Elizabethan England, December 1587
Christina Ashley leaned forward and breathed gently on the frosted window pane. Then, with a corner of her robe, she rubbed at the patch of glass until she could see through it to the December landscape beyond.
She shivered, but it was not the sight of the stark, leafless trees that chilled her, or even the cold, fireless chamber in which she stood. She was thinking about the terrible discovery she had made the day before. She was so preoccupied she didn’t hear the door open.
“Miss Christina!” Hannah exclaimed. “You’ll catch your death of cold. Come away from that window at once.”
At the sound of Hannah’s voice, a wave of affection warmed Christina. She turned and smiled at the elderly woman. Hannah had worked at Oakhurst Manor since long before Christina was born, and she’d always been a reassuringly constant part of Christina’s life.
“I’m not cold,” Christina said. “You know I never feel the cold.”
“I saw you shiver,” Hannah replied firmly, her gnarled fingers surprisingly nimble as she pulled at the laces of Christina’s bodice. “The sooner you’re dressed and downstairs by a nice fire the better.”
“Thank you.” Christina submitted obediently to Hannah’s ministrations, the elderly woman’s cheerful scolding instantly making her feel better. So much in Christina’s life had changed since the death of her parents, but Hannah’s loving behavior had never changed.
When Christina’s parents had been alive, and her brother, Jamie, had still lived at home, the whole house had been full of love and warmth. In those days, Christina would have gone straight to her father if she’d had a serious problem. But her aunt and uncle, Mildred and Henry Broadbent, were her guardians now. They were not loving, and they did not inspire Christina with a sense of security.
“Are you thinking about Master Jamie?” Hannah asked, smoothing Christina’s auburn hair into place.
“Yes, I was.” As Christina thought of her twin brother, her fingers lightly traced the outline of the dagger she wore hidden beneath her sleeve. Jamie had given it to her the day he’d left home three and a half years ago to seek his fortune on the high seas.
“A maiden should be able to defend herself,” he’d said, and he’d made her promise to wear it always.
But life at Oakhurst Manor was uneventful, and Christina had never expected Jamie’s gift to be more than a memento of her twin—until the previous day, when she’d realized that the sheath made a perfect hiding place for the treacherous scrap of paper she’d accidentally discovered.
“Have you heard from your brother?” Hannah asked hopefully.
Christina shook her head. “Not since that last, brief message he sent two years ago.” The message had been painfully brief, telling her no more than that he was alive and prospering. Nevertheless, it had brought her comfort. “I am sure he is safe and well,” she said confidently, aware that Hannah also waited eagerly for Jamie’s return. “I know he will be home soon. He promised he would return in time for our twenty-first birthday.”
“Then he’ll be here within the next couple of weeks—perhaps even before Christmas,” Hannah said, her face lighting up. “Even though he was a bit of a rascal, your brother always kept his promises.”
“Yes.” Christina smiled fondly. But Jamie wasn’t home yet, which meant she’d have to decide on her own what to do about the terrible letter she’d found in the parlor the previous afternoon.
When she’d first picked it up she’d glanced at it without much interest—until the significance of what she was reading had suddenly become shockingly clear. Someone in the household was involved in a treasonous plot against the Queen!
Christina had concealed the piece of paper inside the sheath of her secret dagger, and then she’d moved through the rest of the evening in a daze of disbelief and horror. She was living under the same roof as a traitor. Christina knew the dreadful discovery was too much of a burden to share with Hannah, but she needed to find someone to help her.
That person certainly wouldn’t be her uncle, Henry Broadbent. Dreadful as the possibility was, she was terribly afraid her uncle might even be the traitor.
But Christina was a loyal subject of Queen Elizabeth. She couldn’t just ignore what she’d discovered. Still thinking about what to do, she went downstairs to have breakfast.
To her relief, the only person present in the dining room was Cousin William, busily preening himself in front of the mirror. William was her uncle’s only son and heir. He was a thin, rather insubstantial young man, devoted to the most extreme forms of fashion.
Christina blinked at the sight of the huge cartwheel ruff around her cousin’s neck. It was larger than any ruff she’d previously seen him wearing. He was also wearing a padded peascod doublet. The doublet had so much stuffing in it, and his new ruff was so enormous, that he reminded Christina of a fantail pigeon, trying to impress those around him with his inflated plumage.
His hose were also padded with bombast, as dictated by high fashion, and they ballooned out half way down his thighs. The stockinged legs that emerged from the bottom of his hose were so skinny that they made the comparison to a pigeon all the more apt.
A flash of amusement briefly lifted her mood.
“Good morning, William,” she said cheerfully, pretending not to notice his embarrassment at being caught posturing in front of the mirror.
“Oh, oh… good morning, Christina,” he said, sounding oddly nervous as he held a chair for her. “Er, won’t you sit down?”
“Thank you.” She smiled at him politely.
William had always been highly strung, but he wasn’t usually quite so anxious. Did he also have suspicions about treason?
He sat down quickly, but fidgeted in his chair as if he couldn’t get comfortable. Then he dropped his napkin. The next moment his knife followed it with a clatter to the floor. He reached down awkwardly and groped around trying to retrieve them.
Christina watched, mildly perplexed by his difficulties, until she realized he couldn’t see either of the fallen objects over the top of his ruff. After a while she picked them both up and replaced them on the table.
“Thank you, cousin,” William said rather breathlessly.
He had gone quite red in the face, but Christina wasn’t sure whether it was from embarrassment or from bending over almost double for so long.
“Not at all,” she replied.
“There’s a bitter north wind blowing,” he said. “I think we’ll have snow before the week is out.”
Christina nodded, deciding that William’s lack of ease must be connected to his realization that it was mortifyingly possible to be too fashionable—not fears that his father was a traitor.
“As you know, we’ve been living under the same roof for the last five years,” he began abruptly.
“Four and a half,” she corrected. “You came in the summer.” The Broadbents had arrived at Oakhurst Manor within days of her parents’ deaths, and had immediately taken over as if it was their own home.
“Four and a half.” William accepted her correction with a small pout. “I remember my first sight of you, standing on the step in the sunshine…”
Christina looked down at her plate, and picked up some bread. She wasn’t in the mood to revisit memories of the most painful time of her life—especially when she had a pressing problem to solve.
After some more thought, she decided to take the treasonous letter to the local magistrate. Then she realized William was impatiently trying to regain her attention.
“Please forgive me, Cousin,” she said, pulling herself back to the present. “I’m a little distracted this morning. My thoughts were miles away.”
She smiled at him apologetically, but despite her attempt to make amends, she saw that he was staring at her with an affronted expression on his face.
“Since you obviously have more important things to think about, I won’t trouble you with my presence any longer,” he said petulantly, his dignity clearly offended.
“No, no, I’m sorry. What were you saying?” Christina said warmly.
“It doesn’t matter, it wasn’t important.” William stood up and stalked over to the door. But then he paused and turned back to look at her. “If you must know, I just asked you to marry me,” he said crossly. “I obviously picked a bad time.”
He closed the door with a slam, leaving her to stare after him in amazement.
* * *
Five minutes later Christina let herself out of the house by a side door and started to walk up the hill into the cold, northerly wind, letting her cloak fly out behind her.
She always took a walk after breakfast—though this would be the first time she ended her morning exercise at the magistrate’s house.
The grass was stiff with frost and crunched beneath her feet, and her breath misted in front of her. When she glanced down she saw that the hem of her skirt was covered with tiny crystals of ice. She hoped the clouds in the sky didn’t turn to snow or rain before she reached her destination.
She’d nearly reached the top of the hill when she saw two men coming over the brow toward her. She glanced at them, expecting to see familiar faces, but they were strangers.
Her first thought was that they must be traveling peddlers, but neither was carrying a pack of wares. Her second thought was that they were laborers in search of work—
But they were looking right at her, their stares reminding her of hounds fixed upon their quarry. Uneasiness crackled down her spine as they moved purposefully toward her.
“Hurry, Amos! Grab her quick!”
The gruff command filled Christina with fear. They wanted to grab her!
She picked up her heavy skirts and began to run. Her feet kept slipping as she raced downhill over the frosty turf. She could hear the men huffing and crashing along behind her, but she was certain she was gaining ground on them—until her foot skidded on an icy patch. She tried to right herself, but she was already off balance and her other foot caught on a frozen tussock of grass.
She pitched forward, sprawling headlong onto the hard ground. Gasping for breath, panic consuming her, she struggled to get up, but her clothes were tangled around her legs.
A man’s labored breathing sounded loud in her ears. She jerked her head up to find one of her pursuers was standing over her. For an interminable minute her terrified gaze locked with his wild eyes.
Then the other man lumbered up to them. He was much shorter and fatter than the first man, and his mottled red face glistened with sweat.
“What are you waiting for, Amos?” he demanded hoarsely. “Do I have to do everything myself?” With that, he stepped toward Christina with his arm raised.
Christina tried desperately to scramble away, but it was too late. A heavy fist crashed into the side of her head.
Nicholas Hawke, Lord Hawkridge, looked around the crowded alehouse taproom as he stretched out his long legs in front of him. Swirling the beer in his tankard, he peered into its murky depths and then put it down untouched on the table in front of him.
Three months ago, Nick had brought his ship, the Adventurer, safely back to England after a long, profitable voyage. Since then, he’d presented himself to Queen Elizabeth at her Court, attended to business in London, and spent the rest of his time at Hawkridge Hall, his Sussex estate. Now he was on his way back to Hawkridge Hall, after another brief visit to London.
He’d broken his journey at this alehouse to give his horse a rest, but the taproom chimney was blocked, and the resulting thick atmosphere was not to Nick’s taste. He much preferred the feel of sea spray against his cheeks, or even the clean frosty air of the December night outside, to breathing in acrid woodsmoke and stale beer fumes. He’d just decided to be on his way, when his attention was caught by the conversation of two men sitting at the rough wooden table next to him.
“I don’t see why I can’t take her home with me to do the cooking and cleaning and keep me warm at night,” a short, scruffy man complained. He was struggling to sit up straight on his stool, obviously the worse for several pints of beer. Eventually he gave in and slumped onto the table.
“Don’t be stupid, Jake Brown. You know how much he paid us to grab her and bring her to him,” his companion said. He was a tall, lean-faced man, sitting with his back against the wall. “He’ll kill us if we don’t do the job properly.”
“S’pose you’re right, Amos,” Jake said reluctantly. “Anyhow, I heard fine ladies like that can’t cook.”
“Wonder why he wanted us to snatch her?” Amos said.
“Dunno. I don’t care anyways. He paid us enough,” Jake replied, swaying dangerously as he sat up straight and patted the bulging purse which was tied at his fat waist.
“Such a pretty maiden. It seems a shame,” Amos said. He too was somewhat flushed and bleary-eyed from the beer, but seemed in somewhat better condition than his partner.
“Yes, so pretty,” Jake slurred. “A right good-looking wench. Come on, it’s time we had a bit of fun with her. There’s no one to stop us.” And with that he heaved himself to his feet, a wicked, lustful gleam in his beady eyes, and staggered to the door, pulling Amos Turner with him.
As the alehouse door closed behind the two men, Nick rose and swiftly followed them into the frosty night.
He hadn’t expected to have any adventures on his mundane journey home from London, but he’d been wrong. It seemed that tonight he would be rescuing a maiden.
* * *
Christina sat in near darkness. Her head ached and her stomach was knotted with a mixture of nausea and terror.
She only had the haziest understanding of how she came to be tied to a chair in this cold room that smelled of damp and mold.
She had patchy memories of lying in the back of a cart on a pile of dirty straw. The pain in her head had been worse then, and it had made the foul smell of the straw and the horrible jolting of the cart wheels over the uneven ground almost unendurable. She had no recollection of how she’d been transferred from the cart to her present location, so she must have been unconscious for that part of her journey.
For some reason she was convinced she was in the power of two men, though she couldn’t bring their faces to mind. She did recall men talking in the front of the cart while she was lying in the straw, but their exact words eluded her, and trying to remember their conversation caused fear to shudder through her body.
She was gagged with a nasty-tasting rag, but she inhaled a deep, slow breath through her nose, trying to calm herself.
She had to escape before her captors returned. She started to struggle against the ropes tying her wrists and ankles to the chair, but she couldn’t get free, and increasing dizziness soon forced her to abandon her efforts.
She sagged forward, tears of fear and pain filling her eyes. She had never been so terrified in her life. If only Jamie was here with her—
Jamie... the dagger!
Hardly daring to hope, she quickly pressed her arm against the chair, and sighed with relief when she found it was still strapped to her forearm.
Silently she thanked her brother for the gift which might save her life.
Save her life!
Resolutely, she forced down a new surge of terror, and raised her head to look around in the gloom, but a moment later muffled voices outside captured her whole attention.
Her blood turned to ice as she listened to scratching, fumbling sounds at the latch. She tried to swallow, but her mouth was too dry. She took a deep, steadying breath, and kept her gaze fixed on the door, determined not to miss any chance of escaping.
Her heart jolted as two men suddenly burst in.
“Here she is, pretty little lady’s woken up!” one of the men slurred, lurching toward her.
Christina cringed as he roughly stroked her head. Swaying from side to side he pushed his face close to hers until the rank stench of beer on his breath was hot against her cheek.
“Come on pretty little lady–it’s time to ‘ave some fun,” he said, grabbing her shoulders and planting a slobbery kiss on her forehead. Then he started to grapple with her bonds.
“Come on Amos, help me get these ropes undone. We can’t ‘ave much fun with her tied to a chair.”
“Wait a minute Jake,” Amos said warningly. “Broadbent won’t be pleased if—”
The door crashed open a second time.
Christina looked up to see a tall, broad-shouldered man standing in the open doorway. His black cloak billowed out behind him in a gust of wind and he emanated an elemental masculine power that seemed to fill the room with a crackling energy.
“Release the lady, you blaggards!” he ordered in a voice that cut like a whip.
Christina didn’t know who the stranger was, but her heart leaped with hope at his words.
Nick stood poised to act, cold anger vibrating through his body as he took in the scene before him. Even in the dim lantern light he could see that the men’s victim was indeed a pretty maiden.
She was gagged, tied to a chair, and gazing at him with wide, desperate eyes. Her hair hung in tangled locks around her face, and her pale skin was marred by an ugly bruise.
Nick’s anger turned to rage as he realized the men had already hit her, and he took a step forward. At the same moment Amos snatched a knife from his belt.
Nick instantly drew his rapier in a flash of glinting metal. Amos stopped in his tracks, clearly daunted by the dangerous weapon.
“Hah!” Nick said, furiously. “You’re not scared of a defenseless lady, but you’ve gone quite pale at the sight of me.”
Jake straightened up unsteadily behind Amos, staring at Nick in angry confusion.
The two kidnappers were so focused on the threat Nick posed, that they’d forgotten their victim. Neither of them saw her struggle free from her loosened bonds. Without any hesitation she stood, picked up the chair and brought it crashing down on Jake’s head.
“Bravo.” Nick laughed with admiration as the fat man collapsed, unconscious, to the floor.
Startled, Amos turned to see what had happened.
“Never turn your back on a man with a sword,” Nick said scornfully. “Luckily for you I’m an honorable fellow.”
Amos jumped around and lunged desperately at Nick with his knife. Nick easily side-stepped the attack and swung his cloak to trip his assailant. Amos fell, sprawling headlong into the table leg.
“It seems this wretch has knocked himself out,” Nick said, testing the truth of his statement by prodding the inert form on the floor with the toe of his boot.
With both her captors dealt with, Nick turned to look at the girl. In the lantern light he could see an auburn burnish to her tumbling hair—and the glint of the dagger she was holding.
His admiration for her grew. He didn’t know where the blade had come from, but he was impressed by the cool way she’d smashed the chair onto Jake at the first opportunity.
This maiden was far from defenseless, and he marveled at the spirit and bravery she displayed.
She was struggling to remove the gag with one hand, and he saw it was because she still held her dagger in the other.
“Allow me, sweet lady.” He sheathed his rapier and crossed the room to assist her—but she lifted the dagger, silently warning him off.
Nick went still. He could easily disarm her, but it wasn’t his intention to cause her any more alarm after she’d already been so badly mistreated.
“May I introduce myself?” he said. “Nick Hawke, Lord Hawkridge at your service.” He doffed his hat and swept her his most extravagant bow.
At his words, the hand holding her dagger dropped to her side. She finally managed to drag the gag down until she was wearing it like an ugly necklace.
“Lor…?” she began. Then she dragged the back of her empty hand across her mouth and he sensed she was trying to swallow.
“Lord Hawkridge?” she whispered.
“At your service,” he repeated.
“Drake’s friend?” she said. “One of the Queen’s Seahawks?”
“The very same.” Nick bowed again, not above using his reputation if it would help him gain the maiden’s confidence. “I see you’ve heard of my friendship with Sir Francis, and my exploits on the high seas.”
She nodded, and he was certain her eyes were now wide with admiration, not fear.
“Thank you for saving me, sir. I can never thank you enough…” She raised the hand with the dagger, then frowned at it, almost as if she was confused to discover she was still holding the weapon.
After a moment, she carefully slid the blade point first under her sleeve.
“It seems you keep a deadly ace up your sleeve,” he said, intrigued. “Where did you get it from?”
“My brother, Jamie, but I never thought I’d need to use it,” she said.
“Why did these louts kidnap you?” Nick asked.
She glanced down at Jake’s prone body, a mixture of loathing and bewilderment on her face, but when she looked up at Nick her expression had changed to one of obvious distress.
“I don’t know,” she whispered. “I don’t know how I got here…” She swayed slightly, and Nick quickly closed the gap between them.
“What’s your name, sweet maiden?” he asked, as he slipped a supporting arm around her waist.
“Miss Christina…” her knees sagged, and if Nick hadn’t been holding her, she would have crumpled to the dirty floor.
He lifted her in both arms, and her head lolled sideways against his shoulder.
“Miss Christina?” he said sharply, concerned by her sudden faint. He bent his head to press his temple against her face and knew at once that she was still in danger.
The room was cold, but her skin was hot with fever. His own blood chilled at the discovery. This was a threat he couldn’t protect her from with his rapier. He needed to get her to someone who’d know how to care for her with all possible speed. He strode out of the hut into the frosty night.
Christina roused to find herself being bundled up in her cloak.
“Nick Hawke?” she murmured.
“That’s right. Rest quietly, I’m taking you to safety.”
“All right. My brother says you are a hero,” she confided, trusting the strong arms that held her.
“And what do you say, fair maiden?” he asked.
“I say you are too. I don’t feel well,” she said, confused. “What’s wrong with me? I never feel ill.”
“You have a fever,” he said. “But you will soon be well again. Just rest now, I will protect you.”
“Yes.” She let her eyes drift shut, secure in the certainty that she no longer had anything to fear.
Nick mounted his horse, holding Christina in front of him, and wrapped his own cloak around both of them.
He was glad she’d given him her trust so completely, but unfamiliar worry was his nagging companion as he carried her through the freezing night.
He’d always been fearless in his own pursuit of adventure, and this valiant maiden had captured his admiration from the first. Every time he recalled her smashing the chair down on one of her captors he wanted to cheer.
He’d never felt such a strong, immediate attraction to a lady, and he wanted to get to know her much better—but he was concerned about the extent of her injuries, and he wished there weren’t still so many miles between them and home.
* * *
Christina was running, running, running… terror consuming her as she fled the angry man pounding after her. She didn’t need to look round to know it was Henry Broadbent, his vengeful fist lifted high—
She jerked awake, her arms and legs tingling unpleasantly as she remained trapped in her nightmare for a few lingering seconds.
“Easy, be easy,” a deep voice rumbled. “You’re safe Christina. No harm can come to you now you’re under my protection. Nick Hawke’s protection. Just rest quietly.”
Christina pulled in a deep breath and released it in a long sigh as her racing heart began to slow. She was safe with Lord Hawkridge.
As the tension seeped from her muscles she became aware of the muffled sound of hooves on the ground, and the familiar gait of a walking horse, though she wasn’t riding in any usual way.
It took her a moment to realize Lord Hawkridge was cradling her in his arms as he rode. She couldn’t see anything, but she could feel something covering her face.
She tried to move her hands to push it aside and discovered that doing so took an unexpected amount of effort.
“Be careful you don’t let the cold in,” he warned her. “Tuck my cloak tight under your chin if you must look out.”
At his words a vivid image of him standing in the doorway, his cloak billowing behind him, popped into her mind. If he was holding her inside that expanse of cloth, it wasn’t surprising she couldn’t see anything.
She managed to push it aside and gasped as freezing night air struck her exposed face. She shivered, goosebumps rising along her skin all the way to her toes, though the rest of her body remained fully swathed.
“Cover your face again,” he said immediately.
“Not yet,” she said. “I want to see.”
Even though her hands felt stiff and unresponsive, she managed to draw up his cloak until only her eyes were exposed, but the cold was still unpleasant. She couldn’t ever remember feeling so susceptible to chilly weather—and her whole body ached and felt as heavy as lead.
If she hadn’t felt so tired, she would have been alarmed by her weakened state. As it was, she noted it with only mild curiosity, and instead directed her attention to the frost-covered fields around them, which were glinting in the light from the half moon and stars above.
Then she looked up at Lord Hawkridge. From her position she could tell he had a short black beard, and well-defined cheekbones, but couldn’t discern much else.
He looked down at her, and though she couldn’t read his expression in the darkness, it sounded as if he was smiling when he spoke.
“Good evening, Miss Christina? How do you feel?”
“Safe and comfortable,” she replied.
His answering chuckle sounded a little startled, and then he said: “I’m glad to hear that.”
“Where are you taking me?”
“Home, so my mother can take care of you.”
“Oh.” She closed her eyes. Being taken care of by a mother sounded like a wonderful plan.
“Put the cloak right over your face before you fall asleep again,” he commanded.
His voice was so compelling it was easier to obey than resist, and then she turned her face into his shoulder.
Nick felt her body relax as she drifted back into what he hoped would be a peaceful sleep. She’d been restless for much of the journey, and he was relieved she’d woken lucid, because he’d feared the fever would make her delirious.
He told himself it was a good sign. As was her stubborn determination to look around. She wasn’t well, but the sickness hadn’t eroded her determined spirit.
“I will keep you safe, sweet Christina,” he promised softly, more determined than ever to do so.
Carrying her through the December night was certainly not the best treatment for her. But he could think of nowhere safer than his own home, and no better nurse than his own mother, so he kept his horse moving steadily in that direction.
It was well after dawn when he finally came within sight of Hawkridge Hall. As soon as he rode into the courtyard, servants swarmed out of the house and the stables.
“Martin, please ask Lady Hawkridge to come to me at once,” he ordered one of his mother’s men-at-arms, without sparing any breath on his usual greetings.
“Yes, sir.” The man-at-arms obeyed immediately.
“Barton, come and take the lady from me while I dismount,” Nick instructed the house steward.
He carefully unwrapped his cloak from Christina’s sleeping form and lowered her into the other man’s arms, then dropped lightly to the ground. He was just easing his muscles with a stretch before reclaiming Christina, when his mother came rushing out of the house.
“Nicholas! What is going on? Why do you need me so urgently? Oh!” she broke off as she caught sight of her unexpected guest.
“I need you to care for Miss Christina,” Nick said, carrying his sleeping maiden into the house.
* * *
Christina’s first awareness was of warmth and comfort. She thought she must be in her bed, but when she opened her eyes, she found herself gazing at an unfamiliar, heavily embroidered curtain. She closed her eyes and opened them again, but the curtain still filled her view.
She took a deep breath, swallowed because her throat felt so dry, and then rolled onto her back.
Now she was staring up at the canopy of an enormous fourposter bed, and she could hear the gentle crackling of a wood fire.
She lifted her head enough to see the flames burning cheerfully in the hearth. That fire was additional proof that she wasn’t at home. No fire had been lit in her bedchamber at Oakhurst Manor since Uncle Henry came to live there.
She tried to push herself up a little higher in the bed, and was astonished at how weak and tired she felt. Sighing with frustration, she sank back into the pillows. Where was she? What was the matter with her? And why did she feel so safe despite her bewilderment?
She tried to create some kind of order from the fragmentary memories and images in her mind.
A frosty morning—or was that a frosty moonlit night?
Choking terror… blinding pain in her head… a billowing black cloak—Lord Hawkridge!
As soon as his name sprang into her mind, she also remembered the horrible room where she’d been a prisoner, and the wonderful moment when he’d appeared to rescue her.
Her breathing quickened with excitement at the amazing, wonderful idea that she’d been saved by Nick Hawke himself! He’d carried her in his arms through the moonlit night to… to his mother.
Stunned, she tried to push herself up again, then flopped back onto the mattress when the effort proved too much for her.
Now she could recall women’s voices speaking softly and reassuringly as they’d put her into bed. She only had hazy impressions of what had happened since, but she was sure a cool hand had been laid gently on her forehead, and thirst-quenching liquid had been spooned between her parched lips.
Lord Hawkridge’s mother, she thought, dazed. She’d been nursed by the mother of one of England’s heroes. She could hardly believe it.
Even closeted away in Oakhurst Manor, Christina had heard of Nick Hawke, Lord Hawkridge. Like Sir Francis Drake, Lord Hawkridge was a national hero. Tales of his adventures had spread through the kingdom in songs and stories until nearly everyone had heard of him.
She heard the door open and turned her head to see a rosy-cheeked woman come into the room.
“Praise the Lord!” the woman cried, her worried expression lightening as soon as she saw Christina looking at her. “You’re awake at last. We quite despaired of you last night, we did. You tossing and turning and crying out delirious. And burning hot all the time. A fearful fever you had.”
The woman bustled across the room and poured a glass of water from a jug on the table beside the bed.
“Have a sip of this, miss,” she said, helping Christina to drink. “Now I must fetch my lady at once. She gave strict orders to fetch her the minute you woke up, even though she was up with you all night herself.” And with that she was gone before Christina had a chance to thank her or ask a single question.
Christina didn’t have to wait long to meet her hostess. Very soon the door opened again, and this time a well-dressed, middle-aged woman entered. She was dressed in the height of fashion, with her wide skirts held out from her hips by her farthingale.
Christina blinked. Neither she nor Aunt Mildred had ever worn a farthingale. Indeed, Christina had a tendency to think of fashion as something only foolish people cared about, but now she saw that living with William had given her a very distorted view on the matter.
There was nothing foolish about Lady Hawkridge. She looked very elegant in her damask gown, and she possessed an air of kindly authority.
She smiled as she perched on the edge of the bed and took one of Christina’s hands in hers.
“Good morning, my dear,” she said. “Bessie told me you’re awake. How are you feeling?”
As soon as Lady Hawkridge spoke, Christina could recall the way the other woman had soothed her through her nightmares, and even held her in her arms at one point.
“Your voice is so familiar,” she said, gripping Lady Hawkridge’s hand tightly as tears pricked her eyes. “You were so kind.”
“There now, you’re quite safe here.” Lady Hawkridge leaned forward and stroked Christina’s hair back from her face with a gentle caress. “You just need to rest for a while and you’ll soon be up and about again.”
“Thank you for taking care of me,” Christina said unsteadily.
“It was my pleasure,” her hostess said smiling, and gently squeezing Christina’s fingers for emphasis.