Angel of Windword [MultiFormat]
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eBook by Maggie Dove
eBook Category: Historical Fiction/Romance
eBook Description: Evil forces are at play surrounding Angelique Beauvisage, but she has no clue. Sensuous and suspense-filled, ANGEL OF WINDWORD, begins with a murder that takes place four years before and turns into a perilous cat and mouse game played by two reluctant lovers, who spin a web of deception that only their love can unravel.
eBook Publisher: Eternal Press/Damnation Books LLC, Published: 2009, 2009
Fictionwise Release Date: October 2009
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12 Reader Ratings:
She clutched her cloak tightly to her chest as she waited for him at the front gate. Squinting against the blinding rainfall, relief overtook her when she finally recognized the tall, draped figure of a man making his way toward her. "James, at last! You've been gone all evening," she yelled over the howling wind.
The stench of liquor gripped her violently, offending her nostrils, as he rushed past her. "You've been drinking," she accused him, her hand rubbing the aching shoulder he had so brusquely bumped against. Convinced that her words were dulled by the tempest, she pleaded after his retreating form, "James, please wait for me!"
James did not reply. He continued his pendulous walk toward the looming estate.
The sudden sound of thunder made her tremble as she quickly followed him into one of the many cottages located on the premises.
Once inside, her clothes soaked, she dragged herself down the narrow wooden stairs and stood at the entrance of the wine cellar. She pushed open the creaky old door and stumbled in.
"Silly woman, why must you wait for me in the rain?" James demanded as he uncorked a bottle of expensive Bordeaux and proceeded to have a drink. He handed her the bottle. "You look like hell. Here, you little nuisance, drink some of this. Maybe it will make you bearable."
She ignored his cruel words. "I've been waiting for you all night," she said, trying to catch her breath. "I waited outside for you. I did not want the family to overhear our conversation."
James quickly guzzled more of the warm liquid, using the back of his hand to wipe off a few red drops from the side of his mouth. "And what could you possibly have to say to me at this late hour? Never mind." He laughed wickedly. "I'm not interested in anything you have to say, my dear."
"Hand me the wine," she spat out. "I've probably caught my death waiting for you in this storm. I cannot bear to look at you like this ... consumed with yourself, so bent on self-destruction."
He whirled around, throwing the bottle against the wall, chortling as the glass shattered and fell to the floor. "There's your wine. You're welcome to it." Suddenly serious, he stumbled toward her. "Happy now?"
"I am with child," she announced. "You are the father. If you love me..."
Pie-eyed, James hiccupped. "Did you say love you, my dear? I'm not certain I even fancy you anymore."
He began to laugh, taking two steps forward, almost tipping over, and then catching himself in a circular motion. "It matters little whether or not you find yourself with child. You're all the same," he rattled on, "faithless, deceiving bitches. I must have been insane to bed you. Filthy slut ... seducing the viscount, while lusting after the sailor."
She stood stunned. How had he known?
James spat in her face. "Get out, whore, and take your future bastard with you!"
She flinched, wiping the spittle from her face. "You are a vicious and vulgar man, James Kent," she retorted. "The liquor does not excuse your cruelty. Nicholas would never treat me this way."
At this, James scoffed. "My brother hardly knows you exist anymore. I, on the other hand, have accommodated you for years."
"My fantasies of Nicholas are much more pleasing than your slobbery attempts at lovemaking," she finally admitted, her voice cold and devoid of feeling.
She walked out of the room with James trailing behind her and heard him bellow after her, "Why, you uppity little bitch--putting on airs of superiority, are you? Enjoy your fantasies, my dear. It is all you'll ever have."
Refusing to listen to any more of his insults, she stormed up the steps and watched as he made his way up. "I wish it were his child, not yours."
James's glossy eyes tried to focus on her form. He rambled furiously, "Nicky is much too scrupulous a man to dwell in the gutter, my dear. He would never have fathered your child."
She stared down at him with contempt then smiled provocatively, pulling up her skirts. "You like what you see, don't you?" Goading him, she licked her lips suggestively, enticing him to her. "You are not so scrupulous, are you, Jamie? You thrive in the filthy gutter. That's it. Come to me. You know you still want me."
"You slut," he growled at her, but she knew her words aroused him. In spite of his inebriated state, she saw his tongue slide over his lips in preparation for her lusty kiss.
"Your slut," she purred, smiling sweetly.
James reached for her just as she knew he would. Before James knew what was happening, she kicked him hard in the stomach, pushing him down the stairs to the cold stone flooring below. His look of surprise, followed by absolute horror as he tumbled back, both exhilarated and repelled her, causing her to burst into hysterical laughter.
A moment later, she was not laughing anymore. Pointing a finger at the crumpled body that lay in a pool of blood at the bottom of the stairs, she rubbed her belly and caressed her unborn child. "Sleep soundly, my sweet Jamie. Sleep soundly."
Her tender words spoken so coldly, so calculatingly, and the demented, morbid laughter that rang in the darkness were the last human sounds James Kent would ever hear.
Angelique Beauvisage stormed into the library, her riding boots tracking mud across the priceless Aubusson carpet that had been in the family for years. A sharp, hissing sound split the air as she swished down her whip and lashed her fury across her stepbrother's desk.
"I hate her," she cried, "I really hate her!"
Pierre Montclair's mouth opened in disbelief. "What has gotten into you? Look at what you've done to the carpet! Damn," he cursed suddenly, as he squatted to rescue the cigar that had fallen from his lips to the rug. "And now I've managed to burn a hole through it. Maman will be furious!"
"I do not care about her precious carpet," Angelique retorted.
Pierre and Jean-Claude Montclair exchanged incredulous looks. "Well," Jean-Claude piped in, "I wouldn't be so cavalier, Angelique. You know what Maman is capable of."
"I'm not afraid of her. And do not look at me that way," Angelique said stubbornly. "I will not obey her, and I don't care if she knows it."
"Oui, but you must not anger her," Pierre warned.
"I've never cowered before her. I'm not going to start now. I love Henri. Victoria cannot force me to marry another against my will."
"Angelique, Maman can be relentless. It is her wish that you marry Kent in order to combine our fortunes," Pierre uttered sadly. "She insists you marry the viscount. If we could change her mind, we would. You have to believe us."
"I can no longer rely on your support, that is what I believe."
Jean-Claude objected, "Angelique, do not say such a thing."
"And you," Angelique pointed an accusing finger at Jean-Claude. "You say you love me, but instead you bend to her will. I don't care about your precious Maman. I won't marry that ... that ... Englishman!"
Without another word, she stomped her foot and marched out of the room, slamming the door behind her with such force that the portrait of her late grandfather, André Beauvisage, shook on the wall and almost fell to the floor.
Jean-Claude Montclair turned to his brother, looking amazed by the anger he had just witnessed in their stepsister's scorching green eyes. "Ouch!" he said, chuckling. "Tell me, dear brother, do you think she is ready for marriage?"
Pierre sat back at his desk. His burly shoulders slumped in dejection. He picked up his cigar and, once again, attempted to light it. "Jean-Claude, I hate to see her upset. In the past, we've sought to buffer her from Maman's occasional wrath."
Jean-Claude's brows lifted in amusement. "Occasional?" he teased. "I suppose by occasional you mean on a daily basis?"
Pierre ignored his brother's jest. "We have always managed to compensate for our mother's lack of affection toward Angelique. We've continuously indulged the girl, knowing we could deny her nothing."
"We've tried our best, Pierre. Though, I must say, it has not been easy. Angelique has given us plenty of headaches where Maman is concerned."
Pierre admitted, "Oui, that is certainly true. But I would gladly endure, once again, her countless faux pas and childish blunders, rather than have to surrender her to that infamous English viscount." He winced at the thought of Nicholas Kent, a man to whom he had never been introduced, but whose reputation throughout Europe was notorious. Why, the viscount's affairs of recent years had become legendary. This was not the man he had envisioned for his little stepsister.
Jean-Claude's expression turned sullen as he sat on the leather chaise lounge. Returning to his pipe, he held it firmly while stuffing tobacco into its wooden bowl-shaped end. Holding a match to it, he puffed repeatedly in an effort to get it to ignite. He extinguished the flaming match with a quick shake of his wrist and puffed some more, allowing the smoke to filter out his nostrils. Coughing, he finally spoke in a barely audible rasp, "I agree, Pierre. It's also tearing me apart to see Angelique like this. However, I'm beginning to believe this marriage will ultimately benefit her."
Pierre jumped from his seat, almost dropping his cigar again on the carpet. "How can you say such a thing?" he demanded. "You can't actually mean you want her to marry the man!"
"Listen to me, Pierre. I have fought for Angelique from the very first moment I was told of this preposterous engagement. But the viscount is a man of wealth and power, a man respected by many. You must admit, Pierre, everything we've uncovered about the man is not all bad. So he likes the women and the gaming tables? So he enjoys a good brawl occasionally? So he's a bit of a rogue?"
"A bit of a rogue?" Pierre shouted incredulously. "You make it sound as if the man deserves a medal for his philandering."
"Exactement!" Jean-Claude yelled back. "The man works excessively hard, he deserves a little recreation. In two years' time, his shipping business has tripled his father's assets. It is said that he is hardly ever in England; spends his time traveling the world, investing in lucrative acquisitions. The man is a wizard at finance. And furthermore..."
"Don't sing his praises to me, dear brother," Pierre interrupted. "I am well informed of the man's notoriety. Do you honestly want our stepsister married to such a man? They say he needs no one, that he's cold and cruel. His treatment of women leaves much to be desired. He takes pleasure and discards them as easily as..."
"I am aware of all that," Jean-Claude replied. "But you know Maman will never choose anyone suitable for Angelique. I do not find it so awful that she marry a rich viscount, and not just any viscount, mind you. This viscount, dear brother, will one day become the Earl of Windword and will make Angelique his countess."
"We have never placed such importance on titles, Jean-Claude. I fail to see the point."
"The point is that Angelique can do worse. Pierre, have you forgotten last year when Maman wanted to marry her off to the widower D'Amaury? For God's sake, the man could be her father. His daughter, Marieanne, is just about Angelique's age."
"I'm beginning to see what you mean, Jean-Claude. I wonder what other prospects Maman has in mind for Angelique if this marriage doesn't take place."
"We know only too well nothing will give Maman greater pleasure than to punish the poor girl. And what better punishment than to marry her off to someone totally ill-suited? Oui, Pierre, Angelique must marry Kent," Jean-Claude insisted firmly. "Maman will make our sister miserable if she stays here."
Pierre kept silent. He knew Victoria Montclair had always been jealous of Angelique. His stepsister, with her late mother's legendary sparkling green eyes and long blond hair, was a constant thorn in Victoria's side, a breathing reminder of Julian Beauvisage's passion for his first wife, Lorraine.
"Our mother could never compete for Julian's love when it came to his only daughter," Pierre grudgingly admitted. "Now that Julian is gone, maybe this marriage could be somewhat of a blessing for Angelique. God knows, she deserves some happiness."
Jean-Claude nodded in agreement. "She'll be happy in England, Pierre. We'll never forgive ourselves if she isn't. I hope Kent can appreciate her."
"He had better appreciate her," Pierre declared fervently.
Jean-Claude cracked a grin. "I say, dear brother, what more can that scoundrel of an Englishman want? The girl is absolute perfection," he teased, his mouth still twisted in dry amusement.
"Oui, she's an exceptional prospect, and will make him a wonderful viscountess," Pierre agreed heartily.
"Oui," parroted Jean-Claude. "I repeat, what more can that rogue viscount want?" he asked, choking in his own laughter.
Pierre scowled. "I fail to see the humor, Jean-Claude. Can you contain your laughter long enough to answer one question for me?"
"Oui, I think I can," Jean-Claude said, sobering at his brother's reprimand.
"Very well, then. Do you believe this Kent of Windword will be able to handle her? God knows, we haven't been able to. I'm a bit concerned about her volatile temper. Kent has no inkling."
Once again chuckling in devilment, Jean-Claude interrupted with applause. "Bien! I hope she drives him mad. After all, dear brother, it is only fair. If he's going to take her from us, he might as well take the good with the bad. I'm glad to say she will not make it easy for him ... not easy at all!"
* * * *
Madame Justine Belen-Suarez handed her sister a cup of steaming dark chocolate, then smiled mischievously as she placed a plate of assorted cream-filled pastries on her sister's lap. "Don't look so horrified, Victoria. By the time our visit is over, you'll have eaten them all. These are your favorites."
"Justine, I've missed you. I wish that Spanish husband of yours would stay put and not take you from me for such long periods. Five years is much too long for sisters to be separated. You belong in the Loire."
"I've missed you too, but I would not trade my years in Madrid for anything in the world. Don't look so worried, ma soeur," Justine said, smiling. "Emilio and I will remain in France for some time."
Victoria let out a breath of relief. "Good. I need you. You can't imagine what it's been like living with that girl and her aunt. She said nothing when I first approached her with the news of her engagement this morning. But later, her angry tirade filled the halls. Those Dussac women, how I loathe them! But no matter. Lorraine is dead and Nicholas Kent will rid me of the other two soon enough."
A reproachful glare marred Justine's delicate features. "Tell me truthfully, chérie. Did Julian Beauvisage mean anything to you? Julian left his daughter in your care, entrusting you with her happiness. Were his last words spoken in vain? Or is it that you simply don't remember them?"
Beginning to become bored, Victoria Montclair took a cream puff to her mouth and swallowed most of it between sips of chocolate. She wiped the cream from her lips, responding with an exasperated sigh, "Julian meant everything to me. You know that better than anyone."
"I also know that his daughter cares for Henri Bertrand. Victoria, why marry her off to some horrid Englishman solely for revenge?"
Victoria Montclair replied with cold hauteur, "It is not for revenge that I burden her upon the Englishman. Haven't you been listening to anything I've said? This is a business transaction and nothing more. Can I help it if the little brat is miserable for the rest of her days?"
"Victoria, you might as well wipe that innocent look off your face, along with the cream and chocolate on your lips. We both know Angelique's misery is the answer to your prayers. I find it deplorable."
Frowning, Victoria put down her cup and plate. Quickly gathering her belongings, she stood up. "I did not come here for a lecture, Justine. I came to share my good fortune with my dearest friend. A sister, I was most eager to see. I think I shall go now."
"Don't go, chérie. I've missed you too much and there is much to talk about. I only wish you could show some compassion. After all, the girl never knew her mother."
"The girl came breech," Victoria spat out, still clutching her purse and hat. "She was cursed from the start, she caused her mother's death. Surely you're not going to blame me for Lorraine's death."
"No, of course not. Don't be ridiculous," Justine responded, reaching for Victoria's sleeve. "Chérie, Julian was kind to your boys. He did not resent that they were from your previous marriage. Even though they were Guillaume's, Julian showed no preferences. He embraced Jean-Claude and Pierre as if they were his own sons."
"That was his choice," Victoria remarked blandly, lifting her shoulder and releasing herself from Justine's grasp.
Justine's voice escalated to an admonishing hiss, as Victoria made her way to the door. "Victoria, you are as stubborn as ever. Angelique was only three when you married her father. This year, she will celebrate her twentieth birthday. Surely, you could have grown to love her by now."
Jaw clenched, Victoria stood in the doorway, glaring at her sister in disbelief. "Love her? The brat has managed to turn my own sons against me. And I can see they are not the only ones. My own sister. You, better than most, know what I have suffered because of that girl and her slut mother, Lorraine Dussac."
Justine walked across the room and took Victoria's hands. "Oui, chérie," she said softly. "I know you have suffered, but you must not blame Angelique. It was Lorraine who stole Julian from you. He was your fiancé, but he married Lorraine instead. It was awful for you, but after Lorraine's death, he married you. Your dream came true, after all. N'est pas? Angelique must not suffer because of what Lorraine did to you. And Matilde is just as innocent as Angelique in this."
"Matilde! That prissy excuse for a spinster should have returned to the convent once Julian married me. Why did he have to offer our home to Lorraine's sister? He is gone now, and I'm still burdened with her."
"Julian would not hear of returning Matilde to the convent. After Lorraine's death, did not Matilde rush to Julian's side to help raise Angelique? At three, his daughter loved the aunt who had nurtured her from birth. Victoria, Matilde is a kind and generous person, a benign soul. Must you always think ill of her?"
"A benign soul? Matilde Dussac? Surely, we are not discussing that plain, odious creature whose presence in my household has driven me to distraction for years. A benign soul? I say naught."
Justine threw up her hands. "The years have not dulled your bitterness, Victoria. I'm tired of listening to such nonsense. Lorraine was spoiled and pretentious, but Matilde is nothing like her."
"It is a fact that you were jealous of Lorraine, that many a man had sought her hand in marriage before she finally settled for Julian. Do not blame Matilde for that."
"Settled for Julian? The slut stole him from me."
Ignoring her sister's remark, Justine went on, "Angelique may have inherited her mother's beauty and quick temper, but her Tante Mattie made certain those were the only traits that Angelique would inherit from Lorraine."
"Her mother's beauty? I refuse to be subjected to any more of this. Let go of my hands, I'm leaving," Victoria cried out. She stepped into the hallway with Justine trailing behind her.
"Victoria, I beg you, please do not leave this way," Justine pleaded. "I apologize. Let us not discuss Angelique. It has always been a sore subject between us." Grabbing the reluctant Victoria by the arm, Justine brought her back inside the drawing room. She sat on the couch and patted the seat beside her, motioning Victoria to join her.
Victoria stood stubbornly, but the delicious treats on the pastry table tempted her to stay.
"Please sit, chérie," Justine insisted, noticing her sister's hesitation. "Tell me more about this Nicholas Kent, the Englishman you have chosen for Angelique. The name sounds familiar. Somehow I feel I've heard it before."
Somewhat appeased by her sister's interest in her favorite topic of conversation, and not able to resist another cream puff, Victoria relented. Smoothing her skirts behind her, she sat down.
"Very well," she said, reclaiming her cup and saucer. "I'm sure you have, my dear," Victoria whispered with mock coyness. "Our viscount is known throughout Europe. His amorous exploits have been the talk for years. Scandal seems to trail his shadow and notoriety precedes his name. Women flock to his bed."
"Women flock to his bed?" Justine gave out a shout of laughter. "Really, chérie, you mustn't believe everything you hear. Gossips have been known to exaggerate."
Patting Justine's delicate white hand, Victoria lowered her eyes demurely. "They do not exaggerate, my dear. It is awful, truly scandalous. The viscount is warm in bed, but cold of heart. He is marrying my stepdaughter solely for profit."
"Victoria, such talk!" Justine gasped, her eyes wide with horror. "I do not want to discuss this awful man anymore. Poor Angelique, I feel for her. I truly do."
"Oui, poor girl," Victoria agreed. Ignoring her sister's dubious look, she added, "I'm afraid he will make her miserable. Simply miserable."
"How terrible for her, Victoria," Justine mumbled softly under her breath.
Oui, but how wonderful for me, thought Victoria, feigning concern, as she stifled a chuckle of delight.
* * * *
The pregnant woman looked up from the gardenia bush. "Help me up, chérie. As you can see, it is becoming more and more difficult for me." Clutching a bouquet of recently clipped gardenias against her swollen belly, Giselle Bertrand, with Angelique's assistance, rose awkwardly from the ground. A bit out of breath, she smiled and whisked the dirt off her skirts, then pulled a handkerchief from her pocket to pat the beads of perspiration from her neck and brow. "Henri left this morning. He's out with Alain, fishing. You sound upset, Angelique. Is there anything I can do?"
"No, Giselle, I'm afraid there is nothing anyone can do. I must speak with Henri. It's important. Please tell him I'll be back later."
"Oui, chérie, I shall tell him."
This can't be happening to me, thought Angelique as she waved goodbye to Henri's sister-in-law. No, this can't be happening. It is much too awful, she thought as she led her horse away from the Bertrand estate. Riding into the cool April wind, she urged the animal to a rapid gait.
The mare sped through the countryside, but Angelique took little comfort in the sights she beheld. The cumbrous beating of her heart matched the sound of the horse's weighty hooves as they pounded the ruddy terrain. There was evidence of spring everywhere; new beginnings and a sense of harmony that seemed to clash with the turmoil inside her.
Stopping at a clearing, she slid from her horse and sank down on the cool grass below. For a few minutes, she lay on her back and stared motionless at the cloudless blue sky, inhaling the distinct scent of orange blossom. But her reverie was soon interrupted by a quashing, chomping sound.
"Shame on you, Champagne. Must you always chew your food so loudly?" Angelique admonished. The horse, enjoying a hearty meal of newly grown grass, had been her father's last gift to her before his death.
She fought back bittersweet tears when recalling the day her father had summoned her to the stables and had surprised her with Champagne. She remembered the look of love on Julian's face as he had handed her the reins. But, most of all, she remembered the pleasure that had engulfed her at the realization that the splendid animal was to be hers and only hers.
Now she would have to leave Champagne and her lovely valley behind. She would never be able to enjoy afternoons such as these again. Instead, she would have to endure an eternity of rainy, gloomy days in England with a man she did not love. Last year, she had fought tooth and nail against marrying the widower D'Amaury, and she had won. But something told her this time was different. This time there was a fortune to be made. She had seen the hopelessness in her stepbrothers' eyes and, this time, she had sensed defeat even before stepping on the field of battle.
Despite all her talk of bravery, deep down inside, she knew she was doomed. Angelique's marriage to the viscount would join Victoria to one of the most powerful and noble families in Europe. Victoria would never relinquish being associated with the blue-blooded and unapproachable Kents of Windword.
* * * *
Upon returning to the château, Angelique went directly upstairs. She entered her bedroom and was surprised to find Tante Mattie sitting on her canopied bed, weeping silently into a pillow. Her elderly aunt's rotund body shook convulsively and, although her sobs were muffled by linen and fluff, the anguish emanating from her quivering form was unmistakable.
Two pairs of woeful eyes met in mutual frustration as Tante Mattie looked up from the pillow. "Oh, my poor, sweet child," she cried out. "My sweet little angel," she continued brokenly. Raising her flabby arms, she beckoned, "Come here and let me hold you, ma petite."
Angelique rushed over to her and was immediately encircled within her embrace. "Tantie, please don't cry. Oh, please don't cry," she soothed as she gently wiped the tears from her aunt's swollen, weepy eyes. "Do not worry for me."
"But, chérie, Victoria has burdened you with this man," Tante Mattie replied. "According to your father's testament, there's nothing you can do."
"At the moment, I'm more furious than burdened. I rue the day he signed the dreadful document and gave Victoria this much power over me. Now he will never know the consequences of his actions."
Placing one hand to her forehead and the other at her chest, Tante Mattie sobbed. "C'est fini, your life is over!"
"Tantie, don't dramatize so. You make it sound as if I were Marie Antoinette on my way to the guillotine," Angelique replied with a faint smile. "Nonetheless, I'm afraid if I don't do as I'm told, Victoria will indeed have my head. She is convinced I am now engaged to--how did she put it--a salacious libertine."
Her eyes wide with disbelief, the elderly spinster nearly jumped from the bed. "Victoria told you? Sacré Coeur!" she shrieked. "What did she say? Never mind, it is not for a maiden's ears. Do not listen to Victoria, ma chérie. She is the devil incarnate. It is all lies. Your fiancé is a man of title. You must pay no attention to the awful things credited to your libertine."
In spite of her despair, Angelique could not help but suppress a grin.
Tante Mattie made a futile attempt at smiling. But her smile soon arched downward in a dispirited sigh, and the dismal frown upon her face left no doubt as to the inconsolable sorrow that tattered her heart. "I do not possess the strength to pretend, not even for you. It is hopeless. I know you will be shipped away to England, lost to me forever."
Angelique rose from the chair and smoothed the creases of her riding attire with the palms of her hands. She bent down to kiss Tante Mattie's cheek. "I want to marry Henri, Tante Mattie."
Tante Mattie resumed her weeping. "Chérie, Henri is penniless. Victoria would never agree to a marriage between you, even if he were to ask you. Ohh, that terrible, horrid woman!" Clutching Angelique to her bosom, she continued with her endless lamentations, predicting between sobs, "She is sending you away and I'm to be left here without you. Ma petite, you have been cursed with the viscount, whether you like it or not. C'est fini! I tell you, your life is over!"
Although her aunt's words rang true, it was heart-wrenching for Angelique to have to admit their veracity. She tried not to think about leaving Tante Mattie. It was much too painful. "Tantie, I'm not going anywhere without you."
Tante Mattie seemed uncommonly flushed. Concerned for her aunt's state of health, Angelique struggled to lighten the mood. Taking out a lace handkerchief from her pocket, she gently wiped her aunt's tears away. Then, adjusting a lock of gray hair that had fallen from Tante Mattie's usually well-groomed coiffure, she announced, "Let me show you what Justine's coachman brought by this morning."
"From Paris, chérie?"
"Oui, from Madame Caron's shop. Justine even brought me knickerbockers and a trilby hat for riding the bicycle. Look at all these dresses. Madame Caron insists that lace is the latest vogue. Come see," Angelique beckoned, as she took the new garments out of her armoire and placed them on her bed. "For every occasion there is an outfit, and for every outfit there is a hat to match."
Blouses, skirts, party dresses and ball gowns lay in splendid disarray with all sorts of other female paraphernalia on the bed. Made of the most expensive materials, they came in a variety of shades to complement Angelique's coloring. In spite of her doleful mood, Tante Mattie exclaimed, "Angelique, they are exquisite! Have you thanked Justine?"
"I haven't seen her, yet. Victoria is with her at Château Rosette. I'll stop by later to thank her. I've missed her terribly."
"Oh, ma petite, if only she were your stepmama and not Victoria. Justine would never force you to marry a man like Kent."
Angelique placed a finger on her aunt's lips. "Hush, Tantie." Smiling, she took a flat hat shaped like a pancake and placed it on her head, slanting its brim forward. "I hear it is considered chic to pile one's hair up high on one's head, like this. How do I look?" Knowing that Tante Mattie had always been interested in the latest styles and fashions from Paris, Angelique tried to distract her aunt a bit longer. "Look at the corset she brought me," she said, giggling. "I'm afraid I'll burst if I wear it."
"Bosh!" declared Tante Mattie, rolling back her eyes in exasperation. "Why torture yourself with the ridiculous undergarment? Victoria tortures you enough. Oh, Angelique, if only Victoria was more like her sister, you would not be in this predicament."
Angelique gathered the garments to place them back in the armoire. "I would not be in this predicament if I were to marry Henri."
"My dear girl, I fear you are only infatuated with the boy. He is, after all, the only man you have ever known. Tell me, does he know about Kent?"
"No, Tantie, but he will know soon."
* * * *
It is of no consequence now if you are infatuated with Henri, ma petite. You must forget this silly crush of yours. You mustn't see him. Victoria will not have it any other way. Tante Mattie's words of caution echoed in her ear as Angelique rode toward the neighboring estate. Crouching to avoid being smacked in the face by an impending tree branch, Angelique told herself, "Tante Mattie is wrong. It is not a silly crush."
Ever since she could remember, she had loved Henri Bertrand. When they were children, he had been her only companion, her co-conspirator. Knowing that Henri had not a franc to his name, she had counted on her inheritance and her birthright to Château Beauvisage. Countless times in the past, she had imagined herself as Henri's wife, living happily at the château. She had envisioned growing old with her gallant husband, together with a handful of little Bertrands rollicking about her. But her father's last testament had changed all that.
Certain that Angelique would someday marry and live elsewhere, Julian Beauvisage had specified that, although the château rightfully belonged to his daughter, his widow be allowed to live in it until her dying day.
To Angelique's horror, the rest of his estate had been divided between his wife and his daughter, and Angelique's part had been put in trust only to be given to her at the ripe old age of thirty or until she married someone approved by Victoria. Until such time, she would be at his widow's mercy and have to be provided for by her none-too-generous hands. Because of this wretched witch, her lifelong dreams had vanished into thin air. It was as if the old crone had conjured up a hex or incantation and had made her wonderful fantasy disappear only to be replaced with a deplorable future.
She knew Henri would be angry, even angrier than he had been last year during the D'Amaury fiasco. At that time, he had shown cunning and had given her the strength and support she had needed to combat Victoria. They had plotted and schemed, and unbeknownst to Victoria, he had gone to the widower's house and had successfully convinced the man not to marry her.
In spite of the dire circumstances, Angelique's mood lightened a bit when recalling what had finally clinched her freedom. Apparently, Henri's careful mentioning of her volatile temper, her childish disposition, her stubborn streak, her lack of decorum, her wild and unruly behavior, her many irrational moods and her penchant for young, virile men had only served to make the fastidious, older gentleman slightly hesitant about the marriage.
D'Amaury had believed she was young and with patience, he would "mold her into maturity". These "tiny obstacles" could be remedied in time. Or so he had vehemently declared to an astounded and frustrated Henri. But when Henri, before being ushered forcefully out the door by the indignant D'Amaury, had grasped at his one last straw and casually informed the widower of her tin ear and her aversion to opera, the ardent music lover had almost passed out. Not knowing of Angelique's talent at playing the piano, the older man had instantly reconsidered his proposal and had suddenly insisted that he could not marry anyone who abhorred his only reason for living, his beloved music.
Wasting no time, D'Amaury had rushed to Château Beauvisage, and in spite of Victoria's ire, had fully retracted his offer of matrimony.
Maybe now Henri would be able to help her again, Angelique thought wishfully, as she approached the Bertrand estate. This notion gave her a glimmer of hope, which was immediately dispelled by angry thoughts of the dreadful viscount and the even more dreadful merger. This had nothing to do with fooling a gullible and lonely old widower. This year's engagement involved a very powerful, cunning viscount and his even more powerful father, the Earl of Windword. It was hopeless.
Angelique felt a tightness in her throat, certain that she would soon be separated from Henri and that the closeness they now shared would be reduced to bittersweet memories. She felt tears beginning to form, but she gathered her composure in time. She had shed far too many tears as a child and since her father's funeral she had made a solemn vow never to cry again, especially where Victoria was concerned. She heard the sound of rushing waters and drew near the brook. Henri would be waiting for her in their special place, she told herself.
Anxious to see Henri, Angelique directed her horse as it treaded slowly through the winding path that led to the gazebo. She caught sight of him from afar. His curly hair glistened in the sun like shiny golden coins. His head was bent over a document, and he seemed absorbed and intent on reading it. She desperately needed him to comfort her now, as he had done so many times in the past. She craved his arms about her and wanted his gentle voice to soothe her into believing he would make the loathsome viscount disappear.
"Henri!" she called out to him.
At the sound of his name, Henri glanced up from his letter. His beautiful light brown eyes warmed instantly. "Bonjour, Gellie!" he greeted her fondly. "I have great news. I've decided to sail for America right away."
"Henri, something awful has happened!" Angelique exclaimed as she jumped from her horse and rushed toward him. "Victoria has done it again. America?"
Henri stood, grabbing her to him. "Oui, America. I cannot continue to live off Alain and Giselle any longer. A few months ago, I wrote a letter to my cousins in New Orleans to see about the possibility of a future in America. A reply to my letter has finally come. Sit down. Let me read it to you."
The sudden realization of Henri's words sank in. "How can you leave me now?" she burst out, disentangling herself from his embrace. "I know Alain inherited your family's fortune and the estate. But he is your brother. He would not want you to go. You mustn't go, Henri. I need you," she begged him. "Please don't leave me now. Not now."
"Hush, Gellie. Come sit down. I know I have taken my time about this, but it couldn't be helped."
"I'm not going to sit. I've terrible news!" she interrupted him.
Henri ignored her. He bent down on one knee and took her hands in his. "I know I have taken my time about this ... but it couldn't be helped."
His voice came out in an awkward rasp. He cleared his throat and tried again, "You see I needed to know that I would be able to provide--"
"Henri, listen to me!" Angelique demanded. "This is no time for games. Get up from the ground at once! Something awful has happened."
"Gellie, you sound upset."
"Oui! You never mentioned to me that you wrote to your cousins. And who are these cousins anyway?" she asked, indignantly. "Just what am I to do without you, especially now when I need you the most?"
Chuckling, Henri stood up from the ground and sat beside her, taking her rigid body in his arms. "I cannot keep up with your many accusations, chérie. Since when is it a crime to correspond with cousins in America?"
Angelique did not respond. She turned her face to stare at the brook.
"Gellie, mon amour," Henri beckoned gently, as he knelt once again by her side.
"Henri, do not mon amour me, not after you are deserting me! Go to America. See if I care," she snapped, stubbornly keeping her gaze on the water.
"Gellie, don't you know I would never leave you? Au contraire, my love." Taking her hands again, he declared with bated breath, "Make me the most fortunate man of all. Marry me and go to America with me."
* * * *
"Damn you, Rhourk! What the devil are you doing? Leave it."
The Captain's bark took Tommy by surprise. Shuddering, he dropped the compass he was holding to the floor. In silence, Tommy bent to pick it up and place it back on the Captain's desk.
"Rhourk, leave it."
Tommy knew better than to speak when the Captain was in this frame of mind. A furious tic pulsated violently at the Captain's cheek, and the fierce, penetrating stare in his dark blue eyes would have frightened the devil himself. "Get the hell out, Rhourk, and shut the door behind you," he demanded, his voice still hoarse from the rip-roaring quarrel Tommy had witnessed between him and his father earlier that morning at Windword Hall. "I said Get the hell out of my cabin!"
The first mate grimaced at the thunderous words. The Captain's tall, powerful frame made a most formidable sight as he stood at the open window, glaring at the horizon, his raven hair blowing in the wind and teeth clamped together in outrage. The Captain was crossing the English Channel and heading for France in such a state of rage that the crew tried desperately to stay out of his way. And he, Thomas Calum Rhourk, was no exception. He had suffered enough today under the Captain's sharp tongue and was not going to stick around for more.
Such wrath! Must be because of the French lass, thought Tommy, as he made a quick exit from the Captain's cabin. He still could not believe that the Captain had actually been ordered to take a bride. And a French one, no less. In England, there were plenty of bonnie lassies aching to become one of his conquests. Unlike the rest of the crew, Captain Kent had no need for brothels and fancy houses. Wherever he went, he had his share of dazzlers, recklessly throwing their favors at him and not caring who knew.
Tommy chuckled, speaking to himself as was his usual custom, "Aye, m'lord Captain, you are a wanted man, but you want no one--especially the poor French lassie your father has saddled you with."
Tommy heard an angry expletive coming from the Captain's cabin and scurried to the galley below.
* * * *
Lord Nicholas Kent, the future Earl of Windword, was livid. Not even the calming effect of the Channel waters before him could soothe his temper. Stunned by his father's unyielding attitude toward the arranged marriage to the French girl, Nicholas seethed with fury as he recalled how his protests had been ignored earlier that morning.
"What do you mean you, have agreed to this marriage. What the devil is going on here, Father?"
The earl had rubbed his chin with a worried look upon his face. "Madame Montclair needs her stepdaughter's inheritance. We cannot merge without it. I have already invested half my holdings in these foreign banks. And so has she. It's too late. You have no other choice, my son. According to Madame Montclair, your wedding takes place in a month."
"According to Madame Montclair? In a month?" Nicholas had first laughed and had turned to a wide-eyed Tommy Rhourk. "Rhourk, are you listening to this nonsense?" But before Tommy could respond, Nicholas had turned back to his father. "Bloody hell, is this woman crazed?"
"Nicholas, you must marry the girl," the earl had suddenly demanded to Nicholas's complete surprise. "We cannot merge without her funds, and the funds won't be released unless she is married. It's a stipulation in her father's will. No marriage. No money. No merger. Are you willing to wait for another investor to embark on our venture? You've said so yourself--the time is right for international banking."
"Why weren't we informed of this stipulation earlier? Why now, damn it? You've been dealing with this woman for an entire year. She never once mentioned needing her stepdaughter's funds to merge with us. Why can't she marry this Angelique to someone else?" Nicholas had challenged. "Surely there must be someone in France willing to marry the chit."
"Nicholas, you are not thinking clearly. Once Mademoiselle Beauvisage is married, her husband may decide to forego the venture and keep her money for himself. Anyway, her stepmother insists the girl is anxious to marry only you."
"Ballocks," Nicholas had growled skeptically.
"Don't you curse at me, Nicholas!" the earl had blustered in rage. "And watch what you say to Madame Montclair. We'll not have another opportunity such as this. I have already opened the office in London. I'll lose everything."
"Don't be ridiculous. Granted, we'll lose a hefty sum, but..."
His father had interrupted angrily, "Marriage means nothing to you, Nicholas. I insist you marry the girl and beget me some heirs. It is your responsibility to your title. You've dallied long enough."
"That again?" Nicholas had snapped. "You can forget about the girl and your bloody heirs. I'm going to France," he had announced, "but not to marry Mademoiselle Beauvisage. Victoria Montclair owes us an explanation, and I'm going to make damn sure I get it." Then he predicted, "When I'm through with Madame Montclair and her stepdaughter, they'll want no part of me. I'll find another way to secure the monies."
"By all means, Nicholas. If you can find another way to secure these funds ... go ahead. Otherwise, I think I'm going to enjoy having the French girl for a daughter-in-law."
The hell, you are! thought Nicholas, as he had stormed out of Windword Hall with Tommy Rhourk treading behind.
Three hours later, in his cabin, Nicholas was still trying to control his fury at Madame Montclair's scheme and at his father's obstinacy. How the hell had he wound up in this ridiculous predicament? He was not a man to take orders, not even from his father. And yet, here he was, on his way to the Loire.
He sat at his desk and brightened at bit, knowing how annoyed his frugal father would be with him when realizing Nicholas had used his own ship instead of booking passage on one of the numerous steamers that crossed the English Channel daily.
As his anger began to subside, Nicholas came to an interesting thought. Maybe a little vacation in France would do him good after all. Clarissa Blake would be out of his hair for an entire month.
Ah yes, Clarissa, he thought acridly, the woman he had wanted to marry--until he lost her to his brother, James, seven years ago.
Seven years! Nicholas sneered, remembering how young and impetuous he had been then, how very much infatuated.
To this day, Nicholas had never forgiven the woman for betraying him. For years, he had held her accountable for the ruin and misery she had brought his brother. But now he no longer felt anything for her--not even contempt. Although he would never forget her betrayal, the years had dulled his anger and hatred of her. His scorn had turned to indifference, his rancor to apathy, and she had become simply an irritation to him, solely an annoyance he did not want around. Her blatant flirtation and dallying, her coquettish caresses that had once driven him wild with passion, now only served to annoy him. Even her tempting body no longer roused him. The throaty, sultry voice that had once made him ache for her had turned whiny with the disappointment of his constant rejection.
Seven years ago, not wanting to share the family manor with the newly wedded couple, Nicholas had chosen to take up residence at Clearhaven, a somewhat smaller country estate he had purchased soon after his brother's wedding. But three years later, following his brother's death, his grieving parents had begged him to come back to live at Windword Hall. And in order to appease Lord Edmund and Lady Marguerite, Nicholas had returned to Windword. He had regretted it ever since.
Although his travels took him away for months at a time, living under the same roof with Clarissa always served to dampen his return to England. Before her marriage, the knowledge that Nicholas would never be earl and that he would only inherit the family shipping business had held no appeal for Clarissa. She had not been interested in becoming a seaman's wife. However, due to his brother's death, Nicholas would one day inherit everything, title and all, making him even more alluring to the avaricious young woman who dreamt of becoming a countess.
His brother's widow had been pursuing him constantly since James's death four years ago. Of late, it was getting increasingly difficult to avoid her. She had begun to throw herself at him without any semblance of pride. Everywhere he turned, there she was. In the hallways, in the stables, in the library...
With clarity, Nicholas remembered that night, seven years ago, when he had gathered Clarissa in his arms and undressed her in the privacy of her room.
Earlier, at the ball, she had asked him to meet her in the garden. She had let him kiss her and had returned kiss for kiss. He had seen desire in her eyes. She had unbuttoned the front of her gown and had let him view the ripeness of her breasts. He remembered how she had gathered his hand to her breast and had closed his fingers over her dusky, hard nipple. She had delighted in his lust for her. Then, she had quickly buttoned her gown and insisted on going back inside the house, teasing him further by asking him to join her later in her room.
That night after they had made love, he had not been prepared for the awful words that had changed his life forever. Nicholas flinched as he remembered those very words. "You do know darling, I really do want to be your wife, but it just can't be. Don't you think I'd make a perfect countess?" At first when he had not understood her, she had continued, "You see, I must marry your brother, James. He will one day become Earl of Windword. But first, I owed it to myself to have you in my bed at least once."
Bile rose up Nicholas's throat as he recalled Clarissa laughing at his mortification. "And, darling, do not think for a minute that you have deflowered me. That happened many years ago. Your brother, James, had me last week, and I must admit when it comes to the bedroom, I have picked the wrong brother."
Nicholas had not let her finish. With hatred in his heart, he had quickly dressed and rushed out of her bedroom. Although he had wanted nothing more, he had not been able to rush out of her life. Instead, two weeks later, he'd had to witness his own brother marry the bitch, watching in silence as she became part of his family. She had managed to seduce James into marriage only to make him the most miserable husband on the face of the earth, until a most unfortunate accident had brought him to an early death.
After their one and only night together, Nicholas had never taken Clarissa to his bed again, but the memory of that night had turned him aloof and uncaring, strictly preferring the attentions of experienced women who demanded nothing but mutual pleasure in return. And when thinking of those poor, unfortunate fellows whose charming wives he had thoroughly enjoyed, Nicholas had vowed he'd never be cuckolded. He'd quickly made up his mind never to take a wife, warding off situations that would in any way force him into matrimony.
He had avoided sweet young virgins to an unusual extent, thus circumventing all ruinous entanglements or unfortunate peccadilloes that could have been misinterpreted by a furious guardian.
As his ship came into harbor, Nicholas stood and walked to the window. He recalled the horrified look on Clarissa's face earlier that morning when she had accosted them on their way out, and Rhourk had nonchalantly mentioned the forthcoming wedding to the Beauvisage chit in France.
In the glass of the porthole, Nicholas's hard, chiseled features softened with gratification, and his reflection smiled back at him. That moment was worth all the hours he was going to spend ridding himself of Angelique Beauvisage.