved abruptly beyond the candleglow, his face suddenly hidden in shadows again.
‘I… I really do beg your pardon,’ she said. ‘I didn’t… I was confused.’ She tried to gather herself together. ‘It’s just—’
‘Are you ill?’ His voice was very deep.
‘No, I don’t think so. It’s just… it must be because I haven’t eaten for several day—… for several hours.’
Jack frowned. The slip of the tongue was not lost on him. Kate tried to sit up. Another wave of dizziness washed over her. Jack grasped her arm and thrust her firmly but gently back against the cushions. ‘Don’t try to move,’ he ordered. ‘Just stay there. I’ll return in a moment.’ He left the room.
Kate sat on the settee, one hand to her head. She felt weak and shaky. Brandy on such an empty stomach. She shook her head ruefully, then clasped it, moaning. She closed her eyes to stop the room from spinning around her.
‘Here, this will make you feel better.’ The harsh deep voice jolted Kate out of her daze. She opened her eyes. Before her was a plate with a clumsily cut slice of bread and cold meat on it. It looked wonderful. She glanced quickly up at the man towering over her and smiled. ‘Oh, thank you so much. It is very kind of you,’ she said, then added, blushing, ‘I’m afraid that brandy made me quite dizzy.’
She applied herself carefully to her meal, forcing herself to eat with tiny bites, chewing slowly and delicately.
Jack watched her, still faintly dazzled by the sweetness of her smile. She was pretending disinterest in the food, he realised, even though she was starving. Well, who was he to quibble at pride? But she was certainly an enigma, with her pride and her shabby clothes.
‘Who the devil are you?’