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A shake to his bad shoulder brought Greville Anders awake with a gasp. Through the stab of sensation radiating down his arm, he dimly heard the coachman say, 'Here we be, now, sir. At yer destination. Ashton Grove.'
Trying to master a pain-induced nausea, Greville struggled to surface a mind he'd submerged in soothing clouds of laudanum to ease the agony of a long, jolting coach journey. The late-winter air spilling through the door held ajar by a man in footman's livery helped dissipate the mental fog.
England. He must be back in England. No place else on earth had this combination of chilly mist and a scent of damp earth.
Like a tacking sail that suddenly catches the wind, his vacant mind filled. Yes, he was in England, at Ashton Grove, the home of Lord Bronning. The manor where, at the intervention of his noble cousin, the Marquess of Englemere, he was to stay after being transferred from his berth on the Illustrious to the Coastal Brigade, while the Admiralty sorted out the matter of hisillegalimpressment. And he finished healing.
Unfortunately, that also meant he must now attempt to convince his unsteady limbs to carry him from the vehicle into the manor, hopefully without having his still-roiling stomach disgrace him. Taking a deep breath, he staggered into the early evening dimness, then proceeded at a limping gait up to the entry and through a door held open by the butler.
Perspiration beading his forehead from the effort, he was congratulating himself on his success at reaching the stately entry hall when an older, balding gentleman walked forwards and bowed. 'Mr Anders,' the man said, giving him a strained smile. 'Delighted to welcome you to Ashton Grove.'
The gentleman's expression was so far from delighted that Greville bit back a smile before the unmistakable, swishing sound of skirts trailing over polished stone prompted him to carefully angle his head left.
That uncomfortable manoeuvre was rewarded by a vision lovely enough to raise a red-blooded sailor from the dead. A category into which, after the Illustrious's action with that Algerian pirate vessel off the coast of Tunis, he'd very nearly fallen, he thought wryly before giving mind and senses over to the sorely missed pleasure of gazing at a beautiful woman.
For the first time in a long while, parts of his body tingled pleasantly as he took in an angelic vision of golden hair and a petite form wrapped in a flattering gown, just a hint of decol-letage tempting one to peek down at an admirably rounded bosom. As he raised his gaze to the perfect oval of her face, large blue eyes stared back at him over a small, pert nose and plump rosebud-pink lips that were currently pursed. She frowned.
Greville suppressed a sigh. Angels generally did frown at him.
Long-inbred habits of gentility prompted him to attempt a bow, awkward as it was with the thick bandage still binding his chest and the fact that his equilibrium hadn't yet adjusted to having a surface beneath his feet that remained firmly horizontal. 'Lord Bronning, isn't it?' he asked. 'And ?'
'My daughter, Miss Neville. Welcome to our home. I trust Lord Englemere made your journey as comfortable as possibleunder the circumstances, of course,' Bronning said, casting him a troubled glance.
The lovely daughter merely inclined her head, her frown deepening. Greville hadn't seen his own face in a glass for months, but in his ragtag sailor's gear, with an unkempt beard and what he supposed must be the pallor induced by his lingering fever, doubtless he looked nothing like the sort of gentleman Miss Neville was accustomed to receiving in her father's grand hall.
'Miss Neville, my lord,' he replied, acknowledging the introductions. 'Yes, Lord Englemere did all that was necessary.' Given his already disreputable appearance, he thought it best not to mention that his passage from Spithead through Portsmouth and thence by coach to Ashton Grove had passed in such a laudanum haze that he had little memory of it. 'I thank you, Lord Bronning, for receiving one so completely unknown to you.'
'Not at all,' Bronning replied quickly. 'I'm happy to oblige Lord Englemereand your sister, Lady Greaves, of course. Her husband, Sir Edward, is a valued acquaintance. But we won't keep you standing here with the evening chill coming on! You must be exhausted from your travels. Sands will have a footman show you to your room.'
His room. A real chamber with a bed that didn't sway with the roll of the ship, doubtless located in a private space he wouldn't share with a score of noisy, tar-begrimed, sweating sailors.
'I should like that, thank you,' he said, summoning his waning strength for the task of climbing the forbiddingly tall stairway towards which a footman was leading him.
'And, Mr Anders,' Bronning called after him, 'please don't feel obliged to join us for dinner. Cook will be happy to prepare you a tray, if you'd prefer to remain in your chamber to rest and repose yourself after your long journey.'
Rest and repose. He clung to the notion as a drowning man clutches at a spar after a shipwreck. Rest to finish healing his battered body, repose in which to put his fever-dulled wits to examining the implications of his abrupt transition from deckhand on a man-of-war to guest at an elegant English estate.
'Thank you, my lord, I may do that,' he said, reflecting as he tackled the stairs upon the irony of greeting the notion of solitude with such pleasure, he who not so very long ago would have done almost anything to avoid the boredom of having only himself for company.
Gritting his teeth in determination, Greville made his way upwards, Miss Neville's soft floral fragrance still teasing his nose.
Amanda Neville felt disappointment and an entirely illogical sense of being ill-used replace her initial shock, as she stared after the newcomer hobbling up the stairs behind the footman.
Ever since Papa had told her they were to house a relation of the Marquess of Englemere, she'd been bubbling over with anticipation, hoping he would be someone she could meet again in London this spring when she made her long-delayed come-outmayhap even a handsome young man who might be a potential suitor. She'd had Mrs Pepys prepare the best guest bedchamber and instructed Cook to create a sumptuous meal for the night of his arrival.
Stunned into silence by the appearance of the man who'd limped over their doorstep, she'd barely been able to nod a greeting. That grimy, battered man dressed like a common sailor was their guest? she thought again, still aghast and scarcely able to comprehend such a conundrum. Whatever had Papa been thinking, to agree to house such a person?
Before she could utter a word, however, her father grabbed her arm and steered her down the hallway towards his study. 'Don't give me that look, puss, until I can explain,' he said under his breath. 'That will be all for now, Sands,' he added, dismissing the butler who trailed after them, interest bright in his eyes.
'Really, Papa, I know better than to gossip before the servants,' she protested after he'd shut the study door behind them. 'But when you told me you were to host Lord Englemere's relativewhy, he's a Stanhope, head of one of the most prominent families in England! Are you sure this sailor is truly his cousin?'
'He gave the name "Anders" and arrived in a private coach, as I was led to expect, so he must be. Though I confess, I was as shocked by his appearance as you.'
After depositing her on the sofa, her father took an agitated turn about the room. 'Now that I think on it, though naturally I assumed so, the note from his lordship's secretary never precisely said Mr Anders was an officer.'
'He looks more like aa ruffian!' Amanda exclaimed, still feeling affronted. 'A drunken one, at that! How are we to go about entertaining such a person? Is he to dine with us, be presented to our acquaintances?'
Lord Bronning's troubled frown deepened. 'Dear me, I hope I haven't made a terrible mistake, allowing him to come ' His voice trailed off and he grimaced.
'Now, Papa, you mustn't upset yourself and bring on one of your spells,' Amanda said quickly, concern for her father, who had not been in the best of health of late, quickly overshadowing her irritation and chagrin. 'Come, sit, and let me pour you some wine,' she urged, hopping up to guide her father to a chair and then fetch him a glass of port. 'What precisely did his lordship's note say?'
'Only that Mr Anders had been serving on a warship and was being furloughed back to England after being wounded during a skirmish with privateers,' her father replied, easing back into the cushions. 'Apparently naval men injured too severely to perform their duties are sometimes posted to the Coastal Brigade while they heal. Having learned that Ashton Grove was not far from one of their stations, the marquess begged me to offer his cousin accommodations while he recuperated. Naturally, one does not say "no" to a marquess, especially one who writes so politely.'
Amanda bit her lip. 'Nor, after installing this "Mr Anders" in the best guest bedchamber, will it be easy to move him elsewhere. In any event, he didn't seem fit enough to appear in company, so for dining and entertaining, I suppose we shall wait and see.'
'That would be best, I expect. Besides, he is also brother to the wife of Sir Edward Greaves, and after that unfortunate incident last spring, I should not wish to do anything that might offend Sir Edward.'
Amanda felt her face flush. 'I am sorry about that, Papa.'
Smiling fondly, her father patted her arm. 'Never you mind, puss. You can't help that you are just naturally too lovely and charming for any sensible gentleman to resist.'
Though Amanda felt a pang of guilt, she didn't correct her papa. The truth was, she had quite deliberately sought to be at her most enticing when, after last year's agricultural meeting at Holkham Hall, Papa had brought home to visit a man he'd often mentioned as being one of the most forward-thinking gentlemen farmers in the realm. She'd only thought to flirt a bit, seizing one of the few opportunities that came her way to practise her wiles on a single gentleman of noble birth.
Who could have imagined the quiet, rather stodgy Sir Edward, who had barely spoken to her of anything beyond a boring narration about crops and fields, would have possessed sufficient sensibility to become smitten?
She'd been surprisedand a bit ashamedwhen Papa told her, after Sir Edward's sudden departure, that the baronet had made him an offer for her hand. Thankfully, knowing well that the very last thing she wanted was to buckle herself to some gentleman farmer and spend the rest of her years immured in rural obscurity, Papa had spared her the embarrassing necessity of refusing him.
However, she reassured herself pragmatically, since Sir Edward had married within six months of his departure from Ashton Grove, she could not have wounded his heart too severely.
Still, she could not help but regret that her flirtation had put a rub in her father's friendship with the man.
'Of course, Papa, I'm as anxious as you to make amends to Sir Edward and dispel any lingering.awkwardness. Have you any idea how long Mr Anders is to be our guest? And surely I am not called upon to nurse him?'
'Of course not!' her father assured her. 'Even if it were not most improper, I would never ask you to do something so expressly designed to bring back.unfortunate memories.'
Abruptly, they both fell silent. Despite her papa's hope to avoid it, she found her thoughts sucked inexorably back to the terrible spring and summer just past. Nightmarish visions chased across her mind: Mama's cheeks flushed with fever; Aunt Felicia thrashing in delirium; both faces fixed in the still, cold pallor of death.
Shaking her head to dislodge the images, she turned to Papa and saw, from the stricken look on his face, that he must be remembering, too. Anxiety instantly replaced grief; Papa's own health had nearly broken under the strain of losing both wife and sister, and he was still, she feared, far from recovered.
Before she could hit upon some remark that might distract him, Papa said, 'Of course, Mr Anders is welcome to stay as long as he may need. Should it turn out that he requires further care, I shall consult with Dr Wendell in the village to obtain a suitable practitioner. But do not worry, puss ' he reached out to pat her hand ' however long our visitor tarries, I promised your dear mama I would let nothing else delay the Season for which you've waited so long and so patiently.'
Amanda smiled her thanks and tried to refocus her mind on that happy event. London, this spring! Dare she even hope this time that it would finally happen? The Season, which she and her mama had planned and anticipated for so long, had been delayed by such a series of unfortunate events that sometimes it seemed Fate itself was conspiring to prevent her having any opportunity to realise her dreams.
Still, with her last breath, Mama had made Amanda promise that she would go this year, come what may. So perhaps the visit would take place after all.
Oh, to finally be in London, that greatest of English cities, where she would not have to pore over accounts of events already days or weeks old by the time the newspapers reached them. London, where her future husband, a man of substance and influence in his party, would sit in the Lords and help direct the affairs of the nation. Supported, of course, by his lovely wife, whose dinners, soirees and balls would bring together all the influential people of the realm, where policy would be discussed and settled over brandy and whispered about behind fans.
If no further disaster occurred to prevent it, in a few short weeks, she would be there. She could hardly wait.
Suddenly the study door opened on a draught of cold air and her cousin Althea dashed in. 'Is he here yet? Have I missed him?' she demanded.
Amanda swallowed the sharp words springing to her lips about the decorum a young lady should employ when entering a room. As she'd learned all too swiftly after Althea joined them at Ashton last spring just before the death of her mother, Amanda's Aunt Felicia, the cousin who had once followed her about like an adoring puppy now seemed to resent every word she uttered.
Ignoring, as usual, the girl's rudeness, Papa only said mildly, 'Missed who, my dear?'
His own bereavement had made him more indulgent than was good for the girl, Amanda thought a tad resentfully. Papa never offered her tempestuous cousin the least reproof, no matter how deplorable her speech or actions, though he was perhaps the only one who might be able to correct her highly deficient behaviour.