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LET me see him,” I said, brushing past the viscount to crouch beside Francis.
He was unconscious but breathing. I felt for broken bones and could find none.
“I think he is simply stunned,” I said at last. “What are you going to do?”
“I know what you would have me do, but I am not going to call the constable.”
“What then? Is your cousin to get away with his crimes?”
“I must think of my mother and my aunt. The shock of the scandal would be too much for them.
“I must protect Bowerly, too, with all that I have. If news of this gets out into the county, we will never lift our heads for the shame.”
“I understand what you’re saying, but is he to get away scot free?” My indignation rose on behalf of all the victims that Francis Williams had robbed.
Yet I understood what Charles meant. If justice was done, then Lady Anne and Mrs Williams would become victims, too.
“Francis will pay in some measure for the anguish he has caused,” Charles said grimly. “Come, help me raise him. We cannot rest here for the night. Then we must gather the horses and go back for the saddle bags.”
Yes, there was much to do before dawn broke. Somehow we sat Francis up and brought him to waking. He complained of a terrible headache but otherwise appeared unscathed.
The horses had stopped to graze on the dune grasses. I approached them on tiptoe and soon was able to bring them back to the two men.
Then came the tricky journey back to the woodlands. Francis maintained a sulky silence. Charles and I ignored him but kept his horse between ours in case he made a bolt for freedom.
Once in the woodlands, we came to a halt. Charles took the reins of my horse and I dismounted.
He tied all three horses to the tree. “I want you to go home now,” he said, “and this time I want no argument. Please?”
I yawned. I had never been so exhausted.
“You have done admirably,” Charles said softly.
He reached his hand to me and my breath stopped, but he didn’t touch me. He pulled his fingers back and stiffened his posture.
“Your hair is wild.”
“I’m sorry. I lost my bonnet in the woods.”
“Don’t apologise, it looks… well, it’s time you went. I have much to do before I can return to Bowerly.”
“What will you do?”
“You must go,” he repeated more firmly.
I turned then and walked through the trees, barely seeing the pale birch bark, the gnarled oaks and the angular bones of the ancient limes.
Where the trees fringed the fields, I glanced back. Charles and Francis were just visible. What was he going to do?
It was not my place to interfere further. I was simply the governess to his child. When it came to it, I had to obey his wishes.
I awoke in my bed quite disorientated. A watery sun trickled in. My breath showed white. The fire had not been lit.
When I tried to sit up, my muscles shrieked. All the activity of the previous night was being paid for.
There was a quiet knock at the door and Peggy stuck her head in.
“Are you awake? Shall I make up the fire?”
“Yes, please. What time is it?”
“Oh, it’s early yet. Did you sleep well?”
“Like a log,” I lied. “Is breakfast served?”
“I think so. His Lordship is up and about. Lady Anne is having breakfast in bed. Mary is still asleep so you can rest for a while if you want to.”
Peggy got the fire blazing nicely. She moved round the room, tidying as she went. I tried to wake up fully.
“I’ll bring you up some hot water.”
“Thank you, Peggy, you’re very good to me.”
She looked surprised.
“I’m only doing my job, you know. Mrs Dane said I was to make sure you had your comforts. She’s taken to you all right. You’ve got a place here now, a good home and you deserve it. Edna and Lil are that grateful you cared for them when they was ill.”
“I was very glad to be able to help.”