Smitten with a Scarred Duke – Sally Forbes

Roger St. John’s eyes flew open, only to be greeted with a thick haze of what appeared to be fog. For a moment, nothing made any sense. He could feel his bed beneath him, and he could see the corner of his bedside table when he turned his head. He started to close his eyes again, thinking that, perhaps, he had left the window cracked, despite the cold of winter, and some of London’s notorious fog had drifted in while he slept. But a moment later, he realized it was too warm in the room for there to be a window open. Far too warm, in fact. He took a deep breath to sigh, and instantly began coughing. As his lungs fought to expel the choking breath, he realized with horror it was not fog at all filling his room—it was smoke. As he leapt from his bed and the sleep still clouding his mind, which quickly evaporated, he heard the loud roaring and crackling of a fire. Panicked, he looked around, searching for flames inside his bedchambers, but he saw none. He began coughing again, smoke filling his lungs with his every breath. He thought quickly, grabbing his shirt from the day before from where it hung at the end of his bed and wrapping it around his face, tying the sleeves around the back of his head to keep it in place. Then, he rushed to the door and grabbed the handle, groaning as the fire-heated metal seared his hand. He wrapped the hem of his night shirt around his hand and tried again, barely managing to open the door before the molten metal singed his clothes.

The smoke was much thicker out in the hallway than in his bedchambers, and, for a moment, Roger was disoriented. He closed his eyes in a vain effort to keep out the stinging smoke, as he tried to regain his bearings. He had begun groping his way to the stairs when a horrifying thought occurred to him. Had his father made it out? Or was he still in his bedchambers? Turning abruptly in the ever-thickening smoke, Roger changed directions, moving away from the staircase, and going further down the hallway, toward his father’s chambers. The walk was the slowest of his life, not only because he could not see through the smoke and the watering of his eyes, but because time itself seemed to have slowed down remarkably. Roger stumbled about the second floor of Norfield Manor, feeling the heat from the blazing fire growing more intense as he drew closer to his parents’ rooms. Long before he reached the door to his father’s bedchambers, he made another horrific realization. Whatever the cause or source, the fire seemed to have started near, or in, his parent’s wing of the mansion. Struggling against the panic rising in his heart, as well as against the smoke and heat, Roger plunged ahead and reached his father’s door. He once more wrapped his shirt around his hand and put his hand on the door, relieved and surprised when it swung open.

His father must have fallen asleep the previous night without closing his door completely, which he did often, especially if the countess was gone, as she was that night. She was visiting her cousin in France, and Roger felt another rush of relief as he realized his mother’s life was not in jeopardy. The relief was short-lived, however. Roger heard a loud cracking sound, and then an even louder thud from inside his father’s bedchambers. Without hesitating further, Roger burst into the room, looking around frantically for any sign of his father. The smoke seemed to be the thickest in his father’s room, confirming his fear that the fire had started at the duke’s wing of the manor. His shirt was no longer serving its purpose, and the smoke nearly overwhelmed him then, sending him into a body-racking fit of coughing. He could not see a thing, and the smoke was stinging his eyes so badly, his vision was as useless to him as the shirt over his face. So, he closed his eyes and used only his sense of touch to feel his way around his father’s bedchambers. He knew the room well, having spoken to his father privately in there many times throughout his life, but he had to move slowly because of debris that was slowly beginning to pile up.

He knew, as the fire continued to burn, that further sections of the manor would soon begin to collapse, and at a faster rate, and that he was racing against time to help his father. He continued moving carefully, beginning to call out to his father in the hopes of hearing a response and being able to follow the sound to the duke. But if his father did call back to him, he could not hear it over the roar of the flames. However, a long moment later, Roger could feel one of the wooden corner posts of the bed, now burning hot and groaning in protest at the heat. With more confidence, Roger reached out until he could feel the mattress and began patting it, fighting to keep his breathing shallow, so he did not begin coughing once again. He could feel nothing other than the sheets which, though they were warm, did not feel as though they were burning. Nor did they seem to contain his father. Relief washed over Roger once more, and he started to turn back toward the door. However, his foot got tangled in some of the debris that had fallen beside the bed, and he collapsed on to it. Unfortunately, he fell on more than just the mattress.

The duke was lying, unmoving, in the middle of the bed. Roger shouted vainly over the sound of the fire, which was growing louder by the second. He shook the duke, hoping to rouse him enough to get him out of the bed, so he could help him out of the room and out of the inferno. But the only movement from the elder man was a hand sliding from his chest and brushing Roger’s hands as it fell limply onto the bed beside him. No, Roger thought, his mind beginning to race. Please, God, no…! Frantic, Roger took firm hold of the arm, which now lay slackly on the mattress, with one hand, then his father’s leg with the other. He quickly prayed he would not injure his father, as he held his breath and pulled firmly on his father’s lax body. He felt a small sense of relief as he realized the duke could be moved with relative ease. That meant he was likely still alive, just merely unconscious. However, Roger was uncertain of whether he could carry his father if the older man could not at least stand on his own.

Another large chunk of debris falling from the ceiling on the other side of the bed gave Roger no time to ponder the question. With a sudden rush of adrenaline, Roger pulled his father across the bed and to him. He leaned down, feeling the heat suddenly intensify as the bed itself at last caught fire. He wrapped his arms around his father’s back, and, after a momentary struggle, pulled the duke off the bed and slung him over his shoulder. He did not bother trying to feel or listen for a pulse. There would be time for that later. Now, he needed to get his father out of the burning manor. By the time he had wrestled his father out into the hallway, the smoke was so thick, Roger could not see a thing. He tried to shout for any of the servants, but he could not hear his own voice over the roaring flames. That meant, if any of the staff remained in the manor, they would not be able to hear him, either.

His stomach sank at the thought of his family’s faithful servants being trapped by the fire, and he said another silent prayer for them to reach safety in time. He promised himself he would go and look for any others who might still be trapped inside as soon as he had gotten his father safely outside. On the lower floor of the manor, he found to his relief there was considerably less smoke than on the upper floor, and Roger had less trouble finding his way to the front door than when navigating his way around the upstairs hallway. He still had to move with caution, however, as he did not know how much, if any, of the lower parts of the house had begun to catch fire. As such, he could not predict whether he might encounter more falling, burning pieces of his family’s country home. The threat of debris had been bad enough before. Now, with his father in tow, it could very well be deadly. Not until he stepped outside and felt the sharp, cold bite of the winter wind did he feel the pain. Hot and searing, it flooded his hands and arms, so suddenly and so excruciatingly, he nearly dropped the duke haphazardly on the ground. He just managed to gently lower his father to the snow-covered ground before the pain in his hands caused him to lose his grip.

The sheer agony temporarily replaced all other feelings, and Roger looked down at his arms to see the sleeves of his shirt, or what was left of them, were singed almost completely black. As he continued examining himself, he saw parts of his flesh were also blackened, and quickly forming large blisters. With horror, he realized the vast majority of his arms and hands had been exposed to the fire. Vaguely, he recalled the intense heat near his father’s bed, realizing it had not been merely the hotness of the flames radiating toward him. At the time, he had been too concerned for his father to realize it, but he had stuck his arms directly into those flames, into the fire itself. His hands began to tremble as the pain worsened, and he clenched his teeth as he growled in agony. Tears filled his eyes, and he prayed for death to end the searing torture his body was experiencing. A terrible rattling sound at his feet brought Roger back from the brink of pain-induced madness. His unconscious father writhed at his feet, and Roger fell to his knees beside him. It sounded as if the duke was trying to cough, but the only sound he was producing was a grating, hissing wheeze.

Roger firmly patted his father’s chest, hoping to facilitate a semblance of normal breathing. And, for a moment, it seemed he got his wish. The duke’s eyes flew open and his body lurched upward, his hands clutching onto one of his son’s freshly burned arms tightly. Roger screamed in pain, but he quickly composed himself, using his free arm to cradle the duke’s back once more. Almost instantly, the elder man fell back against the arm holding him, and Roger once more placed him gently on the ground. Roger looked around wildly, at last seeing what appeared to be all the household servants outside, all in their nightclothes, some frozen in shock, and others running frantically about and shouting things he could not hear over the crackle of the flames and the roaring blood in his ears. Roger looked down at his father once more. He patted his chest again, harder this time, and tried to smile. “Hold on, Father,” he said, beginning to rise. “I shall get help immediately.

” The duke’s grip did not lessen on his son’s arm, however. That is, at least, not until he had taken three final, harsh breaths, each rattling more horribly in his throat than the one before. As he took the third breath, his grip became impossibly tight on Roger’s arm, causing his son to cry out again in pain. The duke held on for several long seconds, his eyes seeming ready to bulge out of their sockets. Then, at last, he fell back into the impression his body had made in the snow, his hand dropping limply to the ground, before finally releasing Roger’s arm from its grip. It took Roger a mere moment to understand what was happening and, cradling his arm, which felt as if it was still ablaze, he began to scream. The last thing he remembered before everything went black was a crowd of faces rushing toward him, shouting things that were still inaudible. *** “You were very fortunate, my lord,” the physician said, completing his hour-long examination of Roger. Roger chuckled bitterly; the sound akin to two pieces of corroded metal being rubbed together. The smoke and his screaming had left his throat sore and being unconscious for nearly a week after the fire had weakened his vocal cords.

He had come to only once, just long enough to ask someone, though he could no longer recall who, about his father. Upon learning his father had, indeed, succumbed to smoke inhalation, he had once more fallen unconscious, and had thus remained until earlier that morning. When the servants discovered he had awakened, they immediately sent for the doctor, who rushed to the manor to begin his exam. “Fortunate?” Roger rasped, holding up his freshly bandaged arms. “Could it be that a physician does not quite know the meaning of the word?” The doctor shrugged nonchalantly and began putting away his equipment. “You could have met the same fate as your father,” he said, rather coldly. “And the flames did not even graze your face. So, yes, I dare say you were very lucky indeed.” Roger chuckled again, a fierce cough disrupting the bitter laugh. “Indeed,” he mumbled.

He settled back against the pillow and closed his eyes, feigning sleep until the physician, very noisily, at last exited his room. Then, he gingerly pried one of the looser bandages up and off his skin to peek underneath. The blisters under the fine gauze had burst, leaving in their wake a large patch of bright red, stinging flesh. Roger sighed, clenching his teeth together to fight back tears of both pain and anger. He called for one of the servants to see to it that someone wrote to his mother and informed her of what had happened, and of his father’s death. Then, he ordered the woman to lock the door to the guest room where he was resting, which was located in the wing left relatively undamaged by the fire. He wanted to ensure no one would disturb him until he came out of the room of his own accord. And he did not exit that room for three more days, after which he announced he would be returning to Norfield Manor. The country home would need a great deal of repair; the entire wing that had housed his parent’s rooms would need extensive repairs. But more than that, Roger felt he would better cope with his grief in their London home, rather than in the house where the fire that had claimed his father’s life had occurred.

He believed being amongst friendly faces and in a home free of the pervasive smells of charred wood, molten metal, and lingering smoke would allow him to come to terms with what had happened and make such a difficult time in his life easier. He had no way of knowing just how wrong he was.

.

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