Authors: Victoria Morgan
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #General
For the Love of a Soldier
“This book is an absolute gem. Morgan’s story has combined complex characters, a satisfying love story, and a fascinating examination of the Battle of Balaclava . . . Bravo to Victoria Morgan for bringing this fascinating bit of history to life, and seamlessly weaving it into her storyline. Morgan’s voice is perfect for this genre. She has just the right balance of history, romance, and intelligent prose.
For The Love of a Soldier
is a remarkable debut novel.”
“Readers will enjoy Morgan’s debut novel, with its charming characters and depth of emotion. Morgan deftly handles returning soldiers’ trauma within the context of a love story and adds spice with a bit of mystery and unexpected secrets.”
Berkley Sensation titles by Victoria Morgan
FOR THE LOVE OF A SOLDIER
THE HEART OF A DUKE
THE BERKLEY PUBLISHING GROUP
Published by the Penguin Group
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THE HEART OF A DUKE
A Berkley Sensation Book / published by arrangement with the author
Copyright © 2013 by Victoria Morgan.
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eBook ISBN: 978-1-101-60908-8
Berkley Sensation mass-market edition / December 2013
Cover art by Aleta Rafton.
Cover design by George Long.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
To my family, for their love and never-ending patience.
As always, love and thanks to my family (immediate and extended) for being my biggest fans. Special thanks to my Junior Mint critique partners, Penny Watson and Samantha Wayland, who had the courage to tell me when my book wasn’t working—even when I didn’t want to hear it—and the patience to help me kick it back into shape with Black Belt Revisions 101. Thanks for believing in me (there really was a point to that fishing scene). I would also like to thank my fabulous agent, Laura Bradford (bradfordlit.com), and my lovely editor, Leis Pederson, at Berkley Publishing Group, who helped to polish my book so that it shines.
knew what they said about her.
Dumped by a duke. Bedford’s forgotten fiancée. The hushed murmurs circulated in a widening pool of ripples. The betrothal contract was still good, just yet to be honored. If the man hadn’t wedded and bedded her yet, he never would—or so pledged some of the wagers filling White’s infamous betting book. Others proved more generous, wagering on the year—or decade—of the pending nuptials.
Long after the news should no longer have been grist for the gossip mill, it still managed to turn the wheel. After all, she was Lady Julia Chandler, the daughter of an earl, an heiress and renowned beauty. But that was yesterday. Today, she was a fading flower, waiting and wilting at the ancient age of three-and-twenty.
She knew what they asked about her. The question circulated in the same hushed stage whispers.
What is wrong with her
Of course, the fault had to lie with
. After all, Bedford was a duke, practically royalty, perched at the pinnacle of the revered aristocratic pyramid. Toss in young, handsome, and rich, and who dared to question such sterling credentials? No one.
And she knew the answers to the questions—or at least to most of them.
Today she vowed to get the rest.
Julia tightened her hands on the reins and dug her heel into Constance’s flank, leaning low over her sidesaddle and streaking across the field. She relished the bite of the wind against her cheeks, the whip of it through her riding habit. The feel of freedom. The sense of purpose.
Edmund was in Bedfordshire. Spotted in town. Her Damn Duke—for that was her name for him these days. Still evoked with affection, but lacking the reverence she’d used when he had been her Beautiful Bedford or her Earnest Edmund. After all, there was a price to pay for his paucity of visits, letters, and, of course, those nasty rumors he never deigned to squelch. “Damn Duke,” she muttered. But he was still
Damn Duke, and today, she vowed to remind him of it.
She did not know what made her choose the shortcut through Lakeview Manor, which abutted her father’s estate. Despite the scenic views overlooking the lake, the skeletal remains of the burned-out manor haunted. Charred timbers rose like a plaintive plea to the heavens to rebuild. A riotous mass of untamed weeds, ferns, and brambles snaked, weaved, and climbed into the sandstone foundation and over the crumbling brick walls like wild decorations breathing life into the desolate landscape.
She wondered why Edmund hadn’t cleared out the remaining debris. His brother had inherited it by way of his maternal
, but he had left England years ago. Edmund had said he had never cared for it, so why let it sit and rot over the past decade, a morose symbol of loss? Why not tear it down and rebuild?
She reined in Constance, coming to a halt on a bluff overlooking the remains. The site held a macabre fascination for her. How could it not, tangled up in so many childhood memories? Those were the days when Edmund had been beautiful. And she had been happy.
She shook her head, bemused.
Had been happy?
One would think she heeded the rumors about her . . . and Edmund. Well, she was not quite ready for a silver-tipped walking cane, and she
happy. Planned to be happier if her courage did not desert her. But still, her gaze drifted back to those stark, ghostly timbers, and she frowned.
“Bleak but still beautiful.”
Julia started at the words, her sudden movement irritating Constance, who grunted, tossed her head, and danced back a step. Julia lay a calming hand on the mare’s neck as she turned to confront the intruder. Her heart thudded and her mouth went bone dry.
Tall and lean, he stood in the shadows of a copse of trees. As she straightened, he moved forward and into the sunlight. Months had passed since she had last seen him, and she drank in the changes to his appearance.
He looked thinner, his hair unfashionably longer and lighter than she remembered. Thick, wavy, and golden brown, it curled over the collar of his crisp white shirt. His black riding jacket hugged his lean frame, the tight fit of his buff-colored trousers accentuating his muscular thighs and long legs as he strode toward her with an easy grace.
A gust of wind lifted a stray lock of hair from his forehead, and her gaze roved over his handsome features; the strong jawline, the sharp cheekbones, and the intriguing cleft denting his chin. But it was his eyes that were so arresting, a rich, deep moss green. Edmund was vain and clever enough to appreciate the asset, spearing many a maiden heart with a well-aimed look.
He stopped a few feet away, and Julia found her own heart endangered when those eyes locked on her. Her breath caught at his expression. Never before had he studied her with such intensity, looking at her as if she were some ghostly apparition or as if he were seeing her for the first time. She squelched the urge to shift in her saddle, like so many giggling, twittering maids did under his regard. There were advantages to being older. She rarely giggled and had never twittered.
“Julia.” His lips curved into a slow, devastating smile.
She swallowed. What game was he playing now? Edmund liked his games. More so, he liked to win. Well, today she refused to play—at least by his rules.
“You are beautiful. I knew you would be,” he said.
She stared at him, bemused at his words, wondering if he was seeking to undermine her with that dangerous charm of his. When he chose to wield it, it was lethal. She cursed the heat climbing her neck and the traitorous leap to her pulse. “We need to talk.”
He paused and raised a brow at her words, but then nodded. “That we do.” He strode forward, “May I?’ He lifted his hands, but waited for her to acquiesce before assisting her to dismount.
She nearly gasped at the touch of his hands on her waist, the cotton fabric of her riding jacket but a thin barrier between them. Her gloved fingers curled over his sturdy shoulders as he easily set her on her feet before him. Rather than step back as a gentleman should, he stood too close, staring down at her with a rather odd and un-Edmund-like smile curving those sensuous lips.
Her body temperature, already elevated, soared higher. She had forgotten how tall he was. She had to tip her head back to meet his mesmerizing smile. When she did, her heart took another leap.
Good lord, he was beautiful.
He stood so close she could smell sandalwood soap and a hint of some musky, masculine cologne. She blinked.
This would not do. Betrothed or not, they were not married and they were unchaperoned, for she had refused a companion for this private affair. She preferred no one witness her vulnerability—or worse, her humiliation should she fail. Tamping down her flutter of nerves, she retreated a few steps, putting distance between her and Edmund. “I will start.”
He looked surprised and then smiled. “You always did like to go first.”
The comment, delivered with warm amusement, further disconcerted her. He really was not behaving like himself. “Yes, well, they do say ladies first.”
He grinned. “So they do.”
She paused at his manner. Edmund had always alternated between charming and impatient in his dealings with her, confounding traits, as they either compelled or repelled her, depending on which mood she confronted at the time. She was not familiar with this Edmund and hoped this would not complicate matters. Things needed to be said, and her Damn Duke had the uncanny habit of disappearing for long periods of time.
“You do know that my father is no longer grieving the loss of my mother, Jonathan has turned a robust five, and Emily is doing much, much better, so I think—”
“I am glad.”
Surprised at his interruption, she paused.
“I am glad to hear about your father and Emily. Grieving over the loss of a loved one is always a difficult journey.”
The word was too tame a description for her sister’s bedridden despair after Jason’s death in India. However, that
so like Edmund. He had never liked to discuss Emily’s “illness,” as he referred to it. Back on familiar footing, she continued. “Yes, well, now that my family’s concerns and my obligations have lightened, I think we are finally . . .” She paused to swallow, her words caught in her throat. “What I mean to say is . . .” She trailed off, and heat climbed her neck.
She might have acted impetuously upon hearing Edmund was in town. She should have taken time to collect her thoughts and prepare a proper speech. She was at a loss as to how to proceed. And her Damn Duke appeared to have no intention of rescuing her.
He watched her with a slightly amused expression, looking as if he enjoyed her discomfiture. Maybe she should have left this meeting to her father. She gritted her teeth. No, because by the time he got around to addressing the matter, she would need that silver-tipped cane to assist her to hobble down the aisle.
She began to pace as she groped for a proper lead-in, well aware of Edmund’s eyes trailing her, not making matters easy. “I just thought it is only reasonable that after so many years of waiting, we now—”
“Waiting? I am not sure I—”
She stopped and frowned at his furrowed brow. Edmund was not obtuse, so she could not fathom what he gained in pretending to be so. “For goodness’ sake, it has been five years. Bets are being wagered at White’s as we speak. I think it is time.”
“Time?” he echoed. Suddenly his eyes widened and he retreated a step. “I am beginning to understand.” He lifted his hand to rub his neck, a tinge of color spotting his cheeks.
Julia’s lips parted at the un-Edmund-like reaction.
What was wrong with the man?
A rueful smile curved his lips. “However, there is something I need to clarify before you continue.” He held up his hands. “You see, I am not who—”
“No, it’s not necessary,” she broke in, cursing her earlier outburst and seeking to avoid the tired explanations over what the two of them had long understood. “I have always appreciated and been grateful for your patience and discretion while my family worked through these travails. But it is our time now. I want to honor the betrothal contract. I could not before, but now I can. I—”
“Julia, wait, stop! I do need to explain—”
“You don’t need to explain anything to me.” Before her flagging courage abandoned her, she stepped closer to him, lifted her chin, and taking a deep breath, gazed straight into his eyes. “All I need you to do is kiss me and tell me that everything is going to be all right. That
will be all right.”
“You don’t understand. I am . . . excuse me?” His hands dropped, and he cleared his throat before he could continue. “Ah, what was that about kissing?”
Feminine satisfaction filled her, helping her to regain her lost footing. Emboldened, she decided that if Edmund could behave un-Edmund-like, then for once, she could abandon the calm, prim, and proper Julia. Tired of being trapped by her responsibilities, she wanted to feel young and reckless. She wanted to relish the beat of her heart in her chest and the heat spiraling through her body as Edmund fastened his beautiful eyes on her. More so, she wanted to fill the emptiness deep inside her. To feel wanted and desired.
Shoring up her courage, she lifted her arms and slid her hands up his chest, marveling at the feel of warm, hard strength through his jacket and wondering why she had never dared do this before. Why had she waited so long, particularly as she felt his heart thud against her palms? It felt good.
His fingers curled over her forearms. “Julia—”
“Edmund.” She cocked her head to the side. “Aren’t betrothals sealed with a kiss? We never did do so, and I think it’s long past time we do.” Freeing her arms, she curled her hands around his neck, threading her fingers into the soft curls teasing his cravat and smiling at the flare of light in his eyes. “I am not a girl anymore, but all grown up now and tired of waiting for you.”
She watched him swallow, felt his hands on her waist, but frowned when he held her away from him.
“You certainly are no longer a girl,” he grinned. “That I noticed straight away. You have grown into a beautiful woman. But you see—”
“I do see. I see that you are wasting time. I also see that you are stammering when you could be kissing me. Don’t you want to kiss me?” Before she lost her nerve, she moistened her lips as Emily had once showed her to do to make them more alluring.
He expelled a choked laugh. “Of course I want to kiss you. A man would have to be lacking a pulse to reject such an offer. But Jules—”
She paused at the old childhood nickname. He hadn’t used it in years. But his hands had drawn her back to him. “You do have a pulse, don’t you?” she whispered. She was standing so close that she could see his long eyelashes, the black rim circling the lovely green of his irises, and how his eyes warmed at her question.
“For the moment,” he returned dryly. “And I would prefer to retain it. Should we proceed further with this, that could be dangerous for both of us.”