George Crabbe, Duke of Stanbrook, stood at the foot of the steps outside his London home on Grosvenor Square, his right hand still raised in farewell even though the carriage bearing his two cousins on their journey home to Cumberland was already out of sight. They had made an early start despite the fact that a few forgotten items, or items they feared they had forgotten, had twice delayed their departure while first a maid and then the housekeeper herself hurried upstairs to look in their vacated rooms just in case.
Margaret and Audrey were sisters and his second cousins, to be precise. They had come to London for the wedding of Imogen Hayes, Lady Barclay, to Percy, Earl of Hardford. Audrey was the bride’s mother. Imogen had stayed at Stanbrook House too until her wedding two days ago, partly because she was a relative, but mainly because there was no one in the world George loved more. There were five others he loved equally well, it was true, though Imogen was the only woman and the only one related to him. The seven of them, himself included, were the members of the self-styled Survivors’ Club.
A little over eight years ago George had made the decision to open Penderris Hall, his country seat in Cornwall, as a hospital and recovery center for military officers who had been severely wounded in the Napoleonic Wars and needed more intense and more extended care than could be provided by their families. He had hired a skilled physician and other staff members willing to act as nurses, and he had handpicked the patients from among those recommended to him. There had been more than two dozen in all, most of whom had survived and returned to their families or regiments after a few weeks or months. But six had remained for three years. Their injuries had varied widely. Not all had been physical. Hugo Emes, Lord Trentham, for example, had been brought there without a scratch on his body but out of his mind and with a straitjacket restraining him from doing violence to himself or others.
A deep bond had developed among the seven of them, an attachment too strong to be severed even after they left Penderris and returned to their separate lives. Those six people meant more to George than anyone else still living—though perhaps that was not quite accurate, for he was dearly fond too of his only nephew, Julian, and of Julian’s wife, Philippa, and their infant daughter, Belinda. He saw them with fair frequency too and always with pleasure. They lived only a few miles from Penderris. Love, of course, did not move in hierarchies of preference. Love manifested itself in a thousand different ways, all of which were love in its entirety. A strange thing, that, if one stopped to think about it.
He lowered his hand, feeling suddenly foolish to be waving farewell to empty air, and turned back to the house. A footman hovered at the door, no doubt anxious to close it. He was probably shivering in his shoes. A brisk early-morning breeze was blowing across the square directly at him, though there was plenty of blue sky above along with some scudding clouds in promise of a lovely mid-May day.
He nodded to the young man and sent him to the kitchen to fetch coffee to the library.
The morning post had not arrived yet, he could see when he entered the room. The surface of the large oak desk before the window was bare except for a clean blotter and an inkpot and two quill pens. There would be the usual pile of invitations when the post did arrive, it being the height of the London Season. He would be required to choose among balls and soirees and concerts and theater groups and garden parties and Venetian breakfasts and private dinners and a host of other entertainments. Meanwhile his club offered congenial company and diversion, as did Tattersall’s and the races and his tailor and boot maker. And if he did not wish to go out, he was surrounded in this very room by bookshelves that reached from floor to ceiling, interrupted only by doors and windows. If there was room for one more book on any of the shelves, he would be surprised. There were even a few books among them that he had not yet read but would doubtless enjoy.
It was a pleasant feeling to know that he might do whatever he wished with his time, even nothing at all if he so chose. The weeks leading up to Imogen’s wedding and the few days since had been exceedingly busy ones and had allowed him very little time to himself. But he had enjoyed the busyness and had to admit that there was a certain flatness mingled with his pleasure this morning in the knowledge that yet again he was alone and free and beholden to no one. The house seemed very quiet, even though his cousins had not been noisy or demanding houseguests. He had enjoyed their company far more than he had expected. They were virtual strangers, after all. He had not seen either sister for a number of years before this past week.
Imogen herself was the closest of friends but could have caused some upheaval due to her impending nuptials. She had not. She was not a fussy bride in the least. One would hardly have known, in fact, that she was preparing for her wedding, except that there had been a new and unfamiliar glow about her that had warmed George’s heart.
The wedding breakfast had been held at Stanbrook House. He had insisted upon it, though both Ralph and Flavian, their fellow Survivors, had offered to host it too. Half the ton had been present, filling the ballroom almost to overflowing and inevitably spilling out into other rooms in the hours following the meal and all the speeches. And breakfast was certainly a misnomer, since very few of the guests had left until late in the evening.
George had enjoyed every moment.
But now the festivities were all over, and after the wedding Imogen had left with Percy for a honeymoon in Paris. Now Audrey and Margaret were gone too, although before leaving they had hugged him tightly, thanked him effusively for his hospitality, and begged him to come and stay with them in Cumberland sometime soon.