Kurland St. Mary, England
Major Robert Kurland jerked awake from his uneasy half-sleep to the hoot of a barn owl and glared out into the darkness, his breathing uneven, his mouth dry.
When he was able to walk, he was going to take a gun out to the woods and slaughter every nocturnal creature that had disturbed his sleep for the past few months. Selfish, perhaps, but when sleep was as precious to him as water to a dying man, completely justified.
He levered himself upright against his pillows, aware of a fresh pain pounding in his head and the now familiar dragging ache of his broken leg. Foolishly, he’d instructed his valet to leave the curtains open, and now the entire landscape beyond his windows was bathed in moonlight. His gaze turned to the black bottle of laudanum and glass of water on his nightstand. He could dose himself, slide back down into the warmth of his bed, and sink into oblivion....
It was tempting. But despite his doctor’s advice, Robert was reluctant to take too much of the opiate. Its siren call dulled his senses and made him forgetful and quite unlike himself. Resolutely, he turned his attention to the problem at hand. He would never get back to sleep unless he closed the curtains. The old clock on the mantelpiece wheezed and struck twice. If he rang the bell, Bookman would come, but it seemed wrong to disturb the other man’s rest. He would simply have to manage for himself.
Robert drew back the covers and studied his bandaged and splinted left leg. If he’d been a horse, they would have shot him, rather than painstakingly trying to reset his shattered bones. Sometimes during the last hellish months, he wondered if that would’ve been for the best. Even after all this time, his leg was still pretty damn useless. He used his upper body strength to pivot and placed both his feet on the floor. Even such a small effort made him sweat and curse like the lowest class of soldier he’d commanded.
He grabbed hold of the dresser next to his bed and lifted himself upright, carefully placing the majority of his weight over his right side. It wasn’t that far to the windows, and there were plenty of objects he could use to support himself along the way. Part of him was revolted by the spectacle he made, dragging his wounded body around. The rest of him refused to give up. If he stayed in bed, he was afraid he would eventually lose the will to rise again.
He staggered from the dresser to the wing chair by the fireside and sat long enough to regain his breath and determination. In the distance, the squat tower of the Norman church that divided his property from the village proper stood stark against the night sky. There was a path from the side of Kurland Hall that led directly to the church and the boxed pew his family had occupied for Sunday worship for generations. Not that he believed in God anymore, but appearances had to be maintained.
When he recovered, he would certainly take his seat in his appointed place at the front of the church. He’d learned the value of setting a good example, first from his father and then from the army.
If he recovered . . .
Robert set his teeth and stood up again, his attention fixed on the large bay windows. Three more lurching steps brought him up against a small desk that creaked rather ominously when he rested his weight against it. His chest was heaving as if he’d run a race, and his heart pounded so loudly he could hear it over the ticking of the clock. A shadow flickered over the full moon, and Robert saw the soaring outline of one of the owls.
He transferred his gaze to the heavy silk embroidered curtains. If he leaned forward, could he at least draw one of them closed? He reached out his hand, overbalanced, and had to rock back on his heels, sending an excruciating stab of pain up his left leg. The desk swayed along with him on its equally spindly legs. He propped himself up against the wall to regroup. Sweat ran down his face and his vision blurred.
He focused on the reassuring bulk of the church until his breathing steadied. He could do this. He
to do this. The ability to close his own damned curtains was a symbol of all his frustrations over the past few months. There was another chair close to the center of the two windows. If he could just reach that, he would achieve his aim. He stumbled forward and clutched at the back of the dainty chair, half-bent over it. As he straightened, his attention was caught by another shadow flitting across the park below.
He frowned. Not
Whatever was out there was moving rather slowly, as if overburdened. Robert squinted and realized he wasn’t looking at an animal, but at a person carrying something heavy, either in his arms, or over his shoulder. The unknown being continued toward the church, his shadow thrown up against the old flint wall into gigantic proportions.
“What the devil is going on?” Robert wondered aloud, as he craned his neck to get a better look. The chair tipped and he fell, his hands grabbing uselessly for purchase. Like a wounded animal, he turned, so that his right side hit the floor first and absorbed the sudden impact that made him want to puke up his guts. He came to rest on his back staring up at the white stucco ceiling. Considering the noise he’d made, he expected half his household to come tearing into his bedroom.
All remained quiet apart from the derisive hooting of the owls.
Robert wanted to laugh. He’d reached his goal, but he still hadn’t managed to draw the curtains, and he was destined for an incredibly uncomfortable night on the floor. So much for the gallant major. He threw his forearm over his eyes and pressed hard. He hadn’t cried since he was seven and been sent away to boarding school. Dignity be damned. He’d crawl back to bed.
“Now, don’t forget to visit Major Kurland today, Lucy.”
Lucy Harrington glanced at her father as he sat serenely drinking tea and eating boiled ham at the head of the table. Breakfast at the rectory was always a noisy affair, and this fine spring morning was no exception. Anna and Anthony were arguing about the weather, and the twins were throwing crusts of bread at each other. Sunlight gleamed through the bow windows, glancing off the silver coffeepot and the blond hair of the rector’s two youngest children. Not that anything could make the twins look angelic. Before she could frame an appropriate answer, she coaxed the dripping honey-covered spoon from young Michael’s fierce grip and endeavored to wipe his sticky face.
“Did you hear me, Lucy?”
“Yes, Papa, I did.” She patted her youngest brother on the head, and poured him some more milk. “Are you not able to attend the major yourself?”
He frowned at her over the top of his spectacles. “I have to go to the horse fair at Saffron Walden. I need a new hunter.”
Of course, her father’s passion for horseflesh would always trump his other duties. Lucy nodded at the twins, and they hurriedly got down from the table and disappeared through the door. Moments later, Lucy heard their nurse calling them and the clatter of two sets of boots stealing down the back stairs. She supposed she should go and find the boys before they escaped into the woods, but her father gazed at her as though he expected an answer.
“I don’t think Major Kurland enjoys my company, Papa.” She placed her knife on her plate. “He much prefers to converse with you.”
“Nonsense, my dear.” The rector rose to his feet and surveyed the ruins of the breakfast table. “It is your duty to succor the sick and the poor, regardless of your own selfish desires.”
Lucy raised her chin. “It is wash day. Who will supervise the staff if I am off visiting the sick?”
“You will contrive, Lucy. You always do.” The rector folded his newspaper and laid it on the linen tablecloth. “I have the latest London papers in my study. Perhaps you might take them to Major Kurland and amuse him by reading the court scandal. It cannot be easy for a man of action such as our esteemed major to be laid up.”
“I’m sure it isn’t, Papa, but—”
The rector pushed in his chair. “I will be back for dinner, my dear. Please tell Cook that I cannot stomach any more mutton.”
“I’ll take out a line and fish for our dinner if you like,” Anthony cut in with a wink at Lucy.
The rector paused to look down his long, aristocratic nose at his son. “You, sir, will be studying with Mr. Galton for your entrance exams for Cambridge.”
“Not all day. I’ll find time to fish. That is, if Lucy doesn’t make me do the laundry.”
Lucy smiled at her brother. “I wouldn’t dare take you away from your studies.”
Anthony grinned and returned his attention to his plate. Like most young men, his appetite was inexhaustible and quite indifferent to the ebb and flow of emotion around the rectory table.
“Well, whatever you put in front of me tonight, it had better not be mutton.” The rector placed his spectacles in his waistcoat pocket. “I’ll take Harris with me. You don’t need him, do you?”
“No, Papa.” Lucy started gathering up the dishes the twins had abandoned. “And I’ll make sure Cook understands about your requirements for dinner.”
Her father paused to kiss the top of her head before departing for the stables. His loud, cheerful voice boomed through the hallways, calling for Harris to bring his horse around. Lucy rested her chin on her hand and stared down at the crumbled remains of her toast and marmalade.
“It’s all right, sis. I’ll find time to go and fish whatever Father says.”
She looked up at Anthony. “I’d appreciate it if you did. Unfortunately, unless you catch a whale, the rest of us will still be eating mutton. Cook has a whole side to get rid of.”
Anthony groaned. “Can’t you give
to the poor? I’m sure Major Kurland would love a bowl of mutton stew.”
“He’d probably throw it at my head.” Lucy put the lid on the butter dish. “A more ill-tempered man I have never met.”
“But Lucy!” exclaimed her sister Anna. “He was wounded fighting for his king and country at Waterloo. You can hardly expect him to be
“He was pleasant enough when I first visited him with Father. It is only since I’ve taken up the burden of visiting him alone that he appears to think he owes me no courtesy whatsoever.”
Anna reached across to squeeze Lucy’s hand. At twenty, she was the acknowledged beauty of the family and only five years younger than Lucy. Her temperament was sunny and obliging and, unlike Lucy, she always saw the good in everyone. She was fair like the twins, whereas Lucy and her brother favored their dark-haired father.
being difficult. Have you tried to cheer him up?”
“Of course I haven’t. I sit there and sob into my handkerchief and bemoan his wounds.”
“There is no need to be flippant.” Anna glanced across at Anthony. “I just wondered if perhaps you were a little ‘sharp’ with him.”
“As I am with my family?” Lucy raised her eyebrows. “Anna, if you want to visit the man in my stead, please, be my guest.”
A delicate flush blossomed on Anna’s cheeks. “Oh no, I’m sure he wouldn’t want to see
“Fancy yourself lady of the manor, do you, Anna?” Anthony nudged his sister. “Even when you were a little girl, you always idolized Major Kurland.”
Lucy sat back to survey her blushing sister. “That’s true. I’d forgotten. You used to follow him around like an acolyte.”
Anna sipped at her tea and kept her gaze demurely downcast. “Despite the great disparity in our ages, he was always very kind to me.”
Lucy finished her toast. “Then perhaps you
go. I’ll wager he won’t snap at you for trying to make conversation.”
“So that she can swoon over him?” Anthony snorted. “He’s fifteen years older than her.”
“So? Father was fifteen years older than Mother. It’s quite common for a husband to be older than a wife.”
“And yet she died before him because she had too many children.” Anna’s smile disappeared. “She was simply worn out with it.”
Lucy reached for Anna’s hand. “That might be true, but as Father will no doubt remind you, that is a woman’s lot in life.”
Anna snatched her hand free. “That doesn’t make it any better, though, does it?”
Lucy could only agree. The loss of their mother in childbed almost seven years ago had devastated their family and left nineteen-year-old Lucy in charge of two squalling infants. As her mother became a distant memory, Lucy sometimes felt as if the twins
her children. They certainly treated her as their mother. She would be devastated when they were sent away to school in the autumn.
Lucy rose to her feet. There was no point sitting around moping. She’d learned long ago that achieved nothing. “Anna, if you don’t wish to visit Major Kurland, you will have to supervise Betty and Mary while they do the laundry.”
She tried not to look hopeful. Perhaps that would make Anna change her mind and take on her least favorite obligation of the day. To her disappointment, her sister merely nodded.
“Of course, I’ll help. Shall I ring for Betty to clear the table?”
“No, I’ll do it myself.” Lucy glanced out the window at the bright sky. “Betty is already stripping the beds, and I don’t want to disturb her. Best to start on the washing before this fine weather disappears.”
“I’ll help, too,” Anthony offered. “Mr. Galton won’t be here for another hour.”
“But aren’t you supposed to be aiding Edward in the church?”
Anthony’s charming smile flashed out, reminding Lucy of her father. “Oh, Edward will manage. He doesn’t like my assistance anyway. He worries that Father might give me his job.” He snorted. “As if I would want to be a poor curate in a village like this.”
“Hush, Anthony,” Lucy admonished her brother. “Edward can hardly help his circumstances, can he? And if it weren’t for him, Father couldn’t avoid all the more onerous duties of being the rector of several small parishes.”