THE REDEMPTION OF JULIAN PRICE by VICTORIA VANE
She gave him a chance to bury his past… but the price would be his heart...
Burdened by the past…Orphaned at a young age and left to run wild, at eighteen Julian Price joins the fight against Napoleon in the hope of attaining honor. Devastated when his best friend, Thomas, is killed in battle, Julian returns home burdened with guilt, only to find his wastrel uncle has squandered his inheritance.
Desperate to live her own life… Facing a bleak future caring for her aging mother and raising her brother’s children, Henrietta Houghton believes her chance at a real life died with Thomas, the only man who ever wanted her. But Henrietta is still full of dreams. When her wealthy aunt offers her a gift of ten thousand pounds, Henrietta finally has the chance to choose her own destiny.
Everything has a price...With a fortune at her command, Henrietta offers Julian a marriage of convenience, unaware that she really offers Julian a means of salvation—not just his fortune, but his very soul.
Dressed in her habit, Henrietta went in search of Julian. Failing to find either he or Harry at breakfast, she then sought them out in the library, fearing the worst. Last night, Julian had taken Harry out to the Powis Arms. She’d heard them stumbling back into the house close to dawn. To no surprise, she found them both slumped unconscious in the pair of wingback chairs in front of the hearth. Their cravats and waistcoats were discarded, and the floor was littered with a deck of playing cards and several empty bottles of port.
Her gaze lit with tenderness on Julian’s beard-shadowed face. His dark hair was too long, and he was in want of a shave. Coupled with the dark rings under his eyes, he looked far more highwayman or gaming hall habitué than war hero. How careless he’d become of both his appearance and his reputation since selling his commission. She’d hoped to ride with him, but by the look of things, it was doubtful he’d even be able to sit a horse. The fact that he drank overmuch and slept too late filled her with grave concern.
If possible, Harry looked even worse for wear. She approached her brother, nudging his shoulder with two fingers. “Harry, you must wake up!”
Other than an unintelligible oath, he remained dead to the world. Henrietta murmured an oath of her own, drew back her foot, and landed a sold kick to her brother’s shin.
“Beelzebub!” Harry started awake. He blinked twice before finding focus on her face. “Henrietta? Why the devil are you assaulting me?”
“I’m saving your skin,” she said. “Have you forgotten that you were to take Mama to Lady Brightmore’s this morning?”
“Damnation!” Harry groaned. “Why can’t they do all this bridal nonsense without me? Jules and I were to go and look at a new hunter today.”
“Come now, Harry,” she chided. “How will it look to Penelope if she finds out you placed the acquisition of a new horse above her? I daresay you would then have no wedding to grumble about.”
“Problem solved,” Julian chimed in with a shameless grin. “And a new hunter to boot.”
“Julian!” Henrietta admonished her brother’s cohort with a warning look.
“But what do I know of flowers, etiquette, or wedding breakfasts?” Harry whined.
“You need know nothing. And you need say nothing,” she advised. “Indeed, I strongly counsel you to withhold any opinions on anything whatsoever, but as the groom, you will be expected to smile and nod and display at least a modicum of interest in your forthcoming nuptials.”
“Pray forgive me, Jules,” Harry said. “The whole thing completely slipped my mind. Could you perhaps accompany me tomorrow? You know what a pitiful judge of horseflesh I am.”
“So sorry, ol’ chap,” Julian replied. “I have pressing business in London. I must return today.”
“Can it not wait a day or two?” Harry begged.
Julian flushed. “I fear not. My reputation is at stake . . or what little remains of it.”
“What do you mean?” Henrietta asked, at once anxious. What awaited him in London? Had he fallen in with bad company?
“It’s nothing I can’t manage,” Julian dismissed her concern with a wave of his hand.
“But you will return in time to stand up with me, won’t you?” Harry asked, oblivious to all but his own concerns.
“Of course,” Julian replied. “And I’ll be certain to bring a loaded pistol.”
“A pistol? Whatever for?” Harry asked.
“I shall use it as inducement should you experience cold feet before repeating your vows . . . and gift it to you afterward in the event you suffer remorse and wish to turn it upon yourself.” Julian gave Henrietta a conspiratorial wink.
“Jolly good!” Harry chuckled, oblivious to Julian’s mockery.
“What’s the date of the wedding?” Julian asked.
Harry returned a blank stare before looking to his sister.
“June the first,” Henrietta supplied. “I highly suggest you both mark it on your calendars.”
“I’ll be certain to return a few days early if you still wish to find a new hunter,” Julian said to Harry. “Or better yet, if you can effect an escape to London, we can go to Tatts for the horse. You are welcome to stay with me.”
“A last hurrah before taking on the leg shackles? Oh, I should like that very much!” Harry gushed.
“Enough talk of horses and hurrahs,” Henrietta said. “You’d best be off to make yourself presentable for Penelope.”
Harry ran a hand over his bristled jaw with a sheepish look. “You are right, Hen. Don’t know how I would ever manage without you.” He then heaved himself to his feet, swayed, and grasped the chair arm. Obviously, remnants of the empty bottles impaired his balance as well as his wits. He inclined his head to Julian. “I don’t suppose you’d care to join me? A fellow could use some male company.”
Julian shook his shaggy head with a laugh. “Not on your life, ol’ man.”
“June the first,” Harry repeated the date, as if reminding himself as well as his best man. “See you then, Jules.”
As soon as Harry was out of earshot, Henrietta rounded on Julian. “Why must you be such an ungodly influence on Harry? He’s shirked all of his duties since your return. Even if you have no inclination to walk the straight and narrow, you surely could make some small effort not to lead him astray.”
“Such censure, Hen?” Julian’s brown eyes twinkled. “As I recall, you were once the first to lead us all into mischief—and would mercilessly taunt any chap who failed to keep up with you.”
“We were children then, Julian! Back then we only risked scraped knees, or at worst case, a broken bone. As the head of the family, Harry has responsibilities. And he’s soon to be wed, for heaven’s sake!”
“Heaven or hell?” Julian quipped.
“You forget I’ve met the chit, Hen. And for the life of me, I can’t fathom what the fool sees in her.”
“Penelope? You are not an admirer?” Henrietta remarked in surprise. “She’s the acknowledged beauty of all Shropshire.”
“Is she? I fail to discern why. What, pray tell, is your assessment of this paragon who is soon to become your sister-in-law?”
“Penelope has much to recommend her,” Henrietta defended. “She’s sweet and virtuous . . . and . . . um . . .”
Julian’s gaze met hers. “The truth, Hen?”
“The truth? She’s also a vapid, empty-headed ninnyhammer.”
He laughed. “I stand vindicated!”
“You are not! Penelope is precisely what Harry needs. She practically worships the ground my brother walks on. I have no doubt she’ll be the ideal wife and will never give him a moment’s grief.”
“Or a second’s peace,” Julian quipped.
“You know as well as I do that they will manage perfectly. With my mother to guide her, Penelope will undertake the running of the household, and like any good country gentleman, Harry will happily tend to his estate, horses, and hounds. They will exchange smiles, pleasantries, and local gossip every evening over supper, and perhaps enjoy a game of cards before retiring in the evening. After a year or two, they will produced the first in a brood of cherubic children. In all respects, it will be the perfect marriage.”
Julian’s gaze narrowed. “Is that truly your idea of wedded bliss, Henrietta? Is that what you would desire for yourself?”
“Of course not!” she protested with a laugh. “And you?”
“Me?” Julian made a scoffing sound. “I have never given any thought whatsoever to marriage.”
“Never?” she asked.
“Never,” he replied. “For the past six years, I have lived only for the moment. War does not allow one the indulgence of thinking to the future. When one’s sole aspiration is to survive beyond the present, any consideration of the morrow seems a foolish and futile pursuit.”
“I suppose I understand that,” she said. “I felt much the same about the future after receiving Thomas’ last letter. It came to me two days after his death notice posted in the papers. Did you know that, Julian? I received a proposal of marriage from a dead man. I wish he’d never sent it.”
Three years ago, Thomas Wiggington had been among the six thousand allied casualties of Albuera. Unlike Julian, who had proven a fickle correspondent, Thomas had written Henrietta faithfully during his three years on the Peninsula. Over time, the letters had progressed from exchanges of life in Wellington’s army for local Shropshire gossip to matters of the heart. Although Thomas had never made any open declarations of love prior to his enlistment, his letters had begun to speak of marriage in a roundabout way. On his twenty-first birthday, falling on the eve of the battle, he’d written his final letter, professing tender sentiments and proposing marriage if he should survive.
“No. I had no idea, Hen.” Julian shook his head sadly. “How shocking that must have been for you.”
“Yes. It was.” She lowered her gaze, remembering the numbness as she’d stared at the letter through sightless eyes. For three straight days, she’d wept, but on the fourth, she’d tied up the letter with a ribbon and locked it away, along with any remaining dreams she had of marriage. She hadn’t been in love with Thomas, but she was certainly fond enough of him to believe she would have grown to love him had they wed.
“Thomas was the best of men and a model soldier. He would have made you an ideal husband.”
“I think we would have suited one another well enough,” she replied softly.
Julian’s gaze probed hers. “Do you pine for him still, Henrietta?”
“I do not pine, Julian,” she said. “Of course I miss him. Who does not? But it has been three years. Life does go on.”
“Then why have you not wed in all this time?”
“I suppose the simple answer is that no one else has ever asked me. Not that I wish to wed at this juncture,” she hurriedly added. “Why should I desire a life of subjugation?”
“Subjugation?” He laughed. “Spare me, Hen. Half the men in this kingdom are secretly governed by a tyrant in a petticoat. Why else would gentlemen spend all their time at their clubs, Tattersalls, or hunting, or in any other pursuits that take them away from home? They do so to exert their own independence—their very manhood, if you will.”
“That brings us around to my question. What will you do now that you have sold out?” Henrietta asked. “Do you propose to spend the rest of your days in such worthless pursuits, or will you be settling in Shropshire?”
“I will not be staying in the country, Hen. As long as I have sufficient income to keep me out of dun territory, I shall carry on the same as I have always done.”
She lifted a censorious brow. “So now you’ve landed yourself in debt?”
“You are too perceptive by half, Hen.” Julian raked his hair with a sigh. “If you must know, I only came back to Shropshire to take stock of my disposable assets.”
“Has it truly come to that?” she asked.
“I’m not ruined, if that’s what you fear. I was just drunk and stupid. I daresay I’ll recover in time.”
“From which condition? Drunkenness or stupidity?” she asked.
He winced. “Touché. But what the devil else am I to do with myself?”
“Why not turn to something more respectable? I don’t understand why you don’t stay here, Julian. Your father left you a substantial property. With a little effort on your part, it could surely produce a decent income.”
Julian slumped in his chair. “You don’t understand how it is, Hen. I have no skills to speak of, though I proved remarkably talented at survival. The worst I suffered was a ball in the arse, while all the best chaps—Wiggington, Usher, Codrington, and Barrett—got blown to bits.”
Henrietta’s breath hitched involuntarily. Of the original coterie of Bishop’s Castle hellions, only she, Harry, and Julian remained. One by one, Thomas Wiggington, Philip Usher, Daniel Codrington, and Nigel Barrett had all fallen to Napoleon. Only Julian had made it through the war relatively unscathed, at least on the outside.
She shut her eyes at the sudden ache in her chest, feeling anew the loss of her childhood friends. When she opened them again, Julian stood beside her. He took her hand in his.
“I’m sorry, Hen. That was bloody insensitive of me. What I meant to say is that things are different now. Why should I go and muck it all up when my factor has estate matters well in hand? Besides that, I would surely hang myself from boredom within a fortnight.”
“Is it so very bad for you, Julian? I thought you were happy here, that you enjoyed country pursuits—riding, fishing, and hunting with the hounds. I still do.” She couldn’t comprehend why he seemed to shun his ancestral home.
“I did once,” he confessed. “It was an ideal life when I was a boy, but things have changed. I’m changed, Hen. Indeed, the only things I’m any good at are cards and fu—” his cheekbones suddenly colored, “er . . . fighting. War does that to a man, and once it happens, there’s no going back.”
She understood all too well. Her life had once changed due to circumstances beyond her control, and she could never get it back either. “So what shall you do?”
“What I’ve done the past six years—survive one day at a time.”
“Surely there is more to life than mere survival, Julian,” she said softly. “Do you truly believe you will never be happy?”
He slumped back in the chair with a sigh. “What is happiness? I’m not even certain I remember anymore. What about you?” Julian asked. “What would make you happy?”
“Freedom. Independence. A life in which I can do as I please,” she answered. “I think that would make me very happy indeed.”
His brow wrinkled. “What do you mean by independence, Henrietta?”
“Today marks my twenty-first birthday, Julian. Now that I have attained my majority, I fully intend to make some changes in my life. I’m beginning with a trip to London.”
His eyes widened. “Today is your birthday, Hen? I’m sorry I didn’t remember.”
“It’s no matter to me. I’m used to it by now!” She laughed. “No one else remembers. They are all too preoccupied with Harry and Penelope’s wedding.”
Julian shook his head. “That won’t do at all, Hen. If everyone is preoccupied, we’ll simply celebrate it together.”
“But didn’t you just tell Harry you were leaving for town?”
“It can wait. Now,” he took her hand. Henrietta gave a slight shiver as he caressed her knuckles with his thumb, “tell me how you wish to spend your day.”
“Come ride with me, Julian,” Henrietta said, her gaze seeking his. “Let’s both be happy.”
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