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Amelia stood for a moment on the steps of her house in Hanover Square, gazing across to the Earl of Ravenshead's London home, which was at the far side. She knew that he was not in residence and supposed that he was at his estate in the country. It was only because she had wanted to do some shopping for Christmas and deliver some gifts that she and her companion had themselves come to town for a few days. She had hoped that she might perhaps meet the earl, at the theatre or at some other affair, but it had not happened.
'Is something wrong?' Emily Barton asked.
Amelia looked at her in surprise and then realised that she had sighed. Her companion was a sensitive girl and always seemed to know when Amelia was out of sorts.
'No, I was merely wondering if I had forgotten anything. I should not wish to arrive at Pendleton and then remember something I had left behind.'
'I am sure you will not.' Emily smiled at her. 'I helped Martha pack your trunks and I am certain nothing was left out.'
'Thank you, my love. I know I can always rely on your good sense.'
'You are not upset by your brother's visit, I hope?'
For a moment Amelia's eyes clouded. Her brother, Sir Michael Royston, had paid her a brief but intensely unpleasant visit to complain. He always seemed to be in a temper these days and Amelia had come to dread his visits.
'No, dearest. As you know, my brother is difficult. However, I am not upset.' She took Emily's arm. 'Come, we must not keep the horses standing. I want to make good time, for the sky has all the appearance of bad weather and I would like to get to Pendleton before it turns to snow.'
'I am looking forward to spending Christmas with our friends,' Emily said and smiled as she glanced across the carriage. They had been travelling for some time now and the streets of London had given way to pleasant countryside. 'Before I came to you, Amelia, Christmas was always a time of regret.'
'Was it, my love?' Amelia Royston looked at Emily in concern. She was aware of her companion's secret sorrow, but it was something Emily hardly ever spoke of. 'Are you happier now that you have been living with me for more than a year?'
'Oh yes, much. If only' Emily broke off and shook her head. 'No, we shall not think of things that make us sad. Do you think that the Earl of Ravenshead will be at Pendleton this year?'
'Susannah said nothing of it when she wrote to invite us,' Amelia said, and a faint colour stained her cheeks. It almost seemed that Emily was reading her thoughts. 'Why do you ask, Emily?'
'Forgive me, perhaps I ought not to have spoken, but I thought in the Season and at Helene's wedding earlier this year I did think that perhaps there might be something' Emily broke off and shook her head. 'It was not my place to ask.'
'Have I not told you that you may say anything to me, Emily? We are friends and have no secrets from each other. Since you ask, I shall tell you that I did think Gerard might speak some eighteen months ago, but he was called to France on family business. When we met him in London this year he paid me some attention, but ' Amelia sighed. 'I think now it was merely friendship he had in mind for us. There was a time when we might have married, but my brother sent him away. He married another woman some months later, which must mean that he did not suffer from our parting as I did.'
'You cannot be sure of that, Amelia. The earl may have married for various reasons. Perhaps it was on the rebound?' Emily frowned. 'I think you told me his wife has since died?'
'Gerard told me she was ill after the birth of their daughter and never recovered. I think that perhaps he is still grieving for her.'
'He will surely wish to marry again, if only for the sake of his daughter.'
'Yes, perhapsthough I am not sure I should wish to be married for such a reason.'
'I did not mean please do not think I meant that he would marry you for the sake of his child,' Emily apologised and looked upset. 'I believe he likes you very well, Amelia.'
'Yes, I believe we are good friends,' Amelia agreed.
She leaned her head back against the squabs, closing her eyes. It would be very foolish of her to give way to emotion. She had cried too many tears when Gerard went away the first time. He had vowed that he loved her with all his heart, asked her to be his wife and then simply disappeared. When she was told he had joined the army, she had suffered a broken heart. She had not understood then that her brother had forced him to walk away from herand threatened him and used violence. His desertion had left her feeling abandoned and distraught. When she first saw him again in company some four years later, she had been overwhelmed, and it had taken all her self-control not to show her feelings.
Gerard had been polite and friendly, but then, when someone had attempted to abduct Amelia when she was staying at Pendleton the summer before last, Gerard had been so concerned for her. She had believed then that he still cared, had begun to hope that he might speak, but he had been called away to France.
They had met again this summer. Gerard had been as generous, polite and kind as ever, but still he had not spoken of marriage. Of course there was no reason why he should. Too much time had passed, more than five years. If he had ever felt anything for her it had gone, or at least faded to a gentle affection. It was foolish of her to hope that he might feel more than mere friendship.
She opened her eyes and saw that Emily was looking upset.
'You have not distressed me, dearest.' Amelia smiled at her. 'We are almost there. I am so looking forward to seeing Susannah and Harry again.'
'I should never wish to distress you, Amelia. You have done so much for me, taking me in when many would have turned me from their door, because of my shame.'
'Do not look like that, Emily. You have more than repaid me for any kindness I have shown you. As for your shameI will not have you speak of yourself in such a way. Come, smile and look forward to spending Christmas at Pendleton.'
'Amelia dearest,' Susannah exclaimed and kissed her on both cheeks. 'You look wonderful. That colour green always becomes you so welland Emily, how pretty you look!'
'Oh, no ' Emily shook her head and blushed. 'It is this bonnet. I admired it in a milliner's window and Amelia bought it for me without my knowing. She said it was the very thing to brighten my winter wardrobe and of course she was right. She has such excellent taste.'
'Yes, she does.' Susannah looked fondly at Amelia. 'I may be biased, but I think Amelia is everything that is perfect and good.'
'Between the two of you, you will turn my head. I shall become impossible and start expecting to be treated like a duchess.'
Susannah trilled with laughter. 'You deserve to be a duchess,' she said. 'You must both come up to the nursery and see my little Harry. He is such a darling. His father thinks he is the most wonderful child ever born. I cannot begin to tell you all the plans he is making for when he can walk and go to school.'
'I always knew Harry Pendleton would be a doting father,' Amelia said, much amused.
'He spoils me dreadfully,' Susanna confessed as she led her friends up to their chambers. 'I've given you the apartments we had when I first stayed here, Amelia. I was so terrified of Harry's relatives and this vast house. I could not imagine how I should cope with it, but everything runs like clockwork. I hardly have to do a thingjust as Harry's mama told me it would be. And we always have guests so it is never too big or lonely, because people love to stay here. We shall have some twenty or thirty invited guests this Christmas, but it is quite possible that as many more will simply arrive on our doorstep. I tell Harry it is because he is such a generous host, but he thinks it is because they are all in love with me.'
'I dare say it is a mixture of both,' Amelia told her and smiled. She was delighted that her friend had not changed one bit since she became Lady Pendleton. She might not be quite as impulsive as when she had first visited town as Amelia's guest, but if anything her confidence had grown.
Susannah took them to the nursery, where the young heir was being prepared for bed by his nurse. After some twenty minutes or so admiring the admittedly beautiful child, Amelia and Emily were taken to the apartment they were to share during the Christmas period. It had three bedrooms and a sitting room, which was pleasant if one wished to escape from the rest of the company at times, and was quite a privilege.
Amelia allowed Emily to choose the bedchamber she liked best, and was pleased when her friend chose the one Susannah had used during that first visit. It meant she could take the room she preferred, and felt perfectly at home in.
After Susannah left them to settle in, Amelia walked to the window and looked out. Her view was of the lake and park, and, as she watched for a moment, she saw three horsemen canter to a halt and dismount. They had obviously been out riding together for pleasure and were in high good humour. Her breath caught in her throat as she heard laughter and caught sight of one familiar face. So Gerard was to be one of the guests this Christmas!
Amelia realised that she had been hoping for it, her heart beginning to thump with excitement. Oh, how foolish she was! Just because Gerard was here did not mean that he would speak of marriage. Why should he indeed? Had he wished to, he had had ample opportunity to do so before this.
She turned away to glance in the mirror. She was still attractive, but she was no longer a young girl. It was quite ridiculous to fancy herself in love; the time for such things had passed her by. The most she could hope for now would be a marriage of convenience, as Emily had suggested on the way to Pendleton. If perhaps Gerard were looking for a mother for his daughter, he might consider Amelia a suitable choice.
Amelia shook her head, dismissing her thoughts as a flight of fancy. There were a dozen young and beautiful girls Gerard might think of taking as his wife. Why should he look at a woman of her age? She had just turned eight and twenty. Besides, he was probably still grieving for the wife he had lost. Why had he married only a few months after their parting? Her brother Michael had behaved disgracefully to Gerard, of course, but why had he not told Amelia at the time the real reason behind his sudden departure? She would have run away with him had he asked her then.
No, if he had ever loved her, his love had faded and died.
She must not spend her time dreaming of something that would never happen!
Her thoughts turned to her companion. She knew that this time of year was often sad for Emily, because of her secret sorrow. None of their friends knew of Emily's secret, but she had told Amelia the truth when they first met. In doing so she had risked losing the chance of a good position, for many would have turned her away. Amelia had admired her honesty. She had done everything she could to make Emily forget the past, but nothing could take away the ache Emily carried inside.
Amelia was thoughtful as she prepared to go downstairs. She was almost sure that Mr Toby Sinclair would be a guest at Pendleton that Christmas. He had paid Emily some attention earlier in the year, but nothing had come of it. If he were to offer for her but nothing was certain. Amelia would not put the idea into her companion's mind, but if it happened she would be delighted.
If it did not, perhaps there was something she might be able to do to help the girl she had come to love almost as a sister.