The Obsessions of Lord Godfrey Cavanaugh

The Obsessions of Lord Godfrey Cavanaugh

An original Stephanie Laurens novel
Volume 4 in The Cavanaughs Series
Release Date: July 16, 2020
In E-book, print, and audio worldwide from MIRA Books
PRINT ISBN: 978-1-925559-25-5
E-BOOK ISBN: 978-1-925559-24-8

#1 New York Times bestselling author Stephanie Laurens concludes the tales of the Cavanaugh siblings with the riveting story of the youngest brother and his search for a family of his own.

The scion of a noble house who is caught in a storm and the lady who nurses him back to health strive to unravel a web of deception that threatens her family and ensnares them both, forcing them to fight for what they hold most dear—family, each other, and love.

Lord Godfrey Cavanaugh has no thoughts of marrying as he drives into North Yorkshire on a plum commission for the National Gallery to authenticate a Renaissance painting the gallery wishes to purchase. Then a snow storm sweeps in, and Godfrey barely manages to haul himself, his groom, and his horses to their destination.

Elinor Hinckley, eldest daughter of Hinckley Hall, stalwart defender of the family, right arm to her invalid father, and established spinster knows full well how much her family has riding on the sale of the painting and throws herself into nursing the initially delirious gentleman who holds her family’s future in his hands.

But Godfrey proves to be a far from easy patient. Through Ellie’s and her siblings’ efforts to keep him entertained and abed, Godfrey grows to know the family, appreciating and, ultimately, being drawn into family life of a sort he’s never known.

Eventually, to everyone’s relief, he recovers sufficiently to assess the painting—only to discover that nothing, but nothing, is as it seems.

Someone has plans, someone other than the Hinckleys, but who is pulling the strings is a mystery that Godfrey and Ellie find near-impossible to solve. Every suspect proves to have perfectly understandable, albeit hidden reasons for their behavior, and Godfrey and Ellie remain baffled.

Until the villain, panicked by their inquiries, strikes—directly at them—and forces them both to acknowledge what has grown to be the most important thing in their lives. Both are natural defenders of the weak and neither will give up. Together they battle to save not just themselves, not just her family, but their futures. Hers, his, and theirs.

January 16, 1850

On the road west of Ripon, North Yorkshire

 Lord Godfrey Cavanaugh flicked his whip at his leader’s ear, encouraging his matched bays to increase their pace. The road ahead was straight and adequately surfaced, while the wind strafing him and Wally, his groom, was howling like a banshee. Winter in North Yorkshire; he’d been warned it would be arctic, and the blast slicing through his greatcoat and worming icy fingers past the scarf around his neck was the definition of frigid. As they bowled west, deeper into the countryside, and the chill intensified, he was rethinking his decision not to halt at the Unicorn Hotel, which they’d passed on their way through Ripon’s Market Square, but it was only midafternoon, and his hosts were expecting him.

Their directions replayed in his head. Apparently, if he followed this road, then about a mile and a half out of Ripon, he should come upon a lane on the right, signposted to Galphay. He scanned the line of hedgerows ahead and was pleased to see an opening on the right, with a weathered signpost pointing that way.

“Won’t be long, now.” He slowed his horses.

The signpost was, indeed, for Galphay. With relief, he turned his pair and set them briskly trotting. To either side, the fields, clutched tight in winter’s grip, lay brown and sere. The land stretched close to flat in all directions, the monotony broken by low hedges and occasional stands of trees, all presently bare, their skeletal branches rattling in the wind.

Raising his voice to be heard over the din, he called, “We’ve around two miles to go. We should see the drive on the right, before we come to the River Laver. If we reach the river, we’ll have gone too far.”

Perched behind Godfrey, Wally grunted.

Godfrey grinned. He and Wally went back a long way. Throughout his childhood, Godfrey had done his best to avoid his parents’ notice; with two older brothers, an older sister, and an even older half brother, he hadn’t found it difficult to play least in sight and slip away to explore. On such clandestine excursions, Wally—although five years older—had been Godfrey’s shadow. An abiding trust and unstated friendship had developed between the young lordling son-of-the-house and the gangling stable boy tasked with keeping said lordling from harm. The connection had survived Godfrey’s years of tutors and university so that when it had come time for him to choose a manservant, he hadn’t hesitated by so much as a second in installing Wally in the role.

Other lords of the haut ton might prefer gentlemen’s gentlemen who could turn them out in sartorial style, but Godfrey preferred to have someone he could trust at his back. As his chosen occupation of authenticating artworks involved significant travel, including on the Continent, having a man who could deal with almost any situation left Godfrey free to concentrate on his passion—the art.

He’d grown up running along corridors lined with paintings by various masters. At some point, he’d halted and looked, and a flash of insight into the construction of the painting—the brush strokes, the canvas, the paints, and more—had piqued his interest. Subsequently, he’d started examining all the paintings and sculptures he came upon; given his birth and social connections, their number had been legion. Once he’d come of age, he’d gone traveling on the Continent, looking and studying and learning.

He’d stumbled on his first forged sculpture in Florence. Months later, he’d exposed a fraudulent Da Vinci sketch the Conte de Milan had been about to buy for a considerable sum.

The art world wasn’t that large, and word had got around. Subsequently, others—collectors and museum curators alike—had invited Godfrey to pass judgment on this acquisition or that.

Over time, his reputation had grown.

A month ago, he’d been contacted by the recently knighted Sir Charles Eastlake, president of the Birmingham Society of Artists, newly elected president of the Royal Academy, and erstwhile Keeper of the Paintings and longtime advisor to the National Gallery.

To Godfrey, Eastlake was something of a legend, a man whose status Godfrey aspired to and whose goodwill he knew he would be wise to court—indeed, it would not be overstating the case to say he craved it. Earning Eastlake’s imprimatur would be a milestone in Godfrey’s life.

On behalf of the National Gallery, Eastlake had commissioned Godfrey to examine the painting a Mr. Hinckley of Hinckley Hall, North Yorkshire, had offered to sell to the gallery. The painting was purportedly by Mariotto Albertinelli, a master painter of the High Renaissance, the period of artworks on which the gallery focused.

Eastlake and the gallery directors were eager to finalize the acquisition before the end of February; Godfrey assumed they hoped to include the painting as a drawcard in their spring exhibition. Consequently, he’d set out to brave the gauntlet of Yorkshire in the height of winter. He’d debated driving his curricle north from London or taking the train to York and hiring a conveyance there. After consulting with Wally, he’d elected to drive; they’d made decent time along the Great North Road, halting at Stilton the first night and spending the second at Doncaster before setting out early this morning and traveling through Boroughbridge to Ripon and out along the lanes toward Hinckley Hall.

Although the skies had been overcast throughout the journey, the clouds hadn’t thickened to ominous until the turnoff to York.

A vicious gust of wind caused the bays to skitter; Godfrey steadied them, then urged them on with a flick of the reins.

“Guv, I really don’t like the looks of them clouds.”

Godfrey raised his gaze to the gray and cloudy but otherwise unthreatening horizon. He frowned. “Which clouds?”

“The ones racing up behind us.”

“What?” Swiveling on the seat, Godfrey looked back—at the roiling mass of charcoal gray swallowing the sky and bearing down on them. He knew the worst storms in the area came from the east, racing in off the North Sea. “Damn!” He faced forward, but given the uncertain surface of the minor lane, the horses were going as fast as he dared run them. Having one break a leg wouldn’t help. “We’ll just have to hope we make it in time.”

A minute later, Wally said, “There’s snow, and the storm’s bowling straight for us.”

Second by second, the light dimmed, fading to a portentous gloom. Godfrey felt the curricle shift as Wally resettled his scarf and coat, no doubt hauling the collar high and buttoning it all the way up.

“Here.” Wally reached over, mittened hands gesturing. “Gimme the reins and get yourself buttoned up. There’s no escaping it.”

Grim-faced, Godfrey complied. As he buttoned the collar of his greatcoat, the first snowflakes whirled about them.

Ten seconds later, the blizzard struck in full force.

Within two minutes, the road ahead was blanketed in white, and the surrounding fields had vanished behind a veil of driven flakes. The air turned freezing, sharp and biting against any exposed skin, while the wind raged, gusting and roaring; it wasn’t hard to imagine the storm as a ravening wolf that saw them as its prey.

Squinting ahead, Godfrey held his team steady, but despite his best efforts, the horses shook their heads, then hung them and slowed.

Wally leaned forward and shouted over the unholy din, “We’ll have to get down and lead them. Should we turn back?”

Lips setting, Godfrey let the horses slow to a trudging walk while he calculated, then yelled in reply, “We’re closer to our destination than to Ripon, and we haven’t passed any inns or even a farmhouse along the way. Safe haven will be closer and more certain if we forge on.”

Features pinched, Wally nodded. He leapt down from his perch and strode to grip the leader’s harness and urge the beast on.

Godfrey stepped down on the other side of the curricle and went to the other horse’s head. With him and Wally out of the carriage, it was much lighter, and between them, they persuaded the horses to come up to a brisk walk.

He’d never known snow to fall so quickly; they’d barely gone a hundred yards before the curricle’s wheels started to catch, drag, and slide. Minutes later, the horses were having to lift each hoof free. Soon, Godfrey and Wally had to exert themselves to gain each forward step as well.

Heads down, they plowed on, engulfed in white and cold.

Time ceased to have meaning. Rationally, Godfrey knew they had to be nearing Hinckley Hall, but with the landscape transformed into a haze of white, he could only pray that he spotted the opening to the drive. At the rate the storm was dumping snow, the drive itself might be blocked. Worse, if the house was any distance from the road, unless they had lights blazing in every window, he would never see it.


Godfrey’s ears only just caught the sound, which emanated from the other side of the horses. He raised his head and peered through the hazy gloom. He couldn’t see Wally.

He halted the horses. Calming them, he rounded their heads and saw Wally lying facedown in the snow. Godfrey rushed to Wally’s side as he groaned and tried to push upright.

Gripping Wally’s arm, Godfrey helped the heavier man to his knees, then hauled him to his feet.

Wally staggered and ineffectually wiped snow from his chin. “Sorry, guv. Didn’t see the hole under the snow.”

“Are you all right?” Godfrey glanced at Wally’s feet.

Wally took a step, and his ankle buckled. “Bugger—I’ve wrenched it.”

Godfrey quashed his rising alarm. “Here.” He looped one arm in one of Wally’s and reached for the leader’s bridle with his free hand. “Come on. Use me as a crutch.” We have to keep moving. He bit the words back; neither he nor Wally needed reminding.

Getting the horses walking again took a degree of persuasion, and even then, the beasts would only consent to plod along. Not that it mattered; with Wally’s gait hitching with every step, it was all he and Godfrey could do to keep up.

About them, the storm showed no sign of abating. Godfrey tried not to dwell on the stories he’d heard of storms in these parts that raged for days.

Heads down, he and Wally struggled along beside the horses, each step a battle against the thickening snow, the howling wind, and the ever-deepening cold. Picking out the lane ahead grew even more difficult as the hedges disappeared beneath drifts of disorientating white.

With frigid air sawing in and out of his lungs and Wally an increasingly heavy burden dragging on his arm, Godfrey had reached the point of wondering if they would ever reach safety—rather detachedly imagining news reports of a marquess’s brother being found frozen to death beside a lane in North Yorkshire—when an odd shape standing on the bank on the other side of the road caught his eye. He halted and muscled Wally around so that the groom was leaning against the nearer horse. “Wait there.”

Ducking against the wind, Godfrey rounded the horses and staggered and scrambled up the short bank to what looked to be some sort of sign. Using his greatcoat sleeve, already crusted with frozen snow, he brushed clear the face of the board mounted between two uprights—enough to read “Hinckley Hall.”

They’d made it. Or at least, Godfrey amended, as he squinted up what he took to be the drive and saw no sign of any house, they’d reached the mouth of the drive.

He clambered and slid down, his boots sinking into snow nearly a foot deep. He trudged across and a few yards along what he thought must be the drive, confirming there was a solid surface beneath the snow.

The certainty gave him the energy to hurry back to Wally and the horses.

He found Wally almost unconscious, slumped against the leader’s side.

“Come on! Almost there.” Although Godfrey was taller than his henchman by several inches, Wally had always been significantly heavier. It took considerable effort for Godfrey to haul Wally up and around and get him and the horses moving again. They managed the turn into the drive in a shuffle, then Godfrey leaned forward and urged both horses and Wally on.

They’d gone only a few yards when the curtain of falling snow behind them parted, and a horseman as limned in snow and ice as they loomed out of the white.

Greatcoated and booted as was Godfrey, the man saw them, drew rein, and swung down from the saddle. Leading his horse, he hurried to Godfrey and Wally and, without being asked, lent Wally his shoulder, easing the drag on Godfrey. “Terrible storm,” the man offered in greeting.

Godfrey managed a nod, then peeled apart his frozen lips to say, “We’re making for Hinckley Hall.” He tipped his head toward where he thought the drive went. “I saw the sign by the road, and I’m hoping we’re on the right track.”

“You are.” The man joined Godfrey in steering Wally and the horses and curricle up the drive. “I’m heading for the Hall myself.”

The man’s horse was trotting along eagerly. The man nodded at the beast. “He knows where he’s going and that it’ll be warm and dry there.”

Thankfully, Godfrey’s pair appeared to take their cue from the newcomer and lifted their feet with greater enthusiasm.

Their expanded company forged on.

More or less following the lead of the man’s mount, they rounded a bend. Godfrey raised his head and squinted through the if-anything-thickening wind-whipped snow. Through the bare branches of intervening trees, he saw a light glimmering a hundred or so yards ahead.

“That’s it.” The man nodded toward the light. “All we have to do is make it that far, but we’ll need to stick to the drive.”

Godfrey made no reply. The icy cold had seeped through his clothes and was sinking through his skin all the way to his bones. As he drew in a harsh and labored breath, that last one hundred yards might as well have been a mile.

* * *

Standing at Hinckley Hall’s drawing room bow window, Eleanor Hinckley narrowed her eyes in an effort to pierce the impenetrable white screen obscuring the drive. Midafternoon, and the light had all but gone. Unable to make out anything at all, she sighed and reluctantly drew the curtain over the icy pane.

Swallowing her disappointment, Ellie faced the three older gentlemen gathered about the drawing room fireplace. “The blizzard’s set in. Mr. Cavanaugh must have stopped in Ripon.”

Her father, Matthew Hinckley, nodded in resignation. “Aye. Not a day for man or beast to be out braving that tempest.”

Seated to the left of her father’s bath chair, Walter Pyne grimaced. “Pity. I would have liked to make the fellow’s acquaintance. I’m curious to see what this business of being an authenticator is all about.”

“Aye, but,” Edward Morris, seated on her father’s other side, observed, “what with us likely stuck here now, courtesy of the storm, if the fellow rides from Ripon as soon as the thaw sets in, likely we’ll still be here when he arrives.”

Pyne arched his brows. “That’s true.”

Ellie bit her tongue on the information that Mr. Cavanaugh had written that he would bring a manservant. A London toff with a gentleman’s gentleman would be more likely to sit snug at the Unicorn in Ripon and wait for the roads to clear sufficiently so he could drive or be driven to the Hall.

Pyne and Morris were her father’s oldest friends and, as usual, had arrived midmorning to take Wednesday luncheon with her father and the family; given her father could no longer walk beyond a few steps and didn’t venture out beyond attending church on Sundays, it was kind of both men to so indefatigably turn up every Wednesday to spend the day with him.

Her father fixed her with a sapient eye. “How deep’s the snow?”

“Too deep for a carriage.” Ellie glanced back at the curtained window. “I doubt even a rider would make much headway out there now.”

“That means”—her father looked at his friends—“that, indeed, you’ll need to stay on until it clears. You both know you’re very welcome.”

Pyne and Morris murmured their thanks and acceptances of the offer. Like her father, both were locals born and bred and suffered the inconveniences of winter storms with the stoic resignation of those who have long ago learned the futility of railing against Nature’s unpredictable furies.

All three men looked at Ellie, and she summoned a smile. “I’ll let Kemp and Mrs. Kemp know, but I’m sure they’ll have already made arrangements.” Both butler and housekeeper had served the family for most of Ellie’s twenty-eight years; she felt sure Mrs. Kemp would already have sent the maids upstairs to prepare the rooms Pyne and Morris habitually used when they remained overnight at the Hall.

As the three men returned to their conversation, Ellie cynically observed that neither Pyne nor Morris were reluctant to stay, nor did they show any sign of concern over being trapped by the storm. Pyne’s wife was widely recognized as an unmitigated shrew, and he tended to seize any excuse to absent himself from his own hearth, while Morris was a widower of many years, and his home, Malton Farm, was a cold, lonely, stone mausoleum presided over by a crotchety housekeeper who believed in frugality above all else.

Neither man would regard a forced sojourn at the Hall as a hardship, and with the roads almost certainly blocked throughout the area, there would be no activity on Morris’s farm or at Pyne’s business in Ripon. Better for both men to be trapped at the Hall than under their own roofs.

For her part, Ellie viewed the prospect of having Pyne and Morris as houseguests for at least the next few days with equanimity. They would chat with her father and keep him entertained, and that would be a blessing.

She glanced at the curtained window; even through the Hall’s thick walls, she could hear the wind lashing and howling outside. The possibility loomed of the snow delaying Cavanaugh’s arrival for weeks, but after a second considering the notion, she resolutely pushed it aside; there was no telling how bad the impact of a storm such as the one raging outside might be. As her mother used to say, there was no sense in borrowing trouble.

She returned her attention to the men to discover all three looking her way.

“I just hope this storm doesn’t chase the blighter all the way back to London,” Pyne remarked.

Don’t even suggest it. “According to Mr. Cavanaugh’s expectations, he should have reached Ripon before the storm, and they’ll have been hit as hard as us here and rather earlier—no real wonder if he took shelter there. Regardless”—she reminded herself as well as her listeners—“he’ll have to wait for the thaw before he can go anywhere, and given he’s acting for the National Gallery, I can’t see any reason he would retreat rather than come on.”

Her father dipped his head in agreement. “True, but the delay will set the sale back by several weeks, if not a month or more.”

Ellie pressed her lips tight. Despite fully supporting her father’s decision to sell the painting that had been her late mother’s favorite to the gallery, she hated discussing the reason for the sale, especially before his friends.

Pyne cleared his throat. “If you need any assistance—just to bridge the gap, you know—I’m sure I could help to some degree.”

“I might not be able to manage much,” Morris gruffly said, “but I’d consider it an honor to help as much as I can.”

Her father’s expression cleared, and he gently waved aside the comments. “No, no—thank you, my friends, but it’s not a case of needing the money, at least not so desperately.” Her father met Ellie’s eyes, a soft, rather sad smile in his. “It’s more a case of having screwed up my resolution over selling that painting to the sticking point—having to wait, possibly for weeks, for this authentication to take place before any sale can go forward is…not a prospect I relish.”

Ellie returned her father’s smile with a sad yet understanding smile of her own; she felt much the same way. But regardless of their attachment to the painting, the Albertinelli had to be sold, and for as much as possible, to provide the funds of which the Hall and the estate were so sorely in need.

By exercising due care, they would have enough to last them through the winter and into the first months of spring, but after that, the Hinckley coffers would be empty. She and her father had assumed any sale to the National Gallery would take months to finalize, but an additional delay such as the one now facing them might see them skating close to the wind.

Determined not to dwell on what was beyond her control, she found a smile and swept it over the men. “I’ll go and speak with the Kemps.” She turned to the door, just as the muted thunder of footsteps rushing down the main stairs reached her.

She inwardly braced. What now?

The drawing room door burst open, revealing Ellie’s younger sister, Maggie, dancing with excitement. Before Ellie could ask, Maggie blurted, “There’s horses and a carriage and I think three men coming up the drive. They’re nearly here!”

“Good Lord!” Ellie rushed for the door, swamped by sympathy for anyone caught out in the storm. She hurried into the front hall. “Kemp?”

“Here, miss.” The redoubtable butler was swiftly lighting several lamps and had already summoned the two footmen to assist. “Just let me get the lamps going before we open the door.”

The thud of boots on the stairs heralded Ellie’s brother, Harry. “What’s afoot?”

“Strangers coming up the drive, seeking shelter.” Ellie joined Maggie in peering out of the narrow window alongside the front door. Through the unnatural darkness that had closed in, she searched what she could see of the drive.

“There!” Maggie pointed to the left. “See that lump? It’s moving.”

Staggering and barely that. Ellie finally realized what she was looking at. “There are horses—a pair in harness and a single mount. Get the grooms as well.” She squinted through the whirling snow. “And Johnson—there’s a carriage that’s too fine to be left outside.”

It was the carriage that confirmed the thought that, despite all incredulity, had popped into her head. “My God—it’s Cavanaugh!”

He’d come and had fought his way through the snow.

“Really?” Harry was incredulous—as incredulous as Ellie. “It’s been storming fit to freeze Hades for nearly an hour.”

“Exactly.” Ellie rushed to the heavy door, lifted the latch, and hauled the door open. Wind rushed in, gleefully swirling snowflakes across the threshold. Kemp and the footmen came to stand at her back; the flames in the lanterns they held aloft wavered, then steadied, casting a semicircle of light over the narrow porch and across the forecourt.

Three figures, all in heavy coats, heads ducked against the storm’s fury, weaved drunkenly into the light. All three clung together, as if supporting each other in their Herculean struggle to take another step.

One man held the reins of a pair of carriage horses, instantly recognizable as superior beasts even in the poor light. Ellie didn’t recognize that man or the heavier man in the middle of the trio, but her eyes widened as she scanned the third man—the one leading a saddled horse. “It’s Masterton.”

The sound of more running footsteps reached her, and she whirled. “Here—give me that.” She took the lantern from the nearest footman, Henry. “Harry, take Mike’s. You two”—she pointed at the footmen—“get those men inside.”

Mike and Henry turned up their collars and hurried out and down the steps, making for the weaving figures.

“Tommy and Hugh.” Ellie waved the grooms forward. “Take the horses to the stable and see them cared for. Billy and James—ah, here’s Johnson.” She grabbed the stableman by the sleeve and dragged him past Kemp and Harry to the threshold. She pointed into the night. “That carriage needs to be out of the snow.”

Johnson squinted, then nodded. “You’re right about that.” He glanced at the two stable lads, who had fallen in at his heels. “Come along, you two—Tommy and Hugh can lead the nags, but we’d best push the carriage, or they’ll all freeze before they reach the stable.”

The comment wasn’t that much of an exaggeration. With the onset of darkness, the temperature was plummeting. Ice already liberally coated all three visitors.

If left to themselves, the three would never have made it up the shallow steps to the porch, but Henry and Mike were burly sorts; the pair insinuated themselves between the three men and all but rushed them onto the porch and inside.

Ellie checked that Johnson and his helpers had the horses and carriage in hand, then nodded to Kemp, and he swung the heavy door closed; he had to throw his weight against the panel to overcome the still-howling wind.

Mrs. Kemp and two of the maids came running, bearing blankets. “Cook is preparing some hot possets,” Mrs. Kemp reported, then tutted at the sight of the three men drooping and dripping on the hall tiles.

Masterton staggered back a step and slumped against the front door. He coughed and managed to lift his head. Eyes closed, he grated, “We made it, thank God.”

“What were you doing out in that?” Ellie asked. Masterton was a local or, at least, local enough to have known better.

He waved weakly. “I had a meeting earlier at Kirkby Malzeard. I was riding back to Ripon when the storm swept in.” His gaze cut to the other two men, who were leaning against each other, barely managing to keep themselves upright. “I spotted them turning in to the drive. By their state, they’d been caught in the storm far longer than I. I assumed they’d come from Ripon, and I remembered Matthew was expecting that authenticator from London.” Masterton raised a frosty brow. “Given the carriage and horses, it seems likely the gentleman is he.”

The word “gentleman” appeared to register with the taller of the unknown pair. He drew in a shuddering breath, slowly raised his head, and bracing the other man—shorter and of heavier build—with one hand, endeavored to straighten to his full height.

Henry stepped in to help support the shorter man, who was wearing the sort of heavy coat favored by coachmen.

Relieved of that task, the gentleman—and despite the ice coating his dark hair and clinging to his chin, eyebrows, and lashes, the chiseled planes of his face and the way, even under such strain, he held himself left no doubt whatever of his station—glanced briefly about, then his gaze settled on Ellie.

Godfrey fought to straighten his limbs and attain an acceptable posture, but his wits weren’t cooperating, and his senses seemed not to be anchored to his body. While he was grateful to be out of the hellish cold, the sudden warmth had him reeling, oddly disconnected from himself. On top of that, every muscle seemed stiff and unresponsive, and his vision wasn’t all that clear. But he knew what good manners demanded. Focusing, however hazily, on the woman he assumed was the mistress of the house, he attempted a winning smile. “From the bottom of my heart, I thank you for your rescue, ma’am.”

Long-ingrained habit had him sweeping her an elegant bow.

A mistake. He felt his senses tip, then slide away as oblivion opened her arms and embraced him.

Aghast, Ellie stared at the man she’d mentally viewed as her family’s knight on a white charger—the bringer of hope for their future—as he crumpled to the wet tiles in a greatcoated heap at her feet.

For a second, shock held her immobile, then she crouched and brushed back the fall of dark hair that obscured his eyes; he didn’t react. “He’s unconscious.” That can’t be good. She glanced at Mrs. Kemp. “Is the best guest bedroom ready?”

“Yes, miss.” Mrs. Kemp turned toward the kitchen. “I’ll set the girls to filling hot-water bottles and preparing a bed-warmer.”

“Please.” Ellie looked at Kemp and Harry. “We need to get him upstairs and warm as quickly as we can.” She glanced at Henry, still supporting the second man—presumably Cavanaugh’s manservant—who, while still conscious, looked dazed and barely aware.

“I’ll take this one up and see to him, miss,” Henry volunteered.

She nodded, rose, and waved for Kemp and Harry to pick up the fallen man.

They heaved him up between them, then staggered toward the stairs. She started to follow, then remembered Masterton. She swung around, but with a faint smile, her father’s cousin waved her on. “I’ll manage. You should see to him.”

She didn’t always agree with Masterton, but with that, she had no argument. With a nod of acknowledgment, she turned and, lifting her skirts, hurried up the stairs.

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.