Home > A Scoundrel of Her Own (Sinful Wallflowers #3)

A Scoundrel of Her Own (Sinful Wallflowers #3)
Author: Stacy Reid

 

Prologue


   Lynmouth, 1807

   Someone was carrying her.

   An exceedingly small someone, perhaps as small as herself, Ophelia thought groggily, her brain numbed and tired from the biting cold. Something important niggled in her thoughts but eluded her whenever she tried to catch hold of it. The person beneath her grunted, pausing for a few seconds before resuming their determined trek.

   “Am I not too heavy?” she murmured into the crook of the person’s neck, which smelled odd, almost like horses or wet puppies. Her hands around the neck felt heavy, the exertion to clasp them tremendous.

   “Yer no more than…than a sack of potatoes, me gather,” a little boy’s voice replied in a sweetly lyrical accent she’d never heard before. “But do not let me go. Hold on tight.”

   She wanted to part her lips and reply, but the effort felt enormous, and her heart fluttered in panic. Her thoughts drifted hazily along, a heavy weight seemingly dragging her down. A whimper tore from her throat.

   “I’ve got you,” the little voice said, strain evident in the tone.

   I’m freezing, she wanted to cry, but her mouth felt too numb. She wanted to stir, but there was a cold in her bones that felt like fire. It made no sense. How could she be cold but also hot?

   The boy grunted, stopped, and heaved several harsh breaths. “I can make it,” he muttered, stooping even lower and jostling her weight higher onto his back and shoulders.

   Pain rushed through her limbs, and a great shiver racked her frame. He held her tightly, muttering what sounded like a curse or perhaps a prayer. Then onward he trudged. A light misting rain fell, and thunder rumbled in the darkened sky, a warning that more precipitation was on the horizon.

   “I can make it,” he whispered. “I can make it. I must make it.”

   He stumbled, then quickly righted himself, once again heaving her up higher onto his back. Ophelia grew aware of the breath sawing from the boy’s throat and the sweat trickling down his face. She didn’t fully understand, but the need to reassure this stranger welled inside. Though her throat felt raw, as if she had been screaming, she pushed out the words with great effort. “You can make it. I know you can.”

   Ophelia gasped, a black fright sweeping over her as the memory of her carriage crashing into a swollen river rose in her mind. She recalled her governess, Miss Kinney, saying the bridge that led to her parents’ country estate was old and needed repairs, then the ominous sound of creaking wood cracking. The water had churned with fury and had dragged her along with the currents at a terrifying pace. She didn’t recall much other than the screams of Miss Kinney and the footmen’s and coachman’s desperate attempts to reach Ophelia.

   Frightened by the memory, she clung to him longer. She could not say how long the little boy trudged with her, but it felt like forever. Thankfully, the sun peeked from bloated clouds, and some of the terrible cold in her body eased.

   “We are here,” he said, panting with great effort.

   He stooped very low, and Ophelia slithered off him, muffling her cry at the way her bones hurt. She stood, wobbling only slightly. The boy remained bent, as if he lacked the strength to stand.

   She touched his shoulder tentatively. “Are you well?”

   It took him a moment, but he finally said, “Yes.”

   Pushing to his feet, he faced her. The boy was rather small, bony even, and perhaps about her age—Ophelia had only turned eight years last month. His black hair was pasted to his forehead, and rivulets of water trickled down his hollow cheekbones. His body shook, and he clenched his fists at his sides as if to steady himself against the trembling. Sympathy squeezed her heart. “You are cold, too,” she whispered, wrapping her arms around her body tightly.

   A faraway look entered his dark green eyes. “You were in the river, and it was taking you away. I jumped in after you.”

   Ophelia had never seen eyes so vivid and lovely.

   He shifted on his feet, and a pained grimace crossed his dirt-streaked face. “I might have worried me ma. I could hear her screaming as the water took us away.”

   “You are hurt.”

   “Just me back a little, and one of me foot. It’ll get better.”

   “You should not have carried me; you are so very small,” she murmured, hating that her lips trembled. “Though I am incredibly grateful. I shall repay your kindness, I promise.”

   His little chest puffed out. “I’m twelve. I ain’t small.”

   “You are my size,” she refuted. “And I am eight.”

   He scoffed, clearly affronted. “I am taller.”

   Barely, but she did not point that out, since it seemed to reassure him to think he was large and well-built. He shuffled around, and it was then she noted he stared at a cottage. It was very plain and had a thatched roof. With a sense of alarm, Ophelia also realized they were deep in the middle of a forest. She slowly turned, yet all she could see for miles was woodland. Why would this cottage be here in the middle of nowhere? “Is this your home?”

   He gave her an incredulous look. “No. Our cottage is not this big.”

   She blinked, looking once more at the tiny hovel. He lived somewhere smaller and with his mama and papa? The idea was inconceivable. “How did you find it?” she asked, walking to stand beside him.

   “By luck. I grabbed on to a branch and pulled us from the river. Then I hoisted you on my back and walked upstream. I canna tell how long I walked for, but my feet hurt.”

   He advanced on the cottage, and Ophelia followed. The door was locked, but he was very enterprising, for he went around to a small window that was opened, wiggled through, and unlocked the door from the inside.

   “Come on in,” he cried with a wave of his hand. “There is no one about.”

   Ophelia took her time and clambered up the few front steps, then entered the cottage. It was very tidy, with everything seemingly to be in one space. A kitchen, a fireplace, and a lone sofa that appeared sunken, as if the cushions were worn out. Then there was a bed to the far left, near the small window.

   “Who do you think lives here?” she whispered.

   He did not look up from where he was busy lighting the fireplace. “Maybe a gamekeeper.”

   Ophelia nodded, then coughed several times, rubbing her aching chest.

   The boy glanced around with a frown. “Are ye getting sick?”

   “I feel tired,” she replied and shuffled over to the sofa. It proved to be surprisingly comfortable, and with a start of guilt, she realized her damp clothes wetted the fabric.

   “Go to sleep,” his voice said from far away. “I’ll take care of you.”

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