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The Proposal: The Survivors' Club: Book 1 by Mary Balogh (1)

The Survivors’ Club

 

 

T
he weather could have been better. Low clouds scudded across the sky, blown along by a brisk wind, and rain that had been threatening all day had started to fall. The sea was rough and metal gray. A chill dampness penetrated even to the interior of the carriage, making its sole occupant glad of his heavy greatcoat.

His spirits were not to be dampened, however, even though he would have preferred sunshine. He was on his way to Penderris Hall in Cornwall, country seat of George Crabbe, Duke of Stanbrook. His Grace was one of the six people he loved most in the world, a strange admission, perhaps, when five of those people were men. They were the six people he trusted most in the world, then, though trust seemed too impersonal a word and there was nothing impersonal about his feelings for these friends. They were all going to be at Penderris for the next three weeks or so.

They were a group of survivors of the Napoleonic Wars, five of them former military officers who had been incapacitated by various wounds and sent home to England to recuperate. All of them had come to the attention of the Duke of Stanbrook, who had borne them off to Penderris Hall for treatment, rest, and convalescence. The duke had been past the age of fighting in the wars himself, but his only son had not been. He had both fought and died in the Peninsula during the early years of the campaign there. The seventh member of the club was the widow of a surveillance officer who had been captured by the enemy in the Peninsula and died under torture, which had been conducted at least partially in her presence. The duke was a distant cousin of hers and had taken her in after her return to England.

They had formed a close bond, the seven of them, during the lengthy period of their healing and convalescence. And because for various reasons they would all bear the mark of their wounds and war experiences for the rest of their lives, they had agreed that when the time came for them to return to their own separate lives beyond the safe confines of Penderris, they would return for a few weeks each year in order to relax and renew their friendship, to discuss their progress, and to offer one another support in any difficulty that might have arisen.

They were all survivors and strong enough to live independent lives. But they were also all permanently scarred in one way or another, and they did not have to hide that fact when they were together.

One of their number had once dubbed them the Survivors’ Club, and the name had stuck, even if only among themselves.

Hugo Emes, Lord Trentham, peered as best he could through the rain that was now pelting against the carriage window. He could see the edge of the high cliffs not too far distant and the sea beyond them, a line of foam-flecked gray darker than the sky. He was on Penderris land already. He would be at the house within minutes.

Leaving here three years ago had been one of the hardest things any of them had ever done. Hugo would have been happy to spend the rest of his life here. But of course, life was forever changing and it had been time to leave.

And now it was time for change again …

But he would not think of that yet.

This was the third reunion, though Hugo had been forced to miss last year’s. He had not seen any of these friends for two years, then.

The carriage drew to a halt at the foot of the steps leading up to the massive front doors of Penderris Hall and rocked for a few moments on its springs. Hugo wondered if any of the others had arrived yet. He felt like a child arriving for a party, he thought in some disgust, all eager anticipation and nervously fluttering stomach.

The doors of the house opened and the duke himself stepped between them. He proceeded down the steps despite the rain and reached the foot of them as the coachman opened the carriage door and Hugo vaulted out without waiting for the steps to be put down.

“George,” he said.

He was not the sort of man who normally hugged other people or even touched them unnecessarily. But it might very well have been he who initiated the tight hug in which they were both soon enveloped.

“Goodness me,” the duke said, loosening his hold after a few moments and taking a step back in order to look Hugo over. “You have not shrunk in two years, Hugo, have you? In either height or breadth. You are one of the few people who can make me feel small. Come inside out of the rain and I shall check my ribs to discover how many you have crushed.”

He was not the first to arrive, Hugo saw as soon as they were inside the great hall. Flavian was there to greet him—Flavian Arnott, Viscount Ponsonby. And Ralph was there too—Ralph Stockwood, Earl of Berwick.

“Hugo,” Flavian said, raising a quizzing glass to his eye and affecting bored languor. “You big ugly bear. It is surprisingly g-good to see you.”

“Flavian, you slight, beautiful boy,” Hugo said, striding toward him, his boot heels ringing on the tiled floor, “it is good to see you, and I am not even surprised about it.”

They wrapped their arms about each other and slapped each other’s back.

“Hugo,” Ralph said, “it feels like just yesterday that we saw you last. You look the same as ever. Even your hair still looks like a freshly shorn sheep.”

“And that scar across your face still makes you look like some-one I would not want to meet in a dark alley, Ralph,” Hugo said as the two of them came together and hugged. “Are the others not here yet?”

But even as he spoke he could see over Ralph’s shoulder that Imogen was coming downstairs—Imogen Hayes, Lady Barclay.

“Hugo,” she said as she hurried toward him, both hands extended. “Oh, Hugo.”

She was tall and slender and graceful. Her dark blond hair was dressed in a chignon at the back of her head, but the very severity of the style merely emphasized the perfect beauty of her rather long, Nordic face with its high cheekbones, wide, generous mouth, and large blue-green eyes. It also emphasized the almost marble impassivity of that face. That had not changed from two years ago.

“Imogen.” He squeezed her hands and then drew her into a close embrace. He breathed in the familiar scent of her. He kissed one of her cheeks and looked down at her.

She raised one hand and traced a line between his eyebrows with the tip of her forefinger.

“You still frown,” she said.

“He still scowls,” Ralph said. “Dash it, but we missed you last year, Hugo. Flavian had no one to call ugly. He tried it on me once, but I persuaded him not to repeat the experiment.”

“He had me mortally t-terrified, Hugo,” Flavian said. “I wished you were here to hide behind. I hid behind Imogen instead.”

“To answer your earlier question, Hugo,” the duke said, clapping a hand on his shoulder, “you are the last to arrive and we have been all impatience. Ben would have come down to greet you, but it would have taken him rather too long to get down the stairs only to have to go up them again almost immediately. Vincent stayed in the drawing room with him. Come on up. You can go to your room later.”

“I ordered the tea tray as soon as Vincent heard your carriage approaching,” Imogen said, “but doubtless I will be the only one drinking from the pot. It is what I get for allying myself with a horde of barbarians.”

“Actually,” Hugo said, “a cup of hot tea sounds like just the thing, Imogen. I hope you have ordered better weather for tomorrow and the next few weeks, George.”

“It is only March,” the duke pointed out as they made their way upstairs. “But if you insist, Hugo, sunshine it will be for the rest of your stay here. Some people look rugged but are mere hothouse plants in reality.”

Sir Benedict Harper was on his feet when they entered the drawing room. He was leaning on his canes, but his full weight was not on them. And he actually walked toward Hugo. So much for those experts who had called him fool for refusing to have his crushed legs amputated after his horse had been shot from under him. He had sworn he would walk again, and he was doing just that, after a fashion.

“Hugo,” he said, “you are a sight for sore eyes. Have you doubled in size, or is it just the effect of the greatcoat?”

“He is a sight to cause sore eyes, certainly,” Flavian said with a sigh. “And no one told Hugo that multiple capes on a greatcoat were designed for the benefit of those underendowed in the shoulder department.”

“Ben,” Hugo said and caught the other man carefully in his arms. “On your feet, are you? You have to be the most stubborn man I have ever known.”

“I believe you could give me some stiff competition,” Ben said.

Hugo turned to the seventh member of the Survivors’ Club and the youngest. He was standing close to the window, his fair curls as overlong and unruly as ever, his face as open and goodhumored, even angelic. He was smiling now.

“Vince,” Hugo said as he advanced across the room.

Vincent Hunt, Lord Darleigh, looked directly at him with eyes as large and blue as Hugo remembered them—lady-killer eyes, Flavian had once called them in order to draw a laugh out of the boy. Hugo always found his accurate gaze a little disconcerting.

For Vincent was blind.

“Hugo,” he said as he was caught up in a hug. “How good it is to hear your voice again. And to have you back with us this year. If you had been here last year, you would not have allowed everyone else to make fun of my violin playing, would you? Well, everyone except Imogen, anyway.”

There was a collective groan from behind them.

“You play the violin?” Hugo asked.

“I do, and of course you would not have allowed the ridicule,” Vincent said, grinning. “They tell me you look like a large and fierce warrior, Hugo, but if you do, then you are a fraud, for I can always hear the gentleness beneath the gruffness of your voice. You shall listen to me play this year, and you will not laugh.”

“He may well weep, Vince,” Ralph said.

“I have been known to have that effect upon my listeners,” Vincent said, laughing.

Hugo removed his coat and tossed it over the back of a chair before sitting down with everyone else. They all drank tea despite the duke’s offer of something stronger.

“We were very sorry not to see you last year, Hugo,” he said after they had chatted for a while. “We were even sorrier about the reason for your absence.”

“I was all ready to come here,” Hugo said, “when word of my father’s heart seizure reached me. So I was prepared to leave almost immediately, and I arrived before he died. I was even able to speak with him. I ought to have done it sooner. There was no real need of the near estrangement between us, even though I broke his heart after I insisted that he purchase a commission for me, when all my life he had expected that I would follow him into the family business. He loved me to the end, you know. I suppose I will always be thankful that I arrived in time to tell him that I loved him too, though it might have seemed that words came cheap.”

Imogen, who was seated beside him on a love seat, patted his hand.

“He would have understood,” she said. “People do understand the language of the heart, you know, even if the head does not always comprehend it.”

They all looked at her for a silent moment, including Vincent.

“He left a small fortune to Fiona, my stepmother,” Hugo said, “and a large dowry to Constance, my half sister. But he left the bulk of his vast business and trading empire to me. I am indecently wealthy.”

He frowned. The wealth sometimes felt like something of a millstone about his neck. But the obligation it had brought with it was worse.

“Poor, poor Hugo,” Flavian said, pulling a linen handkerchief from a pocket and dabbing his eyes with it. “My heart bleeds for you.”

“He expected me to take over the running of the businesses,” Hugo said. “Not that he demanded it. He just expected that it was what I would want, and his face glowed with pleasure at the prospect even though he was dying. And he spoke of my passing it all on to my son when the time comes.”

Imogen patted his hand again and poured him another cup of tea.

“The thing is,” Hugo said, “that I have been happy with my quiet life in the country. I was happy in my cottage for two years, and I have been happy at Crosslands Park for the past year—though, of course, it was bought with some of my newfound wealth. I have been able to excuse my procrastination by telling myself that this is a year of mourning and it would be unseemly to rush into action as though all I ever wanted was his fortune. But the anniversary of his death is tomorrow. I have no further excuse.”

“We have always told you, Hugo,” Vincent said, “that being a recluse is not really suited to your nature.”

“More specifically,” Ben said, “we have compared you to an unexploded firecracker, Hugo, just waiting for a spark to ignite it.”

Hugo sighed.

“I like my life as it is,” he said.

“So the fact that you were given your title as a reward for extraordinary valor is to mean nothing after all?” Ralph asked. “You are planning to return to your middle-class roots, Hugo?”

Hugo frowned again.

“I never left them,” he said. “I have never wanted to be a member of the upper classes. I would despise them all collectively, as my father always did, if it were not for the six of you. Purchasing Crosslands might have seemed a bit pretentious, but I wanted my own little bit of the country in which to be at peace. That’s all.”

“And it will always be there for you,” the duke said. “It will be a quiet retreat when the press of business is getting you down.”

“It’s the son part that is getting me down now,” Hugo said. “He would have to be legitimate, wouldn’t he? I would have to have a wife in order to produce him. That’s what is facing me after I leave here. I have decided. I have to find a wife. Perish the thought. Pardon me, Imogen. I have nothing whatsoever against women. I just don’t really want one permanently in my life. Or in my home.”

“You are not looking for romance or romantic love, then, Hugo?” Flavian asked. “That is very wise of you, old chap. Love is the very d-devil and to be avoided as one would the plague.”

The lady to whom Flavian had been betrothed when he went to war had broken off their engagement when she found herself unable to cope with the wounds he brought home from the Peninsula. Within two months she had married someone else, a man he had once considered his best friend.

“Do you have anyone in mind, Hugo?” the duke asked.

“Not really.” Hugo sighed. “I have an army of female cousins and aunts who would be only too delighted to present me with a parade of possibilities if I were to say the word, even though I have neglected them all shamefully for years. But I would feel out of control from the first moment. I would hate that. Actually, I was hoping someone here would have some advice for me. On how to go about finding a wife, that is.”

That silenced them all.

“It is actually quite simple, Hugo,” Ralph said at last. “You approach the first reasonably personable woman you see, tell her that you are a lord and indecently wealthy to boot, and ask her if she would fancy marrying you. Then you stand back and watch her trip all over her tongue in her eagerness to say yes.”

The others laughed.

“It is that easy, is it?” Hugo said. “What a huge relief. I shall go down onto the beach tomorrow, then, weather permitting, and wait for reasonably personable women to hove by. My problem will be solved even before I leave Penderris.”

“Oh, not women, Hugo,” Ben said. “Not plural. They will be fighting over you, and there is much to fight over, even apart from your title and wealth. Go down to the beach and find one woman. We will make it easy for you and stay away from there all day. For me, of course, that will be simple, since I do not have a decent pair of legs with which to get down there anyway.”

“Now that we have your future satisfactorily settled, Hugo,” the duke said, getting to his feet, “we will allow you to go to your room to freshen up and change and perhaps rest before dinner. We will, however, discuss the matter more seriously during the coming days. Perhaps we will even be able to suggest some practical course of action. In the meanwhile, let me just say how very splendid it is to have the Survivors’ Club all together again this year. I have longed for this moment.”

Hugo gathered up his greatcoat and left the room with the duke, feeling all the seductive comfort and pleasure of being back at Penderris in company with the six people who meant most to him in the world.

Even the rain pattering against the windowpanes only served to add a feeling of coziness.