Authors: Laura Landon
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #General
"He’s hurt, Liddy. I don’t think he’ll. . ."
Austin looked to the ceiling as if he couldn’t finish his thought. "The doctor wanted to take off his leg but I wouldn’t let him."
She placed her hand over the railing and squeezed until her fingers ached.
Gabriel was hurt. Austin didn’t think he’d live.
Blood roared inside her head and thundered against her ears. With waning strength, she pushed herself away from the railing and moved toward the room where he was.
Some force she didn’t understand drew her to his room. Even Austin’s warning didn’t stop her. Her heart pounded harder with each step she took, and try as she might, she couldn’t force her legs to halt their journey to his room.
"Liddy, no." Austin stepped in front of her to stop her. "Don’t go in. Gabe wouldn’t want you to see him like he is."
She lifted her gaze. She wasn’t sure what she felt, wasn’t sure if the emotion was concern, devastation, fear, or hatred. She wasn’t sure why she needed to see him, wasn’t sure if she was afraid he’d live and she’d have another memory of him to try to forget - or afraid he’d die and she’d have to grieve for him all over again.
She looked beyond Austin to the closed door and knew she still had the choice to walk away – until she heard him.
His muffled cry pierced her soul, the sound of his pain was so agonizing it stole her breath. She tried to ignore his call; tried to turn away from him, but his anguish was so all-consuming it was as if the demons of hell tortured him.
On legs that trembled beneath her, she stepped around Austin and reached for the latch. A part of her feared what she’d see when she pushed open the door. Another part of her needed to know.
Despite Austin’s final warning and his attempt to stop her, she opened the door and stepped inside.
"You shouldn’t be here, my lady," Matthias said over his shoulder as he worked on the figure lying on the bed.
She ignored the warning and stepped closer. Inch by inch his battered and bruised body came into view.
She wasn’t sure what she expected, but she wasn’t prepared for this. Wasn’t prepared to see the man she’d once loved with all her heart a shadow of what he’d once been.
She reacted as if some traitorous force took control of her emotions. The light from the lamps at Gabriel’s bedside revealed his features in a clarity more vivid than she wanted. Her gaze rested on his face, on the part of him that night after night had haunted her dreams.
His eyes remained closed, but even in his unconsciousness she saw the strain of agony in his features. Deep, heavy furrows lined his forehead. His lips were pursed, lips she remembered pressed against hers, lips that were warm and vibrant and intoxicating.
Thin bony fingers of pain and grief reached in and wrenched her heart. The tightness inside her chest gripped until she had to gasp for air.
She hurt for him, ached with a pain so agonizing she wasn’t sure she could survive it. His face was devoid of color, his features gaunt and sallow, so different from the healthy bronzed tone she’d always known. His cheekbones were still high and pronounced, but the flesh beneath them had hollowed to deep, empty pits. The strong, determined jaw she’d always admired was locked tight, as if clenching his teeth was the only way he could keep the screams from escaping.
Another torturous stab of agony twisted her heart.
He shifted, not much, just enough that his movement forced him to release a sound so filled with pain she nearly doubled over. Matthias placed a hand on Gabe’s shoulder to hold him down and he sagged back into the mattress with a soft moan – a moan that stole the warmth from her body.
he moaned, as if her name was a plea for help.
Her breath caught and she wrapped her arms around her middle to keep from reaching out to him.
No other man would have survived the wounds, or the long, arduous ocean voyage home, but he had. Perhaps only to die on English soil. Perhaps only to torture her with one last painful memory of him.
She looked around the room, her eyes darting from Harrison’s damp eyes, to the tears that streamed unabashedly down Austin’s cheeks, then back to the prone figure on the bed fighting to stay alive. He called out her name again.
She staggered back as if she’d been struck by a boulder.
"Damn you, no," a voice whispered, and she realized the voice was hers.
"Damn you," she said again, then spun away from him and fled the room.
She managed to take three steps before the weight of having him near her again crashed down around her. Every muscle in her body trembled.
She ran from the room as if some threatening peril was after her. She couldn’t care whether he lived or died. If she did, he’d destroy her life a second time.
The house was finally quiet. Servants no longer raced past her doorway talking in hushed whispers as they carried water, bandages, and anything else the doctor needed as he worked on Gabe. Even though everything seemed peaceful beyond her four walls, she couldn’t control the feeling of dread inside her.
She pressed back against the corner of the window seat and waited in solemn silence for someone to come to tell her he had died.
Even the doctor predicted he wouldn’t survive the night.
With a deep sigh, she wrapped her arms around her legs and tucked her knees closer to her chest. The logs in the grate were little more than glowing embers, the room taking on a chill she would have loved had she been buried beneath her covers. But she couldn’t sleep. How could she when he’d come back into her life as if there was a place for him. There wasn’t. The only emotion she would ever feel for him again was – nothing.
She huddled closer and held her breath, her ears straining to hear the faint sounds of his pain that the thick oak doors couldn’t muffle completely.
Or the ominous silence of his passing.
An agonizing moan escaped from deep inside her, a cry to ease the pain gnawing at her heart.
She tried to forget the tortured look on his face but she couldn’t. She would always remember the pain written on his features.
She rose to her feet and clutched her hands to her churning stomach. She didn’t care what happened to him; she wouldn’t allow him to be important to her ever again. But if he wasn’t going to survive, she didn’t want him to die alone. And if he was going to survive, she wanted to do everything in her power to ease his suffering.
As if she no longer controlled her own actions, she walked across the room and out the door. Her legs trembled beneath her with each step, and when she finally reached his room, her hands shook as she reached for the latch.
The room was dark now with only one lit candle flickering on the table beside his bed. She paused. Heavy breathing and the faint crackle of dying logs in the fireplace assaulted her senses. Gradually, her eyes acclimated to the darkness and she looked around the room.
A large oak armoire stood at an angle in the corner to her right with a small dressing table and mirror close beside it. A marble fireplace took up most of the opposite wall, its low flames a gentle wave of muted light that didn’t quite reach to the center of the room.
Austin reclined in a padded leather wing chair, his feet propped on an ottoman and stretched out before the fire, his exhausted body wrapped in a blanket.
She stepped around him and walked to the bed.
Her gaze lowered to Gabriel’s prone body and for the first time since he’d left her, she allowed the emotions she’d locked away to surface.
She needed to face how she felt and deal with it. Conquering any leftover affection she harbored for him was the only way to prove she no longer cared for him. If she was ever to give her love to another man, she needed to extinguish every ember of emotion she felt for him. She couldn’t risk having one spark of the former love she possessed for Gabriel come to life.
Her gaze rested on his face. Soft shadows outlined his still form beneath the covers. She listened, fearing she was too late and he’d died alone. Then he moaned as if in agony, and she hardened her heart to make sure that any love she’d ever felt for him was dead and buried so deeply there was no way to unearth it. She was wiser now than she’d been before, more prepared.
"Never again," she whispered with a bitterness that shocked even her. She would never care for him again.
She forced herself to watch his shallow breathing. With each small rise and fall of his chest she reminded herself that
been the one who’d abandoned her.
She stood without moving, her eyes taking in his battered body, her mind coming to grips with his nearness, her heart refusing to recognize the place he once occupied. Satisfied that he was as comfortable as they could make him, she turned and—
His pathetically weak voice cut through the silence as forcefully as if his words had been a command, and she stopped.
For several long seconds she didn’t turn around –
turn around. It was one thing to be near him when he didn’t know she was there, but more troubling to be with him when he did.
"It’s late," she said and continued toward the door.
"Please . . ."
She halted, then slowly turned.
His eyes remained closed. His head rested on the pillow.
She didn’t know how he’d realized she was there, but she wasn’t surprised. It had been uncanny how attuned they’d been to each other, how they’d always known when the other was near.
With her resolve firmly in place, she slowly walked back to the bed. "Can I get you anything?"
She filled a glass with water. "Here." She placed one hand beneath his head and lifted him.
She raised the glass to his lips and he took only one sip before he sagged back into her arms. Her blood turned warm and thundered in her head but she refused to allow her mind to consider that he still had the power to affect her. She eased his head back onto the pillow and straightened.
His face had no more color than it had earlier and she heard a catch in his breathing followed by a heavy sigh.
"Do you need something for the pain?"
He shook his head.
"Go back to sleep, then. You need to rest."
"There’ll be...plenty of time for that...later."
She pulled back and glared at him. "You’re
going to die, Gabriel. So just get that thought out of your head."
He didn’t answer her, but the corners of his mouth twitched as if he were trying to smile. "I’ll...do my...best."
"You’ll do more than that. My brother didn’t work as hard as he did to keep you alive only to have you die on him now that he has you home. You need to rest so you can get better."
She turned again but his voice stopped her.
"Do I still have...my legs?"
A sharp pain stabbed through her chest and she went back. She knew what it would mean to him if one or both of his legs were gone. She couldn’t imagine a man more unsuited to being confined inside, a man who enjoyed riding and being out of doors more than Gabriel. She looked down to the bottom of the bed, then back to the vacant look in his eyes. "Yes, you still have your legs."
His eyes closed for a long second. "They say you can...feel them...even when they’re not there."
"They didn’t take them off. Austin wouldn’t let them. You can thank him for your pain."
"I’ll thank him later."
She stood quietly and watched him breathe. He wasn’t asleep, but there was nothing more to say. She turned to see Austin walking toward her. A frown covered his face.
"You shouldn’t be here."
"I came to make sure you didn’t need anything."
"Go. Being here won’t help you or Gabe."
She stared at the determined look on Austin’s face, then lowered her gaze to where Gabriel lay. "You can’t care for him by yourself, Austin. You’re going to need help. Show me how much laudanum to give him. He’ll need something soon for the pain."
"I’ve cared for him since we left."
"Which is probably why you look like you’re ready to collapse."
She straightened the covers on the bed, watching while Austin mixed the dark liquid in a small glass of wine. When he finished, he raised Gabriel’s head and let him drink.
"It will be better soon," Austin said, lowering Gabe to the pillow.
Within minutes he was asleep. But Lydia was afraid to shift her gaze from the shallow rise and fall of his chest. There’d been something so final about the way he’d talked. She stood next to the bed and watched him.
Austin remained by her for several long seconds, then shoved his hands in his pocket and walked to the window.
She couldn’t see her brother’s face but knew there were worry lines etched in his forehead.
"If there had been anyplace else to take him, I would have, but even the hospitals aren’t—"
He left his sentence unfinished and walked back to check on Gabriel.
"It doesn’t matter, Austin. As far as I’m concerned, Gabriel Talbot died a year ago."
Austin smiled. "I think he tried to make that a reality. He risked his life more times than any soldier over there. There was a joke among the officers that he’d infiltrated the enemy’s camp so often the Russians thought he was one of their own."
Lydia tried to ignore the surge of pride and fear that washed over her.
Austin patted her hand, then gave it a gentle squeeze. "Go to bed so you get at least a little sleep before it’s time to get up."
She looked at Gabriel’s sleeping form. "Will you be all right?"
"I’ll be fine. He’s resting now."
She gave her brother a quick hug, then left the room.
When she stepped out into the hallway, she stopped long enough to fight the tears that blurred her eyes. He’d live. She prayed he would. But that didn’t change anything.
To her heart - he was still dead.
"Lie still, Gabe. You’ll tear your stitches open."
Gabe heard Austin’s voice but couldn’t follow the order. He had to escape the mêlée, the violence and bloodshed. The pandemonium and confusion were unimaginable. Bullets flew all around him. Sabers swung through the air. The ground thundered as if a thousand cavalry mounts bore down on him. But it wasn’t a thousand. It was only one. And there wasn’t a human sitting atop the giant destrier. The rider was a monster with fire raging from his nose and mouth, with lightning flashing from his eyes.