He ran a hand down his chin, a gasp of frustration on his breath. "It will be slow going either way. You've picked the deuce of a morning to have an accident."
I rubbed a chill from my arm. "You won't leave me to get help, will you? I've been alone in the dark for so long now. I'm certain I can manage with your assistance. In fact"—I moved to stand—"I know I can."
He hung his head, a curious tension filling the air between us. "All night, huh? You had to have been out here all night. What were you thinking, Charity?"
"I told you. How could I have known the horse would be so careless?" Nerves prickled down my back. What did it matter now? He was here. I was safe.
Another wayward glance down the road was followed by a difficult lapse into silence. I'd always been able to read Piers like an open book, but this odd intensity was nothing short of alarming. Had something happened in the week I'd been away?
He pushed into a squatting position. "Let's get you the rest of the way onto your good foot." One hand on my arm and another at my back, he tugged me effortlessly to a standing position. I would have been lying if I said the movement didn't send my leg throbbing, but I hardly noticed as I was lost in Piers's strange behavior, my mind afire to figure out what was wrong.
He placed his arm beneath mine, bracing me against his side, his other hand securing his horse's reins. "One hop at a time, and I suppose we'll get to Loxby Manor eventually."
I looked up into his troubled eyes. "What is it?"
He responded simply by pulling me close. "My estate is the closest by far. Don't worry, we'll fetch the doctor from there. I would never dream of leaving you." Then almost to himself, "Everything will work out." He pressed his lips together. "I have faith that it will."
He gave me a wan smile, but I'll never forget the look in his eyes, like he knew something I did not, like he'd lost something he knew he might never get back.
Five years later, 1816
I knew something was terribly wrong the moment I stepped foot back inside Loxby Manor—the pervasive restlessness of the servants, the strained silence of the front room.
I'd spent much of my childhood visiting its inhabitants, but my pace turned tentative as I peered in each open doorway of the ancient house, searching for the telltale presence of a coffin, for I could have sworn I'd stumbled upon the start of a funeral.
The Cavanagh's elderly butler, Mr. Baker, whom I remembered all too well, emerged from the shadows of a distant hall. The candelabra in his hand lit a familiar, but rather disturbed face.
"Ah, Miss Halliwell...There you are. If you would be so good as to follow me to your room." He hid the remains of a grimace as he motioned to the grand staircase. "The family is regrettably engaged at present, and since you are likely tired from your extensive journey, they've arranged for you to rest for the evening in your bedchamber undisturbed."
For a moment I stood as if nailed to the parquet floor, digesting his words without fully understanding them. Where was Seline or Mrs. Cavanagh? Or even Avery?
I glanced wildly about the dim hall as a shiver tickled my shoulders. Could it be true? Not a single member of the family could be bothered to welcome me back to Kent? Of course Piers Cavanagh was from home. I'd made certain of that before ever considering a long visit in the first place.
Mr. Baker waited for me halfway up the stairs, his voice dipping to one of impatience. "This way, if you please."
With little choice, I hurried up the carpeted steps behind him, my gloved fingers sliding along the curved banister. Yet on the landing I hesitated at the balustrade, my unwitting gaze hunting the small alcove on the ground floor that was only visible from where I now stood....