Westbury Falls: Episode #6

Great day in the morning, it’s time to get back to our little time traveling Lillian. If you need a refresher of what happened last time, you can find it here.https://thebeautifulstuff.blog/2021/12/02/westbury-falls-episode-5/

If you are lazy, like me, and don’t want to go back that far, we left our characters with Lillian running out into a storm, pissed off that she was stuck in a different time and about to marry some shady-ass-muthaf*&#ker and the good Dr. Blackwell, worried for her safety, because she’s too damn stubborn to take care of herself dashes out after her.

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And now–Episode #6

“Perhaps some other time. I am running quite late for meeting with my father and should not dawdle further.” He politely bowed, careful to lean back as to not come too close to the skin she so graciously offered up for perusal. She curtsied and Dr. Blackwell rushed from the room.

He indeed had a meeting with his father that afternoon, and so it was not a falsehood that allowed him to escape Kitty. But it was not his true reasoning. Acquiring his hat and gloves from the porter, he walked casually out the front door to the sound of thunderous clouds and the quickening rain drops that fell from the storm above. He looked in both directions, knowing that he should acquire his horse and go back to his father’s estate. He could, as Miss Darlingwood had advised, give Lillian the space she needed to ruminate over her “anticipated happiness”.

Only everything about her face indicated that she was not in the slightest way anticipating the impeding nuptials with happiness. Everything about what he’d observed felt that she was not at all pleased with what had transpired before her fall. Marriage was not always a cause for happiness but it would secure her future and she should not feel so passionately against such an advantageous situation. And he should not care that she was contrary to the idea. But from the moment he had taken charge of her care at the base of the stairs a week ago, he felt, deep in the soul of his person, that he was responsible for her safety. She was his patient. And she had just run out, unaccompanied, into the rain.

“Ridiculous,” he grumbled under his breath. How could he take care of a woman who so blatantly went against his good and sound advice? There was only so much he could control and she, with her strong will and stubborn countenance, did not make even those things easy. The rain began to fall in earnest then. Soaking his jacket and hat and making it difficult to see much past the gates of the estate.

“Blasted,” he cursed. Nodding to the stable hand who had brought his horse round, he mounted quickly and tore off in an expanding circular path around the grounds.

She would be wet and cold. Perhaps having damaged her stitches. Perhaps slipped and fallen in a gully. Bones broken, head split open, any number of horrifying injuries. Had she not a mind for the worry it set within his poor heart? His poor heart—he scowled and pushed the horse faster. His heart had nothing to do with wanting her to maintain her health and her reputation. Through the rain and wind, the rushing growl of thunder above, and the distant echo of it in the hills surrounding Westbury Manor he listened for a cry for help, but only the sound of distant gulls resounded.

His eyes scanned the horizon as his heart sped up with every moment that she evaded him. True worry, real and hard, began to seize hold of his good sense. He gasped and wiped the rain from his eyes. Matthew’s thoughts circled around in his head, just as his path circled through the gardens and expansive fields of Westbury. Why would a young, poor woman scorn an advantageous marriage?

Why would a young doctor refuse a prestigious seat on his father’s board?

Some things were simply not meant to be.

What would his strait-laced cousin think of her antics now? He could not fathom how a man like Fredrick would have considered her a suitable match. But knowing his cousin as he did, Matthew thought it must have everything to do with her being exceedingly beautiful. And his cousin had always been drawn to the shiniest, most sought-after things. She would, indeed, be a stunning trophy on his arm. A trophy that he barely made effort to get to know, to spend time with, to dote on. To even visit in her convalescence? Did she mean so little to Fredrick?

While Matthew, on the other shaking hand, could scarcely stay away even for the sake of the delicate propriety that dictated their strange and sudden relationship. Suddenly, he felt a pit of sadness open in his chest at the very thought of never seeing Lillian Byrne again.

“Blast, it all. Damn fool idiot!” he said again, not sure if his words were meant for her, his cousin, or himself. His eyes scanned the horizon ferociously.

Then, out in the south pasture, he saw her cresting the far hill. A sodden bonnet in one hand, an unused shawl in the other. Her hair, coming down in waves around her shoulders, out of the carefully constructed updo that hid her wound. Paled and soaked, she stomped determined up the hill. He urged his stead forward, down the first hill, and quickly up to intersect her path. The wind tore between them, swirling the rain round in a cacophony of sound and drenching water.

“Miss Byrne, I demand you stop this foolishness at once!” he yelled from behind her. Lillian, deep in thought, took two more striding steps with her skirt lifted, dropped the drenched and heavy material, and spun to face him. She pushed the hair from her eyes.

“What are you doing here?” she said. “You’ll catch your death!”

“Oh? Is that a matter of fact? But you are perfectly safe to be out in such a torrent?” He dismounted from his horse.

She scowled in response.

“Miss Byrne, I insist that you allow me to accompany you back home.”

“That is not my home,” she sobbed and pointed to the gray manor in the distance that was harder every passing moment to see. “Those are not my friends, that is not—” The wind stole her words and Matthew had to take off his hat and stomp nearer to hear.

“I don’t understand,” he said and stormed closer. Lillian stared at him as the rain fell from his nose in droplets and soaked his blond locks so they plastered to his head. He, in turn, watched the rivulets of it pour down her cheeks, drip off the shelf of her top lip, and its perfect pink peaks. The fullness of her bottom lip, wet and tender.

“Please come back,” he said as he came close, unable to take his eyes from her lips. Lillian’s fingers lost their hold of her bonnet and scarf and they fell in wet heaps beside her drenched and muddied feet. “This is no storm to be walking in. There is scarcely any air to breath with all the rain. We are worried over your well-being.”

“We?” she asked.

I am worried,” he said and hung his head. For all of the desperation to take her back and make her fit in the space and place a woman should, he did not try to touch her, nor did he force her to follow him.

“You—you were?” she said softly and tried to peer below the blond lashes that touched his cheeks as he gazed down.

“I was…much concerned,” he said softly and he knelt to pick up her belongings. When he looked back up, he noticed that the stitches of her wound had come loose, and a small trail of blood was now joining the rain to trace her cheek. He grunted and hastily took a handkerchief from his breast pocket, quickly pressing it to the cut and causing her to take in a quick breath. His fingers were warm as he put pressure to stop the bleeding.

“See now. You should have listened to me. Look what has happened,” he said, feeling relieved for having changed the subject and being able to reprimand her again instead of admitting to her effect on him. He took the cloth away and she stared at her blood.

“Perhaps your stitches were faulty,” she said and smiled up at him. He scowled at her snark and began to formulate an argument from his shock at her suggestion until he saw her smile.

“Why, you ungrateful little child,” he said and a smile played unwilling on his lips. She watched it grow with the speed of her heart. She liked that she got under his skin and so did he.

“I am no child.” She pressed further. He looked down at the wet, thin fabric across her breasts and the skirt that clung to the fullness of her hips.

“You certainly do not look like a child,” he whispered. Lillian swayed closer and he swayed backward in equal parts. “But your behavior suggests otherwise.”

“Well, perhaps you should have found a switch along your way to rescue me, so that you could take it to my backside and teach me a lesson for such immature petulance,” she countered.

“Miss Byrne!” He blushed profusely, shocked not so much that she had spoken such suggestive words but that the thoughts immediately occupied his mind. “I could not–could do no such thing! I would never strike a woman!”

“No?” she whispered and took his hand in her cold fingers and pressed its warmth to her face. If he would allow, she would show his hands all of the cold and drenched skin that now ached for his touch. He took in a deep breath and she could feel him pulling away.

“That would be the right of your husband, to dole out such punishment for your ill-mannered behavior.”

“And if you were my husband, would you?”

“Would I what?” he asked, his frown deepening with the effort to not allow his brain and heart the luxury of such a fantasy.

“Take a switch to my backside in punishment for my ill-mannered behavior?” she asked. His eyes sought hers, his breath quickened and she could tell he was in the throes of trying not to think of it. “Or perhaps, simply your hand to my backside would suffice.” Visions of her creamy skin, naked over his lap before a warm fireplace, his broad hand against the curve of her backside flooded his mind and his breath came in gasps as his eyes closed.

“Miss Byrne, that is a most improper thing to—”

“I am yet un married,” she said and looked up at him, into his eyes, showing the dark depths of her own desire by pressing her wet skin closer to him.

“You are soon to be.” He reminded, but his hand stayed for a moment and he looked as though he wanted to pull her in for a kiss. She leaned forward. “Lily, please—” he interrupted. “You must come back with me so that I may mend the stitches before you bleed out or catch your death of cold. I shall write my cousin this afternoon to let him know that you are in need of his company.”

“I am not—”

“Do not—” he sighed exasperated and reached out, “argue with me, Lily!” taking her by the hand he pulled her to the patient stead.

“Lily?”

“If you are determined to act like a spoiled child, then you shall be addressed as one,” he growled. “Does my cousin even know what kind of trouble he has set himself up to inherit?”

“Perhaps it would be best if he were to just call the whole thing off!” she yelled back and struggled against his strong hand that held fast despite the pouring rain.

“The arrangement is made, do not jest so boldly to undermine your promissory words. It is most unbecoming of a young lady and will only serve to ruin your family’s good name and your reputation.” Lillian felt as though she might throw up as he lifted her easily onto the back of his waiting horse.

“I can walk damn it!” she burst out.

“You will do as I tell you!” he yelled back and with a grace she’d never seen possessed in any person, he swung up on the horse behind her. “And I will see to it that you obey!”

“I will not obey you!” she argued and squirmed against the strong arms that held her fast. He tightened his grip and his chin sunk down firmly into the crook of her neck and shoulder. His hot breath on her neck, his voice in her ear.

“Please, Lily, I only ask to protect you. You would not survive the financial ruin. You would not survive the poverty I have seen in young women who have fallen out of society’s good graces. And, as if you did not know, let me patiently remind you that even a simple rainstorm has been known to cause life-ending fevers. Especially for those who have been exposed to great trauma. Please, for the sake of my heart, come home.” His voice turned desperate and he placed a delicate kiss to her neck, just below her ear.

“I do not like men telling me what to do,” she said back to him, though the warmth of him, the way his lips shook against her skin, and how his hands gently caressed her waist, felt as though he were trying to apologize in touch.

“I do not blame you. And I’m sorry if I seemed—too forceful. I am not used to a—a woman like you. You’ve quite befuddled me, Lily, in ways I don’t know how to recover from.”

“I just can’t marr—”

“Please do not say it. Please, my dear Miss Byrne, trust that you will find happiness, in some way, some form by staying the course of this engagement. I believe you will. I must believe it for I cannot bear any thought that it would be otherwise. And so, you must believe it too, for my sake.”

Lillian stopped her struggle, sobbed, and wrapped her arms around his, leaned back into the warmth of his strong chest and allowed him to guide the horse back to the manor.  What were the chances she could find a way home before she was forced to marry Fredrick Sutton? What were the chances she would be able to stay away from his cousin until then?

Both seemed very bad odds.

She held still and quiet, unusually quiet for her, while he stitched up her cut. She had been watching his steady fingers and hard, unflinching eyes as he worked, but it only served to make her fall more deeply in the trouble of affection with him. He glanced once down to her eyes, to see her staring at him and his brow fell.

“Does it not bother you to watch? I know this must—” he paused steadying his hand as he knotted the delicate thread.

“Hurt like hell?” she asked quietly so Kitty would not hear from where she sat on the settee beside them, watching her like a hawk. Instead of shock he simply smiled out one corner of his mouth and nodded. She spoke more loudly to dissuade suspicion on Kitty’s part of her curse and her blooming feelings.

“I’m hoping I can learn to improve my embroidery skill by watching you. Kitty tells me I am quite dreadful and wonders who must have been responsible for my instruction.”

“Who indeed had that pleasure?” he asked distractedly as he cleaned the remaining blood from the wound and that which had trailed down her cheek in the rain. Miss Darlingwood looked over at them.

“Yes! Who in deed, I think I would very much like to reprimand them.” She chimed in.

“I do not recall,” she said softly and looked back down at her hands, knowing very well that she had never in fact been taught the art as all respectable young women of the age were.

“Well, failing at one thing, I am well aware that you have many other talents,” he said, tossing the bloodied cloth into a pan of water. Miriam collected the first aid materials on a tray and left in the stealthy manner of a woman who runs the household without ever being seen.

“And how can you be so assured of my talents?”

“My cousin tells me you are quite the accomplished at the piano forte.”

Lillian’s head was not up to the challenge of puzzling through how she’d pull off living up to such a reputation.

“Oh that’s right! Why I’ve heard from Mr. Bryne that you play quite beautifully and are quite the accomplished singer.”

“Is that so? I would very much like to hear that someday. When I visit Mr. Sutton and you that is.” Dr. Blackwell said as he cleaned and put away his instruments, throwing small glances her way as if to remind her.

“I assure you; rumors of my talent have been greatly exaggerated.” Lillian said dryly. While she may have indeed learned and played the piano at the insistence of her mother for most of her life, she knew that the two were separate and different instruments.

“In such cases as this I would normally argue that such modesty is becoming of a young lady.” He smiled but Lillian did not return the smile.

“Finally, I am acting becoming,” she said and rose to put space between her and the doctor. Kitty looked up from her sewing as Miriam cracked the door

“Beggin your pardon Miss Darlingwood, but Master Byrne has asked if he could join you all later for tea and I wanted to ask you about the menu,” she said quietly from the door way. Kitty rose with a huff, not sure she wanted to converse with Mr. Byrne over tea, as he’d teased her mercilessly just last week about a curl that had escaped her carefully tended styling and made her feel quite self conscious. While she hovered at the doorway to talk to Miriam, Matthew caught Lillian by the wrist.

Normally, I said.” His finger gently traced an arch over the delicate skin. “But we both are aware that you are too honest to be concerned with other’s opinions.”

“I beg your pardon, Sir,” she said quietly as to not gain Kitty’s attention even as a fire lit her eyes. She moved to storm away, but he held her by her wrist.

“Feel, the angel’s heart as it beats faster,” he whispered and gauged her pulse. Lillian stopped; the world hung on his lips at the endearment. “Let us agree, Lily, to never be dishonest with one another. Though we are merely friends, it would do my heart much good, and give my soul ease to find an honest woman in my small social circle.” He spoke the words only realizing afterwards that they were, in themselves, more honest than he’d ever spoken to a woman. In the strange and misleading world that was always evolving around them, women and men stood in constant foreplay of truth and deceit, one always vying for the power over the other. Such an arrangement of honesty with Lily in particular would benefit not just himself, but her as well.

“I’m sorry that you’ve found no such honesty from my counterparts so far into your life. Though do not be misled that men are more upstanding. They have their share of plays for power through falsehoods I have sadly learned in my short time here.” She moved to pull her wrist away but he stood up and took her other arm in his as Kitty was now quite engrossed in the exact ingredients for the scones that would need to be made precisely in a certain way, despite the fact that Miriam had been making the most scrumptious, light as a feather scones since the time she was nine.

“Then I will make you the same promise,” Matthew said quickly. “To always be honest with you, even when the questions and subjects you bring forth to me are difficult to broach. Even if I am frightened of what I may divulge, I will always allow the truth to win out.”

Lillian raised her hand suddenly and offered it out to him. But instead of the customary delicate touch and curtsey, she held his grip fast, as if shaking the hand of an equal and he smiled to feel it.

“It is a bargain, sir. One I swear I will always try with every ounce of my being, to execute.”

“As will I, Miss Byrne.” He smiled and dropped her hand, just as Kitty turned back to them.

“What a horrifying ordeal!” she said with exhaustion and went back to her work going on to lament how Lillian’s brother had gravely affronted her with the tease. Lillian wanted to tell her it could be much worse. That her actual brother would prank her mercilessly even going so far as to cut off sections of her hair while she slept the night before school pictures. She opened her mouth to defend the goodness of this alternate Will but closed it again and sighed. When she looked back, Matthew was staring at her strangely, as if he’d been studying her. He pretended to inspect his new stitches while he stepped closer as Kitty continued in her own conversation of previous vexation.

He looked at her lips and, as if testing the deal they had struck, he leaned forward. “In our new arrangement of honesty, I feel it is my place to inform you that I would much rather seal our new contract with a kiss,” he whispered.

“I would prefer that as well, but I know that it would sully both our reputations should we be found out and I would not make a dishonest man of you, as you once so deftly lectured me on in the middle of a rainy hillside. Not twenty minutes past to be exact,” she whispered back.

“Ah, see, your memory is improving already,” he teased and moved back and away from her.

“Wonderful! Perhaps I will one day remember why I agreed to an engagement.”

“Don’t all young women want to be married?” he said and went to stand beside the window while he rolled his cuffs back down. Lillian watched him from the corner of her eye, while Miss Darlingwood sat in the other end of the couch and looked up periodically between them.
            “Yes of course,” Kitty chimed in without even thinking. Lil rolled her eyes. She could think of no way to control her features and now that she’d agreed to be honest with him, she didn’t feel it would be right to agree so readily.

“Some women are much in want of adventure. We surely don’t want to sail in calm seas all our lives,” Lil said, recalling one of her favorite Austen sayings. Kitty gasped. Matthew turned his curious blue gaze on her.

“Miss Byrne! What an awful thing to say, indeed!”

“Not at all—” Matthew spoke.  “Calm seas make for dull years. Storms build character and strength, even surprises and happy stories sometimes.”

“Surely you jest, Dr. Blackwell.”

“The best stories often come from our—wildest adventures,” Lillian agreed. “We’ve only one heart. One body, one life. Why would I want to spend it in only one place?” Matthew looked at her with quickening breath.

“Why indeed?” he whispered, falling into a trance that led him to believe that there could be no other woman for him in the world, than Lillian Byrne. And damn his cousin or the consequences that came from the realization. He could not take his eyes from hers. Kitty tittered nervously between them.
            “But what of safety, security? Home life?  Surely you would not want to tempt starvation and death all the days of your life.”

Lillian couldn’t look away from Matthew. “To some, marriage is a cage. A starvation of self, a death of soul,” she whispered softly.

“What a horrible thing to say, Miss Byrne!” Kitty struck out suddenly with a sharp reprimand. Matthew smiled strangely at her uncharacteristic poeticism.

“Perhaps—” he interrupted in calming tones, “the right marriage, to the perfect match, would be a feast of adventure, a finding of self, a life—made whole.” he whispered and looked down at her lips. Lillian nearly fell to her knees and ached to rush into his kisses, his arms, his bed.

A Little Excerpt: Westbury Falls

Good morning, readers. I was puzzling over what to post about this week and in the middle of editing one series, formatting and finishing a first rough draft of the poetry anthology, and trying to adjust to new school schedules, I thought–what would I like to read? Sorry to say, nothing on editing. I live and breathe that stuff currently. Poetry was last week and again next…I’d like to read something light. Something fun and fantastical. So here we have it. A little book I started (and nearly completed) last November that’s beyond rough but one of my favorite new multi-genre experiments. Think Quantum Leap meets Jane Austen. It is, tentatively titled “Westbury Falls” and, if I have my way will be part of a loosely connected series someday. But only if I get my editing done (You can’t have your pudding if you don’t eat your veg).

So–without further ado, enjoy some “pudding” in the middle of your veg filled life.

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Westbury Falls

Chapter 1

Lillian Byrne fell face first down the stairs as was typical of her style. She never did anything by halves, be it her dramatic monologues explaining over the dinner table why her history paper had been only partially completed, or the hundred or so accidents she managed to survive in the span of a week.

So, when the toe of her converse caught the frayed carpet on the precipice, of what must have been the fiftieth English manor her mother had dragged her to in the course of a week, she almost expected the epic tumble down all four flights of the narrow and steep stairs. Her brother, no doubt, was laughing his ass off from the top, soon to call down that she was stupid and uncoordinated. Her mother would run to fuss for a few moments before she became engrossed in some placard explaining some little-known fact about Charlotte Bronte’s knickers or Jane Austen’s secret seaside romance.

It wasn’t really her mother’s fault. Being a wall street trade floor manager left very little romance in her mother’s post-marriage life. That’s why they were here now after all. That’s why she’d been on the “Footsteps Through the Past Literary Tour” of Westbury Manor. Why she was sharing a tiny hodgepodge room, filled with antiques and moth ball-ridden closets with her idiotic, ivy-league-bound brother who only feigned interest to gain their mother’s favor.

And this. This feeling of weightless abandon, was probably just a universal decree that she should fall, knees knocking like a leggy foal, tumbling and tangled, down the wooden steps, a mess of human limbs. She hadn’t been concerned until she felt a banister crack her temple rudely, then two balusters after that following suit, smashing against her ribs and back. Her unfocused gaze made out the lace-lined light from the window above her, before the light swelled to gray and an enormous pressure took over her skull. The world closed itself to her like a porthole getting smaller and smaller until a pinprick of light twinkled out and she was gone.

“Miss Byrne, Oh Heavens! Miss Byrne!”

Lillian heard through the suffocating clouds of fluff between her ears. Some attendant must have found her, but her head hurt far too much to try opening her eyes just yet.

“Mom,” she croaked.

“Oh, poor dear… she’s calling for her nursemaid.”

“No…nurses. I’m fine,” Lillian mumbled.

“Poor child, she’s had a right awful fall,” came a muffled cockney reply in the deep accent that Lil was sure was being over done on account of her being a tourist.

“It’s cool, I’m used to falling,” she groaned and tried to rise to her knees but the dress caught beneath her and pulled her back down.

The dress?

Lillian’s head swam with pain and she put her forehead to the cold wooden floor. Maybe she’d accidentally taken a curtain with her or some tapestry had come down and off the wall in her tumble. It certainly felt hot and uncomfortable wrapped around her. She tried kicking it off before steady hands stilled her and held her down.

“Easy now, easy Miss. Your head has a terrible bleed, you need to stay still. We’ve just now sent young Master Byrne to fetch the doctor.”

“Master Byrne?” Lil scoffed, hating but not surprised that her brother had somehow convinced the staff to call him by a title. The floor pressed against her forehead even harder and she felt blood slowly pooling in a warm ring around her cheek and ear.

Mom was going to be overly worried now and probably wouldn’t let her climb more towers any time soon, she thought, before slipping into the darkness.

Lillian was dreaming and woke in the groggy, underhaze of not knowing exactly where she was. She must have been in a hospital, but heard not the raucous machines.

Heard not?

Was she thinking in proper Elizabethan English? She must have cracked her skull harder than she’d thought to be dreaming in Austen-ese. Lillian chuckled and cool fingers came to touch her forehead gently. She closed her eyes and sat back into the pillows.

“Ah, there breathes the angel, in laugher she does beguile me further.” The deep voice was soothing as velvet in the dark room. She must be dreaming. No one ever called her an angel, and certainly no man. What could such a suitor look like? Surely divine in both nature and stature. Lil’s brow drew in. She tried to sort out the confusion of cotton and haze in her mind

Surely poetic musings were a definite sign of a brain bleed.

Fingers delicately touched her wounded temple, eliciting and incredible flash of pain that should have been dulled by the medication they would have given her. Her violet eyes sprung open and she expected them to be assaulted by the fluorescent lights of a hospital ICU, but only darkness surrounded her. Cool darkness, a canopied bed, and the outline of a golden-haired man coming into focus. He had a strong dimpled chin and beautifully full lips. His eyes searched hers; blue as a Whitby sea on a clear and bright day.

“Ah, the angel awakens. Such a shade of eyes I’ve never been more contented to fall into.” He whispered and his fingers traced her cheek. Lil’s mouth, dry and empty fumbled, lips moving but no words coming. She wasn’t in a hospital; she was surely dead and this heavenly being was sent to take her to the afterlife.

“You are surely mistaken, good sir, for no more a divine face have I ever gazed upon than that which lies before me now,” her voice was husky with sleep, and slipped into an accent that did not feel unnatural. She’d only been visiting the UK for a few weeks; how could her speech have altered so? Maybe she was dead.

“Miss Byrne,” he whispered and they gazed, in equal parts profound wonderment. His eyes closed and he shook his head as if to right his thoughts. “You must not speak,” he said more seriously with the morose dictate of a professional. As if her being awake had changed his whole demeanor. “You have succumbed to a terrible fainting spell, I’m afraid.”

“Oh, I did no such thing! I’m not some wilting flower!” Her sudden and strong argument took him back and he sat straighter from her bedside from the surprise. “I tripped. I’m a bold and fumbling clod at best.”

The smallest of smiles pulled at the corner of his beautiful lips and she was determined that she needed nothing more in life than to kiss him.

“You fell.” He acquiesced a compromise.

“I think I’m still falling,” she whispered back and her eyes fell closed to the idea of his kiss against the subsequent throbbing of her head. When she tried to breath in, he whole rib cage felt tight and limited. She placed a hand to feel a secure bandage over the tender ribs. Surely, they had some kind of pain medication? As she fell back into the pillows, she tried to sort out the moment.

Why hadn’t they taken her to a hospital? Maybe the ambulance was still on its way out to the middle-of-nowhere estate they’d been visiting. This overzealous young actor was probably having a hard time getting out of character. She groaned again and put her fingers up to her head where she found a scratchy bandaged secured around it.

“Please. Miss Byrne, please do not touch it, we’ve just now managed to staunch the bleeding. And, I don’t like to praise my technique, but the stitching is quite delicate in order to save you the horror of a permanent scar.” His hands encircled her wrist, and it seemed small between his fingers. His hands were warm, as they paused, thumb to her pulse. She looked out from her lashes and watched him counting the time on his pocket watch to the beat of her heart. The horror of a permanent scar? As if that’s the worst thing that could happen to a girl? She tried to focus on the young actor more closely.

“Who are you?” she whispered.

“I’m afraid, we have not yet had the pleasure of meeting. I am Dr. Blackwell—Matthew Edward Blackwell,” he paused to clear his throat, “Junior, of course. My father insists while we practice within the same province that I remind every patient who is the senior, more experienced physician.”

“You’re a—“she paused and looked at the dimple in his youthful chin. “Aren’t you a little young to be a doctor?”

The quick twitch of smile threatened again at the corner of his mouth and she moved her hand to touch it, but he held her wrist fast.

“I am eight and twenty. I’m surprised you would think me youthful.” A new expression passed over his face, perturbed and confused.

“I beg your pardon, good sir,” she said as quietly as possible, falling into the ridiculous speech play that he seemed insistent to keep up. It somehow felt more natural for every moment she spent in what was she assumed was wakefulness.

“I’ve fallen and hit my head and am not to be trusted in my opinion or observations. I meant no disrespect of your position. Indeed, I am most grateful that you are here. It is your youthful and divine dimple that confuses my befuddled mind so.”

His thick throat swallowed as he looked back down to her eyes, falling into them in a way that seemed to cross the lines of good bedside manner into something much more akin to other activities in the bedroom. She sighed. He looked torn, his brow drawing together.

“Your compliments are ill placed, Miss Byrne. I certainly do not deserve such praise from such an—accomplished young lady such as yourself. One, who should, by all accounts and in her current state of mental confusion, should be cautious how complimentary she is. Especially given the promissory nature of your engagement to my cousin.”

Lillian sat up, far too quickly, and nearly startled the good doctor from his bedside perch. She took in a sharp breath and put both hands to her head.

“What the hell are you talking about? I’m not engaged to anyone!”

“Miss Byrne, please!” the use of her swear seemed to amuse him more than shock him, but he looked hither and to, all the same to see who else had witnessed her uncommon outburst. They were alone in the room as the maid had been sent to fetch water and clean cloth for her next change of bandage. “Such language from a young woman of your standing is most unbecoming.”

“Look, pal, I think you’ve taken this act far enough–” the world turned and tipped around her.

“Act? Pal?” the doctor’s voice receded as Lilian felt the world go black again.