The wind blew off the sea, moaning and wild, buffeting the man pacing the cliffs.
Hidden by a wall of rock, Emma Whiteside shielded her eyes against the bite of salt spray and continued to watch him, as she did every dawn.
Today, she thought. Today she would approach him at last. Confront him. Give him the royal tongue-lashing he deserved. She had nothing left to lose, after all. And she might not have the opportunity tomorrow. Or ever again.
The things I will say to you, Riverton, will peel the skin from your bones and lay you lower than anything Napoleon’s Grande Armée had to offer.
A small voice nagged Emma from within, the advice reasonable considering her current dire circumstances. Better to seek the man’s aid than chide him. But she snapped her mind closed against the unwanted counsel. The viscount was the last man on earth she’d ever ask for help.
Grief chilled her, numbed her heart, deadened the tender feelings she’d once had for him. Only her need for vengeance broke through her frozen emotions now. She longed to set Riverton in his place, however little effect her words might have on a man so impervious to remorse.
But once again Emma could neither confront him nor beseech him. The evidence of his stiff-necked pride—and her own—continued to hold her back with as much force as if an unseen hand pressed down upon her shoulder. She glared in the man’s direction, as if it were his hand oppressing her.
Fierce gusts punished him, impeding his tortured progress. Pain twisted his handsome features but he confronted the gale without flinching. A tiny chip splintered off from the ice sheath encasing Emma’s heart.
How do you bear it, Riverton? Are you made of stone?
She knew he was not. She saw the agony against which he fought, the stalwart way he pushed himself onward, despite the uneven gait that hampered his progress.
A cold blast of wind whistled past, ripping the hood of Emma’s cloak aside, whipping her hair against her neck. The frigid current stung her eyes, wringing reluctant tears. She blinked the moisture away and rubbed the damp trail from her cheeks.
No tears, she instructed herself. Not for him. Never for him.
Riverton wore no coat or cravat. His linen flapped about him, white shirttails torn from his trousers—an unlikely flag of surrender when he refused to give quarter.
Did you stand so against the French?
Emma could think of no oath dark enough to curse a man so remarkably stoic. She envisioned him in her mind’s eye, saber raised, hastening up and down the lines, shouting at his men to hold: Major Adam Caldwell, Viscount Riverton, at his most courageous.
She shuddered, conjuring the brutal attack that haunted her grimmest moments, the scene clouded by smoke and thunder, blurred by the limits of her grief and imagination. The battle where her twin had fallen, belly pierced by an enemy bayonet.
Michael admired you so, Riverton. I will never stop blaming you. ’Tis time you knew it.
Anger burned within her breast, bright as her love for the viscount once had.
And yet…her gaze swept him again, lingering on the trousers that molded his muscular thighs, the loose shirt that emphasized the breadth of his shoulders. ’Twas but the vicious wind that stole her breath, she told herself.
Why was he here? Why had he come now? What was he doing marching about the windswept cliffs so close to the manor when he had not had the decency to call upon her family? He had not answered the letters she’d sent after they’d first learned of Michael’s death at Albuhera. And now, considering her current untenable situation, Riverton’s presence here seemed too cruel a taunt.
Go to him, her inner voice dared again. Ask him for aid. You know he will help you.
Emma straightened and shook her head. She knew no such thing. She did not know this resolute, unyielding man at all anymore. No matter how dire her plight, she would never beg Adam Caldwell for a farthing. She might have little of value left, but she still had her pride. And that pride demanded she read him a scold—if she could only muster the courage to do so.
Emma studied Riverton’s grim, determined face, experienced etched upon the angles like the engraved lines on a printmaker’s plate. She stifled the sigh that threatened to escape her.
What would it be like to be held in this man’s powerful arms, crushed against his hard body? Odd tingles raced down her spine. Nightmares of war may have chased her girlhood dreams but her fascination with Riverton persisted, despite the world-weary air that now settled over him like a cloak.
The viscount planted one booted foot in front of the other and trudged across the rock-strewn ledge mottled with dying chalkgrass and choked with brambles. He clenched his jaw, as if grinding his teeth to bite back the pain.
Grudging respect for the single-minded effort with which he exercised his wounded limb stole over her. Warring emotions wracked her. She fought an urge to run to him, to soothe his knotted brow with her fingertips, stroking the grooved lines of care away. Bittersweet passions swelled and crested until her heart raced. Despite the wretched weather, a surge of heat engulfed her. She flattened her palms against her warming cheeks.
Damn his eyes.
“I am not that silly minx in pigtails anymore and I will not let you do this to me again!”
Emma gripped the embroidered handkerchief she had labored over with the last of her silk thread, never finished when the skein ran out. She forced her fingers to unclench before she tore the fragile muslin square.
How her circumstances had changed since that long-ago garden party!
Twelve years earlier, watching the viscount flirt with young ladies his own age, she’d marched over to him, abuzz with indignation. Throwing back her shoulders and jutting out her chin, she’d tugged on his coattails until he turned and smiled down at her.
“You have succeeded in capturing my complete and undivided attention, Miss Whiteside. Or should I call you ‘general’?”
The startling glint in his blue eyes—a sparkle bright as a shooting star streaking across the midnight sky—thrilled her. She’d ignored his gentle teasing.
“You will wait for me,” she’d ordered him.
He’d dropped to a knee, leaning toward her until mere inches separated his face from hers. A dark eyebrow lifted like an elegant black bird drifting into flight formation.
“What do you mean, poppet?”
“You will wait for me to grow. I will marry you and be your lady.”
He hadn’t laughed. Instead, he’d regarded her with wry solemnity.
“Of course, I will, poppet. You’ve stolen my heart. I will wait for you forever.”
Then he’d straightened, hauling her up with him and swinging her around until she’d shrieked with delight.
How stiff his left leg seemed now, in contrast to the nimble teenager he’d been. He favored it, as if uncertain whether the limb would bear his weight. She tamped down another unbidden flare of compassion.
A man like you will never need bend a knee. But that was too callous a thought, she chided herself, even for a wretched man like Riverton.
Thank God she remained too far away to see his eyes. From the rigid set of his jaw, Emma suspected the horrors of war had doused the ready light that had once shined there. She was certain bleak shadows now dulled their remarkable blue the way a pall of smoke turned day to dusk on the battlefield.
Emma tried to stoke the fast-ebbing fires of her resentment. But the more she watched Riverton’s exhibition of sheer stubborn will, the more she softened, her pangs of longing growing ever more insistent.
Adam Caldwell still possessed the power to make her heart flutter. More so now as a virile man of nine and twenty than he had as a stripling of seventeen.
But she had lost too much. Her twin brother lay in a forgotten grave in Spain, her father had gone missing, and she would be turned out of her childhood home tomorrow.
Then what? How will I save Papa? How will I ever find him? What if she could not secure a position as a governess or paid companion? Would she be forced to make her way in the world on her back? There was so little time left.
Talk to him
Emma shivered and wrapped her cloak tighter around her to block out the persistent carping of the voice of reason. She knew now she was fooling herself. She would never confront the blasted Adam Caldwell. Not to dress him down. Not to ask his aid. But her predicament remained. High time to stop her useless spying on the wretched viscount and seek some other solution to her thorny dilemma.
Chores awaited her at the manor. The muslin torn from her few worn chemises would not block and stitch itself. Perhaps she could never satisfy Papa’s debts by embroidering handkerchiefs to sell at the village linen-draper and haberdasher shop, but at least she could stock the larder until she found a way to rescue Papa and save their home.
Some way other than the one with which Papa’s creditor had presented her.
Emma rose from her hiding place and brushed sand from her hands.
Riverton abruptly stopped pacing. He tilted around and stared straight at her. Emma shrank behind the stone outcropping again. Had he seen her?
But his gaze skewered her like a rapier. He took the decision out of her hands.
“The show is over, madam. I’ve entertained you long enough.”
His deep voice reached her across the windy bluff, affecting her as if he stood close beside her, his hand encircling her wrist and pulling her forward. The rich timbre resonated through her, as intoxicating as sherry. Her hunger flared.
Emma took a gulp of salt-tinged air and emerged from concealment to face him. “We meet again, Miss Whiteside.”
The young woman’s sudden appearance, after she’d remained hidden so long, broadsided Adam like a cannon shot.
He’d sensed her presence but had never actually seen her as anything more than a vague shadow, concealed in the gray mists of dawn as she darted to her secret observation post like a French sharpshooter. He had not placed her. Until now.
Her luminous countenance flooded with surprise as she swayed back against the shelf of rock, covering her mouth with two fingertips. The gesture drew Adam’s attention to her gently parted lips. Kissable lips. Very.
“You did not expect me to know you, Miss Whiteside? You’ve changed a great deal. But I’d know you anywhere.”
Emma dropped her hand and her spine took on the brittle rigidity of iron. Swathed in her cloak, she gazed at him with fierce fire burning in her eyes, as long tendrils of wine-red hair escaped her hood and slashed her cheeks.
“Why have you come, Riverton?” Her tone could have peeled the rind from a lemon. He was not accustomed to such address; even during the war men had leapt to obey his barked commands. This young woman, such a study in contrasts, baffled him. His nostrils flared, like those of a beast aroused by its mate. His blood coursed faster.
Adam flicked his hand toward the steep cliffs and the churning waters that slapped the rocks below. “The air,” he informed her. “I’m taking it.”
“Why not? You’ve taken everything else precious to me.”
What in bloody hell was that supposed to mean? Perhaps he had been tardy in paying his respects to her family. He had bided his time, healing his body, if not his soul, as he gathered his strength and—more recently—collected disturbing information in the village below. But devil take the wench, he was here now. Despite the physical and mental toll his presence on the windswept cliffs cost him.
Her acid words sizzled across the thick scar tissue encasing his heart, burning away all that no longer mattered. And undoubtedly producing the precise opposite of the effect she’d intended. It had been a long time since he’d looked at any woman with interest. But suddenly he hungered to run his hands over Emma’s flawless skin, taste her sweetness and tang on his tongue.
“Not everything precious, surely. I dare say we’d both have remembered that.”
His suggestive words found their mark. Color sprayed her face like a Spanish sunset, arousing him further. She did not pretend to misunderstand him, as a wilier girl would have. With no coy fan to hide behind, her emotions spilled across her expressive face as plainly written as the headlines of a broadsheet.
“I dare say your memory would be as suspect in that regard as in any other, my lord.”
“I’m rather certain the experience would prove unforgettable, madam. For both of us.”
What possessed him to say such outrageous, rag-mannered things to her? Was it the bold way she continued to hold his gaze with eyes the changeable color of a stormy sky? Or the troublesome rumors he’d heard at the local tavern?
“No doubt the war has robbed you of many things, my lord. As it has me.” Her gaze slid to his leg, the walking stick upon which he leaned, the edge of his jaw, where a thin, white scar crawled like a worm. “But despite the depths to which I may have fallen, I have managed retain my manners.”
He deserved nothing less than such a chiding, but he heard only half her rebuke.
“What depths?” he demanded, stepping forward and seizing her chin in his hand. Were the damned rumors true? If not, he’d flay the skin from the back of any man he heard spreading them. He tilted her face and stared into her eyes. “What depths, Emma?” Her color flared hotter and he felt the quickening of her pulse where the side of his hand rested against her throat. But she twisted out of his grasp.
“That is my business. I thank you for your interest in my affairs, my lord, but I shall take care of myself.”
Her cool, sarcastic words tore something within him. What had happened to her father? When last he’d seen George Whiteside, the man had been a complacent country squire, a regular fellow, if occasionally somewhat high in the instep, a man who’d sought the best for his children. Now his son and heir was dead and, if the gossip Adam had heard was correct, Whiteside had taken to drowning his grief, becoming a drunkard and inveterate gambler far out of his league. Was that it? Had Whiteside landed in dun territory, gambling away his daughter’s prospects along with her dowry?
Adam considered the small squares of cloth in his pockets, with their tiny elegant stitches, one of them so horribly stained with blood. Anger akin to the red rage of battle momentarily seized him in its grip, and he wished he had a sparring partner to pummel. But he took a calming breath. If he’d learned nothing else in the last few years, he’d learned the emptiness of violence.
Did Emma have no one to protect her now? What had happened?
“Do not trouble yourself, Riverton,” she said, as if reading his thoughts.
Adam frowned. Should he place her under his protection? He had not taken a mistress since before the war. His soul might be dead but he was still a man. A broken, damaged man, perhaps, but one with needs. He had not had a woman in nearly a year—not since before he was wounded at Albuhera. Better to put some distance between them, he thought.
But he couldn’t remember when he’d last seen a chit this striking. Had his blasted leg allowed him greater agility, he might have leaped on her then and there, dragging her to the hard earth for a satisfying ravishing.
What the bloody hell was he thinking? He had never in his life done such a thing. Not with the prostitutes and women of easy virtue who followed the drum. Not with the Iberian women whose bodies were pillaged along with their homes. He was not about to start now.
Certainly not with this woman—no matter how plump and kissable her lips. She deserved better than a man with no heart. No matter how far she had fallen. If, in fact, she had.
Adam leaned on his staff and reminded himself he was a gentleman, even if he’d seen things no gentleman should see, and done things no gentleman would do. Things that would haunt him forever. He further reminded himself that the young woman before him—however much she currently resembled a wild-haired, blazing-eyed banshee ripe for his plucking— was a lady, gently reared. Even if her own father had forgotten that.
The honorable Miss Emma Whiteside. Michael Whiteside’s twin.
The corporal’s hair had been light, not this astonishing claret color. And the finely whittled features that seemed to resemble Michael’s at first blush were far different, indeed.
His gaze rested upon cheeks, soft and rounded as plums, that invited the touch of a man’s lips, and then lingered on a sultry mouth shaped for more wicked delights.
The willful, unruly little chit had grown into a diamond of the first water.
Her intriguing gray eyes, silver as a saber, fairly snapped at him, the battle waging in them as intense and wrenching as any Adam had experienced on the Peninsula.
Sparks flew as they stared at each other, like those borne by the clash of Toledo steel.
Emma moistened her lips as if they’d gone dry, the tip of her tongue darting out. Quite different from the calculated flirtations practiced by the fan-wielding ladies of the ton. No artifice here. None at all.
Adam’s cock stirred and his balls tightened. He longed to taste those unschooled lips. He ached to invade her mouth with his own tongue, drawing sweet sighs of pleasure from her as he savored her kisses and seduced her with his.
As if she sensed the direction his thoughts had taken, her gaze travelled to his mouth, making him burn. Mixed emotions marched across her face, ragged as raw recruits.
Adam swallowed, trying to squelch his feverish attraction by recalling a long ago tea—a lifetime ago, it seemed to him—and a young lady’s impertinent proposal. But the feisty woman confronting him was decidedly a woman, all of twenty now, not an impetuous eight-year-old suffering a bout of puppy love. Her eyes flayed him as if only by stripping the skin from his bones would she know any respite from her grief. The starch that straightened her spine held her rigid as the chalk that formed the cliffs upon which they stood.
He dipped his head and stifled his groan. She did not yet know the mission that brought him here. Only the thought of the wretched piece of cambric embroidered with the initials M and W and blotched with her brother’s blood had tempered his irritation when he’d learned the extent of her father’s misdeeds. The man’s worthless paper was popping up all over the county. Adam had sent his batman, Oliver Garrett, on fruitless missions to Whiteside’s favorite haunts, but the squire had not been ferreted out as yet. Now Garrett was searching venues less frolicsome.
Was there some way to shield Emma from what was to come?
Despite her apparent distaste for him, something more than ire animated her. Mutual awareness flared between them like dry kindling under a match. The desire to fan those reluctant embers into flames of passion, blazed through Adam again. His longing grew more intense, more difficult to shake off.
“Why have you come now?” Emma demanded. “I wrote and wrote, after that first brief letter you sent us from the Peninsula. You did not deign to answer.”
“How do you fare, Miss Whiteside?”
“How do you think I fare, my lord? My brother is dead and my father…”
Her voice trailed off and Adam noted her wince. But he decided this was no time for sugar-coated sentiments. Even in London drawing rooms he had never minced his words. And this harsh, windy bluff was hardly a Mayfair salon. Emma Whiteside’s stiff back and unwavering glare convinced him she was made of sturdy stuff.
“Your father is a drunken lout who gambled away property not his to wager,” he finished for her with a tight-lipped lack of diplomacy. “That is why I am here.”
Emma’s hand fluttered to her throat. Did his blunt words shock her? Had she been unaware of what her father had tried to do? “Not his?”
“You did not know?”
“I do not believe you.”
Adam stared at her in disbelief. “I am not in the habit of lying, Miss Whiteside.”
Emma’s posture lost some of its starch and Adam caught a furtive mote in her silvery eyes, before her long lashes descended and her glance slid away. She swiftly regained her composure, tilting her chin with a defiant air as she returned his gaze. He admired her spirit. More than her hen-witted twin had possessed.
“I thought perhaps you had come to apologize for taking my brother from us. For leading him into a battle from which he would not return.”
Adam’s guts wrenched as if she’d stabbed him and then twisted the blade. But he bore her words without comment. What was one more assault upon a heart so bruised and battered it had turned to dust?
The loss of his men would haunt him into eternity, their faces appearing in nightmares that gallons of brandy could not wash away. He punished himself for all of them. Including the foolish Michael Whiteside. Emma did not need to know that her brother’s death had been more senseless than most. But Adam had put off this hard visit long enough.
“Your father’s dissolute nature is not the only reason I’ve come.”
“My father is grief-stricken, my lord. If he has taken to drink, ’tis to ease the ache in his heart. Have you no charity in your soul?”
Adam well understood the oblivion found in spirits. Perhaps the man’s drinking was responsible for his lack of judgment, his indiscriminate play at cards.
“I’ve come, also, to pay my respects.”
“Too little, too late,” Emma muttered, as if to herself.
“Miss Whiteside.” Adam took a step toward her. A nerve-jangling jolt of pain tore through his left leg, setting his teeth on edge. The price he paid. But a precursor, he knew, to the relentless agony that always threatened to lay him low. On occasion, he could overcome the crippling effects of his wounds through sheer force of will. He suspected this morning would not be one of those times. He had pressed himself too hard.
“What is it?” Emma demanded.
“M’leg,” he grated through his clenched jaw.
“Take my arm.”
“Have you always been so bloody stubborn?” Her eyes flashed again.
“Some might say.” Such as his father or his equally stubborn batman, Oliver Garrett.
“I don’t remember that about you.”
“The man you remember is gone.”
Emma flinched as if he had struck her but her unwavering gaze held his, challenging him more than any idle wager he’d ever taken up at White’s. “I am sorry to hear that. I quite liked that man. So did my brother.”
Adam’s fingers tightened on his walking stick, and he sucked in a breath. Had it not been for her blasted brother—
He shook his head to repel his dangerous thoughts and muttered a low oath beneath his breath. He refused to shatter the girl’s illusions about the corporal. War had consequences, after all. He’d been Whiteside’s commanding officer. He had no one to blame but himself.
“No one understood why you did it,” she murmured.
He started and then stared at her, his gaze raking over her in a forthright manner, daring her to continue in the face of his displeasure. But she braved his mounting ire and would not be turned from her course.
“You were such a brilliant rogue, cutting so vast a swath through the ton. All the fashionable society ladies and their mamas dangled their lures for you, hoping to bring you up to scratch. All the rakish young men wanted to be you. And when you inexplicably marched off, they…Michael…wanted to follow your lead, as he’d always done. He followed you straight to hell, Riverton. But you returned. And he did not.”
Young Whiteside had taken the king’s shilling because of him? Of course, he had known that, in some dark corner of his soul.
Adam swayed and gripped his stick until his knuckles whitened, as another jangle of pain ripped through him. He would not embarrass himself in front of the stalwart young woman confronting him.
“Take my arm,” she insisted. “Unless…perhaps you are too much man to accept a woman’s support?”
Adam snorted. “I suddenly recall a bossy little girl who ordered me about as if she had a perfect right to,” he said, raising an eyebrow. “That much, madam, has not changed.”
A hint of English rose splashed Emma’s cheeks. Adam could not allow himself a moment to appreciate the pretty blush—or to acknowledge that he was actually enjoying this absurd banter with her in the midst of his increasing discomfort. But something about Miss Emma Whiteside—something apart from her striking looks and his immediate physical attraction—caused his blood to race and all his senses to go on alert.
He shut his eyes and ground his back teeth, hoping to ward off the worst of the attack he knew was coming—at least until he could whistle Champion back to his side and swing himself into the saddle.
But his strenuous exercise and the harsh weather, combined with his horrific memories of combat, blasted him like an explosion of enemy artillery. Thunderbolts lanced his leg, flooding him with agony so intense he nearly doubled over. He felt the blood drain from his face and he staggered.
Emma leaped forward to support him. Concern replaced the belligerence in her eyes, darkened to gunmetal-gray.
“This will not do, Riverton. You must lean on me.”
“Still the bossy little harridan.”
She sighed and reached for his forearm. The brush of her fingertips sent a coil of shock through him more stunning than the waves of searing fire radiating from his leg. He’d anticipated that pain. But he had not expected the soothing glow generated by the touch of Emma’s hand or the warmth flowing through his linen sleeve. His reluctance to accept her help evaporated.
Nor was Emma unaffected by the contact, he decided. He heard the small hitch when she inhaled, the low huff of breath she expelled with an odd little choking sound. The slightest of tremors shook the fingers that gripped him.
Despite his misery, Adam remained completely aware of her clasping his arm as if her slight frame could prevent a man of his size from toppling. Though wracked by pain, his body still hummed with arousal.
Adam inhaled. The scent of her hair reminded him of the tart fruit of the Portuguese strawberry tree, used to make potent aguardente de medronho. He’d often drunk himself senseless on the powerful brandy, trying to numb his physical agony as well as the hollow ache that gnawed the dry bone of his heart.
Now, pondering his reaction to the dauntless Emma Whiteside—and hers to him—he decided he might benefit from the more restorative tonic of her touch. This girl rejuvenated his exhausted spirit more than any forced march over the cliffs helped to rehabilitate his leg.
He slid his arm around her waist, dragging her closer. She fit comfortably against his side, as if she