Authors: Coleen Kwan
|Uncanny Chronicles |
|Samhain Publishing, Ltd. (2013)|
The only way to save her life is to resurrect the dead...
Uncanny Chronicles, Book 1
Julian Darke was only a newborn when he was abandoned on the doorstep of a gentleman doctor. Though raised with love, he is driven to discover his true origins.
Convinced Sir Thaddeus Ormond knows something, Julian shadows him one night—and is shocked to see a young woman thrown from Ormond's carriage and accosted by a thug. Julian manages to save her life, but not her face and hands from horrific injuries.
Nellie Barchester doesn't recognize the scarred, disfigured stranger in the mirror. Though the gifted doctor and engineer has done his best to repair the damage, scars ravage her body, and chill her soul with the realization that her own husband may have plotted her death.
Julian's tenderness is a balm to her soul, and Nellie is drawn to the edge of passion by a man not repelled by her deformities. But as their pursuit of the truth draws them into London's...
To Dad. I miss you every day.
Through the long hours of the night London pitched and groaned, a restless creature in uneasy slumber. A thousand fires flickered across its twitching back. Over rivers and hills it sprawled, swallowing up quiet fields and meadows, an insatiable protean organism powered by a life of its own. To the north, the edge of the city lapped up against ancient hamlets, preparing to overtake them one by one. And just a few miles past, surrounded by winter fields lying fallow, sat a crumbling manor house, its lichened facade bravely and futilely facing the city’s inevitable onslaught. Tonight its peace was broken by a rider galloping up the drive, his horse all afroth, a limp figure clasped in front of him. They slithered to a halt outside the stout oaken door. Still carrying his load, the rider dismounted awkwardly and ran towards the house.
Julian Darke battered his shoulder against the oak door. His arms were fully occupied with the comatose woman, and he dared not set her down. In his agitation he had some strange notion she would disintegrate if he loosened his hold.
“Figgs! Open up,” he bellowed, his lungs burning with the effort. Despite the frigidness of the night, sweat poured down his back, soaking into his shirt and britches. He kicked at the front door with his scuffed boots and cursed like a tar.
On the other side of the oak, heavy feet shuffled, then a key rattled in the lock, and the door finally groaned open. Julian barged in, shoving aside the lumbering manservant.
“Call my father,” Julian ordered. “Rouse him if you must. Quick, man. Don’t just gawp there. Can’t you see this is a dire emergency?”
Not pausing in his stride, he moved down the dimly lit hallway. His shoulder muscles twinged under the weight of the woman in his arms. She couldn’t have weighed much, but he’d held her debilitated form steady on his mount for what had felt like hours, and his limbs shrilled for respite.
Not yet, not yet
. The peril had not yet passed.
He kicked open the door to his father’s examination room. Despite the darkness he trod surefooted to the table in the centre of the room, where he gingerly lowered his burden onto the surface. Not the faintest sound issued from the bundle of cloak that was the woman he’d carried home. His throat tightened. Surely she hadn’t perished just when he’d brought her to safety?
“Julian? What’s going on?”
He turned to see his father entering the room. Despite the lateness of the hour, Elijah Darke was still fully dressed in suit and waistcoat, reading spectacles perched on the end of his nose, an unlit pipe in his hand.
“This woman needs our help.” Julian gestured towards the figure lying on the table. “She’s gravely injured. She needs both our expertise.”
Pocketing his pipe, Elijah approached the table and turned on the twin lamps suspended above the examining table. Julian let out a small sigh of relief. In a crisis, his father was always clear-headed. He would act first and ask questions later.
“What have we here?” Elijah lifted the stained cloak covering the woman. He froze. “God in heaven! Her face—”
Julian nodded grimly. He had seen her face earlier on and, after a cursory examination, had instinctively hidden it with her cloak.
“Good grief, son, you’re injured too!” His father’s face whitened as he stared at Julian. “You’re covered with blood.” He moved towards Julian and hauled open the lapels of his rumpled coat.
“A few scratches only. Most of the blood is hers.” Impatient, Julian tore off his bloodied coat and dropped it to the floor. “It’s nothing, Father, nothing compared to her wounds.”
His father made a testy growl. “Your injuries need proper seeing to.”
“You cannot assist me in that state. At the very least wash your hands.” Elijah divested himself of his jacket, rolled up his sleeves, and scrubbed his hands at a washstand.
Julian hurriedly followed suit, flung on one of his father’s clean aprons and within moments was back at the table. His father had peeled the cloak back from the woman’s body and was bending over her.
“Well?” Julian asked.
His father grunted. “See for yourself.”
For some reason, instead of staring rudely at her exposed face, he found himself reaching for the hood of the cloak and smoothing it back from the woman’s head. A handful of brown curls tumbled out, incongruously bright and clean and fresh against the oozing mess staining everything else. The tang of spilt blood hit the back of his throat, like the taste of pennies. He swallowed hard, aware of his roiling innards. Why was the smell of blood unmanning him like this? Since he was old enough to walk, he’d assisted his father. He had lanced boils, drained suppurating wounds, stitched up gaping cuts, all with nary a wince. And he was a qualified doctor too. He’d dissected corpses, amputated arms and legs, trepanned a number of patients. In all these years he’d never suffered a queasy turn, and yet now his stomach threatened to unman him. Why now? Why did this woman affect him so?
She was a stranger to him; he’d never laid eyes on her before this evening. It must simply be his body protesting, sapped of energy after the tribulations he’d faced tonight. He willed his nerves to steady as he took a proper look at the woman.
Under the harsh, hissing light, the white of her face was crisscrossed with deep gashes, like a peach haphazardly sliced open. Mercifully both eyes appeared intact and unharmed. Congealing blood spattered the front of her dress, the pattern of the faded cotton submerged beneath the sticky mess. A swelling contusion on her right temple indicated the heavy blow which had rendered her insensate.
Elijah lifted up one of the woman’s hands. “What happened here?” His voice was rough with disbelief.
Julian could only shake his head at the bloodied stumps, all that was left of the middle and ring fingers. He had bound his handkerchief as best he could around the hand, but there had been considerable loss of blood, and the fingers had been crudely removed, leaving behind a messy lump of flesh.
“Can we save her hand?” he asked.
“We shall do our best.”
Using a sharp pair of scissors, Elijah began to cut off the woman’s dress in order to complete his examination. As the shears tore through the thin material, the woman moaned. It was no more than a murmur, but it seemed the most blood-curdling sound Julian had ever heard. She squirmed, her flailing arms almost knocking the scissors from Elijah’s hand.
“Hold her down, son,” Elijah barked.
Julian obeyed, but the instant he pressed down on the woman’s shoulders, her eyelids flew open. Two green eyes stared up at him, frozen in a moment of sheer terror. With the glaring lights overhead, he must appear like a dark silhouette looming over her, Julian surmised. And then every thought fled from him as she started to shriek and thrash her limbs, struggling with all her might to free herself.
Elijah exclaimed as the scissors were knocked flying from his grasp.
“Hush now, hush. You’re safe—” Julian tried to comfort the woman, but she only fought harder, her strength surprising him.
She thinks I am her attacker, that monster assaulting her with his knife
. The realisation was enough to make him lift his hands away from her. She tried to sit up, but before she could move Elijah darted in and covered her nose and mouth with his chloroform pad. Her muffled screams continued, her eyes above the pad bulging with horror, but moments later her eyelids drooped, and she collapsed back on the table.
Julian smeared the back of his arm across his clammy brow. Silent and shaken, he helped his father remove the remnants of the woman’s dress. Underneath the workaday cotton twill, she wore a chemise and drawers, white and freshly laundered. Over them, a cream-coloured boned corset. Against such neatness, the crimson splashes on her underclothes stood out in stark contrast. Elijah snipped away the layers of fabric then examined the patient more closely.
“A number of stab wounds to her shoulders and upper chest,” he said in his dry physician’s voice. “One perilously close to the carotid artery, but nothing as bad as her face and hand. What a frenzied attack. It’s a miracle she survived.”
Julian stood in a daze, the woman’s terrified cries still echoing in his head. The sight of her naked chest stirred not the slightest concupiscence in him, although she had a fine figure, her arms nicely muscled, her breasts high and round and crowned by brown-pink nipples, her stomach smooth and taut. Such a healthy young woman had no business lying on this operating table.
“Julian?” His father’s voice broke through his milling thoughts. “I’ll do what I can for her hand, but first you will have to attend to her face.”
Julian drew in a deep breath. He ought to have anticipated this. In the past few months, his father’s shaking palsy had become more pronounced, and he would not be able to perform the handiwork required on the woman’s face as dexterously as Julian could.
“Very well.” Julian clenched his jaw. A tot of brandy would do wonders for his nerves. On the other hand, he needed all his wits about him if he was to operate on a lady’s face.
He swabbed the raw flesh as gently as he could, glad she was unconscious to the bite of carbolic acid. Cleaned of its sticky red mask, her face emerged, a pale creamy fruit split open. Her nose was small and narrow, her mouth generously curved, her eyebrows arched like delicate moth wings. Thick russet curls framed her neck. She wore no cosmetics or artificial enhancements, no ornaments or ribbons in her hair, two tiny gold earrings her only adornments. Beneath the horrible knife wounds scoring both cheeks, he could yet discern her beauty and natural freshness. It was up to him to repair the desecration of her face. He turned to the tray of instruments and selected a needle. His hand was not quite steady; it took him several attempts to thread the needle. He shut his eyes and fought to clear his mind.
Forget what happened earlier. Forget everything except the task at hand
He opened his eyes and began to stitch.
Some time later—he knew not how much time had passed but his back was aching and his knees were trembling with exhaustion—he dropped his needle for the last time on the tray and heaved a deep sigh.
“Good job, son.” His father clapped him on the shoulder.
Lifting his head, he saw that his father had cleaned the woman’s hand and sutured up the stumps of her fingers.
“I’ve seldom seen such savagery directed at a woman.” Elijah rumbled in disgust as he finished winding a bandage around the woman’s palm. “What kind of monster did this?”
“A ruthless one. He would have killed her if I hadn’t happened along.”
By mutual consent, they both switched their attention to the remaining wounds on the woman’s chest. While his father took care of the neck wound, Julian focussed on the cuts to her left shoulder. Now that he’d worked on her face, her nakedness started to distract and disturb him in ways new to him. Given his age, looks and disposition, he’d had his fair share of paramours and seen plenty of naked female bodies, but this was different. This woman roused strange, uncomfortable feelings in him. He clamped his jaw tight, dismayed by his reactions. The poor woman was his patient. He shouldn’t take prurient pleasure in her nakedness, especially when she was in such a vulnerable state. He bent over his task and tried in vain to block out the image of her firm, round breast so tantalisingly close to his fingers.