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Amanda saw it all--from the first puffs of smoke drifting above the village, to the terrible sight that would haunt her forever. If it had not been for Lord Braden Hamilton turning her face against his ripped, bloodstained shirt, she would surely have fainted dead away. It was a soft Indian summer morning. Gentle breezes were tinged with melancholy, aware of summer's passing and the certain approach of winter. Honeybees still buzzed around the hollyhocks lining the breezeway between the house and the summer kitchen. Overhead, the sky arched cerulean blue, and the air was as still and toasty warm as a lazy day in August. Beyond the fields, the James River sparkled in the sun's tawny glow as it moved sluggishly toward its final destiny in Chesapeake Bay. On that benign morning, heavy with humid sunshine, eleven year old Mandy headed for the grove of oaks separating the river from the tobacco fields of Briarfield Plantation, her family's home for two generations. In one hand, she carried a fishing rod, in the other, a cherry tart.
Because of Briarfield's distance from the settlement at Jamestown, Mandy had few friends to play with and few diversions other than riding her pony and lessons at her mother's knee. Her half-brother, Philip, was much too old to provide companionship. Now nineteen, he was a full-grown man and spent much of his time helping their father oversee the thirty thousand acre estate--that is, when he wasn't away at the fledgling college in Williamsburg. She didn't want her brother's company anyway, she thought, settling into a shady spot on the riverbank. She pulled off her shoes and stockings and reclined in the tall grass.Though Philip was her only sibling, he had always made it quite clear he found her a nuisance and far beneath his interest. It was his habit to avoid her whenever possible, unless of course, he could use her as a scapegoat for his own frequent misdeeds. Now that she was excelling at reading and numbers, as well as horsemanship, he took every opportunity to disparage her efforts and belittle her in their parents' eyes. "Just a silly girl," he often said with a sneer. "A clumsy chit of no use till she's breeding age," he added with disdain. Philip's mother had been their father's first wife, a grand English lady who had died shortly after childbirth during her first year in Virginia. Amanda's mother was a Jamestown girl of sturdy pioneer stock, descended from a middle-class family of Suffolk. Amanda deftly placed a wiggling worm on her hook. It was a feat she'd learned from one of the darkies and it gave her a pleasant sense of accomplishment. Philip would never have touched the squirmy thing, even had he been inclined to help her. No matter, she concluded, dropping the hook with a plop into the shimmering water. Briarfield Plantation was large enough for the two of them to occupy without stepping on each other's toes. Her grandfather Sheffield's first crude home on the river had been abandoned for the spacious brick house on the hill. With lush Virginia soil producing the finest tobacco in the world, the farm had prospered beyond the Virginia Company's wildest expectations. Sitting there under the emerald green canopy dappled with swaying golden light from above, Amanda was completely content. She would live forever in this secure and gracious environment. If Philip was so anxious to marry her off so she could produce some stranger's offspring in some far place, he was doomed to disappointment. When the time came, she would marry one of the boys she knew from Jamestown, one of those strapping youths attending school in the village. She would bring her husband to live at Briarfield, and he would be her partner in the work of the plantation. Together they would build their own house and be at peace with her brother. When Philip married--if any lady would have him--she would enjoy having a sister-in-law, and their children would play along this very riverbank.
Leaning back on her elbows, she breathed deeply of the moist, earthy fragrance. She bit into the juicy tart and let its pink sweetness cover her lips while crumbs fell unheeded to her cotton shift. With a sigh, she pushed one foot into the ooze along the streambed and squished the cool mud between her toes.
Dreamily, she allowed her thoughts to turn to the elegant young man who had arrived just yesterday on the ship from England. Why, he wasn't much older than Philip, around twenty or so, she guessed. Her parents had fussed over him as if he were King William himself. Last evening, they had laid a feast in the dining room the likes of which she had never seen. Fresh trout had preceded succulent mutton chops; spoon bread and baked sweet potatoes had been followed by rich rum-cream pie and cherry tarts (the last of which she now enjoyed.) She, of course, had occupied a seat at the far end of the table, where she was expected to be seen and not heard. The mayor and his wife had been present as well as several town council members, along with Reverend Trask. But her attention had been focused on their guest--as indeed had that of all those present. The man was Lord Braden Hamilton, second son of the Earl of Wentworth, and she'd never encountered a more fascinating and wonderful man in all her days. A true English lord, a captain, at her very own table, and as handsome as a make-believe prince in her books of English legends and fairy tales. His eyes were as blue as a jay's wing, and his skin sun-bronzed after his long sea voyage. His nose was straight and his chin clean-shaven with a slight depression in the center. His hair was dark, and curled thickly about his forehead and ears before being drawn back and tied at the nape of his neck. During the lengthy meal, she had studied his profile above his crisp ruffled white collar; it seemed to be masculine perfection. And he was tall--taller than Philip--taller even than her father. But best of all was his smile, which lacked any artifice and exuded warmth and a sense of humor, as if all life was an amusing game, one which he was enjoying very much. For one brief moment, his smile had included her. She had dropped her eyes at once to stare at her plate, but his look was etched in her memory.