Chapter OneBattle of Toulouse, Toulouse, France
It was the stench that brought him back.
He opened his eyes and gazed up at the starlit sky, unaware that the stench filling his nostrils and seeping into his lungs was of human suffering, human blood, and human death. He heard a low moan, but it didn't quite touch him. It was odd, that was all.
It took him longer to realize that he couldn't move. He didn't know why he couldn't move, but there it was. What was wrong with him? What had happened?
It occurred to him that he was dead. No, not dead, he thought, but perhaps near death. He began to remember the battle in all its detail, as was his habit. Just as he had never forgotten the screaming death of Sergeant Hallsifer at Massena in 1810, nor the memory of how Private Oliver from Sutton-on-Tyne, a young man of vast good humor and excellent marksmanship, had bled to death. He closed his mind to it. Later, he thought, if he were blessed with a later, he would remember.
He wondered vaguely if Wellington had won the battle. It was doubtful, for if Wellington hadn't managed to bring up the heavy guns, well, there would have been no surrender and the French would have escaped from the city and been halfway to Paris by now. What the devil had happened? He tried again to move his legs, then realized with a start that a dead horse was pinning him down.
He wondered if he had been wounded, but he could feel nothing. His body seemed separate from his conscious mind. Had he been left for dead? No, that wasn't likely. Where were his men? Please, God, not dead, please.
He knew a moment of panic, then forced himself to breathe deeply, to control his fear. It was then that hefelt the whisper of pain in his side, He concentrated on that pain. Then he turned his mind inward. He would simply have to wait until Joshua came for him, and Joshua would come.
He focused his mind back in time, back to a beautiful spring day in Sussex. He dwelt on her. His memories were still vivid, not vague and blurred with time, which usually happened. No, he could see her smiling face clearly, see the rich gleam of her hair in the brilliant sunlight.
Arielle Leslie, a child really, only fifteen years old in 1811, and he had wanted her more than he'd ever wanted anything in his life.
He could still hear her laugh, high and pure, not some sort of romantic angel's laugh, but a young girl's healthy pleasure....
He was home that May in 1811 to recuperate from the wound in his shoulder, a deep bullet wound that had left him weak from the loss of too much blood and in steady pain for weeks. But he'd survived and made it home to Ravensworth Abbey. Made it home in time to attend his brother's funeral. Montrose Drummond, seventh Earl of Ravensworth, was laid to rest in the Drummond family vault next to their father, Charles Edward Drummond, and their mother, Alicia Mary Drummond. Not that he deserved to spend eternity next to the senior Drummonds, the stupid ass. Montrose had fought a duel over a married woman and had been shot through his heart by the husband. Bloody stupid fool. It had taken him a while to realize that he, Burke Carlyle Beresford Drummond, was now the eighth Earl of Ravensworth. He remembered the day of the funeral clearly, for it was also the day he had met Arielle. He was in the Ravensworth library, the long, thick draperies flung backto let in the bright sunlight. Lannie's voice was high and distraught, pitched just right to her captive audience.
"What will become of me? What will happen to my poor fatherless little angels? Oh, oh, I shall moan into my pillow, so all alone. Ah, the horror of it. We shall starve. I shall have to sell myself to save my babies." From her tone, the final degradation didn't seem all that appalling.
Lloyd Kinnard, Lord Boyle, was Burke's only brother-in-law, his older sister, Corinne's, husband. Burke grinned, watching Lloyd try to stifle his laugh. It turned into a cough. "Pardon me," he gasped and earned a reproachful look from Lannie.
Burke looked at his sister-in-law and wished she would shut her Cupid's bow mouth. Her plaints were now repetitive, her creativity used up. Sell herself? He wanted to laugh as well, but the choked look on Lord Boyle's face made him hold his mirth. Lannie had never known a day of want in her life.
Surely she could not believe for an instant that he, Burke, would toss her and her babies out on their respective ears.
No one said anything, but Lady Boyle gave Lannie a look that would have crushed her flat had she had the courtesy to pay attention to her sister-in-law.
"I am going riding," Burke said, seeing Lannie open her mouth to begin another round. He strode quickly from the library. His arm was still in a sling, but the pain was only an occasional twinge now.
"Be back by four, Burke," Corinne called after him. "Mr. Hodges will be here to read Montrose's will then."
"All right," he said over his shoulder and kept walking. He heard Lord Boyle say something about a brandy, and smiled as his sister roundly told him that his nose was alreadytoo bulbous from drink.
Darlie saddled his big black stallion, Ashes, then offered him a leg up. "You have a care now, my lord," he said, and Burke was startled to hear that appellation."I will," he said and smiled at the old man...
Catherine Coulter is the author of more than seventy novels, including sixty-six New York Times bestsellers. She earned her reputation writing historical romances, then began writing suspense thrillers, including her bestselling FBI series. She lives with her husband and three cats in Marin County, California.