Related collections and offers
|Sold by:||Barnes & Noble|
|File size:||557 KB|
Read an Excerpt
London, April 14, 1996
"Are you all right, miss? Do you need help?"
Amanda McGovern stiffened at the concern in the elderly gentleman's voice, and the headache that had barely made itself felt a few moments ago phased into a dull throb.
"No." she replied coldly. "I'm fine, thank you." Her voice echoed harshly in the shadowed church as she lowered herself gingerly into a pew. "I just came in to rest for a few minutes."
The gentleman raised his hand. "I did not mean to intrude, my dear, but the way you were..."
"I always walk like this," Amanda interrupted, her voice sharp. "It's a permanent condition." Softening her tone, she added, "But, thank you for your concern. I'm afraid I've walked too far today and thought I'd sit for a moment. It's so lovely here." She glanced around the little church, empty except for herself and the old man.
"Yes, it is," he agreed mildly. "I drop in often myself."
To Amanda's dismay, the man entered the pew ahead of hers and sat down, removing his hat as though prepared to settle in for a lengthy chat. Amanda did not fear the man, for a more harmless individual could not be imagined than this bespectacled, conservatively dressed nonentity, so fragile with age that he appeared on the verge of crumbling like old plaster. Still, she had no wish to be buttonholed by an importunate stranger, no matter his state of decrepitude.
"You're an American," the old man stated, beaming as though delighted by this fact. "Is this your first time in London?"
"Yes." She bent ostentatiously to the pamphlet she held in her hand, picked up from a table near the church entry. After a moment's silence, she became uncomfortablyaware of her rudeness and added, "My field is English literature, and--and British history." Rather to her surprise, she continued. "Besides London, I want to see--oh, the Lake District."
The man nodded, his faded wisps of hair drifting in the slight current of air that moved through the church. "Of course. Wordsworth and Shelley."
For the first time Amanda smiled. "Yes, and Keats. And, I must go to Chawton to see Jane Austen's home. I have already visited Dr. Johnson's house here in London, and Dickens', too, as well as the new Globe Theatre restoration." For heaven's sake, she thought, startled, she was prattling like an eager guest on Oprah.
"All in one day?" asked the gentleman, obviously impressed.
She nodded. "I only have a week in the city before I begin on the countryside, so I have to make the most of every moment." Despite herself, she was beginning to enjoy the ephemeral contact with this endearing old relic.
"But what are you doing in Mayfair?" he asked.
Amanda's laughter sounded loud in her ears. "Oh. Well, . was in a bus and I saw a street sign that said bond street. I couldn't resist the urge to windowshop there." She continued, bewildered at her uncharacteristic chattiness. "And then I decided that I must see Berkeley Square. I was delighted to see that so many of the old Georgian town houses are still here, for the Georgian and Regency periods are of particular interest to me," she concluded.
"I see," said the old man, his spectacles glittering in the waning twilight. "And now you have tired yourself to exhaustion."
A renewal of her irritation swept through Amanda. "I am quite accustomed to walking," she said curtly. "I simply got lost and decided to rest while I--regroup."
In the silence that followed, she squirmed in her seat. "But, yes, I'm afraid I overdid it just a bit. You see," she continued, feeling once more oddly compelled to confide in this unassuming little person, "I was severely injured in a car crash when I was small. I'm all right now--well, not all right, precisely," she said, running her fingers over the familiar twisted contours of her legs, "but, I'm able to function almost normally."
"It must have been--very difficult for you," murmured the old man softly.
"Yes." she said calmly. "It was difficult. But I survived."
The old man quirked a thread of an eyebrow. "Yes, you have accomplished a great deal."
Amanda started. What an odd thing to say! He could not know about the doctorate--and the rest.
She looked at the old man again, more closely this time. With his high old-fashioned collar, from which protruded a scrawny neck several sizes too small, he resembled something straight out of Dickens. His stiff, black suit was rusty with age. His eyes, behind the wire-rimmed spectacles, gleamed with an eldritch twinkle, and his cheeks were rosy little nobs set on either side of a small, sharp nose, down which the spectacles slid to perch uncertainly at its very tip.
She jerked to attention, aware that he was speaking again.
"...and you made the trip alone?"
"Oh, yes," she replied airily. "I--I prefer to travel by myself. I thought of taking a guided tour, but I hate the idea of those things. I'd rather strike out on my own."
"But doesn't your family worry about you--striking out on your own? And your friends?"
An odd, forlorn feeling fluttered in the pit of Amanda's stomach. "My friends respect my desire for independence. Actually," she continued after a long moment, "I don't have many close friends, and I haven't been in touch with any of my family for years. They--they don't understand my particular--problems." She listened to herself, appalled. She could not possibly be saying these things to a total stranger! "I prefer it that way," she added quickly. "I don't need any other encumbrances in my life." She gestured to her legs.
"Encumbrances?" The old man gazed at her with infinite sadness. "You have never let anyone--in?"
Amanda suddenly found it hard to swallow past the painful lump in her throat.
"No," she whispered. "Except ... No." She clamped her lips shut. She had already spilled more of herself to this peculiar old man than she had to anyone else in her adult life, but she was not, by God, going to tell him about Derek.
The old gentleman heaved a sigh so profound that it seemed impossible it could have come from that slight frame. He picked up his hat.
"I would love to stay longer, my dear, but I must be going," he said, rising with an audible creaking of joints.
To her surprise, Amanda opened her mouth to protest before arranging her face in a polite smile. "Of course," she murmured. "It's been nice chatting with you."
Moving into the aisle, the old man turned to her and raised a trembling hand to touch her cheek, just above the misshapen line of her jaw. It was like being brushed by a cobweb. He nodded his head abruptly. He took her hand for an instant, staring at her intently, and Amanda was aware of a strange, comforting warmth emanating from his thin fingers.
"Well, well, it appears you are the right one, after all," he said cryptically. He stood back to survey her for a long moment, his head bobbing several times on the frail stem of his neck. "You have a long journey ahead of you. I wish you well," he said simply before turning away to become absorbed into the shadows.
The right one for what? Amanda wondered as the silence of the church settled on her like a heavy blanket. She felt oppressed, suddenly, and was aware that her headache, which had eased during her conversation with the old man, had returned. They were becoming more and more frequent, she noticed distractedly. She'd have to get her eyes checked when she got back home. She really didn't need any more aches and pains.
Unconsciously, she lifted her hand to touch a pendant that hung on a slim gold chain about her neck, and she closed her eyes. Derek. An image flashed before her in swift painful detail of thick, curling golden hair and eyes the color of the sea. She had seen those eyes burn with passion, and later, had watched in misery as they turned cold and flat with disinterest.
She clutched the pendant in her hand, almost welcoming the sharpness of the edges that dug into her palm. Lord, she thought in sudden irritation, she had got over Derek years ago. Why had she clung for so long to this symbol of his fragile devotion? Certainly not as a memento of lost love. She had kept it, she told herself firmly, because it was beautiful--and as a reminder that love was an illusion fostered by the sentimentalists of the world. She dropped it into her neckline and made as though to rise. She'd rested long enough. Up and at 'em, Amanda.
"Damn!" She uttered the word aloud. She should have asked directions of her Good Samaritan. She glanced at the pamphlet in her hand. Grosvenor Chapel, built in 1730. She rather thought she had seen the name in her guidebook. Unfortunately, she'd left the guidebook in her hotel room--again.
Let's see, she'd been on--no, in, the English said--North Audley Street. Just before the pain in her hips and legs had driven her to seek haven, she had noticed the chapel, with a lovely park behind it, and the building next door which bore a sign proclaiming it to be the Mayfair Public Library. If she kept on in the direction she had been walking, she would eventually run into Grosvenor Square, wouldn't she? And after that, Oxford Street, She wasn't sure she could face the crowds on that busy thoroughfare just now. Yesterday, she had stumbled and nearly fallen on the corner of one of the huge paving stones.
A memory rose before her, so vivid she almost gasped, of Derek pulling her along a beach just outside San Diego. He had laughed as she lurched clumsily in his wake, but it was a tender sound, one of love and encouragement, and she had renewed her effort, determined not to spoil his afternoon.
She came back to her surroundings, suddenly cold, to realize that it was almost dark. She must return to her hotel--if only she could find the way. Well, she'd just have to take a taxi. As she clutched the edge of the pew in front of her and began to struggle to her feet, she was dismayed to feel tears on her cheeks. She was assailed by another wave of depression and she sank back against the wood. The lovely little church blurred before her, and she turned her face upward.
"Please," she murmured. "Please help me. I'm so lost."
She made again as though to rise, but in that instant her headache suddenly blossomed into a searing vortex of pain. The sound of her gasp echoed in the shadowy church, and the darkness advanced on her until it seemed to cover her, to absorb her into its suffocating depths. The next moment, a shaft of pure, white light that seemed to come from the window above the altar transfixed her, and the pain swelled into a physical assault, almost exquisite in its intensity. With a small moan, she slumped into the pew, giving herself up to the blackness.
London, April 14, 1815
William, the Earl of Ashindon, was an angry man. Ignoring the anguished protests of the woman who sat next to him in his curricle, he drew up with a jerk before the Grosvenor Chapel. Behind him, he heard the sound of another carriage pulling up, but, heedless, leaped to the ground and made his way to the chapel entrance.
"Please, my lord..."
He looked down into the pleading eyes of Serena Bridge, wife of Jeremiah, whose pounding footsteps caught up with them at that moment.
"Please, my lord," repeated Serena. "Let us--my husband and I--take care of this."
"That's right," puffed Jeremiah, his thinning hair falling in disarray over broad features. "There is no need to concern yourself with this--unfortunate situation, my lord."
"Oh, is there not?" returned the earl angrily. "It seems to me that under the circumstances, my concern is not only understandable, but required. And cannot you silence that god-awful screeching?" He flung a hand toward the maidservant who hovered nearby, her apron thrown over her head. He turned on his heel as Jeremiah barked an order at the unfortunate girl.
Good God, thought the earl, it needed only this to set the seal on his wretched situation. He had struggled for months against the urgings of his man of affairs to pursue the Bridge chit, and when he finally succumbed, look where it had led him. Cuckolded before he was even wed, for God's sake.
To be sure, his heart was not involved, but his amour propre was sorely wounded. The fact that Amanda Bridge had preferred a man like Cosmo Satterleigh to himself was enough to make him a laughingstock in the haut ton. He had never cared for the opinion of that body--those self-proclaimed arbiters of custom, but this was the outside of enough. When he had discovered on his arrival chez Bridge to make an official declaration that the object of his attentions had apparently eloped an hour earlier, he had almost choked on his rage and humiliation. None of which, of course, he had allowed himself to display. His demeanor remained calm and frigidly correct, and it was he who had conducted the interrogation of the hapless maid, leading to the intelligence that Amanda had fled to a rendezvous with her beloved in the chapel.
It was, he assured himself, the sheer unexpectedness of the situation that had so taken him aback. He had no illusions concerning his personal attributes, for he could by no means be considered personable, and his social skills were minimal. Moreover, his financial situation ... He snorted. The last time he had stood in the dark, empty Hall of Ashindon Park, he had felt like a ghost presiding over the ruins of a dissipated legacy. There was, however, the ancient and honorable Ashindon title, a commodity highly desired by the likes of Jeremiah Bridge.
Ash had thought his status appealed to Bridge's beautiful daughter, as well. She had seemed to welcome his attentions, fluttering her incredible lashes at him and giggling dutifully at his every pleasantry.
Apparently, he had been mistaken.
He should be grateful, of course, at this excuse to break off the budding relationship, but, no. He had too much invested. He was, in short, desperate. Still, he thought as he moved purposefully toward the chapel, he could cheerfully throttle the silly little widgeon, who undoubtedly waited inside with breathless anticipation for the arrival of her lover.
The Bridges in his wake, he entered the vestibule and pushed through the door that led into the chapel. His gaze swept the interior. Yes, there she was, seated alone in a corner in an attitude of prayerful expectancy. Behind him, Serena Bridge gasped, and at the sound the girl rose. With a rustle of silken skirts, she whirled to face them.
Her mouth was a wide O of surprise and distress, and she raised her hands in a defensive gesture. In the next instant, however, a grimace of pain distorted her lovely features, and her fingers lifted to her forehead. She uttered a soft moan and slumped to the floor.
Ash stifled an exclamation of anger. Did the chit think to escape punishment by feigning a swoon? He knelt to gather her in his arms. He shook her roughly, then his breath caught. Her face was utterly still and slightly tinged with gray. He had seen death many times and knew its aspect well. Suddenly cold, he placed his fingertips at the base of her throat, to find only stillness. He glanced up at Serena and Jeremiah, the bewilderment and anguish in their eyes striking him like a blow. He steeled himself.
"She's--" he began. "Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, I'm afraid your daughter is--"
He felt a stirring in his arms, and looking down, saw to his astonishment that Amanda's eyes were fluttering open.
Amanda's first sensation on regaining consciousness was an unaccustomed feeling of warmth and security. Her second was an uncomfortable realization that she was being cradled in the arms of a strange man. She struggled to a sitting position and became aware with some relief of the presence of a middle-aged man and woman of an undoubtedly respectable mien. She noted, also with relief, that her headache had disappeared. She glanced up at the man who still held her and whose face was disturbingly close to her own. Good heavens, he was dressed in some sort of costume, as were, she realized with a start, the other man and the woman. Oh, dear Lord, had she passed out in the middle of some sort of reenactment?
"Please," she whispered. "I--I'm sorry. I seem to--"
"Amanda!" It was the woman, speaking in accents of severe disapprobation. "Amanda, how could you, you wicked girl?"
"W-what?" asked Amanda in bewilderment. She hadn't spoiled their presentation--or whatever they were engaged in--on purpose, after all.... And how did they know her name?
"It's no good pretending you know nothing," growled the older man. "We know what you were up to ... and you deserve a good thrashing for it."
"What?" exclaimed Amanda again, in stronger accents. "Who the hell are you people?"
"Amanda!" cried the woman. "What will his lordship think?"
His lordship? Amanda turned with a jerk to confront the man who still held her gripped in an embrace. She judged him to be tall, and his eyes were of an unnerving steel gray. He could by no means be called attractive, for his features were harsh and irregular, arranged haphazardly around an imposing nose. Yet he was definitely lordly, she admitted, for he was possessed of a casual elegance and an air of command. He appeared to be about thirty years old, and his costume was composed of a pearl gray coat jacket, a silk vest, and a ruffled shirt, completed with an intricately tied cravat that added to the effect of upper-class arrogance. His hair was a thick black thatch that fell over his forehead in disarray.
Hastily, she thrust herself away from him. "I'm sorry," she began again, waving her hands, "if I've spoiled your--oh, my God!" she concluded in consternation as she glanced at her hands. They could not be hers! Her hands were squarish and capable, with blunt, clipped nails. These alien appendages were smooth and delicate, the slender fingers tapering to polished nails. She looked down at herself and almost collapsed into unconsciousness once again. A deep trembling began in her, for her gaze encountered an ankle-length gown of some sort of light cloth. It was pale yellow in color and over it she wore a very short, light jacket with a high neck and long sleeves. With the younger man's assistance, she rose gingerly to her feet. Dizzily she realized that she was moving on legs that were long and straight and strong.
My God, she must have had some sort of seizure! She had gone completely mad! In a blind panic, she turned to rush from the church, only to be grasped roughly by the older man.
"Now then, missy, we'll have no more of your nonsense."
"Indeed, Amanda," said the woman. "You must come home with us. We will--talk about it later."
"The devil we will," snorted the older man. "You'll be spending the next few weeks in your room. Or, assuming..." His fleshy lips clamped shut as he shot a glance at "my lord."
"Come along then," he concluded, wrenching her toward the exit doors.
Amanda glanced wildly around the church. It was still empty except for herself and this collection of maniacs. "No!" she cried. "Please! I don't understand..."
The younger man spoke for the first time. "Let her go, Bridge." His voice was as harsh as his appearance, but his tone was cool and detached. "She is obviously distraught. I shall convey her home in my curricle. I suggest you save your questions until she has had a chance to recover herself." Taking her hand, he led her along the aisle.
Dazed, she followed him unresistingly until they reached the sidewalk outside the church. She stopped abruptly, her eyes nearly starting from her head. It was broad daylight, and the sun shone on a scene she knew could not possibly exist. Horse-drawn vehicles of every shape and size trundled along the street, and pedestrians, all dressed in costume, jostled about them. Up and down the avenue, vendors pushing carts hawked wares at the top of their lungs. And the buildings! Gone was the Mayfair Public Library. In its place stood a row of small houses. Behind the church, where before she had glimpsed a lovely park, lay a graveyard.
She turned to stare in anguish at the man, who still held her hand in his. His returning gaze was unpromising.
"Come along, Miss Bridge. You must face the wrath of your father sometime, you know. And I am due at Carlton House in less than an hour to meet with the Prince Regent."
Amanda simply gaped. "The--the Prince Regent?" she croaked, just before she fell into another swirling chasm of darkness.