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Scandal's Choice

Chapter 1

Portsea, England, Late July 1810

 

   Burning thirst pulled Major Michael Warleigh into consciousness and the realization he was tied to a bed. He kept his eyes closed and tried to concentrate, but his head pounded and his right side pulsed with steady, searing heat. Instinct warned him he was not alone, yet all was quiet. Prisons and hospitals were never quiet. So where was he?

   He breathed slowly, but the faint tang of sawdust stung his nose and his thoughts scattered like shrapnel. Panic resurrected the unforgettable stench of blood-soaked sawdust. His belly clenched and his heart lurched with the agonized nightmare of saw against bone. His hands clenched the bindings that held him and he opened his eyes.

A deep blue bed-canopy filled his vision and he shifted his gaze left. Papered walls and a pair of windows with velvet curtains. Between them, a table and chair. Definitely not a prison cell or hospital room. He peered toward the foot of the bed. The blanket revealed two reassuring lumps where his legs should be. The right one was bulkier, but splints and bindings would explain that. His gut eased and he released his grip on the bindings. Fever soaked dreams had raised his greatest fears. He was injured—nothing more.

   The window light cast a woman’s shadow against the far wall and he realized the scent of honeysuckle mingled with the sawdust. A faint scraping sound, like the steady slide of metal rubbed against a hard surface matched the rhythmic movement of her shadow. Was this another bizarre dream?

   His parched throat overwhelmed his awareness. Water. He managed a barely audible croak, though his tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth when he tried to speak. It was enough. The shadow shifted and a nurse with delicate but battered features came to the bedside. Mink-dark hair showed below a spinster cap, and her blue-gray eyes reflected caution.

   “Are you awake, Major?” She stopped a foot short of the bedside.

Some brute had given her reason to be cautious. Her puffy cheek and blackened eye chronicled a tale of rough treatment. Michael swallowed and tried again. “Thirsty,” he rasped.

   Her posture relaxed, and she quickly retrieved a mug. She slipped her arm beneath his pillow as she brought a hollow-stemmed invalid cup to his parched lips. The tepid liquid cleared away the thick dryness, and he emptied the cup quickly, grateful for the relief.

   She moved the cup away and withdrew her arm from the pillow. “Is that better?” she asked. “Would you like more?”

   “I’d like my arms freed. Am I a prisoner?”

   “You are not a prisoner, but you were delirious for a time and,” she hesitated, “we thought it best to restrain you.”

   Michael eyed her discolored, swollen face, and cold dread washed over him when the sensation of white-hot pain and his fist against flesh resurfaced. His stomach rebelled at the idea he might be the one who’d savaged her and guilt closed his  throat. He’d never hit a woman in his life.

   He nodded toward her face. “Did I do that?”

   Her eyes shifted slightly. It was clear she didn’t want to answer.

   “I shall tell Uncle Aubrey you are awake.”

   “Tell me. Did I do that?”

   “Yes, but you didn’t know what you were doing.”

  “I’m sorry.”

   She smiled faintly. “Apology accepted.”

   She turned to leave the room but halted and faced him when he asked, “Where am I? Who are you? And who is Uncle Aubrey?”

   “You are in Portsea,” she told him. “I am Elizabeth Longborough, and Uncle Aubrey is Lord Elsworth, Lieutenant Elsworth’s father.”

   Lieutenant Elsworth. The red-headed lieutenant had often spoken of his Longborough cousins. If Michael remembered correctly, there were three of them. “Which one are you?” he asked without thinking. “The odd one, the rescuer…” He hesitated, recalling more detail as he studied her petite frame, plain gown, and steady gaze.         “You are too old to be the visionary.”

   Her expression turned wry. “The odd one, I’m afraid.” She walked to the open doorway. “I shall inform my uncle of your improved condition.”

   He watched her step through the door and wondered why people considered her odd.

***

   Dismay and disappointment drained Elizabeth’s smile when she turned toward the door. The odd one. She was used to the description, but hadn’t realized her cousin disclosed the common view of her and her sisters to his friends. She hadn’t thought he found her interests as strange as so many did.

   Though not an activity appropriate for a lady, making objects from wood soothed her mind and settled her restless spirit. Edward had sometimes teased her about her pastime, but had also asked her to carve projects for his own use. A small travel chess set had been just one of them. Had those projects been objects of ridicule? She didn’t want to believe that. Besides, it had been his suggestion she be sent for to make the major a pair of crutches since he was taller than most men.

   She walked to the open door, fully aware of the irony it represented. It mattered not that she was nearly on the shelf after two failed Seasons that had begun three years later than normal, or that the Major had been unconscious the entire time she spent in his room. The proprieties must be observed, though when she returned home no one would know whether or not the door had been open or closed.

   She glanced back before stepping into the hall. He was a handsome man under the scruff of unshaven beard and pallor of his illness. His lean bone structure showed strength, and the dark beard added a sense of danger to his looks. His nose was strong but not overly long or narrow. His lips, though cracked from fever, were full and well formed.

   She had wondered about the color of his eyes, though she’d known better than to ask Edward. Men paid no attention to eye color. He’d have thought it strange for her to ask. She had no reason to care.

   But she had cared. Not so much the color, as their expression. She had wondered if they were sky blue and candid, chocolate brown and gentle, or slate gray and commanding. It made no sense, nor did it make any difference to his care.

   Now she had her answer. They were the color of aged sherry. Rich, clear golden brown, and their direct gaze had made her feel as light-headed as did too much actual sherry. When he asked about her injury, his gaze had reflected concern for her, though the taut skin around his eyes revealed his own pain.

   Still a bit unsettled by Edward’s revelations to the major, Elizabeth descended the stairs to drawing room where Uncle Aubrey and Cousin Edward played chess while Aunt Poppy knitted her latest project for the less fortunate.

   “The major is awake.”

   Uncle Aubrey rose and came to her side. His brow furrowed and his dark eyes studied her as if looking for new injury. “He is rational? Are you alright?”

   “Yes, he is quite aware.” It was clear her uncle still had qualms about allowing her to keep watch over the major who’d reacted with such violence when she’d inadvertently bumped his injured leg. “He apologized when he realized what happened.”

   Edward looked up from his chair by the fire. “His fever has broken? He is no longer violent?”

Edward’s lean frame reflected the deprivations of the battlefield, and Elizabeth marveled at how much he had matured in the year he’d been away.

    “He is lucid. He asked if we could remove the restraints.” Her uncle’s frown deepened and she added, “I think we should.”

   He and Edward looked at each other before Uncle Aubrey said, “I’ll speak with him myself.” He patted her shoulder. “Edward assures me he is a most charming man when in his right mind. If his mind is clear we’ll make him as comfortable as possible.”

   He left the room, and Elizabeth turned her attention back to her cousin. They were so fortunate that he had not suffered the same fate as Major Warleigh… or worse. The major’s injury occurred a fortnight after Edward’s removal from the battlefield, but the logistics of transporting wounded men to port had caused them to be sent home on the same ship. Then, storms had doubled the time for their return journey, and the major’s wound festered until the surgeon was forced to remove the leg.

   Guilt stabbed her when she gave thanks it was not Edward who’d suffered the trauma of amputation, especially as the major had saved Edward’s life during the battle that had sent Edward home. But, bad as the break to Edward’s leg had been, it had not festered, and the surgeon assured them that after another month in splints and several more with a cane, Edward would suffer no more than a slight limp.

   She was glad her aunt and uncle had insisted the major be removed from the overworked conditions of the Portsmouth hospital and cared for by a private physician along with Edward. She was glad they had written to ask for her to assist in his care.

   Elizabeth sat beside her aunt on the settee. Since Edward’s return, and witnessing the condition of the men who passed through the Royal Hospital at Portsmouth, Aunt Poppy had begun knitting furiously and sending socks and lap robes to the wards as quickly as she finished them. At the moment she knitted something gray and bulky.

   “Someone will be warm this winter,” Elizabeth commented.

   “Yes, indeed,” her aunt replied. “I had no idea those poor soldiers had so few comforts. I have written to my friends about improving things for our brave men.”

   Elizabeth turned to Edward. “Has there been no word from the major’s family? Surely they would want him to recover at home.”

   “I don’t believe they had been informed of his wounds until Father wrote his brother that we moved him here. It’s too soon to expect a response. Not that it matters at this point. He is far too ill to travel long distances, and his family home is much farther north.” He shifted his splinted leg on the footstool again, then gave her a crooked smile. “Though I don’t believe the major will be in a hurry to go home.”

   “Are he and his family estranged?” It dismayed her when families lived in conflict. No matter what Edward might have told his comrades about her and her sisters, she knew her relatives loved her, though society did not. She would feel quite abandoned if she did not have family to rely on.

   Edward frowned. “I believe he and his brother were close as boys, but the major will not like being dependent upon his brother’s benevolence, no matter how necessary or kindly meant. He is used to giving commands and being obeyed. He will not be in command there.”