Embrace and Conquer

Embrace and Conquer

by Jennifer Blake

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Overview

Embrace and Conquer by Jennifer Blake

Young and beautiful Felicite is the toast of New Orleans, her kindness and virtue an example to other young women. Daughter of an outlaw merchant, sister to the dangerously handsome swashbuckler Valcour Murat. Felicite's honor is well protected, father and brother the only men in her life.

However, such a beautiful and prominent young woman cannot remain sheltered forever. The ruthless Lt. Colonel Morgan McCormack forces his way into her life, making her his mistress with the threat of her father's death.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781585860944
Publisher: EReads
Publication date: 12/28/1999
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.65(d)

About the Author

Jennifer Blake has been called the Steel Magnolia of women's fiction, and a "legend of the genre." She is a seventh generation Louisianian who married at 15, began writing at 21, sold her first book at 27, in 1970, and gained her first New York Times Best Seller nearly 20 years ago with Love's Wild Desire in 1977. She has written over 50 books, including Royal Seduction, Fierce Eden, Shameless, Tigress, and her latest release Garden Of Scandal. A writer of international best-seller status as well, her books have been published in 17 languages for worldwide sales approaching 22 million. She was honored with the position as Writer-in-Residence for the University of Northeastern Louisiana, and is a charter, and honorary, member of Romance Writers of America. She has received numerous awards for her work, but among those she values most are the Golden Treasure Award for Lifetime Achievement from Romance Writers of America, induction into the Affaire de Coeur Romance Hall of Fame, and the Frank Waters Award for Excellence in Fiction

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

THE booming of cannons in salute shook the still, sultry air. The thudding concussion reverberated among the half-timbered houses of New Orleans and rolled over the Mississippi River, bouncing about the hulls of the ships lying at anchor before echoing back from the green tree line of the distant shore. Pigeons startled from their perches flung themselves into wheeling flight with the glaring orange glow of the westerly sun beneath their wings. A mange-ridden mongrel, sniffing in the noisome open gutter that centered the street below the balcony where Félicité Lafargue stood, flinched and cowered, then fled from the sound. Félicité gripped the balcony railing with white-tipped fingers, leaning to stare in the direction of the Place d'Armes. There was distress and scorn in her velvet-brown eyes as she watched the boiling cloud of blue-gray powder smoke that rose to join the heat haze above the rooftops of the town.

Hard on the heels of the salute came an answering roar from O'Reilly's fleet straining at its anchor chains on the river, followed by a fusillade of musket fire. The bells of the Church of St. Louis began to peal with a hard, unmelodious clanging. Plainly there came through it all the deep-voiced cheers of the soldiers, more than two thousand strong, as they shouted in the despised Spanish, "Viva el rey!" -- "Long live the king!"

The bells stopped. The cheers died away. The pigeons flapped back toward the square. All was quiet.

Félicité drew a deep breath, lifting her chin, squaring her shoulders. The deed was done. The fleur-de-lis of France, the golden lilies on a blue ground, hadbeen lowered, and the lions and castles on a field of scarlet that marked the banner of imperial Spain had taken its place. There was nothing she could do now, nothing anyone could do.

She was glad she had not joined the throng of morbidly curious at the Place d'Armes. Her father, fearing there might be trouble, some demonstration of the townspeople's displeasure, had suggested she stay away, but it had in truth been her own preference. Why should she wish to view the might of Spain brought across the seas to quell their pride, crush their brief independence, and force them to obedience? So long as she did not see the transport ships, the stacked arms and heavy guns, the assemblage of fighting men in numbers to equal, if not surpass, the entire French population, she need not acknowledge their existence. For a few minutes more she could delude herself that this was a nightmare from which she must surely wake.

When had it begun? It must be two, no, three years ago, when the rumors of the secret Treaty of Fontainebleau had begun to stir. Louis XV of France, most glorious of monarchs, had ceded the colony of Louisiana to his Bourbon cousin; Carlos III of Spain, by secret arrangement. The reasons, the machinations behind it, were many, but also meaningless. The people of New Orleans would henceforth, no matter how they protested, be forced to regard themselves as Spaniards.

Protest they had, by letter, by public proclamation, by special deputation to France. The king would hear none of their pleas. And yet hope of a reconciliation with their mother country, the land from which they had come and that had ruled over them for the seventy-odd years since the founding of the colony, would not die.

The hope was kept alive, in the main, because of the long, weary months Spain had dallied, neglecting to take up the burden of financing and governing this remote and poor outpost of her vast domain. Was it any wonder that the French in New Orleans had grown impatient, had begun to talk of refusing the Spanish yoke and, if France would not have them, setting up an independent republic and governing themselves? Could they be blamed for thinking that with such a show of loyalty the king might relent, and even if he did not, things could be no worse?

Félicité sighed, taking a turn about the small, shadowed balcony. The soft lavender light could not conceal the gleam, like old gold coins, of her hair, which seemed almost too heavy in its piled curls. It revealed also the delicate pearl sheen of her skin stretching over the oval bone structure of her face, the straight nose, the dark brows and lashes that were so unusual with her blondness. She wore a day gown of India calico in a pale gold stripe with a basque, or stomacher, of gold-embroidered white silk; holding back her flounced petticoats in front, and at the elbow-length sleeves, were shining knots of champagne ribbon. She came to a halt, pressing finely molded lips together, dark remembrance in her eyes.

The trouble had escalated with the arrival of the first Spanish governor, Ulloa. A scholarly man of great pride and little understanding of people, he had been more interested in the flora and fauna of the new land than the problems of those who inhabited it. He had held himself aloof, taking a bride from South America in a private, almost secret ceremony, denying the townspeople any share in the merrymaking.

Perhaps in order not to inflame a trying situation, he had never formally taken possession of the colony for Spain, had allowed the French flag to continue flying over the town, had kept the French commandant in office. It was no wonder that everyone was annoyed and confused.

As the grumbling, the marching, the plotting in coffee houses and posting of placards had become more forthright, Ulloa had taken alarm. With his bride, he had gone on board his ship tied up at the river levee, preparing for a fast escape should it become necessary. This show of timidity only encouraged the conspirators, who had come to count among their numbers nearly every able-bodied man in the town, if not in the entire colony. Within the week, a group of young men, exuberant with wine and the joy of a different type of wedding from that of the Spanish governor, had gathered on the levee to taunt that haughty and invalorous man. A wag had suggested they set the ship adrift, and in seconds the lines holding it were cut. Ulloa, instead of ordering the ship resecured, had let himself be carried downstream, then with the dawn had upped canvas and set sail for Spain, there to pour the tale of his mistreatment and daring escape from dangerous insurgents into the king's ears.

Carlos III, enraged at the flouting of his authority, had sent for one of his most able commanders, Captain-General Alexander O'Reilly. Elevating him to the rank of governor-general, he had charged him with the responsibility of putting down this rebellion in Louisiana. The Irishman had arrived at the mouth of the Mississippi River near a month ago, where he had met with a delegation from the town that had included the French commandant, Director-General Aubry, still in office, plus several men of substance, and the Spanish officials left behind when Ulloa had decamped.

With a courtier's smiling, meaningless phrases, he had sought to allay the fears of the townspeople, but the sight of twenty-odd transport ships laden to the gunwales with men and arms, in addition to O'Reilly's frigate mounting one hundred guns, had not, somehow, been reassuring.

In the street below, a man appeared, tripping along on red-heeled shoes with the skirt of his satin frac coat swinging about his knees. Unconsciously, the lines of Félicité's features tightened to guardedness.

Glancing up, her adoptive brother, Valcour Murat, doffed his tricorne in a mocking greeting, then passed beneath the balcony to enter the house.

He had given his hat and cane to the maid and was unencumbered when he strolled into the room behind her. Félicité turned in a silken swirl of panniered skirts to step through the open doorway, moving toward him.

"Where is Papa?" she asked, her voice low and musical.

"I left him awed by the spectacle of O'Reilly being received by the dignitaries of the church, bowing his head for the chanting of a Te Deum and accepting the benediction of the host. The smell of incense being disagreeable in connection with such a cause, I came away."

"Yes," Félicité said in complete understanding. "So. Now we are Spaniards."

"Not I." Valcour lounged out onto the balcony and, sweeping aside his coat skirts, dropped onto one of a pair of straight chairs that sat on either side of a small table. "I will always be a Frenchman."

"Try telling that to Don Alejandro O'Reilly!" She sent a smoldering glance after her brother.

"With pleasure, ma chère, with pleasure."

She swung back out onto the narrow ledge that hung above the street. "Valcour, you wouldn't --"

"Wouldn't I?"

"It's far too dangerous. This man is no Ulloa. He'll not be frightened by a few broadsides tacked to trees, or a mob drunk with wedding champagne and shouts of liberté."

A sneer moved over Valcour's expressive face, and he made a negligent movement of his shoulders. "What can he do?"

"What can he do?" Félicité tilted her head, one winged brow lifted in disbelief. "He is an Irish mercenary, a hired killer in the service of Spain with an army at his back. He can do what he pleases!"

"A Frenchman is the equal of any ten Spaniards, or an uncivilized bog Irishman for that matter. Do not excite yourself. It is doubtful it will come to that. We will prevail without force, just as we triumphed over the other long-nosed Iberian sent to lord it over us."

Félicité stared at him. There was anger and spite in his words, and yet they held also a hint of steely purpose at odds with his appearance. Valcour Murat was of no more than medium height, with a thin frame and a pale, rather sallow complexion. To make up for the deficiencies of nature, he had adopted the mode of dress and languid airs of an exquisite. On this day he wore a close-fitting bag-wig heavily powdered and tied at the back with an enormous black bow known as a solitaire, the ends of which were wrapped around his neck and tucked into his snowy stock. Froths of fine lace appeared at his shirtfront and fell over his wrists. His coat was of celestial blue silk heavily embroidered in silver thread. His waistcoat of lavender-gray satin was also stiff with embroidery, as were the bands at the knees of his breeches. His clocked stockings were without a wrinkle. His face had been lightly dusted with cornstarch powder, and on one cheek, hiding the ravages of a childhood bout with smallpox, he had placed a gummed patch of black velvet cut in the shape of a cabriolet carriage complete with a miniature horse. The only incongruous note was the rapier that hung from his side with the chased silver scabbard pushing through a vent in his coat skirt.

Félicité moved once more to the railing of the small balcony. "I'm not so sure."

"Have you no faith in me, or in your father's judgment of which side in this matter deserves his allegiance?"

"It isn't that," she said over her shoulder. "When we set ourselves up as an independent country we are challenging the might of Spain, threatening its power and prestige. They dare not let us succeed for fear of losing their other colonies in the New World."

"Both France and Spain are giving away colonies right and left --witness the passing of Canada by Louis XV to the British and the ceding of Florida to the same by our would-be master. What should the loss of a few arpents more matter?"

"What a man, or a country, may give away or lose through carelessness and the fortunes of war is different from that which he will allow to be wrested from him."

"You are an expert then on men, ma chère, as well as the colonial policies of France and Spain?"

She sent him a darkling look from the corner of her eye. "You know very well I am not."

"You relieve my mind. It would be a great pity if I were forced to turn my attention to avenging your honor in the midst of this most fascinating crisis." He shook out the lace at his wrist, adjusting its fall.

Despite appearances, it was no idle threat. Valcour had taken it upon himself more than once to discourage the ardor of men attracted to her, or depress the pretensions of those who aspired to her hand. He had no small measure of skill with the rapier he wore, and a temper notorious for its uncertainty. He could, when the occasion arose, inflict devastating wounds upon his opponents while smiling in enjoyment.

It was not as if he had any right to stand between her and matrimony; Félicité's father was well able to direct her in that undertaking. Monsieur Lafargue had not as yet seen fit to approve a husband for her, did not seem to notice, in his absorption with his own affairs of business and politics, that she required one. His daughter was far too dear to him and necessary for his comfort for him to part with her, though she would soon, at the venerable age of nineteen, have passed beyond the first fragile bloom of youth to something perilously near spinsterhood.

For herself, having formed no lasting attachment to any of the young men of the town who had presented themselves to her, she was not anxious to leave her father's house. She was all too well aware that when the time came for her to wed, considerations such as wealth and family background would be given more weight than her preferences. There were among her friends, the girls with whom she had attended the convent school of the Ursuline nuns, many who had been wives these four years past, and were now mothers two and three times over. She did not begrudge their superior standing, though she was often curious about the physical duties, the transports of joy and pain, that had become their lot.

These mysteries had exercised her mind much of late. She had begun to wonder if she was destined ever to come close to them, or if she would continue as she was, acting as housekeeper for her father and brother, pampered and protected by them for the rest of her life.

It was also becoming a trifle embarrassing to be escorted everywhere by Valcour. He was an attentive gallant, as proficient on the dance floor as on the dueling field, as ready to lend his presence to an outing to the market on the levee for fresh fish and vegetables as to the most elegant soirée. And yet, he was no substitute for a proper parti. It was a question of pride. As little as she relished the idea of marriage, she disliked the appearance of an inability to attract a husband.

Valcour's interference was his own choice, an assumed responsibility. Nearly ten years Félicité's senior, he had been taken in by her father when she was no more than a few months old. His parents had succumbed to the same cholera epidemic that had taken her mother's life. The age difference between them had been too great for them to be truly close as they were growing up, but still, as she had developed into adolescence he had begun to take special notice of her. He had always been there, someone to turn to when her father became immersed in his books and radical ideas of freedom and equality. The blood that ran in their veins was not the same, but there was a bond between them made up on Valcour's side of pride and possessiveness amounting almost to jealousy, and on Félicité's of trust and an uneasy relief that her unpredictable adoptive brother never turned the vicious edge of his nature to her.

"Valcour," she said, her voice quiet as she clasped her hands together at her waist, "I am afraid."

"Don't talk nonsense, chère," he said, his tone threaded with impatience. "Be a good girl and ring for refreshments, will you? I am parched with thirst after my exertions in this heat."

She stepped inside and called for the young maidservant, Marie. She arrived breathless and anxious. Félicité ordered ratafia, a cordial flavored with almonds and peaches, for herself, and wine for Valcour.

"I will have cognac," her brother corrected, eyeing the maid without favor. "And you may send Dom to me with my fan."

The maidservant curtsied and went away. After a moment Félicité returned to the balcony and the subject that troubled her. "I mean it, Valcour, I'm frightened."

He sighed, pushing erect, taking a stance beside her and picking up her hand to fondle it in his cool, dry fingers. "How can this be? You forget, I know your courage."

"Courage? I have none."

"Was it cowardice then that made you brave the current of the river a few years ago, learning to swim like an eel, or that allows you to ride now with all the grace of a Valkyrie? And what was it made you swagger through the gaming hells at my side in breeches, coat, and sword like the most cocksure, beardless gallant, and even to challenge the man unwise enough to slight you?"

"Madness, I think," she answered with some asperity, "though the last is hardly true. You were much too quick with your own demand for a meeting to allow me to issue mine."

"Well, perhaps. As I have tried to impress upon you before, acting as my fencing partner with buttoned epées is one thing, sword-play with naked blades is something quite other. There are some to whom dueling scars would be an asset, a definite improvement, but you, ma petite , are not one of them."

"Unfair, as always."

"Right, as always."

"And with your usual deviousness, trying to distract me. It won't work. A certain boldness I may have for myself, but I possess very little where you and my father are concerned."

"Yes, but --listen!"

From the Place d'Armes there came the roll of snare drums. The beat fell into the measured cadence of a field march, signaling vast numbers of men on the move.

Valcour cocked his head to one side, a cynical smile tightening his narrow lips. "It appears we are to have the honor of seeing the troops of his Spanish majesty marching in review. Aren't you overcome with the thrill of it?"

"The threat of it, you mean!" she answered, her tone grim. "No doubt we are meant to be cowed into submission by a display of force."

"Thrown into veritable paroxysms of fear," he agreed. "Will such a tactic succeed, do you think?"

Félicité flushed under his coolly questioning gaze. "Surely such arrogance can only anger the people of New Orleans, encouraging open revolt?"

Valcour nodded. "I knew you were laboring under a simple irritation of the nerves. You could not be so chicken-hearted as to shiver in your silk slippers at the mere thought of the Spanish dons."

"It was more than that."

"I know. Your papa's involvement in this plotting in courtyards is a worry."

"And yours also. It is treason, or so some say."

"Ridiculous. How can we betray a country that has not officially possessed itself of the colony?"

Félicité did not answer. The sharp, steady rattle of snare drums was coming closer, and they could hear the muffled tramp of marching feet.

Behind them, the maid appeared with a tray bearing their refreshments, and with Valcour's manservant, Dom, close on her heels. Félicité took her glass, watching as Dom bowed, presenting a fan of painted chicken skin to her brother before stepping back out of the way so Marie could serve his master's cognac.

The Negro man, strong, well-proportioned, had said nothing. He could not speak, though that had not been his condition when Monsieur Lafargue had bought him at auction five years before. A few months after he had been brought into the house to be trained in his duties as valet for the older man and Valcour, Félicité had asked Dom the whereabouts of her brother. The manservant had replied that he had gone to a cockfight and from there meant to visit the house of a certain mademoiselle. The woman mentioned was a quadroon, a free woman of color, though Félicité had not realized it at the time. When she had spoken of the matter to Valcour, he had been coldly angry, forbidding her to question his comings and goings again, or to speak of the woman. That same night Dom had suffered an accident, falling from a second-floor window into the court at the rear of the house. His tongue was bitten in two, so evenly it might almost have been severed by a knife.

Now the maid flitted from the room, but as the manservant turned to go, Valcour stopped him with an upraised hand. His yellow-brown gaze scanning the street below, one of the main thorough-fares down which the Spanish must come, he said, "I wonder if there could be found an unemptied pot de chambre in the house?"

"What?" Félicité stared at him in sudden mistrust.

"Are you so strict a housekeeper that you require the servants to sling the contents of such into the gutter more than once a day?"

"Valcour, you can't mean --" Félicité stopped, staring at him with dismay in her eyes, unable to put her terrible suspicion into words.

"Can't I?"

"It would be insanity, an unforgivable insult!"

"I'm not sure our garlic-eating friends would notice the additional stench." Valcour allowed himself a thin smile for his witticism as he unfurled his fan and plied it with languid strokes.

"Think of the attention it will focus upon us! You may as well post a sign on the front of the house declaring our leanings toward independence." Reason, she had discovered, was the only way of reaching Valcour when he embarked on one of his mad starts.

"You think they don't know already? O'Reilly will be well aware of who has been plotting here. Our good and brave commandant, Aubry, will have made certain of it."

"There's no need to invite trouble."

"I have a feeling it will come whether we invite it or not, rather like the Spanish, wouldn't you say? Dom, procure for me a chamber pot, as full as may be found. Quickly!"

With set face, the manservant bowed and went quietly from the room to do as he was bid. At the far end of the street, the Spanish soldiers had appeared, stepping through alternating bands of deep shadow and bright, slanting wedges of sunlight falling between the houses. They advanced with relentless precision, a wall of red now fading, now washed with blinding color. The dust raised by their measured tread rose to hang like a pall in the air above them.

"Valcour, I beg of you, don't do this."

"A most affecting plea; I wonder how I resist it," he mused, contemplating the Fragonard scene depicted on his fan.

"By consulting nothing except your own whims!" she said bitterly.

"Unjust. You will enjoy the spectacle. Come, admit it."

She gave a quick shake of her head. "Only think of the consequences."

"Too late, ma chère."

Dom had arrived with a pot of rough earthenware stenciled with a floral design, its malodorous contents sloshing halfway to the rim. At the same time, the first of the soldiers, their faces red and beaded with perspiration from their exercise in the stiflingly hot summer afternoon, compounded by dress uniforms heavy with gold braid, were beginning to pass below. An officer on horseback rode at their head, his glittering epaulets catching the dying rays of the sun, the ramrod straightness of his seat in the saddle holding all the assurance of a conqueror.

"Valcour," she tried again.

Her brother ignored the protest, making a flicking motion with his fingers toward the railing in a wordless command.

Dom shifted uneasily, his skin taking on an ashen hue. Félicité looked from the Negro servant to his master. "But consider. Dom will be blamed. They will never believe it was not meant as an insult, that he only happened to be emptying the chamber pots at this time of day, on this occasion. They may flog him, put him in the stocks, or worse."

"How distressing," Valcour said with a mock shudder. "But I fear you are right. The Spanish are known for their severity in matters of this sort, are they not? Still, it must be done. Now, Dom."

"You can't mean it," Félicité began.

"Dom?"

The soft note in Valcour's voice held an unmistakable undercurrent of menace, one the servants of the house had long been accustomed to obeying without question. The manservant's face tightened, then with a hopeless look in his eyes he lifted the earthen-ware pot and flung the liquid over the railing into the street.

"Faugh!" Valcour exclaimed, jerking a scented handkerchief from his sleeve and waving it in the air against the smell. "You nearly splashed me."

From below came angry cries, followed by a hubbub of shuffling feet and shouted orders. Félicité spared no more than a glance for what was happening with the column of soldiers before coming to Dom's defense. "He would most certainly have been recognized if he had stood closer to the edge to throw."

"What difference would that make?" Valcour demanded, still waving his handkerchief.

He stopped abruptly, a cold smile lighting his eyes as the sound of pounding came at the entrance to the house on the lower floor. Félicité had time to do no more than set her ratafia down on the table beside her brother's empty cognac glass before footsteps were heard on the stairs. As she turned to stand beside Valcour, Marie led a detail of scarlet-clad soldiers into the room that connected to the balcony. At their head was an officer, the man who had been on horseback at the forefront of the column.

She stood still, clenching her hands into fists among the folds of her skirts, while Dom did his best to melt into the gathering shadows of the portieres that framed the doorway. Valcour trod forward with his handkerchief held in a graceful, arrested gesture that might have been taken for surprise. "I protest," he drawled. "What is the meaning of this intrusion?"

The officer sketched a bow, dividing it between Félicité and Valcour in a manner so perfunctory as to be an affront. "I am investigating an insult to the troops of his majesty King Carlos of Spain, which just issued from this house. In his name, I demand an instant and complete explanation."

Valcour glanced at his insignia. "And your name, mon colonel?"

"Lieutenant Colonel Morgan McCormack." The reply was hard and uncompromising.

Valcour sent Félicité a small smile before turning back to the other man. "That explains it, then."

The height, the breadth of shoulder, the russet-brown hair worn unpowdered and tied in a queue, and the green eyes of the officer marked him as being Irish, undoubtedly one of several of O'Reilly's countrymen said to be serving also as mercenaries in his entourage.

The colonel ignored the comment. "The explanation, if you please."

Raising a thin brow, Valcour said, "We are all eagerness to serve you, and of course the Spanish crown, mon colonel, but first it might be well if my sister and I could be informed as to the nature of this grievous insult?"

"That must be obvious." Lieutenant Colonel Morgan McCormack's face tightened with suppressed anger and the recognition of the irony that laced Valcour's tone.

Valcour sniffed, then had recourse to his perfumed handkerchief. "Even so," he murmured. "It appears, however, that you achieved a miraculous escape from the --deluge?"

"As you say. The men with me were not so lucky." The patience of the other man was growing visibly thinner. His command of the French language was excellent, though his accent was less than perfect.

"Obviously." Valcour flipped his handkerchief once more, a pained look in his eyes as he surveyed the drawn-up detail.

"The source of the odor which you find so objectionable came from this house, let me remind you," the colonel ground out. "Three people were observed on the balcony just prior to the incident, the three of you gathered here. The only question is which of you is the guilty party."

"I fear my sister and I must claim ignorance." Valcour held out his hand to Félicité, and with muscles stiff with reluctance, she moved to his side.

"You will forgive me, but that hardly seems possible."

Valcour frowned. "Are you saying I lie?"

"I am saying I am determined to find the culprit, no matter who stands in the way." The hard gaze of the colonel moved beyond Valcour's shoulder to where Dom stood.

"For such a small --accident, Colonel McCormack? These things happen every day."

"Not to soldiers of the Spanish crown. You know as well as I this was no accident. Will you cooperate, or must I place everyone in this house under arrest while I get to the bottom of it?"

The maid, Marie, listening beyond the open doorway, clapped her hand over her mouth to stifle a gasp. Valcour stiffened, then shrugged with an airy wave. "To a man of sense and breeding, the answer must be plain. It is the menials who empty the slops."

Dom shrank as from a blow, his face twisting and his mouth opening and closing as he tried to speak. The guttural sounds he produced bore no resemblance to words in their pitiful desperation.

The colonel gave a nod. His face like a mask, he rapped out an order that brought his men to attention with muskets leveled while two of their number prepared to place the manservant under arrest.

Abruptly, Félicité could bear it no longer. She stepped forward, placing her fingers on the rigid strength of the colonel's forearm. "No, wait. I cannot let Dom pay for my action. It was I, Colonel McCormack, who --who treated your men to the unexpected shower."

The thick brows of the officer snapped together as he stared down at her. "You?"

It was as if he had only at that moment allowed himself to acknowledge her existence, despite his first formal greeting. His green gaze had seemed to pass over her with stern regard, and yet she had the illogical conviction that he had missed no detail of her appearance. Now he took a more thorough inventory, noting the golden hair that was the legacy of her Norman forebears by way of ancient Viking coastal marauders, the finely molded perfection of her features, her creamy shoulders and slender form covered by the richness of her clothing.

Félicité flushed under that deliberate, sweeping stare, coloring also for the vulgarity of the crime to which she had laid claim. Still, she refused to lower her dark-brown gaze or to permit the angry confusion she felt to be revealed in her expression.

"There is no need, chère," Valcour protested, red spots appearing under the powder on his face as the officer's attention remained upon her. "No need at all for you to sacrifice your reputation for so worthless a creature as my man Dom. Nothing whatever in this situation demands it."

She turned on her brother. "Doesn't it? When he is no more than a pawn in this game?"

"But one of so little worth," he suggested.

"That isn't true!"

The colonel broke in then. "Enough. The two of you may resume your quarrel another time. For now, the king's business takes precedence. Young woman, you must realize --"

"Lieutenant Colonel McCormack," Valcour broke in, his tone rising, "I really must ask you not to use that tone of voice toward my sister, especially as she is the most innocent of females."

"Meaning?" The word was spoken with dangerous calm.

"I fear I am the culprit you seek," Valcour answered, his smile wry as he lifted his shoulders.

Colonel McCormack flicked a hard glance over the other man. "That hardly seems likely."

Valcour bowed. "I extend you my compliments also, mon colonel, and my deepest sympathy in addition. It seems you now have three guilty parties. What are you going to do?"

"Three of you there undoubtedly are; three guilty persons, no. As you so obligingly pointed out a few minutes ago, m'sieu, it is obvious who the most likely suspect must be. Ladies and gentlemen with the means to hold their fellow men in bondage do not stoop to do their own dirty work. It follows, then, that the servant is the one who acted. It is unlikely he did so of his own choice, a conclusion proved by his appearance of fear. Someone ordered him to act."

"How astute of you," Valcour sneered.

The colonel inclined his head. "Thank you."

"The only question is, which one, since we have both confessed?"

"I think that you, m'sieu, are a deal too fastidious for such a course, but that you might claim credit to protect your sister. That being the case, the guilty party, as much as it pains me to say it, must indeed be you, mademoiselle."

As he finished speaking, the officer looked to Félicité. Though she had admitted the deed, had fully expected to take the punishment for it regardless of the form it might take, to find herself accused in all seriousness of it was galling beyond endurance.

"Yes," she cried, "and why not? It may help you to understand how little welcome Spaniards are in New Orleans, to say nothing of O'Reilly and his hired Irish cutthroats!"

McCormack's eyes narrowed to an emerald glitter. "As of this day, mademoiselle, you are living in Spanish Louisiana; you are a Spanish citizen, and the uniform you saw fit to desecrate is that of the defenders of your own country. I trust you acted heedlessly, with more patriotism than malice. Bear this in mind, however. A repeat of this offense, or anything like it, will not be tolerated. The fact that you are a female will not protect you from swift and severe penalty."

He did not wait for a reply, but turned on the heel of his jackboot and, with a barked order, preceded his men from the room. Félicité stared after him with the heated flush of chagrin and outrage blazing across her cheekbones.

"Arrogant, overbearing --" she breathed when she could speak.

"Dangerous," Valcour supplied.

"What do you mean?"

"He has a quick intelligence, and is without conceit."

"How can you say so?" Félicité demanded. "His stock was so white it was blinding, and his boots shone like satin."

"The effect of pride and self-discipline, not vanity, my dear sister."

"If all the Irish with O'Reilly are like him, life will be insupportable!" She swung around in a flurry of skirts to stride out onto the balcony once more.

"You may be right," Valcour agreed, though his tone had the sound of preoccupation, and he stood frowning as he pulled his lace-edged handkerchief through his hands.

In the street below, the soldiers still filed past, now the infantry units in their uniforms of white with blue collars and cuffs.

"Bella, bella," came the shout from their ranks as her presence was discovered, alone on the balcony without male guardian or duenna. "Blanco y oro! Señorita of white and gold," ran the murmur, and more than one face was turned upward toward where she stood.

Félicité stepped back, but not before she heard the harsh sound of a command that sent every pair of eyes staring straight ahead once more, nor before she saw Lieutenant Colonel Morgan McCormack mount his bay stallion standing under the overhang of the balcony. Setting his officer's tricorne upon his head, he rode away down the street without looking back.

Copyright © 1981 by Patricia Maxwell

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Embrace and Conquer 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
*Engaging read
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karra williams More than 1 year ago
Worst book ever! I wish i could get my money and time back.
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