FREE Prequel: A Kiss of Lies
Summer, 1815. The Battle of Waterloo
Please God, let me get to him in time.
Christian Trent didn’t dare blink as his sword slashed the air, cutting a desperate swathe through the enemy. His stallion, Zeus, reared, reacting to the urgent, abrupt commands from Christian’s hands and legs.
His all-consuming thoughts of rescue made the terrifying screams, the boom from the never ceasing cannon fire, and the smoky gunshot-filled air, fade to nothing. All his focus was on reaching William Penfold, who lay several feet away, pinned under his mount.
William had assured Christian he wasn’t too young to fight, but at nineteen he was certainly too young to die. Christian had no intention of allowing the bloody battlefield to claim one of his men.
He ducked as a French soldier fired his musket; the bullet grazed his right shoulder. He hacked at his assailant as he sped by, not turning to see what damage he had inflicted. His gaze was firmly fixed on William. The young man valiantly fought off his own opponent while trapped beneath the horse that lay like dead meat across his legs. Christian swore as he watched the French soldier raise his bayonet over William’s body. God, it’s going to be close. He blinked as the smoke stung his eyes and lowered his chin. He gathered the reins in one hand, raised his sword in the other, and kicked Zeus hard. Then he was airborne as his stallion leapt, propelling both of them over two unmoving bodies and to land by William’s side. Christian separated the French soldier’s head from his body with a single hacking blow.
After swinging Zeus around, Christian shook his head and his weary body shuddered with relief as he watched William wriggle free, cursing imaginatively while consigning all Frenchmen to hell. “Hurry that skinny arse, solider. You think I’ve got all day to wait for you?” He held out his arm as William stood, and swung the young officer up behind him.
All of this took about half a minute. Christian urged Zeus back toward the English line. William was as good as dead without a horse. He had to get him back to the staging post so he could acquire another mount, if there were any.
“Thank you, sir. I owe you my life.”
Christian grimaced. “Don’t thank me yet, boy. There is still a lot of battle left.”
He delivered William, and was about to rejoin his men at the front, when his fellow officer and best friend, Grayson Devlin, thundered up on horseback beside him.
“We have to take out the cannon on our right flank. It’s decimating the infantry.” Grayson flashed a boyish smile. “Care to be a hero and help me disarm it?”
He pointed his sword at William’s departing back. “I’ve already saved young William’s life today. Don’t make me save yours too,” Christian growled.
“I’m sure the Duke of Barforte will thank you richly for saving his boy. I hear he has a daughter. You keep talking about getting leg-shackled. You could do worse than marrying into Barforte’s lineage.”
A consummate rake, Christian had avoided the marriage mart as a hare would avoid a poacher’s lair. However, this battle was brutal, and after two years of constant war, disease and death, he’d been contemplating settling down. He would marry a beautiful woman, and raise a family. Today, at this moment, the idea held vast appeal. He no longer felt bone-crushing horror at such an occurrence.
He cocked his eyebrow and gave a wry smile. “There are worse things than getting married—dying without an heir for one.”
Grayson scoffed. “I do not see you easily relinquishing your ready harem. Women have chased you since you began wearing breeches. The dark, delicious devil, they call you. Marry!” Humph! “Women all over the world would throw themselves off cliffs if they heard of your marriage.”
Christian grinned at Grayson’s comments. “I can’t help it if the ladies have exquisite taste. Besides, you cannot talk.”
“True, but I’m not thinking of wedlock. They don’t call us the Libertine Scholars for nothing,” Grayson added with a wink.
Unusually for aristocratic army officers, both Grayson and Christian were the eldest males in their respective families. Christian Trent had become the Earl of Markham two months ago, and this was to be his last campaign. Grayson was in line to inherit his father’s title of Viscount Blackwood, on the latter’s death, if he didn’t get himself killed first.
Many thought Grayson either a madcap hero or a man on a suicide mission. However, since he loved women, drink, gambling and life in copious amounts, Christian thought him a hero.
Grayson’s silly grin mocked him. “I forbid either of us to die today. I’d rather think about celebrating victory at the tavern with voluptuous Rachelle and her beautiful sister.” He swung his horse around toward the sound of cannon fire. “Let’s go disarm the damn Froggies and end this battle, become heroes, and glory in the attention the lovely ladies will no doubt heap upon us.”
Christian shook his head while quietly laughing. Grayson was the one person who’d kept him sane over the last two years. “Who am I to stand in the way of your sex life?”
Meanwhile, Grayson had hand-picked three other cavalry officers to join them and, to Christian’s surprise, William asked to come along on his new mount.
They gathered around Grayson and listened to his plan. The element of surprise worked. None of the Frenchmen guarding the wagon, on which the cannon sat, thought anyone would be suicidal enough to declare an all-out attack.
The cannon sat on the far right of the battlefield in order to pound the English backline without killing their own men. However, the French were arrogant, and their flank was left woefully unguarded.
It took very little fighting to disable the small band of foot soldiers guarding the artillery unit. They ignored the three women cooking under a tree not far from the wagon. Women often followed their men into battle, keeping them fed and warming their beds. There was a written agreement that ‘followers’ were not to be touched. That rule was gospel within Christian’s platoon. He severely punished any man who hurt or dishonored any woman.
Grayson and Christian rode directly for the wagon, desperate to halt the two men still loading the cannon balls. The rest of their men covered them, while keeping an eye on the French soldiers they had just captured.
Christian wondered if it was the ill winds of fate that made Zeus let out a shrill neighing shriek as the cannon fired. Whatever it was, it sent a cold shiver down his spine.
One of the men perched on the cannon’s wagon turned at the sound, and just as Christian swung his sword to dispatch the enemy from this world, the man ducked under Christian’s blade, dived from the wagon and toppled Christian from his horse.
His lungs emptied of air in a whoosh as he hit the stony ground. From the corner of his eye he saw Zeus make it back to his feet. Zeus stood shaking his head as if he too was stunned. Christian had no idea where Grayson was.
The added weight of his attacker made getting lifesaving air into his lungs difficult. For a moment he lay inert, staggered by the fall. A flash of his attacker’s knife brought him to his senses. He just had time to smash his fist into the Frenchman’s face and roll out of reach under the wagon. Thankfully, his attacker’s knife found only air.
Christian pulled his pistol from his holster and fired. His attacker crumpled at his feet. Adrenalin pumped hot and fast through his veins. His hands didn’t even shake as he sat trying to reload powder into his pistol. Mid task he paused, spying his sword lying further under the wagon.
A man should never be separated from his sword, especially on a battlefield. Christian crawled under the wagon to the sound of clashing steel above. He smiled at the perfect French insults Grayson threw at the Frenchman he was fighting.
As Christian’s hand grasped the hilt of his sword, he heard the wheel beside him give a mighty creak and groan. He knew he had to get out from under the wagon—fast.
He yelled a warning to Grayson, and was almost out from underneath, when the wagon tilted sideways and, with an almighty crack, it toppled toward him.
In horror, he watched Grayson flying through the air, his assailant following. Grayson landed awkwardly, and Christian heard the smack as his head hit a large stone. Grayson lay as still as death. For the first time in all his years in the military, Christian felt his insides recoil in fear.
“Grayson, get up!” he yelled.
Fortunately, the French soldier Grayson had been fighting lay even stiller next to him. His head was bent under at an awkward angle, his neck obviously broken. Christian gave a silent prayer for that small mercy.
He had to get to Grayson and help him. He pushed himself up off the ground with his left hand, his sword still in his right. He rose to his knees and then tried to rise to his feet. But something gripped his right arm.
Keeping his eye on Grayson, he pulled his arm until the shoulder joint was on fire, almost popping the bone from its socket. His hand would not budge. He refused to let his panic rise. Grayson was unconscious, and now he was trapped. This was not a situation to be in for long. When would William notice their absence and come to their aid?
He tried to push aside some of the wagon debris to see what trapped his hand. He felt the manacle grip of whatever it was, but very little pain. He couldn’t understand what held him captive. The back end of the cannon had landed on a piece of the wheel rim. His hand was caught between the broken spokes, and the gap between them was not large enough to pull his fist back through, even if he dropped his sword.
He glanced across at Grayson who lay as still as stone. God, he hoped Grayson wasn’t dead. He looked carefully, and saw his friend’s chest rise and fall.
He gave silent thanks and determinedly set about trying to free his hand by pulling it through the tiny gap. He strained every muscle and tried to make his fist smaller, which was impossible for a man of his size.
The task consumed him, and he did not hear the soft sound of footsteps approaching. It was a shadow that alerted him to a presence. He glanced up and with relief he saw it was only one of the women from under the trees.
“Bonjour, Madam. Parlez-vous anglais?”
“Yes, I speak English,” she replied in a lilting French accent.
The woman’s face was shaded, the sun glaring behind her. Was she friend or foe? There was no point pretending he was not stuck. It was obvious. She could do anything to him and he’d be helpless to stop her. “Can you please find me a large stick that I can use as a lever?”
She didn’t answer. Instead she walked to the fallen Frenchman, lying near where Grayson lay comatose and utterly vulnerable. She bent and felt for a pulse.
Grayson coughed. “Yes. He fell off the wagon as it collapsed. I think his neck is broken.”
When she looked at him, Grayson’s heart skipped a beat. The malevolence in her gaze indicated he was in trouble.
“We are at war, madam, but my men did not, nor would they hurt you or the other women. War does not excuse barbarism.”
She gave a mockery of a smile. “You would say that. You are trapped, non?”
For the first time fear began to inch over his skin. He couldn’t reach for his pistol, it lay just out of reach, and his sword was still clutched in the hand trapped under the wreckage of the wagon. He nodded. “I am at your mercy, madam.” He hoped he could play on her conscience. After all, he had a way with women. Usually, with only a smile, they denied him nothing.
She leant down and stroked a finger down his face.
“Unusually for an Englishman, you are as beautiful as a Greek God. I suspect all you have to do is crook your finger, and women come to your bed with their legs wide open.” Perhaps she would help him. She was quite pretty, not battle worn, and she had an air of fatality about her. He had nothing to lose by trying, and a seductive smile creased his lips. “I give as much pleasure as I take, madam.”
She did not respond to his words. She simply stood and walked away, around the other side of the wagon. He could hear her footsteps fading away.
He let out a sigh of relief.
He turned his attention to Grayson. “Grayson? Gray? Can you hear me? Get your arse up off the ground!”
There was still no response.
The longer they stayed here, the more likely they’d be captured. Where the hell was William, or one of Grayson’s men?
Given his precarious position his senses were alert to sound. He heard footsteps approaching. A woman’s light and short strides.
She was back, with a stick.
But it was not for leverage. Christian’s blood ran cold. The stick she held came straight from their cooking fire. It was lit and burning brightly. Her intention was clear in the hatred gleaming within her beautiful eyes.
He refused to beg, even knowing this was the day he would die. She leaned forward and ran the flame from her torch along the edges of the wagon, igniting the gunpowder spewed from the tilted cannon. The flames were mere feet from his person. He began pulling at his hand in earnest.
He prayed Grayson would wake before the same fate befell him. Most of all, he let his anger engulf him. He did not deserve to die like this.
Not here, like this, now.
He had never realized how lonely dying was. He had no one who would really mourn his loss. No family, no wife, no children…
The flames licked nearer. He tried to curl up into a ball and hide from the crackling enemy; deluding himself into thinking he could avoid his doom. He braced for the pain, escape now impossible. He prayed he’d be brave enough to withstand the agony. He’d not give her the satisfaction of hearing him scream.
He felt the heat first as fire inched ever closer.
At the first lick of the flames on his jacket sleeve, he felt pain like none he’d ever experienced before.
Soon his whole arm was ablaze.
He could hear someone screaming. The noise almost a screech, so filled with pain it sounded inhuman. It was only as the blackness and relief of unconsciousness took hold of him that he realized the sound was coming from him.