Authors: Margo Maguire
By MARGO MAGUIRE
Copyright © 2011 by Margo Maguire
Cover Image Victorian Traditions / Shutterstock.com
Cover and E-book formatted by Jessica Lewis
This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each person you share it with. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then you should return to your online retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the author’s work.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Plymouth, England. Late February, 1816.
“Damn me, but it’s cold,” said the newly minted Lieutenant James Norris to his younger friend, Lang Jameson. They were off to collect their mail and have a pint or two at the Black Raven, a favorite tavern among sailors on leave.
Not that they had much time. Just an overnight reprieve from their duties on The Defender. Long enough to drink a few pints, read their mail, and perhaps sample the charms of a willing tavern maid.
At least, that’s what James had in mind.
“Aye,” Lang replied, as anxious as James to get indoors. They huddled inside their great coats and pushed into the crowded, smoke-filled tavern, and picked up their precious mail before collecting mugs of ale and finding a table.
Through the tavern’s dingy windows, they could have looked out at the harbor, but both men were engrossed with their letters from home and hardly gave a thought to each other, let alone the view. At least, not until Norris looked up and saw his friend scowling fiercely.
“What is it?” he asked as Lang shoved the missive into the pocket of his greatcoat.
Lang did not reply, but thrust his fingers through his hair in a gesture of frustration. He gave a quick shake of his head, whether in disbelief or dismay, James could not say, even though they’d been friends through thick and thin these past five years.
“I can see something is amiss, Lang,” James said. “You know you can—”
Another voice interrupted Norris from ascertaining the source of Lang’s consternation. “Well, well, if it isn’t the fair young brother of Lady Christina Fairhaven. Which one are you?” The man sat down without being invited. He was several years older than Norris, and well-dressed, sporting a thick, black mustache beneath a long, thin, aristocratic nose.
“I am Lang, the middle brother. And you, sir, are…” Norris saw Lang struggling for the man’s name, making it clear he barely knew him. “Viscount, er… ?”
It seemed fairly obvious the viscount didn’t really know Lang, either. However, it did not stop the viscount from taking a seat with them. The man chuckled. “At your service, lad. Drink up.” He gave James a slight nod of acknowledgement and waved for a comely blond serving girl to bring them another round.
“So. A couple of lieutenants, I see. You two lads just off your boat?”
Norris bristled slightly at the reference to a boat when The Defender was one of the most magnificent ships in His Majesty’s Royal Navy. “We’re on leave, aye,” Lang replied. He took a long draught of ale.
“And how is your lovely sister, Lady Christina Fairhaven?” the viscount asked. “Terrible news about her husband.”
Lang’s features tightened and he gave a curt nod. Norris knew Lang had never particularly liked Lord Fairhaven – thought he wasn’t good enough for her. But then what brother ever did? Still, it had been an advantageous match, and that was the kind of marriage made by the sons and daughters of earls.
They spoke no more of Lang’s sister, but of various amusements the viscount had enjoyed on a recent visit to Town. He seemed to be a man of vast experience, his presence welcomed at every soiree and in every drawing room in London. He was looking forward to the coming Season.
They drank another ale but switched to whiskey as the viscount kept up his inane babbling. James only half-listened, preoccupied as he was on a glorious flirtation with the sweet blond tavern wench whose eyes promised a night of even sweeter pleasures. By the time Viscount Whosits took his leave, the girl had perched herself upon James’s lap and was whispering wicked nothings into his ear.
James hardly took note when Lang got up and left the tavern to answer the call of nature, not when he had pretty Sally’s tongue swirling ’round his ear, and pulling his hand into her blouse.
“Come on, my bonnie lad,” she crooned as she drew him up from his chair. “Come upstairs with me and we’ll have a fine toss—”
A sudden, massive blast knocked Sally to the floor with James on top of her. It was powerful enough to burst the windows in the tavern, causing everyone to take cover. As soon as they realized they were not under fire, the questions began, along with shouting and pushing to get out.
James came to his feet and attempted to sober himself, but found he could not. He felt cotton-headed and wobbly as he pulled Sally to her feet. She was as dazed as he, and James suddenly realized he didn’t even know now long Lang had been gone.
Oh, Christ, where was he? James staggered through the crowd to the door and pushed his way outside. He tried to focus his eyes, but they did not cooperate. Still, he could see that one or perhaps more of the warehouses at the far end of the wharf were burning wildly. Unstoppably. The near wall of the closest building had blown out completely. Good God, it must have been stores of munitions.
James wiped his hand across his face and began to search the vicinity for signs of Lang. Where in hell had he gone?
West Sussex, England. Late March, 1816.
Stella Barrington took one last look in the mirror and drew out a few soft curls to frame the sides of her face. It was a foolish vanity, she knew, and completely unwarranted. James Norris was coming to see Virginia, not her.
Hardly anyone noticed her face or form once they realized she was lame. As though that made her somehow less. Lieutenant Norris was no different from the rest. He greeted her cordially every time they met, but he never had eyes for anyone but her sister.
Breathing deeply, Stella pressed one hand to her breast and told herself it didn’t matter. Once Virginia married James, Stella could forget about him and let her heart move on. Her father had promised her a season of sorts in London this year – after a great deal of badgering, of course. Stella knew her father’s reticence was not out of stinginess. He did not want her to be hurt.
But Stella knew she could hold her own in any drawing room. Perhaps not on a dance floor, but how much dancing was required of a wife?
That’s all she wanted. To become wife to a decent man, and bear his children. To feel his regard and affection. To experience the love and respect of her children.
Stella wanted not to be known merely as the crippled maiden aunt of her sister and brother’s children. That was a fate she could not abide.
She did not expect she could ever garner the romantic attentions of a dashing fellow such as Lieutenant Norris. He was tall with broad shoulders and light hair the color of sand, with strands of gold shot through. Each time she’d seen him his skin had been bronzed by the sun, causing his eyes to appear lighter than a normal blue. To Stella, they were the color of a pale blue sky. His features were as manly as one would expect in a naval officer, hard and square, and so handsome the sight of his visage nearly took her breath away.
But men like James Norris did not take note of women like Stella. He was Virginia’s, if she wanted him.
Of course Virginia would. And her absence from Barrington Manor would only make Lieutenant Norris more interested. When he learned that Virginia and their parents had removed to Brighton to see to her ailing grandmother, he would cut short his visit. With apologies, of course. And perhaps he would even find a reason to stop at Brighton before returning to his ship.
Stella had seen it happen before. Young men tripping over their tongues for a moment of Virginia’s attention.
Lieutenant Norris should have arrived at Barrington Manor by now, for it was nearly dark. Stella had to suppress a shiver of disappointment at the possibility that the lieutenant might have already gotten wind of Virginia’s changed location. Perhaps he’d already detoured to Brighton and would not be coming to Barrington Manor at all.
Stella rarely used a walking stick these days, taking one only when she walked the fields with Tilly, her Great Dane. She’d figured out that walking strengthened her leg and it had helped to minimize her limp, though when she was fatigued, her lameness was as pronounced as ever and she needed Tilly’s support.
Luckily, she was not the least bit tired at the moment. She decided it was the perfect time to catch the heavy shadows of late winter out in the back garden. Perhaps she’d be able to swallow her disappointment if she occupied herself in a worthwhile pursuit.
She picked up her sketching pad and a packet of freshly sharpened pencils and started down the stairs.
* * *
If there was one thing James Norris had learned in the past month, it was that life was too short for wasting. Damn all, he’d lost his closest friend, Lang Jameson, in the explosion on the wharf at Plymouth. As James was several years Lang’s senior, he understood far too clearly that he’d already wasted too much precious time.
Aye, he’d been involved in many a naval battle these past few years, but somehow he and his friends had managed to come through them – intact, mostly. During their time in the fleet, Freddie Diggins had lost a finger. Douglas Harris’s memory had gone defective. Farley Taylor had nearly lost an eye. All of them had scars from one bit of shrapnel or other.
Yet now, nearly a year after Old Boney had been imprisoned, James was dead – horribly and violently killed for no good reason whatsoever.
A few days after the explosion and fire, James had resigned from the navy. Losing Lang had been the shock that thrust him from further military service. It was time he did something more than ride the waves on The Defender.
James rode toward Barrington Manor, the home of his very good friend from school, Robert Barrington, whose sister James intended to wed. He’d put off marriage long enough, thinking he had all the time in the world. He was already five and twenty, by God. He’d believed he would have plenty of time to do all he’d set out to do in this life. Serve England in her fight against Napoleon; carouse at various pleasure houses with the other veterans of the war; travel the continent he’d fought so fiercely to protect from arrogant French tentacles.
A set of entirely different priorities had begun to form inside his head the moment he’d identified Lang Jameson’s burned body amidst the rubble of the navy storehouse. Lang’s body had been unrecognizable but for his height and the color of his hair – what was left of it.
Nausea roiled as James thought of it, and he wished he’d been able to spare Lang’s father, the earl of Sunderland, the same misery. But the earl had raced down to Plymouth and insisted upon viewing his son’s remains before his burial. It was an agony James would never wish upon any father.
Pushing his bleak memories to the back of his mind, James turned his thoughts to Virginia Barrington whom he’d met several times. Though James would not inherit his noble father’s title or estates, it was known that he would inherit a large sum upon his sire’s death. A young lady could do worse than settle her sights upon a wealthy, former naval officer for a husband.
He and Virginia had exchanged a few letters, and James knew she had not yet received a suitable offer of marriage. She was waiting… for him, he hoped.
It was nearly dark when he arrived at Barrington Manor. He’d written ahead of his arrival, of course, and was expected. Two footmen came from the house and took James’s bag as a groom came around and took charge of his horse. A moment later, James was walking into the main entrance of the house toward Robert who was coming down the staircase at a quick clip.
The two friends shook hands and repaired to the drawing room. “We heard of the terrible fires at Plymouth. The Defender was untouched?”
“Aye. But my good friend – you met him once in London, Lang Jameson – was killed in the explosion. We were together just a few moments before…”
“Good God,” Robert said, standing in shock. “Who would have thought…? Well, I mean, you expect casualties in battle…”
“Aye. We thought the wars were over. With the Corsican safely ensconced at St. Helena, we never thought…”
“I am very sorry for your loss, James,” Robert said. “’Tis an awful burden to bear – losing a friend in such a way. Come. You’ll want to settle in before supper. Let me take you to your room.”
Grateful that nothing more would be said about Lang’s death, James accompanied Robert up the stairs. He noticed the house was quiet – a good deal quieter than he remembered, but kept this observation to himself. It was a little disappointing that Virginia had not made a point of coming to greet him on his arrival, but perhaps she had not become aware of it.
“I daresay you’ll want to rest—”
“Not at all,” James said. He was anxious for supper to begin, for the family to gather. He wanted to see Virginia as soon as he could make himself presentable. “I’ll just have a quick wash and change clothes.”
“Excellent,” Robert said, leaving James at the door of his room. “Come down whenever you’re ready.”
The bedroom was more than adequate, of course, and someone had already unpacked his valise and laid out his good clothes. He washed and decided to shave, too. No sense in making Virginia’s first impression a poor one.