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July 18th , 1815 —Waterloo
Marian Pallant's lungs burned and her legs ached. She ran as if the devil himself were at her heels.
Perhaps he was, if the devil was named Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon had escaped from Elba and was again on the march, heading straight for Waterloo and a clash with Wellington's army, and Marian was in the middle of it.
Already she heard the random cracking of musket fire behind her and the sound of thousands of boots pounding into the muddy ground to the drum beat of the French pas de charge. Somewhere ahead were the British.
The muddy fingers of the earth, still soaked from the night's torrential rains, grabbed at her half-boots. The field's tall rye whipped at her hands and legs. She glimpsed a farm in the distance and ran towards it. If nothing else, perhaps she could hide there.
Only three days earlier she and Domina had been dancing at the Duchess of Richmond's ball when Wellington arrived with news that Napoleon's army was making its way to Brussels. The officers made haste to leave, but, during a tearful goodbye, Domina had learned from her most passionate love, Lieutenant Harry Oliver, that, unless the Allies were victorious at a place called Quatre Bras, the Duke expected to defend Brussels near Waterloo. Domina spent two days begging Marian to come with her to find Ollie's regiment. Domina was determined to see the battle and be nearby in case Ollie needed her.
Finally Marian relented, but only to keep Domina from making the journey alone. Marian thought of them dressing in Domina's brother's clothes so it would not be so obvious they were two women alone. They'd ridden together on Domina's brother's horse for hours and hours in darkness and pouring rain, hopelessly lost until they finally heard men's voices.
Domina had panicked, kicking the horse into a gallop so frenzied that Marian flew off and hit the ground hard, the breath knocked out of her. Afraid to shout lest the French hear her, Marian watched Domina and the horse disappear into the rainy night. She huddled against a nearby tree in the darkness and pouring rain, hoping for Domina to return.
She never did.
Marian spent the night full of fear that Domina had been captured by the French. What would French soldiers do to an English girl? But when daylight came, she shoved worries about Domina from her mind. The French columns had started to march directly towards her.
The farm was her only chance for safety.
A wooded area partially surrounded the farm buildings, and Marian had to cross a field of fragrant rye to reach it. The crop would certainly be ruined when the soldiers trampled on it, but for now the tall grass hid her from Napoleon's army.
Still, she heard them, coming closer.
Her foot caught in a hole and she fell. For a moment she lay there, her cheek against the cool wet earth, too tired to move, but suddenly the ground vibrated with the unmistakable pounding of a horse's hooves.
She struggled to her feet.
Too late. The huffing steed, too large to be Domina's, thundered directly for her. Her boots slipped in the mud as she tried to jump aside. She threw her arms over her face and prepared to be trampled.
Instead a strong hand seized her coat collar and hoisted her up on to the saddle as if she weighed nothing more than a mere satchel.
'Here, boy. What are you doing in this field?' An English voice.
She opened her eyes and caught a glimpse of a red uniform. 'I want to go to that farm.' She pointed towards the group of buildings surrounded by a wall.
'You're English?' He slowed his horse. 'I am headed there. To Hougoumont.'
Was that the name of the farm? Marian did not care. She was grateful to be off her weary feet and to be with a British soldier and not a French one.
The horse quickly reached the patch of woods whose green leaves sprinkled them with leftover raindrops. A low branch snagged Marian's cap, snatching it from her head, and her blonde hair tumbled down her back.
'Good God. You're a woman.' He pulled on the reins and his horse turned round in a circle. 'What the devil are you doing here?'
Marian turned to get a proper look at him. Her eyes widened. She'd seen him before. She and Domina had whispered about the tall and handsome officer they'd spied during a stroll through the Parc of Brussels. His angular face looked strong, his bow-shaped lips firm and decisive, his eyes a piercing hazel.
'I am lost,' she said.
'Do you not know there is about to be a battle?'
She did not wish to debate the matter. 'I was trying to reach somewhere safe.'
'Nowhere is safe,' he snapped. Instead of turning towards the farm, he rode back to where her cap hung on the tree branch, looking as if it had been placed on a peg by the garden door. He snatched it and thrust it into her hands. 'Put the cap back on. Do not let on that you are a woman.'
Did he think she was doltish? She repinned her hair as best she could and covered it with the cap. Behind them came the sounds of men entering the wood. A musketball whizzed past Marian's ear.
'Skirmishers.' The officer set his horse into a gallop so swift the trees suddenly became a blur of brown and green.
They reached Hougoumont gate. 'Captain Landon with a message for Colonel MacDonnell,' he announced.
Marian made a mental note of his name. Captain Landon.
The gate opened. 'There are skirmishers in the wood,' he told the men.
'We see them!' one soldier responded, gesturing to a wall where other men were preparing to fire through loopholes. A company of soldiers filed past them out of the gate, undoubtedly to engage the French in the wood.
The soldier took hold of Captain Landon's horse and pointed. 'That's the colonel over there.'
The colonel paced through the yard, watching the men and barking orders. Some of them wore the red coats of the British; others wore a green foreign uniform.
'Stay with me,' Captain Landon told her.
He dismounted and reached up to help her off the horse. Then he gripped her arm as if afraid she might run off and held on to her even when handing the message to the colonel and waiting for him to read it.
The colonel closed the note. 'I want you to wait here a bit until we see what these Frenchies are up to. Then I'll send back my response.' He pointed to Marian. 'Who's the boy?'
'A n English lad caught in the thick of things.' Landon squeezed Marian's arm, a warning, she presumed, to go along with his story.
MacDonnell looked at her suspiciously. 'Are you with the army, boy?'
Marian made her voice low. 'No, sir. From Brussels. I wanted to see the battle.'
The colonel laughed. 'Well, you will see a battle, all right. What's your name?'
Marian's mind whirled, trying to think of a name she might remember to answer to. 'Fenton,' she finally said. 'Marion Fenton.' Her given name could be for a boy, and Fenton was Domina's surname. If anything happened to her, God forbid, perhaps Domina's family would be alerted. No one else knew she'd come to Brussels.
Captain Landon said, 'I'll come back to fetch him after the battle and see he is returned to his family. Where should I put him in the meantime?'
The colonel inclined his head towards the large brick house. 'The ch teau should do. Find him a corner to sit in.'
The captain marched Marian into the ch teau. Green uniformed soldiers filled the hall and adjacent rooms, some gazing out of the windows.
'Why are they in green?' she whispered.
The captain answered, 'They are German. Nassauers.'
The soldiers looked frightened. Marian thought them very young, mere boys, certainly younger than she at nearly twenty-one.
'English boy,' the captain told them, pointing to her. 'English.'
An officer approached them. 'I speak English.'
Captain Landon turned to him. 'This boy is lost. He needs a safe place to stay during the battle.'
'Any room,' replied the officer, his accent heavy. 'Avay from vindow.'
The captain nodded. 'Would you tell your men sh—he's English.'
The officer nodded and spoke to his troops in his Germanic tongue.
Captain Landon led Marian away. They walked through the house, searching, she supposed, for a room without a window.
'I can find my own hiding place, Captain,' she said. 'You must return to your duties.'
'I need to talk to you first.' His voice was low and angry.
She supposed she was in for more scolding. She deserved it, after all.
They walked through a hallway into what must have been a formal drawing room, although its furniture was covered in white cloth.
Captain Landon finally removed his grip and uncovered a small chair, carrying it back to the hallway. 'You will be safest here, I think.' He gave her a fierce look and gestured for her to sit.
She was more than happy to sit. Her legs ached and her feet felt raw from running in wet boots.
He looked down on her, his elbows akimbo. 'Now. Who are you and what the devil are you doing in the middle of a battlefield?'
She met his gaze with defiance. 'I did not intend to be in the middle of the battlefield.'
He merely glared, as if waiting for a better answer.
She took off her cap and plucked the pins from her hair. 'I am Miss Marian Pallant—'
'Not Fenton?' He sounded confused.
She could not blame him. She quickly put her hair in a plait while his eyes bore into her.
'I gave that name in case—in case something happened to me. I was with my friend Domina Fenton, but we became separated in the night.'
'Your friend was with you? What could have brought you out here?' he demanded.
She pinned the plait to the top of her head. 'Domina is Sir Roger Fenton's daughter. She is secretly betrothed to one of the officers and she wanted to be near him during the battle.' It sounded so foolish now. 'I was afraid for her to come alone.'
His eyes widened. 'You are respectable young ladies?'
She did not like the tone of surprise in his voice. 'Of course we are.'
He pursed his lips. 'Respectable young ladies do not dress up as boys and ride out in the middle of the night.'
She covered her hair again with her cap. 'Dressing as boys was preferable to showing ourselves as women.'
He rubbed his face. 'I dare say you are correct in that matter.'
She glanced away. 'I am so worried about Domina.' Turning back, she gestured dismissively. 'I quite agree with you that it was a foolish idea. We became lost, and our horse almost wandered into a French camp. I fell off when we galloped away.' Her stomach twisted in worry. 'I do not know what happened to Domina.'
He gazed at her a long time with those intense hazel eyes. Finally he said, 'Surely your parents and Domina's must be very worried about you by now.'
She gave a wan smile. 'My parents died a long time ago.'
Allan Landon took in a quick breath as his gaze rested upon her. At this moment Marian Pallant looked nothing like a boy. He could only see a vulnerable and beautiful young woman. Even though her wealth of blonde hair was now hidden, he could not forget the brief moment the locks had framed her face like a golden halo.
'Your parents are dead?' he asked inanely.
She nodded. 'They died of fever in India when I was nine.'
He noticed her voice catch, even though she was obviously trying to disguise any emotion. It reminded him anew that she was a vulnerable young woman, one trying valiantly to keep her wits about her.
'Is Sir Roger Fenton your guardian, then?' he asked.
'No.' She glanced away. 'My guardian does not trouble himself about me overmuch. He leaves my care to his man of business, who knew I was a guest of the Fentons, so I suppose you could say, at the moment, I am in Domina's father's charge.' Her worried look returned. 'I should have talked Domina out of this silly scheme instead of accompanying her. I am so afraid for her.'
She seemed more concerned for her friend than for herself. He could give no reassurance, however. The French were not known to be gentle with captives, especially female ones— although Allan well remembered one instance when British soldiers were as brutal.
'I suspect the Fentons are frantic over the fate of both of you, then.'
She nodded, looking contrite.
He felt a wave of sympathy for her, even though she'd brought this on herself with her reckless behaviour.
Again her blue eyes sought his. 'Do you have anyone frantic over your fate, Captain?'
Odd that his thoughts skipped over his mother and older brother at home on the family estate in Nottinghamshire and went directly to his father, who had been so proud to have a son in uniform and who would have cheered his son's success, his advance from lieutenant to captain and other battle commendations.
His father had been gone these four years, his life violently snatched away. He had not lived to celebrate his son's victories in battle, to lament the horrors he'd endured, nor to shudder at the times he'd narrowly escaped death himself.
Miss Pallant's brows rose. 'Is it so difficult to think of someone who might worry over you?'
He cocked his head. 'My mother and brother would worry, I suppose.'
She gave him a quizzical look, making him wonder if his grief over his father's death showed too clearly in his eyes. It was his turn to shutter his emotions.
She glanced away again. 'It must be hard for them.'
Was it hard on them? he wondered. He'd always imagined they were used to him being far away. He'd been gone longer than his father.
A German voice shouted what could only have been an order. The tramping of feet and cacophony of men's voices suggested to Allan that the French must be closing in on the farm.
'What does it mean?' she asked, her voice breathless.
He tried to appease her alarm. 'I suspect the Nassauers have been ordered out of the ch teau. That is all.'
Her eyes flashed like a cornered fox. 'That does not sound good. I wish I had stayed in Brussels.' Her expression turned ironical. 'It is too late to be remorseful, is it not?'
'My father used to say it is better to do what one is supposed to do now than to be remorseful later.'
She kept her eyes upon him, and he realised he had brought up the subject he most wanted to avoid.
'A wise man,' she said.
'He was.' The pain of his father's loss struck him anew.
She regarded him with sympathy. 'He is deceased?'
'He was killed.' He cleared his throat. 'You heard, no doubt, of the Luddite riots in Nottinghamshire a few years ago?'
'My father was the local magistrate. The rioters broke into our house and killed him.'
Her expression seemed to mirror his pain. 'How terrible for you.'