French Leave

French Leave

by Sheri Cobb South

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French Leave by Sheri Cobb South

Forced by bankruptcy and scandal into exile in France, Lord Waverly expects never to return to his homeland until, staggering home from a gaming hell in the wee hours of the morning, he encounters a young novice escaping from a convent. When she asks him to escort her to England, promising that her English grandfather will reward him handsomely for her safe conveyance, Waverly reluctantly agrees.

Alas, Waverly soon realizes the enormity of his task. When he delivers the irrepressible Lisette to her grandfather's home only to discover that the old man is dead, Waverly is left with no alternative but to offer her the protection of his name. And when he is unexpectedly reunited with the woman whose marriage precipitated his flight to France, Waverly begins to discover that his marriage of convenience is likely to prove very inconvenient indeed...

Product Details

BN ID: 2940000164044
Publisher: Belgrave House
Publication date: 10/01/2001
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Sales rank: 393,424
File size: 411 KB

Read an Excerpt

Paris, 1820

A haze of cigar smoke blanketed the gaming room of the Salon des Étrangers, muting the opulence of its furnishings and blurring the figures who risked fortunes at hazard or rouge-et-noir. In the four years he had resided on the Continent, Nigel Haversham, sixth earl of Waverly and an expatriate Englishman, was often to be found at the tables. On this occasion, however, he was content to relax in the reading room with a slightly outdated issue of the Times. The Salon's host, the ever-congenial Marquis de Livry, took note of this unusual state of affairs, and paused beside the earl's chair to remark upon it. "You do not play tonight, mon ami?"

Lord Waverly, broaching his second bottle of brandy, lifted one shoulder in a gesture replete with bored indifference. "Not yet. Later, perhaps."

The marquis grinned knowingly. "Ah, you are waiting for the--what do you call him? The dove?"

"Pigeon," Lord Waverly corrected him. "You will let me know when one flies in, will you not?"

"Mais non, milord," objected the marquis, wagging a playful finger as he moved away. "Moi, I am in business for myself. You will have to find your own pigeon to pluck."

Lord Waverly watched as the marquis moved from one group of guests to another, the quintessential host. The French were a hospitable race, mused Waverly, now that they had rid themselves of their penchant for beheading one another. Indeed, France made him welcome in a way his homeland no longer did, and this notorious gaming hell had become his second home. Having run deeply into dun territory, he was obliged to live by his wits--and his wits were always sharpestat the tables of the Salon des Étrangers. In point of fact, his skill at sundry games of chance had been his sole means of support since his creditors had rendered life in England too uncomfortable to be borne. And if there were other circumstances which had made life there even more intolerable, he had not allowed himself to think of those circumstances in four years, and he bloody well wasn't going to dwell on them now. He refilled his glass and turned the page of the Times.

He had spent some fifteen minutes thus occupied when a familiar name all but leaped off the page. Slamming his glass down on the small table at his elbow (and liberally dousing his newspaper in the process), he read the effusive account of one Ethan Brundy, Manchester mill owner, who at great risk to life and limb had almost single-handedly quelled a mob of rioting workers, and had subsequently been knighted by King George IV for his pains.

As Lord Waverly scanned the crowded lines of print, his lip curled in a derisive smile. "And so the weaver wins again," he murmured, reaching for the brandy bottle. "Mon adversaire, I salute you!"

A newcomer entered the salon some time later, a young man with bright eyes, rosy cheeks, and bulging pockets. Here, at last, was Lord Waverly's pigeon. But the earl, in thrall to long-suppressed memories, never saw him. The youth took his place at the hazard table without fear of being fleeced, while Lord Waverly poured the last of the brandy into his glass with a shaking hand.

He had loved her, after his fashion. He had not faulted her for marrying a wealthy Cit; such was, after all, the way of the world. He had known her father forced her into the unequal match, and had obligingly offered to relieve the monotony other existence with a discreet affaire du coeur. But to be rebuffed, and for such a man? It was more than pride could bear. And now, when he had finally banished the pair of them from his thoughts, he discovered that the weaver had won through his own efforts the one thing all his wealth could not purchase: respectability. With a snort of derision, Waverly tossed off the last of the brandy in a single gulp, and called for a new bottle.

The Marquis de Livry appeared at his elbow. "I think not, milord," his host stated firmly. "You had best seek your bed. Perhaps tomorrow, peut-être?"

"Aye, tomorrow," Waverly conceded, his words somewhat slurred. "One day is, after all, very much like another."

Blinking owlishly, he scanned the room through bloodshot eyes. The gamesters were gone and the marquis's servants were bustling about cleaning up the mess they had left behind, the more fortunate ones delighted to find a stray counter or two underneath the green baize tables.

"I'm going to have the devil of a head in the morning," remarked the earl to no one in particular.

"Very likely," agreed the marquis, assisting his noble client to his feet.

Outside, the marquis hailed a passing hackney--one of the few still about at this advanced hour--and instructed the driver to convey Milord Waverly to his rooms in the Rue des Saint-Pères. As he watched the vehicle rattle away down the narrow street, de Livry had no doubt the earl would be back the next night, and the next. He sometimes wondered what drove the man. To be sure, Lord Waverly was not the only Englishman to patronize his establishment; since the war ended, they had come in droves, eager to lose the family fortune, and the Marquis de Livry, congenial host that he was, was happy to oblige them. He had no moral scruples about relieving his clients of inheritances which they were too stupid to salvage. But Lord Waverly was different. Jaded and debauched he might be, but he was no fool. To be sure, a woman was behind it: in the words of Fouché, "cherchez la femme." And the marquis, being a Frenchman, could have advised the earl that the only cure was another woman.

The hackney rolled past the art galleries and librairies of Saint-Germain, finally coming to a halt before an unassuming bookstore in the Rue des Saint-Pères. Waverly disembarked unsteadily and stared up at the darkened windows of his hired rooms above the shop, unwilling to return to his empty lodging and the memories which would be his only companions. Instead, he turned and walked in the other direction, neither knowing nor caring where his tottering steps might take him.

He went on in this manner for some time, until he realized he was in completely unfamiliar surroundings. The light was insufficient to determine much about his location, although he could discern a high stone wall running along the right side of the road. He was debating whether or not to turn back when suddenly his attention was caught by a furtive movement, and he beheld a pale white shadow hovering several feet above the ground. He closed his eyes, thinking perhaps he should have eschewed that second bottle of brandy, but when he opened them the mysterious entity remained, its wispy form billowing slightly in the pre-dawn breeze.

"Arrêtez-vous!" cried Lord Waverly, brandishing his ebony cane like a cudgel. "Who goes there?"

The apparition gave an unghostly yelp, and plummeted to the ground in a flurry of white. As if on cue, the moon broke through the clouds to reveal a small figure in the white habit and winged headdress of a young novice, collapsed in an ungainly heap.

"Now see what you have made me do!" she scolded in French as she struggled to her feet. "If Mamère wakes, all is lost!"

Waverly staggered forward and offered a hand to assist her in this task. As she brushed the dirt from her habit, he observed behind her a makeshift rope of torn and knotted bed sheets which dangled over the wall. Even in his inebriated state, he drew the obvious conclusion. Taking hold of the rope, he gave a pull. The knot at the end gave so suddenly that he lurched unsteadily as the length of linen tumbled into his arms.

"You had best take this," he said, bundling it up and presenting it to the novice. "I think you will not want to leave such in-incriminating evidence behind." He felt disproportionately pleased that his tongue had barely stumbled over the word.

"Merci, infiniment." Her face was as pale as her wimple in the uneven moonlight, her only distinguishable features a pair of very large and, Waverly suspected, very dark eyes. "You are most kind."

"I am not kind at all," Waverly informed her. "As a matter of fact, I am quite drunk."

"Oh," said the little nun, somewhat nonplussed by this declaration. "I will trouble you no more, monsieur. Again, merci."

She would have flown, had Lord Waverly not caught at her sleeve.

"Wait! May I not have the honor of knowing whom I have assisted?"

She shook her head, setting the wing-like headdress flapping. "I cannot tarry! I must away before the sisters rise for matins. If I am caught--ah, c'est insupportable'."

"But surely your family--"

"Family? Bah! Unless I agree to marry my cousin Raoul, they will return me to the convent comme ça!" A snap of her fingers punctuated this pronouncement.

"Where will you go, then?" asked Waverly, curiosity penetrating his brandy-soaked brain.

The girl fixed her eyes straight ahead, and her chin assumed a mulish aspect. "I am going to Calais, and from there to England, where lives mon grandpère."

"A mere child, travelling alone from Paris to Calais?" the earl scoffed. "By Gad, you must be as drunk as I am!"

"I am not drunk, nor am I a child! I have almost eighteen years!"

"A veritable crone, in fact," interjected Waverly.

"Although--" Her ire faded, and she studied the earl speculatively. He found her scrutiny singularly unnerving. "--I would be most appreciative of an escort."

"I'll wager you would. Who do you have in mind?"

"You, monsieur."

Startled into a state approaching sobriety, Waverly wheeled about to face her. "Have you run mad? Do I look to you like a suitable companion for a child of seventeen?"

"But you are English," she insisted. "Who better to escort me to grandpère than one of his compatriots?"

"A sober compatriot, for one, and one who won't be besieged by his creditors the moment he sets foot on his native soil."

"C'est un problème très difficile," admitted the little nun. "But as I will be travelling incognito, it would be a very small matter to disguise your identity as well. And as for your debts, I am sure mon grandpère will reward you most handsomely for my safe arrival. He is very rich."

Lord Waverly hardly heard this last statement. He was thinking of the homeland he had not seen in four years, and was surprised at the intensity of the longing that assailed him.

"How much?" he asked.

"How much do you need?" she countered.

"My debts approach thirty thousand pounds," he said, not without satisfaction.

She dismissed this revelation with a wave of one small hand. "Thirty thousand pounds is as nothing to mon grandpère."

"I am quite sure I will regret it in the morning, mademoiselle, but you just hired yourself an escort," declared the earl, bowing deeply if somewhat unsteadily. "Nigel Haversham, earl of Waverly, yours to command. And you are--?"

She hesitated ever so slightly before saying, "I am called Marie-Thérèse."

Waverly was not deceived. "You and every other nun in France," he retorted with a skeptical snort. "If I am to help you find this grandfather of yours, you had best tell me your name."

"Very well. I am Lisette Colling."

Within the convent walls, a bell tolled. Waverly looked up at the sky and saw that it was beginning to lighten in the east.

"If you intend to remain Lisette Colling, we'd best get you away from here," he remarked, rapidly divesting himself of his greatcoat. "It is a pity you had no other clothes to wear. You could hardly be more conspicuous."

Lisette allowed Waverly to drape his greatcoat over her head, where it covered not only her habit, but the telltale headdress as well. He took her arm--although it could not be said with certainty exactly who was leading whom--and together they hurried up the street in the direction from which he had come. Lisette was quite small, Waverly noticed. Had it not been for the headdress, he supposed that her head would hardly have reached his shoulder. Helen, he recalled, was rather tall and slender as a reed.

Helen ... Was it in the hope of seeing her again that he had agreed to this fool's errand?

He wished he knew.

He wished he had a drink.

They reached the Rue des Saint-Pères without incident and traveled along it for some distance, carefully skirting the widely spaced yellow pools of gaslight. At length Lord Waverly paused upon reaching a squat, hunched-over building whose ground floor housed a bookstore and a frame shop. The upper floors had been subdivided as living quarters, and it was to one of these which the earl led Lisette.

"Welcome to my humble abode," he said, gesturing to a dark, narrow staircase leading to the upper stories.

"Had we not best be quiet?" whispered Lisette, tiptoeing up the stairs in the earl's wake. "If someone should hear--"

"My dear child, this is not the first time I have come home at dawn with a female in tow, and I daresay it will not be the last," Lord Waverly informed her. "Our arrival would attract a great deal more attention were I to behave as if I had something--or someone--to hide."

"Oh," said Lisette, somewhat daunted by this revelation.

At the top of the stairs, Waverly withdrew a key from his pocket, unlocked a paneled door, and opened it with a flourish. Once the pair was safely inside, the earl made sure the curtains were tightly drawn, then lit a lamp. As it flared to life, Lisette examined her new surroundings. Lord Waverly's lodgings seemed to consist of two small rooms. The chamber in which they now stood appeared to serve as sitting room and dining room combined, and a doorway led from this to a smaller chamber in which Lisette could see a mahogany wardrobe and an unmade bed. Disconcerted by this innocuous piece of furniture, Lisette darted a furtive glance at her rescuer. He was quite tall and his movements, though admittedly unsteady, bespoke the languid grace of the aristocrat. His hair gleamed black in the feeble light and his eyes, regarding her with sardonic amusement, were a startling blue.

Lisette looked away in confusion. From the moment he had agreed to aid in her escape, Lord Waverly had seemed a figure from a fairy tale, and it was unthinkable that such a being should be anything but handsome. Older and wiser heads might have pointed out that any knight-errant worthy of the name should at least be sober, but Lisette had little experience with men, and so had been happily untroubled by the earl's shortcomings.

Now, however, she was obliged to admit that not everyone would view Lord Waverly's actions in so heroic a light. If she were caught, the Mother Superior of Sainte-Marie would know exactly how to deal with a nun so steeped in depravity. She would be locked in a cell for the rest of her life and obliged to perform the ghastliest penance Mamère could contrive. Even if she were to escape capture, there could be no returning to her uncle's house, for Oncle Didier and Tante Simone would surely harden their hearts against a niece so lost to propriety as to run away with a strange man. She only hoped that her English grandfather would not fault her for seizing upon the only means of escape available to her.

"I don't know about you," said Lord Waverly, interrupting these melancholy reflections, "but I'm for bed."

This declaration was so exactly in keeping with Lisette's belated misgivings that her dark eyes flew open wide, and she stared at her erstwhile benefactor with an expression akin to horror.

"Acquit me of having improper designs upon your person," beseeched Waverly, torn between exasperation and amusement. "God knows I am no saint, but I am not so desperate for a woman in my bed that I am reduced to ravishing nuns!"

"Non, milord, of course not," Lisette said meekly.

"It is after five o'clock, and I am dead on my feet," Waverly continued. "I daresay it behooves me to offer you the bed while I take the sofa."

"Non, pas du tout," Lisette hastened to assure him. "I am sure I could not shut my eyes."

The earl shrugged. "As you wish."

He disappeared into the adjoining chamber, and a moment later the thump-thump of his boots hitting the floor informed Lisette that he had lost no time in seeking his bed. She glanced toward the windows that looked down onto the Rue des Saint-Pères, wishing she had the courage to peer behind the curtains. Though she dared not for fear of being seen, a pale gray light visible through the folds suggested that sunrise was imminent. At the convent of Sainte-Marie, the sisters would be assembling for matins, and one of them would be dispatched to rouse lazy Sister Marie-Thérèse from her bed. But Sister Marie-Thérèse would not be there. Her absence would be discovered, and a hue and cry raised which would spread like wildfire throughout Paris.

Lisette stepped away from the window and glanced toward the room where reposed her sleeping rescuer. He slumbered on, apparently oblivious to the world, but Lisette remained awake for a long time, acutely aware of having thoroughly burned her bridges behind her.

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