Thank you all for the support!
As each day passed on his search for Sophia, Jack Aubrey grew more and more disheartened. When he had ascertained that she was not close to home, he knew finding her would be like a needle in a haystack. England was large enough and there were any number of places for her to hide. And that was to say that Blackwell had not taken her and sold her to the highest bidder to some other place.
He had started in Hampshire, fanning out from Basingstoke, visiting all of the locations he knew to be Blackwell's. He picked his way through numerous tiny villages and going into places that were offensive to even his sensibilities. That said a lot considering the things he had witnessed in His Majesty's naval service. But he refused to give up. He would comb the damn country and continent, picking up every single unturned stone if he had to. Sophia had to be found and he would not rest until he did.
However, he could not believe his chase had led him all the way up to North Yorkshire. Even though he had prepared for the worst—having to go to the continent to find her—he truly had not thought she would have been taken so far from Hampshire. Though he had no experience in transporting people against their will, he supposed it would be simpler to dispose of them some place relatively close to the place of abduction so as not to arouse suspicion. This was, of course, unless she had been subdued. But the thought had only managed to worry and enrage him more.
Jack swung his leg over the horse he had been riding for the better part of the day to the next little hamlet where Blackwell was said to have kept a repository of ill repute. Like the other villages and towns he had visited over the last week, it looked to be a respectable place with well-tended homes and a few essential shops. The people probably lived off the fields and surrounding farms. But it was a place that offered little other amusement, giving Blackwell's business ventures the opportunity for growth. A bunch of farmers with money jingling in their pockets and nowhere respectable to spend it would lose it to drink, cards, or women.
He followed the cobbled path through the center of the tiny town, listening to the sounds of the night around him. Eventually he came upon a row of shops that looked relatively serene for an evening as fine of this one. It was neither too cold nor too hot, and the sweet smell of flowers in the air spoke of spring. There was some activity, though, with both men and women moving in and out of a pub and adjoining inn.
A boy sprang up out of nowhere and identified himself as a groom. "John Coffin," he said, lifting his woolen cap slightly. "You stayin', sir?"
"I am," he said. "Do you work for the inn?"
The boy nodded. "Aye, sir. Go right on in to the Blue Duck."
Jack handed the reins to the groom and turned toward the inn. He followed the sounds of merriment and stepped inside the tavern, seeing about taking a room at least. After he had secured a room and food, he sat down in an attempt to relax. He had been sitting for no more than ten minutes when an overly rouged woman fell into his line of sight.
"M'lord," she said, sliding into his lap, an arm around his neck. "What may I do you for, m'lord?"
Jack swallowed a drink of his ale and set his cup down. He had been at sea for quite some time now and had not had the favors of a woman. The woman's actions were effective in making him realize such a thing and he had to consciously keep his mind on the task at hand. However, even though she was pretty, the relish he might have once had for debauchery with a willing bit of muslin at a tavern now had waned. Not when he actually stopped to think for a moment that these women were other men's daughters. Some of them would be here willingly, but since he did not know who those were or were not, he could not make himself want it.
"I am looking for your madam," he said.
"I 'ave no madam, m'lord," she said, running a finger down his cheek to his chin. Her hand rested on her chest.
"Is there one around?" he asked.
"You would not regret a tumble wi' me," she said. Her hand traveled lower to his crotch. There she cupped him. In spite of his distaste of the situation, his body responded to the action. Jack grabbed her wrist and physically pushed her off his lap.
"Who is she and how do I find her?"
The prostitute sneered. "Harriet's next door. Go through there." She pointed at the door to the left of the room and began to walk away.
"Girl!" he called.
She stopped and turned, playing with a strand of her hair that curled around her half-exposed breast. "Aye, m'lord?"
"For your troubles," he said, tossing her a sovereign. She caught the coin and inspected it, a smile creeping on her lips. From her reaction, it was easy to see she normally did not make as much.
Jack shook his head and downed the rest of his ale before getting up from his seat. He walked to the door and tried the handle. It opened easily and swung into a sedate room, richly appointed with fine furniture and decorations. As soon as he closed the door behind him, a woman came from a hall out into the sitting room.
She matched the room well, though she had taken her own personal decoration to such a vulgarity that he knew she was a self-made woman and not one who traveled in circles of the upper class prostitutes of London. The woman was country and nothing more.
"May I help you, sir?" she asked. Her dark eyes twinkled in the low light of the room.
He looked around again. Nothing nefarious seemed to be going on, but as he was about to excuse himself, he heard a scream come from somewhere in the house. It was not a scream of pleasure.
The woman's eyes narrowed at him. "You do know what… tastes… we cater to, do you not?"
"I have an idea," he replied. "I am looking for someone."
"We have plenty available for the night," she said.
He shook his head. "No, I am looking for someone in particular. Her name is Sophia Aubrey."
Though the woman tried to hide her reaction, it was enough to give her away. "Sophia Aubrey, sir? I am certain I have never heard the name spoken before now."
"You have heard of her," he said. "I can see it in your eyes."
"I think you should leave," she replied.
Jack's heart clenched at her words and for the first time since he had started, he truly started to hope he had made it in time. "I will double whatever he's paying you."
"No one has paid me," she said, shaking her head and walking to the door. "I think you're mistaken or drunk."
"No!" Jack exclaimed, grabbing her arm. "What has Blackwell paid you?"
She had fear in her eyes as she pushed him away. He let her go and she grabbed her arm. "He has paid me nothing. I bought her from him. Who asks for the little chit anyway?"
"Her uncle," he said.
"Well, good," she said. "Then you can pay for the fee she has not yet worked off! The chit escaped… nearly killed one of my maids two days ago."
She frowned and dropped the affectation of her practiced accent. Her northern, lower class accent poked through. "That's wha' I said, isn't it?"
"Where is she now?"
The woman shrugged. "I do not know."
"And where is Blackwell?"
"I imagine at his estate in Derbyshire," she said. "Where he usually goes after his monthly visits to Harrogate."
"Is Blackwell ill? To have come to Harrogate so often…" he asked.
The madam huffed. "You know the type of establishment I run, sir. Of the body, no he is not ill. Of the mind, that is another story entirely."
"She is gone?" he asked. "No one knows where she went?"
There was something more the woman was not telling him.
"I will not say any more for fear of incriminating myself," she said.
"You already have," he replied. "And believe you me, I will bring the full extent of the law down on this place after I have found my niece."
She smirked. "You would need the support of the authorities to do such a thing. It is unfortunate, then, that the authority who would control this is a frequent patron of my girls."
Jack released her hand and pushed her away from him, perhaps a little too forcefully. He was not that type of man, but the woman's attitude had only compounded the sheer rage he felt. But now he knew what had to be done. He had to find Blackwell as he would be the only one who could help him find Sophia now.
If there was one thing that Sophia noticed more than anything else upon waking, it was the fact that she had an overall feeling of warmth for the first time in a very long time. The cloth against her skin felt soft and luxurious opposed to the rough homespun that usually comprised her clothing when she was not "working". Knowing she had clothes to begin with mystified her.
She had not escaped hands on her body, though. At least these hands were warm, dry and gentle as they tenderly lifted her left foot and moved the ankle joint experimentally. Pain shot through her leg and an involuntary hiss passed her lips. Sophia conceded defeated and opened her eyes to the dimly-lit room, finding an old man leaning over her. A shock of white hair on his head extended down into thick muttonchops of the same color. He straightened up and peered back at her. His expression was grim, but he looked wise and learned.
"Ah, you are awake," he said in a quiet tone.
A willowy woman with a kind, round face stood behind him with her own hands clasped in front of her. Straight brown hair had come out of its pins in various places. A soft smile spread on her thin lips as she stepped around the white-haired man to get closer to her. The woman brushed a hand in a mothering fashion across her forehead.
"It's good to see you awake," she said. Her voice was strangely accented, but she was easy to understand. "My name is Mrs. Linden. This is Dr. Matthews."
Sophia was then overcome with a wave of relief so intense it took her breath from her. She could not stop the tears from falling when she realized that the people she had run into on the road had not left her there for Blackwell. Nor had they taken her to the hospital in Harrogate. They had brought her directly to their home. By the looks of the furnishings and size of the room, it was a rather grand place.
"I'm Miss—," she stopped herself. Giving them a surname would only lead to trouble if they decided to inquire further. They would look for who she belonged to, and she did not want to go back to her father or Blackwell. "Sophia. My name is Sophia."
It was safe enough. There was a veritable litany of Sophias in England.
"Miss Sophia," Mrs. Linden smiled, seeming to understand her inability to offer anything else. "Then you shall call me Elise."
"Th-Thank you," she said.
The doctor cleared his throat and looked over at her. "Miss Sophia, how do you feel?"
Sophia met his gaze and seriously thought about it. Her body ached. She had done nothing but run for two days, and that included many falls, scrapes and bruises in addition to her injuries from Blackwell.
He nodded his head. "I could surmise as much. I will leave medicine with Mrs. Linden to give to you, but I would recommend walking a bit in the morning. If you tire, rest. You must walk carefully on your ankle, however."
"I will leave you both while I speak with Lord Harrogate," Dr. Matthews said. He collected his bag and moved through the room to the door.
Sophia waited until it was closed before turning back to look at Elise. "I do not know how to thank you."
She smiled softly. "Don't thank me just yet. Dr. Matthews gave me the right to be a strict nurse and I do not intend to be anything less. You must get better as quickly as possible."
"Of course," Sophia said. "I plan to leave as soon as I am able. I don't want to be much of an imposition. You and Lord Harrogate have done more than most others would have to help me."
Elise patted her shoulder lightly. "You are not to worry about leaving. You will be a guest of Lord Harrogate for as long as you wish."
"I cannot..." Sophia started.
Her benefactress fixed her with a stern look. "Have you any other place to go?"
Sophia's chin quivered and she shook her head. "No," she whispered.
"And I am certainly not allowing anyone to send you back to where you have come from," Elise said.
Sophia wanted to protest. Once Elise and Lord Harrogate knew exactly what she was, they would not be able to be rid of her quickly enough. Something stopped her, however. She needed to rest and recuperate. Staying here would be her only opportunity to do so.
When Sophia looked back up in Elise's eyes, she saw that they too were watery with emotion. Elise brushed one tear away and cleared her throat. The woman had obviously seen the scars if she had helped wash her and clothe her in this dressing gown. She would know what had happened to her.
"Oh, goodness me, I am not being a good hostess," she said and gave a sad chuckle. "My dear, would you care for something to eat? You are nothing more than skin and bones."
"We will start with something small, and tomorrow perhaps we will try some heartier food," she said. "You rest now and I will go find the housekeeper to bring something up for you."
Elise could not seem to escape the room quickly enough. She still had so many questions, but knew they would have to wait until later.
Sophia glanced around the empty room and buried deeper into the soft, comfortable bed, luxuriating in the knowledge that for the present she was safe. She would not be prey. And even though such knowledge was not finite, it helped relax her mind into a state where it had not traveled in a long time. She yawned into her hand and curled into the covers, her eyelids growing heavy again.
Perhaps she would nap just a little while longer before someone brought her food.
Alexander looked up from the book in his hands, the same one that he had pulled from the shelf in the library three hours ago but had not yet begun to read. When the door across the room opened to reveal a somber Dr. Matthews, he snapped the book shut and placed it on the table beside him.
"Lord Harrogate," Dr. Matthews said and bowed his head politely.
"Doctor," Alexander said. "Scotch?"
"No." Matthews shook his head. "I must head for home. I am only here to give my report."
Alexander nodded and walked to the sideboard anyway. "Do you mind?"
"No, certainly not," Matthews said.
He poured himself one finger in a tumbler, thought better of it, and added two more. "So… what is the prognosis?"
Matthews sighed. "She woke just as I was leaving. Her foot is badly sprained, but she should be walking tomorrow."
Alexander nodded and sipped the strong alcohol. He enjoyed the burn down his throat before speaking again. "The blood?"
"Her courses," Matthews replied.
"So much at once?"
Matthews lifted his shoulders. "I did not secure her story, so she may have been wearing the soiled chemise for days. I did not think it beneficial to her recovery to press for information now."
Alexander raised a brow at him. "Why?"
"She is well enough without knowing the history. Of course, if anything else were to happen, you are to call for me immediately," Dr. Matthews said. "I can only imagine what the poor girl has been through. Just knowing how you came upon her is troublesome enough…"
"What do you imagine she has been through?" Alexander questioned. "I assuredly have no idea."
Matthews pursed his lips. "I will only say I have seen lesser scars on men returning from war."
His way of explaining what he saw was alarming. Alexander frowned into his glass, knowing how terrible some of the injuries were of the men who had served under him in the army many years ago. How could her injuries ever come close to that horror? Perhaps it only seemed more horrific because it was on the wrong sort of body—because women should not be marked in such ways. Whatever the reason, he did understand Matthews' decision not to question her. Discussing the ways in which she had come by such things would only distress her needlessly.
"I will call in seven days to check on my patient if you do not need me before then," he said.
Alexander nodded. "Send the bill."
Matthews gave a tight smile and bowed his head. "Good night, your lordship."
"Good night, Doctor," he said.
"I will just let myself out," the doctor said. "I'm sure Hubert has long since retired."
Alexander sipped more scotch as the man disappeared from the room, only to be replaced by an exhausted Mrs. Linden. She looked about as done in as he felt and the front of her carriage dress was wrinkled and stained from caring for the girl. He drained the last of his drink and set it on the writing desk.
"Did Björn retire for the night?" she asked.
"Yes," Alexander said.
Elise nodded and folded her hands in front of her, looking down at the intricate carpet beneath her feet.
"Something is troubling you," he said. "What is it?"
"I am merely attempting to reconcile my Christian beliefs with the horrible thoughts in my head," she replied.
Alexander chuckled. "Why?"
Elise sighed, and shook her head as though dismissing the thoughts. She changed the subject. "Her name is Sophia."
"She did not wish to give it to me," Elise said. "She will, in time. When she trusts us."
Alexander pursed his lips. "I brought her to my house and have paid for her care. I should think it only right that she tell me who she is."
"I think the important thing to keep in mind at the moment is that you rescued her from a terrible fate if you had left her out on the road. Perhaps she does not want to tell us for fear that she will be found," Elise explained. "I do not blame her for it, Alex. And neither would you if you were to see what I saw."
The only way he would ever be able to understand the cryptic nature of his conversations with both Dr. Matthews and Elise would be to observe the injuries himself. House guest or not, he could not just walk into her bedroom, demand she disrobe and show him what everyone was alluding to.
"I do not enjoy seeing people hurt," Elise continued. "But for whoever did that to her, they deserve the worst torture you could devise. Even then, I dare say, it would not be enough. The most painful scars, I imagine, are not the superficial ones."
Alexander nodded and brushed back his hair. "I see."
Elise yawned into the back of her hand. "I need to sleep. It has been a very long day."
"Indeed it has," he said.
She walked to the door but stopped again and looked back at him. "I told her that she was under no obligation to leave any time soon. I know I should not have promised such a thing without speaking with you, but if you could have just seen the way she looked at me…"
Alexander waved her off. "I would think of nothing less. I will have to unravel this mystery before I can allow her to leave. And if I have to wait for her to give me her true identity, then it sounds as though she could be here for some time."
Elise smiled and nodded. "You have always been the most honorable of men, Alexander."
"My thanks," he said.
"I am lucky to call you my friend," she said. "Goodnight."
Elise paused again. "You should go to bed as well."
"I will," he replied.
She shut the door and left him once again alone with his thoughts. He knew the servants would be rising soon to start their daily chores, but he could not in good conscience sleep without visiting his guest first. So he moved through the silent halls of the house—his house—and made it to her door. He lifted his hand to knock lightly.
When he received no answer, he let himself into the room. She was curled into the bedcovers, buried by their sheer volume. Though she was not exactly clean, the quick sponge bath she had received had done wonders. Her face looked fragile and gaunt, but there was a beauty there that had not been removed by whatever or whoever tormented her. Beside her on the small table was a china plate with a crust of bread and some tea left in a cup. Her chest rose and fell peacefully, her breathing heavy as evidence of a deep, restorative sleep.
He could not bring himself to wake her, but he did not want to leave her. Despite Björn's misgivings about the girl and his own questioning of his intelligence in helping and inviting her in, he felt protective of her. It was his duty to see that things were put to right. And he would start doing that by sitting down in the chair across the room.
Alexander lowered into the chair and yawned into his hand. It had been a long day, and the warmth of the fire was relaxing. Before he knew it, the warmth and sedateness of the room had lulled him into a peaceful state and his eyelids began to droop.
Before he knew it, he had fallen asleep.