Cursing under his breath, he forced himself to his hands and knees so that he could get to Sarah, who was sprawled on the ground next to him.
“Are you all right?” he asked urgently.
She nodded, but it was that jerky, unfocused type of nod that said that no, she was not all right.
“Is it your leg?”
“My ankle,” she whimpered.
Hugh knelt beside her, his leg screaming in agony at being overbent. He would need to get Sarah into the Rose and Crown, but first he should check to see if she had broken the bone. “May I?” he said, his hands hovering near her foot.
She nodded, but before he could even touch her, they were surrounded. Harriet had jumped down from the carriage, and then Lady Pleinsworth had run out from the inn, and God knows who else was pressing in, and pushing him out. Finally Hugh just hauled himself to his feet and backed up, leaning heavily on his cane.
The muscle in his thigh felt as if someone had impaled him with a burning knife, but even so, it was a familiar sort of pain. He hadn’t done anything new to his leg, it seemed to tell him; he’d just pushed it to the limit.
Two gentlemen arrived on the scene—Sarah’s cousins, he thought—and then Daniel was there, pushing them away.
Hugh watched as he checked her ankle, then he watched as Sarah put her arms around his neck.
And still he watched as Daniel swept through the crowd and carried her into the inn.
Hugh would never be able to do that. Forget riding, forget dancing, and hunting, and all those things he mourned since a bullet had mangled his thigh. None of those seemed to matter anymore.
He would never gather a woman in his arms and carry her away.
He had never felt like less of a man.
The Rose and Crown Inn
An hour later
Hugh looked up just as Daniel slid onto the stool next to him in the barroom at the inn.
“How many drinks?” Daniel clarified.
Hugh took a gulp of his ale, and then another, because that was what it took to finish the mug. “Not enough.”
“Are you drunk?”
“Sadly, no.” Hugh signaled to the innkeeper for another.
The innkeeper looked over. “One for you, too, m’lord?”
Daniel shook his head. “Tea, if you will. It’s early yet.”
“Everyone is in the dining room,” Daniel told him.
All two hundred of us, Hugh almost said, but then he remembered that they were splitting up between inns for lunch. He supposed he should be thankful for small favors. Only one-fifth of the traveling party would have seen his humiliation.
“Do you want to join us?” Daniel asked.
Hugh looked over at him.
“I didn’t think so.”
The innkeeper set another mug of ale in front of Hugh. “The tea’ll be ready soon, m’lord.”
Hugh lifted the mug to his lips and downed about a third of it in one gulp. There wasn’t nearly enough alcohol in the stuff. It was taking him far too long to squash his brain into nothingness.
“Did she break it?” he asked. He had not intended to ask questions, but this he had to know.
“No,” Daniel said, “but it’s a nasty sprain. It’s swollen, and she’s in quite a lot of pain.”
Hugh nodded. He knew all about that. “Can she travel?”
“I think so. We’ll have to put her in a different carriage. She’ll need to elevate the leg.”
Hugh took another long drink.
“I didn’t see what happened,” Daniel said.
Hugh went still. Slowly, he turned to his friend. “What are you asking me?”
“Just what happened,” Daniel said, his mouth twisting with disbelief at Hugh’s overreaction.
“She fell out of the carriage. I failed to catch her.”
Daniel stared at him for several seconds, then said, “Oh, for God’s sake, you’re not blaming yourself, are you?”
Hugh did not reply.
One of Daniel’s hands waved forth in question. “How could you have caught her?”
Hugh gripped the edge of the bar.
“Bloody hell,” Daniel muttered. “It’s not always about your leg. I probably would have missed, too.”
“No,” Hugh spat. “You would not have missed.”
Daniel was quiet for a moment, then said, “Her sisters were squabbling. Apparently one of them knocked into her inside the carriage. That was why she fell.”
It didn’t really matter why she fell, Hugh thought, and he took another drink.
“So it was really more like she was thrown.”
Hugh hauled his attention off his drink for long enough to snarl, “Do you have a point?”
“She must have come from the carriage with considerable force,” Daniel said, and Hugh supposed he was speaking in a patient voice. But Hugh wasn’t in the mood to give points for patience. He was in the mood to drink, and to feel sorry for himself, and snap the head off whoever was stupid enough to approach. He finished his ale, slammed the mug down, and signaled for another. The innkeeper was quick to comply.
“Are you sure you want to drink that?” Daniel asked.
“I seem to recall,” Daniel said in an excruciatingly quiet voice, “you once telling me you did not drink until nightfall.”
Did Daniel think Hugh had forgotten? Did he think Hugh would have sat here and downed pint after pint of bad ale if there were any other way to kill the pain? It wasn’t just his leg this time. Bloody hell, how was he supposed to be a man when his goddamned leg couldn’t hold him up?