RITA Award-Winning Romance Author

November 1, 2004

The Improper Wife

By Diane Gaston writing as Diane Perkins

Captain John Grayson, an embittered cavalry officer, learns that no honorable deed goes unpunished when he returns to England after Waterloo. Maggie Delaney, the unwed mother whose baby he delivered when on leave, is now, quite improperly, living on his family estate, masquerading as his wife. To repay the absent Captain for her deception, Maggie has worked tirelessly to heal his fractured family, but when Gray arrives to confront her, she fears her safe life will be over. Gray is torn between duty and truth. Should he expose Maggie–pose as her lawful husband–or fall in love with this improper wife?

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The Improper Wife

May, 1814

The pounding of French cannon thudded in John Grayson’s brain. Acrid smoke stung his nostrils while his horse’s hooves dug into the dry Spanish earth. Screams of dying soldiers assaulted his ears. The battle raged around him, and Gray lost his bearings. He swung his horse toward a clearing. From the mist a figure ran toward him, a woman clad in a gown as yellow as the sunshine, raven hair billowing behind her. Rosa? What was she doing in this ungodly place? He spurred his horse toward her. The fool. He’d told her not to follow him.
“¡Vete!” he yelled. “Go back!”

Oblivious of the carnage around her, she stretched her arms toward him. Her bright-colored dress fluttered behind her like wings of a butterfly, molding against her rounded belly as she ran.

Canister continued to shower from the incessant guns, its shot spattering the ground around him. He opened his mouth to bid her take heed, but an explosion of cannonade drowned his words. In the sky where threads of blue still peeked through the smoke, the canister arced and headed directly toward her.

As the canister tore her apart, sending pieces of her skittering through the dirt and flying into the trees, Gray heard amused laughter.

Leonard Lansing’s face loomed before him, grinning as Lansing so often did when scorning the rules. “What luck! Free of the leg-shackle, old fellow.”

Gray woke in a sweat, half sprawled on his bed, panting as if the French cannon had been pelting his dingy London rooms. It had not been real. It had merely been The Dream. The only battles he waged these days were with his own demons.

The pounding continued, more urgent and coming from his door. The sound echoed in his skull like ricocheting musket balls. Gray clutched his head and forced his body into an upright position. A sharp pain in his side made his breath catch. He’d moved too quickly for his still healing wound.

“Stubble it!” he growled. “I’m coming.”

Ah, his head! How many bottles of brandy had he consumed? He could not precisely recall. In fact, he barely recalled staggering back to his rooms.

Something caught round his feet and he stumbled, grabbing the back of a chair to keep from falling. His coat, thrown in a heap on the floor. At least he’d not slept in it, though he still wore the clothing he’d put on the previous day. His waistcoat flapped open and his shirt hung out of his trousers. Both reeked of stale alcohol and cigarillos.

More pounding. Who the devil would call at this ungodly hour?

Gray flung the door wide.

The bright midday sun poured in from the hallway, blinding him and throwing the figure standing in the doorway into silhouette. For a brief second he thought it was Rosa returning to haunt him. He clamped his eyes closed, rubbed them with his fingers, and cautiously opened them again.

“Are these Captain Grayson’s rooms?” The woman’s voice was tight and her breath rapid.

Gray’s heart pounded so hard he could not speak. But this was not Rosa. Too tall. Too English. Skin too pale, like French porcelain.

He forced his mouth to move. “One might say.”

She stepped forward, grabbing the doorjamb and leaning against it. “Please. May I enter?”

Gray stepped back. Her face was taut. She nearly fell into the room.

“Have . . . have I made your acquaintance?” He did not recall her, though she looked the sort a man would not likely forget. Her fair skin was framed by hair the color of polished mahogany. Her large eyes were the blue of a clear spring sky, but they were rimmed with red. Her rosebud pink lips were compressed into a thin line.

She wrapped her arms around her waist, a gasp escaping that perfectly formed mouth. It was then Gray noticed the swelling of her belly.

By God, she was with child.

Gray drew his hand through his hair. What hellish retribution was this? The only fathomable reason for a pregnant woman to seek him out was . . . unfathomable. A nightmare of a new sort.

“Oh,” she moaned, squeezing her waist. “The baby is coming! It is too soon. Too soon.”

Gray pressed his fingers against his throbbing temple. Let it not be so. She could not possibly give birth to a baby in front of him. It was too cruel a joke for God to play.

She reached out, as if trying to grab hold of something. Gray obliged her by stepping forward, and bloodless fingers wrapped around his arm like a vise.

“Please get help. The baby. I can feel the baby.” Her voice trailed into a wail and her knees buckled.

Silently cursing, he helped her to the threadbare rug on the floor. The dust tramped into its nap by countless boots had wafted into his nostrils. Who was this woman? He considered running out the door. If he ran far enough perhaps the nightmare would cease, or perhaps he could find help. Some woman. Any woman.

She rolled to her side, grabbing her knees and rocking. The skirt of her dress was wet. That meant something, but Gray was uncertain what – except that there was no time to seek help.

Gray wheeled around wildly, considering what to do. At the same time he tried to mentally compute the months. Where had he been nine months ago?

After Vitoria, after that damned night with Rosa, he’d accompanied Lansing to Gloucestershire. Lansing had traded his commission in the 13th for a militia post, and Gray had thought to have one last lark with his friend. That was before Lansing’s antics turned sour on Gray’s tongue, however. Gray shook the memory out of his still throbbing head and opened the cabinet where the maid-of-all-work stored blankets, towels, and linens. He grabbed them all.The woman’s breath was coming in rapid bursts. Her eyes were wide and bulging. He’d seen a foaling mare with that same expression.

Terror.

It inexplicably registered with him that this woman had the appearance and speech of a well brought up young lady. He would not have dallied with a respectable miss, would he?

Could he have repeated the dishonorable behavior that still plagued his conscience? Truth was, he and Lansing had remained quite permanently drunk in Gloucestershire, and Gray could not recall everything he had done there. Could he have met this lady? Even so, would she have frequented the kinds of places where he and Lansing sought entertainment?

He dropped the linens at her feet.

“Will my baby die?” she managed between breaths.

He gaped at her. Now she’d given him another even worse anxiety. His conscience could bear only so much. She clutched her abdomen, grimacing in pain.

“Do not fret.” He attempted a reassuring smile, but felt none of it himself. “I know precisely what to do. I grew up on a farm and have witnessed calving and lambing and . . . what might you call it? . . . kittening?”

“Get me a proper midwife!” She rose up off the floor, grabbing the cloth of his shirt in her fists.

Daggers shot from her blue eyes. She was like one of the Furies. Tisiphone, the avenger of murder.

That was fitting.

Good God! Citing the Classics. He was turning damned bookish.

No time to dwell on that. He had bigger problems to ponder. Like a baby about to be born on his floor.

Gray eased the Fury back to the floor and fell to his knees. The woman convulsed in pain. Trembling himself, Gray pushed the blankets underneath her, pulled off her shoes and stockings, and pushed her skirt above her waist. Hesitating only a moment, he worked at removing her undergarments, fumbling like a lad taking his first tumble. He needn’t have worried. Her eyes no longer focused, the liquid blue hardening like glass. She stared past him, concentration inward.

“The child is coming.” Her voice turned eerily calm. Gray felt a line of sweat trickle down his back.

From between her legs, something round and full of dark hair appeared. “The baby’s head!” he said, his voice cracking.

This could not be happening. Gray thought longingly of the bottle of brandy on his bureau. Would that he could pour the warming liquid down his throat until sweet oblivion was his.

Instead he grabbed a towel and held it ready.

Half-sitting, she strained, face red. She made a low moan that gradually rose in pitch. Gray watched in fascination as the dark-haired head pushed out of its confines. She collapsed and the head disappeared again.

“You’ve lost it,” Gray said.

“What do you mean, I’ve lost it?” she gasped, her eyes looking a bit wild.

“It went back . . . inside,” he explained.

“Don’t you think I know that?” she rasped. “It’s inside me.” Her face was red now, and her muscles tensed. Suddenly she wailed. The intensity of the sound pierced deep into his gut.

“It is coming!” he said, dropping the towel.

The head moved out slowly as she strained. With one final feral cry, she pushed. The baby shot out, landing in Gray’s bare hands.

The woman sat up, grasping for the baby. “Is my baby alive? Is my baby alive?” Her fury was gone. Fear replaced it.

Gray turned away from her. The infant made no sound, no movement. It was deep purple. Oh, God. That could not be a good sign. He hurriedly wiped off the child, jostling it as he did so. It was a boy, but so small, much smaller than he’d expected. Would such a tiny baby creature have had any chance to survive?

“Give me my baby!” She grabbed his arm, nearly knocking him off balance. How the devil could he tell this woman her baby was dead?

At that precise second, a cry burst from the miniature mouth. Tiny arms fluttered and shook. Gray laughed with relief.

“Oh!” the woman cried. She released Gray’s arm and held her hands out for the infant.

He unwrapped the cord from around the newborn’s abdomen and placed him into her hands.

Deuce. He’d have to cut the damned cord. But before he figured out that unpleasant task, she groaned again. As she clutched the baby to her chest, her body convulsed again.

The afterbirth plopped down on the blanket between his knees, followed by a gush of fluids.

“Bloody hell.”

Unmindful of his difficulties, the woman cradled the baby in her arms. “Dear, dear baby.” Tears rolled down her cheeks, but her face was radiant with joy. She fingered each tiny hand, counted every tiny toe, examined every inch of him. “You are a boy! A lovely boy.”

Gray stared at the infant. He’d never seen a newborn, except for his nephew, but only a glimpse when the boy was swathed in blankets. “He’s well equipped.”

She glanced at him. “Well equipped?”

He gestured with his fingers. “You know, his . . . male parts.”

Lifting one eyebrow, she regarded him with reproach.

He cleared his throat and jumped up to rummage through a box on the bureau, searching for a piece of string. He grabbed his razor. Not wishing to think too much on the task he would put the razor to, he tied off the cord and cut it, wincing at the same time. That odious job done, he pulled the blankets out from under her and folded them into a bundle containing all the unpleasantries of the birth.

Turning back, he caught sight of her gazing down at her baby. Her face was aglow as if lit from within. Her dark hair had come loose of its pins and tumbled around her shoulders in disordered curls. She put Gray in mind of a statue of the Madonna he’d seen in a Barcelona church. As he watched, she placed her lips on the soft down of the baby’s head.

His throat went dry.

An overwhelming wave of regret washed over him, leaving an incredible void inside. He continued to stare at the mother and child, but all he saw were the blackest recesses of his soul. Had he been a better man, he might have held another infant as she held this babe. Would that child have been as wrinkled as this little one? Would it have turned the same healthy shade of pink? Would its cries have been as angry? This little creature ought to be angry. Gray had delivered him into an abominable world.

The woman then lifted her eyes to Gray. Tears clung to her dark lashes like tiny jewels. She smiled at him, a look of wonder on her face. Gray’s breath caught in his throat. She was a living, breathing Madonna, sharing with him an intimate moment he did not deserve. He thrust his own misery aside.

“Let me help you to the bed,” he said. “Hold the baby tight.”

 

End of Excerpt


The Improper Wife  is available in the following formats:

November 1, 2004

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Behind the Book

The Improper Wife

The 13th Light Dragoons

The Napoleonic war greatly influenced the Regency period. Its final battle, Waterloo, is one of history’s most famous. It is no surprise that a Regency Romance hero is often a soldier, but few British soldiers who fought in the Peninsular War, when Wellington drove the French from Spain, also fought at Waterloo. My hero in The Improper Wife (Warner Forever, November 2004), came from a cavalry regiment that saw action in both: The 13th Light Dragoons.

A commission in a cavalry regiment was highly prized. To wear a dapper uniform (the 13th had blue uniforms with buff facings) and sit tall on a beautiful horse was considered quite dashing. Not all the duties of a light dragoon officer were glamorous, however. More time was spent in skirmishing, escort, patrol, and piquet (sentry) duties than in cavalry battle charges.

In 1811 on the Peninsula, the 13th was involved in the controversial cavalry charge at Campo Mayor that led Wellington to reprimand them for their “undisciplined ardor” and conduct “that of a rabble.” Later Wellington learned the true details. The 13th had charged in order, exhibiting skill and bravery only to be forced to abandon their captured guns and prisoners, because the promised support never arrived. Wellington never withdrew the reprimand.

Several weeks later, before the siege of Badajos, the 13th again showed their true worth in a similar charge at Los Santos by successfully breaking 500 French cavalry, chasing them for ten miles, and bringing back 150 prisoners. The 13th Light Dragoons showed more success against the French in 1814 during the crossing of the Saison, leading up to the battle at Orthes. In their last action on the Peninsula, the 13th charged four squadron of French cavalry at St. Gaudens, breaking them and scattering them through the town. Shortly thereafter Wellington’s army marched on to France and Napoleon surrendered.

When Napoleon returned to face Wellington at Waterloo, one of the most tragic incidents of the battle was a cavalry charge. The Scots Greys and other inexperienced regiments went on a bloodthirsty rampage after retreating French only to be cut off and slaughtered themselves. The 13th Light Dragoons were deployed elsewhere during Waterloo, where they repelled all manner of French cavalry, cuirassiers, carabiniers, and horse grenadiers. The 13th also assisted the British infantry during the French mass cavalry charges that almost cost the British the victory.

The history of the 13th Light Dragoons includes enough drama, bravery, and glory to make it a regiment worthy of a Regency hero. The words of Tennyson memorializing a later battle of the 13th Light Dragoons, The Charge of the Light Brigade, are just as apt for the 13th’s Regency soldiers:

When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wondered.
Honor the charge they made…

Reference: Fletcher, Ian. Galloping at Everything: The British Cavalry in the Peninsular War and at Waterloo 1808-1815, A Reappraisal. Stackpole Books, 1999.