Redeeming Lord Ryder – Maggie Robinson

She wasn’t dead. That was surely a good thing, wasn’t it? But Nicola couldn’t seem to move from the corner where she’d been tossed. This wasn’t supposed to happen in First Class. The railway carriage loomed above her, compartment doors flung open. A few other passengers in the car, which had been mercifully mostly empty, were hollering for help or crying, clinging to their seats, their belongings tumbled about down the aisle. A shoe, quite a pretty one with a silver buckle, had hit Nicola’s shoulder and woken her up not long ago. A bearded man with a bloody cheek lay inert just a yard away from her. Was he dead? She hoped not. They had been coming back from the dining car and he’d been a gentleman, steadying her arm when the tremors first stuck. There had been an enormous rumble, she remembered, and then the sensation of flying through the air. The railway bridge had given way, and in Nicola’s estimation, they must now be on the roadway below the underbridge. Help would come soon. A derailed train was far too big to miss, even if they were in the middle of nowhere. Nicola had been to visit her sister Francesca in London. Frannie had just had another baby, a beautiful little boy.

It was unfortunate that he had been named Albert after his papa, but his middle name was Nicholas, and Nicola had been immensely flattered. She was his godmother, so nothing bad must happen to her. She had a duty to see to little Bertie’s immortal soul, and so she would, if she could ever stand up. Her head hurt dreadfully. She shut her eyes, hoping to stop the nausea and dizziness. It didn’t work. If only the wailing would stop. It wouldn’t help anything, losing self-control like that. One didn’t complain if one could help it. The roar of the bridge collapse was sufficient to alert anyone in the vicinity.

Shrieking like a banshee was unnecessary. Gilding the lily, so to speak. Nicola opened her mouth to request that the screaming woman be quiet. And nothing happened. Well, not precisely true. There was a noise, a kind of rasp. Nicola tried again. Another odd sound, like an animal in a trap. She felt a prickle of anxiety. There was nothing obstructing her mouth to account for the odd, squashed noise.

Was her throat damaged in the accident? Once she’d had a dreadful cold and had sounded like a man for a week. She and Frannie had laughed over it. What had she wanted to say to the woman, anyway? She forgot. It didn’t really matter. Help would come soon. She closed her eyes and slept, even if she was upside down. And dreamed that she was the screaming woman herself. Chapter 1 From the journal of Mary Nicola Mayfield December 13, 1882 I have been in Puddling now for two months to the day, and nothing is changed. Nicola sat back and wiped her pen nib. What more was there to say? Aye.

That was the rub. She couldn’t say anything. Still. The scar at her hairline was barely noticeable now—her fringe performed its duty admirably. Yes, her collar bone ached when it rained, but that was a minor inconvenience. But she could not speak, no matter how many times she opened her mouth. The accident had been more than nine months ago. Nicola had recuperated at home with her parents for seven of those months, until they had all been at their wits’ end. Her hand had cramped from writing her thoughts and wishes until her family couldn’t bear to read them anymore. Her mother cried constantly; her father was nearly as silent as Nicola was.

When a cottage became available in the secret spa, Puddling-on-the-Wold, her parents jumped at the chance to send her there. To get rid of her, really, in the prettiest place imaginable. The village was known to work miracles on difficult relatives with difficult problems. Nicola wasn’t the usual kind of Guest—she didn’t imbibe too freely, gamble, break engagements in fruitless rebellion, disrobe in public, flunk out of school, or do any of the naughty things that drove parents to disown their disreputable children, or children to hide their cringe-worthy parents. She just couldn’t talk, and her parents were exasperated. She knew they loved her—they’d spent a small fortune they didn’t really have on specialists. Doctors had poked and prodded at her. Inserted vile tubes down her throat. She’d worried sometimes that her jaw would remain locked open as they gazed into the dark depths of her windpipe. Her tongue had endured sharp needles; her tonsils were removed as a precaution.

More surgery had been discussed; one doctor went so far as to want to shave her hair off so her brain could “breathe.” Thank heavens her papa had drawn the line there. Nicola was fond of her hair. It was long and gold and her one true beauty. The rest of her was unremarkable, except, of course, for her lack of speech. Had she different parents, she might be in an asylum now, locked up with people who couldn’t make sense. Nicola’s wits were perfectly intact, but she was miserably mute, and her parents were desperate to help her. Not at home in Bath anymore, though, which was just as well. She’d drunk enough of the foultasting water there in hopes of a miracle cure. And Richard lived right next door.

After he’d broken their engagement, it had only caused her mama to cry harder. Nicola had been suffocated under her parents’ concern and despair for her. Even Richard had been ashamed, but as an ambitious young MP, how could he marry a girl who couldn’t campaign for him? No, not a girl. A woman. Nicola was twenty-six, long past her girlhood. She didn’t even really mind that Richard had cried off. While she had liked him very much and shared his political goals, it had never been a heart-fluttering love match. Marriage to him had seemed a practical arrangement to both their families, and she did so want her own children. It was not enough to be a fond aunt to Frannie’s little boys. Nicola had waited years for Richard to establish himself.

But evidently he couldn’t wait a few months for her to speak again. She picked up the pen. I want to talk. Dr. Oakley seems to think that if I have a positive attitude, my speech will return. But how could she be positive? It was almost Christmas, and her parents were going to Scotland to stay with Aunt Augusta, her mother’s widowed sister. Frannie, Albert, and the boys too. Nicola would be alone in her little cottage with only Mrs. Grace for company. Her housekeeper had been extraordinarily kind, had coddled her from the moment she was picked up at the Stroud station.

It was the first time Nicola had been on a train since the accident, and the Puddling Rehabilitation Foundation governors had suggested she get over her anxiety by making the trip from Bath by rail. Rather like getting back on the horse after a fall, she supposed. But Nicola had been worse than anxious. Much to the other passengers’ disgust, she’d vomited repeatedly, and by the time she’d arrived she was so weak she could barely stand up. She’d been put to bed for a week, only getting up to play the church organ for a local wedding when the vicar begged her to. Music was her one release, and her father had donated a small piano for Stonecrop Cottage. She played for hours, when she wasn’t staring at the blank pages of her journal. She was meant to write down her thoughts and worries. Dr. Oakley or the elderly vicar, Mr.

Fitzmartin, would then discuss them with her during their daily visits. Sometimes she would pray, the only time she didn’t feel self-conscious about being silent. Nicola snapped the journal shut and tucked it into a pigeonhole in the little desk. She had no further thoughts today, nothing that she hadn’t already written for the sixty-one days she’d been present in Puddling. The parlor was a bit cramped now with the piano, but it was cheerful, with a bright fire burning in the hearth. Mrs. Grace had gone home a little early for the day, pleading a headache. She’d left Nicola a chicken pie in the ice box for her supper. Raspberry tarts too—she’d already cadged one as they were cooling. If she wasn’t careful, Nicola would return to Bath several stone heavier.

If she returned. She didn’t want to be a burden to her parents. Perhaps she could stay here. Not in this cottage, of course; it belonged to the Puddling Rehabilitation Foundation. But she’d come into money of her own—a settlement from the accident. Guilt money. Her papa had written to her when he sent the piano. As a prominent Bath solicitor, he had negotiated hard on her behalf. The amount was enough to purchase her own home and keep her in modest comfort for the rest of her life if she was careful. And why wouldn’t she be careful? Nicola had always been conservative.

She’d never been frivolous; she only owned two ball gowns that were refurbished on a yearly basis with new lace or ribbons or both. Richard had admired her frugality, for he earned very little in his own law practice and did not stand to inherit a fortune like some members of the House of Commons. Her mama had not been so sanguine, but Nicola simply wasn’t much interested in evening clothes. She didn’t need her ball gowns for Puddling. Life was purposefully quiet here, so Guests could recuperate. But now that the steep streets were coated with a dusting of snow and a slick of ice underneath, she could use a new pair of boots. It was part of her prescribed routine to walk around the village for at least an hour a day, and the exercise was becoming a touch treacherous. She would write to Mama and ask for some better footwear, something suitable for a clumsy mountain goat. Nicola knew she was treated differently than some of the other Guests had been. Apparently it was forbidden to contact the “Outside World” by mail or telegram or anything else during the course of one’s stay here.

But letters flowed freely back and forth to Bath, not that she had very much to report. Nothing ever happened in Puddling. There were five intertwining streets, and Nicola knew every house and shop, all five of them, by now. Everyone had been so welcoming. She was often stopped and given biscuits or balls of yarn or books by the friendly villagers and their children. She wished she could say thank you, but had to make do with her most sincere smiles. Oh, she was feeling sorry for herself, and that was pointless. She’d go out for a short second walk, not too far. The sun would set over the Cotswold Hills in about an hour, but fresh air would do her good. Bring roses to her cheeks, which the mirror told her were as pale as the moon.

Then she’d put her pie in the oven. Eat. Wash her dishes. Get on her knees. Go to bed. How boring it all was. Which it was meant to be. Evidently the Puddling governors believed that a strict routine was the key to recovery. No excesses of any kind. Which suited Nicola, as she was not an excessive sort of person.

Although the cottage had a small generator—and all sorts of modern conveniences, for it was the newest and most luxurious of the Guest residences, which wasn’t really saying much—she was a little afraid of it. She preferred the golden glow of lamp oil instead of the harsh, erratic electric light. She extinguished the lamp on the desk and banked the fire. Her fur-lined coat hung on a hook by the front door, and she slid her stockinged feet into her old shoes. A brisk gust of wind almost knocked her down in the front garden. The koi she’d seen in the autumn were asleep under a skim of ice on their pond, and the bare branches were stark against the graying sky. Would she be here in the spring to see the garden awake? According to Mrs. Grace, most Guests were enrolled in the program for twenty-eight days. Nicola had been here over twice as long, and was no closer to a cure. Would they let her stay indefinitely? She knew more cottages were being built for additional Guests, having passed the new construction on her walks.

She didn’t want to take up a valuable spot for someone who truly needed it. She might be a lost cause. She wasn’t sure the routine and all the kindness she’d been shown was helping her whatsoever. Nicola closed the gate behind her and took the stone steps down to the cobbled lane. Adjusting her hood, she headed away from the heart of the village, toward the bottom of Honeywell Lane. The fitful gurgle of Puddling Stream was audible the closer she got, and frost-covered hills were before her. Sheep foraged for grass through the snow and bleated plaintively—country sights and sounds she didn’t experience in busy Bath. It was all very comforting. Until her foot hit a patch of ice and she slipped, tumbling ignominiously to her bottom. The pain in her twisted ankle was excruciating, but even though her mouth was open, there was no noise.

Damn. It was difficult to get purchase to raise herself. She must look comical, rolling about the street like an overfed seal, her gloves and knees sodden. Nicola didn’t know whether to smile—since laughter was out of her reach—or cry at her predicament. Her decision was halted by the rapid footfalls behind her. She turned to warn the runner to be careful, but of course, no words came out. The gentleman was luckier than she had been. He remained upright and over her, a concerned look on his face. His rather handsome face. Nicola felt herself go hot.

No white moon face anymore, she’d wager. She was always betrayed by her blushes. “Are you all right, miss?” She nodded violently. A lie. Suddenly shy, she wanted him to go away and leave her alone to wallow in the slush. “Let me help you up.” She shrugged and he pulled her up by both hands. The weight on her ankle was too much, and she buckled before the man caught her. “You’re not all right! Is it your ankle?” Nicola nodded again. “Cat got your tongue? Go ahead, be unladylike and scream.

I won’t mind a bit. And lean on me. I promise I won’t hurt you.” Oh, it wasn’t that she was afraid of him. It was always so mortifying to have to explain her condition to strangers. She had a little card in her pocket for just such occasions. But if he was a normal resident of Puddling, he should know all about her, shouldn’t he? The entire village was a sort of lovely, lush hospital, and everyone knew everything. There were explicit dossiers on each Guest. Nicola had been permitted to read her own and invited to embellish it with any suggestions she thought might be useful to her improvement. “I’ll help you home.

” There was no arguing with that statement; she needed the help. “Where do you live?” Nicola pointed the way back up Honeywell Lane. “On this lane? Me too. Which cottage is yours? I’m in Tulip. A ridiculous name, don’t you think?” Nicola covered her mouth with one damp glove and shook her head very slowly. His dark eyes narrowed. “Ah. You cannot talk. You’re not deaf, are you? Well, I suppose if you are, you won’t be hearing me ask the question.” She couldn’t help but smile.

“Oh, good. I can natter on, and you can’t talk back. A silent woman. Every man’s dream, I imagine. Not mine,” he said hastily. “I respect women no end. I’m thinking of my late father, who used to lock himself in his study when my mother was on the warpath. Which was often. They fought like cats and dogs. I’m making a fool of myself telling you all the family secrets, aren’t I? I’m Jack.

” He took her hand and shook it with almost excessive vigor. “You’re a Guest too, aren’t you? Come for the famous cure of whatever ails you?” Oh, dear. Nicola nodded with reluctance. What was wrong with this fellow? He appeared prosperous, was very good-looking with his neatly trimmed dark beard and sympathetic brown eyes. Eyes that were somewhat shadowed. Was he a drunkard? A womanizer? An opium addict? He was much too old to have had his bad-tempered mother send him here for youthful misbehavior. Nicola knew some troubled souls signed themselves into the Puddling Rehabilitation Program for rest and relaxation. He might be one of them. Something about her reserved expression must have given her worries away. “Don’t be concerned.

I won’t ravish you. That’s not my problem at all,” he said with a touch of grimness. “Here, let’s go back up the hill. Can you walk, or do you want me to carry you?” She made walking motions with her fingers, but after a wobbly step or two found herself swept up and firmly ensconced in the man’s arms. “No wriggling or writhing, and certainly no punching. When we get to your cottage, I’ll drop you onto something soft and comfortable and fetch the old doctor. What’s his name? Oakley? I only got here yesterday. I’m not even sure why I came, to tell you the truth. Another one of my harebrained ideas. Tap my shoulder when we get to your house, all right?” All Nicola could do was nod.

The man was a force of nature.


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