Julian Edward George St. John Trevallon, the twelfth Earl of Pennington, was sunk so deep in thought that his concentration wavered. Twilight had fallen and he struggled to see clearly in the gathering gloom. As the curricle turned a sharp corner in the road, he swerved to miss a dark-clad figure trudging along the grass verge. Swearing softly under his breath, he tooled the reins and regained control of the horses. He caught a brief glimpse of a white face and a flash of russet hair as the vehicle shot past the pedestrian.
A second brief glance and Ned’s exclamation was enough to bring the curricle to a halt. The dark-clad figure had toppled over into the road. Julian thrust the reins into his groom’s hands, his brows knitted in consternation.
“I could not have hit her,” he muttered to himself.
“No, sir,” Ned asserted. “There’s no chance of that. The ’orses would’ve shied away.”
“Stay here,” commanded the earl. “I cannot leave her there.”
“Take up a woman in the curricle? Ye canna be serious, sir!”
“For once, Ned, can you put aside your abhorrence of women and do as you’re told.”
Ned rolled his eyes skywards. “There’s a-gonna be trouble, sir. Remember all them animals ye brought home as a lad. Birds with broken wings, foxes caught in traps, rabbits—even that starveling village brat ye wanted to share ye dinner with. Now a female.”
Julian staggered back to the curricle bearing the woman in his arms.
“Don’t be ridiculous. She’s hurt,” Julian snapped. “Fetch the flask and get some brandy down her throat. I think her arm is broken.”
Julian laid his burden on the grass verge, loosened her clothing, and held her head while Ned managed to pour a few drops of brandy down her throat. The fiery liquid elicited a spasm of coughing from the young woman and soon her eyes opened. She gave a cry of alarm at seeing two male figures leaning over her. Julian helped her to sit up. Then he shrugged off his driving coat and wrapped it round her.
Silencing her feeble protest by placing a manicured finger against her lips, he said in a reassuring tone, “My dear madam, you are obviously unwell. Rest assured you have not fallen into the hands of two ruffians, although my groom here may have given you that impression with his frightening appearance.”
Ned gave a snort and the young woman smiled reluctantly.
“I am Julian Trevallon, the Earl of Pennington, at your service. Are you able to stand? I fear you have injured your arm.”
The woman’s dress, an unbecoming mulberry colour, was streaked with mud and another dark substance. Although she managed to stand with Julian’s assistance, her left arm hung limp.
“Try to take a few steps,” he suggested.
She attempted to obey Julian’s instruction, but fell against him with a moan of pain. He caught her in his arms and laid her back on the grass.
She said in a weak voice, “I thank you kindly, sir, but my affairs are not your concern. You are not responsible for my welfare. If you could convey me to the nearest inn, I will manage.”
She gasped several times, as if struggling for breath.
Julian frowned. “I think not. Pray do not agitate yourself.”
He turned to Ned, whose face was a picture of disgust.
“Ned, fetch the young lady’s portmanteau, which I see has fallen into the ditch, and then bring the horses round. We shall carry her to Penrose right away. She must see a doctor.”
“Ter Penrose, sir? Cain’t we leave ’er at the nearest inn, like she said? She’s no more’n farmer’s lass, most likely.”
Ned’s tone conveyed his protest at his master’s outlandish idea.
Julian’s frown deepened. “We will most certainly not leave her at the nearest inn, since the last one we saw was quite a few miles back and we are no more than thirty minutes away from Penrose.”
Ned’s expression spoke volumes and Julian knew exactly the message his groom conveyed. No gentleman of quality would take up into his curricle a strange woman whose unaccompanied circumstances and dowdy clothing were a clear indication of her low status. However, certain details about this young woman had escaped Ned, such as her educated tones, the soft, clear notes of her voice, her fine profile, and long white fingers which bore no signs of manual labour or a wedding ring.
To the earl, Providence had stepped in and delivered a solution to his problems and possibly those of this genteel, although evidently impoverished young woman.
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