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Captain Cupid Calls The Shots
by Elisabeth Fairchild
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ISBN # 0-451-20198-1
Silvered mist shrouded the vale ahead--Eden--the hills beyond ghostlike and uncertain. The just risen sun struggled to penetrate a gray wool sky. It washed white the distant mists.
Beneath him the trees struck counterpoint in dark gray, leafless silhouette, hunchbacked by the wind, ranks of them, standing guard at the edges of every mist cloaked field. Many a morning he had stood guard, just so--morning's best forgotten.
He rode a length or two ahead of the others, into the cold, wet, unfamiliar landscape. Fogged, like his thoughts. It had become his habit to ride a little apart, lost in looking rather than thought, leaving his companions to what seemed unending conversation, their voices a low murmur at his back, reminding him of all he wanted to forget.
He saw it first, emerging from the mists ahead, the swaying rump of a pony, first gray, the fog's deception, then brown, a liverish color with a greybrown mane and tail, its gait uneven, a woman leading the animal, nothing gray about her.
The purple cloak clutched about slender form, hem held high, sparkled like a jewel on muted velvet. Amethyst-darkest amethyst. The bobbing bonnet glowed golden, braided straw diamonded with water.
His horse, a towering gray beast that had charged unfaltering into the frey at Waterloo, carrying one of Scott's Grays to his death, the same horse that had then stood waiting for the body to rise again from a field of blood soaked rye, this faithful, sure-footed creature who had carried him to safety when he had taken a shot in the fat of his calf, slipped now in the mud, hooves thumping.
The brown pony snorted, breath pluming, hind legs jacking out to kick assumed danger.
The woman started, bonnet swiveling, fear large in dark eyes reflecting the color of her cloak. Amethyst eyes. He saw nothing else for a long, searching moment, in which bejeweled eyes questioned the very quality of his being.
Pale lashes veiled her regard. The moment passed. She looked away--left him longing for another glimpse of a troubled soul.
He took in the rest of her. Nested in the deep purple lining of the bonnet, fair wisps of damp curl framed a heart-shaped face. Mist dewed petal soft skin. Cold put blush to each translucent cheek. A fragile flower, she bloomed in these cold, bleak surroundings. A pansy by the roadside, untouched by war.
Shy flower, she urged the pony further out of the road with a cluck of the tongue and a tug on the halter.
Alexander was used to the look of fear in the eyes of the young women of France, of Belgium. But his own countrywoman? What had she to fear in him? Did the weather worn uniform intimidate her, or his road wearied condition? Or was it merely that he was a stranger to her, in a place where strangers were few? He slowed his mount to a walk.
"Are you..." His voice came out gruff with disuse--the first time he had volunteered speech in two days--the first time he had addressed a decent young Englishwoman since his return from Paris. He cleared his throat and tried again. "Beg pardon, miss, are you in need of assistance? Has the pony gone lame?"
The back of her bonnet shook a vigorous no. On she plodded, shoulders hunched, as if to make herself smaller in his eyes.
Was it his appearance frightened her? Had he shaved this morning? He stroked his chin, relieved to discover it smooth. He had neglected such niceties, of late--since their return. Val had rousted them early every morning, pushed them to the limits of exhaustion every evening. "C'mon lads," he would remind them, even when he staggered drunkenly to the saddle and they both feared he must fall from the horse. "Must make it home in time for m'birthday. Sleep all you like once we're there."
And here they were, on Valentine's Day, the distance almost covered.
Val's voice made muffled shout from behind him. "Who've you found, Cupid? Piercing local hearts already, are you?"
The young woman turned, eyes wide, sparkling with an intensity of emotion.
"Val!" she murmured, the name thick in her throat. And then, face shuttered by the brim of the bonnet, she turned her back on them, cloak whirling. With a chirrup to the pony, she walked on.
Val and Oscar rode abreast, Val taking a quick pull from the hip flask he always carried.
"Offended her, have you?" he jested, eyes bright with the spirits, attention fixed on the girl, recognition there, and was it contempt?
Alexander opened his mouth on objection, but Val winked and said, "Never mind. Touch-me-not is easily offended."
"Touch me what?"
Val did not wait to explain. He rode after the girl-- always did. With no more luck than Alexander this time. She would not turn her face to him, though he leaned down in the saddle to speak. The brisk shake of her head was unmistakable. In fact, every line of her body spoke of rejection.
Touch me not, Alexander thought.
Beside him, Oscar said quietly, "Looks as if our lad has lost his touch."
Alexander nodded as he watched his pansy faced pretty strike off again with a resolution that inspired admiration. A bloom both sturdy and delicate, brave and frightened. In her steadfast refusals, in the straight-backed sway of the cloak at her heels, he found a pleasing level of independence and self-sufficiency.
"Come lads!" Val beckoned, and turning his horse rode past the young woman with a flick of his quirt and a show of his horse's heels.
They trotted after him, tipping hats to the young woman. She did not so much as acknowledge them with a nod. When Alexander turned head in hopes of one last look into her eyes, she wore an expression of proud reserve, her gaze distant, even unfriendly.
Well out of earshot of the woman, Val announced, "And so you meet the flower of Appleby who is both the most and least hospitable of all the blossoms hereabouts. Miss Touch-me-not herself."
"Why insult her?" Alexander asked.
"Insult her?" Val laughed harshly. "Nonsense. She has been just such an oddity since she was a girl: remote, unapproachable, socially inept. She generally has more use for animals than people. Tames wild ponies, straight off the fells, and as wild as her horseflesh in her own way. She is constantly shadowed by a man-eating dog. I wonder where he is today."
"How unlike you, Val, to speak ill of a female," Alexander persisted.
Val reached for his hip flask, wrenched off the cap, and met his gaze with the same intensity with which he had met the French. "Is it?" he asked.
The strength of his words surprised Alexander. For an instant his comrade in arms seemed a stranger as he threw back his handsome head and downed another mouthful.
"Has our Val been spurned by the girl or bitten by the man-eater?" Oscar dared ask, one brow raised, gray eyes inquisitive.
"Ha! They are one and the same," Val snapped, screwing the lid back onto the flask, the tension of the moment broken, the cheeky grin he gave them all too familiar. He spurred his mount into startled motion.
"Should have held tongue," Oscar chastised himself, tweaking at his mustache, as he always did when he was nervous. He had tweaked it almost into oblivion in the greatest furor of fighting. "Lad's in one of his moods," he said. "This homecoming, perhaps."
"And you? Alexander asked. "Have you no homecoming to look forward to?"
Oscar smoothed thinning hair away from an intelligent brow, and frowned. "I find myself strangely reluctant." The frown melted into a lopsided grin beneath the sketchy mustache. "Strange, isn't it?"
Alexander thought of his own postponed homecoming as he gigged the gray into motion. "Not in the least."