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Excerpt: A Code of the Heart

Excerpt: A Code of the Heart

Book 3: Code Breaker Series

Prologue

Christmas Eve, 1802
Edworth House Party

Miss Amelia Bonnington braced herself as the crowd bumped and pushed, straining to get close to His Highness. The crème of society shoved and elbowed, politely-of-course, since one would never want to be accused of bad manners.

The Prince of Wales stood on a small platform elaborately decorated with heavy boughs of greenery and red velvet, matching the Christmas décor of the massive ballroom. Hundreds of beeswax candles burned. No expense had been spared for the house party celebrating his royal visit.

Amelia had no desire to be part of the prince’s circle; they were a ghastly group interested only in themselves and their own pleasure.

She sucked in the little air left in the room and pushed, courteously-of-course, toward the door. The crowd and the heat were unbearable. She wasn’t one to swoon, but with the thick mix of perfume and the hot bodies, she felt tonight might be her first. She, one of the steadiest women, felt unsteady and unsafe. The last days of upheaval must have had a greater effect on her than she wanted to believe.

Her whole world had been turned upside down and twisted sideways at this house party. In the last two days, her friends had been poisoned and held captive, and she had been ensnared in the French villain’s trap. But the deadly crisis had to be kept secret. Nothing must look out of the ordinary. No one outside the intelligence world must ever know about the enemy’s threat to the prince’s life. The ball must go on.

Amelia looked over her shoulder for the closest exit, but the throng pushed her forward. She needed to escape from the packed room.

A gentleman used the chaos in the crowded room to crash into her, to take liberties with her person. After spending the last four years in congested ballrooms, she fully recognized the scoundrel’s ploy. His heavy eyelids didn’t conceal his hungry eyes as he focused down her cleavage. As he remained fixated on her breasts, he grabbed her elbow, pretending to help her when in fact he intended to pull her close against his hefty, malodorous body.

His reek of stale alcohol and sour sweat constricted her stomach and burned her throat. She pulled her arm away from his grasp, repulsed by the wetness seeping through his gloves. “Sir, release me this instant.” She was about to dig her heel into the supposed gentleman’s fat toe when suddenly a space opened around her and a smell of fresh lime soap surrounded her.

The perspiring man stared behind her. His slack mouth and his blood-shot eyes widened in fear.

She recognized Lord Brinsley’s scent without needing to turn; he was an impossibly difficult, yet irresistibly appealing man. His deep, velvety voice flitted down her skin like a caress. “Miss Amelia, may I escort you away from this mob?”

Relief, and something much more potent, buzzed all her nerve endings. She turned quickly and found herself pressed against the broad chest of the man she had been forced to conspire with to help her friends.

She hastily straightened herself. “I never thought I’d be happy to see you.” She refused to be like all the other women who fawned for his slightest glance.

He lifted an eyebrow and the corner of his mouth in that sardonic way she always found irritating. He was too big, too handsome, and too confident for her to find him irresistible. She’d never let him have the satisfaction of knowing she found him…almost irresistible.

She had loved her childhood hero, since she was eleven years old, but her response to this virile man left her unsteady, unsure of who she was, or what she believed. She was suddenly overwhelmed with the desire to wrestle him to the ground, crawl on top of him, and pummel him. What she would do to him afterwards, she didn’t know. And she didn’t want to explore why the thought left her breathless and agitated.

Perhaps the whole spy business left her shaky and out of sorts. She needed to get back to London, back to her safe world of fashion and routines. She’d had enough of assassination plots and French spies.

He took her by the elbow and turned her toward the exit. “What is going on in that convoluted mind of yours? I hope the object of your fury was that slimy worm and not me.” His full mouth grew into a genuine grin.

How did he read her so easily?

His smile made her feel light-headed and giddy like a silly schoolgirl. Giddiness was not something she had ever experienced until meeting him. With four brothers, she was used to handling men and their superior attitudes. She pulled out of his grasp, but was shoved by an ostentatious matron.

“As wonderful as it is to feel you against me, do you want my escort or not?” His voice rumbled deep in his chest.

She let out a gush of hot air that had been building in her lungs. “You, sir, are no gentleman.”

There was a quick flash of hurt in his eyes before he raised his eyebrow in the maddening way. “I know, and that’s why all the ladies like me.” He emphasized the word “ladies.”

The fear and frustration of the last harrowing days gathered in her chest and throat, making it hard to draw air.

“You look as if you’re about to combust. Let’s go, Red.” Her hand disappeared into his enormous fist and he led her through the crowd. His giant size quickly opened a clear path toward the hallway and the closest exit.

His hand was surprisingly comforting for someone so overbearing. Grateful to finally escape the din and the heat with the promise of fresh air and space, she could almost forgive him for his insulting nickname. He had started calling her “Red” in private to bug her, and it had infuriated her just like he knew it would. Like her four brothers had done her entire life, all because of her fiery red hair and her pale white skin that blushed horridly with the slightest provocation.

Once out of the crowded ballroom, he turned and asked her, “Would you like to walk to the conservatory? I’m sure it won’t be teeming with the hordes.”

“Yes, please.”

He took her elbow and led her down a small hallway, away from the noise.

“I needed to get away from the prince’s admirers.”

“Degeneracy, lechery, and adultery not your favorite pastimes?” He chuckled. “Fashion, right?”

How did he do it? With those two simple words, he’d made her passion for art and design sound trivial.

Anger and resentment from the years of her brothers’ teasing and from the last stressful days swirled into a fermenting mass in her chest. It was all made worse by a sick feeling that he might be correct. She took a slow, deep breath, but she couldn’t hide the hitch in her breathing even though she tried; her safe world would never be the same.

With the threat of French invasion, her love of art wouldn’t help in defending her country. She searched for her usual outrage and anger, but all she felt was a muddle of helplessness and loss.

Nothing made sense anymore.

He pulled on her arm and turned her toward him. “What is it? What’s wrong?” His usual taunting tone was gone, replaced by concern and compassion.

She shook her head. “You’re right. With the impending war, fashion is frivolous.” She remembered how excited she’d always been with the newest designs, the newest innovations in dress construction. “I’m…” She couldn’t swallow against the lump swelling in her throat and the tears burning behind her eyes.

He smoothed her cheek with the back of his knuckles.

“Tears from my favorite red-haired hoyden?” Although his words were teasing, his touch was gentle, caressing. “There is nothing frivolous about you.”

She gulped against the sweet words and the way she wanted to throw herself into his arms, to feel his comfort. She rubbed at her eyes, anticipating how blotchy her fair skin would become when she cried.

“What is wrong, Amelia? Did someone hurt you or insult you in the ballroom? Tell me and I’ll make sure he never hurts you again.”

She looked up into his green eyes, the color of spring with flecks of burnished yellow. “No one insulted me. I’m fine.”

“You’re not fine. Usually you want to take my head off. Talk to me—I don’t recognize you when you’re all emotional like this.”

She could only shake her head. Like her brothers, he was trying to tease her out of her sudden wretchedness. Fear for her brothers with the impending war made the security of her home and family seem even farther away.

“You’ve been through a lot in the last few days with Ash’s poisoning and then Gwyneth’s kidnapping. It’s not surprising if it’s finally catching up with you. It happens to me too, after I’ve been on a mission.”

“It does?” She looked up at his chiseled face and his springtime eyes. All she could think of was taking shelter in his arms, and then the vision evolved and he was kissing her.

Living in the daydream, she leaned closer to him, offering her lips. She wanted… She didn’t know what she wanted except Lord Brinsley’s kiss at this moment.

Touching her lightly with his fingertips, he smoothed her cheek, her lips, and down her throat. He paused where her pulse leapt and bounded under his seductive touch.

He put his mouth on hers.

She froze, suspended in the sensation of his soft, warm lips. The rest of the world, the war, the ball, vanished.

With his tongue, he gently traced the seam of her lips. The touch threatened to make her knees melt, and drive the air from her lungs. She parted her lips. With a shaky breath came his tongue, exploring the inside of her mouth.

A moan escaped her. She pressed against him, wanting to be closer, to feel the heat and the security of his arms.

His large hands pulled her tight, burning like coals against her bare back. He ravaged her lips, her throat, her exposed shoulders. “Say my name. I want to hear Derrick on your lips.”

“Oh, Derrick.”

He deepened the kiss, thrusting his tongue into her mouth, setting off fireworks in her brain. His hard breathing and his powerful body excited her. His usual superior calm was gone. He was a hungry man ready to consume her. He groaned and his hands went down her back to her buttocks. He caressed and explored, lifting her against his erection, causing tremors to shoot through her body.

“I hear voices coming this way,” he growled, his voice low and husky.

“What?” Lights flickered in the hallway, but she was unaware of anything else but Derrick.