The Survivors’ Club

The 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

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