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.