Read an Excerpt
Until this evening Lieutenant Colonel Lord Heath Boscastle had been living under the pleasant illusion that he was the master of his own fate. It wasn’t that he had escaped bad fortune. On the contrary. He had met and overcome more than his fair share of adversity. It seemed that he deserved peace. After all, he’d survived war, torture, espionage, two volatile mistresses, and a family that challenged the rules of Society on a regular basis.
It was, perhaps, a credit to his cumulative experiences that he managed to hide his astonishment at what his friend, Colonel Sir Russell Althorne, had just asked of him.
A man less adept than Heath at concealing his emotions might have given himself away. He displayed no reaction whatsoever. Most likely he was in a mild state of shock. He’d half expected Althorne to call him back into military service. As a soldier, that is, not a lady’s companion. He had not anticipated a reminder of a past sexual escapade . . . as unforgettable as that escapade had been.
“Well,” Russell asked him for the second time, “will you do it or not? I would prefer to leave London with an easy mind. Will you take care of Julia for me while I’m gone?”
“You might have given me a little more notice.”
“You’ve been in Hampshire.”
“You could have written.”
“What? So that you had time to refuse?”
Heath shook his head. “You’re all damned heart, aren’t you?”
The two men stood at the top of the Mayfair mansion’s magnificent stone staircase. To anyone observing them from the candlelit ballroom below, they appeared to be a pair of bored male guests who had retreated from the noisy crowd to puff their cigars in peace.
They had strengthened their friendship as raw light cavalry officers in Sahagun when ambushes and battles, intelligence gathering and patrols in the icy dark had beckoned to their thirst for adventure. Unfortunately Heath had gotten caught on one of those adventures, and it had been Colonel Sir Russell Althorne, his superior officer, who had rescued him, losing his left eye in the process, and earning a hero’s acclaim.
“I can’t do it.” Heath gazed through a cloud of smoke at the figures that wove through the porphyry marble columns below. He wondered distractedly if the woman he and Russell had been discussing was down there in the crush. Would they recognize each other? What would they say? It would be damned uncomfortable, considering their short but memorable history. “I haven’t seen Julia in years. I had no idea her husband was dead, or that she’d returned to England.”
Or that Russell, predator and hero of the hour that he was, had already gotten himself engaged to her. Althorne had always been an ambitious, competitive sort, even as far back as their college days. He seemed determined to leave his mark on the world. “I had to talk her into accepting my proposal,” Russell said, his voice more than a little baffled. He stood several inches shorter than Heath, with a heavier frame, rust-brown hair, hazel eyes, and rugged features. His was a rough appeal; what he lacked in refinement he made up for in resolve. “Can you believe it? Julia refusing me.”
“What could she have been thinking?” Heath murmured.
“Obviously she wasn’t.” Russell smiled down at a young debutante who had caught his eye. Flustered, she bumped ungracefully into her dance partner.
Heath sighed. “Is she in danger?”
“I don’t know,” Russell replied. “Julia’s aunt is convinced that their town house is being watched. I doubt it. Lady Dalrymple is a notorious corkbrain. Still, I do not think it is wise to underestimate Auclair. The man fights deadly duels for amusement. His quest for revenge seems personal.”
“How do you know this?”
Russell’s jaw tightened. “He’s made it known in underworld circles that he wants to destroy me.”
“The war is over.”
“Apparently Auclair’s taste for violence has not been sated. He was last seen haunting Tortoni’s and other cafés in search of a good fight. His behavior is nothing a rational mind can understand.”
Heath lapsed into silence. It was no secret to either man that Armand Auclair was their mutual nemesis, a former French spy who had tortured not only Heath but countless other English soldiers and had eluded capture in Portugal. Neither Heath nor Russell had ever seen Auclair’s face. He had conducted his interrogations wearing an executioner’s mask. Russell was well aware of the horror that Auclair had inflicted on the men he had taken prisoner. Most had died.
But did Russell have any idea what the woman he planned to marry had meant to Heath? What had happened that August long ago?
Of course not. Presumably Julia had not told him. This conversation would not be taking place if she had.
Heath’s encounter with Julia Hepworth had been a passionate if too-brief private affair. There was not a soul in the world who knew that he had desired her ever since the day she had shot him in the shoulder several years ago. That she was the only woman he wished he had not lost. He’d hesitated to acknowledge it even to himself. It was only as he grew older that he realized he had never replaced her.
She hadn’t permanently hurt him, but he’d never been quite the same. Damaged where it didn’t show.
He’d been sneaking up on Russell from behind a carn to play a prank, and Julia had taken a shot at him from her horse.
The shot had grazed his shoulder.
The first look at her had pierced his heart. It still bled from time to time, although he’d learned to live with the pain. He smiled a little as he recalled their initial encounter.
“Are you all right?” she asked, throwing herself down on the ground to examine him. “Please tell me I haven’t killed you.”
He didn’t move, awash in a sea of conflicting sensations. The searing pain in his upper body, the indignity of being shot by a female. The intrusive heat of her hands as she matter-of-factly tore open his riding jacket to examine his torso. Her dark red hair brushing against his belly, inflaming his senses. How he could desire a woman who’d almost killed him defied reason. But damnation, she had stirred him. He narrowed his eyes and considered the situation.
“Well, say something,” she said in panic.
She was tall and lushly built, deep-bosomed and supple. She was imperious. She was the most compelling woman he had ever met, and he’d wanted to bed her on the spot. Right there between the rocks like a barbarian.
“All right,” he said between his teeth, suppressing all his barbaric instincts. “You’ve killed me. I am dead. Does that make you happy?”
“There’s no need to be rude.”
“Isn’t there? Forgive me if I find it difficult, lying flat on my back with a pistol wound, to dredge up my party manners.”
“I don’t know why you’re being so horrible. It was an accident. I was frightened. I really thought I might have killed you.”
He grunted. “Came close enough. You shot me. What in heaven’s name possessed you? You shot me.”
“Well, no wonder,” she said, sounding a little indignant herself now. “What were you doing jumping out at me from behind that carn?”
“I thought you were someone I knew.”
“Well, I thought you were the rabid fox that had attacked the livestock last night.”
“Do I look like a rabid fox?” he demanded crossly.
He was disconcerted by the wicked gleam in her gray eyes, and drawn to it, too. He didn’t know which was worse, that she’d injured him or that he desired her in spite of it. Certainly it was not a normal response to being shot. He sat up abruptly as she pulled his cambric shirt off his shoulders to study the injury she had inflicted. “It doesn’t look as bad as I feared.”
“That’s easy for you to say.”
“I am sorry.”
He turned his head, her strong chin grazing his cheek. “It’s a nice shoulder,” she said very quietly, “as far as shoulders go.”
“Is it?” he asked, grinning reluctantly.
“Of course, I’m not an expert.”
He stared at her mouth—red, moist, inviting. He’d heard one of the young men at the party comment that Julia Hepworth was something of a hellion. But it had been voiced more as a compliment than a criticism. He’d wager that the man who said it had never been shot by her and then suffered the delicious agony of her practically crawling on top of him to tear off his shirt. Or perhaps he had. For all he knew she’d left a slew of victims in her wake.
“Do we have to tell anyone?” she asked, her eyes meeting his appealingly.
“That depends.” He decided he was going to kiss her. Any young woman who could shoot and half undress him the way she had deserved to be kissed. If not more. God, she was fetching, he thought, enjoying the warm weight of her belly against his side.
She let her hand slide down the front of his shirt, her gloved fingertips skimming his chest. Heat flooded his groin. “Depends on what?” she whispered, drawing her head back to give him a suspicious look that told him he wasn’t the first man to find her attractive. He assumed he was the first man she’d shot though.
“On how sorry you are.”
Her full lips lifted in a smile. “Everyone has warned me what a rogue you are, Heath Boscastle.”
“Pity they didn’t warn me about you,” he murmured.
“That I’m reckless and impulsive?”
“No. That you’re tempting and—”
A shadow dropped over this heated exchange like a shroud, dampening the air, dousing the invisible flames that leaped between them. The chance to kiss her red mouth was lost. All of a sudden Heath’s shoulder hurt like hell. He made a face. Julia jumped up, stepping on his hand. He might have sworn. Bloody careless female.
“I think you’re going to live,” she announced in an impersonal voice as he pulled his shirt back over his bare shoulders.
“What in God’s name happened?” demanded the shadow.
“I shot him,” she said, not looking half as sorry as she should, in Heath’s opinion.
“What?” The shadow sounded shocked. Heath realized that it was Russell, the last person on earth he wished to witness his humiliation. “You shot my best friend? Answer me right now, Boscastle, what did you do that Miss Hepworth had a reason to shoot you?”
Heath had ridden back to their host’s home alone, not in the mood for Russell’s snide remarks. He decided that he would find Julia during the party when she was by herself. He didn’t have to.