This was written for my publisher to put on a promotional site for Once a Soldier. It takes place a few months before the beginning of the book, and sets the scene for what is to come.
Porto, Portugal 1808
Villa Ballard on a hill high above the Douro River
“There’s a man here to see you, sir,” a soft female voice said politely.
Justin Ballard glanced up from the desk where he was efficiently packing ledgers and other important papers. One of the young maids, Pia, had entered his office with a lamp. He hadn’t noticed that night was falling. “Who is it?”
“He didn’t say. Tall and broad and dressed like a donkey driver but…” the girl hesitated. “He’s no donkey driver.”
“Send him in then.” Justin quietly checked his loaded pistol in a right hand desk drawer. In these troubled times, it was wise to be prepared.
By the time Justin finished packing the current box, his visitor had arrived in the office. A large man with a silent tread and even in the shadows, a very familiar face.
“Will!” Justin crossed the large room in half a dozen strides and clasped the hand of Will Masterson, a close friend since school days. “Out of uniform, I see. What are you doing in Porto?”
“A quiet social visit,” Will said with a grin. “And hopes of food and maybe a bed for the night?”
“Bring a tray with a large amount of food,” Justin ordered Pia, who had followed curiously. “My friend eats like a small pack of wolves.”
“Tonight, more like a large pack of wolves.” Will peeled off his long, heavy coat and smiled at the maid.
Pia blushed and withdrew. Justin opened his drinks cabinet and brought out a bottle of good Portuguese red. After pouring two tumblers of wine, he handed one to Will and gestured him to the comfortable wingchairs by the small fire. “Have your superiors sent you to observe since you speak the language and know me?”
“I can’t officially confirm that.” Will settled wearily into the chair and took an appreciative swallow of the wine. “But you always did guess well.”
Information sharing went both ways. “I’ll be happy to tell you what I’ve heard, but first, how goes the fighting against the French?”
Will frowned. “Not well. We need more seasoned troops, the sooner the better.” He took another swallow of wine, then gestured at the rather chaotic office. “Being the observant sort, I’m guessing that Ballard Port may close its offices and retreat to Britain?”
“Exactly so.” Justin glumly swirled the wine in his tumbler. “There will be major fighting across northern Portugal soon, and Porto will be a major target. Any chance I’m wrong?”
“No chance at all. Did your father order you back home?”
“Worse! He had my mother write me instead.” Justin chuckled. His family was close, and they knew which levers to use to manipulate each other. “She said she didn’t want me to prove how brave I am. Much better to withdraw in an orderly way until better times.”
“I suppose Ballard House has had experience with orderly withdrawals.”
“It’s the nature of the wine shipping business. I filled the hold of two good sized ships with casks of our wine. It can age in Britain instead of here.” Justin paused when Pia entered with a heavy tray of food that she set on the table between him and Will. It occurred to him that he hadn’t eaten all day himself. “Obrigado, Pia. You can retire for the night now.”
As Pia bobbed a curtsey and left the office, Will lifted the lid from a deep pottery baking dish, releasing fragrant steam. “Smells wonderful! Chicken in red wine?”
“One of my cook’s specialties.” Justin ladled generous quantities into two colorful pottery bowls, and for a time there was silence as they ate enthusiastically. With bread, cheese, and olives on the side, the stew was a hearty meal.
After sopping up the last of his third bowl of stew with a chunk of crusty bread, Will asked, “How thorough is your withdrawal? It would be useful to have you here if I pass this way again, but it looks like you’re closing the house.”
“Not entirely.” Justin poured more wine for them and pushed a small dish of sugared almonds in Will’s direction. “I’m packing the business papers and most valuable artworks and such like. The best furniture will be stored in a room in the basement where it may or may not survive looting, arson, and other evils of war. Several servants will stay in the house and I’ll let them know you’re welcome even if I’m absent. But they’re under strict orders not to risk their lives protecting Ballard property. A house can be replaced. Good people are more valuable.”
“That’s wise business.” Will tasted an almond, than collected several more. “What about the Ballard warehouse across the river in Vila da Gaia?”
“It’s almost empty, but my overseer is there to conduct what business he can and to help our regular suppliers if they get burned out and need to regroup. Ballard House has resources and we take care of our own.” Justin smiled. “Good business, you know.”
Will sighed and settled wearily back in his chair, crossing his long legs at the ankle. “When these damnable wars are over, Portugal and Spain will need all the help they can get from foreign companies like yours.”
“Portugal is as much my home as Scotland,” Justin said, knowing that if not for his mother’s plea, he would stay in Porto and take his chances. “There’s Portuguese blood in my veins. Port wine is the foundation of the Ballard fortune and we will never abandon this country for good.” He chuckled. “Scots know when to retreat, but not how to surrender.”
“Britain’s fortunes are built on ships and the sea, which puts you in a grand tradition,” Will said with a smile. “The wars won’t last forever, and you’ll be back in better days.”
“What about you, Will?” Justin asked seriously. “When the wars finally end, will you stay in the army or return to the peaceful life of a landed gentleman in Oxfordshire?”
Will shrugged. “Chances are I won’t survive that long, Justin,” he said calmly. “It’s been a damned near thing more than once. My soldier’s luck won’t last forever.”
Justin felt the hair at his nape prickle at Will’s calm fatalism. Thinking his friend’s chances of survival would be better if he could imagine a different future, he said, “I’d be willing to put good money on your continued survival. So indulge me. Spin a future for yourself.”
“If you insist.” Will frowned. “If and when peace arrives, I’ll sell out. I suppose I’d settle into Hayden Hall and become a curmudgeonly old man with hounds snoring underfoot. Now and then I’ll go to London and bore my friends with war stories while I drink Ballard port.”
Justin smiled. Will Masterson was known for his calm, relaxed nature, but he was never boring. “The day may come when the idea of remarrying and starting a family might seem possible,”
“That’s beyond my imagination,” Will said dryly. “What about you? Surely you’ll want to marry and raise new little Ballards to run the business.”
“I like the idea in principle,” Justin said, because it was a topic he’d considered. “But finding the right wife will be difficult. I need an educated and adventurous woman who is willing to live her life between Portugal and Britain.”
“Such women exist,” Will observed.
“But are not easily found,” Justin said wryly. “How about a toast to the unknown future, and happy endings that we can’t currently imagine?”
“I’ll drink to that.” Will raised his glass in a toast. “To futures!”
Justin clinked his glass against that of his friend. “And may we both have one!”