Alex’s lungs heaved, and he sucked in a loud breath. It took a moment to realize he’d been unseated from his horse. That hadn’t happened in . . . well, he couldn’t recall that ever happening. It was a decidedly uncomfortable experience.
He forced his eyes open, and a raindrop landed on his nose. An upside-down cherub stared back at him. Pink cheeks, dark curls, brown eyes fringed with black. A tiny nose and full cherub lips. Had he died? Was this heaven? No, he was pretty certain heaven wasn’t the direction he was heading.
A hot rush of pain quickly set his angelic illusion straight. It lanced through his shoulder, sharp and fiery like a brand, and the back of his head pounded once again. He gritted his teeth against the onslaught before his eyes fluttered shut.
A whisper of warm breath fanned his face, then a cool, soft kiss landed on his cheek as he fought for consciousness. Maybe this was heaven, then.
“Robert, no,” the cherub spoke above him.
Who was Robert?
A snort brought his eyes open again and he turned, then recoiled. A pink snout pushed against his cheek. He’d been right. This was clearly not heaven . . . but not quite what he’d imagined hell to be, either. He shifted to rise, but the pain stabbed his shoulder again. Darkness edged his vision like the sea, rolling over him until he went under.
“Did he die, Mama?” Tilda asked with wide eyes.
“Oh, lud, is he dead then?” Penny’s strident voice pitched over the growing wind.
“No, poppet, he’s not dead.” At least she didn’t think so. Regina nudged his boot with her foot, but he didn’t move. His arm lay at an odd angle, and the shoulder beneath his coat looked . . . well, peculiar. Squared instead of rounded. That couldn’t be good, could it?
More drops of rain fell, beading on the dust in the foreyard. The clouds overhead were black and pregnant. A downpour would be on them soon.
She chewed her lip then sighed. There was no help for it. Apparently, life had seen fit to set an injured man in her path. “Penny, we need to get him inside.”
“Inside? But my lady—” Penny motioned with her hand at the stranger sprawled in the dirt.
“He’s injured, Penny. We can’t leave him here. He’ll catch his death in the rain.” If our pig hasn’t already killed him.
Penny remained skeptical but Regina had no wish to add murder to her list of crimes. She went to the dilapidated stable beside Robert’s pen, and eventually, Penny and Tilda followed her. She eyed the stable’s contents: a scythe, a saw, some small tools, a few lengths of rope.
“There’s not much to work with, my lady. And he must weigh twenty stone,” Penny grumbled.
“Not so much, Penny. Fourteen, at most,” Regina said. She tapped her chin and looked back at the stranger, hoping he’d risen on his own to go about his way. He hadn’t moved.
Robert stood at her side, watching them with his dark piglet eyes. His pen had proved useless to keep him contained, but perhaps . . . She bent and pulled the bottom rail off and set it aside.
“Mama, what are you doing to Robert’s pen?”
“Robert will have to sacrifice his pen, at least for the moment.”
“He can sleep inside with me,” Tilda said helpfully.
“No, poppet, Robert can’t sleep inside, but we need to borrow his pen for a bit. Can you bring a blanket from the house? Penny, help me pull this rail off.”
They removed three wide slats from Robert’s pen and dragged them next to the stranger. Regina found two lengths of rope in the stable and laid them on the ground, then they placed the rails on top of the rope to create a pallet of sorts. When Tilda returned with a blanket, the end trailing in the dirt, Regina laid it across the rails. Then she turned to the man and drew a large breath.
There was no way this was going to work. Penny and Tilda seemed to be in silent agreement as they both looked at her skeptically. She shrugged her shoulders. What choice did they have?
“Help me get him onto the rails, Penny.”
“Beggin’ your pardon, my lady, but there’s no way this will work,” Penny said.
All right, so maybe Penny’s agreement wasn’t so silent. The rain picked up, and Regina brushed a damp lock of hair from her eyes. “Well, unless you’ve a better idea, this is what we’re working with,” she told Penny.
Penny opened her mouth then closed it again and nodded. With Penny at his head and Regina at his feet they managed to roll the man onto their makeshift litter.
Regina was thankful he’d not awakened, for their efforts were far from graceful. More than once his head bumped the ground as they pushed and shoved at him.
“He’s got quite the egg starting on his head,” Penny said.
“Let’s not give him any more,” Regina added. “So much as we can help it, anyway.”
When all was done, he lay face down on the blanket, his arm still twisted at an unnatural angle. Bits of grass and twigs clung to his backside and coat. His legs, which Regina now knew all too well to be firm and muscular, hung off the end of the litter. Tilda, ever helpful, grabbed his hat and bag and placed them on top of him. Rain was falling in earnest, soaking them and turning the chalky dirt to slippery mud.
Penny eyed the distance to the cottage then the heap of stranger before them. “Now wot?” she asked.
“Now we lift.” Regina bent and picked up the two ends of rope at the man’s feet. Penny did the same at his head, and they both lifted. To be fair, Penny lifted, and Regina guided his feet at her end. His head was only a couple of inches off the ground at Penny’s end, but it was enough to move him. The rails shifted and gapped beneath the blanket, but the ropes held everything together. Mostly.
Inch by inch they moved toward the door, pausing every foot or so to rest their hands and arms. Twenty stone or fourteen, it didn’t matter. He was heavy indeed. Lift, shuffle, down. Repeat. The toes of his boots dug in the mud where they trailed off the end of the litter.
Once they reached the door of the cottage, the smell hit them. Burning Bath buns. Penny dropped her end of the litter, and the man’s head bounced with a thump. Regina winced, maintaining hold of her end of the ropes while Penny ran to the kitchen. “Penny!” she called.
Penny appeared at the door a moment later, sweat beading above her lip. “Sorry, my lady, but those buns won’t be any good, I’m sad to say. Lumps of coal, they are.”
Regina thought burnt buns were the least of their problems. “It’s all right, Penny, let’s just get him inside.”
They navigated the parlor to the small room at the back of the cottage. Regina surveyed the little bed and the man’s large frame. He wouldn’t fit, but there was no help for it. With one last effort, they half-rolled, half-dumped him from the litter onto the low mattress.
The bed’s ropes creaked and groaned beneath his weight, and Regina sucked in a breath, but the bed held. She stretched her arms, then rubbed a hand over her belly to soothe the tumbling inside.
“Mama,” Tilda said from the doorway where she held a placid piglet. “Robert likes it inside the house.”
Regina and Penny studied the stranger on the bed. It had been an hour and still he hadn’t moved. Regina checked the back of his head and confirmed he did indeed have quite the egg growing.
The acrid scent of burnt Bath buns hung in the air. The rain had come, lashing the cottage from the sea-facing side before moving further along the coast. Water dripped from the eaves outside the room’s small window and from a spot to the left of the bed. The room was a far stretch from the elegant guest chambers at Briarly, but then, they’d not been expecting guests.
Regina looked out the window and across the lane to the cliff’s edge, where more clouds gathered above the sea. It promised to be a wet evening. She replaced the pot on the floor with an empty one to catch the drips, the metallic tink, tink ticking off the seconds.
“Who do you think he is?” Penny asked. “He seems fine enough. Or he did, before we dragged him through the mud.”
Regina eyed the scuffed and muddied toes of his boots with a grimace. He did indeed appear a gentleman. She didn’t voice her suspicions that Foxwald had sent the man. Her thoughts were merely idle speculation, fueled by her momentary panic on first seeing him at the end of their lane. Given her fear of Foxwald finding them, her alarm had been a natural reaction. The man was probably just a lost traveler, and rousing Penny’s hysterics wouldn’t help.
“Oh, lud,” Penny said, breaking into her thoughts. “Do you think Foxwald sent him?” Her eyes widened and she gasped, clutching the edge of her apron. “My lady, what have we done? We should have left him where he lay and locked the door! He’ll drag us back to Briarly. Or worse, he’ll murder us in our beds.”
“Hush, Penny. No one’s murdering anyone. But the sooner he’s up, the sooner he can be on his way.” And the sooner she could relax. “We should summon a doctor. That’s quite the lump on his head, and his face seems too pale. I don’t like the look of his shoulder, either.”
“Maybe he always looks like that,” Penny said.
Regina studied him from the foot of the bed, doubting the truth of Penny’s words. Despite his waxen complexion and misshapen arm, he was, quite simply . . . beautiful. She could think of no other word to describe his appearance.
High cheekbones, wide forehead. Wavy hair in ten shades ranging from light brown to burnished gold. But his lips . . . She’d never seen lips that perfect before. Smooth and sculpted, the bottom one full and soft-looking. A small divot above where the top one dipped in. Light brown stubble framed them and outlined his jaw, and Regina pressed her own lips together.
“I’ll go,” Penny said.
“For the doctor,” Penny reminded her, studying the clouds beyond the window. “If I leave now, I should return before the next storms arrive.”
Regina nodded. She didn’t relish being alone with the man, but he was unconscious, and it was the most sensible plan.
TWO HOURS LATER
After Penny left, Regina remained by the stranger’s side in case he should wake. He was uncomfortably still, with only the slow, shallow rise of his chest to reassure her that he still lived. What would they do if he died? She didn’t wish such a fate on anyone, and they certainly didn’t need the attention that a death on their doorstep would claim.
She paced the little room while she waited for Penny to return and found her attention drawn back to him. He was nicely formed. Not too thin or too fat. He appeared to be tall, although from this perspective it was hard to tell. Judging from the length of his legs hanging off the end of the bed, though, she estimated him at six feet or more.
She bit her lip and moved closer for a better look. Yes, he was just as beautiful up close, but now she noticed thick lashes fanning his cheeks and faint lines etching his forehead and the corners of his eyes. He looked worried, even in sleep. Pinched. She wondered what color his eyes were.
He had a warm, citrusy scent at odds with the poor muddy state of his attire. Then she sniffed again and through the citrusy scent, she detected . . . mildew?
They’d closed the door on this tiny back room and hadn’t cleaned it yet, focusing first on the spaces they planned to use for their temporary stay. The linens hadn’t been changed and were likely infested with . . . things. Regardless of who the man was, common decency made her cringe at their poor hospitality.
She leaned over the head of the bed and inhaled again. Yes, definitely mildew. A loud inhale interrupted her investigation, and she looked down. A smile teased the corner of his lovely lips. His eyes fluttered open, and he stared at her chest, his perfect lips lifting in a one-sided grin.
“Oh!” She straightened and backed away from the bed.
Alex was in a field of waving lavender. The fragrance tickled his nose and calmed his mind. Maybe this was heaven after all. He smiled and his eyes drifted open.
The lavender “field” turned out to be a female. She was slight, but soft and plump in the best places. Yes, he was in heaven.
He lifted his gaze, and green eyes stared back at him. He had an impression of a small, upturned nose, thick black lashes and lush, kissable lips. Heaven was very fine indeed. He took a moment to regret his early death, but if this was heaven, it was worth it.
“Oh!” His vision jumped and backed away, and he turned his head to follow her movements. She faced him fully, and he stared at her rounded belly. Disappointment jolted him. Not heaven, then, for surely heaven wouldn’t tease him so. Pain returned to slam through his hazy mind.
His head throbbed a steady beat, but it was nothing to the pain in his arm. His shoulder was in fiery agony. He glanced to the side and was alarmed to see the joint protruding unnaturally. His stomach turned violently, and his vision darkened at the sight.
Don’t faint, he told himself. He forced his mind to remain alert. He’d never been good with gruesome sights—he would have made a terrible soldier or surgeon, in fact. He closed his eyes to the image of his shoulder and imagined a hand drawing the pain from him in one long ribbon. Except the ribbon never ended. It just kept coming, yard after yard of red silk.
The darkness at the edge of his vision beckoned, and he resisted. Forced his mind to focus. To pack the pain in a box and set it aside. Another trick from the monks of St. Augustine. The lid kept sliding off the box, but he slapped it back on. Off, then on, went the lid. Back and forth, until Alex slipped and dropped the lid, and the pain escaped to coat everything.
When next he woke, it was to the cherub’s face. She stood beside the bed and studied him with a disconcerting stare. Had he dreamt the lavender angel then? The sky beyond the room’s grimy window was darkening, and he wondered how long he’d lain there.
“You’re going to be all right,” the cherub assured him on a whisper. “I hurt my arm too. Last summer I fell off my bed. Well, I was jumping, but only a little. But Mama told me it would be all better, and it was.” She showed him a minuscule scar on her arm and waited, expecting a response, so he nodded at her.
She smiled, a broad grin with little white teeth, then bent to scoop something off the floor. “This is Robert,” she confided, holding the “something” to face Alex.
Robert was pink, with brown-tipped ears, as if they’d been dipped in mud. His memory recalled a pig’s kiss. His forehead wrinkled; that couldn’t be right.
“He’s not supposed to be inside, but we used his pen to get you inside, so now he’s here. He gets lonely outside.” He tried to follow her logic and failed. He was brought in on a . . . pig pen?
“Tilda?” A voice called from outside his room.
The cherub looked over her shoulder then back at him. “I have to go. You’re going to be all right,” she assured him again, then spun and left in a cloud of dark curls. The pig watched him from over her shoulder before Alex let his eyes drift shut again.
Excerpt © 2021 by K. Lyn Smith.
The Artist's Redemption is available in paperback and e-Book formats.