Bledington Park #2 – When the Duke of Malvern is declared missing, presumed killed, Amanda, his estranged duchess, is his unlikely rescuer. But rescue him she does–and finds him broken and utterly changed by the war. As she takes charge of her amnesiac husband and the manor house that was never a home, she risks falling in love with him all over again.
Hotel Schweizerhof, Kreuzlingen, Switzerland
THEY’D INFORMED HIM HE WAS BEING REPATRIATED TO ENGLAND.
His hands clenched and unclenched convulsively in his lap as he sat in the hotel room allotted him for the duration of his residence in Switzerland. It had been partitioned into four parts, for the four officers inhabiting the room—himself, a Grenadier Guard, and two cavalry officers—and his section was no larger than one of the closets he’d glimpsed at the prison camp hospital.
There was barely enough room to do anything more than move from the bed to the window. Not that he planned to walk anywhere; he cast a sulky look at the crutches propped against the wall. At least he was free of Krekel’s ministrations to revive his memory. His head still pounded and his mouth dried in reaction.
He stared anxiously out the window, eyes straining as they darted after every vehicle or pedestrian walking past his view, hoping for something to rattle his mind to remembrance.
The name meant nothing to him in the Lazarett and meant nothing to him still. But, he supposed, it was something good. The other men of his background who had been sent to Switzerland in the same train had glanced at him with envy and longing.
Blighty they’d called it as he’d lain there, cold and in pain from his missing leg, watching wordlessly as orderlies moved through the stretchers full of wounded taken from Lazaretts across Germany.
The wounded were lain on the platform beside the idling train as a wiry man with a bushy mustache circulated amongst those of the wounded on the stretchers, pinning pieces of paper to the blankets covering their bodies. He’d strained to catch sight of what was printed on his tag, only to collapse in exhaustion.
The next time he opened his eyes, he was lying in this bed, numb with the realization that he had been interred in yet another unfamiliar place. This time a damp, unpretentious hotel that had seen better days. The doctors in the hotel were sterner, colder, and brisker than the ones he had left behind in Germany.
Only the nurses were warmer, especially the vivacious, diminutive Red Cross worker who spoke with all of the men at least twice during the day. The Englishman in the hotel room beside him had whispered slowly, the bandage covering the lower half of his face obstructing his speech, that she was Her Royal Highness Princess something or other.
One more piece of information that meant nothing to him. His only moments of peace were when he lay quietly, folding bits of paper into tiny paper aeroplanes, which he then flew out of his window, to the hilarity of his fellow mates and the exasperation of the nurses.
He was unable to sleep many nights—either stiff with terror over the tightened lips and scornful eyes bent over him every morning as they poked and prodded at him, trying to understand his “malingering”, or plagued by dreams of burning alive. That was the worst of his nights.
He could practically feel the flames licking his sweaty skin, and wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. He tensed, sighting a sleek blue motorcar making its way towards the hotel, and sat forward to obtain a better look. This was no visiting Red Cross worker, he was certain.
One of the sanitary officers stepped towards the door and held it open for the figure that slowly emerged from its interior. He clenched his fingers around the arms of his chair until they went numb.
The woman was tall and slim, that much he could see, though her face was obscured by dark veiling that glinted in the sunlight and the upturned, fur-lined collar of her coat. His eyes dropped to the short hem of her coat and then paused on her trim ankles. He swallowed hard, following their rapid movement as she and the sanitary officer disappeared from his immediate view.
He loosened his grasp of the chair, his fingers gradually pinkening from their white, bloodless state and then shoved out of his chair. He wasn’t going to wait around for whomever was coming for him like a helpless git.
An awkward hop and bracing of his palms on the wall brought him to his crutches, and he grit his teeth as he tucked them beneath his arms. His left shoulder, where the surgeon had extracted the almost fatal bullet, still ached like the bloody devil.
Still, he flexed his fingers around the handles of his crutches, grit his teeth, and swung forward on his right foot: step, swing, step, swing.
He paused at his door to catch his breath. His arms trembled from the effort of holding his upper body straight and relieving the pressure on his right hip. God how he despised his weakness. He bit back an oath and continued the laborious process out of his hotel room, down the hall to the lift, and thence to the ground floor.
The smoking room and bar had been converted to a reading room (much to the great disappointment of many of the officers in the hotel).
He nodded to the half a dozen men pursuing the books donated by charitable institutions and made his way to the large padded seat at the bay window overlooking Lake Constance. He took one of the cigarettes left about for their use and lit it, waving away the smoke as he glanced across the impossibly blue, sunlit lake to the German side.
A good handful of the officers being transferred to Switzerland had wept openly upon reaching this side of the lake. His eyes had remained dry; freedom was a transmutable concept during war. Particularly when one remained trapped in a broken body, a broken mind.
“There you are, Captain Townsend,” the voice drew his attention.
The Swiss Red Cross worker at the door marched towards him. “Dr. Spiecher sent me to fetch you.”
He stared at her for a moment and then stubbed out his cigarette before reaching for his crutches.
He followed the worker to Spiecher’s office, mind blanked to anything but the effort of moving through the reading room, across the foyer, and down the hall.
Spiecher was one of the probers, with an extreme sense of dignity. He was certain the sanitary officer felt his current position keenly, in charge of a hotel full of wounded, shattered officers from various races and backgrounds.
Many quarrels broke out as a result of mixed loyalties and mangled communication, something the doctor had little patience or endurance to accommodate. His mouth hitched at some of the names the officers called the fastidious Swiss doctor. Amusement fled when the woman opened the office door and the veiled woman he’d glimpsed earlier stood and turned.
She was hatless now, displaying the full force of her tawny beauty in his direction. That beauty repelled and attracted him in his present state, and he gripped the handles of his crutches tighter to keep from reaching out to it, as though warming his hands on the flame of her magnificence.
Her firm little chin wobbled and tears shimmered in her wide blue eyes as her gaze darted across him, almost raking him naked with its intensity. A little chill washed over him, the sensation somehow familiar and unfamiliar to him. He swiveled his crutches to enter the office, whereupon the Swiss worker closed the door behind him.
Almost immediately, her expression stiffened, mouth going rigid, and she bowed her head. Her fingers plucked at the buttons on her coat. So many buttons, he noted, inexplicably irritated, running the length of her body, from throat to ankle. The type of buttons that acted as much for armor as for decoration. She seemed to wrap herself in said armor, lifting her head to present a smooth, impassive countenance.
She extended a hand. He stared at it, cautious, in response to the cool and impersonal tone of her voice. She began to lower it and he shot out his hand to grasp hers. He was startled by the wild beating of her pulse through her gloves. He gripped her hand more tightly when she began trying to wriggle free and tugged her towards him.
“Malvern, let me go.”
Up close, she was even more beautiful, with skin as white and smooth as the banks of snowblanketing the mountains. Up close, he couldn’t fail to miss the revulsion in her eyes, and he squeezed her lovely hand.
“Who are you?
Behind the Story
Amnesia! Shell-shock! Internment camps! Court martials! Aerial fights! There’s some other stuff in there, of course, but this is the conclusion to the two-part saga.
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