An Unconventional Innocent, Desperate and Daring Series, Book 5
by Dayna Quince
The heart may choose the road less traveled…
Pressured into an unwanted marriage, Dorothea Manton escapes to her friend Lucy’s cottage, hoping to hide out until her twenty-first birthday when she will be able to choose her own fate. But trouble still finds her in the form of an injured soldier who collapses near the cottage. Free from the tethers of her conniving family, Thea befriends the major. Though friendship isn’t the only thing on her mind. Handsome and kind, Major Henry Felton treats her like a grown woman…not a sheltered miss.
With little money and no place to live, Felton would most likely be dead had this brave and intelligent young woman not rescued him. But her identity remains a mystery. She’ll give him only her first name and nothing more. What could she be hiding, and who could she be hiding from? The closer they grow in their quiet little cottage, the more rabid his curiosity becomes…and the deeper he falls for her.
Before Thea and Felton can explore their newfound feelings, a rival for Thea’s affections intervenes and declares himself Thea’s protector. To Felton, he reveals things about Thea she should have told him herself. Jealousy and honor clash, and Thea’s protector has an agenda of his own. Meanwhile, Thea’s erstwhile fiancé is on the hunt. With time running out and two men vying for her heart, Thea knows she must choose between a wounded soldier and a wealthy lord before her unwanted fiancé claims her.
Read an excerpt from An Unconventional Innocent.
Dorothea raced through the frozen orchard, her lungs burning, her breath pluming out before her like a dragon’s and fogging her glasses. Her heart pumped, and her fingers tingled from the cold inside her thin gloves. Her legs simply screamed for her to slow.
She wouldn’t, though, not when running felt so good. She wheeled her arms as her boot found a bit of ice on the ground, and squealed as she caught her balance. She couldn’t help laughing at herself as she slowed at the last row of trees and stepped over the low stone wall marking the end of the property and orchard.
“Drat,” she huffed.
Mr. Hale was gone, and her letter to Rose would not go out today.
Hands on her hips, pulse pounding wildly, she huffed again in annoyance and turned to walk back to the cottage.
Then she froze, the sight of a lone man on the road startling her. She was tempted to slip back into the orchard before being seen, but something stopped her.
He swayed on his feet while hugging himself.
“Oh, dear,” she whispered.
Lucy and Winchester had only left yesterday, but Thea had already taken to talking to herself in their absence. Who was this man? And what was he doing walking in this dreadful cold without a coat?
She chided herself. She didn’t have a proper coat, either, having forgotten it in her haste to catch Mr. Hale.
She shouldn’t intervene. He could be a drifter or a drunk, and Lord knew what he would do if she intercepted him. She waited in indecision.
He was walking slowly—limping really—and he didn’t appear to have noticed her.
She wrapped her arms around herself and shivered. “Sir?”
He swayed again as he raised one hand in…salute?
She had a sinking feeling in her stomach. “Are you in need of aid?”
He hobbled quicker, a muffled reply erupting from him, and then he stumbled and fell to the ground.
Thea cried out as she ran toward him. “Help!” she screamed, though she didn’t think anyone could hear this far from the cottage.
She helped him roll to his side. He shook violently, his teeth chattering. His lips were blue, and his cheeks red and veined from the cold.
“My God, you’re nearly frozen.”
His blue eyes focused on her. “Win—tttt—test—ter.”
She knelt on the ground, cradling his head in her lap. She had nothing to cover him with, nothing to provide warmth. She cursed herself for having left the house without a coat. Nothing in her letter had been so important that it couldn’t wait. Her hands shook as she pulled him by his lapels to bring him closer to her.
“There is a cottage just up the lane. You can get warm there, and we can summon the doctor.”
Thea shook her head. “Whatever it is, it can wait until you’ve warmed up a bit. Can you stand?”
He nodded. She came to her feet and helped him to his, but it was not easy. He was much taller than her, and his movements were slow and disordered. He wheeled his arms as he came to his feet and steadied himself. Then he did an odd hop, and Thea surmised that one of his legs must be injured.
She ducked under his left arm and put hers around his back. “Please, let me help you.”
He winced and settled his arm over her shoulders.
“Are you injured?”
He nodded jerkily.
“Come on, then.”
They started off slow, and the more he leaned on her, the more Thea realized how grave his condition really was. Had she not seen him, he might well have died alone out here on the lane.
“Only a bit further now.”
She had tried to sound cheerful, but her own teeth had begun to chatter.
Finally they reached the post that indicated the beginning of the drive to the cottage.
“You see? We’re halfway there.”
She fisted her hands to keep her fingers warm and noticed the side of her that pressed against him stayed warm. He felt rather nice and muscular. She bit her lip. She didn’t have to worry about a telltale blush when her cheeks were already stinging and red from the cold.
He stopped them suddenly, just inside the drive, the shelter of the shrubbery shielding them from the biting wind.
“L—le—eave me. Get— help.”
Thea frowned. “I couldn’t do that. I can’t leave you here alone. It’s only a little further.”
He leaned into the shrubbery and his eyelids drooped. “I—can’t—move.”
He’s too cold, and he needs help immediately.
She peered down the drive, the cottage so close and yet so far, the curve in the drive keeping it just out of sight. Then she moved closer to him, seeking the warmth derived from their shared body heat while she frantically thought of what to do next.
Inspiration struck. If he was making her warm, she would do the same for him. She pressed her whole front to his, and looped her arms around him, rubbing his back vigorously.
“Lean into me and put your arms around me,” she urged him. “If I can warm you up a little, then we can get you warm enough to make it to the cottage.”
He slumped into her, burying his face in her neck. His skin was alarmingly cold, but the warm gust of his breath on her neck was reassuring.
She shivered again, but this time, not from the cold. She’d never held a man like this before. She’d never been pressed so tightly against someone.
There was a long list of things she’d never done.
Thea pressed her lips together. She should be ashamed to admit that she was enjoying this moment.
“There.” She made herself pull away from him. “It’s just around the bend. Can you make it?”
He nodded once and fell into her again, as if he didn’t want to let her go.
She wiggled to his side and struggled to get him moving again. He hung on her heavily, only one of his legs moving efficiently, the other mostly dragging. They came in view of the cottage and were halfway across the circular turnabout when the door opened, and the footman, Jacob, came out to assist them, followed by Mrs. Hale.
The older woman waved a towel in the air. “Good heavens!”
“I found him on the lane,” Thea said. “He’s injured.”
Thea huffed as Jacob took the man from the other side and assisted him into the cottage. She was reluctantly relinquishing her foundling, when, unexpectedly, he grabbed her hand. He leaned heavily on Jacob, but his grasp on her hand was firm.
She held his hand as she followed them into the cottage and up the stairs to one of the guest rooms.
“Put him on the bed, Jacob,” Mrs. Hale instructed.
The man was laid on the bed, still conscious, as far as Thea could tell, but he held his eyes closed and grimaced at every movement.
“Fetch the tub and plenty of buckets of hot water, if you please, Jacob.”
“What shall I do?” Thea asked with worry.
“Rub his hands, Miss Manton. We’ll try to warm what we can before the bath is ready.”
Thea rubbed one of his hands vigorously, and Mrs. Hale did the same with the other.
His fingers were cold as ice, and his skin had a bluish tint.
“How long do you think he was out there?”
“I can’t rightly say. A long time, it seems. No coat to boot.” Mrs. Hale smiled at her. “You saved his life.”
Thea chewed her lip. “I don’t know about that.”
“The ground is frozen, and snow is imminent. He very well could have died out there,” Mrs. Hale went on. Then she rubbed his jaw briskly with her hands to warm his cheeks. “The poor soul. I bet he’s mighty handsome with some color in his skin.”
“Mrs. Hale!” Thea said in a scandalized whisper.
Mrs. Hale chuckled and winked. “He appears to be a gentleman, Miss Manton.”
Thea didn’t know what that wink meant. She wasn’t versed in the language of winks. She glanced down to see his blue lips smiling and his eyes blinking open. He tried to speak, but his teeth only chattered.
Mrs. Hale nodded toward Thea. “You’ve arrived at Winchester cottage, sir, by the grace of the fair Miss Manton.”
Thea stuttered in embarrassment. “I—Mrs. Hale,” she ground out in warning. “Will you desist?”
The other woman chuckled as Jacob and the matronly maid, Mrs. Croft, returned. “You will have to leave now, Miss Manton. What would your mother say if I were to let you undress a man?”
Thea wanted to stay, but she couldn’t for the sake of propriety, and because she couldn’t endure any more of the woman’s teasing.
She moved away, stopped short by the grip of his hand on hers. She’d forgotten she still held his hand. “I have to go now, sir. You will be well taken care of, I promise.”
His blink was slow and weary as he focused on her. “M—my angel.”
A warm flush filled her. “I will check in when I can.”
She squeezed his hand one more time and let go. She bit her cheek as she left the room, fighting back a smile. Then she closed the door behind her and went to her room.
She didn’t want to be smitten with a stranger, but she was.
Marigold joined her in her room, curious about the whole situation as she helped Thea undress.
Thea told her how she’d found him and helped him to the cottage.
“Did he say anything?”
Thea marshalled her thoughts. “He said ‘win,’ many times.”
Marigold wrapped a warm shawl around Thea. “Win?”
“His first words were ‘win test ter.’ Oh! Winchester?” Thea gasped. “He must know Lord Winchester!”
“Why was he out walking in this cold?” Marigold wondered.
“Perhaps he wasn’t, initially. Perhaps his carriage crashed. His driver could be injured and awaiting help!”
At this, Thea bolted from her room and into his, across the hall.
Mrs. Croft tried to block her entrance. “Miss Manton! What on earth? You cannot be in here with an undressed man.”
“This is far more important than my sensibilities. I must ask him where he came from. He could have an injured coachman waiting for help that is not presently coming.”
She pushed past Mrs. Croft and paused.
He was there in the tub, chest-deep in water and naked as the day he was born. His head was thrown back, and his eyes were closed.
“He is barely conscious. You will not be able to get anything from him,” Mrs. Hale said as she draped a blanket over the top of the tub, covering his lower half.
Thea knelt beside the tub. “But I must try.”
He didn’t respond.
“Exposure to the cold for as long as he endured takes a toll on the body. He will wish to sleep for some time.”
Thea nodded in understanding. “Please, sir. Is there someone waiting for help that you had to leave behind? Do we need to search for them?”
He didn’t respond. He seemed better, but extremely tired, just as Mrs. Hale had said.
Thea put her hand to his cheek. “Sir?”
He roused a little.
She caressed his cheek, feeling the stubble of his beard under her fingertips.
He turned his face into her hand and nuzzled it, and Thea sucked in a breath. Then he kissed her palm. She prayed no one had seen that brief kiss but her. It seared her palm, the heat radiating up her arm to her body.
“Sir,” she whispered. “Please.”
His eyes slowly opened, and his head turned to hers. He licked his lips. “Water,” he said gruffly.
Thea turned to Mrs. Hale. “Water!”
Once she held the glass, she gingerly held it to his lips.
He took a sip, and then a large gulp.
“Careful now,” Thea said.
He blinked at her, his stare languid and dreamy.
Thea wasn’t sure how aware he was.
“I found you on the road. Did an accident befall you? Shall I send someone to recover the horses and driver?”
“No,” he answered drowsily. Then he licked his lips, as if his mouth was still parched.
Thea offered more water. “You were alone?”
“Yes.” He rested his head against the back of the tub. “I’m so cold.”
She stared at him until Mrs. Hale roused her from her spot.
“We must add more hot water. You should go now. What would your mother say?”
Mrs. Hale shooed her from the room, and Thea left reluctantly.
“Please come get me when he is dressed and in bed. I wish to sit with him while he recovers.”
The older woman sighed. “I shouldn’t allow such a thing.”
Thea raised one brow. “I wasn’t asking, Mrs. Hale.”