Silken Dreams

Chapter One

England, 1751

Amanda Edmunds stood at the rail of the ship, watching the docking excitedly. After all the years of dreaming about this moment, it was finally coming true. She would be in England, and not just in England, but in London itself.

"Good morning, Miss Edmunds," she heard a pleasant voice say, and Amanda glanced up to see Colonel Ebersham to her left. "I expected the two of us to be the only ones watching the docking. The others are still undoubtedly recovering from last night's farewell revels."

"I don't understand how they can bear to miss their actual homecoming," Amanda said, eyes still glued to the slow but steady approach of their vessel to the dock. "Don't they realize what a marvelous occasion it is?"

"It's only marvelous to the likes of us, child," Colonel Ebersham replied with a chuckle. He was a pleasant man just beyond middle years, with a bushy brown mustache that was showing the first signs of gray. His carriage was always militarily erect despite the permanent limp he'd acquired in the line of duty, and although he often barked out orders to those around him, he'd never done so with Amanda.

"You see, my dear, you and I are able to appreciate what being away from England for an extended period of time can mean." His words were to the point, but Amanda knew he was also watching the docking closely. "You left England as an infant, and I as a soldier. Neither of us was free to return whenever the whim struck us, so finally managing it has special meaning. All the others come and go as they please."

"I can't decide if I envy them or pity them," Amanda said thoughtfully after a moment. "I had to lose my father before I was able to make this journey, but I also regained the land of my birth. The others were spared the grief of loss, but they also missed gaining anything. The wise men were right when they said that a life without loss is very difficult to enrich. Achieving something means less when you don't have a lack of achievement with which to compare it."

"It continually amazes me how wise a girl you keep proving yourself to be despite your youth," the colonel responded warmly. "It must be your upbringing in the Orient that accounts for it, as none of the other young ladies aboard show signs of the same. Not to mention a spark of your bubbling charm. You are being met at the dock, I trust?"

"Of course." Amanda's small laugh was one of delighted anticipation. "My half brother Richard will be here, and I can't wait to meet him. I'm sure he's just as wonderful as his letters have been."

"That would be your mother's son from her first marriage," Colonel Ebersham recalled aloud. "You told me that he inherited from his late father when still quite young, and for that reason he was left to be raised here in England. I believe you said your mother returned once a year to visit?"

"Until two years before her death." Amanda's nod was heavy with the sadness of the memory. "She'd meant to start taking me back with her, but fell ill before she could. She fought to stay alive as long as possible, to keep from deserting two children was the way she put it. In the end death won, but not easily. Even at the age of ten I was able to appreciate how hard she fought to make things come out her way. I'll always admire her courage and determination."

"As well you should," the colonel agreed gruffly, the unsteadiness in his voice showing how touched he felt. "A woman with that much heart is a rarity in this modern day of ours, and had I met such a woman myself I would not have remained unmarried. And I must say I'll miss your company when we part, and not only because you made me and this blasted walking stick less conspicuous. Are you certain you're strong enough to debark on your own?"

For a moment Amanda didn't understand, and then she remembered what she'd said about the four-foot length of bamboo she usually had with her. It had taken everyone's immediate attention, and she had to come up with a tale about needing the staff to lean on during the times when she suddenly felt weak. If those about her didn't know what the staff was really for, it would be foolish to tell them. And how marvelously useful it was that young ladies were supposed to be subject to the sudden onset of the vapors.

"Please don't concern yourself with me, Colonel," she said, turning to give him a sincerely warm smile. "I'll be fine during debarkation, and I won't be alone. My companion Pei is with me, you know."

"Ah, yes, the slender and silent Miss Han," Colonel Ebersham said with a nod. "She's kept so much to herself during the voyage, I'd nearly forgotten about her. The language difference must be something of a difficulty for her."

"Not really," Amanda returned with private amusement. "Pei speaks English even better than I speak her dialect. My father felt his studies of China would be nonexistent if he didn't learn the local language, and even Mother knew some words and phrases. The learning was easiest for me, as I grew up with the various languages, as did Pei. When we were children, we practiced together."

"Her mode of dress is rather exotic," the colonel observed with a small frown of memory. "A long, straight gown over loose trousers. Your gowns, however, appear to be quite up-to-date and proper. I've wondered how you managed that."

"Mother was the one who managed it," Amanda told him, glancing back to see that the ship was now completely docked. "Father's modest income was a veritable fortune in China, so Mother used part of it to have gowns in the newest fashion made and sent to her once a year. Those times were between her visits home, so she had new gowns twice a year. Before she died, she changed the arrangement so that I would have the proper gowns. And now I really must ask you to excuse me. Pei and I are all packed, and as soon as the gangway is in place we'll be debarking. It's been a pleasure to know you, Colonel."

"And twice the pleasure for me, dear lady," he responded, taking her hand and bending over it. "Perhaps I'll be fortunate enough that we'll meet again someday."

Amanda simply smiled at that, then left him at the railing. Colonel Ebersham was a really nice man, but finding a husband for her was her brother's job. Mother had made sure she understood that from the time she was very young. Father was too wrapped up in his studies - not to mention hardly in a position to know who was and wasn't eligible and acceptable - and her brother Richard had long since accepted the duty. He would make sure she was as well matched as possible, and Amanda was really looking forward to the time courting began.

But right now she was looking forward even more to being off that ship and beginning her new life. She held up the skirts of her dark green traveling gown as she hurried to her cabin. She already wore her hat, but still had to get her gloves and reticule - not to mention the staff of bamboo. Pei was sitting in a chair reading when Amanda entered the cabin, but looked up immediately.

"Are we finally there?" Pei asked in almost accentless English. "I mean really there, not just coming close?"

"It's no longer 'there' but 'here,'" Amanda answered with a laugh. "We are here, so why are you just sitting there? By the time we get back to the deck, the gangway should be in place."

"It will probably take them longer than that, but I'd rather be waiting in the fresh air," Pei said, rising to put the book in one of her cases. "That's what I've missed most on this trip, I think, the smell of green growing things."

"I'm afraid you'll continue to miss it for a while," Amanda said, gathering together the items she wanted. "There are a lot of smells up there, but green growing things isn't among them. Not that I care. First I want to meet my brother, and then I intend to find out what happened to Mr. Lichfield."

"Which you will," Pei said with an amused smile. "Ssu Te Lung is never denied."

Amanda laughed softly at the name Pei had called her by. It meant Silken Dragon, and had been given to her by Miles Lichfield, her father's long-time secretary. After Amanda's mother died, Mr. Lichfield had been there for her much more often than her father. Professor George Edmunds had loved his daughter, but the obsession of his work usually kept him from showing it. Mr. Lichfield had become both mother and father to his employer's child, and she had come to love him like the daughter he'd never had. Now he was missing, but Amanda had no intentions of letting that situation continue.

Amanda led Pei back up to the deck, and Pei's earlier guess turned out to be right. "Rot," Amanda muttered. "The gangway isn't in place yet, and the other passengers obviously knew it wouldn't be. Even Colonel Ebersham is no longer on deck."

Amanda's impatience flared, but she wasn't dressed to jump from the ship even if she decided to go that far. Waiting seemed to be the only option … along with keeping alert for anything she might find it possible to do…

Miss Han Pei stood on the deck beside her best friend, working hard not to wrinkle her nose against what seemed like hundreds of aromas, all of them combining into one large foul stench. The docks at Po San where they'd boarded the ship hadn't been this bad, but there also hadn't been so many buildings and people, or so much bustling activity. After growing up in Kiyang Province, England would have a lot of things to which she'd have to adjust.

But that went primarily for her. Amanda stood there all but glowing, despite the flaring impatience Pei could see so clearly. Her friend was a girl who greeted everything new and strange with bubbling delight, who dived in to investigate without a moment's hesitation. That penchant had nearly gotten her into trouble more than once, but it still hadn't taught her caution and restraint.

Pei sighed, wondering if anything ever would teach Amanda not to dive headlong into things. It seemed highly unlikely, especially as Amanda also expected to be victorious in any and all encounters. To look at her, one would never suspect… Only a touch taller than average for European females, they'd been told by her father, with shining dark brown hair, bright blue eyes, a merry smile usually on her pretty face, an excellent figure in those odd English gowns - so innocent looking, and so guileless…

But Pei knew better than that, and so did anyone else who knew Amanda. It was the reason Mr. Lichfield had nicknamed her Silken Dragon, looking as soft and gentle as she did, while hiding the unyielding remorselessness of a flaming dragon within. Amanda always got what she wanted, whether or not others were willing to give it to her.

And now what she wanted was to find Mr. Lichfield. The wonderful older man had come ahead to England after his employer's death, to settle Professor Edmunds's small estate and to make arrangements for Amanda's arrival. Amanda had stayed with Pei's family, but when the third packet had docked at Po San without word from Mr. Lichfield, Amanda became convinced something had happened to him. She'd immediately begun to try to find a way to make her own arrangements for going to England, but then the letter from her brother arrived. He'd heard about her father's death and had quickly arranged her passage.

Which meant, apparently, passage for two. Young English ladies never traveled alone, it seemed, and after learning what dressing entailed for them, Pei wasn't surprised. Amanda had had a maid in her father's house, a girl from the village who was sweet but not terribly bright. The idea of traveling to the land of foreign devils had terrified the girl, and she had run home after tearfully refusing to accompany Amanda and had not returned.

But that had given Pei her chance. Her father was the largest and most well-known merchant in Kiyang Province, not to mention the wealthiest. The women's compound of his house held his four wives, his two concubines, and his three daughters, as well as the younger children. The rest of his grown children were sons, a total of twelve in all, his being able to afford all of them easily another mark of his high position.

"So I don't understand why he won't let me go with you," Pei had complained to Amanda after speaking to her father. They had used Pei's rooms for the meeting, which meant they'd had to keep their voices low. "I know three daughters aren't many, but some people consider daughters so unimportant that they sell theirs to brothels. Why does my father have to be a man who loves and values his?"

"I seriously doubt if you're complaining about that part of it," Amanda had responded with amusement. "I agree that his loving you makes things inconvenient, but we should be able to work around it. Find out when I can talk to him."

Pei had been delighted with Amanda's offer to help and had arranged the meeting as quickly as possible. She had accompanied her friend, but had stayed quietly to one side of the room.

"This unworthy one thanks the honorable Mr. Han for seeing her," Amanda had said in Chinese with a bow when Pei's father had looked up from the document on his desk. "This one has come to apologize for having presumed far too much."

"In what way have you presumed, child?" Mr. Han had asked with puzzlement, putting aside his writing brush. "I have always found you an extremely suitable companion for my daughter Pei; one who not only knows of our ways, but follows them."

"It has been this one's honor and pleasure to do so," Amanda had replied with another bow, this one of thanks. "Perhaps it was for this reason that I presumed. This village is the only home I have ever known, and I love it with all my heart. Now, however, I must depart for alien places, and my fear and reluctance to go are considerable. Also, the thought of leaving Pei behind is extremely painful to me. She and I have grown to be like sisters, and parting from her for all time… I had thought to borrow her strength to sustain me in this time of leave-taking, and to put off having to bid her farewell forever-"

Amanda's words had broken off then with a catch in her throat, and Pei had caught a glimpse of the tears on her cheeks before Amanda bent her head. Pei's father had looked seriously touched, not to mention troubled.

"I am able to see your deep concern, child, and truly share your sadness," he'd answered gently. "To leave one's home is no easy thing, but far easier than to leave one who has become like one's own blood. That you must now do both is a tragedy, and yet I cannot see a way to assist you. If you were relieved of the need to travel alone by having Pei accompany you, then she would be faced with the very same need when the time came to return. You certainly would not wish to cause her to be in such a position."

"Certainly not," Amanda had responded, raising her face to him again. "And I must apologize for that as well. Although my brother would surely find a companion to accompany her on the return voyage and pay all expenses both going and coming, there was little reason to disaccommodate you. Your need for Pei to remain here is surely greater than mine for her to accompany me."

After saying that, Amanda had simply gazed at him sadly. But also appealingly, something that couldn't possibly be considered a waste with a man whose household contained six women for his pleasure. Pei's father had sat stroking his long black beard, his gaze lost in deep thought, and at last he had sighed.

"Perhaps I was overhasty in my original decision," he had allowed, smiling fondly at Amanda. "I had not considered the bond between you two, and how painful the severing of such a bond must be. Pei will travel with you, with my permission, but she must be properly companioned on the return voyage."

Amanda had solemnly given her word that it would be done even if she had to pay the cost, the two of them had taken their leave, and so Pei had embarked on the adventure she'd dreamed of all her life. Not specifically a trip to another land, but something marvelous and different. She expected to marry and settle down someday, but the thought of spending the rest of her life in the women's compound of some man's household without memories to sustain her… That would be a doom too horrible to bear.

"Oh, how good of you, Captain," Pei heard, and looked up to see that Amanda's drippingly sweet words were addressed to the captain of their vessel. "It's so delightful for a lady to find herself among gallant gentlemen."

That particular gallant gentleman, roughly dressed and unshaven, bowed like one of the dandies among the other passengers and hurried away to shout orders at the men rushing around the deck. Amanda waited until the man was out of earshot, then turned to Pei with a very tiny smile.

"It seems we've docked slightly ahead of schedule, and the captain saw no reason to lower the gangway before beginning to unload the cargo." Her murmur was very soft and carried to no one but Pei. "Now, however, he seems to have discovered a reason, which means we'll be ashore in just a few minutes. I wonder if all European men are as easy to twist as this?"

Pei was even more amused than Amanda, but a proper upbringing in her country included learning how not to show it. "Inscrutable" was the way Professor Edmunds had put it, but her people considered it simple intelligence. Why give things away to those you dealt with, thereby increasing the strength of their position?

But the point Amanda had brought up was a good one. Women in Pei's land were taught to defer to men, but also how to flatter and cajole them in order to get what they wanted. The men had grown used to treatment like that and rarely came around at the first shy drop of a gaze or deferential stance. If the men in this land weren't used to such treatment, the possibilities were virtually limitless…

With the captain shouting at his crew, it wasn't long before the men had set the rope-railed gangway into position. Pei watched as the captain took his cap off and bowed as Amanda swept past him with a dazzling smile of thanks. And he didn't even glance in her direction as she followed quietly in her friend's wake. Amanda had once despaired over the fact that she would never be one of the world's great beauties, but Pei couldn't see that it was making much of a difference. Her inner glow seemed to make her more than beautiful in the eyes of men, an advantage she wasn't hesitating to use.

Once again victorious, the Silken Dragon led the way to the dock proper, and once Pei had joined her Amanda began to look around in earnest. Pei found the area was terribly crowded with wagons and waiting people and bales and sacks, leaving very little room for the new people who began to arrive. Their attention on the ship said they were there to meet passengers or take delivery of cargo, and the whole place began to take on the semblance of one of the Taoist hells: people running every which way, as though pursued by invisible devils.

"Richard will never find us in this madhouse," Amanda said over the mounting noise. "Let's see if we can find some place more peaceful to wait."

And then she led off at once, giving Pei no chance to point out that it might not be wise to leave the vicinity of the ship. Pei followed with a sigh, wishing for the hundredth time that Amanda wasn't quite so fearless. It had a lot to do with what Amanda had learned from Master Ma, the most famous instructor in Chinese boxing of his time. Master Ma had his compound in their village, and as children she and Amanda had often gone there secretly to watch the fighters learn and practice.

But where Pei had just watched, Amanda had begun to learn, and later practiced what she'd learned. That might not have been so bad, but the day finally came when Master Ma calmly approached the place they'd thought was so secret, and announced it was time they showed him what they'd learned. Pei hadn't been able to do anything but touch her head to the ground in apology for the intrusion, but not so Amanda.

The Silken Dragon had calmly gotten to her feet, bowed respectfully to Master Ma, and then had shown him what she'd practiced. Master Ma told her in detail how bad her form was and how many mistakes she'd made, and then had ordered her to try again. That had been the beginning of her lessons, and when Mr. Lichfield had found out about it, he'd even given her the copper cash to pay Master Ma. She hadn't been taught everything the male students were, but what she did learn she was rather good at. Unfortunately.

"There," Amanda said, recapturing Pei's attention. "That small alleyway looks empty, and we'll be able to see people arriving without being trampled by them. Let's wait in there."

"You sound as if you expect to recognize your brother," Pei pointed out as she followed again. "Since you've never seen him, how do you mean to do that?"

"He's certain to be the most handsome man who arrives," Amanda replied with a laugh to show she was only joking. "But beyond that, he'll be carrying the small length of bamboo I sent him. How many other men are likely to be carrying bamboo around here?"

Pei granted the point with a silent nod, paying more attention to where she put her slippered feet than to the conversation. The dock wasn't as clean as it might have been, and there was a real possibility of stepping in something unpleasant. The closer they got to the alleyway, though, the better it became. That probably meant the alleyway wasn't used much.

"Having so many tall buildings all around is going to take getting used to," Amanda said as she stopped just inside the mouth of the alleyway. "I thought Mr. Feng's warehouse was huge, but most of these are twice the size."

Pei had thought the same and was about to say so, but never got the chance. She'd stopped beside Amanda, both of them facing toward the ship, and suddenly there were hands grasping her arms from behind. She cried out as she was yanked backward, toward the dimness of the alleyway where the rising sun hadn't yet reached.

"Yell all ye like, girlie, none'll hear ye through the noise," a coarse voice chortled, turning Pei's fear to terror. "Us 'n you two's 'bout t' have some fun."

A large body brushed past her, obviously heading for Amanda, and then everything began to happen at once. Pei had only just started to struggle when there was a cry of pain, but it did not originate with Amanda. The man who had tried to seize Amanda collapsed to the ground, and then the Silken Dragon was going after a second man. This one put up an arm to fend off the swinging bamboo, but it did him little good. Amanda used the bottom of her staff to strike lower, and when he clutched at himself with a choked sound of agony, the top of the staff struck his head hard enough to put him beyond pain for a while.

After that the man holding Pei seemed the only one left, and when Amanda started toward him with the dragon look in her eyes, he decided against making any useless gestures. The staff in Amanda's hands was still being held at the ready, and he wisely turned and ran before he ended up joining his friends on the ground. Amanda wasn't the best staff fighter Master Ma had ever trained, but neither was she the worst.

"Pei, are you all right?" Amanda asked with concern as soon as it was clear the third man was gone for good. "Did he hurt you?"

"Only if you consider being frightened half to death as being hurt," Pei answered, trying to calm the thundering of her heart. "This was almost as bad as when that tiger came down out of the hills during our outing that time."

Amanda smiled with a nod, undoubtedly remembering the time as clearly as Pei did. They'd just been children with their families, but luckily the magistrate and his tribunal officers had joined them for the outing. The magistrate's two lieutenants had used spears from horseback to drive the tiger away, and later had led the hunt for it.

"I think I've changed my mind about how good a place this is to wait," Amanda said, putting an arm around Pei's shoulders. "Let's find another before those two wake up."

"Weren't you frightened, even a little?" Pei demanded as Amanda urged her around the two unconscious men. "You sound as though this was nothing more than a routine exercise set you by Master Ma, and I find that extremely annoying."

"But Pei, I didn't have time to be frightened," Amanda countered with a grin. "I turned when I heard you cry out, and then those men took turns coming at me. When they were both down I was able to see the one holding you, and that made me mad. He had no right to touch you, and I was about to teach him that when he ran. By then there was nothing left to be frightened about. "

Pei made a sound of continued annoyance, but let the subject drop. Amanda would always be Amanda, with nothing likely to change that.

They moved far enough away from the alleyway to be sure they couldn't be reached a second time, and then Amanda looked around again. Pei was certain her friend was trying to decide between returning to the ship and taking a chance on finding another place to wait, but the problem was solved for her. A male voice called out Amanda's name, and then a pleasant-looking and dignified man was hurrying over to them.

As soon as Amanda heard her name being called, she knew her brother was finally there. She turned to see a rather handsome man striding toward them, brown-haired and blue-eyed like herself. He was fairly tall and quite nicely dressed in dark blue breeches and coat, white shirt, and pearl-gray vest, but his smile was the least bit on the formal side. He was, however, carrying the short length of bamboo she'd sent, so there was really no doubt about who he was.

"You must be Richard," she said with a smile as the man approached her and Pei. "I knew my brother would be the most handsome man in England."

"But I didn't expect my sister to be the most outrageous flatterer," Richard answered with an honest laugh. "Or quite so presentable a young lady. Welcome home, sister. I've waited years to be able to say that."

And then he opened his arms to her, and Amanda hurried into them to return his hug. It was almost like being hugged by their mother again, which brought tears of happiness to Amanda's eyes.

"Oh, Richard, now I do feel as if I've come home," she said with a teary smile. "And you needn't worry. I'll never make you sorry you opened your home to me."

"That I'm quite sure of, little sister," he answered with a matching smile, minus the tears. "Mother always told me what a sweet young lady you were growing to be, and how proud of you she was. From what I can see she had every right to be proud, and now it's time to take you the rest of the way home. I've two of my house men with me, and they'll see to your luggage."

"Oh, you haven't yet met Pei," Amanda suddenly remembered, then turned to gesture her friend closer. "Richard, this is my good friend Miss Han Pei, who agreed to be my companion for the journey here. Her father is the most respected merchant in our entire district, and was very difficult to convince about letting her come along. Pei, allow me to finally present my brother Richard Lavering, Lord Pembroke."

"Lord Pembroke," Pei said in acknowledgment with a courteous bow. "Amanda has spoken of you constantly, and it's a pleasure to finally meet you."

"Miss - Pei?" Richard faltered, looking toward Amanda. "The pleasure is mine, young lady, but I'm afraid I've missed something in regard to your name. Amanda, why are you calling your friend by her surname?"

"Richard, Han is her surname," Amanda told him, delighted to be able to play the part of tutor. "Her personal name is Pei, which follows rather than precedes her family name. In China, family names always come first."

"I see," Richard said in tones of revelation, then smiled at both of them. "I've always enjoyed learning new things, which means I'm now even more delighted that you're here. Once you ladies have rested, you must certainly tell me all about China. And as well as Miss … Han speaks English, I'm certain that won't pose any problems at all."

He and Pei exchanged smiles and Pei bowed again, and then Richard led them off the dock to his carriage. Three men waited nearby with a wagon, and when Richard nodded, two of them headed toward the dock. To fetch her and Pei's trunks, Amanda knew, and how lucky they'd brought a wagon. Pei would be returning to China, but Amanda had taken her every possession with her.

It felt the least bit odd to Amanda to be handed into a vehicle pulled by horses rather than into a palanquin carried by bearers, and Pei's lack of expression said she probably felt the same way. Once the three of them were settled their driver got the horses moving, and in a little while they'd left the docks far behind. By then Amanda was wide-eyed and open-mouthed, having seen nothing like London in her entire life.

The buildings' walls seemed to be made of brick or wood rather than glazed paper and enameled tile, and rather than being built wide with separate courts, they'd been built tall. And they were so close together! More like the poorest district in the village they'd left, but the buildings didn't look ill-kept, nor did the people in and around them. They looked quite prosperous, as a matter of fact, and the number of other carriages and similar vehicles - all pulled by horses - was almost dizzying.

"You seem rather impressed by the city, sister," Richard said, sounding very amused. "Surely you were told all about it, if not by your father or his secretary, then by Mother."

"Of course I was told, Richard," Amanda said with faint exasperation. "I was told about a lot of things including dragons, but that doesn't mean I believed. But even if I had, hearing about all this isn't anything like actually seeing it. But now that you've reminded me, I have a question to ask: Have you learned yet what became of Mr. Lichfield?"

"I learned that he did indeed reach the city," Richard told her, no longer amused. "In fact he saw to the transfer of your father's estate, naming me as trustee of your interests. After that he seems to have fallen off the edge of the world, as one morning he left the rooms he'd taken but never returned to them. He has relatives in the village he came from, but there's no reason to believe he went there without his possessions. I have inquiries out, of course, and as soon as I hear something I'll be certain to inform you."

Richard then began to point things out to her and Pei, but Amanda was no longer listening. She couldn't have cared less about the best shopping district, or which way the Thames was, or a promised visit to one of the royal palaces. Richard was a dear, but as long as Mr. Lichfield had seen to his duty before disappearing, Richard was no longer concerned about him.

But Amanda was, and if Richard's "inquiries" weren't answered rather quickly, she'd have to look into the matter herself. How she was going to do that in a giant metropolis like London she had no idea, but something would come to her. Even if she knew nothing about the place including where to start, she'd find some way…

"… and tomorrow night happens to be the time for that ball," Richard was saying, drawing back her attention. "Claire and I were hoping you would arrive on time, and so had your dressmakers produce an appropriate gown. You will be quite lovely in it, and all of the eligible bachelors in our circle will be completely taken with you. You'll be married so fast you won't have time to settle into my house, more's the pity. I was hoping you'd be plain enough to let us get to know one another."

Richard grinned to show he was only joking, and that warmed Amanda. Both her father and Mr. Lichfield had been serious nearly to the point of solemnity, leading Amanda to suspect that all Englishmen were the same. She was pleased to find they weren't, and was also looking forward to meeting Richard's wife Claire. Not to mention the men to whom Richard had referred. One of them would become her husband, and could even conceivably turn out to be him

Amanda laughed at herself silently, amused that that old daydream had popped up in her thoughts again. About five years earlier, a stranger had one day shown up at Master Ma's compound. He was the first young Englishman Amanda had ever seen, and he was so handsome that she'd fallen immediately in love with him. He, however, had been interested in nothing but studying with Master Ma, and had even brought an introduction from the Provincial Governor.

Gossip traveled rather quickly among Master Ma's students, so Amanda learned that the stranger had come to the Provincial Governor with an introduction from his own government as well as with the permission of the Imperial Family in the capital. He had been sent to Master Ma because he was far from being a novice in Chinese boxing, his instructor having been a Chinese servant in his own country. He had come to polish his skill, but not to mention his name. For the entire year he stayed there and studied, no one ever called him anything but Chin Te Quei, meaning Golden Devil. He paid for his lessons in gold, something no other student did, and he fought like a devil.

And during that year, he'd never once noticed Amanda. She'd managed to get in his path once or twice, trying to force him into noticing her, but all he'd done was continue on his way after patting her on the head. He'd treated her like a child, obviously blind to the woman she was in the process of becoming, and that had annoyed her almost to the bursting point. But it hadn't stopped her from daydreaming about him, even after he left and never returned.

What a silly little fantasy, she thought with an inner smile, listening with half an ear to the polite conversation between Pei and Richard. In a city the size of this one, you and he could live out very long lives and still never meet. Assuming he was in the city to begin with, which is even less likely. And don't forget that he's certainly old by now, so if you did meet him again you'd surely be sorry. If you want to think about men, think about the one you'll eventually marry.

Amanda would have been willing to do that, but she didn't yet know who Richard had in mind for her. Anticipating one sort of man and then getting another sort would be extremely disappointing, so she thought instead about how she might go about looking for Mr. Lichfield. She hadn't gotten anywhere at all when the carriage slowed, then turned into a small circular drive.

"Well, ladies, this will be home to you for the next few months," Richard announced. "I think you'll be comfortable."

Amanda exchanged a quick glance with Pei, who sat opposite to her, the two of them apparently thinking the same thing. Richard's house stood alone with some grounds around it and looked large, but it was also tall and seemed to have nothing in the way of compounds. The air around them was cooler than what Amanda was used to, but the sight of all that brick rather than oiled rice paper gave her the feeling of stiffness. She and Pei would certainly try to be comfortable, but as far as achieving it went… Well, Amanda knew she'd better get used to it. From that moment on she'd be in England for the rest of her life.

"How lovely to see and smell green growing things again," Pei said to Richard as the carriage pulled up in front of the large, heavy house. "My father's gardens never fail to impress visitors, and we're all very fond of them. Yours seem to be just as lovely, Lord Pembroke, and just as carefully kept."

"I appreciate your saying so, Miss Han, but you really must see the gardens of my estate in the country." Richard was obviously pleased by Pei's compliment, and smiled as he opened the carriage door and stepped out. "My wife and I will have to take you two down for a few days, once Amanda has been properly introduced around. Taking a young lady out of the immediate reach of any ardent suitors for a while usually turns them even more ardent."

His smile showed amusement again as he helped them from the carriage, leading Amanda to believe that he was delighted with the duty their mother had imposed on him. Amanda was pleased to see that, as she hadn't wanted to be a burden to this stranger she shared blood with, this brother whom she had only just met. She would do exactly as Richard wanted her to - as soon as she discovered the whereabouts of Mr. Lichfield.

With that thought warming her, she and Pei followed Richard inside to meet his wife Claire.