Excerpt: P.S. I Love You

A group of officers invaded the common room of the Horse Guards in a clatter of spurs, drawing Captain Christian Lord Bruton from the quiet pleasure of a good book.

That was the trouble with belonging to a fashionable regiment permanently stationed in the middle of London. Too many sprigs of the nobility and gentry, large and clumsy like a pack of half-grown dogs—though well-bred dogs—sucking the air from the room and braying about their tedious concerns to those who cared not a whit. Well-oiled by quantities of after-dinner port, they were off to make the rounds of the evening’s assemblies, followed by a visit to a house inhabited by ladies of lower birth and looser morals.

“Are you coming, Frank?” someone asked Lieutenant Newnham, the most popular man in the regiment, who’d been sitting quietly, minding his own business. “What about you, Bruton?” another fellow said, with much less enthusiasm and a note of doubt that indicated a modicum of intelligence.

Christian would rather be broken on a rack than expose himself to Lady Beaufetheringstone’s ball. “No, thank you. I’ll take in the last act at Drury Lane before my supper engagement with Miss Clara Morris.”

A solidly built subaltern of extreme youth loomed over him. “Nice for you, Lord Cicatrix, being able to afford the prettiest dancer in London.” His side whiskers, barely grown, twitched.

The room fell into an anticipatory silence. In the past Christian would have called him out, but when he advanced to the rank of captain he’d foresworn duels and vowed to defend himself with words alone. Christian guessed the newest officer had uttered the nickname on a dare from his fellows, who eagerly awaited the lad’s destruction by one of his infamous volleys of sarcasm. Not in the mood to indulge the idiot mob, he let the insult pass. After all, the man had a point. Miss Morris would love him—if and when they came to an arrangement—for his deep purse and high rank and only if she could bring herself to tolerate his ruined face.

“I believe Miss Morris appreciates my conversation,” he said mildly. “Please, take Frank with you and leave me in peace.”

“Go without me, fellows.” Frank said. “I have something to do.”

As the officers clomped out, Christian raised a forefinger to summon his would-be tormentor, who edged forward looking suitably nervous. “Lieutenant,” he said softly. “There’s no need for fancy words. The slash across my face is a scar. A simple, descriptive, unambiguous word. A scar. If you would like one of your own to mar the softness of your downy cheeks I would be happy to oblige.” The youngster appeared likely to soil himself. “But this time, because I’m in an exceptionally mellow mood, I shall let you go. I advise you to remove yourself quickly before I change my mind.”

A minute later the room was blessedly quiet, leaving Christian in the sole company of one of the few officers whose company he positively enjoyed. There wasn’t a better man in the world, let alone the Household Cavalry, than Lieutenant Francis Newnham. The ladies of London idolized his handsome face and splendid figure and forgave his lack of conversation. Men admired him as a bruising rider, a good fencer, a fearless boxer, and an excellent shot. His unfailing cheerfulness and good humor made him universally loved. Even Christian, not a man given to tolerance of human frailty, held his first cousin in unwavering affection.

“Are you quite well, Frank? Not like you to miss an evening’s entertainment. You’re not on duty, are you?”

Frank shook his head “I have to write a letter.”

“What brings about this unnatural ambition? Has Aunt Cecilia been complaining again?”

“Mama? No. She’s in town. Called on her this morning.” Helping himself to another glass of brandy, Frank sat down at the desk provided for officers of the regiment overcome by the urge for written communication.

Christian watched in some amusement as his cousin, betraying his lack of practice, made a hash of sharpening his pen. He returned to his book but found his enjoyment of Byron’s latest cantos marred by Frank’s gusty sighs, punctuated by hopeful glances in his direction.

“If you can’t get on with it, go away. What is wrong with you?”

“I’m in love.”

“For God’s sake! Dancer or actress?” Frank’s intimate relations had so far been confined to the demimonde. “Either way, she isn’t going to want you for your literary skills.”

“You don’t understand. I’m truly in love this time.” An expression of deep fatuity settled on Frank’s symmetrical features. “With Miss Rosanne Lacy.”

“Warnford’s daughter? Are you thinking of marriage?”

“She’s the most beautiful girl in the world. I met her staying with Norton in Leicestershire and—” His face turned from idiocy to panic. “—I asked her father’s permission to write to her.”

“What made you do such a foolish thing?”

“How else will I make an impression? You know what I’m like, Chris. A man of action. Never can think of much to say to a woman. I’d be happy to fight a duel or save her from a villain, but there never seems to be an opportunity.”

“Very true. In these civilized times, the daughters of peers rarely fall into the clutches of criminals. Such a shame.”

“I knew you’d understand,” Frank said, with the bashful smile that made marriage-minded misses melt while their mamas invited him to dinner and would probably have done his washing had he so asked. “Trouble is, I can’t think of anything to say.”

Christian looked cynically at Frank’s ridiculously perfect face. “I hardly think it matters. She’s probably halfway in love with you. I take it she doesn’t live in London?”

“Dorset. She spent the season here some years ago, I think, but her family don’t care for London.”

Christian nodded sagely. “She must be a desperate spinster. She’ll have you.”

Incapable of taking offense, Frank ignored the aspersion cast on the object of his fascination. “Miss Lacy has turned down dozens of suitors. I told you she’s a beauty. Clever too. I’m a fool to think she’ll accept me.”

One of Frank’s virtues was an astonishing lack of vanity. He had no idea that he was the handsomest man in London—no, in England—in the estimation of several enamored ladies. “What do you want to say?” Christian asked, giving up his plan for a couple of hours of quiet reading.

“I don’t want to say anything. Give me an idea.”

“Tell her what you admire about her.”

Tweaking his nose with the end of the quill, Frank relapsed into deep thought. “I can’t,” he said. “It wouldn’t be proper to tell a young lady I like her. . . .” He traced a curvy shape with his free hand.

“Fine, are they?”

“Very fine. Wait! I can’t discuss my future bride’s bosom with you.”

“Nor with her, apparently. Start with the eyes. Women always like that. What color are they?”

“Blue, maybe brown. Darkish.”

“Avoid being specific. It wouldn’t do to get it wrong.”

“Christian,” Frank said after another fruitless minute spent staring at a blank page. “You’re good at words. Would you. . . .”

Really, Frank was hopeless. Even the cynical Earl of Bruton wasn’t impervious to the distress of a man in dire need. “Very well. I’ll dictate. Dear Miss Lacy. . . .

“Dash it, Chris. Do I have to write it myself?”

“You intend to marry the girl, right? Despite your aversion to pens, you are not going to be able to live with her for fifty years or more without her ever seeing your handwriting. Dear Miss Lacy. As I sit in my gloomy barracks. . . .

“The barracks of the Royal Horse Guards are not gloomy. Best in the whole army.”

“Don’t be so literal and write it down. As I sit in my gloomy barracks, the thought of you is a beacon of light, an unflickering candle glimpsed through a storm. I sink into the dark pools of your lovely eyes. . . .”

###

 

Rosanne Lacy planned to slip out after breakfast and seek the privacy of her favorite spot in the garden. She wanted to read her letter away from the hopeful eyes of her mother and the curiosity of her sister. Only the first goal proved achievable; not for the first time she underestimated Kate’s persistence.

“Where are you going?” Kate caught her at the garden door.

“Outside. You’ll catch cold, and as your elder I order you to stay in by the fire.”

The little pest had been ignoring her advice since she learned to walk and talk. “It’s a lovely day for March. I’m coming with you.”

“It’s windy. You hate wind.”

“In that case you should stay inside, too. The pages of your letter may blow away.”

“What letter?”

Kate cast her eyes to the iron-gray sky. “Please, Rosie! I made Thompson show me the post when it arrived today. You have a letter from him. Already.”

Three days ago, Lord and Lady Warnford and their elder daughter had returned from a house party near Melton Mowbray. Seventeen-year-old Kate, bored at being left at home, must have detected the whiff of excitement in their mama and wormed the truth out of her.

“Yes,” Rosanne said. “I have a letter from Mr. Newnham. Papa gave him permission to write to me.” She stepped firmly out onto the terrace with Kate at her heels. Giving up the fruitless effort to shake off her sister, she examined the unopened letter. “He must have written soon after he reached London.”

“If he is so enamored, why did he leave Melton before you?”

“He has his military duties to attend to. That speaks well of him, I think.”

“It would be better if, desperate with love, he disobeyed the orders of his commanding officer and pursued you to the ends of the earth. Or at least to Little Mickledon.”

“He might be court marshaled and disgraced.”

“Then he would beg you to flee the country with him and live like gypsies, evading the clutches of the army. Think how much fun that would be!”

“Think how uncomfortable! You should stop reading novels; you take them too seriously.”

“What else am I supposed to do for entertainment?”

Kate had a point. Lord and Lady Warnford, apart from the occasional country house visit like their recent Leicestershire trip, preferred to remain cozily in Dorset with their daughters and their country neighbors. Much as Rosanne loved her family, it sometimes, even in winter, felt like being drowned in a warm bath.

“The sooner Mama and Papa take us to London the better, although I dread to think what you’ll get up to, unleashed on the unsuspecting ton. It’s worth getting married just so I won’t have to witness your notion of taking the town by storm. And take the blame when you get into trouble.”

“While I can see you’d want to be wed to avoid being cast into the shade by me—” Kate scampered backward to avoid a sisterly swat. “—I’d like to know what made Lieutenant Newnham turn your head when every man in southwest England has failed.”

Rosanne had asked herself the same thing. She was only half joking when she claimed she’d prefer not to share Kate’s debut season. She’d rejected half a dozen suitors without the slightest regret. Going through a London season as the lively Kate’s spinster sister didn’t distress her precisely, but it did make her think about the future. It was time to have an establishment and a life of her own. Also, her mother was driving her mad.

“I’m twenty-two. Some people—and by “some people” I mean Mama—think I’m almost on the shelf.”

“It would have to be a tall shelf, or your feet will reach the ground.”

“I trust my feet will always remain the ground. One flibbertigibbet in the family is quite enough. Also, for your information, Mr. Newnham is taller than me by a good six inches.”

“Aren’t you going to see what he has to say for himself?”

“Something, I hope. He’s not a great one for conversation.”

“Speaking for myself, I have no objection to silence in a man, as long as he listens to me. But you? You’re always complaining about gentlemen being dull-witted. What did you see in him?”

Rosanne drew her shawl around her shoulders and recalled the moment that she first encountered the splendor that was Frank Newnham. When he sauntered into the Melton Assembly Room there had been a collective gasp from every woman in the place, followed by a reverent hush.

“It was at a ball,” she said.

“Did he stride across the room, thrust aside your partner, and sweep you onto the floor?”

“Quite the opposite. There are always plenty of sporting gentlemen in Melton, but many of them refuse to dance, especially with the less pretty girls. Lizzie Norton is not only pale and thin, she’s also very shy. When he was presented to us, he immediately asked her to stand up with him. I never saw her so happy.”

“He snubbed you!”

“Not at all. He danced with me later, twice. He said he’d wanted to immediately but his mother had told him the prettiest girls never want for partners and he must be sure to make sure thatall the young ladies enjoy themselves. Don’t you think that’s sweet?”

Kate, possessed of overweening self-confidence and no fear that she would ever be a wallflower, was unimpressed. “Sounds like nonsense to me, not to mention the kind of thing our mother would say. I would prefer a man who broods in the corner, disdaining the company and refusing to dance with anyone until he laid eyes on me. Your Mr. Newnham sounds a bit dull.”

“Oh no! He is the most delightful man. I do think kindness and good nature are the most important qualities in a husband.” Kate shook her head in patent disdain. “You wouldn’t know because you aren’t out, but the handsomest men are often overly conceited and quite disagreeable.”

“Handsome, is he?”

“Lord, Kate!” Rosanne gave up attempting to appear high-minded. “I never laid eyes on a better-looking man. I believe he must be the pinnacle of masculine beauty. Such a face and figure as you wouldn’t believe. I could look at him forever. But of good character, you understand. Without a good character, looks are nothing.”

“Oh no. Nothing at all.”

“I am not so shallow.”

“Absolutely not. Describe the paragon.”

“Tall, of course. He’s a cavalry officer, so very strong and muscular. Fair hair, side whiskers, but not long ones I’m glad to say, a firm chin, a straight nose of exactly the right size. And best of all, his eyes! Blue as a summer sky. . . .” Rosanne closed her eyes and relived the dizziness of sharing a country dance with Frank Newnham.

“You look like an idiot. Stop daydreaming and read the letter, or I shall.”

Rosanne broke the seal to reveal a page covered with large, rather careless writing.

“Goodness,” she said finally. “Gracious.” And because she knew Kate would persuade her in the end and she needed another opinion, even that of her giddy sister, she read it again, aloud. “Dear Miss Lacy. As I sit in my gloomy barracks the thought of you is a beacon of light, an unflickering candle glimpsed through a storm. I sink into the dark pools of your lovely eyes, feast my gaze in contemplation of your perfect countenance. I curse the duty that forces us apart. My only consolation is the hope that you will assuage the longing of your poor admirer with a few words. I shall remain in painful diffidence until I hear from you. I beg you, tell me what you do, what you read, whom you see! I am jealous of the pen, clasped by your slender hand, but will treasure the paper that reveals your precious thoughts. Until then, Miss Lacy, I remain your humble and respectful servant, Francis Newnham.”

For at least half a minute only birdsong disturbed the spring morning. If nothing else, the letter had rendered Kate speechless. “What do you think?” Rosanne asked.

“I think you’d better not show the letter to Mama.”

“No, indeed. She’ll either forbid the correspondence or demand an immediate marriage.”

“He seems to admire you excessively.” Kate’s lips twitched at the corners.

“From anyone else, I would think it a joke.” She perused the lines closely, searching for truth. “Mr. Newnham did not seem the sort of man to make a jest of me. Yet I wouldn’t have expected he would express himself in such . . . florid language.” A vision of the author, splendid in scarlet regimentals, danced in her brain. “You know, it is quite flattering to be addressed with such fervor. And there is a certain elegance to his prose, however overwrought.”

“If you say so.”

“Perhaps he was nervous.” That was it. “I’m sure he was.”

“What shall you do?”

“I shall write back, of course.”

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P.S. I LOVE you is one of four stories in the anthology AT THE DUKE'S WEDDING. It is also available singly at the usual digital vendors.