Soldiers & Soulmates

Delib­er­ate­ly, Char­lotte moved her palms to the broad wall of his chest. His heart beat out of con­trol under­neath her fin­ger­tips. She pushed against him and pulled back, break­ing the kiss.

Gray, we must stop,” she said gen­tly, sound­ing per­fect­ly in con­trol but know­ing her heart beat as fast as his did.

He looked at her in con­fu­sion a moment, then those beau­ti­ful blue eyes flick­ered with desire. The yearn­ing she saw almost broke her resolve and Char­lotte forced her­self to keep from hun­gri­ly kiss­ing him again. Instead, she brought a palm to his cheek, feel­ing the slight stub­ble against it.

Are you all right now?”

His hand went to her wrist and encir­cled it, his thumb slow­ly stroking the del­i­cate under­side, mak­ing her pulse jump.

I would say I’m sor­ry … but it would be a lie,” he said, his voice low and rough.

She bit her trem­bling low­er lip, not trust­ing her­self to speak.

His oth­er hand went to her waist a moment and then he pushed him­self to his feet, bring­ing her with him. Her thumb stroked his cheek once, rev­el­ing in the feel of him.

You were hav­ing a night­mare,” she said softly.

His brow creased. “I can’t seem to rid myself of them,” he admit­ted. “There were times I had to fol­low orders that were giv­en … and even times I issued orders myself … that caused the deaths of men under my com­mand. It’s impos­si­ble to let go. I hear the anguished cries of the dying. The dreams can be vivid.” He swal­lowed. “I’ve tried to stop feeling—because with feel­ing comes vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty. I already hurt so much for those who were lost.”

War is sav­age. The atroc­i­ties you saw may nev­er leave you. But Gray, you and your com­mand­ing offi­cers only did what you thought best. The loss of life is inevitable in bat­tle. Please don’t keep hold­ing your­self responsible.”

He shook his head. “I’m sor­ry you saw me like this.”

I only hope I brought some com­fort to you. I was afraid to awak­en you.”

Instead, he’d awak­ened some­thing with­in her that would nev­er give her rest.

Why would I need to work with Mr. Nichol­son?” Gem­ma asked the spymaster.

Because he is a trained field agent. And if you’re caught in someone’s res­i­dence in a room where you shouldn’t be, you can pre­tend you are hav­ing a tryst with him.”

Burke saw the blush spread across her cheeks.

So … Mr. Nichol­son would be my cov­er if that occurred. That we are hav­ing an affair.”

Yes, my lady. His job is to play the rogue. The wom­an­iz­er. He’ll be woo­ing oth­er women. Look­ing for infor­ma­tion, as well. But he’ll also pre­tend to be involved with you. You’ll need to attend some par­ties togeth­er. Meet up at oth­ers. He is there to pro­tect you while you both seek out infor­ma­tion which will prove the trai­tors involved and the depth of their betray­al. We are talk­ing about high­ly placed gen­tle­men in soci­ety, Lady Cov­ing­ton. The proof will have to be irrefutable.”

I’ll do it,” she said, deter­mi­na­tion in her voice.

It’s too dan­ger­ous,” Burke blurt­ed out.

She gazed at him cool­ly. “That’s what you’ll be there for, Mr. Nichol­son. To make sure that dan­ger doesn’t find me. And if it does? You’ll extri­cate me from it.”

Left unsaid was that Burke hadn’t been able to do that for her husband.

All right,” he said gruffly and looked to Mor­ris. “On one condition.”

Name it,” the spy­mas­ter said.

That she learns how to defend herself.”

Why?” she asked. “Isn’t that some­thing you can take care of?”

I can’t be every­where with you all the time. If a sit­u­a­tion aris­es, you need to know how to fire a gun. And how you can immo­bi­lize a man.” He glanced back to Morris.

The spy­mas­ter nod­ded. “Go ahead. Get her ready. You have one week until the Sea­son begins.”

The duke asked, “Would you like a sher­ry? Or a brandy, my lady?”

She real­ly shouldn’t. But the thought of nev­er hav­ing time alone with him again made her reckless.

A brandy would be love­ly, Your Grace.”

He poured the amber liq­uid into two glass­es and joined her on the set­tee. Rais­ing his glass, he said, “To friends—both old and new.”
Ash­lyn sipped the liq­uid, which burned a path to her bel­ly, spread­ing warmth through­out her.

But the heat that was already present before her first sip was due to the pres­ence of the man beside her.

Gil­ford drained his tum­bler. He lift­ed her tum­bler from her fin­gers and set both aside, gaz­ing at her intent­ly until she grew so warm, she thought she might faint. The air crack­led between them.

And then he brought his fin­gers to her cheek and stroked it gently.

His touch almost undid her.
Ash­lyn sucked in a quick breath before all the air left the room. Both Gilford’s hands cupped her face, his palms like fire against her flesh.

Do you know how beau­ti­ful you are?” he asked softly.

She licked her lips ner­vous­ly. “No one ever told me so.”

His crooked smile caused her heart to skip a beat.

Then every­one else is a fool.”

He leaned toward her slow­ly, his hands keep­ing her in place as if he knew she would flee as a scared rab­bit might from the hounds. Ashlyn’s heart pound­ed against her ribs fierce­ly. She began trembling.

His lips paused just before they touched hers. “Are you afraid?”

No,” she whispered.

But she was. Afraid she would ignite when he kissed her. Afraid of what she would feel. And how the hurt would nev­er heal once he did. She wasn’t the one meant for him. Anoth­er woman was. Yet in this moment, Ash­lyn behaved total­ly out of char­ac­ter and threw cau­tion to the wind.

She want­ed him to kiss her. Touch her. Make her feel alive. For years, she’d bot­tled up all emo­tion with­in her. Until this man came along.

His lips still hov­ered just above hers. “I want to kiss you. Will you let me?”

Her reply was to bring her hands to his shoul­ders and pull him toward her.

Their lips col­lid­ed and the sparks she feared did ignite. Ash­lyn felt her­self melt­ing. Relax­ing. Want­i­ng. What, she didn’t know, except that he knew how to give it to her.

Anna threw her arms around Dez in grat­i­tude, press­ing her body against his. Mem­o­ries flood­ed him of hold­ing her. Kiss­ing her. Long­ing to make love to her. As she snug­gled clos­er, he thought how they seemed like two halves, com­ing togeth­er as a whole after years of separation.
With a reck­less­ness that he couldn’t resist, Dez low­ered his mouth to Anna’s. He brushed his lips against hers soft­ly. He would do any­thing to see her made whole again.

She grew still. He knew he had act­ed too quick­ly. Had prob­a­bly destroyed every bit of trust he’d gained with her. Reluc­tant­ly, he lift­ed his mouth from hers.

Meet­ing her gaze, some­thing flick­ered in her eyes. Con­fu­sion. Won­der. Delight. With widen­ing eyes, she reached up and grabbed on to his hair and forced his mouth back down to hers. He tried to lift it but Anna was hav­ing none of it. Her grip tight­ened and kept him in place as she start­ed kiss­ing him. Hun­gri­ly. Greed­i­ly. Over and over.

Then Anna broke the kiss. She searched his face, her body trembling.

You’re real,” she croaked.

He wasn’t the Dez from her past. He was from now. She hadn’t cre­at­ed him from the black hole of noth­ing­ness. It was real­ly, tru­ly Dez.

And he was here …

She wasn’t mad after all. Dez had found her. Res­cued her from that vile asy­lum. He had tak­en her out and brought her to the place they loved.

She would nev­er let him go.

Yes, Anna. I am real. You are not at Golling­ham any­more. Lord Shelton—your cousin, Tom—and I came and got you the minute we knew you were there.”

Images flashed in her mind. Scat­tered and con­fus­ing. She remem­bered voic­es. A car­riage. She thought of frag­ments this Dez—her Dez—had told her. She had heard some of it but pushed the rest aside, sim­ply rev­el­ing in hav­ing him with her. But this was a flesh and blood man, not some imag­ined crea­ture she had kept hid­den in the recess­es of her mind and res­ur­rect­ed when she most need­ed him.

This. Was. Dez.

Her Dez.

The love of her life.

He cra­dled her face ten­der­ly. “You are free, Anna. You will stay free. I will see to that. I would give my life for you.”

She knew he would. He had loved her. Want­ed to wed her.

He had saved her.

Dalin­da remained at the pianoforte. She knew she should leave but couldn’t bring her­self to do so. Instead, she opened the cov­er and began to play again. She sensed when Lord Sheff­in­g­ton came to stand behind her but con­tin­ued until she reached the end of the Beethoven number.

His hands sud­den­ly rest­ed on her shoul­ders, the heat from his fin­gers singe­ing her skin.

If that was you with­out any prac­tice, you must be a for­mi­da­ble musi­cian when you have spent time at the keys.”

Gen­tly, his fin­gers squeezed her shoul­ders and then his thumbs began mov­ing back and forth in a caress. Her core tight­ened as need began to throb there, some­thing which had nev­er hap­pened before.

Your voice is rich and low. What is that called?” he asked softly.

A con­tral­to,” she said unsteadi­ly. “I pre­fer singing in a low­er reg­is­ter than most women.”

His fin­gers went to her nape and stroked it slow­ly, bring­ing deli­cious chills run­ning along her spine.

You sense what is between us?” he asked.

She closed her eyes. “I do—and it fright­ens me.”

It should.”

Her eyes opened and she looked over her shoul­der. His green eyes smoldered.

Are you afraid?” she asked.

A lit­tle,” he admitted.


Because I want you so bad­ly. I have nev­er want­ed a woman as I do you, Dalinda.”

It was the first time he had called her by name. It felt … right. As if he should always have known her.

I am drawn to you as well, Rhys.”

He hissed upon hear­ing his name come from her. He bent and pressed his lips to her nape, the kiss ten­der yet scald­ing. He moved to where her neck and shoul­der joined and kissed her there. Her head fell away, giv­ing him bet­ter access. Rhys joined her on the bench, his mouth again touch­ing her throat as his hands cap­tured her waist. She had no thoughts of flee­ing, though. Dan­ger­ous as he seemed, she was com­pelled to stay.

He lift­ed his head, his gaze intense. She shuddered.

May I kiss you, Dalin­da? On the mouth?”

If you don’t, I might kiss you first,” she replied honestly.