by Sabrina York
Ebook ISBN: 978-1-941497-13-5
[ Historical Highlander Romance, MF ]
He was convinced the battle of Waterloo made him half a man…until he met her
Daniel Sinclair shot up with a gasp. His heart pounded in his throat. Sweat prickled his brow. Skitters of horror danced on his nape. It took far too long for his brain to realize he was not ankle-deep in the blood-soaked field of battle. That the whinnying of the horses in the stable below was a far cry from the screams of dying men. The patter of the rain on the roof was not the thundering echoes of a thousand hooves battering the ground as a division of inexperienced cavalrymen charged the French infantry. The rapping on the door was not the staccato retort of countless muskets in a melee of agony and death.
The scorching fire in his leg, however, was real.
He shouldn’t have moved so quickly. One day, hopefully one day soon, he would remember in time. He was not a whole man. He never would be again.
Damn that dream anyway.
But it wasn’t a dream. Not really.
The knock on the door came again. “Sinclair? Sinclair? Are you in there?”
“Aye. I’ll be right out.” He gingerly readjusted his leg, searching for a position where it didn’t ache. He did not find one. One would think, after nine months, his wound wouldn’t still be so tight. The muscles would have healed, the ligaments reconnected. The pain would have lessened.
The doctors told him, time and time again, how lucky he was. That he could have lost his leg when a French lance ripped through his upper thigh. Had it nicked an artery, he would have bled out, right there on the field, as so many had.
The doctors were idiots.
If he had been lucky, he would have bled out that day, on the field outside the charming Belgian village of Waterloo. Then he would have been a dead hero, like Ponsonby and Lennox and so many others. He wouldn’t be half a man, a crippled veteran—of his first and only battle, no less—struggling to survive on a modest pension and the charity of his compatriots.
One of whom was awaiting him now.
He pulled on his trousers and boots, as well as a clean shirt, and limped to the door. Paul Beaufort, Earl of Sherstone and one of the founders of the club that had hired Daniel, stood on the landing. Despite the late hour—or the early hour depending on one’s perspective—he looked as fresh as a man who had just awoken. But then, he always did. He was called “Lucky” by his men because, unlike most of them, he’d never suffered any serious injury throughout the Peninsula Campaign or at Waterloo. He was tall, with short dark hair and warm brown eyes. His lips curled into an apologetic smile when he saw Daniel.
“Sorry to bother you,” he said. “I just arrived.”
“Not a problem, my lord.” Daniel closed the door behind him and followed Sherstone down to the stables, where a beautiful stallion patiently awaited a currying. Daniel quickly removed its saddle and tackle and began drying the horse off.
Sherstone helped, though he didn’t need to; it was hardly his job. “It was a miserable ride, I must say. All that rain,” he said as he fed his horse a handful of oats.
“Aye, my lord.”
The earl’s snort, rounding the room as it did, surprised him. “You don’t need to my lord me, Sinclair. We’ve been through far too much together for such formality.”
Daniel couldn’t help but smile. Sherstone had always been a good sort, treating each and every man as though he had value—no matter what. Many British lords were not so gracious.
“I appreciate that, Sherstone. I do. But we’re no’ on the battlefield now, are we? In London, you are a lord and I am a groom. And…” He waggled a curry brush at his friend. “Bluidy glad to be one.”
When a group of peers, who had served at Waterloo, had opened this club, they’d made it a priority to hire veterans. And thank heaven they had. Without this job Daniel would have nothing—not so much as a roof over his head—and he damned well appreciated the salvation.
Sherstone nodded. “I understand. But…when we’re alone, you should call me Paul.” He thrust out a hand and Daniel took it. Paul’s grip was firm and solid. Warm.
“Aye…Paul. I will.”
“Oh, thank God.”
“You go on. I can finish here. You must be tired.”
“Yes, I daresay I am. Perhaps I will see you tomorrow, Sinclair?” Sherstone asked.
Daniel held back his laugh. “Aye. I’ll be here.” Where else would he be? This stable was his life now. Its confines drew the perimeter of his world. This was now all there was. All there ever could be.
He had no idea why that thought sent a spiral of despair through him.
When he woke in the morning, the first thing he saw was the chess piece on his bedside table—a beautiful hand-carved knight, hewn of darkened wood. It sent a sliver of familiar anguish through him.
He should move it somewhere else so he wouldn’t have to look at it every day. Hide it. Throw it away.
Hell, what he should do was deliver it to its rightful owner, send the girl the damned piece and exorcize Lennox from his soul forever, but for some reason, he couldn’t let it go. It was all he had left. Besides, how could he face her? How could he explain?
How could he tell the girl her brother was dead because of him?
With a snarl, he rose from the bed and dressed, deliberately avoiding the mirror hanging on the wall. He didn’t like what he saw in that murky surface. The man he had become.
He was a killer. A man so weighted with guilt he should barely be able to lift his head. How many men had he sent to perdition with his saber? A hundred? A thousand? He had no idea. That was the darkest part of it.
Nay. Untrue. The darkest part of it was it had all happened in one day. One drizzly, rainy day.
He hadn’t killed anyone else, not a soul, in all of his twenty-nine years. Over ten thousand five hundred days where he’d managed to pass the time without so much as slaughtering anyone.
This did not make him less of a killer.
This did not make it any easier to look at himself in the glass. It didn’t make it any easier to shake off the specters of the past.
How they wailed within him.
He plodded slowly down the stairs, favoring his left leg, and checked on the horses before heading to the kitchen for breakfast. Though he took his time with each and every mount, he spent a little more with Hunnam, his own horse. One of the reasons Daniel had been so grateful for this position was that Sherstone and Colonel Worth had agreed to allow him to stable his horse on the premises. Otherwise, he would have had to sell his Grey, and that would have killed him.
Hunnam was a magnificent beast, well-trained and strong. Daniel had had several offers for him, but the stallion had saved his life more than once. He wasn’t a piece of property to Daniel. He was his friend.
It occurred to him he might want to revise his opinion when Hunnam greeted him with an exhalation that dampened his shirt. He could hardly blame the beast for his insolence. He was probably bored and frustrated. It was a damn shame Daniel didn’t get much time to ride him—a worse shame that more than once, with his weak leg, he’d been thrown. But several members of the club were more than happy to take the warhorse out for exercise at every opportunity.
They were a good lot, the members of the Incomparables Club. Daniel was lucky to call them his friends. Hell, he was just plain lucky.
He didn’t feel so lucky when he walked into the kitchen to find Fanny lying in wait.
Fanny was one of the few females the members of the club had hired. She served as chambermaid and occasionally assisted Brodie, the cook, in the kitchen. For some reason, she had decided Daniel was the man of her dreams.
Her attentions filled him with horror.
Oh, she was a beauty, to be sure, with flowing red hair and a sweet smile. Her body had all the curves a man could ask for, and more. Beyond that, it was clear she found Daniel attractive—although why, in his condition, he couldn’t fathom.
Before the war he would have welcomed her attentions with open arms. But now? Now she terrified him.
It wasn’t that she was ungainly or bucktoothed or ill-mannered. She was none of those things.
It was the fact that, when he looked at her, he felt…nothing.
When a man looked at a woman that beautiful, that curvy, that welcoming, there should be a warmth somewhere in his belly. A trickle of interest.
Hell, there should be lust. A raging firestorm of it.
But there was no lust in Daniel’s heart. Nor in any other nook or cranny of his body or soul. And there had not been for nearly a year. He despaired he would ever feel it again.
That was the worst part of all this. Worse than surviving when so many of his friends had not. Worse than the memories that refused to release their hold on him. Worse than the despair that sometimes clawed at his soul. Worse than the ever-present pain in his leg.
The reality that he was a shadow of his former self.
Half a man.
And Fanny reminded him of that, each and every time he looked at her. She reminded him of what he had once been. Of what he no longer was. For in truth, since that bloody dismal June day in Belgium, he hadn’t felt a stir of attraction for any woman.
“There he is,” she cooed as he stepped into the kitchen.
The smell of ham and eggs assailed him and his stomach growled. He nodded to Brodie and then to Fanny. “Good morning.”
“Good morning, darling.” She sashayed over to him, her hips swaying. Her bosom was full. Her expression was warm. He should have felt…something. But he didn’t. There was nothing. “Don’t you look fine?”
He had no idea how to respond to that. He didn’t know how he looked—avoiding the mirror and all—but he was certain it wasn’t fine. When he turned away, to take a plate from Brodie and sit at the table, she put out a lip and sat opposite him.
“I was thinking maybe you and I could go for an outing on your next day off.” She fluttered her lashes, as though that would add to her appeal. It did not.
She was appealing enough already.
“I doona take days off.”
She affected a shudder. “Och, I do love a brogue.” She propped her chin on her hand and gazed at him. “Say something else.”
He gaped at her. “What?”
“I doona know what to say.”
She tipped back her head and gusted, “Yes, yes,” as though the sound of his voice sent her into raptures.
Behind her, at the stove, Brodie rolled his eyes. “Don’t you have work to do, missy?” he grumbled. Brodie was not a man of many words, so Daniel appreciated the effort on his behalf.
Fanny shot a glare over her shoulder. Brodie met it with one of his own. Brodie’s glare won. She blew out a heavy sigh and stood. Then she pinned Daniel with a flirtatious smile and purred, “I’ll see you later, Daniel.” She made it a point to cross behind him as she exited the room, dragging her fingers over his shoulders.
When she was gone, Daniel let go a breath. “Thank you,” he said to Brodie.
“Bah, that one,” the crusty old cook growled. “Best keep your distance or she’ll eat you alive.” No doubt. “Ah. Just so’s you know, Colonel Worth is looking for you,” he added.
“Aye. I believe he’s in the morning room.”
“Thank you.” Daniel finished his breakfast and set the plate with the others to be washed and then nodded to Brodie before heading through the hall to find Drayton Worth, Baron Lansdowne. He wasn’t difficult to find, not with that red hair. Aside from that, he was the only one in the morning room at this hour.
Worth had been a colonel in the Royal Artillery, a nobleman of ancient lineage who’d purchased a commission at seventeen, but he and Daniel had met many times before they found themselves fighting together on a battlefield in Belgium. They’d been friends for years.
“There you are,” Worth said as he spotted Daniel. He folded his ironed paper and waved to a chair.
Daniel sat, though he was uncomfortable doing so; he was quite aware of his station, even if his friends seemed inclined to ignore it.
“You wanted to see me?”
“Indeed. A letter came for you with the morning’s post.” He slid the parchment across the table.
Daniel frowned. A letter? There was no one to write him. His father had died when he was a boy and his mother had succumbed to the ague when he’d been a young man. And other than Sherstone and Worth and a precious few others, his friends had perished on the Continent.
He studied the envelope—an address in Inverness, one he didn’t recognize—and then slid his finger beneath the flap.
The contents of the letter left him even more perplexed. He stared at it in shock.
“What is it?” Worth asked.
“My uncle has died.”
Daniel snorted. “None necessary. He was a hard-hearted old bastard.” He would never forgive Uncle William’s silence when Daniel had pleaded with him to help his mother. A few pennies could have eased her misery. A few more for medicine could have saved her life. But William had been too tightfisted even for that.
Aside from which, William had always deplored Daniel. It was so inconvenient when one’s brother married beneath the family standard. And an Irish woman to boot.
A familiar fury curled within him and Daniel crumpled the paper into a ball.
Worth tipped his head to the side. “I take it you and your uncle weren’t close?” Humor threaded his tone.
“Not in the slightest.”
“Who sent the letter then?”
“That is interesting.”
“Apparently he’s left me something. They’re asking me to come to Inverness and meet with them.”
Worth chuckled. “I take it from your tone you’re not tempted to comply.”
“Inverness is a long way away.”
“That it is.”
Daniel smoothed out the paper. “Knowing Uncle William, it willna be worth the journey.” The title and the estate would go to William’s son, Fergus, and anything of value beyond that would go to his other cousin, the one William had favored. It was highly unlikely he would have left anything to Daniel, the boy he’d once called a mongrel. If anything, this bequest would be a cruel jibe or a further insult to his heritage.
On the other hand, how satisfying would it be to throw this inheritance, whatever it was, back in William’s face?
Of course William was dead. He probably wouldn’t notice. But it would still be damned satisfying. A vindication. A statement of Daniel’s utter contempt.
“I think you should go,” Worth said.
Daniel shook his head. “I doona want to give up my position here so I can spend a month or more gallivanting around the country.”
Worth clapped him on the shoulder. “You will always have a position here, Daniel. Surely you know that.”
“There are many other men who need work.” The countryside was littered with war veterans, broken and broke.
“Yes. And one of them can fill in for you until you return. I think you should go. It would do you good.”
Daniel recognized the look in Worth’s eyes, the shadows. The guilt and regret and the ache for things to be as they once were.
Good God. How wonderful would it be to ride again? Take to the open road and ride? It was who he was. Who he had been at the very least. It certainly was who he wanted to be once again. In truth, Daniel yearned to feel his mount between his thighs once more. To feel the wind whipping through his hair. To grasp at some small piece of what had been Daniel Sinclair, valiant, daring cavalryman.
Aye, maybe a journey was just what he needed.