Aldridge never did find out how he came to be naked, alone, and sleeping in the small summerhouse in the garden of a country cottage. His last memory of the night before had him twenty miles away, and — although not dressed — in a comfortable bed, and in company.
The first time he woke, he had no idea how far he’d come, but the moonlight was bright enough to show him half trellised window openings, and an archway leading down a short flight of steps into a garden. A house loomed a few hundred feet away, a dark shape against the star bright sky. But getting up seemed like too much trouble, particularly with a headache that seemed to hang inches above him, threatening to split his head if he moved. The cushioned bench on which he lay invited him to shut his eyes and go back to sleep. Time enough to find out where he was in the morning.
When he woke again he was facing away from the archway entrance, and there was someone behind him. Silence now, but in his memory the sound of light footsteps shifting the stones on the path outside, followed by twin intakes of breath as the walkers saw him.
One of them spoke; a woman’s voice, but low—almost husky. “Sarah, go back to the first rose bush and watch the house.”
“Yes, mama.” A child’s voice.
Aldridge waited until he heard her dance lightly down the steps and away along the path, then shifted his weight slightly so that his pelvis flattened, dragging the rest of his torso over till he was lying on his back.
He waited for the exclamation of shock, but none came. Carefully— he wanted to observe her before he let her know he was awake, and anyway, any sudden movement might start up the hammers above his eye sockets—he cracked open his lids enough so that he could see through his lashes.
He could see more than he expected. The woman had a shuttered lantern that she was using to examine him, starting at his feet, pausing so long when she reached his morning salute that it grew even prouder, then sweeping up his torso so quickly he barely had time to slam his lids shut before the light reached and lingered over his face.
She’d been just a vague shadow behind the light, but the smell that reached him spoke of young woman. He held himself still while she completed her examination, which she did with a snort of disgust. Not the reaction he was accustomed to.
“Now what do we do,” she muttered. “Perhaps if Sarah and I…? I’ll have to cover him. What on earth is he doing here? And like that? Not that it matters. Unless he is something to do with Perry? Or the men Perry said would come?” Her voice was rising a little and becoming more shrill as she grew agitated. “Stop it, Becky.” She took a deep calming breath. “Stay calm. You must think.”
For all her efforts, there was an edge of panic in her voice. Aldridge risked opening his eyes a mere slit, and was rewarded by a better look at the woman as she paced up and down the summerhouse in the light of the lantern she’d placed on one of the window ledges.
Spectacular. That was the only appropriate word. Hair that looked black in the poor light but was probably dark brown, porcelain skin currently flushed pink with her agitation, a heart-shaped face, cornflower blue eyes under perfectly curved brows, and a perfect cupid’s bow of a mouth, the lower lip—which she was currently chewing—larger than the upper.
The redingote she wore was fitted to a shape of amazing promise, as far as he could see as the shawl over her shoulders swung with her movements. Even more blood surged to his ever-hopeful member. “Down, boy,” he told it, silently.
“Mama?” That was the little girl, returning down the path. “Mama, I can hear horses.”
The woman froze, every line of her screaming alarm.
Aldridge could hear them now, coming closer through the rustling noises of the night; the quiet clop of walking horses, the riders exchanged a word or two, then nothing. They must have stopped on the other side of the house.
“Sarah.” The woman’s voice, pitched to carry only as far as her daughter’s ears, retreated as she crossed the summerhouse. “Sarah, we must go quickly.”
“I do not dare wake the man, my love. He might stop us.”
Aldridge responded to the fear in her voice. “I won’t stop you. I’m not a danger to you.” As he spoke, he swung himself upright, wincing as the headache closed its vices around his skull. Though he screwed his eyes with the pain, he kept them open enough to watch the woman, turned to a statue by his voice, her hand on the framework of the arched entrance as if without that support she would fall.
“Mama?” The girl’s fearful voice freed the woman from her freeze, and she moved to block the child’s sight of him. “Sarah. Watch the house. Do not turn around until I say.”
Eyes wide open, he could confirm his initial assessment as she spun to face him. Spectacular. Then she shone the lantern straight on him, and he flinched from the light. “Not in my eyes, please. I have such a head.”
She made that same disgusted sound again, then stripped the shawl from her shoulders and tossed it to him, taking care to stay out of arms’ reach.
“Please cover yourself, sir.”