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Authors: Elizabeth Mansfield

The Phantom Lover

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The Phantom Lover

Elizabeth Mansfield

Prologue

I
F HE KEPT
his gaze on the river and didn't look at the devastation on the banks at either side, he might almost believe it was a peaceful day. The cracking reports of thousands of guns and the boom of the cannon had momentarily ceased, and the smoke of battle was beginning to dissipate into a thin haze, not very different from what one would expect on any July afternoon in Spain. Captain Henry Thorne shifted in the saddle and let his eye roam over the valley of the Tagus stretched out before him. The Spanish valley had probably been lovely before the battle had ravaged the countryside, before the thousands of boots, the horses' hooves, the wheels and the cannon shells had uprooted the shrubs, burnt the grass and rutted the ground beyond recognition. There was not much left to cool the eye. Through the haze he could see splashes of red and blue dotting the ground. The sight caused him to groan. The losses in this battle were staggering. Sir Arthur had expressed to him the fear that the English would lose more than five thousand before the day had ended.

He turned away and urged his horse forward, trying to erase from his mind the sight of the battlefield. He tried to think of something else. The letter from England came into his mind. It was dated April 13, 1809, but it had not found its way into his hands until the day they had arrived here at Talavera, July 27th. It was from his aunt, Lady Sybil Thorne, telling him that his grandfather was quite ill—possibly dying—and that he was wanted urgently at home. He yearned to comply, to forget his duties, to return to that green and pleasant land that was his home, to hold his grandfather's hand in his. But he had not had a moment to think, or even to reread the letter that rested at this very moment in an inner pocket of his coat. He had not had time in which to decide whether his duty lay in sticking to his post on Sir Arthur's staff or in obeying the summons from his family. And he had no notion of what Sir Arthur's reaction would be should he ask for leave.

Since the moment the British had joined forces with the Spanish troops, Sir Arthur had kept his staff working night and day, trying to overcome the difficulties thrust on him by that obstinate fool, La Cuesta. The Spanish General, old, infirm and incompetent, had been wrangling and quarreling with Sir Arthur throughout the ten days of the march to Talavera. Then, when they'd faced the French Marshal, Claude Victor, and his troops (numbering over fifty thousand), the Spaniards had retreated in panic. Sir Arthur, although outnumbered two to one, had rallied his troops, and the thin red line had held against the massed French columns. For two days now, the line was holding. And at last there were signs that the French were beginning to withdraw. Sir Arthur had done it! Perhaps now, Parliament would recognize what Sir Arthur's staff had always known—that Sir Arthur Wellesley was the military genius who would some day defeat Napoleon.

Sighing, Captain Thorne nudged his horse, and they continued to climb up the mountainside. Sir Arthur had sent him to reconnoiter. If the French withdrew, the British commander intended to advance on Madrid. But he knew that somewhere on the Peninsula Marshals Soult and Ney waited with perhaps as many as 200,000 men. The British position here was vulnerable, especially through the pass at Baños. And La Cuesta had already indicated that he would not defend the pass. Captain Thorne was on his way to assess the situation.

A burst of gunfire from somewhere behind him made him turn in his saddle. The action had begun again. But not before he made out the movement of a blue line moving, as hurriedly as armies can, to the southwest. The French retreat had begun.

Directly below him, a British platoon seemed to be in difficulty. They had just been hit with heavy cannon-fire, and the line had broken. The officer seemed to be trying to rally his men. As Captain Thorne watched, the officer reared in his saddle and toppled to the ground. Another volley of cannonfire obscured his view.

He could not bring himself to ride on. Without another thought, he wheeled his horse around and galloped swiftly down the slope. The line must not break. He would take over and quickly bring the men to order. The noise around him became deafening. Volleys of shots, explosions of cannonballs, shouts and cries of the men all became indistinguishable to him. He spurred his horse faster, but to his surprise the horse seemed suddenly to disappear from beneath him. He felt a searing pain as his body flew through the air. Then, nothing …

There was music, and suddenly he could see, through a sort of mist, the ballroom at the Mannings' town house. He was crossing the room toward Edwina, who was sitting beside her mother under a shimmering chandelier and smiling up at him beckoningly. But he couldn't seem to reach her. A pain in his leg slowed him considerably. But he smiled and made his way to her steadily, ignoring the pain as best he could. Lovely Edwina
—
he must reach her! He held out his arms, and she ran toward him, her eyes warm and welcoming. She lifted her arm and put her hand on his shoulder …

A hand touched his shoulder. He opened his eyes. He found himself looking up at a darkened sky. A red-cheeked soldier with a mud-smeared nose was smiling down at him. “That's the way, sir,” the man said. “You'll be all right, won't you?”

Captain Thorne tried to nod.

“No need to move. Easy does it. Anything you want? Water?”

Captain Thorne tried again to nod his head. A cool metal cup was placed against his parched lips, and he attempted to drink. Most of it ran down his cheek, but some of it found its way into his mouth. He tried to swallow but choked. The movement stirred an agonizing pain which seemed to start in his left leg and spread to all of his body. He winced and bit his lip. The soldier's hand patted his shoulder. “Best not to move,” he said again. Captain Thorne heard no more.

The breeze was stirring the white window-curtains, but the room was hot. He looked around him. What room was this? It looked like the corner bedroom at Thorndene, in Cornwall, the bedroom they'd given him that first summer he'd stayed there
—
the summer his father had died. He was lying in the fourposter he hadn't seen since he was twelve. Grandfather had taken him to Cornwall, hoping the sun and the sea and the Cornwall air would help soothe the pain that had settled in both their chests. But the pain was not in his chest. It seemed to be in his leg! The curtains lifted higher as the door opened. He raised his head and saw through the haze that his grandfather was coming toward him. His spirit rose as he saw the old man smile at him, his eyes full of love. Grandfather drew up a chair at the side of the bed and set up the chessboard.
Henry lifted his hand to make the first move, but the effort seemed too great. Grandfather opened his mouth to speak, but he couldn't make out the words. The birds outside were singing loudly … too loudly …

He opened his eyes. It was bright daylight. He was still lying on the ground. The birds were singing somewhere above him. In the distance he could hear the rumble of an army on the move. He tried to lift his head, but the movement caused the pain again, and he lay back and stared at the sky. The blue was almost clear; only a thin haze remained. The battle must have ended long ago. Was he still lying where he'd fallen, he wondered? He turned his head to the side. Some distance from him, another red-clad soldier lay on the ground unmoving. Was he alive or dead?

Soon they'd come with a stretcher. The soldier who'd bent over him (was it last night?) must have left a marker. He'd be taken to hospital and then be sent back to England. He'd have leave. He hoped they'd send him home in time to see his grandfather once more. The old Earl was the only family he had left. Oh, there were aunts and uncles and all sorts of cousins, close and distant, but it was Grandfather who had been his family after his father had died. He closed his eyes, remembering his dream. Yes, he would very much like to take Grandfather's hand in his once more.

He tried to recapture the dream, to see his grandfather's face. The only one left in the world he loved—except Edwina, of course. But her face eluded him, too. Beautiful Edwina Manning. It was unbelievable that she still waited for him. Perhaps he was lucky to have been wounded. On this leave he would marry her. She was old enough now to be able to cope with life as a soldier's wife.

The hours passed unbearably slowly. The rumble seemed to grow farther and farther away. Could he have been overlooked? Could the soldier who had found him have forgotten to leave a marker? He opened his mouth to shout, but his throat was so parched that he could only croak. The effort left him weak and trembling, and he lay unmoving, in quiet despair. Then a new sound reached his ears. Men were marching somewhere above him, from the
north
. Slowly, wincing with pain, he raised himself on his elbow and looked up the mountainside. In the distance he could see a blue-clad army on the move. It couldn't be Marshal Victor's defeated army—they had moved away in the opposite direction. It was either Soult or Ney—or both—coming through the pass at Baños!

At last he understood. Sir Arthur, learning of the movement of some or all of Napoleon's army in Spain, must have realized the danger of advancing on Madrid, or even remaining here at Talavera, and had been forced to fall back to the south. The British army would have had to cross the river in haste. They had had to leave the wounded behind!

Captain Thorne had been an officer long enough to know that such occurrences were not uncommon. Despite the gloom which enveloped him, he felt no resentment at Sir Arthur's action. Every soldier knows that, at certain times, he must be on his own. That time had come to
him
now. What he had to do was to examine his wounds and determine how he could move on his own. Move he must, if he were ever to find help and eventually to make his way back to London, to his grandfather, to Edwina, to love, to friends, to peace.

Painfully, he lifted himself on both elbows and looked down at his left leg which seemed to be the source of the most painful of the sensations his body had suffered. What he saw caused the blood to drain from his cheeks and a black cloud to settle over him. But before he fell back to unconsciousness, he realized that he could never go back to London. His life in London, his career in the army, his marriage to Edwina—all that was over … irrevocably over.

Chapter One

N
ELL HAD BEEN
betrothed to Sir Nigel Lewis for three months and had been regretting it for two. Sir Nigel was undeniably distinguished-looking, tall and very, very rich, but Nell knew she must cry off. Life with Nigel would be impossible. Tonight had been the last straw. They had dined with his family—a small dinner party for twenty—and it had turned out to be the greatest bore imaginable. The conversation had been tedious, Nigel's mother, a tall, forbidding dowager with steely eyes, had shown intense disapproval of every remark Nell had made (even the most innocuous references to the inclement October weather), his uncle had stared at Nell's décolletage with disconcerting attention, and his aunt had insisted that Nigel's young sister play the piano for them. The girl had played for what seemed like hours, and anyone with the slightest feeling for music would have agreed that the girl had not a spark of talent.

All this could have been forgiven if Nigel himself had
once
said something witty, had
once
come to Nell's defense against his mother or had
once
responded to her grin when his sister had struck a particularly horrendous wrong note. But he had done none of those things. He had endured the evening with the most irritating complacency, had applauded his sister's performance with perfect sincerity, had kissed his mother goodnight with uncritical affection and was now sitting beside Nell in the carriage in self-satisfied contentment. “Nigel,” Nell ventured, turning to him and fixing her usually laughing eyes on his face, “did you enjoy yourself this evening?”

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