“I don’t run away. I run towards,” she had told Rick the first time he retrieved her for her father, the admiral. That was half his lifetime ago, when she was nine, and he was a young midshipman of nearly fourteen.
He sat on his horse for a moment, watching her trudging down the meadow towards the village in the valley. The Mary of today was slowed by a bandbox in one hand and a carpetbag in the other. The earnest child of his memory—chasing after a dream through a sunlit field in Spain, or Italy, or Jamaica—had never bothered with such practicalities as luggage.
Rick hadn’t seen her since she was sent home to relatives after her father’s death, but he couldn’t mistake her. What was Miss Mary Pritchard running towards today?
The immediate destination, he could guess well enough. He’d seen the broken-down coach back around several curves of this long, winding road, and not long ago, he’d passed the coachman with a string of passengers grumbling along behind him. And pretty rough sorts some of them looked, too.
Miss Independent Mary had undoubtedly struck out on her own across country instead of sticking to the road, and would be at the inn in the valley a good half hour before the rest of the coachload.
But what was the admiral’s daughter doing on a coach in the first place? The aunt she lived with was in London. Indeed, he had dropped his card at the house. He had called three times before the aunt had consented to see him, only to explain that the niece of the Dowager Viscountess Bosville could expect better than a half-pay navy lieutenant with a bad limp and few expectations. He wanted to renew his friendship, not court her, but no doubt, the aunt knew Mary’s mind better than he did.
Perhaps not, though. The aunt was, indeed, in London, but Miss Mary was definitely there below him, striding across the field.
He nudged the post horse into a walk. There must be a gate along the road somewhere. Yes. There. By the time he’d dismounted, led the horse through, shut the gate, and awkwardly mounted again, Mary had reached the lowest corner of the field and was opening a gate there.
What was that movement? Three men were creeping along her side of the field, careful to stay in the shadow of the hedge. Sneak up on Mary Pritchard, would they? He’d see about that.
He kneed the horse into a gallop. The men stopped at the noise, then spun round and hurried away uphill. Mary turned to face the horse.
She stood rigid, one hand creeping into her coat. So Miss Mary was armed? That didn’t surprise him. He’d taught her to shoot himself, after the incident in the date grove just outside Tunis. He still got the collywobbles thinking about the danger she’d put herself in, running off to buy a present for her father’s birthday.
The slavers were congratulating themselves when he caught up with them. They had left the sweet little red-haired girl bound and helpless, and were brewing coffee and boasting of the money she would fetch. Except she’d used the flip knife he’d given her, after the escapade in the Spanish church, to cut her bonds. When he arrived, Mary, bless the courage of her, had armed herself with the rifles they’d carelessly left slung on their camels.
When he attacked, they found themselves shot at from two directions, including from their own ramshackle weapons. They might have withstood his assault, but the sight of a child with an armful of guns gave them pause. Her first wild shot convinced them that she had no idea what she was doing, but was going to do it anyway.
With no way of predicting what would happen next, they decided discretion was the better part of valor. Rick teased Mary that he’d been tempted to flee with them, given her wildly inaccurate shooting. He had no idea how it happened that they stopped at the Tunisian market to buy a woolen klim for her father before he took her safely back to the ship.
He tugged his mind back into 1799. She’d recognized him. The tension remained, but she removed her hand from her coat.
“Miss Pritchard,” he said, bowing as well as he could from the back of his horse.
“Lieutenant Redepenning.” She did not sound at all pleased to see him.
Richard Redepenning. What on earth was he doing in a field in Surrey? As if her running away conjured him! She almost smiled. He had appeared out of nowhere to rescue her so many times when she was young.
Then she remembered—he had been in London for two months, and hadn’t called on her once. Today, she was rescuing herself, thank you very much.
Good manners, however, prompted her to say, “I was sorry to hear about your wound. I trust you are recovering?”
He was dismounting, and she could see for herself that the wound left him lame. His boot hit the ground, and he lurched, catching his balance against the saddle. She almost dropped her bags and put out a hand to help him, but she could hear her father’s voice saying, “Let the man keep his pride, child.”
Instead, she surreptitiously eased her shoulders. The bags had not felt nearly as heavy when she strode away from the others at the coach, after a short argument with the coachman about the merits of following the road versus trusting her navigation skills.
The coachman insisted that sticking to the road was a much better idea, since who knew what barriers might appear on the path that cut down the hill. “I know what I’m doing, Miss,” he insisted. If he thought she was going to trust a coachman who had finally landed them in the ditch after multiple near misses, he was soon disabused of the notion.
As soon as she struck out on her own, she questioned whether it had been wise. Even the silly coachman would have been protection from the three coach passengers who had been leering at her for most of the afternoon. She was, of course, duly grateful to Lieutenant Redepenning for happening along before they caught up with her. But she had a pistol. She would have managed perfectly well without him.
“I have some rope here,” Lieutenant Redepenning was saying, as he looked through his saddle bags. “Ah. Here it is. Pass me the carpet bag, Miss Pritchard, and we’ll let the horse carry it the rest of the way to the village.”
She rather thought he needed the horse more than the carpet bag did, but arguing with Richard Redepenning had always been an exercise in futility. He was the only person she knew who could out-stubborn her, though that was at least in part because of the pointless tendre she had held for him since the first time he had rescued her.
She had been nine years of age, and cross with that year’s nurse. She wanted apples for tea, and the nurse told her the country grew no apples. Silly woman. Mary had passed an apple seller in the market earlier that day. No point in taking an appeal to Papa. Papa would no more countenance insubordination within his family than within his crew.
So Mary waited until Nurse was asleep, then crept out of her cabin and set off to find the market.
Which was not at all where she expected it to be. She soon became lost in a maze of little streets, and her red hair and fair skin attracted a forest of locals, looming over her and making incomprehensible sounds, while she stood at bay against a wall and prepared to fight for her life.
Then the crowd melted, and Midshipman Redepenning was there, smiling at her and holding out a hand, all the time talking to the village people in their own language. At fourteen, he had been a beautiful boy, tall and slender, with a crop of golden blond hair and intensely blue eyes.
He didn’t growl, or complain about the nuisance of girl children. He didn’t suggest that her father beat her (not that Papa ever did). He escorted her home to the ship, and helped her sneak back into her cabin. He even took a detour through the market and bought her an apple.
Mary had fallen in love that day, and she stayed in love as the boy grew to the handsomest, kindest man she knew. No other man ever measured up. Not that Lieutenant Redepenning cared. As far as she could see, he still thought of her as the child that continually needed rescue.
“Miss Pritchard?” There she was lost in memories of some far-off sunny shore, while Lieutenant Redepenning stood in front of her with his piece of rope at the ready.
“Thank you.” She hoisted the bag up and balanced it on the saddle while he tied it, with quick efficient sailors’ knots. The band box went up next, tied in front of the bag.
“If you would see to the gate, Miss Pritchard?” he suggested. “I can walk well enough, but I’m not as spry as I was.”
They slowly sauntered down the hill path, Mary holding the proffered arm but attempting to put no weight on it.
Anxiety made her cross. He shouldn’t be walking. Idiot man. He should have stuck to riding, and the road. If he were sore tonight, it would be his own fault. She didn’t ask him to follow her.
They came to another gate, and, on the other side, to a bench seat that looked over the village, now almost close enough to touch. The church roof and the top floor of the inn were at eye level.
The last stretch of path, though short, was going to be a problem. It was steep and narrow. How would Mary get the lieutenant down it without injury? She frowned at it with disfavor.
“Let us sit for a minute,” she suggested.
He was willing enough, tying the horse to a handy bush and lowering himself to the seat with a sigh.
Best to be frank. “Lieutenant Redepenning, the path is very steep and narrow. How are we to manage it?”
“You used to call me ‘Rick,'” he observed.
Dear God, how blue his eyes were. That twinkle was just as devastating as ever. What had he said? Oh, yes. “You used to call me ‘Mary,'” she retorted. “And how are we to get you down the path, Lieutenant?”
“Rick,” he insisted.
“Rick, then.” She gave way on that point, but continued to glare. She would not be distracted from her purpose.
“Mary.” His voice was a caress, giving her plain name a music it never had. Good heavens, was Rick the Rogue flirting? With her? With Mary Pritchard, the bluestocking, forthright as a sailor and homely to boot? He was just trying to divert her.
Her frown deepened, and she raised one eyebrow.
“I confess it is a problem. The doctor says the break is knitting well, and I just need to wait for the tissues to recover. It will repair entirely in time, but after a day’s riding or much walking, the leg does not obey as it ought. I think if you will lead the horse, Mary, I can lean on the bank and make my way safely down. Shall we rest here a moment, then give it a try?”
Usually, he hated admitting his weakness. In his own mind, he feared the doctor was wrong about his eventual recovery, and he sometimes wondered if the decision to keep the leg was doing him any favors. Somehow, he didn’t mind Mary knowing about the pesky thing.
Perhaps because he knew she wouldn’t make a fuss. In London, his male friends had looked away, embarrassed, and his sister and her friends had hovered over him and fussed around till he was ready to scream.
Mary just said, “Very well.”
They sat in silence for a few minutes.
Rick broke the silence. “May I inquire about your intended direction, Mary?”
She frowned at him, then looked pointedly away. “Am I in another bumble-broth from which you must rescue me, you mean?”
He smiled back. “Are you? I would be happy to be of service, you know.”
“I am no longer nine, thank you, Lieutenant Redepenning.” Her voice dripped ice. “I would not at all wish to further inconvenience you.”
Miss Mary was in a taking. What had he done to offend her? Rick hazarded a guess. “I called on you in London. Did you know?”
She turned startled eyes to him. “You did? When?” Then, brows drawing together, she asked, “Did my aunt send you to find me?”
So she had run away. “I called several times. Not recently. Not since your aunt told me that you had no wish to see me.”
An angry huff of air escaped. “She… I… That…” Mary swallowed whatever words might have finished the interrupted sentences, taking to her feet to march up and down the small, flat ledge, with her lips tightly pressed together, as if to stop any further outburst.
Rick waited. Her angers were sudden, but quickly over. In a few more strides, she would be calm again. How pretty she was, with indignation coloring her cheeks under the light dusting of freckles.
She stopped in front of him, looking down. “Rick, I had no idea you had visited, and I certainly never gave such a message. I would never turn away…” She blushed a little more, and finished, “…someone who served with my father.”
Rick wondered what she first thought to say.
“My aunt takes too much on herself.” She fairly quivered with indignation.
He ventured another guess: “And is that why you’re here, Mary? Your aunt taking too much on herself?”
Mary didn’t answer; not directly. “I am going to Haslemere to live with my Aunt Dorothy and my Aunt Marjery. I find the frivolous life does not suit me” She frowned down at the rooftops. “It is not far, is it?”
He accepted the change of subject, levering himself back to his feet. “Shall we have a go at this path, Mary? I can hear the coachman and his ducklings up on the road above us, and I would like to secure rooms at the inn before they arrive.”
Mary and the horse went down the path first. She waited at the bottom, trying not to let her anxiety show as Rick slowly and carefully worked his way from rocky step to rocky step. He was pale and pinched when he reached the bottom, but made a brave attempt at his usual jaunty grin.
“There. That is the worst of it. Lead us to the inn.”
They took the last one hundred yards slowly, he leaning at least some of his weight on the horse, she matching her pace to his without comment.
The innkeeper took the news of a stranded coachload of passengers in his stride. “Some of the men will ‘ave to double up, sir, but I’ve a good suite for you and your sister: two bedchambers and a private sitting room.” He looked at the two of them suspiciously. “And will Miss Reid’s maid be arriving with the others?” Reid was the surname Rick had written in the register.
“My maid, unfortunately, was taken ill and was not able to accompany me,” Mary said.
“You should not have gone on without her, sister, dear,” Rick scolded. “Fortunately, I was at home to receive your message and was able to follow after you before any harm was done.”
My goodness, he sounded exactly like a patronizing older brother. She snapped back, “All would have been well, if the coachman had not landed us in a ditch.”
He opened his mouth to say something more, but his leg suddenly gave way, and he lurched, catching her shoulder as she moved to support him, her irritation forgotten.
“Rick, you’ve overdone things. Oh, dear, I should never have let you walk. Innkeeper, you take his other side, and we’ll get him to his room. Oh, dear, why did you not say?”
Together, she and the innkeeper supported Rick up the stairs to a small but comfortable suite, leaving a servant to bring her luggage and Rick’s modest saddle bags.
“I just need to sit for a while,” Rick insisted. The innkeeper helped him to the room’s sofa, where he was able to stretch out the damaged leg.
Mary ordered water for washing, brandy for Rick, and a glass of negus for herself, to be delivered immediately. “And we shall want a hot meal, innkeeper, but that can wait until…” She looked at Rick uncertainly. A lifetime on shipboard had taught her that men needed to be fed regularly, but she also knew that pain suppressed the appetite.
“An hour, perhaps?” Rick suggested. He was lying back on the cushions, his eyes shut.
“An hour,” Mary confirmed to the innkeeper. After she had settled on a selection of dishes from those the inn offered, she kept herself busy to avoid thinking about the fact that she was alone with the man they called Rick the Rogue. Not that he’d ever been anything but a gentleman with her. And she was pleased about that. She was.
In the bedchamber allocated to her, she removed her bonnet and turned down her sheets, slipping a hand between them to check for damp. She then set out clothes for the next day, arranged her hair brush and tooth powder on the night stand, rearranged the screen in the corner, and used some of the water a servant brought to wash her face and hands.
She didn’t quite dare to enter Rick’s room, but she instructed the servant who arrived with the hot water to turn down Rick’s bed, and she stood in the doorway while the servant tested the sheets.
“Now put Lieutenant Rede… Lieutenant Reid’s bags on the coverlet so he can easily reach them. There.”
Rick was propped on the sofa cushions, his brandy cradled in both hands, his eyes still closed. Every few minutes, he would lift the glass and take another sip. She bustled around the small sitting room, moving the fire screen so he wouldn’t get too hot, placing a small table conveniently close to Rick’s elbow for his brandy and later his dinner plate, moving a light wing chair for herself, so he could easily see her without turning his head.
When she ran out of things to do, she sat and watched him. He really was devastatingly attractive. For a moment, she let herself dream she had a right to sit here opposite him, studying the planes of his face, the lock of hair that had escaped his ribbon and was teasing the side of his cheek, the broad shoulders in the uniform jacket he had loosened but not removed.
A knock on the door broke her reverie. Dinner. Yes. No more of this nonsense, Mary Pritchard. As if Lieutenant Richard Redepenning, Rick the Rogue, could ever be interested in someone like her!