The Brazen Bride(4)

By: Stephanie Laurens

Linnet nodded. “Curious.” Had he been carrying the cylinder secretly? With it nestled between the muscles bracketing his spine, if he’d been upright, the fall of his coat would have concealed it.

Straightening, she ran her gaze down his legs, but saw no evidence of breaks or wounds. He was wearing breeches and a loose coat, the sort many sailors wore. His right arm was extended, the fingers of his large hand curled around the front edge of a plank. His other hand, however, lay level with his face, fingers locked in a death grip about the hilt of a dagger.

That seemed a trifle odd for a shipwreck.

Conscious of her pulse thudding—the run to the cliffs shouldn’t have made her heart beat so rapidly—she bent to look at the dagger. Not just a dagger, she realized—a dirk. The fine scrollwork on the blade was exquisite, the hilt larger than that of most knives, with a rounded stone set in the crosspiece. Reaching down, she pried long, hard, ice-cold fingers away from the hilt, then handed the dirk to Will. “Hold that for me.”

The man hadn’t stirred; not a single muscle had so much as tensed. Linnet drew back, aware of her instincts twitching, flickering in definite warning, yet for the life of her she couldn’t make sense of the message.

The stranger was all but dead—indeed, she wasn’t sure he wasn’t—so how could he be dangerous?

From his position kneeling on the other side of the planking, Brandon said, “He’s got a sword, too. On this side.”

Linnet circled the man, looked where Brandon pointed, then crouched and unhooked the lanyard that attached the weapon to the man’s belt. Drawing the blade carefully from under the man’s leg, she straightened, studied it. “It’s a saber—a cavalry sword.” She’d seen enough of them during the war, but the war was long over, the cavalry largely disbanded. Perhaps this man had been a trooper, and after the war had turned to sailing?

“We think he’s alive,” Brandon said, “but we can’t find any pulse, and he’s not breathing—well, not so you can tell.”

Leaving the saber with Brandon, Linnet returned to Will’s side. The man’s head lay turned that way.

“He must be alive because he’s bleeding,” Will said. “See?”

He lifted the clothes along the man’s side, and a rent parted, exposing pale flesh and a long, nasty cut. A recent cut.

Crouching beside Will, Linnet looked, and recognized a sword slash. That explained the dirk and saber. While Will held the clothes, she leaned closer, examining the wound, following it up—to the side of the man’s breast. Thick muscle had been sliced through. Tracing the wound down, she sucked in a breath when she saw bone—a rib. But that was lower, where there wasn’t so much muscle between taut skin and rib cage.

“He’s bleeding,” Will insisted. “See there?”

Linnet had noted the pale pinkish liquid seeping from the cut. She nodded, not yet ready to explain that that might simply be seawater oozing back out of the wound, tinged with blood that had bled out before. Before the man had died.

Yet it was possible he still lived. The sea had all but frozen his flesh; any bleeding would be extremely slow, even were he alive.

Continuing to trace the wound, she discovered that it curved inward, angling down and across the man’s stomach. She couldn’t see further than the side of his waist, but a gut wound … if he had one, he was almost certainly dead, whether he’d already died or not.

Lying as he was, the pressure of his body combined with the effects of the icy sea might have held the wound closed, inhibited the usual bleeding.

She glanced at Brandon’s face, then at Will, alongside her. Chester was hovering at her shoulder. “I need to check the wound across his stomach. I need you to help me ease this side of him up—enough for me to look.”

The boys eagerly reached for the man’s left shoulder, his side. Settling on her knees, Linnet placed Brandon’s hands on the man’s shoulder, positioned Will’s hands beneath the left hip, set Chester ready to help support the shoulder Brandon would lift. “All together, then.” Linnet licked her lips, said a little prayer. She was too experienced in matters of life, death, and the sea to allow herself to become invested, in a stranger’s survival; she told herself it was for the boys’ sake that she hoped this stranger lived. “Now.”

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