Highcliff Village, England 1815
Amelia stopped outside the milliner’s and stared across the dusty village street. On the other side of the road, a man lay sprawled face down in the gutter, his dark head turned away from her, one hand stretched out as though he was reaching for someone or something. For one horrible moment, she imagined it was Matthew.
“Don’t stare, dearest. It’s not ladylike.”
She turned to her aunt who was looking remarkably flustered.
“Why can’t I stare? He’s hardly in any state to harm us.”
Aunt Betty brought out her handkerchief to dab daintily at her nose. “He is probably drunk and deserves his fate. I’m so tired of seeing all these soldiers returning from the wars and loitering in our streets. Now, let’s go into the shop and find a new trim for your bonnet.”
The sun emerged from behind the sullen clouds and glinted on something bright on the man’s arm. Ignoring the shrill warnings of her aunt, Amelia crossed the muddy thoroughfare and, heedless of the state of her gown, knelt down beside the unmoving man.
He was, as she had suspected, a soldier. His military colors, faded by harsher climates than those of England, were ragged from repeated washing. A solitary scrap of gold lace gleamed on his arm, but the rest of the evidence of his rank and regiment had either been cut off or discarded.
Taking off her glove, Amelia felt the man’s throat and detected the faint erratic pulse of his heartbeat. He was still alive, and he definitely wasn’t inebriated. She gently rolled him onto his back, but his eyes remained closed. His skin was quite tanned, but his cheeks were hollow and his lips parched. She touched his forehead, which was burning hot.
“Amelia! Not again.”
Her aunt’s voice finally penetrated her senses, and she glanced back over her shoulder to see Betty waving violently and almost dancing on the spot with agitation.
“Come away, dear, before anyone sees you!” Amelia wondered what anyone could complain about as she did her Christian duty, but her aunt was frightened of gossip and lived in terror of being the subject of it.
But she couldn’t leave the man lying there. She just couldn’t…
Rising to her feet, she crossed back over the deserted street to her aunt. “I’ll need to ask Jem at the inn if I can borrow his cart. Do you wish to walk home by yourself, or will you accompany me and the soldier?”
“You can’t mean to bring him into our home?”
“I don’t know what else to do with him, Aunt Betty. He’ll die if I leave him there.”
“But what about asking the vicar to help us? Or Lady Thurrock?”
Amelia held her aunt’s flustered gaze. “I’d like to help him myself. I have the necessary skills.”
“All right, then,” Betty huffed. “I’ll go and ask Jem for the cart while you keep an eye on your patient.”
“You are a true Christian, Aunt Betty.”
“Oh, go on with you.” Her lace cap strings blowing in the breeze, Betty carried on up the High Street to the coaching inn at the corner.
Amelia returned to the unconscious man and studied him carefully. His face was badly bruised, but she could see no sign of any bleeding. He might be one of the thousands of soldiers who had been honorably discharged after Napoleon’s capture, or he might be a deserter. The lack of insignia on his coat indicated the latter, but Amelia didn’t care about that. Judging from the state of his tattered uni- form, he was still a soldier who had served his country, and he didn’t deserve to die in the street like a beggar.
She would take care of him and he would recover and be on his way, or he’d die in a soft, warm bed with someone to hold his hand and pray for his deliverance into the next world. She could at least give him that…
She looked up to see Jem grinning down at her from his cart. Aunt Betty sat beside him, her reticule on her knee and her skirts tucked tightly around her ankles.
“Jem, thank goodness. Can you help me get this man into your cart and take him to Dove Cottage?”
“Aye, that I can.” He climbed down off his high perch and studied the unconscious soldier. “If you’re sure you want me to, Mrs. Smith.”
“I’d rather not leave him here.”
Jem poked the body with the toe of his boot. “The parish will take him up if you leave him long enough. Sir Timothy don’t hold with bodies lying around in his village.”
“Then the quicker we get him to our cottage the better.” Amelia smiled at Jem. “I do so appreciate your help.”
He sighed and crouched down beside the soldier. “Then let’s get him in the back.”
It was only a ten-minute ride to the outskirts of the village and their small, neat cottage and garden. When they arrived, Jem picked up Amelia’s patient and strode toward the back door, startling the kitchen maid who was just coming out with a basket full of washing to hang on the line.
“Ooh, Mr. Harris, whatever do you have there?”
Jem winked at the young girl. “One of Mrs. Smith’s charity cases, young Dotty. Now which room should I put him in?”
After helping Betty down from the cart, Amelia followed Jem to the back door.
“In the guest bedroom, please, Jem. It’s at the top of the stairs, first on the left.”
He stomped up the narrow staircase and managed to open the door without Amelia’s help. He laid his burden on the faded patchwork counterpane.
“There you are Mrs. Smith. He don’t look too well now, does he?”
“No he does not.”
“How many of these soldiers is that now you’ve tried to save? Four or is that five?”
“Five I think, but I can’t say I keep count.”
“You’re a remarkable woman, Mrs. Smith.”
She undid the plain blue ribbons of her bonnet, her attention on the soldier whose breathing was definitely worsening.
Jem cleared his throat. “I’ll be off then.”
She tore her gaze away from the bed and smiled at the innkeeper. “Thank you so much, Jem. How much do I owe you?”
He patted her shoulder as he went by her into the hallway. “I don’t reckon you owe me anything, Mrs. Smith. If you can help this man, then so can I.”
She clasped his work-roughened hand in hers. “Thank you, Jem.”
“You’re welcome, Mrs. Smith.”
He closed the door behind him, leaving her alone with the wounded soldier. Amelia dispensed with her cloak and gloves and rolled up her long sleeves to the elbow. After a swift glance at her patient, she went back down the stairs and into the kitchen where Dotty had set the kettle on to boil.
“Good girl,” Amelia said approvingly. “Bring some hot water and soap as soon as you can.”
“Will you need help to get him out of his clothes, Mrs. Smith?” Dotty asked, one eye on the cook who was busy rolling out pastry on the kitchen table.
“No, I think I can manage that.” She addressed the cook, “If you have time, Mrs. Gibbs, could you make some thin broth for our invalid?”
“Yes, of course, ma’am. When I’ve finished with this pigeon pie. I can use the bones.”
“Thank you both.”
Amelia took a pitcher of the cold well water and a cup and brought them up to the guest bedroom. Their little cottage had four bedrooms, one of which they used as a sewing room, and a row of attic rooms which housed Dotty, the kitchen maid. The cook lived in the village and came in daily.
Being so close to the south coast of England meant that soldiers had become a common sight in the village as they marched by in formation to get to the shipping ports or came back as their units were disbanded. Recently, there had been several thefts from gardens and the local hen population had mysteriously declined, infuriating Sir Timothy Spendlow, the lord of the manor who had set his estate staff to patrolling the village boundaries as well as his lands.
Having lived with an army on the move, Amelia was fairly sure where the hens had ended up and not inclined to worry about it as much as Sir Timothy. When the government released unpaid soldiers who’d become used to foraging in a hostile country, they could hardly expect their behavior to change overnight.
Amelia set the jug of water down on the bedside table and closed the curtains against the unusually bright sunlight. Turning back to the bed, she began to ease the man out of his tattered regimental coat. He wore no stock or cravat, and his linen shirt was open at the neck and so frayed in places that the weave barely held together. Letting out a slow breath, she worked the buttons of his breeches free and eased out his shirt tails.
He didn’t stir as she drew his shirt over his head and laid him back down on the pillows. Her fingers lingered on his shoulder, cataloguing the scars of combat that marked his narrow frame. The roughness of the skin under her fingertips made her slide her fingers lower. She’d seen men being flogged. The marks were there for life and this man…this possible deserter carried them on his back.
Withdrawing her hand, she concentrated on his dusty boots, which, despite their age, fitted him like a glove and had to have been made for him. That didn’t sit well with her first assessment of him as a common soldier. She glanced back at his still face, the sooty sweep of his long eyelashes and the autocratic beak of his nose. A gentleman deserter? Surely not…
She managed to get his boots off and then his stockings, which were heavily darned in several shades of wool. His stained breeches were good quality buckskin and a little too large, but she assumed he’d lost a considerable amount of weight.
A tap at the door brought Dotty with a bowl of hot water and some of the best lavender soap.
“Thank you,” Amelia whispered. Dotty’s curious gaze rested on the expanse of the soldier’s naked chest before she scurried away.
Amelia removed the man’s breeches and then drew a sheet over his nakedness as he shivered with the rising fever. She washed his face, letting the water trickle into his black hair and onto the old pillowcase. Not a handsome man, the lines bracketing his mouth and nose bespoke of a hardness she’d seen all too often in long-term military men.
She moved lower, wiping the dirt from his neck, shoulders and chest, revealing more evidence of minor wounds as she washed away the layers of dirt. From the circular scars around his wrists, she had a horrible suspicion he’d been shackled at some point. Apart from those distinctive scars, his arms were muscled and his fin- gernails were short and ragged. She cleaned his palm and stilled as his long fingers closed around her wrist.
“Donde estoy?” he whispered.
Amelia studied him carefully. Why was he speaking Spanish when he was dressed as an English soldier? She squeezed his hand and tried to remember the correct response.
“No te preocupes. Aqui estas a salvo.”
Would that be enough to reassure him? That he was not to worry, and that she would keep him safe? It seemed to work. His grip loosened, and he relaxed against the mattress sliding back into oblivion.
Amelia continued washing him until she reached his long elegant feet and was able to pat him dry. His ankles bore the scars of shackles, too. He wasn’t as tall as her deceased husband, but then Matthew had been something of a giant. She guessed her patient was around six feet in height.
Another knock at the door had her bringing the sheet back up to his neck. Aunt Betty came in carrying her basket of medicinal remedies.
“How is he, dearest?”
“He’s clean. That’s all I’ve accomplished so far.” She touched his forehead and frowned. “I think we should try to bring his fever down. Do you have anything?”
Betty rummaged in her basket and produced a glass bottle. “This should help.”
Amelia mixed the dose with some water and slid an arm around the man’s shoulders to raise his head off the pillow.
“Drink.” He murmured something and arched away from her, bringing his unshaven cheek against her bosom. “Beber esta.”
She managed to trickle the liquid into the corner of his mouth and he swallowed and then took more as if his body craved water even in unconsciousness.
“What did you say to him, Amelia?” Betty asked.
“I spoke in Spanish. It’s the only language he appears to understand.”
“How peculiar.” Betty peered at their patient through her spectacles. “He doesn’t look foreign.”
“He doesn’t, does he? But perhaps he stole the uniform from a British soldier and ended up being sent here with the regiment accidentally.”
“Your imagination is boundless, Amelia. Maybe he’s been on the continent for so long that he’s forgotten both his manners and the King’s English. It does hap- pen.” She lowered her voice. “Look at all those soldiers in India who go native.”
“Perhaps he was a spy posing as a Spaniard and is still protecting his identity?” Amelia theorized. “That would make more sense.”
“The British don’t use spies, love. We leave that to the French and their despicable allies.”
Amelia knew that wasn’t true, but she was more than happy to let her aunt keep her illusion that the great and mighty British army was somehow above such sordid matters. “No matter who or what he is, I’ll sit with him for a while and keep offering him sips of water. I’ll call you if he gets worse.”
Betty nodded and then gingerly bent down to pick up the pile of discarded clothing.
“Don’t throw any of that away, will you?” Amelia reminded her. “He might not appreciate it. Ask Dotty if anything can be saved, washed or mended.”
“I’ll ask her. I suppose you’ll want your dinner up here on a tray?”
“If it wouldn’t be too much trouble.”
Her aunt kissed her forehead. Amelia knew that now the man was settled in Dove Cottage, Betty considered him her patient and would do anything to help him. “Not at all, my dear. I’ll send Dotty up with it later, and she can bring some gruel for our wounded soldier, too.”
Amelia sighed. “I’ll fetch my work basket. I have plenty of mending to keep me busy.”
She took the chair beside the fireplace, then opened the curtains a crack so that the light fell on her rather than the bed. The man lay more quietly now, his breathing deepening as the medicine started to reduce his fever. When she raised her head from her work, she could see him quite clearly without moving from her chair.
She considered his finely etched profile and ragged beard as she made tiny stitches in a tear in her second best petticoat. He was something of a mystery and she had always loved solving puzzles. Curiosity, as her mother had always warned her, was her downfall and had led to her current restricted life in a small, obscure village by the sea. But she wouldn’t change anything about her current existence. For everything she had lost, she had gained a hundred new experiences.
Until Matthew had died, leaving her alone.
Amelia took a deep breath and shook off her melancholy thoughts. Her husband would be horrified if he could see her now, but she was at least attempting to leave behind her grief and move forward. And now she had a mystery to solve and a patient to set on the road to recovery. She would count her blessings, darn her petticoat and be thankful.