Read The Sergeant's Lady Online

Authors: Susanna Fraser

Tags: #Romance, #Fiction, #General, #Historical

The Sergeant's Lady

BOOK: The Sergeant's Lady
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The Sergeant’s Lady

By Susanna Fraser

Highborn Anna Arrington has been “following the drum,” obeying the wishes of her cold, controlling cavalry officer husband. When he dies, all she wants is to leave life with Wellington’s army in Spain behind her and go home to her family’s castle in Scotland.

Sergeant Will Atkins ran away from home to join the army in a fit of boyish enthusiasm. He is a natural born soldier, popular with officers and men alike, uncommonly brave and chivalrous, and educated and well-read despite his common birth.

As Anna journeys home with a convoy of wounded soldiers, she forms an unlikely friendship with Will. When the convoy is ambushed and their fellow soldiers captured, they become fugitives—together. The attraction between them is strong—but even if they can escape the threat of death at the hands of the French, is love strong enough to bridge the gap between a viscount’s daughter and an innkeeper’s son?

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Acknowledgments

Most of all, I’d like to thank my husband and daughter for their love, their constant support, and for putting up with a wife and mother whose mind is so often stuck someplace two hundred years and an ocean away.

I’d also like to thank my critique partners: Jennifer Diamond, Mary Ann Gonzales, Beth Weir and Alan Wood from the Monday night Starbucks group, along with the ladies of the Demimonde: Karen Dobbins, Alyssa Fernandez, Vonnie Hughes and especially Rose Lerner, who isn’t just a critique partner but also a brainstorming partner, a venting partner and a let’s-meet-for-curry partner.

If I tried to thank everyone who supported me on my journey to publication, the list would be almost as long as the book. But special thanks go to the Beau Monde and Greater Seattle chapters of RWA for support and education, and to the Buffistas for cheering me on as I discovered I was actually capable of finishing a book.

Finally, thanks go to Carina Press and my editor, Melissa Johnson, for giving the book of my heart a chance to shine.

Dedication

In loving memory of my father and mother, the most extraordinary ordinary people I’ve ever had the privilege to know. My love of stories and history comes straight from them.

Chapter One

With Wellington’s Army in Spain, June 1811

“Aiee!
Madre de Dios
, it hurts!”

Will knelt on a coarse wool blanket beside his best friend’s woman, gripping her hands. “Not much longer, Juana,” he murmured. “Everything is going well.”

He hoped he spoke the truth, but he didn’t rightly know. His boyhood experience with lambing on his brother-in-law’s farm hardly made him a midwife. He was a Rifle sergeant, an eleven-year veteran who had known no life but a soldier’s since he was sixteen. He’d been trained to usher men out of the world, not babies into it.

Juana’s birth pang ended, and she released his hands. Will flexed his fingers to get the blood flowing again. Her grip had turned so fierce he wondered if he’d be able to manage his rifle the next day.

Somewhere nearby there had to be better help for a laboring woman. He could still hear tramping feet and creaking oxcart wheels on the road, just a few yards away from the grove of cork trees where they had sought shelter when Juana’s pains grew too strong for her to continue on the march. Their own regiment marched far ahead with the vanguard, but the main body of the army hadn’t yet passed them by.

He allowed himself a brief daydream of seeking out Lord Wellington to tell the general exactly what he thought of him for ordering a march today of all brutally hot days. It wasn’t as if they were going to or from battle. They hadn’t seen action in weeks, and if camp gossip was to be believed, that was unlikely to change soon. Today they marched to improve their position relative to the French, many miles distant, or maybe simply to avoid exhausting the countryside’s food and water and the goodwill of their Spanish hosts. They could just as well have waited a few days in hopes of the heat breaking, and Juana could’ve given birth in a settled camp.

Will shook off his insubordinate fancies and turned his mind to reality. He fixed the third occupant of the grove with a glare that would’ve made any private leap to obey. “Damn it, Dan, you must go for help.”

Dan, however, was no private. He was the other sergeant of Will’s company—not to mention Juana’s lover and the father of her child.

“No,” he said. “I’m not leaving her. Not this time.” His jaw was set, his eyes haunted.

Will shook his head. Two years before, Dan had lost his wife in childbirth after being forced to leave her behind on the retreat to Corunna, so he had made up his mind that he could keep Juana safe by keeping her in sight. But he was useless, pacing the edge of the grove in a nervous panic. He could not take Will’s place, freeing him to seek help, so somehow they had to manage. But Juana needed more. She needed a woman.

All of them tensed as a rustling in the grove heralded the approach of an animal, then relaxed as the intruder came into sight. As if in answer to Will’s prayers, a beautiful woman rode toward them on a donkey, trailed by a local girl on foot. He could have kissed her. Granted, she wasn’t quite what he’d had in mind. He would’ve preferred a stout matron who’d borne half a dozen children and attended the births of ten times that number. In short, his mother.

This one was too young—younger than he was, probably not yet five-and-twenty. She was also too much of a lady. With her servant, donkey, and fine dress and bonnet, she was unmistakably an officer’s wife. Her Spanish maid was still in her teens, and she was trying to hide behind the donkey. But at least they were female.

The beauty took in their situation at a glance—a dismayed glance, Will thought—and slid down from her mount’s back.

She met Will’s eyes. “I heard a scream, just now. May I offer any assistance…” Her voice trailed off as her gaze darted to the neat stack of gear at one corner of the blanket. “…Sergeant?”

His uniform jacket, with its sergeant’s stripes, lay atop his gear. He felt a moment’s embarrassment at being caught in a state of undress by such an elegant lady. But if she’d been following the drum for any time at all, this couldn’t be the first time she’d seen a strange man in his shirtsleeves.

“Thank you, ma’am,” he said fervently. “Anything you can do, we’d be grateful for.”

She bit her lip, then turned to the girl. “Here, Beatriz, tether the donkey,” she said in quick, fluent Spanish.

As the girl obeyed, the lady hurried to Juana’s side and sank to her knees opposite him. Just then another pain hit. This time Juana didn’t scream, but writhed and moaned low in her throat.

“What’s her name?” the lady asked, peeling off her gloves to reveal small, slim-fingered hands ornamented only by a plain, gold wedding ring.

“Juana, ma’am.”

“Juana, you must breathe better,” she murmured in Spanish, grasping Juana’s hands. “It will pass. Breathe.”

Juana looked up at her in relief and complied. Will frowned. He’d said much the same thing. Did it sound that much better coming from a woman? He supposed it must, and he was glad the lady had the compassion to stop and offer to help. Many an officer’s lady would have considered Juana beneath her notice.

Her husband was a lucky man to have a wife so lovely and generous of spirit willing to go to war at his side. Though any officer who could afford it was free to bring along a wife, few ladies accompanied their husbands on campaign. Most stayed in England, while some rented rooms in Lisbon to be within easy reach if their men became ill or wounded. Only the bravest and most devoted followed the drum.

At present the lady’s dark, arched eyebrows were drawn together in a worried frown, and her hand shook as she reached up to push a stray lock of curly black hair away from her face. She couldn’t possibly be an expert at this. Will doubted her governess had taught her how to deliver babies between her dancing and embroidery lessons. But at least she was female, and with any luck she had children of her own, entrusted to another servant with the baggage wagons or safe with her family back home.

The pain passed, and Juana lay back, exhausted. After a moment, she opened her eyes and looked up at her new benefactress. “Thank you, señora.”


De nada.
And you speak English.”



. If I did not, I could not stay with that one.” She tilted her head toward Dan, who stood sentry some five yards away, darting fearful glances at them. “He will not learn Spanish. He tries, but it is no good.”

The lady looked from Will to Dan and back in confusion. “Oh! He’s…but I thought…”

Juana managed a smile. “You thought the father was the handsome young one here.”

Will blinked. He’d never thought of himself as especially handsome, and he could hardly believe a woman in the throes of labor and an elegant officer’s lady were discussing his merits with him so close he couldn’t help but hear it.

“Well, yes. I did think so.” Her expression was demure, but mischief danced in her clear green eyes.

“Will is too stubborn,” Juana said.

The lady laughed, revealing a pair of dimples. Before she could speak, another pain struck Juana, and the lady’s face grew serious. “I think we should help her sit up,” she said. She suited actions to words, pulling Juana up and offering her shoulder for her to lean against. As Will supported Juana’s other side, he admired how strong the lady was for her size—she couldn’t be much more than five feet tall.

When the pain passed, the lady looked nervously from Juana to Will. “I must confess that I’m no midwife. I was with my cousin’s wife when her youngest was born, and all I know is what I remember from that day.”

Too bad, but Will hadn’t expected much more. “Well, ma’am, I’ve helped with lambing. Maybe between the two of us, we’ll know what to do.”

Juana looked dubious, and he couldn’t blame her.

“I beg your pardon,” the lady said, “but weren’t there any other women with you?”

He shook his head. “We haven’t many women in our company, ma’am. I’ve tried to send Dan—Sergeant Reynolds, that is—for help, but he won’t go.”

“I’m not leaving,” Dan said, though his back was to them.

“I know. You’ve said as much at least a dozen times,” Will replied.

Another pain struck, and they encouraged Juana through it. Will realized he still didn’t know the lady’s name.

The donkey brayed, and again came the rustling that signaled they were about to have company. This time Will recognized the snorting and plunging of a restive horse. As Juana’s birth pang ended, a rangy black stallion burst into the clearing, ridden by a blond dragoon officer who surveyed them with contempt. Will wondered how the man kept himself so spotless. He was dusty, but otherwise looked like he belonged on parade in London—no stubble on his face, no patches or frayed braid on his uniform.

The lady went rigid. In an instant the warm, compassionate woman became a pale pillar of ice. She stood and shook out her skirts, her chin held high.

Dan snapped to attention and saluted smartly. Will couldn’t do the same, supporting Juana as he was, but he managed a gesture he hoped was recognizable as a salute.

“Mrs. Arrington,” the officer said, his voice as cold as her expression.

Well, now Will knew her name.

“Captain Arrington,” she replied.

And that must be her husband.

“What are you doing here?” the captain asked.

“I should think that would be obvious.” Each syllable was as sharp as a new bayonet.

There was no love lost between these two. Or, maybe there
was
, but Will didn’t think they’d find it anytime soon. Slowly he lowered his hand, since the captain clearly had no intention of acknowledging him. Dan crouched beside him and Juana, and they watched the couple in amazed silence. The maid Beatriz, who had yet to leave the donkey’s side, hid her face against the beast’s neck.

The captain frowned, blond brows drawing together over pale blue eyes. “All that’s obvious is that you’re meddling where you don’t belong again.”

“I heard a woman in pain, I offered my help, and it was accepted. I hardly consider that meddling.”

“I fail to see how your assistance could be of any use.” He cast another disdainful glance at Juana and the two sergeants as he tugged at his reins, fighting to control his dancing, snorting mount. “I cannot imagine that there is a woman in the army with less expertise in childbearing than yourself, madam.”

Mrs. Arrington winced. “Yet I am here,” she said with careful dignity. “If you would be so kind as to find Helen and María, I would be delighted to step aside for someone with greater experience.”

“I haven’t the time to act as your messenger boy. I only sought you out to do you the courtesy of informing you that my company is ordered forward to scout. If I don’t hurry, I shall miss the rendezvous. Now, come away from here at once.”

She took a deep breath and swallowed hard. “No.”

The captain drew back on the reins, and the stallion reared and plunged. “No? You would defy me?”

She held her head higher, though her hands, clenched in fists at her side, were shaking. “I would, and I am.”

“Well, then. I suppose I cannot be surprised to find you so lost to decency as to choose the company of the common rabble of the army above the wishes of your husband.”

When Mrs. Arrington replied, her voice was brittle and bitter. “I daresay you cannot. However, I confess that I
am
surprised to find you so lost to all courtesy as to quarrel with your wife in public.”

Captain Arrington sneered. “I hardly consider a pair of sergeants and a whore the public.”

Dan’s face reddened. “She’s no whore,
sir
.”

“Why, you insolent—” The captain raised his whip hand.

“Sebastian!” Mrs. Arrington cried. He hesitated.

Just then, Juana screamed as another spasm struck. Mrs. Arrington shot her husband a look of pure contempt before hurrying back to her side.

Captain Arrington rode straight toward the women. “Anna, you will come away from there.”

Will sprang to his feet and ran forward. He no longer saw a superior officer, but only a vicious man on a brute of a horse, bent on riding down two women. He caught the stallion by the bridle and hung on as the beast fought and reared.

“You insolent cur!” Captain Arrington’s face glowed red, and he raised his whip hand again. “Release my horse.”

“No, sir,” Will said through gritted teeth, bracing himself against the stallion’s efforts to pull free. Let the captain use his whip. Will didn’t care. He wasn’t letting him near the women. “Besides, shouldn’t you worry about being late for your mission rather than us rabble? Sir.” Will had never confronted a superior so directly in his life, but he would’ve done the same if the captain had been a general.

“Insolent and insubordinate!” the captain sputtered, though his horse began to settle down. “I shall speak to your commanding officer and have you both flogged.”

Will knew he had won when the threat changed from a present whipping to a future flogging. He grinned and released the horse’s bridle. “By all means do so, sir. My name is Atkins, and his is Reynolds. Third Company, First Battalion, the Ninety-Fifth. But for now, sir, your mission awaits you.”

“Just go, Sebastian.” His wife’s voice was weary.

“Very well, madam. But we will speak of this again.” He wheeled his horse about and cantered out of the grove, his posture ramrod-stiff.

Juana’s pain had passed, and she stared up at Mrs. Arrington with pity.
“¿Su esposo, señora?”



. My husband.” She closed her eyes, and her lip quivered. After a moment she took a deep breath and met Will’s eyes. “I’m sorry,” she said.

He shook his head. “No, ma’am,
I’m
sorry.”

They stared at each other for a long moment, a disobedient wife and an insubordinate sergeant.

“We’ll say no more about it, ma’am,” he said gently. Dan and Juana exchanged glances and nodded.

“Thank you. Only—I’ll speak to your captain. You shouldn’t be flogged for this.”

“I wouldn’t worry about that, ma’am,” Will said.

“My husband can be most insistent.”

Will grinned. “The more he insists, the less heed Captain Matheson will pay him. He’s a stubborn man.” He winked at Juana. “Not always a bad thing to be.” His amusement didn’t last, for he remembered Captain Arrington’s upraised whip hand. “Will he beat you, ma’am?”

BOOK: The Sergeant's Lady
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