Author's note: The events in this story take place 18 months after those of 'Sight unseen' and contain spoilers for that story. Some readers may be surprised by what I have done with Penny in this story. I know a lot of writers link her to Jeff, but if Mouse can marry her off to John (nice one, Mouse!) then I feel free to do what I have done here.
Standard disclaimer. I acknowledge Carlton plc as the copyright holder of the Thunderbird characters and I would like to thank Gerry Anderson and his team for creating them. All biographical details and dates taken from Chris Bentley's 'Complete book of Thunderbirds'
Virgil glowered at the grey English landscape spread out before him. 'Go to England', they'd said. 'you'll feel different there'. Well, they were right about that. At home he had felt bored and frustrated. Here he felt bored, frustrated – and cold. He shivered as he wrapped the rug tighter around his legs. If this was what it was like in July, then he was glad he wasn't visiting in January. He glared again at the back end of the horse that was pulling the small cart he was sitting on (Lady Penelope had called it a 'dog-cart'), along the grassy lane. The horse seemed determined to eat its way across the countryside Virgil couldn't help reflecting that in the time it had taken the creature to go a mile, Thunderbird 2 could have covered half a continent. He wasn't at all sure he was even heading in the right direction - if he was in Thunderbird 2 his instruments could pinpoint any spot on the planet within six feet. As it was, he had to admit he was lost.
His reverie was interrupted by a stern voice. "You shouldn't let him do that, you know – it's very bad for him."
He turned in his seat with some difficulty to look at the speaker. An attractive young woman, of about his own age, with the fresh complexion that the English seemed to wear as a trademark, and wisps of tawny hair escaping from beneath a black riding hat, was approaching on horseback. He eyed her slim figure appreciatively and admired the expert way with which she controlled her horse. Virgil was no expert on horses, but even his untrained eye could see that putting her mount next to the animal pulling his cart was like placing Thunderbird 1 next to Alan's antique Tiger Moth.
"Sorry, ma'am" he replied, "he doesn't seem to be taking any notice of me. I guess I'm more used to horsepower than horses."
The young lady was obviously surprised to hear Virgil's accent. "Are you visiting near here?" she asked.
"Yes, I'm staying with Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward."
Her face broke into a smile. "Penny and I have been friends for years – we were at school together." She extended her hand "Amanda Leigh-Jones"
Virgil offered his hand. "Pleased to meet you, ma'am. I'm Virgil Tracy."
She looked at him, "Virgil as in the poet?"
"Poet?" he echoed.
"Latin poet. Wrote The Aenead"
Virgil shook his head. "Nothing so high-brow, I'm afraid. My father named me after one of America's early astronauts."
"Well," she replied, "that's an illustrious namesake if ever I heard one!" She looked at him again. "How long have you been in England?"
"Just a few days so far. But this afternoon Lady Penelope said she had some sort of meeting at her house, so she suggested I went out and got some fresh air."
"Oh the committee meeting about the Parish fete and gymkhana! Yes, my sister-in-law has gone to that – they'll be hours yet." She looked at him closely, noting his pallor. "Why don't you come back with me for some tea – then you can go back to Penny's once the meeting is over. If you don't mind my saying so, you look in need of a hot drink"
The idea appealed to Virgil. He shivered slightly "I guess I'm just used to it being a bit warmer at home."
"And where is that?" queried Amanda.
"My family live on an island in the south Pacific."
"Wow! That sounds wonderful." Amanda looked around at the overcast skies. "I suppose this all looks a bit drab in comparison." Taking the reins of that pony trap from Virgil's cold fingers, she led the pony along the track, and after a short journey they stopped where a vista opened out before them.
"Here we are," said Amanda, "Denbigh Hall."
Virgil stared. He had always thought Lady Penelope's house was enormous, but this was a castle, with battlements and a drawbridge over a moat. "You live here?"
"No, I grew up here, but it belongs to my brother now. I've got a flat down on the south coast. I'm only visiting for a few days because I'm having my kitchen re-done and I can't stand the mess at home." She glanced at him, "It's not as old as it looks, you know. This is just a Victorian idea of what a castle should look like. The actual building is only about 200 years old, though of course there was an earlier house on the site."
Virgil smiled. 200 years old still sounded old to him.
Amanda led them round the back, into what was obviously a stable yard. She dismounted in one swift easy move. "We won't bother to unharness the horses – I'll just loosen the girth on Tiger Lily and put her in the loose box, and we'll put a blanket over your pony." She turned towards Virgil, and was surprised to see that when he pulled the rug away, that his right leg was encased for the whole length in a plaster cast. "Oh, I'm sorry, I never realised you were injured. Would you like a hand getting down?"
Virgil had slid from the seat onto the footrest, and was manoeuvring down onto a pair of crutches. He looked at her. "You know, that's been the nicest thing about our conversation so far. I've spent the last half hour talking to someone who isn't acting like they expect me to break apart any minute." He paused, "Sorry, that sounded a bit rude, didn't it? I'm afraid I'm a terrible patient - I've been driving everybody mad at home for the last few weeks, so when Lady Penelope offered to have me stay with her it seemed a good idea all round."
"I know what you mean. I remember when my brother fell off his horse and broke his wrist when he was eighteen. It was just at the start of the cricket season and he was furious because he couldn't play all summer. How did yours happen?"
"Oh, I was climbing in the Italian Alps and got caught in a rock fall. I also got concussion – though that's OK now – and a couple of cracked ribs."
They went through a door into the kitchen where a middle-aged woman was working on some pastry. Amanda went up and gave her a hug. "Cookie, I've brought a friend home. Be a dear and rustle up some tea."
The older woman turned to see the handsome young man swaying slightly on his crutches. She noticed his pinched expression, and the dark rings around his eyes. "Of course, Miss Amanda. Why don't you go in the morning room? There's a fire laid in there and I can send in some crumpets for you to toast. Your young man looks a bit peaky to me."
Virgil wasn't quite sure what 'peaky' meant, but followed Amanda across a hallway that looked almost big enough to house Thunderbird 2, lined with suits of armour and stags' heads sticking out of the walls. They entered a smaller room, where Amanda quickly knelt and lit the fire. She climbed to her feet, dusting her hands. "I suppose I had better ring Penny in case she starts wondering if you've got lost" She turned to a vidphone of the wall and pressed some buttons.
Virgil heard Parker's unmistakable tones. "Creighton-Ward mansion. Oh, good hafternoon, your ladyship."
"Good afternoon Parker. I presume Penny is still at her meeting? Well, if she starts to worry just tell her that I found her young American friend trespassing on the edge of our estate, and I'll bring him back when I have finished with him."
"Very good, your ladyship."
Just as Amanda finished the call the door opened to reveal a butler carrying a tray. "Your tea and crumpets, my lady."
Amanda thanked him and he left. Virgil turned to her. "Parker called you 'ladyship' as well," he said in a questioning tone.
She rolled her eyes. "Butlers are such snobs! All
right, my father was the 8th Viscount Denbigh, my brother is the 9th,
and that makes me the Right Honourable Lady Amanda Leigh-Jones." She paused and
glared at him, "and try calling me that, Mr
Virgil-named-after-an-astronaut Tracy, and I shall break your other
"Yes ma'am, I mean no, ma'am" replied Virgil, grinning.
Amanda picked up the teapot, then hesitated. "I've just realised I should have asked – would you prefer coffee?"
Virgil shook his head. "It's all right – I've learned to drink tea when I'm in England. I just couldn't bear Parker's disapproving glances if I asked for coffee!"
"Oh, so this isn't your first visit, then?"
"No, I've been over before, but usually just for quick business trips" ('with Thunderbird 2 concealed in the stable yard' he thought to himself), "This is the first time I'll have stayed for any length of time."
"What sort of business are you in?"
"I'm an engineer by training, but I work for my father. How about you – what do you do?"
"I'm a writer of historical romances – what are popularly known as 'bodice-rippers'. I don't write under my own name – the family would have a fit. I go by the pen-name of Annabelle Lee."
"You're Annabelle Lee?"
Amanda was surprised at Virgil's reaction. "Don't tell me you've read any of my books!"
"You're one of Tin Tin's favourite authors. I think she must have all your books." He saw her puzzled look, "Tin Tin is my brother Alan's girlfriend. She lives with us on the island. Boy, is she going to be impressed when I tell her this!"
By now Amanda had toasted the first of the crumpets and passed it to Virgil, who ate it with relish.
"You've got a brother with you on that island as well, then?"
"In fact I've got four brothers – but we're not all there at once."
"How did you come to know Penny?"
"She sometimes does some business with my father. How about you?"
"Oh, we grew up together. She's a year older than me but I used to follow her around at school. We were always getting up to tricks. One time Penny phoned the school secretary, saying she was from the telephone company and needed to test the line. She made the poor woman repeat different phrases in French, German and Spanish to see if the school was using the 'right' sort of line for different languages."
Virgil started to laugh, then pressed his hand to his side, grimacing. "Ouch! I didn't realise how much it hurt to laugh."
Amanda looked at him. "No, you don't look like you've done any laughing for a while."
She was about to go on when the door opened. "Ah, there you are Amanda" said an older woman with a severe expression, "and this must be Lady Penelope's house guest."
Amanda introduced them. "Dorothy, this is Virgil Tracy. Virgil, this is my sister-in-law, Dorothy."
Virgil struggled to get to his feet. Pleased to meet you ma'am," then hesitated, looking towards Amanda "er, is 'ma'am' enough?"
Amanda laughed. "Ma'am will do fine." She looked at Dorothy. "Virgil is trying to get to grips with addressing the English aristocracy. But if you are back, then the meeting must be over, so I'll take him back to Penny's now."
Virgil said goodbye and she led him out of house to the stable yard. "Sorry, but my sister-in-law always manages to rub me up the wrong way. Now, shall I bring the trap round to the mounting block so you can get on?"
With Amanda leading the way again it was not long before they were back at Creighton-Ward Mansion. Penny came out of the house to meet them, and after Amanda had dismounted the two women hugged each other.
"Amanda," said Penny, "I didn't realise you were back here – you should have let me know!"
"Yes" replied Amanda, with mock ferocity, "and you should have let me know that you had a dishy young American staying with you. Trying to keep him to yourself, are you? And he tells me there are four others at home that you've never told me about!"
Virgil smiled to himself. Their playful banter reminded him of the way his brothers teased each other. Amanda turned to him "If you haven't seen much of the area round here, why don't we all go out for a picnic tomorrow? The forecast is good, and I think you should see what the countryside can look like in the sunshine."
So a time was set for the following day and Amanda rode off, turning to wave as she reached the bottom of the drive. Penny looked from her to Virgil. 'Yes' she thought, 'that might just work.'