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.

Why?”

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.