Home » , , , , , , , » Love at First Sight: A Bridgethorpe Brides Sampler by Aileen Fish

Love at First Sight: A Bridgethorpe Brides Sampler by Aileen Fish

Stephen Lumley sat in the blessed darkness of the library at Bridgethorpe Manor, a snifter in one hand, the empty brandy decanter in the other. His uncle, the Earl of Bridgethorpe, would complain about the waste of good liquor when he discovered it—or he would if he were of a mind to notice. But the earl was no longer the man he was when Stephen had last visited, and was unlikely to notice the empty vessel before Dankworth, his butler, refilled it on the morrow.
Love at First Sight: A Bridgethorpe Brides Sampler
Love at First Sight: A Bridgethorpe Brides Sampler by Aileen Fish
After swallowing the last of the liquid in his glass, Stephen contemplated switching to whiskey. He wasn’t yet drunk enough. He could tell, because he was still all too aware of his circumstances. His left eye saw the same blackness with or without the eye patch, and his left ear still rang loud enough to wake an entire cemetery. The burned, scarred skin on his cheek still felt as though someone were tearing it in two. And his parents were undeniably dead. Yes, another bottle was called for. He pushed back the chair from the massive desk. As he rose, he caught the toe of his boot on the chair leg and stumbled, falling against the glass doors of the bookshelf behind him. “Steady, man. Best foot forward.” He righted himself and swayed, then the room took a turn and he grabbed the back of the chair. Drawing in a deep breath, he lurched toward the liquor cabinet. Since he’d failed to light a candle, only the moon glow from the window helped him navigate. Earlier when the maid entered the room to light the fire, he’d scared her off. Warm, cozy and cheerful—that’s what a fire was. The farthest thing from how Stephen felt, and how he wanted to continue to feel—cold, lost, and empty. He raised his empty glass in mock salute. “Welcome home, Captain Lumley.” The two remaining cut-crystal decanters danced in front of him, taunting him to choose. Port? Whiskey? If the blasted bottles would stand still long enough, he could tell which was which by the shape. Deciding he didn’t really care, he grabbed the first one his fist closed around. The doorknob rattled and the door opened, spilling in the sounds of the assembly abovestairs, and just as quickly it closed. Stephen spun, the bottle slipping from his grip and crashing to the floor. A woman gasped. “Who is there?” “No one,” he answered. “No one of any con…sequence.” His tongue wasn’t following orders. “Captain? Is that you?” He recognized Miss Jane Marwick’s sweet, musical voice. His Jane. At least, she’d been thus in his heart these six years he’d been away. “Has so much changed, then? I used to be Stephen.” “You’re drunk.” “In a manner of speaking.” He waved a hand to indicate the glass at his feet. “But not as drunk as I planned to be.” “Let me call Dankworth. He’ll have someone clean that up.” “Don’t bother. It’s all soaked into the carpet by now. ’Sides, he’s busy with the houseguests in the large parlor, which is where you should be.” Jane glided slowly into the room, her steps soundless. “Better the carpet is soaked than your stomach. Perhaps you should go to your chamber and lie down. Shall I help you or would you prefer a footman?” “I would prefer to keep drinking. If you’ll leave me, I shall get back to it.” She stood so close he could just make out the worry line between her brows. He should have known she’d be at the party tonight. Her father’s property abutted Bridgethorpe’s estate and the families were close. Had he known his aunt and uncle had a houseful of guests, he wouldn’t have stopped here on his way home. He’d have gone straight to see his parents. But the fates must have been looking kindly on him to guide him here, since he had no parents to return to. Jane moved away from the glass. “At least come sit.” How he’d missed her voice. Her laughter, even more. He followed her to the two upholstered chairs placed in front of the cold fireplace. “Yes, I shall sit. And tell you tales to make you laugh. I need your laughter, dearest Jane.” “You need a good night’s sleep, more like. But if you won’t go abovestairs, I would feel safer if you were sitting.” She helped him into the first chair and tried to step back. He kept his grip on her hand and tugged, pulling her quite ungracefully onto his lap. She squawked, but didn’t seem to fight him. After rearranging her slender form on his lap, he wrapped his arms around her and inhaled deeply of her honeysuckle scent, his nose buried in her upswept hair. “My sweet, sweet, Jane.” “I shouldn’t be sitting thusly,” she whispered, and leaned away with a shiver. “You shouldn’t be in this room with a drunken soldier, either.” “I thought I was with a dear man who has suffered too much pain to bear, but perhaps I was mistaken.” “Too much pain? What do you know of the pain I bear?” His voice sounded angrier than he meant it to. “Hannah told me of your wounds, even before I saw you this afternoon. I didn’t expect you to take part in the festivities, after the loss of your parents. It was all quite untoward, your aunt and uncle moving forward with the house party, but what could they do? Some of the guests had already begun their journeys here by the time Bridgethorpe heard the news about your father. It was far too late— “ “Jane?” “Yes?” “Be still.” His fumbling fingers found her small, pointed chin and turned her face so he could capture her lips. He heard her feminine gasp and slight whimper just as he felt the warmth of her lips against his, so soft, so pliable. He groaned, and in spite of the alcohol, knew he must stop. Squeezing her tightly to his chest, he rested his forehead against her high pile of curls. “Oh, Jane. Nothing has gone as I planned. I wanted so much for us. I was going to make you the perfect husband. Find us a cottage near our families. Make you so happy. But the fates had other ideas. I shall be no woman’s husband, make no woman happy.” She pushed at his chest. “Please don’t speak this way. It isn’t proper for me to be in here. Perhaps one of your cousins could help you find your bedchamber. Allow me to go find David or Knightwick.” He snorted loudly, then shook his head. “What do I need of my cousins, when the fates have taken care of all my needs? I needed a house; my father died, and I am his heir. Of course, the house burned down around him so there is still that problem.” Stephen waved his hand in the vague direction of Spain. “I grew tired of the war, and some bloody French blackguard aimed a mortar at me.” He felt her flinch, and grimaced. “Apologies, dear Jane. Some ill-mannered Frenchman, I meant to say.” Jane jumped to her feet and backed away until she reached the mantel. “You oaf, it wasn’t your language that disturbed me. I’ve heard worse.” Hands on her slender hips, she paused, then shook her head and paced again before he could reply. Her hands waved wildly as she continued. “Why is it men think we women do not feel deeply the pain of those we care about? I hurt for you, Stephen. I was sick with fear when Hannah told me you’d been injured. That bloody Frog could have killed you!” Stephen frowned and tilted his head so he could better hear her. Did she just call the Frenchman a bloody frog? A grin tugged at his lips, but he feared angering her more. How much time had she spent with his cousins while he was away? She was no longer the meek girl who’d followed them around. Jane stood with her back to him, her arms folded across her chest as if hugging herself. He wanted to take her in his arms, but feared losing control if he did so. When she spoke again, her tones were the well-modulated voice of a young lady. “Injuries or no, many women would be glad of an offer from the man I knew. You were kind, and witty, and caring, all good qualities in a husband.” Many women…was this her way of giving him his congee? But, no, they didn’t have the sort of relationship one might end that way. She’d be better off, though, if she believed she were free of any obligation toward him. If only he could bring himself to say the words, tell her she’d be better off without him. “I’ll not be marrying.” Her voice rang with tension. “Those are the harsh words of a man in pain. Allow yourself time to heal before making such statements.” “There are some things that will never heal.” He tugged at the eye patch string. His scalp itched where it lay, yet he couldn’t scratch without making a mess of his hair. He needed a haircut, but the string would probably still bother him. Jane peered over her shoulder. “Do you mean…are you unable to have children?” “What? Who spoke of children?” “If you were trying to imply you couldn’t perform your…marital relations, I understand. But that shouldn’t prevent most women from seeing you as a good husband.” She looked so innocent when she practically whispered marital relations, he struggled not to laugh. Wiping away the threatening grin, he assured her, “My wife would have no complaints in the intimacy of our marriage.” Her eyes widened, the whites reflecting the moonlight. Her hand flattened over her heart. “Well, that is good to know. For your future wife, that is. And you are speaking of your wife. You don’t believe your denial, either. You see, you do still wish to marry.” “No, I do not see, even with my good eye. I will never be a good husband to any young lady.” “Oooh, of course you don’t see. Not only are you in your cups, you are a foolish man. The most ridiculous man of my acquaintance, at this moment.” “Ridiculous, pitiful, useless. All are fitting words for Captain Lumley,” he agreed. “Stop wallowing in your pity. Do not even speak to me again until you are sober. You know not what you say.” “Do you deny what I’ve said is the truth? My parents are truly dead and buried. My body broken beyond repair. These things are true.” “If you were sober, I would argue the bit about beyond repair. But it’s the other things of which I speak.” He shook his head, sending the room in a quick spin. When it slowed, he said softly, “I cannot marry. I have nothing to offer. I have no title, and I am not fit to work. My father’s living won’t provide for a family, not in the manner to which you are accustomed. And the Smart Money the king paid me for my injuries simply proves my decision not to leave the army a year ago wasn’t very smart, indeed.” Jane took a step closer, but stopped. “Where is the man I loved? He was there the last time we spoke.” Stephen sighed, his throat closing in pain. “That was two and a half years ago. He is gone. Was laid to rest on the battlefield. They discharged this empty shell to carry on in his place.” A faint sniffle escaped her. “I am glad you are home.” How could she be, when he was not? There was not a glad bone in his body. The war wasn’t won, and he wouldn’t be there to finish it. He’d failed at the only mission he’d had in life, aside from that of marrying Jane. He’d needed to accomplish the first, he felt, to earn the right to the second. To be a man worthy of her love. Why would she be glad he was home, unless it was to marry him? And why would she want to marry a man such as him, unless she pitied him? A bitter taste built in his mouth at the thought. He swung his arm out, his voice rising in anger. “Enough, woman! I don’t want your pity.” Jane stepped back as if he’d struck her. “Forgive my intrusion. You are not the man I once thought I’d marry.” She strode to the door. He jumped up, almost pitching himself head first into the marble framing the fireplace. “Ha, I was correct. No woman would want to marry a penniless, broken soldier.” Spinning to face him, she said harshly, “I would never turn away from the man I loved.” “Then you will? Marry me, Jane?” Her jaw went lax. She blinked, and frowned. Then burst into tears. “How could you?” Her turnabout sent him reeling. Grasping her arms, he pulled her into a hug. “What did I do?” “You’ve ruined everything.” She struggled in his embrace. “Yes, I know. It’s what I’ve said from the beginning. When I didn’t leave the army as planned, I ruined all of our plans. But how was I to know how events would turn?” “No, you ruined what should have been the greatest moment in my life. How could you? You’re a drunken beast!” Jane pushed him away and ran out of the library, slamming the door behind her. Stephen shivered in the sudden cold of the empty room. Drowning in his pain, he had just cast away the last good thing in his life. ~*~ Jane rushed past the startled footman who tried in vain to vanish behind a large planter as she left the library. Tears blinded her, but she knew the house like her own. With the guests gathered one floor above, she didn’t dare go to Hannah’s room to hide until a maid could be sent to find her parents. Only one room on the ground floor suited her need for privacy. Lady Bridgethorpe’s small morning room, tucked in a back corner of the large ground floor, was thankfully empty and dark at this hour. Jane sought out the upholstered chair where she often sat and painted with Hannah, dropping into it and tucking her feet up as if she were a small child. There she poured her pain out through her tears, soaking her delicate linen handkerchief. How many years she’d waited for an offer of marriage she couldn’t say, but it was something she and Hannah had giggled over and dreamed of as soon as they were old enough to accept their lot in life. A young lady of good family learned from an early age how to manage a household of servants, and how important her role was in providing her husband an heir. While her secret dream had been to teach children, that was not the life for a well-dowered young lady with a titled father. Regardless he was a lowly baronet, she was expected to marry and have children. In her fourteenth year, something had changed in how she looked at her dear friend Stephen. She might have been too young to know such things, but her heart told her Stephen was the man she would marry. So when he’d bought his colors and gone off that year to fight the evils that threatened the British Empire, she continued to learn how to be the best wife possible. Practiced to become Stephen’s wife. Fresh sobs tore through her and she didn’t realize anyone was in the room until soft footsteps sounded behind her chair. Lady Hannah Lumley knelt on the floor next to the chair. “A footman said I’d find you here. What has happened, Jane?” “The worst.” Taking Jane’s hand, Hannah said, “I don’t understand. Please tell me what has you so upset. Did one of the gentlemen make improper advances? I shall send my brothers after him.” “None of your guests have been untoward. I am merely disappointed in Stephen.” “Disappointment doesn’t make one cry like you were when I walked in. What can he have done to distress you so?” Blotting at her eyes with the wet handkerchief, Jane whispered, “He asked me to marry him.” Hannah gasped. “But that is good news. It’s what we knew he’d do once he returned from the Continent.” Jane shook her head, her throat tightening with emotion. “Not this way. He is ape-drunk, slurring his words. After professing himself to be a useless, pitiful wreck, after making it perfectly clear he would never marry and burden any woman with his care, he mistook my arguments of his value as a person to mean I was saying I wanted to be his wife.” “But you do wish to be his wife.” “I did, I am no longer certain about him. He was so angry, and so drunk. Besides, I deserve to be courted. To be asked properly after he confesses his love for me. Not ‘so you’ll do it then’ after he’s declared himself to be the lowest prospect a woman could consider.” She burst into a fresh bout of tears. Sitting back on her heels, Hannah was silent for a moment. Then she cleared her throat. “Perhaps we can just pretend this never happened. No one knows of it except the three of us, and Stephen is not likely to tell anyone he proposed.” “I don’t know that I can put it aside. He was so angry when he thought I pitied him his injuries. He swung at me and I feared he meant to hit me. What if this is who he is? I haven’t spoken to him but twice in the past six years. I’ve been a fool, Hannah, to think he would remain unchanged after all he has seen and experienced. I’ve heard stories of soldiers who mistake their families for the enemy, and kill or harm them.” Hannah’s quiet voice was edged with cold steel. “Now, you know Stephen would never hurt you.” “I want to believe that, but my mind is awhirl with so many thoughts. Foremost is the fear I have wasted two Seasons in London keeping my heart safe for Stephen.” “Never say it. You truly no longer wish to marry him?” A knock at the door interrupted them. David stuck his head inside. “Might I come in?” “Of course,” both girls answered, and Jane dabbed again at her tears. He went straight to the mantle and lit a candle. “There we are. Why do you girls sit in the dark?” “I never noticed it,” said Hannah. “I was concerned for Jane.” “Yes, well, one of the footmen pulled me from the card table and said I must attend you. What’s it to be? Pistols at dawn? A cut direct at Almack’s next spring? Who has committed the offense?” Jane looked at Hannah, pleading for her not to speak. “Jane?” David’s voice lost its humor. He stepped closer, studying her face. “This is serious. I supposed some young buck had slighted one of you by refusing to stand up with you for a country dance. Tell me what has happened. Jane, you know your secrets are safe with me.” Yes, she knew. David, his older brother Knightwick, Hannah and she were like brothers and sisters. But would he side with his cousin Stephen over her? She supposed she must find out one way or another. “You must swear never to speak of this to anyone. I would die if anyone outside our families found out.” Drawing in a deep breath, and keeping her eyes on the handkerchief she wrought in her hands, she confessed. “Stephen has been alone in your father’s library this evening, as might be expected. He has overindulged, shall we say, in your father’s liquor.” “The man has had more to bear in the past few months than many of us could handle. I can’t say I blame him for getting bosky.” “That’s not all,” Hannah warned. “He offered for my hand.” Jane lifted her gaze to his to see if he understood just how painful the event had been. David wiped his palm down his face. “I am sorry, dear Jane, I know how young ladies dream of that romantic occasion. And I know he’ll be sorry for it, too. But there’s nothing to be done tonight. Would you like me to find your parents so you may return home now?” “Please.” That was what she needed. To escape Stephen and this nightmare of a proposal. She could cry herself to sleep in her own bed and hopefully wake up to discover it had all been a dream. The Incorrigible Mr. Lumley Chapter One April, 1810 Newmarket, Sussex, England The air held a hint of excitement and promise of a fresh beginning. For David Lumley, the new year began in spring. Not with the first foal in the family stable, but with the Craven Race Meeting in Newmarket, the first official meeting of the year. This was going to be a grand year for Triton, he could feel it. Fernleigh Stud would be the name on everyone’s lips again. The crowd at the racecourse was as large as David expected. He surveyed the grounds from his position near the judging station. The social Season in London had yet to begin, so the wives of the horse owners were all in attendance at the Craven. From the way they all leaned close to each other and whispered in the coffee house, they were eager to discover the latest on dits. David was always astounded when he overheard how much went on in the homes of the ton during the winter months. His life seemed thankfully dull in comparison. He had no desire to listen to gossip, but soon he’d be unable to escape it. He’d promised to escort his sister, Hannah, in her first London Season. In preparation over the winter, Mother had dragged him to afternoon teas and the morning calls she and Hannah made to their neighbors in the village near Bridgethorpe Manor. Dull, precisely timed events where the conversations were by rote up to the moment someone let slip she’d heard news. No matter on whom the juicy tidbit focused. All other voices in the room silenced so the speaker’s slightest inflection could be heard. It was all too much for a man to bear. David wound through the milling people on his way to the stables. He found his groom, Peter, in the stall with Triton, just completing his work. As the boy gathered his tools, David patted the bay’s shoulder. “How is he this morning?” “Right as always,” said Peter. “He’s got a bit of the devil in ’im. He’ll be after showing them other horses who’s king.” “Just as long as he wins. I’m counting on him.” Peter put the tools into a bag and opened another, removing the carefully folded shirt made in the colors of Fernleigh Stud, the orange body with yellow sleeves. He donned the garment and the black hat that completed the uniform. David stepped back as the youth saddled the horse and then freed the reins from the iron ring on the side of the stall. Together they led Triton out of the stables and to the examination area. Other grooms and horses milled about in preparation for the race. David glanced at the schedule. “We’re entered in the third race. You’ll have him warmed up?” “Of course, sir. He’ll be ready to race ’is best, never worry.” Peter’s cocky grin said his boss always worried, but David didn’t reprimand the lad. Peter was the best groom and rider he’d come across, with a natural knack for understanding what a horse was thinking. He could bring more out of an animal than any of the trainers they’d paid good money to, and the animals seemed calmer around him. “You see that he does race his best,” David called out with a growl. A useless effort. There was no sense trying to sound more authoritative when Peter knew who paid his wages, and showed due respect when the situation called for it. Assured his horse was in good hands, David crossed the grounds, nodding and calling greetings to those he recognized. His brother Adam, Viscount Knightwick, should have arrived by now. As he scanned the gathering crowd, his gaze landed on the last face he wanted to see at the Spring Meeting, or any other race event. Northcotte. Blast it. David’s gut knotted at the sight of the man. Ducking behind a pair of gentlemen walking in the earl’s direction, David darted around the corner of a building where he could eavesdrop without being noticed. He peered out into the lane. Robert Hurst, Lord Northcotte, stood with a particularly handsome young lady, and their sharp exchange reached David’s ears. The young lady folded her arms across her chest, and the tiny, pale blonde ringlets framing her face trembled with tension. “I am going to ride him. No one will know. I’ve trousers in the stable, and I can wear Bruce’s shirt and cap. With my hair tucked up, no one will recognize me.” Northcotte jerked her arm. “You will not consider it. Do you want to risk everything I’ve left? I’ll find a jockey and Patriot will be entered as planned. You may tell Bruce his services are no longer needed.” “I’ll do no such thing! That boy needs the wages for his family, and it’s not his fault he is ill. You cannot hire some stranger to ride Patriot. You know he’ll never allow a strange man on his back. I must be the one to ride him or we may as well scratch him from the race.” “I’ll hear no more of this, Joanna. Go find Mother and let me handle this.” Northcotte released her arm and strode off toward the stables. The young lady must be his sister, Lady Joanna. She stood for a moment and watched him go, then spun on her heel and stomped off in the opposite direction. David smiled at her forceful steps in the dirt. She seemed much like Hannah. Stubborn, impulsive, and too daring by half. He chuckled and shook his head. Those qualities could make Hannah’s search for a husband drag on for years. Even her beauty would not compensate for her strong character in the minds of many men. He’d have to make certain Mother didn’t expect his services as chaperone to run beyond one Season. Northcotte’s sister had to be dicked in the knob to suggest she wear trousers and ride in the race. Northcotte had the right of it—he’d be disqualified, and laughed out of the Jockey Club books, if not actually banned from competing. If Hannah ever dared such a thing, David would have her sent back to Bridgethorpe Manor for the remainder of the racing season. Shaking his head, he followed the pretty blonde in the direction of the paddock, where he found Knightwick leaning on the upper rail of the fence. Peter and Triton loped around the space, getting warmed up before the races began. The three-year-old horse’s gait was long and even, covering the ground with no effort. As he reached the fence, David slapped Knightwick on the shoulder. “I believe we have the winning horse this year.” “You’ve said as much these three years past,” Knightwick replied with a teasing grin. “But this year I’m right. Triton has the heart of a winner. He loves to be out front. Start him behind the other colts and he’ll run that much faster to best them.” Knightwick shook his head. “His chest is narrow, he’s willful and as likely to turn in the opposite direction as run the course. We never should have bred his dam. I’m rather surprised she let the Black Knight close enough to cover her.” “You’re nit-picking. Triton is the horse we’ve been waiting for.” Neither brother completed the thought aloud…Triton was the horse they were counting on to save their stables after the death of Zephyr, their father’s prize-winning stud, six years ago. David absently tapped his fingers on the fence rail while observing the other animals circling before them. “Did the trip to London with Mother and Hannah pass uneventfully?” “Yes. Hannah chattered the entire trip.” Knightwick offered his brother a wry glance. “Rather convenient of you to leave a week early so you couldn’t accompany them.” David grunted. “I promised Mother I’d arrive in Town in time for Hannah’s first ball, and would attend as many assemblies as I can. But first she must be outfitted, presented in court and all that sort of feminine thing. I’m not going to miss a race meeting this spring, not when I’m so confident in Triton.” “I’ll wager Mother said you are too much like Father in that.” Laughing, he agreed. “I ask you, what purpose do I have in London? Mother is there to chaperone. I’ve no wish to see which ladies are on the hunt. Nor do I care to be packed into the crowded assemblies filled with the stench of too many bodies and liberally applied perfumes. I’d much rather be in a stall filled with the more natural scent of eau de cheval.” Knightwick glanced at him from the corner of his eye. “Maybe you’ll find one of those bodies belongs to a lady you wish to know better.” “Not bloody likely. You have yet to take a bride, and you’re the one with the responsibilities. My only concern is this.” He waved an arm at Triton. “He and Lumley’s Lass will be my primary focus until the final race meeting this year.” Knightwick made a strangled noise and straightened, staring across the paddock. “What is he doing here?” Without looking, David knew whom his brother had spotted. “I wondered the same thing. From what I overheard, it appears Northcotte has a horse entered in one of the courses today.” “Why did the Jockey Club allow him to enter?” “What reason do they have to block him? No one charged him with anything. He can race any horse he owns, just like the rest of us.” Rubbing the back of his hand across his mouth, as if wiping away a bad taste, Knightwick said, “I don’t trust him. Tell Peter to stay with Triton at all times, even sleep in the stalls. I’ll go find Nick and make sure he stays with Lass.” “You can’t think he’d be foolish enough to try anything after the inquiry last year.” “Someone stole Zephyr six years ago and then killed him, and two of our horses turned up sick last year. I don’t know who is behind it, but we can’t take any chances. We must be on our guard whether Northcotte is at a race meeting or not.” ~*~ Lady Joanna Hurst stood at the empty stall where she’d left her three-year-old colt, Patriot, a short while earlier. The groom’s uniform was missing along with her horse. “Robert,” she spat out as if it were a curse. She tossed aside the trousers she’d stolen from her brother’s room at the inn. Robert had followed through on his words and found someone to ride Patriot. What an inopportune time for him to begin following through on anything! All her work training Patriot would be for naught if Robert prevented her from riding him in the race. She was certain she could pass herself off to the officials as a young lad. Her own mother had mistaken her for a stable boy often enough when she wore trousers to work with the horses. Mama had barred her from entering the stables for a week after the first time she found her thus, but as Mama rarely ventured down there, she didn’t see Joanna return to work the next day. To train a horse properly, one must sit astride. There was no way around it. And wearing trousers was the only way to sit correctly. None of that mattered at the moment, however. Patriot must win today. Her horse would do anything she asked of it, except be ridden by a groom he didn’t know. She searched her mind for something she could do to help her horse through the change in rider at this late hour, but came up empty. Grateful the mud from recent rains had dried, Joanna rushed off as quickly as her boot heels would allow in the rough dirt. It was too late to convince Robert to let her ride, but perhaps talking to Patriot would calm him. Patriot always listened to her. Unlike her brother, the horse had some sense. As luck would have it, Robert was talking to a pair of men near the paddock. She bit back an indelicate curse she’d learned from the grooms. She had to keep her temper controlled. Schooling her features into a smile suitable for the most fashionable drawing room, she strolled up and slipped her hand around her brother’s arm. She spoke in a voice rich with treacle. “There you are, brother. I’ve been searching for you.” The look he slanted warned her against causing a disruption. She batted her lashes in response. “I’m so excited to watch our horse compete. I couldn’t sit any longer. I had to come look for him.” The other two gentlemen nodded. “The thrill of the race is undeniable,” one agreed. She didn’t recognize them. They appeared to be a few years beyond her brother’s thirty years. The second man, a thin, dark-haired scarecrow with white side-whiskers, peered down his hawkish nose at her and lifted an imperial brow, but said nothing. Robert patted her fingers with enough force to ring out like a slap. “A lady doesn’t belong here by the paddock. You might damage those lovely kidskin boots I bought you. Mother must be wondering where you are.” He looked across the paddock toward the grandstands. Suddenly his features went slack and he cursed beneath his breath. Joanna followed his line of sight and spied two men who appeared to be watching their little group. She could make out their features, but didn’t recognize them. Turning to question Robert, she was interrupted before she had the chance to speak. Her brother took her arm roughly and nodded to his companions. “Gentlemen, I’ll look for you after the event. If you will excuse me, I must make certain my mother does not want for anything. Come along, Joanna, dear.” As if she had any choice. She took two steps for each of her brother’s strides and still she was being dragged. “Please slow down. Who were those men you were speaking with?” “Business associates. No one you need know. You must at least make a pretense at behaving like a lady when we are in public, if you are ever to marry. I’ll tell Mother you are to remain at her side, or you won’t be allowed to attend any future race meetings.” Allowed to attend…the very words made her blood boil. Just a few years ago, Robert was her playmate, or so he let her believe. The distance in their ages meant they hadn’t truly been close, with him away at school by the time she was old enough to remember. But when he was home, he’d taught her chess and various card games and made her feel important. He often rode the countryside with her and never once chastised her for riding astride. Lately she felt more like an obligation, one he was searching to end. The pressure he put on her to marry was quite unbearable. And the restrictions he imposed on her time with their horses were her biggest concern. A life without horses was truly not to be borne. “Robert, please let me catch my breath. Mama will assume I am ill if I appear before her flushed and breathless.” She tugged again on the arm he still gripped. His hand relaxed. “I’m sorry. But I’m only looking out for your best interests.” “My best interests would be met by having Patriot win today.” “As would mine, but I’ll not allow you to ride him in the race, so this is the end of that discussion. A disqualification would be worse than a loss, going forward. Now, there is Mother in the coffee house, sitting at the window. Please humor me and stay with her until I come for you both at the end of the day. Wallis will escort you two to the grandstand when it’s time for Patriot’s match.” Joanna bit her tongue on all the retorts that came to mind. Of course Robert would send his groom to take them to watch the race, and not be bothered to do so himself. Just more proof she was a burden and not a pleasant companion. She entered the crowded eating establishment and made her way to the small table where Mama sat with her maid. Letting go of the last of her frustrations, Joanna smiled at them. “How are the scones? Did you save me any?” “Of course, dear girl.” Her mother’s sweet, round face looked pale in the morning light streaming through the window. Her blue eyes seemed as faded as the blonde hair showing beneath the edges of the black bonnet she’d continued to wear after her year of mourning had passed. “I admit, however, I was tempted to eat these last two if you hadn’t arrived soon.” Mama poured tea for Joanna and handed her the cup. When they’d left the inn that morning, Joanna told her mother she would meet her shortly after checking on Patriot. Discovering Bruce was ill, followed by her muddled attempt to replace him as rider in the race, delayed her more than an hour. Mama must have requested a fresh pot of tea, as the drink was still quite warm, and it took away the chill of the morning air. “How is your horse this morning?” Mama didn’t understand Joanna’s passion, but she humored it. “He’s frisky and eager to run. But his groom isn’t. I fear Patriot won’t perform well with another boy on his back.” “Oh, dear. And you’ve put so much time in his training. But this is only the first of many races. He’ll have his day.” Yes, Patriot would do well in the future, but her main concern was whether Robert would continue to let her attend race meetings, or if she must wait to hear reports of his activities. She would simply expire from worry if she couldn’t watch Patriot compete. She glanced at the clock on the wall, then sighed. She still had hours to wait for the racing to begin. Joanna contemplated her mother again. The dark circles beneath her eyes were not as prominent today. “I’m very pleased you came with me to the race meeting.” “I always enjoyed the races with your father. I’m happy to chaperone you here.” Her words sounded earnest enough, and her face didn’t contradict them, but given the weeks where Mother would not even join them for meals, Joanna wondered what had brought about this gay mood. She would not press the issue, however. She would simply enjoy her mother’s company for as long as she had it. Charming the Vicar’s Daughter Chapter One March 1811 Bridgethorpe Village, Cheshire, England Neil Harrow was ready to cross the final item off his checklist. Once his cousin found him the proper pair of carriage horses, Neil could journey to London. There awaited the curricle he’d ordered with red wheels and leather squabs, thus forming the need for said horses. He was beyond eager to take up residence in the rooms he’d leased in Albany House. His cousin, David Lumley, had other things on his mind. Neil had never seen him so distracted. Insisting they stop in the village before arriving at Bridgethorpe Manor, David had practically leaped from the carriage as it rolled to a halt in front of the vicar’s cottage. “I won’t be long,” he called out, slamming the carriage door behind him. Neil shook his head, feeling no better than a servant in the way his cousin neglected to invite him to go along. Looking out the window at the village, he plucked at the seam of his gloves where the threads had worn thin. Now was as good a time as any to look for a new pair. He opened the door and stepped out, grateful to be on unmoving ground after three days of travel from Fernleigh Stud in Newmarket. They had slept in inns along the way, but those beds were never as comfortable as his at home. The air was crisp, clear, as if winter hadn’t fully given up despite the narcissus bulbs coming into bloom along the vicar’s walkway. Neil walked up the road a short distance, grateful for the recent lack of rain that made for a dry road. The shops were on the main street, not far from the vicar’s cottage, and he soon had a new pair of riding gloves as well as some cotton evening gloves the proprietor assured him were all the rage in London. Taking his package, along with the sack of peppermint drops for his cousins, he began to walk back toward the carriage. As he strolled, he heard a voice from nearby. A sweet, cajoling, very feminine voice. “Come, you minx. Be a dear and come into my arms.” Neil paused, his attention fully engaged. He should leave the lovers to themselves, but the voice was like a siren’s call. She continued to utter small cooing sounds, each sound causing his imagination to summon the most delightful vision. Curiosity won out over the lovers’ need for privacy, and he stepped through a break in the hedgerow to take a closer look. A ladder leaned against a bare black poplar tree, and the owner of that lovely voice stood high on its rungs, reaching into the branches. The object of her entreaty sat just beyond her reach. A brown tabby, its expression more bored than frightened, yawned and stretched out a single paw. It wasn’t the scene he expected to find, to be sure. The young woman’s boots were barely perched on the ladder rung, and her petticoat peeked beneath the hem of her skirts, delicate lace edging and all. “Minxy, come, kitty.” She looked ready to topple the ladder. Neil’s gut tightened with each stretch of her arm, certain she would fall. He couldn’t stand by and allow that to happen. He approached the ladder. “Might I be of assistance?” The slender young woman didn’t even deign to look his way. “Thank you, no, I’m not in need of help.” She reached up higher, fingers wiggling at the cat. Rather than resting his eyes on her derriere, Neil studied her boots, which were even with his chest. Worn, but well made, they most likely didn’t belong to a servant. He looked around but saw no maid chaperoning the young lady. She must live in one of the nearby cottages. Her precarious, leaning perch concerned him. “It’s no trouble, I assure you. I can climb up there and bring him down.” She didn’t budge. “Her. Minx is a she. And she doesn’t care for men.” “Ah, forgive me.” He glanced at the cat, his lack of sleep making him rather silly at the moment. “My apologies, Miss Minx, for mistaking your sex. If you’ll come down, I shall buy you a saucer of cream.” Now the lady pivoted, offering him a look that questioned his sanity. “I thank you for your offer, but I must insist you leave, or my cat will never come down.” He couldn’t walk away from a woman standing on a ladder. Yet the cat looked comfortable enough to remain in place until summer. “Will you allow me to fetch a servant? A maid, perhaps, to climb the tree for you? Or a large footman to catch you when you fall?” Her eyes no longer questioned his hold on reality. “Is this some manner of flirtation you employ? Your time is wasted on me. Be on your way.” The boredom he’d sought to relieve melted away. Like the dish of sugarplums Cook kept from his reach when he was a boy, conversation with this young lady became too tempting to resist. “My time is mine to waste. I cannot be on my way until my cousin returns, so I might as well bide the moments here as anywhere.” The girl squinted as she studied him. “Who is your cousin?” “Mr. Lumley. His family lives nearby.” “Ah, now I see who you are, and I understand. Will you badger me until I relent and let you play the gallant hero?” Neil tipped his head at that news. Which of his cousins would be annoyingly persistent like that? Sam and Trey were both of an age to flirt with a young lady such as this, who appeared close to Neil’s twenty-four years. Did either of them have an affection for her? She was more than pleasant to look upon, even with a frown marring her smooth peach-tinted skin. The brim of her beribboned hat shaded her eyes, but they were dark, like the curls framing her face. A beauty, she was. He suddenly needed to know if she was married. “I do not wish to badger you. Say the word and I shall summon your husband to play hero for you.” Her expression went bland. “I do not seek a hero. I only wish to be left to my own devices. Will you kindly be on your way?” So, she was a worthy adversary, all the better. “I could not bear to later hear a young miss had died of a broken neck because no one had helped her fetch her kitten from a tree.” She continued to gaze on him with no humor. He grinned, unable to control the lengths to which he would go to relieve boredom. “Have those Lumley boys been a complete nuisance? Which one was it? I’ll take him to task. Knightwick and David are too old for shenanigans, which leaves Trey and Sam. Give me a name and he’ll bother you no more.” After a long pause, she said, “Are you quite finished? I would like to retrieve my cat and get on with my day.” Neil held his hands out at his side. “Do not let me delay you, Miss…” She ignored his implied request for her name and turned on the ladder. She stretched her arm out again, leaning precariously to the right as she did. Neil took a step closer to her, lifting his arms at the ready. Whether he thought to catch the cat or the woman, he wasn’t certain. Minx looked at him, then at her owner, and rose, hopping over the woman’s outstretched hand, bouncing off a branch, and leaping at Neil’s head. He ducked, but not soon enough to avoid the claws scraping his cheek as the cat flew past. He brought a hand to his cheek, and glanced up again just in time to see the woman lose her balance on the ladder. Neil dove as she fell, only succeeding in placing himself beneath her before they both landed in the dead grass with a whump. His lungs deflated. Her weight, insubstantial as it was, kept him from inhaling. “Oh, dear,” the miss on top of him moaned. As she shifted, she dug an elbow into his ribs. He groaned with what little air remained inside him. The lady rose on her arms, peering down at him with a wrinkled brow. “Are you all right? Your face is bleeding.” She touched her fingertips to his cheek, then prodded his head in search of lumps. His skin burned at her touch. Her position, perched as she was now at his side and leaning over him, was suggestive of an exchange far beyond the flirtation he’d planned. Yet she wasn’t seducing him. Her concern for his injury seemed to prevent her from realizing just where she was. Where they lay. A gravelly voice called out to them. “Miss Cookson, you should be ashamed!” The young lady jerked, her eyes widening and her mouth forming a perfect O. Neil closed his eyes and bit back a curse. “Only steps away from the vicarage,” added a squeaky voice. Groaning, Neil rolled away from the lady—Miss Cookson—and climbed to his feet, dusting off his breeches and sleeves. He held out his hand to assist her. Miss Cookson jumped up without his aid. “Mrs. Carlyle, Mrs. Benjamin, how lovely to see you. You’re mistaken about our actions, however.” She motioned toward the ladder. “This gentleman was helping me get Minx from the tree.” The short, round one of the pair shaded her eyes and looked upward. “He did a marvelous job, I see, as Minx is no longer trapped. But I question your display of gratitude.” “You misunderstand,” Neil jumped in. “Miss Cookson lost her balance, and I wasn’t able to catch her. We both fell to the ground.” “Where is Minx?” The second woman, who was nearly as tall as Neil and half his healthy girth, had her hands on her narrow hips as she glared at the two young people. Miss Cookson looked around. “I don’t know, Mrs. Benjamin. He jumped down and scratched—” She turned to Neil. “I’m sorry, I don’t know your name.” Over the gasps of the two old women, Neil introduced himself. “Neil Harrow, at your service. My cousin, David Lumley, wished to have a word with the vicar. I was biding my time while I waited.” At that, the two women lit up, smiles stretching wide. Mrs. Benjamin spoke first. “You’re a nephew of Bridgethorpe’s? How lovely. Miss Cookson, you never told us you were courting a member of the earl’s family.” “I am not courting anyone, ma’am. You heard me ask the gentleman his name.” Mrs. Carlyle patted Miss Cookson’s hand. “Never worry, dear, we shall keep your secret. We love secrets, don’t we, Milly?” A third sharp voice rang out from the direction of the vicarage. “Secrets? Milly, Ursula, what is amiss? You must tell me what I missed.” Miss Cookson bit her lip and closed her eyes as the two women bustled off to greet their friend. With heads bent and voices low, they spoke, occasionally glancing at Neil and the young lady. Then they hurried away. “This is not going to end well.” Miss Cookson sighed and straightened her bonnet. “I had better go see if my father has finished speaking with Mr. Lumley so I might explain the situation before he hears it from the Widow’s League.” Neil fell into step beside her, cringing at the realization of who had been discovered practically lying atop him. The vicar’s daughter. Neil would have to do some explaining of his own. Her Impetuous Rakehell Chapter One May, 1812 London, England Laurence Pierce glared at the young man cowering just beyond reach and looked once more at the note the boy had brought. The written words shattered the comfortable world he called his life. Lord Oakhurst has died. You must see me at your earliest convenience. His cousin was dead. As Laurence’s stomach sank, his hand shook, and he lifted his gaze to the wide-eyed boy waiting to carry a response to his solicitor. The men at the table where Laurence sat ceased their joking and laughter, setting their cards on the table. “Is something amiss?” asked Sir Jasper Johnston. “Quite so.” Laurence swiped a hand across his tired eyes. “It would appear I am the new Baron Oakhurst.” Someone coughed. “My condolences.” Amid the murmurs from those around him, Laurence would swear he heard the distinct sound of his cousin’s laughter. Yes, it was quite a joke, that he would outlive his cousin. He, who had no property to his name, no one relying on him for an income, and no one to account to but himself. He’d planned to leave his money to his cousin, when the time came. Yet Oakhurst had the nerve to die first. The lack of sleep from playing cards all night at the club hit him hard. His head was filled with wool and his eyes burned. At least, that’s what he blamed it on‑the lack of sleep. He stacked his cards neatly on the table in front of him. “Well, lads, I fear I must call it a night. Or a morning.” “You owe me another go,” Lord Haymore said gruffly. When the others glared his way, he quickly added, “Another time.” “Yes, another time.” Laurence rose and stretched. This nightmare couldn’t end soon enough to suit him. After walking the blocks to his solicitor’s office, he stepped inside. A young lady in rather simple gown sat on a bench in the far corner, her arm around a sniffling child. Ignoring them, Laurence approached the neat desk near the door. “Mr. Armistead sent for me,” he told the man’s secretary. “Yes, sir, Mr. Pierce. He said to send you right in.” The younger man led the way to Armistead’s office. The small room was lined with bookshelves, which, along with the massive carved wooden desk dwarfed the older man. “Do you always keep such early hours?” Laurence sat in one of the chairs. “And a fine morning to you, too, Pierce. Or should I say Oakhurst?” Armistead was altogether too cheerful for this time of day. “I really wish you wouldn’t. I’m hoping this is all an ill-conceived idea of amusement. Who put you up to it? Lumley? I can see where he’d think this was amusing.” Armistead’s face grew somber. “I’m afraid it’s true. Lord and Lady Oakhurst were both lost in the uprising in Huddersfield.” Laurence shook his head at the news. “The millworkers who protested the machines. I read about it in the papers. I didn’t see Oakhurst mentioned, nor his mill.” “It was one of three burned.” Laurence forked his fingers through his hair. What a horrible end to all the work Oakhurst had put into his business, not to mention the loss of life. “You said Lady Oakhurst died also? What was she doing at the mill?” “I’m afraid I don’t have the details. It would seem Lady Oakhurst left a note with her child’s nursemaid with instructions on whom to contact should anything happen. The instructions must have been misconstrued, as the woman arrived here this morning rather than sending someone. We hadn’t even had word of your cousin’s passing.” “She came here? From Huddersfield? What about the child? Who is caring for her?” The chit must not have the brains of a hen, to take off across the length of England with a child in tow, and no one expecting her visit. “They are here. You couldn’t miss them when you walked in.” “I wasn’t aware of my status as a guardian at the time, so I paid them little attention.” He’d never met the girl, his cousin’s daughter. She must be three or four by now. “What am I to do with her? I know nothing about raising a child. She’s too young for school. She should have remained at home. I can’t take her to Albany, they’d bar me from the place.” “Shall I enquire into a more suitable home for you?” “I don’t wish to move. I enjoy my life as it is now.” “Your life now includes your ward. There’s the Oakhurst estate to think about, as well. I doubt there’s enough left of the mill to be concerned with.” He cleared his throat and tugged at his cravat. “From what I’ve read about the uprisings, that is. Horrible thing. With all our soldiers divided between the Peninsula and the Colonies, there is no one to maintain order in our villages.” A heavy lump settled in Laurence’s gut. While he wasted his days‑and nights‑with gaming and horse races, Oakhurst was struggling to keep his business and estate earning some sort of profit. Laurence had tried at times to offer a gift or a loan to help, but his cousin was too proud. He should have done more. Too late now to help Lord and Lady Oakhurst, but not their child. She deserved better than to be sent back to an empty house to live with servants. His life had been much like that until he’d gone to school, where he met David Lumley and his older brother, Adam, Lord Knightwick. When they went home on holiday, they took Laurence with them to Bridgethorpe Manor. Those were happy times, raising a ruckus, riding horses, swimming in the pond. He smiled just thinking about it. The decision was easy. He would provide as pleasant a life for his ward as he possibly could. The only question was how he would do so. Oh, and he had one other question. “What is the girl’s name?” “Louisa. Her nursemaid is Molly. They are both quite distressed and quite exhausted.” When their business concluded, Laurence went to speak to his young cousin. He squatted in front of her. Her gown was clean but simple, a plain off-white linen with a pink ribbon tied around her waist. Her wavy red hair was tied at the crown with a matching ribbon, but several locks around her face had come free. The poor girl snuggled closer to her nursemaid but made no sound. “Louisa, my name is Laurence. I knew your father and mother. They were lovely people. They have asked me to take care of you, which I will try my best to do.” She peered up at him from behind a lock of hair, but didn’t speak. A single bag sat on the floor beside the bench. Laurence spoke to the maid. “Where are her trunks?” The wide-eyed, mousy-haired woman shrank back into herself. “I didn’t pack any, milord. I feared for our safety and left straight away.” Closing his eyes, Laurence kept his frustration to himself. He had no clue what the pair might have experienced. It would accomplish nothing to make himself a villain from the start. Rising, he held his hand out to the child. “Come then, let us see to your needs.” Louisa hesitated a moment before taking his hand, then walked quietly beside him to the street where he found the hired carriage Armistead had sent for on Laurence’s behalf. The only question now was where to take the child. ~*~ Lady Hannah Lumley turned the page of her novel, sitting in the morning room passing the time until Miss Amelia Clawson arrived so the girls could make a few calls on their friends. Mama had rushed off more than an hour ago to Lady Usherwood’s bedside, upon hearing her friend had taken ill. It was difficult for Hannah to keep her mind on the printed words, when there was so much she wished to speak to Amelia about. The Season had just begun, but already she had a handful of young men sending posies each morning following a ball, or inviting her to ride in Hyde Park. She was determined to choose a husband this year. Her sisters, Patience and Madeleine, were eagerly looking forward to their turns in London, and it was a bit much to expect Mama to keep rein on three young ladies. Not that any of them caused trouble. When they could help it. She heard a knock at the front door, but it was still to early for Amelia. She guessed it was likely some gentleman leaving his card so he might call later. A moment later, when Coombs entered the morning room, she looked up at the butler in surprise. “Yes?” “Mr. Pierce is here, my lady.” “None of my brothers are here. Did you tell him to try Knightwick’s rooms at Albany?” “It’s Lady Bridgethorpe he wishes to see.” “Mama? Whatever could he want with her?” “I’m certain I have no guess, my lady.” “Of course not. Where is Mr. Pierce?” She placed a ribbon in the book to mark her page before setting it down. “In the drawing room, my lady. Shall I send for Nan to join you?” “There’s no need, Coombs. It’s only Laurence. He’s as close to a brother as any of my own.” Hannah caught the narrowing of eyelids as Coombs showed his disapproval, and guessed he’d have Nan join her in the drawing room as quickly as possible. Such a fuss over a family friend. Entering the large room at the front of the house, she saw Laurence standing near the window and broke into a smile. She hadn’t seen him since David and Joanna’s wedding in March. “I’m so glad you stopped by.” As she cleared the doorway, she noticed the young woman and child seated quietly on the settee. “Hello,” Hannah said in their direction. She turned back to Laurence for an introduction. “Lady Hannah.” His slight bow must have been due to the others in the room. Her family had known him so long, no formality was needed. “Is your mother due to return soon?” He made no mention of the two who had obviously arrived with him. The woman didn’t appear to be his type, none of the flash and heavy perfumes he seemed to prefer. She was rather plain, her gown more like a servant’s. The child was pretty enough, and her gown was of finer cloth than the woman’s. Remembering Laurence’s question, she said, “I’m not certain. She is visiting a sick friend.” His lips pressed together and he glanced at the two strangers. “I see. I hoped to seek her advice.” “How unusual. Perhaps I could help?” “I doubt it. I’m afraid my dilemma is beyond your experience.” Hannah sat in the chair nearest to Laurence and waited for an explanation. “I received some shocking news this morning.” “That would explain why you are calling so early in the day,” she teased. “I don’t believe I’ve ever seen you before four o’clock.” His lips smiled, but the humor didn’t spread over his features. Hannah frowned. Something was wrong. “What has happened?” she asked softly. “Lord and Lady Oakhurst, have passed away. You see before you the new Baron Oakhurst.” “You?” As the word escaped, she realized how crass that sounded. “Forgive me. I am sorry for your loss. It must be quite a shock for you.” The child uttered a noise somewhere between a hiccup and a cry. “I want my mommy.” Realization hit Hannah and she turned to Laurence for confirmation. “Is this your cousins’ daughter?” He nodded. “Louisa, come meet Lady Hannah.” The little girl looked at the woman beside her before walking closer. She stopped a few feet away and dropped into a practiced curtsy. Hannah smiled. “I’m very pleased to meet you, Louisa. Miss Pierce, is it?” “Yes,” Laurence said. “Louisa, you may sit down.” “I shall ring for some milk and biscuits,” Hannah offered. “Please don’t go to any trouble,” Laurence asked. Glaring at him, Hannah replied pointedly, “It’s no trouble. In fact, Louisa, perhaps you’d enjoy playing in the nursery. I’ll have one of the footmen show you the way,” she added, looking at the woman who must be her nursemaid. “I won’t be staying, my lady,” the nursemaid said. “Oh, well…” Hannah wasn’t certain how to respond and turned to Laurence for help. “That is part of the problem,” Laurence began. “Molly wishes to return to her family.” “I can’t go back to Oakhurst Castle. I just can’t. The men have gone mad. I feared for my life. I’m going back to Cork, where my family is.” “Ah, I see.” Now that she looked more closely, Hannah could see the woman wasn’t much beyond her own twenty years. It must be difficult to be so far from home. “Did you travel all the way from Oakhurst Castle with Miss Pierce? You both must be exhausted. Why don’t I have the cook send breakfast up to the nursery?” Hannah strode to the hallway in search of a footman. Instructing the first one she found, she sent the nursemaid and Louisa upstairs, then returned to her chair. Laurence took a seat opposite her. “It occurs to me I should call you Lord Oakhurst now.” “I probably won’t answer if you do. Can you imagine it? Me, a peer. If ever there was anyone less suited…” “The papers are filled with on dits of lords and ladies who make you seem more like a monk.” Laurence raised an eyebrow. “Well, that does stretch the truth a little. Of course, I know nothing of your…ah, well, never mind.” Warmth washed over her. She and Amelia had spent more than one afternoon discussing the exceedingly handsome Mr. Pierce. She doubted half of what she’d heard was true, but it was so diverting to speak of it. “What will you do with the child? Send her home? Why is she even here in Town?” He explained what little his solicitor had told him. “And now, with Molly giving her notice, I need a nursemaid as well as a place to live.” “You don’t plan to go to Oakhurst Castle?” He shook his head. “Can you see me wasting away in a country house?” “But it’s a castle! It would be fun to explore it, see what your predecessors have left behind, add some small touches of your own.” She secretly hoped the man she married would have an old family home like her father’s. She loved the history of it, the connection to the past. “It’s bound to be in a horrid state of disrepair, more likely. I have no desire to oversee such a project. There are much more pressing concerns. Such as, finding a governess.” “She looks about four years old, is that correct? Still too young for a governess. You’ll want another nursemaid.” “I’m thinking Louisa might be three. I forgot to ask Molly.” He paced a few feet away and turned back. “I have no idea what qualities to look for in a nursemaid. I hoped Lady B would assist me with that.” Hannah laughed at his old nickname for her mother. “Don’t let her hear you call her that.” He smiled that way of his that melted the heart of many a lady, young or old. “She enjoys it. She always calls me her dear boy.” “She calls all four of my brothers that. I believe it’s to keep from calling one by the wrong name. She’ll be happy to help in any way she can. I’ll send word to her that she’s needed here.” “I don’t want to call her away from her visit.” “She’ll be glad of the chance to get away. Lady Usherwood has these spells quite often and insists one of her friends stays with her most of the day.” The front door opened and Hannah expected to see Mama. Instead, her brother Knightwick entered. As he passed the open doorway where Hannah and Laurence sat, he stopped and scowled. “What is this about? Pierce, have you lost your head? What are you doing with my sister? Where’s Mother? Hannah, where is your maid?” Before she could speak, Laurence stood and walked to Knightwick. “She is your sister, Knightwick. Nothing untoward is taking place.” “Have you no consideration for her reputation?” Knightwick’s scowl darkened. “Anyone could call at this hour and find you here.” “You know I do. I care for her as if she were my own sister. Calm down, man. I was simply waiting for Lady Bridgethorpe to return‑ “ “And knowing my mother was away, you chose to remain.” Hannah jumped up, putting her fists on her hips. “Really, Adam, you take this too far. Laurence has heard some shocking news and finds himself needing Mama’s assistance.” Her brother’s features softened when he looked at Hannah. “You are too old to continue to call him that.” “Actually, we must call him Oakhurst now,” she replied. When Knightwick’s eyebrows drew together, she nodded. “Forgive me.” Adam looked slightly sheepish. “I hadn’t heard the news.” “I only learned of it an hour ago, myself. I came here first thing.” The line between Laurence’s dark eyebrows was the only sign of his distress. Knightwick clapped a hand on his friend’s sleeve. “Any way we might be of assistance, you will let us know.” One Last Season Chapter One May 1813 London The violinist in the corner of the room played barely a half beat behind the other musicians, merely a whisper late, truly, but it was there just the same. The difference was so minor no one else likely noticed, but it irritated Hugh “Trey” Lumley to no end. Or perhaps the confrontation he’d had earlier with his uncle was to blame. Either way he wished he could be at home, comfortably nestled under the bedclothes, sleeping soundly, rather than standing guard at Lady Kettlemore’s annual ball. His sister Lady Hannah insisted he accompany her to chaperone Cousin Charlotte, whose mother was attending to Charlotte’s pregnant sister. Hannah’s husband Lord Oakhurst could easily have come along if a male companion was necessary, which it wasn’t. Trey was certain Hannah had come to the decision it was time for Trey to marry, while he had no desire to find a bride. He’d believed he’d found the right woman in the past, but she married another. His thoughts were busy with the law, with trying to impress his uncle enough to allow him to take on more duties in his office. Charlotte weaved through the other dancers in the country dance, her glowing face matching the pink of the narrow ribbon tied around her waist. As much as she enjoyed herself at these assemblies, Trey couldn’t understand why she hadn’t married before now. Of course, she might be having too much pleasure, and didn’t want to settle upon one man only to spend the rest of her years in the country. Hannah conversed a few feet away with several of the other young matrons in attendance. His sister loved the dancing and merriment, and would quite likely attend a ball such as this whether she was needed to chaperone or not. A very familiar and welcome voice spoke from behind Trey, drawing him from his thoughts. “Lumley, I didn’t expect to see you here. Has some young lady got you leg-shackled since last I saw you?” Frederick, Duke of Thornton grinned widely. Trey chuckled. “That’s as unlikely as you asking for the hand of any lady here, Thorn. No, I am escorting my cousin, there in the pale blue gown.” “How sad that your uncle feels you are a suitable chaperone. No one would trust me with their daughters.” His tone made it clear he wasn’t teasing. Thorn gazed about the room. “I don’t know how I gained such a reputation.” Snorting, Trey shook his head. “Of course not. You pleaded innocent to every scandal you were caught in. I certainly wouldn’t let you near my sisters.” “They are still so young. The twins are what, sixteen now? If I ever decide to wed, she shall be old enough to have a good understanding of her duties as a duchess. Not too serious, but not a giggling child. What of you, Lumley? If you had to, what sort of woman would you choose to marry? Lumley? Did you hear me?” Trey tore his eyes away from the most refreshing sight he’d seen in a year. “What was that you were saying?” Unable to stop himself, he glanced back at Amelia Young. She must have ended the mourning of her husband after nearly a year. Hannah had mentioned Amelia’s reluctance to re-enter society, which likely explained her lavender gown, indicating she remained in half-mourning. Yet here she was. Amelia was even more beautiful than when he’d last seen her, a few weeks before her wedding. Her face had slimmed slightly, but her smile hadn’t dimmed. Her mahogany-colored hair was styled more simply than the other young ladies, but she didn’t require jewels and extravagant finery for her beauty to shine. “You haven’t answered my question, Lumley. Ah, now I see. Who is she? Oh, isn’t she Miss Clawson?” Nodding, Trey added, “It’s Mrs. Young now. Her husband died in a riding accident.” “She hardly looks old enough to marry, much less to be widowed. Was he an older man?” “Not very much so, perhaps thirty. Mrs. Young is a few years older than my sister Hannah, maybe twenty-three or twenty-four now.” Trey continued to watch her make her way around the room. The young lady at her side must be her sister. The resemblance was striking. The same pale complexion, long, graceful neck, and petite figure. “Did she love him, do you think?” Thorn asked it in the same tone he might use to inquire if a guest found the roasted potatoes to her liking. “Or were there other reasons for their marriage?” Trey wouldn’t admit how well he knew the details of Amelia’s betrothal to William Young. Using the excuse of escorting his sister, Trey had attended most of the same assemblies as Amelia. Try as he might, he couldn’t draw her attention away from Young. Letting out a sigh, Trey recalled the pain he’d felt at her betrothal to another man. “She married for love.” Thorn raised an eyebrow. “I see. You lost out to him.” Clenching his teeth Trey muttered, “I never made my feelings known. She saw me as her friend’s brother, nothing more.” Amelia approached them, speaking to her sister. Trey’s heart stopped beating. The room grew quite warm. He cleared his throat. “Mrs. Young.” Her gaze darted to meet his, and much of the tension left her face as she smiled. “Trey‑that is, Mr. Lumley‑how delightful to see you again. May I present my sister, Miss Hester Clawson?” Trey nodded to Miss Clawson and realized his gaffe in not presenting the duke first. “Thornton, may I introduce Mrs. Young and her sister?” Miss Clawson gasped, her eyes growing round as she gazed up at Thorn. “Your Grace, I am quite pleased to meet you.” Thorn offered them a smile that surely melted many a young woman’s heart. “Charmed. Mrs. Young, Lumley has been telling me of your loss. You have my condolences.” For some reason, her pale skin reddened. “Thank you, sir.” Amelia offered Trey a smile that appeared forced. “How are your brothers and sisters?” “They are well.” “Lady Hannah writes me often of Louisa, and of the happiness Hannah is enjoying with Lord Oakhurst.” Hannah and Oakhurst treated his ward, Louisa, as their own child, and the five-year-old obviously loved them. “I never would have expected the great change in Oakhurst since becoming betrothed.” Miss Clawson gave Amelia a sharp look. “I wish to dance. I didn’t come here to talk.” Amelia closed her eyes for a moment before giving Trey an embarrassed smile. “It was a pleasure to see you again.” Trey bent his head to acknowledge their pending departure, but Thorn spoke up. “How rude of us, Lumley, to not offer to stand up with the two prettiest ladies in the room. Miss Clawson, will you join me?” Thorn offered his arm. Amelia parted her lips to speak, but closed them again. “Will you dance, Mrs. Young?” Trey hesitated to move toward her and chided himself. If he didn’t let his feelings be known this time, he might lose her again. “I would like that.” She took his arm and they walked through the crowd gathered around the outskirts of the room. “It sounds odd to hear you call me Mrs. Young. We were friends, weren’t we, before I left Town? I suppose, though, we must refrain from calling each other Amelia and Trey when we’re not alone with your brothers and sisters.” His heart swelled at hearing she still thought of him as a friend. “You may call me what you wish.” Just so long as you will allow me to enjoy your company. ~*~ With the tension draining from her, Amelia clung gratefully to Trey’s navy woolen sleeve. She had feared how she might be treated when she and Hetty made their first appearance in Society. Would people pity her for losing her husband after only two months of marriage? Would they be shocked that she hadn’t waited a full year to return to Society? She would have preferred to stay home in Shillingstone with her youngest sister Ruth, but Father insisted Amelia find another husband. “One with a decent income, this time. It’s your duty to your family to raise your sisters’ standing, as well as pay for their London Seasons. Mr. Young left you barely enough to feed yourself.” No, it wouldn’t do, allowing her father to intrude on her thoughts. She wouldn’t waste what little time she had with her friend by spoiling her mood. The musicians began the next song and all her tension melted away. “Oh, it’s a waltz. I remember you waltz quite well, Mr. Lumley.” While the notes filled the air, Trey guided her around as though she were floating, and her worries drifted away. A bubble of laughter broke free. She bit her lower lip to contain any further outbursts. “Are you laughing at me? Have I stepped on your toes? I know I haven’t spun you into another dancer.” His look was teasing. She shook her head. “I’m having more fun than I expected to.” “Why would you come if you didn’t believe you’d enjoy yourself?” She cast her gaze downward, unwilling to look him in the eye. “My father wished it. No, you are too good a friend to lie to. He insisted upon my coming. My mother is to acquire as many invitations to all the best places to be seen, and I must attend.” Trey was quiet as if he waited to hear more, but how could she admit to the brother of her dearest friend that she was being forced to marry? No one she knew had ever been forced to wed. She’d heard of a few cases where indiscretion required it, but she was not with child. Amelia sighed. Everyone would believe that to be the case if she married as quickly as Father desired. Her husband had been gone long enough for the gossips to speculate over the paternity of such a child. A pain stabbed her heart at the thought of children. She’d wanted them so badly. At least that pain was lessening over time. “Your sister appears to be enjoying herself.” Trey’s voice brought her out of her mawkish mood. Hetty’s laughter could be heard from the far side of the dance floor. Amelia didn’t need to see her to know how much she enjoyed herself. “She has always been more comfortable in a crowd than I.” “You’ve spent too long away from Town while you were mourning. You’ll remember how much you enjoyed it when you, Hannah, and Joanna were here together. Have you seen Hannah since you’ve arrived?” “Not yet.” She was embarrassed to speak to Hannah. She didn’t want anyone’s pity, and even beyond their sympathy for William’s death, Amelia’s friends were likely to show an excess of consternation once they heard how her father had lost their money in a risky speculation. There was nothing anyone could do to change the situation. She couldn’t hide from Hannah and her other friends indefinitely, though. It was much too likely they would cross each others’ path, much as she and Trey had. And she missed Hannah’s companions ship immensely. “I will call on them soon. I’m eager to see little Louisa.” “Hannah is here tonight. We’ll find her when this set is done.” Dancing in his arms took her back to her second Season when she’d met Joanna and Hannah. Trey was still studying at the Inns of Court at the time, yet had accompanied Hannah a great number of assemblies. “Do you know how much I’ve missed dancing with you?” Trey asked. “You always had so many suitors, I often feared your dance card would be filled before I had the chance to speak to you.” “What nonsense!” She met his gaze with what she hoped was a stern glare. “If I had so many suitors, why did it take me three Seasons to find a husband?” His features softened, as did his voice. “Perhaps you were waiting for Mr. Young.” Guilt threatened to drown her. How could she make light of what she’d found with her husband? Her shame was so great she couldn’t meet his gaze. Heat rose up her neck. “Forgive me, I shouldn’t have brought him up,” Trey said. When had Trey become so understanding? Where was the awkward young man she remembered? He’d matured so much in the past year. She smiled at him. “Yes, you should have. I must learn to talk about Mr. Young without melting into tears.” A deep line appeared between his eyebrows. “I didn’t mean to cause you tears. I was merely recalling the fun we shared. I didn’t consider how that would lead to more painful memories.” “Let’s speak of something else. How is your mother? And your brother Sam? Is he fighting on the Continent still?” They kept to polite conversation until the music ended. As Trey led her back toward where she’d stood before the dance, she looked about for Hetty. “I wish I were taller. Do you see my sister? I don’t hear her laughter.” “No, nor do I see Thorn. Is your mother here? Perhaps she is with her.” “Mama stayed at home.” Amelia wasn’t about to detail how their money would only buy so many gowns. Amelia and Hetty were of a size and could the share those few they’d had made. Mama’s wardrobe was several years out of fashion, so she refused to attend the more glamorous assemblies. Her walking gowns would suit for morning calls, which would bring Amelia and Hetty under the attention of the matrons most likely to invite gentlemen of higher standing to their assemblies. Thus their invitations would be more valuable in finding a wealthy husband. “Well, have no concern that Thorn will do anything improper. He has a bad reputation but he’d never put any young lady in a position to have others questioning her behavior.” “He’ll have his hands full with Hetty.” Amelia had warned Mama about letting Hetty attend these balls and assemblies. Though she’d recently turned nineteen, she behaved more like a child of thirteen. No decorum at all. She laughed too loudly, spoke to men to whom she’d not been introduced, and flirted shamelessly. “I see my cousin Charlotte has found Hannah. She should be safe for a short time. Let’s find your sister and then we may join Hannah and Charlotte.” Trey led her around the edges of the room. Anger simmered inside Amelia. Mama should have come to the ball. How Amelia could be expected to find a husband while keeping her sister safe was beyond her. “Does she disappear like this often?” “I’m afraid so. As yet she hasn’t gotten herself compromised, but I fear…” “The gossips always have a new on dit about such things happening at a ball, but I highly doubt most of them are true. Miss Clawson is likely seeking refreshments or has retired momentarily to the withdrawing room.” Amelia forced in a breath through the tight band of anxiety around her ribcage. “Let us hope.” Captivated by the Wallflower Chapter One June, 1813 Ascot Adam Lumley, Viscount Knightwick, could see his dream hovering just out of reach. He brushed his black stallion in the stables at Ascot Heath, in a stall next to where his brother David went through the same motions on a three-year-old mare. “I see no point in using any stud but Huntfield’s Raven for Truffle’s next breeding.” “The point is making Huntfield feel the same way.” David closed his stall door and leaned on the post between the stalls. “I’ve been working on that. I simply must find his weakness. Discover what it is that will have him groveling at my feet, begging me to use Raven.” “Lord Huntfield has no weakness. That’s why his horses are so coveted. I wish you luck with that quest. You’d be better off finding a horse we can use before we miss out on another year.” Knightwick patted Sorcerer on the rump and tossed the brush into a bucket in the corner. “I don’t want any horse. We have plenty of fine colts at Fernleigh, but I want one that’s special. Raven is one of the last of Zephyr’s line. He is distant enough from Truffle, but close enough that Zephyr’s qualities should come through. It will please father to have another horse that resembles his treasured stallion.” Closing the stall door behind him, Knightwick strode beside David out into the sunlight. They had the afternoon free, with the first of the races to begin the next day. “Why don’t we pay a call on Huntfield?” “He’s likely in the tavern, at this time of day.” David forked his fingers through his brown hair, combing out a stray piece of straw. “Or still sleeping. Let’s try the tavern.” They made a guess at which inn Huntfield was staying at for the weeklong race meeting. The Sow’s Belly was a finer establishment than its name would imply, and it was the first stop they tried. George Yarwood, Earl of Huntfield, sat at a table with three other men playing cards, and appeared to be doing as well at cards as he did on the racecourse. He acknowledged Knightwick and David. “Good day, gentlemen. Would you care to join us?” “Only if the stakes involved the use of Raven.” Knightwick hoped his smile showed he was mostly speaking in jest. “Wouldn’t you love that prize,” Huntfield said, his chuckles shaking his portly belly. “I’d play for that wager,” Lord Ellsworthy said. “I would, too.” Sir Robert threw down a card. “You may all continue to dream of that happening,” Huntfield said. “Why would I want to improve the lines of my competitors? Well, you, Sir Robert, your sad horse could use the speed Raven throws to his foals, and still not compete.” Sir Robert laughed. “Very true. In that case, you should feel quite safe allowing me the use of your stud.” Knightwick and David sat at another table and ordered mugs of ale. They conversed quietly until Huntfield spoke in their direction. “Will you attend the assembly this evening?” David nodded. “My wife is eager to do so.” “I suppose I should at least make an appearance, and say hello to my sisters,” Knightwick said. “Excellent. While you are making the rounds saying your hellos, stop and speak with my daughter. I’ve insisted Lady Susan attend many of the assemblies this week.” “I enjoy Lady Susan’s company,” Knightwick replied. “I find it odd you make a point to ask me to acknowledge her.” “If you know her well, you know she prefers to hide among the wallflowers in a ballroom.” “Or else she has her nose in a book in an anteroom,” David offered with a smile. “That’s my point exactly. Knightwick, you aren’t engaged to anyone, you’d bring Lady Susan up in the eyes of other young men by paying her some attention.” Knightwick swallowed some ale and wiped the back of his hand across his mouth. This sounded a bit to close to matchmaking for his liking. “She doesn’t need my help. She’s been out in society long enough for everyone to know her.” “Again, you see my point. She’s four-and-twenty years old and no one has shown any special interest in her. You enjoy her company. What do you see that others don’t?” Lady Susan was certainly different than the other young ladies in the Marriage Mart, but that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. She came across as more intelligent‑not that the other ladies were ignorant‑but Lady Susan preferred to speak about less fanciful topics than her friends. Her looks drew men to her, what with her bright, violet eyes and lush curves. Her height might put off some men, as she was only a few inches shy of Knightwick’s six feet. One thing Knightwick enjoyed about her was her manner of treating him as a friend, without any of the flirtation most unattached young ladies used. He could relax in her presence. Of course, he couldn’t say any of this to her father. “I admire her conversational skills, but I can see where her business sense might intimidate some men.” “You ought to arrange a marriage for her with a tradesman,” Lord Ellsworthy said with a chuckle. “That’s not such a bad idea.” Huntfield played his card and took a drink from his tankard. “However, my hope is that she’ll marry for love. You’d think some young buck in trade would be eager to marry an earl’s daughter, but if any have approached her, she’s driven them away.” The card players continued to discuss Lady Susan and the earl’s dilemma. Knightwick paid them no mind as he tried to work out how he could solve the earl’s problem in exchange for the use of Raven. He couldn’t suggest such an exchange outright. That would reduce Lady Susan to chattel. He mentally listed the men he knew who might consider Lady Susan as a suitable match, and also had the qualities she might be capable of falling in love with. What would she want from a husband? From what he’d seen, she had no interest in marriage. This scheme would prove quite a challenge. Perhaps he should seek some other form of exchange with Lord Huntfield. ~*~ Lady Susan Yarwood stared at the grounds of Ascot Heath as their carriage waited in line to reach a point where they could disembark to watch the races. Papa had gone to the stables first thing to make certain his horses were in prime condition when the horn sounded. Susan was trying to close her ears to Mama’s nagging refrains. “We shall attend the assembly in the meeting room above the inn tonight. Tomorrow we’ll pay calls on a few of my friends who have homes nearby. Thursday we’ve been invited to a picnic in between races, and supper at Mrs. Turner’s home with cards to follow.” Mama tucked a stray brown curl back into the lace cap beneath her straw-brimmed hat. The plume waving from the brim and the silk flowers anchoring it were the same shade of green as her gown. “I thought we came to Ascot to watch Papa’s horses race.” Susan sighed. It never failed that her mother would try to place Susan in any gathering where there was a chance to meet single men. Preferably ones in need of a wife. A lack of a title didn’t concern Mama, nor did a lack of income, as Susan had enough income to live comfortably, although not quite to the standard of an earl’s daughter. After six years of Seasons in London, country house visits in the summer, and a return to London in the fall after the final race meetings were held, one would think Mama would have realized there was no chance of Susan forming an attachment. “Of course we’ll cheer for his horses, and visit with our friends who are also attending. But there’s no reason to remain in our rooms at the inn when we’re not at the racecourse.” Mama pulled on her kid gloves. “I do wish you’d make an effort to be more social.” “I have other interests than gossiping. They bore me, Mama. All the other girls can only speak of the latest fashion or the new hat they’ve acquired. Matilda is the only one whose company I can tolerate, and she’s in Bristol for the summer.” “When Fanny returns from Esther’s home, she’ll assist you in feeling comfortable. Your sisters are so easy in Society. Oh, we should have Esther find you a husband. She did so well for herself.” Susan took a breath and silently recited a proverb to keep from arguing. She’d never win, and she’d never allow her mother to win by marrying her off. They had reached a stalemate. She was grateful when they were allowed to disembark the carriage. Mama saw her friends and hurried to them, one at a time, greeting each as if she hadn’t seen them in years, rather than the weeks since the last race meeting. Susan’s sisters always behaved in the same manner, so boisterous and demonstrative, where Susan preferred to sit and quietly discuss matters of great importance. “Here’s my girl, here’s Lady Susan,” Mama said when Susan approached the small circle of matrons. “Doesn’t she look well in her yellow organdy gown?” Smiling politely, Susan accepted all the compliments and invitations to call. When unmarried sons became the preferred topic, she chose to ignore the chatter and see if any of her friends were attending the race. She spied two familiar gentlemen, but if she spoke to them Mama would misread the entire situation and would soon be telling everyone she expected an engagement to be announced soon. The two men noticed her and smiled, approaching her with the steady stride of intent. “Lady Susan, how do you do?” Lord Knightwick bowed, as did his brother Mr. David Lumley. “I’m well, thank you.” If Mama heard his voice and turned their way, Susan would be anything but well. She enjoyed speaking to these two when she could. Both were quite handsome in their buff breeches and dark jackets, although Lord Knightwick had a rakish air to his smile that gave him a slight advantage. “We were hoping to find your father before the racing began,” Mr. Lumley said. She laughed. “You’re searching in the wrong area. Papa will always be found with his horses, unless Mama insists otherwise.” Susan often wondered if she got her avoidance of company from Papa. Although, she preferred books to horses. “Of course, we must have missed him.” Lord Knightwick lifted his gaze over Susan’s shoulder. “Lady Huntfield. How delightful to see you.” “My dear boy, my husband mentioned seeing you, and you, Mr. Lumley. Will you be at the assembly this evening? Lady Susan would enjoy seeing her friends there.” “Mama, please. These gentlemen didn’t come all the way to Ascot to dance with me.” “Why wouldn’t we wish to dance with you, Lady Susan?” Mr. Lumley asked. “You dance better than many of the ladies we partner with.” Susan offered him a smile, but she wasn’t about to pursue the topic. “Will your Sorcerer beat father’s Haphazard today, do you think?” “If I didn’t believe so, I shouldn’t be here,” Mr. Lumley replied. “Of course he will,” Lord Knightwick insisted, his smile teasing. A thought occurred to her that she hadn’t approached Lord Knightwick about sponsoring her school. He seemed the generous type, and being one of eight siblings meant he might have sympathy for children for whom the most basic of education might mean a chance to better themselves. Yes, he might suit her needs very well. “I hear the trumpet calling them to the start. We’d better find a place along the course.” Lord Knightwick tipped his hat, and his brother bowed before they walked away. Thankfully Mama was engrossed in the latest gossip and missed their departure, or she might have insisted they watch their horses together. Susan couldn’t imagine a more uncomfortable situation, as the winning horse was likely to belong to either of them. Captain Lumley’s Angel Prologue June 15, 1815 Brussels Captain Samuel Lumley leaned against a tree in the moonlit garden outside the Duchess of Richmond’s grand ball. Light spilled through the open doorway on the warm night, and music and laughter rang out continually. One would never guess that in a little more than a sennight, the uniformed officers filling the ballroom would be marching into battle against Napoleon and his men. Some of the finely dressed guests standing around the edges of the room began to stir. The ladies’ hands went to their lips as they leaned to whisper to friends. One young miss broke into tears. Most of the couples hugged. Sam straightened, debating returning to the ballroom or awaiting orders where he was. He didn’t care for the crush of people, in spite of its purpose of bringing levity and peace to the officers and their families during that loathsome period of waiting for the command to mount up for battle. Mrs. Ellen Staverton slipped through the crowd and out the doorway, followed soon after by her husband Lieutenant Ebenezer Staverton. She paused to allow Eb to reach her, then took his arm as they approached Sam. “We must go,” Eb announced. “Napoleon is approaching more quickly than expected.” Even in the dim light, Sam could see the lines of fear on Ellen’s face. He summoned all his inner courage and smiled at her. “This is what we’ve come to Brussels for. I for one will be glad to put an end to Napoleon. With him gone, perhaps Eb and I can sell our commissions and find a quieter way of life.” Ellen smiled and squeezed her husband’s arm as she looked up at him. “I will be glad of that. You two take care. I will pray for you both.” As they returned to the ballroom, Sam saw the truth of Eb’s concerns written in the crease of his brow. Later, after they’d packed a bag and mounted up, Eb said, “I want you to look after Ellen.” “Don’t be daft. You’ll be taking care of her for years to come.” “I had a dream last night. My grandfather was waiting for me to walk down the lane near his home, as we used to do before he died.” Sam shifted in his saddle, unwilling to admit to the knot in his gut that always formed as they rode behind the wagons hauling the large guns. “It’s natural to think of dying now. Put your fears aside. We’ll both see the other side of the battle standing tall in our boots.” Chapter One June 18, 1815 Sam, Eb and the Second Rocket Troop of the British Royal Artillery traveled more slowly than usual. Heavy rain during the night created deep mud on the roads that bogged down the wagons bearing the large guns, and sucked at the horse’s hooves. Thankfully the sun rose clear and bright, so there was hope of the ground improving before the fighting began. The bugle sounded the turnout and the troop dismounted, assembling behind the cavalry on the road to La Belle Alliance. From habit, Sam checked the rockets in their holder on the side of his saddle, making certain the fuses hadn’t been dislodged. Eb did the same beside him, then toyed with a loose button on the front of his jacket. The man looked uncomfortable, not his usual self. “Is something amiss?” Sam asked. “I can’t get past the shadows hanging over me. This will not end well.” Sam’s lips pulled back on one side as he shook his head. “You’ve been listening to the reports of Wellington’s complaints. You know we are as prepared as always, in spite of the number of new recruits. And in spite of the fact Wellington doesn’t want our rockets in his battle. We will defeat the enemy and you’ll be back with Mrs. Staverton tomorrow.” “I told her to remarry.” “You said what? The poor lady must be out of her wits with worry, now. How could you scare her that way?” Sam ached for what Ellen must be feeling. “Don’t mention it around the other men or they won’t be able to think straight.” In the distance, guns rumbled, the sound still far enough away for Sam to feel secure. They stood at the base of a ridge, with cavalry and dragoons among them all awaiting command. This was the worst part, Sam thought. The waiting, especially when they were blind to the action on the other side of the ridge. The cavalry began to move about, and the Lt-Col. MacDonald’s aide rode up to Sam. “Captain Lumley, move your men ahead of the cavalry.” Sam ordered his men forward, mounted his horse and began searching for a path through the high banking and bushes that would support the heavy guns. Lieutenant-Colonel MacDonald rode up, calling out, “Leave the guns. Send the rocket men into the field to clear the way for the cavalry.” Sam motioned his men to follow him. Grabbing their rockets, they ran up the ridge only to find a cornfield in front of them. Sam pointed. “Set up toward the front of the stalks. The Frenchmen won’t know where to shoot.” His men disappeared into the corn. Minutes later, Sam heard the hiss of lit fuses, followed by small explosions. The rockets skittered over the ground and burst in front of the French artillery line. The enemy soldiers fell to the ground, covering their heads, but appeared uninjured. After the initial round, the Frenchmen ran for cover, leaving their large guns standing on their frames. Sam’s men set off a few more rockets before Colonel MacDonald again called out to Sam. “Rocket Troop to the rear! Aim the large guns over the cavalry so they can advance.” The Rocket Troop retreated up the ridge, quickly manning the large guns on the peak. The French recovered from their shock and returned fire. The explosions and gunfire were a constant barrage, smoke adding to the confusion of men advancing from both sides. From there, things happened too quickly for Sam to register as the French again fired their large guns. Colonel MacDonald’s artillery was in the thick of the battle, and men fell around Sam and Eb as the Rocket Troop continued to move forward behind the cavalry. Hours passed in moments. The stench of blood and gunpowder filled the air. Sam saw Eb go down, holding his gut as he fell from his saddle. “Eb!” Sam rode toward him. Suddenly his right thigh burned, and his horse stumbled, then fell, trapping Sam’s leg beneath the heavy animal. Sam’s thigh throbbed. His horse struggled to rise, its chest rising and falling much too quickly. Sam fought to free himself. Seeing a soldier nearby, he called out, “Help me. I’m caught beneath my mount.” The man, a mere lad truthfully, looked at Sam with glazed, wide eyes. For a moment Sam feared he hadn’t heard, then the boy came to his aid. With his leg finally free, Sam forced himself upright. The thighbone wasn’t broken, and the bleeding wasn’t severe enough to mean his artery had been hit, but when he stepped on that leg, unbearable sharp pains flared from hip to ankle. His horse was in worse shape, mortally wounded by the shot. Taking his gun in hand, Sam put the animal out of its pain. Men ran in all directions, shooting, yelling, ignoring orders. Others lay on the ground, some trampled by horses or the gun wagons of the French Artillery, who’d met them in the middle of the valley between the ridges. Sam made his way back to where he’d seen Eb go down. His friend lay crumbled in a ball, curled upon himself like a baby. “Eb! Can you hear me?” Reaching Eb’s side, Sam rolled him over and checked his wound. His coat was soaked in blood. As Sam leaned down to listen for breaths, Eb moaned. “Stay with me, old man.” The nickname brought Sam no humor as he spoke it. Eb was a mere year older than Sam’s twenty-five years, but in quieter times Sam had taken great fun in reminding him at any opportunity. Eb’s horse was nowhere in sight. Sam didn’t think he could have lifted the man over the saddle anyway, with his own leg injured. Grabbing the back of Eb’s coat collar, Sam tugged. Eb moved a few inches. Looking at the rise behind them, Sam knew it would be a long journey to safety. Musket balls whistled past as Sam dragged the lieutenant toward the safety of the ridge. A shell exploded nearby, scattering grapeshot at them. A sharp sting on his back told Sam he’d been hit, but he kept moving. Ellen needed Eb alive. Sam couldn’t imagine losing his friend. A large ball from his own troops flew above them. The uniforms around them were from both sides, rifles firing, bayonets cutting through the air. Sam continued his journey, his leg throbbing, his nostrils burning from gun smoke. He looked over his shoulder once more to see how far he had to go, and saw only a rifle butt swinging at his face before the world went dark. ~*~ A horrid, blood-curdling scream woke Sam. Night had fallen, but he could see walls around him and moonlight spilling through a small window. He was drenched in sweat, his coat missing, as were his trousers and boots. Where was he? Where was Eb? He closed his eyes as his body shuddered with chills. When he awoke again it was daylight. He was no longer cold, but his tongue felt like a woolen coat. He roused himself, trying to brace on one elbow. His head throbbed and he sank back onto the makeshift bed on the hard floor. Reaching up, he realized bandages were wrapped around his scalp. Why had they bandaged his head when he’d been shot in the leg? He saw a woman helping another soldier a few beds away. “Miss, may I have some water?” His voice sounded like the bullfrogs in the pond at Bridgethorpe Manor. “Yes, sir,” she said in a heavily accented voice, bringing a pitcher and dented cup. He drank quickly and held the cup out for more, which she gave him. Swallowing the last of it, he asked, “Where are we?” “Mont-Saint-Jean,” she replied, and then walked away. As he sank back down, Sam realized his bed was actually a pile of straw. He felt his right leg to be certain it still remained attached, and finding it was, succumbed to the sleep his body begged for. A prodding on his thigh woke him again. A surgeon unwrapped the leg bandage with little care for the pain he might cause. Sam clenched his jaw and bore the sharp aching. “How bad is it?” The surgeon started, and glanced at Sam. “It’ll heal soon enough You’re lucky, the ball missed the bone. You’ll be fit to return to duty.” Sam didn’t tell him he’d been considering selling his commission once Napoleon was finally captured and more securely imprisoned. He’d enlisted after his cousin Stephen returned from the Peninsular Wars damaged but proud. With three older brothers, there were few opportunities for Sam to earn a living. Adam, Lord Knightwick, the eldest, was heir to the earldom and had already assumed some of the duties of managing the estates, due to their father’s illness. David managed the stud, breeding and training some of the finest horseflesh in all of England. Trey preferred the law. Sam wasn’t the type to enter the church, of that he was certain, so he’d chosen to serve the King. He’d enlisted three years ago, purchasing the rank of ensign, and as positions opened, purchased his way up to captain. Not long after joining the Rocket Troops he’d met Ebenezer, whose wife Ellen traveled with the troops assisting in caring for the wounded, and cooking for many when she could. Sam had grown close to them both, in some ways closer than to his own brothers. Battle did that to a man. One depended on his comrades for his life. That was a bond that could never be severed. The surgeon wrapped a clean bandage around Sam’s thigh, then unwrapped the one around his head. “Very good. You were quite lucky. Whatever you were hit with barely broke the skin and doesn’t seem to have fractured the skull. I’m ordering your transfer to Brussels today.” “I don’t remember how I came here.” The surgeon shook his head. “Brought in by your comrades, or the locals, I presume. You were lucky to be rescued before the battle ended.” “It’s over? Did we win?” “Napoleon and his troops retreated in a hurry after the Prussians arrived. The battle is done, at least for now.” He handed the dirty bandages to a woman standing at his side. Before the surgeon could leave, Sam stopped him. “A friend of mine…Last I recall I was trying to get him to safety. Lieutenant Staverton. Did he make it?” The surgeon waved a hand to encompass the lines of soldiers lying on the straw beds. “All these men were brought in by locals. They are still arriving by cart and wagon.” Sam remained propped on his elbows for as long as his head would allow. He watched the bustling of men carrying in wounded, carrying out the dead, and women stripping off the muddy, bloody clothing. Sam’s leg throbbed too much to get up, but perhaps when they came to take him to Brussels he could look for Eb. ~*~ Ellen squeezed water from the pink-stained cloth and wiped Eb’s forehead again. His wound covered most of his belly, a vile odor emanating from him. She’d read in the surgeon’s eyes what the man wouldn’t say. Eb was dying. Her throat tightened again, the lump swelling painfully. He couldn’t leave her. What would she do without him? She forced the thoughts away. She’d have to face that soon enough. At least they had a home she could go to, although she’d only lived there a few months before following him into battle. “Stop this.” She couldn’t wallow in her pain. There were so many men around her that needed her help. Rising, she carried the rag and basin outside and dumped the water before refilling it at the well. She smiled at the local women who were kind enough to work hard caring for strangers. Mont-Saint-Jean, the farm where many of the wounded had been taken, had many outbuildings, all of which were said to be filled with wounded men. For the past three days, after being told Eb had been taken there, Ellen had stayed at his side, only helping those near where he lay. She’d been told the most gravely injured men were in that room. After nursing Eb for a while, she chose another building where she could perhaps find some who’d benefit from her help, before going back to her husband. The smells were horrid in the next building, a rather large space that stank of cattle. She supposed that was better than pigs. Other odors spoke of the number of unwashed bodies in various state of injury. How would they ever heal in these conditions? She approached the first soldier. “Would you like to wash?” He stared at her with wide eyes, so she held out the basin. He sat up and made use of the water and cloth. Ellen soon found herself in a routine, filling the basin, approaching a soldier, and returning to the well. She was tired, her back aching, but she wouldn’t stop until she’d stopped by each man in the room. Even then, she’d only rest for a moment. When she reached the back of the room, she forced herself to smile. “Sir, would you care to wash?” He stirred, breathing deeply, then his eyes blinked open. Ellen gasped. “Captain Lumley, is that you?” He shifted his weight and she saw his face clearly. “It is! How badly are you hurt? It can’t be too badly, as you’re awake. I’ve been so worried, wondering if you were injured or had returned to Brussels with the troops.” “Mrs. Staverton, it is good to see you. Have you seen Eb? Will he survive his wound?” Her eyes welled. She lowered her gaze as she shook her head. “The surgeon says it’s not likely.” The captain’s features pinched and he lay back. He draped an arm over his eyes. “I was afraid of that. Does he know?” “He hasn’t awakened since I arrived. They said he lost too much blood, and...well, his organs suffered much damage.” Suppressing the shudder brought on at the memory of seeing Eb’s injuries, she knelt beside the captain. “Let me wash your face. You have dried blood on your forehead.” Captain Lumley moved his arm, so she bent over him, gently pressing the cloth to his skin. She tried to think of something cheerful to say. “It’s a lovely day out. It hasn’t rained since the battle.” Oh, dear, that was a horrible topic. How could she remind him of that awful day? She glanced at his eyes to see if she’d caused him pain, but found he was staring at her. Brushing a hand over her hair, she said, “I must look a fright. I’ve been at Eb’s side since I arrived.” “No, I wouldn’t call you frightful,” he said, smiling sheepishly. “With the light behind you, your hair is glowing a brilliant gold. You look like an angel.” “You are too kind. I’ve seen how haggard the other women appear, so I know there is nothing sweet or angelic in my looks.” He allowed himself to enjoy the gentle swipe of the cloth over his face, for a moment wishing he were at home with his mother tending to him. He was too old for such things, but facing death as often as he had since he’d enlisted brought out the longing for security. “Have you heard? Napoleon has abdicated. You have defeated him.” “We have defeated him. This is good news. We can think about returning home if we wish.”

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