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Rumor had it that their guards were frightened. That Boneparte’s victory over the Allies at Champaubert had only served as an unfortunate delay in toppling the French Emperor from his throne.
Indeed, Jeremiah Rigby had returned from his morning constitutional around the perimeter of the prisoner-of-war camp to report that he’d counted ten less guards than had been at their posts the previous day.
And eight more bodies. The wounded were succumbing with disturbing frequency over a month into their captivity, thanks to the lack of food, clean water, and medicine.
“The time couldn’t be better for a moonlight flit,” Gabriel Sinclair said as he and Rigby joined Cooper Townsend and Darby Travers inside the sagging lean-to they’d constructed to help shield them from a fading winter and early spring rains.
Surgeon John Hamilton didn’t look up from his work, inspecting the healing wound sustained when Cooper had taken a ball in his side at Champaubert and they’d been captured along with over a thousand others. “There’ll be a nasty scar, sir, but it’s all healing nicely now that we’re rid of that infection. You’re next, my lord.”
Darby Travers, Viscount Nailbourne, pushed himself up on his elbows as the surgeon approached, duck-walking across the damp ground. “No, need, John. No angels visited overnight, no miracle delivered by dimpled cherubs, and even the devil hasn’t bothered to tempt me. The eye is finished, and that’s that. I’m already fashioning fetching eye patches in my idle moments.”
The surgeon ignored him and began unwrapping the fraying linen bandage that held a clean square of the same material against the viscount’s left eye. “It’s early days yet, my lord, and the swelling was profound. I can only hope I didn’t do more damage by removing the ball, hoping to relieve the pressure.”
Darby spoke quietly, so that the others couldn’t hear. “I don’t remember any of it, thank God, once I’d supposedly told Rigby I needed to sit down, just before I fell down. I was all but a dead man until you showed up with your scalpel and box of leeches. I have my life thanks to you, and my gratitude is without bounds. Now, I know you overheard the Captain. We go tonight. You’ll come with us.”
Hamilton shook his head as he began rewrapping the bandage. “I can’t leave my patients, my lord.”
“Those who can manage have been sneaking off every night for the last week. The guards may not have noticed yet, but soon our thinning ranks will become obvious. At least a few of us will reach our lines, and a rescue will be mounted. But we all know it could come too late. Our skittish captors might dispatch the wounded before they either run off home or join Bonaparte. As it is, they’re damn near starving us to death.”
“My lord, your duty is to return to our ranks in any way you can, as it is the duty of every soldier. Mine is to remain with the wounded. I would ask only one thing of you.”
Darby pushed himself to a sitting position and held out his right hand. “Name it, John, and it’s yours.”
“What do you think of Spain, Norton? I’ve heard intriguing things about the Alhambra, once termed a pleasure palace. But no, you have no interest in pleasure, do you?”
“I take vast pleasure in my duties, my lord,” the valet supplied in his usual monotone. “Even more so when his lordship refrains from speaking whilst I am shaving him.”
Darby Travers, Viscount Nailbourne, longed to inquire as to whether his man’s words could be construed as a threat, but quickly discarded the notion. Until the straight edge moved from his neck, he prudently refused to so much as swallow.
“And we’re done, my lord,” Norton said in some satisfaction, stepping back even as he handed his employer a warm, moist towel. “Until this evening, that is. I would ask you to consider again the advantages of a well-trimmed beard.”
Darby wiped at his face, then tossed the towel in Norton’s direction as he got to his feet and walked over to the high dresser topped with an oval mirror. “Not if you’d continue to force your barbering skills on me, no. It wounds me to say this, Norton, but your mustache appears chewed on, and I’m convinced you employ that wire-like appendage on your chin to brush dried mud from my riding boots. The fact that both are shoe-black dark and your hair red as a flame, makes me wonder what you do to amuse yourself when I leave you alone.”
Norton, a man of at least forty summers, smoothed a hand over his hair, parted neatly in the middle and tied back into a tail at least six inches in length, and then tugged at his goatee. “Red facial hair is unattractive, my lord.”
Darby would have asked his new valet why he didn’t expand his use of the dye pot to include the hair on his head, but then the man might tell him. Norton was his third valet in as many months, and the only one who didn’t perpetually suppress a flinch when he saw his employer without his eye patch. For that small mercy alone, the viscount didn’t really care if Norton sought his jollies by wearing his pantaloons on his head.
He picked up his brushes and ran them through his own coal dark hair. “I believe I’ll refrain from comment on that, Norton. But back to Spain. I’m devastated to inform you that we can’t go, much as I’d like to escape my fate. For one, I’m promised to a birthday celebration at the end of the month. Either that or a funeral. Nobody’s quite certain yet. My jacket, if you please.”
“Yes, my lord. Will we be returning to London today?”
“Don’t care for my cottage, Norton?” he asked, shrugging into his handsomely-cut tan hacking jacket, for he was anticipating a ride yet this morning. “I know it’s quaint, but I believe it provides most of the necessities of life.” Nailbourne Farm, or the cottage, as Darby termed it, was a large estate just outside Wimbledon, and only an hour’s drive from London. Along with an extensive breeding stable and three hundred acres of Capability Brown’s better efforts at landscaping, the estate boasted a unique, sprawling stone and timber mansion. There were sixteen bed chambers, a dining hall that comfortably sat fifty, and a dozen other rooms, all beneath a whimsical thatched roof that kept four thatchers gainfully employed year-round. It even boasted a Royal Bedchamber, which had actually been slept in by no less than two English monarchs.
It was the smallest of the half dozen Nailbourne holdings.
“Well, Norton? Do you agree?”
“It’s … serviceable, my lord.”
“How greatly you relieve my mind. I wouldn’t want to have to order it torn down and rebuilt to your specifications.”
Sarcasm was totally lost on Norton, Darby knew, winging over his head like a bird in flight, but at least the viscount was amusing himself. He was in some need of a smile at the moment.
“Your pardon, sir, but I feel I must remind you that I accepted this temporary position on the understanding that we would be in London for the Little Season. There is not a single pub within walking distance.”
Darby made one last small adjustment in the black eye patch he’d tied to his head, and turned to give a slight bow to his valet. “And, alas, I’ve failed you. I’m so ashamed, and must hasten to make amends. Since I’ll be traveling to London this evening for an engagement, you have my permission to ride along with me. I’ll have you dropped at your favorite tavern and come back to take you up before I return here, to the wilds. I most sincerely hope that meets with your approval?”
“Yes, my lord!” Norton exclaimed, bowing deeply at the waist, perhaps the first display of emotion the man had allowed in his master’s presence. “The Crown and Cock, my lord, just off Piccadilly. And may I say, my lord, you look exceptionally fine today. You flatter that new jacket all hollow.”
“Oh, shut up,” Darby said amicably as he brushed past the valet on his way to the stairs, only smiling once he was out of sight. “For a moment there, I thought he’d ask to kiss my ring,” he mumbled to himself.
His mood may have been temporarily lifted, but the knowledge that Norton was right served to bring it crashing back down once more. He’d been at the cottage for nearly a week, cooling his heels as he awaited the arrival of the consequences of his forgotten promise to John Hamilton. Granted, he’d escaped to London, twice, for evening parties, but the days here were nearly interminable when he wished only to be with his friends before everyone adjourned to their country estates until the Spring Season.
Darby supposed he should have put a qualifier or two into his promise to the good doctor before agreeing to take guardianship of the man’s daughter should anything fatal befall the man. He’d thought that meant if John had perished at the camp before it could be liberated. He hadn’t counted on any responsibility outliving the promise by more than eighteen months, which was when the good doctor had cocked up his toes.
Yet here he was, about to become guardian to his very own ward. His female ward. If there could be any one person less suited for the position, Darby believed a person would have to search far and wide to find him. His friends had all laughingly agreed, and looked forward with some glee to watching him deal with this unexpected complication to his smooth-running life.
Marley Hamilton. Age unknown. Would he be able to send her off to some young ladies’ academy and forget about her for at least a few years, or would he be laying down the blunt for a Season for the girl? Was she dewy and young, or already past her last prayers?
John had been a country doctor. Of good family, one could only hope, but would his daughter be up to snuff for a Season, or would she come to the cottage still with hay in her hair and mud on her half-boots, and speak in some broad country accent?
Would he be forced to rebuild her, as it were, from the ground up, in order to be rid of her?
Would she feel it necessary to address him as Uncle Nailbourne?
“Coop’s right,” he told himself as he reached the bottom of the stairs. “I do get myself into the damndest situations. If only John’s solicitor would arrive, and get the waiting over with before I drive myself mad.”
“Milord?” the footman asked, holding forth his employer’s hat, gloves and small riding crop. “You be talkin’ ta yerself again, the way you said you wuz yesterday?”
“Exactly, Tompkins,” he responded, accepting the articles. “And as was the case yesterday, and probably will be for some time yet, you may feel free to ignore me.”
“Yes, milord. Mr. Rivers brought the new stallion ‘round. He’s a big ‘un, milord. You do mind ta be careful.”
“Since it would upset you, I’ll do my best not to break my neck,” Darby promised the young lad, and then stopped in the action of pulling on his gloves when there were three loud raps on the doorknocker.
His entire body instantly went on alert.
“Ah, perhaps the time has come. Strange we didn’t hear a coach pulling up. Attend to that, Tompkins, if you please.”
The boy, freckle-faced and tow-headed, and more accustomed to his usual chores in the kitchens, looked at his master in some distress. “But, milord, Mr. Camford says he’s ta greet all his lordship’s guests to be sure where ta put ‘em, and yer’r ta be summoned ta the drawing room only after he —”
“Tompkins, I can’t be certain of this, of course, but last I looked, I do believe I still outrank my butler. Open. The. Door.”
Tompkins blushed to the roots of his hair. “Straight away, milord.”
“Clearly I have to develop more of a commanding air with the staff,” Darby told himself, replacing hat, gloves and riding crop on the large round table and stepping back two paces, ready to surprise his guest with his unexpected presence. Or perhaps he’d be mistaken for Camford, come to vet the uninvited guest.
A mental picture of the portly butler dressed in riding clothes brought a small smile to Darby’s lips as Tompkins opened the door and then stood directly in front of the opening, blocking any view of the visitor. Apparently Camford hadn’t had time to complete the lad’s lessons in footman-ship.
“Let whoever it is pass, please,” he told the boy, unnecessarily it would seem, as Tompkins was rather handily pushed out of the way as a tall, heavily cloaked and hooded figure breached the human barrier and stepped through the portal, dripping water onto the tile floor.
When had it begun to rain? Did Norton so sincerely loathe the country that he didn’t even peek out the window to be certain his employer would be correctly dressed? Darby waved a figurative goodbye to any notion of working the new stallion.
He took a closer look at the figure. The words drowned rat crept into his brain.
“If you hadn’t yet noticed, young man, the doorway lacks a portico. How long do you usually have his lordship’s guests stand unprotected in a deluge?”
A woman? It was definitely a woman’s voice. Tall, for a woman, able to wear a man’s cloak and not have it be six sizes too large. Only four, he estimated, taking in the many-caped cloak once again. Bossy, for a woman, especially one who had arrived uninvited, unaccompanied, and apparently on foot.
“Tompkins, offer to take the lady’s cloak before she drowns in it, both literally and figuratively.”
“Yes, Tompkins, do that. And when it’s dry, consider burning it. I feel as if it could stand on its own after five days of travel on the public coach. And then please inform his lordship that his ward has arrived.”
“Oh, bollocks,” Darby muttered under his breath, feeling the worst of his many suppositions had just sloshed through the doorway. Past her last prayers, unmannered, tall as a stick, and clearly — “Well, hello.”
The woman had finally thrown back her dripping, drooping hood, to reveal a head of more than merely damp blonde hair, eyes that could be any color from blue to green to even grey, probably depending on her mood.
At the moment, as she looked directly at him, they were definitely leaning toward a stormy grey.
Her nose was straight, her lips full — with an intriguing pout to the upper one — her skin pale and flawless, a slight dimple in her chin. Her slim neck could only be judged as regal.
Furthermore, she was tall enough to tower over young Tompkins, and was only a few inches shy of being able to look Darby straight in his eyes, which would make her very nearly six feet tall.
Amazing. One can only wonder how much of her is legs.
“And you are…?” she asked him, definitely imperiously, and with no hint of a country accent. In fact, her English was probably more precise than his own, as he had a tendency to drawl when amused, and he was often amused. He’d best pull out his most precise accent.
He also probably should stop grinning.
“Astounded,” Darby said, bowing. “Perplexed. Nonplussed. Oh, and dry. And you?”
“You’re Viscount Nailbourne,” she countered as Tompkins finally realized he should close the door. “John told me about the eye. You received my letter? I sent one to every address John had provided. You weren’t at the first one and I was forced to continue my search.”
Typical female. Somehow everything apparently had become his fault.
“Clearly a lapse on my part. A thousand apologies,” he said, bowing yet again. “Would you care to continue this conversation upstairs, or are you more comfortable in foyers? I’m amendable either way, and I’m certain Tompkins here wouldn’t mind watching this small farce unfold.”
“I’m more comfortable dry. Our trunk momentarily lies abandoned just inside your gates. I would appreciate having it fetched and taken to whatever quarters you might assign. Once I have your ward settled, I would be more than amenable to continuing our conversation.”
“You’re … you’re not my ward?”
Then who in bloody hell are you?
She looked at him as if he had just popped out a second head. “Certainly not. I’m above the age of requiring a keeper. Marley? You can come out now, please, and allow me to introduce you to your new guardian.”
The young woman pulled back one side of the oversize cloak to reveal a female child of no more than six or seven. The child was clinging to her apparent protector with both arms, her face buried against the damp muslin skirts.
Yes, the legs were that long…
“Marley,” the woman urged, “if you’re quite done with your impersonation of a barnacle, make your curtsy to his lordship, as I’ve taught you to do.”
“Will not.” The words were rather muffled, but clearly understood.
I don’t blame you, Darby thought.
“She’s prodigiously fatigued, poor poppet,” the woman said through only slightly gritted teeth she still couldn’t manage to keep from chattering with cold. “Unless I gave him a copper, the coach driver wouldn’t bring us any further. We were forced to walk from the gate. And then it began to rain.”
And there was that glare again. Apparently the rain was also his fault.
Considering that the gate and house were separated by nearly a mile of gravel drive, Darby mustered some sympathy for the child. “I understand. And she’s probably a bit shy, aren’t you, Marley? Tompkins, fetch Mrs. Camford at once, and have her attend to our guests. But first — you still have the advantage of me, ma’am, in more than one way. If I might have your name?”
“Forgive me, my lord. I am Mrs. Boxer. Mrs. Sadie Grace Boxer, sister to the late John Hamilton, and Marley’s paternal aunt.”
Curiouser and curiouser… but it might help explain her unusual height. John, he remembered, was quite the beanpole himself. They also seemed to share their blonde hair.
“Boxer? S. G. Boxer? You wrote the letter I received last week? I was under the impression that I had been contacted by John’s solicitor.”
“Then you were laboring under a mistaken impression. I never claimed any such thing.”
“No? Well you certainly implied it, madam. Did you pen the note with Mr. Johnson’s lexicon at your elbow?”
“Are you now implying that perhaps Marley and I aren’t who I presented us to be? Are you questioning that Marley is indeed John’s child, and now your ward?”
Sadie Grace Boxer had stepped forward a pace, her dimpled chin raised. When she spoke, there had been the hint of a drawl in her voice, as if she was pouring cream over steel. Odd, that they both should have the same failing, but for different reasons. Or perhaps she was secretly amused? No, that wasn’t it. What he saw in those eyes was a mix of confusion and … could that be fear?
Darby tipped his head slightly. “I wasn’t, no, not completely. But now that you mention it, have you any proof that you and the child are who you say you are?”
Speaking of rats, did he sound like one searching for any way off a sinking ship? Yes, he probably did. But the woman was not what he was expecting, and until he figured out why that bothered him, he wouldn’t be too hard on himself for his suddenly suspicious nature.
Mrs. Camford had just bustled into the foyer, followed by two housemaids, and was already tsk-tsking and issuing orders about clean linens and tubs to be drawn and fires to be laid in both one of the bedchambers and the nursery.
“Can this wait, my lord, as I tend to this small darling?” the housekeeper interrupted, having known Darby since he was in short coats and apparently already half in love with the now visibly shivering blonde poppet with the huge green eyes sparkling with heart-melting tears. “Oh, just look at the little darling. Come to Camy, sweetheart. Camy will make it all better.”
Darby raised a hand to his forehead, rubbing at the headache he could feel advancing on him. “Scolding me, Mrs. Camford? And with good reason. I can’t imagine what I was thinking. Take them off, with my compliments. I’ll be in my study if anyone needs me.”
“Yes, m’lord, you do that. You’re clearly of no use here.”
At last, Mrs. Boxer smiled. Of course she would. No woman could resist a little crowing when a man has been put solidly in his place.
“I’ll take myself off then, Camy, before I’m sent to bed without my porridge.”
Sadie Grace Boxer turned toward the stairs, following the housekeeper. “How gracious, my lord. Come along, Marley,” she called over her shoulder.
Instead, Marley walked straight up to Darby, stopping just in front of him. “You’re mean,” she announced. “I don’t like you, and I hope you die.”
“What a charming infant you are,” he said, and inclined his head to her.
The charming infant kicked him straight in the shin with all her might.
“Tired and hungry,” Mrs. Boxer said, perhaps in apology — and perhaps not — hurriedly coming back to take Marley by the shoulders and steer her toward the staircase.
Tompkins quickly suppressed a giggle, and even Mrs. Camford smiled as she brushed past the guests, to lead them upstairs.
“She’s just a child, my lord,” Camford said from behind him. “Mrs. Camford will soon take her in hand. Didn’t take any sass from our four boys, nor from you, either, begging your pardon. I couldn’t help but see you rubbing at your head. Shall I bring you some laudanum, sir?”
“No, thank you, that won’t be necessary. I’ll leave you and your good wife to sort things out, if I may, and retreat to my study to lick my wounds. Please have Mrs. Boxer brought to me when it suits her.”
Mrs. Boxer. If she looked that good wet, cold and bedraggled, how would she appear in velvet and diamonds? Mrs. What in bloody hell was he to do with a Mrs?
And why had her demeanor gone from aggravated (truly, aggravated), to apprehensive when he had asked her for proof of her claim? Both the legitimate and the imposter would have come fully armed with documentation. So why had that one question upset her?
It wasn’t as if he had demanded said proof or else order Tompkins to toss both her and the child back out into the rain. You don’t just toss innocent children around from pillar to post all willy-nilly, as if they didn’t have feelings.
The headache was closing in on him now, and thinking hurt, so he’d stop doing it. He limped off to his study.