Captain Christopher Phelan
1st Battalion Rifle Brigade
I can’t write to you again.
I’m not who you think I am.
I didn’t mean to send love letters, but that is what they became. On their way to you, my words turned into heartbeats on the page.
Come back, please come home and find me.
Eight months earlier
It all began with a letter.
To be precise, it was the mention of the dog.
“What about the dog?” Beatrix Hathaway asked. “Whose dog?”
Her friend Prudence, the reigning beauty of Hampshire County, looked up from the letter that had been sent by her suitor, Captain Christopher Phelan.
Although it wasn’t proper for a gentleman to correspond with an unmarried girl, they had arranged to send letters back and forth with Phelan’s sister-in-law as a go-between.
Prudence sent her a mock frown. “Really, Bea, you’re displaying far more concern over a dog than you ever have for Captain Phelan.”
“Captain Phelan has no need of my concern,” Beatrix said pragmatically. “He has the concern of every marriageable miss in Hampshire. Besides, he chose to go to war, and I’m sure he’s having a lovely time strutting about in his smart uniform.”
“It’s not at all smart,” came Prudence’s glum reply. “In fact, his new regiment has dreadful uniforms—very plain, dark green with black facings, and no gold braiding or lace at all. And when I asked why, Captain Phelan said it was to help the Rifles stay concealed, which makes no sense, as everyone knows that a British soldier is far too brave and proud to conceal himself during battle. But Christopher—that is, Captain Phelan—said it had something to do with . . . oh, he used some French word . . .”
“Camouflage?” Beatrix asked, intrigued.
“Yes, how did you know?”
“Many animals have ways of camouflaging themselves to keep from being seen. Chameleons, for example. Or the way an owl’s feathering is mottled to help it blend with the bark of its tree. That way—”
“Heavens, Beatrix, do not start another lecture on animals.”
“I’ll stop if you tell me about the dog.”
Prudence handed her the letter. “Read it for yourself.”
“But Pru,” Beatrix protested as the small, neat pages were pushed into her hands. “Captain Phelan may have written something personal.”
“I should be so fortunate! It’s utterly gloomy. Nothing but battles and bad news.”
Although Christopher Phelan was the last man Beatrix would ever want to defend, she couldn’t help pointing out, “He is away fighting in the Crimea, Pru. I’m not sure there are many pleasant things to write about in wartime.”
“Well, I have no interest in foreign countries, and I’ve never pretended to.”
A reluctant grin spread across Beatrix’s face. “Pru, are you certain that you want to be an officer’s wife?”
“Well, of course . . . most commissioned soldiers never go to war. They’re very fashionable men-about-town, and if they agree to go on half pay, they have hardly any duties and they don’t have to spend any time at all with the regiment. And that was the case with Captain Phelan, until he was alerted for foreign service.” Prudence shrugged. “I suppose wars are always inconveniently timed. Thank heavens Captain Phelan will return to Hampshire soon.”
“Will he? How do you know?”
“My parents say the war will be over by Christmas.”
“I’ve heard that as well. However, one wonders if we aren’t severely underestimating the Russians’ abilities, and overestimating our own.”
“How unpatriotic,” Prudence exclaimed, a teasing light in her eyes.
“Patriotism has nothing to do with the fact that the War Office, in its enthusiasm, didn’t do nearly enough planning before it launched thirty thousand men to the Crimea. We have neither adequate knowledge of the place, nor any sound strategy for its capture.”
“How do you know so much about it?”
“From the Times. It’s reported on every day. Don’t you read the papers?”
“Not the political section. My parents say it’s ill-bred for a young lady to take an interest in such things.”
“My family discusses politics every night at dinner, and my sisters and I all take part.” Beatrix paused deliberately before adding with an impish grin, “We even have opinions.”
Prudence’s eyes widened. “My goodness. Well, I shouldn’t be surprised. Everyone knows your family is . . . different.”
“Different” was a far kinder adjective than was often used to describe the Hathaway family. The Hathaways were comprised of five siblings, the oldest of which was Leo, followed by Amelia, Winnifred, Poppy, and Beatrix. After the death of their parents, the Hathaways had gone through an astonishing change of fortune. Although they were common born, they were distantly related to an aristocratic branch of the family. Through a series of unexpected events, Leo had inherited a viscountcy for which he and his sisters hadn’t been remotely prepared. They had moved from their small village of Primrose Place to the Ramsay estate in the southern county of Hampshire.
After six years the Hathaways had managed to learn just enough to accommodate themselves in good society. However, none of them had learned to think like the nobility, nor had they acquired aristocratic values or mannerisms. They had wealth, but that was not nearly as important as breeding and connections. And whereas a family in similar circumstances would have endeavored to improve their situations by marrying their social betters, the Hathaways had so far chosen to marry for love.
As for Beatrix, there was doubt as to whether she would marry at all. She was only half civilized, spending most of her time out-of-doors, riding or rambling through the woodlands, marsh, and meadows of Hampshire. Beatrix preferred the company of animals to people, collecting injured and orphaned creatures and rehabilitating them. The creatures that couldn’t survive on their own in the wild were kept as pets, and Beatrix occupied herself with caring for them. Out-of-doors, she was happy and fulfilled. Indoors, life was not nearly so perfect.
More and more frequently, Beatrix had become aware of a chafing sense of dissatisfaction. Of yearning. The problem was that Beatrix had never met a man who was right for her. Certainly none of the pale, overbred specimens of the London drawing rooms she had frequented. And although the more robust men in the country were appealing, none of them had the unnameable something Beatrix longed for. She dreamed of a man whose force of will matched her own. She wanted to be passionately loved . . . challenged . . . overtaken.
Beatrix glanced at the folded letter in her hands.
It wasn’t that she disliked Christopher Phelan as much as she recognized that he was inimical to everything she was. Sophisticated and born to privilege, he was able to move with ease in the civilized environment that was so alien to her. He was the second son of a well-to-do local family, his maternal grandfather an earl, his father’s family distinguished by a significant shipping fortune.
Although the Phelans were not in line for a title, the oldest son, John, would inherit the Riverton estate in Warwickshire upon the earl’s death. John was a sober and thoughtful man, devoted to his wife, Audrey.
But the younger brother, Christopher, was another sort of man entirely. As often happened with second sons, Christopher had purchased an army commission at the age of twenty-two. He had gone in as a cornet, a perfect occupation for such a splendid-looking fellow, since his chief responsibility was to carry the cavalry colors during parades and drills. He was also a great favorite among the ladies of London, where he constantly went without proper leave, spending his time dancing, drinking, gaming, purchasing fine clothes, and indulging in scandalous love affairs.
Beatrix had met Christopher Phelan on two occasions, the first at a local dance, where she had judged him to be the most arrogant man in Hampshire. The next time she had met him was at a picnic, where she had revised her opinion: he was the most arrogant man in the entire world.
“That Hathaway girl is a peculiar creature,” Beatrix had overhead him say to a companion.
“I find her charming and original,” his companion had protested. “And she can talk horses better than any woman I’ve ever met.”
“Naturally,” came Phelan’s dry rejoinder. “She’s more suited to the stables than the drawing room.”
From then on, Beatrix had avoided him whenever possible. Not that she minded the implied comparison to a horse, since horses were lovely animals with generous and noble spirits. And she knew that although she wasn’t a great beauty, she had her own charms. More than one man had commented favorably on her dark brown hair and blue eyes.
These moderate attractions, however, were nothing compared to Christopher Phelan’s golden splendor. He was as fair as Lancelot. Gabriel. Perhaps Lucifer, if one believed that he had once been the most beautiful angel in heaven. Phelan was tall and silver eyed, his hair the color of dark winter wheat touched by the sun. His form was strong and soldierly, the shoulders straight and strong, the h*ps slim. Even as he moved with indolent grace, there was something undeniably potent about him, something selfishly predatory.
Recently Phelan had been one of the select few to be culled from various regiments to become part of the Rifle Brigade. The “Rifles,” as they were called, were an unusual brand of soldier, trained to use their own initiative. They were encouraged to take up positions forward of their own front lines and pick off officers and horses that were usually beyond target range. Because of his singular marksmanship skills, Phelan had been promoted to a captaincy in the Rifle Brigade.
It had amused Beatrix to reflect that the honor probably hadn’t pleased Phelan at all. Especially since he’d been obliged to trade his beautiful Hussars uniform, with its black coat and abundant gold braiding, for a plain dark green one.
“You’re welcome to read it,” Prudence said as she sat at her dressing table. “I must repair my coiffure before we go on our walk.”
“Your hair looks lovely,” Beatrix protested, unable to see any flaw in the elaborately pinned twist of blond braids. “And we’re only walking to the village. None of the townspeople will know or care if your coiffure isn’t perfect.”
“I’ll know. Besides, one never knows whom one might encounter.”
Accustomed as she was to her friend’s ceaseless preening, Beatrix grinned and shook her head. “All right. If you’re certain you don’t mind my looking at Captain Phelan’s letter, I’ll just read the part about the dog.”
“You’ll fall asleep long before you get to the dog,” Prudence said, expertly inserting a hairpin into a twisted braid.
Beatrix looked down at the scrawled lines. The words looked cramped, tight coils of letters ready to spring from the page.
I’m sitting in this dusty tent, trying to think of something eloquent to write. I’m at wit’s end. You deserve beautiful words, but all I have left are these: I think of you constantly. I think of this letter in your hand and the scent of perfume on your wrist. I want silence and clear air, and a bed with a soft white pillow . . .
Beatrix felt her eyebrows lifting, and a quick rise of heat beneath the high collar of her dress. She paused and glanced at Prudence. “You find this boring?” she asked mildly, while her blush spread like spilled wine on linen.
“The beginning is the only good part,” Prudence said. “Go on.”
. . . Two days ago in our march down the coast to Sebastopol, we fought the Russians at the Alma River. I’m told it was a victory for our side. It doesn’t feel like one. We’ve lost at least two thirds of our regiment’s officers, and a quarter of the noncommissioned men. Yesterday we dug graves. They call the final tally of dead and wounded the “butcher’s bill.” Three hundred and sixty British dead so far, and more as soldiers succumb to their wounds.
One of the fallen, Captain Brighton, brought a rough terrier named Albert, who is undoubtedly the most badly behaved canine in existence. After Brighton was lowered into the ground, the dog sat by his grave and whined for hours, and tried to bite anyone who came near. I made the mistake of offering him a portion of a biscuit, and now the benighted creature follows me everywhere. At this moment he is sitting in my tent, staring at me with half-crazed eyes. The whining rarely stops. Whenever I get near, he tries to sink his teeth into my arm. I want to shoot him, but I’m too tired of killing.
Families are grieving for the lives I’ve taken. Sons, brothers, fathers. I’ve earned a place in hell for the things I’ve done, and the war’s barely started. I’m changing, and not for the better. The man you knew is gone for good, and I fear you may not like his replacement nearly so well.
The smell of death, Pru . . . it’s everywhere.
The battlefield is strewn with pieces of bodies, clothes, soles of boots. Imagine an explosion that could tear the soles from your shoes. They say that after a battle, wildlflowers are more abundant the next season—the ground is so churned and torn, it gives the new seeds room to take root. I want to grieve, but there is no place for it. No time. I have to put the feelings away somewhere.
Is there still some peaceful place in the world? Please write to me. Tell me about some bit of needlework you’re working on, or your favorite song. Is it raining in Stony Cross? Have the leaves begun to change color?
By the time Beatrix had finished the letter, she was aware of a peculiar feeling, a sense of surprised compassion pressing against the walls of her heart.
It didn’t seem possible that such a letter could have come from the arrogant Christopher Phelan. It wasn’t at all what she had expected. There was a vulnerability, a quiet need, that had touched her.
“You must write to him, Pru,” she said, closing the letter with far more care than she had previously handled it.
“I’ll do no such thing. That would only encourage more complaining. I’ll be silent, and perhaps that will spur him to write something more cheerful next time.”
Beatrix frowned. “As you know, I have no great liking for Captain Phelan, but this letter . . . he deserves your sympathy, Pru. Just write him a few lines. A few words of comfort. It would take no time at all. And about the dog, I have some advice—”
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