London, June 1814
It was like walking in a dream.
All around him, history paintings, landscapes, allegories, portraits hung one next to the other like puzzle pieces until every space, floor to ceiling was covered.
Jack wandered through the exhibition room of the Royal Academy of Art gazing at the incredible variety, the skill, the beauty of the works. He could not believe he was here.
His regiment had been called back to England a year ago. Napoleon had abdicated, and the army had no immediate need for his services. Jack, like most of the young officers who’d lived through the war, had risen in rank. He’d been promoted to lieutenant, which gave him a bit more money when he went on half-pay. This was his opportunity to do what he pined to do, needed to do. To draw. To paint. To create beauty and forget death and destruction.
Jack had gone directly to Bath, to the home of his mother and sister, the town where his mentor, Sir Cecil Harper, also lived. Sir Cecil had fostered Jack’s need to draw ever since he’d been a boy and he became Jack’s tutor again. Somehow the war had not robbed Jack of the ability to paint. At Sir Cecil’s insistence, he submitted his paintings to the Royal Academy for its summer exhibition. Miraculously the Royal Academy accepted two of them.
They now hung here on the walls of Somerset House, home of the Royal Academy, next to the likes of Lawrence and Fuseli and Turner, in a room crowded with spectators who had not yet left the city for the summer.
Crowds disquieted Jack. The rumble of voices sounded in his ears like distant cannonade and set off memories that threatened to propel him back into the nightmare of war.
A gentleman brushed against him, and Jack almost swung at the man. Luckily the man took no notice. Jack unclenched his fist, but the rumble grew louder and the sensation of cannons, more vivid. His heart beat faster and it seemed as if the room grew darker. This had happened before, a harbinger of a vision. Soon he would be back in battle again, complete with sounds and smells and fears.
Jack closed his eyes and held himself very still, hoping no one could tell the battle he waged inside him. When he opened his eyes again, he gazed up at his sister’s portrait, hung high and difficult to see, as befitted his status as a nobody. The painting grounded him. He was in London, at Somerset House, amid beauty. He smiled gratefully at her image.
“Which painting pleases you so?” a low and musical voice asked.
At Jack’s elbow stood a young woman, breathtakingly lovely, looking precisely as if she had emerged from one of the canvases. For a brief moment he wondered if she too was a trick his mind played on him. Her skin was like silk of the palest rose, beautifully contrasted by her rich auburn hair. Her lips, deep and dusky pink, shimmered as if she’d that moment moistened them with her tongue. Large, sparkling eyes, the green of lush meadows and fringed with long mink-brown lashes, met his gaze with a fleeting expression of sympathy.
“Do say it is the portrait of the young lady.” She pointed to his sister’s portrait.
Tearing his eyes away from her for a moment, he glanced back at his sister’s portrait. “Do you like that one?” he managed to respond.
“I do, indeed.” Her eyes narrowed in consideration. “She is so fresh and lovely. The rendering is most life-like, but that is not the whole of it, I think—” She paused, moistening her lips, and more than Jack’s artistic sensibilities came alive with the gesture. “It is most lovingly painted.”
“Lovingly painted?” Jack glanced back to the painting, but just for a second, because he could not bear to wrest his eyes from her.
“Yes.” She spoke as if conversing with a man to whom she had not been introduced was the most natural thing in the world, as if she were the calm in this room where Jack had just battled old demons. “The young lady’s expression. Her posture. It all bespeaks to emotion, her eagerness to see what the future holds for her and the fondness the artist has for her. It makes her even more beautiful. The painting is quite remarkable indeed.”
Jack could not help but flush with pride.
He’d painted Nancy’s portrait primarily to lure commissions from prospective clients, but it had also given him the opportunity to become reacquainted with the sister who’d been a child when he’d kissed her good-bye before departing for the Peninsula. Nancy was eighteen now and had blossomed into a beauty as fresh and lovely as her portrait had been described. The painting’s exquisite admirer looked to be no more than one or two years older than Nancy. If Jack painted her, however, he’d show a woman who knew precisely what she desired in life.
She laughed and made a dismissive gesture. “I ought not to expect a gentleman to understand emotion.” She gazed back at the painting. “Except the artist. He captures it perfectly.”
He smiled inwardly. If she only knew how often emotion was his enemy, skirmishing with him even in this room.
Again her green eyes sought his. “Did you know the artist has another painting here?” She took his arm. “Come. I will show you. You will be surprised.”
She led him to another corner of the room where, among all the great artists, she had discovered his other painting.
“See?” She pointed to the painting of a British soldier raising the flag at Badajoz. “The one above the landscape. Of the soldier. Look at the emotions of relief and victory and fatigue on the soldier’s face.” She opened her catalogue and scanned the pages. “Victory at Badajoz, it is called, and the artist is Jack Vernon.” Her gaze returned to the painting. “What is so fascinating to me is that Vernon also hints at the amount of suffering the man must have endured to reach this place. Is that not marvelous? It is exactly how I imagine such a victory to feel.”
“You like this one, too, then?” Jack could not have felt more gratified had the President of the Academy, Benjamin West himself, made the comment.
“I do.” She nodded emphatically.
He’d painted Victory at Badajoz to show that fleeting moment when it felt as if the siege of Badajoz had been worth what it cost. She had seen precisely what he’d wanted to convey.
Jack turned to her. “Do you know so much of soldiering?”
She laughed again. “Nothing at all, I assure you. But if I did know something, this is exactly how I would imagine such a moment to feel.” She took his arm again. “Let me show you another.”
She led him to another painting the catalogue listed as The Surrender of Pamplona. Wellington, who only this month had become Duke of Wellington, was shown in Roman garb and on horseback accepting the surrender of the Spanish city of Pamplona, depicted in the painting as a female figure. The painting was stunningly composed and evocative of classical Roman friezes. Its technique was flawless.
“You like this one, as well?” he asked her. “It is well done. Very well done.”
She gave it a dismissive gesture. “It is ridiculous! Wellington in Roman robes.”
He smiled in amusement. “It is allegorical.”
She sent him a withering look. “I know it is allegorical, but do you not think it ridiculous to depict such an event as if it occurred in ancient Rome?” Her gaze swung back to the painting. “Look at it. I do not dispute that it is well done, but it pales in comparison to the other painting of victory, does it not? Where is the emotion in this one?”
He examined the painting again, as she had demanded, but could not resist continuing the debate. “Is it not unfair to compare the two when the aim of each is so different? One is an allegory and the other a history painting.”
She made a frustrated sound and shook her head in dismay. “You do not understand me. I am saying that this artist takes all the meaning, all the emotion, away by making this painting an allegory. A victory in war must be an emotional event, can you not agree? The painting of Badajoz shows this. I much prefer to see how it really was.”
How it really was? If only she knew to what extent he had idealized that moment in Badajoz. He’d not shown the stone of the fortress slick with blood, nor the mutilated bodies, nor the agony of the dying.
He glanced back at his painting. He’d not deliberately set about depicting the emotion of victory in the painting of it. He’d meant only to show he could do more than paint portraits. With the war over, he supposed there might be some interest in military art. If someone wished him to paint a scene from a battle, he would do it, even if he must hide how it really was.
Jack glanced back at his painting and again at the allegory. Some emotion, indeed, had crept into his painting, emotion absent from the other.
He turned his gaze upon the woman. “I do see your point.”
She grinned in triumph. “Excellent.”
“I cede to your expertise on the subject of art.” He bowed.
“Expertise? Nonsense. I know even less of art than of soldiering.” Her eyes sparkled with mischief. “But that does not prevent me from expressing my opinion, does it?”
Jack was suddenly eager to identify himself to her, to let her know he was the artist she so admired. “Allow me to make myself known to you—”
“Ariana!” At that moment an older woman, also quite beautiful, rushed up to her. “I have been searching the rooms for you. There is someone you must meet.”
The young woman gave Jack an apologetic look as her companion pulled on her arm. “We must hurry.”
Jack bowed and the young woman made a hurried curtsey before being pulled away.
Ariana. Jack repeated the name in his mind, a name as lovely and unusual as its bearer.
End of Excerpt. Like it?
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The Siege and Pillaging of Badajoz
Gallant Officer, Forbidden Lady is the first of three books in my Soldiers Series. Each book begins at Badajoz, Spain, in 1812, when the British attacked the fortress town of Badajoz. During the Napoleonic War, Badajoz was of strategic importance to the supply routes that Wellington needed in his efforts to take back Spain from the French. The siege of 1812 would be the third British attempt to take the city and the preparation for the attack lasted a couple of weeks of digging trenches and amassing artillery to pound the high stone walls protecting the city.
When Wellington gave the order to storm the city, it was ten o’clock at night on April 6. The soldiers would climb ladders set against the walls to get into the city. The first soldiers to scale the walls were called a “forlorn hope” and were all volunteers. If they succeeded, they would earn promotions for their bravery, but, being the first, their chances of survival were very slim. At Badajoz, the French sentries sounded the alarm and soon the walls were lined with French soldiers firing down as the British tried to climb. The dead and wounded began to pile up at the bottom of the ditches and men had to climb over their fallen comrades to reach the ladders. One can imagine the terror of scrambling over bodies, and climbing ladders in the night while shot rained down from above.
Wellington was about to stop the siege when the wall was finally breached. Soon the British soldiers were pouring into the city and the French general ordered a retreat, his forces leaving the city and eventually surrendering.
In some ways, though, the horror was just beginning. A rumor flew through the British troops that Wellington authorized three hours of looting. The rumor was false; Wellington never allowed looting, but the damage was done. The British troops vented their revenge for the bloody battle on the innocent citizenry. The looting, pillaging, killing and raping lasted not three hours, but three days. It is into this chaos that Jack Vernon, the hero of Gallant Officer, Forbidden Lady, encounters the two heroes of the next books in the series. What they experience together affects the rest of their lives.
By the morning after the battle of Badajoz, 3,000 dead British soldiers were piled one on top of the other at the bottom of the walls, blood ran like a river in the trenches, and Wellington wept at the sight. The ghastly experience does not excuse the behavior of the British soldiers, but it does partially explain it. Still, the marauders slaughtered 4,000 Spanish civilians, bringing shame upon themselves and the whole British army.
Bernard Cornwell writes of the battle and its aftermath in Sharpe's Company, one of his Richard Sharpe books. Georgette Heyer's The Spanish Bride also begins at Badajoz. The Spanish Bride is her fictionalized account of the true story Juana María de los Dolores de León who was rescued from Badajoz by Major Harry Smith. She married him and became the Lady Smith for which Ladysmith, South Africa, is named.
"The Devil's Own" 88th Regiment at the Siege of Badajoz.
Watercolour en grisaille by Richard Caton Woodville Jr. (1856-1927)
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:: 4.5 Stars! "Gallant Officer, Forbidden Lady is a beautiful story with realistic, excellent characters who mix with but are not part of the upper crust of nobility. The tale is so much more enjoyable because we are afforded a different view of life during this era... Another great novel for Diane Gaston." — Debby Guyette, Cataromance (read the whole
:: 4 Stars! "Gaston displays an innate sense of time and place as she brings her characters from the battlefields of Spain to London's world of theater and the arts. By placing her story in a different venue, she gives readers a glimpse of another "Regency," where commoners live and aristocrats visit. To this
she adds an angst-ridden hero and a spitfire heroine who learn to tackle life and love." — Kathe Robin, RT BOOKreviews (read the whole
:: "Writing with her usual quiet wit and flair for nuanced characterization, Gaston fashions another cleverly crafted historical romance, which includes some fascinating details about the worlds of art and theater during the Regency era." — John Charles, Booklist
:: "From her very first novel, The Mysterious Miss M, this author has created some of the most interesting and vivid characters with dynamic plots which, in my opinion, are unparalleled in this genre.... I think what I love best about Ms. Gaston's work is how she takes you into the back stages of the theatres; the one room garrets of artists; and examines the way they are carving out a living and letting the reader feel the harsh fabric that makes up their lives.... Written with superb sensuality, elegance and originality Ms. Gaston's latest Regency romance Gallant Officer, Forbidden Lady is a must read for fans of this genre and one in which I highly recommend, as well as any of Ms. Gaston’s previous back listed books. This novel continues to prove Ms. Gaston as a gem of an author!" — Marilyn Rondeau, CK's Kwips and Kritiques (read the whole
:: A Perfect 10. "This well researched story is a delightful read, partially because it is from the perspective of average people, not the ton. Matter of fact, Lord Tranville and his son, as representatives of the upper class, give a very poor showing. Ariana, due to her birth, is not a protected, retiring miss, but a believable representation of a woman who, for the times, can make up her own mind about what she wants, including a lover if she wants one. Historical events, the Tranvilles, and the mothers of both Jack and Ariana, provide all the pitfalls, dilemmas and insolvable situations needed to keep happily ever after from taking place. Wonderful characterizations, both heroic and despicable, insure the reader will love this excellent and exciting historical romance, earning Gallant Officer, Forbidden Lady a Perfect 10." — Robin Lee, Romance Reviews Today (read the whole
:: Five Cups! "Gallant Officer, Forbidden Lady is so much more than just a historical romance. To see the struggles that Jack faces with flashbacks is heartbreaking enough. Then to see how vapid his mother is along with how selfish and spoiled both his and Ariana’s mother is with their futures just made me want to scream. Add the thrill of adventure, the chills of wartime, a vile enemy who expects to get everything he demands, and a secondary love story and this is a fitting book that you will fall in love with!" — Danielle, Coffee Time Romance (read the whole
:: 4½. "This is a wickedly delicious novel, filled with complicated relationships and intrigue. The author beautifully captures Jack’s post-traumatic stress, his devotion to his mother and sister, and his growing affection for Ariana. In Ariana we meet a character who is trying to stay true to her values and beliefs. In contrast is Tranville a truly diabolical, manipulative character who engenders dislike from readers. I really loved this book and while I’m not an experienced reader of regency romance, this one will stand out as an excellent depiction of the period. I will definitely be reading more books by Diane Gaston!" — Jeri Neal, Romance Readers Connection (read the whole
:: Four Stars. "Overall: a great story between two people hurt and shaped by their pasts from different walks of life as they find love in a time of war and the hardships they overcome." — Rane's Review, Goodreads (read the whole
:: "Gallant Officer, Forbidden Lady is a serial romance with more depth and interest than most. The cast of characters is broad yet well developed, and historical details are used with great effect. The officer is handsome and brooding, the forbidden lady is stunning and strong. Put them together and you’ve got a great story to while away wintry hours!" — Joyce Greenfield, Reader to Reader Reviews (read the whole
:: "I found Gallant Officer, Forbidden Lady to be a story that looks at the Regency period in a whole new light. Seeing everything from outside of the gentry was a delightful new twist that was refreshing." — Robyn Roberts, Once Upon A Romance (read the whole
:: "Honestly, Diane, a richly detailed, thoroughly smashing read.... I salute you." — Kristine Hughes, author of Writers Guide to Everyday Life in Regency and Victorian England (personal email)
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