Read an Excerpt
What is the opposite of déjÃ vu?
Louisa Clemens stopped in consternation barely a few paces into the parlor. The room felt peculiarly different, as if she had never set foot in it before. After working six years for the Winterbottoms, she knew every inch of their parlor...the blue carpet patterned with roses, the chintz-covered sofas, the ormolu clock on the mantel, and the glass case full of ferns in the corner of the bay window...yet she felt as if she had never been there before.
Plastering a façade of normality over her sudden feeling of strangeness, something different caught Louisa's eye, and she turned her head toward the side of the room where a man stood unabashedly staring at her. He was definitely not the sort of man she would expect to see in the Winterbottoms' parlor, ensconced among all their other guests. She faltered once again, the sensation of foreignness overcoming her.
It was his eyes that she noticed first, piercing eyes transfixing her with a gaze that seemed to search out all her secrets and leave nothing hidden. They were dark gray, the color of cold English skies and frozen cobblestones, with only the barest hint of the deep, mysterious ink of midnight.
The rest of the company assembled in the room may just as well have been invisible for all the notice Louisa could spare them. Next to him, everyone else seemed utterly insignificant. He was a tempest, a hurricane, a force so powerful that it slammed against her chest until she could hardly draw a breath. Against a nature as strong as his, she would have no chance of resistance.
That was whythe room had seemed so strange to her...because he was in it. His mere presence had transformed the Winterbottoms' parlor into a room of mystery, a place Louisa no longer recognized.
She shivered in her light cotton gown, drew her Indian shawl closely around her shoulders, and turned her head away from danger, continuing toward the mother of the young children she chaperoned. Even though she could no longer see him, Louisa could feel the force of his gaze on her, stripping her bare. She knew that she had all of his attention. Everything about him was focused on her, and only on her.
"Ah, Miss Clemens, there you are." Mrs. Winterbottom bustled cheerfully toward Louisa, her mahogany ringlets bouncing under her cap. "I was just telling our guests about my little cherubs and here you are with them both. You have impeccable timing."
Though still shaken by the peculiar feeling that lingered in her spine and the directness of the stranger's gaze, Louisa smiled perfunctorily at her employer. "Prudence, Hester," she said gently to the two identical twin girls who trotted at her side, "make a curtsy for your mama."
The girls did as they were bid, holding out their puffed skirts and sinking into a pretty curtsy, all the while sneaking wide-eyed peeks at the guests, and at the gray-eyed stranger in particular.
Louisa was not surprised at their curiosity. Even in this urbane and sophisticated household, where businessmen from many parts of the world visited Mr. Winterbottom, a guest like this was most unusual.
She sneaked a look at him herself out of the corner of her eye, not wishing to be caught by his gaze again, or to let him guess her interest. Everything about him was different. For a start, his skin was tanned to a deep brown, even far darker than the Italians among whom they lived. His high cheekbones lent his face a severe grace, and his hair fell in thick, black waves nearly to his shoulders instead of being neatly pomaded to sit flat against his head, the style preferred by most gentlemen.
His clothing was as unusual as his looks. Though his navy blue jacket was cut in the usual style, it was richly decorated with heavy gold and red embroidery, and his trousers were pristine white rather than the more usual black. He wore a round, red, high cap with a black tassel that made him appear even more exotic, while all the other men in the room were bareheaded, having removed their hats upon coming inside. He stood out among the crowd of Europeans as a wild hawk would stand out in a farmyard full of domesticated chickens.
The girls had dipped into a low curtsy. "Good girls," Mrs. Winterbottom said approvingly as they straightened up again. "Now then, come and hug your mama."
The pair obediently suffered a hug from their mother without undue wriggling. Inwardly, Louisa breathed a sigh of relief. Mrs. Winterbottom was a kindhearted woman and possessed the best of tempers, but the one thing she hated above all else was having her fine silk dress ruffled...particularly when she was in the company of handsome guests, as she was this evening.
There was no denying that the man who had caught Louisa's attention was handsome in an exotic way. He was much more attractive than the pallid young Englishman with ginger sideburns paying court to one of Mrs. Winterbottom's friends, and even more good-looking than the dark-haired and debonair Italian count flirting outrageously with the elderly...and terribly wealthy...dowager in the corner.
Louisa glanced over at Mr. Winterbottom as he poured sherry at the sideboard. Next to the visitor, even Mr. Winterbottom looked pale and uninteresting. She noticed for the first time that his hairline was starting to recede and that, despite his firmly buttoned waistcoat, good living had given him a slight paunch. In contrast, the stranger looked to be all hard muscle with barely an ounce of fat on him, strong and untamed, and quite out of place in this quiet, gentile setting.
Seeming quite unperturbed by the dangerous allure that hung about the stranger like a miasma, Mrs. Winterbottom guided her daughters toward him. "Come, my dears, make a curtsy to our guests, especially to Mr. Khair, who has come all the way from Morocco to meet you."Captive. Copyright © by Leda Swann. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.