Major Nathanial Crawford was low – absolutely blue-devilled in fact – and certainly not paying attention as he rode towards Oxford. What reason was there for feeling pleased about returning home for good? Ignoring the clouds scudding across the sky and the teasing, weak April sun, he took in a deep breath, inhaling the crisp spring air.
At least I’m still alive and breathing. If only this damned leg would stop aching.
His route was bordered by dense hedgerows, with bare ploughed fields spreading out beyond. A commotion in the hedgerow to his right alerted him to something amiss, but too late. Before he could react, his horse – a battle-trained veteran like himself – uncharacteristically reared up, taking him by surprise.
‘Steady, Max, steady.’
Gripping with his knees and holding onto the reins, Nate tried to control and calm the unnerved beast. He couldn’t see what had startled his mount. All his concentration was on settling Max. Frustratingly, his left leg wouldn’t co-operate; he was losing his grip. The world was tilting. Damn and blast it! Max reared up again and Nate parted company with the saddle, releasing the reins as he threw himself clear. The irony of the situation was not lost on him: to have escaped mortal injury in the heat of battle only to end up getting trampled by his own horse on a quiet back road in Oxfordshire.
No more than I deserve. That wry thought was his last before his world darkened and he lost consciousness.
The world was gradually returning. As the blackness receded, he heard a voice, a gentle, soft-toned voice, but whoever was speaking sounded anxious. He should open his eyes. Someone took his hand. Whoever it was had velvety skin, like a child’s. He made the mistake of moving his legs and a wave of pain swept through him, causing him to groan and his body to stiffen. He took a deep breath, not permitting the pain to defeat him. He opened his eyes, blinking against the light. The world slowly came into focus. The person who was kneeling at his side he could see only in silhouette, her features obscured by the brim of her bonnet.
‘Sir, are you all right? Where are you hurt? Do you think you can stand?’ she asked.
Her voice is pleasant, he thought, smiling to himself. Why the hell am I thinking about her voice? God, his leg. Had he re-opened his old wound? It felt like the very devil.
‘I’m sure I’ll be fine shortly,’ he lied. ‘Just give me a moment to regroup and then I’ll attempt to stand. Mistress…?’
‘Miss Benham, sir,’ she answered. ‘If you’re sure you can manage, I’ll be on my way then.’ She dropped his hand and for some inexplicable reason he felt abandoned.
‘I didn’t say I could stand unaided, Miss Benham,’ he barked out. He didn’t want her to go. Who knew if he could stand? If left on his own, he could be stranded like a beetle on its back, unable to right himself. Besides, she sounded afraid, eager to get away. Surely she wasn’t frightened of him? Or, if not him, of whom? Despite his own problems, his curiosity was piqued.
‘I’m sorry, of course I won’t leave you if you require help. Would you like me to assist you to sit up?’ she asked, her tone somehow reluctant.
‘That would be much appreciated, Miss Benham.’ He attempted a smile but was sure it must look more like a grimace. He didn’t want her to run away. He felt her arm gently curl around his shoulder and he lifted his head; that wasn’t too bad. Her breath tickled the back of his neck, like the gentlest of zephyrs. She helped him to a sitting position. Her arm against his back and the proximity of her body was wonderfully comforting. He hadn’t been this close to a female in months, not a respectable one anyway. He didn’t know why, but he was very certain that Miss Benham was a respectable young lady.
‘There. Would you like to attempt to stand now, sir?’ She took her arm away and settled back on her heels. He still couldn’t see her face clearly, obscured as it was by the rim of her bonnet. To allow some time to deal with the pain in his leg, and before making a fool of himself trying to stand, he deflected her question.
‘I’m sorry, I haven’t introduced myself. I’m Nathanial Crawford, late major of His Majesty’s 23rd Light Dragoons,’ with a flourish of his hand, ‘at your service, Miss Benham.’ He smiled in the direction of her face and heard her answering giggle. He continued, eager to keep her mood light; she had an engaging giggle, not false and simpering like some young women, but genuinely warm and amused. ‘I know, I know, I’m not much use to anyone at the moment, but once I’m on my feet I’m happy to render you any assistance you require, Miss Benham.’
He sensed her uncertainty and made an effort to keep his face impassive. He heard her take a deep breath.
‘If you truly mean that, Major Crawford, I would be glad of some assistance if you are in a position to help me. If not, I’ll bid you goodbye as soon as you are back on your horse and I’ll be on my way.’
Well, at least someone thought him worthy of trust.
‘Of course I meant it, Miss Benham. Like you, I would not leave someone in distress. I can assure you I’m an honourable gentleman and will see you safely restored to your family.’
He sensed her stiffen and saw the subtle withdrawal as she stepped backwards. So, she was running away from family. Why? She looked a sensible sort from what he could tell of her sober dress. Despite the mud spats and an ugly rip in her skirt, her clothes were well made. She didn’t sound like a giddy young girl. ‘Why don’t you tell me what you do require of me, Miss Benham? I take it that you do not wish to return to your family?’
Her voice was soft though her words were decisive. ‘I prefer not to say at the moment, Major Crawford, but I assure you I am of age and in possession of all my faculties. I’m not eloping or any other such nonsense. I merely wish to stay with a very dear friend. She is a mature lady of impeccable morals. It just so happens that I’d prefer certain… distant… relatives not to know of my intentions.’
Well, what else could he do? He guessed there was far more to her story, but he wasn’t going to push her for details. She sounded intelligent and calm, but there was a slight tremor in her hands as she clasped them together in front of her. So not as calm as she was pretending. She was a damsel in distress, and who could resist one of those? Certainly not he.
Life for the most part had been tame since leaving Portugal – he refrained from thinking about his dark days on the ship homeward. He’d enjoyed a brief surge of excitement helping his friends whilst in London, but now there was nothing much in the way of adventure to look forward to. He’d been resigned to returning to the life of boredom that surely beckoned on his father’s estate. A life of loneliness, boredom, pain, and… worse things. Better not think of that. That was his future. But not yet. He was still capable of some things. He craved excitement. He needed distraction from his pain. Besides, he enjoyed mysteries and Miss Benham had a mysterious air about her. Yes, of course he would help her.
‘I will be happy to escort you to your friend’s home, Miss Benham. But first… if you could help me to stand, I’d be eternally grateful. It’s quite cold and damp here on the ground and I have a problem with my leg.’ Hearing her gasp, he quickly added, ‘Don’t worry, not your fault. I was wounded at Talavera. It’s taking an age to mend.’ He gave her what he hoped was a disarming smile.
‘Of course, I’m sorry, how bird-witted of me. Here, take my arm.’
She came near him, putting one arm round his shoulder again and taking his right arm so that he could brace himself to rise. Stifling a curse as pain shot through his leg, with her help he managed to get upright. His forehead was damp with perspiration. He was breathless both from the effort of rising and from the warm sensation of leaning against her body. She was deliciously soft, and her hair smelled of rosemary. She too seemed a little breathless. No doubt he was too heavy for her slight frame. He clicked his tongue and his horse trotted towards him. The animal knew what was expected of him, standing perfectly still as Crawford pulled himself back into his saddle.
He watched as Miss Benham walked over to pick up his hat and retrieve her small valise, which fortunately seemed to have suffered no damage. He turned the horse towards her and stretched out his hand. ‘Come, get up behind me,’ he ordered. ‘If we take it steady, I believe we can make it to Oxford. Once there, I can send a message to my father to come and collect us.’ He had to stay in the saddle until Oxford, there was no question about it, despite the agonising pain.
After a moment’s hesitation, she took his proffered arm and he was surprised at how easy it was to pull her up behind him. He’d been gritting his teeth in preparation, but she was no weight at all. He felt her arms round his waist, holding on to his coat.
‘That’s right, hold tight. You’ll be safe with me, Miss Benham. I vow I’ll look after you.’ He meant it. He’d given his word. His honour as an officer demanded he kept it. He had to redeem himself. Better men than he had perished at Talavera. He had to prove he was worthy of survival.
What was he getting himself into? Could he be accused of kidnapping? He felt her arms suddenly tense as if she could read his thoughts, then he felt her wriggle. No, it seemed she was just settling herself into a more comfortable position. If it wasn’t for the grindingly awful pain in his leg, requiring all his efforts not to moan out loud, he would quite enjoy having a softly rounded woman’s body pressed so closely to his. But this was a gently bred young lady – Miss Benham was no lightskirt.
To take his mind off matters carnal and painful, he peered towards the horizon. The spires of Oxford were just in view. It shouldn’t take more than another hour and they would be there. How he longed to rest in a comfortable bed and take the weight off his leg. Riding was an effort, and it had taken him weeks into his recovery before he felt safe again on a horse, but this fall had definitely upset things. His stomach lurched at the possibility that the bone had dislodged and all his hard-gained mobility would be lost. He’d seen amputations on the battlefield and dreaded that he might be forced to suffer the same. He drove the unwelcome thought out of his head and focussed on staying upright.
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