He wasn't dead. Although every fiber of his being felt like it was battered, broken, or on fire. Each breath brought on fresh throbbing, pulling at his wounds and shooting searing pain through his whole body. Which then led to a wince or gasp, beginning the vicious cycle of agony again.
No, he wasn't dead, but the Honorable Mr. John Netterman knew by all rights he should be. And the worst wasn't the pain, as severe as it was. No, the worst was the total helplessness he felt each time he woke up and realized he was blind.
Someone—he thought it might have been the Duke of Belfort—had assured him that his eyes were alright, just swollen shut and bandaged. After all, John had endured one hell of a beating. He knew the man was being honest with him. Or at least as honest as an old soldier could be with a wounded man.
Unfortunately, John also remembered what his eyesight had been like shortly after he had escaped his tormentors. And the world had been nothing but a blurry red haze from the one eye he could use. The other one had been so swollen it was useless.
The village doctor the duke had found for John couldn’t promise his eyesight would return when the bandages came off. Especially his badly damaged right eye. And the man was only willing to give John’s left eye a fifty-fifty chance of recovery. But the doctor had admitted that he’d never treated someone as badly injured as John, and he strongly recommended that Belfort engage a more experienced doctor when they got back to London.
So for the time being, John was settled in a comfortable bed, awaiting a second opinion on the fate of his eyesight. The carriage ride from the site of his torment had been a living hell. Each time he had awoken, the bumping and banging of the carriage had been like being beaten and whipped all over again. For which he had no one to blame but himself.
For nearly twenty years, he had searched for the men who assaulted, raped, and murdered his wife. Men who were part of a criminal organization that kidnapped prostitutes and young girls, some of whom were then used in a sick initiation ritual that left them badly hurt or dead.
His wife, Imogene, had not been part of either one of those unfortunate groups of women who were normally taken. She had been the eldest daughter of the man who ran the organization twenty years ago, the Fourth Duke of Belfort.
The old duke had used a cult-like club as a front, and John’s wife had unknowingly walked into one of the club’s sadistic initiation parties at her father's estate. She had just found out she was pregnant with John’s child and hoped the news would convince her father to accept their secret marriage.
Whether she ever got a chance to tell him, John would never know. At the time he had been away at school, finishing up his studies to be a lawyer. But the effects of that night had changed his life forever.
Ever since, John had dedicated his life to finding and punishing those responsible for the murder of his wife and child. That fateful night had changed the course of his life in other ways as well. No longer content to be just a typical solicitor, he took on the cases most others refused to touch. All while secretly searching for the men who taken part in the horrific violence against his kind, generous, innocent wife.
That vendetta that had taken nineteen years to accomplish. The guilty men had all been prominent members of society, so he couldn't just seek them out and punish them. And at first, he’d had no way of identifying them. All he knew was that they were men like his father, the Earl of Exetter. Or more to the point, men who traveled in his father's circle.
Fortunately, there had been witnesses to Imogene’s attack, people who were also present at other cult rituals Drummond Stoughton held. Most of them were servants and women who had managed to survive the ordeals inflicted on them by Drummond and his cohorts. So, in exchange for few pounds and John’s assurance that these men would never learn their identities, the victims had been most willing to talk.
Once John discovered who the guilty men were, he set about bringing them to justice. Which hadn't been easy, as none of the witnesses had been willing to publicly testify. So he devised another way to get justice, something he’d learned from his own father. Since they were all prominent members of society, he would attack them where they lived.
Killing them outright would have been easier. John had even thought about it on several occasions. But he wanted them to suffer for what they had done to Imogene and the other women. So he methodically instilled himself into the middle of their lives, then systematically crippled their finances, destroying the lifestyle that had made them so powerful.
There had been eight men present on the night of his wife’s murder: The Fourth Duke of Belfort, Baron Hellerman, Viscount Wheeler, and five other second, third, and fourth sons of wealthy men and peers.
Some went to prison for other crimes—crimes they had committed once all their money was gone. Some simply took the coward's way out. Those had gotten off easy. But they had all paid. Reginald Stoughton had been the last one. The nephew of Drummond Stoughton, the Fourth Duke of Belfort, had taken the longest to identify. And, ironically, he was the very man who had instigated the attack on Imogene all those years ago. All because she had married John and instead of him.
John had found him in the end and had tried to sabotage him as well. But his luck ran out, and John was discovered before he could do much harm.
Fortunately, or unfortunately, John had learned the truth about Mr. Stoughton—he had become the head of the same criminal organization that his uncle had once run. A criminal empire that operated throughout England and on the continent.
When Reginald had discovered what John was doing, he’d had him kidnapped. For two days, Reginald and his men tortured John, trying to learn how much he knew about their organization. Only the arrival of the current Duke of Belfort had stopped the beatings. And it had allowed John to escape and exact his own vengeance on the man who had murdered Imogene and his unborn child.
Voices interrupted his memories, soft voices mixed with harsher men's. He recognized Belfort, as he had the loudest and most distinctive voice. The other man, he didn't know, but he was sure one of the female voices belonged to the woman who had tended his injuries during the long ride back to London, the Duchess of Belfort. He didn't recognize the other woman's voice but, as with the Duke, he could hear the steely command when she spoke.
"Have one of your servants bring up some hot water. And make sure it is just shy of scalding when they do. And send someone you trust to the hospital. Have them ask for the overnight doctor. And tell them that Mrs. Sheiling needs him as quickly as possible."
"Madam, I have already sent for a doctor." That had been the voice of the duke.
"And is the physician you sent for an army doctor?" the woman John believed to be Mrs. Sheiling demanded.
"I'm not sure. But he is the same physician who attended Sir Walter Fletcher after my wife and I were attacked in front of our home."
Definitely the duke. And apparently not someone capable of intimidating or impressing Mrs. Sheiling.
"Then it is unlikely that he will know how to treat someone who has these kind of injuries. Nevertheless, your Grace, I will allow your physician to attend me. But only once I and a doctor I trust have dealt with this man's wounds. Wounds that, I might add, are not unlike those you and other soldiers received on the battlefield. And if I am satisfied with the competence of your physician, then I will allow him to treat this man. Is that understood, your Grace?"
Silence followed the woman's order. Then the swish of a petticoat and skirt drew closer.
"Has he been unconscious the whole time?" the woman asked.
"No," Belfort answered.
John tried to wet his lips and swallow the dust in his throat. "Off and on," he whispered.
"You're awake," she said, as a soft hand settled on his forehead.
He swallowed again and tried to speak. "M-m-m-more or less."
The effort had cost him dearly. He began to cough and spasm as blood coated his throat and cut off his breathing. White hot pain radiated from his chest and back, and through the pain, a lightheaded dizziness began to pull him under as the woman and room faded once again into the black of unconsciousness.