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Authors: Carla Kelly

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BOOK: With This Ring
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With considerable effort, as though
he were hiding behind it, Papa set down his teacup. “It has been so
long since someone asked my opinion on something, daughter,” he
said, his tone apologetic.

She looked at him, afraid to say
more for fear that he would bolt from the breakfast room. With a
start, it occurred to her that no one ever asked her opinion on any
subject, either. Papa, you are no advocate, and someone who folds
in the slightest breeze, she thought, but so am I. She put her hand
over his. “Don’t worry, Papa,” she said finally.


Actually, I have an opinion,” he
said, to her surprise. “I … I think you should return to St.
Barnabas if you choose.” He looked around again, as if the wall
covering were listening, and leaned closer to her. “You are
twenty-two, after all, and ought to know your own mind.”

She beamed at him as he leaned back
in his chair, exhausted, apparently, with the strain of decision.
“Thank you, Papa,” she said.


You won’t tell your mother?” he
asked, his voice anxious.

She shook her head.
“Never.”

They ate in silence, Papa still
unnerved by his radical disclosure, and Lydia saddened almost to
tears. At least you have a library to hide in, Papa, she thought. I
must be at Kitty’s constant disposal, and there is always Mama to
tell me my failings, should I ever forget them. She looked out the
window, beyond the view. And I do not see an end in sight for me or
you.

She finished the eggs on her plate,
only because Mama hated waste in everyone except Kitty, then pushed
back her chair. There was a pile of mending—most of it Kitty’s—she
had been avoiding for weeks. Obviously even Major Reed’s
extravagant gift of flowers had been insufficient temptation to
induce Mama to change her mind.

She was rising to leave the
breakfast room when the door opened. From habit, Papa flinched, but
Lydia stood where she was, her hand on the chair. Stanton entered
the room first, the twinkle in his eyes even more pronounced, even
though his expression was impassive as always.


Sir Humphrey and Miss Perkins:
General Thomas Picton.”


Third Division!” the little man
exclaimed, with a voice strong enough to wake the dead. “Sam said I
was to fetch a fine-looking woman with a serene expression.” He
nodded to her. “Must be you. Nobody else looks serene. Get your
bonnet.”

It is rude to stare, Lydia thought
as she closed her mouth and dropped a small curtsy.
This
is
General Picton? This little man in the indescribable coat and
trousers who has not removed his top hat? She peered closer at the
hat. I wonder if he cleans out stables with it, she thought. He was
dressed in faded black with a military cut, and a waistcoat so loud
it could only be Spanish. His face was that same mahogany as Major
Reed’s under his hospital pallor, as though he was too long in the
sun. There was no sign of any insignia beyond an extravagant star
burst of a medal pinned lopsided to his coat that looked too garish
to be English. He was barrel-chested, his posture was impeccable,
and he looked every inch a general, in his own strange
way.


I am Lydia Perkins,” she managed,
then indicated her father, who had risen as though pulled by
strings. “This is my father Sir Humphrey. I am supposed to come
with you?”

The general nodded. “Those were the
terms.” He looked at the table, and Lydia smiled. “General, would
you like some breakfast?”


I would.” He sat in the chair that
Stanton pulled out for him, whisked a napkin onto his lap, and
helped himself to the eggs.


Oh, I can have those warmed up for
you, sir,” Lydia said as she reached for the bowl.

He held it out of her grasp. “A word
to the wise, Miss Perkins,” he said in that staccato way of his as
he spooned a liberal helping of cold eggs onto his plate. “Never
take food from a soldier. I don’t give a rat’s ass if it is cold.
With enough horseradish, I could eat a Cossack three days
dead.”

Lydia blinked in surprise. The
general appeared not to notice his own vulgarity, nodding when
Stanton held out toast and cold bacon at arm’s length. He ate
quickly, with a certain economy of motion that marked him as a
soldier. Lydia spared him any small talk; she could not think of a
thing they had in common, beyond a minuscule acquaintance with
Major Sam Reed on her part.

She had never confessed to Papa, but
she knew of General Picton’s exploits in the Peninsula. When the
war was at its height, Stanton had allowed her to look at the
newspaper when Papa had finished with it. Like most of England, she
had thrilled to Picton’s exploits at Badajoz, Talavera, Vitoria,
and most especially at Ciudad Rodrigo.

He finished breakfast in the silent
room, then leaned back in his chair. “Glad you’re not one of those
damned chattering magpies that blight the English landscape,” he
said to her. “You even look like a woman of sense. Well, get your
bonnet, Miss Perkins.”


But my mother ….” she began,
then stopped when the door opened and Mama entered. “She preferred
that I not return. General Picton, this is my mother. Lady Luisa
Perkins.”

He was on his feet in a moment to
give her hand a hearty shake, and fix her with that narrow-eyed
stare that must have discommoded many a subaltern. “Madam, she’ll
be in my charge today. You must be thrilled beyond belief to have a
useful daughter. Come, Miss Perkins. An agreement is an agreement,
and I require your presence.”

Mama stared, openmouthed. “I do not
recall that I gave ….”


Permission?” the general
interrupted. “I knew that you would, madam, considering your great
generosity and foresight in allowing Miss Perkins here to visit the
sick and wounded yesterday,” he said briskly. “Miss Perkins, do go
fetch your bonnet. I will await you in the carriage. Sir Humphrey
and Lady Luisa, I will see that she is deposited back here this
evening without fail.”

Never removing that dreadful top
hat, General Picton bowed to them and left the room almost as fast
as he had entered it. Mama stepped into the hall for another look,
as though she wondered if he were a phantom.

Holding her breath, Lydia tiptoed to
the door, then looked back in amazement to watch Mama stagger to a
chair and plop herself into it without comment. Better and better,
Lydia thought as she hurried upstairs to locate her bonnet and to
exchange her primrose muslin for something dark and useful-looking.
A quick trip down the backstairs took her to the kitchen for advice
from Stanton, an apron from Cook, and a handkerchief drenched in
lavender water from the housekeeper. “For when you can’t stand
those smelly soldiers,” she explained, pressing the cloth into her
hand.

The apron over her arm, and her
bonnet already dangling by its strings down her back, she hurried
down the hall again, pausing long enough for another deep sniff of
Mama’s roses.


Daughter.”

She paused, her hand on the doorknob
at the sound of Mama’s voice. Don’t stop me, Mama, she thought.
General Picton will probably lay siege to the house, and you will
blame me if Kitty’s callers are stopped, searched, and turned
away.

Mama came into the hall. “Mind that
you do not bring home any nasty contagions that will cut up Kitty’s
peace.”


I wouldn’t dream of it. Mama,” she
replied, tugging up her bonnet. “I’ll even try to keep myself
healthy.”

They traveled most of the way in
silence, General Picton looking out the window, and Lydia uncertain
how to engage him in conversation. If I tell him how I have
followed his division’s career from Talavera to Toulouse, he will
think I am a shocking female, she considered, and decided that
silence was prudent.

Just as they pulled up in front of
St. Barnabas, she gathered together enough courage to voice the
question on her mind. “General, you said that this was part of an
agreement between you and Major Reed,” she said. “I do not
understand.”

The general smiled for the first
time. “Miss Perkins, Sam Reed is much too used to getting his own
way. He is also stubborn, and completely unconcerned about proper
channels and protocol. His paperwork is probably the worst in any
army since the days of clay tablets. He will lie, cheat, and steal
for his battery and barely follows orders. I never met an
officer—and an earl, too, I might add—with less sense of his own
importance. It is a source of continual amazement to me that anyone
would follow him to the latrine, much less into battle.” He paused
and drew a deep breath.


Then, I wonder that you would help
him,” she said.


I will tell you why. Having listed
all his failings, I can state without perjuring myself that he is
the bravest, most innovative officer I command, and I have owed my
life to him on more than one or two occasions.” He leaned toward
her confidentially. “Naturally, I would never tell him that. No
sense in ruining a man.”

She smiled. “A little praise never
hurt a body, sir.”


Damned if I intend to start now,
Miss Perkins!” the general said.


He is most tenacious, it seems,
with the idea of seeing his men placed well before he leaves them
to convalesce himself,” she said, prepared to overlook his
profanity.


And that is what chaps my balls,
Miss Perkins,” he said as the footman opened the carriage door and
lowered the step. The general descended first, and held his hand
out for her. “If he does not quit pestering Horse Guards with his
damned requests,
I
will be in more trouble than I care to
be!”

He held out his arm to her, but she
stood off for a moment. “General, what is this deal you have made
with the major? Perhaps I should know before I go
inside.”


You won’t like it,” he
murmured.


I’m sure I won’t,” she
agreed.


I extracted a promise from him to
stay in bed, if I would find a way to fetch you from Holly Street.”
He took her arm then. “He did mention that your parents were less
than in charity with the idea.”

She nodded, wincing to think of what
Corporal Davies must have reported to the major after his return
from her house last night. “I am glad that he finds me useful,” she
said.


Or something,” the general said,
with a smile of his own.

They went up the stairs. She took a
deep breath before entering the chapel, and let it out slowly,
looking around. To her surprise, there were other women moving
between the rows this morning, but they wore aprons and appeared to
have a purpose, unlike the fashionable fribbles she had accompanied
yesterday. And she noticed again, as she had noticed yesterday,
that despite the great suffering, horrible smells, and dismal
conditions, there was order.


My division surgeon over there will
tell you what he wants you to do,” Picton said, gesturing toward
the surgeon she remembered from yesterday. “But I suppose I had
better fulfill my agreement by taking you to Major Reed
first.”


Are you afraid that he will jump
out of bed and break his promise if you do not, considering how
insubordinate you say he is?” she teased.


That will not happen, ma’am,”
Picton replied, the picture of assurance. “I took into account my
experiences with his usual creativity and had Corporal Davies hide
the major’s trousers and drawers!”

She laughed out loud, noticing as
she did so that the sound of her laughter brought smiles to the
faces of the wounded who were able to respond. General Picton
noticed it, too.


By God, we soldiers like a woman’s
hearty laugh,” he said as he released her arm to edge his way down
the narrow aisle of cots. “Nothing makes my bowels cramp up like a
giggle from a silly chit with more tit than brain!”

Sir, you are amazing, she thought as
she followed him down the row, heading toward the lady chapel. She
paused while he stopped to talk to his men, cajoling one here,
patting a hand there, or standing in silence, head bowed (but top
hat firmly in place) as another man took his place in death. His
profanity astounded her, but the men who could, only
grinned.


My boys, Goddamn them,” he said
simply when they reached the smaller chapel.

As they came closer, Major Reed
propped himself up on his elbow to watch their progress. Lydia
smiled to herself. And you, sir, intend to extract more work from
me. Well, I would rather do your dirty work today than mend Kitty’s
flounces.

He looked so sour that she nearly
laughed, but she chose instead to hold out her hand to him. “Don’t
get up on my account, Major Reed,” she said. “Good morning,
sir.”

General Picton laughed. “Manners,
Sam, manners! Or would you rather not display the family
jewels?”

Reed pulled the blankets higher and
held out his hand to Lydia. “Thank you for coming, Miss Perkins.
Sir, you are unscrupulous.”


Any time, Sam, any time.” The
general’s countenance was serene. He turned to her and bowed. “Miss
Perkins, if he makes any move to rise or even reach for pen and
paper, get me word, and I will break him right down to powder
monkey, and turn him out in his shirt.”

BOOK: With This Ring
11.55Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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