Riding down from the villa he arrived through the arched gate of the barracks. The place was teeming with men. Two companies were executing a tight drill in squares on the parade ground, and Paul reined in to admire their work. They were almost as good as his men, and he nodded approval to a grinning captain as he rode on past. In the distance he could hear the clicks of muskets as a company of infantry practiced dry firing out at the range. And ahead of him there was a tangle of wagons as two Portuguese carters delivering food and bedding locked wheels and began to shout loudly at each other, gesticulating wildly.
An English voice bellowed at the two men and Paul grinned, recognising the dulcet cockney tones of Private Danny Carter, formerly of the rifles and now permanently part of his light company. Like Paul’s other skirmishers from the rifles Carter flatly refused to change uniform and Paul did not try to make them. He still wore the white armband that Carter’s men had given him after his first battle, and he retained an immense fondness for the independent, obstreperous riflemen.
Carter’s voice rose above the two Portuguese.
“Jesus bloody Christ if ever I saw such a pig’s ear! Stop whipping the horses you silly bugger and hold still or you’ll have the winter feed for the officers’ horses used as carpet for the bloody Connaught rangers to dance on!” Carter had run to the centre to try to disentangle the two locked wheels.
Paul stopped to admire the chaos, but before he could ride forward to intervene there was a peal of laughter and a woman’s voice called out to Carter. “You’re making a worse mull of it than they are! Hold still and I’ll come down and help!”
She had called from an upstairs window of the officer’s block and Paul would have recognised her voice anywhere. In a moment she had arrived through the door and went quickly to the head of one of the frightened horses.
“Here, ma’am, you’re going to get hurt!” Carter said in a panic, worried, Paul knew, about whether he could somehow be held responsible for the injury to some officer’s mad wife. But the girl took the bridle of the frightened beast and spoke quietly to him. The carter lifted his whip and she held up an imperious hand to stop him.
“Stop that! It will frighten him. Stop and wait!”
The sense of her words if not the content was clear and the driver lowered his whip. Anne beckoned to Carter. “Come here and hold him. Gently, now.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Carter had clearly just seen the girl properly for the first time, and Paul did not blame him for the expression on his face. She wore a white shirt, like a man’s, open at the throat, and a dark riding skirt, which emphasised the small waist and gentle curve of her hip. She had obviously run down without finishing her toilette because her hair was still loose about her shoulders and Paul remembered the feel of it under his hands and felt a stab of longing.
Carter took the bridle and Anne went to the other horse. Talking soothingly to him, she carefully backed him up, and Carter led the other horse to one side, separating the carts. The two drivers both burst into voluble thanks in Portuguese and Anne smiled at them impartially. One of them, the younger of the two, took a flower from the buttonhole of his dark jacket and leaned down to give it to Anne.
“Obrigada, señor,” Anne said, and the carter, who had the benefit of knowing that he would be gone before the lady’s husband reappeared, placed his fingers to his lips and blew her a dramatic kiss before driving off.
Anne stood twirling the flower between long elegant fingers. The other driver moved away and Private Carter came forward uncertainly.
“Thank you, ma’am.”
Anne turned to look at him. Then she pointed at the retreating carter. “It’s all very well scattering flowers around to passing females,” she said, “but if he doesn’t improve his driving skills the next person he comes across is likely to be a fat choleric colonel with a riding crop and a bad attitude.” She tapped the flower onto Carter’s chest to emphasise her point and turned at the sound of an approaching horse. Shading her eyes against the sun she looked up at Paul. “And I notice that you kept well out of reach until the work was done.”
Paul was conscious of poor Carter, unable to take his eyes from the vivid laughing face. He swung down from Rufus. “I was admiring your technique,” he said.
“With the horses or the drivers?” Anne enquired going to Rufus’ head. “Hello, boy, how are you again?”
“Both,” Paul said. “Rufus is pleased to see you. He knows a woman who keeps carrot tops in her pocket.”
“He’s out of luck, I left my jacket upstairs,” Anne said. “How are you, Paul?”
“You know I do think we may have to find you a billet out of the barracks,” Paul said. “Now that I have seen you in action, I realise that it is a matter of keeping my men safe. Close your mouth, Carter.”
“Yes, sir,” Carter said. “You know the lady, sir?”
“To my cost. This is Mrs Anne Carlyon. Lieutenant Carlyon is on Sir Arthur Wellesley’s staff. I met Mrs Carlyon on my trip to Yorkshire last year. At the time she was still choosing between her many suitors.”
“Welcome to Portugal, ma’am.”
“Thank you, Private Carter. You have much better manners than your commanding officer.”
“We’ve tried to teach him, ma’am.”
Anne shot him a startled glance and then burst out laughing. She had heard Paul talking with affection about his men, but she had not fully realised the level of informality that reigned within the light company.
“Keep trying, Carter, he may improve,” she said.
“I have come with messages from Rowena. Is it possible that you could stop flirting with the enlisted men and invite me in for a drink?”
“Unchaperoned?” Anne looked up at him from under long lashes. “Is that the right thing to do here? I need Rowena to tell me how to behave.”
“You actually do,” Paul said, laughing. “Robert has all my sympathy. He is never going to be able to control you.”
“And what makes you think you’d do any better?” Anne said lightly.
“I’d never make the attempt; I know my limitations.” Paul was very aware of Carter’s interested regard.
“Excuse me, sir, but this has just come for you.”
Paul turned at the melodious Irish tones of his sergeant. “Good morning, Sergeant O’Reilly. Thank you. Carter, would you take Rufus to the stables and deliver him to the groom, who should have been here to take him if he were not probably flirting with the cook’s daughter.”
“How do you know the cook has a pretty daughter, sir?”
“I notice these things,” Paul said, scanning the message quickly. “This is an invitation to something that I have no intention of attending. Lose it, Sergeant.”
“Just as you say, sir.” Michael O’Reilly had noticed Anne. He gave her a friendly nod, and then looked again, and hard. Carter had moved away with the horse, still watching Anne. Paul glanced from one to another.
“I think perhaps introductions are in order,” he said. “Sergeant…”
“Sir, the lady may not wish to be introduced to an NCO,” Michael said warningly. At times he found himself wondering if his commanding officer had ever been taught the rules of society. But the girl with the lovely dark eyes was smiling. Paul smiled back at her and continued as though Michael had not spoken.
“Sergeant O’Reilly, this is Mrs Anne Carlyon, who is married to Lieutenant Robert Carlyon on Sir Arthur’s staff. Nan, this is Michael O’Reilly, my sergeant, without whom the light company would not function. Michael is here to remind me of my duty, and Nan is here to flirt with Danny Carter and two Portuguese drivers.”
Michael was looking at the girl’s face. He remembered her as he had last seen her, a gallant little figure in a blue cloak who refused to cry. He wondered if she had any idea who he was. And then she smiled again, a smile of warmth and recognition and genuine interest and to his complete astonishment held out her hand. “I remember you,” she said. “I saw you in the carriage that morning in Thorndale.”
Michael felt a jolt of surprise, not at her recollection but at her willingness to acknowledge it.
“You’ve a good memory for a passing face, ma’am.”
Paul looked at her. “I didn’t know you’d seen him,” he said quietly. “Nan…”
“Don’t look so worried, Paul. If you trust him, then so do I. I am glad to have met you properly, though, Sergeant. I’ve heard a lot about you.”
Michael was studying her. He was very aware of her startling beauty, but there was something more about this girl that he found immensely appealing. Her frank acknowledgment of her relationship with his commanding officer was both surprising and impressive and he glanced at Paul and was shocked at the unguarded expression on his face. It was clear that the passage of time and her marriage had not affected Major van Daan’s feelings about Anne Carlyon.
“It’s good to meet you too, ma’am,” he said gently. “I’ll be getting on.” Michael looked at his commanding officer. “Are you coming, sir?”
“Yes, I’ll be with you in a moment.” Paul turned back to Anne. “Are you attending this ghastly reception this evening?”
She nodded. “Yes. Was that the invitation that you were just trying to get your sergeant to lose?”
“It was. But if you’ll be there, I’ll come. We’re only going to be here for a week or so. Wellesley wants to take Oporto back and he’s in a hurry. I don’t know if he’ll want Robert with us or if he’ll leave him here, but I’m concerned about you living in barracks without him here.”
“You mean without you here,” Anne said.
“Yes, I do.” Paul ran his eyes over her with a rueful smile. “Look at you. Poor Carter nearly passed out when he got a good eyeful, and he won’t be the only one. I don’t know how much your husband cares. I only know how much I do. I’ll talk to you later, I have to go.”
He lifted her hand to his lips and turned to catch up with his sergeant. Neither of them spoke for a while. They walked up towards the training field. Finally Paul said:
“If you’ve anything to say, Michael, better get it over with now.”
“Yes, sir. Something of a surprise, and that’s for sure. Did you know she was coming?”
“No. They were on their way to the Cape and Hookey intercepted them. He needed a good administrator. And Carlyon is one, whatever else he is. She, of course, thought we’d gone to South America.”
“And what about your wife, sir?”
“She’s met my wife already, Sergeant,” Paul said with grim humour. “They like each other.”
“God love you, sir, only you could get yourself into this one! Does anybody but me…?”
“No. I’ve told nobody and I won’t. She was a lass I met in Yorkshire and now she’s Carlyon’s wife and Rowena’s friend. That’s all.”
“Well, you’d better get bloody better at it than that, then, sir, because you just looked at her as though she’s a gift you never expected to get.”
“She is,” Paul said quietly.
Michael turned to study his commander’s face. Paul had an unusually expressive countenance and Michael had learned to read him very well. It made for an effective working relationship and an easy friendship which his sergeant had come to take for granted but he had never seen his friend like this.
“Jesus Christ, Paul, how in God’s name after sleeping with half the women in England did you come to fall in love with a girl that young and that out of reach?” he said softly. “I swear to God I thought you immune.”
“So did I,” Paul said. He glanced sideways at his sergeant. “I never intended it, Michael, but I’ve never met a woman remotely like her. I know what you see, lad, and that’s what the rest of the army are going to see as they trip over their own feet every time she walks past. But I’m telling you, there’s a lot more to this girl than the way she looks.”
Michael could not help smiling. “I get that, sir. But you need to be careful, not just for Rowena’s sake but for hers too, she’s newly married and very young and you know what the headquarters gossips are like with a reputation.”
“Michael, she’s here, when I never expected to see her again. And I will get better at it, and I’m not going to hurt Rowena. But don’t ask me to lie to you and pretend that I’m not bloody happy. Because I am. And next week I’m going to fight the French, which believe it or not is what I came here for.”
(From An Unconventional Officer, Book 1 of the Peninsular War Saga by Lynn Bryant)
“Absolutely brilliant. For 40 years I’ve been fascinated by this period of history, and have read everything I could get my hands on, history, biography, memoirs and fiction. This series is the best fiction I’ve ever read – fantastically well researched and historically accurate, with wonderfully drawn characters and relationships. They give a brilliant idea of what war was like then, as well as a moving love story and brilliant relationships between the male characters.” 5 out of 5 * on Amazon.co.uk