Read an ExcerptAT HER SERVICE
By SUSAN JOHNSON BRAVA BOOKS Copyright © 2008 Susan Johnson
All right reserved.
Chapter One The Crimea, February 1855
On a cold, frosty morning just outside Sevastopol, Hugh D'Abernon, Marquis of Darley, rode over the crest of a hill and saw her for the first time. She was standing beside a green lacquered carriage, holding up the hem of her sable coat to keep it out of the mud, watching her servant shoveling the muck away from one of the carriage wheels-or what once had been a wheel. It was shattered beyond repair.
Her red-gold hair gleamed in the sunlight, and even from ten yards away, her beauty was striking. Not that lovely ladies were of particular interest to him at the moment; he had an assignment to complete. But he had to admit in this theater of war a woman of her stamp was rare and, by definition, memorable. She was some noble's wife, no doubt. Some very rich noble. That sable coat she wore was fashioned from the rarest and most costly golden pelts.
Moments later as he neared the carriage that had apparently bottomed out in one of the wretched holes on the nearly impassable road, he drew his horse to a halt. Even more stunning at close range, she looked vastly out of place in this muddy wasteland-a beautiful, sloe-eyed Della Robbia Madonna far from the Medici. But rather than voice his thoughts, he doffed his wolfskin hat and said, politely, "May I offer you a ride into town?" He spoke in French-the language of the upper classes in Russia.
She'd been watching him for the past few minutes, having turned at the sound of approaching horses. "Thank you, I would appreciate a ride." She too spoke in French, although she could have answered him in Tatar as well-in the event that was his native tongue. The large, dark-haired man had the swarthy skin and aquiline features of the local populace. He was also dressed like a Tatar, but his fluent French suggested his choice of clothing could have more to do with the weather than his heritage. "The roads are worse than usual after last week's thaw," she offered with a smile, speaking the Tatar dialect of the region, testing his authenticity. These were dangerous times, and she was involved in dangerous undertakings; trust no one had become her motto. "Ibrahim warned me about making the trek today." She shrugged faintly. "And as you see ..."
"No doubt Ibrahim didn't wish to argue the point with you. A lady is always right, is she not?" Hugh replied with a small smile, his Tatar as impeccable as hers. He raised one brow slightly. "Do I pass muster?"
She smiled back-a mannered smile that gave nothing away. "One acquires a certain wariness," she said, reverting to French, "with opposing armies in the field."
"Very sensible of you. Personally, I wish nations wouldn't go to war on such flimsy pretexts, but then"-he shrugged- "nobody asked me. In the meantime, since we are caught in the middle of this dubious endeavor, allow me to introduce myself." He bowed faintly from the saddle. "Gazi Maksoud from points east," he lied.
She dipped her head, her hands still occupied with keeping her coat out of the mud. "I am Aurore Clement from Alupka."
"A neighbor of Prince Woronzov, then."
"Yes. My estate borders his."
She didn't say my husband's estate or my father's or brother's. He found himself oddly curious about her when in all his years of wandering the globe, he'd never been inclined to question anything more than a female's availability. Was it because he was bone tired from having gone without sleep for days? Had he been living rough too long? Perhaps it was nothing more than the sight of a lush woman that suddenly conjured up pleasurable thoughts of clean sheets, soft beds and softer flesh.
Wrenched from delectable fantasy by the brisk cadence of her voice, he returned to the stark reality of a chill wind and mud as far as the eye could see.
"Ibrahim, carry out that case of wine, then wait here with our supplies. I'll send out someone with a new wheel as quickly as possible." Turning to Hugh, she added, "You don't mind transporting my wine, do you?" Aurore glanced at the string of pack horses behind him, led by two Tatars.
"No, of course not. Let me carry you over this bog." Dismounting, Darley plowed through the mud toward her. "I'm afraid I can't offer you a side saddle."
"It's of no regard. I've ridden astride most of my life."
He must be more tired than he thought; his brain was interpreting her response as double entendre. A lovely image though-her riding him. It almost made him forget this senseless war and the fact that he hadn't had a hot bath for a week. "I apologize for my stench," he murmured, half lifting his hand in demur as he approached her. "We've come down from Perekop without stopping."
"You needn't apologize. The superficialities of society hardly apply in these grievous times. In fact, after having visited the hospitals in Sevastopol, one realizes how trivial politesse is in the face of such human suffering."
"A harrowing sight, is it not?" He always distributed a portion of his provisions to the hospitals, his charity extending to the common soldier regardless of their allegiance.
"Indeed. My brother lies in hospital in Sevastopol."
"You should get him out as soon as you can," he said, lifting her into his arms, trying to ignore the soft warmth of her thighs on his forearms, the contact of her plump breasts against his chest and arm. "The hygiene in the hospitals on either side is deplorable," he added in an attempt to shift his attention from her closeness.
"I've been able to secure a small room for him outside the wards. We've cleaned it as well as we could, but the moment Etienne can be moved, we will do so." Her words at the last were slightly breathy for his arms had tightened around her as he navigated some difficult ground, and pressed hard against his body, she experienced a heady rush of pleasure.
He shot her a quizzical look.
"The wind is cutting," she lied, controlling her voice with effort since her pulse was still racing.
He just grunted in reply, carefully picking his way through the slop.
Regardless the impropriety, perfectly aware that she should be concentrating on more important things, nevertheless, Aurore found herself scrutinizing the handsome stranger from under her lashes. His features were quite stunning beneath the wolfskin hat pulled low over his forehead: fine cheekbones, straight nose, lush sculpted mouth, firm chin. Not to mention the dark stubble shadowing his jaw afforded him the rakish air of an adventurer-which he surely was, plying his trade in this dangerous no-man's-land.
Hugh, too, understood a certain aloofness was required-more pertinently, that his mission required he be on guard. But her beguiling scent drifted into his nostrils, the Parma violet fragrance triggering long-ago memory, reminding him of better times, sweeter times and youthful amours. Christ, he silently expostulated, he needed a drink, some sleep or a stern talking to; carnal memories from the past he could do without right now. The sooner he put distance between himself and that unnerving scent of violet, the better.
While Hugh was struggling to ignore not only her but her perfume, Aurore was taking note of a hint of cologne emanating from her escort. Well aware that male cologne was not a Tatar amenity, she instantly questioned the discrepancy. Even as a number of possible explanations raced through her mind, she masked her suspicions with conversation. "I thought Ibrahim and I knew every pothole in this wretched road since we make this trek almost daily," she murmured. "But apparently not-as you see. If my foolish brother hadn't joined the French forces"-she smiled ruefully-"but he did, of course." Another smile. "In our position he should have remained neutral. Although I'm extremely grateful he was captured instead of killed"-she quickly crossed herself-"and General Osten-Sacken has been exceedingly gracious about Etienne's rash behavior. We always bring the general a few little luxuries in gratitude."
"Then we are both pursuing a similar agenda, although mine is purely for profit," Hugh replied, grateful for her conversation. He needed distraction from his increasingly lurid thoughts apropos the lady in his arms. "We bring the officers small luxuries as well-brandy, cigars, chocolate, caviar, pate, an occasional letter, things of that nature. Ah, finally-here we are," he said, relieved to have reached his black charger. He was not by nature monkish, and the lady in his arms was taxing his nonexistent virtue.
"I apologize for being such a burden," she said, misunderstanding the relief in his voice.
"Nonsense." He smiled. "You are nothing of the kind."
She suddenly noticed that his eyes weren't brown like most Tatars, but a luminous gray-green, and when he smiled like that, a seductive twinkle was only marginally disguised.
As he lifted her into the padded saddle, she shook away the deviant consequences of that improper gaze. Seductive or not, she would not be tempted.
"What length stirrup do you prefer?" he asked. "European or local?"
His voice was businesslike; she would do well to command her sensibilities with as much mastery. "Local," she replied crisply, determined to steel herself against bizarre temptation. "I was born and bred in the Crimea."
"I wasn't entirely sure with your French name and your brother's allegiance to France," he said, pulling up one stirrup. Tatars rode with short stirrups.
"Catherine the Great wanted vineyards planted in the region and my grandfather and others were lured from France by generous land grants. Our family has been here for over fifty years. Let me give you a bottle of our wine when we reach Sevastopol." Aurore smiled politely, in control once again of her sensibilities. "It's quite good."
"Yours is a family business then." He moved around to the opposite side of his charger.
"It was-or is; only Etienne and I remain." She shifted her leg as he reached for the second stirrup buckle, wishing to avoid contact when she was not normally so prudish. "My parents died of a summer fever two years ago."
He looked up. "I'm sorry."
She made a small moue. "The void remains, but our household is like family; Etienne and I are not alone." She felt the need to disavow her vulnerability, although for a woman of independence, her impulse was peculiar. It must be the war, she decided, rather than admit to a less palatable reason having to do with this stranger's seductive allure. She'd been working too hard, she thought. Fatigue made her more susceptible to emotion. Having known a number of handsome men, she couldn't be attracted by his looks alone. Although, his power and size were something quite out of the ordinary. How would he feel ...
Stop this instant! she chastised herself. That she was even considering the amorous pleasures such a man might afford was reprehensible in the midst of this fearsome war. The death toll had already been enormous-from cold, from lack of food, from shell and rifle shot. Even Etienne had just narrowly escaped death, she reflected, a sudden shiver racing up her spine.
Feeling a hand on her boot, she jerked back only to look down and find Gazi looking up at her.
"Would you like a tot of brandy?" Her shiver had been unmistakable, as was her sudden jump at his touch. Not that skittishness in this war zone was abnormal. "A little brandy is good for the nerves," he said with a smile.
"Thank you. Some brandy would be wonderful." She exhaled softly. "I often wish I were a thousand miles away from this miserable war."
"I agree," Darley muttered as he pulled a silver flask from the pocket of his sheepskin capote.
"Do you think any of the rumors of peace might be true?" she asked like a child might, wanting the impossible.
"I doubt it," he gently replied, having recently seen the plans for the Allied spring offense. Uncorking his flask, he handed it to her. "I find when I am less lucid, I also care less." He winked. "Drink up."
"A byword for survival in these difficult times, I agree." She lifted the flask to her lips, drank and returned it to him with a grateful smile.
"Better?" he said.
"I am definitely less lucid."
He grinned. "Which is the point." After taking a long draught himself, he replaced the cork and pocketed the worn container. "Now that we're suitably fortified against the stark realities," he said in a weary drawl, "shall we push on through this quagmire?"
She met his half-lidded gaze. "You sound as tired as I."
"I haven't slept for a while-unlike the damned generals who sleep soundly in their comfortable beds while the less fortunate freeze in the trenches."
"Yet you supply the general staff with luxuries." Her brows rose in query.
He shrugged. "One has to make a living." Grabbing the reins of her horse, he turned and strode toward his own mount. Reminders of the incompetence of the British command always rankled him. Raglan surrounded himself with relatives and sycophants, never made a decision unless forced to and deluded himself that he was fighting a gentleman's war. Not that his resentments could be voiced, Hugh grimly thought. But at least he was doing his part to bring up-to-date information to the British staff; whether they acted on it intelligently was beyond his control.
Reaching his horse, he gracefully swung up into the saddle, half turned and said, "I'll lead your mount through the worst of this mud."
Aurore could have replied I can ride perfectly well, but she didn't. Instead, she yielded to his authority as though she were some helpless young chit, when even as a child she'd never acceded to the role. She must be in dire need of sleep, she decided, when she was too enervated to assert herself on so trivial a matter.
Not that she would be retiring early tonight either, she thought with an inward groan. General Osten-Sacken always insisted she come to dine when she visited her brother. But immediately after dinner, she intended to go back to the room she rented in the only hotel that hadn't been damaged by the Allied bombardment and promptly go to bed.
Which thought should not have invoked images of her powerful, strapping Tatar joining her there. Good heavens! This was not the time to be contemplating an amorous rendezvous! In all seriousness, she had to resist his preposterous allure, control her aberrant, outrageous desires and stay on task. She was in Sevastopol not only to visit Etienne but to do her duty for France.
Tired or not, weariness notwithstanding, Gazi's great beauty aside, she would remember her obligations and responsibilities.
Even as Aurore was constraining her improper impulses, a similar scenario was playing itself out in Hugh's brain. He, too, chided himself for his folly. He was in Sevastopol to reconnoiter the town-in his case, for the British Secret Service. Raglan required definitive numbers on troop and battery strength, ammunition supplies, the morale of the Russian army.
He could not even consider being diverted from the task before him.
No matter how tempting the lady.
Chapter Two On the ride to Sevastopol Hugh and Aurore had sufficient time to regain their composure. Both were fully engaged in other enterprises. Neither could afford to be distracted by frivolous pursuits. And riding separately as they were, impractical desires were more easily curtailed.
The road improved as they neared the city, allowing them to ride side by side, but they took care to speak only of prosaic matters. The weather was discussed at length-the devastating winter, the more recent thaw, the pleasant prospect of spring. The state of the war came up of course-the continuing stalemate and hindrances; they agreed a speedy peace would be most welcome. But never once on the three miles into town did either even hint at anything of a personal nature.
When they reached Sevastopol, Aurore asked to be deposited at the coach maker. "The hospital is near Ischenko's shop," she said. "I can walk from there. If you wouldn't mind dropping my wine at the hotel, I'd much appreciate it. Do take a bottle for yourself. It's quite good."
"Thank you, I will," Hugh replied. "The hotel is on our way; it's no imposition. We have warehouse space near the docks," he added to the query in her gaze.
"You trade in Sevastopol regularly, then."
He smiled. "We trade wherever Russian officers need our goods."
"You travel at your own peril I expect, with the armies constantly on the move."
Excerpted from AT HER SERVICE by SUSAN JOHNSON Copyright © 2008 by Susan Johnson. Excerpted by permission.
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