Eleven

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Chapter Eleven

May, 1815

Brussels

Dozens of low burning fires cast a reddish glow across the encampment. Heavy clouds covered the stars and plunged the night in heavy darkness. James reclined on a bedroll beneath a canvas overhang, leafing sightlessly through a book, listening to his men laugh and carry on.

“Do ye recall the night in Spain when the colonel won fifty pounds drinking that Russian giant under the table?”

“Oh, aye!” The men roared with laughter. “The colonel was in rare form that night.”

James cringed. Rare form. He’d made a royal ass of himself more like. A role he played all too often—the royal ass. He slammed the book shut, shame roiling in his gut as Phoebe’s haunting face flashed through his head. The sight of her stricken expression, pain and betrayal brimming in her wide beautiful eyes, had permanently seared his mind. He hated himself for hurting her. Such had never been his intention. He’d gone to her home that morning with his grandmother’s wedding ring in his pocket. He’d had every intention of proposing… asking her to wait for him… making plans to elope once he came home. But her brother had been in residence after all. The duke’s rage had forced James to come to his senses. Over and again he told himself it was best for her, without doubt she could do far better than he, but… was it truly for the best? Could they have been happy together anyway?

James heaved to his feet, restless, and needing to move.

It didn’t matter what could have been. He’d severed the bond with Phoebe so severely she’d never want to see him again. The truth was he’d panicked. He’d been consumed by her. Passion… Desire… Words did not exist to describe the supreme loss of himself he’d discovered in her arms. It scared the living hell out of him. He’d selfishly taken her to bed, and devoured everything she’d offered. It wasn’t until he’d seen the smear of blood on her thigh that the full import of his actions had struck. He was such a cad.

He wended through the low-burning campfires, keeping his face down to avoid being recognized. He had no desire to speak with anyone, be offered a drink, or hear more cackling tales of his transgressions.

Since meeting Phoebe he’d scarcely taken a drink and he’d undertaken the longest span of celibacy he’d known since the age of seventeen. He’d lost all taste for other women. It would seem Phoebe had had an exceedingly good impact on James. Because of her he wanted to be more. More than the debauched man his men crowed about and made fun of. His men liked him to be sure, and they were confident in his ability to lead them in battle, but did any of them respect him?

“Colonel Witherspoon!”

Bloody hell. Shoulders hunched against the light rain, James continued moving forward, pretending not to hear.

“Colonel!” Heavy footsteps ran up behind him.

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