Rhythm of Hearts
The Aegean Immortals Series Book Six
Barossa Ridge, Spain, March 1811
Lieutenant John Lewis hardly recognized the voice that gritted out from between his clenched teeth. His chest was on fire, and beneath the padded lining of his coat, he felt something warm and wet.
He didn’t dare look.
Around him the remnants of Britain’s First Foot Guard were shouting, their voices nearly drowned out by the explosions of gunfire. White clouds of acrid smoke burst into the air, and with a grimace, the man shoved his ramrod back into its place in the rifle and leaned around the boulder he and his companion had taken for cover. Pain shot through him anew as he twisted to present the Brown Bess and steadied the butt of the gun against his shoulder.
His thumb locked the rifle, and the soldier stared up the incline to where the French, blue-uniformed artillerymen stood in formation at the top of the ridge.
John pulled the trigger.
The force of the blast tore through him, and through the smoke, he saw a body pitch over the edge of the ridge line and tumble forward down the slope.
Sucking in a wet breath, the Lieutenant ducked back behind the boulder and began reloading his rifle.
At his side, David Hardy scoffed and leaned out to take a shot of his own.
“God damned La Peña,” David muttered, his thin body rocking back with the blast from his rifle. “God damned Frogs and the toads that birthed them.” He dove backward, dragging a breath in through his teeth.
John glanced his best friend’s way. David had been closer to him than his own brothers for as long as he could remember.
“Focus, David,” he ordered. The words felt heavy on his tongue.
David seemed hazier where he sat, and John was not sure it was only the smoke that caused it.
“I’m focusing!” David barked back. “You’re — Ah, shite, John!”
The soldier rolled closer, his hand reaching for the place John was trying not to think about. David, only two years younger than John and in the coming April they would share a birth month.
John’s hand reached out to close around his friend’s wrist.
“Don’t bloody well tell me — ” John bit out. He didn’t need to know how badly he was wounded. Not now. “Just focus!”
David’s face was covered in soot or dirt, leaving little underneath but wild, brown eyes.
Brown like the old barrels he and John used to play in.
The Lieutenant reloaded his weapon. Another twist, more pain and John felt the squelch of wetness in his uniform.
He fired, and another Frenchman fell.
Somewhere above it all, he could hear Dilke’s brigade.
They must have flanked the French.
Maybe they’d found more cover.
David suddenly flinched. “Ah, shite,” he grunted. “Shite. It’s all right.”
“I said keep your head down!”
“It’s all right,” David repeated, slurring. His Bess fell out of his hand, its shot exploding sideways.
John cursed and lowered his rifle, grabbing David by the shoulder to drag him back.
The man wobbled before spilling into John’s lap.
David, always so much scrawnier than John, with high cheekbones. High cheekbones and a handsome face that had earned him a wife and babe before he had left them both to join the service alongside John.
Blood ran down David’s brow from a hole that was the size of a coin.
“I’m all r’ — I’m — you’re bleeding, John…”
Damn. Damn, damn, damn.
“Aye. But you’re all right, Dave….” he lied. “I’m the bastard that’s fit to bleed out.”
“You’re… Em’ll kill us —” David breathed, and said something else drawn out in a slur beneath the furrow of his brow. He mouthed unintelligibly for a few heartbeats more and then grew still.
David did not move or speak again.
“Shite, shite.” John bit down on the rest of the curses that threatened to escape, but there was no stopping his tears.
He’d brought David here to die.
He cradled his friend in his lap as the shouting grew around him. Shouting. Calls to advance.
John swiped his wrist across his mouth, feeling the smear of sweat and blood on his skin. Gently, carefully, as if David were only sleeping, he lowered him onto the grass with a husked apology.
Their battalion was advancing, racing up the hill in plumes of gun smoke, and he saw the blue-coats beginning to waver.
He picked up Bess.
With fire in his chest and the taste of copper in his mouth, Lieutenant John Lewis began his own charge.
He prayed it would be his last.
Easthaven, England, October 1811
The harvest season of 1811 had been bountiful, and the farmers had reaped their crops well into October. Their bounty had been just as prosperous in the markets, but there was no place their fortune showed more than in the town’s pubs. Established the same year as the town of Easthaven, The Baron’s Arms was a favored haunt of laborers, cottagers, and sailors alike.
They made for prime targets for the darker creatures that lurked in the night. Vampires — No. Immortals.
That was what John was now, despite the whispers that surrounded him.
Fae, they said.
He was no Fae; though to see himself in the mirror, he might not have blamed them for their gossip.
John had always been large, and seated alone at a scarred wooden table, he took up the space of two men with a height befitting his frame. The Immortal gift he had been given had polished the hard lines of his face into something pale and perfect — the flaws of his mortal life wiped away with a few drinks of tainted blood.
The soldier’s hand tightened around the handle of his tankard.
It was not the thought of Eternity and blood that prickled the man’s irritation tonight, but the figure he watched with a hawk-like intensity where she sat in the pub’s corner.
The woman did not have the flawlessness of one new to their gift. Time had taken away some of the polish. At the base of her neck, piles of black curls were barely tamed into a bun, and her full lips were quirked into a smirk. Dressed in a simple, striped gown and the coat of a laborer, she appeared for all the world like another mortal among those gathered, despite her beauty.
But she was not a mortal.
Cora, a queen of Anowen, ruling House of the Aegean Immortals, was the same manner of beast as John was now — even if her petite frame barely came level with his shoulder.
Not that the man she presently entertained had any sense to know it.
If he had, the French laborer would have noticed how sharply her blue eyes pinned him, and that despite her smile, a cast of irritation had shadowed her study. But the man was laughing as he slammed back another tankard, and Cora matched him with her own.
Unlike mortals, they were not easily capable of succumbing to alcohol.
As if she sensed the heat of John’s stare, Cora’s eyes flickered his way. Her brows pinched, and she lifted her jaw. In his blood, he felt the rising strum of the guitar that was uniquely her instrument in the symphony that bound him to his new, Immortal family.
He was getting better at deciphering their hearts through their music, and he felt her admonition as a rap like knuckles against the face of her guitar.
The soldier’s jaw clenched tighter, and the tempo of his drums increased.
He was not the one playing games with a mortal.
“Finish it, Cora,” John muttered under his breath as if the woman was a recruit under his command.
The laborer’s fingers — black with grime — dipped into the front of Cora’s bodice.
John watched her grab the mortal’s wrist, and his hold on his tankard jumped tighter.
To hell with it.
When he unfolded from his seat, more than one set of eyes turned his way. At almost five-inches over six-feet, John was head and shoulders above others in the room. He set down a coin to pay for his drink and made a point of staring — as if by sheer force of will he could draw Cora’s attention to himself over the shoulder of her company.
If she thought he would suffer through watching her be groped in public like a tuppenny whore, she had underestimated her student.
The word formed silently on his lips, and the intensity of his gaze all but seared the woman. John turned his back on the pair and walked through the haze of tobacco smoke toward the doorway. He filled it briefly before becoming one with the darkness beyond its boundaries.
The soldier found a place at the corner of the stone wall of the pub where it lay next to an alley. His fingers dipped into his dusty laborer’s breeches and fished free the remnants of two spent rifle balls.
They clicked softly as he slid them between his fingers.
One had been extracted from his lung and the other from his abdomen on the field surgeon’s table. He kept them as a reminder of what his only other choice would have been if his savior had not come along with an offer he could not refuse. This side of death was where John had chosen to be, and he owed the Sovereign of the Immortals, Lian Redmond, for this second chance at life — even if he was no longer confident that he had made the right decision.
A moment before the door burst open, the erratic strumming of a guitar heralded Cora’s approach.
“Ye —” Cora gathered her skirts, bustling toward him. Her jaw clenched, and she shook the fabric out in tight fists before releasing it. The strumming of her song found a faster, louder tempo, before settling again into an irritated plucking — much like the melodic tapping of a foot.
“Ye are terrible at this.” A coarse Scottish brogue traced through her voice.
Coarse, despite the fact that she had told him she was well over three-hundred years old. The part of him that had been mortal only months before still could not believe it. His twenty-fourth birthday had come and gone, and she looked closer to David’s age.
John’s brow furrowed at the memory of his friend.
“What, then?” she demanded. “Lian nae doubt taught ye to kiss women deeply enough to tend your hunger.”
For an instant, John’s eyes flashed silver, the darkness within him rising as his drums beat louder through their blood for the image her words presented. One where she was the one satisfying his hunger.
“Well enough,” he answered curtly. “But we are neither of us in the habit of shoving our mitts into their dresses while calling them whores in public places.”
The soldier’s gaze touched over her body where she stood — lean curves, a full rise of bosom and skin that was driving him to distraction. It was all too easy to forget her strength in the face of all the woman she was. Less so to admit to himself that he had not wanted another man’s hands on her.
He had paid the ultimate price for ignoring his feelings for a woman once, and he had learned his lesson well.
“He called me chaton.” Cora sounded exasperated.
“That means whore.”
“I bloody well ken what it meant. I was hopin’ ye damn well didnae,” the queen huffed, ruffling her curls.
John watched the patch of skin at her throat that was revealed as the dark tresses were lifted away.
Of all the queens in his new family, Cora’s fire alone sparked even the remotest of male interest in him and had done so when he had hardly been expecting it. But the woman was difficult and seemed to view him as little more than a child — an inconvenient responsibility in her life.
It was not a role he enjoyed — less so with each passing day of a purposeless eternity.
He narrowed his eyes on her, feeling a new tension begin to work its way down his neck, through his shoulders and into his arms. He squeezed the rifle balls.
“If I’d stayed any longer, I’d have had to put my fist through his face,” John said flatly.
It was his best effort at an apology, but Cora only breathed in, folding both hands before her lips as if in prayer.
“There are three ways to go about this, Soldier.” She began to tick off on her fingers. “Ye can play a victim, a monster, or a seducer.”
Nothing about their games appealed to him. Very little about the existence he had chosen seemed to satisfy when he could not escape his memories — his guilt.
With a huff, the queen lowered one finger. “Ye’re too large for playin’ a victim.” Another finger dropped. “… And I dinnae think ye’ve grown enough beyond your humanity to be a monster with all that chivalry.” She dropped her hand altogether. “And neither of us are dressed to sweet talk the blood out of anyone’s veins. Never mind ye still look like half a bloody creature from some gothic nightmare.”
“I didna bloody well mean it like that.” Cora ruffled her curls. “All right. Then we’re approachin’ this all wrong. A soldier should be a hero —”
“I’m no hero.”
The bullet hole was no bigger than a coin.
He had left his men — his brother — on the field, taken out by the lead shot that had resulted in his transport back to England. His men were over there, and for all intents and purposes, they believed him dead.
Cora lifted her hand to wave through the air, “Call it what ye will, then. The pub’ll close soon, and there’ll be plenty of pickpockets and ravishers I can damsel to since your breeches got into such a twist over me honor. Charmin’ as it was, we need to eat. Now… what’s your preference, Soldier?”
John’s expression grew grimmer and his jaw tightened. He was not a hero. If anything, he was closer to the monster she thought he lacked the sensibilities to be.
His brow furrowed with the glimmer of an idea.
“How loud can you scream?”