Just one more month till my release day, so it's time for another excerpt.
The Sergeant's Lady is above all a love story, but it's also a war story. In today's excerpt my hero and heroine are on the run from the French, trying to take word of an ambush back to their own army.
Key historical detail for understanding the action: All the weapons Will and Anna have access to are single-shot. Well-drilled soldiers could manage up to three shots a minute with the standard-issue Brown Bess muskets; Will is using Baker rifles, which were more accurate but slower to load.
Anna stared at the French horsemen, still tiny figures in the distance. She counted only four and hoped that meant going east rather than south had worked. Four against two. Four against one, really.
“What do we do?” she asked.
“Take cover and hope they don’t see us.” Will scrambled behind a large boulder and pulled her after him.
“And if they do?”
“I shoot them.” He watched them approach, his face still.
“All four of them?”
“Maybe. I can take two shots quickly, one per rifle, but then it’ll take me about a minute to reload one.”
He put the pistol into her hands. It was heavier than it looked. She held it away from her as though it stank. She had never fired a gun.
“It’s primed,” he said. “All you have to do is cock it and squeeze the trigger. Don’t shoot unless they’re upon us before I can reload, and then only at close range—else you’ll waste the shot. Understand?”
She stared at the pistol. It looked gigantic in her small hands.
“Mrs. Arrington, look at me.” She turned her head and met his steady amber eyes. “You fought Colonel Robuchon, and you marched through the night as well as any rifleman. I have no doubt that you can fire this pistol—damn!”
They were spotted. The French riders, now about three hundred yards away, pointed toward them and wheeled their horses about.
Her heart pounded, and through a haze she watched Will raise the first rifle, steady it—and wait. What was he doing? Surely they were in range, and he needed to act quickly to have time to reload. But he waited, cloaked in a strange calm, as the horsemen rode nearer. Anna’s breath raced, but his was steady.
At last he fired. The flash of the gunpowder and the noise of the shot dazed her. The lead rider toppled from his mount and lay still. Lightning-fast, Will set the first rifle down, picked up the second, and fired it with equal success. Anna felt horrified awe at how steadily he went about his deadly work. It was worse than in yesterday’s battle, now that she could see his targets.
He began to reload in a flurry of quick motions.
The remaining troopers halted at the bottom of the slope, which was too steep for their horses. “Wait,” one of them cried in French. “If you surrender, the lady will not be harmed.”
They made no such promise for Will, and Anna knew she would never be safe under Colonel Robuchon’s power. “No,” she called.
“So be it.” They surveyed the steep slope before them, dismounted and charged toward them at a scrambling run.
Anna looked wildly at Will. He wasn’t finished, and even then he would have only the one shot.
With shaking hands she cocked the pistol’s hammer, raised it and waited. Her heart galloped and a dizzy wave of nausea rushed through her. When the Frenchmen were not five feet away, she fired at what she thought was the leader’s heart, but her arm jerked as she squeezed the trigger. Her shot hit his throat. He fell at her feet but lived, bloody and horrible, gasping for gurgling breaths.
The loud report of a rifle sounded in her already ringing ears, and their final attacker fell dead. His detachment gone, Will stood beside her, wild-eyed and breathing hard. The stench of blood and gunpowder smoke hung in the air.
She looked down at the man she had shot. So young he was, no more than twenty, and sweet-faced. Perhaps she could dig the ball out. She could tear strips from her petticoat to make bandages. She sank to her knees.
Dimly her mind registered the sounds of Will reloading again. When he was done, he gently nudged her aside. She watched, transfixed, as Frenchman and Englishman engaged in a wordless communion. After a moment Will lifted the rifle and raised his eyebrows questioningly. The French boy swallowed, closed his eyes and nodded.
Will pointed the rifle straight at his chest.
“Merci,” the soldier gasped.
Will fired. Anna knelt, paralyzed in horror, then leaned forward and retched.
Copyright 2010 by Susanna Fraser
Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A.