In the war against Napoleon, Major Lord Mark Adair is a master of disguise, assigned to study the landscape, troop positions, and fortifications inside enemy territory. Ashamed of spying, he'd rather be fighting on the front lines. Until he finds a more pleasant opponent to cross swords with...
Sophia Featherstonaugh is an artist of exquisite talentand rather a work of art herself. The stepdaughter of a general, she has spent her whole life amongst the military, accustomed to the flirtations of the soldiers, and battling off their advances. But never has any man taken an interest in her paintings like Major Adaira gentleman skilled in not only the art of war, but the art of love...
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Major Lord Mark Adair swept the horizon with his spyglass one last time before closing it and sliding it back in his saddlebag. Then mounting a powerful chestnut horse who had been waiting patiently while his master surveyed the fortress below, he galloped back up the headland overlooking San Sebastian and headed back toward headquarters.
Lesaca was some ten miles away, and having spent the better part of the day in the hot July sun, observing and sketching possible approaches to the fortified city on the isthmus that connected the fort to the shore, the major was looking forward to a drink and a meal. He leaned over his horse's neck, urging it to a gallop. Caesar, who had spent his day standing quietly while his master worked, was only too happy to oblige, and they thundered along the rough road, leaving a trail of dust in their wake.
At last, as the sun was beginning its slow descent, they climbed their final hill before headquarters and, reaching the top, pulled up in astonishment, for there, not twenty yards away, as unconcerned as if she were on her family estate instead of the middle of a field between two opposing armies, sat a young woman, leaning forward as she examined the easel in front of her and then reached up with her brush to apply a few careful strokes. She paused, her brush in midair as she surveyed the scene in front of her, selected another color, and added a few more strokes to the picture.
Curiosity overcame his astonishment. Mark dismounted and walked toward the artist, who seemed blissfully unaware that she had taken her seat and set up her easel in the middle of a war. "Buenos dias, señorita," he began courteously.
The youngwoman whirled around, her large hazel eyes, shaded by the brim of a straw-colored satin bonnet, were wide with surprise. In one glance she took in the dragoon's uniform, the dusty but superbly constructed boots, the unmistakably English horse, and let out a gentle sigh. "Good day, Major."
"You are English?" It was astounding enough to discover a woman in such surroundings, but to come across an Englishwoman was even more incredible. What sort of woman would sit so calmly in a field where soldiers from the Spanish, French, Portuguese, or British armies, not to mention guerillas of all sorts, could happen upon her. For a moment. Lord Mark was too nonplussed to respond. "My dear young woman, what on earth can have possessed you to wander off alone in such a manner? Do you have no idea..."
"That there is a war on? Of course I do, and I would venture to say that I have been aware of it longer than you have." Observing that the major was still having difficulty with the entire concept of her presence, the young woman took pity on him. Her expression of haughty annoyance softened a little. "I do have a groom with me." She nodded toward a lone tree several yards away where a man was sitting in the shade, a rifle in his lap and pistols in his belt, his gaze sweeping the countryside. Next to him stood two horses, one of which appeared to have another musket secured to its saddle.
"Well that is something at least, but one could hardly say that this is the proper place, or even a safe one, for a young lady."
"I appreciate your concern. Major." There was no mistaking the sarcastic tone of her voice. "But I have lived among soldiers my entire life and in the middle of the war for the past four years. I assure you, I am well aware of the state of affairs here in the Peninsula. Now if you will excuse me, the light is beginning to fade." She dabbed her brush in another color of paint and turned back to her easel.
It was a clear dismissal, but he was not about to accept it. No woman ever before had ignored Lord Mark Adair, second son of the Duke of Cranleigh. Ever since he had kissed his first tavern wench outside the taproom of the King's Head in Cranleigh, Lord Mark had been the object of female attention, from the fluttering eyelashes of well brought-up young ladies to the more frankly appreciative smiles of opera dancers and Cyprians of all types. While he did not necessarily share their view of him as a wealthy and attractive prize worthy of capture, he was not accustomed to being dismissed so summarily. Actually, he was more intrigued by her obvious lack of interest in him than he was by her abrupt dismissal.
Ignoring her clear desire for his departure, he strode closer to get a better look at her work. The power of her picture took him by surprise. It was the scene in front of him, golden hills rolling off into the distance dotted by the occasional tree--yet it was not the same scene. She had invested it with all the passion of the wild blasts of wind that swept down from the Pyrenees and the restless energy that one felt under the broad expanse of the bright blue sky. It was a picture of the Spanish landscape, but it was more than that; it was a portrait of freedom itself, and it quite took his breath away.
"It is superb." The comment was wrenched out of him before he could even think of what he wanted to say.
"You are too kind." It was obvious from the ironic note in her voice that she had heard similar remarks countless times before.
"I am sure that more than one admiring officer has compared your style to Turner's, but in some ways I prefer yours. It is cleaner, without sacrificing the intensity. To achieve that effect in watercolors rather than oil must take a good deal of skill, not to mention years of practice."
That caught her attention. In fact, no one ever had compared her to Turner, and she would have been willing to bet that not many of the officers who, in their attempts to win her attention, told her how talented she was would have been able to name one painter born after Michelangelo. She turned to observe the officer more closely. Surprisingly enough, there was not a hint of guile in his dark eyes or the thin well-shaped lips. In fact, looking at the painting more closely, he seemed to have forgotten her entirely. Strolling over to the easel he tilted his head to one side and then the other, examining it carefully. Then he gazed off into the distance and back again at the picture.
So, he truly had meant what he said. A man bent on flattery would have been studying the artist rather than the picture, gauging the effect of his compliments on her and taking advantage of that effect rather than appreciating the finer points of her technique. This man, however, studied her picture with the intensity and concentration of a connoisseur and she could not help being intrigued by his indifference to her.
All her life Sophia Featherstonaugh, the darling of her father's regiment, had been surrounded by men, and she was more than accustomed to being the object of their attention. As the daughter of Lord Harry Featherstonaugh, one of England's most attractive wastrels, a daughter whose hopes had been continually raised and then just as regularly dashed by a man who promised everything and gave nothing, Sophia had become immune to masculine charm at a very tender age, having learned when she was very young, just how deceptive flattery could be.
Cocking her head to one side she studied the officer carefully as he continued to examine her work. As an artist she had trained herself to observe closely, to read the personality in the features. But there was no need for close observation here; everything about the man spoke of an energy and determination, not to mention courage, from the white line of a scar across his temple to the powerful shoulders, slim hips, and strong, lean hands of a cavalry officer. The tanned angular face with its high cheekbones and long narrow nose wore the expression of a man accustomed to dominating every situation, and there was an intensity of purpose in the dark brown eyes that was almost palpable. Only the mouth was at odds with this impression. The finely sculpted lips belied an elusive sensitivity that was so well hidden it might have been missed by the ordinary observer, but not by Sophia. She not only saw it, she sensed it in the way he looked at her picture, focusing all of his attention on it as though he were committing it to memory.
At last he sighed and stepped back. "Amazing what a sense of force a few well-delivered brush strokes can convey. You have captured the twists in that wind-blasted tree exactly, though how you can tell it from here I cannot fathom. I passed it so I know, but you..."
"I have been training myself to observe everything for years, to remember the touch and feel of it all so I can capture it later."
"You not only capture it, you invest it with a life of its own. Tell me, can you do the same thing if someone only describes it to you instead of your seeing it for yourself?"
"I ... well, I cannot say. I have never tried it before. I am not an imaginative painter; I do not create pictures in my mind before I put them on paper. I am merely an illustrator, painting what I see--people, horses, the countryside around me."
"This"--he waved a hand toward her picture--"is no mere faithful representation of a scene. It is passion itself. It shows the forces of nature at work. It makes the observer feel the wind in his face and the sun beating down upon his back."
"Why thank you." Sophia was pleased in spite of herself. Ordinarily she did not like to discuss her pictures with anyone, for they were too personal, too much a part of her to share with strangers who, more often than not, were more likely to base their comments on the way they felt toward the artist than the way they reacted to the picture. This man was different. It was clear that at this moment, he was far more interested in the painting than in its painter and Sophia did not know whether to feel flattered or insulted.
"Do you think if I described something to you, you could draw it?"
"I could try." She sounded doubtful.
"I have been reconnoitering over by San Sebastian and I have drawn a rough map of the area, but if I had a picture to show the men leading the attack it would make it all much clearer to them. Here." He pulled a crumpled piece of paper from his pocket and held it out to her.
Sophia studied it for a moment and then reached for her sketchbook, rifling through it in search of a blank sheet of paper.
"Wait a minute." Lord Mark put his hand out to stop her as he caught sight of a sketch of Wellington in laughing conversation with his secretary. Lord Fitzroy Somerset. "This is wonderful! So very like him, yet unlike any of the formal portraits which always portray him as a stern visionary. You show a side of him that anyone who spends time in his company sees. And Somerset, here, is given the importance he deserves for, in my opinion, he is a man whose value is severely underestimated. Both of them are as real as if they were sitting right here in front of us. You must know them well. Is your father attached to headquarters then?"
"It is nothing"--Sophia hastily flipped over the paper to a blank sheet--"just a rough impression I happened to do one evening after dinner. Now what did you wish me to draw?"
Mark looked at her curiously for a moment. Ordinarily young ladies were more than eager to show off their accomplishments to admiring gentlemen, but this one, who actually possessed the Urumea River is on the eastern side of the isthmus and at low tide it is possible to ford it, but it will be tough going. All around the mouth of the river are sand hills that will afford an excellent position to set up batteries, but will make it difficult for troops to climb down, for they will be extremely vulnerable to the French artillery, and then the stretch of sand and the shallow water our troops will be forced to cross to reach the town is nearly two hundred yards. The tide is such that the entire operation will have to be accomplished in broad daylight and without support from our navy."
Sophia began sketching slowly as he spoke, using his maps as an outline and adding detail as he pointed out a ridge here, a grassy slope there, and a seawall there, and the expanse of sandy soil that could be easily dug for trenches. At last they were done and Mark gazed at the picture with satisfaction. "Excellent. That is very like it and it will make my task of reporting it a great deal easier. I thank you. But now"--he glanced off to the west, where the sun was beginning to slip behind the rugged hills--"I fear that not only is the light fading, but I have taken up so much of your time that soon there will be very little of it left at all. May I help you gather up your things by way of an apology and escort you back to..."
"Thank you, no. I mean, that is very kind of you, but I would like to add one or two more touches."
He had never known a woman so eager to be rid of him, or to be so closemouthed about herself. Usually, given half a chance, every female of his acquaintance would have prattled on about her pictures, her friends, her family, and her admirers until he knew more than he cared to about every detail of her existence. As it was, he did not even know where this woman had come from; she had completely ignored his attempt to discover that as well as the identity of her father. "Well, good evening, then. And thank you, for your assistance."
Throwing himself on Caesar's back he rode off toward headquarters, leaving her there in the middle of the field, her easel in front of her, knowing no more about her than if she had sprung up from the every earth where he had found her, nothing, that was, except that she was a very powerful and talented artist.