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Gabrielle Hampshire falls in love with Jonathan Briercliff, her rescuer, after her aunt’s murderers try to kill her. A nun, torn between her vows and secularism, fights a losing battle with passions drawing her and Jonathan together. Then his horrible deceit surrounding her father’s death, tears them apart—until he is falsely imprisoned and she faces the worst nightmare decision of her life.
Near a small village Southwest of Dover
The cloudy day and swirling fogs cast a somber mood as Jonathan kept his horse moving at a slow gait while Tandy followed behind the bouncing wagon. One could barely see five feet in front of them as the mists boiled in over the great chalk bluffs from the sea. Traveling was as slow as a snail’s pace since neither Tandy nor Jonathan were comfortably familiar with the road.
Suddenly, something caught Jonathan’s attention.
“What the bloody devil is that?” Jonathan retorted, barely able to make out the dark apparition alongside the road in a deep gully. He pulled up on the reins, drawing the horse to a standstill. He peered into the thick fog, unable to discern the fog-shrouded object through the cloudy haze.
“Tandy, look at that,” Jonathan called, pointing to the large apparition-like object lying on the deep wayside of the road.
“What can it be?” Tandy questioned, peering through the white mists. He nudged his horse closer to the edge of the road and strained his eyes to make out the dark shape. “Tis’ an overturned coach, Cap’n. Do ye’ think someone might still be in it?”
“Only one way to find out,” Jonathan said, hopping down to the ground from the driver’s box seat. He hurried to the side of the road, slipping and sliding down the steep incline where the coach lay belly up. No animals were in sight, probably gaining their freedom during the accident and running off.
Down the slope where the coach lay in the gully, Jonathan could easily see why it had overturned. Its front right wheel had come off. The driver lay crushed beneath the coach, obviously thrown overboard before the conveyance rolled down the slope on top of him. Jonathan checked the man’s pulse, and seeing he was beyond help, he struggled to his knees.
Tandy scrambled down the hill behind him. “Is the driver alive, Cap’n?”
“No, the coach crushed him. Looks like a front wheel came off.”
“Is anyone inside?” Tandy asked, trying to peer into a window from a crouched position.
Jonathan crouched down next to Tandy and looked inside. He could see a lifeless form crumpled and abused by the accident. “It’s a woman, Tandy. I’ll try and raise the coach while you get the door open.”
Placing his hands on the side, he pushed the heavy coach with all his strength, barely raising it enough for Tandy to jerk open the door. Inside, they saw the still figure of a woman sprawled in a topsy-turvy fashion. One leg appeared bent at a precarious angle.
She was dressed in a heavy black garment with a white gorget around the neck and shoulders, and a wimple worn around her head framing her face. Jonathan touched his finger to the pulse on her neck and felt a slow rhythmic beat. “She’s alive, Tandy. I’m going to get her out. Stand by, mate.”
Reaching inside, he grasped her beneath her arms and dragged her from the coach. He raised her shoulders until she was lying back against his arm and shoulder. He gazed at her a moment, seeing a lovely oval face inside a nun’s habit. A small reticule hung on her arm by a drawstring.
He felt her pulse again, noticing it beat rhythmically and strong. Blood trickled down her cheek from beneath her head covering, and when Jonathan removed it, the nun’s short-cropped hair startled him. Cut close to the scalp, Gabriel’s head must have been shaved at one time. She looked like a tiny pixie, her lovely face hardly marred by the harsh haircut.
Jonathan ran his hand over her head, discovering a huge fractured bump where blood oozed. He searched the lovely oval face, the sharp cheekbones, the short straight nose, the gentle arch of her brown brows, and the porcelain skin that was as pure and unblemished as a newborn babe’s was.
Tandy was peering over Jonathan’s shoulder. “Tis’ a little thing, Cap’n, and pretty as a flower.”
“She’s beautiful,” Jonathan replied as he scooped her up in his arms. Beautiful, young, and innocent, he thought.
“Careful going up that steep hill,” Tandy called as Jonathan stepped in footholds to aid his ascent.
“She’s as light as a feather,” Jonathan replied, carrying her to the wagon where Tandy held her in place on the seat until Jonathan could climb up and cradle her against him in his arms.
With his horse tied behind the wagon, Tandy took the reins, whipping up the animal as fast as he dared in the thick fog.
A small painful groan rose from the nun’s lips as the bumpy road jarred her slender form uncomfortably. Jonathan glanced down to see her eyes closed and shielded by long brown lashes. He grasped her closer to him to offset the bumpy progress of the wagon, her slender body like a lifeless rag doll melting limply against him.
“What do we ‘av there?” Nell asked, from the front door of Hampshire House. George, the butler, looked over his wife’s shoulder.
“She was in a coach accident. We’ll put her in my room for now. Clean another room and put my things in it,” Jonathan commanded, finding the two servants extremely lacking in their duties, as indicated by the unkempt manor.
Lord Hampshire had lost his initiative to oversee his property, letting the estate dwindle to ill disrepair, and thus setting a bad example for the servants. The giant stone mansion that once boasted greatness and grandeur in its glory now wallowed in ruin and deterioration. It held little resemblance to the stateliness it once boasted.
“Tandy, take George with you and tend to the dead driver. Notify the coach depot, and fetch the doctor and the nun’s luggage.
He carried the limp body inside and up the stairs, placing her on the bed.
With Nell’s help, they undressed the little nun down to her chemise.
“She has to be checked for injuries,” Jonathan told Nell.
Nell backed away a step and frowned. “I have no training fer’ sech’. I wouldn’t know a broken bone if it wuz’ sticking out of the skin.”
Jonathan’s shoulders tensed with disapproval. Guarding his tone, he said, “I’ll need warm water and bandages for her head wound.”
Nell hurried away.
Sucking in a quick intake of air as his eyes moved over angelic loveliness, Jonathan made a quick examination for injuries, running his hands over soft, smooth surfaces. The slender nun was exquisite, her skin like alabaster, her soft curves molded to perfection. He checked the leg found nearly folded beneath her in the coach and was satisfied it wasn’t broken.
Gently he turned her to one side so he could check her back for injuries, pulling the chemise up high enough to allow a clear inspection. Seeing no more than a few ugly bruises, he decided there were no remarkable signs of injury. He lowered her again to her back. He touched his fingers to her ribs, sliding over the lean surface to find none broken. Taking one last lingering look at feminine perfection, Jonathan quickly pulled the sheet over her body.
Nell returned and set the warm water, bandages, and an odd assortment of salves and ointments on a table.
“I couldn’t find a nightshirt for her,” she said. Stepping over to a bureau drawer, she pulled out one of Jonathan’s shirts and handed him. “Tis’ a bit big, but will do, I ken.”
“It’ll do,” Jonathan replied.
“If ye’ don’t need me, m’lord, I’ll get started cleaning the room next door”
“Open some windows and air the place out,” Jonathan suggested, noticing the dusty, mildew smells throughout the house.
“As ye’ wish, m’lord,” Nell replied. Glancing at the young woman burrowed in the depression of the feather mattress as still as death, she turned and left.
Jonathan wet a washcloth in the pan of warm water. Gently, he dabbed it on the huge knot on her head, the chestnut brown hair only a couple of inches long and giving her a pixie look. He cleaned away the dried blood on her head and cheek, and left a cool compress on the wound. Lifting her off the pillow, he removed the chemise, and then slid the shirt over her shoulders. He had never seen a more lovely sight on any other woman. Her plush young breasts were round and made for a man’s hands. He felt a strong surge of desire. He straightened the too-large shirt about her, and rolled the sleeves up to her elbows.
Lifting one of the slender hands, he paused, noting broken blisters on her palms and rough calluses. He wondered at the activity capable of damaging her hands so badly.
Wetting another cloth, he gently touched it across her warm forehead, and ran his hand over her short-cropped brown hair. Even with the abused hair, her natural loveliness made her the most gorgeous woman Jonathan had ever seen.
“Who are you beautiful lady?” he asked softly while he stood gazing down at her. Remembering the reticule, he took it and loosened the drawstring. Reaching inside, he lifted what appeared to be a folded letter. The envelope contained an address to Gabrielle Hampshire at a convent he knew to be near Paris.
“Gabrielle Hampshire” he whispered, mulling over the name that seemed entirely familiar. Then it hit him.
A shock of recognition seized Jonathan. The nun must be Lord Hampshire’s daughter.
Jolted by this realization, Jonathan puzzled over the implications. He gazed distantly off into space, turning to a thoughtful mood. Why was Hampshire’s daughter here?
Rolling his tightened shoulders to relieve the tense muscles, he took the letter from the envelope and started reading:
Dear Sister Gabrielle,
It is with a sad heart that I must inform you that your loving father, Lord Charles Hampshire, is dead, and laid to rest beside your dearly beloved mother. At the time of this letter, the circumstances surrounding his death have not been determined, but we know he was shot and killed over a card game. As other information becomes clear to me, I will make it available to you.
Since you are the only surviving kin, it is imperative that you decide what to do about your father’s estate. Your best choice might be to sell it. At the writing of this letter, an inventory of your father’s assets is not available. To my knowledge, Hampshire estate was still in his name at the time that I write this letter. As the executor of your father’s estate, I wait for your instructions on the matter.
Your humble servant,
Edward Collinwood, solicitor
Jonathan fell heavily into the chair next to the bed, staring at the silent young woman lying there. He could only guess the letter was posted before the whole story about the card game was known. Believing she had come into an inheritance, the little nun came at the earliest opportunity.
“I’ll be damned!” Jonathan hissed, realizing that on top of every other problem of late, this young woman presented yet another. He would have to be the bearer of bad news.
I killed your father after winning his estate in a hand of cards.
The mere thought of admitting to such folly troubled him. With a strong sense of shame and guilt, as though he had perpetrated and committed a horrible sin against the nun, he cursed his insufferable conscience.
He checked the remaining contents of the reticule before putting the letter back. There were only a few meager coins in a tiny compartment, hardly enough to get her back to where she came from. It occurred to him that she might intend remaining at the estate.
“Holy Saints,” he whispered beneath his breath. “Surely, she isn’t planning on staying here.”
His problems were multiplying.
He had nearly been killed in a card game, had killed Lord Hampshire, had won an unproductive estate costing a fortune in back taxes, had gained a manor deteriorating and crumbling into ruins, and now, on top of all else, he had a sick young woman who thought she owned the miserable rock pile.
He shook his head, thinking Collinwood might have had the decency to tell him Hampshire had a daughter whom he sent a letter to before learning of the disposition of the estate. Jonathan had been in the man’s office for the past three days, off and on, and he hadn’t made single mention of the daughter.
Jonathan decided he would address the issue with Collinwood the first chance he got.
* * * *
Jonathan heard horse’s hooves outside, and went to the door. George came from the wagon with a small badly worn bag clutched in his hand. “Where are her trunks, George? Didn’t you bring them?” Jonathan asked frowning.
George shook his head sheepishly. “This is all I could find, yer’ lordship. The lady didn’t ‘ave trunks.”
“No trunks! The devil you say! That tiny bag can’t possibly hold more than a change of clothing.”
“Yes, Sir, I believe ye’’re right, m’ lord.”
“Well, let me have it.” He turned to go, then remembering, he called over his shoulder. “She’ll need food, maybe a strong broth until she wakes up and can take solid food. You will find what you need in the supplies I brought. There’s also tea and coffee.”
“Yes, m’lord, I’ll see to it. We took the dead driver to the sheriff as ye’ said. They sent word to the coach line who’ll be sending someone fer’ the coach. Had a time, we did, getting the driver from beneath it. Doc Tarver should be along shortly. He had another patient to see first.”
Tandy tied the horse to a hitching rail before he joined Jonathan. “Cap’n, I looked at the coach wheel and it was tampered with. Someone purposely loosened the bolts so it would come off. Why would anyone do that?”
Jonathan was thoughtful. He shook his head. “You got me, Tandy. I see no reason why anyone would want to hurt the passenger. Perhaps someone held a grudge against the driver, or even the coach line.”
Tandy shook his head. “Maybe so, but mark me word, somebody wanted that wheel to run off. I spoke to a few folks at the coach depot. The young man who worked inside the depot said he noticed the nun waiting for coach to arrive. He said he saw a man and woman who seemed unusually interested in the young nun, and seemed purposely to remain out of her sight.
“Sounds rather suspicious, doesn’t it?” Jonathan asked.
“Does to me, too,” Tandy replied. “The depot attendant said when the coach arrived, the driver went into the inn to quench his thirst, and the man watching the nun disappeared on the other side of the coach.”
“Did you get the man’s description?”
“None that doesn’t describe half the men in England.”
“Tall, medium weight, chestnut hair. He said the only distinguishing mark was a deep scar on the man’s chin.”
Something clicked in Jonathan’s memory. He vaguely recalled seeing such a scar, but he couldn’t put a face to the memory. “That’s not much to go on. It could be just about anyone. Keep your eyes open when you travel to Dover or go to the village.”
“That I’ll do, Cap’n,” Tandy replied, taking the horses out to the stable where he had set up quarters for himself in the small tack room.
Jonathan held the small bag containing the nun’s clothing. Its weight was a mere few pounds, maybe four or five, hardly heavy enough to contain much clothing. He glanced inside to find that much of the weight came from a Bible.
Going up the stairs to her room, he put the bag next to the wardrobe. He glanced at her lovely, pale face. Lowering himself to the chair next to her bed, he puzzled over what he would do if the nun remained in her comatose state. He also wondered what he would do when she woke up.
The thought did cross his mind that he could simply return Hampshire estate to her, ride to Dover, board his ship, and sail away from all these uninvited problems.
Yet, he knew she didn’t have funds to put the estate back on its feet. Moreover, what would happen to the tenants and their skinny, hungry little children clothed in rags, and living a day-to-day existence without hope of anything better?
Leaning back in his chair with his eyes closed, Nell interrupted his thoughts with a soft tap on the door. She brought Jonathan a cup of coffee, a commodity that had been rising in demand by the British and imported from countries in Central and South America, and in Africa.
Jonathan raised his head, turning toward her, the aroma smelling wonderful. Nell placed it on the table beside him.
“M’lord, I found some clothing that once belonged to Lady Hampshire,” she announced. “It was in an old trunk stored in a room not used for years. The clothing needs laundering, but I’m sure we might find some things the young nun can use.”
“That’s good, Nell. See to it.”
“Yes, m’lord, right away. The room next door is clean and ready fer’ ye’’ Your Lordship, and I’ve started cleaning another one. Be there anything else ye’’ need?”
“Bring some broth for the young woman.”
“Do ye’ knower name, m’lord?”
“She is Lady Gabrielle Hampshire. Lord Charles Hampshire was her father.”
* * * *
Jonathan woke when George announced Doc Tarver. A glance at the aging man showed a head of gray hair, a tired and weary face, and a stooped back with bent shoulders. His gait was quick though, as he walked across the floor to the foot of the bed, gazing at the patient.
“Banged up in the overturned coach, your man said. Let’s have a look,” he suggested, going to the side of the bed. “I don’t suppose you remember me?” he asked Jonathan.
“I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure, Doc. I’m Jonathan Briercliff.”
“I’m Doc Tarver,” he said, lifting Gabrielle’s limp wrist. “Good strong pulse,” he noted. “Did you notice any bumps or bruises?”
“I found a fractured bump on her head. She seems to be in well enough condition, otherwise.”
Doc Tarver looked at the bump on her head. “Did she wake up?”
“No, but she talked in her sleep.” Jonathan thought he’d heard Doc Tarver’s voice before, even though he was certain he had never met the man.
“Not much I can do for a head wound. Just have to let it take its course. There’s no way to know when she’ll wake up.”
“Is there a possibility she might not wake up?” Jonathan asked a bit anxiously.
“Anything’s possible. There’s no way to predict.”
He picked up her hand and turned it over in his palm. “I see you tended these, too. You could have saved me a trip. Looks like you’ve done about all anyone could do.”
“What do you suppose happened to her hands, Doc?”
“Looks like farmers’ hands, or involvement in heavy labors of one sort or another. So what’s your business?”
“I’m captain of the Seagull.”
“I’m told you won this place from Lord Hampshire in a card game. It’s not worth nearly losing yer’ life,” he stated, glancing at Jonathan while touching and probing Gabrielle for broken bones.
“Doc, if I could undo that night, you and I would likely never have met.”
“Do you know who this young woman is?”
“She’s Hampshire’s daughter.”
“I thought she might be. She looks a lot like her mother. I brought this young woman into the world m’self. Tis’ sad the way the family fell apart after Hampshire’s wife died.”
He adjusted his spectacles and took a better look. “Tis’ so long ago I’d nearly forgotten her. Let’s see, I believe that would be about twenty, twenty-one years ago when she was born. Her father sent her away when she was a little girl.”
“Do you remember much about her when she was growing up, Doc?”
“Her mother and father doted on her. They loved her dearly. Then the mother died giving birth to a second child, a baby boy who died, too. Overnight, Lord Hampshire became a different person. Lost interest in everything and let the estate go to ruin until he had to sell off everything just to buy food and necessities. Then he started selling off those fine horses he raised, losing what money he made by gambling it away. The man started digging his grave the day his wife died. He was nothing like he once was. An aunt, the mother’s sister, took Gabrielle to Paris, I believe. She never came home after that, until now.”
“What do you suppose happened to the aunt?” Jonathan asked.
“Don’t rightly know. I never heard anything about Gabrielle after she left.”
He pulled the sheet up over Gabrielle’s shoulders, and lifted his medical satchel. “Well, I’m finished here. Get some broth and fluids into her, and keep her comfortable. Not much else you can do. Send for me if you need me. I’ll see myself out.”
He took Jonathan’s hand, clasping it briefly but warmly. Then he hurried on his way, thinking of his next stop.
Jonathan gazed at the milky white face, placed a finger on the tiny pulse below her jaw, and was satisfied his young patient would survive.
Impending Danger available at Amazon: http://short.ie/wvqwf4