Moonlight Mistress is out December 2009 from Harlequin Spice.
Crispin hadn’t felt any fear at all as he’d led his platoon into battle, only a strange feeling of intense concentration and heightened senses. Now that the worst of the fighting was over, though, chance had left him stranded far from his company, his twisted ankle swelling inside his boot, each beat of his pulse throbbing up his whole leg. He lay surrounded by mud and metal fragments, corpses and incomplete corpses, and the shattered skeletons of trees. That was a very different thing, and he’d had to work to keep from panicking.
Meyer had arrived after about an hour, and now Crispin couldn’t stop shaking. He’d been holding together rather well when he lay in the mud alone, waiting for death. A blanket of acceptance had eventually settled over his mind: someone else would take care of his men, and either another shell would land on his head and blow him to bits, or it wouldn’t, and he would worry about survival later. Dying that way would be quick. If his legs were blown off, or an arm, he still had his pistol. He could always shoot himself before he bled to death. He thought God would forgive him suicide, if he were dying already and in terrible pain. He needn’t fear the worst, being ripped open by a bayonet, as no German would be insane enough to venture out of his trench during this kind of assault. Being trapped in a shell hole hadn’t been nearly as bad as he’d feared.
Now, though, Meyer was with him, and if he was killed, Meyer would likely be killed, too. Crispin carefully unhooked his pistol from its lanyard, reholstered it, and buttoned the flap. His hands were shaking too badly for it to be any good. “Why did you come after me? Where’s your platoon?” He heard the sound of a train rushing overhead and pressed himself deeper into the mud, his arms protecting his face. The shell exploded some distance behind them. Smoke from previous impacts drifted by, like ghosts. Crispin shuddered.
Meyer lifted his head. His spectacles were spattered with mud, his mouth wry. “I thought it was over. My boys headed back. I came to look for you.”
Probably, he’d gone looking for Crispin’s corpse. “I can take care of myself,” Crispin growled, though it wasn’t entirely true. No one could take care of themselves in the midst of a battle. You couldn’t protect yourself from a shell, not really. Crispin wasn’t sure why he was so angry. He’d never been happier in his life, at least for a few moments, than when Meyer had slipped and skidded his way down into this godforsaken hole. Perhaps it was that he’d been ready to die, finally calm about it, and then Meyer’s arrival had reminded him that he’d left something unfinished, and he would regret it for eternity.
“God damn it,” he said. Another shell whistled and he ducked again. That one had been closer. He stole a glance at Meyer, and unexpectedly met his steady blue gaze, or what he could see of it through the mud. His heart stopped. Meyer looked down, fumbled off his filthy specs with an equally filthy hand, and slid them carefully into the breast pocket of his uniform tunic. His slight squint when he looked at Crispin now bore a disturbing resemblance to a look of lustful contemplation.
Meyer said, “I’d give a hundred guineas for a hot bath right now.”
Crispin’s mind presented him with an image of Meyer’s naked form ensconced in a porcelain bath, one leg flung over the side. He closed his eyes. That made it worse. He opened them again and reflected wryly that at least it was better than contemplating his own dismemberment. “I’d give two hundred guineas for any bath,” he said. “There’s a puddle down at the bottom of this hole.”
“Let me guess. You found it with your boots.”
“My arse,” Crispin said. “Good thing my coat took most of the damp.” He rested his cheek on his arm and tried to slow down his breathing. Sometimes that helped. This time it helped for two breaths, until a Screaming Minnie tore the air, then another, then a whole host of them, smaller shells ripping their way towards inevitable destruction. Terror washed him like cold rain, then a vast numbness that he dove into gladly.
c. Victoria Janssen 2009
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