September 21, 1808
Dear Captain Logan MacKenzie,
There is but one consolation in writing this absurd letter. And that is that you, my dear delusion, do not exist to read it.
But I run ahead of myself. Introductions first.
I am Madeline Eloise Gracechurch. The greatest ninny to ever draw breath in England. This will come as a shock, I fear, but you fell deeply in love with me when we did not cross paths in Brighton. And now we are engaged.
Maddie could not remember the first time she’d held a drawing pencil. She only knew she could not recall a time she’d been without one.
In fact, she usually carried two or three. She kept them tucked in her apron pockets and speared in her upswept dark hair, and sometimes—when she needed all her limbs for climbing a tree or vaulting a fence rail—clenched in her teeth.
And she wore them down to nubs. She sketched songbirds when she was supposed to be minding her lessons, and she sketched church mice when she was meant to be at prayer. When she had time to ramble out of doors, anything in Nature was fair game—from the shoots of clover between her toes to any cloud that meandered overhead.
She loved to draw anything. Well, almost anything.
She hated drawing attention to herself.
And thus, at sixteen years old, she found herself staring down her first London season with approximately as much joy as one might anticipate a dose of purgative.
After many years as a widower, Papa had taken a new wife. One a mere eight years older than Maddie herself. Anne was cheerful, elegant, lively. Every- thing her new stepdaughter was not.
Oh, to be Cinderella in all her soot-smeared, rag-clad misery. Maddie would have been thrilled to have a wicked stepmother lock her in the tower while everyone else went to the ball. Instead, she was stuck with a very different sort of stepmother— one eager to dress her in silks, send her to dances, and thrust her into the arms of an unsuspecting prince.
Figuratively, of course.
At best, Maddie was expected to fetch a third son with aspirations to the Church, or perhaps an insolvent baronet.
At worst . . .
Maddie didn’t do well in crowds. More to the point, she didn’t do anything in crowds. In any large gathering—be it a market, a theater, a ballroom— she had a tendency to freeze, almost literally. An arctic sense of terror took hold of her, and the crush of bodies rendered her solid and stupid as a block of ice.
The mere thought of a London season made her shudder.
And yet, she had no choice.
While Papa and Anne (she could not bring her- self to address a twenty-four-year-old as Mama) en- joyed their honeymoon, Maddie was sent to a ladies’ rooming house in Brighton. The sea air and society were meant to coax her out of her shell before her season commenced.
It didn’t quite work that way.
Instead, Maddie spent most of those weeks with shells. Collecting them on the beach, sketching them in her notebook, and trying not to think about parties or balls or gentlemen.
On the morning she returned, Anne greeted her with a pointed question. “There now. Are you all ready to meet your special someone?”
That was when Maddie panicked. And lied. On the spur of the moment, she concocted an outrageous falsehood that would, for better and worse, determine the rest of her life.
“I’ve met him already.”
The look of astonishment on her stepmother’s face was immensely satisfying. But within seconds, Maddie realized how stupid she’d been. She ought to have known that her little statement wouldn’t put paid to the matter. Of course it only launched a hundred other questions.
When is he coming here?
Oh, er . . . He can’t. He wanted to, but he had to leave the country at once.
Because he’s in the army. An officer.
What of his family? We at least should meet them.
But you can’t. He’s from too far away. All the way in Scotland. And also, they’re dead.
At least tell us his name.
MacKenzie. His name is Logan MacKenzie.
Logan MacKenzie. Suddenly her not-real suitor had a name. By the end of the afternoon, he had hair (brown), eyes (blue), a voice (deep, with a Highland burr), a rank (captain), and a personality (firm, but intelligent and kind).
And that evening, at her family’s urging, Maddie sat down to write him a letter.
. . . Right this moment, they think I am writing a letter to my secret kilted betrothed, and I am filling a page with nonsense instead, just praying no one looks over my shoulder. Worst of all, I shall have no choice but to post the thing when I’m done. It will end up in some military dead letter office. I hope. Or it will be read and passed around whole regiments for ridicule, which I would richly deserve.
Stupid, stupid, stupid. Now the clock is ticking, and when it strikes doom I will have to confess. I will firstly be compelled to explain that I lied about attracting a handsome Scottish officer while staying in Brighton. Then, when I do, I shall have no further excuse to avoid the actual rejection of countless English gentlemen come spring.
My dear imaginary Captain MacKenzie, you are not real and never will be. I, however, am a true and eternal fool.
Here, have a drawing of a snail.
October 5, 1808
Dear not-really-a-Captain MacKenzie,
On second thought, perhaps I won’t have to explain it this year. I might be able to stretch this for a whole season. I must admit, it’s rather convenient. And my family looks at me in a whole new light. I am now a woman who inspired at least one headlong tumble into everlasting love, and really—isn’t one enough?
Because, you see, you are mad for me. Utterly consumed with passion after just a few chance meetings and walks along the shore. You made me a great many promises. I was reluctant to accept them, knowing how our nascent love would be tested by distance and war. But you assured me that your heart is true, and I . . .
And I have read too many novels, I think.
November 10, 1808
Dear Captain MacWhimsy,
Is there anything more mortifying than bearing witness to one’s own father’s love affair? Ugh. We all knew he needed to remarry and produce an heir. To take a young, fertile wife made the most sense. I just didn’t expect him to enjoy it so much, or with so few nods to dignity. Curse this endless war and its effect of hampering proper months-long honeymoons. They disappear together every afternoon, and then I and the servants must all pretend to not know what they are doing. I shudder.
I know I should be happy to see them both happy, and I am. Rather. But until this heir-making project takes root, I think I shall be writing you fewer letters and taking a great many walks.
December 18, 1808
Dear Captain MacFantasy,
I have a new accomplice. My aunt Thea has come to stay. In her youth she was a scandalous demimondaine, ruined at court in France by a wicked comte, but she’s frail and harmless now.
Aunt Thea adores the idea that I’m suffering with love and anxiety for my endangered Scottish officer. I scarcely have to lie at all. “Of course Madeline doesn’t wish to attend parties and balls in London! Can’t you see, the poor dear is eaten with worry for her Captain MacKenzie.”
Truly, it’s a bit frightening how much she cherishes my misery. She has even convinced my father that I should be served breakfasts in my room now, like a married lady or an invalid. I am excused from anything resembling public merriment, I am per- mitted to spend as much time as I please sketching in peace. Chocolate and toast are delivered to my bedside every morning, and I read the newspaper even before Papa has his turn.
I am starting to believe you were a stroke of brilliance.
June 26, 1809
Dear Captain Imaginary MacFigment,
O happy day! Ring the bells, sound the trumpets. Swab the floors with lemon oil. My father’s bride is vomiting profusely every morning, and most every afternoon, as well. The signs are plain. A noisy, smelly, writhing thing will push its way into the world in some six or seven months’ time. Their joy is complete, and I am pushed further and further to the margins of it.
No matter. We have the rest of the world, you and I. Aunt Thea helps me chart the routes of your campaign. She tells me stories about the French countryside so that I might imagine the sights that will greet you as you drive Napoleon to the other side of the Pyrenees. When you smell lavender, she says, victory is near.
I must remind myself to appear sad from time to time, as though I’m worried for you. Sometimes, oddly enough, it’s quite an easy thing to pretend.
Stay well and whole, my captain.
December 9, 1809
Oh, my dear captain,
You will be put out with me. I know I swore my heart to be true, but I must confess. I have fallen in love. Lost my heart to another, irrevocably. His name is Henry Edward Gracechurch. He weighs just a half stone, he’s pink and wrinkled all over . . . and he is perfect. I don’t know how I ever called him a thing. A more beautiful, charming angel never existed.
Now that Papa has an heir, our estate shall never pass to The Dreaded American, and I will never be thrown into genteel poverty. This means I do not have to marry, and I no longer need a fictional Scottish suitor to explain it.
I could claim that we’ve grown apart, put an end to all these silly letters and lies. But Aunt Thea is ever so fond of you by now, and I am ever so fond of her. Besides, I would miss writing.
It’s the oddest thing. I do not understand myself. But sometimes I fancy that you do.
November 9, 1810
(Surely we can claim a Christian-name familiarity by now.)
What follows is an exercise in pure mortification. I can’t even believe I’m going to write it down, but perhaps putting it on paper and sending it away will help rid me of the stupid habit. You see, I have a pillow. It’s a fine pillow, all stuffed with goose down. Quite firm and big. Almost a bolster, really. At night I put it on one side of the bed and place a hot brick beneath it to warm it all up. Then I nestle up alongside it, and if I close my eyes and fall into that half-sleep place . . . I can almost believe it’s you. Beside me. Keeping me warm and safe. But it’s not you, because it is a pillow and you are not even a real person. And I am a bug. But now I’ve grown so accustomed to the thing, I can’t sleep without it. The nights simply stretch too long and lonely.
Wherever you are, I hope you are sleeping well. Sweet dreams, Captain MacPillow.
July 17, 1811
My dear Highland laird and captain,
You have pulled off quite a trick for a man who is no more than a pillow stuffed with lies and embroidered with a hint of personality. You are going to be a land- owner. Aunt Thea has convinced my godfather, the Earl of Lynforth, to leave me a little something in his will. That “little something” being a castle in the Scottish Highlands. Lannair Castle, it’s called. It is meant to be our home when you return from war. That is the perfect ending to this masterpiece of absurdity, isn’t it?
Dear Lord. A castle.
March 16, 1813
Dear captain of my heart’s true folly,
Little Master Henry and Miss Emma are growing like reeds. I’ve enclosed a sketch. Thanks to their doting mama, they have learnt to say their nightly prayers. And every night—my heart twists to write it—they pray for you. “God bless and keep our brave Captain MacKenzie.” Well, the way Emma says it, it sounds more like “Cap’n Macaroni.” And each time they pray for you, I feel my own soul sliding ever closer to brimstone. This has all gone too far, and yet—if I were to reveal my lie, they would despise me. And mourn you. After all, it’s been almost five years since we did not meet in Brighton.
You are part of our family now.
June 20, 1813
My dear, silent friend,
It breaks my heart, but I have to do it. I must. I can’t bear the guilt any longer. There’s only one way to end this now.
You have to die.
I’m so sorry. You can’t know how sorry. I prom- ise, I’ll make it a valiant death. You’ll save four—no, six—other men in a feat of courage and noble sac- rifice. As for me, I’m devastated. These are genuine tears dotting this parchment. The mourning I shall wear for you will be real, as well. It’s as though I’m killing off part of myself—the part that had all those romantic, if foolish, hopes. I will settle into life as a spinster now, just as I always knew I would. I will never be married. Or held, or loved. Maybe if I write those things out, I’ll get used to the truth of them. It’s time to stop lying and put aside dreaming.
My darling, departed Captain MacKenzie . . . Adieu.