His boots sank deeper into the snow with every step. At some point, Howland must have wandered off the trail. He’d seen no signs for Carlsbad or any of the other villages dotting the hillside.
The freshly fallen snow blanketed the trees, making the surrounding forest eerily quiet. He thought he heard the rumble of a train, the creak of carriage wheels in a rutted road, or, perhaps, the growling of a hungry bear—but it was only the silence playing tricks on his ears.
He shivered beneath his heavy coat and gloves. Part of him wanted to sit and rest, to attempt a fire and warm his bones, but Howland knew that he wouldn’t survive a night in the elements. A Londoner by birth, he’d never spent more than an afternoon in the countryside, and—truthfully—could hardly build a fire in his own grate. That he’d made it this deep into the Bohemian wilderness was nothing short of a miracle.
But he’d got his story, by God! He had snapped more than enough photographs, and, once he returned to civilization, would have his supper, write his copy, and send it over the wire by morning. The negatives stowed safely in his camera bag would have to wait until he arrived home, as he doubted there was a passable darkroom from here to Prague.
A photographic-reporter by trade, Howland preferred the bustling action of London to the sedate country lanes of Europe, but the newspaper’s usual foreign correspondent had contracted a case of influenza, the chaps in the office had cut cards for the assignment, and…well…Howland had lost.
Now, he was stuck, freezing his arse off in the middle of bloody nowhere.
He fought through the snow, growing colder and more winded by the minute, tucking his gloved hands beneath his armpits for warmth. It did little for his balance. He stumbled along the hillside, staggering between pine trunks and slick, rocky outcroppings. Howland was no navigator—certainly no outdoorsman—and, without a map or lantern, tried to follow the north star through the hazy light of the moon.
Like a fool, he kept his eyes to the sky.
By the time he felt the tree root jutting up from the earth, it had already caught the toe of his boot. With a shout, he flung out his arms to catch himself, but his numb hands tangled with his stiff arms, and before he could steady his malfunctioning body, Howland tumbled down the hillside.
Rocks, sticks, and snow pounded his face, clogging his nose. His eyes stung, and he had no choice but to clamp them shut and let the force of gravity carry him down the gulley. He tried to go limp so as not to break an arm or—God forbid—a leg.
He’d be a goner, then, for sure.
“Oof!” A stump caught him in the gut, knocking the wind from his lungs. “Ugh!”
Howland slid down the muddy hill, eyes closed, arms slack, and head spinning. It felt as if he fell for hours, barreling down, down, down, in a never-ending cycle of trees, rocks, boots, spit, snot, breath, and blood. At last, he landed facedown in a frozen brook.
The sharp ice and frigid water jolted him back to life. He sat up, wiping mud from his eyes and blood from his nostrils. He checked his arms, legs, and ribs for damage, but nothing felt broken. Cold water puddled in his trousers. His warm coat and socks were soaked through. One glove had gone missing somewhere and—damn!—his camera bag spewed its contents halfway down the gulley.
Groaning, Howland pulled himself to his feet. His wet boots slipped on the smooth pebbles as he climbed, but he managed to drag his battered body from the brook. He searched the moonlit hillside for his camera kit, press credentials, traveling papers, and the dented tin of glass plate negatives.
He gave the tin a gentle shake. The fragile plates seemed secure—no doubt a few were cracked, but not all of them sounded broken. With luck, he’d make it back to his hostel with enough material to complete his assignment.
If not, he’d be sacked.
Howland stuffed his camera bag with what he’d been able to salvage from the fall. He slung the leather pack over his shoulder and set off through the forest. To make the best of a dreadful situation, he followed the frozen brook between the pines. Surely, by following water, he’d eventually come upon a mill, or a farm, or an abbey. A quaint little village, perhaps.
After a mile or so, the smell of pine sap and wet earth gave way to smoke. Howland picked up his pace. Every step was agony, but he fought against spasming muscles and numb extremities. He was so cold, so wet. His lungs burned. His nose and ears stung. Sweat that gathered on his upper lip froze almost immediately. Each time he swiped a hand across his face, Howland swore he stripped a layer of flesh away.
His lips, nose, and cheeks felt red and raw. The wet clothes that had clung to his body soon grew hard and crisp. Icy mud mingled with sweat and snow to cake the heavy fabric to his sodden underclothes. If he did not reach civilization soon, he would surely succumb to frostbite and hypothermia.
Howland followed the scent of woodsmoke through the valley until he saw puffs of chimney smoke blotting out the stars. There, at the edge of the tree line stood a walled estate.
Beyond the snow-covered, manicured gardens, a comfortable hunting lodge rose up a full three stories. Its lamps flooded the black, winter sky in dim yellow light. It called to Howland like a beacon in the night. Before he came to his senses, his stiff gloved hands pushed open the gates, and his feet carried him up the shoveled gravel path toward the front door.
When he pounded the iron knocker, his knuckles hardly registered the pain.
His limbs felt numb, heavy. They moved jerkily, as if some distracted puppeteer maneuvered the strings that controlled his body. It did not even feel like his body.
Howland felt disordered and detached. When the wooden door flew open in his face, flooding his wind-burned cheeks with light and heat, he could hardly force his lips to form words.
A man in livery glared at him from across the threshold. “Ano, co chceš?”
Even in his right mind, Howland spoke no Czech. He staggered, bracing a hand against the door frame to keep from collapsing. Forcing his frozen jaw open, he managed to mutter “P-please…help m-me” before dropping to the stone steps in a heap.
A knock at the door sent Mila running from the room. She had always known that her husband’s men might come for her, but she had not expected it to be tonight. She believed herself safe in the snow-bound, secluded valley, yet a runaway countess was not safe anywhere.
At any moment, she could be called back to her husband and there was nothing she could do about it.
She stood out of sight, but within earshot of the visitor. Andula, her maid, waited with a fur-lined cape, ready to dash out into the night, steps ahead of the men.
If caught, Mila would die before going back to that living hell. Returning to Riga—to her husband’s arms—was not an option.
She felt the fur-lined cape drop across her shoulders. Likely, the horses were being readied and the servants gathered along the passage, swords and pistols in hand to defend the countess as she made her getaway. Mila was prepared to retreat down the torch-lit corridor, but the weight of the garment anchored her in place. She stood rooted to the spot, listening to the sound of male voices in the foyer.
At once, there rose a great commotion. Matthias, her butler, called out for help. One of the footmen stepped forward with his revolver raised. Andula, the maid, screamed and leapt to cover the countess’ body with her own.
Mila pushed the woman aside. For weeks, she had resigned herself to running. She believed she would run for the rest of her life, if she had to. Now, faced with a life of always looking over her shoulder for Riga’s men, Mila knew she must stand her ground.
She reached for an ornamental meč, prying it from a display on the wall next to a medieval suit of armor. It took two hands to hold, yet she pointed the blade toward the foyer, ready to cut down any man who dared put a hand on her.
The sword quivered in her trembling grip, but the man in the doorway was not here for her. Matthias and the footman dragged a limp, soggy body across the threshold. The man’s clothing was caked with mud, spattered with blood, and nearly frozen stiff. He carried a leather pack that was not in much better shape. This poor traveler had come seeking shelter, seeking help.
With his blue lips and bloodied nose, he would not have lasted a moment longer in the elements.
Mila propped the sword in the corner, and hauled the heavy cloak from her shoulders. “Here, wrap him in this,” she said, offering it to the footman.
He and Matthias bundled the stranger in the warm fur and laid him on the hearth before the fire, then they began stripping off his boots and wet stockings. Soon, the man was sweating, groaning, and flailing.
“He’s too hot,” she told them. “Look at him. He is burning up.”
Matthias glanced up. “What would you have us do, My Lady?”
Even though her husband had been sick for years, she’d never done a day’s nursing in her life. Mila did not know the first thing about caring for anyone, really. She spent her childhood, and, indeed, her married life very much alone.
“Strip him,” she said, finally. “He cannot be left to fester in these wet clothes. While you undress him, I will fetch a glass of svařák to warm his belly. Place him on the sofa. He should not be so close to the fire.”
She fled the room while Matthias undressed the stranger. Oh, she was no shy virgin—after eight years of marriage, she’d been well used—but Mila drew the line at ogling invalids. The man was entitled to his dignity, even if he was young and handsome.
After an appropriate length of time, she returned from the dining room with a glass of hot wine. The stranger lay stretched out upon her most comfortable sofa, with his long legs dangling over the armrest. He was covered from chin to toes in every blanket, fur, and rug the two servants could find.
He was conscious, if a little dazed.
She sat on an upholstered footstool across from him. His blue eyes followed her every move. She took a sip of the wine, and then held the glass out to him.
“Piješ tohle,” she said, softly.
His eyes darted to the glass, then to her face. He made no attempt to drink.
“Piješ tohle.” Mila lifted the hot, spiced wine toward his chapped lips. “To vám pomůže cítit se lépe.”
He frowned. “I’m sorry. English only.”
English! For once in her miserable life, her convent education had become useful. Though far from fluent, Mila spoke English, French, and German. It was as if fate—or God—had guided this man to her doorstep.
“I speak your English,” she said.
He managed a weak smile. “Oh, lovely. Am I dead?”
“Far from it. You are safe and you are warm. Can you move?”
The stranger propped himself weakly upon his elbow, and the fur covering his chest slid to reveal a pale, solid torso. He used his free hand to tug the fur back into place. “Ah, sorry.” He laughed lightly. “I suppose you stripped me?”
“My servants did. Your clothes are being washed and dried, then they will be returned to you.”
“Thank you,” he said. “I’m sorry to put you out, but I lost my way and nearly killed myself trying to find the road.”
“It’s dangerous to travel in the snow. The weather is expected to be much worse tonight, and the roads will likely become impassable by morning.”
“That’s what I was afraid of. I have to get back to Carlsbad.”
With a frown, Mila offered him the glass of hot wine. “Drink this. You are in no condition to go anywhere, and I will not risk sending my horses into the night. It is too dangerous, even with a sleigh.”
The stranger gulped down the spiced wine. “I like this—I’ve had it in Prague. It tastes like Christmas.”
She smiled, which was rare. Her cheeks flamed, and she dipped her head, feeling self-conscious. Riga had always scolded her for smiling, as it did nothing for her looks. He’d once compared her grinning face to a bat’s, and from that night forth, she’d vowed never to smile again.
“I say, what’s your name?”
Mila looked up at the sound of his voice. “Ludmila.”
He smiled. “I’m called Howland Brandt.”
She nodded. “How do you do, Mr. Brandt?”
“How do you do…Ludmila? Damn me, if that doesn’t sound awkward. I can’t go ‘round calling you by your Christian name while you address me as two proper strangers ought. I’d feel much better about it if you’d call me Howland.”
“Very well,” she made no attempt to hide her smile, “Howland, you may call me Mila.”