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Extrait offert par Julie Anne Long

(Source : http://www.julieannelong.com)

Five whiskeys (but who's counting?) after an unexpected encounter with a woman he never thought he'd see again (let alone in a sorry excuse for a museum and beneath the sinister gaze of a hideous ancient puppet), Captain Charles is reminescing about the day everything in his life changed...the last time he saw Mrs. Rosalind March, the wife of his commanding officer.

By his second whiskey at the Velvet Glove, Chase was remembering the day intelligence confirmed that the d'Aligny's were spies for the French.

Lady d'Aligny, they'd said, was the niece of a high-ranking French official who had the ear of Napoleon and had before been the source of information regarding tentative troop positions. Doubtless she'd flirted the information strategically out of an English soldier, and Chase wondered whom he would need to order flogged.

Or worse.

Chase wasn't naïve enough to feel any particular sense of betrayal where the d'Aligny's were concerned; merely a fatalistic disappointment. War was war, and Englishmen were even now secretly, comfortably moving through French society, mingling within Bonaparte's inner circle, making friends, betraying those friends, and sending intelligence both useful and trivial back to Wellington.

And of course, dancing with French wives.

It had ever been thus in war.

Colonel March was philosophically, humorously grim. A battered old soldier, whip-lean, bent just a bit at the shoulders from an old wound, his eyes sharp but not jaded. Without his hat, Chase suddenly found his friend's hair strangely poignant. Soft as cobwebs, and only a little of it left.

"We can't suddenly refuse all of their invitations, of course, because it will reveal what we know and put our own men in danger. They set the best table in all of Belgium. Better to know, aye?"

"Yes, sir. But what of Mrs. March? She's a particular friend of Lady d'Aligny's."

"I'll tell Rosalind to curtail her visits and impress upon her the reasons for it. She'll be…greatly disappointed." The colonel hated to disappoint Rosalind. "But she's a sensible girl."

It wasn't the first word Chase would have chosen to describe Rosalind. But the colonel didn't see his wife as clearly as Chase saw her.

Or perhaps he saw her only precisely as he wanted to see her, and Chase saw no reason to disabuse the infatuated Colonel of his vision of his wife.

So Chase considered it his duty to watch Rosalind, though he'd scarcely spoken to her in weeks.

Two days later Chase had just made an early departure from a meeting with the Colonel and two other officers, Kinkade included, when he saw her hurrying through the foyer of their house so quickly her dress sailed out behind her. She glanced furtively about the foyer before ducking into the narrow passageway leading to the kitchenm which opened up onto the servant's entrance.

Chase instantly recognized she meant to surreptitiously leave the house.

In her hand she clutched a half-crumpled sheet of foolscap.

In two strides he was within a few feet of her.

"Good day, Mrs. March. Where are you going?"

She visibly started. Halted in her tracks.

And then her shoulder went back stiffly in resignation. She turned very slowly. Her eyes flared hotly when they met his.

His question had been very direct.

But then, Chase was generally very direct, as she knew. Though he hadn't been speaking to her at all in some time.

"You seem to be everywhere, Captain Eversea. And yet we speak very rarely these days, don't we?"

Impressive gambit, indeed. An attempt to put him on the defensive.

"Are you reluctant to answer my question, Mrs. March?"

A hesitation. He could sense the tick of her thoughts.

"Is my destination truly any of your business, Captain Eversea?" She'd tried for imperiousness. She was the wife of his commanding officer, after all.

But he just smiled a slow, grim, entirely comprehending smile that soon had her fidgeting nervously with the sheet of foolscap in her hand. She was clever but young, and doubtless inexperienced when it came to lying simply because it didn't come naturally to her. Otherwise she would have known her evasiveness was tantamount to confession.

"It most certainly is my business if you intend to visit with Lady d'Aligny after the Colonel has requested you not to do it."

She went still. To her credit, she didn't deny a thing, or lie about where she intended to go. But he saw a wounded flicker in her eyes. The message rustled; her hand was shaking.

Somewhere out in the garden a bird gave voice to a series of trills.

"But she's my friend." She'd tried to measure out the words evenly. But he'd heard the pain in her voice, and his fingers curled involuntarily into a fist. She held up the message, as though displaying evidence of friendship. "She invited me for tea. She misses my company, she says, and I miss hers, and it's been but three days since I've seen her. Surely just for tea…" Something approaching stubborn defiance began to harden her lovely features. "Surely there could be no harm in tea, Captain Ever..."

She trailed off at the cold, implacable expression on his face.

"She's not your friend, Mrs. March. She's using you. This is war. The Colonel doubtless has made his wishes known to you with regards to the Lady d'Aligny. Don't be a child."

He said it firmly. But gently, gently, too. As though the message she held were an aimed and loaded pistol and he was attempting to talk her into lowering it.

She dropped her eyes to the message quickly, her fine brows diving. An attempt to disguise her hurt and disappointment and confusion.

He'd seen all of it, anyway.

And in that instant he felt her hurt so acutely it might well have been his own.

And, absurdly, that was when he became truly furious at the d'Aligny's.

And what kind of soldier did this make him when suddenly the welfare of Mrs. March meant more to him than the d'Aligny betrayal?

She lifted her head again. They regarded each other wordlessly for a moment. Her pale eyes seemed unnaturally bright. Two faint spots of pink had appeared high on cheeks.

"How do you know she's not my friend? Perhaps she cares for me because she enjoys my company, and not simply because I might do her the good fortune of betraying the British army to her in some useful way. And I swear to you, I never have."

This was so desperately, staggeringly naïve and surprisingly, maturely ironic that for a moment he didn't know how to respond.

"I know you never have, Mrs. March. Your husband would ensure you were never able to, and he would never put you in that position or use your friendship with Lady d'Aligny in that way. I fear your loyalty to lady d'Aligny is admirable but misguided, Mrs. March, and you must abandon it."

It was no pleasure to disappoint her, to watch her struggle with a betrayal. Perhaps the first she'd really known.

But suddenly her eyes glinted bright as flints then, and the high color in her cheeks blazed.

Ah. And here was the temper Mrs. March tried so valiantly to disguise.

"Despite what you might think, calling me Mrs. March again and again does not impose a greater distance between us…Captain Eversea. One might think you're attempting to remind yourself that I am a Mrs… March."

He froze.

A brutal warrior, was Rosalind March. She'd identified and aimed straight for his weakness as no one before ever had. She'd rendered Captain Eversea, in that moment, speechless.

And momentarily helpless for the first time in his life.

Unfortunately, his weakness was also her own.

She knew she'd gone too far. She stared at him. Her mouth parted just a bit in shock. She'd frightened herself with her own recklessness.

He couldn't yet speak. He was gruesomely ashamed that she was correct.

And furious to be laid bare by a woman.

He would never forget her dress that day: white muslin, covered all over with tiny, whiter dots, the neckline edged in soft lace. The sleeves were puffed and short. Her arms bare. Maypole strands of hair had escaped at her nape and fell in loose twists to her jaw. Her lips were generous: lush, pale pink, the bottom fuller than the top. A band of satin, cream-colored, tied beneath her waist, and it reflected light, as did her skin.

That her mind and soft voice should cut him so startlingly to the bone seemed wrong, incongruous. She was all softness.

At last, she jerked her eyes away from his gaze.

But she'd drawn back a veil between that should never have been drawn back. And could not now be dropped. The moment was a precipice for both of them.

Still, she'd tried a laugh. It was a failure as a laugh: short and nervous. "Oh, fear not, our valiant captain. I consider myself duly warned. I shall obey. You needn't fuss so." Her hand came up then to touch him, lightly. Meant to flirt, or to soothe, or to placate, he supposed.

He snatched it mid-air as though it were a striking cobra.

A ringing silence followed.

He hadn't even given her time to gasp. Her green eyes were dark; her pupils enormous with pure astonishment. She was too surprised to be too frightened of him.

Yet.

He held her wrist fast, and perhaps too tightly.

Impressions set in: God, but her skin was unthinkably fine. Soft. So soft. How could it survive this war unscathed?

How could destiny allow anyone but him to touch it?

A ridiculous, traitorous thought. But it owned him. And it hurt. Physically.

In seconds he was mesmerized by the fact that he was touching her skin outside of any social context that would allow him to properly do it. He ought now to speak or at least release her.

He seemed unable to do either.

The silence began to pulse.

Rosalind swallowed. He watched, fascinated. She was watching him, pupils huge and dark, turning her pale green eyes to ash gray. Riveted by something in his face. Her swift breath fluttered the few stray tendrils clinging to her jaw.

It was Rosalind who broke the silence with a whisper.

"Why are you afraid of me?"

A more sophisticated woman would have turned the words into an innuendo or a taunt. But she wasn't that kind of woman, not yet. She was genuinely confused and hurt by whatever was between them; he heard it in her voice. And he heard fear there, too.

But she couldn't disguise the fascination. For what red-blooded woman wouldn't be fascinated to discover how much power she held over a man like him?

Chase was suddenly aware of how very alone they were in that passageway. It seemed as secret, as separate from the house as their feelings were secret from the world.

You ought to be afraid of me, Mrs. March.

Because I'm afraid of myself.

Because he wasn't one to waste words, and because she knew the answer to her own question, and as patience wasn't his forte, he said nothing. Instead, as if in a dream, Chase watched himself slowly turn her hand over. And slowly raise it to his lips.

And then in her palm place a kiss that surely must have seared her, must have branded her, with its sheer carnal tenderness.

There's your answer, Mrs. March.

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