An absorbing tangle of emotions and a heart-rending denouement.
Jack could not breathe. A heavy weight pressed on his chest. A spasm clenched his body. He rolled to his side and vomited water onto the grass. Wheezing, he drew in a painful gulp of air, and got rid of more water. The pressure eased. He sprawled on his back.
“As if I am not wet enough,” a feminine voice remarked. “But I forgive you, for I thought you had left this world for a better place.”
Jack frowned. Who the blazes… Dizzy, half-conscious, he thought of Eleanor and opened his eyes. A blaze of sunlight made him close them again. Squinting, he made out a kneeling figure with a cloud of honey-coloured curls surrounding a pale face. His frown deepened. It was not Eleanor.
“Who are you?” he croaked. Lord, his throat was sore.
“How do you feel?”
Idiotic question, but he gave it thought. “Cold, bloody cold. My throat hurts. And my head aches. Who are you?”
The breeze struck the wet cloth of his shirt and plastered it against his skin. He shivered and saw his feet were in the river. He drew them back and found it took far more effort than he expected. No wonder he was cold. His shirt was naught but wet rags, his hair dripped water, and he suspected half of the river sloshed around inside his boots. He looked back at the young woman. The sun shone through her hair and gave her a halo of gold. He shivered again.
It was not Eleanor.
Pain hollowed his body as it always did when memory struck without warning. Struggling to hide his feelings and gain control of his muscles, he turned from the stranger and stared at the sky above the distant tree tops.
This was not London, but Streatham. He had come to the old house in the middle of May, and already a fortnight or more must have gone by. This morning he had set out to ride to Chopwell, and, lost in memories of his wife, had taken a wrong turn. He remembered riding like the devil. Something had unhorsed him.
“Where’s my horse?” He got an elbow beneath him and tried to rise.
Moving had been a mistake. The world whirled around him. When everything steadied, he glared at the dog, red and glossy as a conker, crouched beside him on the opposite side to the young lady. It whined and inched closer. “That damned dog unseated me.” He blocked its affectionate approach. “Stupid dog.”
“Stay, Gyp.” The dog looked at its mistress as if acknowledging her words, and then transferred its attention back to him. “Sir, have a little gratitude.” Her voice had turned frosty. “That noble creature helped save you from drowning.”
Jack glared at the dog. It was wet. Soaked, in fact. “It was your damned dog that put me in the water in the first place. It deserves all my displeasure and more. The animal is no more than a bloody nuisance. Get off!” He pushed away the beast’s probing muzzle.
The dog obeyed her with such a reproachful glance Jack might have laughed if he felt less like heaving his guts up again.
“Now, sir, tell me how you do.”
Her air of calm confidence rattled him. Jack contemplated the calm hazel eyes, pointed chin, and the swirling cloud of hair. An image of the long, slow, sinuous coils of honey falling from his breakfast spoon filled his mind.
He shook his head to clear it. Only Eleanor’s long black hair and laughing eyes would do for him.
She put out a swift hand to shield herself from cold water drops.
“Sorry,” he muttered. “God, I am soaked.” He plucked at the sodden tatters of his shirt and then gave up. It was beyond repair.
He smelled a faint flower perfume. It must come from her. Strong enough to survive the overpowering scents of grass, river water, and mud; it awoke memories of long, love-laden nights with Eleanor. Such things had ended with Eleanor’s death. He schooled his expression before looking up to meet the searching gaze of his companion. Her fichu had been knocked awry and a generous amount of bosom crowded into the neckline of her round gown. The kind of dress Eleanor favoured for a day at home when she expected no visitors; plain light cotton with double sleeves and silk ribbons, now wet and bedraggled, dangling from beneath her bosom.
Her voice broke in on his thoughts. “Sir, you must tell me how you feel.”
“As you might expect,” he snapped. “Cold, wet, and none too happy.”
She sat back on her heels. “There is no cause to be rude.”
“Your wretched dog was the reason for my upset.”
The woman raised one eyebrow. “Perhaps she did surprise your horse by leaping up the bank as she did, but really, sir, part of the blame must lie with you.”
“How the hell do you make that out?”
She smiled sweetly. “Because this is private land, and you should not be riding across it.”