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New Orleans, Louisiana January 1844
"I require your expertise in order to kill a man."
Gavin Blackford paused in the act of taking a glass of Madeira from a tray on the side table. Such a clear yet low-voiced request was unexpected during a courtesy call for Réveillon, the celebration of New Year's Day. It was particularly surprising from a lady.
A multitude of boisterous conversations went on without pause beyond their isolated corner, token of the conviviality of this occasion where men were required to go from house to house among the ladies of their acquaintance, accepting a drink at each stop to toast the New Year. This was his tenth visit of the afternoon, his tenth glass of wine or rum punch while slogging here and there through the pouring rain that fell beyond the French doors of the elegantly appointed salon. Gavin was not at all certain that his pleasantly bemused senses had not somehow garbled the words just spoken to him. "I beg your pardon?"
"You heard, I believe." Replacing with care the glass he had meant to offer to Madame Ariadne Faucher, Gavin turned, surveying her in the flickering gaslight above them. She was tall for a female, of upright carriage and an elegant form costumed in rose silk with deep flounces draped in black lace which whispered of the latest mode from Paris. Her gaze was steady, holding a shadow of consciousness but no real sign of discomposure. The rich brown irises of her eyes appeared almost black by grace of large pupils and a deep gray outer ring. Her hair of shimmering ebony was caught up in a simple chignon set off by a spray of rosebuds and softened by errant wisps that curled at her temples in the evening dampness. The skin of her face and shoulders was fine-grained and pale, with an incandescent quality that made it appear as if dipped in pearl nacre. Though it would be bad form to lower his gaze to the milk-white curves revealed by her décolletage, the acute edges of Gavin's vision told him these lovely curves had the same soft gleam. This gave rise inescapably to the question of whether the remainder of her body carried a similar pearl-like sheen.
He had thought Madame Faucher agreeably sophisticated, a little too strong-featured for the current ideal of wan and delicate beauty, but intriguing. That was as his hostess, Maurelle Herriot, had introduced them before moving off to see to her other guests. How was he to guess she harbored a deadly turn of mind?
"Forgive me, madame," he said with a brief inclination of his head. "Though I confess to a certain pleasure in the more honorable forms of mayhem, my habits don't run to murder."
"Debatable, I would say, in view of your reputation on the dueling field."
It was not a reminder he appreciated. "Nonetheless, my sword is not for hire."
"I was led to believe you are a maître d'armes," she said with a frown between her winged brows.
"A respectable and quite legal occupation, if somewhat déclassé."
Her lips thinned a trifle before she answered, a shame given their rose-red shade and their luxuriant curves. "My purpose is not outside the law. I require lessons in the use of a sword."
"You require lessons." The words were blank as he readjusted his thinking.
"Is that so difficult to accept?"
"You will admit that, like a kitten warding off a bulldog with a kitchen knife, it is not the usual practice."
"But not impossible."
Gavin was assailed, abruptly, by the image of the lady before him stripped for fencing in the manner of his male clients, wearing only a simple bodice open at the neck and a pair of pantaloons to allow free movement. Her cleavage would expose delights never seen in the bachelor haunt of his atelier, and any vigorous lunge would display every inch of what he suspected were delectably long legs.
His mouth went dry, while a stirring in his groin warned of the need to keep his thoughts on a more-elevated plane. Annoyance brushed him. He usually had better control of such responses.
"Not impossible in theory," he allowed after a moment.
"I know of one or two ladies who spar with a father or brother from time to time."
"Hardly what I require."
"Still, if your husband should care to come to me, he might see to your instruction."
"I am a widow. My father and my brother are dead as well. If they were not, I should have no need to embark on this matter myself."
Her voice, cool and even, did not match the dark pain that welled into her eyes, the warm color that bloomed across her cheekbones or the pulse that throbbed in the soft hollow of her throat. She was, he thought, less sanguine and perhaps younger than his first estimation, somewhere between twenty and twenty-five. For an instant, he was beset by the need to offer comfort. That was as unacceptable as her request, since she was obviously of the haut ton, the upper echelons of the narrow French Creole society on whose outskirts he moved. She would undoubtedly be scandalized at any hint of it.
What was it Maurelle had said as she presented her? He had not been attending with any closeness, being too taken up by the remarkable nature of it. Women of Madame Faucher's position did not consort with sword masters as a rule, so were seldom formally introduced. He thought there had been some mention of her recent arrival from Paris but could not be sure.
Rallying his thoughts, he said, "My condolences, madame. Am I to understand you are alone in the world?"
"In a manner of speaking."
She glanced toward a mustachioed gentleman of bear-like form, the silver-white hair of the prematurely gray and a supercilious expression who stood in a group not far away. Gavin noted the gentleman's stare in their direction with a swordsman's honed instinct for possible trouble. "There is no one, no one at all, to exact satisfaction for any insult you may have suffered?"
"The problem of taking up the matter yourself, you realize, is that no gentleman worthy of the name will accept the challenge of a lady."
"I did not say he was a gentleman."
"All the more reason for rethinking this bloodthirsty ambition," Gavin said with a frown.
"You can call it that when you have killed on the field of honor?"
The point seemed of importance to her since it was the second time she had mentioned it. "As a last resort only, or by accident. A mere show of blood usually suffices in matters of honor."
"That is also a possibility in my case." He was not sure he believed her assertion given the grimness of her expression. Several reasons came to mind for the lady's craving for satisfaction: a past injury to her dead husband or a slur on his memory, being cheated by a mountebank, the rejection or betrayal of a lover or the mis-treatment of a physical nature by him. Regardless, women did not usually pick up a sword for reprisal.
Before he could speak, she went on with a flash of contempt in her eyes. "Can it be you hesitate from the belief that only males should seek redress for their injuries?"
"I fear it's the way of the world." He lifted a shoulder.
"There can be no honor in vanquishing a foe who may not be one's equal in weight or reach of the sword arm. Yes, and who may be as tender as a young lamb when spitted, so the mind recoils from the thrust. Besides, feminine reprisal is usually more subtle."
"But not as satisfactory."
"On the contrary," he answered in quiet certainty, "it can be, often is, far more devastating."
She ignored that while searching his face with narrow-eyed intensity. "Then you refuse my request?"
Gavin inclined his head in assent, even as he caught the movement of the gentleman of imperious manner and silver hair as he detached himself from his acquaintances and started in their direction. "It pains me to be disobliging to a lady " he began.
"But naturally, he refuses," the newcomer interrupted in assured tones. "How should it be otherwise? Did I not tell you, ma chère?"
The man's words, for all that they were directed at Madame Faucher, were meant for him, Gavin thought. Though spoken in excellent French, they had the harsh accents of Russia allied to a definite note of command. He felt his hackles rise. He did not take orders well, even from those with the right to give them.
Ariadne Faucher swung to face the Russian with annoyance in her fine, dark eyes. "This does not concern you, Sasha. Have the goodness not to interfere."
The man drew himself up as if on parade, an impression reinforced by his cutaway tailcoat of white worsted ornamented with bars of gold braid in the military manner, the unfashionably close crop of his hair that glinted in the gaslight, his luxuriant mustache and the scar of a saber cut that slashed his left cheek. "Anything which touches you concerns me, ma chère madame," he declared in fervent tones. "This obsession with swordplay goes beyond what is reasonable. You may be injured, and a scar to so lovely a face or form would be tragic."
"I should like to think I am not so clumsy," Gavin murmured, though he could not but agree with the sentiment.
"Now it is you who interferes, monsieur," the other man said with barely a glance in his direction. "Do not, I advise you."
"The conversation, poor thing though it may have been, was between the lady and myself. It is you who are unwanted, mon vieux."
The look Madame Faucher sent him was startled, as if she might be unused to anyone lending her support and was marginally grateful for the effort. That struck Gavin as a thing to be encouraged, though he was aware in some dim recess of his mind of the absurdity of it.
"It would be best if she did not speak to one such as you on any subject," the Russian said through his teeth. "You may leave us."
"Now that," Gavin said, "I cannot."
"I beg you won't," Madame Faucher said quickly. "At least, not until we have come to an agreement."
The Russian clenched his fists at his sides, speaking with hauteur that hinted at noble bloodlines. "There will be no agreement."
It was quite the wrong attitude to take with the lady; Gavin could have told the overbearing oaf as much on the strength of five minutes' acquaintance. Ariadne Faucher did not strike him as one used to obedience any more than he was himself. Magnificent in her anger, she stood straight and proud in her silk and lace with color staining her cheekbones and resentment in the black depths of her eyes. Abruptly, something hot, acquisitive and quite unexpected lodged in Gavin's chest, closing off his breath. "You are not my keeper, Alexander Novgorodcev," she said with precision. "I order my life now, I and no other. If you wish to continue being numbered among my friends, you will allow me to know my own mind."
The message could not have been more clear; the Russian must accept her ultimatum or forfeit her friendship. The struggle it took for him to accede to her will was plain on his broad, rather cruel face and in the angry purple of the scar across his cheek. He summoned a stiff smile. "It shall be as you wish, ma chère madame, as always. I will leave you to your arrangements."
It was as well done as could be expected under the circumstances, Gavin acknowledged as he watched the pompous gentleman execute a heel-clicking obeisance and walk away. That it also removed the hovering prospect of a duel between the two of them was gratifying since he had no wish to disturb Maurelle's New Year's reception with a challenge. Nevertheless, he was left with the thorny problem of how to tell the willful lady in front of him that he still couldn't oblige her.
Yet why could he not? A female client might be unconventional, but that need not be a consideration for him if it didn't trouble Madame Faucher. She certainly couldn't come to him in the Passage de la Bourse, that pedestrian byway given over to lawyers, barrooms and fencing salons; venturing there was not done, at least by ladies of good repute. Regardless, some accommodation might be found.
He must indeed have had too much to drink on this first day of the year since the idea of a female client was beginning to seem not at all unreasonable. The race of the blood in his veins because of it was even more intoxicating. Long months had passed since anything had stirred his interest in quite this way. Nonetheless, something in the lady's manner and honed instinct for danger made him wary of committing himself.
"Like the bashful choirboy with an angel's voice, I may appreciate my own skill but thought it known only to heaven otherwise," he said in quiet irony. "With more than fifty sword masters in New Orleans from which to make your choice, why come to me?"
"You were highly recommended." Ariadne Faucher glanced down at the black lace fan which dangled from one gloved wrist, flipped it open and waved it back and forth to cool her face.
"By whom, if I may ask?"
"Our mutual friend, Madame Herriot, if you must know. She might have suggested one or two others of her acquaintance, so she said, but they no longer keep their fencing salons and their wives might object to the late hours."
Gavin thought she avoided his gaze as she turned her appraisal from her fan to the charming salon around them with its ombre-striped wallpaper, Louis Quinze furnishings upholstered in cream brocade, and its marble fireplace, and the chattering guests, ladies occupying the settees with their delicately colored skirts spread like flower petals around them and their male partners in convivial groups behind them. It could mean she was being less than truthful, but might also indicate she was not as oblivious to the unsuitable nature of her aim as she pretended. It was an instant before he could drag his attention from his own assessment of the lady and the shadows made by the silken fringe of her lashes in order to grasp what she had said. "Late hours?"
"You would have to come to me, of course, and calling too often during the day would not do."
"Indeed," he said in dry agreement, "though dropping in at midnight must be no less scandalous."
"You would not be visiting me, of course, but Maurelle. She says such visits would be unexceptional, particularly if your friends are added to the company from time to time."
"In other words, she has offered her house as a place of assignation."
If he had thought to test her composure with that hint of the clandestine, he must have been disappointed. Closing her fan, she met his gaze without flinching. "As you say."
What did it matter to him how it was arranged? She had every right to protect her good name, and he was quite aware that he was not socially acceptable in his present guise. Regardless, slow anger rose inside him.
He had not always been quite so beyond the pale. As the younger son of a marquis, second in line to the title behind his brother, he had moved among the cream of London society. His birthright has been accepted without question, his company with pleasure. All that prevented him from gaining the more exalted circles around the young queen and her Saxe-Coburg prince had been the double handicaps of a tendency to abandon decorum at odd moments and the whispers about his past. His descent from such a charmed circle had been his own choice, made on the day he left England's green shores, but that did not make the exile less galling.
"Who is this man you hate so much that you would take such risks?" he asked, his voice flat. "How did he wrong you?"