HOW THE EARL ENTICES
I originally had Ross wash up onto the beach, unconscious, and then Grace and Alice worked together to tend to his words. In the revision, he takes Grace hostage in her cottage, and so this scene had to chance. But I think it shows the friendship between Alice and Grace very well. Enjoy!
Ross lay still, his eyes closed, as voices soft with concern swirled through the agonizing pounding inside his head.
He sensed movement around him, heard the rustle of fabric and hushed voices. The softness beneath him must have been a bed. And always came the unrelenting pain radiating out from various parts of his body.
But he couldn’t have moved if he’d wanted to. His arms and legs were too weak from hours spent thrashing about in the water, and his eyelids lay as heavy as lead. His throat and chest burned with each breath he took, scarped raw from the saltwater he’d inhaled and swallowed as he’d fought the waves. But the softness beneath him lured him back toward unconsciousness, the soothing voices comforted...
Female voices, he could discern that much now. Two of them. Moving around him, they adjusted a leg here, an arm there...
“He’s too...lift away.”
“Peel that down...”
Bits and snatches registered in his fogged mind, enough to understand that they were discussing undressing him.
“There’s no other way.”
“If you’re certain.” The second voice was softer, more hesitant...one that wrapped around some distant memory in his mind but didn’t trigger it. Young. Cultured. Well-educated. “...the best way, then.”
The snip-snap of scissors—the fabric of his coat loosened and gave way as one of the women cut up the sleeve and over his shoulder to the collar, then down the other arm. Hands rolled him from side to side and pulled the coarse coat out from beneath him.
A sharp pain stabbed into his chest, ripping his breath away. Damn. His ribs were at least bruised, most likely cracked. Another reason to lie still.
His waistcoat and shirt went next, thankfully with less jostling and pain. The hands struggled to remove his boots, which the water had shrunk. He grit his teeth and fought back a groan as pain shot up from the slice in his thigh when one of the women tried to wrestle the boot off and unwittingly pulled at his leg.
Good Lord. The Frenchmen hadn’t killed him, but these two English skirts might just finish him off.
“The seawater shrunk ‘em.” The older woman instructed, “Have to cut them off.”
A small tug at his calf, then he heard a blade ripping through the leather and felt the tight boot loosening all the way to his ankle. An easy pull slipped the boot completely off.
He grimaced inwardly. A shame to lose such a good pair of boots. But he’d replace them with one of Hoby’s finest. And send the bill to King George, damn him.
The second boot came away as easily as the first.
Awkward stillness followed. The voices paused.
Then finally, “...nothing I ain’t never seen before,” the older woman softly scolded. “And you, too.”
“Yes,” the younger one answered, “but not for a very long time.”
The other woman laughed. “...take them off to get to that cut on his leg.”
Ah, so they were fretting over removing his trousers. He fought back a bemused twitch of his lips. Well. This was a new experience. He’d never before been with a woman who didn’t want to remove his trousers when he was stretched out on a bed before her.
“All right. If we must.”
Both pairs of hands returned to him. This time, though, they trembled nervously as they loosened the buttons at his fall, then tugged the wet fabric over his hips. They peeled it down his legs and off, careful not to hurt the wound on his thigh, leaving him naked.
Another still pause. It would almost be worth risking a peek of an eye at them to see the look on their faces.
“Well,” the older woman mumbled, “some things on him the sea didn’t shrink.”
A shocked gasp. “Alice!”
Ross bit the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing.
“What’s that, do you think?”
His amusement fled, and he held his breath. They weren’t talking about his cock now.
“A pouch of some kind,” the older woman ventured. “Probably holding his money so the other sailors couldn’t steal it.”
His heart lurched into his throat. What it held was more important than mere money. And if they dared to look inside, his pretense of being unconscious would come to a quick end. They mustn’t see what it held. Enough lives had already been put into danger over its contents. He didn’t want to endanger the two women simply because their hearts were good enough to help him.
“You’ve lived among sailors all your life.” Suspicion laced the younger one’s voice. “Have you ever seen one wear a pouch like that?”
“No,” her friend admitted with a sigh, “but I done never stripped a sailor bare before, neither.”
“Your husband was a sailor.”
“Especially not him.” Fingers worked loose the tiny buckle on the strap holding the pouch in place, and Ross fought back the urge to grab at her hands. “Whatever’s in this thing ain’t none of our business. We’ll give it back t’ him when he wakes.”
It slipped from his thigh. Ross lay still, doing his best to trust the two women, even though his heart pounded so hard that his cracked ribs ached.
Trust? Laughable! He didn’t trust anyone, certainly not women. He preferred to work alone, without a soul in the world knowing his true mission, save for King George. Even then, best to keep the monarch far away. His brother Christopher thought he was mad for not having assets in place to help him, madder still that the king had sworn to completely disavow him should anything go wrong. But Ross knew how deadly his work, just as he knew he couldn’t have infiltrated the ranks of the Court of St. James if anyone else had known.
Sir Henry had known. And the French killed him for it.
Fingers pressed at the flesh along the cut. Ross forced himself to lie still beneath the gentle probing, still feigning unconsciousness. “Not too deep,” the older woman mumbled. “An’ the saltwater cleaned it nicely.”
“No lasting problems, then?” Worry tinged the younger woman’s voice. His chest warmed that this stranger cared enough to be concerned. At least someone in the world did.
“None I can see.”
Ross gave a silent sigh of relief. He needed to be away as soon as he could muster the energy to move. There was no telling what happened to the other men on the boat, or what lies the ambassador was spinning to the authorities on both sides of the Channel. No way to know if the French had men looking for him. Or if the worst had occurred and the king had disavowed him. But from the excruciating pain in his ribs and thighs, and the exhaustion which had turned his arms and legs into lead, he suspected he wasn’t going anywhere soon.
“We’ll need to stitch him up. Hand me my needle an’ thread.”
He forced himself to lie perfectly still while the woman’s fingers expertly pressed the sides of the cut together. “Grace, hold this right here.”
Grace. So that was the younger woman’s name. Delicate and soft, like her voice—
A shooting pain flashed down his leg. Not like her hands.
He hid the wince and kept his eyes closed, but he was unable to stop the jerking of his breath when the sharp needle pierced his skin, which gave way with a sickening pop. The thread pulled through to draw up the two sides of the cut, and his leg trembled. He let it. He’d seen enough bodily destruction over the years to know that unconscious men sometimes twitched involuntarily when their wounds were tended, and he suspected that the older woman who so expertly stitched him up had seen more than enough wounded men to know that, too. Besides, he didn’t have the strength to hold still when the needle was repeatedly jabbed into him. Or stop the beads of perspiration from dotting his face with each painful and agonizingly slow draw of the thread. The most he could do was stop himself from groaning in pain and keep his eyes closed.
An eternity later, the older woman cut the needle loose and knotted off the thread. “There.” A sigh of relief heaved from her. “It’s done.”
A blanket drew up over him. Those same hands which had so firmly helped with the wound now soothed him by carefully tucking him in.
“Will he be all right?” Grace asked softly, close enough that she must have been leaning over him. Her voice sounded nearly as shaken by the stitches as he was.
“Aye. ‘Though he needs to rest an’ heal.” Footsteps moved away. “I’ll start some tea for us an’ some broth for him. A big man like him’ll want food when he wakes.”
But Ross didn’t plan on waking for a very long time. Not now that the warm blanket had been drawn over him and he’d been tucked into the soft bed, not when his limbs grew heavier and more immobile with each breath he took. Not when he could let the exhaustion overcome him and rest for the first time in a sennight without fear of dying.
And certainly not when soft fingers caressed gently over his face to soothe his bruises and cuts. Beneath her delicate fingertips his heartbeat slowed, his breath growing smooth and even. The leaden weight of his arms and legs pulled down as if to pin him right there forever to the mattress, and his mind grew fuzzy again as sleep came for him.
“Just rest,” she whispered reassuringly. Her voice lilted softly through the deepening darkness swirling inside his head. “You’re safe here.”
Safe. A deep breath poured from him, and he slipped closer toward sweet oblivion.
Tender fingertips brushed away the beads of perspiration on his brow, then slowly combed through the hair at his temple. So soothingly. Lovingly. “I’ll watch over you.”
The comforting darkness engulfed him, and he fell away.