An Unassuming Gentleman

Welcome to An Unassuming Gentleman, my free short story for Valentine’s Day 2022. For this story, I’ve gone back to the first weeks of 1809 when Sir John Moore died on the field of Corunna and his army returned to England suffering from sickness, exhaustion and starvation after an appalling retreat over the mountains in winter.

As it’s Valentine’s Day, this story is not about that retreat, it’s about one of the officers who took part in it. Gervase Clevedon has been part of the Peninsular War Saga from the first, one of Paul van Daan’s inner circle, moving in and out of the action regularly. Yet very little has been said about his personal life. We know he is the younger son of an Earl, with a difficult relationship with his elder brother but the books have been silent on the subject of his marital status.

An Unconventional Officer - love and war in Wellington’s armyTo set this story in context of the books, it would slot in part way through An Unconventional Officer. Paul van Daan has returned from his memorable time in Yorkshire and sailed with Wellesley to fight at the battles of Rolica and Vimeiro. After the unpopular convention of Cintra, the three commanders were summoned back to London to face an inquiry and the army marched into Spain under Sir John Moore. The exception was a few companies left behind in Lisbon under Major Paul van Daan, many of whom were suffering, like Paul’s wife, from camp fever. After Moore’s disastrous campaign, which ended with his death at Corunna, the army returned to England for a few months to recover before going back to Portugal under Wellesley. Captain Gervase Clevedon was with them.

I wanted to make a brief mention of my heroine’s name. I’m very fond of the name Heather, and I’ve been dying to use it, in honour of my editor but I wasn’t sure if it was used as a girls’ name during this era. A check of the incredibly useful Ancestry.com told me there was no problem with it.

As I know my readers love to work out links to characters in other books, I’ve managed to work in links to both my standalone early novels in this story. Readers of A Respectable Woman may like to know that Gervase Clevedon is the uncle of Kit Clevedon who is the hero of that book. Meanwhile Heather MacLeod’s brother is Lord Crawleigh, a Scottish title going back to the sixteenth century where the second Baron Crawleigh defended his lands against the invasion of the Earl of Hertford in A Marcher Lord. 

Happy Valentine’s Day to all my readers. This one is unashamedly romantic. I hope you enjoy it, and it’s free, so please share as much as you like.

An Unassuming Gentleman.

 

It rained on the evening of Lady Sefton’s ball and a canopy had been set up across the street, to shelter the revellers during the short walk from the carriage steps to the house. Mrs Heather MacLeod, who had not particularly wanted to attend the ball, found herself wondering how much it had cost to effectively close off part of the square, so that her Ladyship’s guests might keep their feet dry.

Heather had been on a routine visit to London when she found herself ambushed by her sister-in-law. Lady Crawleigh had invited her down from her home in Scotland for a few weeks, with the promise of the theatre, the opera, some concerts and a new exhibition at the Royal Academy. Taking part in the balls and receptions of the London Season was not part of the plan and Heather was infuriated when Lady Crawleigh presented her with a pile of invitations on which her name was included.

“You may take those away, Fiona, for I shall not be attending any of them. I didn’t come here to go to parties, I cannot think what possessed you.”

“I have already replied on your behalf, Heather, so it will seem very rag-mannered if you don’t turn up,” Fiona said cheerfully. “You could of course write to the hostesses excusing yourself. I’ll leave them on the mantlepiece in case you wish to do so.”

“I? It was not I who accepted in the first place.”

“They don’t know that.”

“Fiona, how dare you? You know how much I dislike this kind of thing. I shall be bored witless. Besides, I don’t have anything suitable to wear since I never go to balls or receptions since Alex died and you promised me culture.”

“You shall have all the culture you desire, my love, providing you come out of your self-imposed seclusion and join the rest of the world for a few months. It won’t hurt you at all. I’ve made an appointment with my dressmaker. You are quite right, your gowns are looking dated. And…”

“I don’t want this.”

“You need this,” Fiona said with sudden quiet ferocity. “You’ve been hiding away in Comrie Castle for three years now and it is enough. Charles and I both agree on this. It isn’t good for you.”

“Charles is a traitor and I disown him as my brother.”

“Charles loves you. Alex was his friend he knows how much you miss him. But you’re only twenty-eight, Heather, you’re too young to wear widows’ weeds for the rest of your life.”

“Don’t be so dramatic, Fiona, I stopped wearing mourning two years ago.”

“I was speaking metaphorically. And how would I know what you’ve been wearing? I never see you.”

“Nonsense, I’ve stayed with you every summer.”

“And refuse to see anybody else. It’s not good for you, Heather.”

“I don’t want anybody else.”

“Well this year you will have to put up with it. I mean it, Heather. Not one single concert or play will I attend with you unless you agree to accompany me to these parties. Your word on it.”

Heather glared at her. “This is blackmail and you will regret it. You may force me to attend, but you cannot make me enjoy it.”

“You sound like a five-year-old, dearest sister-in-law. Well, we shall see.”

Heather’s new gowns had not arrived by the date of Lady Sefton’s ball. Fiona had offered to lend her something, but Heather refused. Partly it was from sheer perversity, and partly it was because Fiona was six inches taller than her, with a fuller figure, and Heather suspected that even when altered, the gown would look cobbled together. She selected the best of her ballgowns, a charming green silk which she had not worn since her husband had died of a summer fever three years earlier. Heather supposed that the eagle-eyed ladies of fashion would be able to detect that the gown was out of date but she decided she did not care. She allowed Fiona’s maid to arrange her hair in the latest style, purchased new slippers and gloves and accepted a very pretty painted fan as a gift from her brother with a grim smile. The fan would be useful since Lady Sefton’s rooms were insufferably hot.

Heather was not new to London society and recognised enough people to make her feel at ease despite her long absence. Lord Crawleigh and his wife kept a house in town which they used during the Parliamentary season and were very much at home in government and diplomatic circles. Several women who had made their debut at the same time as Heather, and were now married, stopped to speak to her. She made polite conversation, accepted their congratulations at her re-emergence into society and tried not to grit her teeth too obviously.

Heather met with nothing but kindness and within an hour, she realised she was beginning to thaw. She was not ready to admit it to her interfering relatives, but she was quite enjoying renewing old acquaintances and catching up on the gossip. The music was infectious, and Heather stood beside her brother watching a cotillion and realised her feet were tapping. She remembered a little sadly how much she had enjoyed dancing with Alex during the first heady days of their courtship. She watched this year’s debutantes, their faces bright and eager and full of hope for the future and wondered if any of them was experiencing the breathless happiness of falling in love that she remembered so well.

Heather’s drifting thoughts were interrupted by a loud laugh. She glanced around and saw that it came from a group of men who, like her, were watching the dancing. At their centre was a tall, well-built individual who was probably in his thirties. He was expensively dressed, with his hair carefully styled and he had an over-loud voice which made everything he said easily audible to those around him.

“What do you say then, Alverstone? Who is to be this Season’s Incomparable? Miss Hibbert? Lady Caroline Forster?”

“Not at all,” the big man said. “The Hibbert is too tall and the Forster has crooked teeth. The Middleton girl is pretty, but her father’s got money troubles, or so I’ve heard. No, the girl for me is the little Flood heiress. Going to speak to her father as a matter of fact. It’s time I got my house in order now that I’ve come into the title. Nice little thing, good manners, very good Ton and a lovely figure. No reason to kick her out of bed on a cold night.”

There was more laughter. “You’d better watch it, old man, she’s over there dancing with Evesham, and he looks very pleased about it.”

“I don’t need to dance with her, Sheldon. I’ve got the title and the fortune. All I need is for her father to agree, and he will, believe me.”

Heather could feel her lip curling in distaste. She began to turn away but realised that the unpleasant Lord Alverstone had noticed her scrutiny and possibly her expression. He was staring at her, running his eyes over her in a way that made Heather’s skin crawl. Deliberately she turned towards her brother, presenting the other man with a view of her back.

“Who’s that with Crawleigh, Sheldon?” Alverstone asked loudly.

“I believe it’s his sister, Mrs MacLeod. I vaguely remember her from her debut, it was years ago. I think she’s widowed now.”

“Ha! Well her late husband did himself a favour if you ask me. Fancy being leg-shackled to a nondescript dwarf wearing last season’s gown. Couldn’t she be bothered to tidy herself up to enter polite society again?”

The words were loud enough to be heard by everybody in the vicinity. Heather was furious to feel herself blushing scarlet. She felt her brother stiffen in anger beside her and heard a murmur of comment, and one or two hastily suppressed sniggers.

“Heather, do you want me to…”

“No, Charles, please don’t. It will only encourage him.”

Heather took a deep breath and turned to look fully at Lord Alverstone. He was looking back at her mockingly, daring her to make a scene. Heather very much wanted to slap him, but she knew that for her brother’s sake she must not.

She turned away, furious to realise that she was shaking a little, with a combination of anger and embarrassment. She should not have agreed to attend such a fashionable ball in her outmoded gown, but she had been enjoying herself and nobody else had shown any sign of caring until Alverstone had drawn it to everybody’s attention.

“Are you all right, Heather?”

“Yes. No. I need to get out of here, Charles, but I don’t want him to think that I’m running away…”

“Lord Crawleigh.”

Heather turned in surprise. The voice was very different to Alverstone’s. It was a quiet baritone which held unconscious authority. She had noticed him standing on the edge of Alverstone’s group of cronies, a man of medium height, in military dress with mid-brown hair and attractive hazel eyes. Heather had no idea who he was and wondered if he had come to apologise for his friend’s rudeness. She hoped not.

“Clevedon,” her brother said delightedly. “I didn’t realise you were here tonight. Or even that you were back in England. How are you, old boy? Were you at…I mean, I’m assuming you must have been…”

Captain Clevedon smiled slightly. “Corunna? Yes, I was there. I’ve not been all that well as you can imagine, this is my first proper attempt at being social.”

“Well, I should think so. Dreadful business. Very sorry to hear about Sir John Moore, he’ll be much missed.”

“He will.” Captain Clevedon transferred his attention to Heather. He bowed. “I don’t think I’ve had the pleasure, ma’am.”

“No, of course,” Charles said quickly. “This is my sister, Clevedon, Mrs MacLeod. She married Alex MacLeod, you’ll remember him. Died three years ago, some ghastly fever epidemic. Heather, this is Captain the Honourable Gervase Clevedon, a friend from my army days. He started off in the 71st with me then transferred to the 110th.”

Heather recognised the name and was furiously aware that Captain Clevedon had indeed approached her to apologise, not for his friend but for his brother. She glared at Charles, since she could hardly glare at the hapless Clevedon, and wished he would get this over with so that she could leave with dignity and have a good cry in the carriage home.

“It is very good to meet you, Mrs MacLeod. I was wondering if you would consider dancing with me? I’ve been away from London for so long. I am hopelessly out of practice, but if you’d take pity on me I would be very grateful.”

It was worse than she had expected. Heather shot her brother an indignant look, and Charles looked back with eyes which entreated her not to make a scene. He was right, she knew. There was no way to withdraw without making it look as though she was storming out. She gave a rigid smile and placed her gloved hand in Clevedon’s.

The dancers were forming up for a country dance. Heather took her place opposite Clevedon. He shot her a reassuring smile and she forced herself to respond, wishing this were over. The orchestra struck up the opening bars and Clevedon held out his hand.

“If I forget the steps, just push me,” he whispered. “I’m very good at taking orders, I promise you. Good luck.”

The remark was so unexpected that Heather let out a giggle. Her partner grinned back at her as he stepped back and then forward into the opening figure of the dance. Heather took a deep breath and let him turn her neatly before passing her hand onto the opposite gentleman in the set.

It was immediately clear that if Gervase Clevedon had not danced in London for a while, he had definitely danced somewhere. Heather had not and she had to concentrate to remember the steps. The music was lively and within a minute, Heather stopped thinking about her gown or her wounded pride and was caught up in the sheer joy of dancing again after so long.

When the music ended, Captain Clevedon bowed and raised her hand to his lips. “Thank you, I enjoyed that so much. I was worried I’d run out of energy halfway through, but we carried the day.”

Heather smiled. “I almost refused to dance with you.”

“I know you did, ma’am, and I wouldn’t have blamed you. You must have been furious.”

“I thought you were going to apologise to me.”

Clevedon led her from the dance floor and neatly removed two champagne glasses from the tray of a passing waiter. “For Alverstone? I make a point of never apologising for him, or I’d never do anything else.”

Heather laughed aloud as she took the champagne. “Then why did you ask me to dance?”

“Mostly to annoy him. But also, I’d noticed you earlier because of that green silk gown. Several years ago, when I was last in London, I solicited a lady for a dance, who was wearing just that particular shade. She was a considerable heiress and a noted beauty and she turned me down very haughtily. I was hoping I might do better this time. I’m delighted to say that I did.”

Heather could not stop laughing. “I have no idea if any of that is true,” she said.

“I promise you that it is.”

“I collect you don’t get on with your brother.”

“I dislike him excessively. I hope that doesn’t shock you? Your own brother is a very good fellow. I’m deeply envious of you.”

“Doesn’t that make it difficult living with him?”

“Oh, I’m not staying at Alverstone House, ma’am, I wouldn’t dream of it when he is in residence. I have a house of my own near Ampthill in Bedfordshire. I inherited the estate from my mother’s family. And when I’m in London, I have a standing invitation to stay with the family of my commanding officer in Curzon Street. They’re very good hosts, especially just now, because none of them are there. Are you staying with Crawleigh?”

“Yes, for a few weeks. I live in Scotland, I inherited my husband’s estate and I seldom come to London. My sister-in-law has been bullying me, saying I should make more effort to be social.”

“Well I’m very glad you did,” Clevedon said. “May I take you into supper?”

“I…yes, if you wish it.”

“Will you dance with me again?”

Heather was laughing again. “Isn’t there some kind of rule which says we may only dance together twice?”

“Oh no, surely that rule only applies to debutantes.”

“I’m not sure.”

“Well can we pretend that neither of us knows any better? They won’t be surprised. You’ve been hiding in a Scottish castle for three years and I’ve been in the army, they don’t expect any better from us.”

Heather felt as though her head was spinning slightly. “Are you always like this? How did you know it was a castle?”

“No, is it? I just made that up. I must have the second sight. Dance with me again, Mrs MacLeod. I’ve just survived the worst retreat…you honestly can’t imagine. Please?”

Heather sipped the champagne. “Was it really that bad? The retreat to Corunna?”

Unexpectedly the laughing eyes were serious. “Yes,” he said. “So bad, in fact, that I’m trying not to think about it too much at the moment. I’m supposed to be convalescing.”

“By dancing.”

“It is good for both the body and the soul. Especially dancing with you. You have the prettiest eyes.”

“Captain Clevedon, are you trying to flirt with me?” Heather said in what she hoped was a repressive voice.

Clevedon looked at her for a long moment. “Do you know, I think I am,” he said cordially. “Do you think that’s a sign of recovery? Come along, they’re about to start the quadrille and I think I can remember that one.”

***

The rain had stopped when Gervase Clevedon stepped out into the cool winter air. London was not particularly sweet smelling most of the time, but the rain had washed down the streets and given them a fresh damp scent. Gervase stood for a moment, his head swimming pleasantly, and decided he was sober enough to walk home. A queue of carriages stood waiting to collect their occupants. Gervase’s hosts had informed him that he was to make use of their town carriage without hesitation, but Gervase preferred to walk although he knew perfectly well that his brother would never dream of walking the ten minutes to his home in Berkeley Square. More than ten years in the army had given Gervase considerable hardiness and he would have been embarrassed to call for the carriage for such a short distance.

Gervase had stood up with Heather MacLeod for more than the regulation two dances. If anybody had cast disapproving glances their way, he had not noticed and did not care. When he had limped off the transport from Corunna to begin his convalescence, Gervase had been so weak from starvation, exhaustion and a minor wound to his shoulder that he could not have contemplated even a short walk, let alone an evening dancing. Physically he had recovered very quickly but the emotional effects of the long agonising retreat followed by a battle he was not fit to fight were taking longer to shake off.

The retreat to Corunna had been a disaster for the British army. Only two thirds of Gervase’s battalion had marched into Spain with Sir John Moore. The rest of them remained in Lisbon, struck down by the worst epidemic of camp fever Gervase had ever seen. At the time, Gervase had thought himself lucky to have avoided it. Colonel Johnstone rallied those men fit enough to fight and joined the main army, and Gervase felt sorry for Major Paul van Daan who was both his commanding officer and his friend. Paul’s friendship with Sir Arthur Wellesley had given him a significant part to play in the victories at Rolica and Vimeiro the previous year, but this time he was left in Lisbon in command of the sick troops while Johnstone marched to potential glory. To make it worse, Paul’s wife succumbed to the sickness and Gervase knew he had spent a miserable six weeks in Lisbon fretting over her before returning to barracks in Melton Mowbray with his much-depleted companies, to receive the news of Moore’s death.

Moore’s campaign had gone wrong from the start. He had taken over command of the army when the three previous commanders had been summoned back to London to face an inquiry over the convention of Cintra, which had caused public outrage because of the lenient terms granted to the defeated French. Gervase wondered if Sir Arthur Wellesley would have done any better than Moore, given the impossible circumstances. Moore could not be asked to account for the failure of his campaign. He had been killed during the desperate battle fought on the shore at Corunna where his sickly, starving and exhausted army managed to beat back the French long enough to board the transports waiting to take them home.

Gervase had lost both his horses during the long retreat, and too many of his men. They fell beside the road, dying of sickness and hunger and cold and he could do nothing for them. He also lost control of them, unable to prevent episodes of looting and drunkenness whenever they happened upon a village or a farm where food was available. Spanish farmers and their families were murdered and women were raped. Gervase did not know if any of his men were responsible for the worst of the depredations but even the fact that they might have been left him depressed and ashamed.

Flirting with Heather MacLeod on the dance floor and across the supper table had made him happier than he had been for months and Gervase was enormously grateful. He was also intrigued. She was an attractive woman who seemed entirely without vanity. In place of it, she had ideas, and interests and laughter. She laughed more than any woman he had ever met. She also talked a lot. Gervase thought of himself as a quiet man, but Heather MacLeod was amazingly easy to talk to. He discovered, with some surprise, that they shared a lively sense of the ridiculous and her conversation was peppered with observations about their fellow revellers that kept him in a ripple of laughter all evening. He realised, as he turned into Curzon Street, that he could not wait to see her again.

It was past two o’clock as Gervase mounted the steps to Tevington House. He did not knock, unwilling to wake up the neighbours, knowing that the butler or one of the footmen would be on the watch for his return. Sure enough, the door opened after only a few moments and Gervase stepped into the hallway, which was dimly lit by a branch of candles set on a polished table. He took off his hat.

“If you think I’m taking your damned hat as well as waiting up to let you in, you’re much mistaken, Captain Clevedon.”

Gervase turned in astonishment, his face lighting up at the sight of a tall fair man in uniform who was smiling at him.

“Paul! What on earth are you doing here, acting as butler at this hour?”

“Are you drunk, Gervase? This is my house. At least it’s my father’s house.”

Gervase set his hat down on the side table, carefully avoiding the candles, and remembered to salute. Major Paul van Daan regarded him critically. “Not much more than half-sprung, I suspect. I got here very late after the journey from hell, so I had supper and thought I’d wait up for you. They said you were at Lady Sefton’s.”

“I was. It’s the first time I’ve ventured out to anything more strenuous than a supper party at White’s, but unexpectedly I enjoyed myself. I’m surprised to see you, sir, I thought you fixed in Leicestershire.”

“I am. In fact, I’m completely invisible and I’d appreciate it if you would refrain from advertising my presence in town. Wellesley wrote to me asking me to come up for a few days. I’m dining with him tomorrow. It seems we’ll be going back to Portugal with him.”

“They’ve given him the command?”

“Yes, although I don’t know how official it is yet. Are you too tired for another drink? I’ve kept the fire going in the library.”

“As long as it isn’t champagne. I have drunk enough champagne this evening. Why are you travelling incognito?”

Paul picked up the candles and led the way into the library. He set them down and went to pour wine. “Because I don’t want to see anybody,” he said frankly. “Apart from Wellesley, and of course you. I’m enjoying the life of a country layabout for a month or two, with nothing more strenuous than the ride into barracks, and I promised Rowena I wouldn’t stay long.”

“How is she, sir?”

“She seems fully recovered, but it’s going to take me a while to get over the fright she gave me.”

“And how are the men?”

“Improving. We’ve lost some, Gervase, I can’t lie to you. I can’t decide if I feel guilty or relieved that I wasn’t there.”

“Feel relieved,” Gervase said sombrely, drinking the wine. “It was pure hell, appallingly organised with a complete breakdown of discipline. We lost control of our men, Paul, and I’ve never had to say that before. It’s a miracle we got as many of them out of there as we did. You missed nothing.”

“That’s never going to happen again.”

Gervase grinned at the ferocious certainty of the other man’s tone. “Yes, sir. Now let’s talk of other things, it depresses me. I saw Wellesley tonight. He was dancing with a number of pretty women, none of whom were his wife.”

“That is no surprise at all. He has reason to celebrate. Wholly exonerated by the inquiry, a vote of thanks from Parliament, and the promise of a new command.”

Gervase gave a faint smile. “And did he deserve all of those?”

Paul grinned. “Two out of three,” he said honestly. “He signed that bloody thing along with the other two. I doubt he agreed with it, but I’m also damned sure he didn’t realise the furore it was going to cause, or he’d never have done it. Needless to say, he didn’t ask my opinion. I’m glad he got away with it though because he deserves the command and the approbation. Now let’s see what he can do with nobody holding him back. Was your brother at Lady Sefton’s tonight?”

“To my sorrow. He’s the reason I was planning to post up to Bedfordshire at the end of the week. Just being in the same room as him makes me want to punch him, I cannot think how we came to be related. He tells me he is about to make an offer of marriage to some unfortunate girl. I wish I could put a spoke in the works because he’ll treat her appallingly, but there’s nothing I can do. He’s an Earl, her parents cannot wait to hand her over.”

“Who is it?”

“Lady Clarissa Flood. She’s nineteen.”

“Dear God.”

“I know. He can’t even be bothered to woo the girl. He’ll just sign the marriage contract and start giving her orders. Thank God I’ll be back in Portugal with you and won’t have to watch it.”

“Ambitious parents create a lot of misery. When are you going to Ampthill? It’s not that far, you should come up to Southwinds for a few days. I promise not to make you run drill or skirmish training.”

Gervase laughed. “You would break that promise in two days, sir, you can’t help yourself. I’m not sure actually. I was going to go, but I may decide to stay in town for a week or two. I ran into an old friend this evening. Do you know Crawleigh? We were in the 71st together, but he sold out when he inherited the title. His wife has invited me to dine on Tuesday, and I’m joining them at the theatre on Friday.”

Paul van Daan studied him for a long silent moment, sipping his wine. Gervase drank his, saying nothing. Eventually, Paul set his glass down and got up to bring the bottle to the low table before the fire. He refilled both glasses, sat back and studied Gervase thoughtfully.

“What’s her name?” he asked.

***

It was the first time in many years that Gervase had spent any time in London during the season and he was surprised at how much he enjoyed it. As the younger son of the Earl of Alverstone, his place in society was assured but his loathing for his elder brother meant that he tended to avoid town when the new Earl was in residence.

Gervase could tell that Alverstone was baffled by his extended stay. They spoke occasionally when meeting at social events and his brother was probing, trying to discover what was keeping Gervase in London. His curiosity amused Gervase since it was clear that Alverstone had absolutely no idea of his real motives. He questioned Gervase about possible financial problems, difficulties with his Bedfordshire estate, health problems after the brutal retreat to Corunna and even asked if Gervase was considering selling his commission and returning to civilian life. Gervase gave him little information and enjoyed watching his brother’s puzzlement.

Gervase could not believe Alverstone had not noticed the object of his real interest. Lord Crawleigh and his wife were definitely aware, and they encouraged him shamelessly. Gervase wondered if they had bullied Heather into coming to London in the hope of finding her another husband, but he did not think so. Lady Crawleigh was clearly devoted to her and he suspected that Heather’s self-imposed solitude since the death of her husband had been a source of concern for some time.

It puzzled Gervase, because it was quickly clear that Heather MacLeod was not a naturally solitary person. She was awkward at times, but he thought that was lack of practice rather than a native dislike of company. Over the following weeks he spent increasing amounts of time with her, and he found her completely charming.

Heather quickly admitted to him that Lady Crawleigh had tricked her into coming to London with the promise of cultural activities. It proved an excellent opportunity for Gervase to spend time with her in settings more conducive to conversation than a ballroom. He accompanied her to the theatre and the opera, escorted her to the Royal Academy and attended several concerts, both private and public. She laughed at his willingness to accede to any of her suggestions.

“Captain Clevedon, you are far too amenable. I am tempted to see how far I can push this. There are several public lectures coming up on the subject of anatomy and the structure of the brain. I’m sure they will be interesting. Would you be willing, should I require an escort?”

Gervase surveyed her with interest. “How fascinating, ma’am. You may not know it but I have always wanted to know more about human anatomy. Should we ask Lady Crawleigh if she wishes to attend with us?”

Heather gave him a long look. “I’m not sure if I should call your bluff. Would you really endure such a trial just to prove me wrong?”

“The difficulty you have, ma’am, is that if you call my bluff and I don’t fold, you’ll have to attend the lectures yourself. Is it really worth that just to watch me squirm?”

Heather gave a peal of laughter. “You are the most exasperating man, Captain. It’s impossible to put you out of temper.”

“It can definitely be done, ma’am. You should talk to my brother.”

“Goodness, why ever would I do that?”

“I’ve no idea. Silly notion, forget I mentioned it. Will you ride with me tomorrow? Major van Daan has offered me the pick of their stable. I’m sure I can find suitable horses.”

“I would love to, but I will provide my own horse. Fiona always brings several to town during the season, because she knows she looks good on horseback and likes to show off. I can borrow one of hers.”

“Excellent. I hope the weather holds.”

They rode together through the cold weeks of February and into early March, danced at every ball and took long walks through the London parks, trailed by Heather’s uninterested maid. She told him about her husband, about the sixteenth century castle she had inherited near the village of Comrie and about the lands and people who had become her responsibility through her marriage. Gervase talked of his parents, his career in the army and of the extensive estate in Bedfordshire that he intended one day to make his home.

“Most of the family estates are entailed, of course, and went to my brother. I didn’t mind, it’s the way things are done. It’s why I joined the army when I was younger. I wanted a career of my own, to make my way in the world. I didn’t want to depend on him. My mother always understood that. She inherited the estate from a childless uncle and made it over to me as soon as I came of age. She lives there now and keeps house for me. She doesn’t get on particularly well with Alverstone either.”

“It must be a great joy to him, to be so universally loved.”

Gervase spluttered with laughter. “I think he strives to deserve it,” he said, when he could speak again. “You were able to inherit Comrie Castle unentailed, I gather.”

“Yes. There’s no title to inherit, just the lands. If we’d had a son they’d have gone to him, with me to manage them until he was older, but we never had children. I wish we had.” Heather smiled unselfconsciously. “Alex had several male cousins who were most put out when he left everything to me, but he was perfectly entitled to do so.”

“I think you had a very happy marriage, ma’am.”

“I did. I was the most fortunate of women.”

The sadness in her voice pierced Gervase’s heart. It was unworthy he knew, to envy a dead man, but sometimes he could not help it. As the weeks passed, it was becoming more and more clear to him that his feelings for Heather MacLeod went well beyond friendship, but he was by no means sure that she felt the same way. Clearly, she enjoyed his company, and Gervase suspected that to the outside world their uncomplicated friendship looked very much like courtship, but he worried that to Heather it was nothing than a pleasant way to pass her time in London. He was beginning to understand why she had locked herself away in her grey stone tower at the edge of the Highlands for so long. Heather MacLeod had been passionately devoted to her husband and Gervase was not sure she would ever be ready for another man to take his place.

It grieved Gervase, because he wanted more, and he was becoming conscious that he had very little time. He received regular letters from his regiment, informing him of arrangements for travelling to Portugal and he was torn between the usual sense of anticipation at the beginning of a new campaign and a feeling of misery that if he sailed away from Heather without at least making a push to tell her of his feelings, he would lose any chance with her. It could be several years before he returned to England, and by then she would probably have met somebody else.

His commanding officer had returned to Leicestershire, offering several wholly unsolicited pieces of advice about Gervase’s courtship before he left. Gervase was glad to see him go. His friendship with Paul van Daan was of long-standing and he generally enjoyed his commander’s lively sense of humour, but his relationship with Heather was too new and too precious to be the subject of even the most well-meaning banter. Gervase fretted pointlessly at the problem. He knew that the only possible solution was to pluck up the courage to speak to her before he had to leave, but he was discovering that it was far easier to display courage in the face of a French cavalry charge than when faced with making an offer of marriage to a young woman who might well say no. The weeks flew past, and Gervase was beginning to dread the arrival of orders to return to duty immediately, which would rob him of any chance of speaking to Heather. He needed to gather his courage in both hands and take the risk, and he needed to do it soon.

They rode out on a bright Spring morning towards Barnet, where the horse fair sprawled out over several fields. Gervase was under no illusion that he would find a suitable opportunity to propose on this day, but he was in dire need of new horses. He had several excellent hunters in his stables in Bedfordshire but none of them were suitable for the long hours and difficult conditions of campaign life.

It was many years since he had been to Barnet Fair, and he discovered that Heather had never been. She was openly delighted with the eclectic mix of market stalls, sideshows, food and drink booths and huge pens where cattle and horses were displayed for sale. The buying and selling of livestock was the real purpose of the fair and farmers and landowners rubbed shoulders with private customers looking to buy a riding hack or a pair of carriage horses.

It was crowded and noisy. Gervase had attended such fairs in several countries and entertained Heather with stories of India as they stabled their borrowed horses in a temporary horse pen and left them under the watchful eye of one of the Van Daan’s grooms. They made their way through the throng to the horse pens, accompanied by Southworth, Gervase’s own groom. Southworth had accompanied Gervase on campaign for ten years and knew exactly what he was looking for in an officer’s mount.

Gervase had wondered if Heather would be bored by the laborious process of selecting and purchasing horses, but she seemed to enjoy herself. She was a good horsewoman and was knowledgeable enough to make intelligent comments about the various animals. They wandered through the pens, stopping every now and then to examine a promising mount and Gervase had to force himself to pay attention to the horses, since he actually needed to buy some, instead of watching Heather.

It was afternoon by the time he had made his selection and agreed the arrangements for delivering the horses. They spent the rest of the day at the fair, wandering through the market stalls, eating hot pasties in a crowded food tent and drinking cider at a rickety table overlooking the huge field where a racetrack had been laid out. In addition to its commercial purposes, Barnet Fair was famous for its sports, and both horse racing and boxing matches attracted visitors, not only from London, but also from the surrounding counties.

Heather disclaimed any interest in watching the races and the entirely masculine crowd of sportsmen surrounding the boxing ring was clearly unsuitable for a lady. The groom who had looked after their horses told them that the Prince of Wales had arrived with a party of friends for the boxing and was expected to remain for the races. It seemed like an excellent time to leave before the light began to fade and the fair grew even more rowdy.

Heather was unusually quiet on the ride back into town, but it was a comfortable silence. Gervase rode beside her, pleasantly tired after a very productive day, and decided that he was going to speak to her as soon as possible. If he had completely misread her feelings, it was better to know it. Today had clarified his own feelings and he no longer had any doubts.

Gervase was at the breakfast table two days later when the note was delivered. He did not recognise the hand, and he opened it and began to read, his teacup halfway to his mouth. After the first few lines he put the cup down and pushed his plate away, his appetite gone. It was from Heather MacLeod, a pleasant note informing him that she had made the decision to return home to Scotland almost immediately.

Gervase read the letter again. There was no mistaking the warm, friendly tone of her farewell. She thanked him for his friendship and for the many occasions when he had escorted her and expressed her hope that they would meet again at some future date. Gervase, depressed, tried to imagine how that might come about and could not. When they had parted after their day at the fair, she had given no hint of any intention to go home so soon. He found himself running over their conversations in his head, wondering if he had said or done something to upset her. He did not think he had. Foolish to think this was about him. It was looking increasingly likely that Heather MacLeod had not considered him at all when making her decision.

The thought hurt, but at the same time it was a call to action. Gervase realised that he could not allow her to leave without at least trying to tell her how he felt about her. It would be awkward for her and painfully embarrassing for him if she rejected his proposal, but it would be far worse if he just let her walk out of his life. He was in love with her and had begun to believe that she might feel the same way about him. If he was wrong, then he needed to know it and he could not put this off any longer or he might miss his opportunity.

***

Heather had been prepared for her family to object to her sudden decision to go home, but she had not been prepared for the ferocity of the storm.

She made the announcement at breakfast, dropping it casually into a conversation about Lord Crawleigh’s lame horse and the likelihood of rain that day. Neither topic served as an effective screen. Both Crawleigh and Fiona stopped their conversation and turned to stare at Heather.

“Going home? When?”

“On Friday, I think,” Heather said lightly. “I’ll make the arrangements today. I’ll travel post.”

“Heather, you cannot. We are promised to Lord and Lady Jersey on Saturday and there is the Mortimer’s ball on Monday. You have so many engagements.”

“I have made a list,” Heather said, keeping her voice steady. “I will write to all of them with my apologies, Fiona, I am not so rag-mannered as to leave that to you.”

“It seems fairly rag-mannered to walk out on your family halfway through a visit without so much as a conversation,” Crawleigh said bluntly. Heather shot him a look.

“May I remind you, dear brother, that this is not the visit I had planned? You took control of my time without so much as a by-your-leave, as though I were a silly girl of eighteen, and I think I’ve been very patient about it. I’ve had enough now and I want to go home and get on with my life.”

“What life? Mooning about the castle and discussing cattle feed and crop rotation with the farmhands? Don’t pretend you’ve not enjoyed yourself, Heather, I’m neither blind nor stupid. Three days ago you were talking about ordering new gowns for the warmer weather. What’s got into you?”

“I have enjoyed myself and I am very grateful,” Heather said between gritted teeth. “But it is enough. I don’t belong in London. I miss home. I want to go home.”

She was horrified at the little break in her voice. Fiona heard it and motioned for the servants to leave the room, then gave Crawleigh a look.

“Don’t bully her, Charles. Heather, what has happened to upset you? Do not spin me some tale, if you please, I’ve known you for too long. You had no intention of leaving early, this is a sudden decision.”

Heather got up and walked over to the long windows which overlooked the square. “That does not mean it is the wrong decision.”

“Is this about Clevedon?” her brother demanded. “Does he know you’re about to head for the Scottish hills, dear sister? Or were you just going to leave him without a word?”

Heather felt a rush of sheer fury. She spun around. “And now we have reached the truth of it, have we not, Charles? You do not give a rush about me or my feelings or how difficult this is for me. You just want me respectably married again so that the likes of Lord Alverstone do not whisper behind their hands that your sister is a little odd.”

Crawleigh got to his feet, almost upsetting the chair in his anger. “How dare you say that to me? I’ve offered you nothing but sympathy since Alex died, he was my friend. But you…”

“And now you’ve found another one of your friends to marry me off to…”

“That’s enough!” Fiona broke in angrily. “Sit down immediately, both of you. I do not care how upset you are, you will not yell at each other across the breakfast table and make a gift of our family business to the servants. Sit down.”

Heather stood irresolute. She wanted to run to her room, probably slamming several doors on the way, but the expression on Fiona’s face made her pause. Her sister-in-law was generally very placid, but she looked furious now. After a moment, Crawleigh seated himself again. Heather stalked back to her chair and did the same.

“Have you written to Captain Clevedon, Heather?” Fiona asked.

“Yes. I sent a note to him this morning.”

“I hope it was civil,” Crawleigh growled.

“It was more than civil,” Heather snapped. “I expressed my warmest friendship and appreciation for all his kindness and hoped we should meet again one day.”

“You’ll be glad you said that, sister, if you get the news he’s been blown apart by French cannon before the end of the year,” Crawleigh said unforgivably.

Heather burst into tears. She got to her feet and ran to the door of the breakfast parlour just as the butler opened it.

“Captain Clevedon, my Lord,” Campbell said, sounding surprised. “I believe he is engaged to go for a walk with Mrs MacLeod.”

Heather had completely forgotten the arrangement. She froze for a long moment, staring into Clevedon’s astonished eyes. Clevedon looked back steadily, and Heather wondered how much of the altercation he had heard. Nobody moved or spoke.

Captain Clevedon was the first to recover. He stepped to one side, his eyes not leaving hers. “It’s all right,” he said gently. “Go on. But if you can bear to come back down, I would like to speak to you.”

Heather ran past him. She was crying too much to answer, but she was grateful for his quick understanding. It made her feel rather worse. She paused at the bottom of the wide, sweeping staircase and looked back. The Captain had just entered the parlour. Before the door closed, she heard his voice, using a tone she had never heard from him before.

“I heard every word of that, Crawleigh, and you can thank God there’s a lady present or I’d punch you so hard you’d still be unconscious at dinner. Lady Crawleigh, your servant, ma’am. Sorry to arrive so early.”

***

After ten minutes of painfully stilted conversation, Lady Crawleigh excused herself to see how her sister-in-law did. When she had gone, Gervase looked at Crawleigh. The Earl groaned.

“That expression is the reason I sold out, Clevedon. I couldn’t bear you looking at me for another week like a weevil in a tack biscuit.”

“You sold out when you inherited the title, Crawleigh. It had nothing to do with me. And just at the moment, I’d say the weevil is ahead of you for brains.”

“I’m sorry. I said I’m sorry. I lost my temper.”

“It isn’t me you should be apologising to, you bloody idiot. Of all the things to say to the poor girl, given what she’s been through.”

“Clevedon, I love my sister dearly, but you have no idea how infuriating she can be. I’m assuming you had her note.”

“Yes, it’s why I came so early. I read it twice and decided she’d forgotten that she’d promised to go for a walk with me today. I wanted to get over here before she remembered and sent me another note to cry off.”

“That’s the reason you’re a captain and I’m a member of the idle classes. You always were a planner. I’m surprised you’re not angry with her yourself. She’s been leading you a fine dance for more than two months. It was unforgiveable to turn you off with a note because she has a whim to go home all of a sudden. I’ve no idea what’s got into her. I would have sworn…”

He broke off realising what he had been about to say. Gervase grinned. “I would have sworn as well. She’s not been leading me a dance. Your sister doesn’t have it in her to behave that way. Whatever has happened to upset her, she’s not being deliberately difficult.”

“Really? I do hope you manage to marry her, Clevedon, you’re far nicer to her than I am.”

“After today’s effort, I will not argue with you.”

“Look, I’ll ring for more tea for you and then I’ll go up and tell her…”

“If you go anywhere near her, Crawleigh, I will beat you senseless, I swear it. I’ll have the tea and you can pass me the Times. I’m going to wait.”

Thirty minutes passed. Gervase read the newspaper, which contained nothing of interest at all. Crawleigh worked his way through a pile of letters. Eventually he looked up.

“How long are you going to wait?”

“Until she comes downstairs.”

“What if she stays upstairs?”

“Then I’m staying for dinner.”

Crawleigh rolled his eyes. “Is it too early for brandy, do you think?”

“Yes.” Gervase took out his watch. “Give it another hour.”

“Do I have to sit here with you?”

“You can go to the devil for all I care.”

There was a sound in the hallway and then the door opened and Heather appeared. She was dressed in a stylish full-length blue pelisse, complete with military-style epaulettes and frogging. Only the hem and lace collar of her white gown were visible, and she wore neat black half boots and a cream-coloured bonnet trimmed with feathers. Gervase had not seen the pelisse before and, as he rose and bowed, he thought how well the colour suited her fair hair and skin. He moved forward and took her hand, raising it to his lips.

“Mrs MacLeod, I’m so glad you came down. As you are dressed for walking, I’m hoping you haven’t come to tell me you’re crying off. I’m sorry I arrived so early. I wanted to speak to Crawleigh, but it was thoughtless of me.”

“Not at all, Captain. You weren’t responsible for my dramatic exit, my brother has the tact of a bear.”

Crawleigh got up. “Exit, pursued by a bear,” he said morosely. “Good day, Clevedon. Feel free to drown her in the Serpentine if the mood takes you.”

When he had gone, Gervase looked at his love. She had been crying, but had done a good job of disguising it with a little powder and seemed perfectly calm. He took her arm and they made their way through the grey early afternoon towards the gates of Hyde Park, with Heather’s maid following at a respectable distance. Gervase realised he was dry mouthed with nerves. His strategy to speak to her alone had succeeded very well, but he was not sure that he could carry the next line of her defences.

“Are you really going back to Scotland?” Gervase asked, once they were in the park and walking along a tree lined avenue. He realised that the usual easy flow of their conversation had dried up and he was struggling to know how to raise the subject.

“Yes, I think so. I’ve done as I promised and spent a season in London. I’ve ridden in the Row and attended the balls and the receptions and the routs. I’ve been entertained by the Prince of Wales and eaten the worst supper I’ve ever been offered in my life, and I’ve seen the very latest exhibition at the Royal Academy. I’ve even been to Horse Guards and seen some very pretty soldiers on parade. I’m exhausted with all the frivolity.”

“You haven’t danced at Almack’s yet,” Gervase pointed out.

Heather laughed aloud. “The underworld will freeze over before they allow me through those hallowed doors, Captain, and you know it. Besides, I’ve no wish to go.”

“The suppers are even worse than Prinny’s, and they make the gentlemen wear knee breeches.”

“Then it’s no place for a – what did the Earl call me? A nondescript dwarf in last Season’s gowns, wasn’t it?”

“My brother’s manners are as appalling as his arrogance. I am ashamed to be related to him.”

“I would be too. I like Lady Clarissa Flood, though, it will be a pity if her parents shuffle her into it. He’ll lead her a dog’s life.”

“I cannot allow myself to think about it, ma’am, since I can do nothing to prevent it.”

Heather gave him one of her grave looks, as though she was assessing his sincerity, then she gave a rather sad smile.

“I feel the same way. But it’s another good reason to be home in Scotland, so that I don’t have to watch it. I’ll miss our talks though. When do you leave for Portugal?”

“I had a letter this morning. I’ll need to leave for Southampton in about three weeks. Major van Daan has given me leave to go straight there with no need to travel up to Melton first.”

“That’s good, as you’ll have time to say goodbye to your friends in London.”

“I thought I might go back to Ampthill, to spend a week or two there and to see my mother. I think I’ve been social enough for a while.”

“Won’t you find that hard back with your regiment?”

“The regiment…oh, you mean my fellow officers? That’s different, they’re my friends.”

Heather’s smile broadened. “The way you say that makes me wish I’d had the opportunity to meet them.”

“Oh, I wish you had too. Meeting me in London like this, during the Season, will have given you very little idea of me really. This is not…these are not really my friends.”

Another awkward silence fell. Behind them, Gervase could hear the maid sniffing noisily as though she intended it to be heard. He turned to look at her and his companion giggled.

“She doesn’t like walking,” she said softly. “I wish they’d stop this nonsense about having me chaperoned every time I walk outside the house, it’s ridiculous. I’ve been married and widowed and I’ve no reputation to worry about.”

“That’s not true and you know it, ma’am. London is very censorious.”

“It can be as censorious as it likes, I’m unlikely to hear it from my crumbling pile of stone in Scotland.”

Gervase laughed. “Is that another one of my brother’s remarks?”

“No, that one was Lady Commyngton. Though to be fair, I think she only said it when it became clear to her I’d no intention of encouraging the attentions of her youngest son. He’d have been very happy to take on my crumbling pile of stone and the income my husband left me.”

“Is it really crumbling?”

“Well it’s old, and the plumbing could do with updating,” Heather admitted cheerfully. “Alexander never really cared for such things, but since he left me in better case than I expected, I had thought of doing a little work on it. But it’s a castle, Captain, not a mansion. I doubt Mr Commyngton would have wanted to live there much, and I’d never marry a man who wanted to sell my home to fund a London lifestyle.”

“I suspect your Scottish castle suits you far better than these well-tended gardens, Mrs MacLeod.”

“I suspect you’re right. Though this is pretty with the spring flowers coming up, even on such a dark day. I wonder if we should turn back before my maid develops inflammation of the lung?”

Gervase felt a sudden lurch of misery, realising that this might be the last time he saw her. He sought frantically for the right words, wishing for a more fluent tongue.

“Do you ever get leave once they get you out of England, Captain?”

The question surprised him. “It’s very unpredictable, ma’am. When the entire army has fallen apart and the campaign has collapsed into disaster, leave is very likely, as you can see from Corunna. But we try not to hope for that too often. It will depend on how successful Wellesley is. He’s the man of the hour just now, the government would far rather focus on his triumphs than on poor Moore’s failure.”

“Is he truly that good?”

“A general is only as good as his last campaign, ma’am. But my commanding officer says he’s the best general in the army.”

“Now that is high praise indeed. Do you trust Major van Daan’s opinion?”

“I trust him with my life, ma’am, so I suppose I’d have to say yes.”

“Captain Burrows described Major van Daan as a monied upstart who has bought his way to promotion over longer serving men.”

Gervase considered it for a moment. “I think he’d agree with that.”

She gave a peal of laughter. “Oh no, you’re such a disappointment, Captain. I was sure that would make you angry.”

“Captain Burrows has never set foot on a battlefield, ma’am, and I suspect if they ever try to send him abroad, his Mama will quickly pay for a transfer to a safer regiment. Preferably not the 110th because Major van Daan would end up punching him.”

She was smiling up at him as they approached the park gates. “I wish I had met your Major when he was in town.”

“If there is ever the opportunity, Mrs MacLeod, I will gladly introduce you.”

“I hope we meet again, Captain. I realise you may be away from England for a long time, but should you find yourself with a period of leave…”

Heather stopped and Gervase glanced at her and realised, to his complete astonishment, that she was blushing. He had never before seen her do so and had thought her incapable of it.

“If I ever find myself in Scotland, ma’am, I will definitely call.”

“Scotland is a long way away, Captain. I might possibly find myself in London again.”

Gervase stopped in his tracks, so abruptly that the maid, who was not looking where she was going, almost walked into him. Heather was a few steps ahead of him before she realised. She turned with a surprised expression.

“Are you all right, Captain?”

Gervase looked at the maid. He realised guiltily that she actually did not look well. Her nose was red and her eyes were sore.

“What’s your name?”

“Brown, sir.”

“Brown, you look terrible. I’ve been listening to you sneeze for the past twenty minutes. Go home immediately. Tell Lady Crawleigh that you had no choice, I ordered you home because I was worried about contagion. Mrs MacLeod and I will take another turn about the park, and then I will return her home, I swear it.”

The woman stared at him in blank surprise, then unexpectedly she seemed to understand and gave a broad smile and dropped a curtsey.

“Yes, Captain. Thank you, sir.”

Gervase dug in his pocket and produced a coin. She took it, looked at it then looked up with wide, surprised eyes.

“Thank you, sir.”

When she had gone, Gervase took a deep breath and risked a look at his companion. She was wearing exactly the expression he was expecting.

“That was extremely high-handed of you, Captain Clevedon. How did you know I wasn’t tired and ready to go home?”

“A lucky guess, ma’am. Besides, I suspect you’re used to walking a lot further than this, and over far rougher ground.”

She gave a smile. “Yes, I am. This is very tame. Very well, let’s walk over to the lake. I have taken a liking to the lake.”

“I like it myself. I’ve a small ornamental lake on my estate in Bedfordshire. It is home to the most aggressively hostile flock of geese I have ever encountered in my life. They barely tolerate my presence.”

Heather gave a gurgle of laughter. “Really? Birds can be like that. When I married Alexander, one of his cousins presented us with a pair of peacocks. I think she thought they would lend an air of gentility to the place. All they did, of course, was leave droppings all over the carriage drive and kept us awake with their shrieking. Fortunately, my sister married the following year, so we presented them to her.”

“I wonder who she passed them on to when she got tired of them?” Gervase said, much entertained. “I envision them being passed on through the family until they have toured the whole of Scotland and finally settled into honourable retirement somewhere in Berwick.”

Heather was giggling. “Don’t. Now I am going to have to ask her. I wonder if she did pass them on again. I don’t remember seeing them the last time I visited her.”

They were still laughing as they arrived at the Serpentine. The water was silver-grey on this cloudy afternoon, and the path around the lake was deserted. It was growing colder, and a breeze blew across the water, rippling the smooth surface and setting the feathers on Heather’s bonnet dancing. Gervase eyed her blue pelisse.

“Are you going to be warm enough? I hadn’t realised it was this cold. In fact, I’m looking at the sky and wondering if this was a good idea. It might rain.”

“Well if it does, we shall not die of it. Though my hat may not survive. A good thing too, I dislike it very much.”

Gervase studied the bonnet. “I don’t see why. It’s a perfectly good hat.”

“With half an aviary pinned to the top. My sister-in-law chose the trimming, she assured me that it was all the crack, but every time I wear it, I expect to be the target of some amorous pigeon. Look at it, it’s ridiculous.”

Gervase began to laugh again. “I’m never going to be able to look at a feather trimmed bonnet in quite the same way.”

“You certainly won’t have to look at this one for much longer. Once I get home it will go into a hat box and remain there until one of my periodic cleaning frenzies, when I will find it in some dark corner, remember why I never wear it and give it to the housekeeper.”

“It’s too pretty for a housekeeper.”

“Don’t be so appallingly top-lofty, Captain, you sound like your brother. Why should a housekeeper not have a stylish bonnet? You have quite decided me, Mrs Mackinnon shall have this hat. She will wear it to church with the greatest pride and be the envy of every other female in the servants’ pews.”

“I wish I could see it,” Gervase said wistfully.

“So do I.”

They stopped to watch two swans gliding gracefully over the surface of the lake, occasionally bending their necks in search of food in the water. After a moment, Gervase transferred his gaze to the woman’s face. Heather was smiling a little, either because the elegant birds pleased her or because she was still amused at their previous conversation. She was a small woman, and very slight, which gave Gervase the pleasant sensation of being taller than he was. He thought how much he liked her upright carriage and the confidence with which she held herself.

She seemed to sense his gaze and turned her head to look at him. “You look very serious, Captain. Tell me you are not regretting the impending loss of this hat.”

“I am not regretting the loss of the hat, ma’am. I’m afraid I’m finding it difficult to contemplate losing the wearer, though.”

As soon as he said it, Gervase wished he had not. He had no idea how to say what he wanted to say, but the glib compliment made him cringe. He waited for the set-down he so richly deserved. Instead, she tilted her head to one side and regarded him thoughtfully.

“I am not about to succumb to some fatal illness, Captain, I am simply returning to Scotland.”

“I know, but it’s too far. I only have three weeks, I can’t possibly travel all that way. If you lived in Hertfordshire or Kent I could wait a few days then invent a perfectly plausible and entirely spurious reason to visit the county and follow you. And possibly, away from the balls and the routs and the worst supper in history, I might be able to pluck up the courage to say…to tell you…”

He broke off, trying to read her expression. To his surprise, she still wore the little half-smile. “To tell me?”

“To ask you.”

“What is it that you wish to ask me, Captain?”

“If you would consider postponing your journey in favour of marrying me instead.”

Heather did not move or speak for such a long time, that Gervase felt an urge to babble, simply to fill the silence. He managed to restrain himself with a huge effort. He had not really intended to blurt out his proposal so clumsily, but now that he had done so, he needed to close his mouth and give her time. He wished she was not taking so long.

Finally, she stirred. “I want to say yes,” she said.

“Then say it.”

“I’m afraid to. I did not think I would ever marry again. Not because I have anything against marriage. Quite the opposite. I was very happy for a few years. I simply did not think I would ever meet a man I could care about, the way I cared about Alex.”

“And have you?”

“Oh yes, I think I have. The problem is that I didn’t expect Alex to die so young. It was a terrible shock, and for a time I think I was quite beside myself with grief. It passed eventually and I recovered. But you…with you…I would need to come to terms with the fact that it could very well happen to me again. And I would not even be there.”

Gervase understood, with a sharp pain around his heart. “Because I am a soldier.”

“Yes, of course.”

“I could stop being a soldier.”

She gave a little laugh. “No, you could not, Gervase. You know you couldn’t. The army is part of you, it’s woven into the very fibre of your being. If you failed to report for duty in three weeks’ time, you would be dreadfully unhappy. And I should never stop feeling guilty.”

Her use of his name brought a flood of happiness and with it, a rush of misery as he understood that she was right. He studied her features, admiring the well-marked brows, the slightly arched nose and the mouth which always seemed to hover on the edge of a smile.

“I don’t know what to say to persuade you,” Gervase said finally. “Heather, I love you. I know this is too sudden, I know I’ve not given you time. I’m sorry, I don’t have the time. I want to make some dramatic declaration about giving everything up for you, but…”

“Oh, please do not, it would be so embarrassing,” Heather said fervently. “And then I should be in such a quandary because I haven’t the least intention of giving everything up for you. I don’t want to give up my home and move to London. I’m not even sure it is good for people to give up the things they love to be with another person. Surely there is a better way.”

Gervase reached out and took her hand, raising it to his lips. “I hope there is,” he said. “I hope we can find it. Please don’t give me an answer now. This may be rushed, but at least think about it. Please.”

Heather reached out and caressed his cheek. “Of course, I’m going to think about it,” she said, and Gervase was surprised to hear the catch of tears in her voice. “If I didn’t love you, Gervase, I would just say no.”

Something splashed onto Gervase’s hand. He looked down in surprise and then felt another splash and another. He looked up and realised that the clouds had darkened while they had been talking, and huge raindrops had begun to fall.

“Oh no. No wonder we’re the only people in the park. We need to get back. I think we’re in for a downpour.”

“I think we may be in for a storm, Captain.”

Gervase realised she was right. As they made their way back along the path, it grew steadily darker. Long before they reached the gates the sky lit up with the sudden brilliance of a flash of lightning, followed by the crash of thunder. The rain increased to a downpour and Gervase was soaked within minutes. He looked at Heather. Her pelisse clung to her as though she had fallen into the lake and the despised feathers were a sodden mess over her bonnet. He had thought the pelisse warm enough for a spring walk in the park, but she was shivering now. He hesitated and she flashed him her familiar grin.

“Don’t bother, Captain, your coat is just as wet as I am. I’d suggest we run but soaked skirts are a hazard.”

Another flash of lightning split the dark sky and the crash of thunder was so immediate that Gervase jumped. He looked around him but there was no shelter to be had. The avenue which led to the gate was lined with trees, which bothered him, but it was by far the most direct route and he decided that speed was of the essence. He reached for her hand, and her soaked kid glove squelched.

“I think I may need new gloves as well as a hat,” Heather said. She was trying to sound matter of fact, but the effect was rather spoiled by her chattering teeth.

“I know you can’t run but let’s walk as quickly as possible. It will keep you warmer.”

She kept up with him very well, despite the heavy sodden skirts. The rain was torrential, showing no sign of easing off and there were repeated flashes of lightning. The thunder reminded Gervase of the roar of cannon. He had been through a number of bad storms but this one felt as though it was happening directly over his head.

To his relief, he could make out the shapes of the elaborate iron gates through the rain. Heather sounded breathless and he glanced at her, wondering if it was because she was shivering so much or if he was walking too fast for her.

“Are you all right?”

“Yes, of course. Just cold and wet. My sister-in-law will be having a fit, she hates thunderstorms.”

“At least she’s not out in it. Take my arm, it’s not far now, and only ten minutes once we’re outside the gates. I’d call a cab but we’d never find one, they’ll all be hiding out waiting for this to finish.”

“They have my sympathy, I’d welcome a nice dry stable right…”

The crash was enormous, shockingly loud amidst the steady beating of the rain, and very close. Gervase jumped violently, and his companion cried out. The dark sky was illuminated above them, then the thunder boomed. Something fell onto the path beside them and it took Gervase a moment to assimilate that it was a piece of burning wood. The brilliance of the lightning was gone, but there was still a fiery glow and an ominous cracking sound. Gervase spun around. The tree was ablaze, orange flames leaping up into the sky. It was also listing dangerously towards the path.

Gervase gave a yell of warning, grasped Heather’s arm and began to run. She kept pace for a few seconds before her legs became entangled in the heavy dragging skirts and she stumbled and fell heavily. Gervase bent to help her up, hearing the crackling of the flames and the creaking, rumbling sound of the tree. The strike had gone deep into its core and it was falling, the branches on fire and the entire trunk looking as though it was alight from within.

Heather made it to her feet, but as they began to run, the tree came down behind them, with a thunderous crash. They were out of reach of the trunk, but not of the blazing branches. Gervase felt one strike his arm, the flames terrifyingly close to his head, and he threw out his arm to bat it away. He thought they were clear, then Heather screamed and went down again, dragging on the hand he was holding. He turned and saw, in horror, that a blazing branch had hit the back of her legs, knocking her off her feet again.

Gervase released her hand and hooked his boot under the branch, kicking it away. Heather’s skirts were blackened to the knee at the back, but they were not alight, probably because they were too wet to catch. Gervase bent and scooped her up into his arms, thanking God that she was not heavy. He ran towards the gates, intent only on getting far enough away from the burning tree to be out of further danger.

When he was sure it was safe, he stopped. Carefully he lowered Heather to the ground. He thought she was unconscious, but as he bent over her, rain pouring off the brim of his hat, she opened her eyes.

“Are you all right, Gervase?”

“I was going to ask you the same thing. Your legs…”

“It hurts.”

“I need to get help.”

“No. Help me up, would you? I don’t want to lie here in the rain, I’ll freeze. It’s painful, but I think I can walk.”

Gervase complied reluctantly. As he stood, holding her arm, waiting for her to compose herself enough to begin the walk, he heard voices raised in a babble of consternation. Turning, he realised that the lightning strike had attracted attention out in the street and a dozen or more people were running towards them. Gervase felt a rush of relief.

“It’s the cavalry, ma’am. Late as usual and no clue what they’re doing, but when they see something bright and shiny, they can’t resist. Which on this occasion, is a good thing, because they can find me a carriage of some kind, and I can get you home. Just hold on, it won’t be long now.”

He realised that she was swaying on her feet, and he put his arm about her and lowered her once again to the soaked grass. She closed her eyes.

“I’m sorry, I feel very dizzy. What an unexpectedly dramatic end to a walk.”

“It didn’t really end the way I’d hoped, ma’am.”

Heather opened her distinctive blue-grey eyes and fixed him with a look. “If you call me ‘ma’am’ once more, I will not be answerable for my actions,” she said, and closed her eyes again with an air of finality.

***

By the time the doctor had left, Heather was exhausted and wanted only to sleep. Dr Medway had dressed the burns on her calves, examined and commented on her very badly skinned and bruised knees from her fall, and bled her. Heather submitted although she privately thought that she might have been better without his treatment. The burns were superficial although sore, her knees hurt but would recover and the bleeding made her feel light-headed. She was not hungry but ate supper to please her brother and his wife who hovered anxiously around her until she feigned sleep to make them go away. Gervase Clevedon had left as soon as he had seen her safe. Heather was both sorry and glad. Their conversation had resolved nothing, and she knew she needed to give him a definite answer, but she had to have some time to herself.

She had expected to lie awake turning the matter over in her mind, but to her surprise she fell asleep quickly and did not wake until her sister-in-law appeared along with a maid carrying a breakfast tray. Fiona watched critically until she was sure that Heather was eating, then sat down.

“You seem surprisingly well for a woman who was almost burned to death in Hyde Park yesterday.”

“Yes, I take these things in my stride,” Heather said, sipping her tea. She put down her cup and met Fiona’s interested gaze. “It was utterly terrifying,” she admitted.

“I’m not surprised. What on earth possessed you to stay out so long? We could see that storm coming in. When Susan returned to the house alone, I was about to send the carriage out to find you.”

“We lost track of time, we were talking. I didn’t notice anything until it began to rain.”

“I see.”

Heather finished her tea and contemplated a baked egg. “Fiona, if you continue to beat around the bush, it will be dinner time before you have discovered what you wish to know, and you know how quickly I become bored.”

“Did he ask you to marry him?”

“Yes.”

“Did you give him an answer?”

“No. I asked for time to think about it. After that, events rather took over.”

“I can see that they would. Heather, I don’t wish to pry…”

“Yes you do.”

“All right. I have every intention of prying as much as I am able. My dear, I’ve known you since we were both children. I’ve been watching you for two months trying not to fall in love with Captain Clevedon, and you have made a very poor job of it. Why did you not say yes?”

“It isn’t that simple, Fiona. I do…like him. And he seems to like me as well. But…”

“From the moment you walk into a room, Heather, he cannot see anybody else.”

Heather felt her pulse quicken a little. She looked up from her plate. “Really?”

“Really. It is generally assumed, you know, that you will be engaged before he goes back to Portugal.”

“By whom?”

“By everybody who has seen you together. Nothing could be more suitable. He is charming, personable, not at all bad to look at…”

“Not bad?” Heather said indignantly. “I consider him very handsome.”

“He could be taller, but he has very fine eyes.”

“Well, he is quite tall enough for me, given that I am a midget. Besides, looks do not matter. Alex had a face rather like a friendly goat, and I was devoted to him.”

Fiona studied her sympathetically. “Is Alex the problem? It’s been three years, Heather.”

“It isn’t Alex. He would tell me to do whatever I wanted and be happy. I think he would approve of Gervase.”

“So do I.”

“But I never thought I would marry again, Fiona. I don’t need to. I have Comrie Castle and a comfortable income.”

“Don’t you want children?”

“I’ve no idea if I can have children. Fortunately, you and Charles seem willing to provide me with plenty of nephews and nieces. That’s not a reason for me to marry, Fiona.”

“But you love him.”

Heather lowered her eyes to the tray. She had lost interest in the food. “I don’t know. I thought I did. I think I do. But surely if I did, I wouldn’t have these doubts?”

“Were you going home early because you were running away from him, Heather?”

Heather looked up with a rueful smile. “Yes. And if it had not been for this wretched accident, I would be packing now.”

“Well you can’t leave yet, the doctor is adamant you should at least rest for a few days. And those burns look nasty.”

“They’re not that bad. But you’re right, I am not feeling equal to days of travelling. Besides, now that he has asked me, I cannot run away without giving him my answer.”

“I don’t think he’s going to let you, my love. He’s already called this morning and asked if he might come back this afternoon if you’ll be ready to receive callers.”

“Oh no,” Heather said, startled. “I cannot see him like this, I look like a scarecrow.”

Fiona stood up, laughing. “I’ll call Sally to take that tray and I’ll send up Susan to help you dress.”

“Fiona, are you by any chance trying to coerce me into this marriage?”

“I’m not, Heather, truly. But I don’t understand what is stopping you. Perhaps you can explain it to him.”

“I’ve already explained it to him,” Heather said in a rush. Suddenly she was close to tears. “He’s a soldier. Three weeks, that’s all I have. After that, I wave him off and sit waiting for the post to see if he is alive or dead. It could be years before he comes home, and we can be married. I don’t know if I can bear it, Fiona.”

Her sister-in-law stood looking at her for a long moment. Then she said quietly:

“Heather, do you think you will feel any better if you refuse him and read about his death in the Gazette? Or if he comes home and finds a pretty little debutante and it’s his marriage announcement you’re reading?”

“Don’t. You’re as bad as Charles.”

“Charles is a tactless oaf, but he is right. You’ve already fallen in love with Gervase Clevedon. What he does and where he goes is always going to matter to you, whether he’s betrothed to you or to somebody else. And he’s the son of an Earl, you can’t avoid hearing about him unless you never read another newspaper.”

“That would not be a hardship.”

“Utter rubbish, you’ll be scanning the army lists and the gossip columns for the rest of your life. I know how much losing Alex hurt you, Heather, I was there, remember? But you can’t shield yourself from pain without losing the chance of happiness. And I think this man might make you very happy.”

Heather realised she was crying. She scrubbed at her face fiercely and the china on the tray rattled dangerously. Fiona caught it before it slid onto the floor, lifted it onto Heather’s dressing table, then went to the bell pull.

“You have to see him,” she said.

***

Captain Clevedon arrived punctually at the afternoon calling hour and was shown into the ladies’ parlour. Heather was sure Fiona had instructed the butler to refuse all other callers. Fiona greeted him pleasantly, thanked him again for taking care of Heather on the previous day, then departed with no excuse at all. Heather glared after her retreating back, then turned to her visitor, quaking.

He was as immaculately turned out as ever, with no sign of their adventure apart from a long scratch on one cheek. As soon as the door had closed behind Fiona, he came forward and took Heather’s hand.

“How are you? Lady Crawleigh said that the burns weren’t serious, but I didn’t sleep last night worrying about you.”

Heather felt irrationally guilty. “I slept very well, I must have been exhausted.”

“I’m not surprised. I’ve never known a stroll in Hyde Park to be so exciting, I’m almost looking forward to a battlefield in Portugal for a rest. Seriously though…”

“Seriously, Gervase, I’m very well. What of you? I didn’t notice that scratch yesterday.”

“Nor did I, it must have been a branch. I’ve a burn on my upper arm and my jacket is beyond hope, but I’ve a spare and time to order a new one, thank goodness.”

“I’m afraid my hat did not survive,” Heather said apologetically. “I’m sorry, I know you were very attached to it.”

He started to laugh. “We’re about to start talking utter nonsense again. And I do enjoy it, Heather, really I do. But I’m too nervous to make the best of it today. Do you mind if we’re serious, just for a short time?”

Heather smiled back at him. “Of course. Shall we sit down, then? It’s far better to have serious conversations when seated, it checks the urge to pace about the room dramatically.”

“I’d never thought of that. I might suggest it to Major van Daan. From a safe distance, mind, just in case he punches me.”

When they were seated, Gervase cleared his throat. Heather recognised his nervousness and decided to speak first. They spoke at the same time and both stopped immediately.

“Gervase…”

“Look, Heather…”

There was a short awkward silence. Then Gervase said quickly:

“I know that the gentlemanly thing to do would be to allow you to go first, but may I?”

“Yes.”

“I’m sorry about yesterday. Sorry that it descended into such a disaster, but sorry as well that I made such a mull of proposing to you. I’ve been trying to work myself up to it, but I was rather thrown when you told me you were going out of town so soon. I rushed it.”

Heather smiled. “Gervase, it didn’t matter how you said it, I was always going to panic.”

“Didn’t you realise I was going to ask you?”

“Oh…I don’t know. I knew how I felt of course, and I suspected that you…I don’t know, Gervase. I think I did know. I think that’s why I decided to leave. I was running away, which was very silly and a little unkind. I’ve been concentrating so hard on how I feel that I’ve not considered you at all. I’m not usually this selfish.”

“Are you still leaving town?”

Heather shook her head. “No. I can’t travel that far until I feel a little better. But I wouldn’t anyway, now. I’m so glad you spoke when you did, it has made me realise that I cannot flee back to Scotland and pretend this has not happened.”

“I’m glad too. I asked you to think about it, but I don’t suppose you’ve had the chance…”

“Oh for goodness sake, Gervase, do not speak like an idiot when you are clearly very intelligent. I’ve thought of nothing else all day.”

“Then tell me.”

“I am very confused,” Heather said, twisting her hands together in her lap. “When I try to imagine agreeing to a betrothal, it terrifies me. I will have three lovely weeks as your fiancée, and I know perfectly  well that by the end of them I will love you more than ever. And then I will wave you off and go home to wait for you, and dread every letter that is delivered in case it is bad news. I know how it feels to lose the man I love. I don’t know if I can bear it again. Do you understand?”

“Yes. Oh love, yes, of course I understand. No wonder you’re terrified. But I am too.”

“Are you?”

“Yes. I had no intention at all of falling in love this season, it is a ridiculous thing to have done. I meant to attend a few parties, meet some old friends and then go home to Ampthill and spend a week or two recovering before going back to barracks in Melton Mowbray. You turned everything upside down.”

Heather was astonished. “Are you telling me you have remained in London because of me?”

“Of course I have. My brother is here, Heather, which is always my cue to be somewhere else. It’s been torture seeing so much of him.”

“I must say, that is an impressive sign of your devotion.”

“Don’t start, or we shall get nowhere, and we’re running out of time. I want so much to tell you that I will leave the army and devote my life to making you happy. But…”

“I wouldn’t allow you to do that, Gervase. It would be like you asking me to sell Comrie.”

“One day I’ll be home, love, but I can’t tell you when that will be and I won’t lie to you. I love you. I want to marry you. I know I’m asking a lot. I know it might be too much. It’s all I have.”

Heather could feel tears beginning to fall. “Gervase, I’m so confused. I don’t know what to do.”

“Nor do I, but I’ve found that panic is a great motivator, so here’s what I’ve done. Yesterday, after I left you here, I made a number of calls, while still soaking wet, covered in mud and looking like a lunatic. I’m surprised nobody sent a message to either Bow Street or Bedlam, but I managed to obtain this.”

Heather regarded the folded paper he was holding out to her. After a moment, she reached out and took it. She unfolded it and stared at it for a long time. He waited in silence. Eventually she looked up.

“It’s a special licence.”

“It is. I also made a visit to the rector of St George’s, who is an old family friend. He clearly thought I was mad, but he examined his church calendar and, subject to your approval, he is able to marry us on Wednesday at eleven o’clock. You may invite whomever you choose, but I would be happy with just your brother and his wife.”

“Oh.” Heather knew she sounded utterly witless, but she felt the need to say something and could think of nothing better. “That is very organised of you, Captain Clevedon.”

“Thank you. If you agree to this piece of insanity, I propose to take you home to Bedfordshire to meet my mother and I will spend three weeks trying to convince you you’ve made the right choice. After that, I have to leave, and you’re free to remain for a while to get to know your new home, or to return to your old one and wait for me there. Or you can come back to London and cut a dash as the new Mrs Clevedon. As long as you’re happy and safe and well and will wait for me…Heather, I know this isn’t good enough for you. Nothing I can offer is good enough for you. But…”

“Yes, it is.” Suddenly, Heather found that she could both move and speak, and she followed her instinct and moved towards him. He put his arms about her without any hesitation and kissed her. For a while, she lost all sense of time and when they were finally interrupted by a polite cough from the doorway, Heather realised that she was lying across his lap in the most ridiculous position. It felt very comfortable and she sat up somewhat resentfully, noticing that her hair had come down.

“I am so sorry to interrupt,” Fiona said. “It’s just that Dr Medway has called. He wants to look at the dressing on your burns. And I was wondering if Captain Clevedon will be staying to dinner. We don’t have any other guests today.”

Heather turned her head to look at him. He was smiling at her, waiting, and she knew with complete certainty that even now, if she sent him away, he would go without recrimination. She decided that life back at Comrie would be far better waiting for his letters and knowing that he would be coming home to her one day.

“Captain Clevedon will be staying to dinner,” she said firmly. “And Fiona, I need your help. I’m getting married in two days’ time, and I don’t think I have anything suitable to wear.”

***

 It was the usual chaos at Southampton and it took Gervase half a day to find the correct transport for his company. He felt slightly guilty knowing that his subalterns had done all the work preparing the company for embarkation, but there was little for him to do, so he inspected his men, complimented his juniors and then went in search of his commanding officer.

Gervase found him in a comfortable inn not far from the quayside. Major Paul van Daan was writing a letter at a table in the tap room, but he rose as Gervase entered and came forward. Gervase saluted and Paul returned the salute and then pulled out a chair.

“Sit down and have a drink. It’s good to see you, Gervase. Are you fully recovered? You look so much better, I was delighted when you wrote that you were well enough. Not everybody has done as well, we’ve only six companies setting sail, but I’m hoping they can bring the others up to strength soon.”

“I’m very well, sir. Looking forward to getting back to work. Is Sir Arthur Wellesley sailing with us?”

“Yes, he’s aboard my transport. Along with my wife, she’s coming with me this time, at least as far as Lisbon. I’ve kept on the villa I rented last year.”

“I look forward to seeing her, sir.”

They talked for a while of army news and Gervase enjoyed the sense of being part of the regiment again. He had no particular desire to share his own news. It was too new and too precious and he would have liked to keep it to himself for a while longer, but he knew he could not. In the general conversation of regimental life, and the banter in the officers’ mess, he would either have to speak up or lie, and he would not lie. He waited until the first exchange of news was over. Eventually, Paul summoned the waiter with more drinks.

“Did you see your brother?”

“Briefly. I also saw your brother, sir, which was much more pleasant.”

“Did you? Joshua didn’t mention it, but he’s been busy. What about…”

“Sir, I imagine some of the others are going to be joining us for dinner, and there’s something I need to speak to you about first.”

Paul stopped and regarded him in surprise. “Of course. Go on. Unless it’s going to annoy me, in which case stop now.”

Gervase laughed. “I don’t think it will annoy you, sir, but I do have a confession. I’ve rather broken army rules, I’m afraid. A minor matter. I didn’t even think about it until afterwards.”

“Captain, in the five years I’ve known you, I swear to God you’ve not put a toe out of place. I’d be amazed if you could upset me. What have you done?”

Gervase took a very deep breath. “I got married, sir, without asking your permission.”

There was a very long silence. The waiter appeared with the wine and poured. Paul waited until he had gone.

“You did what?”

“I got married, sir.”

“And you didn’t think to write to me?”

“I’m sorry, sir. It was all rather sudden. It honestly didn’t occur to me.”

“Gervase, I do not give a damn about permission. You have it, retrospectively. But this great hurry…is everything all right?”

Gervase tried to suppress a grin and failed. “We married in a hurry because we wanted some time together before I left,” he said.

Paul’s expressive face cleared. “An excellent reason. I’m assuming this is the attractive Mrs MacLeod.”

“Yes,” Gervase said suspiciously. “How do you know she’s attractive?”

“I asked Wellesley if he knew her and he managed to point her out her when we were riding in the Row on the day before I left. You’ve excellent taste, Captain.”

“Sir…”

“I will behave, I swear it. Gervase, congratulations. I wish I’d known, I’d have posted down to meet her. Was there even a notice in the Times?”

“Yes, sir.”

“I missed it. I never read the thing anyway. This has been done very quietly. Is that how you want it?”

“Yes, sir. I’ll tell my friends of course, but I don’t want a big announcement or a celebration. It was a very quiet affair, which is what we both wanted.”

“That’s your choice, Captain. Johnny and Carl and a few of the others are dining here today. Do you want to tell them, or shall I?”

“You can do it,” Gervase said gratefully.

“I’ll propose a toast to the bride and groom and after that, we’ll leave it alone. If I were you, I’d tell the men though. They’ll find out anyway and they’ll appreciate it coming from you especially with an extra grog ration to drink your health.”

“I’ll see to it, sir. Thank you.”

Paul sipped his wine and regarded him with amusement. “Of all the men I’d have expected to make a hasty marriage on furlough, Captain, you’d have been close to the bottom of the list. She must have made a big impression on you.”

Gervase suppressed a grin. He felt suddenly as though Heather was in the room with him and he managed not to snigger.

“Like a bolt of lightning, sir,” he said seriously.

 

 

 

 

 

The Gift

Welcome to The Gift, my free Christmas story for 2021. After spending last year in London at the Frost Fair, with Captain James Harker, I’ve decided to follow another of my secondary characters home on furlough. The fairly long time spent in winter quarters in 1812-13 presented an opportunity for a number of officers to travel home to see family, recover from injuries or sickness or to deal with family business. Lord Wellington hated giving leave, although he was more generous with it when it was an officer he liked making the request. However, the need to deal with business matters following a bereavement would probably have been granted. Grudgingly, of course.

After the publication of the Frost Fair, one of my most engaged readers told me she would love to read a short story about Captain David Cartwright, as she felt he’d had a raw deal in the books so far. Davy’s career prospects improved with his promotion to major in An Unmerciful Incursion, but after the long, painful retreat from Burgos and Madrid towards the end of 1812, his personal life is still in the doldrums. This story is dedicated to Janet Watkinson – I hope this is what you wanted.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all my readers. I feel so guilty about the slow progress of the latest book, but family difficulties have made it impossible to meet my intended deadlines. I’m working frantically on the edits for book seven, An Indomitable Brigade, and if it’s not ready for Christmas, it will be ready very soon afterwards. I hope 2022 is better for all of us, and I’m hoping I’ll have a great writing year and be back on track.

Thanks once again to Heather Paisley, my amazing editor and very good friend, who dropped everything in her very busy life to edit this for me. She is, and always will be, a star.

As always, the story is free, so please share as much as you want. Enjoy.

The Gift

1st March, 1812

Wanted, for immediate employment. Respectable female to act as housekeeper and companion to elderly lady, living alone in the town of Rye.  References required. Apply in writing to Captain Cartwright, via this newspaper. 

14th March, 1812

Dear Captain Cartwright

I write to apply for the situation advertised. I am a single lady, aged thirty-four, with considerable experience in housekeeping. Until recently, I was employed in taking care of an elderly relative. I have provided a recommendation from a clerical gentleman and, should this prove satisfactory, I would be free to take up the position immediately.

Yours, respectfully

Miss H Carleton

Quinta de Santo Antonio, Freineda, Portugal, November 1812

Major David Cartwright of the 112th infantry did not generally consider himself burdened by family responsibilities, so it was a shock to find a package of letters awaiting him on his arrival in Ciudad Rodrigo in the November of 1812, giving him news of two bereavements.

The first of them, that of his elderly Aunt Susan, should not have been a surprise. Mrs Everton was in her eighties and had been unwell for so many years that David was amazed she had lasted this long. During her final months her recent memory had faded, and she had drifted into the distant past. She had done so happily enough, according to Miss Forbes, her long-time housekeeper and companion, who wrote to David occasionally with news. David was grateful, but missed his aunt’s regular letters, full of acerbic remarks about her neighbours, the current government, and the iniquities of the butcher.

Miss Forbes was elderly herself and had written to David as her own health began to decline, suggesting that it was time for a younger replacement. David, newly transferred into the 112th from a tedious post in the quartermaster’s department, had no time to take furlough to attend to distant family affairs. He had taken Miss Forbes’ advice and advertised the post, leaving it to the departing housekeeper to select the new incumbent.

Miss Forbes wrote to him just before she left for an honourable retirement with her widowed sister, expressing cautious approval of her successor. Miss Helen Carleton was, in her opinion, young for the post, but appeared very efficient and good with her elderly charge. David grinned at her assessment, since Miss Carleton was apparently in her thirties, but he supposed she seemed young to a woman approaching seventy. Having discharged his duty to Aunt Susan, he thought no more about it until he arrived back on the Portuguese border, exhausted and dispirited after a long and dangerous retreat, to find a letter from his aunt’s solicitor informing him that she had died, leaving a simple will making him her sole heir.

David read the letter again, thinking about his aunt. He had last seen her just before leaving for Portugal to join Wellesley’s army four years ago and there had already been signs of her deterioration. Their meeting had been hurried, made awkward by the presence of Arabella, David’s wife, whom Mrs Everton cordially disliked. David found himself wishing he had made time to see his aunt alone that week, given that it had been the last time he saw her, but he could not have known it.

Mrs Everton was not a wealthy woman, but she had left David her rambling house in the little seaside town of Rye, in Sussex, and a small income from government bonds. Along with a similar income from his deceased parents, it would enable him, should he decide to leave the army, to live comfortably. David wondered what his wife would have thought of that, then dismissed the thought. Arabella would never have been satisfied with mere comfort. She wanted wealth and social status and a number of other things David was unable to give her, and her disappointment had led to repeated infidelity and their eventual separation.

It had been eighteen months since he had last heard anything of Arabella and during the past year, busy with an unexpected revival of his career, he thought of her less and less. Their marriage had been unhappy, and their separation, although painful, had come as a relief to him. He thought of her briefly when he received the news of his recent promotion to major, but he did not think even that would have satisfied Arabella’s ambition.

David opened the next of his letters and began to read. After a moment, he put it down and sat very still, staring out of the window into a damp winter morning, not seeing the drizzling rain.

Arabella was dead.

The letter was from a Mrs Hetherington, who claimed to run a lodging house in Shrewsbury where Arabella had lived for five months before her untimely death. She had died on the charity ward of a local hospital and Mrs Hetherington, who needed to let the room, had taken it upon herself to pack up her possessions and had found several letters giving David’s name and regiment. She gave the impression of being surprised to discover that her lodger’s claim to a married woman’s status was true but stated that she considered it to be her Christian duty to inform him. There were several trunks and boxes of Mrs Cartwright’s possessions, and Mrs Hetherington would store them until the end of January, when if not collected, they would be sold. David wondered if the rent was unpaid. He was surprised that the woman had taken the trouble to write to him but supposed she had genuinely felt that it was her duty.

David read both letters several times, unable to decide what to do. Eventually, he took his troubles to his commanding officer.

“I’m wondering if it would be possible to take furlough, sir,” he concluded. “I’ll have missed my aunt’s funeral, but I should see the lawyers and work out what’s to be done about the house. It’s a decent property just on the edge of town, with a big garden. I’ll probably rent it out rather than leave it empty. It shouldn’t take much more than a month to arrange everything, but…”

“Take whatever time you need, Major,” Colonel Wheeler said. “I’m sorry to hear about your aunt, but in terms of convenience, this couldn’t be better. We’re in winter quarters and are likely to be for a few months yet. If it was the middle of a campaign, I couldn’t manage without you but we’re not going anywhere until spring.”

“Thank you, sir.”

Wheeler stood up and limped to a side table to pour wine for them both. David got up quickly and went to carry the glasses back to the table. Wheeler had been badly injured during the recent retreat and could only walk using a cane for support. Wheeler hobbled back to his chair and sat down with relief.

“I keep forgetting,” he said. “I’m not accustomed to being waited on. Thank you, Major.”

David sipped the wine. “Is it still painful, sir?”

“Bloody painful, but not as bad as when they first brought me in. I can put weight on it now, but Dr Daniels says I should rest it as much as possible. Davy, I’m conscious that I’ve said everything that’s proper about your aunt and nothing at all about your wife. I don’t know what to say. I know you were separated and there was no possibility of a reconciliation, but she was very young. I am sorry.”

David was grateful. His own emotions about Arabella’s death were still raw and too muddled to make sense of, but he appreciated Wheeler’s tact and also his bravery in raising the matter where another man would have let it pass. Wheeler had known Arabella during the time she had travelled with the army and knew the full circumstances of her various, very public infidelities. One of her first affairs had been with David’s current brigade commander. A recent one had left her carrying a child which could not possibly have been her husband’s and had led to their final separation.

“Thank you, sir. I don’t know what to say myself. It doesn’t feel real. I hadn’t heard from her since the day she left, but it’s difficult to believe that she’s dead. As you say, she was so young, only just thirty. And she was always so full of life.”

“Do you know what happened?”

“Some kind of fever, according to her landlady. There was an outbreak in the town. She was taken into the local hospital but died within a few days.”

“Had she other family?”

“Her father is still alive as far as I know, and there was an aunt. Her mother died a few years ago. I doubt Bella had any contact with her father. When the scandal broke, he wrote to her telling her he never wished to see her or hear from her again. I think I should write to him all the same. He should know she’s dead.”

“What of the child?”

“I don’t know,” David said. “I don’t even know if it’s a boy or a girl, or if it’s alive. Possibly not, so many children die in infancy and the landlady doesn’t mention it. But I should at least make a push to find out.”

“It’s not your responsibility, Davy,” Colonel Wheeler said gently.

David looked at him, troubled. “I know it isn’t. But sir, who else is going to bother?”

***

Arriving in Southampton on a bright, blustery day, David made enquiries about the best method of travelling to Rye, which was about a hundred miles along the south coast. There were no direct mail coaches, and David objected to the cost of hiring a post chaise, but he was able to find a place on a carrier’s wagon leaving early the following morning. The journey was not particularly fast, but was surprisingly entertaining, as Mr Samuel Rochester regaled his passenger with stories of his life on the road. David slept in small inns along the way and was finally deposited, along with his luggage, at the gates of Oak Lodge just after midday. He had written to inform Miss Carleton of his expected arrival.

The door was opened by a maid in a plain dark gown and white apron. She bobbed a curtsey and stood aside, murmuring that she would call the boy to bring in his box. The boy turned out to be a sturdy manservant who was probably approaching forty. As far as David was aware these were the only two servants apart from the housekeeper.

He stood in the hallway awaiting the appearance of Miss Carleton. A door opened and a young woman emerged from the kitchen area at the back of the house. She wore a respectable dark green woollen gown, with a lace-trimmed cap pinned to very fair hair, and she had a pair of bright blue eyes, a decided nose and an expression which hovered between apprehension and defiance. David, who was hopeless at such things, thought she was probably not much above twenty. The girl approached and gave a little curtsey. David bowed, utterly bewildered.

“Major Cartwright. Welcome home, sir. Harvey will put your luggage in the master bedroom. It’s been cleaned and aired, and I’ll ask Sarah to unpack for you. Unless you’ve brought a valet?”

“No, I haven’t,” David said. “Thank you. Only, I do not perfectly understand…who are you?”

The girl folded her hands at her waist. “I am Miss Carleton, sir, your aunt’s companion and housekeeper. You arranged for my employment.”

David stared at her for a very long time, then surprised out of his customary good manners, he said:

“I’m not sure who I employed, ma’am, but I’m very sure it wasn’t you. The lady who applied for that post gave her age as thirty-four, and I’ll be surprised if you’re older than twenty. Who the devil are you?”

The girl raised well-marked eyebrows and looked down her slightly long nose. “Well you must be surprised then, Major, because I am twenty-four. And I am indeed Miss Carleton. I have been working here since Miss Forbes left at the beginning of the year, and I nursed your aunt through her final illness. Obviously I am in the process of seeking a new post but Mr Bourne, her solicitor, suggested I remain to keep the house in order until your arrival. And to cook your meals for you, unless you intend to do that for yourself, because neither Harvey nor Sarah has the least aptitude for cooking.”

David stared at her open-mouthed. Miss Carleton stared back. There was definitely defiance in her expression now. Eventually David said:

“You lied to me in your application.”

“Yes, I did.”

“Why?”

“Because yours was the tenth post I had applied for, and all of the others rejected me on the grounds of my age.”

“I would have done the same.”

“Then it is unnecessary for you to ask why I told an untruth.”

“Was any of your application true?” David asked. He was genuinely curious. Miss Carleton lifted her chin with something like indignation.

“Of course it was. All of it, apart from that one small detail. I am a gentleman’s daughter, I have been used to acting as housekeeper to my parents, who live in Leicester, and I cared for my elderly grandmother before she died.”

David studied her for a long time. “So why were you seeking employment?” he asked finally. “If your parents…”

“My parents do not employ a housekeeper, Major Cartwright, and I was tired of working for nothing. My mother was not grateful for my efforts, I spent my time running the household or visiting my older sisters to help with their children. All my mother’s attention was focused on finding a husband for my youngest sister, in the hope that might repair the family fortunes. I was sick of being an unpaid drudge, so I chose to seek paid employment instead. My father called me undutiful, and my mother prophesied that I would ruin my reputation and come to a bad end, but so far, I think it has gone rather well. Until today, that is.”

David could think of nothing at all to say. He stood looking at her, struggling to think of a suitable response. Miss Carleton looked back, daring him to speak. The silence went on.

Abruptly, the girl straightened her back and bobbed another neat curtsey. “Would you like some tea, Major? I can serve it in the small parlour. Neither the drawing room or the dining room have been much used this past year, although I have cleaned the whole house and removed the holland covers. I baked a cake this morning.”

“Thank you,” David said faintly. “That would be very welcome. No, don’t trouble yourself to show me the way. I know the house very well.”

The small parlour was situated at the back of the house, overlooking the garden. At this time of year, it was a tangle of damp greenery, but David remembered it as a riot of colour in the spring and summer. His aunt had loved gardening during her younger days.

It was obvious that Miss Carleton had made the room her own. A cosy arrangement of furniture around the fireplace included her sewing box, and a partly darned stocking lay neatly folded on top. On another small table was an inlaid portable writing desk. Against the far wall was a small table and two chairs, which suggested that Miss Carleton dined in this room as well. It was common for upper servants to take meals in the kitchen or in their own room, but Miss Carleton was effectively mistress of this small household and David did not blame her for making herself comfortable.

She returned shortly, shepherding the maid who carried the tea tray. David ran his eyes over it and looked at the maid. “Bring another cup, please. Miss Carleton will be joining me for tea.”

The girl did so. David indicated that Miss Carleton should pour. The tea was welcome after his long journey and the cake was excellent. Both improved David’s mood considerably. He watched her sip her tea.

“How did you persuade Miss Forbes to collude with your falsehood, Miss Carleton?”

The girl gave him a look. “I did not,” she said. “She had no idea, of course, that I had lied about my age. She expressed surprise at how young I was, but once she saw what I could do, she did not mention it again. Why should she? I can cook, I can keep house and I was very good with your aunt. She liked me.”

David could not help smiling. “I don’t suppose you gave her much choice, ma’am, you’re a very decided young woman.”

The blue eyes were unexpectedly misty with unshed tears. “I was very fond of your aunt. Even though she was confused, she was so kind. And she could be very funny. I am sorry she’s gone, sir.”

“So am I,” David said. “I’ve not inspected the rest of the house yet, ma’am, but I don’t need to, I can see you know your work. The place is immaculate. Thank you for your efforts.”

“Thank you for acknowledging them.” Miss Carleton sniffed audibly. “I’m sorry I deceived you, sir. It was wrong of me, but I was becoming desperate.”

“What will you do now? You mentioned seeking another post, but have you not thought of going home?”

“Not unless I have to,” the girl said. “I have written several applications, and I shall continue to do so. I am not sure if you intend to sell the house, Major, but if so, I will naturally leave as soon as you wish me to do so. I am not wholly estranged from my family, they will have me back if needs be. I hope I don’t have to though, my mother will be unbearable.”

Unexpectedly, David laughed. “Is she really that bad?”

“Yes. She has never got over my father’s reversal of fortune. He made several bad investments, and my mother was extravagant. She also had five daughters. Marrying us off successfully has been the aim of her life, and she tried hard to maintain her position in society in the hope that a good marriage could save the family fortunes, but it was not to be.”

“But your elder sisters married, I think you said?”

“Yes, eventually. But not the kind of marriage my mother had in mind. They are respectably established, with a collection of children, but none of them could afford to give anything away to my parents. Recently they were obliged to sell Carleton Hall. It has been in the family for almost two hundred years, and it was a great blow.”

“I can imagine it was,” David said. Now that he was beginning to relax, he decided he rather liked this straightforward young woman. She was easy to talk to, with no affectations or pretensions to grandeur. David, who had married a woman full of affectations and pretensions, had developed a dislike of both.

“Not that they are in any way destitute, you understand,” Miss Carleton said. “They own the house in Leicester, and it is a perfectly good house. A little larger than this, and not as old. With the proceeds of the sale of Carleton House and the estate and the income from my father’s remaining investments, they could live perfectly comfortably. They could even afford a housekeeper. But my mother still has ambitions. My youngest sister, Katherine is just seventeen and is by far the prettiest of all of us. My mother is saving up to give her a London Season in the hope that she will attract a wealthy or titled gentleman and we shall all be saved. Well, at least, I shall not be saved because I have ruined my reputation by seeking paid employment as a housekeeper instead of doing the same job at home and being paid nothing.”

David laughed aloud. “I do hope it is not that bad,” he said. “Although now you have explained your situation, I do have some qualms about staying here myself. You are, when all is said and done, a young unmarried lady and…”

“If you continue in that vein, Major Cartwright, I shall not be answerable for what I may do,” Miss Carleton said in freezing tones. “I am your housekeeper. Your servant. Your paid employee. Nobody gives a fig about such things with the staff. And if I had not told you my background, neither would you.”

David took a second slice of cake. “Well either way, I’m not going to stay at an inn. The cooking here is far too good. Miss Carleton, I have no set plans, but I won’t be here for long. I have to see my aunt’s solicitor to find out how things stand, and then I have to make a journey to Shrewsbury on a separate family matter. I had not thought of selling the house. I may rent it out while I remain with the army. I’m fond of this place, I spent a lot of time here as a boy, fishing off the quay and listening to smuggler’s tales from the grooms.”

“I’m glad you said that sir. Your aunt would be happy to think that you intend to settle here one day.” Miss Carleton stood up. “If you’ll excuse me, I’ll be needed in the kitchen. Will you be dining at home today?”

“Yes, thank you. If it is not too much trouble.”

“It is my job, Major Cartwright. You pay me.”

“You seem keen to remind me of it. I am not sure what your usual arrangements are, but will you join me for dinner? It seems foolish for two people to eat in solitary splendour, and there is nobody to mind.”

Miss Carleton studied him for a moment, then smiled broadly. “Do you know, Major, when you arrived and looked at me so censoriously, I decided that you were a very strait-laced gentleman, but I think I was wrong.”

David found himself smiling back at her. “I think I was in my younger days,” he said. “Army life alters your priorities. Although it is unlikely to change my opinion that you should return to Leicester and make your peace with your parents. At least for the Christmas season.”

***

Helen found cooking a very soothing activity. The kitchen at Oak Lodge was old-fashioned, but well designed and after almost a year in post, she felt at home there. The thought that she might not be here for much longer saddened her. She had been telling the truth when she told Major Cartwright that she was happy in her position.

Helen understood she had potentially committed social suicide in taking the post as Mrs Everton’s companion-housekeeper. It was one thing for a young lady in straitened circumstances to seek employment as a governess or companion, or even as a schoolmistress in some respectable establishment. But cooking and cleaning placed one firmly among the ranks of the upper servants. Helen had accepted the post in a spirit of seething resentment at the constant, unreasonable demands of her family and the complete lack of appreciation for the work she did, but she had not really intended to stay for so long. When the expected letters began to arrive from her family, pleading, cajoling, and castigating her rash decision, Helen had expected she would probably give in and go home. To her surprise, she realised she was happy where she was and wanted to stay.

Taking care of Mrs Everton was not difficult and with two servants to assist her, and most of the rooms in the house unused, Helen’s housekeeping duties took considerably less time than when she was living at home. Her mother employed a cook, but Mrs Beech could manage only plain dishes, and when the Carletons entertained, it was Helen who planned elaborate menus and spent long hours in the kitchen preparing them. She enjoyed the challenge of complicated dishes but was tired of being used as an unpaid servant, while her elder sisters clamoured, from their various households, for her equally free services as nursemaid and governess. Her youngest sister Katherine spent hours studying her reflection, dreaming of a titled husband, demanding Helen’s help with refurbishing her gowns and pouting when Helen told her shortly that she did not have time.

“You are so grumpy, Nell. It isn’t as though you did not choose to remain as the daughter at home. Everybody knows that you had every opportunity to marry and have a home of your own, and you refused two perfectly good offers.”

“One offer was from Mr Grant the solicitor,” Helen said, trying not to grit her teeth. “He is forty-five and drinks so much port that his nose looks like an overripe plum. The other was from the curate, who informed my father that his interest had alighted upon me because he thought it his duty, as a man of God, to eschew all thoughts of beauty in favour of a plain woman with a light hand for the pastry. He further said that he thought in time he would be able to repress my tendency to levity and teach me to show greater modesty in public. Even Mother thought that was a bad idea.”

“Well it is your own fault, Nell. You are not at all plain, you have beautiful hair and lovely eyes. You simply refuse to try.”

“I have the Carleton nose, Kitty.”

“It is a perfectly nice nose, if a little more prominent than others. If you would look at your wardrobe and curl your hair and learn to flirt a little, you would do so much better. Look at Eliza. Nobody thought she would do so well.”

“I have the greatest respect for Mr Ingram, Kitty, but if I had to be married to a man that dull I should expire within a year.”

Her younger sister laughed. “Well I shall not care how dull my husband is, dearest Nell, as long as he is rich. Now come and look at my old blue and tell me if you think we can remove the train.”

Helen paused in rolling out her pie crust, surprised to realise that there were tears in her eyes. She blinked them back firmly. She missed Katherine’s laughter and occasional sisterly confidences, but she did not miss being expected to act as a ladies’ maid every time her sister was invited out. She supposed that Major Cartwright was correct, and she should go home to her family for the Christmas season, but she was surprised at how little she wanted to.

It felt strange to sit across the table from the Major at dinner. Helen had never eaten in the dining room. She instructed Harvey and Sarah to remove all the extra leaves from the big table and set out the various dishes on the polished sideboard so that they could serve themselves. Major Cartwright went to investigate the wine cellar and as Helen filled their plates, poured two glasses of cool white wine. Helen eyed it suspiciously and the Major laughed.

“I take it you haven’t been raiding my aunt’s cellar?”

“I don’t think I’ve ever been down there. She liked a glass of wine with her dinner though, right up to the end. I remember you sent her some, once or twice, and it pleased her very much to receive the gift, though I’m not sure she understood where it came from.”

He smiled. “I’m glad she got some enjoyment from it. She and I shared a liking for good wine and when I first joined the army and began to travel, I used to try to send her some local wine from wherever I was stationed. When I was in Naples…”

He broke off abruptly and Helen said nothing. She sipped the wine, enjoying the crisp, fruity taste of it. Her employer did the same. She could see him considering, wondering what he should tell her, and whether it was at all suitable for him to tell a housekeeper anything at all. He would not normally have shared details of his personal life with an unmarried young lady from a respectable family whom he had just met, but then he would not have been dining alone with such a person either.

“I was married,” Cartwright said abruptly. “I don’t suppose you knew, since my aunt was already very forgetful by the time you arrived. She cannot have told you anything about it. Naples was my first posting after we married. Less than a year and Arabella was already very bored with me and wishing she had waited for a better prospect.”

“I know about your wife,” Helen said. She saw his head snap up and the brown eyes darken in sudden anger and wished for a moment that she had not spoken.

“Who told you?”

“Miss Forbes. She had been with your aunt for so many years, I think they were more like family than employer and servant. I asked, very casually, if you were single or a widower. I thought it unusual that it should be a gentleman placing the advertisement for such a post. I’m sorry if I’ve offended you, Major, it wasn’t my intention. Miss Forbes was not gossiping, but she said that she thought I ought to know in case I did come across any idle gossip in the town.”

“Miss Forbes was probably right. What did she tell you?”

“That your marriage had not been a success and that you were separated from your wife. She told me that Mrs Everton used to say that she thought your wife a fool for not appreciating you.”

Cartwright gave a very faint smile and began to eat again. “My aunt was invariably biased in my favour, Miss Carleton. She and Arabella never got on well, they were too different. She tried to persuade me against the match. I had very little money, but when I was younger I was ambitious and thought I could make my own way in the world.”

“Have you not done so?”

“Yes, I think I have. But it did not come fast enough for Arabella.” Cartwright hesitated, seeming to recollect that he was talking to a stranger. “My apologies, Miss Carleton, this is a very unsuitable conversation. Did you make this pastry? It’s excellent, I feel very spoiled.”

Helen allowed him to turn the conversation neatly away from personal matters. She asked him about his service in the army and found it unexpectedly interesting. He had served in Italy, in Portugal and in Spain, with a spell in Ireland. He spoke little of the battles he had fought, but a great deal about the places he had seen and the people he had met. There was nothing boastful or vainglorious about Major David Cartwright, but Helen thought that he had seen more and done more than most people of her acquaintance. She did not usually find it easy to talk to people she did not know well, particularly gentlemen, but as they finished their meal and Helen rose to clear the table, she was aware of a sense of regret that it was coming to an end.

“I should get these to the kitchen, sir.”

“Let the maid do that. Please, sit down and join me in a glass of port. Or if you prefer, you can watch me drinking it. I feel as though I have bored you senseless with my army tales all through dinner and given you no chance to talk about yourself.”

Helen subsided, watching Sarah clear the plates. “I’ve already told you about my situation, sir. I left home in a temper with my ungrateful family. I remained because I liked it here. But I suppose that unless I find another situation as much to my taste as this I shall have to go home.”

“Do you think it will be a problem for you? Socially, I mean?”

“I don’t suppose for one moment my mother has told anybody that I have been employed as a housekeeper, let alone a cook. She will have said that I am acting as companion to an elderly lady, which is perfectly respectable, you know. Anyway, I had no social life.”

“None at all?”

“I used to go to parties when I was Kitty’s age. But I didn’t really enjoy them that much. Dancing and trying to flirt and speaking nothing but inanities never suited me.”

“I can imagine. That doesn’t mean you have nothing to say. I’ve really enjoyed this. May I…that is, I shall be here for a few days, seeing the lawyers and working out how things stand. After that, I am travelling to Shrewsbury on business. But I would like it if you would dine with me again while I’m here. As you are, even temporarily, my housekeeper.”

Helen laughed. “As you are, for a short time longer, my employer, sir, I am at your disposal.”

As she rose to leave finally, he escorted her into the hallway and bowed. “Thank you again, ma’am, for the meal and the company. Both were excellent.”

“I enjoyed it too, sir, although I’m aware that I’ve stepped above my station this evening.”

“Or back into the station you were born to, depending on your perspective. Look, about earlier. The conversation about my wife. I should tell you, that she recently died. A fever outbreak. It was very sudden.”

Helen felt a little shock. “Oh no. Oh Major, I’m so sorry.”

“Thank you. I’m going to Shrewsbury to see where she’s buried. I want to make sure she has a proper gravestone. There are some things I need to collect, and I’ll pay any debts that I can find out about.”

Helen studied him for a long moment. Major Cartwright was unexceptional, apart from a pair of very fine brown eyes and a rather nice smile. Helen wondered how old he was. She thought possibly in his thirties, although his self-contained manner may have made him seem older than he was.

“I think that is the right thing to do, Major. I hope you won’t find it too distressing. I wish, while you are here, that you would furnish me with a list of what you most like to eat. And if there is anything else I can do for you – laundry or mending or suchlike – please let me know. With your aunt gone, I have so little to do.”

Cartwright smiled, and she could see the warmth in his eyes. “Thank you. I’ll probably take you up on that. But there is one thing you should do. Write to your family, ma’am, and tell them you’ll be home for Christmas, even if it is just a visit.”

“What will you do for Christmas, sir?”

“I’ll stay here and make do with Sarah’s cooking.”

“It isn’t very good.”

“It will still be better than what I ate during the retreat from Madrid, ma’am. Goodnight.”

***

David decided to hire a post-chaise for his journey to Shrewsbury. He had quite enjoyed his adventure with the carrier’s cart, but Shrewsbury was a lot further and David had no wish to spend weeks on the road. He admitted to himself, with some amusement, that some of his desire to have this journey over and done with, was because he wanted to get back to Rye before his eccentric housekeeper left for Christmas with her family.

He had not formally given Helen her notice, though he knew he should have done. He was sure that once she was back home, she would decide to stay, and write to tell him so. So far he had made no arrangements with the lawyer about advertising the house for rent. He had asked Helen, during her remaining weeks, to go through his aunt’s personal possessions, dispose of the clothing however she thought best and pack up the rest. When he returned, he would go through the boxes for any small items he wanted to keep and make arrangements to put the rest into storage, along with the contents of the wine cellar and a few of the finer items of furniture. He could manage all of that without the help of the estimable Miss Carleton, but he did want to see her again to say goodbye. He had taken a liking to the girl, and she had made his week at his aunt’s house thoroughly enjoyable.

He left Helen indulging in an orgy of cooking and food preparation. Clearly the thought of him spending the Christmas feast at the mercy of Sarah’s cooking troubled her mind, and David suspected he would be left with a larder stuffed with enough puddings, cured hams and pies to feed half his company. He wondered if she would have to do the same work over again for her unappreciative family and hoped that her mother had the decency to employ a proper cook for the season, so that her prodigal daughter could take her rightful place as a family member. Then again, remembering the sight of Helen in the kitchen, singing Christmas carols, with flour on the end of her nose and her hair curling in little wisps around her face with the steam from the puddings, David wondered if in fact, Helen might be perfectly happy in the kitchen if her family would just show some appreciation.

David had been to Shrewsbury once before, in the early days of his courtship of Arabella, when she had taken him to spend a few days with her aunt who lived in a graceful eighteenth century house close to the Abbey. He had rather liked the ancient town and had hoped that Arabella might settle there with her child, finding some respectable occupation and using the opportunity to make a new start. Mrs Hetherington’s lodging house suggested that she had not managed to do so.

The lodging house was better than he had expected, and Mrs Hetherington was a dark-eyed handsome woman in her thirties, who kept a clean house, served plain food to those lodgers who required it and showed a rather touching reticence at sharing with her widower the details of Arabella’s life. David set aside his awkwardness in favour of plain speaking and over a good cup of tea at the big square kitchen table, managed to drag the information from his reluctant informant.

“I wouldn’t normally have let a room to a woman like her,” Mrs Hetherington said. “Not that I haven’t had lady boarders before. Mostly it’s gentlemen, though. Music masters and young officers and those fallen on hard times. I don’t take the labouring classes, my rooms are too good for that. I even had a poet once. I take the money up front for some of them, mind, being as they come from a class used to paying their bills when they feel like it. Still, I don’t have much trouble. The rooms are clean and well furnished, and I’ve got three gentlemen who have been with me a long time. The ladies come and go. Governesses and the like, between jobs. I feel sorry for them. Nowhere to go and no money for expensive lodgings. I keep the top two attic rooms for the ladies. They can be private up there, and I let them share my sitting room while they’re here.”

“And my wife?”

“Anybody could see she’d fallen on hard times. And anybody could see that she’d no intention of finding a respectable position as a governess or a companion, although that was the story she told me when she applied for the room. Still, she’d the money to pay and both rooms were empty, so I let her have one of them, providing she paid in advance for the month and didn’t bring anyone back to the room. She laughed when I told her that. ‘Mrs Hetherington,’ she said. ‘My gentlemen friends do not frequent common lodging houses. Although perhaps they should, this is the most comfortable room I have occupied for months.’”

David winced and tried not to show it. “She was here for five months?”

“She had the room for five months. She paid me, regular as clockwork and I never had to ask her for it. I wouldn’t say she stayed here for five months, mind, she was in and out. Sometimes she’d be here for a week or two. Slept half the day, ate her meals in her room and was out in the evening, dressed up like a duchess. Sometimes I’d see nothing of her for a month. I always imagined, begging your pardon, sir, that she’d found a gentleman friend who was taking care of her.”

“I’m sure you were right, ma’am.”

“I’d no idea she was truly wed. She called herself Mrs, but they often do.”

“We were separated.”

“It’s a tragedy. She wasn’t a respectable woman, sir. She had this way about her, like she was laughing at herself almost. But she was never anything but civil to me.”

David remembered the many times when Arabella had failed to be civil to anybody and was obscurely glad. Perhaps in her darker times, she had learned something that comfort, and prosperity had failed to teach her.

“Where is she buried?”

“At St Mary’s, sir. The Rector will know the details.”

The Rector was surprised but sympathetic. He led David to the plain unmarked grave and left him alone for a while. When David went to find him, he provided sherry and spiritual guidance in the Rectory and gave David the name of a reputable stonemason who could erect a gravestone.

David spent the night at the Lion Hotel, then returned to Mrs Hetherington’s lodging house the following day. She led him up two flights of stairs to a small room under the eaves, where a trunk, a wooden box and several bags contained all that was left of Arabella Cartwright’s short, tragic life. David sat on the narrow bed and cried, remembering their courtship, the first heady days of their marriage when all he could think about was making love to her, and the first painful realisation that their love was not after all based on solid ground, but on the shifting sands of her discontent and relentless pursuit of something better.

Eventually, David pulled himself together and repacked the bags and boxes carefully, piling them up for collection by the carter whom he had arranged to take them to the Lion Hotel. There was another call he should make, although he was not looking forward to it. It must have been ten years or more since he had last seen Mrs Gladstone, Arabella’s aunt, but he remembered the house well from his previous visit. The butler took his card with an expression of surprise and asked him to wait. He returned soon afterwards and ushered David into a panelled book room where a portly gentleman who looked to be around forty came forward to greet him.

“Major Cartwright. This is a surprise and no mistake, you’re the last person I expected to see here. On furlough, eh?”

David shook his hand. “Yes, sir, for a short time. I had family affairs to attend to, both here and on the south coast. I was hoping to speak to Mrs Gladstone.”

“Can’t be done, I’m afraid, Major. My mother died almost a year ago. Smallpox outbreak. Very sad. Jasper Gladstone, at your service. I don’t think we ever met.”

“No, I think you were in India when I visited last. It was a long time ago.”

“Aye, that’ll be right. I left the company service about two years ago and set up in business for myself in Bristol. When my mother died, I inherited the house, so my family moved here. I still keep rooms in Bristol, it’s where my offices are. I think I can guess what’s brought you to Shrewsbury, Major. A bad business.”

“You heard that she died, then?”

“Yes, though I didn’t wish to. The Rector took it upon himself to inform me. Damned piece of impudence, I called it. I told him I’d heard nothing of my cousin since she disgraced herself and didn’t consider her any business of mine. And frankly, Major, I’m surprised you don’t feel the same way.”

David did not speak immediately. He had no wish to be hypocritical and he thought that if Arabella’s death had not coincided with that of his aunt, he would probably not have asked for furlough to visit her grave. He had tried hard to set aside his feelings for Arabella a long time ago and he almost resented the stirring up of painful memories. At the same time, she had lived as his wife for six years and he did not think he could have dismissed all thought of her as Gladstone appeared to think he should.

“As I said, I had other family business to attend to,” he said finally. “Since I was in England, I thought it right to see where she was buried and arrange for a gravestone.”

“Women like her shouldn’t be given the luxury of a proper burial,” Gladstone said shortly. “Sherry, Major? Throw them in the ground and forget about them, that’s what I say. The grief she brought to her poor parents, and my mother. And you, of course.”

He held out the sherry glass. David took it and set it on the table, having no desire to drink it. “I understand Arabella came here to have her child.”

“So I believe. I wasn’t here then, of course, or I’d have put a stop to that. My mother was always sentimental about my cousin. I think she had some notion of finding somebody to take the brat and rehabilitating Bella, but I could have told her that wouldn’t wash. My cousin was a whore, Major. A bad ‘un, through and through. You can’t help a woman like that, and I wouldn’t have tried.”

David’s anger was beginning to settle into a cold disdain. “I am sure you would not,” he said. “Will you tell me what happened after the child was born?”

“She stayed for a month or two. I wrote to my mother to inform her that we would be unable to visit her, of course, while she had that woman and her bastard in the house. I’ve children of my own, I couldn’t have them exposed to that kind of thing. Once Bella was back on her feet after the birth it went pretty much as you’d expect. She took up with some man again – don’t know who he was, some sort of financier I believe, invested in canals and bridges and engineering works. She took off in the middle of the night with all her fine clothing, leaving my mother with the brat on her hands. I don’t know how long it lasted, but not long. She wrote to my mother begging to come back, but this time the old lady had the sense to say no, though she kept the brat. Bella had a small income of some kind.”

“It was very little, just the interest on her marriage settlement. Pin money only.”

“I think she took rooms in town and made up for any shortfall by selling herself to whoever would have her.”

David felt very sick. He had guessed the bare bones of the story, but hearing it related so brutally hurt all over again. He hoped his distress did not show on his face, because he did not wish to give this man a present of his feelings. He would not willingly have given him the time of day.

“What happened to the child?” he asked in neutral tones. “Did it contract the smallpox as well?”

“Lord, no. My mother had the nursemaid keep it isolated. No, it outlived her, that’s for sure. Probably dead by now, though. Not many of them survive beyond their first year in those public institutions, do they?”

“Public institution?”

“You know. Charity wards. Orphan asylums. Workhouses. Wherever they put the little bastards nobody wants. The Rector might know if you’re interested, though I can’t think why you should be. It wasn’t your brat and I doubt she even knew who sired it. And don’t look at me like that, Major. It was nothing to do with me. When we’d buried my mother, I left the whole thing in the hands of my man of business. He paid off the staff, got the house in order and took the little bastard to the Parish and dumped it there. What in God’s name was I expected to do about it? She made her bed, my cousin Arabella, and if she’d cared about that child, she’d never have run off again. She’s better off dead, where she can’t bring any more disgrace to this family, and her bastard with her. Let’s drink to it.”

David looked at Gladstone, a florid, prosperous-looking man with thinning hair and a substantial paunch, as he raised his sherry glass and tossed back the warm amber liquid. He reached for his own glass, waited politely for Gladstone to finish drinking, then threw the contents of it fully into the man’s face. Gladstone gave a squawk of surprise, scrubbing the liquid away with his sleeve as it stung his eyes.

“You…you…how dare you, sir? To come into my house, acting as though your bitch of a wife should matter to me, and then…we’ll see about that, sir.”

He surged forward. David waited for him to be completely off balance, then punched him once, very hard. Blood spurted from the bulbous nose and Gladstone fell back, clutching his face as he hit the floor with a crash which rattled the glasses on the polished sideboard. David had only taken up boxing a year earlier in winter quarters, under the tuition of a friend in his brigade. He had never punched a man in anger in his life before and he was astonished at how satisfying it was. He stood for a moment watching Gladstone bleed onto what looked like an expensive Persian rug.

“Thank you for your time, Mr Gladstone. Please don’t get up. I’ll see myself out.”

It had started to rain as David made his way back to St Mary’s Church. He found the Rector in his study and blurted out his story and his concerns with little regard for good manners. He was too angry to care what the man thought. The Rector heard him out patiently.

“I am sorry, Major Cartwright. I can see this has all been a shock to you. I respect your compassion and your charity in very difficult circumstances but I’m afraid I have no information about your wife’s child. Mrs Gladstone was not a member of my church, and I did not know much about her family, although we had met socially on occasion. Naturally…Shrewsbury is not a large town, and there is always gossip. Many people felt that Mrs Gladstone was wrong to have taken in her niece in such circumstances, and I know there was a general feeling that she would never be accepted back into polite society, but no such attempt was made. When I was asked by the Parish to arrange for your wife’s burial, there was no mention of any family. I had rather assumed that if there was a child, he or she must have died.”

“Is it possible to find out?” David asked. “What would happen to such a child? Is there an orphan asylum?”

“The parishes have combined in Shrewsbury, to fund a House of Industry where the indigent and the sick are tended. Older children have their own facilities and schooling within the House, but it is customary for the Parish to send babies out to nurse in local households.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Women are paid to take care of the child until it becomes old enough to enter the House of Industry. I presume this child would be very young?”

“Around eighteen months, I suppose. There must be records of where such children are sent.”

“You should apply to the workhouse clerk, Mr Jackson. Wait, I will write a brief note to him. He knows me and it will probably speed your enquiries along.” The Rector reached for his pen, then paused and looked at David. “Major – what do you intend to do if the child is alive?”

David was unable to reply. He realised he had no idea.

***

Mr Jackson scanned the Rector’s letter and gave a sigh which blew the papers about on his desk. He got up and went to collect a ledger from a shelf. David watched as he ran a bony finger down a column, muttering to himself. He turned a page, then another, and began a tuneless whistle, peering at the unintelligible scrawl which passed for writing. David wondered if it was Mr Jackson’s own writing and if so, why he did not learn to read it more quickly.

“Aha!” Jackson said triumphantly. “Aha! As I thought. Now we have him. Now we have him, indeed.”

“Him?” David said quickly.

“Him. A boy. The boy. Delivered to this establishment on the date in question by Gareth Southern, clerk to Mr Timothy Prestcote. It says here…well now. It says the boy is an orphan.”

“Does it not say the mother’s name?” David asked.

“It does,” Jackson said doubtfully, peering so closely that his nose almost touched the page. “Difficult to read it…Cartridge…no, Cartwright, I think. Looks like Billy. Billy Cartwright. Funny name for a female.”

“Bella,” David said, trying to sound patient.

“Is it? Oh. Oh yes, could be. Yes, I think it is.” Jackson sounded pleased. “Bella Cartwright, prostitute. Presumed deceased.”

Jackson froze. On his desk beside the Rector’s note was the calling card David had given him. David watched as he read the name again and made the connection, then saw his eyes widen. He looked up very slowly and suddenly there was a wealth of apprehension in his expression.

“Oh. Oh, my. Major Cartwright?”

“As I told you earlier.”

“Oh my. Oh dear. How awkward. How very embarrassing. I have no memory for names, sir, but in this case I ought to have. Oh my. But this child…he cannot be related to you, surely?”

“I think you’ll find he is,” David said pleasantly. “Was no effort made to trace his mother?”

“Well no, sir. Not given that she was reported to be dead. I cannot understand…was she not dead?”

“Not then,” David said. “She left the child in the care of her aunt, Mrs Gladstone, who sadly died soon afterwards.”

“Gladstone? Do you refer to the family of Mr Jasper Gladstone, Major? But this is extraordinary. He is a member of our board. I cannot think how such a terrible mistake came to be made.”

“I can,” David said briefly. “Am I to understand that the boy is still alive? Where can I find him?”

“Yes. Yes, indeed. At least, according to our records. He was sent out to nurse with Mrs Bonel, and we’ve heard nothing to the contrary.”

“But?”

“They don’t always tell us straight away, sir. If the child dies. Sometimes they bury them quietly and keep taking the money. Eventually the yearly inspection comes around and then they’ll come forward and claim the death was recent.”

David felt sick again. “Annual inspections for a baby that young?” he said. “Is that all?”

“We’ve not the time or the staff to do more, sir. I can give you Mrs Bonel’s address if you want to visit the boy.”

David found the cottage easily enough. There was a narrow frontage open to the River Dee, with chickens scrabbling in a fenced yard and a strong stench of excrement and urine. David paused by the door, taking a deep breath. His stomach was churning so badly, he was worried he might vomit and for the first time ever he felt the urge to flee in the face of the enemy. Before he had the opportunity to do so however, he heard the cry. It was a long wail of misery which drowned out the cackling of the hens and the steady rush of the river, swollen with winter rains.

Inside the smell was stronger, but there was no sign of life in the main living area of the cottage. David walked through to a small doorway at the back and out into a muddy yard, where two pigs snuffled around, splashed with mud, and snorting indignantly. There was still no sign of occupation, but at the back of the yard was a rough wooden lean-to and the wail was stronger, floating out into the freezing winter air. It sounded like a young child. David walked across the yard and went in through the door.

He found the child in a rough wooden cot, little more than a box, built high against the wall of the shed. He was dressed in a linen smock which was smeared with his own dirt. There were several reeking, threadbare blankets in the cot and the child was crying and shivering, his voice high and thin in the chill air. He was thin and pale and his hair was a coppery red.

“There, then, what’s that yelling about, it’s not nearly time for your dinner, and if you don’t shut up…”

David turned. The woman was thin herself, with sharp features and brown eyes, wearing a respectable brown dress and a warm woollen shawl. She looked irritated, but at the sight of David she froze, ran her eyes over him then managed a wholly false smile. She dropped a little curtsey.

“Good day to you, sir. May I help you?”

“Mrs Bonel?”

“Yes, sir.”

“I’ve come about the child. I understand he was put out to nurse last year by the Parish?”

“That’s right, sir. A poor little orphan mite. I’ve looked after him as if he was my own, haven’t I, poppet?”

The child had stopped wailing and was staring at David, one grubby fist pushed into his mouth.

David walked forward. He had spent the walk down to the cottage calculating the boy’s age and decided he must be around seventeen months, though he was small, probably through poor nourishment. David studied the child and saw Bella’s beautiful hazel eyes looking back at him with wary interest.

“What’s his name?”

“Whatever you want it to be. He doesn’t…”

David spun around in sudden fury. “What name did they give you for him, you slovenly bitch? Any more of this and I’ll have the magistrate down here, and if you’ve nothing to hide from them I’ll be very surprised.”

The woman visibly flinched. “George. They called him George.”

George had been the name of both David’s and Arabella’s fathers. He looked back at the child. “George? Georgie?”

The boy stared at him for a long moment. Then, cautiously, he shifted onto his knees, reached for the wooden slats of the cot and pulled himself up to his feet. David looked at the streaks of filth on the smock and consciously reined in his anger. He studied the child. The child stared back. After a moment, David reached out and touched one of the tiny hands clutching the edge of the cot. George flinched away as if expecting a blow and David felt an overwhelming wave of protective tenderness.

“He’s cold. And he seems terrified.”

“It’s his own fault, sir, he throws off his blankets. And they’re like that at this age. Skittish, like.”

David kept his eyes on the child and reached past him into the cot to feel the blankets. As he had suspected, they were soaked.

“Does he have any other clothing?”

“Another gown, but it’s wet. I do my best, but I can’t keep up with the laundry.”

“Then get me a dry blanket to wrap him in. I’m taking him with me.”

“Sir, without proper authorisation…”

David turned to look at her. “You will receive authorisation before the end of the day,” he said in icy tones. “Get me a blanket for him. Now.”

Afterwards, seated in the post-chaise as it rattled its way towards London and then on towards Rye, David looked back over that long day and found it hard to recognise himself. He had been carried on a wave of indignant fury which swept aside all difficulties and opposition. His years as an army quartermaster had given him a talent for organisation and the ability to juggle too many tasks, all of them urgent. David was thankful for the experience since he did not think he would ever have made it into the coach early the following morning otherwise.

He was also thankful for the support of Mrs Hetherington, who greeted his arrival with the child with blank astonishment.

“I know I’m imposing on you, ma’am, but it’s only for today. I’ve nobody else to turn to in Shrewsbury, and I’ve a great deal to do to be ready to travel with him tomorrow.”

“I don’t understand,” the woman said, studying the crying child. “Who is he? Where does he come from? Dear God, look at the state of him. He’s filthy and he looks half-starved.”

“He is half-starved,” David said grimly. “It’s a disgrace, sending a child out to a place like that. She was keeping him in an outhouse, with the pigs and the chickens. I could kill her, and the Parish Board along with her, except that I don’t have time.”

“Is he your wife’s child, Major?”

“Yes. She can’t have known where he was, though. She left him with her family. She probably thought it best for him, but when her aunt died, that odorous piece of pig’s excrement Jasper Gladstone sent him to the parish. His own cousin’s child. When I’ve got time, I’m going to ensure that his reputation in this town ends up in the sewer. I don’t need to be here to do that, I can write letters, and I intend to ask for the assistance of my Brigadier’s wife in the matter. She will enjoy the challenge.”

Mrs Hetherington looked amused. “And I thought you such a quiet gentleman,” she said. “But Major…he may be your wife’s child, but surely he isn’t yours? A gentleman like you wouldn’t have let her take his son away like this. Are you sure you can just remove him from the Parish because you want to? There will be regulations.”

“If they try to stop me, I will take their regulations and shove them where they deserve to be. But they won’t. They can’t. He is my wife’s child, born within wedlock. We were legitimately married, that never changed. If I say he is my son, and can prove she was my wife, there isn’t a damned thing they can do about it.”

Mrs Hetherington gaped at him. “Sir…are you sure?”

George had stopped crying, probably because he was too exhausted to continue. He was watching David from enormous tear-drenched eyes, but David thought that he seemed more relaxed in his arms. He looked back at the child and finally admitted to himself what he had been unable to recognise two years earlier.

“Yes,” he said. “Oh God, yes. I should have done it then. I should have gone to her and offered to acknowledge the child. Because I wanted a child so badly that it hurt. Arabella didn’t really, and when I found out, I was furious. It seemed so unjust, because I realised that it might have been my fault that we couldn’t have children. Which meant I might never be able to have a child.” David stopped, realising that he was babbling. “I’m sorry, this is the most inappropriate conversation I have ever had.”

“Lord bless, you sir, I run a lodging house. You’d be amazed what people tell me. Leave him with me. I’ll get him bathed and fed, and I’ll send Sally to the market, if you’ll leave the money. There’s a booth that sells used clothing, they’ll have baby clothes there. I don’t know how you’ll manage him on the road, mind. He’s not clean yet, so you’ll need to change his clouts and wash him, and it’s not work for a gentleman.”

“I’ll learn, you can show me. It’s only for three days, and once I’m back in Rye I can hire a nursemaid. I’m going to have to write to extend my furlough, but they’ll understand. It’s winter quarters. Mrs Hetherington, thank you. I will never forget what you’ve done for me today.”

It took longer to reach Rye on the return journey. It was necessary to stop more frequently because of George, and overnight stops were more complicated. David had no experience of taking care of a child, but Mrs Hetherington gave him an emergency lesson in feeding, bathing, and changing clouts in half a day. The journey was a nightmare of a crying child, desperate inn staff and irritable post boys.

After two days of almost constant wailing, and fighting against every attempt to comfort him, George fell suddenly into an exhausted sleep in David’s arms. He barely awoke as David carried him into the Swan Inn. The landlord was more sympathetic than on the previous two nights, and sent a chamber maid to wash, change and sit with the boy so that David could eat in peace in the dining room. After two glasses of burgundy, David was almost falling asleep at the table. He went up to his room and found that the girl had just changed George and was settling him into the bed.

“Will you be all right with him, sir? You should have a nursemaid with you.”

“She fell ill, and I couldn’t delay my journey,” David said with a smile. It was the story he had told all along, not really caring who believed it. This girl apparently did and gave him a somewhat misty smile.

“Bless you, sir, I’ve never seen such a devoted father. Have you much further to go?”

“No, we’ll be home before tomorrow evening.”

“I’m glad to hear it, you’re in need of a rest. With your leave, sir, I’ll come back in the morning and get him fed and ready while you have your breakfast.”

“Thank you. You’ve been so kind.”

“You’re welcome, sir.”

David undressed, then checked that there was water in the jug on the washstand and that there were clean clouts available in case of disaster, then he got into bed. The boy lay beside him, long lashed eyes watching him curiously. Over the past days he had seemed to David to see every human contact as a potential threat, and David tried not to imagine the miserable existence that had taught such a young child that nobody was to be trusted. Now, though, he lay wakeful but calm. David looked back at him.

“Are you in the mood for conversation, Georgie? I’m not sure I’ll be much use at it, I’m so tired. Still, we can give it a try. I’m your Papa. You don’t know it yet, and nor did I until just recently, but we’ve a lot of time to get acquainted. At least we will have, when Bonaparte is gone, and I can come home to you. In the meantime, we’ll need to find you a good nursemaid and a new housekeeper…”

David froze suddenly. He realised that he had forgotten, in the stress of the past days, that his departing housekeeper might well still be in residence when he arrived with a child she knew nothing about. It had not occurred to him to write to Helen Carleton, he had been too busy. Now he realised he should have done so. He wondered if she had already left for her family home in Leicester for Christmas. Part of him hoped she had done so. The other part hoped he would have the chance to see her again, to thank her for her kindness.

He fell asleep quickly and woke in the half-light of dawn. To his surprise, George still slept, curled up against his body, warm in the chill air of the inn bedroom. David lay very still, savouring the moment. Very gently, he kissed the top of the child’s head. The colour of his hair reminded David sharply of Arabella and he wept a little, regretting all the things they might have shared.

They arrived at Oak Lodge late in the afternoon, several days before Christmas. George was asleep when David lifted him from the chaise and instructed the coachmen to go to the kitchen for refreshment while the baggage was unloaded. He walked into the house and stopped in the hallway in considerable surprise. The stairs were decorated with greenery and tied with red ribbons. It reminded him of the Christmases of his childhood, and he stood in the hall, the child in his arms, unexpectedly assailed by a rush of memories.

“Major Cartwright.”

The girl’s voice was astonished. David turned to see her emerging from the kitchen area, still wearing her white apron. She had discarded her lace cap and looked neat and efficient and surprisingly attractive. David quailed internally but took his courage in both hands, remembering that this was his house, and he was her employer.

“Miss Carleton, what on earth are you still doing here?” he asked sternly. “By now, you should be at home with your family, ready to celebrate…”

Helen came forward, ignoring him, and drew back the grubby blanket from George’s flushed face. “Is this your wife’s boy?” she asked softly.

“Yes,” David said. “His name is George. And he is my son.”

Helen lifted her eyes to his face. “I’m not going home for Christmas,” she said. “I’m sorry, Major, I know I was ordered to do so. But it occurred to me that I might be needed here. And it turns out that I was more right than I knew. Here, let me take him. How on earth did you manage on the journey with him?”

“Very well, ma’am,” David said haughtily. He decided not to mention how appalling it had been at times. “I’m an army man, we’re very adaptable.”

Helen looked up at him, a smile lurking in the blue eyes. “So am I, Major Cartwright. And since I do not think you intend to abandon your profession just yet, that is just as well. I’ve had a lot of practice taking care of my sisters’ children, you know, and we still have a few days before Christmas to get the nursery set up just as it ought to be. He’s a beautiful child.”

“He’s been badly treated. I will tell you everything, ma’am. But just now…”

“Just now, we should take him upstairs. I think he needs changing.”

David trod up the stairs in her wake, remembering his resolve of earlier. “I told you to go home.”

“I ignored you.”

“You cannot remain in my employ if I dismiss you.”

“That is very true. I think we should discuss it again after Christmas.”

“You are not going to listen to me, are you?”

Helen shot him a look. “Don’t you trust me with him, Major?”

David looked back at her steadily. “I cannot think of anybody I would trust more,” he said simply. “But Miss Carleton…”

“Major Cartwright, why don’t you let me decide for myself? There is nothing more irritating than a man trying to tell a woman how she should think or feel. Just now, let us take care of your son.”

***

It was frosty on Christmas morning. Helen reluctantly left George in Sarah’s devoted charge and went to church with her employer. Inside, she headed towards her usual seat among the tradespeople and upper servants at the back, but Major Cartwright took her arm and steered her firmly into the pew beside him.

Gossip travelled fast in a small town like Rye and there were sly looks and veiled hints which, over sherry in the rectory, turned into open questions about Major Cartwright’s new charge. Helen watched admiringly as the Major responded, his replies so bland that eventually even the most avid gossip became frustrated.

“He is my son. My wife and I were temporarily estranged. Tragically she died just as we were planning to reconcile. I am, as you can imagine, heartbroken. Miss Carleton has agreed to remain in my employment as his governess, and to oversee the nursery once I return to the army. I am very grateful to her.”

He told the story over and over, varying the words but sticking firmly to the message. Helen felt enormous respect for him. She could not imagine how badly he must have been hurt by his wife, but his thoughts were all of the child. After church, he sat at a table in the hastily furnished nursery, with George on his lap, showing him how to build a simple tower with wooden blocks. George picked up the idea quickly, and then abruptly reached out and pushed the tower over. The hazel eyes flew to the Major’s face apprehensively. David Cartwright was laughing.

“Good at siege warfare, I see. Shall we do it again?”

He did so, and this time George gave a crow of laughter as the tower fell. The Major bent and kissed the soft copper hair. Helen stood up, fighting back sentimental tears.

“I will be needed in the kitchen, Major, so I’ll leave you to it.”

He looked around quickly, smiling. “Come back as soon as you can. It’s important that he gets to know both of us, but you especially. If you’re really going to take on the job of raising him. Are you good at building towers, Miss Carleton?”

Helen smiled, her heart full. “I have three nephews, Major, I am an expert. I just don’t want to intrude.”

“This is your home too, ma’am, for as long as you choose to stay. You couldn’t intrude. And I hope you’ll be dining with me as usual. It’s Christmas, you cannot leave me to eat alone.”

“I should be delighted, sir.”

“Was your mother very angry?”

Helen laughed. “Yes,” she admitted. “But she is happier that I am now able to call myself a governess rather than a housekeeper, so it could have been worse.”

She had received the letter from her mother the previous day. Lady Carleton had expressed herself freely, but Helen felt that the anger was half-hearted. It seemed that Kitty had made the acquaintance of a titled gentleman at a hunt ball, who appeared very taken with her, and who openly expressed his hope of renewing their acquaintance in London next year. Helen had no idea if the attachment was real, but it was a useful distraction for her parents.

They dined on roast goose and traditional Christmas pudding and drank a rich red wine which Major Cartwright told her came from the vineyards around the River Douro and was a favourite of Lord Wellington. He made her laugh with stories of various Christmases spent on campaign and asked her about her family. Helen had wondered if she would miss the noisy family gatherings of her childhood, but she did not.

They went together to settle George into his cot. He was already half asleep, worn out by the unaccustomed excitement. Major Cartwright bent to kiss him, then stood back for Helen to do the same. She did so, suddenly very aware of how domestic the moment was. They might have been any young couple, putting their child to bed after a busy and very happy Christmas Day. It made Helen feel unexpectedly shy and she wondered if the Major was aware of it. If he was, David Cartwright gave no indication.

Afterwards, Helen sat beside the fire, in the drawing room, sipping sherry and trying to pretend that this was normal behaviour for a governess who was also a housekeeper and a cook. David Cartwright sat opposite her.

“Do you play chess, Miss Carleton?”

“Yes. I’m quite fond of the game.”

“Would you do me the honour?”

They sat with the board between them like a shield and Helen concentrated on her moves and tried not to think about anything else, until he said:

“Do you really want to stay?”

“Yes.”

“I’m going to increase your salary, and I’d like you to employ a kitchen maid and a nursery maid. You can’t leave it all to Sarah and you’ll be very busy with George.”

“Thank you, Major. I…”

“I feel as though I ought to send you home, but I don’t want to. You’ll be so good for him. I want to be here, but I can’t. Not yet. Still, it’s a huge responsibility, and if you change your mind, please tell me and I’ll find somebody else.”

“I won’t change my mind, Major. I really want this post. He’s a beautiful child, I’m already a little in love with him.”

“Will you write to me with news of him?”

“All the time,” Helen said warmly. “There will be nothing of him that you do not know.”

“Thank you. I’ve felt so resentful about Arabella but in the end, she gave me something priceless, something I’ve wanted for so long. A child. A family. I’m so grateful. It’s your move, Miss Carleton.”

Helen studied the board. After a long moment, she moved her rook. “I think you are going to lose, Major Cartwright.”

“I don’t.”

Helen looked up in surprise and found that he was looking at her, with a hint of a smile behind the steady brown eyes.

“I’m playing the long game,” he explained, and reached to move his piece.

A Winter in Cadiz

https://www.carmenthyssenmalaga.org/en/obra/vista-de-cadiz

A Winter in Cadiz is my Valentine’s Day short story for 2021. It takes place during Lord Wellington’s brief trip to Cadiz and Lisbon during winter quarters 1812-13 which is mentioned during An Unmerciful Incursion. As always, the story is free so please share it as much as you like. 

 

The glorious painting above was borrowed from here.

I had intended to do something with more of a Spanish theme for this story, but Captain Graham has been in my head for a while, prodding me from time to time and reminding me that I introduced him at the beginning of An Uncommon Campaign and have barely given him a job to do since, let along a chance of romance.  I hope he’ll be happy now.

Thanks so much to all my fabulous readers for continuing to read the books, love the characters and constantly nag me to write more. I’m on the job, I promise you.

A Winter in Cadiz

“I have been three days longer on my journey than I intended, owing to the the fall of rain, which has swelled all the torrents, and I am now detained here by the swelling of the Gevora. I hope, however, to get to Badajoz this evening.” (Wellington to Beresford, 18 Dec 1812)

“The weather is foul and the roads are impassable, we are held up every day by floods and even Lord Fitzroy Somerset is low in spirits. His Lordship’s temper is so bad that the men of our escort invent excuses to scout the area to avoid him and Lord Fitzroy and I are counting the days until we reach Cadiz so that he will at least have somebody else to shout at. I wish he had chosen someone other for the honour of accompanying him so that I could have joined you for Christmas. (Captain Richard Graham to Major-General Paul van Daan, 18 Dec 1812)

Cadiz, Spain, 1812

Captain Richard Graham had almost forgotten about Christmas. During his army career he had spent the season in a variety of places, some of them extremely uncomfortable. During their long, wet, miserable journey from Freineda to Cadiz he had fully expected to spend the day huddled in a draughty farmhouse listening to Lord Wellington complaining. They arrived in Cadiz at midday on the 24th and Richard was swept from drenched, muddy misery into surprising luxury in a matter of minutes. Lord Wellington and his two aides were conducted to an elegant house in a side-street just off the Plaza San Antonio and Richard found himself in a comfortable bedchamber with a maid bringing hot water and wine and the information that a light meal would be served before his Lordship joined the parade through the city.

Wellington was in the salon and Richard drank wine and listened to his commander being charming to his host and hostess as though the irritability of the past weeks had not existed. Colonel Lord Fitzroy Somerset, Wellington’s young military secretary, appeared at Richard’s side eating a chicken leg.

“Grab some food, Captain, while you can. We’ll be off shortly and I’ve attended these things before, it could be hours before we see food again.”

Richard headed for the silver platters laid out on a sideboard. Filling a plate, he said:
“Should I take some to his Lordship?”

“I just tried,” Fitzroy said. “He looked at me as though I’d offered him a dead rat then waved me away like the under-kitchen maid. Feel free to see if you do any better.”

“Does he even need food?” Richard said, spearing a slice of cheese.

“Yes. He just doesn’t remember that he does. I’m not too worried, there’ll be some kind of ball or banquet this evening, he’ll be hungry enough to eat by then.”

“Well if he’s not, I definitely will be,” Richard said philosophically and Fitzroy laughed and clapped him on the shoulder.

“I’m very glad he chose you for this journey, Captain, you are so blissfully even-tempered. Most of the others would have been worn down on the way but it doesn’t matter what he says, you don’t flinch.”

Richard felt absurdly flattered. “I’ve no idea why he chose me, sir. I’m by no means his favourite ADC.”

Fitzroy gave a little smile. “You’re mine,” he said. “The others are all very good fellows, but when I need something done without a discussion about whose job it is, you are my absolute favourite, Captain Graham. And although he hasn’t the least notion how to express his appreciation, I suspect he feels the same way.”

The thought cheered Richard. He had arrived in Portugal eighteen months earlier with a position on Lord Wellington’s staff after a miserable few years in the Indies. His appointment had been the result of a good deal of hard work by a cousin at Horse Guards and Richard had arrived with the strong sense that he was here on sufferance. His discomfort had initially increased when he realised that Lord Wellington’s staff consisted  almost entirely of young sprigs of the English aristocracy plus the twenty-one year old Dutch Prince of Orange. Richard’s fellow ADCs had been polite but puzzled and Wellington had been coolly civil. Richard, who was not particularly sensitive and knew how fortunate he was in this appointment, gritted his teeth and smiled a good deal.

His breakthrough into acceptance had not come from within the commander-in-chief’s household, but from an early meeting with a young colonel, recently promoted to command a brigade of the light division. Richard had instinctively liked Paul van Daan, who came from a very wealthy Anglo-Dutch trade family. Paul was not of the aristocratic background of Wellington’s inner circle although his mother had been a viscount’s daughter, but he seemed to have the ability to effortlessly bridge the gap. Wellington was rigidly wedded to the existing social order and enjoyed the company of his young ADCs, but he was at his most relaxed and informal in the company of Colonel van Daan and his attractive, intelligent wife.

Richard quickly became friends with Paul van Daan. Such friendships happened in the erratic shifts of army life. Sometimes they proved as fleeting as a short posting and at other times they stood the test of sudden parting and long absences. Richard suspected that Paul’s early friendship with Wellington had been the subject of some jealousy and backbiting at headquarters although by now he was recognised as a valuable asset in managing the commander-in-chief. Certainly he appeared to understand why Richard felt like an outsider, and he invited him frequently to dine and to socialise with the officers of the 110th. Richard was grateful initially for the company, then unexpectedly for the opportunity it gave him to see his difficult, irritable commander in a completely different light. All of his first real conversations with Lord Wellington had occurred at Anne van Daan’s table and it had enabled Richard to see past Wellington’s defensive and often sarcastic manner to a man whom he actually quite liked.

Richard was not sure that Wellington reciprocated the feeling and he was genuinely surprised when he was informed that as the rest of the army settled into winter quarters to recover from the appalling hardships of the retreat from Burgos and Madrid, Wellington required his company on a visit to Cadiz and Lisbon to meet with the Spanish and Portuguese governments. He suspected his surprise had shown on his face because Wellington looked amused.

“I will not be taking my household staff, Captain Graham, just one or two servants, a cavalry escort and Lord Fitzroy Somerset. We will be riding as fast as possible as this cannot be a long trip. I have observed that you are an excellent horseman, you do not complain about difficult conditions and your Spanish and Portuguese are both very good. Please be ready to leave in two days.”

The citizens of Cadiz greeted Wellington with joyous enthusiasm, which may have been an expression of gratitude for all that he had done so far in helping to drive the French out of Spain, but might also have been a useful excuse for parades and parties. The streets were illuminated at night in a way that reminded Richard of their arrival in Madrid earlier in the year. Wellington’s every public appearance was greeted with cannon salutes, cheering crowds and women throwing flowers from balconies or running to lay their shawls and scarves before his horse’s hooves. Wellington accepted the adulation with dignified restraint. He had chosen to wear a Spanish uniform in his capacity as Duque de Ciudad Rodrigo, probably to reinforce his new position as commander-in-chief of the Spanish army.

One of the reasons Wellington was here was to address the Cortes and to negotiate the terms of his new command with the Spanish government. It was also a family reunion as his younger brother, Sir Henry Wellesley, had served as ambassador to Spain for several years, negotiating the stormy waters of Spanish politics through the years of the French siege and beyond. Richard had never met Sir Henry who had followed a diplomatic career alongside Wellington’s military success. He decided, on introduction, that there was a strong family resemblance but that Sir Henry seemed easier in his manners. There was obvious rapport between the two brothers and Richard wondered if it was a relief to his generally reticent commander to have a trusted member of his family beside him. 

It relieved Richard of many of his duties. Lord Fitzroy Somerset was called upon to take notes at a number of meetings, and there was the usual enormous amount of correspondence to manage, but most of Richard’s time seemed taken up with dinners and receptions and balls as the Spanish government and their ladies vied with each other to provide the most lavish entertainment. There was a formal dinner on the day of their arrival followed by an evening reception in one of the gleaming white mansions which overlooked the bay. The English community in Cadiz consisted of the officers commanding those troops remaining in the city, diplomats and a few hardy merchants who had not fled during the long siege. Richard made small talk with a collection of Spanish politicians, paid compliments to their wives and daughters and smiled until his cheeks ached. Across the room he could see Somerset performing the same duty. There were several pretty girls clustered around him and Richard grinned. There was to be a full ball the following evening and he suspected that his fellow ADC was being importuned for dances. Somerset’s excellent manners and sunny disposition made him popular with the ladies.

“Captain Graham.”

Richard turned quickly, saluting. Wellington was accompanied by a young woman dressed exquisitely in a dull yellow gown with gold embroidery which looked as though it must have cost a fortune. She was small and delicately made with mid-brown hair curling around an appealing heart-shaped face. Richard was not at all surprised to find a girl this pretty on Wellington’s arm. He also recognised with some puzzlement that Wellington was desperate to get rid of her.

“Captain, allow me to present Miss Honoria Grainger. Miss Grainger was here with her Mama who has most unfortunately been taken ill and had to leave. I promised her we would take care of her daughter and see her safely home when she is ready to depart. I need to have a word with Sir Henry and one or two gentlemen before our meeting tomorrow, may I ask if you would be my deputy?”

“Of course, my Lord.”

Wellington bowed and departed at speed and Richard dug into his memory for a time when conversing with young ladies at elegant receptions had been part of his normal life. It must have been ten years ago and since then he had married and been widowed and killed men on a battlefield, but he thought he could still remember how it was done.

“It is very good to meet you, Miss Grainger. What brings you to Cadiz, is your father an officer or a diplomat?”

Miss Grainger turned a pair of frosty blue eyes onto him. “What makes you think that I am here with my father at all, Captain Graham? Do you suppose that a young female is incapable of travelling of her own accord and must remain entirely at the beck and call of her father or husband?”

Richard stared at her in astonishment. “I beg your pardon, ma’am,” he said stiffly. “I made an assumption based on Lord Wellington’s introduction and also, I confess, on my own experience so far. I would be delighted if you would tell me how you do come to be in Cadiz since it is probably a far more interesting story.”

The girl looked at him for a long moment. “I believe I was just very rude,” she announced finally. “I apologise, Captain. I am not quite myself this evening.”

“Has that to do with your Mama’s sudden illness or is that another assumption?” Richard asked.

To his surprise she bestowed an approving look on him. “How very astute you are, Captain Graham. My Mama is not at all unwell, she was simply unbearably embarrassed by her daughter and fled the field in confusion. If she had been ill, I would have gone with her.”

Richard stared at her. He was completely bewildered. “Miss Grainger, it is a very long time since I regularly attended occasions such as this, but I am sure that this is not the conversation that normally follows an introduction. Perhaps the rules have changed.”

Honoria Grainger regarded him thoughtfully and then suddenly gave a broad smile. It lit up her face and gave a sparkle to her eyes. It also displayed a wide gap between her front teeth. Richard was utterly charmed. “The rules are exactly the same and I am breaking all of them,” she said. “My mother is appalled and my father would give me a stern look if he was here. The trouble is that he is not here. And he is supposed to be.”

Richard had begun to wonder if Miss Grainger was a little mad but her last statement caught his interest. “Are you saying your father is missing?”

“Yes, I think he is. I have been trying to have this conversation with Lord Wellington but he was either disinterested or unwilling to share information with me. It is very frustrating.”

“Given that this is Lord Wellington, it could be either or both. But to do him justice, he has a great deal to do here in a very limited time. Is there not somebody else who could assist? There are a number of diplomats present, Miss Grainger…” Richard broke off at the expression on her face. “And I am treating you like an idiot, which you are very clearly not, I’m sorry. You’ve already spoken to them, haven’t you?”

Miss Grainger let out a long breath. “Many, many times,” she said. “We have been in Cadiz for four weeks, Captain. We received a letter from my father from Toulouse, suggesting that we meet him here…”

“Toulouse?” Richard said, bewildered. “What in God’s name was he doing in France?”

“He was on a diplomatic mission,” Miss Grainger said in exasperated tones. “Did I not tell you that he is a diplomat?”

“No.”

“Oh. I thought I had.” The girl was silent for a moment. “I’m sorry. I am being very ill-mannered. None of this has anything to do with you, and you are probably wishing me to the devil. And I am sorry for my language as well. I think I should probably go home, my mother was right, there is no purpose to this.”

Her tone was flat and Richard saw suddenly that she was close to tears and trying very hard not to shed them. He had no idea at all what was going on but he felt a sudden need to comfort this odd, likeable girl which overrode his strong sense that he should take her home and forget about this.

“Miss Grainger, I have no idea at all what is happening here, but I can see that you are genuinely upset and more than a little angry. I can probably do nothing to help you, since I am with Lord Wellington and we shall very likely not be here much above a week. But if you wish to tell me the whole story, I’m very willing to listen and to give any advice that I can. A room full of people isn’t the best place for this. May I have permission to call on you tomorrow morning and you may tell me whatever you wish?”

Miss Grainger lifted grateful eyes to his face. “Truly? Captain Graham, thank you, that is so kind of you. I cannot remember the last time anybody actually listened to me, it is driving me mad.”

“If it helps, you’ll have my undivided attention,” Richard promised gravely. “Let’s get you home. Have you a carriage or a maid…?”

“My maid escorted my mother home, but she will have returned by now. And I am afraid we walked here, we are staying with Sir John Marlow and his wife and their house is only a few doors away. I refuse the ridiculous notion of calling for a carriage to drive a few feet.”

“Then I shall walk you home. Let me send one of the servants to find your maid.”

***

Richard presented himself promptly at Sir John’s house the following morning. He had wondered if he might be expected to run a gauntlet of concerned chaperones, but the girl was alone in the small salon when the servant announced him. Richard bowed and she came forward to shake his hand.

“I’m very grateful you came, Captain. You must have thought me a madwoman last night, I made no sense at all. I think, very foolishly, I had convinced myself that if I could just speak to Lord Wellington he would take my concerns seriously and I was very disappointed. Please, sit down.”

Richard sat opposite her on a brocade sofa. “Tell me about your father, Miss Grainger.”

“My father is Sir Horace Grainger. He is a diplomat and has served the foreign office in various capacities all his life. Often, my mother and I travelled with him. I have lived all over the world.”
Richard thought that probably explained her surprisingly self-assured manner for such a young woman. “Why did he go to France?”
“He was to visit several towns and cities where English prisoners of war are being held, particularly those civilian prisoners who were caught in France when the war resumed in 1803. He went as far as Verdun and held discussions about possible prisoner exchanges in the cases of several high-profile prisoners. He told us that the French were being asked to send a similar mission later this year.”

Richard frowned. “That surprises me. I know that the French are seldom willing to exchange prisoners and there have been repeated attempts to get the civilians released, always unsuccessful.”

“Yes,” Honoria said neutrally. “Anyway, my father travelled as usual with his valet and his groom, both of whom have been with him for years, plus a French escort. He visited the prisoners and attended a number of meetings, it was a lot of travelling. During that time, he sent regular letters home, both to the Foreign Office and to us. He told us a great deal about the countryside and the food and very little about his work but that was not unusual. His last letter was from Toulouse. He told us that his mission was over and that he would be travelling into Spain to board a Royal Navy ship from Bilbao which would take him to Cadiz. He was expecting to be detained here for some time on business so suggested we sail to meet him here.”

“And he did not come? Have you had word?”

“Nothing. It is very unlike him, Captain, he is a very affectionate husband and father. He and I are especially close. He always writes. But what is even more worrying is that the foreign office have heard nothing either. He did not board the ship as expected.”

Richard did not speak for a moment. He realised that he had been hoping he could allay her concerns, but instead he shared them. The situation on the northern coast of Spain had been volatile for months and in many places the partisans had seized control of entire areas of the countryside from the French. Richard had seen letters describing guerrilla raids and skirmishes and he could offer this girl no real reassurance. He wondered if he should lie, but discarded the idea immediately. She was far too intelligent to believe him.

“Do you think he might have been detained in France?”

“I don’t know. I have spoken to Sir Henry and he assures me that the foreign office are making enquiries, but he will not tell me any more. Letters can take many weeks and are frequently lost, especially given that it is the stated aim of the Spanish forces to disrupt French lines of communication.”

“What does he suggest that you do?”

“He suggests we go home and wait.” Honoria’s voice was bitter. “After all, that is what women are supposed to do, is it not?”

“I suppose so. It isn’t easy though.”

She studied him for a moment. “Is that what you expect your wife to do, Captain?”

Richard hoped that he had not flinched. “My wife died, Miss Grainger, along with our child. Six years ago now. I wasn’t there, I often wonder if I had been…but I’ll never know.”

Honoria Grainger went very still and Richard was horrified to see her eyes fill with sudden tears. He was annoyed at himself for blurting out so much information to a virtual stranger and one with troubles of her own. After six years it hurt less but he still hated having to explain about Sally and he felt that he had done it clumsily.

“Oh, I’m sorry. That is so very dreadful, and I’ve made you think about it. I am the worst person, I always ask the wrong questions and I never know when to stop. I’m so wrapped up with my own worries, I didn’t think.”

Richard got up and moved to sit beside her on the other sofa, reaching for her hand. “Stop it,” he said firmly. “This is not your fault, and I’m perfectly fine. I will miss her until the day I die, but I can talk of it now. In fact, I’m glad that you know, because when people don’t, there is always that uncertainty…is he married, is he a bachelor, should I ask about his family? I’m glad that you know. And probably because of Sally, I understand a little of what you feel. She hated waiting at home.”

“Sally? What a pretty name. What was she like..no, I’m sorry.”

“She was lovely,” Richard said, to his considerable surprise. “She was witty and kind and gentle and very loving. She wanted a home and children and all the things I wanted too. I felt very cheated.”

The girl’s hand squeezed his. It startled him because he had forgotten he was holding her hand. “I’m very envious, Captain. Firstly because I could never be all of those things and secondly because I suspect I want all of those things too. I’m sorry you lost her, but you must be so happy to have had her.”

Richard could feel himself smiling. “Miss Grainger, do you always say everything that comes into your head?”

“Far more often than I want to,” Honoria said fervently. “Have I offended you?”

“Not at all. Talking to you is a genuine pleasure, I don’t feel as though I need to be on my guard at all. Look, I don’t honestly know if there is any way that I can help you, but I would like to try. May I share your story with Lord Fitzroy Somerset?”

“That charming young man who asked me to reserve a dance this evening? I suppose so, but why?”

Richard was surprised to realise that he was thinking uncharitable thoughts about Somerset. “He is a senior officer, and very close to Lord Wellington. He may have an idea of how best to approach him.”

“He is your senior officer?”

“He is a lieutenant-colonel and his Lordship’s military secretary, ma’am.”

“I expect that is because he is a lord,” Honoria said sagely. “My father has often commented on some of the odd choices for promotion within the army.”

Richard laughed. “Your father is right, but not in this case. Lord Fitzroy is both an excellent officer and an excellent fellow. Also, he is my friend and will take the matter seriously. Between us, we cannot solve your problem, but we may be able to ensure you are given full information.”

“That is all I can ask, Captain.”

“Do you think you will go home?”

“I barely know my home,” Honoria said sounding suddenly lost. “We have a house in London but I have never lived there for more than a year at a time. My mother is talking of returning there while we wait for news, but I don’t want to leave without knowing.”

Richard felt an irrational lift of his heart. “We are probably going to return via Lisbon but we are here for at least another week. I am really hoping you hear good news soon, Miss Grainger. It may be nothing more than an illness on the road.”

Steady blue eyes regarded him. “I hope so too. But it may be very much worse.”

***

Honoria was not sure why her conversation with Captain Graham made her feel so much better, since he had promised nothing and she knew that realistically he might not be able to help at all. At the age of twenty-one, she had moved in diplomatic and military circles all her life and understood very well that Captain Graham’s position was relatively lowly. What he did have, however, was the advantage of access to Lord Wellington, and temporarily to his brother, the Ambassador. Honoria was not naïve enough to assume that either of the Wellesleys would be able to produce her missing father out of thin air, but she did think that between them they possessed enough influence to push the foreign office into pursuing more rigorous enquiries.

Lady Grainger shook her head when Honoria told her of her conversations with Captain Graham. “It was not well done of you, Honoria. Captain Graham is not in a position to make demands of Lord Wellington and should not be pressured into doing so out of kindness.”

“Captain Graham is not obliged to do anything at all, Mama. But somebody should be doing something. Father has given his entire life to the service of his country, they cannot just shrug their shoulders and pretend he did not exist.”

“I am sure they are not doing so, my child. It is just they have not yet informed us…”

“It is just that we are two silly females who cannot be trusted not to swoon at the implication that something may have happened to him,” Honoria said furiously. “I wish I had been a man, they would not have fobbed me off like this then.”

“Of course, if you had married Mr Derbyshire last year, he would have had the right to enquire on our behalf,” her mother said archly. Honoria set down her tea cup with an unnecessary clink.

“If I had married Mr Derbyshire last year, Mama, I would have died of boredom by now, so it would be of no concern to me.”

Lady Grainger laughed. “He was not that bad, Honoria. I thought him very charming, and he has a very promising Parliamentary career ahead of him. I think you would do very well as a politician’s wife.”

“I think I would do very well as a politician, but we know that is not possible.” Honoria sighed. “I am not set against marriage as you seem to think, Mama. I would like all the things that go with it – a home of my own, children, a position in the world. But I cannot marry I man I neither like or respect. Marriage lasts too long.”

“I know. And neither your father or I would try to force you. It is just that you have led such an unusual life for a young girl, following your father around the world. And he has always shared so much with you, as if you were the son we did not have. I wonder sometimes if that makes it harder for you to find a man you like.”

“If I did meet a man I liked, the chances are we would have moved on before I could form an attachment,” Honoria said. She was surprised to realise that she was thinking about Richard Graham. Whatever help he might be able to give her in her search for her father, he would be gone before she really got to know him, and Honoria was faintly depressed at the thought.

“Honoria, will you at least attend the ball this evening? There is nothing more you can do now, and while we are here, I would like to see you enjoy yourself a little.”

“I must attend, since I have promised several gentlemen that I will dance with them. Mama, how long must we stay in Cadiz?”

“I was hoping to remain until your father arrived, but I wonder now if we should return to London,” Lady Grainger said. Her voice shook a little on the words and Honoria took her hand. She knew that her mother was trying to maintain a hopeful manner for her sake, but Honoria was not deceived. Her mother was as worried as she was.

“I think we should remain here a little longer. Why don’t you write to the housekeeper giving her a date for our arrival, she’ll need time to prepare. We can always change our plans if Father suddenly turns up with the news that we are all off to Cape Town.”

“I rather liked Cape Town,” her mother said wistfully. The memory made Honoria laugh.

“Apart from Sir Home Popham.”

“Oh that terrible man. He talked to me – no at me – about some kind of nautical chart for an hour or more without taking a breath. I was never more relieved than when he sailed off to South America and got himself court-martialled.”

“Father said it was the closest he’d ever seen you to failing as a diplomat’s wife.”

“Your father was no help at all, he just laughed.” Suddenly there were tears in Lady Grainger’s eyes. “Oh Honoria, where is he? What if he doesn’t come back at all?”

Honoria put her arms about her mother and held her close, trying hard not to cry with her. “We’ll be all right, Mama. I just hope he will too.”

The ball was hosted at the embassy and the rooms were crowded with both British and Spanish dignitaries. It was very warm, despite the season, and there was a smell of cigar smoke which made Honoria wrinkle her nose. Both Lord Wellington and Sir Henry greeted her pleasantly in the receiving line with no indication that they had held any conversation about her that day, but Honoria supposed that Captain Graham had not had time to speak of the matter.

A British regimental band played and Honoria danced with several gentlemen she already knew, including a dark eyed young Portuguese officer who had been assiduously pursuing her since the day she arrived. Honoria quite liked Lieutenant Souza but had no interest in any form of dalliance and she was relieved when Lord Fitzroy appeared to claim the promised waltz.

“You are a capital dancer, Miss Grainger, I am very happy you decided to attend. I was a little concerned after Captain Graham spoke to me of your father.”

“He spoke to you?” Honoria said quickly. “Oh. I had not thought…that was very quick.”

Somerset grinned. It was different to the social smile she had seen so far and it made her like him suddenly. “One of the reasons I begged Lord Wellington to bring Captain Graham on this visit, ma’am, is that he is a man who gets things done. Generally, I am very over-worked, but when I need help, he is the man I call on. Have you met him before?”

“No,” Honoria said, surprised. “Lord Wellington introduced us yesterday. I do not…I have no idea why I told him about my father. He is very easy to talk to.”

“He is a thoroughly good fellow. I asked because he approached Lord Wellington and Sir Henry this afternoon about the matter and I was a little concerned. He was very plain spoken, which Lord Wellington does not always appreciate.”

Honoria was appalled. “Oh my goodness, no. I had no intention of him doing any such thing. I hope he has not got himself into trouble.”

“I think it will be fine. Lord Wellington was very irritated and I tried to intervene, but as it happened, Sir Henry was there before me. It seems he has been very concerned about the fact that nobody is talking to you about your father. But I do not intend to say more, I will let Captain Graham tell you himself.”

Honoria danced with her mind on anything other than her partners. Her dance with Captain Graham was a country dance with frequent changes of partner and no possibility of rational conversation. She enjoyed the dance, and the few words she exchanged with him, and tried not to make it obvious that she was desperate to question him. She was not sure she was successful, because as the dance ended he bowed over her hand and said quietly:

“Thank you, Miss Grainger, that was a very enjoyable dance. May I hope for another? A waltz, if you have one free?”

“I should be delighted, Captain.”

“May I also ask if we might speak alone for a moment. Or with your Mama present, if you prefer. We could step out onto the terrace if it is not too cold for you?”

“I am not engaged for this next dance, Captain.”

Graham placed her hand on his arm, leading her through the long doors at the end of the room. The terrace was well lit and not entirely deserted, with several couples admiring the view over the lights of the lower town and out towards the lighthouse. A man stood alone at the stone balustrade. He turned as they approached and Honoria was surprised, and a little alarmed, to realise that it was Lord Wellington. Captain Graham saluted and Wellington returned it, then bowed to Honoria.

“Miss Grainger. I hope it is not too cold for you out here?”

“No, my Lord.”

“Excellent. We should keep this brief, however. Miss Grainger, I took part in a very acrimonious meeting earlier with Captain Graham, Lord Fitzroy Somerset and the Ambassador. I have to tell you that during the course of that meeting, I dismissed the captain from his post as my ADC.”

Honoria was appalled. She shot a look at Graham, who appeared completely unmoved by this statement.

“Twice, I believe, my Lord.”

“It would have been three times if I had not been outrageously bullied by my brother and my military secretary,” Wellington said crisply. “I have, however, been brought to believe that the captain may have a point. Despite the urgent requests by the foreign office in London for complete secrecy about your father’s disappearance, it is not acceptable to keep his family so much in the dark. Your distress and that of your poor mother is understandable and your determination to discover what has happened is both commendable and extremely irritating.”

“I had no wish to annoy your Lordship. I was just frantic to know, even if the news is bad. My father has never before failed to write to us for so long. I know something is wrong.”

“Very well,” Wellington said. Honoria had the impression that he wished nothing more than to get this interview over with. “You are correct in your assumption, Miss Grainger. Your father has gone missing and we have no idea where he is. I will tell you as much as I know. Like you, Sir Horace’s employers at the foreign office have not heard from him for more than a month. There has been an exchange of letters between diplomats in Paris and London. The French authorities are being extremely cooperative and appear to be as keen to discover the truth as we are. On his arrival in France, Sir Horace was met by a small escort of French cavalry. Over a period of two months, he travelled widely, visiting various prison facilities. His reports arrived frequently and were factual and very much as expected. I presume during that time he was also writing to you?”

“Very regularly, my Lord.”

“Sir Horace concluded his visit in Toulouse and his last report was written from there. He set off for the Spanish border, where a Royal Navy frigate under a flag of truce was waiting off Bilbao, to take him home. Nobody has heard from him since. Naturally, when Sir Horace failed to appear at the ship, enquiries were made, in case he had met with some accident that had delayed him. What is worrying, is that according to our French sources, his entire escort has also disappeared along with his servants and his Spanish guide.”

Honoria felt a hollow sickness settle into her stomach. She could not speak for a moment. Somebody took her hand and held it and she realised it must be Captain Graham.

“I’m very sorry, Miss Grainger. I realise this is not good news.”

“At least it is news,” Honoria said. “Is anything being done to search for him, my Lord, or is that not possible? I know that the northern provinces are in open revolt.”

“They are, and it is essential to my campaign that they continue to be so. Given the circumstances, we cannot send a battalion of troops into the region and I am not sure what good they would do anyway. I am going to write to the various Spanish leaders in the area to ask if they have any information about your father. I am also authorised by the foreign office, to send somebody else.”

Honoria studied him and realised that Wellington was uncomfortable sharing this piece of information. She watched him struggle for a moment, then said:

“My Lord, I understand that there are aspects of this matter that you cannot discuss with a civilian and that you are probably unwilling to discuss with a female. I just need to know that something is being done.”

For the first time, Wellington’s face softened into an expression that was not quite a smile. “It is not because you are a female, Miss Grainger, I have an enormous respect for intelligent women. Indeed, on occasion I regret that I cannot employ them, I am sure they would outstrip some of the men. Why do I suddenly begin to wonder if your father shared more of his work with you than he should have done?”

“He did not,” Honoria said quickly. “That is exactly why I know there is more. My father and I were very close. He never had a son and in some ways, he treated me as if I had been a boy. We talked of everything and my mother and I travelled the world with him for many years, but there were always moments when he would say nothing at all and I learned not to ask. I don’t know what my father was really doing in France, but I know it may have been far more dangerous than inspecting prison camps, which is why I am so worried.”

Graham squeezed her fingers sympathetically and Honoria returned the pressure gratefully. After a pause, Wellington said:

“Very well. I am instructed to send two of my intelligence officers along with a guide into northern Spain to try to find information about your father. I have written the letter, it will go off in the morning. Nobody here knows anything of this, other than my immediate party and Sir Henry. I am trusting you not to discuss it with anybody other than your mother.”

“I shall not, my Lord, I give you my word. Mother is not a gossip, she has been a diplomat’s wife for too many years and she will not ask any questions if I just tell her that a search is being made. I cannot tell you how grateful I am to you for telling me all this. I’m very well aware that there may be no good news, or even that we may never find out at all. But just knowing that an attempt is being made is very helpful.”

Wellington bowed. “You may thank Captain Graham, ma’am. My instinct was to share no information at all, but he argued your cause with great passion and won over Sir Henry who in turn convinced me. You may be pleased to know that Lord Fitzroy has also persuaded me not to dismiss him. You should go inside now, you are becoming cold. It may be weeks, possibly months before we have news. I do not know what your mother’s plans are, but if you will allow me to give you some advice, I believe you should return home to England where you will have the support of your many friends.”

Honoria dropped a small curtsy. “Thank you, my Lord, I imagine that is what we will do. Will you…that is to say, how will we be notified if there is news?”

“The reports will come directly to me, ma’am, and I will keep you informed with any progress.” Wellington shot a slightly malicious glance at Graham. “I believe I will make Captain Graham my deputy in this matter, since he has interested himself to such purpose. Will you excuse me, ma’am, I must return to my social duties. Captain.”

When he had gone, Graham touched her arm. “He’s right, you’re shivering. Come inside and I’ll find you a glass of wine.”

Honoria allowed him to lead her back into the house and through the hallway into a dim room which seemed to be a library. He seated her on a leather sofa and went to summon a servant, requesting a fire, candles and wine in fluent Spanish. Honoria felt numb with misery but it occurred to her that there was something very pleasant about Richard Graham’s enormous competence. She could not imagine him paying a girl flowery compliments or promising to worship at her feet, but within five minutes she was seated before a small fire with a glass of wine on the table beside her, studying her companion in the light of several oil lamps.

“You are very free with embassy hospitality, Captain.”

“Sir Henry will not mind, ma’am, he is very concerned about you. Without his help and that of Lord Fitzroy, I am not sure that I would have been able to persuade Lord Wellington.”

“I’m very grateful to all of you, Captain, but I know I owe the greatest debt to you. Nobody was listening to me. I cannot believe you have managed this so quickly.”

“I wish it had been better news.”

“It is the news I expected,” Honoria said honestly. “Since we are quite alone, and very unsuitably so, by the way, I need to tell you that I have known for a number of years that my father’s diplomatic career is often a cover for something less respectable. He is a spy, and probably a very useful one.”

“Did he tell you that?”

“No, but I’m not stupid, Captain. Sometimes one can learn a lot by a man’s silence.”

“This must be incredibly hard for you, Miss Grainger. I wondered about the wisdom of doing this in the middle of a ball, but I knew how desperate you were for news. Would you like me to find your mother to be with you?”

“In a moment. I’ll need to tell her and I imagine she will wish to go home immediately. I do myself. But if you do not mind very much, I would just like a few minutes to recover myself, before I have to…” Honoria broke off. She was horrified to realise suddenly that she was about to cry. She put down the wine glass hastily, fumbling in her reticule for a handkerchief. “Oh dear, I’m so sorry.”

“Don’t be.” Graham took the bag from her hands, retrieved the handkerchief and gave it to her. He sat beside her on the sofa, and Honoria gave up and began to cry in earnest. After a moment she felt his arm go about her shoulders and she forgot about propriety and leaned into him, sobbing. Graham held her, stroking her back soothingly, murmuring comforting nonsense as if she was a small child.

Eventually Honoria’s sobs died away. She knew that she should move, but she remained still in his arms. She needed to dry her tears and tidy her hair and be ready to face her mother’s grief when she told her the news but she was unexpectedly enjoying the sense of being taken care of, even if it was by a man she had known little more than a day. That thought made her blush and she shifted reluctantly away from him. He did not move away, but studied her with concerned dark eyes.

“I’m so sorry,” Honoria said again.

“I’m not sorry at all, I’m very glad that I’m here. You shouldn’t be going through this alone. Give yourself a moment while I find your Mama. I’ll leave you alone with her and make sure you’re not disturbed and I’ll call for your carriage.”

“We don’t keep our own carriage here, Captain, we came with Sir John and Lady Marlow. I don’t wish to disturb them…”

“Don’t give it another thought, I’ll arrange something. I’ll wait in the hallway for you and I’ll escort you both home. Call me when you’re ready.”

***

Richard slept badly and rose early, taking himself down to the shore to watch the dawn spreading its rose gold light over the choppy waters of the Atlantic. He could not stop thinking about Honoria Grainger. Her dignified reception of Lord Wellington’s news had touched his heart, but the sobbing misery which followed had broken it. Richard could remember how much he had cried in the months following the loss of his wife and child and he would have done anything to ease Honoria’s suffering, but he knew that there was nothing that he could do. He wandered aimlessly as the streets of Cadiz stirred into morning life around him and returned to the house on the Calle Veedor to find Somerset eating breakfast. Richard joined him at the table and Somerset regarded him thoughtfully.

“You look terrible, didn’t you sleep?”

“Not much.” Richard accepted coffee with a murmur of thanks to the maid and reached for the bread. “I’m sorry, sir, I went for an early stroll and went further than I intended. I hope I wasn’t needed?”

“No, he doesn’t need us this morning apart from to sort through his correspondence, the packet came in. But I can do that. Are you going to call on Miss Grainger?”

“I’d like to,” Richard admitted. “I don’t want to shirk my duty, sir, but they were both in a terrible state when I took them home. Do you think he’ll mind?”

“He’s left specific instructions that you’re to make yourself available to them and help them in any way possible, Captain. I think he’s feeling guilty. We have this gala dinner with members of the Cortes this evening. You should be there for that, but why don’t you finish your breakfast and go and see if they need anything?” Somerset studied him with sympathetic eyes. “Those poor women. I’m guessing they’re not holding out much hope?”

“No, and they shouldn’t. I’m not sure how much Lady Grainger knows, but Miss Grainger is very well aware that her father is a government agent and she knows that if he isn’t dead, he may have been imprisoned by the French. They shoot spies, sir.”

“He could have been taken ill somewhere.”

“Along with his servants, his guide and his entire French escort?” Richard shook his head. “If there was a simple explanation we’d have heard it. Do you know who has drawn the short straw for this very unpleasant assignment, sir?”

“Giles Fenwick. I think his Lordship has asked Colonel Scovell to find another man to go with him in case one of them is killed but I don’t know who that will be.”

“They really want to find him, don’t they? I wonder what he was carrying?”

“I don’t think even Lord Wellington knows that at present. Give the ladies my compliments when you see them, Captain, and if there’s anything I can do, please let me know.”

Richard sent in his card and was surprised when the servant returned immediately to escort him to the same small salon where he found Honoria Grainger alone. She looked calm although rather heavy-eyed and she shook his hand and asked him to sit down.

“I’m so glad you called, Captain. I wanted the opportunity to thank you for your kindness last night. I don’t know what I would have done without you.”

“You’re very welcome, Miss Grainger. How is your Mama this morning?”

“She has remained in bed. I don’t think either of us slept very much.”

“I hope you did not come down just to see me.”

“No, I promise you. Although I would have done. I am far better to be up and around. Mama will be the same in a few days. I think it is more of a shock to her, since she had been convincing herself that it was all a mishap and that he was going to turn up as though nothing had happened. But she is a sensible woman and she just needs time to come to terms with this.”

“What will you do now?”

“I don’t know. Eventually we will go back to England, but at present Mama is very reluctant to leave, since it is obvious that news will reach here first. I will talk to her when she is a little calmer and we will decide. It may be that we look for a small house to rent in Cadiz or even Lisbon for a month or two, if that will make her happier.”

“Have you no male relative who might be able to support you through this?”

“Do you think the presence of a man would make this any easier, Captain?” Honoria said frostily.

“No, not at all. But forgive me, your Mama is obviously very distressed and in matters of business and finance, your father must have had someone in mind who could assist her should anything ever happen to him. It is usual.”

Unexpectedly there was a gleam of amusement in the girl’s eyes. “Oh yes, he did,” she said smoothly. “He was very farsighted about such matters since he always knew, I suppose, that he could die suddenly and a long way from home. He was very frank about it, we talked everything through.”

“Is it somebody you could write to? Perhaps we could arrange…”

“It is me, Captain Graham. I am of full age and my father taught me to understand business some years ago. He always knew that my Mama is not of a practical bent, so he arranged that she should be paid a very generous jointure and the expenses of her household are to come out of the estate, but everything else is in my charge.”

Richard stared at her and she looked back defiantly. “Have I shocked you, Captain?”

“You have certainly surprised me,” Richard said. “Your father clearly had immense faith in you, Miss Grainger, and since he knew you far better than I do, I am sure he was right. But I think this is a lot for any one person to manage alone, especially when you are still reeling with the shock of this news.”

Unexpectedly her eyes filled with tears again. “It is,” she said. “I have no wish to shirk my duty, Captain. Until we know for sure that he is dead, I will continue to manage things as I always have in his absence. But it feels very difficult today.”

“May I help?”

Honoria eyed him uncertainly. “I do not see…”

“Not to do it for you, ma’am. But just to think through what might need to be done, who needs to be notified, how to manage finances if you intend to remain in Spain for a while. I have worked for Lord Wellington for more than a year, if there is one thing I am very good at, it is managing lists and correspondence and administration. Just while I am here, of course.”

“Of course. Captain – could you?”

“Yes,” Richard promised rashly. “Give me time to speak to his Lordship, and I’ll join you. He will not object, I know, since he is keen to be of service to you and your mother, but I should ask as a matter of courtesy. After that, you shall make a list and we shall decide what needs to be done immediately and what can safely be left until later.”

It was the beginning of a very strange and curiously satisfying week. Relieved of all duties by a rather amused Lord Wellington, Richard presented himself at the house each morning where he found Honoria Grainger ready with her note tablets, paper and pens. They made a list of what needed to be done immediately and another, rather more painfully, of what would need to be done if news came of Sir Horace Grainger’s death. Honoria wrote letters to Grainger’s lawyer and man of business, his banker, the land agent who managed his estate in Hertfordshire and the housekeeper of his London home. She also penned more personal and more difficult notes to several relatives.

“You had better read these, Captain, to ensure that I have not said anything indiscreet. I cannot hide the fact that he is missing, since people will soon be asking questions, but I have simply said that we fear some mishap and that enquiries are being made. Will that do?”

“It will indeed, ma’am. Very well-worded and very discreet. You are your father’s daughter.”

Honoria smiled as though he had paid her a compliment. “Thank you. I’m proud to be so.”

After lengthy discussions with Mrs Grainger, and some hasty research on Richard’s part among the English community in Cadiz, Honoria inspected a small house on the edge of the old town, which had previously been occupied by a Scottish major and his wife. It was conveniently situated although in need of a good clean. Richard asked the embassy housekeeper to help him find servants and watched admiringly as Honoria ruthlessly supervised operations. He thought it was rather a shame that she had not been a boy, since she set about every task with a military precision that Lord Wellington would have loved.

Neither Honoria nor her mother felt able to attend the many parties and dinners being held in honour of Lord Wellington, but Richard insisted that she leave the house each day to take the air. He asked her to show him the town and after a little hesitation, she did so willingly. They were fortunate with the weather, which was unusually dry for early January, with several warm afternoons. Followed at a considerable distance by a bored Spanish maid, they walked through the narrow streets and explored the castle, various churches and the old lighthouse which was situated on the long, dangerous reef known as Porpoise Rocks.

The town overlooked a bay which was around twelve miles long. They walked up to Fort Catalina, its cannon pointing solid defiance at the French or anybody else who might try to take this Spanish island city. There were spectacular views over the surrounding countryside, dotted with villages and criss-crossed with vineyards, orange groves and grazing cattle. Honoria pointed out the distant spires of the town of Medina Sidonia.

“You are a very knowledgeable guide, Miss Grainger,” Richard said, leaning on the stone parapet. “How do you know so much about this place, when you only arrived a few weeks before I did?”

“Lieutenant Sousa,” Honoria said, pulling a face. “He was here during the siege and is now stationed here. He is a most estimable and very romantic young man, who believes it is important to learn as much as possible about every place he visits.”

Richard gave a choke of laughter. “Which he then conveys to you?”

“With inexhaustible detail. I have heard things about the stonework of the cathedral they are building that I hope never to hear again. Have you seen enough, Captain? The wind is growing cold up here.”

“Of course. It’s beautiful though. Would you like to go home?”

“Not yet. I thought we could walk down the Alameda.”

She took his arm as they turned onto the broad avenue, lined with ornamental trees and plants and blessed with wide views of the open sea. The Alameda was the main promenade of the city and the wealthier citizens of Cadiz could be found strolling there on any dry afternoon. Honoria asked him questions about his home and his family and Richard told her about Sally and his hopes for their future which had been cruelly snatched away. He wondered if it was wrong of him to speak so freely of loss to a girl who was experiencing it herself, but Honoria seemed genuinely interested. In his turn, he asked her about her father, and she made him laugh with stories of Sir Horace’s illicit passion for Spanish cigars.

“My mother loathed the custom and would never allow him to smoke them, so he used to sneak out to the garden in all weathers and with the most flimsy excuses. I used to cover for him from a very young age.”

“It sounds as though you were very good friends.”

“We were. Are. I don’t know, of course. I think he is probably dead, but there is a part of me that dreams of him arriving unexpectedly with some horrendous tale of danger and narrow escapes. He is a very good storyteller.”

“I think you’ve inherited that from him. I’m afraid we must go back. We are to attend a concert after dinner and I should not take too much advantage of his Lordship’s goodwill.”

“Does he enjoy music?”

“Very much, as it happens. I believe he used to play the violin in his youth, although I find it hard to imagine.”

“Do you like him?”

Richard thought about it. “He is a difficult man to like,” he said after a moment. “He’s a very private person. He can be irritable and sharp-tongued and when something has displeased him, he is appallingly sarcastic. I’ve seen him reduce an officer to tears. He’s hard to know. But…”

“Go on.”

“But he can be very kind and thoughtful at unexpected moments. He has very few close friends and I don’t count myself among them, but when I see him with those people, he is like a different man. And he’s funny. Even on his worst days, there are times when he makes me laugh aloud.”

Honoria was studying him with a little smile. “I think you do like him, Captain Graham. What is more, I think he likes you too.”

Richard grinned. “Honestly? I have no idea, ma’am.”

“We were supposed to be attending the concert,” Honoria said, and Richard caught the wistfulness in her voice.

“Are you musical, ma’am?”

“Very much so, it is my greatest love.”

“Then come. It is not the same as a ball or a reception, you will not be obliged to speak to many people, and it will do you good.”

“My Mama is not well enough.”

“Come anyway. Join our party, I’ll speak to his Lordship, I know he’ll agree.”

“I feel guilty for wanting to go out when my father is…when I do not know if he is alive or dead.”

“What would your father say?” Richard asked impulsively.

She looked up at him and he could see that he had said the right thing. “He would tell me that it was stuff and nonsense and that I should do as I liked.”

“Your father is a very wise man. I will call for you at seven o’clock.”

***

Two weeks was not enough.

Lord Wellington’s departure for Lisbon was delayed once again by appalling weather and reports of a flooded road, and Honoria and her mother were unexpectedly invited to dine at the embassy. Lady Grainger had barely left the house during the previous week but she studied the invitation then looked up at her daughter.

“Would you like to attend, Honoria?”

“Yes,” Honoria said honestly. She was trying not to think about Richard Graham’s departure. He had spent the previous day with her, going through the rooms of their new temporary home and confirming when the carters would arrive to convey their belongings to the house. He had been kind and funny and helpful and the thought of the next weeks, miserable about her father and trying to comfort her mother, without his steady presence at her side, was unbearable.

“I think we should. Lord Wellington has been so kind in our trouble, I would not wish…”

“Lord Wellington?” Honoria exploded. “Allow me to tell you, Mama, that if we had left the matter to Lord Wellington we would know nothing about what happened to my father. Lord Wellington was perfectly happy to treat us like two empty-headed females who cannot be trusted…it was Captain Graham who intervened on our behalf and it is to him that we owe all the help and comfort we have received this past fortnight. I must say…”

“No, dearest, do not say it again, I think I have understood,” Lady Grainger said. She sounded amused. “I presume if we are to dine with Sir Henry and Lord Wellington that Captain Graham will also be present. It will give me an opportunity to thank him again and to say goodbye.”

The meal went very well. Lord Wellington was unexpectedly entertaining and put himself out to be kind to Lady Grainger. As the group finally broke up, a servant went to call for the carriage and the ladies’ cloaks and Sir Henry drew Lady Grainger to one side with a question about her new residence. Honoria found herself face to face with Richard Graham.

“Will you be all right?”

Honoria nodded. “Sir Henry has been very kind and has said we may call on him for any assistance.”

“How long do you think you will remain here?”

“I am not sure, Captain. I think perhaps until we have news. Or until we are told that there is no news. You promised that you would write to me…”

“Everything that I know, you will know, I give you my word. Should I address my letters to your Mama or to you?”

“To me,” Honoria said. “If there is distressing news, it’s better that she hears it from me.”

“I understand. You are, after all, the head of the household.”

“You are teasing me, Captain Graham.”

“No, I’m not. You’re the most extraordinary young woman…may I write to you about other matters?”

“Other matters. What kind of other matters?”

“I don’t know. Anything. What the weather is doing and where we are marching and what kind of mood Lord Wellington is in that day. And you shall tell me if your new harp has been delivered and if the stove in the kitchen is working properly and whether you think of me at all as you are shopping in the Calle Ancha with your maid.”

“I will think of you and your kindness in every street in Cadiz, and I would very much like to write to you, Captain, if you will promise to reply.”

He smiled, reached for her hand, and raised it to his lips. “You’ll get sick of reading them,” he said.

***

Freneida, May 1813

With the preparations to march complete, Richard rode out through the dusty little village which had housed Lord Wellington’s headquarters for two winters and wondered if they would come back. Wellington seemed convinced that they would not. He had spoken to his staff on the previous day, giving orders and explaining his plans in more detail than Richard was used to. There was an energy about the commander-in-chief which made Richard believe that this time, Wellington did not expect to have to retreat again.

There was little to see in Freineda, so Richard rode further afield, through small villages and stone walled towns where people had begun to return after long months of exile. Farmers were planting again and houses battered by shot and shell were being gradually rebuilt. Richard absorbed the sense of hope and renewal and prayed that it would last and that the war had finally moved beyond these people so that they could resume their lives.

Much of the army had already moved out, and Lord Wellington’s staff were packed and ready to go the following morning. Riding back into the village, Richard dismounted, handing his horse to a groom, and went into the long low house which Wellington had occupied through winter quarters. His chief was in his combined sitting room and study with Somerset, Colonel Murray, his quartermaster-general and the tall fair figure of Major-General Paul van Daan of the light division. Wellington turned as Richard entered.

“There you are,” he said irritably, as if he had sent a summons which Richard had failed to answer. “I have been waiting to question you about that blasted female.”

Richard was completely at sea. “Blasted female, sir?”

“Yes. She has just arrived, completely unannounced, apparently on her way back to Lisbon to join her unfortunate mother. What can have possessed her to make such a journey without any warning, I cannot imagine, but I did not know what to do with her, since I cannot delay my departure for her.”

“Who, sir?”

“Miss Honoria Grainger, Captain,” Somerset said. He was grinning broadly. “It appears that she journeyed by ship to Oporto to visit her father’s grave.”

“Oh my God,” Richard said appalled. “Is her mother with her? What on earth is she doing here?”

“That is a question to which we would all like an answer,” Wellington snapped. “I presume you wrote to her telling her how he died?”

“You know I did, sir, I told you. She replied, thanking me. I’ve not heard a word since, I thought they’d be on their way back to London.”

“Which is what any normal female would have done.”

“Where is she?” Richard said. His voice sounded very strange in his own ears and he wondered if the others could tell. “I mean, where is she going to stay? There’s nowhere here…”

“Evidently not,” Wellington said. He sounded slightly calmer. “I see that you are as surprised as I am, Captain, which is most reassuring. Fortunately, I have found a solution. Or rather, General van Daan has. Mrs van Daan and her household have not yet left the Quinta de Santo Antonio as there was some delay in transporting the final patients from the hospital. They will follow the army in a day or two, with an escort of the King’s German Legion under Captain Kuhn. Miss Grainger has gone to join her, she can rest her horses for a few days before resuming her journey to Lisbon and then on to London.”

“Why is she here, my Lord?” Richard said.

“I think it’s something of a pilgrimage, Richard,” Paul van Daan said quietly. “She went to Oporto to see where Sir Horace was buried and then she travelled here overland, because she wanted to speak to Captain Fenwick and Captain O’Reilly about her father’s last days. She’d hoped to be here days ago but she was delayed on the road, a broken carriage wheel, I believe. It’s unfortunate, but I’ve told her that I’ll ask them both to write to her.”

“Did she receive his effects?” Richard asked. There was a hollow pain in his stomach. He knew that on the night before the march he could not possibly ask for leave to visit her. He had no formal relationship with Honoria Grainger, and a dozen or more letters, stored carefully in his baggage, would not be considered reason enough. Richard had thought himself resigned to not seeing her again and found himself praying that she would remember him and that he had not imagined the connection between them. It might be several years before he could return to England and during that time she would emerge from her mourning and into the world and there would be many men, younger and more handsome and wealthier than he, who would find Sir Horace Grainger’s outspoken daughter to their liking. His chances were very slim but he allowed himself his dreams anyway.

“Yes,” Paul said. He was regarding Richard sympathetically. Richard wondered if he was that obvious. “She was very surprised to discover that he’d written two letters during his last days, one to her and one to his wife. It seems he was too weak to write properly but he dictated them to Brat, Michael O’Reilly’s servant. He managed to sign them himself. I’ve no idea what they said, but it seemed to affect her very strongly. I only met her briefly, but she’s a fine young woman, her father would be very proud.”

“Yes,” Richard said numbly.

“Very well,” Wellington said. “General van Daan, my compliments to your wife, please thank her for her assistance. We will be ready to move out at dawn towards Ciudad Rodrigo, you will join us then, and you may ride on to your brigade from there.”

“Yes, sir.”

Richard turned miserable eyes to the general. “Please give my respects to Miss Grainger, General, and tell her how sorry I am to have missed her.”

“I will, Captain. Goodnight.”

It was barely light when the headquarters party, including Major-General van Daan, assembled in the square outside the church. Richard checked the baggage wagons and spoke to the muleteers and grooms while Wellington and Murray gave a pile of letters and some instructions to a courier. It was already warm, with the promise of a hot day. Richard looked around with an odd feeling of finality, then went to his horse and swung himself into the saddle. Vaguely, he was aware of the sound of horses’ hooves and he turned to look. Two riders were approaching at a canter. All the men in Wellington’s party turned to watch and the swirl of dust resolved itself into a woman mounted on a pretty black mare, dressed in a striking wine coloured riding dress and followed by a dark haired groom. The woman slowed her horse and trotted into the square. Nobody spoke for a moment, then Major-General van Daan said pleasantly:

“It is very good to see you, bonny lass, but I thought we’d said our farewells for the time being.”

The woman flashed him a dazzling smile. “We had. You are safe, General, I am not here for you. Lord Wellington, good morning. I’m so sorry to interrupt your departure, it will take just a moment. I need a word with Captain Graham.”

Richard jumped at the sound of his name. He stared at Anne van Daan in some surprise. “Ma’am?”

“Don’t ‘ma’am’ me, Captain. Did I, or did I not tell you that I wanted to see you in the clinic before you rode out?”

Richard searched his memory and drew a blank. “Erm…I do not perfectly recall…”

“Ha!” Anne said triumphantly. “I knew you would say that. Men! You are all the same. You will not admit to the least discomfort, but if you attempt to ride out without treatment, you are going to be completely incapable of continuing beyond Ciudad Rodrigo. It is utterly ridiculous that you refuse to submit to a small operation that will make you much more comfortable. And I can see by his Lordship’s face that you have not even told him.”

Wellington stared at her then turned an arctic glare onto Richard. “What has he not told me, ma’am?”

“Boils, sir,” Anne said, triumphantly. “Given the size and position of them, I am surprised he can sit that horse at all. Let me tell you that of all the boils I have treated these are…”

“No, indeed, ma’am, do not tell me anything about them at all,” Wellington said, sounding revolted. “General van Daan, are you aware that your wife has been treating this gentleman for…oh dear God, could anything be more unsuitable?”

“Probably, sir,” Paul said. Richard thought that his voice sounded rather muffled as though he might be trying hard not to laugh. “My dear, do you need to see Captain Graham before he leaves?”

“Yes. I’m sorry, but if he tries to ride like that, he’s at risk of serious infection. He’s just trying to hide it because he doesn’t wish to miss the start of the campaign.”

“Utterly ridiculous,” Wellington snapped. “Captain Graham, not another word. Go with Mrs van Daan and get this problem dealt with. Preferably by a male doctor, if one is available. Join me as soon as you are able, I need you.”

Richard met Anne van Daan’s lovely dark eyes gratefully. “A day or two, no more, sir. I’m sorry, it was stupid. I didn’t want to let you down.”

“You never let me down, Captain. I value you, your health is important to me. I will see you as soon as you are fit.”

Anne van Daan said nothing until they were out of earshot of the departing headquarters party then she shot Richard a sidelong look. “I’m sorry it had to be boils, Captain, it is just that I needed something that Lord Wellington would not wish to discuss in detail. I was right too, did you see the look on his face?”

The study at the Quinta de Santo Antonio looked oddly bare without the litter of ledgers and correspondence of brigade headquarters. Honoria Grainger was seated in a wooden armchair reading a book. She looked up as Richard entered, then rose, setting the book down. The mourning black made her look older and rather more lovely than Richard had remembered.

“I cannot believe you are here. I thought I’d missed you.”

“I thought I’d missed you too,” Richard said.

“How did…”

“Why did…”

They both stopped, smiling. Then Richard said:

“Miss Grainger, I’m so sorry you had a wasted journey, but I promise you I’ll speak to Captain Fenwick and…”

“I didn’t have a wasted journey. I didn’t travel all this way to speak to Captain Fenwick. I wanted to see you before I returned to London. If that seems too forward or too…”

“No, it doesn’t. Oh God, it doesn’t. Honoria, please tell me I’ve not got this wrong?”

Honoria smiled and Richard felt his heart turn over. It was ridiculous. “No,” she said. “Although I’ve been terrified all this way in case I had. I just needed to see you. To say…to ask…”

Richard stepped forward and took her into his arms. He kissed her for a long time, and she clung to him, convincing him beyond all doubt that he had not made a mistake. When he finally raised his head there were tears in her eyes.

“I went to his grave,” she said. “I sat there for a while, talking to him in my head.”

Richard’s heart melted. “Oh, love, I’m so sorry. It’s so awful for you and I can’t even be here to take you home and look after you. And we’ve so little time.”

“Mrs van Daan said she thinks we can have two days.”

“Two days?” Richard thought about such bounty and found himself smiling again. “I thought I’d have to wait two years. I’ve a lot to say to you in two days, Honoria. Will you marry me?”

She was laughing and crying at the same time. “Yes. Yes, of course I will.”

“Thank God. I’ve read every one of your letters a hundred times, trying to decide if I was being a fool or if you might feel the same way. I even thought of trying to say it in a letter, but I couldn’t find the words. Besides, it didn’t seem fair when I’ve no idea when I’ll get back to England. And even now…it’s so long to wait, love.”

Her smile was luminous. “Richard, do try not to be an ass, it is very unlike you. Do you seriously think I would have made this mad journey in the worst conditions if I was not very sure?”

Richard kissed her again, deciding that she was right. For a time, it was enough just to hold her, revelling in the sense of her in his arms, but Honoria had an inquisitive nature and he was not surprised when she finally stepped back and asked the question.

“Richard, how did you manage this? I asked to see you but Lord Wellington said it was impossible, that you were about to march out and that you would not have time. I truly thought I had missed my opportunity.”

“What did you say to Mrs van Daan?” Richard enquired.

“I couldn’t say much at all. I was so disappointed, I’m afraid I cried a lot, and then I told her the truth. Did she do this? But how?”

“Boils,” Richard said. “Let us sit down. It is rather a painful story.”