She awoke in the dark, too terrified to move. Her eyes were wide open, but she saw nothing but blackness. Pressure squeezed her chest and she couldn't breathe. She grew light-headed, and just when she thought she would suffocate, she heaved a great gasping breath, like a drowning person breaking the surface of water. Air poured into her lungs and she gagged with the need for it.
At once the darkness was broken by the flare of a single light. "Don't be afraid," a man's voice said in her ear. "I'm right here."
She turned her head to see a glowing candle held aloft, and behind it, his face. Dark hair framed pale skin. He had angular cheekbones and a chiseled jaw, and his eyes were the color of rain. "Who--" she whispered, terror tracing the word.
"Don't be frightened. You're safe. I'm watching over you."
He reached out and stroked her cheek. His touch was cool, soothing, and her brain grew sluggish. She wondered if she had a fever.
"But where--" she asked.
"Time for questions and answers tomorrow," he interrupted. "For now, just sleep."
Her eyelids grew heavy, and despite all her fears, she closed her eyes and obeyed him.
When next she awoke, gray gloom had replaced the dark. She blinked up at a high canopy stretching above the bed where she lay. Tall windows dominated the wall directly in front of the bed, and lead-colored daylight seeped between partially drawn thick velvet drapes. Her heart pounded. She remembered the lighted candle, though, and the voice and face from behind it. She cut her eyes to the bedside.
The young man had kept his promise. He was stretched out in a chair, asleep. In the murky light she saw that her first impression of him had been accurate--dark tendrils of black hair fell over his forehead, and his skin was indeed pale. His hands were draped over the chair's arms, and his fingers were long and tapered, pale and smooth. The other thing she noticed was that he was quite elegant. He was lean, and dressed in leather breeches and a soft, loose white shirt open at his throat.
With one look at him she knew much more about him than she did about herself. Where was she? Who was she? Why had she no memory of herself? How could a person forget who she was? Her own name? Where memories should have been, she found only black holes.
His voice startled her. She struggled to sit upright.
He moved quickly and gracefully to sit on the bedding beside her. "No, lie back. You're weak. Let me bring you something to eat."
She was weak. One more thing she didn't understand. He eased her against the pillow. "I'll be right back."
She grasped at his arm. "Please. Tell me what's happened to me."
His eyes, the irises so pale, the pupils black and fathomless, settled on hers. "I'll tell you everything I know as soon as you eat."
He left through a tall wooden door, and the second it closed, she eased to a sitting position. The room spun. She took deep breaths until her vision cleared. She examined the room, saw elaborate tapestries hanging along the wall that butted into the wall of windows and velvet curtains, and another wall heavy with elaborately carved pieces of furniture. Nothing looked familiar, only foreign and foreboding. She closed her eyes, dug deep, searching for some memory, anything that she could hold on to, to tell her about herself and where she was.
She moved her arms and then her legs beneath the covers. Her body worked. Nothing hurt. But her memory was a blank slate. She lifted the covers and saw that she wore a thick white cotton nightgown. Beneath that, she was naked. Before she even had time to wonder about it, the door opened and her benefactor came in carrying a tray. "Here you go--tea and wheat toast with honey. Cream and sugar for your tea."
She pulled the covers up to her chin, fisting the sheets and thick coverlet snugly to her body. "I don't know if I drink tea," she said.
"You'll like it," he said.
He set the tray across her lap and poured steaming brown liquid from a sparkling silver pot into a rose-patterned china cup so thin and finely made she could see through it. He settled himself on her bed to face her. "A little cream, and how about two sugars?"
She watched him drop two small white cubes into the cup with little silver tongs, then pour white cream from a silver pitcher that matched the teapot. He stirred the mixture with a silver spoon and lifted the cup and saucer toward her. "Drink up."
Her hands trembled as she reached for the cup, not wanting to look at him, but unable to help it; her gaze was drawn to his like a magnet to steel. His deep-set eyes were now the color of smoke, the pupils as dark as before. Her heart beat uncontrollably. He smiled warmly and she raised the cup to her mouth. The liquid tasted warm and sweet and began to revive her.
"It's good," she said, prying her gaze away from his.
"Excellent." He grinned, took the cup and picked up the toast and ladled thick golden honey over it.
She took it, ate it. "This is good too."
He leaned back, braced a booted foot against the bedside chair. "Now, as promised, your questions."
She had a million questions, but decided not to let him know she remembered nothing of who she was first thing out of her mouth. "H-how did I end up here?"
"I found you."
"On my father's estate, up by the entrance gate, just inside. You were lying in a heap on the ground, unconscious."
"But how did I get there?"
He shrugged broad but graceful shoulders. "That I don't know. I was out riding. My horse drew up or he would have stepped on you."
"When was this?"
"A few days ago."
"Days!" She sat up straighter and the tray would have slid away if he hadn't caught it.
"I brought you here," he said, setting the tray on the nearby chair. "To this room. To this bed."
She remembered the gown she was wearing. And what she wasn't wearing under it. "Who dressed me?" She couldn't bring herself to ask "Who undressed me?"
"I did," he said.
Her face burned hot, and she wanted to hide under the thick covers. "Where are my clothes?"
"I burned them."
Her embarrassment turned to shock, then to anger. "You burned them! They might have held a clue about me."
"Your clothing was dirty and torn. I'll find something for you to wear."
"I don't want your clothes. I want mine. I want to go--" She halted. Go where?
He rose from the bed, bowed and gestured toward the door. "You may leave at any time. You're not a prisoner, just a lost girl I rescued from the cold and brought into my home."
Her anger fizzled. "I--I don't mean to be ungrateful. I know you've helped me. It's just that--that . . ." She couldn't finish.
He moved closer to the bed, lifted her chin. Once again, she found his touch cool, as if his hand had been in cold air. "I get that you're frightened. But now that you are here, you're my guest, and you're safe."