“Thought you’d be with the wounded, Maggie,” Becky Watson said, trying but failing to keep the glee from her tone. Maggie Palmer had been lauding her extra income and increased status over the other women since she’d won the coveted nursing position, and Becky was not the only one to rejoice in her downfall.
Maggie glared at the girl who rode her donkey twenty yards in front of them. Fifteen years old, newly married, and taking up the duties of the real doctor, her father, who had collapsed with an apoplexy on the day she married Melville.
Lady Melville didn’t notice Maggie. All her attention was on the cart carrying those fit enough to be dragged along with the regiment to their winter quarters, her father among them. For the moment, she was the closest the regiment had to a regimental surgeon.
“Wash, wash, wash. And every bucket needing to be carried from the river and heated over the fire. I washed this morning, I told her, and I’ll be damned if I wash again. And changing the sheets every day, and all that rubbish. Thinks she’s so much better than us just because she managed to snare a baronet.”
“Captain Brownlie always makes the nurses wash,” Becky pointed out. She’d been appointed nurse herself until little Freddie was born, but Captain Brownlie wouldn’t have women with children in the hospital quarters.
She hoisted the toddler higher onto her hip and kept trudging. The women had left camp as soon as possible after first light, and had been walking for an hour. They’d be another seven on the road. Becky could do with Lady Melville’s donkey, and that was a fact.
Maggie hadn’t finished complaining. “She isn’t her father. She’s not an officer, or even a proper doctor. She has no right to order me around.”
Maggie was a fool. As long as the Colonel backed Lady Melville’s commands—as he had when Maggie went bleating to him with her complaints—the lady had every right to order the nurses about.
But all the wives knew Maggie was bitter because her former services to Lieutenant Sir Gervase Melville had stopped when he suddenly up and married. And Becky would bet her best iron pot that Maggie did a lot more for him than cooking and cleaning. Mind you, Lieutenant Melville didn’t confine himself to regimental widows like Maggie. He had dipped his toes in a lot of other soldiers’ bedrolls, as well as the local bits of fluff who came out to serve the regiment wherever it camped.
Swiving locals would be frowned on, but tupping the wives of his soldiers was worse. Mind you, it would be the woman who paid if anyone spoke out of turn. She’d be drummed out of the regiment and lucky if she was given the passage home. And the Lieutenant would get a rap on the knuckles.
“I’m going to tell the Lieutenant,” Maggie declared. “He’ll make her take me back.”
Becky stopped to move Freddie to the other hip, then hurried to catch up. “Don’t make trouble for her, Maggie. She has it hard enough. You know what he’s like.”
None of the wives believed the poor girl had suddenly started tripping over tent pegs and bumping into corners. Melville had been horrified when forced to marry the doctor’s daughter, and Melville in a temper was a nasty man.
But Maggie was obdurant. “Serves her right. She made her bed when she seduced him. She’ll just have to lie in it.”
Becky shook her head. No point in arguing. Maggie had her mind made up, but Becky didn’t believe Lady Melville seduced the baronet. Not her. As nice and as ladylike as the Colonel’s wife, who Becky had served as maid back when she first married Watson, while the regiment was still in England.
In any case, anyone with eyes would know it hadn’t been Melville that the doctor’s daughter wanted.
Becky sighed. She was a happily married woman, and a mother. But even she could see the appeal of Captain Alexander Redepenning. It was over now, of course. Lady Melville had made her choice and was stuck with it.
And how it happened, Becky couldn’t fathom.
“Yes. That’ll do. Gervase will help me.” Maggie slid her eyes sideways to see the effect of her use of the baronet’s personal name.
Suddenly sick of the other woman’s nastiness, Becky decided to take a stand. “Watson says the Colonel’s wife has come over to join him in winter quarters. Used to be her maid, I did, and she still has a fondness for me.”
“Not as fond as the Lieutenant is of me,” Maggie smirked.
“Yes, well, that’s the point, isn’t it. The Colonel will want her to check that the camp followers are,” Becky quoted the oft-repeated demand of the regimental regulations: “sober, industrious, and of good character. Don’t worry about it, Maggie Palmer. If they find out what you’ve done with the Lieutenant, you’d likely get your passage home. If the Colonel is in a good mood.”
Maggie frowned. “Are you threatening me?”
Becky shrugged. “Take it how you will. But leave Lady Melville alone.”
Their marriage is a fiction. Their enemies are all too real.
Ella survived an abusive and philandering husband, in-laws who hate her, and public scorn. But she’s not sure she will survive love. It is too late to guard her heart from the man forced to pretend he has married such a disreputable widow, but at least she will not burden him with feelings he can never return.
Alex understands his supposed wife never wishes to remarry. And if she had chosen to wed, it would not have been to him. He should have wooed her when he was whole, when he could have had her love, not her pity. But it is too late now. She looks at him and sees a broken man. Perhaps she will learn to bear him.
In their masquerade of a marriage, Ella and Alex soon discover they are more well-matched than they expected. But then the couple’s blossoming trust is ripped apart by a malicious enemy. Two lost souls must together face the demons of their past to save their lives and give their love a future.