Hello everyone. I hope your Christmas was merry and your dreams were somewhat fulfilled. I received some wonderful gifts from my family, mainly my spouse who knows me well. And here is a gift to you, a sneak peek at my latest work that will be published in early February,
Noble Assassin, Reluctant Heroes Book Four
It's the story of a former assassin, Ambrose Duchamp, and a lonely governess, Juliet Wallingford. Both have left their homes in Europe and reside at Ravencrest Plantation in the West Indies. Both feel love has passed them by. Juliet is hiding from someone in England, but we'll not worry about that in this excerpt. As they enjoy dinner with their benefactors, the Count and Countess du Rochembeau, the suggestion of Aphrodite finding them is just too difficult for either of them to believe. And yet, as the count and countess share their love story and the unique circumstance of their meeting--against all odds, hope is kindled anew.
|Huge Thank You to Graphic Artist Kim Killion for this cover|
This Excerpt is the complete Chapter Four of Noble Assassin, copyright Lily Silver.
Juliet wiped her moist hands on her skirt beneath the tablecloth so no one could observe her anxious movements. She swallowed hard, and reached for the goblet of water before her. The slight shake of her wrist might give her away, if one were measuring her closely.
And he was doing just that. Dark brown, nearly black eyes followed her movements as she lifted the goblet to her lips. His lips were pursed pensively as if he'd never observed an Englishwoman sipping a goblet of water before.
The count had been speaking softly to his wife. Lady Elizabeth answered with a lilting, almost sensual voice.
It seemed they were teasing each other over some private joke known only to them.
Mr. Duchamp was seated directly across from Juliet. It was unnerving. He wasn't speaking much. He was just watching her like a hawk staring down a mouse.
Oh dear, that would never do. She wasn't a mouse and she would not let that image pollute her thoughts and make her feel weak and vulnerable.
I am a sleek feline, a proud tigress, not a shivering rabbit. I am a cat, not a mouse.
And yet, she was sitting next to the most beautiful woman she had beheld in recent times.
Juliet swallowed again, fearing her throat had taken on the attributes of a desert. Compared to the vibrant Lady Elizabeth Beaumont with her brilliant red hair and exotic sea green eyes, Juliet might as well be a drab little grey mouse.
She had dressed carefully for this first dinner with her benefactors. She chose a pale shell pink muslin gown with gold and beige cording along the sleeves, the neckline, and flounces of gold lace on the edge of the hem. It was her best gown, purchased here with funds from the countess when the woman realized she had clothing suitable for England's climate and not the tropics. It was such light material Juliet felt as if she were floating on a cloud when she first tried it on. It complimented her blond complexion, she believed. She'd even put a matching band of gold cording around her hair. She felt pretty it in while gazing at her reflection in her room.
Now she realized the bland pastel pink must make her look even more washed out as she sat beside the beautiful countess. Her ladyship was wearing a dazzling gown of deep emerald silk, a perfect color to highlight her vibrant hair, unusual eyes and alabaster complexion.
The count took up the head seat at the table. The odd arrangement struck her anew, as she'd not dined with the family for some months. Lady Elizabeth was seated next to her spouse, on his left instead of the opposite end of the table, as was the expected place for the mistress of the mansion.
Juliet glanced at the couple. They did seem devoted to one another. They spoke with a lightness and openness to each other that seemed startlingly odd at first, and then refreshing once you overcame the shock. Most of the nobles were stiff and aloof, being more concerned with keeping up appearances even with their spouses. The countess was not like other women of her class. She had natural warmth and did not try to stifle it for the sake of English etiquette.
It was obvious to any observer that the count adored his younger wife. He smiled when he looked at her--and the man almost never smiled that she could recall. That tender smile and those adoring blue eyes would make any woman ready to swoon. The count had reached his middle years, being just shy of forty. His hair had streaks of silver running through it. It did not diminish his attractiveness, but rather enhanced it. He sat poised on the edge of his seat and was giving his wife a sweet look as he listened to her talk about something their little girl said today.
Juliet pulled her gaze from the pair and met the gaze of the man opposite her.
Such dark eyes, deep pools of mystery. He was staring at her openly again. Or had he been staring all along? As she returned his unrelenting look, the side of his mouth twitched up in a sinister smirk. A queer tingling in her chest made her place a hand there momentarily. She had never 'tingled' before over a man's deliberate look. And yet, if truth be told, there were not that many such looks to react to in her life.
"The humidity is increasing," Mr. Duchamp said in that intoxicating French accent as he watched her hand retreat from her bosom and drop to her lap. "It is always more pronounced after the cooling rains have ceased."
Juliet felt the color rise in her cheeks. Did he think it proper to draw attention to her discomfort? The cad. She glared at him, not grateful in the least for his comment. A gentleman should never remark on a lady's condition in polite company.
But then, he wasn't a gentleman, was he?
"You speak the truth," Lady Elizabeth agreed, startling Juliet momentarily as she feared she'd spoken her thoughts aloud. The countess signaled to the footman in the corner to start the large fan above their table moving with the paddle.
A rush of breeze cooled Juliet's face. She sighed slightly, relieved to feel the gentle caress of moving air. Her skin had a moist sheen. She resisted the urge to dab at her neck and face with her napkin.
Perhaps cad was a strong word after all. She shot a quick glance in Duchamp's direction. He lifted his water glass to her in a silent salute, and then took a sip with those full, sensual lips. Juliet watched the movement of his Adam's apple as he swallowed, mesmerized by the masculine action.
Oh, dear. This would never do. She must not allow her sensibilities to be clouded by a pair of strong, tan hands or an intriguing pair of deep, dark eyes. She could not allow herself the luxury of an entanglement. She could not lose her situation here. She had no place to go if they turned her out.
The third course had been removed. A light course of dessert cakes and fruits were being served.
“I have the most wonderful news. You'll never guess it!” The countess's light voice buoyed the atmosphere in the room as the men focused their attentions upon her.
Juliet felt her lips curve into a smile. Yes, the news of Chloe and the captain. That should take the attention off her and her heated skin that must be shimmering in the candlelight. Her complexion would also be mottled due to the heat. Her hair had been upswept into a neat coil on her head, but it felt limp and clammy. The humidity rising, as Duchamp had said. Her anxiety on this first evening dining as her ladyship's favored guest was making her perspire more than usual. And having the man across the table bring attention to her discomfort only unnerved her more.
Jack & Chloe's Story
“Our dear Chloe has had quite the adventure in Spain,” Lady Elizabeth sang out in a pleasing voice. The men eyed her carefully. “I received a letter today from London.” She clapped her ungloved alabaster hands together with glee at the last.
Juliet was grateful the countess's relaxed dress code for dinner, as gloves in this sultry climate would be sheer torture. Light muslins and sheer cotton was de rigor in the tropics for most women. How her ladyship could endure the silk she was wearing tonight was a puzzle.
“I had a letter from Jack, my sweet,”
the count said. “I haven't opened it as yet, do go on.”
Juliet was puzzled by the count's behavior. He was being solicitous and attentive to his wife, more so than seemed proper. He took her hand and gazed at her with tenderness. It was sweet. It was also a painful reminder of her own status in the world; utterly alone with no family and few friends.
Lady Elizabeth paused dramatically and gazed around the table at her audience. She gave Juliet a generous smile and then turned to regard her spouse once more. "They arrived in Spain only to find that her uncle was not at his home in Cadiz. Jack advised her to stay in Cadiz and wait for her Uncle Miguel to return. And she refused to do so. Chloe was determined to go into the interior to meet him at his almond plantation.”
“That was foolish,” Mr. Duchamp sighed and took a sip of his wine. “Dangerous. I hope he made her stay in Cadiz, my lady.” He was talking, taking an interest in the conversation, which was not his usual behavior at table, or so the footmen said in the servant’s hall. Duchamp was a quiet man, and a dangerous man. He made most people uncomfortable. The countess did not seem to be intimidated at all by Mr. Duchamp and his dark aura of menace.
Lady Elizabeth gave a little huff of indignation. “I beg to differ, Mr. Duchamp. Chloe is a grown woman, capable of making prudent, intelligent decisions. She does not need a man to tell her what to do. Miss Wollstonecraft says—“
“Lizzie, my sweet,” the count interrupted his wife, "can we skip the lessons from Miss Wollstonecraft this once and move on with Chloe's adventures?” His voice was strained, having an edge of impatience to it, yet he smiled at his darling with true affection.
Juliet felt a little thrill. Lady Elizabeth was a bluestocking, and she was quite the staunch supporter of the late authoress who had written a treatise advocating equal rights for women. She suppressed a giggle as she didn't wish to offend the count or his lady with her amusement.
“I suppose, just this once,” Lady Elizabeth's voice had become hard as she replied to her spouse. “But if I were to go into a battlefield, would you physically prevent me from doing so because I am a woman?"
The count did not respond. He appeared to be choosing his words wisely. This must be the start of one of those stimulating debates Chloe always spoke about with fondness.
Juliet's heartbeat increased. She held her breath, waiting to hear his reply. She hoped this would not turn into a nasty argument. For all her sweetness, Lady Elizabeth was reputed to have a temper and his lordship--well, no one crossed words with him and came out the victor. She shot quick glance at Duchamp. He was gazing down at his fingers as they outlined the stem of his water goblet. He, too, looked uncomfortable. His eyes lifted, and caught hers. He grinned.
Juliet’s insides did a queer little twist in response. Oh dear. Why does this man affect me so?
"My lady, if I may be so bold," Duchamp began. "It is not a matter of what a woman is permitted to do, but rather, if I may, what a man would do to protect his beloved."
"Yes," the count agreed with an unnatural exuberance. "Thank you, Ambrose, you've helped me clarify my thoughts. Lizzie, dearest, if you were about to walk into a battlefield, I would run after you, pounce upon you and push you to the ground in the hope that the cannons firing would take my head off instead of yours. That's love, my darling, it isn't prejudice."
Juliet felt her eyes widen as she gazed his lordship with awe. He diffused the situation, turned his response into an act of love and sacrifice and managed not to offend his lady in doing so.
“And,” Duchamp's lush French voice added in the silence, “if the situation were reversed, I am confident you would do the very same to protect his lordship. Now, please tell me how our Mrs. O'Donovan fared in Spain. Did she find her father's family?”
Lady Elizabeth was silent for a full minute, perhaps two.
“Were they accosted by soldiers? I have read that the French are pressing Spain hard due to a question of their continued allegience,” his lordship prodded.
“And you told me earlier, my lady, that they were forced to flee Spain.” Juliet tried to aid the men in soothing her ladyship's ruffled feathers so they might hear the rest of the story. Much as she might enjoy a debate on the subject of women’s rights, tonight she just wanted to get through this tense first dinner without offending either the lord or lady of the manor.
Goya's painting depicting French troops in Spain, 1808
“Yes, they searched the southwestern portion of Spain for her Uncle Miguel. They traveled through a forest, were set upon by Spanish highwaymen and they lost one guard to a stray bullet. Jack hurried them through that dangerous place and set them up at a monastery for the night. Chloe found it most uncomfortable as the monks treated her and her maid as if they were harlots accompanying the men on their journey.”
“Who did they lose?” Duchamp asked. “Not Jinx or Lt. Morgan?”
“No, thank goodness,” Her ladyship was quick to soothe him. “It was a Spaniard they hired to ride atop the coach as an armed guard. Chloe was greatly troubled that they were not able to bury the man properly, but had to flee immediately to save their own lives.”
Juliet hadn't met either men Duchamp mentioned, but assumed they were members of Captain Rawlings crew. “Mrs. O'Donovan must have been horrified by such an experience.”
“Yes.” Lady Elizabeth signaled for the footmen to remove their plates and begin serving a special dessert she'd had prepared to celebrate news of Chloe’s nuptials; English Trifle. The cake slices were mixed with local fruits--pineapple, mango, guava--and clotted cream. Once the footmen began placing their portions before them, their hostess continued her tale.
Lady Elizabeth spoke of other incidents bedeviling the couple in Spain, giving a detailed report from her letter. The couple had to hide in a deep ravine in the woods to escape capture by French soldiers, and Chloe ended up losing her trunks of fine clothing. Lady Elizabeth ended her tale with the announcement. “And as to my wonderful news, our dear Chloe and the captain have wed! We must celebrate their nuptials.”
The men were silent. Both faces registered surprise.
“Jack, married?” the count scoffed, and looked at Duchamp. “Never thought he'd let down his guard regarding his prized bachelorhood.” His gaze shot to the butler behind him. “Bring champagne. We must celebrate Jack’s capture by the fairer sex.”
The butler nodded and left the room quickly.
“Why would you say that?” Lady Elizabeth asked with annoyance. “He would have married Chloe years ago, if Gareth hadn't asked her first.”
The count rolled his eyes. “Jack has been in mourning for his fiancée for twenty years. He'd never look at another woman, mark me, I'm in his confidence, my sweet.”
“Oh?” Lady Elizabeth's voice rose with mock surprise and a hint of superiority. “So Jack didn't come to you in private during the first annual Christmas Eve Ball ten years back and ask your advice on wooing Miss Ramirez and gaining her hand in marriage?”
That was something Juliet never knew about, despite her friendship with Chloe. Of course she wouldn't, as Chloe Ramirez had married the count's uncle and no lady would talk openly of another courtship prior to her marriage.
“No . . ?” The count's eyes grew wide as he gazed at his wife. “I suspect you are implying he did so with you. You never shared that with me, my sweet.”
The count's mother's story
The sensation of triumph radiated from her ladyship briefly. She gave a light laugh. “Oh, my lord, it was such a busy holiday that year I clearly forgot about the incident until this moment.”
She turned to Juliet to explain further. “We were newlyweds, you see. My grandfather, the earl, was here scowling at us all, and rumored to be at death's door. My brothers were severely injured from a brutal attack days earlier by an escaped indenture. The count’s mother arrived late on Christmas Eve and she was furious with him for not writing her the news we had wed three months earlier. Chloe and Gareth were married in secret at dawn on Christmas Day and then we had the count’s mother's wedding a two weeks later. And I had learned just days before Christmas that I was expecting the twins, and so sometimes I reflect on that holiday as a time of supreme confusion."
Elizabeth's first Christmas
“Our first Christmas as man and wife was quite memorable.” His lordship seemed amused by the horrific list his wife had just given him as her reasons for forgetting to tell him of his friend's interest in Miss Ramirez, as Chloe was known then by all.
“Miss Ramirez was an intoxicating young woman.” Duchamp had a wistful smile that softened his sharp features considerably. “I might have courted her myself, back then.”
“You?” the count's voice rose with disbelief. “I swear, the men I consider my trusted friends keep their secrets well. I am the last to learn of these stray passions and private desires.”
“You spend too much time with your horses, my lord,” Lady Elizabeth chided playfully. “You miss the subtle nuances between humans when they are attracted to one another.”
The men chuckled, and Juliet allowed herself the indulgence of a light laugh as well.
“I fear you may have a point, my sweet. And yet, none can claim to have the skills you possess in discerning these secrets of the heart.” His lordship took his wife's hand impulsively, another indication of their relaxed attitudes regarding etiquette and showing affection in polite company.
“If I may be so bold, my lady,” Juliet inquired carefully, “why did the captain come to you for aid in courting Mrs. O'Donovan--before she was Mrs. O'Donovan, I mean?”
The countess turned to Juliet, her eyes bright with reminiscence. Obviously, she was enjoying this dinner conversation, and it had nothing to do with Juliet's presence at table. Her ladyship had the full attention of the men and she was being praised and indulged by her spouse.
Chloe's Christmas Story
“It was two hours past dawn on Christmas morning, my dear Miss Wallingford,” the countess's voice floated amid the sparkling crystal goblets and the warm candlelight. “We had just returned from Chloe's secret wedding to Gareth. Only my lord and I were attendance. I was in the library preparing myself to be hostess to a family holiday for the first time in my married life. A knock came to my door, and the butler informed me that Captain Rawlings sought a private audience with me.”
“Where was I?” his lordship asked, offence in his voice.
Lady Elizabeth gave a slight shrug and glanced at him thoughtfully. “The stables, I suspect, managing your horses or managing young Mr. O'Reilly, your new stable master.”
Duchamp gave a low chuckle. He was amused by the countess's jest.
The butler returned with the champagne. He opened it and began pouring glasses for them. Juliet gazed at the light liquid set before her. She never had a reason to taste the expensive beverage as teachers at her school did not have reason to celebrate, nor had her past employer been one to share such luxuries with the members of his staff.
“And the captain confessed his desire to win Chloe’s hand and asked if I might speak well of him to her so she might favor his suit. I had the unfortunate task of telling the poor man Chloe had been wed but two hours earlier."
“What wretched timing. I wish I had known of this." The count's voice was ladened with sadness. All signs of joy were gone from his features. “I cannot imagine sitting at the table with the woman you are secretly in love with and her spouse, month after month, year after year, pretending you don't care. It had to have been hell for him.”
“He hid it well,” Duchamp added. “We had our differences, but I would not wish such a cruel fate upon the fellow. I always wondered why he never took a wife.”
“I thought he was married to sea, as he so often said," the count added. "And considering his tragic history with his fiancée dying years ago, I thought him still in mourning for his lost love."
“But he has found his happiness!” Lady Elizabeth's voice revived its prior joy. “As has our dear Chloe. Both had tragic pasts, and they have found true love."
“To true love. To Captain and Mrs. Rawlings!” The count lifted his glass and the three of them did likewise. “May they be blessed with every happiness and a brighter future.”
Juliet took a sip of the sparkling beverage. She was amazed by the lightness of champagne, as wine was usually much heavier on her palate. "Oh,” she giggled, and resisted the urge to wipe her nose as the bubbles tickled it without mercy.
“To Jack and Chloe,” Mr. Duchamp made a second toast. “A weather-hardened seaman wins the heart of an alluring young widow. Proof that all men may find a safe harbor for their hearts, no matter their age or disposition."
“To Jack and Chloe!” They all drank a toast to the happy couple.
“And to the strange proclivities of Aphrodite,” the count continued. “She stalks all men and makes them trip over their true love when they least expect it.”
Again, they raised glasses to the count's toast. This time, Juliet could not resist brushing her nose with her napkin after taking a sip of the bubbly liquid. She was relieved to find the countess doing the same beside her.
“And who will be next in our circle to find love?” the count's deep voice became soft and slightly sensual. At least, that was how Juliet perceived it after three sips of champagne following two goblets of wine at dinner. “Ambrose, is there anything you wish to tell me?”
All eyes moved to the steward. He did not appear amused by his lordship's jest, but irritated. Juliet felt a pang of concern. What dark secrets were hidden in his past life in France?
“Aphrodite crossed me off her list of favorites long ago, my lord.”
“You are too hard on yourself, Ambrose,” the count replied. “What happened in France does not need to define you for a lifetime. Love will find you if you'll allow her to lead you to your true heart's companion. You've spent enough years lurking in the shadows and sulking like a ghoul.”
The man actually grimaced at his lordship's words. And then he looked directly at the count with his chin held up and his eyes defiant. “And where were you, my lord, when Aphrodite dropped from the sky and dragged you to your true love's door?”
“The stables,” the count replied hastily with a chuckle, “minding my own affairs.”
“With Michael,” the countess added in the same moment. The couple looked to each other and laughed together. “We’d fallen on hard times Miss Wallingford. My brother worked at the stables to support us after his father lost everything, including our home, to gambling.”
“If Fletcher hadn’t lost everything and brought you with him to hide in the country, I might not have found you, my darling lass.” The count clutched her hand and lifted it to his lips, shocking Juliet with his bold display of affection. She was shocked by his forwardness, but not offended.
The couple gazed at each other with deep affection. Her ladyship's girlish laugh brought a lighter note to the room after Mr. Duchamp's dark comment about not being worthy of Aphrodite's magic.
Donovan & Lizzie's Story