Gabriel looked horrible.
When Natalya saw him, her initial reaction was one of joyous relief, but then she saw the arrow protruding from his shoulder and knew he wasn’t okay. Crimson blood had trickled down his neck. His clothes were sodden and his skin was deathly pale. His eyes were barely slits and he shivered so badly! The sword fell from his hand. He fell to his knees. She was up and embracing him before he fell further.
He was so cold.
“Gabriel? Gabriel look at me.”
He did. Lethargic and dazed. “Natalya,” he said softly, smiling. “I made it time.”
“Yes. You saved me and you came back just like you said you would.”
Slowly, he reached up and caressed her cheek. “The bastard hit you.”
He was shivering almost to the point of convulsions! She had to warm him! The fireplace in the sitting room wasn’t burning, but the one in their bedroom was going. She had to get him there.
“Gabriel, I need to get you to our bed,” she said anxiously.
Gabriel grinned. “I’m in no condition to please you.”
“This is not a time for joking!” She felt the fear coming back. “I have to get you warm!”
After everything he’d been through, Gabriel had no strength left. He couldn’t get up the stairs and Natalya wouldn’t be able to get him there. He knew he was near death. But he was okay with that as long as she was safe.
“I love you, Natalya. I’m sorry I hurt you.”
Natalya held him close. “I love you too Gabriel and none of that matters. I don’t want to be with anyone else. Please don’t die!”
Gabriel had fallen unconscious.
When Robert arrived at the house, there were drops of blood on the snowy steps and the door was wide open. He hurried inside to a gruesome scene. Peter was a bloody mess and Natalya was holding Gabriel in her arms and he didn’t look far from death himself. She was confessing her love to him. Pleading for him not to die.
She loved him.
The room was cold. As he entered he noticed the guard lying unconscious on the floor. Robert closed the door. What had gone on here?
She looked at him, tears spilling down her cheeks. “Help me!”
Robert went to her side. “I’m here. How bad is he?”
“He’s been hurt and he’s so cold. I need to get him warm. Help me take him upstairs.”
Together they got him to the bedroom, undressed him, dried him and got him into bed. Robert had to snap one end of the arrow so he could pull it out. Then Natalya dressed the wound. It was bad. Throughout the whole ordeal Gabriel didn’t stir once. Was it too late for him?
Natalya climbed on the bed, pulled one arm from beneath the heavy blanket and began rubbing it briskly to generate heat. She repeated this in each of his limbs, desperate to make him warm again.
Watching her behave so frantically, Robert realized that her heart belonged to her husband. That despite how he fooled her into marriage, she wanted to be in it. The weight of his heart ache was immense! All this time he still hoped that they could be together. Now he knew that would never happen. Loving him was no longer an option for her.
“Climb in bed with him,” Robert said quietly.
Confused, Natalya did. “What?”
“Your body heat will help to keep him warm. You have to lie close to him.”
Nodding, Natalya did what he instructed. When she lay beside him she wrapped her arms and legs around him.
Robert couldn’t watch any longer. “I’m going down to check on the servants. What happened to them?”
“Peter drugged them. The same way he drugged my parents.” Natalya squeezed Gabriel. Then rested her head on his chest, listening to his heart. It was faint, but it was beating.
Walking to the door, Robert left them alone. When he was in the hallway he stopped, leaning against the wall for the briefest of moments. The scene between her and Gabriel was too much. He hated that man.
He rubbed his temples. The made his way downstairs.
First he rolled Peter up in the area rug. Blood soaked through to the wooden floor. Then he dragged Cole’s drugged body from the door to the servant’s quarters behind the kitchen. Where he found quite a few other servants lying about unconscious.
It took him about an hour but he got them situated comfortably on the beds in their rooms. He didn’t know who belonged where, but at least they weren’t on the floor any more.
Walking through the house he secured all the doors and windows, in case some of Peter’s men came to the house looking for him. It wasn’t an ideal situation at all. With everyone drugged, only he and Natalya were left to defend the house. Hopefully it wouldn’t come to that.
Robert walked past the sitting room, looking at the rolled up rug. Peter got what he deserved.
The house was so quiet.
Upstairs Natalya waited for him. He knew she was. She was afraid. Gabriel would most likely die from his injuries. She needed Robert her friend. That’s all he could be to her now.
It felt like a long walk up that staircase. He entered a room of emotional chaos and pain. Natalya’s eyes were closed, her arm draped across his chest. She looked peaceful. Like she belonged with him.
Robert cleared his throat.
Natalya’s eyes fluttered open. Slowly she sat up, gazing affectionately at Gabriel’s still features. Her hand slid across his chest, up to his face where it gently caressed his cheek. “He’s still very cold,” she said softly.
“Not even a bit warmer?” Robert asked. He started to move towards her, but then stopped. They were lying in bed, Gabriel was dying. It didn’t feel right.
She looked at him. “No.”
“I’m sorry Nat. I can see how much you love him.”
She did. She loved him more than any man she knew. “He may have misled me into this marriage, but the love between us is real. I don’t know what I’ll do without him.”
“Stay with him. I’ll keep an eye on the servants.” Robert turned to leave,
“Thank you Robert. For helping us.”
“No need to thank me.” Robert left them in private.
The next morning brought many questions and more confusion. The bodies of Gabriel’s knights, and many of their attackers, were found in the snow. James among them. The magistrate had requested Gabriel’s help. When he never arrived at the designated location he decided to have the constable ride out early after the storm passed. That’s when the bodies were discovered.
Cole had come to early that morning, suffering from sweats and vomiting. The rest of the servants suffered the same ailments. The doctor that came said it was the effects of the drug. All the servants were accounted for except for one of the stable hands. It was clear that he was the one who betrayed them.
The constable questioned Natalya about what happened. She told them everything. All save Estelle’s part. She couldn’t bring herself to turn her over when she was with child.
As the day dragged on, Natalya continued to tend to Gabriel. He didn’t stir once and remained cold. The doctor said his chances were slim and he would be dead soon. No one could survive what he’d been through.
With despair she lay in bed with him, wrapping herself around him. She cried on his shoulder, prayed in his ear and slept on his chest. Could she live without him? Sure her body would function through the day to day, but her heart was dying with him. Dreams of happiness, family and children - They wouldn’t happen without him. How could he make her fall in love so completely with him and then leave her this way?
“Please, Gabriel,” she begged softly, rubbing his chest. “Don’t leave me. I need you so much. I love you. Come back to me.”
Why did she think there would be? Foolish hope. She could do nothing but keep him comfortable. How would she know if he was comfortable? He hadn’t moved once since they put him in bed.
During the late afternoon Natalya changed the dressing. Hands trembling, she cleaned the wound and put a salve on it. Tears fell. So many tears that it was hard to believe at one point she didn’t have any. Now they were endless!
“I’m sorry for how stubborn I’ve been,” Natalya said softly, her voice shook with emotions. “I was angry, but I never stopped loving you though. My love for you was never in question. There is no other man that I love more than you.”
She rested with him. Covering them with heavy blankets. The fire was keeping the room warm. Too bad it wasn’t doing the same for him.
“I wish you’d warm up for me. Give me some kind of hope that you’ll survive this. That we will have a chance to be happy.”
A low sound escaped Gabriel’s lips. “Natalya,” he whispered weakly.
She sat up quickly, staring into his pale face. Did she really hear him say her name? “Gabriel? Gabriel? Did you call me milord?”
No response. He didn’t make one indication that he was waking up. But she did hear him! The pounding of her heart, beating with unbelievable hope, was loud in her ears.
“I’m here. I will not leave you until you take your last breath or open your eyes. You are not alone.”
The next few days she spent every moment in the room with him. She would warm the blankets by the fire, then cover him with them. She massaged his limbs to keep the blood flowing. She gave him spoonfuls of water. She didn’t care what the doctor said. She wasn’t about to make him comfortable so he could die. With everything she had she was going to will him to live.
Dinning with him was uneventful. The plan was for him to smell all of that good food. The servants were better now and back to their regular routine. The traitor was quickly found and awaiting his trial. Cole had taken up keeping security around the house. He was grieving James terribly as was all the knights that were there. He was a good, fun loving man.
By the fourth day Natalya hadn’t seen a change at all. She still refused to give up on her husband, however. That he was still alive said that he was fighting too. They were fighting together.
Tired and achy, she soaked in a hot bath by the fire. The water was treated with the lavender oils Maria had left her. The heated water allowed her muscles to relax. For a moment, she closed her eyes. Every ache vanished. She wasn’t weighed down with worry. She felt pretty good. Things would be okay.
“I would love to join you,” Gabriel said in a raspy voice.
That beautiful voice! Natalya sat up, looking back at the bed where Gabriel propped himself up on his elbows. She got out of the tub and ran to him, climbing across the blanket even though she was dripping wet.
He was lucid! She kissed his lips and wrapped her arms around his neck. He fell back on the bed.
“As much as I’d like to accept your offer, I’m in no condition to romp with you,” he teased.
“How can you joke? How can you joke when you were so near to death it could touch you?”
Weakly, Gabriel wrapped his arms around her wet body. She smelled like sweet lavender, a scent that would always remind him of her now. He smiled, pleased to have her in his arms. He felt she had never truly left them. Fragments of thoughts, memories perhaps, of her speaking tender, loving words to him nagged his mind. Where they true? Had she confessed that she loved no other man but him?
“Beloved, death did not want me as bad as I wanted to be with you,” he told her. “Can’t I enjoy a little laughter since I’m amongst the living?”
“I was afraid that I’d lose you,” Natalya whispered. “The doctor said you would certainly die. That you couldn’t survive.”
“But I have. To be with you.”
Natalya lifted her body from his. She stared into his eye, those beautiful green eyes. “I love you.”
Gabriel reached up and gently stroked her cheek. “And I you. But now I really must use the privy.”
Natalya laughed, rising from the bed. “I can’t walk you to the privy, but I can bring the chamber pot to you.”
Natalya fetched the privy for him. She helped him sit up, then went to the wardrobe, found a robe and slipped into it. By the time she tied the waist closed he had finished relieving himself. She took the chamber pot back to the privy.
“Where are my pants?” Gabriel asked.
That too Natalya retrieved for him. She helped him dress. Then sat beside him. “You should rest. I’ll have the cook make you something.” She turned to leave, but Gabriel caught her by the wrist. She looked at him confused.
“Sit with me. This has been the longest night and now that I’m awake I just want to be with you.”
Natalya sat beside him. “You should rest against the headboard. You’re still weak.”
Frowning, Gabriel looked at his hands as he flexed his fingers. “Yes, I am. Strange. Must have been from the blood loss and cold.”
Cautiously, Natalya asked, “What do you remember?”
Gabriel looked thoughtful. “We were attacked a few blocks from here. I got shot… and then…” He shook his head, frustrated.
“Just take your time,” she said resting her hand on his arm.
Gabriel’s frown deepened. “Peter was on top of you.” He looked at her sharply. “Did he…”
“No!” She cut him off quickly. “I was fighting him off. He said that you were dead and I got enraged! I tried to kill him with my bare hands.”
Nodding, Gabriel tried to remember more. “I remember stabbing him.” He looked at her face. There were faded bruises on her cheek. “I wish I had gotten here sooner.”
“You got here in time to save me,” she assured him.
“Not before he bruised your face.”
Natalya didn’t want him to feel guilty. “You were attacked yourself Gabriel. The days that I suffered waiting to see if you’d live or die would have been nothing compared to what I would have suffered if I had lost you.”
The words took a moment to sink in. A brief moment. Gabriel stared at her, disbelief in his eyes. “You suffered for days over me?”
Sighing, Natalya nodded. “Da.” She wondered if he realized how long he’d been unconscious.
Gabriel leaned forward. Natalya braced her hand against his chest to stay him. “How many days?” he asked.
“Four? Four days?” Gabriel couldn’t believe it.
Suddenly he felt dizzy. Natalya helped him lay back and covered him with the blanket. There was so much she had to tell him. About Estelle. About James. She needed him to be comfortable.
“How is your shoulder?”
Gabriel glanced at his bandage. “Sore.”
“I have an elixir if the pain becomes too great.” She went to the door and called for Clara to come. She closed the door, went to the wardrobe, found a modest dress to wear and changed in to it. There was a knock at the door just as she was buttoning the last button at the neck.
“Perfect timing,” Natalya muttered. She opened the door. Clara entered quickly, looking in the direction of the bed. She smiled.
“Oh milord! You’ve awakened!” Clara said happily. “ Oh thank God! This is great news! Especially after what happened to James. Everyone will be so happy!”
Frowning, Gabriel asked, “What happened to James?”
Clara gasped, realizing too late the folly of her excessive chatter. She turned to Natalya with an apologetic gaze.
Natalya nodded her understanding. “Please have cook prepare dinner for Lord Gabriel. And send Cole up immediately.”
“Yes milady.” Clara hurried from the room.
Natalya closed the door.
“What happened to James?” Gabriel asked impatiently.
Sighing, Natalya went to the bed and sat on the edge beside him. Her eyes watered. “I’m sorry Gabriel, but he was killed during the attack. All of the men were.”
The shock made Gabriel’s stomach turn. Those were some of his best knights! All of them had fallen? Anger twisted his features. “Are you certain?”
“The magistrate came across their bodies the morning following the ambush. I’m very sorry. I know James was like a brother to you.”
Gabriel grabbed Natalya’s hand. He didn’t know what he wanted to say to her. She covered his hand with hers. He knew then that he didn’t have to say anything.
Cole knocked on the door, then slowly entered. His solemn expression was matched by Gabriel’s. “I am glad you’re awake Lord Gabriel. I wasn’t sure if you’d survive.”
“And how do you fair?” Gabriel asked.
“Good. The poison is completely out of my system.”
Gabriel looked at Natalya incredulously. Mildly frustrated too.
“Peter paid one of the stable hands to poison the servants and guards. That’s how he was able to gain access to the house,” Natalya explained.
“He poisoned everyone? Like your parents?”
“It’s no good excuse, but that’s why I wasn’t able to help Natalya when he attacked,” Cole said the guilt was thick in his voice.
Gabriel looked at the young knight. “Peter had a lot planned that night. I didn’t see the ambush coming and now James is dead.”
“Neither of you could have known what Peter was going to do,” Natalya interjected. “He was a conniving snake and now he’s dead.”
“The magistrate has apprehended three more of his cohorts as well,” Cole added. “They’ve been ratting each other out by the day. Anything to keep from going to the gallows.”
James was dead. It was so hard to believe! They had been knighted together, battled together – for one to die without the other was strange. Gabriel looked at Natalya. Her eyes were heavy with sleep. She had willed him back to the living. He just knew it. The sound of her voice was like sweet water. Don’t leave me. I need you so much. That is the only reason why he didn’t die and join James in the hereafter.
“There’s much I need to tell him,” Natalya said to Cole. “Things… private things. You understand?”
Cole did. A woman needed alone time with her husband. “I’ve got guards covering the house. You needn’t worry about anything now.”
“Thank you Cole,” Gabriel said.
When Cole left, Natalya crawled into bed with Gabriel. It was a relief to see him awake. “You must be starved.”
Gabriel closed his eyes. “I am. And tired.”
“I should let you rest.” Natalya moved to exit the bed.
“Don’t you dare leave,” Gabriel said. “I want my wife beside me. Please I’ve been sleep for four days. Stay with me.”
Natalya grinned. “I’ve never left your side. I’ve been here, bathing you, keeping you warm. Giving you water with a spoon. I will always stay.” She leaned forward and kissed him.
Clara brought a tray of food up. Warm potato soup. Chicken and rolls. She promptly set up the tray for him and left them.
“This smells delicious,” Gabriel said.
Watching him eat, Natalya made herself comfortable on the pillows. Her eyes fluttered closed and she drifted to sleep.
When she woke, she was lying beneath the blanket. The room was dimly lit, the light from the fireplace flickered shadows across the walls. Gabriel lay beside her, watching her.
“You’re beautiful.” Gabriel slid his hand up the skirts of her dress, caressing her soft legs. She wasn’t wearing under garments. He tried to roll over on his side, but the pain in his chest wouldn’t allow it. He flinched and laid back.
“Gabriel!” Natalya said alarmed.
“Shhh. Come, straddle me. I want to be inside of you.”
“You’ve gone mad! We can’t make love now. You’re hurt!”
“Only my shoulder, beloved. Besides, I though you wanted to keep me warm.”
Tempted. She was definitely tempted. But good sense prevailed. “Not until the doctor says it won’t kill you.”
Gabriel blurted out a laugh. “Kill me? Woman I’ll die without it!” His hand kneaded the sensitive bud between her thighs. She gasped, immediately aroused. “Let me feel you. Don’t make me beg.”
“We, we can’t be too wild,” Natalya said, voice trembling as he stroked her with his fingers.
“Of course not,” Gabriel said softly. “Straddle me. I’m good and ready.”
Carefully, Natalya straddled him. He slid inside her slowly while she spasm around him. She rode him, not wanting to hurt him further. He moved deep inside of her. Before she knew it, their hips were rocking wildly against each other until they both found their release.
She lay upon his chest, the uninjured side, and he embraced her with his good arm. She would love this man till the day she died.