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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.