Instead of a warmly anticipated cosy dinner with friends, Faith Dalkington-Smythe had to dig out her finery, such as it was, and call her maid to help her dress. She could not ignore the summons from her exalted relative by marriage, the Countess of Graywood. It would have to be the Pomona green gown that had seen several outings to Grosvenor Square. Lady Graywood wanted relatives en masse to celebrate the return of her two sons from an extended visit abroad, one of them the current Earl. Nobody would pay attention to her. To the Dalkington-Smythes she was an embarrassment, a leftover from the war, the widow of a distant relative.
Her maid Robinson twirled and set the curls on Faith’s cropped hair, carefully put the decorative clips into place and then picked up the rouge pot.
“No.” Faith had only had recourse to it a few times and she didn’t intend to use it now. She might appear a little pale, but nothing more. The company could put up with that.
She must have sighed. “Hand me my gloves please, Robinson. I should make haste.” The dowager countess never failed to introduce her to a succession of respectable widowers. Invariably they were looking for a mother for their children rather than a wife, or older men who, after a lifetime’s debauchery, required an heir. A nanny she was not, never had been and refused to become.
Likewise, although these days she looked the part, was she a governess. But a marriage would end the Dalkington-Smythes’ perceived obligation to her.
She knew what to expect. Ladies who behaved either terribly kind to her or condescending, or, in some instances, both. Faith had no doubt society had more to offer but the only part she’d seen was Lady Graywood’s section, and they didn’t appeal to her taste. She’d make her excuses and leave early. Besides, she had other reasons to stay out of the notice of polite society.
By the time Robinson had located Faith’s best Paisley shawl they were running a few minutes’ late. Mildly annoyed, but trying not to show the way her temper mingled with the increasingly tighter knot in her stomach, she hurried downstairs to the hall. Her companion Amelia, bright and patiently waiting, gave her a nervous smile.
Dinner was to take place at seven, so they set out at a quarter past six. The crested Graywood carriage awaited outside. Barely ten minutes later it dropped them outside the gracious house in Grosvenor Square.
The hall they entered was similar in design to the one in Red Lion Square but there the comparison stopped. Here all was marble and grandeur, a liveried footman waiting to take their outer garments. Faith had expected to see more people here, since they hadn’t arrived as early as they’d wished.
As she passed him her hat and shawl, she glanced at the footman’s sleeve, and frowned. “You’re wearing a black band.” The man said nothing. The hairs on her arms prickled, although the house was kept at a pleasant temperature.
After exchanging a trepidatious glance with Amelia, Faith led the way up the elegant stairs to where another footman stood outside the drawing-room doors. Instead of the gentle hubbub of thirty or so guests, a much quieter conversation was taking place and when she went in she saw only a few people.
Lady Graywood, her two daughters and one gentleman.
The man wore sober garments, an armband ringing the upper sleeves of his evening coat. She couldn’t see him properly, because Charlotte, the oldest daughter, sat close to him, her profile obscuring his face. Her ladyship and her daughters were not attired as finely as Faith expected. In fact, the countess wore what appeared to be a day gown, the neck high, the skirts skimming her ankles.
Unheard of at this time of day.
Oh God, what had happened? Fear, unknown at this level for years, clutched her throat and she had to gasp for breath.
In one smooth movement the man rose to his feet and faced her.
He inclined his head, dark eyes gleaming. “Here I am, my dear, newly home from Canada.”
Faith had never done such a thing before, but faintness threatened. Her sight prickled, spots dancing in her vision, and a black nothingness swam in from the edges. “Dear God,” she said. “I thought you were dead.”
Strong hands caught her elbows. Awareness tingled through her, jolting her out of her near faint. Her head jerked up and she met the hard gaze of the man she’d watched work a regiment into shape, ruthlessly driving them into forming an efficient fighting unit. The man who’d died at Waterloo, or as it appeared now, hadn’t perished after all. Lieutenant-Colonel John Dalkington-Smythe.
“Your husband has returned,” Lady Graywood said, her voice measured.
“I should have visited you privately.” He sounded impatient.
“Come and sit down.”
He didn’t give her much choice. He released one elbow but his grip on the other tightened when he led her to a sofa. The seat was hard as a rock but at least she didn’t have to try to keep upright any more. Faith sat, the man next to her. She blinked to try to clear her vision.
“I thought it best you came here,” Lady Graywood said. “We have a number of matters to discuss.” Did she sound shaken?
Something in her voice, a slightly higher pitch, tautness, warned Faith that the dowager was as close as she’d ever known her to breaking.
What the hell had happened? She didn’t want to think, didn’t dare think.
The man took her hand, the gesture uncomfortably personal, burning through Faith’s evening gloves. She drank it in as if she couldn’t help herself. A spark of anger mingled with her bewilderment. She hated feeling this helpless, detested it.
She knew him, she’d watched him for years, while he held himself aloof, hardly noticing her. Now he gripped her hand. Did he recognise her? He showed no sign of doing so. Yet she knew him, every hard line, even the way he sat straight, disdaining the support of the sofa, a soldier from the top of his head to the soles of his feet.
He shouldn’t hold her hand in this way. “My dear,” he said. His dear? Something cold touched the fingers of her other hand, striking through the fabric of her glove. A glass. Wine. Good idea.
She glanced at it, glad to have something to do and carefully lifted it to her lips to take a sip.
“I’m so sorry,” he said.
“What for?” That sounded stupid, but so did his apology. “That you’re alive? That you didn’t die at Waterloo?”
There followed a sound she hadn’t expected to hear in this room, especially at this time. A low rumble of laughter, deep in his throat, so soft she didn’t know if the other people present had heard it. Disconcerted, she glanced away to where Amelia sat primly in a chair placed next to the sofa. She nodded her thanks. Amelia certainly had her priorities right. Her companion nodded back, her face as white as Faith’s own must be.
“No,” he said. “Not that. I left you alone for nearly two years.
The thing is, I had no idea I’d married you until recently—I lost my memory.”
She swivelled around to confront him, considerations of propriety leaving her, only recalling the nearly empty glass in her hand at the last minute. “Your story sounds like something out of a gothic novel. Whatever do you mean? Where have you been? What have you been doing?” The elegant politesse of fashionable society had gone way beyond her abilities.
He raised a brow, a quirk she found deeply attractive. She always had and with him this close it affected her the more. “If I may I’ll start at the beginning. Waterloo.”
Lady Graywood cleared her throat. “A strange place to begin.”
“Ah, but you know what happened up to that point,” he said.
“Wellington sent my company to defend Hougoumont, the farmhouse at the thick of the fighting. I was badly injured and when I came to, in a surgeon’s tent after the battle, I could hardly speak.
When they asked me my name, I managed ‘John Smith.’”
Lady Grayson exhaled, a disapproving sound when she added the slightest note of derision to it. “You couldn’t remember your name?”
“That is my name,” he said. “Smythe is a version of Smith, and the Dalkington has only belonged to it for the last fifty years, when my great-grandparents married.” Julia Dalkington, an heiress whose family had insisted on the hyphenation in exchange for the bulk of her fortune.
“You should have made the effort to say it. I’m surprised no one knew you. Did they not find identification?” Lady Graywood sounded affronted that nobody realised who he was, but Faith understood exactly why nobody had recognised him. A head injury would leave swelling and blood. They’d have no time to clean him, merely to attend to the wound enough to give him a chance at life.
And he would have been naked, or close to it, when they brought him in. Scavengers stripped the wounded and dead, left them to lie together while they removed anything of value. If they thought he could recognise them, or if he’d put up any resistance, they’d have killed him.
Faith shuddered. “Did you lie on the battlefield?” she managed to say, the words conjuring the vision of bare, churned-up ground strewn with bodies, white and red, bloody and pale in death.
Waterloo wasn’t the only battleground she’d seen after the event.
The worst sound she ever heard in her life was the moaning of the men barely alive. No, the worst was the eerie silence that fell a day later when the troops went out to collect and bury their dead. If they could accomplish it without being killed themselves. Her husband usually ensured she stayed well behind the lines, but sometimes lines shifted, and they had to travel through the place to get away. The hot Spanish sun would already be doing its work. At least it had rained at Waterloo.
His hand tightened on hers and she knew he was remembering, too. “So you were John Smith?” she prompted gently, trying to dispel the visions that would help nobody, least of all her and the man sitting next to her.
His voice dropped steadily into the room, too measured. Faith heard the rigid control. “I could remember no more. Hardly surprising because someone struck me on the head, a vicious blow that rendered me helpless. While the result of the battle relieved some of my concerns, my personal memories had left. I knew I was English, because I spoke the language naturally. While some memories returned rapidly, others remained hidden. They came back only recently.”
When she met his gaze the bottom of her stomach fell away.
This was it, the moment she’d dreaded for years, her undoing. She could read nothing in his dark eyes before he turned to address her ladyship and her daughters.
“I still don’t recall the month before the battle. On that, my mind is almost completely blank. I received a severe a shock when my cousin told me that my wife was living in London and considered herself a widow. As far as I knew, I had no wife.” Again, he swung around to meet her eyes. The corners of his mouth twitched in the beginnings of a smile and his expression warmed.
“Such a lovely wife, too.”
The breath caught in her throat and she had to tell herself to breathe. He didn’t remember? He didn’t know? “Do you recollect much before that month?”
He shook his head. “It’s patchy. I think my memory is at full strength about a year before.” He stopped and picked up a glass of wine from the table on his other side. She remembered her own drink and took a fortifying sip of what remained. Lord knew she needed it. He continued with his story. “After Waterloo I got out of that medical tent in a week. Nobody wants to linger in those places and once I was out of danger they required the space for the worse-off. The man in the bed next to me had decided to leave Europe for the New World. It sounded an excellent idea to me, so we took ship to Canada as soon as we could get a berth.” He turned a sombre gaze on to her. “You helped with the wounded?”
“Pray do not tell me you saw the injuries!” Lady Graywood exclaimed and her eldest daughter Charlotte shivered, more, Faith thought, in excitement than horror. But then, she hadn’t been there. Journalists, storytellers, could make it sound exciting.
Newspapers did it all the time.
“Everyone did,” she said. “Ladies of high renown did all they could to help too.” Even though she’d hated every minute she’d helped, the wails of the wounded terrifying her. She’d never forget the moment when they passed from life into death and left everything behind. The soldier became—not a person any longer.