An hour passed before she turned the horse toward home. Distracted by her thoughts, she’d ridden farther than she intended. The storm bank began moving swiftly with a fierce wind behind it. Forced to take the village road, she urged The General into a gallop.
Malforth Manor was still some miles away. She would be lucky to reach home before the storm hit. She eased the horse into a trot as they approached a sharp bend in the road, the way ahead hidden by a stand of elms.
Once around the corner, Hetty gasped and reined in her horse.
A man lay sprawled on the road.
Highwaymen tried this ruse she’d heard. She edged her horse closer and made a quick search of the landscape. A horse disappeared over a hill with its reins trailing. An accident then. Hetty dismounted but still approached the man with caution.
A gentleman. Beneath the open folds of his multi-caped greatcoat the brown coat revealed the skill of the tailor and the cream, double-breasted waistcoat looked to be of fine silk. Tight-fitting, buff-colored, suede pantaloons encased his long legs. His mud-splattered top boots showed evidence of loving care.
Barely a leaf stirred. It was oddly still, and the air seemed hushed and quiet as death before the coming storm. It matched her mood as she stood wondering what to do about the problem before her.
Hetty squatted beside him. “Are you all right, sir?”
When he failed to answer, she seized one broad, hard shoulder and attempted to roll him onto his back. Blood tricked from a nasty gash over his forehead and into his dark hair.
“Can you hear me, sir?”
His eyelids fluttered.
She shouldn’t stare at him while he remained unconscious, but she couldn’t draw her eyes away. His dark looks reminded her of a painting she’d seen of Lord Byron. More rugged perhaps, but an undeniably handsome face, his olive skin more tanned than one usually saw in an English winter. A hint of shadow darkened his strong jaw. She gingerly picked up his wrist and peeled back the suede leather glove, relieved that his pulse was strong. An expensive gold watch swung from its chain having escaped his pocket. Not robbed then. It was likely that he’d hit his head on a tree branch and knocked himself unconscious. But how did he come to be on the road?
A gust of chill wind caused a shiver, forcing her to take note of the sky. Ash-gray snow clouds hovered overhead. “I have to move you, sir.”
Hetty stood and looked around. The road ran along the boundary of the Fortescue estate. There was a small hut over the hill among the trees, used for storage and hunting. She used to peer inside when she roamed the woods, but she hadn’t been there for years and had no idea what state it was in now. The first icy flurries of snow drifted down, sending a shaft of urgency through her. What to do? Her godfather, Eustace, spent part of the year in the Fortescue mansion, Rosecroft Manor, but that was miles away.
The hut was the only option. But trying to get the man at her feet onto a horse would be almost impossible.
He was a big man, tall and muscular. Could she move him? She glanced at the deserted road with the hope that someone might come along to help. Unlikely for anyone to out in the storm. Unless it was the vicar, and she’d rather not meet him.
She might manage to drag him under a tree then ride for help. As she considered this, the snow grew heavier. It settled over the ground, and the prone man and touched her face with icy fingers. She couldn’t leave him out in the open, prey to the elements while she rode for help. She was halfway between home and Digswell village. By the time she rode in either direction, the man would be dead or certainly near to it. Somehow, she had to move him off the road and under shelter.
Hetty bent down, wrapped his limp arm around her shoulders, and caught a whiff of expensive bergamot. She took hold of his firm waist and tried to pull him toward the trees, but he was too heavy. She eased him down again. She removed her coat, and shivering, tucked it around him.
The wind gathered force. It howled through the trees and whipped the snowflakes into chaotic spirals of white.
Panicked, Hetty took hold of the man’s arms and made another attempt. Fear made her strong. In small spurts, she backed closer to the scant shelter of the nearest tree. She broke into a sweat despite being without her coat in the frigid air.
Severely winded and gasping, Hetty reached the tree. It was a victory of sorts but afforded little protection.
As she was attempting to prop him up against the trunk, he opened eyes of a startling light blue. He stared uncomprehendingly at her.
Hetty grabbed her coat and turned her back to button it. “You’ve suffered an accident, sir.” She lowered her voice. “We’re in a snow storm. I need to get you under cover. Can you help?”
He nodded. With a grimace, put a hand to his head.
“If I help you onto the horse, do you think you could stay in the saddle?”
“You are kind, sir. But that is something I shall not know until I try, n’est pas?”
French! Was he a spy? It seemed unlikely for the war was over. She didn’t fear him. His baritone voice sounded woolly, and she doubted he could manage much.
“What is a Frenchman doing in Digswell?” Hetty queried in a gruff tone, relieved because he hadn’t seen through her disguise. She’d almost forgotten it herself because his blue eyes were so distracting.
“Oui. So, I have reached Digswell? Do not be afraid. I am not your enemy.”
She ran over and grabbed his hat, dusted it off, and handed it to him. “I’m not afraid, monsieur.”
“Bon.” He settled the brown beaver over his black hair.
She whistled to The General, and the stallion came to nudge her hand.
With the use of the tree, the trunk behind him, he slid to his feet. “I am as weak as a bébé.” He clamped his jaw, his eyes filled with pain, but succeeded to keep on his feet. He placed a heavy hand on her shoulder. “Have you seen my portmanteau?”
“No, monsieur.” Aware of his big hand, Hetty moved toward the sixteen-hand horse. They shuffled forward. The General obligingly waited, although his big dark eyes showed a lot of white. She took hold of the reins. “If you put your foot in the stirrup, I shall help you, monsieur.”
His black eyebrows rose. “I am no feather-weight!”
The wind howled around them while The General shuffled about. “We don’t have much time. The weather is worsening. Please try.”
The Frenchman seized the pommel. He placed his foot in the stirrup, leaning into her. She fought not to crumple under his weight. He staggered, and they almost fell. On the second attempt, he managed with a grunt to throw his leg over. He slumped in the saddle, his body sagging over the stallion’s neck.
“If you can hang on, monsieur, I’ll take you to a nearby shelter.”
He closed his eyes, and she feared he would pass out again, but she wasn’t about to wait for that to happen. Hetty grabbed the reins and led the stallion off the road, up through the bushes, and into the woods. How fortunate that The General was sweet tempered.
The frigid wind moaned high through the tall pines. She shivered.
“You’re a good lad,” the man muttered through clenched teeth.
“Not far now.” Hetty worried about the furor her male garb would cause when she rode to the village for help. A terrible scandal would erupt. Her father would be furious and disappointed in her. But it couldn’t be avoided. A man’s life was at stake. She knew only too well how risky it was to ride around like this, one of the reasons she liked to do it. Hetty imagined she would have to leave the village forever. Perhaps enter a convent? No, that wouldn’t do, for the nuns would find her very difficult to live with.
Her scattered thoughts served to keep her composed as she trudged through the sludge underfoot. Her feet were completely numb, but at least, the Frenchman managed to stay in the saddle, although his chin rested on his chest.
Hetty sighted a roof through the trees. “There’s the hut ahead. I’m sorry, this must be hard. You can rest soon.”
She hoped the hut still had a roof. The baron left England well before she was born after he’d shot and killed some lady’s husband in a duel. It was said he’d escaped to France. Her godfather, a distant cousin of Fortescue’s, remained in charge of the property ever since.
Their way was slowed by dense underbrush and fallen trees blocking the trail. Hetty pulled her coat free of brambles again, alert to shove the man upright if he slipped sideways. He managed so far to remain in the saddle, a hand resting on her shoulder. He uttered a string of what she assumed were French curse words. She was relieved that she didn’t understand them, but to hear a man curse made her aware of just how difficult her situation was. She was alone in a forest with a stranger and a Frenchman. Well, there was no one to blame but herself, for his was not the light touch of a dance partner at a ball. It was the hard hand of a man whose countrymen had fought and slain many English. Perhaps he’d been a soldier in Napoleon’s army. She was eager to ask him what brought him here. But that would have to wait.