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The Prodigal Daughter

The Prodigal Daughter by Allison Lane
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Amanda Morrison’s father has not forgiven her for eloping with the fallen soldier, Jack Morrison. She is forced to live in seclusion and avoid the haughty Duke of Norwood when he comes to court her half-sister. No great problem, since she dislikes the man, except that the more she get to know him, the harder it is to ignore her desires.

Regency Romance by Allison Lane; originally published by Signet and the winner of the Holt Medallion for Best Regency Romance of 1996.

Belgrave House; November 1996
202 pages; ISBN 9780451186829
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Title: The Prodigal Daughter
Author: Allison Lane
 
Excerpt

Voices murmured in staccato German behind a heavy door, the sound nearly inaudible through the waltz tune reverberating from the nearby ballroom. “Cannot permit ... treachery ... look like an accident ... what about the Russian ... French ... tell ...”

A frustrated listener pressed an ear against the keyhole, straining to hear that rapid conversation. Vienna was crawling with spies. Who did these two work for?  Had they engineered the disappearance of that officer last week?  Footsteps suddenly echoed from around the corner, raising panic. To be caught at all meant failure. To be caught here could mean death. Fingers grasped a hidden knife, their tension belying the listener’s assumed nonchalance.

But it was only Jack.

Suddenly the hall dissolved into twilight, the listener now a searcher, frantically crisscrossing the battlefield after Waterloo. Images rose in stark horror – shattered bodies, burning gun carriages, mud – all permeated by the eternal smell of smoke and gunpowder. He had to be here somewhere. Trembling hands turned over an officer wearing a familiar green uniform. Dear God, it was Andy. And over there was Robin; poor Robin who had always been so cheerful, even during that hellish march across the Pyrenees when altitude sickness nearly drove them mad.... The grim search continued. Another body, and another. Repeated shock deadened all sensation. A shattered leg, a severed head, pools of blood, carnage, death....

Jack pinned under a horse....

Amanda awoke screaming, shaking so hard it was a wonder the bed did not shatter. Both hands covered her mouth, trying to force back the sobs. That had been a bad one.

Burt had warned her against searching for the body herself. She should have listened to him. A year later she still dreamed of that day. Jack. Her husband. Dead.

She said the word deliberately, repeating it aloud. The finality of the sound woke her fully, dragging her from the half-slumber in which she had still been trapped.

“No!” 

Her senses pricked to attention even as her body froze. No wonder the nightmare had returned after an absence of a month. Smoke teased at her nostrils – not the faint scent of cooking fires that permeated this run-down wing of the inn, but wood smoke. And it was thickening even as she identified it.

Throwing on her gown, she grabbed the valise she had not bothered to open when she’d fallen, exhausted, into bed immediately after dinner. A peek around the door verified that the hallway was still clear of flames.

“Fire!” she shouted, running to the end of the corridor, banging on doors as she went. Turning to retrace her steps to the stairs, she repeated the call. “Fire!  Fire!”

Surely she was not the first to awaken. She could hear the crackling flames now, loud above the wails of those that she had disturbed. The noise increased as she approached the central block of the inn. Merchants and farmers were crowding behind her, pushing and shoving in their frenzy to escape. But the more important guests were housed in the second wing, the one that now burned.

“Has anyone roused the others?” she shouted as the innkeeper stumbled into view and began organizing his servants to fight the blaze.

“Too dangerous,” he replied shortly.

And on the first floor that was probably true, she conceded. The fire had apparently started on the ground floor and had already roared into the rooms above. There was movement there. But the arrogance that was nearly universal among the aristocracy would prevent them from alerting their servants. Racing up to the second floor, she repeated her call, banging on doors to awaken whoever might be ensconced there. Having done all she could inside, she escaped into the yard.

People were huddled near the stables, some in shock, others cursing the innkeeper – as though he were at fault for disturbing their sleep – and the rest milling uselessly about. She had witnessed similar scenes after sudden, violent action too many times to bear remembering.

“Are any of you local?” she demanded, unconsciously employing the same brisk tone with which Jack had always kept his troops in line.

A boy nodded.

“Is there a doctor nearby?”

He nodded again.

“Good. Fetch him..” The lad turned and ran into the darkness.

“You, sir,” Amanda next addressed the most intelligent-looking of the nervous men.

He glanced at her in surprise.

“Yes, you. You seem capable. Form the uninjured into groups and prevent the fire from spreading.”

He glanced where she was pointing. There was a gap between the burning wing and the stables. The grooms were already throwing water on the thatching under the direction of the ostler, but there were not enough of them to stop the blaze. His back straightened. “Right.”

She had judged well, she reflected as she turned to the others. He was already forming bucket brigades. She had not dared suggest that the landlord needed help to save the second wing. Guests would hardly be agreeable to entering the inn again, but the relative safety of the stableyard would keep them occupied.

The wounded were already in evidence, though those with serious injuries had not yet escaped. Would she never be free of death? 

Sparing a moment to reflect on how familiar it all was, she set to work. Within minutes she had settled the injured as far from the fire as possible. Ripping up the petticoat that was in the valise she still carried, she ordered one of the inn’s maids to get what supplies she could from the portion of the old wing that was still intact. It would not be much, of course. Pray God the doctor would arrive soon.

* * * *

A loud bang woke the Duke of Norwood from a peaceful sleep. He had already growled a blasphemous complaint before he smelled smoke and heard a distant shout of “Fire!”

Pulling on his pantaloons as he ran, he jerked open the door, only to discover that the hall was engulfed in flames. Damnation!  He slammed it shut again, trying to consider the situation calmly. Escape through the hall was impossible, promising certain death if he tried. A glance at the window made him grimace. Flames already licked up the outside of the building. Under his horrified gaze, the wall erupted in fire. Was he doomed to die here? 

His mother had been pressing him for years to secure the succession, but he had not agreed until three months before. Now he feared he’d left it too late. Would the dukedom wind up in the hands of his incompetent cousin after all? 

Imbecile! he cursed himself, dragging on his boots. Bloody fool! This was hardly the time to evaluate his life. Striding to the other door, he tried the handle. Locked, of course. He had not hired both rooms of this potential suite. Cursing again, he repeatedly threw himself at the door, nearly frantic before he succeeded in breaking the latch.

It opened into a corner room that had two windows, only one of which was yet affected by the fire. But the smoke was much worse than in his own room. The door to the hall stood open, the occupant having fled. Dropping below the thickening cloud, he slammed the door shut, then turned his attention to the second window, wasting precious seconds trying to force it open. He finally picked up a chair and smashed at the panes of glass. The chair was reduced to kindling and his nerves to near hysteria before he finally broke through the network of leads.

“Damnation!” he growled, choking as he flung a coverlet over the shards still in the frame. He had no time to pick them loose, and the opening was barely large enough to accommodate him. New clouds of smoke were billowing around his head. The ground was a good deal lower than under his room, the inn ending on the edge of a ravine. Flames already licked from the window directly beneath his. But he had no time to reconsider his plan. The door to the hall was ablaze and his own room was a raging inferno. Forcing down panic and an image of his smashed and broken body sprawled across sharp stones, he jumped.

* * * *

The stable yard teemed with people, Amanda noted absently as she applied lard to yet another burn, loosely binding the arm with strips of sheeting to protect it from the night air. At least a dozen townsmen had arrived to fight the blaze. She prayed a doctor would turn up soon. There were injuries she could not treat alone.

Her corner was becoming organized. She had enlisted the help of two young men who sorted the injured according to the severity of their wounds. While the innkeeper’s wife tied up minor scrapes, she did what she could for the moderate and severe cases, though it was not nearly enough. Was the doctor away delivering a child? 

“Mrs. Morrison!” exclaimed a familiar, jovial voice as she straightened to move on to the next victim.

“Dr. Matthews!”  A smile of pleasure and relief stretched her face. “So this is where you retired to.”

“Yes. What do we have here?” 

“Aside from minor burns, eleven people need your attention so far,” she reported. “There’s a broken leg on the end..” She pointed to a young curate who had jumped from his window. “Next to him is a head injury, then two guests whose gashes need stitching, and seven severe burns. I am looking after the lesser wounded.”

“What are you using?”

“Lard and wrapping. There is nothing else. Have you basilicum powder?”  She nodded to his bag. “We used all the innkeeper had.”

He handed her a packet and set to work, commandeering one of her assistants.

A loud crash elicited screams from most of the women. A harsher scream sounded from inside the inn. Amanda shivered and glanced over her shoulder. The roof had collapsed, sending flames roaring into the sky, but the fire fighters seemed to be gaining the upper hand. The second wing remained free of fire, its slate roof protecting it from the storm of sparks that rained upon the area. Two men were atop the stable beating out a small blaze. She returned her attention to the injured.

Three critical cases joined the queue, a dozen more being shunted into her holding area.

“Dr. Matthews needs your help,” murmured his helper.

“Right..” She hurried to Dr. Matthews’s side to find him frowning over the latest victim.

“Was it he who screamed?” she asked, sickened by the sight. Both legs were burned, with one smashed too badly to ever recover.

He nodded. “A roof beam caught him.”

His voice was drowned out by an arrogant newcomer. “Stand aside, lad!  I will see the doctor now!”

“But you’ve nought but minor burns, sir,” protested Amanda’s assistant.

“I’ve a broken arm, not that it matters. He will attend me now.”

Obviously a nobleman, decided Amanda. No one else could be so odiously haughty.

“We’ll have to amputate,” murmured Dr. Matthews. “The right might recover, but the left is hopeless..”

“The boys can move him into the stable,” she suggested. “We’ve enough people in shock as it is. I will take care of his lordship.”

She turned to examine the gentleman who was trying to shove past her helper. He was half a head taller than herself, with an almost perfect physique, but his dark eyes and hawkish face blazed with enough anger to send most people running for cover. Disapproval marred his forehead and pulled his mouth into a permanent frown. His black hair hung longer than was currently fashionable and was plastered with mud. He wore only torn pantaloons and a filthy nightshirt with a scorched left sleeve. Amanda snorted.

“You will have to wait your turn,” she addressed him coldly.

“Obviously, you do not know who I am,” he said through gritted teeth, eyes contemptuously raking her from head to toe.

“You are an arrogant lord with no manners, no sense, and a grossly inflated opinion of your place in the universe. There are half a dozen people in worse condition than you. I refuse to deal with you until later,” she stated, hands on her hips.

“You refuse!”  He glared.

“Absolutely. The man who was just brought out will die without immediate attention..” She turned to follow Dr. Matthews, but a hand shot out and pulled her back. “I am the Duke of Norwood. Where is the nearest doctor?”

“I don’t care if you are the Prince Regent, Wellington, and God Himself rolled into one,” she shot back, drawing herself up and donning an expression every bit as haughty as his own. “You will sit down and shut your mouth, your bloody grace. The only available doctor is trying to save lives..” It was time to take this toplofty beast down a peg, she decided as his face turned an interesting shade of purple. She sweetened her voice. “Or if you wish to be attended sooner, we could use some help. Your arm will heal just as well if it is set later, and your strength will make treating that gentleman easier.”

Tearing herself free, she hurried into the stable.

* * * *

Norwood stared after the retreating figure, unable to move. Was she descended from Medusa that she could freeze him so easily?  No one had ever spoken to him like that. Her flashing brown eyes had impaled him like a butterfly on a pin. Yet there was nothing notable about the woman. Her sisters were everywhere – nondescript, brown-haired females clad in widow’s weeds.

But her words reverberated through his mind. Was he really so important that he would condemn a man to death just to get his arm set a few minutes earlier?  Phrased that way, his request sounded ludicrous.

Pain stabbed his arm, his leg, his neck. Damn, but he hurt!  The jump had gone about as badly as possible. Broken glass had sliced through his clothes. He had landed on a slope, his foot twisting to drop him in the exact spot where a burning timber crashed moments later, snapping one of the bones of his left forearm.

The wench’s words again teased his mind, sounding almost like a dare. When a scream of agony erupted from the stable, he unwillingly, almost without thought, moved in that direction.

“There you are,” she snapped as he appeared in the doorway. “You’re late. Grab that leg and hold it still..”

Hardly realizing what was happening, he did as he was told, wedging the foot between his thighs and holding the knee immobile with his good hand. Only then did he note the others’ actions.

The woman was leaning heavily on the victim’s shoulders, pinning them to a rough table. A doctor had applied a tourniquet to the other leg, tied the foot down, and was positioned above it with a knife and a saw. The patient screamed again.

Norwood blanched. The man he was holding was his own valet. His grip loosened.

“Damnation!  Hold him still!” snapped the doctor, slicing deep into the burned flesh.

Fitch bucked, kicking upward with his free foot. New pain exploded through Norwood’s body but he grimly held on. A few quick strokes followed by the rasp of a saw, and the injured leg twisted free of its former body, spilling blood onto the floor. Fitch lapsed into a coma.

Norwood convulsed in horror. Staggering two steps away, he cast up his accounts against the wall, unable to absorb the brutal reality of the past half hour. Neither the doctor nor his assistant took any notice of his prolonged retching. They worked quickly, discussing the fire victims and other patients they had known. Their voices finally broke through the fog that had descended on the duke’s brain.

“Will he recover?” she asked softly.

“Maybe, Mrs. Morrison. The other leg may heal, or it may have to go as well. We should know in a couple of days. The burns are the worst of it. His reflexes are certainly working properly..” They shared an amused smile.

“Poor man. I hope he has family that will take care of him. It is brutal on the streets.”

“Is that where you have spent the last months?” inquired the doctor as he finished sewing up his handiwork.

“Not quite. I have been teaching music in London since I returned, though it is not enough. But things will improve.”

“You deserve far better, my dear,” he said briskly.

“I doubt it. Set his grace’s arm while I see what new casualties have arrived..” She called the boys to move Fitch.

Norwood grimaced as the doctor prodded his arm.

“Did Mrs. Morrison refer to you properly?” Matthews asked as he maneuvered the bones back into position.

“I am the Duke of Norwood,” his grace managed through gritted teeth.

“And I am Dr. Matthews. Thank you for your assistance.”

“Will Fitch really recover?” Norwood asked.

“You know the gentleman?”

“Yes. Will he recover?”

“Possibly. His chances are better if he is well cared for.”

“He will be.”

Amanda returned. “There is another bad one, Doctor. I doubt he’ll live, but perhaps there is something you can do.”

He nodded. “See to Norwood’s wounds, then come help me.”

Norwood gasped as she spread lard on his arm. “How do you come to be so capable?” he said, trying to distract his mind from the pain.

“Too much practice. Thank God Matthews lives here. If anyone can save that fellow, it will be him. Too many country sawbones are inept.”

“You know him well?”

“We worked together for several months after Waterloo,” she replied in a voice that terminated the topic. “Thank you for your help.”

“I did little but disgrace myself,” he muttered.

“Nonsense, though you’ll now remember that there are better ways to hold down a leg..” She grinned as he flinched in discomfort.

“Wretch. You could have warned me.”

“Experience teaches best..” She finished wrapping his arm and tied off the bandage. “There. Most of the burns are not deep. You will have a scar on the back of the hand and another near the elbow, but the rest will heal without a trace.”

He had not even thought about scars. His face drained of color, dizziness again assaulting him.

“Put your head down,” she ordered, pushing it toward his knees. “I should not have mentioned it. You’ve had enough shocks for one night.”

“You must be a witch. How did you drag me into this?”

“You dragged yourself in, your grace. It is good for even the highest to reduce themselves to being human once in a while. And don’t feel guilty over your reaction. It is nearly universal the first time.”

The traumatic events of the evening had left him floating in a dream – the mad sort where people said and did mad things, and events raced illogically from crisis to crisis. Or was it a dream?  The witch had said something about being human.

“Is that why you coerced me into helping with this?” he asked as she smeared salve on his cuts. “Were you trying to bring the aristocrat to his knees?”

“Not really,” she lied. “We needed the help, you needed something to occupy your time until Dr. Matthews could set your arm, and my other patients needed to be spared a temper tantrum.”

“You make me sound like an infant,” he growled.

“Think about it, your grace,” she suggested. “I’ve got work to do.”

“Poor Fitch,” he murmured again as she disappeared, leaving him in a blood-stained stall with only a mangled leg for company.

* * * *

Amanda thought about the Duke of Norwood as she assisted Matthews. It was the only way she could keep other memories from crowding too close. If her nightmare had cracked the door leading to the past, the surgery and Matthews’s presence threatened to burst it wide open.

There was something about the duke that piqued her curiosity. Despite the hauteur that must be expected from so lofty a lord, she sensed a softness underneath, a vulnerability that she had not expected to find there. Had she misjudged him?  Perhaps his initial tirade had been a reaction to the fire rather than his usual demeanor. She really should not have pushed him to help. The sight was bad enough for anyone unprepared, but he had already suffered other shocks while escaping the blaze. That he had coped as well as he had indicated a strong character. She owed him an apology.

In retrospect, her own behavior had been unconscionable, reverting to the deliberate perversity she thought she had shed along with her childhood. Now she knew that nothing had changed. The trigger had merely been missing – that icy arrogance she so heartily despised. The realization did not bode well for her errand.

Dawn finally broke across the eastern sky. The worst injuries had been treated. Those still fighting the waning blaze bore only minor burns.

A yard of tin sounded as another London-bound mail coach approached this busiest of coaching inns. Several stages and private carriages were already being harnessed for departure. Horses whinnied. Shouts arose as people scrambled for possessions.

Taking leave of the doctor, Amanda picked up her valise and boarded her stage.

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9780451186829