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Blandon, Shropshire, England
Amid the sea of somberly dressed mourners entering the vicarage, Anna spied a flash of crimson, and her grief lifted for the first time since Papa's death three days ago. A closer look at the uniformed cavalry officer sent her emotions plunging again, for he was not Peter. But how foolish to think her brother could have returned for their father's funeral when he was an ocean away fighting the Americans. This soldier must have come to honor Papa. This wounded soldier, for the young man of perhaps five and twenty years leaned on a cane and his red-coated companion's arm. Anna lifted a silent prayer that the officer's affliction was not too severe.
The parishioners approached where she stood, each person offering a word of comfort or a memory of Papa, warming Anna's heart. Papa had been much loved, and many in his congregation would miss him as much as she. In his honor, generous neighbors had brought sprays of aromatic sage and fragrant geraniums from their autumn gardens to freshen the air in the house. The pleasant scents vied with the odors of hardworking villagers who had taken time from their harvest labors to pay their respects.
Anna bent down to kiss a small boy, and her eyes fell on the gleaming black boots of the next person in line. She straightened and found herself gazing up into the dark brown eyes of the wounded soldier.
"Miss Newfield." The tall officer bent over his cane and his pallid countenance raised her concern, as did the scent of some pungent medicine she could not identify. "I am Edmond Grenville. Please accept my condolences for your loss." At his elbow stood his companion, whose eyes were filled with worry.
She extended her black-gloved hand, glancing briefly at the stars on the officer's golden epaulettes which designated his rank. Peter had taken such pride in teaching her how to distinguish one officer from another. "I thank you for coming, Major Grenville. Did you know my father?"
He winced slightly and breathed out a labored sigh.
"Should you be seated, sir?" Anna waved a hand toward a nearby chair, wishing she could sit down, as well, for although it was only late morning the weariness of the day had already begun to settle into her.
He shook his head. "No, madam, on both counts." He inhaled deeply. "I knew of your father."
Anna's heart lifted. "Ah. I did not know his reputation extended beyond Blandon." She offered a smile but saw only pain in his clouded eyes.
"Very far, miss. To America, in fact." He glanced at his aide. The younger man nodded. "Your brother, Lieutenant Newfield" His voice broke, and he cleared his throat impatiently.
Anna's heart seemed to stop and her ears hummed, blocking out the sounds around her. "Yes," she managed to murmur. "Please continue. My brother?"
The major shuddered, perhaps to shake away his weakness, for he stood taller, almost at attention. "I regret to inform you that Lieutenant Peter Newfield was wounded in battle." His words came in a rush. "To be more precise, dear lady, he saved my life, and in the process took the sword blow meant for me. After the battle, his remains were not found, and therefore he has been declared missing."
The room seemed to spin. The paneled walls closed around her. Tiny bursts of air fanned her face. Anna sat and blinked her burning eyes. Forced herself to breathe. What would Mama do in this situation? Or Papa? Was Peter even now with their parents in the Savior's presence? Was she now truly alone?
Somewhere at the edges of her mind, she heard the cry of Job: The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away; blessed be the name of the Lord. She grasped this lifeline like a drowning person. Blessed be the name of the Lord. This would be her hymn, her anthem, no matter what other sorrows befell her.
Friends hovered near. The major sat beside her and patted her hand.
"Dear Miss Newfield"
"I thank you, sir." Her own voice sounded far away. "For bringing word." A tendril of hope threaded through her thoughts. "Missing, you say?"
"Unfortunately, yes." The officer leaned toward her. "You must know that I had no idea your father had died. I came to bring him word of Newfield and"
"Missing. That means there is hope he is alive."
Major Grenville's expression softened, and he spoke as if addressing a child. "You must understand " He sat back and shook his head. "Perhaps you need not know of such things." He returned a warm gaze to her and squeezed her hand. "We will hope, madam. We will hope."
The strength of his grip surprised Anna, as did the high color now flooding his pale face. He seemed to be making a great effort to console her, and she longed to return the kindness. "Major, the ladies of Blandon have prepared a funeral nuncheon. Will you and your companion partake?"
His brow furrowed, but his companion's face brightened. "'Twould be good to have a bite before we embark on the rest of our journey, sir."
The major eyed his aide. "I agree, Matthews. And I thank you, Miss Newfield. Your brother often spoke of your kind nature. I see it was not merely fraternal pride." His well-formed face, framed by natural chestnut curls, relaxed into a soft smile.
A wave of understanding swept through Anna. Peter had risked his life to save this friend, and that knitted him to her in a way she could not describe.
Weakness and weariness threatened to fell Edmond. He tried to rise from the chair, but even his cane did not help. Matthews touched his shoulder.
"I'll fetch you a plate, sir." The young man left the parlor, but not before he cast a concerned glance over his shoulder.
Good man, Matthews. No officer ever had a better batman to see to his personal matters. Without his tender attention, Edmond would never have survived the illness that overtook him on the voyage from America. When the seas grew violent, Matthews had cushioned Edmond with his own body against the bulkheadand received a mass of bruises for his efforts. Yet even Matthews's valiant efforts did not protect Edmond's left leg, shattered in battle when his horse fell. Now he feared he would never ride again.
Murmured conversation drew his attention back to the gentle soul seated beside him. Poor, lovely Miss New-field. Her dark brown hair formed a pleasing contrast to her flawless ivory complexion, and her lively green eyes exuded intelligence. Newfield had not exaggerated her beauty and grace. Or her faith. How bravely she bore her losses. Perhaps he could offer some cheering words, the kind of thing he might say to his cavalry unit after a bad sortie.
Before he could frame a thought, a pudgy, frowning man dressed in black approached the lady, followed by a woman wearing an identical scowl. A protective instinct arose within Edmond's chest.
"Miss Newfield." The man gave her a fawning bow and oily smile. "I am Danders, Squire Beamish's solicitor. He sends his condolences." His face looked anything but sympathetic. "I'm sure you understand that due to the length of your father's fatal illness, Squire Beamish has been forced to find a new cleric to minister to the good people of Blandon." He emitted an unpleasant chuckle that made the hair on Edmond's neck stand on end. Miss New-field, however, remained serene. "Unfortunately, the new vicar and his family" the solicitor glanced at the woman behind him "seven children, wasn't it, Mrs. Danders? At Squire Beamish's invitation, they have all left their home in Surrey and even now are housed with us." His voice rose in pitch to a squeaky tenor. "Seven children. Heh-heh. Seems more like two dozen." He tugged at his collar. "So you will understand that they require the vicarage as soon as possible." Another shrill laugh. "Today, if you please."
Edmond found himself on his feet, leaning toward the solicitor from his own greater height. "What ails you, man, that you would intrude upon Miss Newfield's grief in this manner?" He struggled not to address this cur with the language of the battlefield.
Danders stared up at him, wide-eyed. Then he straightened his jacket, as if Edmond had given in to the temptation to grab it and shake him senseless. "I beg your pardon, um, Major, but exactly who are you and what business is this of yours?"
"Please, Major Grenville." Miss Newfield rose and touched his arm. "Do not trouble yourself. Just last week our village seamstress, Mrs. Brown, said I might live with her." With a nodding glance she indicated a nearby woman, whose face now filled with dismay.
"Oh, my dear." Mrs. Brown moved closer. "I didn't want to tell you so soon after dear Mr. Newfield's demise, but I've no room." She wrung her handkerchief. "My widowed sister has just come with her children, you see, and she needs a place to live."
Edmond watched with horror and amazement as this latest cannonball struck its target, for surely the young lady would crumble under this siege.
"I understand." Dry-eyed, Miss Newfield embraced her neighbor and murmured comforting assurances. A strange light shone in her fair brown eyes, and a hint of a smile graced her lips.
Edmond prayed the barrage of bad news had not commenced to drive her mad.
"Well, then," Mr. Danders said. "My wife will help you to gather your things, and you can be off."
Mrs. Danders shoved her way in front of Miss Newfield. "And don't be thinking you can run off with anything that ain't nailed down. I have a list from Squire Beamish" she pulled a folded paper from her large reticule "and I know every candlestick and serviette that belongs to the parish."
Now the young lady swayed slightly and her eyes lost their focus, as they had when Edmond had so brutishly announced her brother's death. But he could not help her, for his own head grew light. Rage over his weakness kept him from fainting, and he leveled a glare upon Danders. The man tugged at his collar again.
"Here, sir." Matthews was suddenly beside him, easing him back into his chair. "I've set a plate for you on this side table. Some nice cold meats, rolls, cheeses and pumpkin pie. The local housewives have made quite a feast."
"Let's get on with it, Miss Newfield." Mrs. Danders gripped the young lady's upper arm and dragged her toward the hallway.
"Yes, yes, of course." Miss Newfield's voice wavered. "Please do permit me to "
The rest of her words were lost in the shuffling of feet as they exited the parlor door.
Edmond tried to rise and follow, but his legs betrayed him.
"Now." Danders hovered over Edmond and adjusted the spectacles resting on his pudgy nose. "Exactly what is your business with Miss Newfield? Squire Beamish will need to know exactly what has been going on here at the vicarage. If her character is suspect"
Once again, anger brought Edmond to his feet. "How dare you?" Mrs. Brown's presence prevented him from speaking as he would to a scavenging mongrel. Good sense informed him that this weasel could do much harm to the young lady's reputation. Edmond suspected he was dishonest, but had no strength to investigate the matter, at least not yet. The best course was to give Danders the information he sought. "I have just arrived to inform Miss Newfield that her brother perished in America fighting for England."
"Ah. Well, then." Danders waved away the news as he would a fly.
"'Tis the truth, Mr. Danders." Mrs. Brown continued to wring her handkerchief. "The cap'n here did just arrive. And furthermore, Miss Newfield's the soul of decency. Anyone in Blandon'll speak for her."
"Hmm." Danders lifted his nose and sniffed. "Ah, the smell of nuncheon. While my wife sees to the packing, I shall see to the kitchen. The pantry and all that's in it will of course belong to the parish." Before Edmond could respond, Danders hurried from the room.
"Will you sit, sir?" Matthews once again helped Edmond into the chair.
Frustration closed his throat. He could not think of eating. "Matthews, follow the women. See that Mrs. Danders does not mistreat Miss Newfield. If there is a dispute over any item in this house, we will not leave until this mysterious Squire Beamish has presented himself to settle the matter." Nor will I leave until Miss Newfield is assured of a safe place to live. It was the least he could do for the sister of the man who died to save him. And only then could he return to his family's home and begin rebuilding his own life and health. Only then could he begin to consider God's purpose for taking a remarkable man like Peter Newfield and leaving a scoundrel like Edmond Grenville.