FOR LOVE IS NEW by Jean Hart Stewart - Book Two in her Historical Romance Series
Lord Christian Cherne leaves the army after being wounded. Obligated to offer his protection to Lady Juliet Sloan he calls on her, only to find Captain Gullis sitting and smirking in her parlor. Since Christian knows of Gullis' cruelty, and suspects him of being a spy, he's alarmed.
Juliet tests them both and comes to treasure Christian. But being spurned elicits the sadistic side of Gullis.
Soon Christain finds his whole world in danger. He must protect Juliet from cruelty and also expose Gullis as a spy for Napoleon. Juliet and Christian face a monster out to destroy the world.
Can even love triumph over malicious evil?
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London, January 2, 1815
Lord Christian Warren, Viscount Cherne, shrugged as his valet huffed a protest. Tying one last perfect tweak to his master's cravat plainly demanded cooperation.
"My lord, would you please stand still?"
"Reed, stop your infernal fussing. I'm sure I'll do."
His friend Delaney Standish laughed and sprawled a bit more in his chair. "You're as antsy as a debutante at her first ball, Christian. What in bloody hell is wrong with you?"
Christian threw his best friend an apologetic smile. "I've spent three dammed days at the War Ministry and finally agreed to take an occasional job for them. I didn't want to do even that. I don't want to be tied down in any way. Any way at all. And now I must fulfill one last unwanted obligation and call on a certain Miss Juliet Sloan."
Delaney whistled long and low. "Not really a hardship, my friend. I've never met her, but she's reputed to be a beauty."
Christian snorted. "I don't care about getting tied up with a virtuous woman, Delaney, no matter how beautiful. All during this damnable war I dreamed about getting home. I want to start living the life of a carefree bachelor, and all I get is more obligations thrown at me. I want to sample every wicked pleasure London has to offer. Virtuous women are not on the list."
Delaney laughed out loud at this uncharacteristic outburst.
"Satan's bones, but you're really stirred, aren't you? Make your damned duty call and get it over with. You and I can then spend the evening discovering some of those pleasures you're so eager to explore. But of course since I'm a happily married man, I'll only watch while you get wild." He picked up his walking stick and headed toward the door. "I can see myself out. I await the report of your call on the delectable Juliet. Do let me know how it goes."
Christian glared at the back of his still-chuckling friend and then, with a deep sigh, reached for his own stick and overcoat. Del was right. Better to get it over with.
He stopped in the hall for just a moment. He hoped the lady didn't get too inquisitive about her cousin's death. She'd be glad to accept his offer of protection, wouldn't she? Without knowing too much about why.
One thing he knew for certain. He could never tell her the details of Paul's letter. And of the fact he felt damned guilty he hadn't known Gullis was such a perverted bastard. An officer in his own regiment. True, he was in the Royal Hussars, and Gullis and Paul were infantry, but still.
Still, he should have somehow known.
He must stop dwelling on his guilt. Although he doubted if he'd ever truly forgive himself.
* * * *
Letting the butler help him shrug into his greatcoat, Lord Cherne set off on foot. He needed the exercise, and the clear winter air might blow away his pessimistic thoughts. He'd get this call over with and then look for a mistress. An opera dancer? Or an actress? Who knew? His whole life stretched before him, thanks to the unpredictable Fates who'd spared him. He'd not waste a minute of it.
Not the day to dwell on the unlucky bastards who hadn't made it home.
The sky glimmered with the grey of tempered steel, and the branches of the trees were lined with frost. The air even smelled cold, although lingering underneath lurked the scent of city soot. But then London air always smelled like chimneys. There'd been a brief snow in the early morning, and a pale sun glittered on small patches here and there. He didn't mind the chilly blast of January air forcing him to breathe deeply. Although his almost-healed leg didn't care for it, still the cold reminded him he was finally back in London. The winds of the Peninsula were sometimes harsher, mostly warmer, but always quite different.
There would never be another place like London.
Finally he stood in front of the Sloan townhouse, noting absently the impeccable address and newly scrubbed steps. Firming his shoulders, he raised the gleaming brass door knocker, gave the very proper butler his card, and asked to be announced.
"Lord Cherne, my lady," intoned the butler, and Christian marched through the door to the parlor.
He halted in the doorway, scarcely able to believe two of the three people he saw. Blazing hell, but the girl sitting close to the window was lovely. The winter light shimmered on hair the color of wheat, golden wheat lit briefly by glancing rays of the late morning sun. Her honey-blonde curls shone with fleeting touches of red. Her beauty was startling. An older woman, doubtless her chaperone, sat close to the fire, although Christian barely noticed her.
Lady Juliet did not appear overly pleased to see him. In fact, she eyed him with the hauteur a queen might give an erring subject. She seemed on the verge of hostility. Her unexpected attitude as well as her bright beauty staggered him. But the real stunner, the one literally halting him on the spot, was to see Roger Gullis sitting across from her. The same despicable blackguard he'd come to warn her about.
And there the rotter lounged, at his ease, his snaky eyes triumphant.
Christian stood still, drawing a deep breath to quiet the anger charging through him. Definitely not a desirable beginning. He'd hurried as quickly as he could to expressly warn her to never, ever have the slightest contact with the bounder. Now what in hell's own blazes could he do?
He'd like to pick the bastard up by his slimy neck and heave him out on his prissy face. But this would only complicate an already damnable situation.
When Lord Cherne was agitated his limp somehow grew more pronounced. He paced to Lady Juliet slowly, bending low over her hand and striving for just the right words. He wasn't usually tongue-tied around beautiful women, but his visceral response to her stunned him. He felt the most absurd desire to fling her over his shoulder and take her to a secluded spot where he could kiss her perfect skin. Every inch of it. Particularly places covered by her sedate dress.
He'd been celibate too long.
He lightly touched his lips to her hand and then straightened to his soldier's erect bearing. After all, with this girl he definitely felt on duty.
"Lady Juliet, I had the honor of being an officer in your cousin Paul's regiment. I came as soon as possible to express my admiration for him, and to offer my deepest and most heartfelt consolations on your loss. He specifically asked me to pay my respects to you, and to offer my assistance to you, any assistance you might need."
There. He'd swallowed his incredible reactions and laid his mission out as best he could. And blinked once as he looked directly into the most striking eyes he'd ever seen. Blue, bright blue, shading to purple at the rims of the pupil. Compelling eyes. Eyes a man could lose his soul to. Why hadn't Paul thought to mention in his letter that her beauty made a man's heart flop over in his chest? And damned if he didn't resent the little flip he felt almost as much as he had the sight of Gullis.
Lady Juliet Sloan stared back at him. Definitely not a hospitable look, but rather an aloof appraisal tinged with a distinct chilliness. What a blasted shame such beauty encased a proud disposition. He'd never been partial to conceit of any kind.
This was the warm, loving girl Paul so admired? Maybe he should move closer to the fire glowing in the hearth before icicles formed on his boots.
She adjusted her flowered shawl around her slender shoulders, raised her beautiful red-gold head, and spoke calmly. "Do you care to have a seat, my lord? Or do you prefer to be called by your rank in the army? Your choice, certainly."
Not the slightest hint of warmth, although a sultry undertone to her speech made her voice completely distinctive.
He took a deep breath, covering his resentment at her coolness. He'd come to help her, after all. He hadn't come to be baited by some chit, no matter how luscious her appearance.
"I've lost the right to the more honorable title of major, Lady Juliet. I am now officially out of the army."
He'd hoped she would return his slight smile, but she didn't change her expression.
"Oh?" She raised eyebrows which arched perfectly over her thick lashes. "But the captain here is proud of his rank and still uses it. You do know Captain Gullis?"
Her expression seemed guileless, but Christian stiffened. He spoke directly to her, never sparing a glance for Gullis.
"Captain Gullis was in my regiment, ma'am, although I served in the cavalry and he was in the infantry. I am, perforce, knowledgeable of him."
He did not turn to Gullis or acknowledge him in any way. From the corner of his eye he could see Gullis redden and draw back his extended hand, looking almost as murderous as Christian felt.
"Are your manners always this polished, my lord?" Lady Juliet asked sweetly. "May I also introduce you to my aunt, Lady Caroline Jenkins?"
Christian recovered his aplomb, even if belatedly. He did not intend to be set down by Lady Juliet Sloan. After all, if they'd released him from the hospital, he'd have been here sooner. But by Satan, why had Paul ever referred to her as loving?
He seldom resorted to acerbic words. An enamored female once told him his deeply rich voice could seduce a nun. Blast if he'd try to be pleasant now. He wouldn't attempt to win over Lady Juliet. He knew well how to pitch his voice to take on tones icy enough to freeze offenders in their tracks. He walked across the room and bowed graciously over the elder lady's hand. Then he turned back to Juliet and faced her squarely.
"My manners are my own, Lady Juliet."
Lady Juliet's eyes widened as he continued, in a timbre so frosty she could have no doubt of his disapproval.
"Perhaps I have come on the wrong day, madam. This is not the private discussion I'd hoped to have with you. I have news about your cousin, as he left me a long letter, but many details are intimate. Perhaps you would like to send for me when you are free. Certainly you do not want me discussing Paul in front of others. Your butler has my card with my direction. I bid you good day. Good day to you, Lady Caroline. Good day, Lady Juliet."
To his satisfaction he noticed Gullis start and Lady Juliet's eyes cloud. At least he'd given them both something to think about. He would not be chivvied about by an arrogant miss, no matter how luscious. He bowed stiffly but pointedly, only to the ladies. He strode from the room, trying not to reveal his dismay at how badly he'd handled her.
Why didn't he have sense enough to explain the long delay in reaching her? She'd been his first stop after checking out of the hospital and then the War Ministry. He'd done nothing but introduce himself and then rip up at her. He couldn't remember ever being so maladroit. Whatever had possessed him?
He left her staring after him, one small hand to her lips, as he stalked away.
* * * *
Christian barely noticed the butler closing the door behind him. He headed into the invigorating cold and walked back home as briskly as his wounded leg permitted, putting his hat under his arm to treasure the wind in his hair. He didn't heed the noisy carts and carriages swirling around him, or hear the ever-present cries of the vendors. He knew he should be concentrating on what to do about Lady Juliet, but his mind again stumbled to Paul's letter. Paul's harrowing, heartrending letter.
Paul's letter that even now he could scarcely bear to read. So many ifs. If he himself hadn't been away delivering a dispatch for Wellington. And if his second-in-command, to whom Paul entrusted the letter, had not been wounded in the battle of Toulouse and so could not deliver it for a while. If only Christian had received the letter right away.
How ironic, he thought, that the battle of Toulouse, where Paul died and he'd received his own wounds, was not even necessary. The news of Napoleon's abdication had reached Wellington too late to stop the vicious combat.
A thoroughly useless speculation. Christian shrugged and went to his desk to retrieve the letter from its private cubbyhole. He settled himself in a big chair. The sandy-colored mongrel who'd adopted him padded into the room, his body quivering with joy to find his idol returned. Bushy eyebrows flopped over his adoring eyes as he welcomed his master.
"Boney," he said, playing with the dog's ears. "At least you think everything I do is wonderful."
Boney put one big paw on his knee and looked soulfully at his master. Christian patted the dog and then stilled his hand as his anger again welled up in his throat. Damn and double damn Gullis, the perfidious snake.
He unfolded the letter and read it once more. An almost unnecessary action, since he knew the words by heart.
Letter from Lt. Paul Sloan to Major Lord Cherne
April 9th, the year of our Lord 1814.
My esteemed Major Lord Cherne,
It seems strange tomorrow is Easter Sunday, a sacred day for many. I know we will soon be in the thick of the battle for Toulouse. I sense I will not survive. I know soldiers often have this premonition before a battle, but I am certain.
Perhaps it is as well. I feel permanently besmirched, although I have done nothing. I must tell the whole story, so you will better understand my request at the end of this letter.
My personal horror began when Captain Roger Gullis invited me to sup with him. I had not noticed him much before, although of course he is my superior. I'd heard rumors about his proclivity for young men, but still was not prepared. Perhaps that was naÃ¯ve of me. His batman served us a pleasant dinner, although Gullis found excuses to touch me at times I could not like. I tried to show my disinterest without insulting him, but as we were drinking some brandy he made his intentions unavoidably plain. If I did not bed him, I would be sorry. I refused as politely as I could.
He flew into a rage. He told me I had three choices. I could either bed him, deliver a message to the French, or receive one hundred lashes for insubordination. I refused the first two; in fact, I fear I was slightly disdainful. With the battle scheduled for the morning, war will thankfully take precedence over a flogging.
The battle will mean death to many, and to me it is preferable to my other choices. Although I was once blithely confident I'd not be killed in battle, now I'm certain I will be. Will you do me the extreme favor of carrying my deepest love to Lady Juliet Sloan, my cousin? She is the dearest, sweetest creature in the world, and I honor you with my request. If it becomes appropriate, I would have her know I did nothing to compromise my soul or my honor. Although I ask you most particularly not to distress her with the details.
With me gone, she will be without a male in her family to protect her. You are esteemed throughout the army for your courage and your wisdom. I have no claim on you beyond that of the acquaintance of one gentleman to another. I have no right to ask you to care for her, but I have no one else. I cannot trust this letter to be mailed. I ask you to look after her. She is blessed with beauty and intelligence and her own fortune, and will inherit mine as well. Without someone of rank and wealth of his own, she will be subject to pernicious attentions on all sides. Anything you can do for her will be an act of great consolation to me.
I did not know I believed in a hereafter, but I somehow think I will always know how Julie fares. I heartily beg your pardon for my presumption and thank you in advance for being the honorable man I know you are.
Paul Sloan, Lieutenant, Light Infantry in His Majesty's Army
He'd never had a chance to confront Gullis while still in the army. Most regrettably, Gullis had sold out by the time Paul's letter reached Christian. Questioning the men in his regiment revealed Gullis had flogged far too many men for normal discipline. Strange how such a villain could be brave in battle. Strange and odd that one fine virtue masked such villainy.
Now he must put everything aside until Lady Juliet was safe from Gullis. Damn these blasted complications. He grimaced as he picked up his brandy glass.
No time to search for his complaisant opera dancer, at least not yet.
The library surrounded him with delicious warmth from the glowing logs in the large fireplace, and his dog quickly settled down in comfort. Christian ruffled the hair of the big animal lying at his feet. Actually the shaggy mongrel lay on his master's feet.
"What should I do next, Boney?"
"Talking to yourself, my friend?"
Christian looked up to see Delaney standing in the doorway.
"Oh, good. Come in, Delaney. I need a friend right now. Boney listens well, but he doesn't answer me."
"The imperturbable Lord Cherne in a reflective mood? What is the world coming to?"
Delaney strode in and settled himself. He started to speak and then seemed to think better of it. He raised his eyebrows and accepted a glass of brandy.
"What's wrong, my friend? You look filled with disgust."
Christian nodded. "You've got it, Delaney. Nothing's going the way I want."
"Ah," Delaney murmured. "The Lady Juliet, perhaps?"
Christian's sigh sounded deep as a well.
"Of course it's Lady Juliet. I thoroughly alienated her, and I must make her accept my protection. Now more than ever. My vaunted nonchalance went winging when I met her. Hell's flames, I'm supposed to be experienced, and I let a slip of a girl make me completely lose my composure. I don't know how to handle her, Delaney."
Delaney's glance conveyed both amusement and just a little pity.
Boney caught the real distress in his master's voice and put one big paw on his knee, and Christian laughed.
"Boney, your paw is as big as a saucer. Why I ever took you into my household I'll never know. From the bills I'm getting, you eat more than anyone else here."
He absentmindedly scratched the dog, who shuddered blissfully and curled up again on his master's feet. Christian leaned down and lightly pulled the dog's ears, his mood still sober.
"Well, does Boney have any ideas?" Delaney asked. "Although why you named even a dog after Napoleon, I don't know."
Christian grinned for the first time in hours. "He's named for Marleybone Park, Delaney. I'd gone for a walk there when he found me and followed me home."
"And you couldn't turn him away, could you?"
Lord Cherne turned sober again. He could rail against Lady Juliet, but nothing dismissed his responsibility. His guilt hung over all his thoughts like a dark shadow. That such depravity once existed in his regiment remained insupportable. If he could only turn time back and strangle the damned bastard before he'd accosted Paul.
His own thwarted appetites would have to wait. He'd better concentrate on this damned dilemma. He'd learned long ago a delectable and eager actress could always be found. What he had to do, and do quickly, was somehow reach into Lady Juliet's mind and heart and get her to accept him as her champion. But how did he find the best way to go about it?
"I need to come up with an idea, Del. I think the lady is in a dangerous situation and doesn't even suspect it. I have to do something, although right now I don't have even one good idea."
Delaney tried to look serious, but his grin broke through.
Christian threw a pillow at him.
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