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Authors: Lucy Muir

Tags: #Regency Romance

Sussex Summer

BOOK: Sussex Summer
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SUSSEX SUMMER

 

Lucy Muir

 

Chapter One

 

Captain Edward Tremaine drew his bay to a halt at the top of the rise and contemplated the view before him. The sun had burned away the morning clouds and its rays had warmed the small village of Staplefield, nestled between the sliding green Sussex hills. Here and there the early summer verdant terrain was adorned with patches of pink and white where a late tree bloomed or flowers blossomed. Edward sighed contentedly and a sense of peace descend upon him—the first he had experienced in many years. How often had dreams of such a rare June day in England sustained him, particularly during this last year spent amidst the cold and barren mountains of Spain!

Memories of the retreat to Corunna threatened Edward’s new peace of mind and he prodded his mount forward, eager to reach the security of his home and family. It was not far now. Two miles beyond the village and he would be home again. He had not seen Haverton Park since he had purchased his commission five years ago, although he had managed a visit or two to the family townhouse in London.

The bay ambled forward at his urging, but at an exasperatingly slow gait. At this rate he would not arrive home for hours yet, Edward thought. He urged his mount to greater speed, but the placid bay ignored his rider’s direction, continuing at his own preferred pace.

“You know I barely have the strength to hold the reins, don’t you, Ariel?” he asked aloud.

Four months in hospital had kept him amongst the living, but had done little to restore a body ravaged by dysentery and debilitated by starvation and exhaustion.

Edward resigned himself to the bay’s slow pace. Just as well, he thought, since he had purposely arranged to give his family time to prepare for his return. He had sent his valet ahead with his carriage and luggage, both to give his family notice of his impending arrival and to enable him to drink in the country air and treasure every step of his homecoming.

As he slowly neared the village, a soft warm breeze carrying the heavy sweet scents of honeysuckle and roses ruffled the lock of blond hair falling across his forehead. Edward looked in the direction from which the breeze came and saw a pretty cottage covered in vines and brambles by the road not far ahead. It was a good-sized cottage, built in the style typical of the region, constructed of brick and tile with wooden casements. Even in a village where bountiful gardens were common, it was  distinguished by the profusion of blossoms covering both the cottage and the low stone wall surrounding it.

As he drew abreast of the cottage, Edward looked over the gate and, enchanted by the picture revealed before him, involuntarily pulled up on his mount’s reins. A young woman clad in a pink print frock and straw hat knelt amidst a garden of early summer blossoms, a basket of cut flowers beside her. A fat marmalade cat sat in the middle of the garden path, twitching its tail as it eyed the stranger by the gate. The young woman, absorbed in her task, was not yet aware of his presence. Knowing himself unnoticed, Edward stared at her unabashedly, absorbing the perfect Englishness of the scene.

“Please,” he said after several moments, almost unaware he spoke aloud, “tell me your name is Anne, Susan, or Jane.”

The young woman started, knocking the basket of flowers sideways, and rose hastily to her feet, looking up at him in surprise. Her eyes reflected a temporary expression of shock, and Edward smiled ruefully as he realized the picture
he
must present, thin to the point of emaciation, threadbare uniform hanging on him loosely. He half-expected her to vanish into the cottage without a word, but instead she righted her basket and walked up to the gate.

“Yes, my given name is Jane,” she acknowledged in cultured accents. “Jane Hampton, Miss Hampton,” she elucidated.

“I knew it had to be one of the three, Miss Hampton,” Edward said. “The picture of you in your garden with the cottage was so very typically English that you had to have a good English name.”

Her laughter at his remark was low and musical. “I am sorry to disillusion you, but if it is a good English name you seek, you should have asked if my name were Mildred, Audrey, or perhaps Ethel. Jane is from the French, and Susan and Anne are of Hebrew derivation.”   

 Edward laughed appreciatively. Now that he saw Miss Hampton close up, he realised that she was a little older than he had first thought, perhaps in her early twenties. She was of medium height and build, and looked glowingly healthy with her pink cheeks and shining soft brown hair and eyes.

"My scholarship is shown up, is it not, Miss Hampton? The derivation of your name aside, if you only knew how long I have yearned to see just such a scene, you would surely forgive my lack."

He broke off, gesturing towards the cottage and garden. She smiled at him quizzically, and Edward endeavoured to explain his comment.

“I am just back from the Peninsula, and remembering English scenes like this was one of the things that helped keep me going. Thank you for making my homecoming so perfect."

''Pleased to be of service, Mr.—? "

"Captain Edward Tremaine, at
your
service," he said, making a creditable bow from his seat on Ariel, who was contentedly munching on the tall grass growing against the stone wall. Did he imagine it, or had a shadow darkened Miss Hampton’s eyes momentarily at the mention of his name? He decided he was mistaken, for she answered pleasantly enough.

"I am pleased to make your acquaintance, Captain Tremaine, and happy you have returned safely home," she said with a neat curtsy.

Edward knew he should be getting on, but was reluctant to do so. He said nothing for a moment, continuing to gaze about him, wishing to imprint the tableau upon his memory. Miss Hampton stood quietly, the breeze ruffling her skirts and carrying another wave of scent to his nostrils. The marmalade cat had evidently decided he was not worthy of notice and was busy washing its foot.

"May I have a rose, Miss Hampton?" he asked impulsively, wanting a memento of this moment.

"Of course, Captain Tremaine," she replied. Miss Hampton returned to her basket and knelt beside it, taking her time selecting a bloom. Apparently finding one she felt suited the occasion, she returned to the gate, holding it out to him. Her soft fingers touched Edward’s desiccated ones for a moment as he took the rose, a half-opened blossom of deep pink tinged with lavender. He held it to his nose and inhaled its scent deeply, then stuck it through a buttonhole on his coat.

"Thank you, Miss Hampton," he said simply, smiling at her. She smiled back, a dimple appearing in her left cheek. “I must move on,” he added reluctantly, flicking the reins. However, Ariel, not having had his fill of the grass, took exception to the command and turned his head to glare at Edward. The bay then abruptly jerked his head forward and down, pulling the reins from Edward’s hands.

"It would seem Ariel has no more desire to leave your company than I," Edward laughed as he leaned forward to retrieve the reins.

"Ariel?" Miss Hampton repeated, laughing herself. "From
The Tempest?"

Edward understood her surprise, for a horse which looked less like an airy spirit than the ponderous bay was hard to imagine.

"Yes. I chose him because I knew I could not handle a horse with spirit yet. I was feeling in an ironical mood when I named him, but I have found it to be more apt than I had imagined. He is a most capricious mount."

As though to verify Edward’s comment, Ariel suddenly decided to obey the command to move. He raised his head and started down the road at a brisk trot, only giving Edward time to wave a quick goodbye. His last view of Miss Hampton was of her leaning on the gate watching him disappear down the road towards the village.

* * * *

Jane Hampton stood at the gate several minutes, gazing after her unexpected caller as he continued on his way through the village. So that was the elder son of the viscount, Lord Tremaine. She would never have guessed who he was from his appearance. He was so gaunt and haggard that she had at first missed the resemblance to the other members of his family, obvious only in the same hazel eyes and fair complexion. Captain Tremaine must have been seriously injured in the action on the Peninsula, or been extremely ill. Jane felt compassion for the captain, along with regret that he was a Tremaine. She had instinctively liked him, and under other circumstances would have wished to become better acquainted.

Jane sighed and, turning from the gate, resumed filling her basket with flowers, musing on the events of the past few years. When she and her father and sister had moved to the village of Staplefield four years ago, they had gotten to know the Tremaines quite well. Although they were not rich, Jane's father, a clergyman and grandson of a marquess, was socially acceptable to Lord Tremaine and his wife. A close friendship had begun to develop between the two families. If only her sister had not caught the eye of the Tremaines’ younger son, Jamie, Jane thought, slashing angrily at a rose stem and stabbing her finger. Putting the wounded finger in her mouth, she chided herself for attacking the innocent roses. Jamie had been at fault, not the lovely blooms.

Two years ago, Jamie Tremaine, eighteen, and down from school for the holidays, had met her sister Fanny, then seventeen, and had become enamoured with Fanny’s beauty. During the year Jamie had been away, Fanny had changed from a skinny young girl of no consequence to a slender young woman with beautiful silver-blonde hair and dark brown eyes that glowed startlingly against her fair skin. After a year, and against the better judgment of both families, who pressured them to wait until James was of age, Fanny and Jamie had become engaged.

Then last winter Fanny had become ill with a terrible fever. For weeks she had lain teetering between life and death, often closer to the latter. Eventually Fanny had recovered, but her beauty was gone. Her silver-blonde hair had fallen out, and when it had begun to grow back it was of a darker hue. Her luminous eyes had dulled and her porcelain complexion turned yellowish and transparent. Jane would never forget the look on James Tremaine's face when he had seen his betrothed for the first time after she had begun to recover. Nor would she forget the pain visible on her sister's when Jamie had visibly recoiled from her, blurting out right there and then that the betrothal was off.

To give the Tremaine family their due, Lord and Lady Tremaine had been shocked and dismayed by their son's behaviour. They were planning to force their son to continue in the betrothal, but Mr. Hampton had intervened, requesting they not do so. However, to keep gossip to a minimum and save face for both families, it had been decided not to make the broken engagement public until Fanny was fully recovered. Therefore Fanny was still nominally Jamie's betrothed, although she had not seen him again since that terrible day.

Jane decided she had enough roses in her basket and began to cut some spicy-scented fraxinella for her father's study, thinking sadly of the deterioration of their friendship with the Tremaines. She and her father still spoke to Lord and Lady Tremaine at services Sundays, but it was awkward. Inevitably the situation had strained relations between the families, particularly when Fanny steadfastly refused to see
any
of the Tremaines. Fortunately the villagers assumed the Tremaines did not call at the Hampton’s cottage because of Fanny's delicate health, but as she improved there would be questions if Jane and her father could not persuade Fanny to relent.

Jane picked up her now-full basket and walked to the cottage door, followed by Thomas, the marmalade cat.

She wondered what Fanny's reaction to the visit by Captain Tremaine would be. She doubted Fanny would have missed seeing the encounter, for she spent most of her days reclining on the settee by the drawing room window, watching passers-by. Since Fanny would not receive the Tremaines, she could not receive other callers without causing comment, and the days passed slowly for her. Mrs. Fairchild, the vicar's wife, did come by occasionally to leave a glass of calf's-foot jelly, but Fanny had no other company.

Jane took her basket into the cottage kitchen. Mrs. Reid, a comfortable-looking village woman who came days, handed her a vase filled with water. Mrs. Reid's eldest son, Ned, served as the Hampton’s ostler, and her husband did any heavy work that was required around the cottage. Jane began to arrange the choicest blooms in the vase for her sister.

"You will never guess who stopped by our gate just now," she said to Mrs. Reid.

"Captain Tremaine," Mrs. Reid said as she continued to prepare the Hampton’s noon meal without a pause, expertly rolling out the pastry for the meat pie.

"How did you know?" Jane asked, surprised.

"I saw him from the dining room window when I was laying the table. In that uniform it could not have been anyone else. I heard from Mrs. Wilson at Haverton Park that he was expected to be released from hospital soon."

"Was he wounded or ill?" Jane asked.

"Ill. He has been in hospital since January recovering from dysentery and exhaustion."

BOOK: Sussex Summer
11.66Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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