Read an Excerpt
By Jennifer Blake
MIRACopyright © 2005 Jennifer Blake
All right reserved.
New Orleans, Louisiana March, 1840
To walk homeward through the cemetery after midnight was Caid Roe O'Neill's personal penance. He did it not as a reminder of his own mortality but rather to prevent himself from becoming too fond of death.
For a man who wielded a sword for his living, the possibility of a fatal blow, given or taken, was a constant specter. The errant flick of a wrist, a second's hesitation in parrying a clever feint, and it was over. Then would come the broken sword, the black armbands worn by his friends, the grim parade to the burying ground. Sometimes, when darkness lay like a thick miasma over New Orleans and the only sounds were the distant rattle of carriage wheels and the occasional bark of a dog, it was far too easy to think of that end as natural, or even one to be accepted with gratitude.
Such introspection was not a sign of a melancholy mind. Rather, it was the natural bent of Caid's Black Irish heritage allied to a strict upbringing at the hands of priests and nuns who thought a bog Irish kid needed a close acquaintance with the more somber aspects of life. They had been right in their fashion.
On an early morning just a month ago, Caid had felt his sword pierce the heart of Eugene Moisant, and the sensation had caused neither guilt, shame nor even triumph, but rather the most unholy satisfaction. It was not something Caid wanted to feel again.
He strode with his head up and his sword cane gripped loosely in his hand as he glanced around at the white marble tombs like small houses with their gables and cupolas reflecting the star shine. He wasn't looking for trouble, but neither would he shy away from it. It was always dangerous on the streets at night but even more so here in this so-called City of the Dead. The tombs that were constructed above ground because of the low water table, the tall monuments and marble mausoleums, provided excellent cover for sneak thieves and cutthroats.
The oyster-shell path crunched under his booted feet, while the billowing edges of his cloak brushed dust from the dried weeds along its edges. He could smell that arid mustiness, and also a whiff of the lime used to whitewash the enclosing brick walls. The night was cool for early March in these latitudes. The chill had seeped down from the north earlier in the day, ousting the usual mildness. Now his breath fogged a little as he kept his steady pace.
Turning a corner in this silent city whose narrow, meandering pathways had been laid out at need instead of with logic, he saw ahead of him the Moisant tomb. It was of gray marble shaped like a large fainting couch and surrounded by an iron fence wrought with the time-honored mortuary design of a weeping willow. There was something white lying on the tomb, something with a tender shape, pale skin and flowing raiment .
Caid halted. For long seconds, he stood perfectly still. Then he drew a swift breath and moved forward again. The grating of his footsteps on the shells seemed profane, as if it might disturb the rest of the many carved angels that surrounded him, including the one which lay supine and white as alabaster upon the Moisant tomb. Drawing closer, he saw the soft auburn-gold tresses that spilled around her head and over the tomb's edge, the symmetry of her features, her arching brows and finely molded cheekbones. Memory clicked abruptly, producing an image seen just once before. Regret twisted sharply inside Caid's chest.
The woman was — had been — Lisette Moisant, young widow of Eugene Moisant, the man he had killed less than a month ago. If the death of the husband was on his head, then so would be that of his lady.
Caid leaped the low iron fence then went to one knee beside the tomb. With care, he reached to close his fingers on Lisette Moisant's slender wrist and take her hand in his own warm grasp. Cool, she was so cool to the touch. Her lashes lay upon her cheeks, resting on their own fanlike shadows. A soft breeze stirred the waves of her hair so that a fine, auburn strand, fragile as a spiderweb, lifted and caught on the wool of his cloak. He knelt motionless, as if tethered, held fast by its strength.
When last he'd seen Lisette Moisant, she had appeared pale and unhappy in her mourning clothes of deepest black. She had met his gaze for a single instant before recognition flared in her face along with a wash of color. Her gaze had passed over him then, and her lips had tightened. She had refused to acknowledge him, and who could blame her? Regardless, Caid had seen nothing, heard nothing since, to indicate that she might come to this, lying still and cold in her nightgown of fine virginal white, as if she had taken too much of some sleeping potion. The choice had been laudanum, he thought, for he could catch the faint scent of it about her.
A suicide, and for the sake of a man like the late Eugene Moisant. It was not a suitable fate for any creature, and certainly not for such a lovely young woman.
Caid replaced her hand beside her and sat back, staring for long seconds at the delicately curved lips and the decided point of her chin that just prevented her face from being a perfect oval. Such a tragic waste of life, so much tender promise gone unclaimed, undeveloped. The pain of it shifted inside him. Lisette Moisant had doubtless been as wronged in her way by her lout of a husband as had Caid's sister Brona. That fact deserved some acknowledgment, some salute, however futile.
Caid leaned over the bedlike tomb and bent his head to brush his lips gently across the soft, cool mouth of the lady. As he drew back a little, his chest rose and fell in a deep breath as he sought to relieve the ache in his throat. And in return, he felt the faintest intimation of a sigh brush over his cheek.
His eyebrows snapped together in a frown. Without ceremony, he set his hand palm down flat between Lisette Moisant's breasts, splaying his fingers over and around the gently resilient mounds beneath their covering of white batiste.
A heartbeat. It was there, that gentle throbbing, faint and not quite even. He cursed his mooning stupidity and waste of time even as he stripped off his cloak and laid it over her, wrapping her in its voluminous folds. Then he thrust one arm under her knees, the other behind her back, and lifted her high against his chest. Swinging with his burden, he kicked open the gate of the iron fence and started off toward his lodging.
After three long steps, he paused. He could not carry a respectable woman to his rooms, not even if she was dying. Should she survive, she would be compromised beyond repair, her life hardly worth living. To show up on the doorstep of the Moisant household, the man who had killed the son of the house, would hardly be wise, might even be enough to get him hanged if Lisette Moisant failed to live. The house of Dr. Labatut, the young physician called upon to attend the injuries of the fencing salons, was many blocks away, too far under the circumstances. What was he to do?
A soft sound, like a cross between a gasp and a moan, came from just beneath his collarbone. Caid looked down and was snared by the wide gaze of the woman in his arms. Her eyes appeared silvery-gray in the pale light of the moon, with centers so dark and fathomless that they threatened to engulf him. Angel's eyes, wide spaced, clear behind their thick fringe of lashes, their expression was infinitely beguiling. There was no fear in them, but only bewilderment overlaid by wonder. Abruptly, she shivered, a movement that seemed to catch her unaware. She reached with her free hand to clutch the lapel of his coat under his cloak as her lashes closed again, then turned her face into his shoulder.
Caid felt his heart alter its rhythm. Heat flashed over him in a surging wave. He stood with his legs braced while he wrestled with a morass of impulses that were as amazing as they were impossible to deny. He wanted to take the woman in his arms away somewhere and hide her where she would be forever safe from harm. He felt a strong need to lie down with her on the nearest marble surface and sleep for an eternity with her in his arms. He yearned to have her lift her lashes and smile at him, to acknowledge him and say his name. He was desperate for her forgiveness, her absolution, her acceptance of him into the pantheon of those she loved. He longed to be pure and noble in her eyes. He wanted to turn back the clock so she might see him as untainted by past mistakes or bloody deeds done in anger. He ached to warm her cool lips until they opened to him, until she turned to him in sweet passion, asking that he possess her, make her safe and happy and whole by the healing power of his touch, his
He was an idiot.
Think. He had to think. He needed a refuge for the lady he carried, some place where she could be cared for and kept safe from harm. Safe from him and all he had done to her sheltered world, all that he could well do to it.
The answer came to him as in response to a prayer. Maurelle Herriot.
The Herriot town house was not far away, on the rue Dauphine. Maurelle was likely to be up still, being like a cat in her habits, keeping late hours and sleeping well into the afternoon. She would not be entertaining this evening, Caid knew, as he had received no invitation, nor was she likely to be keeping an assignation. Maurelle might affect a Bohemian lifestyle, but relied on her impeccable lineage among the aristocratic French Creole families, which allowed her that eccentricity; she was much too circumspect to do anything that might seriously jeopardize her place in society. Being at the center of interesting events was meat and drink to her, however, and she would not mind being disturbed for such a titillating adventure. Even if she did mind, she would forgive him. She had been Caid's friend since their first meeting in Paris a few years ago. She always forgave him. Caid began walking again.
Maurelle was dressed for an evening at home. Scorning the simple Gabrielle wrapper preferred by most women on such occasions, she had donned flowing Oriental robes of rust-red silk brocade and a matching turban draped with pearls. The exotic fashion suited her, lending mystery to her fine dark eyes while subtly enhancing an opulent figure kept comfortably rounded by a love for multicourse dinners and chocolate bonbons. She swept forward in a flutter of draperies as her butler showed Caid and his burden into her second-floor salon.
"Mon Dieu, cher! What have you done? Put the poor thing down there, on the settee near the fire." Turning to her butler of many years, who hovered in the doorway, she clapped her hands. "Hartshorn and water, Solon. At once."
"The lady requires a doctor," Caid said as he deposited Lisette where he had been instructed, then knelt beside her and began to chafe her icy hands. "Also a warm coverlet."
Maurelle nodded at the butler. "You heard."
When the door had closed behind the man, Caid went on. "I didn't harm the lady, in any case. She was in this state when I found her." In a few brief phrases, he described how that had come about.
"And you suspect this poor girl of drinking laudanum because of Eugene Moisant's demise? Nonsense! Champagne, possibly, but nothing more deadly."
"I'll admit to seeing no cause for her to destroy herself, but it's entirely possible she may feel otherwise."
"The man had the sensibility of a clod," Maurelle said with precision. "I would be surprised to learn that he knew how to treat a wife. She should be profoundly grateful for the release which elevated her to the fortunate status of a young widow of independent means."
Maurelle believed in plain speaking, one of many things Caid liked about her. Married at sixteen to an old satyr nearly thirty years her senior, she had been widowed a scant four years and many prayers for deliverance later. As a consequence, she was no advocate of love and marriage, another thing he found attractive since he need not fear rousing expectations he could not fulfill. "Just because you hummed the jubilant death song from Don Giovanni while your husband was laid to rest doesn't mean all women are so inclined," Caid said over his shoulder. "But is the lady well-placed?"
"You were not here two years ago when Lisette Saine and Eugene Moisant were wed, were you? Her late husband's father, Monsieur Henri Moisant, was thought to have achieved the coup of the season when he arranged the marriage of his son to the Saine heiress. The properties alone would have been enough to attract a baron for the girl, if not someone more exalted, had Madame Saine cared to travel to Europe. Too bad she didn't look higher for an eligible parti."
"What are you saying?"
"Madame Saine drove a hard bargain, so they claim, insisting that the bulk of her daughter's enormous dowry remain in Lisette's control — this in return for paying Eugene's gambling debts and making a sizable contribution to the Moisant family coffers. Madame had little trust in the Moisants, father or son, and thought to ensure that Lisette would be well treated. It seems she knew she had not long to live."
"Her efforts were not successful?" Caid's voice was distracted as he studied the lady on the settee. Her lashes fluttered a little, but she did not open her eyes again. Alarm tightened his chest until he could hardly breathe.
"Just so. One hears that Monsieur Henri Moisant was dissatisfied from the moment the vows were spoken. He thought it unseemly that his young daughter-in-law should have so much wealth at her disposal, felt also that her unwillingness to place her affairs in his hands showed a disinclination to submerge her personality and become a true Moisant. He had been sure he could persuade her to sign a power of attorney giving him control of the monies once he had her under his roof. Lisette proved less malleable than expected. In fact, she was amazingly obstinate about it."
Excerpted from Dawn Encounter by Jennifer Blake Copyright © 2005 by Jennifer Blake. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.