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"Allons! Nicki, let's go! We should not have come so far into the swamp."
Michele was right, of course, and Nicole St. Claire didn't miss the uncertainty in her friend's softly spoken French words.
Still, it was a lovely day and the first chance she'd had to get away from the endless procession of friends who had heard of the St. Claires' visit and come to the Christophe plantation to pay their respects.
"You worry too much," Nicki chided. "It isn't good for you." Stretching a bit, she worked the kinks from her back, and filled her lungs with the still-cool Louisiana air.
"Mon Dieu, but you are stubborn." Michele glanced over her shoulder. Though she craned her neck and stood on her toes, she couldn't spot the big white plantation house they'd left behind. "I do not like this. There are snakes out here. Besides, I want to get out of these old clothes."
Across the thicket, Nicki just smiled, brightening her pretty oval face and tilting a pair of vivid aqua eyes.
"Cook says we need two buckets of berries if we want pies for supper," Nicki reminded her. Several inches shorter than Michele, Nicole was petite but not frail, her bosom full and high, her hips shapely, and her waist narrow. "You go ahead. I won't be far behind."
"Your maman's not going to like it." Michele looked again at their surroundings: the meandering inlet that drained the Mississippi River not far away, the heavy carpet of grass at their feet, the towering cypress that seemed to guard this small stretch of uncultivated swampland. She swiped at a gnat that buzzed beside her ear, then jumped as a vine snagged her skirt. "I don't think I should leave you out here alone."
Nicki's copper-haired head popped up from the thicket. "Who would dare to bother us" Who indeed? Nicki thought. The Christophes were one of the wealthiest families in these parts, even if times had gotten tougher. And the St. Claires were widely respected.
Michele still seemed uncertain. "Papa says Alain Lefevre is coming to supper."
If an image of the handsome French boy was meant to lure Nicole away, it failed miserably. "You can have him. I'm not interested."
"He's far too . . . proper . . . for my tastes, always fawning about and spouting his meaningless poetry. I want someone reckless and dashing. A man who will sweep me off my feet."
"Mon Dieu, you are crazy." But Michele knew better than to argue. Nicole St. Claire was as stubborn a young woman as Michele had ever met. Far different from her own quiet nature, Nicki was determined and bold and fearless. It was amazing they could be such good friends.
"You are sure you will be all right?" Michele asked.
"I'll be fine."
Rolling her eyes in vexation, Michele took a last glance in Nicki's direction, but saw only the wriggle of her bottom in the faded blue gingham dress she had borrowed so her own fine yellow muslin would not get soiled.
Michele frowned, wondering again if she should wait, then decided against it. Nicki wouldn't leave until she was well and ready to go, and the lure of a bath and an afternoon nap were far too strong.
Lifting her worn brown slightly too-short skirts up out of the way, Michele headed back toward home, eager to be rid of her dowdy clothing and once again dressed in expensive silks and satins.
Nicki watched her friend cross the rise and disappear out of sight. She wished she could see Michele more often, but with Cote Verde, the Christophe plantation, here in La Ronde on the Mississippi, and Meadowood, the St. Claire plantation, near Napoleonville on Bayou Lafourche, they visited just a few times a year.
Michele Christophe was a good and loyal friend. Still, as Nicki bent to her task, filling the wooden bucket to overflowing with the plump and juicy blackberries, she was glad for these few minutes alone in the warm spring sunshine.
With a contented sigh, she lifted her tattered, borrowed skirts up out of the way and started a little farther into the thicket. She hadn't gone more than several paces when she heard a twig snap in the underbrush, then the sound of men's laughter, harsh and grating, echoed somewhere behind her.
Nicki froze. In a spot behind some bushes just a few feet away, two men in shabby clothing stood grinning at her clumsy movements in the too-large dress, their eyes fastened on the portion of calf she exposed above the top of her sturdy brown shoe.
Letting the dress fall back into place, Nicki fixed them with one of her usually disconcerting aqua-eyed stares. "What is it you men want?" She asked them in French. When they answered with only a scowl, she repeated the question in English.
The taller man arched a bushy brow, apparently surprised she spoke his language without an accent. "We's just bein' neighborly."
When he stepped closer, Nicki caught the odor of whiskey and stale tobacco. His shirt and trousers, shabby and unwashed, hung on his too-thin frame. Running a rough hand along her cheek, he smiled, exposing crooked yellow teeth, and Nicki felt the first faint tremors of alarm.
"You're not from around here," she said, backing away from him.
The shorter man, a stocky fellow with graying hair, canvas breeches, and a red-checked shirt moved closer. "Saw you and yer Frenchy friend pickin' berries. Thought we oughta stop by and say hello."
"This land belongs to the Christophe family. You men are trespassing.
"The tall man chuckled softly. "What business is that of yers? You ain't no Christophe, that's fer damn sure." His eyes moved over her tattered blue gingham dress, which hung on her like a well-used potato sack.
"She's sure a perty 'un, Chester.
"Don't go off half-cocked, she told herself, beginning to think in English, the language she usually spoke. It was one of her mother's favorite expressions. "If you gentlemen will excuse me, I've got to be getting back." She tried to brush past, but the man named Chester caught her arm.
"You ain't going no place--leastwise, not yet." In a single, quick motion, he grabbed the ruffled neckline of her dress, twisted his fingers in the frayed blue fabric, and ripped the material away.
"Damn you!" Slamming her foot into the man's bony shin, Nicki tried to jerk free, but Chester only tightened his hold. With a muttered oath and a grin of anticipation, he forced her up against his chest while his hard arm wrapped around her waist.
"You got spirit, that's fer sure. I like a little spirit in a woman."
She shuddered as the cool air touched her bare skin and the man's clammy hand slid up her arm. "Let me go!" Nicki struggled harder, but the tall man just laughed. Tightening his hold on her waist, he dragged her toward a grassy depression protected by a growth of vines and weeds.
"You can squirm all ya like," he said, shoving her down on the ground. "Ain't gonna make a fiddler's damn. Me and Billy gonna take ya just the same. You can make it easy on yourself or hard. Either way, we're bound to take our pleasure."
When she tried to scream again, he clamped a hand over her mouth, ripped away the balance of her faded blue dress, and dispensed with her single drooping petticoat.
This can't be happening! But it was. Fear clutched at her insides, a feeling she had rarely known. With a long, thin leg, Chester pinned her thighs while Billy stretched her arms above her head. They were watching her breasts now, the rise and fall of the soft white flesh above the line of her corset.
Nicki's heart thundered in a cadence of panic and despair. Why hadn't she listened to Michele? What in God's name was she going to do?
It took her a moment to realize the men were looking at her oddly, their eyes carefully assessing her lacy pantalets, snowy white corset, and expensive embroidered chemise--quite a contrast to her ragged borrowed clothing.
"Ain't no sharecropper's daughter wearin' dainties the likes of these," Billy said.
Chester swore beneath his breath. For a moment he seemed uncertain, and Nicki's hopes soared. She tried to threaten him with her father's wealth and power, but her words were muffled behind his hand.
"Don't make a damn now," he finally decided. "We've gone too far to stop. 'Sides,"--he grinned, flashing his yellow teeth--"my privates is hurtin' so bad I gotta do somethin' to relieve 'em."
With that they jerked her to her feet and began to tug at the laces at the back of her corset. "Gimme your pigsticker, Billy."
The stocky man chuckled and pulled his big Arkansas toothpick from the leather sheath he wore at his side. Nicki had seen men at the docks in New Orleans carrying knives like that. A glint of sunlight on the heavy silver blade brought a moment of panic, a second shot of fear, then the courage to act.
Catching them off guard, she jerked free, twisted, and slammed her knee into the tall man's groin. A loud oof! and moan as he doubled over and slumped to the ground was her reward. Nicki didn't wait for the stocky man's reaction. She bolted, racing toward the men's horses she'd spotted tied in a clearing not far away.
Please, God, she prayed, knowing it would take a miracle for her to reach the animals, untie one, and climb into the saddle before the stocky man caught up with her.
In the Louisiana swamplands, her miracle appeared in the form of a hidden vine. She heard her pursuer's heavy footsteps, heard his uneven breathing, then a string of oaths as he stumbled and crashed to the ground. She'd say a dozen Hail Marys later, she vowed, and kept on running.
She was shaking by the time she reached the horses. If only she could untie the second one and scare it away, but the stocky man had regained his feet and wasn't far behind. Instead she freed the smaller of the two, a little sorrel mare who looked like she could run, and climbed into the saddle. It was the first time Nicki had ridden astride and the sensation felt awkward and uncomfortable. Lacking other alternatives, she leaned over the mare, dug her heels into the horse's flanks, and they bolted from the clearing.
A glance behind confirmed that the man named Chester blocked her way to the house. She'd make for the road into town instead--surely the other one wouldn't follow! But the hoofbeats bearing down on her said he intended to do just that.
Nicki tightened her knees, gripping the flat leather saddle the best she knew how. Her feet didn't reach the metal stirrups, and her position astride felt so unfamiliar she wasn't sure she could stay aboard. But as the animal's speed settled into a steady, ground-eating gallop, her confidence grew. She cleared the swamp and increased her speed. If she could make the stone wall at the end of the open field and still stay mounted, she'd be home free.
At least that was what she thought until she sailed over the wall and her pursuer did the same.
Dear God, what now? Clutching the horse's reins tighter, leaning over its neck, she urged the mare faster. There was help in La Ronde, someone who could stop these madmen from their assault.
The little mare was lathered and breathing hard by the time Nicki galloped full tilt down the main street of La Ronde, just a tiny parish town where nearby planters picked up supplies. In her heaven-or-hell ride to safety, she was glancing over her shoulder, trying to see if her pursuer still followed, when a wagon laden with hogshead barrels pulled into her path. The mare saw the impending disaster before Nicki did, rearing on its hind legs in a desperate attempt to wheel away from the heavy dray before it was too late.
Nicki felt the animal's back tilt crazily, felt herself falling, saw the world spinning by, and closed her eyes to the painful landing she was about to make.
Instead she felt her body jolted against something hard, yet yielding, felt the brush of fabric against her skin, and opened her eyes to find herself cradled in a man's embrace. With memories of the one who followed still fresh in her mind, she began to struggle. It was the man's deep voice, his words spoken softly in French, that stilled her movements.
"You are all right, cherie. I won't let you fall."
Nicki swallowed hard, fighting for control, finding it difficult to speak. She glanced behind her."
There's a man following me," she told him in the same soft language. "There were two of them. They tried to . . . they wanted to . . ." She glanced down at her lacy chemise, torn in several places and covered with dirt and twigs. Her hair had come loose from its pins and tumbled in a copper mass around her shoulders. Above the line of her corset, her breasts rose and fell with every ragged breath.The Frenchman's smile faded and his voice turned hard.
"You have nothing to fear, cherie."
Nicki felt the soft material of his dark blue tailcoat pressing against her skin as his hold tightened protectively. The determined set of his jaw confirmed his pledge, and Nicki believed him."
My clothes . . ." she whispered, willing him to understand. But she needn't have spoken.
Dodging the now-halted wagon, the driver who walked toward them wearing a look of concern, and the crowd beginning to build, he carried her out of the narrow dirt street and onto the wooden boardwalk.
Breathing in the scent of his spicy cologne, Nicki wrapped her arms around his thick neck to steady herself. He was a big man, she realized, feeling his powerful chest and arms. Handsome, too, with smooth skin tanned by the sun, and wavy dark-brown hair that glinted with amber highlights. She could easily remember the deep grooves etched beside his mouth when he'd smiled at her, though they'd been replaced by a worried scowl. His eyes were a warm shade of brown.
She glanced up at him as he strode the wooden walk, carrying her effortlessly. There was nothing warm about those eyes now, she discovered as he ducked into Gaudin's General Mercantile. They were dark and forbidding. His mouth, once full and sensuous, had thinned to a narrow line, and a muscle bunched in his jaw.
"Madame Gaudin," he said to the plump little shopkeeper, "it appears la petite mademoiselle is in need of something to wear." The command in his voice was unmistakable. Carrying her through a curtain that closed off the back of the store, he set Nicki on her feet and flashed her a reassuring smile. "You'll be safe here until I return."
He watched her a moment, assessing her, it seemed. His finger traveled lightly across her cheek, sending a ripple down her spine, then he turned away. His smile no longer in place, he whispered a few brief words to the shopkeeper, glanced once more in Nicki's direction, and strode back toward the street. She noticed the width of his shoulders, outlined by the fit of the navy-blue tailcoat that tapered dramatically over his narrow hips. Encased in the tailored gray pants he wore, taut muscle defined his powerful thighs as he moved.
The curtain fell behind him, and the rotund little shopkeeper approached, pulling Nicki's thoughts in a different direction.
"I have been instructed to take very good care of you, mademoiselle." Madame Gaudin tucked a strand of graying hair back in place and smiled.
Glancing toward the curtain, which still fluttered from the tall man's departure, then down at her torn and dirty clothes, Nicki swallowed hard. Her face still felt bloodless, her mouth dry, her fingers cold and numb.
"Do not worry, mademoiselle," the woman said, sensing her distress. "I will find you something to wear and none will be the wiser."
"The whole town will be the wiser," Nicki told her, finding her voice at last. "Mon Dieu, what a spectacle I made." She sighed in despair. Why did she always manage to get herself into trouble? Her father would be furious and her mother, usually a little more sympathetic to her exploits, would certainly not be pleased.
"Quite a lovely spectacle," the woman replied, eyeing Nicki's full bosom and nipped-in waist. Madame Gaudin smiled and touched her cheek in the same spot the Frenchman had, though her fingers felt not nearly so warm. "M'sieur du Villier seems more than a little bit taken with you."
"Who?" Nicki asked, praying her ears had deceived her.
"Alexandre du Villier. Surely you know of him? His family is the richest in these parts. They own the great sugar plantation, Belle Chone."
"That was . . . that was Alexandre du Villier?" Nicki's face paled. "But I thought the du Villiers were visiting their estates in France."
"Le duc has gone. I have heard he is ill. Alexandre is leaving today to join him. His brother, Francois, will remain to manage Belle Chone."
"Oh, no," Nicki said, feeling even more despondent. "My father will be furious."
"Your father and the du Villiers are friends?"
"Yes. Since the war."
"I have not seen you before. You are not from here?"
"No." She extended one small hand. "I'm Nicole St. Claire. From Meadowood on Bayou Lafourche. We're here visiting the Christophes."
"You are the daughter of Etienne St. Claire?"
The plump little woman's voice took on an aura of reverance. "Many know of your father. He was a great hero in the war against the British. It is an honor to meet his daughter."
"Thank you. I'm happy to meet you too."
Madame Gaudin smiled, but her eyes whisked over Nicki's torn and dirty clothing. For the first time, it dawned on her that Madame Gaudin might think Alexandre du Villier had something to do with her missing clothes.
Oh, Lord, what next? "About my dress, madame . . ." As Nicki hurriedly explained about the men who had attacked her, her half-naked ride through the streets, and Monsieur du Villier's timely rescue, a relieved Madame Gaudin pulled her behind a second curtain that closed off the fitting rooms from the rest of the shop.
She was a seamstress as well as the wife of the storekeeper, she explained when she returned with a pale pink muslin day dress embroidered with tiny darker pink flowers, the sleeves set low on each shoulder.
"It may be a bit too long, but it will be easy to shorten."
"It'll be fine just as it is," Nicki told her. "I've got to get back before dark."
"I am certain M'sieur du Villier would be happy to escort you, even if his journey must be postponed."
"Ah, non!" Nicki rolled her eyes. "That is the last thing I need."
Madame Gaudin clucked at her. "You are right, of course. You are much too young for that wild stallion. But who knows . . . ?" She shrugged her plump shoulders. "Maybe in a few years, when he returns from the Continent . . . ?"
Nicki grinned with the sudden realization that the idea wasn't at all unappealing. Hadn't she said she wanted a man who would sweep her off her feet?
"Most likely he will have forgotten me," she said, wondering if indeed he would. "He'll probably be married to some dowdy aristocrat."
Madame Gaudin's eyes twinkled with mischief. "Maybe . . . maybe not. I think he will not soon forget la petite mademoiselle with eyes the color of a Caribbean sea who rode the streets of La Ronde in her corset and chemise."
Nicki groaned at the reminder and finished getting dressed. "I don't suppose I could impose upon your kindness a little more and ask you not to tell him who I am?" Maybe her father wouldn't find out after all.
The plump woman grinned mischievously. "He will ask--but I suppose for Etienne St. Claire's daughter, I could forget who you are--at least for the next few years."
"Thank you, madame. I'll be forever in your debt. Oh, and if you'll send the amount due for the dress to Meadowood . . ." She hated to spend the money. Times had been hard of late. She and her mother had been careful with every penny.
"M'sieur du Villier has already taken care of it."
"He has?" Nicki said in English, falling back into the language she spoke at home, though her father was French, and at the Salem Academy, the school she attended.
"Excusez-moi. Tell M'sieur du Villier I am grateful for his kind assistance." Her father wouldn't like the idea, but maybe he wouldn't have to know. And the du Villiers could certainly afford it more than her family could right now. Just this once, she decided, she would ignore her damnable pride and be practical.
As long as she didn't have to face him.
Determined to be gone before her handsome rescuer returned, Nicki finished brushing the dirt and leaves from her underthings, and pulled the pretty pink muslin dress on over her head.