June 27, 1993|By Mary Jo Putney

Sept. 16, 1814. The Battle of Baltimore is over and the British are in retreat. Yet some personal battles remain.

Red-haired Rebecca Morrison is the daughter of a veteran of Valley Forge and Yorktown, and like most of her fellow Baltimoreans she is fiercely anti-British. Early in July, former British army Capt. Richard Forrester had come to Baltimore to establish a warehouse for his successful shipping company. He had started his Boston-based business six years earlier, after leaving the British army and immigrating to America.

Hating the conflict between his native and adopted lands, Richard refused to take sides in the war. Though his middle-of-the-road position had infuriated Rebecca, she found his wit and kindness irresistible. Equally captivated by her intelligence and passionate caring, he extended his stay in Baltimore. After a whirlwind courtship, they became engaged. Then the British invasion of the Chesapeake and the burning of Washington triggered an explosive argument that ended the betrothal.

After the successful defense of Baltimore, Rebecca learns that Richard fought with the Maryland militia at the Battle of North Point. Her cousin Thomas, who was also there, said that his inexperienced regiment would have collapsed and run if Richard hadn't rallied them.

Bitterly regretting their estrangement, Rebecca goes to Richard to apologize, and with a secret hope of reconciliation.

Mouth dry, Rebecca swung the brass knocker of the rente house, praying that Richard would be home. After a long wait, the door was opened by his servant, Caleb Jefferson, a black freedman who had accompanied Richard from Boston.

Hesitantly Rebecca said, "Is Captain Forrester home? I -- I need to see him."

Caleb scowled. "Haven't you caused enough trouble, girl?" Rebecca flushed scarlet. "I know that I'm an impulsive fool and nowhere near good enough for Richard. He'll probably refuse to set eyes on me. But still" -- her voice faltered -- "I must try to apologize for the horrible things I said."

Caleb's expression softened. "Knowing you're a fool is a good start. I'll see if the captain will see you."

Tense with nerves, Rebecca paced back and forth across the drawing room. Whatever reputation she still possessed would be ruined by this visit to a man's home, but it was hard to be concerned about propriety after the last tumultuous month.

The door creaked open, followed by slow steps and the sharp tap of crutches. Rebecca swung around, her gaze going to Richard. After weeks of anguish, she wanted nothing more than to walk into his arms and beg his forgiveness, but his forbidding expression stopped her more effectively than a rifle shot. Unable to say what was in her heart, she gestured toward the crutches.

"I didn't know you had been wounded. I'm sorry."

His dark brows arched sardonically. "Sorry that the British troops didn't shoot more accurately?"

She winced, knowing she deserved that. "Of course I don't wish you were dead."

"There's no 'of course' about it," he said dryly. "The last time we spoke, you wished all manner of evil fates on me."

"I say a lot of things that I don't mean," she said quietly. "And I regret them right away."

Why did she have to have such damnably honest gray eyes? And why had he fallen in love with an American hellcat instead of one of the docile English girls he had been raised with?

Because with Rebecca, he had felt fully alive for the first time since . . .

Sharply suppressing the thought, he said, "Saying that you loved me was obviously one of those things that you regretted."

"No!" She took two steps toward him, then stopped, her white face a stark contrast with her fiery hair. "Falling in love with you was the wisest thing I've ever done, and accusing you of cowardice was the most foolish. You can't possibly despise me more than I despise myself."

"Don't torture yourself with recriminations," he said wearily. "We were lucky to discover our mistake before it was too late."

"Can love ever be a mistake?" Tears shimmered in her eyes. "Because I still love you, Richard. I always will."

His fingers whitened on the handgrips of his crutches. "I asked you to trust me, but you didn't. Without trust, I don't see how there can be love." He turned and limped toward the door, heart aching. "Goodbye, Rebecca. I'll be going back to Boston in a few days, so I don't suppose we'll meet again."

"Richard, please," she whispered.

He paused, then reluctantly turned back to her. "Yes?"

Hands clenched into fists, she struggled to find the right words, for this was the last chance she would ever have to change his mind.

OK, writers, take it from here.

About this contest

We asked Baltimore's Mary Jo Putney, one of America's most successful romance novelists, to dream up a romance-novel situation set in Baltimore during the War of 1812. She has written the opening pages of the last chapter of a mythical book called "Dawn's Early Light." Now, you must write your own ending.

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