SOMEONE TO HONOR
Lieutenant Colonel Gil Bennington has accompanied his friend, Major Harry Westcott, home to England from Paris and has agreed to stay with him for a while as Harry continues his long recovery from wounds sustained during the Napoleonic wars. Despite his high military rank, Gil is not by birth a gentleman and tries to stay out of the way as much as he can when Harry’s aristocratic family descends upon him from London and Bath in order to welcome him home. Gil is outside beside the stable, chopping wood when the first carriage arrives.
Abigail, Harry’s sister, is in that carriage with her mother and stepfather and stepsister and stepbrother. But when she sees Harry on the steps outside the house, thin and haggard, she is upset and hurries off alone to compose herself before entering the house. When she encounters Gil, she is shocked and indignant to see an apparent servant so close to the house and shamelessly shirtless. She is further flustered when his dog appears to be about to attack her. She scolds Gil and threatens to report him to Harry.
Their relationship begins in this unpromising way. Neither likes the other, and neither is willing to try to do so. But the time comes when Gil needs Abigail’s help in order to recover the young daughter who was taken from his home while he was away fighting at the Battle of Waterloo. Whether or not Abigail can overcome her misgivings in order to grant that help will determine the future course of both their lives.
Abigail and Gil meet for the first time.
Abigail, traveling with her back to the horses, turned to look behind her toward the house. They had been spotted. She could see Alexander and Avery out on the terrace, and a tall, thin, frail-looking man at the top of the steps just outside the front door, his hand on the rail.
“Oh, dear God,” her mother said. “Harry.”
And then there was all the flurry of their arrival and descent from the carriage. There were hugs and handshakes and inquiries and the barking of a dog from the direction of the stables and the sound of an axe chopping wood—and Harry remaining at the top of the steps, looking down at them, neither smiling nor frowning. Abigail wondered foolishly if she would have recognized him if she had passed him on a crowded street in London.
She was the first up the steps to touch his arm—she was afraid to hug him—and gaze earnestly into his face.
“Harry,” she said. “Welcome home.”
“Abby,” he said, a smile hovering on his lips before she gave way to their mother, who showed none of Abigail’s reluctance to gather him into her arms and burst into tears.
Suddenly Abigail found that she could not stay to watch. Neither could she step past her brother to go inside the house, where they would all follow within minutes, the turmoil and bright cheer of their arrival continuing. She needed some air before she fainted. She made her way back down to the terrace, waved away Marcel, who was looking at her in some concern, and turned away in the direction of the stables.
She just needed to walk for a minute or two to clear her head, she told herself as she hurried along, and give herself the courage to look at Harry again without dissolving into tears as her mother had just done, or—worse—fainting. The carriage had pulled away to the carriage house at the far side of the stables. The dog she had heard earlier was over there somewhere too, objecting loudly to its arrival or perhaps welcoming it. The sound of the axe grew louder.
And then she saw the man—groom or gardener—who was using it. He was beside the stable block, tackling a large pile of logs, which he was reducing to wedges of firewood on a chopping block. There was a sizable pile of them, neatly stacked, beside him. But it was not the wood that caught her shocked attention and stopped her in her tracks.
It was the man.
He was naked above the waist. Below the waist his breeches hugged narrow hips and long, powerfully muscled legs more like a second skin than a garment. Leather boots, old and scuffed, looked as though they must have been molded to his calves. Muscles rippled in his arms and shoulders and along his back as he wielded the axe. His dark hair curled damply at the nape of his neck.
Abigail swallowed and would have moved on, unseen and horribly embarrassed, if a huge shaggy monster of a creature, which she did not immediately identify as a dog, had not suddenly erupted from behind the stables and come dashing straight for her, barking ferociously. She did not scream. But she did remain anchored to the spot as she raised her arms protectively before her face and whimpered or wailed or pleaded for mercy—truth to tell, when she looked back later she could not recall exactly what sounds she had made, if any. Something humiliatingly abject, no doubt. But just as she expected the animal to leap for her throat, a deep voice issued a command.
Beauty sat, and Abigail could see that the creature was indeed a dog, a huge lump of a creature with a shaggy grayish white coat, which hung even over its eyes and mouth, almost obscuring them. Its front legs were long, its rump wide and somewhat lopsided. It sat with erect ears, one of which flopped over at the tip, a lolling, panting pink tongue, and a tail that thumped the ground. Abigail dared not move lest the order to sit be forgotten in the dog’s eagerness to attack.
“She will not harm you,” the man said, reading her thoughts or perhaps her body language. “She looks upon every stranger as a potential new friend.”
Abigail switched her attention from the dog to the man without moving her head. He had straightened up and turned to face her, revealing himself as a tall, powerfully built man, the muscles of his chest and abdomen, which she could see almost to his navel, well-defined. His eyes were as dark as his hair, one lock of which hung over his forehead. His face was dark-complexioned, his features angular and harsh, his expression forbidding. Both his face and his body were badly scarred. Indeed, the facial scar slashed across one cheek, down over his chin, and along part of his neck before proceeding across the whole width of his shoulder. He bore himself very upright. His large hands were clasped about the handle of the axe, which he held diagonally across his body. His body was glistening with sweat.
He looked like a fearfully dangerous man. Primitive. Magnificent. He was all raw masculinity. Abigail felt herself shudder inwardly.
He looked boldly back at her, his eyes quite frankly moving over her, as she supposed hers had been over him. And terror gave place to embarrassment—had she really wailed or whimpered and thrown up her arms to protect her face? And had he noticed? But how could he not have done? Was he laughing inwardly at her? Or, worse, feeling a sneering contempt at her terror of an apparently friendly dog? Embarrassment turned to indignation—at his near nakedness and at his boldness.
“Were you given permission to remove your coat and shirt?” she asked him. Too late she heard the primness in her voice.
He cocked one eyebrow.
“You are in full view of anyone who walks even a few steps from the house,” she said. “It is quite unseemly. Perhaps you have not been informed that Major Westcott has visitors and is expecting more. Including ladies. I shall report you to him and see to it that he has a word with the your supervisor.”
Belatedly it occurred to her that she ought to have had that word with Harry without actually scolding the man himself. She did not usually take it upon herself to berate servants. But she was feeling ruffled and hot-cheeked, and he was still standing there looking steadily at her.
“Beauty,” he said, “heel.”
The dog, without having moved from the spot where it had sat when commanded to do so, had nevertheless being trying, without success, to stretch its neck far enough to lick her hand. It rose immediately, loped with ungainly gait toward the man, its tail waving, its ears flopping, and stood close beside him, rubbing itself against the outside of his leg. He removed one hand from the axe handle in order to fondle its head and scratch it behind one ear while the dog gazed up at him with a silly look of worshipful bliss on its face. All the while the man did not remove his eyes from Abigail.
Insolent man, she thought, and just stopped herself from saying so aloud. He must be a new addition to the staff. He had not been employed here when she left with her mother. Perhaps he was a soldier discharged from his duties after the wars came to an end two years ago. His scars would certainly bear out that theory. And he looked savage. She could almost imagine him hacking and carving his way through enemy lines with that axe, the blood-lust high in him. It was a thought she did not wish to pursue.
“Beauty?” she said, looking down at the dog.
“Irony,” the man said.
She was surprised he even knew the meaning of the word. But an uglier, less suitably named dog she had never beheld.
She turned without another word and made her way back to the house. At least the incident had taken her mind off the shock she had felt at first seeing Harry. For a brief moment in the carriage she had wondered who that frail old man at the top of the steps was.
From the direction of the stables the sound of the axe being wielded resumed.
* * * * *
Gil had always found chopping wood to be an enjoyable form of exercise. He had never considered it a chore. It was also a productive way to work off frustrations and irritations and downright anger. The stack of chopped wood and the pile of kindling grew in direct proportion to the shrinking of the pile of logs. The axe felt nicely balanced in his hands, and it had a good, fine edge on it—one he had put there himself earlier over the horrified protests of Harry’s head groom. The man had been even more flustered when he had realized that Lieutenant Colonel Bennington intended to chop the wood piled at one side of the stable block.
What he would really like to do, Gil thought, was borrow one of the horses from the stables and ride off into the sunset never to return. What lay in the direction of the sunset he did not know, but it would not matter. He wanted to be away from here, off by himself somewhere while he sorted out where exactly to take his life next, something he had avoided doing for far too long. When his lawyer had instructed him to do nothing, he had surely not meant nothing at all. But the only thing Gil wanted to do was charge off to General Pascoe’s house and lay about him with voice and fists and righteous fury until he had his daughter in his arms and could make off for Rose Cottage with her—a daughter no doubt consumed by a terror sufficient to scar her for life. His frustration would not be so close to the breaking point, he felt, if Grimes were only moving his case along at a speed something above that of a lame tortoise. It was, however, the speed he believed all lawyers employed, so there was little point in tearing off to London to dismiss him and hire another.
He would not ride off, then. Besides, Harry needed him here. Gil put the blame for his friend’s deplorable condition squarely upon his physicians and surgeons. Their idea of treating a man who had lain in a near coma for six months, horribly wounded, and who had needed surgery not long after that was to feed him soft, tasteless foods forever after and keep him in bed or confined to a deep chair in an airless room with curtains drawn tight across the windows. Their idea to fight the fevers he still suffered was to bleed him. And their plan to rebuild his strength was to limit his exercise to the daily walk to the dining room to eat his jellies and watery mashed potatoes and soups so thin they might as well have been dishwater. Their theory appeared to be that any exertion on his part would use energy that needed to be stored until he was full enough of it again to resume normal life. Most of them spoke of that day in the way they might have spoken of the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. As something that would never happen, in other words.
The doctors were idiots, the pack of them. Gil chopped through one particularly hard, thick log as though it were butter and turned one portion of it on edge to reduce it to smaller pieces. He had taken charge and arranged to bring his friend home. Now he must stay with him, overseeing his recovery until Harry did not need him any longer but told him to go to hell. Family be damned. Some of them were here already—he had heard the carriage approaching and seen it make its way past to the carriage house even before the woman appeared as though from nowhere—and apparently there were more to come. He could wait them out. After a few days or a week at the longest they would surely grow bored of cooing and clucking over their invalid and return to their balls and routs in London before the Season was over.
That woman would go with them. It could not be soon enough for him.
His axe made short work of the segment of log and he lifted another to take its place on the block.
That woman was all soft, delicate feminine beauty and vaporish terror of an ungainly softie of a dog like Beauty. No creature of the canine world had ever been farther from ferocity than the one now stretched out beside him a safe distance from the flashing blade, napping because for the moment there was no play afoot and no chance of a good fur ruffling or ear scratching.
She—the woman, that was—had been terror personified for a few moments, cringing and whining and begging for mercy. And then she had looked at him as though she had never seen a half naked man before—as perhaps she had not—and had become all stiff, aristocratic hauteur. She had probably mistaken him for a servant. Undoubtedly she had, in fact. She had asked if he had been given permission to remove his shirt and had warned him that she would report him to Harry. But if she had thought he was a servant, what the devil had she been doing giving him a good looking over before informing him that it was unseemly for him to appear thus before her?
She would probably have fainted dead away if he had taken so much as one step toward her.
Which member of Harry’s family was she? He did not know much about them except that Harry had briefly been the Earl of Riverdale, head of the Westcott family, and that they had all stuck by him and his mother and sisters after the discovery was made that the old earl’s marriage to the mother was bigamous. The story had made Gil quite happy that he had never had any family at all.
Was the haughty, wilting beauty one of the sisters? Gil felt nothing but irritation and contempt for her, whoever she was. Though he was perhaps being a bit unfair. Actually, there was no perhaps about it. She had had no way of knowing what a softie Beauty was, after all, and the dog’s size could be intimidating to strangers. And perhaps she really had not seen a man without his shirt before. Many ladies, as he knew from experience, were brought up in near seclusion with very little exposure to the realities of life and the world. He could not for the life of him understand the reasoning behind it, but there it was.
He should perhaps have disabused the woman of her assumption that he was a servant. At the very least he ought to have laid down the axe and pulled on his shirt and made himself look marginally decent. Was it sheer perversity that he had done neither?
He did not like women.
Which fact did not excuse him from boorishness.
It also made him seem peevish.
He straightened up in order to stretch his back and roll his shoulders. He wondered if Harry would insist upon introducing him to his newly arrived family members and expect him to dine with them. But of course he would. Gil was, after all, Lieutenant Colonel Bennington, a gentleman’s title even if he was not a gentleman.
It was time, he decided, to go indoors, preferably through a side door, and wash up. He cleaned the axe and hung it in its accustomed place in the tackle room before gathering up his shirt and coat while Beauty wagged her tail and looked hopeful.
Beauty had her way.
Before he had taken one step in the direction of the house, his ears picked up the sound of another carriage approaching along the driveway. He cursed aloud, pulled on his shirt and coat in a manner that would have given any self-respecting valet a fit of the vapors, and took his dog for a walk.