Highborn Anna Arrington has been following the drum, obeying the wishes of her cold, controlling cavalry officer husband. When he dies, all she wants is to leave life with Wellington's army in Spain behind her and go home to her family's castle in Scotland.***
Sergeant Will Atkins ran away from home to join the army in a fit of boyish enthusiasm. He is a natural born soldier, popular with officers and men alike, uncommonly brave and chivalrous, and educated and well-read despite his common birth.
As Anna journeys home with a convoy of wounded soldiers, she forms an unlikely friendship with Will. When the convoy is ambushed and their fellow soldiers captured, they become fugitives together. The attraction between them is strong, but even if they can escape the threat of death at the hands of the French, is love strong enough to bridge the gap between a viscount's daughter and an innkeeper's son?
With Wellington's Army in Spain, June 1811
"Aiee! Madre de Dios, it hurts!"
Will knelt on a coarse wool blanket beside his best friend's woman, gripping her hands. "Not much longer, Juana," he murmured. "Everything is going well."
He hoped he spoke the truth, but he didn't rightly know. His boyhood experience with lambing on his brother-in-law's farm hardly made him a midwife. He was a Rifle sergeant, an eleven-year veteran who had known no life but a soldier's since he was sixteen. He'd been trained to usher men out of the world, not babies into it.
Juana's birth pang ended, and she released his hands. Will flexed his fingers to get the blood flowing again. Her grip had turned so fierce he wondered if he'd be able to manage his rifle the next day.
Somewhere nearby there had to be better help for a laboring woman. He could still hear tramping feet and creaking oxcart wheels on the road, just a few yards away from the grove of cork trees where they had sought shelter when Juana's pains grew too strong for her to continue on the march. Their own regiment marched far ahead with the vanguard, but the main body of the army hadn't yet passed them by.
He allowed himself a brief daydream of seeking out Lord Wellington to tell the general exactly what he thought of him for ordering a march today of all brutally hot days. It wasn't as if they were going to or from battle. They hadn't seen action in weeks, and if camp gossip was to be believed, that was unlikely to change soon. Today they marched to improve their position relative to the French, many miles distant, or maybe simply to avoid exhausting the countryside's food and water and the goodwill of their Spanish hosts. They could just as well have waited a few days in hopes of the heat breaking, and Juana could've given birth in a settled camp.
Will shook off his insubordinate fancies and turned his mind to reality. He fixed the third occupant of the grove with a glare that would've made any private leap to obey. "Damn it, Dan, you must go for help."
Dan, however, was no private. He was the other sergeant of Will's company--not to mention Juana's lover and the father of her child.
"No," he said. "I'm not leaving her. Not this time." His jaw was set, his eyes haunted.
Will shook his head. Two years before, Dan had lost his wife in childbirth after being forced to leave her behind on the retreat to Corunna, so he had made up his mind that he could keep Juana safe by keeping her in sight. But he was useless, pacing the edge of the grove in a nervous panic. He could not take Will's place, freeing him to seek help, so somehow they had to manage. But Juana needed more. She needed a woman.
All of them tensed as a rustling in the grove heralded the approach of an animal, then relaxed as the intruder came into sight. As if in answer to Will's prayers, a beautiful woman rode toward them on a donkey, trailed by a local girl on foot. He could have kissed her. Granted, she wasn't quite what he'd had in mind. He would've preferred a stout matron who'd borne half a dozen children and attended the births of ten times that number. In short, his mother.
This one was too young--younger than he was, probably not yet five-and-twenty. She was also too much of a lady. With her servant, donkey, and fine dress and bonnet, she was unmistakably an officer's wife. Her Spanish maid was still in her teens, and she was trying to hide behind the donkey. But at least they were female.
The beauty took in their situation at a glance--a dismayed glance, Will thought--and slid down from her mount's back.
She met Will's eyes. "I heard a scream, just now. May I offer any assistance..." Her voice trailed off as her gaze darted to the neat stack of gear at one corner of the blanket. "...Sergeant?"
His uniform jacket, with its sergeant's stripes, lay atop his gear. He felt a moment's embarrassment at being caught in a state of undress by such an elegant lady. But if she'd been following the drum for any time at all, this couldn't be the first time she'd seen a strange man in his shirtsleeves.
"Thank you, ma'am," he said fervently. "Anything you can do, we'd be grateful for."