The Reluctant Bride

Page 2

grace down to the poor manners of a country rustic. Not that it mattered. His restless gaze, caught in the glare of the sun, had barely registered her face.
The young soldier waved a dismissive hand, then shaded his eyes, straining to see into the distance as if uncertain of his present course. ‘I’m looking for Micklen Hall.’
Emily’s foreboding increased. What business had this man with her father? Worse, what if he should recognise her if her father called her to attend to him to pour tea? Unlikely, but not impossible.
She briefly considered confessing her truancy, begging him to refrain from mentioning their meeting, but the soldier’s erect bearing and forbidding expression suggested he’d condone her behaviour no more readily than her father would. Her next thought, that perhaps he was a friend of Jack’s, was quickly dismissed. He might be roughly the same age but all similarities ended there. While his regular features and strong chin combined to create an effect of rugged handsomeness, enhanced, surprisingly, by his scar, his frosty demeanour was as different as possible from her easy-humoured, roguish betrothed.
She pointed behind him, over the hill. ‘You took the wrong turn when you came out of the beech wood, sir.’ Bobbing a quick curtsy, her manner was deferential. She was not dressed according to her rank. He’d forget her the moment he left. He’d barely looked at her and the sun was in his eyes. ‘It’s only a few minutes on horseback.’
He thanked her, and she watched him wheel his horse around, urging it into a gallop until he was a speck in the distance.
Emily waited until he’d crested the hill before she set her reluctant footsteps in the same direction. She’d be half an hour behind him, but if the stranger were not gone by the
time she arrived she’d slip in through the servants’ entrance and keep to her room until dinner.
If she were as lucky as last week, no one would even know she’d left the house.
If she were as lucky as last week, her latest sin would have no repercussions.
Major Angus McCartney was out of his depth.
He glanced at the clock on the mantelpiece. Only five minutes in this gloomy, oppressive parlour after the women had arrived and he was questioning his ability to complete his mission, a feeling he’d not experienced before Corunna four years before.
He’d been unprepared for the assault on his senses unleashed by the beautiful Miss Micklen. He shifted position once more, fingering the letters that belonged to her. For two years he’d carried the memory of the young woman before him as a confident, radiant creature in a white muslin ball gown with a powder-blue sash. Now her tragic, disbelieving gaze unleashed a flood of memory, for in her distress she bore no resemblance to the paragon of beauty at the Regimental Ball, a bright memory in an otherwise tormented year after he’d been invalided out of Spain. Clearly Miss Micklen did not remember him.
She’d remember him forever now: as the harbinger of doom, for as surely as if he’d pulled the trigger he’d just consigned her hopes and dreams to cinders.
She turned suddenly, catching him by surprise, and the painful, searing memory of the last time he’d confronted such grief tore through him.
Corunna again. As if presented on a platter, the image of the soldier’s woman he’d assisted flashed before his eyes, forcing him to draw a sustaining breath as he battled with the familiar self-reproach which threatened to unman him.
He reminded himself he was here to do good.
‘A skirmish near the barracks?’ the young woman whispered, resting her hands upon her crippled mother’s shoulders. ‘Last Wednesday?’
‘That is correct, ma’am.’
Mrs Micklen muttered some incoherent words, presumably of sympathy. Angus pitied them both: Miss Micklen digesting her sudden bereavement, and the mother for her affliction. The older woman sat hunched in her chair by the fire, unable to turn her head, her claw-like hands trembling in her lap.
He cleared his throat, wishing he’d taken more account of his acknowledged clumsiness with the fairer sex. He was not up to the task. He’d dismissed the cautions of his fellow officers, arrogantly thinking he’d be shirking his duty were he not the one to deliver the news. It was condolences he should be offering, and he had not the first idea how to appeal to a frail feminine heart.
Nor was he accustomed to the lies tripping off his tongue as he added, ‘A tragic mishap, ma’am, but Captain Noble acquitted himself with honour to the end.’
Miss Micklen’s gaze lanced him with its intensity. Tears glistened, held in check by her dark lashes. ‘I can’t believe it,’ she whispered, moving to draw aside the heavy green velvet curtain and stare at the dipping sun. ‘Jack told me he was on the Continent.’
Choosing not to refute Jack’s lie, he said carefully, ‘An altercation occurred between a group of infantry in which I was unwittingly involved. When Captain Noble came to my assistance he was struck a mortal blow to the head. I’m sorry, Miss Micklen.’
He wished he knew how to offer comfort. The beautiful Miss Micklen of the Christmas Regimental Ball had seemed all-powerful in her cocoon of happy confidence. Unobtainable as the stars in heaven, he’d thought as he’d watched her skirt the dance floor in the arms of the unworthy Jack Noble. For so long he’d carried Miss Micklen’s image close to his heart and this was the first time he’d been reminded of Jessamine.
God, how weary he was of war.
Two women, torn apart by grief at the loss of their soldier protector.
This interview was part of his atonement.
Angus dug into his pocket and held out a bundle, tied with red ribbon. ‘Captain Noble’s letters, ma’am.’