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May 20th 1815Brussels
His eyes were an unsettling blue-grey, like a sky threatening storms. How Julia Tresilian knew that, when the possessor of those eyes was quite twenty yards away, lounging with a group of fellow officers around a park bench, she was not precisely certain.
Nor had she any idea why she was staring in such a brazen manner at a strange man. Miss Tresilian was, above all else, a perfectly proper young lady. Every day, weather permitting, she would walk in the Parc de Bruxelles with her young brother. And every day, she would exchange polite greetings with her acquaintances, play with Phillip, do the marketing and return to Mama in their apartment on the Place de Leuvan. She did not speak to unknown gentlemen. She most certainly did not stare at them.
And most of the gentlemen she saw on the streets of Brussels were unknown to Julia, she acknowledged with an inward sigh. The arrival of the British refugees fleeing Paris ahead of Napoleon's return in March had certainly enlivened the scene. It made the Tresilians thankful that they had already obtained genteel lodgings, but the newcomers did not much improve the social life of a widow of modest means and her daughter without connections or introductions. The new residents crowding into every house for rent in the desirable Upper Town were from quite another strata of Society to their own.
Then the military had arrived in ever-increasing numbers, both in the city and in the surrounding countryside, culminating only three days before in the Duke of Wellington establishing himself in a house on the corner of Rue Royale overlook ing the Parc.
The sight of the commander in chief of the Allied forces sent the civilian population into what Mrs Tresilian described acidly as a tizzy. Such a celebrity in their midst could only be exciting, and the knowledge that they were under the protection of a great general filled everyone with confidence. But it also reminded them that this corner of Europe was where the inevitable confrontation with the French Tyrant would take place.
And to a large extent, the outcome of that confrontation would depend on men like the young officers relaxing so lightheartedly in front of her. Julia realized that she was still staring at the one manand that he had become aware of her regard. His gaze sharpened and focused as he lifted his head to look at her. She felt the colour flood her cheeks and discovered that she could not look away.
He did not smile, yet his direct stare held no insolence. He looked as she felt, that he had seen someone he recognized at a level far deeper than simple acquaintance. He seemed faintly puzzled, or perhaps intrigued, but not disconcerted by their silent exchange. But then, he did not look like a man who was disconcerted by much. Julia, on the other hand, could not recall feeling more flustered in her life. Her breath was short, her heart was pounding and she felt absurdly shy. She should look away. Unfortunately, it seemed that she could not.
'Julia?' Phillip, thank goodness. With the sense of being pulled out of a trance, Julia bent down to hear what her four-year-old brother wanted.
'Yes, my love?'
'Throw my ball, please?'
She took the dusty yellow and blue ball and tossed it for him towards the largest empty expanse of grass. With a whoop, he gave chase, tumbled over, picked himself up and ran on. Julia brushed off her gloves, turned her back on the disconcerting officer in his blue uniform and pretended to admire the formal bedding lining the gravel walk.
'Miss Tresilian. What a happy chance.'
'Major Fellowes.' She shifted her gaze from the marigolds with reluctance. 'Hardly chance. I walk here every morning, after all.' And will change to the afternoon if that is what it takes to avoid you. His manner over the past weeks had grown uncomfortably familiar for someone met by chance at a mutual acquaintance's house. She wished she had brought their maid to accompany her, but she had never felt the need before.
'Frederick, please. You know I wish you would use my given name.'
'We are not on such terms that it would be seemly, Major.' Julia opened her parasol with a snap and deployed it as a barrier between them. She had been naive to think him merely a nuisance. Even to someone with her sheltered background, this had reached the point where his intentions were blatantly obvious. His very dishonourable intentions.
The major countered by moving to her other side. 'But you know I wish we were, Julia.' He ignored her tightened lips and lack of response. 'A young lady, alone in a foreign city, needs a man to protect her.'
'I am not alone, sir.' Julia tried to look bored and sophisticated. She suspected she merely looked embarrassed and alarmed. Vulnerable. She had no experience to help her deal with this.
'A widowed mother, a baby brother? What protection are they?'
'Sufficient. Or they should be, if a lady were surrounded by gentlemen.'
'My dear Julia, you will find that gentlemen do not flock to the side of young ladies who are living on the continent for reasons of economy and who cannot offer a dowry to accompany their undoubted charms. In those circumstances, a more businesslike relationship is appropriate.'
'And what, exactly, would it take to send you about your business, Major? How much clearer do I have to be that I do not wish for your company?' Julia demanded. There was at a tug on her skirts and she looked down, forcing a smile for her brother.
'Throw the ball, Julia.'
'Of course, Phillip.' She tossed the ball a good distance, and watched him scamper off, before she turned on the man at her side. 'You should be ashamed, not only to proposition me but to do it with a child present!'
'My dear Julia, consider.' Major Fellowes laid a hand on her arm, and she stiffened. 'Just what is your future without me?'
'Respectable.' She glared at his gloved hand protruding from the gold-braided cuff. 'Will you kindly unhand me? Nothing, believe me, will make me agree to be your mistress.'
'You will not be so very respectable if word gets around that you are open to negotiation,' he suggested. 'I would only have to drop a word in a few ears that we have had this conversation and the damage would be done.'
Julia tried to shake off his hand, but he closed his fingers, drawing her towards himself. 'Let me go, people will realize something is amiss,' she hissed.
'No doubt, any onlooker will merely deduce we are discussing the price.' His face bore an expression of such self-satisfaction that she was tempted to strike it. But that could only make matters worse. She had to get rid of him before Phillip came back. But how, without creating an even worse scene?
'Bet against Thomas's mare over that distance? You must be all about in your head,' Major Hal Carlow said to the man at his side who was earnestly explaining the merits of a chestnut gelding belonging to a certain Lieutenant Strong.
Captain Gregory launched into details lost on Hal as he watched the young woman on the upper walkthe apparently respectable young woman who had been staring at him as though she knew him. He had never seen her before, so far as he knew, although, as she could hardly be described as a Diamond of the first water, it was possible she had escaped his attention. In which case, what was so attracting him now?
'Carlow?' He ignored his companions, still watching the young woman. She had been joined by an officer in a scarlet coat. Foot Guards. He narrowed his eyes: 92nd Foot and not someone he recognized. And not someone she wished to recognize either, judging by her averted head and her stiff body. The man put a hand on her arm.
'I'll see you back at the Hotel de Flandres,' Hal said abruptly, abandoning his plans to go and catch up on his sleep. He took the steps up to the wide lawn at a stride and strode off to intercept the small boy with the ball. 'Good morning.' He hunkered down to eye level, managing the unwieldy length of his sabre without conscious thought. 'Is that your governess in the green pelisse?'
'My sister Julia.' Big brown eyes stared back solemnly, grubby hands clasped his toy. 'Are you in the cavalry, sir?'
'Yes, 11th Light Dragoons. My name is Hal Carlow.' Hal scooped the child up in his arms and began to walk towards the path. 'And what is your name?' He liked childrenwell enough to ensure his frequent adventures left no by-blows to haunt his somewhat selective conscience.
'Phillip Tresilian and I'm four.'
'A big boy like you? I thought you must be six at least.' Hal stepped over the strip of marigolds and walked up to the couple on the path. Close-to he could see the flush on her Julia'scheeks and the distress in her eyes, large and brown like her brother's. The other officer still had his hand on her arm.
'Miss Tresilian! You must have quite given me up, I do apologise,' Hal said cheerfully as he came up to them. Her eyes widened but she did not disown him. 'Shall we go on to the pavilion for tea? I expect Phillip would like an ice as usual.'
'Not in the morning, sir! You know he is not allowed ices before luncheon,' Miss Tresilian said in a rallying tone.
Good girl, he thought, as he extended his free arm for her to rest her hand on, then feigned surprise at seeing the other man was holding her. He let the good humour ebb from his face and raised one eyebrow. 'Major? I believe I have the prior claim.' Now what had he said to make her blush like that?
'Miss Tresilian was walking with me, sir.' The infantry officer bristled. He outweighed Hal by about a stone and had a good three inches of height on Hal's six foot.
Hal met his eyes and allowed the faintest sneer to cross his features. 'And now, by appointment, she is walking with me.' The small boy curled an arm around his neck in well-timed confirmation of his friendship with the Tresilians. 'I believe I do not have the pleasure of your acquaintance, Major? Nor, I suspect, have my friends.' Hal let the slightest emphasis rest on the last word and saw his meaning go home.
The other man released Miss Tresilian's arm. 'Frederick Fellowes, 92nd Foot.'
'Hal Carlow, 11th Light Dragoons.' That went home too. Something of his reputation must have reached the infantry. 'Good day to you.'
Miss Tresilian rested her hand on his sleeve. 'Good day, Major Fellowes,' she said with chilly formality. She waited until they were out of earshot before she said, 'Please, sir, do put Phillip down, he is covered in dirt.'
Hal set the boy on his feet and threw the ball to the far end of the lawn for him to run after. 'Are you all right, Miss Tresilian?'
She looked up at him, her face still flushed beneath the brim of her plain straw bonnet. He studied big brown eyes and a nose that had just the suggestion of a tilt to the tip, a firm chin and a neat figure. No great beauty, but Hal had the sense of a vivid personality, of intelligence and humour. He felt a desire to make her blush again, she did it so deliciously.
'I am now, thanks to you, Major. I do not know what I would have done if you had not rescued mehit him over the head with my parasol, I expectand then what a figure I would have made of myself.' Her eyes crinkled with rueful amusement as he smiled. 'And how clever of you to get our names from Phillip. Did you really mean by that reference to your friends that you might call Major Fellowes out?'
She was quick on the uptake, this young lady. And lady she was, for all her lack of maid or footman and her simple gown and spencer.
'Of course. Fellowes lacks address: it really is not done to persist where one is unwanted, even when a lady is so temptingly pretty.'
She ignored the automatic compliment. 'Not with discreditable offers it is not,' she said with feeling, then blushed again. 'Oh dear, I should not have mentioned that, should I? But I feel I know you, Major Carlow.'
'Is that why you were looking at me just now?' he asked. 'I hoped you wanted to make my acquaintance.'
She bit her lip in charming confusion. 'I really do not know. It was very brassy of me, but there was something about you I thought I recognized.' She recovered her composure a little and her chin lifted. 'And you stared right back at me.'
'True.' Hal stooped to pick up the ball and sent Phillip chasing towards the fountain in its octagonal basin. 'But then, I am a rake and we are supposed to stare at ladies and put them to the blush.'
'You are? A rake I mean?'
'Indeed. I am precisely the kind of man your mama would warn you about and, now I think on it, you may have leapt from frying pan to fire. I am absolutely the last man you should be seen walking with in the Parc.'
'No, Major Fellowes is that,' she retorted. 'You rescued me.'
Hal was not given to flirting with young unmarried ladies. For a start, whenever he hove into sight, their mothers herded them together like hens with chicks on seeing a fox. And he had absolutely no intention of finding himself confronting a furious father demanding that he did the decent thing by his compromised daughter.
Society was full enough of carefree widows and dashing matronsand the demi-monde of skilled lightskirtsto keep a gentleman of an amorous disposition amused without him needing to venture amongst the ingenues adorning the Marriage Mart.
But Miss Tresilian was not one of those young ladies either. She was, to his experienced eye, a good three and twenty, her manner was open and her wits sharp. She was not one of the fashionable set either: he did not recognize her name and her bonnet was a Season out of style. There was something about her that argued both virtue and a lack of sophisticated boredom.
'My reputation is worse,' he observed, reverting to Major Fellowes. 'I have not heard of himbut he had heard of me.'
'And he was very wary of you.' Miss Tresilian nodded. 'So you are a notorious duellist as well as a rake?'
'I confess I fight, gamble, drink and amuse myself with some dedication,' Hal told her with a shrug, feeling he might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb so far as his reputation with Miss Tresilian was concerned. He did not have to mention loose women in his list of sins: the slight lift of one eyebrow showed that she could add those herself.