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Falling for Anthony

The Guardians, book 1

Meljean Brook

Chapter One

Appearances are almost always deceiving

The Doyen Scrolls


MARCH 1811

A single glimpse at the disarray in Colin's bedchamber and, the valet's harried expression was all Anthony Ramsdell needed to determine that his best course of action would be to exit, and quickly. Colin Ames-Beaumont, the younger son of the Earl of Norbridge, could not be hurried in his dress—neither the most pleasurable entertainment nor the most beautiful woman could ever induce him to leave the house before every fold of his cravat lay perfectly in place—and anyone who happened to be in his vicinity at that time could be subject to his valet's attentions, should Colin judge that person unfashionable in any way.

Anthony had made that mistake more than once, and though his green waistcoat, black coat, and tan breeches might pass Colin's inspection, his linen lacked the proper amount of starch and was no longer blindingly white. His evening shoes, though he'd done his best to shine them, were scuffed from regular use. His chestnut hair had grown too long in the front; Colin had chided him the week before for letting it fall into his eyes like a schoolboy—a look, Colin had observed, that ruined his own sartorial perfection by association. As Colin had only been half-joking, Anthony was certain if he stepped into the room the valet would have scissors out in a trice.

Self-preservation sent him retreating downstairs, smiling. He couldn't be annoyed by his friend's vanity; he understood Colin too well for that. He was only glad that the other man had recently changed his style from brightly colored silks and cosmetics to the simple elegance of a dandy—even if that elegance took him almost two hours to achieve and, by all appearances, was now only beginning the second hour.

Knowing from experience how that time could drag on, Anthony headed for the earl's study. He'd been a frequent guest in the house for years, spending as much time with the Ames-Beaumonts as with his own family, and the study had always been one of his favorite rooms. Though much smaller than the library at the earl's ancestral home in Derbyshire, it held a significant selection of volumes, with enough variety to satisfy Norbridge's mercurial taste and Anthony's predictable one.

He knocked once on the door out of habit—when he'd been a boy, the earl had always required him to announce his presence in that manner—and chuckled self-consciously. Norbridge wasn't inside and would not issue an authoritative command to enter; Anthony had met with him that morning and, their business completed, Norbridge had left for Derbyshire shortly thereafter.

Thinking of the agreement they'd reached, hollow resignation settled in Anthony's stomach. In two days, he would join Norbridge's good friend, Major-General Cole, on the Peninsula to serve as his personal physician for as long as the campaign against Napoleon persisted. Norbridge had shaped the proposal as a request, but Anthony had recognized it for what it was: a demand for repayment of a debt.

A debt Anthony readily acknowledged, but would have preferred to settle another way.

Any other way.

He sighed, closing the door behind him and walking along the bookshelves lining the adjacent wall. Furnished with dark, heavy wood and rich fabrics, the room was an impoverished scholar's luxurious dream; Anthony took little notice of or pleasure in his surroundings. He hadn't indulged in a bout of self-pity since childhood, but as he stared blankly at a leather-bound volume of Paradise Lost, he thought spending the next hour privately whining to himself might be just the thing.

The sudden clang of metal against stone drew his attention to the opposite end of the library, and the invectives Anthony had been planning to hurl against God silently expired on his tongue. Colin's twin sister, Lady Emily, stood with her back to him, hair unbound, swinging a sword wildly at the marble fireplace; the blade skidded across the mantle, knocking books and a small statue to the floor. A deep scar in the stone revealed where she'd struck the first blow.

"Emily?" Surprise gave his query a sharp edge, and he briefly wondered if she'd been sent by some higher power to purposely torment him on this day of all days. Another reminder of everything he could never have and shouldn't want to have.

Emily had constantly been at his and Colin's sides until they had begun attending public school. Anthony had suffered a childish infatuation with her, and his teenage years had been fraught with frustrated longing. But her head had been filled with romantic dreams and noblemen, and she'd never looked twice at her brother's poor, untitled playmate.

Eventually, he had outgrown his feelings for her, and they had become friends. Their meetings had been brief and infrequent of late years, however, due to his medical studies and her social schedule.

Having recently passed his exams, he'd thought to enjoy her bright and humorous company more often, and to renew their friendship—but Spain and his duty to her father would make that impossible.

His certainty that he was the butt of a cosmic joke faded when she stiffened, and the sword froze mid-swing. She turned to glare at him and spoke through clenched teeth. Firelight glinted against trails of moisture on her cheeks. "Get out, Anthony. I don't want to hurt you."

He eyed the sword warily but didn't move. If she'd simply been weeping over some feminine dilemma, he would have been the gentleman and left, but concern for her safety prevented him from leaving her alone to act out her rage and violence.

He had thought he'd witnessed all of her moods, but the pinch of her elegant brow and the angry, bitter slant to her mouth was new. Emily possessed a perpetually sunny, dreamy disposition; over their long acquaintance, he'd seen her upset only a few times. It would not be too difficult to help her regain her natural good humor. He would stay until she did, and until he was certain she would cause no harm to herself.

And despite her warning, he did not feel he would be in danger. He had no fear that Emily would turn on him.

He attempted a smile and said, "Hurt me? And what have I done? Inadvertently criticized a new hair ribbon?" Though he strove for a light tone, it came out stiffly, as if he meant to insult her.

She stared at him for a long moment before presenting her back to him.

Anthony bit back a sigh, a flush crawling up his neck. He'd forgotten that around Emily, his humor seemed to twist, and he invariably sounded like an idiot or a prig. Perhaps it would be better to fetch Colin; Anthony might not be up to the task.

That would mean leaving her alone, however, and he was loath to do that, even for a few moments. To cover his embarrassed silence, he crossed the room and chose a seat on the green velvet sofa angled between the desk and the hearth. From that vantage point, she stood in profile to him, and he studied her features as best he could. The firelight danced across the gold of her hair but left her expression shadowed. Her shoulders were squared, and she kept a tight grip on the handle of the sword. The tumble of hair down her back and the long column of her dress should have softened the impression of rigidity in her posture; instead it lent a tight, brittle cast to her form, like a porcelain figurine on the verge of shattering.

Discarding any further attempts at humor, he said quietly, "Has something happened, Emily?"

She gave a hard, short laugh. "How astute you are, doctor! Are you so observant with all of your patients? Obviously, something has happened."

His color rose again, but this time his embarrassment was tinged with anger that she would mock his concern. He tamped down both feelings; at least she was responding to him.