Society's Most Disreputable Gentleman

By: Julia Justiss

Chapter One

A shake to his bad shoulder brought Greville Anders awake with a gasp. Through the stab of sensation radiating down his arm, he dimly heard the coachman say, ‘Here we be, now, sir. At yer destination. Ashton Grove.’

Trying to master a pain-induced nausea, Greville struggled to surface a mind he’d submerged in soothing clouds of laudanum to ease the agony of a long, jolting coach journey. The late-winter air spilling through the door held ajar by a man in footman’s livery helped dissipate the mental fog.

England. He must be back in England. No place else on earth had this combination of chilly mist and a scent of damp earth.

Like a tacking sail that suddenly catches the wind, his vacant mind filled. Yes, he was in England, at Ashton Grove, the home of Lord Bronning. The manor where, at the intervention of his noble cousin, the Marquess of Englemere, he was to stay after being transferred from his berth on the Illustrious to the Coastal Brigade, while the Admiralty sorted out the matter of his—illegal—impressment. And he finished healing.

Unfortunately, that also meant he must now attempt to convince his unsteady limbs to carry him from the vehicle into the manor, hopefully without having his still-roiling stomach disgrace him. Taking a deep breath, he staggered into the early evening dimness, then proceeded at a limping gait up to the entry and through a door held open by the butler.

Perspiration beading his forehead from the effort, he was congratulating himself on his success at reaching the stately entry hall when an older, balding gentleman walked forwards and bowed. ‘Mr Anders,’ the man said, giving him a strained smile. ‘Delighted to welcome you to Ashton Grove.’

The gentleman’s expression was so far from delighted that Greville bit back a smile before the unmistakable, swishing sound of skirts trailing over polished stone prompted him to carefully angle his head left.

That uncomfortable manoeuvre was rewarded by a vision lovely enough to raise a red-blooded sailor from the dead. A category into which, after the Illustrious’s action with that Algerian pirate vessel off the coast of Tunis, he’d very nearly fallen, he thought wryly before giving mind and senses over to the sorely missed pleasure of gazing at a beautiful woman.

For the first time in a long while, parts of his body tingled pleasantly as he took in an angelic vision of golden hair and a petite form wrapped in a flattering gown, just a hint of décolletage tempting one to peek down at an admirably rounded bosom. As he raised his gaze to the perfect oval of her face, large blue eyes stared back at him over a small, pert nose and plump rosebud-pink lips that were currently pursed. She frowned.

Greville suppressed a sigh. Angels generally did frown at him.

Long-inbred habits of gentility prompted him to attempt a bow, awkward as it was with the thick bandage still binding his chest and the fact that his equilibrium hadn’t yet adjusted to having a surface beneath his feet that remained firmly horizontal. ‘Lord Bronning, isn’t it?’ he asked. ‘And…?’

‘My daughter, Miss Neville. Welcome to our home. I trust Lord Englemere made your journey as comfortable as possible—under the circumstances, of course,’ Bronning said, casting him a troubled glance.

The lovely daughter merely inclined her head, her frown deepening. Greville hadn’t seen his own face in a glass for months, but in his ragtag sailor’s gear, with an unkempt beard and what he supposed must be the pallor induced by his lingering fever, doubtless he looked nothing like the sort of gentleman Miss Neville was accustomed to receiving in her father’s grand hall.

‘Miss Neville, my lord,’ he replied, acknowledging the introductions. ‘Yes, Lord Englemere did…all that was necessary.’ Given his already disreputable appearance, he thought it best not to mention that his passage from Spithead through Portsmouth and thence by coach to Ashton Grove had passed in such a laudanum haze that he had little memory of it. ‘I thank you, Lord Bronning, for receiving one so completely unknown to you.’

‘Not at all,’ Bronning replied quickly. ‘I’m happy to oblige Lord Englemere—and your sister, Lady Greaves, of course. Her husband, Sir Edward, is a valued acquaintance. But we won’t keep you standing here with the evening chill coming on! You must be exhausted from your travels. Sands will have a footman show you to your room.’ His room. A real chamber with a bed that didn’t sway with the roll of the ship, doubtless located in a private space he wouldn’t share with a score of noisy, tar-begrimed, sweating sailors.